All entries for Friday 29 February 2008

February 29, 2008

Henry IV Part II @ The Courtyard Theatre: Highlights

Contrary to the pleasant surprise of Part I, Henry IV Part II was actually less good than I remembered. I think this was mostly down to the long day – it’s a lot of Falstaff for one day. I also think the excellent meal and beer of the Dirty Duck probably didn’t help hugely. But a weak link is not necessarily a bad one, and there was much to love about this production.

  • Matt Costain’s interval routine as Davy, setting up the stage for Gloucestershire while juggling with folding chairs and hanging from ladders, was impeccably timed and very funny. The whole thing, from getting an audience member to prop his ladder back up to the bale of hay that plunged from the ceiling, narrowly missing him, was just hysterical.
  • Rob Carroll, a wonderful comic talent in workshops, gave one of my favourite performances of the cycle so far as Wart, scuttling crab-like across the stage and accidentally setting off a rifle. The rest of the recruits were good too, particularly Antony Shuster as a narcoleptic Shadow who fainted repeatedly and Katy Stephens as the nervy Feeble, who balanced the comedy with a hint of pathos as s/he faced down the terrors of war.
  • The key scene between Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Hal and Clive Wood’s Henry IV in the bedchamber, arguing over the crown, was powerful stuff. Henry’s desperation to see the kingdom in good hands became a personal struggle with his own insecurities as a father, shaking his son in desperation, hoping against hope that he would be a true prince. Hal’s own response felt similarly desperate as he tried to reassure his dying father of his faith.
  • Keith Bartlett provided the other excellent father as Northumberland, receiving the news of Hotspur’s death. Northumberland’s guilt, particularly as he heard Coleville’s reminders that he knew the risk into which Hotspur was going and went into a kind of fit. As grieving father, Bartlett was excellent.
  • Forbes Masson as Rumour, re-emerging in Bagot’s costume pulling the coffin of Richard II, looked like he had been dragging that coffin for days, as if his punishment for murder was his very own albatross. The effect of the doubling suggested that Bagot’s sin had pulled him out of the world into his own liminal space, where as Rumour he influenced the action while always being apart from it. This was particularly emphasised at the close of Act One with Henry left alone on stage as Jonathan Slinger’s ghost of Richard descended the steps towards him while Rumour looked on. After an earlier part largely free of ghosts, it was good to see the stories linking together again.
  • Doll Tearsheet and Pistol made their marks. Nicholas Asbury as the latter ranged around the stage with energy and enough bombast to lift the Courtyard, and was very funny. His knocking out by Julius D’Silva’s Bardolph with a bottle over the head was very fun. Alexia Healy was a confident and cocksure Doll who made herself at home in the tavern and brought a sexuality to her scenes that brought to life the bawdy humour.
  • Geoffrey Freshwater as Shallow was also very good, his cheeky laughter and rambling very funny. When he nodded and winked at Falstaff as he reminded him of the night they lay together, bouncing his knees up and down and laughing wickedly, Falstaff’s uncomfortable look away spoke volumes. Sandy Neilson was also very good as Silence, both in the early scenes with a sombre deadpan way of speaking that provided the perfect foil for Shallow, and later with his singing when drunk.
  • A late entrance was made by Patrice Naiambana as Warwick. The last actor to enter the octology, Naiambana’s uniquely powerful voice and intimidating presence made an immediate impression, hinting at a man who you absolutely wanted on your side. His presence in the King’s dying scenes was reassuring.
  • Luke Neal and Antony Shuster made good use of their short time onstage as Hal’s brothers Gloucester and Clarence, creating a brief image of sibling rivalry as Neal shouted at Hal and Shuster tried to make peace. The brother prize goes to Chris McGill though, a brooding John of Lancaster who handled the climax of the political story well. Tom Hodgkins also shone in these scenes as Westmoreland, the two a clever mix of devious cunning and impressive soldiership.
  • The Archbishop of York, played by Antony Bunsee, was another short part that demanded attention. Bunsee has a fascinating voice that handles rhythm well, and the Archbishop’s speeches as a result had a peculiar resonance that I found compelling.

Despite all the good about this production, it suffered from a dip in pace at times. In particular, the long tavern scene in the first half seemed to last an age, and the end felt a bit peculiar, as if someone had forgotten their lines or was waiting for a cue- there was a sudden slow in pace, before the sudden emergence of John and the Lord Chief Justice and the lowering of the cage that captured the Eastcheap mob. The production felt weaker, but the important scenes (including the casting off of Falstaff) retained their power and left the audience hanging on for the coming wars in France…..

