As this was my first trip to the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, I was filled with expectations and pre conceived images of how wonderful and picturesque an outdoor theatre, surrounded by trees and singing birds, would be. These images were shattered the moment I walked into the auditorium.
Smoking rubble; among it a torn down McDonalds signs, a scrap heap Ford car, a small Statue of Liberty and to top it all off, a torn election campaign poster with a 10ft image of Barack Obama’s face looking over the chaos. Welcome to America in ruins, or director Timothy Sheader and scenographer Jon Bausor’s image of it anyway.
I have never seen Ragtime in its original 1902 setting, so I was able to take the ‘radical’ set at face value. Characters were introduced in modern day clothing, however with a nurse in scrubs, a runner in lycra and with kappa’s and headscarves a plenty, this bordered on a stereotypical presentation of the modern cosmopolitan way of life.
Having sat through the play from start to finish, I came to understand Sheader’s present day decision that linked the radical actions of a persecuted ethnic minority and the destruction of racial struggle in general to the supposed harmony of today. However, as the cast took on their 20th century characters and donned their period costumes, I couldn’t help but wish he had stuck to the original Vaudeville setting of the play.
The music was beautiful. There wasn’t a moment that the harmonies and joviality of the rag didn’t feel me with intense joy. The cast were superb in their delivery of the music and choreography (which unlike the set, was true to the original score), with a special mention for Rosalie Craig who delivered Mothers song in the second act with expert zeal and heart rendering emotion. However, on enjoying the music so wholeheartedly, I couldn’t help but wish it was set against the original era. There were moments when the juxtaposition of modern day clothing and 1900’s melodies felt awkward – such as the opening number.
My irritation with the modern era aside, the staging did have its redeeming qualities; the building site crane became a stylised platform for showcasing characters. For example it provided the perfect theatrical swing for the sultry performer, Evelyn Nesbit as well as adding magic to the clever demonstrations by Harry Houdini.
Due to the energy and superb cast performances, I came away from the show with a smile on my face and the music running through my mind. However I was definitely left wanting more than the small flash of early 20th century Sheader allowed his audience. With 110 years between now and the plays original setting, I felt saddened by the thought that, like Bausor’s set, the period of Ragtime may well be lost in a pile of historical rubble.