The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th June, 2016
Ben Jonson’s 1610 comedy owes much to the works of Roman comic playwright, Plautus: the scheming servant using his master’s house for illicit purposes, the characters typified by flaws, fast action and comeuppances – all are here in breath-taking form.
Face (Ken Nwosu) takes advantage of Lovewit’s absence to house a couple of partners-in-crime, namely Subtle (Mark Lockyer) and Dol Common (Siobhan McSweeney). The former is the titular ‘alchemist’, conjuring jargon and nonsense with which to con their victims into believing that, for the right price, he can supply them with the philosopher’s stone, which Harry Potter fans will know has the power to turn base metals into gold. The latter is called upon to playact a range of parts to support the cons, including a hilarious sequence involving a fairy queen spinning above the stage. All three are excellent, displaying the energy and versatility of the hustlers as well as the underlying tensions between them. Their ‘venture tripartite’ is as volatile as any of Subtle’s concoctions.
They are strongly supported by a range of victims, including a swaggering Joshua McCord as Dapper who wants supernatural assistance for his gambling, a dopy Richard Leeming as tobacconist Abel Drugger who wants the Jacobean equivalent of feng shui to ensure success for his business, and a bombastic Ian Redford as the hedonistic Sir Epicure Mammon who desires nothing less than the mythical stone – and to get his leg over where he may. John Cummins makes a zealous Ananias, and there is plenty of ridiculous posturing from Tom McCall’s Castril and Tim Samuels’s Surly, in disguise as a Spanish popinjay.
The action is fast, furious and farcical, aided and abetted by some judicious cuts to the text (courtesy of Stephen Jeffreys) and the whole enterprise is pervaded by a sense of fun. Polly Findlay directs her company assuredly, keeping them on the right side of exaggeration and timing the surprises to perfection. Long before the time Lovewit (a charming Hywel Morgan) returns and commandeers the proceeds of his butler’s schemes, we are won over by Face, thanks to an agreeable performance by Ken Nwosu, and are glad he (spoiler alert) gets away with it.
At the end, Nwosu strips off his period livery to reveal a Ramones T-shirt and jeans. He tots up the takings of the evening’s full house and is pleased. We have all been ‘gulled’ by yet another disguise, or Face, and we thank him for it. Human nature has no changed a bit. Fools and their money are still parted, but tonight we have got the better end of the deal.
Cheeky Face (Ken Nwosu) – Photo: Helen Maybanks.
Leave a comment | tags: Ben Jonson, Hywel Morgan, Ian Redford, John Cummins, Joshua McCord, Ken Nwosu, Mark Lockyer, Polly Findlay, review, Richard Leeming, RSC, Siobhan McSweeney, Stephen Jeffreys, Stratford upon Avon, The Alchemist, The Swan Theatre, Tim Samuels, Tom McCall | posted in Theatre Review
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 28th May, 2015
Before the play begins, Antonio, the titular merchant, stands centre stage in tears. Other cast members take position on benches at the back – they will step up from here as the action requires but there are also more conventional exits and entrances. Servant Launcelot Gobbo sits in the audience, nudging people and directing his comic monologue at them. Director Polly Findlay seems keen to remind us we are in a playhouse – it’s a while before the houselights go down and we can no longer see ourselves reflected in the metallic backdrop.
Most of the time, this approach works and keeps the action zipping along – until there has to be an interlude to sweep up thousands of banknotes, accompanied by some choral singing.
The Venetians inhabit a strange featureless world, their lives measured out by a kind of wrecking ball that acts as a pendulum. The only furniture seems to be a table and chair that appear in the court scene. I don’t mind this – it’s refreshing to see an uncluttered stage but I do question some of the design decisions, in particular the costumes. The clothes are contemporary, kind of, with an Italian couture feel, but work on me as alienation effects. “What has he got on?” I think every time someone walks on. Poor Lorenzo (James Corrigan) is the biggest fashion victim, in his sleeveless, knee-length fur coat and bright blue shoes. There are designer hoodies and clashing colours. When the trial scene comes, it’s a relief to see them clad more soberly and sharply.
Sartorial nausea aside, this is a cracking production, well-played by all. Jamie Ballard’s Antonio is unequivocally the older gay man buying the companionship of the mercenary Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) – also blatant is his hatred of Shylock, ‘voiding his rheum’ a couple of times directly in the old man’s face. (The only whitewashing I could detect was the omission of Portia’s line, when the Prince of Morocco has lost the casket challenge, “Let all of his complexion choose me so.”) Portia is then the moral heart of the piece. When we first meet her she is the poor little rich girl, bound by the ludicrous rules of her father’s will. She is spirited and humorous, but when we get to the trial scene, she rises to the occasion while still being the sensitive girl we know her to be. Patsy Ferran knocks it out of the park, bringing depth and pain to the triangle she perceives between herself, her new husband and his ‘best mate’.
Antonio and Bassanio are not likeable blokes, but Ballard brings out the suffering as he offers himself up to Shylock’s knife, while Fortune-Lloyd is dashing and not as shallow as he could be. Ken Nwosu is great fun as Gratiano and sweet as the Moroccan Prince – one almost wishes he’d choose the correct casket. (The caskets, by the way, are geometrical shapes suspended on cables: a squat cylinder, a cone and a cube, for some reason) Brian Protheroe is underused as slimeball playboy Aragon, and there is lively support from Nadia Albina as Portia’s waiting woman Nerissa.
Makran J Khoury’s Shylock is an elderly man, who acts with dignity despite being dressed like he’s just off down the betting shop. His revenge against the so-called Christians is justified within the context of the piece and his defeat is upsetting – not because he didn’t get to carve up his enemy (Are his terms any less palatable than Wonga’s?) but because he is stripped of his identity as well as his livelihood.
I’m still puzzling over Tim Samuels’s clown make-up as Shylock’s servant Launcelot Gobbo. Shylock is not the kind to employ a clown. Without these bizarre design choices, this stripped-down Merchant would be excellent.
Time to reflect: Polly Ferran and Nadia Albina (Photo: Hugh Glendinning)
Leave a comment | tags: Brain Protheroe, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, James Corrigan, Jamie Ballard, Ken Nwosu, Makram J Khoury, Nadia Albina, Patsy Ferran, Polly Findlay, review, RSC, RST, Stratford upon Avon, The Merchant of Venice, Tim Samuels, William Shakespeare | posted in Theatre Review