Tag Archives: Rupert Goold

History Tomorrow

KING CHARLES III

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 8th September, 2015

 

Mike Bartlett’s hit play turns out to be something of a modern masterpiece.  It’s a Shakespearean history play set in a not-too-distant future and begins with some funereal choral singing by the candlelit cast, a requiem for the late Queen Elizabeth II (a beautifully atmospheric composition by Jocelyn Pook).   There is an additional frisson seeing the play on the eve of Her Maj’s breaking of the record for the longest reign in British history.

The Queen is dead, boys, and Charles succeeds.  The action covers the period between succession and coronation and it soon emerges that Charles will not settle for being a figurehead, rubberstamping legislation willy-nilly.  His refusal to sign off a law restricting the freedom of the press triggers a constitutional crisis, the dissolution of Parliament and riots in the streets.  Prince William, egged on by a Lady Macbeth-like Kate, puts himself forward in a bloodless coup, seeking to take the crown for himself ahead of time.

In fact, blood is the only thing missing from this history.  Bartlett gives us a lot of fun with blank verse (where mentions of Sainsburys and Wetherspoons add bathos and seem anachronistic); rhyming couplets end scenes and there is even a ghostly Diana stalking across the stage, intoning cryptic prophecy.

It’s a very funny piece, peppered with satirical barbs (the script is updated constantly to keep it topical) but in the end it is a tragedy on the grand scale, where the main character’s fatal flaw is his conscience.

As the new king, Robert Powell is magnificent, stately and regal and also human.  The iambic pentameter of the verse drips off him – It is important to note the cast do not do impressions of their real-life counterparts.  They are personages in a drama, a game of thrones, rather than caricatures – although there are plenty of references to make them recognisable to the people we know and lampoon today.

Penelope Beaumont brings dignity to the role of Camilla, here a kind of advisor and voice of reason, while Jennifer Bryden is deliciously Machiavellian as the scheming Kate, urging husband William (Ben Righton managing to look dashing in a comfy pullover) to man up and step up.  Charles is pretty damning of the Wills-and-Kate effect, their empty, plastic, tabloid popularity.  Monarchy without meaning is very much the thrust of the drama.

Richard Glaves is fun as hedonistic Harry, slumming it in nightclubs and late-night supermarkets, until the pull of duty and the status quo yanks him back into line.  The play questions the role of monarchy in a supposedly democratic, egalitarian society.  Evans, the somewhat Cromwellian Labour PM, speaks passionately and reasonably (a forceful Tim Treloar) while Stevens, leader of the Tory opposition (an excellent Giles Taylor), behaves exactly as we expect politicians to carry on.  Evans seems almost too principled and too good to be true in comparison!

There is strong support from Lucy Phelps as Jess, Harry’s proletarian girlfriend, and Dominic Jephcott as James Reiss, both on contrasting ends of the social scale.

Directors Rupert Goold and Whitney Mosery give the piece the gravitas necessary for us to take the play seriously.  What could have been just an amusing skit and an intriguing conceit becomes a thought-provoking and relevant night at the theatre, powerful, entertaining, enlightening, and ultimately moving.

Robert Powell, Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden as Charles, Wills and Kate.  (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Robert Powell, Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden as Charles, Wills and Kate. (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Advertisements

What Happens in Venice…

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Wednesday 20th July, 2011

 

Shakespeare’s comedy has been forever altered by Hitler.  The anti-Semitism of otherwise affable characters sits uneasy with us today.  No one should claim dear old Will was a forerunner of political correctness but he infuses his Jew (a stock villain in the theatre of the time, all false beard and moneybags) with a streak of humanity that distinguishes him from the stereotype of his era.  The famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, delivered in this production by Patrick Stewart (in a wig!) subtly reminds us of the past, making the endemic racism of the “Christians” more abhorrent.  “If you poison ussssssss, do we not die?” The extra sibilance echoes the gas chambers and the play takes a darker turn.   Shylock bewails the loss of money and valuables more than the loss of his daughter.  (Oy vey, how the Elizabethans must have laughed!)  He welcomes the news of his debtor’s misfortunes and relishes the chance to exact revenge (Boo! Hiss!) but you can’t help feeling his desire for vengeance is not wholly unjustified.

It’s not just Jews who get the bum’s rush.  The Prince of Morocco, a massive Joe Frazier of a man, in boxing gloves and Lonsdale belt, fails to choose the correct casket in the lottery for Portia’s hand and also to charm the lady.  On his arrival he is pelted with bananas; on his departure, valley girl and airhead heiress Portia is relieved, “Let all of his complexion choose me so!”  It is not very Christian, but then this is a society Christian in name only.  These people would be more suited to the worship of Mammon in their pursuit of financial gain.  Their values are all skewed. Their regular meeting place, a casino, is dominated by the painted figure that calls to mind Christ on the cross but is a waitress with provocative pout, her arms extended in welcome and submission. Bassanio tries to win Portia (literally, win her) not just because he fancies her, but as a means to pay back the money he already owes his BFF, Antonio.

Antonio, the eponymous merchant, played like Christopher Walken without the menace and the tap-dancing, by Scott Handy, perhaps foolishly bankrolls the hedonism of his young favourite.  He must know it’s a bad investment, financially and emotionally, with Bassanio’s sights set on a wealthy heiress.  But Rupert Goold’s production adds a twist: we get the sense that Bassanio isn’t just milking his doting benefactor (so to speak).  There is a genuine affection between the two men that perhaps goes beyond affection.  This is Portia’s stark realisation in the final scene.  Her husband will never love her as much as he loves his friend.  The mind-fuck of the rings trick has backfired on this blonde-wigged princess.  There is no fairytale happy ending.   Portia tries to reclaim the fixed smile and showgirl posturing of her single days, when her role was defined: she was a prize to be won.  She may have complained about being restricted by her father’s will but at least she knew where she was.   The play ends with all the major players alienated, while at the centre, the pretty princess dances, demented on her one high-heel.   Marriage has brought an end to happiness rather than the happy-ever-after we usually get.  And in this instance, quite right too.  These people needed a reality check.  This is what you get when you marry someone from a reality show.  Now repent at leisure.

Highlights for me were the trial scene, here conducted in a slaughterhouse with polythene in the doorway and meat-hooks hanging from the ceiling.  Even if you know the outcome, this scene plays out with high tension – and haven’t courtroom dramas been a popular staple of theatre, film and television ever since?  Here, Portia in disguise as a young male lawyer, comes into her own.  She is able to function and dominate in a male sphere – an opportunity she is denied in her own life. The lottery of the caskets, played out as a television game show, affords us close-ups of the contestants (including a Prince of Aragon as a Mariachi) and the fixed grin and panicked eyes of Portia.  She is to be won like a luxury car – a Porsche.

The clown figure in the piece is servant, Launcelot Gobbo, here portrayed as an Elvis impersonator – this is very funny but I can’t help wondering why Shylock would have employed him in the first place.  He also sets the musical tone for the piece, ironically and effectively.  The closing monologue from “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” fits the denouement perfectly.

The whole Las Vegas frame works very well as a stand-in for Renaissance Venice, with money everywhere, but I also loved the glitz and the music, the glamour that coats the darker aspects of this society.  The place is the golden casket writ large, a gaudy exterior hiding the death’s head within.  The production reminded me the play is a comedy, despite its downbeat resolution, and has deeper veins running through it.  Our attitudes to materialism and to outsiders define us as a civilisation.  All that glisters IS Goold, you might say.