02/06/2015 - 06/06/2015
“How round the world goes, and everything that’s in it…” – The Widow
Love. Money. Justice. Mistaken identities. Adultery.
Revenge. Disguise. Thievery. Hilarity…
And a few horse-riding sequences.
Written by Shakespeare’s contemporary and frequent collaborator, Thomas Middleton, this fast-paced and high-spirited comedy is a performance full to the brim with laughs, twists, and surprisingly tender moments.
As well as producing a fun and lively comedic show, Victoria University’s Theatre 302 Company has been exploring the idea of just “how round the world goes”: whether in Jacobean England, or today’s New Zealand, social and economic pressures can confuse and distort the shape of human relationships. In Middleton’s play the fates often have to work very hard to concoct a happy ending out of the muddle created by the characters’ conflicting obligations and desires. Director and Senior Lecturer Megan Evans was first drawn to the text because it “explores questions of gender and sexual desire in playful and remarkably contemporary ways.”
She said the play has offered exciting opportunities for the company to “experiment with influences from Asian performance forms where acting conventions offer a rich vocabulary for conveying gender on stage.”
The costumes have been designed, music has been arranged, dance and combat has been choreographed and set has been constructed all by the creative Theatre 302 company, with the guidance of Evans. Though many of its influences are drawn from European and Asian performance traditions, the production’s physicality is anything but traditional.
The company has redesigned this little-known classic into a cross-cultural exploration of society, politics and performance art. With rich variations of character, music, costume and performance technique, The Widow promises to be a whirlwind of merriment, warmth and spectacle.
What: THEA302 presents:
The Widow by Thomas Middleton.
When: 7pm, 2nd-6th June, 2015.
Where: Studio 77, 77 Fairlie Terrace, Victoria University of Wellington, Kelburn.
Tickets: $8 waged/$15 unwaged
To book: online at eventfinder.co.nz
Old Justice Brandino – Ella McLeod
Martina, his clerk – Gabriella Kinge
Martino, his clerk – Adrian Tofts
Philippa, his young wife – Iris Henderson
Violetta, her waiting woman – Kimre Viviers
Francisco, a frequent visitor – Lucy McCarthny
Valeria, a wealthy widow – Jess Old
Suitor 1, a frequent visitor – Gemma Laverty
Suitor 2, a frequent visitor – Pene Tyrell
Ricardo, a frequent visitor – Chris Ingram
Ansaldo, a young traveller – Kris Evans-Fee
Attilio, friend to Ricardo/Francisco – Felicity Townsend
Officer – Ruby Braam
Latrocinio – Georgia Latief & Jen Woo
Occulto – Alannah Mear
Stratio – Devon Howard
Fiducio – La Toia
Silvio – Milli Griffin
Director – Megan Evans
Dramaturgs – Iris Henderson, Jess Old
Set Design – Kimre Viviers, Kris Evans Fee
Costume – Ruby Braam, Devon Howard, Felicity Townsend
Lighting Design – Gemma Laverty, Adrian Tofts
Props – Milli Griffin, Ella McLeod
Music – Jen Woo
Percussion – La Toia
Movement – Gabriella Kinge, Georgia Latief
Publicity – Lucy McCarthny, Chris Ingram
Stage Managers – Alannah Mear, Pene Tyrell, Jess Old
Makeup – Ella McLeod
Lighting Operator – Reuben Jensen
Verse Coach – Stevie Hancox-Monk
Director's Assistant – Swati Bhatt
Musicians– Jen Woo, La Toia, Jess Old, Ruby Braam
Design and Technical Mentor– Nick Zwart
Administrator– Cathy McCullagh
Publicity Mentor– Sally Richards
Comedy compromised but commitment strong
Review by John Smythe 04th Jun 2015
I learned something from the excellent wall displays at Studio 77 before The Widow even started: Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton is now credited with writing The Revenger’s Tragedy. Given it was first performed in 1606 and published the year after, he must have done it soon after collaborating with William Shakespeare on Timon of Athens. Further investigation reveals when The Revenger’s Tragedy was published in 1656 it was attributed to Cyril Tourneur and remained so until about 1975 but now – for lack of a qualified Tourneur champion – the Middleton claim prevails, based on scholarly statistical comparisons of spellings, themes and styles.
