Tag Archives: Alex Waldmann

Government Cuts

JULIUS CAESAR

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Wednesday 10th May, 2017

 

The current production of Shakespeare’s political thriller takes a straightforward, but stylish all the same, approach, with a recognisably Roman setting and design aesthetic: towering columns, imposing stairs, more togas than a student party – but for all its historical flavour, it could not be more current.  One gets the feeling the conspirators would have put a stop to the rise of Trump as soon as he popped his orange head over the parapet.  Closer to home, the play is rich with oratory and persuasive speech.  In the run-up to the general election, I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed that Shakespeare isn’t around to script the party political broadcasts – for all sides!

Andrew Woodall is a grand Caesar, an imposing figure of a statesman but rather up himself and, fatally, ambitious. James Corrigan is a well-built Mark Anthony – his ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ is the best I’ve seen, rousing and manipulative, a perfect scene.  And I think that’s how I characterise Angus Jackson’s production: there are moments of brilliance, such as the tension of the assassination scene, the brief flashes of combat and the sickening instances of violence (poor Lucius!) but as a whole, it’s a bit patchy, up and down.

Alex Waldmann’s Brutus is a star turn, a decent chap driven to take extreme, direct action for the greater good;  I know how he feels.  The current political climate makes me all stabby too. Waldmann is excellent in Brutus’s bigger, public moments and also the more private scenes.  The play is as much his tragedy as Caesar’s – perhaps more so.  And you have to admire the chutzpah of a playwright who kills off his titular character before the interval!

There is strong support from Tom McCall as Casca and Martin Hutson as Cassius, to name just a couple from this impressive ensemble.  This is the RSC showing that you can take a traditional, accessible approach to a classic text and still make the production seem absolutely contemporary, rather than an exercise in theatrical archaeology.

Robert Innes Hopkins’s set gives us a sense of imperial Rome: the columns dominate and the statue of a horse being mauled by a lion links power with violence.  In the second half, when the action moves from the city, the architecture is stripped away.  Stunning use of lighting (by Tim Mitchell) plays on the cyclorama, bringing sweeping, romantic, expressionistic colour to proceedings.  Mira Calix’s original compositions are brassy and percussive, discordant and searing.

Well-worth the trip to Stratford, the production refreshes the familiar lines – so many speeches and phrases have seeped into the language and popular consciousness.

Entertaining, relevant, thrilling and powerful.

JuliusCaesar

James Corrigan and Alex Waldmann auditioning for Blood Brothers. (Photo: Helen Maybanks, Copyright RSC)

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Well…

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 31st July, 2013

 

Performed less often than some other Shakespeare plays, All’s Well is a ‘comedy’ or a ‘problem play’.  If we take ‘comedy’ to mean a drama in which characters overcome their problems (as opposed to ‘tragedy’ where the problems overcome the characters) then it certainly fits the category.  It remains a problematic play in my view because of its shortcomings: plot devices familiar from other plays are strung together with none of the impact of, say, the fooling of Malvolio, the controversy of the wedding rings in Merchant.

But that is not to say All’s Well is without merit.  There is much to engage and divert and I would argue the two main female roles contain much of the play’s appeal.  As the Countess, Charlotte Cornwell is stately and generous in spirit, in a seemingly effortless performance, grand without being condescending, sensitive and yet somewhat reserved.  Most of the wheels of the plot are put in motion by Helena in an engaging and touching performance by Joanna Horton.  Helena is a fairytale heroine who goes through trial and tribulation and gets what she wants by guile and determination.  When the object of her affection (Bertram) leaves her behind, her heartbreak is heartbreaking.

The key to All’s Well is the fairytale aspect of the story.  The design of this production, by Katrina Lindsay, works best when it alludes to the storybook nature of the plot.  For my tastes, the soldiers in their dress uniform are more fitting than when they appear in desert camouflage and white t-shirts like some kind of stripper troupe.  The ailing King of France (the always excellent Greg Wise) is hooked up to a drip, an oxygen tank and an ECG machine (or whatever it is) – these kinds of touches are at odds with the other-worldliness of the plot’s logic.  Similarly the see-through box which slides on and off to indicate changes of location is unnecessary.  Thankfully, the production is comparatively short on gimmicks, although what there are, jar horribly.

