Browse reviews

FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

These two productions form the core events in the Shakespeare and Poland Season which runs till July 6th.

Read Not Dead ground rules are simple: actors volunteer, are given scripts and then assemble on a Sunday morning, and scripts in hand, enact at four p.m. or afterwards. This production of The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys was directed by James Wallace. The long poem The Laments was directed by Jason Morell. Ansuman Biswas’ music for The Dismissal employed a crumphorn, other wind instruments and drumming played throughout like an ancient Greek conch.

The next RND’s theming Poland and Shakespeare with The Hamlet Study and The Death of Ophelia two works on July 4h 2019. These are by the polymath, painter theatre designer and director, poet, playwright and all-round visionary Stanislaw Wyspianski (1869-1907). There’s a text of both available in hardback at the Globe at the reduced price of £15.


This must be the most spectacular Read Not Dead I’ve ever seen. Granted at 45 minutes The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys could be rehearsed more easily, this production of the great Polish dramatist and poet Jan Kochanowski’s 1579 drama and his very different linked poetry sequence The Laments from 1580 forms one of two core events in the Shakespeare and Poland Season which runs till July 6th.

Kochanowski’s the greatest Polish poet before Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) and the greatest Slavic poet before the 19th century. Like Marlowe he moved into drama.

The production of The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys – recently translated by Charles E Krszewski – was directed by James Wallace. The long poem The Laments was directed by Jason Morell. Apart from a chair and shawl in the latter there were no props. Ansuman Biswas music for The Dismissal was remarkable, with a crumhorn, other wind instruments and drumming played throughout. The growling haunted like an ancient Greek conch. Choric elements of The Dismissal were performed in the original Polish by one chorus member (Ola Forman) immediately translated by another.

As RND suggests to those new to it, Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline play texts sometimes not revived for 400 years are reanimated for a day. RND by 2033 will have put on all extant plays between 1567 and 1642, including Hamlet. So this is a thrilling departure.

The Dismissal – the first Polish tragedy and in blank verse – depicts that moment when Greek emissaries arrive at Troy. Ulysses (John Hopkins) and Menelaus (Eliot Fitzpatrick) have claimed the abducted Helen be returned to her husband Menelaus. David Acton’s Priam pretending he knows nothing of the rape – it seems Helen’s not gone willingly – puts it to the Trojan Assembly. Parallels with political disingenuousness from Poland’s democracy ring edgily today. Indeed the crumhorn’s skirl of fate soon ceases to suggest anything comic and turns sinister.

Throughout the language is that of extreme formal constraint, very much in Greek tragedy mode, which more or somewhat less includes the length.

The actors enter in slow-motion resembling Steven Berkoff’s jerky processionals; and in smart ministerial modern dress as if from the EU. They’re often nearly off the page altogether, voices ringing with the authority of rehearsed performance.

Mark Springer’s icily irate Antenor upbraids the light Alexander, also called Paris (Patrick Walshe-McBride) for his breezy certainties abducting Helen, chosen for him by Venus. Springer’s admonitions ring with a gravelly baritonal authority like a male Cassandra (we soon see the original) as he parts company from Walshe-McBride’s agile less ritually-minded Paris.

There’s another distinct shift from traditional romance. Lucy-Rose Leonard’s Helen in a striking blue dress is frozen except vocally, seemingly bereft of choice, even to flee back to her husband. You wonder why she doesn’t leg it. Partly her helplessness, a plaything of men is Kochanowski’s point. Suzanne Ahmet’s placatory Nurse melts back into the chorus as Jennifer Shakesby and Ola Forman (with the Polish original) join in as commentators. There’s powerful performances from all three; it underscores claims that Kochanowski’s sense of female agency and the lack of it are defining characteristics of his dramas.

Hopkins and Fitzpatrick entering as officials impress in the same tread, with the same honed linguistic armour. Acton seemingly adamantine reveals sudden squirms of authority with an urbane smile: a man who can’t constrain his venal son.

