By Thea Hartman
I didn’t know what to expect heading into the NST for Le Navet Bete’s production of Dumas’ classic The Three Musketeers. Subtitled ‘A Comedy Adventure’ and with a poster with some rather striking facial expressions and a BMX, I wasn’t sure whether I was about to watch the actual musketeers being heroic or four men running around in musketeer outfits for children’s enjoyment.
As it turned out, it was definitely more of the latter, but without the negative connotation – I enjoyed the running around perhaps more than the children. The classic, exhibitionistic comedy acting was finely interlaced with a sterling production, and a script which is both timely and timeless. In a Nuffield Southampton Theatres spring season filled with literary adaptations, this production does not beat around the bush when it comes to questions of adapting a literary text and tailoring it to their audience. The apparently necessary aspect of historical and textual accuracy is dropped from the very beginning, when the four actors present themselves to their audience out of costume, breaking the fourth wall and clarifying that the production does not claim to hold the ultimate understanding of the 700-page novel, but just wants have as much fun with it as possible, without taking itself very seriously.
Whether or not this is a recipe for a great adaptation is a completely different, less fun conversation with likely no verdict whatsoever. The only conclusion I can get to is that it’s definitely a recipe for roaring laughter. The four actors were a delight to watch, having the time of their lives on stage, flawlessly switching between characters with quick changes of costume, and even when the changes weren’t as smooth as they should have been they acted so naturally that I doubted whether or not the mistake was actually planned. Stand-out characters were Madame De Winter, Cardinal Richelieu, and D’Artagnan, played with fantastic consistency throughout, but every single change of costume brought a fresh round of raucous laughter, whether caused by an oblivious Lord Buckingham or a vindictive nun. The sheer amount of events happening and the relations between all the characters were confusing, but instead of running away from this, Le Navet Bete flipped it on its head, aware of just how much was happening and having the characters explain things they did not understand themselves.
Audience engagement was a huge positive part of the show. The fourth wall, removed from the very beginning of the play, never returned, with the actors thriving when improvising reactions to the audience’s own. The funniest moment of the show required the audience to throw plush ducks at Madame De Winter as she was proving her hunting skills to Lord Buckingham. The willingness of the actors to improvise and the natural manner in which they did it really elevated the show.
The production value was also outstanding, from a simple yet versatile set, to the similarly versatile costumes. The stage was a constant whirlwind of moving props, flying costumes, and musketeers riding bikes instead of horses – and whilst it may have seemed quite natural, it required calculated coordination and elaborate choreography that did not go unnoticed. However, it was the sound that truly enhanced the comedic effect. For instance, if the shotgun sounds didn’t play exactly as Madame De Winter was ‘shooting’ the plush ducks, the effect of that scene would have been significantly diminished. The sterling synchronization between sound effects and the onstage acting deserved a standing ovation in itself.
Overall, The Three Musketeers: A Comedy Adventure was a witty, self-aware show, unafraid of tapping into the childish side of all the audience members – children or adults – of questioning its own script, or of pushing the limits of what onstage performance is: if you get a line wrong, acknowledge it and do it again, it might make the whole scene funnier that it was meant to be intentionally!
Le Navet Bete provided a complete escape from the worries of everyday life – I laughed more than I have in a long time, and isn’t that what we all need?
The Three Muskateers: A Comedy Adventure ran at NST City from Tuesday 18 – Saturday 22 February 2020.