The show begins with a loud assault of music and lighting.  Parolles dances on a table wearing a Leigh Bowery-type gimp mask.  Mercifully, the production calms down with some freeze-frames, snapshots that set the scene for a funeral. Director Nancy Meckler appears to have reined in some of her excesses – where this production works best is when the staging is at its simplest, and the actors are allowed to do their jobs without the production aesthetic getting in the way.  The soldiers remain a bit of a worry as the play goes on.  The second half begins with an ill-advised movement sequence in which they punch invisible enemies.  They go off, leaving Bertram to duff up thin air.  I found it laughable.

Ah, yes, Bertram.  The always watchable and likeable Alex Waldmann has his work cut out to give this romantic anti-hero any kind of redeeming qualities.  He’s physically attractive but condescending, sarcastic and self-serving.  In brief: he’s a prick. Poor Helena must have been dazzled by his charisma.  Right at the end, when he is shamed into accepting their marriage, Bertram’s conversion is tricky to handle.  The lights fade with Helena triumphant, and Bertram close to tears, resigned to his fate.  All has not ended well for him, which I think belies the optimism of the title, the optimism that has kept Helena on course to get what she wants come what may.  I would have preferred some kind of epiphany to fuel his sudden, albeit qualified, declaration.  Within the fairytale context, this kind of transformation is perfectly fitting.

I was also uncomfortable with the handling of Parolles.  Jonathan Slinger gets his nastiness across but there needs to be more to enjoy in his bombast and braggadocio if we are to feel something for him when he sees the error of his ways.  He is tricked into betraying military secrets and insulting his fellow soldiers but the desert storm setting is a little too much like those disgraceful photographs of American soldiers humiliating captives to make the scene anywhere near rip-roaring.  It leaves an unpleasant aftertaste – as does the production as a whole.  If you’re going for bittersweet, you can’t forget to add the sweet.

Alex Waldmann and Charlotte Cornwell

Alex Waldmann and Charlotte Cornwell


Arden Admirers

AS YOU LIKE IT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 25th April, 2013

 

Maria Aberg’s production of one of Shakespeare’s more uneven comedies is a qualified success.  It falls to a strong cast to lift the show out of some rather muddy ideas.   It gets off to a good start.  The opening exchanges between Orlando and old servant Adam, and then between Orlando and his big brother Oliver are very nicely played and staged, but when we move to the court of Duke Frederick, things take a turn for the bizarre.  The courtiers do a dance, a jerky, spasmodic routine that I guess is meant to convey something about the confinements and restrictions placed on them.  It’s a bit weird and distracts from the action of the scene and, what is most odd, we don’t get anything else like this throughout the piece.  The idea is underused and undeveloped.  The production gains nothing by its inclusion.

The wrestling scene is visceral. Malcolm Ranson has created more of a bare-knuckle fight than a wrestling match.  Orlando proves to be enough of a biter to merit a signing as a professional footballer.

This play stands or falls on its Rosalind and Orlando.  Aberg has two of the best I’ve seen.  Pippa Nixon is spot on as the disenfranchised Duke’s daughter, assured enough to be witty and young enough to be swept away by love at first sight.  She turns to cross-dressing as a means of survival, playing the comedy and the dramatic irony to the hilt.  Her role-playing scenes with Orlando are funny and touching, eliciting many an ooh and an aww from the sixth-formers in the balcony.  Nixon has been good in previous productions.  In this one she is excellent.

Alex Waldmann makes his Orlando likeable from the start.  His scenes with faithful old manservant Adam (David Fielder) are wonderful.  Orlando’s affections become preoccupied with Rosalind and Waldmann is adorable in his halting attempts to compose a song for her.  It is good to see him in  more light-hearted scenes, and he plays them with truth and credibility.

