Tag Archives: Jake Fairbrother

Star Turn

A LIFE OF GALILEO

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 19th February, 2013

Roxana Silbert’s production of this new translation by RSC resident playwright Mark Ravenhill gives us a Brecht play that adds weight to the characters’ humanity, wisely restricting the Brechtian aspects of the staging to the inter-scene transitions.

We begin with a backdrop like huge sheets of blue graph paper.  A handheld microphone lies centre stage.  Electronic noticeboards hang over the stage, scrolling the captions for each scene. The mic is snatched up by Galileo himself.  As he begins to narrate, cast members run by, stripping him down to his boxer shorts.  As he washes himself, he instructs his landlady’s young son in the basics of his argument: that the Earth is not a fixed point at the centre of the universe; it moves and turns, as all stars do…  And so, the play begins with both man and his ideas laid bare before us.

As Galileo, evil emperor Palpatine off of Star Wars himself, Ian McDiarmid gives a towering performance.  We see the mathematician’s enthusiasm and delight along with his egotism, his boastfulness, his drive, his passion and his arrogance on almost a Dawkins-like scale.  This is a portrait of a man, painted with deft strokes and more naturalism than you might expect in a Brecht play.  In fact, in this world of plastic chairs and nifty red stepladders, the cast breathes life into the characters, making them more than mouthpieces for either side of the central argument.

That argument is uncannily topical.  It is astounding to me to know that in 2013 reason still faces such strong opposition from institutionalised superstition.   You only have to think back a fortnight or so and recall the fatuous arguments of the wilfully ignorant trying to bolster their bigotry against equal marriage with highly selective quotes from scripture.  You don’t have to watch the news for long to see countries where facts are stubbornly denied and contradicted by those who cling to superstition.  Change will damage society, these people claim, when what they really mean is their positions of power will be challenged.  On a smaller scale, my own Twitter feed is littered on a daily basis with horoscopes posted by people who, in other respects, seem intelligent and insightful. Brecht’s play, first presented in 1937, is very much a chronicle for the early 21st century.

An extra topical note the producers could not have foreseen is the changeover of popes.  Galileo looks forward to a less reactionary man in a pointy hat… I wish I could share his optimism.

In an excellent cast, I especially liked Matthew Aubrey as landlady’s son Andrea.  We watch him grow from curious young lad to fervent proponent of the new thinking.  Philip Whitchurch’s Barberini, Jake Fairbrother’s Ludovico, and Martin Turner’s Cardinal Inquisitor all lend weight and credibility to the ‘other side’; and there is a wonderfully comic moment from Patrick Romer as a ‘very old cardinal’ stomping around, knackering himself out, proclaiming he is the centre of the universe.  Jodie McNee is Galileo’s pious daughter – her repeated chanting of “Hail Marys” is disturbing, as she prays her dad will recant his heretical hypotheses.  Tom Scott’s design is simple and clean, like a new geometry set on the first day of school.  John Woolf leads the band of musicians in some raucous and rousing tunes.

It’s a provocative and compelling production.  Silbert and Ravenhill make Brecht accessible and enjoyable, but the evening belongs to McDiarmid – his performance is, dare I say, a tour de ‘Force’?

The Force is strong in this one.  Ian Mc Diarmid as Galileo and Matthew Aubrey as Andrea.

The Force is strong in this one. Ian Mc Diarmid as Galileo and Matthew Aubrey as Andrea.

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Zhao Wow

THE ORPHAN OF ZHAO
Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 6th December, 2012

The story is the stuff of legend and folk tale, detailing events before and after the birth of the titular orphan. Thousands of years old, the plot has elements of Hamlet, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and even Star Wars and The Lion King, and yet this new adaptation by James Fenton feels fresh as well as familiar. It is never short of engaging or thoroughly entertaining and it’s also rather stirring.

Niki Turner’s stylish but sparse set is the backdrop for this epic story, while Stephanie Arditti’s extravagant costumes and Paul Inglishby’s music lend an Oriental air to the proceedings. I believe there was some hullabaloo about the casting of this production, the dearth of Chinese actors in the company. This bum’s view on this kind of argument is, Acting is all about pretending to be what you are not. Otherwise, you could say only a Dane may play Hamlet, and pantomime dames and principal boys better start claiming the dole.

Anyway…

We meet the Emperor (Stephen Ventura), a man given to taking pot shots at the populace with his bow and arrow, purely for the sake of entertainment. His right hand man and (the biggest) villain of the piece is Tu’An Gu – Joe Dixon, who is great fun with his Northern twang and massive mastiff. He is the Darth Vader to Jake Fairbrother’s Cheng Bo – the long lost Orphan himself. Fairbrother is splendid as the dashing young hero who comes to learn his true identity, showing nobility and vulnerability in the same moments. The wonderful Lucy Briggs-Owen is the wronged Princess, mother to the Orphan, roaming her palace prison like Miss Havisham Peking style. You hope she will be reunited with her son; indeed it is inevitable but in this story of sudden violence and self-sacrifice, you can’t be entirely sure it will come to pass. Until it does.

Country doctor Cheng Ying provides the emotional core of the story in a fine and affecting performance by Graham Turner. As characters come and go, dropping like flies, it is through him that we witness the turning of events. Nia Gwynne gives a moving turn as his wife, forced to make the greatest sacrifice – This is a sweeping story with very dramatic events but performances like those of Turner and Gwynne imbue it with emotional integrity, lifting it above the fairytale and the fireside yarn.

Gregory Doran directs with gusto, allowing humour to permeate the sensational scenes. There is shocking violence but it is its impact on the story rather than its depiction that affects us. Red petals rain gently from above every time someone dies, which is often. The plot is resolved satisfactorily – you get a feeling that justice has been done, that right has prevailed – and the final scene, a confrontation between Cheng Ying and the ghost of the child he sacrificed is eerie, moving and, again, right.

It is a pity the Swan was not packed to the rafters at the performance I attended – it’s one of the strongest productions in the RSC’s current season.

Jake Fairbrother (Cheng Bo)_The Orphan of Zhao_photo credit Kwame Lestrade