Tag Archives: Gavin Fowler

Troying Times

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 8th November, 2018

 

Gregory Doran sets his production of Shakespeare’s Trojan War story in a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-type world – although we have to wait a considerable while for the action and excitement associated with the genre when we finally get to climactic scenes of armed combat.

Here, leather-and-denim-clad women are as likely to be butch warriors as the men, and so we get Suzanne Bertish’s shock-haired Agamemnon, Amanda Harris’s fiery Aeneas, and the mighty Adjoa Andoh’s wily Ulysses.  There is a humorous tone to the piece that Doran tends to emphasise, as Shakespeare satirises the supposedly heroic figures, but the production’s Achilles heel, if you will, is its lack of emotional attachment.  It looks great and sounds great but it does not grip or move.

Gavin Fowler makes an appealing Troilus, comical in his awkwardness and initially more of a lover than a fighter.  Amber James is fantastic as a stately Cressida, using a cool wit as a shield.  When she blurts out her love for Troilus, she immediately backpedals, unwilling to allow herself to experience or display her true emotions.  Even though the play is named for them, they are merely two characters among a host of many, and their story feels undeveloped.  As the go-between who, um, goes between them, Oliver Ford Davies is tremendously enjoyable as the doddering, overly attentive Pandarus.

Andy Apollo (yes, really) is an Adonis of an Achilles, striding and posing about the place with James Cooney’s sweet and boyish Patroclus at his side.  This pair of lovers is perhaps more tragic than the titular couple; when Patroclus is struck down, it provides a rare moment of empathy from us.

Andrew Langtree’s Menelaus would not be out of place in an Asterix book, while Sheila Reid’s grubby Thersites is like a dystopian Wee Jimmy Krankie (if that’s not a tautology).  Theo Ogundipe is a delight as thick-headed Ajax.

Original music by virtuoso percussionist Evelyn Glennie evokes the clatter and clang of battles we don’t get to see.  There are many things to admire and enjoy but as a whole, these things don’t amount to a hill of beans.  Shakespeare’s genre-defying play is notoriously difficult to pin down.  Doran’s funny, orotund and noisy production lacks depth.  It’s Troy without weight.  By the end of this loud but empty spectacle, I yearn for Tina Turner to come on and belt out We Don’t Need Another Hero.  It would be apt at least.

Troilus and Cressida production photographs_ 2018_2018_Photo by Helen Maybanks _c_ RSC _265416

Brought to heel: Andy Apollo as Achilles (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

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Taking the Veil

SALOME

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 22nd June, 2017

 

Oscar Wilde’s one-act tragedy is far from a particular favourite of mine.  I prefer his epigrammatic, frothy word play to the heightened, florid language of this retelling of the Biblical story, where the characters speak mainly in similes and declamations.  How refreshing it is when Herodias proclaims, “The moon is like the moon!” – as fed up with the poetic spouting as I am!

Owen Horsley’s production has a decidedly ‘gay’ aesthetic.  Herod’s guards could be bouncers in a fetish club (I imagine) but there delivery is mere recitation.  The action begins to come to life with the first appearance of Salome herself (a gamin Matthew Tennyson) who speaks her lines as though she means them rather than pompous intonation.   Salome is intrigued by Herod’s prisoner, the prophet Iokanann (John the Baptist by another name) played by Gavin Fowler.  Iokanann is filthy, clad only in his underwear, but he still catches the young princess’s eye.  He rejects her advances – with fatal consequences.  What I don’t get is why he is permitted to continue giving his ominous predictions – if characters like Herod and Herodias find his words so annoying or insulting, why didn’t they gag him, at least?  Oh well.  His prophecies add to the sense of impending doom, I suppose.

Salome production photos_ June 2017_2017_Photo by Isaac James _c_ RSC_220725

Rants in his pants: Gavin Fowler as Iokanaan (Photo: Isaac James)

Fowler is an agile Iokanann, filled with the wild conviction of his beliefs, while Suzanne Burden’s wearily glamorous Herodias is a fine comic counterpoint.  Matthew Pidgeon is imposing as the hedonistic Herod, and there are some fine, compelling moments: for example, a spot of contemporary dance depicting the grief of the Page (Andro Cowperthwaite) for the death of Assad Zaman’s Young Syrian.  The music by Perfume Genius is pulsing and vibrant, with the energy of clubland, which works well to underscore the action.  Singer Ilan Evans, a world-weary M.C. adds torch-song resignation to events as they unfold.

