On Celia

 

This Monday sees the opening of Re:Verse Theatre’s production of Volpone, in which I am lucky enough to be playing Celia. In doing my homework on the play and the character, I found there to be much more to Celia than meets the eye (or ear), and she is not often discussed in much depth, so I wanted to share my thoughts and findings here.

Celia’s name (pronounced ‘chay-lee-uh’ in our version) means ‘heavenly one’; she fits Jonson’s scheme of not-so-subtle character names in Volpone where everyone is ‘as it says on the tin’ – the wiley fox, the scrounging birds of prey, the usurping parasite. Our production involves larger-than-life animal masks for all save Celia and Bonaria, who provide the only sense of moral conscience in the play and thus remain human amongst the corrupt bestial beings.

Celia provides a moral pillar for the tale without being very present or very vocal. She emulates qualities held in high regard for women of the era; piety, modesty, loyalty, obedience. Interestingly, in our cut Celia has no counterpart – Lady Would-be is no longer, so we have no reverse seduction scene with which to compare Celia’s response to Volpone. I’m not sure what this does to Celia’s representation other than thrust it further central with harsher focus.

The seduction scene is placed as the climax of the play in that it is the turning point for Volpone, when he loses control of himself and thus his con, making Celia the catalyst for his ruin (herself having self-control in abundance). It is also essentially a battle between good and evil, morality and corruption, the ‘heavenly’ Celia and the ‘satanic’ fox. Good triumphs purely in a lack of damage done, when the cavalry arrives in the form of Bonaria. Neither party has persuaded the other of their cause, it is worth noting.

You can play Celia with as much fire as you like; she remains a damsel in distress no matter the reading, but is at least rescued by a woman in this show, allowing her some breathing room to go full damsel without the trope feeling too archaic. I think it would be a mistake regardless to make her entirely sarcastic just to experiment with radical modern feminism or to avoid the traditional victimhood. Her plight gives her layers and integrity.

She can read as insipid or naive, (she has been called “anaemic”, “completely and intentionally null”) but that’s a dull interpretation. I like to think our Celia is more insightful, in line with Jonson’s intention that she be considered the embodiment of wisdom.

She has feelings she resists, making it clear that goodness comes in how you act, not how you feel, which gives us a tremendous sense of ownership and agency, ever more needed in our current political climate. She is very oppressed in the play, but never by herself – she is what she chooses to be. Her lines do suggest that she blames what happens to her on herself and her beauty, and we (intend to) hint at comment on that in the reading. This for some calls her wisdom and strength into question, a reaction I would argue is misogynistic – it ignores the potency of living with self-doubt (and 100% external coercion) and still somehow staying true to one’s core principles to the point of forsaking life itself.

As audiences we’re not usually interested in watching characters be good and upstanding – we want chaos within the safe space of the auditorium. But this production is happening out in the wild, right in your faces, making it very immediate, and I think now of all times we need to see principles and integrity triumph somewhere.

Jonson’s prose is harder to learn than Shakespeare’s verse, my only level comparator; the rhythm isn’t quite as catchy, but it’s so rich and rewarding to study and spend time with, and I’m glad I’ve gotten to know Celia.

Ben’s direction refreshingly acknowledges the mixture of good/bad, funny/foreboding, light/dark that any one given moment is, so what could be played quite flat is very much 3D, breathing and alive. I hope you can make it, and can find something in Celia that speaks to you as she does now to me.

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Theatre Review – Rent The Musical

Jonathan Larson‘s hit musical, presented by Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd
York Theatre Royal, Tuesday 18th April 2017

Photograph courtesy of Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd

Rent is an imperfect musical about imperfect people, produced originally in 1996 and countless times since (and before – it’s a modern adaptation of Puccini’s La Bohème.) It’s easy to see why we keep coming back to this tale comprised of author Jonathan Larson’s heart and soul. A landmark turn in musical theatre, Larson’s unusual, rocking score captures the lives of the marginalised citizens of mid-90’s East Village.

