I’m sorry to say that I found The Great Theatre of the World at the Arcola a slight, portentous and pretentious piece. It’s a Spanish Golden Age play, a religious allegory on human existence meant for a Catholic feast, by Calderon de la Barca, here adapted by Adrian Mitchell and directed by ex Royal Court artistic director William Gaskill. Mitchell has brought a forced ‘ordinary’ lyricism to the play, but it really doesn’t work as poetry for me, and it seems a little prolix at times too (and I’m sure he was trying for a more pared down style). Gaskill has directed his cast lightly; it sometimes feels hardly at all, like a group of acting students left to get no with it by their remiss tutor.
The play concerns the acting out of a play under the direction of a god figure, Director (Madhav Sharma), who doles out symbolic parts to his favoured creations (us humans), under the closer supervision of World (Wunmi Mosaku). So Beauty, King, Peasant, Beggar and Rich Man act out their allotted parts, and when their play is done they go to judgement. Surprise surprise the suffering beggar goes straight to sit at the right hand of the Director, her intercessions on behalf of the Peasant who had shared a meagre scrap of food with her in life, also land him a place at the top table. The Rich Man however suffers eternal damnation in a red lit corner of the stage. It’s all done in a rather pantomime and actorly fashion, they players are dressed in black bodysuits with skeletons painted onto them and wear their character’s costume over that (I’m sure this is supposed to represent our ultimate nakedness or something else significant). It’s all very heavy handed and clunky, and not very enlightening at all (maybe a bit of lightness in the production could have changed that slightly). This play is not a humanist piece as the adaptor and director would like to see it as (the programme notes by Mitchell says: ‘… its poetry shows us how to love each other and the planet’), but a 17th century religious metaphor, and it really should have stayed that way. This translation and production are flat and are not radical or exciting (which they think they are), in fact Gaskill’s production is sub-Brechtian in the worst possible way (and I have admired his direction in the past). The cast include several RADA graduates and others with varying acting experience. They show talent, but I’m positive that their skills were not fully engaged by this piece, and at times I was embarrassed for them (they are mostly likeable young actors). It left me cold, but was thankfully a brief 70 minutes.