Tag Archives: John Hodgkinson

Venice not v nice

VENICE PRESERVED

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 24th June, 2019

 

Thomas Otway’s play from 1682 is revived in stylish form for the RSC by director Prasanna Puwanarajah, who sets the piece in a 1980s noir-cum-comic book setting of darkness and drains, of pulsating music, with nudges to Blade Runner – and there’s even a character who looks like Grace Jones.  Here, as in Otway’s original where he was critiquing the government of the day, this is not about Venice then or now.  It’s a veiled comment on our present (woeful) government – and in this respect it works quite well.

Central to the action is married couple Jaffeir (NOT the villain in Aladdin) and Belvidera (NOT a guest house in Southport) whose relationship is sorely tested when he loses his money and they have to turn to her estranged father, Senator Pruili (an underused Les Dennis).  Jaffeir is drawn into a group of revolutionaries by his bezzie mate Pierre (a cocksure and pragmatic Stephen Fewell) putting his wife up as collateral to prove his allegiance to their murderous cause.  Belvidera doesn’t take too kindly to being offered up as a hostage and narrowly escapes rape by the swaggering Renault (Steve Nicolson) a man so rebellious he brazenly sports an alarming mullet.

As Jaffeir, Michael Grady-Hall brings passion and intensity, torn between his love and his friend.  Grady-Hall is always great value, bringing out the depths of the role.  Equally, Jodie McNee is compelling as tragic-but-dignified Belvidera, although I spend a lot of time wondering why she’s the only one with a strong Liverpudlian accent…  Puwanarajah has his cast express emotion in broad strokes: there is a lot of falling to one’s knees, a lot of menacing each other with daggers, and while this makes for exciting viewing I find that, coupled with Otway’s scornful script, I don’t much care for anybody.

Amid the bleak melodrama, there is humour, provided mainly by the marvellous John Hodgkinson’s sleazeball senator Antonio, heavily into S&M and fully aware he can stun opponents into submission by making long speeches.  The satire is ladled on thick as Hodgkinson hops around, his trousers at his ankles, alternating baby talk with oratory and verbiage.

It’s a production of bold moves, in its performance and its presentation.  Belvidera’s cell, demarcated by lighting, looks like she’s being detained in a nightclub.  The V for Vendetta masks sported by the revolutionaries are a bit on the nose.   But I like the darkness of it, the dripping water, the coming-and-going with umbrellas.  And Les Dennis navigating a gear change from hard-hearted gammon to tender, repentant father, is the finest performance of the night.

The message I come away with is that while those who oppose the government are too wrapped up with fighting among themselves, they will never achieve their aim, leaving the sleazeballs in power where they thrive and they flourish.

Venice Preserved

Family fortune: Jodie McNee as Belvidera and Les Dennis as Priuli. Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC

 

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Romp with Pomp

THE PROVOKED WIFE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 5th June, 2019

 

John Vanbrugh’s comedy from 1697 is given an exuberant revival in this new production for the RSC by Phillip Breen.  A prologue points out that the playwright got his inspiration from us, the audience – and this is all we need to remind us that human nature, and in particular, human foibles have not changed a jot.  Breen sensibly keeps everything in and of the period and because of this, the show works admirably.  Mark Bailey’s set is a theatre, with plush crimson drapes and a pelmet, and footlights around three sides of the stage, setting the action against a backdrop of artifice, while the lavish costumes denote both class and character.

Lady Brute (a magnificent Alexandra Gilbreath) seeks distraction from her loveless marriage to Lord Brute (Jonathan Slinger in excellent form) by plotting with her niece Belinda (the charming Natalie Dew) romantic intrigues involving her suitor Constant (Rufus Hound has never been more dashing).  Constant’s best mate, professed woman-hater Heartfree finds himself enamoured of Belinda – in a masterly comic performance from John Hodgkinson, tossing off Vanbrugh’s sardonic epigrams with effortless bitterness.

A big name draw for this splendid company is TV favourite Caroline Quentin as the monstrously vain and conceited Lady Fanciful.  Quentin is made for this kind of stuff, and gives a hugely enjoyable performance.  Hardly subtle, Vanbrugh names his characters to suit their natures – Quentin’s portrayal is far from one-note and is an absolute joy to behold.

Also appearing, but mainly as a supernumerary is veteran comic Les Dennis, cutting his teeth at the RSC.  I’m assuming he has a more featured role in this play’s companion piece in repertory – but more of that anon.

