All entries for Saturday 05 May 2007

May 05, 2007

Three Sisters @ Warwick Arts Centre

It’s been a highly international week- in eight days, three full scale productions- one in Japanese, one in six Indian languages and one in Russian. This is also part of the new road this blog is taking: a review of a non-Shakespearean play by a non-RSC company! How exciting.

The Shakespeare connection is never far away, of course. This is Cheek By Jowl, one of the great theatre companies of our time, with an ensemble made up of several of the cast of their fantastic ‘Twelfth Night’ that’s been in England over the last year. This is the first time, however, that I’ve seen their Russian ensemble perform a play in their native tongue, and what better way to start than with my favourite Chekov play?!

Straight from the start, this was clearly a Cheek By Jowl production. A large stage space, with simple flat scenery and lots of plain chairs and tables ready to be moved about. The whole company, as usual, entered for the start of the play, and as the first scene began those not involved started to slowly move into position. It’s an effective ploy that they used in ‘The Changeling’ and ‘Twelfth Night’ last year, showing the artifice of the play environment from the start and also providing a point of visual reference for the rest of the production.

This was an ensemble piece throughout, with the smaller parts still impacting. The play belonged to the titular sisters though, with Nelly Uvarova giving a poignant performance as Irina, declining throughout from bright-eyed and energetic young girl to weary adult, her life being sapped by the growing pressures on her as she gradually became more like Evgenia Dmitriea’s Olga, who gave a no-nonsense take on the character, trying to hold the household together. Between the two came Irina Grineva’s Masha, who gave possibly the best performance of the three, with Masha swinging between sensible and childish, gracious and sulky, mischievous and angry. The three worked well together, with one of the most effective scenes coming as they sat on the floor together in their bedroom, hiding from Natalia and then mimicking her, rolling around on the floor laughing and hugging as, for one brief and beautiful moment, they rediscovered the bond that connected them, far stronger than anything else.

They were offset by Ekaterina Sibiryakova’s balanced performance as Natalia. Deeply manipulative, she used an unpleasant aping of sisterly behaviour to get what she wanted from the others, putting her head in their laps and making childlike noises. This was nicely contradicted by her emotional outbursts, particularly her irrational screaming about the ‘witch’ Anfisa whom she wanted sacked. Her bad treatment of Andrey was not nearly as shocking, however, as her casual treatment of Irina. Solenyi, in this production, attempted to force himself upon Irina towards the end of Act 2, after declaring his love for her. He was only prevented from raping her by Natalia, who interrupted and then helped Irina up. As she straightened Irina out and motherly tended to her, she used the opportunity to ask Irina to move out of her room and into Olga’s, before whisking out and then reappearing, dressed in finery, for her “drive” with Protopopov. The attempted rape, meanwhile, was clearly not such in Solenyi’s mind, and later Irina’s refusal to let him in was clearly motivated by their earlier encounted, while Solenyi was genuinely confused about what was wrong. In this light, the unpleasantness of Solenyi was made all the more apparent, as a man unaware of what is socially acceptable and the effect of his actions.

This production also played with ideas of performance to good effect- the philosophising of the Baron and Vershinin was converted to a mock revue, in which they leaped up onto a stage, delivered their thoughts to a seated audience and then descended. It added pace and dramatic excitement to a very wordy scene, and was nicely echoed at the end when Olga invited Vershinin to philosophise one last time. She brought him to the front of the stage and gestured to the audience, where he, slightly embarrassed, addressed us directly with his, “Life is hard” speech.

The impact of the play was primarily philosophical, drawing out the themes in the text of the transitory nature of life, the legacies we leave and the potential we fulfil or don’t. Particularly moving was the final scene, as the sisters gathered at the front of the stage to wave off the army, and gradually left Irina alone as the news filtered through of the Baron’s death. The three reunited at the front for Olga’s final speech, given in an inspirational vein while Irina smiled through her tears and Masha defiantly faced the future. I only wish I could understand Russian, for the beauty of what she was saying was entirely clear, and I don’t feel the translation gave enough weight to what was obviously a deeply touching moment.

This was an understated production that showcased what Cheek By Jowl produce best- top quality, actor-based productions. To watch this ensemble work is as if to watch a top acting masterclass, with the design only helping draw attention to the art of the actor. I do believe that Chekov works best performed in his native language, as well, with the music of the words coming across, emphasised by the extraordinary physical fluidity of the performers.

