Monthly Archives: February 2013

Rhinocéros, Barbican Theatre; Saer Doliau, Finborough Theatre

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A strange and wonderful feature of London theatre is that you can see plays from non-English language traditions. Last year’s multilingual World Shakespeare Festival at the Globe proved there was an audience for this. And oddly enough, in the last week I’ve seen a play in French and another in Welsh, so my ears have been spoilt by theatrical richness. The Welsh voices among the audiences at the Finborough and the French chatter at the Barbican are testament enough to the heteroglot London theatre crowd, but I also suspect there were many audience members glad of the surtitles. However, what unites the productions I saw is not the fact they’re staged with accompanying translation but that they’re both part of a broad stream of European absurdist drama.

The plot of Ionesco’s Rhinocéros is simple: over the course of the play, the inhabitants of a French town turn into rhinoceroses, one by one. The only person left at the end is Bérenger, defiant yet impotent and flawed. Rhinocéros, like Camus’s La Peste and Sartre’s Les Mouches, is usually read as an allegory of fascism and a study of the psychology of collaboration, but there’s no lapse into myth-making here since Bérenger is never knowingly heroic.

If the rhinoceros represents fascism, there is no leader of the herd. Ionesco is interested less in theories of charisma than in human frailty. This is a slow disintegration of community; instead of seeing the threat for what it is, the characters argue among themselves about whether African or Asian rhinos have one or two horns, or indulge in localised power play of office politics even as one of their number, transformed into a beast, is rampaging on the floor below.

The staging, with its mobile sets, is fabulous; the rhinoceroses exist as violent sound and movement as the set and characters shake at the animals’ approach, but they’re also depicted through the characters’ reactions to crisis. When Daisy (Valérie Dashwood) capitulates at the end and joins the beasts, she says she hears singing when Bérenger (Serge Maggiani) can only hear ugly roaring. And the sound, interestingly, here, is indeed one of faint singing; does that mean that we, the audience, are being seduced too? This penultimate scene between Bérenger and Daisy ends with their being watched by crepuscular, disembodied rhino heads before Daisy makes her choice to join them.

Straightforward political allegories appeal too much to audience certainties, and never make a particularly challenging night out. So this was where this Théâtre de la Ville production, directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, scored so well. There’s no escaping the political dimension, but the most disquieting moments revolved around the sense of the body not being right – my daughter was most taken with the similarity to Metamorphosis, and certainly those resonances were one of many directorial features that lifted this into total theatre and far away from agitprop.  When Bérenger goes to visit Jean (Hugues Quester) the latter is on the verge of transformation, his hoarsening voice and movement conveying the physical pain and panic of metamorphosis even as he mentally embraces the instinctive power of the beast.

Saer Doliau (Doll Mender) at the Finborough is a different proposition; no big set, no big cast, and it’s in Welsh. A tightly-constructed three-hander written in 1966 by Gwenlyn Parry, the plot is simple. Ifans the doll mender (Seiriol Tomos) is alone in his workshop. All we can glean from the first ten minutes is that there is something (“Fo”, or “him” – it’s very much in North Walian dialect) in the locked cellar of which he is afraid and a boss, or the Gaffer, whom he calls on the phone to complain about his tools.  A mysterious woman (Catherine Ayers) arrives; she inspects the workshop and imposes modern equipment, electricity and a young and feckless apprentice (Steffan Donnelly) on him. Over the course of the play the two take control, dismissing ‘Fo’ and the Gaffer as mere fantasy. The play ends with the violent death of Ifans, whereupon the apprentice takes over the workshop and the cycle clearly starts all over again.

Imagine Pinter in Pwllheli and you’ll get the idea. It’s a very different articulation of power from Ionesco’s, but it’s still an unsettling experience; the sense of menace is not from the crowd or from collective unreason, as in Rhinocéros, but in the fact that authority is unanchored.  And that authority is at once disruptive and static, residing in the female stranger and in the two offstage presences –“Fo” in the cellar and the Gaffer on the other end of the phone.

