October 5, 2014, by Peter Kirwan

The Woman in the Moon (The Dolphin’s Back) @ The Rose Playhouse, Bankside

Through the combined efforts of scholar Andy Kesson, secondary school teacher Perry Mills and director James Wallace, John Lyly has achieved a remarkable renaissance in recent years. The revival in Lyly’s fortunes is due almost entirely to the rediscovery of his works, not for their complexity of allusion and attachment to court politics, but for their vitality and inventive playfulness on the stage. After the successful staging earlier this year of Galatea by Edward’s Boys, The Dolphin’s Back have now staged the first professional production of Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon in over four centuries.
The play recalls court entertainments in its formalised structure. Nature creates a woman, Pandora, at the behest of four Arcadian shepherds, and the gods associated with the spheres act in turn to exert their influence on her, turning the blank slate into a sullen, proud, fierce, puritanical, lustful, deceitful or inconstant figure, to the confusion and distraction of her wooers. The clear organisational structure, each god in turn passing responsibility to the next and the shepherds entering in sequence to encounter their changed love, is even masque-like in its elucidation of an astrophysical conceit.
In Wallace’s production, the formal patterns were realised through a simple consistent spatial set-up centred on and orbiting a round bed, in which Bella Heesom’s Pandora lay. Pandora’s transformations took place on the bed, keeping constantly in mind the sexual function for which the shepherds had requested her creation. The gods entered and exited upstage, standing over the bed and remaining onstage while Pandora was under their influence, tying their visible presence to her mental state (and ensuring, of course, that a modern audience who might be unfamiliar with the classical effects of the planets could see clearly the relationship). This self-billed ‘astrophysical sex comedy’ fascinating reconfigured the solar system to have the planets revolve around Pandora, gathering round her circular bed in the closing scene.
Heesom gave an extraordinary performance of an extraordinary role, showing effectively how Lyly anticipated Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse 400 years early. Her default setting was passive, looking around wide-eyed and confused, but as each god took control she veered wildly from a lairy Mars-inspired anger, her arms spread in aggressive confrontation, to the breathless, panting and gleeful lust of Venus. A consistent thread was her general aloofness, and increasingly those who encountered her kept their distance, waiting to see what she would offer. Yet as Lyly’s structure unravelled, as in the lengthy Venus sequence, so too did Heesom’s performance capture the variable moods, culminating in her extraordinary frantic ‘lunatic’ madness under Luna.
While the gods had very little to do beyond deliver a couple of lines each, they were finely individualised. Adam Cunis’s Mars wore red military uniform evoking Prince William’s wedding outfit, while Keira Duffy matched green hair, PVC dress and heels as Venus. Llewyn ab Eleri was an elderly lecherous Saturn, while Gareth Radcliffe’s American-accented Jupiter lounged on the bed as he attempted to woo Pandora. Each of the gods wore sunglasses fitted to their role (Timothy George’s Sol, for instance, donning orange shades as the Sun) which were placed over their eyes while they maintained their influence. These emblematic characters existed primarily as physical background for Pandora and yet retained their own arcs. Venus, for example, became deeply involved firstly in moulding Pandora’s sexuality (to the sound of Goldfrapp’s ‘Ooh La La’) and then joining in her embraces with the shepherds. Yet as Pandora rejected the gods at the play’s finale, the shared abashed glances between Venus and Mars were one of the production’s most moving moments.
Entering this formal world, the shepherds primarily offered comic bathos. James Askill, still one of the most consistently hysterical early modern actors I have ever seen (will someone please cast him in a larger show??) hammed up a Welsh accent as Iphicles while the Welsh Rhys Bevan went Devonshire as Learchus, but the strength of the four Arcadian shepherds was their collective comedy, repeating key words and shuffling nervously in their erotic fascination with Pandora. Yet they were far more than comic relief, beginning as a group and slowly breaking apart, as first Joel Davey’s Stesias was chosen as Pandora’s husband and then, under Mercury’s influence, Pandora engineered the turns of the lovers against one another. While the confusions remained primarily comic there was a clear sense of growing frustration and disillusion with the nature of love pursuit, and Stesias quickly became a (justifiably) jealous tyrant, beating his former comrades and lamenting loudly about Pandora’s indiscretions.
Pinning all of this down was the stupendous James Thorne as Gunophilus, the lackadaisical servant to Pandora. The physical butt of many of the jokes (including being flipped full over by his mistress during her rages), Thorne managed a tricky role by ensuring Gunophilus’s constant liaison with the audience, acting and commenting on his mistress’s behalf in a way that might even recall Mosca’s relationship with Volpone, particularly in those instances where the two worked together to fool the suitors. Thorne’s cocksure delivery worked most effectively to disguise him as a simple servant figure, thus making even sweeter the surprise when he finally asserted his own rights and agency in taking Pandora for himself.
As the action unravelled, so too did Wallace’s staging speed up. The final twenty minutes of the play saw constant movement as shepherds flogged one another and ran on and off from all four corners of the stage, defying the established order of blocking. This increased frantic activity made more potent the broken final appearance of Pandora, her mind shattered and her words inconstant and changing under Diana’s powers. It was left to Nature (Julia Sandiford) to bring the play back together and summon the gods to end their schemes.
Despite the relative predictability of a plot with such a formal structure, the production’s achievement could be seen in the scale of the final surprises, including Gunophilus’s punitive transformation into a thorn bush torn apart by Steias and Stesias’s own ascent to angrily follow Pandora through the stars with his bush. The fate of Gunophilus in particular seemed harsh, his wit and honesty elsewhere seemingly having exonerated him from blame; yet the punishment seemed to relate specifically to the pride with which he publicly declared himself Pandora’s preferred lover.
In a beautiful piece of symmetry, Lila Whelan embraced Pandora as Concord to bring her to life at the play’s opening, and lay in possessive protectorship of her on the bed at the play’s end in recognition of Pandora’s choice to remain with Luna. In some ways the play’s politics remained inscrutable, the acceptance of Pandora’s inconstancy ratified by a moment of pure physical harmony between the sleeping allegorical figures. In moments tending towards transcendence such as this, the production found a heart to the formal comedy, creating something genuinely individually driven by fully realised performances while ensuring that the episodic structure and Pandora’s growing self-awareness remained key. In surprisingly aligning Luna and Pandora, while rejecting the many men of this world, the production ended on a note of sisterhood and platonic devotion, the squabblings of her servants reduced to impotent bickering. In such decision, The Dolphin’s Back demonstrated how even this obscure mythical play could attain a moment of contemporary political power, speaking back to and deconstructing the narratives of male desire, control and entitlement that aimed to act on Pandora. In doing so, the company once more made their case for Lyly’s potency in the contemporary theatre.
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