Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 10th May 2023
Greg Doran bows out of his tenure as Artistic Director of the RSC with this production of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays. Set vaguely during the era of the Romans invading Britain, this play sees Shakespeare rounding up all his favourite tropes and packaging them in a dark and funny fairy tale. These days we call them ‘Easter eggs’ and there is a lot of fun to spot what comes from which previous work: the girl dressed as a boy, the death potion, the faithful servant in exile, the wicked queen… But the play is more than a hodgepodge of Shakespeare’s greatest hits.
Leading the excellent cast is Peter De Jersey as the titular king. Cymbeline is hotheaded, railing against circumstances – De Jersey makes a strong impression even though the title role is not the lead role; I can easily picture him playing Lear. The lead is his daughter Imogen, supposedly his last surviving child. Theirs is a fiery relationship. Imogen combines the temper of Hermia with the big heart and wit of Viola. Amber James is pitch perfect in the part. Ed Sayer, as her banished husband Posthumus, is valiant and heroic, but prone to the machinations of Jamie Wilkes’s scheming braggart, Iachimo. Wilkes is a cocksure delight and later, when it all goes belly-up, his crisis of conscience and remorse come across as heartfelt.
Alexandra Gilbreath’s evil Queen is hilarious, melodramatically stalking around, manipulating everyone while letting us see her true face. Equally funny is Conor Glean as her petulant, vainglorious son Cloten, in a superbly cartoonish portrayal.
The mighty Christian Patterson exudes honour and decency as the big-hearted Belarius, while Scott Gutteridge and Daf Thomas are also excellent as his adopted sons. There is a lovely moment when they mourn the supposedly dead Fidele (Imogen cross-dressed) and they sing a haunting lament, Fear No More The Heat of the Sun. That the moment comes hot on the heels of a laughter-inducing shock with the introduction of a severed head to proceedings, shows how well Doran handles the mood swings of this split personality of a show.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s simple set, a circle suspended over a horizon, serves as night, day, England, Rome, Wales, without gimmickery, allowing the actors room to play. Beautifully lit by Matt Daw and just as beautifully underscored by Paul Englishby’s folk-informed score, this is a production that has fun and therefore is fun, with a cast unencumbered by enforced stylisation that doesn’t serve the text. It could be seen as Greg Doran revisiting all his best bits and making them fresh and new. Because the play is not overly familiar, like some of the works, audiences don’t bring expectations; we’re not waiting for famous speeches (there are none!) so we can just take it in and enjoy it at face value. The final scene of protracted revelations and resolutions is hilarious and yet moving. Magical.
It’s great to see the RSC returning to form, and we shall miss Greg Doran for his mastery in bringing the bard to entertaining life.
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 15th August, 2022
Perhaps more than most plays, Shakespeare’s Richard III depends on the charisma of its leading man, who in this case happens to be the villain of the piece. Through soliloquies and asides, the scheming Duke of Gloucester lets us in on his nefarious plots. Richard needs to be more than a pantomime villain, enjoyable though it is to boo and hiss at those figures. This production boasts a remarkable Richard; we take to him from the off. From the sarcasm of the famous opening speech and along every step of the way as his Machiavellian machinations play out, Arthur Hughes gives us a somewhat Puckish Richard, playfully turning on the histrionics whenever someone needs gaslighting. It’s a joy to watch him at work, especially since most of the other characters are ‘worthy’ beyond stomaching. The quickfire asides and glances through the fourth wall, the lines that drip with dramatic irony, are all deliciously delivered. The wooing of a woman he has widowed is a masterclass in manipulation.
Hughes is supported by a superlative company. In a play where the women have little else to do but grieve and wail, Minnie Gale’s Margaret stands out in a powerfully emotive scene. Kirsty Bushell’s keening cry as the grieving Elizabeth is truly heartrending and has to be heard to be believed. Jamie Wilkes impressed as Richard’s sidekick, the Duke of Buckingham, while Conor Glean and Joeravar Sangha are great fun as a pair of darkly comedic murderers who have been sent to despatch Ben Hall’s sympathetic Duke of Clarence.
