Tag Archives: Swan Theatre

Crowning Achievement

TAMBURLAINE

The Swan Theatre, Thursday 30th August, 2018

 

Christopher Marlowe’s epic drama was an innovation in its time, and a major breakthrough in the use of blank verse in the theatre.  Michael Boyd’s production, which adapts the two-parter into one three-hour-or-so piece, clearly shows how Marlowe’s work is a kind of prototype for Shakespeare’s early history plays, which were to appear soon after.  Where Will outdoes Kit is in terms of plot development and structure, as well as depth of character – but that’s an essay for another forum.

As the eponymous despot, Jude Owusu gives a commanding performance, breathing life into the lyrical passages Marlowe puts in his tyrant’s mouth, mastering the verse and making it a pleasure to hear.  Owusu adopts high status from the off, even with Tamburlaine’s lowly beginnings as shepherd-turned-brigand.  The play charts the upward course of his career and the inexorable spread of his domination of the Middle East and beyond.  Owusu has the pent-up power of a big cat and his smiling eyes add menace to his pronouncements.  It’s compelling stuff albeit a bit one-note; there is, however, a powerful scene in which he expresses his grief for his dead queen – perhaps the only moment where we feel empathy for this monstrous man.

As said queen, Zenocrate, blonde Rosy McEwen is clad all in white to contrast with the black clobber of Owusu – opposites attract, I suppose!  McEwen brings regal vulnerability to the piece, although I can’t pinpoint when she transitioned from royal hostage to loving wife.

The company is a strong one – mainly men putting themselves about.  Mark Hadfield leavens the machismo by bringing touches of humour to his portrayal of Persian king Mycetes and other roles later on.  David Sturzaker plays it straight as his brother Cosroe, while good use is made of James Tucker as Meander, a lord who is more of a civil servant.  Sagar I M Arya is highly dignified as captured Emperor of the Turks, Bajazeth, while Zabina, his other half, goes from haughty pride to vengeful desperation in a striking performance from Debbie Korley.  I also enjoy Tamburlaine’s henchmen, Usumcasane (Riad Richie) and Techelles (David Rubin).

For the most part, the bloodletting is stylised, with characters on their way out, daubed with red courtesy of a paintbrush dipped in a bucket – although emptying the bucket over someone in a cage brings flashbacks to Saturday morning television of my salad days (yes, this is a TISWAS reference)  There are more graphic moments, such as the excision of someone’s tongue as Tamburlaine silences criticism (rather than merely mewling ‘Fake news!’) but the mass slaughters are kept off-stage, evoked in our imaginations by Marlowe’s descriptions.

Hugely watchable and effective though this production is, I come away a little unsatisfied.  This tyrant is not a tragic figure brought down by a fatal flaw in his nature.  We get no sense of a good man gone bad or the glimmer of redemption turned awry.  I suppose this history of empire-building appealed more to the play’s original audience, who would have revelled in the catalogue of kingdoms chained to Tamburlaine’s yoke and his growing collection of captured crowns.  How different, how very different, from present-day news footage of our weak prime minister, trying to dance her way around Africa in the hope of securing trade deals, while Britain’s status on the world stage plummets for no other reason than folly.

Tamburlaine production photographs_ 2018_2018_Photo by Ellie Kurttz _c_ RSC_258815

Hey, Mr Tamburlaine man! The mighty Jude Owusu (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

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A Merry Widow

THE FANTASTIC FOLLIES OF MRS RICH

Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 18th April, 2018

 

Written around 1700, Mary Pix’s The Beau Defeated is retitled and repackaged by the RSC in this lively revival, directed by Jo Davies.  The exquisite Sophie Stanton leads as the eponymous widow, a proud shallow social climber with questionable taste – but we can’t help liking her.  She is Hyacinth Bouquet crossed with Edina Monsoon – basically a stock type we recognise from comedies throughout the ages.  Mary Pix populates her play with a host of larger-than-life characters, from Emily Johnstone’s plain-speaking, fast-talking maid Betty to Leo Wringer’s raffish ruffian of a country squire, the elder Clerimont.  Tam Williams is marvellously funny as the foppish Sir John (and he plays a mean trombone!); Sandy Foster’s face-pulling Mrs Trickswell culminates in an hilarious bit of physical comedy when she challenges Mrs Rich to a swordfight; Solomon Israel’s younger Clerimont enjoys wallowing in his misfortunes like a self-indulgent teenager; but almost stealing the show is Sadie Shimmin’s mop-haired, rough and ready landlady Mrs Fidget, plotting with wily manservant Jack (a likeable Will Brown) and knocking back glass after glass of sack.

