Tag Archives: Tim Mitchell

Government Cuts

JULIUS CAESAR

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.

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James Corrigan and Alex Waldmann auditioning for Blood Brothers. (Photo: Helen Maybanks, Copyright RSC)

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Re: Possessed

THE EXORCIST

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 25th October, 2016

 

William Peter Blatty’s novel became one of the most famous and celebrated horror films of the 1970s.  Now, John Pielmeier adapts the book for the stage, giving rise to questions like ‘How are they going to do that?’.  Fans of the film need not worry: all the iconic moments are here.  Director Sean Mathias uses every trick in the book of theatrical tricks to present what we expect to see: rocking beds, projectile vomit – this production really makes heads turn!  And it’s a real showcase for the technical team.  The illusions are designed by Ben Hart and supported by atmospheric, cinematic lighting by Tim Mitchell, who makes use of darkness and chiaroscuro to both hide and reveal what’s going on.  Adam Cork’s sound design surrounds us with eerie noises and disembodied voices.  Anna Fleischle’s set is versatile and evocative – Nick Gingell’s stage management team pull off wonders, changing scenes in pitch blackness so the action can flow from seamlessly from place to place.

Out front a strong cast delivers an engaging script, laced with humour to relieve the tension.  Jenny Seagrove is excellent as Chris, movie star and mum, unravelling as her daughter’s plight worsens.  Clare Louise Connolly is Regan, the child in question, and gives an astonishing performance as the ten-year-old falling prey to evil.  Although she spends much of the show in bed, she must be exhausted by the end!  Adam Garcia’s troubled Father Karras, trying to work through his grief over his late mother, finds redemption – the keynote of the production is that the cast play with earnest.  The material is bunkum – gloriously so – but the actors help us suspend our disbelief and go along for the ride with them.  Peter Bowles is fantastic as the titular exorcist, the ailing Father Merrin, managing to be imperious and vulnerable at the same time.  There is sterling support from Joseph Wilkins’s Father Joe, Mitchell Mullen’s Doctor Klein, and Todd Boyce’s Doctor Strong, a succession of ‘experts’ trying to diagnose what’s wrong with the little girl. Tristram Wymark is good fun as the camp and avuncular film director, Burke, and is party to one of the great shocks of the evening.  There are plenty of moments of grand guignol, to be sure, but what keeps us hooked is the unsettling atmosphere.  Anything might happen and right before our very eyes.  But among all the thrills and frissons, I can’t help thinking the devil doesn’t half sound like Sir Ian McKellan.

A gripping funfair ride of a show – perhaps it’s more frightening if you’re a believer – the production plays the horror movie tropes to great effect.  Wonderful entertainment for a chilly autumn night.

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Bringing them to their knees: Adam Garcia, Clare Louise Connolly and Peter Bowles (Photo: Robert Day)


Buying Into It

DEATH OF A SALESMAN

RST, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 22nd April, 2015

 

Gregory Doran’s powerful production of this Arthur Miller masterpiece brings out the humour of the script, especially in the first half, and so Antony Sher’s Willy Loman is endearing from the get-go. A blustering, sentimental man, given to delusion, who hears what people say but doesn’t listen, Willy is always on the brink of something wonderful. He’s an indefatigable optimist. Meanwhile, life has gone on and he has got nowhere, apart from the eventual paying off of his mortgage and his hire purchase refrigerator. But being this way is taking its toll. He’s not the most mentally stable of men – and this is reflected in Stephen Brimson Lewis’s split set, which has several levels. It’s a representation of Willy’s mind and sometimes we are in it, as he relives memories, and sometimes we are in the real world, a bustling street or an empty restaurant.

Sher is the engine, the beating, sometimes racing, heart of the production, while Harriet Walter is his quieter, long-suffering wife, a steadier pulse to contrast with his flights of fancy. Sher’s Willy is to be admired, laughed with, despaired at, but Alex Hassell’s Biff – Willy’s elder son – gives us the most powerful moments of the night. Hassell plays both the broken 34 year old and the bright-eyed teenager to perfection, and moves us to tears in the climactic scene in which he tries to force his father to see things the way they are for once in his life. All aspects of the drama, of the production, lead to this outpouring and it’s heart-breaking.

Sam Marks is also strong as younger son Happy, who isn’t on as much, but in key scenes shows what he has inherited of his father’s nature. Tobias Beer gives a star turn as Willy’s boss Howard. A busy company take on small roles and walk-ons to flesh out Willy’s world, with Paul Englishby’s jazz (played live) helping to create the cityscape and period feel. Tim Mitchell’s lighting is linked to Willy’s moods: colours paint the tenement buildings, or sudden brightness shows Willy’s optimism kicking in.

