CHANGELING THEATRE at Severndroog Castle
For a masterclass in the actor’s art, Changeling Theatre’s two-night, two-play sojourn in the grounds of Severndroog Castle was the real deal.
First up was Othello, in which the cast had us weeping tears of anguish as Shakespeare’s great tragedy reached its heart-rending denouement. Just 24 hours later, that same cast left us crying tears of laughter in a riotous version of The Importance Of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde’s fabulously funny morality tale about snobbery and double-dealing.
The emotional contrast between the two works is light years’ wide – yet the actors made the transition so convincingly that it seemed only a short hop.
Othello features one of theatre’s tricksiest characters, Iago, a man so steeped in wickedness and weasel words that making him anything other than a cartoon villain is extraordinarily challenging for any actor. Happily, Changeling didn’t have just any actor – they had Tom Mahy.
Over the course of two hours, on a glorious summer night in the shadow of Severndroog, Mahy wormed, menaced, hissed, snivelled and twisted – yet remained resolutely real and human, thus making Othello’s deranged jealousy even more shocking when it exploded into murderous rage.
The final scene, in which Iago leers with satisfaction while his horrified wife – a dazzling turn by Phoebe Elliott – cradles the strangled body of Desdemona was as affecting a sequence as I have seen on any stage.
There was much else to enjoy too. Director Rob Forknall obviously has a gift for set-pieces. He opened this riveting show with the cast performing a tango - a dance born of sadness and loss – then began the second half with an equally moody dance involving handkerchiefs as an portent of the disaster to come. He also created a memorably realistic drunken brawl in a key scene involving drink-shy Cassio.
The whole cast was on fire in this production. As well as the brilliance of Mahy and Elliott, there were tremendous turns by Tré Medley as Othello (above, with Mahy), Annabelle Blake as doomed Desdemona, Enzo Benvenuti as Rodrigo, Noah Marullo as Cassio, Stephanie Lysé as Bianca, Kathryn Perkins as Ludovica and Alfie Mapes as Montano. Between them they made the darkness of the play veritably Stygian.
The following evening, it was a case of what a difference a day makes. Forknall opted to present The Importance Of Being Ernest (below) in full slapstick mode to underscore the contrast with Othello.
Benvenuti and Marullo played inept charlatans Ernest and Algernon with tireless enthusiasm, excellent comic timing and, in the latter’s case particularly, a gift for interacting with the audience – something he did so well that even his fellow actors were reduced to giggles.
But even though the pair’s romantic misadventures are at the heart of the story, this is as much a play about the women Ernest and Algernon encounter. And there are few women in literature more formidable than Lady Bracknell.
The role must have been daunting for Perkins. But she took it on fearlessly, giving us a cross between Edith Evans and Hilda Baker as she sprayed her glorious witticisms around like machinegun bullets. She was ably supported by Lysé as her spoilt brat of a daughter, Blake as surly teenager Cicely – with more than a nod to Blackadder’s Queenie – and Elliott as frustrated prig Prism who finally finds happiness with country parson Medley. And fresh from his triumph as Iago, Mahy gave us a stunning cameo as the most wonderfully deadpan butler since Lurch in The Addams Family.
The action was so relentless that by the time the performance finished I was exhausted – but also in awe of a company that had succeeded in moving so seamlessly between such emotional, intellectual and artistic extremes as tragedy and farce in so short a time. Can’t wait for the next time…
Picture: Susan Pilcher