Tag Archives: RSC

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)

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Windsor Takes All

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 17th August, 2018

 

Fiona Laird’s joyous staging of Shakespeare’s farcical comedy turns out to be the funniest RSC production of the Bard in a long while.  Blending the Tudor with contemporary Essex (familiar from so-called reality television), the design manages to be both traditional and fresh (the skeletal Tudor buildings are everything!), yielding delightful costume choices, designed from scratch by Lez Brotherston.  Check out Mistress Ford’s high collar and skinny-fit trousers in the illustration below.  This aesthetic enables David Troughton’s Sir John Falstaff to sport a John Bull waistcoat over a pair of baggy slops – with an ever-present, priapic codpiece.  Later, his anyone-for-tennis garb highlights how old-fashioned his brand of lechery is; he is an interloper in this glamorous suburbia, and the women, complete with TOWIE accents and dress sense, are empowered totally.  The play is an antidote to the problematic sexual politics of The Taming of the Shrew.

Troughton’s Falstaff is everything you could want in the Fat Knight, brought low by his appetites – which is a staple of comedy: to mock Man for his baser desires.  Ruling the roost, running rings around Falstaff and tying him in Windsor knots are Beth Cordingly as Mistress Ford, and Rebecca Lacey as Mistress Page.  Their machinations belie the Essex stereotype of the dim-witted glamourpuss unable to walk and chew gum at the same time.  Their attire may be in dubious taste but their characters and antics are to be admired. Cordingly and Lacey are clearly having a great time – and this enjoyment transfers to the audience.

Indeed, the watchword of the production is Fun.  We know the plot is convoluted nonsense but we are able to take such delight in this retelling, thanks in no small part to the comedic skills of a talented ensemble.  Jonathan Cullen’s French doctor Caius would put Inspecteur Clouseau to shame with his mangling of the English language and his histrionic carryings-on; Vince Leigh’s Ford dons a ridiculous nose-and-glasses disguise, along with a compare-the-meerkat accent.  Subtle, it ain’t, but it works magnificently.  David Acton is also a hoot as Welsh parson, Sir Hugh, while Ishia Bennison’s Mistress Quickly and Katy Brittain’s Hostess of the Garter (all big hair and leopard print) are hilarious creations.  Tom Padley is spot on as thick-as-a-brick Slender, more than a little reminiscent of ‘celebrity’ Joey Essex in his delivery; Karen Fishwick’s Ann Page is all duck-face pouts into her smartphone and teenage surliness. Tim Samuels is nasally officious as Shallow, the Justice of the Peace, while Josh Finan makes an impression as Falstaff’s rugby-shirted follower, Nym.

The playing is as broad as the accents and Laird imbues the show with a knockabout style that suits the age-old comedic conventions of the piece, mixed with some present-day references to keep things fresh.  The traditional laundry basket is supplanted by a big pink wheelie bin, and it works brilliantly.  Surely, even the most stuck-in-the-mud purist would chuckle.  Similarly, an action sequence in which Falstaff, disguised as the Fat Witch of Brentwood, is roundly chased off the premises, is a moment of chaotic, cartoonish bliss.  His parting shot, a quote from Dick Emery, reminds us how out-of-synch he is with this world.

I would like more to be made of the spooking of Falstaff in the final act; the scene seems to be over too quickly but, for the rest of it, the pacing is impeccable, and Laird’s attention to detailed comic business is superb.  She has also graced the production with an original score of her own composition, blending period flavours with contemporary beats and sit-com stylings.  It is delicious.

A wildly entertaining romp, triumphantly hilarious, this is a Merry Wives to savour.

The Merry Wives of Windsor production photos_ 2018_2018_Photo by Manuel Harlan _c_ RSC_258364

Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingly in Lex Brotherston’s fabulous costumes (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Oh What a Lovely Show!

MISS LITTLEWOOD

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 18th July, 2018

 

Erica Whyman’s exuberant production of this brand-new musical by Sam Kenyon tells the life story of one of the most influential figures of post-war British theatre, the formidable Joan Littlewood.

