Theatre Royal, Bath
Opened 16 March, 2006

Silviu Purcarete’s production for the National Theatre Marin Sorescu (one of the international highlights of the Bath Shakespeare Festival just ended, and next month to be one of the domestic centrepieces of a similar event in the company’s Romanian home town of Craiova) is the sort of rum affair that could easily become supremely annoying. Purcarete locates the action within an empty library, lit in brass tones as if by a low-riding winter sun; its glass-fronted bookcases are devoid of books or even shelves, but bizarrely surmounted by crowds of garden gnomes.

He introduces notes of incomprehensibility, such as why Viola would ever fall for the middle-aged, pot-bellied, arse-groping version of Count Orsino on show here. There are strokes of contrariness: at the first meeting à deux between “Cesario” (as Viola calls herself in young man’s disguise) and the lady Olivia whom she woos on Orsino’s behalf, not only is Feste the jester now present, but he is given a handful of each interlocutor’s lines. Some moments are simply bonkers, as when the lovestruck Olivia appears halfway up a mirrored wall, writhing in auto-erotic frenzy like the filthy granddaughter of 1960s TV comic Harry Worth.

Nevertheless, the production carries us along with its inscrutable flow. Purcarete considers this comedy to be about madness; my impression was more that of a kind of dream-logic in which the known (be it the waking world or the familiar text) is given a quarter-turn off true. To get through the play in barely two hours including interval, the Romanian script has been not so much cut as concertina’d: only one or two exchanges are missing, but every ten lines have been folded into six. Not every note of Shakespeare gets fully sounded, but the blend of fidelity and innovation is such as to entertain old hands and illuminate set-text college parties.

The evening ends with a novel way of acknowledging the darker, minor-key strain in the play’s dénouement. The unjustly imprisoned sea-captain Antonio is left onstage, bound head to toe in a bedsheet with parcel tape, blindly guided through the curtain calls by shoves to his head but never steered off afterwards, a continuing mute testimony to the blend of cruelty and absurdity that is Purcarete’s take on Shakespearean madness.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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