There is a wealth of things to enjoy in this production, chiefly the superb playing of the cast, but sometimes there’s a reason why plays aren’t staged for centuries.  This one is not without its charms and it rattles and rambles along through subplot after subplot, interrupted by the interpolation of some amusing original songs by Grant Olding., but it offers little we haven’t seen before.  The afore-mentioned swordfight between female characters aside, the play is typical of its kind – Pix was one of a clutch of ‘female wits’ of her time.

Jo Davies keeps a busy stage with servants and even a brace of real live dogs coming and going.  At times, the blocking pulls focus from the main action or just simply masks it from view – and I wasn’t in what you’d call a cheap seat.  It is the gusto of the performers that keeps us interested.  Colin Richmond’s design is gorgeous: paintings of the era form huge backcloths, across which captions are scrawled in hot pink graffiti, and the costumes, as if Poldark was having a going-out-of-business sale, are divine.

Frivolous fun peppered with the occasional knowing epigram, Mrs Rich amuses despite its convolutions and unevenness, with Sophie Stanton storming it while bringing nuance and even subtlety to this figure of ridicule.

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich

That’s rich: Sophie Stanton (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


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)


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!

Snow in Midsummer production photos_ 2017_2017_Photo by Ikin Yum _c_ RSC_212790

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

 


Zhao Wow

THE ORPHAN OF ZHAO
Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 6th December, 2012

The story is the stuff of legend and folk tale, detailing events before and after the birth of the titular orphan. Thousands of years old, the plot has elements of Hamlet, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and even Star Wars and The Lion King, and yet this new adaptation by James Fenton feels fresh as well as familiar. It is never short of engaging or thoroughly entertaining and it’s also rather stirring.

Niki Turner’s stylish but sparse set is the backdrop for this epic story, while Stephanie Arditti’s extravagant costumes and Paul Inglishby’s music lend an Oriental air to the proceedings. I believe there was some hullabaloo about the casting of this production, the dearth of Chinese actors in the company. This bum’s view on this kind of argument is, Acting is all about pretending to be what you are not. Otherwise, you could say only a Dane may play Hamlet, and pantomime dames and principal boys better start claiming the dole.

Anyway…

We meet the Emperor (Stephen Ventura), a man given to taking pot shots at the populace with his bow and arrow, purely for the sake of entertainment. His right hand man and (the biggest) villain of the piece is Tu’An Gu – Joe Dixon, who is great fun with his Northern twang and massive mastiff. He is the Darth Vader to Jake Fairbrother’s Cheng Bo – the long lost Orphan himself. Fairbrother is splendid as the dashing young hero who comes to learn his true identity, showing nobility and vulnerability in the same moments. The wonderful Lucy Briggs-Owen is the wronged Princess, mother to the Orphan, roaming her palace prison like Miss Havisham Peking style. You hope she will be reunited with her son; indeed it is inevitable but in this story of sudden violence and self-sacrifice, you can’t be entirely sure it will come to pass. Until it does.

Country doctor Cheng Ying provides the emotional core of the story in a fine and affecting performance by Graham Turner. As characters come and go, dropping like flies, it is through him that we witness the turning of events. Nia Gwynne gives a moving turn as his wife, forced to make the greatest sacrifice – This is a sweeping story with very dramatic events but performances like those of Turner and Gwynne imbue it with emotional integrity, lifting it above the fairytale and the fireside yarn.

Gregory Doran directs with gusto, allowing humour to permeate the sensational scenes. There is shocking violence but it is its impact on the story rather than its depiction that affects us. Red petals rain gently from above every time someone dies, which is often. The plot is resolved satisfactorily – you get a feeling that justice has been done, that right has prevailed – and the final scene, a confrontation between Cheng Ying and the ghost of the child he sacrificed is eerie, moving and, again, right.

It is a pity the Swan was not packed to the rafters at the performance I attended – it’s one of the strongest productions in the RSC’s current season.

Jake Fairbrother (Cheng Bo)_The Orphan of Zhao_photo credit Kwame Lestrade


A Tsar is Born

BORIS GODUNOV
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 29th November, 2012

Pushkin’s classic drama defies categorisation. I suppose the best way to describe it is ‘Shakespearean’ – it contains elements of Old Will’s histories, comedies and tragedies, sometimes within the same moment.
Evil Tsar Boris (Boh-reese) at first denies the crown, reminding me of Julius Caesar, amid rumours of having murdered a young prince (Hello, Richard III). Meanwhile, bored young monk Grigory does a runner from his ascetic lifestyle, in the pursuit of worldly pleasures. He adopts the identity of the supposedly murdered prince and gathers supporters who will help him oust Boh-reese. That he is not the rightful heir doesn’t bother anyone too much. Grigory is a means to an end: he will rid Russia of Godunov.

Lloyd Hutchinson’s Boh-reese looks like Ricky Gervais’s David Brent and shares something of his management style. He is a curious mix of Machiavel and father, a powerful figure brought low by illness. The strongest scene, for me, involves his dying words to his young son Fyodor. He rattles off advice like Polonius saying ta-ta to Laertes. It is a manifesto that proves too much for the boy. In an assured performance, the very young Joshi Gibb slices his own throat open, rejecting his succession – proving you can’t always Push kin. (I’m so sorry).

