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.
Joseph Arkley and Claire Price (Photo: Ikin Yum)
Leave a comment | tags: Amanda Harris, Amelia Donkor, Amy Trigg, Claire Price, Emily Johnstone, Hannah Clark, James Cooney, Joseph Arkley, Justin Audibert, Laura Elsworthy, review, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, RSC, Ruth Chan, Sophie Stanton, The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare | posted in Review, Shakespeare, Theatre Review
SNOW IN MIDSUMMER
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 9th March, 2017
Based on a thirteenth century Chinese drama, this new production brings the story of The Injustice to Dou E that Moved Heaven and Earth (no, me neither) bang up to date with a fresh and lively script by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. Set in contemporary China with its curious blend of progressive and traditional elements, where a burgeoning capitalist economy vies with pre-Cultural Revolution superstition, the story is a visceral revenge tragedy with supernatural elements that feels at home at the RSC.
Sweet and charming Dou Yi (Katie Leung) returns from the grave as a vengeful spirit seeking justice. It emerges that she was framed for murder and executed by firing squad, her body harvested for organs for transplant operations. Dou Yi seeks retribution and to be laid to rest. Stalking around in a white, long-sleeved gown, Leung cuts a spooky dash, familiar to us from Asian horror films. As the mystery unfolds, we are gripped by the action, not least because of the ghost’s relationship with young Fei-Fei (a remarkable Sophie Wong) in some chilling scenes.
At the centre of the plot is handsome Colin Ryan as Handsome Zhang, a young entrepreneur, and his handsome boyfriend, handsome Rocket (Andrew Leung). This is the face of a new China but the machinations of the story are rooted in tradition and cultural convention. Andrew Leung is an appealing figure – the recipient of a heart transplant from guess who – but it is Ryan who knocks our socks off, as his life unravels and he takes drastic, final action.
Also excellent is Sarah Lam as Handsome’s former wet nurse, beginning as an amusing character part to a heart-rending (I use the word carefully) participant in the unfolding tragedy. Wendy Kweh cuts an elegant figure as businesswoman Tianyun – there is a message here that the cost of a growing economy is paid by the environment – and much of the humour of the piece stems from the likes of Jonathan Raggett as a sexually frustrated Officer.
Director Justin Audibert blends the contemporary with the traditional in a melting pot of styles, juxtaposing naturalistic playing with more melodramatic posturing. Anna Watson’s lighting uses modern strip-lighting to great effect. A couple of supernatural escorts in animal masks who take the dead to the afterlife epitomise this fusion of the old and the new. Atmospheric music by Ruth Chan is performed live by a tight ensemble – pulsating modern rhythms, traditional Chinese instruments, underscore the action and help to create both the world on the stage and the moods of the scenes.
Engaging from the off, gripping and powerful, this is splendid entertainment and a refreshing glimpse at China’s changing culture. Dou Yi’s story tells us the truth will out, consequences must be answered and this is a compelling metaphor for our treatment of the planet. Mother Nature’s vengeance will be no less savage and complete. Even the show’s title is an indictment of climate change!
Heart on her sleeve: Katie Leung as Dou Yi (Photo: Ikin Yum)
Leave a comment | tags: Andrew Leung, Anna Watson, Colin Ryan, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, Jonathan Raggett, Justin Audibert, Katie Leung, review, Ruth Chan, Sarah Lam, Snow In Midsummer, Sophie Wong, Stratford upon Avon, Swan Theatre, Wendy Kweh | posted in Theatre Review
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)
Leave a comment | tags: Adam Best, Alistair Whatley, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Dominic Bilkey, Flare Path, Hayley Grindle, James Cooney, Justin Audibert, Leon Ockenden, Olivia Hallivan, Philip Franks, review, Shvorne Marks, Simon Darwen, Siobhan O'Kelly, Stephanie Jacob, Terence Rattigan | posted in Theatre Review
THE JEW OF MALTA
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th April, 2015
Christopher Marlowe’s play, which has a Jew as the villain, is not staged anywhere near as often as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – perhaps we find Shylock more palatable to our modern sensibilities. While we can understand the motivation of Marlowe’s Barabas, his path of vengeance and destruction renders him inhuman – psychopathic, even.
Forced to surrender his fortune in order to pay the state’s protection money to the Turks, Barabas soon bounces back, and sends his spirited daughter Abigail undercover as a nun into the nunnery his house has been turned into, to dig up his secret stash of gems and gold. With these he is able to rebuild his fortune – but that is not enough. He embarks on a plan of revenge on all those who have wronged him. The son of the governor is set up in a duel with a rival that ends fatally. A priest is framed for the murder of a friar. The nuns are wiped out by poisoned porridge…
It’s melodramatic stuff but Justin Audibert directs with a sense of humour and the result is a very black comedy indeed. As the titular Jew, Jasper Britton portrays a delicious kind of evil in a compelling performance. He is aided and abetted by his henchman, Ithamore (Lanre Malaolu, who uses physicality to add humour to his characterisation). Catrin Stewart is powerful as Barabas’s loud and strident daughter and there is excellent support from Matthew Needham as pimp to Beth Cordingly’s jaded hooker, Bellamira. Marcus Griffiths cuts a dash as the imperious Turk, Calymath, while Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly vie amusingly with each other for Barabas’s soul and gold coins as two supposedly holy men. Particularly striking is Annette McLaughlin as Katherine, grieving for her murdered son.
Oliver Fenwick’s sunny lighting gives us the brightness and warmth of the Maltese climate, bouncing off Lily Arnold’s paving stone set. Jonathan Girling’s music, performed live, is both evocative and beautiful, and the fight sequences by Kevin McCurdy have the front rows flinching in their seats.
Marlowe gives his villain all the best lines – Barabas is able to be scathing about religion and people who profess to be Christians but behave contrary to their faith (reminding me of our current and hopefully outgoing government!). “Religion hides many mischiefs from suspicion,” says Barabas. He is not wrong.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable production in which Barabas’s victims deserve what’s coming to them. Moving along at a cracking pace, with plenty of laughs and shocks along the way, the show is as entertaining as you could wish.
To hear the word ‘Jew’ as an insult and disparaging term, makes us wince. We like to feel we are more inclusive and that there is less anti-Semitism around – but then I recall that only the other day the Tories had to sack one of their own for saying she would never support ‘the Jew Ed Miliband’ and I despair.
Jasper Britton (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)
1 Comment | tags: Annette McLaughlin, Beth Cordingly, Catrin Stewart, Christopher Marlowe, Geoffrey Freshwater, Jasper Britton, Jonathan Girling, Justin Audibert, Kevin McCurdy, Lanre Malaolu, Lily Arnold, Marcus Griffiths, Matthew Kelly, Matthew Needham, Oliver Fenwick, review, RSC, Stratford upon Avon, The Jew of Malta, The Swan Theatre | posted in Theatre Review