February 1, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

Double Falsehod (MokitaGrit) @ The Union Theatre, Southwark

Writing about web page http://www.doublefalsehood.org/

Comparisons may be odious, but at the Union Theatre’s new production of Double Falsehood, they are positively unavoidable. In August, KDC performed what it called the "21st century premiere" of Theobald’s disputed play in the space. Five months later, the same theatre played host to another Double Falsehood by MokitaGrit Productions, in "the first professional production since 1792", with no reference to the previous event. Implied, then, was a process of overwriting of space, text, memory, replacing KDC’s amateur effort with MokitaGrit’s "professional" approach. Interestingly, the amateur/professional divide did not merely translate into a difference in the scale of investment, but into the type of investment made. Where KDC invested its time and finances in the visual (a glossy programme, opulent Baroque costumes), MokitaGrit concentrated on text, interpretation and performance in a production that, from an artistic and academic standpoint, succeeded in "overwriting" its predecessor.

The chief success of director Phil Willmott’s approach was its attention to the problems of class. From the second scene, where Camillo entered a farmyard in tweed suit and read the Duke’s letter to the sound of chickens clucking, the play was driven by social transgression – whether in the upwardly mobile aspirations of Camillo and Donna Benita (the character’s gender changed to great effect) or the lecherous and brazen advances of the privileged Henrique (the ‘z’ lost here) onto Violante, who became Leonora’s servant. This simple innovation was extraordinarily effective; her appearance in maid’s costume standing silently behind Leonora and Benita created an instant backstory for all three that determined their subsequent actions. Violante – the excellent Jessie Lilley – was a feisty Scouser, torn between the constraints of her social status and her wilful resistance to Henrique’s advances. Aside from the obvious disdain with which her attacker treated her, neither of her employers even glanced at her during their shared time onstage, recasting Violante as a neglected Cinderella, or even Helena (All’s Well), figure, who the audience invested fully in from the start. Su Douglas’s Benita, on the other hand, was besotted by the idea of raising her own social status. Immaculately addressed, and particuarly scornful of the slightly shabbier but good-hearted Camillo, she cooed over Henrique; he used his public-school charm and parental deference to manipulate the mother rather than directly approach the daughter, while Leonora seethed. Emily Plumtree was perfectly balanced between the two: her performance of petulance at Julio’s apparent disinterest was relieved at his present of a necklace; yet the sincerity of her affection manifested itself as she became increasingly aware of her lack of control over her own forthcoming marriage.

Also essential to the reorientation of the action within a system of class and formal structures was the extended presence of the Duke. Richard Franklin’s kindly, wise ruler (borrowing heavily from Measure for Measure) benignly gifted his authority to Roderick in the opening scene, before settling back into a chair upstage to watch the remainder of the action. Franklin became a semi-choric figure: as Henrique approached Violante’s lodging, he delivered the sententious "The voice of parents is the voice of gods" speech as a comment on Henrique’s own treachery to his family and position. Later, he became the kindly servant to whom Violante entrusted her disguise, and the wandering gentleman who stayed with the mad Julio. The treatment of the character as partially choric was slightly confusing, as it made it difficult to determine whether the same actor was doubling multiple parts, or if we were meant to understand the separate roles as disguises of the Duke (a la Measure), but the stately presence of Franklin throughout did serve to remind the audience of the play’s overarching power structures that limited the scope for disaster.

