27/06/2007 - 21/07/2007
By Steven Berkoff
Directed by Paul Gittins
A rare chance to see Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Michael Lawrence team up to tackle Steven Berkoff’s Decadence. This masterful satire of the English class system is a brilliantly entertaining show. To have two such talents as Michael and Jennifer combined with the brilliance of Berkoff’s script promises something special.
Michael and Jennifer both performed to great acclaim in Auckland’s recent arts festival AK07. Michael turned in a scintillating performance as Lenny in Pinter’s ‘The Homecoming’ and Jennifer captivated the Speigeltent with her one-woman show ‘Falling in Love Again’.
Decadence also features a hugely experienced production team that includes director Paul Gittins and designer John Parker.
On its London debut Decadence was a smash hit. With its mix of provocative and raunchy content, exciting language, physical acting and laugh-out-loud humour it’s easy to see why Decadence still remains an audience favourite.
Decadence: A story of two couples – The upper class pair of Steve and Helen who live a life of carefree indulgence and Les and Sybil who feel desperately trapped by their working class values.
Follow the hounds on a foxhunt with Helen, follow Steve’s 10 step descent into hangover hell, be affronted by Sybil’s ode to the power of a woman’s sexuality and laugh as Les describes the 10 most painful ways to exact revenge on a philandering husband.
Appreciate the brilliance of Berkoff’s writing as he dissects the English class system with merciless style and wit. ‘Unzip your ears and let me flood them with verbs’. (Berkoff)
Decadence: Vital and engaging theatre produced to the very highest standards.
Don’t miss it.
Design: John Parker
Lighting: Andrew Malmo
Strong artistic study of cross-class desperation
Review by Nik Smythe 28th Jun 2007
All minimalist appearances aside, this is richly detailed and textured work due to the well defined physicality of the players, and its constantly poetic word play. At first it’s a bit like hearing very British people talking jive, but once the style is established it takes on a kind of naturally abstract flow.
Our beloved princess, if not queen, of theatre in New Zealand, the magnificent Jennifer Ward-Lealand, brings all her power and presence and legs to her dual roles as the affluent Helen, a highly affected, disturbingly hollow mistress to the wayward husband of her other character, Sybil, the long-suffering cockney lass who married up from her underclass roots.
Burly Kiwi drama workhorse Michael Lawrence displays similar remarkable transformational skill, switching between said adulterous toffee-nosed tosser Steve, and Les the gruff cockney detective hired to tail Steve by Sybil, whom he is also shagging. Not so much a rough diamond is Les, than a hunk of crumbling granite.
Paul Gittins’ direction engages the force of these two veterans’ substantial abilities, achieving optimum levels of passion, disaffection, indulgence, frustration, excitement and trauma. Nothing is specifically sad, nor joyous. No clear moral arises. It’s just the way it is.
John Parker may appear to have had an easy job; besides the players’ duly spiffy his & hers duds and Ward Lealand’s fabulous hairdo, the set consists of a raised platform with a sofa, excuse me, couch in the centre, and a chandelier glowing above. All props, including the chain-smoked cigarettes, are mimed, thereby not hindering the instantaneous scene changes, whilst hinting at the unreality of the things we own and consume, by which our existence is defined. But how long did it take Parker to source such an utterly perfect, gauchely elegant white leopard skin couch* and such an ideal and quietly extravagant crystal chandelier?
Decadence first premiered in 1981, the year of Charles and Diana’s historic wedding. This leads me to wonder, when Steve the toff greets Charles and Camilla at the opera, is this an updated line or an original biting reference to the pervading infidelities of the aristocracy?
According to playwright Stephen Berkoff, the play is "a study of the ruling classes … so called by virtue of strangulated vowel tones than any real achievement", suggesting the presence of Sybil and Les in the story, like any real-life counterparts, is simply to serve the story of Steve and Helen. However the formers’ final soliloquies, in which Les laments his own despised lot and Helen relays something of a manual for working class gold diggers, sum up the ultimate impact of such a system, to which the toffs are blissfully ignorant.
Is this extreme class separation even topical today, or merely a retrospective exploration? I daresay if the class system as we know it did decline and expire, the royal family may take much longer than everyone else to realise it. An extract by Kim Murphy in the Los Angeles Times, included in the programme, argues that indeed the British class system is alive and well, indeed back with a vengeance in the cited case of William’s split from Kate Middleton due to her allegedly being way too middle class.
That said, being middle class I feel somewhat underrepresented in this essay of the struggles and escapades of the haves and have nots. Perhaps we’re too busy paying most of the taxes to have anything relevant or interesting to contribute. Ironically the middle class will most probably comprise the great majority of Decadence‘s box office.
Those enamoured of the title will not be left wanting for truly, utterly, disgustingly decadent moments as they pervade the discourse throughout. The closing image of Helen and Steve echoes the inner corruption of Dorian Gray, and ultimately the heights of decadence of both the toffs and the oiks are apparently indulged to quell the same underlying existential desperation.
Whether or not this is news to you, Decadence is a strong artistic work from some of this country’s most worthy leading practitioners.
*The couch even gets a special applause in the curtain call, plus it’s for sale at the end of the season at a discounted price. See the show for more info.
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