All entries for March 2010

March 26, 2010

Romeo and Juliet (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

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From its very opening, Rupert Goold's new Romeo and Juliet was intent on forcing its audience to view a familiar play afresh. Sam Troughton's Romeo, in jeans and hoodie, wandered onto the stage with a camera, taking photographs as if a tourist (though this amateur stalker had a different kind of attraction in mind) while listening to an Italian-language tape that repeated the Prologue in both Italian and English. As Romeo saw his Verona anew, so too were we asked to throw aside our usual attitudes to Romeo and Juliet and rediscover the play.

The opening statement of intent pulled few punches. The brawl between Capulets and Montagues quickly accelerated against a background of Catholic candles and projected flames. Capulet and Montague themselves engaged in a protracted broadsword battle while their wives scratched at each other's faces; servants tussled with a variety of improvised weapons, sending up jets of smoke from the stage as they struck each other; and finally, in a wonderfully powerful moment, the stuttering Benvolio turned to see Joseph Arkley's Tybalt, with heavy Scottish brogue, emerge as if from Hell itself, through the iron bars and flames. Striking a match, Tybalt threw it to the floor, provoking a firebolt to roar up in Benvolio's face. This monster proceeded to tie Benvolio to a stake and smother him with petrol, and the makeshift cremation was only prevented by the last minute arrival of Escalus and a barrage of fire extinguishers.

Heat and fire pervaded the production, from the bloody rage of Romeo's later murder of Tybalt to the passionate flames between the young lovers. It was well suited to a rare production of the play that had genuine emotional clout at every level. Goold's Romeo and Juliet was a tragedy of impetuosity, uncontrollable passion and instinctive decisions that saw its young protagonists running headlong towards destruction.

This was perhaps best realised in Jonjo O'Neill's spectacular Mercutio, in a performance one can only describe as "unleashed". Dashing in cape and peroxide blonde hair, O'Neill really was the gentleman "that loves to hear himself talk" (II.iii.138), running off his long speeches with a frenzied energy that at times became terrifying in its vehemence (Oliver Ryan's twitchy Benvolio spent much of his time looking at his friend aghast). Repeatedly lost in self-delusion and performative narcissism, O'Neill received spontaneous applause for several of his set-pieces, most notably a hysterically hideous interlude where, calling for the hidden Romeo, he began miming Romeo's copulation with Rosaline. Getting engrossed in his own thrusting action, the simulacrum became more violent and ecstatic, before Mercutio mimed actually crawling inside Rosaline and began an entirely surreal Alice in Wonderland parody which saw him taking tea with invisible strangers and squelching around in vaginal juices before, in a paroxysm of terror, rushing to escape and "rebirthing" himself into the world. Appalling to describe, it nonetheless had the audience quite literally collapsing in the aisles. His mockery of the Nurse, meanwhile, became an improvised music hall routine culminating in his screaming of "WHORE!" in her face followed by a slapstick chase around the stage. This character existed beyond the boundaries of normal social behaviour, his reckless excesses rendering him at once entertaining and extremely dangerous. These extra-textual performances did threaten to unbalance the production, which invariably struggled to recover following his grand exits, but served the larger purpose of destabilising the story and making it unpredictable once more.

O'Neill's performance was also part of a concerted effort to make the play funny once more, particularly in the first half. From the opening disarming of the Capulets and Montagues, where Capulet laid down a veritable arsenal of personal weaponry concealed about him, to Mercutio's brandishing of a bicycle pump against Tybalt and the Nurse's flirtatious treatment of Friar Laurence, there was plenty to laugh at in this world. Grown-ups were as impulsive and reckless as their children; and while this was a source of comedy, it was also a source of great pathos. A breakfast scene between the Capulets was a highlight as Mariah Gale's Juliet was berated for defying her father. In dressing gown, Richard Katz cut an initially comic figure as Capulet before bringing out a terrifying intensity and violence against his daughter: throwing water at her, screaming in her face and leaving her sobbing on the floor. These were not the stock actions of a stage tyrant, but the all-too-believable bullying of a recognisable father. Even more upsetting was the sight of Christine Entwistle's Lady Capulet in the same scene. Fabulous in her earlier appearances at the Capulet's ball, Lady Capulet was badly hit by the death of Tybalt, and Entwistle transformed into a dewigged, chain-smoking manic depressive, bitter at both family and foes and careless of her daughter's anguish. Following these, Noma Dumezweni's Nurse encouraged and comforted Juliet, giving the impression of care but then going on to tell her to take a second husband. Between the three, then, Juliet was attacked physically by her father, passively by her mother and insidiously by her Nurse, driving her to a peak of despair that finally broke forth as she stood in Friar Laurence's cell, pressing a knife against her chest and screaming for release. The potential of this string of action in the hands of good actors was fully realised here, investing the audience in Juliet's plight.

