Tag Archives: Matthew Needham

Maltese Crossed

THE JEW OF MALTA

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th April, 2015

 

Christopher Marlowe’s play, which has a Jew as the villain, is not staged anywhere near as often as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – perhaps we find Shylock more palatable to our modern sensibilities. While we can understand the motivation of Marlowe’s Barabas, his path of vengeance and destruction renders him inhuman – psychopathic, even.

Forced to surrender his fortune in order to pay the state’s protection money to the Turks, Barabas soon bounces back, and sends his spirited daughter Abigail undercover as a nun into the nunnery his house has been turned into, to dig up his secret stash of gems and gold. With these he is able to rebuild his fortune – but that is not enough. He embarks on a plan of revenge on all those who have wronged him. The son of the governor is set up in a duel with a rival that ends fatally. A priest is framed for the murder of a friar. The nuns are wiped out by poisoned porridge…

It’s melodramatic stuff but Justin Audibert directs with a sense of humour and the result is a very black comedy indeed. As the titular Jew, Jasper Britton portrays a delicious kind of evil in a compelling performance. He is aided and abetted by his henchman, Ithamore (Lanre Malaolu, who uses physicality to add humour to his characterisation). Catrin Stewart is powerful as Barabas’s loud and strident daughter and there is excellent support from Matthew Needham as pimp to Beth Cordingly’s jaded hooker, Bellamira. Marcus Griffiths cuts a dash as the imperious Turk, Calymath, while Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly vie amusingly with each other for Barabas’s soul and gold coins as two supposedly holy men.  Particularly striking is Annette McLaughlin as Katherine, grieving for her murdered son.

Oliver Fenwick’s sunny lighting gives us the brightness and warmth of the Maltese climate, bouncing off Lily Arnold’s paving stone set. Jonathan Girling’s music, performed live, is both evocative and beautiful, and the fight sequences by Kevin McCurdy have the front rows flinching in their seats.

Marlowe gives his villain all the best lines – Barabas is able to be scathing about religion and people who profess to be Christians but behave contrary to their faith (reminding me of our current and hopefully outgoing government!). “Religion hides many mischiefs from suspicion,” says Barabas. He is not wrong.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable production in which Barabas’s victims deserve what’s coming to them. Moving along at a cracking pace, with plenty of laughs and shocks along the way, the show is as entertaining as you could wish.

To hear the word ‘Jew’ as an insult and disparaging term, makes us wince. We like to feel we are more inclusive and that there is less anti-Semitism around – but then I recall that only the other day the Tories had to sack one of their own for saying she would never support ‘the Jew Ed Miliband’ and I despair.

Jasper Britton (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

Jasper Britton (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

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Passion Play

LOVE’S SACRIFICE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 27th April, 2015

 

There’s often a reason why a play isn’t performed for centuries: it’s not very good or its day has come and gone and there is nothing of relevance to it. With this in mind, I settle into my seat at the RSC’s Swan and try to keep an open mind.

John Ford (you know, him – he wrote Tis Pity She’s A Whore) gives us a tragedy, the likes of which opera has been thriving on for yonks. Two best friends, one woman, loved by both but married by one… It can only end badly.

Matthew Needham is excellent as The Duke, whose emotions are never far from the surface. He is an exuberant hedonist, when things are going his way, but there is the suggestion he could become unhinged at any moment – we see flashes of his violent temper. His bride Bianca (Catrin Stewart) is perky and lively, and obeys her husband’s instructions to treat his bff Fernando (Jamie Thomas King) like a second husband, in all ways except one, of course! Bianca and Fernando get the hots for each other but never consummate their passion, despite a few stolen moments – enough to get the villain of the piece plotting and scheming. Stewart and King go through the anguishes of love without the pleasure, matching Needham’s emotional outpourings in intensity. As the villain D’Avolos, Jonathan McGuinness is a snide and unctuous presence, Iago with an admin job – and it almost looks like he will get away with it.

There is a couple of subplots, one of which ends horribly. Arrogant womaniser Ferentes (Andy Apollo making an impression) gets his comeuppance in a masque, when three of his conquests decide to have a stab at vengeance. Superannuated fop Mauriccio (an exquisite Matthew Kelly) has a happier ending – if banishment and marriage are anything to go by – and his relationship with Brummie servant Giacopo (Colin Ryan) is both funny and touching. Kelly and Ryan are a little and large double act with perfect comic timing – I find I am more moved by the resolution to their story than I am to the main plot.

Beth Cordingly is strong as strident widow Fiormonda, and Marcus Griffiths’s Roseilli, banished but comes back disguised as a simpleton, cuts a dash, but is too removed from the main action – This is a fault of the writer.

On the whole, it’s a watchable, rewarding piece with passions running as high as the production values and well worth sacrificing an evening to see. Anna Fleischle’s design conveys the period beautifully, but the projections on the back wall add little beyond mood lighting – I am too busy watching the actors to take much notice of these effects. There is, for my taste, a little too much of the discordant music. Director Matthew Dunster interrupts the action with interludes of dumb show – I could do without these. He also adds many humorous touches, heightening the comedy to match the intensity of the drama.

Many of the plot points can be traced to Shakespeare but I come away thinking about the great Spanish dramatist Lope de Vega, a playwright The Swan would do well to feature – in translation, of course!

Tonight Matthew, I'm going to be... (Colin Ryan and Matthew Kelly.  Photo: Helen Maybanks)

Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be…
(Colin Ryan and Matthew Kelly. Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Smile; you’re in Candide Chimera!

CANDIDE

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 12th September, 2013

Voltaire’s most celebrated work is the springboard for this new play by the RSC’s resident playwright, Mark Ravenhill.  I’m pleased to say you don’t need in-depth knowledge of the original in order to get a lot out of this intriguing and thought-provoking piece.

