Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Theatre Review: The Broken Heart

When I did A Level English Literature about a billion years ago, one of the set texts I loved most was The Duchess of Malfi. 

Written by Jacobean dramatist John Webster, Malfi is a great, weird and generally slightly unhinged play featuring amongst other things an evil cardinal, a great malcontent (I always identify with those guys…) and someone dying by kissing a poisoned book. All the ingredients for a top night at the theatre in the 17th century. And the 21st, I would argue. 

The Broken Heart, playing in the period Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe, is also a Jacobean revenge tragedy written by a dude called John. Sadly here the similarities with Malfi end. 

Image source.
This time it’s John Ford doing the writing, and said writing is clunky and slow. The plot is at best tangled and impossible to concisely describe, but I’ll have a go. Penthea and Orgilus are star crossed lovers in ancient Sparta, until Penthea’s brother Ithocles intervenes and marries her to the old and jealous Bassanes. Orgilus swears revenge on Ithocles and gets it by way of murdering him in novelty fashion (in a death chair) thus causing Calantha, soon to be Mrs Ithocles and heir to the Spartan throne, to die of the titular broken heart after condemning Orgilus to death (by assisted suicide, helped along by Bassanes who at this point is apparently the recipient of a personality transplant). Penthea meanwhile has starved herself to death. Clear? No, it’s really not.

Caroline Steinbeis’ production does admirably well in making this bramble thicket of a story easy to follow. It’s pacey without being rushed (although cutting ten minutes off act one would've been welcome) and looks beautiful, making clever use of a ‘Greek’ colour palette which sparkles and shimmers beneath the candle light. There are some decent performances too, especially from Sarah MacRae as a spirited Calantha and Brian Ferguson as an enjoyably passionate Orgilus. 

The production also has a very clear sense of what it wants to be. The problem is that it wants to be a Carry On film. Carry On Calantha perhaps.

Whilst focussing on the comedy in an archetypal Jacobean revenge tragedy is an interesting idea, the execution just doesn't work. It’s camp. So camp that even I find it too camp. And I love camp! It’s jarring, it doesn't add anything and it doesn't make sense. 

The camp problem is most evident in the portrayal of Bassanes. Played by the usually fantastic Owen Teale, who brings so much menace and nastiness to his role as Ser Alliser Thorne on Game of Thrones, he is a preening, prancing, slapstick horror, all flailing arms and arch glances through the fourth wall. For one of the big villains of the piece, at least the first act, it’s slightly baffling and lowers the stakes so far that he simply ceases to be of any dramatic interest. In fact I felt my shoulders slump every time he came on stage. Post-personality transplant, the reasons for which are never made clear, in act two he becomes more earnest and a much more empathetic character. It’s such a shame that having sat through his Julian-Clary-does-Jacobean act that I no longer cared.

It’s frustrating really, because I can see an alternate universe in which playing up the comedy would've worked. But it needed to be much more subtle and much more wry. 

Whilst the play was deeply mediocre, I totally fell for the intimacy and general gorgeousness of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse itself. A faithful recreation of a 17th century indoor theatre (as opposed to its outdoor cousin, The Globe), and famously lit only by candles, it’s a beautiful space that totally works as a modern performance venue. I can’t wait to go back and see something good there. 

Not very good photo of the SWP's painted ceiling.

Even worse photo of the SWP
The Broken Heart is on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe until 18th April. There are tickets available for each of the remaining performances.

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