Tag Archives: Kirsty Bushell

A Devil of a Time

THE WHITE DEVIL

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 23rd August, 2014

John Webster’s revenge tragedy is given the Maria Aberg treatment in this brash production. I say ‘treatment’ because many of the ideas are familiar from a previous production (her King John). There is a contemporary setting, contemporary costumes and too much music – loud, pulsating music to which the cast perform a variation on the Macarena.   Chiefly though is the re-use of the gimmick of giving the villain a sex-change. Here Flaminio is a woman, albeit one that dresses in a masculine style. The idea, I’m supposing, is that by dressing and behaving as a man, Flaminio avoids the usual fate of women. In this garb, she also perpetuates that way of treating women (and indeed there are women in society today who uphold the anti-feminist agenda), but she is nothing more than an evil, murderous lesbian. In short, the sex swap doesn’t work. I wanted to enjoy Laura Elphinstone’s somewhat Ant-and-Dec-esque performance but was too irked by the director’s choice.

            The music is annoying – oh, goody: another party scene! – and the contemporary clothing does not help distinguish characters. Cardinal Monticelso (the marvellous David Rintoul – I could listen to him read till receipts) is undermined by his Butlins red coat. Simon Scardifield’s Francisco sports a Frank Spencer beret.  And why cast the mighty Tony Jayawardena and give him nothing to do?

            Leading lady Vittoria (Kirsty Bushell) is a fading party girl who must be punished for living it up and giving men what they want. Ratty wigs and crumpled tutus do her no favours. In the court scene, she comes as Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, but the tone of this key scene is uneven – Bushell gives us one minute the victim, at the mercy of male attitudes and double standards, and the next she is offhandedly sarcastic. It doesn’t quite gel.  Occasionally, the power of Webster’s drama comes through.  Faye Castelow’s Isabella has a powerful scene and a messy death – this is how Webster should be done!

            I would have preferred period costume. Let the themes and argument of the play speak for itself, rather than bending and shaping it to fit some agenda that obfuscates the action. “Take my sword,” says someone, handing over a flick-knife. No.

Kirsty Bushell

Kirsty Bushell

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Imperfect Storm

THE TEMPEST
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 11th September, 2012

One of the things I’ve always liked about The Tempest is that it seems to start in the middle of the story. The titular storm that brings a particular group of people to a particular island is the turning point in their fate, as the wronged and usurped Prospero exerts his influence on the natural world. This means the opening scenes are heavy with back-story, but it’s all about setting things up before the final confrontation and moment of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Like the bear in The Winter’s Tale, how the opening scene will be staged is always eagerly anticipated. David Farr’s production, part of the RSC’s ‘shipwreck trilogy’ uses the same diagonal planks, the decking of a ship, to fill the performance space (and indeed the same cast) as Twelfth Night and the Comedy of Errors. Prospero’s isle is rather drab and monochromatic. His ‘cell’ is a Perspex box and it is in here that the tempest happens. Sitting at her schooldesk, Miranda (Emily Taafe) listens with growing fascination to the voices of the passengers and crew while behind her, in the Perspex box of her imagination, we see the scene played out within those cramped confines. It’s a neat idea but hardly spectacular.

The Perspex box has things in common with the TARDIS – it can transport characters – and the holodeck on the USS Enterprise – it can show things – but I couldn’t help thinking of Philip Schofield’s game show. Can you beat The Cube?

Prospero (Jonathan Slinger) stalks around in a stained suit and buttoned-up shirt. And so does his spirit slave Ariel (Sandy Grierson in a hypnotic performance) – a kind of Mini Me, who happens to be taller than the original. I liked this identification of slave and master and of course, off comes the jacket at the end when Ariel is awarded his freedom at last. Trouble is, I could neither warm to this Prospero nor marvel at his powers. There is something about Slinger’s characterisation that prevents this. Technically he is an excellent actor but I just wasn’t getting it.

Caliban (Amer Hlehel) wears a suit that is little more than a collection of tatters. A dust cloud arises whenever he moves and he has an enjoyable manner of cursing and swearing. His supposed ‘misshapenness’ is nothing other than his different ethnicity, bringing to the fore the play’s themes of imperialism and colonialism. Caliban is quite right to be aggrieved, in modern eyes, but perhaps to the Jacobean viewer, he would come across as the ungrateful savage. Why is his usurpation acceptable but not Prospero’s? (I’m loving the chance to say ‘usurpation’ and I may well do so again before this review is finished).

Solomon Israel’s Ferdinand brings the first note of physical humour to the play. His arrival is a breath of fresh air and his interactions with Taafe’s Miranda are delightful. When he is enchained by Prospero, the slavery theme is starkly with us – I don’t think this was an unconscious side effect of the ‘colour-blind’ approach to casting.

