Tag Archives: Alexander Cobb

Bloody bloody

THE DUCHESS OF MALFI

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 15th March, 2018

 

Maria Aberg’s trimmed-down version of the John Webster tragedy begins with the title character dragging a headless animal corpse onto the stage.  It’s massive and no easy task.  The thing is strung up by its  hind legs and remains in place throughout the performance.  Aberg is fond of her gimmicks (remember the big balloons in her King John) and this dead cow is the big one for this production.  Not only does this bovine body symbolise butchery (and what self-respecting revenge tragedy would be without butchery?) but it also represents the female form as object, as a piece of meat, of something to be consumed.

The stage is marked by the overlapping lines of a sports hall, a distinctly masculine arena, and indeed the choreography of the male actors comes across like the worlds’ most aggressive Zumba class.

The Duchess’s brothers, one a clergyman, the other a Duke, seek to quash their sister’s independence.  How dare she choose her own husband?!  And so, church and state conspire to have the wayward woman comply to their will.  As Duke Ferdinand, Alexander Cobb is darkly camp, unhinged and psychotic, while Chris New as the supposed holy man is overtly brutal and sinister in his dog collar and white gloves.  They are the villains, to be sure, but so is the world where toxic masculinity is the only way to go.  But it’s #NotAllMen – the Duchess’s love interest is the nerdy, Clark Kent-alike Antonio (Paul Woodson) who has less of the serial killer to him and more of the cereal café.  His love scenes with the Duchess are all the sweeter because we just know their happiness will be short-lived – from our point of view; a few years elapse during the two-hour traffic of this stage.

Orlando Gough’s original music adds otherworldliness to the piece and above all a sense of foreboding.  The absolute highlight of the evening is a blistering rendition of the old standard, “I’ll Put A Spell On You” sung by Aretha Ayeh, while the Duchess and Antonio dance in a loving embrace.  Gradually, Gough’s tones take over.  It is Aberg at her most Emma Rice and it works beautifully.

The ever-present animal carcass is stabbed open by Ferdinand at the top of the second half.  Blood oozes inexorably across the floor, like the inevitable, impending denouement, like the mortality that will inescapably claim us all.  The characters carry on oblivious of the creeping puddle at their feet.  They fight, struggle with, and murder each other, becoming coated and drenched in the stuff.  I suspect this is the reason why the costumes are present-day: for ease of replacement and cleaning!

As the Duchess, Joan Iyola is elegant and commanding, sultry, sensual and above all controlled – a little too much perhaps during moments of extremis.  Hired killer Bosola, (Nicolas Tennant) waxes philosophical, regretting he allowed the horse to bolt before he barred the stable door in a show of conscience awakened too late.  He’s the most interesting character of the lot.  While other cast members can match Tennant’s power and presence, they are not given the range of facets to explore.

At turns brutal and tender, the production proves eminently watchable and provocative but its point, like its blood-drenched characters, proves somewhat too slippery.

malfi

Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb) holds the Duchess (Joan Iyola) in a fraternal embrace… (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

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Star Tern

THE SEAGULL

Derby Theatre, Tuesday 11th June, 2013

John Donnelly’s new version of Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece (in my view) brings the Russian tragicomedy up-to-date and yet it feels thoroughly Chekhovian.  The play is riddled with lines and themes from Hamlet – indeed, the first act involves a play-within-a-play, and it is from this device that the production takes its cue.  The setting is somewhat abstract, sometimes impressionistic, sometimes expressionistic, but it wears its theatricality overtly.  When characters, played naturalistically, deliver a soliloquy or an aside, they step over the edge of the bare black proscenium and address the audience directly.  Our positioning beyond the fourth wall represents the lake to which they often allude.  “There’s nobody out there,” mourns someone, plaintively.

But we are out there, hanging on every word of this punchy script.  These Chekhovians swear and sing Burt Bacharach (or try to) but apart from these interpolations, all the tedium and banality of their everyday lives is there, squeezing the existential angst out of them in sudden outbursts.

With precious little to do, they philosophise about Life (naturally) but also about Theatre and Writing – these are a few of my favourite things!  There are some very arch moments, playing on different levels.  I found myself shrinking in my seat when they decried theatre critics.

Blanche McIntyre directs a strong company with an assured hand, marrying the content to the form – the only happy union of the piece!  Beautifully lit by Guy Hoare, Laura Hopkins’s set reveals its versatility across the acts.

Abigail Cruttenden rules the roost as matriarch Irina, an actress who readily confesses she is never ‘off’.  She wears her passions on her sleeve and has a declamatory tone to even the most mundane of utterances.  She is the Gertrude figure whose affections have been drawn away from troubled (i.e. artistic) son Konstantin towards writer (i.e. tortured) Boris (Gyuri Sarossy).  Konstantin (the excellent Alexander Cobb) shoots a seagull, then himself (but misses) before finding some measure of success as a writer.  Konstantin loves Nina (Pearl Chanda – also excellent) who aspires to be an actor, inspired by Irina and in awe of Boris.  Meanwhile, Masha (Jenny Rainsford) loves Konstantin but settles for marrying the pleasantly dull Semyon (Rudi Dharmalingham) in that doom-laden way that these characters do.  I also particularly enjoyed Colin Haigh as the ailing Petr and David Beames as Yevgeny, but really the entire ensemble merits undiluted praise.

It’s a very entertaining version and also very rewarding.  For all its meditations, it’s what the subtext provokes in the observer that makes it a great play. It is, as its own thesis claims, a moment of the extraordinary that keeps us going through the mundanity and longings of our own mortality.  It’s a story of thwarted hopes and expectations, false alarms and anguish.  It is also very funny.

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Emotional seesaw. Pearl Chanda and Abigail Cruttenden