By Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Jackie Maxwell
At the Festival Theatre, July 30-October 19, 2016
Jackie Maxwell bids farewell as Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival with a strong production of Sweeney Todd that she directs with aplomb. This gory, soaring opera is one of the most powerful of American musicals, and it exposes awful passions in psychic caverns with almost perverse ecstasy. A supersized tale of a man who seeks revenge against those who destroyed his family and sent him to prison in Australia on a trumped up charge, Sweeney Todd exploits Victorian penny dreadful material to eerie and macabre effect. Maxwell’s version is actually less bloody than most earlier versions because, without avoiding the libretto’s exposure of homicidal rage, her primary focus is on the obsessions of figures caught in conundrums of sex and death. Set in what seems to be a dreary, decaying industrial building with peeling walls, corroded pipes, and broken glass windows (as designed by Judith Bowden, whose costumes are also seedy and coarse for the most part), the production refuses the sort of hulking set that dominated and somewhat shrank the human drama at its core. This one does not avoid Darwinian class struggle or Dickensian horror, but instead of expressing its social critique in block capitals, it elects to concentrate on universal internal demons.
The audience still hears a funereal organ, the screech of a factory whistle, and a low Gothic rumble of chords. Victorian London is still a big black pit filled with people who are full of shit. And you imagine rats scurrying into holes. But the sinister presentiments are not accented with lurid red lighting—until very late in the story, and the overall vision is very much one of corruption. Alan Brodie’s lighting creates macabre ambience, while Valerie Moore’s choreography sets the flashback rape of Todd’s wife to a minuet at a masked ball. The Beggar Woman remains an ugly, scarred wench with raging carnal lust. And Sweeney is undoubtedly “an artist with a knife.” But instead of being a Brechtian symbol or an exaggerated figure out of Grand Guignol, he is unmistakably human. Ben Campbell does not play him with a chalky face or with exaggerated raccoon eyes. He plays him life-size, with just the skin of dignity covering a seething interior. Of course, this Todd is wronged by his society, and of course, he is bloodthirsty, but he makes us feel the immense hurt he has felt for fifteen years of harsh exile and for his ruined life. And with Corrine Koslo, as his bantam-weight Mrs. Lovett, the maker of the worst pies in London, theirs is a very human tale of struggle, devastated innocence, thwarted ambition, savage exploitation, and lost love twisted into hate. Neither of these marvellous performers is a strong singer, but in this instance, what would otherwise be an almost crippling flaw is mitigated by their extraordinarily moving acting. And it is moving because it is truthful.
Sweeney Todd is often presumed to be superhuman. But he is not. He is scary and even monstrous, but he is also heroic, a product and an enemy of the society that shaped him. His killings as barber with his glinting knives have a mechanical efficiency (here somewhat compromised by an awkward barber chair that does not slide its victims effortlessly into Mrs. Lovett’s raging furnace), but he only turns into a devil because of the devils who have betrayed him, especially sadomasochistic Judge Turpin (strongly portrayed and sung by Marcus Nance in his deep, rich, black bass), and the mercurial Beadle (Jay Turvey in a full-blooded performance). Campbell, therefore, entices us into his performance, showing us a real man with a shockingly human face. And his singing voice is at the very least competently bass-baritone, with clear articulation and deep feeling as he moves from gentle melody for Sweeney’s aching longings for peace to staccato intensity with sharp breaks to mark how his life has been cruelly interrupted.
As for Corrine Koslo, her Mrs. Lovett is, in several ways, superior to that of the much beloved Angela Lansbury, because it is not mainly or even largely a vaudevillian turn with English music-hall humour and exaggeration. Koslo shows us a woman who uses any means at her disposal to survive her Victorian horror of poverty. She also shows us a woman who can love, who can be ruefully yearning, and desperately but fatally in love with Todd. So, the actress scores an immense double. She triumphs in the comic numbers: she turns “The Worst Pies in London” into a savagely funny battle against flies, dust, and resisting dough while skilfully negotiating the witty rhymes, alliteration, and vaguely lewd suggestions; she revels in her duet with Todd about different pie fillings (“A Little Priest”), filled with puns and lighthearted playfulness despite the gruesome premise; and she strikes rare notes of deranged wistfulness in “By the Sea” that gives her comedy palpable human weight and vulnerability. In other words, Koslo achieves what no other actress has matched: a perfect blending of wry, black comedy and ruefulness.
Maxwell’s production manages to find the ultimate Angst in the fable by showing how humour and violence are dichotomies that can be harnessed together without trivializing horror. The production does not wink at melodrama: the beautiful lyricism of the Johanna-Anthony Hope romance is excellently captured by Kristi Frank and Jeff Irving, while Andrew Broderick renders a very fine, poignant portrait of the simple-minded, forlorn Tobias, the pie-shop assistant. The only performance that is underpowered is Patty Jamieson’s Beggar Woman, but the actress acts well, and there are other strong compensations, such as Kyle Blair’s comically venal mountebank Pirelli, and a generally strong ensemble that (apart from the “City on Fire” sequence) seals the final impression of mentally disturbed inmates of Fogg’s Asylum. The feverish chant in an almost mythic ballad establishes the torment and the tragedy of Sweeney Todd.
Finally, there are two other aspects of the production that warrant applause: the 16-member orchestra under the baton of Paul Sportelli that eloquently negotiates all of Sondheim’s leitmotifs and musical range of echoes, inversions, parodies, and provocations; and Jackie Maxwell’s superb ability to tell the story clearly, without special effects, but with piercing force as a musical about fatal obsessions. The libretto is undeniably schizophrenic, but this production surmounts this troubling quality, not by denying it but by embracing it as an enthralling dichotomy of laughter and suffering, blood and tears.