Tag Archives: The Swan

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)

 

 


A Load of Cobblers

THE SHOEMAKER’S HOLIDAY

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 23rd December, 2014

 

Thomas Dekker’s 1599 comedy makes for an entertaining alternative to traditional festive fare.  A prologue, staged with wit and brio, states that the play is ‘naught but mirth’ and right from the off, you know you’re in for a good time.

However, there is more to the piece than funny caricature and satirical humour.  There are also poignant, touching moments and high drama.  Poor Jane (Hedydd Dylan) seems to be a role comprised almost entirely of tears and heartbreak.  Husband Ralph is sent off to war and is later presumed dead.  He (Daniel Boyd) returns, crippled and disfigured, in time to prevent Jane’s marriage to slimeball Hammon (Jamie Wilkes).

At the heart of the show is a sparkling performance from David Troughton, exuding goodwill and bonhomie as shoemaker and social climber Simon Eyre, accompanied by his grotesque wife Margery – an hilarious turn from Vivien Parry, evoking the best of Julie Walters.

Joel MacCormack is the spirited and likeable cheeky chappie, Firk, bringing energy to his scenes.  Josh O’Connor’s young Lacy is also good fun, disguised as a Dutchman, in a credible comic performance, light years away from the mock-the-foreigner excesses of Allo Allo.  I loved the quiet strength of Michael Hodgson’s Hodge – the decency of the working man wrapped up in some neat touches of physical comedy.

There is a wealth of bawdy humour – even a flatulent character revelling in the name of Cicely Bumtrinket – but even in their vulgarity, we are drawn to the characters’ humanity.  The play celebrates the lower orders rather than holding them up for ridicule and censure

Sandy Foster’s Sybil is a force to be reckoned with – indeed this could be said of the entire company.  The stage is alive with energy.  Young boy William Watson looks perfectly at home with his elders – I doubt anyone gets better performances from child actors than the RSC.

Director Phillip Breen handles the subplots with the dexterity of a master chef keeping  several pots on the boil at once and I think the clarity of the production and its language owes a great deal to designer Max Jones.  Somehow the period costumes (all of them fabulous) convey the world of the play and assist our understanding in a way you don’t get when productions are translated to anachronistic times and other places.

Jack Holden’s King is more than a deus ex machina who shows up to bring resolution.  Holden makes a striking impression in a fully realised characterisation that is both funny and elegant, and he barely has to flex a regal muscle to remind us who is in charge in a chilling display of power.

Enjoy your days off and celebrate while you can, the play says.  There are forces out there that govern the way the lives of ordinary people turn out in order to further their own interests.

Success at 'last' - David Troughton (Photo: Pete Le May)

Success at ‘last’ – David Troughton (Photo: Pete Le May)


Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

THE WITCH OF EDMONTON

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 13th November, 2014

It’s a sad fact of society that when you hold up someone as a scapegoat for your problems, evil deeds will follow – persecution being the least of them.  Playwrights Rowley, Dekker and Ford were saying as much four centuries ago.  How dismaying to see the message is still relevant today.

Old Mother Sawyer is a lonely old woman whose life is made intolerable by the villagers of Edmonton ( a bunch of UKIP voters in waiting – although these days the focus has turned from little old ladies to immigrants).  Bothered and bewildered, she wishes she could bewitch her tormentors.  Unlike The Crucible there’s a twist here.  Something wicked this way comes: the devil hears the old woman’s curses and makes her an offer she can’t refuse.  She becomes a witch for real with the devil at her side as her familiar, Tom the black dog.  Eileen Atkins in perfectly credible as the curmudgeonly old boot, arousing our sympathy from the start.  Her cantankerous demeanour puts the devil in his place (temporarily, of course).  Atkins is superb and so is Jay Simpson as the devil dog.

Cleverly, the script keeps the audience a step ahead of the characters.  We always know more than they do and this dramatic irony heightens both the comic and the tense moments.

There is greater evil abroad than making Farmer Banks (Christopher Middleton) kiss his cow’s backside.  Ian Bonar’s con artist Frank Thorney Junior is a bigamist and adulterer, swindling his inheritance from his father, abetted by David Rintoul’s Sir Arthur.  (When it all goes belly-up, it turns out there is one law for the rich and another for the poor… Imagine that!  Oh.  Yes…)  Bonar is excellent – his early scenes with the first of his wives takes us in.  We believe he is a star-cross’d swain.  Later we see the depths to which he will sink.

The entire company is in good form. Shvorne Marks makes a strong impression and tugs at the heartstrings as wronged wife Winnifride. Ian Redford’s Carter and Geoffrey Freshwater’s Thorney Senior break your heart with grieving.  Dafydd Llyr Thomas is a hoot as the bumptious Cuddy Banks – the only character able to cast the devil from the place.  Joe Bannister and Joseph Ashley cut dashing figures as two suitors wrongly accused – it all gets a bit CSI:Edmonton for a while,  An underused Liz Crowther gets a moment in the spotlight for a wild-eyed mad scene and handsome RSC newcomer Oliver Dench shines, displaying a talent for comic playing in a couple of minor roles.

