By William Shakespeare
Directed by Roxana Silbert
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Friday 25th November 2011
This is a classic example of the difference between rating the production and rating my experience of a performance. The production is worth 10/10, absolutely no doubt, but with my view frequently restricted by actors’ backs, I was continually frustrated as I attempted to see one or another character’s reaction to events as they unfolded. Of course, the cause of my frustration was the excellent performances – I wouldn’t have been so bothered if it had been an average production.
The Duke began proceedings with a display of control and showmanship, altering the lighting, doing some little magic tricks, and it was perfectly topped off when he set himself up to welcome Escalus from one direction, only to have him walk on from another. That’s probably the earliest laugh I’ve ever experienced at this play. Raymond Coulthard had been at the pre-show talk earlier, along with assistant director Adam Lenson – apologies from Roxana – and this section had changed a great deal from the previews apparently, where they had attempted to show the Duke in a great haste to leave. Now he’s more leisurely in his actions, but still focused on executing his plans, and his fur coat and hat complete his outfit beautifully. There’s a hint of campness to the performance, but just enough to bring out the humour, and for once the Duke is fully central to the production, either as himself or as the friar. He produced the commissions for Angelo and Escalus by means of a magic trick as well.
The brothel scene was done as an S&M dungeon, with Lucio?, Froth and the others being beaten or whipped according to their preference. I think there was a judge involved at some point as a customer? The costumes were a mixture, being mainly modern-ish with Elizabethan references, such as the embossed codpiece (which had a cross on it as well – weird!). The dialogue was very clear, so I was aware that there’s actually an international conflict going on, which gave the Duke a plausible reason for being out of the country. The sense of a change in policy also came across well, with the locals being so used to getting away with their sexual peccadilloes that the law might as well not have existed.
Claudio and Juliet were being paraded through the streets to display their shame, and Claudio ended up chained to one of the mini-posts along the sides of the stage. These were about 5 inches high, gold coloured, with embossed square studs all round them and a gold chain dangling off each one. Juliet was 8 months 29 days pregnant, and I wasn’t sure if the glittery silver horns on her head were part of a fancy headband she was wearing, or whether they were meant to indicate the nature of her venal sin – they looked nice, though.
At the monastery, the chanting monks brought on a bier with a body, covered over by a cloth. Once the other monks had left, the friar who was the Duke’s accomplice removed the cloth to reveal the Duke, still in his posh clothes. The friar wasn’t happy at all about the Duke’s plan, and didn’t seem convinced about the propriety of him impersonating a monk, but he went along with the Duke’s orders. When they left, the nuns came on, also singing, and moved the bier to behind the whiplash curtain (more details on the set later). This left Isabella and one nun behind, and it’s clear that Isabella is several stages beyond devout. If anything, she may be too ferociously puritanical for these nuns, so I suspect they may have had a narrow escape.
Lucio tried to converse with the nun when he arrived, but she couldn’t talk with him as her face was visible. This led to some laughs, as Lucio is determined to speak with the nun, and all she can do is shake or nod her head while making grimaces at Isabella to help out. Fortunately Isabella soon realised that she was the one Lucio wanted to see, and the message about her brother’s imminent execution was soon delivered. Isabella’s quick decision to get this matter sorted before she took orders showed her leadership capabilities to the full, so much so that the nun was looking a bit askance at her blithe assumption that she can leave the nunnery as she pleases. If she did join a nunnery, she’d be abbess within two years, or she’d know the reason why!
Angelo and Escalus heard the case against Pompey and Froth with either impatience or humour, according to their temperament. Froth was a nice-looking chap, and didn’t he know it, posturing and posing himself, as well as overacting the bereft son when Pompey mentioned the death of his father. Lots of humour in this performance. Elbow was marvellous, with every Malapropism coming across clearly (doesn’t always happen) along with his total indignation that anyone should claim his wife was a respected woman! Pompey was also superb, the best I’ve seen, although he gets more to do in later scenes. Geoffrey Beevers was also good as Escalus, ready to see the funny side of things, but also with enough gravitas to explain his position within Duke Vincentio’s court.
