Tag Archives: Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Ah, Vienna…

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 7th August, 2019

 

Some people label this a ‘problem play’ and I have a problem with that.  What it is is a dark comedy that deals with issues of morality.  Here, director Gregory Doran has for the most part a light touch, so the comedy has the upper hand over the darkness.  It’s definitely a production of two halves, the first setting out the stall so the circumstances of Isabella’s dilemma are established.

In what is basically the first-ever episode of Undercover Boss, the Duke leaves town, putting pasty-faced Slytherin alumnus Angelo in charge, but comes back disguised as a friar to observe how things turn out.  Angelo instigates draconian laws to punish the immoral.  Pretty soon, Claudio is condemned to death for impregnating his fiancée, and his sister Isabella, a novice nun, is called in to plead for clemency.  Angelo takes a fancy to the novice, in a Captain Von Trapp meets Maria kind of way and makes an indecent proposal.  If Isabella will sleep with Angelo, he will pardon her brother.  Which was will Isabella jump?  It takes the machinations of the Duke-in-disguise to bring about a resolution and expose the hypocrisy at the top of Viennese society.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design establishes the show’s Viennese credentials from the off; it’s the Vienna of Strauss.  There are waltzes – everything but Viennese whirls, dancing horses and Midge Ure.  The set is sparse, with projections to establish locations and mirrored panels across the back wall, reflecting the audience back at itself – a mirror to society, get it?

More familiar to me for tragic, heroic roles, Antony Byrne is having a lot of fun as the Duke, throwing his weight around and keeping us in on the joke.  The Duke’s plotting may seem a little cruel, especially when he makes Isabella believe her brother has already been beheaded, but then this is a play about men’s treatment of women.  Doran gives us a delicious final image, when it dawns on Isabella that having escaped the clutches of one man who wanted her against her will, she is in the grasp of another, and never mind what she wants out of life.

As Isabella, Lucy Phelps is the emotional heart of the piece and gives a powerful, compelling and likeable performance.  I have seen Isabellas too up themselves to be sympathetic but here Phelps pitches everything right.  Sandy Grierson’s Angelo starts as a cold fish, struggling to repress his baser urges before being exposed as a massive hypocrite worthy of any Tory cabinet.

James Cooney makes an appealing Claudio, while David Ajao’s West Indian accent augments the comedic aspects of Pompey the pimp-turned-executioner’s assistant.  Amanda Harris gives sterling character work as the Provost, and, in their brief appearances, Graeme Brookes and Michael Patrick make strong impressions respectively as Mistress Overdone, the local madam, and Constable Elbow, a kind of prototype Dogberry, complete with malapropisms.  Claire Price is an earnest Escalus and Patrick Brennan a creepy Abhorson the executioner, but for me the man of the match is Joseph Arkley as the dapper Lucio, who is positively hilarious throughout.

Paul Englishby’s score is sumptuous and the second half begins with a plaintive song sung sweetly and with emotion by Hannah Azuonye that is brought to an end much too soon!   I could do with more of this!

The second half lets broad comedy take the lead and the action moves on apace, with enjoyable appearances from Graeme Brookes’s Black Country Barnardine, and the contrivances of the plot keep on the right side of credible (just about).

More fun than I was expecting, this is a Measure that speaks to us today.  Strict, moralistic statutes only lead to increased hypocrisy and division between lawmakers who break their own laws and the rest of us who fall foul of prohibition just for being human.

Measure for Measure production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Helen Maybanks _c_ RSC_286285

Antony Byrne as the Duke/Friar (Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC)

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Shrewd Moves

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 2nd May, 2019

 

Gender-swapping is all the rage in theatre these days but if there’s a play where changing the men to women and vice versa actually makes a point about the world we live in, it’s this one, Shakespeare’s not-so-romantic comedy about conformity to gender roles.  The setting is a matriarchy, instantly conjuring memories of The Two Ronnies and their Worm That Turned series.  While that show was about revolution, Shakespeare’s is about moulding the individual to comply with societal norms.  Both, I think, show the limitations of expecting as gender to behave in a certain way.  Unlike The Two Ronnies’ serial, which was set in a dystopian future, this production is set very much in the 1590s and things are ticking along nicely, thank you, with women, mature women, ruling the roost as captains of trade and industry.

Baptista Minola (a strident Amanda Harris) is trying to marry off her sons.  The one is sweet and lovely (and hilarious – beautifully played by a hair-tossing James Cooney); the other is aggressive and ferocious – but these women are not cowed by such masculine outbursts, mainly because in their world, such displays are exceedingly rare.  ‘Kate’s tantrums are perceived as an individual’s aberrations, rather than the way that men carry on in general.  As Katherine, Joseph Arkley is both a commanding and an appealing presence.  He is a stallion to be broken, a hound to be brought to heel, a direct contrast to the effeminacy prevalent in other men, for example Richard Clews’s camp old retainer, Grumio.

