Category Archives: Shakespeare

Hooray! Henry!

HENRY VI: REBELLION

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 7th May 2022

Shakespeare’s history plays – dramatized and fictionalised versions of real events involving real monarchs – inevitably these days draw comparisons with Game of Thrones.  Here there be no dragons, but there’s pretty much everything you’d expect in terms of loyalty and betrayal, honour and dishonour, treachery and rivalry, and power grabs galore.  There’s violence and gore, and even a mystical scene in which a severed head on a pole is consulted about the future.

Mark Quartley is the young king Henry VI, something of a weakling and therefore ripe for plucking from the throne.  There is no shortage of wannabe kings.  Chief among them is a deliciously wicked York (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) and the dashing Suffolk (Ben Hall).  Quartley is effective as the meek monarch; you will him to stand up for himself and when it finally happens, Quartley shows us the toll it takes out of the frail king.  Alvin-Wilson is hugely enjoyable – all he needs is a moustache to twirl, while Hall’s Suffolk has more range as a character.  When he meets his violent end, it’s hard to watch.  Director Owen Horsley uses suggestion as much as blatant gore, making for some very unpleasant but irresistible moments.

Minnie Gale is tons of fun as Margaret, Henry’s unfaithful queen, a vivacious, unconventional young woman who brings a whole new meaning to getting head from one’s lover…

Lucy Benjamin is powerful as Eleanor, the Duchess of Gloucester.  Though she be but little, she is fierce.  Oops, sorry, wrong play.  Her fellow EastEnders alumnus, Aaron Sidwell, is a treat as rebel and rabble rouser Jack Cade, with a cocky/Cockney swagger and a twinkle in his eye.  You expect him to call someone ‘Treacle’ at any moment.  Something the play demonstrates all too clearly is how the public can be manipulated by empty promises and stirring rhetoric.  It’s a nice touch to have the mob speak lines in perfect unison, showing how they are of one mind/brain cell.

Richard Cant is in excellent form as Uncle Gloucester, matched by RSC stalwart Paola Dionisotti as Cardinal Winchester, whose death scene is the best of the lot.

The huge cast comes and goes but the action is never less than perfectly focussed.  The simple staging (rostra and a medieval throne) are all that’s needed; the action is augmented by judicious use of projections on the chainmail backdrop: huge faces looming, and there’s a sequence when Cade and his rabble are roaming the streets, represented here by the corridors of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Add to this, splendid historical costumes (such a relief they didn’t set the play at the time of the Cod War or on Mars or somewhere) and Paul Englishby’s superlative music, all mournful horns and stirring strings played live, and we’ve got a marvellous three-hours traffic on the stage.

I can’t wait to see the companion play next week!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Mark Quartley as Henry VI (Photo: Ellie Kurtz)

WARS OF THE ROSES

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 12th May 2022

The excellent ensemble is back with the companion play, continuing the story of England’s feeblest king.  This time there is even more running around, with the severed heads of various characters tossed around like so many basketballs.  Director Owen Horsley brings out the black humour of the piece at every opportunity to offset the grisly deaths and the heartfelt grief.  Oliver Alvin-Wilson’s York is even more enjoyable, the character being more rounded this time around.  His speech of grief for his murdered son and fury for the bloodthirsty Margaret (Minnie Gale being phenomenal again) is the most powerful moment of the first half.

New characters come to the fore.  Arthur Hughes as York’s son Richard, who becomes the Duke of Gloucester, gives a show-stealing performance and I cannot bloody wait to see him continue the role in Richard III in just a few weeks’ time.  Conor Glean’s Young Clifford, full of righteous vengeance and a Merseyside accent, and Ashley D Gayle as York’s eldest son, Edward, both make strong impressions.  Ben Hall, playing middle son George (later Clarence) also does a heart-wrenching grief-stricken moment.

The live video footage not only allows for two locations to share the stage, but also artfully frames the action: clever use of a child’s crown in the foreground while the child that wore it is being butchered makes the violence cinematic and symbolic.  Indeed, the only piece of furniture in the entire show is the gothic throne, the thing everyone is fighting over, while the ground it stands on is increasing ruined.