A final moment of praise must go to Igor Yasulovich’s Chebutykin- elderly and relatively static, he still managed an impressive double-footed leap up onto a chair and was affecting throughout, smiling benignly over the others and darting in and out of the action. Coupled with Jonathan Hyde’s Dr. Dorn in the RSC’s ‘The Seagull’, I have to say I’m particularly taken with Chekov’s doctors at the moment!


A Midsummer Night's Dream @ The Swan Theatre

I’ve raved about this production before, the greatest, or 2nd greatest (depending on my mood) production of the Complete Works Festival. It’s back for three sold-out weeks in Stratford-upon-Avon, and the production has gone from strength to strength since it was last here, playing to packed audience around the globe.

This is, of course, Tim Supple’s Dash Arts, with their multi-lingual Indian cast performing ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. It’s a sublime piece of theatre, combining jaw-dropping visual spectacle, fascinating textual interpretation, deeply affecting music and brilliant performances. It’s garnered five star reviews wherever it goes, standing ovations and a genuine sense of crossover- this is a production which all audiences can enjoy. It doesn’t offend those who dislike Shakespeare being translated, it doesn’t pander to any sense of tradition, it doesn’t mess with the text or allow itself to become tied up by it. It does its own thing, creating something completely new in the spirit of Shakespeare, and impeccably balances between opposing viewpoints. It is, in point of fact, the production which sits at the exact point where all the conflicting arguments I talked about in my previous post meet. I’ve yet to meet anyone who dislikes it, and I would really like to sit down and talk to anyone who did.

I digress, however. The great thing about seeing a production multiple times is the opportunity to look more closely at some of the subtleties- or, in this case, the not-so-subtleties. The aggressive sexuality of this production was quite shocking, with Demetrius almost raping Hermia and Helena actually succumbing to Lysander’s affections, the two of them quite clearly about to have sex before Demetrius interrupted them. What came across were the fleeting affections of these youths, all highly sexually charged and led purely by their libidos. In the incredible scene where Puck filled the stage with tape, impeding the lovers’ progress, their many frustrations and confusions became physically realities as they stumbled over each other, prevented by Puck’s restrictions from being able to reach each other or make any meaningful contact. This all added to the sense of restoration as the couples were arranged in pairs, hanging in the framework of the stage to be discovered by Theseus and Hippolyta.

The final song didn’t quite draw tears from me this time, but it remained a very emotional scene, as the dancers brought candles in and blessed the house in beautiful harmony. The dance contrasted effectively with the more animalistic dance of the reunited Oberon and Titania, pawing the ground around each other and rolling in the dust while the fairies whooped and clapped.

I think I’ve said enough. This production, to me, is what theatre is all about, and I urge people to track it down. Excitingly, the director is coming to the CAPITAL Carnival on May 13th, and even though I’ve heard him speak a couple of times I’m really looking forward to hearing him talk again about his methods.


The RSC Open Day

It’s been almost a week since the RSC Open Day 2007, which among other things heralded the official close of the Complete Works Festival. I’ve had a hectic week at work and haven’t had a chance to even think about posting blogs for a while, but the one advantage of having the extra time is that I’ve been able to think a bit about the talks I went to, and try and work on what was REALLY going on at the Open Day.

The Open Day itself was good fun- aside from the horrendous queuing for events, there was a lot of entertaining stuff going on, in particular the hysterical football match between the houses of Lancaster and York, which gave the histories company a good excuse to roll about on the floor, kick balls into the lake and generally let their hair down. I caught a small amount of the kids events happening as well, which they seemed to be enjoying!

In general, though, I found the event a bit uninspiring. Possibly I’d put a bit too much hope into this ‘official close of the CWF’ title, because in fact the day wasn’t about that at all. There were two things on everyone’s mind- the return of Tim Supple’s ‘Dream’, which everyone was raving about, and the transformation of the theatres, which was causing a lot of quite violent debate during the day.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Swan Theatre

One man in particular will always remain in my mind, who launched a huge tirade at Chip, the incredibly hard-working events chap, about the Courtyard Theatre, citing its “Scrapyard Chic” and complaining that Shakespeare “wasn’t written for these stupid spaces….. it’s like a circus….. you can even see the scenery being changed”. Resisting the urge to take the chap through some of the basics of Elizabethan theatre practices, I was nonetheless pleased to see some of the other audience speaking against this ignoramus and defending the Courtyard.

