All entries for Thursday 10 February 2011

February 10, 2011

Richard III (Propeller) @ The Belgrade, Coventry

In stark contrast to last night's interval concert, audience serenades and jovial banter, Propeller last night erected a stony wall between the audience and the stage. As Richard Clothier's Richard delivered his "Was ever woman in this humour wooed?" speech, he limped about the stage and then paused. A woman in the front row was using her phone. He waited, then politely said "When you're ready", occasioning a mumbled apology from the woman, before resuming his speech. While sympathising with Clothier's annoyance (one wishes, in retrospect, that he'd unleashed the terrifying masked attendants who prowled among the audience at the start of the second half!), the effect of this moment was to snap the audience out of the production. Where the company's Errors was characterised by its easygoing ensemble nature and the fluidity of its performativity (one always saw the actors, not the characters), Richard III was an entirely different beast, a more traditional production that maintained a stylistic unity and a fourth wall throughout.

This was, of course, entirely appropriate to a play which deals with far more sombre subject matter than Propeller's previous few productions. A direct sequel to the company's Rose Rage, Edward Hall and designer Michael Pavelka adopted the trappings of an abattoir as a thematic set - transparent plastic curtains, blunt tools, stained chopping blocks and a silent chorus wearing face masks made up of bandages. Screens were pushed around the stage, allowing characters to appear and disappear fluidly, and an England flag was run up a post; this abattoir was England, a place in which people were coolly butchered and strung up. Violence was senseless, bloody and industrialised, condemned characters becoming meat. In a bid for humour - although not actually hugely funny - the violence became increasingly gory: Clarence was killed by a Murderer drilling into his head; Catesby took a chainsaw to Hastings behind a plastic curtain, ending the first half with the splatter of blood on the wall; and Buckingham had his entrails drawn out with a huge rusty hook. Drawing on traditions of grand guignol and black comic horror, the gore sometimes felt unnecessary but acted as a necessary contrast to the sanitised scheming of the prime movers and shakers.

This was seen in the foregrounding of Catesby (David Newman) and Ratcliffe (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) as civil servants. Catesby, with slicked-back hair and a permanent sneer, was the consummate amoral servant, taking pleasure in his casual slighting of his peers. As Hastings defied Richard, Catesby smiled unpleasantly before leaving the stage to make his report. After Hastings was left alone, Catesby himself put on gloves and revved up a chainsaw, pushing Hastings behind the curtain. Ratcliffe was perhaps even more terrifying. Suited and tailed, he spent most of the production watching his pocket-watch, which ticked loudly over the sound system, creating an urgent and pressing underscore. Where Catesby took pleasure in his involvement, Ratcliffe was utterly indifferent to his actions. An administrator responsible for making sure everything happened to time, he was frequently found in the abattoir surrounded by the chorus, holding up his watch until the ticking stopped, at which point he nodded for the killings to commence. When it came to Richard's final death, Ratcliffe and his watch were still there. While this was Richard's story, then, an underlying current made it clear that it was administrators, not monarchs, who perpetuated the systems.

The role of Catesby and Ratcliffe was pointed up even further in the case of Tyrrell (Wayne Cater). With a plastic face mask, braces and a selection of torture instruments, Tyrrell formed an imposing and entirely silent presence. As Richard quizzed him, Catesby and Ratcliffe stood either side of Richard and spoke on his behalf. Their mediation between decision-maker and blunt instrument reinforced the impression that they were guiding the action to its inexorable, time-dependent conclusion, diminishing Richard's own agency. Richard's own attempts to take control over his own destiny were manifested in his own murders - he entered following Clarence's death to dispatch both of the Murderers; he suffocated and then snapped Anne's neck in the middle of the court, clutching her to his chest as if in an embrace; and he stabbed Tyrrell in the back. While using this to maintain a state of fear and isolation, it increasingly troubled him. As Tyrrell died, the Chorus sang a children's song which slowed down to silence as he fell. Suddenly, as if a record starting up again, their voices sprang back into life, and Tyrrell leapt to his feet and strode off the stage, to Richard's horror. He was already beginning to see his ghosts.

Clothier's Richard was a charismatic figure. While the cast were mostly dressed in late Victorian/Edwardian formal and butchering dress, Richard stood a head taller than most, exaggerated by his bleached blond hair, and wore a black outfit with cloak that had a metallic sheen to it. With only one hand, and a leg in metal brace, he was clearly debilitated but still stronger than those around him (his own murders were often conducted with his remaining hand around the victim's throat). His clipped accent and perfect articulation were convincing, both for his onstage gulls and the theatre audience who wished to believe in a Richard who could command such respect. Entirely insincere, he won people over with showmanship, whether whipping flowers out of his sleeve for Anne or waiting patiently on bended knee before Elizabeth as she agreed to give him her daughter.

