Tag Archives: shakespeare

The Tempest (RSC at the Barbican)

I’ve seen Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ on at least six occasions (including Ian McKellen at Leeds, Derek Jacobi at Sheffield, and London appearances from Patrick Stewart, Antony Sher and Roger Allam at The Globe).

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It’s a magical romance which concerns the deposed Duke of Milan (here played by the reliable Simon Russell Beale, himself a former stage Ariel), who is shipwrecked on an island ‘full of noises’ with his daughter Miranda; here they live with his library of books, a monstrous creature named Caliban who they keep as servant, and an airy sprite called Ariel who gives service to his master in anticipation of gaining his freedom.

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Gregory Doran’s production is one of flashy technical and digital effects, in collaboration with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios, including a 3D representation of Ariel – although I found this more distracting than anything else, as the actor playing the part (and causing the body movements of the character) was on stage in all his scenes. However, the technical effects ranging from the light and sound giving the impression of a moving ship at the beginning of act one, a huge depiction of slavering dogs, and the memory of Ariel’s imprisonment in the cloven pine, were impressive.

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Joe Dixon’s Caliban and Mark Quartley’s Ariel were very memorable and touching, balanced out well by the comedy of Simon Trinder’s sinister Trinculo and James Hayes’ Stephano (although the ‘two-legged monster’ routine could have been funnier than it was).  For me, Jenny Rainsford took a while to come into her own as Miranda, and I didn’t feel connected to her until the ‘brave new world’ speech near the end, and Daniel Easton’s Ferdinand was bland and uninteresting.

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Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero is the highlight of this production, his small, stocky statute mirrored by that of Jonathan Broadbent’s little ball of hatred as his brother Antonio.  What this Prospero brings to the text is sometimes missed by his colleagues, and the final speech is truly touching as the audience is released (‘let your indulgence set me free’) – if this was Shakespeare’s way of saying goodbye to his beloved theatre, it is an effective one.

 


Twelfth Night (National Theatre)

Gender-bending in Shakespeare is nothing new.  We have had female Hamlets (Frances de La Tour, Maxine Peake), Lears (Kathryn Hunter, Glenda Jackson), Richard IIs (Fiona Shaw), Henry IVs (Harriet Walter), Prosperos (Helen Mirren), and even Horatios and Poloniuses on film.  Last year I saw a gender-flipped Taming of the Shrew with the male roles played by women, and the female roles by men.

Twelfth Night itself has been played by an all-male cast before, and here we have women playing the roles of Malvolia (Malvolio), Feste, and Fabia (Fabian), together with an obviously signposted gay Antonio (Adam Best – his suggested meeting place for Sebastian is a bar which has leather types and a Kinky Boots Lola-lite drag singer).   It gives a freshness to the story of the twins who believe each other lost at sea, and the choice of Viola to assume a male identity as one Cesario, in which guise both Olivia, and Orsino, fall in love with her.

tn1Tamsin Grieg and Doon Mackichan, image by Marc Brenner.

Tamsin Greig is top-billed as Malvolia, who spends most of the early part of the play as a Mrs Danvers-type of overbearing lesbian housekeeper, with a severe hairstyle which befits her station.  As the plot progresses we have a delicious piece of comedy with the letter scene, where she ends up cavorting in the garden’s fountain, a dark interlude where she is imprisoned and tortured by Sir Toby and cohorts, and a final reveal and climb during ‘The Wind and the Rain’.  Greig gives life to the often-thankless role of the steward, and we feel truly sorry for her at the end.

The set design of this production (Soutra Gilmour, James Farncombe, Christopher Shutt) is truly inspired, dominated by two staircases which move and morph, utilising the Olivier’s drum revolve beautifully, and by water features which appear and disappear (the fountain, a swimming pool into which Olivia hauls Cesario, and an eventual fall of rain).  The lighting and the sound are both excellent, from the chandelier which comes down to signpost an opulent living space, to the distant thump of the beatbox to which Toby and his drunken friends carouse while Malvolia watches Olivia sleep.

Orsino (Oliver Chris) is largely played for laughs, although his maturity is signposted by a 40th birthday party scene in which Viola/Cesario first realises her love for him (and he for her/him?).  Sir Toby (Tim McMullan) is a bawdy drunk, but not a Falstaff-like one – he cuts a fine dash in his swimming trunks and in a certain light might even be called attractive.  Sir Andrew (Daniel Rigby, who was so memorable as the young Eric Morecambe on television), is a hipster who shows both his active side (raucous dancing moves), and his softer side (hugging the teddy bear Orsino gave to Olivia at the bus stop in the closing scene of the play).

twelfth-night-2017-12Daniel Ezra and Adam Best, image by Marc Brenner.

