Tag Archives: Tanya Moodie

Fresh Prince of Denmark

HAMLET

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 14th April, 2016

 

I don’t know how many Hamlets I’ve seen – the most recent was the Cumberbatch one in which I found the cast excellent but the whole somehow lesser than the sum of its parts.  One thing I do like in my Princes of Denmark is youth.  Hamlet shouldn’t be pushing forty.  He works better, I find, as a younger man, unsure of his role in the revenge drama that his life becomes when his uncle marries his mother so soon after the funeral of his father.  Uncertainty, indecision and depression can strike at any age, to be sure, but (as in this production) there is increased credibility when the life that’s turned upside down is that of a younger man, still finding his way in the world.

And so, Simon Godwin’s production begins with a snapshot of Hamlet’s graduation from Wittenberg Uni.  At once, Paapa Essiedu in the title role captivates.  Everything Hamlet will state later on about the Player King applies here: it’s all in his eyes.  Early scenes of grief and shock hit hard – Essiedu handles the all-too-famous soliloquies well, casting light and shade in surprising areas.  His lunacy, here signalled in shorthand by abstract painting – he gets as much on himself as on his canvases – adds unpredictability.  Above all, sensitivity comes to the fore.  This is a Hamlet we can care about.

Clarence Smith’s lying king Claudius gets across the public face of the dictator as well as the personal side – he can’t run his household as well as the state.  Tanya Moodie’s Gertrude is coolly elegant – at her best in the bedroom scene, horrified to see her husband’s ghost and strident in her denial of the phenomenon.  Cyril Nri’s Polonius is a star turn, funny and charming in his longwindedness.  His fate behind the arras also elicits laughter in its suddenness and slapstick.

Ewart James Walters impresses as the Ghost, in tribal robes, sonorous and forbidding.  He also plays the smart-alec gravedigger, with a twinkle in his eye.  Natalie Simpson’s Ophelia seems curiously sidelined until her mad scene, pulling her hair out and handing it around like sprigs of the herbs she names.  It’s always a difficult sell but Simpson makes it work, terrifying the court into singing her refrain.

Denmark has moved closer to the equator for this African-themed show.  Well, why not?  After all, Disney borrowed the plot for The Lion King.  Loud drums punctuate the more extreme moments and the colour palette suggests heat and intensity.  The music (by Sola Akingbola) reminds us this is a thriller, despite Hamlet’s vacillations.   The climactic fencing match with Laertes (a striking Marcus Griffiths) is done here with sharpened sticks.  The poisonings are swift and shocking – events come to a head in an outburst of action that breathes new life into the well-worn plot.  There is freshness in Godwin’s take that keeps this Hamlet watchable and affecting, but it’s Essiedu’s performance that is the keystone of the production.  Powerful in its intimacy, it’s a portrayal that touches and then breaks your heart.

Hamlet_production_photos_March_2016_2016_Photo_by_Manuel_Harlan_c_RSC_187401

Paapa Essiedu banging his own drum as Hamlet (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 

 

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Fenced In

FENCES

Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 10th April, 2013

Troy Maxson, sanitation worker, husband, father, bully and raconteur likes to hold court in the yard of his Pittsburgh home.  It is 1957 and he wins a minor victory at work, becoming the first black man to be promoted from loading garbage onto the back of a truck to driving the truck himself.  This is the ‘civil rights’ element of August Wilson’s plot, but the remarkable thing, historically, is the playwright’s body of work itself.  Blue collar black folks airing their grievances, revealing their personal lives, laughing, loving, fighting – all of that is here in a powerful drama to rival Arthur Miller.

Now a period piece, the play still chimes with the present.  Wife Rose bemoans the lack of aspiration she sees in the community, people never realising their lot in life could and should be improved.  Troy’s fatal flaw (he is ‘one for the ladies’) is not a rare trait and, more generally, we can all identify with that destructive impulse, when we go ahead and do what we oughtn’t, just to shake things up.  Troy seems unable to settle for what he has: at work this is to his credit; at home it is nothing but detrimental.

Lenny Henry is blisteringly good as Troy.  His experience as a stand-up brings life to Troy’s tall stories.  The comic timing is perfect.  Henry also brings depth to the character, in a multi-faceted performance that is touching and powerful.

Tanya Moodie is excellent as wife Rose, able to stand her ground.  We feel Troy’s tragic fall but it is Rose who gets our sympathy.  There is a shift in the power structure of the relationship as she finds a way to accommodate disaster, while Troy shuns his youngest son out of little more than stubborn pride.

Ashley Zhangazha is son Cory, whose dreams of professional (American) football are trampled by his dad because Troy’s own ambitions of baseball were never realised.  ‘Swinging for the fences’ is no longer encouraged.   He and Henry share some tense moments.  Colin McFarlane brings out Troy’s more waggish aspects as best friend Jim Bono – their eventual alienation, understated, is also touching.  Troy’s fence around the yard is complete, shutting some people out and keeping some people in.

Paulette Randall’s direction is unfussy, giving the characters room to live.  Shifts between humour and tension are handled extremely well.  The play ends with a non-naturalistic moment as brother Gabriel puffs ineffectually into his trumpet, as a warning to St Peter that the time of Judgment is at hand.  We are suddenly plunged into the broken mind of this mentally impaired war veteran with a metal plate in his head.  The lighting changes. Drums pound.  He dances.  It’s an incongruous finish, and a little jarring.  Perhaps a more downbeat ending would be more in keeping; I don’t know.   It’s what people were buzzing about as we filed out of the auditorium.

This quirky bit aside, Fences is a rewarding piece, a convincing portrayal of a strong man brought low by his own actions – and that is the essence of tragedy.

 lenny henry