Brighton Year-Round 2020
Directed by Conor Baum these scratch performances involve a settled pool of actors working through the entire Shakespearean canon and apocrypha. Some props are deployed. Next reading Henry IV/2 on 23rd.
In case you missed Henry IV Part 1, they’re back. And they’re hungry. Lockdown’s One Fell Swoop Company return to continue to perform every possible play Shakespeare might have touched in this jaw-dropping traversal of over 40 works.
Rules are simple: the play’s cast two days ahead, actors con their parts, everyone including observers join on zoom. It’s live, pure adrenalin pumps your screen, the action of the fat man crashes through it in a buck basket. Full of foul linen. Enjoy.
Harold Bloom cursed the very existence of The Merry Wives of Windsor as having virtually no Shakespeare and a faux-Falstaff. My father was the first to repeat to me the oft-told tale of Elizabeth I liking Henry IV/1’s Falstaff so much she ordered this play at two-weeks’ notice, and its hurtling rate of composition is hinted at in the most farcical and tightly-plotted of all Shakespeare’s works. Thus Shakespeare spent more care with devising farce than character, though succeeded in both. His vocabulary too, is exuberantly wayward, mixing in Latin with Stratford-atte-Swan, plus a foul trunk of sayings.
However things to look out for in this occasionally wayward diversionary play – usually stripped to a frantically clever plot and core characters – are those usually cut. Here the verbally prodigious Hostess is a match for Falstaff who comes across more memorably each time you go through his prose, and hers. For one thing Shakespeare determined was that this hurtles as a prose play, no time to rig the balance and swivel of blank verse and no occasion, though snatches of song and doggerel puncture its velocity. The remarkable thing is there’s so much poetry in it, and it gets cut. Sir Hugh and his lack-Latin child pupils are often cut too. Yet they’re integral – you might say deer – to the denouement.
A cast of 13 multi-role because Shakespeare’s not worked out his doublings with quite the care he normally does, or perhaps had a larger cast at court: often the whole cast are assembled. Conor Baum as director has had his intricate lacing cut out to manage this one.
Martin Gordon impressed in the previous performance as a latter Hotspur in Acts IV-V of Henry IV/1, holding his own in the wake of Baum’s born-to-be performance in Acts I-III, with a gravity and delivery superbly fitted to the declining Hotspur and the pathos of his final speech. As Falstaff he conjures a far darker chest register, a knurling baritonal growl quite at odds with the tenebrous hauteur he brought to Hotspur. It’s an authoritative performance, autumnally funny, keyed with melancholy and a verbal smack delivering all corners of Falstaff’s speeches.
With Gordon there’s a kinship rather than echo with Orson Welles’ own favourite film, his wonderful 1965 Chimes at Midnight, comprising all of Falstaff save this play; a fatalistic undersong, playing the lecher’s and jester’s role because he has to, aware of his hollowing.
It’s there in the resigned gaiety with which Gordon tackles Katey Fraser’s Mistress Page and Lexi Pickett’s Mistress Ford, dismisses his followers, doggedly returns twice to be drubbed again for the sake of pride more than lust, especially since he accepts both women know of each other as wooded in the same letter; literally.
Fraser’s knowing Mistress Page takes the lead, but Shakespeare balances her with Pickett’s plot-twirling Mistress Ford. Fraser’s amused laid-back Page is a word-winking delight: ‘wives may be merry yet honest too’ in her pointing of prose, exploding over the fat knight’s impertinences. Pickett’s wife of a horn-jealous husband is often contrasted as a bit younger, sexy, no kids, bent on directing her husband’s passions back into the bedroom. Mistress Page would be happy with just the one, but resoundingly gets that. Fraser and Pickett launch into a verbal counterpoint: Fraser’s occasionally languid, laid-back knowing strategist, versus a bit more desperate and tactical Mistress Ford rendered by Pickett.
Their menfolk are as contrasted as the women are like. Ross Gurney-Randall, clearly the senior of the two, is a phlegmatically alert Page, not the amused blind cut-price Capulet he’s often seen as. More benign certainly, the voice of reason when it comes to Ford’s suspicions, but like his wife in this, a blind spot as to who to marry their daughter to. In this Gurney-Randall emphasises that heavy-handed Egeus side, the Capulet dad prepared to go to some lengths to ensure he marries off his daughter to a landed sink-pool of DNA his wife terms ‘an idiot’. Slender has little wiggle-room, less than Rodrigo to prove himself anything else. Miles Mlambo, who also plays Sir Hugh’s Latined boy, purrs near-aphasia with hapless eloquence.