Isabella’s pleading to Angelo was one of the scenes I found I couldn’t see enough of, but what I did see was pretty splendid. There’s always a point where Isabella’s own passion kicks in, thanks to Lucio’s insistence that she keep going and the fact that Angelo’s arguments are so close to the ones she wants to use herself, at least initially. At least, that’s how I see it. Without seeing all the reactions, I can’t fully record this scene, but I understood the way the two protagonists affected each other, with Isabella finally finding not just her voice but also her heart, and putting the argument for mercy as forcefully as she might have put the opposite ones just minutes earlier. She’s not cold, this Isabella, just strongly devout. Angelo on the other hand is cold, and it’s the passion of her arguments and the clarity of her wits that kindles the flame of lust in him. I felt there was almost a chance for this Angelo to back off from the rash choice that gets him into trouble, but of course we wouldn’t have a play if he didn’t plunge into the dark side. It was mentioned in the pre-show, that for such absolutists the choice is either good or bad, and if you can’t be one, you have to be the other. As Adam Lenson pointed out, grey is such a useful shade. I was also aware that Isabella is more distressed by the possibility of Claudio’s execution being too soon for his soul to be prepared for heaven than by the bare fact of his execution. It was such an immediate response compared to the way she’d had to be pushed into pleading for her brother’s life. Again I was reminded of how this scene echoes the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice, with Isabella putting an equally strong case for mercy.
In the jail, the ‘Friar’ is soon meddling away to his heart’s content. He’s quite the manipulator, this Duke, and after the pre-show chat it was interesting to watch how Raymond Coulthard develops his character. He set up his plans, and then something happened which wasn’t what he expected, and so he had to adapt and change things. It was a good interpretation of the role, and allowed for plenty of humour as well as the tough decisions. When he was catechising Juliet at the start of this next scene, I reckoned the Provost had been deliberately keeping the news of Claudio’s execution from Juliet, and isn’t best pleased that the friar blurts it out so unfeelingly.
The second scene between Isabella and Angelo was absolutely brilliant. The dialogue was remarkably clear – I often have trouble with some of the lines in this play, so it’s a relief that they managed this – and the reactions were spot on for their characters. Isabella really didn’t understand what Angelo was getting at to begin with. She thought he was concerned that granting a pardon would be a sin, and was happy to take that burden on herself. It seemed to me that Angelo became even more the villain as the scene wore on and he had to spell his offer out to Isabella ever more clearly. I was very aware of the risk to her of revealing what he’s said, but I got the feeling that she’s a strong and resourceful person, if a bit idealistic and optimistic about her brother’s reactions to the news she’s about to bring him.
In the jail, the Duke coached Claudio in how to handle his situation, not that he has to suffer it for long. Claudio looked a bit bashed round the edges – had he been fighting? When Isabella arrived, the Duke eavesdropped from behind the whiplash curtain, and was clearly disturbed to hear of Angelo’s corrupt offer. Claudio’s fall from grace caused Isabella to get really cross, and then the Duke interrupted to start meddling again. Isabella waited by the front of the stage while the Duke had a few words with Claudio; I was struck that this was one gabby Duke, as near as dammit revealing the secrets of the confessional. Isabella was very keen to help the Duke with his plot, no hesitation or concern once she grasped what he was proposing, and she’s very quick on the uptake, this one.
I’m not sure of the order of scenes at this point, as I think the first half ended after the Duke has sent Isabella off to arrange the secret tryst with Angelo, and involved some more magic tricks, with a coin this time. I also think the Duke spoke the lines at the end of Act III scene II. The second half then opened with Mariana singing a song, accompanied by a guitar-playing monk. She sat on a swing, and although she was a little sad in manner, she seemed relatively self-possessed compared to some Marianas we’ve seen (booze, fags, etc.). I don’t remember if some of the in-between scenes were cut or simply inserted elsewhere – I’ll try to pick up on this when we see it again in January. One thing we both noticed was Mariana’s comment about the Duke/friar – ‘a man of comfort, whose advice hath often still’d my brawling discontent’. Given that he only became a friar a day or so ago, how ‘often’ has been with Mariana? This led me to wonder if she actually knew he was the Duke, and that perhaps the Duke himself had been comforting her, looking for a way to bring her and Angelo together. However, there was no sign of that, so I just had to assume this is one of Will’s wonky time bits – he has plenty of those.
One thing to mention now, though, about the Duke’s first disguised confrontation with Lucio, was that the Duke became very angry and threatening towards Lucio. Between ‘..too unhurtful an opponent’ and ‘But indeed I can do you little harm’ he remembered his disguise, and changed his tune completely, with the second sentence being said meekly and with hands held in prayer. It was funny, and emphasised the way this Duke really didn’t get the ‘friar’ bit, acting much too cocky for the part, ordering people around as if he were….. well, the Duke. His arrogance later in the final scene was deliberate, but there’s still a lot to spare during these scenes as well.
