Tag Archives: Stratford upon Avon

One Man, Two Governments

THE HYPOCRITE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 12th April, 2017

 

Working in collaboration with Hull Truck Theatre, the RSC brings us this new play from writer Richard Bean – of One Man, Two Guvnors renown.  It’s the eve of the Civil War and the country is already divided.  In Beverley, Sir John Hotham is torn.  Should he support the King or Parliament?  He flipflops between sides, playing each against the other, until his equivocations overtake him and he is arrested and – well, spoiler alert: the play begins with his execution.  Knowing Hotham’s fate from the off removes suspense but his path to the chopping block is a twisted and entertaining one.

As the double-dealing Hotham, Mark Addy gives a star turn, brimming with Northern bluster and human failings, like a Tory jumping ship from Leave to Remain and back again.  This is One Man, Two Guvnors in period costume.  Caroline Quentin is his cooler-headed wife (the latest in a long line) but nonetheless funny.  Sarah Middleton is a scream as their daughter, Frances, a giddy, histrionic young girl tearing around and even rolling into the laps of the front row.  In contrast, her brother Durand (Pierro Niel-Mee) is straight-laced and academic – until his own ardour is aroused, of course.  Canny servant Connie (Laura Elsworthy) and decrepit old pantaloon Drudge (an unrecognisable Danielle Bird) complete the household, embodying dry wit and physical clowning respectively.

There is a double act of young suitors in the shape of James, Duke of York (Jordan Metcalfe) and Prince Rupert of the Rhein (Rowan Polonski) who, for reasons of plot, dress as lady fishmongers.  Both Metcalfe and Polonski are appealing presences and very funny.  Also good fun is Ben Goffe as King Charles himself, mounted on a hobby horse – Goffe also makes an impression as the ghostly figure of a young girl murdered for breaking a vase.

Bean populates his five-act comedy with stock characters, making a farce of historical events and peppering the dialogue with sharp relevance.  Hypocrites who seek to further their own ends at the expense of integrity – they should meet Hotham’s fate!   The religious and the spiritual also come in for a lambasting.  The puritanical Pelham (Neil D’Souza) and the hedonist Saltmarsh (Matt Sutton) are held up as excessive figures – the comedy arises from the exposure of weakness and appetites common to humans and both celebrates and mocks our foibles.

Director Phillip Breen pays attention to fine detail as well as broad comic playing.  At times the action is chaotic – or seemingly so, as choreographed chases and fights break out.  The acts are separated by rousing songs (by Grant Olding) performed live and on stage.  Phill Ward is in excellent voice with his stirring agit-prop anthems that bring to mind the songs of recent folk-rock group The Levellers.

The show is consistently funny in a theatrically traditional way but it is more than a farcical reconstruction; it speaks to us directly.  We are today in a divided country.  We are caught up in epoch-changing political events – we can only hope that, unlike Hotham, we don’t lose our heads about it.

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Mark Addy as Hotham (Photo: Pete Le May)

 


Midsummer Murder

SNOW IN MIDSUMMER

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 9th March, 2017

 

Based on a thirteenth century Chinese drama, this new production brings the story of The Injustice to Dou E that Moved Heaven and Earth (no, me neither) bang up to date with a fresh and lively script by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig.  Set in contemporary China with its curious blend of progressive and traditional elements, where a burgeoning capitalist economy vies with pre-Cultural Revolution superstition, the story is a visceral revenge tragedy with supernatural elements that feels at home at the RSC.

Sweet and charming Dou Yi (Katie Leung) returns from the grave as a vengeful spirit seeking justice.  It emerges that she was framed for murder and executed by firing squad, her body harvested for organs for transplant operations.  Dou Yi seeks retribution and to be laid to rest. Stalking around in a white, long-sleeved gown, Leung cuts a spooky dash, familiar to us from Asian horror films.  As the mystery unfolds, we are gripped by the action, not least because of the ghost’s relationship with young Fei-Fei (a remarkable Sophie Wong) in some chilling scenes.

At the centre of the plot is handsome Colin Ryan as Handsome Zhang, a young entrepreneur, and his handsome boyfriend, handsome Rocket (Andrew Leung).  This is the face of a new China but the machinations of the story are rooted in tradition and cultural convention.  Andrew Leung is an appealing figure – the recipient of a heart transplant from guess who – but it is Ryan who knocks our socks off, as his life unravels and he takes drastic, final action.

Also excellent is Sarah Lam as Handsome’s former wet nurse, beginning as an amusing character part to a heart-rending (I use the word carefully) participant in the unfolding tragedy.  Wendy Kweh cuts an elegant figure as businesswoman Tianyun – there is a message here that the cost of a growing economy is paid by the environment – and much of the humour of the piece stems from the likes of Jonathan Raggett as a sexually frustrated Officer.

