Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until Sat 12 Apr
Anyone watching the difficulties of our formerly all powerful financial sector over the last few months could not fail to be struck by some echoes in this production at the Lyceum. If you’re a purist about Thackeray’s novel, which turns the early 19th century British empire into a mighty gaming board, peopled with rapacious charlatans and, occasionally, their innocent prey, you might quibble at Declan Donnellan’s pared down narrative, but you surely couldn’t fail to see its peculiar relevance to our times. In it, the hubris of a series of well-positioned hucksters and the ultimately futile vanity of their materialistic ambitions is lampooned to perfection.
The novel depicts the rise of the amoral and ruthlessly self-seeking Becky Sharp (Sophia Linden), juxtaposing her fortunes with those of the naïve Amelia (Kim Gerard) after the completion of finishing school. Through turbulent times, with war and financial ruin dogging the various grotesques we encounter, the piece brings us to an ambivalent, morally compromised solution.
Tony Cownie’s production in front of Neil Murray’s giant dusty toy playhouse design succeeds in distancing us from character by presenting the performers as puppets, abstract figures in tattered costume, who come suddenly to vivacious, frightening colourful life as their turn comes. The sense of play underneath all this creates a feeling of entertaining epic, allowing us to grasp the issues, while almost always keeping the tone light, an effect assisted by Jon Beales’ ingenious piano and fiddle music.
The comical physical language that creates all this, with the actors mimicking carriage journeys, punting expeditions and even picture galleries in a decrepit old house adds to the sense of something glibly facetious yet simultaneously deadly earnest.
What is so remarkable about all this is that it creates enough detachment from the characters that, however monstrous Becky is, her historical circumstances are always on display, with both class and emotional attenuation acting as causal explanation – if not excuse – for her ruthlessness. The young female leads are admirable, while the support is strong, with Matthew Pidgeon as both the caddish Rawdon, and dragged up as an Irish spinster desperate for the affection of the unfortunate Dobbin (a subtly witty straight man performance by Simon Muller) a particular treat.