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A CurtainUp London Review
Sir Antony Sher is a Renaissance man: actor, playwright, novelist and artist. His new play The Giant is about the creation of the statue of David by Michelangelo Buonarroti. In it Sher has brought together three giant talents: Leonardo da Vinci (Roger Allam), Machiavelli (Stephen Noonan) and Michelangelo (John Light).
The play is overbrimming with ideas and themes which is a part of the problem. What may be explicable on the printed page when one has time to take it in slowly can be confusing or just too wordy onstage. But if the words are at times difficult, visually The Giant is in a league of its own and after all as this play is about Art, that is how it should be.
The Florentine set built by the Royal Shakespeare Company is astonishing: a large studio with huge wooden doors, a circular staircase surrounding a tall cylindrical turntable and all dominated by a large supine block of "marble" which requires a sculptor. Into this scene comes an old man who strips off and asks us if we can recognise his likeness. This is Vito the supposed model for the statue of David, played as an old man by Richard Moore.
Vito was a quarryman from Carrara where the best marble comes from. A competition is organised to choose the sculptor who will get the commission and the marble. The three contenders are Michelangelo, deeply religious and haunted by the mad friars of Savonarola, Leonardo da Vinci, a languid, world weary artist perhaps more interested in his designs on flight than sculpture, and A.N.Other.
Curiously the patrons do not choose "the famous one", by Da Vinci but "the young one", Michelangelo. The play then follows the choice of the beautiful Vito (Stephen Hagan) as Michelangelo's model after a foray into the Florentine world of uberhomosexuality as led by Da Vinci's outrageously camp servant Salai or Little Devil (Simon Trinder). When the marble is winched into place in its upright position with religious music we are awe struck. Later in the play we see the giant figure on the turntable until the final scene when installed in place, its shadow dominates.
The other themes, which for my money tend to intrude on Michelangelo's creation, are the decadent Florentines competing with other great Italian city states, homo-eroticism, Machiavellian philosophy, Da Vinci's interest in engineering, Michelangelo's religious asceticism coupled with maybe the denial of his sexuality and the description of life as a country boy in Carrara. I suspect Sher was fascinated by it all and wanted the audience to share his passion. One passion we can all share is the beauty of Stephen Hagan as the young Vito, whose perfect head with his straight nose, finely chiselled chin and curly hair and of course his magnificent torso is as close to the representation of the well known statue as possible. One piece of casting perfection!
I liked too the brooding presence of John Light as Michelangelo. He captures the intensity of the artist and spends much of the second half encrusted in marble dust. I was moved by Da Vinci's speech about being in the mountains and watching birds soar, something that he has in common with Vito who is essentially a country boy despite the sophisticated circles he now moves in. There is too little humour except for a terrible and funny moment when someone suggests that maybe David, seeing as he was Jewish, should be circumcised. Someone grabs a hammer and chisel and everyone else onstage and half of the audience gasp "No!" I was chilled by the menacing friars wearing robes with a red cross overdaubed with a black painted cross, who invade Michelangelo's studio threatening bonfires of the vanities — they were frightening in their fundamentalism but their entrances were also fun.
The play was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Gregory Doran, Sher's long time collaborator, directs. It is shame that Sher could not have found more focus. . I am sure it is very challenging to write plays about the creative process, about something that is so visual and emotional and I can't think of many Hollywood films which have succeeded in portraying the life of artists.
On the back of the playscript we are told that The Giant explores the dark interplay between sexuality and creativity. Well I'm still in the dark about that . . and there's a quote there too about David and Goliath, "This is what goes out to fight the monster — not strength but nakedness." I fear The Giant has become the monster.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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