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|A CurtainUp LondonReview
The Swan Season
by Lizzie Loveridge and Brian Clover
The Malcontent | The Island Princess | The Roman Actor|Edward III| Eastward Ho!
But after seeing Eastwood Ho!, I reckon prison was too good for them. Nothing less than capital punishment will do for writing such a lame excuse for a crowd-pleasing comedy. Their written-by-committee farce lacks invention and simply exploits the crude opposition of stock characters. London goldsmith Touchstone (Geoffrey Freshwater) has two apprentices, (Billy Carter and James Tucker), one idle and one industrious. He also has two daughters, (Amanda Drew and Shelley Conn), one insanely snobbish and one modest and sensible. Even worthy, honest, productive Touchstone himself has a polar opposite in Security (Paul Bentall), a repulsive usurer.
One indication of the comic thrills in store is the fact that all the male characters have wittily suggestive names: Touchstone is a standard by which to judge others; Golding is the valuable apprentice; Quicksilver the mercurial one; Flash (Michael Matus) is the showy nobleman; Security is what he takes off you for that loan and Bramble (Colin McCormack) is, of course, a lawyer into whose painful clutches you fall. Other shafts of wit are Sailor Seagull (David Acton), Jailer Holdfast (Keith Osborn) and Butcher - wait for it - Slitgut! (Avin Shah) Quicksilver's punk Sindefy (Sasha Behar) is plainly no better than she ought to be, but otherwise the women, consistent with the underlying misogyny of the play, are only deemed worthy of first names. In this cynical world most men are either knaves or fools, but all the women are simply fools whose only redemption is to obey husband or father. This is a cynical and troubled world, like ours, but the main comic theme is an obsession with social rank and pretension. The phrase "As I am a gentlemen" is repeated ad nauseam, as if inherently hilarious, which it isn't.
The plot is simple: idle apprentice teams up with crooked nobleman and together they cheat both the Touchstones and Security. Touchstone himself is untouched, but is happy to see his social-climbing daughter ruined to teach her to keep to her proper station in life. More cruelly still, we are meant to exult when, like his distant cousin Shylock, Security loses his money, his wife and his liberty. The conmen's plan succeeds, but as they flee to Virginia they violate the first law of the sea: don't set sail if you're drop-down drunk. One by one the felons emerge dripping from the waters of. . . Well, that might spoil the surprise.
The RSC under the fluent and imaginative direction of Lucy Pitman-Wallace do their best with this load of old cheese, and a very good best it is. The overture cleverly uses costume, song and choreography to waft us back to the bustling streets of Jacobean London but after that we are at the mercy of the play itself which is as unsound as the villains' vessel. The entire first half is taken up with establishing character and theme, the only action being the faintly unpleasant seduction of Security's wife under his very nose. After an all-too brief burst of activity, the second half lumbers very slowly towards a predictable conclusion. Pitman-Wallace's direction injects as much pace as it can, but is ultimately defeated in the way that dead horses are said to invalidate flogging.
However, you may enjoy the evening just for the acting, costumes and music. We are treated to some excellent performances. Geoffrey Freshwater, Amanda Drew, Billy Carter and Michael Matus - as Touchstone, Gertrude Touchstone, Quicksilver and Flash respectively - explode across the stage like fireworks. For the technically-minded they offer a brilliant master-class in voice projection. The problem is that they are too good: frequently a dialogue with a seriously out-gunned fellow-performer sounds like a stereo system with one speaker disconnected. But ignore this and just let your eye wander over the gorgeous costumes, whose supervisor, Charlotte Bird, deserves a special credit. Or let your ear be seduced by the tastefully understated music of Mick Sands, performed to perfection by the composer and Sianed Jones. During the interval these two, joined by other performers, play and sing in the foyer, and for some of us that ten minutes of glorious music-making was the high-point of the evening.
The real merit of this season is to remind us just how good Shakespeare really is and, perhaps, how much we take him for granted. -- Brian Clover
Partly this is the fault of the play. Briefly put, Fourteenth Century Edward III (David Rintoul), one of Britain's dullest monarchs, is beset by enemies. Instead of doing the proper thing and exterminating them, Edward is so besotted with another man's wife that he neglects his bloodthirsty duties. So far, so good: this could be a promising episode of the Sopranos. But whoever wrote this play, possibly the duller sort of City lawyer, lacked any sense of what makes drama drama. Instead of breathing life onto the dusty stage scene after scene uses the stilted format of scholastic disputation. For example:
KING: For the following reasons you should have sex with me: [Reasons 1,2, and 3]
COUNTESS: For the following counter-reasons I reject your reasons for having sex with you: [Reasons 1,2, and 3]
KING: For the following reasons I reject your counter-reasons against my reasons for having sex with me: [Reasons 1,2, and 3]
And so on and so on like a rhetorical tennis match. When finally the Countess gives up reasoning and threatens to stab herself, you sit up and hope she'll really do it. Violently, desperately, poetically, bloodily, anything but verbally. But no: her leaden eloquence brings Edward to his royal senses and he declares war on the French instead, which may be an interesting example of Freudian sublimation, but looks irredeemably silly to the jaded modern taste.
There are many scenes of this kind, where an ethical dilemma is chewed over at length as a cow might pass a stubborn lump of grass through all three of its stomachs. There are interesting scenes in Edward III - for example, Edward, like Cyrano, calls on his speechwriter to pen that crucial letter of seduction, but is so on fire himself that he ends up dictating it to the hapless servant - but they unbalance the limping chronicle format of the piece.