Richard Cant appears in an amusing turn as King Lewis (sic) of France, not quite going the full Allo, Allo! but in the vicinity.  Sophia Papadopoulos’s portrayal of the young and valiant Prince Edward is assured, so we’re shocked by his inevitable murder.  Lots of killings in this play, and plenty of exciting swordplay, thanks to fight directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown.

It’s a time when first names were in short supply.  Everyone is either a Henry, a Richard, or an Edward, it seems, so it’s something of a relief when they start referring to each other by place names instead.  Who would have guessed that a Duke of York could turn out to be so troublesome?

A thrilling, visceral, funny, and moving production, with Mark Quartley’s conflicted king at its heart.  The three-hour run time flies by.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


A Bridgerton Too Far?

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 3rd April 2022

Michael Barry sets his Much Ado in the Regency period, like the popular series on Netflix.  For the most part, it’s an excellent fit, with the exterior manners and elegance a suitable setting for Shakespeare’s wittiest rom-com. This is Bridgerton in looks and feel, but with an infinitely better script! Barry’s set design has two plastered columns framing the upstage area, the bases of which have cracked to reveal the brickwork beneath, representing the truth beneath the surface.  It’s a clever detail.

The ever-excellent Jack Hobbis gives us his Benedick, complete with mutton-chops and poufy hair.  He is Mr Darcy, an upright romantic hero with a quick wit and a big heart.  Hobbis does an admirable job and you can’t help falling for him.  Naomi Jacobs’s Beatrice has the acid tongue and merry wit down pat, but she’s a little too loud for the studio setting, delivering all her lines at full volume – sometimes going up to 11.  A bit more variance and she’d be perfect.

Andrew Elkington makes for a posing, preening Claudio, all righteous indignation in the pivotal church scene, and thoroughly detestable afterwards, until his redemption, of course; a pretty face masking his petulance and objectionable self-righteousness.  Spot on!  Also great is Papa Yentumi as Don Pedro, the fun-loving prince, at ease with his high status and game for a laugh.  As his bastard brother, Tom Lowde gives us a volatile Don John, but he needs not to race through some of his lines so we can enjoy his evil nature all the more. 

Man of the match for my money is Mark Payne as Leonato, effortlessly convincing throughout, and electrifyingly emotional in that church scene.

Suzie King’s Hero contrasts sweetly with the acerbic Beatrice, and there is solid support from Skye Witney as Antonia, Jessica Terry as Margaret, Colette Nooney as Ursula, and James Browning as the villainous Borachio.

I’m afraid though the Dogberry scenes don’t quite come off.  Ben Pugh could make more of the constable’s bombast, building him up more so he can deflate further.   There are more laughs to be gained here. The Watch scenes seem clumsily staged.  Perhaps there were council tax cutbacks in Messina at the time, but surely they could stretch to at least a third Watchman.

There is lovely music, all piano and strings, by Salwan Cartwright-Shamoon, but there at times when it is intrusive, detracting from the action rather than supporting it.

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, the phenomenal Costume Department at the Crescent goes all out to create beautiful and accurate clothes to suit the world of the production.  Designer Jennet Marshall has excelled herself here, and credit is due to her team: Carolyn Bourne, Anne Hignell, Stewart Snape, Rose Snape, and Pat Brown, for the stunning array of uniforms, posh frocks and tailored coats on display.

A great-looking production that hits most of its marks, featuring some excellent performances by its leads.

☆ ☆ ☆ ½

Andrew Elkington and Jack Hobbis (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Bloody Great

MACBETH

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th March 2022

This production by Tread The Boards takes a traditional approach, with splendid medieval costumes conveying the historical period, although with the Northern English accents, it’s less Glamis Castle and more Winterfell.  But at least there’s consistency, creating the world-of-the-play most effectively.  The action plays out against a huge map of Scotland, which has been torn —  symbolising the political climate of the story.

