March 06, 2009

The Tempest at the Courtyard Theatre

The last time I saw the Baxter Theatre perform a Shakespearean play it was back in 2005 with Hamlet. After having seen their excellent interpretation of the play I hoped to see more collaborations between the RSC and outside companies. These collaborations failed to materialise until now and whilst Hamlet was good, their version of The Tempest was great.

The thrust stage at the Courtyard theatre was transformed into a dry, dusty African island. In a set reminiscent of The Lion King the stage was sand-grey, strewn with rocks, sand and sawdust. Steep steps led to a plateau at the back of the stage forming both Prospero’s study and Caliban’s cave. Fibrous, orange trees flanked the back wall.

Into this warm, colourful environment came four musicians who would play music throughout the performance. Then with a flourish of authentic African accompaniment we were ushered into the Tempest. The cast dressed as animals and spirits took to the stage leaping around to the beat of the drum as a huge skilfully manipulated serpent entered. This serpent became the storm, which Prospero used to destroy the ship. Coloured cloth, suspended from the ceiling was lowered and became waves sweeping across the stage. It was an opening that encapsulated the fierce, vibrant energy and colour that characterised this production.

Both Prospero and Miranda were dressed in the colour scheme of the set making them a part of the place. In comparison, the invaders Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio were dressed in immaculate white suits adorned with symbols of their power. As the play progressed and they became increasingly desperate the symbols of their status were eventually discarded until they were left as dirty and ragged as Miranda and Prospero.

The use of puppetry in this production was key to Janice Honeyman’s reclaimation of the play. Honeyman drew heavily from African mythology. The masque was transformed into a voodoo ceremony raising tall, colourful spirits from the dead to celebrate Miranda and Ferdinand’s wedding. The puppets appealed to the entire demographic, enchanting the younger members of the audience and thrilling the older members; holding the entire audience spellbound.

The beautiful aesthetic was ably supported by the strong performances of the cast. Anthony Sher led the cast and it was his performance that rooted the piece. Sher’s Prospero was a strong, powerful, heavily bearded man, fully in control the island. At times he dressed like a magician, at times like a coloniser, complete with straw hat and whip. He was both a creator of the island and its product.

Sher’s fiery Prospero was in stark contrast to John Kani’s dignified Caliban. Kani’s Caliban was no vile, fish-like monster; he was dignified, elderly black man who had to rely on two sticks in order to walk. Caliban was completely enslaved by Prospero. Honeyman has created a play driven by the tension between coloniser and colonised. The servants in this play were black whilst their overlords were white. A black Gonzalo and Adrian served Alonso and Antonio; black seamen captained the ship; a black Ariel served Prospero. Honeyman’s reclaimation of the play has pulled the racism of the play to the fore. Sections of the text were translated into the African dialects of Swahili and Zulu to make the piece speak in a deliberately African way.

Atandwa Kani’s Ariel was a potent symbol of the African culture Prospero was making use of. Wearing nothing but a loincloth and liberally daubed with white paint he appeared as a Zulu warrior. Possessing a fine singing voice and powerful physicality, Atandwa led the actors in the many tribal songs and dances of the piece bringing a frenetic energy to the production.

Tinarie Van Wyk Loots brought an interesting spin to Miranda. This was a character that was a part of the island; who had become almost bestial. When she first entered the stage she hopped and crawled like a monkey, dressed in rags, it was only when she met Ferdinand that she started walk upright, to imitate him. In a particularly touching scene they clung together, cleaning each other like monkeys.

Charlie Keegan made for an interesting Ferdinand, though he may have been cast because of the size of his muscles.

Both Antonio and Sebastian were suitably evil. Upon discovering that Ferdinand was alive, Nicholas Pauling’s Sebastian delivered the line ‘A most high miracle’ incredibly sarcastically, drawing gales of laughter from the audience.

