Tag Archives: Stephen Brimson Lewis

Buying Into It

DEATH OF A SALESMAN

RST, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 22nd April, 2015

 

Gregory Doran’s powerful production of this Arthur Miller masterpiece brings out the humour of the script, especially in the first half, and so Antony Sher’s Willy Loman is endearing from the get-go. A blustering, sentimental man, given to delusion, who hears what people say but doesn’t listen, Willy is always on the brink of something wonderful. He’s an indefatigable optimist. Meanwhile, life has gone on and he has got nowhere, apart from the eventual paying off of his mortgage and his hire purchase refrigerator. But being this way is taking its toll. He’s not the most mentally stable of men – and this is reflected in Stephen Brimson Lewis’s split set, which has several levels. It’s a representation of Willy’s mind and sometimes we are in it, as he relives memories, and sometimes we are in the real world, a bustling street or an empty restaurant.

Sher is the engine, the beating, sometimes racing, heart of the production, while Harriet Walter is his quieter, long-suffering wife, a steadier pulse to contrast with his flights of fancy. Sher’s Willy is to be admired, laughed with, despaired at, but Alex Hassell’s Biff – Willy’s elder son – gives us the most powerful moments of the night. Hassell plays both the broken 34 year old and the bright-eyed teenager to perfection, and moves us to tears in the climactic scene in which he tries to force his father to see things the way they are for once in his life. All aspects of the drama, of the production, lead to this outpouring and it’s heart-breaking.

Sam Marks is also strong as younger son Happy, who isn’t on as much, but in key scenes shows what he has inherited of his father’s nature. Tobias Beer gives a star turn as Willy’s boss Howard. A busy company take on small roles and walk-ons to flesh out Willy’s world, with Paul Englishby’s jazz (played live) helping to create the cityscape and period feel. Tim Mitchell’s lighting is linked to Willy’s moods: colours paint the tenement buildings, or sudden brightness shows Willy’s optimism kicking in.

It’s a tragedy of an ordinary man who sees himself as a king and his sons as princes, a man with an eye on the future instead of appreciating the present. Willy sells himself the dream and keeps on buying right until the end.

A superlative production soon to transfer to London, Death of a Salesman is an emotional experience but manages not to be heavy-going, as one might expect, reminding us that Miller’s work can be invigorating as well as exhausting.

Sher and Sonny - Antony Sher and Alex Hassell as Willy and Biff. (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

Sher and Sonny – Antony Sher and Alex Hassell as Willy and Biff. (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

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The People’s Prince

HENRY IV Part One

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 3rd May, 2014

 

Gregory Doran’s production is a straightforward staging of a history play with no time-shifts or gimmicks (like dozens of giant party balloons) to make its presence felt. It works very well – a crowd-pleaser.

As the titular king, Jasper Britton gets all the serious business of the plot, being kingly and regal and war-like. It’s a creditable performance but everyone knows, including the RSC’s poster designers, that the play is really all about Falstaff. Star turn Antony Sher gives us a Sir John like a fat Fagin; we delight in his personality flaws and his questionable behaviour. He engages in bouts of ‘lad bants’ with heir apparent and man of the people, Prince Hal – the never-less-than-excellent, tall, dark and handsome Alex Hassell. Now, here is a Prince of Wales I could get behind. He and Falstaff enjoy slinging insults at each other down the pub, and indulge in a spot of role play, taking turns to be the king. It’s all jolly fun but there is a brief foreshadowing of what is to come in Part Two, when Hal will shake off his laddish behaviour on his way to becoming Henry V.

Trevor White’s Hotspur is a hothead, looking like a Johnny Rotten or a Draco Malfoy. He’s a little too shouty and jump-aroundy for my liking, so Prince Hal’s eulogy for him doesn’t quite match the behaviour we have seen. The swordfight between these two is breathtaking in its speed and forcefulness. Kudos to fight director Terry King.

Joshua Richards is a marvellously morose Bardolph, whose conk could give Rudolph’s a run for its money, and Paola Dionisotti is utterly believable as sentimental old cackler and pub landlady, Mistress Quickly.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design evokes the period in an understated way, letting the costumes and the behaviour do most of the work, aided by Tim Mitchell’s atmospheric lighting and Paul Englishby’s evocative music. It all makes for a good-looking, great-sounding production, proving that the RSC doesn’t need to mess about in order to provide a superlative piece of entertainment. Fast-paced, funny and thrilling, Part One gives Part Two a lot to live up to.

 

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Poster: Antony Sher reflects on his performance as Falstaff


Camp David

RICHARD II

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 24th October, 2013

 

Hot on the heels of Ben Whishaw’s BAFTA-winning portrayal comes another favourite actor of mine in the title role of Richard II. A big name draw, David Tennant improves on his Hamlet (a characterisation I thought was The Doctor by another name) with a performance that switches from regal reserve to petulant camp and back again.  In a world of macho men in leather and shining armour, Tennant’s Richard saunters around in beautiful gowns, with his crown on his wrist like a bracelet.  With his hair extensions and sharp features, he is an off-duty drag queen or an old school rock star.  The effeminacy and the bitchiness energise a sometimes languid king.  It is a captivating performance.

The whole production is redolent with delicate beauty.  Projections of pillars and vaulted ceilings capture both the solidity and airiness of a cathedral.  Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis keeps scenery to a minimum, suggesting locations, complimented by Tim Mitchell’s lighting.  Richard’s throne flies in and out on a gantry, suggesting the monarch’s link to divinity – a bone of contention in the play.  The visuals are supported by beautiful music performed live by sopranos (the singers not the organised criminals) and trumpeters.  Gregory Doran’s production has no problem in engaging the eye and the ear, but what of the emotions and the intellect?

Oliver Ford Davies as York brings humour and heart.  Scenes with his wife (Marty Cruickshank) bring comic relief from all the politicking and macho posturing.  Michael Pennington’s John of Gaunt masterfully handles the play’s greatest hit, the ‘sceptre’d isle’ speech, and Nigel Lindsay’s meaty Bolingbroke makes an effective contrast to Tennant’s light-in-the-loafers king.

For me the most compelling on-stage presence is Oliver Rix as Aumerle.  Even in scenes where he has little to say, he is there, intense without drawing focus from the speakers.  His scenes with Tennant are the highlights.  Upset by Richard’s decision to hand over his crown, Aumerle is comforted by the king in a moment that is more tender than it is homoerotic.

When Richard is set upon by assailants in his dungeon, there is too much of the action hero in his self-defence.  The effete king reveals himself to be something of a medieval martial arts expert in a moment that is incongruous with the rest of the characterisation.  Yes, Richard would fight for his life, but not in such an obviously choreographed manner.  When the fatal blow is struck, it is a moment of shock and surprise – it’s a credit to the schoolgirls in this matinee audience that they gasped at this point rather than at Richard and Aumerle’s kiss.

The play begins and ends with a coffin centre-stage, reminding us of the cycle of kingship: one must die so the next can take over. With its projections and lighting effects, it is a production of surfaces.  We don’t really get to grips with the rights and wrongs of who should be on the throne and how he should behave.  Richard seizes what isn’t his to raise funds, which leads to rebellion.  Opposers of the Royal Mail and NHS privatisations, take note!

Who's a pretty boy, then? Oliver Ford Davies (Duke of York), Nigel Lindsay (Bolingbroke), David Tennant (Richard II) Photo by Kwame Lestrade

Who’s a pretty boy, then? Oliver Ford Davies (Duke of York), Nigel Lindsay (Bolingbroke), David Tennant (Richard II)
Photo by Kwame Lestrade