Brite Theater and So Potent Arts at Exeter Phoenix
7th June 2014
I watched Shakespeare in Hell as a volunteer steward at the Exeter Ignite Festival. I was stewarding for a few shows during the week, and had chosen this one purely because I liked its name – I’m always intrigued by productions that stage Shakespeare out of context. So when I arrived at the Phoenix, I didn’t really know what to expect. The synopsis in the festival programme read:
“Follow Ariel through Dante´s nine circles of Hell to discover the blood spattered histories of eighteen of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters as they collide and converse with likewise guilty sinners from the Bard’s canon. A physical and emotional performance that takes you on a fast-paced journey through human wickedness and regret. What are you going to hell for?”
I don’t think any of the audience members were prepared for how literal this description was. The announcement that there were to be no seats in the performance, and we would follow the action around a room, was met with looks of bewilderment and in some cases, annoyance. Wasn’t that somehow in breach of our audience rights? So with some trepidation, we followed Ariel’s beckoning arms into the Phoenix’s Voodoo Lounge, transformed by sheets, darkness and red spotlights, into Hell.
At first glance, the sparse, low-budget scenery (a gravestone made of foam and a shiny plastic severed hand) were reminiscent of a school play, and I could almost feel my fellow audience members steeling themselves to endure the hour-long performance. Yet once we (reluctantly) followed Ariel across the room to where a zombified Juliet and Ophelia were striking up a conversation – Juliet with her bloody dagger still wedged above her heart, and Ophelia’s face bearing the bloated decay of her death from drowning – we gradually started to relax. As the two women lamented their lost lives and looked back cynically, and often comically, at the love they killed themselves for, the audience’s laughter aided the adjustment to their unfamiliar proximity to the action.
Led all the time by the ethereal figure of Ariel (Dana Bowman), we shuffled backwards and forwards around the room to where each new tableau of characters had unobtrusively appeared while we were watching the last. Excellent lighting design combined with atmospheric backing music to create effortless shifts in tone, from the fiery rage of Richard III to Iago’s frost-bitten prison.
When we were asked to actually sit down at Titus Andronicus’ banquet table, the fourth wall was well and truly broken in a way rarely seen in theatre performances. The clear sense of “them and us” that usually creates a reassuring gap between the performers onstage and the audience was completely absent from this production – and this was undoubtedly its greatest strength. Our reactions were an integral part of the drama, and were frequently commented on by the characters – I was disconcertingly glowered at by Titus for laughing at Falstaff’s joke at his expense. Falstaff gate-crashing Titus’ party is one example of the play’s unique premise – all the key characters and plotlines are mixed together as Shakespeare’s greatest heroes and villains encounter one another in Hell. Rather than detract from the integrity of the characters, if anything the Shakespearean-style script by Kolbrun Björt Sigfusdottir and Emily Carding gave the performers scope to add greater depth to their portrayals, through playing their reactions to different situations.
The young all-female cast alternated between male and female roles with perfect ease, and gave convincing interpretations of all nineteen characters they played between them. At times however, they seemed to forget the premise of their production and revert to standard stage performance, delivering their lines at a volume that would have projected to the back of an auditorium, but felt artificial at close quarters. Moments of quiet – wistful murmurs or hissing contempt – drew the audience in to the action and were much more effective. Stand-out successes were Emily Carding’s Titus, Bryony Reynolds’s rueful Richard II and Kris Wing Jennings’ Shylock.
Melissa Barrett in particular excelled as Lady Macbeth, with a strong Scottish accent and grinning charisma that teetered always on the edge of mania. A barbed exchange between ‘Lady M’ and Goneril degenerated into a fight ‘to the death’ – and the realisation that in this version of Hell, the characters’ bodies were able to die more than once. The bittersweet mix of comedy and tragedy this scene provoked echoed the tone of the production as a whole, and was a striking reminder of the enduring human emotion present in Shakespeare’s characters, despite their temporal distance from today’s society.
In one particularly moving scene Volumnia (Coriolanus’ mother, played by Kris Wing Jennings) and Leontes (Bryony Reynolds) mourned their lost children, both showing more tender and sorrowful aspects to the characters than the plays allow for. This moment was especially intense for me, as Leontes’ grief turned to anger at his wife’s supposed infidelity, and he caught my eye. Looking directly at me, he spat,
‘Give me the boy: I am glad you did not nurse him:
Though he does bear some signs of me, yet you
Have too much blood in him’
and went on to declare to the rest of the audience that ‘I’ was an adulteress. Facing the rage and resentment in Leontes’ expression, I felt I experienced what it was like to actually be Hermione – accused of a ‘crime’ she knows nothing about and having to face down her husband’s accusation in a public trial. For the first time, I was aware of the strength that would be needed to respond as calmly as she does. This powerful emotional engagement that Shakespeare in Hell provoked served as a strong argument against Shakespeare – and theatre in general – being revered and elevated to the metaphorical status of ‘high culture’. The currency and power of Shakespeare is shown at its best when the audience is made to feel involved – that they have a personal stake in the narrative – and that is what Shakespeare in Hell does so well.