Trinculo and Stephano were energetic and funny. Honeyman transformed even the meanest song in the play into a full-blown musical number. Therefore Trinculo and Stephano’s mumbled drunken song became a full evocation of the problems of sobriety, complete with four part instrumental backing.

This was a lively, energetic and colourful production. One punctuated with music, colour and dance. This was a production that celebrated African culture; that discussed the tension between white and black society. Coupled with a series of masterful performances this was one of the most interesting and enjoyable evenings I have spent at the theatre.


February 02, 2009

Twelfth Night at The Wyndhams Theatre

It was clear that Michael Grandage needed a popular play in order to follow up the success of the Donmar’s production of Ivanov that played earlier in the season. He chose Twelfth Night and then decided to cast Derek Jacobi as Malvolio, one of the most memorable comic characters in any of the Shakespeare’s plays. This was surely a production that promised much.

The production opened well; a bright thunderclap splitting the stage, as Mark Bonmar’s Orsino threw himself from the wings, roaring the famous ‘If music be the food of love, play on!’ speech at the audience, battling to be heard over the storm. Christopher Oram’s set was beautiful. A mottled, earthy-coloured floor giving the impression of rural majesty was constructed out of roughly hewn boards, which protruded over the rim of the stage toward the audience. The stage was framed by rough, wooden-slatted flats, which let in slants of sun and moonlight, creating a warm homely Mediterranean aesthetic. This was an atmosphere of fruitfulness and gaiety, the perfect setting for a play where the characters do little more than play games and flirt with each other. The flats were pulled up to reveal a cold, wind-swept beach. Victoria Hamilton’s shipwrecked Viola entered looking like a drowned mermaid, green dress and red hair plastered to her skin. This space was incompletely delineated, the backdrop consisting of a thick bank of fog that made it feel transient and impermanent.

Oram crafted a simplistic set where scene changes are suggested by the meanest of props, a sofa for a sitting room, and a windbreak for a beach. Malvolio’s prison became a trap door, which the other characters were free to stomp (and in the case of Feste, cartwheel) over, literally symbolising how far he had fallen.

We next met the absurdly drunken Sir Toby Belch played by the excellent Ron Cook, who staggers onstage tuxedo askew, streamers decking his hair. Along with Guy Henry’s ridiculously tall Sir Andrew he created a brilliantly funny double act, where neither character seemed to be aware of the physical differences in stature between them.

Zubin Varla was mesmerising as Feste. Launching himself onto the stage decked in a cloak the same colours as the set; he seemed at once to be a part of the stage at the same time as seeming to occupy a space outside of it. This was a Mediterranean Feste, a creature of mirth and jollity, never without his guitar. His song about love ‘Tis not hereafter’ performed perched on a battered sofa, framed by the two dilapidated knights created a striking image of the impermanency of love. You got a real sense of the sadness these characters felt beneath their fooling, especially when Sir Andrew whispered mournfully ‘I was loved once too’. These were characters of great depth. Cook’s Sir Toby hinted at a darker viciousness with the glee he showed at the thought of hurting Malvolio. Only Maria the maid, played by Samantha Spiro could save him. Normally an overlooked character, Spiro brought a depth and warmth to the character I had not seen before.

Of course the big draw was Derek Jacobi’s Malvolio. He made a dramatic entrance as he strode onto the stage, immaculately dressed and stiff backed. Drawing out the sounds of his opening line into a self-righteous purr that showed he considered himself above many of the other characters on stage. The flawlessness of Jacobi’s attire was in stark contrast to Sir Toby’s unkempt appearance. The audience had no cause to worry as Jacobi was on excellent form.

This was a world of steamy passion, where love and sex is at the forefront of many of the characters minds. When a wet Sebastian skipped onto the stage to be towelled dry by his companion Antonio, their intimacy hinted at a relationship deeper than mere friendship. Indira Varma portrayed Olivia as a more sexually charged character than I had seen previously. Her excitement at the prospect of there possibly being two Sebastian’s drew gales of laughter from the audience.