Matthew Carrington’s Ford is a retrained, verbally sparkling sizzle of a performance. There’s no shouty soliloquies as Falstaff blunders offstage, no rage but an icy control, a dangerous glinted edge out of reason but a saving warmth and remorse that’s believable, in the warm embrace of the two married couples as they first plot Falstaff’s er… fall, and then when Ford reconciles the Pages to their daughter’s ultimate choice.
Lucy Laing impresses as another recruit to this new season, deepening the impression she made in Henry IV/1. Here she plays both the quick Anne Page, daughter with her own heart – and mind t sue it including on her choice, Fenton. Laing adroitly handles some endearing background sounds (you’ll have to tune in next time to find out) as she shows bare tolerance for Slender in her steely courtesy, simmering defiance and even chiding her intended. And more than a shaft of passion towards him.
As Hostess Laing enjoys or endures one of the most cut-down roles in the canon. And all the most challenging words, even Latin. The Hostess emerges here as a woman drunk on lexical logorrhoea, a wild skirling imagination and determination to better her understanding, to verbally map the world. It contrasts with Sir Hugh’s mispronunciation and Dr Caius’s malapropisms. To trick out all the plot she’s in would be terminally challenging. But she is preyed upon by German dukes who borrow horses. This is worse than those pesky Muscovites in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Shakespeare’s rather cruel with a woman who imagines worlds and continents, yet gets taken for a wild ride by a bunch who ravage the district with tall tales.
Ben Baeza’s Fenton is all alacrity and slightly sheepish admission, coming into his stride in his one great soliloquy when he is finally allowed to declare the reach of his passion and his full motives before Anne, then Mistress Quickly. As Shallow he handles neatly the anaphoric and palindromic repeats that make Shallow about as deep as a crust of silvered mercury in the mirror. In his exhortations to his ward Slender e reaches the limit of his stratagems, egging on the reluctant suitor. However he gains stature in his Justice reasoning with Ford’ and that man’s jealousy.
Benjamin Darlington’s Sir Hugh Evans is a tour-de-farce of slurred pronunciation, and you expect him to burst out with ‘Bread of Heaven’, though the director hastily suggests he move on when afflicted with the need to sing a snatch or two ascribed to Sir Hugh. Darlington’s always consummate in accent and snatching a part: this was with Gordon the stand-out of the evening. The sheer fluency and verve of Welshness here is nailingly consummate and a tiny bit show-stealing. Like Gurney-Randall he plays the part of a Ford servant, John to the former’s Robert.
Sharon Drain as Dr Caius is a trumpeting Jericho of collapsing consonants, as her Frenchman barges and breasts the waves of English with impunity, bouncing off them with a rubbery French accent proof to all harps and flats. It’s another bravura performance. He duetting with adversary-tuned-friend Darlington’s Sir Hugh is a delighted thicket of lost consonants and startled vowels.
Falstaff’s brood other than the Hostess are a shower. We ensure Joanna Rosenfeld’s elegantly surly Bardolph curiously moral and nice over the question of seduction. And there’s Sharon Drain’s truculent Nym, contrasting with her Caius, though a brief stand and she’s off. Baum’s Pistol is as you’d expect a premature ejaculation of verbs and wiped-off adjectives, clean to the muzzle. Baum’s attacking resonance always engages, and he rubs up Pistol to a dull pewter gleam and a spark of flint. Baum pays the utterly hapless servant Rugby too with the right hang-dog ball waiting for a kicking.
Rosann Bini’s energetic Mistress Quickly enjoys a delicious turn at quipping to and around Fenton, playing all ends against her middle of gold though revealing she has a heart at least of copper helping Fenton more than either of the other suitors and their sponsors. Emma Spicer’s Simple is a neatly puling lad, blissfully clueless (no mean feat) as is her Robin.
This is a joyful fleet production, a more-than-rough magic of discovering how rich this play is, how maligned, how full of wayward sidelights and character revelations, and terrific verbal felicity. Oh and verbosity.
This is a company whose panache, comradely behaviour from in-joke to outtakes and explosions over sudden thorns of vocabulary has becoming something more than a Lockdown institution. It’s becoming serious. We expect now professional performances and we’re getting even in these scratch nights the measure of seasoned Shakespeareans who hit the sound running, more than worthy to give us Everything Shakespeare might have written. That’ll make some corners fascinating.
What renders OFS unique is their fearlessness: an alacrity, humour and zest to – no not get inside a play – tear into it, read the entrails. Yet when all’s said, you end up with the sense they revere the text, revel in the waywardness these uncut productions throw up; and we learn buried gleams of Shakespeare with them: upturned minerals, a new ground.
The full original cast as intended is appended below. Small parts are taken up by cast members rather like snatching up a stranded child when on horseback.