CADFAEL: The Virgin in the Ice
Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 24th April, 2013
I will begin with a confession: I’ve never read any of Ellis Peters’s medieval whodunits. I’ve never seen any of the television adaptations either. So I approached this production with no expectations or prejudice but now, having seen it, I believe it’s unlikely I ever will.
On face value, the production looks impressive and has clearly had a lot of money spent on it. The set is elaborate and evocative – but the trouble is there’s too much of it. A lot of time is spent transitioning from one scene to another, interrupting the flow. To cover these gaps, we get clips of video or pre-recorded snatches of dialogue but the changes of scenery get in the way of both of these. I would suggest a different approach: emblematic theatre would be a more efficient way of staging the story.
There is a lot of scenes and some of them are very short indeed, suddenly plunged into blackout so that the set can be on the move again. There is a totally unnecessary scene of the titular virgin in her giant ice cube thawing out on a bier with some flame-effect lamps. She needs to be defrosted so Cadfael can examine her but we don’t need to see this. A line of dialogue at the top of the examination scene would do the job more efficiently.
The video clips are a mixed bag. When they enhance the scenery (showing leafless trees with rooks cawing and flapping about) they work quite well. When they are used to bridge scenes, they don’t. Conflation of scenes would neaten this up. It feels like the show wants to be a film, and the conventions of that medium don’t translate very well to the stage.
This brings me to the dialogue. Everyone speaks in that heightened manner you tend to get in ‘historical’ dramas, in a way that no one ever spoke in the past. I’m not suggesting they should be spouting cod Chaucer instead (that would be worse) but a touch more naturalism would not be amiss. On the page this kind of talk reads well. On the telly, where performances are smaller and more intimate, you can get away with it. But when actors have to project, they just sound like pompous arses. Few can handle such lines and pull them off. In particular, James Palmer as Evrard Boterel stands out as being able to breathe life into the words. Others had their moments. I also liked Paul Hassall as Cadfael’s lawman friend Hugh Beringar and Gareth Thomas (Blake off of Blake’s 7) as the inquisitive monk. Cadfael is a combination of Sherlock Holmes and CSI: Medieval Shropshire, and Thomas occupies the character with warmth and credibility.
To adaptor, director and designer Michael Lunney I say three words: Less is more. Fans of Cadfael will probably have read the book anyway but new to it, I found the whole thing lacking in tension and the unfolding mystery uninvolving. There is, however, the most staggering bit of over-acting in an eye patch you will ever be privileged to witness.