Edinburgh International Festival Theatre Reviews: Sunday Herald, August 26, 2012

Shakespeare from the ridiculous to the sublime

INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL THEATRE

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It),

King’s Theatre,

Ends today

The Rape Of Lucrece,

Royal Lyceum,

Ends today

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Now nobody, as the Monty Python army officer used to say, likes a good laugh more than I do, but I felt like theatre criticism’s answer to Queen Victoria (resolutely “not amused”) throughout Russian director Dmitry Krymov’s absurdist production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It). Humour can be a very particular and divisive phenomenon; as we discovered earlier this year with the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Greg Hemphill and Donald McLeary’s Appointment With The Wickerman, which left many people’s funny bones (including mine) largely unmolested, but led no less a comedian than Frankie Boyle to tweet, “It was brilliant, just laugh laugh laugh all the way through.” Krymov’s piece, which had sections of the audience on its feet on Friday night, but left others noticeably disgruntled, is, similarly, a matter of comic taste.

The Russian show – in which ‘technicians’ open proceedings by noisily and clumsily dragging pieces of set (a tree from the forest of Arden, a courtly fountain) through the audience, across the stage and off into the wings, never to be seen again – is an elaborate metatheatrical joke. Krymov is dispensing with almost the entirety of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (and, for that matter, As You Like It).

What we get instead is a play-within-a-play in which a well-heeled audience watches the technicians (like the hapless labourers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and their dog (a spectacularly well behaved, and well-trained, Jack Russell) perform a ludicrously amateurish production of the ancient Roman myth of the ill-fated lovers Pyramus and Thisbe. The ‘audience’ take their seats on two levels of the theatre, with those in the boxes sweeping wood shavings from the balconies onto the heads of those below. The technicians change into costumes of tattered tuxedos and training shoes, before embarking on their telling of the myth by way of two, huge mechanical puppets.

There’s no doubting the technical skill of the piece, whether in the proficiency of its puppetry or the circus skills of the cast (at one point a man does a head stand on another man’s head), but, for most of the show, I felt like I was watching a Shakespeare production being gatecrashed by Frank Spencer (from Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em) and Mister Bean. As to the Bard’s scripts? Perhaps they were eaten by the dog.

If Krymov is deliberately inattentive to Shakespeare, singer and performer extraordinaire Camille O’Sullivan shows the greatest regard for the Bard’s words in her remarkable performance of the powerful and resonating poem The Rape Of Lucrece. Adapted for the stage by O’Sullivan, composer and pianist Feargal Murray and director Elizabeth Freestone, the piece recounts the terrible (and appallingly relevant) ancient Roman story of the rape of Lucretia, admired wife of the general Collatinus, by the violent junior officer Tarquinius.

Subtly set and costumed – O’Sullivan wears a military-style coat, which she discards to reveal a simple, white dress beneath; a pair of black army boots sits on one side of the stage, a pair of delicate white slippers on the other – the tale is told, in song, speech and music, with poetic poignancy, anguish and rage. Both Murray’s music (which was co-composed with O’Sullivan, and includes a beautiful, repeated signature song for Lucretia) and O’Sullivan’s intelligently sensitive performance match perfectly the changing moods and tensions of the poem.

At times, the music seems too sweet for its dreadful subject, only for it to turn powerfully to a darker vein. Not every dramaturgical choice is so effective, however. As director, Freestone might have thought better of the decision to have O’Sullivan break from her position as engaged narrator in order to represent physically Tarquinius’s brutal crime. This is a minor blemish, however, in an otherwise flawless and bleakly beautiful presentation.

It is strange indeed that the arrival of this piece in Edinburgh should have been immediately preceded by two male politicians (American Republican Todd Akin and Respect MP George Galloway) talking different degrees of nonsense about the subject of rape. As this excellent production shows, it is a subject which requires considerably less rhetoric, and considerably more intelligence and sensitivity.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 26, 2012

© Mark Brown

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