Friday 9 April 2010

Elizabeth: Almost by chance a woman ***

Elizabeth: Almost by chance a woman 
Adapted from Dario Fo by Luke Devenish & Louise Fox, Malthouse Theatre
Merlin Theatre, Malthouse, April 8 to 24, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Italian satirist, Dario Fo, would be delighted with Julie Forsyth’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in this adaptation of his play, Elizabeth: Almost By Chance a Woman. Forsyth’s idiosyncratic comic style, clown face and husky, childlike voice always please and surprise audiences.

Fo is an exceptional, eccentric, comic performer and playwright who skilfully blends scathing political satire, Commedia dell’Arte and literary, cultural and linguistic allusions.

Forsyth revels in the grotesqueness of Elizabeth in her final years. She is old, ugly, tattered, incontinent, foul-mouthed and confused, tottering in corsets and gaudy gowns, avoiding her ravaged image.

Fo portrays Elizabeth as an addled, vain, childish despot, ignorant of the political state of her realm, pining for her lover, the Earl of Essex, unwilling to believe that he plots against her, and obsessing that Shakespeare satirises her in his plays.

Michael Kantor’s production diverges from Fo’s script, which relies significantly on Fo’s own improvisational style, quirky gibberish (known as “gramelot”) and huge personality. Fo, in the original Italian and its better translations, is complex, intellectually challenging and farcical. He adds scatological language, cunningly wrought social commentary, convoluted lingo, current political and artistic references and Shakespeare quotes.

Kantor uses an adaptation (Luke Devenish, Louise Fox) that loses much of Fo’s magic and feels more vulgar than clever. The role played originally by Fo, Donna Grozetta, sees Bille Brown in panto dame costume as the overbearing, offensive, gibberish-speaking cosmetician employed to fix Elizabeth’s ugly visage. Some of his/her absurd babble is funny and clever, using rhymes, spoonerisms, slang, coarse language and mangled quotations. She dubs Essex the Earl of ”Yes Sex” and the audience “mockwits”.

The production lacks the physicality of European clown and the controlled, insane absurdity of a Fo production. Chris Ryan, as Elizabeth’s Fool, is most effective when singing, but his clown lacks comic physicality. Nikki Shiels misses the potential comedy of the maidservant, while David Woods plays Egerton, the palace conspirator, with comical restraint, having fun with his interminable political monologue.

The introduction of Shakespeare (Brown) is confusing and ineffective. The play might be better served leaving him as an off stage character and relying on quoting his royal characters that so enrage Elizabeth.

Mark Jones’ music is a welcome addition. Anna Cordingley’s design and costumes are inspiring and Paul Jackson’s lighting creates a magical world. However the production seems overblown and lacks cohesion despite Forsyth’s wonderfully mad performance.

By Kate Herbert