Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Spanish Tragedy at the Blue Elephant

This performance, at a small blackbox theatre that smelled like dirty socks, was not spellbinding the way Edward II was. However, while I was annoyed at a lot of it, I found some things to like. And some of the things I don't like are, admittedly, nit-picky. 

The company really embraced their identity as an amateur company. The production began with them doing an acting exercise, throwing a ball around a circle, before seguing seamlessly into stage set-up, which was a brief chaotic segment of the cast running around the stage, placing chairs, ladders, bunting, curtains, and blowing kazoos in what was probably supposed to be some fun hijinks but ended up mostly being startling and jarring.

Once that was over, other than three white chairs and a ladder on each side of the stage, it was your typical black-box set up. The actors began with a quick tableau of troops bowing to their King, and then segued immediately (this company was very good at seguing immediately, and using quick light changes to signal narrative shifts) into the first lines of the play, in which a soldier gives a report of the battle to the King.

The King was a woman in a red skirt suit and a cartoonish red velvet-and-gold crown on her head. The actress was quite funny; she played the King as a hearty, toothy British lady who laughed a lot, a sort of jolly Maggie Thatcher type. Most of the other characters were in woolen trench coats, shirts, and trousers, apart from a couple women in shirtwaist dresses and the two noble lady characters, Bel-Imperia and Isabella, who wore floor-length bias-cut gowns. Oh, and Revenge, who was played by a woman in a slinky black dress and thigh-highs. The costume aesthetic as a whole gestured towards post-WWII, but done in that on-the-cheap manner that works well for community and small theaters.

The sad thing about this production was that I could tell they knew a lot about early modern drama and performance and were trying to sell some of those things to the audience. Direct address, for instance. But in this case, direct address was done badly. One actor pointed to different people in the audience while telling the King about dead bodies on the battlefield, which was disconcerting. Another moment happened when the King looking out toward the audience when asking where certain characters were, as if she was seeing them come through the audience towards her. But then those characters entered from the side, which ruined the illusion. I could see what they were trying to do, but I didn’t buy it.

They also made use of doubling, but particularly badly in one instance where a character, Alexandra, had been established as being in prison for a murder she didn’t commit, but magically, in the next scene, the same actress plays an ambassador speaking directly to the supposed (and not-dead) murder victim. And then back to Alexandra in prison, with very few costume attempts to differentiate between the two characters. I think they may have changed the color of her sash, if anything.

The production wasn’t heedful of internal directions in the text, either. In one instance, the king of Portugal tells his servant, “Stand up, I say,” which clearly indicates, to me, that the character should have probably been kneeling up until that point. You know, the way people do. To kings. But the character was already standing, and took that comment as a somewhat confused direction to stand . . . up . . . straighter.

In some respects, they were trying to be daring, sort of art-house-y, and I applaud the attempt. But these interesting and potentially fruitful bold efforts didn't seem to have a larger meaning to them, or to be applied with any precision. For instance, at one point, a line of women funereally pace across the stage while a character describes a battle (lots of descriptions of battles, this play has), and turn facing the back curtain, and then grasp the curtain and mime sewing. Why? The only thing I can figure is that this happened twice when Bel-Imperia was around, so maybe it was to indicate a feminine space with feminine labor? Otherwise, there was no explanation.

Another effect that was not used consistently enough to create meaning was a flickering light. At one point, it flickered during a character’s death. At another point, it flickered when the ghost of Andrea conferred with Revenge. But was it supposed to indicate death, or ghosts, or revenge, or all three? I have no idea, because there were lots of deaths, and lots of instances where Andrea and Revenge had a conversation, but the flickering light was only on in those two instances, that I could see.

My favorite part was the masque. This was well-done, except for one very glaring part. In this mask, Hieronymo, the protagonist of the play, has engineered an entertainment for the Kings of Spain and Portugal. He has created a play which the rest of the court (including, significantly, his two enemies, Lorenzo and Balthasar) will act out. It was antic, and funny, and silly, and mad-cap, and all the things a masque should be on a budget. They used bunting, balloons, and kazoos, and a jaunty tune played on a piano while the actors sang a bawdy song—yay! Then the characters stabbed each other with pencils and pens—still yay!, think the Kings of Spain and Portugal as they watch this farcical entertainment. But then people start screaming, the piano plays jangling chords, a woman is visibly strangled with bunting, and the Kings of Spain and Portugal are still laughing uproariously. They don’t get it yet. Because everyone is actually dead. Hieronymo comes on stage, delivers a brilliant monologue explaining why he had everyone killed, throws reams and reams of paper into the air, and then the big reveal: he pulls aside the back curtain and on the wall is written “VENGEANCE IS MINE,” and the ghost of his murdered friend Horatio, the reason for his spree of death, stands there.

