Sara 1990 (British Premiere)

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A swirling, elegant fandango of passion, impetuosity and deceptionThe Observer
This is a ground breaking showIndependent on Sunday

Produced by Cheek by Jowl

Find out more by visiting the entry for this production in our archive
Cast
Daniel ThorndikeSir Willaim
Peter NeedhamWaitwell
Max BurrowsLandlord of an Inn
Raad RawiMellefont
Duncan DuffNorton
Charlotte MedcalfBetty
Rachel JoyceSara Sampsonv
Sheila GishMarwood
Pat O'TooleHannah
Maria IsabelHernandez Arabella

Creatives
DirectorDeclan Donnellan
DesignerNick Ormerod
MovementJane Gibson
MusicPaddy Cunneen
Lighting DesignerRick Fisher
Company Stage ManagerLouise Yeomans
Voice CoachPatsy Rosenberg

1990

"Make comedy serious, make tragedy domestic and you can be sure on winning applause and immortality." Diderot put in this claim for a "genre intermediare" in 1757 as though he was proposing something new; but tow years earlier, the young Gotthold Lessing had already pulled it off and hit the promised jackpot with the Frankfurt production of Miss Sara Sampson, which now follows Corneille's Le Cid as the latest European masterwork to be given its English premiere by Cheek by Jowl.

Sara (as retitled in Ernest Bell's sharply refocused translation) gets into the reference books as Germany's first "bourgeois tragedy" and a springboard for the Sturm und Drang movement of the 1770s. Otherwise the story of its heroine's abduction by the notorious rake Mallefont and her poisoning by his discarded mistress, Marwood, is consigned to the rubbish heap of 18th Century tear jerkers.

But wait a minute. Consider those character's names. They do not come from the sentimental comedy of Lessing's English contemporaries; they go back to Congreve and Richardson to a time when it was a revolutionary act to admit the ordinary human feelings into a comic game of outwitting parents and besieging virginities. What about giving the parents and virgins a say? If that is sentimentality it is in a very different class from that of Little Nell.

Look at it in that way, and Sara emerges as a Restoration Comedy turned inside out. The situation, with Mellefont and his prey holed up in a Dover inn awaiting news of an inheritance, echoes Farquhar. The characters are al out of the comic toybox, until they begin speaking, when you find that the rake, the mistress and the abandoned father have a human reality and self-knowledge almost to the point of bursting out of the roles they are compelled to play.

The Cheek by Jowl programme carries a note by Gilbert Highet defining the baroque as a combination of maximum feeling and maximum formality. As carried out in the Declan Donnellan's production, this proves to be the formula for a bomb. On a bare platform that gradually becomes charged with lines of force, the company first assemble in the attitudes of bewigged manikins while servants fuss round making costume adjustments. Then the fashion plate tableau dissolves, leaving Raad Rawi's Mellefont alone on stage with a sleeping servant whom he brutally kicks awake.

The style at once defines a moment of historical change and the conversion of decorative movement into a martial art. Every feeling is externalised. You see raw desire, hatred or terror in a character's eyes and then follow it through savagely elegant manoeuvres of retreat or pursuit until it comes to rest in another manikin like posture. Formality is intensified by a trio of servant musicians, with a nice line in interrupted cadences, ominously heralding their employers' next merciless round. The physical attitudes drawn from the vocabulary of eighteenth century portraiture are declarations of status characters adopt them not to mask their passions but in order to win, with the irony that a body language originally expressing the effortless superiority of the nobility is now used as a weapon by a profligate fugitive and jealousy madden widow at the midnight of her youth.

Sometimes the result is devastatingly funny, as where Sheila Gish's stampingly enraged Marwood runs through her repertoire of voluptuous welcomes with which she hopes to recapture her lover. But once she fixes him with a soft, forgiving smile, it is like the transformation of Lady Wishfort into Medea. She is terrifying; and Rawi's violence, his thickened voice and eyes like gun barrels, stems from his fear of such an opponent.

But what, meanwhile of Sara and her tragic fate? As written she goes through the piece writhing with guilt even before devouring the fatal potion. She is also innocent and it is this that supplies the key to Rachel Joyce's extraordinary performance. Lacking the worldly corruption of her partners, she also lacks their social technique. Her performance is cut off from the prevailing style. It is equally physical, but in her case it consists of involuntary un taught gestures, self punishing blows, childish disappearances behind raised arms, after which she reappears, still smiling and ready for a giggle with her maid. It is the same even on her deathbed, where, after every shuddering convulsion she recovers her old self without a trace of pathos. The result falls short of tragedy, but it comes from a character who never considered herself tragic in the first place. This is a ground breaking show. Irving Wardle, Independent On Sunday. 10 June 1990
Gotthold Lessing is a name that crops up in history books rather than on old playbills, but Cheek by Jowls Sara in the Lilian Baylis is a compelling, intriguing version, translated by Ernest Bell, of Miss Sara Sampson, (1755) one of the first European domestic prose tragedies.

Lessing took his names from Congreve, but more crucial precursors on the British stage were the eighteenth century tragedies of Leroge Lillo who in turn had adapted Arden of Faversham. Declan Donnellan's production is a swirling, elegant fandango of passion, impetuosity and deception.

The tone of the piece furtively sinister with flashes of humour and eroticism, is sustained by the variegated playing of Rachel Joyce as Sara and Raad Rawi as Mellemont; she compensates for slipshod articulation by replacing dim beauty with incipient lunacy; he is a walking compendium of fatuous vanities. Above all, Shelia Gish's Marwood eclipses her Restoration namesake as this murderously devious femme fatale, Joan Collins according to Miss Siddons. A great performance, a real discovery. The Observer. 10 June 1990