All entries for January 2007

January 28, 2007

Richard III @ The Courtyard Theatre

It’s impossible not to notice that, throughout all the publicity material, posters, press shots, reviews and everything else surrounding the fourth installment in Michael Boyd’s history cycle, there is only one face leering out. Despite the emphasis that this company has placed on ensemble playing, despite the universal praise for the all-round excellence of the acting in the ‘Henry VI’ trilogy, despite him only having emerged as a major RSC figure over the last year, this is Jonathan Slinger’s play. It is he who, in a first for this company, takes a unique bow amid the curtain calls. It is he who dominates the stage and the critical reviews with his funny, evil, sickeningly unpleasant portrayal of one of Shakespeare’s best-known roles. It is he, in short, who IS this production.

Jonathan Slinger (Richard III)

While it seems unfair to focus all the attention of such a huge production (3 and a half hours, with an enormous cast and big concept) on one actor, it has always been impossible to dissociate this play from its lead character. Slinger’s Richard is a typically nasty bit of work, full of dark humour, excess spittle and a furiously kinetic energy that propels him on one bad leg around the stage. It’s a rivetting performance, though it did at times feel stuck in one gear. I got the impression that he wasn’t having one of his best performances, and certainly didn’t seem as happy as I’ve seen him before at the end of the play. Whether or not it was his best, it was definitely a solid Richard and a surprisingly sympathetic one at times. In his dream, he awoke to find his hump gone and his arm and leg whole, and gave his first genuine laugh of the whole play as he danced around, revelling in his momentary health

No play can stand on one man alone though (are you listening, Trevor Nunn and Ian McKellen?), and the production itself was a daring one. Though linked by set, music and aspects of style to the ‘Henry VI’ plays, the designers completely reinvented the setting, updating it to contemporary times. Soldiers wielded guns, Richard used helicoptors to intercept Henry’s funeral procession and Tyrrell recorded the death of the princes on a digital camera. Richard presented the crown prince with an enormous orange space hopper (which found its way my lap), and he cordoned off the stage with police tape for the benefit of the Lord Mayor. The contemporary setting seemed to work, though with the usual complaints muttered about people saying “Swords” before holding up “Guns” (it’s figurative!).

Boyd’s love of ghosts carried across to this play, with Henry VI lying down in front of Richard at his coronation and York crowning his son. The final ghost scene, too, took an interesting twist- the dream Richard’s healthy body was in turn wounded by each ghost as it passed, reducing him once more to his deformed and shrivelled self.

There were strong performances throughout. Julius D’Silva deserves special mention for his utterly creepy Catesby, here an efficient and emotionless lawyer who caused as much harm with his pen as others did with their guns. Richard Cordery’s Buckingham had an unusual hold over Richard, ordering him around and even grabbing him by the throat at one point, yet finally reduced to carrying his monarch on his shoulders after his execution. Katy Stephens was also excellent as Margaret, carrying her dead son’s skeleton on her back and laying out his bones as she cursed her foes. Margaret is frequently cut from stand-alone productions, so it was good to see her in the context of what had come before and relishing her role as the voice of the past. Thankfully, the scenes of lamenting women were partly abbreviated- they do drag on something rotten, however well they’re performed.

I have to confess to being a little disappointed. It was an excellent production, just not as good as the three earlier episodes. Partly it’s the fact that ‘Richard III’ is, controversially, one of my least favourite Shakespeare plays. While Slinger’s performance was excellent, it was disappointing how little many of the rest of the ensemble had to do, and the finale rushed the battle scene, Richard dying suddenly and undramatically, hitting the floor in a corner before we’d even seen the danger to him.

Disappointment does not mean lack of enjoyment though. Yes, it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped, but it was still excellent and a cut above the average RSC production. The Courtyard allowed for a ‘Richard III’ that played up close and personal, with Richard insinuating himself among the audience as much as his onstage companions. 3 and a half hours flew by, and as an ending to the tetralogy it fitted very nicely. Jonathan Slinger is now pretty much guaranteed to be established as a major player, and the company as a whole can be proud of an impressive achievement. Roll on ‘Richard II’ in a few months!