The casting of Gale and Sam Troughton as the titular lovers was perhaps the production's best decision: rather than prioritise the appearance of youth and pluck actors straight out of drama school (which has been the killing blow for so many recent productions), the RSC recognised that experienced actors can act young, while also having the far greater range earned through years of performing Shakespeare. Gale's Juliet was marvellous, a teenager beginning to become confident with her body and public image but also prone to regressing into childish habits when cornered. She danced a wild and charged dance with masked revellers for the benefit of her father's party guests and was confident enough to kiss Romeo in the centre of the throng and then leave him hanging for more; yet in only the next scene she was kicking her heels while sitting on the ledge of her balcony, a child once more. Juliet was, in the best possible sense, not an innocent child: she knew what she wanted and how to get it, but her insistence on doing things properly and not rushing positioned her as the partner thinking of the long term.

Troughton's Romeo, meanwhile, was a creature of instinct and immediate gratification. Every time he kissed Juliet he made to start taking off his clothes, and had to be restrained by her. His inconstancy in changing affections, and his overdramatising of every situation, was lightly mocked but sympathetic, treated as the inevitable state of youth. This Romeo had at least one eye constantly on the heavens; racked by internal conflict (right from the start, a physical tic had him pressing a finger hard into his temples, as if suffering constantly from a superfluity of thoughts) and external, he addressed Fate, gods and the stars as a matter of course, relating his own suffering to its universal significance. As a counterpart to Mercutio, he was similarly preoccupied with the extremes of emotion and understanding, and his speed of action and speech left him little time to think. His stillest moment was at the close of the long first half: with murder, marriage and banishment all behind him, he finally approached Juliet's balcony, climbed up and embraced her, the lights going down as they began to consummate their marriage. This moment of stillness was pivotal to Romeo. When we next met him in exile, his greeting of the news of Juliet's death was met in relative calm and his subsequent actions were desperate but considered. Sex, for this Romeo, was the moment of growing up.

Among the minor characters, some of Goold's decisions worked better than others. The decision to have Gruffudd Glyn's Balthasar deliver his news of Juliet's death in a broken falsetto song was tonally disruptive: it was presumably meant to be a ritualised moment of mourning, but instead had the audience laughing. Far better was the decision to clothe Patrick Romer's Apothecary (the second time he's played the role for the RSC in the last five years) identically to Romeo, the two hooded men mirroring each other as they exchanged their respective poisons. Dyfan Dwyfor's Peter was comic and elegantly dressed as a page, but pleasingly not made ridiculous. James Howard's Paris was dignified, and David Carr's Escalus brought a strong sense of personal emotion into his pronouncements.

Dumezweni's Nurse was a strong comic presence throughout the play, self-possessed and sassy whether helping to dress Lady Capulet or flirting in a mask at the Capulet's Ball. She even enjoyed Mercutio's initial taunting, until his excesses incited her to physically threaten him. The tenderness between her and Juliet made her final "betrayal" of her ward the more heartbreaking from Juliet's perspective. This relationship neatly mirrored that of Romeo and Mercutio, whose earlier likeness made Mercutio's condemning of the two houses the more powerful. Stabbed by a retracting blade concealed in Tybalt's glove, the humour of his dying situation never left him, but as he staggered backwards up a flight of steps (ascending towards the bright lights of the afterlife), his growing distance from Romeo at ground level physically realised their irrevocable separation.

The same flight of steps led down to the Capulet's tomb for a well-performed finale. Aside from toying with the audience by having Juliet stir behind Romeo's back before he drank the poison, the emotion of the dual deaths was effective, particularly as Juliet stirred to find Romeo's head in her lap but point-blank refused to accept what she saw. Forbes Masson's Friar Laurence (very strong throughout) stood at the top of the steps pleading with her to leave, but the blocking meant she could see nothing but the head of her beloved in her lap, at which she finally, emotionally, broke down.

In an intelligent final twist, the mix of Elizabethan and contemporary costume elements that had run throughout the play was exchanged in the final moments for a deliberately uniform modern mundanity of dress. Balthasar accompanied Romeo to the tomb in full Elizabethan dress, but was brought back by the police in a hoodie and trainers. Police detectives with radios descended into the tomb, accompanied by the Capulets and Montagues in everyday clothes. This simple visual shift translated the melodramatic tragedy into the kind of news story that we're all familiar with, as parents tried to make sense of something they had no way of comprehending. Romeo and Juliet lay frozen, out of time, but to their parents the paint was entirely present, and for the disillusioned and pessimistic police officers it was even routine. Our youthful excesses and romanticisation of suicide and drama may lead us to tragedy, but the results of those tragedy are neither romantic nor dramatic. Where Romeo anticipated universal significance in his death, he received only a domestic mourning from his grieving parents. It was this that seemed to be the ultimate point of Goold's reading, a downbeat end to a powerful production.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