This has caught my interest because, in approaching this Megan Evans-directed production of The Widow which draw on the influences of Chinese xiqu, and Japanese kyogen and kabuki performance conventions, I am reminded of another ‘fusion’ production I was part of back in 1970. A Sydney-sourced troupe, briefly based in Hobart, we trained and rehearsed according to the teachings of Jerzy Grotowski in the process of mounting The Revenger’s Tragedy (by Tourneur, we thought) and the costume designs were inspired by kabuki theatre. My Lussurioso sported a very erect straw wig.
It’s the use of eastern music and fans that is most apparent in The Widow; especially effective in facilitating asides to the audience: a gong cues all those we must believe don’t hear it to shield their faces with their fans. Otherwise, not being privy to the wider rationale and unable to deduce the logic, I find the percussive punctuation with gongs, cymbals and wooden blocks more intrusive than illuminating.
The costumes are contemporary and western in style. Letters – a crucial plot device – look like parchment and Old Justice Brandino’s Japanese-styled wig and beard is flagrantly faked with strings of white wool.
“As far as we know,” the programme tells us, “you are at the first full production of The Widow since the 19th Century.” It’s tempting to quip, having seen it, that now we know why. Wikipedia lists it as Middleton’s 18th play (with Timon of Athens and The Revenger’s Tragedy above it, as well as The Roaring Girl, produced by Toi Whakaari in 2011). Usually dated to c. 1615–17, it wasn’t published until 1562. The title page assigned it to Ben Jonson, John Fletcher and Thomas Middleton but “the consensus of modern scholarship judges the play to be the work of Middleton alone.”
The programme makes no claims for substance: “As both Middleton and medieval Japanese theatre master Zeami observe,” it tells us, “a light play is the right entertainment to help balance winter’s dark.” Fair enough. But it is hard to empathise with what come across as rather two-dimensional, single-minded characters, or care about whether they get what they want, or even feel intrigued by the devious means they employ.
It may be that this production’s stylistic conventions are not conducive to playing with 17th century English city manners and revealing the human foibles and character quirks that could make the play resonate beyond itself. Originally it sat somewhere between commedia dell’arte, Jonson’s Comedy of Humours and such plays as Shakespeare Much Ado About Nothing, and the yet-to-be established Restoration Comedy of Manners: all strongly rooted in comedic character archetypes. Maybe Middleton had just toyed with this story idea and either didn’t develop it to its full potential or decided it didn’t have one. Or it could be a combination of all the above. Either way the sense of jeopardy that is essential to such comedy is absent here.
In short, Old Justice Brandino has an attractive young second wife, Philippa, who is fancied by a young gentleman, Francisco, and she fancies him too but neither of them know that, so she forges a love letter from him for her husband to discover and challenge him with, so that her message gets through and his mettle is tested. Meanwhile the titular widow, Valeria, is fending off suitors in the belief they are only after her wealth.
Complications and deviations ensue, not least involving a band of thieves who steal money and documents, sell fake cures for various ailments and steal the clothes of an eligible young traveller, Ansaldo, provoking some cross-dressing humour. (As with Romeo renouncing Rosalind for Juliet) Francisco ditches Philippa for the feminised Ansaldo and marries him/her. Meanwhile ruses and counter-ruses lead to Valeria possibly finding someone who wants her for herself, not her wealth.
In the original, the joke of Francisco marrying a man backfires when it turns out Ansaldo is really a young woman, Martia, absconding from a controlling father (one of Valeria’s suitors). But in this production (where Francisco is played by a woman, by the way), the twist is ignored in favour of invoking New Zealand’s 2013 law reform allowing marriage between two people regardless of gender or sexual orientation. And it looks like Philippa and Valeria will end up together too.
While entirely in keeping with the dramaturgical practice of its time, this sudden diversion does lay waste to some of the set-ups in the increasingly complex plot, which helps to make the outcome less than the sum of its parts. Nevertheless, despite the lack of richly comedic characterisation, the commitment of the company, their clarity of purpose and the impressive vocal strength of almost all the 19 actors compels our attention over 80-odd minutes (including interval). I expect to see a number of these actors in Summer Shakespeare and other productions downtown, and look forward to that.
In the tradition of The King’s Men (who had The Widow in their repertoire), the production opens and closes with a song and dance, beautifully executed. And it is a very good thing that we have a strong Theatre department at Vic that exhumes text we would never otherwise see in Wellington.
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