Not being particularly averse to theatre review, Spamalot is an oddity in the ITK portfolio. Needless to say, I am a particularly devoted fan of Monty Python and after reading about the reaction to the acclaimed musical adaptation of the famed Holy Grail, it was definitely a play that I would not be missing. That’s where it all went wrong.
Have you ever been to a movie after hearing that the film received oodles of critical praise, only to end up scratching your head wondering why everyone had rated it with such high regard? Well, Spamalot was that sort of experience for me. Sitting in the unaccommodating seats of The Joburg Theatre’s Mandela auditorium, my impression was along the lines of “if this play is good, there clearly must be something that I’m missing”.
The staging was for lack of a better description, something I might have expected from a high school production; the production design appeared to be fished out of a Makro delivery depot and cheaply painted by a willing team of self-professed preschool art prodigies, and the costumes were nothing like what were used in the film nor even comparable to the Broadway production (think of a hobo that might have fished out a costume from the bins of the cheapest Renaissance fair).
Basically, it looked like s%!t.
So my initial thoughts were it must be part of the joke – it’s sanctioned rubbish, and if that’s the way that Eric Idle wrote it, then who am I to disagree with his creative decisions. But a quick trip onto the internet revealed that the international production appears to be far superior in quality while still retaining the inherent cheapness in design.
Looks aside, the real problem that I found is that the acting was just off. The funny elements that were “lovingly ripped off” from the big screen companion were brutalised with poor delivery and haphazard leaps in quality. The cast numbered below 20 which may sound like enough but when the number becomes far ore humble when you see that scope of the production (that could have benefited from a full company of dancers) is severely hampered by the lack of additional heads. Spamalot South Africa in my humble opinion was completely and utterly miscast and to paraphrase a friend’s point of view – the experience was like going out with a bunch of Monty Python fans and having to listen to them recite quotes from The Holy Grail all evening.
So faced with either watching the expertly delivered lines of the film or the poorly recited gags from the play, I’d have rather just rewatched the film again.
However, this is my critical assessment as a fan of the Pythons and not as a newcomer. For the uninitiated audience, Spamalot is more of a pantomime of The Holy Grail and manages to do a lot of things right for an audience that is yet to delve into the fandom of the source – mixing in the trademark humour along with some catchy musical numbers, this production is perfectly imperfect for yet-to-be fans of a film that may be one of the most often quoted motion pictures of our time.
Here’s a trailer for the original film.
The production is filled with energy and forgiving the actors for not being on the level of the Monty Python troupe, it’s hard to fault Spamalot and Eric Idle for trying their best to draw upon the wealth of comedic treasures that the film bestowed upon us many decades ago. It engages with the audience, encourages interaction, and has that bizarre craziness that some will get and may just come across as random to others. It has the potential to be laugh-out-loud throughout, but for some it will only be sparsely funny, with highlights being a strange cameo from Johnny Clegg and the irony that the only black actor in the production happens to be King Arthur’s man-servant and part time bearded dancing nun.
The Bottom Line
If you’re a fan of Monty Python and The Holy Grail, this play is an experience that doesn’t live up to the hype, at least not locally. If you’re new to Monty Python, this may be the funniest stage production that you’ll see all year.
Monty Python’s Spamalot runs at The Joburg Theatre until 10 August 2014