Tag Archives: James Cooney

Shrewd Moves

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 2nd May, 2019

 

Gender-swapping is all the rage in theatre these days but if there’s a play where changing the men to women and vice versa actually makes a point about the world we live in, it’s this one, Shakespeare’s not-so-romantic comedy about conformity to gender roles.  The setting is a matriarchy, instantly conjuring memories of The Two Ronnies and their Worm That Turned series.  While that show was about revolution, Shakespeare’s is about moulding the individual to comply with societal norms.  Both, I think, show the limitations of expecting as gender to behave in a certain way.  Unlike The Two Ronnies’ serial, which was set in a dystopian future, this production is set very much in the 1590s and things are ticking along nicely, thank you, with women, mature women, ruling the roost as captains of trade and industry.

Baptista Minola (a strident Amanda Harris) is trying to marry off her sons.  The one is sweet and lovely (and hilarious – beautifully played by a hair-tossing James Cooney); the other is aggressive and ferocious – but these women are not cowed by such masculine outbursts, mainly because in their world, such displays are exceedingly rare.  ‘Kate’s tantrums are perceived as an individual’s aberrations, rather than the way that men carry on in general.  As Katherine, Joseph Arkley is both a commanding and an appealing presence.  He is a stallion to be broken, a hound to be brought to heel, a direct contrast to the effeminacy prevalent in other men, for example Richard Clews’s camp old retainer, Grumio.

The woman for the job is Claire Price’s wild-haired Petruchia, all gusto and caprice – it’s OK for women to have their norm-stretching eccentricities, of course.  Well up for a bit of ruff, Price is delightfully unpredictable and very funny.  In fact, the production is riddled with funny women.  There’s a joyous double act: Emily Johnstone’s Lucentia and Laura Elsworthy’s Trania – the latter a real hoot when disguised as a noblewoman.  Sophie Stanton’s Gremia glides around as though on wheels, while Amy Trigg’s Biondella, actually on wheels, darts around, adding to the farcical elements of the action.  There is an elegant turn from Amelia Donkor’s Hortensia.  This Padua is more like Cougar Town, with women of a certain age eyeing up the young male totty.

There’s a vibrant, gorgeous score by Ruth Chan and sumptuous period costumes by Hannah Clark.  Director Justin Audibert keeps the staging traditional – apart from the gender-swaps – and it works brilliantly.  A finely-tuned ensemble keeps the laughs coming and the gender-swaps cast new light on what can be a problematic piece for present-day audiences.  Inversion puts the status quo in the spotlight, and we see how ludicrous it can be to expect individuals to tailor their conduct to adhere to one end of the spectrum or the other.

There’s a lightness of touch to the whole enterprise, so don’t dread a sociological treatise.  This is a hugely enjoyable, refreshing take on a classic that works beautifully.  Wonderful.

The Taming of the Shrew production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Ikin Yum _c_ RSC_275034

Joseph Arkley and Claire Price (Photo: Ikin Yum)

 

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Troying Times

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA

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.

Troilus and Cressida production photographs_ 2018_2018_Photo by Helen Maybanks _c_ RSC _265416

Brought to heel: Andy Apollo as Achilles (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Great Briton

CYMBELINE

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 11th June, 2016

 

Melly Still’s production of Shakespeare’s rarely staged late play embraces the bonkersness of the story – revelling in it, in fact.  Set in a dystopian near-future, a post-technological age, there is a medieval quality to the design; inevitably my mind finds parallels with Game of Thrones.  The extremes of behaviour, the graphic violence – the play has more villains than your average Shakespeare, and, in this production, when Innogen disguises herself as a boy, she chooses Arya Stark cosplay.

As the beset princess, Bethan Cullinane is an appealing lead, with strength and vulnerability – the emphasis is on the latter.  Hiran Abeysekera shows conviction as her secret husband, Posthumus (aka Leonatus), but all the swagger, all the brio, comes from the bad guys.  Marcus Griffiths is magnificent as the arrogant, petulant Cloten; his serenade to Innogen is an unalloyed delight.  Oliver Johnstone is a delicious Iachimo, a louche lounge lizard, cocky and flash – for me one of his worst transgressions is his lack of socks.  James Clyde as the Duke, second husband of Cymbeline (in this show, the titular monarch has been gender swapped), plots and smarms, with elbow patches on his blazer, like a Machiavellian supply teacher.

Queen of the Britons, Cymbeline (Gillian Bevan) is authoritative but also world-worn.  She speaks with the authority of someone who has been through a lot – as if the loss of two of her children twenty years ago has been eating away at her.  Those lost children have been living in Wales all this time.  Mere mention of Milford Haven gets a laugh.  Natalie Simpson makes a fierce Polydore/Guideria, complete with Xena: Warrior Princess battle cry.  Her brother Belarius/Arviragus (James Cooney) is wiry and energetic; he sings beautifully when it comes to Fear No More the Heat of the Sun.

