Death by trifle

The Changeling, Young Vic, 1 December 2012

The interior of the Young Vic main house was completely transformed with a concrete performance area flanked on one side by a steep rake of seating behind a plastic mesh, overlooked on the other by the auditorium’s gallery. Under the gallery stood a white wooden box, rather like an extended football dugout that seated a few dozen spectators. A number of wheelchairs were positioned to the side of performance area nearest the entrances, to which audience members were also ushered.

At one end was an onstage dressing room. A pile of pallets with a mattress on top sat in front of the dugout, and at the other end stood a small box room made of wood panels. A statue of the Virgin Mary was positioned on the ledge of the gallery and a statue of Jesus was positioned in front of the net.

The overall impression was that this was not going to be a period piece.

The main cast, dressed in smart modern outfits, the officers in dress uniforms, entered and saluted the audience on both sides (1.1). Diaphanta (Eleanor Matsuura) took off her sunglasses and scrutinised us. Alsemero (Harry Hadden-Paton) and Beatrice (Sinead Matthews) were then left behind in the temple, and maid Diaphanta attentively placed a cushion for Beatrice to kneel on.

She repeated several Hail Marys while Alsemero attempted to recall The Naval Prayer to ask blessing for the fleet, but found himself distracted by Beatrice’s beauty. He shuffled closer to Jesus putting Beatrice out of sight behind him. This led straight into his opening speech describing his recent enchantment with her, which we had witnessed for ourselves just seconds before.

Jasperino (Alex Beckett) entered from the side door in waterproofs, shutting the door on a fierce gale blowing from outside. This indicated a favourable wind for Alsemero’s departure, but he refused to go.

Alsemero greeted Beatrice with a kiss, and after a brief flirtation Beatrice announced in an aside that she was beginning to fancy the newcomer over her fiancé Alonzo. Asides were spoken outwards to the audience surrounding the cast in all directions. In a comic mirroring of his master’s wooing, Jasperino went over to try to “board” Diaphanta.

Beatrice was very snappy with spotty-faced De Flores, played by the excellent Zubin Varla. Jasperino continued to flirt with Diaphanta, pulling her hand onto his crotch.

Beatrice’s father, Vermandero (Howard Ward), was initially reticent on being introduced to Alsemero. But he hugged him warmly after remembering that he knew Alsemero’s father, and invited him back to the castle.

Beatrice dropped her glove for Alsemero to pick up, but at Vermandero’s request De Flores retrieved it, causing her to cast away the other glove rather than wear one De Flores had touched. Left alone, De Flores soliloquised about Beatrice’s dislike of him while suggestively sticking his fingers into the sockets of her glove.

A lighting change indicated that the scene had switched to the asylum (1.2). Isabella (Eleanor Matsuura again) flounced around, her fake boobs bursting out of her leopard-print catsuit, as she worked out slowly and deliberately on the mattress using small dumbbells, and with an incongruous cigarette hanging out of her mouth. She got fed up with the constant commotion and called on everyone to shut up.

Her husband Alibius (Alex Lowe) had an obviously fake wig and white lab coat that barely concealed the naval uniform Alex Lowe wore as Alonzo. Lollio (Alex Beckett again) appeared in a fat suit which appeared to be a nod to co-author Rowley, who originally played the role and was notoriously rotund. Alex Lowe, who plays the put-upon Brian in Clare in the Community, was excellent in the role of an ineffectual husband.

When Lollio spoke of the “fools and madmen” he looked at the audience behind the net as if we were they. Similarly Alibius referred to the “daily visitants” who came to see the inmates, at which point the house lights went up on the audience behind the net.

Commotion

A bowler-hatted Pedro brought in Antonio (Nick Lee) in a wheelchair. Antonio wore a soft safety helmet and rolled his head with his hands held awkwardly in front of him to indicate his disability. The long questioning of Antonio was cut. When the bare plywood boxes, apparently containing the asylum’s madmen, began to shake with the commotion of those inside, Lollio said in an invented phrase that he would “beat the shit out of them”.

Vermandero wandered in pushing a trolley bearing a huge wedding cake towards the end of the scene, which then overlapped into the next. He called on De Flores, who appeared out of the large box that had contained madmen, and then on Diaphanta, prompting Eleanor Matsuura to change from her Isabella outfit (2.1).

Diaphanta knocked on another box and Beatrice emerged from it. This piece of staging was one of the ways in which the boundary between the sane and the mad was blurred.

A long dining table was positioned down the netting side of the space and laid with cutlery. A photo of the engaged couple, Beatrice and Alonzo, was placed on the wall.

Beatrice briefly gave Jasperino a note summoning Alsemero to meet her. De Flores spotted her and in an aside bemoaned Beatrice’s lack of regard for him. He stuck his hand through the net to point at ugly people in the audience who, he claimed, were no better looking than he but were nevertheless lucky in love. He and Beatrice argued as he tried to tell her that Alonzo had arrived.

