Tag Archives: Greg Hicks

Well…

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 31st July, 2013

 

Performed less often than some other Shakespeare plays, All’s Well is a ‘comedy’ or a ‘problem play’.  If we take ‘comedy’ to mean a drama in which characters overcome their problems (as opposed to ‘tragedy’ where the problems overcome the characters) then it certainly fits the category.  It remains a problematic play in my view because of its shortcomings: plot devices familiar from other plays are strung together with none of the impact of, say, the fooling of Malvolio, the controversy of the wedding rings in Merchant.

But that is not to say All’s Well is without merit.  There is much to engage and divert and I would argue the two main female roles contain much of the play’s appeal.  As the Countess, Charlotte Cornwell is stately and generous in spirit, in a seemingly effortless performance, grand without being condescending, sensitive and yet somewhat reserved.  Most of the wheels of the plot are put in motion by Helena in an engaging and touching performance by Joanna Horton.  Helena is a fairytale heroine who goes through trial and tribulation and gets what she wants by guile and determination.  When the object of her affection (Bertram) leaves her behind, her heartbreak is heartbreaking.

The key to All’s Well is the fairytale aspect of the story.  The design of this production, by Katrina Lindsay, works best when it alludes to the storybook nature of the plot.  For my tastes, the soldiers in their dress uniform are more fitting than when they appear in desert camouflage and white t-shirts like some kind of stripper troupe.  The ailing King of France (the always excellent Greg Wise) is hooked up to a drip, an oxygen tank and an ECG machine (or whatever it is) – these kinds of touches are at odds with the other-worldliness of the plot’s logic.  Similarly the see-through box which slides on and off to indicate changes of location is unnecessary.  Thankfully, the production is comparatively short on gimmicks, although what there are, jar horribly.

The show begins with a loud assault of music and lighting.  Parolles dances on a table wearing a Leigh Bowery-type gimp mask.  Mercifully, the production calms down with some freeze-frames, snapshots that set the scene for a funeral. Director Nancy Meckler appears to have reined in some of her excesses – where this production works best is when the staging is at its simplest, and the actors are allowed to do their jobs without the production aesthetic getting in the way.  The soldiers remain a bit of a worry as the play goes on.  The second half begins with an ill-advised movement sequence in which they punch invisible enemies.  They go off, leaving Bertram to duff up thin air.  I found it laughable.

Ah, yes, Bertram.  The always watchable and likeable Alex Waldmann has his work cut out to give this romantic anti-hero any kind of redeeming qualities.  He’s physically attractive but condescending, sarcastic and self-serving.  In brief: he’s a prick. Poor Helena must have been dazzled by his charisma.  Right at the end, when he is shamed into accepting their marriage, Bertram’s conversion is tricky to handle.  The lights fade with Helena triumphant, and Bertram close to tears, resigned to his fate.  All has not ended well for him, which I think belies the optimism of the title, the optimism that has kept Helena on course to get what she wants come what may.  I would have preferred some kind of epiphany to fuel his sudden, albeit qualified, declaration.  Within the fairytale context, this kind of transformation is perfectly fitting.

I was also uncomfortable with the handling of Parolles.  Jonathan Slinger gets his nastiness across but there needs to be more to enjoy in his bombast and braggadocio if we are to feel something for him when he sees the error of his ways.  He is tricked into betraying military secrets and insulting his fellow soldiers but the desert storm setting is a little too much like those disgraceful photographs of American soldiers humiliating captives to make the scene anywhere near rip-roaring.  It leaves an unpleasant aftertaste – as does the production as a whole.  If you’re going for bittersweet, you can’t forget to add the sweet.

Alex Waldmann and Charlotte Cornwell

Alex Waldmann and Charlotte Cornwell

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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)