Friday, May 30, 2014

The first time as tragedy; the second as farce: time-shifting 'Arden of Faversham' - Swan Theatre, RSC Friday 23 May 2014

Polly Findlay's new RSC production of the anonymous Renaissance play 'Arden of Faversham' shifts it from its usual 16th Century setting to a loosely 'modern' period.  Certainly, both Findlay (as director) and Zoe Svendsen (as dramaturg) are keen to emphasise contemporary parallels between the commodification of land, people and property then and now, and the shift of housewives from makers to consumers.  This time-shifting from the late 1500s to a modern but non-specific present day moment, seems to have thrown some reviewers, as if mentally adjusting from the outer gothic frames of the Swan theatre to a stage filled with the clutter of mass packaging for the contemporary consumer age (and fashions to match) makes the play text incomprehensible.  I'd argue that it is actually pretty easy to overlook lines that (rightly, for the 16th Century) make London feel a world away, since whatever London's proximity is now in terms of communications and travel, the capital can still feel a world away from provincial business and domestic life.  

Grumbly Michael Billington, didn't like the period shift at all. Personally, I feel a period setting in Elizabethan costume would likely appear similarly artificial.  Nevertheless, there are elements that feel as if they are overstating realisations about 'capitalism for beginners'.  Arden's business is the distribution of tacky ornaments, not least an endless supply of marineki neko, the gold Japanese beckoning cats, symbolic of prosperous good fortune (oh irony when a wall of them is unveiled after Arden is killed). Arden's employees are engaged in drudgery: endless, pointless, mechanised processes carried out by humans for no particular purpose of adding anything to the product, experience or success of anyone (except Arden himself).  Work sucks; bosses are narcissistic and greedy; everyone wants a prosperous and more convenient life: we get it, with bright flashy clothes to ram the point home.

Former butcher-boy Mosby and Arden's wife

But don't be deceived: what the play lacks in subtlety (in its production setting or the prose - no Shakespeare is this) or indeed length (it is a sprightly 1 hour 40, with no interval) it more than makes up for with some wonderfully portrayed supporting characters and a healthy infusion of verve and wit. 

The tale may ostensibly be about businessman Arden (Ian Redford), his unfaithful wife Alice (Sharon Small), and her lover Mosby (Keir Charles), but the Arden employees Michael (Ian Bonar) and Mosby's sister Susan (Elspeth Brodie) - a hapless, servile, near-silent figure who regularly haunts the stage and production - keep getting our attention even as the play heads towards the inevitable murder of the titular character.  The tragedy is not really about Arden, for all that he meets an undignified death as the disposable body of capitalism: a domestic murder for domestic reasons.  Arguably, it is not even about the vivacious, capricious wife Alice, who all too late realises the enormity of her actions and choices.  Rather it is Susan and a would-be husband Michael that intrigue.  

Susan: hidden, at the edges

Produced as part of the 'Roaring Girls' season at the RSC, the publicity has been all around Small as Alice Arden.  She certainly roars - with laughter, with lust, with anger and murderous desire.  But it is the mouse that doesn't roar who I keep thinking about: Susan.  Her brother Mosby tries to match her one way: with oily poisoner painter Clarke (Christopher Middleton).  Her mistress, Alice Arden, meanwhile promises her to Arden employee Michael.  Neither Mosby nor Alice seem especially concerned to consider Susan's own preferences, and it doesn't seem to bother either prospective husband much, with both Clarke and Michael careless as to whether Susan may have a role to play in her choice of 'owner'.  Michael is at least ambivalent in how he is drawn into the murderous plotting: he doesn't really want to get involved but his desire to match with Susan becomes blinded and complicit to the actions of those around him.  That Susan is condemned and put to death alongside more active and duplicitous participants in the murder of Arden is perhaps the real tragedy of the play.*

Despite that tragedy, the production does make good use of some of the underlying elements of farce in the text, including the (not-so-original) bungling hitmen Black Will and Shakebag, ably brought to life by Jay Simpson and Tony Jayawardena.

