All entries for March 2007

March 31, 2007

The Completed Works

So, that’s it! After a year of theatregoing, and even longer of planning and buying tickets, I’ve finished the Complete Works. I’ve seen all fifty-four main productions in the Festival, as well as a smattering of Fringe productions, talks, events and happenings. I’ve spent a great deal of money, moved house twice, had one relationship end and started another, moved job so that I’m actually working alongside the RSC, turned 24 and had holidays to Switzerland and Edinburgh. The Complete Works has been the underscore to twelve important months of my life, and is probably one of my greatest achievements in terms of the difficulty in getting into sold out shows, queuing, battling shoddy weather and, of course, having to rely on public transport to get in and out of Stratford every time I want to see a play!

A quick thanks, then, to Charlotte Mathieson, Ruth Nicol, Susan Brock, Justine Williams, Emma Argles, Sharon Miles, Carol Rutter, Julia Ihnatowicz, Lewis Beer, Lia Buddle, my parents and everyone else who has helped me with transport, tickets, accommodation, interpretation, ideas, company and everything else that has made this whole thing do-able and not a complete nightmare! Also thanks to my bosses at the Arts Centre for giving me time off to get to see plays, the box office staff at the RSC for their constant patience, particularly as I come in to transfer yet ANOTHER ticket, the Front of House staff who now know me by name and have been very welcoming, the three other Complete Works-goers who I am very grateful to for showing me that I’m not the only one foolish enough to attempt this and everyone else who’s helped me out in some way.

I leave this post with ten short anecdotes just to show you some of my personal biggest dramas of the Festival, and some of the things that have tried to thwart me:

  • Trying to get to ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ in the most torrential downpour of last year. In addition to getting soaked through, both trains and buses were heavily delayed. I arrived at the theatre quarter of an hour late, bought a ticket to the next day and went straight home on coach, being delayed for over an hour by a road accident. An 8-9 hour round trip and soaked through, for absolutely no gain!
  • At a desperate time at work, having to do an 8am-11am shift, then dash to Stratford for the afternoon one-off performance of ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’, then return to campus for 6pm in order to work til midnight, as they couldn’t get any cover for that day.
  • Queuing for over TEN hours for ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ tickets, and promptly hugging the complete stranger who came in with an unwanted spare ticket.
  • The Yellow Earth production of ‘King Lear’ running over by over an HOUR from the advertised length, and then having a post-show discussion, meaning my poor friends were left waiting in the pub wondering where the hell I was for hours.
  • After another late train, sprinting across Stratford with my ex-girlfriend in a desperate attempt to get to the Courtyard before ‘The Taming Of The Shrew’ started. Amazingly, we just caught the start of the production, having managed a five-minute mile.
  • ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’, again- being held at 9pm on a Sunday in November, the only way of getting out of Stratford was a taxi. I’ll leave you to imagine how much it cost to get back to Coventry…...
  • The Week of Hell in September, where i saw 9 performances in seven days, while managing to still work four shifts on campus. Ouch.
  • Arriving outside the theatre on November 10th a full two hours before the doors opened, on the day when I finally got my last ticket. I got a mention in an RSC programme not long after, when they referred to “the never-before seen sight of students queuing at 7 in the morning in order to get tickets for the Cube”.
  • Being gutted at having missed most of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, having only been able to get a standing ticket in the top gallery of the Swan. By a fluke, and the complete kindness of CAPITAL, getting to see it again in the very front row of the stalls, feet away from the cast, thanks to a random spare ticket.
  • And finally….. when I made one big ticket order of about 30 shows, someone at the RSC box office managed to pick up the wrong patron name. Meaning that all 30 tickets, paid for by me, were somehow reserved under someone else’s name. Luckily I also got printouts of all the tickets before the mistake was made, but for six months, every time I tried to make a query or change a ticket, I was told that I didn’t have a booking for that particular show. Aaah, nothing like a bit of unnecessary stress…..

The rumours are true….

In addition to the review, I thought I would also just confirm the rumours for those who haven’t seen it yet. Yes, there is nudity. Yes, it is Sir Ian. Yes, he is naked onstage, bar his socks, for a substantial period. I know a lot of people were very excited about that…...

