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To the uninitiated, The White Bear may seem an unlikely choice in which to stage Jean Giraudoux’s Ondine. Billed as ‘romantic fantasy’, the tale of doomed love between a water nymph and a knight that first made Audrey Hepburn famous is not exactly what you expect to find in the back of a pub off the Kennington Park Road – and particularly not when the England game is in full swing.

However, the unlikeliness of this cult venue is also its charm, offering both a local welcome (the usher personally informs patrons when the next act is about to begin) and a fantastically intimate staging space that serves to pull the audience into this atmospherically and emotionally dark play.

Lost in the Dark’s production delivers on its promise, not so much inviting the audience to glimpse this twilight realm, as immersing theatregoers in a play which begins from the moment they enter the theatre. This is a fitting start to Ondine’s emotionally-charged three acts, where both a temporary suspension of belief in the world of the real and introspection on the nature of humanity are demanded of us. Ruminations on the transience of love, and the meaning of justice in a system where artificial constructs such as society (in this case feudal) exist to subvert dogmatic assumptions of morality in a manner recalling Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Giraudoux’s play is masterfully structured and offers little respite to his inter-worldly lovers in a play where pre-WWII foreboding may be heard in each breath if one listens carefully enough. Mitigating the heavy weight of tragedy is Ondine’s dialogue, wherein the juxtaposition of comedy and dramatic tension is so frequent as to reflect themes of mirroring in the rest of the production, providing a viewing experience as unsettling and provocative as it is enjoyable.

The cast rise to the challenge of this energetic dialogue well, with particularly strong performances from Terry Diab (Eugenie) and Elizabeth Merrick (Ondine). Merrick portrays the joy and anguish of Ondine’s character with aplomb, a difficult task that could have easily ended in hysteria in the hands of a less talented actress, and maintains pace throughout. My only complaint about this production would be the low budget costuming that, in such close proximity, detracts at times from the seriousness of the play. Overall, however, this is an earnest and enjoyable production, and essential viewing for lovers of classical theatre.

- Jessica Copley

Source: www.whatsonstage.com

Moving, funny and perfectly cast

I was at the opening night of this fabulous new production of ‘Ondine’, and was blown away by all the performances by the actors – especially ‘Ondine’ herself (Elizabeth Merrick), who seemed born to play this part.

Funny and moving, I was gripped by the amazing performances from beginning to end.

I highly recommend this production.

- Jennifer Carrington

Source: www.remotegoat.co.uk

A Magical Production

When I was a child, I used to make up plays. They would often involve princesses, love stories and magical powers. Ondine is exactly the type of play that child would have loved: the embodiment of the sense of wonder that draws us to drama in the first place. To bring this off in a small fringe venue like the White Bear is no small achievement. But bring it off to a very high standard is precisely what Lost in the Dark have done.

Ondine is the story of a supernatural creature who falls in love with a mortal man..When Hans and Ondine meet, the worlds of a mortal man and a magical creature of the water dangerously collide and she is forced to make an inexorable pact, which will change both their lives forever. Should he betray her, he must die and, along with her time on earth, be erased completely from her memory for her to return to the world of the lake forever.

The first thing to strike me when I entered was the set. Auguste (Michael Eden) and Eugenie (Terry Diab) were already seated, she knitting, he reading, in a fisherman’s cottage, complete with daub walls and a working window. The small oil lamps were a particularly nice touch. Haunting music played from offstage. The first act takes place in this kitchen, with Hans (Andrew Venning) and Ondine (Elizabeth Merrick) completing the cast for this part of the story. The second set takes place in the Royal Palace, where Richard Hurst, Brice Stratford, Rob Leonard, Phoebe Batteson Brown, David Frias Robles, Marian Elizabeth and Hilary Hodsman make their debuts. The final act takes place on a rock by the sea, where the story comes to its tragic, but inevitable end.

There were no bum notes in this production, although a personal preference would be for the actors not to turn their back on the audience quite so much, but apart from that they dealt with the small space admirably. Everyone involved did a fantastic job: however, there are some who deserve a special mention. Firstly, set designer Zanna Mercer has created three excellent environments for the play, which are spectacular by the standards of black-box theatre. Andrew Venning grabbed my attention from the moment he came on stage, and continued to captivate the audience throughout, with his expressive, heartfelt delivery and physical presence. Elizabeth Merrick was superb as Ondine, her opera training showing to advantage in her movement, her vocal range, and her portrayal of wide-eyed wonder, tragedy and love. The final scene between Ondine and Hans was particularly poignant, with both actors showing marvellous emotional depth. Marian Elizabeth gave a lovely, credible performance as Bertha, particulary in one scene, where I almost believed she had a live bird in her hand. She played the part with charm and grace. I would have liked to see more of Phoebe Batteson Brown (Voilante/Kitchen Maid). She drew my eyes whenever she was on stage and although her parts were small, they gave indications of a much larger potential. Finally, a play is only as good as its director, and Cat Robey must take a large amount of credit for this magical piece of theatre.

