Tag Archives: The Swan Theatre

A Reign of Two Halves

KING JOHN

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th October, 2019

 

There’s an undeniably 1960s vibe to Eleanor Rhode’s production of this lesser-known history play.  Max Johns’s design puts the characters in sharp suits and polo-neck sweaters, dandy two-pieces, and East End gangster-ish fur coats.  This is the world of One Man, Two Guvnors with a touch of the Krays.  Will Gregory’s original compositions do much to enforce the period, with arrangements that are reminiscent of Quincy Jones (think Austin Powers theme!) and classics like Green Onions.  So, it all looks great and sounds great, and they have the dance moves down pat.  But…

The first half heightens the humour.  Rhode delivers up a black comedy with a couple of rather gruesome touches.  In the title role we have Rosie Sheehy, a principal boy (evoking fond memories of Pippa Nixon’s female Bastard in a previous production).  The gender-blind casting emphasises the youthfulness of the King and later, his unmanliness.  John is a weak king, but Sheehy’s portrayal of that weakness is strong – if you see what I mean.  Dressed in pyjamas and velvet suits, this John is a slightly Bohemian, somewhat cocky playboy, a 60s rock-star/poet/playboy.

Sheehy is surrounded by other strong performers, notable among whom are the excellent Bridgitta Roy as Queen Elinor,  John’s authoritative mother; Zara Ramm impresses in a brief appearance as Lady Faulconbridge; Tom McCall’s faithful Hubert’s loyalty is not without its sinister side; and Brian Martin’s Lewis the Dauphin would not be out of place, torturing narks in a lock-up.  Michael Abubakar’s Bastard (Scottish accent, red brothel-creepers) is indeed a cheeky bastard, but he seems a little side-lined at times.

The role of little prince Arthur is quite a large part for a child actor, and tonight it’s the turn of Ethan Phillips to elicit our sympathies.  He does a grand job, togged up like our own Prince George, and I like Rhode’s idea of having him appear ghost-like, rather than as a corpse.  In fact, it is through his Arthur that we come to regard John as a villain – not quite of Richard III proportions, but even so.  Incidentally, John’s protestant rant against Catholicism puts him ahead of his time (or hearkens back to Henry VIII, depending on your perspective!).  Katherine Pearce’s Cardinal Pandulph is a camp delight if a little one-note – but then, I suppose that represents the unwavering nature of the Church.

To my mind, it is Charlotte Randle’s passionate Lady Constance, righteous in her grief, who gives the pivotal performance of the production, growing from annoying guest who won’t shut up about it, to a genuinely moving portrayal of emotional disturbance.  After her hair-tearing scene, the production is never quite the same again.

Rhode gives us lots of fun ideas to make the action accessible, even if we’re not always entirely sure who everyone is.  In the second half, the comedy is elbowed in favour of the darkness and the politicising, a tonal mismatch that doesn’t quite gel.  Perhaps the inclusion of more medieval motifs would marry the two sections, as characters get medieval with each other.  This is very much a game of two halves.

I find I have no sympathy for John’s messy demise in a tin bath.  Instead, it’s a relief to be rid of a weak leader.  The play points out – as if we aren’t painfully aware these days – that weakness at the top brings chaos everywhere.

King John production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Steve Tanner _c_ RSC_295649

Rosie Sheehy as King John (Photo: Steve Tanner (c) RSC)

 

 


Venice not v nice

VENICE PRESERVED

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 24th June, 2019

 

Thomas Otway’s play from 1682 is revived in stylish form for the RSC by director Prasanna Puwanarajah, who sets the piece in a 1980s noir-cum-comic book setting of darkness and drains, of pulsating music, with nudges to Blade Runner – and there’s even a character who looks like Grace Jones.  Here, as in Otway’s original where he was critiquing the government of the day, this is not about Venice then or now.  It’s a veiled comment on our present (woeful) government – and in this respect it works quite well.

Central to the action is married couple Jaffeir (NOT the villain in Aladdin) and Belvidera (NOT a guest house in Southport) whose relationship is sorely tested when he loses his money and they have to turn to her estranged father, Senator Pruili (an underused Les Dennis).  Jaffeir is drawn into a group of revolutionaries by his bezzie mate Pierre (a cocksure and pragmatic Stephen Fewell) putting his wife up as collateral to prove his allegiance to their murderous cause.  Belvidera doesn’t take too kindly to being offered up as a hostage and narrowly escapes rape by the swaggering Renault (Steve Nicolson) a man so rebellious he brazenly sports an alarming mullet.

