Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Russian To and Fro

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 13th August 2012

A Midsummer Night’s Dream features a bunch of amateur actors, the ‘Mechanicals’ who rehearse and present the ancient story of Pyramus and Thisbe to an audience comprised of the Athenian royal family. Their performance is one of the funniest scenes in all Shakespeare and is the springboard for this production by Russian director Dmitry Krymov.

On the surface the show appears to have borrowed its aesthetic from latter-day silent movie hit, The Artist: everyone’s in black tie, much of the show is performed in silence, and there is even a scene-stealing little dog. The sparse dialogue is in Russian but is helpfully translated onto screens – like the captions in silent movies.

Flanked by the well-to-do ‘audience’ in makeshift royal boxes, the company recounts their version of the myth using mime, clowning, acrobatics and, above all (literally), a pair of fifteen-foot high puppets that represent the doomed lovers. The ‘unfinished’ and ‘under rehearsed’ aspects, for which they apologise profusely, add to the enjoyment. Will each clumsy acrobatic stunt come off? Will the giant Pyramus topple into the (real) audience?

The whole enterprise is an absurdist fantasy and a delight from start to finish. The humour is both broad (Pyramus sports a hydraulic phallus of which Aristophanes would have been proud) and subtle: there is much to do with our perception of theatre and the absurdity of human interaction.

Persistent heckler Liya Akhedzhakova rattles off a tall story about a lion by way of interjection; Alexy Kokhanov is the voice of Pyramus, serenading his doll-faced Thisbe in a beautiful German tenor. Sergey Melkonyan narrates in a world-weary manner – indeed, the entire company has a Keatonesque deadpan delivery, resigned to their lot and, paradoxically, celebrating our lot.

Venya the little dog is cute and remarkably on cue. The use of real animals makes me uneasy in entertainment (and in sport) (and in cuisine) and I spotted a wire attached to Venya’s collar. I hope he was being fed verbal instructions from offstage rather than anything more sinister.

The piece is aware of its ‘avant garde’ nature – ‘avant garde’ in the traditional sense, using approaches, skills and techniques that are time-honoured and well-worn. There is something quite nostalgic in its execution and not the slightest whiff of pretension. It is certainly one of the most enjoyable ninety minutes I’ve spent in a theatre in recent months.


Apache Effort

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 6th August, 2012

On arrival in the Swan auditorium, you can’t fail to notice there’s a wigwam on stage. Interesting, you might think; you don’t expect tepees in a play about the Trojan War. But then you think, the besiegers of the ancient city spent year after year in tents.

But this is not the Greek encampment. This is Troy itself. In a curious blend of Native American tradition and modern day materials, the Trojans open the play. Sometimes, with Shakespeare, it can take your ear a few minutes to attune to the language, so I wasn’t too put off when I couldn’t follow the opening few lines – but then I found I wasn’t picking it up at all. For one thing, the actors were all mic’d up – you can’t tell who is speaking, which is a barrier to understanding. They also speak in a sort of atonal rhythm, which I assume is meant to recreate the patterns of the Apache tongue, but unfortunately, this monotonous delivery mangles the Shakespearean verse out of all recognition and mugs it of all meaning. They recite rather than act the lines. Precedence is given to the rhythm rather than the sense – they may as well have been infants in school reciting their times tables. Then, all of a sudden, they burst into chants about John Wayne and his false teeth. Ok…

There are video screens, playing scenes of Inuit and other ethnic groups, but the screens are too small to be watched properly and therefore add nothing to the production. In fact, if you try to watch them, you are distracted from the confusing action on the stage. I found it very easy to disregard them. Utterly pointless. Just another idea thrown into the pot.

Things pick up, momentarily, when the action shifts to the Greeks. How will they be represented, I wondered? Perhaps as the cavalry. Perhaps we were going to have a Little Big Horn kind of affair.

No. Not even a game of Cowboys and Indians.

