All entries for October 2010

October 27, 2010

Hamlet (National) @ The Olivier Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/59866/productions/hamlet.html

A lady sitting next to me at yesterday's matinee commented how nice a change it made to have someone relatively unknown playing Hamlet. Certainly, Rory Kinnear hasn't made the same mass-media impact yet as David Tennant or Jude Law, but he's been working his way up, giving stunning performances in The Revenger's Tragedy and Measure for Measure to name just a couple, and the National's publicity art clearly demonstrates the level of confidence the theatre has in him:

Hamlet publicity image

Nicholas Hytner's large-scale production, clocking in at over three and a half hours, was, however, a disappointingly conservative affair for the most part. As a showcase for fine performances, decent verse-speaking and a suitably reverential tone, it was exactly what one might expect; however, it lacked the spark or originality that might have helped it stand apart from other recent and equally worthy productions. Part of this was down to Kinnear himself, conducting his early scenes with a melancholic solemnity and pausing significantly after the first line of each of his big soliloquies: one could feel the National audience using the pause to settle expectantly into their seats, though only once - to my glaring annoyance - did an audience member actually start reciting the lines out loud along with the cast. It's that level of expectation and predictability which, to me, screams out for something far more radical to be done with the play.

However, Kinnear gave a superlative performance that subverted several of these expectations to great effect. This was a particularly callous Hamlet, particularly in his shrugging dismissal of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's deaths, at which Horatio was especially horrified. By the fifth act, Hamlet was beyond redemption, a cynical and committed revenger with more than a passing resemblance to Kinnear's earlier interpretation of Vindice. His madness - heavily feigned - manifested itself comically in dances, high-pitched singalongs and a cutting sarcasm that heaped scorn on Claudius. Early on, in a frenzy, he had chalked a smiley face and the word "Villain" onto a wall as he realised Claudius's treachery; and, in a neat twist, he transferred the design onto a batch of t-shirts that he gave out at "The Mousetrap" to everyone except the King. This careful stage managing of his play, at which he controlled follow spots to illuminate Lucianus, culminated in a chaotic dispersal of actors, audience and scenery, at which an exulting Hamlet fell to his knees downstage, closing the first half in a roar of triumph.

The long (2 hours) first half, however, suffered from a slowness of pace. Kinnear evoked the psychology of the conflicted anti-hero with some skill, and indulged in a great deal of sympathy with the character, particularly in the gestures of despairing guilt following the accidental murder of Polonius, a significant turning point for him. However, his solemn delivery and internalised responses kept the tone of the play steady and slow, exacerbated by a rather static staging and blocking, particularly in the scene between Hamlet and the Ghost which was, frankly, dull. An over-reliance on microphones (flagged up at one point as backstage radio messages suddenly came across as the Ghost tried to speak in a sound blunder) left the production too often distanced and self-contained, a psychological reading that was fascinating, but unengaging.

Far more interesting were the political machinations. Patrick Malahide's Claudius was a suited politician inhabiting a grand old palace (whose walls moved to create smaller compartments suited to the various scenes) where every entrance was guarded by a flunky and camera crews were on hand to record selected speeches for public consumption. Claudius's opening announcement of his marriage was conducted as he and Gertrude sat beside each other in fine chairs, holding hands; and the crew were summarily dismissed before he turned his attention to foreign affairs. His rule built itself around terrorisation and fear: even as Hamlet exulted at the close of the first half, the players were marched off at gunpoint to their apparent death, and a similar fate awaited Laertes's hooded supporters. Even more alarmingly, the insane Ophelia was grabbed from behind a door and pulled offstage, the report of her drowning following shortly thereafter.

Ruth Negga's Ophelia was servicable, if unremarkable. She stripped down to her bra and pushed a shopping trolley during her mad scenes, but any spontaneous effect was partally neutered by her careful songs, one of which was sung along to a heavy rock instrumental track on her portable CD player. The tightly-planned randomness didn't excite, but her rutting against first Claudius and then Gertrude had a far edgier and more sickening aspect to it. Far more impressive was Clare Higgins as a powerful and independently minded Gertrude, who reacted angrily to Hamlet's insinuations against her infidelity and took an active role in commanding courtiers and organising arrangements. Good humoured (she laughed at Hamlet's jokes throughout "The Mousetrap", until they were directed explicitly against her) and emotionally engaged, her collapse during the closet scene was particularly compelling. She began confidently and angrily, but collapsed following Polonius's murder and retreated to an uncontrolled sobbing on a sofa as she took comfort in a bottle of scotch. Upon being left alone, she wept bitterly until Claudius's entrance.