Sensibly, director Gregory Doran keeps the play in its own period and lets its delights and messages speak for themselves.  Niki Turner’s design is as effective as it is simple: a dense backdrop of tall reeds through which Tim Mitchell’s lighting creates creepily atmospheric moments, complemented by Paul Englishby’s music.  Special mention must go to violinist Zhivko Georgiev for his ‘diabolical’ fiddling.

There is much to enjoy here: a bunch of rude mechanicals perform a morris dance and have to dance to the devil’s tune; shocking violence and duplicity; humorous exchanges and poignant scenes of grief and forgiveness…  It’s a betwitching evening of theatre with Eileen Atkins casting a spell that lingers long after Old Ma Sawyer is led away to her fate.

Magic!  Eileen Atkins (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

Magic! Eileen Atkins (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


Murder Most Fun

ARDEN OF FAVERSHAM

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 31st May, 2014

 

Written by an anonymous hand or hands, this play from 1592 receives a lively revival by the RSC. Played without an interval, it’s a black comedy in which a woman and her lover plot to murder the eponymous Arden, who himself is pestered by petitions from peasants about some land he has inherited. The plans go awry in a series of comic exploits until the action turns, on a knife point you might say, and a brutal, bloody murder takes place. The culprits fail to cover their tracks and are brought to summary and unequivocal justice. It’s a sobering conclusion to a wicked little romp, and we are reminded that our baser impulses may lead to dire consequences.

The setting is modern – or very recent – day. The costumes are just a little out-of-date: patterned tracksuits, and anoraks, windbreaker jackets… The ordinariness of the dress belies the extraordinary actions of the characters, suggesting that we are all in danger of giving way to sins and criminality. The costumes add a great deal to the humour of this piece, underpinning some larger-than-life performances.

As Alice Arden, Sharon Small is a scream, bringing cartoon villainy and barmaid chic to her portrayal. Ian Redford plods around as doomed husband Arden, and Keir Charles, with his Miami Vice sleeves and diamante ear-ring, is in excellent form as Alice’s lover Mosby. Jay Simpson and the mighty Tony Jayawardena are darkly hilarious as hired hitmen Black Will and Shakebag, while Christopher Middleton is chilling as Clarke, a painter with a penchant for poisonings.

Polly Findlay’s direction keeps the energy levels high and uses scenic effects like fog and snow to enhance the chaos and confusion. It’s a fast-moving, laugh-out-loud thriller that is ultimately a morality tale, and although you leave the theatre with an unpleasant aftertaste (those Elizabethans didn’t mess about when it came to crime and punishment) on the whole you feel like you’ve been royally entertained.

Chinese lucky waving cats will never be the same again.

Sharon Small

Sharon Small

 

 


Life in the Roar

THE ROARING GIRL

Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 16th April, 2014

 

Shakespeare’s contemporaries Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton teamed up to write this comedy of deception, here brought to the stage by director Jo Davies who uproots the action to the late 19th century. This makes for a good-looking production designed by Naomi Watson with men in tails and curios in glass cabinets. And it makes sense – the cross-dressing, ‘roaring’ girl of the title brings to mind novelist George Sand and male impersonator Vesta Tilley – although on first appearance Lisa Dillon’s Moll Cutpurse reminds me of a Brosette. Why the music and songs (by Simon Baker and Gary Yershon) are so anachronistic, including electric guitars, is beyond me. If it’s meant to be an alienation device, it worked by yanking me out of the atmosphere of the play, but it didn’t work in terms of reminding me this is artifice and I should be intellectualising about the morality of the situation… All I thought was how the music doesn’t fit. I would have chosen snatches of music hall songs to cover transitions, but what do I know?

There is much to enjoy in the performances of the players. David Rintoul is superbly indignant as the scheming Sir Alexander, contrasted by the exuberant and fresh-faced scheming of son Sebastian (Joe Bannister). Christopher Middleton is suitably pompous as Neatfoot the butler, a walking thesaurus, and I particularly enjoyed Mr and Mrs Openwork (Tony Jayawardena and Harvey Virdi) as a pair of scheming tailors. Everyone is involved in scheming at some point, making for very shallow drama and characters for whom you don’t give a fig. Some scenes are very funny (double entendres in a tobacconist’s) but some of the action is fudged by the inconsistent quality of the staging. I’ve said it before, in venues like the Swan, you have to keep the cast moving so that everyone gets a chance to see their backs; don’t leave them downstage looking upstage, masking the action for a large section of the audience.

Lisa Dillon doesn’t so much roar as swagger. Her Moll is a posturing principal boy with painted-on stubble. You can imagine her as Peter Pan very easily. She shows a nice line in comic timing but you get the feeling the role isn’t much of a stretch for her.   She makes an apology in an epilogue for the thinness of the plot and the quality of the production – the playwrights’ last joke. But then the company regroup for an ill-advised bout of street-dancing that is just embarrassing.