The polarisation of the debate has left me feeling pretty cold about the whole transformation project. I know where I stand- I love the Courtyard, I love thrust theatre and I think it’s a fantastic thing. Yes, I AM going to miss the opportunity to see proscenium arch theatre, but I personally don’t like the atmosphere of the RST as it stands. I find it old-fashioned, highly conservative and weighed down under its own illustrious tradition, the perfect theatre for the Stratford set who sit guffawing loudly at the obscure jokes in order that everyone can hear how well-educated they are, and rabbit on about “When I saw Olivier here…” etc etc. I know by saying all of this that I’m talking in terms of stereotypes, but more and more I get disillusioned about the possibility for change. Tradition is a fine thing, but I feel the RSC is held back by historical baggage.

If we could just have a proscenium arch theatre, a thrust stage and a studio space in Stratford, all vibrant, new spaces thriving in the 21st century I’d probably be a lot more sympathetic to those audiences against the change, but to me the arguments against the transformation are more against modern ways of performing. Those saying they want the RST to remain as it is are, consciously or subconsciously, saying that they want the RSC to continue performing as it did in the 60s- these are the people who feel that ‘proper’ Shakespeare is reserved for the likes of Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud.

To tone down the rant- I feel that the transformation of the RST will allow the RSC to develop far more freely as an artistic company without worrying about pandering to outdated models of performance. The past needs to be acknowledged, but it also needs to be escaped from.

The reason I said I feel more coldly about the whole debate, despite my own strong views, are that the polarisation of the arguments have caused the pro-transformation lobby to lose much credibility as well, which brings me back to the Open Day. All day, Michael Boyd looked harrassed. He seemed to be feeling under attack about the changes in the company, and by the time we got to the RST for the hour-long discussion about the theatre, he seemed very tired. He then sat through the four earlier artistic directors reminiscing about their time at the RSC and their love for the theatre as was. Eventually, the talk came round to Michael, and he seemed to snap. Acknowledging that, “even though it’s the responsibility of the current artistic director to listen and learn from his predecessors…”, he gave a short and very sharp outline of what was happening. “We have not compromised. We have gone for a thrust stage, where the audience are aware of the rest of the audience. I’m sorry for those of you who like sitting in the dark- I recommend the cinema”. He received a round of applause from about half of the audience for this, while the rest sat in silence.

Michael Boyd

I didn’t want the RSC Open Day to be like this. The previous day had seen a members’ discussion at the Courtyard on the transformation project, and that (to me) seemed to be the place for these discussions. The RSC was finishing one of the most successful years in its history, a year which has seen some phenomenal theatre, a fantastic sense of diversity and multiculturalism, and a real sense of moving on, and yet it culminated in this day of mixed views, high tempers and bickering. Granted, some of the nostalgia was lovely, in particular a very funny discussion between some of the RSC’s most respected acting alumni talking about their experiences. I suppose I just felt that, after taking great leaps forward this year, it suddenly felt like everyone had been brought up short.

There were other fab events though. Paul Allen, CAPITAL’s Fellow of Creativity, led a fascinating panel discussion on the Festival, which highlighted some of the diverse views of those who had attended productions (Gavin Friday- generally not loved; Cymbeline- mixed views; Othello- surprisingly liked in retrospect). Sir Christopher Bland, another of the three that I’m aware of who saw everything, revealed that he’d raised thousands of pounds for charity by doing it sponsored, so all credit to him (though it must be a bit easier to do when you’re the chairman of the RSC and have your tickets booked for you….. not that I’m bitter…..). Michael Wood led a fascinating talk on international interpretations of Shakespeare, in which actor John Kani shone with wonderful anecdotes, and there was also a very interesting talk at the start of the day as the Swan tech crew set up for the ‘Dream’.

If the RSC is going to get the best effect out of its open days, I think it needs to find a better way of siphoning off the serious debates. What should have been a celebratory day was marred by the arguments, and I think the achievements of the year were overshadowed by the uncertain future. I hope now that the RST is closed and the new programme is fully underway, though, that the RSC can get on with its most important responsibility- being an artistically vibrant theatre company.


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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