But it is Matthew Tennyson’s Salome that holds the attention.  Seemingly fragile, almost bird-like, he evokes rather than impersonates the female.  His dance is a high-energy, jerky affair, reflecting the lust of Herod and his court – Polly Bennett’s movement direction brings angst and tension and above all expression to Wilde’s difficult exchanges.  Tennyson is boldly defiant – Salome is accustomed to using her wiles to get her own way but is also strong and stubborn enough to stand her ground when denied.  She is determined to kill the thing she loves – ooh, that sounds familiar… The story culminates in horror as Salome remonstrates and coos with the head of the man who rejected her advances.

A rather patchy affair, I’m afraid, this tale about unrequited passions, but on the whole I think I enjoyed the production more than the actual play.

Salome production photos_ June 2017_2017_Photo by Isaac James _c_ RSC_220811

Wilde at heart: Matthew Tennyson as Salome (Photo: Isaac James)

 


A sad tale’s best for winter

THE WINTER’S TALE

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 6th February, 2013

 

Lucy Bailey’s production of Shakespeare’s fairytale for grown-ups hits the spot, thanks to a no-nonsense approach and a straight-faced telling of what is essentially a far-fetched and melodramatic narrative.  She allows the humanity of Shakespeare’s characters to flourish despite the exotic nature of their circumstances.

William Dudley’s design concept impresses from the start.  A video screen fills the back wall, showing an ever-changing seascape, a kind of mood ring that reflects and supports the emotional changes in the story.  The court of King Leontes is a bohemian affair (well, it is Bohemia!).  Patterned carpets and cushions are strewn across the scene and on these, the king and his courtiers lounge around in this calm before the storm.  With the hookahs and the turbans, it’s all very Byronesque.  Leontes quickly proves he is mad, bad and dangerous to know.

As Leontes, the king driven to distraction by misplaced jealousy, Jo Stone-Fewings is entirely credible.  His rapid descent into delusion unfolds before our very eyes, triggering a disastrous series of events.  He is convinced his wife Hermione (Tara Fitzgerald) is having-it-off with his lifelong bezzie mate, Polixenes ( Adam Levy) and that the child she is carrying is not his own.  The scene in which he publicly accuses and denounces the queen is shocking in its violence.  A swift punch to her belly reverberates around the auditorium. – only minutes before we may have been tutting at the drag she takes from Polixenes’s cigarette!

In this pre-Jeremy Kyle setting, the only way Leontes can discover the truth is to despatch a couple of men to consult the Oracle.  They return with the mythic equivalent of DNA results: the queen is innocent, Leontes is a jealous twerp, et cetera.  They also bring the dire warning: Leontes shall have no heir until that which is lost is found… Here Shakespeare puts the audience in god-like omniscience: we know the baby, abandoned in the wilderness, has been found… There is something comforting in this knowledge, and curiously, it doesn’t rob the play of its tensions.

Tara Fitzgerald as the much-wronged Hermione is very strong.  Her delivery is as though she is thinking up the lines on the spot, her mind racing to make sense of the hell she is shoved into, as befits the stress placed on a woman arguing for her life.

With every production of this play, the question always crops up: how will they do the bear?  The famous bear of the famous stage direction.  How will it appear and how will it pursue Antigonus to his exit?  This time, the bear is a bit of CGI animation, arising from the waves on the backdrop like an ursine Poseidon.  Antigonus has to move towards it before he can get off-stage.  A bit disappointing: the bear reminded me of those behind-the-scenes at Toy Story clips, where a character is modelled on screen, before all the surface detail is added.  It seems unfinished.  But this is only a brief moment in a production that is for the most part commendable.