Aberg’s Forest of Arden is foliage free and infested with new-age travellers, refugees from a Levellers’ concert.  It all gets a bit too hippy-dippy and Glastonbury festival for my tastes.  Melancholic Jaques (Oliver Ryan) is peculiar, tripping out to an acoustic guitar. The comic business between Touchstone and Audrey, and Silvius and Pheobe, is a little encumbered by the set – a sort of revolving gazebo affair.  The play works best when the scenes are played in such a way that you can overlook the setting, ignore the fridge, and enjoy Shakespeare expertly delivered.

Luke Norris is very good as Oliver and John Stahl makes his mark as the tyrannical Duke – a pity we only hear about his demise rather than seeing him again but, hey ho, that’s Shakespeare.  Michael Grady-Hall gives depth to the minor role of Silvius although his Phoebe (Natalie Klamar) is a little too annoying.  Nicolas Tennant’s Touchstone starts off as Charlie Cairoli from the waist up and Max Wall from the waist down, but ends up as a debauched Godspell reject.  He tries to engage in some improvised patter with an audience member; hilariously it falls flat. “I’m back on the text now,” he points out, “We’ve got a long way to go.”

He’s right.  It is a bit long and could stand a few cuts.  Rosalind’s song, for example, during which a quartet of female characters parade around with flaming torches – the woman beside me leaned towards my ear and declared, “It’s like a sixth form play”.  I think, all in all, I enjoyed the production more than she did, because of the actors and despite the director!

Pippa Nixon as Rosalind as Ganymede

Pippa Nixon as Rosalind as Ganymede


They F*** You Up, Your Mum and Uncle

HAMLET

RSC, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 28th March, 2013

 David Farr sets his Elsinore in an old-school school hall.  Wood panelling covers the walls.  Low benches from P.E. lessons and metal-framed stacking chairs.  Upstage, steps lead to a proscenium arch and a platform with some heavy duty chairs and table.  The wooden floor is marked with tramlines and fencing foils hang from the walls.  Fire doors lead off to the exit.  Above the proscenium, rather subtly, is the legend, Mens sans in corpore sano.  There is also a handbell knocking around but it’s the accoutrements of fencing that dominate – the sport rather than the gardening variety.  The masks especially are put to good use (Hamlet’s dad’s ghost wears the full rig-out) and the foils are put to almost constant use.

Hamlet (Jonathan Slinger) appears right at the start, in a black suit, still sobbing over his father’s death and what has followed.  With that suit and his specs, he looks like Philip Larkin.  But rather than a provincial librarian turned poet, Hamlet is a student at Wittenberg University – a mature student, it would appear.  We are in the early 1960s, judging from Jon Bausor’s designs – Ophelia (Pippa Nixon) in skirt, tights and sensible shoes is either a student or teacher, or perhaps a student teacher, shedding an armful of exercise books to throw herself into a passionate embrace with Philip Larkin, sorry, Prince Hamlet.  Horatio sports a jacket with leather patches at his elbows.  Laertes wears a polo neck.  This is the era before hair got really long and clothes became really colourful.

It’s a dingy Denmark, traditional and staid. But as we know, there is something rotten in the state.  The problem with Hamlet, I find, is it’s too familiar.  Almost every line is a famous quote.  It’s like Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits or even the English Language’s Greatest Hits.  So much of the play has entered common usage, it takes an excellent production to make the lines sound fresh and new and current within the context of the production.  This one does that, but patchily.  I suppose if this is your first Hamlet it’s a strong one but a long one to begin with.

Slinger doesn’t look like a Hamlet but he sounds like one and can drive a good soliloquy.  He has an impressive range of sarcastic gestures and mockery, and his energy never flags in a performance of contrasts and colours, mood swings and madness.  At one point he enters singing Ken Dodd’s Happiness but sadly without the tickling stick.  In scenes with his mother (Charlotte Cornwell) his petulant, rather teenage protestations are perhaps the greatest stretch of credibility, but on the whole this melancholy prince gives an impressive turn.  If you disregard the fact that he’s breaking most of the instructions he gives to the Players when they arrive.  Like his half-on and half-off fencing armour, the part doesn’t quite fit him, try as he might.

