Review: Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman ~ theatre notes

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Review: Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman

Dario Fo makes people laugh. One would think this a harmless activity, except that in Fo's case, the laughter is allied to his revolutionary ideals: the targets for his satire are the rich and powerful, and his work has always dealt with the travails of the oppressed. During his long career, he has ridiculed the hypocrisy of the Pontiff and politicians, attacked no-go figures like the Mafia and exposed corporate corruption and greed. That this hasn't been taken kindly can be gauged by the responses.

Fo has been in court more than 40 times, facing charges like blasphemy, sedition, obscenity and defamation. After he made critical comments about the Vietnam War, he was refused a visa to the US for years. Some fanatical right-wingers took their objections further: they threatened to firebomb his home and theatre, and in 1973 his wife and long-time collaborator Franca Rame was kidnapped, raped and tortured by neo-fascists commissioned by high-ranking officials in Milan's Caribineri, or federal police.

His championing of the underdog explains his immense popularity in Italy, where his television and stage appearances have generated audiences of millions. For many years he has been the most performed living playwright in the world, and in 1997 he was awarded the Nobel Prize. So it's a little shaming that his work is so seldom staged in major theatres here.

As Fo himself said, looking back on his earlier years, "Mine has been a revolt against a hypocritical and deceitful order... As Marx says, 'The ruling ideas in society are those of the ruling class', and at that time it as only the ruling class which expressed its culture. Therefore my class, the peasantry, was viewed as a parasite that lived off that culture and aped some of its products." Fo was a practised subversive, taking popular bourgeois forms more usually employed to shore up the status quo, injecting them with vulgarity, and using them to expose darker truths about power.

In the process, he redefined modern political theatre. “Political theatre,” said Fo, “has become a kind of byword for boring theatre, conceited theatre, pedantic theatre, mechanical theatre, a non-enjoyable theatre.” In a time when political theatre mostly conjures Sir David Hare’s jejune docudramas, Fo’s criticism remains apposite. Fo's idea of political theatre came out of a collision of his Marxist ideals and popular forms, including television quiz shows, variety, cabaret and commedia dell'arte. According to the critic Tom Behan, his celebrated 1962 tv skit show, Conzonissima, was "unusual to say the least". The opening jokes consisted of "tramps criticising the rich in Milan, criticisms of German Nazis, sarcastic comments about television presenters, all this punctuated by established singers performing sugary songs about the moonlight shimmering over the silver sea".

In the 1980s, the wave of revolutionary fervour that brought Fo to the fore had subsided and splintered, and the Anglo world was dominated by the twin monster of Thatcher and Reagan. Fo, now collaborating with Rame, found himself more interested in issues such as feminism, and was as often attacking the extremities of the Left - he was highly critical of terrorism, considering it counter-productive - as of the Right. Elizabeth: Almost A Woman dates from 1984, and at the time was clearly a satire on Reagan: when it premiered in the US, and Fo was denied a visa to see the production, he began the play with a letter to Reagan, in which Elizabeth denied any possibility that a play about an aging, mentally unstable monarch indulging in covert operations could have anything to do with the present day.

Michael Kantor's production at the Malthouse gives us a chance to see a lavish staging of this lesser known play, given a new translation and free adaptation by Louise Fox and Luke Devenish. It demonstrates how far Kantor's direction has evolved over the past couple of years: since his production of Meow Meow's Vamp, he has honed his work to a style that focuses his gift for excess with a new and compelling clarity. We first saw how well this works in Happy Days which, like Elizabeth, was designed by Anna Cordingley and featured Julie Forsyth in one of her most memorable roles.

