Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Elizabeth I at Hampton Hill

Elizabeth I by Paul Foster
Directed by Ben Davies, Co-directed by Clare Williams
Venue: Hampton Hill Playhouse 5-8 November 2008
Youth Action Theatre

This was probably the first play that I helped a lot on backstage as well as acting onstage - I was in the Playhouse for 15 hours on the get-in prior to the show opening. It all started with some coconuts (one coconut in fact, which I had to saw in half and de-coconut to make coconut halves for Dana to bang together as she skipped onstage on her "horse" with a message, and skipped off again; Monty Python-style), and culminated in painting the chessboard on the stage at midnight - no easy task, as we kept on running out of paint.

Above: synchronised speaking of lines at the beginning of the play. From left to right; Miranda Marvin, Arthur Mollett, me, Adam Brett.

Above: The Two Hannahs - Hannah Ledwith and Hannah Thompson as Burleigh and Elizabeth I - another of my many tasks was to dress a bushy 80's ginger wig to look like Elizabeth I's hairstyle. It took several hours, about 200 bobby-pins, and a shitload of hairspray.

Above: The battle of the Armada; What Ben wanted for this scene was for us to be carrying actual model ships. He set us making these, and then left for an hour or so. After hours of trying, we had not even half a ship, which looked shit. I made some sails ready for the ships, and we all agreed that these looked pretty good, and gave the idea of ships without actually having shit papier mache models of ships to carry around (and break, likely as not). We also found that under certain lighting conditions, the shadows on the back of the stage of the sails looked like a fleet of ships, and if the people holding the sails swayed from side to side, as if on the sea, then it looked REALLY impressive! We were very excited about this but a little worried that Ben wouldn't agree. So we ambushed him when he got back with our idea, and it turns out we were needlessly worried, because all he said was "Ok, cool. Now what's next?"

Above: Me (can't actually remember the name of this character, but I had 2 days to learn the lines, and in a scottish accent too, because someone left) and Hannah Thompson as Elizabeth I. I never realised my face was so malleable.

Anna Stumpf-Condry as the French Queen in her big speech. Behind her: Hugenos (or Catholics - can't remember which). Another task I took on (I just love to be busy!) was to finish sewing the crosses onto the tabards, as time was getting short and Sarah had to take the baby home, and I was the only other person who knew how to use a sewing machine. You can see me in the middle of the row there - I'm the only one who's tabard seems to be wonky (typical).

The bath scene - an initially embarrassing but eventually fun scene full of misunderstandings, where the Laundress Tilly Boom (me) rushes about collecting items of clothing for Elizabeth and the Archbishop (Miranda Marvin) - the audience can only see the shadows, and it all looks and sounds very, very wrong. It was a very hard scene to stage, especially as the two characters have to emerge when the curtain goes up fully-dressed with nothing falling off and nothing coming undone. The bath was practically the only thing that was made that I didn't make (I was busy with the ship sails at the time) - Hannah and Miranda made it and they were extremely proud of it (and no-wonder too it looks fabulous!)

Me (Tilly Boom) in the same scene as previous. They got me to do my native North Yorkshire accent for this scene - I think this is the play in which I had the most different accents too!

The aforementioned bath - now you can see why they were so proud of it! Left to right: Aliette, Hannah, me (blurred), Miranda, and Becky Lewis.

Here's the Review by John Roth December 2008 - Not the best review we've had, but you take the good with the bad, and there's some good things in there about the lighting and staging etc:

We've had an abundance of the Tudors lately, so we should all be "clued up" about 16th Century England, as we see a group of strolling players perform their version of QE1 on a Street Corner. It is, as the programme told us, American author Paul Foster's own "very special take". I am not sure what that means, since it appeared a burlesque - a mock-serious commentary, which is one definition of the word, on Elizabeth I (at least up to 1588), but it did not seem to develop Elizabeth's character over-much, so I am not sure exactly what it was trying to do, but mine not to reason why, but to look at the finished product, and see what came about.

