All entries for May 2011
May 29, 2011
The Memorable Masque @ The Shakespeare Institute
The annual British Graduate Shakespeare Conference pleasingly put performance at the centre of this year's plenary events. As well as a taster by the Institute's performance research group for their upcoming Macbeth, we were treated to a staged reading of George Chapman's The Memorable Masque of the Middle Temple and Lincoln's Inn, first performed to celebrate the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Count Frederick V in 1613, and now restaged under the direction of Jacqueline MacDonald.
A cast of Institute staff and students (including Stanley Wells as "George Chapman" reading out the authorial stage directions) walked through the elaborate masque, whose visual elements were represented by overhead projections and whose music was provided live by Cecilia Kendall-White. The aim was to give a flavour of the formality and shapes of the masque, directed towards two thrones at one end of the Shakespeare Institute Hall.
The performance included two fully-staged formal dances, one with torches and one between four couples, which were pleasingly complex and stately, the company having taken the time to give them their full prominence. More obviously entertaining, however, were Andrew Hippel, Gareth Bernard, Jason Burg and Richard Nunn who entered as baboons, picking fleas off audience members and dancing crazily in the centre of the space. As Kendall-White played, however, the baboons became entranced by her music (I couldn't help but think of 2001!) and gradually fell into co-ordinated swaying, before she led them off the stage.
The main story of the masque hinged around the eventual marriage of Plutus (Riches) and Honour, played by José Alberto Pérez Díez and Yolana Wassersug. Díez owned the stage, walking confidently about and raising his eyebrows at the audience at some of the more outlandish moments. The first half of the masque saw him bantering with Martin Wiggins as the bellows-wearing Capriccio, whose arm first emerged from a side area of the hall, pushing aside a door standing for the split rock of the text. Capriccio was a lively presence, competing with Plutus for prominence on a raised platform.
The arrival of Helen Osborne's Eunomia announced the beginning of the more formal masque, followed by Honour herself and Phemis (Kelley Costigan). The three women processed in in stately fashion, and their dialogue with Plutus was interspersed with the formal dancing. Costigan spoke the several songs, and the company finally assembled for bows before the thrones before leaving in procession.
Masques aren't particularly my favourite form of entertainment, and in some ways a rehearsed reading ill-serves a medium which is so dependent on visual display. However, it was surprisingly fascinated to see a staged version. The Memorable Masque is surprisingly simple at its core, and the company did a great job of exposing the skeleton of a piece rooted in the movement of bodies in very formal patterns. I was particularly impressed with the dancing, but it was also a pleasure simply to see in three dimensions a piece of theatre so much more co-ordinated and determined than the usual plays. I was sorry not to be able to stay for the post-show discussion, but I'm very much hoping this practice-as-research project continues to develop.
May 27, 2011
The Merchant of Venice (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Writing about web page http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/merchant/
Rupert Goold's new production of The Merchant of Venice for the RSC has already caused something of a stir in the press, dividing critics and audiences alike. Despite the presence of a star name in Patrick Stewart in the cast, this was not the traditional Merchant that many may have hoped for, but rather a full-scale reinvention of the play that offered an ugly, frank, hysterical and provocative presentation of alternative issues thrown up by this problematic play.
The production was set in Las Vegas, with the audience arriving to find a casino evening already in full swing, presided over by an icon of a busty table girl splayed out as if a crucifix. Money was this production's church, and an ensemble of American tourists were already hard at the craps table. A live big band kept up a rollicking underscore, building in volume and speed until Jamie Beamish rose from the masses, a Launcelot Gobbo as Elvis impersonator, who launched into "Viva Las Vegas" accompanied by a bevy of scantily clad dancers. The tone was set for the evening - noisy, brash, colourful and irreverent. Beamish's Launcelot burst into song throughout the production with covers of old standards, keeping the crowd entertained and the atmosphere light; yet as a more sombre mood began to permeate the performance, so did the songs begin tending towards ballads and a darker sensibility.
The company made a huge effort to make the concept coherent. All the cast put on American accents, some with more success than others - Howard Charles and Aidan Kelly were wonderful Brooklynites as Gratiano and Solanio, while Portia and Nerissa were note perfect as Southern belles. Others were horrendous, and Scott Handy in particular, as Antonio, kept slipping between his native and adopted dialects. The frustration is that English accents wouldn't have been a stretch for an audience willing to buy into the conceit. Shakespeare sounds wonderful in natural American accents, but to watch English actors concentrating so hard and internalising their performance in order to get a voice right was deeply irritating, and meant that less effort went into the performances themselves. It wasn't a fatal flaw, but one wished that the actors had just used their natural accents.
Locations were intelligently re-set. Shylock, Solanio and Salerio met in an cafe where hookers were taking their morning coffee; the masquers rode to meet Jessica in a mimed car with blaring rap music; deals were struck in the lavish offices of casino managers; one beautiful sequence saw the Sallies discussing Antonio's fall in an elevator with other characters coming and going; Antonio was arrested by Shylock at the Cirque du Soleil, where the merchant was hiding in the front row of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre while a trapeze artist twirled above; and Launcelot battled his conscience while sitting on a slot machine stool, while two PVC-clad women in white and red acted out Conscience and the Fiend. There was an issue of too much time going into ingenious settings and not enough into the dynamics of the scenes themselves - when the stage finally quietened to allow dialogue scenes of two or three characters talking, the play felt comparatively flat and under-rehearsed. As the play went on, though, the nuances of the performances began to manifest themselves.
The most fascinating aspect of the conceit was the recasting of Belmont as a TV reality show called "Destiny", which aimed to marry off Portia live on air. Susannah Fielding was the blonde star, Emily Plumtree the programme's host, and the two were surrounded by video screens, cameras and backstage flunkies. The two women sat on a sofa and spoke in deliberately affected tones, pausing for canned laughter and groans as they reported the characters of the suitors. Each "episode" ended with the two speaking a catchphrase direct to camera. The deliberate superficiality of the format gave a satiric slant to the sequences, but darker elements could gradually be viewed beneath. As Chris Jarman's Morocco, a boxer, jogged on stage, hecklers threw bananas at him in an ugly moment of racism; but far more troubling were Portia and Nerissa's own fixed grins as they stared pointedly ahead towards the camera. As soon as Morocco left and the studio lights clicked off, Portia's face collapsed and she shuddered as she wished that none of his complexion might ever win. The latent racism in the character extended to the extremely patronising treatment of Caroline Martin's Jessica, to whom Portia spoke as if a little child. Nerissa and Portia aimed to give Jessica a makeover, but this particular session ended with Jessica storming out eating the cucumber which had previously been resting on her eyes. Jason Morell's Arragon, meanwhile, was a Mexican cleaner who was beckoned by a stage hand onto the set, dressed up and forced to perform and wave gormlessly at the cameras.
