Strangers On A Train – June 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Craig Warner, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith

Directed by Robin Herford

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Wednesday 28th June 2006

          Interesting production, this. I haven’t read the book, but this play must be closer to the novel than the movie version. Same start – two strangers meeting on a train, leading to murder and mayhem. Much more psychological than the Hitchcock, and in some ways much darker, less sensational.

Obviously, this had to work on the stage, so forget seeing the funfair. A lot had to be reported rather than shown. And there were lots of pauses while the sets were trundled on and off stage. Even so, this was pretty tightly scripted – a study of insanity and how it could entrap and almost destroy a relatively normal human being. In the end, Guy Haines, the architect who is drawn into Charles Bruno’s deadly plan, is saved by the love of a morally ambiguous woman. She tells him she doesn’t love him for his goodness, which begs the question what does she love him for then? At one point, it seemed the easiest thing would be for Guy and his new bride (Charlie boy bumped off the original) to murder Charlie as he hides under their roof, and dispose of the body, but we had a bit further to go, and in the end Charlie tops himself with Guy’s gun, the one used to kill Charlie’s father and which was discarded in the woods. A relief in many ways, especially as the investigator, one Arthur Gerard (played by Colin Baker), had decided to let the matter drop, even though he pretty much knew the whole story.

The emotional and mental journey was an interesting one, with lots of moral ambiguity to challenge the audience’s beliefs. Did good triumph in the end? And what of the lives of Guy and Anne afterwards – he’d been so stricken with guilt before he’d killed Charlie’s dad, how would he carry on now? Lots to think about.

Good performances all round, especially the two leads – Alex Ferns as Charles Bruno, nicely psychotic, suave and assured at the start, disintegrating into twitchy insanity by the end, and Will Thorp as Guy Haines, a straightforward guy who gets caught up in a nightmare he can’t handle until he finally tells all (in print) to his new wife.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at

In Praise Of Love – June 2006

Experience: 10/10

By Terence Rattigan

Directed by Philip Wilson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 27th June 2006

This was a superb production of a masterful play. Rattigan at his best. Four characters, three scenes/acts, one set, tightly scripted and brilliantly performed. A great evening.

It took me a while to get Suzanne Burden’s accent for Lydia – Estonian – but once I’d tuned in I was amazed at how well she carried it through all the emotional ups and downs the character goes through. I lost some other of the lines in the early stages, but not enough to give me any problems. How to relate my impressions of this play in detail without churning through the whole story? I reckon this is one play and performance that will live long in my memory, but no harm in giving it a helping hand.

The key for me was Michael Thomas’s performance as Sebastian. He was willing to play the appearance of a real bastard, and never mind the audience’s sympathy. Initially he seems uncaring towards his wife, Lydia, telling her not to bore people with her refugee stories, being completely absent-minded about what she’s doing, and expecting her to fetch and carry all the time, fixing this and that – a real chauvinist pig. He even forgets to turn up for a very important occasion for his son – the first TV screening of his first play, and has been carrying on an affair with another woman for some time. However, there are one or two clues, especially his response to his wife’s near-collapse at the end of the first act, rushing to support her up the stairs to bed. Turns out they’re both lying to each other, for the best possible reason – to protect the other from the horrible truth. Only a friend, Mark, who’s been in love with and loved by Lydia for over twenty years, can be told the truth, by both of them, although we don’t hear Sebastian’s version till the final act.

Surprisingly, after this description, there was a lot of humour in this play. I don’t know what else to add. Words fail me. Just go and see it again if you can.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at

Star Quality – June 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Noel Coward

Adapted by Christopher Luscombe

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Thursday 22nd June 2006

This was a reasonably enjoyable evening, marred only by being nearly blinded by a badly positioned mirror in the dressing room scenes. Fortunately, the offending mirror was partly covered as the set was redressed, so I was OK, but the poor chap next to me was still being dazzled. Unfortunate, and it did spoil the end scenes for me.

