Tag Archives: David Farr

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)

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Imperfect Storm

THE TEMPEST
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 11th September, 2012

One of the things I’ve always liked about The Tempest is that it seems to start in the middle of the story. The titular storm that brings a particular group of people to a particular island is the turning point in their fate, as the wronged and usurped Prospero exerts his influence on the natural world. This means the opening scenes are heavy with back-story, but it’s all about setting things up before the final confrontation and moment of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Like the bear in The Winter’s Tale, how the opening scene will be staged is always eagerly anticipated. David Farr’s production, part of the RSC’s ‘shipwreck trilogy’ uses the same diagonal planks, the decking of a ship, to fill the performance space (and indeed the same cast) as Twelfth Night and the Comedy of Errors. Prospero’s isle is rather drab and monochromatic. His ‘cell’ is a Perspex box and it is in here that the tempest happens. Sitting at her schooldesk, Miranda (Emily Taafe) listens with growing fascination to the voices of the passengers and crew while behind her, in the Perspex box of her imagination, we see the scene played out within those cramped confines. It’s a neat idea but hardly spectacular.

The Perspex box has things in common with the TARDIS – it can transport characters – and the holodeck on the USS Enterprise – it can show things – but I couldn’t help thinking of Philip Schofield’s game show. Can you beat The Cube?

Prospero (Jonathan Slinger) stalks around in a stained suit and buttoned-up shirt. And so does his spirit slave Ariel (Sandy Grierson in a hypnotic performance) – a kind of Mini Me, who happens to be taller than the original. I liked this identification of slave and master and of course, off comes the jacket at the end when Ariel is awarded his freedom at last. Trouble is, I could neither warm to this Prospero nor marvel at his powers. There is something about Slinger’s characterisation that prevents this. Technically he is an excellent actor but I just wasn’t getting it.

Caliban (Amer Hlehel) wears a suit that is little more than a collection of tatters. A dust cloud arises whenever he moves and he has an enjoyable manner of cursing and swearing. His supposed ‘misshapenness’ is nothing other than his different ethnicity, bringing to the fore the play’s themes of imperialism and colonialism. Caliban is quite right to be aggrieved, in modern eyes, but perhaps to the Jacobean viewer, he would come across as the ungrateful savage. Why is his usurpation acceptable but not Prospero’s? (I’m loving the chance to say ‘usurpation’ and I may well do so again before this review is finished).

Solomon Israel’s Ferdinand brings the first note of physical humour to the play. His arrival is a breath of fresh air and his interactions with Taafe’s Miranda are delightful. When he is enchained by Prospero, the slavery theme is starkly with us – I don’t think this was an unconscious side effect of the ‘colour-blind’ approach to casting.

The always-enjoyable Felix Hayes gives an endearingly dim Trinculo and Bruce Mackinnon’s Stephano gives a drunken satire of the imperialist. Their scenes with Hlehel’s Caliban liven up this production.

The second half has more oomph. At last we see Prospero calling up the special effects department to do his bidding. We get flashes and bangs and dry ice and bubbles. The isle has become a magical place at last. As Prospero realises that forgiveness is his best option, he becomes less the stern plantation owner and nasty schoolteacher and more the sentimental father and big-hearted brother, accessing all parts of his humanity and choosing tbe better ones. Slinger wins you over by the end.

I liked Nicholas Day’s dignified Gonzalo but I don’t see why Sebastian (Kirsty Bushell) was made a female character but referred to as male most of the time. Her Sebastian is sardonic and cool, a counterpoint to the blustering of the rest of the party.

There are some great touches: I liked Caliban carrying firewood like Christ bearing the cross, and the Caravaggioesque freezes when Sebastian and Antonio are about to carry out their violent usurpation (there you go) of Alonso.

Perhaps it’s my fault for wanting more enchantment but, like drying out after a downpour, I came to like this production a lot by the end and found it ultimately moving.