David and I just got back from seeing Halifax’s Vile Passéist Theatre‘s closing performances of the two Marlowe plays they’ve been running in repertory: Edward II and The Jew of Malta.
Before I say anything else, I just want to say, thank you, VPT, for programming these challenging and rarely-seen plays. I really enjoyed the almost six hours of Elizabethan drama I saw today, and am so grateful to have had the opportunity to see them locally and with local casts.
Of the two, I personally enjoyed Edward II the most, although it was a close run thing.
Director Luciana Fernandes had a good grasp of the shape of the entire work. Some of the character arcs are immensely challenging (Edward, Isabella and Mortimer) because the characters change places, in a way, from the beginning to the end. In the beginning, I felt contempt for Edward and admiration for Isabella and Mortimer, and by the end my feelings had entirely reversed. This is not an easy thing to pull off, for either the actors or the director. I loved some of Fernandes’s choices: leaving Edward’s body, spotlit, slumped over the table where he was killed, during the final scene when Edward’s son and successor restores order to the kingdom by avenging his father’s murder was very strong.
Standout performances in this show, for me, were the three principals.
Emma Laishram, as Isabella, Edward’s wife and queen, has a powerful presence and a strong voice. She spoke the lines tremendously well, fluently and clearly, with great emotional connection. I thought she did a good job of taking Isabella from loyal, anguished wife to unfaithful, vengeful evil queen, although she’s not helped by Marlowe’s sketchy writing here, which presents some pretty steep challenges for the actor playing Isabella (especially when Isabella suddenly becomes unfaithful and seems ready to sacrifice her own son).
I enjoyed every moment that Pasha Ebrahimi, as Mortimer the Younger, was onstage. His performance was masterly, and was rooted in his outstanding delivery of this difficult text. He has an easy, powerfully masculine presence, at once honourable and dangerous. His bass speaking voice is expressive and capable of almost infinite colouring and shading, and he’d be at home on any stage, anywhere. What a privilege to see him in Halifax.
But for my money the finest performance of the show was given by Ben Irvine, who played Edward II. While not, perhaps, as smooth or experienced an actor as Ebrahimi, Irvine brought Edward vividly to life, and even more vividly to his death. Irvine has a lovely tall presence, and is clear and confident in his physical characterization. He speaks the lines clearly and with great intelligence. While I enjoyed his work in the first half of the play, I was absolutely riveted by him in the second half, after the king and his favourite, Gaveston, are separated. There were a number of extraordinary moments crafted by this young actor, but I’ll never forget the scene where Edward accepts that he must resign his crown. Irvine made me believe that the crown itself had become a living creature, almost clinging to Edward’s hands. It was powerfully moving and mesmeric and as fine a piece of work as I’ve ever seen, anywhere. It was a real lesson in how to endow a prop with convincing emotional significance. Bravo.
The only huge, jarring misstep in the entire show for me was presenting Edward’s sadistic jailers as weird, overacting, cackling witchy women, complete with comic (and unidentifiable) accents, limps and bad wigs. (Well, one bad wig, but it was really bad). Seriously, I was pretty upset when they showed up. Up to that point I had been completely sucked into the story, following Irvine every step of his descent into captivity and madness, and then these these caricatures popped up. It’s hard enough to keep tragedy from turning into farce, but this was a really, really bad choice. To Irvine’s credit (and to Jesse Robb’s, who played the assassin Lightborn with grisly glee) Edward’s final moments were still powerful and horrifying, in spite of the note of unwelcome farce.
The Jew of Malta
This is a very different kettle of fish from Edward II, which is a pretty straightforward history play. The Jew is much more in the sometimes blackly comic revenge tragedy vein of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (written about the same time) or John Webster’s later work, The Duchess of Malfi, although not as grisly as either of them.
Director Dan Bray has a nice touch with the comic parts of this. In general, I thought the cast of this show spoke their lines more clearly and with more understanding than they did in Edward II (although on the minus side, there were more odd accent choices in this one, for some reason). I thought Bray had a great sense of the overall form of the play, which is structured firstly around the three competing religious groups, the Christians, the Turks and the Jews; and then around the three sets of people that Barrabas murders: the young rivals for his daughter’s hand; the nuns; and two greedy friars. Bray’s choices make this structure crystal clear, even for a newcomer to Marlowe, like me.
I love how he handled the tricky bit of staging where Barabas falls into the trap he’s devised for the Turks. Good lighting and creative use of the arrangement of risers made for a great solution.
There were a number of really strong performances in this one, although at times the comedy seemed to teeter on the verge of farce (okay, it tipped right over occasionally). There was outstanding work by Eric Fitzpatrick as Ithamore, the Turkish slave who is bought by Barabas, and is schooled by him in murder and villainy. Fitzpatrick has killingly good comic timing, coupled with a fabulously expressive face and a surpassing ability to play the drunk. He was sensational, especially in his scenes with Jesse Robb (Barabas) and with Schoel Strang as the courtesan Bellamira. He and Strang were as good a pair of comic lovers as I’ve ever seen.
Of the comic murder victims, I most enjoyed Ben Irvine as Don Mathias and Jonny Thompson as Don Lodowick, probably because they didn’t play it too broadly. It was great to see Irvine totally transform himself into a young, serious, ardent young suitor — every inch the young hero. Thompson gauged his performance well, too, as the slightly buffoonish son of the evil Governor of Malta. This was a nice bit of casting.
