Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Review: 'Shakespeare's Queens: She-Wolves and Serpents'

Straylight Australia, Adelaide Fringe Festival, Bakehouse Theatre, 27 February - 17 March 2012. Written by William Shakespeare and Rachel Ferris, directed by Roz Riley.
After a successful season of Shakespeare’s Mothers in 2011, the UK’s Straylight Australia revisit the Adelaide Fringe with Shakespeare’s Queens. The format is unchanged, the Bard himself returned from the dead to narrate a sort of hit parade of some of his most notable female characters.
            It’s a beautifully simple conceit which, despite the show’s brevity, allows for tantalising glimpses into many of Shakespeare’s worlds, from Lear’s crumbling empire, to the bloody intrigues of the Roman tragedies, to the treachery and lechery of the courts of Henry VIII and Richard III.
            Rachel Ferris and playwright Kath Perry play the queens, Patrick Trumper Shakespeare and everybody else. Simple props and swift, uncomplicated costume changes delineate the shifts between plays and characters. Trumper, with silky-smooth delivery and an omnipresent twinkle in the eye, expertly anchors the show. Perry provides more than able support as, in addition to her host of Shakespeare’s queens, Elizabeth I whose robust exchanges with the Bard cleverly and amusingly point towards the complex relationships which existed between the Elizabethan monarchs and the playwrights of their day. Ferris gives a less assured performance, often overplaying the metatextual banter between her Queen of Scots and Perry’s Elizabeth I. She is better at the Shakespearean stuff and, like Perry, is able to put a variety of accomplished accents to good use.
            The excellence of Perry’s script is perhaps, however, what really ensures the success of Shakespeare’s Queens. It’s no mean feat to adequately, let alone wittily, prĂ©cis sixteen of Shakespeare’s plays in sixty minutes but Perry’s text achieves this. She manages, also, to strike the right balance between reverence and playfulness, important considering that most of the queens here hail from the histories and tragedies and almost all meet decidedly unpleasant ends.
The trajectory from King Lear’s Queens (driven mad by jealousy and bitterness, then poisoned or suicided) to Titus Andronicus’s Tamora (stabbed to death, having unwittingly feasted on the remains of her own children) is not, to say the least, a happy one but there is more than enough levity in the between-scene jousting to ensure that the darkness is held at bay when it needs to be. Like a good hits compilation, too, Shakespeare’s Queens is skilfully sequenced, creating some lovely, and dramatically necessary, contrasts in mood and colour.
            If there is one overriding problem with Shakespeare’s Queens, it is that its piecemeal nature makes one crave for a play in its entirety. It’s a good problem to have. This is bite-sized theatre at its most enticing.

An edited version of this review originally appeared in dB Magazine, 7 March 2012.

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