Director Gregory Doran keeps the action fast-moving with swift transitions, and the sense of period in augmented by some beautiful treble vocals. The climactic battle scenes are presented in a highly stylised manner using physical theatre and a symbolic staining with blood of the massive cenotaph that has cast its shadow over proceedings. These scenes come hot on the heels of an effective dream sequence where Richard is tormented by those he has killed. The sudden stylistic shift at the tail end of the play is at odds with the rest of the show, making this a production of strong moments but patchy in its overall presentation. The first half is bum-numbingly longer than the second.
Of course, the play has plenty to say to us about the times we live in — especially given recent events: the suitability (or otherwise) of those who rule over us; the gaslighting of the masses by those who abuse their power… Unlike the liars and crooks in power today, Richard does not get off scot-free. Perhaps that’s why we indulge him in his excesses, and perhaps that’s why our sense of morality and our need for a proper story make us hope the wretches in government get their comeuppance.
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 16th December 2019
I have seen quite a few stage adaptations of David Walliams’s bestselling children’s books, ranging from rather good to brilliant. This musical one, with script by Mark Ravenhill, lyrics by Guy Chambers, and music by none other than Robbie Williams, is the RSC’s bid to match the success of its Roald Dahl-meets-Tim-Minchin megahit, Matilda (which is still running in the West End a decade later).
This is the story of Dennis Sims, who feels different in a world of ordinary people. His mum has walked out, leaving Dennis with his older brother John, and their Dad, who can’t cope, handle emotion, or serve proper meals. Everything changes when Dennis is irresistibly drawn to a copy of Vogue magazine at the local newsagent’s; he teams up with local stunner Lisa James and before long he’s venturing out, dragged up as a French exchange student, complete with wig, beret, and a gorgeous orange sequinned dress. Controversy is not far behind, jeopardising Dennis’s education and (seemingly more importantly) his place on the football team.
Playing Dennis tonight is the stunningly magnificent Oliver Crouch, who sings like an angel (not a cue for an old Robbie track), shows impressive range as an actor (I’m in tears ten minutes in) and whose dancing would have the Strictly judges adding extra zeroes to their ’10’ paddles. Honestly, I have never seen a better performance from a child star, and Crouch continues to amaze as the show goes on. A stellar, heartfelt and funny performance. He will knock your frocks off.
The second time I well up with tears is when Dennis puts on the orange dress for the first time. It is a moment of revelation, transformation and self-acceptance, building to an all-out discoball drag number that is absolutely joyous.
Rufus Hound pitches the depressed Dad perfectly – the third time the tears are wrung from me is his eventual acceptance of his remarkable son. Natasha Lewis is an absolute hoot as Darvesh’s embarrassing mother, and Irvine Iqbal is a real treat as newsagent Raj (a character who features in every David Walliams book I’ve come across). Max Gill’s Big Mac is a study in infatuated schoolboy nervousness, while Alfie Jukes finds a balance between oafishness and affection as Dennis’s big brother John. Asha Banks shines as schoolgirl stunna Lisa James, and the mighty Forbes Masson storms it as the gleefully hateful headmaster Mr Hawtrey (the characters share surnames with Carry On actors).
The score is marvellous, catchy and tuneful, and is Williams’s best work. Take that, Gary Barlow! Ravenhill’s adaptation brings the book to life, with tweaks rather than changes, adding topical references to update the action to today. Robert Jones’s design maintains a colour palette restricted to mainly greys and blues (so that Dennis’s orange dress really ‘pops’) and the set consists of movable houses that open up to provide interiors, wheeled around by the cast. Gregory Doran’s direction delivers all the emotion and humour of the story – the football matches, for example, are inventively and hilariously staged.
It’s a joy from start to finish, tickling your funny bone and tugging at your heartstrings, and it makes me think how bloody daft it is that we impose gender norms on the way people dress. “Everyone should be able to wear what they want,” asserts Lisa James. You go, girl!
A great story, brilliantly presented, that looks like it could match Matilda for longevity – it certainly deserves too. And Oliver Crouch must have a glittering career ahead of him, and I don’t necessarily mean on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Masterful: Forbes Masson as Mr Hawtrey. Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC copyright
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 7th August, 2019
Some people label this a ‘problem play’ and I have a problem with that. What it is is a dark comedy that deals with issues of morality. Here, director Gregory Doran has for the most part a light touch, so the comedy has the upper hand over the darkness. It’s definitely a production of two halves, the first setting out the stall so the circumstances of Isabella’s dilemma are established.