Dancer Mimi (Philippa Stefani), drag queen Angel (Layton Williams) and boyfriend Tom Collins (Ryan O’Gorman), performance artist Maureen (Christina Modestou), and singer-songwriter Roger (Ross Hunter) are among the strugglers and stragglers. Aspiring film-maker Mark (Billy Cullum) frames the piece as a disposable white male narrator; his own troubles unrousing but his lines painfully relevant:

How do you document real life
When real life’s getting more like fiction each day?”

Photograph courtesy of Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd

Despite the obvious incredible talent of the cast, the atmosphere and chemistry fall slightly short. There is something missing in the room; only occasional moments hitting the mark and sending home the sentiment that should be firing a crowd in any decade. Lee Proud’s choreography is in turns over-ambitious and bafflingly meaningless and dull. The use of gritty industrial scaffold set from Theatr Clwyd mostly as a backdrop is a missed opportunity, and the music levels vary from too loud to be intelligible, to too quiet to have any impact. The love matches aren’t quite convincing either, though this is not the fault of the cast; the script simply doesn’t allow the breathing room to relax into their spark.

Highlights are Stefani’s sexy, emotional and empowered Out Tonight, Modestou‘s masterfully observed Over The Moon and Santa Fe, performed with knowing compassion by O’Gorman, Cullum, and the impressive Williams, whom you fall hopelessly in love with at first sight. Thanks both to his sublime voice and Williams’ colourful performance, O’Gorman’s reprise of I’ll Cover You is simply beautiful.

Photograph courtesy of Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd

As always, full-scale high-end musical theatre about the marginalised presented to paying middle-class audiences raises the question of who this is speaking to, and what its message really is.

Catch the show and decide for yourself, tonight and tomorrow at York Theatre Royal. Tickets are available online or on 01904 623568.

Theatre Review – Turcaret

Theatre Review TFTV presents Turcaret by Alain-René Lesage
Translation by John Norman, directed by Alex Urquhart, Amy Noriko Ward and Sam Duffy

Swooning & swindling is the name of the game in Lesage’s critical eighteenth-century class farce. Oafish, dissolute financier Turcaret (Nick Newman) lavishes his affections on the coquettish Baronne (Annabel Redgate), who coyly berates him for his flood of gifts before happily bestowing them upon her own lover, the knavish Chevalier (George Doughty), who of course is also in it for the goods alone. But the goods don’t stop there; this is a game of pass the parcel that, of course, the help will ultimately win.

As carefully noted by the trio of directors, the downfall of the rich and the triumph of the subjugated is a tale we will always have time for, though the script does undo itself slightly in its own dripping working-class snobbery. The language remains rooted in the pas, while the action is framed with modern costume and a fresh, angular set. The jury is out on the sensibilities.

Newman is fantastic in the titular role, playfully saluting both Turcaret’s innuendos and more tender moments of genuine expression. Chris Casbon plays a snake-like, scheming Frontin, confiding in the audience with soliloquies to send up the frivolity of the upper echelons that he is ripping off. Harry Elletson gives excellent performances both as the ruthless Rafle and the deceptive Furet, though the real star of the show is Samantha Finlay, whose delightfully sarcastic Marine serves as a mere hors d’oeuvre to her superb Comtesse, who delivers the physicality of a saturated weeble and the comic timing of a grenade.

The other female roles are slightly thankless, as straight-women confined to either plain exposition or sardonic remarks and eye-rolling, though Redgate plays her part with wry grace, and Kat Spencer’s Lisette is enjoyable to watch as an outsider with the advantage of a moment to smell the roses and consider her true emotional response to the situation.

Casbon delivers the final twists with urgency and aplomb, and you can’t help but applaud his duplicitous heist.

Theatre Review: The Witches by York Theatre Royal Youth Theatre

Maddie Drury as Boy credit James Drury

Photograph by James Drury

Those who grew up with Roald Dahl’s classic tale of terror, or indeed the 1990 film adaptation, will feel right at home with this production. Incidentally, so will audiences of Sherlock Holmes, as the action plays out among the same gothic pillared halls and life-size portrait frames. You can expect the usual pantomime tricks in the form of witches mingling with the audience before and during the show, as well as audience assistance with Boy’s great mouse circus.

