Tag Archives: simon russell beale

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.

 


Mr Foote’s Other Leg (Hampstead Theatre)

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A dark dramedy at the Hampstead Theatre passed the time this afternoon, in the story of Samuel Foote, low comedian, crossdresser and media-bait.  Played with flair and fuss by Simon Russell Beale, Foote could slump into caricature but does not, mainly due to the skill of both actor and writer in making the character a rounded one, in some ways a fool but in other a figure of sympathy.

We first find Foote in a backstage elocution class with the other major characters of the play – Midlands-accented David Garrick (Joseph Millson, who catches at chances of comedy and moments of pathos with ease), Irish Peg Woffington (Dervla Kirwan, vulgar and finally pathetic), Scots Jock Hunter (Forbes Masson, who perhaps overdoes the accent), and mute Miss Chudleigh (Sophie Bleasdale).

Their coach, Charles Macklin (Colin Stinton, who reappears later as Benjamin Franklin and is good in both roles) quickly tarnishes his character by accidentally killing a fellow actor, and Foote and friends start their own company, with Jenny Galloway as their jaded tour manager and Micah Balfour as proud free-man and former Jamaican slave Frank Barber.  Foote plays grotesque distaff roles while Peg plays young britches parts or gartered tarts (and off-stage works her way through the beds of various luminaries including the eldest son of the King, Prince George, who is played by the play’s writer, Ian Kelly).

This is a strange play, one which has ribald belly laughs alongside moments of desperation, and one gut-churning scene which deals with the aftermath of a horse-riding accident which leads to Foote having his leg amputated in graphic (verbal) detail on stage.  The tensions between the comedy and the tragedy may not always work, although in pockets and scenes the mix is effective (for example, a piece of tenderness between Garrick and Peg).

Directed by Richard Eyre, it is not a typical piece you would expect from him, and some may balk at the large use of profanity throughout the play, but with a little tightening of scenes and a slightly less sluggish pace this could be an extremely successful production.


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.

 

 

 

 

 


King Lear (National Theatre) review

This much-anticipated production by Sam Mendes of Shakespeare’s greatest tragic play stars the actor Simon Russell Beale, who at fifty-three may be on the younger side of Lears, but who is undoubtedly one of our most gifted classical actors.

Mendes and Russell Beale have worked together on numerous occasions before (notably in ‘Othello’ (SRB as Iago) and The Tempest (a startling Ariel opposite an imposing Alec McCowan’s Prospero) so there must almost be a shorthand of technique between them as they created this excellent version of what becomes in their hands the story of a military dictator who is pitched into dementia by the harsh treatment of his two eldest daughters (Goneril, played here by Kate Fleetwood; Regan, played by Anna Maxwell Martin), and the slow burn of guilt following the banishment of his youngest ‘jewel’ Cordelia (Olivia Vinall).

Now and again the production may stray into a flashy cinematic flourish (the rising ramp Lear and his Fool walk on, the out of character rage from Lear leading directly to the demise of the gentle Fool (Adrian Scarborough, very good indeed)) but its strength is in the performances, notably that of Russell Beale, from his strutting yet tiring despot of Act One through to his hopeless flower carrying fractured spirit of the scenes immediately following the interval.

As Gloucester, Stephen Boxer is very touching in the scenes where he is reconciled with his wronged son Edgar (Tom Brooke), albeit without knowing it.  Brooke himself makes an excellent Edgar, taking the references to the ‘naked fellow’ literally in his first appearance as ‘Poor Mad Tom’, but keeping the dignity of the exiled gentleman.  Rounding out the cast of principals is Sam Troughton as an Edmund who has expressive eyes and a knowing smirk, especially once he has the attention of both the wicked sisters.

This is not a perfect Lear, nor the best I have seen, although Russell Beale does not disappoint (unlike some reviewers I do not see his small stature as a problem, and his interchange with Cordelia when they are reconciled is deeply moving, as it should be, but often is not) and the modern setting makes us think of overthrown dictators and aged rulers.  Unlike the Almeida production of two years ago this production does not imply incest between Lear and his children, although the sisters remain highly sexed and this remains their eventual undoing, two harpies destroyed by jealousy.

All in all, a triumph, with Stanley Townsend’s bruiser of a Kent also worth a mention.  This is a Lear which does not pull its punches, and sometimes it veers into violence which seems to jar with everything that has gone before – but yet, a despot who has towering statues of himself across the city may, if his eyes are pecked at long enough, might simply cease being able to see clearly and take responsibility for his own actions?  Only the return of his beloved youngest child can bring Lear back to a semblance of sanity, but too late.


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.


Theatre review: Collaborators

In 1939, the great Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov was commissioned to write a play about the country’s dictator, Josef Stalin.  This was in many ways a poisoned chalice: many of Bulgakov’s plays were banned under the Soviet regime (except The Days of the Turbins/The White Guard, a personal favourite of Stalin’s), and as an opponent of all the regime stood for it was his most difficult commission.  The play was completed (called Batum) but never passed for performance; it is considered his weakest work.

This commision is the seed for John Hodge’s new play, ‘Collaborators’, which is currently showing at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe (and then transferring to the Olivier), directed by Nicholas Hytner.  We first meet Bulgakov (Alex Jennings) in the small apartment he shares with his wife Yelena (Jacqueline Defferary), young worker Sergei (Pierce Reid, who lives in the kitchen cupboard, bare as the house has no food), former aristocrat Vassily (Patrick Godfrey) and Praskovya (Maggie Service), a teacher of history.  They are poor but defiant.

Into this life we hear of Bulgakov’s uneasy dreams about Stalin, and his declining health – flagged in an amusing interlude with a dotty doctor (Nick Sampson).  Once secret policeman Vladimir (Mark Addy) visits and asks for a play to celebrate the 60th birthday of Stalin, things start to change for the writer – and he starts to change to, following a series of visits where he collaborates with his own subject (Simon Russell Beale), to the point where they start to become each other – Bulgakov mouthing the propaganda of his leader in casual conversation, and Stalin excitedly shaping ‘Young Josef’ for the stage.

‘Collaborators’ might be initially read as a comedy, and Russell Beale plays off Jennings very well – with some sharp scenes of comedy.  But after the interval the play takes a darker turn, becoming a black comedy, and a tragedy too.  The performances throughout are uniformly excellent, although much of it is a two-hander between two masterful actors at the top of their game.

The concept of ‘Collaborators’, especially in its staged scenes from the banned Moliere play, brings to mind Bulgakov’s most well-known work, his novel The Master and Margarita, which is a thinly-veiled critique of the Stalinist regime and all its horrors, where people are tried and shot according to quota, where people go to work and never return home, where further enquiries are catastrophic.  This novel was a sharp satire with a sense of the ridiculous – and this is where Lodge’s play succeeds, in presenting a monster in a black comedy coat, and the collapse and tragedy of a man and a nation with smoke and mirrors.


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