Most striking is Beth Eyre’s explosive Cassandra – a virtuoso performance from being collapsed on all fours to dragged off by the chorus in front of her discomfited father – who complains that she’s certainly rather difficult to listen to. It’s very difficult bot to edge such things with comedy yet Eyre manages this with chilling conviction, Her shrieks continue from behind the stage doors. Even Mark Oosterveen’s Coast Guard erupts with a gnarled gravitas late on and James Wallace’s Greek Prisoner spits defiance whilst hooded. Springer’s exchanges again underscore a male Cassandra’s dour warnings and a fleet’s spotted, as the Coast Guard confirms. There it ends.

Wallace and his cast and creatives have and faceted this gem till it glints. A dark triumph.

The remorseless tread of this production is strikingly neo-classical, but provides an insight into the Polish Renaissance, when such a dramatist kick-started European drama before Britain properly entered it. Kochanowski doesn’t seem to have enjoyed natural successors. Born 1530, he died in 1584, having written at least one further masterpiece.


The Laments

This is The Laments (or Threnodies) – a 1580 nineteen-part poetry sequence likened to Shakespeare’s Sonnets in quality (Patrick Spottiswoode won’t disagree!). Stanislaw Baranczek’s and Seamus Heaney’s 1995 translation used here is now definitive.

It’s strikingly similar to the anonymous British medieval poem Pearl, a father’s lament for his two-year-old daughter who in a dream turns emotionally the adult and comforts as well as chastises the Pearl poet gently. That’s not too far from what we have here. We have a name too: Urszula.

David Ganly takes the burden of Kochanowski’s dream self, with antiphonal support from Caroline Faber as Kochanowski’s wife, daughter and finally mother. Morell knows poetry as deeply as he does drama, and shrewdly judges which Lament, or where within the Laments Faber can interrupt the general agon Ganly radiates. Both appear bare-footed, adding a vulnerability, a sacramental fragility to it all.

Some of the most striking images in this translation come in the verse-forms preserved by Heaney where the Polish original patterns them.

You were not meant, my daughter, to be led

To that last, stone-cold bed

By your poor mother! She had promised more

Than what your four planks store:

The shroud she herself sewed, the earthen clod

I set down at your head

O sealed oak chest, dark lid, board walls that hide

The dowry and the bride!

This is one of the most specific, celebrated stanzas, chillingly precise, visceral, lacking early Renaissance euphemisms associated with Ariosto and Tasso for instance. Still there’s something of Thomas Wyatt (‘naked foot stalking in my chamber’) in this literally earthy early humanism. The ferocity though percolates through the specific, and Kochanowski’s genius for sustaining long arcs of emotional shuttling between regret, reminiscence of Urszula’s singing and making up verse compositions with astonishing precocity and blank loss.

Again female agency in the numb grief of Dorothea the mother and a shaft of redemptive admonition with the poet’s mother cradling Urszula bookend the work. In one striking moment Faber interrupts Ganly hurling the chair across the stage ‘She was struck down!’ It ends any consolatory verse till the rousing end.

Ganly orates with wounded dignity, a parabola of wincing conviction. Faber deploys a battery of firm reasonableness, memorably voiced, and with sudden explosive force. Perhaps there were one or two too many of these, but the harrowing of this poem brooks nothing less. At the end, the performers look numbed and mute. There’s what Geoffrey Hill termed a sad and angry consolation, and little of that. Absorbed like this, it’s a shattering experience.

Both productions are the kind of thing that if we reached out culturally, we’d be celebrating in a mini-run of (say) a week. Since the Dismissal is being simultaneously performed in Warsaw and LA (despite time lag; we wonder) it’s good to know others feel the same way. Though The Dismissal takes the palm, The Laments in its narrower compass is hardly less good. Morell has staged that near-impossibility: a monothematic masterpiece. In nearly every way an outstanding pair of productions.