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No sooner have we had The Tempest at the Globe with all the parts played by three male actors than BITE:05 brings us Oscar Wilde’s great comedy with nine roles played by two: Jon Haynes and David Woods. Why? Perhaps there’s only the mountaineer’s reply: “Because it’s there.” Why not? Why ask? Just enjoy it, for it is very, very funny.
How do they do it? With skill and considerable ingenuity. In a play that relies for its plot on an imaginary brother, an imaginary fiancée and an imaginary invalid, it is seems perfectly in order to ask the audience to use just a little extra of their own imagination. In fact, it is not really imagination that the audience must contribute but they must accept that basic theatrical premise that if we are offered this as something or someone, it becomes it. This production would make a perfect subject for a theatre studies semiotics with its signifiers and signified, animate and inanimate. An actor or a puppet, a hat, a frightful wig, a skirt, or a jacket, leave us in no doubt who is who as David Woods plays Lane, Worthing, Cecily, Chasuble and Lady Bracknell, and Jon Haynes Algie, Gwendolen, Miss Prism, Merriman — and Lady Bracknell also.
They begin by operating their own sound and light effects and zapping a CD player — you may get some sense of the production if I tell you that Bracknell enters to Wagner’s Valkyrie music.
This is the first time Ridiculusmus have worked with an existing text and, though they do indulge some anachronistic music and choreography during changes of scene, and the set reveals a modern refrigerator to store Lane’s cucumber sandwiches, they play the lines absolutely straight and with great sincerity. No swooping vowels for Lady Bracknell, though the style does grow a little more florid as the play draws to a close. Wilde’s brilliantly funny text comes through fresh-minted. Despite some sumptuous costuming with a wonderfully flamboyant hat for Gwendolen to match her yellow and orange ensemble and a crowing black cockerel perched on Lady Bracknell’s head, this minimal casting concentrates attention on the words with its succession of aphorisms and one-liners amazingly forming a conversational interchange.
This is also the first time the company have worked with a director and clearly this production is a close collaboration with Jude Kelly. She has certainly ensured that they never go too far. Cross-gender casting often produces refreshing results and, as often happens in Shakespeare, these characterisations give us the essence of girlishness and sophistication without caricature. Wood’s Worthing and his ward sound just a little countrified against the clipped tones of Haynes’s aristocrats and both actors cleverly differentiate their vocal characterisations (though when Haynes takes over from Wood as Chasuble his Welsh tones do veer towards Seller’s Indian).
The two actors, as Worthing and Cecily, wonderfully preserve proprieties in a romantic scene where their hands hover together but never quite touch, but we enter another dimension when Cecily, already in her imagination well into an engagement, begins to strip fiancée Algie to the waist and already has his flies undone before she is forced to desist. There is a gradual escalation of stylization from here on as both actors lose their trousers but (and perhaps there is just a touch of the Kenny Everetts here) all ‘in the best possible taste’.
Designer Zoë Atkinson has covered the floor with Persian rugs and surrounded the stage with a wall of screens and furniture — wardrobes, sideboards, cupboards, bookshelves, a piano and chests of drawers — covered in a mosaic of patterned fabrics that give a sense of an overstuffed fin de siècle scene with a fold-out row of fabric garden trees to tell us when we have moved outdoors. Her costume designs, incidentally, are on display between the Pit lobby and the theatre: don’t miss them. And don’t miss this show. I think Oscar Wilde would have loved it.
The only thing that did not work for me was a galliard danced as a curtain piece but after such a captivating show, Woods and Haynes should be allowed a little self-indulgence.
Howard Loxton © 2005
Originally published on R&V 12-06-05
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