An astounding piece of direction

Review by Paul Nelson

I MUST confess that as a youth I saw Ugo Betti's play The Queen and the Rebels at the Haymarket with Irene Worth. It was one of those smart HM Tennent productions, billed for a limited season and hoping for a massive long run.

It didn't get one.

Not that the blame lay at the feet of Miss Worth, or even Ugo Betti, his work round about that time was enjoying a boom. The play was one of three with Summertime and The Burnt Flower Bed also getting attention in London.

I have always suspected that the translator, Henry Reed, enormously respected, was at the root. His sentences do not flow easily as speech when you read the translations and I would therefore think, by natural progression, the actors find that learning them is a pill.

Consequently any Reed translation seems stilted. He was after all, a poet, he wrote the wonderful 'Naming of Parts', but that does not put him in the same category as a Christopher Fry, who seemingly effortlessly produced poetry actors find vocally simple, but also contained words and images that could electrify an audience.

In my humble opinion, Reed was never a Fry, but then, comparisons as they say, are odious.

The present production at the Union Theatre therefore has all that to struggle with, and as with most Fringe theatres finds itself facing an uphill task.

I here have to confess that I thought Irene Worth stunning, Kenneth Tynan on the other hand was unmoved.

A straggling group of displaced persons approach a border. The country seems quite clearly to be in the former Yugoslavia area, a town, Bled, is named which is clearly in the Middle European tradition.

This group are trying to leave a war-torn country. All their papers are in order. These have been checked seemingly endlessly, every time the lorry on which they are travelling is stopped.

The revolutionaries, however, are seeking the Queen. It is apparent that she is still somewhere in the country and about to escape. She would, of course, provide a rallying point for any resistance movement, so she must be eliminated.

Among the travellers is Argia, a formerly wealthy call girl, or courtesan. By now she is an ageing harlot who has seen better days but at this check point is Raim, a young ex-lover, and she and he concoct a plot to expose the Queen, who Argia discovers is in their midst.

Things do not go according to plan and Argia finds herself colluding in the Queen's escape, and ultimately impersonating her. The yellow Raim, always blatantly looking after his own skin, is horrified and does the cowardly thing and the Judas act. Argia discovers that playing the part of the Queen actually does carry with it the death sentence and is hardly surprised that Raim does not back her up and testify as to her real identity.

The upshot of the play is do not trust anybody, whatever side you are on, or whatever your personal allegiance is to anybody. It's a bleak thought.

The play shows signs of severe pruning, most of which is a good thing, but then, there are unanswered questions left in the air.
This pruning makes the characters very starkly black and white.

As Argia, the prostitute, Jodine Throgmartin plays without refinement. Her Argia appears to never rise above the shilling a go in a shop doorway. There seems to be no resentment of rejection in her performance, and she does not actually make the transition from the slut begging her lover's aid to regal disdain. She is not helped by her Raim.

Karl Chaundy, fighting with the virtually unspeakable lines and actually winning, plays the main protagonist, Amos, with a sinister force. There are also excellent performances from Julian Angel Oyesiku as Maupa, possibly the most dangerous armed rebel ever, Zoe Stevens as Elisabetta, the real Queen, and Gunther Wurger as the madly zealous and dying general Biante.

I really must put on record that I very nearly fell asleep when I saw the original at the Haymarket, in spite of the splendid Irene Worth. The production at The Union with quite honestly less electrifying performances, kept me awake and alert. It is quite an astounding piece of direction, even though it is a truncated version, and may I say all the better for that.

Ugo Betti was a judge by profession, and this play, along with his others are mainly concerned with a painstaking sifting through the plot to uncover all of the evidence. Consequently, his wordy pieces really do need a bold director and here Rob Widdicombe does not let the audience down.

This play if new to you, is seriously worth a go.

Main photo shows: Argia (Jodine Throgmartin), Maupa (Julian Angel Oyesiku) and Amos (Karl Chaundy).

The Queen and the Rebels by Ugo Betti, Translated by Henry Reed, Adaptation and Direction by Rob Widdicombe, Set and Costume Design by Paul Duncan & Viviana Rodriguez, Lighting Design by Matt Haskins, Sound by John Maisey WITH: Jodine Throgmartin (Argia), Karl Chaundy (Amos), Toby H Wicks (Raim), Zoe Stevens (Elisabetta), Gunther Wurger (Biante), Julian Angel Oyesiku (Maupa), Asif Channa (A Man), Richie Lenton (A Man), Lizzie Mansfield (A Woman), Kath Trust-Bick (A Woman), Brett Dolman (An Engineer), Dermot Dolan (Orazio). Produced by Acting the Goat at The Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, Southwark, London SE1. Tickets 020 7261 9876.