Tag Archives: Peter Mumford

Wine, Women and Song

BAKKHAI

Almeida Theatre, London, Saturday 22nd March, 2015

 

This new version of Euripides’s tragedy by Anne Carson has more laughs than you might expect. Observations about wine and women being a bad mix, for example, bring bathos to high drama and round out the humanity of the characters – this we can relate to if not their extraordinary circumstances. The staging is simple: distant hills are suggested by mounds, over which the cast clamber and stalk like goats, and the mechanics of the theatre are brought into use without artifice: a lighting rig like a flying saucer hovers above the stage, mist billows from a smoke machine…

Out steps Dionysus, god of (among other things) the theatre; the sublime Ben Whishaw captivates from the off. He is more than human, he tells us, and we believe him. Whishaw’s slight physique and rich voice (I’m trying not to think of Paddington Bear) along with a winning smile and androgynous appearance (like Conchita Wurst on her day off) have both appeal and a suggestion of power kept in check. Sly humour twinkles in his baby blues. He has the god’s duality down pat.

Scenes are punctuated by a chorus of nine women. They are acolytes as well as commentators and their timing is impeccable, in their a capella singing and the beating of their staffs. There is a hypnotic quality to them: Orlando Gough’s compositions have a Greco-Baltic feel to them. I expect they will work themselves into ekstasis as the action approaches its gory climax. But they don’t. Pity.

The splendid Bertie Carvel is calm and business-like as King Pentheus, dispensing orders to random members of the audience, “You go and burn his house down”. He is cool-headed and efficient – until, in a scene that foreshadows Pilate and Jesus, he encounters the hippy from Hell in close quarters, and is persuaded to go and witness for himself scenes of Bacchic ritualised mayhem, dressed as a woman. Carvel is dignified and stately in his female garb, like a greying Jerry Hall. He later appears as Pentheus’s mother, Agave, who is brought to realise what a terrible thing she has done to her own son.

Also excellent is Kevin Harvey in a range of parts: the elderly Cadmus, for example. It is the trio of men in the company who convey all the drama about which the chorus of women will comment. The men are the action, the women are the colour and the flavour.

The violence, as is the convention, takes place off-stage and is then described; our imaginations work better than any special effects – leading to a chilling and powerful denouement of sheer horror, as the god metes out his punishments to all and sundry.

It’s the power of the drama that affects, a couple of millennia down the line, in this stark yet engaging production. Whishaw shines, Carvel and Harvey add weight to Anne Carson’s lively and evocative script. James Macdonald’s direction, (using other-worldly sound design by Paul Arditti, and sudden, sharp lighting changes by Peter Mumford) takes us into a fantasy world where the outlandish events can take place. There are links to us: plastic bags, wheeled suitcases and so on, but it’s the human element that hits home.  You could link it with modern-day parallels about the excesses of religiously-motivated violence but for me it’s the longevity of a play and ancient theatrical conventions that strike at us in primal and esoteric ways that, like proud Pentheus, has me in pieces.

I emerge stunned into the Islington sunshine, having been engaged intellectually and emotionally. The line that sticks with me refers to another gift of Dionysus to mankind: “Wine is the cure for being human.” Now, there’s a religion I can relate to!

Divine!  Ben Whishaw as Dionysus (Photo: Mark Brenner)

Divine! Ben Whishaw as Dionysus (Photo: Mark Brenner)

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Tall Story

THE B F G

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 2nd December, 2014

 

The REP’s big Christmas show this year is David Wood’s adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel – not one of his strongest but containing the quintessential elements of a Dahl classic nevertheless: horrible villains, a downtrodden but virtuous child protagonist, nonsensical words, and some scary moments.

Director Teresa Ludovico throws everything at the stage in the first act to bring Giant Country to life, with music, movement, masks and mime… There are circus skills and gigantic legs and hands – it’s like a bonkers Italian variety show rather the traditional fare and it works!  Especially in the transmission of the darkness and horror that runs through Dahl’s slender tale.

Lara Wollington (a former Matilda) is excellent as perky orphan Sophie.  Abducted by a giant (in a terrifying sequence) she soon befriends him and he reveals he’s not like other giants in that he refuses to eat the flesh of human children.  Weirdo.  Shunned by his peers, he faces the type of scorn and derision usually doled out to Vegans by meat-eating brutes.  Wollington is nothing short of perfect in the role.  She has a strong, clear and expressive voice, bags of energy and performs the quirky, jerky, sometimes balletic, movements with ease and ability.

In his Frankenstein footwear and waistcoat this Big Friendly Giant looks like a lecturer from Middle Earth Polytechnic but Joshua Manning fulfils this tall order superbly well, making the titular character a likeable sort and managing the mangled language with ease.  He may not be all that B of a G but he is certainly F.  With the aid of sound effects and the clever use of perspective, he stomps around, leading his new little friend through a series of moments, each of them beautifully staged by a talented and versatile ensemble, who will backflip as soon as look at you.

It’s all gloriously theatrical, a cavalcade of the performing arts, and carried off with such brio you are willing to overlook the fact that it’s largely padding to eke out the story until the interval.

In the second act we move from Giant Country to Buckingham Palace and the bedroom of Her Majesty the Queen of England.  Here, Sophie does a Michael Fagan, breaking in to warn Her Maj of impending giant-sized disaster.  Mike Goodenough’s Queen may resemble Benny Hill more than that lady off of the postage stamps but he’s more than good enough – a restrained panto dame who gets the funniest lines, which he delivers with pouting relish.

The other giants are left (largely) to the imagination and this makes them all the scarier..  Huge shadows are thrown across the backdrop and sometimes hands and feet appear.  It’s what we don’t see that scares us and talk of bones found outside an orphanage is particularly gruesome.

Hats off to the technical team.  Set and costume designer Robert Innes Hopkins, along with lighting by Peter Mumford, gives the piece a dreamscape quality, with mists and shadows contrasted with bursts of vibrant colour.  Frank Moon and Martin Riley’s unconventional score is played live under the musical direction of Riley himself on keyboards.  Percussionist Tom Chapman and guitarist Tom Durham are accompanied at various points by cast members on a range of instruments.  It all adds to the atmosphere and above all the fun.

Stylish and surreal, this BFG is an enjoyable alternative to the usual pantomimes on offer, a theatrical banquet with plenty to satisfy everyone.

Lara Wollington and Joshua Manning (Photo: Robert Day)

Lara Wollington and Joshua Manning (Photo: Robert Day)