"Deeply funny and enlightened production"
by Andy Slater for remotegoat on 06/01/11

With much anticipation in Britain at the start of 2011 of a royal wedding, the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company's production of Ivona, Princess of Burgundia - about a regal love affair gone awry - may seem timely.

But the timeless themes expressed in this spellbinding and darkly hilarious satire at the Network Theatre make it a show for all seasons - albeit set in period eighteenth century dress - brilliantly performed by an all-male ensemble.

The work, written by Polish absurdist Witold Gombrowicz in 1935, has spawned into several different versions since its creation but stays true to its biting roots in this superb English adaptation, directed splendidly by Kos Mantzakos.

We follow the exploits of Prince Philip (Christopher Hughes) in a nonspecific kingdom who, despite having the pick of any maiden and suffering ridicule from his flunkies, impulsively proposes to Ivona (Bjorn Drori Avraham) an ugly, bald and largely mute woman who appears petrified at her thrust into high society.

The prince's probable motivations - a desire to break with bourgeoisie convention and aristocratic sterility - are not welcomed by his parents, abrasive King Ignatius (Brendan Jones) and worrisome Queen Margaret (Alexander Andreou) who are initially concerned by the scandal the potential union may bring.

However any semblance of support for their son's decision is soon derailed as they - and him - become consumed with ill feeling towards the quiescent spinster, derided even by her chaperones who complain that she "doesn't even ski".

As tensions rise, the royals assisted by the wonderfully conniving Chamberlain (David Bartlett) are consumed by seemingly irrational paranoia at the unearthly female; described as "arrogance served in vinegar".

The prince tries to incite her to leave by professing his love for lady-in-waiting Isobel (Daniel Addis) but when this fails, the clan concoct even more drastic measures.

The richness of the ideas in the production - from a Priestley-like critique of gentility to a questioning of the construct of normality - do not detract from the laughs which come pleasingly thick and fast.

The masculine cast deliver strongly across the bill but special mention must go to Andreou's Queen Margaret, an arresting and side-splitting portrayal of a matriarch having a nervous breakdown, and Avraham's Ivona who remains a striking and affecting presence despite only having snatches of dialogue.

The unostentatious lighting and sound design is brought to the fore only when necessary such as when it suffocates Ivona in a clinical brightness or when Polish compositions accompany the creeping Ignatius as he tries to evade the titular heroine.

Likewise, the piece achieves a fine balance between sharpened wit and the text's essence in social parody and Beckettian existentialism - creating breathless, searing theatre.

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