first night

The Bald Prima Donna

Nikhil Vyas loses his grip on reality for a while with Raving Mask's 'The Bald Prima Donna'


Writing a coherent review for a show like Raving Mask's The Bald Prima Donna is a tremendously difficult task- the play itself is so removed from reality that after seeing its performance, you inevitably need to take some time just to restore a semblance of mental order. Nonetheless, director Tyler Rainford and his team have succeeded in creating a piece of theatre that is riotously entertaining, occasionally disturbing and brimming with originality and ideas.

In the broadest possible plot summary, the play follows the typically English Mr and Mrs Smith during an evening in their suburban London home, and the visits they receive from the equally English Mr and Mrs Martin, the local Fire Chief and their maid Mary. However, do not take this as a narrative- there is fundamentally no story, Ionesco's dialogue is utterly ridiculous, and the characters have absolutely no sense of identity or substance to them. The directorial approach immersed us utterly in this abstract world- from the moment you enter the Hatfield Chapel you are confronted by the Smiths (played by Sam Arrowsmith and Corinna Harrison), frozen in their positions with contorted expressions, and the amusing introductory narration by Rainford himself only contributed to this surreal atmosphere. The usage of orchestrated physical movements to keep the action flowing between and during the conversations was very well executed, with the dynamic usage of the space and the interaction with the audience creating some beautiful visual moments. Wisely, the set design with minimal, with only a few chairs being creatively utilised to contribute to the visual tableaux.

For a production like this, it was vital that the actors remained committed to the stylised surrealism that was required of them, and thankfully this was the case. Every member threw themselves into the choreography and stylised expressions with great skill, and while the dialogue may have been meaningless, they succeeded in mining the text of nuance and comedy. More impressively, they all managed to create vivid characterisations without having anything in the way of character development to rely on. While the first couple of scenes unfortunately started verging on repetitive, once the Smiths met the Martins the energy boosted immensely- I was on tenterhooks for every single nonsensical line, which is more than I can say for many a naturalistic play I have seen. Particular credit should go to Arrowsmith, Harrison and John Halstead as the Fire Chief- they applied the heightened nature of the show's acting in a way that never came across as over the top and consistently remained imaginative in their interpretations.

Nevertheless, there were certain production and directorial decisions which I did not wholly agree with- as expected for such a play. While the choreographed action worked very well in the context of the play, I disliked the usage of mime that was used at various points- it felt forced and broke up the pacing rather than contributing to it. More fundamentally, Rainford stated that for him, the play is an attack on ideas of social performance and etiquette, exposing the meaningless banality at the heart of middle class suburban life. However, the aesthetic that was deployed- stylised facial makeup and costumes courtesy of Shahnaz Ford (which, to be fair, looked generally fantastic)- did not feel like the best way to convey this, given how much it distanced the audience from the action. It may have been more successful to take a very naturalistic artistic approach- using no makeup, ordinary costumes and juxtaposing this with the physicality of the actors themselves, in order to create a more satirical reflection on social norms. As a result, when the final passage of the play was reached and the actors were just throwing themselves about and shouting non-sequitors, I could not help but feel that I was watching something overwrought and somewhat self-indulgent. However, this is not to say that it ever stopped being entertaining, and I certainly respect and enjoyed the commitment to the absurdity that was maintained till the very end.

Overall, The Bald Prima Donna is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. But it is worth watching for its wonderfully fresh style and hilarious energy- it's rare to see a show like this in Durham, and I highly recommend seeing it while it's still around!

12 June 2015

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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