Saturday, November 3, 2012

'Shakespeare's Queens' / 'The Madness of King Lear' at the Arts Theatre, 1st November 2012

I consider myself relatively up to speed on Shakespeare.  I enjoyed studying him in school and since then I've been to see traditional performances at the Globe and in Stratford-upon-Avon.  I've also attended quite a few interpretations of Shakespeare here and there around London, most recently Henry V at The Old Red Lion.  Aside from this I've seen a number of filmed versions of Shakespeare, most of which I thoroughly enjoyed.  So, when I saw this double bill, I felt pretty confident that I'd at least know what was going on.  

The two plays were Kath Perry's 'Shakespeare's Queens', and Sarah Fernandez Reyes 'The Madness of King Lear'.  Both of them attempt to tackle the bard from unusual directions, taking his work apart and putting it back together in new configurations and seeing what you come up with.

The concept for 'Shakespeare's Queens' is a good one.  Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots are engaged in furious debate in the afterlife over whose style of ruling is better.  Elizabeth's philosophy is that a monarch should be wedded to her country and should not surrender power to any prospective husband, while Mary argues that a woman should concentrate on producing heirs.  To settle this dispute they summon the spirit of Shakespeare as both consider him an expert on what makes a good Queen.  From there the play proceeds through the plays of Shakespeare, examining his fictional and historical Queens and arguing about what their merits or failures were.

This immediately brought to mind the BBC's wonderful show 'Horrible Histories'.  Both this and the play take an irreverent but "100% accu-rat" look at different historical events and characters.  The trick there is to take these stuffy people, known only through paintings and dusty books, and show them as real people through a comic lens.  This play attempted to do much the same thing, with mixed results.

Perhaps this is more a failure on my part, but when it comes to Shakespeare I need about a ten minute 'settling in' period before I can properly get my head around the language.  Once my brain has retuned itself I'll be fine, but until then I have to spend more time concentrating on what people are saying or who they are, rather than why they are doing things.  This play never really gives you the opportunity to settle into the rhythms or get a handle on these characters.  I was fine when it came to scenes from, for example, 'Hamlet', 'Anthony and Cleopatra' or 'A Midsummer Nights Dream', but when it comes to something a bit more obscure like 'Cymbeline' or 'Henry VIII' I found it very hard to follow what was going on.

The constant shifting of characters makes the central performances a bit choppy.  Shakespeare, as played by Patrick Trumper is very entertaining to watch, and his visible swelling up with pride when he learns that nearly all children study his plays is surprisingly moving.  He's also quickly able to slide into various roles, effectively switching from his upbeat Shakespeare into, for example, a guilt-ridden and shocked Macbeth.  

Kath Perry, Patrick Trumper and Rachel Ferris
The two Queens are a bit more loose in their Shakespearian acting.  I suppose there's inevitably a double layered effect to their performances.  This is their argument, and when we see them playing Shakespearian Queens, they are in effect playing them through the lens of Elizabeth I or Mary Queen of Scots.  This makes sense, but tends to drain the scenes of some of their import.  Rachel Ferris maybe incorporates a touch too much of her Mary into the Shakespeare, and this affects the tone of some of the more serious excerpts.  Her counterpart, Kath Perry, manages to maintain this balance much more effectively.

One of my main criticisms of this performance was oddly enough absolutely nothing to do with what was going on on the stage, but with the audience.  Towards the back of the room, a mobile phone loudly went off FIVE times.  If someone's mobile phone goes off in a play, my first reaction is a quiet pity.  I've thankfully never had it happen to me, but all it takes is one moment of carelessness and suddenly everyone in the theatre is grumbling at you.  I imagine it makes you feel like a total piece of shit.  I'm sure one day there'll be a time where I forget, and I'll be that arsehole.  But five times?!  What the hell is going on?  It pretty much ruined the whole atmosphere of the play, each time it went off was worse than the one before.  I think it would have been arguably better to stop the play and kick the person out of the theatre rather than grimly work your way through it.   One of the actors worked it into the play; saying "beheading, the punishment for those who don't switch off their phones".  It got the biggest laugh in the play.

