Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th November, 2016
The play, often regarded as Shakespeare’s swansong, is brought to vibrant life in this new production from artistic director Gregory Doran. Using pioneering technology (courtesy of Intel), the magical aspects of Prospero’s isle are presented in ground-breaking ways with special effects we are more accustomed to seeing in your average cinematic blockbuster. Most notable is the spirit Ariel (Mark Quartley) projected above us with motion-capture animation while the actor performs upstage. There is a risk that the action is going to be overwhelmed by the marvellous effects but Doran wisely allows Ariel to appear to us live not long after this grandest of entrances. Other scenes use a combination of acting and special effects to create the magical moments of the story – I think the balance is struck; the latter enhances the former. Of course, all the effects in the world aren’t going to make a production if the acting isn’t there – and it is.
Simon Russell Beale is a superb Prospero, managing to be powerful when casting his spells and vulnerable and careworn when dealing with his increasingly independent daughter, Miranda (Jenny Rainsford, blending teenage assertion with childlike dependency). Joe Dixon’s misshapen Caliban is both repulsive and sympathetic – his scenes with the drunkards Trinculo (a very funny Simon Trinder) and Stephano (the mighty Tony Jayawardena, who can do no wrong) are hilarious. I also like Joseph Mydell’s wise old Gonzalo, the bravado of Tom Turner’s Sebastian and Oscar Pearce’s scheming, Machiavellian Antonio. Daniel Easton’s bit of an upper-class twit of a Ferdinand matures nicely into a worthy suitor for Miranda, but for me the most effective relationship is that between master and slave, the magician Prospero and the sprite Ariel. Mark Quartley is excellent as the unworldly creature, moving like a dancer-gymnast-acrobat – his face and voice are no less expressive. “Do you love me, Master?” he asks, with poignant innocence, and Russell Beale’s reply, wrenched from the bottom of his heart, “Deeply” is wrought with pain. It is Ariel who humanises Prospero, the servant teaching the master that revenge is not the way to go, thereby changing the outcome of the story. Magnificent stuff.
Reconciliation is the order of the day and forgiveness and resignation, for a rather moving final scene. Along the way, we have seen and heard wonders, including Paul Englishby’s ethereal music and the beautiful singing of sopranos Juno (Jennifer Wooton), Iris (Elly Condron), and Ceres (Samantha Hay). This is the RSC’s best seasonal, family show for years and it’s practically sold out but perhaps, if you’re lucky and able to perform a little magic, you might be able to snaffle up the odd return ticket. Believe me, it’s well worth the effort.
Spirited performance: Mark Quartley as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero (Photo: Topher McGrillis)
Leave a comment | tags: Daniel Easton, Elly Condron, Gregory Doran, Intel, Jennifer Wooton, Jennt Rainsford, Joe Dixon, Joseph Mydell, Mark Quartley, Oscar Pearce, Paul Englishby, review, RSC, Samantha Hay, Simon Trinder, Stratford upon Avon, The Tempest, Tom Turner, Tony Jayawardena, William Shakespeare | posted in Theatre Review
THE WHITE DEVIL
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 23rd August, 2014
John Webster’s revenge tragedy is given the Maria Aberg treatment in this brash production. I say ‘treatment’ because many of the ideas are familiar from a previous production (her King John). There is a contemporary setting, contemporary costumes and too much music – loud, pulsating music to which the cast perform a variation on the Macarena. Chiefly though is the re-use of the gimmick of giving the villain a sex-change. Here Flaminio is a woman, albeit one that dresses in a masculine style. The idea, I’m supposing, is that by dressing and behaving as a man, Flaminio avoids the usual fate of women. In this garb, she also perpetuates that way of treating women (and indeed there are women in society today who uphold the anti-feminist agenda), but she is nothing more than an evil, murderous lesbian. In short, the sex swap doesn’t work. I wanted to enjoy Laura Elphinstone’s somewhat Ant-and-Dec-esque performance but was too irked by the director’s choice.
The music is annoying – oh, goody: another party scene! – and the contemporary clothing does not help distinguish characters. Cardinal Monticelso (the marvellous David Rintoul – I could listen to him read till receipts) is undermined by his Butlins red coat. Simon Scardifield’s Francisco sports a Frank Spencer beret. And why cast the mighty Tony Jayawardena and give him nothing to do?
Leading lady Vittoria (Kirsty Bushell) is a fading party girl who must be punished for living it up and giving men what they want. Ratty wigs and crumpled tutus do her no favours. In the court scene, she comes as Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, but the tone of this key scene is uneven – Bushell gives us one minute the victim, at the mercy of male attitudes and double standards, and the next she is offhandedly sarcastic. It doesn’t quite gel. Occasionally, the power of Webster’s drama comes through. Faye Castelow’s Isabella has a powerful scene and a messy death – this is how Webster should be done!
