Review – Blood Wedding, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 1st June 2012

Blood WeddingBlood Wedding, together with The Bacchae, form the first two thirds of this year’s major “Made in Northampton” highlight, the Festival of Chaos, which is also part of the Cultural Olympiad’s London 2012 Festival. This is no mean achievement, and one of which the Royal and Derngate can truly be proud. The plays (including Hedda Gabler coming later this summer) are Artistic Director Laurie Sansom’s three all time favourites in the whole of drama; so I expect we will see a large dose of his special magic in these productions.

Kathryn Pogson Certainly his creative footprints are all over Blood Wedding. The cast work together as a superb ensemble, which I’ve found is the absolute hallmark of his directing style, and the play has a generally stylised and cultured feel to it. I think Mr Sansom even sneaks into the cast himself as the disembodied voice of the news broadcast on TV. The production has a versatile and useful set – I particularly admired the upstairs landing in the wedding scenes, which seems to exist without any side access – and the whole show is sensibly and properly lit. Dougal Irvine’s specially composed score is frankly gorgeous, played live by a gifted quartet in the orchestra pit, and I could imagine myself seeing the show again, simply to re-experience the music.

Liam Bergin The play of course is like a 20th century Spanish Shakespeare – a classic tragedy, which lends itself to all sorts of modernisation and adapting. Lorca’s masterpiece was first staged in 1932 but like Shakespeare its themes of nature, fate and revenge are timeless and can fit in any era, any place. This production is set “sometime in the near future”; a rather surreal world where TV reception is still tenuous, hospital receptionists don’t speak to you until you’ve taken a numbered ticket from the pull-off machine, and you still wash using a Victorian style jug and bowl.

Ery Nzaramba The surrealism is further emphasised in the language. Like much of Shakespeare, the rhythms of the verse lend their own atmosphere, which comes across to good effect in Australian Tommy Murphy’s adaptation. It’s set in southern Spain, but the actors use English North Country accents; and Tommy Murphy includes some down under phrases to the text. “No worries” and “Good-oh” have become reasonably universal but when Leonardo’s wife says she bought something “on special” (instead of “in a sale”) and he describes distances in “klicks”, you are definitely on Terra Australiana. I’m not sure if that was a deliberate ploy or just an accident of idiom; together with all the mother’s anxieties about dust on shoes this could just as easily be the Outback as Andalucia. It all contributes to an intrigue of displacement.

Amanda Wilkin This is extremely stirring drama. From the moment the tale starts to unfold you are locked in. Kathryn Pogson’s Mother, berating Liam Bergin’s Groom about his choice of bride-to-be and her enduring resentment over the Felix family is all very recognisable. Indeed, Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw elements in this opening scene of our very own blood wedding almost 25 years ago; and when the mother finally meets the bride and her father on their own territory, you sense it has all the makings of an acrimonious Scouse wedding reception. (If you’ve ever attended one of those, you’ll know what I mean.) Kathryn Pogson is scarily convincing as a woman just hanging on to her wits, who is emotionally and psychologically scarred by the death of the men in her family, who faces the prospect of her only remaining son leaving her, who scrambles around for reasons to hate her prospective daughter in law, and who wallows in a general disdain for the wider Felix family. Liam Bergin too is excellent as the resolute son toiling on the land all day (partly to get away from his mother, you suspect), exuding a dapper confidence on his wedding day and embodying heroism in his determination to track down the swine who has nicked his bride.

Robert Benfield They are well matched by the pairing of Ery Nzaramba as Leonardo and Amanda Wilkin as his wife. Bitter with his home life, Mr Nzaramba’s Leonardo can barely disguise his loathing for his wife, and gives a great portrayal of someone who is hurting as much as he hurts. The audience should detest him for the way he treats his wife, but his emotionally subtle performance makes your response much more complex. He has a great stage presence in his first scene, when you feel he could lash out with considerable violence at any minute; but this is nicely reigned in for the wedding scene, where he fades remarkably into the crowd so that the abduction of the bride comes as a complete surprise (except that I’ve now told you about it.) I thought Amanda Wilkin was fantastic alongside him – treading a fine line between accepting and resenting her lot, gaining our sympathy for her plight without any mawkish demands for it; perceptive, but powerless; another subtle and fascinating performance.

Rosie Ede The unusual presentation of the character of The Girl – part Shakespearean Fool, part Greek messenger – as a fully adult male in the shape of Robert Benfield works very well. It fits in comfortably with the general surrealism of the production as a whole and also gives the larger than life character more prominence. When she lets loose a tirade of obscenities it makes more sense than if a genuine little girl had said it, whilst still retaining its shock impact. Every time she makes an entrance, she oozes trouble and portent; and her bloodied appearance after the interval, foretelling the death and destruction to come, makes for a very disturbing image.

