Two and a Half Heroines

John Lyly’s Gallathea at the Theaterhaus Schnürschuh

by Ian Watson

For some, the concept of ‘director’s theatre’ can send a chill up the spine – one still remembers the Theater Bremen’s embarrassing 1980s attempt to d  ress up the entire younger generation of John Osborne’s cast of Look Back in Anger as punks. Thus, for an aged reviewer, the pre-release photograph of two Elizabethan heroines posing in shell-suits in front of a Volkswagen minibus triggered tremors of scepticism. On the night, though, all doubt was dispersed. It worked, it simply worked; for this transposition of John Lyly’s now scarcely-known popular comic masterpiece from 1588 to the 1990s was nothing less than a stroke of genius. No wonder all three performances were sold out.

At this point – and not as a concluding also-ran – it is imperative to praise the stage and costume design, as well as stage management. The decision to allow Neptune literally to throne over the whole proceedings in the Schnürschuh loft (with the aid of a nerve-rackingly wobbly ladder) is a tour de force, underlying the fact that the god of the sea constantly has his eye on the plot. His long blue starry wizard costume could be both of the Globe and straight out of the glittery nineties: Will Smith velour goes to Hogwarts. Readers with hats must raise them to Imke Grothenn, Juliane Bramkamp, Kuruisha Wahid, Winny George and Laura Bostelmann. Diana’s three nymphs – Ole Herlyn, Laura Bostelmann and Anna-Sophie Fuchs – are dressed uniformly as tattooed paramilitary vigilantes in dark khaki tops and camouflaged trousers, and they act accordingly, threatening all signs of lust, until they are hexed by Cupid and start to fall in love with the maiden-boys. The lighting effects and stage choreography (Julia Arroja da Silva) are stunning as well.

Foto: Lukas Klose

The plot as labyrinth

The constellation of Lyly’s play might, with its unconventionalities, be described as Elizabethan post-modern: the Roman gods Neptune, Diana and Venus battling it out with humans as their pawns and playthings – in contemporary coastal Lincolnshire! The plot of Gallathea, however, is too windingly tortuous to be reproduced here; let an attempt to read the summary on the Wikipedia page be punishment enough. Suffice it to say, it involves the adventures of two girls – Gallathea and Phyllida – whose fathers send them separately into the woods disguised as boys to avoid being sacrificed to Neptune, who has demanded a pentannual virgin sacrifice from the villagers in revenge for their inadvertent destruction of one of his temples in the distant past. The two maidens meet and fall in love, each believing the other to be a boy. Tension increases as the girls slowly notice the feminine attributes of the other.

Alongside the love story and the divine plot (also including Cupid, beautifully and rumbustiously played by Henning Sondergeld, who is beaten up and taken as a hostage by the ultra nymphs), there is a third comic strand which Lyly manages to tie up at the denouement without the real intertwining of threads we know from Shakespeare: three brothers, Rafe, Robin and Dick (Sterling Hornack, Lisa Eisold and Romy Meine respectively) are shipwrecked and disappear into the woods to seek their fortunes separately, encountering along the way three phoney characters – the Mariner (Marcel Mehrdadi), the Alchemist and the Astronomer (both played equally comically by Aenne Pallasca). Romy Maine also doubles up well as the Alchemist’s assistant.

Gallathea in shell suits

The transfer of the play into the nineties, the great gender-debate decade, fits Lyly’s central theme like a glove. Alongside his question of the relationship between love and sexual desire (think of Patti Smith’s “Love is an angel disguised as lust”), illustrated by the struggle between Diana’s chaste notion and Venus and Cupid’s raunchier, more visceral version of love, there is the whole question of what defines gender. Lyly had to round off the gender topic conventionally, of course – Venus is assigned the task of changing one of the lovers (but which one?) into a man, so that they can marry. However, the girls have already professed their love for each other as girls. Thus, Gallathea plays with gender fluidity in a way which would have been riskily subversive for Lyly’s time. (One would love to source the reaction of Queen Elizabeth I, at whose court the play was first performed.) An added spice in the gender dish is of course that in Lyly’s day the play would have been acted completely by young men.

Annika Overlander and Concettina Trimboli’s portrayal of this complicated love is excellent, a joy to behold: they are a perfect couple, openly and courageously declaring their love from soliloquy-aside to tentative touching to hug, and then that kiss. They are, though, also very convincingly confused and doubting, each believing the other to be male but slowly realising that ‘he’ is not. Both actors have mastered the cool 1990s male hip-hop walk without sliding into the clichéd swagger of many actresses disguised as men (particularly in Shakespeare). They offer a tender maleness which bodes well for the post-plot marriage – the New Man in murderous Elizabethan London?