I find this a wordy and rather arch play – still fun, but nothing like as enjoyable as Coward’s main works. The performances were fine, set design and lighting (with one exception) fine, though not on as lavish a scale as the previous production (seen at Richmond Theatre). I particularly enjoyed Miles Western as the director’s “personal assistant”, and the short scene where the star gets the better of the director at the end, convincing him of her vulnerability. Good fun.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at

Titus Andronicus – June 2006

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Yulio Ninagawa

Venue: RST

Date: Saturday 17th June 2006

Ah well, it couldn’t last. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Ninagawa’s work in the past – King Lear at the RST and Hamlet at the Barbican – but both of those productions used British actors, and Shakespeare’s text. I liked his slightly stylised approach, with great attention to detail, such that every part of the audience was considered. The pre-show talk was promising too, with Greg Doran chairing a conversation with Ninagawa and Thelma Holt, based on their lengthy collaboration. Even with translation, Ninagawa came across as direct, simple, vastly experienced and still open to learn, with a great sense of humour. Ah well.

I’ve realised from this year’s experiences that I need Shakespeare’s language to really enjoy his plays, regardless of the style of production. I know the Dream earlier used many languages, but there was enough of the original to make sense, and the performances more than made up for the rest of it. Sadly, not so true for this production of Titus Andronicus with Japanese actors and Japanese words.

In the pre-show, Ninagawa explained the difference between working with British and Japanese actors. British actors are more concerned with the text, and with analysing their characters’ backgrounds. If their character is putting a bandage on his foot, they want to know what type of injury it is, how long they’ve had it, and what that tells them about their character’s background. A Japanese actor would simply register that at that point in the play he had to bandage his foot, and carry on to the next thing. Japanese actors are more concerned about the physicality – what they do. Also, many Japanese actors are trained in one or other of the various Japanese theatre styles, all of which have their own rules and forms. They don’t find it necessary to be naturalistic. This possibly explains why I found such a difference between his previous productions and this one. The stylisation with British actors was more restrained – it was a new way of working to them and either they didn’t take to it so well, or Ninagawa realised he needed to go more slowly. Whatever. With highly trained Japanese actors, however, there was no holding back, and as a result I found the stylisation too much to take at times.

Before the action began, the actors had been dressing themselves on stage, in full view of the audience. Apparently some had also been wandering around in the foyer as well. Some of the actors practised running up and down the steps at the front of the stage, getting ready for the active parts of the play. As performance time neared, instructions in Japanese, with English surtitles, were issued through the loudspeakers, and the cast began clearing away the costume rails, and bringing on the giant wolf (see below). It was an interesting start.

The set was promising – very stark. White everywhere, with moveable walls and a HUGE white statue of a wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, which was trundled on and off, and occasionally rotated. Wide steps led down into the auditorium, and the action flowed through the whole space – we were warned to keep the aisles clear at all times. The forest was represented by lots of large leaf shapes, with one large tree trunk in the middle. The costumes must have been hell in hot weather – the senators wore duvets, the soldiers were in several layers of armour, only the women seemed dressed for the heat. Red streamers were used to represent blood – very effective, and although I found it too much at times, I suspect that’s just because this is Shakespeare’s gore-fest, a proper revenge play, and lots of stage blood would have probably got to me as well. (Actually, too much stage blood and I start to worry about how the costume department is going to get it off the costumes!)

This time I was more prepared for the surtitles, and they kept pace with the action much better than before. I was also trying not to look at them so much, so that I could just absorb the performances, but I found it very difficult, especially as I’m not as familiar with this play. Perhaps if there’s another foreign version I’ll study the play in advance, although I won’t know how the director’s cut the thing. Anyway, this time I was able to concentrate on the performances a lot more, and again, there was a lot to enjoy. Tamara’s anger and lust for revenge was matched by her cunning and subtlety – forget Lady Macbeth, this one’s the real danger. Aaron, her lover, was kept very low-key at the start, but came into his own as the play progressed. He snarled and sneered his way across the stage like a comic-book villain, appropriate from a culture that adores those strongly drawn graphic images. I found it a little slow at times, though, as he drew out every snarl to its full extent, but then it did give me plenty of time to catch up on the surtitles if I wanted to.