The women, played entirely straight, were one of the production's strongest aspects. Despite heavy cutting (Clarence's children, Dorset, the scene of the women trying to get into the tower), Margaret was retained in the sober, bitter person of Tony Bell, and Anne and Elizabeth were given plenty of time to make an impact as the production's emotional core. Jon Trenchard's Anne was dwarved by Richard, a particularly brutal factor in the suffocating death scene, which Richard preceded by explaining directly to Anne that he needed to marry Elizabeth's daughter. Trenchard's delicate voice and quavering demeanour rendered Richard's forthright actions in the wooing scene particualrly despicable/compelling. The moment in which Anne slowly, tentatively offered her hand for his ring was perverted after her murder - two flunkies attempted to pull the body away, but Richard grabbed her hand and attempted to pull the ring off. Failing, he turned and bit the whole finger off, spitting it out casually as he reclaimed the ring for his new wife.

The treatment of the dead was a recurring point of comedy. Bodies were dumped into bags, which were then tossed over shoulders, thrown to the side or beaten mercilessly. The entrace for Richard's coronation was particularly impressive: to an electic guitar riff, the Chorus sang a Latin chant, and Richard and Anne entered along a carpet of bodybags (Richard confidently, Anne struggling to stay upright). The disrespectful and casual treatment of bodies was, of course, a comment on the value placed on life, but also on the memories of the dead: Richard's need to forget his victims was brought to the fore, and undone in the face of Tyrrell's ghost. This motif was central to the Bosworth Field night scene. Richard and Robert Hands's Richmond were placed back to back on a gurney, and a series of upright, struggling bodybags was revealed behind them. Unzipping themselves, the ghosts emerged in turn to walk around the gurney, wishing Richard to sweet dreams and awaking the amazed Richmond. I particularly disliked the decision to overlap the speeches so that the enemies were addressed simultaneously, as it meant we missed much of the poetry and symmetry of the scene, but the visual image was extremely effective.

Music was central to the overall effect of the production, unifying the comic/grotesque and the more solemn elements. The company sang a series of Latin chants and devotional hymns, mostly acapella, and in juxtaposition with the casual violence the appeal to the divine was peculiarly compelling, even desperate, as if the anonymous characters were searching for meaning in their actions. It also served to satirise the use of religion to justify actions, most powerfully as Richard performed his praying and flagellation for the benefit of the mob. Two variations in the music had varying success: the high-pitched children's nursery rhyme that accompanied the princes - two expressive puppets manipulated by the company - sounded a note of pathos and innocence that served these scenes well. The diminutive size of the puppets made their presence in the adult scenes (particularly that before the tower) extremely vulnerable, with Richard towering above them; and the later appearance of their heads in a glass jar was horrific. The other musical interlude was the "Scrivener's Rap", a Billy Bragg-esque call to arms by Tony Bell in a Cockney accent, that attempted to establish a note of civic discord but was jarringly out of place.

The other performances were strong, establishing key presences within a linear succession of deaths. John Dougall as Clarence gave another strong vocal performance, articulating his dream in hugely evocative terms. The character was seen being blinded early on after his arrest, and Dougall found a wonderful dignity in the character, standing in night-shirt in his prison cell and looking into an unseen distance as he addressed the murderers. Robert Hands began as a debauched Edward IV, stagging about the stage topless and drunk before hugging his brothers for a group photograph, but descended into sickly spluttering as he lay on a surgical chair that doubled as a throne. Thomas Padden's Hastings and Chris Myles's Buckingham, meanwhile, began in the Catesby and Ratcliffe supportive roles, but made the fatal error of developing independent personalities which immediately incurred Richard's wrath. Within a system dependent on complicit, passive administration, there was no room for demands of loyalty or reward.

While this was one of the less successful of the Propeller productions I've been fortunate enough to see, the very fact that it became a collaborative production without a single dominating figure was impressive enough. The progression towards the climax of Richard's tragedy was actually quite dull, with too much lost in the rush (the prioritisation of Stanley's subplot towards the end, for example, made very little impression). The end was fitting, however. Richard entered on the same surgical chair on which Edward had died, sputtering blood and fatally wounded, as he cried for a horse. Richmond entered and shot him. Turning to the audience, Richmond kneeled and raised his arms to heaven - one hand clutching a crucifix, the other a pistol, while the crown rested on his head. As he delivered his speech of piety, on "That would with treason wound this land's fair peace", Richard began laughing, a hacking, cruel cackle. Richmond stood up and shot him again in the head and returned to the audience. The undercutting of Richmond's own holy image by the laughing Richard reminded us, once more, that this was an ongoing story of big ambitions and performed sentiments; but behind the saintly facade, the dirty machinery of slaughter still stood.