This was a production that never lacked energy and kept the audience rapt for the entire three hours. Unfortunately the romantic scenes were not nearly as entertaining as the comic ones. It was a blessing that the pace was so swift and fluid as it meant that the audience were quickly distracted from the inadequacies of lover’s scenes by the hilarity of the comic ones. I would have liked to see the relationship between Orsino and Viola, and Viola and Olivia explored further. Strangely, Hamilton’s Viola seemed uncomfortable when dressed as Cesario, seeming to be too womanish to be able to actually disguise herself as a man.

All in all, an evening of fine entertainment, a play that delivered jokes at breakneck speed that left me with a smile that lasted the whole train journey back home.


January 21, 2009

Romeo and Juliet at The Courtyard Theatre

 Featuring a company of 23 actors and a seven-piece live band on stage, this new staging of Shakespeare’s fast-moving story of two teenagers torn apart by their families’ vendetta, reunites director Neil Bartlett and designer Kandis Cook, the creative team behind the 2007 sell-out Stratford-upon-Avon production of Twelfth Night.

The play opened well. Upon entering the auditorium the audience were confronted by a nineteen fifties Mafiosa aesthetic. A small band slowly entered the space, taking up their seats in front of a dominating back wall of black stone. They were dressed in black and white, hats pulled low over their eyes and their stillness filled the theatre with a sense of nervous expectation. After the whole troupe had assembled they leapt to their feet, launching into music as the cast entered the space. Bartlett dispensed with the traditional single person chorus at the start, instead choosing to have the whole company recite the famous prologue speech, which sums up the forthcoming action of the play; presenting the audience with the image of a community torn apart by death.

Bartlett wants to emphasise the brutality of the world Romeo and Juliet have grown up in. Costume-wise, he succeeded. The characters were dressed in the style of 1950’s Italy; sharp, dark suits and white shirts for the men, satin slips and pulled-in waists for the women. At the start, when the rival houses meet face to face, his choices seemed convincing. The characters of Capulet and Montague take to the stage, performing a highly stylised fight scene. Bartlett dispensed with swords, choosing to use flick knives instead. Whilst this is not particularly original it fitted nicely with the Mafia aesthetic. In the opening scene Bartlett created a mood of civilised menace on stage. Sadly what seemed to be a radical new imagining, soon settled into a succession of scenes drained of the passion and variety the opening scene promised.

At the start of the production the pace was speedy, with very few props and minimal scene changes to disrupt the action. The economy of the set was ably supported by Bruno Poet, whose lighting design changed the mood and setting on the stage smoothly. Neil Bartlett used some self-consciously dramatic techniques in order to spice up the production. Characters stepped out of the physical action to deliver dialogue to the audience whilst the rest of the cast froze behind them. This was obviously intended to create a sense of isolation on stage. Bartlett also had his actors being able to control scene changes with a mere click of their fingers. This may have been intended to demonstrate the power that certain characters wield, however when you have every character on stage doing this, the device loses its potency. These devices were obviously meant to entertain the audience and increase the pace of the production; unfortunately they did the exact opposite, slowing the pace of the play, which could not maintain enough excitement throughout to justify its three-and-a-quarter hour running time.

The acting did little to relieve the boredom. Owain Arthur’s Peter was incredibly misjudged; his reaction to Juliet’s faked death bordered on pantomime. David Dawson as Romeo was better, but he had none of the youthful passion the character requires; he was too withdrawn and not nearly charismatic enough to convince as the daring love-struck hero. He was more convincing however, than Anneika Rose as Juliet. Whilst she was a last minute replacement for Laura Rees, her acting range never strayed from plaintive and girlish flirtation into any deeper emotion. The two leads never seemed to embody the passion the parts require. The removal of the famous balcony scene had them on stage together, whilst she hugged a pillow and he looked into the middle-distance. This served to unite them physically but distance them emotionally, the exact opposite of how the balcony scene normally works. This confusing image highlights the fact that this is a play trying to be creative at the expense of entertainment and the text.