The second half takes place sixteen years later.  Bailey rightly drops the outmoded prologue by Time itself – we have moved to a more modern age.  The romantic, rocky coastline of Bohemia is replaced by a more proletarian pier.  We are in a place of deckchairs and knotted handkerchiefs.  This is an earthy contrast to the court of Leontes.  The locals indulge in a spot of country dancing, clog dancing, morris dancing, and the rough and ready females have at each other like a riot in Prisoner Cell Block H.  By contrast, lost princess Perdita (Emma Noakes, bearing a passable resemblance to the unfortunate Hermione) stands out as someone regal – even if her accent is all ee-by-gum and ‘eckythump.   This is wakes week in a Northern industrial town.  Perdita and her beau (the son of Polixenes, passing himself off as a morris dancer) cannot escape the notice of Polixenes himself, also travelling incognito.  He upbraids and beats up his errant son in a display of offspring abuse that is a running theme in this production.  We have already seen a child abused in utero and subsequently abandoned to its fate.  It seems the grown-ups in the two kingdoms are unreasonably visiting their anger at themselves on their children.

Emma Noakes is charming as the lost-and-found princess.  As Florizel, her dashing boyf, Gavin Fowler has something of a young Josh Groban about him.  I also enjoyed Pearce Quigley’s rather deadpan Autolycus and Daniel Betts’s reliable Camillo.  Rakie Ayola is splendid as the forthright Paulina, speaking her mind and putting the king in his place.  Her mild-mannered husband (Duncan Wisbey as bear-fodder Antigonus) is just as effective in contrast.  As the good-natured shepherds, David Shaw-Parker and Nick Holder bring the warmth and humour that is absent from the court of Leontes.  The king himself is ever-present, atop a rusted tower that is part lighthouse and part helter-skelter, a beacon of his own repentance, a public demonstration of his self-inflicted sorrow.

The resolution is always keenly anticipated.  How will they perform the statue that comes to life? (I told you, it’s a bit far-fetched).  Tara Fitzgerald blinks and stirs as though returning to living form, supporting Paulina’s fiction until the last possible moment and the revelation that the queen has been hiding away for all these years.  It’s always a credibility-stretcher but the scene is so embued with moments of reunion and reconciliation, it works.  In this instance it’s more touching than out-and-out moving, but you leave the auditorium with a warm glow, ready to face the cold air of winter on your cheeks.

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Tara Fitzgerald as Hermione.

Photo by Sheila Burnett


Strange bedfellows

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW,
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 6th February, 2012


The set for Lucy Bailey’s production consists of turning the entire stage into a bed, a big brown bed. Actors can lift up the covers and scurry around like mice under a blanket. This they do in-between scenes and it loses its charm faster than you can say ‘dutch oven’.

It begins with an “Induction” – a sequence in which a drunken slob (think of Toby Belch selling the Big Issue) is gulled into believing he is in fact a lord, with wife and servants, and even a group of travelling players come to perform. He, Christopher Sly (a grubby Nick Holder) settles down in bed to watch the play. Come the second half, this framing device is dispensed with altogether and Sly goes behind the scenes in a quest for his underpants. Having treated us to views of his bum and cupping his genitals in a saucepan, he is reunited with his grundies. “Pants!” he cries out in triumph. By this point, I was more than ready to agree with him.

This is a heavy handed production with the subtlety of someone else using your bed as a trampoline. Kate – the ‘shrew’ – (Lisa Dillon) is a Tasmanian devil of a woman, brawling, spitting, even pissing standing up. Tracey Emin would consider her a bad bedfellow. She is ‘tamed’ by David Caves’s Petruchio, a sort of Irish Jim Carrey figure, who, rather than ‘curing’ Kate of her wilfulness, shows her he can operate at her level. It is a meeting of minds rather than the imposition of a husband’s will on a wife’s. The inference is that this wild and oh-so-unconventional pair are better off than the straighter couples. Kate ‘submits’ to Petruchio and he ‘submits’ to her. They dash upstage, tearing at their clothes, for a meeting of bodies. I found myself not caring in the slightest.

There is another plot, involving the courting of Kate’s sister Bianca. This is a contest between swains involving deception and swapping identities that has Bianca as the prize. There is some good comic playing from Gavin Fowler as Lucentio in disguise as a nerdy Cambio, Huss Garbiya is a lively and likable Biondello, and I also liked Elizabeth Cadwallader’s playfulness as Bianca but on the whole you get the feeling that everyone is trying too hard. There is little to contrast with the madcap dashing around and vulgarity, no change of tone from the raucous and the low. I found it impossible to engage with, like the only sober one at a booze-up.

The running time seems excessive. Rather than taming a shrew, it is the audience who is beaten into submission. It is like being caught up in someone else’s pillow fight and they have stuffed their pillow with bricks.