Productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals have undergone quite the transformation in the past 12 months with versions that return to the source text to reimagine and reconsider shows like Carousel and South Pacific for the twenty-first century by returning the darker, often violent, subthemes that beat beneath the surface or to reposition some of the attitudes to race, gender, conquest and even physical attraction that reflect contemporary morality. Now, the Young Vic presents a rather sexy version of Oklahoma! that replaces twee interpretations of cowboy country with a throbbing desire that inflicts the inhabitants of this rural town, and becomes a fascinating technical exercise in deconstructing a musical.
Oklahoma! is perhaps not the best loved Rodgers and Hammerstein show, its dual romance plot is pretty thin and it lacks an expansive moral message to pin the show together. And while there is plenty of crossover with scenarios in Carousel – the same small community, the same drum beat of violence and notions of performative masculinity amidst non-conforming women and a similar commercial connection to the landscape – a set-to over a barn dance and bake sell doesn’t have quite the same sense of life and death jeopardy as some of their more accomplished work.
But Hollywood has much to do with interpretation, toning down the raunchier aspects of Oklahoma! to pass the censorship requirements but also to create romanticised versions of the great American past. What directors Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein have done at the Young Vic is to pull back the gingham curtains to reveal a showing that is teeming with unfulfilled sexual desire among a group of young characters confused about what their futures hold and unable to articulate or fulfil those needs. Looking again at the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Fish and Fein set notions of true love aside and instead look at the causes and sometimes hefty consequences of desire as unrequited passions, sexual jealousy and denial drive the characters to extreme behaviours.
And in doing so, the directors open up a far murkier version of this story, one in which the two love triangles, Laurey-Curly-Jud and Ado Annie-Ali-Will, have less clear cut resolutions, leaving the audience uncertain about the destined lovers and losers as well as where they should place their sympathies. Ado Annie, principally a comic creation, is also a woman embracing her sexual liberation, control of her own body and the freedom to ‘flirt’ with as many men as she chooses, an agency that the Young Vic’s production wholeheartedly embraces. Yet, her actions not only cause hurt to others that arouses a dangerous jealousy, but her fun is ultimately dampened by the old-fashioned morality represented by her father that, in resolution, ends up clipping her wings rather than freeing her. And this show is not afraid to leave us with that somewhat dissatisfied feeling that Ado Annie has been cheated out of becoming the women she wanted to be by embracing someone else’s notion of tradition.
Likewise, there is something deeply unsettling about the central relationship between Laurey and her contentious beaux Curly and Jud. Usually presented as unsavoury, predatory and a bit weird (and therefore undeserving of love), Jud is the easy villain of Oklahoma!, his lurking presence designed to make the audience root for Curly as the avowed and deserving lover of the plucky Laurey. But it’s not quite so clear cut in Fish and Fein’s new interpretation, and while Jud may be a friendless loner, there is a nervy sensitivity that asks whether, knowing of his affection for her, did Jud deserve to be used by Laurey and have his hopes raised? And is Curly’s reaction proportionate?
At the same time, Curly is by no means a straightforward hero; he too is drawn to Laurey but at no point does he declare his love for her or, in the early part of the musical, any clear intention to marry her. Instead there is a physical chemistry between them that drives their intention, corrupting their behaviours in the remainder of the story. Here Curly’s reaction to Jud feels extreme – if he loved Laurey and she loved him there should be no reason to fear Jud – which implies that Curly either has no better purpose in pursuing Laurey and fears exposure, and/or that his competitive spirit is aroused by the presence of second suitor, that winning rather than the girl of his dreams are the ultimate motivation.
What unfolds in the final moments of this production is the result of this complex mixture of emotional and physical desires that is, it seems, deliberately designed to leave a sense of discontent with the conclusion. As the townspeople rapidly close ranks, the truth of Jud and Curly’s final encounter is foggier than previously seen, a statement that morality and justice are not fixed certainties but that the community can influence them for their own ends. And while Rodgers and Hammerstein have tied up all the love story loose ends with two couples in the ‘right’ relationship, this is not the happy ending you might be expecting and instead Fish and Fein leave you to feel disquieted and even sullied by our observation of this tale.
Part of the reason for that is a series of technical decisions that keep the audience on the outside and prevents the viewer from becoming too invested in anyone. Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher nod to Soutra Gilmour’s recent work for Jamie Lloyd (particularly Cyrano de Bergerac and The Seagull) by covering the Young Vic auditorium in untreated and bare slabs of MDF into which two shallow bunkers have been carved out for the onstage band. In what feels like a homage to Lloyd’s style of theatremaking, the set becomes a representative space with some trestle tables and fold-up chairs in which imagined scenarios take place, allowing the text and songs alone to move the physical location from Aunt Eller’s farmyard to the venue for the box social and its environs. Eschewing elaborate scenery feels appropriate for the way in which Fish and Fein mine beneath the surface of Oklahoma!, while the occasional use of handheld microphones is an emphasis device that has had considerable impact in Lloyd’s recent work.
