Tag Archives: Iqbal Khan

Drama Queen

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 11th May, 2017

 

A kind of sequel to Julius Caesar, charting the latter years of that play’s hero, the plot mixes the personal with the political and back again.  Mark Antony, one of Rome’s three leaders, is neglecting his duties by dallying with the Queen of Egypt.  The three men fall out.  There is war.  And another war.  And so on.  Meanwhile, Cleopatra carries on like the lovestruck diva she is, with all the wiles and depth of a teenager.  It all leads to tragedy.  Of course it does.

Iqbal Khan’s production feels very much a companion piece to Angus Jackson’s Julius Caesar.  Designer for both, Robert Innes Hopkins, uses the same idea for both: first half is dominated by tall columns, the second by a cyclorama with turbulent weather… Unfortunately, it feels like a disappointing episode in a series, proving the truism that sequels are never as good as the originals.  Some scenes lack focus – a nice idea of using model ships to depict naval battles just doesn’t come off.  Antony Byrne’s Antony is in the same mode whether he’s loving or fighting – I would like him to lighten up, have more fun with his drama queen, even being reduced to her level, for love does make petulant teenagers of us all.

The stage really comes to life whenever Josette Simon is on as the Queen of the Nile.  Grand, elegant, moody, manipulative, she is a hedonist used to getting her way, and knows how to get it.  Her schemes get out of hand, though, when she gives out word that she has topped herself.  Simon is captivating as the emotionally immature Queen – but in one scene, she is togged up like an Egyptian fembot that is at odds with everything else.

I feel that Andrew Woodall’s Enobarbus is casual to the point of being underplayed – his defection from Antony to Octavius Caesar comes across as no great loss.  The mighty James Corrigan is underused as Agrippa.  Speaking of Octavius, Ben Allen retains his role from the previous play.  Here Octavius is more mature, more assured of himself.  I also like Will Bliss as a Christ-lookalike soothsayer.

Original music is by Laura Mvula and, for the most part, its effective with discordant fanfares and a sense of foreboding, marred only by the occasional use of present-day beats, as if the composer is fighting against the urge to give us a rock opera.

It’s Josette Simon that maintains our interest throughout in this production that could do with a few judicious cuts or a tighter grip on the reins.  I hope the RSC’s Rome season is not already in its decline.

antony-and-cleopatra-production-photos_-2017_2017_photo-by-helen-maybanks-_c_-rsc_214592.tmb-img-912

Josette Simon and Antony Byrne (Photo: Helen Maybanks. Copyright RSC)

 

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Hanky-Panky

OTHELLO

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 18th June, 2015

 

Iqbal Khan’s new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy takes the unusual but not unprecedented step of casting a black actor in the role of Iago, thereby putting a different slant on proceedings from the get-go. What motivates this villain, if the racist card is denied him? Shakespeare gives us other possibilities: Iago suspects Othello has had his way with his wife, for example. Iqbal gives us another: Iago resents Othello for doing so well in a white man’s world, and so every time he refers to Othello as ‘the Moor’ it drips with a different flavour of loathing.

Lucian Msamati dominates as the ‘honest’ villain – and this is by no means a bad thing. His Iago is sarcastic, darkly funny and bitter. You can easily picture him as Richard III. Othello, by contrast, is statesmanlike and reserved – Hugh Quarshie hangs up his Holby City stethoscope to give a strong performance of a man coming apart, poisoned by jealousy.

It’s a modern-day setting, with traces of old Venice in Ciaran Bagnall’s beautiful set. Khan keeps the surprises coming. My heart sinks when the soldiers launch into a rap battle (!) but they pull it off, within the context of the action. Othello puts a plastic bag over Iago’s head – don’t worry, he also pulls it off.

There is a torture scene using all the mod cons available to the unscrupulous army of today – the accoutrements are then handy for Othello to use against his own man, in a shocking scene that reveals his violent streak. This adds tension to subsequent scenes with Desdemona; we have witnessed what he is capable of, and so his final, murderous act does not come out of nowhere.

Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona is not quite Disney princess (Disney minor royalty, perhaps), a mix of boldness and naivety. She stands up to Othello, to a point, but is unaware of the machinations in which she is unwittingly embroiled.

