A Touch Of The Sun – May 2006

Experience: 3/10

By N C Hunter

Directed by Joanna Read

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Thursday 25th May 2006

This was an old-fashioned play, not just because it was written and first produced in 1957, but because the values it expressed seemed so dated. A socialist schoolteacher, who works in a lesser public school for backward boys (goodness knows what term we would use now!) scrimping and saving to make ends meet, gets invited to Cannes for a holiday by his brother, the new husband of a relatively wealthy woman. This sets up all sorts of stresses and strains on the family relationships, especially between the teacher and his wife and him and his son.

His wife enjoys herself enormously at Cannes. She’s being entertained by a charming business man who’s inherited his wealth, and although she doesn’t fall in love with him, she’s very prepared to take full advantage of his time and companionship. The son is also keen to take advantage of an offer of work at his company. This probably upsets the father more than anything else, as his plan was for his son to become a schoolteacher. Eventually, he seems to realise he can’t run his son’s life, and accepts that he’s free to make his own choices. I did enjoy one bit where he comments on what he’s taught his son “since he was old enough to think for himself”! Seems like it’s OK to think for yourself as long as you think the same way Dad does.

There’s also his own father who’s being shuttled around between the families, although he ends up with the long-suffering schoolmaster as the flighty young Canadian sister-in-law just does not get on with him – he gets in the way of her socialising.

It was an interesting play to watch. It gave an insight into the concerns of its time, the period after WWII when ideals and materialism clashed. It would seem ludicrous now to have a character so obsessed with despising wealth and so completely incapable of having fun. But in this context it worked, and the acting was good enough to make it believable. There was good all round support, and the only drawback was that it all seemed a bit pointless – an historical debate that’s not so relevant today, but worth seeing for the different perspective.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Entertaining Angels – May 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Richard Everett

Directed by Alan Strachan

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 23rd May 2006

This was an entertaining piece of theatre, with much to recommend it. The house was packed, probably because Penelope Keith was starring, as a vicar’s widow, guilt-stricken with the belief that she had killed her husband (Benjamin Whitrow). The support cast were excellent, including Polly Adams as the widow’s sister, who announces she had a one-night stand with the deceased thirty years before and bore him a son, in Africa, where she’d gone to work as a missionary. It transpires that at the same time as she was carrying one son successfully to term, the widow had been losing her son, so there’s much family grief and resentment to cover there.

But that’s not all. The vicar having died, a new priest is being installed in the vicarage, and a woman at that (Caroline Harker). The widow’s daughter, Abigail Thaw, is a helpful-to-the-point-of-control-freak counsellor/therapist, who doesn’t seem to be grieving so much as sorting out everyone else’s lives. She contributes to the next generation’s lapses by having a one night stand with the new vicar’s husband (Michael Lumsden). Just to round it all off, the recently departed vicar is still to be seen pottering about the garden, doing those important odd jobs, and chatting to his widow about life, both before and after death.

This sounds like a fruitful opportunity for farce, but while there is a great deal of comedy and humour in this play, it has that lovely balance between humour and sadness, and even anger that is much more representative of ordinary life than more easily categorised dramas. This was even commented on in the post-show discussion by Ms Keith.

The funniest moments for me arose out of the husband’s (Lumsden’s) infatuation with the daughter (Thaw), believing their brief encounter to be more significant than she does. He tells the daughter that he has already told his wife everything, and that he wants to start a new life with her, much to the daughter’s horror. While she’s busy dealing with her difficult mother, her aunt has a heart-to-heart with the husband, and discovers that he hasn’t really told his wife anything – chickened out at the last minute. She advises him wisely to handle the changes in his life more practically than throwing himself at the first new woman that comes along, and on no account to tell his wife what’s happened, but to stay with her and work at their relationship. He agrees. At this point, the wife arrives, as does the daughter, who proceeds to launch into the most abject apology for her own behaviour, completely ignoring all pleas to leave well alone from husband and aunt, and completely mystifying the wife, but thoroughly pleasing the audience. The scene went on for some time, and I really thought the wife might twig, but no, she remained blissfully innocent.