I have an issue with the RSC’s ‘colour-blind’ approach to casting. I have no problem with a black Juliet, but when it is a black Juliet with two white parents the family relationship seems ridiculous. This is a play driven by the themes of ‘family’ and ‘unity’. But these were completely undermined by the choice of casting. By casting actors regardless of their skin colour it actually draws more attention to their race.

This was in my opinion a lazy production. It is the kind of educative theatre that puts young people off Shakespeare rather than turning them onto it. An incomplete aesthetic and some pointless theatrical devices did nothing to liven it. Poor acting and editing meant this was production that dragged on, and I felt a sense of relief during the death scene rather than sympathy, as it indicated the play was almost over. 


January 11, 2009

Elephant's Graveyard at Warwick Arts centre

WUDS latest production of Elephant’s Graveyard marks the UK premier of this new play. The play tells the story of a circus elephant, sentenced to death by narrow-minded town’s people after killing his rider. The circus owner has no choice but to accept their demands and the elephant is brutally hung in front of the entire town. Bleak, you might think, and yes there were moments of great sadness in the play. Yet this was a play that was so beautifully handled by the actors that it became genuinely affecting.

The stage space was simple; it was split into two sectors, on for the circus folk and the other for the town’s people. A physical representation of the railway (the setting for the elephant’s hanging) separated the two spaces and yet brought the two together. This was a space of unity and disunity; the meeting of two worlds. Thick dust covered the entire stage, dirtying the clothes of performers and townsfolk alike, which seemed to say that they were all the same underneath.

The play made use of simple wooded boxes to delineate space. These boxes became a stage, then a train or a court. It allowed the circus performers to physically build the circus tent. A simple patch of purple cloth delineated the circus performers, whilst the town’s people were dressed in simple browns and greys. The unfortunate ‘red-headed’ victim of the elephant was simple portrayed by other actors holding a scrap of red cloth. This made the character seem like a device; a catalyst for the tragedy of the play.

There were some exceptional performance in the play; too many to mention properly. Sam Maynard gave a beautifully measured performance as the owner of the circus; a man who understands an elephant to be nothing more than an investment. He had to make the uncomfortable decision to let the town’s people kill the elephant for the sake of the business his father started. His anger at being torn between doing the right thing and holding his circus together finally spilled out in the closing moments of the play. Jay Saighal as the original elephant trainer also gave an excellent performance. This was a character with the opposite attitude to the circus owners. He alone understood the elephant; and he was therefore the only one capable of placing the noose around her neck. Saighal gave an excellent performance in a difficult role. The southern American drawl is a difficult one to do and to their credit the cast coped with it well.

Caitlin McLeod and her team have created an interesting and affecting piece of theatre. The decision to have the actors narrate the story primarily through monologues forged an intimate relationship between actor and performer. By fragmenting the story it allows the play to build over the hour and fifteen minutes into a climax of realization. All in all this was an extremely enjoyable evening of theatre.


January 03, 2009

100 at Queens University, Belfast.

The idea of taking a show on tour to Ireland is a new one for WUDS, which is strange as it seems like an obviously good idea; it gives opportunities for students, strengthens relationships with other theatre departments and crucially raises the reputation of WUDS. The prospect excited me enough to persuade me to make the effort to travel to Belfast to see the show. The show chosen to represent WUDS in Ireland is an interesting one; 100, was originally a piece of devised theatre taken to the Edinburgh Fringe where it won a Fringe First award. It asks the question ‘If you had one hour to choose one memory from your life to take you into eternity, which would you choose?’ It’s an interesting and difficult idea, one I looked forward to seeing being put on stage. Then I heard it was a piece of physical theatre! If I’m honest I don’t really like physical theatre, having had some terrible experiences with it in the past (being made to sit through four hours of Merce Cunnigham’s take on the Seagull being one of the worst). Yet, I decided to give the piece the benefit of the doubt and see what the actors had come up with.

