The Other Place, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 27th October, 2022
Long ago, white Europeans went to the Americas and wiped out the natives with diseases. Centuries later, the grey squirrels returned the favour by coming to the UK and doing the same to our native reds. There is a movement now to ‘control’ the grey population, a kind of ethnic cleansing for squirrels.
This new comedy by Bea Roberts, currently playing in the RSC’s underused Other Place studio theatre, seems as though it was tailor-made for comedian Daisy May Cooper, with a very strong feel of the BBC sitcom This Country about it. Cooper does not appear, but her spirit is evoked by the superb Jenny Rainsford in the title role.
Ivy is something of an eco-warrior, hunting and killing the invasive grey squirrels in order that the native reds may flourish. This activity gives Ivy a sense of purpose and self-importance, because in no other arena is she afforded these feelings: her teacher training is down the drain, her father is cold and distant, treating her like a skivvy… And so squirrel-hunting has replaced caring for her late mother, and here is something she can control, a ‘disease’ she can eradicate. Fresh out of jail, cousin Gary (Nathan McMullan) comes to visit. Ivy picks up where they left off, wallowing in childhood nostalgia.
This is not really a play about conservation. It’s more to do with grief – or to be precise, not grieving. Ivy is unable to move on from the loss of her mother, so when even the squirrel-killing dries up and her team is disbanded, she has nowhere to turn. She tries to cling to her eco-warrior role and keep it going, but it is slipping from her grasp.
This very funny piece turns out to have been a tragedy, after all.
Rainsford and McMullan make a fine double act, and they are supported by a fine quartet. I really enjoy Alex Bhat as Reece, Ivy’s comrade-in-arms who is in love with her; Tim Treloar as local landowner Tig and other roles; Anna Andresen as a beleaguered headteacher; and Jade Ogugua as a primary school teacher – her clashes with Rainsford are excellently played.
Caitlin McLeod’s direction hones the comedic playing to the hilt, wisely allowing dumbshow sequences to cover transitions, to give us physical comedy to complement Roberts’s dazzling script.
One of the aspects I most admire about this production is it credits the audience with the intelligence to piece together characters’ histories, to divine why they are the way they are. We meet Ivy and her milieu as observers – the distance helps us to laugh – but it is our recognition of the characters’ humanity that fills in the blanks.
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Wednesday 10th May, 2017
The current production of Shakespeare’s political thriller takes a straightforward, but stylish all the same, approach, with a recognisably Roman setting and design aesthetic: towering columns, imposing stairs, more togas than a student party – but for all its historical flavour, it could not be more current. One gets the feeling the conspirators would have put a stop to the rise of Trump as soon as he popped his orange head over the parapet. Closer to home, the play is rich with oratory and persuasive speech. In the run-up to the general election, I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed that Shakespeare isn’t around to script the party political broadcasts – for all sides!
Andrew Woodall is a grand Caesar, an imposing figure of a statesman but rather up himself and, fatally, ambitious. James Corrigan is a well-built Mark Anthony – his ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’ is the best I’ve seen, rousing and manipulative, a perfect scene. And I think that’s how I characterise Angus Jackson’s production: there are moments of brilliance, such as the tension of the assassination scene, the brief flashes of combat and the sickening instances of violence (poor Lucius!) but as a whole, it’s a bit patchy, up and down.
Alex Waldmann’s Brutus is a star turn, a decent chap driven to take extreme, direct action for the greater good; I know how he feels. The current political climate makes me all stabby too. Waldmann is excellent in Brutus’s bigger, public moments and also the more private scenes. The play is as much his tragedy as Caesar’s – perhaps more so. And you have to admire the chutzpah of a playwright who kills off his titular character before the interval!
There is strong support from Tom McCall as Casca and Martin Hutson as Cassius, to name just a couple from this impressive ensemble. This is the RSC showing that you can take a traditional, accessible approach to a classic text and still make the production seem absolutely contemporary, rather than an exercise in theatrical archaeology.
Robert Innes Hopkins’s set gives us a sense of imperial Rome: the columns dominate and the statue of a horse being mauled by a lion links power with violence. In the second half, when the action moves from the city, the architecture is stripped away. Stunning use of lighting (by Tim Mitchell) plays on the cyclorama, bringing sweeping, romantic, expressionistic colour to proceedings. Mira Calix’s original compositions are brassy and percussive, discordant and searing.
Well-worth the trip to Stratford, the production refreshes the familiar lines – so many speeches and phrases have seeped into the language and popular consciousness.
Entertaining, relevant, thrilling and powerful.
James Corrigan and Alex Waldmann auditioning for Blood Brothers. (Photo: Helen Maybanks, Copyright RSC)
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 13th April, 2016
Not only did Shakespeare pop his clogs 400 years ago this year but so did Cervantes, author of the original novel on which this play – and modern fiction! – is based. To commemorate the Spaniard’s deathiversary the RSC has mounted this fiery steed of a production, a new adaptation by James Fenton.
