Tag Archives: Sandy Grierson

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)

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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)


Troy Story

DIDO – QUEEN OF CARTHAGE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 11th October, 2017

 

Kimberley Sykes’s new production of Christopher Marlowe’s classic romantic fantasy is, in short, a corker.  This is a world where gods interfere directly with the lives of mortals – the two species are differentiated by costume: the gods in modern day dress, the humans in period costume.  It can be no accident that Jupiter (the wonderful Nicholas Day) bears more than a passing resemblance to RSC Artistic Director Mr G Doran… Ellie Beaven is glamorous in a Miss Scarlet gown as the meddling Venus, and Ben Goffe is in good form as the cheeky, mischievous Cupid, pricking his victims with a syringe of Venusian blood.

As the eponymous monarch, Chipo Chung is every inch the regal ruler, albeit an accessible and hospitable one.  Her attachment to the warrior Aeneas (Sandy Grierson) unleashes passionate and capricious emotions; Dido is very much in the Cleopatra vein, at the mercy of her passions – and so is everyone else.  Chung is fantastic, compelling and credible in her excesses of emotion.  Grierson makes a fine paramour as Aeneas – he does come across as a little bit quiet at times but his recounting of the Trojan War is a vivid and gripping piece of storytelling.

Kim Hartman does a pleasing turn as a Nurse, tricked and pricked by Cupid, and Andro Cowperthwaite is especially alluring as Jupiter’s toy boy Ganymede.  Bridgitta Roy stalks around with a stick as the conniving Juno and Amber James brings intensity as Dido’s sister Anna.  I also like Will Bliss’s somewhat rangy Hermes, with wings in his hair.

Mike Fletcher’s original compositions, played live by a tight ensemble, add plenty of locational colour, while Ciaran Bagnell’s versatile lighting plan brings texture and variety to the deceptively simple staging.  Designer Ti Green gives the actors a stage covered in grey sand.  Pristine at first, it is soon disrupted and imprinted by the footprints of all the comings and goings.  It says a lot of the impermanence of life, I find, how easily our presence can be erased.

Above all, the show is a lot of fun.  Heightened action, passions running at full tilt – you can see why the tale is well suited for opera – stirring emotions and more humour than you might expect.

The show contains a lesson in how refugees might be treated, as people today continue to flee for their lives from war-ravaged countries.  Unfortunately, men (it’s invariably men, isn’t it?) persist in committing the atrocities Aeneas describes – but where is the divine intervention now?

Dido_ Queen of Carthage production photos_ 2017_2017_Photo by Topher McGrillis _c_ RSC_231594

Yass, Queen! Chipo Chung as Dido (Photo: Topher Mc Grillis (c) RSC)


Pact with Ideas

DOCTOR FAUSTUS

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 14th March, 2016

 

Two men approach each other, mirroring each other’s actions. They each strike a match – the man holding the match that burns out the first will play Faustus in this evening’s production, the other will be Mephistopheles. Tonight it’s Sandy Grierson who gets his fingers burned and so his Faustus will play with fire.   This is the opening gimmick in Maria Aberg’s eccentric production of Christopher Marlowe’s play about sin and damnation.

Duality runs through it. The cast is either dressed in black or in white. Male and female actors swap parts (I mean roles!) – Eleanor Wyld appears as Lucifer, a kind of Debbie Harry figure in a John Travolta white suit. She introduces a cabaret, the Seven Deadly Sins on parade as drag queens and sideshow freaks. It’s hard to see why Faustus or anyone would be tempted to commit any of them.

The production is packed with ideas, most of them effective. The summoning of Mephistopheles is creepily atmospheric and tense. Once Faustus makes his pact, we’re waiting for his allotted 24 years to elapse so we can see his downfall. The problem lies in those 24 years. Given that Faustus has bargained away his eternal soul, he doesn’t seem to have much fun. Invisible, he knocks the Pope’s dinner around a bit. His only real enjoyment is when he revels in his (temporary) immortality. He has a pretty colourless time of it.

Oliver Ryan’s Mephistopheles is subtly inhuman but when he’s standing next to Grierson’s Faustus all I can think of is the Pet Shop Boys. Much of Marlowe’s verse is garbled or lost in the percussive music (composed by Orlando Gough) – although the famous Helen of Troy speech (Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?) is handled well, with a rag doll performance from Jade Croot. The music, played live, is responsible for creating most of the show’s atmosphere and keeping things lively – I just wanted it to be more fun. There are moments of dark humour – Mephistopheles is a devil with a Stanley knife, but overall the tone is curiously vibrant but dour.

We ought to feel that Faustus’s pact is an attractive option before we learn, as he does, that it’s not worth it. By the time his final hour approaches and he pleads with Time to stand still, I don’t feel he has been on enough of a journey to have any real sense of tragedy. He needs more peaks before he sinks into his final trough.

Doctor Faustus

Faustus meets his match. Oliver Ryan and Sandy Grierson (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

 

 

 


Hassle at the Castle

DUNSINANE

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 24th September, 2013

 

David Grieg’s “sequel” to Macbeth begins with the English army pretending to be trees.  It’s an almost drama lesson kind of a moment and establishes the tone very rapidly.  These are soldiers abroad, bluff English lads with earthy humour and a job to do.

That job is to overthrow a tyrant and bring peace to the warring nation of Scotland.  There is contention about Malcolm’s claim to the throne.  It turns out that the tyrant’s wife’s death was misreported.  She appears, very much alive with news of a son and heir – from her first husband… This boy is in hiding and the people are getting behind him.