The design of Elizabeth is probably the best I've seen in the Merlyn since Chamber Made's 1990 production The Fall of the House of Usher, one of the first productions in this theatre. It is a feast for the eye: Cordingley's intricate costumes distort and exaggerate the human figure, creating a cartoon effect that contrasts sharply with the human body itself, revealed in its nakedness as vulnerable and absurd, like a snail without a shell. The stage is a huge revolve, its floor painted in faux-Tudor patterning, bisected by an extravagant ruched curtain. Steps lead down to an off-stage area, where the sound technician/musician/actor Mark Jones is visible in front. It's a simple and flexible space, and with the help of Paul Jackson's superb lighting, Kantor exploits all its resources to create some stunning mise en scene.

For all its spectacle, the design works as a frame for the performances and text, rather than a distraction from them, and the production is unexpectedly faithful to the spirit of Fo. The new translation preserves Fo's wit and, importantly, his poetry. The major change to the original text is the introduction of Shakespeare (Bille Brown) as a character on stage: here he becomes a sinister but strangely compassionate Master of Revels, orchestrating and witnessing the absurd and, finally, tragic action. The action occurs in Elizabeth's confused, paranoid mind, in a kind of farcical delirium of the Queen's final day.

In this portrayal, Elizabeth I (Julie Forsyth) is as far from the glittering queen beloved of the BBC and Hollywood as is possible to imagine. We see the aging tyrant possessed by paranoia and delusion, haunted by the ghosts of those she has murdered, obsessively waiting for her treacherous lover, the Earl of Essex. She is attended by her maid Martha (Nikki Shiels), her beaten and bruised Fool, Tom, (Chris Ryan), and her beautician Lady Donna Grozetta (Bille Brown), who spouts a Tourretian torrent of obscene puns as she renovates her Majesty with leeches and a waxing session.

Essex has been plotting Elizabeth’s murder and the overthrow of her realm, a police state riven by intrigue and murder. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is convinced that the real saboteur is Shakespeare, who lives in her head, plotting to destroy her. However, the actual villain is her oily chief of police Egerton (David Woods), a deadlier Sir Humphrey Appleby seeking to return England to Catholicism. Elizabeth, of course, has her own secret secret police spying on the secret police.

The plot is incidental and often makes little sense. The dynamic of this production is the switchback between outright vulgar comedy and genuine pathos: the violence of the action, rendered harmless by the cartoon quality of the grotesque, suddenly turns and bites with its realism. The first hint of cruelty is the massively bruised face of the abused Fool, the target of violence from everyone in the play: ignored except when he can be of use, his loyalty is rewarded only with slaps and kicks. The bridge between the unfeeling and the feeling is, unexpectedly and hilariously, pop music rearranged as Elizabethan madrigals. The effect is imbalancing and, ultimately, exhilarating: there's a bravura performance of Never Ending Story that might have come from a Broadway musical, which segues straight into the death of the queen.

This farcical and yet strangely moving play is at once a gloriously wicked satire on the backstage insanities of power and a paean to human mortality. Elizabeth was a tyrant, a woman in a man's world who retained her power by being more ruthless and smarter than her rivals; but her sex meant that, unlike a king, she could never marry without losing her authority. Her physical and emotional frailty are laid hard against the pomp of her circumstance and title, exposing the emptiness of power. As Shakespeare said (in another play): "For within the hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples of a king / Keeps Death his court." The play also becomes a reflection on the role of the artist in the State, as critic and court jester. Shakespeare is both Bard and jester, the unacknowledged legislator of principle: but his double is the poor, exploited Fool, the lowest of the low, whose role is to divert and entertain, and whose cruel treatment is the bad conscience not only of the queen, but of all her minions.

There are no weak performances. The first-class cast nimbly negotiates the switchback of comedy and tragedy, although on opening night there were a few problems in the early scenes with audibility. In the title role, Forsyth is a triumph: ribald, tyrannical and at last hauntingly vulnerable. Bille Brown in his double role is consistently enjoyable, and linguistically dextrous. I thought it took around 20 minutes to warm up: there was a stickiness in the comedy that may have been ironed out by now, but may also be a problem with the slightly frantic staging in the beginning. It's more than made up for by the uncannily spooky final moments of the play, as Shakespeare dances away from the queen's corpse, chanting "Maggoty, maggoty, maggoty", his malapropism of Majesty, before vanishing into the darkness.