Judicious use of sound design (courtesy of the brilliant Elliott Wallis) makes the intimate Attic Theatre space feel larger.  The sounds of hurly-burly surround us.  Cast members running around and fighting put us right in the action.  Enter Three Witches… This ragtag trio engender an otherworldliness, even though they could pass for mortal women – their eye-of-newt scene later on is horrible, as they place the disgusting ingredients in their cauldron.  The Witches also double as other characters: servants, messengers, giving them a direct hand in the unfolding doom of their victim.  Witch 2 (Sally Hyde Lomax) doubles as the Porter, bringing much-needed comic relief to the tense scenes surrounding the murder of Duncan.  Witch 3 (Clara Lane) makes a sympathetic Lady Macduff, while Sarah Feltham’s Witch 1, the twitchy one, offers support in a string of minor roles.  The impression is given that the Witches are more directly involved in Macbeth’s downfall than we might have thought.

Speak of the devil.  Daniel Wilby’s Macbeth is a credible warrior (some Macbeths I’ve seen aren’t!) and his conversion to the dark side, while a little speedy, is also believable.  Wilby is at his strongest in the scenes where Macbeth unravels – the banqueting scene is especially powerful – and his portrayal of a man under immense stress, with violent outbursts, is captivating.

He is more than matched by Alexandra Whitworth, who is quite simply the best Lady Macbeth I have seen.  The steely-eyed wickedness, the growing sense of isolation, the mental breakdown… all played to perfection.  Whitworth brings out the character’s humanity.  She is so much more than a wicked woman who can’t cope with the consequences of her actions.

Honestly, this is a truly excellent cast.  Phil Leach’s King Duncan exudes kindness without losing any of his regal status; Ben Armitage’s Malcolm is superb – like Macduff, we take him at his word.  Armitage gives the boy king assuredness; he is definitely this Duncan’s son.  Pete Meredith’s Banquo goes from brave and noble best mate to terrifying apparition.  A versatile actor, Meredith later appears as the doctor – the contrast couldn’t be greater.  John-Robert Partridge’s forthright Macduff is thoroughly righteous and decent.  Partridge’s rich speaking voice is a pleasure to hear, and you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.

There is strong support from the likes of Tom Lane’s Lennox, Edward Manning’s Ross, and Patrick Large as Seyton.  Everyone handles the language with clarity and understanding.  John-Robert Partridge’s direction gets everything right, the supernatural bits are unnerving, the action scenes are exciting – the climactic swordfight between Macs Duff and Beth is thrilling – making the confines of the performance space seem large enough to contain this story of a nation in upheaval, while yet intimate enough to chart the decline of our tragic hero.  Partridge doesn’t clutter the stage (there’s no room) but lets Shakespeare’s text do the donkey work, ensuring that this superlative cast deliver the time-worn words with truth, ease and freshness.

Bloody marvellous.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Mr and Mrs: Daniel Wilby and Alexandra Whitworth as the Macbeths (Photo: Andrew Maguire Photography)

Merry Wives of Wakanda

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 24th February 2022

This new production of theatre’s greatest rom-com boasts an ‘afro-futuristic’ setting – obviously influenced by Marvel’s Black Panther film!  As a world unto itself, this ‘Messina’ works very well.  Jemima Robinson’s set design is simple but exotic, futuristic and  yet retro.  I especially like the little illuminated bulbous plants that border the stage, and the geometric shapes that predominate the setting.  This Messina is a bright and colourful place – which is supported by Melissa Simon-Hartman’s glorious costumes with their strong, solid hues and striking silhouettes, marrying African elements with sci-fi kitsch, in an eye-popping cavalcade of outfits.  This is a great-looking show.

It also sounds phenomenal, with original music by Femi Temowo, played live by an octet of musicians, including some luscious brass.  The jazz/funk/soul/old school R&B-infused score is irresistible and, mercifully, no one raps.  Which makes a refreshing change.  Album release, please!!

Director Roy Alexander Weise makes the script more accessible to a modern audience by updating some of the more archaic vocabulary.  Most of the substitutions hit their mark and get the point across, although uptight purists might squirm.