The woman for the job is Claire Price’s wild-haired Petruchia, all gusto and caprice – it’s OK for women to have their norm-stretching eccentricities, of course.  Well up for a bit of ruff, Price is delightfully unpredictable and very funny.  In fact, the production is riddled with funny women.  There’s a joyous double act: Emily Johnstone’s Lucentia and Laura Elsworthy’s Trania – the latter a real hoot when disguised as a noblewoman.  Sophie Stanton’s Gremia glides around as though on wheels, while Amy Trigg’s Biondella, actually on wheels, darts around, adding to the farcical elements of the action.  There is an elegant turn from Amelia Donkor’s Hortensia.  This Padua is more like Cougar Town, with women of a certain age eyeing up the young male totty.

There’s a vibrant, gorgeous score by Ruth Chan and sumptuous period costumes by Hannah Clark.  Director Justin Audibert keeps the staging traditional – apart from the gender-swaps – and it works brilliantly.  A finely-tuned ensemble keeps the laughs coming and the gender-swaps cast new light on what can be a problematic piece for present-day audiences.  Inversion puts the status quo in the spotlight, and we see how ludicrous it can be to expect individuals to tailor their conduct to adhere to one end of the spectrum or the other.

There’s a lightness of touch to the whole enterprise, so don’t dread a sociological treatise.  This is a hugely enjoyable, refreshing take on a classic that works beautifully.  Wonderful.

The Taming of the Shrew production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Ikin Yum _c_ RSC_275034

Joseph Arkley and Claire Price (Photo: Ikin Yum)

 


As You Lump It

AS YOU LIKE IT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 27th February, 2019

 

The plot of this rom-com from Shakespeare is bunched up at either end of the play.  A lot happens in the opening scenes – even a wrestling match – but when characters become exiled from the dukedom, the story line goes for a meander through the Forest of Arden, branching out into subplots about various pairs of lovers, until our protagonist Rosalind, seems to realise we’ve reached Act V and decides to pull all the threads together for a resolution.

The opening scenes are fine, with Anthony Byrne’s menacing, paranoid Duke Frederick ruling the roost.  David Ajao is an embittered and angry Orlando, disenfranchised by his weaselly brother Oliver (an excellent Leo Wan) but Orlando softens when the surprise of his victory (sorry if that’s a spoiler) against the Duke’s in-house wrestler Charles, is topped by his surprise falling in love with Rosalind at first sight.  Graeme Brookes’s Charles is more of a besuited bouncer – Frederick runs his realm like some kind of underworld boss, and Emily Johnstone is also good fun as Le Beau, tottering across the grass in her high heels and Krystle Carrington hairdo.

Lucy Phelps is a hugely appealing Rosalind, but I find Sophie Khan Levy even more so as her good-time gal cousin, Celia.  And so, I am liking this As You Like It

Then we get to the forest.

In a startling moment, director Kimberley Sykes flips the production on its head – much as the characters’ lives are turned upside down – and, taking the words of Jaques as a game plan, shows us that all the world is indeed a stage.  Sykes’s Arden is a bare stage with costume rails wheeled on, where lighting cues can be summoned by characters at the click of a finger.  It’s a bold move, and a valid one, except I am no longer with the characters on their journey.  I am, like Celia, Aliena-ted, and kept at a distance.  It’s a case of the concept working against the content.  With new characters coming and going as the subplot rattles along, I lack the attachment and investment one feels in say, a Much Ado, or a Twelfth Night.  Shakespeare gives us love in many facets in these scenes, but I find myself not caring.

Sandy Grierson is striking as Touchstone the fool, like a glam-rock Max Wall with a touch of Billy Connolly, but his love scenes are too aggressive.  He practically bullies lonely goatherd Audrey into a relationship (via the medium of British Sign Language, which adds another layer of humour to the scene).  Gender-swapped Jaques (Sophie Stanton) wanders about aimlessly, and I like the fluidity of Phoebe (Laura Elsworthy – very funny) who has set her sights on Rosalind as a boy, while being pursued by bright-eyed Silvia (Amelia Donkor) her earnest same-sex suitor…

At the moment when Rosalind effects a resolution, the scene is dominated by the arrival of a massive puppet, altogether too distracting I find.  In her epilogue, Rosalind invites us to ‘like as much of this play as please you’.  Unfortunately, the parts I do like are overshadowed by those I don’t.

As You Like It production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Topher McGrillis _c_ RSC_273380

Sophie Khan Levy and Lucy Phelps as Celia and Rosalind before they are ‘turfed out’ (Photo: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC)


Troying Times

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 8th November, 2018

 

Gregory Doran sets his production of Shakespeare’s Trojan War story in a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-type world – although we have to wait a considerable while for the action and excitement associated with the genre when we finally get to climactic scenes of armed combat.

Here, leather-and-denim-clad women are as likely to be butch warriors as the men, and so we get Suzanne Bertish’s shock-haired Agamemnon, Amanda Harris’s fiery Aeneas, and the mighty Adjoa Andoh’s wily Ulysses.  There is a humorous tone to the piece that Doran tends to emphasise, as Shakespeare satirises the supposedly heroic figures, but the production’s Achilles heel, if you will, is its lack of emotional attachment.  It looks great and sounds great but it does not grip or move.