Adam Redmore as Henrique presented himself as a lovable cad to Leonora’s mother and his own father, relying on his charm to excuse his excesses of emotion. In private with his victims, however, Redmore presented a truly despicable villain. A formidable intellect, arrogant in the security of power and privilege, tempered and licenced a violent lust that tormented his brain. Crucially, it was at this point that Friar Lopez (Richard Morse) appeared. Portions of the Fabian/Lopez dialogue were rewritten as the shocked comments of a nervous, hidden monk, who proclaimed the madness of the Duke’s son as he forced himself upon the maid. It was at this point that the Duke and Lopez both left the stage, allowing Henrique to enact his crime. Violante stood, shaking and submissive, as Henrique stalked around her, before resisting as he grabbed her and began forcibly caressing her breasts. She struggled to disengage herself, and even as she appealed to him, her voice betrayed fear that he was beyond reason. The groundwork was thus laid for an onstage depiction of the rape. After Violante left the stage, Henrique paused for a moment, then whistled for Gerald, who dragged the struggling maid back on. Henrique punched her hard in the mouth, and she fell stunned to the floor. As he delivered his self-righteous justification ("Who am I, that am thus contemn’d?") directly to her in anger, he tormented the sobbing girl, straddling and then brutally violating her with a few sharp thrusts. Following the act, the two lay on the stage, before Henrique casually began his post-coital analysis of his own behaviour. He lay on his back, his head on Violante’s squirming back, as he casually pointed out to her that this was no rape – before directing Gerald to drop a crumpled banknote on the girl’s body.

This unobtrusive but intelligent approach to rewriting worked heavily in the production’s benefit, demonstrating how with some simple transposition and physical juxtaposition of actors, the play needs little in the way of additions to be made coherent. The crudity of showing the rape was mitigated by the clarity of plot it offered, and the extent to which it complicated responses to Henrique. The Arden text was otherwise kept largely intact, although a couple of the more embarrassing or difficult lines for modern audiences were altered ("Under this stone lies poor Camillo" read the man’s own delivered epitaph, and the ludicrously convenient "And, opportune, a vacant hearse pass’d by" was cut). Willmott explicitly drew inspiration from Cheek by Jowl’s performance style, preferring a bare stage and the silent appearance of characters when referred to in order to make clear the inter-relations. This was sometimes overdone – Julio, for example, did not need to physically pull Henrique onto stage when telling Leonora who he was entrusting her care to – but helped clarify the play for an audience largely unfamiliar with the plot.

The production was set in and around a monastery, a coherence of setting which became a problem in the second act, as the same monks who had thrust Julio out of the abbey wedding appeared again to tend their flocks, giving the impression that Julio had only fled to a neighbouring field. The deeply ritualistic setting worked to offer a sense of dread and inevitability to events, most powerfully as Leonora waited agonisingly for Julio’s arrival. As she wrung her hands, hooded monks entered and cirled the auditorium, chanting and ringing bells. As their voices rose, Leonora became more impassioned and desperate, climaxing as a monk broke away and grabbed her by the rest. Her fear was immediately replaced with joy at seeing Julio’s face, a joy that faded quickly as, looking at the ring of monks, she realised she had no escape. The beauty of the setting was in the anonymity it accorded its extras and the ease with which it permitted disguise and revelation. Julio, in monk costume, faded back in among the other brothers; yet as Leonora defended herself against her mother and Henrique, she stuck close to Julio, kneeling at his feet as if confessing or praying. The institutional authority of the monks thus fascinatingly gave licence to both the arrogant Henrique and the overbearing Benita (who slapped her daughter heartily during their exchange), but also acted as moral, spiritual and sexual support for Leonora, who clutched at her lover/confessor even as she was dragged to the altar. Fittingly, the closing image before the interval was of Benita forcing Henrique and Leonora to kneel before Julio, who cast off his hood and cried "Hold! Mine is the elder claim" as a blackout fell.

As the action resumed in the second half, Leonora and Julio held hands and defied Donna Benita. Henrique, however, merely laughed – the monks (apart from the ever-bumbling Father Lopez) were in his pay, and at a click of his fingers they threw off their own hoods and attacked Julio, who was unceremoniously dragged and beaten offstage. William Reay, who had played Gerald, returned as the Master of the Flocks, repeating the violence he had condoned in his master as he grabbed Violante and thrust his groin against the struggling woman before Roderick’s interruption. It was in these scenes that Sam Hoare’s tall, imposing Roderick shone – a figure of benign power, his soft voice and manner contrasted with the roughness of the shepherds’ Northern accents and harsh language; yet when provoked, as by his younger brother in the final act, Roderick’s physique made him a threatening enemy. The "liberation" of Leonora from the nunnery involved the two brothers carrying in a coffin from which she emerged, disoriented. Roderick’s sincere pacification of her turned into rage at his brother. He offered a physical threat to Henrique, and called after the departing Leonora to guarantee his protection, with an intensity that eventually mollified the furious girl.