January 24, 2007

An anecdote

Seeing the small crowd waiting outside Stage Door after ‘Merry Wives: The Musical’ at the weekend, hoping that Judi Dench or Simon Callow would stop and sign autographs, I was reminded of a night back in August.

I was sitting in the front row in Holy Trinity Church, waiting for AandBC’s ‘Henry VIII’ to start. Across from me was sitting Harriet Walter, who predictably got mobbed at the interval by people wanting to tell her (in case she didn’t know) just how wonderful her performance in ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ was.

Further along from me was sitting Forbes Masson. As I looked over, the woman sitting behind him leaned forward and started the following dialogue:

“Excuse me- where you in the ‘Henry VI’ plays?”
Forbes (politely): “Yes, yes I was”
Woman: “I thought so!” (beat) “Now, who did you play?”

I found this particularly funny, as Forbes is one of the faces I instantly recognised and was excited to see this year, having been a huge fan of his performances in ‘The Comedy of Errors’ as Dromio and ‘Twelfth Night’ as Feste in the previous season.

This highlights two things I dislike about Stratford, which to me go right against the company’s ensemble ethos. The first is the star system, by which some actors get considerably more praise than others. Some of the best performances of the festival have been by lesser-known actors in plays dominated by more famous people- Ken Bones as Enobarbus, Julian Bleach as Ariel, Johnny Weir as Don John. Yet it’s the celebs who get all the photo time and column inches. The great thing about Michael Boyd’s histories, in fact, is the equal footing between the cast, who all get their moment in the sun. This is the approach to which the company is moving, yet Stratford still iconicises its leading lights and big names. I’m resigned to the fact that the finale of the Complete Works is going to be dominated by one actor, Ian McKellen, and I’m hoping against hope that I’ll be proved wrong, that we’ll be talking about a wonderful production and an all-round great cast that McKellen is a part of, not overshadowing. We’ll see.

The other thing is the cult of pestering actors. Okay, seeing a celeb on the streets in London, or on the red carpet, or that kind of thing, fair enough- I guess it comes with the territory. But when a play is in residence, when Patrick Stewart (for example) is living and working in Stratford for a period of several months, it just doesn’t seem appropriate to me to go and pester them. If they’ve come to see a play, why not let them watch the play in peace? It was notable in the first example that, after the interval, Harriet Walter didn’t return to her seat. Yet a few days later, she sat quietly next to me in the otherwise empty back row of the main house to watch ‘Troilus and Cressida’ (I actually got more attention than her, from a family who thought I was their cousin until they got right up close to me), and got to be just a normal member of the audience. It links into my first point really- this is an ensemble, a residential committment to a company and a theatre. Surely actors, even the more famous ones, should be able to live that life for a bit? To circulate, go to the pub, be part of the whole theatre experience, rather than being singled out and have people waiting for you in places they know you’ll have to walk past?

It’s a bit of a silly thing to argue, as it would probably never work. I’d love to see the actors being able to be part of the community when they’re resident though, part of the scenery rather than a focus of attention. I’m an idealist sometimes, but I do think we’re all in this together, to some extent. Also, this star treatment in many ways takes away from the work they’re actually doing. How many people were talking about Judi Dench’s performance in ‘Merry Wives’ as opposed to rhapsodising about the fact that it was Judi Dench? Will it ever be possible to see actors as fellow professionals doing a job?

I’ll stop now.

January 21, 2007

Days of Significance @ The Swan Theatre

Welcome to 2007! We’re in the final stretch of the Complete Works now, down to the last twelve productions, plus a few repeat viewings. Still a little way to go before I break out the champagne though…..

Yesterday’s production was the fourth of the main response plays, a major new commission by Roy Williams called ‘Days Of Significance’. It was also the final chance both to see the excellent ‘Winter’s Tale’/’Pericles’ ensemble and to experience the Swan in promenade. It wasn’t too crowded today, with plenty of space to walk round and feel like part of the action.