Director Justin Audibert blends the contemporary with the traditional in a melting pot of styles, juxtaposing naturalistic playing with more melodramatic posturing.  Anna Watson’s lighting uses modern strip-lighting to great effect.  A couple of supernatural escorts in animal masks who take the dead to the afterlife epitomise this fusion of the old and the new.  Atmospheric music by Ruth Chan is performed live by a tight ensemble – pulsating modern rhythms, traditional Chinese instruments, underscore the action and help to create both the world on the stage and the moods of the scenes.

Engaging from the off, gripping and powerful, this is splendid entertainment and a refreshing glimpse at China’s changing culture.   Dou Yi’s story tells us the truth will out, consequences must be answered and this is a compelling metaphor for our treatment of the planet.  Mother Nature’s vengeance will be no less savage and complete.   Even the show’s title is an indictment of climate change!

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Heart on her sleeve: Katie Leung as Dou Yi (Photo: Ikin Yum)

 


Broad Strokes

THE SEVEN ACTS OF MERCY

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 22nd December, 2016

 

Anders Lustgarten’s new play is a powerful and thought-provoking piece set in two seemingly disparate time periods.  Naples 1606 and Bootle 2016 take their turns on the stage.  In the former, we meet painter and outlaw Caravaggio; the latter introduces us to Leon Carragher and his grandson Mickey.  While Caravaggio seeks to restore ‘dignity to the poor’ by using them as life models for his great works, Leon strives to pass on his old-school socialist values through art appreciation discussions with young Mickey.  The painting that gives the play its title becomes a list of socialist principles, i.e. the decency of human beings.  With Leon ailing fast, Mickey embarks on a photography project with his mobile phone, to show his granddad there is still decency left in people, despite appearances to the contrary in this self-serving, selfish society, where compassion is seen as a political act.

A strong link between the two eras is Caravaggio’s thick Merseyside accent.  Patrick O’Kane is electrifying as the intense and passionate painter, a common man made great through talent, hard work and opportunity.  He finds a kindred spirit in the form of a life model, Lavinia (a fiery Allison McKenzie), who is forced to abandon her artistic ambitions and be a prostitute.

Edmund Kingsley provides contrast as the well-spoken Marchese, a decent if condescending figure, and the extremely good-looking James Corrigan brings a touch of oomph as Vincenzo, one of Caravaggio’s pickups.

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Patrick O’Kane as Caravaggio (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

As Leon, Tom Georgeson exudes strength and weakness, often in the same breath, as old socialism dies out.  His values have skipped a generation (Don’t we know it!), as evinced by his property developer-cum-gangster son Lee (Gyuri Sarossy) – Hope lies within the upcoming generation, represented here by Mickey (TJ Jones).  Their Bootle is tough.  Ruthless government policies enable the ruthless to prey on the vulnerable.  The cold cruelty of the bedroom tax and its consequences could not be made plainer.   The play wears its relevance on its sleeve, lain on like the thickest impasto – and it could not be more timely.  Also apparent is the pride of the poor: having to go to a food bank is a demeaning process.  Gangsters Razor (Patrick Knowles) and Prime (Leon Lopez) are darkly funny, menacing and violent – as though a couple of Pinter’s hard men have moved to the north west.   They are the ones with power, nasty, cruel and vicious, enabling the will of the unseen big boys to be enforced.

Director Erica Whyman uses contrasts of dark and light, noise and silence, like the painter used chiaroscuro.  Charles Balfour’s lighting design certainly replicates the painter’s dramatic lighting – Surely, Caravaggio invented staged lighting long before the theatre had the technology to bring it about!

The scenes are intense and gripping but there is also warmth, humour and humanity here.  As Lavinia comments on Caravaggio’s work-in-progress, the individual scenes are great, but the whole lacks a unifying feature.   It is only at the end, when Mickey’s latter-day Seven Acts is finished and Granddad is wheezing his last, that the two worlds come together.  Caravaggio has passed on his baton at last.  What are we to do with it?  As Leon observes, you have to be strong to be kind.

We must be strong.

