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LOVE’S SACRIFICE Swan, Stratford upon Avon

You get plenty of cautionary tales in John Ford’s little-remembered 1633 play. For one thing, if you get three women pregnant at once with promises of marriage and then variously insult their appearance, age and morals they will take a nasty vengeance.  In front of a Cardinal, in masks, and with an anachronistic but weirdly brilliant use of 21st century ultrasound technology under their bodices.
Nor is it wise for a young courtier to spurn the Duke’s widowed sister, be she never so shrewish a cougar, claim a vow of celibacy and then get close to her beautiful young sister-in-law. No good will come of this. Especially if the spurned widow teams up with D’Avolos, a smooth, mutteringly poisonous Jonathan McGuinness. Such death-dealing intrigues are the lifeblood of vigorous, bloodthirsty 17c drama. But this play is curiously more thoughtful, and less randomly bloody, than Ford’s incestuous, murderous “Tis Pity She’s A Whore” (lately revived at the Wanamaker, (review, http://tinyurl.com/p9zenc9 ).
Indeed Love’s Sacrifice is traditionally written off as a bit of a dog’s breakfast, with its sub-plots which only confusingly mirror the main action: T.S.Eliot said it had “all the faults of which Ford was capable”. And yet, and yet…it turns out in Matthew Dunster’s admirable and physically spirited production to be far more interesting than that: ambiguous and questioning and psychologically intense.
The triple-seduction-pregnancy sideshow is briskly treated – Andy Apollo in his RSC debut season playing Ferentes like a caddish Elvis, smoothing his quiff and hauling the women around like giggling potato-sacks. Another random branch of the tale involves Matthew Kelly as a ridiculous old man with a huge white wig, yellow stockings (very Malvolio) and an endearing servant gorgeously evoked by Colin Ryan. He introduces an exiled Lord disguised as a Fool and previously rejected by the noble (yet illicitly pregnant) widow . And so on. Fear not, though: the trademark RSC clarity keeps things as credible as is decent.

In the first hour Dunster gives it the full romp-and-rampage treatment, as hypnotic religious chant shatters into high anguished impassioned fiddle shrieks and the court scamper and lark among cathedral arches and across a high wrought-iron balcony. But that contrast, sacred and profane emotions and problematical vows clashing into disaster, deepens fascinatingly as it develops. Success depends strongly on central performances, and here we are richly served. Jamie Thomas King is the decent, conflicted Fernando; Matthew Needham as the Duke carries it brilliantly from a larky, jokesome and rather endearing alpha-male laddishness to real anguish, confusion, remorse and violence. Catrin Stewart, lately so fine in The Jew of Malta, is a delicate perfection as the lovelorn wife who confesses her adoration to Fernando but vows not to go beyond a kiss for the sake of chaste wedlock.
In the second half there are some quite remarkable scenes between these three victims of “lawless love” and impossible temptation: moments as powerful as Othello, not least in a long, intense confrontation between the heartbroken confused Duke and his wife, in which Stewart delivers crazy, taunting, extraordinarily modern sentiments of defiance: thrilling. Anna Fleischle’s design, with curious iron pillars within which hellfire seems to flicker through cracks, and Alexander Balanescu’s extraordinary score, create a genuinely unsettling atmosphere and serve both the ferocity and the dark comedy of the tale perfectly.
So long-lost concepts of chastity and honour spring back to life, nearly four centuries on, and shake us. As much, indeed, as one particularly shocking moment near the end which wrenched a sharp, unison gasp across the house. It involves white funeral wreaths. Say no more.

4 Meece Rating
box office http://www.rsc.org 0844 800 1110 to 24 june
rating : four


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