The Comedy of Errors (Propeller) @ The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

A roar of dissent rose in the foyer of the Belgrade Theatre during the interval of last night's Comedy of Errors, as the tannoy politely requested that audience members resume their seats for the second half. The roar came, however, not from reluctant audiences, but from the theatre company themselves. The men of Propeller had followed the audience out into the foyer and begun an impromptu charity concert with Mexican/Latin-inflected versions of Material Girl, Billie Jean and other '80's standards. With the audience singing and clapping along, the company were reluctant to end the party, and Chris Myles cried "They can't start while we're out here!" The second half eventually started some fifteen minutes late.

Much has been written on the idea of ensemble in contemporary Shakespearean theatre, but few companies embody the spirit of ensemble theatre-making to the extent that Propeller does. As the wonderful interval concert proved, this was a group of individuals who the audience wanted to spend time with, and whose shared creativity and enthusiasm informed every aspect of their performed presence - many faces were familiar from the last few years of the company's history. Writing and performing the music as a company, setting up each other's jokes and set-pieces and displaying a physical comfort and familiarity with each other's bodies that allowed for precise, hysterical comedy, Comedy allowed the true strengths of ensemble to be fully-realised.

Despite the pre-show melee of actors strolling through the audience in sombreros and football shirts (creating an extremely loose eighties central American setting), Edward Hall's production began bravely with a sober, visually-sparse introductory scene. Richard Clothier's Duke, wearing a red sequinned suit and carrying a pistol as the local private authority (with the police in his pay), escorted John Dougall's chained and bedraggled Aegeon onto the darkened stage. Dougall delivered his account of his past sorrows with no visual aids, articulating his woes clearly with simple vocal expression, captivating both his onstage and offstage audiences. The only exception was the appearance of the Antipholi and Dromios at an above window, waving as their names were mentioned. The decision to restrain the company's naturally visual and physical storytelling made a clear statement - that despite the ensuing chaos, this was a production rooted firmly in text and clarity.

While the two hours of performance gradually descended into an increasingly chaotic melange of images, noises and words, this was no chaotic farce. The multiple sensory inputs were drawn directly from text with the purpose of clarifying the wit of the text; but then these devices developed their own meta-language and became a source of humour in their own right. Thus, when the subplot of the chain was first introduced, a member of the onstage band (formed from whichever actors were not directly involved in the scene) tapped a xylophone. This gave an audible anchor to the convoluted discussions of the chain's circulation that clarified sense. As the mentions of the chain repeated exponentially in frequency, however, the repeated sounding of the xylophone took on its own comedic associations, a frenetic pointer to a comic verbal motif. Eventually, the ringing became so much a part of the text that Antipholus of Ephesus (Sam Swainsbury), in his final chaotic attempts to explain the day's events to the Duke, screamed "DING!" every time he said "chain". The extra-textual pointer became its own textual joke. Similarly, a duck call accompanied the loping steps of Dominic Tighe's Italian officer, speeding up or slowing down according to the pace of Tighe's stride. Rather than throw in cheap laughs, the company built up an intermediate level of performative language, doubling the effect of the text.

As such, the work that the actors did was, from the start, self-consciously theatrical. Characters did not relate to one another as "real" characters, but instead performed their speeches as set-pieces which were interwoven into the performative text rather than the plot, focussing on plateau rather than locus (to use Robert Weimann's terms). This was entirely appropriate to a play in which so much of the dialogue consists of attempts to explain actions that have previously taken place. Speeches were delivered quickly, but articulated with a fast series of accompanying gestures that physicalised the reported action, and often blurred into the action of the moment; thus, both Dromios relieved their beatings, and in doing so went through the motions of being beaten again. Again, the doubling of action was entirely appropriate to a play that foregrounds the process of doubling so prominently.

This had two effects. Firstly, the wit of Comedy of Errors itself came out strongly - rather than use the physical action as a substitute for the comedic effect of the words, action here enhanced Shakespeare's jokes and metaphors. This was most apparent in Richard Frame's phenomenal delivery of  the Nell dialogue. The Syracusian twins stepped forward, out of the "reality" of their scene, and Frame used his body and the stage to create a vivid image of the gargantuan kitchen wench: he walked from wing to wing to illustrate her girth; he extended his arms and rotated them for her height and width, then gazed wide-eyed at the sphere he had just traced in the air; and he performed the effects of her breath, boils and eyes, creating an horrific imagined space which she inhabited. All later references to her gained in impact from this impressive establishing vignette, both Dromio and audience shuddering at the memory of Nell.