Fielding's performance was the standout of the evening, creating a complex and deeply scarred persona whose gradual decline was fascinating to watch. In early scenes there were clues, as she scrabbled at her head and shook convulsively after the cameras had moved away. This was a Portia broken by the enforced performance that defined her, which culminated in her song of "Tell me where is fancy bred" to Bassanio as he chose between the caskets. The caskets themselves - made up like gameshow boxes - had previously yielded a diamond-encrusted skull and a shrivelled jester's head; but the lead casket delivered a remote control to Bassanio, with which he turned on a screen that revealed Portia speaking the victory verse. As the screen Portia did this, the stage Portia removed her blonde wig (to gasps from the audience) and stepped off her enormous high heels, baring herself before her new husband. At the same time, all the paraphenalia of the reality show disappeared, including her entourage. A confused Bassanio greeted her with a kiss but continued to look around in confusion; while she looked pleadingly at him, asking him to see the true her beneath the performance. Upon the re-entrance of Gratiano and Nerissa, she hastily threw on her wig and shoes again, appearing slightly more dishevelled but unable to confront the world without her disguise.
The vulnerability displayed by Fielding in this moment informed the remainder of her character. Her performance in the court scene was unpersuasive - we had seen too little of the character's intelligence and spontaneity to believe "Bellario's" quick-thinking reactions during the trial, even if Fielding and Plumtree both effectively conveyed the panic of the two women outside of their carefully-controlled setting. More powerful, however, was the look on her face as Richard Riddell's Bassanio embraced Antonio, and then after his release held him tightly in a downstage corner. One could see her heart breaking as she sized up the connection between the two men, a connection which entirely excluded her. Upon the return of the two men to Belmont, Portia's face again fell, and she continued to watch the two men casually touch one another and speak of their love. She sat between them on a couch, and as Antonio offered to pawn his body for his friend, the two men took hands behind her. Trembling, Portia got up, took up her wig again and slipped on one of her heels. Summoning up a fractured remembrance of her gameshow character, she excitedly distributed prize envelopes to Lorenzo, Jessica and Antonio, her voice rising in unhinged excitement. Then, following Gratiano's final lines, she slid off her wig in despair and, as Launcelot began trilling "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" she began dancing slowly with her fake hair, stepping on and off her one remaining shoe. It might not have been subtle, but it was a heartwrenching depiction of rejection and failed trust. Portia's risk in exposing the girl beneath to a man she loved had been too great, and there was nothing left for her to cling to but the remnants of the disguise that had always defined her.
While Portia provided the most powerful emotional through line, the other performances were largely also strong. Patrick Stewart was fine as Shylock, bringing a quiet dignity and occasional oddities to the role. The issue of anti-semitism was largely subordinated to wider concerns of racism and superficiality, but Stewart (first revealed playing golf in his office) became more identifiably Jewish as the play progressed, appearing at home in a yarmulka and whispering a Yiddish goodbye to Jessica; then later appearing in robes for the trial scene. An anger manifested itself at times, including in a passionate dance before the interval hit and in his shrugging off of his robes and callous laugh after his "conversion". Considering that Stewart is an obvious star name, however, Shylock felt rather incidental to this production, operating as a driving force for the plot rather than as the central attraction.
The trial scene was imagined as a mob execution, carried out in a cold room beneath one of the casinos, where police officers in the pay of a local gangster (Des McAleer's Duke) put Antonio on a box and tied his wrists far above his head. This was the scene that struggled most in the modern setting, but still had some wonderful moments, not least Shylock pulling forward the silent Arragon, now back in his cleaner's garb, as an example of the abuse of other peoples by the "Venetians". The build-up towards Shylock cutting into Antonio's flesh was painful, with Portia's intervention being left until the last possible second.
This production will be talked about for years, and represented a triumph for director-led concept theatre at the RSC. While it will no doubt offend many, and while Goold still needs to give the same attention to actors that he accords to design and concept, this was a truly revolutionary Merchant that found new life in the play beyond Shylock's tragedy and made the powerful case that, ultimately, it's impossible to find any redemption in a society so concerned with surface. All that glisters really isn't gold.
This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.
May 26, 2011
The City Madam (RSC) @ The Swan, Stratford–upon–Avon
Writing about web page http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/city-madam/
It’s so wonderful to have the Swan back in action. Not only is the space itself one of my favourite places to see theatre, but its fundamental artistic remit offers so much scope for invention and discovery. How often does one get to see a full-scale production of a play like Philip Massinger’s The City Madam, performed by professionals at the top of their game and with the care and attention that an international-level company can give? Too rarely. And happily, Dominic Hill’s debut production for the RSC was superlatively good.
Some credit must go to Massinger, of course. The play is simple, and surprisingly moralistic (I was reminded, oddly, of The Good Person of Szechwan), but structurally satisfying. A chaotically funny first half established the outrageous characters of Caroline city comedy – the vain wife and her vacuous daughters, the foppish suitors, the red-faced uncouth countryman made rich, the scheming prentices and the delicate Lord. At the centre of this was Jo Stone-Fewings’s puritanical Luke Frugal, the humble ruined brother of a merchant, reduced to scorn and servitude at the hands of his proud sister-in-law. The first half established the many characters, the networks of usury and debt that pervaded London and, in a wonderfully comic scene, the refusal of the affected Sir Maurice (Alex Hassell) and the brusque Mr. Plenty (Felix Hayes) to wed Anne and Mary Frugal following their outlandish demands of their prospective husbands.
This was a play of two halves, however. The first half closed with the decision of Sir John Frugal (Christopher Godwin) to test his brother by pretending to retire to a monastery and awarding him control of his lands. Stone-Fewings turned from benevolent servant to tyrannous wretch, reducing his debtors, his prentices and finally his sister-in-law and nieces to nothing. While the laughter continued throughout this second half, Hill steered the tone of the production to the final condemnation of Luke as the back wall of the theatre opened up and he was turned out into a snowy wilderness for his repentance.
