The Changeling (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, 2015His Contemporaries

  • José A. Pérez Díez
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Reviewed by José A. Pérez Díez

Changeling 2

Dominic Dromgoole’s last year at the helm of Shakespeare’s Globe seems to be going rather well. Just before the end of 2014 we could see an exciting rendering of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore that I enjoyed very much, even if I agree with some of the objections expressed by illustrious colleagues such as Peter Kirwan and Eoin Price. Ford will visit the Playhouse again in the upcoming months with his powerful The Broken Heart, a very rarely performed play that actually saw another revival in Birmingham just a few months ago at the Crescent Theatre, where it was performed by the students of the Birmingham School of Acting. There will be more Ford as well in Stratford in the next few months with the RSC’s Love’s Sacrifice at the Swan Theatre and The Lady’s Trial at King Edward VI’s School, performed by the ever-wonderful Edward’s Boys. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has also offered a revival of their riotously funny 2014 production of The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and will soon see Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage with their Young Players. This ensemble seems to be trying to follow in the footsteps of Perry Mills’s Stratford company of boys, though not altogether successfully: after last year’s disappointing rendering of The Malcontent, I hope the Globe troupe will be able to measure themselves against the beautiful production that the Edward’s Boys pulled off just two years ago. The Shakespearian season on the Globe main stage sounds promising as well, with, among other things, Dromgoole’s production of Measure for Measure, Jonathan Munby’s The Merchant of Venice with Jonathan Pryce as Shylock, plus King John, As You Like It, Richard II, and Helen Edmundson’s The Heresy of Love, a great modern play about the dramatist and nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, last seen in its first production by the RSC in the Swan Theatre.

I was looking forward to Dominic Dromgoole’s Changeling to see what he would do with the lighting of some of the scenes. After over a year experimenting with the new candlelit auditorium, Dromgoole seems to have relaxed his attitude towards low lighting levels. In his production of The Duchess of Malfi in January 2014, which opened the new theatre, he requested to have an extra chandelier hanging over the pit, fearing that there would not be enough light. He also insisted on lowering the chandeliers onto the stage whenever possible to provide extra light; this resulted in the actors having to negotiate their way around them on various occasions. And he left the shutters at the back of the galleries open very often, allowing lots of electric light to filter into the auditorium from the corridors. In contrast with all that, in this Changeling the chandeliers were suspended at medium level for most of the production, and only once did he allow the shutters to be opened (during the first conversation between Alsemero and Beatrice-Johanna at the beginning of the play). The show started with the musicians playing an almost expressionistic overture in total darkness, while the cast came on stage holding dark lanterns that they opened to provide some light, first showing their faces, and then focusing on Beatrice. Perhaps the most interesting use of darkness and very low lighting levels came at two pivotal moments: first in the scene between De Flores and Beatrice in which he delivers Piracquo’s severed finger and ring (played just with one candle and then with two); and second, the death of Diaphanta, also played almost in total darkness. It seems that Dromgoole has finally learned that the intimacy of the space allows for subtleties that would be unthinkable in almost any other theatre, and that you do not need lots of light most of the time to make it work.

The production was staged using Renaissance costumes, rather than the stylised clothes used in ’Tis Pity, in which the hint of the period was given by the use of ruffs, swords, and other Renaissance elements, but which was virtually done, if not in modern dress, at least with modern clothes. The musical arrangements in Changeling, however, did follow that trend: they were performed on period instruments (Baroque gut-strung violins, viola, and cello using period bows), but with new music by Claire van Kampen.

As for the performances, I was impressed by the extraordinary pathos and sensitivity that Dromgoole managed to invest on the madhouse subplot, so frequently cut or butchered, or, if kept, misrepresented or exaggerated. For me it was the highlight of the evening. Phil Whitchurch’s Alibius, Sarah MacRae’s Isabella, and particularly the comic genius of Pearce Quigley as Lollio (the Globe’s recent Bottom, who added his usual adlibbed lines and hilariously funny bits of business) managed to make the story of the hospital for fools and madmen consistently interesting to watch. In addition, Adam Lawrence as Francisco and especially Brian Ferguson as Antonio made the most out of two usually thankless roles, leaving the audience wanting to know more of their backstory.

If the subplot was, for once, compelling, and Rowley’s witty writing was vindicated through brilliant performances, the main plot was more uneven. Liam Brennan’s Vermandero was played with great conviction, and Peter Hamilton Dyer, once a superb Feste, played a delightfully mischievous and charming Jasperino (one only resents that the role dissolves towards the end of the play, and the effects of his loss of Diaphanta have to be acted almost in the background, as it is not scripted). Thalissa Teixeira was a lovely Diaphanta, particularly strong in her scene with Beatrice and the virginity test. The Piracquo brothers—Joe Jameson as Tomaso and Tom Stuart as Alonso—were also more than fine. The weakest performance was Simon Harrison’s Alsemero, who mumbled most of his lines in an incomprehensible rush, and who blunted the pathos of the final scene, in which he did not deploy much emotional energy.

The two leads, Hattie Morahan as Beatrice-Johanna and Trystan Gravelle as De Flores, played well opposite each other, but I think they (and Dromgoole) mistook the tone of their scenes. Finding the funny moments in Renaissance plays that may get a laugh in the theatre is important. But so is finding the right moments to let the horrifying reality of a tragedy take over and shock the audience. It bothered me that they threw away some of the most powerful moments in the text to get a laugh here and there, even at climatic points that should not really be funny. They managed to make the audience assume that the play is so grotesque that it is practically a farce. Which it is not. Both had, however, great moments, alone and together. Morahan did some great work with her difficult soliloquy at the top of the second half (‘This fellow has undone me endlessly’, in which she implied by the intonation that, in an unexpected way, she had quite enjoyed the undoing). Gravelle’s conversational confidences with the audience rightfully reminded us of Bosola and Vázquez in the recent shows at the Sam Wanamaker.

In a nutshell, an enjoyable performance that could still have done more to show all the strengths of Middleton and Rowley’s wonderful play, but that presented one of the strongest readings of the subplot that I can remember. It was also refreshing that the actors were allowed to keep their native accents: Gravelle’s Welsh, and the various Scottish inflections of Brennan, McRae, and Ferguson. I am now looking forward to finding out which plays will be produced at the Sam Wanamaker in the 2015/16 winter season, and, above and beyond, who will be the new artistic director of the company. May the gods send someone who will keep up with the good work in this beautiful indoor Jacobean playhouse.

Author: José A. Pérez Díez

Dr José A. Pérez Díez is a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, where he is currently working on the new edition of the complete works of John Marston to be published by Oxford University Press in 2020. He holds a doctorate from the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, where he produced the first fully annotated, modern-spelling critical edition of John Fletcher and Philip Massinger's Love's Cure, or The Martial Maid (visit www.lovescure.wordpress.com). He reviews Renaissance drama in performance for Shakespeare Bulletin and Cahiers Élisabéthains. Follow him at @JoseAPerezDiez
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