The second effect was to licence an extraordinary level of comic violence that became a commentary upon itself. Accompanied by its amusing score of cues, actors poked one another in the eye, kicked each other's backsides and slapped one another viciously. Within this cartoonish aesthetic, however, the company were able to push the violence to extremes which caused the audience to quail: David Newman's Luciana, a frump in pince-nez spectacles, frilly skirt and handbag, displayed a growing range of martial arts skills that culminated in the revelation of a pair of nunchucks, but more effective was the violence practiced on Jon Trenchard's diminutive Dromio of Ephesus. A cry went up from the audience as he was struck hard with a crowbar by his master, throwing the violence into perspective. Even more impressively, at one point the action froze as Antipholus prepared to floor him with a particularly hideous blow. Trenchard came forward and began his "I am an ass indeed" speech as a soliloquy to the audience. Sobbing, and to the accompaniment of a violin, he elicited sympathetic moans from the audience, before trudging back into position with wistful glances back at the auditorium. Steeling himself, he closed his eyes, and the action resumed with him being thrown onto his back. By establishing a point of sympathy, the production found its heart. The closing moments between the two Dromios were genuinely affecting, as Dromio of Ephesus reached out to his brother and took his hand, no longer alone in his victimisation. The point was not heavy-handed, but cut through the physical farce to make a plea for human feeling.

The other moment of extraordinary brilliance was the presentation of Dr. Pinch by Tony Bell. When announced, the rumble of a Hammond organ was heard, and smoke billowed from the upstage entrance. A silhouette appeared in the smoke, which then turned into the hacking figure of a bluff Yorkshireman in sharp suit and wearing a large cross. This Pinch, the conjurer, was a TV evangelist - he 'zapped' the Ephesians, who began praising the lord, and a choir of men with angel's wings followed him in. Bell performed an entire song and dance routine, breaking up his words with requests for donations, the exorcism of an audience member and the stripping-down of himself to vest and trousers. Robert Hands, as Adriana, threw herself on her knees before him, entering her credit card details into a handy machine as she pleaded for him to exorcise her husband. In return, Antipholus stood unmoved as Pinch attempted to zap him, before appropriating Pinch's performance for himself and zapping him in return before fleeing the stage.

Bell's use of local references further served to endear him to the audience, referring to Lady Godiva and the local shopping centre. Even more funnily, an entire routine was built in riffing on the Coventry woman who last year put a cat into a wheelie bin - to arrest Dromio and Antipholus, two wheelie bins were brought in and the "madmen" were placed in them, emitting pitiful miaows as they disappeared from view. Bell's comic performance - which he undercut himself with muttered "buggers" as he fumbled over his lines - was topped with a final appearance following the escape of his prisoners - he emerged fully naked and ran through the auditorium, a burning sparkler clenched between his buttocks. The audience barely recovered, and the subsequent appearance of Chris Myles's Aemilia in nun's habit, fishnet stockings, high heels didn't help. Brandishing a riding crop as she talked of the necessity of more disciplined punishment, she dramaturgically served as the climax of the insanity, the rest of the cast falling at her feet as the doors of her nunnery flew open.

The women posed a different set of problems which I don't have the space to explore here; but essentially, their overt sexualisation acted to reinforce male fantasies of (alternately) dominance and hen-pecking, but in a parodic format designed to critique those generalisations. Kelsey Brookfield's Courtesan sashayed onstage in black PVC and bunny ears, before dropping his voice to a husky "Alright?" Luciana, as already mentioned, gradually unveiled a terrifying violence that saw the men fleeing from her, and Hands's Adriana was a sublime blend of feminine chagrin and tempestuous shrew - by the end of the play, she was reduced to pounding on the floor and screaming for justice. Her complete lack of humour allowed her to serve as the foil for the comedy, stereotyping her in the sitcom-lite role of the nagging wife, while allowing Hands to mine the possibilities of that type for full comic effect.

Amid the violence, the spittle (all the Ephesians spat at the mention of Syracuse, and in one scene communally did so on the head of the diminutive Wayne Cater as Balthasar), the fast talking and the frenetic action, this was a production with heart. The sobriety of Aegeon's plight, the gentle pleas of Dromio of Ephesus, the serenading of a girl in the front row by the Officer, Luciana's instinctive presentation of her hand to Antipholus of Syracuse (she clearly never having been given this kind of attention before) all emerged from the familial warmth of the ensemble. The cruelty and crudity of the broader humour threw these moments into relief, making a case for calm and human feeling amid a flurry of panicked action. It was a perfect marriage of play and company, and a new high standard for Propeller's work.

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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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