Julius Caesar – September 2006

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Sean Holmes

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 29th September 2006

As Steve put it afterwards, this was effectively a radio play on stage. Not as a criticism, more as an appropriate way of describing the production. The set was non-existent, apart from microphones dangling from above (at first I thought they might be light bulbs). We could just see the musicians at the back of the stage, to left and right. Props were brought on as necessary, but were few and far between. A tailor’s dummy served as Caesar’s statue, and for the storm scene we had actual rain and a thunder board at the back. Otherwise, all was created by lights and acting. When Cassius and Brutus withdraw to Brutus’ tent, a square of light delineates it for us – a lovely touch, very simple and effective. I gather some people have been very unhappy with this set up, but it worked fine for me – text, text, and more text.

This also meant there was no time wasted in scene changes – the action flowed very quickly, and you had to keep your wits about you. The costumes were also simple. The opening revellers had vibrant coloured robes, the soldiers wore red tops and leggings, Roman senators had togas, and the women had simple shift dresses. For the assassination, all white robes were used, with the togas being made of some wipe-clean, non-absorbent stuff. Very practical, even if the slight sheen of the surface did look a little strange. Lots of gore was used, naturally enough, and there was even a small patch left at the front of the stage for the second half – normally these things are scrupulously cleaned up at the interval, but not this time.

The play opens with the revellers enjoying themselves with some Asian-sounding music and dance. It looked for all the world as though they’d been so impressed by the DASH Dream, that they thought they’d try a bit of Asian culture in this production as well. It struck me as out of keeping, especially when I’d seen the rest of the production, but then there’s many aspects of Roman culture I don’t know about. Anyway, the rabble is cleared by two Roman senators, and although I could hear the lines perfectly well, I didn’t feel there was much going on with the characters on stage. The rabble just did as they were told, and there was no sense of them reacting to the senators’ telling off, either to grumble or to be ashamed. This lack of reaction permeated the play, so that it was more like a rehearsed reading at times. However, the lines were delivered clearly, and so I got a great deal out of this production, despite the unusual style of performance.

For the next scenes, Caesar’s arrival, and Cassius’ wooing of Brutus, etc., the staging was interesting. Cassius and Brutus were left at the front of stage, with Caesar and the rest heading to the back. Those actors stayed there, in plain sight, and the cheering offstage was made more apparent by this group being lit at those points. It was very clear who was who and what was going on, including Cassius’ duplicity in seducing Brutus to his cause. The soothsayer was a bit disappointing. He crept up the ramp leading to the stage, reminding me of Hamlet’s ghost from a couple of years back, somewhat melodramatic in such a sparse production.

Brutus’ soliloquy was probably very good, but sadly I was seized with a coughing fit, out of the blue, and not only missed a lot of it, but probably spoiled things for some of the audience. Sorry. I felt terrible about it, not least because I wanted to get out of there to spare everyone, but the ramp to the stage was on the near side, blocking that exit, and I didn’t know if I could make it all the way along the row to the other aisle without causing even more of a disturbance. While I debated this, not an easy thing to do when I was trying not to choke, the fit started to ease, so I held on, but not before I’d had to let out several racking coughs. Not an experience I want to repeat anytime soon.

The plotting rattled on in the meantime, and again there was little background reaction to Brutus taking over the conspiracy and leading it down the path of virtuous failure. Cassius really should be doing more here, I feel, but at least the dialogue was crisp and intelligible. Off they go to encourage Caesar to go to the Senate, and the idea that he might lose out on the crown really got across, both to Caesar, and to the audience. Of course, he didn’t want to look like a total wimp either, but he might have put up with it if there hadn’t been anything at stake. The wipe-clean togas were a bit of a giveaway, but all went to script (and to history, for once), and soon Caesar lay dead, pumping blood like a vampire drive-through. The interval came soon after, following Mark Antony’s brief soliloquy over the corpse. So far, so good, though nothing spectacular.

