A Renaissance Man photo (c) The Bacchanals

a renaissance man
by simon vincent

Superb style and swashbuckling

The Bacchanals launch Wellington theatre 2008 in superb style with a swashbuckling, bodice-ripping yarn inspired by metaphysical poet, politician and preacher John Donne.
            While he is well known for his satires, sonnets, love poetry, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs and sermons, the way he was taught when I was a student has in no way prepared me for Simon Vincent's fantastical take on Donne's early life and times. A Renaissance Man is set in 1599, when Donne was 27.
            Claiming Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's Shakespeare in Love as a precedent - not to mention Shakespeare's own 'histories', and Richard Curtis & Ben Elton's Blackadder II in particular - Vincent, director David Lawrence and a splendid cast of fully committed actors happily play fast and loose with recorded history. Their succulent banquet of derring-do and intrigue is garnished with witty anachronisms, both visual and verbal, and gilds the theatrical lily to great entertaining effect.
            In the best traditions of good comedy, real lives are at stake and the jeopardy is great. A tone-setting prologue (beautifully voiced by Julian Wilson) is punctuated with the flogging of an unrepentant Catholic strapped to the legs of an upturned table, the lashing of which is truly unnerving. This martyr turns out to be John Donne's brother Henry, played with passion by Alex Greig. Protestant England - founded by Henry VIII and perpetuated by Elizabeth I - is a dangerous place for some.
            Phil Peleton's John Donne is finely characterised as a reluctant poet and even more reluctant swordsman who is also an avid seducer of two women (at least). Because his poetry does the trick he uses it, and the sword-fighting thing becomes an inevitable adjunct. But it's his Catholic heritage that gets him into most trouble - speaking of which, Catholic martyr Edmund Campion is roundly maligned as a masked conspirator, using Donne as a pawn in his plot to assassinate the Queen. Except is this really him? To reveal more here would spoil the fun. Suffice to say the credited actor, Carl Homére, is anagrammatic and for good reason.
            Meanwhile the pursuit of love and lust drives the main plot. Rachel More's ruthlessly sultry Stella Artöis, muse to lesser poet Sir Philip Sidney, Queen Elizabeth's chief interrogator - a lithe and multiple sword-adorned Allan Henry - is also married to Gavin Rutherford's gloriously swashbuckling adventurer, The Earl of Essex, a secret Catholic and conspirator with 'Campion'.
            Erin Banks' extremely emotive teenage romantic Anne More, who initially believes the poems to 'Stella' are meant for her, is faithfully betrothed to Sidney until she discovers his deceit and falls for the true poet. Thus Donne is done. Her lust unleashed is brilliantly staged, as are all the sex scenes (think Tom Jones - the 1963 John Osborne/Tony Richardson film of the Henry Fielding classic - on steroids).
            As the dual plotlines converge towards a duel, a twist in the tale ramps up the jeopardy marvellously by calling in the investments we've made in the characters and their relationships, bringing the show to a riveting climax.
            Allan Henry's fight choreography, as executed by these match-fit actors, is gasp-inducingly dramatic and comic. The multi-level space, designed by David Lawrence and lit by Jennifer Lal, and the costumes designed and constructed by Rachel More and Sharon Matthews (of The Costume Cave) also add greatly to the delight.
            Being the world premiere of a play that takes energising stylistic risks, exposure to audiences is a necessary part of its development. Opening night events may well encourage the cast to build more on direct address and audience rapport. Despite being a thrill to witness already, I have no doubt much honing will occur in this too-short season (eight performances only!).
            Personally I feel the corny film noir music stabs are a gag too far. And I'd urge the company to note that their comedy is at its best when they - and we - believe in, and are fully engaged by, the drama. The instant anyone looks like they're consciously trying to be funny, they're not.
            But The Bacchanals have too good a track record to fall into traps like that. This production certainly deserves to return for a longer run (might Downstage have some gaps opening soon?) and the developed script should be marketed far and wide.
— John Smythe, theatreview.org