Stone-Fewings was sensational. His early humility came with an edge of bitterness that didn’t give the lie to his demeanour, but certainly suggested more to the character than the deference he offered. His plea on behalf of his brother’s debtors was a highlight of the first half, taking a matter-of-fact tone and appealing to decency, but creating an ensemble performance by making the debtors kneel and staying himself in constant motion in order to strengthen his own position. More telling of his true nature, however, was his gulling of the two prentices, persuading them to begin embezzling money. Hill allowed the scene to linger on silences following Luke’s more pointed suggestions, the implications hanging in the air to point out their significance and the subtlety of what Luke was trying to achieve.
Following the award of money, however, Stone-Fewings broke loose. Amid some wonderfully OTT performances, particularly Hassell’s shrieking Maurice and Michael Grady-Hall’s similarly camp and thoroughly entertaining Scuffle, Stone-Fewings grew in stature and confidence to become a consummate performer, performing little flourishes to accompany his taunts and dancing in victory as his plans came to fruition. His greed and vindictiveness unhinged him but he never became entirely unsympathetic, at least not until he stood on a table in triumph as his debtors trooped mournfully around him in chains in the build-up towards the climax.
While Stone-Fewings carried the show, however, Hill packed the production to overflowing with witty performances, fluid spectacle and visual imagination. A wonderful showpiece featured the story of Orpheus and Eurydice played out with puppets, including a tremendous three-headed Cerberus with glowing eyes that burst up through Luke's banquet table to snap at the carved lovers. The disguised Sir John developed the bizarre ability to flash bursts of fire from his hands; and the scene in Pippa Nixon's Shave'em's den (one of the most unpleasant character names ever invented, surely) was kinetic, violent and very amusing as the uncouth gallants were whipped out of her room.
The female characters were particularly well drawn. Sara Crowe as the shrill and vacuous Lady Frugal almost stole the show, while Lucy Briggs-Owen and Matti Houghton as the spoiled, pouting daughters were consistently entertaining. The beauty of these three performances was that they rendered the characters almost frustratingly awful in the early scenes, yet in such an innocent way that we were able to regain some sympathy for them as Luke reduced them to rags and caused them to weep in a corner. The scene where the girls made their demands of future husbands was an early highlight, with Mary and Anne entirely assured of their own desirability. Shave'em, meanwhile, was a typical Cockney prostitute who added colour to proceedings, but given extra depth by Nixon, particularly as (in costume as Cleopatra) she nervously attempted to soothe Luke even after he called in the sergeants.
Hassell and Hayes were a wonderful double-act as the neurotic Sir Maurice and the heavy-set Mr. Plenty. Their voices alone offered beautiful contrast, Hassell ascending to high-pitched shrieks while Hayes rumbled in a low bass. Their early fights were slap-heavy, with impressive wielding of gauntlets, but their rivalry quickly became shared pique at the demands of the young ladies. Sat in stools at opposite upstage corners, they aimed amazed gestures and shrugs at one another, supporting each other and guiding the audience's appalled response. Interestingly though, as they agreed to leave the country together, Maurice drew himself up in a position of sober dignity and offered his new friend a genuine and warm salute, cutting through the silliness for a moment of real emotion before they took each other's hands and began prancing offstage. This last action was performed in front of Nicholas Day's Lord Lacy, the elderly and affected courtier who drew laughter in his every appearance thanks to his exaggerated posh voice and disregard for polite behaviour, as when he sat on an audience member's laugh to listen to one scene. A special mention, also, to Simeon Moore's cowering charlatan Stargaze, who put on a Welsh accent to impress his employers and lapsed into Cockney when left alone with the servants. He was the recipient of several well-deserved beatings, and his unintelligibly complex explanations of the stars were received with rapturous applause.
This is exactly the kind of work I love seeing the Swan offer: actor-centred, fast and funny, creative yet respectful to a little-known text. A wonderful night out AND a useful academic discovery. One hopes that it is seen by enough people to find its way back into the repertoire.
May 19, 2011
Cardenio (RSC) @ The Swan – Revisited
Follow-up to Cardenio (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre, Stratford–upon–Avon from The Bardathon
I’m just back from my second viewing of the RSC’s Cardenio, and it’s still great. This time, familiar with the new material and the reshaping of Double Falsehood, I had more leisure to enjoy the sparky relationship established between Oliver Rix's Cardenio and Lucy Briggs-Owen's Luscinda in the opening scenes; the formality of Simeon Moore's Pedro as he persuades Cardenio to inform on Fernando; the good-natured decision of the shepherds to escort Cardenio into town to be cured; and the role of Matti Houghton's Duenna in chaperoning Luscinda during all her meetings with Cardenio. The music, too, is utterly wonderful, and I didn’t do it justice in my last review. The Spanish-inflected band, with an amazing singer and fantastic flamenco guitar work, brought the house down during the final dance, and made all the difference in terms of atmosphere.
I also think Greg Doran has done stirling work in adding a great amount of new material that fits almost seamlessly with Theobald's text. Yes, there are a few inconsistencies (I particularly dislike Cardenio's resigned soliloquy after the wedding, which doesn't fit well with the character's subsequent madness), but by and large I would defy anyone without a prior knowledge of Double Falsehood to distinguish the new material. I'm writing at the moment about the difficulty of "splicing" together material in order to create an effective theatrical adaptation, and Doran's Cardenio is a masterclass in how to succeed.
I’m still deeply troubled, though, by the play’s treatment of Fernando’s seduction of Dorotea. I discussed this in my last review; but, in light of today’s outcry against Ken Clarke’s discussion of rape, and his implicit distinction between “serious” rape and (presumably) less serious forms of rape, I remain frustrated by the production’s fudging of this key issue. It's this that I'd like to focus on here.
In Double Falsehood, Henriquez (Fernando) woos Violante (Dorotea) at her window. She rebuffs him and leaves, and he piquantly asks why he is treated with contempt. In the next scene, he appears again in a distracted state. He reveals in soliloquy that he has forced himself on Violante. In a key speech, he promises to be hard on himself and asks if it was rape; and while he convinces himself that he didn’t, it is clear to the audience that rape is what it was. The text reads “True, she did not consent, as true she did resist, but in silence all.” We don’t need to know the exact details of how, when and where; the point is that he has raped her and that she did not consent, even in his own self-justification. Violante’s pursuit of Henriquez for the remainder of the play is an attempt to make the best of the situation by making good on his promise to marry her (a promise which he gave during the rape, with the implication that it offered him some comfort). While this is obviously an early modern solution to a social problem, it poses interesting possibilities for a modern production – as indeed it did for MokitaGrit – in exploring the problematic relationship between love and abuse.