Elderly and infirm, Don Quixote decides to put in to practice what has been his lifetime’s study, namely the chivalric code of the knights of old. It’s never too late to reinvent yourself, it appears. Off he goes, from adventure to adventure, but when reality clashes with his ideals, we are amused but he is undaunted; his code of conduct will not allow him to complain or be deterred by setbacks. And so the will of the old man gradually begins to impose itself on the world – in particular his upholstered squire, Sancho Panza. The story becomes a lesson in how to handle those with dementia, meeting them in their misperceptions – up to a point.
It is riotously funny and performed with theatrical brio, you have no option but to enjoy it from the off. As Sancho Panza, Rufus Hound warms us up with a bit of ad lib banter – this is not so much audience participation as audience involvement. Willingly, we follow Sancho and his knight on their journey, buying into the artifice of the conventions in play and relishing the inventiveness of the enterprise as well as the gusto of the performers. Hound is practically perfect for this.
As the unsinkable Quixote, David Threlfall gives a Lear-worthy portrayal, in a physically demanding role – he gets beaten repeatedly, snatched up into the air by the sails of a windmill, and generally runs around in an apparently tireless fashion. Above all though – and I don’t just mean when he’s on the windmill – he engages us with the old man’s world-view. How romantic and exciting the mundane becomes through his eyes, when two flocks of sheep become opposing armies and when windmills become marauding giants.
The rest of the cast dash around in multiple roles. Richard Leeming makes an impression as a dozy boy servant (and later as Quixote’s horse); Nicholas Lumley delights as the Priest appropriating mucky literature; Gabriel Fleary gives a hilarious turn as the Biscayan, strutting and fretting before a fight; Natey Jones’s sowgelder, Timothy Speyer and Will Bliss as barbers… Everyone gets their turn. I could append the cast list and have done with it.
There are songs throughout, plenty of Spanish guitar, to add flavour. The period comes across through the costumes – there is very little in the way of set apart from what the cast brings on and takes off. Inventive use is made of trapdoors throughout. Johanna Town’s lighting gives us Spanish sunshine as well as evoking the changing locations and moods of this episodic narrative. Angus Jackson’s direction keeps the action flowing at speed, with more reflective moments during which his two leading men are nothing short of a joy to behold.
The icing on this delightful cake comes in the form of babies, sheep, and a lion, from puppet-master Toby Olie and Laura Cubitt. Irresistible.
There are moments when a Pythonesque sensibility comes to the fore, and we venture into Holy Grail territory but then you have to remember how influential Cervantes is. The windmill has turned full circle.
An unadulterated pleasure from start to finish, this new Don Quixote is the must-see of the RSC’s current season.
David Threlfall and Rufus Hound (Photo: Helen Maybanks)
The Swan theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 11th November, 2015
The plot of William Congreve’s comedy of 1694 is almost incidental in this exuberant, vibrant new production, directed by Selina Cadell. What takes precedence is the presentation. The show revels in its own theatricality from start to finish. What, in Brecht, would work to alienate us, here engages us. The very artificiality of it all infuses the ‘world’ of the play. It’s a right old giggle.
Tom Turner’s Valentine, the romantic lead, is languidly camp, until his ‘mad’ scenes when he is manically camp. There is an assurance here in the comic playing. In fact, the entire company play their parts like virtuoso performers: the timing, the reactions, the archness of it all, operate like well-oiled clockwork animating an intricate machine whose sole purpose is to delight. Carl Prekopp makes an energetic Jeremy, Valentine’s servant, Robert Cavanah is an urbane Scandal, while Jonathan Broadbent’s Tattle is a flamboyant, pouting fop. There is no one in this play who is not funny. Nicholas Le Prevost as Valentine’s unreasonable father Sir Sampson is marvellously embittered. Daniel Easton’s bumptious Ben, Valentine’s sailor brother, is a hoot (There is some spirited choreography of a sailors’ hornpipe by Stuart Sweeting.) As Congreve’s play is influenced by stock character types, so Selina Cadell’s production is informed by the workings and business of the Commedia dell’Arte.
As Angelica, Justine Mitchell displays some excellent melodramatic posturing, which she punctures in her asides – the audience, especially the front rows, is very much included, as prop holders, costume minders, and butts of pointed remarks. Jenny Rainsford’s Miss Prue is broadly played, in contrast to Angelica’s cultured poise. Congreve provides a wealth of funny roles for women. Hermione Gulliford plays the scheming Mrs Foresight to the hilt. It is one of those pieces where we deplore the characters while revelling in their transgressions and admiring the hell out of the actors.
An underused Michael Fenton-Stevens bears the brunt of the satirical jibes against the legal profession, while Michael Thomas’s superstitious Foresight represents an attack on those credulous enough to give credence to astrology. We can still recognise these targets from society today.
Rosalind Ebbutt’s vivacious costumes and Tom Piper’s toy theatre set convey the period and add considerably to the fun. There is a consort of musicians in a corner, underscoring the silliness, and sound effects and props contribute running jokes. It all makes for relentless fun – so much so that by the end, when all the plots have been resolved, we are not touched by the denouement. There is so much laughter here there is no room for sentiment and that is perhaps this production’s only shortcoming, yet there is a moment of stunning beauty thanks to the countertenor singing of Jonathan Christie.
I have a lot of love for Love For Love.
Legend! Nicholas Le Prevost as Sir Sampson Legend (Photo: Ellie Kurtz)