Tag Archives: Angus Jackson

Mummy’s Little Soldier

CORIOLANUS

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 4th October, 2017

 

Angus Jackson’s new production opens with a riot – carried out by a colour-coordinated mob; they must have all read the memo – firmly establishing the contemporary setting (if the pre-show forklift truck stashing bags of corn out of public reach isn’t enough of a pointer!).  Divisions in society are clearly marked through clothing.  The plebs are all hoodies and tracky bottoms, the ruling elite all dinner jackets and dickie bows.  It is a polarised society of the chavs and the chav-nots.  Somewhere between the two are the Tribunes (Jackie Morrison and Martina Laird) who seem uncomfortable in their position and in their clothing – power-dressed to impress – Martina Laird especially, tottering in her high heels as the Tribunes seek to establish their power.

The cast is also divided into those who can handle the wordy verse and those in whose gobs it falls flat and lifeless.  Veteran actor Paul Jesson shows us how it’s done as the elder patrician Menenius – the rhythms of the verse come across as natural and, above all, the meaning is always intelligible.  As Volumnia, the protagonist’s mum, Haydn Gwynne (at first dressed more for a Noel Coward) brings elegance and intensity – and also humour.  The same can be said for the ever-excellent James Corrigan’s Aufidius, who has a kind of Joker/Batman thing going on with Coriolanus.  They hate each other with such passion they can’t leave each other alone.

In the title role and making his RSC debut is Sope Dirisu.  He certainly looks the part and is especially striking when drenched in the blood of the vanquished.  Vocally, he doesn’t quite get it across – until, that is, Coriolanus is banished from Rome (because of Reasons, albeit petty ones) and here Dirisu rises to the demands of the scene, demonstrating why he got the part in the first place.  Also enjoyable is his reduction to petulant teen when his mum orders him about.

Coriolanus

Right to bare arms! Sope Dirisu as Coriolanus (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

Charles Aitken comes a close second to Corrigan in my view as the consul Cominius, proving he can deliver the verse in a range of contexts, whether in a declamatory style in public oration, or in more personal, off-duty moments.  The excellent Hannah Morrish is criminally underused as Coriolanus’s Mrs, forever pushed aside by his devotion to his mother.

It is also a production of two halves.  The first is hard going but after the interval, everything seems to click into place and the play flies along to its violent conclusion.  There’s plenty of blood in evidence but only one on-stage death – guess whose! – graphically and symbolically involving a chain.  The hand-to-hand skirmishes (kudos to fight director Terry King) are far more effective than the running around, slapping swords together.  There are no guns, it appears, and precious little technology (apart from the forklift!)

Of course, we look for parallels in our society: the risk of giving the public what they want, regardless of the consequences; the ruling class so arrogant and assured of their position and so out of touch with the populace; mistrust of those who claim to be carrying out the will of the people; and the people denying they ever wanted what they voted for…  There is a neat line that could be about self-appointed political commentators on Twitter: “They’ll sit by the fire and presume to know what goes on in the Capitol”.   LOL.

On the whole, I think the second half saves the show and because of it, we forgive the hard slog of the first.  Coriolanus as a character is hard to empathise with, mainly because he rarely tells us what’s going on in his head.  This is a production that tries hard to get us to understand him but I think the modern dress set against the rather alien power systems are a mismatch that keeps us from fully appreciating this brand of political manoeuvring.  Paradoxically, ancient Romans dressed as ancient Romans and doing what ancient Romans do may have been more accessible!

Coriolanus

Is that a dagger in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me? James Corrigan as Aufidius (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

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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)


Quest for Laughs

DON QUIXOTE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 13th April, 2016

 

Not only did Shakespeare pop his clogs 400 years ago this year but so did Cervantes, author of the original novel on which this play – and modern fiction! – is based.  To commemorate the Spaniard’s deathiversary the RSC has mounted this fiery steed of a production, a new adaptation by James Fenton.