Jim Bywater The whole cast are excellent, with no weak links at all, but I particularly enjoyed the performances of Rosie Ede as the maid (and particularly as the nosy neighbour), Jim Bywater as the bride’s father – something of a Dickensian self-made man to that characterisation – and Donna Berlin as Leonardo’s mother in law, trying in vain to keep the peace between her warring family. There are some great set piece moments – most notably the machinations at the wedding scene itself, and also later when the wedding party, in pursuit of Leonardo and the bride, enclose and move in on Leonardo and the Groom at their double death scene; that made a very effective and striking tableau. The production takes on the nature themes of the last part of the play – the appearance of the Moon, the living forest, and so on – with some clever modern twists, and the whole vision of the modernised setting holds together extremely well. Despite – or maybe because of – its stylisation, it’s a very engaging production that holds your attention throughout and makes you feel as though you’re witnessing something very special, that magic something that can only happen on a stage.

Donna Berlin It was a shame that on the performance we saw, one significant member of the cast got all petulant at curtain call; when the cast moved into the wings before returning for a second call you could see this person mouthing “What, again? Really? Do I have to? Oh for God’s sake” (or the equivalent), returning to the stage with an impatient glare and subsequently hot-footing it back offstage before some members of the cast had even had the time to stand up straight again. Not only did it convey the message to the audience that they didn’t care about how we reacted to the show, it was also disrespectful to their colleagues. A pet hate of mine! I trust it was a stress-induced one-off.

Review – The persecution and assassination of Marat as performed by the inmates of the asylum of Charenton under the direction of the marquis de Sade, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, 19th October 2011

Marat/SadeOr, the Marat/Sade to be concise; not that concise is a word that comes to mind when thinking back to Wednesday’s preview. At a good hour and three quarters before the break, having just witnessed a feast of anal rape, the interval Shiraz should be available through the NHS.

But I’m giving away the plot. Actually the (full) title tells you all you need to know. The Marquis de Sade really was imprisoned at the asylum in Charenton and really was allowed by the director Coulmier to stage plays acted by the inmates. So the story created by the writer Peter Weiss is a perfectly legitimate fantasy, and it was originally produced in the UK by the RSC as part of their Theatre of Cruelty season in 1964.

Herr Weiss is no longer with us so we cannot tell what he would have made of the liberties taken with his text. It’s certainly been updated, with additional speeches by Marat, Roux and the Herald (there may be more); his descriptions of his characters’ attributes and their costumes have largely been ignored; and Weiss was very minimalist with his stage directions, which allows the director Anthony Neilson, pretty much Carte Blanche to do what he wants.

Some of these liberties are very successful. Coulmier controls the inmates through a system of mobile phones and the piercing sound of ringtones has a startling effect throughout the play. A dangerous ploy – it would kill the atmosphere if a phone accidentally went off in the audience. Marat himself prepares his speeches using a laptop in his bath – in fact the whole production couldn’t have gone ahead without the late Steve Jobs. Lisa HammondThe Herald is no longer a male clown-cum-harlequin, but the role is performed by an actress with restricted growth who often uses an electric wheelchair to move around the stage. She’s quite an arresting sight, and often has a glint in her eye that she can turn to evil effect; it’s a very good performance from Lisa Hammond.

Mrs Chrisparkle, however, is less charitable of the director’s motives. Her reaction to the production was that he had a checklist of faux offensive activities he wanted to ensure were included, and that he wouldn’t be satisfied until every one of them was ticked off.

The programme makes much of the play’s parallels with the Arab Spring of today and its relevance to the 21st century. There are some excellent lines (in the original text) about having trust in “our minister of war” and also the irony of “calmly watch these barbarous displays that could not happen nowadays”. All that on the week that Colonel Gadaffi was killed. You couldn’t make it up. It’s true that the play hasn’t dated at all – I think it was probably always timeless. Amanda WilkinThere is some surprising use of the hijab, and Khyam Allami’s stirring and atmospheric music for the production lends an eastern lilt to the play. The four asylum inmates who act as singers in the production are in excellent voice and contribute to making the music one of the highlights of the play. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Amanda Wilkin as Kokol.

Lanre MalaoluIn fact one of the really strong points of this production is the excellent ensemble work of the actors playing the inmates. They provide a really credible image of they type of people who might inhabit an asylum – their walks, their tics, their habits are all well observed and totally believable – apart perhaps from Lanre Malaolu’s Duperret, who really does masturbate an awful lot (tick). I felt that was probably only so they could often call him a “w**ker” (not in the original text) (tick), so I’m not blaming him.

