Had you ever heard of Gallathea before this year’s On The Rocks festival? Nor had I, and neither had the director. Nevertheless, Ben Anderson has managed to turn an old fashioned tale of virgin sacrifice and Shakespearean gender confusion into a fairly entertaining hour and a half with a modern edge.
So the tale goes that every five years, the village must sacrifice the fairest virgin (only the girls obvs) to the monster Agar. If they fail to do so, Neptune will destroy their entire country. Seems fair. The causation here isn’t really explained, but it never really is. Anyhow, two fathers, aware of their daughters beauty send them off into the woods dressed as men in an attempt to outwit the gods and avoid their fate. Fate has another hand to play here as the two girls, Phyllida and Gallathea, (dressed as boys) meet and fall in love… because they’re both so goddam beautiful. Of course each girl thinks the other is a boy. This is the thread that continues as the gods, Venus and Diana battle it out with each other using nymphs, the mischievous Cupid and just about everyone as pawns. Then Neptune swaggers in and says something every now and then to move the plot along. It is eventually resolved by Neptune playing peace-keeper between Diana and Venus, foregoing the sacrifice malarkey and the two boys/girls are joined in holy matrimony.
Firstly, the set was great. Chalkboard paint trees to look almost like shadows, which I admit, in moments of distraction I found my eye wandering to. The Barron doesn’t allow for much, but the play didn’t need much. Similarly, the lighting suited the mood and complemented the acting. I have to say that acting all round was pretty decent. However, special mention must go to Cara Mahoney and Sarah Pollock, as Gallathea and Phyllida respectively; Andrew Chalmers as Cupid; and Charlotte Kelly as the unfortunate and entirely pitiable Hebe. Cara brought an authenticity to her character that just gave the whole production a more professional quality. Similarly, Andrew played his hapless and resentful Cupid with tremendous conviction that had the audience laughing both at him and with him. Now Charlotte had perhaps the hardest and least gratifying role. To only come on as the “not quite as pretty” sacrifice, lament your birth, death and existence, be saved by destiny and also realise your safety was only guaranteed by your homeliness in almost the same breath, without making it look like a pantomime, was a tall order. However, Charlotte pulled it off with aplomb. The audience loved and pitied her, felt she was both pathetic and amusing. Well done.
The themes of the play are what really make it translatable to modern day. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night demonstrates that gender misunderstandings still have the capacity to entertain. But what was funny about this wasn’t simply that girls had fallen in love with other girls, in the guise of boys. Its humour lay in gender relations, playing off how we think about them. One of the heartiest roars of laughter was induced by the line from Niall Kennedy as a father confessing he wanted his wife to be made a man, then awkwardly back-tracking. So there are greater subtleties than simple amusement as cross-dressing and homosexuality but it’s interesting that a play written around 1588 can still spark laughter from gender in the same way.
So there were no overt disasters, no obvious flaws in production and no broken legs. Yeah, some things worked better than others, and some actors were better than others. But overall, it was a solid show. I enjoyed the story, laughed along with the rest of the audience and left pondering modern society. On a final note, praise to the producers: Katie Brennan, Morgan-Elizabeth Aozasa, Ali Saldanha and Rose Albano, for without producers, nothing ever gets done. Well done to all involved in Gallathea, a revival of a very old, and very modern play.