All entries for Saturday 20 August 2011

August 20, 2011

The Summoning of Everyman (Shakespeare Institute Players) @ Holy Trinity Church

Everyman is a genuinely powerful text. Whether you’re religious or not, this anonymous medieval morality play gets to the absolute nub of the big questions. What can we take with us? What is the point of life? And at the end of it all, are we ultimately alone?

The Shakespeare Institute Players made a virtue of their usual performance venue being out of commission by doing a site-specific piece in Holy Trinity Church. Director Jason Burg is researching the use of churches as performance spaces, and this production drew on its surroundings throughout. Good Deeds lay crumped under a blanket leaning against the altar, the Doctor waited to welcome people into the main space, Five Wits referred to the church’s presentation copy of the Bible, and Knowledge gestured to the glorious stained glass windows that dominated the space. It was an evocative space for a religious message, and one which the production treated respectfully.

The staging was simple, and made the most of the episodic structure of the play. Harriet Laing's Everyman entered the choir from the nave surrounded by the rest of the company, who voiced God collectively, standing round the edges of the space. Helen Osborne's black-clad Death swaggered into the space shortly thereafter, addressing God with a deferential yet slightly mocking tone, emphasised by a quiet chuckle as she prepared to claim Everyman's soul. Formal patterning organised the progression of characters: Victoria Mountford's Good Deeds was huddled up under a blanket at the altar, Cecilia Kendall-White's Knowledge strolled around the altar space, and the assorted kindred and flaky qualities passed from the choir into the nave of the church as they forsook Everyman, returning to worldly places - where the Doctor finally emerged from, as well as Everyman's wicker coffin.

Everyman was played as a woman (Chaka Khan jokes were restricted to the programme), a decision which saw the company use obvious materialist stereotypes to comic effect - Everyman was entranced by the pair of beautiful shoes that John Curtis's Goods held up for her, slipping into a longing voice even as she admonished Goods. The obsession of this Everyman with appearances and possessions was made obvious from the start, as she appeared adjusting her bright red top. She was gloriously oblivious to Death's intent, and her initial selfish shock progressed through the piece to anger and panic, and finally to something approaching transcendent acceptance.

The play is powerful in itself. The gradual forsaking of Everyman by her kin, her Fellowship and her Goods was a straightforward series of vignettes, made comic by the Texan drawl of Red Smucker and Drew Hippel as Kindred and Cousin, and the fey performance of Curtis as Goods. It was with the appearance of Knowledge that the play began to take on its more forceful and harrowing aspects. The scene of penance, presided over by the clerical Confession, saw Everyman kneeling and flogging herself hard with a quite nasty-looking piece of rope, while Knowledge looked coldly on. The subsequent emergence of Good Deeds added an impression of safety to the subsequent scenes, framing Everyman's journey within an instructive context, but this made the second set of abjurrations all the more hard. Beauty, Strength, Five Wits and Discretion were presented as a formidable set of companions who Everyman placed her faith in. As they began leaving, one by one, her terror was moving. The fear of death, prompted by the appearance of the coffin, was effectively captured in these scenes; and, as Laing lay down in the coffin, one felt the import of the issues that the text was confronting.

The experience of seeing a secular production of a didactic and Catholic-inflected theological piece in an Anglican church was an unusual one, and in some ways it feels odd to put on such an instructive play as a piece of historical interest when it still holds such a powerful vernacular message about the importance of good deeds and of recognising one's own mortality. A thought-provoking evening, and one that left me wishing I had a chance to see Mankind in the near future too.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

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It is traditional to frame the main action of A Midsummer Night’s Dream within a particularly threatening Athens, allowing the comedy to stand in contrast to the formality and danger of the court. Nancy Meckler’s new production for the RSC was no exception. Theseus (Jo Stone-Fewings) was a London mob boss and Hippolyta (Pippa Nixon) his young trophy bride. Wrapped up in an extravagant fur coat, Hippolyta sulked on a luxurious couch, shrinking away from Theseus’ advances. Theseus, in turn, struggled to understand why she failed to respond to his presents of flowers and jewellery, brought forth at the snap of his fingers by a waiting lackey.

The bare basement set pointed to the emptiness of Theseus’ gestures. Characters entered and exited via a rickety metal stairwell running down from the ceiling, and entered a dilapidated garage space populated with goons and prostitutes. Theseus presided over this seedy court, dispensing judgements on his henchman’s daughter with a casual air. A disgusted Hippolyta spat at his feet after his vow that Hermia should die if she didn’t obey her father.

Fundamentally, however, something about this society didn’t work. The play opened in semi-darkness, into which the Mechanicals were summoned to fix the electrics, descending into a trapdoor and clanging about until the power came back on. The play ended in the same way, as the bergomask dance (accompanied by live rock band) finally blew the delicate fuses, and the muttering actors descended once more into the bowels of the stage. This time, however, rather than the stark neon lights of the opening scene, a dreamlike blue descended over the stage, allowing Puck, Oberon and Titania to enter to bless the house.

