Feb 4, 2008

Dido: Queen of Carthage at Kensington Palace Gardens

For CultureWars.org.uk

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.


Anonymous said...

Contrary to the report above I thought Dido, Queen of Carthage was a truly magnificent and brave piece of theatre. Being not a fan of Marlow and rather a cynic to site specific work I was not looking forward to being dragged along to Kensington Palace on a dark, wet and wintry night. But as I walked up the long driveway excitement mounted as I was greeted in the entrance Saloon by the world of the Gods — bespectacled beauties, intriguing knitting crones and a rather handsome cupid (Jeremy Legit) (which we were urged to speak to but sadly the crowd was too large around him that I could barely get a look in)!

As the play began we were led down the imposing flagstones steps and urged energetically into one room after the next as each scene of this peculiar tale of Gods intervening unfolded — every room more sumptuous and glorious than the next and each with the ghost of unsettled royal woman of past etched into the walls.

Through a hidden doorway we were invited to sit amongst the actors at enormous laid banqueting table in the King’s Gallery over-looked by imposing oils of cupid and Venus. The enchanting Aeneas’ (Jake Maskal) makes an impassioned speech about the fall of troy; enhanced by the period lighting which created haunting shadows of gargoyle like images across the highly decorative walls. Disembodied sounds echoed around the room.

This theatrical journey was truly magical and as I was sent back out into the cold night I couldn’t help but congratulate angels in the architecture for dispelling my cynicism of site-specific and for staging this difficult play with a very strong cast in a palace made for this play.


Andrew Field said...

Thanks Mary-Anne,

Always nice to disagree about things.

I'm intruiged by some of your statements though, why was it you were so 'cynical' about site-specific theatre? And why exactly did this production so successfully dispell those worries?

Of course I don't want to second guess your answer but I'd suggest it might have a good deal to do with the fact that this prodution isn't remotely site-specific. It's essentially a very traditional classical production in a series of rooms. Not that there's anything wrong with this, mind (when it's done well...), but it's not site-specific. Elsewhere I've suggested the term space-specific to refer to this kind of work in that it is a production that incoroporates the specific spatial dynamics of its environment (rather than occuring in 'the empty space' of a stage).

Still, I have so strongly disagree with over your claim that the palace was 'made' for this play. For a lot of the production (hunting scenes, dalliances in caves) the oppulence of the palace was very obviously an inconvenience to the requirements of staging, an inconvenience very uninspiringly dealt with by the company. Or, put simply, a couple of stage hands waving torches does not a rain-battered cave make.

Anonymous said...

You seem to believe that the only theatre I enjoy is in the plush confines of a traditional theatre behind the fourth wall where "stagehands" and lighting is strictly hidden from view. My cynicism merely heralds from having seen one too many hackneyed performances in a disused warehouse, basement, or park — where dangling a paper lantern or wind chime is seen as imaginative staging.

Aren’t we getting a little too pedantic changing the name to space-specific rather the site-specific when this name is a convenient blanket for theatre in other spaces. I agree that at times the palace does become bigger than the play, with its own theatrical history and opulence that is hard to overcome or avoid. But, you can’t tell me that every production of the Midsummer’s Night Dream in a disused warehouse has perfectly encompassed every scene without problems. Surely there is some room for theatricality and imagination in a site-specific work — do we really have to stage a cave scene in a cave for it to be believable! A palace that has a history of disturbed royal women seems perfect for this production.

In a Palace/museum where the theatre lighting has to be so obviously on show and presumably not as potent as modern theatre lights so as not to effect the original wall paintings it was a brave and interesting choice to use torches. I agree it didn’t quite work but the majority of scenes the lighting was imaginative and eerie.

I applaud this theatre company for using a space so different from the usual and not wishing to repeat myself disagree strongly that it was without imagination in this finely tuned production.


Andrew Field said...

Thanks Mary-Anne

I absolutely share your misgivings about lazy stagings that leech off the ambiance of an environment to compensate of their stagnant mediocrity. I think we only differ in our opinion of this specific production (in that I would see it fall into that category and you clearly do not!).

I assure you I'm not the only one attempting to create what may seem like pedantic new categories (pick any one from 'site-generic', 'site-sympathethic' or 'site-sensitive' to name just three), many makers of this kind of work (of which I sheepishly would include myself in some very minor capacity) have sought to reframe things. The reason being that in the present craze for imagined 'site-specificity' an important element of what that term once stood for has been (or is being) lost - that is, the sense in which a show is created at least in part as a response to a site as more than just a location. Have a look at the work of Mike Pearson, Wrights & Sights or Forced Entertainment's Nights in This City. This niggling over language is I think an attempt to ensure that this kind of tantalising, wonderful work is not drowned in a sea of mediocre productions of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream in a disused warehouse'.

And no, of course I wouldn't expect the kind of mundane literalism that demands that every cave scene is in a cave. However the company seems to almost invite this kind of reading in foregrounding the fact that this is a story of a great queen set in a palace of a great queen. They move awkwardly between scenes that ask the audience to see the palace very literally as Dido's palace and those that then awkwardly try to stifle this reading without offering anything that really diffuses the palace-y ness of the place. In other words, the company seems unable to offer any really striking signifiers of the fact that we ar no longer supposed to be in a palace - nothing startling or imaginative that suggests we have leapt from the reality of the palace rooms we are walking through into some kind of other reality. An awkwardness that is exascerbated by the fact that our journey from room to room is so clumsy and overcrowded that the entire thing becomes almost unbearably fragmented.

Anonymous said...

I saw the Soho Church performance as well which exploited very well the setting ... and I too was very disappointed by the Palace performance