Tag Archives: Alex Hassell

The Conscience of the King

HENRY V

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 1st October, 2015

 

Gregory Doran’s new production takes its lead from the Chorus, who draws our attention to the limitations of theatrical presentations and pleads with us to use our imaginations – in fact, Oliver Ford Davies yells at us, urging us to work, as though he is a gruff old academic and us his dull students.  It makes for the most amusing Chorus I have seen, and it’s easy to imagine Ford Davies as the beloved terror of a university or a curmudgeonly presenter of a historical series on BBC 4.

Doran brings out a great deal of humour and there is no limit to his theatrical presentation!  The play seems well-served by this approach.  Jim Hooper’s Archbishop of Canterbury who has acres of exposition to deliver in hereby transformed into a delight.

The marvellous Alex Hassell’s Henry is very much a new king, finding his way and taking on board the counsel of his advisors.  He sits on the throne with his legs wide apart, consciously asserting his presence, like a selfish commuter ‘man-spreading’ on the Tube.  He is a thoughtful, sensitive Henry, a man of conscience and a fast learner.  At first, Hassell gives him a haughty, pompous tone as though Henry only uses his telephone voice but as the king becomes more accustomed to his position, he grows more natural, without losing status.  By the time we get to the Crispin’s Day speech he is indeed the war-like Harry – the delivery is both rousing and heartfelt.

There is comic support from the likes of Christopher Middleton’s Nym and Antony Byrne’s Pistol – this latter, especially, rounds out his characterisation beyond the physicality of the comic business.  There’s a Welshman, an Irishman bristling with mad hair and grenades, and a Scotsman – fun with stereotypes!  Simon Yadoo’s Scottish Jamy is hilariously unintelligible.  Joshua Richards’s Welshman Fluellen is more even-tempered, look you.  The funniest scenes involve Katherine (Jennifer Kirby) trying to learn English from her lady-in-waiting (Leigh Dunn); and Robert Gilbert is a hoot as the effeminate Dauphin, complete with pageboy bob.

But it’s not all laughs, larks and leeks.  Far from it.  Tensions and drama keep the plot going, linked by the Chorus’s narration: when Henry receives news of the execution of former drinking buddy Bardolph (Joshua Richards again) he has to govern his emotions and temper his response in accordance with his role as monarch.  And earlier, the reporting of the death of Falstaff is touchingly done by Sarah Parks’s Mistress Quickly.

There’s a happy ending: wooing Katherine, Henry is out of his depth.  His prowess in war cannot help him now.  Hassell has always excelled at comedy and leaves us on a high.  We come away with the feeling that Henry must have been a good king, (albeit a short-lived one) and we have been royally entertained by a refreshing, rollicking take on a well-worn history.

Royal Shakespeare Company production of HENRY V by William Shakespeare directed by Gregory Doran

Royal Shakespeare Company production of
HENRY V
by William Shakespeare
directed by Gregory Doran Photo: Keith Pattison

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Buying Into It

DEATH OF A SALESMAN

RST, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 22nd April, 2015

 

Gregory Doran’s powerful production of this Arthur Miller masterpiece brings out the humour of the script, especially in the first half, and so Antony Sher’s Willy Loman is endearing from the get-go. A blustering, sentimental man, given to delusion, who hears what people say but doesn’t listen, Willy is always on the brink of something wonderful. He’s an indefatigable optimist. Meanwhile, life has gone on and he has got nowhere, apart from the eventual paying off of his mortgage and his hire purchase refrigerator. But being this way is taking its toll. He’s not the most mentally stable of men – and this is reflected in Stephen Brimson Lewis’s split set, which has several levels. It’s a representation of Willy’s mind and sometimes we are in it, as he relives memories, and sometimes we are in the real world, a bustling street or an empty restaurant.

Sher is the engine, the beating, sometimes racing, heart of the production, while Harriet Walter is his quieter, long-suffering wife, a steadier pulse to contrast with his flights of fancy. Sher’s Willy is to be admired, laughed with, despaired at, but Alex Hassell’s Biff – Willy’s elder son – gives us the most powerful moments of the night. Hassell plays both the broken 34 year old and the bright-eyed teenager to perfection, and moves us to tears in the climactic scene in which he tries to force his father to see things the way they are for once in his life. All aspects of the drama, of the production, lead to this outpouring and it’s heart-breaking.

Sam Marks is also strong as younger son Happy, who isn’t on as much, but in key scenes shows what he has inherited of his father’s nature. Tobias Beer gives a star turn as Willy’s boss Howard. A busy company take on small roles and walk-ons to flesh out Willy’s world, with Paul Englishby’s jazz (played live) helping to create the cityscape and period feel. Tim Mitchell’s lighting is linked to Willy’s moods: colours paint the tenement buildings, or sudden brightness shows Willy’s optimism kicking in.

It’s a tragedy of an ordinary man who sees himself as a king and his sons as princes, a man with an eye on the future instead of appreciating the present. Willy sells himself the dream and keeps on buying right until the end.

A superlative production soon to transfer to London, Death of a Salesman is an emotional experience but manages not to be heavy-going, as one might expect, reminding us that Miller’s work can be invigorating as well as exhausting.

Sher and Sonny - Antony Sher and Alex Hassell as Willy and Biff. (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

Sher and Sonny – Antony Sher and Alex Hassell as Willy and Biff. (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)


The People’s Prince

HENRY IV Part One

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 3rd May, 2014

 

Gregory Doran’s production is a straightforward staging of a history play with no time-shifts or gimmicks (like dozens of giant party balloons) to make its presence felt. It works very well – a crowd-pleaser.

