Tag Archives: Philip Whitchurch

Clear Lear


The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 24th May, 2016


Direct from Manchester’s Royal Exchange, this production of Lear jets into Birmingham.  It’s a satisfyingly traditional affair; the setting is the Dark Ages, the stage a stone circle.  Huge structures tower around it.  Signe Beckmann’s design is both evocative and versatile; the circular acting space serves as royal palace and blasted heath.  The costumes too convey the period.  We are in Game of Thrones territory and the characters behave badly accordingly.

Don Warrington makes a stately entrance as the eponymous monarch, in Jon Snow furs, but it’s soon apparent that he has already lost a marble or two, with his irrational game for the throne.  Whichever of his three daughters loves him best, will get the largest share of the kingdom.  It’s a lesson for all those with kids – don’t give them their inheritance while you’re still alive; they will only treat you abominably!  Warrington is powerful as the king losing his faculties and he is at his best, not when he is howling with grief, but in the quieter moments of clarity and self-awareness.  That really hits home.  Nowadays, if a playwright wants to write a piece about dementia, there is plenty of research material and you can probably get funding too; Shakespeare works purely from observation and I wonder who it was that he observed in order to depict the condition so accurately…

Philip Whitchurch is magnificent as the Earl of Gloucester – his journey is as devastating as Lear’s.  The blinding scene is a shocking slice of Grand Guignol, deliciously gruesome – director Michael Buffong should use that energy and ‘attack’ in other scenes; the pacing is somewhat pedestrian at times, making me long for judicious cuts – of the text, I mean, not the cast!

Fraser Ayres makes an enjoyable villain as the bastard Edmund and I also like Thomas Coombes’s rather flamboyant Oswald.  The Fool (Miltos Yerolemou) seems a little too sorrowful right from the off – he first appears as Matt Lucas in a Robert Smith wig – even his best japes are tinged with sadness.  He ends up like a bedraggled Miriam Margolyes – before his disappearance from the action.  Rakie Ayola and Debbie Korley are suitably nasty as evil bitches Goneril and Regan, while Norman Bowman’s Cornwall lends a Scottish lilt to the dialogue.  You wouldn’t want to endure the hospitality of any of them.

Alfred Enoch throws himself around as Edgar, disguised as ‘Poor Tom’, Wil Johnson’s Kent is suitably noble, and there is strong support from the likes of Sarah Quist and Sam Glen in ensemble parts.  Atmosphere is created in abundance by Johanna Town’s lighting and Tayo Akinbode’s sound design – distorted winds underscore turbulent thoughts.

On the whole, it’s an admirable production, a clear and straightforward handling of the tragedy that does not rely on gimmicks.  Excellently presented, it does however lack a certain something, a certain spark, to keep you gripped for its three-and-a-half hours.

Don Warrington (King Lear) Photo Jonathan Keenan (1)

Don Warrington (Photo: Jonathan Keenan)

Star Turn


The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 19th February, 2013

Roxana Silbert’s production of this new translation by RSC resident playwright Mark Ravenhill gives us a Brecht play that adds weight to the characters’ humanity, wisely restricting the Brechtian aspects of the staging to the inter-scene transitions.

We begin with a backdrop like huge sheets of blue graph paper.  A handheld microphone lies centre stage.  Electronic noticeboards hang over the stage, scrolling the captions for each scene. The mic is snatched up by Galileo himself.  As he begins to narrate, cast members run by, stripping him down to his boxer shorts.  As he washes himself, he instructs his landlady’s young son in the basics of his argument: that the Earth is not a fixed point at the centre of the universe; it moves and turns, as all stars do…  And so, the play begins with both man and his ideas laid bare before us.

As Galileo, evil emperor Palpatine off of Star Wars himself, Ian McDiarmid gives a towering performance.  We see the mathematician’s enthusiasm and delight along with his egotism, his boastfulness, his drive, his passion and his arrogance on almost a Dawkins-like scale.  This is a portrait of a man, painted with deft strokes and more naturalism than you might expect in a Brecht play.  In fact, in this world of plastic chairs and nifty red stepladders, the cast breathes life into the characters, making them more than mouthpieces for either side of the central argument.

That argument is uncannily topical.  It is astounding to me to know that in 2013 reason still faces such strong opposition from institutionalised superstition.   You only have to think back a fortnight or so and recall the fatuous arguments of the wilfully ignorant trying to bolster their bigotry against equal marriage with highly selective quotes from scripture.  You don’t have to watch the news for long to see countries where facts are stubbornly denied and contradicted by those who cling to superstition.  Change will damage society, these people claim, when what they really mean is their positions of power will be challenged.  On a smaller scale, my own Twitter feed is littered on a daily basis with horoscopes posted by people who, in other respects, seem intelligent and insightful. Brecht’s play, first presented in 1937, is very much a chronicle for the early 21st century.

