Tag Archives: Niki Turner

Lear and Now

KING LEAR

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 21st September, 2016

 

Gregory Doran’s new production of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy has an austere, almost Spartan feel.  The aesthetic is medieval but it’s as much Middle Eastern as it is Middle Ages, an interesting setting that could be Now, could be Then.  Here, the homeless and the dispossessed remind us of the refugees we see on the news on a daily basis (and also, extras on The Walking Dead!)

Lear makes a grand entrance, carried in on a chair in a glass box, paraded around like he’s an old relic.  In his opening scene, Antony Sher shows us the power of the king, albeit dwindling, as well as giving us glimpses of the mental deterioration that is to come.  It’s a commanding performance, in more ways than one, but Sher is at his most powerful in his quieter moments, in the details of his dementia, when he is recognisable and relatable as a human being in distress rather than a declaiming, despotic head of state.

Nia Gwynne and Kelly Williams soon show their colours as evil daughters Goneril and Regan, while Natalie Simpson’s Cordelia makes a sweet impression that lasts – she has to; she disappears from the stage until after the interval.   Antony Byrne is a suitably heroic and noble Kent, disguising himself as a skinhead, and Graham Turner works hard to wring laughs from the Fool’s babblings, like a Dave Spikey in his underwear.

The RSC’s current golden boy Paapa Essiedu is deliciously wicked as the bastard Edmund, displaying a casual facility with the language and conveying a sense of being at home in the world of the play.  Surely a Richard III can’t be too far in his future.  Oliver Johnstone has a harder time of it as his brother Edgar.  Those Poor Tom mad scenes are not an easy act, but Johnstone throws himself into them with gusto and, by the time Edgar is reunited with his blinded father (the redoubtable David Troughton, marvellous as ever), we see how far he has come from his early foppishness.  The reunion between father and son is the most touching moment of the evening.

Niki Turner’s design gives us open landscape, punctuated by a lone, barren tree.   It’s almost Beckettian, as Lear and Poor Tom prattle and wait for Godot.  Music by Ilona Sekacz is largely percussive – key moments are underscored by drum rolls and crashes.

The only thing I question is Lear’s final scene, when he mourns the loss of Cordelia.  He rolls in on the back of a farmer’s cart for some reason, cradling her in his arms.  It makes for a striking Pietà, but I can’t help wondering where he got the cart and who is pushing it.   Oh, and in the blinding scene, which is literally eye-popping, the Perspex torture booth with its fluorescent lighting seems out of keeping with the rest, suddenly wrenching the action into the present – in which case, it works as an alienation effect, shocking us into considering the play’s currency.  Which, I guess, is fair enough.

A more than serviceable production, excellently played – but then, I never really enjoy Lear, as such – showing us a world where violence and madness reign.  In that respect, it’s the perfect play for 2016.

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Branching out: Oliver Johnstone as Edgar as Poor Tom. Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC

 

 

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Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

THE WITCH OF EDMONTON

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 13th November, 2014

It’s a sad fact of society that when you hold up someone as a scapegoat for your problems, evil deeds will follow – persecution being the least of them.  Playwrights Rowley, Dekker and Ford were saying as much four centuries ago.  How dismaying to see the message is still relevant today.

Old Mother Sawyer is a lonely old woman whose life is made intolerable by the villagers of Edmonton ( a bunch of UKIP voters in waiting – although these days the focus has turned from little old ladies to immigrants).  Bothered and bewildered, she wishes she could bewitch her tormentors.  Unlike The Crucible there’s a twist here.  Something wicked this way comes: the devil hears the old woman’s curses and makes her an offer she can’t refuse.  She becomes a witch for real with the devil at her side as her familiar, Tom the black dog.  Eileen Atkins in perfectly credible as the curmudgeonly old boot, arousing our sympathy from the start.  Her cantankerous demeanour puts the devil in his place (temporarily, of course).  Atkins is superb and so is Jay Simpson as the devil dog.

Cleverly, the script keeps the audience a step ahead of the characters.  We always know more than they do and this dramatic irony heightens both the comic and the tense moments.

There is greater evil abroad than making Farmer Banks (Christopher Middleton) kiss his cow’s backside.  Ian Bonar’s con artist Frank Thorney Junior is a bigamist and adulterer, swindling his inheritance from his father, abetted by David Rintoul’s Sir Arthur.  (When it all goes belly-up, it turns out there is one law for the rich and another for the poor… Imagine that!  Oh.  Yes…)  Bonar is excellent – his early scenes with the first of his wives takes us in.  We believe he is a star-cross’d swain.  Later we see the depths to which he will sink.

The entire company is in good form. Shvorne Marks makes a strong impression and tugs at the heartstrings as wronged wife Winnifride. Ian Redford’s Carter and Geoffrey Freshwater’s Thorney Senior break your heart with grieving.  Dafydd Llyr Thomas is a hoot as the bumptious Cuddy Banks – the only character able to cast the devil from the place.  Joe Bannister and Joseph Ashley cut dashing figures as two suitors wrongly accused – it all gets a bit CSI:Edmonton for a while,  An underused Liz Crowther gets a moment in the spotlight for a wild-eyed mad scene and handsome RSC newcomer Oliver Dench shines, displaying a talent for comic playing in a couple of minor roles.

Sensibly, director Gregory Doran keeps the play in its own period and lets its delights and messages speak for themselves.  Niki Turner’s design is as effective as it is simple: a dense backdrop of tall reeds through which Tim Mitchell’s lighting creates creepily atmospheric moments, complemented by Paul Englishby’s music.  Special mention must go to violinist Zhivko Georgiev for his ‘diabolical’ fiddling.

There is much to enjoy here: a bunch of rude mechanicals perform a morris dance and have to dance to the devil’s tune; shocking violence and duplicity; humorous exchanges and poignant scenes of grief and forgiveness…  It’s a betwitching evening of theatre with Eileen Atkins casting a spell that lingers long after Old Ma Sawyer is led away to her fate.

Magic!  Eileen Atkins (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

Magic! Eileen Atkins (Photo: Helen Maybanks)