Picture: Julie Forsyth (left) and Bille Brown in Elizabeth. Photo: Jeff Busby

Elizabeth: Almost By Chance A Woman, by Dario Fo, freely adapted by Louise Fox and Luke Devenish, directed by Michael Kantor.Design by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Mark Jones, sound design by Russel Goldsmith, choreography by Tony Bartuccio. With Bille Brown, Julie Forsyth, Mark Jones, Chris Ryan, Nikki Shiels and David Woods. Malthouse Theatre, until April 24.


Chris Boyd said...

I hate to disagree [LOL, who am I kidding!] and I might be taking your words overly literally, but the Merlyn Theatre opened at the end of May 1990 with Robyn Archer and Barrie Kosky's Cafe Fledermaus.

Chris Boyd said...

Usher was the first production to use the Merlyn's pit, if that's any consolation.

Alison Croggon said...

Is this the end of our beautful music?

Are you sure? (Thinks: Chris lives in a house full of filing cabinets). I was sure that Usher was the first production in the Merlyn. And I remember Cafe Fledermaus being a mid-season thing. But if I am wrong, I gracefully defer to your better memory.

But that was all long ago, in another country; and besides, the wench is dead...

Chris Boyd said...

thou hast committed...

Yeah, I's sure. Usher was end of August/start of September.

Chris Boyd said...

P.S. but the wench did get reincarnated!

Alison Croggon said...

I'll amend accordingly. Gosh dammit, it's dismaying when memory plays those tricks.

gih said...


I agreed. I searched over the internet.

Richard Pettifer said...

Hi Alison, thanks again for an enlightening review, but I don't agree with your more glowing points and I was disappointed in the show. I felt this was one of the least political things I have ever experienced! Unlike Optimism, which I enjoyed because Michael Kantor pitted his whimsicality and sense of fun against a futility and hopelessness, Elizabeth struck me as little more than fairy floss wrapped in a layer of honey.

I enthusiastically concede this is one of the most beautiful designs I've ever seen... However like Woyzeck, I think this play descended into a meaningless spectacle that did nothing to interregate the politics of today - for me it was ironically (given Fo's radicalism) self-defeating in its attempts to reveal the underbelly of power by stripping layers to reveal... more beautiful ones.

Hence my favourite touches were the yellow bucket of saw-dust and the tech's trolly. I'm glad they were there, but it was not enough. I also like to see backstage coming out.

As a dissection of power it just didn't function for me (or perhaps was lost). I know there is inherent politics in Commedia del'arte and clown firgures, but here they seemed to occupy a contextless vacuum.

I was sad because after Optimism I think Michael is capable of much more than blinding the audience with bright lights?

Just my threepenny's worth.

Alison Croggon said...

Fair enough, 4 Coffins. Interesting point about the beauty, although I thought the grotesque body functioned in there as a metaphor for everything concealed by pomp. (That lighting change where Forsyth suddenly became a skeleton, frinstance).

I thought the politics were clear as day, although the attack was not direct (it's not necessary to talk directly about "present day politics" - and we get a lot of that - to be "political'). I liked its unexpectedness. A strange play, to be sure. But I thought it a deeply interesting one.

Richard Pettifer said...

Thanks for the response - yes the attack was not direct... but I think neither was Optimism relly and that play fundamentally moved me whereas this one didn't.

I guess I'm wondering why... (was Optimism more shocking/affecting?)

I definitely think these two shows make interesting comparison anyhow.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi 4 Coffins - I think we'll have to chalk this one up to different sensibilities! I found Elizabeth much more moving than Optimism.

James Waites said...

Optimism was the worst play/production I have ever seen in my life...the only thing it moved was my bowels...there's some high art criticism 4 yous Melbournians!! lol