Titus himself was effectively and movingly played. The old soldier, upright in his integrity, with a lifetime of service to his country through warfare, and, it has to be said, bonking – he has buried over twenty sons, after all. His political naiveté is evident from the start, and is an echo (or precursor?) to Coriolanus’ own Achilles’ heel. His ruthlessness in killing Tamara’s firstborn is also clear, and also recalls King Lear’s absolutism which is so sorely challenged and overcome at great cost. Whether these echoes are intended in this production or just part of my increasing experience of Shakespeare’s plays, I don’t know, but I thoroughly enjoyed them.

Titus’ emotional journey is also well mapped out. Without the understanding of the long speeches, it’s easier to grasp the emotions being expressed, and they come across here so much more strongly because of the stylisation, which allows the actors to go over the top. Grief here really is grief. In the previous Titus, one problem the actors faced was the lack of emotional expression compared with the mentalising the characters do. No such problems here – this is full-on emotional roller-coaster, with gore.

I was reminded once again how Shakespeare balances out the characters, no clear cut heroes and villains. Lavinia and Bassianus may suffer horrible fates, but they’re no innocent victims. Both show how unpleasant they can be – not to the level that justifies their murder and rape, but not beyond reproach, either. Tamara’s rage seems more intelligible here, too. And I enjoyed Marcus’ performance (Titus’ brother), especially the counterpoint of his descent into furious grief just at the moment when Titus breaks through to laughter – he’s done all his crying, now it’s time for revenge.

The scene with Tamara and her sons acting out Revenge, Rape and Murder was well done, and the humour was a welcome relief. With the final enacting of revenge, especially the murder of Lavinia, done very simply and movingly, the play finished stunning the audience, in all sorts of ways.

I’m glad I saw it, I’ve learned a lot from watching it, and from writing these notes, and I’m also glad I don’t have to watch it again. The question always is – what was Will up to when he wrote this? That’s what keeps me watching, that’s what drives me to go to so many different productions. I hope I never answer that question fully.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – June 2006

Experience: 10/10

By William Shakespeare, with translations by the cast and others

Directed by Tim Supple


Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 16th June 2006

Like the Othello, I ask “Where do I start?” Unlike the Othello, this was one of the most wonderful productions I have seen in many a year. Not better than my favourite Dream, but spectacular nonetheless.

What impressed me most was how well the play’s emotions came across. The play was performed in seven different languages – English, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam, and Marathi. The actors had been chosen at a massive audition festival in India; players with all sorts of backgrounds, including Indian folk theatre, contemporary acting, acrobatics, juggling, rope work, etc. came together to explore the play. Tim Supple, the director, chose the best actor for each part, and then basically used that actor’s main acting language for that character. Some spoke English, others almost exclusively another language, while some spoke several, and a few had to learn the English for some of their lines so that the story could be understood. In some cases, the most appropriate language was chosen, based on the sound. This helped to create the magical effect – so many rhythms, so much music in the performance. Again, some of the English lines took on a new emphasis with the different speech patterns.

The upshot was that I stopped trying to listen to the words so much – after all, I know this play pretty well, as did most of the audience. Instead, I could concentrate on watching the actors express the characters’ thoughts and emotions. I felt so liberated. Also, these actors seemed to project more emotion than I’m used to seeing on the stage. Maybe it’s the different culture (we Brits tend to be so buttoned up), and maybe it’s because they also had to deal with languages they didn’t understand. And from the post-show talk, I gather that it was a deliberate choice to beef up the violence and sex in the play. Anyway, I enjoyed the emotional ride enormously, and the cast thoroughly deserved their standing ovation at the end.

