By Timberlake Wertenbaker
Directed by Max Stafford-Clark
Company: Out Of Joint
Venue: St James Theatre
Date: Thursday 14th February 2013
We were keen to see this revival by the same director as the original production at the Royal Court, and having seen a touring production last year as well, the play was fresh in our minds. This set was more stable and more compact than the previous touring one, but essentially the same. The stage had been extended to meet the third row of the seating, with only a few seats of the first two rows left round each side. In the centre stood a shallow square platform which could be moved forward and back, and on top of this was a large box with two half-lids which was used in all sorts of ways. Over this platform was a stout wooden framework which held the curtains and backdrops for both the ‘live’ action and the play-within-a-play. The use of pulleys and ropes along with the rough wood evoked the sense of a makeshift building, appropriate for a new colony. To either side at the back was a wooden door, and additional boxes and some furniture were added as needed. Costumes were the usual mix – tatty civilian clothes for the prisoners and splendid uniforms for the officers.
The story was told much as before, though there was a lighter touch today which only served to emphasise the darker aspects. The flogging scene at the start was staged with the floggee off stage to the left, and while the rest of the convicts huddled in the open box on the platform, the flogger ran across the back of the stage to get some welly behind the stroke. One of the officers stood by the front of the platform keeping count, and it was darkly funny. Not so funny when the poor chap was brought on stage, bleeding and unable to stand. This sort of mix went all through the performance, and I felt it worked well. I also spotted the brief, often one word introductions to some scenes; either I missed this last time or didn’t note it up. The aborigine didn’t look as sick towards the end of the play as in the previous production at the Rose, so that point didn’t come across as strongly, but otherwise the sense of brutality and the liberating effect of performance were as good as before.
The whole ensemble were very good, playing their multiple parts well, including Dominic Thorburn who was only playing Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark. I particularly liked Matthew Needham as Robert Sideway, the pickpocket who’s exceedingly keen to act in the play and who does his best to imitate the acting style of the day – very funny.
There were fewer songs this time around, and I realised that the problem I’d had with understanding some of the dialogue last time was because the characters used slang a lot of the time, especially when Liz Morden was describing her experiences. We’re not seeing The Recruiting Officer again this time around, as nobody’s thought to stage it for us – shame – but fortunately this play works very well on its own.
© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me