Sunday, 19 October 2014

Theatre review: The Massacre at Paris

Surviving only in a short, probably bastardised version that sounds not unlike Hamlet's Bad Quarto, The Massacre at Paris sees Christopher Marlowe treat Catholics with much the same tact and sensitivity as he did Jews. Based on very recent French history that would have still been gossiped about when it premiered, it sees a marriage between Catholic Princess Margaret (Ella Road) and Protestant Henry of Navarre (Rhys Bevan) as only the pretense of reconciliation between the warring nobles. In fact it riles hardline Catholics so much they plot a bloody massacre of Protestants, but this isn't enough for the power-hungry Duke of Guise (John Gregor) and Queen Mother (Kristin Milward.) They dispatch with the King and Queen and install child-king Henry III (James Askill) as a puppet ruler. But as he gets older Henry has his own style of ruling that's less than pious, so Guise continues his plotting to get power into his own hands once and for all.

Basically, The Massacre at Paris makes Titus Andronicus look squeamish, with barely a couple of minutes going past between bloodshed, as well as a few more devious murders (death by poisoned gloves!) that no doubt gave John Webster some ideas.

In a low-budget production in a small space, rivers of blood might have been tricky, so James Wallace comes up with the conceit of having red confetti representing it, and between that being coughed up and that spewing from wounds, the stage ends up carpeted in the stuff. The conceit allows Wallace to make fun of it with a couple of little visual gags - Guise coming out of the shower toweling off blue confetti is a subtle touch; the scene with the yellow confetti less so, but very funny.

Faced with a play that's considered incomplete, and is relentlessly, comically bloodthirsty, Wallace has opted to embrace the play's ridiculous side with a production that feels like a mix of Hammer Horror and Tarantino (one particularly bonkers scene no doubt inspired the latter touch, as an intruder's ear is cut off, then sold back to him.) It works, although it would have worked better with a bit of a zippier pace; scene changes are tricky in this space but more frequent use of the music that sometimes blares over them might have kept the energy levels up. And I'm not entirely sure that Gregor, with his ponderous delivery, was quite in on the joke.

But the show's silly aesthetic turns into all-out camp as Henry surrounds himself with male courtiers including Neal Gavyn's Joyeaux in his leather codpiece. Gavyn, along David Vaughan-Knight, also plays a soldier in a very comically gory scene that's one of the highlights. If it was a bit slicker Wallace's production would have been better, but it certainly can't be accused of not having fun with the much-maligned material, even using the archaeological site in the background as the scene for some of its murders.

The Massacre at Paris by Christopher Marlowe is booking until the 26th of October at the Rose Theatre, Bankside.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

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