Tag Archives: RSC

Dick Moves

RICHARD III

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 15th August, 2022

Perhaps more than most plays, Shakespeare’s Richard III depends on the charisma of its leading man, who in this case happens to be the villain of the piece.  Through soliloquies and asides, the scheming Duke of Gloucester lets us in on his nefarious plots.  Richard needs to be more than a pantomime villain, enjoyable though it is to boo and hiss at those figures.  This production boasts a remarkable Richard; we take to him from the off.  From the sarcasm of the famous opening speech and along every step of the way as his Machiavellian machinations play out, Arthur Hughes gives us a somewhat Puckish Richard, playfully turning on the histrionics whenever someone needs gaslighting.  It’s a joy to watch him at work, especially since most of the other characters are ‘worthy’ beyond stomaching.  The quickfire asides and glances through the fourth wall, the lines that drip with dramatic irony, are all deliciously delivered.  The wooing of a woman he has widowed is a masterclass in manipulation.

Hughes is supported by a superlative company.  In a play where the women have little else to do but grieve and wail, Minnie Gale’s Margaret stands out in a powerfully emotive scene.  Kirsty Bushell’s keening cry as the grieving Elizabeth is truly heartrending and has to be heard to be believed.  Jamie Wilkes impressed as Richard’s sidekick, the Duke of Buckingham, while Conor Glean and Joeravar Sangha are great fun as a pair of darkly comedic murderers who have been sent to despatch Ben Hall’s sympathetic Duke of Clarence.

Director Gregory Doran keeps the action fast-moving with swift transitions, and the sense of period in augmented by some beautiful treble vocals.  The climactic battle scenes are presented in a highly stylised manner using physical theatre and a symbolic staining with blood of the massive cenotaph that has cast its shadow over proceedings.  These scenes come hot on the heels of an effective dream sequence where Richard is tormented by those he has killed.  The sudden stylistic shift at the tail end of the play is at odds with the rest of the show, making this a production of strong moments but patchy in its overall presentation.  The first half is bum-numbingly longer than the second.

Of course, the play has plenty to say to us about the times we live in — especially given recent events:  the suitability (or otherwise) of those who rule over us; the gaslighting of the masses by those who abuse their power… Unlike the liars and crooks in power today, Richard does not get off scot-free.  Perhaps that’s why we indulge him in his excesses, and perhaps that’s why our sense of morality and our need for a proper story make us hope the wretches in government get their comeuppance.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

He came to slay: Arthur Hughes as Richard III
(Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC)

Well?

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Wednesday 7th August, 2022

Everyone knows the title of Shakespeare’s late comedy (characters even say it as part of their dialogue) but fewer people are familiar with the story it tells.  The play isn’t performed as often as Much Ado, Twelfth Night and As You Like It, so every new production has a head start in delivering something fresh.

Basically, young Helena takes a fancy to Bertram, who rejects her.  She does a favour for the King of France (as you do) and he grants her a wish.  Her wish is to marry Bertram.  Bertram runs away to war because that is preferable to an unwanted marriage, apparently.  Helena goes after him, finds the girl he’s got his eye on and colludes with her to swap places so that Bertram will have sex with Helena after all, unwittingly and without consent.

In some respects, Helena can be regarded as something of a feminist figure, a woman who knows what she wants and goes all out to get it.  Trouble is, she behaves like a man to do this.  Since comedy was invented, male characters have done what Helena does, the exception being that the female object of pursuit enjoys the chase, making only token protestations.  Imagine Sid James going after Barbara Windsor and you get my point.  But when the tables are turned, and it’s a woman taking the lead, it’s uncomfortable somehow.

At this performance, the role of Helena is played by Jessica Layde, and she does a good job, although in later scenes, when Helena is pretending to be a pilgrim, more could be made of the character’s duplicity.  Deception is a big theme of the piece, after all.  Benjamin Westerby is pitch perfect as the cocky but emotionally immature Bertram, while Jamie Wilkes steals the show as the cowardly braggart Parolles.  We like him instantly, as a stock character, an archetype that predates Shakespeare by centuries, but when he is mock-kidnapped and mock-tortured by his soldier buddies, and spills his guts, being even more careless with military secrets than Donald Trump, things change.  The moment when Parolles strips himself to his underpants, rolling around the stage, divested of all pretence is, along with the very final few seconds, the most striking point of the production.