Silent Bob and Jay

These two present violent slapstick and murderous intent thwarted by fog, timing and choices but mostly by general incompetence.  Indeed, the oleaginous Clarke is far more disturbing than they are, as it seems even Clarke's own flesh rebels against his exploits with poison and paint (rashes across his skin, gloved hands, hair and flesh that drips with contamination). By contrast the seemingly 'professional' killers - Will and Shakebag - are perpetually in more danger from each other than they can cause to others, even before the first significant head injury by unintended crowbar enters the action.  By the time the 'tragic' murder of Arden takes place, we're well prepared for the farcical raising of his body in one of his own delivery boxes above the dining table, to drop warm blood to a wine glass below.

Overall, this is a production worth seeing, short enough to be enjoyable and very well performed.  Perhaps its key problem is the baggage it comes with of being a 16th century 'true crime dramatisation'.  Taken on its own terms, this is a time-shifted tragedy whose farce makes it modern.

* The play is usually described as a 'revenge tragedy'.  But it isn't the revenge of wife or Arden as husband that defines the play.  Rather, the person who gets their revenge is a minor character: Mistress Reede.  She curses Arden to die for the "plot of ground that thou detains from me ... there be butchered by thy dearest friends".  The lands of the Abbey of Faversham from which she was evicted prove to be Arden's undoing. The play started with his discontent at having acquired the lands when his wife is adulterously in love with Mosby.  It ends with those same lands granting Mistress Reede her revenge, off stage and unnoticed.  A very strange revenge tragedy...

Friday, May 02, 2014

"Make vile things precious": psychotic laughter, villainy and ageing - King Lear @ NTLive, National Theatre broadcast 1 May 2014

In recent years I've seen three pretty big productions of King Lear - the first was Jacobi's at the intimate Donmar Warehouse (with the 'restart the scene' moment on the NTLive Broadcast); the second was the electric live experience of seeing Pryce's version at the Almeida; and then there's this BIG production starring the incredible Simon Russell Beale on the Olivier theatre stage from National Theatre, again seen via NTLive.

Beale is an angry dictator of a father and King, with the initial carving of the kingdom based on declarations of love in front of a massed audience of the king's supporters.  No wonder he's royally foul when Cordelia refuses to play along.  But the setting of making a microphoned demand for filial affection in front of others also gives context to Goneril's acquiescence to the display and Regan's scathing upping of the ante in her gushingly flirty embrace on Lear's lap (she's clearly been playing this game for years, with her combination of suppressed disdain and wilful playfulness as the coy sexually focused middle sister). These older siblings have learnt to give what is required.

Cordelia does not, cannot, perhaps by virtue of her having been the most beloved of Lear's three daughters (and what of their mothers?) I have to say that this was the first production where I felt any kind of real connection to Cordelia - it's a pretty limited role and of the three portrayals I've recently seen I'd possibly say it was the most rounded  (the problems being inherent to the part not the actress playing it).  All credit to Olivia Vinall, whose performance actually felt moving. (The reuniting of Lear and Cordelia near the end - apologies for the spoilers people - actually moved me to tears: partly through Beale's conveying of Lear's flashes of lucidity from amidst his madness, and partly through her heartbroken temporary pleasure at the recognition he shows her).

I know others will have come because of SRB (who is pretty damn fine), but I'll admit the really big draw for me was Anna Maxwell Martin as the venal Regan, whose psychotic giggles were simultaneously flirtatious, manipulative, and sadistic in tone. I've been following AMM since I saw her in The Coast of Utopia alongside Douglas Henshall back in 2002, before she even did His Dark Materials at the National in 2003 (a work that brought her to prominence in theatre, along with Cabaret in 2006, and ahead of Bleak House in 2005 which brought her television presence to the fore). She is, frankly, on all kinds of levels, breathtaking. She strikes me as having the same intensity and beauty in her acting as Lyndsay Duncan has always conveyed (this isn't just about physical beauty, though both are astonishingly women, but as much about the internalised truth of a character, whether good or evil, that each can convey).

