Tag Archives: Akiya Henry

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

Easy to Swallow

SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 26th April, 2012

Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s classic children’s story plays it straight, submerging us in the imaginative world of the young characters as they embark on a weekend of adventure in the Lake District.

It begins in a dusty attic. An old woman unearths a photograph album. Around her, the cast appear behind picture frames: a wedding photo, a candid portrait. A parrot, depicted by a feather duster and a pair of secateurs, is the old woman’s link to her past. The scene transforms and we meet the Walker children as they were when they were aged between 8 and 12. But there is not a child in sight. The cast are all grown adults in a Blue Remembered Hills kind of way. It takes a bit of getting used to – especially when the largest and most beardy actor plays the youngest of the children! But you learn to look beyond the deep voices and the hairy legs and what you find is a very charming production. Director Tom Morris takes us into the children’s adventure, using the transformative power of imagination rather than naturalistic representation. And so, rowing across the lake, coping with a thunderstorm and a flock of cormorants are all shown using sticks, ribbons, garden shears… the kind of things the children would find lying around.

Richard Holt is eldest child, John, self-appointed captain and caught between adulthood and childhood. He juts out his chin, spouts orders and comes up with resourceful ideas, but he is still a young boy, afraid when things go wrong, but putting on a brave face for the sake of the others. It’s an endearing performance and reminds us, we may be adult-sized ourselves but we all still harbour our own insecurities. Sometimes all we want is our mum.

Katie Moore is bossy Susan. I found her the most annoying of the quartet but this is down to character rather than performance. Susan is all about domesticity. Cleaning and cooking, she strives to conform to her ascribed gender role. Of course, this was the way little girls were and were expected to be. The play shows us not only how the nature of childhood has changed but also how society has moved on.

Akiya Henry is little sister, Titty, a tom-boy hankering for adventure but also a thoughtful and well-read individual. This character is the life-blood of Ransom’s book and Akiya Henry lights up the stage with her lively, well-observed and funny performance.

Lastly, we have Stewart Wright as 7 year old (but nearly 8) Roger. (I suppose Titty and Roger make a change from the Dick and Fanny in Enid Blyton stories). His tantrums and enthusiastic outbursts are also well-observed. The cast show us the childishness of so-called adults in their squabbles over territory, their negotiations for peace and, most tellingly, when adult characters (dubbed ‘barbarians’) stamp their feet and refuse to listen to the children. It is here that humanity is shown to be at its most infantile and unreasonable.

The Walker kids encounter two sisters who style themselves as Amazon pirates (Celia Adams and Sophie Waller, snarling and making menacing glances to great effect). A truce is agreed and they join forces against Captain Flint, the girls’ uncle who has neglected them in their make-believe in order to indulge in that most selfish of activities: writing a book. The play culminates in a pitched battle in which the audience is invited to join by chucking rock-shaped lumps of foam at the Captain. The kids in the row ahead of me certainly loved this interaction. The adults too suddenly reverted to childhood and joined in.

The score is by the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon. The music and lyrics are effective within the context of the action, performed by the cast bringing instruments on stage, but out of context, I don’t think there are any hit numbers or showstoppers. Yet it’s all part and parcel of an enchanting and delightful piece of theatre.

At the time, 1920s, Ransome’s stories depicted childhood and imaginative play as it was. The world has changed. Do kids today still play that way? They certainly don’t go off without adult supervision with boats and penknives and camp fires. In protecting children so much are we in fact denying them some of the best childhood has to offer? Plonking them in front of a DVD or leaving them in their rooms with the internet and computer games doesn’t come close to the experience of building a world in your imagination and learning to navigate the choppy waters of human relationships.

The characters imagine themselves as figures from history and literature: Louis Bleriot, “stout” Cortez, Marco Polo and even Mowgli being suckled by wolves. I wonder how many of the children in the audience recognised the references. Who are the role models today? Who do they pretend to be these days, if they pretend to be anyone? A Transformer? Harry Potter? Katie Price? Looking back, I’m glad I was a child when I was. And before you say so, it was a good deal more recently than the 1920s.