Structure is not the author's forte: the closing ten minutes of the play aim to create an unbearable sense of pain over the loss of the King's son. But since we already know he's alive from the previous scene, and nothing happens as a result of the misinformation, the effect is perplexing and awkward rather than dramatically ironic. Director Anthony Clark should have cut this scene, but that would have meant depriving the Earl of Salisbury (David Acton) of his big speech in the spotlight and we couldn't have that, could we?
Moreover, the author of Edward III failed to characterise his characters: they are wooden types of loyalty, honour, courage, nobility flawed and nobility flawless. Clark's stilted production gives the actors no scope to fill out these empty husks and they all ring hollow as a result. Edward III is not a noh play, it is a no-go play and the best you could hope for is that the actors might have some fun. This does not happen: the most excitement they have is to run across the stage and wave their swords like schoolboys playing a battle scene from Richard III. In the boldest, but most pointless, piece of stagecraft, Clark makes these unfortunates stretch ropes across the stage in a kind of cat's cradle. They tie the ropes, and then - gasp! - untie them. This lacks both sound and fury, but certainly signifies nothing. Nor is the author much of a poet. He gives one character the McGonagall-like lines "And so at last my tale is done/We have lost and they have won," and you have to admire the actor's ability to deliver this with a straight face. Elsewhere there is a cardboard feast of stale simile and metaphor with the poor old sun being used everywhere like monosodium glutamate to flavour the flavourless. I particularly liked "Thy head wherein thy brains are fenced".
So our writer has little sense of form, character or poetry. Shakespeare's earliest works show a grasp of all three and even his less-admired Plantagenet sequence can be a theatrical triumph with judicious editing. Edward III was published the same year as Romeo and Juliet: they are on different planets However, for the curious, Edward III has many scenes that do point to high points of Shakespeare's later career: the patriotic populism of Henry V, the morbid meditations and pious pleadings of Measure for Measure, the uxorious humbling of Mark Antony, the perilous predictions of Macbeth. Whether he wrote it or merely knew it, Shakespeare certainly improved on every aspect of Edward III. I think his improvements are all we need, but if you're a completist you may enjoy this flawed production of a very flawed piece. As for the RSC, one hopes it was completism rather than conceit that made them invest so much for so little return.
-- Brian Clover
Antony Sher is magnificent as Altofronto, the deposed Duke of Genoa who uses his disguise as a bad tempered seer, Malevole to expose the plotting against his successor, Duke Pietro (Colin McCormack) and the infidelity of his wife Aurelia (Amanda Drew) with the ambitious Mendoza, (Joe Dixon). Sher seems to excel at these intricately verbose plays and the tragi-comic element allows him to play to the appreciative crowd. I was less enthusiastic about Dixon's oafish Mendoza as indeed I was about Dominic Cooke's heavy handed direction. Thank goodness the programme has a clear explanation of the very convoluted plot. -- Lizzie Loveridge
The princess Quisara (Sasha Behar) has been left in charge of the island after her brother the King (Michael Matus) has been captured by the Governor of Ternata (Paul Bhattacharjee). She has numerous suitors from among the local kings and admirers and from the Potuguese, Captain Ruy Dias (David Rintoul) and his nephew Pyniero (Antony Byrne) and the handsome adventurer, Armusia (Jamie Glover). In a stirring finale Armusia explains why he could never convert to a heathen religion "I'll love diseases first" he says, and Quisara is so impressed that she converts to Christianity endangering her own life. The Governor, in Fletcher's piece the villain, disguised as a priest, is given the defence of the traditional religion speech and calls for the death of the princess.
I liked the swashbuckling sword fights and the lavish Indonesian costumes. Sasha Behar is powerful as the beautiful princess and David Rintoul, chin held high, all pride, honour, formal posing and hestitation. The splendid traditional dance by the visiting kings with tongues sticking out and curved slippers contributes to the atmosphere as do the sounds of the jungle cockatoos and monkeys. Is it up to Doran to present Fletcher's play as is or to comment on the picture it paints of rampant imperialism? You decide. -- Lizzie Loveridge
The highlight of the play for thespians is the impassioned speech that Paris gives in praise of the despised profession of actors, making this the best known play of these three, and Paris as much orator as actor. The interest here is the way in which Domitian uses a part he can play himself, in one of the three plays within the play, to take his revenge on Paris. Domitian stabs Paris while pretending to be an actor. The politician as actor, the politician as liar - this is the substance of Massinger's bloodthirsty play.
I loved Sher's fiery emperor, quite as crazy as Nero and Caligula but I never forgot that it was Antony Sher under the toga. There were moments when I could hear Laurence Olivier in Sher's clipped delivery. Anna Madeley's beautiful sexpot Domitia is as calculating as her second husband but not as intelligent. Joe Dixon makes good use of the body oil in his turquoise mini-toga and looks the part more of gladiator than actor although he isn't really heartthrob material. The stoically brave victims of torture return to haunt Domitian. The director places Roman soldiers in helmets and masks to monitor the audience for signs of sedition. But overall the play did not involve me, falling between the twin stools of tragedy and comedy it failed to engage me in any other than a superficial way.
Finally, there is the story of Betsy Baker, John Warburton, the Somerset antiquarian's cook. Warburton in the first half of the eighteenth century collected old plays. Some sixty plays were lost, mistakenly used as liners for pie dishes by Warburton's cook, and of these, eight were thought to be written by Massinger. Of the total collection only three plays and a fragment of a fourth remain. I wonder whether the pies tasted as good as Mrs Lovett's? -- Lizzie Loveridge
Peter Ackroyd's History of London: The Biography
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
At This Theater
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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