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May 19, 2011

Cardenio (RSC) @ The Swan – Revisited

Follow-up to Cardenio (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre, Stratford–upon–Avon from The Bardathon

I’m just back from my second viewing of the RSC’s Cardenio, and it’s still great. This time, familiar with the new material and the reshaping of Double Falsehood, I had more leisure to enjoy the sparky relationship established between Oliver Rix's Cardenio and Lucy Briggs-Owen's Luscinda in the opening scenes; the formality of Simeon Moore's Pedro as he persuades Cardenio to inform on Fernando; the good-natured decision of the shepherds to escort Cardenio into town to be cured; and the role of Matti Houghton's Duenna in chaperoning Luscinda during all her meetings with Cardenio. The music, too, is utterly wonderful, and I didn’t do it justice in my last review. The Spanish-inflected band, with an amazing singer and fantastic flamenco guitar work, brought the house down during the final dance, and made all the difference in terms of atmosphere.

I also think Greg Doran has done stirling work in adding a great amount of new material that fits almost seamlessly with Theobald's text. Yes, there are a few inconsistencies (I particularly dislike Cardenio's resigned soliloquy after the wedding, which doesn't fit well with the character's subsequent madness), but by and large I would defy anyone without a prior knowledge of Double Falsehood to distinguish the new material. I'm writing at the moment about the difficulty of "splicing" together material in order to create an effective theatrical adaptation, and Doran's Cardenio is a masterclass in how to succeed.

I’m still deeply troubled, though, by the play’s treatment of Fernando’s seduction of Dorotea. I discussed this in my last review; but, in light of today’s outcry against Ken Clarke’s discussion of rape, and his implicit distinction between “serious” rape and (presumably) less serious forms of rape, I remain frustrated by the production’s fudging of this key issue. It's this that I'd like to focus on here.

In Double Falsehood, Henriquez (Fernando) woos Violante (Dorotea) at her window. She rebuffs him and leaves, and he piquantly asks why he is treated with contempt. In the next scene, he appears again in a distracted state. He reveals in soliloquy that he has forced himself on Violante. In a key speech, he promises to be hard on himself and asks if it was rape; and while he convinces himself that he didn’t, it is clear to the audience that rape is what it was. The text reads “True, she did not consent, as true she did resist, but in silence all.” We don’t need to know the exact details of how, when and where; the point is that he has raped her and that she did not consent, even in his own self-justification. Violante’s pursuit of Henriquez for the remainder of the play is an attempt to make the best of the situation by making good on his promise to marry her (a promise which he gave during the rape, with the implication that it offered him some comfort). While this is obviously an early modern solution to a social problem, it poses interesting possibilities for a modern production – as indeed it did for MokitaGrit – in exploring the problematic relationship between love and abuse.

In Doran’s production, the heaviest section of new writing comes in between these two scenes. First, we see Alex Hassell's Fernando at court with Cardenio, showing that he did not instantly act on his impulse to pursue her into her room. The heat is taken off his lust. Then, Doran provides a lengthy seduction scene. Early in this scene, Fernando attempts to force himself on Pippa Nixon's Dorotea. She resists, and he desists.

However, she then throws him a lifeline, by telling him that she would be happy to yield her virginity to the man who promised to marry her. He leaps on this, offering her marriage and promising to be hers forever. She consents – slowly, but decisively – to this, and the scene closes on the two of them sharing a mutual kiss, before fireworks explode and a fiesta with phallic manikins takes over the stage. The only more threatening note is as Fernando points out that, if they don’t do the act, he will shame her by making clear his departure from her flat, pressuring her into consenting.

The pressure applied on Dorotea in this scene is enough to still demonstrate Fernando’s basic caddishness, and I would argue it’s still enough to qualify as rape. However, the emphasis on her consent is too strong. In the self-justification scene that follows, there is an important textual change, as Fernando says “True, she DID consent; as true, she did resist.” While this could still be explained away as his own self-delusion, this is the soliloquy which dictates how an audience is expected to respond to the act, and it corroborates what we have already seen – that Dorotea willingly had sex with Fernando, albeit under conditions that Fernando is showing us he has no intention of keeping. What is crucial here is that Fernando is convincing in his assertion that it was not rape, strongly emphasised by the actor in a voice designed to break apart from the character’s comic weakness and determine a truth. For this production, the act is not rape. Fernando’s crime is reduced to that of faithlessness, even treachery, but he is spared the tarnish of a rapist.

