Set during the Black Death, a knight plays a game of chess with Death for the chance of a reprieve. The Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal is regularly appears in ‘greatest film of all time’ lists. Therefore, this adaptation from director, Aron Penczu was filled with potential.
Firstly, do not expect a history lesson. There are a number of inaccuracies, such as the Crusades, witch hunts and flagellants. Also, the play could not decide if it was set in Denmark or Sweden. All of this could be overlooked if the play successfully depicted the mood of fourteenth century Europe. It failed to capture the terror that must have been present during this unprecedented epidemic. The solemn procession of monks and the violence of the flagellants were replaced by a crazy, ranting evangelist.
This play had far too many characters for any real development, back-story, or emotional connection. The knight was the main but also the most disappointing character. Having returned from the Crusades with a crisis of faith there was opportunity for a compelling narrative. However, the character was bland and lacked any real details.
The 1957 film entered a world with memories of the suffering of World War II and one in fear of renewed conflict in the Cold War. Yet, due to a lack of character development and emotion in this play, it was impossible for a modern audience to connect the events to any contemporary issues. This led to an ‘othering’ of the Middle Ages.
Despite some of the failings, the play was well acted and credit is due to all of those involved. Max Harrison stole the show with his talented rendering of the cynical squire, Jons. Likewise, a special mention is needed for Benedict Mulcare who played Jof, an actor who has religious visions… apparently. Mulcare also provided entertainment with music and singing.
The plot was stagnant with little driving the story forward. It was as slow as a game of chess. There were far too many set changes. There was nothing revolutionary in the set design to warrant the audience having to watch figures on a dimly lit stage clumsily dragging furniture around. As this happened after almost every scene, it fragmented the narrative and became tedious.
The use of the projector and screen was innovative and more reliance should have been placed on this. It was used to show the setting of a tavern and a meadow, which was much more effective than the obsession with how many chairs were on stage. It would have been nice to see some of the medieval art, such as the dance macabre and the man playing chess with Death, which were alluded to in the play.
The fact that the chessboard was left on stage throughout was a clever choice. It was a reminder that death is ever present and of the impeding fate awaiting the characters.
As this is the late-show, a level of comedy is expected and this is not at odd with the film version. However, where the film made clever use of witty one-liners to bring comic relief to some of the weighty themes, this adaptation chose absurdism.
The show drew heavily on Monty Python including the ‘bring out your dead’ sketch and men dressed as women, complete with Monty Python style voices.
The character of Death bordered on farcical. Far from the medieval representation of death which inspired the film, the play decided on a comedic version – a man in a bedsheet. It was hard for the audience to feel any fear or dread as death struggled to even perform mundane tasks like walking or sitting down, and was completely unable to play chess. The show threw away any menace or sense of dread for sake of a quick sight-gag which soon became tiresome.
The best scene by far was the witch burning. It was really unsettling and moving. Costume designer, Lorena Paton did a fantastic job with her illustration of this harrowing event. It truly was a stand-out piece of theatre and very creative.
The Seventh Seal tried to tackle heavy themes and deliver comedy; however, in trying to do both, it got neither right.
If you are looking for history or a piece which tackles profound issues of death, relationships, society, and faith then this is not the show for you. If you fancy some silliness and Monty Python style humour then it is worth a watch.
The Seventh Seal is on at the ADC Theatre 7-10 February 2018.