As Jaffeir, Michael Grady-Hall brings passion and intensity, torn between his love and his friend.  Grady-Hall is always great value, bringing out the depths of the role.  Equally, Jodie McNee is compelling as tragic-but-dignified Belvidera, although I spend a lot of time wondering why she’s the only one with a strong Liverpudlian accent…  Puwanarajah has his cast express emotion in broad strokes: there is a lot of falling to one’s knees, a lot of menacing each other with daggers, and while this makes for exciting viewing I find that, coupled with Otway’s scornful script, I don’t much care for anybody.

Amid the bleak melodrama, there is humour, provided mainly by the marvellous John Hodgkinson’s sleazeball senator Antonio, heavily into S&M and fully aware he can stun opponents into submission by making long speeches.  The satire is ladled on thick as Hodgkinson hops around, his trousers at his ankles, alternating baby talk with oratory and verbiage.

It’s a production of bold moves, in its performance and its presentation.  Belvidera’s cell, demarcated by lighting, looks like she’s being detained in a nightclub.  The V for Vendetta masks sported by the revolutionaries are a bit on the nose.   But I like the darkness of it, the dripping water, the coming-and-going with umbrellas.  And Les Dennis navigating a gear change from hard-hearted gammon to tender, repentant father, is the finest performance of the night.

The message I come away with is that while those who oppose the government are too wrapped up with fighting among themselves, they will never achieve their aim, leaving the sleazeballs in power where they thrive and they flourish.

Venice Preserved

Family fortune: Jodie McNee as Belvidera and Les Dennis as Priuli. Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC

 


Romp with Pomp

THE PROVOKED WIFE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 5th June, 2019

 

John Vanbrugh’s comedy from 1697 is given an exuberant revival in this new production for the RSC by Phillip Breen.  A prologue points out that the playwright got his inspiration from us, the audience – and this is all we need to remind us that human nature, and in particular, human foibles have not changed a jot.  Breen sensibly keeps everything in and of the period and because of this, the show works admirably.  Mark Bailey’s set is a theatre, with plush crimson drapes and a pelmet, and footlights around three sides of the stage, setting the action against a backdrop of artifice, while the lavish costumes denote both class and character.

Lady Brute (a magnificent Alexandra Gilbreath) seeks distraction from her loveless marriage to Lord Brute (Jonathan Slinger in excellent form) by plotting with her niece Belinda (the charming Natalie Dew) romantic intrigues involving her suitor Constant (Rufus Hound has never been more dashing).  Constant’s best mate, professed woman-hater Heartfree finds himself enamoured of Belinda – in a masterly comic performance from John Hodgkinson, tossing off Vanbrugh’s sardonic epigrams with effortless bitterness.

A big name draw for this splendid company is TV favourite Caroline Quentin as the monstrously vain and conceited Lady Fanciful.  Quentin is made for this kind of stuff, and gives a hugely enjoyable performance.  Hardly subtle, Vanbrugh names his characters to suit their natures – Quentin’s portrayal is far from one-note and is an absolute joy to behold.

Also appearing, but mainly as a supernumerary is veteran comic Les Dennis, cutting his teeth at the RSC.  I’m assuming he has a more featured role in this play’s companion piece in repertory – but more of that anon.

Released from the confines of their gallery, the musicians feature on stage, coming and going to cover transitions and to accompany the songs – Paddy Cunneen’s  original composition, vibrant, sometimes discordant, enhance the period flavour and the comical nature of proceedings.  Rosalind Steele and Toby Webster are in splendid voice as Pipe and Treble respectively.

After much farcical comings-and-goings, including Lord Brute donning a frock and beating up the night’s watch like Old Mother Riley, the action takes a more dramatic turn, and we appreciate the depths of despair and danger Lady Brute endures.  Gilbreath and Slinger flip from wry comic barbs to horribly tense domestic abuse and it’s gripping stuff.  The plot is resolved with a quick succession of gasp-worthy revelations but the Brutes remain together, a bitter note among the hilarity and happiness.

Expertly presented, this production will get you laughing from the off.  It does run a bit long; this bum on a seat was a bit numb on the seat well before the end.  I advise you to get out and stretch your legs during the interval.  It’s a long haul but it’s more than worth it.

