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The Duchess of Malfi

This production by Eyestrings Theatre Company, produced by a company set up by a member of the often excellent Cheek By Jowl, took a hack-saw to the original text and adopted a fully modern approach to the staging of this Jacobean classic.

On a thrust stage in Southwark Playhouse’s Large space, the cast threw themselves around in stylised and exaggerated movements. The Large space is a medium-sized almost cube; the walls still showing plaster and the raked bench seating clearly set up to give companies the maximum  flexibility when staging productions. There was a draught, but then the SP would not be the only place to be caught out by the sudden onset of our inclement autumn.

The space was well utilised for the Duchess of Malfi; the action rotated around with an energy that was entirely appropriate to the source material. At various stages the actors created tableaux against the back wall and even clambered up to the sound and lighting booth. Actors not in the current scene would freeze in place (my party was most impressed by the length of time the actor playing Bosola stood holding a tray with a single hand at the start…) or move as ghosts in the eyelines of the active cast. The lighting was atmospheric but unobtrusive; the use of well-chosen props allowing the transformation of the industrial space into the richly adorned court of Malfi and then a dungeon. Most effective was the torture scene, where the increasingly sadistic duke read out stage directions over a microphone, thus inculpating both himself as protagonist and us as voyeurs in the violence.

However, however, something was missing. It was hard to sympathise with Beatrice Walker’s duchess. After being promisingly introduced in glowing terms by the beau she’s set her sights on, her subsequent pursuit seemed too sudden and hence shallow. Did I believe in the cardinal as a scheming spider, suffocated by the webs he had woven? Was the Duke’s illicit passion thrilling, revolting or merely a plot device? Did Julia’s abandonment of the Cardinal for Bosola’s arms seem in character? The truth behind all these questions is that it was hard to engage in the play. The physicality of the theatre both breathed new life into but also subdued the impact of the language and the occasional mumbling by the cast did not help here either.

The blame does not sit solely on the actors though; the play was severely abridged and even in its longer version, Webster’s play will always suffer in comparison to Shakespeare (which seems harsh, but as time passes they become ever more contemporaneous).  This was a valiant attempt with some interesting ideas, but in the end the play was little more than a precursor to modern horror films with any subtlety of characterisation disappearing beneath every increasing mounds of bodies.

The Bunker: Morganna and Agamemnon

The new venue for the Southwark Playhouse on Newington Causeway may not have the atmospheric arches of its old location by London Bridge station, however it does boast two reasonable sized and flexible spaces. For this double header, the eponymous little space was transformed into a muddy officer’s bunker. Benches were set against walls lined with strips of hessian and various world war one paraphernalia. Mud on the floor and copius amounts of dry ice completed the transformation and effectively established our location within the trenches of the Great War.

The play itself was in two parts; the first told the story of how a group of public school boys who as children identified themselves with Arthur’s knights were affected by the appearance of a woman equated with Morganna Le Fey. The second addressed the fears of a wounded officer about how his wife would receive him when he returned home, drawing on the story of Agamemnon’s return from the fall of Troy. Of course, these plot devices were really framing an examination of the psychological impact of the war on these young soldiers.

A playwright who wishes to explore the psychology of their characters relies even more heavily on the skill of the actors; it’s no good writing Hamlet if the lead actor is unable to bring the audience with him as he flits between doubt and certainty. Fortunately for playwright Jamie Wilkes his cast do not let him down.

In the first half, boisterous public school boys postured and sparred (verbally and physically) with each other as they sought to make sense of the destruction of a way of life they had considered immutable. The actress playing Morganna symbolised all women; remembered, idealised and exploited in turns. Was she there to help or hinder Arthur? In the end it is Arthur’s own knights that tear themselves apart. Quick fire wordplay brought a touch of humour to the play emphasising the pathos of the heartbreak and death the act closes on.

Our discussion during the interval centred around the quality of the acting and the question of whether they would handle the shift in roles. Changes in accents helped the audience disassociate the actors from their previous characters – but it was down to the strength of the cast in fully realising their new roles that at no time did we confuse the two.

This story was darker; a wounded officer is helped into the bunker by a private, who tries to cheer him up with talk of his repatriation to England. However the officer fears the reaction of his wife; through flashbacks and hallucinations we see the wife’s despair at his signing up, her miscarriage and drawing closer to the cousin who was left to look after her. Pain and guilt drive the officer to further confessions; he has only written to his wife once in two years, to confess an infidelity with a prostitute in Belgium. We see his wife grow angry and manipulate his cousin into assisting with the returning officer’s murder.