Viola and Sebastian don’t really look like each other – she’s smaller and slighter – but Tamara Lawrence has a youthful swagger that might pass for a young man trying out his muscles, and Daniel Ezra does well in the scenes with Antonio, and where he recognises his thought-dead sister.  Phoebe Fox is a fine Olivia, nominally in mourning for her brother but given to boogieing when she thinks no one is looking, and her anger at the deception which has cruelly wronged Malvolia feels real.  Niky Wardley is Maria, with her nose and cheeks coloured by red lipstick in the drinking scene, and she’s good.

Imogen Doel is Fabia, Doon Mackichan has the tricky role of Feste, and although she has a great singing voice, the comedy of the part is lost (I don’t think the gender change is a successful one here).  Simon Godwin directs, and this adaptation goes on for three hours, but feels less.

I’d call it a definite success, which brings out the emotional heart of the play as well as the broad comedy underneath.

tn3Daniel Rigby and Niky Wardley, image by Marc Brenner.

Twelfth Night runs at the Olivier, National Theatre, until 13th May 2017.


King Lear (Old Vic)

November 2016 will be topped and tailed for me by two new productions of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, and this first one is a rather significant one, as it represents the return to the stage of Glenda Jackson after her quarter of a century career change to represent Hampstead and Highgate (later Kilburn) in Parliament.

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The Old Vic is not the most obvious venue for a modern dress, Brechtian, Lear, with its Victorian proscenium – however, director Deborah Warner and her co-designer Jean Kalman have created a staging which at first looks as if might use the whole stage space (it is fully opened out and set with movable walls, screens, and plastic chairs on which some of the cast sit and chat before the action starts).  In fact most scenes are staged on the front of the stage, which projects into the auditorium necessitating the removal of the first few rows of the stalls.

So, a minimal set and staging (and each scene number projected on to the screens or on top of the proscenium – perhaps to assist those new to the play to stay engaged throughout its mammoth running time; 3 hrs 35 on the final preview on Thursday), and modern costumes.  Jane Horrocks’ toxic Regan wears killer black heels; Rhys Ifans’ Fool is dressed as Superman and in one scene dons a scary clown’s mask; Karl Johnson’s Gloucester wears jeans.

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Glenda Jackson plays the King, and although there is no gender impersonation here, she dons androgynous blacks and reds and has her hair in a short and severe style.  Her authority effortlessly commands the stage in her first appearance, in which her love for Morfydd Clark’s sweet Cordelia (they arrive hand in hand) curdles so quickly to rage you almost have sympathy for Regan and Goneril (a steely Celia Imrie), having to cope with so changeable and terrifying a parent.  She displays a sarcastic vein of humour too, in the ‘crawl towards death’ line, and later, in her interplay with the Fool’ and she handles the storm scenes well in flowing shirt and long socks, in despairing, shattered senility.

Johnson’s Gloucester elicits sympathy as he appears less of a statesman and more of a meddling Polonius-type, and although some of the audience seemed to find his ‘I have no eyes’ line amusing, it was deeply felt and beautifully delivered.  As the bad son, Edmond, Simon Manyonda first appears doing an exhausting workout with skipping rope and press-ups, before dismissing his doting brother Edgar by mooning the audience.  He is a studious and serious traitor, colluding with those watching from the dark and mocking the two daughters who, barren and frigid in their respective marriages, salivate over him.

Edgar, played by Harry Melling, is good in the Poor Tom scenes (curiously by the time we get to the ‘naked fellow’ lines he is clothed, but he does disrobe completely earlier on), although he overdoes the speech stating his father’s ‘heart burst’, striking his chest repeatedly in the echo of a heartbeat.  I note he is one of the Troughton acting family as well as a Harry Potter alumnus, and can see some of his family potential (his uncle David is soon over at the Barbican in the second November Lear I mentioned earlier, playing Gloucester).

Rounding out the cast are Danny Webb as a psychotic Cornwall, all smiles before the steel temper strikes (the blinding of Gloucester is done well, with suggestive shadows and piercing Regan scream); William Chubb as a sympathetic Albany, trapped in a marriage which has decayed for years; Gary Sefton as an ingratiating Oswald; and Sargon Yelda as a strangely young and vital Kent.   The scene where the King of France accepts a dowerless Cordelia is somewhat spoilt by his comic accent, but that’s a small criticism.

