Review: Comus ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Review: Comus

Comus by John Milton, composed by Henry Lawes, directed by Annilese Miskimmon. Designed by Lachlan Goudie, musical direction by Richard Bates, costumes by Beth Sims, choregraphy by Kyra Cornwall. With David F. Walton, Mary-Ellen Lynell, Jenni Mackenzie, Ed Rowett, Ned Stuart-Smith, Olivia Marshall, Rachel Thomas, Charlotte Verrill, Maria Pritchard, Shu-Pin Oei, Emma Rhule and Helen Ivory. Christ’s College Amateur Dramatic Society.

Comus: A Reply by John Kinsella, directed by Simon Godwin. Designed by Lucy Minyo, music composed by Simon Gethin Thomas, choreography by Vikki Le May, lighting by Benjamin Sehovic. With David Brown, Amanda Plain, Helen Duff, Sam Pallis, Lowri Amies, Alashiya Gordes, Abigail Rokison, Iona Blair and Arthur Asseraf. The Marlowe Society. Double bill @ Christ’s College Hall, Cambridge University.

Last weekend, I had the rare opportunity to watch a masque in performance – or more accurately, two masques, Milton’s Comus and a 21st century “reply” by Australian poet John Kinsella – in the atmospheric environs of Christ’s College, Cambridge. How atmospheric it was might be judged by the fact that it was performed in the hall where, four centuries ago, a 19-year-old Milton presided as Lord of Misrule, and on the wall was a portrait that is, at least in tradition, a picture of Milton by Lely (and which for the occasion was garnished with laurels).

Yet, for all the 17th century decor, what struck me most forcibly was how modern the form still seems. Much of the most interesting contemporary theatre plays up its artifice, finding emotional authenticity in performance and language rather in any pretence at realism. Masque reminds me of nothing so much as the Asian theatre that so inspired figures like Brecht and Artaud: it’s theatre that focuses on art, music, dance and physically stylized performance, and depends crucially for its intellectual sophistication and much of its beauty on poetic language.

A form of theatre that evolved from ancient traditions of mummery, it reached its apotheosis with Ben Jonson, who created extravagant spectacles that employed the arts of literature, music, singing, dancing and design to enchant the senses of Jacobean courtiers. Milton’s “Mask, presented at Ludlow Castle” (later named Comus) extended the tradition to pastoral poetry, but it was also a play on the genre that confounded the expectations of his audience, who were used to a narrative in which disruptive disorder was finally conquered by the forces of virtue (usually represented by the King and Queen).

Milton reclaimed the masque from its courtly excesses, recasting it as morality tale that defends chastity against the chaos of sensual riot. The plot is simple: a young woman (the Lady) becomes lost in a forest, the home of a wicked magician who, with his half-animal revelers, lives a life of sexual and sensual excess. But with the help of her two brothers, her innate virtue and the intervention of an earth goddess, Sabrina the Nymph, she fights of his seductions.

However, it’s more complex than it first appears. True to the ambiguity noted by Blake when he said Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”, Milton permits the Bacchanalian Comus to run away to fight another day, still clutching his magic wand.

Kinsella’s version, which was commissioned by the Marlowe Society, sticks closely to Milton’s structure and even, intriguingly, his language, and brings the sexual perversity that is subtextual in Milton rampantly to the surface. Certainly, in its radical message it’s very much in the tradition of Milton. The contemporary version of Comus is an out-of-control genetic scientist who swallows handfuls of Viagra and amphetamines, and after her adventures in the forest, the Lady becomes an eco-warrior. But again, all is not quite what it seems: the ultimate triumph of Virtue is merely another form of corruption, in which the wilds of England are preserved at the expense of the wildernesses of the developing world.

The productions were presented in traverse, in a hall which is intimate rather than grand, with double doors and a gallery at one end. Both productions took advantage of this intimacy, and were both, for different reasons, entirely engrossing. If Milton’s Comus featured some rather charmingly enthusiastic overacting, it also had some gorgeous voices – Mary-Ellen Lynall as the Lady, Jenni Mackenzie as the Attendant Spirit and Olivia Marshall as Sabrina – to deliver Henry Lawes’s sublime baroque settings of Milton’s lyrics. The songs were show-stoppers: for a moment, it was like stepping outside time, and we really were in the 17th century.

Annilese Miskimmon’s direction was functional rather than imaginative, and tended at times to the static; but it mostly filled the space and took proper advantage of the gallery. Beth Sims’s costumes were contemporary, with the Attendant Spirit in a costume that was a kind of cross between a beekeeper's costume and a space suit, the Lady in a tennis dress and her brothers in cricket whites. The most spectacular dress was for Comus and his dancers, in particular some stunning half-masks that demonstrated their Circean bestial provenance: one had a spectacular coronal of peacock feathers.

Simon Godwin’s direction of Kinsella’s Reply was more muscular, heightened by some fun animalistic choreography drawing on pole-dancing and dance clubs, which together generated an urgent energy. The costumes were simple and eye-catching: Comus’s dancers were decked out in bright, skintight lycra draped with complete fox furs, a gruesome touch which makes you wonder why such things were ever considered fashionable, while the Lady’s rather clueless brothers (Sam Pallis and Lowrie Amies) were in public school uniforms. The speaking performances were on the whole weaker than in the previous play, but the production was grounded by an utterly sure and very impressive performance from David Brown as Comus.

Whatever the quibbles, the whole was more than the sum of its parts. The original Comus was performed by amateurs - including the children of Lord Bridgewater, for whom the masque was commissioned - and its hieratic form is forgiving of the declamatory. All the same, I couldn’t help speculating what it would be like to see the masques directed, say, by Michael Kantor, designed by Anna Tregloan, with Geoffrey Rush as Comus and Melissa Madden-Grey as the Lady… but I was in Cambridge, not Melbourne. These were, after all, more than creditable productions. And the location and sense of event gave the evening an irresistible and unique frisson.

And the language was glorious. These masques might easily be a form of superior agitprop: what saves them is the poetry, complex and intellectually graceful, which plays richly against the simplicities of their theatrical form. Perhaps masque, or forms like it, is where poetry can really sing in contemporary theatre.

Picture: Christ's College Hall.

A shorter version of this review was published on the Guardian's theatre blog.

1 comment:

John Kinsella said...

This is really fascinating, Alison. I couldn't be there, but I hear there was a great deal of energy and that despite cuts (time, always time) it came across with general intentions intact.

One thing though, I would never have coped with or endorsed the use of fox furs in any way. I would have had to protest my own play! Seriously. Having said this, I do emphatically believe in the separation of writer and production - unless it's a direct collaboration (writer as co-director or director etc). For me, every time a play is performed by a different company, it is a different play. The author truly becomes dead (or maybe given new life - either way!).

So I've no right to comment on that level, but as a potential audience member I would say that I think that there are other ways the rabble could be signified etc. Fetish gear was the original conception - so it's easy to see how lycra and fur would have evolved out of crossover. This is not in any way a criticism of the production which I think, from what I hear, was exciting and challenging and allowed the poetry to do what poetry can do, but a general statement about props in the theatre (or elsewhere). I can't imagine many would agree with me, but hey, I try to be consistent in my beliefs.

Yours in veganism, anarchism, and pacifism. Oh, and poetry.

John Kinsella