The Wolf from the Door, Royal Court

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Middle England is revolting. Flower arrangers are building bombs, the Morris dancers have their axes at the ready and the village choir are armed with AK47s. In Rory Mullarkey’s new play, violent overthrow is instigated not on city streets but in provincial church halls. Unlike the urban unrest that Alecky Blythe has attempted to capture over at the Almeida, the Royal Court is staging an altogether more parochial brand of revolution.

On the surface, this vision of OAPs raiding Buckingham Palace and pub quizzers razing the City of London to the ground is deliciously absurd. The idea that cosy rural villages are brimming with hidden discontent is not necessarily new, but there’s still plenty of comic mileage in revealing the violent predilections of hobbyists preparing for armed insurrection. Beneath that very English humour of incongruity, however, is a much trickier play.

At the close of Men in the Cities, Chris Goode poses the implicit, troubling question of whether now is the time for violence. Whether it’s even a question is debateable, but certainly the possibility of violence is powerfully present in the final sequence. Or, in Goode’s words, “fuck ‘em”. Mullarkey’s play imagines that violence into reality, but in ways that vividly, surreally animate its complications. Must a two finger salute to the state be accompanied by machine gun fire?

Lady Catherine, the steely aristocrat spearheading the revolution dreamed up by Mullarkey, certainly thinks so. “This is the only way to start again,” she insists, briskly preparing to smash apart her own privilege. The ever-extraordinary Anna Chancellor inhabits the role as only she can, somehow blending cool, wry disdain with an incendiary – yet always dignified – passion for radical change.

The play follows Catherine and Leo, her rootless young protégé, as they spark the uprising from coffee mornings, supermarkets and roadside cafes, sending out a flare to community groups across the country. Lady Catherine advocates “the beautiful violence which brings change”, but with seemingly little thought as to what that change might actually be. Equality is the one certainty; everything else is a bit woolly.

This vagueness about the new order is just one of the many facets of Mullarkey’s revolutionary vision that make it far more interesting and problematic than it initially appears. This is no straightforward rebellion. Aside from the absurdity of a-capella groups and historical re-enactors tearing down the halls of government, there is something complicatedly ironic about a society brought down from the top. For all the distrust of hierarchy, it is still the toffs who lead the way.

The leader who is to be installed when these revolutionary elites honourably allow themselves to be liquidated, meanwhile, is an intriguingly blank slate. Leo, a naive yet mysterious figure as played by Calvin Demba, has no job, no home, no family. And like the elusive Messiah figure at the heart of Mike Bartlett’s 13, whose only belief is belief, he is remarkably empty of opinions. This unlikely, semi-Biblical saviour, paired with the surprising source of the play’s revolutionary fervour, seems almost to skewer the whole possibility of violent overthrow.

To complicate matters further, ambivalence around revolutionary violence is built right into the theatrical framework of James Macdonald’s production. Not so much as a drop of blood is spilled on stage all evening, as visceral brutality is replaced with the cool, distanced reading of stage directions (“he chops his head off”; “she shoots her in the head”). In a theatre with such a history of represented violence, it’s a curious choice, and one that immediately raises a question mark over the use of force. It also begs questions of the whole practice of representation on stage, not quite taking a torch to theatrical convention but certainly tearing away at some of its illusions.

Tom Pye’s design is similarly multi-layered and self-aware. There’s a feeling of the community hall about the green plastic chairs and fold-up tables that stand in for all of the play’s locations, flanked by village fete-style white marquees in place of wings. It all beautifully sends up the bunting festooned “Keep Calm and Carry On” aesthetic, without ever being too smug about it. I’m less convinced, however, by the large screen at the back of the stage, onto which is projected scene numbers and images to indicate the setting at any given time. It adds to both the strangeness and constructedness of the drama, but to uncertain effect.

Uncertainty is a lingering sensation throughout The Wolf from the Door. Take the relationship between Catherine and Leo. At one level, their dynamic embeds a crucial question about the efficacy of individual care and action versus the greater ambitions of ideological and systemic change. Or, to put it another way, what use is revolution without compassion? But this central pairing is also trying to do something else, culminating in a lacklustre and surprisingly sentimental couple of closing scenes which frustratingly undercut much of what has gone before.

