Tag Archives: Ishia Bennison

Windsor Takes All

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 17th August, 2018

 

Fiona Laird’s joyous staging of Shakespeare’s farcical comedy turns out to be the funniest RSC production of the Bard in a long while.  Blending the Tudor with contemporary Essex (familiar from so-called reality television), the design manages to be both traditional and fresh (the skeletal Tudor buildings are everything!), yielding delightful costume choices, designed from scratch by Lez Brotherston.  Check out Mistress Ford’s high collar and skinny-fit trousers in the illustration below.  This aesthetic enables David Troughton’s Sir John Falstaff to sport a John Bull waistcoat over a pair of baggy slops – with an ever-present, priapic codpiece.  Later, his anyone-for-tennis garb highlights how old-fashioned his brand of lechery is; he is an interloper in this glamorous suburbia, and the women, complete with TOWIE accents and dress sense, are empowered totally.  The play is an antidote to the problematic sexual politics of The Taming of the Shrew.

Troughton’s Falstaff is everything you could want in the Fat Knight, brought low by his appetites – which is a staple of comedy: to mock Man for his baser desires.  Ruling the roost, running rings around Falstaff and tying him in Windsor knots are Beth Cordingly as Mistress Ford, and Rebecca Lacey as Mistress Page.  Their machinations belie the Essex stereotype of the dim-witted glamourpuss unable to walk and chew gum at the same time.  Their attire may be in dubious taste but their characters and antics are to be admired. Cordingly and Lacey are clearly having a great time – and this enjoyment transfers to the audience.

Indeed, the watchword of the production is Fun.  We know the plot is convoluted nonsense but we are able to take such delight in this retelling, thanks in no small part to the comedic skills of a talented ensemble.  Jonathan Cullen’s French doctor Caius would put Inspecteur Clouseau to shame with his mangling of the English language and his histrionic carryings-on; Vince Leigh’s Ford dons a ridiculous nose-and-glasses disguise, along with a compare-the-meerkat accent.  Subtle, it ain’t, but it works magnificently.  David Acton is also a hoot as Welsh parson, Sir Hugh, while Ishia Bennison’s Mistress Quickly and Katy Brittain’s Hostess of the Garter (all big hair and leopard print) are hilarious creations.  Tom Padley is spot on as thick-as-a-brick Slender, more than a little reminiscent of ‘celebrity’ Joey Essex in his delivery; Karen Fishwick’s Ann Page is all duck-face pouts into her smartphone and teenage surliness. Tim Samuels is nasally officious as Shallow, the Justice of the Peace, while Josh Finan makes an impression as Falstaff’s rugby-shirted follower, Nym.

The playing is as broad as the accents and Laird imbues the show with a knockabout style that suits the age-old comedic conventions of the piece, mixed with some present-day references to keep things fresh.  The traditional laundry basket is supplanted by a big pink wheelie bin, and it works brilliantly.  Surely, even the most stuck-in-the-mud purist would chuckle.  Similarly, an action sequence in which Falstaff, disguised as the Fat Witch of Brentwood, is roundly chased off the premises, is a moment of chaotic, cartoonish bliss.  His parting shot, a quote from Dick Emery, reminds us how out-of-synch he is with this world.

I would like more to be made of the spooking of Falstaff in the final act; the scene seems to be over too quickly but, for the rest of it, the pacing is impeccable, and Laird’s attention to detailed comic business is superb.  She has also graced the production with an original score of her own composition, blending period flavours with contemporary beats and sit-com stylings.  It is delicious.

A wildly entertaining romp, triumphantly hilarious, this is a Merry Wives to savour.

The Merry Wives of Windsor production photos_ 2018_2018_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_258364

Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingly in Lex Brotherston’s fabulous costumes (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

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Young Blood

ROMEO AND JULIET

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 20th June, 2018

 

Erica Whyman’s new production of Shakespeare’s evergreen tragedy has a contemporary if abstract setting.  Her Verona is a place of rusting plate metal, with a multi-purpose construction at the centre, a hollow cube providing a raised level (the balcony) and an interior (the Friar’s cell).  It’s a stark and grim place against which the heightened emotions of the hot-blooded citizens are played out.  It’s a world of hoodies and sweatshirts, skinny-fit jeans – in fact, when it begins, the Prologue is shared by a chorus of youngsters and it’s all a bit performing arts college.  The casting is diverse and gender fluid, reflecting the UK today, supposedly, in order that youngsters coming to the play fresh will recognise themselves in the characters… What is unrecognisable about this on-trend milieu is the lack of mobile phones, the prism through which young people view the world and each other.