King Lear @ The Courtyard Theatre

I don’t wish to come across as unprofessional, but this is going to be a very difficult review to write. Last night I sat in the front row for Trevor Nunn’s ‘King Lear’, and I still don’t feel as if I’ve entirely recovered. It was theatre as I’ve rarely experienced it- theatre that reaches inside your chest, tears out your heart and leaves you in severe emotional distress. It was also quite possibly the best thing I have seen in the last twelve months, and certainly the finest production I have EVER seen at the RSC.

From the start, Trevor Nunn set the tone with powerful organ music booming across the theatre from a backdrop that reminded me of nothing so much as ‘Phantom of the Opera’, with balcony, plush red curtain and chandelier, as the cast processed across the stage in state. Nunn had updated the play to an unspecified 18th-19th century background, the costumes a mix of late-regency/Napoleonic/Cossack military regimes. It was a setting that worked purely to the production’s advantage, particularly as the lush backdrop was gradually destroyed and the bare stage piled up with barricades and sandbags as the war blew up. An awe-inspiring war sequence saw the blinded Gloucester writhing in terror on the floor as lights flashed, guns crackled and explosions shook the theatre. In some ways, this was more akin to his world-beating musicals than his chamber Shakespeare, the production having the epic feel of a ‘Les Miserables’.

The acting quality was exactly what we have come to expect of Nunn’s unrivalled directorial output, and so we come to Sir Ian McKellen. Working entirely as part of an ensemble, rather than dominating the production, McKellen’s Lear was an intricate balance of opposing forces- the kindly father, the betrayed old man, the violent servant-beater, the confused madman and the dying man bereaved of his daughters. Clearly not content to rest on the laurels of an incredible career, he proved yet again why he’s known as the greatest Shakespeare actor of his generation with a performance that had several of the audience in tears, yet still drew laughs and gasps from us too. He was Lear, and the RSC was entirely justified in selling the production on him.

Anyone who knows me, though, knows how sceptical I am about the star system, and that there is no way I would be satisfied with a production that relied on its lead actor to carry it through. The cast were, individually and together, absolutely superb. Lear’s three daughters were highly individual, and Goneril in particular more sympathetic than usual, even giving a motherly embrace to Cordelia before she left the court. Cordelia, on the other hand, was at the start a silly little girl, who didn’t understand the consequences of the speech she was expected to meet and used the occasion to ridicule her father and sisters, laughing at the ludicrousness of the situation and not for one second expecting it to mean anything- her reaction as she was disinherited was one of utter shock and disbelief, staggering around the stage as her world collapsed. Far more modern- and far less drippy- than she often seems, she brought a breath of fresh air to the part.

A powerful Edgar, played by Ben Meyjes, gave an outstanding showcase of his talent, going from bookish to naked and Gollum-like to hardy servant to chivalric hero, flicking between accents impeccably and giving an emotional performance even when simply watching the older men talking. The stage fight was the best I have ever seen, and did credit to he and Philip Winchester’s Edmund, but especially to fights director Malcolm Ranson who created a very real and very exciting fight, with furniture and cups flying about, brother striking out in real rage and absolutely no sense of staginess about it.

Every time I think of Sylvester McCoy’s Fool, a tear wells up. Funny and moving at the same time, he redefined the role for me, giving a beautiful representation of a servant trying desperately to do his job in the face of overwhelming sorrow at his master’s deteriorating condition. Famous for playing the spoons, McCoy showed off this talent throughout, but by the time he was soaked through in the storm he was barely able to raise a smile anymore, shouting his jokes at Lear in frustrated hope. The first act ended with his collapsing onto a bench sobbing while Gloucester watched, before soldiers arrived to take the Earl away at gunpoint. Laughing at the wretched figure of the Fool, they stood him up and put a rifle to his head, before having a better idea. Taking him to a strut that stood stage-left, they stood him on a chair, put a rope around his neck and hanged him there and then. As the house lights came up for the interval, he continued to swing there the audience appalled at the sight, and he wasn’t taken down for some minutes. While this isn’t the first time the Fool has been hanged onstage, I doubt it has ever been quite so moving.