It begins on expected ground, in the 18th century, but already there’s a twist.  Candide (an appealing Matthew Needham) is being shown a dramatisation of his life, enacted on a scaled-up version of a toy theatre.  It takes him a while to cotton on that the people in front of him are not those he knows but actors representing characters.  It’s a framing device similar to that in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle – in fact this production has Brecht’s handiwork sharing the driving seat with Voltaire.  The highly mannered performance style of the ‘actors’, a blend of 18th century posturing and ‘gestus’, the under-projected singing, drawing attention to the message rather than eliciting admiration for the voices – Ravenhill gives us a potted Voltaire before setting out his stall with his own flights of fancy.

There are abrupt changes of gear between sequences.  Suddenly we are witnessing a birthday party at which everything is black.  A massacre ensues, with some stylised bloodshed and more than a hint of Tarantino.  This event triggers other sequences: the survivor (an excellent, powerful Katy Stevens) goes on to write a book, and then the screenplay for a film of the events, fuelled by the philosophising contained within Candide.

In-between these scenes, we cut back to Candide as he travels in search of his lost love Cunegonde, including a visit to the almost idyllic land of Eldorado.  It’s a real challenge to Candide’s world view, but ultimately greed and capitalistic exploitation rear their ugly heads.

Ravenhill extends the satire of Voltaire into our age and beyond.  There is a science fiction twist at the end, when Candide’s inexplicably long-lived mentor Pangloss is now seeking to medicate the entire population, isolate the ‘optimism gene’ so that mankind can forever more be happy – or rather his definition of happy.  It’s an amusing and effective idea in a play that is crammed with ideas, and riffs on ideas.  It’s a lot to take in and some scenes are better at getting their point across than others.  Ultimately, the play never falls short of interesting, played out by an excellent company and presented in some inventive ways by director Lyndsey Turner.

Special mention for the wonderful Ishia Bennison in a range of roles, and prologue Harry McEntire, whose voice I could listen to all night.  Sarah Ridgeway’s birthday girl Sophie is pretty powerful, Ian Redmond’s Pangloss is as avuncular as he is driven, and John Hopkins is in hilarious form as monstrous movie producer ‘Tim’.

It’s only when you’ve seen the whole that you appreciate the parts of this chimera.  Pangloss’s optimism is still with us, in one form or another, and there is as much to criticise and satirise in the world as ever there was.  Everything is not for the best.  This is not the best of all possible worlds.

Matthew Needham speaks Candide-ly (sorry) Photo: Manuel Harlan

Matthew Needham speaks Candide-ly (sorry)
Photo: Manuel Harlan


Bloody Marvellous

TITUS ANDRONICUS

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 28th May, 2013

 

A box office hit in Shakespeare’s day, this Roman revenge tragedy packs more into its two-and-a-half hours than an entire series of The Jeremy Kyle Show.  It’s got the lot: murder, betrayal, mutilation, rape, and of course revenge.  It’s grisly, gory and gruesome, sordid, squalid and shocking.  And it’s bloody funny.

Stephen Boxer is in the title role as a man already steeped in tragedy and grief: most of his 25 sons have been killed in the wars he fights on Rome’s behalf.  The rest meet their doom pretty quickly.  Two are framed and executed for murder.  Another dies at Titus’s own hand in an almost casual neck-breaking scene.  Life is rough in this supposedly civilised empire.

Titus sacrifices a son of captive Goth queen Tamora, setting in motion a tit-for-tat vendetta that escalates to a blood bath in the final scene.  Katy Stephens is striking and strident as the queen with a grudge.  Fierce and fearsome – you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.  As with Boxer’s Titus, there is relish in the exacting of her revenge.

Titus’s brother Marcus (Richard Durden) is the calm voice of reason in the unfolding carnage.  His scene with the mutilated Lavinia (Rose Reynolds) is very moving.  Reynolds is the car crash you can’t help looking at.  Her agonies are fascinating.  With hands cut off and tongue torn out, she tries to smash and eat a boiled egg.  Horror and pity vie for dominance in the spectator.

Kevin Harvey brings a Merseyside twang to the villainous Aaron; his malevolence is not quite matched by Tamora’s sons, two chavs in hoodies riding bicycles and waving knives around (Perry Millward and Jonny Weldon).  You aren’t sorry to see them strung upside down, their throats slit and drained like pigs – This is the main theme of the piece.  Justice has been usurped by vengeance.  The punishments meted out on both sides could have been devised by the subscribers of certain Facebook pages.

Director Michael Fentiman sets his production in a sort of timeless, undefined space, using images we recognise from contemporary life and history.  Cowled monks in black mingle with big-haired women in biker boots. The soldiers’ tunics combine the historical and the contemporary.  The Emperor’s Italian suit is classic – John Hopkins’s Saturninus is an indulgent, immature figure, a comical bully.

I also liked Matthew Needham as Titus’s noble son Lucius but it is Boxer who dominates. His powerful grief turns to powerful madness before our very eyes.  When it all kicks off at the end, when it is revealed that Tamora has been tucking into her own sons baked in a pie, when everyone jumps from their places at table and the bloodshed is a fast and furious free-for-all, it’s a cathartic release that brings about a swift resolution to what constitutes the worst (or best) episode of Come Dine With Me in history.

The Elizabethans were more accustomed to brutality in the streets and public executions and all of that kind of thing.  This production shows us how we must guard against this violence and bloodlust.  “Thou art a Roman,” Marcus admonishes early on, “Be not barbarous.”

Tamora (Katy Stephens) puts on the dog. (Photo: Simon Annand)

Tamora (Katy Stephens) puts on the dog. (Photo: Simon Annand)