Saints And Sinners

Creation Theatre present a one man compôte of Shakespearean protagonists
Summer 2008, St Michael at the North Gate.

July 8, 2008
Creation are to be applauded for trying to break out of their traditional model of outdoor performances with this newly devised one man show in the evocative setting of St Michael’s.

Trying to shoe-horn Shakespearean speeches into a new narrative is a perilous task and one that should never be undertaken lightly. Those behind this new work have made a brave stab but in the end their understandable desire to get in all the favourite moments undermined the themes they initially set out to examine.

There are few, if any, characters in the Shakespeare canon who can truly to be said to be saintly. There are plenty of sinners – but even they can display traits of genuine humanity. The journey this production seeks to take us on is that of a man who is struggling with conflict within his marriage and turns to Shakespeare for spiritual assistance. There is much discussion of how saintly characters have flaws and how sinners are not all bad – but, in the end, this has little to do with the questions the central character is trying to resolve and plenty to do with an actor seeking great moments from the plays. There is nothing wrong with this but it does make for a slightly disjointed evening.

Tom Peters is an actor of considerable skill. He is able to move swiftly between the many characters and has generosity, charm and warmth in his stage presence. Occasionally he is rather too mannered in his performance – there is only so much posturing and hand-wringing that I can take in any one evening – but there is still some excellent verse-speaking.

The direction, for me, is a little lacklustre. Other than occasional use of the pulpit, there is little that marks out this production as being site-specific. I could see it being performed with very little alteration in any of the studio spaces available in Oxford. The Director has given her actor the space to explore the texts but there is a need for a little more discipline at certain points in the performance. Whilst Tom Peters is a good musician, I do question the use of quite so much music – the lyrics did not seem to me to add much to our understanding of the central themes or the journey being undertaken.

I have to say that it feels very much like a work in progress. It is a format that allows for speeches to move in and out of the running out, for the order to be changed and for the initial thoughts to be completely replaced by the time the form is finalized.

It is by no means a bad evening’s entertainment. There is warmth, humour, pathos and genuine emotion on display. It does not, to my mind, fulfil the brief they set themselves. As a performance that explores some well-known and not so well-known highways and byways of Shakespeare, it works. As an exploration of saints and sinners, it doesn’t.

For me, Shakespeare and a good performance are enough – and you get both here.

June 29, 2008
Tom Peters plays the archetypal actor looking for the conscience in the souls of Shakespeare’s characters in the intimate rehearsal space that has evolved between the chancel and the font in this Saxon church. The barrier between actor and audience is broken down as Peters responds to notes pinned onto a pillar, as he excavates the inner workings of theatre’s most robust characters to enable the search within his own psyche to find out if he tends towards Saint or Sinner. He finds he expresses revenge as classical bursts of Shylock are given and he uncovers traits to admire after a contemporary portrayal of Leontes. ‘The Winter’s Tale’ is continued later in the show as Hermione defends her chastity from the pulpit played exquisitely by Peters. He later manages to entertain and explain the full plot of ‘Pericles’ in a hilariously animated style.

The two-hour running time moves fast as the show rises and falls between the bluster of strong characters such as Henry V and the contrasting gentle reflection of the actor. Peters confesses he cannot relate to the King’s forceful ‘call to arms’ speech. This revelatory show finds a sinner in Henry V and miraculously finds conscience in Richard III as he lights candles near the altar burning his fingers on the flames but not reacting to the pain. This is one of several magical moments where Peters conjures up the intense spirit of theatre in a church and the audience becomes part of the character’s world. Another triumph is Peters walking along the aisle as Joan of Arc embracing the audience. One would imagine Joan to be quite clearly a Saint yet Shakespeare renders her a witch. The importance and value Peters places on his quest keeps the audience engaged. Peters is genuinely pained when he struggles to apply his test to a deliciously evil Iago. The show reveals that, Elizabethan audiences would have been used to Iago being evil simply because he is evil as this is a principle familiar to the Christian morality plays of the day. The revolutionary ideas aired are allowed to settle during the interval as the audience shares notes, playing judge and jury over scrummy delights purchased from the ‘Vaults’ deli counter.

This is a unique show that interfaces perfectly with its surroundings, the statue of St Michael is alluded to and Peters’ style of folk singing to guitar is softly meditative within the Church’s acoustics. Producer Sam Ingram has seamlessly imbued this new venue for the company with the sensational experience Creation Theatre are known for; exciting theatre in unusual settings. Stage-managed by Rachel Rowlinson, the minimal lighting throws gentle shadows in the second half onto the vaulted ceiling, backlit with fading natural light illuminating the stained glass windows. In spite of the gradual darkness, by the end of the show I feel light and enlightened. ‘Saints and Sinners’ uses theatre in a similar way to believers using a church, namely to find out which one we are and probably we, like Shakespeare’s characters, are a bit of both which is strangely reassuring.

June 26, 2008
From what is heard echoing out of this central Oxford church, it seems there will be much variety in the pieces of Shakespeare presented in the one man show playing here this Summer. Tom Peters, familiar to some from the role of Jesus in last years ‘Passion’ is performing a selection of Shakespearean monologues that looks set to surprise and delight.

Even though Peters wowed thousands of theatregoers with his stunning portrayal of Macbeth at Headington Hill Park a few years ago, in devising ‘Saints and Sinners’ the company has not simply gone for the obvious choices of familiar Shakespearean characters.

The meticulous direction of Heather Davies suits this traditional old building well as Davies is rigorous in leaving no stone unturned in searching for the exact truth of the play text. Her comprehensive approach yielded a vibrant ‘Taming of the Shrew’ at Oxford Castle last year.

This show has an interval where refreshments are available and ticket prices include a chance to enjoy the views from the old Saxon North Gate tower. Stumbling on a performance in this church will offer any visitor a great opportunity to take a new perspective on Shakespeare. Peters will be treading the boards where Shakespeare is believed to have stood, at the font for the christening of his Godchild.
I saw the show last night. Magnificent quality theatre! Tom Peters is a brilliant performer and I would recommend it to anyone, and with tickets from just £7.50 it is better than anything at the cinema. Catch it as soon as you can.
Creation may offer great performances, but their policy of adding a surcharge for any bookings on the day / on the door, plus no concessions unless booked in advance, leaves me cold.

Yet another year of thinking 'must go to that' and then waking up to why I don't.
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