Funlola Olufunwa brings a confident and easy nobility to the elegant Countess, and I could watch Micah Balfour all night.  Bruce Alexander as the King of France and Simon Coates as LaFew show how it should be done, demonstrating vocal strength and mastery of the text that is not quite there with some of the less experienced members of the cast.

Director Blanche McIntyre is keen to point out that her production is set in the here and now.  Projections flash up the date, along with news reports, social media posts (mostly illegible) and selfies; I’m not sure they add much to proceedings other than crying out ‘Look!  How relevant we are!’, when really what is interesting and contemporary about the piece is the reversal of gender behaviour, with Helena as a predatory figure.  In the light of the #MeToo movement, there is much to explore here.

All’s Well is a play of moments rather than a cohesive whole.  This production delivers the highlights superbly but doesn’t really get to grips with the lesser parts.

☆ ☆ ☆

Call that a knife? Jamie Wilkes as Parolles
Photo by Ikin Yum (c) RSC

Hooray! Henry!

HENRY VI: REBELLION

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 7th May 2022

Shakespeare’s history plays – dramatized and fictionalised versions of real events involving real monarchs – inevitably these days draw comparisons with Game of Thrones.  Here there be no dragons, but there’s pretty much everything you’d expect in terms of loyalty and betrayal, honour and dishonour, treachery and rivalry, and power grabs galore.  There’s violence and gore, and even a mystical scene in which a severed head on a pole is consulted about the future.

Mark Quartley is the young king Henry VI, something of a weakling and therefore ripe for plucking from the throne.  There is no shortage of wannabe kings.  Chief among them is a deliciously wicked York (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) and the dashing Suffolk (Ben Hall).  Quartley is effective as the meek monarch; you will him to stand up for himself and when it finally happens, Quartley shows us the toll it takes out of the frail king.  Alvin-Wilson is hugely enjoyable – all he needs is a moustache to twirl, while Hall’s Suffolk has more range as a character.  When he meets his violent end, it’s hard to watch.  Director Owen Horsley uses suggestion as much as blatant gore, making for some very unpleasant but irresistible moments.

Minnie Gale is tons of fun as Margaret, Henry’s unfaithful queen, a vivacious, unconventional young woman who brings a whole new meaning to getting head from one’s lover…

Lucy Benjamin is powerful as Eleanor, the Duchess of Gloucester.  Though she be but little, she is fierce.  Oops, sorry, wrong play.  Her fellow EastEnders alumnus, Aaron Sidwell, is a treat as rebel and rabble rouser Jack Cade, with a cocky/Cockney swagger and a twinkle in his eye.  You expect him to call someone ‘Treacle’ at any moment.  Something the play demonstrates all too clearly is how the public can be manipulated by empty promises and stirring rhetoric.  It’s a nice touch to have the mob speak lines in perfect unison, showing how they are of one mind/brain cell.

Richard Cant is in excellent form as Uncle Gloucester, matched by RSC stalwart Paola Dionisotti as Cardinal Winchester, whose death scene is the best of the lot.

The huge cast comes and goes but the action is never less than perfectly focussed.  The simple staging (rostra and a medieval throne) are all that’s needed; the action is augmented by judicious use of projections on the chainmail backdrop: huge faces looming, and there’s a sequence when Cade and his rabble are roaming the streets, represented here by the corridors of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Add to this, splendid historical costumes (such a relief they didn’t set the play at the time of the Cod War or on Mars or somewhere) and Paul Englishby’s superlative music, all mournful horns and stirring strings played live, and we’ve got a marvellous three-hours traffic on the stage.

I can’t wait to see the companion play next week!

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Mark Quartley as Henry VI (Photo: Ellie Kurtz)

WARS OF THE ROSES

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 12th May 2022

The excellent ensemble is back with the companion play, continuing the story of England’s feeblest king.  This time there is even more running around, with the severed heads of various characters tossed around like so many basketballs.  Director Owen Horsley brings out the black humour of the piece at every opportunity to offset the grisly deaths and the heartfelt grief.  Oliver Alvin-Wilson’s York is even more enjoyable, the character being more rounded this time around.  His speech of grief for his murdered son and fury for the bloodthirsty Margaret (Minnie Gale being phenomenal again) is the most powerful moment of the first half.

