The magical darkness and light world of a 1930s circus seems a fitting place to
set John Webster’s delicious tale of ambition, sex, regret and revenge. Yet
sadly, Vaulting Ambitions’ bold decision to combine the two worlds seems
misguided in the cold light of the New Players Theatre.
The play focuses on the Duchess
(Tilly Middleton) who, seeking love and companionship, takes
Antonio (Peter Lloyd)
as her husband. But because he is below her in status their union must stay a
court secret. Three children later things start to take a turn for the dark and
the vow with which their marriage is consecrated – “this sacred gordian, which let violence. Never untwine” – becomes savagely ironic as her brothers Ferdinand (Alex Humes) and the Cardinal (Andrew Piper) come to the
The production fails in the main because the world of the circus and the world
of the play are never combined effectively. The use of hula–hoop and silks are
impressive but the inclusion is ad hoc, irrelevant and ultimately distracting.
This could be because none of the principals are circus performers or because
the intended circus trick metaphors are far too esoteric for any audience to
Far more distracting however, is director Dan Horrigan’s baffling decision
to employ a stage hand, who looks like he’s just walked off the set of
Skins, to control the moving spotlight. His numerous
appearances are completely discordant from those of the rest of the cast, who
all look very convincing in their 1930s circus attire.
The emotional stakes, always fairly high in classical tragedy, are here never raised
to their intended fever pitch. Indeed all the classical goodies – incest,
power, sex, greed and ambition – are for the most part shackled. The abundant
sexuality, especially prevalent in Ferdinand and Antonio’s relationship, is
barely alluded to in the first half. And in the second it is reduced to a crude
dumb show involving a strap-on and some smoked German sausage – farcical for
all the wrong reasons.
There are strong performances from Middleton, who excels in the title
role, her apparent ambivalence towards her own death clashing
beautifully with her agony at losing her son. Andrew Piper’s Alan Rickman-esque Cardinal is also noteworthy
and successfully evokes a rather charming shade of evil. The other standout is
designer J William Davis’ beautifully conceived big top, which deserves a
better show to fill it.