White Bear Theatre
Reviewed – 27th June 2019
“a play with bold intentions, but let down by a certain tone and execution”
James Martin Charlton’s new play ‘Reformation’ certainly would not make it before the watershed. This shocking and often disturbing play tackles the topics of predatory sex, religion and control. It is set in Berlin in 1529 at the peak of the tensions during the Reformation.
Some of the more aristocratic characters are rooted in real life figures, such as Protestant artist Lucas Cranach and the Elector of Brandenburg. However, Martin Charlton describes his work as ‘a speculation’ or ‘dream’ of fictional interactions between historical characters and more lowly, invented ones.
The story has several interweaving strands, linked by smooth lighting changes between scenes. Its story centres around a budding romance between peasant girl ‘Ava’, and the son of famous painter Lucas Cranach. Alongside this, we see the morally corrupt Elector, who is advised by the Bishop to commission a painting by Cranach showing the evil possibilities of sexual promiscuity. Cranach offers Ava the opportunity to model for his new artwork, entitled ‘The Rape of Lucrece’. When the Elector falls in love with the girl in the image, we see Cranach’s loyalties conflicted as he must choose whether to sell his son’s peasant lover.
Martin Charlton attempts to show the underbelly of Reformation society unfortunately fall flat. Ava (Alice De- Warrenne) is infantilised and manipulated by the men around her. It is uncomfortable to watch much older actor’s view her naked and consistently touch her throughout the performance. Jason Wing’s performance as Cranach is somewhat one dimensional – flitting between emotionally flat and uncontrolled shouting. The explicit sexual content is a distraction, from what might otherwise be a very interesting look into the lives of those not usually seen. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the consistently misogynist rhetoric and lack of a strong female lead, felt exploitative.
Director Janice Dunn takes cues from the script and sets the play in an ambiguous time frame. The costumes range from hoodies and leather jackets to waistcoats and robes to create a sense that this is certainly not 1529. Additionally, a range of music from different time periods is used between scene transitions. This is done to make the story appear relevant to the modern audience. However, it makes the dated ideals shown even more at odds with today’s cultural politics. Dunn’s direction also makes the role of the audience unclear. As you enter, the actors are positioned frozen, ignoring the audience’s arrival. The audience settle in as the spy on the wall. As the play continues, there are then odd moments in which actors suddenly appear to see audience members again, shattering the illusion that was once created.
A more positive note about this production is its use of lighting (Anna Reddyhoff) and set design (Lucy Bond). The pale sparse staging is complemented by the continually changing palate of lighting colours. It not only mirrors the feelings of the scene, but also helps to change the settings, clarifying the action.
All in all, this is a play with bold intentions, but let down by a certain tone and execution.
Reviewed by Emily Morris
Photography by Max Williams
White Bear Theatre until 13th July
Previously reviewed at this venue: