Saturday, 20 September 2014

Theatre review: The Woman in the Moon

The Elizabethans were big believers in Astrology, and Shakespeare often has characters stop and bemoan the influence of celestial bodies on their lives. John Lyly, thought to have been a big influence on Shakespeare, had gone one step further in The Woman in the Moon, in which they take a very hands-on interest in the plot. It's a sort of alternative creation myth, where four shepherds (Joel Davey, Rhys Bevan, James Askill and Robert Heard) have seen the sorts of things their sheep get up to and complain to Nature (Julia Sandiford) about the lack of any human females so they can join in the fun. So Nature creates the first woman, Pandora (Bella Heesom.) She may have done a bit too good a job though, as the stars and planets resent the appearance of something as luminous as themselves on Earth. They resolve to use their very different influences on her, taking turns to affect her moods until both Pandora and her various suitors have been driven to distraction.

In addition to all that planetary influence, there's the fact that there's only one woman and four shepherds - plus Pandora's own servant Gunophilus (James Thorne,) who's not impervious to her charms either. The stage is set for quite a frantic sex comedy.

With that in mind, James Wallace's production turns out to be a rather family-friendly affair. It's got charm to spare and is consistently lovable but never feels as if it lets go. After the influence of the Sun (Timothy George) sees Pandora settle into contented wedded bliss with Stesias (Davey,) Venus (Laurel Devenie) turns up to make her uncontrollably horny; then Mercury (Théo Kingshott) spreads gossip about all the shagging around she's been doing, setting the shepherds against one another in scenes that may have inspired parts of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

If you're uncontrollably aroused by knitwear, this is the show for you.

The play is being staged at the Rose Bankside, which is essentially the observation platform over the archaeological dig of the Elizabethan Rose. The production makes some really lovely use of the dark pit that provides the backdrop to the stage, David Menuer-Palmer's lighting design putting colourful lampshades around the dig to create an impression of the Utopia where the story takes place.

Overall this is a really enjoyable evening, but one where the restrictions of a low-budget fringe production are particularly apparent; Heesom is really good and grows into her role, but I wished she'd had time to find a really distinct performance style for each influence Pandora falls under. In general I wished the show could have had the space and the rehearsal time to really cut loose and throw itself into the silliness and rudeness of the play. But given its restrictions this is an admirable attempt to bring back a rather odd little play, and kudos to Wallace for rescuing Lyly from obscurity in the first place.

The Woman in the Moon by John Lyly is booking until the 4th of October at the Rose Theatre, Bankside.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

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