Thursday, September 25, 2014

'The Woman in the Moon' at the Rose Theatre, 23rd September 2014

The last thing you expect an Elizabethan comedy to be is funny. Don't get me wrong, Shakespeare, Marlowe and the gang have their moments of mirth, but it's safe to say modern audiences don't exactly bust a gut at their gags. So when invited to John Lyly's 'astrological sex comedy' The Woman in the Moon, I figured I was in for the sort of comedy you intellectually appreciate more than feel. Oh boy, was I ever wrong.

Lyly spent 60 years as the best-selling author of fiction in Britain, trumping even the mighty Bard as a 16th-century literary success. Contemporaneous accounts paint him as a Wilde-ish bon vivant; a well-dressed, sharp-tongued man with a bevy of vices. He even flirted with Elizabeth I, cheekily flitting in and out of favour with the court. Aside from his dramatic successes he was also elected as an MP four times, no mean feat for a man frequently accused of witchcraft, often embroiled in religious controversies, whose plays were banned and theatres forcibly shut down. He eventually died "poor and neglected"; a description you can also apply to his plays. Only one of his phrases has entered common parlance - "All is fair in love and war" - which somehow feels appropriate.

But now he's back! And where better to resurrect this forgotten hero of Elizabethan theatre than The Rose? Dredged up from under the London clay and nestled under skyscraper girders, the theatre is half-performance space and half-archaeological dig, quite rightly described as "one of the weirdest sights in London". The perfect place for a seriously weird play.

Julia Sandford as Nature
The Woman in the Moon is set in a mythological world populated by personifications of astrological signs. The opening scene sees Nature (Julia Sandiford) embarking on her greatest creation yet: Woman. She's named Pandora (Bella Heesom), animated by the breath of the gods, given the best aspects of the planets, coaxed into movement and finally granted voice. Four boyish shepherds, Stesias (Joel Davey), Learchus (Rhys Bevan), Iphicles (James Askill) and Melos (Robert Heard), watch this process with barely concealed adolescent lust. With no women around they're a fidgety, nervous bunch, eager to get their paws on this fascinating new creature. This proves more difficult than anticipated.

Enter the planets. Unhappy that Pandora has nabbed all of their best qualities, they take it in turns to afflict her with their various temperaments, trying to win her over to their side once and for all. So, while Pandora is influenced by Saturn (Llywelyn ab Eleri) she's grumpy, while Mars (Adam Cunis) stands to attention she's violent and combative, Jupiter (Gareth Radcliffe) makes her imperious, Venus (Keira Duffy) makes her horny and so on. Director James Wallace gives the piece a very Jodorowsky-esque focus, reminding me of an extremely similar astrological procession in 1973 underground classic The Holy Mountain.

Like a wheel of fortune Pandora's personality spins out of control, and her interactions with the shepherds grow ever more tangled and surreal. Over the course of the play these men are variously abused, domineered, seduced, confused, manipulated and nursed by Pandora. They tie themselves into knots as they battle for the affections of a woman who, by the time curtain falls, has embodied every single aspect of womanhood.

The shepherds.
This is all performed by one of the most consistently funny casts I've seen of late. The shepherds make a great comedy troupe, scuffling around the stage in a bewildered romantic daze. As they vie for Pandora's affections they gradually turn on each other, dopily plotting the best way to dispatch their rivals and get her all to themselves. Like Snow White's seven dwarves each shepherd embodies varying aspects of masculinity, though they're united in extreme gullibility.

The planets are similarly well cast and played, each performer loudly broadcasting their particular astrological bent. Highlights are Radcliffe's boastful, commanding, wheeler-dealer Jupiter, waving his phallic sceptre about. Similarly fun is the sleazy, fedora wearing Mercury (Théo Kingshott), theatrically posing like one of a ridiculous professional poker stars. My absolute favourite was Duffy's powerfully erotic, bright green Venus. Visually styled after Fame-era Lady Gaga with a hint of Rihanna for good measure, she and Heesom writhe serpentlike to the throbbing electro-beat of Goldfrapp's Ooh La La.

The centrepiece performance is Heesom's chameleonic Pandora. She switches personalities like she's shuffling a deck of cards, one moment an intimidating kicker of asses, the next trapped in a hallucinatory wig-out, the next mumsy and caring. It's scarily good how strong Heesom's grip on this character is, and most importantly, even through a dizzying temperamental blizzard, the bedrock of her disposition remains stable, allowing for character development beyond the superficial planetary changes.

Lyly's play is written as a satire on womanhood, concluding with a masculine shrug that women are ultimately chaotic, capricious creatures. In rougher hands this material would have left an unpleasantly misogynistic taste in the mouth, yet this production avoids that pitfall by poking fun at both sexes equally, presenting the whole damn human condition as a sexed-up, sweaty knot of misunderstandings propelled by hormones, libidos and jealousy, all gazed upon by a mischievous universe.

The Woman in the Moon is hilarious, sexy and perhaps most surprisingly, cool. The writing is pin-sharp, the dialogue delivered naturalistically and with personality; notably I had no trouble following the dense Elizabethan wordplay even through frequent bouts of giggles. The costuming is similarly spot-on, everyone dressed with one eye on fashion and the other on character - the planets' monochromatic costumes particularly impressive.

The Woman in the Moon fits The Rose like a glove, the carcass of the old theatre raucously reanimated by Lyly's wonderful play. This is the first professional run of this play for 400 years, but by the stars it's been worth the wait.

The Woman in the Moon is at the Rose Theatre until 4th October 2014

Thanks to Views From the Gods for the ticket.  This review is also posted there.

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