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Play Politics

IMPERIUM Parts One and Two

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.

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Joseph Kloska and Richard McCabe (Photo: Ikin Yum)

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Perfect Storm

THE TEMPEST

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.

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Spirited performance: Mark Quartley as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero (Photo: Topher McGrillis)


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