reviewed at the Hostry Festival, Norwich on 25 October
This rare Cocteau revival uses the classic Ronald Duncan translation, first heard in London in 1948, four years after the play’s Paris première. Duncan was a literate playwright, poet and librettist, whether translating, adapting or creating afresh; perhaps he is due for a revival.
Stash Kirkbride has staged it in an arena format, which is admirably suited to a drama (here a melodrama in both senses of the word with Ivan McCready’s cello accompaniment) which is basically a sequence of gladiatorial confrontations. The stage is furnished only with tables and chairs.
Cocteau’s use of characteristics from two well-known monarchs of the previous century whose lives created their own fantasies, rendered some of these concrete and met untimely ends – the Empress Elisabeth of Austria and King Ludwig of Bavaria , both scions of the Wittelsbach dynasty – adds its own veiled dimension to the story.
The first act has as its centrepiece the Queen (Tracey Catchpole)’s lengthy tirade (in the proper French sense of the term) justifying her abrogation of responsibility in favour of building castles after the assassination of her husband to her own would-be killer.
He’s a young, anarchist poet, Stanislas (Adam Edwards), whose pen nane is Azrael, the Muslim angel of death. Edwards has a chance to make his own tirade in the second act, and takes it. Another confrontation is between Lucy Monaghan as Edith de Berg, the Queen’s lady (and government spy) and Christopher Neal’s Duke of Willenstein, the royal equerry.
But the evening is dominated by Catchpole, who displays the right sort of inbred arrogance which in part gives the character such interest. One can believe that she was devoted, in her own fashion, to her husband and that his assassination triggered her strange combination of building mania and veiled seclusion.
Her two meetings with Peter Barrow’s Chief of Police, a slightly cuddlier version of Sardou’s Scarpia but just as dangerous in his ruthless attempts to command the kingdom as he thinks both proper and necessary have the necessary bite, just as her relationship with Stanislaus emphasises how both of them (to paraphrase) are in love with needless death.
Tawa Groombridge makes the Queen’s servant Toni, who communicates with her mistress by sign language and is barely tolerated by her more aristocratic superiors , into a silent symbol of a place and time which has outlived itself. Amanda Greenaway’s costumes for the Queen are eye-catching in colour and material, but I feel a trim riding-habit would have suited the third act better than breeches and hacking jacket.
Part of the irony is that the first production of Cocteau’s play took place in 1944, when Paris was liberated from the dual tentacles of the Nazi occupation and the Vichy régime. But Cocteau always did spin his own, uniquely personal weave of fantasy laced with irony.
Four star rating.
The Eagles Has Two Heads runs at The Hostry, Norwich Cathdral until 29 October.