It’s clear that Parry is having a pop at the dread certainties of post-war chapel culture, but the fact that the apprentice is left in charge at the end and embraces the belief in ‘Fo’ and the Gaffer means that there is no resolution and no change, just eternal substitution.

Saer Doliau has sold out and is coming to the end of its run on 19 February; ditto Rhinocéros, which was only on for three days at the Barbican. Bravo to the Finborough for staging a play in Welsh, and bravo to the Barbican for luring the Théâtre de la Ville company over here for three days. More, please.

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Balm in Gilead

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At book club the other week we were discussing Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (verdict: mixed) and one of our number reminded us in passing that there is a spiritual called “Is there balm in Gilead” – the Morriston Orpheus Male Voice Choir does a particularly lovely version of it here.  The spiritual (“There is a balm in Gilead/To make the wounded whole”) is a New Testament response to a question posed by the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah (8:22), confronted by the Babylonian army: “Is there balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”

I’ve been looking a lot at the erotic, sacramental and martyrological resonances of wounds in the years following the regicide, so the Gilead reference got me thinking of the use of wounds to expound upon the disintegration of the nation’s body. This is the context of the verse from Jeremiah, as the prophet laments the sins of the people and the imminent fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians.

It is impossible to ignore the scriptural dimension of the early modern response to calamity. The London plague of 1603 inspired a stream of texts on the ethics of flight from the city, including Dekker’s The Wonderful Year, that rage-filled elegy to London and its dead. Many of the plague pamphlets and sermons revolve around Psalm 91, which says that the godly will be held safe from pestilence: “Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation; There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling”.

Jeremiah, along with Lamentations, is another of those Biblical proof texts where calamity is articulated primarily as a heavenly response to the sins of humankind. So when I found the balm of Gilead reference in Colchesters Teares (Thomason / E.455[16]), a 1648 tract bewailing the horrors of the siege of Colchester , l assumed that the pamphlet would fall into a general homiletic category.

The siege of Colchester in the second Civil War of 1648 was vicious and protracted. The town was staunchly Parliamentarian, but was actually being held by Royalist forces, led by Lord Goring, Lord Capel, Sir George Lisle and Sir Charles Lucas and besieged by Lord-General Thomas Fairfax’s army. When Colchester surrendered after nearly three months, Lucas and Lisle were executed on the basis that they had continued to prolong the siege and therefore unnecessary suffering, including mass starvation. It made them into Royalist martyrs and set in train the events that led to the assassination of Thomas Rainsborough (Civil War historians will appreciate that this summary is far from adequate). Because of its length and the high politico-military stakes, the siege of Colchester was played out as much through print as on the walls of the town, as both sides struggled for control of the atrocity narrative.

Colchesters Teares is a remarkably skilful piece of writing. With most texts on the siege you can guess the political alignment from the first page; John Rushworth’s reports back to Parliament, or the Leaguer at Colchester put the case for the Parliamentary forces, while Mercurius Pstiacus and Mercurius Anglicanus and The Royall Diurnall emphasise the heroism of the besieged and deride the ‘Saints’.  But in Colchesters Teares it’s not immediately obvious. The quote from Job 19:21 (“Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, O ye my friends; for the hand of the Lord hath touched me”) and Lamentations 1:12 (“Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Behold and see, if there be any sorrow like to my sorrow which is done unto me; wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me, in the day of his fierce anger”) initially embed the text into a tradition of collective remorse for general transgression. The war has “labour[ed] to dig a grave for the Kingdome, and to bury poore England in her owne sad ashes and wofull ruines” .

But then there’s a clever rhetorical shift. Over the course of a couple of pages the anonymous author moves, via a nifty bit of providential framing of Parliamentary victories, from castigating collective sins to note those of the Royalist forces in considerable detail, notably their attempts at sexual violence:

“Ah unkind friends, whom we are grieved to complaine against, and yet enforced to be angry with for such bitternesse and unnaturall dealings [….] how can you look us (moderate men, well affected to you heretofore) in the face, when you have made us blush and hide our heads as we hear these things?”

