Aug 30 2022 | By More

★★★★☆   Well judged emotion

Just the Tonic at La Belle Angele (Venue 301): Mon 22 – Sun 28 Aug 2022
Review by Thom Dibdin

In a glorious mix of the heartfelt and the ridiculous, Underground Theatre bring a translation of Jean Giraudoux’s Ondine to La Belle Angele for the final week of the Fringe.

The production is staged in what you might call a naive style, which allows for wrought, overblown characters and big sweeping emotions to play out amidst more natural characters. But equally, it can tone down and offer some quite piquant universal observations.

Huw Turnbull and Sophie Craig in Ondine.

Giraudoux’s 1938 play concerns a water nymph, Ondine, and a knight-errant, Hans, who meet, fall in love and marry – despite his previous betrothal to the King’s adopted daughter, Bertha, and against the wishes of the Old One, the king of the Ondines.

The play is itself based on the romantic German fairytale novella Undine, published in 1811. It contains many recognisable elements of myths of Rhine Maidens and a spirit world that exists alongside our own, as well as sharing elements of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid.

Director and translator from the French, Philomène Cheynet, gives this a big, heightened, big melodramatic feel from the start, at least for the courtly characters. Think Monty Python’s Knights of the Holy Grail (without the cocoanuts), as staged by a troupe travelling players.

very effective

The result is actually very effective. Huw Turnbull and Sophie Craig as fisherfolk Auguste and Eugenie, Ondine’s adopted parents,  do an excellent job of establishing the background in the opening scene, as they wait for Ondine to return home on a stormy night.

What they get, however is Kristjan Karl Gudjonsson’s ludicrously garbed Hans, tired out from a months questing in vain through the forest and desperate for a good meal. Gudjonsson has just the right amount of heroic smugness and inability to see the consequences of his own actions.

Clare Robinson and Kristjan Karl Gudjonsson in Ondine

Clare Robinson as Ondine is clearly not of this world. She traipses in with a dancer’s lightness, and is immediately dominating the conversation, declaring the beauty of this stranger, drawing him in and falling in love.

The contrast between Ondine and Hans could not be better established. Hans’s solid logic and chivalry, to her flighty arguments – arguing from diametrically different sides practically in the same breath. Robinson and Gudjonsson’s skill is that, despite this, their romantic affair seems inevitable and somehow right.

Their love cannot be, of course. This is a fable of doomed love across the class divide after all, and if it is not thwarted – either by Adam Wu’s malicious Old One or Chris Pearson’s avuncular King – will collapse under the weight of its own demands and the realisation that she can never have a soul, as humans do.

well-finessed storytelling

The courtly scenes of the second act allow for some rather well-finessed storytelling. A “Magician” – clearly the Old One in disguise, as least to the audience – magically shows how Hans and Ondine’s relationship will fall out and how Alice Humphries’ rather grumpy Bertha will come between them.

There are great little performances throughout the company, rising to the demands of very different acting methods. The poet Bertram (Lachlan Robertson), Chamberlain (Ray Finlayson) and Judge (Angus Morrison) are well steeped in the haughty grandeur of the court. Louise Balaguer and Trudy Kalvynaite bring malicious intent to their etherial appearance as Nymphs.

However it is the central couple who hold the eye. Robinson brings another layer of emotional depth to Ondine as she tries, in vain, to wriggle out of her promise that if Hans betrays her, he will die, by betraying him first. Gudjonsson steps out of the mannered courtliness for a final act where they find the true tragedy of their love.

Cheynet and AD Agnes Perry-Robinson do a great job in bringing all the disparate elements together into a unified whole, with the small carp that the time frame for he third act, which takes place five years later, is never made apparent.

The minimal staging works well. The odd piece of well-chosen stage furniture denotes place while the atmosphere is excellently conjured by the music and sound design of Nico Larivosecchi and lighting from Alex Moran and Megan Dunlop. Their dark and stormy night early scene is particularly well done.

A fascinating production which is not afraid to play around with genres and styles, to tell its fable of mismatched love.

Running time: Two hours (including two intervals).
Just the Tonic at La Belle Angele, 11 Hasties Close EH1 1HJ, (Venue 301)
Monday 22 – Sunday 28 August 2022
Daily (not Thurs/Fri): 1pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Instagram: @ondinefringe2022

Ray Finlayson and Adam Wu in Ondine


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