This production makes its most experimental contribution through Scott Zielinski’s complex lighting design that takes the musical in a new direction, drawing attention to different emotional emphases and carving really interesting boundaries between fantasy and reality, not only in the purposeful ‘dream ballet’ but especially within the everyday interaction. Zielinki’s choices are designed to alienate the audience, keeping the house lights up for much of the show which makes it frustratingly difficult to focus at times but ties into Fish and Fein’s vision for a show that denies investment in the characters and traditional notions of emotional involvement in their lives. That concluding feeling of contamination, of being tarnished comes partly from this stark visibility, making the audience complicit in the outcomes of the story, blurring the line between the characters and us, all under the same unforgiving bright lights.
But this is not all Zielinki has to say and lighting, or its absence, becomes a pointed communication choice throughout. When Laurey and Curly first connect, it happens suddenly in a deep green pulse that almost freezes the frame – more a Royal Court trick than a typical musical moment. In the Second Act, a deep orange and red starts to creep into the lighting tones, taking Laurey from her dream self confronting her emotions at the end of the ballet to a touch of twinkly romance in the false half light that feels laden with doom. But it is the absence of light that becomes pivotal when Zielinki employs two periods of blackout. The first is uncomfortably long, a total absence of light under which Jud and Curly intensely contend, speaking with whispered heaviness into the microphones to create a disembodied experience – echoing Mrs Danvers urging the second Mrs de Winter to destruction. A partial blackout with fairy lights happens in the second half as well, another emotional turning point which brings events between Jud and Laurey to a head. This is really interesting work from Zielinki, taking what is often perceived as a sunny musical and creating so many textures within the Young Vic space that provoke bodily reactions that accentuate the disorientation and ambiguity the production is aiming for.
The venue has assembled an excellent cast whose performances dig deep into the moral turpitude of the characters and their unsavoury behaviours. Anouska Lucas is in fine voice as Laurey, a happily independent woman who doesn’t need a man to improve her lot but finds herself almost undeniably attracted to Curly. Lucas and Arthur Darvill have an intense chemistry as the would-be lovers, with Lucas capturing the subtle but sultry physicality of her character, almost Katherina Minola-like in her self-possession and determination to fight for her independence while equally confused when she accepts Jud’s date in spite of herself. Lucas’s voice really is stunning too, deep and bluesy when she sings People Will Say We’re in Love and wistful during the toe-tapping number Many a New Day.
Darvill too is excellent, a confident figure who swaggers into town but with real affection for Eller and a strong desire for Laurey, although it is the darker strands that Darvill finds most interesting, leaving the audience unsure whether or not Curly is a good man. A recourse to violence, to getting what he wants at any cost runs through the character and whether he’s manipulating Jud into ending his life, which Darvill does in hushed and hurried tones, or acting reflexively in the final moments, Darvill’s Curly isn’t a man to admire, a dubiety that he evokes well. Many of his songs are consciously performed into a microphone while playing guitar but Darvill excels in spinning the musical numbers, giving those famous pieces Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ and The Surrey with the Fringe on Top a fresh, less orchestral feel, playing with pitch and trills to bed them into the country-blusey sound of this production.
The rest of the cast are excellent too, the ever-amazing Marisha Wallace is a comic joy as Ado Annie, revelling in her sexuality and selling every cheeky moment to an audience who adore her from the start. Liza Sadovy, fresh from her Olivier award-winning triumph in Cabaret, is commanding if underused as matriarch Aunt Eller whose match-making attempts motor the drama while James Davis and Stavros Demetraki as Ado Annie’s lovers Will and Ali have a great time as hilarious rivals who lighten the mood. Particular plaudits to Patrick Vaill who makes Jud an awkward outsider but belies his villain status with an emotional depth that makes his big pathos number Lonely Room especially affecting and leaves you questioning the outcome of the show.
This is not the jaunty Oklahoma! many may be expecting and in a period of significant rethinking and repositioning of the musical, this almost abstract approach feels like a natural progression. With some striking design choices, not least the sparring use of Joshua Thorson’s intimate facial projection, Fish and Fein have created something that disconcerts more than entertains, its dissatisfactory feeling engineered through a deliberate combination of theatre techniques designed to distract and disengage the audience from the characters to make broader points about destructive jealousy, female agency and townsfolk closing ranks against outsiders. This is not an Oklahoma! to love, but its staging choices and intent to challenge the viewer make it an interesting experiment in dramatic practice.