Tag Archives: Lucy Briggs-Owen

Zhao Wow

THE ORPHAN OF ZHAO
Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 6th December, 2012

The story is the stuff of legend and folk tale, detailing events before and after the birth of the titular orphan. Thousands of years old, the plot has elements of Hamlet, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and even Star Wars and The Lion King, and yet this new adaptation by James Fenton feels fresh as well as familiar. It is never short of engaging or thoroughly entertaining and it’s also rather stirring.

Niki Turner’s stylish but sparse set is the backdrop for this epic story, while Stephanie Arditti’s extravagant costumes and Paul Inglishby’s music lend an Oriental air to the proceedings. I believe there was some hullabaloo about the casting of this production, the dearth of Chinese actors in the company. This bum’s view on this kind of argument is, Acting is all about pretending to be what you are not. Otherwise, you could say only a Dane may play Hamlet, and pantomime dames and principal boys better start claiming the dole.

Anyway…

We meet the Emperor (Stephen Ventura), a man given to taking pot shots at the populace with his bow and arrow, purely for the sake of entertainment. His right hand man and (the biggest) villain of the piece is Tu’An Gu – Joe Dixon, who is great fun with his Northern twang and massive mastiff. He is the Darth Vader to Jake Fairbrother’s Cheng Bo – the long lost Orphan himself. Fairbrother is splendid as the dashing young hero who comes to learn his true identity, showing nobility and vulnerability in the same moments. The wonderful Lucy Briggs-Owen is the wronged Princess, mother to the Orphan, roaming her palace prison like Miss Havisham Peking style. You hope she will be reunited with her son; indeed it is inevitable but in this story of sudden violence and self-sacrifice, you can’t be entirely sure it will come to pass. Until it does.

Country doctor Cheng Ying provides the emotional core of the story in a fine and affecting performance by Graham Turner. As characters come and go, dropping like flies, it is through him that we witness the turning of events. Nia Gwynne gives a moving turn as his wife, forced to make the greatest sacrifice – This is a sweeping story with very dramatic events but performances like those of Turner and Gwynne imbue it with emotional integrity, lifting it above the fairytale and the fireside yarn.

Gregory Doran directs with gusto, allowing humour to permeate the sensational scenes. There is shocking violence but it is its impact on the story rather than its depiction that affects us. Red petals rain gently from above every time someone dies, which is often. The plot is resolved satisfactorily – you get a feeling that justice has been done, that right has prevailed – and the final scene, a confrontation between Cheng Ying and the ghost of the child he sacrificed is eerie, moving and, again, right.

It is a pity the Swan was not packed to the rafters at the performance I attended – it’s one of the strongest productions in the RSC’s current season.

Jake Fairbrother (Cheng Bo)_The Orphan of Zhao_photo credit Kwame Lestrade

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A Tsar is Born

BORIS GODUNOV
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 29th November, 2012

Pushkin’s classic drama defies categorisation. I suppose the best way to describe it is ‘Shakespearean’ – it contains elements of Old Will’s histories, comedies and tragedies, sometimes within the same moment.
Evil Tsar Boris (Boh-reese) at first denies the crown, reminding me of Julius Caesar, amid rumours of having murdered a young prince (Hello, Richard III). Meanwhile, bored young monk Grigory does a runner from his ascetic lifestyle, in the pursuit of worldly pleasures. He adopts the identity of the supposedly murdered prince and gathers supporters who will help him oust Boh-reese. That he is not the rightful heir doesn’t bother anyone too much. Grigory is a means to an end: he will rid Russia of Godunov.

Lloyd Hutchinson’s Boh-reese looks like Ricky Gervais’s David Brent and shares something of his management style. He is a curious mix of Machiavel and father, a powerful figure brought low by illness. The strongest scene, for me, involves his dying words to his young son Fyodor. He rattles off advice like Polonius saying ta-ta to Laertes. It is a manifesto that proves too much for the boy. In an assured performance, the very young Joshi Gibb slices his own throat open, rejecting his succession – proving you can’t always Push kin. (I’m so sorry).

As the pretender Grigory, Gethin Anthony is also a curious mix of heroism and villainy. It is the ambiguity of the characters that keeps them interesting, although they can appear as inconsistent or schizoid as the play lurches from drama to comedy to romance and back again. Anthony has a powerful presence. He would make an interesting Hamlet.

It’s a delight to see Lucy Briggs-Owen back on the Stratford stage as arrogant beauty Maryna, in a rom-com scene she plays with elegance and steel. I also enjoyed Philip Whitchurch’s Father Varlaam, a Toby Belch-cum-Falstaff figure who freestyles couplets in between boozing and singing.

Director Michael Boyd keeps the stage rather Spartan. He uses his ensemble to create atmosphere and define locations. Cast members form an amusing fountain at one point; at another they represent a battle charge by thrashing their coats onto the stage. Moments like these are very effective.

I was not as pleased with some of the clunky gear changes of tone. Broad comedy vies with boo-hiss plotting and vengeful soliloquy, and at times I found Adrian Mitchell’s rhyming couplets a little too noticeable – but then perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps the overt rhyming is an alienation device to make us think about the events unfolding before us, rather than becoming emotionally engaged.

As the action progresses, the costumes and props are subtly updated providing a low-key retrospective of Russian coats throughout the ages – but more importantly than that, the coats underpin the notion that the power struggles and despotism of the Tsars are still alive and well today, having survived Communism, Stalinism and the dismantling of the USSR. When Grigory the pretender is finally proclaimed Tsar (or should I say, Put in), he is completely up-to-date in his smart suit. He stands, literally, on the backs of the people. This is the final image of the piece, making a political point via theatrical means. It is an Orwellian moment, akin to seeing pigs and farmers around the same table. This is not just about Russian politics…It’s an eminently watchable and thought-provoking piece that deserves larger audiences.

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