Tag Archives: Edward Bennett

The Present Horror

MACBETH

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Tuesday 3rd April, 2018

 

Polly Findlay’s production frames the action in a nondescript hotel or conference centre setting.  An expanse of blue carpet fills the stage, bordered by a walkway.  A water cooler gurgles upstage.  The sparse furniture smacks of corporate hospitality.  Fly Davis’s design certainly accommodates the banality of evil – Dunsinane as a low-budget chain hotel.  Findlay heightens the horror film aspects of Shakespeare’s tragedy: the witches are little girls in pink pyjamas, cradling dolls in their arms, their spells are singsong, like playground rhymes.  “Double double, toil and trouble” could quite easily be, “One, two, Freddie’s coming for you.”  Eerie though these kids are, they’ve got nothing on the Porter, the always-present Michael Hodgson, idly pushing a carpet sweeper.  He is more of an unsettling presence than comic relief, although he does get a few laughs.

David Acton is an excellent Duncan, whose throne is a wheelchair, signifying his physical vulnerability – with his murder (oops, spoiler!) the production loses one of its best actors.  Also strong is Raphael Sowole as Banquo, thoroughly credible and handling the blank verse with a natural feel.

Why then, with its jump scares, sudden loud noises and plunges into darkness, its scary movie sound effects and atmospheric underscore, does this production not grip me?

For once, the fault is in our stars.  Making his RSC debut in the title role is one of television’s most proficient actors, the ninth Doctor himself, Christopher Eccleston, no less.  Will he be able to bring his intensity, his charisma, his sensitivity to the stage?  Short answer: no.  Eccleston’s performance is highly mannered, coming across as though he’s learned the dynamics along with the lines: Say this word loud, Chris, speed this bit up… The result is it doesn’t sound as if he believes what he says and so we are not convinced.  Faring somewhat better is Niamh Cusack as his Mrs, but we don’t get the sense of her decline, we don’t get the sense that she is ever in control – she’s too neurotic from the off – and yet, when it comes to the sleepwalking scene, we don’t get the sense that she has lost it.

There are moments when the setting works brilliantly – an upper level serves as banqueting table, allowing for a kind of split-screen effect.  There are moments when it doesn’t: the pivotal scene between Malcolm (Luke Newberry) and Macduff (a becardiganed Edward Bennett) is like the Head Boy having a one-to-one with the Head of Year in his office.  And there are times when Findlay doesn’t push the horror (or the suggestion of horror) quite far enough.  The slaughter of Macduff’s family pulls its punches, and we don’t get to behold the tyrant’s severed head.

A timer ticks away the length of Macbeth’s reign and there is the implication that events will repeat themselves once young Fleance gets to work – along with the three creepy girls, of course.

This is a production with lots of ideas tossed into the cauldron and, while some of it works like a charm, the overall effect falls short of spellbinding.

Macbeth production photos_ 2018_2018_Photo by Richard Davenport _c_ RSC_245921

Screwing their courage to the sticking place: Niamh Cusack and Christopher Eccleston (Photo: Richard Davenport)

 

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A Merry War

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.

LLM-195


Lovely and Unlaboured

LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

RST, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 22nd October, 2014

Simon Higlett’s gorgeous set has more than a touch of Downton Abbey about it – in fact this production is like watching the TV show but with proper drama. Shakespeare’s early rom-com is given an Edwardian treatment by director Christopher Luscombe, who does not stint on neither the rom nor the com. The comic business complements the script – unlike some productions where funny ideas are imposed on scenes – and the result is an absolute joy of a show.

Sam Alexander is the King of Navarre, recruiting his mates into a pact involving three years of abstinence and celibacy. Of course, any rules spelled out in a story are bound to be broken – remember Gremlins? – and so the comedy of the first half unfolds, with each member of the brotherhood breaking the rules and being discovered. Alexander is the cuddly Hugh Bonneville of the group and is more than ably supported by William Belchambers as Longaville, Tunji Kasim as Dumaine and Edward Bennett as proto-Benedick Berowne.   The eavesdropping scene is played out on the rooftop and is superbly handled by this quartet.

Most of the rom comes from Nigel Hess’s sumptuous score and some beautiful singing by Peter McGovern as the boy Moth.