Penelope Keith played the widow very well. She’s had years of resentment bottled up, and now she’s letting it out on everyone around her – not a pleasant character to be with. Apart from her belief that she’d killed her husband (not true), she resented losing him emotionally after the death of their son, and finding out about the other son is more than she can handle to begin with, understandably so. Of course, these details come out bit by bit during the play – it’s very hard to report them as they happened.

Benjamin Whitrow as the deceased husband has a fine time meandering through the play, giving us an insight into their relationship, and adds much of the humour, too. The daughter I have already described – very much the organiser, not happy that her mother is going batty and pretending to talk to her father all the time. The aunt is enjoyable, a little off the beaten track, as it were, through having very different experiences from the average Brit, but with a lot of common sense gained through painful experience. The new vicar comes across as almost New Labour in her perkiness and over-the-top intimacy, such as holding the widow’s hand to comfort her and show sympathy regardless of the widow’s preferences. But she obviously has a good heart, and while I would have liked her to have been more savvy about her husband, there wouldn’t be drama if characters didn’t have flaws. Her husband is beautifully portrayed, as a man who has reached forty, started to re-evaluate his life, and fallen for the first female he’s met who’s different from his wife, thinking she’s perfect and will make him happy.

The set design was interesting, with walls blending into sky and foliage, presumably suggesting the blurring of the boundaries between this world and the afterlife. Unfortunately, some slack had crept into the backdrop, so we were treated to some peculiar-looking swag-shadows this evening – a not-to-be-repeated event, I’m sure, certainly not if the designer has his way. Along the front of the stage was a stream, with real water, and the garden area had real grass. To create different scenes, a swathe of willow branches was lowered towards the front of the stage to distance the stream from the garden, making it more secluded. I thought this worked really well.

The less good things I found were the lack of sympathy I felt for the central character, some theological comments which went over my head, and a sense that the play has more to offer. See below. But despite these few cavils, this was a very enjoyable evening with a splendid cast.

         Post-show discussion: All the cast stayed behind (this was a short play, finishing at about 9:30 p.m.), along with the writer and set designer. Points raised included the difficulty of projecting to such a large auditorium, especially with the audience on three sides, and the need to keep turning round to include various sections of it; it’s better to have a writer who’s also been an actor because he understands their needs; the possible changes that might have to be made if the show were to transfer to a proscenium arch theatre; possible rewriting anyway now the author has seen such a good cast bring the play to life and given him new ideas; many actors’ terror at having to do post-show discussions, although some, such as Abigail Thaw actually enjoy it; the importance of audience vocal feedback, letting the actors know the audience is with them; how differently audiences react to significant revelations in the play, especially the widow’s announcement that she’s killed her husband – the response varies, but again shows the audience is taking it all in. The discussion ended with much appreciation of the cast from the audience members who had stayed behind.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Two Noble Kinsmen – May 2006


By: William Shakespeare and John Fletcher (?)

Directed by: William Oldroyd

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Sunday 21st May 2006

What a treat this was! There had been so much to read when we booked for the first part of this Complete Works festival, that I didn’t really take in the details of many of the productions. So I was surprised (and as it turned out, not particularly delighted) to find Othello was an adaptation. I was just as surprised, but this time totally thrilled, to find out that this one-off rehearsed reading of The Two Noble Kinsmen was being done by the RSC Company touring The Canterbury Tales! The same group whom we’d seen and loved so much in January. They had kindly given up a free day in their very packed schedule, as well as the rehearsal time, of course, to give all of us this treat. Naturally, they were very warmly received at the start, and even more warmly applauded at the end. A few brave ones amongst them even stayed to answer a few questions, but more of that later.

The format was: an introduction by William Oldroyd, the assistant director for The Canterbury Tales and director of Two Noble Kinsmen, followed by a performance of the Knight’s tale from The Canterbury Tales, minus costumes, sets etc, followed by the rehearsed reading of Two Noble Kinsmen. They started with the original introduction by Chaucer (Mark Hadfield), bypassing the time in the tavern, and straight into the Knight’s tale. It was short, of course, covered the salient points (although Chaucer did have to nudge the knight back on track at one point), and I realised I was enjoying it much more than I did first time around. Perhaps I did just get the wrong end of the stick last time.