I could talk about this production for hours- the chilling moment where Kent marched off on his ‘journey with a pistol loaded, ready to end it as soon as he left our sight, the beautiful death scene that left the audience emotionally gutted and mostly unable to even stand for an ovation, the maid who was dragged offstage to be raped by Lear’s soldiers and was twitchy and petrified for the remainder of the play, the real downpour of water that drenched Lear and the Fool (and us!) and the excellent performance as Gloucester by William Gaunt, bloody onstage blinding included. My only criticism was the unjustifiably noisy and disruptive scene changes- the setting up of Edgar’s shelter at the back of the stage was so loud that I couldn’t even hear the scene at the front between Edmund and Cornwall (it sounds picky to criticise a scene change, but do ask anyone who was sitting in the side sections of the stalls, and they’ll agree). That doesn’t matter in the end, though, for this was a truly amazing experience. The hype, I humbly admit, was justified.

Old friends: Richard Goulding and John Heffernan

One of the satisfying things about seeing the entire Complete Works has been the opportunity to see actors – often in the smaller parts- returning to the stage again and again, excelling in parts and coming to audience’s attentions. Rob Carroll is a good example- a bit player in the ‘Antony’/’Caesar’/’Tempest’ company, who got to fully showcase his talents with an excellent performance in ‘The Rape Of Lucrece’ and in two workshopping sessions. ‘Regime Change’ gave several of the same company, particulaly Julian Bleach, Joseph Alessi and John Hopkins, an excellent platform to play very different parts. Harriet Walter’s appearance in ‘Venus and Adonis’ was a wonderful surprise; the brilliant Peter de Jersey has quietly appeared understudying in ‘Antony’ and performing ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’; Jane Lapotaire and Henry Goodman made unannounced returns in ‘The Rape Of Lucrece’ and ‘Regime Change; Curtis Flowers’ started the Festival with ‘Romeo’ and ended it with ‘Coriolanus’ and so on. Growing to know the work of these performers has been one of my highlights.

It was with pleasure last night at ‘King Lear’, therefore, that I saw two young actors sharing the stage with a highly prestigious cast- two actors who’d both appeared in smaller roles earlier in the Festival and had clearly been picked out for their talent. John Heffernan played a series of small roles in the ‘Romeo’/’Much Ado’/’King John’ cycle (his most memorable role probably being the Sexton in ‘Much Ado’), but last night he got a much more important role as Oswald, giving an excellent performance, veering between his cowardliness facing Kent and his would-be evil as he prepared to kill Gloucester.

Richard Goulding (Knight/ Messenger and Prospero)

Even more fascinating was the pleasant sight of Richard Goulding, playing a Knight and Messenger among other smaller roles. He had some of the meatier supporting parts, including delivering the news of Cornwall’s death and Lear’s killing of the Captain. As a friend of mine pointed out in the interval, however, he has also played a part earlier in the Festival- for one afternoon only, he was Prospero in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s ‘The Tempest’. He gave a solid and mature performance in that role, a performance which I certainly remember helped him stand out over the other (very good) students in the production. According to my contact, though, it was as a result of that performance (done while he was still at drama school) that he was handpicked out to join Trevor Nunn’s latest project and play in the biggest production of the Festival opposite Sir Ian McKellen.

If that is, in fact, what happened, then that’s a pretty amazing impact of the Complete Works Festival for one young actor- to be invited with his school to perform for one afternoon in the Swan and in a couple of local schools, and as a result of that to close the Festival at the Courtyard Theatre under Trevor Nunn. He was seemingly undaunted by the task, and played excellently, particularly in his grief over Cordelia. I look forward to seeing him as Konstantin in ‘The Seagull’, and hope even better things come of this for him!

March 29, 2007

The Merchant Of Venice @ The Swan Theatre

The ‘lasts’ are coming thick and fast. Gregory Doran, according to reports from his creative team talk, was frustrated at the focus on the ‘lastness’ of his production, it being the final play to be performed in the RST before its closure. Tonight, there were three more lasts. The last visiting (and international) company, the last play of the Complete Works in the Swan and, more personally to me, the last play of Shakespeare’s I had yet to see on the stage (apart from ‘Edward III’).

It surprises me sometimes that I’ve never seen ‘Merchant’ live, as I’m so familiar with the three main screen versions (Trevor Nunn’s production for the National Theatre, the BBC version and Michael Radford’s big screen version with Al Pacino). This production, however, stood well apart with its translation to the near future of America.