The play opened well; a bare, dimly lit stage, three actors lying in the space breathing deeply, fenced in by four white canes. After a few minutes of this the actors awoke and it became clear they had no idea where they were. It was up to Callum Murphy-Barton’s eerie guide to explain their fate. The characters re-enact their memories with the use of four white canes which for me were the best things about the piece. It was incredible how versatile these canes could be; at one point they formed a swing and roundabout, at another a photocopier, or a window. This was testament to the skill of the actors.

It was a great piece of theatre with a few flaws. Chief amongst these was the script which can’t have made the actors’ jobs easy; how on earth do you play the line ‘Welcome to death!’ Yet considering the limitations of the text the actors coped brilliantly delivering some interesting and nuanced performances. There were some genuinely touching moments as well; my particular favorite being when Saskia Roddick’s character realized her dedication to her job had deprived her of human contact.

I felt there were some issues with the space though. The purgatory the actors were trapped in seemed fixed and they spent much of their time on stage pacing up and down trying to break out of it. Yet during the memory scenes they moved out around the stage and had to hurry back into the space afterwards. This piece of theatre relies on the idea that these people are trapped but when it is obvious to the audience that they aren’t trapped it lets the piece down. But I guess I’m just being picky.

This was an excellent piece of theatre and it did WUDS proud and I hope this becomes a Warwick tradition.


December 14, 2008

The Brothers Size at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

On Wednesday night I was lucky enough to witness a production of Tarrell McCraney’s latest play The Brothers Size at The Birmingham Rep. I knew little of McCraney’s work prior to this performance , excepting that he had recently won the Evening Standard’s Most Promising Playwright award for two of his plays. I didn’t know what to expect.

The play centres on the two titular brothers: Ogun Size, a hardworking mechanic and Ohoosi Size, his younger brother recently released from prison. The only other character in the play is Elegba, Ohoosi’s friend from prison. The play is primarily concerned with freedom and imprisonment. Ohoosi is trapped literally by his probation and metaphorically by his bond with his brother. Elegba, the character of temptation finds his fate trapped by his attraction to Ohoosi and Ogun is trapped into keeping his errant younger brother in line. Ohoosi’s main motivation is for a car which will grant him his freedom, and it is Elegba who provides him with this. Yet this is a destructive attachment; Elegba it seems longs for the closeness he and Ohoosi shared in prison and the car is part of a plot to make Ohoosi break his probation. When Ohoosi is arrested for possession of cocaine it is Ogun who makes the painful decision to let his brother go in order to preserve his freedom.

The play opened well. The three actors took to the stage and began a rhythmic chant. One drew a large chalk circle on the stage which formed the performance space. Red chalk was thrown into this space symbolising the red Louisiana earth. As the actors performed often physically pushing and pulling each other around the space, this chalk coloured them, inextricably linking them to their heritage; something else they couldn’t escape.

McCraney has created a rich, rhythmic Louisianan dialogue which though initially difficult to understand soon became pleasing to the ear. This was a dialogue that perfectly fitted with the rhythmic beat of the actor’s steps around the space. Here the actor's abilities came into their own. Their accents were flawless, their performances beautifully measured. When at the emotional climax of the play Ohoosi realizes he has to leave his brother his performance drew sobs from the rapt audience. Particularly good was Anthony Welsh as Elegba; a threat to the stability of the Size household. His performance was particularly impressive if you consider that this was his first role since leaving drama school.

Though my poor description of the play may make it sound relentlessly bleak is was punctuated with moments of hilarity. The bickering between the two brothers was painfully well realised and drew gales of laughter from the crowd. Yet, for me the highlight of the play was the brother’s rendition of Try A Little Tenderness by Otis Reading. This was a set piece that perfectly captured the strong bond they shared.

