Tag Archives: Jay Simpson

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

THE WITCH OF EDMONTON

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 13th November, 2014

It’s a sad fact of society that when you hold up someone as a scapegoat for your problems, evil deeds will follow – persecution being the least of them.  Playwrights Rowley, Dekker and Ford were saying as much four centuries ago.  How dismaying to see the message is still relevant today.

Old Mother Sawyer is a lonely old woman whose life is made intolerable by the villagers of Edmonton ( a bunch of UKIP voters in waiting – although these days the focus has turned from little old ladies to immigrants).  Bothered and bewildered, she wishes she could bewitch her tormentors.  Unlike The Crucible there’s a twist here.  Something wicked this way comes: the devil hears the old woman’s curses and makes her an offer she can’t refuse.  She becomes a witch for real with the devil at her side as her familiar, Tom the black dog.  Eileen Atkins in perfectly credible as the curmudgeonly old boot, arousing our sympathy from the start.  Her cantankerous demeanour puts the devil in his place (temporarily, of course).  Atkins is superb and so is Jay Simpson as the devil dog.

Cleverly, the script keeps the audience a step ahead of the characters.  We always know more than they do and this dramatic irony heightens both the comic and the tense moments.

There is greater evil abroad than making Farmer Banks (Christopher Middleton) kiss his cow’s backside.  Ian Bonar’s con artist Frank Thorney Junior is a bigamist and adulterer, swindling his inheritance from his father, abetted by David Rintoul’s Sir Arthur.  (When it all goes belly-up, it turns out there is one law for the rich and another for the poor… Imagine that!  Oh.  Yes…)  Bonar is excellent – his early scenes with the first of his wives takes us in.  We believe he is a star-cross’d swain.  Later we see the depths to which he will sink.

The entire company is in good form. Shvorne Marks makes a strong impression and tugs at the heartstrings as wronged wife Winnifride. Ian Redford’s Carter and Geoffrey Freshwater’s Thorney Senior break your heart with grieving.  Dafydd Llyr Thomas is a hoot as the bumptious Cuddy Banks – the only character able to cast the devil from the place.  Joe Bannister and Joseph Ashley cut dashing figures as two suitors wrongly accused – it all gets a bit CSI:Edmonton for a while,  An underused Liz Crowther gets a moment in the spotlight for a wild-eyed mad scene and handsome RSC newcomer Oliver Dench shines, displaying a talent for comic playing in a couple of minor roles.

Sensibly, director Gregory Doran keeps the play in its own period and lets its delights and messages speak for themselves.  Niki Turner’s design is as effective as it is simple: a dense backdrop of tall reeds through which Tim Mitchell’s lighting creates creepily atmospheric moments, complemented by Paul Englishby’s music.  Special mention must go to violinist Zhivko Georgiev for his ‘diabolical’ fiddling.

There is much to enjoy here: a bunch of rude mechanicals perform a morris dance and have to dance to the devil’s tune; shocking violence and duplicity; humorous exchanges and poignant scenes of grief and forgiveness…  It’s a betwitching evening of theatre with Eileen Atkins casting a spell that lingers long after Old Ma Sawyer is led away to her fate.

Magic!  Eileen Atkins (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

Magic! Eileen Atkins (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

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Murder Most Fun

ARDEN OF FAVERSHAM

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 31st May, 2014

 

Written by an anonymous hand or hands, this play from 1592 receives a lively revival by the RSC. Played without an interval, it’s a black comedy in which a woman and her lover plot to murder the eponymous Arden, who himself is pestered by petitions from peasants about some land he has inherited. The plans go awry in a series of comic exploits until the action turns, on a knife point you might say, and a brutal, bloody murder takes place. The culprits fail to cover their tracks and are brought to summary and unequivocal justice. It’s a sobering conclusion to a wicked little romp, and we are reminded that our baser impulses may lead to dire consequences.

The setting is modern – or very recent – day. The costumes are just a little out-of-date: patterned tracksuits, and anoraks, windbreaker jackets… The ordinariness of the dress belies the extraordinary actions of the characters, suggesting that we are all in danger of giving way to sins and criminality. The costumes add a great deal to the humour of this piece, underpinning some larger-than-life performances.

As Alice Arden, Sharon Small is a scream, bringing cartoon villainy and barmaid chic to her portrayal. Ian Redford plods around as doomed husband Arden, and Keir Charles, with his Miami Vice sleeves and diamante ear-ring, is in excellent form as Alice’s lover Mosby. Jay Simpson and the mighty Tony Jayawardena are darkly hilarious as hired hitmen Black Will and Shakebag, while Christopher Middleton is chilling as Clarke, a painter with a penchant for poisonings.

Polly Findlay’s direction keeps the energy levels high and uses scenic effects like fog and snow to enhance the chaos and confusion. It’s a fast-moving, laugh-out-loud thriller that is ultimately a morality tale, and although you leave the theatre with an unpleasant aftertaste (those Elizabethans didn’t mess about when it came to crime and punishment) on the whole you feel like you’ve been royally entertained.

Chinese lucky waving cats will never be the same again.

Sharon Small

Sharon Small