One point to mention, though. During Antony’s speech, at the line “And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,” Caesar’s body did indeed rise up and stood there, joining in the speech, mouthing along to “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war”. The ghost then wandered off gradually, reappearing as required, leaving the bloody and torn toga to represent the corpse being shown to the masses. Interesting staging. We’ve seen before that there are limited ways to get a dead body off stage – they can either be carried off or walk off. Otherwise they just litter the place up (as in Venice Preserv’d, I seem to recall, at the Citizens, many years ago. And that was a small stage, gradually getting smaller as the bodies mounted up). This was as good a way of handling it as any other, and certainly got across the point that this was Caesar’s ghost we’re seeing, handy later on for those who don’t know the play.

The second half was where this production came to life. Antony’s manipulation of the populace was masterly, as usual, so much so that he had to rein back the riot he’d provoked to add the finishing touch – the details of Caesar’s will  which showed how much he’d loved the people of Rome. All balderdash, but when can you ever trust a politician? This was much more lively than anything that had gone before, and the whole production gained energy from it. Brutus’ magnanimity, fine in itself, is once again the conspirator’s Achilles’ heel, and civil war ensues.

I’ve mentioned the effective use of light to create Brutus’ tent. The scene between him and Cassius was well played, still not in as much detail as I’ve seen before, but with much more emotion evident. I especially noticed the mention of Portia’s death, and how it affected Cassius, genuinely, I think. It seemed odd to have Brutus then deny all knowledge of the event when the other generals gather to discuss strategy, but it looked like he was either unwilling to discuss the matter, or checking to see if the information was good. Most likely the former. Again, Brutus overrules Cassius in matters of strategy, and they head to their doom.

Caesar’s appearance to Brutus was simply done, with Caesar’s ghost standing at the back of the stage, and spotlit during his lines. The microphones that I mentioned at the start were used to good effect here, as they had been throughout the play, giving a bit of echo and amplification to the ghost’s voice.

The short scene with Antony, Octavius and Lepidus came over much better than I’ve heard before. It’s clear what’s going on, and also that Antony is as guilty of treachery in advance as the conspirators. Octavius seems to be playing his cards close to his chest, though from his comment ”some that smile have in their hearts, I fear, Millions of mischiefs”, it’s clear he views Antony much as Antony views Lepidus. All predators on the prowl.

The setting up of the battle scenes was excellent. A rush of soldiers across the stage, leaving battle debris behind them – in an instant we’re there. As soldiers die, they lie there, and when they’re needed as another character, they simply get up and join in again. Simple, effective, and with the earlier rise of Caesar, easy to accept. In some cases, soldiers have cloaks thrown about them, which they can throw off to become another character – Brutus, Cassius, etc. This speeds things up enormously, but despite the potential confusion of so many short scenes, the final act comes across very well, and was quite moving. The final tableau, of Octavius and Antony standing over the defeated Brutus’ body, echoes their earlier meeting, as Antony realises he’s got into bed with as ruthless an operator as himself, and starts to shake.

Although this production was lacking in some areas, I found it interesting and stimulating. It’s nice to see a completely different approach and get a new perspective, though I wouldn’t want to see so little passion in every production.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Cymbeline – September 2006

Experience: 10/10

By William Shakespeare (sort of)

Directed by Emma Rice

Company: Kneehigh

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 28th September 2006

Yee-ha! This was superb theatre, exciting, energetic, entertaining, and even told the story of Cymbeline clearly. I will go a long way to see this company again. (I’ll have to, as they’re based in Cornwall.) Steve had previously seen Kneehigh’s production of Tristan and Yseult, and suggested their style was a cross between Northern Broadsides and Shared Experience. I get his point, but the reality is so much better than that description.