In Doran’s production, the heaviest section of new writing comes in between these two scenes. First, we see Alex Hassell's Fernando at court with Cardenio, showing that he did not instantly act on his impulse to pursue her into her room. The heat is taken off his lust. Then, Doran provides a lengthy seduction scene. Early in this scene, Fernando attempts to force himself on Pippa Nixon's Dorotea. She resists, and he desists.
However, she then throws him a lifeline, by telling him that she would be happy to yield her virginity to the man who promised to marry her. He leaps on this, offering her marriage and promising to be hers forever. She consents – slowly, but decisively – to this, and the scene closes on the two of them sharing a mutual kiss, before fireworks explode and a fiesta with phallic manikins takes over the stage. The only more threatening note is as Fernando points out that, if they don’t do the act, he will shame her by making clear his departure from her flat, pressuring her into consenting.
The pressure applied on Dorotea in this scene is enough to still demonstrate Fernando’s basic caddishness, and I would argue it’s still enough to qualify as rape. However, the emphasis on her consent is too strong. In the self-justification scene that follows, there is an important textual change, as Fernando says “True, she DID consent; as true, she did resist.” While this could still be explained away as his own self-delusion, this is the soliloquy which dictates how an audience is expected to respond to the act, and it corroborates what we have already seen – that Dorotea willingly had sex with Fernando, albeit under conditions that Fernando is showing us he has no intention of keeping. What is crucial here is that Fernando is convincing in his assertion that it was not rape, strongly emphasised by the actor in a voice designed to break apart from the character’s comic weakness and determine a truth. For this production, the act is not rape. Fernando’s crime is reduced to that of faithlessness, even treachery, but he is spared the tarnish of a rapist.
The aim is to make Cardenio a family-friendly production. Rape is difficult to discuss with nuance on the stage, and even more difficult to govern audience response to without depicting shocking scenes of violence. By reducing the problem to one of, essentially, fidelity – as stressed in Dorotea’s (new) closing speech where she stresses that, according to their contract, they are already married – Doran allows for a comic resolution, as Dorotea appeals to Fernando’s heart and he grows penitent, the two embracing in love.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. However, what is shown and spoken of in this production – even with the textual changes – is too serious for so light a treatment. His abuse of trust in order to satiate his own lust regardless of her own wishes is shocking, and needs to be interrogated on the modern stage, not glossed over and relegated to what, given today’s news stories, ends up coming across as a “less serious” form of rape.
Now, I'm aware that, because of my research, I'm unusually attuned to the textual changes and the interpretive decisions that have gone into this production as compared with Double Falsehood, and I wouldn't expect others to necessarily pick up on the things I'm talking about. I'm not voicing this as an all-encompassing condemnation of the production, nor suggesting that it somehow (intentionally or not) legitimises a form of rape. But in tonight's performance, Dorotea’s agency in the sexual act was visible enough to allow a substantial portion of the audience to laugh in relief as the rapist absolved himself of his own crime. And however much I want to apologise for the production, that sickened me.
May 16, 2011
Henry VI Part One @ The Rose Theatre, Bankside
The Rose on Bankside has been continuing its ongoing series of productions based on the original repertory of Henslowe's theatre. This month sees a particularly special event: an in-house production (as opposed to the usual hosting of young companies) of 1 Henry VI, unusually presented in isolation from the rest of the trilogy. Further, the theatre had negotiated for the use of the entire space of the Rose; so, rather than being restricted to the narrow viewing gallery where the audience sits, the cast were free to use the space of the original Rose foundations. This atmospheric and cavernous space, its base filled with rocks and water, has been an atmospheric backdrop to previous productions, providing a suitably hellish atmosphere for Soliman and Perseda and The Spanish Tragedy, but here it shaped and dictated the creative approach to the production.
The young company, under the direction of Bronagh Lagan, rattled through the play in two hours with no interval, with relatively few major cuts - the dialogue between the gunner and his boy was cut, but John Fastolfe was retained. The major scenes were played immediately before the audience on the viewing platform, but a ledge at the far end of the cavern was frequently brought into play in order to position the two armies facing each other across the lake. Most of the battles were not staged, but as the play pushed towards its climax the soldiers began to occupy the shores of the lake at the bottom of the pit. In this Stygian environment, armies moved in slow motion towards each other, casting huge shadows up the walls, and clashing swords in an evocation of battle rather than a realistic depiction. Phil Webb's lighting design showed off the space to best advantage, and if future productions will be allowed to take similar advantage, the Rose will undoubtedly become one of the most breathtaking venues in London.
There were two disadvantages to the enormous space. The thundering music used for the battle scenes was piped out of speakers on the viewing gallery, and drowned out any concurrent dialogue from the other side of the cavern, a rather obvious oversight. More specific to this play was the disjointedness that inevitably resulted from action switching between areas so far apart from one another. In such an episodic play as 1 Henry VI, the distance meant that even connected sequences were broken up, making the play more difficult to follow. Making up for this was a sense of the scale of the war, subsuming individual actors to the larger movements of the countries.
Performances were solid, managing successfully to differentiate the large number of thinly-drawn characters. The strongest of these was Ben Higgins as Talbot. This grizzled warrior was militaristic and tempestuous, contrasting strongly with the other lords during Henry's coronation in France as he grabbed Fastolfe and shoved him to the floor. The decking on the viewing gallery became his command post, including during one well-choreographed sequence where he huddled with Salisbury behind a railing, looking out over the pit. A couple of figures ran around in the darkness, and one of them held up a light. There was a shout, and then the railings were shaken by an apparent explosion and the two men were thrown to the floor, Salisbury rolling over with blood covering his face. Higgins's strength was in giving a human face to scenes such as these, speaking with the urgency and desperation of the battlefield. In a shouting match with Connor Farrin's John, the production found its most powerful voices as the two men traded rhyming couplets and attempted to push each other away while also holding ground.