I wanted to like The Roaring Girl more than I did. I guess I’ve been spoiled by recent exposure to the superior work of Spanish contemporary Lope de Vega.

Lisa Dillon

Lisa Dillon


Well Executed

BRING UP THE BODIES

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 29th January, 2014

 

The second half of this double bill with Wolf Hall, picks up the action a few years later, and it’s as if I haven’t left the theatre from the previous night; it is very much a continuation of mood, style and story.  But what transpires in this instalment is that events become more serious, the implications and effects wider-reaching.  Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) is now a prime mover and shaker, tasked by King Henry to annul the marriage to Anne Boleyn.  Cromwell instigates an investigation into Boleyn’s household and the company she keeps, and there is a sense of mounting tension as each interview brings us closer to the outcome we know must transpire and matters come to a head.  Mike Poulton’s adaptation somehow keeps the history fresh.  We don’t see Boleyn’s execution, but the executioner rehearsing, explaining what his job entails, is enough for us to stage the scene in our imaginations.  This is all the more chilling.

Miles is astonishingly good and is supported by an excellent ensemble of major and minor players.  Nathaniel Parker shows us more colours of the ageing king, even eliciting our sympathy, bringing a wealth of humanity to the despotic monster.  Lydia Leonard’s Anne Boleyn is a strident figure – I would have liked to see a little more vulnerability at times.  Nicholas Shaw impresses as Harry Percy, embittered and facing death.  Daniel Fraser’s Gregory has grown up – as Cromwell’s son he is a chink in his father’s armour, as Cromwell pursues his relentless Machiavellian plot to avenge the downfall and demise of Cardinal Wolsey (who appears as a ghost a few times, a conscience and confidant).

Cromwell’s rise to the top is at the expense of his compassion.  There is a message here: the acquisition of power costs at a personal level.

Nick Powell’s sound design enriches the action on the bare stage: we can envisage the baying mob, an offstage jousting tournament – the entire show is presented with such economy, the actors are allowed to bring us the story in a direct and evocative manner.  The play concludes with Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour (a very funny Leah Brotherhead) and it feels like there should be more episodes to cover her fate and the other three wives to come…  I hope Hilary Mantel and Mike Poulton have set their quills to work.

Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) Photo: Keith Pattison

Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) Photo: Keith Pattison


Tudor Looking Glass

WOLF HALL

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 28th January, 2014

 

When I heard the RSC were adapting Hilary Mantel’s novels of doorstep proportion, I wondered if they had bitten off more than they could Tudor, but then I saw that it was Mike Poulton who was doing the adapting – he gave us a very enjoyable Canterbury Tales several years ago – so I knew we were in safe hands.

The first instalment covers much the same ground as Shakespeare’s very late play Henry VIII (or the first series of gaudy TV drama The Tudors).  There is a sense of knowing, even foreboding about the enterprise; we know on whose side history’s favours will fall so there is plenty of nudge nudge wink wink dramatic irony at play.

It is also very funny.  There is wryness to the dialogue and the characters are on the whole plain-speaking.  We do not have to wade through dense verse or po-faced metaphor.  The action is immediately accessible and with a three-hours running time, it needs to be!

Central to it all is Thomas Cromwell, a kind of go-to guy par excellence.  His colourful past has given him the skills necessary to get just about anything done.  And so he climbs the precarious ladder of Henry’s court.  When we first meet him he is in the employ of the infamous Cardinal Wolsey (usually depicted as more of an out-and-out villain in this type of thing).  Paul Jesson is very funny as this worldly clergyman.  By contrast, John Ramm’s Thomas More is shown less warmly, very different from the admirable and unswerving man of principle in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons.

The whole cast is very strong but I’m going to be churlish and single out a few for special mentions.  Daniel Fraser is sweet as Cromwell’s son Gregory, playing youth and innocence convincingly despite his full-grown adult frame.  Pierro Niel Mee is bloody hilarious as Cromwell’s rat-catching French servant Christophe, and Nathaniel Parker is effortlessly majestic and charismatic as King Henry.  I also enjoyed Oscar Pearce’s bejewelled fop George Boleyn and Lucy Briers’s Hispanic intensity as Katherine of Aragon.

The costumes are perfect, conveying the period in lieu of scenery and there is atmospheric music from composer Stephen Warbeck.

Cromwell hardly leaves the stage, which means we get to see his public, at-work face and his private grief, in an excellent turn by Ben Miles.  Jeremy Herrin’s direction keeps the action moving.  Cromwell only has to turn on his heels and the scene has changed, and there are some lovely touches and understated moments.

The show ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, compelling you to come back for the sequel.  And I most definitely shall!

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He’s ‘Enery the Eighth he is, he is – Nathaniel Parker (Photo: Keith Pattison)