A STRONG sense of acting out life in the gaze and judgment of others runs through this livewire, in your face production of one of Shakespeare’s traditionally hard-to-pin-down plays.
A group of indolent lords lie around playing video reality war games moments before the real thing explodes on the stage. Characters explain points with the use of their smartphones, communicate through them and take pictures we can gaze on as the action progresses.
The design – Robert Innes Hopkins and video artist Douglas O’Connell – makes full use of projection and the music score by DJ Walde is punchy and up to the moment. We’re a long way from the court of the French ruling elite. We’re in a fully accessible, worryingly out of control hyperspace.
The hopes, despairs and subterfuge of two ill-feted lovers forms the impetus for what happens but it is the faults of a society living its life entirely by what it wants to show off to the wider world than sets the comically cruel tone for those characters to negotiate.
As the sorely-abused but steadfast Helena Rosie Sheehy commands great respect. We’re aware from the moment she first appears in school uniform that we’re in uncomfortable territory when it comes to the bawdy battles of the bedroom. It’s a fine performance to get such a challenging slant from material that could be a touch desperate, and it could have been helped by simply slowing down to aid clarity at a few points.
Benjamin Westerby as the over-privileged Bertram exudes charm in the constant pursuit of conquests that are far from charming. Shakespeare visited the persona of the unchecked rake and serial lover a few times but perhaps never with such bluntness as here. Cut and paste in any number of current day footballers and you’d have the exact mixture of arrogant entitlement and moral bankruptcy. To him falls the most precipitous volte face in the final scene and, in a brilliant closing touch, it is no wonder he and Helena have literally nothing to say to each other.
This is a very strong company in general. Simon Coates as the very proper, rather waspish Lafew gives a masterclass in how to make the bard’s words as clear as they should be and his put downs of the braggart Parolles formed a highlight.
But it is the latter, joyously overplayed by Jamie Wilkes, who steals the show. Brash, irreverent and a clear chancer from the off, this is a great comic performance. Plenty of withering asides, barely disguised cowardice and visual gags abound and the humour makes what later befalls him all the more shocking.
Because the most memorable scene in Blanch McIntyre’s exhilarating production, features the unmasking of the braggart by his comrades setting a trap in which he fears for his life at the hands of those he presumes are his enemies and promptly sells out his friends in desperate self-preservation.
It should be a comic scene but the staging and the brilliant use of social media screen projections and crass comment posts turns this prank into the darkest, most disturbing echo of prisoner abuse we see claimed and denied in the media daily. Stripped, humiliated and then given a mock execution, this was trial by social media and, if the intention was to leave us wondering what on earth those around us were finding to laugh at, then it succeeded.
There is a lot to admire in this production and it holds its intensity right the way through. But more than anything it deserves praise for turning some of the comedy on its head and leaving us disconcertingly aware of our own complicity in being voyeurs – as so much of social media makes us – at someone else’s expense.