August 18, 2010

Double Falsehood (KDC) @ The Union Theatre

While the claims of KDC to be presenting the 21st century premiere of Double Falsehood are at best questionable (a more accurate claim would be "the 21st century premiere of a play calling itself Double Falsehood"), the long-established London amateur company certainly offered a significant event in the public performance of this long-neglected play. Riding on the coat tails of the new Arden edition, and performed under a railway arch in Southwark, the production acknowledged the growing appreciation of Double Falsehood as a play in its own right, rather than as a bastardisation of a lost "original".

Barrie Addenbrooke's production began in a stately vein, with lavish period costumes and an evocative set of drapes and curtains that allowed for the possibility of concealed exits and entrances. The courtly setting of the first scene was well evoked, although a formal opening dance looked awkward in the cramped space available. The formality of the opening and the costumes, however, set far too dominant a tone for the rest of a play that is, after all, built around class conflict. With both Leonora and Violante richly dressed, the vast difference in their status was elided; and Julio was dressed identically throughout to Henriquez and Roderick, similarly ignoring the impact of his summoning to court and Camillo's social climbing. The effect was to make it seem as if most of the action of the first half was set at court, which particularly muted the transgressive quality of Henriquez's wooing of Violante, here even gifted a maid who gave Henriquez the key to Violante's bedroom for a reward of money and a kiss.

The formal treatment of the play's first half resulted in a tone that I found surprisingly serious. In particular, the first scene between Gareth Davies's Julio and Anita Constantine's Leonora downplayed the playfulness of Leonora's teasing in favour of a stately cool that gave way to genuine anxiety over the potential trials she might face - a valid reading, though lacking something of spark. Constantine excelled rather in showing the cracks as this formal and virtuous figure was subjected to repeated assaults, becoming increasingly distraught and desperate as she approached the wedding. Her Maid was turned into a Duenna (Niki Mylonas) who served a function reminiscent of the Nurse of Romeo and Juliet, coming to the fore as she took the dagger from Leonora before the wedding began, saving her charge from herself.

The severity of the play's first half extended to the fathers. While the more obviously comic exchanges remained such - most effectively as Richard Williams's Don Bernard acted innocent before Gary Mahoney's Camillo - the complaints of both men after the loss of their children were played in a state of near-depression. The humbling of Don Bernard was not the deflating of a pompous and controlling father figure, but the just punishment of an abusive father. Bernard was violent towards his daughter, casting her to the floor in anger at her refusal to wed Henriquez and dragging her to the altar during the wedding scene. His anger and rage (cf Capulet) established a force of genuine tyranny within the play that threatened to overshadow Henriquez's villainy.

Helen Kelly's Violante, on the other hand, was a lively and vivacious figure. In her first appearance, she emerged from her room to address Henriquez and proceeded to flirtatiously tease him, pacing around him, tipping her head coyly and allowing him to stroke her hair and shoulders, though shied away from kisses. Only as he began to manhandle her more freely did she lose her composure and eventually pull away from him in anger, before marching back into her room. All fired up, Henriquez paid the maid (Samantha Claver) and stalked in after Violante. The Maid then eyed up Gerald and seduced him onstage, pulling him off for her own liaison, neatly filling the rape-gap without having to add anything more explicit. The Maid remained an interestingly ambiguous figure throughout, becoming the Servant entrusted with procuring Violante's disguise. Violante's questioning of her trustworthiness and corruption took on a different emphasis in the light of what the audience knew had occurred, and even at this stage the Maid required large payments before agreeing to help.

Of the young men, Davies's Julio was frustratingly distant for much of the action, studiously ignoring the audience in soliloquy and maintaining a polite, quiet attitude throughout the play, with a delicacy even in his madness. Maxim Moya-Thompson played Roderick in a similar vein, though more appropriate to his role. Gareth Shaw had more success as Henriquez - yet again played with introspection, but here used to great effect, especially in his self-justifying after the rape. Kneeling at first in something approaching anguish, he then collected himself and sat casually on a bench as he questioned himself, drawing the audience into his interrogation and eventually winking at us in conspiracy as he left to pursue Leonora. His quiet maliciousness throughout the play was a constant pleasure, and his sickly wooing of Leonora balanced Don Bernard's aggressiveness nicely.

