Tartuffe at the Northcott

I had the great pleasure last week of seeing Moliere’s Tartuffe in a production by the English Touring Theatre company at Exeter Uni’s Northcott Theatre. The production was staged using a 2008 adaptation by Roger McGough (Liverpool’s Poet Laureate, it would seem!) that took full advantage of opportunities to modernize the text while still keeping to Moliere’s rhymed verse. The balance of old and new was expertly handled, in my opinion, by both McGough and director Gemma Bodinetz. While the design was very period-appropriate, much of the behaviour and language was altered to reflect the world since Moliere.

Unfortunately, despite four years in Canada, my knowledge of French falls in the “little to none” range, and therefore I cannot comment upon Moliere’s original text in relation to McGough’s adaptation/translation. What I can say, however, is that McGough managed to do what few translations of anything from any language do: make the text sound like something real English-speaking people would say. Anyone who has had the unfortunate experience of watching or acting in a poorly translated version of Chekov or Ibsen will know what I mean. (In fact, I would argue that poor translations are largely to blame for what I view as an unjust, widespread hatred of Chekov and Ibsen, but that’s for another post.) McGough almost certainly took some artistic liberties with Moliere’s text, but, after all, isn’t it in the nature of a good translation to also be an adaptation? We certainly have little eccentricities in English that make no sense at all to non-native speakers, and I can’t imagine that the French are any different in that respect. So a good translator must, of force, adapt the text to suit his audience while still honoring the spirit of the original. No easy feat, but I believe McGough has done it.

Consider this intriguing little exchange between Orgon and his rather over-dramatic son Damis:

ORGON: You wretch!

DAMIS: I will, in a minute!

Teehee. It’s the sort of wordplay that great comedic writers engage in all the time, but that a direct translation probably wouldn’t bring out. In this case, it’s also the perfect “mood lightener” in a scene that could turn very dark indeed: Prior to Orgon’s entrance, Damis hid in the closet and listened to Tartuffe attempting to seduce Orgon’s second wife, Elmire. Damis attempts to spill the beans, but the besotted Orgon will hear nothing said against his beloved Tartuffe. The scene ends with Orgon banishing and disinheriting Damis, his only son. Such a plot could have been totally tragic if it wasn’t so funny, and it’s McGough’s language games that help it along.

Of course, I can’t give all the credit to the playwright/translator/adaptor. We all know that even a beautiful text can be ruined by lackluster actors (ever seen a high school production of Romeo and Juliet?). Fortunately, the cast of Tartuffe sparkled. Excellent timing, physical comedy, and surprising choices all came together across the cast to bring McGough’s translation to life. Hiran Abeysekera as the young lover Valere, for example, only has two or three scenes, but they are among the most memorable of the play. This was true of many of the ‘smaller parts.’ I found that Simon Coates as Cleante and Alan Stocks as Loyal and the Officer were among my favourite actors in the entire play (which is not to suggest that the leads were lacking in any way). To be fair, the courtship between Orgon’s daugher Mariane (Emily Pithon) and Valere verges on farce, often a bit too much so, but both actors played their extremes with such conviction that I almost didn’t mind. The balletic aesthetic of the two lovers was, to my mind, an effective and hilarious choice, particularly since Valere’s shapely calves and flying leaps through the air balanced against Mariane’s clumsy, pre-K-ballet arms to great comedic effect.

The cast’s text work was very well done across the board. At no time did I feel like I was listening to a children’s nursery rhyme, which is such a trap with a rhymed, poetic text. They made he lines feel natural while still respecting the poetry, and often made use of the rhymes for comedic effect. I did feel, however, that Joseph Alessi’s Orgon was just a tad too shouty; he seemed to live in a perpetual state of over-the-top high stakes. To be fair, high stakes are almost always a good thing in acting, and I felt that the rest of the cast managed their stakes very well. Comedy, after all, can be described as real life with higher stakes. Alessi, however, allowed high stakes to affect the volume of his voice, and he came off a bit like Will Farrell in that old SNL sketch…you know, the one where can’t control the VOLUME OF HIS VOICE! Additionally, the constant shouting from Alessi sometimes affected his enunciation just a tad, which, coupled with a fast-paced, poetry-based script, made him quite difficult to understand at times. This was his one weakness, however, as I did feel that other aspects of his performance, particularly his physical work, were very good.