Special credit should go to James Pearse, who understudied for David Calder as Polonius and the Gravedigger, both conventional but entertaining performances. In particular, Polonius's contrast to the players - a dynamic young bunch with keyboards, lighting equipment and crates of costumes - was pleasingly entertaining, including a moment as James Laurenson's Player King stood aside in annoyance after one too many interruptions and gestured to Polonius to take his place, to the old man's embarrassment. The network of flunkies around the palace helped to evoke the multiple-tiered hierarchy of the ruling classes, surrounded by yes-men and intermediaries whose presence mitigated the privacy of many of the scenes. From the scene to camera in Claudius's first appearance, this was a world in which private lives were lived under public scrutiny, hence the quick and brutal efficiency of the wet work.

Ferdinand Kingsley and Prasanna Puwanarajah made for an entertaining Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, first visiting Hamlet in his bedroom and later leading the search parties with some intensity. The self-serving aspect of the characters was played up, their efficient responses to Claudius's commands betraying their essential role as spies. Giles Terera's Horatio, by contrast, was a nervous and independent young man, out of place in the world of the court and terrified by what he saw around him. His cradling of Hamlet's body in the final moments of the play was moving, his face betraying a complete lack of comprehension of the events he had witnessed.

While not an exceptional Hamlet, then, this was at least a solid and well-performed interpretation, and one that will no doubt further cement Kinnear's reputation. A vigorous closing battle ended the play on a high, with courtiers running in fear from the out of control duellers and Hamlet coldly brushing the poisoned swordtip across Claudius's chest. I think, though, that Hamlet is now severely overdue for considered reappraisal and a far more inventive approach.


Prince of Denmark (National) @ The Cottesloe Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/59868/productions/discover-prince-of-denmark.html

As a prelude to the afternoon's Hamlet in the Olivier, I managed to catch one of the final performances of Michael Lesslie's new play Prince of Denmark, part of the NT's "discover:" programme. Aimed at teenagers, the production's purpose was to provide a bridge for young people coming to the play for the first time. Yet it achieved a level of sophistication and insight that far surpassed its modest run and claims for itself, proving just what Youth Shakespeare is capable of.

This "prequel", set ten years before Hamlet, covered a day in the lives of the adolescent Danes that acted as a significant turning point in their lives, acting implicitly to determine their characters as encountered in Shakespeare's play. The main character, fascinatingly, was arguably Laertes, impressively realised by Chris Levens. His servant Reynaldo brought him intelligence of Hamlet and Ophelia's youthful flirtation and plans to meet. Hamlet, having incurred his father's wrath by bursting out against Denmark's warmongering, was under close watch, but engaged a visiting player (the Player King of Hamlet) to exchange clothes with him in order to keep his rendezvous. Laertes engaged Osric, a foppish suitor to Ophelia, to murder the "player", but was thwarted by the revelation of Hamlet's true identity. A fencing duel between Laertes and Hamlet over the latter's right to woo Ophelia was fought and lost by Hamlet; but, asserting his rights as Prince, Hamlet then arrested Laertes and resolved to obey his father's command to leave for Wittenberg, asking Ophelia to wait for him.

The surprisingly involved plot thus integrated a number of different recollective and anticipatory strategies to introduce young people to Hamlet. The plot self-consciously foreshadowed many future events, including a full-scale enactment by the Players of the murder of Priam; the fencing match (which a cowering Osric refereed, howling "I don't know!" after a challenge); Ophelia musing on the "drowned" reflection of herself in the brook; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's betrayal of Hamlet following his escape; and Laertes's possessive treatment of his own sister. More sophisticated hints trickled in from reports of the unseen adult action. The production opened to the clanging and hissing of Denmark's armoury as they prepared for war, and Hamlet reported on the subjugation of Norway and the imminent threat against England, giving a surprising amount of useful attention to the political context. Ophelia's report of Gertrude, naked and washing herself guiltily in the brook, determined the insidiousness of the plot against Old Hamlet; and, in watching Pyrrhus's rage, Hamlet saw a foreshadowing of his own future assumption of responsibility, even if he couldn't yet articulate it.

The adoption of other Shakespearean plot devices in order to couch Prince of Denmark within an introductory framework was also extremely well-handled, the most obvious use being made of Othello in the Iago/Roderigo relationship between Laertes and Abubakar Salim's entertainingly cowardly Osric. On one level it offered a typically didactic message about not allowing oneself to be swayed by influence; but on a far more sophisticated level, it opened up a complexity in Laertes's character that read into his later actions a basic emotional insecurity. Almost screaming at Hamlet that "I love her more", his troubled relationship with his sister manifested itself in his exertion of control over her; warning her away from Hamlet while at the same time treating her sexuality as a commodity. He was obsessed with social advancement and the precarious position of his father (newly appointed as Claudius's servant) and, despite his age, was already attempting to play the games of court politics.