"The Provoked Wife" by John Vanbrugh

Behaving badly: Caroline Quentin as Lady Fanciful (Photo: Pete Le May, c RSC)

 


Timely in Athens

TIMON OF ATHENS

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 2nd January, 2019

 

Simon Godwin’s new production of the rarely-presented ‘problem play’ is an accessible fable, due to some judicious cutting and reframing of scenes, and simple staging.  It’s a game of two halves: the first is all gold and opulence, as though Timon’s interior designer was King Midas – even the flower arrangement is gold – with the stage dominated by a long banqueting table around which Timon entertains her guests, lavishing gift upon gift upon them, as suits her whim; the second half is dirt and darkness, with Timon now living rough in the woods, spurning all comers and railing against the world, like a mini King Lear.

In the title role, the formidable Kathryn Hunter gives a compelling performance.  Her Lady Timon is a silent-movie diva, every expression writ large on her face, every gesture stylised and mannered – although she is far from silent.  She spouts some of Shakespeare’s most acidic, misanthropic lines with relish.  Hunter’s performance style sets her character apart from the others, as befits the action of the play.  She is supported by a strong ensemble who breathe life and credibility into shallow, one-note characters.  (The blame for any shortcomings in the text is usually laid at the door of Shakespeare’s collaborator, Thomas Middleton!)

Chief among the supporting roles is Patrick Drury’s Flavius, Timon’s faithful steward.  In one of the piece’s most touching scenes, he shares the contents of his purse with his fellow, newly-unemployed servants.  It is the servants who display the best aspects of humanity: Salman Akhtar’s Lucilius, Rosy McEwen’s Flaminia, and Riad Richie’s Servilius.

Lady Timon’s guests, moochers and hangers-on display the worst aspects, leaching away at the good lady’s generosity until the well runs dry.  We see through them at once. Ralph Davis’s poet and Sagar I M Arya’s painter, might be excused for seeking the patronage of a wealthy woman, but Lucia (Imogen Slaughter), Lucullus (David Sturzaner) and Sempronius (James Clyde) soon prove themselves to be fair-weather friends.  These moments, with Godwin cross-cutting between scenes of refusal, are handled with humour – there are plenty of laughs to be had throughout, as we are invited to examine the scenario from a distance rather than empathise with the personas.

A dissonant voice comes from the mighty Nia Gwynne’s sarcastic philosopher, Apemantus, and not just because of the Welsh accent.  Gwynne and Hunter share the finest scene of the piece in which Apemantus and Timon trade eloquently vicious insults, descend into name-calling and end up displaying the play’s strongest instance of fellow-feeling.  It is powerful stuff.

With its up-to-date references (Alcibiades’s mob are sporting the latest Paris fashion, the ubiquitous yellow vest) and a strongly Grecian feel (Michael Bruce’s jaunty, stirring score), there are parallels being drawn with certain countries in the European Union, but I am tempted to consider the production is a more direct meditation on our own situation.  The first half is a Leaver’s vision of the EU, with all and sundry happy to bleed us (Timon) dry, while the second act is a Remainer’s nightmare of the UK post-Brexit: alone, hateful and bitter, scrabbling in the dirt for sustenance!

What I can’t help thinking is that Will must have had his father in mind during the writing of this play.  John Shakespeare spent his latter years as a recluse, hiding from his creditors; perhaps there is something of his nature in Timon’s bitter barbs.

An amusing, provocative production, rich with ideas and excellently presented, this is a timely Timon that reminds us that human nature is immutable and inequality is still very much with us.

Timon of Athens production photographs_ 2018_2018_Photo by Simon Annand _c_ RSC_269096

Lady Bountiful: Kathryn Hunter as Timon, with Patrick Drury as Flavius and Nia Gwynne as Apemantus (Photo: Simon Annand)

 

 

 

 


Oh What a Lovely Show!

MISS LITTLEWOOD

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 18th July, 2018

 

Erica Whyman’s exuberant production of this brand-new musical by Sam Kenyon tells the life story of one of the most influential figures of post-war British theatre, the formidable Joan Littlewood.

Clare Burt is Littlewood, narrating and sometimes ‘directing’ her own story, with other actors playing Joan at various ages, adopting Littlewood’s signature cap as a kind of visual synecdoche.  Thus, Burt’s Joan is outside the main action, able to comment and intervene.  The other characters give as good as they get – this is a highly theatrical piece about the theatre as much as it is a biography.  There is frame-breaking in abundance and an awareness of the audience and the fabric of its own storytelling.  Burt is wryly amusing as the no-nonsense Littlewood and, yes, a little bit scary in this whistle-stop tour of her personal and professional life.  The hits (Oh, What A Lovely War, A Taste of Honey) and the misses (They Might Be Giants) are all covered here.