The Greeks are in contemporary military gear, pale and faded desert uniforms, army boots and jaunty purple berets. Tellingly, these actors are not mic’d up. They project their voices and give some life to the language. The arrival of Ulysses (the wonderful Scott Handy) is a breath of fresh air, but then he is made to fake a choking fit and puff on an inhaler. It’s not funny. Many other heavy-handed attempts at humour follow – I only laughed once: when mighty Achilles fell off his hospital trolley bed and the cast scrambled to pick him up. I’m not sure this was meant to happen. They should keep it in.

This is a co-production between the RSC and an American company, the Wooster Group. Directed by Mark Ravenhill and Elizabeth LeCompte, two individuals who like the couple in a weather vane, I suspect have never met or interacted. Imagine Little Big Man directed by David Lynch and Pee Wee Herman. The different approaches clash horribly – and it’s not just a ‘clever’ way of representing the opposing sides in the conflict. This is more like keeping the audience under siege with an onslaught of ideas that don’t come off. After the interval there were quite a few empty seats as people took the opportunity to escape.

Scott Shepherd’s Troilus is very hard on the ear. I wonder if Stephen Hawking was his vocal coach. Just as tiresome is Marin Ireland as his paramour Cressida. (They are tepees in a pod! Hah!) She is a walking, talking alienation effect, playing most of her scenes like an animatronic Lady Macbeth sleepwalking. She runs around in circles while others try to have a conversation with her, an hyperactive child with all sorts of attention disorders.

Mighty Hector (the diminutive Ari Fliakos) has hints of Bob Dylan in his delivery and a stunning mullet Joe Dirt would be proud to sport. He’s another one given to running around in circles. The woman to my right leaned towards me and murmured, “It’s like watching The Hobbit.” Cruel, I thought, but fair.

Agamemnon (Danny Webb) spends the second half disguised as Crocodile Dundee. Achilles (Joe Dixon) doffs his white bath towel in favour of a full-length, blood red evening gown. Ajax (Aidan Kelly) poses as postures in a padded body suit, part time WWF wrestler, and part time heavy metal rocker. It is all rather embarrassing. Someone has watched Derek Jarman’s The Tempest too many times.

I became punch drunk. By the time Andromache (Jennifer Lim) appeared to plead with her little husband not to fight, dragging the campfire behind her, I was on the verge of hysterics. “Mad cousin Cassandra” appears but is no less or no more comprehensible than the rest of the tribe. A bit of distortion on her mic does not a visionary make.

And still the thing showed no sign of ending. At three and a half hours it felt like the Trojan War itself would have been a lot easier to sit through. Experimental approaches are all well and good but I felt this one overran by about 180 minutes. It outstayed its welcome very quickly, a nonsensical mishmash of ideas, techniques and approaches that denies the play its meaning and its poetry.

As the audience filed out, I heard comments like “That’s three and a half hours I won’t get back” and quite a few expletives. I’m not against new approaches (companies like Kneehigh, Propeller and Oddsocks manage to stamp their own identity on a play without killing it) but there needs to be some kind of editing process and quality control so that the whole exercise is not just a self-indulgent project for the companies involved. This production would, I feel, have been better directed by sat-nav.

Don’t Mind If Ado

Courtyard Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 31st July, 2012

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Courtyard Theatre, mothballed for a while, is back in business with this vibrant and colourful production of Shakespeare’s quintessential romantic comedy. Director Iqbal Khan sets the play in present-day India, a relocation that works very well – on the face of it. Issues of chastity and arranged marriages are at the heart of the conflict, and the caste system provides a ready-made underclass of servants and messengers other relocations have to struggle to accommodate.

There is an amusing pre-show as you settle into your seat – once you’ve dodged the washing lines in the aisles and there are more bicycles than in a chain of Irish pubs – and as soon as the play proper begins, the inflection and cadence of the Indian accents works very well with Shakespeare’s prose (and the verse too, in the dramatic scenes).

Madhav Sharma is a dignified but warm-hearted Leonato who opens his house to a troop of soldiers on their return from a victory in war. Paul Bhattacharjee’s Benedick is likeable enough although I couldn’t get past his resemblance to the young Boris Karloff. The joke about his name (“Bendy Dick”) is perhaps a little overused. Kulvinder Ghir’s Borachio, coarse, vulgar henchman to the baddie, is an earthy characterisation. He is driven by his appetites and pisses like a racehorse. I’m not even joking. Villain of the piece is a brooding Gary Pillai as Don John the Bastard, setting himself apart from the verbal exuberance of the rest of this society and manipulating events towards tragedy. There is a hint of Yul Brynner and Lex Luthor about him (he’s bald, is what I’m trying to convey).

