Tag Archives: Polly Findlay

The Present Horror

MACBETH

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Tuesday 3rd April, 2018

 

Polly Findlay’s production frames the action in a nondescript hotel or conference centre setting.  An expanse of blue carpet fills the stage, bordered by a walkway.  A water cooler gurgles upstage.  The sparse furniture smacks of corporate hospitality.  Fly Davis’s design certainly accommodates the banality of evil – Dunsinane as a low-budget chain hotel.  Findlay heightens the horror film aspects of Shakespeare’s tragedy: the witches are little girls in pink pyjamas, cradling dolls in their arms, their spells are singsong, like playground rhymes.  “Double double, toil and trouble” could quite easily be, “One, two, Freddie’s coming for you.”  Eerie though these kids are, they’ve got nothing on the Porter, the always-present Michael Hodgson, idly pushing a carpet sweeper.  He is more of an unsettling presence than comic relief, although he does get a few laughs.

David Acton is an excellent Duncan, whose throne is a wheelchair, signifying his physical vulnerability – with his murder (oops, spoiler!) the production loses one of its best actors.  Also strong is Raphael Sowole as Banquo, thoroughly credible and handling the blank verse with a natural feel.

Why then, with its jump scares, sudden loud noises and plunges into darkness, its scary movie sound effects and atmospheric underscore, does this production not grip me?

For once, the fault is in our stars.  Making his RSC debut in the title role is one of television’s most proficient actors, the ninth Doctor himself, Christopher Eccleston, no less.  Will he be able to bring his intensity, his charisma, his sensitivity to the stage?  Short answer: no.  Eccleston’s performance is highly mannered, coming across as though he’s learned the dynamics along with the lines: Say this word loud, Chris, speed this bit up… The result is it doesn’t sound as if he believes what he says and so we are not convinced.  Faring somewhat better is Niamh Cusack as his Mrs, but we don’t get the sense of her decline, we don’t get the sense that she is ever in control – she’s too neurotic from the off – and yet, when it comes to the sleepwalking scene, we don’t get the sense that she has lost it.

There are moments when the setting works brilliantly – an upper level serves as banqueting table, allowing for a kind of split-screen effect.  There are moments when it doesn’t: the pivotal scene between Malcolm (Luke Newberry) and Macduff (a becardiganed Edward Bennett) is like the Head Boy having a one-to-one with the Head of Year in his office.  And there are times when Findlay doesn’t push the horror (or the suggestion of horror) quite far enough.  The slaughter of Macduff’s family pulls its punches, and we don’t get to behold the tyrant’s severed head.

A timer ticks away the length of Macbeth’s reign and there is the implication that events will repeat themselves once young Fleance gets to work – along with the three creepy girls, of course.

This is a production with lots of ideas tossed into the cauldron and, while some of it works like a charm, the overall effect falls short of spellbinding.

Macbeth production photos_ 2018_2018_Photo by Richard Davenport _c_ RSC_245921

Screwing their courage to the sticking place: Niamh Cusack and Christopher Eccleston (Photo: Richard Davenport)

 

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Dirty rotten scoundrels

THE ALCHEMIST

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th June, 2016

 

Ben Jonson’s 1610 comedy owes much to the works of Roman comic playwright, Plautus: the scheming servant using his master’s house for illicit purposes, the characters typified by flaws, fast action and comeuppances – all are here in breath-taking form.

Face (Ken Nwosu) takes advantage of Lovewit’s absence to house a couple of partners-in-crime, namely Subtle (Mark Lockyer) and Dol Common (Siobhan McSweeney).  The former is the titular ‘alchemist’, conjuring jargon and nonsense with which to con their victims into believing that, for the right price, he can supply them with the philosopher’s stone, which Harry Potter fans will know has the power to turn base metals into gold.  The latter is called upon to playact a range of parts to support the cons, including a hilarious sequence involving a fairy queen spinning above the stage.  All three are excellent, displaying the energy and versatility of the hustlers as well as the underlying tensions between them.  Their ‘venture tripartite’ is as volatile as any of Subtle’s concoctions.

They are strongly supported by a range of victims, including a swaggering Joshua McCord as Dapper who wants supernatural assistance for his gambling, a dopy Richard Leeming as tobacconist Abel Drugger who wants the Jacobean equivalent of feng shui to ensure success for his business, and a bombastic Ian Redford as the hedonistic Sir Epicure Mammon who desires nothing less than the mythical stone – and to get his leg over where he may.  John Cummins makes a zealous Ananias, and there is plenty of ridiculous posturing from Tom McCall’s Castril and Tim Samuels’s Surly, in disguise as a Spanish popinjay.

The action is fast, furious and farcical, aided and abetted by some judicious cuts to the text (courtesy of Stephen Jeffreys) and the whole enterprise is pervaded by a sense of fun.  Polly Findlay directs her company assuredly, keeping them on the right side of exaggeration and timing the surprises to perfection.  Long before the time Lovewit (a charming Hywel Morgan) returns and commandeers the proceeds of his butler’s schemes, we are won over by Face, thanks to an agreeable performance by Ken Nwosu, and are glad he (spoiler alert) gets away with it.

At the end, Nwosu strips off his period livery to reveal a Ramones T-shirt and jeans.  He tots up the takings of the evening’s full house and is pleased.  We have all been ‘gulled’ by yet another disguise, or Face, and we thank him for it.  Human nature has no changed a   bit.  Fools and their money are still parted, but tonight we have got the better end of the deal.