Against this tricky intersection of political, social and sexual confusion, Calum Finlay's Hamlet raised similarly significant questions over power, honour and rule. His relationship with his father was seemingly irrevocably broken, and Hamlet's proto-pacifist arguments against the futility of war and the breakdown of European political relations were interspersed with wails about his father's preference for conquest over time with his son. In such treatments as this, Lesslie's text really showed its muscle: no easy characterisations here, but selfish and hormonal characters who had not yet learned to distinguish their public and private concerns. The pragmatic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Oliver Yellop and Adrian Chisholm, playing up both the comedy and the insidiousness of the characters) demanded he consider conquest as an extension of honour and a means to immediate gain; Hamlet countered with worries over the problems being stored up for the future in enemies such as Young Fortinbras.

Making up the central trio was Eve Ponsonby as Ophelia. The script displayed more weaknesses in the writing of its sole female character: Ophelia's complaints about what she was allowed to do as "a girl", and how being "a girl" gave her a different insight lacked the sophistication granted the male characters. Her arc remained a valid and useful one though, the negotiation of the extent of her control over her own life. She reacted particularly aggressively to Laertes's reminders that she was only a lady-in-waiting, on which she played as she chafed at "waiting" for life to happen. Ponsonby's performance brought out the character's less innocent side, however, particularly in an uncomfortable flirtation with James Williams's Reynaldo - a sly piece of work and Laertes's spy - as she promised him that she could repay his betrayal of Laertes's confidence in "feminine ways". Her directness, stemming from the boredom, also manifested itself as she cut through Hamlet's complaints that she was all he wanted with a "Take me, then".

The lively ensemble clattered around the stage, creating a shadowy impression of a court environment much bigger than, and often inaccessible to, the young people. An early fencing school mixed playfulness - including one acrobatic cast member somersaulting from an upper level onto the traverse platform of the stage - with veiled danger, as one participant got carried away and struck another, at which point the fencers turned on him. The reappearance of the ensemble as the players created a startlingly physical evocation of the Trojan story, with Priam flailing a sword wildly at the encroaching hordes even as Pyrrhus strode in slow motion towards him. The use of the speech as recited in Shakespeare here also served to demonstrate the effectiveness of Lesslie's central writing conceit. The lines were written in a faux-Shakespearean prose, designed to evoke the patterns and formality of verse speaking but in the simpler mouths of youths who had not yet developed their full rhetorical skill. What sounds deeply problematic actually served the purpose surprisingly well: rather than throwing in 'forsooths' and 'verilies' for an Elizabethan effect, more straightforward language was employed in a Shakespearean structure. Thus, Hamlet continued to ruminate longwindedly and rhetorically on questions of honour, but with a more accessible vocabulary and linear syntax that allowed the young audience to keep up with his trains of thought. That it segued neatly into the use of actual Shakespearean verse was testament to Lesslie's skill. It's an interesting conceit, and not one that I'm convinced would always work, but here it served the purpose of providing a half-step for children to "tune in" to Shakespearean verse that I thought was hugely effective.

The climax of the play, however, offered the most fascinating moments of the production. Questions of honour and love became confused, as Laertes demanded satisfaction and Ophelia threw herself between him and Hamlet. Insisting on his need to prove himself as a man, rather than a prince, Hamlet agreed to the duel, and the two men both staved off Marcellus as he tried to intervene. Laertes won all three points, however, finishing by holding up his foil to Hamlet's throat. Released, Laertes demanded confirmation of his vow - to leave off wooing Ophelia. Hamlet, however, refused and ordered Laertes's arrest. As Laertes struggled, Hamlet announced that contracts were to be kept between equals, but that he was Prince of Denmark, above Laertes and therefore above the vow. This final image - Laertes howling against injustice, Hamlet straightening himself up in acceptance of his status and asking Ophelia to wait for him - offered a troubling and unresolved ending to the play, which asked us to share a level of sympathy with Laertes after his overt villainy, and question Hamlet's own appropriation of absolutist powers.

The play itself, however, closed with Ophelia and Horatio looking ominously towards the future. Joseph Sarrington Smith's Horatio, a dishevelled and bookish scholar, set himself above and apart from the political concerns of the court, to the particular disdain of the eminently pragmatic Reynaldo. The beginnings of Hamlet's and Horatio's friendship were seen as Hamlet reacted positively to the lack of subservience the humble, but irreverent, Horatio showed him. With Horatio imagined as a Jaques-type figure, commenting ironically on the political machinations going on around him, a further relevant Shakespearean resonance was set up that positively engaged the audience with the unspoken aspects of Hamlet.

I was surprised, watching Hamlet in the main house later in the day, how much Prince of Denmark stayed with me, making me attentive to mentions of e.g. England as a Danish tributary that I hadn't considered important before. That the characters of Prince of Denmark weren't always entirely consistent with conventional presentations of their older selves was immaterial - this acted as the perfect introduction to the play, not only in providing motives and earlier developments that extended rather than limited meaning, but in exploring the more complicated political background too often lost on audiences. It'd be fascinating to see this paired with the RSC's current, and similarly unpatronising, YP Hamlet, and it's a shame the run was so short. A perfect demonstration of what can be created for kids when a theatre properly invests.


