All entries for February 2007
February 28, 2007
This is the final play in Shakespeare’s canon that I had never seen a production of (well, unless you count ‘Edward III’- and I’ve still only seen ‘The Merchant Of Venice’ on film), meaning that it’s the final chance I had to come to a production completely fresh, knowing little more than the basic outline of the plot and a few choice details. It’s also a landmark production for the RSC, being the last to be performed in the ancient Royal Shakespeare Theatre before it shuts down to be refurbished. It’s the last play, therefore, to be performed by the RSC on its own proscenium arch stage, and as such is in many ways the RSC audience’s ‘goodbye’ to a beloved theatre. More on that later.
I should say now that there are going to be a lot of major criticisms of this production, so want to put it on record that overall, I quite enjoyed it. The time flew by, the storytelling was clear and simple and the central performance, William Houston as Coriolanus, was superb, one of the best RSC performances of the year.
But unfortunately, I have a long list of criticisms that dominate my memory of last night’s performance. A good production lay within, but the scars across it were bigger than Coriolanus’ own. Firstly, the set. A wonderfully striking set greeted us in the auditorium, a maze of pillars stretching back seemingly infinitely into the distance, supporting an oppressive red wall that hung over the playing space. But, a la Peter Stein’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’ (see my earlier review), they insisted on having the wall move about ominously, turning into a ceiling, a backdrop, city gates or even disappearing altogether. Which could have been all fine, if it wasn’t for the fact the wall was designed in such a way that you could see (from the circle) stagehands opening and shutting the gates, shining their torches as they tried to lock it, hesitating to avoid trapping actors and even here the squealing of the winches pulling it up jerkily. They had clearly tried for an epic design, but it was rendered audibly laughable by shoddy design and manouvering, which distracted from what else was happening around the stage.
The second big complaint is Timothy West’s Menenius. Last year he starred in ‘Life Of Galileo’ at Birmingham Rep, and there confused audiences who couldn’t understand why he kept stumbling over his lines and forgetting words. Sadly, he did the same tonight (and apparently has been doing since the performance began). I don’t know if he hasn’t had time to learn them properly, if he struggles with language or if, in the politest possible sense, it might even be a matter of age. Whatever the reason, it seems stupid that he has such a major role when he can’t deliver the part- and even when he wasn’t forgetting his words or losing his place, he held himself stiffly as if trying to remember what came next rather than acting properly. Considering that his is a name the RSC has sold the production on, it’s pretty appalling.
The crowd scenes were stilted, awkward and clearly somewhat under-rehearsed, with moments when all the cast seemed to be completely unsure what to do. Luckily, there were some solid individual performances, and the lead citizens in particular were good.
Finally, the homoeroticism of the production. ‘Coriolanus’ is a play that definitely has potential to explore the relationship between Aufidius and Coriolanus, and many productions have apparently made their attraction very explicit. Doran’s handling, though, seemed to me somewhat immature. As the two warriors came together for their single combat and dealt each other crushing blows, a loud backing track of heavy breathing started playing, growing louder as the characters’ fight blended into it. Eventually the two, panting heavily, stood opposite each other (both topless), threw down their weapons and ran together to start grappling hand to hand, as the breathing track reached its climax. Doran lays it on with a trowel, to a point where several of the audience were laughing at the crudity of it. Visually it was a stunning scene, but short of placards reading “CONFLICT FUELLED BY REPRESSED SEXUAL ATTRACTION”, Doran’s intentions couldn’t have been made any more plain. It was a shame, as their kiss when Coriolanus defected and the final moments as everyone walked off, leaving Aufidius cradling Corilolanus’ body, were very effective, more so for their subtlety.
The ranting out of my system, the production’s strengths deserve some attention. William Houston, as already noted, elevated this production single-handedly, presenting an energetic, arrogant Coriolanus who kept the audience enraptured, despite his obvious flaws, simply through his power and presence. His relationship with Janet Suzman’s strong Volumnia was also wonderful, he regressing to spoiled teenager in her presence. She was excellent- a fairly traditional performance, but full of power, and their scenes together crackled. Aufidius too was excellent, and the tribunes (who had their own evil music, in another slightly crude stroke) were also good, inspiring a touch of sympathy for their struggle to assert their power as representatives of the people rather than being purely evil.