The stage seemed simple at the start, but evolved as time went on. At the back were sheets of white paper, with a door bottom right, and a platform projecting out from the back wall about eight feet up and about ten feet long, also covered in white paper. The floor was covered in red earth over which lay a silk sheet. At the front of the stage were two pools, on either side of a covered sculpture, and in front of these was a sand pit. The musicians were located in both side balconies.

At the start, Puck/Philostrate enters, grinning broadly, which he does throughout the performance. Taking in the audience, he walks to the front, removes the cover from the sculpture and reveals a stone block, smooth and shining, with parallel slices cut through it. Stepping over it, he squats down in the sandpit and cups water from each pool over the stone. Then he begins to stroke it rhythmically, and almost magically, it starts to sing – a beautiful note. At this, Theseus and Hippolyta enter to start the play proper.

Although Theseus mainly speaks in non-English tongues, the opening lines are in English, and it’s clear Hippolyta isn’t happy. And this is no slightly miffed English ice-Amazon, either – this one could throw things – a spear, perhaps, or at least a few plates. Fortunately, or perhaps not, Egeus arrives with his wayward daughter and two young men in tow. Didn’t understand a word, didn’t need to. A pretty little casket obviously held the trinkets Lysander had been “bribing” Hermia with, and the airs of dejection and defiance clearly delineated the two suitors. One lovely line was retained in the English – “You have her father’s love, Demetrius; Let me have Hermia’s: do you marry him.” Hermia spoke throughout in English, as did all the women, and Theseus explained her predicament in English – Hippolyta was even less happy. For a moment it looked like Hermia and Lysander weren’t going to be left alone at the end of the scene, but Theseus commands Egeus and Demetrius away, leaving them to converse, in English, about their plight. They make the usual arrangements, tell all to Helena (always a mistake, I feel), and then the play really hots up.

As Helena is leaving to blab to Demetrius, she is startled by Philostrate lurking by the door. Once she leaves, he removes the silk sheet to reveal the beaten earth, and with a tremendous ripping sound, the fairies arrive, thrusting and tearing their way through the paper sheets. The sheets were attached to wooden scaffolding, allowing the fairies to climb, swing, and slip away furtively, anything they want to do, in fact. Marvellous. Enter Puck (Philostrate without his robe, therefore pretty much naked except for a bright red loincloth – daring, but he had the figure to carry it off) and several other fairies, led by a young lady who carries much of the scene’s early dialogue. I particularly liked the way the long speeches about who the fairies think Puck is, are shared out amongst the four who turn out to be Titania’s main attendants. That way it wasn’t so boring. And Puck’s reply, equally as long, is spoken in Hindi, with much teasing and mock fighting with his stage audience – another relief from boredom. These fairies are definitely not to be messed with.

Enter Oberon and Titania (doubled with Theseus and Hippolyta), and they really have a go at each other. Rolling around in the dirt, it’s hard to tell if they’re having sex or fighting – very physical and much stronger than the usual distant sniping. These two have history. This scene was helped by the inclusion in the company of a nine-year-old boy from an acrobatic family, used to climbing, rope-work, etc. How they were able to have him on stage for so long I don’t know, but he was present a lot of the time with Titania, and later, Oberon, and made the cause of the quarrel very apparent – the Indian boy. At the end, a mad scramble away through the scaffolding and the fairies have disappeared, leaving Theseus to request the special little herb from his own personal messenger service, Puck. And then the lovers arrive.

For once, Helena and Demetrius look like they’ve been through hell already. Clothes torn, wild-eyed, Demetrius waves a nasty looking blade around while telling Helena to get lost. He really will kill Lysander given half a chance. And this wood is a really scary place. At the post-show, we were told the Indian performances had been conducted in the open air, with the cast having to contend with, amongst other things, jackals and bandits! This gave them and us a real sense of the forest being a very dangerous place.

The flower Puck brings is a lovely one, with several large blooms. In the centre of each one is a small red ball; crushed, it provides Theseus and Puck with red powder, which they smear over the eyes of those they put the spell on. Very effective, and the powder stays on for quite a while, being wiped off when the spell is removed, so it’s a clear reminder of what those naughty fairies have been up to. Anyway, Oberon’s off to punish Titania, and Puck’s off to sort out the “Athenian youth” – what could possibly go wrong?

