A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM: A Play For The Nation
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 16th June, 2016
As part of the commemorations of Shakespeare’s 400th death-iversary, The RSC has undertaken the unenviable and colossal task of staging a production of his popular comedy and touring it around the country – but that’s only the half of it. At each stop, the so-called ‘rude mechanicals’ are being played by hand-picked troupes of amateur performers. A big chance for them and a big gamble for the RSC. Add to this, dozens of children from local primary schools… Luckily, no one handles child performers like the RSC – you only have to think of Matilda to know this is going to work brilliantly.
If this afternoon’s performance is anything to go by, the gamble has paid off in spades. It is an absolute pleasure to see ‘The Nonentities’ from Kidderminster taking the stage among world class professionals, and holding their own. But I’ll come back to them in a bit…
Among the pros – a delightful ensemble that, under Erica Whyman’s direction, make familiar lines sound fresh and funny – we get a female Puck (Lucy Ellinson) a kind of cross-dressing music hall figure, like Vesta Tilley. Ellinson is both knowing and clownish in this setting: we’re in a disused theatre, it looks like, during wartime. Tom Piper’s design gives us bare floorboards and footlights. The forest has not a speck of green but rather the red of the Curtain. Chu Omambala’s Oberon, the fairy king, is stylish in his white suit, bringing a jazzy element to proceedings, in contrast with Ayesha Dharker’s exotic Titania, in blood red sari. Omambala and Dharker are deadly serious – these are not fairies of whimsy, however petty their squabble may seem.
The other ruling couple, Theseus (Sam Redford) and Hippolyta (Laura Harding) stride around like genial aristocracy. It is the younger members of the cast that bring life to the scenes in Athens. Mercy Ojelade is a fiery Hermia, her passion born of pain and injustice, while Laura Riseborough’s Helena also expresses the pain of unrequited love in a highly sympathetic characterisation. Chris Nayak’s Demetrius is a pompous prig, so it’s enjoyable to see him go to the other extreme in the name of love, but it’s Jack Holden’s delightful school prefect of a Lysander that gets the most laughs and touches the heart. It is the freshest interpretation of this character I have seen. Scenes in which the young men vie for Helena, to Hermia’s dismay and fury, are superbly done, using physicality as well as Shakespeare’s barrage of insults to great comic effect.
But back to those mechanicals. Chris Clarke is spot on as overbearing bully Bottom – and you can’t help liking his ridiculous declamations. Sue Downing’s Peter Quince is assertive enough to stage-manage Bottom’s ego, and Andrew Bingham’s shy Snug makes for an adorably shy and cowardly lion. Of course, the West Midlands accent gives them a head start when it comes to comic value, but here it is the playing that gets the laughs and endears them to us. Alex Powell’s Flute blossoms as a performer so we he comes to give his Thisbe (or Thiz-bay, as they would have it) we see how far he has come. The performance that is the culmination of their efforts is absolutely joyous. It is surely Shakespeare’s funniest scene and here it is expertly executed. The affection we feel for the mechanicals succeeding in their task is echoed by the admiration we have for this company who rise to the challenge, hold their own, and pull it off with aplomb.
An unadulterated delight.
Chris Nayak and Jack Holden restrain Mercy Ojelade – just about (Photo: Topher McGrillis)
1 Comment | tags: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Alex Powell, Andrew Bingham, Ayesha Dharker, Chris Clarke, Chris Nayak, Chu Omambala, Erica Whyman, Jack Holden, Laura Harding, Laura Riseborough, Lucy Ellinson, Mercy Ojelade, review, RSC, Sam Redford, Sue Downing, The Nonentities, Tom Piper, William Shakespeare | posted in Theatre Review
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING or LOVE’S LABOUR’S WON
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th October, 2014
I’m not convinced by the idea that Much Ado is a companion piece to Love’s Labour’s Lost (also currently playing in a top-notch production) – there is a difference in quality to the writing that suggests to me that LLL is a preliminary sketch for the masterpiece of romantic comedy that was to follow. That said, the pairing of these productions works superbly: Simon Higlett’s sumptuous Downton Abbey set (based on real-life stately home Charlecote Park) gets a second airing and the cast reappear, this time post-WWI, to delight us anew, their warmth and conviviality all the cosier in a bright, wintery setting.
In short: this is the most enjoyable production I have seen at the RSC for a long time. It is an unalloyed joy. Even when a technical hitch with the scenery stops the show for several minutes, it is treated with good humour and patience – the audience has so much love for the production by this point, I suspect a fire alarm would not have dinted our enjoyment.
Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry dazzle as Benedick and Beatrice who, though arguably the sub-plot, are the undeniable stars. Their delivery is spot on, spouting Shakespeare’s funniest barbs with the precision of a marksman. Anyone who tells you Shakespearean comedy is not funny has never seen Much Ado. Bennett has some ludicrous business with a curtain and a Christmas tree, while Terry is not above casting herself to the floor in mockery. But there is real heart to the couple. They ‘speak poignards’ and sometimes the words stab at your heart. It’s laugh-out-loud stuff that also makes you misty-eyed and warmed of cockle, and a firework display of wit and wordplay by William Shakespeare.