Elderly and infirm, Don Quixote decides to put in to practice what has been his lifetime’s study, namely the chivalric code of the knights of old.  It’s never too late to reinvent yourself, it appears.  Off he goes, from adventure to adventure, but when reality clashes with his ideals, we are amused but he is undaunted; his code of conduct will not allow him to complain or be deterred by setbacks.  And so the will of the old man gradually begins to impose itself on the world – in particular his upholstered squire, Sancho Panza.  The story becomes a lesson in how to handle those with dementia, meeting them in their misperceptions – up to a point.

It is riotously funny and performed with theatrical brio, you have no option but to enjoy it from the off.  As Sancho Panza, Rufus Hound warms us up with a bit of ad lib banter – this is not so much audience participation as audience involvement.  Willingly, we follow Sancho and his knight on their journey, buying into the artifice of the conventions in play and relishing the inventiveness of the enterprise as well as the gusto of the performers.  Hound is practically perfect for this.

As the unsinkable Quixote, David Threlfall gives a Lear-worthy portrayal, in a physically demanding role – he gets beaten repeatedly, snatched up into the air by the sails of a windmill, and generally runs around in an apparently tireless fashion.  Above all though – and I don’t just mean when he’s on the windmill – he engages us with the old man’s world-view.  How romantic and exciting the mundane becomes through his eyes, when two flocks of sheep become opposing armies and when windmills become marauding giants.

The rest of the cast dash around in multiple roles.  Richard Leeming makes an impression as a dozy boy servant (and later as Quixote’s horse); Nicholas Lumley delights as the Priest appropriating mucky literature; Gabriel Fleary gives a hilarious turn as the Biscayan, strutting and fretting before a fight; Natey Jones’s sowgelder, Timothy Speyer and Will Bliss as barbers… Everyone gets their turn.  I could append the cast list and have done with it.

There are songs throughout, plenty of Spanish guitar, to add flavour.  The period comes across through the costumes – there is very little in the way of set apart from what the cast brings on and takes off.  Inventive use is made of trapdoors throughout.  Johanna Town’s lighting gives us Spanish sunshine as well as evoking the changing locations and moods of this episodic narrative.  Angus Jackson’s direction keeps the action flowing at speed, with more reflective moments during which his two leading men are nothing short of a joy to behold.

The icing on this delightful cake comes in the form of babies, sheep, and a lion, from puppet-master Toby Olie and Laura Cubitt.  Irresistible.

There are moments when a Pythonesque sensibility comes to the fore, and we venture into Holy Grail territory but then you have to remember how influential Cervantes is.  The windmill has turned full circle.

An unadulterated pleasure from start to finish, this new Don Quixote is the must-see of the RSC’s current season.

Don Quixote RSC

David Threlfall and Rufus Hound (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

 


Opp and Atom

OPPENHEIMER

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 2nd February, 2015

 

Tom Morton-Smith’s blinding new play at the RSC is a potted biography of the Daddy of the Bomb, J Robert Oppenheimer, covering the years leading up to and during the Second World War, and the deployment of the first two WMDs in Japan.

In a charismatic central performance as the titular character also known as ‘Oppy’, John Heffernan displays the man’s arrogance and dry humour and above all his drive to succeed in the execution of his terrible task.  Oppy remains convinced throughout that his discovery saved countless lives, while the weight of all the lives lost finally crushes him.

Morton-Smith’s script doesn’t dwell on the horror – we get flashes, single images that sear our imagination far more effectively than lists of large numbers; indeed, one of the characters observes one death is a tragedy while 300,000 is a statistic.

There is physics.  Plenty of physics.  The characters rattle off the argot and drop to the floor, chalking and scribbling like children in a playground: theoretical science was in its infancy back then.  Their equations and formulae soon, with the amount of foot traffic on the stage, become as smudged and nebulous as my understanding.  But it’s OK, you don’t need to be Professor Brian Cox to follow the action, which is more of a history lesson than a lecture in theoretical physics.

Director Angus Jackson keeps things moving at quite a lick, so that when moments of stillness come or blazing rows erupt, they are all the sharper.  One moment jars: when we get sight of the first bomb, being hoist above the stage, everyone starts to dance in a sort of primal worship beneath what looks like a deep sea diver’s disco ball.  However when we see Little Boy, a malevolent presence like a giant, bulbous wasp, that’s a different matter.

