Shakespeare is no walk in the park nor is it a gentle romantic stroll on the beach but Sport For Jove makes it look and feel exactly like that. Having seen their productions of ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ at the Seymour Centre in last couple of days I am in continued awe of the quality of the work produced by Sport For Jove under the direction of Damien Ryan.
Sport For Jove know how to turn Shakespeare into an experience and not just literature in costumes. Best of all Ryan knows how to use every piece of the space (on stage and in the text) to create a complete stage picture. He is the master of making the mise-en-scene communicate the story in every moment. From the opening scene of ‘Twelfth Night’ as we find ourselves Gidget-style swimming on the lazy shores of superficial love and waiting for the storm to hit and change the stakes for our indulgent pedestrian world, or in ‘All’s Well’ when the army are climbing, sweating, exercising and exuding the masculine energy that beautifully contrasts the entrance of their king, we are in the heartland of this man's world and understand what is valued much more than we understand what they're fighting for. Don’t even get me started on the powerful and moving image of Helena (Francesca Savage) healing the King of France (Robert Alexander) Christ-like in the hues of the red and white haze, lit by Toby Knyvett, with smoke bellowing from the sauna below. Truly breathtaking. My companion and I turned to each other, agape and sighing in respect for the spectacle created. We even revisited how much we loved that particular moment on the way home.
‘Twelfth Night’ has long been one of my favourites but I will confess that ‘All’s Well’ I had never encountered before now. There’s probably only so many Shakespeare plays about men discovering how much they love a woman once she’s faked her own death that you can fit into the canon of classics before something gives but I was very impressed with this production. Whilst ‘All’s Well’ felt a little slow to take off, it hit its strides and burned into your heart like a soulful blues hit. ‘Twelfth Night’ is a lighter play- it can jump in the water and gently splash its audience with comedy. ‘All’s Well’ is darker and deeper and Ryan has let it take its time delivering its ideas.
In both plays, the text is still treated with respect but there is playfulness throughout. You find it between words and between scenes as well as in every line and action. I think Ryan expresses his directorial intentions as a sensory experience. David Stalley’s sound design- from radio edits, soundscapes of locations, music overlays, pulsing heartbeats and the crackle of fate all resonate and draw us into the world and tension of the stage. Knyvett’s lighting, as mentioned before, create a complete shift in mood and location. Even if you removed all of Shakespeare's words, the lighting and sound and visuals could tell the story of each play. It’s as I said earlier- these plays are an experience because each element has been thoughtfully constructed to complete the picture in the frame and stimulate every sense for their audience. This is probably a good time to mention the number of ‘members’ on display in ‘All’s Well’. If ever playful intention and thematic enhancement married, it was there.
The designers deservedly need a mention here. Anna Gardiner’s summery design of ‘Twelfth Night’, found in platforms, pergolas, roller skates and ice-cream vans captured the lightness of the play whilst Antoinette Barboutis’ design for ‘All’s Well’ of mutli-purpose slats, army camps and hospital wards gave the play the gritty edge of this makeshift and movable world.
Alright- let’s get to the acting. We see a lot of the same faces in Sport For Jove productions and no wonder- every play brings a new challenge and a chance to work with a creative team of such complex and rewarding vision must be very difficult to give up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of their plays where James Lugton’s characters aren’t slapped or killed so if he’s still there I can only presume it’s addictive. There aren’t any weak links in the chain of performers in this Shakespeare double-header but there are a few mentionable stand outs. Anthony Gooley as Orsino has terrific comic timing and expressiveness, Megan Drury as Olivia performs with such energy and passion, Robin Goldsworthy (Malvolio) captures arrogance with such malevolence that he was both delightful and terrifying. I had students in the audience on Friday night who suffered the cutting blow of improvised dialogue from Goldsworthy and the young man in question will wear that as a badge of honour for the rest of his life. Mike Pigott as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, James Lugton as Sir Toby, Abigal Austin as Viola and Tyran Parke as Feste were all terrific and drove much of the play’s comedy.
In ‘All’s Well’, Robert Alexander took the small but significant role as the King of France and taught everyone how you can be a giant of the stage and hardly appear. Francesca Savige as Helena and Edmund Lembke-Hogan as Bertram were lovely to watch and George Banders as Parolles captured the braggart in excess and his subsequent humiliation like a lovable and redeemable version of Il Capitano. And let’s acknowledge the ensemble because they each completely commit with utter joy to every moment on stage.Terry Karabelas had maybe less than ten lines and yet his work as the priest was priceless. The ensemble are the colour in the palette that allow our protagonists and antagonists to emerge with detail and dimensions.
Look, I could go on but I’m over a thousand words and this has already taken me hours to write because I keep reliving the golden moments of each show. If I keep going, this will take you just as long to read it as it would to see it. So see it. See them both. I really enjoyed ‘Twelfth Night’ but I loved ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’. It’s been a day since I saw it and it’s still taking up space in my thoughts- its images haunt me in a surreal, ethereal way. It crept under my skin and in the second half, time passed without me noticing. I don’t think I’d ever want to see anyone else’s version of it. Let it lie there as the only way I could imagine it should be done.
And that’s what Sport For Jove does. That's what Damien Ryan does. They show you Shakespeare and make it dance off the page in action and flavour and I want to taste every moment of it.