Gavin Fowler makes an appealing Troilus, comical in his awkwardness and initially more of a lover than a fighter.  Amber James is fantastic as a stately Cressida, using a cool wit as a shield.  When she blurts out her love for Troilus, she immediately backpedals, unwilling to allow herself to experience or display her true emotions.  Even though the play is named for them, they are merely two characters among a host of many, and their story feels undeveloped.  As the go-between who, um, goes between them, Oliver Ford Davies is tremendously enjoyable as the doddering, overly attentive Pandarus.

Andy Apollo (yes, really) is an Adonis of an Achilles, striding and posing about the place with James Cooney’s sweet and boyish Patroclus at his side.  This pair of lovers is perhaps more tragic than the titular couple; when Patroclus is struck down, it provides a rare moment of empathy from us.

Andrew Langtree’s Menelaus would not be out of place in an Asterix book, while Sheila Reid’s grubby Thersites is like a dystopian Wee Jimmy Krankie (if that’s not a tautology).  Theo Ogundipe is a delight as thick-headed Ajax.

Original music by virtuoso percussionist Evelyn Glennie evokes the clatter and clang of battles we don’t get to see.  There are many things to admire and enjoy but as a whole, these things don’t amount to a hill of beans.  Shakespeare’s genre-defying play is notoriously difficult to pin down.  Doran’s funny, orotund and noisy production lacks depth.  It’s Troy without weight.  By the end of this loud but empty spectacle, I yearn for Tina Turner to come on and belt out We Don’t Need Another Hero.  It would be apt at least.

Troilus and Cressida production photographs_ 2018_2018_Photo by Helen Maybanks _c_ RSC _265416

Brought to heel: Andy Apollo as Achilles (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Young Blood

ROMEO AND JULIET

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 20th June, 2018

 

Erica Whyman’s new production of Shakespeare’s evergreen tragedy has a contemporary if abstract setting.  Her Verona is a place of rusting plate metal, with a multi-purpose construction at the centre, a hollow cube providing a raised level (the balcony) and an interior (the Friar’s cell).  It’s a stark and grim place against which the heightened emotions of the hot-blooded citizens are played out.  It’s a world of hoodies and sweatshirts, skinny-fit jeans – in fact, when it begins, the Prologue is shared by a chorus of youngsters and it’s all a bit performing arts college.  The casting is diverse and gender fluid, reflecting the UK today, supposedly, in order that youngsters coming to the play fresh will recognise themselves in the characters… What is unrecognisable about this on-trend milieu is the lack of mobile phones, the prism through which young people view the world and each other.

The design choices I can’t take to, but the acting is in general very good and in parts excellent.  Bally Gill’s Romeo is flighty and cocky – Whyman brings out the humour of him, so we take to him immediately, and he is more than a match for Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio, traditionally the ‘funny one’.  Josephine’s mercurial Mercutio is a ladette, with all the swagger and voice patterns of a cheeky teenage shoplifter on Albert Square.  It’s a very yoof-oriented performance, at odds with the accents and mannerisms of the rest of the gang.

Karen Fishwick’s Juliet has a Scottish brogue and is brimming with the youthful passion of a teenager in love.  She and Gill are a good match.  As Capulet, Juliet’s dad, Michael Hodgson is a little too staccato in his anger, while his Mrs (Mariam Haque) is steely-eyed and steadfast in her lust for vengeance.  Raphael Sowole is an imposing Tybalt – his fatal scrap with this Mercutio pushes the show’s fluid approach to casting to the limit, making Tybalt seem dishonourable in my view.  Later, he and other dead characters creep inexorably across the stage, like zombies playing Grandmother’s Footsteps – initially an effective idea but it becomes distracting from the main event at Juliet’s bier.

Andrew French is a wise and sympathetic Friar Laurence, but it is the magnificent Ishia Bennison who comes off best in a hilarious characterisation of the Nurse, perfectly delivering her sauciness, her garrulousness, alongside her deep-felt affection for Juliet.

There is much to enjoy and appreciate here, more than compensating for the decisions that don’t quite pay off.  Sophie Cotton’s original compositions are contemporary and atmospheric, and Charles Balfour’s starry lighting beautifies the industrial setting.

If the production does speak to the young members of the audience, perhaps it says something to them about knife crime and partisan gang culture.  To us slightly older others, it’s a strong rendition of an old favourite, with some hit-and-miss ideas, and some pulsating, bass-heavy dance music that can’t be over too soon.

Romeo and Juliet production photos_ 2018._2018_Photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC_248980

Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill (Photo: Topher McGrillis © RSC )

 


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)

 


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.

A-Christmas-Carol-production-photos_-2017_2017_Photo-by-Manuel-Harlan-_c_-RSC_236186

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