Review: Fiesco by The Faction

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The Faction produce a heady mix of classic, text-based, physical theatre which is a joy to witness.  They are dedicated to producing the complete works of Schiller, but also include other classics in their repertoire, such as Chekov, Lorca, Shakespeare and Strindberg, to name but a few.  But it was Schiller who drew me to the New Diorama Theatre on a cold January evening.  Last year I was privileged to see The Faction’s Mary Stuart, and I had high expectations of this latest production.  I was not disappointed.

Fiesco has never been produced in the UK, and one is naturally wary of such plays, wondering if there is a good reason for their lack of exposure.  It is arguably not the greatest of Schiller’s works, and has a lengthy introduction setting up the various characters, which makes the play a little slow to get going.  But in Director, Mark Leipacher‘s, hands it inexorably gathers momentum in true Schiller-style as the plot twists and turns, loyalties shift and intrigue builds upon conspiracy, until the audience is totally caught up in the action long before the final, shocking denouement.

Fiesco avoids, beautifully, the tendency of some plays of the era to deal in caricature and simple motivation.  Its hero: Fiesco, Count of Lavagna, is a complex character, presented to the audience initially as a shallow playboy who happily dishonours his marriage by pursuing other women and who conspires with the corrupt Doge-to-be, Gianettino Doria, in his decadence.  But half-way through the play it is revealed that Fiesco’s lack of honour is, in fact, a ploy designed to lull Gianettino into a false sense of security while he plots his downfall.  The complexity of the character develops further as Fiesco struggles internally with his desire to claim power for himself and his sense of honour and justice which demands he restores the Republic, and it is in this struggle that his tragedy lies.  The sub-plot, which revolves around the young girl, Bertha, who is raped by Gianettino, and which leads her father, lover and their friends to plot Gianettino’s assassination, is tightly woven into the main storyline.  But as the final tragedy starts to unravel, Schiller is inclined to self-indulgence in Fiesco’s realisation that he has mistakenly murdered his wife, though it is well-handled by Richard Delaney as the eponymous hero, who manages to maintain the momentum in a crescendo which goes on a little too long.

Leipacher’s style is masterful.  He eschews scenery, performing in a bare black box and allowing the lighting and the physicality of the company to create a sense of setting.  The unfolding of the plotlines in the first quarter of the play is accompanied by the ensemble, wearing full-head masks, moving tightly as a group behind the action, which creates a wonderful sense of the building sentiment against the corruption of Gianettino and his exploitation of the people.  The masks themselves mainly depict a variety of animals and birds, which keenly emphasises Fiesco’s analogy of social structure on which the play’s central theme hinges.  However, I struggled to find deeper metaphors for the characters as they emerged from beneath the masks to introduce themselves, and the presence of Bin Laden, Gadaffi and Obama masks among the animals and birds was puzzling. I would have liked to have seen an additional dimension in the choice of masks, and a return to them at later points in the evening. Nevertheless, the physical imagery that Leipacher inevitably creates to capture the final moments of a play was there in abundance, with Feisco’s drowning performed in front of the audience instead of happening offstage, as one would have expected in the original script.  The beauty and sheer power of this shocking and tragic climax is evocative and realised in full, using only swathes of material and the physicality of the performers, and its simplicity is skillful.  Leipacher also chooses to finish the play with the 1970s Edwin Starr classic, War, which is sheer genius in the way it emphasises the contemporary parallels and mirrors the eclectic style of the production.

The Faction is, proudly, an ensemble company and the ensemble is very strong, as are many of the individual performances.  Anna-Maria Nabirye is the star of the piece as the charismatic Hassan, whose dubious morals and shifting loyalties are central to the plot, and she plays the comedy of the role with perfect timing while maintaining the dramatic weight of the character. Gareth Fordred‘s doubling of Gianettino and Andreas Doria is impressive, particularly since it requires him to have conversations with himself onstage.  The morphing from one character to the other and back again, with the silent character still present as a drape of coloured cloth, is a beautiful device and Fordred’s shifts in characterisation are subtle, yet precise, giving the audience a real sense of the connections and dissimilarities between uncle and nephew.  Richard Delaney is engaging and judges the pace of his character’s journey adroitly and Derval Mellett‘s performance is a joy to watch, as always, although she is wasted as Leonore’s maid. Carey Crankson, though, seems uncomfortable with the difficult job of playing someone twice his age and Kate Sawyer is a little unsubtle as Gianettino’s sister, Julia, and fails to convince us that her bitchiness, or her infatuation with Fiesco, are completely genuine.

This is a joyous production by a company of consummate storytellers, and producers with more resources at their disposal would do well to learn from The Faction’s utter commitment to reliance on the skill of the artists involved, rather than on a large budget which allows a director to mask mediocre talent with expensive effects.  Fiesco is playing in repertoire with Three Sisters and Blood Wedding until Saturday 23rd February 2013, and I thoroughly recommend it!

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