Sunday, April 21, 2013

'The Duke in Darkness' at the Tabard Theatre, 20th April 2013

What does 15 years trapped in a room do to a man?  In what ways will his mind warp to accommodate the shrinkage of his world?  How far would a person go to snatch their freedom back?  These weighty questions are what The Duke in Darkness explores.  Set in the sixteenth century, the entirety of the play takes place in one small room of acastle.  Imprisoned within are two men, the Duke of Laterraine (Michael Palmer) and his servant Gribaud (Jamie Treacher).  Their captors and guards, who flit cruelly in and out of the cell at will are the Duke of Lamorre (Martin Miller), D'Aublaye (Sean Pogmore), Voulain (Jake Mann) and Marteau (Matt Fraser Holland).

The Duke is desperately clinging onto both dignity and sanity, occupying his mind with escape plans which have taken so long to prepare that their actual execution seems academic.  He's been digging a secret hole in the wall with his fingernails, painstakingly creating a length of rope from old rags and, perhaps most impressively, he's been keeping up a perfect charade of blindness.  His cellmate, Gribaud has taken solace in another hope of freedom: insanity.  His personality and sense of self is in freefall, he shuffles between various outlandish personae, desperately trying to avoid facing cruel reality.

Gribaud (Jamie Treacher) and Laterraine (Michael Palmer)
The set is impressively intricate, the single location allowing designer Max Dorey to go to town on tiny details, creating a world all-too-depressingly lived in.  A sadistic touch is that the cell walls are for the most part blasted wide open, slats of broken wood exposing splintered holes.  You'd think a play so concerned with the effects of imprisonment would concentrate on creating as claustrophobic a set as possible, but you realise that these dilapidated surroundings reflect the men trapped within rather than any objective reality. Furthering these themes of mental and physical decay are the outstanding costumes.  Both characters still wear the tattered remains of what once must have been fine outfits.  Appropriately, Gribaud's costume is in a far more ruinous state than the Duke's - yet another way in which the character's internal troubles are externalised.  

The tone of the play ranges from a very arch, slightly ironic comedy to genuine pathos.  Gribaud's insanity is the source of much hilarity, but he himself is rarely portrayed as a direct figure of fun.  He's too pitiful a figure to be laughed at, so much humour is derived from the reactions he inspires in others, particularly in the hapless prison guard Marteau.   Jamie Treacher does a hell of a good job walking this tightrope between comedy and tragedy,  his wide-open, staring eyes conveying a deep-seated madness.  

Similarly delicately constructed is Michael Palmer's Duke.  This is a man lost to cynicism, he might speak of never having given up hope of escape, but some part of him has been crushed by captivity.  A man of obvious taste and class, he struggles vainly to keep his dignity about him.  From his perspective the blissful insanity of Gribaud must look extremely tempting, but a deep-seated, palpable sense of duty keeps him relatively focussed.  Towards the end of the play, a tug-of-war between duty and friendship, necessity and sentimentality works itself across his features - a terrible internal battle that we see clear as day.  Additionally I've got to give Palmer credit for being able to convincingly play a character who himself is very convincingly pretending to be blind.  

This is a play about their comradeship, how every tiny interaction speaks to a vast unseen history between them.  The upshot of this is that when the other characters intrude upon their world the spell is slightly broken.  The evil Duke Lamorre is a bumbling, panicky fool, and D'Aublaye, his vicious right hand man feel cartoonish and two dimensional in comparison.  Their characters are drawn in broad strokes, and while the performances are perfectly fine, there just doesn't seem like a huge amount to work with.  Faring slightly better in the character department is Voulain, who is secretly working to free the Duke.  Jake Mann plays him with an attractive nobility, there's one brilliantly human moment where he breaks down in gleeful giggles at what he has wrought.  Fraser-Holland deserves some credit too - he's the only directly comedic character here - someone presumably cast as a result of his outstanding comic timing.

Marteau (Matthew Fraser-Holland)
At this point it probably goes without saying that I thought this was an excellent production. Primarily for the reasons above, but there's a cherry on top; the theatre itself.  This play requires a certain intimacy with the actors.  Every facial expression and shift in body language feels important, there are scenes where the actors are right at each other's faces and every line is charged with energy.  At these times, the small size of the Tabard Theatre becomes very powerful; I was no more than a few feet away from what was happening on stage and this immediacy made everything seem that much more intense.  I doubt this could be captured in a bigger space, on a wider stage - it would render what was personal  impersonal and the play would be in danger of becoming melodrama.

But another, fairly unique, benefit to the location of the production is that the play is tied up in the cultural history of the area.  The playwright, Patrick Hamilton, lived in Burlington Gardens in Chiswick for 16 years.  He found success in Hollywood with adaptations of Gaslight and Rope going on to become classics of cinema, yet as far as I can tell, contemporary stagings of his work seem to be rare. The Duke in Darkness, for example, hasn't been staged in London for over 60 years.  

The idea of a play being abandoned and forgotten creates an obvious metafictional connection to the characters within, and the knowledge that this is the work of a local cultural icon being dusted off and triumphantly restored to life gives the final scenes an imperceptible added oomph.  Highly recommended.

The Duke in Darkness is being performed at The Tabard Theatre from 16th April to 11th May 2013, Tickets cost £17.00 and are available here.

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