by Jacob Warn
WARNING: Contains plot details
“The rendering is sublime: we watch in mounting and surmounting terror, during which the sole comfort is the divide between stage and pit, fiction and reality.”
This is a play of love between friends. Of love getting between friends. But as a play – as a tragedy – what plays out before our eyes is the carrying of this commonplace situation to its worst possible conclusion.
The concept of the love triangle, or the actuality of the love affair between friends, can be treated in countless ways. You may recall the comedic employment in Friends, between Chandler, Joey and Cathy. In this, Chandler ends up in a box, the meaning of which is notoriously threefold. For a comparison perhaps never made before: John Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice is the darker (and far older) brother of this Friends episode, at the end of which, a very different type of box encases the corpses of these friends.
The rendering is sublime: we watch in mounting and surmounting terror, during which the sole comfort is the divide between stage and pit, fiction and reality. The play slides from comedy to tragedy though, and with this incremental transition we forget to distance ourselves from these dukes and lords. We begin by laughing with them, jesting with them and thinking not of their high, fictional birth. But in the moment of most self-reflexive spectacle, when audience and actors from either side watch a foregrounded masque, so does the comedic suddenly let down its long-maintained guard and in rushes the irrepressible denouement of blood, gore and death.
“[We] remember everything from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo & Juliet, to modern culture’s Miranda and even the current election campaign.”
Physical space and staging carry real significance in this production. Perspective is lengthened through a series of diminishing arches. They recall the vaulted ceilings of cathedrals, and here we sit, the congregation, gathered as witnesses and moral arbiters of these events that take place before us.
Indeed, the act of witnessing, or not witnessing as the case may be, is a central tenet of this play. Stage-space and lighting highlight this centrality: a stunning array of spotlights shine from the back of the stage at moments of importance; they are a multitude of blinding eyes shedding light upon the action; they number like Argus’ eyes, symbolizing moments of crucial transparency that are revealed under the scrutinizing, omniscient eyes of God and the audience.
This play is a delight to watch and watch again. It abounds in moments of ingenious directorship that lead us to remember everything from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo & Juliet, to modern culture’s Miranda and even the current election campaign. Meanwhile, the sub-plot is a triumph of contrast and delight that pits the male misogynist and lover against three women he sexually and amorously manipulates. Yet this story culminates in a scene of utterly dazzling theatricality, ending in the man’s own death enacted in the satisfyingly-cyclical triumph of a birthing position – in front of his incredulous eyes, his over-procreation gives monstrous birth to his own death.
With depth, detail and a dynamism that takes us through to the final, bitter end, this new RSC production of Love’s Sacrifice is a play that extols the virtues of one of Shakespeare’s close contemporaries. Ford is proudly reminiscent of Shakespeare, without once bowing his head in inferiority to his predecessor. It is at once movingly personable and universal, old and modern, comedic and tragic, and all the while darkly and seductively gorgeous to its audience.
Love’s Sacrifice is running at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, from 11th April to 24th June 2015. It is an RSC production directed by Matthew Dunster. Sign up for the RSC Key for £5 tickets from 16-25 year olds.