The servingmen were three extremely camp Northerners (Why?! Can someone explain to me WHY, in the world of the RSC, there are always comic gay Northerners, normally from West Yorkshire? Could we PLEASE vary the regional accents a bit, maybe even have an heroic Northerner, just once?!) who inspired a great deal of laughter for their gossipping mannerisms, and the fights were well choreographed, pacey and satisfyingly violent.
I wanted to like this production, I really did. Overall, it was enjoyable and certainly a memorable telling of the play. Its flaws, though, ruined it for me, and sadly I don’t think the company will have the opportunity to iron these out before the end of the run. It’s a real shame, as there is a great production buried in there, and I don’t think we’ll have a chance to see it.
February 25, 2007
Considering this is the ‘Complete Works’ Festival, it seems an appropriate time to point out that that doesn’t mean every word Shakespeare ever wrote. None of his commendatory poems or prefixes are being performed, for example. His famous epitaph (‘Cursed be he that moves these bones’, chilling) stays on his grave. More prominently, neither ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ or ‘The Passionate Pilgrim’ are anywhere to be seen- and, as I’ve already complained, both ‘Sir Thomas More’ and ‘Edward III’ have been brushed aside. And then, there are the sonnets. Of 154, tonight’s event (running for two days only in the Courtyard) performs a grand total of thirteen. Add 141 sonnets, including ‘Shall I Compare Thee…’ to the list of ignored works.
Not that I think this is a bad thing, mind. Poems don’t necessarily lend themselves readily to performance, and as thirteen poems took two hours to get through, I dread to think how numb I’d be after sitting through 24 hours worth. More to the point, the small number of selections allowed tonight’s ensemble to perform each one properly, taking time with instrumentals, voices and film projections to fully realise their artistic vision.
Curated by Gavin Bryars, a bass player, this project fell into two halves, both performed by a classical ensemble and two opera singers. The first section saw five sonnets set to music by guest composers. Natalie Merchant set Sonnet 47, a relatively quiet and classically based piece. Alexander Balescu took Sonnet 43, creating a discordant and oddly-jarring piece which I have to admit I didn’t enjoy at all- one of those pieces which sound out of tune until you realise it’s meant to sound like that. The third piece, Sonnet 130, was set by the experimental Mira Galix, who has played with Radiohead among others. Typically, her sonnet was full of echoing phrases, electronic gurgling and spoken word mixed together, including a gorgeous glockenspiel break.
The fourth sonnet was set by one of the chief attractions (for me) of the event- Gavin Friday, who performed the sonnet himself. Friday is an old-school friend of Bono and the rest of U2, and has performed with them on and off over the last 25 years, as well as producing his own work including a spectacular reinterpretation of ‘Peter and the Wolf’. He turned Sonnet 40 into a moody lounge number, half-singing, half-speaking the words until he reached the final couplet, for which he transferred to a falsetto as he sung over and over “Kill me with spites, kill me with spites” as he walked off the stage and the music faded away. Writing about music is something I find nearly impossible, but it made everything in me tingle.
The final sonnet was set by Antony, of Antony and the Jonsons, and his regular collaborator Nico Muhly, and was a freer piece, initially piano-led before descending into a melee of instrumentation. Before each of these sonnets, one of two RSC actors read the poem. Nina Sosanya, the actress, chose to simply read her poems, and for some reason struggled with Sonnet 40, stumbling over the words and having to restart a line once. Richard Dillane, by contrast, was all charm, and his reading of Sonnet 130 (‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’) had the whole audience laughing as he struggled to compliment his lady.
The second half was a sequence of eight sonnets, all set as one long piece with movements by Gavin Bryars. Friday read the poems in a low voice from a microphone downstage, and was then followed by the singers singing it back to him. The sonnets chosen, for the completists, were 60, 123, 128, 94, 102, 146, 55 and 64- a relatively dark selection, which around 146 took a turn into some very moody, and bass-led, music.