March 05, 2010

King Lear (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

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The last time the RSC produced King Lear at the Courtyard Theatre, it was one of the most high-profile theatrical events of the decade. Directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Ian McKellen, it was the climax of the Complete Works Festival as well as going on to generate an international tour, a West End run, national television broadcast and extensive DVD sales. The ongoing afterlife of this production meant that this new production on the same stage felt like a rather sudden return to the play for the company, demanding it particularly work to distinguish itself from its immediate predecessor.

The unique advantage available to Associate Director David Farr, returning to the Courtyard after last year's successful Winter's Tale, was working once again with the RSC's current three-year ensemble company, now halfway through its time performing together. This allowed Farr to explore the merits of directing Lear with a relatively democratic company, as opposed to one led by a single star actor. In the opening scene, Greg Hicks' Lear demonstrated this attitude admirably: his king took a position of central dominance for the division of the kingdom, but afterwards faded into the background as Cordelia's suitors bartered over her, yielding the focus of attention to his disowned daughter.

Hicks' unshowy Lear was a minor revelation, taking a fresh approach to the King's decline. From the start, his authority and command were uncertain. A grand procession announced his arrival, with courtiers bowing to the stage's rear entrance in expectance. After a long, embarrassing pause, a loud laugh came from the back of the auditorium, and Lear ambled in from the audience, forcing the courtiers to quickly rearrange themselves. This playful king ruled not with supernatural command or martial power, but with a combination of avuncular humour, petulant anger and impulsive unpredictability: his sudden grasp of a sword to strike down Darrell D'Silva's Kent in the first scene, for example, was created with horror by a court who, as a man, rushed to stop him. Moments like this insinuated a court dynamic of tolerance and sycophantic respect for a weak king: humoured as long as his orders were reasonable, but coddled and restrained when his orders were not approved. This extended into his relationship with his daughters, over whom he exerted a similar blend of bullying, emotional blackmail and genuine affection. A lover of performances, as evidenced by his noisily-sweeping ceremonial cloak and insistence on the daughters standing on boxes in order to address him, he frequently descended into scathing sarcasm and enactment of both his and his daughters' fantasies: most effectively, miming the mannerisms and voice of a doddering old man as he accused both Goneril and Regan of seeing him thus.

This, then, wasn't the epochal fall of a great man, but the personal, internal collapse of a sane man. Lear's self-aggrandising nature, his bullying and emotional swings, were all imagined as characteristics of a mind on the brink of collapse, pushed over by the eventual refusal of his daughters to play along to his own conceptions of reality anymore. Cordelia's refusal to bolster his ego, followed by Goneril and Regan's refusal to accommodate the trappings of his kingship, dealt him a dual blow that shattered his imagined persona and left him vulnerable. Consequently, his scenes of madness were the most affecting and poignant of the production. Appearing in Act 4 naked from the waist up, with a headdress of great leaves and plants stuffed down his trousers and socks, he cut a pitiful figure but also a free one. As he held the sobbing Gloucester, confessing that he knew his old earl, we finally saw the genuine affection that the old Lear, obsessed with maintaining his sense of power, had never allowed himself to show.

Alongside Lear's mental collapse came the physical collapse of the stage (a popular RSC staging device in recent years). This timeless world had a delapidated basement feel to it, with peeling walls gradually crumbling away and flickering neon overhead lights fading and creaking from their hangings. Light entered the stage from a set of windows far above, but otherwise this was mostly a dim and claustrophobic England. Pre-Christian armour and cloaks mingled with WW2 uniforms and medical equipment in a deliberate merging of England's pasts: this was not about an historical time of struggle, but a universal moment of mental collapse and its significance toe the world around that person.

The daughters of this production were largely very impressive. Kelly Hunter played an older Goneril with a great deal of dignity. It was implied, through the vehemence of Lear's curses and her reaction to them, that she and husband Albany (a solid John Mackay) were trying - and had failed - to produce an heir, and her sobbing reaction to Lear's repeated wishes for her sterility seemed genuine. These curses were later revisited by Lear upon himself, as he massaged his own genitalia while complaining of "hell","darkness", and the "sulphorous pit." Katy Stephens' red-dressed Regan was more confident and forward, even descending from her crate in order to emphasise her affections for her father in the opening scene. While flirtatious, this Regan was not as sexually aggressive as is sometimes played: her winning smiles were always matched with hard eyes, and she preferred to maintain her independent authority from arm's length rather than throw herself into mens' arms. The motivation of both was a typical combination of pressure forced on them by their father and self-interested ambition, and the descent of the pair to open murder (Goneril's "I'll ne'er trust medicine" was openly screamed at Regan, who realised instantly what had been done to her as she knelt on the floor gagging) was neatly realised. Unfortunately, this entire subplot was let down by Tunji Kasim's shallow and uninteresting Edmund. While Edmund performed the basic functions required of him, the glue that ties together the conspiracy, betrayal and infighting of the sisters' story was entirely lacking, leaving Hunter and Stephens struggling to tie their performances into the whole.

