Sunday, 23 June 2013

And I Find It Kinda Funny, I Find It Kinda Sad...

These days, it's not often that non-Shakespearean Jacobean plays get performed. When they do, it's almost always Marlowe or Jonson, and it's rarer still that said performances will be good. It's incredibly exciting, then, that Sean Foley's and Phil Porter's adaptation of Thomas Middleton's A Mad World, My Masters, currently showing at The Swan, turned out to be one of the most thoroughly enjoyable productions I have ever seen.

A Mad World, My Masters revels gleefully in its sexuality, in it's casual, almost careless breaking of laws, reversing of morals and shattering of taboos. It delights in its gratification of desires - not only sexual, but financial, social and even vengeful: one of Middleton's greatest strokes of genius in Mad World is the play within his play, which sees a grumpy policeman/guard symbolically tied up and forced to be part of the fun. Elsewhere, Mr Shortrod Harebrain (here renamed Mr Littledick) unwittingly colludes in his wife's adultery, speaking a language laden with unintended innuendo. This is a laugh-out loud hilarious show, brimming with the same kind of subversive energy that made The Rocky Horror Show an instant cult classic. By developing its own perverse kind of logic, it seems to insist that anything is possible by taking us in directions at once both unexpected and yet strangely fitting. 

Following a similar pattern to Shakespeare's Much Ado, it's the unlikeliest couple who seem, by the end of the play, to be the most well-suited: though duped and coerced into their relationship, nobleman Dick Follywit and common prostitute Frank Gullman (Truly Kidman here) spend most of the play proving themselves to be more than a match for each other - they're the only characters who can effectively and independently navigate their way through the intricate and slippery structure of the world they inhabit. This they do by acting, sliding smoothly from role to role, moving between different social classes and circles, and even, in one instance, swapping genders. It's rather appropriate, then, that we begin to see where things are headed when Dick dresses up as Frank/Truly. Despite never having met her, he does a good enough job of "playing her" to hoodwink her clients: since she herself is an actress of sorts, it's the very stageyness and blatant artifice of his performance that makes it a convincing one. It's also apt that Frank/Truly, who spends most of the play gratifying the desires of others, should first realise and express her own longings and feelings when watching Dick perform in "The Slip".

In bringing the play to a contemporary audience, Foley and Porter could hardly have chosen a better setting than 1950s Soho: seedy, satirical and glamorous in equal measures, full of acting, sex and people from all walks of life, this is a place and point in time which has acquired an almost mythic status. The location was brilliantly realised through Alice Power's incredible designs, from Truly's luxuriant four-poster bed and Sir Bounteous' elaborate mansion with its apparently bottomless safe, to Penitent Brothel's dingy bachelor pad and the shabby, street-corner café where everyone seems to meet. The music, too, was convincingly of its time, and in terms of quality was probably the best in any RSC production I've yet seen. In particular, singer Linda John-Pierre was phenomenal - I'd honestly have gone along purely to see her. I was even pretty impressed by how well the cast coped with their singing parts.

The acting was practically faultless all round. Ian Redford made a brilliant Sir Bounteous, his greed and lechery matched by Ishia Bennison as Mrs Kidman, Truly's mother and pimp. Richard Durden and Steffan Rhodri were magnificent as aged butler, Spunky, and the hapless Mr Littledick, both with immaculate comic timing. However, the show was ultimately and quite rightly stolen by Sarah Ridgeway, starring as a truly ingenious Truly, every bit as shifty, sly and shocking as the Soho setting itself.

I may well have to see this one again.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Titus and Tarantino - The RSC's Titus Andronicus

I won't lie: Titus Andronicus will never rank amongst my favourite plays. My first encounter with the text came during my final year of university, when I was simultaneously studying two different modules on Shakespeare. The first week of term saw me reading Titus alongside The Taming of the Shrew. At this point, I very nearly decided that I didn't like Shakespeare any more.

That said, I did end up actually writing on Titus in my final essay (alongside the infinitely more entertaining Richard III). As such, I'm as aware as anyone that there are a lot of interesting things going on in this play. Unfortunately, it is one of a very tiny number of theatrical works that I'd probably prefer to read than to see, and not because, like certain other critics, I think that it's a shocking abomination of a play. Quite the contrary: performed on stage, it's mostly rather dull.

This is the combined result of boring Marcus's long, boring speeches (which you can skim over much more quickly on the page), and the barrage of devices used to distance us from its universally appalling characters and excessive violence. After all this, there's very little left to actually engage us in the action of the play. There's the humour, for sure, and where this play is funny it's hilarious. But the tone is inconsistent, and there isn't enough comedy to fully justify even the comparisons made in the programme between this youthful Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino (who I personally think is over-rated anyway - at least Shakespeare made some other things as well). In sum, I don't think that this is a bad piece of work and I wouldn't be silly enough to dismiss it as stupid juvenilia. I recognise that everything that annoys me about it is wholly deliberate, and I understand what it is trying to achieve.

I still don't like it.

So much for Titus in general. All my prejudices aside, the quality of this particular performance was difficult to fault.

The RSC's current production of Titus Andronicus is virtually every bit as good as it could possibly be, with well-thought out design and a generally fantastic cast. I loved the styling of the Goths especially, and Stephen Boxer made an excellent Titus (funnily enough, the last thing I saw him in was a rather depressing production of The Taming of the Shrew...). The play's young cast were exceptional, particularly Perry Millward and Jonny Weldon as Chiron and Demetrius, chilling in their complete credibility (I'm sure I've seen those characters for real somewhere before). All of Titus' offspring did a great job of bringing their characters to life, especially Rose Reynolds as Lavinia and Matthew Needham as Lucius, and even those in non-named parts showed flashes of brilliance, with Ellie Beaven shifting impressively from her chavtastic concubine part to her much more proper and respectable handmaid role.

If there was an obvious weak link, it was Kevin Harvey as Aaron, who mostly failed "seethe" with what Andrew Dickson describes in the programme as his "volatile energy". Aaron should be as gleeful in his crimes as Richard Gloucester; and as seductive in his wooing of the Queen as Richard is with Anne. Harvey's emotional responses, on the other hand, all seemed rather half-hearted. I wasn't fully convinced, either, by Katy Stephens' Tamora: it wasn't a terrible attempt, but she was certainly no match for Stephen Boxer and his Titus. A little more stage presence and commanding of attention would have gone a long way.

Overall though, this was a very strong production - tight, coherent, and funny. Most of all I loved the final, full-on, Hammer Horror-style bloodbath. More things should end with everyone dying hilariously and utterly outrageously. It was so well done, it was almost very nearly enough to make me dislike the play a bit less. And I promise you that's high praise.