October 14, 2010

Another sellout

Sold out already! Have to say, this wasn't one I was overly excited about (my gut tells me it'll be deeply conservative, light entertainment, though I honestly hope I'm wrong), but the British ticket-buying public have made the decision for me....

Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare

COTTESLOE THEATRE

PLEASE NOTE: This production is now Sold Out.


October 12, 2010

Double Falsehood @ Nottingham Playhouse

Writing about web page http://www.nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk/whats-on/misc/double-falsehood/

To call this "The First Public Reading" of Double Falsehood, as the website promises, wasn't entirely accurate (see the KDC production and our own modest, but still public, reading at Warwick), but this was at least the first public reading of the play, since the publication of Brean Hammond's excellent Arden edition, by a professional theatre company.

The reading was performed on the set of Nottingham Playhouse's current Twelfth Night, from which some of the cast were drawn. When "off-stage", the cast sat on the set (a huge set of stone stairs leading up to a Brazilian pavillion); when "on", they moved forward to a semi-circle of chairs, on which they sat to read their parts. I was a little disappointed that the reading was so static; while the reading out of stage directions for moments of physical action worked fine, several basics (such as, quite often, the person being addressed) were frustratingly unsignalled, and the impact of asides, overhearings and movement dynamics were lost. Concealment was inconsistently dealt with - sometimes (e.g. Julio behind the arras) the actor simply withdrew to the "offstage" position; on other occasions (Violante listening to Roderick and the fathers) the actor sat at the far end of the circle of chairs.

The other weaknesses of a short rehearsal period were to be expected - a couple of actors struggled with some of their language, clearly not having had time to get to grips with the sense (sample error: in the line "but that I publish my Dishonour, /And wound my Fame anew", "wound" was prounced nonsensically as "wow-nd" instead of "woond"); and entrances and exits were sometimes confused to misleading effect (e.g. 3.3.118-28 were addressed to Roderick by Violante, instead of as soliloquy). Errors such as these are inevitable in a rehearsed reading; however, if the purpose of a reading is to give a good sense of language and structure, particularly in the case of a play often written off as "bad", these are the elements that should always be prioritised - otherwise, what's the point?

Moving beyond those caveats, though, this was an entertaining evening, and it was a pleasure to hear a professional cast taking on the play. A sample delight was David Gilbrook's wonderful performance as the Master of the Flocks. Making full use of the stage environment, he pulled Violante's chair closer to his own before she sat down, and then proceeded to brush her cheek and put his arm around her, all with a huge smirk on his face. The obvious discomfort of the younger Violante added to the humour and creepiness of the scene, and Gilbrook's frustrated and piqued treatment of Roderick following the latter's interruption was particularly amusing. Beyond showing the effectiveness of this short moment, though, Gilbrook's emphasis also drew out the unusual but fascinating fact that, in 137-48 as he reveals to the audience he has seen through Violante's disguise, he continues to refer to her as "him" throughout. This might be read as a reflection of his own uncertainty, or perhaps suggest that he hasn't identified her as a girl yet and thus hasn't yet decided to attempt a seduction; here, however, Gilbrook brought out a wonderfully appropriate confusion of sexual fantasies about the feminine boy/boyish girl that ran over niceties of gender in his lustful excitement.

There was some nice characterisation throughout. Joe Dempsie and Kieran Hardcastle brought out a modestly amusing side to Fabian and Lopez that justified their treatment as comic characters without the need for excess; and their doubling in all of the servant/citizen roles worked nicely from a dramaturgical point of view, turning the functionaries into a series of recognisable and fleshed-out servant character types. David Whittington and George Telfer, meanwhile, treated the fathers largely with dignity, although Telfer lounged luxuriantly as Don Bernard reached the pinnacle of his pride, which added nicely to these scenes. Camillo's interjections, particularly in the final scene, were spoken well, but suffered in the sedentary format - 5.2, with its careful layering of characters, liminal appearances and overlooked events, offered particular challenges in this regard.

Loreto Murray was particularly interesting as Leonora, bringing out a feisty side to the heroine which worked well. Neither shrew nor demurring maid, Leonora became a recognisably modern heroine, managing her father with a mixture of annoyance and restraint, and organising the plot surrounding the wedding. In this, and in her hiding of Julio, she became by far the stronger of the two lovers. Jonathan Race as Julio, by contrast, portrayed the character as a noble-minded but somewhat idealistic hero, prone to talking but ultimately dependent on others to push him into place.