Released from the confines of their gallery, the musicians feature on stage, coming and going to cover transitions and to accompany the songs – Paddy Cunneen’s  original composition, vibrant, sometimes discordant, enhance the period flavour and the comical nature of proceedings.  Rosalind Steele and Toby Webster are in splendid voice as Pipe and Treble respectively.

After much farcical comings-and-goings, including Lord Brute donning a frock and beating up the night’s watch like Old Mother Riley, the action takes a more dramatic turn, and we appreciate the depths of despair and danger Lady Brute endures.  Gilbreath and Slinger flip from wry comic barbs to horribly tense domestic abuse and it’s gripping stuff.  The plot is resolved with a quick succession of gasp-worthy revelations but the Brutes remain together, a bitter note among the hilarity and happiness.

Expertly presented, this production will get you laughing from the off.  It does run a bit long; this bum on a seat was a bit numb on the seat well before the end.  I advise you to get out and stretch your legs during the interval.  It’s a long haul but it’s more than worth it.

"The Provoked Wife" by John Vanbrugh

Behaving badly: Caroline Quentin as Lady Fanciful (Photo: Pete Le May, c RSC)

 


Marley and E

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 18th December, 2017

 

Do we need yet another version of Charles Dickens’s perennial classic?  The RSC and playwright David Edgar think we do, but what can they bring to this well-worn table?  Is there anything fresh to be said?

Yes, quite a bit, as it turns out.

Edgar frames his adaptation around a conversation between Dickens (Nicholas Bishop) and his editor (Beruce Khan).  The latter tries to persuade the former to dress up his social justice tract as a story, because stories are more powerful than facts and figures.  On the spot, Dickens conjures characters and scenes to life, and Bishop and Khan become our narrators as the familiar (to us) story unfolds.  There are some lovely moments of interplay between creator and created as Dickens prompts his characters, they ask what they should do, and especially when the Doctor’s Boy (Luca Saraceni-Gunner) has to run on three times in quick succession.  This approach heightens the storytelling aspect of the play.

Edgar also highlights Dickens’s social conscience by interpolating statistics and vox pops regarding child exploitation and poverty in Birmingham, Edgar’s home town and just up the road from Stratford.  This hammers home the message of the story, and it runs contrary to everything our present government stands for.  On the one hand, it’s startling to see how relevant the story remains; on the other, it’s depressing to realise, what progress we made post-WWII is being reversed.  Workhouses can’t be far away.

Leading the cast is Phil Davis as a magnificent Ebenezer Scrooge.  Davis has an intensity to his meanness and spite – but that intensity doesn’t dim when Scrooge sees the light.  This Scrooge is well-Brexit, despising the poor, spouting racist bile, but if he can be rehabilitated, surely the country’s descent into bitter isolationism can be reversed?  The production gives me hope.

Among an excellent ensemble, I enjoy Joseph Prowen as nephew Fred, who manages to be pleasant and fair without being soppy, and Giles Taylor’s chummy ghost of Jacob Marley.  John Hodgkinson’s benevolent but ailing employer Mr Fezziwig represents the loss of workers’ rights (keenly sought by the Tories of today) – if you think I’m stretching the present-day comparisons, consider the names Edgar gives to some of the minor characters: Snapchat, Tinder and Uber.

But do not fear: the political aspects in no way overshadow the entertainment value of the piece.  There is a lot of fun here and much to enjoy, from Catherine Jayes’s original music, to Natasha Ward’s detailed costumes.  Director Rachel Kavanaugh combines sophistication (the special effects – I especially like the face in the smoke) with simplicity (the extra-slow motion exit of Fezziwig’s party guests, for example) to give us a production that hits a lot of high notes and, I hope, strikes a chord.  The world won’t stop turning, we are reminded, if the rich have a little less and the poor have a little more.

To return to my original question: do we need yet another version of the story?  Yes.  Yes, we do.  More than bloody ever.