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Tom Georgeson and TJ Jones (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)


Perfect Storm

THE TEMPEST

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th November, 2016

 

The play, often regarded as Shakespeare’s swansong, is brought to vibrant life in this new production from artistic director Gregory Doran.  Using pioneering technology (courtesy of Intel), the magical aspects of Prospero’s isle are presented in ground-breaking ways with special effects we are more accustomed to seeing in your average cinematic blockbuster.  Most notable is the spirit Ariel (Mark Quartley) projected above us with motion-capture animation while the actor performs upstage.  There is a risk that the action is going to be overwhelmed by the marvellous effects but Doran wisely allows Ariel to appear to us live not long after this grandest of entrances. Other scenes use a combination of acting and special effects to create the magical moments of the story – I think the balance is struck; the latter enhances the former.  Of course, all the effects in the world aren’t going to make a production if the acting isn’t there – and it is.

Simon Russell Beale is a superb Prospero, managing to be powerful when casting his spells and vulnerable and careworn when dealing with his increasingly independent daughter, Miranda (Jenny Rainsford, blending teenage assertion with childlike dependency).  Joe Dixon’s misshapen Caliban is both repulsive and sympathetic – his scenes with the drunkards Trinculo (a very funny Simon Trinder) and Stephano (the mighty Tony Jayawardena, who can do no wrong) are hilarious.  I also like Joseph Mydell’s wise old Gonzalo, the bravado of Tom Turner’s Sebastian and Oscar Pearce’s scheming, Machiavellian Antonio.  Daniel Easton’s bit of an upper-class twit of a Ferdinand matures nicely into a worthy suitor for Miranda, but for me the most effective relationship is that between master and slave, the magician Prospero and the sprite Ariel.  Mark Quartley is excellent as the unworldly creature, moving like a dancer-gymnast-acrobat – his face and voice are no less expressive.  “Do you love me, Master?” he asks, with poignant innocence, and Russell Beale’s reply, wrenched from the bottom of his heart, “Deeply” is wrought with pain.  It is Ariel who humanises Prospero, the servant teaching the master that revenge is not the way to go, thereby changing the outcome of the story.  Magnificent stuff.

Reconciliation is the order of the day and forgiveness and resignation, for a rather moving final scene.  Along the way, we have seen and heard wonders, including Paul Englishby’s ethereal music and the beautiful singing of sopranos Juno (Jennifer Wooton), Iris (Elly Condron), and Ceres (Samantha Hay).  This is the RSC’s best seasonal, family show for years and it’s practically sold out but perhaps, if you’re lucky and able to perform a little magic, you might be able to snaffle up the odd return ticket.  Believe me, it’s well worth the effort.

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Spirited performance: Mark Quartley as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero (Photo: Topher McGrillis)


Having A Couple

TWO

The Bear Pit, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 15th October, 2016

 

Jim Cartwright’s two-hander provides the perfect opportunity for a pair of actors to showcase their skills and versatility.  Set in a pub, somewhere Northern, it introduces us to the landlord and his wife and then a host of their customers, all played by the same duo, giving us different glimpses of relationships between couples (heterosexual, working class ones, that is – the play was written in 1989, pre-diversity concerns!)

It is clear from the start that the publican and his Mrs are going through marital strife, to put it mildly.  Behind their customer service smiles and bonhomie there is bile and invective which they vent on each other at every opportunity.  But as the play goes on, the reason for this animosity becomes apparent, culminating in a heartfelt outpouring of anger and grief.

Playing all the male roles is David T Mears – his ‘Moth’ with a roving eye but a dependency on his girlfriend’s purse is as hilarious as his bullying, control freak of a husband is frightening later on.  Lucy Parrott plays the female parts – her big-man ogling woman and also her brutalised, cowed wife are standouts for me, but really, all the characterisations from this pair are well-observed and depicted.  Mears also directs and  knows when to make things broad and when to hone in on more naturalistic details.

Cartwright’s script is funny and there is a heightened, poetic quality to his writing, giving soul to his characters’ monologues.  At the heart of the piece is the couple behind the bar, their bitterness and resentment.  It all comes out in the wash for the intense final scene.  We come away having seen behind public facades into private lives – Cartwright reminds us that we don’t know what personal hell someone might be going through beneath the surface.

This production upholds the Bear Pit’s reputation for high quality work.  Expertly handled and performed, this engaging piece is well worth 75 minutes of anyone’s time.

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Cavalier Attitudes

THE ROVER

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 12th October, 2016

 

Loveday Ingram’s exuberant production of Aphra Behn’s raucous comedy is almost a reversal of The Taming of the Shrew, in which a wayward character (here, the titular Rover) is brought to heel by the machinations of another (the wily Hellena).  In the Shakespeare, the shrew is completely cowed and rendered submissive; here it is more of a meeting of minds, a matching of appetites.  Things are on a more egalitarian footing from the off – in fact, it is the females who rule the roost, in terms of plot devices and spirit.

