Posts Tagged ‘I must remember to avoid revenge tragedies’

Mini-review – Duchess of Malfi – Old Vic Theatre

May 19, 2012

Why, I wondered, would the Old Vic be hustling Duchess of Malfi tickets on every forum possible, promising two for ones, upgrades, free drinks, and what have you from shortly after the play opened? If you’d been trying to get a ticket for their long and popular run of Noises Off, this was a completely new experience. Previously, The Old Vic couldn’t get you a seat anywhere no matter how much you were willing to pay; but now they … if I was reading it right … they couldn’t seem to find anyone to watch their show at any price. Not very reassuring given that I’d bought the tickets weeks before opening and couldn’t exactly trade them in for something else.

If nothing else I was relieved that my crummy (and expensive) full price second balcony tickets were upgraded to stalls (row O!), so I didn’t have to be bitter about all of the people who had got better seats that me for less. As it turned out, we’d booked in for the closed captioned night, so the audience was full of people signing to each other from across the room. Being able to talk to someone in the first balcony when you were in the stalls without disturbing your neighbors – how neat was that! And there was a REALLY snazzy set on stage that looked like it was pulled straight from an early Renaissance painting made to demonstrate the principles of perspective – three levels of church-looking balconies inside of a stone box (on three sides) – I was reminded of the La Cuba palace in Palermo, inspiration for part of the Decameron.

However, instead of Classic Literature Done Live, what we got was … well, revenge tragedy, which was classic literature, only without any expectation of the characters to become interesting … or really to change at all over the course of the play, except to go mad. The bad people are pointed out at the beginning and stay bad (or get worse). The only character that’s the least bit interesting is the duchess herself, who is trying to have a life of her own in a society where, although a widow, she is still basically chattel.

Unfortunately one person does not an engrossing night make. I was assisted in killing time by the captioning screens, which allowed me to follow the dialogue more closely than I would have managed on my own, and by the incredibly inept person who left their cellphone on during the interval, thus creating a profoundly memorable moment as the Duchess is slowly strangled to the theme song of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It’s the small things, right? Otherwise, the best thing I can say about the evening (other than the wonderful company I had) was the scene near the end where the Duchess’ commonlaw husband is creeping through the ruins of a cloister, hoping to end the feud between the brothers Malfi and himself. As he speaks of his hopes for reconciliation, the duchess’ ghostly voice repeats back his words in an attempt to warn him off. Let me quote this to you:

ANTONIO: Echo, I will not talk with thee,
For thou art a dead thing.

ECHO: Thou art a dead thing.

I mean SERIOUSLY DO NOT GO INTO THE BASEMENT. But he has to, because is a revenge tragedy, and everyone has to die, and all you can do is just wait it out until the final curtain. But really, that scene with the echo, it was great, but I’ll probably tell more people about that stupid cell phone, because after two and a half hours of BLOOD BLOOD SEX DEATH EVIL MORE DEATH MADNESS SCREAMING a little humor was a thing of beauty, indeed.

(This review is for a performance that took place on May 15th, 2012. It continues through June 9th. This may possibly be a perfect production of this play, but I must remember in the future I do not care for the revenge tragedy. Maybe some day I’ll get to see Noises Off, though. I do like a good laugh.)

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Review – A Woman Killed with Kindness – National Theater

July 13, 2011

Walking out of the National after Tuesday night’s preview of A Woman Killed with Kindness, one question was foremost in my mind: what the hell did director Katie Mitchell think she was doing? Why revive this weak member of the revenge-tragedy era (1607) of plays in the first place, and why stage it so the cast spend a quarter of their time talking to the set and another quarter making so much noise moving furniture and dishware that the dialogue is incomprehensible? Sat in row Q of the stalls, I could see all of the elaborately filled stage (two houses, two stories each, two staircases, and more doors than an Escher print), but for the first ten minutes about all I heard was “bride,” “cut the cake,” and “one thousand pounds” (in close proximity to the words “hawk” and “hounds”). Then the pretty lady in white (Anne Frankford, Liz White) was led upstairs by her husband (John Frankford, Paul Ready), to shortly come down limping and clutching her bloody crotch. Good God. I might have asked where we were going, but frankly I didn’t understand how we’d even got to where we were.

