Tag Archives: Paapa Essiedu

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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Fresh Prince of Denmark

HAMLET

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 14th April, 2016

 

I don’t know how many Hamlets I’ve seen – the most recent was the Cumberbatch one in which I found the cast excellent but the whole somehow lesser than the sum of its parts.  One thing I do like in my Princes of Denmark is youth.  Hamlet shouldn’t be pushing forty.  He works better, I find, as a younger man, unsure of his role in the revenge drama that his life becomes when his uncle marries his mother so soon after the funeral of his father.  Uncertainty, indecision and depression can strike at any age, to be sure, but (as in this production) there is increased credibility when the life that’s turned upside down is that of a younger man, still finding his way in the world.

And so, Simon Godwin’s production begins with a snapshot of Hamlet’s graduation from Wittenberg Uni.  At once, Paapa Essiedu in the title role captivates.  Everything Hamlet will state later on about the Player King applies here: it’s all in his eyes.  Early scenes of grief and shock hit hard – Essiedu handles the all-too-famous soliloquies well, casting light and shade in surprising areas.  His lunacy, here signalled in shorthand by abstract painting – he gets as much on himself as on his canvases – adds unpredictability.  Above all, sensitivity comes to the fore.  This is a Hamlet we can care about.

Clarence Smith’s lying king Claudius gets across the public face of the dictator as well as the personal side – he can’t run his household as well as the state.  Tanya Moodie’s Gertrude is coolly elegant – at her best in the bedroom scene, horrified to see her husband’s ghost and strident in her denial of the phenomenon.  Cyril Nri’s Polonius is a star turn, funny and charming in his longwindedness.  His fate behind the arras also elicits laughter in its suddenness and slapstick.

Ewart James Walters impresses as the Ghost, in tribal robes, sonorous and forbidding.  He also plays the smart-alec gravedigger, with a twinkle in his eye.  Natalie Simpson’s Ophelia seems curiously sidelined until her mad scene, pulling her hair out and handing it around like sprigs of the herbs she names.  It’s always a difficult sell but Simpson makes it work, terrifying the court into singing her refrain.

Denmark has moved closer to the equator for this African-themed show.  Well, why not?  After all, Disney borrowed the plot for The Lion King.  Loud drums punctuate the more extreme moments and the colour palette suggests heat and intensity.  The music (by Sola Akingbola) reminds us this is a thriller, despite Hamlet’s vacillations.   The climactic fencing match with Laertes (a striking Marcus Griffiths) is done here with sharpened sticks.  The poisonings are swift and shocking – events come to a head in an outburst of action that breathes new life into the well-worn plot.  There is freshness in Godwin’s take that keeps this Hamlet watchable and affecting, but it’s Essiedu’s performance that is the keystone of the production.  Powerful in its intimacy, it’s a portrayal that touches and then breaks your heart.

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Paapa Essiedu banging his own drum as Hamlet (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 

 


Tragic Roundabout

ROMEO AND JULIET

Derby Theatre, Tuesday 16th June, 2015

 

A large, mirrored circle is suspended above a stage that is bare apart from a roundabout, the kind you used to see in children’s playgrounds. Meanwhile, a sound effect plays continuously: a wheel going around, or a giant’s game of roulette, or someone roller-skating in circles… Whatever it is, it gets old pretty quickly. It, and other loud and menacing sounds, recur when something portentous is happening. Enough with the sound effects already!

It’s a shame because this plucky cast speak Shakespeare’s verse – much of it rhyming – with clarity and ease, bringing naturalism and truth to the characters in the somewhat contrived tragic circumstances. They don’t need drowning out.

Also, while I’m at it, there is a row of spotlights along the back that shine directly into the audience’s faces. Again and again. Ouch.

These things are annoyances rather than enhancements to what the actors are doing.

Director Polina Kalinina ditches the prologue, thereby losing some of the inevitability of events; in its place we get a song from Cymbeline – until the FX drown it out.

All this aside, this is a cracking, entertaining production from Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory. Paapa Essiedu is an appealing Romeo, imbued with a lively sense of humour. We fall for him straight away. Juliet (Daisy Whalley) does not have the same immediate impact but, by the balcony scene, I have warmed to her. She has a tendency to gallop through her lines somewhat – the impatience of youth, I suppose – but could do with reining it in at times to allow us to enjoy her longer speeches.