Marcus Powell's polite, well-spoken Henriquez was a serious sort, believable as a conflicted (and often out of control) young man, though perhaps a little too so; I found him far more sympathetic than the text had perhaps led me to think; and this might, again, be something lost in action. The justification of the rape was interesting; with no break, Henriquez remained on stage, which allowed for a visual continuity of thought between the two scenes despite the passage of time, thus giving Powell the opportunity to enact a deliberate break in his attitude. Finn Atkins, meanwhile, was sympathetically broken as Violante, and was surprisingly effective in the "boy" scenes - without prop disguise, Atkins was dependent merely on changes of voice to suggest the disguise, and perfectly evoked a melancholy Cockney waif. I was also pleased to see that Roderick (Nicholai La Barrie) defaulted to a central position in most of his scenes, allowing him to co-ordinate the action with an innocent and commanding air, remaining the audible locus of authority within the play.

Interestingly the Epilogue was retained, read by Gilbrook. I tried to gauge the audience reaction to this horrendous piece of writing; and wasn't surprised to get the impression that no-one knew quite what to make of it. Gilbrook's delivery, in a tone of smug self-amusement, was what I would expect from a 21st century ironic take on the 18th century sentiments, but I still felt it was a brave decision to play it - and the right one. The Prologue, of course, posed fewer difficulties, but remained a fitting introduction to a production presented in a spirit of Bardic inquiry.

A talk beforehand from Brean Hammond gave a good general introduction to the play (essentially a much shorter version of his Arden introduction), but did give him the opportunity to play us the extant song settings that he believes to have been potentially part of the play's early incarnations, as well as to gently tease an anti-Stratfordian in the crowd who had offered him some useful extra sources. I wasn't able to stay for the post-show talk, but it'll be interesting to see how further readings/performances of the play go down, particularly as we move towards next year's big productions in New York and Stratford.


October 06, 2010

Taymor's Tempest

Well, if you're going to do Shakespeare on film, you might as well make it spectacular!

Good use of Sigur Ros too!


October 04, 2010

Where's Shakespeare?

Regular readers might have been wondering what's happened to the Bard in Bardathon over the last couple of months. Partly, it's that there's been a glut of non-Shakespeare early modern drama produced recently - plays by Middleton, Kyd, Chettle, Marlowe, Ford - all of which come around far less rarely than Shakespeare, so I've been prioritising these.

What's been going on with Shakespeare? Well, I've had to sacrifice a range of productions for time and cost, which partly accounts for the slowness. I'm particularly disappointed that I wasn't able to arrange time to see the Globe's Henry IV plays, and I attempted to swap a ticket for the touring Comedy of Errors, only to find that the performance I wanted to attend intsead had been cancelled. I also won't make it back up to Liverpool for Antony and Cleopatra - I've only just been, and can't justify a second trip so soon. The Sheffield Hamlet was a little too far, and the RSC have revived productions which I've already seen, and therefore can't justify the expense of re-attending.

It's not all missed opportunities though. I'm seeing the National's Hamlet and Prince of Denmark later in the month, and I'm extremely excited about Propeller's Richard III at Coventry Belgrade and Song of the Goat Theatre's Macbeth. I'm going to cheat and catch the Donmar Lear on the NT Live big screen, and I've already started making plans for the Little Angel Tempest. I have a feeling, however, that I'm not going to catch Peter Brook's version of the Sonnets at the RSC - very much not my cuppa.

I also should catch The Man From Stratford at some point, seeing as my PhD supervisor wrote it.....


October 03, 2010

Doctor Faustus @ Manchester Royal Exchange

Writing about web page http://www.royalexchangetheatre.org.uk/event.aspx?id=331

Sitting in the gods at Manchester Royal Exchange provided the perfect perspective for a review of Marlowe’s Faustus. The circular in-the-round stage, engraved with constellations and symbols, became a giant magic circle within which the play’s action took place; and it was to us, gazing from above, that Patrick O’Kane turned as he screamed his defiance at Heaven. For no play, perhaps, is a God’s-eye-view so appropriate for the “judging” figure.

Toby Frow’s production was, considering the enclosed space, enormous. A cast of thirty-five (including twenty-three local drama students making up the ensemble of demons and revellers) allowed the stage to be flooded in scenes of grand spectacle; while the employment of a “Magic Consultant” (Darren Lang) was justified in the volume of stage illusion, from cups that walked along tables to an impressively-quick head-trick, from grapes that magically appeared in an empty pot to the flames that burst from Lucifer’s hands, to a surprisingly effective moment where the clowns suddenly found their mouths sewn shut. The use of the B-Text with only a couple of omissions (the A-text ending was used, and the final “horning” of Benvolio and his conspirators was skipped for reasons discussed below) allowed the potential for spectacle to be maximised.