Vermandero brought in brothers Alonzo (Alex Lowe again) and Tomazo (Nick Lee again). Alonzo was in his impressive naval uniform. Beatrice was reticent and kissed her betrothed rather coldly, something that Tomazo noticed. Vermandero spoke with Beatrice in the small room, and when they emerged again, he informed Alonzo of her desire to delay the wedding. Alex Lowe dithered excellently as slow-on-the-uptake Alonzo.

Diaphanta united Beatrice and Alsemero by the dressing rooms (2.2). He suggested solving the problem of Alonzo by challenging him to a duel, an idea that Beatrice rejected as too dangerous.

All the while, De Flores sat in the dark watching them until Alsemero left. He made a ribald joke about the whorish Beatrice “spreading”. Having noticed De Flores, Beatrice set about winning him over. She fawned on him, and sat him in a chair to admire his face. And because De Flores was so enamoured of her, he unthinkingly lapped up this excessive and insincere attention.

Having worked him like putty in her hands and gained his fervent obedience to murder an as-yet unknown victim, Beatrice gave him money as an inducement and told him to murder Alonzo: De Flores instantly consented.

Beatrice’s joy at the prospect of being “rid of two inveterate loathings at one time” was callous, but she did not seem overly cruel, just slightly spoilt but sympathetic overall.

Alonzo arrived right on cue, and as the end of the scene merged seamlessly into 3.1, De Flores threw some punch at him and tried to drown him in the bowl. Moving over to the dinner table, he forced Alonzo backwards and made a stabbing motion with a banana into his mouth, followed by an assault with table knives, before taking him into the side room to finish him off. This sequence introduced a production trope of fruit equating with death.

Pinfold

Back in the asylum, Lollio chased Isabella into one half of a wheeled cage and then sealed the other half behind her, locking the two halves together with tape (3.2). Lollio explained that this “pinfold” was necessary lest she be “pounded in another place”. The role of Franciscus was cut, so the scene continued with Lollio introducing her to the apparently harmless Tony.

The madmen in the side room began making a lot of noise, which Lollio left to quieten. Seizing his opportunity, Antonio took off his soft helmet and leapt out of his chair still in his underpants to woo Isabella in his Irish accent, cutting the tape to free her from the cage.

He sat back in his chair when Lollio returned, but with the madmen acting up again, Lollio was again obliged to sort them out. But on this occasion, Lollio spied Antonio out of his chair when he arrived back. He deduced from this that Isabella was fair game and tried it on with her too.

Lollio mockingly quoted Antonio, adopting his Irish accent and adding Bob Geldof’s “give us your fucking money” to complete the impression. Isabella drank desperately from the punch bowl but was saved by the arrival of her husband, Alibius, who brought news that the madmen had been commissioned to dance at Beatrice’s wedding.

At this point Lollio made a joke borrowed from his conversation with Alibius in 4.3, telling him “You must allow her a little more length, she’s kept too short”, implying that Alibius was sexually inadequate. He followed this with an invented line in a similar vein, “Have you seen her with an exotic bird? While you were out she had a cockatoo”. These jokes worked here because they came immediately after Isabella had been seen with another man.

Vermandero showed Alsemero around his castle, leaving Beatrice to express her hope that her father would grow to like him more (3.3).

De Flores presented Beatrice with Alonzo’s severed finger with the ring still attached as proof he was dead. Her horror at this sight provoked De Flores sarcastic question as to whether cutting the finger away was worse than killing the whole man. This queasiness showed Beatrice to be inexperienced and naïve.

De Flores rejected the wad of notes that Beatrice offered him and he became angry at this perceived slight. He made his desire for her plain and pointed out that their partnership in crime effectively made them social and moral equals. He crammed her against the table, a motion that foreshadowed his eventual rape of her on top of it.

Alonzo’s ghost appeared to De Flores outside the net and he reacted with lines borrowed from the sequence with Alonzo’s ghost in 5.1.

The order of the scenes was then rearranged slightly to accommodate features of the adaptation.

Lollio met Isabella outside the net, telling her that if she could cure madmen by seducing them, then he wanted to join in her “trade” (4.3). She went into the asylum in an attempt to see Antonio again.

Lollio practised the dance routine with Tony, which was a funny sequence because of his chair-bound inability to move.

Isabella wheeled herself towards Antonio disguised under large glasses and false teeth, saying “Harro” in an orientalised accent. She rose from her chair and manoeuvred him against the table in a comic seduction, speaking the “pleasant fountains” lines from Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, instead of those in the text relating to Mercury and Endymion.

Alibius began the dance by summoning the fools and madmen. The boxes were wheeled in, and out stepped Beatrice and the wedding guests.

A contemporary arrangement of Mendelssohn’s wedding march came over the speakers and the cast began a modern dance sequence, which was interspersed with a montage of scenes from the wedding.

