Tag Archives: Royal Shakespeare Theatre

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.

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

 

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Marley and E

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 18th December, 2017

 

Do we need yet another version of Charles Dickens’s perennial classic?  The RSC and playwright David Edgar think we do, but what can they bring to this well-worn table?  Is there anything fresh to be said?

Yes, quite a bit, as it turns out.

Edgar frames his adaptation around a conversation between Dickens (Nicholas Bishop) and his editor (Beruce Khan).  The latter tries to persuade the former to dress up his social justice tract as a story, because stories are more powerful than facts and figures.  On the spot, Dickens conjures characters and scenes to life, and Bishop and Khan become our narrators as the familiar (to us) story unfolds.  There are some lovely moments of interplay between creator and created as Dickens prompts his characters, they ask what they should do, and especially when the Doctor’s Boy (Luca Saraceni-Gunner) has to run on three times in quick succession.  This approach heightens the storytelling aspect of the play.

Edgar also highlights Dickens’s social conscience by interpolating statistics and vox pops regarding child exploitation and poverty in Birmingham, Edgar’s home town and just up the road from Stratford.  This hammers home the message of the story, and it runs contrary to everything our present government stands for.  On the one hand, it’s startling to see how relevant the story remains; on the other, it’s depressing to realise, what progress we made post-WWII is being reversed.  Workhouses can’t be far away.

Leading the cast is Phil Davis as a magnificent Ebenezer Scrooge.  Davis has an intensity to his meanness and spite – but that intensity doesn’t dim when Scrooge sees the light.  This Scrooge is well-Brexit, despising the poor, spouting racist bile, but if he can be rehabilitated, surely the country’s descent into bitter isolationism can be reversed?  The production gives me hope.

Among an excellent ensemble, I enjoy Joseph Prowen as nephew Fred, who manages to be pleasant and fair without being soppy, and Giles Taylor’s chummy ghost of Jacob Marley.  John Hodgkinson’s benevolent but ailing employer Mr Fezziwig represents the loss of workers’ rights (keenly sought by the Tories of today) – if you think I’m stretching the present-day comparisons, consider the names Edgar gives to some of the minor characters: Snapchat, Tinder and Uber.

But do not fear: the political aspects in no way overshadow the entertainment value of the piece.  There is a lot of fun here and much to enjoy, from Catherine Jayes’s original music, to Natasha Ward’s detailed costumes.  Director Rachel Kavanaugh combines sophistication (the special effects – I especially like the face in the smoke) with simplicity (the extra-slow motion exit of Fezziwig’s party guests, for example) to give us a production that hits a lot of high notes and, I hope, strikes a chord.  The world won’t stop turning, we are reminded, if the rich have a little less and the poor have a little more.

To return to my original question: do we need yet another version of the story?  Yes.  Yes, we do.  More than bloody ever.

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E’s a Scrooge, E’s a Scrooge, he’s Ebenezer Scrooge – Phil Davis (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


A ‘Night’ to Remember

TWELFTH NIGHT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 13th November, 2017

 

Director Christopher Luscombe sets his Illyria in the late Victorian era, with Orsino’s court designated as ‘the town’ and Olivia’s estate as ‘the country’.  Thus the action is divided along the same lines as The Importance of Being Earnest – the characters even travel between the two by train.  There is a distinctly Wildean feel to Duke Orsino’s court.  Orsino (Nicholas Bishop) surrounds himself with witty young men, among them Valentine (Tom Byrne) and a rather striking Curio (Luke Latchford) posing almost naked for a painting.  Later, we meet Antonio (an elegant and dignified Giles Taylor) who openly declares his love for Sebastian while sporting Oscar Wilde’s green carnation – he even gets arrested!

Washed up into this world of witty men is Viola, who is more than a match for them.  Disguising herself as a boy and becoming servant to Orsino, Viola, now Cesario, finds herself falling for the Duke and he for her – although he buys into the disguise.  There is a sliding scale to sexuality and Orsino seems skewed toward one end.

Dinita Gohil makes for a bright-eyed and plucky Viola – it is about her fate we care the most.  Kara Tointon’s elegant and haughty Olivia becomes more enjoyable as she begins to dote on Cesario.  Her protracted period of mourning for a dead brother is clearly to keep Orsino at bay, while Orsino woos by remote control, preferring the company of young men.

