The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 22nd July, 2015
Trevor Nunn’s new production of Ben Jonson’s 1606 comedy is contemporary in setting and feel. It is our world of smart phones and tablets, of ECG machines and CCTV. The text too has been tweaked to include present-day references to the Grecian economy, for example, bringing the satire up-to-date. The point is to remind us that human nature has not changed. The flaws and foibles Jonson satirises remain all too current.
Volpone is a con artist, fleecing avaricious types who seek to inherit his fortune. You can almost see the pound signs in their eyes as they flock to what they think is his death bed. In the title role, Henry Goodman is magnificent, smooth and slick; his Volpone has an innate sense of fun. He is a conman we can admire – part of the enduring appeal of stories about confidence tricksters is our enjoyment of the cleverness of the scam, being in on it with the tacit acknowledgment that we, the audience, would never be duped… And, of course, the victims deserve what they get; they are terrible people.
The excellent Matthew Kelly is Corvino, a jealous, abusive tyrant of a husband, who turns out to be willing to whore out his wife if it means he will be named Volpone’s heir. Geoffrey Freshwater is in good form as the doddering Corbaccio, willing to disinherit his own son in order to secure Volpone’s riches. We enjoy seeing these men stitched up, due to Goodman’s splendidly timed asides and hilarious fakery. A baldie wig and no small amount of drooling work wonders. True, Volpone too is motivated by avarice but his victims are taking advantage of what they presume is a feeble invalid at death’s door. Where Volpone oversteps the bounds of what is acceptable is when he attempts to force himself on Corvino’s comely Mrs, Celia (Rhiannon Handy). This is why Volpone has to be punished at the end.
Goodman is a thoroughly charming silver fox and each disguise he assumes is audaciously funny, for example the Italian mountebank who mangles the English language into something that sounds ruder than it is. Volpone is aided and abetted by his able sidekick, Mosca (the elegantly expressive Orion Lee) – a bit like Clouseau’s Cato but without the impromptu karate attacks.
Annette McLaughlin is funny as the grotesque Lady Politic Would-Be, here portrayed as a self-obsessed reality TV diva, complete with cameraman in tow. The ever-appealing Colin Ryan makes Peregrine a likeable American backpacker, and Andy Apollo makes Bonario a dashing heroic figure. The peculiar trio of a dwarf, a eunuch and a hermaphrodite (Jon Key, Julian Hoult, and Ankur Bahl, respectively) add a bizarre touch of colour to proceedings. Every home should have such a trio.
The action shifts along at quite a lick – you barely notice the running time – and the show belongs to Henry Goodman, in the most entertaining performance of the RSC’s current season. Jonson turns moralist at the end as the judges mete out punishments left, right and centre. We are admonished to look to our own conduct. It is one thing to enjoy the vices of others, vicariously at the theatre, but quite another to indulge in those vices in our real lives.
Orion Lee helping Henry Goodman look his worst. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
1 Comment | tags: Andy Apollo, Ankur Bahl, Annette McLaughlin, Ben Jonson, Colin Ryan, Geoffrey Freshwater, Henry Goodman, Jon Key, Julian Hoult, Matthew Kelly, Orion Lee, review, Rhiannon Handy, RSC, The Swan Theatre, Trevor Nunn, Volpone | posted in Theatre Review
THE JEW OF MALTA
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th April, 2015
Christopher Marlowe’s play, which has a Jew as the villain, is not staged anywhere near as often as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – perhaps we find Shylock more palatable to our modern sensibilities. While we can understand the motivation of Marlowe’s Barabas, his path of vengeance and destruction renders him inhuman – psychopathic, even.
Forced to surrender his fortune in order to pay the state’s protection money to the Turks, Barabas soon bounces back, and sends his spirited daughter Abigail undercover as a nun into the nunnery his house has been turned into, to dig up his secret stash of gems and gold. With these he is able to rebuild his fortune – but that is not enough. He embarks on a plan of revenge on all those who have wronged him. The son of the governor is set up in a duel with a rival that ends fatally. A priest is framed for the murder of a friar. The nuns are wiped out by poisoned porridge…
It’s melodramatic stuff but Justin Audibert directs with a sense of humour and the result is a very black comedy indeed. As the titular Jew, Jasper Britton portrays a delicious kind of evil in a compelling performance. He is aided and abetted by his henchman, Ithamore (Lanre Malaolu, who uses physicality to add humour to his characterisation). Catrin Stewart is powerful as Barabas’s loud and strident daughter and there is excellent support from Matthew Needham as pimp to Beth Cordingly’s jaded hooker, Bellamira. Marcus Griffiths cuts a dash as the imperious Turk, Calymath, while Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly vie amusingly with each other for Barabas’s soul and gold coins as two supposedly holy men. Particularly striking is Annette McLaughlin as Katherine, grieving for her murdered son.