Grieg dispenses with iambic pentameter and gives us contemporary dialogue albeit in historical costume and an emblematic setting.  Parallels with the 21st century are obvious.  We think of Iraq and Afghanistan and now (since I first saw this production at the RSC) Syria, and the question of military intervention there.  Taking out the tyrant is all well and good but what next?

This is the problem facing Jonny Phillips as Siward, portrayed as a decent man trying to manage a difficult situation.  Phillips is every inch the commander, a Game of Thrones hero.  His adversary is Gruach, Macbeth’s widow – an excellent Siobhan Redmond, who seduces and beguiles, hinting at the dangerous woman she always was.

A strong ensemble includes Tom Gill as the boy soldier who serves as our narrator in his letters home to Mum, Joshua Jenkins as Eric the archer who seeks the more fleshly spoils of war, and Sandy Grierson as a less than ideal Malcolm, self-serving and arrogant.  I particularly liked Alex Mann’s Egham, who provides a lot of the humour as he tries to make an inventory for Scotland’s treasury.

Roxana Silbert, now artistic director of the REP, revives her production from the RSC, as a means of setting out her stall.  With this production she shows she can sustain our interest with some complex comings-and-goings, and create provocative dramatic action.  The play is very much from the soldiers’ point of view and we get the sense that Silbert understands these rather masculine attitudes – I was reminded of Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker.

That Lady Macbeth’s singing attendants are more than a little Middle Eastern in their dress over-emphasises the point.  We get the point and would get the point if they were in kilts or army blankets.

Beautifully designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, this is a good-looking production that brings to the fore some knotty moral questions without necessarily offering answers.

Image

Photo: Simon Murphy


Imperfect Storm

THE TEMPEST
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 11th September, 2012

One of the things I’ve always liked about The Tempest is that it seems to start in the middle of the story. The titular storm that brings a particular group of people to a particular island is the turning point in their fate, as the wronged and usurped Prospero exerts his influence on the natural world. This means the opening scenes are heavy with back-story, but it’s all about setting things up before the final confrontation and moment of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Like the bear in The Winter’s Tale, how the opening scene will be staged is always eagerly anticipated. David Farr’s production, part of the RSC’s ‘shipwreck trilogy’ uses the same diagonal planks, the decking of a ship, to fill the performance space (and indeed the same cast) as Twelfth Night and the Comedy of Errors. Prospero’s isle is rather drab and monochromatic. His ‘cell’ is a Perspex box and it is in here that the tempest happens. Sitting at her schooldesk, Miranda (Emily Taafe) listens with growing fascination to the voices of the passengers and crew while behind her, in the Perspex box of her imagination, we see the scene played out within those cramped confines. It’s a neat idea but hardly spectacular.

The Perspex box has things in common with the TARDIS – it can transport characters – and the holodeck on the USS Enterprise – it can show things – but I couldn’t help thinking of Philip Schofield’s game show. Can you beat The Cube?

Prospero (Jonathan Slinger) stalks around in a stained suit and buttoned-up shirt. And so does his spirit slave Ariel (Sandy Grierson in a hypnotic performance) – a kind of Mini Me, who happens to be taller than the original. I liked this identification of slave and master and of course, off comes the jacket at the end when Ariel is awarded his freedom at last. Trouble is, I could neither warm to this Prospero nor marvel at his powers. There is something about Slinger’s characterisation that prevents this. Technically he is an excellent actor but I just wasn’t getting it.

Caliban (Amer Hlehel) wears a suit that is little more than a collection of tatters. A dust cloud arises whenever he moves and he has an enjoyable manner of cursing and swearing. His supposed ‘misshapenness’ is nothing other than his different ethnicity, bringing to the fore the play’s themes of imperialism and colonialism. Caliban is quite right to be aggrieved, in modern eyes, but perhaps to the Jacobean viewer, he would come across as the ungrateful savage. Why is his usurpation acceptable but not Prospero’s? (I’m loving the chance to say ‘usurpation’ and I may well do so again before this review is finished).

Solomon Israel’s Ferdinand brings the first note of physical humour to the play. His arrival is a breath of fresh air and his interactions with Taafe’s Miranda are delightful. When he is enchained by Prospero, the slavery theme is starkly with us – I don’t think this was an unconscious side effect of the ‘colour-blind’ approach to casting.

The always-enjoyable Felix Hayes gives an endearingly dim Trinculo and Bruce Mackinnon’s Stephano gives a drunken satire of the imperialist. Their scenes with Hlehel’s Caliban liven up this production.

The second half has more oomph. At last we see Prospero calling up the special effects department to do his bidding. We get flashes and bangs and dry ice and bubbles. The isle has become a magical place at last. As Prospero realises that forgiveness is his best option, he becomes less the stern plantation owner and nasty schoolteacher and more the sentimental father and big-hearted brother, accessing all parts of his humanity and choosing tbe better ones. Slinger wins you over by the end.

I liked Nicholas Day’s dignified Gonzalo but I don’t see why Sebastian (Kirsty Bushell) was made a female character but referred to as male most of the time. Her Sebastian is sardonic and cool, a counterpoint to the blustering of the rest of the party.

There are some great touches: I liked Caliban carrying firewood like Christ bearing the cross, and the Caravaggioesque freezes when Sebastian and Antonio are about to carry out their violent usurpation (there you go) of Alonso.

Perhaps it’s my fault for wanting more enchantment but, like drying out after a downpour, I came to like this production a lot by the end and found it ultimately moving.