With the aim of tackling “questions of sexuality and gender within a 21st century context”, Ben Jonson’s Epicene was resituated from Renaissance England to the modern day by the same team behind last year’s production of Jonson’s The Alchemist. The action is focused on Dauphine (Callum Douglas), a young man who seeks to secure his inheritance by tricking his noise-hating uncle Morose (Rahul Srivastava) into marrying a noisy woman who brings other equally loud women into the household. Whilst I could see the origins of these intentions within the play’s gender relations and themes of noise and silence, the production fell rather short of achieving the aims outlined in the director’s note.
Including the interval, Epicene clocked in at almost three hours in length – rather longer than the average student production in St Andrews. Therefore, in order to sustain audience interest, the production needed a certain standard of performance and direction. Yet, from the lengthy but inactive dialogues of the opening scenes, to the crowded and disorderly appearance of the play’s resolution, the majority of the play had little energy and either felt static or looked messy, sometimes both at once, suggesting a lack of direction. Equally messy were the set changes, which were surprisingly noisy and slow at times, considering the set was simple and bare throughout most of the play.
Where direction was evident – such as the use of the sofa as a hiding space for Dauphine and Clerimont (James Rowland) or the ‘collegiates’ (a group of ladies known for exercising personal autonomy and sexual agency) – the amusement provided also distracted from the dialogue. This was especially detrimental for a play which required a fair bit of concentration in order not to lose one’s sense of the plot. Alongside this were several instances of actors physically dithering on stage as if unsure of how and where to move, and most of the cast were far too quiet.
That said, many of these problems were alleviated by the presence of the stronger performances in the production. Andrew Chalmers stood out for his strong sense of character as the lively and camp Sir Amorous la Foole, bringing a much-needed injection of energy into the early scenes of the play. Another noteworthy performance came from Alice Gold, who was very funny in her goading of Morose and her overtly sexual pursuit of Dauphine, as the brash yet charming Madame Haughty. Indeed, Douglas and Srivastava also had some of the better-executed performances in the play. Douglas displayed excellent command of more subtle aspects of physicality and tone as the suave Dauphine, and whilst Srivastava’s speech was a little quiet and hurried at times, he made good use of the rather bare acting space, presenting Morose as an amusingly ridiculous, fussy older man. These performances provided moments of entertainment which were otherwise in short supply.
However, the performances are also where the production loses its way in its examination of gender and sexuality. The central male characters are supposed to be condemned by the audience for their frequent use of the female characters of the play as means to an end, and their derision towards both the ‘collegiates’, for rejecting Renaissance-era female gender roles, and Tom Otter (Peter Simpson), who is characterised as being subservient to his more domineering wife (played by Erin Bushe). And yet, such condemnation is difficult when none of these men are appropriately villainous or dislikeable enough to highlight the actions that would be considered sexist by modern viewers.
Epicene was rather a mixed bag. At times I was genuinely very amused by the verbal and physical exchanges on stage. At other moments, I very much agreed with Morose’s sighing and complaints, not because I pitied him, but because I too wanted the whole affair to be over. I was also disappointed at the absence of a clear presentation of Jonson’s supposedly “audacious” social commentary. Perhaps with stronger direction and a few more confident performances to increase the production’s overall coherency, Epicene could have more successfully achieved its laudable aims.