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Wilde: illusion and undoing

Jonathan Marshall

Eleventh Hour Theatre Company, “...yet each man kills the thing he loves” Eleventh Hour Theatre Company, “...yet each man kills the thing he loves”
photo Ponch Hawkes
Stephen Sondheim has the venomous, working class protagonist of Sweeney Todd sneer: “There’s a hole in the world/ like a great black pit.…./ and it’s filled with people who are filled with shit/ and it goes by the name of London.” Although the dramaturgy of directors/adaptors Anne Thompson and William Henderson is far from Sondheim’s melodrama, Todd’s evocative pronouncement would be an apt introduction to Eleventh Hour’s entwining of An Ideal Husband with The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

After entering the old church hall that is the Eleventh Hour Theatre, the audience turns to face a great, grey cloaca opening onto a murky, patterned floor, across which the sewer’s noisome contents have been vomited—performers, spectators and all. The uncluttered, cream walls and isolated, draped set-pieces dotting the space create the impression of almost heavenly cleanliness, but this is an illusion, resting uncomfortably atop moral sludge. Even this grotesque surface is not without beauty though. Like the blood red flowers that sprout amidst Genet’s poetry, pools of glassy piss are here transformed into golden-hued mirrors, which reflect all the beauty and ugliness of those who walk upon them.

Mary Moore’s design encapsulates the production’s dramaturgy. Oscar Wilde’s at times greyly satiric comedy An Ideal Husband has a strong sense of ‘upstairs/downstairs’, of great moral probity and luxury resting a breath away from hideous reversal into venality and ruin. This undercurrent is rendered in grand scale by juxtaposing scenes from An Ideal Husband with readings from Wilde’s rhythmically unrelenting, tragic ode The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Performer Christopher Brown marches unassumingly yet powerfully out of the pipe’s mouth, and the apparently light feeling of the drawing room space is transformed into a frail conceit. As a well-to-do husband tries to retain his moral renown and hide a single act of youthful corruption, it is clear that he, but for the grace of God, could be the condemned man moving funereally through the mire of prison and poverty. Thompson and Henderson do not so much add something novel to Wilde’s approach (Lady Windermere’s Fan is equally fraught yet light, after all) as deepen this theme through a dramaturgy rich in metaphor, musicality and dialectic contrasts. Where Brown himself barely speaks during The Ballad, his social betters fill the air with fine but superficial talk. Brown is muscular, low and close to the earth, while the others are upright, poised, effete. The staging thus enhances the sense of honour embodied in the guilty, condemned murderer. At least his strong brutality was honest.

The relatively spare, unadorned staging also enriches the impression of theatrical deus ex machina central to Wilde’s theatrical style. Letters and doors become powerful instruments of intrigue and undoing, of action and import. Through them secrets are learnt or from behind them a dizzying assortment of entrances and exits are executed, crisscrossing the space with tension and wit like ribbons from a maypole. By investing so heavily in such small but crucial details, Henderson, Thompson and Moore build a haven for audiences seeking a poetic theatre based in the spoken word.

Eleventh Hour, “...yet each man kills the thing he loves”: The Ballad of Reading Gaol with An Ideal Husband, direction/dramaturgy Anne Thompson, William Henderson, design Mary Moore, lighting Niklas Pajanti, performers David Tredinnick, Fiona Todd, Christen O’Leary, Miria Kostiuk, Marco Chiappi, Christopher Brown, Richard Bligh; Eleventh Hour Theatre, Nov 14-Dec 6, 2003

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 42

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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