Nixon is a striking Ophelia, abused by Hamlet: he strips her down to vest and tights as if she’s forgotten her PE kit – and by the director: she has to lie dead in the dirt downstage centre for the final scenes while all around her is action and murder.  Horatio (Alex Waldmann – now there’s a Hamlet I would like to see) is a beatnik intellectual but no less genuine in his affection for his royal friend.  Greg Wise doubles as Claudius and the brother he murdered; his Ghost of Hamlet’s Dad is eerie and moving, while his murderous Claudius keeps a tight rein on himself until he’s alone and at prayer.  It was a special treat for this Rock Follies fan to see Charlotte Cornwell as an elegant Gertrude, looking fabulous in couture but also powerful as the woman who has unwittingly participated in her own and everyone else’s downfall.

I adored Robin Soans’s prissy and self-important Polonius and was sorry to see him stabbed behind the arras (ouch!) and as his son, Laertes, Luke Norris cuts a dashing figure.  His final confrontation with Hamlet doesn’t look like a fair fight, and indeed, it isn’t.

It’s well worth seeing but it’s more of a “Let’s see how they do this bit” kind of show rather than an engaging presentation of tragedy.  I didn’t get beyond regarding the actors as actors, or appreciating the technical aspects of the production, rather than being moved by the characters.

Larkin about

Larkin about (Photo by Keith Pattison)


Dancing King

KING JOHN
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 12th July, 2012


Maria Aberg’s production transforms the Swan Theatre into a function room at a hotel. The cast is dressed to party in a kind of corporate, contemporary way. A net holds a huge number of colourful balloons against the back wall – the greatest tension in this show is wondering when exactly those balloons will be released to flood the stage.

The play begins with the Bastard (Pippa Nixon) picking out Land of Hope and Glory on a ukulele and inviting the audience to sing along. Songs feature heavily in this version. At one point – the union of Blanche of Spain and Lewis of France – we are suddenly hurled into My Best Friend’s Wedding, as King John leads the company in a spirited version of Say A Little Prayer. The happy couple’s first dance is lifted directly from Dirty Dancing. Interesting, I thought: King John as chick-flick…

The mood changes upon the arrival of Pandulph. The Pope’s Legate. Played by Paola Dionisotti, this is an understated but high status performance – in the world of this play, women have access to positions of power and can be just as ruthless as the men. It’s not so much a feminist stance as a neutralising of gender.

Pandulph is swift to urge war between the newly-united nations. Both sides are up for it and so, among the discarded champagne bottles and party favours, battle ensues. Characters stagger on with blood-smeared arms and faces. It’s like a fight at a wedding. We’ve all had a bit to drink. Leave it. It’s not worth it…

Alex Waldmann’s John is a likeable if amoral playboy but such is the nature of the piece, this king doesn’t really come across as a tragic figure. Reportedly poisoned by a monk, he suddenly breaks out into a dance routine that is startling. He is trying to keep the party going, fighting against physical agony and decline – but the party has been over since the start of the second half when the balloons flood the stage and stay there for the rest of the piece, providing a distraction for those members of the audience who see fit to bat them back onto the stage. The balloons having served their purpose undermine the drama of the events that follow.

Pippa Nixon is a passionate Bastard, mocking the nobles, but the most affecting performances come from those with whom she interacts. Sandra Duncan, as the Bastard’s mother, quickly overcomes the laughter provoked by her arrival in motorcycle leathers and baby pink crash helmet, to deliver a touching confession. Jacob Mauchlen as doomed Prince Arthur is excellent, delivering his speeches clearly and poignantly – you believe it when the Bastard’s heart is touched (past productions have used boy actors who make you want to silence them yourself!) The wonderful John Stahl is an avuncular French King and Siobhan Redmond is underused as Elinor, John’s mother.

