Not so very long ago, as intrepid fans and foes of Curtain Call might remember, I put the boot fairly solidly into a production, starring no less a thespian than John Malkovich, that drew upon Casanova’s evocative memoir for its dramatic raison d’etre. And just as strange, me-too thematic coincidences occur, repeatedly, in Hollywood moviedom, the world premiere of Russ T. Davies Casanova, adapted for the stage by Mark Kilmurry, crops up at Ensemble.
And a good thing, too. For it redresses the deficiencies, to a large extent, of the very ill-advised, misguided and cynically opportunistic Giacomo Variations, one of the star turns, and biggest disappointments, of our last Sydney Festival. Both have sought to revisionistically paint Casanova as a renaissance, modern man, ahead of his time, rather than subscribe to the rather more conventional, unidimensional view of him as a lascivious, licentious, self-seeking hedonist. The truth probably lies and wavers somewhere between these polarities.
What Casanova did achieve, in the final chapter of his life, was a colourful, compelling memoir which remains, almost undeniably, one of the prime sources of intelligence on the temper of his times.
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Russell T. Davies is a Brit who’s had, at least on paper, one of those meteoric and charmed careers that make we who would pretend to be writers livid green with envy. From humble beginnings in Swansea, to Oxford, the Beeb, directing, producing, children’s television, Doctor Who, a bevy of BAFTAs and an OBE. What a bastard. Yeah, I s’pose you could say he can write.
Kilmurry can, too. He’s done what seems to be increasingly de rigueur, in taking Davies’ BBC film and adapting it for the stage. Until recently, it typically went the other way. Sometimes, as in the case of Rain Man, this reversal of polarity falls flat on its posterior. At other times, like this, it’s a valid choice. It all comes down to the quality of the adaptation. Fortunately, Kilmurry seems to have (more than) enough talent, insight and experience as writer, actor and director (for he also occupies the last chair) that this really couldn’t fail.
And he’s assembled a fascinating and, to some extent, unlikely ensemble of actors for the task. Actors of diverse vintage and experience. At one end of the spectrum is Arka Das, whose first inclination towards acting only came around eight years ago, if that. But he put his nose to the grindstone and sharply emerged as a first place-getter, just a year later, in the Youth Shakespeare Festival. Certainly, his performance as Rocco, righthand man, gentleman’s gentleman, best friend and unbelievably loyal confidante of Casanova, is honed and surefooted.
Katie Fitchett doesn’t have too many years on Das, but has deservedly enjoyed a blistering career on stage and screen and one can see why: she is androgynously effective as Bellino, the real love of Casanova’s life.
Catherine McGraffin is a couple of years younger, has done the obligatory All Saints and was, regrettably, in the ill-fated Rain Man, but has distinguished herself in a variety of other plays, including Death of a Salesman and 12 Angry Men. This might just be her best role and performance yet, as Edith, the innocent but curious chambermaid, almost helplessly enchanted by Casanova’s tales of romantic exploits and exploitation. The uncertain bond that develops between old Casanova and young Edith is compelling and exceedingly well-played, on both sides of the dramatic equation.
Catherine Moore has an extensive resume, including Bell Shakespeare. Here, she also shows her prodigious gifts, which include some fairly fine singing, as Henriette, et al. WAAPA grad Tim Walter has become a Bell stalwart; his craft is so refined it comes as no surprise. As the optimistic young Casanova, who leads and goes with his heart, he is charismatic, as well he ought be.
Michael Ross has just the right level of upright physical maturity and chiselled good looks (which, from the artists’ impressions I’ve seen, Casanova didn’t even begin to share) to satisfy as a romantic lead, even one made-up to portray said lead in his dotage. He meshes an irrepressible streak of still-youthful vigour with a telltale croak, to create a suitably complex, confounding and contradictory character which, suitably, raises more questions that answers. The one and only thing he doesn’t do nearly as well as or better than Malkovich is die: as I recounted at the time, the last virtually had the whole audience in the palm of his slightly evil hand, holding its collective breath, for several minutes (or what seemed like).
But surely the star turn here is Jamie Oxenbould, as the detestable Grimani and a host of other characters. Each, he plays, unselfconsciously, and disarmingly, to the comic, caricatured extreme. Numerous appear back-to-back, so he has mere seconds to reinvent. This he does impeccably: every one is distinct and he has the crowd a veritable ecstasy of good humour. I have to be frank and say I’d no idea he had such range and versatility.
Simone Romaniuk’s set is dusty, dingy and very cinematic, in the way of, say, Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books, and Nicholas Higgins lights it just so. One of the more pervasive aspects of the production is Daryl Wallis composition and sound design, with songs more 80s then 18th century, although afforded something of the latter aesthetic. However, some of the incidental music seemed distractingly inappropriate, as if retrieved from the bottom-drawer and shoehorned in.
Chroeographer Nicole Selby has ensured everyone moves as well as each can and has, thus, imbued the play with the kind of elegance, poise and dignfied carriage we diehard romantics would prefer to believe prevailed a couple of hundred years ago. Sydney theatre, across the boards, has been, on the whole, consistently good, lately. Which worries me. Are we heading for a fall? But that’s the pessimist in me, not the romantic.
Curtain Call rating: A
The details: Casanova plays the Ensemble Theatre until April 23. Tickets on the venue website.