Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Review: The Beaux' Stratagem

To judge from the publicity for the National Theatre’s The Beaux’ Stratagem, and indeed, from the first scene of the play itself, you might be forgiven for thinking that the main characters are the rakish ne’er-do-wells Thomas Aimwell and Frank Archer, who have spent their fortunes in London and are thus off to the country to find themselves an heiress and divide her fortune between them. Standard stuff of Restoration comedy so far. Samuel Barnett plays Aimwell, the impoverishred younger brother of a viscount, easily besotted but determined to make a go at being mercenary; Geoffrey Streatfeild's Archer, who is posing as Aimwell’s servant (this time ‘round, he is careful to note: in the next town— which they never reach— they will switch places), is the more skilled heartbreaker, more devoutly fixed on making money.

But while Aimwell and Archer drive the plot (amazingly, Aimwell’s efforts to callously marry the lovely Dorinda (Pippa Bennett-Warner) for her money don’t go quite as planned), director Simon Godwin firmly places the play’s heart in the hands of Susannah Fielding as Mistress Sullen. She is the married woman with whom Archer becomes enamored, whose husband’s charming personality is, as is traditional, made quite plain by her married name. Beautiful and clever, her apparently stock-comic desire to commit adultery gradually gives way over the course of the first act to reveal genuine, profound unhappiness. 

Often when a director decides to turn a comedy into one character's tragedy, it shakes the entire play out of balance and drags the tone of all the scenes into an unpleasant muddle (Malvolio in Twelfth Night is a common example). But that's in clumsier hands than Godwin's. Fielding anchors the play in humanity (while also being very funny herself), so that the rest of the play can soar off into batty comic delight. It's difficult to talk about the play in much more detail without giving away the wonderful jokes behind the series of musical numbers, Aimwell's newfound martial valor, the deadpan butler who makes friends with Archer while he is disguised as a footman, a suspicious French priest, and the band of highwaymen who nearly derail all of the lovers' plans. 

The sheer opulence that the National Theatre's size and budget permits is put to excellent use. There is something, in these cash-strapped days, so delightful about seeing a character who is meant to be a surprise arrival enter and, rather than recognizing him from doubling some early minor role, sharing the characters' surprise. There is gorgeous live music (composed by Michael Bruce, music direction by Richard Hart), lovely costumes (particularly for the beaux, design by Lizzie Clachan), and a detailed but efficient multi-story set.

The Beaux' Stratagem is another perfect example of the comic style I've previously praised in the works of Blanche McIntyre and Adele Thomas, where allowing characters (and especially the female characters) to have true human dignity not only makes the play funnier, but helps create a sense of forward momentum in plays that could very easily descend into giddy, directionless farce-- and in the process, offering a reminder that the concluding marriages and engagements these comedies are about more than just sex. They are symbolic of the genre's promise of renewal, and a reminder that the comic rebirths at the end of these plays are even better when they stem from something worth leaving behind. 

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Review: King John

I don't think I've ever read anything about Shakespeare's King John that doesn't at some point call it something along the lines of "infrequently performed" or "seldom seen." So consider this your requisite mention of the fact that for most of its life, people have considered King John pretty crap. After all, it is a play about King John that includes neither of his reign's two most famous features: Robin Hood (technically from when he was Prince John, I guess) and the Magna Carta. 

But the common thread between both these well-known stories and Shakespeare's play is John's illegitimacy as a ruler. As the villainous Prince in Robin Hood stories, he has all but usurped his older brother, Richard the Lionheart, off fighting in the crusades. And he was forced at sword-point by his nobles to sign the Magna Carta (or so the simplified version goes), promising them certain rights in the face of his mismanagement of the kingdom. 

Shakespeare's John is a temperamental tyrant, stoutly backed by his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, in seizing the throne from his older brother Geoffrey's son Arthur after the death of his oldest brother, King Richard. By right of primogeniture, the throne should be Arthur's, and Geoffrey's widow Constance has rallied the French king and his son Louis to fight for Arthur's claim. 

If this sounds vaguely confusing... it is. Or at least Shakespeare sometimes makes it seem that way. Part of King John's checkered production history doubtless has to do with the fact that the play's plot seems to careen out of control, devolving into subplots and intrigues that spring up seemingly out of nowhere. But director James Dacre and the company do a remarkable job of sifting through the loose threads, highlighting apparently throw-away lines (like an early comment of John's about looting monasteries for money for his wars) that gain unexpected significance later on and teasing out unexpected resonances that help shape the central characters' journeys, even if many of them (by Shakespeare's design, not a failing of the actors) are lines and circles rather than arcs. 

Music features heavily, not just as background or pre-show adornment, but within the scenes themselves. Lines are set to music, and many of the scene transitions are accompanied with hymn-like, choral settings of particularly essential words and phrases, which also helps to knit the play-- which skips from darkly comic to tragic to political with abandon-- into a more cohesive-feeling whole.  

But all of Dacre's excellent work in structuring the production would be worthless if it weren't resting on such excellent performances. Jo Stone-Fewings's King John is splendidly petulant. He has the perfect look of a medieval king, which literalizes the contradiction Queen Eleanor astutely notes in the opening scenes: that his kingship is a question of appearances and possession, not of right. 

Barbara Marten and Tanya Moodie's rival queens Eleanor and Constance are formidable and stately. Constance's eleventh-hour lament for her captured son is a staple overwrought audition monologue, and it was a breath of fresh air to hear it delivered with a dignified grief that did not blunt the character's sharp intelligence. 

The show-stealing role is that of Philip Falconbridge, the bastard son of John's older brother Richard, the only entirely fictional main character in any of Shakespeare's histories. Alex Waldmann combines irreverent charm, boisterous arrogance, and genuine feeling. Ciaran Owens does some scene-stealing of his own, making a big impact in the relatively small role of Louis the Dauphin, whose glowering and preening provides a silent, foppish parallel to the Bastard's running commentary. The stubborn confidence of Owens' Louis, particularly in the later scenes, shifts the play away from Shakespeare's usual characterizations of the cowardly, villainous French, and instead casts much of the blame for the play's chaos on Cardinal Pandulph (Joseph Marcell), a meddling Papal legate.

The date of King John's composition is uncertain, but most scholars put it in the mid 1590s, after Shakespeare had finished the Henry VI plays and Richard III, but before Richard II and the Henry IV plays. Watching it, however, the play that came to mind was Troilus and Cressida: they share a sharp cynicism at their heart, though King John ultimately offers at least a superficially hopeful conclusion. But the penultimate image is striking: the Bastard, not the soon-to-reign Prince Henry holds the crown-- implying not, I think, some secret desire for usurpation, but the continuance of the cycle that began with Eleanor and Constance: those who might be best suited for power can only-- because of their birth, their class, their gender-- watch from the sidelines. 

Stay tuned, as well... on June 13, King John will he performed in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for one night, and I'll be there. I'm very excited to see how such sprawling, combat-filled show fits into that little space, and I'll be sure to write about it.