The presence of the diabolic was evoked with great gusto. The first appearance of Mephistopholes, following the eerie blowing-out of candles, was as an enormous black head that descended from the ceiling in a cacophony of noise. Following its retreat, an equally impressive entrance was made by Ian Redford as the human incarnation, a priest with suitcase (evoking for me The Exorcist, fittingly), appearing in silhouette as a door flew open. Gwendoline Christie’s Lucifer and Gavin Marshall’s Beelzebub descended on ropes and wires from the ceiling; Christie’s height rendering her a particularly imposing presence as she cackled at Faustus and lounged on his desk. She also provided the voice of the Bad Angel while David Hobbs doubled the Old Man and Good Angel; allowing for a wonderful sequence in the final scene where the two Angels, having been only heard previously, finally met onstage in the persons of Lucifer and the saintly old man, disputing over Faustus’s desk.

The spectacle continued throughout the shows of the evil spirits. Mephistopholes conjured a band of gyrating lepers to surround Faustus and dress him in robes following the making of the bargain; Faustus’s “Wife” appeared as a zombie who threw herself on the magician; and the Seven Deadly Sins were a group of oversized carved heads, marching on stunted legs and leering at Faustus while Lucifer laughed hysterically. At times the overly sexual physicality of the demons spoke too obviously of drama school influence (particularly the simulated buggery that took place around Faustus for no hugely discernable reason), and puerile humour was found in making the Pope masturbate an enormous German sausage, to Faustus’s giggling glee; but the relentless energy was rarely less than entertaining.

At the centre of this melee was O’Kane’s Faustus, carrying the weight of the show. In a commanding performance, O’Kane fought hard to keep his role central, a battle (deliberately?) acknowledged as he shouted to be heard over the debauched revellers of Vanholt, silencing them. O’Kane’s only real weakness came in his attempts to hold together the sillier scenes of trickery – his giggling, idiotic and skipping behaviour during the baiting of the Pope was justified but extremely tedious, leaving the production flailing for coherence. This was a momentary blip, however, in a solid and riveting arc.

Drawling in his arrogance, Faustus’s glib dismissal of Mephistopholes’s experience of hell was an early indicator of the character’s lack of perspective, balanced powerfully by Redford’s calm. In the first half, Faustus revelled in his power, particularly in the aforementioned Vatican silliness. As the production moved on, however, Faustus’s growing frustration at those around him, and sense of inevitability about his own fate, began to manifest themselves. The early scenes of backsliding in his own apartment saw him gibber and vacillate, alternately pleading with Mephistopholes and screaming after him; and, in one hugely significant gesture, he fell for comfort around the devil’s neck. An amazing (late) climax to the first half perfectly captured the growing darkness of Faustus’s mood. Facing a quivering group of ambushers, Faustus called to him the pack of leprous devils, who he then unleashed. As Faustus stood central, bathed in red light with hands raised and eyes closed, the devils beat and chased the conspirators viciously about the stage, eventually bringing them together in a shaking heap at Faustus’s feet while the devils, now dogs, knelt in a wider circle baying at them. To a thunderous crescendo of drumming, Lucifer and Beelzebub descended from the ceiling and hovered over the chaos, Lucifer with flames rising from her palms and Beelzebub hanging one of the plotters; and Faustus pulled Benvolio to his feet, held two swords against his neck, paused in a moment’s contemplation and then slit his enemy’s throat. As the interval fell, we saw a Faustus losing control of his own power.

Throughout the second half, Faustus’s irritability grew, particularly in Vanholt as he sullenly “performed” for the masked and lascivious court. Although he struggled to be taken seriously, the sewing of the clowns’ mouths marked a turning point as the revellers fell into a hushed silence, before scattering before the angered magician. Stephen Hudson as Wagner, who spoke the Choruses, became increasingly central in the role of dismayed servant, commenting sadly on his master’s downfall and watching Faustus with ever more concern and fear. As O’Kane retreated more into his own head, it was Helen of Troy who drew him finally to some sort of emotional tipping point. Helen (Coral Messam) was a lifesize wooden puppet, moving jerkily across the stage, but showing an intuitive empathy for her conjuror. She lay lifeless on the floor following her first show, and was pointed at by the Old Man as an epitome of Faustus’s evil. As Faustus was left alone, though, she raised her head and moved tenderly towards him, mirroring his gestures as if to suggest a shared role – they were, after all, now both little more than Lucifer’s puppets. Faustus pleaded for Mephistopholes to leave her; and he embraced her tenderly.

The clownish subplot was somewhat tedious. Rory Murphy’s Irish Robin and Gavin Marshall’s intentionally unintelligible Scottish Dick drew laughs from lively performances, and the mimicry of Faustus’s conjuring (particularly as Robin produced a wand against Jonathan Tafler’s Innkeeper) offered an attempt at parody which, however, didn’t lead anywhere other than easy and inefficient comedy. The episode of Dyfrig Morris’s Welsh horse-courser (the variety of comic regional stereotypes should at least be applauded for completeness, if not for originality) was far more successful – brief, to the point and allowing O’Kane the opportunity to render his comic revenges ever more tiresome to himself; the Courser was a momentary distraction this close to his death.

