A Trio of Tragedies

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Originally written for Exeunt.

In this year’s rep season from The Faction, there are a hell of a lot of corpses. Across the span of the trio of tragedies – Hamlet, Thebes and The Robbers – the body count is staggeringly high. If one were to characterise the company’s third season of work in a few words, dark, violent and bloody immediately jump to mind.

Reductive as this is, there is something about death, both as an abstract idea and a concrete reality, which haunts all three productions. When I spoke to The Faction’s artistic director Mark Leipacher about this new season, he explained that the company did not have any overarching theme or narrative in mind when they put together the programme; their priority was simply to find work that engaged and excited them. Still, the simple placing of these plays alongside one another invites a dialogue between them, a dialogue which is repeatedly preoccupied with mortality.

There is perhaps no more famous theatrical consideration of life and death than Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Hamlet’s fame and familiarity are often albatrosses to sling around the shoulders of new productions, all of which must fall under the burden of the play’s reputation. The Faction’s interpretation, directed by Leipacher, suffers a little from this predicament. Compared with previous productions of theirs, there is an uncharacteristic timidity to their approach; few moments match the visual boldness of their best work, and there is the sense that each actor is deeply aware of the weight of the words falling from their lips.

That said, there are some intriguing touches to this Hamlet. The characterisation of the procrastinating protagonist himself is perhaps the most striking departure, as Jonny McPherson plays the Dane less as a conflicted hero and more as a whining egotist. Amidst tentative attempts to wrench something new out of the play, this comparatively brave choice stands out, offering novel and occasionally unexpected resonances to Shakespeare’s words. The ever-compelling Derval Mellett, meanwhile, makes a fascinating and nuanced Ophelia, adding vivid colour to a role that can often feel lightly sketched.

The season really hits its stride, however, with Thebes, Gareth Jandrell’s ambitious attempt to slot together the full story of the Oedipus dynasty from the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus. It stands out as the clear highlight of this year’s programme, offering this most famous of classical sagas in a form that makes it feel thrillingly fresh. What adds the sense of urgency and momentum is primarily the production’s shift of focus; as signalled by the title, it is the city and its beleaguered people who become the heart of the narrative. This city is both Thebes and nowhere, The Faction’s non-specific updating dislocating it from time and place and positioning it instead as a potent metaphor for power, corruption and revolution.

Following the template established by McPherson’s moody Hamlet, The Faction are unafraid to highlight the tragic flaws of their privileged but doomed characters, who are increasingly detached from the seething masses they rule. Lachlan McCall brings arrogant swagger to the ill-fated Oedipus, while his two sons are suitably vile, self-centred and ruthless in their competition for the throne. This is an elite who are either blindly wrapped up in their own problems or coldly fixated on power. Cary Crankson – another performer who impresses across all three productions – epitomises this calculated power-grabbing with his Creon, a supremely slippery politician who soothes with one hand as he snatches with the other.

The pulse of the piece, however, lies firmly with the people. In Rachel Valentine Smith’s production, the Chorus are transformed into a writhing, revolutionary mob, variously whispering, sighing and stamping at the edges of the action. When gathered together in this crowd, the ensemble move fluidly as one, exploiting the physical vocabulary that they have developed over years of working together. This is where the muscularity of previous work returns in force, creating a population to be reckoned with and a sparse but captivating visual aesthetic to match Jandrell’s lyrical, punchy script.

Following the epic scope and revolutionary fire of Thebes, the scrappy, overblown drama ofThe Robbers feels like a significant step down. This is a remounted production for The Faction and forms a key part of their project to stage the complete works of Schiller, but it is far from the playwright’s best, lacking the tense political machinations of Mary Stuart and Fiesco, which were showcased in The Faction’s last two rep seasons. Here, instead, the drama is centred on a father and his two sons, the younger of whom attempts to usurp his older brother. It is all blood and passion, heightened to the extent that it frequently tips over into melodrama.

There is still the muscular approach of The Faction’s preferred aesthetic, alongside some inventive visual devices. Chalk is a key material, used first to compose the letters that seal the fate of cast out older brother Karl and later by Karl’s band of rebels to strikingly tally up the men they kill on their numerous rampages. It is in the scenes between these eponymous robbers that the production is at its strongest, once again playing on the group’s strength as an ensemble to build a convincing sense of camaraderie. At their centre, overshadowing conflicted Karl, is Crankson as the cocksure, rebellious Spiegelberg. Yet even Crankson’s undeniable charisma flags in the final scenes, as the bodies stack up and the overwrought emotion becomes wearing in its relentlessness.

After the slightly more cluttered sets of last year, this season wisely reverts to The Faction’s bare, stripped back minimalism, using the New Diorama’s black box studio and their own bodies as canvas and paint. The bare black wall is particularly well used, whether seemingly being held up by the defending soldiers of Thebes or treated as a giant blackboard in The Robbers. In this largely empty space, the brilliant work of lighting designers Chris Withers (Hamlet and Thebes) and Matthew Graham (The Robbers) is crucial in carving up the scenes, skilfully offering both shape and atmosphere. Light spills in from offstage, casting interesting shadows, or glows dimly from a single, dangling light bulb. In line with the morbid subject matter, gloomy visual landscapes abound.

This is now the third year in a row that I have attended The Faction’s annual rep season, allowing a line to be traced through their work over that time. In many ways this year feels like a return to the company’s essential aims and aesthetics, focusing on the kinds of text and staging that most enthuse and inspire them. There is also, of course, the return to one of their landmark productions with The Robbers, but this fails to match up to the best of what they have created since. It is instead in Thebes, arguably The Faction’s most ambitious work to date, that the company’s aspirations and strengths are found in their purest form: a bare but thrilling staging, an approach to classics that makes them feel like they were written yesterday, and an unshakeable faith in the power of the ensemble.

Photos: Richard Davenport.

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