Big name draw, Meera Syal is perfectly cast as the sparky, witty Beatrice, wise-cracking but with an undercurrent of sadness and perhaps loneliness. She is elegant but fragile; her wise-cracks form a protective shield. She is not quite matched by Bhattacharjee’s Benedick but you still root for the pair to get together.

Where the production stumbles is with the physical comedy. The scenes in which Benedick and then Beatrice overhear about their supposed love for each other don’t realise their potential. In the first, there is too much of a little servant girl trying to hand the hiding Benedick the book he requested. In the second, the gossip is relayed by the loudspeaker of a mobile phone, robbing the conspirators of interaction and eye-contact. And why “Ursula” has been usurped by Verges, the supposedly elderly partner in the play’s cop duo, I don’t know.

The scenes with the Watch try to upstage the wonderful comic interplay of the script with some unfocussed and raucous ‘business’ out of keeping with the generally civilised conduct of the rest. I liked Simon Nagra’s Dogberry but mostly because he provides a lot of amusement in the pre-show.

At one point – the wedding scene – members of the audience are pulled up to sit on cushions. All well and good if they don’t sit there grinning as the drama unfolds. I found them a distraction from the main action.

On the whole though, it is an entertaining evening with Shakespeare’s dazzling script outshining everything. The look and sound of the piece is evocative and it was rather hot in the auditorium. All that was lacking was the aroma of cooked spices… I compensated for this oversight after the performance by directing my feet to the nearby Thespian’s Indian restaurant.

Dancing King

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 12th July, 2012

Maria Aberg’s production transforms the Swan Theatre into a function room at a hotel. The cast is dressed to party in a kind of corporate, contemporary way. A net holds a huge number of colourful balloons against the back wall – the greatest tension in this show is wondering when exactly those balloons will be released to flood the stage.

The play begins with the Bastard (Pippa Nixon) picking out Land of Hope and Glory on a ukulele and inviting the audience to sing along. Songs feature heavily in this version. At one point – the union of Blanche of Spain and Lewis of France – we are suddenly hurled into My Best Friend’s Wedding, as King John leads the company in a spirited version of Say A Little Prayer. The happy couple’s first dance is lifted directly from Dirty Dancing. Interesting, I thought: King John as chick-flick…

The mood changes upon the arrival of Pandulph. The Pope’s Legate. Played by Paola Dionisotti, this is an understated but high status performance – in the world of this play, women have access to positions of power and can be just as ruthless as the men. It’s not so much a feminist stance as a neutralising of gender.

Pandulph is swift to urge war between the newly-united nations. Both sides are up for it and so, among the discarded champagne bottles and party favours, battle ensues. Characters stagger on with blood-smeared arms and faces. It’s like a fight at a wedding. We’ve all had a bit to drink. Leave it. It’s not worth it…

Alex Waldmann’s John is a likeable if amoral playboy but such is the nature of the piece, this king doesn’t really come across as a tragic figure. Reportedly poisoned by a monk, he suddenly breaks out into a dance routine that is startling. He is trying to keep the party going, fighting against physical agony and decline – but the party has been over since the start of the second half when the balloons flood the stage and stay there for the rest of the piece, providing a distraction for those members of the audience who see fit to bat them back onto the stage. The balloons having served their purpose undermine the drama of the events that follow.

Pippa Nixon is a passionate Bastard, mocking the nobles, but the most affecting performances come from those with whom she interacts. Sandra Duncan, as the Bastard’s mother, quickly overcomes the laughter provoked by her arrival in motorcycle leathers and baby pink crash helmet, to deliver a touching confession. Jacob Mauchlen as doomed Prince Arthur is excellent, delivering his speeches clearly and poignantly – you believe it when the Bastard’s heart is touched (past productions have used boy actors who make you want to silence them yourself!) The wonderful John Stahl is an avuncular French King and Siobhan Redmond is underused as Elinor, John’s mother.

