Melbourne academic and playwright Enzo Condello’s ambitious play asks, and answers, the question: who was Shakespeare thinking of when he wrote such lines as ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ Shakespeare’s deathless sonnets to the dark lady, according to Condello, were written for a woman of Italian heritage called Emilia Bassano. This play tells their story, that of an adulterous affair, a commonplace tale of a passion that inspired those words we know so well. On the whole Shakespeare and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets works well and is an enjoyable production for anyone who appreciates Shakespeare. The language has moments of radiance (albeit with an occasional clunky moment), and Condello excels in creating scenes with a strong Shakespearian flavor, if not with an equivalent sense of dramatic tension.
This production of Condello’s homage to Shakespearean language is gifted by the presence of Arta Mucaj as Emilia, a powerful actor who is just met by the rest of the cast, notably Darren Mort as Lord Hunsden and Marc Antony, and by Jamaica Zuanetti doing a turn as Elizabeth II and as Titania towards the end. James Rosier delivers a charismatic and romantic Shakespeare, really coming into his own in the second act. It's a demanding role and Rosier is convincing throughout. Both Tommy Kay in a triple role and Tanya Walker as Anne seem too contemporary in their respective roles, as though they’re in another production altogether; a lack of heightened delivery here belies the mood of the play. Much is uneven. Direction (by Chris Hosking) sometimes has the main action happening at the back of the stage, an odd choice given that not all of the actors are strong in projection – I struggled to hear Tanya Walker at times, for instance. The set comprises pillars of scraps of paper, simple and effective. Costuming is very nicely economical yet evocative.
The play suffers from being compared to Shakespeare’s dramas since Condello’s plot is essentially a vehicle for language. Take away the monumental stature of the protagonist and not that much happens in his version of boy meets girl, apart from ravishing but derivative uses of English including lush imagery and metaphor – language being the real joy in the whole thing (alongside Arta Murcaj). The play includes a court performance of Hamlet where Emilia flouts the laws of performance and plays Ophelia, and has to avoid being recognized by her lover after the show (an implausible scenario).
One satisfying aspect of the play is the deconstruction, via Emilia’s struggles with her ardent lover, of romantic love insofar as it being the product of projection and idealization, thus some modern ideas are beautifully expressed here with a strongly feminist understanding of the limitations of a woman’s life at the time. Emilia must be pragmatic and one of the best scenes is the lovers’ ‘showdown’ before she calls off the affair. A dream sequence with a ghost and some of the bard’s own characters leads the drama to its conclusion and we are left with a happily renewed appreciation of how great art can be born of suffering.
Globe Productions presents
Shakespeare and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets
by Enzo Condello
Directed by Christopher Hosking
Venue: Richmond Theatrette | Upstairs, 415 Church Street, Richmond, Victoria 3121
Dates: November 6 – 9, 2014
Bookings: www.trybooking.com/GFXW | at the door