Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Theatre review: The Broken Heart

I'd struggle to explain the plot of The Broken Heart; then again I suspect John Ford would have trouble getting his head round it as well, and he wrote it. The final installment in this year's main Swanamaker season (the Young Players show is still to come,) it sees Orgilus (Brian Ferguson) and Penthea (Amy Morgan) contracted to be married, but when her father dies Penthea's brother Ithocles (Luke Thompson) forces her to marry the much older Bassanes (Owen Teale) instead. Penthea eventually forgives her brother for denying her her true love, but Orgilus never does, and even as they get caught up in numerous other intrigues around the court, nurses a grudge that will end in bloody revenge. Bassanes instantly becomes paranoid about his young bride's faithfulness, and his main fear is that she'll have an incestuous affair with her own brother, because presumably he knows he's in a John Ford play but isn't sure which one.

Meanwhile Ithocles and the princess Calantha (Sarah MacRae) are secretly in love, but as the sole heir to Sparta she's expected to marry the prince of Argos, Nearchus (Joe Jameson.) Although to be fair he's not all that fussed either way.

The Broken Heart isn't a play I had prior knowledge of, so I don't know if Caroline Steinbeis' production is heavily cut or not. Certainly as performed here there's a distinct impression that Ford wasn't entirely paying attention when he wrote it. Orgilus leaves town so he can return in disguise, but he makes his sister Euphrania (Thalissa Teixeira) promise to seek his blessing before choosing a husband, which means he pretty much instantly has to return as himself to approve her marriage to Prophilus (Tom Stuart.) This match is the only one that seems to turn out happily, but otherwise serves no apparent purpose to the story. There's also a prophecy from the Oracle at Delphi, which the characters occasionally remember to get worried about.

Productions at the Swanamaker seem to have a knack for bringing out the comedy in these grisly Jacobean tragedies, but I think Steinbeis might overplay this a bit here. It's possibly a response to the fact that the play barely has a plot, and it accentuates the over-the-top actions and emotions - Max Jones' costume designs are sometimes downright bonkers. But although individual scenes work (Jameson's ad-libbing prince is very odd but funny,) I don't think this approach helps make the play seem any less of a mess.

The most successful moment is in a frenzied dance sequence, when Calantha, confronted with news of numerous tragedies, tips over into madness. I can't say that I was ever bored - this is a strong cast after all, and Ford delivers the ridiculous gothic horror sequences you'd expect from a Jacobean revenge tragedy: A booby-trapped chair, a wedding in which the groom is a stuffed corpse, and a character being offered the chance to choose his own method of execution, and being congratulated by the others on choosing such an original and spectacular one. But as for any of these elements fitting together in any way that makes sense, if it's there the production hasn't found it.

The Broken Heart by John Ford is booking in repertory until the 18th of April at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

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