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Playhouse Plays Out 2008

Unexpected shows in unexpected places.

October 9, 2008
Transports Exceptionnels, Compagnie Beau Geste.
At the Oxford Harlequins / Cherwell School Playing Field, Marston Ferry Road, Thu October 9th 2008, 4pm and 6.30pm
How can a digger be coy, be loving, be flirtatious, throw a tantrum? This digger was and did. Transports Exceptionnels, a play on words in both languages, is described as ‘a tender love duet between a man and a mechanical digger . . . accompanied by the dramatic voice of Maria Callas’ and is a production by Compagnie Beau Geste from Angers.

This 14-tonne digger arrives in the ring, a man steps out and starts walking and suddenly the dance begins. What follows is a dazzling display of dancing and athleticism and trust. Why trust? Because the dancer has to put himself at the mercy of the driver of the digger: often the digger picks him up lovingly and deposits him gently but sometimes she whirls swiftly round in rage or seems to go for him angrily and you realise that this is a huge powerful machine that could completely destroy the man. He, the dancer, is truly graceful, whether he is rolling on the ground or moving in the air as his digger transports him on high. He is also athletic and performs some memorable feats while being held or whirled aloft by his playful lover.

It all looks effortless, but the choreography has to be really tight to work well (and be safe). I particularly loved the part where he walks away but she gets up on her . . . er, back wheels? and he has to come back to her. The whole effect is beautiful but it is also, as the programme says, a gentle parody of a traditional pas de deux.

The audience too was interesting: it was as wide a mixture of ages as I have seen for a long time. A girl at my feet seemed more intent on practising her writing skills but, looking round, most people seemed to be enjoying the occasion.

If this is the quality of the performances produced by Playhouse Plays Out, then I will go to more of them. ‘Unexpected shows in unexpected places’ they call it. My only criticism is that there were no posters near the site. I wandered round Cherwell School for a little while before being directed to the other playing fields across the road. However, it was worth the search: those of you who were not there today missed a beautiful, and funny, love duet.

August 19, 2008
The Winter's Tale, Globe Theatre
Bodleian Library Quadrangle, Sun August 17th 2008 - Fri August 22nd 2008
You’ll want to know, I imagine, how they do the bear. They play it for laughs – which is probably the only sensible response to one of the more left-field stage directions of English drama.

The bear is not the only problem with this odd little play, with its abrupt shifts of tone and gaping plot elisions. It would be difficult to try and fit it all into some overarching structure – and here again this touring production from the Globe Theatre has made the right decision by not really bothering. This Winter’s Tale is what it is, a hotch-potch of grandstanding melodrama and rustic comedy that, yes, falls to pieces if you examine it closely – but why would you want to do that?

It’s always going to be the first half that’s the most difficult. John Duggan, playing Leontes, has to sell the idea that two minutes of polite courtly banter between his wife Hermione (Sasha Hails) and visiting monarch Polixenes (Brendan Hughes) is irrefutable evidence of a long-standing affair, and that the child she’s about to bear isn’t his.

It’s to Duggan’s credit that starting from this shaky position he at least manages to convince us of his own conviction. He treats his long monologue like a kind of verbal runway – slow, ponderous pronouncements that build in pace and intensity until they eventually take off with a terrifying roar. Hails, saddled with the script’s other massively extended monologue, also does a moving job – displaying genuine physical torment as tragedy piles swiftly upon tragedy.

The second half is where things really shine, however. Fergal McElherron makes a hilarious Autolycus, while Benjamin Askew and Niamh McCann are a pleasingly muscular Perdita and Florizel – their pragmatic air and easy physicality counteracting much of the irksome dippiness that can attend a lot of the bard’s young couples. Michael Benz’s young, sweetly dim shepherd was all the more impressive given that he was doubling up as the prissy, stately widow Paulina – a shift in register that was pretty impressive to watch.

It’s probably best to see the The Winter’s Tale as a sort of Elizabethan variety show – a bit of tragedy, a bit of romance, a little clowning, a couple of musical numbers. It’s no greater than the sum of its parts but this is, after all, Shakespeare, so that’s pretty great if those parts are done well. Here, they were done very well indeed.
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