Clarence Leong reviews Pirandello’s Henry IV, translated by George Murnaghan-Gordon, directed by Mattia Mariotti, and produced by Alberto J. C. Micheletti, which went up in the Barron Theatre 5-7th March.
Published under a collective title – Maschere nude (“Naked Masks”) – Henry IV (1921) was written by an Italian Nobel-literature prize winner, Luigi Pirandello, and given an exhilarating performance by a highly original and talented team in St Andrews. It was translated by George MurnaGhan-Gordon, who has done an impeccable job with the huge variation of linguistic registers demanded of the play (more of which later). Directed by the lovably eccentric Mattia Mariotti and produced by Alberto J. C. Micheletti with flair, the play is never short of memorable tableaux and superb use of visual and auditory elements.
The play is about a man (portrayed by Dominic Kimberlin) who has gone mad after falling off a horse and damaging his head, imagining himself as Henry IV of Germany, the Holy Roman Emperor. It is a study of madness with piercing insights – one of which is that the sense of self is constructed from others’ opinions of who one is, and the tragic impossibility for two individuals to understand one another. His wealthy nephew, Count Nolli (played by Alasdair Bird), spent a fortune on sustaining his uncle’s illusion by hiring men and purchasing a closet full of costumes to create the 11th century court. This has been going for two decades until a visit from his erstwhile friends, who, convinced of his madness, brought along a Doctor (Seamus Hargrave) to “cure him”.
This tragi-comedy is full of colour and boisterous, interspersed moments of relief when characters sit on the “magic chair” that immediately brings onstage the Great and Non-Great Page (Aj Brennan and Lu Yin, respectively) dancing in eerie green light. The opening scene does much to establish the tone of the play to follow, with remarkable performances by the Four Councillors trying to convince the last, Berthold (Collin Looh), to join their ranks as actors in the staged court. Especially note-worthy is Shaun Tan, whose immersive and at times hilarious delivery as Chlodulph draws the audience into a yet unfamiliar world of play-acting and history, with a tinge of comic licentiousness (not counting his touching of his own buttock whenever he utters the word “but”). Benji Bailey plays the sober Landolph, whose poised self-assessment of himself as a “puppet” introduces the central tension between “true being” and “acting” developed throughout the rest of the play.
Next comes the perpetually bickering couple Marquise Matilda (Hannah Ayesha Ritchie) and Baron Terence Belcred (Jamie Jones), along with their daughter Frieda (Annabel Ekelund). After much talk has been spent on describing the background to Henry IV’s madness, much anticipation is built up regarding his appearance, culminating in the first high-point of the play. We are introduced to the “madman”, carried onto the stage lying prostrate on his side on a bench, a doll hanging from his mouth. It does not take long for Dominic Kimberlin’s mesmerising and electrifying madness to captivate everyone in the audience. What makes his role so challenging and deserving of praise for an excellent execution, is that even the audience cannot distinguish his madness from sanity. After all, there is sanity in that madness. One moment he asks for the real names of the Privy Councillors; another, he bursts into violence and stabs one of his visitors. All this is deftly balanced by Dominic with spellbinding energy and control.
The costumes are amongst the best-designed that I have seen in any student production, from the rich golden embroidery of Henry IV and Matilda’s outfits, to the vibrant mix of red, white and black that adorn the Privy Councillors’ wear. George Gordon’s translation is thoughtful and skilfully done, particularly in evoking the style of Elizabethan drama, as noted by him as the “antiquation of Henry’s spoken voice” in the program. It is also perhaps the brilliance of the cast’s improvisation: the noticeably less-refined speech adopted by Alasdair Bird, and a sneaky comment by Seamus Hargrave, who added a quip about Fifty Shades of Grey.
There are moments of real perfection in this play – it is introspective and thought-provoking. With the excellent use of background music, Mattia creates a scene in Act Two pervading with a sense of nocturnal tranquility, in which Henry IV explains his “madness” by confiding in his cringing Councillors (though only Benji’s Landolph seems to appreciate it) about “the pleasure of history” – that, compared to a reality which is fraught with uncertainty, he prefers living in the past because history is determined and coherent. So is play-acting, to a large extent. And on this pensive note, Henry IV was definitely worth your time and buck.