The set was a metal cage, with lots of ways of opening the doors to create different spaces. The musicians were mostly on the upper level, though they came down to help Cloten serenade Imogen. The actors were everywhere – up, down, clambering here and there. Chairs, beds, mattresses, braziers and the like came on and off as needed – God knows where they kept all this stuff. At the top corners of the cage were two birds – an owl and a cockerel. At dawn, the cock crowed, and at sunset, the owl did what owls do. Both were animated, and very funny. There was also a deer puppet, for Pisanio to kill, and I still feel sad about that – it’s amazing how an obvious puppet, being moved by someone I can see, can engage me so much. We’ll come to the box, the ship and the seagulls in a bit.

Costumes were mostly 50s style for the dresses, and up-to-date for the parkas, tracksuit bottoms and t-shirts etc. The music was varied, from heavy rock to Latin American to melancholy flute – anything and everything. Beautiful. The theme of the play was dispossession, and reuniting people with those they have lost, including themselves. The dialogue was mostly invented, but some of the original remains.

They started with a rock music background, while hooded figures put pictures, flowers, a teddy bear, etc. on the front of the cage. They also pinned up sheets of cardboard on which they jointly sprayed the word REMEMBER. Then we had a musical interlude in which the main characters acted out the events prior to the play starting – Posthumus and Imogen in love, being discovered, Posthumus being banished, etc. Then Joan Puttock (no, she’s not in the original) arrived, and between her and Pisanio we got the back story. Joan has been out of the country for 20 years, and in between bouts of La Cucaracha, shows us her pictures of Spain, and her new hunk of a husband, who’s sadly run off with another woman. Fortunately for anyone who doesn’t know the plot, she learns from Pisanio that the king’s two sons were kidnapped 20 years ago, and haven’t been seen since, presumed dead. The queen died soon after of a broken heart, and the king remarried, to his nurse. Imogen fell in love with Posthumus, an orphan of unknown parentage brought up by the king in his household, but as the king now wants Imogen to marry Cloten, his new wife’s son, he’s banished Posthumus. Whew. I didn’t realise how complicated all this stuff was, but Joan helped us all out by going over the main points several times.

After this hugely entertaining introduction to the play, we see Imogen and Posthumus take a final leave of one another. The evil step-mother is supposedly helping them, and lets them have five minutes to say goodbye. They swap gifts – Imogen giving Posthumus her ring, and Posthumus gives her ….. his wristwatch, as he doesn’t seem to have anything else about his person. Posthumus tells her he’s going to …. Italy. They get a lot of humour out the choice of locations – he’s got the whole world to choose from, and he chooses …. Italy. (Later on, the choice of Milford Haven gets the same treatment, and bucketloads of laughs.) His ship arrives. It’s a small ship, with a hole in the middle, which two other actors put over his head – the straps then hold it in place. They then put a cap on his head that has seagulls dangling off it, and for the final touch, they flick some wires out of the boat, and there are fishes swimming around it! This was so funny to see. Even funnier was the way he then moved, in a stately fashion, across the stage, while Pisanio reported his going to Imogen, who was locked in an upper room. As Posthumus got to the edge of the stage, his cap was too tall to get under the roof, so he had to bend his knees a bit to get off – also hilarious.

Off to Italy, where the cage doors open to reveal the brothel which Posthumus is heading for. The ‘girls’ have a little frolic first, and the music is VERY LOUD! Their pimp is Iachimo, all Latin smarm, hairy chest and tight trousers. When Posthumus arrives, he refuses to have sex with any of the girls. Or any of the boys. Or any of the goats. He declares he loves a perfect woman. This upsets both the local tarts and Iachimo, who bets him two Ferraris and ten million lira to Imogen’s ring that he will get proof that Imogen is as naughty as the rest of them. I wanted to shout out to Posthumus not to take the bet (yes, I’d descended to that level) but I didn’t, and he did. Thinking the two Ferraris and the dosh were in the bag, he gives Iachimo a letter for Imogen.

At some point around here we see the Queen doping up the king, to a musical interlude. Another time, we also see her stripping down to her undies to serenade him and make it clear he’s her boy now.

