June 01, 1992

Two for Two

Filed under: Archive,Interviews


Murray Bramwell talks to Director Simon Phillips and Designer Shaun Gurton about their forthcoming season of classics in tandem

The State Theatre Company’s first in-house production for the year is a double bill – or more correctly, a Bill and a John. Performed in repertory, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore represent what the company are calling in their promotion two classic tales of forbidden love. Certainly when Lysander, the confused young lover from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, says that ” the course of true love never did run smooth ” the line, in either play, could only be called understatement.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s comedies, is often seen as his simplest and gentlest work. Its mix of hilarity and romance- a world made mischievous by fairies and adolescent impulse, and comic with the bumbling theatrical aspirations of the artisans- has made it a favourite for school productions. Traditionally, stagings of the Dream have focused on gossamer fairies and sentimental yokels, continuing the Edwardian cult of the fairy epitomised by the illustrations of Arthur Rackham and J.M. Barrie’s Tinkerbell. It was not until Peter Brook’s 1970 RSC version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that the dark eroticism of the play was acknowledged, a view reinforced by the Jonathan Miller and Elijah Moshinsky interpretation for BBC-TV.

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, on the other hand, is a play steeped in controversy. Troubled, complex and violent, its turbulence is characteristic of the Jacobean theatre. The central story line concerns the incestuous relationship between the young noble Giovanni and his sister Annabella and the play ends in terrible vendetta. It is a play long suppressed and often avoided. Even today its approach to its subject seems startlingly direct and confrontational.

“These are plays about love, ” says Simon Phillips, “love in the context of the society in which it tries to survive. There is a difference in sensation between the two plays. On a simple level one set of lovers survives because there is magic in their world, the other set dies because the world they’re in is conspicuously devoid of magic. That’s a way of saying that one play is a comedy, the other a tragedy. Although it kind of ignores the fact that one set of lovers is incestuous -which puts a whole different light on ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and will surely affect people’s feelings towards it. But in the context of the play it is a love that shines like a beacon out of darkness.”

In linking the two plays Phillips is looking to highlight the more sinister aspects of the Dream and the innocence in ‘Tis Pity. The two productions share the same cast and design. As the director explains:
“The challenge was to find a design scheme that does service to both plays. Both were originally rendered for open staging but there were things I wanted to do that meant using some setting although it is still a minimal design. I wanted to bring both plays into the 20th century. I wanted the men to look like men wearing trousers not stockings and, because the subject matter of ‘Tis Pity is so electrifying, I tried to bring it forward to a period where people cannot quite so easily say -`Oh well, that’s how people behaved back in the 17th century.’ I also like to do Shakespeare in the modern era so that school kids can relate to it, rather than it being a fusty period thing that they have to see because it’s on the English syllabus.”

” Both plays are set just at the end of the Second World War. A Midsummer Night’s Dream suggests a cracking through a society with great constraints around it -`escaping the sharp Athenian law’. There is also the military presence in the play when Theseus says to Hippolyta -`I won thee with my sword.’ In ‘Tis Pity there is a post-fascist element, a hint of the Mafia, a society with a dominant sense of patriarchy at work. Also, links of power to the Church are not out of place in that context.”

“‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore differs from some other Jacobean plays in that, while the society it deals with is corrupt, it is not overall as decadent as you get in Women Beware Women or The Changeling. The most decadent activity within the play is also the purest. In fact both playwrights refuse to judge, leaving that for the audience to do. In the Dream world of the fairies is a Freudian sub-text to the world above it. I like to think that one is given , not an explicit sense, but a persuasive sense that something of that dark world of the fairies you’re take into is to do with solving the tensions of the Athenian world.”

For designer Shaun Gurton the task was to produce a common set. “We went through a long process -we had two different plays and we wanted a link. We had two or three ideas which would have been rather good for the plays separately. We thought of the Blitz for The Dream with debris and rubble transformed at night but with ‘Tis Pity it did not work so well. So we’ve gone back to some of the first impressions Simon had.”
“What the audience will see when they first come in is a dark blue room, midnight blue, slightly archtectural but not very tall with a circle of earth which is the acting area for both plays. I like the fact that it is quite a simple design which lays a lot more on the actors. They’re bringing in the magic- and the corruption in ‘Tis Pity. It’s a more intimate world, smaller in feel even though it’s in the Playhouse.”

To distinguish the productions Gurton has chosen two defining symbols. “I’ve used the moon in Dream where it is the controlling force over the circle and in ‘Tis Pity it is the crucifix which breaks the whole look of the space. Simon said to me -`I think of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore as a crucifix stuck in the earth, like someone is saying – that’s what is going to control your lives for the next two hours.’ It has to do with practicalities as well. I need some height in ‘Tis Pity and I don’t need height in the Dream- and out of that you make things happen.”

Simon Phillips elaborates- “The presence of God as interpreted by man was vital. In ‘Tis Pity with the crucifix we also found a way for it to become part of the mechanics of the play. The idea of a single god is not as important in the Dream but if Dream is about the imagination then religion is an extension of the imagination, a need for an outside force, some other power outside the tangible reality of the world that has a controlling and guiding factor – which is like the fairies. They do things that we might call acts of God, when they fight it disturbs the world, it changes the seasons.”

In casting the Dream Phillips has the actors doubling between the Athenian and fairy worlds. Robert Menzies and Helen Morse play Theseus and Hippolyta and Oberon and Titania as well as Richardetto and Hippolita in ‘Tis Pity. Luciano Martucci and Angie Milliken play Demetrius and Helena as well as the ill-fated siblings in ‘Tis Pity. Joey Kennedy is Hermia, Yves Stening Lysander and Leigh Russell plays Puck. Among the artisans, those so-called rude mechanicals, Teddy Hodgeman is Quince and Richard Piper the translated Bottom.

In the post-war setting the artisans are the Home Guard. Simon Phillips explains- “They have a sense of being left out. In the military world of Athens they are second class citizens. They haven’t fought a real war but they are trucking on, doing their best. I think it’s working well, it puts a structure around them, an implicit order to work from which is quite different from a set of bumbling yokels.”

“Their imagination comes from strict regimentation,” adds Gurton, “Everything they do is from the life they know and so their solutions seem to them so imaginative to the given situation. With the doubling as fairies we also see them given a power in the underworld they never had in the real world. They become fantastic, intrepid, flashy, talented, magical creatures. They are released.”

As for the lovers Phillips contrasts what he sees as their progression from the final stages of childhood into the adult world – in A Midsummer Night’s Dream one more or less under the benign guidance of Theseus, in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore into an unsafe, censorious and fractious society. In the Dream, the director imagines the lovers as being in their late teens :

“There is such a pressure on young people to be sophisticated. There is a lovely scene when Lysander is trying to get into Hermia’s knickers and she’s saying -`Sleep further away.’They think they are desperately in love with each other but they are awkward about it as well. They are too young to know what love is. On a larger cosmic level their journey into the forest exposes them to what it really feels like to be in love. Shakespeare throws them to the wolves and the crisis of the forest. Then they wake from the dream with a new sense of maturity. It is a fantastic feeling when Demetrius makes his speech about how much he loves Helena. It is really quite different, beautifully measured and balanced -free from the exotic, artificial imagery of the earlier speeches.”

The season for A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins in the Playhouse on June 23, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore opens on July 17 and both productions continue until August 15.

The Advertiser, June, 1992.

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