Monthly Archives: July 2013

NT Live: Macbeth (from Manchester International Festival)

A trip last week to see the much-lauded production of the Scottish play transmitted live from St Peter’s Church, Manchester, starring Kenneth Branagh, Alex Kingston, Ray Fearon, John Shrapnel and a hard-working cast who keep this tale of murder and madness zipping along in the deconsecrated space.

The opening scene is one of pure war – in place of hearsay of Macbeth’s bravery, we see it for ourselves, alongside the betrayal of Scotland’s good and great by the Thane of Cawdor.  The weird witches appear from large doors at one end of the aisle, croaking both Macbeth’s path to greatness and his doom.

Branagh, who also co-directs, is a fine technician, but I never quite believe in his characters, and that’s the case here.  Compare his mighty Thane who will be king hereafter with Alex Kingston’s womanly Lady M, who ends up horrified, disturbed, and almost possessed by guilt as she sleepwalks.  As Macduff, the former soap opera actor Ray Fearon is superb in a portrayal which sees the soldier break down and feel his grief ‘as a man’ – the most touching and powerful interpretation of the role I have seen in many versions of the play.

Amongst the smaller roles, John Shrapnel is a warrior Duncan (and also reappears as Macbeth’s servant and the holy Father who talks of the horses eating each other), and Alexander Vlahos is certainly one to watch as Malcolm.  Jimmy Yuill plays Banquo with some bluster and makes a powerful ghost when it comes to the banquet scene where Macbeth’s ‘safe’ haven starts to crumble.

The best part of this production (viewed in the cinema in HD), is the set and the ambience – the rain and the mud of battles, the use of the church windows and space to generate the image of a dagger, or odd colours which illuminate the earth-coloured space as Malcolm makes his false confession to Macduff.  The church and its candles acts as a backdrop for Lady Macbeth’s prayers, the murder of Duncan (rarely seen on stage), and the interaction with the play of the charcoal-faced witches.

Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh have created a worthy Macbeth in a ‘found space’ which works brilliantly, despite Branagh’s lack of real engagement in the lead.  There’s much to enjoy here, and I envy those few who got one of the coveted tickets to see this live.

The Oval Twenty20 cricket, 5th July 2013

On Friday 5th July my husband decided to take us to watch an evening’s cricket, Middlesex v Surrey, at the Oval.

Twenty20 is a fairly new version of the game – faster than a test match and comprising 20 overs a side with a total duration of around three hours.  This makes it appeal to an audience who want to watch cricket in one short burst – in this case, on a pleasant summer evening.

Did I say ‘watch’?  There’s the rub, as our friends of the theatre would say.  Twenty20, as we quickly discovered, was designed on Friday nights for those who 1/ have no interest in watching the game, despite having paid for a ticket and 2/ drinking as much as possible in as short a time as possible.

So we were not only frustrated by not being able to properly watch the game because of people standing up blocking our view, being more interested in people making snakes of their plastic glasses and/or doing Mexican waves, but also, by the time it came to the last over, feeling as if we were in the middle of a rugby scrum at the pub where people were actually throwing full glasses of beer around.

At which point we left.

My husband, being a long-time cricket fan and visitor to the Oval for over thirty years, was understandably miffed at not being able to enjoy an evening of the game he loves, and wrote to the powers-that-be at Surrey to request, politely, that they consider assigning an area of the ground (as they do at Twickenham international sevens rugby) where you can watch the cricket if you wish and drink sociably without getting totally legless.  He pointed out that he has never left a cricket game early before, and that both he and I felt uncomfortable with the drunks who probably couldn’t tell the difference between a bowler and a batsman.

The Oval has not even had the courtesy to reply.  And sadly, we will not be supporting them again by going to a Twenty20 match.

Masterpiece Theatre project: Cousin Bette

Cousin Bette (1971), directed by Gareth Davies.

Starring Margaret Tyzack as Bette, Thorley Walters as Baron Hulot, Ursula Howells as Adeline, Colin Baker as Steinbock, Helen Mirren as Valerie, and Esmond Knight as Marshal Hulot.