Suzanna Marie was a decent Joan, though a little monotonous in her enthusiasm and prone to throw away key lines, particularly in the desperately garbled prelude to her execution. This smug Joan carried a broadsword and laughed in the face of her enemies, supremely confident in her strength. In a beautiful later scene, though, she passed through the fighting masses on the shores of the pit, and walked to the edge of the water where she invocated her spirits. Abandoned by them, her humour and resolve finally faltered, and she shrieked as York and his company beat her into submission and took her sword.
Among the assorted nobles, Oliver Lavery's Gloucester and Morgan Thomas's Winchester stood out. Gloucester was a villain straight out of Victorian melodrama, and the company took advantage of the play's isolation from Part Two to play with the complexities of their feud, rather than portraying Gloucester as heroic against Winchester's villainy. Lavery was spiteful and relished the insults he delivered to his foe. Thomas, by contrast, was a dignified Winchester, standing upright and allowing the insults to wash over him, but then showing his true colours in soliloquy. For Henry's coronation, the two nobles mounted a raised dais alongside the young King, and Gloucester handed Winchester the crown. There was a pause as they shared a look, before turning to present a unified front to the other nobles.
Isaac Jones was a tremendous Henry, showing the young King's vulnerability and indecisiveness. He vacillated and simpered, while maintaining a consistency in his basic virtue. He pleaded desperately with his uncles to stop their followers down in the pit throwing stones at one another, and Gloucester's orders were followed by one of them throwing a large rock at the barriers, the noise of which sent Henry cowering to the floor. Yet he came into his own as the play went on, delivering summary judgement against traitors and standing up against Gloucester after Suffolk's report of Margaret.
There were too many episodes to describe each one individually, but a special mention must go to the two scenes of desolation played out in the distant corners of the pit. David Vaughan-Knight languished on the shore as Mortimer, as Richard stood above him and questioned him, and later Talbot adopted a similar position as he cradled the body of his son and passed away. The physical distance of these scenes did not detract from their power, and they were in fact heightened by the isolation of the figures within the consuming blackness.
The success of other roles was variable. Samuel Lewis was excellent, if a little too scenery-chewing, in a succession of noble, vaunting roles including Bedford, Warwick and Lucy, bringing a gravitas and dogged resolution to the battle scenes and especially to the final condemnation of Somerset. Steven Clarke and James Clifford were effective as York and Somerset, although their bickering (particularly in the final scenes) didn't feel as central as it might. Clarke in particular, though, grew into the role following his conversation with Mortimer, and brought out the character's noble frustration, in opposition to Somerset's more conniving treachery. Amy Barnes, as the Duchess of Auvergne, played far more to the audience than was really needed, but offered entertaining relief from the main plot in her short scene, which culminated with her quailing while surrounded by spears and swords. Once raised to her feet by Talbot, she was rather turned on by the whole experience, and led him offstage with a wink. The French weren't very clearly differentiated, which was a shame as all the actors were decent, but were perhaps ill-served by so many of their scenes being performed on the far side of the space.
The star of the show, however, remained the theatre itself. Joan's execution was held back until the final scene. As Suffolk left the stage, the a single light came up in the middle of the lake, and Joan began edging her way across some planks towards it. Smoke began billowing up, and Joan was lost in smoke and orange light, a visually effective burning and a powerful image on which to close the play. While not a perfect production, the Rose reclaimed the play as a stand-alone piece and pushed the limits of what could be achieved within the space, and if nothing else, this production will be hugely influential in determining how the Rose itself can use its unique features to enhance productions and inspire new audiences.
May 15, 2011
All's Well That Ends Well @ Shakespeare's Globe
Writing about web page http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/on-stage/alls-well-that-ends-well
It was a good weekend for obscure Shakespeare in London. In between a version of the first quarto Hamlet and a rare revival of 1 Henry VI, I found time to get to the Globe, bravely leading off its main summer season with its first ever production of the little-loved All's Well that Ends Well. It was also a rare evening Globe outing for me, complete with sporadic rain and chill winds. Happily, the production was strong enough that nature failed to dint enjoyment.
In an opening of unusual informality, cast members emerged to chat casually with the groundlings and welcome us to the performance. James Garnon set the comic tone with a comic mock-French series of announcements. "La telefone portable? Non!" and the production opened with the audience already in high spirits. There was an emphasis throughout on keeping the audience laughing wherever possible, which perhaps backfired in more serious scenes; the laughter was kept up throughout Bertram's refusal of Helena, for example, at the expense of the emotional impact of the exchange on both characters.
That said, the strength of John Dove's production (which reunited much of the cast of last year's Henry VIII) was its thoroughgoing good humour. This was particularly stressed in two key performances: Garnon's Parolles and Michael Bertenshaw's Lafeu. Garnon was the consummate braggart in plumed hat and spurs, with a confident bluster that endeared him instantly to the audience. Cleverly, however, he let slip enough honest feeling to prevent the character becoming a caricature, particularly as he wished Helena to a good husband, stumbling over his words. This Parolles used bluster as a way of concealing his basic nerviness, which manifested in the disputes with Lafeu and was given full vent when blindfolded and rattling off the movements of his own army. Yet the laughter finally stopped as the blindfold was removed and he was left, bitter and self-loathing, on the stage.
Bertenshaw, meanwhile, gave a tremendously splenetic performance as Lafeu, railing and stomping about the stage. This hardy old man posed a physical threat to Parolles through sheer vigour, and even his more stale jokes had impact thanks to the heartiness of their delivery. The back-and-forth between the two men was entirely controlled by Lafeu, who moved in a heartbeat from teasing to forceful anger while Parolles attempted to build confidence and was ultimately quashed. Their final reunion was surprisingly tender, as Parolles gratefully cowered before his new master.
The period production was relatively formal, with a brass ensemble lending itself to the ceremonial and militaristic atmosphere. Unusually for the Globe, large shutters with painted scenes were used throughout to indicate changes of location and time of day, which were beautiful and helpful but seemed very out of place behind a bare stage. The formality of the set-up, though, was balanced by Sam Cox's gruff, moody King of France, who scowled and grumbled whether hobbling on a cane, in a wheelchair or striding after his cure. This King was not a listener, and his offer of husbands for the ecstatic Diana was comic in its belligerence. Cox was most impressive, though, in his fearsome condemnation of Bertram, both at the betrothal and during his later arraignment, where the authority of a King unaccustomed to disobedience came to the fore.
