Tag Archives: John Woolf

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

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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.


Old desire doth in his death bed lie

A TENDER THING
Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 4th October, 2012


What if Romeo and Juliet hadn’t topped themselves? What if they had a long and happy life together? Ben Power’s new play re-invents the tale of the star-cross’d lovers, using Shakespeare’s words. We meet the couple at the end of a long and happy marriage but tragedy stalks them. Juliet has a debilitating and terminal illness. Parting is not only a sweet sorrow but a creeping inevitability.

At first, the play seems a bit of a gimmick. With the script re-mixed, I was distracted by trying to place the lines from the original: which scene is that speech from? Who speaks those lines in the original? But, as the relationship between the two characters is revealed, I became able to sit back and take the play at face value.

Richard McCabe’s Romeo is a lovable old duffer. His raincoat makes him a bit like Graham Lister from Vic & Bob’s Fantasy Island. Beneath that, he sports a brown woollen suit, which, along with his hair and specs, adds to his nutty professor appearance. He shows people on the front row a photograph in his wallet and takes us back to a time before Juliet became bedridden with illness to a time when they would go dancing.

Kathryn Hunter’s Juliet is a bright-eyed little thing, retaining a girlish sense of fun in her later years. Hunter uses her remarkable physicality as a performer to portray Juliet’s decline. Their dancing becomes the daily routine of the carer and the cared-for; the actions speak at least as loudly as the famous words.

Lines like “I have forgot why I did call thee back” take on a new significance as Juliet begins to wane. She reveals, using a speech of the Nurse’s, that they had and lost a child. This speech is later repeated as Juliet succumbs to dementia and delirium. Hunter’s performance is powerful and striking, matched by McCabe’s patient and doting husband, his frustration and his anger.

They agree that when she is too far gone, he will assist her suicide. Here the herbs and the potion of the original come into (the) play. The morality of their decision and the action taken is not an issue. This is shown to be a private matter, an arrangement between two loved ones, without the brouhaha you would get in an issue-based drama.

Director Helena Kaut-Howson dilutes the encroaching misery with moments of beauty, using music by John Woolf and movement direction by Jane Gibson: withered Juliet springs, in her imagination, from her wheelchair and dances around, full of vigour and life – in her mind at least.

Curiously, the play is depressing and uplifting, often in the same moment. It is grim and heart-warming. It shows there is a kind of plasticity to Shakespeare; you can bend him in order to shed new light on the human condition. The vaguely seashore setting, with only a chair or two and a free-standing door, indicate this is happening nowhere in particular but anywhere and everywhere. This is not a tragedy about a particular couple in a particular set of circumstances. This is the more general tragedy of our mortality. We reach old age if we’re lucky. If we have someone with whom to share our declining years, we are luckier still. But the inevitability of death, that irresistible force of nature – here symbolised by video footage of the sea – is coming for us all.