Sunday, January 10, 2016

'Vanity Fair' at Middle Temple Hall, 8th January 2015

Vanity Fair packs a lot in. Over three hours, we travel through William Makepeace Thackeray's depiction of life in the first half of the 19th century, experience  jewel-studded high life and dowdily miserable poverty, travel from the streets of Bloomsbury to the casinos of Brussels and the tropical heat of imperial India. There's even a miniature re-enactment of the battle of Waterloo!

This is a tall order for a cast of seven actors and minimal props/scenery. Fortunately they're buoyed up by the absolutely magnificent backdrop of Middle Temple Hall.

Constructed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the place practically sweats history. The floor is studded with decades of furniture scrapings, dead monarchs peer down from oil portraits, the walls are festooned with magnificently calligraphed crests and suits of Roundhead armour peer down at all in attendance. As if to add a historical cherry on top, the hall is renowned for hosting the premiere of Twelfth Night, with none other than William Shakespeare himself acting in it.

I was won over before even a single line of Vanity Fair had been uttered. For those unfamiliar with it, the book follows the intertwining fortunes of two friends: Becky Sharp (Lucy Harrison Shaw) and Amelia Sedley (Emily Plumtree). We first meet them graduating Miss Pinkerton's Academy for Young Ladies, each with ambitions, hopes and dreams. The narrative then snakes around a series of suitors, various betrayals, comedic interludes and moments where history sticks its big nose into affairs.

For the most part these developments are dealt with with high irony. Every coincidence and unlikely development is played with a raised eyebrow locked in pace. The result is a large cast of characters who primarily consist of caricatures. Then again, this might be by necessity; there's an awful lot of prattish upper class dandies in this play, and caricature is the quickest way to work out who's who.

Despite the lighthearted tone, there's flashes of sincerity throughout. Vanity Fair isn't quite mocking its characters, instead approaching them with humanity and sympathy (despite their occasionally diabolical behaviour).

The cast convey all thatwith aplomb. Particular praise is directed towards Shaw's Becky, she's played like a Georgian-era femme fatale. There's something predatory in the way she stalks the stage, chewing upthe chumpish men that dot the parties and parlours of Vanity Fair. 

The rest of the cast are no slouches either. Patrick Warner impresses in his many roles, sharply defining the (distractingly named) George Osborne against the other male suitors. Nicholas also brings a pleasantly raffish charm to the buffoonish Rawdon Crawley, as well as bringing a raft of minor supporting characters to life.

Perhaps the highest praise I can give the production is that I was able to follow this byzantine web of relationships with clarity from start to finish. I've never read Vanity Fair, but after a momentarily nervousness at the rush of introductions in the opening scenes, quickly understood who everyone was and what they wanted. As things twisted and turned I had a genuine emotional connection - I cared about these characters.

Sadly it's not all sunshine and roses. The show is performed in the round, and having actors backs to you, coupled with sonorous acoustics render some sections of dialogue unintelligible. This comes to a head in the (mercifully) rare musical numbers, which aside from feeling largely extraneous to proceedings, have the vocals bleeding into the backing track, resulting in an indigestible blob of sound.

The sheer size of the space also proves tricky to get to grips with. The story is largely composed of conversations in ornate rooms, and despite obvious efforts to fill the whole space, there are moments where actors look adrift in a vast emptiness. Director Hal Chambers is obviously aware of this, and every opportunity is made to swoop around the stage, yet the show is clearly at somewhat of a stretch.

Having said that, the size of the space is obviously more of a help than a hindrance. There are moments when everything descends into darkness, a lone actor illuminated by a small light at the centre of the room. You feel as if you're immersed in pure atmosphere, unable to resist looking up at the London night lights streaming through the ancient windows, casting those old Roundhead armours in imperious silhouette.

There's a decent argument that I might have had not so good a time were this production staged in a less psychogeographically sexy location. But, well, it was. That simple fact overrules some of my misgivings about staging, sound and so on. Well worth the visit.


Vanity Fair is at Middle Temple Hall until January 10th. 

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