Henry IV Part I @ The Courtyard Theatre: Highlights

Before all else, a hugely pleasant surprise – it was good! Not just good, but great! My main problems with this production that last time I saw it were that it was slow and boring, and that the relationship between Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Hal and David Warner’s Falstaff was static. Happily, both issues have been resolved.

  • Running shorter than three hours, the performance was fast and thoroughly entertaining, and Streatfeild in particular was on absolute fire, revelling in his role as the joyful prince. The relationship with Falstaff was made infinitely more interesting by him genuinely seeming to like the knight this time, as well as enjoying the dissolute life, and the call of the court interrupted this.
  • Hal developed into the heroic prince throughout the play, particularly affected by his father’s belief that he had no love for him, which upset Hal deeply. Here, it really felt that something was at stake for Hal, and his climactic showdown with Hotspur was its culmination.
  • Lex Shrapnel was again superb as Hotspur, milking his scenes for all they were worth and being very funny. He was a very likeable anti-hero, a comic and real figure who called a spade a spade. His dying speech in particular was well-delivered, falling onto his belly and gazing in astonishment at his killer.
  • I really enjoyed Falstaff. David Warner struck a considered balance between gravitas and ridiculousness which lent the knight a kind of dignity. He was at his funniest when sitting in his chair quietly considering how to get himself out of whichever scrape he was in at the time. The subtleties of the performance really came through, and I am very pleased to be proved wrong after not enjoying earlier performances.
  • Clive Wood was brilliantly menacing in his first scene. I loved the confrontation between him and Hotspur, which culminated in him marching towards the youth. As he reached him Hotspur started to leap to his feet but in a sudden mood Henry shoved him back down. It was a powerful reassertion of power and a moment of real tension as Hotspur’s fist automatically clenched. The tension was only relieved as Henry wagged a finger and tutted at his behaviour. Hotspur’s subsequent ranting and demolition of the council chamber seemed to come from this moment of restraint.
  • It was great to see Julius D’Silva back in action as Bardolph. From his first appearance running for a rope, missing his grasp and plummeting to the ground with a “Shit!” to his futile attempts to climb another rope in time to hide from the party they were robbing (who watched in confusion until he gave up, said “Bollocks” and drew his gun), he and his red nose were a pleasure.
  • Matt Costain as Cutter, plummeting at unbelievable pace down a rope from the flies to inches above the ground. Enough said.
  • The many nobles can seem a background to the main characters, but there were some excellent performances among the armour. Miles Richardson has a tremendous voice, and his performance as Walter Blunt brought a sense of valour and honour to the fighting. He and the Douglas (Paul Hamilton) circling each other among lines of soldiers swinging swords in slow motion was a beautiful image. Hamilton was also a figure of strength as Douglas, with broadsword slung over his back and a grittiness next to Hotspur’s vaunting. I also think Tom Hodgkins made an intimidating Westmoreland, coming across as a strong military man.
  • Vernon (Luke Neal) was very strong, and the moment as the King paused as Worcester was dragged off, looked at the bloodied Vernon, left a beat and added “And Vernon too” was a moving one, seeing this honourable man taken to his death.
  • The Eastcheap scenes were well done, lively and funny. Maureen Beattie held court with an excellent comic performance as Mistress Quickly, and with Streatfeild helping keep up the energy the two of them really seemed to lead these scenes, allowing Warner’s Falstaff to recline and do his good work. A special mention to Kieran Hill too, who worked his socks off as Poins and was very entertaining.
  • Keith Dunphy was an adequate Mortimer, but nearly gave me a heart attack with a Pythonesque “Run away! Run away!” as a Gadshill pilgrim that was utterly hysterical. Sianed Jones as Lady Mortimer sang beautifully, and their relationship was tender and moving, with Roger Watkins’ Glendower acting the father and translating for them.
  • In a very nice touch, Falstaff’s band of ragamuffins were now a section of the audience (the one where I was sitting) who were made to stand to attention as he prepared to march to war. A cheap laugh, perhaps, but a really good one that broke up a quiet patch.

I laughed a lot during this performance, but was also impressed by the more serious performances. The dynamic between Hotspur and Hal seemed to drive the production, and Falstaff felt integrated in a way I hadn’t felt before. It goes to show how much a production changes during a run, and I’m very pleased to have seen it again.

