The Enchanters | The Prickly Pear EnsembleLeft – David McLeod (center) and cast. Cover – the cast. Photos – Trent Suidgeest

If you have ever been to the reproduction Shakespeare’s Globe in London, you’ll know what magical, awe-inspiring structures Elizabethan theatres were. These ‘wooden O’s’ provided the backdrop for wars, political assassinations, woodland romances and tragic courtly love. However, they were also the source of many a dispute themselves, the most famous of which involved Richard Burbage, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and of course, William Shakespeare.

In 1598-1599, to resolve a rental dispute, Richard Burbage and the Lord Chamberlain’s men dismantled ‘The Theatre’ as it was then known, and transported it across the frozen Thames, to be re-built on the southern bank as ‘The Globe’. In its new form, the Globe teetered on the brink between success and despair, caught between the most prosperous and productive period of writing in Shakespeare’s history, and the treasonous political machinations of the Elizabethan court.

Enter The Enchanters. Presented by The Prickly Pear Ensemble and the City of Perth as part of the Winter Arts Festival, The Enchanters uses this fraught period of theatre history as a springboard, and explores ‘the private and professional battles of Shakespeare’s company of actors, their supporters and enemies, as they gamble everything on completing the (Globe) theatre in time for the upcoming theatrical season’.

Written by local playwright John Aitken, The Enchanters was inspired by both the history of the Globe and the more recent completion of the new State Theatre Centre of Western Australia in Northbridge where the production took place. It is as verbose and involved as you’d expect for a play about Shakespeare and Elizabethan England, however it lacked the accessibility and warmth required to really make it shine, or to quote, ‘enchant’.

One of the main issues with this play was the sheer volume of historical knowledge required by the audience to keep up with the action. Names and events were thrown about so freely and quickly, that if you weren’t as savvy as the playwright assumed you were, you would have been incredibly lost. I was saved from obscurity several times by my English and Elizabethan history loving companion, but I doubt many other audience members had such a luxury.

Conversely, this was at odds with the declamatory and presentational performance style, which seemed to be aimed at the back and front rows of the auditorium simultaneously. It overemphasised actions and dialogue with a busy and energetic performance style which seemed to lack underlying substance and drive. My companion and I couldn’t figure out whether this was a stylistic choice designed to emulate the historical Elizabethan/Shakespearean acting style, or was aimed to help the audience follow the plot. Whatever the intent, it had a rather distancing effect, and prevented you from becoming involved or attached to the characters and their struggles.

The distancing effect of the performance style was also carried across into the costume design. Similar to his previous Shakespearean show with The Prickly Pear Ensemble, R + J as performed by William Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton, director/designer John Senczuk utilised a historical and modern approach to the costume design, which tied in with Aitken’s desire to parallel the building of the Globe and the State Theatre Centre. The performers wore relatively neutral or modern day military wear, sometimes with Elizabethan pieces to delineate changes in character. Conversely, the Earl of Essex (Andrew Hale) wore predominantly modern day military wear, complete with flak jacket and sunglasses, but teemed with an Elizabethan rapier. Rather than make the narrative universal, the costume design became confusing and alienating, especially when Essex stood next to Queen Elizabeth I (Edgar Metcalfe), who when decked out in full court regalia, looked like she jumped straight out of an historical painting.

That being said, the set design by Senczuk was wonderfully versatile. The simple, utilitarian scaffold design enabled the action to pass from the Globe Theatre, to the Elizabethan courts and taverns and back again with relative ease. This was supported by the subtle but effective lighting design by Trent Suidgeest and sound design by James Luscombe.

For the most part too, despite my misgivings with the style, the performances by the cast were satisfactory. The all-male company had delightful camaraderie and chemistry, and worked brilliantly at representing the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Standouts were Andrew Hale, who showed subtle versatility as the bawdy clown William Kempe, and intimidating Earl of Essex. Ian Toyne and Richard Mellick were strong as company leaders Augustine Phillips and Richard Burbage, and Nick Candy was wonderfully utilised as musician and clown Robert Armin. The last vignette between Armin and Shakespeare (Nick Maclaine) was particularly effective and surprisingly moving.

All in all though, I can’t help but feel that perhaps, Perth was the wrong audience for this play. It was such a ‘niche’ show, about a specific point in history, and the playwright and director’s attempts to make it universal and relevant to current times unfortunately missed their mark. Maybe it would be more successful in the United Kingdom, and in an ideal world, on the great stage of Shakespeare’s Globe itself.

The Prickly Pear Ensemble present
by John Aitken

Venue: State Theatre Centre of WA | Corner of William and Roe Sts, Perth
Dates: May 31 – June 4, 2011
Duration: approx 2 hours and 20 minutes (including interval)
Bookings: 08 9484 1133 |

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