Iachimo arrives in England, pushing a large box. It’s so heavy, he asks a member of the audience – a woman, naturally – to help him push it the last few feet. At least he gives her some chocolates for her trouble, plus his card, with the usual leer and ‘call me’. He meets Imogen, tries a quickie seduction, no luck. Seriously rebuffed. Unfortunately, she’s too good-natured to suspect him when he pretends it’s all a test of her virtue. Then he tells her he needs somewhere safe to store his box for the night. Only he doesn’t just tell her. Oh no. This is seduction by another means. With the box smack in the centre of the stage he starts to caress it and stroke it, like it was the most desirable woman in the world. Imogen, Pisanio, me, and at least half the audience were panting with desire after this. (What am I saying, during it, as well) This had the desired effect, and Imogen offered to store such a valuable box in her room overnight, as Iachimo plans to leave early the next day.

That night, as she’s snuggled down to sleep, the box opens, and Iachimo sneaks out. First he checks out her room, shining a flashlight round, so we can see what he’s spotted – the globe in particular. Then he has to get the wristwatch off her wrist. This was one of the funniest wristwatch removal sequences I could ever wish to see. Of course, she keeps moving to make it more difficult, and in the end he’s got her held upright on the bed, and is shaking her arm gently to get the watch to fall off, which it does. Then he lets her down gently, only to find she’s lying on the watch! Eventually he gets it, and finishes up by checking her out for identifying marks he can report back to Posthumus. He spots a mole or some such on her buttock, and is satisfied. So satisfied, he actually lights up a cigarette before disappearing back into the box. Evil bastard.

Next morning, the cock crows, Imogen wakes up, and is distraught to find the watch is missing. Cloten has brought the musicians along to help him serenade her, but she’s not remotely interested – she’s desperately searching her room for the missing watch. Cloten sticks his legs and arms through the grill of the cage, and then his head, only to find he can’t get it back out again once Imogen’s left. As he’s already pissed off the musicians, by telling them they were so lousy he’s not going to pay them (always a mistake, I feel), he’s left dangling there till Mummy comes to get him out (with the help of her ever-ready KY Jelly). She advises him to rape Imogen and presents him with a bottle of Rohypnol to assist. This he will later put in the Amaretto in Imogen’s suitcase, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back in Italy, Iachimo has won his bet; Posthumus is convinced by the ‘proof’, and in despair. He writes to Pisanio telling her to lure Imogen to Milford Haven and kill her in the woods there. He also writes to Imogen telling her he’s coming to Milford Haven, and asking her to meet him there. But how to get the letter to England? During the performance, there’s been a remote-control toy car whizzing around from time to time, and now it comes to Posthumus’ aid. As it arrives by his feet, he puts the letters in it, and it whizzes (a bit more carefully) round the stage, finally arriving at Pisanio’s feet. She picks up the letters and gives Imogen hers, pretending the other is from her own mother. She’s pretty shocked at being asked to kill Imogen, but goes along with it for now. Imogen is totally thrilled to be seeing Posthumus again. “He’s in Milford Haven”, she cries ecstatically, “Where’s Milford Haven?”, and rushes off to her globe to find it. This gets the biggest laugh of the evening. I’m sorry I can’t convey the way it was said, it was just so funny. She finds out it’s in Wales, and arranges immediately with Pisanio to head off, throwing her clothes over the metal wall for Pisanio to pack. As she heads off to sort out travel arrangements, Cloten pounces on Pisanio, and by threatening violence discovers their plan. This is where he puts the Rohypnol in the Amaretto, without Pisanio’s knowledge. He also decides to put on Posthumus’ clothes to rape Imogen, just to make her suffer even more. Like mother, like son, both evil bastards.