Only we couldn’t see it because there was TOO MUCH FOG. Seriously. There was so much fog that we couldn’t see a man. Standing there. 30 feet away. It kinda killed the reveal.

Finally Hieronymo has killed everyone, Kings included, and stands with a gun, ready to kill himself, when a single piece of paper drifts down from the rafters—a happy accident, because I’m sure they didn’t plan it. He pulls the trigger, dies, and the ghost of Andrea and Revenge come out on stage and tell us what the ultimate (heavenly or hellish) reward of all the characters will be.

I will say, the ending would have been terrific if not for the fog. Other things I liked:

The vocal delivery. Those actors knew what to do with language, even with rhyming couplets, which is hard.

The actor cast as Lorenzo. He was so smooth-faced, apple-cheeked, young and eager, and completely sinister.

The actress cast as Petregana had a sort of Artful Dodger accent and look about her that I found appealing, if a teensy bit distracting.

One more note:

The play makes repeated reference to pagan gods and a pagan belief system (Proserpine, Bellona, Elysium) but also references to Christianity, i.e. “kiss this cross”. What’s that about?

Edward II at the National

In the month I've been here, I’ve seen five plays. Well, actually seven, but one of the events was a day-long viewing of Shakespeare’s Henry the Sixth, Parts 1, 2, and 3, which is three different plays. But it really just felt like one long play. 

I’ve also seen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Taming of the Shrew, Edward II, Private Lives, and The Spanish Tragedy.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was not awesome. The sets and costumes were vibrant and expensive, but the songs were boring and the little boy playing Charlie was far too chirpy. The best part, for me, was at the beginning when they used Quentin Blake’s illustrations to give us a history of chocolate.

The Taming of the Shrew was in a magnificent location—the Minack Theatre (more to come on that place!)—and it was an all-female touring cast from the Globe, so that was an interesting twist. My companions did not like it because it was sloppy and there was bad casting, but other than the casting thing, I generally thought it was charming. It was loud and kind of circus-y, if that’s a thing. Granted, I didn’t stay for the end because it was nighttime, in a sea-facing outdoor theatre, and I was too cold.

Private Lives was perfect. Funny, sexy, smart. The actors had great timing, the set was opulent (Can I please live in Amanda’s Paris apartment?), and the costumes were breathtaking. Particularly Amanda’s wide-legged trouser outfit in the second act (Gallery of photos here). But it’s hard to say anything more about it because, from what I could tell, it was a fairly straightforward rendering of the play. Very good, but nothing surprising.

But the two productions I DO have something to say about . . . well, unsurprisingly, they are early modern plays. First up? Edward II at the National (gallery here):

This is a play by Christopher Marlowe, written in the early 1590’s, and its full title on publication was, “The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer.” Delightful.

On first entering, I found the set confusing, but it ended up being brilliant. All the curtains in the Olivier Theatre were up, and you could see straight back to the wall of the stage. In the middle of that space was a plywood structure like a house without a roof; from up in the seats, you could see straight down inside to the furniture, the patterned walls, etc, but the outside was all raw plywood. It was like looking into a dollhouse. Nearer the audience was a carpeted area with a throne on a raised dais in the center, and a long table to the side covered with golden objects—plates, goblets (I initially wrote giblets; glad it wasn’t giblets), ewers, etc. You know, real medievally kind of things. Like this:

Which, as we all know, leads to this:

He chose poorly. 
The play began with images of past monarchs of England flashing up onto a gold drape hung above the stage, flickering past faster and faster until they stop on an image of John Heffernan in costume as Edward II. This drape lowered to hide the plywood structure and form a golden backdrop to the throne, the scene of Edward’s coronation. He wore a gigantic golden robe, but the rest of his court were suited in an interesting mix of modern and medieval. His sister wore a black, slim-fitting suit and stilletos, but his queen wore a long gown that gestured back to medieval England while still being a bit modern. Think Cersei Lannister. (Actually, a lot of this production reminded me of Game of Thrones; but I watch too much TV.) The guards costumes echoed this conscious mishmash of eras and aesthetics. They wore plate armor, but each helmet was differently shaped—some flat topped, some with a raised visor, some shaped like bulls or wolf-heads, and one with an unsettlingly human face worked into the metal.