A strong ensemble cast populates the story of deception and fake news, but any Much Ado is only as good as its Beatrice and Benedick.  In the role of Beatrice, the witty wise-cracker, is Akiya Henry, giving a star turn in comedic acting.  Her word play is razor sharp and it’s matched by her physical comedy.  Henry’s energy is equalled by Luke Wilson as witty wise-cracker Benedick.  Wilson exudes warmth in his portrayal; this Benedick is not only a funny man but a good man too, someone you’d like to know and drink with,

Don Pedro is presented here as Don Pedra, a princess.  The pedant in me wants to scream ‘Shouldn’t that be Donna Pedra?’ but I don’t, because I don’t want to be ejected.  The gender swap allows for a bit of LGBTQ+ inclusivity, which works very well, and Ann Ogbomo is marvellous in the role, embodying a spirit of fun and of (misguided) indignation.

Mohammed Mansaray’s Claudio really comes to life in the church scene, rising to his big moment.  It’s hard not to dislike Claudio in subsequent scenes but Mansaray wins us back when he shows Claudio’s devastation upon hearing the consequences of his actions.

Which brings me to Hero, played by Taya Ming, who invests the role with feistiness and fire, reminding us that Hero is a close relative of Beatrice and not the simpering good girl that she is sometimes shown to be.

Kevin N Golding’s Leonato is just about perfect.  Golding calls at all the stops on the character’s emotional journey and nails every one.  Even though he looks like a Time Lord in a disco wig, he has tears springing to my cynical old eyes more than once.

Also enjoyable are Karen Henthorn’s pompous, Northern Dogberry and the Watch, whose bumbling and malapropisms contrast nicely with the erudite banter of their social ‘betters’.  Here the costumes are their most sci-fi comic book, adding to the fun.

As the villain of the piece, Don John the Bastard, Micah Balfour is deliciously anti-social in this party atmosphere.  Balfour relishes the nastiness and vindictiveness, and therefore so do we.  If only his snazzy boots didn’t squeak so much when he walks!

This is an exuberant, heart-warming, rib-tickling, tear-jerking production of a play that demonstrates that the writer bloody knew what he was doing.  Moments of high (and sometimes low) comedy flip and become intense scenes of powerful drama and, like the plotters in the story, Shakespeare makes us fall in love with Beatrice and Benedick.  Weise’s direction does a bang-up job of delivering these tonal changes effectively, to create a supremely entertaining piece that packs an emotional wallop or two.

One of the reasons I love Much Ado so much is because it reveals something about the playwright’s character, the unknowable Mr Shakespeare who is absent from his other works.  The play shows that without doubt Old Bill was a very witty fellow.  You can’t write Beatrice and Benedick if you don’t possess their sense of humour.  He must have a been a right hoot at parties.

☆☆☆☆☆

Much Afro About Nothing: Mohammed Mansaray, Kevin N Golding, and Taya Ming.
Photo by Ikin Yum (c) RSC

Comedy and no mistake

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 15th June, 2021

It is nothing short of wonderful to be back in a theatre and watching the country’s funniest theatre company, Oddsocks, back on stage, doing what they do so brilliantly, after an enforced hiatus.  Every time the company revisits a Shakespeare play they have toured once or twice before, they do something new with it, thereby keeping their work fresh and funny.  This new production of Errors benefits from a host of folk songs and sea shanties, where previous versions have been resplendent with pop songs.  Here the a capella singing lends atmosphere, and later, when accompanied by instruments, it’s still rousing stuff, keeping the energy levels high during transitions.  I suspect this shift in musical style, using tunes in the public domain, is a cost-cutting exercise in these straitened times, but whether it is or it isn’t, it works extremely well.

Director/adaptor Andy Barrow has cast his Mrs in a lead role.  Producer Elli Mackenzie appears as Antiphoni of Ephesus (and of course her identical twin from Syracuse) thereby cementing her position in my view that she is the funniest woman in the land.  She and Barrow (as the hapless servants Dromio) form an exquisite double act.  It’s a rare treat to see them performing together.   There’s an abundance of physical comedy in this show, including a sequence with a large trunk that reminds me of Laurel & Hardy’s The Music Box, and the slapstick violence between the pair is like two stooges in search of a third.