Louise Oliver as Tatiana credit James Drury

Photograph by James Drury

York Theatre Royal’s Youth Theatre cast deliver David Wood’s 1992 script with perfectly chilling ensemble work, drawing out the well-loved story’s dark humour and nightmare fodder alike. There are stand-out performances from a tender Grandmother (Rebekah Burland) with a storytelling knack ripe for audiobooks, a vivacious and earnest Boy (Maddie Drury) who will win and break your heart, a Grand High Witch (Molly Levitt) to rival Anjelica Huston – not to mention her delightfully peevish right-hand witch Edwina (Edward Hooper) – and the haughty but somehow likeable Jenkinses (Dominic Sorrell, Charlotte Wood and Stan Gaskell). 

Rebekah Burland as Grandmother Maddie Drury as Boy credit James Drury

Photograph by James Drury

The witches’ assembly and The Plan reveal are particularly terrifying; the stage amock with chasing, chanting, cackling, scratching monsters in hunt mode. 

The Grand High Witch and the Witches of England credit James Drury

Photograph by James Drury

Gem Greaves’ design arranges a deliciously hideous menagerie of witches in garish 1980s jackets, tights and heels, while Becky May’s mouse puppets swim seamlessly through the action like any other cast member. Alexandra Stafford’s lighting also brings to life some poignant moments in startlingly creative ways. 

Dominic Sorrell as Mouse Bruno and Maddie Drury as Mouse Boy credit James Drury

Photograph by James Drury

The Witches is playing at York Theatre Royal now until 3rd September, 2:30pm & 7pm daily. Tickets available here. Miss it and risk transformation into mice.

You may remove your vigs! credit James Drury

Photograph by James Drury

Theatre Review – Sherlock Holmes: The Hound of the Baskervilles

2. Sherlock Holmes credit Anthony Robling

Photograph by Anthony Robling

York Theatre Royal, Tuesday 2nd August 2016

 Damian Cruden’s Sherlock Holmes: The Hound of the Baskervilles is an original family-oriented devised musical dressed handsomely in an appropriated Victorian circus-theatre aesthetic involving model cityscapes, shadowplay and scrolling captions.

Designer Mark Walters creates a world akin to Tim Burton’s Coraline, in which Mr Henry Dimmell and Mrs Rose Dimmell’s travelling theatre troupe enact the famous moody mystery in a somewhat confused homage to various dramatic styles including early German film. The cast commit to these styles in varying degrees, leaving the audience to imagine a cohesive flow.

12. Sherlock Holmes credit Anthony Robling.jpg

Photograph by Anthony Robling

The pantomime banter and pandering in-jokes of traditional theatre such as the obligatory characters running aimlessly through the audience are tiresome, and are saved only by the charm of the cast. Elexi Walker stands out as the sprightly Miss Hilda Stanley/Dr John Watson, as does Joanna Holden as the charismatic Mrs Rose Dimmell/Mrs Hudson. The Barrymores (Holden and David Leonard) are a particular dark delight. Holmes himself (Leonard) lacks enthusiasm, which is disappointing for the world-loved character.

6. Sherlock Holmes credit Anthony Robling.jpg

Photograph by Anthony Robling

The show is elevated by the original live score by Rob Castell and the company, though even this is held up in a painfully pointless sequence in which cellist Rachel Dawson is hoisted from the stage in an aerial hoop for a short minute before returning to the ground. The applause-begging present here is the show’s most consistent irritation. In designing the show for ‘all ages’, the company has made the old mistake of believing that ‘family-friendly’ means dumbed-down. The harking back to ye olde sensibilities and expectations is at its best jolly, at its worst condescending.

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Photograph by Anthony Robling

This is a show for those who like their theatre full of slapstick and distractions, and don’t mind an underwhelming climax. It could be developed into a rousing musical storytelling cabaret piece if willing to shed its more forced lyrics and find a little more purpose and passion.

The show runs at York Theatre Royal until 27th August 7pm (Tues,Thurs to Sat) 2.30pm (Weds, Thurs to Sat). Tickets are available here.

