Brighton Year-Round 2022
Directed by Sam Chittenden, Assistant Director (Unsanctioned)Alex Louise, Assistant Director (Measure 2 Measure) Neil Hadley with Set Design by Michaela Ridgway assisted by Sonya Smith. Set Construction Neil Fitzgerald, Simon Glazier, Strat Mastoris, Monika Schüttbacher Michaela Ridgway, Lighting Design Strat Mastoris, Costume, Makeup and Hair Richi Blennerhassett.
Visual Effects Apollo Videaux, Sound Design Sam Chittenden, Light Operation and Sound Operation and Projections Mariangeles Campos, Steve Coulson, Apollo Videaux.
Production Manager Ulrike Schilling, Stage Manager Carol Croft; ASMs Victoria Bayliss, Hannah Bryant, Neil Fitzgerald. Poster Tamsin Mastoris, Programme Ian Amos, Photography James Michael Maltby, Strat Mastoris. Publicity and Marketing Aldo Oliver Henriquez, Health and Safety Ian Black.
Till March 26th.
It’s ambitious to twin a futuristic world premiere with a cut-down 1603-04 problem play of Shakespeare, yoking deliberate links – not excluding boiler suits between the two works.
But then it’s Sam Chittenden whose new three-hander cuts into her normally hallucinatory world: a dystopia with eddies of what we’ve seen in Sary and Clean, and a vitality and thrust that’s new.
That’s the 70 minutes of Unsanctioned at the New Venture Theatre Studio. Coupling an 80-minute sprint of Shakespeare in a five-hander Measure 2 Measure Chittenden cuts to the speed of dark, eliding all comedy, adding a new scene (so did Thomas Middleton in 1621; two in fact), strategic extra lines and a chorus. That’s whilst eliding others with life-altering effect. There’s twists you’ll have to see. It’s good to know the play, won’t matter if you don’t.
Both are directed by Sam Chittenden, with Assistant Directors Alex Louise (Unsanctioned), Neil Hadley (Measure 2 Measure) with mostly charcoal-coloured set design by Michaela Ridgway assisted by Sonya Smith featuring pale painted L-shaped walls, a simple sink upstage right near the door, and in Unsancioned a bare table, bed, chairs, and another bed upstage. A few bottle and food containers present a starkly reduced world.
Nineteen-year-old Kina (Catie Ridewood) bursts into a home of reservoir keepers James Stallwood’s Adam and Sammie Bailey’s Lil, is caught and chained.
Kina’s from the wild world but aren’t they all dead? She’s come with a baby: it’s promptly requisitioned by Lil. The couple losing theirs to wolves will be sanctioned by the Auditors, dim masters of this uber-controlled post-catastrophe world, if they knew that a pair of sanctioned breeders had lost their own enumerated child. Even if women in this sanctioned world can’t produce eggs.
As the play unfolds in Chittenden’s layering there’s both pace and stillness; flurries and haunted stares. Lil, hard, entitled daughter of a high official, seems to own Adam, sees Kina as no more than a feeder of her own child just long enough to strengthen her for adoption, in return for her own life. Kina though knows herself a woman with greater powers with more to offer than Lil. She twists a bargain that might split the couple apart. There’s twists to the end.
Visual effects by Apollo Videaux are confined to a glimmering upstage right screen, Sam Chittenden’s sound design brings everything from Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Summer in the City’ at the interval to a delicate snatch of the 13th century ‘Summer is Icummin In’.
Power here resides with women. If Kina’s wild knowings recall Sary’s world of simples and magic, then Chittenden reinvents down to the language. Kina elides all prepositions in an abbreviated tongue, rendering her distinct, alien, primal. Ridewood deserves special mention: she never falters inhabiting this dialect, in balling innocence and slinky, tricksy shrewdness into a knot, defining her role with exuberance and vulnerability.
Bailey’s strength as Lil is in never letting a steely guard or bun-piled hair down an instant, till something snaps. It’s an unsympathetic role Bailey glints with sudden light-shafts down her adamantine front, as when Kina offers a cure for mastitis. Bailey’s use of Lil’s rigidity foils up against Ridewood’s snaky writhings, often at ground level. Vertical and horizontal. Stand-offs between these women form a thrilling centre-piece.
Stallwood though makes much of a ready sympathy for and growing attraction to Kina. There’s the Lil-harassed husband Lil seems to have hand-picked from a catalogue; there’s the man all too aware of the world Lil comes from, breathing down his small (but life-risking) falsifications in rendering samples of the water to prove the reservoir still usable. Stallwood’s excellent touching in with flinches and hesitations a humanity that under different conditions might flourish.
Beyond, the world of idealistic ‘Hopers’ almost but not quite extinct calls Kina. More oppressive, naturally more detailed, the post-catastrophe settled world where pandemics have raged (this was written presciently in 2018) as well as climate breakdown, demands precise accounting: from sexual abstinence during surrogate pregnancy, through allotted eating and sleeping seven hours a night, to the minutiae of urine samples and reservoir water. Though it’s a world part-broken and unlikely to gene-test them as Adam says, Chittenden etches the dystopics of sanction, ration and severe punishment that grips the couple.
Production dovetails this. Strat Mastoris’ lighting design deploys swift probings and suffused delicacy as required in both plays. Costume, makeup and hair by Richi Blennerhassett deploy boiler suits of different colours. The reservoir couple sports white ones, Kina and everyone else denim blue-grey.
