Farce is a real b****. More than arguably any other genre, it remains very much entrenched in the era which it was written, erected on stage for a very specific audience. As absurdity piles upon absurdity, the audience, by design, should laugh at themselves as they see their own faults reflected back at them. Without that, farce turns the theatre into a very hollow, mean-spirited spectacle–a rowdy mob jeering gleefully at a set of pathetic human beings kept safely behind glass.
Welcome to the New Theatre’s production of Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus–as heartless a production that’s ever been performed.
I know that sounds harsh, but hear me out: farce is harsh. It’s built into its DNA. But without its designated audience (which sadly is not a crowd of uni students in 2013), it can only accomplish half of what it was designed to do–all head and no heart. In other words, it cuts deep, but it doesn’t heal. It destroys, but it doesn’t build. And my God does it destroy. Written in 1973, Bennet’s razor-sharp script leaves no stone unturned as it highlights the hypocrisies of the “greatest generation,” specifically in regards to sexual taboo. The plot rarely stretches beyond the cookie-cutter–A loves B, B loves C, C loves A, and on and on. But who cares about the plot when you have punchlines. Punchlines delivered fast enough to beat your brain like a speedbag. You will laugh. A lot. Just don’t think too hard about why you’re laughing, because you’ll hate yourself later.
That goes double for the design choices. Habeas cuts itself off at the knees with a baffling minimalist set right out of a Beckett production. Other than a pier behind a scrim upstage (an elegant piece of construction wasted on 2 monologues), the cast makes do with 3 chairs on a blank stage. Often minimalism can enhance a production by giving audiences room to flex their imaginations, but not this one. Instead, all it does is confuse by failing to establish any solid footing on the timeline. Even worse, it can’t even establish its own set of consistent, logical rules. If the front door of the “house” is stage left, how can there be an exit offstage right next to it? Sadly these logistical nightmares even bleed into the performances; if one character tells another to “get out,” why does he go further into the house stage left? Motivations for entrances and exits are all-over-the-map, and it severely distracts from some fine acting.
Speaking of distracting, my list of gripes is unfortunately far from…erm…short. The layers of aging makeup I found unnecessary, along with some unflattering lighting design that made everyone in spotlights appear ill. The jarring music choices (from the foyer onward) also deserve a mention, lacking any cohesion beyond base themes of “love” and “sex.” L.M.F.A.O. and Phil Collins and broadway showtunes? Colour me confounded.
As misguided as Habeas is, it truly does contain some of the finest acting you’ll see all season. What a joy it is to watch this group swing for the fences and prove once and for all that subtlety is for suckers. Jacob Hayes (showing admirable restraint as the vile Mr. Wickstead) and Giles Gear (who’s kicked puppy demeanor as the hypochondriac Dennis must be seen to be believed) standout among the men, along with Ben Hollands (whose unhinged Canon Throbbing makes Tartuffe look like Pope Jean Paul). On the women side Suzie Roope’s Mrs. Wickstead (with her nails-on-chalkboard screech) is despicable in all the best ways, and Amelia Gann’s working-class maid Mrs. Swabb provides some desperately needed grounding to the nuttiness that surrounds her.
I’m relieved this cast is so game, because they almost singlehandedly keep this rickety ship afloat–even without their trousers. Isn’t it ironic that in a genre so dependent on a period in time, a production can succeed based on something as timeless as old-fashioned good acting? As a slice of escapism Habeas Corpus is peerless, as long as you turn off your brain. But who needs brains when you have punchlines? Punchlines with actors who can punch hard enough to make you smart. Punchlines that can destroy the concrete walls any perplexing direction might build.
Habeas Corpus runs at the Nottingham New Theatre until Friday 13th December. For tickets and information visit their website.