Rarely have I left a piece of theatre so utterly disappointed as I was by this crushingly mediocre production, a laboured and clichéd renaissance restaging drowning in the borrowed robes of a form it superficially appropriates and barely understands.
Beyond the fact that they had a cute Paul Simon lyric all lined up for a name, I can think of little reason why Angels in the Architecture have chosen to label themselves a ‘site-specific’ company, seemingly having little interest or ability in the form they purport to utilize. In this cack-handed production there is little to no delicacy or sensitivity shown to the relationship between the performance and its environment, almost a complete absence of awareness of the spatial possibilities of the site and a frankly contemptuous attitude to an audience herded interminably from stopping point to stopping point with even less decorum or theatricality than the most overcrowded museum fodder.
Which makes it all the more frustrating that there seemed such a fascinating potential in this piece. So much potential for a delicate and playful relationship between the over-preserved Regality of Kensington Palace (its waxy portraits and its tabloid ghosts) and the troubled questions of queenship raised by Marlowe’s (relatively rubbish) play, which although hardly The Duchess of Malfi does have some interesting things to say about the troubled relationship between greatness and womanhood, sex and power. Indeed as I wandered down the palace’s tranquil and needlessly majestic driveway I was bristling with excitement at what might be done with such a self-consciously theatrical location; how its grand halls and its carefully trimmed gardens might be highlighted or subverted by the lightest of touches (discarded coronation mugs or almost-overhead flirtations – like some of the best of Alison Jackson’s faked royal photographs).
Yet almost immediately I began to feel a nagging sense of deflation, finally arriving at the end of the temptingly long drive to be confronted by only the most perfunctory of vignettes, a silhouetted figure at a window, a man telling me his name was Hermes and that I should got and get a drink before the show starts.
Once the show proper begins the specificity of this site appears to be nothing but a burden, the production crudely superimposed over the elaborate rooms with an almost criminal absence of thought. Although seemingly chosen for its appropriateness, the potential immersion in the grandeur of the palace was completely undermined by the series of self-consciously industrial lighting stands that adorned the centre of almost every scene. Outdoor scenes were conjured in these pampered little rooms by the crude application of a flashlight or the prerecorded sounds of foxes yelping, while the full extent of the Palace’s grounds lingered dark and inviting through the latticed windows. At one point the characters gestured towards the paintings on the wall, declaring them (as the script suggested) to be ‘all of kings’, when even a cursory glance would tell you they were almost all crowded biblical scenes.
I’m not suggesting for a second that I wanted a naturalistic realisation of the world of the show, merely that the theatrical ghost conjured by the company seemed to stand in such obstinate opposition to the site they had chosen that it rendered any relationship between the two almost null and void, the show being no more specific to this site than it would be to a series of offices or a lay bay on a major city ring road. ‘Site-specificity’ was reduced to a hazy ambiance lazily stolen from the imposing stairways and wooden-panelled grandeur of the Palace itself – a superficial aesthetic barren of meaning that bore no relation to the show itself.
Within this context the audience was dragged from room to room with barely any sense of why; without any motivation to move other than that the scene had come to an end and no discernable reason for the next scene to be in the following room other than the architecture of the space had dictated that it had to be. Even the one moment where it looked like something more interesting might be happen as the audience was asked to choose between one route and another was quickly discovered to be nothing but the showiest of window dressing, the audience soon reforming into one passive anonymous lump without anything of significance (or even interest) having happened in the interim.
Even within the fairly well-acknowledged conventions of this kind of promenade theatre the production failed miserably. Either through negligence or greed the show was vastly too crowded and the audience shuffled irritably between spaces that required too long to get into for too little reward once you got there – the show dissolving into fragmentary moments of almost-theatre. Even the walk-bys (the little scenes on loops complementing movement from location to location that are normally the most shamelessly charming feature of a good promenade show) were about as uninspired as you can imagine – no fleeting glimpses, no almost-missable little flourishes, no clever moments of atmospheric brilliance (like the sinister figure in GridIron’s The Bloody Chamber glimpsed through a low window hammering a dead rabbit, or the angelic airport cleaners in Roam, dirty red overalls and wings, sitting on the railings outside having a fag). Instead we got simply got characters standing, characters lolling around looking miserable, characters getting dressed.
Buried somewhere in this confused, superficial and poorly realised aesthetic was a very traditional production of Marlowe’s Dido. Sadly this was not even a particularly good production. It came across more like a litany of clichés for the restaging of classic texts that should have been banned long ago:
- Working class soldiers being the only characters speaking with broad Sheffield/Leeds accents
- Characters in love holding hands and spinning each other round while laughing
- Men in sharp black suits and women in elegant shiny dresses
- Madrigal-like dirges sung or hum whenever the atmosphere is running a little dry
Beyond that there was the part of Iambus being played by a Derek Jacobi look-a-like with the most overdone limp since Herr Flick, an incredibly irritating attempt at a creepy child voice, and a faintly bemusing bit-part player who appears in the very last scene only to mumble a couple of lines and disappear again. There was lots of unconvincing Shakespeare-acting knocked off from too many nights spent watching the RSC and a pretty reliable line in taking the absolute most predictable and choreographed road at any given junction. In one dining scene there was an incongruous little set of steps set up against the dining room table so that at the appropriate moment in the scene a character could step easily up on to the table top to make their grand speech. Something about this seemed to some up the whole evening for me.
I feel like I’ve gone on about this too long now. Far, far too long. These are not bad people. They are not doing terrible things. I admire them for getting the permission to stage this play at this site. I admire them for wanting to do so. I have heard very good things from people I respect a lot about their previous work. I do not mean to be smug and I do not enjoy being able to write about how much I’ve disliked something.
But this show seemed to suffer from such an absence of care, an absence of thought, an absence of research, an absence of sensitivity, an absence of imagination – everything that I think can and should make site-specific work completely vital and compelling and undoubtedly one of the forms most bubbling over with radicality and real meaningful political and social engagement. And maybe this is why I had such an extreme reaction to a show that was by no means as bad as a lot of work I have seen. It left me angry and defeated because I felt that if this piece and those like it become are what the mainstream is willing to acknowledge as ‘site-specific’ work and set space aside for, then our theatrical landscape will be a lot poorer for it.