As the action approached the set pieces, the pace picked up. A bubbly townswoman replaced the gentleman who brings Julio and Leonora back together, as part of a general increase and expansion of female roles within the play. While this lost something (the trust Violante and Leonora place in the male servant and Citizen who they take into their confidence at crucial points reflects interestingly on their respective histories with men earlier in the play), it also enhanced the networks of female trust within the play, and the Townswoman took an active enthusiasm in helping Julio. She carried a basket of theatrical masks, and Julio adopted a disguise as the Devil to break up the wedding, to the effective screams of the Duenna. While the action of the wedding scene itself was a little perfunctory (Julio simply grabbed and dragged out), the disruption of the scene contrasted nicely with the formal blocking of the play's earlier scenes.

This gave way, following the interval, to a pastoral setting. Rather than the working fields implied by the text, we were instead treated to a festival akin to Act 4 of Winter's Tale, with shepherds of both genders celebrating rather than labouring in the fields, and the Master of the Flocks serving as the chief reveller. The distracted Julio was a source of amusement rather than fear to the shepherds (although Waylon Ma's amusing Second Shepherd was suitably put out by the grabbing of his nose and his rather physical besting by Julio), and his ravings were especially sober with the equally solemn Violante, effectively disguised as a boy.

One of the core strengths of this production was the clarity with which it presented action often dismissed as complicated or irretrievably butchered. Julio's madness was apparent, as was Roderick's organisation of the final reunions. Even more interestingly, Henriquez and Roderick's explanation of their plan to liberate Leonora from the nunnery was crystal clear, and their subsequent appearance rendered any "missing" action irrelevant. Leonora entered in confusion, surrounded by masked and armed men dressed in black. Roderick and Henriquez pulled off their masks to reveal and explain themselves, and Leonora's reaction mixed relief with disgust. For those directors who claim action is necessarily missing from Double Falsehood, Addenbrooke's production proved the effectiveness and permissibility of the text.

Of course, the ghost of Cardenio couldn't be completely exorcised. In the production's stand-out scenes, Fabian and Lopez (and later, the two Gentlemen) were replaced by Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, riding pantomime versions of their horse and ass. Quixote quoted famous lines from Shakespeare in a convoluted commentary on the main action, while Sancho filled in with responses and clowning. The introduction of these two livened up their scenes considerably, and acted as a dramatically powerful counter to Henriquez's post-rape scene, relieving the tension of the latter's admissions. It also allowed for a nice moment in the latter scene where, at Violante's mention of Henriquez, Quixote and Sancho Panza shared a glance, clearly recalling their earlier encounter with that lord. These scenes provided the main comic interest of the play, and certainly made a powerful case to me for the effectiveness of introducing the knight and his squire.

A final scene of reunification resumed a more comic tone, particularly as Camillo lost himself in his own grief and missed the revelation of Julio taking place centre stage. Julio entered disguised as a mariachi, and Leonora removed his disguise one piece at a time in a surprisingly moving sequence. The bringing together of Henriquez and Violante was also effective, promising nothing extraordinary but allowing the prince to show a tenderness towards Violante that came naturally from his character. The Duke's ennobling of Violante drew laughs, however; this final piece of hitherto neglected information one too many for a modern audience to take.

This production's key importance was in demonstrating how well Double Falsehood can work on its own terms, without apology. Despite some of the above reservations (and I should say, this was the first performance), KDC proved the play to be an effective, entertaining and often extremely funny piece, but one that also taps into key issues and provides a solid emotional payoff at its conclusion. Hopefully, the availability of a modern edited text and the success of this production will inspire more directors to see what they can find in it.

- 5 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Duncan

    With just hours before the final performance, the above is the only substantial review that has been written about this production and as such should prove extremely valuable to anyone interested in this play and the theatre of whatever period it is deemed to be a part. I found it really useful as it reminded me of a lot of detail I’d forgotten. Your experience workshopping the play obviously enabled you to bring some interesting insights.