- Mary Tynan

Source: www.frostmagazine.com

Wonderful, with Elizabeth Merrick magnificent in the title role delivering a strangely centred otherworldly performance as the… [spoiler alert] Like last week’s Outward Bound we went to this knowing virtually nothing about the play, playwright or production (this was the first night), and it’s beginning to dawn on me that this kind of ignorance makes room for experience and discovery as the play unfolds. It fits in with our idea that it’s best to put performance first; the text can follow later. So, if you know nothing about the play, keep it that way and immerse yourself in this great production.

With my rudimentary French, I knew that “onde” meant “wave” and that “ondine” could be a diminutive form. Merrick is certainly small, and in a long blue dress, and she likes diving into the water (she really likes it: “every girl does once what Ondine does fifty times a day”) and being out in the storm (“she is the storm”), and she says things like: “I belong to the water.” She is a sea-nymph, or, according to the substantial Wikipedia plot summary, “a water-sprite who is attracted to the world of mortal man”.

I’m the kind of atheist who reads books on logical thinking and loves Tim Minchin’s animated movie Storm, whose central character might even imagine herself to be a sort of sprite in her more barmy moments. But Ondine is not barmy or kooky in an annoying way. Although she is a spirit, theatre gives her life in a way no that church could, and I’m not surprised this is considered Giraudoux’s masterpiece, a blend of fairy tale and romance and philosophy written with good humour.

Essential for that humour is Giraudoux’s scepticism. Absent is any kind of pious reverence for the tales of medieval romance or the piety of postmodernism, an equally sickening intellectual stance. For example, when Hans, the knight-errant, seeks shelter in his hut, the old fisherman Auguste says he is more welcome than war. To the modern reader, the figure of the knight-errant is associated with romance and chivalry; in fact, they were exponents of the kinds of violence that would make contemporary gangs seem like the Girl Guides. Steven Pinker (2011:17–18) suggests we should rethink the word “chivalrous” and quotes the medievalist Richard Kauper, who tallied the number of acts of extreme violence in the most famous of these romances, the 13th-century Lancelot, finding on average one every four pages: “…eight skull are split… five decapitations… three hands are cut off, three arms are severed…”

“As for their vaunted treatment of the ladies,” Pinker continues, “one knight woos a princess by pledging to rape the most beautiful woman he can find on her behalf; his rival promises to send her the heads of the knights he defeats in tournaments.”

Hans does no hacking. All he does is turn up in the dark forest by the lake on the quest designed for him by his betrothed (no stag party for him), but as soon as Ondine sets eyes on him she bursts out in all innocence, “How beautiful he is!” And that’s that. She has her husband, more briskly achieved than even Miranda’s capture of Ferdinand and against stiff competition (we soon see Marian Elizabeth as the beautiful princess Bertha).

Andrew Venning is brilliant as Hans, balancing martial swagger with self-knowledge and Pythonesque awareness of the practical difficulties of dress (do we realize how long it takes to get his armour off?) more commonly associated with women of the court, with their bustles and girdles and flowing robes. His full name — Hans von Wittenstein zu Wittenstein — adds to the comic effect, and prompts Ondine’s sweet and poetic observation: “it’s nice when a name makes its own echo.”

When she discovers he has asked for poached trout, her mood changes on the instant, and she exclaims — “that’s chivalry?” — as she rescues the poor trout from the pan and throws it through the window (wobbling the flimsy wall in the process). Her mood changes again as she sits on the floor by the seated Hans, hands innocently in her lap, as she talks of her everlasting and undying love for him, of how he would have to wait — an hour — until he could have her, of how she would have to kill herself if he should die. Another mood change when Auguste (I think) finally gets a word in edgeways to tell her that Hans is already betrothed to Bertha. She leaps up and like a prettier Paxman demands he answer the question with a yes or no! And, as Paxman concluded that all politicians are liars, so Ondine concludes, on the basis of her vast experience, that all men are deceivers.

When Mark Vernon (2011:88) claims “there are examples in nature when 1 + 1 [does equal] 2, as when two raindrops coalesce” he’s being neither poetic nor making much sense. When Ondine speaks of two dogfish becoming one, so that not even a sardine will ever come between them, and when she reacts in horror when Hans says they will have to be apart at least some of the time, this is a brilliant satire on the absurdities of romantic attachment.

The scene is about to change, Hans slumps in the chair, face covered with his floppy fringe, under some kind of spell, while Ondine listens to the voices of her sister spirits, who tell her that the world of men is not her world.