As Malvolio, Adrian Edmondson gets across the prudish servant’s pompous officiousness and also his hissing contempt for the others.  In his mad, yellow-stockinged scene, he’s more of a cheeky chappie from the music hall; I get the feeling there is more wildness beneath the surface than he lets out.  His best moments come at the end when Malvolio, a broken man, comes to realise how he has been played and by whom.

Vivien Parry is excellent as Maria, instigator of the practical joke against Malvolio, bringing a lot of fun and heart to proceedings, but John Hodgkinson’s Sir Toby Belch (who does more farting than belching) has little of the lovable rogue about him.  He’s a drunkard, a user and a bully – too much of a mean streak for me.  Similarly, Beruce Khan’s Feste is embittered with anger and cruelty, which could be argued to stem from his position, as entertainer to silly white people, but I find the vehemence of his revenge leaves a bitter aftertaste, after an otherwise enjoyable and engaging performance.

There are many high points.  The letter scene involves some hilarious comic business with the garden statuary; Michael Cochrane’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a posh, bewildered delight; Sarah Twomey’s Fabia is a lot of fun; and songs like ‘O Mistress Mine’ and ‘Come Away, Death’ are beautifully melancholic, even with added Indian beats and instrumentation.

Nigel Hess’s original compositions bring Victorian music hall flavours but at times the music is overpowering.  It’s a bit like when an Oscar winner speaks for too long and the orchestra strikes up to play them off.  Several scenes suffer from this intrusion.  Some of the humour seems heavy-handed: a pack of servants fleeing the mad Malvolio doesn’t quite work for me.

Overall, I like the style.  Simon Higlett’s design marries Victorian architecture (hothouses, railway stations) with an autumnal palette.  Mortality is ever-present in the piles of dead leaves.

While there is much to admire and enjoy about this lively production with its many fresh ideas, I’m afraid some of the cakes are a little stale and some of the ale is somewhat flat.

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To the letter: Adrian Edmondson as Malvolio (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Drama Queen

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 11th May, 2017

 

A kind of sequel to Julius Caesar, charting the latter years of that play’s hero, the plot mixes the personal with the political and back again.  Mark Antony, one of Rome’s three leaders, is neglecting his duties by dallying with the Queen of Egypt.  The three men fall out.  There is war.  And another war.  And so on.  Meanwhile, Cleopatra carries on like the lovestruck diva she is, with all the wiles and depth of a teenager.  It all leads to tragedy.  Of course it does.

Iqbal Khan’s production feels very much a companion piece to Angus Jackson’s Julius Caesar.  Designer for both, Robert Innes Hopkins, uses the same idea for both: first half is dominated by tall columns, the second by a cyclorama with turbulent weather… Unfortunately, it feels like a disappointing episode in a series, proving the truism that sequels are never as good as the originals.  Some scenes lack focus – a nice idea of using model ships to depict naval battles just doesn’t come off.  Antony Byrne’s Antony is in the same mode whether he’s loving or fighting – I would like him to lighten up, have more fun with his drama queen, even being reduced to her level, for love does make petulant teenagers of us all.

The stage really comes to life whenever Josette Simon is on as the Queen of the Nile.  Grand, elegant, moody, manipulative, she is a hedonist used to getting her way, and knows how to get it.  Her schemes get out of hand, though, when she gives out word that she has topped herself.  Simon is captivating as the emotionally immature Queen – but in one scene, she is togged up like an Egyptian fembot that is at odds with everything else.

I feel that Andrew Woodall’s Enobarbus is casual to the point of being underplayed – his defection from Antony to Octavius Caesar comes across as no great loss.  The mighty James Corrigan is underused as Agrippa.  Speaking of Octavius, Ben Allen retains his role from the previous play.  Here Octavius is more mature, more assured of himself.  I also like Will Bliss as a Christ-lookalike soothsayer.

Original music is by Laura Mvula and, for the most part, its effective with discordant fanfares and a sense of foreboding, marred only by the occasional use of present-day beats, as if the composer is fighting against the urge to give us a rock opera.

It’s Josette Simon that maintains our interest throughout in this production that could do with a few judicious cuts or a tighter grip on the reins.  I hope the RSC’s Rome season is not already in its decline.