Whether it’s the play itself or the specific production, it’s hard to determine, but I have two main problems with the show. Firstly, it’s way too long, particularly in the first half. A lot of that is Weiss’ fault. In the text, the first act covers 69 pages, the second act, 30. But there’s a lot of self-indulgent activity in the first act that could either be completely removed or drastically cut down – the anal rape (tick) scene goes on and on, and on… and on. One feels that he’s proved his point; now can we get on to something else please. Many of the speeches by Marat and Sade are very heavy and wordy – to the extent that you stop paying attention and focus on the stage activity instead. As they haven’t treated the text with reverence, I think it some of these speeches could have done with extra pruning. The result of all this is that there are many sequences that are just plain boring.

Secondly, basically, it’s a play that hates its audience (which is one of my pet hates). A member of the audience gets approached by one of the cast which results in their being called a c**t on stage (tick). Members of the cast variously insult and moon at the audience (tick), people have popcorn chucked at them like a weapon, a black actor turns to a white man in the audience and says “Death to the White Man!” (not in the original text) (incitement to racial hatred? Tick), the dildos that are used in the anal rape scene are then waggled in the faces of elderly ladies in the front row (tick). I’m sure you get the picture. There is a moment when Marat walks down an aisle asking patrons if any of them can speak French, because he wants them to translate something for him. Only a fool would offer to help, because God knows what trick would have befallen that person. I certainly kept schtumm, as did everyone else. It’s up to you to decide whether this is a legitimate way of challenging an audience, or if it’s merely taking the Mick.

Having said that, one thing I did like at the end of the first act was how Arsher Ali’s Marat started deconstructing the piece. Voltaire and Lavoisier do their interminably dull speeches to the audience and frankly no one is paying any attention, at which point Marat says, “you’re losing them, it’s no good, stop now, they all want the interval, they all want their ice-creams” and then he starts to go around the front row taking ice-cream orders. Nice. That’s what I call subversive, much more than the bizarre over-use of jockstraps (although that did reveal a curious tattoo of a map of Africa on one person’s buttock).

Jasper Britton What of the main roles? I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Jasper Britton’s Marquis de Sade. Weiss’ description makes it clear that he should be an imposing figure. But I didn’t find him that imposing. I found him very human, very flawed; to be pitied rather than to be in awe of him. They’ve made him into a cross-dressing chameleon, taking on a different persona almost every time he comes on. I wasn’t very convinced by him as an American cowboy; but he was absolutely right as Mary Portas. There’s also a scene where he comes on dressed as the Herald, in her wheelchair, and with shoe attachments on his knee so that he can mimic her stature when on all fours. In the first act her character abused an audience member who had been tricked into patronising her disability. In the second act, the production itself patronises her. You can’t have it both ways, Mr Director. Which is it to be?

Christopher EttridgeChristopher Ettridge’s Coulmier is every inch the respectable director and on the face of it a world apart from the general madness surrounding him. The coup de theatre at the end is effective but not in keeping with Weiss’ original; and it’s been done before in Rocky Horror. Actually, the whole meaning of the end of the play is changed – in the original version the play ends in total anarchy with Coulmier attempting to restore order by striking his patientsNathaniel Martello-White much to the delight of the Marquis de Sade who glows with pleasure at the mischief. Not so in this production. I also very much enjoyed Nathaniel Martello-White’s performance as Jacques Roux, who has a very commanding presence, natural authority and moreover a voice as clear as a bell. This is his RSC debut season; I think he could become a bit of a star.

Imogen DoelImogen Doel as Charlotte Corday looks very much the part, but I couldn’t always understand the words she was saying; and this production has the character played by an inmate with sleeping sickness (which is quite funny) whereas Weiss described her as a somnambulist. Do you think someone ought to have checked the dictionary definition?

Arsher AliArsher Ali as Marat was very convincing, spoke clearly, and I admired the clever make up job that makes him look like he’s had part of his head shaved. Was it entirely necessary to have him sitting on the toilet at the beginning of the second half? Was it just so that one of the inmates could smear themselves in his excrement? (tick).

A number of people left at the interval. To be fair, a play like this isn’t doing its job properly if at least some people aren’t motivated to prefer their own more polite company. The audience reception at the end was more rapturous than I expected, although a lot of it was from some whooping girls who had got more into the sex and nudity elements of the evening than might otherwise be deemed dignified.

So in conclusion I’d say yes to its still being relevant; yes to its ability still to shock; yes to the overall standard of acting; but no to a feeling of overall satisfaction. A plucky failure? Probably, but often that can have more artistic value than an unambitious success.