Oddsocks veteran, the charming Joseph Maudsley makes a welcome return, appearing as Adrian (husband to Antiphoni – the gender swap doesn’t get in the way of the machinations of Shakespeare’s farcical plot).  I was expecting a Rocky moment with Antiphoni calling her hubby’s name – but then, what do I know?  Maudsley has an easy-going, immediately likeable stage presence.  As do new recruits Harrie Dobby and Jack Herauville who fit right in with the company’s madcap style, delivering a range of supporting roles.

Comic business is Oddsocks’s business, hearkening back to commedia dell’arte; it’s the kind of thing that has to be seen live, for the timing, the daftness, and the sheer skill required to pull it off.  And it’s all reasonably faithful to Shakespeare’s text, honed into two-hours traffic on the stage, with the occasional topical reference thrown in for good measure.  The good news is this is the start of their summer tour.  They will surely be visiting an indoor or outdoor venue near you soon.  It would be an error to miss them!

*****

Publicity image. You can check out TOUR DATES HERE.


Video (et gaudeo)

BARD FROM THE BARN – Shakespeare’s Greatest Characters in Lockdown

YouTube, Wednesday 1st July, 2020

 

With theatres closed, indefinitely it feels like, some companies are streaming live recordings of past productions to keep us entertained.  Others are seeking to produce new work, using whatever means they can.  Last week, I enjoyed a play performed live on Zoom.  This week, I’m looking at a collection of pre-recorded monologues, put together by the Barn Theatre.

There are almost three dozen to choose from.  You can dip in and out as little or as much as you like, or you can select PLAY ALL and work your way through, so there is flexibility there, and of course you can watch it on your laptop, your smartphone, or your big telly, making the viewing as formal or as informal as you like.  You choose the way you watch.

For review purposes, I’m sitting back with a cuppa in front of the big telly.

What plays out before me is an impressive range of ideas and variety of means of presentation, as actors in isolation perform speeches from the tragedies, histories and comedies (some better known that others).  In general, the dramatic speeches tend to come across better than the comic ones – that being said, the knockabout comedy of Tweedy the Clown as Dromio of Ephesus (Comedy of Errors) appearing on a sort of Jeremy Kyle show, is very funny!

They’re all worth a look.  Some feel like extracts, some feel like short films complete in themselves, like Daniella Piper’s Julia (Two Gentlemen of Verona) tearing up a love letter from Proteus and trying to piece it together again.

I can’t mention them all but here are some of my favourites.  Aaron Sidwell (who also produces) appears as Marc Antony, a media-savvy politician giving an address on a rolling news channel – the medium is perfectly suited to his rhetoric; Adam Sopp’s Iago, exudes menace in a triptych of mirrors; Ryan Bennett’s Edgar, where the jerky smartphone filming represents his state of mind; Ben Boskovic’s Richard II, vlogging in his bedroom; Sarah Louise Hughes as Juliet, recording her final moments in a onesie in her bedroom, before she takes the fateful drug; and the pent-up passion of Jasper William Cartwright’s Romeo, who is homeo aloneo.

Some are simpler than others, with directors letting the actors’ talking heads do all the work. Dominic Brewer’s housebound Hamlet, bitter and depressed, for example.  Others use everyday technologies to do something flashier: Tricia Adele Turner’s Hermione (The Winter’s Tale) is an Essex girl in a clip that combines social media with reality TV – some kind of commentary here, that these ‘celebrities’ are awarded almost royal status, perhaps?  David Haydn’s Titus Andronicus is a deliciously horrific vignette of grisly, suburban revenge.

We get a Benedick taking his daily exercise in the park, Macbeth’s porter receiving a welcome delivery of toilet rolls, and there are a few facetime calls along the way.  All human life is here, certainly as experienced over the past few months in quarantine.  Taken as a whole, this collection is a chronicle of the present, seen through the prism of Shakespeare.

Producers Aaron Sidwell, Hal Chambers and the Barn Theatre are to be applauded for this inventive body of work.  I’m sure they’ll forgive me if I don’t stand on my doorstep to do it.

