SEASIDE, BUT NOT QUITE CIRCUS
It should have been fantastic: a site innately theatrical, a celebration of Shakespeare year at the heart of the always sparky Norfolk and Norwich Festival (which has in recent years led me through deep woods with wolves, dangled me from a tree all night and led me through Dinner With Alice). The 1904 Hippodrome is the only Edwardian circus building still standing in the UK, one of three in the world and the only one capable of being flooded for water-ballets. It was an ammo dump in the war, its cherubs shot to pieces for target practice; it still has extraordinary hand-coloured frescoes of St George, echoing tiles and creepy backstairs. Its vibe is spooky-yet-festive. It’s something to see, a wonder of the East. You itch to put on Dracula or Jekyll and Hyde here.
Director William Galinksy pays respect to the building’s normal life by recruiting Lost in Translation Circus to evoke Ariel’s magical powers : the stately Jane Leaney at ground level gets a beautifully expressive trapezing avatar overhead, and a troop of sinister faceless spirits in skintight black from head to toe. They mime and dive and vanish through underwater exits once the floor has sunk dramatically to reveal the big deep pool , around which a sloping gold walkway shines like a magic ring.
Yet somehow, painful to relate, it doesn’t really come off. Galinsky takes it more or less straight, and surprisingly long for this short play (2 hrs 45). Prospero is impressive: Tony Guilfoyle giving him from the start an itchy, angry resentment which is only just quelled in the final scenes; Pia Laborde Noguez is a sweet Miranda, tomboyishly earnest. Of the others, Colin Hurley’s Stephano is genuinely funny, having (appropriately for the building’s age) the air of a vaudeville bruiser in a bowler hat, with a cowed Trinculo. Caliban is Graeme McKnight, interpreted here as a hunched, furious hoodie, not unrecognizable if you’ve just walked past the Great Yarmouth arcades on a Saturday night. Several cast members fall or dive into the pool, though I would wish for the sake of rumbustiousness that the two clowns had done it a lot earlier in their full tweed suits, bowler-hats floating pathetically above them.
But that rumbustiousness is lacking, and so is the magic: the spirit- feast is ingenious, with a 2ft high floating fruit croquembouche, but the fertility masque for some reason is interpreted as a sort of drunken Playschool baby-mobile, with Juno, or possibly Ceres, as a giant demented bumblebee. The lethal thing, though, is the way the pace flags, often and all through: you start to suspect that there was not enough rehearsal time in the difficult, intricate walkway-and-watersplash surroundings for Galinsky (a famously good festival director here and in Cork) to rethink, take risks, work on the cast’s full passionate understanding of the text, and speed it up.
The heart of the failure, though, is probably just a mismatch. This huge, weird, majestic, slightly sinister building is built for circus and spectacular, for gasps and cheers and unbridled merriment. It’s a sort of lowlife Royal Albert Hall. So anything you put in it demands high energy, cheek and nerve; this doesn’t provide it.
box office http://www.nnfestival.org.uk to 21 May