The three caskets that Portia’s suitors have to choose from were, here, three Apple Mac laptops with video screens suspended overhead, that played video clips to those who ‘opened’ them. Venice itself was a bank full of suited and deeply artificial business types, whose smiles hid an ever-present competitiveness that gave them all a very unpleasant feel- Salerio and Solanio in particular were only consistent in their two-facedness. Antonio’s repressed homosexuality was buried within his uptightness, and Gratiano was a frat boy in a suit, a deeply uncouth kid who Nerissa was arguing with almost as soon as they married.

This, however, was Shylock’s tragedy. Notable in the programme for this play was the fact that F. Murray Abraham was in every single production photograph, and the ‘Perspectives’ section was a list of quotes about anti-semitis over the ages. Of course, having an Oscar-winning actor heading your cast is bound to draw some attention, but the production went so far as to conduct the curtain calls initially without him, before he emerged to take a solo bow. As he told us in the pre-show talk, he actually rehearsed separately to the rest of the cast in order to further his sense of isolation, which came across splendidly.

F. Murray was spectacular, a truly moving Shylock, following in the footsteps of Henry Goodman and Al Pacino- he didn’t radically alter the part, but performed it admirably and with great feeling. In one shocking moment, Antonio spat at him from the chair where he was bound, and Shylock spat back down on him. This was a Shylock more than ready to take his pound of flesh, and it took Portia’s screamed “Stay!” to stop him.

The comic highlight of the production was Arnie Burton’s camp and fully-fleshed Balthazar, a flunky with an earpiece phone who flirted with Morrocco’s male pilot, moved about to try and get reception and gave a girly shriek when one of his precious laptops almost got broken. By contrast, Kenajuan Bentley’s Launcelot Gobbo (old Gobbo was cut) was embittered and deeply hostile to Lorenzo- his jokey refusals to do his work were here performed as direct defiance of the Venetian, and he shoulder-barged the preppy Lorenzo out of the way as he swaggered out. While deeply intriguing, it was never quite clear what caused this conflict- was he in love with Jessica, was he becoming complacent out of Shylock’s service, or was he reacting against supposed racism as a black servant? Every review has a different theory, and mine is simply that this was unexplained, a moment of style over substance.

That was, unfortunately, one of the overall feelings of this production. A great many fascinating ideas, but a feeling of unbalance and flashy style rather than dramatic coherence. Making Shylock the centre of a production is now commonplace- but of course, he only features in five or six scenes, and a production cannot stand up on him alone. The scenes among the Venetians occasionally became dull, and there seemed to be so many subplots, confilcts and agendas among the supporting characters that no one was fully borne out. A beautiful final moment as the cast drank champagne in celebration highlighted the flawed love in these unpleasant people- Jessica and Lorenzo had been fighting for some time, Nerissa was already disillusioned with Gratiano, Portia was still dressed as a man and Antonio stood alone, the lights lingering on him for a second as the rest of the stage blacked out. There are no happy endings in this ‘Merchant’, but these were the results of petulance, sudden decisions and quick twists in character rather than due to a sustained attempt at a clear through line in character development.

It was a very enjoyable performance, and the reaction it got from the audience was one of the best I’ve seen this year- a couple of standing ovations and rapturous applause from the VERY mixed audience (there were many people there who knew nothing about the play, but at the same time many of the long-term regulars were in too). It reminded me in style very much of the Washington Shakespeare Theatre Company’s ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, which was mostly panned by the critics- and, as so often at the RSC, it was the prestigious central performance that seemed to make the difference. It was clear and fun, with an excellent Shylock and much cleverness, but in my opinion didn’t bring much new insight to a play that gives opportunity for so much more.

F.Murray Abraham talk @ The Swan Gallery

Firstly, I want to say that F. Murray Abraham is one of the nicest ‘famous’ people I’ve ever met. In a pre-event chat with my supervisor and an RSC events manager, he still insisted on bringing me into the conversation, asking me my opinions and generally welcoming me into a discussion I wasn’t even sure I was meant to be at. I have to confess to a little bit of a thrill at being chatted to normally by an Oscar-winning actor, but still- lovely man.

