Sunday, 8 June 2014

Three Men And No Lady

OK, so a male-only cast is automatically terrible and wrong. But let's work from the principle that the wrongness is directly proportional to the size of the cast. Maybe a grant total of three cast members makes the complete domination of the Y chromosome at least bearable. Beyond the retrograde approach to casting, how does the recently-recast Perfect Nonsense hold up?

Well, it rather depends on how you like your Wooster served. At the risk of over-simplifying, potential punters can be roughly divided into three groups; those enthralled by Wodehouse's prose, those who fell in love with the Fry/Laurie adaptations of the early '90s, and those coming entirely fresh to the world of the Woosters, intrigued either by this show winning an Olivier, or the opportunity to watch Robert Webb and Mark Heap gurn at each other on-stage.

Before we go any further, a confession: I've never actually read a Wodehouse novel from cover to cover.  I'm really more of a Wikiquotes kind of a guy.  You may wish to season this analysis to a degree of saltiness generally associated with a drunken sailor who awakes to find his trousers stolen. But what I do know is that Wodehouse's descriptive pose easily matches and even surpasses his dialogue, and this degree of sharpness cannot help but be lost in translation to a dramatic production.

The ITV adaptation attempted to make up for this problem through utterly inspired casting, throwing the longest of shadows over anyone attempting to reinterpret the parts. If strength of performance is the hill the production is standing on, then, they've set themselves an exceptionally difficult job to do, and really they don't particularly come all that close.  Heap's Jeeves seems rather too underwritten to provide much of anything, and Webb's Wooster, at least initially, is entirely too close to the Laurie model for the comfort of anyone but the most litigious of copyright lawyers.

As the show develops, however, and as Marks Heap and Hadfield take on an increasing array of roles (Webb stays constant as Wooster, the Harry Seacombe of the production, which I in no way mean as a criticism) and achieve evermore impressive acts of stage-dressing in accordance with "Wooster's" whims, the truth is revealed. This isn't an attempt to re-present the original story on its own terms. Nobody really needs that at this point, after all - how many times has the story of the cow-creamer and the apoplectic Spode been replayed on cable by this point? This is an exercise in seeing how close to the original material you can get with three men playing nine parts and having to move their own scenery around (the conceit behind this being that Wooster himself is putting on the play and forced Jeeves to sort out of the technical details.)

This in the end is what Perfect Nonsense is about. Not to tell a story, but to deconstruct it.  With the characters and plot so familiar and the prose being necessarily mostly absent, there's almost no way to have played it straight and not been horribly redundant.  Instead, the focus is on the ingenuity of the staging and cross-dressing, with the goal being to impress through how close to a complete job is achieved through intentionally limited resources.  It's a puzzle to be solved in front of the audience, with Code of the Woosters just the underlying structure; chosen so its very familiarity frees the production from such minor concerns as putting effort into a compelling plot.

And at this job, the show succeeds admirably.  The restrictions on the three-man format might force the denouement to be badly short-changed (the usual last-minute reveal of Jeeves masterful plotting is replaced here by him suggesting an incriminating suitcase be thrown from a window, and suddenly all is well), but Webb compensates by increasing his character's mania and physicality until the building crisis passed, which serves the triple function of papering over the finale's lack of punch, distinguishing him ever more from Laurie's more restrained Wooster, and preventing him from fading into the background in comparison to Heap and Hadfield's multi-costume antics (with the seven-foot Spode a particular highlight).

To summarise, then; don't go to Perfect Nonsense in the hopes of seeing Wodehouse's magic summoned onstage. See it instead to watch three actors who know full well such a task is all but impossible, and instead demonstrate how the task can be attempted rather more interestingly than you might have thought possible.

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