Imogen comes running back to say she’s thumbed a lift from a lorry driver (Gary?) who can take them as far as Birmingham, and off they go. In Italy, Iachimo and Pisanio are heading off to race the two Ferraris. Apparently Iachimo’s garage is located at the end of a long trek through the Swan auditorium (I suppose the RSC has to raise money any way it can), and at the same time Imogen and Pisanio are approaching Milford Haven, also on the outskirts of the Swan stage, meaning they have to trek through the auditorium as well. I may have missed the odd line as I whisked my feet out of the way of oncoming actors, but on the whole this is the kind of audience participation I enjoy. It’s fun being so close to the action. I remember Iachimo was telling Posthumus that you have to handle a Ferrari gently, like a woman, as they were passing us.

On arrival at Milford Haven, Pisanio tries to kill Imogen, but can’t, and confesses all. A beautiful little deer comes along just then, and Pisanio kills that (I still feel very sad), to send the heart to Posthumus. Imogen, needless to say, is distraught that her Posthumus should want her killed, and takes to the wilds of Milford Haven, with her bottle of Amaretto, and dresses like a boy in parka and trousers, calling herself Ian. She finds a squat somewhere and settles down to sleep, only to be disturbed by the folk who already live there – an older man and two younger ones. They take to Imogen and say she can stay with them. When there’s a disturbance, they go to check it out, and she stays behind, so nervous that she drinks some of the Amaretto to steady her nerves. Soon they’re so steady she falls asleep. Meanwhile, the boys have discovered Cloten swaggering about, and quite naturally bump him off, as you would. Finding the disguised Imogen apparently dead, they lay her body next to Cloten’s and surround them both with candles. Very pretty. I don’t remember now how they did Imogen waking up, or if that bit was dropped.

Back in Italy, the head of state has declared war on Britain. The despotic tyrant, who looks remarkably like Marcello Magni, had previously demanded that Cymbeline start sending tribute again, but thanks to the naughty queen, he’d been sent away with a flea in his ear. Now he wants war, and Posthumus and Iachimo sign up. I think Posthumus has received what he thinks is Imogen’s heart by now, so naturally he’s feeling remorse – bit bloody late now!

The appearance of Marcello Magni needs to be explained. They’ve taken some photos of him in various poses, and show them on a screen, while one of the actors stands behind putting their arms through to do the gestures. There’s also a tape of Marcello saying the lines. Very funny, and I suppose it allows for variations from night to night.

Anyway, Posthumus and Iachimo head back to Britain. This time, the boat has crows flying above it. To show the war, they bring out a giant game board, and use it to indicate who’s fighting who. We get a short scene with Posthumus, in prison, and seeing the vision of Jupiter and his parents, and then we’re off for the final reconciliations, as everybody turns out to be …. everybody who’s missing. Strangely enough, although we’ve seen Posthumus’ vision, and Joan Puttock turns up again to produce a key to open the box his (dead) parents give him, we don’t get the full unravelling of the mystery in this version. We just get the two sets of kids snuggling up in bed, Cymbeline’s sons in one, Imogen and Posthumus in the other. Kind of sweet, but a little disappointing.

Not that disappointing, though, as this was still one of the best things I’ve seen this year, and I would happily see it again, given the chance.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Tempest – September 2006

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 28th September 2006

I was a bit disappointed with this production – I expected it to be better than it was. There were some aspects I liked, but on the whole I found it uninteresting and somewhat dull.

Before the start, a screen at the front of the stage showed a painting of some sort of radio receiver, on a huge scale. The opening lines were unusual – a shipping forecast that mentioned “North” and “Iceland”, and gave a storm warning in the traditional clipped form of such broadcasts. The speaker part of the radio then faded as the lighting behind revealed the ship’s radio cabin, where all the storm action took place. Ariel appeared towards the end of this scene, to indicate his involvement in the adverse weather conditions.