Sally Oliver’s Nurse is stylish but dim, funny and touching. The excellent Oliver Hoare’s bohemian Mercutio fills the stage with banter and bawdy gestures – when he is killed, even though you may know it is coming, it is a truly shocking moment. The violence matches the passion of the love scenes – and the roundabout is utilised well, its handrails dismantled for weapons.  The wheel of Fortune, indeed.

Fiona Sheehan and Timothy Knightley as Juliet’s mum and dad do grief-stricken very well, while Alan Coveney’s Prince has a measured authority. Paul Currier’s Friar Laurence is a quiet man, devastated by his part in the tragic events, and the rest of the cast support with unrelenting energy and style.

It’s a good-looking production, with 1960s costumes (by Emma Bailey) even if the sound effects and music are a little out of joint. Polina Kalinina keeps things cracking along, navigating the play’s mood swings effectively. Even though I know Shakespeare’s play very well, I find I am still amused, shocked and moved in all the right places.

Paapa Essiedu as Romeo %26 Daisy Whalley as Juliet © Craig Fuller-1

Paapa Essiedu and Daisy Whalley (Photo: Craig Fuller)


A Basket of Laughs

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 8th November, 2012


Legend has it that this play was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I who was eager to see more of lovable rogue Falstaff. Whatever the play’s provenance, director Phillip Breen brings it right up-to-date and delivers an evening of non-stop laughter, setting the action in an Ayckbournesque world of anoraks, rugby matches, folding chairs and picnic coolers. It fits Shakespeare’s most farcical comedy very well and yet again proves, to me at any rate, the mastery of the playwright in every genre.

The titular wives, Mistress Ford (Alexandra Gilbreath) and Mistress Page (Sylvestra Le Touzel) each receive love-letters from Falstaff. They recognise at once he is on the make and plot to humiliate him mercilessly. They make a formidable double act, with Gilbreath’s sensuality and Le Touzel’s more regimented approach. As their schemes come to fruition, and we, in on the joke, laugh along with them, they are merry indeed.

Other plotters are not as adept or as successful. Ford himself (John Ramm) dons a disguise and hires Falstaff to test his wife’s fidelity. It’s a hilarious, sit-com turn from Ramm, complete with dodgy wig and bombastic seething. Though he isn’t cuckolded by his merry wife, he is certainly held up for ridicule for his unreasonably suspicious nature. When he realises what an absolute, misguided fool he has been, he bursts into tears in a manner that is equally hilarious. There is very little sentimentality in this production. Thank goodness.

Anita Dobson dazzles as go-between Mistress Quickly. Dressed like Sybil Fawlty, she charms with her word play and clearly character and actress alike are enjoying themselves immensely.

There is strong support from a host of actors in the subplot about Ford’s daughter’s three suitors. Calum Finlay amuses as the ninny Slender; Bart David Soroczynski struts and frets as the French Doctor Caius, mangling English and swishing his fencing foil. This is Allo, Allo with better dialogue. Contrasting performances, both very funny.

David Sterne is an energetic Shallow, Thomas Pickles an engaging Simple but without doubt the evening belongs to Desmond Barrit’s Sir John Falstaff. From his first entrance in a chequered tweed suit, through his disguise as the Fat Woman of Brentford and his adventures with a laundry basket, to his final, antlered humiliation in the forest, this is a master class in comedic acting, making the most of his padded physicality as well as the excessive nature of the character. You can’t help loving him.

Naomi Sheldon has poise as teenage daughter Anne, keeping her on the right side of headstrong, and Paapa Essiedu charms as her handsome suitor Fenton.

Breen doesn’t miss a trick. The attention to detail wrings the humour from every moment. I particularly enjoyed the drunkard Bardolph (Stephen Harper)- the energy of the show doesn’t let the pace slacken for a second. There are some riotous moments of action but it is the comic playing of the cast (too numerous to mention them all individually) that keeps things ticking and sometimes sprinting along. Max Jones’s set design allows transitions that flow like a musical, seamlessly taking us from the pub to the rugby field to the Fords’ living room and so on.

The fifth act contains the final humiliation of Sir John. It’s a sort of parody of a masque that would have been all the rage back in the day. Here it’s updated with some hilarious costumes. It’s a play about practical jokes and the cruelty involved. Sir John pays for his confidence tricks but so too do the tricksters. Their machinations to marry Anne off to their preferred suitor come to nought. And it serves them right.

A delightful production on every level, this will get you merry on a cold winter’s night. If we have Good Queen Bess to thank for this play, I am very grateful indeed. Royal Command Performances have gone downhill, I fear, since her day.