Blood Wedding, together with The Bacchae, form the first two thirds of this year’s major “Made in Northampton” highlight, the Festival of Chaos, which is also part of the Cultural Olympiad’s London 2012 Festival. This is no mean achievement, and one of which the Royal and Derngate can truly be proud. The plays (including Hedda Gabler coming later this summer) are Artistic Director Laurie Sansom’s three all time favourites in the whole of drama; so I expect we will see a large dose of his special magic in these productions.
Certainly his creative footprints are all over Blood Wedding. The cast work together as a superb ensemble, which I’ve found is the absolute hallmark of his directing style, and the play has a generally stylised and cultured feel to it. I think Mr Sansom even sneaks into the cast himself as the disembodied voice of the news broadcast on TV. The production has a versatile and useful set – I particularly admired the upstairs landing in the wedding scenes, which seems to exist without any side access – and the whole show is sensibly and properly lit. Dougal Irvine’s specially composed score is frankly gorgeous, played live by a gifted quartet in the orchestra pit, and I could imagine myself seeing the show again, simply to re-experience the music.
The play of course is like a 20th century Spanish Shakespeare – a classic tragedy, which lends itself to all sorts of modernisation and adapting. Lorca’s masterpiece was first staged in 1932 but like Shakespeare its themes of nature, fate and revenge are timeless and can fit in any era, any place. This production is set “sometime in the near future”; a rather surreal world where TV reception is still tenuous, hospital receptionists don’t speak to you until you’ve taken a numbered ticket from the pull-off machine, and you still wash using a Victorian style jug and bowl.
The surrealism is further emphasised in the language. Like much of Shakespeare, the rhythms of the verse lend their own atmosphere, which comes across to good effect in Australian Tommy Murphy’s adaptation. It’s set in southern Spain, but the actors use English North Country accents; and Tommy Murphy includes some down under phrases to the text. “No worries” and “Good-oh” have become reasonably universal but when Leonardo’s wife says she bought something “on special” (instead of “in a sale”) and he describes distances in “klicks”, you are definitely on Terra Australiana. I’m not sure if that was a deliberate ploy or just an accident of idiom; together with all the mother’s anxieties about dust on shoes this could just as easily be the Outback as Andalucia. It all contributes to an intrigue of displacement.
This is extremely stirring drama. From the moment the tale starts to unfold you are locked in. Kathryn Pogson’s Mother, berating Liam Bergin’s Groom about his choice of bride-to-be and her enduring resentment over the Felix family is all very recognisable. Indeed, Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw elements in this opening scene of our very own blood wedding almost 25 years ago; and when the mother finally meets the bride and her father on their own territory, you sense it has all the makings of an acrimonious Scouse wedding reception. (If you’ve ever attended one of those, you’ll know what I mean.) Kathryn Pogson is scarily convincing as a woman just hanging on to her wits, who is emotionally and psychologically scarred by the death of the men in her family, who faces the prospect of her only remaining son leaving her, who scrambles around for reasons to hate her prospective daughter in law, and who wallows in a general disdain for the wider Felix family. Liam Bergin too is excellent as the resolute son toiling on the land all day (partly to get away from his mother, you suspect), exuding a dapper confidence on his wedding day and embodying heroism in his determination to track down the swine who has nicked his bride.
They are well matched by the pairing of Ery Nzaramba as Leonardo and Amanda Wilkin as his wife. Bitter with his home life, Mr Nzaramba’s Leonardo can barely disguise his loathing for his wife, and gives a great portrayal of someone who is hurting as much as he hurts. The audience should detest him for the way he treats his wife, but his emotionally subtle performance makes your response much more complex. He has a great stage presence in his first scene, when you feel he could lash out with considerable violence at any minute; but this is nicely reigned in for the wedding scene, where he fades remarkably into the crowd so that the abduction of the bride comes as a complete surprise (except that I’ve now told you about it.) I thought Amanda Wilkin was fantastic alongside him – treading a fine line between accepting and resenting her lot, gaining our sympathy for her plight without any mawkish demands for it; perceptive, but powerless; another subtle and fascinating performance.
The unusual presentation of the character of The Girl – part Shakespearean Fool, part Greek messenger – as a fully adult male in the shape of Robert Benfield works very well. It fits in comfortably with the general surrealism of the production as a whole and also gives the larger than life character more prominence. When she lets loose a tirade of obscenities it makes more sense than if a genuine little girl had said it, whilst still retaining its shock impact. Every time she makes an entrance, she oozes trouble and portent; and her bloodied appearance after the interval, foretelling the death and destruction to come, makes for a very disturbing image.
The whole cast are excellent, with no weak links at all, but I particularly enjoyed the performances of Rosie Ede as the maid (and particularly as the nosy neighbour), Jim Bywater as the bride’s father – something of a Dickensian self-made man to that characterisation – and Donna Berlin as Leonardo’s mother in law, trying in vain to keep the peace between her warring family. There are some great set piece moments – most notably the machinations at the wedding scene itself, and also later when the wedding party, in pursuit of Leonardo and the bride, enclose and move in on Leonardo and the Groom at their double death scene; that made a very effective and striking tableau. The production takes on the nature themes of the last part of the play – the appearance of the Moon, the living forest, and so on – with some clever modern twists, and the whole vision of the modernised setting holds together extremely well. Despite – or maybe because of – its stylisation, it’s a very engaging production that holds your attention throughout and makes you feel as though you’re witnessing something very special, that magic something that can only happen on a stage.
It was a shame that on the performance we saw, one significant member of the cast got all petulant at curtain call; when the cast moved into the wings before returning for a second call you could see this person mouthing “What, again? Really? Do I have to? Oh for God’s sake” (or the equivalent), returning to the stage with an impatient glare and subsequently hot-footing it back offstage before some members of the cast had even had the time to stand up straight again. Not only did it convey the message to the audience that they didn’t care about how we reacted to the show, it was also disrespectful to their colleagues. A pet hate of mine! I trust it was a stress-induced one-off.