That Was the Year That Was

It’s the time of year when the theatre critics announce their highlights and so, in that indulgent spirit, I offer my own recap on the UK Renaissance theatre scene in 2014.

Naturally, I didn’t get to see everything, so I’ll start by acknowledging the things I really wish I’d been able to see. Top of my wishlist is Marlowe’s Tamburlaine The Great, directed by Michael Boyd at the Theatre for a New Audience in New York.

You don’t get many chances to see either of the Tamburlaine plays and this looks like an exciting and disturbing production. It’s on until early January, so if you’re in New York, do see it! Closer to home, I also missed Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production of Henry IV at the Donmar in which Harriet Walter starred as King Henry and Jamie Lloyd’s Richard III at Trafalgar Studios, in which Martin Freeman played the title role. I can’t imagine Freeman as Richard III but it had some strong reviews. I also managed to mix up the dates and thereby miss Lucy Bailey’s revival of Titus Andronicus at the Globe and I’d also have loved to have seen the Dolphin’s Back production of John Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon, directed by James Wallace at the Rose. There are doubtless lots of other things I missed, or have forgotten about, but these are some of the ones that come to mind.

I’ve made a concerted effort to see as many rarely performed Renaissance plays as possible and I’ve been rewarded, almost without exception, with interesting productions. Inevitably, some are more successful than others, but while I wasn’t enthused by the RSC’s The Roaring Girl (and here, I actually blame Dekker and Middleton) I often found that Renaissance plays shone even in the patchier or less successful productions. The Witch of Edmonton emerged for me as a play with a power which exceeded the quality of the RSC’s production. For sure, there were difficult challenges for the young cast who performed Marston’s The Malcontent at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, but here, again, the play’s biting humour and tonal variety came across strongly. I thought that the RSC’s Arden of Faversham slightly over-egged the comedy, but there’s little doubt that the play packs a punch and certainly need not be thought of as a ‘historical document’ as Michael Billington insists. Elsewhere, a series of playreadings at The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon proved the vitality of Thomas Heywood’s plays and in June I recorded some of the responses to his Age plays in a blog post which you can view here. And in London, Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle received a deserved full production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and was a major success: it has just reopened and will play until early January so see it if you can. There were many highlights: I had some reservations about Cheek by Jowl’s 2014 revival of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, but I thought its ceaseless inventiveness made it vastly superior to the Globe’s production. Much has been made of how the small stage and atmospheric lighting of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse can create a sense of an invaded intimacy, but Cheek by Jowl, by staging the entire play as if in Annabella’s bedroom, were more successful in this regard. I also really enjoyed Edward’s Boy’s brilliant and joyful production of Galatea. Dolphin’s Back, who deserve more recognition, are one to watch out for in 2015: their production of Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris was exciting, disturbing, and funny.

By contrast, the Shakespeare shows I saw this year often underwhelmed. On the whole, I thought the National’s King Lear misfired and the RSC’s summer season was a little flat. Curiously, The Two Gentlemen of Verona played for only a couple of months meaning that Gregory Doran’s Henry IV productions reigned in the main house for, perhaps, a little too long. I was looking forward to seeing Filter’s Macbeth at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol ahead of its new year tour but I found it ill-judged and unsuccessful. The Original Pronunciation staged reading of Macbeth, performed worked better, however, and the OP added an interesting twist to proceedings, as I discussed here. It should be said that I didn’t do much to prioritize Shakespeare productions; in 2015 I’ll try harder to catch a wider range of Shakespeare plays. In my next post, I’ll preview some of the shows I’m most looking forward to seeing.

Hollow Laughter

Why do we laugh at tragedies? Probably because they are often funny. It’s sometimes said that tragedies offer scenes of comic relief, away from the pervading atmosphere of horror, but this ought to be treated with suspicion: it’s far too woolly a term and works to keep tragedy and comedy discrete when, in fact, they are often brought into an unsettling unity. But while we should recognize that tragedies are funny, it’s worthwhile thinking about the different ways in which they make us laugh. Yesterday, I watched John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and it got me thinking, again and again, about what constitutes comedy in that play. 

