“The whole cast is excellent with thrilling ensemble scenes”
Love is in the air in Regent’s Park. Director Kimberley Sykes takes on Romeo and Juliet in the Open Air Theatre’s first production of the summer. And there are fewer finer places to experience the traditional coupling of English Summer and Outdoor Shakespeare than this superb park setting.
It is a fast-paced, energetic production. Sykes shaves off a bit of time – the opening chorus is gone and the ending is rethought – and races through the action without an interval.
The drama is set in a neglected Verona in need of urban regeneration with rubble-strewn streets and a fissure across the stage – the site of an earthquake eleven years previously. The Nurse (Emma Cunniffe) lays down a remembrance to her lost daughter Susan which is immediately desecrated by a gang of youths and hints at the violence to come.
The crack symbolises the division between the two families. On one side, the Capulets dressed in white; on the other the Montagues in black. It is an onstage human chess game, but this is speed chess and the pace is unrelenting. Sykes wants us to believe that the players take no time to think, no time to ponder on their next move. Decisions are rashly made and the consequences are tragic.
The backstage structure of four levels of scaffolding is further evidence of the decline of the city and provides great variety of height for the actors and, when the time comes, a sweat-inducing climb for Romeo to reach his Juliet’s bedroom. But this distance between the levels is not always a positive thing; conversations are stretched over too large a space and it is difficult to believe that the two lovers could have been struck down at first sight whilst masked and so extremely socially-distanced.
Subtle technical support means that every word of the text is heard and the actors are not required to over-project. The whole cast is excellent with thrilling ensemble scenes. Juliet (Isabel Adomakoh Young) catches the eye and when she smiles, it is pure sunshine. Romeo (Joel MacCormack) is a love-sick puppy, bounding up and down the stage, his softly spoken dialogue most convincing. Tybalt (Michelle Fox) is a chillingly cool Queen of Cats and her battle with Mercutio (Cavan Clarke) one of the standout scenes of the evening. Friar Lawrence (Peter Hamilton Dyer), with his wise words, is the master tactician and the sole participant in the story allowed to take his time.
There is humour in the production but the traditional comic elements of the Nurse are more downplayed than often. There is poignancy too: after each death, the actor stands – the spirit rising from the body – and observes the ongoing proceedings from afar, leaving an eerie empty space where their body had fallen.
Kimberley Sykes has intentionally created a breakneck speed production of this most told tale and some elements of the work are undoubtedly lost in this manner. But, outside in an English summer’s evening, I am happy to enjoy this reminder of Shakespeare’s great work – the love, the tragedy, the fights, the poetry – and leave a more ponderous undertaking of the text for the winter (indoors).
“a skilled and entertaining, if rather undramatic, evening”
The intriguingly named The Sorrows of Satan is not a musical, but a “play with music.” That definition is one of the running gags in this elegant four hander by Luke Bateman (music) and Michael Conley (lyrics), directed by Adam Lenson, and filmed at the impressive Brocket Hall for online presentation. Another running gag is that no matter where we are in the plot, any time a new song is introduced, the tune is always the same, unless the devil has substituted his own music. Audiences won’t be surprised, therefore, to learn that this show is a new adaptation of the Faust story — and a very loose adaptation at that. More interestingly, The Sorrows of Satan takes more of its source material from Marie Corelli’s 1895 best selling novel of the same title. But as is sometimes the case when novels are adapted for the stage, there’s a lot of attention paid to the characters, but not really enough on the complex story that surrounds them. The result is a drama that is rich in delicious dialogue and clever song lyrics, but a bit thin on plot and a satisfying denouément.
No one reads Corelli any more, which is a pity, since her novels are well written descriptions of the excesses of the Gilded Age, with the perspective of a writer who knew how poverty could challenge the artist in search of a muse, and who also knew at first hand the circus that follows fame and fortune. Now that we are living through a new Gilded Age, it’s easy to see why Bateman and Conley picked this novel to adapt for the stage. Kudos to them and their producers, Aisling Tara and Alfred Taylor-Gaunt, for presenting it now. The pandemic has made it even harder for struggling artists to make a living, let alone find recognition for their work.
This adaptation of The Sorrows of Satan does make references to the social consciousness that Corelli was famous for, but Bateman and Conley prefer a lighter tone full of repartee and bon mots, which is more appropriate, given the setting for this production. They begin by introducing us to Geoffrey Tempest, a writer on the verge of destitution, who has been invited, rather improbably, to present his new “play with music” The Sorrows of Satan, to a specially invited aristocratic audience at a stately home. Once we learn that the devil, aka Prince Lucio Rimanez, is behind this invitation, hoping to win Tempest’s soul, the improbable becomes acceptable, and the theme of temptation and soul selling for fame and fortune finds its well worn groove.
The lion’s share of the action in The Sorrows of Satan go to Bateman, playing author Geoffrey Tempest, and Conley, as Prince Lucio. These two are likeable foils for one another, with good singing voices. Conley in particular is a charming, if rather languid devil, who can, at times, be roused to push people out of windows when they step out of line. It is left to Molly Lynch, playing a variety of women who step out of line by refusing to fall in love with Tempest, to provide some dramatic, and sexual, tension. She is suitably aristocratic as Lady Sybil, aggressively feminist as (successful) playwright Mavis Clare, and finally, sweet and vulnerable as the fresh young Irish actress Molly, who provides a way out of the tempting dilemma the devil and his eager victim find themselves. All three actors, together with musical director Stefan Bednarczyk, present on stage at the piano, and playing the (mostly) silent Amiel, Prince Lucio’s factotum, provide a skilled and entertaining, if rather undramatic, evening.