It’s difficult to write about music, and to be completely honest I don’t know that much about it. During the long second half, my attention did occasionally wander. The music itself was very nice, but lacked drama, or any really interesting presentation. It was accompanied by a film installation, showing slow-motion images of leaves, candles, water being splashed, a tablecloth being flipped, etc.- all very nice images, but they didn’t appear to have any relevance to what was being performed, and seemed about as conventionally ‘arty’ as is possible to be- again, art-film isn’t something I know much about. It seems a shame, because I thorougly enjoyed the music, but I was disappointed (especially after the first half, which really varied its styles, voices and movement) that the second half was so static.
I’d be interested to know how this is received on tour, outside of the Complete Works context. Within the Festival, it was an interesting curio, with at least one moment of exceptional beauty, and certainly an innovative way of approaching the sonnets. I think, though, that the drama inherent in the sonnets, the dialogues and stories, are well worth investigating in themselves, and an opportunity may have been missed to really open up the sonnets to dramatic interpretation in the way that ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ and ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ did.
Nonetheless, it was a very pleasant evening. And many, many thanks to the lovely lady sitting in front of me, Jennifer, who heard me worrying about having to wait two hours for a bus and offered me a much-appreciated lift back to Leamington. Stratford theatregoers are so nice!
February 22, 2007
I’ve just been reading the biographies of the actors in Teatr Piesn Kozla, and wanted to post about some of the things that they’ve done. They don’t advertise themselves as a community theatre group, but yet I found reading their CVs very inspiring. Here are some of the highlights:
- Actor Alexander Rogaczewski has, since the late 1970s, “conducted extensive research on Russian settlers in Siberia and their assimilation into traditional cultures. He has been the driving force and main organiser of many ethnographic expeditions, whose main purpose has been to discover the musical heritage of the Siberian Atlantis – the villages and hamlets flooded during the construction of the Angara dam”. He collected material from this lost culture, established the Irkutsk Authentic Music Ensemble in 1989 which “attempts to reconstruct and perform the ‘Drowned Songs’”, and after 10 years of intensive work concluded the research by releasing a CD of the project’s work.
How amazing is that?! Devoting 25 years of your life to reclaiming the art of a lost culture and attempting to preserve it. Three of the actresses in ‘Macbeth’ were also recruited from his ensemble, and these four provided much of the music that guided the play.
- The company run an Acting MA in collaboration with Manchester Met. Many of the actors in ‘Macbeth’ are either taking the MA or are teachers on it. Considering they’re an avant-garde troupe, it seems pretty cool that they are so much engaged with theatre education and the teaching of their art, as opposed to being precious about it or holding closed rehearsal periods. Others of the actors are lecturers and workshops leaders with other institutions too.
- Gabriel Paul Gawin, who is one of the founder members of the company and played Macbeth, has done some of the foremost work in disabled people’s theatre- he “founded and became Artistic Director of New Breed, the acclaimed disabled people’s theatre company” and, in collaboration with Peter Brook, has led research workshops with severely disabled participants, exploring theatre with specific groups.
- Christopher Sivertsen, who payed Banquo, is a physical theatre specialist, who has developed his own system of training. “He has directed and performed in a variety of productions based on the exploration of fire, music and movement”, and while preparing his MA dissertation conducts workshops around the world.
- Finally, there are director Grzegorz Bral and Anna Zubrzycki, who played Lady Macbeth. These two have been working together since the early 1990s, when they became two of “the foremost acting workshop leaders in Europe, teaching in major workshop festivals”. Anna was also a founding member at the end of the 70s of the Gardzienice Centre for Theatre Practices, which “became the foremost avant-garde theatre group in Poland”.
- Grzegorz, in 2005, “became Artistic Director of the Brave Festival in Poland, a festival against cultural exile, presenting the art of vanishing cultures and traditions from all over the world”.
- Finally, since 1997, Grzegorz and Anna have “organised annual soup kitchens for the homeless and hungry in Lublin and Wroclaw”.
I don’t know about you, but those things really inspired me. It’s a collective of artists with their own methods, their own interests and own research projects, who yet come together to create ensemble pieces that weave together their strengths. And still they find the time to do their own work and contribute to the theatrical and local communities.
More like this, please.