F. Murray Abraham

F. Murray is in Stratford playing Shylock with Theatre For A New Audience, and last night saw he and Carol Rutter in conversation as a special event for RSC Patrons. This was an immensely interesting experience for me- the Patrons are a small group of RSC supporters who give gifts upwards of £1000, many as much as £10,000, and for whom the RSC puts on special events as a means of thanks. I was there as Carol’s guest, but it was extremely interesting seeing this other side of the RSC, where wine and canapes were passed around and most of the audience (about 25 strong) nodded in agreement when one person mentioned seeing Oliver playing Shylock. However much time I spend studying Shakespearean performance, these were the folks who’ve been coming to this theatre for as much as fifty years, and the cumulative knowledge of performance history in that room was quite intimidating.

The talk itself touched on several interesting points, with F. Murray explaining his personal credo, much discussion of the perceived ownership of Shakespeare by Britons and a lot of praise of the Swan, which he believed was the best venue he’d ever performed in in over 40 years of acting. I won’t bore readers with a full recap of everything he talked about- what seems important to note is the intimacy of this event. Actor, academic and audience all together in a very small room, having a general chat, followed by mingling with wine afterwards. The ability of the RSC to offer this kind of event, when you compare it to other theatre companies, is quite extraordinary. It seems a shame, however, that for most of the audience, the closest they get to speaking to the actors is in a post-show discussion- this strikes me as the kind of event that gets people excited about theatre-going. I’d love to see this kind of thing done on a far wider scale.

March 25, 2007

Before the Bardathon

As we enter the final week of my year-long project, I’m going to be posting a few retrospective entries in addition to the final couple of reviews. First up, I thought for interest I’d mention my PREVIOUS Shakespeare theatre-going.

I haven’t been attending the theatre as long as many people think. Being a Northerner born-and-bred, and not having a lot of money at that, my theatregoing ability was severely restricted until I started university five and a half years ago. Even since then, it’s only been a couple of years since I really discovered Stratford and started going regularly, and my experience of Shakespearean performance in London is also somewhat limited. What I HAVE done, however, is read and study performance history extensively, which has helped me catch up in no small part on the productions I’ve missed. In addition, I’ve watched pretty much every screen production I can get my hands on.

So, before the Complete Works, what have I seen? A good few productions still, though my memory of them fails in several places. For interest, then, here’s what I have seen:

AS YOU LIKE IT (RSC 2005, dir. Dominic Cooke, at the RST)

Aside from a big tree, a very VERY dull production of ‘As You Like It’ by Dominic Cooke. Some nice moments, but from the Circle the production died a slow and painful death in the second act, which was far longer than the first, and simple wasn’t funny apart from Paul Chahidi’s Touchstone.

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (RSC 2005, dir. Nancy Meckler, at the RST)

Hysterical and highly acclaimed, as well as introducing me to the talents of Forbes Masson and Jonathan Slinger as the Dromios. Fast, funny and exactly how an ‘Errors’ should be.

HAMLET (RSC 2004, dir. Michael Boyd, at the RST)

I don’t remember much of this, apart from a few single moments. I do remember, however, Toby Stephens’ Hamlet being pretty damned good!

HENRY V (WUDS 2002 at Warwick Arts Centre Studio)

A student production- very low budget, but lively and, particularly in the memorable scenes involving the four soldiers of different nationalities, quite funny too. An all-female cast was the main innovation.

KING JOHN (RSC 2001, dir. Gregory Doran, at the Swan)

Memorable mostly for a spectacular fall from the upper balcony for Arthur, and for the spectacular use of flags and symbols. Generally a very good production, though I enjoyed the 2006 production better.

JULIUS CAESAR (WUDS 2002/3? at Warwick Arts Centre Theatre)

Notable for being the last (I believe) non-musical student production to be staged in the main theatre at Warwick Arts Centre. Solid performances all round, a good use of stage space and innovative use of hand-held cameras for the war scenes made this a very interesting production.

MACBETH (Theatre Babel 2002?, at Warwick Arts Centre Theatre)

Not the greatest ‘Macbeth’, but a fantastic set of dangling swords that descended to ground level and were a constant reminder of the ever-present threat.

