Pillaging the past for survival in the present

Written By: Aleks Sierz
Published: February 25, 2012 Last modified: February 25, 2012

In an age of austerity, do audiences want more nostalgia? Do they demand more fun? At the moment, London stages are ringing with the happy laughter of farces, comedies and feel-good plays, and while audience numbers are falling slightly, the profits from ticket sales continue to rise. Seat prices are going up. At the same time, the past seems to be more alluring than ever. When the ­future looks horribly uncertain, looking back seems like a good survival strategy. But does it make for good theatre?

One kind of theatrical past that is regularly pillaged for contemporary resonance is the revenge tragedy of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. This theatre of the extremes, with its perverse sexual desires and relish in violence, seems to anticipate the in-your-face sensibility of the present decades, although it also makes demands on audiences because of its difficult, gnarled poetry and overt religious morality.

Joe Hill-Gibbins’ modern-dress version of Thomas Middleton and William ­Rowley’s The Changeling (1622) emphasises the contemporary flavour of this Spanish tragedy. When the heroine, Beatrice-Joanna, falls in love with Alsemero, she has to confront the problem that she is engaged to another man. The solution is to employ De Flores, a servant whose face is disfigured with skin disease, to bump off the fiancé. But when it comes to settling the ­accounts, De Flores wants sex rather than money.

In the subplot, Antonio, a wealthy man, pretends to be mad in order to enter a mental hospital and seduce the wife of its manager, who keeps her under lock and key. In this version, Antonio arrives in a wheelchair and, wearing a pink safety helmet, fakes the symptoms of a brain disease. Thus, while Beatrice-Joanna attempts to set up a bed trick that will hide the loss of her virginity from her new husband, madness and desire are united in an unholy embrace.

On a set in which gym mats, pop-up ­tables and netting decorate a dismal ­warehouse space, the action of the play hurtles along in a radically cut and mashed-up version which last barely two hours without an interval. In the asylum scenes, the ­inmates are heard banging from the insides of cupboards or boxes, and the wedding is a hideously exciting pop dance sequence with music from Beyoncé as well as

La Bohème. Sex is enjoyed in a welter of strawberry jelly and custard, which remind us of blood – of which there is also plenty – and sperm.

At times, the effect of this updating is slightly laughable, but the production has a frantic energy and a vitality of conception that is in the end persuasive and relevant. This vision of sexual desire contaminating a society from within, with the rich as much the victims of uncontrollable forces as the poor, seems to chime with current fears and preoccupations, and the cast – led by Call the Midwife’s Jessica Raine as Beatrice-Joanna and Daniel Cerqueria as De Flores – deliver committed performances. Much of the poetry of the original is lost, but the poetic justice of the story comes across loud and clear.

Equally evident is the current taste for modern-dress productions. Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew at the RSC is in modern dress and so is Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, with Eve Best, that is coming to the Old Vic in March. Likewise, Cheek by Jowl’s new production of John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore is decked out in suits and skimpy skirts. So pervasive is this tendency that seeing a revival in period costume is almost a relief.

Hence, as you enter the Donmar ­Warehouse for George Farquhar’s 1706 comedy The Recruiting Officer, you’re greeted with the sight of a country barn and the sound of jigs and reels from a musical cast wearing period dress. Set in Shrewsbury, it tells the story of the randy Captain Plume and his devious Sergeant Kite, who tries to raise soldiers for Queen Anne’s army by any means necessary.

While Plume’s love, Silvia, disguises herself as a man in order to watch him, her cousin Melinda – whose posh accent gets a hilarious make-over from Rachael Stirling – is involved with Captain Brazen, here a wonderfully caricatured fop played by the ever-inventive Mark Gatiss. The mixture of farcical elements and serious romance are just right for this warm-hearted comedy.

Director Josie Rourke, in her first ­production as the new commander of this venue, creates a delicious atmosphere in which dozens of candles illuminate the stage. Her excellent cast is led by Tobia Menzies as Plume and the marvellous Nancy Carroll as Silvia, and includes Mackenzie Crook as the cunning Kite. But although she artfully brings an anti-war message to the play, which resonates with our own doubts about foreign wars, this is more of a fun evening than a challenging one.

A couple of years ago, as the coalition’s age of austerity was being trumpeted, Arts Professional magazine conducted a survey of leaders of arts organisations in which 41 per cent said they would programme more popular work as a result of the recession, while 37 per cent anticipated reducing the amount of challenging work they commissioned. On the evidence of the Young Vic, there are still directors such as Hill-Gibbins ready to challenge us with new ­visions of classics. On the evidence of the Donmar Warehouse, the simple joys of fun are also on tap

About Aleks Sierz

Aleks Sierz is a theater critic at Tribune.

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