Presented by Kneehigh Theatre
Written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy
Directed and Adapted by Emma Rice
Designed by Bill Mitchell
Outside the theatre tonight there were a number of white banners on flagpoles. Each banner had a single word on it – war, trust, honour, love and other stirring sentiments. Around the flagpoles were some shallow metal dishes on frames, which were presumably braziers or torches of some kind but looked more like ornate ashtrays and had already attracted the odd cigarette end. I mention these because when I came out of the theatre, the white banners had been replaced with black ones (in keeping with the story).
I first saw a production by the Kneehigh Theatre at the Cottesloe about five years ago, it was a fairly conventional play called The Riot. The next two shows, The Red Shoes and The Bacchae, weren’t. In the first we were treated to an entire shaven-headed cast spending most of their time wearing just Y-fronts and vests – only occasionally putting on clogs. In the second there was a lot of use of sheets of newspaper to make improvised props and costumes were tutus lowered from the fly tower. I may be muddling things up but I’m fairly sure that the Bacchae also featured a number of ladders hung from ropes and pulleys, in such a way that they could be angled and moved.
The ropes and pulleys were back tonight. This time the ropes (three of them) spent much of the time attached to a disc-shaped portion (large enough to hold a person) of the circular stage, in such a way that the disc could be raised up a mast through the disc’s centre. At other times the ropes held character spying on the lovers, a sail for the ship and, most impressively, the lovers as they drunkenly danced – suspended by the wrist - into one another’s arms, under the influence of love potion and alcohol.
When I first entered and saw the band in grey balaclavas, I thought that they might be supposed to be a reminder of chain mail worn by medieval versions of Arthurian knights. It quickly became apparent, as the cast entered and milled about the auditorium, that the balaclavas, blue cagoules (or anoraks), heavily black-framed glasses and the nasal quality of the actors’ voices showed that they were supposed to be spotters of some kind. In this case, love-spotters, observing the story through binoculars and making notes, in the knowledge that they’d never be involved in a love story themselves.
The spotter chorus would occasionally don extra headgear to indicate setting: ‘deely boppers’ with a stars on them for a starry night, the same with beer cans on top for the drunk scene and bushes for a woodland tryst.
The spotter/nerd costumes made it rather difficult to spot the main characters when they were being part of the ensemble rather than the main character (I hope that makes sense). In fact there was a striking difference in the way one actor behaved between playing his main character and being in the ensemble. I’m not saying it was anything special or remarkable, just that I noticed it. The actor in question was Mike Shepherd, one of the founder members of Kneehigh. He has a way of behaving in ensemble that I noticed when I saw him in The Red Shoes and The Bacchae, which drew my attention towards him. It is a sort of deliberate wariness or nervousness in the face of an audience, as if to say ‘don’t stare at me’ while drawing attention towards him. I don’t think that it is intentional attention seeking, it may just be my imagination or the set of his face. The thing is, when he was called on to take off the balaclava and anorak, replace his glasses with fashionable shades and become the King, he was the King. All this may simply be a difference in style between acting with the ‘fourth wall’ up and with it down but I can only say I noticed it.
As might be expected with the cast wandering around the auditorium before the first and second halves there was a fair bit of audience interaction. I have to assume that the spotters were trying to identify and write up lovers on those occasions; I was never close enough or girlfriended enough to hear them properly or attract their attention. If you bought a programme, in addition to a small tube of Love Hearts, you received a balloon that you were asked inflate (without tying a knot in it) and then release to mark the King’s entrance (“I entered to the sound of rapidly deflating balloons). The person sitting next to me disobeyed instructions and knotted their balloon and it spent the interval being batted around the audience with increasing annoyance until someone burst it loudly, eliciting a heart-grip response from (you’ve guessed it) Mike Shepherd. We were instructed in the balloon etiquette by Giles King (a man with pointed sideburns stretching halfway across his cheeks), playing Frocin and he berated a young woman in the audience for not bothering to buy a programme and therefore not having a balloon. He picked on her again when the audience failed to make a good luck toast to the King and Queen but it was all part of the script and not vicious ad-lib.
As well as the odd balloon descending on me from the circle, the audience was leafleted by an invading army (“People of Kernow. Don’t be alarmed” etc.), and in a love scene, silk flower petals were dropped.
The wedding party had a strange and rather joyous dance routine. The most interesting move consisted of the actors holding a leg in the air and kicking it out to the side while slowly rotating.
Something else that I think I remember from the Bacchae was some of the actors breaking into different languages. In that case it was possibly because two of the actors were from different eastern European countries and it had felt right during rehearsal to do it. It might have been the same tonight as the Hungarian actress Eva Magyar said many of her lines in Hungarian (I think) before a discreet hand gesture from the members of the cast caused her to repeat them in English. Tristan Sturrock (who broke his neck last year according to the programme) playing a French Tristan also did many of his lines in French but was only required to translate when it went beyond ‘schoolboy’ vocabulary.
The only other things to mention are the model ships to carried by the actor sailing in it, the small cello that Tristan occasionally carried strapped to his back and which he played like a guitar (across the knee and plucking), and the strange greeting gesture some characters used that a cross between looked like a slow-motion vertical clap and a sedate estimate of a piskie’s height.