After the interval, the rehearsed reading began. Straight into the scene where the three queens (promotions there – in Chaucer it’s one queen and two duchesses) sue to Theseus to help them get their dead husband’s bodies to bury. Now Chaucer has Theseus agree pretty swiftly – doesn’t want to bore his readers – but Will (for we believe it was he who penned this scene) takes his time, savours every angle, even has the queens making the most unreasonable demands, to my mind. Only a genius can get away with this sort of thing! Not only do these women want Theseus to fight Creon so that they can bury their husbands, but he must DO IT NOW!, not mess about getting married to Hippolyta first, no chance. It’s no nooky for him till he gets the job done. What also impressed me with this scene is how the women all get a chance to speak, including Hippolyta and her sister Emilia. Fair enough, the knight’s only interested in the fighting bits of his tale, and so the women hardly feature, and that’s fine, but it’s also nice to hear them speak; it seems to me that that’s what Will so often did – gave people a voice who would otherwise never be heard.

Theseus responds pretty well to this badgering – well, the women do give him lots of reverence along the way – and soon Creon is out of office and there are two injured soldiers on the deck who’ve fought for the wrong side and ended up in prison. They get a bit more chat than before as well, telling each other how they’ll get through their life sentences with each other’s support and cousinly love. Boy, does that go out of the window as soon as they set eyes on Emilia.

The action is much brisker now in the play, compared to the story. Almost immediately, Theseus sends for Arcite to tell him he’s banished. Horror of horrors, he doesn’t want to go, but he heads off anyway, determined to come back and win his love, even though Palamon had first dibs on her. Palamon, still in prison, voices his concerns about this.

Now we come to the first major plot change – a whole new subplot about the jailer’s daughter, who has fallen in love with Palamon and arranges to free him. He then goes in search of Arcite, who with remarkable swiftness has reintroduced himself to Theseus’ country, disguised, and worked his way up to something like a squire, serving Emilia or possibly Theseus, I forget which. They meet and arrange to fight, and there’s a touching little scene where they help each other on with their armour, filched from Theseus’ store. It’s amazing how much they love and respect one another, and how willing they are to cut each other into little pieces for the sake of a woman, and one who, let it be remembered, has not yet been told about these frantic lovers, never mind given a choice in the matter! Before they do any real damage, Theseus, ever fond of a bit of hunting, arrives on the scene, and sets them the challenge – come back in a few months with three followers, and fight to the death, with the winner getting the woman. This is a shorter time frame than the Knight’s tale, and many fewer followers – Shakespeare and Fletcher obviously want to cut to the chase. Plus it’s harder to represent a hundred followers on stage compared to the printed, or rather hand-written page.

So off they go, back they come, and stop off at the nearest temple for a spot of prayer. Arcite prays to Mars, god of war, for victory. Palamon prays to Venus for success in love. And Emilia prays to Diana for continued chastity, or, failing that, that the best man wins. Now there’s a smart woman – hedging her bets with a plan B.

There’s an interesting change from the original at this point. The knight understandably gives us the fight in some detail. Shakespeare and Fletcher, on the other hand, ditch the fighting, and stay with Emilia, who has left the arena to await her fate. We hear the result of the battle by report, and so we can concentrate on her reaction. We also hear about Arcite falling off his horse, and he is brought on stage to give us his dying words, leaving Emilia to Palamon. Happy ending.

However, before the credits roll, let us return to the sub-plot. The jailer’s daughter, bless her little heart, has gone a bit crazy at the loss of Palamon. She was due to marry a young local man, but now she’s so far gone she’s convinced Palamon is coming back to marry her (or did Palamon make a promise he didn’t intend to keep?). She happens on a band of country folk who are preparing a small diversion for Theseus, a little dance, and as they’re short of a woman, they ask her to join in, which she does. The diversion, especially the introduction by their leader, a schoolmaster, is blatantly derived from the mechanicals play within A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while the jailer’s daughter treats us to a reprise of Ophelia’s mad scenes from Hamlet – and none the worse for that. Why not recycle some of Will’s greatest hits? After all, we do it often enough nowadays.