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This is Glenda Jackson’s moment, though, and she surely shines.  Her interplay with her fellow cast is convincing – in particular with Ifans’ Fool, Yelda’s disguised Kent (and earlier, in his banishment scene), and her daughters.  Her ‘howl, howl’ as she is dragged in on a carpet with her deceased young daughter is heart-rending, and her refusal of Gloucester’s request to kiss her hand ‘let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality’ is nicely done, as is her recognition of him despite her previous staggering madness with leafed crown.

A nod, too, for the design of the storm, with projections, sound, and large black plastic sheet simply shaken.  The effect is spectacular.

Photos by Manuel Harlan.  King Lear runs at the Old Vic until the 3rd December.  Book tickets at http://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2016/king-lear/.


Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Royal Festival Hall)

A rare opportunity yesterday to hear the whole cycle of Shakespeare’s sonnets, read in two sections.  The Royal Festival Hall ended a day devoted to ‘the poet’s sonnets’ with this reading, featuring ten actors (Simon Russell Beale, Harriet Walter, Guy Paul, Victoria Hamilton, David Harewood, Maureen Beattie, Paterson Joseph, Deborah Findlay, Oliver Ford Davies and Juliet Stevenson).  The notes handed out as we went in warned us we might even hate some of the evening (!) but this did not prove to be the case.

I’d like to single out some of the readings for particular praise – Simon Russell Beale put across sonnets 143 (“Lo, as a careful housewife runs to catch”), 126 (“O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power”), 42 (“That thou hast her, it is not all my grief”), and 138 (“When my love swears that she is made of truth”) with an emotional connect that reached through the centuries since this cycle was written.

The ‘greatest hits’ of the sequence went to Harriet Walter, 18 “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”, and David Harewood, 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” and served well as anchor points for a change of mood.

Oliver Ford-Davies read well, but the one I remember the most is 37 “As a decrepit father takes delight”; while Deborah Findlay did well with 71, “No longer mourn for me when I am dead”.  The night was almost stolen in terms of pure performance and wit though by Paterson Joseph, who interpreted the pair of sonnets 135 “Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will” and 136 “If thy soul check thee that I come so near”, and 144 “Two loves I have of comfort and despair” extremely well.

I liked the way the Royal Festival Hall provided a big screen so everyone in the hall could clearly see the readers as they shared the sonnets with us, but as a viewer from the stalls it was interesting to see who was following the text from the book and who was paying attention to their fellow performers.  It was also interesting to see a definite chemistry between adjacent readers Paterson Joseph and Juliet Stevenson (who also read beautifully), and to note some pairings both professional and personal on the stage – David Harewood played Othello to Simon Russell Beale’s Iago at the National Theatre, Juliet Stevenson and Deborah Findlay played sisters in the film ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply’, Harriet Walter and Guy Paul are married in real life.  These kind of things keep a viewer engaged during the slower passages of verse.

If the sonnet sequence does not fully sparkle throughout, then there are certainly enough highs and enough memorable lines of verse to make this marathon well worth attending.

 

 

 

 

 


Richard II (Barbican Centre), review

This new production of ‘Richard II’ is the first in a new, three-year partnership between the Royal Shakespeare Company and its old London base, the Barbican Centre, and if it suffers a bit from ‘show casting’ with David Tennant in the lead, it actually acquits itself fairly well by the final curtain call.

Edmund Wiseman played the part of Bolingbroke at both shows yesterday in place of Nigel Lindsay, and he was absolutely excellent, displaying a certain amount of chemistry between himself and Tennant.  Reviews of Lindsay’s performance have compared him to Rory Kinnear’s Iago in the National Theatre’s recent ‘Othello’, and if this is so, Wiseman is quite a different type of Bolingbroke, young and hungry for power but no thug on the make.

Tennant’s Richard has been publicised heavily as the main draw here, and he is very good in places, although for me he didn’t quite convince as either the vain and arrogant king led on by flatterers in the first half, or the pathetic man stripped of his power and the divine right of kings after the interval.  His fans have a habit of laughing at moments which should be serious and affecting, and although this is probably not Tennant’s fault, it does harm his performance a little bit.  The choice of a long wig as well has perhaps given his Richard a touch of effeminacy which colours his depiction of the king deposed in the second half (and his white smock and bare feet emphasise a link with God/Christ in a rather heavy-handed way).