Her foil here is a chilly Goneril played by Kate Fleetwood, lacking some of the energy that Gina McKee brought to the Domnar production, or the hinted at abusive relationship from Zoe Waites in the Almeida version, but a fine performance nonetheless.

Beale's performance has been largely praised - and it's large performance in so many ways, especially in the early scenes where his anger is that of a bulldog who has been in charge of the house for many years, increasingly wayward in his behaviour and vicious in his responses.  He storms and shouts across the stage, irritably barking and biting those around him.  His shaven head lends him a Stalin-like appearance, but at least it stops him looking too much like 'Santa Claus' (as he notes in the interval documentary, a fine short study of the production's approach to the play'). As the play progresses and Lear's faculties fail, he becomes more stooped, shaky, haunted and hunted.  He is increasingly distracted, experiencing hallucinations, regressing to childhood and adopting the tell-tale signs of sexual inappropriateness and lost inhibitions, often scarcely aware of his actions (he is aghast with horror as he sees a dead body in the scenes just before the Interval*).  For all his diminished state of mind - and the sag of his undergarments even makes it seem as if he loses physical weight as contrasted to the belted fitted military garb of his initial scenes - this is a monumental Lear.  The investigation that Beale undertook to understand the despair of Lear certainly seems to pay off, for Lear's moments of lucidity feel increasingly heartbreaking as anyone who has seen first hand the combination of symptoms associated with dementia and Parkinson's will attest. "O let me be not mad".

Elsewhere there are other fine performances, only occasionally overshadowed (or undermined) by slightly excessive set design or staging decisions.  I don't think anyone doubts Adrian Scarborough makes a fine Fool but he and Beale didn't need to ascend the mighty hilltop with thunderbolts and lightening (very very frightening me).  There are a LOT of bloody bodies on stage by the end (meaning Regan has to shuffle in her death-throws out of the way of the action).  Poor Tom's performance is properly - albeit briefly - naked ("Poor Tom's a-cold" indeed), which could have felt awkward but actually worked very well with Tom Brooke bringing stronger pathos to the scenes once he becomes Poor Tom than to those he has as the hapless brother  Edgar to bastard Edmund. Much as I like Sam Troughton and have found him capable of strong performances, his was a less convincing one as the vile and villainous Edmund, but I think that was as much down to direction and costume as anything else.  He resembled an ageing school boy in his suit more than a wily, manipulative seducer of both older sisters and of the pliable suspicions of his father.  Troughton seemed to lack appropriate heft (though not physically) and the necessarily conspiratorial asides were unfortunately stagily presented with on-glasses/off-glasses direction.  A shame, as I've been very convinced by previous Edmunds.

Elsewhere Stanley Townsend makes for a generous Kent, supportive of Cordelia right through, whilst Stephen Boxer's slight frame gave Gloucester the air of a semi-valued privy counsellor as civil servant to the ruler; as ever it is a role that comes into its own once he is blinded (a scene that always shocks and which created paroxysms of delight from Regan who clearly 'got off' on the whole torture thing, despite what happens to her husband Cornwall in the process).  Albany remains a cuckolded sap, though honestly this Edmund didn't feel like a threat - but nevertheless Richard Clothier invests this husband with enough sense to feel that he understands what has happened by the end (and his tangential part in it).

Overall, it is a strong but resolutely 4 star performance (as has been a recurring response in most reviews) - magnificent in so many respects and yet lacking something crucial to bring the rating up to a full five star value. Very much worth seeing with some exquisite performances and moments, but not the full-force it could be.  

* No intended spoilers here, but it explains a hole in the narrative that has bugged audiences and readers for centuries.  Marvellously well done I thought.