Richard II @ The Courtyard Theatre: Highlights

It’s Friday morning, I’m nine hours into the cycle, haven’t been to bed before 1.30am for two nights and so far I’m having a great time! In the spirit of my tiredness, though, I think I’ll take a far more informal approach to the blog than usual…

  • Richard II was a fabulous start to the week, a mannered production with some astonishing performances. Chief among these was, of course, Jonathan Slinger in the title role. His vocal range, plunging in seconds from a gentle high camp voice to a resounding bass, was captivating, and gave a real sense of Richard’s power, his way of manipulating people. More than most other Shakespearean productions I’ve ever been to, I really enjoyed listening to this production- the verse speaking was beautiful throughout. Watching Slinger remove his wig and make-up and then step away from the throne, moving his arms as he cast away his rule, was breathtaking.
  • The play ran just under three hours long, which means it has speeded up a great deal since I last saw it. Symptomatic of the improvements in pace was the early joust between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, with saddles being lowered from the ceiling and the combatants being raised in the air and swung back, ready to charge. The build-up to this was handled excellently, with a palpable tension rising in the audience. Surely… surely not? They won’t, will they?
  • Hannah Barrie impressed as Isabel, particularly during her parting scene with Richard where her tears seemed genuine as she joined him beneath the pouring sand that the commons threw on his head. I liked the way that Barrie only gradually let the woman behind the make-up be seen. The whole production, starting with a formal processional dance, saw the rituals of the Elizabethan court being slowly broken down to the bleak roughness of Bolingbroke’s new regime.
  • I watched Bagot’s story more closely this time, enjoying Forbes Masson’s performance immensely. The conflation of characters to create new narratives is one of the most interesting aspects of the cycle, and watching Bagot lose faith in his friend over the three hours, from sycophantic flattering through the moment of realisation as Richard recognised his killer until the final terrifying cackle as he dragged in the coffin, made for a very interesting journey.
  • Ghosts MEANT something in this production. Chuk Iwuji is always watchable, and he gave a rivetting performance as the ghost of Gloucester, interacting with the rest of the characters almost solely as a bearer of bad news. Sharing the garden scene with Roger Watkins (a very good Gaunt, who spoke a moving “This sceptr’d isle” speech and attacked his king with an admirable fervour) gave the very funny scene an edge, contributed to by the reappearance of Gloucester’s newly-dead wife (Katy Stephens) as one of Isobel’s maid. The moment that the ghosts of husband and wife shared at the end of the scene, a secret smile that took pleasure in the spreading of ill news to the Queen, transcended the moment and provided the first glimpse into the hellish parallel world of spirits that haunt England’s history. The reappearance of Gloucester and Gaunt for the murder of the King yet again echoed this.
  • Clive Wood brought a lot of strength to the role of Bolingbroke. It was his steadiness that made him threatening, particularly in comparison to the constantly wavering Richard. His black-clothed presence moved relentlessly through the play, and even sitting on a stool his authority as King seemed already settled.
  • I found myself laughing more than I expected! Maureen Beattie’s impassioned performance as the Duchess of York, pleading on behalf of her son, provided a good deal of humour while recognising the seriousness of the situation. I liked James Tucker’s Aumerle too, whose loyalty to his king provided a nice contrast to his father, played with gravity and a little bluster by Richard Cordery. The gauntlet-throwing scene, indulged in with plenty of gusto by Tucker, Luke Neal, Rob Carroll, Antony Shuster and Lex Shrapnel was also funny in its ridiculous tally of accusations and counter-accusations and the growing pile of gloves that littered the floor.
  • Keith Bartlett and Lex Shrapnel provide one of the octology’s clearest through lines, repeatedly playing a Father and Son pair. Their performances as Northumberland and Hotspur, while far less prominent here than they would come to be, were memorable nonetheless. Bartlett exuded a gravity and power that made Richard’s fears of him (the ladder by which others ascend the throne) understandable, while Shrapnel found a fresh and quite modern quality in Hotspur, a directness that meant his plain speaking cut through the rhetoric of others. This Hotspur was someone we could identify with, someone we recognised, an aspect which made his character both humourous and likeable but didn’t take away from his dangerous potential.
  • Lastly, for this blog, Sandy Neilson’s Bishop of Carlisle stuck out in my memory. His calm dignity throughout, even not kneeling with Richard as he despaired of events on returning from Ireland, had a quiet power to it, and prepared nicely for his key scene as he exposed the court for what they were.

It was good first time round, and it was faster, funnier and more powerful this time. Slinger’s performance was the undoubted highlight, but the whole company produced stirling work. A great start!

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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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