“Not quite tragique, but certainly confusing and misjudged”
There seems to be a bit of a renaissance for Restoration-era plays going around at the moment. In the past two weeks I have seen two such productions grace our London stages. Gavin McAlinden, of The Acting Gymnasium workshops, follows fashion by producing Molière’s seminal piece, The Misanthrope, showcasing the Gymnasium’s current students. Set in present-day London town, McAlinden brings a modern take on the classic farcical comedy, not always hitting the nail on the head, with certain choices being quite bewildering. It’s tough to make a 350 year old play relevant to today. Yes, it can be done, and has been successfully executed in a clever and fresh manner before, but alas, this production does not quite deliver.
Where the original story follows Alceste, a French aristocrat who is against societal conventions, in this new adaptation, Alceste is a very in demand photographer and socialite, going through an existential crisis. Shifting the action to the fancy areas of London, such as, Soho and Fitzrovia, we follow the so-called ‘Misanthrope’ through his journey of questioning and detesting mankind, yet, Alceste is still unable to stop himself from falling in love with the feisty and strong-minded Célimène. However, he has competition as there are other gentleman on the prowl, whom desire Célimène’s affections.
The initial trouble with this production was struggling to follow precisely what was going on. The Misanthrope has been one of those landmark plays, I have always meant to see and have not ever got around to ever watching. This was not a good way to start. This adaptation, which messily combined and switched between Molière’s original text, and modern language needed to make a distinct choice as to which it would use – not the two together. Relationships between characters at times were not easy to work out, until perhaps mentioned later on in the play, particularly as some roles had been gender-swapped. This also goes for the characters motivations too. Performances from the large cast varied from being rather good, to being really quite questionable. However, being the first show of the run, with a difficult piece, some slack should be given. Not quite tragique, but certainly confusing and misjudged at times.
“A wonderfully diverse cast, and a mix of accents really make this four hundred year old play feel contemporary”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest comedy. In this production, The Acting Gymnasium puts a refreshingly new spin on the classic play by setting it in a modern day music festival. As a theme this works extraordinarily well; the use of contemporary music and recreational drugs are particularly clever additions.
A large part of the effectiveness of this piece is due to Gavin McAlinden’s direction. There are a number of particularly impressive directorial choices. From the beginning members of the acting troupe are dispersed throughout the auditorium, this helps bring the audience into the action and seem less like uninvolved spectators. The use of the fairly small performance space at Theatro Technis is also clever, with the four doors around it used almost constantly throughout, creating an illusion of the action taking place in a much larger space.
Meanwhile the actors work as an extremely strong ensemble. The scenes in which the cast are all called upon to create the atmosphere of a music festival are brilliantly performed. As an audience member it suddenly brings us back to the setting of the play, which can be forgotten while concentrating on the meaning of the Shakespearian text. One criticism however, is that iambic pentameter is quite often forgotten about, though this could be a directorial choice to keep in with the modern theme.
The four lovers’ performance becomes particularly strong during the scenes where chaos descends. Their insults are filled with punch and truly feel as though they understand exactly what they are saying, something that is notoriously difficult to achieve with Shakespeare. For me, Thomas Witcomb’s portrayal of Bottom is particularly strong. His grasp of the humour in the text is fantastic and his performance in the ‘play within the play’ is hilarious.
As for the technical aspects of the show, the set is basic but I don’t really believe this is a performance that needs a detailed set as it relies more on the actors to make the audience believe where they are. I did find the lighting a little unexciting due to the slightly dim general wash that was used for the majority of the performance, even a small difference in the brightness could have added more to this excellent show. It was also quite hard to understand why the house lights remained up for the beginning of the first scene, to me this just led to the audience not being immediately sucked into the action.
Overall this is Shakespeare for the modern day. It’s not magical plants, but drugs causing the confusion. A wonderfully diverse cast, and a mix of accents really make this four hundred year old play feel contemporary. The Acting Gymnasium have created an excellent performance that reflects our society. As they say in their programme, this truly is “Shakespeare for a Camden audience.”
Reviewed by Katie Douglas
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
is in repertoire at Theatro Technis until 16th September