New characters come to the fore.  Arthur Hughes as York’s son Richard, who becomes the Duke of Gloucester, gives a show-stealing performance and I cannot bloody wait to see him continue the role in Richard III in just a few weeks’ time.  Conor Glean’s Young Clifford, full of righteous vengeance and a Merseyside accent, and Ashley D Gayle as York’s eldest son, Edward, both make strong impressions.  Ben Hall, playing middle son George (later Clarence) also does a heart-wrenching grief-stricken moment.

The live video footage not only allows for two locations to share the stage, but also artfully frames the action: clever use of a child’s crown in the foreground while the child that wore it is being butchered makes the violence cinematic and symbolic.  Indeed, the only piece of furniture in the entire show is the gothic throne, the thing everyone is fighting over, while the ground it stands on is increasing ruined.

Richard Cant appears in an amusing turn as King Lewis (sic) of France, not quite going the full Allo, Allo! but in the vicinity.  Sophia Papadopoulos’s portrayal of the young and valiant Prince Edward is assured, so we’re shocked by his inevitable murder.  Lots of killings in this play, and plenty of exciting swordplay, thanks to fight directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown.

It’s a time when first names were in short supply.  Everyone is either a Henry, a Richard, or an Edward, it seems, so it’s something of a relief when they start referring to each other by place names instead.  Who would have guessed that a Duke of York could turn out to be so troublesome?

A thrilling, visceral, funny, and moving production, with Mark Quartley’s conflicted king at its heart.  The three-hour run time flies by.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


Merry Wives of Wakanda

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 24th February 2022

This new production of theatre’s greatest rom-com boasts an ‘afro-futuristic’ setting – obviously influenced by Marvel’s Black Panther film!  As a world unto itself, this ‘Messina’ works very well.  Jemima Robinson’s set design is simple but exotic, futuristic and  yet retro.  I especially like the little illuminated bulbous plants that border the stage, and the geometric shapes that predominate the setting.  This Messina is a bright and colourful place – which is supported by Melissa Simon-Hartman’s glorious costumes with their strong, solid hues and striking silhouettes, marrying African elements with sci-fi kitsch, in an eye-popping cavalcade of outfits.  This is a great-looking show.

It also sounds phenomenal, with original music by Femi Temowo, played live by an octet of musicians, including some luscious brass.  The jazz/funk/soul/old school R&B-infused score is irresistible and, mercifully, no one raps.  Which makes a refreshing change.  Album release, please!!

Director Roy Alexander Weise makes the script more accessible to a modern audience by updating some of the more archaic vocabulary.  Most of the substitutions hit their mark and get the point across, although uptight purists might squirm.

A strong ensemble cast populates the story of deception and fake news, but any Much Ado is only as good as its Beatrice and Benedick.  In the role of Beatrice, the witty wise-cracker, is Akiya Henry, giving a star turn in comedic acting.  Her word play is razor sharp and it’s matched by her physical comedy.  Henry’s energy is equalled by Luke Wilson as witty wise-cracker Benedick.  Wilson exudes warmth in his portrayal; this Benedick is not only a funny man but a good man too, someone you’d like to know and drink with,

Don Pedro is presented here as Don Pedra, a princess.  The pedant in me wants to scream ‘Shouldn’t that be Donna Pedra?’ but I don’t, because I don’t want to be ejected.  The gender swap allows for a bit of LGBTQ+ inclusivity, which works very well, and Ann Ogbomo is marvellous in the role, embodying a spirit of fun and of (misguided) indignation.

Mohammed Mansaray’s Claudio really comes to life in the church scene, rising to his big moment.  It’s hard not to dislike Claudio in subsequent scenes but Mansaray wins us back when he shows Claudio’s devastation upon hearing the consequences of his actions.

Which brings me to Hero, played by Taya Ming, who invests the role with feistiness and fire, reminding us that Hero is a close relative of Beatrice and not the simpering good girl that she is sometimes shown to be.

Kevin N Golding’s Leonato is just about perfect.  Golding calls at all the stops on the character’s emotional journey and nails every one.  Even though he looks like a Time Lord in a disco wig, he has tears springing to my cynical old eyes more than once.

Also enjoyable are Karen Henthorn’s pompous, Northern Dogberry and the Watch, whose bumbling and malapropisms contrast nicely with the erudite banter of their social ‘betters’.  Here the costumes are their most sci-fi comic book, adding to the fun.

