May 2, 2010, by Peter Kirwan
Soliman and Perseda @ The Rose Theatre Bankside
Writing about web page http://www.solimanandperseda.com/
The Rose Theatre in Bankside is a very different enterprise to its big brother around the corner, Shakespeare’s Globe. Where the reconstructed Globe presents "living history", a modern reimagining of a Shakespearean theatre, the exposed archaeological remains of the Rose provide a very different kind of experience. In a low-roofed cavern, red fibre-optic light tubes outline the vague shape of the foundations, made even more eerie by their submersion under shallow water. From a viewing platform at night, as these shapes coalesce under a deep and heavy dark, theatrical history seems intangible and distant, a world away from the neatly-packaged and commercially interpreted experience of the Globe.
It was a fitting backdrop for Trifle Productions’ new production of Soliman and Perseda, both theoretically and theatrically. While the Globe increasingly prioritises new writing and Shakespearean revivals, the spirit of inquiry and excavation at the Rose has filtered into the work of textual archaeology that results in revived interest in a play as neglected as Soliman. It’s a fantastic play that speaks immediately to a modern audience, and Trifle are to be praised even if just for giving audiences a chance to see it on its feet. That they did so in such an effective production was icing on the cake: this was a funny, moving, powerful and thoroughly entertaining reading of Kyd’s ignored tragedy, and validates the Rose’s important and urgent role in supporting young companies doing exciting work.
The play was performed against the edge of the viewing gallery before a small audience, with the cavern of the Rose itself standing as backdrop to the action. This was intelligently used throughout, particularly as Basilisco (Carsten Hayes) and Piston (Michael Linsey) watched the Prince of Cyprus’s tournament, using the viewing gallery as precisely that. The cavern, with its evocation of the underworld, also provided a fitting environment for the Chorus of Love (Eve Winters), Fortune (Kaye Conway) and Death (Maya Thomas). Bathed in red light, the three allegorical figures framed the play in a stylised sequence of scenes that contrasted nicely with the starkly lit, fast-paced action of the main play. The battle between genres was a relatively common framing device in the Elizabethan drama (cf. Mucedorus and A Warning for Fair Women), and here the battle was played out in a surprisingly playful way, with the three women wearing nighties and sparring in Noh-influenced abstract motions, flitting between fixed positions and tussles over mimed arrows and threads. While these scenes began a little too slowly, they picked up pace as the acts progressed, with the figures bringing on characters from the main play, manipulating them into position and claiming dominance over them. So, too, did distinctions between the three begin to emerge. Love was smug and somewhat arrogant, more mobile and graceful than the others and confident of her own essential rightness. Fortune, by contrast, was hunched and sour, glaring at the other two and protective of herself. Death, meanwhile, walked calmly between the others, a smile playing about her lips as she awaited her moment. The distant wails of a violin accompanied these choric scenes, only stopping as Death finally asserted her power in the Epilogue, stopping both motion and sound as she proclaimed her victory.
The semi-playful game of the three figures, however much it concealed more serious conflicts, reflected neatly the tone of Sophie Hickman’s production that successfully juxtaposed comedy and tragic pathos to strong effect. Key to achieving this were the standout performances of Hayes’s Basilisco and Linsey’s Piston. Hayes, in leather jacket and pink trousers, nailed the foppish confidence of Basilisco, rendering him ridiculous without reducing him to utter idiocy. His continual self-justification, particularly after his circumcision as he hobbled onstage with legs spread, was always entertaining but evoked a certain amount of pity, and his final realisation that he loved himself more than Perseda contained a note of triumph. Apart from a moment of OTT celebration after kissing Perseda’s corpse, Hayes achieved the impressive feat of creating a Basilisco restrained enough to be consistently believable, allowing him to become a powerful audience surrogate. Linsey’s cocky Piston, meanwhile, was one of the most engaging fools I’ve seen onstage in a while, the character always preserving himself and protecting his own interests. He provided the necessary foil for the romantic main plot, with a constantly exasperated demeanour perfectly deflating the high-blown language of his superiors. As the play moved towards its ultimate tragedy, Linsey made an ideal transition to the more serious matter of the final act, injecting genuine pathos into his report of Erastus’s death and his plea to mourn for Perseda. These two provided the true heart of the production, and their deaths felt cruel and pointless.
A screen at one end of the stage allowed for shadow effects throughout, although the audience were angled away from it so that it was difficult to see. By far the best use of the screen was in its ingenious use for Cassandra Hodges’s Perseda’s confrontation with Israel Oyelumade’s Soliman in Act V. As Perseda defied him from the city walls, her silhouette appeared on the screen, standing above the audience’s heads and looking down on Soliman. As well as providing the necessary staging effect, it also had the impact of androgynising Perseda, presenting her as faceless and genderless to ours and Soliman’s eyes, clearly explaining his ignorant slaughter of her. The screen was also effectively used for showing the red-tinged image of Death, plucking up her foes as they died onstage. However, the use of the screen for Soliman’s asides during Erastus’s murder was far less effective: his booming voice had a Voice of God effect on stage, rendering his internal musings as tannoy announcements. To use the same device for both the most public and the most private moments of the production was a mistake, but didn’t take away from its effectiveness when used well.