The sets are superb, although on the surface, minimalist.  A chapel setting which opens the play with a choir and the grieving Duchess of Gloucester (Jane Lapotaire) with the coffin of her murdered husband gives way to open ground, castles, courts, and halls with a clever use of lighting, music, video projection and a few stage tricks.  This is a Richard with spectacle, where something is always going on and even the smaller roles and walk-ons are in the thick of the action (Elliot Barnes-Worrell stepping up to play Harry Percy, Keith Osborn as Scroop, Joshua Richards in a number of roles including the palace gardener, Jim Hooper as the Bishop of Carlisle, Oliver Rix, impressive as Aumerle).

In supporting players, we have a quartet of senior actors (Lapotaire already mentioned – her grief stricken Duchess may be a little over the top for this production but it is good to see her fighting fit again following her stroke and rehabilitation; Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt, his ‘Methinks I am a prophet’ speech beginning in an almost conversational way rather than the speech with gravitas some of his predecessors such as Gielgud have chosen to interpret this dying Royal princes final words of blessing for his country; Oliver Ford-Davies, superb as York, playing at times for comedy and at times for tragedy, as all gifted actors do, keeping their performance balanced; and Marty Cruickshank as the Duchess of York, bringing a touch of light relief after the deposition scene).

Gregory Doran’s production takes a couple of liberties with the plot, notably near the end where the ‘reveal’ of Richard’s murderer is distracting, and a weird addition to the original play.  His adaptations have often been described as ‘safe’ and I think I would agree that this Richard takes no real risks, but it is a good evening out, and although I would still not describe David Tennant as an accomplished Shakespeare actor (he plays to the gallery, as they say, as his old ‘Doctor Who’ role a bit too much), he’s improved markedly from the days I saw him at Stratford in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night.

While watching this Richard I was thinking of the production I saw at the RSC some years ago, with Samuel West in the lead and David Troughton as Bolingbroke – very much a case of the delicate, spoiled prince opposite the rough warrior duke – and noting that this new production is much more traditional, opulent and showy.  It isn’t as emotionally engaging, though, although there are moments I’ll remember – the queen and her king’s last farewell, Richard’s descent in full regalia despite the knowledge he has lost his support and his kingdom, the soundless depiction of father/son dynamics (Gaunt and Bolingbroke, York and Aumerle), the nuggets of comedy where they are required.


Shakespeare and Sylvia

Shakespeare’s Globe, at Bankside, London, has presented a range of plays suited to its open air stage over the past few years, but I wasn’t quite sure if they could pull off The Tempest, which with its storm, magic, and mystery seems to try out for an interior space where such things can be properly acted out.

Jeremy Herrin has brought a Tempest brimming full of comedy to the boards of The Globe, focusing less on the betrayal of Prospero by his brother and the blossoming love between Miranda and Ferdinand, and more on the misshapen Caliban and his drunken companions. Ariel, often melancholic or petulant, here is more of a Puck-like mischief maker, covered in feathers and moving around the set with cartwheels and acrobatics.

Roger Allam leads the cast and clearly relishes another chance to play at this unique theatre, where the audience are in your face and the regular aircraft services into London roar overhead. As Miranda, young Irish actress Jessie Buckley, fresh out of RADA, shows promise, although Joshua James made this production’s Ferdinand a bit too ‘silly ass’ in characterisation for my taste. James Garnon is a stand-out Caliban, although the ‘isles are full of wonder’ speech is somewhat lost in the play’s broad comedy. Colin Morgan isn’t my idea of Ariel, although he suits the mood.

A change of pace in the evening saw a full reading of Sylvia Plath’s restored masterpiece ‘Ariel’ at the Royal Festival Hall, introduced by her daughter Frieda Hughes. This evening was about forgetting Sylvia the ‘mad girl’ poet and all the material that had been written about her, or presented in the film about her and Ted Hughes. In ‘Ariel’, Plath finally found her voice and if the poems presented here are occasionally a little rough around the edges, or troubling in their focus on anger and depression, that does not detract from their genius. I have always admired her as a writer, and hearing thirty-nine different voices presenting her work (including actresses Juliet Stevenson, Susan Wooldridge, Kate Fahy, Harriet Walter, Deborah Findlay, Haydn Gwynne, Anna Chancellor, Miranda Richardson, Anastasia Hille, Victoria Hamilton, Phyllis Logan, Emily Bruni, Stella Gonet, Samantha Bond, Annabelle Apsion, Maureen Beattie and Siobhan Redmond; and poets Lavinia Greenlaw, Vicki Feaver, Julia Copus, Jean Sprackland, Ruth Fainlight, Gillian Clarke and Jo Shapcott) as well as Plath herself reciting ‘Daddy’, brought her words into sharp relief.