I would have preferred period costume. Let the themes and argument of the play speak for itself, rather than bending and shaping it to fit some agenda that obfuscates the action. “Take my sword,” says someone, handing over a flick-knife. No.
2 Comments | tags: David Rintoul, Faye Castelow, John Webster, Kirsty Bushell, Maria Aberg, RSC, Simon Scardifield, Stratford upon Avon, The Swan Theatre, The White Devil, Tony Jayawardena | posted in Theatre Review
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.
Leave a comment | tags: Arden of Faversham, Christopher Middleton, Ian Redford, Jay Simpson, Keir Charles, Polly Findlay, review, RSC, Sharon Small, Stratford upon Avon, The Swan, theatre review, Tony Jayawardena | posted in Theatre Review
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.
Leave a comment | tags: Christopher Middleton, David Rintoul, Gary Yershon, Harvey Virdi, Jo Davies, Joe Bannister, Lisa Dillon, Naomi Dawson, review, RSC, Simon Baker, Stratford upon Avon, The Roaring Girl, The Swan, theatre review, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Middleton, Tony Jayawardena | posted in Theatre Review
The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 18th April, 2013
Emma Rice’s production of this new play by Tanika Gupta has Kneehigh running through it like Blackpool through a stick of rock. All the familiar elements are here: the singing, the puppet children, the music, film projections… giving the story of the experiences of a range of Indian characters in Victorian London both a mythic and a contemporary feel.
This is the black-and-white days, in terms of the palette and also the politics. Abdul Karim (the charming Tony Jayawardena) arrives in England as a gift to Queen Victoria. Vicky takes to him right away, thanks to his promise to cook curries for her. He sets about to spice up her life and causes more and more of a stir in the royal household. This is similar to the film Mrs Brown, in which Vicky cosied up to her equerry, Billy Connolly. We visit their relationship at various points in the Queen’s final decades, and while Karim becomes more favoured and promoted, the scenes are all rather similar. Perhaps if Her Maj had been more diffident with him to begin with and he had had to thaw her reserve, the impact of her declaration, in Hindi, that she loves him, might be more striking.
This is also the story of Rani (Anneika Rose) who travels to England as a nanny but is promptly dismissed by her employers as soon as they dock. Her fortunes rise and fall and rise again, Cinderella in the big city; a Victorian gentlemen takes advantage of her when she impresses him with her culinary skills and throws her out, pregnant and destitute. We see Rani change from the wide-eyed naive girl to an assured and educated and accomplished woman. You can almost hear Beyonce saying “You go, girlfriend.” Her boyfriend Hari (Ray Panthaki) leaves her behind, becoming increasingly politicised thanks to his harsh treatment, before returning for a storybook reunion at the end. Again, this is a moment that should be more touching. A madras moment rather than a korma.
Rose carries most of the weight of the piece. It is through her that we visit the backstreets and underworld of Victorian London. As she learns about prejudice and the fate of ayahs, we do too. She gives a likeable performance of a fairytale heroine. As Queen Vic, Beatie Edney adopts a ‘royal’ intonation, ‘royal we’-ing all over the place and giving the notoriously not-amused monarch a surprisingly girly giggle. We get a sense of the authority of the woman and also the humanity – I just would have liked this aspect to be coaxed out of her with a little more resistance.
Lez Brotherston’s set evokes a sailing ship and there are monochromatic miniatures of London landmarks. The floorboard stage is edged by a moat, reminding us of the sea, and the island nation. After Vicky pops her royal clogs, the cast set fire to little paper boats and float them in this water as tribute. But there is also a sense of burning boats – Rani, Hari and Karim are on their way back to India, never to return. This is the kind of moment of theatrical impact Emma Rice does so very well.
Rina Fatania adds comedy as the worldly Firoza. In the second act when the piece begins to take on a slightly more documentary feel, she gives a speech about her life experiences. Vincent Ebrahim has dignity as the prospective MP who faces Tory opposition; he, when elected, makes a speech describing the true conditions faced by people ‘liberated’ by colonisation. It’s all well-presented and well-performed but it’s all a bit soft-edged. There are lessons to be learned from the past and parallels with the treatment of immigrant workers of today. Wrapped up in this, admittedly enjoyable, presentation, the story is warming but lacking in bite.
Posh/Spice: Beatie Edney and Tony Jayawardena. Photo: Steve Tanner
Leave a comment | tags: Anneika Rose, Beatie Edney, Emma Rice, Lez Brotherston, Ray Panthaki, review, Rina Fatania, RSC, Stratford upon Avon, Tanika Gupta, The Empress, The Swan, Tony Jayawardena, Vincent Ebrahim | posted in Theatre Review