The Marriage of Figaro, Directed by Fiona Shaw, ENO. Review by Julia Pascal.
Fiona Shaw’s first impulse was to give Mozart’s famous comic opera a comic slant. But she concedes that Beaumarchais’ original text, set before the French Revolution, had to stay in the eighteenth century. Le droit de seigneur is the core of the drama. Updating it would have made nonsense of the central dramatic conflict – the count’s right to take a virgin on her wedding night. However Shaw’s brilliance is to still make the production modern even while keeping the original setting.
Peter McKintosh’s maze-like aristocratic household is constantly turning and the stage revolve heightens the sense of teams of workers serving the autocratic Count Almaviva. Much of the action is set in the kitchen and eating quarters which helps give a sense of the downstairs of the aristocratic system. Shaw has the servants pushing and pulling the walls of the household to illustrate the exploitation of the underclass and the weight of their load.
What is striking here also is the way Shaw uses another layer of imaging. In this French play, with an original score in Italian and a Spanish setting, sung here in English, there is a constant visual reference to bulls. Shaw cleverly gives us the double image of the bull as representing both machismo and cuckoldry.
As for the cast, we have a winning Cherubino from Samanatha Price’s whose multiple sexualities are provocative and powerful performances from David Stout as Figaro and Benedict Nelson as the lecherous Count Almaviva. Sarah-Jane Bradon is a poignantly wronged Countess and, at the premiere, Mary Bevan, as Susanna, deservedly won a Critics Circle Prize.
There is a political and gentle feminist vision here. Although Ruth Myers’ sharp costumes represent the late eighteenth century the production is modern. The count arrives for his assignation with Susanna in his underpants. The betrayed countess ends the mise-en scene, wearing a trouser suit and carrying her own suitcase. The husband is without pants and the wife wears them. Added to this final image of female independence, Shaw shows the morally outraged workers turning away from their master and transferring their loyalty, from husband to wife. It’s an optimistic glance forward to a new era and a new society. Shaw goes beyond any traditional happy end and offers the dawn of a revolution that is still changing the world.
Julia Pascal © October 2014.