A-Christmas-Carol-production-photos_-2017_2017_Photo-by-Manuel-Harlan-_c_-RSC_236186

E’s a Scrooge, E’s a Scrooge, he’s Ebenezer Scrooge – Phil Davis (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


A ‘Night’ to Remember

TWELFTH NIGHT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 13th November, 2017

 

Director Christopher Luscombe sets his Illyria in the late Victorian era, with Orsino’s court designated as ‘the town’ and Olivia’s estate as ‘the country’.  Thus the action is divided along the same lines as The Importance of Being Earnest – the characters even travel between the two by train.  There is a distinctly Wildean feel to Duke Orsino’s court.  Orsino (Nicholas Bishop) surrounds himself with witty young men, among them Valentine (Tom Byrne) and a rather striking Curio (Luke Latchford) posing almost naked for a painting.  Later, we meet Antonio (an elegant and dignified Giles Taylor) who openly declares his love for Sebastian while sporting Oscar Wilde’s green carnation – he even gets arrested!

Washed up into this world of witty men is Viola, who is more than a match for them.  Disguising herself as a boy and becoming servant to Orsino, Viola, now Cesario, finds herself falling for the Duke and he for her – although he buys into the disguise.  There is a sliding scale to sexuality and Orsino seems skewed toward one end.

Dinita Gohil makes for a bright-eyed and plucky Viola – it is about her fate we care the most.  Kara Tointon’s elegant and haughty Olivia becomes more enjoyable as she begins to dote on Cesario.  Her protracted period of mourning for a dead brother is clearly to keep Orsino at bay, while Orsino woos by remote control, preferring the company of young men.

As Malvolio, Adrian Edmondson gets across the prudish servant’s pompous officiousness and also his hissing contempt for the others.  In his mad, yellow-stockinged scene, he’s more of a cheeky chappie from the music hall; I get the feeling there is more wildness beneath the surface than he lets out.  His best moments come at the end when Malvolio, a broken man, comes to realise how he has been played and by whom.

Vivien Parry is excellent as Maria, instigator of the practical joke against Malvolio, bringing a lot of fun and heart to proceedings, but John Hodgkinson’s Sir Toby Belch (who does more farting than belching) has little of the lovable rogue about him.  He’s a drunkard, a user and a bully – too much of a mean streak for me.  Similarly, Beruce Khan’s Feste is embittered with anger and cruelty, which could be argued to stem from his position, as entertainer to silly white people, but I find the vehemence of his revenge leaves a bitter aftertaste, after an otherwise enjoyable and engaging performance.

There are many high points.  The letter scene involves some hilarious comic business with the garden statuary; Michael Cochrane’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a posh, bewildered delight; Sarah Twomey’s Fabia is a lot of fun; and songs like ‘O Mistress Mine’ and ‘Come Away, Death’ are beautifully melancholic, even with added Indian beats and instrumentation.

Nigel Hess’s original compositions bring Victorian music hall flavours but at times the music is overpowering.  It’s a bit like when an Oscar winner speaks for too long and the orchestra strikes up to play them off.  Several scenes suffer from this intrusion.  Some of the humour seems heavy-handed: a pack of servants fleeing the mad Malvolio doesn’t quite work for me.

Overall, I like the style.  Simon Higlett’s design marries Victorian architecture (hothouses, railway stations) with an autumnal palette.  Mortality is ever-present in the piles of dead leaves.

While there is much to admire and enjoy about this lively production with its many fresh ideas, I’m afraid some of the cakes are a little stale and some of the ale is somewhat flat.

Twelfth Night production photos_ 2017_2017_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_234119 (1)

To the letter: Adrian Edmondson as Malvolio (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


A Merry War

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING or LOVE’S LABOUR’S WON

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th October, 2014

I’m not convinced by the idea that Much Ado is a companion piece to Love’s Labour’s Lost (also currently playing in a top-notch production) – there is a difference in quality to the writing that suggests to me that LLL is a preliminary sketch for the masterpiece of romantic comedy that was to follow. That said, the pairing of these productions works superbly: Simon Higlett’s sumptuous Downton Abbey set (based on real-life stately home Charlecote Park) gets a second airing and the cast reappear, this time post-WWI, to delight us anew, their warmth and conviviality all the cosier in a bright, wintery setting.

In short: this is the most enjoyable production I have seen at the RSC for a long time. It is an unalloyed joy. Even when a technical hitch with the scenery stops the show for several minutes, it is treated with good humour and patience – the audience has so much love for the production by this point, I suspect a fire alarm would not have dinted our enjoyment.

Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry dazzle as Benedick and Beatrice who, though arguably the sub-plot, are the undeniable stars. Their delivery is spot on, spouting Shakespeare’s funniest barbs with the precision of a marksman. Anyone who tells you Shakespearean comedy is not funny has never seen Much Ado. Bennett has some ludicrous business with a curtain and a Christmas tree, while Terry is not above casting herself to the floor in mockery. But there is real heart to the couple.   They ‘speak poignards’ and sometimes the words stab at your heart. It’s laugh-out-loud stuff that also makes you misty-eyed and warmed of cockle, and a firework display of wit and wordplay by William Shakespeare.

They are supported by an excellent company. John Hodgkinson’s affable Don Pedro has an easy gravitas and gregarious nature, while his brother Don John (whose soubriquet ‘The Bastard’ has been excised from the text) is a pent-up mass of resentment, a powder keg of malevolence, chillingly portrayed by Sam Alexander. David Horovitch is a strong Leonato, cut to the quick by false allegations, and Thomas Wheatley rises to the moment as his brother Antonio, driven to speak out against ‘fashion-monging boys’. Flora Spencer-Longhurst is romantic heroine Hero, bringing credibility to the difficult thwarted-wedding scene, when Hero is mainly silent in the face of vile accusations. Frances McNamee lends a touch of Mrs Doyle (ah, go on, go on, go on) to Ursula the maid and I warmed to Chris Nayak’s Brummie Borachio. Tunji Kasim impresses as the young Count Claudio, led astray by the villain’s lies. Nick Haverson’s Dogberry is full of tics to go along with his malapropisms but I do think director Christopher Luscombe took a wrong turn by setting the examination scene in an overcrowded kitchen: the script is funny enough without complicated comic business, although the scene did stop the show – literally!

Nigel Hess’s marvellous music is the icing on this Christmas cake, played live by an unseen band under the direction of John Woolf. It’s all in keeping with the music of the period – unlike some other productions where an anachronistic soundtrack serves only to alienate.

Much Ado is one of my favourite plays and so I approach every new production with trepidation – I don’t want to see it ruined. With this production it is apparent in seconds flat that we are in not only safe but expert hands, and I can sit back and wallow in the play’s brilliance, presented here in such an agreeable and sublimely entertaining fashion.

LLM-195


Lovely and Unlaboured

LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

RST, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 22nd October, 2014

Simon Higlett’s gorgeous set has more than a touch of Downton Abbey about it – in fact this production is like watching the TV show but with proper drama. Shakespeare’s early rom-com is given an Edwardian treatment by director Christopher Luscombe, who does not stint on neither the rom nor the com. The comic business complements the script – unlike some productions where funny ideas are imposed on scenes – and the result is an absolute joy of a show.

Sam Alexander is the King of Navarre, recruiting his mates into a pact involving three years of abstinence and celibacy. Of course, any rules spelled out in a story are bound to be broken – remember Gremlins? – and so the comedy of the first half unfolds, with each member of the brotherhood breaking the rules and being discovered. Alexander is the cuddly Hugh Bonneville of the group and is more than ably supported by William Belchambers as Longaville, Tunji Kasim as Dumaine and Edward Bennett as proto-Benedick Berowne.   The eavesdropping scene is played out on the rooftop and is superbly handled by this quartet.

Most of the rom comes from Nigel Hess’s sumptuous score and some beautiful singing by Peter McGovern as the boy Moth.

More com comes from Chris McCalphy as dull constable Dull and a highly strung Costard (Nick Haverson). John Hodgkinson is very enjoyable as he mangles English pronunciation as the Spaniard Don Armado – I wonder why he has an accent but other visitors, like the French contingent, do not… That said, Jamie Newall’s rich and fruity tones as Boyet, equerry to the French princess, are a treat to the ear.

Leah Whittaker is striking as the fun-loving Princess of France – everyone looks wonderful in the period costumes – and Michelle Terry is likeable as proto-Beatrice Rosaline.

There is plenty of mucking around attired as Muscovites and the presentation of The Nine Worthies is just lovely.

But, just as the outbreak of the First World War interrupted lives and altered things forever, the arrival of bad news from France puts a spanner in the workings of the plot. We do not get the happy ending we expect – in a masterstroke, Shakespeare detonates a surprise and nothing is the same again. Christopher Luscombe handles it superbly. The final image, of the quartet of friends in uniform, marching away, is a salutary reminder of what we are commemorating this year.

Highly recommended.

Edward Bennett and Sam Alexander, with William Belchamber looking on.

Edward Bennett and Sam Alexander, with William Belchambers looking on.