It’s always good to remember how grim the Brothers Grimm tales are. Hosted on Zoom, Creation Theatre’s production highlights how much abuse, trauma (and cannibalism) the stories contain. The result is a mature affair, spooky and scary, that provides a much-needed hour away from mundane life. Strong story-telling and impressive imaginative touches take us to a distinct world with crazed characters “living in exile”. It’s worth a trip.
Several tales – The Juniper Tree, Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, Godfather Death and The Moon – are interwoven; the technique has pros and cons. Mixing up the stories is engaging (you have to concentrate) but can be confusing at times. A lot is packed into an hour. The advantage is to bring out common themes that provide plenty to think about: families, mortality…and a lot of stealing.
The adaptations, devised with the cast, are full of contemporary touches and colloquialisms; plenty make it clear the show is aimed at grown-ups. Graeme Rose takes the lead, his telling of The Juniper Tree exemplifies the show’s tone. And there are touches of macabre humour that lead to a stand-out performance from Natasha Rickman.
The show is driven by the attempt to create atmosphere and it is successfully creepy. The music, make-up, camera work and costumes are all good. The style becomes something of an obsession. Gari Jones’ direction is extremely determined. If performances suffer as a result – giving us little sense of individuals – escapism is achieved.
Whatever reservations you might have about the format, Creation Theatre make a good claim for becoming experts in our new normal of Digital Theatre. It isn’t fancy technology they can be proud of. While the planning behind the show must be daunting, effectiveness comes from simple camera work and lighting – not special effects. A model town and the use of a tiny origami bird stand out. And the idea of watching the show by candlelight: a nice touch, and it works too.
Inspired by The Faction’s The Talented Mr Ripley, also playing as part of its 2015 season, I was drawn to the company’s next show Joan of Arc. Mark Leipacher’s adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s play, co-directed with Rachel Valentine-Smith, is another strong piece that I urge you to see.
Joan of Arc isn’t an easy play. A highly fictionalised version of the French heroine, who fought the English in the Hundred Years’ War, the production embraces the different opinions of a peasant girl who comes to lead armies. A fascinating figure, who is by turn inspirational and loathed, Joan never questions her mission from God and is no fraud – a fact that doesn’t make her easy to portray or relate to.
The direction is bold. A minimal stage is enlivened by Chris Withers’ lighting design, while the ensemble create tableaux, using their bodies to stand in for trees or thrones, for a couple of visionary scenes. Battles are choreographed adventurously, instilling a mythical feeling best summarised by Joan’s plastering her hair with clay slip to create her own helmet, engendering an earthiness and a sense of the supernatural at the same time.
Anchoring the ethereal proceedings are fine performances. Kate Sawyer takes the title role admirably; convincingly abstracted, using what little vulnerability her character has to great effect and even, I’d swear, blushing on cue. Christopher Tester plays Joan’s father and the invading Talbot superbly. Best of all is Natasha Rickman who doubles as the Dauphin and his mother, the violent Isabel, with breathtaking skill.
This innovative show about a warrior inspired by religion feels hauntingly topical. The Faction has certainly found a convert to its work in me.
The Talented Mr. Ripley is 60 years old. Continually popular, Patricia Highsmith’s superb novel has now been brought to the stage by The Faction Company. The work of director Mark Leipacher, this is a sterling adaptation, focused on Tom Ripley’s inner life, exploring his murderous adoption of Dickie Greenleaf’s identity, and dramatising his spiraling actions in thrilling fashion. It’s a respectful affair, arguably slightly too long, but eminently theatrical. Ripley wanted to be an actor after all and he’s a consummate performer – continually adapting roles and using fantasy to project himself into other lives – it makes sense to see him on stage.
Leipacher’s direction is bold and inventive. A bare, square, raised platform with a pit at its centre is superbly lit by Chris Withers and serves as a base for the cast to perform on, around and under. Scenes are ‘cut’ and restaged, a neat disorientation device taking us inside Ripley’s fraught imagination and adding tension. The Faction make for a strong ensemble with Adam Howden suitably charismatic as the wealthy Greenleaf heir and Christopher Tester sternly convincing as his father (in spite of being too young for the role). There’s also a subtle performance from Natasha Rickman as Dickie’s girlfriend, Marge.
The script emphasizes Ripley’s insecurities. A fair choice: Ripley is one of those fictional characters complex enough to merit varied interpretations. Like Matt Damon in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 film, this Tom feels inferior, “incompetent” even, far from Highsmith’s accomplished anti-hero. And in this demanding title role, Christopher Hughes is fantastic, delivering the complex plot and emotions with dynamism and a fitting shrillness. He is particularly strong when evoking Ripley’s paranoia, making the most of the venue’s intimacy. One of the joys of a fringe show is seeing an actor destined for big success: I have no doubt we will see a lot more of the talented Mr. Hughes.