Believe it or not, we don’t see the mechanicals until now. These are the hard-working men of Athens, gathering to arrange their performance for the marriage. Tom Snout, the tinker, carries a long pole with all the community’s spare cooking pans attached – this man would not sneak up on you unnoticed! When the clattering finally dies down, and the laughter, Quince gets on with it. Bottom was a lovely chap, Joy Fernandes, built like Tony Hancock but with a cheerful disposition. Flute, a tall, gangly youth, is not happy to be lumbered with the lady’s part. The others, older and wiser, are happy to settle for what they can get. A short scene, this, especially with the beards shaved off.

As Titania enters, we have another example of how Puck/Philostrate is orchestrating things. While the mechanicals leave, various ropes and ribbons are lowered to the stage, with Puck, still grinning, releasing them all from their guide ropes. By the time the fairies are ready to sing Titania to sleep, they all have ropes to climb up and dance with. Titania herself makes a cosy nest out of two long red ribbons of cloth, and tucks herself up in it, pulling in the trailing cloth, closing the ribbons up like the bud of a flower. Her nest is then lifted up above the action, and she is beautifully concealed from prying eyes.

Some of the ropes are then removed, but there are more ribbons available for Hermia and Lysander to knot together and rest on. Again, it almost looks like Lysander is going to ignore maidenly modesty, but Hermia’s no pushover, and he backs off. All the rest unfolds as usual, and off everyone goes.

So then Puck and the other company fairies (not the queen’s supporters as such), take away the ropes and bring on the scenery for the mechanicals rehearsal. It was a lovely idea, to have these fairies standing around, holding up various items – banana leaves, wattle screens, etc. – and watching the developing events with amazement and great humour. Worth mentioning was Flute’s totally disenchanted rendition of Thisbe’s lines – no feeling whatsoever, this actor just wanted to be off stage as quickly as possible. Also, no use of “Ninny’s tomb” – possibly doesn’t work so well when there are so many accents and languages being used.

No holds barred in this production so far, so it comes as no surprise that Bottom’s ass’s accoutrements are not only prominent, but completed by a largish gourd hanging from his waist. Nice touch. Exeunt mechanicals, awaken Titania, etc.

The lovers are next up, and with Demetrius’ eyes smeared red as well, both men now pursue Helena. At this point, I found Puck’s interventions a bit distracting. He set up some poles round the outside of the stage, and then started winding elastic rope around and between them, creating a cat’s cradle through which the lovers interacted. This represented very well the difficulties the lovers are dealing with – the dense forest, people holding one another back – but I found it hard to block Puck out of the picture, as this is only a small stage. It might have been OK if there were only a couple of rolls of elastic, but he got through four of them! It took the whole scene to unravel them (and it’s a long scene), and by then I’d lost track of the lovers altogether. A shame, because I’m sure they were performing valiantly through the elastic. With the stage so snarled up, there was nothing else for it but to have the interval here, so Puck leads the lovers into the scaffolding, and leaves them all asleep, removing the red dust from Lysander’s eyes. Ah.

The next scene is the removal of the spell from Titania. This was beautifully done. She and Bottom are sprawled in the ribbon nest, and Oberon, who has been observing from the platform, does some rope work to come down to earth, while the Indian boy follows part way. Oberon cleans Titania up, and she awakens, horrified at what she sees. Bottom is moved to the back of the stage, lying down, and Puck removes his ‘appendages’.

Now at this point, Titania and Oberon leave the stage, and Theseus and Hippolyta enter. Normally, when doubling occurs, Bottom’s awakening gives the poor actors a bit of time to make the changeover. Not here. Both actors stay on stage, and the fairy attendants bring on their outer robes, which are all that distinguish the characters, and dress them there and then. Another beautiful element in the production – to have the faith that the audience can handle it and will go along with it, which of course we did, most happily.

