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Hands Off!

TITUS ANDRONICUS

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 20th July, 2017

 

Shakespeare’s bloodiest play (and a big box office hit during his life) is given a contemporary setting in Blanche McIntyre’s darkly enjoyable production.  Hoodie-wearing plebs pose for selfies in front of pageantry.  A Deliveroo driver turns out to be a hapless messenger, murdered for his bad luck.  It’s all recognisable if at times the relevance comes in the form of cheap laughs.

David Troughton is utterly compelling as the warlike general Titus, whatever the outlandish demands of the script.  Madness and grief are closely entwined as events unfold, with his lust for revenge tipping him over the edge.  Nia Gwynne’s formidable Tamora embodies icy determination and fiery emotion in her slight form, while Luke MacGregor and Sean Hart earn their crust (ha!) as her flaky sons Chiron and Demetrius.

Stefan Adegbola is just about perfect as the villainous Aaron, brimming with spite until the last, while Tom McCall’s Lucius is as upright and righteously vengeful as you would hope – in a play teeming with baddies, Lucius is at best the anti-hero.  I also enjoy Martin Hutson’s Saturninus, a hollow politician who could have come directly from Westminster or the US Senate.   There is strong support from an excellent cast, definitely not least of whom is Patrick Drury as Titus’s brother, Marcus (not Ronicus as I at first assumed… Never mind).  Drury is upright and decent – it takes a lot to break him, but he shares the play’s most tender scene when Marcus stumbles across his niece, the ‘mangled Lavinia’ following the traumatic attack by Tamora’s sons.  As Lavinia, Hannah Morrish is truly heart-rending – mostly through stillness to accompany her enforced silence.  Meanwhile, young Will Parsons makes a strong impression as Young Lucius – and he makes you wonder, along with Aaron’s bastard offspring – into what kind of world children are being born.  Young Lucius stands observing, like young Barron Trump – How on Earth is he going to turn out being set such an example?

The action performs a dizzying tightrope act between horror and humour – the violence is graphic, the humour blacker than dark matter.  For the most part, McIntyre steers with an assured hand – it’s the abrupt gear changes of the play that give rise to wobbles.  The bloodbath at the denouement is fast-paced and breath-taking, and all the more shocking because of it.

Entertaining, harrowing and a stark reminder of the barbarism that passes for civilised society, this is a Titus that will stick in the memory longer than a certain meat pie sticks in Tamora’s craw.

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Off-hand remarks: David Troughton as Titus Andronicus (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

 


Taking the Veil

SALOME

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 22nd June, 2017

 

Oscar Wilde’s one-act tragedy is far from a particular favourite of mine.  I prefer his epigrammatic, frothy word play to the heightened, florid language of this retelling of the Biblical story, where the characters speak mainly in similes and declamations.  How refreshing it is when Herodias proclaims, “The moon is like the moon!” – as fed up with the poetic spouting as I am!

Owen Horsley’s production has a decidedly ‘gay’ aesthetic.  Herod’s guards could be bouncers in a fetish club (I imagine) but there delivery is mere recitation.  The action begins to come to life with the first appearance of Salome herself (a gamin Matthew Tennyson) who speaks her lines as though she means them rather than pompous intonation.   Salome is intrigued by Herod’s prisoner, the prophet Iokanann (John the Baptist by another name) played by Gavin Fowler.  Iokanann is filthy, clad only in his underwear, but he still catches the young princess’s eye.  He rejects her advances – with fatal consequences.  What I don’t get is why he is permitted to continue giving his ominous predictions – if characters like Herod and Herodias find his words so annoying or insulting, why didn’t they gag him, at least?  Oh well.  His prophecies add to the sense of impending doom, I suppose.

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Rants in his pants: Gavin Fowler as Iokanaan (Photo: Isaac James)

Fowler is an agile Iokanann, filled with the wild conviction of his beliefs, while Suzanne Burden’s wearily glamorous Herodias is a fine comic counterpoint.  Matthew Pidgeon is imposing as the hedonistic Herod, and there are some fine, compelling moments: for example, a spot of contemporary dance depicting the grief of the Page (Andro Cowperthwaite) for the death of Assad Zaman’s Young Syrian.  The music by Perfume Genius is pulsing and vibrant, with the energy of clubland, which works well to underscore the action.  Singer Ilan Evans, a world-weary M.C. adds torch-song resignation to events as they unfold.

