Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Theatre Review : The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan - Barbican Theatre (dir Deborah Warner 7/6/11)
On entering the auditorium to thumping rock music, the actors are taking part in what appears to be a modern fashion shoot, gossiping and taking pictures of the audience with their mobile phones. Signs are held up, which presumably highlight some of the character traits we are about to see in the play. When the action proper begins, Lady Sneerwell (Matilda Ziegler) and Snake (Gary Sefton) are both in 20th Century underwear being dressed with 18th Century clothes. So far, so very Brechtian.
The problem, however, is that this is not a play by Brecht. Brecht’s plays are generally quite linear in exposition, their plot lines relatively simple. This is not the case with Sheridan – his plot lines are famously convoluted, and rely on some heavy exposition early on to make them work. This is where this production failed, on two levels. Firstly, there were too many distractions that diverted attention to what was being explained, and secondly the delivery by several of the cast was so flat that it was difficult to focus attention on the explication. So by the time the action picked up towards the end of the first half, I was utterly bewildered as to what was going on (I was not previously familiar with this work) and the humour was passing me by. This was a pity, as, by the third act (we have the numbers of the acts and scenes on banners on the stage, naturally) the momentum had picked up and the stage-business was becoming very amusing.
At the interval, I repaired to the bar and read the synopsis in the program which enabled me to work out who was doing what to whom and why, which meant that the second half of the performance was significantly more enjoyable than the first – but it was too late for many fellow theatregoers, judging by the empty seats after the break. One shouldn’t need to rely on a program synopsis - if Deborah Warner had focussed attention on Brechtian devices which enabled a clearer exposition of the plot, then this could have been a triumphant production.
It seemed to take the cast a while to get going as well, as if they had been put off too by the silliness at the start. The Surface brothers (Aiden McArdle as the devious Joseph and Leo Bill as the dissolute Charles) stood out. Once the momentum picked up, both extracted maximum humour from their roles, ably and effortlessly assisted by a gruff but sensitive Alan Howard as Sir Peter Teazle and John Shrapnel as Sir Oliver Surface carrying on regardless of what was going on all around him. Gary Sefton proved a visual stand-out in the unpromising role of a drunken Gentleman with elastic limbs and Katherine Parkinson was a suitably flighty Lady Teazle, although generally – and surprisingly - the female characters did not come over very strongly.
Like any good Regency comedy, this production resolves to a satisfactory conclusion, and the second half is splendid entertainment. It is such a pity that so many of the audience had been lost – physically or emotionally – by this point. Sheridan is a playwright who is still funny and relevant today, and this production represents a lost opportunity to bring home this relevance to a contemporary audience. There is nothing wrong with an adventurous modern production, but that cannot be at the expense of proper pacing and clear exposition. It’s such a shame, as this was so close to working so well.
Gogol’s original play is sublime, spearing the corruption and pretensions of mid-19th Century Russia. However, this wonderful new production by Richard Jones, based on a fresh translation by Ian Harrower, takes the play into a new dimension entirely. This is Gogol-as-cartoon, fast and brash and bright and stylish. The set is the interior of a house which disappears rapidly into an impossible perspective, the costumes are from CbeeBees, the characters grotesques. Visually it was superb, every angle and mannerism maximised for comic effect. But it captured the manic surreality of Gogol perfectly, and the exaggerated movement allows the action to hurtle along at a cracking pace.
|Louise Brealey (Maria), Doon Mackichan (Anna)|
and Julian Barratt (Mayor) in
Government Inspector at the Young Vic, London
Photo: Tristram Kenton
The only disappointment, however, was Julian Barrett as the Mayor. Barrett’s previous experience on stage is as a comedian, and on television. As far as I can discover, this is his first major theatrical acting role, and one could tell. He looked the part, his movement was very good and some facial expressions very funny, but his delivery was a bit flat and lacked conviction when compared to the manic, exaggerated projection of his fellow actors. In other productions this may not have mattered, but here he was exposed and it left a bit of a hole in the middle of the show.
However, this was the only weakness in a tremendously good production, one which was as visually striking as anything I have seen in years. Fast, funny, clever, stylish, this really demonstrated – vide my comments on Deborah Warner’s School for Scandal – how to make an old play relevant for the 21st Century, as all the youngsters around me seemed to love it.
Sunday, June 19, 2011
Apparently, this is the first time that this sprawling historical drama has been produced on the British stage, Ibsen's original Closet Drama (i.e. having not been written reading and not for performing) about the life of the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate having been trimmed from a mighty eight hours to much more manageable three and a half. But three and a half hours is a long time to sit in the theatre if the play is a duffer - after all, there must be a reason why it has not been performed over all these years. However, there was no reason to worry. Jonathan Kent and designer Paul Brown were not going to stint on any opportunity to maximise the spectacle on show as the drama moved from the Christian Court of the Emperor Constantius to sacrifices to the gods in Ephesus to the final battle in the Persian Desert.
However, this does not detract from a spectacular theatrical experience. Andrew Scott brings power and presence to Julian and Nabil Shaban is a striking Constantius. The staging is dramatic, beautifully designed with striking use of music, metal and fire. It's difficult to depict pagan celebrations without resorting to cliched cavorting, but the powerful scene where the Roman Army persecutes the Christian villagers in Syrian Antioch had a contemporary resonance which Jonathan Kent could not have foreseen. As the production ended, I was surprised that the audience reaction was somewhat muted. On the contrary, I felt that Jonathan Kent, Ben Power and Andrew Scott had triumphed in making a spectacular, accessible and thought-provoking evening with such difficult material.