Best of Thames

Statecraft and stagecraft across the pond

The costumes are rather more lavish and the situations more domestic in Trelawny of the Wells, at the Donmar Warehouse, the theatrical debut of acclaimed film director Joe Wright. This bittersweet Arthur Wing Pinero bonbon of 1898, revamped by Patrick Marber, concerns Rose Trelawney, who attempts to renounce the boards in favor of domestic bliss. But her prospective in-laws revile her gypsy ways.

Wright clearly has affection for the material--and for the plight of jobbing actors everywhere--but he lets his cast run roughshod over the play. Yes, the script calls for exaggerated, melodramatic behavior, but it likely doesn't require quite so much shouting or flailing of limbs. At one point Rose complains, "We are only dolls, partly human, with mechanical limbs that will fall into stagey postures, and heads stuffed with sayings out of rubbishy plays." The thesps seem to have taken this as invitation rather than lament.

One way to avoid the problem of overacting is to dispense with live actors altogether--or at least to confuse the issue of what's live and what's recorded. Take Ring, an aural experiment at Battersea Arts Centre. After receiving a set of headphones, you file into a large room in the gorgeous Victorian building and listen to a short introduction, which serves mostly to separate you from your companions. Then all the lights go out--even the exit signs--and you begin to hear sounds, some of them seemingly in the room, others filtered through the headphones. Or are they?

The Queen (Helen Mirren) and Young Elizabeth (Nell Williams) in The Audience.
Johan Persson
The Queen (Helen Mirren) and Young Elizabeth (Nell Williams) in The Audience.

David Rosenberg, the longtime director of the performance group Shunt, relies on a sophisticated technology known as binaural sound recording that nicely confuses boundaries between presence and absence, live and performed. Glen Neath's script, which flits from an encounter group to a noir narrative to a seashore climax, seems still unformed, trying to pack too much into the 50-minute running time. But the combination of the rich sounds and pitch-black setting proves nicely unsettling. It's a spine-tingling new bit of tech and I can't wait to see (or, rather, hear) how subsequent theater artists--American or English--exploit it.

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