You’ll note that I’ve included the fact this production was a work-in-progress in the title to this entry. I feel (along with the RSC, who’ve made this prominent from the start) that it’s important to highlight this, as anyone expecting a full production of ‘Macbeth’ this evening would have been sorely disappointed.
Tonight’s presentation was a collage of sequences and images produced through the research that Polish company Teatr Piesn Kozla (Song Of The Goat Theatre) have done into ‘Macbeth’. The finished play, the programme tells us, is planned to be performed on April 19th 2008. I can say with no reservation that I’m booking my seat as soon as possible, because if in three months they’ve managed to produce something as beautiful as they did this evening, with another 14 months work it should be something truly special.
Director Grzegorz Bral spoke to us between the various sequences, explaining the processes that the company go through. Their work is heavily rooted in music, mostly that of dying cultures and vanishing traditions, and physical interaction with the space. The productions they come up with are totally self-devised ensemble pieces, with the work growing out of the ongoing research they do into the play.
I could write for ages about the different images and soundscapes they created in the 90 minutes they presented, yet I couldn’t really do it justice. The very first scene alone left me wanting to give a standing ovation. The cast entered to sit on a semi-circle of thrones, and started a low humming, with a female cast member singing low cadences over, as they gradually grew in volume. Lady Macbeth and Macbeth in turn rose and walked round the circle, giving two speeches from different parts of the play, before the entire cast started rhythmically singing Shakespeare’s words, rising to an enormous climax before suddenly stopping dead. The power of this scene, which went on for ages yet never got boring, is impossible to describe in words- you’d have to hear it for yourself.
As the evening progressed, they took us through their experiments with polyphony (the creation of harmonies out of a multitude of individual vocal movements) to those with movement. Actors shadowed each other, tumbled, ran, jumped, always moving with an especially light step and fluidity of movement. For the Macduff/Malcolm scene in England, four mats were brought out and as Macduff, Malcolm and Ross spoke, exchanged news and mourned the deaths of Macduff’s family, the three men continually somersaulted and tumbled over each other, crossing paths and speaking as they flipped. The athleticism and co-ordination of the actors alone deserves mention.
This praise may sound superlative, and I should qualify the whole thing by emphasising that this was far from a complete production. Presented out of sequence, out of context and without any links between the different frames, it’s impossible to say how this will look in the future. In many ways, this was pure rehearsal, actors coming up with thoughts and images without having to worry about the larger context of the play, in a similar way to how Cheek By Jowl worked with the MA group last term when starting to conduct their research into ‘Cymbeline’. Considering how far away we are from the final production, however, what was shown tonight was deeply moving, fascinating, visually stimulating and exciting, and its reception by the Swan audience was astounding. The theatre was almost full, and the audience, to my surprise, absolutely loved it. I honestly thought people would be disappointed that it was only a work-in-progress, but the beauty of what we were shown seemed to override any reservations people may have had. Stunning.
February 18, 2007
Friday night was the chance to revisit, for one final time, the excellent ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, bookending my Complete Works marathon quite nicely with the same production, seen for a third time almost a year after I first saw it in the Swan.
It was very good, but I was disappointed at how much its translation to proscenium arch stage had hurt the production. This ‘Antony’ thrived on its domestic scenes, at the intimate portrait of two lovers and rulers trying to reconcile their personal and political interests. On the big stage, though, they never quite managed to evoke the same intimacy as the Swan allowed them to.
Elsewhere, the highlights of this production remained in place. John Hopkins’ Octavius was as twitchy and uncertain as before, coming into his own in the final third of the play. Ken Bones also dominated the stage as Enobarbus, including a moment I hadn’t noticed before which hinted at an ambiguous sexuality as he moved to kiss Menas, before the two of them withdrew to Minas’ cabin. And, of course, Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart gave superb performances, emphasising both the physical age and the mental youth of the characters.
As in the London ‘Much Ado’, the comedy seemed to have been somewhat dumbed down for the London audience, particularly in the character of Lepidus who had developed an irritating habit of falling over for added laughs. More distressingly, the audience appeared to find quite moving moments, suh as the suicide of Eros, funny rather than horrifying.
