Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Taming of the Shrew, Nights at the Circus, and Miscellaneous Ranting

I saw a couple of really fun plays over the last week or so, and I wanted to write something about them. But writing about stage-shows is hard. As a relative newcomer to theatre it’s difficult to strike up much confidence in my views. Reasonable insight stems from a robust back-catalogue of comparative material; diverse experiences whose highs and lows set expectations and frame the significance of new performances. I feel like my available tools at the outset of any given theatre critique look suspiciously more like a shaky synopsis and a list of unremarkable facts. For instance, I can say with certainty that there were indeed actors, a stage, costumes, and dialogue at these shows. I’m still co-opted by the spectacle: having spent thousands of hours of my life watching bad television I seem to have developed a great deal of patience for other forms of story-telling. At this point it would take the most pronounced of poor stage choices to throw me off, and that didn’t happen at either of these shows.

So where the hell does that leave me for criticism? Tentative pokes and prods at the companies’ choices? Or are synopses and unremarkable facts all that can be taken reliably from an amateur critic? I’ll retreat to some of the details for now, then. I saw a production of ‘Nights at the Circus’ (based on a novel by Angela Carter) with a friend in Bath. To sum up briefly: this story follows cynical journalist Jack Walser (Jerry Fitzpatrick) who is smitten by an aerialist named ‘Fevvers’ (Emma Reeves)who, oddly enough, has wings. The themes focus on turn-of-the-century perceptions with a kind of feminist slant. From the seemingly weak-willed Walser to the abusive 'Buffo the Clown', the male characters seem to have all the power, and are each uniquely flawed at wielding it. But I can’t do the plot justice, and considering this was a graduate student performance I doubt you would have much luck seeing this precise show. If the book is half as good as I found this play, though, I would highly recommend investigation.

It didn’t dawn on me until afterwards, but we had paid less for Nights than the price of cinema tickets. The venue (The Ustinov Studio) was perhaps a third of the size of the average screening room; no ads to endure; no scathing anti-piracy lectures; no awkward product-placement; no over-wrought cinematic conventions; and I should imagine a lot more people work to make a single instance of this show happen than a cinema’s projector. So that’s something to consider: you don’t have to put up with nearly as much crap at a theatre. Oh, and the seating was excellent. That sounds like an odd thing to say, but I have sat in too many theatrical venues whose chairs left me feeling like I was either tetrissed into position, or sat on a sack of potatoes. Sometimes both.

I obviously can’t muster this comparison for the majority of instances: The Taming of the Shrew production was certainly more expensive, as most productions are compared to cinema. But in this case the proceeds went to charity. Big cinematic releases need to make back their mammoth-sized costs, but again, I don’t think ease of distribution should excuse excessive budgeting. There’s a production quality argument in there somewhere, but it all depends on how bothered a given person is about using their imagination, which is an argument that sounds utterly fruitless to become embroiled in. Anyway, I’ve digressed a little.

The Shrew was put on by a group called the ‘Festival Company Players’, whose productions use an all-male cast. I’m not sure why they made this choice, but the most likely answer would be to capture something of the original way in which Shakespeare’s plays were staged. Although this authenticity might be undermined by the fact that they also decided to cut the induction scenes from the play, as well as to omit a few choice stage directions (In the concluding scene, for instance, Katherine did not put her hand under Petruccio’s foot. Oh, er, spoiler-alert?)

There’s something to be said for the gender issues of a play whose main story-arc sees a sharp-tongued young woman forcibly made to accept her subservience to her husband. It’s the kind of narrative that I just can’t imagine being accepted un-mitigated from a modern writer, no matter how sardonically it might be presented, or how well wrapped it is in characterisation. This play can really only function on the basis that a modern audience is well aware of its partial cultural obsolescence, as well as the fact that it is clearly a farce. The all-male cast actually went a way towards stoking the ridiculousness of the play, and in doing so seemed to soften the notion of the play as ‘Serious Business’. But it still seems more than a little counter-intuitive to suggest that a show’s potential for misogynistic interpretation is somehow reduced by there being no women on the stage.

The ‘Festival Company’ performers had to contend with intermittent downpours at their show (which, it bears mentioning, was outdoors.) It probably shouldn’t have been much of an obstacle to hearing the actors, but it definitely put a strain on some of the more affected voices of the show. I expected this to be the case for the actors playing Bianca and Katherine, but they performed well through the hail. The distinctive ‘old-man voice’ chosen for Gremio was the most explicit problem, and I felt the rest of the audience may have shared this experience: I glanced at them a couple of times and noted half were inclining their necks, visibly straining to hear. I guess it wouldn’t have been so noticeable had the lead actors not so effortlessly boomed over the torrent.

But back to that spectacle again, the farce: I was too busy enjoying the show and laughing at its excesses; its open silliness. And in truth I felt similarly about Nights at the Circus. Though both of these productions had no sparseness of music or comedy, Nights’s use of equal parts tragedy and absurdity made for a more novel combination to me. I found Emma Reeves’s Fevvers to have exceptional stage-presence, which I would attribute to her clear, commanding voice work. But maybe all this praise should be taken with a grain of salt: as previously mentioned, I'm a new to this stuff, and my positivity may simply fall into the category of newcomer’s infatuation.

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