Typically, I’ve been beaten to the punch by Pete Kirwan, who notes, rightly, I think, that in the final moments the production elected for the easy and not entirely successful option of laughter. Giovanni, parading Annabella’s bloody heart on a dagger, sang his lines to the tune of Happy Birthday and blew a party whistle, before killing Soranzo and, in turn, meeting his own bloody fate. There’s no doubt that this is an extraordinary display and one which packs comic potential: Giovanni’s entrance represents one gigantic rupture in the decorum of the household banquet, one possible response to this is to laugh. However, laughter demands ethical assessments: if we find Giovanni funny – and plenty of people, egged on by the performances, found much to laugh at – we should also ask what our laughter means. In this instance, as Kirwan observes, the laughter helped obscure the pitiful death of Annabella. The final scene was enjoyed just a little bit too much considering it came at the cost of a multiply-wronged woman unfairly branded as the titular ‘whore’ in the play’s closing line. Perhaps this is part of the point – to force the audience to question whether they ought to laugh, or whether they ought to qualify their laughter – but I suspect not. Annabella’s condemnation of her killer, which in turn heavily ironizes Giovanni’s murderous revenge rampage, was glossed over at the Globe and could give the false impression that Annabella consents to her own murder. Accordingly, the play’s obsession with the ‘honour’ of its leading woman is lost in the broader brushstrokes of the production’s denouement.

But there’s no question that there’s humour in both the scene and the rest of the play. James Garnon has won great acclaim for his bravura performance as Bergetto, the comic suitor accidentally slain on a pitch black stage. I can’t quite echo these plaudits – I find his whole, oops I’ve fallen into the audience shtick, which I sense will quickly become a staple of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a little tiring – but the tonal transition, from brash humour to unexpected horror, really paid off. It also allowed Garnon to take on a different kind of role as he almost instantly reappeared as the sinister Cardinal. It is this wholly unlikable figure who closes the play and here, again, a different kind of laughter might be generated. The Cardinal, reflecting on the destruction, asks that the ‘gold and jewels’ of the dead be confiscated ‘by the canons of the Church’. This line’s a surefire hit and the audience were indeed suitably amused, but I heard belly laughs when I was hoping for hollow laughter. I wanted to hear laughter lacking conviction, laughter which questioned and which acknowledged the horror as well as the humour. Of course, it might not be possible to read laughter in this way – how can I know what the audience were thinking when they laughed? Nonetheless, it seemed to me that the production and the performances, were encouraging a comparatively straightforward laughter. Perhaps unfairly and unrealistically, I’d have liked the production to have caught a sense of laughter exemplified brilliantly and terrifyingly, in a different representation of a Cardinal: Francis Bacon’s famous portrait.

Bacon

Summer Season

Summer has pretty much ended (some say it never began) but as the season draws to a close, minds turn to future months. And so it is that the RSC have announced the line-up for their 2015 Summer Season. As the trailer below shows, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre will feature Shakespeare’s ‘two great Venetian tragedies’ Othello and The Merchant of Venice and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. In the Swan, John Ford’s Othello-influenced Love’s Sacrifice gets an extremely rare outing and is performed alongside Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (an influence on The Merchant of Venice) and Ben Jonson’s wonderful Volpone, which will be directed by Trevor Nunn. Additionally, 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V will be condensed into a single play and performed at the Swan and on tour. Curiously, the production will be entitled The Famous Victories of Henry V, which is, in fact, already the name of an early modern play, performed, in the 1580s, by the Queen’s Men.

I like the balance of the new season and the potential for interaction between the different productions (as well Othello and Love’s Sacrifice, and The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of MaltaVolpone is sure to be seen in interesting light next to Death of a Salesman). It’ll also be fascinating to see Love’s Sacrifice, especially given the mini-Ford resurgence at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, where ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and The Broken Heart are each to be performed.