    The cover of the programme describes Double Falsehood as “the ‘lost’ play by William Shakespeare & John Fletcher”. Theobald isn’t mentioned until a tangential reference to his surname in the third paragraph of the director’s note on the inside cover. Only those brave enough to read Brean Hammond’s piece in full on the facing page would have discovered that “Shakespeare’s ‘DNA’ survives in the version we have”. This illustrates the problems involved in giving average spectators of this play a simple answer to a reasonable question: “Who’s it by?”

    A complete answer to that question would have required the programme cover to be cleared to explain that the performance we were about see was director Barrie Addenbrooke’s tweaking of Brean Hammond’s Arden edition of Double Falsehood, a play first published by Lewis Theobald in 1728, which is considered to be Theobald’s reworking of a possible Restoration period adaptation of an original play co-authored by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, itself based on material taken from Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

    The necessary simplification of that story is possibly what led to me overhearing the following in the bar before the performance: “That’s Brean Hammond. He’s the man who recently authenticated the manuscript…” words spoken by someone wearing a name badge indicating some official connection with the production, who presumably should have known better. And if people who should know better have their head full of such notions, then what exactly did the average theatregoer with no prior knowledge of the play (say, for instance, the mayor of Southwark) think they were looking at?

    My reading of the female characters’ apparel was that a decision had been made to use costume in the early scenes primarily as an indicator of Violante’s moral condition rather than her social condition. She was presented in pristine, virginal white; after the rape she appeared in what looked like violet signifying something less than purity. At the same time, Leonora’s costume was intended to indicate her higher social status: she was wearing black (black dye was always more expensive and therefore the highest class colour) and she was dripping with pearls, a further indication of her wealth.

    You’re right that there was little distinction between the young men in terms of clothes, which could be justified by the relative classlessness of youth fashion. There was, however, a considerable distinction expressed in costume and accent between the Duke and Camillo, the rival fathers competing for Don Bernado’s approval of their sons’ respective suits. The Duke had a rich garment and a middle class accent, whereas Camillo was more humbly dressed and his role had been given to a man with a distinct South London working class accent.

    The music appeared to be recorded and was overpowered by the hoofing around at beginning and end. Judging by this appeal for a lutenist, the director had ambitions for the music in the production:

    The Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were wonderful light relief and a nice nod to the play’s Cervantic origins. I might also quibble that Julio’s disguise at the end was not so much mariachi as Zorro!

    I’d also agree completely that the production was not marred by obvious gaps that needed to be filled. This production will be a useful context in which to see future Cardenio reconstructions.

    21 Aug 2010, 13:20

  2. I’ll offer a reverse quibble – I think that particular manifestation of Zorro’s costume draws heavily on the traditional mariachi outfit (compare a google image search for “Zorro” with one for “Mariachi”), but yes, certainly with the mask I won’t argue that there’s a Zorro influence.

    I think my main issue with the class-dress was that it pitched itself too high. Leonora was presented as if a princess; when actually, she’s noble but lowly enough that Don Bernard can get extremely enthusiastic about the match. By establishing the court as a setting so prominently at the start, and having the entire cast dancing in the same costumes they then reappeared in, I felt they missed that essential middle-class bartering and social mobility that powers the play.

    21 Aug 2010, 16:29

  3. Duncan

    Your last comment about Leonora is spot on. She looked more like the Duke’s daughter than any relation of Don Bernard’s.

    I think the key to the costume issue in this production was the limited budget KDC would have had for a run of just six performances. They seemed to have hired in some costumes and then created the rest based on street clothes. That would explain the lack of distinction between Henriquez, Julio and Roderick. If they had had a bigger budget and the ability to have costumes tailored to exact requirements then a more detailed social world could have been created through costume.

    But staging could have been used to suggest these class differences as well. A simple addition to the dance in which the various levels of the feudal system bowed to their superiors could have indicated the precise degrees of rank between the characters.

    21 Aug 2010, 19:22

  4. Duncan

    Hopefully, the availability of a modern edited text and the success of this production will inspire more directors to see what they can find in it.

    The first professional production of the text to be announced officially is coming up in NYC next March when the Classic Stage Company are due to present a minimalist staging of the play:

    Interestingly the announcement also mentions “panel discussions with noted scholars”.

    26 Aug 2010, 10:22

  5. I’d quite like to know who the “many” who call it a “Holy Grail” are!

    26 Aug 2010, 10:30

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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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