>servant of two masters by the stage club

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 10 oct 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: the drama centre
>rating: **

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


A while ago now, a friend of mine was telling me about the latest production she was stage-managing, and she described it as commedia dell'arte. Not knowing what the heck that was supposed to mean, I quipped that the only dell'arte I knew about was café de latte di Starbucks. She didn't get it, which was sad, because we were chatting over coffee at the time. Nonetheless, I resolved to find out about what she meant.

As it turns out, commedia dell'arte, the Italian renaissance tradition of semi-improvised comedy, is a highly codified art form with an unbelievable number of rules and traditions. Historically, it was performed by practitioners who were literally born into the discipline: grandfather, son and grandson could often be found in the same touring company, and troupe members spent their whole lives perfecting their craft. As such, if you want to put on, for example, Carlo Goldoni's commedia dell'arte masterpiece, SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS, you've got to be rather careful with it. Which is not to say that you must be utterly faithful to conventions of this outmoded tradition - indeed, Goldoni's script was itself revolutionary when he wrote it - but it does mean you have to think extremely thoroughly about what you want to keep, what you want to chuck, and how you can retain the correct tone, fluidity and physicality.

>>'The whole production looked like it was into only its fifth or sixth rehearsal, and the concept of timing was substituted by that of length'

Unfortunately, it appeared that director Justin Lee hadn't thought about this at all. Lee's Venice was one of banal anachronisms and petty inconsistencies, where laminated plastic signs competed for stage time with characters decked out in full rapier-wielding pantaloonery, and where a maidservant, dressed more tartily than an open-top fruit pie, could read magazines full of naked men and then fear to set foot in a bar because they might be doing naughty things in there.

More importantly, Lee hadn't risen to the challenge set by the lazzi, commedia dell'arte's set pieces, which are often physical in nature, and which should be real showstoppers of comic virtuosity. For example, a scene where two characters argued over how to set a table should have been a real humdinger, with plates flying back and forth at lethal speed; in the event, there wasn't even a table and the whole scene was mimed - very, very badly.

Even more vitally, there was no acknowledgement that a certain style of acting is required by the play and it is just not good enough to have actors say their lines however they see fit. Commedia dell'arte is essentially a masked tradition, and whereas it is entirely valid to dispense with the masks, it is misguided to dispense with the type of performance that this implies - exuberantly unsubtle, pantomimic, physical and based on vivid stereotypes. One or two of the actors - notably Howard Young as the servant - at least attempted this style, but most did not and would have plainly been more at home, and in some cases rather good, in an Ayckbourn play.

Under the circumstances, though, this may have been a good thing. The style of acting I just described requires supreme comic timing and precision. These are only obtainable from extreme practice - especially when you factor in an improvisational element - but here, the whole production looked like it was into only its fifth or sixth rehearsal, and the concept of timing was substituted by that of length.

The technical side didn't fare much better, either. The scene change music was perplexingly inappropriate, and was perhaps the result of turning on the radio when required; the lighting was unforgivably patchy and left some actors in the dark while endowing others with teeth like fluorescent strip lights; and the set succeeded in looking identical each time it had supposedly been changed: as the old saying goes, one candlestick does not a mansion make.

And to add insult to insult to injury, two of the supporting cast numbered among the very worst I have ever seen in a local production. I won't name any names, but cast members, don't worry - if you have enough self-awareness to suspect that I mean you, I almost certainly don't.

It's all a great shame, because despite being one of the very few local theatre groups to admit to being amateur, The Stage Club has generally been one of the more professional in terms of output. Not this time. Truffaldino, the hapless servant of the play's title, at least has an excuse for his shoddy service. The Stage Club, as far as I am aware, does not.