Sunday, October 01, 2006

A Night At The Theatre

We had an old friend arriving from the States, bringing a friend who wanted to see Shakespeare, so Susan booked for 'Cymbeline' at the Swan. Once I got over my disappointment that it wasn't Pericles (money quote :"is she not a fair creature ?" "Faith, she would serve after a long voyage at sea") I started looking forward to one of the Bard's more obscure works, set in Britain around the time of the Roman Conquest.

Then I looked at the RSC website and my heart sank :

With its vivid, physical storytelling style, Cornwall's award-winning, and ground breaking theatre company interpret Shakespeare for the first time.

Artistic Director Emma Rice and writer Carl Grose will create a new adaptation of the rarely performed Cymbeline. This wild, giddy and elemental production will see Kneehigh dance through invasions, misunderstandings, intimacies and betrayals, with heart-stopping poetry, live music and touching madness. Never has confusion been so pleasurable and surprising.

I checked the keywords. "Fizzing with anarchy", "eclectic", "vivid, physical", "creative frenzy", "new adaptation".

"Susan ! This ****ing production ! It's being done by a bunch of travelling hippies ! We're more likely to see rainbow leggings than doublet and hose on stage !"

Oh Lordy. It probably features trapeze artists and fire-eaters. And is set in Iraq. If it turns out to be "a searing indictment of US foreign policy" I swear I'll get up and walk out.

As we tootled past the Dirty Duck and into the foyer of the Swan my luvvimeter was going off the scale. To visit the taxpayer-funded theatre, more even than posting at the taxpayer-funded Guardian, is to feel yourself in the belly of the liberal beast. I stared round at my fellow theatre-goers, mentally calculating how many less letters in the Independent, how many fewer lady magistrates and Senior Lecturers in Creative Writing, would result from a dozen or twenty explosive devices strategically placed in theatres across England. Only the destruction of Edinburgh in August by a small nuclear device would have a greater effect, although some authorities hold that consecutive operations at Ilkley, Cheltenham and Hay-on-Wye literary festivals would have a similar impact while requiring less technical expertise.

If they stared back I blushed and concentrated upon the programme.

As the lights picked out a scaffolding set, with a band playing on the top floor, and a bunch of parka-clad Big Issue sellers spray-painted slogans on the cardboard walls of what turned out to be Cymbeline's palace, my heart sank further. Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt, thought I.

It turned out to be quite an enjoyable evening. OK, they were a bunch of hippies. OK, only perhaps 10% of the words were from the greatest writer in the English language. Ten minutes in I accepted that I wasn't going to hear much of the original. Ok, they played it for laughs pretty much from beginning to end - I hadn't realised what an enormous influence Benny Hill and Morecambe and Wise had been on the modern drama.

But the plot was still recognisable as Shakespeare's, the music, led by Stu Barker, was excellent, and there were monstrous sterotypes of the Queen, played as a vampish Nurse Ratched (who sings a mean woman blues) by Emma Rice, a female Pisanio seemingly modelled on Janine Duvitski's Angela, a sweetie-pie Imogen and a pimped-up Lord Flashheart of an Iachimo, a-thrusting and a-lusting all over the shop. I love stereotypes.

True, the reunion of Cymbeline and his lost sons, whose absence underlies the whole play, didn't have the emotional impact that a good amateur company might have produced. I'm a sucker for well crafted melodrama and will cry at the drop of a hat. But it's difficult to pull off the pain of long loss and separation when you're waiting for the next gag.

My Welsh hackles rose as they played "Milford Haven" for laughs the way a generation of comedians once played Oswaldtwhistle and Ramsbottom. What's so funny about the name ? I suppose none of you ******s drive cars ! Class hackles followed as Craig Johnson's Cloten, played as a sexist slob of a mummy's boy (Harry Potter's cousin Dudley, Daily Mail-reading parents ?) with politically incorrect views on dog-on-a-string dossers, was given Billy Bunter pants and a Northern accent. One of those awful people who read the Sun, I suppose. How the audience laughed !

But it was fun and good-hearted, getting a terrific ovation from the assembled Philippas and Dominics in the (hideously white) audience.

And though I did detect a "shock and awe" in one of the songs illuminating the war, the production was mercifully free of shocking insights into anyone's foreign policy at all, instead preferring laughter and the eternal struggle and story of human hearts. Which will, after all, go onward the same, though dynasties pass.


Anonymous said...

I saw Cymbeline at the Swan. I thought it was superb: I think it captured much of Shakespeare even though not many of his words. It drew people cleverly into one of S's worst plays...............And the music, led by singer Dominic Lawton, was fantastic. The audience lapped it up the night I was there.

Get off your high horse Commentator!

Laban said...

I thought my review WAS positive !

(and I noted the good music and the fact that the assembled luvvies gave it a huge ovation)

You should see my negative reviews !

Anonymous said...

Actually now I re-read it, your review was positive!! Apologies.... there was not a high horse to get off!

Mind you I am now looking forward to reading one of your a negative reviews .......

And I am a Guardian reader: Michael Billington did not like it at all and was very arrogant. He certainly was on his high horse ..........