Famous Victories

The Famous Victories of Henry V: NOT being performed at a theatre near you…

‘Tis Pity How it Ends

I first saw Cheek by Jowl’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore in February 2012, when it was on tour at the Warwick Arts Centre. I thought it was fantastic, and my thoughts then would probably echo some of the points made in these reviews by Pete Kirwan and Steve Mentz. So, when I got the chance to see it again, at the Barbican, I couldn’t say no. Yet, unfortunately, I just can’t be as enthusiastic about it second time round. The cast has completely changed, and this might be part of the reason, but I don’t think it accounts for everything (you can see the current cast list here and compare it to the cast I saw in 2012). Lydia Wilson, who played Annabella in 2012, delivered an outstanding performance, which Eve Ponsonby was not quite able to match; the exquisite variety Wilson offered was missed, though I think that says more about the excellence of her performance than about the poorness of Ponsonby’s. Otherwise, I can’t single out an area I remember being weaker in the more recent production (though this may be a fault of my memory).

Indeed, there are some things I liked here that I don’t remember especially liking last time. I wasn’t particularly convinced by Jack Gordon’s Giovanni in 2012; I think I slightly preferred Orlando James this time round. I don’t really remember how Vasques was played last time, but I found Will Alexander’s comic take surprisingly chilling. He was able to manipulate Hippolita and Putana in a soft, soothing tone which often aroused laughter from the audience. It’s worth pointing out, too, that many of the things I liked the first time, I enjoyed the second time too. Conceptually, I still find it really interesting: the entire play ostensibly takes place in Annabella’s bedroom, or else, in one of the two adjoining rooms (one a bathroom, the other an unspecified space). So, at times, the bedroom is the bedroom, but usually, some sort of transformation is taking place. At the start of the show, Giovanni and the Friar talk either side of Annabella, who lies, oblivious to all this, on her bed. Later, Giovanni and Annabella kiss for the first time, but they aren’t alone; the cast surround them, watching, and then chanting their words back at them. Often, characters who are not taking part in the scene (and here, the standard references to scenes become slippery) watch, their gaze flitting from speaker to speaker. Often, non-speaking characters sit on the bed. Concepts of time are also distorted: dead characters rejoin the cast as silent observers, or as dancers in the production’s many musical interludes. Towards the end, the deceased Hippolita and the maimed Putana join in the revelry, apparently happy to consort with those who had abused them. Additionally, when “off-stage” characters are talked of, they are often actually on-stage, and they play out versions of themselves, as when Putana details the list of Annabella’s suitors and they parade themselves before her.

Tis Pity

I still find all of this essentially thrilling and I’m still inclined to think that it points out the damaging male intrusions into Annabella’s world (indeed, the word ‘intrusion’ is wrong here; the point is that her space is never private enough in the first place). However, I was less impressed overall and I wonder if I had been blinded by the production’s brilliance. Above all, I was troubled by the ending, which was radically cut and reorganized. In the standard ending, Giovanni enters with Annabella’s heart on a dagger; his father dies of shock, he kills Soranzo, he is then killed himself, before the Cardinal attempts to draw an unconvincing moral from the story. In the Cheek by Jowl production, the play ends right after Florio’s death; Giovanni is still alive, cradling Annabella’s heart. In the distance, police sirens call; on the bed, on which Giovanni sits, Annabella appears, and reaches out for her brother. I still admire the abruptness of this ending, but I’ve got problems too and it’s made me rethink the way the gender politics work. Annabella’s gesture suggests she wants Giovanni to join her in death, perhaps so they can reignite their passion in an afterlife, but this seems contrary to what we have just seen. She doesn’t seem to want to die when Giovanni snaps her neck and I’m not sure to what extent she appreciates the brutal dismemberment which takes place immediately after. Does this suggest that Annabella wants to die? That she is complicit in her death? I think her death is more powerful (and it did seem powerful to me) if it’s not what she wanted. I felt, at first, that her attempt to reach out to her brother runs contrary to the brutality we had just witnessed. It might be said, though, that it’s not contradictory; that there is more evidence to support the suggestion that Annabella is complicit, or even an active participant, in her fate. The production opens when Annabella begins an infectious dance: before long, the cast (mostly men) are mimicking her moves. Is this her play? Are the men dancing to her tune? On the one hand, the production seems to refute this: the women are abused; their privacy is invaded. On the other hand it seems to suggest they are.