Tag Archives: Maria Aberg

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)

Advertisements

Pact with Ideas

DOCTOR FAUSTUS

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 14th March, 2016

 

Two men approach each other, mirroring each other’s actions. They each strike a match – the man holding the match that burns out the first will play Faustus in this evening’s production, the other will be Mephistopheles. Tonight it’s Sandy Grierson who gets his fingers burned and so his Faustus will play with fire.   This is the opening gimmick in Maria Aberg’s eccentric production of Christopher Marlowe’s play about sin and damnation.

Duality runs through it. The cast is either dressed in black or in white. Male and female actors swap parts (I mean roles!) – Eleanor Wyld appears as Lucifer, a kind of Debbie Harry figure in a John Travolta white suit. She introduces a cabaret, the Seven Deadly Sins on parade as drag queens and sideshow freaks. It’s hard to see why Faustus or anyone would be tempted to commit any of them.

The production is packed with ideas, most of them effective. The summoning of Mephistopheles is creepily atmospheric and tense. Once Faustus makes his pact, we’re waiting for his allotted 24 years to elapse so we can see his downfall. The problem lies in those 24 years. Given that Faustus has bargained away his eternal soul, he doesn’t seem to have much fun. Invisible, he knocks the Pope’s dinner around a bit. His only real enjoyment is when he revels in his (temporary) immortality. He has a pretty colourless time of it.

Oliver Ryan’s Mephistopheles is subtly inhuman but when he’s standing next to Grierson’s Faustus all I can think of is the Pet Shop Boys. Much of Marlowe’s verse is garbled or lost in the percussive music (composed by Orlando Gough) – although the famous Helen of Troy speech (Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?) is handled well, with a rag doll performance from Jade Croot. The music, played live, is responsible for creating most of the show’s atmosphere and keeping things lively – I just wanted it to be more fun. There are moments of dark humour – Mephistopheles is a devil with a Stanley knife, but overall the tone is curiously vibrant but dour.

We ought to feel that Faustus’s pact is an attractive option before we learn, as he does, that it’s not worth it. By the time his final hour approaches and he pleads with Time to stand still, I don’t feel he has been on enough of a journey to have any real sense of tragedy. He needs more peaks before he sinks into his final trough.

Doctor Faustus

Faustus meets his match. Oliver Ryan and Sandy Grierson (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

 

 

 


A Devil of a Time

THE WHITE DEVIL

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 23rd August, 2014

John Webster’s revenge tragedy is given the Maria Aberg treatment in this brash production. I say ‘treatment’ because many of the ideas are familiar from a previous production (her King John). There is a contemporary setting, contemporary costumes and too much music – loud, pulsating music to which the cast perform a variation on the Macarena.   Chiefly though is the re-use of the gimmick of giving the villain a sex-change. Here Flaminio is a woman, albeit one that dresses in a masculine style. The idea, I’m supposing, is that by dressing and behaving as a man, Flaminio avoids the usual fate of women. In this garb, she also perpetuates that way of treating women (and indeed there are women in society today who uphold the anti-feminist agenda), but she is nothing more than an evil, murderous lesbian. In short, the sex swap doesn’t work. I wanted to enjoy Laura Elphinstone’s somewhat Ant-and-Dec-esque performance but was too irked by the director’s choice.

            The music is annoying – oh, goody: another party scene! – and the contemporary clothing does not help distinguish characters. Cardinal Monticelso (the marvellous David Rintoul – I could listen to him read till receipts) is undermined by his Butlins red coat. Simon Scardifield’s Francisco sports a Frank Spencer beret.  And why cast the mighty Tony Jayawardena and give him nothing to do?

            Leading lady Vittoria (Kirsty Bushell) is a fading party girl who must be punished for living it up and giving men what they want. Ratty wigs and crumpled tutus do her no favours. In the court scene, she comes as Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, but the tone of this key scene is uneven – Bushell gives us one minute the victim, at the mercy of male attitudes and double standards, and the next she is offhandedly sarcastic. It doesn’t quite gel.  Occasionally, the power of Webster’s drama comes through.  Faye Castelow’s Isabella has a powerful scene and a messy death – this is how Webster should be done!

            I would have preferred period costume. Let the themes and argument of the play speak for itself, rather than bending and shaping it to fit some agenda that obfuscates the action. “Take my sword,” says someone, handing over a flick-knife. No.

Kirsty Bushell

Kirsty Bushell


Arden Admirers

AS YOU LIKE IT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 25th April, 2013

 

Maria Aberg’s production of one of Shakespeare’s more uneven comedies is a qualified success.  It falls to a strong cast to lift the show out of some rather muddy ideas.   It gets off to a good start.  The opening exchanges between Orlando and old servant Adam, and then between Orlando and his big brother Oliver are very nicely played and staged, but when we move to the court of Duke Frederick, things take a turn for the bizarre.  The courtiers do a dance, a jerky, spasmodic routine that I guess is meant to convey something about the confinements and restrictions placed on them.  It’s a bit weird and distracts from the action of the scene and, what is most odd, we don’t get anything else like this throughout the piece.  The idea is underused and undeveloped.  The production gains nothing by its inclusion.

The wrestling scene is visceral. Malcolm Ranson has created more of a bare-knuckle fight than a wrestling match.  Orlando proves to be enough of a biter to merit a signing as a professional footballer.

