Tag Archives: Michael Grady-Hall

Venice not v nice

VENICE PRESERVED

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 24th June, 2019

 

Thomas Otway’s play from 1682 is revived in stylish form for the RSC by director Prasanna Puwanarajah, who sets the piece in a 1980s noir-cum-comic book setting of darkness and drains, of pulsating music, with nudges to Blade Runner – and there’s even a character who looks like Grace Jones.  Here, as in Otway’s original where he was critiquing the government of the day, this is not about Venice then or now.  It’s a veiled comment on our present (woeful) government – and in this respect it works quite well.

Central to the action is married couple Jaffeir (NOT the villain in Aladdin) and Belvidera (NOT a guest house in Southport) whose relationship is sorely tested when he loses his money and they have to turn to her estranged father, Senator Pruili (an underused Les Dennis).  Jaffeir is drawn into a group of revolutionaries by his bezzie mate Pierre (a cocksure and pragmatic Stephen Fewell) putting his wife up as collateral to prove his allegiance to their murderous cause.  Belvidera doesn’t take too kindly to being offered up as a hostage and narrowly escapes rape by the swaggering Renault (Steve Nicolson) a man so rebellious he brazenly sports an alarming mullet.

As Jaffeir, Michael Grady-Hall brings passion and intensity, torn between his love and his friend.  Grady-Hall is always great value, bringing out the depths of the role.  Equally, Jodie McNee is compelling as tragic-but-dignified Belvidera, although I spend a lot of time wondering why she’s the only one with a strong Liverpudlian accent…  Puwanarajah has his cast express emotion in broad strokes: there is a lot of falling to one’s knees, a lot of menacing each other with daggers, and while this makes for exciting viewing I find that, coupled with Otway’s scornful script, I don’t much care for anybody.

Amid the bleak melodrama, there is humour, provided mainly by the marvellous John Hodgkinson’s sleazeball senator Antonio, heavily into S&M and fully aware he can stun opponents into submission by making long speeches.  The satire is ladled on thick as Hodgkinson hops around, his trousers at his ankles, alternating baby talk with oratory and verbiage.

It’s a production of bold moves, in its performance and its presentation.  Belvidera’s cell, demarcated by lighting, looks like she’s being detained in a nightclub.  The V for Vendetta masks sported by the revolutionaries are a bit on the nose.   But I like the darkness of it, the dripping water, the coming-and-going with umbrellas.  And Les Dennis navigating a gear change from hard-hearted gammon to tender, repentant father, is the finest performance of the night.

The message I come away with is that while those who oppose the government are too wrapped up with fighting among themselves, they will never achieve their aim, leaving the sleazeballs in power where they thrive and they flourish.

Venice Preserved

Family fortune: Jodie McNee as Belvidera and Les Dennis as Priuli. Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC

 

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Play Politics

IMPERIUM Parts One and Two

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 8th and Tuesday 9th January, 2018

 

Dramatist Mike Poulton took it upon himself to adapt Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy for the stage, condensing the action into two evenings.  In six one-hour chunks, we rattle through the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, along with many other characters, while our main man Cicero (Richard McCabe) weathers every storm.  It’s like binge-watching a TV series.

For the most part, the action is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s faithful slave/secretary (an agreeable Joseph Kloska) while McCabe’s Cicero comes across as a blend of Zero Mostel and Ian Hislop.  There is plenty of humour here, irony and barbed remarks and, inevitably, parallels with the modern world abound.  “Stupid people tend to vote for stupid people,” Cicero observes, pithily explaining our current government.  The phrase, “The will of the people” is bandied around as though it excuses everything.

Peter de Jersey is a volatile Caesar, friendly and menacing – often at the same time, while David Nicolle is a suitably weasely Crassus and Michael Grady-Hall a ranting Cato.  Oliver Johnstone’s Rufus gets his moment to shine in a court scene, while Pierro Niel-Mee is roguishly appealing as the naughty Clodius.  It’s not just Cicero who has the gift of oratory, it turns out.

Siobhan Redmond brings humorous haughtiness as Cicero’s Mrs, Terentia – vulnerability too.  There are many performances to enjoy: Joe Dixon’s brutish Catiline, Hywel Morgan’s drunkard Hybrida, Nicholas Boulton’s bombastic Celer… and I especially like Eloise Secker’s forthright Fulvia.

The precarious, perilous nature of political life in ancient Rome is an ever-present menace and there are moments of ritualised action that heighten the differences between our culture and theirs, while the motives and behaviours of the characters reinforce the notion that human nature doesn’t change and politicians are some of the worst people.

The action is played out on an all-purpose set, designed by Anthony Ward: a flight of wide steps leads to a mosaic backdrop – a huge pair of eyes watches all.  Above, a large sphere is suspended, onto which projections and colours are cast to complement the action.  Yvonne Milnes’s costumes immerse us in the period while the lowering of the stage to floor level sort of democratises the plays: as observers, we are often addressed directly as members of the Senate.

