23rd October 2015
I was hoping for a contrast to the Globe’s very traditional staging, and boy did I get it in spades. I don’t know if the production came with an adult content warning, but I felt like it should have done – if only because it took all the sex so much more seriously…
The first and most pressing indicator of tone was the presence of an astonishing number of blow-up sex dolls*. The stage was literally knee deep in them at the start – and Escalus and Angelo have to wade through them to get to the Duke, which felt deeply symbolic, if a little stifling to the action. Thereafter they became solely a nuisance. Although the kaleidoscopic film of rubber body parts which played at various moments did give one a suitably jaded view of human anatomy.
The staging thereafter was more straightforward, if as aggressively modern. A very bare stage had two “scenes” – one in front of the other – which worked quite well to separate areas of action**. Unfortunately may of the scenes at the “back” were filmed and projected onto the dividing wall, with problems in terms of syncing up speech and picture, and in terms of acting frankly – Romola Garai’s TV and film experience clearly stood her in good stead, but some of the other actors seemed impassive or frozen when the close-up gave them the opportunity to really show what their character was feeling.
To be honest, Romola Garai was just fabulous through the whole thing – a much angrier and less anguished Mariah Gale, she managed to burn with integrity and frankly came across a little scary. I’m not sure if I’d been Angelo, or the Duke, I would have dared to get close to her without permission. But then Zubin Varla (who I last saw playing the sweet and lovely Daniel Doyce in Little Dorrit on the Beeb) played the Duke as someone seemingly on the edge of a mental breakdown in any case – desperate to leave power behind him, unwilling to take back the reins and absolutely cracked when it comes to planning everyone’s future in the final scene. By contrast Paul Ready’s Angelo came across as scheming, false and hypocritical – revelling in his actions rather than feeling in any way conflicted by them.
Stripped of Mistress Overdone and her doings (and thereby down to a trim 2 hour running time), this was a production that decided to get over the problem play by taking out much of the humour and concentrating on the misery. In some scenes this just didn’t work out – when Lucio is busy slandering the Duke to his (admittedly disguised) face, Varla’s expressions and John Mackay’s seriousness left an impression that perhaps Lucio knew more than he was saying. It was easy to read into it an attempt to blackmail or intimidate the Duke, rather than the idle talk of a frivolous man – if this was the intention, it was a loose end not picked up in the rest of the production.
The other problem – a common one, I find, is that there seems to be a general assumption that anger is the only way of expressing dramatic emotion, and this means everyone gets shouty***. There are negative emotions apart from anger, people. How about despair or contempt? Why is strong emotion always loud emotion? While anger in this case worked well for Isabella, it just seems an odd choice for – say – Natalie Simpson’s Juliet to be expressing her remorse over actions by biting a supposed friar’s head off.
There was some humour left – largely from Tom Edden’s speed-talking wise-cracking Pompey, and from Mariana’s love of Alanis Morrisette (alas, coming so soon after seeing Jane Eyre at the National where music is expertly weaved in to be a crucial part of the show this was particularly jarring). And a bravura final scene where the Duke’s plans for everyone’s futures tipped the usual comedy (in its traditional sense) wedding ending first into tragedies all round, and then into black humour.
Overall I got a lot out of this production (I don’t think “enjoyed it” is quite the right phrase) – and even more so out of being able to contrast it with the Globe production while it was still so fresh in mind. The more so since the two productions took such opposing routes to resolving the problem of this problem – concentrate on the humour or on the political punches. One thing they were both agreed on – and that is that Isabella is a serious badass.
* Seriously, there were so many I couldn’t help but speculate on where they had bought them (some mail-order shop receiving an astonishing order? All the sex shops in south-east London emptied of stock? A wholesaler?????) and which unfortunate member of the backstage crew had the job of making sure they were all adequately blown up…
** For example, in the prison scenes the prisoners were kept in the “back” while others were free to come and go into the “front” – although every time the door between the two was opened you got a prison electric door noise which made me hope the stage manager was really on the ball, given the number of to-ings and fro-ings there were.
*** This really ruined Revenge of the Sith for me. I mean, many things ruined that film, starting with The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, but I remember watching it in disdain thinking “well clearly George Lucas’s direction for literally the entire movie was “This is dramatic, so shout it” and that isn’t enough…”