The-Cast-of-Bard-From-The-Barn

See for yourself by clicking HERE!


Great Danes

HAMLET

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 1st March, 2020

 

I’ve lost count of the number of Hamlets I’ve seen over the years, and a problem I have every time I go to see it again is its overfamiliarity.  It’s not just a question of knowing the plot; the entire script reads like Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits, with almost every line or phrase well-known and, more often than not, part of our everyday speech.  But I’m always interested to see a fresh approach that may shed new light on this most-often produced of plays.

Here, director Michael Barry opts for what he calls a film noir approach – the costumes by Jennet Marshall certainly have a 1950s feel – but apart from the odd burst of slinky saxophone and the occasionally well-placed spotlight, film noir is barely apparent.  Not that it matters; the minimal staging puts the performers at the forefront.  Played in traverse, the action is within reach, and this works very well for the more intimate scenes.  Unfortunately, the stage can be a tad overcrowded with members of the Elsinore court and these scenes can lose focus.  A courtly dance is a case in point, and it doesn’t help that the dialogue between Hamlet and Horatio is swallowed by the music.

That being said, this production has some moments of excellence.  Isabel Swift’s Horatio is a masterclass in how to deliver Shakespeare with clarity and emotion – Horatio’s grief at the end is almost palpable.  Robert Laird’s Claudius does a good job of becoming increasingly rattled as the action unfolds, and delivers a powerful moment alone, in torment and at prayer.  Graeme Braidwood’s Polonius is not so much the ‘foolish, prating knave’ Hamlet claims him to be but rather an austere father and efficient administrator.  Papa Yentumi makes for a righteous Laertes and Femke Witney’s Ophelia combines sweetness and ferocity in her mad scenes.  As Gertrude, Skye Witney needs to project more in her earlier scenes but in the emotionally charged scene in Gertrude’s bedroom, she really comes to life.  Bill Barry impresses as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, keeping things dispassionate and thereby otherworldly.

Inevitably, the production succeeds or fails with its Hamlet.  Here the Crescent is indeed fortunate to have the brilliant Jack Hobbis give his Prince of Denmark.  Hobbis is eminently watchable, and the show’s highlights are his soliloquies as he breathes new life into those well-worn words.  His Hamlet is mercurial yet for all his mood swings, he is never less than regal.

The play culminates in the rigged fencing match and this is staged very well, with an added frisson of excitement being so close to the front rows of the audience.  Michael Barry substitutes the last-minute arrival of Fortinbras with a reappearance of the Ghost and a repetition of the play’s opening line, which is an original and effective touch.

Yes, it’s a bit patchy but the stronger moments far outnumber the weak.  This is an accessible Hamlet, whittled down to a bum-friendly two-and-a-half hours, held together by a charismatic lead performance and strong support from the main players.

hamlet hobbis

Sweet Prince: Jack Hobbis as Hamlet (Photo: Jack Kirby)


A Reign of Two Halves

KING JOHN

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th October, 2019

 

There’s an undeniably 1960s vibe to Eleanor Rhode’s production of this lesser-known history play.  Max Johns’s design puts the characters in sharp suits and polo-neck sweaters, dandy two-pieces, and East End gangster-ish fur coats.  This is the world of One Man, Two Guvnors with a touch of the Krays.  Will Gregory’s original compositions do much to enforce the period, with arrangements that are reminiscent of Quincy Jones (think Austin Powers theme!) and classics like Green Onions.  So, it all looks great and sounds great, and they have the dance moves down pat.  But…

The first half heightens the humour.  Rhode delivers up a black comedy with a couple of rather gruesome touches.  In the title role we have Rosie Sheehy, a principal boy (evoking fond memories of Pippa Nixon’s female Bastard in a previous production).  The gender-blind casting emphasises the youthfulness of the King and later, his unmanliness.  John is a weak king, but Sheehy’s portrayal of that weakness is strong – if you see what I mean.  Dressed in pyjamas and velvet suits, this John is a slightly Bohemian, somewhat cocky playboy, a 60s rock-star/poet/playboy.

