Archive | January, 2014

PUNISHMENT WITHOUT REVENGE, at the Arcola Theatre

26 Jan

BY LOPE DE VEGA, in a new TRANSLATION BY MEREDITH OAKES

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First appeared in The British Theatre Guide on 25 January 2014

Tragedy is harder to pull off than comedy. And three plays on rotation over seven months in three different theatres is a feat for one ensemble. But that’s no excuse for a rather tired performance as Part II of the Arcola Theatre’s Spanish Golden Age Season at The Arcola Theatre.

El castigo sin venganza (literal translation: Punishment Without Revenge) is one of early seventeenth-century playwright Lope de Vega’s most celebrated works. Pregnant with classical allusions, it tells the story of secret love between son and stepmother, weaving together well-worn themes of incest, honour, morality and retribution. Count Federico, illegitimate son of a lecherous old Duke, falls in love with the well-bred Cassandra brought to be his father’s bride. Discovering the Duke only wed Cassandra as a front to hide his continued debauchery, Federico and his new stepmother give in to their passion. When the Duke returns from war chastened, their tryst unravels.

ImageDirected by Laurence Boswell, long-time promoter of the Spanish Golden Age, this production plays up similarities to Shakespearean plays that preceded it by two or three decades. Meredith Oakes’ translation nods to Macbeth when Ricardo talks of “the milk of human kindness”. And Boswell suffuses his visual landscape with references to Hamlet, Federico bursting onstage halfway through the first act rumpled shirt hanging loosely, hair on end, eyes staring wildly: “I’m not the man I was”. “What…is more insane than I am?” he asks, as his father sends doctors to diagnose him.

But where Hamlet stays predominantly with the eponymous hero, Punishment flits between Federico, Cassandra, the Duke’s niece Aurora and at least one comic subplot. There isn’t enough character development of Federico or Cassandra for the audience to understand their need for each other. And it doesn’t help that the sexual tension between Nick Barber and Frances McNamee is lukewarm, signalled only in their initial advances by a Game of Thrones style exit, McNamee in Barber’s arms like a bride crossing her threshold. All this makes Federico’s self-torture seem like petulant whining; something even the text seems to nod towards: “I may exaggerate beyond all sense and reason…” And so the anticipated bloodletting at the finale strikes an English audience as a watered down version of Shakespeare or Marlowe.

ImageIn Don Gil of the Green Breeches (Part I of the Season), the actors loved their lines, lingering over some of Sean O’Brien’s finer translation. In Punishment, they seemed to resent them, stumbling and grumbling through Meredith Oakes’ work.

That said, there are some standout performances. Frances McNamee as Cassandra embodies turmoil concealed by poise. Her monologue modulates from soft whisper to imperious cry as she captures the tear-smiled mask of a woman covering her true emotions.

Brilliant too are Simon Scardifield and Annie Hemingway as the comic duo of the subpot. Mixing slapstick – as Lucrecia does away with ponderous Batin’s shot of liqueur – with wit – as Batin finds words to describe Federico and Cassandra’s love: “They have taken to each other almost like a mother and son” – they lift the play’s pace.

ImageMark Bailey’s set and costumes are enough to almost make you forget you’re in a less-established venue. Luxurious velvets and starched ruffs left me wondering where the budget had come from. And the actor’s carousel-like use of the double doors at stage rear was an inventive way to flit back and forth between scenes naturally.

But in comparison to Don Gil, Punishment has less artistic value. Whereas de Vega is already well-known to English audiences, Tirso de Molina (Don Gil’s playwright) is a less familiar name and therefore ripe to be served in translation.

This production felt a little too self-indulgent, made for those already in love with plays of the Spanish Golden Age, not made to convert those in a modern English audience who don’t know it.

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DON GIL OF THE GREEN BREECHES (Don Gil de las Calzas Verdes), at the Arcola Theatre

19 Jan

BY TIRSO DE MOLINA, IN A NEW TRANSLATION BY SEAN O’BRIEN

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First appeared in The British Theatre Guide on 17 January 2014

For a fleeting moment it looked like the feisty female lead might – just might – beat the men at their own game. Revenge wreaked, I pictured this green-garbed girl pouring scorn on the advances of her faithless former lover and exiting stage left pursued by the fashion victims (a study in green) that she created.

Sadly however, although Sean O’Brien updates the words, he doesn’t update the story.  Don Gil of the Green Breeches, one of seventeenth-century Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina’s early comedies, is, in the end, a conventional play. The women may appear to lead the action, but none of them end up with what they want: Donna Juana falls back into a relationship with a man who dropped her for a wealthier version; Donna Ines ends up with the unpalatable suitor she spends most of the play avoiding; even Donna Clara can’t get the Don Gil of her dreams.

In this production, both men and women struggle to escape their respective gender roles (Caramanchel sees “hermaphrodites” round every corner), but are ultimately thwarted by Marriage, the ultimate heterosexual convention.

That’s not to say the cast doesn’t have fun blurring the gender lines. A dance sequence between Donna Juana, in masculine dress as Don Gil, is as sexually charged as it is comic – more erotic than Shakespeare’s Viola and Orsino.

ImageFor Don Gil of the Green Breeches is like Twelfth Night on speed. The girl doesn’t just dress up as a boy; she takes the man she wants to snare’s fake name and then pretends to be another girl dressing up as the male character she’s created, while all the other men want to dress up as her – or him – or, well you get the idea. The layers of dramatic irony used to perfection by Shakespeare are doubled and then stripped away, when Elvira’s likeness to Don Gil isn’t just remarked upon, but picked apart unwittingly by Donna Ines.