This idea permeated Meckler’s production, signified in the lights of the fairy scenes that danced on fingers, chased one another around the stage or shone from the heavens. The fairy world was liberated, but also in control of its own environment. Conversely, the Athenians were shown to have no control whatsoever. As the lovers moved further into the wood, their clothes were torn off by branches and rocks (the fairies using their bodies as obstacles) and they became increasingly muddied and dishevelled. This was particularly funny as Lucy Briggs-Owen’s immaculate Helena, now torn and bedraggled, wailed “I am as ugly as a bear”. The humour, slightly cruelly, was in watching spoiled brats being made extremely uncomfortable.

Imogen Doel, standing in at short notice for Matti Houghton as Hermia, did a fine job filling in. Her diminutive stature and confident voice made her an appealing yet formidable Hermia. There were moments in the ensemble lovers’ scenes where the production lost its rhythm slightly, struggling for dynamism in the interactions, but Doel did a fine job, particularly in the physical scenes. Demetrius and Lysander’s attempts to stop her from hurting Hermia saw them throw cushions at her, dive between her legs, sit on her and, in turn, get kicked in the crotch, thrown off a sofa and shoved to the side. This Hermia was strident even in love, though, taking the soft pillows and sleeping bag for herself and forcing Lysander to sleep on his coat.

Throughout, Briggs-Owen’s Helena whined. This was by far the most narcissistic Helena I’ve ever seen. Even Lysander and Demetrius nodded off as she offered her long complaints against Hermia, and Briggs-Owen drew attention to the fact that Helena always brought things back to herself, viewing everything as a conspiracy against her. Briggs-Owen has a particular way of stressing the verse line where one would least expect it. This made for a peculiarly self-conscious delivery that suggested Helena’s blind self-obsession, and her shock at being left onstage alone manifested in a rising screech of self-pity that choked the actual words under a mess of sobs. It was an extraordinary vocal performance, made flesh in her awkwardly flailing limbs and wild gestures. She contrasted finely with the compact, self-possessed Hermia, and her neuroses left Alex Hassell’s Demetrius screaming in frustration.

The hysterics of the lovers were in contrast to Arsher Ali’s calm, sardonic Puck, underplayed to the point of being barely noticeable. He carried a broom and wore fifty or more ties under his long brown jacket, but his casual mockery of the stage action felt too disengaged. Stone-Fewings and Nixon, however, made for a wonderful Oberon and Titania. Their sexual energy was obvious, particularly as they stripped and then re-dressed one another as they transformed back into Theseus and Hippolyta in preparation for the final act. They were also played seriously, which added much-needed gravitas to the production. The evening’s most effective moment came as Titania sadly explained the effects of their feuding on the mortal world. The lights dimmed, the giggling fairies stood still, and Nixon evoked a world in disarray. A similar sobriety was lent to the description of the Indian boy, with one of the fairies acting out the boy’s mother, cradling a blanket before freezing as Titania described her death.

It was left to the Mechanicals to deliver the belly laughs, a responsibility which they accepted with gusto. Marc Wootton’s incorrigible Bottom dominated the stage, whether forcing the other actors to dive out of his way as he threw himself onto a sofa or hee-hawing his country ballads. The ass costume was created out of what was on stage as he left to await his cue: his blonde Herculean wig was styled into two long ears, and the actors’ cans of food became hooves. The inevitable dangling phallus was a bratwurst that Snug had previously been munching on, an addition by which Titania was particularly enthralled. The production squandered a lot of its laughs – the chaos of his immediate revelation was confused rather than amusing, and moments of excellent delivery by Christopher Godwin’s Quince and Felix Hayes’s Snug passed so quickly that they barely registered. The delivery of parts, for example, ended with Hayes waiting for a non-existent script, and Quince answered his confusion with a rather fey clawing action that was perfectly timed, but lost amid the movement of other actors.

The culminating performance of Pyramus and Thisbe was a suitable highlight, hitting the usual beats (Starveling’s annoyance at the interruptions of the audience, Quince’s nerves during the prologue) with a few innovations. Chiké Okonkwo as Snout became a human punchbag, repeatedly stabbed by Pyramus’s wooden sword and barely able to keep the over-acting lovers apart as they attempted to push through the wall. Eventually, he gave up, and Bottom and Michael Grady-Hall’s Flute were shocked to suddenly find themselves kissing, to general hilarity. Following the embarrassment of all, the two ran off-stage for the next scene, and were then revealed snogging passionately behind the temporary curtain that the players had set up. After Quince tore them apart, the two continued the scene, with fond glances and the occasional stroke. Pyramus was particularly entertaining during his extended death scenes, as he rolled around the stage for the benefit of each set of lovers, before crawling surreptitiously back into position.

This wasn’t the most exciting or original Dream the RSC has mounted in recent years, but it was effortlessly entertaining. The real magic came in the quiet moments of reflection, when the production achieved something transcendent in the stillness between the chaos and hinted at the underlying implications of the disruption they were causing. Even at its most superficial level, though, this was a funny and well-performed production that kept a young audience in stitches throughout.

This review first appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

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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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