Posted by Vikki in December's Magazine
There is something about the word ‘family’ which, when it attaches itself to a theatre production, has the capacity to make a prospective audience groan. All the more so at Christmas, when rational discerning liberals seem to forget their principles and descend into the titillatingly un-PC world of pantomime which would, at any other time of year, be branded something of a catastrophe – if only by me.
As director Dominic Hill’s own introduction to Chris Hannan’s The Three Musketeers and the Princess of Spain – a co-production between the Traverse, the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and the English Touring Theatre – acknowledges, a big, ‘family’ oriented show is not what most audiences would traditionally expect from the Traverse. But expecting the unexpected is a lot more fun. My experience of the Musketeers ranges from the campness of the 1973 Oliver Reed and Michael York film; through the canine reimagining that was Dogtanian; to the brilliant French cartoon dwarf that no one seems to remember but me: Albert the Fifth Musketeer.
As all these unique incarnations prove, the brilliance of the characters and outlines created by Alexandre Dumas is their flexibility and the seemingly endless stream of scenarios in which we could potentially find them. To recreate the winding back-stories of Athos, Porthos, Aramis, D’Artagnan and the evil Cardinal would be a lengthy and arduous process. Instead, Hannan opted to take their spirit and situation into a brand new adventure, giving yet another new lease of life.
Dead dog swamp
The princess of Spain is ambushed on her way to marry the king of France. Inconveniently, she is also pregnant, and is forced to leave her baby in a basket to escape the bloodhounds set upon her by the cardinal. Then, the evil baby-eating Lord Mandible captures her daughter. D’Artagnan, in Paris to find his vocation and his heart, rounds up the Musketeers who are hiding from the cardinal, rescues the princess and defeats the hungry lord by affirming that love, and his love for his childhood sweetheart and talented swordswoman Constance, is the most important thing on earth.
Visually, the production, with set and costume design by Colin Richmond, is stunning. Giant puppets and characters on stilts play with our sense of scale and bring a genuine sense of magic. Skeletal bird puppets are frighteningly hypnotic, and though it’s comforting to see the actors providing their squawking voices on stage, amazingly this does nothing to break their spell.
Perhaps it’s just my love for classic 1980s fantastical of the Dark Crystal and Never Ending Story genre, but I had fun drawing parallels with Labyrinth – stolen babies, giant puppets, bird-like masks and a Dead Dog Swamp à la the Bog of Eternal Stench. Screw up your eyes and you could half imagine, if you wanted, that the tight-trousered womaniser Aramis, played by Cliff Burnett, is David Bowie.
The genius of the Three Musketeers is that it’s good clean fun in a manner that isn’t always clean. Hearing the princess of Spain say “shiiiiit” is a bit like the first time you’re allowed to stay up late and watch the sweary bits on TV. We also get some brilliantly choreographed sword fights, some PG-certifiable snogging, liberated women demanding sex and a very realistic looking jobby. Unless your parents were true, card-carrying lefties, it may seem a bit shocking, but it is precisely the lack of sugar-coating that makes this show, despite its somewhat marathon duration of over two hours, so truly engaging.
King changes nappy
It is as though Hannan’s script and Hill’s production have captured the true sense of what it is to be a ‘family’. The princess can still be queen of France despite having another man’s baby, lovers swear and fight and cheat and the king may be ostentatious, but he can still change a nappy. And all of this chaos takes place within a carefully crafted script and slickly organised set that manages to tell its story cleanly (apart from the jobby) and cleverly, with plenty of hilarity but without unnecessary embellishment.
Whether you’re young, old, prudish or vulgar; buckle your swashes and go see.
Info: The Three Musketeers & the Princess of Spain Traverse until 24 December, times and prices vary To book visit traverse.co.uk or 0131 228 1404
Photo: Robert Day