Much as I was engaged by some of the ideas in this production, what I found annoying, frustrating and downright infuriating was a disregard for basic stagecraft that ruined the show for me. With this kind of set-up, a thrust stage with the audience on three sides, you expect, wherever you’re sitting, to see the actors’ backs from time to time. It’s the nature of the beast. The director should seek to ‘share the backs’ in a democratic manner. What you don’t expect is for characters, onlookers to the action, to be placed downstage for the entirety of scenes, hiding what’s happening centre stage. This happens too many times. Hardly a scene went by where I didn’t find myself staring at someone’s shoulder blades, wishing they would bloody well shift. I’ve never experienced this frustration before, and I’ve had seats in all areas of that theatre.

So, while the actors are giving high quality performances they are undermined by inconsiderate and irritating blocking. It doesn’t matter how clever the production ideas may be – if the audience can’t see them, you may as well perform in a blackout.

A Little Touch of Harry in the Night

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 2nd May, 2012

The mighty Propeller theatre company’s The Winter’s Tale delighted and entertained me a few months ago and so I was really looking forward to seeing the other half of their currently touring double bill.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The cast forms a company of soldiers, a band of brothers. Through the “O, for a muse of fire!” opening speech, they take it in turns to appeal to our imaginations to provide all the scenery, cast of thousands and special effects they are unable to bring onto the stage. From the get-go, Shakespeare’s brilliance gets to work. This speech is full of false modesty but it is also a direct lesson in how Narrative Theatre works. The play is crammed with familiar lines but to appreciate the full power of the language you have to hear the rhetoric in context.

Director Edward Hall gives Shakespeare room to work on us. This is a war story showing not just the high and mighty, but also the common men from all walks of life. The clever use of The Clash’s London Calling during one of the transitions brings this to the fore. Actors double and treble up on characters and are chorus to each other’s history, hardly ever leaving the stage. They are a tight and talented ensemble. Humour, Shakespeare’s and Hall’s, counterpoints the darker scenes. The Dauphin (Gunnar Cauthery) gives us a quick burst of the theme from ‘Allo, ‘Allo! on the accordion to play the French King onto the stage. As French Princess Katherine, Karl Davies (it’s an all-male company) is hilarious without being outré. Contrast this with his earlier experience as the traitor Lord Scroop and you have a prime example of what this production does best. Light and dark are each thrown into sharp relief.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s Henry is more effective in the dramatic scenes than the comic ones, giving the men that most famous of pep talks or expressing his heartbreak over the treachery of his closest friends. Henry is Shakespeare’s ideal leader – defeating the enemy, “down” with the common folk and he gets the girl. The only thing he doesn’t do is croon like Barack Obama.

I also particularly liked Chris Myles as Katherine’s gentlewoman/chaperone but it’s unfair to single out performances from this happy few.

The play ends with the marriage of Henry to Katherine, uniting England to old enemy France. But this is a surprisingly downbeat moment. In silence, Henry hands the kneeling Katherine his crown and walks away. It is as though all he has fought for is surrendered. This has resonances with Europe today. We won the war (in case you were unaware!) but we are perhaps in danger of yielding too much power to our continental neighbours. Recent announcements of the sharing of defences between England and France would surely rankle with this King Henry.

A rousing and entertaining production, funny, vibrant and affecting, that proves yet again that Propeller is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to staging Shakespeare today. Edward Hall is a ruddy genius.

Rich and Infamous

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 16th April, 2012

Director Roxana Silbert follows up last season’s very enjoyable Measure For Measure with a Richard III that also brings the comic aspects of the play to the fore.

As the eponymous monarch, Jonjo O’Neill stalks around the stage on a gammy leg, his posture twisted into a stoop, and clad in some natty black leathers. This Richard is the purest Machiavellian. He doesn’t glower and brood in his private moments, only turning on the charm and the spiel for those he wishes to manipulate. Even alone, he doesn’t stop. In his native Belfast accent, O’Neill treats us to a Richard who has not only kissed but snogged the Blarney Stone. With tongues. This charm works on the other characters, whom he plays like a string section, but also on the audience. You can’t help liking him and admiring his gift of the gab. The man is a callous murderer and makes the most audacious claims and offers. And he gets away with it – up to a point. Shakespeare gave the King a makeover that would flatter his Tudor patrons but he cannot bend history to the point that his most affable villain will ride off into the sunset at the end on the horse he cries out for but never gets. When Richard gives battle in vain, he is struck down by a sword stroke to the body and then, in an almost tender moment, has the life throttled from him. It is like putting an animal to sleep.

