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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Shakespeare's Globe


  William Ash/ Ph: Ellie Kurttz

That great wooden O by the Thames is a perfect venue for the medieval Mystery plays, those wondrous, spit-and-sawdust biblical dramas presented by ordinary folk to ordinary folk on the street, in a quixotic theatrical marriage of the sacred and the prosaic. Tony Harrison’s epic adaptation, with its chewy multiple-consonant pileups and Northern-inflected rhythms, triumphantly staged as an all-day promenade production at the National in 1985 – a format perfectly suited for engendering the community ethos at the heart of the Mystery plays – and ought to be right at home at London’s most egalitarian theatre space. Yet, in this new, severely truncated version, even the most impatient theatre-goer might concede that three hours to get from Creation to Doomsday is cutting it a bit fine. And even the most heathen-minded audience might think that a play about the story of Christ ought to lift the soul heavenward a little bit, even while keeping one foot firmly in the gutter.
Alas, Deborah Bruce’s crude, blunt production, in which an ensemble cast of 14 takes on more than 60 characters, never takes wing. There’s a lot of freewheeling comedy here, as befits the bawdy, high/low mishmash of much of Harrison’s deliberately anachronistic word play, and a lot of knowing humour. A wink-wink reference to Da Vinci’s Last Supper goes down a storm, while Paul Hunter’s fabulously camp, malevolent Herod gleefully hoards a pile of dead children’s bodies as though astride a Chapman Brothers installation. The vibe is determinedly slapstick, modern and irreverent. The carpenters nailing Jesus to the cross, in one of the production’s most effectively excruciating moments, are dressed as council workers in fluorescent jackets taking pictures of the prostrate Christ on their mobiles; one of them collapses in pain after hammering his own thumb.
Yet there’s far too much light here and nowhere near enough darkness. Some of Bruce’s choices appear downright perverse. David Hargreaves’ God, with his mug of tea, looks more like a country vicar than an omnipotent power. Adam and Eve gander about in underwear before Eve eats the apple, which makes a complete mockery of their fall from prelapsarian innocence.
With a few stand-out exceptions, the uneven ensemble cast often struggles with Harrison’s earthy, rhythmically demanding rhyming couplets, and several key speeches border on inaudible. Jonathan Fensom’s design is clearly aptly channeling a "street theatre" spirit with its wooden packing-case aesthetic, but there’s a thin line between rough theatre and cheap-looking theatre, and much of this show is visually dull. And when Bruce does attempt a theatrical coup de grace to match the epic heights of her tale with the raising of the crucifix, you are much more aware of the sound of straining machinery than you are the theatrical impact. In the hasty onward rush, few moments – with the exception of the deeply moving scene between Abraham and his son Isaac – have the room to plumb the depths of human feeling these stories demand. With the Last Judgment degenerating into a farcical game in which the audience is divided between the saved and the damned, you can’t help but feel a little sullied by a show that robs one of the greatest stories in theatre of its mystery. 


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