Chaps and ladies

For once the dread word “reinvention” can be justified, when applied to Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein’s production of Oklahoma! At the Young Vic, so successful is this revival in both brightening and darkening familiar material. White trestle tables surround the acting area, bearing slow cookers ready for a cook-out and corncobs waiting to be shucked. Cast members lounge or stretch out on the tables between their scenes. Beer cans (serried ranks of Bud Light) are there to provide refreshment, but the snapping open of their pop-tops can also add emphasis to the beat of a song. On the theater walls are gun racks full of weapons, to remind visitors that their welcome is not unconditional.

The musicians are placed in the acting area, but in lowered sections, so that they remain part of the action without disrupting the sightlines. They and the actors alike wear low-key western duds, plaid shirts and denims, nothing that would raise eyebrows at a line-dancing class in Stow-on-the-Wold, except perhaps the chaps worn by those playing actual cowboys. For the box dance in the second act the costume designer (Terese Wadden) changes up a few gears, producing in one or two cases approximations to full-on cowgirl couture.

The arrangements (by Daniel Kluger, with Tom Brady the musical director) are unobtrusively magnificent. Instrumentation is strongly characterized, with banjo, mandolin and pedal steel guitar contributing to a down-home feel. Changes in dynamics and texture, vocal and instrumental, deliver a satisfying sense of variety within a single song. The hero, Curly (Arthur Darvill), carries his guitar for considerable stretches of his time on stage – he’s as much troubadour as cowboy in his courting of Laurey (Anoushka Lucas), whose loudly protested indifference doesn’t fool much. They’re a prairie Beatrice and Benedick who don’t need a great deal of plot contrivance to end up in each other’s arms.

When Laurey helps Aunt Eller to knock up some pancake mix as if this was more interesting than listening to Curly, she incidentally shows up the slight drawback of this minimalist though busy style of staging, in which props of almost pop-art vividness are unsupported by a realistic context. That milk and flour, those eggs, they’re all real, but once beaten together they have fulfilled their on-stage function – there’s nothing to be done but to escort the redundant batter discreetly off the acting area, through a door that opens up in the back wall.

There are vocal stylings here that Richard Rodgers would not countenance, but they aren’t generally allowed to bend the songs out of shape. It’s true that Marisha Wallace, as Ado Annie, treats herself to an orgy of melisma as she embarks on her signature song, but the way her excessive performance strains against the framework of the musical number makes perfect sense. The inability to recognize boundaries is the entire point of “I’m Just a Girl Who Cain’t Say No”, gloriously hammered home by every line. Elsewhere she shows herself as capable of precision as any other member of the cast.

The staging gives plenty of scope for flirtatious interaction with the front row. British audiences aren’t always comfortable with this abolition of safe distance, as if theater-in-the-round somehow meant being close to the actors without letting them be close to you. Here it is done with warmth and charm, and an underlying sense that this troupe is so drilled, it can afford spontaneity.

It’s not just the women. James Davis as Will Parker, the dumb hunk who loves Ado Annie, one of two holdovers from the New York cast, gives a winning (in fact award-winning) performance of half-spoofed sexiness. At one point he wakes up, after dozing under his hat in a languorous position sprawled round one of the slow cookers, and lifts its lid, lazily fanning his midsection with the steam that bills out.

The darkness in Oklahoma! is hard to hide, even in the most unadventurous production – the figure of Jud Fry (played by Patrick Vaill, the other holdover from Broadway) looks like an early sketch of two types we imagine to be totally modern, the stalker and the involuntary celibate seething with grievance. As the hired hand, Jud occupies a middle ground between the farmer and the cowboy, whose different and perhaps incompatible ways of life underpin the action. It’s all very well singing that “the farmer and the cowman should be friends”, but disputes over putting up fences and access to water can’t be solved by a square dance. The plot implications are enough to be getting on with: if he marries Laurey, Curly will have to learn a whole new way of earning his living, tied to the land; Meanwhile, Jud is in effect a fox with full henhouse access. Laurey is uneasy in his presence from the start of the show, though she’s not above stringing him along to make Curly jealous.

The scene between the two men in the smokehouse where Jud lives, culminating in the song “Pore Jud Is Daid”, is played here in darkness. I don’t mean low-level lighting, an effect that has been used earlier in the show to shift a song into a more intimate, heartfelt register, but absolute darkness. It’s a rare thing to experience in the modern theater – when I saw Lisa Dwan performing Beckett’s Not I In the West End, I asked the staff why they couldn’t turn out the emergency exit signs for the duration (since the text stipulates a single light source), and was told that this would contravene health and safety regulations. At the Young Vic there is a total blackout, legal or not, in which the men’s naked voices take on a queasy intimacy.

After a while Jud’s face, filmed with a night-vision camera, is projected into the back wall, bleached and unwholesome, but also abject and defenseless. As the song goes on, Curly’s face is similarly projected, his pupils huge and zombie-black since they have expanded in the darkness. The effect, erasing the difference between the two men’s characters, is unsettling and rightly so, since Curly is tempting Jud to suicide on the basis that only after he has killed himself will people say nice regretful things about him. The means are hi-tech, but they faithfully serve the material.