Sheehy is surrounded by other strong performers, notable among whom are the excellent Bridgitta Roy as Queen Elinor,  John’s authoritative mother; Zara Ramm impresses in a brief appearance as Lady Faulconbridge; Tom McCall’s faithful Hubert’s loyalty is not without its sinister side; and Brian Martin’s Lewis the Dauphin would not be out of place, torturing narks in a lock-up.  Michael Abubakar’s Bastard (Scottish accent, red brothel-creepers) is indeed a cheeky bastard, but he seems a little side-lined at times.

The role of little prince Arthur is quite a large part for a child actor, and tonight it’s the turn of Ethan Phillips to elicit our sympathies.  He does a grand job, togged up like our own Prince George, and I like Rhode’s idea of having him appear ghost-like, rather than as a corpse.  In fact, it is through his Arthur that we come to regard John as a villain – not quite of Richard III proportions, but even so.  Incidentally, John’s protestant rant against Catholicism puts him ahead of his time (or hearkens back to Henry VIII, depending on your perspective!).  Katherine Pearce’s Cardinal Pandulph is a camp delight if a little one-note – but then, I suppose that represents the unwavering nature of the Church.

To my mind, it is Charlotte Randle’s passionate Lady Constance, righteous in her grief, who gives the pivotal performance of the production, growing from annoying guest who won’t shut up about it, to a genuinely moving portrayal of emotional disturbance.  After her hair-tearing scene, the production is never quite the same again.

Rhode gives us lots of fun ideas to make the action accessible, even if we’re not always entirely sure who everyone is.  In the second half, the comedy is elbowed in favour of the darkness and the politicising, a tonal mismatch that doesn’t quite gel.  Perhaps the inclusion of more medieval motifs would marry the two sections, as characters get medieval with each other.  This is very much a game of two halves.

I find I have no sympathy for John’s messy demise in a tin bath.  Instead, it’s a relief to be rid of a weak leader.  The play points out – as if we aren’t painfully aware these days – that weakness at the top brings chaos everywhere.

King John production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Steve Tanner _c_ RSC_295649

Rosie Sheehy as King John (Photo: Steve Tanner (c) RSC)

 

 


Ah, Vienna…

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 7th August, 2019

 

Some people label this a ‘problem play’ and I have a problem with that.  What it is is a dark comedy that deals with issues of morality.  Here, director Gregory Doran has for the most part a light touch, so the comedy has the upper hand over the darkness.  It’s definitely a production of two halves, the first setting out the stall so the circumstances of Isabella’s dilemma are established.

In what is basically the first-ever episode of Undercover Boss, the Duke leaves town, putting pasty-faced Slytherin alumnus Angelo in charge, but comes back disguised as a friar to observe how things turn out.  Angelo instigates draconian laws to punish the immoral.  Pretty soon, Claudio is condemned to death for impregnating his fiancée, and his sister Isabella, a novice nun, is called in to plead for clemency.  Angelo takes a fancy to the novice, in a Captain Von Trapp meets Maria kind of way and makes an indecent proposal.  If Isabella will sleep with Angelo, he will pardon her brother.  Which was will Isabella jump?  It takes the machinations of the Duke-in-disguise to bring about a resolution and expose the hypocrisy at the top of Viennese society.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design establishes the show’s Viennese credentials from the off; it’s the Vienna of Strauss.  There are waltzes – everything but Viennese whirls, dancing horses and Midge Ure.  The set is sparse, with projections to establish locations and mirrored panels across the back wall, reflecting the audience back at itself – a mirror to society, get it?

More familiar to me for tragic, heroic roles, Antony Byrne is having a lot of fun as the Duke, throwing his weight around and keeping us in on the joke.  The Duke’s plotting may seem a little cruel, especially when he makes Isabella believe her brother has already been beheaded, but then this is a play about men’s treatment of women.  Doran gives us a delicious final image, when it dawns on Isabella that having escaped the clutches of one man who wanted her against her will, she is in the grasp of another, and never mind what she wants out of life.