Disappointed as I was that the play had suffered in translation, it remained some of the best recent RSC work, and thoroughly deserved the sold-out house who received it. It also, however, confirmed in my mind my belief that the Swan and Courtyard are far better environments for playing Shakespeare- even five rows from the front, I felt distanced from the action. For that reason, I’m looking forward to ‘The Tempest’ next month, which was originally a proscenium arch production and therefore will hopefully not lose anything from the Stratford production.
February 13, 2007
Some things that provoked thought today about ‘Richard III: An Arab Tragedy’.
The audience was tiny, the smallest I’ve ever seen for a full-scale production in the Swan. If we were a third full, I’d be surprised.
This could be for several reasons. I’d imagine many people were put off by the foreign language and surtitles. It’s possible that people don’t want to see an English history in a foreign setting. It also might not have helped that the RSC are currently playing ‘Richard III’ over in the Courtyard. If you’re only going to see one ‘Richard’ this year, you’ll probably want to see the English language version.
There is also a worry about the perceived ‘value’ of the production. Why would an audience WANT to see an Arabian take on ‘Richard III’? What is the interest in seeing it? Snobbishness still exists in the theatre, particularly in relation to Shakespeare. Many people feel that translation or relocation of texts amounts to nothing less to sacrilege, and that alone can be enough to put people off seeing a production.
For many of us, of course, that isn’t a problem. It’s notable that neither the Berliner Ensemble nor Pippo del Bono made any attempt to justify their reinterpretations of the history plays (though neither had fantastic audiences either). These two productions just announced that that’s what they were going to do, and did it.
The programme for ‘Richard III: An Arab Tragedy’ tells a different story, though. Far more so than I’ve ever seen for a visiting company, the programme goes to great pains to explain and justify the decisions they’ve made. It talks about the choice of language, the choice of setting, the methods of location, the use of the Qu’ran- anything that may cause comment, in other words. These are written in short bursts that seem designed to quickly answer the scepticism of their perceived audience. There is even (!) a printed letter from the Prince of Wales congratulating the company and extolling the virtues of such a treatment of ‘Richard III’.
All very useful and informative, but it also implies to me a company insecure in their purpose. They anticipate the complaints that people will make, and seek to redress them before they’ve even been made. They appear to be trying to justify themselves, justify the relevance of their work, justify their approach to Shakespeare. And they protest too much.
There is an argument that says a confident production shouldn’t have to defend itself from Shakespearean purists. That the point of the Complete Works is to showcase a wide variety of interpretations of Shakespeare, and that audiences can be expected to put aside their preconceptions and enjoy something new. Yet the Al-Bassam company and the RSC don’t seem to have the faith they should in this production. Relocating Shakespeare is nothing new, rewriting Shakespeare is nothing new, yet they still come across as nervous- and the lengthy sections of direct translation in the actual play sit awkwardly as a result, concessions to an audience who want to hear something of the original poetry. The play seems to want to be accepted as a noble and ‘proper’ attempt at Shakespeare- which it is. But in asking to be treated as such, it implies that it is something less. A little less explanation and justification, a little less Royal Approval, and a bit more assertiveness and – dare I say it – recklessness, would have been far more suited to this production.
After all, what’s the point in making explosive statements about contemporary politics and culture in the play if, in the programme, you then feel the need to justify your departures from the ‘norm’?
The final ‘response’ play saw the hugely-respected Sulayman Al-Bassam theatre company coming to the Swan, presenting a reworked ‘Richard III’ that relocated the action to the contemporary Middle East, a world of oilfields, bickering clans, foreign policies and constant surveillance. It’s been hugely built up over the year, as a new RSC commission, and promised to be something very special.
After seeing it, I have to confess to feeling slightly underwhelmed. There was much that I found very exciting about the production, but equally much I found frustrating or simply not very good. I’m very interested to see what the press think tomorrow night, as it’s the kind of production which invites praise simply by virtue of its intent and cultural background. Yet intent can’t disguise much of what was sloppy about the production.
Actors stumbled over lines, interrupting each other in the wrong places and causing awkward pauses. Elsewhere, a vastly edited text (‘Richard III’ in under two hours!) meant that the pace varied wildly- key scenes were rushed through almost at a run, while other scenes slowed to a crawl. To me, it felt under-rehearsed, a close (though far better funded) sibling to the Young People’s Shakespeare back in September.
