Pop culture meets the Queen.
Dario Fo’s profound play Elizabeth, almost by chance a woman, presented by the Queensland Theatre Company is a unique fusion of a potty-mouthed Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespearean conspiracies, Commedia dell’Arte, polictical satire and pop culture.
Set inside the Queen’s budoir in the last twelve maddening days and sleepless nights of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, we see the human struggle of what it means to be both a monach and a woman.
With influences from Commedia dell’Arte with costuming, makeup, music and improvisation, the stylised delivery gave a sense of the period and the troubador theatre style of the time, full of politcal satire and play on words. There were even a few topical jabs thrown in about our own heads of state.
This play comes with a warning in Wesley Enoch’s director’s notes; it is naughty.
This play has extrememly naughty actors in it, has naughty language and is generally just naughty, it may even play with your mind”.
But amongst all the profanity, absurdity, and farce is some very profound and controversial writing. Much like Dario Fo’s other plays, which on the surface are bold (even vulgar) harmless fun, it is merely a sugar-coating to some very politically senstive ideas.
If this play was performed in the time of Queen Elizabeth, heads would have certainly rolled. In our modern day and age where freedom of speech is a given, you might think that Fo (or any other contemporary political playwright) would be shielded from persecution. It seems however that the times, they aren’t-a-changin’, because if you delve a little more into this Nobel Prize winner’s history, you will find that he has been in court more than fourty times for charges of blasphemy, sedition, obscenity and defamation. He has received firebomb threats and in 1973, his wife and long-time collaborator was kidnapped and raped by neo-fascists.
Even before reading about the Italian playwright, I sensed this was an important work by a substanital playwright with something profoundly important to say. Political theatre is perhaps the most important of all forms of theatre as it not only reflects and provokes thought about broader societal issues, but documents our society in the time capsule of a play.
The play premiered in the US in 1984 (for which Dario was even denied entry into the country for the occasion). The Malthouse then commissioned Louise Fox and Luke Devenish to translate and adapt to localise the piece for an Australian audience in 2010.
Enoch like-wise tweaked the text to draw a transparent association with our modern conservative heads of state. This contextualised tweaking was in fact Fo’s intention and is explained in the program notes:
Dario Fo believes in engaging in the world and allows the artists involve to improvise and modify the scripts to reflect their socio-political environments.
The costuming by designer Simone Romaniuk was lavish and detailed and the staging sparse yet effective, with the entire backdrop being a white rouched quilted wall with the Queen’s bed as the centre-piece and an over-sized Trojan-like hobby horse.
Theatre vetren Carol Burns plays the potty-mouthed monach with the command of a Queen, the fraility of the elderly, the paranoia of a mad woman, the vulnerabilty of a woman in love and the stamina of an athlete.
Eugene Gilfedder played both Shakespeare and the cross-dressing Grosslady who has a pun-intended drag vocab of her own. It was in this character where much of the witty play on words was spat out quicker that the speed of sound, keeping the audience on their toes as they tried deperately to catch each wildly shocking word that came from her mouth. It was a shame that a lot of the wit was lost with the bombastic onslaught of unexpected pairings of words. However, to slow it down would have lost the overall effect. This is a play worth reading for full digestion of the text, and certainly deserves a place in our State Theatre repertoire and indeed in the performing arts school text book shelf for critical studies of theatre – not only for the themes and styles of theatre utilised, but the background story of the playwright is also notable.
Jason Klarwein plays Egerton, the Queen’s chief of police, who is secretly plotting the Queen’s demise in order to convert everyone to Catholicism. His news bulletins coupled with physical comedy were a highlight.
Dash Kruck, who is well known in the music theatre circles, was given the opportunity to showcase his extraordinary talent as an actor/singer to a new audience as Thomas the court fool. It was great to see him in a QTC production and although I am a fan of Kruck’s work, I would have liked the slap stick and “Tom” foolery to be a bit more sophisticated (if that’s at all possible). The direction may have been an homage to the traditional slap stick routines but I tended to switch off in those insert-slapstick moments. His pop-culture-referenced costume also did not quite mix with the more traditional detailed costuming of the other characters.
Sarah Kennedy plays Martha, the Queen’s maid as a cross between bedside nurse and boxing ring master – keeping all dueling parties in their own corners and focusing our attention back on the Queen.
This thought provoking play about a potty-mouthed Queen is on the highly recommended list for 2012.