It’s a tragedy of an ordinary man who sees himself as a king and his sons as princes, a man with an eye on the future instead of appreciating the present. Willy sells himself the dream and keeps on buying right until the end.

A superlative production soon to transfer to London, Death of a Salesman is an emotional experience but manages not to be heavy-going, as one might expect, reminding us that Miller’s work can be invigorating as well as exhausting.

Sher and Sonny - Antony Sher and Alex Hassell as Willy and Biff. (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)

Sher and Sonny – Antony Sher and Alex Hassell as Willy and Biff. (Photo: Ellie Kurttz)


Better than OK!

OKLAHOMA!

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 4th March, 2015

 

This revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic musical is just about flawless. From the moment the overture begins, you know you’re in for a good time as we’re reminded of the wealth of good tunes that lies ahead. The curtain rises on Francis O’Connor’s rather monochromatic set, all horizontal planks like a big ol’ barn. In fact, instead of the great outdoors and wide open spaces, the set boxes the characters in. They have a restricted world view, out there in the sticks – as evidenced in the song “Kansas City” where even the most basic advancements in technology and infrastructure are greeted as marvels of the modern age. Colour is brought to the production by O’Connor’s evocative costumes and by some beautiful lighting design by Tim Mitchell.

Populating this set is an energetic and lively chorus just brimming with yee-hah spirit. Drew McOnie’s choreography is in keeping with the period (early 1900s), the place (the wild frontier) and seems fresh and original, all at once.

Belinda Lang is Aunt Eller, a crotchety matriarch (all the other females seem to be nubile young women) with a no-nonsense approach and a dry sense of humour. She embodies the pioneer spirit, hard-working, wise and willing to embrace change and challenge. Lang is magnificent in this less-than-glamorous role.

Charlotte Wakefield’s Laurey is sweet and spunky – her bickering scenes and duets with Curly are highlights – of a show that is almost all highlights! Lucy May Barker as the promiscuous Ado Annie delivers a flawless rendition of “I Cain’t Say No!” – her characterisation is both naïve and calculating. James O’Connell is her beau Will Parker, an appealing hunk and an excellent dancer. Their troubled romance is a counterpoint to the main plot, the relationship between Laurey, Curly and brooding farmhand Jud Fry.

As Fry, Nic Greenshields is all menace, using his stature and build to terrify us, keeping his outbursts of temper to a minimum. He also has a resounding baritone voice – a worthy villain! Scenes in Jud’s smoke house of porn are exceptionally creepy.

Big name casting for this tour is veteran star Gary Wilmot who is ideally cast as itinerant pedlar Ali Hakim. Wilmot has Hakim’s sardonic humour down pat and, of course, can deliver a show tune apparently effortlessly. Value for money, indeed.

But for me, the show is all about Curly. Here, Ashley Day is perfect. Tall, handsome, with a voice to make you swoon, he balances Curly’s cocky humour and his all-out decency. You can’t help falling for him.  In fact, I’d better change the subject or people will say I’m in love.

Director Rachel Kavanaugh delivers comedy and drama, allowing the tones of Rodgers’s score to inform the show’s moods and Hammerstein’s delightful lyrics to come to the fore. There is genuine tension in the climactic knife fight (directed by Christopher D Hunt) – even if you know the outcome already.

This top-quality show has it all, and you can’t help leaving the theatre with a grin on your face and warmth in your heart. This touring production reminds us why the show is a classic – staged and performed by exuberant, irresistible talent.

Short and Curly - Ashley Day and Charlotte Wakefield (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Short and Curly – Ashley Day and Charlotte Wakefield (Photo: Pamela Raith)


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)


The People’s Prince

HENRY IV Part One

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 3rd May, 2014

 

Gregory Doran’s production is a straightforward staging of a history play with no time-shifts or gimmicks (like dozens of giant party balloons) to make its presence felt. It works very well – a crowd-pleaser.

As the titular king, Jasper Britton gets all the serious business of the plot, being kingly and regal and war-like. It’s a creditable performance but everyone knows, including the RSC’s poster designers, that the play is really all about Falstaff. Star turn Antony Sher gives us a Sir John like a fat Fagin; we delight in his personality flaws and his questionable behaviour. He engages in bouts of ‘lad bants’ with heir apparent and man of the people, Prince Hal – the never-less-than-excellent, tall, dark and handsome Alex Hassell. Now, here is a Prince of Wales I could get behind. He and Falstaff enjoy slinging insults at each other down the pub, and indulge in a spot of role play, taking turns to be the king. It’s all jolly fun but there is a brief foreshadowing of what is to come in Part Two, when Hal will shake off his laddish behaviour on his way to becoming Henry V.

