Elizabeth - Almost By Chance a Woman
(Quasu Per Caso Una Donna: Elisabetta)
by Dario Fo but "freely adapted."
There is a risk in theatre of setting yourself up for failure. Of proclaiming standards too high for what you are actually performing. Elizabeth is a classic case-study of the hype that can lead up to a show and the somewhat confusing fall-out of watching the actual performance. For example: if you are going to proclaim your show a Farce, it has to be funny. Very funny. If you do not take the presumptive step of grandstanding how Farcical it is: your audience does not face the awkward position of not laughing much at all in terms of a "funny play" but laughing quite a lot if it had been branded in terms of being a "normal-witty-somewhat-historical-and-satirical-play." It is true that Preview shows can sometimes lack the energy and slick timing of a Season show, but Farce is in the writing and situation, not just in the delivery.
Another example (before I move onto the actual performance) deals with the costumes. Malthouse shows always look fantastic, but proclaiming in Newspapers about the wonderful intricacy, expense and difficulty of the costumes and even using the impressive designs throughout the program as illustrations gave unrealistic expectations compared to what was realized on stage. A Malthouse audience takes for granted how great a show will look and it looked like any other Malthouse show. Nothing more, nothing less certainly and Anna Cordingley is to be commended for her efforts. But if the audience believes the extent of the PR in the lead up to a show opening then you leave yourself open to criticism.
To the Show!
Well, there is a phrase often bandied about – “it was a play of two-halves” – which is the sort of wanky claptrap I try to avoid using in reviews as it annoys me when I read it. Somewhat unfortunately it applies to Elizabeth. The first half opens promisingly enough but rapidly degenerates into a confusing rabble that takes place on a very claustrophobic and restrictive front part of the stage. Halving the stage space with pretty curtains works for short periods, not for an entire half: especially if they have to be moved aside every time someone needs a prop. If you have a wonderful big revolving stage – use it! The second half opened up the space in raising the curtains and with it the entire play opened up visually; in delivery and in interpretation. There may be an argument that without the curtains of the first half the second would not have been as impacting. Rubbish! Use lighting. (Deep breath).
Having said that the staging with ‘the heads’ was inspired and was a turning point in the show and demonstrated how when used sparingly curtains can be very effective.
I have no issue with course language or “ferociously foul-mouthed” characters. But to use a lot of expletives on stage requires creativity and it has to come from within the character, not an external force imposing it on the script. Swearing for swearing sake is not funny or amusing. It is clunky and unnecessary. Occasionally it worked very well, the line “oh, put my fucking face on!” was fantastic, but this was often lost in the steady stream of unfunny cussing. Considering the presence of Shakespeare on stage and in the script there was inherent potential in using various hilarious Shakespearian insults in combination with contemporary vocabulary. “Where the bees fuck, there fuck I” was in my opinion the best line of the play. It was funny, almost farcical, worked in context and had a beautiful theatrical awareness to it. I think in general there was a playfulness lacking in the language of the script.
The Dramaturge for the Malthouse, Maryanne Lynch asserts in her program notes that “every character [in the play] is as much an idea as a person.” Well, the tropes used I fear were underutilized. The right-hand-man-turned-villain and the Queen were fully realized. But I felt that the Fool and the Handmaiden and even Shakespeare himself were lacking somewhat. I wanted more from these characters and I think that if there had been more it would not have taken away from the focus on the Queen but instead formed a stronger basis for her Madness to flourish. Written during at the start ‘reign’ of Margaret Thatcher and the rise of New Liberalism in England the play has an acute political awareness to it that did not come through particularly strongly. Perhaps a way of combating this would have been to play up the idea of the trope characters and use their timelessness to inform the wider context of the text.
The actors were all good, especially Julie Forsyth who is an incredible actress and worthy of playing a Queen! We did miss the humour in some of Lady Donna Grozetta’s lines when Billie Brown became more concerned with ‘Dame-ing it up’ rather than articulating for the audience, but it was a minor blip and will resolve itself in the previews.
It seems this review has been awfully critical of what was a brave piece of theatre to stage. Once in Season this show might kick into a higher gear, certainly Director Michael Kantor gave a little speech explaining it was still being worked on. So a positive to finish: The singing was fabulous as was the Irish dancing.
Elizabeth: it is worth seeing, and you may well laugh and enjoy it – but don’t believe the publicity hype.