MACBETH (RSC 2004, dir. Dominic Cooke, at the RST)

Bizarrely, all I can remember of this production is the England scene, particularly Clive Wood’s Macduff. I seem to remember enjoying it, however.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (RSC 2005, dir. Gregory Doran, at the RST)

Truly magical, and only bettered by Tim Supple’s Indian ‘Dream’. Spectacular use of scenery, puppets and physical movement made this a true joy to watch, along with Malcolm Storry’s excellent Bottom and yet another hysterical performance by Paul Chahidi as Quince. The ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ will remain with me forever.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (RSC, 2006, at Warwick Arts Centre)

I can’t find anything anywhere about this event, which was performed for one night only at Warwick Arts Centre as part of a tour. Part concert, part performance, it saw a major orchestra performing Mendelssohn’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, while RSC actors performed the play between the beautiful score. While necessarily heavily limited by a tiny stage space and the concert format, this was a very fun version of the play, with excellent conflict between the lovers in particular and a superb orchestra playing the most famous Shakespearean music there is. Unfortunately, the evening was coloured by the fact my back collapsed and I had to be taken home by an ambulance afterwards…...

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (WUDS 2004?, dir. Ben Fowler, at Warwick Arts Centre Studio)

An interesting ‘Much Ado’, with spectacularly staged overhearing scenes and some interesting things to say about the play. Variable performances, but overall an interesting production.

OTHELLO (Cheek By Jowl 2004, dir. Declan Donnellan, at Riverside Studios London)

One of those divisive productions which people either loved or hated. Seeing it in traverse in London helped, I believe, but still I disliked the slow-talking Iago who seemed to have little control over his actions. However, the cast in general were excellent and the brutal murder of Desdemona, picking her up by the neck, was truly shocking.

SIR THOMAS MORE (RSC 2005, dir. Robert Delamere, at the Swan)

A highly enjoyable production that first introduced me to Nigel Cooke, who was similarly excellent in ‘Pericles’ and ‘A Winter’s Tale’ this season. Violent and exciting, a production which made a very strong case for the increased study in the theatre of this play.

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (RSC Touring Company 2000, dir. Lindsay Posner, at Epic Leisure Centre, Ellesmere Port)

A fascinating induction, setting the play in modern day with Sly surfing for porn on the internet and eventually stumbling across an online video of the play. After that, a very funny production that still stays in the mind despite the relatively long time since and my unfamiliarity with it. Still the only RSC touring production I’ve seen.

THE TEMPEST (Shakespeare’s Globe 2000, dir. Lenka Udovicki, at the Globe)

My only experience of the Globe, and an interesting production- with a memorably ethereal Ariel who left the auditorium through the audience, a violent Caliban who kept the crowd laughing with his constant swearing at the overhead planes, and Vanessa Redgrave as an interesting Prospero.

TWELFTH NIGHT (RSC 2005, dir. Michael Boyd, at the RST)

I remember much favourable about this production, mostly the comedians- Forbes Masson, Andrew Mackay and Clive Wood winding up Richard Cordery’s Malvolio to perfection, before going on to greater things in the History plays this year. However, I hated this at the time- overall it was sloppy and dull, with awful performances from Viola, Olivia and Sebastian in particular. Lots of interest, lots of style, but very few laughs and an ultimately dull reading.

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (RSC 1998, dir. Edward Hall, at the Swan)

And finally, the first Shakespeare I ever saw. This picture is the only bit I really remember- a very funny Crab and Launce, who stay in my mind over nine years later. The Swan has remained one of my favourite theatres over the years too, and it’s nice to think back this far, to the start of my RSC viewing, and still be able to recall little things about a play.

March 20, 2007

The Tempest @ The Novello Theatre

I’ve been very unfair to this production of ‘The Tempest’. I’ve seen it twice before, but the first time I was distracted for personal reasons, and the second we were severely late, so I’ve never been in a position to sit down and simply enjoy it. Last night remedied that, in an evening that made me eat a bit of humble pie. I thorougly enjoyed last night’s performance, and saw much in it that convinces me it’s one of the best ‘Tempests’ of recent years.

Not that my earlier criticisms were necessarily wrong, of course. Craig Gazey is still a highly irritating Trinculo, seemingly designed entirely to appeal to the kids in the audience, with an horrifically artificial performance that completely disappoints after his excellent performances in ‘Julius Caesar’ and particularly ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. He isn’t bad, per se, so much as seeming to be acting in an entirely different play. The production suffers badly in terms of pace as well- an opening that I still believe is far too static (note, please, how the lights of the ship swing about madly, yet the actors stand casually on the deck talking about the storm, not even swaying until a sound cue reminds them to lurch to the sides) leads into a series of slow-moving scenes that simply do not engage.