I liked Ashley Marie Pike‘s work as Abigail, Barabas’s daughter. She has a sweet and girlish presence, and the good comic sense not to overplay the comedy. Really nicely done, and her final death scene was sincere and moving.
But most of all I enjoyed Jesse Robb‘s clever and calculating Barabas, the titular Jew of Malta. There was more than a hint of Barabas as Blackadder, perhaps, (with Ithamore as Baldrick) but Robb pulled it off. He’s tremendously comfortable on stage, and although I think he was tired for this last performance (and who wouldn’t be?) he was fascinating and great fun to watch throughout. He interlarded his lightening-quick comic asides with moments of more serious feeling, and was clearly having a marvellous time, as were we, the audience, watching him. His scene with Ithamore, preparing the poisoned rice, was worth the ticket price alone.
Because I only saw the one performance, and it was the last show of a long run in repertory, I can’t say why there seemed to be an inordinate amount of mugging, corpsing and focus-pulling going on during this performance. Maybe it was just the natural hysteria a cast gets when they’re a little punchy and giddy at the end of a run? We’ve all been there, but it was a shame, particularly in a scene where three slaves literally and figuratively upstaged Robb. I didn’t hear a word of his speech, and it was too damned bad.
I liked the fight scenes in both shows very much (as well as the excellent lighting), both arranged by Matthew Downey, who seems a useful sort of chap to know
I think that Edward II needed a dialogue consultant, or at least someone to teach the cast how to say English place names consistently (“Warwick”, “Berkeley” and anything ending in “-shire” were most jarring to me). I know an Englishman who’d help them out next time for a pint of beer
I liked Garry Williams‘s music for the two shows very much (especially for The Jew, which featured some evocative cello work by Gina Thornhill.) His choices for Edward II were strong (particularly the O Fortuna) but some of the prerecorded chanting by the cast was really badly done, frankly, with some sound clips of scarily out of tune singing played repeatedly.
I liked the choice of furniture and props for Edward II — appropriate and visually strong. Kudos to Taylor Dyon!
Costumes. I’m going to bang on about this a bit.
I do understand about having to do shows on a seriously straitened budget, because it’s all I ever do myself. And before I criticize anything that someone else has done, let me just confess that the worst costumes I’ve ever seen on stage anywhere were in a show for which the final responsibility rested with me
But the costumes were not a strong element of these shows, and I think they should have been.
Edward II was much stronger than The Jew in this regard — it was stronger visually overall and seemed a little clearer about period and colours. It was still a really mixed bag — there were plenty of thrift store finds, which hadn’t been transformed enough (or at all) to disguise their origins. The crocheted helmets for the soldiers made me giggle, but crochet does that to me in general.
The good costumes were really good — Isabella looked stunning. Mortimer the Younger looked great, Edward’s robe was good, the Duchess of Kent’s dress was lovely. The bad costumes were a bit spooky — I swear I saw someone wearing a tablecloth on his head and I’m afraid once Edward took his kingly robe off, whatever the hell he was wearing underneath was weird as hell. (It looked like a woman’s draped knit dress — was this a comment on his sexual preference? Was Edward a drag queen as well as a sodomite?) Overall things were pretty uneven.
But I found The Jew of Malta totally disorienting, visually.
Taken individually, the costumes were more attractive in The Jew than in Edward II. But as a visual whole, they were confusing, distracting and annoying.
In the director’s notes, Bray states that he’s set The Jew in the 19th century. That’s great — pick a date in the 19th century and go for it. Then the play starts and right away, it’s clear there are problems.
First of all, the Turks. Not sure what was going on here — but it seemed to involve a lot of scarves. A lot of them. And the principal Turkish characters were all in 18th century outfits. Weird. But then I thought, maybe they’re using different time periods to represent the different religions? This could work.
Then we had the Jews of Malta who were the best looking group — they gave me real hope that a strong visual intelligence was behind this show. Presented in black and and a muted wine colour, they looked great.
Then the Christians showed up and I had no idea what the hell was going on. The Governor and the Vice-Admiral were in very pretty 18th century costumes (it was a bit Pirates of the Caribbean, actually). The Officer and Katharine were in unflattering late 19th century costumes. The Knight looked great, but his costume was last quarter of the 19th century. Don Lodowick looked good, but his costume was practically Regency, Don Mathias was Dickensian at about 1835 and the courtesan Bellamira took us up to about 1915.
I know that many, many things can come between a theatrical artist and the realization of his or her vision. I don’t know what this company went through to put these two massive shows on as well as they did, but I’m sure it wasn’t trivial.
But all I can do is comment on what I saw. This is clearly a great, energetic company, with a roster of talented performers and some very passionate and intelligent people at the helm. The best suggestion I can give them is to find or develop people with a strong visual sense and knowledge of historical costumes and to not allow anything on stage that doesn’t look really good. They need (as do we all) someone to look at the overall stage picture with a really critical eye. If that’s not the director’s forte, then get a production designer. And if you can’t afford to do a period show or don’t have people who can fake it really well, then pick something simpler that you can do well.
I really enjoyed these shows, Vile Passéist Theatre. I hope my comments are accepted in the spirit of curmudgeonly theatrical camaraderie in which they are offered. It’s not easy to make theatre, with little money or support from the society in which we live, but it’s vitally important. Thank you for loving early modern plays, thank you for putting in the months of (doubtless unpaid) work it took to put these on and thank you for your passion and your talent.
I’m really glad you’re here.
With the greatest respect,
bad costume offender and overactor