In what is basically the first-ever episode of Undercover Boss, the Duke leaves town, putting pasty-faced Slytherin alumnus Angelo in charge, but comes back disguised as a friar to observe how things turn out. Angelo instigates draconian laws to punish the immoral. Pretty soon, Claudio is condemned to death for impregnating his fiancée, and his sister Isabella, a novice nun, is called in to plead for clemency. Angelo takes a fancy to the novice, in a Captain Von Trapp meets Maria kind of way and makes an indecent proposal. If Isabella will sleep with Angelo, he will pardon her brother. Which was will Isabella jump? It takes the machinations of the Duke-in-disguise to bring about a resolution and expose the hypocrisy at the top of Viennese society.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design establishes the show’s Viennese credentials from the off; it’s the Vienna of Strauss. There are waltzes – everything but Viennese whirls, dancing horses and Midge Ure. The set is sparse, with projections to establish locations and mirrored panels across the back wall, reflecting the audience back at itself – a mirror to society, get it?
More familiar to me for tragic, heroic roles, Antony Byrne is having a lot of fun as the Duke, throwing his weight around and keeping us in on the joke. The Duke’s plotting may seem a little cruel, especially when he makes Isabella believe her brother has already been beheaded, but then this is a play about men’s treatment of women. Doran gives us a delicious final image, when it dawns on Isabella that having escaped the clutches of one man who wanted her against her will, she is in the grasp of another, and never mind what she wants out of life.
As Isabella, Lucy Phelps is the emotional heart of the piece and gives a powerful, compelling and likeable performance. I have seen Isabellas too up themselves to be sympathetic but here Phelps pitches everything right. Sandy Grierson’s Angelo starts as a cold fish, struggling to repress his baser urges before being exposed as a massive hypocrite worthy of any Tory cabinet.
James Cooney makes an appealing Claudio, while David Ajao’s West Indian accent augments the comedic aspects of Pompey the pimp-turned-executioner’s assistant. Amanda Harris gives sterling character work as the Provost, and, in their brief appearances, Graeme Brookes and Michael Patrick make strong impressions respectively as Mistress Overdone, the local madam, and Constable Elbow, a kind of prototype Dogberry, complete with malapropisms. Claire Price is an earnest Escalus and Patrick Brennan a creepy Abhorson the executioner, but for me the man of the match is Joseph Arkley as the dapper Lucio, who is positively hilarious throughout.
Paul Englishby’s score is sumptuous and the second half begins with a plaintive song sung sweetly and with emotion by Hannah Azuonye that is brought to an end much too soon! I could do with more of this!
The second half lets broad comedy take the lead and the action moves on apace, with enjoyable appearances from Graeme Brookes’s Black Country Barnardine, and the contrivances of the plot keep on the right side of credible (just about).
More fun than I was expecting, this is a Measure that speaks to us today. Strict, moralistic statutes only lead to increased hypocrisy and division between lawmakers who break their own laws and the rest of us who fall foul of prohibition just for being human.
Antony Byrne as the Duke/Friar (Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC)
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.
Brought to heel: Andy Apollo as Achilles (Photo: Helen Maybanks)
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 8th and Tuesday 9th January, 2018
Dramatist Mike Poulton took it upon himself to adapt Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy for the stage, condensing the action into two evenings. In six one-hour chunks, we rattle through the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, along with many other characters, while our main man Cicero (Richard McCabe) weathers every storm. It’s like binge-watching a TV series.
For the most part, the action is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s faithful slave/secretary (an agreeable Joseph Kloska) while McCabe’s Cicero comes across as a blend of Zero Mostel and Ian Hislop. There is plenty of humour here, irony and barbed remarks and, inevitably, parallels with the modern world abound. “Stupid people tend to vote for stupid people,” Cicero observes, pithily explaining our current government. The phrase, “The will of the people” is bandied around as though it excuses everything.
Peter de Jersey is a volatile Caesar, friendly and menacing – often at the same time, while David Nicolle is a suitably weasely Crassus and Michael Grady-Hall a ranting Cato. Oliver Johnstone’s Rufus gets his moment to shine in a court scene, while Pierro Niel-Mee is roguishly appealing as the naughty Clodius. It’s not just Cicero who has the gift of oratory, it turns out.
