Tag Archives: Siobhan Redmond

Play Politics

IMPERIUM Parts One and Two

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 8th and Tuesday 9th January, 2018

 

Dramatist Mike Poulton took it upon himself to adapt Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy for the stage, condensing the action into two evenings.  In six one-hour chunks, we rattle through the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, along with many other characters, while our main man Cicero (Richard McCabe) weathers every storm.  It’s like binge-watching a TV series.

For the most part, the action is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s faithful slave/secretary (an agreeable Joseph Kloska) while McCabe’s Cicero comes across as a blend of Zero Mostel and Ian Hislop.  There is plenty of humour here, irony and barbed remarks and, inevitably, parallels with the modern world abound.  “Stupid people tend to vote for stupid people,” Cicero observes, pithily explaining our current government.  The phrase, “The will of the people” is bandied around as though it excuses everything.

Peter de Jersey is a volatile Caesar, friendly and menacing – often at the same time, while David Nicolle is a suitably weasely Crassus and Michael Grady-Hall a ranting Cato.  Oliver Johnstone’s Rufus gets his moment to shine in a court scene, while Pierro Niel-Mee is roguishly appealing as the naughty Clodius.  It’s not just Cicero who has the gift of oratory, it turns out.

Siobhan Redmond brings humorous haughtiness as Cicero’s Mrs, Terentia – vulnerability too.  There are many performances to enjoy: Joe Dixon’s brutish Catiline, Hywel Morgan’s drunkard Hybrida, Nicholas Boulton’s bombastic Celer… and I especially like Eloise Secker’s forthright Fulvia.

The precarious, perilous nature of political life in ancient Rome is an ever-present menace and there are moments of ritualised action that heighten the differences between our culture and theirs, while the motives and behaviours of the characters reinforce the notion that human nature doesn’t change and politicians are some of the worst people.

The action is played out on an all-purpose set, designed by Anthony Ward: a flight of wide steps leads to a mosaic backdrop – a huge pair of eyes watches all.  Above, a large sphere is suspended, onto which projections and colours are cast to complement the action.  Yvonne Milnes’s costumes immerse us in the period while the lowering of the stage to floor level sort of democratises the plays: as observers, we are often addressed directly as members of the Senate.

Part Two sees the assassination of Julius Caesar (spoiler, sorry!) and the resulting fall-out.  The conspirators bump him off with no strategy in place for a new regime.  Et tu, Brexit?

Oliver Johnstone reappears, this time as Caesar’s successor, Octavian, youthful but determined.  When he coldly asserts, “I am a god” it’s a chilling moment, and we glimpse the kind of emperor he will become.  Pierro Niel-Mee is back as a serious Agrippa, a perfect contrast to his Clodius from Part One.  In this performance, Nicholas Boulton is excellent as roaring drunk Mark Antony, a hothead impotent to prevent the rise of cold Octavian.   Siobhan Redmond has an effective and amusing cameo as Brutus’s mother (bringing to mind the Life of Brian’s Biggus Dickus who ‘wanks as high as any in Wome’).

Once you get used to the host of characters coming and going, this is a hugely enjoyable watch, funny, thrilling and sometimes shocking.  On the one hand it makes me glad that politicians of today, bad as they may be, don’t go around burning each other’s houses down or lopping each other’s heads off.  On the other, it makes me wish they would.

It has become usual practice for the RSC to broadcast to cinemas its productions in the main house and then sell them on DVD for home viewing.  Productions in the Swan are not preserved in this way, which in a lot of instances is a great shame.  All that will remain of a good production will be what Cicero claims is left of any good man: what is written down.

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Joseph Kloska and Richard McCabe (Photo: Ikin Yum)

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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.

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Photo: Simon Murphy


Dancing King

KING JOHN
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.


Rich and Infamous

RICHARD III
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.