The design choices I can’t take to, but the acting is in general very good and in parts excellent.  Bally Gill’s Romeo is flighty and cocky – Whyman brings out the humour of him, so we take to him immediately, and he is more than a match for Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio, traditionally the ‘funny one’.  Josephine’s mercurial Mercutio is a ladette, with all the swagger and voice patterns of a cheeky teenage shoplifter on Albert Square.  It’s a very yoof-oriented performance, at odds with the accents and mannerisms of the rest of the gang.

Karen Fishwick’s Juliet has a Scottish brogue and is brimming with the youthful passion of a teenager in love.  She and Gill are a good match.  As Capulet, Juliet’s dad, Michael Hodgson is a little too staccato in his anger, while his Mrs (Mariam Haque) is steely-eyed and steadfast in her lust for vengeance.  Raphael Sowole is an imposing Tybalt – his fatal scrap with this Mercutio pushes the show’s fluid approach to casting to the limit, making Tybalt seem dishonourable in my view.  Later, he and other dead characters creep inexorably across the stage, like zombies playing Grandmother’s Footsteps – initially an effective idea but it becomes distracting from the main event at Juliet’s bier.

Andrew French is a wise and sympathetic Friar Laurence, but it is the magnificent Ishia Bennison who comes off best in a hilarious characterisation of the Nurse, perfectly delivering her sauciness, her garrulousness, alongside her deep-felt affection for Juliet.

There is much to enjoy and appreciate here, more than compensating for the decisions that don’t quite pay off.  Sophie Cotton’s original compositions are contemporary and atmospheric, and Charles Balfour’s starry lighting beautifies the industrial setting.

If the production does speak to the young members of the audience, perhaps it says something to them about knife crime and partisan gang culture.  To us slightly older others, it’s a strong rendition of an old favourite, with some hit-and-miss ideas, and some pulsating, bass-heavy dance music that can’t be over too soon.

Romeo and Juliet production photos_ 2018._2018_Photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC_248980

Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill (Photo: Topher McGrillis © RSC )

 


Smile; you’re in Candide Chimera!

CANDIDE

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 12th September, 2013

Voltaire’s most celebrated work is the springboard for this new play by the RSC’s resident playwright, Mark Ravenhill.  I’m pleased to say you don’t need in-depth knowledge of the original in order to get a lot out of this intriguing and thought-provoking piece.

It begins on expected ground, in the 18th century, but already there’s a twist.  Candide (an appealing Matthew Needham) is being shown a dramatisation of his life, enacted on a scaled-up version of a toy theatre.  It takes him a while to cotton on that the people in front of him are not those he knows but actors representing characters.  It’s a framing device similar to that in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle – in fact this production has Brecht’s handiwork sharing the driving seat with Voltaire.  The highly mannered performance style of the ‘actors’, a blend of 18th century posturing and ‘gestus’, the under-projected singing, drawing attention to the message rather than eliciting admiration for the voices – Ravenhill gives us a potted Voltaire before setting out his stall with his own flights of fancy.

There are abrupt changes of gear between sequences.  Suddenly we are witnessing a birthday party at which everything is black.  A massacre ensues, with some stylised bloodshed and more than a hint of Tarantino.  This event triggers other sequences: the survivor (an excellent, powerful Katy Stevens) goes on to write a book, and then the screenplay for a film of the events, fuelled by the philosophising contained within Candide.

In-between these scenes, we cut back to Candide as he travels in search of his lost love Cunegonde, including a visit to the almost idyllic land of Eldorado.  It’s a real challenge to Candide’s world view, but ultimately greed and capitalistic exploitation rear their ugly heads.