It’s quite a trick to maintain that tone of general lament while heaping the blame squarely on the opposition, implicitly drawing down the wrath of heaven upon them. It’s a stratagem widely used now – you know, we’re all in it together, but some of us are less deserving than others.

A practised reader in Civil War London might have worked out the pamphlet’s political affiliation pretty efficiently. It was printed by one John Bellamy “at the Three Golden Lions in Cornhill, near the Royal Exchange”. A bookseller and parish leader of St Michael’s of Cornhill, Bellamy was a radical Protestant with links to the Independents but who tempered his stance in the later 1640s by embracing Presbyterianism. Despite the lengthy prayer for reconciliation at the end of Colchesters Teares, this is by no means a neutral text.

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Twelfth Night, Apollo Theatre

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As a student of seventeenth-century romance texts, I’m always going to love a shipwreck and bit of cross-dressing. So to the Apollo, where Mark Rylance’s much hoopla’d production of Twelfth Night transferred from the Globe at the end of last year. Since Jerusalem, Rylance has become a cult figure and the presence of Stephen Fry in the cast has guaranteed packed houses for both runs. Now I know you don’t go to the Globe for radical re-readings; you go there for the clarity of the story-telling and a bit more audience interaction than you’d get in subsidised theatre. But goodness, this was a mixed bag. (By the way, I’m not sure of the copyright status of the picture, if any IP lawyers have alighted upon this blog. I’m sure you’ll let me know..)

Rylance’s insistence in mimicking early modern performance practice with an all-male cast opens up wonderful possibilities, since every encounter contains within it multiple readings.  There was a marvellous bat squeak of sexual tension when Orsino (Liam Brennan), unconsciously starts touching Viola/Cesario (Johnny Flynn, very fine) and then checks himself. A cute moment, as it makes sense of Orsino’s abrupt turn towards Viola at the end of the play when he realises Olivia is taken.

So in this scene, were we seeing a man thinking he is falling for a man? Were we watching him sense the feminine beneath? Both? And of course, thanks to Rylance’s casting, we are inevitably aware of yet another layer, that underneath the feminine is a male actor. That playful oscillation of gender and its performativity is always what draws me back to Twelfth Night. That, and seeing how any production is going to make Sebastian and Viola indistinguishable – something that is usually a major let-down, but worked brilliantly in this production. And Rylance’s stuttering, gliding, imperious, desperate Olivia was a masterclass in nuance.

But. But. But. The comedy scenes were dire; Toby Belch (Colin Hurley) coarse but without charisma, Aguecheek (Roger Lloyd Pack ) the most wan piece of underplaying I’ve seen on stage for a long time. Never has festivity been so poorly executed.

Worst of all, Stephen Fry’s dour Malvolio squandered all the comic potential in the role. I’ve never seen the letter scene less funny. I couldn’t help comparing it to the Donmar West End production in 2008, where Derek Jacobi’s pomposity and self-delusion was shot through with middle-aged fragility, which in turn underpinned his willingness to believe Olivia was secretly in love with him.

In contrast, Fry’s characterisation was simply peevish, with his parting line (“I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”) more Victor Meldrew than William Prynne. This caused a hole in the rest of the production. There was no emotional logic for Belch’s plot since Malvolio just seemed a prissy irrelevance with little authority. So as a spectator I didn’t know why the revellers had it in for him, and by the end I didn’t care, and his imprisonment – which in the Donmar production had a dark and dying fall – just seemed like a rather lame prank.

I left the theatre quite cross at the standing ovation Fry got at the end for his celebrity. And then I re-read the reviews. The Guardian was the kindest, calling Fry’s Malvolio “grave, dignified and overbearing”. The Arts Desk called him “a supporting rather than scene-stealing comic turn” and The Independent described him as “reined-in”. Next time I’ll pay attention to the critics’ subtext. I should have taken the Time Out review most seriously: “colossally miscast”. Hear, hear.

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