Until, that is, Julian Bleach appears. In what I honestly feel is the most exciting, innovative, daring and spellbinding performance of the entire Festival (out of the fifty-two productions I’ve seen so far!), Bleach completely redefines the part. Inhuman, terrifying and all-powerful, his Ariel stalks the stage with grace and attitude, manipulating events effortlessly despite his constant torment. He seemed constantly ready to turn on his master, yet his “Do you love me?” was heartbreaking in its sincerity. His cracked singing drew on the rawest emotions, and his final disappearance into a ball of flame is a fitting end. This is Ariel’s ‘Tempest’, rearranged to emphasise his appearances, and it is no surprise that London’s publicity material has featured his portrait almost as prominently as Patrick Stewart’s. His emergence from the bloody seal is one of the most important moments of the year, and his performance one of the greatest. Simply astounding.

Elsewhere, I appreciated John Light’s energetic and subjugated Caliban far more this time round, and was particularly impressed with his athleticism. Ken Bones was as excellent as ever, and John Hopkins stood out more this time around as a witty and nervy Sebastian, almost more evil than his companion.

Patrick Stewart, lastly, really captivated me this time. The insecurities, weaknesses and subtleties he brings out of the character go a long way to humanising Prospero, yet he remained powerful throughout. Much credit must go to Rupert Goold for his direction and setting of the play, that allow Prospero to be a working man in trousers and warm clothes, as practical as he is magical. Ultimately, though, it is down to Stewart to prove why he is so highly regarded, and his performance is a triumph. Unlike ‘Much Ado’ and ‘Antony’, which both suffered in their transition to the London stage, ‘The Tempest’ has only bettered with time.

March 16, 2007

Venus & Adonis: A Masque For Puppets @ The Swan Theatre

One of the problems with revivals is that the press aren’t particularly concerned second time around. ‘Venus and Adonis’ doesn’t have a press night during its week-long stay at the Swan, and all professional reviews of it are buried deep in internet archives. A large proportion of the Stratford audience saw it in 2004, when it first came around, and so there hasn’t been as much excitement about this production as I belive there was first time round. Which is a shame, as last night’s very short (only an hour) presentation was truly beautiful, definitely at the top end of the RSC’s productions this year.

I’m lucky enough to have seen this style of puppet theatre before, both in Doran’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and in productions at Warwick Arts Centre, and it never ceases to amaze me. The puppets were handled so masterfully that they really came to life, and the creators had the tiniest details down to perfection- the breath of the boar blowing Venus’ cloak, the tilts of the horses’ heads, the neutral expression on Venus’ face that nonetheless conveyed mischief, grief and joy.

Harriet Walter narrated the poem, giving a splendid reading that brought out the poetry clearly and dramatically- it was funny, moving, upsetting and sexy all at once. She also took on Venus’ voice with startling effect, to such an extent that a direct address she gave to Venus gave me a real jolt, as I suddenly remembered that it wasn’t Venus herself speaking. It may sound silly, but Harriet’s performance was spellbinding and so well synchronised with the action that you could genuinely lose yourself in the story.

The music was also wonderful, provided by a lone guitarist who took a prominent position with the narrator in front of the stage, and drove the action forward with a range of classical melodies. His long instrumental covering the passage of the night was particularly beautiful.

This play belonged to the puppets though. Whether it was Death, his arms descending from the sides of the tiny proscenium arch stage to cradle Venus, the Boar scuffling round the audience or the horses vying with Adonis for freedom, they were so well presented that I feel justified judging this as a ‘real’ play with proper actors. The skill and craftmanship were impressive, but far more impressive was the fact that you could watch the play just as easily as if human actors were playing the parts.

The age limit on the production specifically refuses under-15s from watching the play. It was vivid, and the director didn’t shy away from bringing out Venus’ aggressive sexuality as she wrapped herself around her reluctant lover. As with Doran’s ‘The Rape Of Lucrece’, it was easy to forget that this is a narrative poem, not a play- the characters are so vividly painted and the plot so engaging that it immediately lends itself to the stage.

The production moves to London next week, with John Hopkins (Octavius Caesar from ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, another great actor) taking over the narration, and I’m very interested to see it there and see how a male voice lends itself to Venus’ musings. It would also be fun to see the Little Angel Theatre, dedicated to the presentation of similar puppet shows. I thoroughly recommend this production to anyone, particularly if you don’t know the poem- it’s beautiful, clear and visually stunning, a wonderful contribution to the Festival.

