DIDO – QUEEN OF CARTHAGE
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 11th October, 2017
Kimberley Sykes’s new production of Christopher Marlowe’s classic romantic fantasy is, in short, a corker. This is a world where gods interfere directly with the lives of mortals – the two species are differentiated by costume: the gods in modern day dress, the humans in period costume. It can be no accident that Jupiter (the wonderful Nicholas Day) bears more than a passing resemblance to RSC Artistic Director Mr G Doran… Ellie Beaven is glamorous in a Miss Scarlet gown as the meddling Venus, and Ben Goffe is in good form as the cheeky, mischievous Cupid, pricking his victims with a syringe of Venusian blood.
As the eponymous monarch, Chipo Chung is every inch the regal ruler, albeit an accessible and hospitable one. Her attachment to the warrior Aeneas (Sandy Grierson) unleashes passionate and capricious emotions; Dido is very much in the Cleopatra vein, at the mercy of her passions – and so is everyone else. Chung is fantastic, compelling and credible in her excesses of emotion. Grierson makes a fine paramour as Aeneas – he does come across as a little bit quiet at times but his recounting of the Trojan War is a vivid and gripping piece of storytelling.
Kim Hartman does a pleasing turn as a Nurse, tricked and pricked by Cupid, and Andro Cowperthwaite is especially alluring as Jupiter’s toy boy Ganymede. Bridgitta Roy stalks around with a stick as the conniving Juno and Amber James brings intensity as Dido’s sister Anna. I also like Will Bliss’s somewhat rangy Hermes, with wings in his hair.
Mike Fletcher’s original compositions, played live by a tight ensemble, add plenty of locational colour, while Ciaran Bagnell’s versatile lighting plan brings texture and variety to the deceptively simple staging. Designer Ti Green gives the actors a stage covered in grey sand. Pristine at first, it is soon disrupted and imprinted by the footprints of all the comings and goings. It says a lot of the impermanence of life, I find, how easily our presence can be erased.
Above all, the show is a lot of fun. Heightened action, passions running at full tilt – you can see why the tale is well suited for opera – stirring emotions and more humour than you might expect.
The show contains a lesson in how refugees might be treated, as people today continue to flee for their lives from war-ravaged countries. Unfortunately, men (it’s invariably men, isn’t it?) persist in committing the atrocities Aeneas describes – but where is the divine intervention now?
Yass, Queen! Chipo Chung as Dido (Photo: Topher Mc Grillis (c) RSC)
Leave a comment | tags: Amber James, Andro Cowperthwaite, Ben Goffe, Bridgitta Roy, Christopher Marlowe, Ciaran Bagnall, Dido Queen of Carthage, Ellie Beaven, Kim Hartman, Kimberley Sykes, Mike Fletcher, Nicholas Day, review, RSC, Sandy Grierson, Stratford upon Avon, Swan Theatre, Ti Green | posted in Theatre Review
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 14th June, 2017
Phil Porter’s new play ‘borrows’ heavily (to put it mildly!) from the works of Roman comic genius Plautus – Porter is by no means the first to do so; everyone from Shakespeare to Frankie Howerd has been influenced by Plautus’s outlandish plots and larger-than-life character types.
Colin Richmond’s set is a painted representation of two Roman houses – the artificiality is undisguised, as a prompt to tell us we are not in the real world. In this world, characters are broadly drawn, driven by particular foibles and appetites. First among them is General Braggadocio (Felix Hayes), a swaggering braggart, a vain, posturing despot – clearly ripe for duping. Hayes chews his lines with bombast and relish in a massively enjoyable performance. He quotes and paraphrases Donald Trump – which should tell you all you need to know about what kind of dreadful, narcissistic idiot he is.
Running rings around him is Dexter, the cunning, conniving slave. This is the Frankie Howerd role, played here by Sophia Nomvete, a hugely likable presence full of charm and warmth. Her schemes are ludicrous but we take delight in watching them work out, as Dexter copes with each new obstacle that is thrown in her path.
Aiding and abetting (but mostly hampering and hindering) are fellow slaves, Feclus (a hilarious and tightly wound Steven Kynman) whose desperation and frustration are a lot of fun, and Omnivorous (Byron Mondahl) who, as his name gives away, eats a lot but is at his comic best when he is pissed off his face.
Geoffrey Lumb’s handsome but dim young lover, Valentin, is a wide-eyed twit, while his other half, the general’s concubine Voluptua gives the performance of the night. Ellie Beaven is the cream of this very rich crop of comedic talent, flitting between characterisations with impeccable timing and nuance – and it’s not the kind of show where you expect much nuance!
There is superb support from Nicholas Day as game old codger Philoproximus and a star turn from Allo Allo’s Kim Hartman as raddled old prostitute, Climax, hurling herself into Dexter’s schemes with energy and style. Jon Trenchard reinforces the silliness of the whole enterprise, scampering around as Braggadocio’s monkey Terence (named for the other famous Roman playwright, I’ll wager).
Director Janice Honeyman doesn’t miss a trick to keep the laughs coming thick and fast, and much fun is had with some well-placed anachronisms. Roman comedy gives us the opportunity to mock those who would oppress us, while championing the little guy and revelling in the indomitable human qualities of ingenuity and wit. It’s not the plots we come for but the playing. And this production delivers some exquisitely funny playing indeed.
Up Stratford! Felix Hayes and Sophia Nomvete (Photo: Pete Le May)
Leave a comment | tags: Byron Mondahl, Colin Richmond, Ellie Beaven, Felix Hayes, frankie Howerd, Geoffrey Lumb, Janice Honeyman, Jon Trenchard, Kim Hartman, Nicholas Day, Phil Porter, Plautus, review, RSC, Sophia Nomvete, Steven Kynman, Stratford upon Avon, The Swan Theatre, Vice Versa | posted in Theatre Review, Uncategorized
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.
Leave a comment | tags: Amer Hlehel, Bruce Mackinnon, Caliban, David Farr, Emily Taafe, Felix Hayes, Jonathan Slinger, Kirsty Bushell, Miranda, Nicholas Day, Prospero, review, RSC, Sandy Grierson, shipwreck trilogy, Solomon Israel, The Tempest, William Shakespeare | posted in Theatre Review
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.
Leave a comment | tags: Bruce Mackinnon, Cecelia Noble, Emily Taafe, Jonathan Slinger, Kirsty Bushell, Nicholas Day, review, RSC, Stratford upon Avon, Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare | posted in Theatre Review