Back at the jail, Pompey was entertaining during his job interview, and even more entertaining later on when telling us about all the familiar faces he’d met while in prison. Many of them were sitting in the audience tonight, in fact, which kept us laughing for a while. Before that, when the orders came from Angelo to carry out the executions regardless, the Duke had to think quickly of a new plan to delay things. The Provost was very reluctant to begin with, but once he did decide to join in, he was all gung-ho with the planning.
Barnadine stuck his head up through a small window in the floor at first, then came up from the basement to tell the Duke straight out that he wasn’t going to be hanged today. Some productions try a bit too hard with this character; this version was very well done by Daniel Stewart and was funny without being ludicrous – he just wasn’t going to cooperate with other people’s plans. The Provost’s suggestion that they take advantage of the fortuitous death of Ragadine was played for humour, as was the Duke’s response, and we all joined in the fun with our laughter.
Raymond Coulthard had explained earlier that he saw the Duke’s decision not to tell Isabella that her brother is alive when she arrives at the prison as a spur of the moment thing. He doesn’t want to tell her partly because he doesn’t think she could carry off the next part of his plan – accusing Angelo – if she knew the truth, but also because he’s still testing her. Of course his lines give another reason as well, but in any case I could see the need for a quick choice in his performance tonight – his plan hasn’t worked the way he expected, he’s moved to plan B (or is it C?) and it’s all happened a bit too quickly for him to sit back and consider all the angles.
Isabella’s reaction here was good, and set things up for her final choice of the evening. She’s sad that her brother is dead, but accepts, with a little nod, the Duke’s instruction to go along with next part of his plan. For once, this Isabelle has grasped that devotion to God involved forgiveness, and this greater level of flexibility explains why she can pull through such adverse circumstances. The Duke had been moved by her actions earlier, when she was so willing to trust him and cooperate with his plan. During one of these scenes, she held his hands, and after she left it was clear that her touch as well as her personality had affected him.
Angelo is off stage for quite a while during all this plotting, so when he came on again with the letter from the Duke, it was our first chance to see what state of mind he was in. A bit unsure at first, perhaps, but he talked himself into greater confidence, and if he didn’t get his comeuppance a short while later he might have become a hardened villain eventually – suppressed guilt can do that to people.
The final scene had the Duke arriving back with lots of his friends. The friar who showed Mariana and Isabella where to stand had also attached a line to scoop up much of the curtain strands, so there was a bit more room at the back – very necessary for this scene. The Duke was full of praise for everyone, but especially Angelo – setting him up for a bigger fall. Isabella’s accusation was soon rebuffed, but the Duke had to make several attempts to get her to mention the ‘friar’s’ involvement in the ‘plot’. Raymond Coulthard had mentioned this aspect of the scene earlier – that the Duke needs the others to say the right lines so his plan can unfold properly. Once she brought the friar into it, Isabella could be sent off to prison while Mariana had her turn. Of course the Duke also had to stop Lucio prattling on and on, telling the Duke how this friar had been spreading all sorts of lies about him.
When Mariana entered, she had a simple black blindfold on her eyes, and again the Duke had to work hard to get her to reveal that Angelo himself is her husband. Once her identity was revealed, the Duke absented himself, having sent the Provost to fetch this troublesome friar. He returned pretty soon in his monk’s disguise, but not before Angelo had given Lucio free rein to slander the man even more. With his plot coming to a head, the Duke/friar was arrogant with Angelo and Escalus, and they soon determined to bring him down a peg or two. It was Lucio who wrestled with him to get his hood off, managing to give him a spanking on the way. When the robe was off and the Duke revealed, Lucio sank to his knees saying ‘it’s the Duke’ in a way that suggests he was fully aware of how much trouble he was in.
Naturally the Duke pardoned Escalus, but started to turn the screw on Angelo, sending him off to be married to Mariana. I didn’t see Isabella’s reaction to the uncovering of the Duke’s disguise, but she didn’t seem upset or hugely disturbed. She seemed to adapt quite quickly to the new situation, and when Mariana asked for her help to plead for Angelo’s life, she didn’t have to think for long before making her own plea for clemency. And it wasn’t forced or reluctant; her argument that Angelo’s death won’t bring back Claudio seemed to be exactly what she thought and felt.
