Tag Archives: John Stahl

Uptown Top Rankin

REBUS: LONG SHADOWS

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 25th September, 2018

 

The character of John Rebus is familiar to many from the novels of Ian Rankin and their television adaptations.  Here, he is brought to life by Charles Lawson (formerly Jim Macdonald off of Coronation Street) in this first-ever stage version, adapted by Rona Munro. Lawson is a compelling, dishevelled presence, a sleeping lion of a man whose exterior belies the power he retains.  In retirement, he has lost none of the faculties that made him a good detective, and is still able to resort to, shall we call it ‘active persuasion’ to get the information he seeks.

The arrival of the daughter of a long-ago murder victim brings Rebus out of his Edinburgh flat and on the hunt for a resolution to the cold case.  Meanwhile, his mentee Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke (the mighty Cathy Tyson) is keen to get a serial rapist/murderer banged up.  Suddenly, Rebus is juggling two investigations, and the involvement of nasty piece of work crime lord ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty brings to light a dark secret from the former detective’s past…

It’s an intriguing if wordy tale, heavy on the exposition but played with conviction so it never falls short of gripping – and there are more laughs in it than you might expect.  Director Robin Lefevre maintains a naturalistic if intense style from his small but excellent cast, played against Ti Green’s stylised set – a sweeping staircase and foreboding walls that would not be out of place in an opera house.  Garth McConaghie’s original music is moody and urgent, befitting the thriller aspects of the story, and his sound design is disquieting.  The crimes are kept off-stage but are evoked by the dramatic device of having a couple of victims (Dani Heron and Eleanor House) appearing to haunt and taunt Rebus with his failure to secure a conviction and get them the justice they deserve.

Lawson and Tyson make an abrasive double act – we sense the mutual respect beneath the barbs and the jibes – but it is the scenes between Lawson and Big Ger (John Stahl) that make all the backstory worthwhile.  Stahl is menacingly charismatic, contrasting with Lawson’s comparatively passive presence, as Rebus apparently effortlessly manages the situation…  There is strong support from Neil McKinven in a couple of roles, and Eleanor House as Heather, the young femme fatale of the piece.

The waters are muddied.  This is no black-and-white crime story.  The morality is as murky as an Edinburgh fog.  One thing is unequivocal: Tyson yearns for a world in which men never attack women.  Looking at the current state of American politics, that world seems a long way off.

A stylish, involving piece, slickly presented and expertly played.  I would not be averse to seeing further Rebus stories staged in this way.

Rebus_Cathy Tyson as Siobhan Clarke & Charles Lawson as Rebus_c Robert Day (2)

Cathy Tyson and Charles Lawson (Photo: Robert Day)

 

 

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AS YOU LIKE IT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 25th April, 2013

 

Maria Aberg’s production of one of Shakespeare’s more uneven comedies is a qualified success.  It falls to a strong cast to lift the show out of some rather muddy ideas.   It gets off to a good start.  The opening exchanges between Orlando and old servant Adam, and then between Orlando and his big brother Oliver are very nicely played and staged, but when we move to the court of Duke Frederick, things take a turn for the bizarre.  The courtiers do a dance, a jerky, spasmodic routine that I guess is meant to convey something about the confinements and restrictions placed on them.  It’s a bit weird and distracts from the action of the scene and, what is most odd, we don’t get anything else like this throughout the piece.  The idea is underused and undeveloped.  The production gains nothing by its inclusion.

The wrestling scene is visceral. Malcolm Ranson has created more of a bare-knuckle fight than a wrestling match.  Orlando proves to be enough of a biter to merit a signing as a professional footballer.

This play stands or falls on its Rosalind and Orlando.  Aberg has two of the best I’ve seen.  Pippa Nixon is spot on as the disenfranchised Duke’s daughter, assured enough to be witty and young enough to be swept away by love at first sight.  She turns to cross-dressing as a means of survival, playing the comedy and the dramatic irony to the hilt.  Her role-playing scenes with Orlando are funny and touching, eliciting many an ooh and an aww from the sixth-formers in the balcony.  Nixon has been good in previous productions.  In this one she is excellent.