March 09, 2007

As You Like It @ The Swan Theatre

‘As You Like It’ is my least favourite Shakespeare play to watch. It’s interesting enough to read, and funny, but every production I’ve seen of it – the BBC film, the recent RSC production, the Christine Edzard film, even the half hour animated version – has left me bored. Having seen some negative reviews of the new production by Sheffield Theatres before last night, I was worried that, yet again, I was going to be disappointed by an ‘As You Like It’.

In some ways, I was. The first half was slow, dull, uninspired. The audience were laughing, as Stratford audiences are often wont to do, at the jokes they knew they were supposed to laugh at, regardless of whether they were delivered in a funny way or not. The director was throwing in lots of clever little tricks, but the play left me as cold as the wintry set.

However, at some point in the second half, I found myself laughing, and realised that despite my reservations, at some point the production had actually become quite enjoyable. I can’t pin it down, much as I try, but here are some thoughts about the good, the bad and the ugly of the play.

THE UGLY: Orlando. It sounds cruel, but I really disliked Sam Troughton’s Orlando. His sunken eyes and facial grimaces made him quite unattractive to look at, to a point where you had to wonder why Rosalind had any interest in him. He reminded me of no-one so much as Lex Shrapnel, who played John Tablot and Richmond in the history plays. However, while Lex’s epic style worked in the histories context, Orlando isn’t a character who benefits from seeming – frankly – obnoxious. He wasn’t appalling, and his early scenes were good, but once in the forest he appeared to be acting in quite a different play to everyone else.

THE BAD: At least, in terms of the play’s less scrupulous characters. The court was a totalitarian state that people had to be let in and out of, through a huge sliding door that saw courtiers shut out into a freezing fantasy world. The evil Duke moved about in a wheelchair, and upon Orlando’s flight searchlights swept the auditorium as he barked through a megaphone. It was quite an effective idea, that gave the forest of Arden by contrast a fairytale feel all to itself.

Less good, however, was the ending, which went on forever and a day- as first the couples were paired off, then a country dance was had, interrupted in order to allow Jaques to disappear off, followed by more dancing, then a return to the court, and finally by the epilogue. Much of the good redeeming work of the second half was undone in a dull and interminable finale that had more false endings than ‘The Lord Of The Rings’, and wasn’t even particularly good, despite Rosalind’s best attempts to engage the audience by kissing one old man.

THE GOOD: However, there were strengths. The Forest of Arden was in constant construction, which gave an interesting and unusual ongoing visual conceit, as props were built into the scenery. Throughout, Jaques and Corin acted as almost choric characters- the former addressing the audience directly at the start and cue-ing lighting changes and the opening and closing of curtains, while the latter moved the sun and moon about and appeared with huge brushes to clear the stage at the end.

Eve Best’s Rosalind was excellent, a fascinating mix of neuroses, repressed sexual stirrings, playfulness and earnestness. Harry Peacock was also very good as Touchstone, despite taking an accent and various phrasings from Griff Rhys Jones’ screen performance. His sheer enthusiasm and energy kept the audience entertained, and an additional showdown with the (here) slightly evil William was roundly applauded.

It’s very easy to watch plays thinking in terms of good and bad, and to be critical of points and moments. I believe it’s important, though, to be able to sit back and enjoy a production, as often plays are far more than the sum of their parts. The spirit of this ‘As You Like It’ ultimately won through, ploughing through the ropey sections and creating a piece that, though flawed, entertained. It’s certainly the best production of this play that I’ve ever seen, even if it reinforced my views that it’s a play that works far better on paper than in performance.

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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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  • I think you may be over analysing. Wasn't it just meant to be a bit of a history lesson? I remember … by Sue on this entry
  • Very interesting and commendable, it'll be great to see some more of the plays given this attention.… by on this entry
  • The lack of venture in the filming is probably due to NBC Universal being onboard. They provided the… by Duncan on this entry
  • I have been watching the Hollow Crown and i have enjoyed it very much, the acting i think has been v… by Carole Heath on this entry
  • I know what you mean Steve, and it's a reading I appreciate theoretically, but I felt that Part 1 re… by on this entry


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