In this 2017 season of shared madness between the Shaw and Stratford Festivals (cross-references below) it seemed so very appropriate to have Jackie Maxwell make her Stratford début a year after completing her tenure as artistic director in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
When charged with ensuring the overall artistic health of a storied theatre company and directing a couple or so shows each year to remain current and sharp, a number of choices/compromises must be made in terms of casting, production team and repertoire. In many ways, artistic directors have less freedom than other directors if only because they will be saddled with the blame or glory for each season as a whole.
But left to their own devices with no budgets to singlehandedly balance or varying egos to appease, a guest spot offers the chance to go creatively crazy and hope the result warrants a return engagement.
Which all goes to say that this marvellously visual realization of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s at times gruesome, uncompromising tale of love run amuck is just about the finest work yet seen in these pages from the Shavian devotee.
Deliberately setting the scene several centuries after it appeared in 1622 in Alicante, Spain during the late ‘30s, immediately added “now” for newcomers to the play but also provided easy relevance to the 21st century’s era of me-I idolatry so prevalent on social media today (more frequently bullying and ignorance wreaking havoc on innocent lives sharing the cyber stage with more-power/money-than brains privileged folks who will stop at nothing to get their way).
Maxwell’s approach found willing supplicants in the production team as Camellia Koo’s sparse (largely pillars hanging from heavenly heights) conveyed the era and left a lot of room for movement below. Similarly, Judith Bowden’s costumes complemented the players more than screamed, “Look at me!”, which let their actions speak louder than might otherwise have been the case. The lighting effects, courtesy of Bonnie Beecher’s unfailing eye, deftly illuminated the treacherous proceedings—coming into their own as a covey of lanterns heralded the close of part 1).
Composer Debashis Sinha also subscribed to Maxwell’s “less is more” school of understatement with moments of quiet moodiness that supported the sorry events interspersed with a few dollops of guitar, which wordlessly reinforced the locale.
Maxwell also drew aces in the cast afforded her by the artistic trust. Collectively, they responded with exquisite skill by incorporating looks that spoke volumes and body language which oozed or bristled with emotion as required. Much of the narrative could have been comprehended without a line being spoken.
Mikaela Davies gave a wonderfully nuanced performance as Beatrice-Joanna—a strong-willed woman intent on having the man of her dreams rather than dutifully accepting her father’s (David Collins was a model of stoicism as Vermandero) choice.
No stranger to Maxwell, having collaborated during his time at the Shaw, Ben Carlson’s take on the dastardly, repulsive De Flores was one of the finest portrayals ever witnessed from this multilayered actor—sadly, all too predictably, some of the audience laughed off his grotesqueness while most shuddered in the horror of his brutal acts (little wonder real-life monsters—provided they aren’t in my neighbourhood—are seen more as entertainment than unrepentant brutes).
In the supporting roles, Cyrus Lane was a sympathetic Alsemero (Beatrice-Joanna’s real goal, only to be fatally sidetracked along the road to consummation) but didn’t quite manage the litmus test of obviously bedding a virginal surrogate.
As the “faking” madman, Antonio—so at one with the unstoppable rise of fake news swirling through chat rooms and apparent news outlets daily—Gareth Potter brought an elfish playfulness to the subplot while his keeper, Lollio, had a worthy advocate in Tim Campbell—equally at home whipping his—mostly—wacko charges or unabashedly lusting after his boss’s wife (Jessica Hill readily “available” as Isabella).
Curiously, the master of the lunatics, Alibius, as brought to life by Michael Spencer-Davis, came across more as a toned-down version of Dr. Strangelove than he who makes his cash thanks to the misfortune of others.
As mentioned above, many of the opening-night crowd chuckled heartily at the calamities—including a throat slitting—of others. No doubt Maxwell—perhaps a changeling herself with this unleashed production—never intended any humour as the body count mounted but those unbridled ever-so-consequential actions can only remind one and all as to why the world seems more perilous than ever before. JWR