Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Dublin: Gate Theatre 24 April to 16 June 2007
Sweeney Todd at the Gate is a reminder of one of the great lacks of Dublin theatre: consistent staging of musicals. Perhaps people do not visit Dublin for musical theatre, and would prefer and expect revivals of Friel and O’Casey, especially during the Summer when most visitors arrive. But as even home-grown one-off musicals like Improbable Frequency, The Linemen, and even I, Keano have proven, there is an appetite for the theatre of song staged fully and professionally in Dublin city. Word has it that Tim Burton is currently working on a film adaptation of this show. He would be well advised to take a trip to Dublin for inspiration as this production speaks to that familiar world of Burtonesque grotesquerie, only with added grit and terror.
What is most striking about the Gate’s production of Sondheim’s cunning 1979 thriller is where it is being held. When Broadway / West End musicals are staged in Dublin, they tend to occupy the cavernous space of The Point Theatre, where much of the warmth and energy of many productions are drained away by the anonymity of the venue. The Gate, however, is a leading theatre with a historic tradition dating back to its foundations by Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards, whose own choice of production tended towards the offbeat and challenging rather than the predictable and domestic. Of course, in the hierarchy of theatre arts, few would rank the Musical high in the canon of the avant-garde, but in a city where such things are barely seen, especially on the ‘legitimate’ stage, this production ranks as an exhilarating surprise.
Sondheim took his cue from playwright Christopher Bond in re-interpreting the story of Sweeney Todd as a revenge tragedy. The story, inspired by scattered fact, had become one of the first enduring urban myths - the barber who cut victims’ throats and turned their bodies into minced pies. Bond’s 1973 play recast the nightmare figure in more classical terms, giving depth and nuance to the characterisation and adding more than a smidgen of political and social critique. Todd is now a victim of rough justice, forcibly deported to the colonies while his wife is raped by a corrupt judge. He returns to London bent on vengeance, hardened by his experiences in exile. Finding his wife has taken poison, his natural child is now a ward of the lecherous Judge and a society seemingly steeped in venality, hypocrisy and alienation, Todd becomes the ‘servant of a hungry God’, dispatching lonely and anonymous passers-by while biding his time until the Judge and his bullying Beadle will come his way. He is aided and abetted in his activities by the arguably even more demonic Mrs. Lovett, a piemaker whose solution to the disposal of victims’ bodies comes as much out of an incipient amorality as economic necessity and the lack of good meat for her pies.
Stephen Sondheim matches this rethink with a chilling and complex score. He applies twentieth century atonality and dissonance to the rhythms of eighteenth century drinking songs, which is wonderfully evocative. The music firmly grounds the show in the nexus of psychological and sociological influence that give resonance to the story, and the freedom Sondheim enjoys with disharmonious melody gives full rein to a depth and richness of characterisation and thematic expression which is thoroughly modern, and yet classical enough in its familiar archetypes to hold together as a musical in the first place.
Director Selina Cartmell takes all of this firmly by the hand at the Gate and delivers a gripping, funny, and massively entertaining show. David Farley’s production design (superbly lit by Rick fisher to give depth to the grime without letting it descend into murk) is clever and effective, allowing the stage to shift and mould itself into a variety of settings by simple sliding of panels. It all gives the impression of the kind of slightly off-kilter expressionistic gothic chic that is also visible in the costume design. David Shannon (Todd) pounces up onto the stage from a trap door looking for all the world like a pale-faced Brian Ferry, and a kind of 1970s punk aesthetic underlies much of the design of the show. This works perfectly, again grounding the show, this time in the timeframe of its historical origin as a musical, and adds a layer of sly commentary without distracting from the focus.
Shannon is nothing short of brilliant as Sweeney Todd. His dark, brooding stares are matched by his rich, sonorous voice. He commands every eye and ear in the house as he moves about the stage with menace and murderous intent alike. It is an intense performance, controlled and non-naturalistic, but expertly judged to convey the burning hatred and creeping evil in Todd’s righteous fury and yet suggest vulnerability and generate sympathy. Anita Reeves ia a surprise as Mrs. Lovett. A performer not known for a dark side, Reeves delivers a kind of gallows pantomime that perfectly complements Shannon’s vehemence. Equally good are Barry McGovern as the odious Judge Turpin, Kenneth O’Regan as Beadle Bamford (loved the business with the hat), and Mark O’Regan in a very funny, beautifully judged turn as the ‘Italian’ hairdresser / charlatan blackmailer Pirelli. There is also strong support from Camille O’Sullivan as the creepy beggar woman whose disturbing wailing is frequently vital to maintain a tone of unease, Lisa Lambe (the most consistent young face in Ireland’s musical theatre, when it happens) and Robert Bannon as the beguilingly bright-faced Tobias. Simon Morgan is saddled with the thankless role of Anthony Hope, the love interest and the rather hilariously named thematic foil to Todd’s despair. In the face of Shannon’s powerhouse performance, Morgan struggles to give the role any great identity. Ironically, Shannon’s credits include the similarly forgettable role of Raoul in Phantom of the Opera, an experience perhaps Shannon remembers as he now firmly takes centre stage as a towering anti-hero that is so much more interesting than any plain old-fashioned good guy.