As the villain of the piece, Don John the Bastard, Micah Balfour is deliciously anti-social in this party atmosphere.  Balfour relishes the nastiness and vindictiveness, and therefore so do we.  If only his snazzy boots didn’t squeak so much when he walks!

This is an exuberant, heart-warming, rib-tickling, tear-jerking production of a play that demonstrates that the writer bloody knew what he was doing.  Moments of high (and sometimes low) comedy flip and become intense scenes of powerful drama and, like the plotters in the story, Shakespeare makes us fall in love with Beatrice and Benedick.  Weise’s direction does a bang-up job of delivering these tonal changes effectively, to create a supremely entertaining piece that packs an emotional wallop or two.

One of the reasons I love Much Ado so much is because it reveals something about the playwright’s character, the unknowable Mr Shakespeare who is absent from his other works.  The play shows that without doubt Old Bill was a very witty fellow.  You can’t write Beatrice and Benedick if you don’t possess their sense of humour.  He must have a been a right hoot at parties.

☆☆☆☆☆

Much Afro About Nothing: Mohammed Mansaray, Kevin N Golding, and Taya Ming.
Photo by Ikin Yum (c) RSC

Elephant in the Room

THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 10th November, 2021

It’s fantastic to be back in the RST, as it reopens with this year’s big family show, based on the Kate DiCamillo novel. Young Peter Duchene visits a fortune teller who intrigues him with a reading involving his presumed-dead sister and an elephant. Next thing you know, an elephant is dropping through the roof of the opera house in a conjuring trick gone wrong—don’t you just hate it when that happens? Peter sees this event as a sign that his entire life has been a lie and sets out to face the elephant and learn the truth…

Holding things together is Amy Booth-Steel as an affable Narrator, breaking the fourth wall with such charm we don’t want to sue her for the damage.  A strong ensemble includes delightful turns from Forbes Masson as a tightly wound, paranoid Police Chief, his underlings tumbling around him like Keystone Kops; Marc Antolin and Melissa James evoke empathy as childless couple Leo and Gloria; Sam Harrison’s fruity Count; Alastair Parker’s bumbling magician; Miriam Nyarko’s energetic orphan Adele; and Mark Meadows as Peter’s guardian, former soldier Vilna Lutz whose PTSD is startling, to say the least.

Villain of the piece is the mighty Summer Strallen’s Countess Quintet, who gets the most outlandish costumes.  Strallen channels Queen Elizabeth from Blackadder II and Cruella de Vil, with shades of Mozart’s Queen of the Night in her decorative vocal work.  It’s a stonking characterisation.

The Elephant itself is from the War Horse school of puppetry, with three operators bringing life to the pachyderm.  The scale of the beast is impressive but more so is the way it ‘lives’; there is grace to this animal and sorrow.  There is undeniably an elephant in the room with us.  It’s a captivating creation, skilfully performed by Zoe Halliday, Wela Mbusi, and Suzanne Nixon.

Giving a phenomenal performance as protagonist Peter is the elfin-featured Jack Wolfe, giving the role a quirky youthful energy, who is nothing short of perfection.  Instantly endearing, Wolfe is a true knockout when he sings, demonstrating beautiful vocal control and an impressive range.  You get the feeling you’re watching someone who is going to become a massive star.

With book and lyrics by Nancy Harris, and music and lyrics by Marc Teller, the show captures the tone of DiCamillo’s wonderful book. Colin Richmond’s design work delivers the grim, grey city of Baltese, with atmospheric lighting by Oliver Fenwick. It’s Sarah Tipple’s direction that makes us identify with, laugh at, and feel for the cast of offbeat characters, playing the humorous notes broadly and the emotional points deftly. The score is reminiscent of Sondheim and Gilbert & Sullivan and is performed by a tight band under the musical direction of Tom Brady.

It all adds up to a hugely entertaining piece, that speaks to us of people in strange times looking for answers (and not always in the right places), of hope, of the things that unite us rather than those that divide.

Beautiful.