The play is based on ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, and is split into three parts. ‘Much Noise’ is basically a 45 minute retelling of ‘Much Ado’, with Trish and Ben heading up two gangs of lads and lasses on a big Saturday night out, with the goal of getting as wasted as possible. It was a very bare telling of the story, Williams keeping only those elements which drove forward his own narrative. Ben and Jamie, the Benedick and Claudio characters, were about to leave for Basra in Iraq on their first army tour, and the night was dedicated to giving them a good send off. With them was Dan (Don John), an anti-war student who came into conflict with them over the reasons for the war. The girls meanwhile were out for sex and alcohol, with Trish (Beatrice) the lairiest of the group while Hannah ‘The Slapper’ (Hero) showed herself to have a more sensitive streak, giving money to a drunken man flashing his penis and restraining the other girls somewhat.

Ashley Rolfe (Jamie)

The pre-show warnings of adult content and strong language were well deserved. This was the Saturday night clubbing world of working-class early-20s kids, illustrated in on-stage throwings-up, graphic sexual language, bodies rolling in rubbish on a park bench, barely-contained violence and obscenities every other word. It was not a glamorous picture, bringing out the nasty sides of all the characters. Plot was translated, too- the rumours about Hannah were not of infidelity but of thinking Jamie was a wuss, and Trish merely asked Ben to “beat the crap” out of Jamie rather than kill him. Amongst it all, we heard the beginnings of a debate about the second Iraq war, as the youths tried to come to terms with what Ben and Jamie were leaving for.

The reconciliations between the two couples ended the first half of the play, but here Williams kept going. We skipped to Iraq in a scene framed by two video diaries of Ben writing home to Trish, becoming gradually more disillusioned with his life out there, his voice hollowing out as the brutalities of the conflict sunk in. The scene itself was a gory one of Ben, cornered with two other soldiers, one of whom killed himself to allow the others to run. It transpired that the impulsive Ben had shot through children in order to get at insurgents – the first hint of how the youthful exuberance and amoralism of the kids translated to the wider context. The scene ended with he and Sean, another soldier, running off to their deaths.

Danny Dalton (Sean)

The final sections of the play, ‘A Parting Of The Ways’, took place in a square in the centre of the audience. Actors stepped into the square when ‘on’, and when ‘off’, stood outside the square looking in. The play became Hannah’s story, as she stayed permanently within the circle debating the war with four other people. This was what the play had been leading up to- a many-sided discussion of war, looking at how the characters we know from Shakespeare might have been affected had it happened to them.

Hannah had gone to college and become involved in anti-war discussion with her student friends, and the scene primarily turned around whether she was going to go to court with Jamie- who was being tried for torturing prisoners in Iraq, albeit under orders. Meanwhile Trish, mourning Ben, attacked her for her views, upset at people criticising the war in which her lover had been killed. Dan, meanwhile, argued the other side with her, condemning all those who had made the war happen, while her stepfather Lenny complicated things emotionally by inadvertently revealing the secret love he’d been nursing for her. The effect was one of a moral and intelligent person being caught in the middle of extreme conflicting views on the events and being forced to make decisions about where she stood, while knowing that the emotional pressure would tear her whatever she decided.

While the stepfather was well-played by Nigel Cooke, this was the aspect I liked least. Not only did it seem very obvious from the start of the play, as Hannah stripped off next to Lenny to wash her top, but it seemed to take away from the point of the play. Yes, it was an added emotional pressure on Hannah in the final scene, but it felt unnecessary, one controversy too many.

Otherwise, this was a thought-provoking and interesting response to ‘Much Ado’, which used the play as a springboard to get to its true subject matter. I’m not entirely sure that Williams was trying to get a political point across. The play felt anti-war, but the biggest anti-war exponent was Dan, by far the slimiest and least likeable character. Rather, this was a play about attitudes, about the pressure put on young people to believe strongly in things without knowing anything about them. Ben and Jamie’s impetuousness and hot tempers led them to committing atrocities in Iraq, but at the same time we couldn’t simpy condemn them- this is what society had made them. The play effectively showed the impact of the war at home, and in many ways seemed to bemoan the lack of traditional values of honour and discipline that, at the very least, helped draw a line between soldiers and monsters.

Possibly the most telling moment of the play was when Lenny, the chip shop owner, told the boys as they joked about going off to war that, with their attitudes, they were little more than “fast food” themselves.

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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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