Tag Archives: RSC

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)

 


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)


Timely in Athens

TIMON OF ATHENS

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 2nd January, 2019

 

Simon Godwin’s new production of the rarely-presented ‘problem play’ is an accessible fable, due to some judicious cutting and reframing of scenes, and simple staging.  It’s a game of two halves: the first is all gold and opulence, as though Timon’s interior designer was King Midas – even the flower arrangement is gold – with the stage dominated by a long banqueting table around which Timon entertains her guests, lavishing gift upon gift upon them, as suits her whim; the second half is dirt and darkness, with Timon now living rough in the woods, spurning all comers and railing against the world, like a mini King Lear.

In the title role, the formidable Kathryn Hunter gives a compelling performance.  Her Lady Timon is a silent-movie diva, every expression writ large on her face, every gesture stylised and mannered – although she is far from silent.  She spouts some of Shakespeare’s most acidic, misanthropic lines with relish.  Hunter’s performance style sets her character apart from the others, as befits the action of the play.  She is supported by a strong ensemble who breathe life and credibility into shallow, one-note characters.  (The blame for any shortcomings in the text is usually laid at the door of Shakespeare’s collaborator, Thomas Middleton!)

Chief among the supporting roles is Patrick Drury’s Flavius, Timon’s faithful steward.  In one of the piece’s most touching scenes, he shares the contents of his purse with his fellow, newly-unemployed servants.  It is the servants who display the best aspects of humanity: Salman Akhtar’s Lucilius, Rosy McEwen’s Flaminia, and Riad Richie’s Servilius.

Lady Timon’s guests, moochers and hangers-on display the worst aspects, leaching away at the good lady’s generosity until the well runs dry.  We see through them at once. Ralph Davis’s poet and Sagar I M Arya’s painter, might be excused for seeking the patronage of a wealthy woman, but Lucia (Imogen Slaughter), Lucullus (David Sturzaner) and Sempronius (James Clyde) soon prove themselves to be fair-weather friends.  These moments, with Godwin cross-cutting between scenes of refusal, are handled with humour – there are plenty of laughs to be had throughout, as we are invited to examine the scenario from a distance rather than empathise with the personas.

A dissonant voice comes from the mighty Nia Gwynne’s sarcastic philosopher, Apemantus, and not just because of the Welsh accent.  Gwynne and Hunter share the finest scene of the piece in which Apemantus and Timon trade eloquently vicious insults, descend into name-calling and end up displaying the play’s strongest instance of fellow-feeling.  It is powerful stuff.

With its up-to-date references (Alcibiades’s mob are sporting the latest Paris fashion, the ubiquitous yellow vest) and a strongly Grecian feel (Michael Bruce’s jaunty, stirring score), there are parallels being drawn with certain countries in the European Union, but I am tempted to consider the production is a more direct meditation on our own situation.  The first half is a Leaver’s vision of the EU, with all and sundry happy to bleed us (Timon) dry, while the second act is a Remainer’s nightmare of the UK post-Brexit: alone, hateful and bitter, scrabbling in the dirt for sustenance!

What I can’t help thinking is that Will must have had his father in mind during the writing of this play.  John Shakespeare spent his latter years as a recluse, hiding from his creditors; perhaps there is something of his nature in Timon’s bitter barbs.

An amusing, provocative production, rich with ideas and excellently presented, this is a timely Timon that reminds us that human nature is immutable and inequality is still very much with us.

Timon of Athens production photographs_ 2018_2018_Photo by Simon Annand _c_ RSC_269096

Lady Bountiful: Kathryn Hunter as Timon, with Patrick Drury as Flavius and Nia Gwynne as Apemantus (Photo: Simon Annand)

 

 

 

 


Crowning Achievement

TAMBURLAINE

The Swan Theatre, Thursday 30th August, 2018

 

Christopher Marlowe’s epic drama was an innovation in its time, and a major breakthrough in the use of blank verse in the theatre.  Michael Boyd’s production, which adapts the two-parter into one three-hour-or-so piece, clearly shows how Marlowe’s work is a kind of prototype for Shakespeare’s early history plays, which were to appear soon after.  Where Will outdoes Kit is in terms of plot development and structure, as well as depth of character – but that’s an essay for another forum.

As the eponymous despot, Jude Owusu gives a commanding performance, breathing life into the lyrical passages Marlowe puts in his tyrant’s mouth, mastering the verse and making it a pleasure to hear.  Owusu adopts high status from the off, even with Tamburlaine’s lowly beginnings as shepherd-turned-brigand.  The play charts the upward course of his career and the inexorable spread of his domination of the Middle East and beyond.  Owusu has the pent-up power of a big cat and his smiling eyes add menace to his pronouncements.  It’s compelling stuff albeit a bit one-note; there is, however, a powerful scene in which he expresses his grief for his dead queen – perhaps the only moment where we feel empathy for this monstrous man.

As said queen, Zenocrate, blonde Rosy McEwen is clad all in white to contrast with the black clobber of Owusu – opposites attract, I suppose!  McEwen brings regal vulnerability to the piece, although I can’t pinpoint when she transitioned from royal hostage to loving wife.

The company is a strong one – mainly men putting themselves about.  Mark Hadfield leavens the machismo by bringing touches of humour to his portrayal of Persian king Mycetes and other roles later on.  David Sturzaker plays it straight as his brother Cosroe, while good use is made of James Tucker as Meander, a lord who is more of a civil servant.  Sagar I M Arya is highly dignified as captured Emperor of the Turks, Bajazeth, while Zabina, his other half, goes from haughty pride to vengeful desperation in a striking performance from Debbie Korley.  I also enjoy Tamburlaine’s henchmen, Usumcasane (Riad Richie) and Techelles (David Rubin).

For the most part, the bloodletting is stylised, with characters on their way out, daubed with red courtesy of a paintbrush dipped in a bucket – although emptying the bucket over someone in a cage brings flashbacks to Saturday morning television of my salad days (yes, this is a TISWAS reference)  There are more graphic moments, such as the excision of someone’s tongue as Tamburlaine silences criticism (rather than merely mewling ‘Fake news!’) but the mass slaughters are kept off-stage, evoked in our imaginations by Marlowe’s descriptions.

Hugely watchable and effective though this production is, I come away a little unsatisfied.  This tyrant is not a tragic figure brought down by a fatal flaw in his nature.  We get no sense of a good man gone bad or the glimmer of redemption turned awry.  I suppose this history of empire-building appealed more to the play’s original audience, who would have revelled in the catalogue of kingdoms chained to Tamburlaine’s yoke and his growing collection of captured crowns.  How different, how very different, from present-day news footage of our weak prime minister, trying to dance her way around Africa in the hope of securing trade deals, while Britain’s status on the world stage plummets for no other reason than folly.

Tamburlaine production photographs_ 2018_2018_Photo by Ellie Kurttz _c_ RSC_258815

Hey, Mr Tamburlaine man! The mighty Jude Owusu (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)