For all its wonkiness, however, there’s something compelling and oddly galvanising about this peculiar allegorical drama. It also features some truly stunning scenes, the standout among these being a one-sided exchange between a mini-cab driver and passengers Catherine and Leo, which is a blackly comic combination of the mundane and Beckettian. From the bleak patter of the writing to the precise rhythms of Pearce Quigley’s delivery, it is exquisitely excruciating. And perhaps it’s here, in presenting the indignity of this everyday despair, that the play’s real politics reside.

Photo: Stephen Cummiskey.

Così Fan Tutte, London Coliseum

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Originally written for Exeunt.

How to solve the silliness and dodgy sexual politics of Mozart and De Ponte’s comic opera? Director Phelim McDermott’s answer is to embrace and subvert both at the same time, while gleefully transplanting the whole thing to the fairground. In this new ENO production, created in partnership with Improbable, the two pairs of lovers are vacationing in 1950s Coney Island, surrounded by the vivid swirl of the carnival. In this environment, where nothing is quite as it appears, it hardly seems surprising that the two men would reappear to their beloveds in the guise of teddy boys in the plot’s central test of fidelity. Here, the usual rules are suspended and all bets are off.

This colourful framework established, the concept allows McDermott and his creative team to riff playfully on their theme, balancing invention upon invention. From its joyfully witty curtain-raiser onwards, this Così Fan Tutte is a dazzling sideshow of visual ingenuity. Tom Pye’s stunning design, complemented by beautifully evocative lighting from Paule Constable, is every bit as enchanting as Mozart’s music – all brilliant colour, twinkling fairy lights and dramatic sunsets. McDermott’s direction has fun with the pliable playground that Pye has created, finding cheeky solutions to the story’s subtext. The lovers bounce euphemistically on carousel horses, while the revolving chambers of the motel where sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella are staying hint mischievously at the women’s fickle passions.

The performers, too, inject an infectious sense of fun into Da Ponte’s story of love, confusion and deceit – none more so than Mary Bevan, whose sparkling Despina is deliciously manipulative in her nudging of the two women being cruelly tricked by their fiancés. Christine Rice’s spirited Dorabella is wonderfully unapologetic in the swift transferral of her desire, while Fiordiligi’s eventual submission to her feelings is made all the more affecting by the journey that Kate Valentine takes us on. The men lag behind both vocally and in the vividness of their characterisations, although Marcus Farnsworth and Randall Bills both attack the seduction sequences with energy and brio, and it’s a neat touch to have Roderick Williams’ charismatic Don Alfonso as the scheming ringmaster of the ensemble of circus performers.

But it’s not all about the fun of the fair. Beneath the amusement and allure, there is a grubby underside to the Coney Island setting, offering a necessary counterpoint to the candyfloss silliness of the plot. There’s an uncomfortable sleaziness sitting under the opening scene between Don Alfonso and the officers, hinting lightly at the misogyny implied in the opera’s central wager. Improbable’s skills ensemble, meanwhile, provide a brilliant visual commentary on events from their hovering presence in the background of scenes. As Fiordiligi and Dorabella expressively grieve and swoon, stall-tenders roll their eyes and chew gum; the saccharine romance of the seduction scenes is offset by sword swallowing and bearded women.

The function of this constant undercutting is to question the normalised wooing and manipulation deployed by Guglielmo and Ferrando and prevent the main thrust of the plot, which is gorgeously funny in this telling, from becoming a mere harmless comedy of disguises. There is certainly an emphasis on the lighter, more amusing aspects of the opera in McDermott’s production, enhanced by the sparkling wit of Jeremy Sams’ English translation, but the use of contrast also points up the ridiculousness and cruelty of the central plot device. In the fairground workers and sideshow performers, we find a foil and an alternative.

And the fairground itself, like one of Shakespeare’s forests, acts as a liminal, magical space – an arena in which anything can happen. Just as we delight in the surface humour and beauty of McDermott’s production, we might relish the escape that this space can offer, but grey, complicated reality always waits just around the corner.