Oliver Fenwick’s sunny lighting gives us the brightness and warmth of the Maltese climate, bouncing off Lily Arnold’s paving stone set. Jonathan Girling’s music, performed live, is both evocative and beautiful, and the fight sequences by Kevin McCurdy have the front rows flinching in their seats.
Marlowe gives his villain all the best lines – Barabas is able to be scathing about religion and people who profess to be Christians but behave contrary to their faith (reminding me of our current and hopefully outgoing government!). “Religion hides many mischiefs from suspicion,” says Barabas. He is not wrong.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable production in which Barabas’s victims deserve what’s coming to them. Moving along at a cracking pace, with plenty of laughs and shocks along the way, the show is as entertaining as you could wish.
To hear the word ‘Jew’ as an insult and disparaging term, makes us wince. We like to feel we are more inclusive and that there is less anti-Semitism around – but then I recall that only the other day the Tories had to sack one of their own for saying she would never support ‘the Jew Ed Miliband’ and I despair.
Jasper Britton (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)
1 Comment | tags: Annette McLaughlin, Beth Cordingly, Catrin Stewart, Christopher Marlowe, Geoffrey Freshwater, Jasper Britton, Jonathan Girling, Justin Audibert, Kevin McCurdy, Lanre Malaolu, Lily Arnold, Marcus Griffiths, Matthew Kelly, Matthew Needham, Oliver Fenwick, review, RSC, Stratford upon Avon, The Jew of Malta, The Swan Theatre | posted in Theatre Review
THE WITCH OF EDMONTON
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 13th November, 2014
It’s a sad fact of society that when you hold up someone as a scapegoat for your problems, evil deeds will follow – persecution being the least of them. Playwrights Rowley, Dekker and Ford were saying as much four centuries ago. How dismaying to see the message is still relevant today.
Old Mother Sawyer is a lonely old woman whose life is made intolerable by the villagers of Edmonton ( a bunch of UKIP voters in waiting – although these days the focus has turned from little old ladies to immigrants). Bothered and bewildered, she wishes she could bewitch her tormentors. Unlike The Crucible there’s a twist here. Something wicked this way comes: the devil hears the old woman’s curses and makes her an offer she can’t refuse. She becomes a witch for real with the devil at her side as her familiar, Tom the black dog. Eileen Atkins in perfectly credible as the curmudgeonly old boot, arousing our sympathy from the start. Her cantankerous demeanour puts the devil in his place (temporarily, of course). Atkins is superb and so is Jay Simpson as the devil dog.
Cleverly, the script keeps the audience a step ahead of the characters. We always know more than they do and this dramatic irony heightens both the comic and the tense moments.
There is greater evil abroad than making Farmer Banks (Christopher Middleton) kiss his cow’s backside. Ian Bonar’s con artist Frank Thorney Junior is a bigamist and adulterer, swindling his inheritance from his father, abetted by David Rintoul’s Sir Arthur. (When it all goes belly-up, it turns out there is one law for the rich and another for the poor… Imagine that! Oh. Yes…) Bonar is excellent – his early scenes with the first of his wives takes us in. We believe he is a star-cross’d swain. Later we see the depths to which he will sink.
The entire company is in good form. Shvorne Marks makes a strong impression and tugs at the heartstrings as wronged wife Winnifride. Ian Redford’s Carter and Geoffrey Freshwater’s Thorney Senior break your heart with grieving. Dafydd Llyr Thomas is a hoot as the bumptious Cuddy Banks – the only character able to cast the devil from the place. Joe Bannister and Joseph Ashley cut dashing figures as two suitors wrongly accused – it all gets a bit CSI:Edmonton for a while, An underused Liz Crowther gets a moment in the spotlight for a wild-eyed mad scene and handsome RSC newcomer Oliver Dench shines, displaying a talent for comic playing in a couple of minor roles.