The Illusionist, like the playwright, can creates whole scenes without apparatus to the astonishment of the Lord Chamberlain, and the court is curious to see what will happen when Hans and the embittered Bertha finally meet after avoiding each other for three months. Great performances by Richard Hurst as the Illusionist (tall and mysterious and capable of a muscular magic) and by Brice Stratford as the Lord Chamberlain (overbearing to his underlings and fawning to the queen, foppishly flicking his hair).

Act three takes place in the courtyard of castle of the Wittenstein. Five years have passed. The nets with which Ondine was caught hang on the walls. Two judges arrive and immediately put her on trial for transgressing the boundaries between the world and spirits. They are no ordinary judges, and have jurisdiction over the supernatural. Usually for me, talk of the spirit world sends me into a cold sweat with ideas of unpleasant mediums out to exploit vulnerable people out of their cash and to provide false hope (see, for example, btv). By exploring this idea of crossing boundaries, of passing through the barrier that separates this world from the other, Giraudoux here achieves something startling and philosophically profound. For me, there’s even a humanist theme, when Bertha points out that Ondine was no woman and tells Hans that he married “a creature of another world” and must forget her.

As a materialist monist, I believe in the physical nature of the universe (there is no
supernatural realm), but as humans we have the ability to imagine the world as other than it is. Raymond Tallis went off the boil with his last book, but the one before that — Michelangelo’s Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence — is highly recommended. The subtitle captures a key theme: we engage in transcendent thinking all the time, and it’s not the kind of high-falutin activity many religious specialists would have us believe. Daniel (Gilbert 2007:5) thinks that “to imagine is to experience the world as it isn’t and has never been, but as it might be.”

The judge asks Hans to state the nature of his complaint.

My complaint? My complaint is the complaint of all mankind. I claim the right to be left in peace in a world that is free of intrusions by these creatures. Has there never been an age when they did not afflict us?

One judge answers, “An age? There has never been a moment.” But the other judge says, “Yes, there was once a moment. For that instant, the whole world was single-hearted, at play, at peace—and yet I tasted for the first time a certain loneliness.”

My fleeting thought during the performance was that, far from hankering after transcendence, Hans was longing to transcend transcendence itself, to escape the torment of being forever tied to a creature of another world. Goodness knows whether this interpretation stands up, but it should take nothing away from a fantastic production.

- Jon Wainwright

Source: atomies.org

A fantasy about love, youth and life

The White Bear’s performance space is, let’s be honest, small. So, if you are intent on getting close to the art of the actor, there are few places better to do it. It does though, come with some difficulties. Set designers (particularly) beware; there is no place to hide and imperfections unquestionably show.

So it was nice to see that a large cast for such a small theatre had been assembled to play ‘Ondine’ – a fantasy about love, and youth and life written by Jean Giraudoux What’s more, director Cat Robey clearly wanted to do it right. Yes, there were a few short cuts here and there, but what was evident from three acts, with a ten minute interval between each for scene changes, was that here was a director who was aiming for a complete theatrical experience.

I suppose it would be fair to say that the opening is a little slow, but this is one of those productions that you are going to have to give a chance to. It warms up distinctly with the entrance of the enigmatic and mysterious Ondine (Elizabeth Merrick) and gets decidedly involving by the second act, when the even more mysterious illusionist (Richard Hurst) makes his presence felt. In Act Two as well, the set (by Zanna Mercer) is worth the wait, doing everything that’s asked of it, yet not too complex to overpower the action.

The play itself is a strange affair. Ondine is actually (as becomes obvious from the first few lines) some kind of water spirit who morphs into something close to a human, largely, it would seem, because young men are just so beautiful. If that sounds trivial, the actual sentiments and the way in which they come across are both charming and quite powerful. Elizabeth Merrick (she also composed and performed the haunting cello music that accompanies the action) as Ondine seemed to carry just the right balance of passion and danger, an energetically fired and unsatisfied spirit, who could fall in love on the instant.

The play has a good balance too. The second act provides some comedy relief in amongst the inevitable progression towards disaster for someone (sea spirits don’t ever, in my experience, fall in love with humans without something disastrous happening to someone) and that helps to hold attention and give an audience something to think about during those inter-act breaks.

In the end, the audience is left with a huge amount of feeling for Ondine and her tragedy, which in many ways is more poignant because death for her is an impossibility.

There wasn’t a huge audience when I saw it. But even a few lads from the bar took the chance to watch one of the acts (and I bet that’s not something they do often). Ondine deserves its chance. Suspending disbelief may sometimes be a little difficult, but you can’t but admire the commitment of the actors and others in bringing this enigmatic mystery to our attention.

Source: fringereport