Tag Archives: Ben Allen

Drama Queen

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 11th May, 2017

 

A kind of sequel to Julius Caesar, charting the latter years of that play’s hero, the plot mixes the personal with the political and back again.  Mark Antony, one of Rome’s three leaders, is neglecting his duties by dallying with the Queen of Egypt.  The three men fall out.  There is war.  And another war.  And so on.  Meanwhile, Cleopatra carries on like the lovestruck diva she is, with all the wiles and depth of a teenager.  It all leads to tragedy.  Of course it does.

Iqbal Khan’s production feels very much a companion piece to Angus Jackson’s Julius Caesar.  Designer for both, Robert Innes Hopkins, uses the same idea for both: first half is dominated by tall columns, the second by a cyclorama with turbulent weather… Unfortunately, it feels like a disappointing episode in a series, proving the truism that sequels are never as good as the originals.  Some scenes lack focus – a nice idea of using model ships to depict naval battles just doesn’t come off.  Antony Byrne’s Antony is in the same mode whether he’s loving or fighting – I would like him to lighten up, have more fun with his drama queen, even being reduced to her level, for love does make petulant teenagers of us all.

The stage really comes to life whenever Josette Simon is on as the Queen of the Nile.  Grand, elegant, moody, manipulative, she is a hedonist used to getting her way, and knows how to get it.  Her schemes get out of hand, though, when she gives out word that she has topped herself.  Simon is captivating as the emotionally immature Queen – but in one scene, she is togged up like an Egyptian fembot that is at odds with everything else.

I feel that Andrew Woodall’s Enobarbus is casual to the point of being underplayed – his defection from Antony to Octavius Caesar comes across as no great loss.  The mighty James Corrigan is underused as Agrippa.  Speaking of Octavius, Ben Allen retains his role from the previous play.  Here Octavius is more mature, more assured of himself.  I also like Will Bliss as a Christ-lookalike soothsayer.

Original music is by Laura Mvula and, for the most part, its effective with discordant fanfares and a sense of foreboding, marred only by the occasional use of present-day beats, as if the composer is fighting against the urge to give us a rock opera.

It’s Josette Simon that maintains our interest throughout in this production that could do with a few judicious cuts or a tighter grip on the reins.  I hope the RSC’s Rome season is not already in its decline.

antony-and-cleopatra-production-photos_-2017_2017_photo-by-helen-maybanks-_c_-rsc_214592.tmb-img-912

Josette Simon and Antony Byrne (Photo: Helen Maybanks. Copyright RSC)

 

Advertisements

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)