|"Elizabethan Grand Guignol writ large"|
by Ed Barrett for remotegoat on 23/09/10
Interestingly, despite the nature of the piece, Ford doesn't simply sit in judgement, but rather plays out each reaction to the central crime to its ultimate conclusion. Indeed, the transgressive relationship between brother and sister, Giovanni and Annabella, drags in all around it with cinematic speed, whilst itself remaining relatively unexamined.
With his poetic praise of his sister's beauty, Giovanni (and Ford) studiously ignores Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 - surely a hint to an Elizabethan audience that this 'love' may not be all that it is professed to be. As much of a Shakespeare fan as he might have been, and in a not-too-dissimilar fashion to sometime collaborator John Webster, Ford takes a rather bloodier path than the Bard might have: between Florio's attempts to find a husband for his daughter Annabella, and the final Tarantino-esque bloodbath, it is clear few will make it out unscathed.
As this production ably demonstrates, however, this is far from a hollow horror-show. Key is Chris Mead's understanding that this is as much opera as soap opera - albeit an opera with only one song. In a sub-plot that would be the whole of a less incident-packed play, Annabella's expedient wedding to nobleman Soranzo is interrupted by his former mistress, Hippolita, whose attempt to poison the groom is only foiled by Soranzo's loyal and quick-thinking servant, Vasques. Emily Pithon's wonderful performance as Hippolita is capped by a voice that gives her 'wedding gift' song an impact as profound as the tune itself is simple.
With Hippolita being a near-namesake of an Amazonian Queen, it was no surprise to hear this sub-plot later being debated in relation to feminism - though it could be argued that the play allows female emancipation, if anything, even shorter shrift than incest.
In a modern-dress production of an Elizabethan play, it is a little ironic that the greatest contemporary resonance should come from the traditionally-robed Cardinal's all-too-worldly capitalisation on the opportunity to swell church coffers at a time when a little moral guidance might not go amiss.
In contrast to the many other points-of-view found similarly wanting, it is protective and vengeful Vasques (played with subtlety and wit by Ken Bradshaw) who gets the easiest ride, maybe since he alone remains true to his own values. However, even Annabella's own fate is left open to debate - does the fact she remains out sight of those who would judge her mean she has escaped condemnation, or missed any chance of redemption? Paradoxically, the clarity of the story-telling allows you to wonder whether her greater transgression was to incestuously love her brother, or to marry expediently in an attempt to avoid the shame of her illegitimate pregnancy.
The fine cast does much to prove the material beyond being merely blood-thirsty, reactionary, or prurient. Matti Houghton and Hugh Skinner are eminently watchable as the offending brother and sister, while Paul McCleary and Nicholas Shaw respectively give patriarch Florio and husband Soranzo real weight. As the Cardinal, and with little by way of lines, Stuart Richman manages to make a minor character more than a simple cipher.
It is rare to see any cast including Kevin Harvey (here playing Giovanni's ineffectual mentor, Friar Bonaventura - a similarly well-meaning, but ultimately expedient clergyman to Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet) where he isn't the obvious star; but perhaps first amongst equals here is Eileen O'Brien as Putana, Annabella's well-meaning if somewhat mixed-up governess.
All is played out on a wonderfully-transformed, multi-layered stage; it as if, sensing its imminent rebuild, The Everyman has found a new lease of life. Designer Ashley Shairp's design poetically places the incestuous bed in a central circular pit, without suggesting a moral elevation in any of the surrounding action.
In the midst of all the mayhem, Mr Meads is bold enough to use moments of stillness and silence as eloquently as he handles the action. Equally, he brings a sense of fun to the proceedings without ever becoming overly 'arch' - with a lesser sensibility, the play could easily slip into pastiche or melodrama. Whilst at times there might have been a little more observance of the verse, this is in all other respects an excellent production that proves this play should not be lightly dismissed.
|Event Venues & Times|
|finished||Everyman | 13 Hope Street, Liverpool, L1 9BH|
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