As the pretender Grigory, Gethin Anthony is also a curious mix of heroism and villainy. It is the ambiguity of the characters that keeps them interesting, although they can appear as inconsistent or schizoid as the play lurches from drama to comedy to romance and back again. Anthony has a powerful presence. He would make an interesting Hamlet.

It’s a delight to see Lucy Briggs-Owen back on the Stratford stage as arrogant beauty Maryna, in a rom-com scene she plays with elegance and steel. I also enjoyed Philip Whitchurch’s Father Varlaam, a Toby Belch-cum-Falstaff figure who freestyles couplets in between boozing and singing.

Director Michael Boyd keeps the stage rather Spartan. He uses his ensemble to create atmosphere and define locations. Cast members form an amusing fountain at one point; at another they represent a battle charge by thrashing their coats onto the stage. Moments like these are very effective.

I was not as pleased with some of the clunky gear changes of tone. Broad comedy vies with boo-hiss plotting and vengeful soliloquy, and at times I found Adrian Mitchell’s rhyming couplets a little too noticeable – but then perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps the overt rhyming is an alienation device to make us think about the events unfolding before us, rather than becoming emotionally engaged.

As the action progresses, the costumes and props are subtly updated providing a low-key retrospective of Russian coats throughout the ages – but more importantly than that, the coats underpin the notion that the power struggles and despotism of the Tsars are still alive and well today, having survived Communism, Stalinism and the dismantling of the USSR. When Grigory the pretender is finally proclaimed Tsar (or should I say, Put in), he is completely up-to-date in his smart suit. He stands, literally, on the backs of the people. This is the final image of the piece, making a political point via theatrical means. It is an Orwellian moment, akin to seeing pigs and farmers around the same table. This is not just about Russian politics…It’s an eminently watchable and thought-provoking piece that deserves larger audiences.

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Old desire doth in his death bed lie

A TENDER THING
Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 4th October, 2012


What if Romeo and Juliet hadn’t topped themselves? What if they had a long and happy life together? Ben Power’s new play re-invents the tale of the star-cross’d lovers, using Shakespeare’s words. We meet the couple at the end of a long and happy marriage but tragedy stalks them. Juliet has a debilitating and terminal illness. Parting is not only a sweet sorrow but a creeping inevitability.

At first, the play seems a bit of a gimmick. With the script re-mixed, I was distracted by trying to place the lines from the original: which scene is that speech from? Who speaks those lines in the original? But, as the relationship between the two characters is revealed, I became able to sit back and take the play at face value.

Richard McCabe’s Romeo is a lovable old duffer. His raincoat makes him a bit like Graham Lister from Vic & Bob’s Fantasy Island. Beneath that, he sports a brown woollen suit, which, along with his hair and specs, adds to his nutty professor appearance. He shows people on the front row a photograph in his wallet and takes us back to a time before Juliet became bedridden with illness to a time when they would go dancing.

Kathryn Hunter’s Juliet is a bright-eyed little thing, retaining a girlish sense of fun in her later years. Hunter uses her remarkable physicality as a performer to portray Juliet’s decline. Their dancing becomes the daily routine of the carer and the cared-for; the actions speak at least as loudly as the famous words.

Lines like “I have forgot why I did call thee back” take on a new significance as Juliet begins to wane. She reveals, using a speech of the Nurse’s, that they had and lost a child. This speech is later repeated as Juliet succumbs to dementia and delirium. Hunter’s performance is powerful and striking, matched by McCabe’s patient and doting husband, his frustration and his anger.

They agree that when she is too far gone, he will assist her suicide. Here the herbs and the potion of the original come into (the) play. The morality of their decision and the action taken is not an issue. This is shown to be a private matter, an arrangement between two loved ones, without the brouhaha you would get in an issue-based drama.

Director Helena Kaut-Howson dilutes the encroaching misery with moments of beauty, using music by John Woolf and movement direction by Jane Gibson: withered Juliet springs, in her imagination, from her wheelchair and dances around, full of vigour and life – in her mind at least.

Curiously, the play is depressing and uplifting, often in the same moment. It is grim and heart-warming. It shows there is a kind of plasticity to Shakespeare; you can bend him in order to shed new light on the human condition. The vaguely seashore setting, with only a chair or two and a free-standing door, indicate this is happening nowhere in particular but anywhere and everywhere. This is not a tragedy about a particular couple in a particular set of circumstances. This is the more general tragedy of our mortality. We reach old age if we’re lucky. If we have someone with whom to share our declining years, we are luckier still. But the inevitability of death, that irresistible force of nature – here symbolised by video footage of the sea – is coming for us all.