Sensibly, director Gregory Doran keeps the play in its own period and lets its delights and messages speak for themselves. Niki Turner’s design is as effective as it is simple: a dense backdrop of tall reeds through which Tim Mitchell’s lighting creates creepily atmospheric moments, complemented by Paul Englishby’s music. Special mention must go to violinist Zhivko Georgiev for his ‘diabolical’ fiddling.
There is much to enjoy here: a bunch of rude mechanicals perform a morris dance and have to dance to the devil’s tune; shocking violence and duplicity; humorous exchanges and poignant scenes of grief and forgiveness… It’s a betwitching evening of theatre with Eileen Atkins casting a spell that lingers long after Old Ma Sawyer is led away to her fate.
Magic! Eileen Atkins (Photo: Helen Maybanks)
Leave a comment | tags: Christopher Middleton, Dafydd Llyr Thomas, David Rintoul, Eileen Atkins, Geoffrey Freshwater, Gregory Doran, Ian Bonar, Ian Redford, Jay Simpson, Joe Bannister, Joseph Arkley, Liz Crowther, Niki Turner, Oliver Dench, Paul Englishby, review, RSC, Shvorne Marks, Stratford upon Avon, The Swan, The Witch of Edmonton, Tim Mitchell, Zhivko Georgiev | posted in Theatre Review
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 24th June, 2013
Michael Frayn’s farce-within-a-farce is currently doing the rounds in this production from the Old Vic. For those that have yet to come across this extremely funny piece, it gives us three glimpses of life with a touring production of creaky old farce, Nothing On: the first act shows us a torturous rehearsal, the night before they open; the second act takes place backstage during a matinee on the tour; and the third shows us what we saw rehearsed ‘performed’ to an audience several weeks in…
Neil Pearson is superb as Lloyd the frazzled director, whose anger and sarcasm increase in equal measure as time runs out before opening night. Maureen Beattie plays it broad as the fading star in the role of the charwoman – in fact the entire company demonstrates skill at the larger-than-life performances of their on-stage roles. Thomasin Rand is suitably dim as the starlet in her underwear and David Bark-Jones is equally outspoken and inarticulate as Garry Lejeune. It is when they drop out of character that they drop into full-on ‘luvvie’ mode. Sasha Waddell is the epitome of this luvvieness, the gossipmonger of the group. Chris Larkin’s Freddie is a hilarious portrayal of a sweet but dim actor – the physical comedy of Larkin and Bark-Jones, throwing themselves around with trousers around ankles or shoelaces tied together is astonishing. Geoffrey Freshwater is a hoot as the dipsomaniac playing the burglar, and Danielle Flatt is appropriately wound-up and emotional as stage manager Poppy. Finally there is an enjoyable Simon Bubb as Tim the general factotum, handyman, understudy and DSM –without whom these no-hopers would have no show at all.
In the second act, when most of it is performed in frantic dumb show, the notion of timing being everything in comedy could not be more prominent. The slapstick element of farce joins the others (doors slamming, trousers dropping, girls in underwear) in this manic sequence that must be a bugger to learn. I have seen it done tighter but the mad scramble to keep the show going and stop the cast from killing each other, was still well-played and very funny.
By the third act, the wheels have really come off Nothing On. The production’s descent into chaos is irrevocable. The cast attempt to improvise their way out of it when things go wrong, and it becomes the stuff of actors’ nightmares. Just like it takes a certain skill to play a piano as badly as Les Dawson, playing ‘bad actor’ is also more demanding than you might think. This company – the real life company, I mean, not the on-stage one! – has that skill in abundance.
Director Lloyd steps in – or rather climbs in through the window – as a supernumerary stand-in burglar, and the cast all turn to him for guidance. As well as being very clever theatrically, and demanding high levels of comedic ability, the play also reveals much about the human condition. There is a will to create but the flaws in our natures mean our efforts are doomed to failure at worst, or mediocrity at best. Our selfish impulses jeopardise the efforts of the group. There is no director to guide our actions. The best we can hope is to put our differences aside and work together before that final curtain comes shuddering down.
1 Comment | tags: Chris Larkin, Danielle Flett, David Bark-Jones, Geoffrey Freshwater, Maureen Beattie, Michael Frayn, Neil Pearson, New Alexandra Theatre Birmingham, Noises Off, Sasha Waddell, Simon Bubb, The Old Vic, Thomasin Rand | posted in Theatre Review