As the titular king, Jasper Britton gets all the serious business of the plot, being kingly and regal and war-like. It’s a creditable performance but everyone knows, including the RSC’s poster designers, that the play is really all about Falstaff. Star turn Antony Sher gives us a Sir John like a fat Fagin; we delight in his personality flaws and his questionable behaviour. He engages in bouts of ‘lad bants’ with heir apparent and man of the people, Prince Hal – the never-less-than-excellent, tall, dark and handsome Alex Hassell. Now, here is a Prince of Wales I could get behind. He and Falstaff enjoy slinging insults at each other down the pub, and indulge in a spot of role play, taking turns to be the king. It’s all jolly fun but there is a brief foreshadowing of what is to come in Part Two, when Hal will shake off his laddish behaviour on his way to becoming Henry V.

Trevor White’s Hotspur is a hothead, looking like a Johnny Rotten or a Draco Malfoy. He’s a little too shouty and jump-aroundy for my liking, so Prince Hal’s eulogy for him doesn’t quite match the behaviour we have seen. The swordfight between these two is breathtaking in its speed and forcefulness. Kudos to fight director Terry King.

Joshua Richards is a marvellously morose Bardolph, whose conk could give Rudolph’s a run for its money, and Paola Dionisotti is utterly believable as sentimental old cackler and pub landlady, Mistress Quickly.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design evokes the period in an understated way, letting the costumes and the behaviour do most of the work, aided by Tim Mitchell’s atmospheric lighting and Paul Englishby’s evocative music. It all makes for a good-looking, great-sounding production, proving that the RSC doesn’t need to mess about in order to provide a superlative piece of entertainment. Fast-paced, funny and thrilling, Part One gives Part Two a lot to live up to.

 

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Poster: Antony Sher reflects on his performance as Falstaff


A Cardenio of Earthly Delights

CARDENIO

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 20th September, 2011

 

Controversy about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works comes and goes with every other tide, it seems. Currently, it has all been stirred up again with the coming of specious nonsense film, Anonymous but don’t let me get started on that, please.  I’m here to talk about this rather special piece of “theatrical archaeology”, a new version of Bill’s “lost play” Cardenio.

 

I’m not going to bang on about the process that led to the finished version in performance by the RSC this season.  That is well documented elsewhere – the show’s programme gives a fascinating insight into the play’s history and re-imaginings.

What matters to me, whether Shakespeare wrote most of it, all of it, or just scraps of it on the back of cigarette packets discovered down the back of Anne Hathaway’s sofa, is does the play work in production?  Is it a good night out at the theatre?

Yes.

As a text, the play is practically a primer for Shakespeare scholars.  Familiar elements that appear in his comedies are here: girl dressed as a boy, pastoral scenes, friends betrayed and reconciled, lovers reunited… I could write reams in a reverse bit of detective work (Ooh, that’s like The Winter’s Tale, and that’s like Timon of Athens…) but that would digress from what I want to say about the show.

Set in seventeenth century Spain, the production is a feast for the senses. Sumptuous period costumes, evocative guitar music, rousing flamenco dancing, pleasing verse and an effective plot – there is even a scene where incense is wafted around the auditorium.

Dominating the action as faithless friend Fernando, the excellent Alex Hassell gives us a villain to love. Ruled by libido, Fernando cannot help himself.  He knows he shouldn’t but he also knows he will. “And is the man yet born who would not risk the guilt to meet the joy?” Dashing, Machiavellian and irresistible, he is an endearing baddie right up until the final moment, yet in the end, his conversion and promises are credible.  Yet another towering performance this season from one of my favourite players.

Also impressive is Lucy Briggs-Owen as neurotic heroine, Luscinda.  In a succession of fabulous frocks, she glides and struts around the stage, giving voice to her insecurities.  She gives the character a kind of tic, the subtle, spasmodic waggling of her tongue, a precursor to her decline into suicidal anguish. The psychological insights into her predicament are what we expect in Shakespeare – this is another admirable aspect of Gregory Doran’s production: it all rings true.  It might be faux Shakespeare but it works.

There is a freshness to the lines and their delivery.  Because there are no familiar speeches, no big moments to anticipate, the delivery comes across as more spontaneous than other plays. There is a real sense of characters thinking things through in their soliloquies, as if the thoughts are occurring to them for the first time. This is a quality rare in productions of Hamlet, say, where the words are all too familiar and the actor has to work hard to make it all sound and feel new.

Veteran actor Christopher Godwin is a delight as Cardenio’s sprightly father, Camillo – his reunion with his son is for me the most touching moment in a very effecting denouement.   The entire company is very strong: Pippa Nixon as wronged wench who turns to cross-dressing, Dorotea, carries the emotional weight of the piece, but for me the evening belonged to newcomer Oliver Rix in the title role.

He begins as a charming swain, nervous and frustrated in love, wearing finery and a smart haircut – the quintessential young man.  His betrayal by Fernando is such that by the second half of the play he is living wild in the mountains, barefoot, his shirt in tatters, his hair a straggly mess.  He is raving bonkers and plaguing the troupe of lowly shepherds who bring their flocks to graze.  This is a mad scene to rival the ramblings of Ophelia, but also Cardenio is dangerous, prone to violent outbursts.  The action sequences as the shepherds try to restrain this barmy hermit are stirring – one man in the front row almost got himself throttled before Cardenio could be contained.  His stoical forgiveness of Fernando at the end is more powerful in its understatement.

With his deep, rich voice, physical presence and sensitivity, Oliver Rix in his professional debut gives us a Cardenio to be remembered and he is definitely one to watch out for in future shows.  It would be a pity if the play disappears from the repertoire forever.  I found it the strongest production in the RSC’s current season.