Stand-outs, if I had to pick them, would be Berck Plage (Walter), Lady Lazarus (Bruni), Cut (Amy McAllister), The Detective (Beattie), Fever 103 (Hamilton), and Death & Co (Chancellor), but all were accomplished and about the writer, not the speaker. Poetry as theatre can be difficult and inaccessible, especially when you consider a poet as ‘loaded’ in her history as Sylvia Plath, but this evening did achieve a tribute to her work without focusing too much on her demons.


Timon of Athens (National Theatre)

This production of Shakespeare’s oddest play by Nicholas Hytner is part of the World Shakespeare Festival, and is set firmly in the 21st century. Timon opens a new gallery wing and his fawning friends tell him how wonderful he is, just so they can get more money out of him. For every minor gift they offer, he gives back something far more valuable, and so thinks in this way he has loyal friends. Of course when he falls on hard times and needs something from these ‘friends’, they all find ways of denying him – the rich banker, the crook who with Timon’s cash has set himself up in a rich court, the lady senator.

HSBC backdrops place this story firmly in the times of Canary Wharf (which makes mention of Athens a little spurious, as well as amusingly relevant to the Greek economic crisis). There have been other subtle changes, such as making Timon’s steward a woman. The thieving rebel gang are drop-outs like those who took over St Paul’s Cathedral square last year, the final banquet Timon offers his friends is somewhat more scatalogical than simple water. Most of this works well, and the verse of the play is supplemented by additional lines from other Shakespeare works.

How are the performances? This is yet another Shakespeare must-see from Simon Russell Beale. We might not be seeing his Lear just yet, but this Timon follows Richard III, Hamlet, Iago, Benedick, Ariel, and Leontes, and all were exceptional. This man remains one of our greatest classical actors, and even with a plastered finger (broken during a performance last week) his portrayal of the rich man who grows to hate his fellows is strong within a fine cast which includes Deborah Findlay as the aforementioned steward, and Hilton McRae as the jaded philosopher.


King Lear (Almeida Theatre)

Over a year ago I booked for the latest in a long line of theatrical Lears, this time with Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce, who has been a favourite of mine since my schooldays when the film Brazil was released. So I was intrigued to see how he would do in the greatest of all mature Shakespearian roles, and how Michael Attenborough’s production would present the story of betrayal, ageing, and intrigue.

In a sparse set with a trapdoor, a handful of entrances, and some magic dust in the form of the lightning storm which plagues Lear and his followers, all our attention is on the performers, and as the Almeida is a small space any audience member is in the thick of the action, which might be something to be aware of if you are squeamish in any way about fake blood and eye gouging!

As well as Pryce as lead name in the cast, his three daughters are played by Zoe Waites (Goneril), Jenny Jules (Regan), and Phoebe Fox (Cordelia). As Cordelia is a small role in comparison to her sisters, whether or not she is memorable is squarely on the shoulders of the actress playing her – and although Fox makes the early map scene vibrant with her spitting anger and contempt for her sisters, she becomes less interesting once she becomes the Queen of France. Waites is a terrific Goneril, a true serpent bitch, while Jules plays Regan as – to my eyes – a damaged daughter, perhaps abused in some way by her doting father? Because there is a definite hint of incestuous attraction here, which makes a viewer uncomfortable and takes away a bit of sympathy from our wronged king. If this line of plot is to be taken into account, this man deserves to have the doors closed upon him.

Edmund (Kieran Bew) is less successful at his characterisation than Edgar (Richard Goulding), while Clive Wood makes an excellent Earl of Gloucester. As the exiled, disguised Kent, Ian Gelder is good, but he doesn’t dispel memories long held of another Kent for the National Theatre, Ian McKellen (himself one of two superb Lears I have seen, the other being Tom Courtenay). The others in the cast are less important, and with a bit of doubling up all bases are covered.

So what of Jonathan Pryce’s Lear? His is one of frustration and black comedy rather than tragic dementia, although the ‘I believe this lady to be my child’ bit was moving, as was the sequence with the dead Cordelia. Scenes with the Fool were well done, and the opening map and banishing of Cordelia/Kent scene had all the might of majesty the role requires. So I wasn’t disappointed, and I recommend this production to Shakespeare beginners and aficianados alike.

(One word for the staff member in the circle, though – paying customers don’t want to hear creaky seats throughout, ok?).


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