As a positive note, my inability to hear so much of the dialogue (a problem I heard other people discussing as they left the Lyttleton) meant that I was in a state of dramatic tension throughout, as everything I did see happening in this 2:10 (no interval) production was done in a state of isolation that left me completely unable to guess what was going to happen next. It was rather like having one of those amnesia problems that leaves your short term memory destroyed. The brother sent to jail (Sir Charles Mountford, Leo Bill), would he come back? His sister, depressed and prone to pulling a rifle on housebreakers (Susan, Sandy McDade), what was her motivation in life in general? Who was the guy who had the crush on her? Who was the guy who kept lending her brother money? Were they the same person? What did they really have in common with the developing menage a trois next door?

The one point of sanity in this whole show was Frankford’s footman (Nicholas, Gawn Grainger), who invariably spoke clearly enough that I could hear him all the way in the back of the stalls. It was a wonderful example of the skill a truly experienced actor brings to the stage. To make it better, he seemed to get all of the good lines, including the one during the card game, where he suggests the adulterous couple (and the cuckolded husband) play “between the sheets” (“knave out of doors” in the original script). This whole scene was a riot of double entendre, with no need to resort to the crude hip-thrusting that’s made many a Shakespearean play fall flat (ba dum tish) in my eyes. I considered it the highlight of the play, far better than the maudlin death scene that ended the show, which was made even more ridiculous by a phone going off playing “The Grenadier’s March” about two minutes before the last breath was drawn. People in the audience laughed when “the woman”‘s head fell; I can’t help but think it was in grateful relief for us, too, being set free of our imprisonment. This show was the low point of the year so far for me, and I only stayed through to the end so I could report back definitively on whether or not it redeemed itself at the end. In short: no. Avoid at all costs. Accept a loss on the ticket if you can’t return it; your time must be more precious than this.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, July 12th, 2011. It officially opens July 19th. You have been warned. The National website describes this play as “fast-moving, frightening and erotic.” The first, at least, is true, but by 40 minutes in you will feel like the clock has stopped and it’s all just one long never ending string of unconnected scenes until you can run out of the theater into the night. For a deliciously cutting analysis of it all, may I recommend the West End Whinger’s mocu-interview review.)

Review – Women Beware Women – National Theatre

April 24, 2010

Thomas Middleton is a writer whose position in the body of English plays is that of an entire genre: the Jacobean equivalent of the slasher flick. Off to see Middleton? Expect a cast full of nasties and an ending that leaves you feeling not particularly sad about how many people died at the end; somehow, his deaths seem not so much tragic as well deserved, and the quantities of them are so generous as to lean toward laughter.

Unfortunately sometimes this all becomes just a bit too heavy and the two plays I’ve seen of his before this one (The Changeling and The Revenger’s Tragedy) left me bored long before their resolution; the first show went for a Grand Guignol approach, the second (at the National) was like a watered-down Three Penny Opera with the charm sucked out of it.This plus a rumored three hour running time nearly stopped me in my tracks on my way into the National to see Women Beware Women; I was tired, it had been along day, and I couldn’t imagine myself suffering along happily while a variety of people were evil to each other and then finally met a come-uppance I predicted in the first twenty minutes (or even before buying the tickets). I’m glad, though, that I didn’t, because this is not just the most successful rendition of Middleton I’ve seen, but was a dark and exciting night of theater that richly rewarded my time and financial investment.

We start in a setting of not quite genteel poverty; a young clerk (Leantio, Samuel Barnett) is returning to his mother’s house with his pilfered noblewoman bride; a sixteen year old beauty who is a cross between Catherine Deneuve and Jaqueline Kennedy, clearly slumming in her husband’s pitiful household. Theirs appears to be a relationship driven entirely by lust, appropriate enough in two such young people; but Bianca (Lauren O’Neil) appears pitiful, a gracious woman with a poor future ahead of her.

