Friday, 19 July 2013

Theatre review: Gabriel

After 2011's The God of Soho Shakespeare's Globe steered clear of staging new commissions for a while for, er, some reason, but this year they're jumping back in, with the casts of each of the three main Shakespearean productions each getting a premiere to work on as well. First up Dominic Dromgoole directs Samuel Adamson's Gabriel, a celebration of the music of Henry Purcell, and particularly of the trumpet, built around trumpeter Alison Balsom. Purcell himself never appears as a character, instead the play is an attempt to contextualise his music by showing us an epic sweep through London in the time of William and Mary. Our guide is John Shaw (Richard Riddell,) a talented trumpeter who becomes Purcell's preferred player and has pieces written especially for him - Balsom providing the actual music when Riddell mimes playing the instrument.

John is actually a pretty reserved character who prefers to let his trumpet do the talking for him, and so is happy to stand back and play host to a series of vignettes of the 1690s. Queen Mary II herself (Charlotte Mills) is a character, as is her nephew, Joshua James in a comic but oddly touching turn as the 6-year-old William, the hydrocephalic heir to the throne who wouldn't live to see his 12th birthday.


Much of the action though takes place in more everyday surroundings, like a memorable sketch set on a boat ferrying customers up and down the Thames, run by a riverman (Sam Cox) with all the flair for a tall tale of a modern-day cabbie. The performers of Purcell's music also get their say, with Pirate Jessie Buckley as the lesbian singer Arabella, whose voice captivated the Queen, even as the monarch enjoyed making sly digs at the open secret of her sexuality. And in the wake of the composer's critically successful but financially disastrous The Fairy Queen, the company of actors and musicians try to get their impresario (Pip Donaghy) to stop cutting their wages, all the time caught in the middle of a love quartet that mirrors the one in the opera's source material, A Midsummer Night's Dream.


With a smattering of bad language and a comicalFULL-FRONTAL MALE NUDITY ALERT!from Trevor Fox as John's older brother, an inferior trumpet player, the play is definitely hoping one of the papers headlines its review "Baroque 'n' Roll." And it's fun, although its episodic nature comes unstuck a bit in the second act, where a lot of the storylines return and we get a procession of heavier scenes that don't quite match the carnival atmosphere the first half has set up - although James Garnon as a grieving father of yet another stillborn child on the same day Queen Mary dies is predictably good. (Other roles for the Globe regular include a taciturn boatman, a grumbling opera attendee with an ulterior motive and, unlikely enough, a cherub.)


Gabriel was very warmly received and has a real sense of fun, down to the puppet birds that are a recurring feature and provide some trademark Globe depositing of bodily fluids on the groundlings. It's well-suited to the venue but I can't imagine it working anywhere else, it's too built around the Globe's resources and performance style. And in the end although it gives what feels like a good overview of the period, it doesn't feel meaty enough. It also proves that while Purcell's music may be good for many things, a jig isn't one of them.

Gabriel by Samuel Adamson is booking in repertory until the 18th of August at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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