The aim is to make Cardenio a family-friendly production. Rape is difficult to discuss with nuance on the stage, and even more difficult to govern audience response to without depicting shocking scenes of violence. By reducing the problem to one of, essentially, fidelity – as stressed in Dorotea’s (new) closing speech where she stresses that, according to their contract, they are already married – Doran allows for a comic resolution, as Dorotea appeals to Fernando’s heart and he grows penitent, the two embracing in love.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. However, what is shown and spoken of in this production – even with the textual changes – is too serious for so light a treatment. His abuse of trust in order to satiate his own lust regardless of her own wishes is shocking, and needs to be interrogated on the modern stage, not glossed over and relegated to what, given today’s news stories, ends up coming across as a “less serious” form of rape.

Now, I'm aware that, because of my research, I'm unusually attuned to the textual changes and the interpretive decisions that have gone into this production as compared with Double Falsehood, and I wouldn't expect others to necessarily pick up on the things I'm talking about. I'm not voicing this as an all-encompassing condemnation of the production, nor suggesting that it somehow (intentionally or not) legitimises a form of rape. But in tonight's performance, Dorotea’s agency in the sexual act was visible enough to allow a substantial portion of the audience to laugh in relief as the rapist absolved himself of his own crime. And however much I want to apologise for the production, that sickened me.


May 09, 2011

The Honest Man's Fortune @ Canterbury Christ Church University

I've remarked before now on a show I've been involved in behind the scenes, but never before on something in which I've acted. I use "acting" in the loosest possible sense, and the less said about my board-treading the better, but it was a pleasure this weekend to be involved in a staged reading of The Honest Man's Fortune in Canterbury as part of a Renaissance colloquium organised by Steve Orman.

The play, by Field and Fletcher (and Massinger?), is a fun citizen comedy from 1613, that begins with the ruination of the titular honest man, Montaigne, and traces his fall at the hands of creditors, his reduction to servitude in the house of a virtuous lady (Lamira) and his restoration to riches as the eventual chosen husband of the lady. Alongside this, Montaigne's persecutor - the jealous Lord Orleans - turfs out his wife over suspicion of an ongoing affair with Montaigne and falls out with his brother-in-law, Amiens. The two are eventually reconciled with each other and with their defamed wife/sister following a duel plot partially stage-managed by Montaigne's loyal supporters, Longaville and Dubois. Three comic malefactors partially responsible for Montaigne's fall (Laverdure, La Poope and Mallicorne) present themselves as suitors to Lamira and are rebuffed by Montaigne; and Montaigne's loyal page Veramour is pursued by Laverdure, convinced that the boy is actually a woman. It is only revealed at the end, amid a flurry of winking to other plays, that Veramour is in fact the boy he always appeared to be.

The play is a surprisingly tight mixture of elements familiar from texts as diverse as Philaster, A New Way to Pay Old Debts, The Taming of the Shrew, Timon of Athens and even The Odyssey in its greedy suitors. In performance, despite very little rehearsal, it proved to be surprisingly stageable and entertaining. While it was obviously impossible for me to watch it properly while performing in it, I'll just make a few observations here.

In Brian McMahon's hands, Montaigne was a pleasingly complex combination of wistful persecuted hero and vocal righter of wrongs. "Honest" appeared to be key, rather than "good" - his test of Lady Orlean's virtue was initially extremely creepy and lecherous; his readiness to draw against Amiens and the officers showed him proactive; and he took no small pleasure in his final passing of judgement against the dishonourable suitors. This made him far more interesting than the stoic sufferer I'd initially expected, and a much more compelling protagonist.

The play fell rather conveniently into two halves, the first dealing primarily with Montaigne's fall at the hands of creditors, lawyers etc. and the second moving into a much more domestic sphere in and around Lamira's house. Longaville (Orman) and Dubois (myself) are quite prominent in the first half and much less so in the second, Dubois in particular being practically forgotten about by the text. The text appears to set up a great deal with the two, particularly their agreement to feign loyalty to the great lords (which provided great scope for a lot of shouting, bravado and flailing of imaginary swords), which then unwinds in one key scene as the Lady Orleans is apparently shot. This isn't just a note on the amount I had to do (!) but speaks interestingly to the change in tone and focus, with male friendships and public relationships replaced by a greater concern for heterosexual union in the second half. The unifying factor in this was Kelley Costigan's melancholic Veramour, always positioned to the side of the stage in the first half declaring his devotion for his master; but moving to more central roles in the second half as his gender came into question. The page dominated the final act too, Costigan bringing out the playfulness of Veramour when posing as a girl, before revealing his true gender.

