I do love a bit of classic Shakespeare. Ruffles, stockings, feather hats – the whole Elizabethan-style makes you feel you’re seeing the play as Shakespeare intended it to be. That’s what this production dishes up. And where better to stage such an immersion into the past, than at the ginormous time-capsule that is The Globe theatre?
However, the world this play evinces is a vicious one. We see prostitutes being apprehended by the law, and then screaming as they are branded with scalding irons for their crime. We also watch a narrative which hinges upon the idea that sex outside of marriage is punishable with the death penalty. Elizabethan London – it wasn’t all sonnets and delicious mead, was it?
Except that the laws in England at that time weren’t quite as draconian as those shown in the play (which is set in Vienna). Back then, you wouldn’t actually be killed by the state for having illicit sex, although many Puritans were demanding that this be the case.
So what you have here, via Vienna, is a sort alternate-universe London; a dark picture of what England’s capital could become if the monarch bowed down to Puritanical pressure. Given that this was Shakespeare’s first play under James I’s reign – and given that new leaders tend to have an urge to impose significant changes on the status quo in order to assert their authority – and it’s likely this was constructed as a very politically pointed play indeed.
This production begins in fairly typical Globe fashion, with some bawdy dialogue and miming (there was even a brief moment where one of those ye olde wenches was held aloft, doggy-style, in front of one man, while having her face pressed into the crotch of another. For real.) I assume this stuff’s always done to a) remind the audience how smutty Shakespeare’s plays were, and b) give them the middle-class shock of: “oh my gosh, is this filth really happening in the theatre?!” which in turn provokes laughter.
Nonetheless, having seen this kind of thing before, I found this opening tedious, and the laughs it provoked all-too-easy – like a formula running its course – to be praiseworthy.
However, from thereon, the play quickly picked up steam, and by the second half was in superb full-flow. Mariah Gale (playing the female lead of Isabella) was excellent, with a convincing portrayal of the pious novice who serves as the play’s more serious heart, and who anchors all the farcical antics to its loftier themes.
But the show-stealers, as usual, are the comedy characters. There’s Elbow (played by Dean Nolan) the continually outwitted buffoon who keeps fumbling his words, and Lucio (played by Brendan O’Hea) a presumably STD-riddled philanderer who possesses a nobleman’s swagger and a child-king’s sense of entitlement. Both of these performances were delivered with excellent verbal and physical comedic timing, and by the end, Lucio in particular had the whole house laughing and hanging on his every expression.
And of course, this is Shakespeare, so amidst all this merriment, weighty themes are tackled, such as the respective roles of justice and mercy, the prevalence of hypocrisy, the nature of good governance, and no doubt plenty of other things that I’ve either forgotten or didn’t spot in the first place.
Overall, this is a production that gives you a sense of what it was like to see the play in Shakespeare’s day, and which overcomes a tepid start before soaring into something that will put a smile on your face with a bit of the bard’s storytelling magic. It’s yet another success in the history of a theatre that’s full of them.