Fish and Fein move the “dream ballet”, which represents Laurey’s uncertain frame of mind, from the end of the first half to the beginning of the second. It’s hard to believe that diehard Rodgers and Hammerstein fans would riot if it was cut, though at least reviving Agnes de Mille’s choreography would have some antiquarian interest. Instead we see Marie-Astrid Mence wearing a T-shirt that reads “DREAM BABY DREAM” and dancing to John Heginbotham’s frantically whirling steps, accompanied by copious dry ice and a distorted electric guitar medley of the show’s tunes. At some point heavy objects fall from the ceiling, no doubt packed with symbolic significance, but failing the test of visibility in my case, thanks to the restricted views that are part and parcel of in-the-round staging, with or without an intervening mist.

Sensitive young people may find the barrage of noise upsetting, but veterans who remember Hendrix’s feedback-strangled “Star-Spangled Banner” will remain calm. The smoke from the dry ice is more of a problem, no less choking for being artificial, and hanging around for some time after the end of the dream ballet. This acrid fog shrouds the beginning of the next scene (the celebratory box dance) with an eeriness that may not be intended.

More successful is the handling of Jud’s desperate end. The weapon involved is a gun (rather than the knife of the original), handed by Jud to Curly as if to provoke an assisted suicide in accordance with the earlier scene. When the gun goes off, red dye is hurled backwards onto Curly, while Jud, though unmarked, walks calmly behind him to lie down and die. As a result, Curly, who was wearing white to get married, leaves for his honeymoon marked more or less head to foot with blood. This is visually striking, but perhaps rather arbitrary in its daubing on of guilt. The point that it isn’t always easy to tell the difference between the rugged individualists who can be harnessed and the psychopaths who will destroy everything was made more eloquently earlier on, in the dark.

After the freshness of this Oklahoma! Bartlett Sher’s revival of My Fair Lady for ENO seems on the stale side, a work of curatorship rather than re-creation, despite a few departures from tradition. Eliza Doolittle is played by Amara Okereke, though this isn’t a radical take on the work, substituting race for class, so much as a high-profile piece of colour-blind casting, perfectly justified by its results, but suggesting a spirit of adventure not otherwise in evidence. The enormous set of Henry Higgins’s Wimpole Street house trundles upstage and back down again, people charge relentlessly up and down its spiral staircase, it revolves again and again, as if giving prospective purchasers a full tour of the property.

Treated with so much respect, Lerner and Loewe’s show seems fatally underpowered. Henry Higgins’s patter songs, “Why Can’t the English?” and “A Hymn to Him”, are like soggy Noël Coward (Coward was originally offered the role), while the dreamiest number, “On the Street Where You Live”, is sung by a character whose only function is to sing it. The song also features a couplet – “All at once am I / several stories high” – that epitomizes the laziness of the show, what with the clumsy reversal of word order required to secure its dull rhyme, the dismally vague “several” and that clangingly American “stories” in a show set in London, a solecism that sticks out like a sore skyscraper.

Okereke is uncertain and shouty to begin with, but by the second half she starts to carry all before her. It turns out that the combination of underclass righteousness and received pronunciation is unbeatable, and though this isn’t far from being the premiss of the show, it isn’t exactly dramatic. Her Henry Higgins (Harry Haddon-Paton) is an overgrown posh boy rather than a crusty tyrant, as the role is usually played, originally by Rex Harrison and more recently by Jonathan Pryce.

In two scenes Sher’s production diverges markedly from the original. Alfred Doolittle’s stag do becomes an orgy of cancan dancers and cross-dressing that seems to offer theatergoers a consolation prize for not being able to get into Cabaret. More importantly, in this version Eliza deserts Higgins at the end, walking into the audience’s space to make the finality of her exit explicit. Bernard Shaw was enough of an Ibsenite to have made his heroine a Cockney Nora if he had wanted to – in fact, if you look at the ending of the play Pygmalion, he left that possibility open. (The musical My Fair Lady follows the ending from the 1938 film of Pygmalion.) Eliza refuses to run errands and walks out, even if Higgins takes it for granted that she will do his bidding and return, which may only make him a Torvald, too self-absorbed to notice that he has been left. Sher’s new ending is much less satisfactory, since Eliza has already said her farewells to Higgins. Returning and then leaving again makes her either a ditherer or a tease.

Catherine Zuber has the task of designing costumes that avoid competition with one of the most celebrated scenes in film and theater history, Cecil Beaton’s monochrome designs for Ascot, supposedly modelled on those he remembered from the 1910 meeting, when mourning for the King ruled out color . She opts for nondescript pastels and dove grays, saving rich hues for the embassy ball. In the Ascot scene, nevertheless, comes a welcome moment of design magic. A vast striped cloth is hoist above the stage facing the audience. It turns through ninety degrees, has its sides pulled up to form a gull’s-wing shape, and behold – an elegant implied marquee, upheld by unseen wires and the audience’s belief in it. It’s the one effect in a three-hour show that relies on imagination rather than labour.

Adam Mars-Jones‘s novelBatlava Lakewas published last year

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