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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)

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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

 

 


Great Briton

CYMBELINE

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 11th June, 2016

 

Melly Still’s production of Shakespeare’s rarely staged late play embraces the bonkersness of the story – revelling in it, in fact.  Set in a dystopian near-future, a post-technological age, there is a medieval quality to the design; inevitably my mind finds parallels with Game of Thrones.  The extremes of behaviour, the graphic violence – the play has more villains than your average Shakespeare, and, in this production, when Innogen disguises herself as a boy, she chooses Arya Stark cosplay.

As the beset princess, Bethan Cullinane is an appealing lead, with strength and vulnerability – the emphasis is on the latter.  Hiran Abeysekera shows conviction as her secret husband, Posthumus (aka Leonatus), but all the swagger, all the brio, comes from the bad guys.  Marcus Griffiths is magnificent as the arrogant, petulant Cloten; his serenade to Innogen is an unalloyed delight.  Oliver Johnstone is a delicious Iachimo, a louche lounge lizard, cocky and flash – for me one of his worst transgressions is his lack of socks.  James Clyde as the Duke, second husband of Cymbeline (in this show, the titular monarch has been gender swapped), plots and smarms, with elbow patches on his blazer, like a Machiavellian supply teacher.

Queen of the Britons, Cymbeline (Gillian Bevan) is authoritative but also world-worn.  She speaks with the authority of someone who has been through a lot – as if the loss of two of her children twenty years ago has been eating away at her.  Those lost children have been living in Wales all this time.  Mere mention of Milford Haven gets a laugh.  Natalie Simpson makes a fierce Polydore/Guideria, complete with Xena: Warrior Princess battle cry.  Her brother Belarius/Arviragus (James Cooney) is wiry and energetic; he sings beautifully when it comes to Fear No More the Heat of the Sun.

The whole cast is splendid.  Among the ensemble, Theo Ogundipe makes a strong impression in a couple of roles, and Kelly Williams stands out as troubled servant Pisania.

Melly Still freezes the action, or slows it right down, during the characters’ many asides – a neat device that reminds us this is not the real world we are witnessing.  Also, some scenes are spoken in Italian or Latin, with the text projected on the scenery.  This is amusing at first, but Latin doesn’t sound right in an English accent.  But then, who knows what Latin sounded like?

The play deals with deceit and treachery, allegiance and devotion.  War comes because Britain has not paid its tribute to Rome.  After some bloody rushing around and a high body count, Cymbeline agrees to pay what is due.  A metaphor for the upcoming EU referendum?  If so, Cymbeline is definitely on the REMAIN side.  Hooray.

This is a hugely enjoyable production, a real treat to be reacquainted with a play that is not as over-exposed and familiar as the Bard’s greatest hits.  Such is its charm and invention, we go along with it.  In the same way that the characters take reversals of fortune and revelations on the chin, we laugh along.  The sincerity and heart of the performance carries us through the sensationalism of the plot.  Another big hit from the RSC.

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Cloten (Marcus Griffiths) sings his head off (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)