The whole cast is splendid.  Among the ensemble, Theo Ogundipe makes a strong impression in a couple of roles, and Kelly Williams stands out as troubled servant Pisania.

Melly Still freezes the action, or slows it right down, during the characters’ many asides – a neat device that reminds us this is not the real world we are witnessing.  Also, some scenes are spoken in Italian or Latin, with the text projected on the scenery.  This is amusing at first, but Latin doesn’t sound right in an English accent.  But then, who knows what Latin sounded like?

The play deals with deceit and treachery, allegiance and devotion.  War comes because Britain has not paid its tribute to Rome.  After some bloody rushing around and a high body count, Cymbeline agrees to pay what is due.  A metaphor for the upcoming EU referendum?  If so, Cymbeline is definitely on the REMAIN side.  Hooray.

This is a hugely enjoyable production, a real treat to be reacquainted with a play that is not as over-exposed and familiar as the Bard’s greatest hits.  Such is its charm and invention, we go along with it.  In the same way that the characters take reversals of fortune and revelations on the chin, we laugh along.  The sincerity and heart of the performance carries us through the sensationalism of the plot.  Another big hit from the RSC.

Cymbeline_production_photos_May_2016_2016_Photo_by_Ellie_Kurttz_c_RSC_192868

Cloten (Marcus Griffiths) sings his head off (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)


Flare-ups with Flair

FLARE PATH

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 4th November, 2015

 

The Original Theatre Company is back on the road, following up their excellent Three Men in a Boat and the superlative Birdsong with this new production of Terence Rattigan’s 1942 play. As ever, production values are high and while this one isn’t as funny as the former or as emotionally powerful as the latter, it flies high on its own merits.

Set in a Lincolnshire hotel it charts the comings and goings of several couples, the male partners of which are in the RAF and are called out on a mission. Waiting for news of their fate adds to the tension in their relationships. It’s a bit ‘terribly, terribly, darling’ being very much of its time but what makes it extra interesting is that neither the characters nor the playwright know when or how the war will be over. We, the audience, know the outcome (spoiler: we won) – the play must have felt very current when it was first produced. And it’s a bit of a morale booster: personal sacrifice for the greater good, kind of thing.

Hayley Grindle’s set combines period stylings with the genius idea of taking away the walls of the hotel. There is a window, upstage and central, surrounded by a vast expanse of sky – the sky is of the utmost importance to the characters, being airmen and airmen’s wives.

Out of the blue comes matinee idol Peter Kyle (Leon Ockenden being suitably charming and debonair) and it turns out he’s as old flame one of the wives, actress Patricia (Olivia Hallinan bringing 1940s glamour); he’s flaring up again and she is forced to choose between her passion for Peter and her duty to heroic husband Teddy (Alastair Whatley in superb form). It’s a choice between a man who plays heroes and one who actually is one. And yet it is Teddy who is in awe of Peter – but then we often set movie stars on pedestals and undervalue our servicemen. Whatley is awfully good, especially when Teddy’s stiff upper lip gives way after a traumatic flight back to base.

But then the entire cast is high calibre. Affable and endearing Philip Franks is affable and endearing as avuncular Squadron Leader Swanson. Simon Darwen and Shvorne Marks are the Millers from London – both capture the essence of period Cockney without descending into caricature, and there is some excellent character work from Stephanie Jacob as irascible hotel manager Mrs Oakes. Adam Best amuses as Polish Officer Skriczevinsky, nagged by his wife to improve his English – there are touching moments when it looks like he won’t be coming back, powerfully handled by Siobhan O’Kelly reacting to a letter read by Leon Ockenden. I also enjoyed James Cooney as chirpy barman Percy who always seems to know more than the airmen.

We never see a plane but we hear them all right courtesy of Dominic Bilkey’s sound design bringing them close: there is a sense of menace to think that might be a German bomber overhead (especially since I’m sitting in Coventry!).  Director Justin Audibert gets the tone spot on, evoking period and place while still keeping the characters relatable rather than pastiching them beyond our ability to sympathise.

The whole thing smacks of British understatement and emotion kept reined in by humour and making the best of it. Rattigan’s writing is still accessible – the play has hardly dated despite its specificity – and this production satisfies on all levels. Another winner from The Original Theatre Company, dripping in quality and entertainment value and carried off with flair..

Alistair Whatley and Olivia Hallinan (Photo: Jack Ladenburg)

Alistair Whatley and Olivia Hallinan (Photo: Jack Ladenburg)