But it is Matthew Tennyson’s Salome that holds the attention.  Seemingly fragile, almost bird-like, he evokes rather than impersonates the female.  His dance is a high-energy, jerky affair, reflecting the lust of Herod and his court – Polly Bennett’s movement direction brings angst and tension and above all expression to Wilde’s difficult exchanges.  Tennyson is boldly defiant – Salome is accustomed to using her wiles to get her own way but is also strong and stubborn enough to stand her ground when denied.  She is determined to kill the thing she loves – ooh, that sounds familiar… The story culminates in horror as Salome remonstrates and coos with the head of the man who rejected her advances.

A rather patchy affair, I’m afraid, this tale about unrequited passions, but on the whole I think I enjoyed the production more than the actual play.

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Wilde at heart: Matthew Tennyson as Salome (Photo: Isaac James)

 


Rome About

VICE VERSA

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 14th June, 2017

 

Phil Porter’s new play ‘borrows’ heavily (to put it mildly!) from the works of Roman comic genius Plautus – Porter is by no means the first to do so; everyone from Shakespeare to Frankie Howerd has been influenced by Plautus’s outlandish plots and larger-than-life character types.

Colin Richmond’s set is a painted representation of two Roman houses – the artificiality is undisguised, as a prompt to tell us we are not in the real world.  In this world, characters are broadly drawn, driven by particular foibles and appetites.  First among them is General Braggadocio (Felix Hayes), a swaggering braggart, a vain, posturing despot – clearly ripe for duping.  Hayes chews his lines with bombast and relish in a massively enjoyable performance.  He quotes and paraphrases Donald Trump – which should tell you all you need to know about what kind of dreadful, narcissistic idiot he is.

Running rings around him is Dexter, the cunning, conniving slave.  This is the Frankie Howerd role, played here by Sophia Nomvete, a hugely likable presence full of charm and warmth.  Her schemes are ludicrous but we take delight in watching them work out, as Dexter copes with each new obstacle that is thrown in her path.

Aiding and abetting (but mostly hampering and hindering) are fellow slaves, Feclus (a hilarious and tightly wound Steven Kynman) whose desperation and frustration are a lot of fun, and  Omnivorous (Byron Mondahl) who, as his name gives away, eats a lot but is at his comic best when he is pissed off his face.

Geoffrey Lumb’s handsome but dim young lover, Valentin, is a wide-eyed twit, while his other half, the general’s concubine Voluptua gives the performance of the night.  Ellie Beaven is the cream of this very rich crop of comedic talent, flitting between characterisations with impeccable timing and nuance – and it’s not the kind of show where you expect much nuance!

There is superb support from Nicholas Day as game old codger Philoproximus and a star turn from Allo Allo’s Kim Hartman as raddled old prostitute, Climax, hurling herself into Dexter’s schemes with energy and style.  Jon Trenchard reinforces the silliness of the whole enterprise, scampering around as Braggadocio’s monkey Terence (named for the other famous Roman playwright, I’ll wager).

Director Janice Honeyman doesn’t miss a trick to keep the laughs coming thick and fast, and much fun is had with some well-placed anachronisms.  Roman comedy gives us the opportunity to mock those who would oppress us, while championing the little guy and revelling in the indomitable human qualities of ingenuity and wit.  It’s not the plots we come for but the playing.  And this production delivers some exquisitely funny playing indeed.

Vice Versa

Up Stratford! Felix Hayes and Sophia Nomvete (Photo: Pete Le May)


Drama Queen

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 11th May, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


One Man, Two Governments

THE HYPOCRITE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 12th April, 2017

 

Working in collaboration with Hull Truck Theatre, the RSC brings us this new play from writer Richard Bean – of One Man, Two Guvnors renown.  It’s the eve of the Civil War and the country is already divided.  In Beverley, Sir John Hotham is torn.  Should he support the King or Parliament?  He flipflops between sides, playing each against the other, until his equivocations overtake him and he is arrested and – well, spoiler alert: the play begins with his execution.  Knowing Hotham’s fate from the off removes suspense but his path to the chopping block is a twisted and entertaining one.

