Don Carlos: A Pared Back Production
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
Photos by ©The Other Richard shared by Exeter Northcott Theatre
Before attending Don Carlos at the Exeter Northcott Theatre on Tuesday evening, I had deliberately read very little about the production. I did not want to know how it had already been reviewed and I did not want to know anything more about it than what the programme given to me before the performance could tell me.
This is the first production from the newly formed Arla Theatre Company and I was intrigued to find out how they would handle this two hundred year-old story.
Cliff notes version for those readers who want a brief-run down of the storyline: Don Carlos has the love of his life stolen from him by his own father, King Philip II. Carlos tries to be the dutiful son to his father and new mother-in-law, but, of course, this does not go to plan.
Having been to performances at the Northcott before, I was immediately struck with how different the staging was. Gone were the usual curtains and façades that gave the stage that feeling of ‘separateness’ from the audience. The space seemed so much bigger than I remembered, but equally this space brought shadows and pockets of darkness that created a sense of foreboding. Anna Bunt, former marketing manager at the Northcott, explained:
“It’s really unusual to see the Northcott stage stripped back in its entirety. The stage usually has a false proscenium arch that runs round the outside, so to see every corner and inch of that stage is a pretty unique experience. By stripping it back like that you really can fully immerse yourself in the story.”
From the opening scene of the performance, I could see that these modern and stylistic choices continued in the blocking (where the actors were placed on the stage) and the costume. Ray Ban-style dark sunglasses were rife and the actors wore modern, but plain, clothes. Anna initially used the word, “pared back”, and this is the perfect word to describe the stylistic choices of the production. The staging and the costumes could definitely be described in this way.
The next thing that struck me in the opening scenes was the rapidity of the dialogue, fired like bullets between the actors. Samuel Valentine, who played Don Carlos, was especially guilty of this rapid speech, which bordered on unclear at times. I gather that the speed in which he delivered his lines may have been meant to represent the hot-headed and passionate nature of his character, but I often found myself several phrases behind and struggling to keep up.
Al Dunn, local actor and performer who forms one fifth of Exeter-based theatre group Le Navet Bete talked to me about the technical aspects of the performance. As a leigh person, I had noticed the actors talking side-on for most of the performance. I learned from Al that this is called “acting in profile”. He continued:
“I think the reason behind this decision was to play the stage like a chess board. This came not just from the blocking but also from the lighting. This had a massive impact on the style and concept of the production. Usually some lighting comes from the side and top of the stage, but predominantly it comes from the front. Here, there was no front lighting whatsoever, apart from the tiny birdie lights at the base of the stage.
Stripping back the stage was a brave and bold decision from the Northcott and the company as it had a massive impact on the actors’ dialogue. It gave the performance a concert hall echo, which I’m sure was intentional, to give the performance more drama and raise the stakes. This was a clear decision from the makers so that the style and concept was really at the forefront of the production.”
The pared back theme continued in terms of the props used in the performance. Due to the removal of the curtains and wings, all the props needed for the performance were around the stage space. In the scenes set in the palace, chairs were arranged on the stage and at one point a red carpet was rolled along the centre; a startling juxtaposition to the otherwise black space. This did mean, however, that the audience (and of course the actors) had to imagine the space that they were in. I felt most of the time, the setting was made clear through the dialogue, but at others this too got a little lost.
A highlight of the performance, for me, was the soliloquy performed by Alexandra Dowling in her role as the Princess of Eboli. Strikingly, this was one of the few scenes where the actor faced the audience and this made a huge difference in terms of identifying with Princess Eboli’s character. The audience was able to journey with her through her emotional turmoil as she sat, vulnerably represented through her costume of slip dress and socks, on the end of the single bed at the centre of the desolate stage.
This somewhat traditional form of acting, whereby the actor is facing the audience, demonstrated how much emotional connection was missing between the actors and audience during the rest of the performance due to the acting in profile style. The actors seemed emotionally unavailable as there were few moments where they faced the audience and made eye contact.
Reviews so far have been lukewarm (The Stage) and from eavesdropping on audience conversations on Tuesday night, opinion seemed fairly divided. There were elements of the production that showed real promise. Directorial decisions had clearly been thought through even if they were not always wholly effective. The lighting and staging brought modernity and a foreboding sense of impending doom necessary in creating an atmosphere for the actors and audience alike. I am certain that Arla have plenty more to offer in their future as a theatre company.