Thursday, 13 September 2007

Casanova - West Yorkshire Playhouse & Tour

Casanova by Carol Ann Duffy and Told By An Idiot
West Yorkshire Playhouse 7th - 29th September
Directed by Paul Hunter
Designed by Naomi Wilkinson
Music composed by Iain Johnstone
Reviewed by Murray Moss

Casanova: a man who confidently slept his way around Europe, boasting of his sexual exploits and living the charmed life of a libertine, right? Wrong. As Carol Ann Duffy and Told By An Idiot relate she is a sexually confident but compassionate woman, an epicurean who refuses to be bound by conventional gender roles, as she races across Europe, meeting great historical figures such as Voltaire, Mozart and Catherine the Great, while always fleeing from her pursuing would-be gaoler, a death-like figure who casts a shadow across her otherwise charmed, risky life. In transforming him to her and allowing Casanova to be the inspiration for Voltaire's aphorisms and Mozart's operas, the piece gently questions the patriarchal versions of history and culture that we have been fed through the centuries. But, dear reader and pursuer of theatrical entertainment, this Casanova is so much more than mere historical revisionism.

This is a beautifully and wittily written text, both lyrical and simple (as in immediately accessible but not uncomplicated, like much of Carol Ann Duffy's poetry) while remaining determinedly theatrical in its language. And Told By An Idiot's performance of the piece could be described in similar terms; it is physical theatre that is deceptively simple and unostentatious: the skilful ensemble of seven actors, from Albania, Spain, Switzerland and Britain, let the story unfold with a disciplined and restrained exuberance, drawing us into their performance rather than hurling it out into the auditorium.

And this is an ensemble piece; while Hayley Carmichael is strong and vulnerable in equal measure as Casanova and provides the energetic centre to the piece, the other performers are equally impressive in playing both individual roles and as single and choric narrators of the story. Indeed it is a measure of the strength of the performers and the play that it shifts seamlessly, sometimes mid-sentence, from dramatic scene to epic narrative. My one quibble with Paul Hunter's otherwise strong and precise direction is that the occasional off-stage, microphoned narration could have been delivered on-stage by a live cast member. The dull electronic delivery of these sections of text sapped energy from the performance and seemed out of keeping with the live-ness of the main body of the piece.

But this criticism is more than made up for by the wonderfully imaginative and comic invention to be found elsewhere in the performance: a mop, bucket, cushion and two scimitars are transformed into the head, body and swollen genitalia of an ebullient and enraged bull (the ultimate metaphorical alpha-male), which is finally and very funnily tamed, charmed and seduced by the irresistible Casanova. The design too is witty, simple and complements the performance style. Idiosyncratic wigs are flown in to sit on the heads of the elegant bourgeoisie at a formal dinner; the multi-levelled black cut-out set, with a wonderful shiny black floorcloth, frames the action and is used inventively by the cast, allowing visual height and depth to be fully utilised, while the costumes act as a playful but highly actor-friendly suggestion of the 18th century when Casanova was at large. The music and soundscapes hit the note juste, providing supporting energy and emotional shadow.

And this play is so much more than a highly skilled romp. While the first half has a picaresque exuberance, the second is darker, charting Casanova's decline, as it travels towards its melancholically uplifting conclusion, beautifully and simply captured in the final moving image of Casanova swinging in an ornate, black picture frame. Top theatre.

Photos by :Keith Pattison - top; Hayley Carmichael (Casanova) bottom; Johannes Flaschberger (Company), Hayley Carmichael (Casanova) Martin Hyder

Casanova is at the WYP until 29th September and then on tour until 24th November for more information on the tour please vist Told by An Idiots website at
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