As the double-dealing Hotham, Mark Addy gives a star turn, brimming with Northern bluster and human failings, like a Tory jumping ship from Leave to Remain and back again.  This is One Man, Two Guvnors in period costume.  Caroline Quentin is his cooler-headed wife (the latest in a long line) but nonetheless funny.  Sarah Middleton is a scream as their daughter, Frances, a giddy, histrionic young girl tearing around and even rolling into the laps of the front row.  In contrast, her brother Durand (Pierro Niel-Mee) is straight-laced and academic – until his own ardour is aroused, of course.  Canny servant Connie (Laura Elsworthy) and decrepit old pantaloon Drudge (an unrecognisable Danielle Bird) complete the household, embodying dry wit and physical clowning respectively.

There is a double act of young suitors in the shape of James, Duke of York (Jordan Metcalfe) and Prince Rupert of the Rhein (Rowan Polonski) who, for reasons of plot, dress as lady fishmongers.  Both Metcalfe and Polonski are appealing presences and very funny.  Also good fun is Ben Goffe as King Charles himself, mounted on a hobby horse – Goffe also makes an impression as the ghostly figure of a young girl murdered for breaking a vase.

Bean populates his five-act comedy with stock characters, making a farce of historical events and peppering the dialogue with sharp relevance.  Hypocrites who seek to further their own ends at the expense of integrity – they should meet Hotham’s fate!   The religious and the spiritual also come in for a lambasting.  The puritanical Pelham (Neil D’Souza) and the hedonist Saltmarsh (Matt Sutton) are held up as excessive figures – the comedy arises from the exposure of weakness and appetites common to humans and both celebrates and mocks our foibles.

Director Phillip Breen pays attention to fine detail as well as broad comic playing.  At times the action is chaotic – or seemingly so, as choreographed chases and fights break out.  The acts are separated by rousing songs (by Grant Olding) performed live and on stage.  Phill Ward is in excellent voice with his stirring agit-prop anthems that bring to mind the songs of recent folk-rock group The Levellers.

The show is consistently funny in a theatrically traditional way but it is more than a farcical reconstruction; it speaks to us directly.  We are today in a divided country.  We are caught up in epoch-changing political events – we can only hope that, unlike Hotham, we don’t lose our heads about it.

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Mark Addy as Hotham (Photo: Pete Le May)

 


Broad Strokes

THE SEVEN ACTS OF MERCY

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 22nd December, 2016

 

Anders Lustgarten’s new play is a powerful and thought-provoking piece set in two seemingly disparate time periods.  Naples 1606 and Bootle 2016 take their turns on the stage.  In the former, we meet painter and outlaw Caravaggio; the latter introduces us to Leon Carragher and his grandson Mickey.  While Caravaggio seeks to restore ‘dignity to the poor’ by using them as life models for his great works, Leon strives to pass on his old-school socialist values through art appreciation discussions with young Mickey.  The painting that gives the play its title becomes a list of socialist principles, i.e. the decency of human beings.  With Leon ailing fast, Mickey embarks on a photography project with his mobile phone, to show his granddad there is still decency left in people, despite appearances to the contrary in this self-serving, selfish society, where compassion is seen as a political act.

A strong link between the two eras is Caravaggio’s thick Merseyside accent.  Patrick O’Kane is electrifying as the intense and passionate painter, a common man made great through talent, hard work and opportunity.  He finds a kindred spirit in the form of a life model, Lavinia (a fiery Allison McKenzie), who is forced to abandon her artistic ambitions and be a prostitute.

Edmund Kingsley provides contrast as the well-spoken Marchese, a decent if condescending figure, and the extremely good-looking James Corrigan brings a touch of oomph as Vincenzo, one of Caravaggio’s pickups.