The final scene, extremely bravely considering the emphasis on spectacle throughout, retreated from style to focus on Faustus. With the scholars and Wagner gone, Faustus was incrementally isolated. Lucifer and Mephistopholes sat together on Faustus’s desk, covered from the start with necromantic books and a skull, and laughed at his grievances. Eventually, Lucifer gestured towards the floor, which slid back to reveal a pit of earth and a coffin, into which Faustus gazed as if into Hell. Left alone to contemplate his fate for his final hour, Faustus staggered around the pit, terrified by it but unable to approach it. He grasped at a ladder and stood on his desk, striving physically and mentally towards heaven, but the magnetic effect of his own empty coffin continued to dominate his gaze. Finally, as the final strokes of twelve sounded, he screamed “I’ll burn my books.” Yet, despite the expectations of an all-out finale, he was greeted by silence. A long pause was followed by a laugh of semi-relief as Faustus looked about him, but then he was once more drawn back to the coffin. In a long and painfully slow sequence, quivering and occasionally letting out a sob, Faustus stepped into the pit and from there into his coffin. As he lay his head down, he closed his eyes and whimpered “Mephistopholes”, as the floor closed again over his head, a whispered lament and final accusation in one that suggested an overwhelming sensation of disappointment, interestingly.

Wagner’s final Chorus acted as a lament for his father, with a candle placed in the centre of the magic circle – above the body – and blown out to conclude the play. This quiet conclusion was far more effective than the spectacle of the rest of the play, precisely because of the contrast it formed, and it served to re-focus attention on the real interest of Faustus, the journey of its protagonist. While the production could have done with being somewhat shorter (an A-text version might have allowed for similar pyrotechnical displays without dragging out past its welcome), O’Kane’s central performance succeeded in drawing the disparate elements together. Ultimately, the play became a servant’s lament for a master’s needless fall, and a man’s battle with his own conscience; a story that, deservedly, ended with a whimper rather than a bang.


October 02, 2010

'Tis Pity She's a Whore @ Liverpool Everyman

Writing about web page http://www.everymanplayhouse.com/show/Tis_Pity_Shes_A_Whore/215.aspx

An initial glance through the cast list of Chris Meade’s new ‘Tis Pity at the Liverpool Everyman betrayed from the start that this was a severely pared-down affair. Donado, Grimaldi, Bergetto, Poggio, Richardetto and Philotis were all cut, along with their subplots. What remained was a tightly-focussed domestic drama, drawing on the grand Liverpool tradition of emotional kitchen-sink conflict, that appropriated Ford’s play for a very particular agenda.

Meade’s focus was on the objectification of women, as embodied primarily in Matti Houghton’s Annabella. The production began with Annabella dressing in her bedroom, a circular pit in the middle of the wide stage with a bed that acted as dramatic locus for the first half. As she dressed, a priest stood on a raised level, reciting Renaissance strictures for the silencing of women in church. Where the original text opens with Giovanni’s lust and the masculine disputation of religious law, here the first spoken action was Putana and Annabella’s discussion of the latter’s various suitors, conducted in the privacy of her bedroom. In its framing, then, we were immediately inducted into Annabella’s perception of her story.

This focus was accentuated through the prioritisation of family. Following the priest’s prologue, a further interpolated scene saw Putana drag Annabella out of her bedroom to greet her brother, newly arrived from years abroad under the tutelage of Friar Bonaventura. Their lust became an effect of their reintroduction to one another as adults, discovering each other afresh as lovers. Beaumont and Fletcher fans will note the resonance with A King and No King; here, it centred the action squarely in a domestic sphere, love becoming a perversion of family values. This perversion was hinted at as Paul McCleary’s Florio lit candles at the shrine of his dead wife, a visual presence for much of the play, before accepting a bulging suitcase from Soranzo in advance of his parental consent.

The most powerful aspect of this production came from the fantastic relationship between Hugh Skinner’s Giovanni and Houghton’s Annabella. In their first full interaction, circling the stage holding hands and blushing in each other’s company, the two perfectly evoked the awkwardness of close sibling bonds. The key scene of mutual admission, performed on their knees as they pleaded and wept, was filled with desperation and, ultimately, relief. Immediately following, they deliberately broke a “rule” of the production’s staging by stepping directly onto the bed in the central pit, rather than entering the bedroom by its “door”; a simple yet powerful gesture that highlighted the transition. Yet even as lovers, they retained the quirky tics of sibling intimacy – imploring him not to leave, Annabella kissed Giovanni’s cheek, then knee, then hands, curling up against him in persuasive familiarity. The naturalness of their actions, within the oppressively domestic setting, was agonising.

