Tag Archives: Rufus Norris

Mac Duff


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 12th March, 2019


I have lost count of the number of productions of the Scottish Play I have seen over the years; I have yet to see one that gets everything absolutely right.  This touring version of the acclaimed National Theatre production doesn’t, I’m afraid, do it for me either.

Set ‘now’ but ‘after a civil war’, the action takes place in a dingy world of camouflage gear and the kind of clothing that gives the cast the appearance of an urban dance troupe that has fallen on hard times.  I’m all for diversity in casting, but I can do without Diversity as an aesthetic.  I half-expected Ashley Banquo to come on and flip Fleance over the heads of the group.  Said Fleance is gender-swapped and dressed like a young rapper.  Nuff said.

Rae Smith’s set includes a large ramp, like a broken footbridge, which is initially put to good use but is then side-lined in favour of plastic chairs and beat-up sofas.  There are also tall poles, like bedraggled palm trees, up and down which the Three Witches clamber and slide like post-apocalyptic circus performers – I could have done with more of this kind of thing, and a bit less of their booming, echoey voices, which go against their other ethereal qualities.

Michael Nardone’s Macbeth is all right to listen to, but we don’t get the impression of a great warrior gone bad – especially not when he’s being duct-taped into his armour.  Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Macbeth’s first appearance, in khaki vest, has the look of a military physical trainer, which she trades up for some garish gowns, at odds with the rest of the design.  Besterman brings intensity though and her sleepwalking scene is rather good.

Instead of crowns, the ruling monarch sports a blood-red suit, and so Duncan (Tom Mannion – effortless in his nobility) looks like a lounge singer.  When Macbeth later dons the trousers, it brings to mind the “I am in blood stepped in so far” line, which makes sense of Moritz Junge’s costume choice at last.

I can’t take to Joseph Brown’s Malcolm in the slightest but I do like Deka Walmsley’s bawdy Geordie Porter, Patrick Robinson’s Banquo, and above all Rachel Sanders’s Ross – these three seem to get the most out of the language, while coping with director Rufus Norris’s decisions, some of which make Shakespeare sound ironic: “This castle hath a pleasant seat” (it doesn’t; it looks like half a portacabin) and “Never shake thy gory locks at me” (Banquo’s pate is as bald as a Malteser)…

There is some effectively dissonant original music by Orlando Gough, and Paul Arditti’s sound design adds to the eeriness – until it becomes intrusive – while Paul Pyant’s lighting is suitably dramatic.  But the action doesn’t grip me, the tragedy of a great man brought low by his ambition and supernatural interference doesn’t’ come across.

Ditch the camouflage get-up and the urban combat gear.  Let’s have a Game of Thrones version.  That would be relatable to the Youth too.


Ramping up the action: the cast of Macbeth




Voices and Choices


Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 25th May, 2017


This touring show from the National Theatre is described as a work in progress – largely because, I suspect, Brexit has yet to happen and the debate still rages on – this absorbing piece of verbatim theatre, using the words of ordinary people from across the nation (as well as the drivel of politicians) to chart the country’s mood, before, during and after the referendum that split the UK in two.

In a clever framing device,  writer Carol Ann Duffy has Britannia herself (Penny Layden) welcome representative from the regions to a meeting, a chance to listen.  The regional reps are clearly distinguishable by their accents and attitudes. For example, Cymru (the marvellous Christian Patterson) enters voice first, as befits a Welshman; Laura Elphinstone’s North East rep is a hoot, deadpan and down-to-earth, plain-speaking and unpretentious.  Cavan Clarke’s Northern Ireland breaks out into a spot of Riverdance in one of the show’s livelier moments, while Stuart McQuarrie’s Caledonia proudly recites Robert Burns, supplying the whisky and the pragmatism.

Britannia oversees as, in the voices of their ‘constituents’, the reps air the views of the people, complete with hesitations, repetitions and deviations, for spot-on authenticity.  The opinions are often humorous, telling, and eye-opening.  It’s like an extended episode of Creature Comforts with flesh-and-blood actors standing in for the plasticene animals.

For what is essentially a piece in which seven actors sit behind desks, it comes across as anything but static.  Director Rufus Norris breaks up the recitations with action and humour – although most of the best lines come from the vox pops.  The reps may be stereotypes but the many and varied statements we hear mark us as a nation of individuals, albeit with some shared characteristics.  It’s almost as if the UK is a microcosm of the EU.  Fancy that!

Britannia chips in statements from MPs.  Her Boris Johnson is almost as vile as the real thing, as he tries to make bizarre and ludicrous analogies instead of facing issues head on.  Layden positively drips evil as Nigel Farage, spewing his ‘voice of reason’ bile.  Yuck.  Although it’s not quite a year since the vote, the show brings it all flooding back, including the frustration and disbelief I felt at the mismanagement of the entire campaign by both sides.

More than that, the show is a celebration of British identity in all its manifestations, reminding us we have always been a diverse agglomeration of regional differences.

The show ends with Britannia saying she still loves us all and what we need more than ever is leadership.

Let’s hope we get it, eh, Brit?

My Country

Making a song and dance about Brexit, the cast of My Country.

Where There’s Not A Will


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 26th November, 2013


Due to illness, Mr Will Young will not be appearing.”

A cry goes up and fills the auditorium will dismay.  So many people have booked tickets precisely because Mr Will Young is top of the bill.  But that’s live theatre for you.  Another aspect of live theatre is that such an eventuality allows the understudy to step up and have his moment in the limelight.  Enter Simon Jaymes who is more than up to the rigours of the challenge.  In fact, without the star player, I am reminded that the Emcee is an incidental role.  He and his raucous troupe of chorus girls (and chorus boys in this production) function as something of a Greek Chorus, providing musical interludes and commentary on the main action.

