Elizabeth, almost by chance a woman

Elizabeth, almost by chance a woman

Queensland Theatre Company & QPAC

Brisbane Powerhouse

26th May – 24th June 2012

How strange, to pit the fragility and reality of a fascinating woman against a comedic mashup that distracts and detracts from the fragility and reality of the woman!

Nobel Prize winning playwright, Dario Fo, has done just that with Elizabeth, almost by chance a woman and Director, Wesley Enoch, has had a field day with it. Freely adapted and translated by Luke Deverish and Louise Fox (who were commissioned by Malthouse Theatre for their production at the Merlyn in 2010), this version is updated and localised to an even greater degree by the most vocal and forward thinking Artistic Director our state theatre company has seen. A champion for local audiences as much as for local artists, Enoch has glued together so many different elements in staging this outrageous production that there is surely something for everyone.

Bawdy comedy and ludicrous antics fill the guts of what would otherwise be a pale, skinny corpse of a drama. I’m not a Fo fan, however, I marvel at the cunning way so many political entrails are unmercifully tossed at us throughout his plays.  (And I do love a bit of commedia dell’arte, some good old slapstick and bold, brash, silly comedy from time to time!).

Despite comedic influences ranging from farce to pantomime to commedia to slapstick (Scott Witt, as Clowning/Slapstick Consultant, has a hand in this and Enoch’s Bonzani troupe experience is obvious), the work avoids getting stuck in any one form for long. It remains unboxed, resisting packaging or prettying up. (It IS pretty, though, thanks to Simone Romaniuk’s sumptuous design; the lavish costumes and simple set are magnificent). It is what it is and we either love it or hate it. I didn’t love it but I didn’t hate it either. My first thought was that the show begs a stricter hand…one to pull it back a little. A fabulous and fun rehearsal strategy, we often let the actors take things as far as they are willing to go. It’s sometimes a challenge to put a stop to it and ask that they back off a little. Indeed, you may well ask, “WHY?” when what is happening on stage is clearly working for the vast majority of the audience. I suspect that the question more often asked in the rehearsal studio was, “WHY NOT?” When you see this show you might be convinced that the lewdness and bawdy humour is at precisely the right level, if not slightly underdone! For me, it is too many things at once and often just too, too, too OTT. But look, it’s mostly hilarious and I laughed a LOT.

The updated political gags are quick, witty and localised, thanks to the free reign given any company with the rights for this show; Fo wouldn’t have it any other way. His political theatre is continuously evolving, challenging and inspiring public thought and action. These local references will have you chortling (or wondering what everybody else finds so amusing, depending on your knowledge and understanding of current affairs of state). Well, we do love a “CAN DO” moment at the moment, don’t we?!

Updating a theatrical work is a bit like creating your own promotional images, inspired by the originals, in order to publicise your show, or the liberty taken by anybody ever, when re-writing I’ve Got a Little List for The Mikado. It’s absolutely intended and indeed, it’s necessary, to keep the content fresh, accurate and relevant. In his Director’s Note, Enoch explains, “Dario Fo believes in engaging in the world and allows the artists involved to improvise and modify the scripts to reflect their socio-political environments.”

Enoch has assembled intelligent actors who love to play. There is a real sense of it and along with the obvious camaraderie; this sense of play will keep the show fresh as a daisy up to and including closing night. I often wonder what a show will be like by the end of its run and if I had the time, this is certainly a show I’d like to see again. It feels like it’s ever changing and almost as if it’s not quite ready for us but, hell, we’ll let you see it anyway. And that’s okay. That’s part of the fun, as if we’d been let into the rehearsal space for a glimpse of how a great story gets put together.

Eugene Gilfedder plays William Shakespeare, who is plotting to kill the queen (and stealing episodes from her life for use in his own plays) and also the fantastic character of Grosslady, which he pwns. PWNS. He is absolutely hysterical in his women’s garb, with his high-heeled gait and that’s before he even utters a word of witty Tranny Speak/Drag Slang, which will have you either in tears of laughter or wide-eyed and quietly, concernedly murmuring to the person next to you, “Whaaaaat the…? What did he say?”

Jason Klarwein plays Elizabeth’s Chief of Police, Egerton, who really does plot to kill Elizabeth, as she desperately, obsessively waits for her lover, the Earl of Essex to arrive. The Virgin Queen? We don’t think so (Dash Kruck’s bare bum soon puts that theory to rest!). Egerton’s news bulletins especially, are brilliant. So slickly delivered on opening night were they that each time Klarwein asked the company whether or not they wanted to hear the report all over again, I wanted to shout in opposition to them, “YES!” His multiple costume changes are baffling though and you just might get a joke that I missed.

The production benefits enormously, as productions do in this town, by having Musical Director, John Rodgers involved. His animated accompaniment is as if we’re sitting in a silent movie theatre, with the movie brought to life before us. Dash Kruck (Thomas, the often ignored and abused Fool) can sing so he does. Although it makes little sense to me to have the songs in the show at all (in the original Malthouse Theatre production they were perhaps better contextualised, rewritten as Elizabethan madrigals), Kruck delivers them well – a little too well for the character – and gives us a reminder of what to expect next from him (no, not necessarily more nudity), as he heads to Sydney soon for a highly anticipated production of the hit Broadway musical, Next to Normal, at the Capital Theatre. I would also like to have heard Kruck’s rendition, from beyond the grave, of The Neverending Story theme song.

But that’s just me.

After only six days of rehearsing with the company in the role of Martha, Sarah Kennedy does her best and it is just enough. She can’t possibly compete with Klarwein and Gilfedder, who have clearly been given a license to party like it’s 1999. At times their relentless antics, like a Battle Round on The Voice, draw attention away from the fragility of the woman whose story it is. Martha brings the focus back to her poor, paranoid mistress each and every time with perfect grace and good humour.

Carol Burns is an absolute treasure and as the aging queen, suffering from paranoia and sleeplessness in the last days of her life, and with the boys club of Gilfedder, Klarwein and Kruck on stage, she holds her own, bounding around the room with her skirts held high and riding atop a giant wooden rocking horse, which Klarwein later sees from a slightly, err, lower perspective (it’s one of the funniest moments in the play). Hers is a highly physical role but Burns impresses most in her final moments, as the frail, brain-addled, heartbroken woman who was Queen. Romaniuk’s imposing quilted white walls and David Walters’ stark white lighting give us the sense that this is indeed – finally – the peaceful end to a mad life. With all the action having happened in Elizabeth’s head, we easily feel empathy for her; a woman who would really probably have preferred, more often than not, to be just a woman, without the royal obligations. This is the magic of Fo’s form, finally revealing once and for all, the humanity of his subject, regardless of class, creed or colour. I found Burns’ performance incredibly moving and I was disappointed that Fo felt the need to bring back his Will Shakespeare character, like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the Prince in Romeo and Juliet, to close the show. Depicting an ailing, confused queen, her behaviour and emotions moving erratically between polar ends of the spectrum for the duration of the play, Burns delivers what might be the performance of her lifetime and I feel like she should have the final light.

Irrespective of its bad language (remember, this show came with a warning!), and its lewdness, this show is not so shocking or offensive that you can’t take your mum or your sister to see it. I took mine (my sister, that is; my mum is gallivanting around Europe). In fact, I think you could safely take your grandmother too!

Elizabeth, almost by chance a woman is zany, bawdy comedy at its most playful and you’ll either love it or hate it but you must see it to know which it is! Enjoy!

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