Foto: Lukas Klose

Neptune and chocolate cake

A further revolutionary twist of innovation is the Augur’s speech; his role is to urge the villagers to get their act together and finally sacrifice a virgin to avoid a catastrophe: ‘Bring forth the virgine, the fatall virgin, the fairest virgine, if you meane to appease Neptune, and preserve your Countrey.’ (Act V, Sc. 2) The last three words are then morphed into a speech by the current President of the United States, so that the praise of the supreme god Neptune slides back and forth between Lyly’s text and the clichés that have become all too painfully familiar:

“So great to be back in Lincolnshire. This is the clay wherein you must satisfy Neptune, terrific god, we’re old friends, and save yourselves. Call together your fair daughters, and for a sacrifice take the fairest […] If you think it against nature to sacrifice your children, think it also against sense to destroy your country. Lincolnshire first. […]  If you imagine Neptune, tremendous guy, he’s great, we have chocolate cake all the time, pitiless to desire such a prey, confess yourselves perverse, to deserve such a punishment. You see this tree, this fatal tree, it’s the best tree, terrific, it’s huge.”

The danger of this intervention, sliding into populist banality, was banished by Marcel Mehrdadi’s excellent impersonation and obviously very meticulous preparation; in the Q&A session with the audience he underlined the tiring nature of watching Trump speeches for hours. Every movement, every intonation, every nuance is perfect.

The two fathers, Tityrus and Melebeus (what wonderful Lincolnshire names!) are played admirably by Mehran Wahid and Henrik Schäfer respectively; their rivalry is peaked beautifully towards the end of the play and is so convincing that the actors continue pushing and glaring at each other even as the company is taking  their bows, in the finest tradition of method acting.

Foto: Lukas Klose

Music as the food of love

One further feature of the production is the music. Based on the two song texts which are actually in the play, Frances Byrd and Tobias Turowski have carved out songs, mostly sung by the three brothers, but also by the entire cast, which fit completely into the boy-band ambience of the nineties.

Tobis Turowski’s Neptune is squirmingly vain and tyrannical – visually Frank Zappa, but hard as Stalin inside. Through his eyes, we are not only given an ironic insight into the petty vanities of humans but also into the inhumanity of absolute power. The goddesses are divine in contrasting ways: Gabriele von Pappenheim is a dry Diana, a perfect party killer (‘shee that hateth sweete delights, envieth loving desires …’); and Frances Byrd’s Venus is marvellous fun from the moment she enters in a red tutu, corset and low neckline right up to the denouement, where she openly flirts with Neptune, even pole dancing on his trident and putting her hand very realistically under his belt. Thus she helps Neptune to ‘melt’ and eschew the virgin sacrifice.

The final scenes of the play introduce a third and completely new heroine. As the two loveliest virgins, Gallathea and Phyllida, have absconded and their fathers try to convince everyone that they never had or no longer have daughters, the villagers choose the far-from-beautiful Hebe (her father even apologises: ‘We could not finde any fairer’). In a wonderfully brave and eloquent speech –– she rages against the reasons for her fate and against society’s sacrifice of youth:

Come death, and welcome death whom nature cannot resist […] Come Agar thou insatiable Monster of Maidens blood, & devourer of beauties’ bowels, glut thy self till thou surfeit, & let my life end thine. […] Why abatest thou thy wonted swiftness? I am fair, I am a virgin, I am ready. Come Agar thou horrible monster, & farewell world thou viler Monster.

The unconventional and unexpected appearance of this new character is a masterful theatrical effect on Lyly’s part, and Anne Güse’s performance of this speech, the longest in the whole play, is an absolute show-stopper.

English theatre in Bremen: synergetic rivalry

Maiden Thought Theatre is a spin-off from The Parlement of Foules, the University of Bremen’s English-language theatre company; they have, however, recruited personnel from all over the region and from all generations – the eldest actor is apparently seventy. In a recent interview, director Frances Byrd referred to the Foules as their ‘mothership’. Several actors, including Byrd and producer Aenne Pallasca, gathered experience in the Foules, and it was a pleasure to see Foules veterans Anne Güse, Henrik Schäfer and Ole Herlyn back on stage. The two troupes can hopefully flourish side by side, the Foules commuting every six months between Shakespeare (well, soon Marlowe) and contemporary drama; and the Maidens specialising in updating Elizabethan plays for contemporary audience. Bremen can benefit from what could become a synergetic rivalry, as Good Queen Bess’ London did so profitably between that of Shakespeare and Marlowe.

The audience Q&A is a good idea and worked very well indeed: praise, feedback and genuine questions which were given robust answers. The half of the sell-out audience who chose to leave (for fear of ‘interactive’ theatre?) certainly missed a lot of insights and information. Thankfully, self-congratulation (which would have been well justified) was at an absolute minimum, and the love and solidarity among the crew was palpable.

This production makes the audience thirst for more from Maiden Thought Theatre. If this is director’s theatre, long may it live. Gallathea was – quote – ‘huge’.

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