By Hannah Forsyth
John Dryden’s Amphitryon; or, The Two Sosias is a play which mixes the comic, the disturbing, the divine and the extremely mundane in a tale of Greek gods and doppelgängers. Michael Cordner’s production is a bold, visually stunning take on the tale, but contains some challenging material.
An early exploration into the concept of tragicomedy, the myth of Amphitryon has been told countless times and the plot and message have changed with each incarnation. In this version, Jupiter disguises himself as the eponymous Amphitryon, a General from Thebes, in order to spend a night with Amphitryon’s wife Alcmena. There are several subplots involving other Greek gods and assorted members of Amphitryon’s household, which form the bulk of the comedic moments around the more serious central love triangle.
This production has made full use of the technological capabilities of the Black Box to create a world which is both visually stunning and cohesive. The lighting design and the set have been thoughtfully combined to create a setting which suits both conversations between Greek deities and the bickering of servants, while Mariana Lopez’s sound design provides both ambiance and punctuation at crucial moments within the narrative. The overall effect is mesmerising; somewhat reminiscent of recent productions such as the RSC’s The Tempest in its use of projection and ambiance.
There are some outstanding performances from amongst the cast. Ben Kawalec provides Jupiter with a real sense of authority and mischief, while the subplots between Phaedra, Mercury, Bromia and Sosia are executed with conviction and superb comic timing. Harriet Patten-Chatfield’s Alcmena provides a more gentle, melancholy influence, and her handling of the character around the limitations in the script should be commended.
This brings up perhaps the biggest problem facing the production. There is a dilemma facing any director tackling a play written during a different era – the question of differing moral values. It is not the duty of the playwright to apologise for the morals of their time, nor should we try to avoid producing plays with principles which do not fit with the predominant values of our time. To do this would be tantamount to censorship. However, a greater sensitivity towards the issues brought up by the play – marital trauma and abuse of power to name just two – would have gone some way to dealing with this problem. There is a sense of moral dissonance as some evils are righted while others pass without comment or censure, which leaves the production on a rather uncertain note rather than a conclusive one as it was intended by Dryden. It is possible to depict events without condoning them, a distinction which felt rather lacking from this production.
This is not to detract from other elements of the production such as the design elements and cleverly designed staging, which are to be commended. Amphitryon is an engaging production with a lot of promise and some outstanding performances, but be prepared to encounter challenging and potentially upsetting material.
Amphitryon, performing at 7:30pm in the Black Box Theatre, Dept. of Theatre, Film and Television, University of York. Tickets available on the door and online (£6/10).