Tucked away rather dankly under Waterloo Station, the Network Theatre provides an intimate environment for a new, all-male production of Polish absurdist Witold Gombrowicz’s 1935 tragicomedy, Ivona, Princess of Burgundia. The first in a series of three ‘forgotten gems’ of eastern European theatre to be staged by the Sturdy Beggars theatre company, if Ivona is anything to go by the company can look forward to a successful season.
In Ivona, Gombrowicz invites the audience to participate in a latter-day answer to the 19th-century freak show at the expense of Ivona (Bjorn Drori-Avraham), a grotesquely ugly townswoman seemingly born to be abused. Prince Philip (Christopher Hughes), the philandering and arrogant heir to the throne of Burgundia, decides to marry Ivona as a practical joke. As the royal court reacts to the Prince’s absurd betrothal, Ivona’s presence reveals each character’s innate prejudices and fears, leading to a desolatingly tragic conclusion.
At the heart of the play is the notion that, by laughing along with the courtiers’ hilariously horrified reactions to the hapless Ivona, we are implicitly condoning the violence and outrageous cruelty being played out before us. This is, indeed, a freak show – dressed comically, perhaps, but no less repugnant and no less familiar. At times, it’s hard not to feel a little guilty and uncomfortable as the audience laughs while barbed taunts, arch comments and acid bitchiness are unleashed against Ivona, pushing her from tremulous fear into angush and eventual resignation.
With so much of the play’s development hanging on one, largely silent, character, it is a testament to Drori-Avraham’s skills that Ivona is played with such touching nuance and grace. The rest of the cast acquits itself marvellously, too. Hughes’s Prince Philip is capricious, wicked and rakish, while his father, King Ignatius (Brendan Jones), initially provides well-judged light relief from Philip’s hectoring, before inviting the audience’s shock and disgust in later scenes. Also noteworthy are David Bartlett, who plays a magnificently unctuous Chamberlain, and Ryan Davies’s fabulously creepy Innocent, besotted with Ivona for her very repulsiveness. The cast benefits enormously from some superb costumes and ghoulish make-up courtesy of Josie Martin, part of the Oscar-winning team behind 2007′s Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
Director Kos Mantzakos has managed to avoid allowing the play to fall into the obvious pantomime trap, given the number of sniggering villains and tarted-up grandes dames. Nonetheless, the show comes close, at times, to being stolen by the eye-wateringly funny Queen Margaret (Alexander Andreou). Producer Hugo Thurston was wise to save this gem of a play until after the pantomime season was over; Ivona is a tragedy, after all, and even with the potential distraction of an all-male cast it retains its ability to shock and impress.
By turns funny, terrifying, sinister and sad, Ivona is a quite wonderful show and a great start to the Sturdy Beggars’ ‘Brain Drain’ season. And, as funny as it is, it’s not a play to be taken lightly; even after all the hilarity, the abiding impression left by Ivona’s senseless ill-treatment is of a group of spiteful children pulling the legs off a spider – just because they can.
Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, runs at the Network Theatre, 246A Lower Road ,Waterloo, SE1 8SJ, until 30 January. Tickets cost £15 (concessions £8) and are available from the Sturdy Beggars website or the Network Theatre’s box office (020 3509 2827).