Sport For Jove. Directed by Damien Ryan, York Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney, 3 April 2014.
Reviewed by Penny Gay
Paired defensively with the ever-popular Twelfth Night (see separate review), Sport for Jove’s fifteenth full-scale production needed no excuse – it was simply the best production of this ‘problem’ play I’ve ever seen. The only one, in short, to make emotional and social sense. With no easy retreat into the play’s medieval or fairy-tale origins, no cheap laughs at the social mores of Renaissance France or Victorian England, Ryan set the story firmly in the contemporary world. I have always been of the opinion that (along with Measure for Measure) this is a Shakespeare play that resonates strongly with feminist, or rather ‘post-feminist’, modernity. Who doesn’t know of a bright intellectual girl who has fallen for a handsome boofhead and suffered heartbreak simply because he can’t see her qualities or engage in intelligent conversation with her?
The basic setting – a large open pavilion at the centre of a circular thrust stage, set as needed with a large bed, a sauna, a hospital ward, etc – allowed plenty of space and variety for the company’s trademark strong physicality and well-drilled choreography. This was particularly apt in the treatment of the young men, Bertram’s companions, who were seen in an extended boot-camp training exercise before collapsing noisily into the locker-room sauna. Clad only in towels, the uniformly well-muscled young men engaged in typical teasing and skylarking, only to snap to attention as the king and Helena arrived, along with the older courtiers, for the public ritual of Helena’s choosing a husband. Naturally, on request, each young man removed his towel and stood completely naked – each in a comically different way dealing with this unprecedented incursion into the males’ safe space. This was the first of the production’s drawings-out of the play’s complex satirisation of gender norms (though one could also note Helena’s opening energetic work as the cleaner of Bertram’s bedroom, seizing the opportunity while he is in the bathroom to lie in his rumpled bed and briefly fantasise).
In this carefully depicted social environment Bertram (Edmund Lembke-Hogan), played as a Prince Harry lookalike in army uniform, had no trouble convincing us of his thoughtlessness and immaturity – he was literally just one of the boys. Astonished and insulted at the king’s (‘old-fashioned’) control over his sexual freedom, he stormed off to the safety (and, as it emerged, ennui) of the wars. The challenge to the actor of this role is to convince us of his emotional turnaround. Ryan met this by setting up a playful, comfortable and apparently sexless physicality between the two in the opening mime; then having Lembke-Hogan collapse into violent weeping when he read of Helena’s death (another wordless bit of business, introduced into 3.6). Bertram then had to quickly recover his sangfroid when interrogated by one of his soldier-mates. This little scene was a very satisfactory fleshing-out of the Second Lord’s lines in 4.3: ‘There is something in’t that stings his nature, for on the reading it he changed almost into another man.’
Parolles (George Banders, young and dandyish) was given a father in this production: the strict and conventional Lafeu (James Lugton): a brilliant insight that explained the young man’s desperate need to impress, and his fear of being outed as effeminate. A discreet amount of cutting and even a little re-writing provided a very satisfying narrative curve for this complex character. And, rightly, in this modern-set production, his bullying by his confreres was repulsive, with strong visual echoes of Abu Ghraib (I overheard two young women in the audience commenting on this analogy with surprised respect). Parolles showed moral courage after these outrages in declaring ‘Simply the thing I am shall make me live’, and his reconciliation with his father Lafeu in the play’s last scene was very touching.
What then of Helena, in this play which engaged so fully with the problems of modern masculinity? Perfectly cast, Francesca Savige was eloquent and self-mocking, never for a moment maudlin, a dear companion to the Countess (a warm and funny Sandra Eldridge) and one who quite believably could devise and carry out the bed-trick along with the three equally feisty Florentine girls, who were working as nurses in a field hospital. The audience saw how effectively the bed-trick could be played via silhouettes on the bed-curtains, the two girls easily differentiated, though Bertram, set only on his own pleasure, remained oblivious.
The same bed served for the lying-in-state of an apparently dead Helena, during the play’s long last scene. This anticipation of The Winter’s Tale was remarkably resonant, and gave to the near-silent Helena of the play’s end an extraordinary visual centrality and power. Like Lafeu, and in this production like a truly repentant Bertram, ‘Mine eyes smelled onions’ – something I have never experienced before at the end of this difficult but demonstrably effective play.