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Patrick O’Kane as Caravaggio (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

As Leon, Tom Georgeson exudes strength and weakness, often in the same breath, as old socialism dies out.  His values have skipped a generation (Don’t we know it!), as evinced by his property developer-cum-gangster son Lee (Gyuri Sarossy) – Hope lies within the upcoming generation, represented here by Mickey (TJ Jones).  Their Bootle is tough.  Ruthless government policies enable the ruthless to prey on the vulnerable.  The cold cruelty of the bedroom tax and its consequences could not be made plainer.   The play wears its relevance on its sleeve, lain on like the thickest impasto – and it could not be more timely.  Also apparent is the pride of the poor: having to go to a food bank is a demeaning process.  Gangsters Razor (Patrick Knowles) and Prime (Leon Lopez) are darkly funny, menacing and violent – as though a couple of Pinter’s hard men have moved to the north west.   They are the ones with power, nasty, cruel and vicious, enabling the will of the unseen big boys to be enforced.

Director Erica Whyman uses contrasts of dark and light, noise and silence, like the painter used chiaroscuro.  Charles Balfour’s lighting design certainly replicates the painter’s dramatic lighting – Surely, Caravaggio invented staged lighting long before the theatre had the technology to bring it about!

The scenes are intense and gripping but there is also warmth, humour and humanity here.  As Lavinia comments on Caravaggio’s work-in-progress, the individual scenes are great, but the whole lacks a unifying feature.   It is only at the end, when Mickey’s latter-day Seven Acts is finished and Granddad is wheezing his last, that the two worlds come together.  Caravaggio has passed on his baton at last.  What are we to do with it?  As Leon observes, you have to be strong to be kind.

We must be strong.

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Tom Georgeson and TJ Jones (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)


Perfect Storm

THE TEMPEST

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th November, 2016

 

The play, often regarded as Shakespeare’s swansong, is brought to vibrant life in this new production from artistic director Gregory Doran.  Using pioneering technology (courtesy of Intel), the magical aspects of Prospero’s isle are presented in ground-breaking ways with special effects we are more accustomed to seeing in your average cinematic blockbuster.  Most notable is the spirit Ariel (Mark Quartley) projected above us with motion-capture animation while the actor performs upstage.  There is a risk that the action is going to be overwhelmed by the marvellous effects but Doran wisely allows Ariel to appear to us live not long after this grandest of entrances. Other scenes use a combination of acting and special effects to create the magical moments of the story – I think the balance is struck; the latter enhances the former.  Of course, all the effects in the world aren’t going to make a production if the acting isn’t there – and it is.

Simon Russell Beale is a superb Prospero, managing to be powerful when casting his spells and vulnerable and careworn when dealing with his increasingly independent daughter, Miranda (Jenny Rainsford, blending teenage assertion with childlike dependency).  Joe Dixon’s misshapen Caliban is both repulsive and sympathetic – his scenes with the drunkards Trinculo (a very funny Simon Trinder) and Stephano (the mighty Tony Jayawardena, who can do no wrong) are hilarious.  I also like Joseph Mydell’s wise old Gonzalo, the bravado of Tom Turner’s Sebastian and Oscar Pearce’s scheming, Machiavellian Antonio.  Daniel Easton’s bit of an upper-class twit of a Ferdinand matures nicely into a worthy suitor for Miranda, but for me the most effective relationship is that between master and slave, the magician Prospero and the sprite Ariel.  Mark Quartley is excellent as the unworldly creature, moving like a dancer-gymnast-acrobat – his face and voice are no less expressive.  “Do you love me, Master?” he asks, with poignant innocence, and Russell Beale’s reply, wrenched from the bottom of his heart, “Deeply” is wrought with pain.  It is Ariel who humanises Prospero, the servant teaching the master that revenge is not the way to go, thereby changing the outcome of the story.  Magnificent stuff.

Reconciliation is the order of the day and forgiveness and resignation, for a rather moving final scene.  Along the way, we have seen and heard wonders, including Paul Englishby’s ethereal music and the beautiful singing of sopranos Juno (Jennifer Wooton), Iris (Elly Condron), and Ceres (Samantha Hay).  This is the RSC’s best seasonal, family show for years and it’s practically sold out but perhaps, if you’re lucky and able to perform a little magic, you might be able to snaffle up the odd return ticket.  Believe me, it’s well worth the effort.

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Spirited performance: Mark Quartley as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero (Photo: Topher McGrillis)