Thursday, October 07, 2004

REVIEW: Twelfth Night, The Olympia

Cheek by Jowl’s Declan Donnellan takes on a double challenge in his all male, all Russian cast for Twelfth Night. Working mainly with graduates of the Moscow Arts Theatre School and Russian Theatre Academy, he sets about what might be called an “un-deconstruction” of Shakespeare’s tale by casting men for both male and female roles, reviving some of the original spin to a romcom in which cross-dressing is so crucially woven into the plot.

To keep this complex operation airborn and bring a contemporary audience into The Kingdom of Illyria’s teetering, polymorhous world of sexual misdirection requires Donnellan’s theatre mojo to be working at full power. If the director finally suceeds in the tricky task he has set himself, his creation is in patches more impressive than enjoyable.

Donnellan’s production is spare, but always elegant. The design by Cheek By Jowl co-founder, Nick Omerrod, evacuates the stage as much as possible, bringing on a chunky chair or table, or cabdle or two, only when absolutely necessary.

Scenery is then created with towering bolts of fabric (black at first, creamy coloured with light-stencilled leaves and branches later on) dropped from the rafters . This simple plan, lit gently and unfussily but with a range of enticing details by Judith Greenwood, provides Donnellan and his actors with what they clearly crave: plenty of naked white stage in which to work.

Onto this Donnellan marches a large latin wedding band of cast, their sweet bossas turning the play’s songs from the excruciating digressions they often are, into entirely delightful musical interludes. Who would ever have bet that the mix of russian translations of Shakespearean lyrics sung to a swaying Brazillian beats would produce such a joyful mashup.

While music had the power to overcome the language barrier in the songs, the rest of the play had to rely on green LED surtitles. This seemed to result in the Russian speakers scattered around the Olympia audience heartily enjoying some gags that were simply not available to the anglophones present. So, while reading the surtitles was not a complete bar to enjoying the show, there was a sense of receiving, at times, the narrowband version of the message.

But all of this fortuoutously serves to throw the attention back towards the visual aspects of Donnellan’s creation: the throughly, whole-body physical styles of the Russia actors’ work, as well as the way smooth, dynamic way the director continually diced and reconstituted the stage.

When the production finally finds its groove, it is actually as free and funky a version of the piece as anyone could hope. The slapstick becomes beautifically balletic, the potty gender-trading louche and hillarious, the anachronisms sharp, spare and well-marshalled.

One moment the cast are involved in a cluster brawl that seems to reference the hammy bouts of the WWE, the next an onstage microphone adds a deeply spooky reverb to Malvolio’s prison torture scene.

Donnellan’s approach happily negotiates old and new, antique and contemporary resonances, to give a sensation of an uncompromsing, pure Twelfth night, without forgetting to remind us those Shakespearean puzzels we not yet unravelled.

Olympia Theatre, Dublin, 7 October, 2004

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Friday, October 01, 2004

Brian McCardie's Number is Up

“I think the person who can most understand the predicament this play talks about is an actor,” says Brian McCardie about playing the part of three identical clones in Caryl Churchill’s curious and provocative short play, A Number.

“In every part I play, it’s always someone different, but of course, it’s always still me…”

McCardie would be well entitled to a little confusion on that subject, however, having played in a rake of Hollywood blockbusters, as well as doing his time in British television drama, appearing in everything from Rob Roy to The Bill and back again. It is a career that has inspired dozens of fan sites, something that McCardie laughs off:

“It’s the Rob Roy effect, I think. I mean, there really isn’t anything more attractive than a man in a skirt, now, is there..?”

Now, however, the actor has moved home from Hollywood. His first stop was Glasgow, and, after the tour of A Number (“a kind of cheap holiday”), to London, where he will be pursuing stage roles. “The one power an actor has is to say “no,” to turn down a job…I had had quite a few “young” roles and I wanted to play some roles with a bit more complexity and the theatre is the only place for that.”

How very true. In Caryl Churchill’s play he has been asked to perform his strangest role yet: to play a gang of clones who are coming to terms, in one way or another, with the fact that they are not entirely individual in the traditional sense, that they are, in one sense, only copies.

“What the play is talking about, human cloning, that will certainly happen. Someone will do it and present it to the world as a fait accompli,” says McCardie. “And then there will be all this moral debate about what it means.”

“I really believe that she is working out a real moral problem – maybe that is why she leaves so many things undecided; why she doesn’t really come to a conclusion. Sometimes I think she is deliberately fucking with the audiences heads.”

McCardie is not, as it happens, an unswerving fan of Churchill’s work. “In my experience at least, she can be very hit and miss. She is always very experiment, which is what you have to be of course, but it doesn’t always come off.”

And this time?

“Well, we’ll have to see, won’t we…”

Space Upstairs, Project, Dublin, October 2004