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Josette Simon and Antony Byrne (Photo: Helen Maybanks. Copyright RSC)

 


Government Cuts

JULIUS CAESAR

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Wednesday 10th May, 2017

 

The current production of Shakespeare’s political thriller takes a straightforward, but stylish all the same, approach, with a recognisably Roman setting and design aesthetic: towering columns, imposing stairs, more togas than a student party – but for all its historical flavour, it could not be more current.  One gets the feeling the conspirators would have put a stop to the rise of Trump as soon as he popped his orange head over the parapet.  Closer to home, the play is rich with oratory and persuasive speech.  In the run-up to the general election, I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed that Shakespeare isn’t around to script the party political broadcasts – for all sides!

Andrew Woodall is a grand Caesar, an imposing figure of a statesman but rather up himself and, fatally, ambitious. James Corrigan is a well-built Mark Anthony – his ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ is the best I’ve seen, rousing and manipulative, a perfect scene.  And I think that’s how I characterise Angus Jackson’s production: there are moments of brilliance, such as the tension of the assassination scene, the brief flashes of combat and the sickening instances of violence (poor Lucius!) but as a whole, it’s a bit patchy, up and down.

Alex Waldmann’s Brutus is a star turn, a decent chap driven to take extreme, direct action for the greater good;  I know how he feels.  The current political climate makes me all stabby too. Waldmann is excellent in Brutus’s bigger, public moments and also the more private scenes.  The play is as much his tragedy as Caesar’s – perhaps more so.  And you have to admire the chutzpah of a playwright who kills off his titular character before the interval!

There is strong support from Tom McCall as Casca and Martin Hutson as Cassius, to name just a couple from this impressive ensemble.  This is the RSC showing that you can take a traditional, accessible approach to a classic text and still make the production seem absolutely contemporary, rather than an exercise in theatrical archaeology.

Robert Innes Hopkins’s set gives us a sense of imperial Rome: the columns dominate and the statue of a horse being mauled by a lion links power with violence.  In the second half, when the action moves from the city, the architecture is stripped away.  Stunning use of lighting (by Tim Mitchell) plays on the cyclorama, bringing sweeping, romantic, expressionistic colour to proceedings.  Mira Calix’s original compositions are brassy and percussive, discordant and searing.

Well-worth the trip to Stratford, the production refreshes the familiar lines – so many speeches and phrases have seeped into the language and popular consciousness.

Entertaining, relevant, thrilling and powerful.

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James Corrigan and Alex Waldmann auditioning for Blood Brothers. (Photo: Helen Maybanks, Copyright RSC)


The People’s Prince

HENRY IV Part One

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 3rd May, 2014

 

Gregory Doran’s production is a straightforward staging of a history play with no time-shifts or gimmicks (like dozens of giant party balloons) to make its presence felt. It works very well – a crowd-pleaser.

As the titular king, Jasper Britton gets all the serious business of the plot, being kingly and regal and war-like. It’s a creditable performance but everyone knows, including the RSC’s poster designers, that the play is really all about Falstaff. Star turn Antony Sher gives us a Sir John like a fat Fagin; we delight in his personality flaws and his questionable behaviour. He engages in bouts of ‘lad bants’ with heir apparent and man of the people, Prince Hal – the never-less-than-excellent, tall, dark and handsome Alex Hassell. Now, here is a Prince of Wales I could get behind. He and Falstaff enjoy slinging insults at each other down the pub, and indulge in a spot of role play, taking turns to be the king. It’s all jolly fun but there is a brief foreshadowing of what is to come in Part Two, when Hal will shake off his laddish behaviour on his way to becoming Henry V.

Trevor White’s Hotspur is a hothead, looking like a Johnny Rotten or a Draco Malfoy. He’s a little too shouty and jump-aroundy for my liking, so Prince Hal’s eulogy for him doesn’t quite match the behaviour we have seen. The swordfight between these two is breathtaking in its speed and forcefulness. Kudos to fight director Terry King.

Joshua Richards is a marvellously morose Bardolph, whose conk could give Rudolph’s a run for its money, and Paola Dionisotti is utterly believable as sentimental old cackler and pub landlady, Mistress Quickly.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design evokes the period in an understated way, letting the costumes and the behaviour do most of the work, aided by Tim Mitchell’s atmospheric lighting and Paul Englishby’s evocative music. It all makes for a good-looking, great-sounding production, proving that the RSC doesn’t need to mess about in order to provide a superlative piece of entertainment. Fast-paced, funny and thrilling, Part One gives Part Two a lot to live up to.

 

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Poster: Antony Sher reflects on his performance as Falstaff