The theme of the play was how participation in the war damaged the psychology of the young soldiers. Retreating either into fantasy or denial and despair, the actors brilliantly portrayed the strain and stress of men at their breaking point. Neither half was perfect; the first section was a superbly realised and acted study resting on the clichéd treatment of public school soldiers, a fantasy-realist version of Journey’s End. The second had a more interesting conceit (maybe due to my relative unfamiliarity with the source material) but the relationship between the wife and husband somehow failed to convince leaving the final betrayal/revenge strangely lacking in impact. The location of large sections of the action back home in England also reduced the impact of the fantastic set dressing.

The above should not detract from the quality of the piece; the First World War was made relevant and the psychological questions raised were interesting. The playwright skillfully worked his source material into the new setting and showed how our myths and legends still have modern relevance. The failure, if any, was in the female characterisation, which lacked the depth and complexity of the soldiers. However if the imagination of this show is representative of how The Southwark Playhouse intend to use their Little space going forward, then we can look forward to many interesting future productions.

Nevermore

Last Friday I went to see a musical production of Edgar Allen Poe’s life at the Barbican theatre in London.  Yes, you read that correctly, a musical.  About Edgar Allen Poe.  But that is not all – a gothic, clowning, piece of physical theatre delivered in rhyme and song.  And with hair as spiked as a black spiky thing.  And ravens as big as people chasing the young Poe all around the stage.

The production was by Catalyst Theatre – a Canadian company – and was put on by the Barbican as part of the London International Festival of Theatre.  The troupe entered into the circus of the play gamely; tightly choreographed, mostly in harmony they manipulated their bodies in time to the music like darker versions of Charlie Chaplin.  Their costumes were straight out of the fairytale gothic wardrobe, and the gauze screen that seperated the back of the stage from the front half allowed some clever shadow work.  However, too often the spectacle seemed a trifle hollow.

The actor playing Edgar Allen Poe was pushed and pulled around the stage by narrators, who declaimed to us in the style of ham-Shakespearean actors and promised doom and gloom to come.  However, the forced rhyming couplets, and major scales used undercut any real tension in the proceedings.  At the interval, a man behind me declared, “the actors are doing well, but it feels like an amateur production.”  This was a bit harsh – the writing cleverly wove elements of Poe’s stories into his biography, blurring fiction into the facts of his life.  But there was something missing.

It wasn’t the acting – all players showed a command and discipline of their bodies.  Indeed the most powerful moments of the play came in big set pieces, where the actors writhed and contorted and harmonised in both the musical and physical space.  Maybe a couple were not entirely in key all the time – but singing is more than just hitting the notes.  All the actors inhabited their parts well – frequent costume changes abounded and all managed to imbue the range of characters they played with wit and verve.

However here we approach the nub of the issue.  Characters flitted across the stage: Edgar’s mother and father, brother and sister, foster parents, school friends, girlfriend, wife, publisher, rival.  However as costumes changed it was often hard to identify a similar change of character.  All the women seemed to have the same gauche characters – even Poe’s 13 year old cousin-bride.  This made it hard to relate to them,and lessoned the impact of the isolation and repeated betrayals of the central character. Edgar himself was mute but in his contorted defencelessness in the narrators’ wake his childlike vulnerability sparked the only feelings of compassion in the play.

There should have been more sorrow – but this Edgar lived his life in a circus.  He should have been bewildered, abandoned, betrayed by his own character and finding solace only in stories that at their most brilliant are erudite and full of the darkness and misery of loneliness.  Nevermore told of these things, but only in signposts and never with the subtlety and gentleness of touch that truly stirs the heartstrings.  Cliché was piled on cliché and Tim Burton-like spectacle abounded – but this was the Burton of Big Fish and not Edward Scissorhands.

This was a worthy attempt.  The style of the play was good and there were moments when it promised to attain that merger of exaltation and despair that good theatre can use to tear at an audience’s heart.  But on the end, the style was elevated above substance.  Maybe that’s not entirely inappropriate for an author that has sometimes been accused of that very crime: however Poe showed a greater flexibility than this one-dimensional offering achieved – and in the end Nevermore felt like a flimsy and shallow study.