Siobhan Redmond brings humorous haughtiness as Cicero’s Mrs, Terentia – vulnerability too. There are many performances to enjoy: Joe Dixon’s brutish Catiline, Hywel Morgan’s drunkard Hybrida, Nicholas Boulton’s bombastic Celer… and I especially like Eloise Secker’s forthright Fulvia.
The precarious, perilous nature of political life in ancient Rome is an ever-present menace and there are moments of ritualised action that heighten the differences between our culture and theirs, while the motives and behaviours of the characters reinforce the notion that human nature doesn’t change and politicians are some of the worst people.
The action is played out on an all-purpose set, designed by Anthony Ward: a flight of wide steps leads to a mosaic backdrop – a huge pair of eyes watches all. Above, a large sphere is suspended, onto which projections and colours are cast to complement the action. Yvonne Milnes’s costumes immerse us in the period while the lowering of the stage to floor level sort of democratises the plays: as observers, we are often addressed directly as members of the Senate.
Part Two sees the assassination of Julius Caesar (spoiler, sorry!) and the resulting fall-out. The conspirators bump him off with no strategy in place for a new regime. Et tu, Brexit?
Oliver Johnstone reappears, this time as Caesar’s successor, Octavian, youthful but determined. When he coldly asserts, “I am a god” it’s a chilling moment, and we glimpse the kind of emperor he will become. Pierro Niel-Mee is back as a serious Agrippa, a perfect contrast to his Clodius from Part One. In this performance, Nicholas Boulton is excellent as roaring drunk Mark Antony, a hothead impotent to prevent the rise of cold Octavian. Siobhan Redmond has an effective and amusing cameo as Brutus’s mother (bringing to mind the Life of Brian’s Biggus Dickus who ‘wanks as high as any in Wome’).
Once you get used to the host of characters coming and going, this is a hugely enjoyable watch, funny, thrilling and sometimes shocking. On the one hand it makes me glad that politicians of today, bad as they may be, don’t go around burning each other’s houses down or lopping each other’s heads off. On the other, it makes me wish they would.
It has become usual practice for the RSC to broadcast to cinemas its productions in the main house and then sell them on DVD for home viewing. Productions in the Swan are not preserved in this way, which in a lot of instances is a great shame. All that will remain of a good production will be what Cicero claims is left of any good man: what is written down.
Joseph Kloska and Richard McCabe (Photo: Ikin Yum)
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th November, 2016
The play, often regarded as Shakespeare’s swansong, is brought to vibrant life in this new production from artistic director Gregory Doran. Using pioneering technology (courtesy of Intel), the magical aspects of Prospero’s isle are presented in ground-breaking ways with special effects we are more accustomed to seeing in your average cinematic blockbuster. Most notable is the spirit Ariel (Mark Quartley) projected above us with motion-capture animation while the actor performs upstage. There is a risk that the action is going to be overwhelmed by the marvellous effects but Doran wisely allows Ariel to appear to us live not long after this grandest of entrances. Other scenes use a combination of acting and special effects to create the magical moments of the story – I think the balance is struck; the latter enhances the former. Of course, all the effects in the world aren’t going to make a production if the acting isn’t there – and it is.
Simon Russell Beale is a superb Prospero, managing to be powerful when casting his spells and vulnerable and careworn when dealing with his increasingly independent daughter, Miranda (Jenny Rainsford, blending teenage assertion with childlike dependency). Joe Dixon’s misshapen Caliban is both repulsive and sympathetic – his scenes with the drunkards Trinculo (a very funny Simon Trinder) and Stephano (the mighty Tony Jayawardena, who can do no wrong) are hilarious. I also like Joseph Mydell’s wise old Gonzalo, the bravado of Tom Turner’s Sebastian and Oscar Pearce’s scheming, Machiavellian Antonio. Daniel Easton’s bit of an upper-class twit of a Ferdinand matures nicely into a worthy suitor for Miranda, but for me the most effective relationship is that between master and slave, the magician Prospero and the sprite Ariel. Mark Quartley is excellent as the unworldly creature, moving like a dancer-gymnast-acrobat – his face and voice are no less expressive. “Do you love me, Master?” he asks, with poignant innocence, and Russell Beale’s reply, wrenched from the bottom of his heart, “Deeply” is wrought with pain. It is Ariel who humanises Prospero, the servant teaching the master that revenge is not the way to go, thereby changing the outcome of the story. Magnificent stuff.