Marvellous slapstick comedy

Bats finished 2007 with a riotous modern take on A Midsummer Night's Dream; it starts 2008 with a rumbustious new comedy by local actor Simon Vincent on the life - well a bit of it - of the Elizabethan poet John Donne.
            Like Shaffer's Amadeus and Stoppard and Norman's Shakespeare in Love, A Renaissance Man doesn't bother with historical accuracy but very much like Blackadder and the Carry On movies with a soupcon of Monty Python thrown in for good measure it bothers with the principle of anything for a laugh, even though torture, disemboweling, religious belief, and other serious matters such as love, sex and poetry permeate the times - and occasionally the play.
            Some times during the comedy I felt that something elevated about poetry and artistic expression was trying to be expressed but all the sword fights, the sexual hanky-panky and the complex intrigues of Catholic and anti-Catholic spying got in the way. So I relaxed and enjoyed the comedy, though I found that staged sword fights despite being excellently choreographed by Allan Henry, when there are too many of them, are as boring as car chases in the movies.
            Gavin Rutherford as the Earl of Essex has a Rik Mayall-like swagger and bombast that are nicely contrasted with Allan Henry's nasty-piece of work, Sir Philip Sidney, who enters wearing sunglasses and with four swords hanging from his belt. Their energy and exuberance keep things moving along often hilariously and always over the top.
            As Anne More, Erin Banks goes way, way, way over the top but brings the house down when Anne doesn't get what she wants and I won't forget the hilarious emphasis she gives to the final consonant in her lusty question to Donne: "Shall we elope?"
            Rachel More as Stella Artois (Sidney's muse) who provides country pleasures to the rhythm of iambic pentameters for Donne is a fiery comic presence. Her rehearsal of the assassination of the Queen brings the comedy to a fruity ending.
            Phil Peleton as John Donne captures nicely in comic form what Donne wrote in a poem: I am two fools, I know, / For loving, and for saying so / In whining poetry. As a man keen on advancement in society this Donne seems a bit too unsure of himself and too squeamish about killing people but his attempts to remain a pacifist during Essex's attack on Cadiz when Spanish sailors try to kill him at every opportunity is marvellous slapstick comedy.
— Laurie Atkinson, The Dominion Post

Mining the depths of despair and hilarity

BLASTING the Sex Pistols as pre-show music proved to be an apt warm up for A Renaissance Man — it mostly features sword fighting, anarchy and sex. The show begins with a voice-over taking us back to 1599 and introducing us to the dire scene of Henry Donne about to be martyred for his Catholic faith in Protestant England. He is visited by his brother John (the 'Renaissance Man' in question, played by Phil Peleton) and a scene of despair, marked by stilted dialogue unfolds before Henry is dragged off. This is about as serious as it gets however. We soon learn that John is a lover not a fighter, and has been using his poetic abilities mostly as an aid to seduce various strumpets around London. The crazy Sir Philip Sidney, Chief interrogator for Queen Elizabeth uses John to deliver a cycle of appalling poems to his muse, Stella, and as an informant. However, the shady, hooded Catholic figure Edmund Campion, wants to enlist him to fight for the same cause as his brother. In addition the equally mad Earl of Essex (husband to Stella) also has plans for John as he seeks the throne. John just wants advancement, so he has to play all sides to try and increase his fortune. Add into this the flighty but quite cunning aristocratic Anne More, who only wants a wedding day, and John is in rather a mess. At the end of two hours this mess is (mostly) untangled.
            This piece marks the fulfilment of a long dreamt of dramatic work on John Donne by Simon Vincent, who wanted to reveal how the drama of Donne's life informed his poetry. Poetry is used extensively throughout the play, but the action frequently shows it up and an interesting conflict between action and poetry emerges. Will our hero be able to resolve this conflict within himself? Are they truly irreconcilable — is poetry the antithesis of action? The lightness of tone that marks this play doesn't give us much of a resolution to this, but it's fun to ponder it nonetheless. As the Director's Note confesses, some of the biographical accuracy has given way to entertainment. But I'm not complaining — this was a highly entertaining play that mined the depths of despair and hilarity. And bawdiness, lots of bawdiness. If there was the opportunity for a thinly veiled sexual reference or slapstick visual comedy it doesn't appear to have been missed by Lawrence and his cast. The visual gag involving the watermelon at the end is priceless — and it would have been equally funny had it not been pulled off.
            In addition to the highly physical visual comedy are the swashbuckling sword fights, choreographed with precision by Allan Henry (who also plays Sir Sidney and a dastardly Spaniard with relish). When Henry enters wearing 4 swords dangling from his belt it produced a laugh, and everyone, even the girls, get to have a go by the end. Rachel More constructed the gorgeous, bosom heaving gowns that she and Erin Banks wore. All of the actors are excellent in their roles, although a standout for me was More as the wily and seductive Stella. Gavin Rutherford's protracted death as Essex is hilarious and almost deserved to be rewound and repeated.
            Who knows how many more Bacchanals plays there will be as the company gets increasingly aggravated (rightly so in my opinion) at receiving little funding despite their critical and popular success? Do not miss them — they are always intelligent, entertaining and accessible. This production, although on the lighter side of their usual fare, is no exception.
— Helen Sims, The Lumiere Reader

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