Clare Burt is Littlewood, narrating and sometimes ‘directing’ her own story, with other actors playing Joan at various ages, adopting Littlewood’s signature cap as a kind of visual synecdoche.  Thus, Burt’s Joan is outside the main action, able to comment and intervene.  The other characters give as good as they get – this is a highly theatrical piece about the theatre as much as it is a biography.  There is frame-breaking in abundance and an awareness of the audience and the fabric of its own storytelling.  Burt is wryly amusing as the no-nonsense Littlewood and, yes, a little bit scary in this whistle-stop tour of her personal and professional life.  The hits (Oh, What A Lovely War, A Taste of Honey) and the misses (They Might Be Giants) are all covered here.

She is supported by a superlative ensemble, with the other (younger) Joans each making an impression – from Emily Johnstone (pulled from the audience in a need-a-volunteer stunt) giving us Joan as a young girl, to Aretha Ayeh’s Joan as an art student, Sophia Nomvete as the fledgling director Joan (Nomvete also delights later as Patricia Routledge-like figure, Avis Bunnage).  Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue and Dawn Hope take up the mantle (well, the cap) as Littlewood in her later, successful years.  This multiple casting means the Joans can appear on stage all at once for key moments, like the scene where love interest Gerry Raffles (a dapper Solomon Israel) recovers in his hospital bed.  Surely, we too are composites of the versions of ourselves we have been throughout our lives.

There are cross-dressing roles, adding to the music hall aspects of the production.  Emily Johnstone’s brief appearance as Lionel Bart, for example, and Amanda Hadingue’s Victor Spinetti, for another.  Johnstone also puts in a winning turn as Barbara Windsor with a cheeky vaudeville number.

Gregg Barnett demonstrates his versatility in a range of parts, including Joan’s dad and the musician Jimmie Miller.  Similarly, the excellent Tam Williams crops up time and again – he also plays a mean trombone.

Tom Piper’s set keeps the red curtain and proscenium arch as a backdrop – the theatre is literally behind everything Littlewood did.  Whyman’s direction keeps the action fluid and the energies never flag.  The show is relentlessly charming.  Judicious use of captions and projections help us keep track of the timeline.  The piece is riddled with such Brechtian devices – despite which, it has an emotional (but not sentimental) impact.

For me, the star is the show’s creator.  Sam Kenyon’s book, music and lyrics (he did the lot!) are a joy from start to finish.  The sumptuous score is tinged with music hall and cabaret, and strongly flavoured with the musicality and verbal sophistication of Stephen Sondheim.  It’s magnificent.

An exhilarating entertainment, and the RSC’s best musical since Matilda, the show merits an extended run – or a transfer to London, perhaps to the ‘other’ Stratford and Littlewood’s East End theatre itself.

Miss Littlewood production photographs_ 2018 _2018_Photo by Topher McGrillis_253490

Sophia Nomvete and Clare Burt as Joan and Joan (Photo: Topher McGrillis)


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 )

 


A Merry Widow

THE FANTASTIC FOLLIES OF MRS RICH

Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 18th April, 2018

 

Written around 1700, Mary Pix’s The Beau Defeated is retitled and repackaged by the RSC in this lively revival, directed by Jo Davies.  The exquisite Sophie Stanton leads as the eponymous widow, a proud shallow social climber with questionable taste – but we can’t help liking her.  She is Hyacinth Bouquet crossed with Edina Monsoon – basically a stock type we recognise from comedies throughout the ages.  Mary Pix populates her play with a host of larger-than-life characters, from Emily Johnstone’s plain-speaking, fast-talking maid Betty to Leo Wringer’s raffish ruffian of a country squire, the elder Clerimont.  Tam Williams is marvellously funny as the foppish Sir John (and he plays a mean trombone!); Sandy Foster’s face-pulling Mrs Trickswell culminates in an hilarious bit of physical comedy when she challenges Mrs Rich to a swordfight; Solomon Israel’s younger Clerimont enjoys wallowing in his misfortunes like a self-indulgent teenager; but almost stealing the show is Sadie Shimmin’s mop-haired, rough and ready landlady Mrs Fidget, plotting with wily manservant Jack (a likeable Will Brown) and knocking back glass after glass of sack.

