Last Updated on 11th August 2022
Tim Hochstrasser reviews the UK premiere of Black, the Clown presented as part of Grimeborn at the Arcola Theatre.
Black, El Payoso/The Clown
2 August 2022
The quality and variety of offerings at Grimeborn continues to impress as we move into the second week with the UK premiere of Black, the Clown, one of the last zarzuelas to be composed before the genre petered out after the Spanish Civil War. Zarzuela is a hard genre to categorise. Usually defined as ‘Spanish operetta’ combining both speech and music, it is steeped more in the asperity of cabaret and inter-war satire than in the lush romanticism of Strauss and Lehar. The bitter-sweet sound world of Korngold and Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis are perhaps better reference points for this work by Pablo Sorozábal, dating from 1942.
The worlds of the circus and of politics are conflated here – clowns become kings and kings want to become clowns, in a way that is eerily familiar in our own times. As one of the clowns reflects, succeeding as a populist politician is akin to pleasing an audience in a circus, truly transferable skills. But these shadows cast backwards towards Spain in the 1930s and forwards to our own century in no way make this a heavy show – indeed values of frothy entertainment and charm are very much to the fore. Director, Paul Paz, makes this explicit by having a child placed on the upper level of Studio 1, as a framing device, literally pulling the strings on a puppet theatre that echoes the events below.
The plot revolves around mistaken identity. Two clowns, simply called Black and White perform at a circus and a princess in the audience hears one of them play a tune on the violin which had previously been gifted to her by her lost fiancée. She is convinced Black is the long-lost prince, and he and his companion are subsequently installed as ruler and first minister of the Princess’ Ruritanian kingdom. They turn out to be good at ruling in the populist style so that when the real prince turns up, he is quite happy to let them continue so that he can enjoy a private life undisturbed as a concert pianist. A revolution suddenly puts them all in jeopardy, but a return to pure performance by the clowns ensures that the people are pacified, and the lords of misrule restore order for everyone.
This kind of brittle plot and varied stylistic palette can only succeed with excellent musical and technical skills in place and the first thing to say about the production is that the hugely talented and enthusiastic performers more than meet that standard.
Musical underpinning is provided by piano and violin. Ricardo Gosalbo and Elena Jáuregui play with flair and power, suggesting at times an orchestral range of timbres. Jáuregui also manages to manipulate a great variety of percussion with expert rhythmic precision. Only brass fanfares are dubbed in, but it all works seamlessly without the need for a conductor in a huge variety of styles and tempi, seeming to glide through in under the 90 minutes running time. It was an excellent idea to switch the text between English and Spanish, adding to the immediacy and authenticity of the dialogue, and translator Simon Breden has done a fine job in making the text punchy and accessible.
There are no weak links among the cast who all sing as though their lives depended on it and act very credibly with effective choreography as well staging with a few, carefully selected, props, easily moved on and off so as not to hold up the flow of the action. It was not clear to me why so much haze hovered throughout, but this was a minor irritation.
In the title role Michael Lafferty-Smith captured the diffidence and melancholy of the classic clown alongside a plausible show of bravado as the ruler of Orsonia. He was well matched by Giuseppe Pellingra, as his sidekick, White, who has no hesitation, Sancho Panza-like, in greedily embracing the rewards of power. Raphaela Papadakis, clad in a frothy whisk of bridal gauze, generated appropriate hauteur and reserve as the deluded, well-meaning princess; and her seriousness was well contrasted with the soubrette role of Catalina, played by Juliet Wallace. Her flirtatious routines with David Powton’s journalist, Marat, set the show alight in the early stages; and he returned as the long-lost prince in the later stages with a taxing tenor aria that he delivered with panache.
If you miss this short run of a unique show at the Arcola, then don’t miss the reprise in September at the Cervantes Theatre, the home base of this very talented and versatile company. The satire is delicate and the touch light.