Ted's swan-song gets a rough ride

Alcestis | Viaduct, Halifax Julius Caesar | Young Vic, London The Cherry Orchard | RNT Cottesloe, London
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Ted Hughes and Death were certainly no strangers. The poet's first wife, Sylvia Plath, gained near-legendary status by terminating her life in 1963. Assia Wevill, his subsequent partner, went the same way. And in 1998 Hughes lost his battle with cancer whilst adapting Euripides' rarely revived tragicomedy Alcestis. His script received its world premiere this week at the Viaduct Theatre in Halifax, directed by fellow Yorkshireman Barrie Rutter.

Ted Hughes and Death were certainly no strangers. The poet's first wife, Sylvia Plath, gained near-legendary status by terminating her life in 1963. Assia Wevill, his subsequent partner, went the same way. And in 1998 Hughes lost his battle with cancer whilst adapting Euripides' rarely revived tragicomedy Alcestis. His script received its world premiere this week at the Viaduct Theatre in Halifax, directed by fellow Yorkshireman Barrie Rutter.

What's startling is that Hughes - tight-lipped about his grievous troubles for quarter of a century - can be heard howling loud and clear through this ancient Greek drama. As a remarkably personal adaptation, Alcestis could be viewed as companion piece to Hughes's final poetry collection Birthday Letters (published in 1998), wherein he broke his silence concerning Plath.

The myth of Alcestis is certainly full of reverberations. The wife of King Admetos, she voluntarily gives up her life and becomes an iconic martyr. Consequently Admetos, who ought to have died yet desperately evaded his fate, is severely rebuked by the multitude for his selfishness. He and the chorus then cry out at the inescapable nature of the grave before Heracles miraculously enters and lays Death low. Thus Admetos - foreshadowing Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale - is given a second chance. He is presented with another wife who, wonderfully, proves to be Alcestis resurrected.

To read Hughes's version of the story as mere autobiography would be foolish; after all, Plath's suicide was hardly hailed as an Alcestis-style act of supreme altruism. Nevertheless, the ailing author's textual adjustments pointedly describe Admetos as blighted, "you might say, with a terminal illness."

Maybe there is an unappealing element of self-defensiveness in the former Poet Laureate's emphasis on Admetos' invaluable services to the nation. Yet the mix of regret and raw bitterness simultaneously expressed is poignant and frank.

Memorably, Admetos remarks how every thought of his wife metaphorically rips the dressing off his wounds and starts the blood flowing afresh - an image linked to the vulture that guts Prometheus in a long, inserted passage about Heracles' labours.

Ultimately, one senses Euripides' mortality-defying and potentially reconciliatory ending was Hughes's antidote to despair in his final days. The pity is that he left this piece to be roughly handled by Rutter's famously "workmanlike" troupe, Northern Broadsides.

The cast's local accents can chime with Hughes's potent lyricism, and some of the leading performers are emotionally vigorous, with Andrew Cryer's Admetos and Frank Moorey as his aged sire launching into a vituperative row.

Joanne Thirsk's limp Alcestis hardly explores the queen's sanctimonious side. And the majority of the cast lack all craft, standing around like depressed black puddings stuffed into risible Lycra mourning robes.

At London's Young Vic Theatre, in contrast to the fearful Admetos, an ancient Roman Emperor foolhardily walksinto the exterminating arms of fate in Julius Caesar.

David Lan's inaugural production as artistic director generally appears to bode well for the venue, even if Shakespeare's Capitol is awash with ill omens. It must be said, Anthony Psaila's spurned soothsayer is an irritating vengeful spirit, improbably seeing into the future through caked layers of eyeliner like some nightmarish preincarnation of Gary Numan.

The play's great funeral speeches are also messed up by over-stylised crowd movements as an unconvinced smattering of plebeians indicate they're lending their ears by enacting some kind of Grandmother's Footsteps routine below the dais. This lamentably distracts us from the sharp oratorical tricks of Robert Cavanah's Mark Antony.

However, Lan makes amends by injecting this sometimes dry political drama with passionate young blood and firmly delineated characters. Marcus D'Amico's Cassius, striding up the set's grey concrete slope in a flak jacket, is a wanton manipulator driven by bruising ambition. In a clearly charted battle of wills, he is overwhelmed by Lloyd Owen's smoother, upper crust, command-assuming Brutus.

Essentially, Lan persuasively depicts Shakespeare's Rome as a macho boys' club where Phillipa Peak's Calpurnia and Jaye Griffiths' Portia, though strong, are swept aside, where Owen's Brutus pretends not to hear Cassius' more-than-matey declarations of love, and where the Emperor's blood is rinsed off in the mens' communal shower room.

Just up the road in the National's Cottesloe Theatre, Russia's landed gentry are destined for the chop in a fine production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, staged by Sir Trevor Nunn.

Here Vanessa Redgrave and her brother Corin head a polished cast. They play the ageing siblings, Ranevskaya and Gaev, who love nostalgia and try their best to laugh off the nouveau riche peasant Lopakhin's warnings that they ought to develop their ancestral acres commercially.

Miss Redgrave's Ranevskaya is both a superficially flighty and seriously distracted grande dame. Embracing everybody fondly yet absent-mindedly, on one level she's just vainly self-involved. But on another she is deeply wracked. Egocentricity plus worry are, in fact, clearly endemic as everyone talks and nobody listens.

Mr Redgrave's Gaev is a more rigid conservative than his sister, sniffing rudely at his inferiors. However, he relaxes surprisingly and endearingly with his nearest and dearest, obviously going nowhere but galloping jokily into an imaginary new dawn on the rocking horse in his old nursery.

Charlotte Emmerson is somewhat less engaging as his coddled niece Anna, her babyish voice tiresomely underlining the theme of arrested development.

Overall, maybe Nunn's production feels slightly too safe. As the upstart valet, James Thornton's Yasha might be more dangerously surly. Designer Maria Björnson doesn't take many risks either, offering lots of lovely mellow wood and dappled light, plus a slightly sugary vista of the orchard at sunset.

Nevertheless, the multi-talented David Lan's latest adaptation has the virtue of being winningly plain spoken. Michael Bryant's cackling Firs is a surprisingly sharp old codger, while Roger Allam's Lopakhin manages to be both insensitive , yet touchingly smitten by Ranevskaya.

And last but not least, Eve Best is extraordinarily tender as the adopted daughter Varya, relegated to a housekeeping spinster but still pining for love.

 

'Alcestis': Rheged Discovery Centre, Penrith (01768 868000) Tues, Thoresby Riding Stables, Nottinghamshire (0115 941 9419) Thurs to Sat, Lowry, Salford (0161 876 2000) 2-7 Oct; 'Julius Caesar': Young Vic, SE1 (020 7928 6363) to 28 Oct; 'The Cherry Orchard': RNT Cottesloe, SE1 (020 7452 3000), in rep

Comments