The Faction theatre company wastes no time with its new production of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy. Tamarin McGinley’s brilliant Hippolyta is imprisoned in a ring created by her fellow cast members and snarls at her soon-to-be husband Theseus – he wooed with his sword, after all! The startling depiction of their relationship shows a skill at interpreting the text. And the method of using the actors’ bodies rather than props as a cage shows off a signature physical style. Setting out its stall from the get go, this production excites from the very beginning.
Director Mark Leipacher is well aware that the course of true love isn’t supposed to run smooth and injects a tension into the romantic turmoil of the play. When it comes to the Athenian workmen, preparing a play of their own for the nuptial celebrations, the company does just as well with the play’s comedy. Led by Christopher Hughes as Bottom, in blissfully funny thespian form, the transformation into an ass has the cast taking turns as his ears and tail. It’s surprisingly effective and shockingly… sexy. Again, there is an attention to the text that shows an underlying intelligence: this is the first time I’ve been interested in the scene when Bottom is introduced to his fairy attendants.
Physicality is pushed to an extreme at times: the four Athenian lovers, interfered with by magic, end up wrestling one another in the woods – it’s brilliantly done, but you do lose some lines. And with only eight in the cast, the normal doubling of roles becomes a tripling and leads to a truncated finale that loses the witty commentary from those usually watching the show (since the same actors are performing it). But it’s a thrill to see every role embraced by each performer, especially Christopher York, who gets full comic potential out of a trio of parts.
It should be pointed out that a knowledge of the play helps, especially when it comes to the scene changes, crafted using sound and light by Ben Jacobs and Yaiza Varona, respectively – they are beautiful, but might not aid comprehension enough. But the production is full of rewards, with Richard James Neale’s direction of movement continually fascinating and Leipacher’s engagement with the text consistently intelligent. Combined, this is a winning offer and I think it’s magic.
Another admirable production from The Faction company, Mark Leipacher’s rendering of Shakespeare’s villainous king is full of bold moments. There are flaws, but the show’s scale and ambition impress.
Leipacher uses his cast of 19 with careful restraint and an emphasis on physical theatre. His vision of Richard’s nightmare before battle, with his victims crawling towards him, is startling. No props are used and powerful tableaux result: Hastings’ head on the battlements or the ensemble creating a horse for the king to ride. It’s a shame some of the miming is sub-standard and the accompanying sound effects overblown.
With a cast this large in a fringe show, perhaps it’s not surprising there are some weak links. It’s not a question of commitment – this is a tight crew – but some roles lack polish. There are fine performances from Gary Richards as Hastings, Carmen Munroe as Richard’s mother and Anna Maria Nabirye as an Amazonian Buckingham (a gender swap that really adds tension). Kate Sawyer gets a great deal from the role of Elizabeth, all the more impressive since she is hampered by some God-awful head gear. These performers are the ones whose lines you hear most clearly – too much dialogue is lost, sacrificed to action or poorly delivered.
Thankfully, there are few instances when you can’t hear Richard’s lines. Taking the title role, Christopher York excels, presenting an intimidating figure with a conscious lack of humour. The cleverest stroke is that his disability comes and goes. York becomes contorted or straightens himself out at chosen moments – such a brilliantly simple idea that I’m surprised I haven’t seen it before.
While there are strong scenes, Leipacher doesn’t draw the production together – it’s linked by style rather than an overriding idea. Especially disappointing is a messy final battle scene – a low note on which to end an interesting evening.
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.