The Monk is based on a Gothic novel by Matthew Gregory Lewis from the late 1700s and has not previously been staged in the UK. This new production is written by Benji Sperring and developed by the company.
Barons Court Theatre is a small fringe theatre located underneath a pub. The space has a low ceiling and is a very fitting staging for this story based in a monastery. The stage is centred in the space with pillars on each corner, and the simple addition of a few candles and a statue are enough to make you feel like you could be in a tomb underneath a church. At the start of the performance the effect is strengthened by the sight of a hooded monk sitting in front of the statue facing away from the audience, praying.
It was a bit of a surprise when the monk, named Ambrosio, dropped his hood and revealed what can only be described as a ridiculously handsome man, Francisco Ortiz. The spell was somewhat broken when he started to speak. It really is a shame to see an actor struggle because of language difficulties. Ortiz’s accent is strong, especially in contrast with the crisp deliveries of the rest of the cast, and his lines frequently felt a little off, making the monk less effective.
The highlight of the production is without a doubt Sadie Tonks’ portrayal of Matilda, the woman hiding as a man in the monastery, who confesses her love to Ambrosio and becomes instrumental in his fall. Tonks moves from desperate to wicked with ease and feels truly menacing as she pushes Ambrosio further into the abyss. She is mesmerizing to watch from the moment she first appears and all you see is a wicked grin as she passes through the room. You believe her desperation and love in the early stages of the play as much as you believe her contempt of the monk later.
The supporting cast were all enjoyable to watch. Judy Tcherniak’s Prioress is believably cruel and another standout. Lucy Dascalopoulos as Antonia started off a bit dull, which fits the character, but she came into her own in the second act when she is the victim of the monk. Antiona’s frightened screams in the second act isn’t something I’ll forget easily. As a whole the ensemble were really good and the opening scene of Leonella flirting with Christoval while Antonia and Lorenzo simply gaze at each other lovingly was delightful.
The production suffers by some odd choices. I can understand that it’s difficult to break a book into two pieces of similar length, but the first act lasted one hour and twenty minutes, with the second act at only forty minutes. The story doesn’t quite flow right either, the jump from scene to scene with little transition felt at time a bit rushed, and the piece could probably do with some more polishing.
As I came prepared for sexualized violence, I was expecting to be frightened of Ambrosio, but he never felt as menacing as his actions should make him. It’s difficult to say if it was an obvious choice to make the monk seem less in control of his own actions rather than showing real cruelty and desire. Unfortunately I didn’t quite understand the fall of Ambrosio, who as a character changed less than expected during the play. He went from virtuous to sexual predator so quickly all the while claiming to still be a man of God, yet seeing him embrace his own wickedness more would be a lot more interesting. As he is in this production, he is difficult to grasp.
As mentioned previously, there were several candles present in the room in front of the statue.There was more than one occasion where I watched the monk outfits hover a bit too close to the candles, which worried me more than a little. It turns out I worried for good reason, as towards the very end our Ambrosio managed to set himself on fire. It took the cast a little while to notice – the producer had to intervene – and our monk quickly fell to the floor and rolled, putting himself out. The audience member next to me threw water at him. The monk stayed on the floor as it would appear he was supposed to have ended up there anyway by way of being beaten up, and the production continued as if nothing had happened. I always admire it when I see professionalism prevail over things going horribly wrong in the theatre, but that was a really close call. I hope Ortiz wasn’t hurt, and bravo to the cast for not skipping a beat but carrying on with the story.
The evening came to a close in a surprising and effective twist that I thoroughly enjoyed, and will not reveal. I can tell you it rounded up the story in a satisfying manner with a strong performance that left me grinning.
Reviewed by Tori Jo Lau
Friday 19th October 2012