The electrifying John Heffernan is supported by an excellent ensemble, conjuring the feel of place and period apparently effortlessly.  Catherine Steadman is striking as Oppy’s idealistic mistress Jean – her fate symbolises and foretells the end of the socialist movement in the USA.  Ben Allen is powerful as the embittered Hungarian professor Edward Teller, and the marvellous Jack Holden shines as young boffin Robert Wilson, clinging desperately and naively to his ideals.  Sandy Foster brings somewhat Maureen-Lipmanesque humour to her role as Charlotte Serber but really, each and every cast member deserves a mention, had I the time and space for it.

From physics and history we move toward philosophy.  The implications of the Bomb have affected us all for 70 years.  There’s no going back in the bottle for this particular genie and it is fascinating to consider the effects on the man who took out the cork.  Oppy wins everlasting fame at the most terrible cost.

After one final impassioned outburst, Heffernan delivers the famous quotation with tempered resignation.  “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” – and it is devastating.

John Heffernan (Photo: Keith Pattison)

John Heffernan (Photo: Keith Pattison)


A Good Night With Mister Tom

GOODNIGHT MISTER TOM

New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 9th April, 2013

David Wood’s adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s classic children’s novel is a spell-binding piece of theatre that tugs at the heartstrings without descending into mawkish sentimentality.  Director Angus Jackson tells the tale naturalistically but in a stylised setting.  Scenery is sparse – for the Dorset scenes, there is little more than a raised platform with the odd doorway and items of furniture –this platform also serves as the stage for the amdram productions the children enjoy.  For the London scenes in the second half, the platform lifts up to become the oppressive dinginess of the slum home little Willy shares with his religious crackpot mother.  The action flows from place to place as easy as turning pages in a storybook.

The plot concerns the evacuation of children to the countryside just before the outbreak of the Second World War, back in the days when strangers were trusted as a matter of course with nary a whiff of a CRB check.  And so, weedy urchin William (Arthur Gledhill-Franks) is placed with grizzled old curmudgeon Mister Tom (Oliver Ford Davies) and a relationship develops between the two that, through the course of the action, heals the wounds they both suffered before they met.  The boy has livid bruises from his mother’s belt.  The old man has been a recluse for decades since his wife died giving birth to a son that also didn’t survive.

It’s a very touching story and an utterly charming production.  This reviewer confesses to having to wipe his eyes several times throughout the evening.  The ensemble, doubling on adult and child roles in places (in a Blue Remembered Hills kind of way) keep the action going, creating atmosphere and character quickly and economically.  A standout is Joseph Holgate as theatrical extrovert Zach who helps bring Will out of his shell, and also Aoife McMahon as the villain of the piece (not counting the offstage Hitler, of course) who berates and beats her ‘Willy’ in the guise of religious correction.  She is a Catherine Tate monster, an East End version of the mother in Carrie but a tragic figure nevertheless.

Oliver Ford Davies’s Tom Oakley is a likeable old grump, even-tempered and guarded.  His thaw is glacial, and his matter-of-factness is all the more touching.  As William, Arthur Gledhill Franks is almost unbearably vulnerable.  His growth into a confident and affectionate member of the community, after some of the most horrific abuse imaginable, is a delight to behold.

There is a real danger that the puppets might upstage the actors.  Beautiful birds, a twitchy squirrel and above all, a wonderful Border Collie, add to the storybook feel but they are also played absolutely straight.   You soon forget operator Elisa de Grey’s continual presence behind Sammy the dog and instantly fall in love with the animal itself.  Somehow the balance is maintained and the puppets enhance the performance rather than stealing the show.  My hat is off to puppet master Toby Olié for his wonderful creations.

This is a perfect piece of theatre for all the family.  Nothing is sugar-coated but somehow it manages to be very sweet indeed.

Oliver Ford Davies, Sammy the dog and the almost invisible Elisa de Grey

Oliver Ford Davies, Sammy the dog and the almost invisible Elisa de Grey