Tag Archives: Kelly Williams

Lear and Now

KING LEAR

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 21st September, 2016

 

Gregory Doran’s new production of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy has an austere, almost Spartan feel.  The aesthetic is medieval but it’s as much Middle Eastern as it is Middle Ages, an interesting setting that could be Now, could be Then.  Here, the homeless and the dispossessed remind us of the refugees we see on the news on a daily basis (and also, extras on The Walking Dead!)

Lear makes a grand entrance, carried in on a chair in a glass box, paraded around like he’s an old relic.  In his opening scene, Antony Sher shows us the power of the king, albeit dwindling, as well as giving us glimpses of the mental deterioration that is to come.  It’s a commanding performance, in more ways than one, but Sher is at his most powerful in his quieter moments, in the details of his dementia, when he is recognisable and relatable as a human being in distress rather than a declaiming, despotic head of state.

Nia Gwynne and Kelly Williams soon show their colours as evil daughters Goneril and Regan, while Natalie Simpson’s Cordelia makes a sweet impression that lasts – she has to; she disappears from the stage until after the interval.   Antony Byrne is a suitably heroic and noble Kent, disguising himself as a skinhead, and Graham Turner works hard to wring laughs from the Fool’s babblings, like a Dave Spikey in his underwear.

The RSC’s current golden boy Paapa Essiedu is deliciously wicked as the bastard Edmund, displaying a casual facility with the language and conveying a sense of being at home in the world of the play.  Surely a Richard III can’t be too far in his future.  Oliver Johnstone has a harder time of it as his brother Edgar.  Those Poor Tom mad scenes are not an easy act, but Johnstone throws himself into them with gusto and, by the time Edgar is reunited with his blinded father (the redoubtable David Troughton, marvellous as ever), we see how far he has come from his early foppishness.  The reunion between father and son is the most touching moment of the evening.

Niki Turner’s design gives us open landscape, punctuated by a lone, barren tree.   It’s almost Beckettian, as Lear and Poor Tom prattle and wait for Godot.  Music by Ilona Sekacz is largely percussive – key moments are underscored by drum rolls and crashes.

The only thing I question is Lear’s final scene, when he mourns the loss of Cordelia.  He rolls in on the back of a farmer’s cart for some reason, cradling her in his arms.  It makes for a striking Pietà, but I can’t help wondering where he got the cart and who is pushing it.   Oh, and in the blinding scene, which is literally eye-popping, the Perspex torture booth with its fluorescent lighting seems out of keeping with the rest, suddenly wrenching the action into the present – in which case, it works as an alienation effect, shocking us into considering the play’s currency.  Which, I guess, is fair enough.

A more than serviceable production, excellently played – but then, I never really enjoy Lear, as such – showing us a world where violence and madness reign.  In that respect, it’s the perfect play for 2016.

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Branching out: Oliver Johnstone as Edgar as Poor Tom. Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC

 

 

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Great Briton

CYMBELINE

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 11th June, 2016

 

Melly Still’s production of Shakespeare’s rarely staged late play embraces the bonkersness of the story – revelling in it, in fact.  Set in a dystopian near-future, a post-technological age, there is a medieval quality to the design; inevitably my mind finds parallels with Game of Thrones.  The extremes of behaviour, the graphic violence – the play has more villains than your average Shakespeare, and, in this production, when Innogen disguises herself as a boy, she chooses Arya Stark cosplay.

As the beset princess, Bethan Cullinane is an appealing lead, with strength and vulnerability – the emphasis is on the latter.  Hiran Abeysekera shows conviction as her secret husband, Posthumus (aka Leonatus), but all the swagger, all the brio, comes from the bad guys.  Marcus Griffiths is magnificent as the arrogant, petulant Cloten; his serenade to Innogen is an unalloyed delight.  Oliver Johnstone is a delicious Iachimo, a louche lounge lizard, cocky and flash – for me one of his worst transgressions is his lack of socks.  James Clyde as the Duke, second husband of Cymbeline (in this show, the titular monarch has been gender swapped), plots and smarms, with elbow patches on his blazer, like a Machiavellian supply teacher.

Queen of the Britons, Cymbeline (Gillian Bevan) is authoritative but also world-worn.  She speaks with the authority of someone who has been through a lot – as if the loss of two of her children twenty years ago has been eating away at her.  Those lost children have been living in Wales all this time.  Mere mention of Milford Haven gets a laugh.  Natalie Simpson makes a fierce Polydore/Guideria, complete with Xena: Warrior Princess battle cry.  Her brother Belarius/Arviragus (James Cooney) is wiry and energetic; he sings beautifully when it comes to Fear No More the Heat of the Sun.

The whole cast is splendid.  Among the ensemble, Theo Ogundipe makes a strong impression in a couple of roles, and Kelly Williams stands out as troubled servant Pisania.

Melly Still freezes the action, or slows it right down, during the characters’ many asides – a neat device that reminds us this is not the real world we are witnessing.  Also, some scenes are spoken in Italian or Latin, with the text projected on the scenery.  This is amusing at first, but Latin doesn’t sound right in an English accent.  But then, who knows what Latin sounded like?

The play deals with deceit and treachery, allegiance and devotion.  War comes because Britain has not paid its tribute to Rome.  After some bloody rushing around and a high body count, Cymbeline agrees to pay what is due.  A metaphor for the upcoming EU referendum?  If so, Cymbeline is definitely on the REMAIN side.  Hooray.

This is a hugely enjoyable production, a real treat to be reacquainted with a play that is not as over-exposed and familiar as the Bard’s greatest hits.  Such is its charm and invention, we go along with it.  In the same way that the characters take reversals of fortune and revelations on the chin, we laugh along.  The sincerity and heart of the performance carries us through the sensationalism of the plot.  Another big hit from the RSC.

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Cloten (Marcus Griffiths) sings his head off (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)