Theatre in Wales

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Let the Play Speak


Welsh College of Music and Drama- the Speculator , Caird Studio, WCMD , April 3, 2009
At RWCMD by Welsh College of Music and Drama- the Speculator A bank balloons out of all control and collapses spectacularly. Bailiffs move in and start stripping a house. An enraged crowd gathers outside the mansion of the Scottish banker who has destroyed their capital; no, not Morningside in 2009 but Paris in 1720 in this cannily timed revival of David Greig’s “The Speculator.”

David Greig is Scotland's one-man theatrical army with forty-three plays to his name. His “Damascus” currently on a world tour- minus a single line of dialogue in the Syrian capital itself- has subtleties and undertones that are missing from his 1999 play. It is very much a young man's play in which history is painted in bright Fauvist strokes rather than with Chardinesque precision. There are guns and knives, bed scenes, nudity and a torture victim- these last two thankfully omitted in this production.

Theatre and ruinous finance rub up against one another with some easy ironies “Theatre doesn't tell us anything” says Pierre Marivaux, that most political of playwrights. It is the financiers, he says, who “imagine a possibility and have the courage to force it into existence.” Playwrights “only write what people want to hear.”

With a large cast and period costume it is a text that should play to the WCMD's strengths. I am sure I recognised a dress from “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”. Greig's language is as far as can be from the cool venom that Christopher Hampton put to use. F-words fly as freely in this aristocratic Paris as in the Baltimore of “the Wire.” Marivaux dismisses fellow writer Voltaire as an “arrogant little f-----r”

By way of history the forty-nine year old John Law was at the time Controller General of Finances in France, and according to Greig, the world’s richest man (a status that reportedly passed to Cardiff’s 2nd Marquess of Bute a century later.) With its colloquial language, its action and series of brisk scenes it is a play that asks only to be played crisply and cleanly.

The start was promising, the Caird studio unrecognisable, its concrete pillar artfully disguised. In the smoky half-light the ten actors were strolling, pulling up white stockings and strapping on swords. The audience was divided into two facing blocks, the cast playing in the space between.

The first scene was played quite static, two characters high on a bench man facing each another. This lack of movement was repeated in most of the following scenes. It was also clear that there was to be no pretence that these are aristocrats.

When the major character John Law made his first appearance he was placed, unmovingly, next to a light shining straight at me. The face of the actor could not be seen. The play ended with something taking place on a vast and gleaming Harley Davidson. The motorbike was so placed that its headlights shone straight in my eyes; the climactic action was thus invisible.

The third scene, in which music switched from Vivaldi to punk, was incomprehensible. With an audience placed either side of the action it is important in the blocking that a main speaker should not be hidden by another actor. This basic rule was not kept. On occasion characters six feet apart addressed one another through microphones.

Repeatedly the cast had to speak against a competing soundtrack. An actor I have seen before, and admired, had to hold a scene against not only other cast members talking but also Bob Dylan singing “Everyone Must Get Stoned”. Scorsese can do this but in a film Scorsese has total control over his sound and image. It would tax a member of the RSC to make his presence felt; it is simply unfair to give it to a gifted student.

If a scene is to be done without benefit of light, lines need to be got out forcefully, not in an under-powered manner. The focus on technical was matched by an inattention to Greig's text. Lines of nine or ten words were frequently spoken on a single breath and robbed of the right stress and intonation. Two person scenes, played with hardly any movement, lacked the rhythm and variation that the playwright had given them. It is a small thing but as an example of the lack of attention the name of the main character was mispronounced throughout.

I am not going to mention the players because I consider them to have been seriously under-served. Like the shadows thrown around the many half-lit scenes there were hints of gifts and talents that deserved to have been seen out in the full light.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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