Ellie Piercy and Sam Crane made for an extremely interesting lead couple. Helena is a relatively wet character, but Piercy gave her some gusto by making the most of her banter with Parolles and her control of the betrothal scene. Standing centrally, she called forth her prospective partners one at a time and dismissed them easily. Bertram, meanwhile, was a petulant child, with head permanently tilted upwards in a display of arrogance. This continued into the court scenes, to the annoyance of the King. His refusal of Helena was left pleasingly ambiguous, but was clearly related to the public nature of the scene - his appeal was to his audience, not to her. Yet in their parting scene, Bertram was already showing ambivalence about his choice. His admiration for his new wife's loyalty left him gazing quietly at her, and he gave her a long and affectionate kiss, after which he stood and watched her depart in confusion. It was Parolles who galvanised him to leave for the wars.
Bertram's disquiet throughout extended to his awkward conversations with Diana (Naomi Cranston), who had a self-possession and upright dignity that reduced him to fumbling and nervous hand-wringing. She was accompanied in her early appearances by Mary Doherty and Sophie Duval as Mariana and the Widow, who made up a fearsome double-act that shouted enthusiastic praise after the army and threatened the exhausted Parolles with vehemence. These bolshy women enacted merciless judgement on men, and the Widow remained unafraid to tell Helena what she really thought of their trekking. Diana showed some girlish excitement at the approach of the troops, but held herself calm when in Bertram's and the King's presence, throwing into contrast the relatively emotional inconsistencies of the men.
The second half was weaker than the first, a fault of the play rather than the production - the absence of the bed-trick is difficult to negotiate on-stage, and it was difficult to be sure exactly what had happened and when, until the final reckoning. Bertram held the stage well, though, displaying suitable concern over the news of Helena's death. His reaction to her unobtrusive entrance into the court at the end, however, was moving - he fell to his knees before her and embraced her in love and relief. She knelt to be with him; there was no ambivalence over the importance of this reunion, just satisfaction that the problems of two lovers had been resolved.
Elsewhere, Colin Hurley made for an Lavatch, a traditional Cockney servant whose jokes occasionally fell flat (the "Oh Lord Sir" section was a complete non-event), but who kept up the light-hearted feel. The Brothers Dumaine and the Interpreter were wonderful in delivering their made-up foreign language and motioning to each other in jest while Parolles was in captivity, and the struggles of the various lords to prevent each other from lynching the unsuspecting fool were entertaining. I was surprised, too, at how many lines translated into good, pure jokes: Lafeu's attempt to accept Parolles was instantly undone as Parolles entered and Lafeu spontaneously burst out with "Who's his tailor?!", and the King's dismissal of Diana with "I do not like her now" was met with roars from the theatre.
This strong production made a great case for the play's effectiveness on the modern stage, and acted as a good compliment to the National's very different but equally entertaining version. It's a production, too, that will get better as the company continue to build on the conviviality and connections to the crowd. A great start to the Globe's year.
May 14, 2011
Hamlet (Vital Signs) @ The White Bear Theatre Pub
I was surprised to see such a sparse audience for this, Vital Signs Theatre's new production of Hamlet at the White Bear. While Hamlets are two-a-penny at the moment, it's rare to get a chance to see a straight version of the first quarto (Q1). While the programme's claims that it's the first time the 1603 text has been staged in the UK in a decade need to be slightly qualified (the productions of both the Tiny Ninja Theater and Two Gents Productions were both based on Q1, albeit adapted), it's a big enough event that I would have hoped the academic audience alone would pack the tiny pub theatre out.
Imogen Bond's production was part of an MA project investigating audience reactions to subverted expectations, looking at how we respond to familiar texts made unfamiliar. Thankfully, though, this did not prevent her from taking creative decisions and presenting a fully-rounded production. Academic experiments can sometimes be a little dry on stage, but Bond served Q1 well by giving us a full, fast and entertaining Hamlet. This did mean that, at times, the unique features of Q1 were subsumed slightly to the desire to "do" Hamlet, most notably in the interest in character psychology. Where Q1 arguably features less characterisation and stricter adherence to stock figures and plot-driven narrative, one remained very aware of the interior lives of Bond's cast, who looked for psychological determination for their actions - whether Hamlet leaning wistfully after the departing Ofelia, Horatio building a complex and nuanced friendship with the Dane, or Rossencraft and Gilderstone forming a nervy and insecure partnership. I should stress, I think these were strong and thoroughly enjoyable decisions which served the production well. As an experiment, though, I was interested in how expectations of Hamlet informed the building of rounded characters who behave in psychologically realistic and explicable ways. If a production was trying to underline the differences between Q1 and "traditional" Hamlets, then a reduced focus on character would be a much more effective approach.
While I felt, then, that in certain important aspects this wasn't fundamentally different to several other productions of Hamlet I've seen, the strength of Bond's belief in the efficacy of Q1 meant that the production stood proudly alongside other versions on its own merits, and I preferred it to the bloated National version of last year. Pacy and well-performed, the company used the intimate space to create a stripped-back production that drew its audience directly into events. Beginning in complete darkness, the opening battlements scene was lit only with handheld torches; actors' faces gradually became visible as the torches were flung about. The Ghost (Stephen Connery-Brown) rose from the audience and stood silently in a spotlight while Horatio and the guards backed away from it, shaking.
The rough '40s setting (tuxedos, ballgowns, long coats etc.) made for a pleasant but strained formality to the court, where the moping Hamlet (Jamie Matthewman) sat disconsolately and whined while the courtiers coughed politely. We found ourselves amid the broken family dynamics of the privileged classes, with their games and entertainments: the duel was played with one participant stationary in a circle while the other paced around the boundaries attempting to nick his opponent; The Mousetrap was played as a kind of cabaret, with the elegant Player Duchess (Pamela Banks) singing into a microphone and the dumbshow playing as a competitive dance among smoking hoods. The hint of noir influence was completed by Katie Hayes's outstanding Horatio. With her long jacket, aloof air, unspoken loyalties and watchful eye, she could have stepped straight out of Raymond Chandler or even Casablanca, and lent the production much of the subtextual subtlety which might have detracted from the features of Q1, but worked wonderfully.