An extra topical note the producers could not have foreseen is the changeover of popes.  Galileo looks forward to a less reactionary man in a pointy hat… I wish I could share his optimism.

In an excellent cast, I especially liked Matthew Aubrey as landlady’s son Andrea.  We watch him grow from curious young lad to fervent proponent of the new thinking.  Philip Whitchurch’s Barberini, Jake Fairbrother’s Ludovico, and Martin Turner’s Cardinal Inquisitor all lend weight and credibility to the ‘other side’; and there is a wonderfully comic moment from Patrick Romer as a ‘very old cardinal’ stomping around, knackering himself out, proclaiming he is the centre of the universe.  Jodie McNee is Galileo’s pious daughter – her repeated chanting of “Hail Marys” is disturbing, as she prays her dad will recant his heretical hypotheses.  Tom Scott’s design is simple and clean, like a new geometry set on the first day of school.  John Woolf leads the band of musicians in some raucous and rousing tunes.

It’s a provocative and compelling production.  Silbert and Ravenhill make Brecht accessible and enjoyable, but the evening belongs to McDiarmid – his performance is, dare I say, a tour de ‘Force’?

The Force is strong in this one.  Ian Mc Diarmid as Galileo and Matthew Aubrey as Andrea.

The Force is strong in this one. Ian Mc Diarmid as Galileo and Matthew Aubrey as Andrea.

A Tsar is Born

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 29th November, 2012

Pushkin’s classic drama defies categorisation. I suppose the best way to describe it is ‘Shakespearean’ – it contains elements of Old Will’s histories, comedies and tragedies, sometimes within the same moment.
Evil Tsar Boris (Boh-reese) at first denies the crown, reminding me of Julius Caesar, amid rumours of having murdered a young prince (Hello, Richard III). Meanwhile, bored young monk Grigory does a runner from his ascetic lifestyle, in the pursuit of worldly pleasures. He adopts the identity of the supposedly murdered prince and gathers supporters who will help him oust Boh-reese. That he is not the rightful heir doesn’t bother anyone too much. Grigory is a means to an end: he will rid Russia of Godunov.

Lloyd Hutchinson’s Boh-reese looks like Ricky Gervais’s David Brent and shares something of his management style. He is a curious mix of Machiavel and father, a powerful figure brought low by illness. The strongest scene, for me, involves his dying words to his young son Fyodor. He rattles off advice like Polonius saying ta-ta to Laertes. It is a manifesto that proves too much for the boy. In an assured performance, the very young Joshi Gibb slices his own throat open, rejecting his succession – proving you can’t always Push kin. (I’m so sorry).

As the pretender Grigory, Gethin Anthony is also a curious mix of heroism and villainy. It is the ambiguity of the characters that keeps them interesting, although they can appear as inconsistent or schizoid as the play lurches from drama to comedy to romance and back again. Anthony has a powerful presence. He would make an interesting Hamlet.

It’s a delight to see Lucy Briggs-Owen back on the Stratford stage as arrogant beauty Maryna, in a rom-com scene she plays with elegance and steel. I also enjoyed Philip Whitchurch’s Father Varlaam, a Toby Belch-cum-Falstaff figure who freestyles couplets in between boozing and singing.

Director Michael Boyd keeps the stage rather Spartan. He uses his ensemble to create atmosphere and define locations. Cast members form an amusing fountain at one point; at another they represent a battle charge by thrashing their coats onto the stage. Moments like these are very effective.

I was not as pleased with some of the clunky gear changes of tone. Broad comedy vies with boo-hiss plotting and vengeful soliloquy, and at times I found Adrian Mitchell’s rhyming couplets a little too noticeable – but then perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps the overt rhyming is an alienation device to make us think about the events unfolding before us, rather than becoming emotionally engaged.

As the action progresses, the costumes and props are subtly updated providing a low-key retrospective of Russian coats throughout the ages – but more importantly than that, the coats underpin the notion that the power struggles and despotism of the Tsars are still alive and well today, having survived Communism, Stalinism and the dismantling of the USSR. When Grigory the pretender is finally proclaimed Tsar (or should I say, Put in), he is completely up-to-date in his smart suit. He stands, literally, on the backs of the people. This is the final image of the piece, making a political point via theatrical means. It is an Orwellian moment, akin to seeing pigs and farmers around the same table. This is not just about Russian politics…It’s an eminently watchable and thought-provoking piece that deserves larger audiences.