She is supported by a superlative ensemble, with the other (younger) Joans each making an impression – from Emily Johnstone (pulled from the audience in a need-a-volunteer stunt) giving us Joan as a young girl, to Aretha Ayeh’s Joan as an art student, Sophia Nomvete as the fledgling director Joan (Nomvete also delights later as Patricia Routledge-like figure, Avis Bunnage).  Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue and Dawn Hope take up the mantle (well, the cap) as Littlewood in her later, successful years.  This multiple casting means the Joans can appear on stage all at once for key moments, like the scene where love interest Gerry Raffles (a dapper Solomon Israel) recovers in his hospital bed.  Surely, we too are composites of the versions of ourselves we have been throughout our lives.

There are cross-dressing roles, adding to the music hall aspects of the production.  Emily Johnstone’s brief appearance as Lionel Bart, for example, and Amanda Hadingue’s Victor Spinetti, for another.  Johnstone also puts in a winning turn as Barbara Windsor with a cheeky vaudeville number.

Gregg Barnett demonstrates his versatility in a range of parts, including Joan’s dad and the musician Jimmie Miller.  Similarly, the excellent Tam Williams crops up time and again – he also plays a mean trombone.

Tom Piper’s set keeps the red curtain and proscenium arch as a backdrop – the theatre is literally behind everything Littlewood did.  Whyman’s direction keeps the action fluid and the energies never flag.  The show is relentlessly charming.  Judicious use of captions and projections help us keep track of the timeline.  The piece is riddled with such Brechtian devices – despite which, it has an emotional (but not sentimental) impact.

For me, the star is the show’s creator.  Sam Kenyon’s book, music and lyrics (he did the lot!) are a joy from start to finish.  The sumptuous score is tinged with music hall and cabaret, and strongly flavoured with the musicality and verbal sophistication of Stephen Sondheim.  It’s magnificent.

An exhilarating entertainment, and the RSC’s best musical since Matilda, the show merits an extended run – or a transfer to London, perhaps to the ‘other’ Stratford and Littlewood’s East End theatre itself.

Miss Littlewood production photographs_ 2018 _2018_Photo by Topher McGrillis_253490

Sophia Nomvete and Clare Burt as Joan and Joan (Photo: Topher McGrillis)


Bloody bloody

THE DUCHESS OF MALFI

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 15th March, 2018

 

Maria Aberg’s trimmed-down version of the John Webster tragedy begins with the title character dragging a headless animal corpse onto the stage.  It’s massive and no easy task.  The thing is strung up by its  hind legs and remains in place throughout the performance.  Aberg is fond of her gimmicks (remember the big balloons in her King John) and this dead cow is the big one for this production.  Not only does this bovine body symbolise butchery (and what self-respecting revenge tragedy would be without butchery?) but it also represents the female form as object, as a piece of meat, of something to be consumed.

The stage is marked by the overlapping lines of a sports hall, a distinctly masculine arena, and indeed the choreography of the male actors comes across like the worlds’ most aggressive Zumba class.

The Duchess’s brothers, one a clergyman, the other a Duke, seek to quash their sister’s independence.  How dare she choose her own husband?!  And so, church and state conspire to have the wayward woman comply to their will.  As Duke Ferdinand, Alexander Cobb is darkly camp, unhinged and psychotic, while Chris New as the supposed holy man is overtly brutal and sinister in his dog collar and white gloves.  They are the villains, to be sure, but so is the world where toxic masculinity is the only way to go.  But it’s #NotAllMen – the Duchess’s love interest is the nerdy, Clark Kent-alike Antonio (Paul Woodson) who has less of the serial killer to him and more of the cereal café.  His love scenes with the Duchess are all the sweeter because we just know their happiness will be short-lived – from our point of view; a few years elapse during the two-hour traffic of this stage.

Orlando Gough’s original music adds otherworldliness to the piece and above all a sense of foreboding.  The absolute highlight of the evening is a blistering rendition of the old standard, “I’ll Put A Spell On You” sung by Aretha Ayeh, while the Duchess and Antonio dance in a loving embrace.  Gradually, Gough’s tones take over.  It is Aberg at her most Emma Rice and it works beautifully.

The ever-present animal carcass is stabbed open by Ferdinand at the top of the second half.  Blood oozes inexorably across the floor, like the inevitable, impending denouement, like the mortality that will inescapably claim us all.  The characters carry on oblivious of the creeping puddle at their feet.  They fight, struggle with, and murder each other, becoming coated and drenched in the stuff.  I suspect this is the reason why the costumes are present-day: for ease of replacement and cleaning!