Dialogue was delivered at a rollicking pace, sometimes at the expense of clarity - I particularly struggled to make out Marcellus's lines, perhaps ironically given the production programme's acknowledgement of Marcellus's centrality to the memorial reconstruction theory. Matthewman's Hamlet handled the language extremely well, however. Speaking with a strong Yorkshire accent, he began much more slowly than the rest of the cast, signalling his melancholy while slouched on a bench next to his mother. When alone, his soliloquies were delivered while seated, leaning towards the audience and shrugging. This mournful Hamlet, however, was also a consummate actor, and sprang to vigorous life when performing his madness or manipulating groups. Tall and strong, he was an intimidating presence in these livelier scenes. When he was challenged over the whereabouts of Corambis, he grabbed and put a knife to the throat of the geeky Rossencraft (Clive Keene) and picked up the diminutive Gilderstone (Lucy Lill), spinning her around as she screamed in terror. He was a physical match for Leartes, with whom he grappled for a long time in Ofelia's grave, and the Q1 text justified a more visceral approach to violence, including holding his sword against the King's throat while the latter prayed.
Surrounding this dynamic and unstable Hamlet were several other characters who were defined by their relationship to him. Hayes's Horatio spoke volumes with her body language, whether lowering her head sadly as Hamlet prepared for the duel or taking his hand in hers as he spoke of his father's funeral. The air of slight detachment that allowed her to watch events was belied by a deep-rooted affection for Hamlet which didn't spill over into reductive sexual terms but connected Hamlet to a constant positive emotional centre. Hamlet acted without guile in turning his head to watch Ofelia (Rebecca Pownall) in early scenes, betraying a genuine affection for her which made the nunnery scene surprisingly difficult to watch, as he shouted tearfully and pushed her away. While Pownall made little impact in these early scenes against Matthewman, she was outstanding in the mad scenes. Rattling her lines out at a tremendous pace, but with complete clarity, she showed herself to be entirely unhinged. Copying the Player Duchess from earlier, she tapped at an imaginary microphone and sang her ravings in broken snatches. She broke into wailing when she slipped into mentioning her father, and pulled wildly at her clothes and hair while the on-stage spectators stood, still and shocked. In the small space, these scenes were truly rivetting.
Light relief was provided by Maurice Byrne as a disappointing Corambis, who mugged unnecessarily to the audience in his asides and didn't add anything significant to the production apart from a well-staged death scene, that saw him attempt to reach through the curtain to challenge Hamlet and pull the arras down on himself. Rossencraft and Gilderstone were surprisingly sober, the slightly awkward classmates of Hamlet and easily subdued by him. The production focussed most of its comic energies instead on the clowns. The Player Clown was eminently watchable in a wordless role that saw him react angrily to Hamlet's advice to the players and need to be restrained by his fellows. The Gravedigger was also played as a formal clown, with Ofelia doubling as his young assistant. Their sequence began with some odd comic business as they exchanged a series of suitcases, before laying out a grave on the floor by draping a blanket over two benches and creating a dip in the middle. The two were amusingly irreverent, and the Gravedigger tossed skulls carelessly out of his hole. With white faces and red noses, however, they also evoked familiar images of sad clowns, and their formal cap-doffing respect for the body of Ofelia (a piece of clothing borne in by four people) was touching.
Some familiar characters drew less attention. Fortenbrasse was barely present, though Sean Turner provided a strong military presence in his brief appearances. Robert Lonergan's King was softly-spoken and sententious, and probably suffered the most from comparison to the fuller characterisation of the more familiar texts. His villainy was in his actions rather than in his demeanour, and more often he seemed at a loss in the face of Ofelia's madness and Hamlet's actions. He came into his own in conversation with Leartes though, defusing the latter's anger and quietly planning their subsequent actions. Diana Katis was a strong Gertred, and I particularly enjoyed the chance to see (for the first time ever) the scene between Gertred and Horatio, which established a strong female-female relationship and lent pathos to the Queen's fate by emphasising her relative innocence.
The play's closing moments made use of the cramped stage space to good effect, as Fortenbrasse stumbled over the bodies that cluttered the space and a weeping Horatio held Hamlet's body in the centre of the stage. This tight image accentuated the speed and violence of the play in this version, a relentless and unthinking tragedy. While it may not have been as radically different to conventional Hamlets as I would have hoped, Bond and her cast pulled together a coherent and consistently interesting production that made a strong case for the efficacy of the play even without the familiar touchstones.
May 10, 2011
Shakespeare Poetry Hour @ The Underglobe
Writing about web page http://www.britac.ac.uk/events/lit_week_2011.cfm
Just a quick note on a thoroughly pleasant event last night. As part of the British Academy's Literature Week, Elisabeth Dutton (who did wonders with Hoffman last year) directed a series of snippets designed to illustrate interactions between players and audiences, drawn from the early modern drama and later. The programme ran as follows:
- Fulgens and Lucrece (Induction, with household members waiting for a play to begin)
- A Midsummer Night's Dream I.ii (the Mechanicals' first rehearsal)
- John Manningham's Diary (13 March 1602, the anecdote about Burbage, Shakespeare and a smitten citizen)
- Romeo and Juliet (I.iii, the Nurse telling Juliet and Lady Capulet her life story)
- Nicholas Nickleby (a character study of the Nurse's deceased husband)
- The Knight of the Burning Pestle (Induction, as a play is interrupted by two citizens and their apprentice)
- Hamlet III.ii ("The Mousetrap")
- Great Expectations (Pip describing a disastrous Hamlet)
- The Epilogues from As You Like It, All's Well that Ends Well, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest.
I'l be honest, these portmanteau shows aren't my thing, but it was a lovely concept, pulling together recognisable and unfamiliar instances of audiences intervening in or being dragged into performances, blurring the boundaries between "real" and "fictive" worlds. Four game actors (Bill Buckhurst, Frances Marshall, Philip Bird, Vivien Heilbron) did a fine job, and it made for an entertaining hour in the Underglobe, the Globe's central exhibition hall. It also set up the evening's lecture by Laurie Maguire ideally. Most importantly though, it reminded me how much I really want to see a production of Burning Pestle (and I know I wasn't the only one to think this), for even in the short Induction scene, I found myself laughing and drawn to the oblivious citizens and the charismatic Rafe.