After this, the jailer’s daughter is taken home, and to restore her wits, a doctor suggests they tell her that the young man she was due to wed is in fact Palamon come back for her. This seems to do the trick.

While typing this, it became very clear what the differences were between the Knight’s tale and Two Noble Kinsmen. The Knight’s tale is simply telling the story, with very few embellishments, and very little of the characters and their emotional involvement in the play, which is very suitable for a character such as the Knight. By contrast, Two Noble Kinsmen really fleshes out the bare bones, makes the characters much more realistic, and gives us a much fuller emotional, as well as mental experience. The additional sub-plot adds depth, by showing us the flip side of the desperate, irrational love that seizes Arcite and Palamon. And although there’s plenty of humour in the staging of the Knight’s tale, it’s outgunned in that department by the play, as it is in all departments. Actually, it seemed funnier than the production we saw back in the mid-eighties, when it opened the Swan Theatre. Here’s hoping it’s put on again sometime soon, in a full production.

As far as figuring out which bits Shakespeare wrote and which Fletcher – who cares? The consensus in the post-show talk was that Shakespeare wrote the opening section with the queens pleading for revenge against Creon – very probable. The echoes of Will’s previous work may have been ‘homaged’ by Fletcher, and it was suggested that Will supplied the main speeches while Fletcher stitched it together. I’m not sure, but as I said before – who cares? I’d rather just sit down and enjoy the play.

Anything else from the post-show? Just that the actors themselves found that they could spot Shakespeare’s work because of how well it read, and how it improved with use. They should know.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Antony and Cleopatra – May 2006


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Saturday 20th May 2006

There are so many ideas in this play – and in my head. Shakespeare has written a love play/tragedy within a political play within a Roman historical play. Phew. And he probably knocked it off in a rainy afternoon down the pub!

This was a very good production of a very difficult play. I usually find it hard to engage with the main characters, for while I’ve experienced passion a-plenty in my life, I’m not aware of having neglected anything important to dally with my beloved. So I find it hard to feel sympathy for Antony, who has quite clearly lost all perspective in his infatuation with Cleopatra. Perhaps I would find it easier to understand if I could look at her and think “I wouldn’t mind a bit of that!”, but so far I haven’t found any of them that attractive (and at least one was, frankly, repulsive). Lack of maturity or experience on my part, I’m sure.

Octavius Caesar is usually portrayed as a cold fish, and is equally hard to like; to be fair, this production gives him a bit more passion, but also a tendency to shake – possibly intended as a reference to Julius Caesar’s epilepsy, though as Octavius was his adopted son, and not genetically linked as far as I know, it simply proves a bit of a distraction. [Oops. Since discovered he was, in fact, Julius’ great nephew.]

This doesn’t leave many of the main characters to be fond of. Fortunately, this production is replete with excellent performances in the lesser parts. I’ve usually liked Enobarbus – when you’re hacked off with the main characters, it’s always helpful to have a cynic handy who can put the boot in on your behalf. Ken Bones did a fine job, though I would have liked his character to be more prominent (were lines cut?), and for his death scene to have had more impact.

The roles of messenger and fig delivery man (or ‘clown’, as the cast sheet so prosaically puts it) were little jewels of comedy acting. The messenger was so reluctant to return to Cleopatra after his first drubbing that Charmian had to push him on stage, and the look of relief on his face when he finally got away unscathed got the biggest laugh of the evening (and this was one of the funniest Antony and Cleopatras I’ve seen!). The asp pedlar was suitably obtuse about Cleopatra’s intention towards “the worm”, and following a gasp from Cleo as she peeks inside the basket, returns several times to warn her to be careful. It was a lovely performance, beautifully topped off by the knitted red woollen cone he wore on his head.

