Rose Theatre Kingston
Reviewed – 7th November 2018
“passionless, tedious, and incoherent”
Friedrich Schiller, renowned German writer and radical member of the ‘storm and stress’ movement, is not unfamiliar to British audiences, with a well-reviewed production of “Don Carlos” starring Derek Jacobi and Richard Coyle hitting the West End as recently as 2005. “Don Carlos” is a prime example of Schiller at work: passionate, witty, and brimming with revolutionary ideas about freedom and power.
Despite some cool aesthetics and apt use of lighting however, this version, produced by Tom Burke and Gadi Roll’s new theatre company Ara, is passionless, tedious, and incoherent. In terms of plot, ‘Don Carlos’ takes place around the beginning of the Eighty Years’ War when Dutch provinces began fighting to free themselves from the rule of Spain and its king, Phillip II. Prince Don Carlos’ former lover recently married his father, and his declarations of love for his new stepmother kick start various court schemes to dispose of prince on one side, and to rebel against the king on the other. How can freedom be won from tyranny, and who will be left to pick up the pieces?
Robert David MacDonald’s translation – first staged in 1995 – retains the lyricism and wit of the original at times, but in an effort to be ‘accurate’, unfurls absurdly long and convoluted sentences that feel foreign to this contemporary audience. If Roll had been able to perhaps adapt the text to his liking, he may have produced a more engaging and better flowing piece of theatre, allowing the vital themes to shine through without the 18th century linguistic baggage. Furthermore, the actors visibly struggle with this text. Scenes become shouting matches, the actors whipping out lines as fast as they can hoping to create pace and energy but instead just becoming unintelligible. In the verbal carnage, meaning and nuance is lost.
Although Rosanna Vize’s design, forcing light in actors faces up close and personal, neatly reflects the accusatorial and inquisitorial nature of the plot, the general direction and staging is confused and inconsistent. A dark stage with all actors dressed in black or navy makes the events seem timeless and contemporary but is a dull and monotonous visual choice. There is an obvious desire for pace, and yet scene changes are laborious and slow down the action – it’s a stripped back setting, so why so many chairs, tables, beds? Actors are often stood in parallel and remain there scene after scene. Roll’s sound design, an odd mix of sentimental strings and tension building drums, intrudes obtusely into conversation without any obvious purpose and becomes both distracting and another thing for the actors to shout over.
Burke and Roll have been ambitious, admirably seeking to create stylised drama that goes beyond “the naturalism of television and film”, but they still have much to learn to ensure style does not trample over substance. Be rougher with the classics and don’t allow acting to come second place to design. As a Germanophile, I found this very disappointing.
Reviewed by Joseph Prestwich
Photography by The Other Richard
Rose Theatre Kingston until 17th November
Previously reviewed at this venue:
The Biograph Girl
Reviewed – 24th May 2018
“Occasional ripples stir up the action but the whole staging needs a good shake up”
Commissioned as part of the Finborough’s ‘Celebrating British Music Theatre’ series, “The Biograph Girl” is playing on the London stage for the first time since its 1980 premiere. With book and lyrics by Warner Brown and music by David Heneker (the composer of “Half A Sixpence”) it is a celebration of Hollywood’s glorious era of silent film, charting the fifteen years during which the industry transformed itself from its disreputable, ‘fleapit’ beginnings through to the birth of the first talking pictures and its glamorous multi-million dollar prime. In 1912, no self-respecting actor would appear in the “flickers”, as they were referred to, but by 1927, those same artistes, with the help of trail blazing moguls, laid the foundations of the movie business and launched the Hollywood star system.
The show is a nostalgic reminiscence of the silent movies, a tale of the heartbreaks and triumphs of the key players, concentrating on the flawed genius of director David Wark Griffith, along with Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, both of them great silent film stars. Mary Pickford was known as ‘The Biograph Girl’ – after the studio – though this telling of the story fails to justify her having the titular role. This is very much Griffith’s story, played with a cool assurance by Jonathan Leinmuller. Sophie Linder-Lee’s Pickford, while emulating the original character, replaces her outward innocence with petulance which distances her from the audience’s sympathy. Instead Emily Langham quietly pulls focus with her sensitive portrayal of Lillian Gish – the ‘First Lady of American Cinema’.
The intimate space of the Finborough captures the ad hoc feel of early cinema where everything was done on a shoestring and sets were often cramped and improvised, and in this way the piece certainly lends itself to the confined dimensions of the theatre. The almost total lack of set however, whether a deliberate concept or one dictated by budget, strips the play of any sense of location. Likewise, Holly Hughes’ choreography abandons any perception of the period.
What does capture the moments of nostalgia and hold our attention is Warner Brown’s book and David Heneker’s music. The tunes are sophisticated yet still memorable. One particular highlight is Joshua C. Jackson’s heartfelt rendition of ‘Rivers of Blood’, a politically charged number that was cut from the original production. The cast deliver the ensemble numbers with a collective poise that emphasises Heneker’s skills as a composer, while Musical Director Harry Haden-Brown calmly navigates them through the score. Sometimes too calmly.
And there lies the problem with this production: there is no turbulence. Occasional ripples stir up the action but the whole staging needs a good shake up. Director Jenny Eastop has missed a whole bag of tricks and has merely delivered a monochrome product that should be fizzing with flashes of light and shade. It is a gift of a story, and a much more innovative staging is needed to do justice to this hugely talented cast too. The subject matter (and Heneker’s music) is too important. In his heyday, poetic beauty was something David Wark Griffith most wanted from the screen. He felt that the motion picture industry was losing sight of that, declaring later in his life: “We have taken beauty and exchanged it for stilted voices”. Eastop should take note.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Lidia Crisafulli
The Biograph Girl
Finborough Theatre until 9th June
Previously reviewed at this venue