Alex Waldmann makes his Orlando likeable from the start.  His scenes with faithful old manservant Adam (David Fielder) are wonderful.  Orlando’s affections become preoccupied with Rosalind and Waldmann is adorable in his halting attempts to compose a song for her.  It is good to see him in  more light-hearted scenes, and he plays them with truth and credibility.

Aberg’s Forest of Arden is foliage free and infested with new-age travellers, refugees from a Levellers’ concert.  It all gets a bit too hippy-dippy and Glastonbury festival for my tastes.  Melancholic Jaques (Oliver Ryan) is peculiar, tripping out to an acoustic guitar. The comic business between Touchstone and Audrey, and Silvius and Pheobe, is a little encumbered by the set – a sort of revolving gazebo affair.  The play works best when the scenes are played in such a way that you can overlook the setting, ignore the fridge, and enjoy Shakespeare expertly delivered.

Luke Norris is very good as Oliver and John Stahl makes his mark as the tyrannical Duke – a pity we only hear about his demise rather than seeing him again but, hey ho, that’s Shakespeare.  Michael Grady-Hall gives depth to the minor role of Silvius although his Phoebe (Natalie Klamar) is a little too annoying.  Nicolas Tennant’s Touchstone starts off as Charlie Cairoli from the waist up and Max Wall from the waist down, but ends up as a debauched Godspell reject.  He tries to engage in some improvised patter with an audience member; hilariously it falls flat. “I’m back on the text now,” he points out, “We’ve got a long way to go.”

He’s right.  It is a bit long and could stand a few cuts.  Rosalind’s song, for example, during which a quartet of female characters parade around with flaming torches – the woman beside me leaned towards my ear and declared, “It’s like a sixth form play”.  I think, all in all, I enjoyed the production more than she did, because of the actors and despite the director!

Pippa Nixon as Rosalind as Ganymede

Pippa Nixon as Rosalind as Ganymede


Dancing King

KING JOHN
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 12th July, 2012


Maria Aberg’s production transforms the Swan Theatre into a function room at a hotel. The cast is dressed to party in a kind of corporate, contemporary way. A net holds a huge number of colourful balloons against the back wall – the greatest tension in this show is wondering when exactly those balloons will be released to flood the stage.

The play begins with the Bastard (Pippa Nixon) picking out Land of Hope and Glory on a ukulele and inviting the audience to sing along. Songs feature heavily in this version. At one point – the union of Blanche of Spain and Lewis of France – we are suddenly hurled into My Best Friend’s Wedding, as King John leads the company in a spirited version of Say A Little Prayer. The happy couple’s first dance is lifted directly from Dirty Dancing. Interesting, I thought: King John as chick-flick…

The mood changes upon the arrival of Pandulph. The Pope’s Legate. Played by Paola Dionisotti, this is an understated but high status performance – in the world of this play, women have access to positions of power and can be just as ruthless as the men. It’s not so much a feminist stance as a neutralising of gender.

Pandulph is swift to urge war between the newly-united nations. Both sides are up for it and so, among the discarded champagne bottles and party favours, battle ensues. Characters stagger on with blood-smeared arms and faces. It’s like a fight at a wedding. We’ve all had a bit to drink. Leave it. It’s not worth it…

Alex Waldmann’s John is a likeable if amoral playboy but such is the nature of the piece, this king doesn’t really come across as a tragic figure. Reportedly poisoned by a monk, he suddenly breaks out into a dance routine that is startling. He is trying to keep the party going, fighting against physical agony and decline – but the party has been over since the start of the second half when the balloons flood the stage and stay there for the rest of the piece, providing a distraction for those members of the audience who see fit to bat them back onto the stage. The balloons having served their purpose undermine the drama of the events that follow.

Pippa Nixon is a passionate Bastard, mocking the nobles, but the most affecting performances come from those with whom she interacts. Sandra Duncan, as the Bastard’s mother, quickly overcomes the laughter provoked by her arrival in motorcycle leathers and baby pink crash helmet, to deliver a touching confession. Jacob Mauchlen as doomed Prince Arthur is excellent, delivering his speeches clearly and poignantly – you believe it when the Bastard’s heart is touched (past productions have used boy actors who make you want to silence them yourself!) The wonderful John Stahl is an avuncular French King and Siobhan Redmond is underused as Elinor, John’s mother.