Next he had the Provost (who was very relieved now he knew he’d actually been helping the Duke) bring out Barnadine, and dealt with him, showing his magnanimity. Barnadine was brought on with a hood over his head; when it was removed, he simply stood there and smoothed back the hair on one side, then the other, getting a good laugh. The other prisoner, also with a hood, was then revealed – Claudio! As he looked around him, a little dazed, Isabella was very happy to see him and gave him a long hug.
The Duke made one attempt to propose to Isabella, but realised it wasn’t the best time. There’s just one other matter to deal with – Lucio – and then he can have another go. Lucio’s ‘punk’ turned up at just the right time (for her, not for Lucio) and he was off to a fate that he considers worse than death. The ‘lady’ in question was slovenly, with torn tights and scruffy clothes, and she carried her young child on her hip (but is it also Lucio’s?).
Finally the Duke turned his attention to Isabella, and this time he did a full proposal, on one knee, emphasising her willingness in the choice. She was pretty quick to accept him; her experiences had taught her a lot about life in a short time, and from her expression I guessed she’d fallen for this strange Duke/friar hybrid. A cloistered life was no longer viable for her, and in terms of their mettle, they’re well matched. However she’s spent her time with the friar – will she find the Duke as much to her liking?
It was a high-energy performance which they rounded off with a dance. We applauded mightily, and left very happy with our evening’s entertainment. This play is so often treated as ‘dark’ piece, and it made a pleasant change to see it given a lighter touch, bringing out more of the comedy. The choices all worked well together, and we’re looking forward to seeing this again in January.
The performances were all excellent. Raymond Coulthard’s Duke was very much in charge, but not infallible. When the Duke is set up to be too good, there’s always the question of how he let the problems arise in the first place. The setting for this production made it clear that the decadence the Duke is trying to stamp out by way of Angelo’s appointment is at all levels of society; he just hadn’t noticed it creep up on him. One Duke’s erotica is a working man’s porn, that sort of thing. He got so much humour out of the part that it may be difficult to watch another version for a while – we’ll miss the laughter.
Jodie McNee gave a very intelligent performance as Isabella. Not an intellectual one – this was an Isabella who wasn’t a prude as such – but well thought out and as quick in understanding as any Rosalind. She’ll soon be president of several charities while bringing up numerous children, running the Duke’s household and probably writing uplifting books for the edification of the general population in her spare time. Not someone I’d care to spend much time with, but much more likeable than most Isabellas.
Jamie Ballard did a good job with Angelo. It’s a difficult part, because although he’s a villain in one sense, he doesn’t set out to be one like Richard III, for example. While many have commented on Isabella’s lack of dialogue at the end of this play, Angelo also has to be present without speaking a lot as well, and Jamie managed this very well. I still want to see more of the exchange between Angelo and Isabella to get a clearer picture, though.
Paul Chahidi was very good fun as Lucio, and I always enjoy seeing Bruce Alexander on stage; his Provost was a nicely detailed performance. I’ve already praised Elbow (Ian Midlane) and Pompey (Joseph Kloska), and the rest of the cast did equally well in the smaller roles.
Finally I’ll describe the set. It was an interesting mixture which set the scene perfectly. The floor had sections of black leather with a circular pattern punched in them – a spiral of dots. These encompassed the large trapdoor in the middle, and two smaller windows fore and aft of this. At the back of the thrust there were strands of black leather hanging down to form a curtain – it may not have been leather, of course, but that’s the impression it gave. There were at least three layers to this whiplash curtain, which allowed for concealed characters, as well as lots of possible entrances and exits. Assorted furniture was brought on and off, and there were two human lamps on either side under the balconies. These came on at the start, when the Duke was manipulating the lights, and switched on when he snapped his fingers, then stood there with their hands posed, looking very elegant. When Angelo saw Isabella for the second time, I noticed the lamps again, but this time their hands were held in prayer – he was clearly affecting the furniture as well. We were aware that some people apparently enjoy being used as furnishing items – there’s probably a word for it, but I’m not going to search the internet to find out – so again that suggested the sexual corruption in this Vienna was at all levels of society. The Duke himself wore a leather corselet which echoes the dominatrix gear Mistress Overdone and the other prostitutes had on, while the Duke’s servant who announced Isabella wore a French maid’s outfit which was too sexy to be real. Other characters wore mainly modern dress, but with Elizabethan-type references, giving a sense of this being a world of its own, neither one thing nor another, and so representing all times.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me