Bianca’s situation contrasts strongly with Isabella (Vanessa Kirby), a young, intelligent woman who, rather than running off with her lover, is about to be married off to an utter dolt, with her father giving her no choice in the matter. Yet, “thanks” to the intervention of her aunt Livia (Harriet Walter in a truly grand role), suddenly she’s able to face her horrid future with hope; the man whom she loves can be her secret lover and support her through this upcoming lifetime of matrimonial misery. In this “happy ending” we have our first betrayal, for the man she loves is her uncle Hippolito (Raymond Coulthard), and it is her aunt who tells her a lie to recast this affair as something besides incest so that she will accept him as her lover. Woman Beware Woman indeed. Auntie Livia is a real piece of work; intelligent, twice-widowed, “all of 39,” and independently wealthy. She seems to have fallen right off of the map of morality, yet not actually appear evil; her acts seems to be ones merely aimed at procuring pleasure for those whom she loves, at the expense of those who are, well, in the eyes of the nobility, nobodies. Nobody (nobodies) are harmed, so where is the harm in it?

Livia is a lovely model of feminine power and awareness and the horrible easiness that allows people to be cruel to those who don’t really exist in their eyes. The next victim of her machinations is Bianca, whom “the duke” (Richard Lintern) has seen and wished to seduce. The power play between Bianca and the Duke becomes a very powerful thing; given that Middleton doesn’t really write heroes and can barely be bothered with creating sympathetic characters, the question is not so much what will be her fate, but how will she take revenge on those who wronged her. I was quite excited about seeing “Kill, Barbie, Kill Kill!” in action, a veritable inverse of Elle Woods, all deliciously full of rage. Forget a sisterhood between the women; these people’s interactions were dictated soley by age, money, family, honor, and perceived advantage. Love never has a hope.

And, really, I just loved it all. Our beautiful, well-decked, arrogant nobility; the weak and stupid poor they preyed on; the gleeful anticipation of everyone getting their comeuppance. The whole was done on a brilliant set that for once used the Olivier’s revolve without making a big show of it, nicely catching the Duke’s palace on one side and the dingy backside of Florence on the other; the music captured both the 60s ambiance the design team was aiming for and the horrid rigidity of 17th century morality; and _oh_ but the staging was a treat, from the duke’s grand parade, in a spotlight with glitter showering down on him from above, to the madness of the final bloody dinner scene, with dagger-wielding masked angels smoking drugged pipes with their soon-to-be victims, the nearly dizzying revolution of the stage, the lighting highlighting one horror after another (the ghost of one murder victim being especially delicious), the fights of victims and aggressors which, flickering in a well-placed spotlght, Bianca, now shimmering with sexuality and triumph like Poppeia, reigned above an entire dining hall full of flowers and murder and nearly no blood at all. It wasn’t needed; we saw each of them die, and, truth be told, we had to feel good about watching this room full of evil people meet the fate they deserved. My goodness, it was a very satisfying night. And all of this is available under the Travellex 10 program – I’d say book your tickets now.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Wednesday, April 21st, 2010. It continues through July 4th, 2010. For more reviews, please see UpTheWestEnd.com.)

Revew – The Revenger’s Tragedy – National Theatre

June 16, 2008

I am a big fan of the £10 series at the National – top quality shows at a quarter of the normal asking price! – so when I saw that tickets had gone on sale for The Revenger’s Tragedy during the week when my cost-conscious (read = OAP) uncle was coming to vist, I snapped up a set (though I went for £15 seats so that we could be a little closer to the action).

The Revenger’s Tragedy is a sort of anti-Hamlet, with a lead character who is hurting over someone’s death – and determined to make the bad guys pay. This leads to a bit of the silly identity-changing hijinks along the lines of some of the goofier Shakespearean comedies, but with a cast of characters which seems universally unworthy of any sympathy and the most sex and violence I’ve seen since Coriolanus – more, even. It’s kind of fun to see this group of baddies get their come-uppance, but without any one sympathetic characters it became more like watching Natural Born Killers or something of that ilk.

While the show was in no ways boring, it seemed to me like the director felt obliged to overdecorate it with fluff to make it “relevant to the modern audience” or something of the sort. Pounding techno, projections and depictions of people having sex, a woman leading a hooded man about on a leash, animated stage decor – was any of it really necessary? The text itself was pretty clear about what was going on, and clever to boot, but it seemed that there were doubts as to whether or not it could carry the story on its own. Me, I’d prefer less show and more tell. Overall, while this production wasn’t bad, I found it just didn’t capture my imagination.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, June 14th, 2008.)