Joseph Millson is marvellous in the title role.  His Willmore is a swaggering braggart with ratty pirate hair and an Adam Ant jacket.  He exudes bluster and charm in equal measure.  He is outrageous and irresistible.  Faye Castelow’s Hellena is adorably lively and witty.  As her sister Valeria, Emma Noakes is a livewire, while other sister Florinda (Frances McNamee) is more elegant but none the less funny.  Patrick Robinson is suitably noble and upright as good guy Belville, but things take a darker turn when the gauche Blunt (Leander Deeny), gulled by a prostitute, seeks violent revenge on any female who happens across his path.  Even in these scenes, Ingram keeps the energy levels high – this is a show performed with unrelenting verve and brio.  The cast are clearly enjoying themselves immensely, transmitting that sense of fun to us, the lucky audience.

The carnival atmosphere is propagated and maintained by the superlative music, composed by Grant Olding, and performed live on stage throughout the action.  The Latin rhythms are infectious, the Spanish guitar, the muted trumpet – every note is delicious.  If the RSC doesn’t release a CD, they’re missing a trick.

A highlight for me is a flamenco-off between Dons Pedro and Antonio (Gyuri Sarossy and Jamie Wilkes, respectively); another is Alexandra Gilbreath’s melodramatic courtesan, holding Willmore at gunpoint – there is a wealth of things to enjoy in all the comings and goings, the disguises, the misunderstandings and the mistaken identities.  It’s fast-paced, rowdy, riotous fun, performed with gusto and charisma by a vivacious ensemble.  Ultimately, Millson dominates with his colossal presence, but we love him for it and egg him on.  Willmore is flawed, at the mercy of his appetites – indeed, the men are victims of their own desires – but Behn celebrates human frailties without moralising.  She was way ahead of her time.

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Wild Rover: Joseph Millson as Willmore (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

 

 


Lear and Now

KING LEAR

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 21st September, 2016

 

Gregory Doran’s new production of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy has an austere, almost Spartan feel.  The aesthetic is medieval but it’s as much Middle Eastern as it is Middle Ages, an interesting setting that could be Now, could be Then.  Here, the homeless and the dispossessed remind us of the refugees we see on the news on a daily basis (and also, extras on The Walking Dead!)

Lear makes a grand entrance, carried in on a chair in a glass box, paraded around like he’s an old relic.  In his opening scene, Antony Sher shows us the power of the king, albeit dwindling, as well as giving us glimpses of the mental deterioration that is to come.  It’s a commanding performance, in more ways than one, but Sher is at his most powerful in his quieter moments, in the details of his dementia, when he is recognisable and relatable as a human being in distress rather than a declaiming, despotic head of state.

Nia Gwynne and Kelly Williams soon show their colours as evil daughters Goneril and Regan, while Natalie Simpson’s Cordelia makes a sweet impression that lasts – she has to; she disappears from the stage until after the interval.   Antony Byrne is a suitably heroic and noble Kent, disguising himself as a skinhead, and Graham Turner works hard to wring laughs from the Fool’s babblings, like a Dave Spikey in his underwear.

The RSC’s current golden boy Paapa Essiedu is deliciously wicked as the bastard Edmund, displaying a casual facility with the language and conveying a sense of being at home in the world of the play.  Surely a Richard III can’t be too far in his future.  Oliver Johnstone has a harder time of it as his brother Edgar.  Those Poor Tom mad scenes are not an easy act, but Johnstone throws himself into them with gusto and, by the time Edgar is reunited with his blinded father (the redoubtable David Troughton, marvellous as ever), we see how far he has come from his early foppishness.  The reunion between father and son is the most touching moment of the evening.

Niki Turner’s design gives us open landscape, punctuated by a lone, barren tree.   It’s almost Beckettian, as Lear and Poor Tom prattle and wait for Godot.  Music by Ilona Sekacz is largely percussive – key moments are underscored by drum rolls and crashes.

The only thing I question is Lear’s final scene, when he mourns the loss of Cordelia.  He rolls in on the back of a farmer’s cart for some reason, cradling her in his arms.  It makes for a striking Pietà, but I can’t help wondering where he got the cart and who is pushing it.   Oh, and in the blinding scene, which is literally eye-popping, the Perspex torture booth with its fluorescent lighting seems out of keeping with the rest, suddenly wrenching the action into the present – in which case, it works as an alienation effect, shocking us into considering the play’s currency.  Which, I guess, is fair enough.

A more than serviceable production, excellently played – but then, I never really enjoy Lear, as such – showing us a world where violence and madness reign.  In that respect, it’s the perfect play for 2016.

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Branching out: Oliver Johnstone as Edgar as Poor Tom. Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC