Rachel Horrocks reviews Benji
At the end of busy week at the Mermaids Shakespeare festival, I showed up on Friday night uncertain what to expect from Benji Bailey’s final directorial offering at St Andrews: Edmund Ironside. As a PhD student in early modern drama, I have read more than my fair share of subpar Renaissance plays, and I was prepared to watch a talented cast struggle with a dull script.
From the moment I stepped into the theatre, however, it was evident the production would be innovative and energetic. The curtain on stage right had been pulled back to make room for more audience chairs, and I happily took a seat on what almost felt like part of the stage. Throughout the production, the actors played well to both sides of the audience, drawing us into the action while never breaking character.
The simple yet striking opening tableau set the scene for the rest of the show, which was stylized but minimalistic. The six chairs which formed the set were moved about with precision, while varied lighting and sound cues transformed the otherwise bare stage.
The decision to mime virtually all props worked well for the most part, allowing the action to proceed unimpeded. While occasionally the miming was distracting (as when it looked like Canutus’ invisible sword should have sliced right through Ironside’s head) it was used to great effect in the stage violence in a way that was emotionally moving rather than laughably gory. The slow-motion “dumb shows” clearly conveyed the ferocity of battle far more effectively than running and shouting would have. Particularly memorable was the hand-chopping scene, which I had heard about beforehand and had expected would be performed with plenty of fake blood and the victim’s back conveniently towards the audience. Instead, we were allowed to see the whole procedure: as the invisible axe fell, red ribbons were knotted around the victims’ wrists—a simple stage symbol that was far more powerful than blood packs and bandages.
It is difficult to single out any particular cast member for praise, as the acting was strong across the board, with no weak links. Special mention is due, of course, to the three central roles: Canutus (Noah Liebmiller), Ironside (Ebe Bamgboye), and Edricus (Jared Liebmiller). All three had to navigate a series of lengthy speeches, managing to sustain our interest even through the longest sections and clearly conveying the meaning of the lines. I particularly loved Canutus’ chilling monologue before punishing the traitor’s sons with mutilation and Edricus’ ongoing discussion of writing, villainy, and truth. Ironside’s nobility stood out in stark contrast, but Bamgboye brought a wisdom and gravitas to the performance which seemed admirable rather than naive or moralistic.
The comic scenes provided a welcome contrast without in any way overshadowing the seriousness of the drama. Gareth Owen, Andrew Chalmers, Cate Kelly, and Jamie Jones as the foolish clergymen and Edricus’ country-bumpkin family provided much-needed comic relief while remaining believable characters and never descending into farce.
Overall, Edmund Ironside was an excellent example of how a talented director and cast can bring to life a nearly-forgotten play that, while it may not be Shakespeare, was certainly a fitting addition to the 400th anniversary celebrations.