This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
The Dark Side of Love, directed by Renato Rocha and co-directed by Keziah Serreau, 5 July 2012 at the Roundhouse, London
By Sonia Massai, King’s College London
At the beginning of this 45-minute promenade production, the audience was ushered into the Dorfman Hut, the network of corridors and vaulted chambers located directly beneath the main auditorium at the Roundhouse. At first the audience could only walk along the main circular corridor that wraps around this haunting venue and observe the fifteen young performers stationed in it. A few of them spoke or paraphrased lines from Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy in different languages and delivered them with great emotional intensity. Others, each seemingly trapped in the cell-like passage-ways that can be accessed from this main corridor, engaged in secretive or obsessive-compulsive behaviours. One performer mixed poisonous-looking potions (possibly referring to the potion drunk by Juliet to fake her own death in Romeo and Juliet) while a young girl kept attempting to swallow blood-red, petal-like balloons strewn all over the floor of her small brick chamber. All the performers were covered in dry blood, their bodies and minds already marred by the unforgiving and deadly power of dark love.
While wandering around the main corridor where the first part of this production took place, I felt that there was something slightly pornographic about the level of exposure produced by the close physical proximity between the audience and these young performers, who returned the gaze of those who had the nerve to watch them bare their heart and soul. This sense of invited voyeurism was heightened by the use of large pieces of light fabric that had been slashed and pinned over several of the passage-ways opening onto this main corridor. And yet the confident, self-assured quality of these young performers’ acting and their progressively active, almost regimented use of the performance space turned the tables on the audience, who was repeatedly pushed rather briskly and unceremoniously out of the way. I remember feeling positively uncomfortable, as the performers started to shepherd the audience from the main circular corridor, through one of the narrow passage-ways that led into a small area surrounded by screens. The near-complete darkness in this confined space was only intermittently interrupted by projected images showing a beating heart, a metronome, and a pair of young people, a boy and a girl, as they were drowning, helplessly, with an air of resigned acceptance about them, clearly committing suicide. The screens were then suddenly pulled down and low lighting showed that we were standing in the middle of the main inner chamber at the heart of the Dorfman Hut, where the rest of the production took place. But before the performers resumed, the audience was left to linger awkwardly in the middle of the room, wondering what was going to happen next in an empty space that felt quite large by comparison to the narrow corridors where this production had started.
When the performers rejoined the audience, they used song, dance and dramatic dialogue, that was mostly original but clearly inspired by Shakespearean themes and motives drawn from Othello, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. Quite interesting and effective was the prominence granted to Hamlet’s unfeeling rejection of Ophelia, while several performers took turns to read from copies of the letters and poems that Hamlet had sent her and that she was now returning to him. Also quite moving was a short sequence where a female performer suddenly became Desdemona, as she pleads for her life in the bedroom scene at the end of Othello. I particularly enjoyed the fact that while the two pairs of performers personating Hamlet and Ophelia and Othello and Desdemona confronted each other in the middle of the chamber, their actions were visually echoed by all the other performers. First all the female performers stood in a circle around Hamlet and Ophelia and fell simultaneously, copying Ophelia’s fall as Hamlet repeatedly pushed her away. Similarly, all male performers surrounded Othello and Desdemona and mimicked Othello as he, like Hamlet, tried to fend off Desdemona’s impassioned plea by shoving her out of his way. One of the high points in this production was the unexpected and eloquent outburst of indignation that came pouring out of the diminutive young performer who played Desdemona in this part of the show.
Interesting as this production was, I felt more often alienated and uncomfortable than sympathetic and emotionally involved with the plight of these young forlorn lovers. But alienation and discomfort may well have been what this production was striving to achieve. The baring of the performers’ emotions was ultimately represented as a literal flaying, a progressive stripping of the body of the lovers down to their bleeding hearts. Tellingly, in the closing sequence, the actor who had played Hamlet earlier in this production walked to the middle of the chamber holding a heart in his hand. This arresting stage action may have been a direct reference to John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, where Giovanni, having killed his sister and lover, Annabella, enters with her heart upon his dagger. In Ford’s tragedy, Giovanni’s gesture is symptomatic of his possessive desire to reclaim Annabella, who has been forced to marry another man, while in this production, the actor playing Hamlet crouched down to drop the heart into a small tank of water held by Ophelia, clearly re-enacting his earlier rejection, but this time in a more literal, visceral way.
When I left the Roundhouse after watching Two Roses for Richard III a few weeks ago, which included Renato Rocha in the cast, I remember feeling slightly overwhelmed by a production that tried too hard to impress. On the contrary, after watching The Dark Side of Love, I felt underwhelmed. I now wondered whether my state of mind stemmed from the fact that I had been semi-consciously concerned about the ethical viability of enlisting the Roundhouse’s outstanding commitment to reaching out to communities of young people from different backgrounds by including this production in the current World Shakespeare Festival. How could a production, that at times felt as raw and gritty as an improvised workshop, withstand the formidable combination of the Royal Shakespeare Company, as chief organizers of the Shakespeare Festival for the London 2012 Festival, LIFT (the London International Festival of Theatre) as co-producers, along with the British Council as a cultural partner? But the more I thought about the confidence with which the performers appropriated snatches of Shakespeare’s lines to rework them into their own words, songs, or dance sequences, the more I started to realise that this production was less about Shakespeare and more about what these young performers decided to present about themselves through Shakespeare.
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To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.
You can also read an essay for The Guardian by Renato Rocha discussing ‘Why Shakespeare Is… Brazilian’.