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THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO (article first published : 2001-11-14)

Durban actor Steven Stead, who is this year’s FNB Vita winner of Best Actor of the Year for his performance in the Themi Venturas production of Hamlet recently directed a new production by the English National Opera of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro in London. The production has received conflicting reviews but artSMart’s reviewer on the spot – former Durban actress and writer Jill Fenson – stands by her accolade.

ELECTRIC Y-FRONTS HIT ST MARTIN'S LANE

According to an advance feature in the London Evening Standard, November 8 marked the first major new London staging of this opera in a decade. The director was none other than Durban's Steven Stead. His production of Beaumarchais' classic mixture of subterfuge and sexual shenanigans, underlined by Mozart's timeless score, is utterly fresh, audacious and impact-making.

The 18th century comedy of manners and social divide takes place during a single day in and around the palace of Count Almaviva, feudal lord with total power over all on his estate. Count Almaviva is somewhat beset. His manservant Figaro is to marry the Countess's maid Susanna. His page, Cherubino, is annoying him by pursuing nubile female workers he himself fancies - including Susanna. He hopes the offer of a dowry may lead to him exercising his Droit de Seigneur on her wedding night. His housekeeper Marcellina stirs it by announcing that Figaro is a foundling and contracted to marry her. His wife, the Countess, sadly longs to reclaim his undivided attention at the same time coping with Cherubino's passionate crush on her. So begins a tangled mesh of intrigue involving switched identity, masquerade, cross-dressing, lust and genuine human aspiration at bay.

Sung in English, which is the hallmark of the ENO, The Marriage Of Figaro is presented as a black farce, placed in an unspecified future amid an assortment of discarded 20th century junk: an old fridge, broken lamps, bedsteads and mattresses, piled about haphazardly and used to effect. An iron ladder from the middle of all the detritus, running up to a gigantic boiler tank with a sliding front and a versatile interior, starkly splits the action between "above and below stairs". The mood is broodingly colourful and raffish with the suggestion that anything can happen here, which it undoubtedly does.

Steven Stead has a strong cast and they do him proud. Vocal control largely makes mincemeat of the scenic assault course. Young, vigorous and intensely physical, they respond with gusto to their director's every rollicking notion. They look all right, too: Christopher Maltman is an athletic, cheeky Figaro, red-haired Mary Nelson a petite and very sexy Susanna and Orla Boylan a statuesquely blonde, beautifully vulnerable Countess. Leigh Melrose (Almaviva) cuts a Bela Lugosi “Dracula” figure, and the Cherubino of Victoria Simmonds with a shaggy Just William haircut is a gawky, precociously randy, delightfully tiresome adolescent boy. Marcellina (Claire Weston) storms blackly in with a gammy leg, brandishing her marriage contract, trailed by the creepy Don Basilio (Mark le Brocq) in hinged shades, who taps his way with a white stick and hisses as he sings, while the plot thickens and sweeps all over the place on wings of ineffable music like a darkly surreal, sci-fi sex-comic.

The costumes are cosmic in variety, inspiration ranging from Arthur Ferrier and Andy Warhol to Star Trek and adding up to pure Rory Stead. This is Rory's professional debut as designer, although he is a performer with a record. At nine, he appeared on stage at Durban's Alhambra Theatre as one of the Babes in the Wood in the John Moss pantomime Robin Hood. More recently, since graduating from the UCT Ballet School, he has been dancing in South Africa and Europe, currently in Germany with Anthony Taylor's company at Koblenz.

The lighting, calculated to heighten every lustful smoulder, is down to another South African, Farley Whitfield, whose collaborations with Steven Stead go back to University of Natal and productions in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. After training at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, Farley moved to the States and is now resident lighting designer for HT Chen & Dancers at the Mulberry Street Theatre, New York.

For the director, Steven Stead, this must surely be a landmark of spectacular significance. He has gone from strength to strength in both directing and acting since graduating cum laude from UND in 1991. Long before that, however, like his brother Rory, he got his stage-legs at the Alhambra as Christopher Robin in the NAPAC Winnie the Pooh of 1982. Earlier this year, he collected an FNB Vita Award for his performance as Hamlet at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, Durban.

His credits in South Africa and the UK are fairly legion now, and he became a staff director for the ENO at the London Coliseum in 1997. Since then, he has re-staged revivals of productions by Jonathan Miller and others, but this is the first totally new presentation assigned solely to him. The chipped-jet humour, split-second timing, meticulous detail and sheer theatricality of an astonishing Figaro bears witness to all that he most relishes about his chosen career. He has picked up the ball and bounced it out into space.

Some London critics may knock this impudent "Rag Week" interpretation, but I reckon Mozart would have enjoyed it hugely. At final curtain on the first night, the audience that packed the Coliseum to its stately roof very nearly lifted the dome off. – Jill Fenson




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