Thursday, 10 January 2013

Theatre review: Fiesco

There's always a number of big theatrical events, often featuring star names, on the horizon in London to look forward to. Those of us with less West End-centric tastes though can get equally excited about the return of lesser-known artists whose work we've enjoyed in the past. If you're a listener to the podcast I often contribute to, you might have heard me plug as one of my fringe tips for 2013 the latest repertory season from The Faction, the classics company with a minimalist, highly physical aesthetic, and a particular fondness for Friedrich Schiller. And it's to the German playwright they turn again for the first of three new productions, and their continuing ambition to write and stage new translations of his complete works. Which this year leads to a surprising claim, given that Schiller isn't entirely obscure: That this is the UK premiere of Fiesco, not seen in English since it was written in 1783.

The play proves tricksy, but not to the point of explaining how it fell through the cracks to such an extent. With the Duke of Genoa now 80 years old, the frightening prospect of his corrupt nephew Gianettino (Gareth Fordred) taking power on his death starts rumblings of revolt. Verrina (Alexander Guiney) wants to oust the Duke and establish a republic, but needs a powerful figurehead for his rebellion. If he could give up his hedonistic ways, the wealthy and much-loved Count Fiesco (Richard Delaney) would be ideal. But when he does join the rebels' machinations, Fiesco realises that if they succeed in getting rid of the current rulers, instead of sharing power he could as easily take it for himself.

Mark Leipacher directs his own and Daniel Millar's translation, and the production once again has his company's trademark clean modern approach. The story is a convoluted web of intrigues, seductions, plots and counter-plots, and as such clarity of storytelling is essential, and very much in evidence. Although the structure of the play itself presents problems like an emotional climax that comes too early (steady) Leipacher deals with it admirably and makes for a story that draws you into its intrigues. The use of physical theatre is clever and appropriately used most of the time, although I found a scene of Fordred doubling as Gianettino and his elderly uncle and having a conversation with himself to be drawing attention to the staging's cleverness in a way the rest of the production doesn't do, as well as slowing down the action unnecessarily, and as such it didn't work for me.

Some comic relief is provided by the relationship between Fiesco and his henchman Hassan (Anna-Maria Nabirye,) which nicely encapsulates the story's deceits as Hassan was originally sent to assassinate Fiesco, only to quickly turn to his service when the Count makes him a better offer. Nabirye and Laura Freeman as Fiesco's wife Leonora are the only new faces to the Faction in an ensemble that's almost identical to last year's, and it's at working as a single unit that the company excels, most of the cast usually hanging around in the background complementing the main action. (The production is on a bare stage, and on those occasions when only one or two actors are left onstage Martin Dewar's lighting plays a major part in helping create the play's world.)

Individual characterisation is not quite as strong as it could be though (never one of the company's biggest strengths, I'll be interested to see how it affects their first foray into Chekhov next week.) And though there's plenty of political passion on show, there's not much sexual chemistry to be seen, and I felt its absence in a story where seductions are political tools, rapes the spur for rebellion and Leonora's fidelity to her husband treated as a wacky eccentricity.

The characters' sap rises as we near the conclusion but I would have liked to see some of the passion earlier, to have got to know the relationships that get betrayed. But in what's an ambitious project to take on at this kind of scale this is a great start, with some memorable tableaux and nothing to suggest the play deserved to languish for so long.

Fiesco by Friedrich Schiller in a version by Daniel Millar and Mark Leipacher is booking in repertory until the 23rd of February at the New Diorama Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

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