★★★★★

Trunk Call: Peter (Jack Wolfe) visits the Elephant. Photo: Manuel Harlan © RSC

Lashings of Drama

THE WHIP

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 2nd March, 2020

 

This cracking new play by Juliet Gilkes Romero is set in the politically turbulent year of 1833, when the abolition of slavery is in the air but, as we learn from the politicking and the shenanigans on display, passing the Act through Parliament comes at an enormous financial cost (with the public purse compensating the supposedly hard-done-by slave owners for their loss of income!).  We also learn that abolition does not necessarily lead to emancipation; it is posited that liberated slaves will have to work a seven-year unpaid ‘apprenticeship’.  What price freedom, eh?

At the forefront of the wheeling and dealing is Lord Alexander Boyd, the Chief Whip (the play’s title has a double meaning, you see!) presented in a charismatic performance from silver fox Richard Clothier, the richness of whose voice is superbly suited to the corridors of power.  Boyd is a man trying to do his best for his fellow man, although it soon becomes apparent that his views of ‘our negro brothers’ are limited within the attitudes of the era.  Clothier is a commanding stage presence, giving us the strengths and frailties of the man in public and in private.

As Boyd’s assistant, the runaway slave Edmund, Corey Montague-Sholay is dignified and empathetic.  Beneath his ‘civilised’ veneer lies heartrending loss, having been torn away from his family and his culture.

As chirpy Northerner Horatia Poskitt, Katherine Pearce almost steals the show with some delightfully comedic moments as she tries to fit into her new role as Boyd’s housekeeper.  This renders her grief over a daughter, horrifically killed in a cotton mill, all the more effective.

As runaway slave and abolitionist Mercy Pryce, Debbie Korley holds her own in this white man’s world, detailing a harrowing account of the abuse she suffered in slavery (amping up the Jamaican accent to suit her Hyde Park Corner audience) while comporting herself with dignity and righteousness – making a fine contrast with John Cummins as despicable Tory Cornelius Hyde-Villiers; boorish and crass, he’s out for the biggest bail-out he can get.

David Birrell shows the arrogance of entitlement as conniving Home Secretary, Lord Maybourne, holding out offers of high office as inducements, while being riddled with hypocrisy: he purports to be an abolitionist but is a proud slave owner himself.  Politics still attracts the same kind of people today, alas!

What the play demonstrates is that the ruling elite haven’t changed a jot over the centuries and that decisions taken, ostensibly for economic reasons, are rooted in deep-seated racism: the freed slaves will be “too lazy” to earn a living, is just one example dredged up in support of the unjust apprentice scheme.

In a range of minor roles, other actors from ‘The Furies’ an ever-present chorus, observing the action.  These include Riad Richie, marvellous as the Speaker of the House, and the ever-captivating Bridgitta Roy.  Nicky Shaw’s costumes make this an attractively clad period piece, while a superlative quartet of musicians performs Akintayo Akinbode’s stirring Beethoven-informed score to perfection.

Director Kimberley Sykes maintains quite a pace; the characters lay out their arguments, moral and otherwise, with clarity and passion. It all makes for an engaging and entertaining polemic.  We can be appalled by the attitudes of the past, but it doesn’t take another bankers’ bailout to remind us that such conduct is still prevalent today.  “The citizens with all the power are hurting those with none,” we are told.  Ain’t it the truth!

The Whip production photos_ 2020_2020_Photo by Steve Tanner _c_ RSC_304233

Richard Clothier reading reviews (Photo: Steve Tanner c RSC )

 


Dress To Impress

THE BOY IN THE DRESS

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 16th December 2019

 

I have seen quite a few stage adaptations of David Walliams’s bestselling children’s books, ranging from rather good to brilliant.  This musical one, with script by Mark Ravenhill, lyrics by Guy Chambers, and music by none other than Robbie Williams, is the RSC’s bid to match the success of its Roald Dahl-meets-Tim-Minchin megahit, Matilda (which is still running in the West End a decade later).

This is the story of Dennis Sims, who feels different in a world of ordinary people.  His mum has walked out, leaving Dennis with his older brother John, and their Dad, who can’t cope, handle emotion, or serve proper meals.  Everything changes when Dennis is irresistibly drawn to a copy of Vogue magazine at the local newsagent’s; he teams up with local stunner Lisa James and before long he’s venturing out, dragged up as a French exchange student, complete with wig, beret, and a gorgeous orange sequinned dress.  Controversy is not far behind, jeopardising Dennis’s education and (seemingly more importantly) his place on the football team.