As the Duchess, Joan Iyola is elegant and commanding, sultry, sensual and above all controlled – a little too much perhaps during moments of extremis.  Hired killer Bosola, (Nicolas Tennant) waxes philosophical, regretting he allowed the horse to bolt before he barred the stable door in a show of conscience awakened too late.  He’s the most interesting character of the lot.  While other cast members can match Tennant’s power and presence, they are not given the range of facets to explore.

At turns brutal and tender, the production proves eminently watchable and provocative but its point, like its blood-drenched characters, proves somewhat too slippery.

malfi

Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb) holds the Duchess (Joan Iyola) in a fraternal embrace… (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Play Politics

IMPERIUM Parts One and Two

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 8th and Tuesday 9th January, 2018

 

Dramatist Mike Poulton took it upon himself to adapt Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy for the stage, condensing the action into two evenings.  In six one-hour chunks, we rattle through the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, along with many other characters, while our main man Cicero (Richard McCabe) weathers every storm.  It’s like binge-watching a TV series.

For the most part, the action is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s faithful slave/secretary (an agreeable Joseph Kloska) while McCabe’s Cicero comes across as a blend of Zero Mostel and Ian Hislop.  There is plenty of humour here, irony and barbed remarks and, inevitably, parallels with the modern world abound.  “Stupid people tend to vote for stupid people,” Cicero observes, pithily explaining our current government.  The phrase, “The will of the people” is bandied around as though it excuses everything.

Peter de Jersey is a volatile Caesar, friendly and menacing – often at the same time, while David Nicolle is a suitably weasely Crassus and Michael Grady-Hall a ranting Cato.  Oliver Johnstone’s Rufus gets his moment to shine in a court scene, while Pierro Niel-Mee is roguishly appealing as the naughty Clodius.  It’s not just Cicero who has the gift of oratory, it turns out.

Siobhan Redmond brings humorous haughtiness as Cicero’s Mrs, Terentia – vulnerability too.  There are many performances to enjoy: Joe Dixon’s brutish Catiline, Hywel Morgan’s drunkard Hybrida, Nicholas Boulton’s bombastic Celer… and I especially like Eloise Secker’s forthright Fulvia.

The precarious, perilous nature of political life in ancient Rome is an ever-present menace and there are moments of ritualised action that heighten the differences between our culture and theirs, while the motives and behaviours of the characters reinforce the notion that human nature doesn’t change and politicians are some of the worst people.

The action is played out on an all-purpose set, designed by Anthony Ward: a flight of wide steps leads to a mosaic backdrop – a huge pair of eyes watches all.  Above, a large sphere is suspended, onto which projections and colours are cast to complement the action.  Yvonne Milnes’s costumes immerse us in the period while the lowering of the stage to floor level sort of democratises the plays: as observers, we are often addressed directly as members of the Senate.

Part Two sees the assassination of Julius Caesar (spoiler, sorry!) and the resulting fall-out.  The conspirators bump him off with no strategy in place for a new regime.  Et tu, Brexit?

Oliver Johnstone reappears, this time as Caesar’s successor, Octavian, youthful but determined.  When he coldly asserts, “I am a god” it’s a chilling moment, and we glimpse the kind of emperor he will become.  Pierro Niel-Mee is back as a serious Agrippa, a perfect contrast to his Clodius from Part One.  In this performance, Nicholas Boulton is excellent as roaring drunk Mark Antony, a hothead impotent to prevent the rise of cold Octavian.   Siobhan Redmond has an effective and amusing cameo as Brutus’s mother (bringing to mind the Life of Brian’s Biggus Dickus who ‘wanks as high as any in Wome’).

Once you get used to the host of characters coming and going, this is a hugely enjoyable watch, funny, thrilling and sometimes shocking.  On the one hand it makes me glad that politicians of today, bad as they may be, don’t go around burning each other’s houses down or lopping each other’s heads off.  On the other, it makes me wish they would.

It has become usual practice for the RSC to broadcast to cinemas its productions in the main house and then sell them on DVD for home viewing.  Productions in the Swan are not preserved in this way, which in a lot of instances is a great shame.  All that will remain of a good production will be what Cicero claims is left of any good man: what is written down.

imperium-part-i_-conspirator-production-photos_-2017_2017_photo-by-ikin-yum-_c_-rsc_235100.tmb-img-820

Joseph Kloska and Richard McCabe (Photo: Ikin Yum)