The main action concerns the arrival of American novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Matt Rawle) in 1930s Berlin.  He is a not-so-innocent abroad and, having rented a room, meets and has flings with all sorts.  Rawle is the most ‘normal’ (perhaps ‘grounded’ is a better term) figure on stage.  We encounter the other characters and Berlin through his eyes.  He is the ‘straight’ man, so to speak, although Bradshaw (suggested by the real-life adventures of Christopher Isherwood) evidently climbs both sides of the ladder.  Rawle’s rich singing voice is always a treat and he brings an easy, up-for-it-ness to the role.

Bradshaw finds himself in the KitKat Club, a venue named after not one but two chocolate bars (not really) where he meets the redoubtable Sally Bowles.  Siobhan Dillon imbues the divine Miss B with an irrepressible Englishness and energy.  Her musical numbers are the highlights for me.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Lyn Paul but I’m afraid her German landlady, Fraulein Schneider, has more than a hint of Liverpool to her.  I keep expecting her to turn out to be Frau Johnson in a production of Blut Brüder.

Her paramour Herr Schulz is sweetly portrayed by Linal Haft, warbling about a pineapple and keeping his kopf in the sand about the rising tide of anti-Semitism all around him as Nazism infects the minds of the German populace.  Director Rufus Norris knows we know what happens historically and within the story.  He makes the rise of the Reich ironic – the Emcee is a satirist.  In Tomorrow Belongs to Me for example, rather than trying to catch us out with an invitation to sing along, here the Emcee is shown as a puppetmaster, pulling the strings of his chorines in traditional German costume.  The Nazis tug at the patriotism of the people, making it easier to pick out ‘others’ as scapegoats for the country’s problems.  (Cut to the news today where our own PM is employing exactly the same tactic, playing to people’s fears about immigration rather than giving us any facts).

Cabaret not only reminds us that terrible things happened, it is also a stark warning against the resurgence of the right wing.  The show ends with the chorus, who haven’t been wearing very much more than leather shorts and straps anyway, naked and vulnerable, clawing against a wall.  The satirists and ‘deviants’ of the KitKat Club have been rounded up and taken to the showers…  It’s the most downbeat and chilling ending in musical theatre.

I always forget how funny Joe Masteroff’s script is, and Kander & Ebb’s score, owing a lot to Brecht & Weill, is always great to hear.  Rufus Norris gives the show a sharper, more aggressive tone, reinvigorating the piece and redoubling its power to shock.

So put down your knitting, your book and your ipod and catch the production on tour; with or without Mr Will Young, you’re in for a thoroughly engaging and entertaining evening.

PS.  Get well soon, Will.


You Beauty

The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 7th December, 2011

Birmingham Rep’s Christmas show this year is an enormous improvement on their recent yuletide offerings. Last year’s joyless Secret Garden, for example, was an abject lesson in how not to do a festive show.

Rufus Norris’s adaptation of the Charles Perrault fairy tale is high on charm, heavy on the fart jokes and not afraid to be scary and gruesome when the story requires it. The acting style is broad but not without subtlety: the characters (archetypes rather than stereotypes) are presented as overgrown children; they stamp their feet, they sulk, they see the world as if it is revolves around them. This is a refreshing alternative to the stylisation of traditional pantomime.

Driving the story as protagonist-cum-antagonist-cum-narrator is Fairy Goody (Jenna Augen) who has the unfortunate affliction, whenever she casts a spell, of letting rip exaggerated blasts of flatulence. It is a running joke that is not overdone – in fact, as in-your-face and as loud and as brash as this production is, it never outstays its welcome and remains entertaining and surprising right until the end. The parties of school children that attended the same matinee as me were certainly enthralled, captivated and amused from start to finish – what better mark of quality could you hope for in a children-focussed show? There are also plenty of jokes for the grown-ups to appreciate. Everything is pitched exactly right.

The long-anticipated kiss-the-Princess-awake scene is handled with humour and originality, with the Prince (Ciaran Owens) displaying that beneath his heroic posturing and swagger he is still a boy with an immature aversion to girls. But there is no happy-ever-after, not just yet at any rate. This is only the end of the first act. When the action resumes, a few years have passed and Beauty and her Prince now have two puppet children. They are in peril from the Prince’s mother, a cannibalistic Queen (Moyo Akande) who is both hilarious and terrifying at the same time. There are grisly scenes involving a donkey, a goat and a pussycat but these are handled with such verve and gusto, the audience is swept along. The Queen reveals herself to be an Ogress and the Prince a half-breed. Beauty baulks at this at first but promises that if he should ever bite her, she will bite him back only harder. No wilting lily, she.

The whole company is strong. When they’re not being courtiers, slaves or animals, they form a chorus of woodland sprites who mimic the last words of each line of dialogue in that annoying way that kids do. These sprites form the wall of thorns that surrounds the castle but they also provide musical accompaniment and sound effects, on strings, brass and percussion. The whole things ties together very well. Director Sarah Esdaile keeps the pace cracking along – there are a couple of slides on either side of the proscenium via which characters make speedy entrances (and in this case, unlike the RSC’s Heart of Robin Hood, does not become tiresome)

A huge wheel hangs over all, the spinning wheel that fulfils the fairy’s curse and also the wheel of life or fortune. For all its fairy tale fun, the play makes no bones about its darker message: that love and life don’t last for long so get on with it.