The work of thc cast, playwright/translator/adaptor, and director all came together to produce a hilarious production whose flaws fade away somewhat i the light of its successes. Overall, it was a very enjoyable night of theatre that had me laughing all the way home.

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Consumer/citizen

This discussion came up in a drama course about cultural adaptation. The topic of the lecture was an effort to place ourselves and our current world into a cultural context in order to understand the kind of art we make and the kind of world we’re making it  for. The thoughts are still bouncing around in my brain, so I thought I’d share some questions with the wider world:

First, do we live in a society that is destroying the individual’s sense of citizenship/national identity in favour of an identity as a worldwide consumer, a citizen of the global marketplace? If so, are our generations’s civil rights and human rights movements seeking inclusion for marginalized groups in advertising and marketing rather than in traditional modes of citizenship? Consider the suffragettes in America at the beginning of the 20th century, seeking the vote for women. In the 1960s Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for basic civil and human rights for the African-American community. Today, the queer community’s fight for equality could be said to match those equal rights movements of the past, but has our definition of ‘equal rights’ changed? How do we see ourselves fitting into –or, more importantly, not fitting into–the world around us? IF the basic currency of citizenship has changed from one of politics to one of consumption, then the fight for equal rights for any marginalized group has changed drastically.

Are the fighters of our era–the queer community, for example–seeking to be marketed to? Is that desire at the root of inequalities in our society? Think about the ads we are constantly bombarded with: most of them reflect a very mainstream ideal of beauty and success in hopes of reaching the largest possible consumer audience. What about minority consumer audiences? How are they represented in marketing? And, in a world where the consumer reigns over the citizen, does whether or not you (or your social/economic/religious/sexual group) get marketed to determine your status in society?

 

Just my musings for the day…would love to hear the wider world’s thoughts on this…

Witness Faustus’ manly fortitude

I had the great pleasure yesterday afternoon of seeing the final performance of the season at Shakespeare’s Globe: their version Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, directed by Matthew Dunster and starring Doctor Who‘s Arthur Darvill as Mephistopheles and Paul Hilton as Faustus. My friend Kathrin and I started queuing about two and a half hours before the 4pm curtain time–and thank goodness we did! The Globe was packed full, both in the yard and in the galleries. Thanks to our absurdly early arrival, we were lucky enough to get a space leaning on the stage extension, right in the middle of the action. Perfect!

I’d heard an awful lot of hype about this production from people whose opinions I trust (Kathrin, for example, was seeing it for the second time!). Nevertheless, I was a bit nervous that I would leave disappointed that the play hadn’t lived up to its praise. That feeling disappeared, however, as the musicians took their places and began to play. The original score for the production–written by Jules Maxwell–perfectly captures the spirit of Marlowe’s text. It is at once playful and deadly serious, urgent and languishing, contemporary to both the 21st and 16th centuries.Dominated by percussion, it drives forward while leaving one desirous of going back, if only to hear the previous section one more time–a feeling that Faustus himself articulates in his final moments.

Perhaps most impressive about this production was the seamless integration of non-textual elements. Dance/movement, music, magic and puppetry all play vital roles in the Globe production, an artistic choice that could easily have obscured the text in a cloud of flashy smoke. But, somehow, Dunster has made it work. The extra-textual elements are so well integrated and so smoothly incorporated that one feels that Marlowe must have written them into the play. The overwhelming feeling is that this is how Faustus should always be done: with huge dragon puppets and books that light on fire and four (FOUR!) trapdoors and a movement-based ensemble Martha Graham would covet.

One example of the excellence of the ensemble is the scene in which Mephistopheles and Lucifer conjure up the Seven Deadly Sins for Faustus to see. Often awkward to stage and boring to watch, this scene has the potential to totally drop the energy out of the play. Not so in Dunster’s Faustus!  As each Sin emerged from the bowels of the stage, he or she added on to the movement patterns established by the Sins previous–a bit like the old improv game “Machines.” In this way, the build and drive of the scene were created in the movement as well as in the words. Nothing stayed static; rather, each Sin built upon the last. Directors are constantly asking actors to inject energy into a scene by “topping” one another, continuously increasing the energy output on lines. Here, we see that principle applied to movement as well, and a scene which could have been a trite pageant became totally compelling.