Playing Dennis tonight is the stunningly magnificent Oliver Crouch, who sings like an angel (not a cue for an old Robbie track), shows impressive range as an actor (I’m in tears ten minutes in) and whose dancing would have the Strictly judges adding extra zeroes to their ’10’ paddles.  Honestly, I have never seen a better performance from a child star, and Crouch continues to amaze as the show goes on.  A stellar, heartfelt and funny performance.  He will knock your frocks off.

The second time I well up with tears is when Dennis puts on the orange dress for the first time.  It is a moment of revelation, transformation and self-acceptance, building to an all-out discoball drag number that is absolutely joyous.

Rufus Hound pitches the depressed Dad perfectly – the third time the tears are wrung from me is his eventual acceptance of his remarkable son.  Natasha Lewis is an absolute hoot as Darvesh’s embarrassing mother, and Irvine Iqbal is a real treat as newsagent Raj (a character who features in every David Walliams book I’ve come across).  Max Gill’s Big Mac is a study in infatuated schoolboy nervousness, while Alfie Jukes finds a balance between oafishness and affection as Dennis’s big brother John.  Asha Banks shines as schoolgirl stunna Lisa James, and the mighty Forbes Masson storms it as the gleefully hateful headmaster Mr Hawtrey (the characters share surnames with Carry On actors).

The score is marvellous, catchy and tuneful, and is Williams’s best work.  Take that, Gary Barlow!  Ravenhill’s adaptation brings the book to life, with tweaks rather than changes, adding topical references to update the action to today.  Robert Jones’s design maintains a colour palette restricted to mainly greys and blues (so that Dennis’s orange dress really ‘pops’) and the set consists of movable houses that open up to provide interiors, wheeled around by the cast.  Gregory Doran’s direction delivers all the emotion and humour of the story – the football matches, for example, are inventively and hilariously staged.

It’s a joy from start to finish, tickling your funny bone and tugging at your heartstrings, and it makes me think how bloody daft it is that we impose gender norms on the way people dress.  “Everyone should be able to wear what they want,” asserts Lisa James.  You go, girl!

A great story, brilliantly presented, that looks like it could match Matilda for longevity – it certainly deserves too.  And Oliver Crouch must have a glittering career ahead of him, and I don’t necessarily mean on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The Boy in the Dress production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_299317

Masterful: Forbes Masson as Mr Hawtrey. Photo by Manuel Harlan (c) RSC copyright

 

 


A Reign of Two Halves

KING JOHN

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th October, 2019

 

There’s an undeniably 1960s vibe to Eleanor Rhode’s production of this lesser-known history play.  Max Johns’s design puts the characters in sharp suits and polo-neck sweaters, dandy two-pieces, and East End gangster-ish fur coats.  This is the world of One Man, Two Guvnors with a touch of the Krays.  Will Gregory’s original compositions do much to enforce the period, with arrangements that are reminiscent of Quincy Jones (think Austin Powers theme!) and classics like Green Onions.  So, it all looks great and sounds great, and they have the dance moves down pat.  But…

The first half heightens the humour.  Rhode delivers up a black comedy with a couple of rather gruesome touches.  In the title role we have Rosie Sheehy, a principal boy (evoking fond memories of Pippa Nixon’s female Bastard in a previous production).  The gender-blind casting emphasises the youthfulness of the King and later, his unmanliness.  John is a weak king, but Sheehy’s portrayal of that weakness is strong – if you see what I mean.  Dressed in pyjamas and velvet suits, this John is a slightly Bohemian, somewhat cocky playboy, a 60s rock-star/poet/playboy.

Sheehy is surrounded by other strong performers, notable among whom are the excellent Bridgitta Roy as Queen Elinor,  John’s authoritative mother; Zara Ramm impresses in a brief appearance as Lady Faulconbridge; Tom McCall’s faithful Hubert’s loyalty is not without its sinister side; and Brian Martin’s Lewis the Dauphin would not be out of place, torturing narks in a lock-up.  Michael Abubakar’s Bastard (Scottish accent, red brothel-creepers) is indeed a cheeky bastard, but he seems a little side-lined at times.

