One of the more interesting aspects of going to watch a lot of theatre is the sight of an idea dusted off to be given a new lease of life and then mainstreamed across London until audiences get tired of it again. The current default
position doing the rounds is that staple motif of directors looking for a fresh angle to breathe life into classic texts; playing the play as a play within a play.
Last year Ian Rickson’s Hamlet was set in the world of 1970’s psychiatry and the action unfolded with references abound to RD Laing, Phyllida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar – currently at the Donmar – is set within the confines of a women’s prison and, not having yet seen it, one would imagine that power structures of the play reflect upon the institutional setting. Joe Hill-Gibbin’s take on The Changeling – Thomas Middleton’s and William Rowley’s Jacobean tragedy – appears to be set within a mental institute with the audience taking on the role of paying guests.
The advantage of doing this is that it liberates the text from the confines of the period in which it was written and it allows space for allusions and references that would not otherwise be possible. The criticism is equally obvious – directorial authority runs roughshod over the intentions of the playwright and their director’s decision-making becomes the critical factor in the production.
This is less of a problem for The Changeling – a play where the plot is so bizarre and bloody that it is hard to understand how it could ever be played with serious intent, seemingly more suited to the plays of Le Theatre du Grand-Guignol. Yet there is an enduring popularity to Jacobean tragedy that seems to be shared by mass audiences and critics alike. The revival of The Changeling has been broadly welcomed, whilst Cheek by Jowl’s equally modern take on ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore was a critical success and tickets for Punchdrunk’s unique, if fantastically over-hyped, production of The Duchess of Malfi in an abandoned Docklands office block were like gold-dust.
Indeed Hill-Gibbin’s version was such a hit that it was transferred from the Young Vic’s Maria studio space to the main house where it has been packed out night after night. From the production it is not hard to see why. It is an incredibly fun evening out. If you are tired of the traditional Hackney Empire pantomime or bored of hipster burlesque nights then The Changeling acts as a choice alternative Christmas panto.
The production does not strive hard to be taken seriously and there is a recognition, often shared with the audience through good use of the dramatic asides, that much here is ludicrous. In a similar way to watching The Expendables 2, the requirement is that it is not so much necessary to suspend disbelief as to have not invested any to begin with.
The decision to play it out in an asylum thus gives a certain freedom to indulge in flourishes that highlights the overall lunacy of the play and draws out the humour in what is, at times, a very funny play.
Hill-Gibbin’s clearly thinks that if you throw enough stuff at a wall then enough will stick to make it worthwhile and this is broadly true; although the plot is at times obscured by the decision to go for cheap laughs. The biggest casualty is the comic counterweight of the subplot of Alibius and Isabella to the tragedy of the core narrative of Beatrice-Joanna and Alsemero. As the main plot is played for laughs, the Alibius/Isabella plot is left a little confused and redundant – despite it containing the most naturally comic roles.
One of the more problematic areas of the production is that the rush towards entertainment leads to performances that sometimes feel a little broad brush and lacking subtlety. Sinead Matthews, last seen in Complicite’s splendid Master and Margarita, has a beguiling stage presence but seemed to have a decibel level that oscillated between everyday and maximum. Her relationship with De Flores (an inspired Zubin Varla – very much working against the grain of those around him to provide a fully rounded character) is marred by the rather voluble way that she airs her misgivings about him.
As is often the case in plays of this period, the balance is better struck by the servants. Eleanor Matsuura’s Isabella/Diafanta is superb in blending modern action and classical vernacular. Her dual roles, and the personas those roles take on, mean that Matsurra has to develop key relationships with characters across the play. This she manages with aplomb and also brings natural humour to the performance without overshadowing the humanity of the virginal servant who pays the price both for her own avarice and the machinations of those around her. .
The production benefits from excellent staging; the audience is right on top of the action and the participative and voyeuristic nature of the audience doubling as paying guests in the asylum is a strong idea that allows a number of dramatic asides to guide us through the occasionally incomprehensible action. There is also an extremely slick backroom operation that gives the show an incredibly fluidity between the scenes and allows what could be a potentially draining 130 minutes without an interval to fly by.
Reviews for a Twitter Generation
Sex, jelly and murder galore. Sounds like Christmas to me. An unexpected festive hit at the Young Vic.