But even without the constant chirruping of the mobile phone this wasn't a very successful play.  The worst part is that the argument never reaches a conclusion.  The characters leave the stage bickering in exactly the same way as when they entered.  It's arguable that character development isn't the point here, but even so we spend a solid hour with the same three people and the fact that the central argument never even comes close to being conclusively settled (despite the fact that Elizabeth is clearly right) is a bit frustrating.  So a mixed bag all told.  

At the midway point I noticed a lot of people leaving the theatre.  An ominous sign, and one that put me in mind of rats leaving a sinking ship.  I was a bit peeved; the first half wasn't that bad.  Still, a nagging through lingered in the back of my mind.  In a double-bill like this you want to put your strongest material first so people actually come back.  If the first half wasn't even that great, then what does that bode for the second half?

As it turns out my instincts were correct.  'The Madness of King Lear' was a colossal mess.  It tells the story of 'King Lear' through contemporary dance and abstract movement.  If that sentence doesn't set off alarm bells, then I don't know what will.  Now, I frequently go and see some pretty weird and incomprehensible stuff so it's not that I have a disliking of experimental theatre or performance art, but this was just a big fat mess.

But first I'd like to absolve the two central performers of much of the blame for this.  Both Lucas R. Tsolakian (the Fool) and the brilliantly named Leofric Kingsford-Smith (King Lear) give it their all, but they're trapped in something so half-baked that it's unsalvageable, no matter how great a performer you are.  Rather than drawing me into the tragedy and misery of Lear they instead made me feel entirely sympathetic towards them as they try and make the best of a bad situation.  

Lucas R. Tsolakian and Leofric Kingsford-Smith
I should point out that 'King Lear' is one of the 'big' Shakespeare plays that I'm not especially familiar with.  I know the basic plot outline, but I've never seen a production or adaptation in it.  My foreknowledge of the play consisted of knowing that it was about a King dividing his estate between his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia and the tragedy that this decision results in.  I knew that pretty everyone winds up dead at the end (hey, it is Shakespeare after all), and that at some point someone gets their eyes gouged out.

So an adaptation that dispenses with every scene not involving Lear and the fool made it literally impossible for me to follow what was going on.  But even if I'm lost narratively then maybe I can still consider it in a straightforwardly aesthetic way?  I guess I can just enjoy the dancing and the music, right?

Well, I didn't have much a problem with the dancing, but the impression I got was that the person in charge hit 'shuffle' on their iPod and decided it from there.  Look, you're unlikely to find as big a fan of 'Koyaanisqatsi' as me.  If I had to pick a favourite film of all time, it'd most likely be that.  In a month or so I'm actually going to see a new rearrangement of this score played to a screening of the film at the Barbican.  Here its been relegated to vague mood music, prostituted out in service of something awful, with the horrible consequence that I think it's actually made me like it a little bit less than I did before I went in!  When hear 'Pruitt-Igoe' I want to visualise a housing project collapsing, not some bearded guy screaming and someone rolling around in front of him!

Pictured: some bearded guy screaming and someone rolling around in front of him.
But far more egregious than even this is the storm sequence.  The soundtrack?  'Du Hast' by Rammstein!  'DU HAST'?!  Are you fucking kidding me?  That song was played out by the time it was on the Matrix soundtrack in 1999!  So I'm sitting there, watching two guys gamely staggering around a stage to a strobe light while this was on.  It was deeply embarrassing for all concerned.  I was half tempted when the scene ended to start clapping as if the play was over in the hope that others would join in and the performers would recognise it as an opportunity to get the hell out of there.  

It was around this point that two things started happening.  One was that there was a few barely suppressed giggles, especially when for no apparent reason the Fool started singing a mournful song in Italian for some reason.  The second was that people started to leave.  Neither of these are indications of a rousing success.  I found myself desperately wishing that it'd be over and as if in sympathy with my mind, my belly started angrily rumbling.  After what felt like an age it finally ended to what can only be described as polite applause.

So a mixed night.  The first half was by far the best, but was ruined by an inconsiderate git with a mobile phone.  The second half felt almost like a revenge on us for this transgression.  The whole thing made me hanker for some more traditional Shakespeare.  The best adaptations I've seen are the ones that take liberties with the staging and setting, and stick fairly closely to the text, something neither of these pieces did.   I don't think it was a wasted night, but frequently it felt like a tedious, boring and silly one.

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