They are supported by an excellent company. John Hodgkinson’s affable Don Pedro has an easy gravitas and gregarious nature, while his brother Don John (whose soubriquet ‘The Bastard’ has been excised from the text) is a pent-up mass of resentment, a powder keg of malevolence, chillingly portrayed by Sam Alexander. David Horovitch is a strong Leonato, cut to the quick by false allegations, and Thomas Wheatley rises to the moment as his brother Antonio, driven to speak out against ‘fashion-monging boys’. Flora Spencer-Longhurst is romantic heroine Hero, bringing credibility to the difficult thwarted-wedding scene, when Hero is mainly silent in the face of vile accusations. Frances McNamee lends a touch of Mrs Doyle (ah, go on, go on, go on) to Ursula the maid and I warmed to Chris Nayak’s Brummie Borachio. Tunji Kasim impresses as the young Count Claudio, led astray by the villain’s lies. Nick Haverson’s Dogberry is full of tics to go along with his malapropisms but I do think director Christopher Luscombe took a wrong turn by setting the examination scene in an overcrowded kitchen: the script is funny enough without complicated comic business, although the scene did stop the show – literally!
Nigel Hess’s marvellous music is the icing on this Christmas cake, played live by an unseen band under the direction of John Woolf. It’s all in keeping with the music of the period – unlike some other productions where an anachronistic soundtrack serves only to alienate.
Much Ado is one of my favourite plays and so I approach every new production with trepidation – I don’t want to see it ruined. With this production it is apparent in seconds flat that we are in not only safe but expert hands, and I can sit back and wallow in the play’s brilliance, presented here in such an agreeable and sublimely entertaining fashion.
Leave a comment | tags: Chris Nayak, Christopher Luscombe, David Horovitch, Edward Bennett, Flora Spencer-Longhurst, Frances McNamee, John Hodgkinson, John Woolf, Love's Labour's Won, Michelle Terry, Much Ado About Nothing, Nick Haverson, Nigel Hess, review, RSC, Sam Alexander, Stratford upon Avon, Thomas Wheatley, Tunji Kasim, William Shakespeare | posted in Theatre Review
THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th December 2012
Birmingham Rep’s Christmas show this year is Alan Bennett’s adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic. It’s been yonks since I’ve read the book but the play seems to be me remarkably faithful to the original incarnation.
The animal characters are undeniably people with the odd little touch to denote their species: ears protruding from the brim of a hat, a tail hanging from the seat of a pair of trousers, that kind of thing. Imagine Beatrix Potter characters with human heads.
First we meet Mole (Nicholas Prasad) taunted by a couple of critters when he emerges blinking from his underground home. The tone is that of petulant children and I began to be concerned: I wouldn’t be able to sit through two hours of this. I needn’t have worried. Mole soon meets Ratty (Oliver J Hembrough) and suddenly the piece lifts. Ratty is very spiffy in his blue blazer and white sailing hat, rowing his little boat on the revolving river. I think he could do with being a little more stuffy from the off, so that his changing moods later on are more strongly contrasted but director Gwenda Hughes is obviously trying to establish the friendship of these two. Hembrough becomes ‘rattier’ in later moments but never to the extent that it undermines his character’s lovability. And that’s it: they’re all absolutely adorable.
The show really gets into its stride with the appearance of a camp old otter (Robert Pickavance, if I’ve attributed the role correctly) and moves into brilliance when Michael Hugo arrives as Chief Weasel – it’s a performance that is broadly physical and yet detailed and nuanced to perfection. The man is a living, breathing cartoon character. Badger (Robert Pickavance again) is a delightful old thing, vying with Ratty for Mole’s attention.
The long-awaited entrance of Toad does not disappoint. Matthew Douglas hams it up delightfully as the bombastic hedonist, a verbose buffoon – like Boris Johnson but without the calculating evil (until he sells Albert the Horse to a gypsy, thereby betraying the working class to the entrepreneur…) Speaking of Albert, Chris Nayak gives a scene-stealing performance as the lugubrious Brummie horse, as depressed as Eeyore but hilarious as he catalogues his woes. Or should that be ‘whoas’?
The play works on several levels. There’s plenty to keep the kids amused but under the surface, Bennett’s script is subtly and not-so-subtly satirical. There are nods to political correctness (You can’t tell a rabbit to hop it) and swipes at the establishment (They’re policemen – they won’t hurt anybody!) There is a gay subtext throughout – at one point these confirmed bachelors are quizzed by fieldmice about their lifestyle. And of course the magistrate would look favourably on Toad as a landed member of the upper middle class… It’s all handled with a lightness of touch and an overt theatricality – we accept these characters and the way their world works so that when a toad dons a skirt, we accept that a human woman on a barge wouldn’t see through his disguise immediately.
The set is beautiful, like illustrations from a storybook and there are some wonderful pieces: the train and the gypsy caravan, for example – Michael Holt’s designs help to create this world while retaining the artificiality of the theatre. It’s a toy theatre, pop-up book kind of world, inhabited by characters in human clothes that reflect their animal characteristics.
There is a lovely Englishness to the entire thing and not just the Edwardian cosiness of storybook and a bygone age. The multiracial cast is reflected in the material by the multi-species society of the woods and for the most part, these characters of different make-up and lifestyles rub along together very well, united by the overarching Englishness. It is perhaps a reflection of Birmingham itself.
Leave a comment | tags: Alan Bennett, Birmingham Rep, Chris Nayak, Crescent Theatre, Gwenda Hughes, Matthew Douglas, Michael Holt, Michael Hugo, Nichola Prasad, Oliver J Hembrough, review, Robert Pickavance, The Wind in the Willows | posted in Theatre Review