Reconciliation is the order of the day and forgiveness and resignation, for a rather moving final scene. Along the way, we have seen and heard wonders, including Paul Englishby’s ethereal music and the beautiful singing of sopranos Juno (Jennifer Wooton), Iris (Elly Condron), and Ceres (Samantha Hay). This is the RSC’s best seasonal, family show for years and it’s practically sold out but perhaps, if you’re lucky and able to perform a little magic, you might be able to snaffle up the odd return ticket. Believe me, it’s well worth the effort.
Spirited performance: Mark Quartley as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero (Photo: Topher McGrillis)
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 21st September, 2016
Gregory Doran’s new production of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy has an austere, almost Spartan feel. The aesthetic is medieval but it’s as much Middle Eastern as it is Middle Ages, an interesting setting that could be Now, could be Then. Here, the homeless and the dispossessed remind us of the refugees we see on the news on a daily basis (and also, extras on The Walking Dead!)
Lear makes a grand entrance, carried in on a chair in a glass box, paraded around like he’s an old relic. In his opening scene, Antony Sher shows us the power of the king, albeit dwindling, as well as giving us glimpses of the mental deterioration that is to come. It’s a commanding performance, in more ways than one, but Sher is at his most powerful in his quieter moments, in the details of his dementia, when he is recognisable and relatable as a human being in distress rather than a declaiming, despotic head of state.
Nia Gwynne and Kelly Williams soon show their colours as evil daughters Goneril and Regan, while Natalie Simpson’s Cordelia makes a sweet impression that lasts – she has to; she disappears from the stage until after the interval. Antony Byrne is a suitably heroic and noble Kent, disguising himself as a skinhead, and Graham Turner works hard to wring laughs from the Fool’s babblings, like a Dave Spikey in his underwear.
The RSC’s current golden boy Paapa Essiedu is deliciously wicked as the bastard Edmund, displaying a casual facility with the language and conveying a sense of being at home in the world of the play. Surely a Richard III can’t be too far in his future. Oliver Johnstone has a harder time of it as his brother Edgar. Those Poor Tom mad scenes are not an easy act, but Johnstone throws himself into them with gusto and, by the time Edgar is reunited with his blinded father (the redoubtable David Troughton, marvellous as ever), we see how far he has come from his early foppishness. The reunion between father and son is the most touching moment of the evening.
Niki Turner’s design gives us open landscape, punctuated by a lone, barren tree. It’s almost Beckettian, as Lear and Poor Tom prattle and wait for Godot. Music by Ilona Sekacz is largely percussive – key moments are underscored by drum rolls and crashes.
The only thing I question is Lear’s final scene, when he mourns the loss of Cordelia. He rolls in on the back of a farmer’s cart for some reason, cradling her in his arms. It makes for a striking Pietà, but I can’t help wondering where he got the cart and who is pushing it. Oh, and in the blinding scene, which is literally eye-popping, the Perspex torture booth with its fluorescent lighting seems out of keeping with the rest, suddenly wrenching the action into the present – in which case, it works as an alienation effect, shocking us into considering the play’s currency. Which, I guess, is fair enough.
A more than serviceable production, excellently played – but then, I never really enjoy Lear, as such – showing us a world where violence and madness reign. In that respect, it’s the perfect play for 2016.
Branching out: Oliver Johnstone as Edgar as Poor Tom. Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 1st October, 2015
Gregory Doran’s new production takes its lead from the Chorus, who draws our attention to the limitations of theatrical presentations and pleads with us to use our imaginations – in fact, Oliver Ford Davies yells at us, urging us to work, as though he is a gruff old academic and us his dull students. It makes for the most amusing Chorus I have seen, and it’s easy to imagine Ford Davies as the beloved terror of a university or a curmudgeonly presenter of a historical series on BBC 4.
Doran brings out a great deal of humour and there is no limit to his theatrical presentation! The play seems well-served by this approach. Jim Hooper’s Archbishop of Canterbury who has acres of exposition to deliver in hereby transformed into a delight.
