HOW TO BUILD A BETTER TULIP at the Upstairs at the Gatehouse
“Only the performance by Beth Burrows holds the whole thing together“
To set the theme for the evening, the song Tulips from Amsterdam provides the somewhat tongue-in-cheek auditorium entry music, followed by other songs evoking buttercups and roses. Perhaps there is no available pop song concerning petunias as that would have been the other relevant flowery reference for this amiable comedy written and directed by Mark R Giesser.
A minimalist drab-coloured set (Designer Mollie Cheek) predominantly represents a greenhouse at the University of South Holland (Lincolnshire) where plant genetics are being researched. Faded tulip designs on delft tiles give a hint of historic Dutchness. A broadsheet notice on the wall informs us that a monetary prize of ten thousand guilders should be awarded to any person who succeeds in the breeding of a perfect Black Tulip. And therein lies the basis of the plot, loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’s novel The Black Tulip, and making reference to the historical tulipomania of seventeenth century Holland.
Splashes of colour appear as university researcher Audrey Braddock (Jill Greenacre) in red corduroys and amanuensis Sheila Crouch (Bryony Tebbutt) with yellow bobblehat, frenetically enter. Tebbutt displays youthful exuberance in a deliberate and delightfully quirky manner. Greenacre’s speedy and breathy delivery means some dialogue is sadly lost in this opening scene. We are introduced to Braddock’s daughter Perci (Beth Burrows) whose latest boyfriend is petunia researcher Adrian Vanderpol (Christopher Killik) and then things turn strange. Alone in her room, Braddock begins to talk to a voice in her head – Carolus Hoofdorn (Richard Lynson) a seventeenth century Dutch tulip enthusiast. Vanderpol too communicates with the voice in his head – Cornelia Vanderpol (Tebbutt again). And when everyone appears on stage together, the two Dutch puritans are able to talk to each other too. Nice period costumes here (Giulia Scrimieri) for the historical Dutch, less convincing accents.
As it appears, Braddock and Vanderpol – driven by the two ghosts in their heads – are covertly endeavouring to create the elusive black tulip, espionage is undertaken, Perci is involved with the FBI and honey-research, Carolus sporadically breaks out into folksong, Cornelia inexplicably cannot abide the songs of Elvis, Vanderpol is arrested for environmental terrorism and tulip bulbs are identified as the next potential WMD. It’s all rather a muddle.
The character of Sergeant Ellsworth, managed stolidly enough by Lynson, sums up the difficulty of the play; he is given neither the insight of a probing detective nor the comedic possibilities of a bumbling village Plod. Only the performance by Beth Burrows holds the whole thing together. With energy and fine expression she appears to understand and believe in all the shenanigans and provides a central performance to savour.
Perci tells us at one point, “It all sounds more complicated than it needs to be” and I could almost hear the audience reply, “hear hear”.
“there are several original touches that bring a freshness of interpretation to Antic Disposition’s take on the Scottish Play”
Macbeth is about many things, but it begins and ends with a battle. Antic Disposition has chosen a particularly appropriate, though challenging, setting for their latest production of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.The Temple Church is an ancient building, long connected with warriors, from the Templars of the Crusades who gave the church its name, to the veterans of both world wars. The long, narrow, bare boards stage, designed traverse style by John Risebero stretches the length of the central aisle, with lighting hung at either end. It is a powerful space, and the actors use it well, but from the audience’s perspective, it is problematic. Firstly, because observing the action is rather like being at a tennis match, where one’s head whips back and forth to follow the players, and secondly, because the church, like all churches of this period, was designed to echo. This works well for the polyphonic sacred music of the twelfth century, but for the interactions between Macbeth’s dramatic characters, in highly complex language, often exchanged in the heat of battle — not so much. It is a problem that this production never quite overcomes, despite the ingenious staging.
That said, there are several original touches that bring a freshness of interpretation to Antic Disposition’s take on the Scottish Play. For example, director Ben Horslen makes the witches an essential part of the whole show by using them as servants as well. This means they are nearly always present on stage in some capacity, and often working their magic while going about domestic tasks. This makes intuitive sense, and avoids the hackneyed stereotypes of grizzled old women sitting in isolation on blasted heaths. By contrast, the witches in this production (portrayed by Robyn Holdaway, Bryony Tebbutt and Louise Templeton) are active and versatile — a combination that adds to their importance in Macbeth’s story. Their continued presence emphasises their power, and adds significance to the way in which they catch the ambitious Thane of Glamis in their diabolical traps. The Victorian themed costume designs of Hanna Wilkinson make the witches nicely unobtrusive in their servant roles as well.
The leading roles are competently managed with stand out performances by Nathan Hamilton as Malcolm (also doubling as a Murderer) and Peter Collis as Banquo (also doubling as the Doctor). Harry Anton, as Macbeth, partly solves the problem of the echoing Temple Church by lowering his voice and speaking more slowly and with great clarity. This technique works to great advantage with the soliloquies. He is partnered by Helen Millar as Lady Macbeth, who does her best with the most challenging role in this play, but this is a somewhat hesitant performance that fails to connect with the ruthless force that must drive Macbeth to murder. The Victorian theme of the costumes works less well for the leading characters, in particular during the fight scenes. The choice of daggers rather than swords makes the final confrontation of Macbeth and Macduff, for example, a more muted affair. But by the final scenes, the deepening gloom of the evening skies outside the Temple Church add nicely to the flickering candlelight within the church. It is a fittingly crepuscular conclusion to Antic Disposition’s production of Macbeth.