James Charlton has written a dense and layered work with much texture to experience but perhaps just a tad too much to grab in the White Bear’s small and immediate theatrical setting. His play is interesting and well-constructed but, in its current staging, succeeds even more as a dramatic study (with teleplay potential) rather than as the fundamentally gripping theatrical drama its central conflict promises in the synopsis.
An ambitious piece of ‘speculative fiction’, Charlton imagines figureheads of the Protestant Reformation encountering one another and serving as an allegory for the wider social forces that prompted it and continue to result from it; with the political very much the personal then as now. Unlike John Osborne’s 1964 Tony-award-winning play Luther, we are not treated to a historical epic spanning 25 years of religious revolution. Rather, Charlton’s work takes place over a matter of weeks in a ‘kind of 1529’: twelve years since the dramatic nailing of 95 Theses to Wittenberg Cathedral’s door that legend (and a few historians) tell us kicked off the Protestant Reformation.
Initially, I was unconvinced about director Janice Dunn’s choice to stage the play using modern dress and contemporary props. But Charlton and Dunn are strong world-builders and we quickly understand we are not in the present day. The toned-down symbolism of two eras works rather well. Thankfully, their modern dress staging isn’t laboured to draw a clunky and obvious parallel to the current era but serves to place us in a dreamily familiar place that isn’t over-literal but plenty familiar. With a bigger production budget and venue, I’d be interested to see if the lighting and set design might take this non-temporal feeling further to more visceral places.
Reformation is ambitious but not ‘high concept’. It imagines meetings and conversations between people whose names are iconic but whose actions need not be scrutinised for historical purposes. This production is not about hanging on every word, but rather getting the gist. Unfortunately, because there are so many words to hang on, there are moments when the audience’s cognition is over-stimulated at the expense of emotional sensation. The story is well-crafted and arrives at a skilfully-rendered crisis at the end of the first act, but it feels like Charlton tried a little too hard to build the backstories and family bonds of all the characters at the expense of economy and pace. I found myself restless for the conflict to arise and wondered if he really needed nearly 100 pages of scene-setting and character-building to get us to the dramatic reversal? The second act moves at a more pleasing clip.
Occasionally owing more to Westeros than Wittenberg, Charlton gives his indulgence-selling Catholics, brothers Albert and Joachim (played with great skill by Matt Ian Kelly and Simeon Willis) chewy amounts of debauchery and corruption. Careful not to take sides in the Reformation itself, his Protestant artist, Lucas Cranach the Elder (Jason Wing giving a strong portrayal), depends on their patronage (we learn he is financially over-extended for good measure) is not above moral compromise even at the expense of his own son’s happiness.
Perhaps Charlton was worried about objectifying peasant-cum-model Ava in the telling as much as the story so he was overly careful to depict her humanity and build her family backstory. This would make a wonderful television drama over several episodes but probably needs a ruthless application of the pencil in theatre. Alice De-Warrenne has a big job to do as Ava and some brave performance moments. She lands some very tough moments with grace and skill. It is a pleasant subversion of the victim trope that we discover, despite all the corruption and soul-selling (with more than one direct reference to Faust), Ava is neither Madonna nor Whore – in a world where she will be commodified, she will at least seek the best price and make most of it. The gruesome inclusion of incest amongst her trajectory felt like it was also taking us to the thrills of Game of Thrones but perhaps served to remind us of the brutish and short lives of most people in ‘some kind of 1529’.
Besotted and romantic lover, Lucas Cranach the Younger (Ram Gupta) is perhaps the most televisual role of the piece. He serves to create conflict and provide contrast to the dehumanised but ultra-politicised world framed by the Elector and Bishop. Gupta has a pleasing stage presence and offered some strong moments but his part felt a little 2-dimensional against the meatier conflicts of the other characters. Imogen Smith as Gretel was outstanding and should this work find its way to a longer format, I’d like to see Gretel’s backstory expanded with Imogen in it. However, for the sake of dramatic economy, the role itself might not justifiably expand.
This play does not shrink from a challenge: objectification; dehumanisation; art; ideology; idolatry abuse of power; deification and demonisation of women; the rise of capitalism and the Protestant work ethic – throw a dart at 95 doctoral theses pinned to a door and you’ll hit at least one meaty theme Charlton explores. Given the scale of his ambition, he does well to tell a story at all! Although I think some of the scenes for characterisation in the domestic sphere would work well on television, they could be cut down for a tighter, tauter play. Nonetheless, Reformation is a success: it is interesting, thought-provoking and enjoyable. I can’t wait to see where it might go next!
Review by Mary Beer
Berlin. Eva learns that the celebrity artist Cranach is visiting her city. A chance meeting in the market place
leads to romance with the artist’s son. Eva gets the chance to model for Cranach’s latest painting, ‘The Rape
of Lucrece’. When Joachim, the all-powerful Elector of Brandenburg, sees the sketches of Eva, he wants the
model. Is Cranach willing to sell the human his son loves? In an age where upsetting the powerful meant
obscurity or death, what’s a poor girl like Eva to do?
Playwright James Martin Charlton
Director Janice Dunn
Cranach – Jason Wing
Lucas – Ram Gupta
Eva – Alice De-Warrenne
Gretel – Imogen Smith
Benno – Adam Sabatti
Joachim – Simeon Willis
Albert – Matt Ian Kelly
Dates June 25th 2019 – July 14th 2019
Monday – Saturday, 7.30pm
Sunday matinees at 4pm
White Bear Theatre, 138 Kennington Park Rd, Kennington, London SE11 4DJ