The play weaved together a mix of dialects and ways of speaking, reflected in the surtitles. At times, the translation closely followed Shakespeare’s text, the language being ‘high’ and poetical. At others, it was rewritten in a far more contemporary idiom, and at other points the text was completely new, filling in the spaces for this relocated play. While this was very interesting, it also meant the tone of the play varied wildly. As the person next to me commented, “Nobody would speak like this in Arabic”- characters jumped between everyday and exceedingly poetical forms of speech, with no obvious distinction between the types of scene that made this appropriate.
However, there was much to be admired about the play as well. The new setting made quite a lot of sense. Anne’s wooing now took place in a female mourning room, Richmond became the invading Allied Forces, trying to win the hearts and minds of the people, Richard’s reluctant acceptance of the crown took place on a TV debate show, with politicians and celebrities calling in, and the oil fields that Buckingham was promised became an important bartering tool as the country crumbled around Richard.
The most exciting things about this production came in the characters of Buckingham and Catesby. Catesby was her the servant of Hastings, who quickly entered Richard’s employ, playing his master and Stanley of against the court, leading the questions on the debate show, backing Buckingham in public orations, wielding a ready sword against Richard’s enemies and even offering to kill the Princes when Tyrrell was ‘unavailable’. After killing them, though, he entered a period of guilt-ridden atonement, singing a mournful dirge as he prayed for forgiveness, eventually leaving Richard alone on his horse.
Buckingham was even more interesting. From the start he manned a bank of TV monitors with views of conversations around the palace. He was in constant communication with the American Ambassador, informing him as Richard’s rivals were picked off, and helping Richard ascend to the throne. A Frenchman, Buckingham here became a representation of the West interfering in the politics of the East to its own advantage. Amoral, in complete control of Richard and concerned only with obtaining the oil fields he had been promised, he had real power among the feuding locals, and Richard completely humbled himself before him. It was Buckingham who had possibly the play’s key speech, as he explained to Richard the machinations by which he could force any political play he wanted by simply signing the right things or setting the right events in motion. Asked again, “But HOW do you excuse all of these things?” he simply replied “Three words. War. On. Terror.”
The satire of the play was pointed. At one point, a news report stated that “Minister Hastings has been arrested on suspicion of treason. In related news, Minister Hastings was hanged this morning for treason, and his head interrogated in the square”. Using one of Britain’s lowest periods, Al-Bassam has found a great deal of relevance to his own time and place, and managed to include critiques both of Western foreign policy and on the political intrigues of the Arab World.
This play seemed to me to have more theoretical artistic value than was realised on stage. It could have been a fascinating and deeply moving production, with more careful editing and more rehearsal. As it stood, it was a flawed but deeply engaging look at an unfamiliar society through one of our most familiar stories, and I did enjoy it overall.
February 10, 2007
Last night’s trip was a jolly really- a third viewing of the first part of Michael Boyd’s ‘Henry VI’ trilogy, just for fun! I’d really wanted to see all three ‘Henries’ and ‘Richard III’ in sequence, but timing hasn’t allowed, and I’m sure I’ll get the chance in 2008 when the company play eight history plays in sync!
Yet again, it was wonderful, and the company seemed to be enjoying themselves, which I suppose is an imperative when you’re required to perform three different plays the following day! It was lovely to see the Courtyard relatively full as well, which hasn’t happened very often so far.
It’s all coming to a big climax now, with the end of the Festival in just over a month. ‘Richard III: An Arab Tragedy’ and the London production of ‘Antony & Cleopatra’ await this week, then the week after sees the Polish work-in-progress production of ‘Macbeth’ and the big Sonnet project, ‘Nothing Like The Sun’. The last play in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, ‘Coriolanus’, finishes off February, followed three days later in the Swan by Cheek By Jowl’s excellent Russian ‘Twelfth Night’. We then drop to one play a week, seeing ‘As You Like It’, ‘Venus and Adonis’ and a repeat viewing of ‘The Tempest’ in quick succession. Then I pop off to Edinburgh for a few days, and return for a final pair of big-hitters, ‘The Merchant Of Venice’ and ‘King Lear’, which I’m seeing on the 30th of March.