Trevor White’s Hotspur is a hothead, looking like a Johnny Rotten or a Draco Malfoy. He’s a little too shouty and jump-aroundy for my liking, so Prince Hal’s eulogy for him doesn’t quite match the behaviour we have seen. The swordfight between these two is breathtaking in its speed and forcefulness. Kudos to fight director Terry King.

Joshua Richards is a marvellously morose Bardolph, whose conk could give Rudolph’s a run for its money, and Paola Dionisotti is utterly believable as sentimental old cackler and pub landlady, Mistress Quickly.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design evokes the period in an understated way, letting the costumes and the behaviour do most of the work, aided by Tim Mitchell’s atmospheric lighting and Paul Englishby’s evocative music. It all makes for a good-looking, great-sounding production, proving that the RSC doesn’t need to mess about in order to provide a superlative piece of entertainment. Fast-paced, funny and thrilling, Part One gives Part Two a lot to live up to.

 

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Poster: Antony Sher reflects on his performance as Falstaff


Camp David

RICHARD II

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 24th October, 2013

 

Hot on the heels of Ben Whishaw’s BAFTA-winning portrayal comes another favourite actor of mine in the title role of Richard II. A big name draw, David Tennant improves on his Hamlet (a characterisation I thought was The Doctor by another name) with a performance that switches from regal reserve to petulant camp and back again.  In a world of macho men in leather and shining armour, Tennant’s Richard saunters around in beautiful gowns, with his crown on his wrist like a bracelet.  With his hair extensions and sharp features, he is an off-duty drag queen or an old school rock star.  The effeminacy and the bitchiness energise a sometimes languid king.  It is a captivating performance.

The whole production is redolent with delicate beauty.  Projections of pillars and vaulted ceilings capture both the solidity and airiness of a cathedral.  Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis keeps scenery to a minimum, suggesting locations, complimented by Tim Mitchell’s lighting.  Richard’s throne flies in and out on a gantry, suggesting the monarch’s link to divinity – a bone of contention in the play.  The visuals are supported by beautiful music performed live by sopranos (the singers not the organised criminals) and trumpeters.  Gregory Doran’s production has no problem in engaging the eye and the ear, but what of the emotions and the intellect?

Oliver Ford Davies as York brings humour and heart.  Scenes with his wife (Marty Cruickshank) bring comic relief from all the politicking and macho posturing.  Michael Pennington’s John of Gaunt masterfully handles the play’s greatest hit, the ‘sceptre’d isle’ speech, and Nigel Lindsay’s meaty Bolingbroke makes an effective contrast to Tennant’s light-in-the-loafers king.

For me the most compelling on-stage presence is Oliver Rix as Aumerle.  Even in scenes where he has little to say, he is there, intense without drawing focus from the speakers.  His scenes with Tennant are the highlights.  Upset by Richard’s decision to hand over his crown, Aumerle is comforted by the king in a moment that is more tender than it is homoerotic.

When Richard is set upon by assailants in his dungeon, there is too much of the action hero in his self-defence.  The effete king reveals himself to be something of a medieval martial arts expert in a moment that is incongruous with the rest of the characterisation.  Yes, Richard would fight for his life, but not in such an obviously choreographed manner.  When the fatal blow is struck, it is a moment of shock and surprise – it’s a credit to the schoolgirls in this matinee audience that they gasped at this point rather than at Richard and Aumerle’s kiss.

The play begins and ends with a coffin centre-stage, reminding us of the cycle of kingship: one must die so the next can take over. With its projections and lighting effects, it is a production of surfaces.  We don’t really get to grips with the rights and wrongs of who should be on the throne and how he should behave.  Richard seizes what isn’t his to raise funds, which leads to rebellion.  Opposers of the Royal Mail and NHS privatisations, take note!

Who's a pretty boy, then? Oliver Ford Davies (Duke of York), Nigel Lindsay (Bolingbroke), David Tennant (Richard II) Photo by Kwame Lestrade

Who’s a pretty boy, then? Oliver Ford Davies (Duke of York), Nigel Lindsay (Bolingbroke), David Tennant (Richard II)
Photo by Kwame Lestrade