Writer: Ben Jonson
Director: Josh Caldicott
When a play hasn’t been performed professionally for nearly 400 years, you have to suspect there may be a reason for that. A little research tells us that it was a critical failure when it was first performed, so it is a bold choice of material for the Sweet Sorrow Theatre Company to perform at the intimate Bear Pit Theatre.
In brief, this is a so-called comedy of humours play, which revolves around the concept that the humours that govern the body may be unbalanced and so one trait comes to dominate its personality or behaviour. Here, Jonson’s characters become so overwhelmed by the one humour that they become essentially caricatures. The plot is extremely convoluted, with a large number of characters – the synopsis in the programme runs to a whole page of print, and is recommended reading before watching the production if you want to stand any chance of following the plot.
From frustration with the vices in the world, Asper stages a play to uncover them all – returning as Macilente, who is angry at people achieving success despite their vices, he encounters a series of individuals who come to regret their flawed behaviours. A farmer who hoards grain hoping for a failed harvest, a man so obsessed with another’s style of dress that he spends a fortune attempting to imitate him, a wife more attracted to a stranger than to her doting husband – character after character appears and become increasingly ridiculous before getting their comeuppance.
In choosing to revive a piece like this, the creative team has a choice. You either trust the source material – and if you don’t, why choose to revive it? – or you adopt an entirely new take on it, to bring it up to date. This production sits somewhere in the middle. It’s not entirely Ben Jonson, but neither has it been really modernised. The concept of ridiculous individuals meeting their downfall is surely one that should resonate with a modern audience, but the storyline and characters fail to cut through and it seems as though the material too often gets away from the cast.
The cast is relatively small, and the characters in the play are numerous with a lot of multi-roling, which does little to help clarity as there is often little or no differentiation in the depictions of the different characters. Too often the dialogue is unintelligible, which adds to the challenge the audience faces in following the plot too, and results in some patchy pacing. The production also feels under-rehearsed, with some slow scene changes caused partly by people being seemingly unclear about where they’re moving set to, and some unnecessary pieces of wall that take two people each to set – and at one point a hiatus on the first night where the show stopped leaving three cast members speechless onstage mouthing and gesturing to each other, not really what you expect to find in professional theatre.
There are some positive points – Micaela Kluver delivers Macilente with clarity and purpose, and Imogen Clarke feels underused playing a series of minor characters instead of one of the larger roles. The comedy comes across nicely in Edward Loboda’s Puntarvolo, who has some amusing pieces of business. All too often though the comedy fails to hit home – more focus on making sure the audience could hear and understand the dialogue and less reliance on extravagant gestures and overblown delivery would result in a more successful production. As it is, what we have is a piece that is probably of more interest to the academic than the modern theatregoer.
Runs until: 30 September 2023