Much as I was engaged by some of the ideas in this production, what I found annoying, frustrating and downright infuriating was a disregard for basic stagecraft that ruined the show for me. With this kind of set-up, a thrust stage with the audience on three sides, you expect, wherever you’re sitting, to see the actors’ backs from time to time. It’s the nature of the beast. The director should seek to ‘share the backs’ in a democratic manner. What you don’t expect is for characters, onlookers to the action, to be placed downstage for the entirety of scenes, hiding what’s happening centre stage. This happens too many times. Hardly a scene went by where I didn’t find myself staring at someone’s shoulder blades, wishing they would bloody well shift. I’ve never experienced this frustration before, and I’ve had seats in all areas of that theatre.

So, while the actors are giving high quality performances they are undermined by inconsiderate and irritating blocking. It doesn’t matter how clever the production ideas may be – if the audience can’t see them, you may as well perform in a blackout.


Aztec Camera Obscura

A SOLDIER IN EVERY SON – The Rise of the Aztecs
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 2nd July, 2012

The RSC in collaboration with the National Theatre Company of Mexico have come up with a production that is as irritating as it is entertaining – and it is very entertaining. Thirty years of fifteenth century Mexican history are crammed into three hours and for the most part – well, the first part, it’s an involving, melodramatic thrill-ride, infused with dark humour and action. The second part… not so much but I’ll come back to that.

There is a problem, a barrier to our enjoyment that I found annoying. It almost works like an alienation effect, keeping us at a distance from the action and the characters. Almost. It’s not so much the names of people and places, all of them polysyllabic, some of them very similar – although these don’t make it easy to keep up with who’s whom and what’s what. The problem for me (perhaps I’m alone in this but I doubt it) is the plethora of accents used by the international cast. Just as the ear becomes attuned to one actor’s intonation, along comes someone else with a different accent. It’s a rich blend but bears no relation to who the characters are in relation to each other. The three tribes represented each have a mix of nationalities and so can only be differentiated by costume. There is even a lone Scotsman embroiled in all of this. I know it’s the World Shakespeare Festival but the cosmopolitan aspect of the cast could have been used to elucidate the play rather than obfuscate it.

The plot is as factual a representation of Mexican history as an of Shakespeare’s histories – that is to say dramatic licence is king. There are many familiar set-ups recognisable from Shakespeare and that is a deliberate approach on the part of playwright Luis Mario Moncada (in a snappy, earthy translation by Gary Owen): Spurned Princess Tecpa (a compelling Susie Trayling) has a touch of Lady Macbeth about her – she even takes her own life off-stage. There are echoes of Claudius and Gertrude’s marriage, Lear carrying the body of Cordelia, Hamlet addressing Yorick’s skull… there is much fun to had by the smug Shakespeare scholar in spotting all of these.

There is little time for character development – events happen at too quick a pace. Shakespeare would have made at least two plays out of the material. This is almost like a highlights package. I liked Alex Waldmann as Ixtlixochitl (a fun-loving prince, not a cough remedy – he becomes a mighty king in the mould of Henry V, even to the extent of shunning his former playmate). He also plays his own son years later, Nezahualcoyotl (bless you) and much is made of the resemblance between father and son!

John Stahl is a foul-mouthed brute of a king as Tezozomoc. His tirades and expletives are very funny as he exposes his monstrous tyranny – in this play it is the violence that shocks. The sudden murder of Ixtlixochitl, the bloody ritual sacrifice of a child… it all serves to keep the energy up and a frisson of tension, even if at times, you’re not sure who is who and what they’re going on about.

Eloise Kazan’s costumes are gorgeous – although I found the design for the Aztec tribe more than a little jarring. They look like a gang of S&M punk rockers in their Mohawk hairdos, black leather trousers and studded wristbands, lacking the air of authenticity prevalent in other costumes. Jorge Ballina’s set is a curling parchment, like an old map, on which the battles, negotiations and betrayals are acted out. The music by Dave Price is stirring and evocative, lots of percussion and birdsong. Director Roxana Silbert handles the contrasting moods and rapid turn of events expertly. For the most part…

In the second half, the action slows down and the play loses its way somewhat. With many characters killed off before the interval, there are more new names to get used to, played by the same actors. It takes an hour to tell what in the first half would have been done in fifteen minutes.

This is a pity – up until then I thought this blend of Mexican history and Shakespearean storytelling was working rather well.