THE SHATTERED VESSEL
Riverside Studios, London W6
Opened 19 April, 1996

Heinrich von Kleist's 1806 play was staged by Northern Broadsides last year as a rumbustious Yorkshire set-to, under the title The Cracked Pot. Roger Ringrose's version for his company News From Verona is less ebullient, and conventional almost to the point of archaism the expletives of Ringrose's unscrupulous, incompetent Judge Adam sound more often than not to be couched in decorous early-1950s stage euphemism. As with the text, so with the production: it is able and entertaining but less than extraordinary.

Kleist's parody of the myth of the Fall is a gentle one: it is Judge Adam who tempts young, betrothed Eve into unfaithfulness (a temptation she understandably resists) and is unmasked as the miscreant who broke her mother's vase when his club-footed prints in the snow are mistaken for those of the Devil himself. This framework does little to inform what is effectively a rural courtroom comedy, as Judge Adam goes to ever greater and more ludicrous lengths to prevent his misdeeds from discovery by the visiting High Court official Magistrate Walter Sam Parks taking full advantage of his lanky frame to look down on the proceedings, and walking as if extricating himself from a cowpat at every step. As Adam, Ringrose tries to combine shambling, simian unpleasantness with a delivery which at times sounds like Anthony Hopkins playing Richard III; it is an odd blend, but luckily is not taken far enough to unbalance the production.

Tim Marchant's direction is more than competent but less than subtle, giving full rein to Rosalind Lewis's garrulous caricature mother and even pitching the occasional witness's testimony straight out to the audience, a clumsy stroke accentuated by the broad, shallow playing space of the Riverside's third studio. Sean Jones has some nice moments of low-key self-consciousness as Eve's unjustly accused fiancé Ruprecht, and Philip Ayckbourn refrains from overplaying the smugness of Judge Adam's clerk Licht, but the production as a whole never acquires either momentum or a distinct identity.

This is exacerbated by Marchant's use of shadowplay to furnish a prologue, epilogue and a handful of interpolations while the case is heard. The sequences are well executed, but add nothing other than a few minutes of gimmickry. In addition, staging the play without an interval may be in accordance with Kleist's own original intention, but 100 minutes without intermission in a studio theatre which is among the least comfortable and probably the stuffiest in London is a trial of another kind.

As a company, News From Verona have coherent intentions and a generous modicum of collective ability. However, they are unlikely to make much of a mark with undistinguished, unambitious productions such as this.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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