It's not all in the action
Cheek by Jowl's Andromaque is a co-production with the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, and I managed to catch up with it while on tour at Oxford Playhouse. Director Declan Donnellan and his designer/partner Nick Ormerod have devised the most spare production imaginable - a bare stage with only a few chairs, and costumes that amount to Ruritanian uniforms for the men and sexy 1930s/40s French dresses for the women. Such movement as there is, is provided by the cast of nine actors processing around the stage and moving the chairs. Gloriously, the play is delivered in French, with English surtitles keeping the audience informed about what the actors are declaiming.
After a while your ear adjusts to Racine's alexandrines, and though the delivery is not, I understand, 100 per cent Comédie Française elocution, it becomes an experience very like hearing Shakespeare's verse spoken by really competent actors. The emotional content comes across very clearly in the body language of the cast, and I found it very easy to be caught up in the long tirades of the characters, and the tragedy in which Pyrrhus yearns not for Hermione but for Andromaque, and he has to face the political urgency to kill her son, Astyanax, while Orestes pines for Hermione.
Racine's means are spare, and all his plays are what we might call "plot-lite," well ... static. But as Lytton Strachey (whose literary executor I am with Michael Holroyd) nails it in the programme notes: "It is as irrational to complain of his failure to introduce into his compositions 'the whole pell-mell of human existence' as it would be to find fault with a Mozart quartet for not containing the orchestration of Wagner." (www.cheekbyjowl.com)
And so to Yukio Mishima's Madame de Sade, directed by Michael Grandage as part of the Donmar West End season at Wyndham's Theatre (supported by United House). But here the chief credit has to go to the designer, Christopher Oram, for his permanent set, showing the tall, exquisite pre-Revolutionary salon of the Marquis de Sade's mother-in-law, Mme de Montreuil, a gorgeous, underfurnished room, which Neil Austin's lighting and Lorna Heavey's projections seem to clothe in ever more beautifully coloured and textured silk hangings. But it's Mr Oram's frocks that steal what there is of a show. Except for the under-dressed servant, the other five all-female cast cope with crinolines and corsets, as best they can, while they deliver monstrously long expositions that explain why they're appearing on stage, and expostulate with each other about their shortcomings and Sade's naughtiness.
It turns out that they all know perfectly well what Sade has been up to - and enjoyed it no end. But as one of Shakespeare's characters says, "words, words, words." Mishima's play, even racily translated by Donald Keene, is Racine without the action. The single episode in the play occurs when the never-seen marquis is refused entrance to the house. On press night, Judi Dench, as the original Sadist's mother-in-law, seemed to be editing the thankless text even as she delivered it. Dame Judi sprained her ankle a day later, and was off, but is now back on. The more lines lost from this stinker, the better.
It was brave of Michael Grandage to stage this, but he didn't go far enough in his daring. The casting of Dame Judi and five other superb actresses, Frances Barber, Deborah Findlay, Jenny Galloway, Fiona Button and Rosamund Pike is just wrong. The only way to have rescued this play is to have male actors wearing these stunning frocks; and I suspect this would have got a lot closer to the gay/revanchist-fascist Mishima's intentions, too. (www.donmarwarehouse.com)
Wouldn't it be wonderful if by some cosmic act of imagination, Madame de Sade could be crossed with London's most joyous new offering, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert? The Aussie jukebox musical has just opened at the Palace, with some of the original cast, particularly Tony Sheldon, as Bernadette, the touching, ageing transsexual. Jason Donovan as Tick (Mitzi) the Sydney drag-queen who's fathered a child, and persuades two chums to cross the desert with him in a bus to Alice Springs to meet the lad, is a little too ungay to be credible; but big-lipped, six-packed Oliver Thornton, as Adam (Felicia), the third boy on the bus, is just right for the role. His lip-synching of Verdi's "Sempre Libera" is the show-stopper in an evening full of old faves. Incidentally, it was a touch of genius not to commission an original score for this, as (though I don't envy the person who sorted out the performing rights and licences) the numbers are all sure-fire hits for my generation, and surely for those younger as well. From "Go West," to "Both Sides Now" to "I Will Survive" and "Macarthur Park," not a gay anthem is omitted.
What does Priscilla have in common with Madame de Sade? The frocks, silly. Brian Thompson gets the big credit for the bus concept and production design, but then it's the turn of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner for the costumes. It would be hopeless to try to describe the gowns and dresses (and the shoes!). Let's just say they warm the heart and endanger the ostrich. But, my god, couldn't Madame de Sade have done with the troupe of drag queens dressed as dancing cupcakes?
Relentlessly good-natured, with dialogue bluer than a Home County matron's hair rinse, with bad jokes whose terrifying tastelessness makes some of them classics, this is the first musical in years that I've wanted to see a second time. This is escapism for the erudite, diversion for the depressed, release from the recession.
Another great performance in London is the one-woman show "Kafka's Monkey" performed by the genius Kathryn Hunter at the Young Vic (it ends 9 April). Taken from Kafka's "A Report to an Academy," in which an ape lectures on how he changed himself into a human, this monologue gives Ms Hunter the opportunity to show how in the first three minutes, using merely her eyes, mouth and nose, she can convince the audience that she used to be an ape - and might still become one again. It isn't simply a matter of a physical performance; she also has the voice, sometimes a hoarse whisper, sometimes a low rumble coming from somewhere around the navel, that carries simian conviction. Her performance has pathos as well as humour, and an edge of danger - especially for the audience members chosen by her to participate. The scene where she, in full evening dress, suddenly reverts and begins grooming the hair of an audience member, is a coup de théâtre of an uncommon sort - and worth more than the price of the ticket. Ms Hunter has obviously observed a good deal more about ape behaviour than you or I can learn from a trip to the zoo. Her performance feels as though it's built on really solid scholarship.
What's it all about? Maybe Kafka was thinking of the anomalous position of the Jew in pre-War Central Europe? Maybe he was being sceptical about the descent of human beings from other primates? Or maybe he was thinking that the behaviour of our species reflects favourably on that of apes?
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