Writer vs Director vs Actor in Edward’s epic battle

Much of the critical reaction to the National’s production of Marlow’s Edward II has been withering, and for generally mild-mannered reviewers, bordering on the vitriolic. Leading the charge is, inevitably, Quentin Letts in The Daily Mail who suggests the ‘the only thing murdered in Joe Hill-Gibbins’s puerile, inept production is the play itself’ (ouch) and is followed, perhaps rather too stridently, by Tim Walker in The Telegraph who found ‘In almost 10 years of reviewingedward ii and gaveston: not your everyday production theatre, I doubt I have been confronted with a bigger load of indigestible old tosh’ and couldn’t help but the boot into the subsidised sector while he was at it; ‘the kind of production that simply could not happen in the commercial West End.’

Many people would doubtless agree with Mr Walker’s final sentence but the despair being aimed less at the National and more with eyes turned pointedly north of the river at the risk-averse nature of the private sector behemoths; happy to suck up the most profitable of the tried and tested subsidised productions before reverting back to a steady rotation between Noel Coward, Alan Ayckbourn and A.N Musical complete with X-Factor star.

If the overt agenda setting of Mr Walker’s column can be ignored– and the reference to‘comrades’ at the National rather says it all – it makes an important point in reminding us that the licence to put on a production this lavish ultimately comes from the public purse.

Joe Hill-Gibbin’s is a talented director who had great success at the Young Vic but his career trajectory is taking a worrying turn towards the excessive. A bright start led to a stint at the Young Vic where he created a stunning yet simpleEdwardII and Isabel revival of Martin McDonagh’s brilliant Beauty Queen of Leenane and directed the only Tennessee Williams production I have ever managed to enjoy (The Glass Menagerie).

He scored an unexpectedly huge hit with the fun but rather too hyper-kinetic The Changeling, which showed a suffusion of talent but equally there were times where a restraining hand might have been called for. It is troubling that on the grandest stage of all Hill-Gibbin’s has not only failed to adjust his style but that the flaws, rather than being flattened in the vast space of Olivier, have only been magnified.

Whilst we must allow artistic companies the freedom to make mistakes, watching Hill-Gibbin’s exuberant production reminded me of the wisdom of Bob Balaban’s protective mother in A Mighty Wind justifying the use of a Shetland pony to play polo on the grounds that ‘if he has to fall, he shouldn’t fall from so very high’.

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It’s Beauty and the Beast in Young Vic’s alternative Christmas panto

The Changeling – Young Vic, until 22 December 2012

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.

The Changeling

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.

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