 

Web Series Review: Tales of Bacon

Photograph by Matt Durrant

Photograph by Matt Durrant

Tales of Bacon is an original medieval comedy web series by Plotting Films, written by Natalie Roe and Max Gee, directed and produced by Natalie Roe. The pilot has now been released online, with series one pending funding.

As the story goes…

The year is 1380: Young noblewoman Elfrida Deverwyck (Gemma Shelton) is on an adventure after running away from home and following the pilgrim trails of medieval Northern England. She is accompanied by rascally Pardoner Thaddeus Bacon, (Adam Elms) much to her annoyance, though he may prove to have his uses…

Expect medieval in-jokes, homages to folk tales, songs, historical figures known and obscure. Python meets Blackadder meets Chaucer meets Maid Marion.

Plotting Films have built an authentic world and hit the high notes of production value on a shoe-string budget, thanks to the expert cinematography of Tony Hipwell, Roe’s measured direction and the delightful performances of the leads. Research aided by York academics and museums has paid off, and they’ve made something worth sitting up for. (I’m sure Thaddeus and Elfrida would agree that standing would be beyond the call of duty, as you can enjoy this series from the comfort of your chambers, or your outhouse, if you’re so inclined.)

This series is charming and feisty from the off, with wonderful performances all-round, big fat tongues in cheeks, and an informed, thoughtful script and production team that will delight feminists everywhere. The setting may be old, but the perspective is refreshingly new. Postpone your premium blockbuster plans and enjoy this satisfying new story for free in your own home.

You can watch the pilot episode online now, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBPsQjflhGs

And when you can’t wait for more, you can fund the completion of the series here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/tales-of-bacon-a-medieval-comedy-fundraiser?fse_1=c

Photograph by Matt Durrant, Poster by Laura Gale

Photograph by Matt Durrant, Poster by Laura Gale

Theatre Review: Pericles, Prince of Tyre by York Shakespeare Company

21st April 2016, Upstage, York

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York Shakespeare Project go from strength to strength in celebrating the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death with their 29th play, this truly heart-warming rendition of one of the bard’s lesser (co-written) plays. The digressive text has been abridged to a lean 90 minute run time and a cast of 9. The immersive, welcoming production serves almost as a layman’s summary version; refreshing and not at all heathen.

We enter The Gower Pub; a wholesome, earthy eighteenth-century seaside ale house full of merry regulars who come together to stage a play within a play, embracing each other and the audience with the utmost feeling of inclusion and nurturing. Watching the show feels rather like making a new group of friends and taking part in an improvisation workshop with them. Musical Director John Robin Morgan has arranged a rousing playlist of a capella sea shanties performed as punctuation between chapters by the cast and crew, all in period costume and milling about the encroached traverse stage with supportive smiles.

The play is truly moving, and hinges on the tight family trio of Pericles, (Andrew Isherwood), Thaisa (Claire Morley) and Marina (Emily Thane). Isherwood is gentle, genuine and natural, elevating an ambling character to a heartfelt hero, whose later despair is utterly palpable. Morley is in turn charmingly coy and vulnerable as a young Thaisa, and later lurching and threatening as the Bawd. The meet-cute between Isherwood and Morley is on a par with Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet. Rory Oliver and Jimmy Johnson stand out in charismatic, tender performances, each in multiple roles, and George Stagnell gives a solid performance as the wise Helicanus.

Thane is the sweetheart of the production. Her measured, graceful performance of the straight-woman whose appearance, following the loss of her mother, marks the turn of a light-hearted adventure story into a darker, more painful tale, is what really makes the show soar. While the ensemble have perfect comedic synchronicity, Thane carries the most transcendent lines and notes beautifully, not to mention multiple convincing fight scenes. The reunion of Marina and Pericles is desperately sincere, the audience sharing their acutely hopeful anticipation. If it was professional to cry and review, I’d have been sobbing. This is a beguiling show, well worth seeing.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is showing at Upstage Theatre, 41 Monkgate, York at 7:30pm nightly and at 2:30pm on Saturday until 23rd April. Tickets are available at: https://www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk/event/pericles_prince_of_tyre.php#.VvMVzOKLTIU