Saturday, 22 November 2014

The devil’s in the dog-tail…

Ever since the Swan Theatre opened in 1986, there’s been a running quip in the Bard family – when one of us attends a play there we get asked: “Have they changed the seats yet?!”

As much as I adore the Swan as a venue – it’s probably my favourite theatre, just above (sorry) the Barbican’s Pit; the acoustics (because of the size, and the beautiful walls of exposed, aged brick) in my (deafened) opinion are superior to the main Royal Shakespeare Theatre: and I therefore hardly needed the captions at Thursday evening’s thrilling performance of The Witch of Edmonton (only on for one more week) – I do find the reupholstered seats still quite challenging: especially as the majority are nothing but shared, padded benches, some with cinema-style bases. (I noted John Woodvine – whose daughter, Emma, is in charge of the company’s text and voice work – also struggling to fold his imposing frame into one of the stall seats: although he had wisely, and knowledgeably, picked one with somewhat better legroom.)

This time, unusually, I was in the first gallery, directly opposite one of the two surtitle screens; but the Lebensraum (I originally put “wriggle room”: but I like my fellow audience members to keep still, please…) must have been designed by someone (Michael Reardon himself?) with shorter trousers and smaller boots than I: because I felt tightly squeezed between the chair (in front of a standing rail) and the (sumptuous golden wood) balcony – although this did have the advantage of almost forcing me to lean over the stage, gaining what, at times, felt like a private performance, because of the intimacy of the space. (Which is one of the reasons I so love it.)

Being disabled, I always ask for (and so far, have always been granted – by the brilliant RSC Access team) a seat at the left-hand end of a row: which does provide many, many options in the Swan. This week, though – because there was nowhere for me to rest my duff left leg in such a constricted gap – the flip-down seat immediately to my right, fortunately, was vacant: but I therefore spent most of the second half twisted round, at a peculiar angle, resting my right side on the seat-back, to make things a little more expansive. Let me just say that this gemelli impersonation didn’t do the core injury in my neck many favours; and, although I easily ignored the growing pain whilst enthralled in the play, boy, have I paid the price since.

I would therefore ask (by way of drawing the RSC’s attention to this post – them having kindly promoted my previous writing on disability matters) that, as well as flexible wheelchair spaces (which seem so accessible, from what other disabled patrons have told me), can we please have designated chairs with more space in and around them for the walking wounded, as well (of which there were quite a few, on Thursday: some even with crutches): perhaps just moving back, say, one of the single Gallery One rows a couple of feet (ahem) – assuming that Health and Safety would not mind the incursion into the walkway behind…? (In the main theatre, most of the left-hand positions leave plenty of leg-stretching and walking-stick room: so this isn’t usually an issue.)

Apart from that, Mister Bard, how was the show?

Well, it certainly was entertaining, thank you, and distinct (Swan traits, I think); and, although I had read through the prompt book in the Swan Reading Room, beforehand (as is my wont), the company was uniformly excellent in pulling real thrills from it and bringing it to more than life (and death) – as they have consistently throughout this immensely successful Roaring Girls season: from the blood-soaked Arden of Faversham and The White Devil to the uproarious The Roaring Girl itself; and whose Moll Cutpurse was compared to the (supposed) witch’s devil of a Dog at one stage (oh dear) in this play.

The season has also shown how adaptable the bare bones of the Swan can be: and Niki Turner’s deceptively austere set of labyrinthine whispering withes at the rear of the stage – through which Tim Mitchell’s lighting creates haunting spookiness (paralleled with Paul Englishby’s music – especially violinist Zhivko Georgiev’s fiendish demonstration of the darker side of ‘the devil’s instrument’…) – continues behind the stalls, where some of the hectic action takes place.

Each of these productions has featured a guest ‘star’ in the lead rôle: and this time it is the charismatic Eileen Atkins as Mother Sawyer – not so much “roaring” as cursing (and rightfully so) as the eponymous ‘witch’ (who brings a new meaning to ‘spell checking’…) – directed imaginatively, and prudently in period, by the RSC’s artistic director, Gregory Doran (“an honorary Roaring Girl!” according to Erica Whyman: under whose stewardship the season was put together).

The text – somewhat chunkily assembled from the multiple authors’ contributions (you can definitely see the joins…) – ranges from scenes of the sublime (the grief of Ian Redford’s Carter and Geoffrey Freshwater’s Old Thorney is heart-tugging indeed; as well as the grace of Faye Castelow’s murdered bride) to the undoubted star of ridicule, Dafydd Llyr Thomas, as cocky Cuddy Banks (part of a crew of somewhat rude Morris men mechanicals).

This isn’t to say that the play’s messages are dulled in any way by such piece-work; and Doran – who also edited the performed text – gives it air, and lets it speak for itself: thankfully not stopping the audience from seeing – and thus delighting in – its obvious dénouements and dramatic irony. Nor does he shield us from the violence – the blood which is spilled eventually flows into true forgiveness: a salve to the prejudices and differences at the core of the drama.

Ma Sawyer is something of a stooge, a scapegoat for “scandalous malice”, because of her age, sex, and looks: anything or anyone unusual is feared or taunted, or both – “’Tis all one To be a witch as to be counted one…” – sadly, still a leitmotif with applicable significance, nearly four hundred years on. (The play – by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, John Ford “&c” – was first performed in 1621.) Although initially peeved by this, once she actually gains the powers she has already been accused of having and using – granted by a magnificently cunning Jay Simpson as Satan in canine form (“Were it not possible for thee to become an honest dog yet?”) – revenge is far too tempting: and Atkins portrays this grasping of dark (but not fatal) energy with great subtlety; as well as its eventual, inevitable loss, and her eventual, inevitable (although possibly undeserved) fate – both prompted by devil Dog’s malevolence. Only Cuddy’s simple goodness and strength is a match for the manipulative Lucifer, who is never far from – especially behind – the action: “I know thy qualities too well… therefore henceforth I defy thee. Out, and avaunt!”

The almost accidental nefariousness of Sawyer is contrasted with tangible, innate evil – the eruption of a seed we are all said to possess… – principally Ian Bonar’s astute portrayal of Frank Thorney as an emerging swindler and bigamist: who, rather than trying to extricate himself peaceably from his predicaments, spirals crime upon crime. At first, it is hard not to sympathize with him – perhaps another “scapegoat”? – as he takes us in (knowingly), as well as those around him. But it is not long before we see him for what he truly is – and he gets what he truly deserves. However malevolence emerges and is practised, we are shown, it must be punished.

So let’s every man home… with heavy hearts, yet as merry as we can, though not as we would.

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