Menas was particularly well played this time. He is Pompey’s follower who suggests bumping off all Pompey’s rivals at the feast they’re having to celebrate their new-found friendship. This character came across as more rounded, with more of a part to play in events than I’ve seen before. Also Pompey deserves an honourable mention, playing the part on crutches, presumably because of an injury. This must have made things difficult, but he still got the part across well.

One thing all these parts had in common was that I could usually make out what they were saying, even if I couldn’t always understand it. Sad to say, I found the volume of much of the early dialogue to low to hear. Given that this late play has some of the most complex language to unravel, I would have preferred greater clarity and projection. I kept feeling there was something I was missing – some underlying context or idea that would allow me to make sense of the whole play, if only I could grasp it, but every idea that came to me fell by the wayside when compared with the massively detailed and richly textured play before us.

I considered the possibility of veiled references to the Elizabethan/Jacobean political and religious situation – Octavius as Elizabeth, Antony as Mary, with Lepidus possibly representing Edward VI. Again, there was theme of boring, dutiful Protestantism stifling and overcoming beautiful, flamboyant (and older) Catholicism. But the play contains much, much more than this. I even looked at the possibility of Antony and Cleopatra representing Adam and Eve, falling from grace through ignoring their spiritual duty. As God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit were not to be mentioned or portrayed directly on stage at that time, it’s not such a far-fetched idea, but it still falls far short of explaining the wealth of other material in the play.

Betrayal stands out strongly as the most common theme – more so than love, passion or honour. Antony has betrayed Rome’s needs to pursue his relationship with Cleopatra, she betrays him at Actium and appears to betray him in sending conciliatory messages to Caesar, Antony betrays Fulvia and Octavia as well as Octavius, and everyone else changes sides faster than rats deserting a sinking ship.

Yet throughout all this, there is still that sense of an underlying love affair between these two people. Like an ageing Romeo and Juliet, there are many forces pushing them apart, but they cling to their need for one another like drowning people. The political situation that brings them together, the experience, power and lust for life that they share, make them ideal lovers but also make their passion doomed.

And so to the main performances. Antony was a grizzled veteran, calculating, especially in relation to his wives, and politically shrewd, but I was never sure what was pulling him back to Rome at all. There seemed to be no reason to leave Cleopatra. And although he was full of manly swagger, I didn’t sense the charisma that Antony could exert, along with his military prowess, to inspire loyalty from his men (which also undercut the emotional charge of Enobarbus’ death). The character reminded me of an older George Best – great in his day, but now sinking into serious has-been territory, largely due to his own actions. There were lots of nice touches, especially the political manoeuvring with Octavius, showing up the younger man by wrong-footing him, all smiles until he gets what he wants, then abruptly away.

Cleopatra was graceful and beautiful, but too intelligent and determined for my liking. This Cleopatra was a good match for Antony, and together they would have been more likely to conquer the world themselves than to lapse into abject failure. She wasn’t fey enough, not decadent enough. Harriet Walter conveyed both the deep grief and the lighter moments well, for example the tantrums with the messenger, but I didn’t feel enough sense of abandon, of wantonness and wilfulness in the character. This Cleopatra was just too much of a thinker.

The staging was excellent. The bare Swan stage was relatively uncluttered. Various chairs, cushions, throws, etc were brought in as required. There wasn’t much use of the different levels or the balconies that I can recall. The main joy was the back wall, or rather a glass panel in front of the back wall which had been semi-plastered, as if a couple of indifferent craftsmen had started the job, and then buggered off down the pub for the rest of the day. The loose patches of plaster were lit so differently, that the whole stage was transformed – now green, now blue, now misty, now purple. It also gave the effect of a rough map, suggesting a mix of sea and land, as well as the idea of new building and decaying ruins. With all these aspects neatly portrayed in one bold yet simple statement, this has to be the best set design of the season so far, and one that will stay with me for a long time.

[Steve saw the production again when it transferred to London, and considered that it had improved a lot. Both Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter seemed more comfortable in their roles, Pompey had got over his injury, and the whole performance had picked up a notch.]

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me