The Alchemist

Cheeky Face (Ken Nwosu) – Photo: Helen Maybanks.

 

 


Fashion Victims

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 28th May, 2015

 

Before the play begins, Antonio, the titular merchant, stands centre stage in tears. Other cast members take position on benches at the back – they will step up from here as the action requires but there are also more conventional exits and entrances. Servant Launcelot Gobbo sits in the audience, nudging people and directing his comic monologue at them. Director Polly Findlay seems keen to remind us we are in a playhouse – it’s a while before the houselights go down and we can no longer see ourselves reflected in the metallic backdrop.

Most of the time, this approach works and keeps the action zipping along – until there has to be an interlude to sweep up thousands of banknotes, accompanied by some choral singing.

The Venetians inhabit a strange featureless world, their lives measured out by a kind of wrecking ball that acts as a pendulum. The only furniture seems to be a table and chair that appear in the court scene. I don’t mind this – it’s refreshing to see an uncluttered stage but I do question some of the design decisions, in particular the costumes. The clothes are contemporary, kind of, with an Italian couture feel, but work on me as alienation effects. “What has he got on?” I think every time someone walks on. Poor Lorenzo (James Corrigan) is the biggest fashion victim, in his sleeveless, knee-length fur coat and bright blue shoes. There are designer hoodies and clashing colours. When the trial scene comes, it’s a relief to see them clad more soberly and sharply.

Sartorial nausea aside, this is a cracking production, well-played by all. Jamie Ballard’s Antonio is unequivocally the older gay man buying the companionship of the mercenary Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) – also blatant is his hatred of Shylock, ‘voiding his rheum’ a couple of times directly in the old man’s face. (The only whitewashing I could detect was the omission of Portia’s line, when the Prince of Morocco has lost the casket challenge, “Let all of his complexion choose me so.”) Portia is then the moral heart of the piece. When we first meet her she is the poor little rich girl, bound by the ludicrous rules of her father’s will. She is spirited and humorous, but when we get to the trial scene, she rises to the occasion while still being the sensitive girl we know her to be. Patsy Ferran knocks it out of the park, bringing depth and pain to the triangle she perceives between herself, her new husband and his ‘best mate’.

Antonio and Bassanio are not likeable blokes, but Ballard brings out the suffering as he offers himself up to Shylock’s knife, while Fortune-Lloyd is dashing and not as shallow as he could be. Ken Nwosu is great fun as Gratiano and sweet as the Moroccan Prince – one almost wishes he’d choose the correct casket. (The caskets, by the way, are geometrical shapes suspended on cables: a squat cylinder, a cone and a cube, for some reason) Brian Protheroe is underused as slimeball playboy Aragon, and there is lively support from Nadia Albina as Portia’s waiting woman Nerissa.

Makran J Khoury’s Shylock is an elderly man, who acts with dignity despite being dressed like he’s just off down the betting shop. His revenge against the so-called Christians is justified within the context of the piece and his defeat is upsetting – not because he didn’t get to carve up his enemy (Are his terms any less palatable than Wonga’s?) but because he is stripped of his identity as well as his livelihood.

I’m still puzzling over Tim Samuels’s clown make-up as Shylock’s servant Launcelot Gobbo. Shylock is not the kind to employ a clown. Without these bizarre design choices, this stripped-down Merchant would be excellent.

Time to reflect: Polly Ferran and Nadia Albina (Photo: Hugh Glendinning)

Time to reflect: Polly Ferran and Nadia Albina (Photo: Hugh Glendinning)


Murder Most Fun

ARDEN OF FAVERSHAM

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 31st May, 2014

 

Written by an anonymous hand or hands, this play from 1592 receives a lively revival by the RSC. Played without an interval, it’s a black comedy in which a woman and her lover plot to murder the eponymous Arden, who himself is pestered by petitions from peasants about some land he has inherited. The plans go awry in a series of comic exploits until the action turns, on a knife point you might say, and a brutal, bloody murder takes place. The culprits fail to cover their tracks and are brought to summary and unequivocal justice. It’s a sobering conclusion to a wicked little romp, and we are reminded that our baser impulses may lead to dire consequences.

The setting is modern – or very recent – day. The costumes are just a little out-of-date: patterned tracksuits, and anoraks, windbreaker jackets… The ordinariness of the dress belies the extraordinary actions of the characters, suggesting that we are all in danger of giving way to sins and criminality. The costumes add a great deal to the humour of this piece, underpinning some larger-than-life performances.

As Alice Arden, Sharon Small is a scream, bringing cartoon villainy and barmaid chic to her portrayal. Ian Redford plods around as doomed husband Arden, and Keir Charles, with his Miami Vice sleeves and diamante ear-ring, is in excellent form as Alice’s lover Mosby. Jay Simpson and the mighty Tony Jayawardena are darkly hilarious as hired hitmen Black Will and Shakebag, while Christopher Middleton is chilling as Clarke, a painter with a penchant for poisonings.

Polly Findlay’s direction keeps the energy levels high and uses scenic effects like fog and snow to enhance the chaos and confusion. It’s a fast-moving, laugh-out-loud thriller that is ultimately a morality tale, and although you leave the theatre with an unpleasant aftertaste (those Elizabethans didn’t mess about when it came to crime and punishment) on the whole you feel like you’ve been royally entertained.

Chinese lucky waving cats will never be the same again.

Sharon Small

Sharon Small