Tuesday, 16 December 2014

A load of cobblers…

Oh shut up, Balders. You’d laugh at a Shakespeare comedy.
– Blackadder: Blackadder II

It’s been a long time since I’ve not been utterly gripped by a night at the theatre – the last occasion being a production of The Tempest, with the late Richard Briers (who had been one of my favourite actors until then…) as a somewhat wooden and uninvolved – and therefore quotidian and non-magical – Prospero. Sadly, it was also my young son’s introduction to live-staged Shakespeare (although he loved the retelling of the story in Forbidden Planet, with Walter Pidgeon) – but it doesn’t seem to have caused him any lasting harm!

But, at the Swan, this weekend, I found myself sniggering occasionally, rather than guffawing frequently; and clapping politely, rather than enthusiastically, before leaving the theatre less engaged, excited and involved than I usually am – and it wasn’t for lack of effort from either the actors, designers or musicians: all of whom gave their all (sometimes over-enthusiastically…).

To be honest, the play itself was probably the thing at the root of my disenchantment: especially as I had tried hard to read it beforehand; but found it laborious. Usually such a problem is then remedied by an imaginative production suspending any remaining disbelief – but I’m not convinced that this is possible in this case. Unlike the majority of Shakespeare’s dramas (and, it has to be said, all of the previous contemporary plays in the Swan, this season: including The Roaring Girl, co-authored with Thomas Middleton) – which somehow manage to stay permanently relevant – “One of the most popular Elizabethan plays”, The Shoemaker’s Holiday, by Thomas Dekker (this time solely (sorry)) – just opened, and on until 7 March 2015 – appears, to me, to have aged (and therefore dated) rather badly. (As it overran by nearly twenty minutes, perhaps things will have improved later in the season: and it will be panned in – as my mother would say – rather than simply panned….)

The production itself, though, was – as it was designed to be – gloriously staged: “full of modish costumes: not only fine shoes, but also hoods, farthingales, and periwigs”, as its latest editor, Jonathan Gil Harris, points out, underlining “how the commercial playhouses relied on expensive stage properties… to lure spectators”; and this was exemplified by the foppish Hammon: wonderfully, beseechingly, played by Jamie Wilkes. The RSC’s wardrobe department (under costume supervisor Nicky Fitchett) certainly and skilfully went to town (a bawdy very, very late 16th-century London): at one point dressing the nouveau riche David Troughton’s Falstaffian Simon Eyre as Henry VIII; complemented by Vivien Parry, as Mrs “Lady Madgy” Eyre – the twin of ‘Queenie’ Elizabeth I, from Blackadder II.

The evocative stage design (by Max Jones; lit beautifully by Tina MacHugh) took many of its cues from Westminster Hall (and the rose window from Westminster Abbey?) – suiting the Swan’s wooden galleries and brick walls extremely well; although the deep, stained turquoise flagged floor seemed a little out of place.

Although there were true moments of great comedy (and occasional farce – which I’m not a real fan of…), these, to me, were spread too thinly, and too far apart, and some of the jokes – such as Josh O’Connor’s scripted over-Dutch-accented disguise (in the mould of Officer Crabtree) of Hans the shoemaker; and obvious puns on journeyman Firk’s (Joel MacCormack) name – too repetitive. It also felt (my hearing aids were turned down two notches) like much of the dialogue was shouted, rather than projected – as if the actors (and director Phillip Breen), in trying to authentically recreate the periodic effect, were aiming for the rafters of the original Rose playhouse. For something billed by artistic director Gregory Doran as a “a glorious festive comedy” (featuring the poem The Merry Month of May…!) there was, sadly, very little whole-audience-involved mirth.

The acting (apart from being frequently loud, like a lot of the garb…) was of a uniformly high quality: with many of the company making their RSC debuts. The star of the show, though – from perfectly and authoritatively delivering the prologue to actively taking part in some very vicious morris-dancing – was young Sebastian Dibb: who was a lot more than incidental to the play, and seemed to be on stage as much as any member of the shoemakers’ gang: helping them party like it really was 1599. You could say, I suppose, that they really gave their awl.

I can’t stand all that shouting in the evening.
Patrick Troughton

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