The lynchpin of the production, however, was Gabriel Vick as Julio. Where Redmore’s Henrique was a chaotic, dangerously transgressive presence, Vick’s calm and measured reading of Julio gave the production heart. Julio was an endearingly open, and almost simple, young man, who gazed with wide eyes at those he interacted with. His affection for both Camillo and Leonora, however, was thrown into immediate conflict with their games of status (Camillo ordering his son to court) and love (Leonora feigning disinterest). His approach to resolving conflict was earnest, tending to frustration when he felt honesty was not forthcoming in return. As such, his later receipt of Leonora’s letter (received by the ever-accommodating Lopez in the hush of the monastery) prompted a reaction of complete astonishment, that turned immediately into a dangerous anger. The growing desperation of the lovers was neatly depicted on stage through simple mirroring – after Leonora gave Lopez the letter, she remained onstage dressing for the wedding. As Julio delivered his "Hold out thy faith" speech, she stepped forward and the two stood beside one another, both wearing expressions of desperation.

Julio’s conduct throughout the wedding scene displayed an increasingly erratic emotional state, especially in contrast to Henrique’s cruel laughter. On his next appearance, in the fields, he emerged bloody and bruised, his eyes staring and his voice pleading rather than raving. His madness thus became the culmination of a gradual breakdown of trust, rendering the scene heartbreaking. The Duke/Gentleman and the sympathetic Lopez acted as audience surrogates, commenting sadly on his fall while the Master leaned on his crook and sneered. While Julio was eventually pushed to more violent behaviour, grabbing Lopez by the nose (to the Master’s amusement), the overriding impression was one of sadness, particularly in his sincere instruction to Violante to kill herself. This mood extended into the climactic 4.2, in which Violante entered with hair down, singing beautifully. Julio and the Gentleman began by concealing themselves among the audience, but the fluid staging allowed Julio to emerge and stand next to Violante in wonder, listening intently to her words. As the two met and recognised one another, the process of healing began.

The closing scene completed this process of reunification by bringing together the various strands and motifs that had pervaded the production. The staging itself was formal and disappointingly dull – the Duke returned to his upstage chair, while Benita and Camillo sat in chairs downstage and to either side, forming a triangle of authority. Roderick’s entrance was accompanied by the remainder of the cast in habits, who stood in a semicircle around the outskirts of the stage and were revealed one by one by Roderick. The anonymity of the "monks" worked perfectly for the series of revelations, and provided a source of dramatic intrigue – one by one, the Duke and Camillo walked towards the hooded Violante as she talked and peered under her cowl, remarking on the prettiness of the youth. Similarly, Julio kept his cowl on as long as possible, walking towards Leonora and prolonging the moment of revelation as she slowly recognised individual features that emerged from the shadow. Julio’s emotional reunion with Leonora was relieved by Camillo, who rocked in his chair wrapped up in self-indulgent grief and refused point-blank to look at the lovers until Roderick took him by the shoulders and pointed him towards his son.

The fully-rounded conclusion of Julio and Leonora’s story was, however, thrown finally into contrast with Henrique and Violante’s. Redmore tested the limits of audience sympathy throughout the final scene as he antagonised his brother, mocked the disguised Violante and loudly proclaimed his innocence in the strongest possible terms. With his integrity so in question, the appearance of the nervous Violante in the same maid costume in which she had been raped was met with stony silence. Henrique continued to try to keep up an energetic attitude, performing his repentance with such fervour that his sincerity remained in question; and his request to his father to marry Violante was delivered quickly and efficiently, with the aim of getting it over with as quickly as possible. It was only once he was removed from centre-stage that the implications began to sink in; and, in the best tradition of the problem plays, it was this couple that were left alone onstage as the rest of the cast processed off. Turning to one another with a troubled expression, the lights faded to black. Henrique’s performance of himself – whether as cad or as repentant prodigal – was finally over, and Violante looked as nervous as he.

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