May 09, 2011
The Honest Man's Fortune @ Canterbury Christ Church University
I've remarked before now on a show I've been involved in behind the scenes, but never before on something in which I've acted. I use "acting" in the loosest possible sense, and the less said about my board-treading the better, but it was a pleasure this weekend to be involved in a staged reading of The Honest Man's Fortune in Canterbury as part of a Renaissance colloquium organised by Steve Orman.
The play, by Field and Fletcher (and Massinger?), is a fun citizen comedy from 1613, that begins with the ruination of the titular honest man, Montaigne, and traces his fall at the hands of creditors, his reduction to servitude in the house of a virtuous lady (Lamira) and his restoration to riches as the eventual chosen husband of the lady. Alongside this, Montaigne's persecutor - the jealous Lord Orleans - turfs out his wife over suspicion of an ongoing affair with Montaigne and falls out with his brother-in-law, Amiens. The two are eventually reconciled with each other and with their defamed wife/sister following a duel plot partially stage-managed by Montaigne's loyal supporters, Longaville and Dubois. Three comic malefactors partially responsible for Montaigne's fall (Laverdure, La Poope and Mallicorne) present themselves as suitors to Lamira and are rebuffed by Montaigne; and Montaigne's loyal page Veramour is pursued by Laverdure, convinced that the boy is actually a woman. It is only revealed at the end, amid a flurry of winking to other plays, that Veramour is in fact the boy he always appeared to be.
The play is a surprisingly tight mixture of elements familiar from texts as diverse as Philaster, A New Way to Pay Old Debts, The Taming of the Shrew, Timon of Athens and even The Odyssey in its greedy suitors. In performance, despite very little rehearsal, it proved to be surprisingly stageable and entertaining. While it was obviously impossible for me to watch it properly while performing in it, I'll just make a few observations here.
In Brian McMahon's hands, Montaigne was a pleasingly complex combination of wistful persecuted hero and vocal righter of wrongs. "Honest" appeared to be key, rather than "good" - his test of Lady Orlean's virtue was initially extremely creepy and lecherous; his readiness to draw against Amiens and the officers showed him proactive; and he took no small pleasure in his final passing of judgement against the dishonourable suitors. This made him far more interesting than the stoic sufferer I'd initially expected, and a much more compelling protagonist.
The play fell rather conveniently into two halves, the first dealing primarily with Montaigne's fall at the hands of creditors, lawyers etc. and the second moving into a much more domestic sphere in and around Lamira's house. Longaville (Orman) and Dubois (myself) are quite prominent in the first half and much less so in the second, Dubois in particular being practically forgotten about by the text. The text appears to set up a great deal with the two, particularly their agreement to feign loyalty to the great lords (which provided great scope for a lot of shouting, bravado and flailing of imaginary swords), which then unwinds in one key scene as the Lady Orleans is apparently shot. This isn't just a note on the amount I had to do (!) but speaks interestingly to the change in tone and focus, with male friendships and public relationships replaced by a greater concern for heterosexual union in the second half. The unifying factor in this was Kelley Costigan's melancholic Veramour, always positioned to the side of the stage in the first half declaring his devotion for his master; but moving to more central roles in the second half as his gender came into question. The page dominated the final act too, Costigan bringing out the playfulness of Veramour when posing as a girl, before revealing his true gender.
The comic characters were surprisingly effective. Martin Wiggins brilliantly stepped in at short notice to play Charlotte and La Poope. The former began by playing on the type of the lecherous maid-servant, flirting shamelessly with the humbled Montaigne and providing a clearly undesirable contrast to the higher-class ladies; but later Wiggins brought out the sweetness of Charlotte's loyalty, culminating in the revelation that she had only been wooing Montaigne on behalf of her mistress. As La Poope, meanwhile, he was a gruff and blustering sailor whose disregard for social niceties made him a constantly entertaining presence. Nicola Boyle contrasted ideally as the courtier Laverdure, whose character was defined primarily by the amusing banter with Veramour during their flirtation and the shared cowardice with La Poope, the two cowering in doorways rather than joining in battles. I also particularly enjoyed the contrast between the two men in the final moments, as La Poope took Laverdure's place and embraced Veramour as a potential new cabin boy. I took on Mallicorne at the last minute and didn't really do the role justice - he begins as a fairly unambiguously treacherous character, tricking Montaigne's money away from him and then smugly revealing he has arranged for his arrest. Then, however, he tags along with the comic duo of Laverdue and La Poope, but I struggled to work out how he integrates with their already-established dynamic.
Alex Samson was the villain of the piece as the jealous Orleans, giving the role the forcefulness necessary to drive the action of the first half - he unseats Montaigne, drives away his wife and Amiens, encourages the conflicts between Longaville and Dubois and, finally, maintains the negative energy that leads up to the climactic staged assassination of Lady Orleans. He is only accorded a relatively quick penance, but Samson stuck to the principle that the character is essentially noble, which allowed his about-face to carry conviction and a consistency in the vehemence with which he repented. He was contrasted throughout (in a play full of doubles, these contrasts abounded) with Astrid Stilma's Amiens. Stilma brought a complexity to the role similar to that accorded to Montaigne - essentially virtuous, but with a temper and aggression that argued for virtue as an active and combative quality rather than a passive state. Much of the post-show discussion focussed on Amiens, who is interestingly established as an honest man at the play's opening and remains throughout a potential mate for Lamira, but who is ultimately left disappointed at the play's conclusion, despite his pleasure in Lamira's choice of Montaigne. I particularly liked Stilma's sense of sadness as she deferred to Montaigne at this final point.
Finally, the two women stood as types of female virtue, but once more interestingly contrasted. Jackie Watson (I hope I've spelled that correctly) played Lady Orleans as patient victim, pushed away by her husband but remaining loyal, and acting throughout as a voice of conscience. Claire Bartram's Lamira, meanwhile, was interestingly independent of male attachments, aloof with the suitors and tender of her servants. She held court throughout and, in some respects, took the Ducal role of the guarantor of order and restitution. It was an interestingly powerful role for a woman, despite the voiced objectification of her by the suitors, and it was fascinating to see her preside over the final scene and put Montaigne through the performance of espousing virtue and condemnation, in a gender-reversal of the conclusion of Shrew.
So, a fun event, even if I can't review it properly! It's a fascinating play, and generated some interesting post-show discussion. Hopefully the publication of a new edition in the Malone Society reprints this year will encourage further production, and with the re-opening of the Swan, it'd be wonderful if the RSC could explore it at a professional level in the near future.