As Isabella, Lucy Phelps is the emotional heart of the piece and gives a powerful, compelling and likeable performance.  I have seen Isabellas too up themselves to be sympathetic but here Phelps pitches everything right.  Sandy Grierson’s Angelo starts as a cold fish, struggling to repress his baser urges before being exposed as a massive hypocrite worthy of any Tory cabinet.

James Cooney makes an appealing Claudio, while David Ajao’s West Indian accent augments the comedic aspects of Pompey the pimp-turned-executioner’s assistant.  Amanda Harris gives sterling character work as the Provost, and, in their brief appearances, Graeme Brookes and Michael Patrick make strong impressions respectively as Mistress Overdone, the local madam, and Constable Elbow, a kind of prototype Dogberry, complete with malapropisms.  Claire Price is an earnest Escalus and Patrick Brennan a creepy Abhorson the executioner, but for me the man of the match is Joseph Arkley as the dapper Lucio, who is positively hilarious throughout.

Paul Englishby’s score is sumptuous and the second half begins with a plaintive song sung sweetly and with emotion by Hannah Azuonye that is brought to an end much too soon!   I could do with more of this!

The second half lets broad comedy take the lead and the action moves on apace, with enjoyable appearances from Graeme Brookes’s Black Country Barnardine, and the contrivances of the plot keep on the right side of credible (just about).

More fun than I was expecting, this is a Measure that speaks to us today.  Strict, moralistic statutes only lead to increased hypocrisy and division between lawmakers who break their own laws and the rest of us who fall foul of prohibition just for being human.

Measure for Measure production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Helen Maybanks _c_ RSC_286285

Antony Byrne as the Duke/Friar (Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC)


Rock Bottom

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 18th June, 2019

 

Oddsocks return, not only to Coventry, but also to Athens, the fictional Athens of Shakespeare’s romcom, for this new production that marks thirty years in the business.  Director Andy Barrow never fails to come up with new ideas to reinterpret and restage the Bard, with his pared-down cast and signature Oddsocks humour.  A stroke of genius is to have the ‘Mechanicals’ as builders working at Theseus’s palace: and so the set is initially draped in their dustsheets before ‘transforming’ into the forest.  Barrow himself appears as Bottom the Builder (yes, he can!) complete with beer belly and builder’s bottom.  We laugh straight away but even dressed like this, Barrow can wring nuances from his characterisation.  His Egeus is a blustering gammon, and his Oberon is a towering faun, with cloven hooves and curling horns.

Most of the humour, most of the playing, is done with broad strokes, and Barrow’s cast prove masters (and mistresses) of the in-house style.   Alex Wadham’s cocky Demetrius and desperately melodramatic Thisbe; Asha Cornelia-Cluer’s upper-class twit of a Hippolyta, her plucky Helena and graceful Titania; Peter Hoggart’s sheepish Lion – (Hoggart brings slapstick, physical comedy to his Lysander); and Christopher Smart’s easy-going Theseus and officious Peter Quince… Alice Merivale’s feisty Hermia and her energetic Scouse Puck… The entire ensemble works tirelessly to populate the scenes, adlibbing when they need to but also delivering Shakespeare’s verse with expression and conviction.  This is Shakespeare at its most accessible – the inclusion of popular songs, played live by this versatile cast, adds to the fun and to the story.  I’ve seen many a jukebox musical where the song choices don’t work anywhere near as well.  Hermia and Lysander give a rendition of The Corrs’s Runaway, Helena sings You Can’t Hurry Love, Bottom treats us to Passenger’s Scare Away The Dark (I suspect Andy Barrow would be a rock star in another life)… The whole thing ends with Oberon and the Fairies Dancing in the Moonlight.  And it’s a blast.

Of course, the play-within-a-play is achingly funny, with the added bonus of a member of the audience selected to portray the Wall, for a spot of good-natured victimisation.  Where some productions attempt to make us feel with Thisbe’s mock-plaintive words, Barrow goes all-out for big laughs.  And gets them.

A joyous version, both faithful and subversive, that shows Oddsocks are still at the top of their game after all this time.  Here’s to the next thirty years!

A Midsummer Nights Dream

It Takes Two: Oberon (Andy Barrow) and Titania (Asha Cornelia Cluer)