As incredible as the ensemble work was, I can’t leave out the lead characters any longer. Darvill and Hilton were a well-oiled machine of teamwork who managed to be totally in tune with each other while still working moment-to-moment throughout the play. Darvill as Mephistopheles was particularly compelling to watch in his silences, and Hilton as Faustus navigated his character’s multitudinous transitions with grace and gravity. Their text work –and the rest of the cast’s–is nearly flawless, and the words are at once spontaneous and carefully constructed. I would love to go into detail about how all this was achieved, but I honestly don’t know. I would love to have the chance to speak with Dunster about it, actually!

Darvill’s Mephistopheles was unlike any version of the demon that I have ever seen or heard of. He played the character with such a mix of ancient bitterness, dry humour, devilish sexuality and terrifying power that I found myself believing that he could have crawled from hell to steal my soul–and that he would enjoy doing it. You really got the sense that he was an ancient being with a long memory and an appetite for souls. I apparently wasn’t the only one feeling this way, as evidenced in the subtle retreat of groundlings’ hands and elbows whenever Mephistopheles stepped near the edge of the stage. He was simultaneously hilarious and terrifying, attractive and repulsive. We delighted in watching him torture the friars at the Pope’s banquet but shuddered when he entered the stage without our noticing (which he did several times!). I would have thought that it was impossible in the Globe space to enter without anyone noticing (and, indeed, perhaps it is–most of the gallery probably saw him enter). It’s an easy trick, really: Faustus pulls our focus such that we don’t notice when then devil sneaks on until Faustus does. Simple, but effective.

‘Simple, but effective’ also characterized the humour in the production. The bits with Robin and Dick (who was apparently so named for the odd positioning and unusual size of his, well, you know)  were hilarious. Pearce Quigley as Robin gave a fantastically detailed and entertaining performance that served exactly the purpose his scenes are meant to: to echo Faustus’ situation in comic terms. The scene in which Robin and Dick are changed by a very pissed off Mephistopheles into a dog and an ape might have been terrifying if it wasn’t so funny. Indeed, a similar scene in which Faustus gives Benvolio a set of horns ends with Benvolio and his companions being dragged off by a bunch of really scary demons. And, of course, Faustus himself is eventually pulled into the hellmouth.

I could tell you about Dunster’s version of a hellmouth…or I could just tell you that I won’t be sleeping well for weeks. The concept of a hellmouth is a particularly tricky one anyway (Henslowe recorded that the Rose had one in storage, so it was apparently an actual piece of set or scenery), but I highly approve of Dunster’s interpretation, which used people and puppets rather than the special effects that might have tempted him. From my little groundling perspective, the emerging denizens of hell–many of whom resembled 21st century concepts of demons/ghosts/monsters/etc–were nothing short of, well, hellish. They were made even more so by Mephistopheles nonchalant exit. I couldn’t quite tell from where I was, but I suspect that he kept his eyes on Faustus’ the entire time, despite his triumphant swagger. Faustus certainly didn’t take his eyes off Mephistopheles.

The play doesn’t end, however, with Faustus’ final line (“Ah, Mephistopheles!”). Before the jig (which I’ll get to in a moment!), Lucifer, who throughout the play had had to be supported by a couple of pig-faced demons, suddenly walks to center stage of his own volition and proudly stands as his minions bring him these truly gigantic feathered wings. The music climaxes, the lights don’t fade, but everyone knows the play is over and bursts into applause. Again, it was a simple moment, but it was so effective.

And then there’s the jig. The jig is the kind of thing that can go really well or can totally ruin an otherwise great play. In this case it’s decidedly the former. This jig incorporated all the elements that made the play great, sacrificing neither comedy nor scares, and featured Faustus and Mephistopheles rocking out on their lutes. Yep: rocking out on their lutes (Maybe you had to be there).

All in all, this production of Faustus was, for me, an example of why it’s great to have the Globe around. The space was used to its fullest advantage and one had the sense of being taken back in time by a very 21st-century-conscious time machine. Incredibly detailed character and text work was layered with seamlessly incorporated extra-textual elements that brought the whole thing to a higher level of epic (yes, that is a scholarly term). The experience of watching has been described to me by more than one person as “theatrical orgasm.” I can’t say that I disagree.