Much as I was engaged by some of the ideas in this production, what I found annoying, frustrating and downright infuriating was a disregard for basic stagecraft that ruined the show for me. With this kind of set-up, a thrust stage with the audience on three sides, you expect, wherever you’re sitting, to see the actors’ backs from time to time. It’s the nature of the beast. The director should seek to ‘share the backs’ in a democratic manner. What you don’t expect is for characters, onlookers to the action, to be placed downstage for the entirety of scenes, hiding what’s happening centre stage. This happens too many times. Hardly a scene went by where I didn’t find myself staring at someone’s shoulder blades, wishing they would bloody well shift. I’ve never experienced this frustration before, and I’ve had seats in all areas of that theatre.

So, while the actors are giving high quality performances they are undermined by inconsiderate and irritating blocking. It doesn’t matter how clever the production ideas may be – if the audience can’t see them, you may as well perform in a blackout.


Aztec Camera Obscura

A SOLDIER IN EVERY SON – The Rise of the Aztecs
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 2nd July, 2012

The RSC in collaboration with the National Theatre Company of Mexico have come up with a production that is as irritating as it is entertaining – and it is very entertaining. Thirty years of fifteenth century Mexican history are crammed into three hours and for the most part – well, the first part, it’s an involving, melodramatic thrill-ride, infused with dark humour and action. The second part… not so much but I’ll come back to that.

There is a problem, a barrier to our enjoyment that I found annoying. It almost works like an alienation effect, keeping us at a distance from the action and the characters. Almost. It’s not so much the names of people and places, all of them polysyllabic, some of them very similar – although these don’t make it easy to keep up with who’s whom and what’s what. The problem for me (perhaps I’m alone in this but I doubt it) is the plethora of accents used by the international cast. Just as the ear becomes attuned to one actor’s intonation, along comes someone else with a different accent. It’s a rich blend but bears no relation to who the characters are in relation to each other. The three tribes represented each have a mix of nationalities and so can only be differentiated by costume. There is even a lone Scotsman embroiled in all of this. I know it’s the World Shakespeare Festival but the cosmopolitan aspect of the cast could have been used to elucidate the play rather than obfuscate it.

The plot is as factual a representation of Mexican history as an of Shakespeare’s histories – that is to say dramatic licence is king. There are many familiar set-ups recognisable from Shakespeare and that is a deliberate approach on the part of playwright Luis Mario Moncada (in a snappy, earthy translation by Gary Owen): Spurned Princess Tecpa (a compelling Susie Trayling) has a touch of Lady Macbeth about her – she even takes her own life off-stage. There are echoes of Claudius and Gertrude’s marriage, Lear carrying the body of Cordelia, Hamlet addressing Yorick’s skull… there is much fun to had by the smug Shakespeare scholar in spotting all of these.

There is little time for character development – events happen at too quick a pace. Shakespeare would have made at least two plays out of the material. This is almost like a highlights package. I liked Alex Waldmann as Ixtlixochitl (a fun-loving prince, not a cough remedy – he becomes a mighty king in the mould of Henry V, even to the extent of shunning his former playmate). He also plays his own son years later, Nezahualcoyotl (bless you) and much is made of the resemblance between father and son!

John Stahl is a foul-mouthed brute of a king as Tezozomoc. His tirades and expletives are very funny as he exposes his monstrous tyranny – in this play it is the violence that shocks. The sudden murder of Ixtlixochitl, the bloody ritual sacrifice of a child… it all serves to keep the energy up and a frisson of tension, even if at times, you’re not sure who is who and what they’re going on about.

Eloise Kazan’s costumes are gorgeous – although I found the design for the Aztec tribe more than a little jarring. They look like a gang of S&M punk rockers in their Mohawk hairdos, black leather trousers and studded wristbands, lacking the air of authenticity prevalent in other costumes. Jorge Ballina’s set is a curling parchment, like an old map, on which the battles, negotiations and betrayals are acted out. The music by Dave Price is stirring and evocative, lots of percussion and birdsong. Director Roxana Silbert handles the contrasting moods and rapid turn of events expertly. For the most part…

In the second half, the action slows down and the play loses its way somewhat. With many characters killed off before the interval, there are more new names to get used to, played by the same actors. It takes an hour to tell what in the first half would have been done in fifteen minutes.

This is a pity – up until then I thought this blend of Mexican history and Shakespearean storytelling was working rather well.