Thursday, 14 January 2016

What a dream I had last night…

Emma Cunniffe (Anne) and Natascha McElhone (Sarah Churchill) – photo by Manuel Harlan/RSC

I have written before – possibly(!) more than once – how a play only (usually) really comes to life when it is staged. And yet – because this was another captioned performance at the RSC – as is now my habit, I studied the text for Helen Edmundson’s Queen Anne in advance: so that, with my truant ears, I would not miss anything. (As hard as I try, keeping one eye constantly on the action, and one on the surtitles, can leave me gledging like Marty Feldman, with a poor head (and poorer neck); or means that I miss a vital word or crucial move.)

What readily became apparent is that this is an experienced and award-winning playwright at the very top of her game: crafting words that are intelligent, subtle and addictive – with canny characterization and mesmerizing momentum inked into (and woven between) every single line. I cannot remember a time – even with the harrowing Hecuba or awe-inspiring Oppenheimer – where I have pored over the pages of a script so eagerly: greedily devouring the clarity, the twists, the language, the turns, the subtleties, the leitmotivs, the emotions, the excitement, the interweaving arcs of power… as the drama continues to build: each and every word contributing a small, sparkling, essential grain to a soaring, incandescent pinnacle of theatre. In just one enthralled sitting, I discovered stagecraft and authorship of the highest quality. No wonder, last night, I entered the addictive Swan Theatre with even more excitement than usual (and, although this is near the end of a very successful run – so successful that it is sold out until it finishes on 23 January 2016 – convinced – fortunately – that just one sitting would (have to) be enough for the experience to remain with me for a very long time). The night before, I did not sleep.

This production – whose programme is a work of art (as are the costumes) – features many of the same actors as the marvellous, side-splitting Love for Love; and yet, despite the synchronism of the two plays – Queen Anne herself attending the former on her thirty-second birthday – there could not be more of a contrast in the ribaldry of Congreve (here echoed in the decidedly bawdy Inns of Court scenes) and the artful nuance of Edmundson. These two masterpieces certainly fulfil the RSC’s professed aim, with new work, to create “an ever more urgent sense of enquiry into the classics [by] engaging with living writers and other contemporary theatre makers”. “Radical mischief” indeed!

However, cometh the night… I left the Swan with my mind filled only with questions. And could only dredge up a few (and then only partial) answers.

Such as… Do the captions get in the way? I don’t honestly think so. My seating position meant that most of the action actually took place directly beneath them: enabling me to keep everything in eyeshot. And, they haven’t formed any sort of stumbling-block between the acting and me being captivated, in previous productions. Was the script simply so perfect that it could not actually be improved by enacting it? This, I do not know the answer to – although I suspect the answer is “no, not really”. Were the company just plain tired – and going through the motions – after an arduous season (commencing last October): which is now approaching its end? (This is my gut reaction, I suppose.) Or are they simply more attuned to the riotous Congreve than the niceties of Edmundson? Maybe. Those “bawdy Inns of Court scenes” certainly seemed to have more panache, carry more weight, be more appealing, be discharged more wholeheartedly… than the ‘serious stuff’. Or was it just ‘one of those nights’ when everything is just so teensily-weensily ‘out of phase’ – timing sometimes really can be everything… – not quite on the ball – that the whole thing just does not hang together; doesn’t flow; doesn’t have the energy of those occasions when the show has mysteriously been at its best; when the celestial spheres have aligned; and everything has just ‘worked’…? Is this related to the peak of the long run having now been climbed; and the fact that we’re rapidly descending the other side…?

Don’t get me wrong. I did enjoy it. I just didn’t – which is a rare thing indeed – engage with proceedings. None of my compulsory copious weeping (either from sadness or high spirits). And even those laughs that did emerge – as with the majority of the audience’s – felt and sounded half-hearted. (In fact, there were a couple of moments when the cast appeared to expect a huge guffaw that never materialized. Which must be heartbreaking for them…. (Sorry.))

Normally, a second sitting would resolve many of these debates (coming down on one side or t’other); provide me with more concrete answers. But, unless I am lucky enough to nab a return ticket – or three – in the final week, this looks highly unlikely; and, of course, I am probably in a minority of people who routinely (want to) go and see a play more than once (or thrice).

One of my biggest issues, I’m afraid, was with the casting. I found Natascha McElhone surprisingly two-dimensional – especially set against the sublime (I have no other word) Emma Cunniffe. Perhaps this was deliberate…? But at no point did I sense much depth in McElhone’s power-grasping Sarah Churchill; nor feel the attraction that both her husband and the queen supposedly had to her – there was no chemistry. However, Cunniffe’s Anne visibly grew in power, stature, emotion and authority in front of our eyes: emerging, butterfly-like and almost radiant, at her coronation, from her earlier subdued, impotent cocoon of self-doubt. Watching her wings dry and spread, and her face transform, in the spotlight of monarchy, was immensely affecting – a masterclass in playing the long-game. This was certainly her night.

Even those members of the company who had so truly excelled in Love for Love – which is why I asked if they were “just plain tired” – such as Carl Prekopp, here as an angry King William III, and, later, a not-very-bothered Daniel Defoe; Tom Turner, as Jonathan Swift; Robert Cavanah, as John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough… seemed only half-involved. Jonathan Broadbent, though, as the wily manipulator, Robert Harley, shone again (as did his wig (again)); and Richard Hope (who was not in the companion play), as the wise, conscientious Sydney Godolphin, really tugged at my soul (the nearest I came to shedding a tear) as his well-earned authority was snatched from him: “You splice me then indeed, and through the heart.” Beth Park, as Abigail Hill; and Hywel Morgan as Prince George of Denmark (or consistently thereabouts) – “…in some strange, official way, he’s only twelve. And yet he’s such a man…” – both also played their rôles with conviction and veracity.

The music fitted perfectly, as well – a little Nyman-like in its periodicity, perchance… – and was also beautifully performed: both the sublime and the ridiculous bits. And the lighting intelligently revealed – and concealed – hidden dimensions, and that quite wonderfully.

I honestly don’t like leaving the theatre, or any performance of any sort, dry-eyed. It makes me feel uncomfortable: as if a barrier has somehow been erected, which has muffled communication between the creatives and me; or as if I have somehow missed the point. And yet the words on the page spoke directly to me; grabbed me by the lapels, and sucked the very breath from me. Why was their power so obscured, last night? It is, indeed, a veritable puzzlement. And I am unhappy that I cannot fathom the reason…. This has therefore not been a review that I have enjoyed writing. (And I thought I always gained some sort of pleasure from stringing words together….) Bugger.

A big thank you to the technical crew for replacing the faulty caption box at the interval. Yet again, the RSC’s customer service was spot on: and those of us who rely on the surtitles are grateful to you for listening; taking our comments seriously; and resolving the issue immediately.

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