Ayesha Dharker is a striking, rather sedate Emilia – one wonders how she and Iago came to be married – but comes into her own as the situation unravels.  Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s Cassio is brash but not unappealing, and James Corrigan’s hapless Rodrigo brings humour in an excellent characterisation of this dupe and patsy. There is a fine turn from Brian Protheroe as Desdemona’s ranting father, as resolute in his bonkers opinions as a UKIP candidate: he can only attribute his daughter’s attraction to the Moor to witchcraft. What other explanation could there be?!

Also making an impression are Nadia Albina as the Duke, a hard-nosed CEO, and Scarlett Brookes’s Bianca, a lovelorn whore.

Energy levels run high throughout, as the ever-appealing Msamati carries out his plan to bring Othello down. That is all comes down to the presence or absence of a particular handkerchief wouldn’t withstand a more forensic approach, but Shakespeare – through Iago – gets us to go along with it.  By revealing to us his tissue of lies beforehand, Iago keeps us one step ahead of the other characters, and so we don’t have to be as gullible and credulous as they.

With more laughs than you might expect, this Othello shocks and thrills rather than moves but is invariably entertaining and enjoyable.

Hugh Quarshie and Lucian Msamati (Photo: Keith Pattison)

Hugh Quarshie and Lucian Msamati (Photo: Keith Pattison)


Don’t Mind If Ado

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 31st July, 2012


The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Courtyard Theatre, mothballed for a while, is back in business with this vibrant and colourful production of Shakespeare’s quintessential romantic comedy. Director Iqbal Khan sets the play in present-day India, a relocation that works very well – on the face of it. Issues of chastity and arranged marriages are at the heart of the conflict, and the caste system provides a ready-made underclass of servants and messengers other relocations have to struggle to accommodate.

There is an amusing pre-show as you settle into your seat – once you’ve dodged the washing lines in the aisles and there are more bicycles than in a chain of Irish pubs – and as soon as the play proper begins, the inflection and cadence of the Indian accents works very well with Shakespeare’s prose (and the verse too, in the dramatic scenes).

Madhav Sharma is a dignified but warm-hearted Leonato who opens his house to a troop of soldiers on their return from a victory in war. Paul Bhattacharjee’s Benedick is likeable enough although I couldn’t get past his resemblance to the young Boris Karloff. The joke about his name (“Bendy Dick”) is perhaps a little overused. Kulvinder Ghir’s Borachio, coarse, vulgar henchman to the baddie, is an earthy characterisation. He is driven by his appetites and pisses like a racehorse. I’m not even joking. Villain of the piece is a brooding Gary Pillai as Don John the Bastard, setting himself apart from the verbal exuberance of the rest of this society and manipulating events towards tragedy. There is a hint of Yul Brynner and Lex Luthor about him (he’s bald, is what I’m trying to convey).

Big name draw, Meera Syal is perfectly cast as the sparky, witty Beatrice, wise-cracking but with an undercurrent of sadness and perhaps loneliness. She is elegant but fragile; her wise-cracks form a protective shield. She is not quite matched by Bhattacharjee’s Benedick but you still root for the pair to get together.

Where the production stumbles is with the physical comedy. The scenes in which Benedick and then Beatrice overhear about their supposed love for each other don’t realise their potential. In the first, there is too much of a little servant girl trying to hand the hiding Benedick the book he requested. In the second, the gossip is relayed by the loudspeaker of a mobile phone, robbing the conspirators of interaction and eye-contact. And why “Ursula” has been usurped by Verges, the supposedly elderly partner in the play’s cop duo, I don’t know.

The scenes with the Watch try to upstage the wonderful comic interplay of the script with some unfocussed and raucous ‘business’ out of keeping with the generally civilised conduct of the rest. I liked Simon Nagra’s Dogberry but mostly because he provides a lot of amusement in the pre-show.

At one point – the wedding scene – members of the audience are pulled up to sit on cushions. All well and good if they don’t sit there grinning as the drama unfolds. I found them a distraction from the main action.

On the whole though, it is an entertaining evening with Shakespeare’s dazzling script outshining everything. The look and sound of the piece is evocative and it was rather hot in the auditorium. All that was lacking was the aroma of cooked spices… I compensated for this oversight after the performance by directing my feet to the nearby Thespian’s Indian restaurant.