In a final nod to Twelfth Night, the eponymous green breeches, symbol of Donna Ines’ perfect man, become as absurd as Malvolio’s yellow stockings when character after character enters the stage sporting them.

This new translation of the Spanish is beautiful, lyrical phrases hidden among the deliberate full stops of rhyming couplets. O’Brien brings the text into twenty-first-century English without losing the occasional Spanish turn of phrase, even if a few of the jokes in the first scene fall flat.

ImageThe cast is the strongest thing about this production. Hedydd Dylan’s energy and purpose in her physicality makes her as alluring in drag as she is in her velvet dress. Chris Andrew Mellon’s mellifluous voice turns on a knife edge between silky smarminess and cuttingly nasty asides. These asides, used freely by all the characters, work perfectly in the Arcola’s small space, creating an even more intimate experience for the audience.

There is a danger the performance descends into panto territory: Don Martin as a revamped Spencer Matthews, as good-looking as he is self-obsessed; Donna Ines as the spoilt Queenie from Blackadder II, alternating between scrunched up face and overblown sexual innuendo; Donna Clara’s vast drawn-on beauty spot; and Don Juan’s orange getup complete with frilly garter (another Malvolio throwback). When Donna Juana asks, “But subtle would you not agree?” the audience’s laughter suggests otherwise.

ImageSo too does it feel too easy to camp up Don Juan, the unfavourable suitor and general thorn in the side. Instead of cashing in on the cheap laughs at a fey chap, why not unpick why we still laugh at “girly” men and “manly” girls?

All in all, it would have been nice to see director Mehmet Ergen, founder and artistic director at the Arcola, doing something a bit more radical with this. That is, after all, his forte. But as this is part of the theatre’s Spanish Golden Age Season, led by well-known Iberophile Laurence Boswell, perhaps faithfulness to the text won out over originality.

Sir Trevor Nunn’s daughter in her first London play BOMBSHELLS

10 Jan
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Bombshells Listings Poster

One day it may be possible to introduce Ellie Nunn without mentioning her parents (theatre director Sir Trevor Nunn and actress Imogen Stubbs). But when a 22-year-old fresh from Cambridge is starring in a one-woman show in the West End (albeit in an off-West End studio theatre), you’ve got to ask how she managed it.

The answer (hush you cynics) is under her own steam – or rather the combined steam of her and the production company Dippermouth, set up by friends of hers at university. They filled out the necessary application forms like everyone else and were selected by the Jermyn Street Theatre’s relatively new Artistic Director Anthony Biggs to put on Bombshells.

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Ellie Nunn as Meryl

The result is a two-hour monologue in which Nunn presents six vignettes of six different women, in varying stages of life.

But don’t be fooled, this isn’t one long speech. Far from it, playwright Joanna Murray-Smith creates six dynamic conversations – some between actor and audience, others between actor and half-imagined other characters – to the point where you almost forget you’re watching a single-hander. The play opens with a day in the life of Meryl, a frantic mother with a severe inferiority complex. The scene changes to a lecture hall at the North Hetherton Cactus and Succulent League, where a timid Tiggy Entwhistle painfully stumbles through a lecture extolling the virtues of the faithful cactus plant in contrast with her unfaithful lover Harry. Next up it’s Mary O’Donnell, the bumptious leotard-clad Irish schoolgirl convinced the school talent show prize is hers. After the interval there’s Theresa the Essex bride with last-minute reservations, then widow Winsome fresh from a sexual reawakening and who neatly mentions the final character, Zoe Struthers, a washed-up diva attempting a booze-addled comeback.

Nunn herself admits that, at her age, she has not experienced most of the things the women she is playing have. But this doesn’t harm her performance, which is remarkable for its maturity. The depth of her voice, which is glorious, helps in this. And there’s something of a young Kate Winslet in her facial expressions, particularly the false grimace-smile she uses to play Meryl and Winsome’s serene gaze.

Physically, Nunn is a joy to watch. Apart from a few erroneous t-shirt tugs and hair tucking, she moves with purpose and uses her body almost as another prop. The costume changes which, as in the original 2001 production, occur onstage, become part of the play as Nunn casts clothes from the rack and indelicately yanks tights up to her armpits. Her steely application of black eyeliner whiskers without a mirror while talking earnestly to the audience as Mary is a wonderfully comic moment, as are the melodramatic hand and head thrusts of diva Zoe.

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Ellie Nunn as Mary

Bombshells was originally written for Caroline O’Connor, the musical actress and dancer. Part of its originality as a monologue is in the dancing and singing required to play two of the characters. Nunn pulls these off spectacularly, her teenage dance routine thinly veiling a natural ability to move to music, and her final singing performance capturing the essence of a diva.

If anything lets down the show, it’s the lack of any meaning behind the six female vignettes we’re presented with. This was a criticism levelled at Murray-Smith’s work when it first came out in 2001, and Germaine Greer even said of the playwright (referring to a later play) that she “holds feminism in contempt”. It is a shame this performance doesn’t find something to pique the audience once the auditorium’s laughter has faded.

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Ellie Nunn as Meryl

Where this production does stamp its identity is in the addiction of a seventh character to the proceedings: that of the actor herself. Several times during the play Nunn talks directly to the audience not in character. Nunn says she breaks the fourth wall intentionally to highlight that there is just one woman behind all six characters working frantically to keep the show moving. But as an audience member it feels uncomfortable. With the costume changes already occurring onstage, there is no need to bring more attention to play’s artifice, and one can’t help feeling Nunn just isn’t well-prepared enough to improvise in character.

Nunn insists that she would hate for people to see her choice of play as a deliberate ploy to showcase her own talents. If that’s her modesty talking, it’s time to shrug it off as her performance is something to be proud of.

First published in The British Theatre Guide on 9th January 2014