Ben Galpin brought out Erastus’s youth nicely, rendering him a careless and often whiny boy in his earlier scenes (offset effectively by Piston’s worldliness) but developing into a stronger figure after his transition to the Turkish court. His relationship with Perseda was played for comic value at first, the two playful in happiness and childishly petulant in dispute. Interestingly, I was left with the conclusion that, as lovers, neither of the two is particularly likeable; both were characterised by their quick impulsive leaps to bad decisions and their inability to deal with emotional conflict. It was only after their reunification and return to Rhodes that we saw a quick glimpse of the two as complete adults, sharing a tender and mutually joking tenderness that emphasised the injustice of their subsequent separation. The two were far more powerful when apart, with Galpin’s Erastus finding nobility both in his first meeting with Soliman and in the face of his accusers at the fake "court", while Hodges’s headstrong Perseda came into her own in the final act, setting her jaw as she killed Lucina and handling herself powerfully against Soliman. The aggressive energies which made her a frustrating partner in the earlier relationship positioned her instead as a strong and formidable leader in her final moments.
Oyelumade made for an imposing Soliman, and his tendency to spend much of his time in laughter did little to alleviate the threat he posed. Strong and athletic, and dominating the stage in his appearances. The simple staging evoked the Turkish court with little more than a cushioned chair, yet Oyelumade’s fast movements and deep, drawling voice created a completely separate world, with different rules and standards to Rhodes. The adopted accents of the cast playing Turkish characters were often offputting and unnecessary; far more effective were the hierarchical blocking and deferrence to Soliman that restructured the locus of onstage power. Soliman’s passions drove the entire second half of the play, and Oyelmuade’s energy and vocal range ensured that the impact was continually referred back to him. He was supported extremely effectively by Stephen Barden as Brusor. Powerful in support, Barden’s strong and foreboding presence was instrumental in establishing the hierarchies of the Turkish court, whether bowing cross-armed to his master or unsheathing a dagger with a murderous scowl as Erastus bested Soliman in their mock duel. This glowering, intimidating Brusor, even from his first appearance in the tournament at Rhodes (where he exchanged pointed looks with Ferdinando) placed him as the man to watch, and as his own bitterness came into effect, so did his "support" for his leader come to have an increasingly influential part.
The production repeatedly asked us to respond to characters who met unjust fates, and didn’t shy away from the horrific killings of John Triggs’s Julio and Sam Banjamin’s Guelpio, or those of the bumbling witnesses procured by Soliman. The most pathos, though, came from Carly Jukes’s Lucina. Devastated by the loss of Ferdinando, her subsequent capture saw Lucina reduced to a constant state of whimpering fear, terrified by Brusor and the prospect of marriage with him. As Perseda was allowed to leave, Lucina held her arms out after her with a small wail, immediately stifled by her new husband. Her offer to help with Soliman’s wooing was motivated entirely by the terror she felt; and as Perseda pronounced her a traitor, Jukes backed away, yet again articulating sounds of fear and guilt. Her murder was one of the cruellest moments of the production, and the fact it was at the hands of the heroine complicated our emotional responses even further. This wasn’t a world of good and bad so much as one of wrong decisions and unfair consequences.
Ferdinando was intelligently conflated with the Spanish knight which, while it might not stand up to close scrutiny (why would a man who is Philippo’s "loving cousin" need to be formally introduced before the tournament while Basilisco was acknowledged to be known? etc.), was far more dramatically effective than introducing the character later on. As well as opening up a feud between Brusor and him, it also allowed Lucina’s relationship with him to be more playful, she besotted by the exotic knight, and made sense of his disappointment at being beaten by Erastus. Andres Ortiz’s performance allowed the character a certain amount of romantic dignity, though his death scene was played too abruptly to be effective. This was a problem more in Erastus’s response to it, which had him begin the fight still in smug humour and end it without any real sense of guilt; a more substantial change of tone here would have been much more effective.
This plot-driven play was filled with nice grace notes, from Amurath’s line to Soliman "for loving thee I die?" phrased as a question before his stabbing rather than in response to it, to Steve Lee’s hysterical mule mooing in response to Basilisco’s descriptions of his injuries. The uncomfortable disjunct between comedy and pathos (most notably in the hideously inappropriate Basilisco offering his body to Lucina and Perseda as they grieved) is the hardest thing to get right about the play, yet this production’s sensitivity and drive ensured it played out in a rivetting and affecting way. While the audience continued to laugh even as Soliman read Perseda’s note informing him of her poisoned lips (and I defy any company to play this completely seriously), it was Death’s final reclamation of her status as most powerful that reverberated in the mind after the curtain calls. It was a powerful reminder of Kyd’s brilliance beyond The Spanish Tragedy, and a call for renewed attention to a play years ahead of its time in terms of plot, character and tone.