Whatever Mr. Foster's intention was, how should it be played? Presumably "mock" and "serious"- logically both, but there you have the problem as to what is real and what is being burlesqued - are we looking at real people, or the author's commentary on them, as portrayed by the strolling players? Moving on from that, do I look at the actors in the context of the roles they were portraying? I think I have to: "All the World's a Stage" after all, and the production switched between reality and burlesque/comedy, but the joins were uncomfortable in places.

However, I'll start with the credits, and there were many: a fast-moving, superbly staged and choreographed production by Ben Davies, some stunning lighting - the silhouette scene in particular, earning a well-deserved round on the night I was there - well chosen music, a sparse decor, with a chess-set floor (political manoeuvres in the 16th Century?). The cast's enthusiasm and discipline was most noticeable, so was the ensemble playing, and my congratulations go to everyone who popped in and out of differing 16th Century characters so slickly and so well.

When I come to performances, I have to return to my question of what the play was trying to do. It is almost impossible to comment on everyone, since there were so many doubles in small roles, and little or no chance to develop any character, but cameos were very much in evidence, so I really have no choice but to commit my observations to the major roles. There were three outstanding realistic performances. First and foremost, Rowan D'Albert as Leicester. Rowan has a commanding presence, is strong and commanding in his delivery, and was totally believable in his characters (he doubled as the Lord Mayor). I must express admiration for his final, colossal speech, taken at full flood, which should have merited a Round in itself.

Then, Antony Antunes as Philip II - same accolades. The fervour and bigotry which Philip possessed, although lampooned, in this play, still came across, and told most strongly. Finally, Hannah Ledwith as Burleigh, who strongly made her mark in a rather fragmented, but telling, part. Again, she has presence and command. These are actors to watch.

However, their undoubted strengths made me question the other leading roles; the above players gave us Elizabethan England, but elsewhere I felt there was a confliction of acting styles, and an intrusion of modernity, which brings me to two of the Queens.

There is no doubt in my mind that Hannah Thompson (Elizabeth) and Anna Stumpf-Condry (Catherine de Medici) are very capable actresses, Hannah in particular having a nice throw-away touch, and some good comic timing; both possessing a regal and commanding presence, especially Anna, (but I worried about her skittish entrances, which she was obviously required to do, but I couldn't see the reason for them). Once those were over, she convinced me, as the "bete noire" of the Valois Court with Medici craft.

However, vocal command was not as it surely should have been, by both Queens, but particularly in the Armada sequence, when I sensed that burlesque had become reality. Elizabeth's final speech before the curtain must surely be stronger than it was. Hannah gave us splendid reminiscences of Miranda Richardson, but, whilst acceptable en route, it is, in the end, superficial and Hannah was not allowed to go further to the point where we get to "I am Gloriana"; otherwise, why is the play called "Elizabeth I?"

Was this a Directorial lapse? I feel so. The programme according to Mr. Foster, stated that she emerges from her father's shadow as "Gloriana Personified". That, for me, did not happen, and I saw little, if anything, in the text to justify this, so I do not criticise Hannah in this respect, but I came away thinking that Mr. Davies had presented a highly entertaining evening, which I would not have missed, but he had not probed as deeply as perhaps he could have done, and had moreover not moved Elizabeth in particular to a convincing climax, so as to give us that personification with which the play must surely end. Then, the epilogue, as spoken by Elizabeth, becomes a summing-up of her, and her era, to its crisis point in 1587/88. This last was a draw-back of emotion, and, again, I wanted more. To use a Victorian term, it is jingoistic, but not to play it as such threatens anti-climax, and the curtain came down somewhat unsatisfactorily in this respect.

This has been a difficult review to write, and I may be misconstruing Mr. Davies' and the play's intentions, but there were no "passengers" in this production. Everyone made a contribution and the sense of enjoyment in so doing was most noticeable. Having seen, and indeed reviewed, several YAT shows, I continue to be optimistic and enthusiastic with what I have experienced What I am chiefly convinced of is a plethora of talent and commitment. YAT has done great things: they will assuredly go on to greater horizons.

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