This play stands or falls on its Rosalind and Orlando.  Aberg has two of the best I’ve seen.  Pippa Nixon is spot on as the disenfranchised Duke’s daughter, assured enough to be witty and young enough to be swept away by love at first sight.  She turns to cross-dressing as a means of survival, playing the comedy and the dramatic irony to the hilt.  Her role-playing scenes with Orlando are funny and touching, eliciting many an ooh and an aww from the sixth-formers in the balcony.  Nixon has been good in previous productions.  In this one she is excellent.

Alex Waldmann makes his Orlando likeable from the start.  His scenes with faithful old manservant Adam (David Fielder) are wonderful.  Orlando’s affections become preoccupied with Rosalind and Waldmann is adorable in his halting attempts to compose a song for her.  It is good to see him in  more light-hearted scenes, and he plays them with truth and credibility.

Aberg’s Forest of Arden is foliage free and infested with new-age travellers, refugees from a Levellers’ concert.  It all gets a bit too hippy-dippy and Glastonbury festival for my tastes.  Melancholic Jaques (Oliver Ryan) is peculiar, tripping out to an acoustic guitar. The comic business between Touchstone and Audrey, and Silvius and Pheobe, is a little encumbered by the set – a sort of revolving gazebo affair.  The play works best when the scenes are played in such a way that you can overlook the setting, ignore the fridge, and enjoy Shakespeare expertly delivered.

Luke Norris is very good as Oliver and John Stahl makes his mark as the tyrannical Duke – a pity we only hear about his demise rather than seeing him again but, hey ho, that’s Shakespeare.  Michael Grady-Hall gives depth to the minor role of Silvius although his Phoebe (Natalie Klamar) is a little too annoying.  Nicolas Tennant’s Touchstone starts off as Charlie Cairoli from the waist up and Max Wall from the waist down, but ends up as a debauched Godspell reject.  He tries to engage in some improvised patter with an audience member; hilariously it falls flat. “I’m back on the text now,” he points out, “We’ve got a long way to go.”

He’s right.  It is a bit long and could stand a few cuts.  Rosalind’s song, for example, during which a quartet of female characters parade around with flaming torches – the woman beside me leaned towards my ear and declared, “It’s like a sixth form play”.  I think, all in all, I enjoyed the production more than she did, because of the actors and despite the director!

Pippa Nixon as Rosalind as Ganymede

Pippa Nixon as Rosalind as Ganymede


Dancing King

KING JOHN
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 12th July, 2012


Maria Aberg’s production transforms the Swan Theatre into a function room at a hotel. The cast is dressed to party in a kind of corporate, contemporary way. A net holds a huge number of colourful balloons against the back wall – the greatest tension in this show is wondering when exactly those balloons will be released to flood the stage.

The play begins with the Bastard (Pippa Nixon) picking out Land of Hope and Glory on a ukulele and inviting the audience to sing along. Songs feature heavily in this version. At one point – the union of Blanche of Spain and Lewis of France – we are suddenly hurled into My Best Friend’s Wedding, as King John leads the company in a spirited version of Say A Little Prayer. The happy couple’s first dance is lifted directly from Dirty Dancing. Interesting, I thought: King John as chick-flick…

The mood changes upon the arrival of Pandulph. The Pope’s Legate. Played by Paola Dionisotti, this is an understated but high status performance – in the world of this play, women have access to positions of power and can be just as ruthless as the men. It’s not so much a feminist stance as a neutralising of gender.

Pandulph is swift to urge war between the newly-united nations. Both sides are up for it and so, among the discarded champagne bottles and party favours, battle ensues. Characters stagger on with blood-smeared arms and faces. It’s like a fight at a wedding. We’ve all had a bit to drink. Leave it. It’s not worth it…

Alex Waldmann’s John is a likeable if amoral playboy but such is the nature of the piece, this king doesn’t really come across as a tragic figure. Reportedly poisoned by a monk, he suddenly breaks out into a dance routine that is startling. He is trying to keep the party going, fighting against physical agony and decline – but the party has been over since the start of the second half when the balloons flood the stage and stay there for the rest of the piece, providing a distraction for those members of the audience who see fit to bat them back onto the stage. The balloons having served their purpose undermine the drama of the events that follow.

Pippa Nixon is a passionate Bastard, mocking the nobles, but the most affecting performances come from those with whom she interacts. Sandra Duncan, as the Bastard’s mother, quickly overcomes the laughter provoked by her arrival in motorcycle leathers and baby pink crash helmet, to deliver a touching confession. Jacob Mauchlen as doomed Prince Arthur is excellent, delivering his speeches clearly and poignantly – you believe it when the Bastard’s heart is touched (past productions have used boy actors who make you want to silence them yourself!) The wonderful John Stahl is an avuncular French King and Siobhan Redmond is underused as Elinor, John’s mother.

Much as I was engaged by some of the ideas in this production, what I found annoying, frustrating and downright infuriating was a disregard for basic stagecraft that ruined the show for me. With this kind of set-up, a thrust stage with the audience on three sides, you expect, wherever you’re sitting, to see the actors’ backs from time to time. It’s the nature of the beast. The director should seek to ‘share the backs’ in a democratic manner. What you don’t expect is for characters, onlookers to the action, to be placed downstage for the entirety of scenes, hiding what’s happening centre stage. This happens too many times. Hardly a scene went by where I didn’t find myself staring at someone’s shoulder blades, wishing they would bloody well shift. I’ve never experienced this frustration before, and I’ve had seats in all areas of that theatre.

So, while the actors are giving high quality performances they are undermined by inconsiderate and irritating blocking. It doesn’t matter how clever the production ideas may be – if the audience can’t see them, you may as well perform in a blackout.