Part Two sees the assassination of Julius Caesar (spoiler, sorry!) and the resulting fall-out.  The conspirators bump him off with no strategy in place for a new regime.  Et tu, Brexit?

Oliver Johnstone reappears, this time as Caesar’s successor, Octavian, youthful but determined.  When he coldly asserts, “I am a god” it’s a chilling moment, and we glimpse the kind of emperor he will become.  Pierro Niel-Mee is back as a serious Agrippa, a perfect contrast to his Clodius from Part One.  In this performance, Nicholas Boulton is excellent as roaring drunk Mark Antony, a hothead impotent to prevent the rise of cold Octavian.   Siobhan Redmond has an effective and amusing cameo as Brutus’s mother (bringing to mind the Life of Brian’s Biggus Dickus who ‘wanks as high as any in Wome’).

Once you get used to the host of characters coming and going, this is a hugely enjoyable watch, funny, thrilling and sometimes shocking.  On the one hand it makes me glad that politicians of today, bad as they may be, don’t go around burning each other’s houses down or lopping each other’s heads off.  On the other, it makes me wish they would.

It has become usual practice for the RSC to broadcast to cinemas its productions in the main house and then sell them on DVD for home viewing.  Productions in the Swan are not preserved in this way, which in a lot of instances is a great shame.  All that will remain of a good production will be what Cicero claims is left of any good man: what is written down.

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Joseph Kloska and Richard McCabe (Photo: Ikin Yum)


Arden Admirers

AS YOU LIKE IT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 25th April, 2013

 

Maria Aberg’s production of one of Shakespeare’s more uneven comedies is a qualified success.  It falls to a strong cast to lift the show out of some rather muddy ideas.   It gets off to a good start.  The opening exchanges between Orlando and old servant Adam, and then between Orlando and his big brother Oliver are very nicely played and staged, but when we move to the court of Duke Frederick, things take a turn for the bizarre.  The courtiers do a dance, a jerky, spasmodic routine that I guess is meant to convey something about the confinements and restrictions placed on them.  It’s a bit weird and distracts from the action of the scene and, what is most odd, we don’t get anything else like this throughout the piece.  The idea is underused and undeveloped.  The production gains nothing by its inclusion.

The wrestling scene is visceral. Malcolm Ranson has created more of a bare-knuckle fight than a wrestling match.  Orlando proves to be enough of a biter to merit a signing as a professional footballer.

This play stands or falls on its Rosalind and Orlando.  Aberg has two of the best I’ve seen.  Pippa Nixon is spot on as the disenfranchised Duke’s daughter, assured enough to be witty and young enough to be swept away by love at first sight.  She turns to cross-dressing as a means of survival, playing the comedy and the dramatic irony to the hilt.  Her role-playing scenes with Orlando are funny and touching, eliciting many an ooh and an aww from the sixth-formers in the balcony.  Nixon has been good in previous productions.  In this one she is excellent.

Alex Waldmann makes his Orlando likeable from the start.  His scenes with faithful old manservant Adam (David Fielder) are wonderful.  Orlando’s affections become preoccupied with Rosalind and Waldmann is adorable in his halting attempts to compose a song for her.  It is good to see him in  more light-hearted scenes, and he plays them with truth and credibility.

Aberg’s Forest of Arden is foliage free and infested with new-age travellers, refugees from a Levellers’ concert.  It all gets a bit too hippy-dippy and Glastonbury festival for my tastes.  Melancholic Jaques (Oliver Ryan) is peculiar, tripping out to an acoustic guitar. The comic business between Touchstone and Audrey, and Silvius and Pheobe, is a little encumbered by the set – a sort of revolving gazebo affair.  The play works best when the scenes are played in such a way that you can overlook the setting, ignore the fridge, and enjoy Shakespeare expertly delivered.

Luke Norris is very good as Oliver and John Stahl makes his mark as the tyrannical Duke – a pity we only hear about his demise rather than seeing him again but, hey ho, that’s Shakespeare.  Michael Grady-Hall gives depth to the minor role of Silvius although his Phoebe (Natalie Klamar) is a little too annoying.  Nicolas Tennant’s Touchstone starts off as Charlie Cairoli from the waist up and Max Wall from the waist down, but ends up as a debauched Godspell reject.  He tries to engage in some improvised patter with an audience member; hilariously it falls flat. “I’m back on the text now,” he points out, “We’ve got a long way to go.”

He’s right.  It is a bit long and could stand a few cuts.  Rosalind’s song, for example, during which a quartet of female characters parade around with flaming torches – the woman beside me leaned towards my ear and declared, “It’s like a sixth form play”.  I think, all in all, I enjoyed the production more than she did, because of the actors and despite the director!

Pippa Nixon as Rosalind as Ganymede

Pippa Nixon as Rosalind as Ganymede