More com comes from Chris McCalphy as dull constable Dull and a highly strung Costard (Nick Haverson). John Hodgkinson is very enjoyable as he mangles English pronunciation as the Spaniard Don Armado – I wonder why he has an accent but other visitors, like the French contingent, do not… That said, Jamie Newall’s rich and fruity tones as Boyet, equerry to the French princess, are a treat to the ear.

Leah Whittaker is striking as the fun-loving Princess of France – everyone looks wonderful in the period costumes – and Michelle Terry is likeable as proto-Beatrice Rosaline.

There is plenty of mucking around attired as Muscovites and the presentation of The Nine Worthies is just lovely.

But, just as the outbreak of the First World War interrupted lives and altered things forever, the arrival of bad news from France puts a spanner in the workings of the plot. We do not get the happy ending we expect – in a masterstroke, Shakespeare detonates a surprise and nothing is the same again. Christopher Luscombe handles it superbly. The final image, of the quartet of friends in uniform, marching away, is a salutary reminder of what we are commemorating this year.

Highly recommended.

Edward Bennett and Sam Alexander, with William Belchamber looking on.

Edward Bennett and Sam Alexander, with William Belchambers looking on.


Gossip gall

THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL
Malvern Theatres, Malvern, Tuesday 24th July, 2012

This revival of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1777 comedy of manners is an absolute peach. From the elegant panelled set to the sumptuous costumes and wigs, Jamie Lloyd’s production brings a taste of the eighteenth century to life. But this is much more than a period piece. Sheridan’s script crackles with wit and is effulgent with epigrams that seem painfully pertinent to the society of today. It is also interesting to see how much Sheridan is a forerunner of Wilde.

The play exposes to us the idle classes whose main source of amusement is the denigration of their peers through malicious and scandalous gossip. We laugh along with this bitch-fest but we also laugh at the hypocrisy of the main purveyors of this gossip, these assassins of character who show little regard for facts. You see it on Twitter every day, only the targets are not the idle rich but the celebrities who fill the media with their supposed antics. If you’re a stranger to Twitter, think along the lines of Mock The Week, where the same shorthand jokes are repeated on a weekly basis, based on some perceived trait or reported incident.

The opening scenes are like tucking into a box of fondant fancies – delectable, irresistible but you know you shouldn’t be so self-indulgent. Then the main action of the plot begins to unfold: an absentee uncle returns and puts his two nephews to a test of their mettle. An old man comes to an understanding with his WAG young bride. It is an ebullient, effervescent bit of fun, a bottle of champagne, and the acting style – the mannered delivery, the poses and posturing – is perfectly pitched to keep the thing zipping along, and the bubbly flowing.

An excellent ensemble provides an indefatigable source of delight. Maggie Steed is superb as hypocritical monster, Mrs Candour; Grant Gillespie, dressed like Mozart’s wayward little brother, out-camps everyone as preening ninny, Sir Benjamin Backbite; Ian McNeice has an amusing bluster as scheming Uncle Oliver; and the swoonworthy Nick Harman is charming as affable rogue Charles. But for me, the comedy crown goes to Edward Bennett as Joseph Surface who, in the second half, delivers a comic performance of energy and barely-contained frenzy as he tries to keep a lid on the situation that is unravelling before him. He goes from the studied sneering mannerisms of the age to a frantic Basil Fawlty in full flight, skipping and grinning with increasing desperation as he tries to maintain his public persona. I also loved Susannah Fielding as the insensitive and selfish Lady Teazle, for whom fashion and being ‘in’ are all – like a ‘character’ from TOWIE but in infinitely superior clothes; but in truth, the entire cast is responsible for a fast-moving, almost farcical couple of hours of the rarest quality.

Director Jamie Lloyd handles everything with a light-touch. There are some lovely bits of business here, from the campery of the servants to business with picture frames. The classic scene when Lady Teazle is discovered eavesdropping behind a screen was superbly done – the shocked reactions were heightened to just the right amount to make it credible within the onstage world. The play holds up a mirror to today, where gossip thrives in new media and old and warns us against believe, spreading and embellishing false report. It is an affectionate condemnation of a distasteful aspect of human nature rather than a moralising cautionary tale – and I’ll tell you this, and don’t keep it to yourself but a more stylish and lively evening in the theatre you’d be hard pressed to find.