Samantha Young grew into the part of Cordelia after a feeble opening, in which her asides to the audience following her sisters' declarations of love (often cut, with good reason) were delivered in a spotlight from the centre of the stage, a device entirely foreign to the spirit of the rest of the production. Dressed in green robes and armour as she led the forces of France into Britain, however, she provided a commanding and strong presence. As she kneeled before Lear's wheelchair and met him at ground level, the significance of this reunification and forgiveness after what appeared to have been a lifetime of unbalanced relationships was strongly reinforced. The moment also provided a neat connection for viewers of Farr's Winter's Tale, where Hicks and Young were similarly reunited as Leontes and Perdita. The casting connections also held true for Hicks and Hunter, where his cursing of Goneril held strong echoes of his similar treatment of her earlier Hermione; while the dance of Kathryn Hunter's Fool around D'Silva's Kent nodded to the pair's upcoming collaboration as Cleopatra and Antony.

The Fool, a young boy played by a middle-aged woman, was particularly interesting in this production. Hunter's tiny stature allowed her to literally run rings around the other performers on stage, keeping up an energy that allowed her scenes to feel both fresh and funny. A face of genuine fear at the mention of Lear's whip told us that this Fool was tormented by Lear at least as brutally as his daughters were, but the Fool's purpose in speaking the truths no-one else can was thus even more important than ever. Sad and wistful, Hunter sat with Hicks, kicking her legs and gazing at him in distress as he fought with his daughters, and that gaze told us all we needed to know about Lear's prior decline from a state of greatness. After fleeing Gloucester's castle, the two sat together again, and the image of the tiny Fool sitting next to the tall Lear, with a briefcase in front of them, struck this reviewer as being reminiscent of the set-up of a ventriloquist act: whether intentional or not, the image was more than appropriate for a scene in which the Fool and the King effectively complete each other's thoughts.

The storm scene gave Hunter a chance to showcase a small element of the physical work for which she is renowned, breaking through the back wall and swinging out into the main auditorium as thunder crashed and lightning illuminated the entire stage. Hicks, stood on a raised platform centre-stage, was caught in a narrow deluge of pouring water. The image was striking, and served to reinforce the importance of the storm as internal as much as external. His appearance in this state was contrasted nicely by Charles Aitkin's excellent Edgar/Poor Tom who, with his dishevelled hair, beard and loincloth, visually evoked the suffering Christ. Self-flagellating and rambling in a near-liturgical manner, Edgar's performance as Tom invoked the sense of self-punishment that the production then allowed us to read into Lear as well.

Other strong performances can only be quickly mentioned: Geoffrey Freshwater gave a tender performance as Gloucester, beurocratic and desk-bound in earlier scenes but dignified and painfully desperate after his gruesome blinding, for which Cornwall (Clarence Smith, reprising a role he played for Headlong Theatre only last year) used a red-hot poker. James Tucker was officious and extremely amusing as Oswald, while Darrell D'Silva gave a bluff and leering performance as a down-and-dirty Kent, although the attempt to revive interest in the character's fate by having him pull out a knife before his final exit felt rather peripheral: the production hadn't invested enough in Kent to allow this to feel important. Similarly, Albany's response to Edmund's death ("That's but a trifle here") was greeted with laughter, despite the character's body remaining on stage to physically counterbalance the positioning of Regan and Cordelia's bodies: the laughter of the audience bespoke a lack of interest in a plotline that felt like a distraction from the main plot. There were other disappointments: the appearance of Edgar for the final duel with two six foot broadswords promised a spectacular finale, which instead fizzled out in a single clash of blades and a swipe across Edmund's stomach.

This, then, was a production of sundry good parts that didn't quite add up to a satisfying whole. Hicks's dying moments, gasping out his final words as he fell backwards with Cordelia in his lap, came as a fitting climax to a touching and powerful reading of the main plot, but this clear and defined focus on Lear's own collapse wasn't wide enough to govern the myriad subplots and additional characters. While finding an identity distinct to itself, and featuring strong performances and visual displays, the universality of the aesthetic translated to a lack of dramatic unity for the play as a whole, and the audience was instead left to content itself with the details.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

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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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