The comic characters were surprisingly effective. Martin Wiggins brilliantly stepped in at short notice to play Charlotte and La Poope. The former began by playing on the type of the lecherous maid-servant, flirting shamelessly with the humbled Montaigne and providing a clearly undesirable contrast to the higher-class ladies; but later Wiggins brought out the sweetness of Charlotte's loyalty, culminating in the revelation that she had only been wooing Montaigne on behalf of her mistress. As La Poope, meanwhile, he was a gruff and blustering sailor whose disregard for social niceties made him a constantly entertaining presence. Nicola Boyle contrasted ideally as the courtier Laverdure, whose character was defined primarily by the amusing banter with Veramour during their flirtation and the shared cowardice with La Poope, the two cowering in doorways rather than joining in battles. I also particularly enjoyed the contrast between the two men in the final moments, as La Poope took Laverdure's place and embraced Veramour as a potential new cabin boy. I took on Mallicorne at the last minute and didn't really do the role justice - he begins as a fairly unambiguously treacherous character, tricking Montaigne's money away from him and then smugly revealing he has arranged for his arrest. Then, however, he tags along with the comic duo of Laverdue and La Poope, but I struggled to work out how he integrates with their already-established dynamic.

Alex Samson was the villain of the piece as the jealous Orleans, giving the role the forcefulness necessary to drive the action of the first half - he unseats Montaigne, drives away his wife and Amiens, encourages the conflicts between Longaville and Dubois and, finally, maintains the negative energy that leads up to the climactic staged assassination of Lady Orleans. He is only accorded a relatively quick penance, but Samson stuck to the principle that the character is essentially noble, which allowed his about-face to carry conviction and a consistency in the vehemence with which he repented. He was contrasted throughout (in a play full of doubles, these contrasts abounded) with Astrid Stilma's Amiens. Stilma brought a complexity to the role similar to that accorded to Montaigne - essentially virtuous, but with a temper and aggression that argued for virtue as an active and combative quality rather than a passive state. Much of the post-show discussion focussed on Amiens, who is interestingly established as an honest man at the play's opening and remains throughout a potential mate for Lamira, but who is ultimately left disappointed at the play's conclusion, despite his pleasure in Lamira's choice of Montaigne. I particularly liked Stilma's sense of sadness as she deferred to Montaigne at this final point.

Finally, the two women stood as types of female virtue, but once more interestingly contrasted. Jackie Watson (I hope I've spelled that correctly) played Lady Orleans as patient victim, pushed away by her husband but remaining loyal, and acting throughout as a voice of conscience. Claire Bartram's Lamira, meanwhile, was interestingly independent of male attachments, aloof with the suitors and tender of her servants. She held court throughout and, in some respects, took the Ducal role of the guarantor of order and restitution. It was an interestingly powerful role for a woman, despite the voiced objectification of her by the suitors, and it was fascinating to see her preside over the final scene and put Montaigne through the performance of espousing virtue and condemnation, in a gender-reversal of the conclusion of Shrew.

So, a fun event, even if I can't review it properly! It's a fascinating play, and generated some interesting post-show discussion. Hopefully the publication of a new edition in the Malone Society reprints this year will encourage further production, and with the re-opening of the Swan, it'd be wonderful if the RSC could explore it at a professional level in the near future.


December 08, 2010

Too Many Danes

How many Hamlets can we sit through?

In many ways, we're still in the shadow of the RSC and Donmar "celebrity" productions, more recently joined by the National's major stab. It's one of the big institutional shows, and it's had a good run round the main theatres over the last year and a bit.

But then there are the myriad smaller versions I've caught: the RSC Young Person's version, Tom Cornford's reconstruction, the Zimbabwean Kupenga Kwa Hamlet, the National's Prince of Denmark.

You'd think this might mean Hamlet was being exhausted for the time being, but oh no. First up is Northern Broadsides on tour; then the Factory Hamlet is returning to the Rose Kingston. The Young Vic is mounting its version with Michael Sheen, and the RSC YP version is still doing the rounds. And finally, Shakespeare's Globe are doing a touring version.

A serious question arises. However good Hamlet is, does it really warrant this level of public saturation? I love the play, but I do find productions of it (with notable exceptions, such as Two Gents) rather too similar to one another to justify the continuous repetition. It's partly to do with the cultural baggage that Hamlet drags along with it: directors are happy to put slightly different glosses and tones on it, but the essential production remains the same in a way that, say, the similarly huge number of Macbeths avoids through breathtaking variety.

Here's a plea to the directors of all the forthcoming shows (and I know the Factory one will at least manage this): PLEASE temper your reverence to the text with an awareness that we are spoiled for Hamlets. Play with it!