Single Ladies

When instructed by a cue phrase, the characters ate, gave speeches and laughed as brief parts of the overall routine. This segued into Beyoncé’s Single Ladies.

But the comedy was severely undercut when De Flores grasped Beatrice and raped her on the dining table as the music continued to play. This led into her speech in 4.1 in which she related how De Flores had “undone me endlessly”.

The main space went dark as the sound of the party continued in the side room, leaving Beatrice sighing alone in the aftermath of the rape. Tomazo brought in an electric lamp, which he placed on the table, before sitting at it in the dark.

Discovering Alibius’ books and experiments, Beatrice realised that her husband would be able to detect that she was not a virgin. Pretending to be nervous about her wedding night, Beatrice persuaded Diaphanta to take her place and used her husband’s virginity test on the maid to make sure she was indeed virginal.

Beatrice put on a latex glove before handling the liquid, which made sense as a prompt to Diaphanta’s otherwise baseless question “She will not search me? Will she?” The test was passed as Diaphanta sneezed, laughed and then “gaped incontinently” by wetting herself.

Vermandero left the small side room and was met by Tomazo who had come for his brother (4.2). But Vermandero would only say that Alonzo had jilted his daughter. Tomazo asked “Honest De Flores” if he had any idea who had killed his brother, just as the servant was swapping the old photo of Beatrice and Alonzo with a new one depicting Beatrice and Alsemero, an act resonating with the play title, The Changeling.

Tomazo had a tense stand-off with Alsemero, who was then informed by Jasperino that Diaphanta had heard Beatrice together with De Flores. This made him doubtful of her purity, so he carried out the virginity test on Beatrice. Because she had seen the effects of the test on Diaphanta she was able to fake the outcome, using a conveniently placed soda siphon to replicate the incontinence.

In an invented scene, Diaphanta visited Alsemero in place of Beatrice on her wedding night. Alsemero comically retrieved a penis pump from his cupboard, before the couple got down to it on the mattress, the sex being represented by the couple smearing each other with trifle while writhing in ecstasy.

Beatrice became concerned that Diaphanta was taking too long and possibly enjoying herself too much (5.1). De Flores tried to draw her out by setting fire to her room, which was represented by him flooding the performance space with smoke from a hand-held machine.

With the alarm raised, Beatrice met Diaphanta and sent her to her room. De Flores caught up with her in the dressing room area, at which point the theatre fire alarm seemed to sound and the house lights went up, drawing the audience into the event.

Alsemero emerged from his chamber and saw Beatrice, not realising that he had just slept with Diaphanta, whom De Flores then wheeled in dead on a trolley.

Tomazo, who had been sat brooding all the while, angrily confronted De Flores and attacked him by throwing trifle at him (5.2). De Flores could not retaliate due to feelings of guilt at murdering his brother, so he took the blows and left. Alibius seemed to have identified the murderer as the fled madman Antonio, showing his helmet and a mobile phone video of suspect.

Alsemero told Jasperino he was certain that Beatrice had been unfaithful, based on the tip off from Diaphanta (5.3). As a reminder of this, we saw her outside the net being followed by De Flores, as if on her way to make her report.

Alsemero finally put his accusations of infidelity to Beatrice, who denied them but did admit to recruiting De Flores to murder Alonzo, motivated by love for Alsemero.

Alsemero shut Beatrice and then De Flores into his cupboard, which shook and reverberated to the sound of moans. The pair emerged smeared with jam, another foodstuff representing violent injuries. Beatrice confessed to the swap with Diaphanta, while De Flores taunted Alsemero with the pleasure he took in coupling with Beatrice and confessed to the murder of Alonzo, before smearing his neck with jam to kill himself. Beatrice died soon after.

These confessions raised the anger of Tomazo and Alsemero and sank Vermandero into despair. The angry men pelted the two dead bodies with more trifle as the scene descended into chaos. The epilogue, with its appeal for calm, was shouted through a megaphone amid the din. Isabella railed against Alibius, while Vermandero knelt crying on the ground.

Conclusions

The production’s undisguised doubling continually blurred the distinction between madhouse and castle: at one scene change Eleanor Matsuura remained onstage as Isabella and was then addressed as Diaphanta, which prompted a hasty costume change using the onstage dressing room, the use of which stripped away any pretence that we were watching two distinct sets of people; the castle inhabitants emerged from the madmen boxes; and Alibius’ had an obviously fake wig and his white coat did not fully conceal the military uniform of Alonzo underneath.

The wedding dance, in which the madmen performing at the wedding were the wedding party themselves, was the icing on that particular staging cake.

The stand-out performance was Zubin Varla’s De Flores. He gave his character an intensity that seemed to be coming from an altogether angrier, darker place than the characterisations of the other more light-hearted roles. This furious intensity fitted perfectly with his character’s prominent facial disfigurement to make him the automatic focus of the audience’s attention in any scene in which he featured.

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