An Ideal Husband/Titus Andronicus

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on AN IDEAL HUSBAND at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and TITUS ANDRONICUS at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, for Scotsman 29.7.10
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An Ideal Husband  4 stars ****
Titus Andronicus  3 stars ***

THOSE WHO NEVER go to Pitlochry Festival Theatre – and there are such people, despite the scores of thousands who make the journey every year – might not be aware of this; but these days, the theatre-making complex along the west bank of the River Tummel is one of the most impressive pieces of plant in the whole Scottish cultural sector.  It is the biggest employer in the town, bringing an estimated 11 or 12 million pounds into the local economy each year.  Since its building was weather-proofed a decade ago for year-round operation, it has developed ambitions to become the most prolific producing house in Scottish theatre, staging six large-scale productions each summer, plus its first Christmas pantomime later this year.

And from the point of view of Scottish theatre as a whole, Pitlochry now has on-site storage and production facilities unrivalled in almost any other venue, creating elaborate sets and costumes for casts of fourteen or fifteen players, at a rate most other theatres would no longer attempt.  Small wonder that the audience is moved to applaud – in a slightly different tone of voice from what was once customary – when the curtain goes up on a scene like the opening of the current Pitlochry production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, as designed by that  fine theatre artist, Ken Harrison.

The glittering pillars of the baconied Octagon Room in the London home of Sir Robert Chiltern circa 1895, the hint of a London summer sky beyond, and the parade of fabulous, evening dresses as the ladies of the cast emerge on the arms of their handsomely suited partners, represent a level of theatrical spectacle no longer sought or expected on any other Scottish stage, outside the panto season.  And although theatre should not be all about pretty costumes and gorgeous sets, the capacity to wow audiences in this way is part of its armoury, and Pitlochry’s determination to retain that capacity an achievement worth applauding.

So for once, I am warmly recommending Richard Baron’s otherwise unremarkable production of An Ideal Husband simply for the fact that it looks so absolutely gorgeous, and does no violence to the play in the process.   As it happens, An Ideal Husband is a play that truly cries out for a radical 21st century update, although it was never likely to get one at Pitlochry.  Set in the Westminster village in a time of fierce conflict between conservatism and reform, it tackles the awkward truth that a man can be a fine, talented and even principled politician despite having committed a serious act of corruption at the start of his career; it also demonstrates, in scene after scene, just how little Britain’s inner  political system has changed in the last 115 years, in its snobbish reverence for private wealth.

It also features a seriously wicked lady, in the shape of the blackmailing villainess Mrs. Cheveley; and a terrfiyingly virtuous one, in the shape of Sir Robert’s lovely wife, Gertrude.  And it touches on ideas about sex and virtue that still haunt us today; the idealisation of some men and women, the demonisation of others, and the need for both sexes to be more humane and realistic about the other.

Baron’s production features strong performances from Robin Harvey Edwards and Jacqui Dutoit as the old folks, Lord Caversham and Lady Markby, and from David Malcolm as Sir Robert’s high-camp bachelor friend, Lord Goring.  Like all conventional productions of Wilde’s society comedies, it misses its chance of saying anything serious about the way we live now, because the audience remains so transfixed by the astonishingly mannered way in which it says anything at all.  But the glittering reproduction of that lost, high style of aristocratic life is an artistic achievement in itself.  The trick now is to integrate that style into our wider creative life; and to use it to say something substantial about a world we have lost, and about whether that loss is for better, or for worse.

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is also a play about evil, destroying the lives of the virtuous; but by comparison with Wilde, Shakespeare bursts onto the scene like a blazing young theatre-of-cruelty radical, not protecting the audience with layers of wit and elegance, but throwing the reality of evil at them in the most savage in-your-face style.  Written early in Shakespeare’s career, Titus Andronicus tells the story of a great Roman general brought low by his conflict with the evil Tamora, Queen of the Goths, who –  after being captured by Titus and brought to Rome as a prisoner – attracts the lust of the new young Emperor, becomes Empress, and seeks vengeance on Titus and his family with a bloody fury that leaves audiences gasping, as hands are lopped off, tongues ripped out, and Titus’s daughter Lavinia raped and mutilated, in one of the most violent onstage scenes in all of  classic theatre.

It can’t be said that Marc Silberschatz’s debut production of Titus  for the Bard In The Botanics season really makes much of this horrible sequence of events.  Its approach is more shouty and over-emphatic than stylish or insightful; the young, post-student cast thrash and yell in the gathering gloom of a muddy glade at the back of the Botanics, literally putting the shivering audience through hell, and only Wendy Crosby’s impressively wicked Tamora emerges from this early Shakespearean mess of rabid hatred and ferocious racism with any distinction.  Yet there’s something admirable about the company’s sheer courage in tackling this ghastly play head-on, and with such energy.  You won’t see many productions of Titus Andronicus in Scotland; so if you want final proof that violent, sensational, in-your-face theatre is not a new phenomenon, gird up your travelling rug, get that coffee into the thermos, and head for the Botanics, one more time.

An Ideal Husband in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 15 October; Titus Andronicus at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until Saturday.

ENDS ENDS

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