Ravenhill extends the satire of Voltaire into our age and beyond.  There is a science fiction twist at the end, when Candide’s inexplicably long-lived mentor Pangloss is now seeking to medicate the entire population, isolate the ‘optimism gene’ so that mankind can forever more be happy – or rather his definition of happy.  It’s an amusing and effective idea in a play that is crammed with ideas, and riffs on ideas.  It’s a lot to take in and some scenes are better at getting their point across than others.  Ultimately, the play never falls short of interesting, played out by an excellent company and presented in some inventive ways by director Lyndsey Turner.

Special mention for the wonderful Ishia Bennison in a range of roles, and prologue Harry McEntire, whose voice I could listen to all night.  Sarah Ridgeway’s birthday girl Sophie is pretty powerful, Ian Redmond’s Pangloss is as avuncular as he is driven, and John Hopkins is in hilarious form as monstrous movie producer ‘Tim’.

It’s only when you’ve seen the whole that you appreciate the parts of this chimera.  Pangloss’s optimism is still with us, in one form or another, and there is as much to criticise and satirise in the world as ever there was.  Everything is not for the best.  This is not the best of all possible worlds.

Matthew Needham speaks Candide-ly (sorry) Photo: Manuel Harlan

Matthew Needham speaks Candide-ly (sorry)
Photo: Manuel Harlan


Double-dealing and Double Meanings

A MAD WORLD MY MASTERS

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 20th June, 2013

My first impression of this doctored version of Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean comedy, here updated to Soho in the 1950s, was that it is very similar to West End hit, One Man Two Guvnors, in terms of period and knockabout feel.  I suppose what it really demonstrates is the unchanging nature of comic archetypes.

The language has been not-so-much updated as interfered with (in a knowing, oo-er Mrs kind of way) with modern-day interjections thrust into the play’s convoluted passages. Almost every line is a sexual metaphor of some kind.  I didn’t know where to put myself.The cast handle whatever comes their way with relish.

It’s at first a celebration of human flaws and foibles, as certain characters set out to take advantage of others in a variety of means. Dick Follywit (Richard Goulding) can’t wait to inherit his uncle’s fortune and so he sets out to rob the old man by dint of disguise and confidence trickery.  Goulding has something of a dynamic David Cameron about him (if you can imagine such a creature) – but don’t let that put you off. As his schemes unfold, it is with the old uncle that our sympathies lie. Ian Redford is marvellous as Sir Bounteous Peersucker, the victim of Follywit’s cons; he has peccadillos of his own, which make him ripe for exploiting. Scheming prostitute Truly Kidman (a superb Sarah Ridgeway) outdoes Follywit in the effectiveness of her deception.  She dresses as a nun in order to facilitate a sequestered wife’s liaisons with her lover.  That the wife is married to a Mr Littledick tells you all you need to know.  Her lover is one Penitent Brothel, a name that conjures up the duality of the character.  Played by the excellent John Hopkins, Brothel, having got what he wanted, repents of his lust and turns to self-flagellation instead, swapping one physical sensation for another.

There is much to admire in this strong company. Ishia Bennison delights as Truly Kidman’s mother and pimp; Richard Durden is a scream as “Spunky” the doddering old retainer whose hearing aids scream to herald his exits and entrances; Steffan Rhodri and Ellie Beaver as the Littledicks handle their broad comedy with aplomb, but my heart goes out to the hapless Constable (Dwane Walcott) perhaps the only innocent in the whole piece.

The production is riddled with contemporary music, some tunes more familiar than others. The cast have a go (Mrs Littledick’s Cry Me A River is poignant and apposite, Follywit’s number is less palatable – imagine the Bullingdon Boys doing Elvis) but most of the vocal stylings come from the sultry and soulful Linda John-Pierre.  I could happily have listened to her all night.

Director Sean Foley masters his mad world with total assurance.  The tampering with the text makes Middleton more accessible, demonstrating there is life in the old plots yet.  The play is still about what it was always about: the eternal folly of man. The moral seems to be we should enjoy others being made fools of while we can – we never know when it’s our turn.

In the last act, there is a play-within-a-play (a ruse to mask a robbery) and Sir Bounteous remarks that the ‘actors’ “have made faces at us, laughing at ourselves.”

There’s a double meaning in that.

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Penitent Brothel (John Hopkins) enjoys a Littledick (Ellie Beaver)