All entries for Sunday 08 March 2009

March 08, 2009

The Convict's Opera (Out of Joint/Sydney Theatre Company) @ Warwick Arts Centre

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Out of Joint's new production The Convict's Opera is a bit of an oddity. A group of convicts on board a ship decide to put on a production of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, complete with songs drawn from folk traditions and, occasionally, classic rock n' roll numbers. The play follows the company through auditions and rehearsal process, tracking the evolving production as the ship nears Australia, while also following the 'real' lives of the convicts as they prepare themselves for a new life.

As even that brief synopsis might suggest, the play is best understood as a sequel/prequel to Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good, the play which Out of Joint originally premiered back in 1988. The links are made explicit when convict Bett Rock threatens to leave the play and join a rival group of convicts, who she has heard are planning to put on The Recruiting Officer- the play-within-a-play in OCG. Stephen Jeffreys' text is indebted to Wertenbaker's in more than just situation though. As the players grow to identify with their characters, so they start to bring into their real lives the characteristics and confidence associated with their parts, finding in theatre something better than the lives they have hitherto lived. Even in structure, the two plays are clearly linked: fragments of text are interrupted by intruding officers, rehearsals descend into arguments between actors and the action is interspersed by short below-decks monologues in which various characters tell more about their crimes or of life on ship.

The production thus lived in the shadow of its famous forebear, which was something of a shame as it suffered by comparison. On its own merits, though, Convict's Opera was an interesting and often funny production, intelligent while still remaining accessible. The audience were thrown in at the deep end with the on-stage introduction of John Gay himself and the opening scene of Beggar's Opera, complete with melodramatic acting style and 18th century text. As opposed to OCG, we were treated to extended (and chronologically sequenced) sections of the play-within-a-play, thus setting up the tricky challenge of sustaining an audience's interest in two different stories. Inevitably, the story of Macheath, Polly et. al. ultimately suffered, peetering out as the story of the convicts took over in the final third of the play, with only resonances from the inner play staying alive. However, for most of the play the production was successful at maintaining the dual narratives - no small feat.

I was surprised to find that the most obviously comic twists in the plot were the sections I enjoyed least. The importation of modern songs ("I Fought the Law", "You're So Vain", "(I'm Gonna Be) 500 Miles" etc.) was initially funny, but the extracts were rather short and failed to get an atmosphere going. More successful were the folk influenced songs and older lyrics, which were better served by the on-stage instruments (accordions, violins, keys). However, the vocal performances were absolutely wonderful across the board. Doo-wop backing vocals and harmonies added depth to all of the songs, and the lead vocal performances from a musically-trained cast were excellent. Juan Jackson and Ali McGregor, who played Macheath and Polly in the inner play, are both opera-trained and made even familiar melodies exciting and fresh.

The set, a wooden framework of the underside of a ship, was cluttered with barrels, crates and assorted other ship items, giving the company places to sit when not performing in the inner play. At the side of the stage, adding an interesting 18th century theatrical twist, were two 'boxes', in which four (un)lucky audience members sat, often being asked to join in with the action. As the convicts celebrated a "crossing-over" ceremony to mark the crossing of the equator, one of the gallants was dragged to centre stage for a shave by the convicts, who had oddly donned fish costumes for the ceremony. There was plenty of other oddness, such as Jackson's Harry Morton (Macheath), who swam for his freedom at the close of the play, reappeared in speedos from his swim. The various levels of performativity within the play were, however, one of its strongest aspects, the actors slipping between characters with great facility and using their roles in the inner play to further the development of their convict characters.

The performances within Beggar's Opera were self-consciously melodramatic, with Catherine Russell particularly enjoying herself as Mrs. Peachum, hitting all the right notes of cliche in exaggerated style. Much of the play's fun came from watching the convicts experiment with theatrical ideas, including the long centrepiece scene which saw Macheath surrounded by the entire cast dressed as women fawning over him. Even this, though, provided the impetus for the play's director to admit his sexuality to a fellow cast member, an Irish political prisoner, who identified with him as another deviant from state policy. It was in moments like this that the play really found its sense of purpose, bringing out the human stories that underpinned the rehearsals and journey. While there simply wasn't time to explore all of these (the problem with giving so much time to both narratives), they cumulatively created the impression of a richly detailed world of human suffering. As the boat approached Australia and a mooted mutiny by some of the players was aborted, slowly everyone seemed to have come to some kind of peace with their situation; and hope was provided by Harry's swim to a kind of freedom, an evocative reimagining of Macheath's eventual escape.

