First Nighter: Bloody, Bloody London Stages Rule

London–In all my theater-going days, I don’t remember seeing a production that would likely give me nightmares. The thought had never crossed my mind. Until, that is, I went to the Pleasance Company and witnessed The Curing Room, David Ian Lee’s import from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Playwright Lee had come upon two paragraphs in George Steiner’s classic, The Death of Tragedy concerning seven Russian soldiers captured in World War II who were thrown naked into a locked room and left with no food, no heat, no nothing.

Since food was unavailable, eating each other rather quickly became a topic of conversation and not too shortly after that turned into a reality. To depict this graphically, Lee and director Joao de Sousa leave very little out, including blood and bones–Lifecast & Dapper Cadaver, the prosthetic props supplier. (What isn’t shown or dealt with as a small sop to audience sensibilities is urination and defecation.)

Guided unflinchingly by de Sousa, the actors asked to perform this difficult but undeniably potent 90-minute drama are Rupert Elmes, Harvey Robinson, Marlon Solomon, Will Bowden, John Hoye, Matt Houston and Thomas Holloway. They’re required to go light years farther than William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in demonstrating how deeply civilized behavior does or doesn’t extend and where limits are set on the will to survive–if anywhere.

All buff men, the actors are to be congratulated for bravery in a production that isn’t likely to be deemed broadly commercial many places. I’m glad I saw it at a venue bold enough to offer the 90-minute play and recommend it to others with the warning that they have strong stomachs.
Things also get blood-soaked at the recently opened Sam Wanamaker Theatre, where to join Shakespeare’s reimagined Globe, architect Theo Crosby has recreated a Jacobean space with a 340-seating-and-standing capacity. At the moment the free-flowing blood on knives, hands and clothes is courtesy of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

This is the one–revived frequently in England but not so often in the US–where brother and sister Giovanni (Max Bennett) and Annabella (Fiona Button) act on their romantic attraction to each other and thereby set off a series of vengeful murders.

Though Ford makes strong arguments for the sibs to lie together (leading to a pregnancy), any favorable attitude towards incest is kiboshed by what develops when Annabella’s father (Sam Cox) insists she wed (and she does to no good end) Soranzo (Stefano Braschi). In his turn, Soranzo has snubbed Hippolita (Noma Dumezweni), and she’s out to wreak her vengeance at the Annabella-Soranza nuptials.

The revenge plots set in motion are almost too numerous to count, although they seem mostly carried out by the ruthless Vasquez (Philip Cumbus). Swept up in them are several others, perhaps the most irresistible two being the clumsy Bergetto (James Garnon), an Annabella suitor more attracted to Philotis (Alice Haig), and a corrupt Cardinal (Garnon again), whose notions of justice wouldn’t be deemed universal.

By the end, even more bodies have littered the stage than the corpses in The Curing Game, although none of these are consumed. Director Michael Longhurst sees to it that Ford’s glimpse of a hopelessly decadent world is simultaneously gleeful and grim by having his players hold back nothing in their emoting. (There’s nudity here, too, but it’s discreet.)

Designer Alex Lowde’s costumes are gorgeous, until, that is, they’re sullied. Bret Yount gets to direct a series of exciting fights. In a loft above the stage, Arngeir Hauksson and Emily Baines underline the several dark moods with lute, theorbo, recorder, shawms, dulcimer and other what-have-you period instruments.

The result–and the obvious aim–is to suggest as strongly as possible what an audience under James I’s rule would experience. Uh, not exactly, since men took on women’s roles until Charles II’s reign. Nonetheless, with the only lighting thrown on the stage being candelabras hung from the ceiling and carried by the cast, it all worked for me.
Is blood spilled at the Old Vic, where Sophocles’s Electra is being given an immaculately stark production? You bet it is, but only a few drops. It occurs when the surreptitiously returning Orestes (Jack Lowden) cuts his palm to moisten the parched land as he prepares to have his servant (Peter Wight) announce his death.

Exactly why he wants it bruited about perhaps involves his not having Clytemnestra (Diana Quick) learn he’s back in town and seeking revenge for her presiding over his father Agamemnon’s murder. The disturbing news has its most devastating effect, however, on his sister Electra (Kristin Scott Thomas).

Electra is the one around whom Sophocles constructs his fifth-century B. C. play. More than anything else as Sophocles contemplates Greek revenge–demanded when situations arise like Agamemnon’s sacrificing Iphigenia for a strong wind and Clytemnestra’s bloody response–it’s the effect the murders have on a woman of deep feeling that is his intention. Through her he displays the torment that results from such actions.

Bemoaning Electra’s abandoned status as a virtual slave to Clytemnestra. Scott Thomas gives a thrilling performance. Her hair cut bluntly and wearing a loose dress the color of barren earth, she reaches depths of loss when hearing the brother on whom she’s pinned her hopes has died. Her repeatedly howling the word “pain” while clutching her sack-like garment is a highpoint moment. When she realizes the stranger before her is truly Orestes, Scott Thomas’s Electra then reaches heights of joy. Ian Rickson’s direction of the reunion is beautifully done.

Scott Thomas is aided by Quick’s glaring and blaring Clytemnestra. Their confrontation scene swells with terror. Liz White as conciliating sister Chrysothemis and Tyron Huggins as the Aegisthus make their scenes count.

Mark Thompson’s set placed in the round–and loomed over by a high double door on one side and a dead tree at the other side–helps give the impression that the ancient drama is taking place in a Greek arena. And that’s all to the good of Sophocles’s up-close-and-personal look at the boundless nature of human emotions.