The always-enjoyable Felix Hayes gives an endearingly dim Trinculo and Bruce Mackinnon’s Stephano gives a drunken satire of the imperialist. Their scenes with Hlehel’s Caliban liven up this production.

The second half has more oomph. At last we see Prospero calling up the special effects department to do his bidding. We get flashes and bangs and dry ice and bubbles. The isle has become a magical place at last. As Prospero realises that forgiveness is his best option, he becomes less the stern plantation owner and nasty schoolteacher and more the sentimental father and big-hearted brother, accessing all parts of his humanity and choosing tbe better ones. Slinger wins you over by the end.

I liked Nicholas Day’s dignified Gonzalo but I don’t see why Sebastian (Kirsty Bushell) was made a female character but referred to as male most of the time. Her Sebastian is sardonic and cool, a counterpoint to the blustering of the rest of the party.

There are some great touches: I liked Caliban carrying firewood like Christ bearing the cross, and the Caravaggioesque freezes when Sebastian and Antonio are about to carry out their violent usurpation (there you go) of Alonso.

Perhaps it’s my fault for wanting more enchantment but, like drying out after a downpour, I came to like this production a lot by the end and found it ultimately moving.


The Love Boat

TWELFTH NIGHT
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 22nd March, 2012

This season the RSC present three of Will’s plays linked under the theme of shipwreck. The other two are The Tempest and The Comedy of Errors – the latter has more in common with Twelfth Night. In both, twins are separated by maritime disaster leading to confusion, mistaken identity and high jinks aplenty.

This production begins not with the famous opening line (If music be the food of love, play on) but with Viola clambering onto the stage from a downstage water tank and asking, “What country, friend, is this?” This brief moment serves to “brand” the show as part of this trilogy and seems to me a tenuous way to compile a season.

When we meet Duke Orsino (Jonathan McGuinness ) he is not the lovesick, self-indulgent in his suffering, egoist. Rather he is a shouty, angry young man, who seems to equate the loudness of his voice with the depth of his professed love for the lady Olivia. I couldn’t take to him. And I couldn’t see what Viola sees in him. It is a discordant note in a production that gets many things right.

The set is a shipwreck. The lounge deck, with grand piano, chandelier, faded upholstery and a reception desk in the corner. Characters come and go dressed like holiday makers in the 1990s. Viola adopts a blue jacket with shoulder pads and turquoise trousers in order to disguise herself as manservant Cesario. She looks like Tintin dressed as Don Johnson off of Miami Vice.

Toby Belch (Nicholas Day) totters drunkenly across the uneven floorboards in Hawaiian shirt and loafers. He is a likable sot but upstaged at every turn by Bruce MacKinnon as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Think Jedward’s elder brother with his finger in a plug socket for his hairdo. Think Rik Mayall in his early days for a hint of the performance style. MacKinnon wrings pathos out of the role as well as showing us what a complete arse Sir Andrew is. At one moment, he drops from the edge of the stage and into the water in order to escape trouble. Several members of the audience received a drenching. The range of their reactions added to my enjoyment of the scene!

As Malvolio, Jonathan Slinger proves he is an accomplished comic performer. His puritanical steward sports a toupee and a gleaming name tag as his badge of office. It is a very tight characterisation and when the action requires more physicality to the comedy, Slinger keeps it credible but still very funny. His exit, up a staircase, while cross-gartered in yellow stockings and his arse hanging out of a thong got the biggest laugh of the night. His final appearance, abused and ridiculed, shows the depth of his feeling. He is not going to laugh it off, take the joke and make peace. He swears he’ll be revenged on the whole pack, and his look takes in the entire auditorium. Not everyone in this rom-com is going to wind up with a happy ending.

And that’s part of the genius of this piece. The whole play is riddled with melancholic moments, most notably within the songs. Feste (usually a jester but here a lounge musician – Kevin McMonagle – practically busking for change) performs several tunes with modern arrangements but the nature of Shakespeare’s lyrics foreshadows the preoccupations of the emos of today. The play is bitter-sweet. The production suggests shipwreck as a metaphor for the affect love has on us. Some have their hopes dashed; others are salvaged and restored to life.

I liked plucky Viola (Emily Taafe) and I felt Kirsty Bushell portrayed Olivia’s arc very well, from languishing in mourning her dead brother to being reawakened to the possibilities of love and life. Best of the crop though were Bruce MacKinnon and Cecilia Noble (as scheming maid Maria). There is much to enjoy in this production but you’re more likely to come out of the theatre with a wistful sigh than a ribcage aching from laughter.