5x episodes, written by Ray Lawler, from the novel by Honore de Balzac.

This drama firmly puts the formidable acting talent of the late Margaret Tyzack centre stage, as the poor relation put upon by her family to such an extent that she vows to destroy them all once a young artist she saves from attempted suicide and lends money to decides to marry her much prettier and younger relation.  Into this plot she draws Valerie, a woman who sells herself for pleasure, and her family follow her schemes and suggestions, oblivious to her true purpose.  But will Bette really win in the end?

As with other studio bound dramas of the 1970s, this doesn’t have a large budget and costumes and sets could be better – but the calibre of the cast and the quality of the script, which sticks fairly closely to the cynicism of the original novel, makes it a must-see.  If there are any weaknesses at all they can be laid firmly at the door of the original author, whose melodramatic excesses lead to one or two scenes here which would be comical in less skilled hands.

I would also like to mention the theme music and opening sequence, which shows Bette embroidering the family crest, which is the last thing we shall see when the drama closes after five episodes packed with incident and intrigue.

Masterpiece Theatre project: The First Churchills

The First Churchills (1969), produced by Donald Wilson.

Starring John Neville as John Churchill Duke of Marlborough, Susan Hampshire as Sarah Churchill, Margaret Tyzack as Queen Anne, James Villiers as Charles II, James Kerry as James Duke of Monmouth, and Jill Balcon as Abigail Hill.

12x episodes, written by Donald Wilson, based on the book by Winston Churchill.

The first production to air on Masterpiece Theatre, this programme was somewhat unique in not being a dramatization of a classic novel.  It was not highly regarded by series presenter Alistair Cooke, who nevertheless introduced it to American audiences on the strength of Susan Hampshire’s performance (she was familiar to the target audience from her appearance as Fleur in The Forsyte Saga).

Viewed now the series does drag in places, but remains a reasonable depiction of a time in history which perhaps does not have the same romance and excitement as the Tudors.  It does help if you have some prior knowledge of the period so you can follow who the various characters are, for example knowing of Sarah’s friendship with Anne and their correspondence as ‘Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley’ makes sense of the Churchills’ eventual fall from favour as Sarah loses her place as favourite to her poor relation, Abigail Hill, who is presented her as something of a schemer against her powerful cousin.

The best thing about this series for me, though, isn’t in Hampshire’s performance, good though it is, but in a rare television appearance by John Neville, one of gravitas and dignity against the more emotional centre of his ambitious wife.  There are a few too many period wigs, and photographed backdrops in lieu of expensive location filming, but this series has a certain charm if you make allowances for the time it was made.

Masterpiece Theatre project: Cold Comfort Farm

Cold Comfort Farm (1968), directed by Peter Hammond.

Starring Fay Compton as Aunt Ada Doom, Rosalie Crutchley as Judith Starkadder, Alastair Sim as Amos Starkadder, Brian Blessed as Reuben Starkadder, Peter Egan as Seth Starkadder and Sarah Badel as Flora Poste.

3x episodes, written by David Turner, based on the novel by Stella Gibbons.

Stella Gibbons’ 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm parodied popular rural novels by the likes of Mary Webb, and as such presents a broad comic vista with highly dramatized characters.  The Starkadder family are distant relations of the recently orphaned Flora Poste, and they are full of dark secrets, neuroses, and emotional issues, which Flora determines to sort out, bringing her relations into the modern world.

As a TV production, this version succeeds as a comedy more than the John Schlesinger-directed version almost thirty years later, mainly due to the ripe and beautifully judged characterisation of God-fearing Amos by Alastair Sim.  balanced by Badel’s unassuming but clever Flora, who charms her cousins and brings a breath of fresh air to the farm.  At three episodes, it is enough to give time to the story and give even the smaller roles (including a young Peter Egan as a primitive Seth) a chance to make an impact.

Performances are generally strong, from the world-weary Crutchley through to the basic machismo of Blessed.  This production is forty-five years old but still feels fresh and relevant, funny and watchable.


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