Skinner’s Giovanni was animated throughout, though the performance emphasised the self-absorbedness of the character rather than any nobility. Donning a red scarf immediately after the seduction, his casual mocking of his sister already felt overly presumptive. At his moment of triumph before receiving Annabella’s letter, he was discovered lounging with a bottle of whisky, lost in alcohol and his own self-justifying rhetoric. It was this that he developed throughout the play, gradually becoming more enamoured with the love of the extremity of the situation. Houghton’s wonderful Annabella, meanwhile, became more and more practical even as her belly gradually swelled, forsaken by a brother who she spent almost no time with following the interval and a husband who imprisoned her in the hollow pit, now acting as a cell.

The abuse to which she was subjected became increasingly horrific. Kevin Harvey’s Bonaventura was too submissive throughout, preaching his hellfire and damnation to Giovanni in a gentle and uncertain plea; but when entering Annabella’s bedroom, he took on a far sterner aspect. In rage and frustration she flung herself at him; at which he grabbed her and threw her onto her bed, before sitting next to her and beginning a sermon which acted as psychological torture. Immediately following the interval, the now heavily pregnant woman was thrown about by Nicholas Shaw’s slick Soranzo, dragged by her hair and threatened with a knife; her terrified but brave resistance all the more effective as a result.

The retention of the Hippolita subplot allowed the theme of abuse of women to continue, this time in a crueller and more dismissive light. Emily Pithon made the most of her short stage time to create a righteously bitter woman who was far too easily ignored by the smug Soranzo. Fittingly, her interruption of the wedding – a claustrophobically small house reception – was given full vent as the climax of the first half. Appearing at the top of the stairs leading up through the auditorium, wearing a blue dress and veil, she performed a full song to recorded music, borrowing lyrics from Aphra Behn's The Golden Age including the repeated refrain “Trembling and blushing are not marks of shame." Even at her moment of screaming death, however, Soranzo once more turned away, refusing to look on the woman he had ruined. Only Vasquez stared unblinkingly at his victim.

Ken Bradshaw’s Irish Vasquez stood out throughout, a formal and dedicated servant to his master, yet one with a mobile and defiant personality of his own, especially as he rescued Annabella from her beating. Waiting for his moment, he grabbed and wrestled with Soranzo, staring into his eyes and calming him with the force of his gaze. The close relationship between the two men was powerfully evoked, Soranzo allowing Vasquez to rule him at all stages, knowing that the servant’s loyalty to the master was unimpeachable.

As the play progressed, the extent of Vasquez’s audacity slowly manifested itself. Tempting Eileen O’Brien’s elderly Putana into a chair, he plied her with whisky until (to a collective intake of breath from the audience) she finally revealed the lovers’ secret. O’Brien’s natural performance created a powerful investment in the character, which received its pay-off as Vasquez left the room, stripped off his shirt, took off his belt and then re-entered, whipping the belt around her neck and forcing her painfully offstage. We overheard the brutal beating accorded to the woman, before Vasquez re-entered, his shirt covered in blood, in yet one more iteration of male subjugation of women.

The play was not without his humour. Shaw was particularly adept at comic timing, drawing huge laughs with both his anticlimactic “Thanks, lovely virgin” following Hippolita’s long and tremulous performance, and his all-too-obvious “We must break up this mirth” after her death. Skinner, too, found humour in Giovanni’s self-indulgent manner, and the scene in which Annabella skilfully countered Soranzo’s proposals was extremely effective, Giovanni’s off-stage interjections meshing perfectly with the quick ripostes between the others. This easy rapport was perhaps in no small part engendered by the production’s use of an ensemble, who were performing in rep an Anthology of new works alongside this play. Certainly the quick back-and-forth between brother and sister, and master and servant, captured the familiarity that these relationships demanded.

The final murder of Annabella was, disappointingly, played out on the high raised level, thus distancing the character in which we were most invested just at the climactic moment, and diminishing somewhat the effectiveness of this moment. The pay-off came a minute later, however, as Giovanni crashed into the main party half-naked and dripping in blood. The intrusion of this horrific figure of revenge tragedy into the banal domestic setting of the production was suitably incongruous, stunning the assembled family and initiating a flurry of well-choreographed action. As both Soranzo and Giovanni fell into the pit which had once formed Annabella’s bedroom, we were once more reminded of the magnetic effect of lust on these young men. Yet both died in triumph; and it was Putana who was led off, frail and shaking, to execution, while Vasquez strode magnificently offstage to glorious banishment. The final gesture of the first half had been Vasquez covering up  - and silencing – Hippolita’s body; the final gesture of the second was a flunky casually throwing Annabella’s heart to one side as he prepared Giovanni’s body for display. The Cardinal’s final words, “Tis pity she’s a whore”, perfectly balanced the priest’s earlier instructions for women to be silent; here, the silence of the play’s wounded women screamed far louder than words.


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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