My complaint about tragedies at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse so far has been the productions’ frustrating collective failure to realise that this is a space in which less can be more. In what seems to me to be a lack of confidence in the work of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the tendency has been to ramp up both the graphic violence and the gallows humour, working hard for hilarity and affect at the expense of subtlety. The Broken Heart, John Ford’s rarely staged masterpiece, is a much quieter piece than many of the other plays so far performed, and while Caroline Steinbeis’s production still slipped into the easy traps, the play made a fine case for the theatre’s potential for quiet.
The Broken Heart deals in Roman stoicism, and the production combined Roman robes and weapons with Renaissance ruffs to capture the dual historic resonances. As such, the production had a distinctive atmosphere, flavoured by the incense of Peter Hamilton Dyer’s soothsayer-like Tecnicus and the Mediterranean twangs of Jon Banks’s instruments. Rather than showing off the possibilities of candlelight, a subtle use of the chandeliers kept the production in a state of near-darkness, and there was much less obvious mugging with the audience except when the context lent itself (most hysterically as Brian Ferguson’s Orgilus carried out a ‘conversation’ with an audience member while hiding from his sister in the garden).
At its best, the production handled the play’s complex characters (this being a rare play in which few characters are entirely above reproach or entirely reprehensible) with care and tact. There was still a tendency to exaggerate a key characteristic in each – Orgilus his vindictive glee, Bassanes his foppish foolery, Ithocles his smug pride – but without reducing them to stock figures. This allowed the action of the play to move fluidly and for characters to rotate without any coming to dominate, making this a fascinating ensemble piece.
Several minor characters were cut, leaving an odd instance where the aggressive and unsuccessful wooing techniques of two soldiers to two women were transposed onto Prophilus and Euphrania as a prelude to their wooing in a garden. Yet this worked extremely well, setting up a playful and teasing relationship that Orgilus was only too happy to eventually approve (though with no small amount of sarcastic backbiting). Thalissa Teixeira was particularly compelling as Orgilus’ sister, establishing a loving but equal relationship with her brother and with Prophilus, while also acting as support for Princess Calantha. Tom Stuart’s Prophilus was upright and somewhat oafish, but basically decent. Their rejection of Orgilus at the play’s conclusion was affecting, Prophilus spitting at his brother-in-law’s feet.
Ferguson, as Orgilus, was the glue that held the production together. His affable Scottish brogue kept Orgilus’ confessions alternately light and plaintive, moving from sadness to careless asides with ease. He was best in the early scenes as he established audience rapport and commented mercilessly on the more hapless characters; once returned to court in his own person, the performance became more unhinged, and his impolitic treatment of Ithocles at the betrothal of his sister jarred. However, his death was staged mesmerisingly, capturing the play’s stoicism perfectly. Cords tied him to the door of the tiring house, and he grasped two poles with basins at their bottom. As he slit his wrists and allowed the blood to flow, the Playhouse was deathly still, creating a moment of marvel at an end faced so calmly.
A lack of attention to stoicism was the production’s downfall at other times, however. The gleeful jumping up and down of Ferguson after the entrapment of Ithocles in his mechanical chair felt crass, while Ithocles’ sneering sarcasm played (for me) against the endurance of his lines. Instead, the scene went for high emotion and lots of blood, when this could have been a much quieter moment between two people with a certain amount of mutual respect. Luke Thompson was strong as Ithocles. While perhaps he aimed too much for comedy in his over-eager befriending of Orgilus and his occasional belligerence, he maintained the care of the character and was particularly strong in his bursts of outrage at being disregarded for his class. He died with dignity, despite the blood filling his mouth.
More calamitous, to my mind, was Sarah MacRae’s Calantha. In her early scenes MacRae was keen to show the fun side of the character, particularly her peals of laughter as she trapped Euphrasia with Prophilus, and her quiet scene with Amy Morgan’s Penthea was subtly done. But for some reason, this production seemed to want to make its women ridiculous, most obviously in a horrific dance sequence to start the second half where the women moved as wind-up dolls, waving, jerking sexually and bowing in jagged movements. This was revisited during the climactic dance sequence where, as Calantha received the disastrous reports of deaths, she began dancing wildly and out of control, faster, more fragmented and more breathless while everyone stared in concern. To my mind this works entirely against a text which suggests that Calantha shows no visible reaction at this point, and thus ruined the stoicism that prompts the harsh shock of her broken heart in the following scene.
I more generally hated the choreography throughout, including yet another overly aggressive and loud ‘jig’ (and one which was both joyless and ecstatic, depending on which actor’s face you looked at). The final scene had a lovely conceit, however, in which an impressive breastplate, wings and skirt was lowered from the ceiling for Calantha to place herself in, while the corpse of Ithocles stood next to her. This made for a beautiful image as the two stood together holding hands while her heart cracked, and while it rather limited what MacRae could do, her static quality once again brought the production to a moment of important stillness.
Owen Teale did excellent work as Bassanes, although I felt the character was treated far more comically than was effective – to perform his murderous claims of incest as ridiculous rather undermined the importance of that scene for severing the relationship between he and Ithocles. Yet in the play’s second half, Bassanes’ depression and devastation reprieved the character, he bringing the gravity in commentary that kept the tone serious. I had far more problems with Morgan’s Penthea in terms of inappropriate comedy: for the first act, her entire performance was built around eye-rolling and sarcasm. The character isn’t Beatrice, and while Morgan established an air of superiority, it left her nowhere to go. Her scene of madness was strong, but there was little of the sense of increasing weakness that accompanied her starvation, reducing for me the effect of the character’s onstage decline. On the other hand, playing Nearchus as Lord Flashheart, as Joe Jameson did, was spectacularly funny and made a huge deal of sense of this over-confident (but ultimately benevolent) suitor.
The rest of the cast did fine work, and the production did a wonderful job in making the play clear. But as with the other tragedies staged in the Playhouse so far, the play was much, much weaker when trying to overstate the comedy and arch elements, and best when sincere and straight. Orgilus’ death was a fine example of how much can be achieved with a moment of stillness, and hopefully as directors get more confident in the theatre, they will trust more to the subtlety of these moments.