Tag Archives: Mark Donald

A Shaw Thing

WIDOWERS’ HOUSES

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 14th June, 2013

 

In a break from her in-house style, the New Vic’s resident director, Theresa Heskins helms this subversive piece from George Bernard Shaw.  It is an entertaining and thought-provoking demonstration of her versatility.

It begins as an amusing comedy of manners – a young Englishman abroad with his friend, encounters a young woman and after much stammering in a Hugh Grant vein, asks her father for her hand in marriage.  And then the trouble starts.  It comes to light that Daddy is Sartorius, a self-made man, whose fortune comes from ill-gotten gains.  In short, he is a slum landlord, screwing every farthing he can out of his desperate tenants.  Nowadays he’d be trousering huge amounts of housing benefit, while publicly railing against the high cost of welfare. The source of Sartorius’s wealth gives rise to qualms in the young man.  He (Trench) has been living comfortably enough on his annual income and informs his fiancée that two can live as cheaply as one… And then the source of Trench’s income is revealed…

By the time we reach the third of three acts we have been drawn into this world, largely by dint of charming, spirited and nuanced performances by the excellent company of actors. The true colours of the characters are on show, and they are not very attractive.  Blanche (the excellent Rebecca Brewer) declares how she hates the poor in an outburst that is as heartfelt as it is distasteful.  As Lickcheese (great name!) the rent collector with a conscience, the lively Leigh Symonds gives us a contrasting accent to all the posh voices but he, like Trench after him, quells his qualms when his own pocket is affected.  Mark Donald is both endearing and infuriating as Trench, learning the true nature of the world and casting his ideals aside. He portrays the character’s awakening very effectively; you want him to make a stand against the injustice he has stumbled upon but, of course, he can and will not. He is Nick Clegg, finding himself in bed with vipers and then cosying up with them. Andonis James Anthony is superb as snobbish arbiter of good taste, Cokane, a kind of referee to the proceedings as the argument unfolds, but ruling the roost is William Ilkley’s Sartorius.  The characterisation oozes power and self-assurance.  A look or a gesture speaks volumes.  This is his world and you’re in no danger of forgetting it.

Beautifully designed by Michael Holt, the production boasts an ingenious set that is impressionistic in its depiction of locations ranging from a Germanic hostelry to rooms in Sartorius’s house, and subtle in its symbolic reminder that these people are living on top of the poor.  The costumes are sumptuous, complementing the performances to evoke the late Victorian period.  Some social mores have moved on since then but, sad to relate, some attitudes prevail.

This is the uncomfortable truth of the play:  Conscience and empathy are swept aside by selfish concerns.  It’s not just about protecting one’s interests; it’s about exploiting one’s position for personal gain.  Today, 120 years after the play’s premiere, it is sickening to realise that both sides of the House of Commons are still riddled with people like Sartorius and Trench.

widowers houses

 

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Ebenezer Good

A CHRISTMAS CAROL
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 23rd November 2012

Director and dramatist Theresa Heskins adds her version of Dickens’s classic tale to the countless others that have gone before it. The story is so well-known there can be few who attend this production who have not already come across it in one form or another. Amazingly, this is not a drawback. You might think this is a matter of the telling rather than the tale, the way the story is told rather than the actual, familiar material, but both form and content are powerfully represented in this magical and affecting production.

As the New Vic’s resident artistic director, Heskins is in her element working in-the-round. She has adapted the story into a piece of narrative theatre, with cast members sharing the scene-setting descriptions, but she also uses those actors to supplement the scenery as physical objects themselves. This is stylish and fun, to be sure, but the approach also works as a metaphor for the way Ebenezer Scrooge treats people as objects, of his renouncement of their humanity.

The stage is kept busy with beggars, carol singers, revellers, children and all the rest of them, come and go, but the centre of attention is Paul Greenwood’s layered performance as Scrooge, the bitter, sarcastic curmudgeon who is reminded of his own humanity through memory and prophecy. When Jacob Marley steps up to where the door knocker is, it is Greenwood’s reaction that makes it work. We share his delight when he watches his nephew and guests enjoy parlour games. We feel his joy at waking up and realising he hasn’t missed Christmas Day… He is the focus of this production, reminding us that there is more to Scrooge than the stereotypical Grinch-like image.

The entire cast is a slick and well-rehearsed engine. Hannah Edwards makes a cheery and fresh-faced Ghost of Christmas Past, playfully taking Scrooge back to his childhood days in scenes I always find moving. Antony Jardine’s Ghost of Christmas Present is infectiously merry, in a larger-than-life laughing-out-loud performance that proves you don’t need to be padded up in order to represent ho-ho-ho jollity and good cheer. The Ghosts of Christmas Yet To Come are a trio of eerie skeletal wraiths – the show uses puppetry sparingly but effectively; Tiny Tim is a little wooden boy, delicate and vulnerable, but denied any chance of mawkishness and sentimentality.

Bryn Holding as Nephew Fred has a hoot of a laugh that effuses bonhomie. Mark Donald appears as Young Scrooge, hardening his heart against the one girl that loves him – the error of Scrooge’s ways could not be made clearer. There is the imagery of being caught up in a web of his own creation, just as Marley is enchained by the selfishness he perpetrated in life. The folly of preferring money to people is all too prevalent in our day and age. Benevolence is not just for Christmas.

This is a magical, inventive production that allows the original story to have its impact all over again. I was in tears before the interval and infused with a rosy glow long after I left the auditorium. It is well worth the trip to Staffordshire. I hope more people will make the trip and enjoy the ride.