Director Max Stafford-Clark, a great lover of 18th century theatre, has in this play effectively recreated The Beggar's Opera for a modern audience, successfully reinventing aspects of the period's theatricality and environment for today. While it perhaps tried to do a little too much, sacrificing some of its own depth while trying to cram in the modern songs, this was intelligent and imaginative theatre that demanded rewatching to uncover more of the stories woven into its narrative.

The reviews of John Peter

One of the problems of occasionally buying the Sunday Times is that I'm forced to read the reviews of theatre critic John Peter. Now, admittedly Peter only gets about 100 words for his Sunday Times reviews, but that shouldn't prevent them from rising above the senseless rubbish he writes, informed by prejudices and ideas of what Shakespeare should be. This week, he reviews the Tobacco Factory's Julius Caesar and the Leicester As You Like It, both of which he gives three stars with a variety of criticisms.

His remarks on Caesar annoy me, though for relatively subjective reasons. He suggests the actors needed "another week's rehearsal to get properly into their characters", yet seems to have completely missed the subtleties of the actors' performances. Peter knows exactly what he wants his actors to do, and tuts when he doesn't get it: his review thus focuses on what the actors didn't do rather than what they did. Leo Wringer "doesn't tackle Brutus's agonies of treachery"; Clive Hayward doesn't explore Cassius' "streak of hysteria" and Simon Armstrong's Caesar "is entirely without the imperious charisma his senators so much resent". I won't go into my own opinions on the performances (they're in my review); my concern is that Peter has already decided what he wants from a performance and doesn't appear to watch what's actually happening in front of him. I utterly despise this kind of 'checklist' reviewing, where you go in with pre-established criteria and judge a production by how far it meets those criteria.

Peter's other bugbear is with verse-speaking, and he gives the final section of his review to a searing critique of Alun Raglan's "badly rushed and coarsely mangled" speech. Frankly (and I recognise this is subjective, but I don't care) Peter is just wrong about this. Raglan's performance was hugely impressive and erudite, his verse speaking powerfully dramatic and carefully controlled, reaching extraordinary heights during moments of rage and passion. It's comments like this that reinforce the growing impression I have that Peter simply doesn't watch or listen to the productions he's sent to.

His review of As You Like It is, to my mind, even more problematic, for similar reasons. Firstly, the checklist. "This is a forbidding play, so it's a pity that the final masque is cut". What? I'm not sure if he means that the masque would have offset the forbidding nature of the production, or if he thinks that it would have contributed to the forbidding nature of the play which the production had not achieved. Whatever he means, it's a particularly ridiculous comment considering that the masque was replaced with a four-way multi-cultural wedding ceremony that served the function of the masque with style and resonance. Then he bemoans that the epilogue was cut, "which Ifeachor could have delivered with a seductive panache". Not only is he complaining about textual cuts (which is something critics need to get over), but he's even directing the play's finale in his own mind! This strikes me as unbelievable arrogance and presumption in a critic. Bemoaning a performance that could have been a bit better is one thing, but actually fantasising over missing scenes? From my own subjective standpoint, too, I felt that the ending we were given gave the ending of the play a wonderful sense of harmonious closure; I personally think an epilogue would have spoiled what Supple and the company had created.

His reading of individual characters is, again, oddly skewed. "Tracy Ifeachor is a beautiful Rosalind, shy and watchful and definitely not of a coming-on disposition". I refer you again to my own review; but it's certainly not opinion to note that Ifeachor's Rosalind was, in her own costume, unusually confident and fiery considering her cultural background and the tyranny of the court (especially compared to the more reticent Celia, who Peter sums up as "frisky and funny, girlish but mature", suggesting that she was the livelier of the pair which is simply not true). To suggest that Rosalind was "not of a coming-on disposition", when this Ganymede physically threw Orlando down, kissed him passionately, rolled with him on the floor and took the top position when they came to a rest, again appears to show that Peter was simply not looking at what was in front of him but at the production taking place in his own mind.

Lastly, it's the language problem again. "WS's language has its own music, and it needs more clarity and less speed than it's getting here". While it's not explicit, he appears to me to be hinting at the fear expressed by Lyn Gardner about critics' responses to the production's multi-accented cast. His suggestion here is that the actors were not applying the correct level of clarity to Shakespeare's language; which demonstrates Peter was bringing in assumptions, yet again, about the way Shakespeare should be spoken. If you couldn't understand the actors, just say that - don't qualify it with your own biases pertaining to Shakespeare's "own music". Shakespeare's dead, he's not here to speak it himself. Every production has its own music - listen to that and judge it on its own merits, not on the outdated ideas that there's a way it "should" be spoken.

Rant over.

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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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