The marvellous Alex Hassell’s Henry is very much a new king, finding his way and taking on board the counsel of his advisors. He sits on the throne with his legs wide apart, consciously asserting his presence, like a selfish commuter ‘man-spreading’ on the Tube. He is a thoughtful, sensitive Henry, a man of conscience and a fast learner. At first, Hassell gives him a haughty, pompous tone as though Henry only uses his telephone voice but as the king becomes more accustomed to his position, he grows more natural, without losing status. By the time we get to the Crispin’s Day speech he is indeed the war-like Harry – the delivery is both rousing and heartfelt.
There is comic support from the likes of Christopher Middleton’s Nym and Antony Byrne’s Pistol – this latter, especially, rounds out his characterisation beyond the physicality of the comic business. There’s a Welshman, an Irishman bristling with mad hair and grenades, and a Scotsman – fun with stereotypes! Simon Yadoo’s Scottish Jamy is hilariously unintelligible. Joshua Richards’s Welshman Fluellen is more even-tempered, look you. The funniest scenes involve Katherine (Jennifer Kirby) trying to learn English from her lady-in-waiting (Leigh Dunn); and Robert Gilbert is a hoot as the effeminate Dauphin, complete with pageboy bob.
But it’s not all laughs, larks and leeks. Far from it. Tensions and drama keep the plot going, linked by the Chorus’s narration: when Henry receives news of the execution of former drinking buddy Bardolph (Joshua Richards again) he has to govern his emotions and temper his response in accordance with his role as monarch. And earlier, the reporting of the death of Falstaff is touchingly done by Sarah Parks’s Mistress Quickly.
There’s a happy ending: wooing Katherine, Henry is out of his depth. His prowess in war cannot help him now. Hassell has always excelled at comedy and leaves us on a high. We come away with the feeling that Henry must have been a good king, (albeit a short-lived one) and we have been royally entertained by a refreshing, rollicking take on a well-worn history.
Royal Shakespeare Company production of HENRY V by William Shakespeare directed by Gregory Doran Photo: Keith Pattison
RST, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 22nd April, 2015
Gregory Doran’s powerful production of this Arthur Miller masterpiece brings out the humour of the script, especially in the first half, and so Antony Sher’s Willy Loman is endearing from the get-go. A blustering, sentimental man, given to delusion, who hears what people say but doesn’t listen, Willy is always on the brink of something wonderful. He’s an indefatigable optimist. Meanwhile, life has gone on and he has got nowhere, apart from the eventual paying off of his mortgage and his hire purchase refrigerator. But being this way is taking its toll. He’s not the most mentally stable of men – and this is reflected in Stephen Brimson Lewis’s split set, which has several levels. It’s a representation of Willy’s mind and sometimes we are in it, as he relives memories, and sometimes we are in the real world, a bustling street or an empty restaurant.
Sher is the engine, the beating, sometimes racing, heart of the production, while Harriet Walter is his quieter, long-suffering wife, a steadier pulse to contrast with his flights of fancy. Sher’s Willy is to be admired, laughed with, despaired at, but Alex Hassell’s Biff – Willy’s elder son – gives us the most powerful moments of the night. Hassell plays both the broken 34 year old and the bright-eyed teenager to perfection, and moves us to tears in the climactic scene in which he tries to force his father to see things the way they are for once in his life. All aspects of the drama, of the production, lead to this outpouring and it’s heart-breaking.
Sam Marks is also strong as younger son Happy, who isn’t on as much, but in key scenes shows what he has inherited of his father’s nature. Tobias Beer gives a star turn as Willy’s boss Howard. A busy company take on small roles and walk-ons to flesh out Willy’s world, with Paul Englishby’s jazz (played live) helping to create the cityscape and period feel. Tim Mitchell’s lighting is linked to Willy’s moods: colours paint the tenement buildings, or sudden brightness shows Willy’s optimism kicking in.
It’s a tragedy of an ordinary man who sees himself as a king and his sons as princes, a man with an eye on the future instead of appreciating the present. Willy sells himself the dream and keeps on buying right until the end.
A superlative production soon to transfer to London, Death of a Salesman is an emotional experience but manages not to be heavy-going, as one might expect, reminding us that Miller’s work can be invigorating as well as exhausting.
Sher and Sonny – Antony Sher and Alex Hassell as Willy and Biff. (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)