The role of little prince Arthur is quite a large part for a child actor, and tonight it’s the turn of Ethan Phillips to elicit our sympathies.  He does a grand job, togged up like our own Prince George, and I like Rhode’s idea of having him appear ghost-like, rather than as a corpse.  In fact, it is through his Arthur that we come to regard John as a villain – not quite of Richard III proportions, but even so.  Incidentally, John’s protestant rant against Catholicism puts him ahead of his time (or hearkens back to Henry VIII, depending on your perspective!).  Katherine Pearce’s Cardinal Pandulph is a camp delight if a little one-note – but then, I suppose that represents the unwavering nature of the Church.

To my mind, it is Charlotte Randle’s passionate Lady Constance, righteous in her grief, who gives the pivotal performance of the production, growing from annoying guest who won’t shut up about it, to a genuinely moving portrayal of emotional disturbance.  After her hair-tearing scene, the production is never quite the same again.

Rhode gives us lots of fun ideas to make the action accessible, even if we’re not always entirely sure who everyone is.  In the second half, the comedy is elbowed in favour of the darkness and the politicising, a tonal mismatch that doesn’t quite gel.  Perhaps the inclusion of more medieval motifs would marry the two sections, as characters get medieval with each other.  This is very much a game of two halves.

I find I have no sympathy for John’s messy demise in a tin bath.  Instead, it’s a relief to be rid of a weak leader.  The play points out – as if we aren’t painfully aware these days – that weakness at the top brings chaos everywhere.

King John production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Steve Tanner _c_ RSC_295649

Rosie Sheehy as King John (Photo: Steve Tanner (c) RSC)

 

 


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)


Romp with Pomp

THE PROVOKED WIFE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 5th June, 2019

 

John Vanbrugh’s comedy from 1697 is given an exuberant revival in this new production for the RSC by Phillip Breen.  A prologue points out that the playwright got his inspiration from us, the audience – and this is all we need to remind us that human nature, and in particular, human foibles have not changed a jot.  Breen sensibly keeps everything in and of the period and because of this, the show works admirably.  Mark Bailey’s set is a theatre, with plush crimson drapes and a pelmet, and footlights around three sides of the stage, setting the action against a backdrop of artifice, while the lavish costumes denote both class and character.

Lady Brute (a magnificent Alexandra Gilbreath) seeks distraction from her loveless marriage to Lord Brute (Jonathan Slinger in excellent form) by plotting with her niece Belinda (the charming Natalie Dew) romantic intrigues involving her suitor Constant (Rufus Hound has never been more dashing).  Constant’s best mate, professed woman-hater Heartfree finds himself enamoured of Belinda – in a masterly comic performance from John Hodgkinson, tossing off Vanbrugh’s sardonic epigrams with effortless bitterness.

A big name draw for this splendid company is TV favourite Caroline Quentin as the monstrously vain and conceited Lady Fanciful.  Quentin is made for this kind of stuff, and gives a hugely enjoyable performance.  Hardly subtle, Vanbrugh names his characters to suit their natures – Quentin’s portrayal is far from one-note and is an absolute joy to behold.

Also appearing, but mainly as a supernumerary is veteran comic Les Dennis, cutting his teeth at the RSC.  I’m assuming he has a more featured role in this play’s companion piece in repertory – but more of that anon.

Released from the confines of their gallery, the musicians feature on stage, coming and going to cover transitions and to accompany the songs – Paddy Cunneen’s  original composition, vibrant, sometimes discordant, enhance the period flavour and the comical nature of proceedings.  Rosalind Steele and Toby Webster are in splendid voice as Pipe and Treble respectively.

After much farcical comings-and-goings, including Lord Brute donning a frock and beating up the night’s watch like Old Mother Riley, the action takes a more dramatic turn, and we appreciate the depths of despair and danger Lady Brute endures.  Gilbreath and Slinger flip from wry comic barbs to horribly tense domestic abuse and it’s gripping stuff.  The plot is resolved with a quick succession of gasp-worthy revelations but the Brutes remain together, a bitter note among the hilarity and happiness.

Expertly presented, this production will get you laughing from the off.  It does run a bit long; this bum on a seat was a bit numb on the seat well before the end.  I advise you to get out and stretch your legs during the interval.  It’s a long haul but it’s more than worth it.

"The Provoked Wife" by John Vanbrugh

Behaving badly: Caroline Quentin as Lady Fanciful (Photo: Pete Le May, c RSC)