How do you describe a production which throws everythng but the kitchen sink at a play in the hope that a few things will hit the target? A few years ago I would have used the term Rupert (after Rupert Goold) but his recent productions have been quite coherent and restrained. So I'll switch to using Hill-Gibbins instead. So if anyone overhears me exiting a theatre saying 'That was a real Hill-Gibbins of a show,' they'll know what I mean.
Joe Hill-Gibbins is a very talented director, two of whose previous productions I've seen at the Young Vic -- The Beauty Queen of Linnane and The Glass Menagerie. I liked the latter very much but felt it displayed a 'look at me' tendency and a lack of visual focus; there was simply too much going on. Much the same can be said of this production of the Middleton/Rowley Jacobean revenge tragedy. Hill-Gibbins has stripped down the Young Vic arena to the basics, with an austerity-type set that looks like a shabby rehearsal room. There ain't no red velvet in this theatre -- just raw concrete, wooden crates, some trolleys with medical artefacts, a bed made of pallets and plenty of harsh industrial lighting.
It's very reminiscent of the Michael Sheen Hamlet in the same space last year, set in a high-security mental institution, and of the current Julius Caesar at the Donmar, set in a women's prison. But where those two productions conveyed a clear locational message, the set in this show doesn't tell the audience where it is supposed to be. There are elements of a rehearsal room, with a dressing room and actor's make-up mirrors in a corner of the rectangular playing area; there's a net on one side of the space between audience and actors, but not on the other; there are wheelchairs in which some members of the audience are seated. In Julius Caesar, a prison murder is committed with the tools at hand -- a bottle of bleach and a kettle of boiling water -- and it makes perfect sense. But here the weapons seem to involve custard pies and strawberry jam, for no apparent reason. Overall there seems to be no coherence of style, only an excess of effect-making devices which suggest that the director doesn't really trust the play.
There's an excellent cast, including Sinead Matthews and Harry Hadden-Paton. As with The Glass Menagerie, there's one very effective scene where the actors are allowed to get on with it, unencumbered by stage effects and business; it's the one where Beatrice-Joanna (Matthews) is confronted by her servant De Flores (Zubin Varla) who has murdered her husband-to-be at her command, and now blackmails his mistress into having sex by threatening to reveal her secret. There's a subtext here which this production doesn't quite give the actors the space to explore; is Beatrice-Joanna really much more attracted to De Flores than to Alsemero, the lover for whose sake she orders the murder of her fiance? It's no criticism of Matthews and Varla to wonder whether there are dimensions to their relationship that don't get fully explored in this frenetic production.
I have to say I much preferred Declan Donnellan's much simpler version of The Changeling at the Barbican five years ago for Cheek By Jowl, which featured Will Keen and Olivia WIlliams. That production concentrated on extracting maximum meaning from the text. I saw it a few months before I launched this blog, so I regret I can't call up what I felt about it at the time.