Beyond twists you mightn’t predict, there’s one you won’t. Chittenden’s cleverly plotted, detailed future rises to an abrupt climax. It’s an absorbing departure, both more dramatic and darker than recent Chittenden works, with an ingenious register of otherness through Kina’s invented patois. That said, it breathes the same lyric timelessness marking this dramatist’s distinction, widening her scope. The actors, uniformly excellent, stamp truth in the roles they create.
Measure 2 Measure
Qui custodiet custodes? Shakespeare’s curious answer – that the head of state polices his own deputy whilst feigning absence is both subversive and liberating, stamping authority whist removing the lynch-pin for a deputy’s licence to, in Angelo’s own words, ‘give my sensual race the rein’. Chittenden’s dark reading, shorn of comedy, recalls a very different handling to Josie Rourke’s Donmar Warehouse production of October 2018.
There, Measure for Measure was run twice in 75-minute scampers. First, played straight with Hayley Atwell as Isabella in period. Second, after the interval set in some contemporary world where Atwell’s now the Angelo-figure predating on a male Isabella, whose religion renders him nominally asexual. The Duke’s final offer is piquant.
That coincidentally was the month of #MeToo. What might Rourke have done armed with that? Chittenden provides one answer but as mentioned above, she’s rendered a very different feel. First, removing the comedy brings Shakespeare far closer to Chittenden’s world. An oppressive one of waiting, without the raciness of farce or Pompey Bum, let alone Lucio.
Indeed Chittenden ingeniously transposes speeches. Some of the Duke’s are given to Mariana, here brought up as a more powerful agent, particularly in her support of Isabella. And Isabella finds her inner Lucio so to speak, the ‘light’ man who urges or pricks her on to sue for Claudio. Handled in a monologue it’s one of several felicities to handle the fact of this being a five-hander.
Unlike Unsanctioned, where monitoring is remote, Chittenden uses the whole space, actors cheek by jowl with audience, to bring surveillance home. There’s the Duke scrutinising mid-distance or cowled eavesdropping behind a screen. His self-justifyings too aren’t confided to a now-elided official. Audience – ‘gentlefolk’ – are complicit in direct address. It’s not confined to him though: Chittenden spills oppressiveness and complicity amongst us as Angelo sneers next to you, or Isabella agonises.
Blennerhassett’s costumes emphasise the two plays’ kinship, though it’s an odder fit for the latter, except for the women where it works strikingly. Isabella and Mariana shrewdly don blue headscarves like habits with scarves uniformly worn, suggesting a sanctioned world not far removed from Unsanctioned, being the Vienna of sudden bans (Shakespeare had it as Verona yet again but Middleton changed it). Had Angelo been in power longer, doubtless sumptuary laws would have had everyone in boiler suits or equivalent. So there’s a truth there.
For Measure 2 Measure, a grille like a vertically-placed futon serves as prison bars behind which Claudio languishes on a slatted bed and little else, upstage right. Elsewhere a more luxuriously appointed office table with 1930s phone and period paraphernalia is fronted by a regal chair used at the start, soon recruited behind the desk. Nothing else is needed.
There’s Vincento the Duke, Mark Lester alternating in for Andy Hoggarth, and making a more deliberate, earthy and reflective Duke than I’ve seen. Less tricksy, ‘the fantastical duke of dark corners’, more meditative, if not quite Friar-like except cowled. Chittenden has actors from each play understudy the other, and adds yet more understudies not in either, the first time I’ve seen such a comprehensive answer to potential covid issues.
There’s Alex Louise’s grounded Mariana, less victim than a woman who knows what she wants and how to plead for that, twice over; as well as think quickly when the Duke’s plan goes wrong, and decisively excludes the Duke and the male world from her calculations.
Harry W Freeman makes an appealing if venal Claudio, writhing in his cell and with presence and entreaty embodying fright: his crumbling to plead for his sister to give herself up sexually to Angelo squirms with abasement. Tonight, unlike the promotional video, he hurries his lines a little in his urgency, rendering them not ideally clear. That aside, he’s the most human Claudio I remember.
Mickey Knighton’s Angelo occasionally lets a devilish twinkle escape, and there’s enough to allow a few guffaws from the audience. That said, he’s the embodiment of hypocrisy, like Claudio crumbling from adamant to flesh as his own self-recognition as a man whose ‘sense breeds’ with Isabella’s sense. Knighton’s glittering, serpentine portrayal is both assured and finally utterly thrown down as Lester thrusts him to his knees ‘An Angelo for a Claudio dies… and measure answers measure’ in the most visceral moment of this production. Bar one.
Rose O’Kane’s Isabella though blazes her part, played with urgency, agency and sheer fury after subjected to terror when the Duke’s plans miscarry. Her abjection can only be partially helped if not healed by Mariana, and Chittenden’s ingenious strengthening of women’s power – as in Unsanctioned, another surveilled state – brings #MeToo to the fore here and later.
There’s twists to come, though I’m even less happy with the Duke’s proposal than normal in the light of these It’s the one thing that even this Duke would be hard pressed to urge: the original has the agency of relief, and can (just) work. But Chittenden’s not unbraided her plot even here, and you’ll have to see the end yourself.
Clearly spliced to answer Unsanctioned, Measure 2 Measure is a nearly pitch-perfect response to the need to answer Shakespeare’s portrayal of misogyny. ‘Who will believe thee, Isabel?’ rings out through this production and Chittenden provides a different answer.
You must see this intriguing, ingenious and superbly acted double bill.