There is a wealth of things to enjoy in this production, chiefly the superb playing of the cast, but sometimes there’s a reason why plays aren’t staged for centuries.  This one is not without its charms and it rattles and rambles along through subplot after subplot, interrupted by the interpolation of some amusing original songs by Grant Olding., but it offers little we haven’t seen before.  The afore-mentioned swordfight between female characters aside, the play is typical of its kind – Pix was one of a clutch of ‘female wits’ of her time.

Jo Davies keeps a busy stage with servants and even a brace of real live dogs coming and going.  At times, the blocking pulls focus from the main action or just simply masks it from view – and I wasn’t in what you’d call a cheap seat.  It is the gusto of the performers that keeps us interested.  Colin Richmond’s design is gorgeous: paintings of the era form huge backcloths, across which captions are scrawled in hot pink graffiti, and the costumes, as if Poldark was having a going-out-of-business sale, are divine.

Frivolous fun peppered with the occasional knowing epigram, Mrs Rich amuses despite its convolutions and unevenness, with Sophie Stanton storming it while bringing nuance and even subtlety to this figure of ridicule.

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich

That’s rich: Sophie Stanton (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


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)

 


Bloody bloody

THE DUCHESS OF MALFI

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 15th March, 2018

 

Maria Aberg’s trimmed-down version of the John Webster tragedy begins with the title character dragging a headless animal corpse onto the stage.  It’s massive and no easy task.  The thing is strung up by its  hind legs and remains in place throughout the performance.  Aberg is fond of her gimmicks (remember the big balloons in her King John) and this dead cow is the big one for this production.  Not only does this bovine body symbolise butchery (and what self-respecting revenge tragedy would be without butchery?) but it also represents the female form as object, as a piece of meat, of something to be consumed.

The stage is marked by the overlapping lines of a sports hall, a distinctly masculine arena, and indeed the choreography of the male actors comes across like the worlds’ most aggressive Zumba class.

The Duchess’s brothers, one a clergyman, the other a Duke, seek to quash their sister’s independence.  How dare she choose her own husband?!  And so, church and state conspire to have the wayward woman comply to their will.  As Duke Ferdinand, Alexander Cobb is darkly camp, unhinged and psychotic, while Chris New as the supposed holy man is overtly brutal and sinister in his dog collar and white gloves.  They are the villains, to be sure, but so is the world where toxic masculinity is the only way to go.  But it’s #NotAllMen – the Duchess’s love interest is the nerdy, Clark Kent-alike Antonio (Paul Woodson) who has less of the serial killer to him and more of the cereal café.  His love scenes with the Duchess are all the sweeter because we just know their happiness will be short-lived – from our point of view; a few years elapse during the two-hour traffic of this stage.

Orlando Gough’s original music adds otherworldliness to the piece and above all a sense of foreboding.  The absolute highlight of the evening is a blistering rendition of the old standard, “I’ll Put A Spell On You” sung by Aretha Ayeh, while the Duchess and Antonio dance in a loving embrace.  Gradually, Gough’s tones take over.  It is Aberg at her most Emma Rice and it works beautifully.

The ever-present animal carcass is stabbed open by Ferdinand at the top of the second half.  Blood oozes inexorably across the floor, like the inevitable, impending denouement, like the mortality that will inescapably claim us all.  The characters carry on oblivious of the creeping puddle at their feet.  They fight, struggle with, and murder each other, becoming coated and drenched in the stuff.  I suspect this is the reason why the costumes are present-day: for ease of replacement and cleaning!

As the Duchess, Joan Iyola is elegant and commanding, sultry, sensual and above all controlled – a little too much perhaps during moments of extremis.  Hired killer Bosola, (Nicolas Tennant) waxes philosophical, regretting he allowed the horse to bolt before he barred the stable door in a show of conscience awakened too late.  He’s the most interesting character of the lot.  While other cast members can match Tennant’s power and presence, they are not given the range of facets to explore.

At turns brutal and tender, the production proves eminently watchable and provocative but its point, like its blood-drenched characters, proves somewhat too slippery.

malfi

Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb) holds the Duchess (Joan Iyola) in a fraternal embrace… (Photo: Helen Maybanks)