“It shines at times, but is crying out for editorial cuts”
In my opinion, The Simpsons is arguably the most timeless and successful cartoon ever to grace television. Why? Because it appeals both to kids and adults alike, without compromise for either audience. In this sense, writer and director Francesca De Sica’s all-female, pop-up theatre retelling of the Sherlock Holmes short story appears to strive for the same effect, with a play that has lots of wackiness and slapstick gags for kids, but also a detailed plot and the odd joke only adults will get.
The text is pretty faithful to the original story – the language feels more or less the same although there is lots of ad-libbing. We follow Holmes (Elizabeth Appleby) and Watson (Francesca De Sica) as they are tasked with retrieving a sensitive photograph from actress Irene Adler (Princess Donnough) and returning it to their client, The King of Bohemia (Laura-Jean Richardson). Side characters are multi-roled by the five-piece cast – Katharine Blackshaw (as Mrs Hudson and other roles) gives the most memorable performance by far, making each of her characters stand out but through subtlety rather than playing for laughs as some of the other actors do.
The atmosphere of A Scandal In Bohemia is friendly and upbeat from the moment we walk in – each guest is offered a drink and a snack whilst the characters natter away, interacting fabulously with everyone. At the end, a few audience members are brought onstage and Sherlock tries to guess their occupation, which goes down extremely well with any kids watching. It’s a show that feels refreshingly collaborative. The world of the play also very much comes alive through the show’s design – despite having a pop-up set it is detailed and utilises the whole space, whilst the costumes are appropriate for the period yet eye-catching and colourful. Hand and shadow puppets are both involved also, albeit briefly – the shadow puppets are particularly charming and perhaps could be made more of.
This all takes over from the actual story, which seems like an afterthought. Many of the scenes feel too long and wordy, which is enough to make adults switch off, let alone kids. For those who are trying to follow what’s going on, this isn’t helped by the ceaseless ad-libbing or the random, vague movements that for some reason De Sica has included alongside important plot points. Unfortunately, A Scandal In Bohemia also seems to miss the mark in its quest to replicate ‘The Simpsons Complex’ and create something which appeals to audiences of all ages. The jokes are a little too childish and the acting a little too hammy for an adult audience, and the gags that clearly are there for adults are somewhat shoehorned in – the worst offender being a bit with Holmes and Watson openly snorting cocaine. Is that really something we want to show an audience of schoolchildren? The attempts to tell the story in a ‘fun’ way sometimes fall short also, for example the crime scene analysis/boxing match which somehow manages to be both confusing and unengaging, and the Punch & Judy show which seeks to fight the patriarchy, but seems completely out of place here.
It’s a shame because as a kids’ show, A Scandal in Bohemia has potential to be hugely entertaining if the text were simplified and the disjointed ‘jokes for the parents’ were got rid of. It shines at times, but is crying out for editorial cuts.
“almost every line is a riddle – it requires a great deal of deciphering that there simply isn’t time for”
For those unfamiliar with Amiri Baraka, he was a writer and poet prevalent in the 1960-80s who is widely regarded as one of the most influential artists in African American culture. Important to many, he also cuts quite a controversial figure for some due to the anti-semitic, homophobic and misogynous content many people see in some of his work.
His 1964 play Dutchman is set entirely on a New York subway, here fashioned from orange metal seats which look distractingly modern and are not helped by the excess furniture at both sides of the stage – the set design (Edward Ross) could almost be confused for a living room. The story follows an encounter between Clay (James Barnes), a black man and Lula (Cheska Hill-Wood), a white woman. Throughout the play, Lula “the hyena” berates, torments and toys with Clay – her accosting of him becoming clearly racially motivated from the line “I know your type.” The play is essentially the duo’s power struggle – whilst Lula is dominant for most of it, she pushes Clay too far and he gains the upper hand, launching into an impassioned and violent speech about racial oppression, which is targeted not just at Lula but also the other passengers on the train, most of whom are white. These passengers come and go but have no lines, instead physically reacting to or ignoring Lula and Clay. The ensemble playing the passengers should be commended – their performances are convincingly crafted and contribute to the overall atmosphere.
Director Kaitlin Argeaux has clearly also worked well to help Hill-Wood bring the sociopathic Lula to life – she is playful and seductive, yet scarily unpredictable thanks to the masterful timing and precision of her mood swings. However, more nuance can be found for Barnes’ Clay. He responds well to Lula, allowing himself to be led into her deadly dance, but her description of him as a ‘meek, big-eyed man’ is the only dimension to Clay we see for the majority of the play. This means that the violent tirade he unleashes later on seems completely out of character, which makes for a somewhat jarring transition.
The main issue with Dutchman is that it’s extremely difficult to follow. The choice of language is intriguing, certainly, and Baraka’s poetic style is remarkably unique, but almost every line is a riddle – it requires a great deal of deciphering that there simply isn’t time for. To the uninitiated audience member, this creates confusion rather than empathy, and the finer points of the play are lost entirely.
It is also evident whilst watching Dutchman that the play is oppressively misogynistic. Clay’s monologue towards the end of the play is preceded by physically assaulting Lula to shut her up and the speech itself involves telling a young female bystander “I could rip your throat out”. Of course, this play is from a time where social attitudes were dramatically different to how they are today and perhaps we should not allow the questionable treatment of women throughout Dutchman to take away from the racial issues that it raises. Certainly, these issues are still relevant today – the need for the Black Lives Matter movement is proof enough of this. Crucially however, the era of the play is completely unclear in this retelling – and as a result to those who are unaware of who Baraka was, the sexism rife within is deeply uncomfortable.
This, coupled with the vague and confusing language and lack of a clear, overriding message begs the question: is Dutchman really the best choice of dedication to Black Lives Matter?