The joint Complicite/National Theatre production returns to the South Bank after a brief tour and with a change of cast. While the production retains some of its power, it is perhaps less of a nightmare vision.
First and foremost, the part of the Duke is being played by the director, Simon McBurney rather than David Troughton – a change that is really not for the better; McBurney plays the Duke as a well-meaning, bumbling old stick without any of the sense of hidden menace that Troughton brought to the role. In particular, the ending, where Isaballa is just as much in danger of being sexually subdued by him as by Angelo, loses a lot of its power.
However, the introduction of a new Angelo, Angus Wright, is more felicitous. Like his predecessor, Paul Rhys, Wright is almost sickened by the sexual yearnings aroused in him by Isabella. But in Wright, a long-legged gaunt figure, we can see how his longings are corrupting his very body – his anguished twisting and squirming is evocative of his torment – his self-mutilation becomes almost understandable.
This time round, Naomi Frederick’s Isabella (the part is played by the same actor) is less sexually-knowing. In the previous production, there was the sense that she was at least vaguely aware of the effect that she was having on Angelo, the real danger being that she wasn’t aware how much. This time, there’s less of a sense of this – and when Angelo uses the razor with which he has been mutilating himself to slash her bra, there is much more a feeling of sexual danger – it’s the most powerful scene of the production and a reminder of how desire pervades every part of the city.
But many of the aspects of the production that I found profoundly irritating remain: the over-use of sound effects – do we really need to hear a baby crying because the word ‘child’ appears in the text? - the glib references to the middle-east wars, the pervasiveness of video, the over-use of Mahler’s music (because it’s set in Vienna, geddit?). There’s no doubt that McBurney has delivered a powerful vision of how sexual desire can be a corrupting and corrosive influence – it’s just the execution of the vision that’s at fault.
- Maxwell Cooter
Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from May 2004 and this production's earlier run.
Simon McBurney's Complicité tackle one of Shakespeare's strangest plays, one that is rarely performed and yet which has a lot for modern audiences to appreciate.
We can nod smugly about the play's setting in Vienna, Freud's city, as sexual desire (and its twin, sexual repression) is at the heart of the play (there's much use of Mahler's music to remind us). The novice Isabella is faced with the choice of either surrendering her virginity to Angelo to save her brother, or, by remaining chaste, let him die.
This is a nicely played Isabella from Naomi Frederick. Too often, this is a character who comes across as a first-class prig. This is a too human Isabella well in touch with her own body, when she tells Angelo to "go to your bosom", she holds her own breast for emphasis - one suspects that she is well aware of what she is doing to Angelo's fragile libido.
One of the key questions of the play is, 'how good is the Duke'? He rights the wrongs that Angelo has wrought but he is also a liar, a meddler and a control freak. McBurney takes it one stage further though. In a quite startling ending, not the usual 'happy' one, he reveals that the Duke and Angelo are of the same kidney and poor Isabella, like a de Sade heroine is about to find that her rescuer is not all that he seemed.
David Troughton is a commanding presence as the Duke. He speaks Shakespeare beautifully but there's always a hint of darkness in his voice. Paul Rhys' Angelo is a tortured man, a carnival of twitches and grimaces, literally twisting himself in throes of sexual denial. In the Elbow court scene, he literally washes his hands, as if it rid himself of the stench of the brothel. But, I can't help feeling that it's a bit over-played; Angelo's concupiscence should be in stark contrast to his stern rectitude; here he's too much of an obvious fruitcake.
There's some good support from Mike Grady's Escalus, the bureaucrat with a conscience and from Richard Katz's boastful Pompey. And there's a nice cameo too from Kostas Philippoglou's frantic constable.
It doesn't get off to the most promising of starts. The word pirate cues an image of George Bush on the video screen (an empty gesture that his little relevance to the rest of the staging) and there are some unnecessary sound effects - the word 'prison' elicits the sound of a door clanging, for example. McBurney is also over-fond of on-stage mikes, and sometimes the sound is horribly amplified. In the scene where Angelo learns of the Duke's return to Vienna, nearly all his words are lost.
But the simplicity of the telling wins out. It's played for two and a quarter hours, without an interval, and in truth, time flies by. It's a compelling retelling of the story and it will be fascinating to compare this to the Globe's forthcoming production.
- Maxwell Cooter