Tag Archives: Calum Finlay

Moliere, mo’ problems

TARTUFFE

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 6th November, 2013

 

We are accustomed to seeing productions of Shakespeare in modern-day (or other) dress so why then is Moliere so hard to get right?  I suppose some of the problems come from watching the plays in translation.  In this new production of Tartuffe, Chris Campbell goes for a more-or-less translation, with English idioms and vernacular thrown in.  What you are left with is a manner of speaking that is non-naturalistic but is not verse either.  It hovers somewhere in-between the two and that is the trouble with this production in a nutshell.

There is a lack of consistency in the performance style.  Some of the cast revel in the chance to perform in a heightened, comedic manner, and when these moments are developed unfettered, they are a joy. Paul Hunter’s Orgon, head of the house, warms up – by the second half he is unstoppable.  He is supported by Sian Brooke as his canny wife Elmire and Calum Finlay as his daughter’s betrothed Valere.  These three get the unreality right.  Others are not up to speed.  Ayesha Antoine is spirited as cheeky maid Dorine (although her costume baffles with its incongruity) but I would have liked her to be a little less well-spoken.  There are Birmingham twangs bubbling under the surface throughout – why not go the whole hog and have the maid come from Dudley?  Dinita Gohil displays some neat comic reactions as Orgon’s daughter Mariane (and perhaps the production hints at the ongoing issue of forced marriages) and Ashley Kumar gives some commanding histrionics as the righteous Damis.   There is an absolutely bonkers turn from Janice Connolly as Mrs Pernelle who keeps a dog in a basket but barks herself – she opens the show and should set the tone.  Sadly, the show doesn’t match or maintain her energy and commitment.

There is quite a build-up and delay before Tartuffe himself appears.  Moliere knew what he was doing.  He wants the audience to be in no doubt that this is a cozener, a Machiavel, and an arch-manipulator.  Mark Williams’s interpretation is therefore a surprise.  His Tartuffe is played straight.  Soft-spoken and self-effacing, there are no knowing asides.  It’s an interesting approach but at odds with the rest of the production.  Above all, it’s not particularly funny.  We need to see Tartuffe’s cogs working.  We need to revel in his manipulations of these ninnies and we need to rejoice in his eventual downfall.  Williams plays it all low-key and on an even keel.  It’s a real disappointment.  We get a vacuum at the heart of the play rather than a forceful, artful dodgy dealer.  I didn’t like his costume either, a kind of smock and Jesus boots affair.  Perhaps something along the lines of a televangelist would have signalled his hypocrisy better.

Roxana Silbert directs, supplying some funny comic business but doesn’t give us enough fizz and fireworks to keep the balloon in the air.  The tone of the piece is too patchy and uneven.  We cannot buy into this heightened world because we only witness it piecemeal.  The characters’ preoccupations with piety (as opposed to contemporary issues of pie-eating) seem removed from us.  Period costume would have added distance but somehow have brought us into their world – at least the picture would have been a unified one.  Also, the violent abuse of the maid, however slapstick and cartoony, doesn’t sit well in this partially contemporary, partially timeless realm, with its mickey-taking of Wolverhampton and references to parking costs near the theatre.  Ideas, amusing in isolation, jar with each other in juxtaposition, like trying to piece together a picture from at least two different jigsaw puzzles.

Liz Ashcroft’s set is a thing of beauty, representing the interior and the exterior of Orgon’s house, with French furniture and Fragonard paintings.  Trouble is it is indicative of the problem with the production.  It is neither one thing nor another.

What should be a dazzling display is a damp squib.  What should be a box of delights turns out to be a mixed bag.

Image

On reflection, we need to see more of the man in the mirror. Mark Williams in a publicity shot for TARTUFFE.

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A Basket of Laughs

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 8th November, 2012


Legend has it that this play was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I who was eager to see more of lovable rogue Falstaff. Whatever the play’s provenance, director Phillip Breen brings it right up-to-date and delivers an evening of non-stop laughter, setting the action in an Ayckbournesque world of anoraks, rugby matches, folding chairs and picnic coolers. It fits Shakespeare’s most farcical comedy very well and yet again proves, to me at any rate, the mastery of the playwright in every genre.

The titular wives, Mistress Ford (Alexandra Gilbreath) and Mistress Page (Sylvestra Le Touzel) each receive love-letters from Falstaff. They recognise at once he is on the make and plot to humiliate him mercilessly. They make a formidable double act, with Gilbreath’s sensuality and Le Touzel’s more regimented approach. As their schemes come to fruition, and we, in on the joke, laugh along with them, they are merry indeed.

Other plotters are not as adept or as successful. Ford himself (John Ramm) dons a disguise and hires Falstaff to test his wife’s fidelity. It’s a hilarious, sit-com turn from Ramm, complete with dodgy wig and bombastic seething. Though he isn’t cuckolded by his merry wife, he is certainly held up for ridicule for his unreasonably suspicious nature. When he realises what an absolute, misguided fool he has been, he bursts into tears in a manner that is equally hilarious. There is very little sentimentality in this production. Thank goodness.

Anita Dobson dazzles as go-between Mistress Quickly. Dressed like Sybil Fawlty, she charms with her word play and clearly character and actress alike are enjoying themselves immensely.

There is strong support from a host of actors in the subplot about Ford’s daughter’s three suitors. Calum Finlay amuses as the ninny Slender; Bart David Soroczynski struts and frets as the French Doctor Caius, mangling English and swishing his fencing foil. This is Allo, Allo with better dialogue. Contrasting performances, both very funny.

David Sterne is an energetic Shallow, Thomas Pickles an engaging Simple but without doubt the evening belongs to Desmond Barrit’s Sir John Falstaff. From his first entrance in a chequered tweed suit, through his disguise as the Fat Woman of Brentford and his adventures with a laundry basket, to his final, antlered humiliation in the forest, this is a master class in comedic acting, making the most of his padded physicality as well as the excessive nature of the character. You can’t help loving him.

Naomi Sheldon has poise as teenage daughter Anne, keeping her on the right side of headstrong, and Paapa Essiedu charms as her handsome suitor Fenton.

Breen doesn’t miss a trick. The attention to detail wrings the humour from every moment. I particularly enjoyed the drunkard Bardolph (Stephen Harper)- the energy of the show doesn’t let the pace slacken for a second. There are some riotous moments of action but it is the comic playing of the cast (too numerous to mention them all individually) that keeps things ticking and sometimes sprinting along. Max Jones’s set design allows transitions that flow like a musical, seamlessly taking us from the pub to the rugby field to the Fords’ living room and so on.

The fifth act contains the final humiliation of Sir John. It’s a sort of parody of a masque that would have been all the rage back in the day. Here it’s updated with some hilarious costumes. It’s a play about practical jokes and the cruelty involved. Sir John pays for his confidence tricks but so too do the tricksters. Their machinations to marry Anne off to their preferred suitor come to nought. And it serves them right.

A delightful production on every level, this will get you merry on a cold winter’s night. If we have Good Queen Bess to thank for this play, I am very grateful indeed. Royal Command Performances have gone downhill, I fear, since her day.