The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 27th April, 2015
There’s often a reason why a play isn’t performed for centuries: it’s not very good or its day has come and gone and there is nothing of relevance to it. With this in mind, I settle into my seat at the RSC’s Swan and try to keep an open mind.
John Ford (you know, him – he wrote Tis Pity She’s A Whore) gives us a tragedy, the likes of which opera has been thriving on for yonks. Two best friends, one woman, loved by both but married by one… It can only end badly.
Matthew Needham is excellent as The Duke, whose emotions are never far from the surface. He is an exuberant hedonist, when things are going his way, but there is the suggestion he could become unhinged at any moment – we see flashes of his violent temper. His bride Bianca (Catrin Stewart) is perky and lively, and obeys her husband’s instructions to treat his bff Fernando (Jamie Thomas King) like a second husband, in all ways except one, of course! Bianca and Fernando get the hots for each other but never consummate their passion, despite a few stolen moments – enough to get the villain of the piece plotting and scheming. Stewart and King go through the anguishes of love without the pleasure, matching Needham’s emotional outpourings in intensity. As the villain D’Avolos, Jonathan McGuinness is a snide and unctuous presence, Iago with an admin job – and it almost looks like he will get away with it.
There is a couple of subplots, one of which ends horribly. Arrogant womaniser Ferentes (Andy Apollo making an impression) gets his comeuppance in a masque, when three of his conquests decide to have a stab at vengeance. Superannuated fop Mauriccio (an exquisite Matthew Kelly) has a happier ending – if banishment and marriage are anything to go by – and his relationship with Brummie servant Giacopo (Colin Ryan) is both funny and touching. Kelly and Ryan are a little and large double act with perfect comic timing – I find I am more moved by the resolution to their story than I am to the main plot.
Beth Cordingly is strong as strident widow Fiormonda, and Marcus Griffiths’s Roseilli, banished but comes back disguised as a simpleton, cuts a dash, but is too removed from the main action – This is a fault of the writer.
On the whole, it’s a watchable, rewarding piece with passions running as high as the production values and well worth sacrificing an evening to see. Anna Fleischle’s design conveys the period beautifully, but the projections on the back wall add little beyond mood lighting – I am too busy watching the actors to take much notice of these effects. There is, for my taste, a little too much of the discordant music. Director Matthew Dunster interrupts the action with interludes of dumb show – I could do without these. He also adds many humorous touches, heightening the comedy to match the intensity of the drama.
Many of the plot points can be traced to Shakespeare but I come away thinking about the great Spanish dramatist Lope de Vega, a playwright The Swan would do well to feature – in translation, of course!