The stage and the action are dominated by O’Neill. Other characters don’t get much of a look-in. They come and go as suits his machinations. Few show the liveliness of Richard – but then, I suppose, they’re mostly grieving for the loved ones that he murdered.

I loved Paola Dionisotti’s cursing harridan Margaret, rhythmically stamping her foot as she pronounces doom on all and sundry. Richard’s scene with Siobhan Redmond’s Elizabeth Woodville was the highlight for me. There is amiable support from Joshua Jenkins, especially when he’s playing the murderer but on the whole this black comedy is a largely bloodless affair. I think it could afford to tip the scales more towards Grand Guignol to add an extra frisson to the beheadings and garrottings.

The battle scene begins with a stylised march with the obligatory rallying pep-talk but this breaks out into a fast and frantic skirmish, culminating in an exciting sword fight that got people in the front rows flinching. Roxana Silbert pitches the climax of the play just right.

Richard’s mother (Sandra Duncan) is dressed like Margaret Thatcher. I doubt Maggie would share her qualms though. The elvish-mark’d, abortive rooting hog Thatcher’s policies have spawned and unleashed on the country will not meet the same fate. Pity.

With a virtuoso performance from the excellent Jonjo O’Neill, who keeps on the right side of pantomime , this is a very pleasing production that puts you firmly on the side of Shakespeare’s most likeable villain.

Strange bedfellows

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 6th February, 2012

The set for Lucy Bailey’s production consists of turning the entire stage into a bed, a big brown bed. Actors can lift up the covers and scurry around like mice under a blanket. This they do in-between scenes and it loses its charm faster than you can say ‘dutch oven’.

It begins with an “Induction” – a sequence in which a drunken slob (think of Toby Belch selling the Big Issue) is gulled into believing he is in fact a lord, with wife and servants, and even a group of travelling players come to perform. He, Christopher Sly (a grubby Nick Holder) settles down in bed to watch the play. Come the second half, this framing device is dispensed with altogether and Sly goes behind the scenes in a quest for his underpants. Having treated us to views of his bum and cupping his genitals in a saucepan, he is reunited with his grundies. “Pants!” he cries out in triumph. By this point, I was more than ready to agree with him.

This is a heavy handed production with the subtlety of someone else using your bed as a trampoline. Kate – the ‘shrew’ – (Lisa Dillon) is a Tasmanian devil of a woman, brawling, spitting, even pissing standing up. Tracey Emin would consider her a bad bedfellow. She is ‘tamed’ by David Caves’s Petruchio, a sort of Irish Jim Carrey figure, who, rather than ‘curing’ Kate of her wilfulness, shows her he can operate at her level. It is a meeting of minds rather than the imposition of a husband’s will on a wife’s. The inference is that this wild and oh-so-unconventional pair are better off than the straighter couples. Kate ‘submits’ to Petruchio and he ‘submits’ to her. They dash upstage, tearing at their clothes, for a meeting of bodies. I found myself not caring in the slightest.

There is another plot, involving the courting of Kate’s sister Bianca. This is a contest between swains involving deception and swapping identities that has Bianca as the prize. There is some good comic playing from Gavin Fowler as Lucentio in disguise as a nerdy Cambio, Huss Garbiya is a lively and likable Biondello, and I also liked Elizabeth Cadwallader’s playfulness as Bianca but on the whole you get the feeling that everyone is trying too hard. There is little to contrast with the madcap dashing around and vulgarity, no change of tone from the raucous and the low. I found it impossible to engage with, like the only sober one at a booze-up.

The running time seems excessive. Rather than taming a shrew, it is the audience who is beaten into submission. It is like being caught up in someone else’s pillow fight and they have stuffed their pillow with bricks.