I haven’t actually thought about what I’m going to do with this blog when the Festival finishes. I enjoy writing it, and I have plans to start going to productions further afield (which I can’t really justify at the moment thanks to the amount I’m spending at the RSC!), so it may turn into a more general theatre-going blog. Anyway, that’s something to think about nearer the time!
February 08, 2007
..... was cancelled, as there was a bomb scare in Birmingham right next to the theatre.
But I’m sure it would have been good.
February 04, 2007
The thinking about this play began way back in November, when Pippo Delbono, an Italian theatre practitioner who has won awards for his experimental community style, came to Stratford-upon-Avon to audition young actors to take part in ‘Henry V’, and also to give a talk. Entitled ‘Tales Of June’, it’s probably the biggest event I didn’t manage to attend (but it wasn’t a play, so it doesn’t count in the Complete Works!). There, I am told, he explained much of his style and the way he works.
The last three days saw the fruition of the project premiere in The Swan. Pippo and two other actors combined with a 25-strong cast of local young actors (plus a couple of his own company) to create an unusual and highly effective piece of work based on ‘Henry V’. I say based on, for this was not the play as appears on paper. Taking lengthy extracts from the text and rearranging them, this was a piece of theatre about war- the motivations, the fear, the cost and the changes it effects in participants. Much of the storytelling was through movement and visual motifs, moments of surrealism and impressions deliberately made vague. Coupled with the Italian language (surtitles were immensely useful, helping the English audience keep track of a text which jumped about in time), this was not a production for the faint-hearted, but there were treasures therein.
Henry himself was a beer-drinking, overweight slob, awakened from his stupor by calls to shake off his dissolute youth. Another actor played a composite “Friend Of The King”, and the central plot, such as it was, followed the relationship between the two. The Friend progressed from scrubbing the bare floor to being decked in leather coat and leading the battle to finally announcing victory wihle teetering on crutches and a sole remaining leg. Along the way the two engaged in an emotional journey, dealing with the fear caused by seemingly impossible odds, the grittiness of battle and mourning over the bloodshed. The Friend in particular lost his innocence through battle, while Henry started and finished with the same peculiar dance, celebrating his victory in typically loutish style.
These pictures from the internet show conceptual art detailing the look of two characters:
The highlight of the play for me was the third actor, playing “The French”. A foppish man in a suit, with a gang of sycophantic followers laughing at his every word, The French occupied a world of affectation sullied by the atrocities that then commenced. Immediately unlikable but very funny, he minced about and smugly mocked the King. Later, however, he found himself blindfolded on a chair, calling for his companions. Receiving no answer, his panic grew until he was screaming the names over and over in a horribly movig moment.
More surreal, the French’s horse was given special significance, with the Chorus dancing around it in two circles while it (a man with a head-dress made to look like a porcelain rocking horse head) gestured regally and pranced about the stage. The horse returned at the end to look at the dead French, lying beside him and mourning as if in a stylised melodrama.
The Chorus of locals were used to good effect, particularly in a moment where they quietly lay on top of each other to form an enormous pile of bodies. Much of the play was performed in slow-motion, giving an effect of events constantly building to an unknown climax and cleverly disrupted when battle commenced with a manic and disordered pandemonium onstage.
In many ways, this was more of a response to ‘Henry V’ than a retelling of it, with the elements of the play reconfigured to tell a new story of war and its effects. I will admit, i was disappointed to find it wasn’t a fuller production of the play, as ‘Henry V’ is a play I haven’t really seen performed before, but this play served a different and vital purpose and was well worth the trip to Stratford.
The Italian translation was beautiful, rolling off the tongues of the three speakers, and the visual imagery was effective. The play was a bit wearing after a while- while repetition and slow motion were key to the play’s success, they also forced time to slow down, and the hour long production felt somewhat longer. This is no real complaint though, as Pippo and his companions had found a story they felt worth the telling at the heart of Shakespeare’s play, and made it their own. I can understand it not being to everyone’s tastes, and a couple of walkouts halfway through were disappointing, but on the whole this was an enjoyable and thought-provoking take on the themes of ‘Henry V’.