Habeas Corpus. The name of this play is quite strange, it made me think of death (corpse), maybe a hideous corpse. My first impressions when I heard that we were going to see the play were very confused.
Written by Alan Bennett, Habeas Corpus was a play written by a playwright I had never heard of before, so I had no real expectations.
The impressions I did have were completely different from the play I was presented with at the Theatre by the Lake. The theatre is in an idealistic setting in the heart of the Lake District, which is a main tourist area in the U.K., so this means that the majority of audiences will be mainly tourists on holiday and so will be from a wide range of backgrounds and a lot of different age groups. The venue was useful in the setting of the play. The set used a holiday theme and this was very effective and fitted in well with the plot of the play too. I didn’t know anything about the director, so I couldn’t think what sort of drama forms he might use.
The performance spanned April to November, so I don’t think that the time of year it was presented in is important, as it would be for example a pantomime at Christmas, but it just so happened to be on in the busiest time of the tourist season, so the holiday theme was appropriate here too.
The play was performed on an end-on stage, of average size with a proscenium arch and a large apron, which was used effectively throughout the performance to help the actors communicate directly to the audience.
The set was arranged around an acting area painted in white upon the stage, this was so the entire audience could see the whole play without missing any action on the extremities of the stage. However this meant that when an actor made his/her entrance they had to reach the area before they could deliver their line and move on and off with speed.
In the middle of the area, there was the main piece of furniture, a white psychiatrists’ chair that doubled up as a bench, bed, sofa and part of the pier. This was achieved by painting the bottom with a wood planking design, same as the stage to create an easily adaptable but bland stage not to detract from the actors’ performance.
The backcloth was a board surrounded with different colored lights, the purpose of which I will explain later. The main reason was to make a postcard/cartoon effect in the middle was a picture of the sea with stuffed seagulls mounted on the front, to add to the surrealist feel.
To portray the doctors house, there were three cartoon pictures came down from the ceiling one a skeleton, to remind the characters that death is always looming, a typical old man to remind them that we are all getting older and closer to death and a busty young woman with an hourglass figure to remind them to seize the moment.
The plot was very complicated and I feel the best way to explain it briefly is to name the main characters and their role in ‘life’.
Dennis- a confused, sexually deprived, geeky young man who is a typical hypochondriac and thinks he is going to die, but is desperate for love (mainly sex) before he does. He falls in love with the voluptuously beautiful Felicity a rich young woman whom wants to use Dennis by marriage before he dies to annoy her mother, also sex mad. Dr Wicksteed is Dennis’ father and a perverted doctor who likes nothing more than slyly touching up young rich paying patients, namely Felicity and is desperate for love before he dies. His wife Mrs. Wicksteed is in love with the head doctor Sir Percy Shorter, who doesn’t love her any more but finds lust in Felicity who turns out to be his daughter. There are also extra characters like Connie Dennis’s Aunt who is very pathetic (until she gets her wonderbra). She is engaged to The Perverted Vicar who preferred her when she looked like a boy. He also stared up the skirt of Felicity’s Mother on the train, she had a war time affair with Sir Percy. Connie falls in love with the Wonderbra salesperson that is chased by Mrs. Wicksteed. Finally, there is the Suicide fanatic, a non-paying patient who is always trying to end his life via hanging throughout the play but finds no sympathy. The narrator is the Wicksteeds’ family cleaner Mrs. Swabb, who guides us through this otherwise confusing play with humour.
Not surprisingly, the main theme in this play was sex and relationships. There were also:
– promiscuity as main themes.
The play was set in the early 1970’s when the promiscuous society was just becoming accepted. It was also very obviously a farce and a comedy even though it touched upon serious themes.
The costumes reflected the characters that wore them. For example Dennis wore orange checked flares and a jumper too small for him, this symbolizes his inexperience and how he is still very much a youth, underneath he wore a dull red flowery shirt that went well with a purple jacket he used for the wedding. His make up was just spots all over his face and gel in his hair to make him appear greasy and unclean.
All the characters wore colorful clothes, which stood out against the bland background apart from Connie who in the beginning wore brown unexciting clothes. This made her appear the same age as Dennis even though she was meant to be his Aunt. In the end though, she appeared in a spangled mini dress with fur and high heels, this showed that since she found love with the salesperson she had ‘come out of her shell’.
Lighting was a main feature of the performance. For most of the time, there was just a main spotlight
focusing on the acting area. . For special effects the lights I mentioned earlier, surrounding the backdrop were very important.
In love scenes (e.g.-Where Connie and Sir Percy dance the Tango) the lights illuminated the stage in a soft red glow and when there was a game show section in the performance where they flashed on and off in different colors like a fairground. I found this very effective and it added variety to the performance.
Sound was used very little in the production. One very effective use of sound and motion was when Connie opened her Wonderbra. Because it was made from the same material as the Apollo space crafts the music came on as the Apollo Mission Theme Tune and the actors ‘swooped’ down to see the content of the box in very slow motion. This was both comical and made it interesting.
The only other music was to dance to and a heartbeat in the quiz. Also there were bombing sounds to resemble the blitz when Felicity’s mother was telling the story of how her and Sir Percy met. It gave the impression that you were there in the action as it was happening like when you were a child watching a good film. The rest of the actors were very still so they did not detract any attention from the story.
Some of the drama forms used were subtle but worked well. Here is my favorite:
-Still imaging- they made photographic poses around the centre of attention to focus our attention to the person and so we could see everyone in a way that was pleasing to the eye, colorful and interesting also this is related to the postcard theme of the set design.
All the actors were very believable but not in a normal way. You know that they were too stereotypical to be true and that it was a farce but they still came through as real people. All the characters stood out to me in their own special way, and you could relate to all of them in some way so this made them interesting to watch.
If you think about it, the farce comes out of laughing at your own faults and how stereotypical we are as much as we want to think we aren’t. This was the most important thing in the play, the way they looked at society was original.
I really enjoyed Habeas Corpus, it was thought provoking and made you look at yourself in a different light. It made me laugh and delivered a serious message at the same time- don’t waste your life and seize every opportunity you get.