Too Clever By Half
Alexander Ostrovsky, translated by Rodney Ackland
Rose Bruford College at the Greenwich Theatre
Review by Gill Stoker
In visual terms this was an interesting and amusing production. The set and furniture were constructed in a lopsided way, as if to suggest a society distorted by lies and flattery; the costumes, likewise, had unreal elements reminiscent of a modern surrealist painting, such as various coat tails and a large pocket handkerchief twirling upwards to defy gravity.
The style of acting, likewise, aimed at the not-quite-real, with exaggerated mannerisms and reactions reminiscent of farce or pantomime, such as one would expect from Dickensian caricatures rather than from the fully rounded characters of the literature of social realism. Unfortunately, though, some of the actors seemed less comfortable, or less skilled, at this 'unreal' style of acting than others, which created a bit of a distracting mixture.
The programme appears to justify this exaggerated approach with the following note: "The play is an example of Russian comic satire, ridiculing ... follies in bold theatrical strokes", followed by a reference to Meyerhold's adherence to 'The Grotesque'. But all this did was prevent me from believing in the characters and caring what happened to them - an alienation experience which would no doubt have pleased Brecht, but wasn't so much fun for me! Wouldn't a more realistic style of acting, allowing space for truer human emotions, have been more convincing and more engaging?
This is the first Ostrovsky play I have ever seen, so I have nothing to compare it with, but I couldn't help thinking that the choice of play, and possibly of playwright, did not allow these undoubtedly good actors to give of their best. The plot seemed a little dull and creaking, with the cliché situation of a young man who starts an affair with a married woman, becomes engaged to a young girl without telling his mistress, the latter finds out, steals his secret diary, and determines to have her revenge. Perhaps this melodramatic type of plot was less run-of-the-mill at the time the play was written, so we cannot really blame Ostrovsky for it, but - well, wouldn't something by, say, Chekhov have been more rewarding for actors and audience alike, especially as we have already had some biting social satire in the excellent production of School for Scandal earlier in the Rose Bruford season?