From the very outset, you get the feeling that Edward may not be suited to kingship; when answering the question “Will you solemnly swear to govern . . . according to the laws and customs,” Edward pauses for several seconds before saying, “I will.” His hesitance is understood when Gaveston, his banished lover, returned—played by Kyle Soller as a sexy, swaggering hipster with an American accent and a leather jacket.

 With such a ravishing playmate around, how can Edward possibly uphold the “laws and customs” of England? Edward’s rulership is further made ridiculous when he is forced to send Gaveston away again. He signs the papers reluctantly, while his courtiers stand around him singing “God Save the King” in the most melancholy acapella version ever.

Gaveston’s entrance tells us that here was a man who would not play by the rules. Seated in the audience, he begins laughing loudly in his seat before a spot highlighted him. He makes his way down to the stage by balancing on a handrail, all the while whistling, laughing, and speaking of how he will bring the king pleasure of various kinds. And it’s true; Gaveston really does know how to party. At one point, during a party, he and the king hold balloons and take giant open-mouthed gulps from bottles of champagne. Later, when the bishop objects to the king’s preferential treatment of Gaveston, he grabbs the bishop’s mitre and waggles it around like a giant penis before beating him with it. His arrogance knows no bounds; even when the entire court pleads with the king to banish Gaveston again, the two lovers sit in attitudes of carelessness on the throne, Gaveston clapping antically.

This production’s mixture of the old and the new extended to technology, as well. It made use of subtitles flashing up on screen from time to time, telling us the next chapter of action. You know, “The Queen Plots,” “Lancaster is Betrayed,” that kind of stuff. But it also made use of live-action camera footage. Most of the court’s scheming to undermine the king happened “backstage,” in the plywood enclosure, followed by two cameras. Footage from the cameras, jumpy and grainy, was shown to either side of the stage, allowing the audience to watch silent action on stage while listening to a conversation happening in other areas of the palace through the split screen device. At one point, two actors begin their scene on the roof of the Olivier Theatre, actually outside with the London skyline behind them, and the cameras follow them all the way inside and onto the stage.

Edward calls Gaveston back again, at which point the lords have had enough and decide to have Gaveston killed. A massive battle ensues and the plywood walls of the palace are all knocked down. For the second act, a new structure is erected, out of an old army bunker and the old plywood walls of the castle. This structure, covered over with magnificent rugs, and hung haphazardly with mounted animal heads, is the new court where the Queen and her lover Mortimer (you know, of “the tragical fall of proud Mortimer”?) rule while Edward and his supporters are routed and run down. Edward’s throne is there, and at one point Mortimer, played by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, dons a gold cape, perhaps to remind everyone that he has won. 

And, for a while, Mortimer has won; he controls the queen and the king's son, a tiny and lovely Bettrys Jones in a page-boy haircut (below).

Mortimer eventually has all of Edward’s supporters killed, and has Edward kidnapped, beaten, and killed, too, in the most gruesome way possible (best use of doubling ever: Kyle Soller who plays Gaveston also plays Lightborn, the paid murderer of Edward). But Mortimer and the disloyal queen are ultimately punished for their treachery by Edward's staunch young son.

In general, I thought the use of the camera was really surprising and well-done; the only part when it got a bit distracting was in Edward’s prayer, when he’s front-and-center on stage, but they still used a camera to get a close-up of his worn-down, tortured face. I loved the inventive use of interior and exterior sets; the plywood palace itself was a fantastic metaphor for Edward’s shaky kingship, which was realized during the battle when it was knocked down. The mixtures of costumes and high- and low-English (actors sometimes added bits of London patois to the ends of speeches, little tag lines like, “you know?” “yeah,” or “innit?”) really worked for me; I love it when eras clash and clang together. Kyle Soller delivered Gaveston’s lines colloquially, paying no attention to Marlowe’s “mighty lines,” the heavy and consistent downbeat of iambic pentameter that established the other actors as “speaking poetry.” In Soller’s mouth, these lines sounded off-hand, realistic, which worked for Gaveston’s careless attitude in general.

And . . . one word about the marketing . . .  this image, of the wax king, upturned and melting, was brilliant.