Pembroke New Cellars
Wednesday November 19
Dir. Alex Whiscombe; Pembroke Players
Vortigern. An eighteenth-century play about a 5th century warlord. On first glance, not the kind of thing one would expect from a late show in Pembroke New Cellars. But despite melodrama so hammy that it would make a pig doubt its own bacon credentials, sentimentality so gushing it would make Keira Knightley laugh, and a script so butchered that it would not be amiss on the fields of Verdun, I have to confess that I laughed throughout.
There was something very refreshing about Alex Whiscombe’s production; for a weighty and difficult text it never took itself seriously, it was totally lacking in pretence and featured moments of impressive (although often unintentional) comic timing. But the problem with one night stands is that the actors often play up to the crowd, and the constant corpsing and little winks and smiles sent the audience’s way kind of spoilt the illusion which theatre rather seriously relies upon.
The performances ranged from the self-consciously amusing to the tediously robotic. David Harrup’s Vortigern was something you rarely see: a lead performance almost entirely driven by comedic motive, despite being at the expense of the more serious conflicts of the character. To his credit, his eccentric hand gestures and extreme facial expressions never failed to amuse the audience. For extremity, look no further than Jonathan Woolley. His lascivious cameo regularly resulted in spontaneous applause, and provided hilarious, if absurdly contrived, entertainment. It certainly contrasted with Emily Parr’s Edmunda, which was the only believable and moving performance in the play.
I couldn’t believe my eyes at times: swords were branded that looked like long wooden paper knives, dangerously unchoreographed fight scenes unfolded ten-a-penny, and mistimed thunder and lightning sound cues chimed in, bringing the play into a whole new realm of medieval farce.
However, the spirit in which the play was performed went a long way to redeeming it; the decision to turn the script into an outright comedy meant that it largely fulfilled its function and kept the audience entertained throughout: perfect for a late performance to a bunch of pissed students in the mood to laugh at their friends. This was certainly an original approach to late night theatre. How ironic that playwright Ireland managed to convince Sheridan that Vortigern was in fact by Shakespeare. Clearly this irony was not lost on the cast.