After Bottom’s recovery, and reunion with the rest of his troupe, Philostrate sets up the cushioned areas for the aristocrats to sit and watch the evening’s entertainment. These final scenes are mostly in English; I gather it was difficult to translate, and we would have missed a lot of the jokes.

The Pyramus and Thisbe was very enjoyable. Wall was literally covered in plaster, and carried a pipe across his shoulders, to represent the chink in the wall the lovers talked through. The blood was represented by red cloth, and the whole scene was amusing. It was followed by the bergomask – given the emphasis on movement and dance in this production, this was a lively affair. The drummer was on stage throughout the play and dance.

Finally, the whole cast was on stage for the house blessing, moving slowly and rhythmically, forwards and backwards. Again, beautiful, and hypnotic. With Puck’s prologue rounding it off, still with that mischievous grin, we were completely satisfied, and the ovation was just wonderful. It was an honour to be present there that night, and experience that performance. They deserved all the applause and more.

Post-show: As if the performance wasn’t enough, these amazing people came back a short while later to do a post-show discussion. Tim Supple, the director, was there, too. It was lovely to see how the cast interacted. They developed into two groups, with a few actors acting as translators for the rest. They spoke about the rehearsal process, which challenged them all to explore new areas and built a great sense of trust in the company. There were several translations ready prepared when they arrived, and the dialogue evolved in the course of rehearsals, as languages were tried and changed and refined. The lovely singing when Titania is being serenaded to sleep, started out as “You spotted snakes” etc., and then evolved into a glorious lullaby in whatever language gave it the right rhythm and feel. Puck (Ajay Kumar), still grinning, told us via translation how he had no previous experience of Shakespeare, and was really pleased to find it so enjoyable to do. He had to learn the English for a lot of his part, and also contributed to the translation of the Hindi lines – all the translations were adjusted as they went along. When asked how the cast had worked together with so many different languages, Tim pointed out that we could see the process in action, as two actors translated for the rest of the company – there was a lovely ripple effect as jokes were translated back and forth during the discussion.

More was said that I don’t remember, I just enjoyed so much being there while the happiness generated by the performance permeated everything. A real blessing.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at

Enemies – June 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Maxim Gorky, adapted by David Hare

Directed by Michael Attenborough

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 3rd June 2006

          This was a fascinating play. Chekhov with politics. Where Chekhov is saying a fond farewell to the old ways, Gorky is bellowing a robust “Hello” to the new. This was the Russian revolution in microcosm, including the naïve idealistic bourgeoisie who will be sadly disappointed, not to mention shot, when the revolution has run its course.

There were too many good performances to single anyone out – a real ensemble piece, and with a surprisingly large cast for such a small theatre. The adaptation was excellent, with plenty of humour, and it’s the first time I’ve seen a samovar used properly on stage (or perhaps the first time I’ve noticed it?).

© 2006 Sheila Evans at

The Voysey Inheritance – June 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Harley Granville Barker

Directed by Peter Gill

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Thursday 1st June 2006

Interesting. Steve and I saw a production of this play many years ago, also by the National, but put on in the Cottesloe. Admittedly, I’ve forgotten a lot about that production, but even so, there was a remarkable difference between the two. The previous production was naturally more intimate, seemed to put more emphasis on the scenes in the office, and had more weight to it, less humour. This current production feels more balanced; if anything, the scenes at the family home take precedence, and there’s a much lighter touch throughout. Perhaps it’s simply the difference in the political and social climates then and now, but the play seems very contemporary this time around, very relevant to today’s situations.

I did find the length of time between scenes a little frustrating. Although the elaborate sets created a strong sense of place and time, the pauses to change them over led to a bit of momentum being lost. And why did we need to see a tree at the back of the office building? Nobody went out into the garden or even looked out of a window.

Overall, I suspect I would prefer the earlier production, if I could remember it clearly, but this was a very good effort. Again, we were struck by how fresh some older plays can seem, if they’re well written.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at