This is a play that celebrates brotherhood. It was a pleasure to watch and McCraney’s awards and subsequent acclaim are well deserved. I look forward with anticipation to his future work.


December 08, 2008

Love's Labour's Lost at the Courtyard Theatre

I was initially unsure of this production. I was not a massive fan of the play when I read it, feeling alienated by the overly poetic language. But having been impressed by the same company when I saw them perform Hamlet, I was content to relax and see what they could do with the text. This comedy is of course as far from Hamlet as it is possible to get; it’s full of filthy puns, overly complicated language and some very bad jokes, so I was interested to see how the company, in particular Tennant would cope with the change in style. I had no need to worry. Tennant did a fantastic job in quite an unforgiving role. He continually jested with the audience, patrolling up and down the stage dishing out the lines at a tremendous pace. At one point he tried to throw his hat onto to a branch, but missed it and shrugged apologetically to the crowd drawing gales of laughter from the appreciative crowd. Tennant worked the audience like a comedian revelling in the attention he received, and his informality made the audience deeply sympathetic to his plight. During his soliloquy upon the nature of love every word could be heard.

Tennant was ably supported by a talented and versatile cast, all of whom did full justice to the text. Notable performances include Oliver Ford Davies as the lecherous Holofernes (though I did feel that he at times he replayed the role of Polonius he created for Hamlet) and Joe Dixon as the charismatic Duke de Armando.

Upon entering the auditorium the audience are confronted by a scene of leisurely idleness. Berowne, Loungeville, and Dumaine loll about on a stage transformed into a forest. A large tree dominates the stage, effectively splitting it in two halves, whilst coloured plastic leaves hung suspended from the ceiling. All these combine to create an image both natural and idyllic but also somehow artificial, that perfectly captures the feel of the play. This relaxed state is then suddenly interrupted by the arrival of the king of Navarre proclaiming a new moral order; the men are to devote the next three years to study forgoing all female contact and so the play begins.

The characters were dressed in Elizabethan costume yet talked the text in a very modern style which further highlighted the heightened conflict of naturalism and artificiality. As there were no scene changes and all the scenes took place in the same mystical forest glade the audience were unsure which period these characters lived which served to mark out the space as more of an unreal environment, separate from the modern world where lovers can flirt and court rather than a place where they have to actually face up to the realities of life. Sadly this idyllic environment was not unassailable and as a messenger entered bringing the news that the King of France is dead the space became claustrophobic and the characters were forced into real world.

I did have some major problems with the production. I’m very open to musical interpretation in Shakespeare; I enjoyed for example Dumaine’s love song which took place during one of the most touching scenes in the play where the lords spy on each other, each revealing his love for one of the princesses. Yet, I think Doran took it to far with Costard’s rap! This speech normally presented as a monologue on the nature of love became a rap accompanied by the various chirps and whistles of the forest creatures forming an impromptu chorus. It was to be fair, quite funny and well performed but I felt that it was far too contrived.

I also felt the costumes worn by the actors putting on the production of the Nine Worthies to be too garish. The second half of the play is a much more sombre affair, and I felt the approach to the Nine Worthies was misjudged. I was also genuinely annoyed by the way Tennant played up to the chorus of fourteen year old girls who giggled at his every word but perhaps I’m just being jealous!

All in all an enjoyable and entertaining piece of theatre. Doran had an interesting vision and he executed it adeptly with a talented and for the most part unknown cast. It’s a pity this play is performed so little as it clearly has great potential to be a crowd pleaser. Doran has obviously tried to wring every last pounce of humour out of the play which meant it was enjoyable to watch but it did leave you with the impression that this was at the sacrifice of some of the more serious scenes.

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  • I'm glad you mentioned the Try A Little Tenderness moment, James – it was my favourite part of the p… by on this entry

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