The Story of Vasco

Georges Schehadé in a version by Ted Hughes
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond upon Thames
(2009)

Production photo

An in-the-round staging by Adam Barnard of a fairy tale antiwar comedy by the Lebanese playwright Georges Schehadé offers some of the most imaginative work to be seen in London at the moment, thanks to a fine cast and a richly persuasive version by the late poet Ted Hughes.

Back in 1954 Ken Tynan snuffed out the overpraised renaissance of English verse drama with his deadly judgement that Christopher Fry gilds while T S Eliot anoints. “It is not our society but our theatre which rejects the poet,” he wrote. “Nowadays we expect drama to be purely dramatic.”

Luckily BBC Radio, the National Theatre and West End managements were happy to continue employing Hughes as a translator of several classic verse dramas including Seneca’s Oedipus, Lorca’s Blood Wedding and The Oresteia of Aeschylus without drawing flak from the critics.

Less well-known to theatre buffs, in 1967 Hughes also provided a robust verse version of Schehadé’s metaphorical Histoire de Vasco as a basis for the libretto of an English language opera for ENO.

The composer Gordon Crosse, slashed Hughes’ text to more manageable length while loftily offering the poet a fee of £200 for his pains. The result, complete with its new Hughesian ‘crow’ images, was first published in 1970 but attracted little attention.

Moving on to the present day, the persistent Barnard finally gained access to Hughes’ full original text in Atlanta, Georgia, final resting-place for the 200 pages of drafts and redrafts which constitute a free adaptation of the play. Now honouring the poet’s work, this runs to a somewhat unwieldy two hours and thirty minutes. But all can be forgiven for a production of theatrical wit and lively invention.

Schehade’s play shows European wars as an ongoing process between arbitrary rivals in which neither side is a winner while the losers are the peace-loving citizenry and the luckless soldiery pressed into military service for death and illusory glory.

His hero, the unheroic hero Vasco, is a small-town barber sent to war with a pair of scissors to trim General Mirador’s balding tonsure, only to discover that the junta with its tenuous hold on territory needs him as a fall-guy to cross the enemy lines and deliver a vital message to an outlying flank about Mirador’s plan of defence and attack.

With Marguerite as a gipsy fiancée in pursuit of Vasco — whom she knows only by reputation — it was the playwright’s original intention to close the play on a happy note of love and discovery, a victory for the home side and kisses all round.

But once Vasco’s unmasking became a theatrical necessity, so too did his tragic off-stage death as a victim of war, finally demonstrated as the girl places floral tributes around his lifeless body, martyred in a hopeless cause.

A former Orange Tree trainee director, Barnard reveals a masterly ability to use sound in conjunction with on-stage action to create a vibrant sense of reality. His deployment of four squawking crows at each corner of the theatre’s enclosed space also honours Hughes’ obsession with black beaky horror, while his subtle building of visual comedy to vitalise the poet’s wit pays handsome comic dividends.

One great delight is the casting of veteran Richard O’Callaghan as Marguerite’s father, a figure of mystic imagination in the woody environs of Sam Dowson’s pantomimic design — her most effective to date.

Fine dramatic work, packed with charm, also comes from Welsh actress Laura Rees as the pretty Marguerite, although her voice and diction are not always equal to the demands of in-the-round playing, and Jonathan Broadbent in a lively account of the luckless Vasco, while Robert Benfield gives a versatile performance which includes an under-cover female with a Kaiser Wilhelm moustache as a suitably improbable disguise.

Other outstanding performances include Richard Heap as the top honcho Mirador, oblivious to enemy threats, and as a series of luckless squaddies and authority figures revealing a powerful actor at the top of his form.

The production is unlikely to be seen beyond the four walls of the Orange Tree theatre, but Barnard’s production is certainly worth crossing London to catch, not only for Hughes’ ability to pen lively theatrical exchanges but also to watch a superb eight-strong cast bring his words and dramatic ideas to vivid life.

Reviewer: John Thaxter