The story follows the basic outline of the classic picaresque adventure: young D'Artagnan heads to Paris in the hope of recruitment into the famed company of Musketeers, the King's bodyguard. These swordsmen, however, are enmeshed in a running skirmish in word and deed with the henchmen of Cardinal Richelieu, the power behind the throne of Louis XIII. While d'Artagnan and his mentors can call on the services of his tomboy sister Sabine, the Cardinal is seconded by the mysterious, deadly Countess de Winter. The lines are drawn between good and evil, and idealism and cynicism.
Alexandre Dumas' novel is a doorstep of a tome, so it seems harsh to carp at adapter Ken Ludwig's playfully anachronistic distillation of it into something manageable. But the script seemed plot-heavy; together with the coming-of-age account of d'Artagnan's quest, we tackle court intrigue, a struggle for heart and mind of the King, romance and adultery and missing diamonds.
ElevenOne Theatre's production has alighted on a corner of the History Faculty's garden, seemingly an infinity away from the roistering crowds of the adjacent George St fleshpots. Overlooked by a noble lime tree, the playing space is a part-raised oblong backed by the longest extant chunk of the old city walls. A fitting setting, in that the drama is set contemporaneously with the occupation of Oxford by Charles I as his Civil War HQ and the urgent rebuilding of the walls to stand a siege, and the final scenes, as twilight deepened and the arc lights came into full play, made a magical spectacle.
The demands upon director Michael Taylor are several: the cast is a numerous 16, the period adventure calls for spectacle aplenty, costuming the cast calls for care and ingenuity (carried off with panache by Amber Slaymaker and Rachel Francis Smith), and the challenge of outdoor acoustics requires strong voice projection. Fight directors Enric Ortuño and Alexander Rogers have done sterling work to use the full space, boost the energy levels and vary the quasi-balletic moves. The sound was more tricky: with the notable exception of the feisty, crackerjack Erica Gouvei's Sabine, the female actors' voices tended to lack both volume and conviction, and the director's understandable desire to prevent the backing sound - including accordion music and a Gregorian chant - from hampering the dialogue led to the music often having a remote quality as though filtered from afar, notably in the ball scene.
Among the cast, our excellent trio of musketeers was bluff and manly, with Simon Marie's hirsute Porthos outstanding in both look and resonance. Colin Burnie, in his 100th Oxford production, was silkily slimy as the wordly Richelieu; Daniel Taylor managed cleverly d'Artagnan's transition from wide-eyed ingénu to plausible aspirant to the ranks of the musketeers, while Matt Addis' effete, vacillating Louis XIII was a delight. Although both villains, Rochefort and Mme de Winter, were a trifle short on nastiness, David Guthrie made full use of his booming voice, and how could I not mention Andrew White's mincing Buttercup the cow?