The good point about this staging was that the lines were fairly clear, and we got a chance to see the various characters – John Hopkins as Sebastian showing his craven character from the off – and Ariel’s arrival was interesting. However, I found the whole sequence off-putting for a number of reasons. Firstly, the shipping forecast makes it clear that the island we’ve arrived at is either Iceland, or somewhere else in the north Atlantic – a frozen waste instead of a Mediterranean rock. Those sailors must have been extraordinarily bad to have arrived in the North Atlantic from Tunis, headed for Naples! If they wanted to get across the connotations of Iceland (barren waste, prison-like, possible Frankenstein?(this was Steve’s thought)), surely we didn’t need such a specific reference. Secondly, the cramped cabin, while making the point that the aristocrats are seriously in the sailors’ way, does make the scene pretty static, and the sense of a life-threatening storm is lost. (Although Jean-Luc’s experience at synchronised ship-rolling probably came in useful here.) Nor did it help that Ariel reminded me of Lurch, the Addams’ family butler. All in all, not the most auspicious start.

Second up, we have Prospero’s account of the family history to Miranda. The scene opens with Prospero standing at a brazier, with his back to us, wearing a fur rug attached to a head-dress made out of an animal’s sacrum and tail bones. Or as I thought at first, some alien life-form that had invaded the island while Prospero wasn’t looking. (I suppose it was inevitable that Star Trek references would start to pop up in what is, after all, a pretty surreal play by Shakespeare’s standards.) The scruffiness of their home, the need for serious warmth on a Mediterranean isle that just happens to be in the North Atlantic, all these things I could live with. I wasn’t taken with Miranda, though. I accept that she’s been on this island from a young age, with only her father and Caliban for company, so she doesn’t know much about the outside world or social graces. And there’s no reason why daughters of aristocracy or royalty always have to be good-looking – our own royal family proves that. Still, I wasn’t keen on a Miranda who looks and acts like a ten-year-old who would rather be playing with her dolls than getting interested in the opposite sex. Her gawkiness was matched by an expression which made her look more pugnacious than usual, although her manner was anything but. In fact, this character could have slept through the entire play for all the animation she displayed. Not a criticism of the actress, who was fine later on as Portia in Julius Caesar, but another way in which this production failed to engage me. It made it hard to believe that Ferdinand would have fallen for her – it may just have been strategy on his part, but it wasn’t played that way as far as I could see. I also found Ariel’s first appearance here rather comic – he pops up out of the brazier! All we see is his head sticking up. Given that I found his appearance pretty funny anyway, I couldn’t take this seriously, although his later ‘magical’ appearance from behind the door was more effective.

Apart from the cramped cabin, the set was a barren landscape, with a mound of debris slightly off-centre, and bits of plank etc., sticking out of it. There were a few poles forming some kind of support for an upturned half-boat, or what was left of it. This appeared to be Caliban’s only shelter, and he’s hiding inside this boat when we first encounter him. As he’s attached to it by a long rope, he also drags it round with him, and it becomes his cover during the storm when Trinculo discovers him. One aspect of the production I liked was the repetition of this dragging theme – Caliban drags his boat, and also some logs. Ferdinand also drags logs, and there were other echoes of this throughout the play. I found this a good visual theme.

Caliban is not as gruesome in this version as in some I’ve seen. He’s a bit mucky, true, and also tends to walk on all fours, but he’s not hideously deformed or ugly. Again, I felt sorry for him, but then I’ve rarely found Prospero a sympathetic character, and his treatment of Caliban is the main cause for that. The business with Trinculo and Stefano was amusing, full of sexual innuendo, but I only laughed out loud once, towards the end, at a bit of business I’ve now forgotten. The kids in the audience loved it, and it was certainly in keeping with Shakespeare’s comedy, but again it left me largely unmoved. There never seemed to be any real threat to Prospero from this group, which can happen.

The scene Prospero conjures up for the young lovers was very different from the standard. The three fairies rose from one of the bunk beds in the cabin, and proceeded to carry out a form of marriage ritual, using earth, fire, water and cloth. All the while they produced a weird chanting, which took a little getting used to, but I did like it. There was none of the usual goddesses, and I found this refreshing, and much more in keeping with this reading of the play.

The King of Naples and his cronies were OK, but without distinction. Ferdinand was fine, but with nothing much to play against, this character on his own couldn’t make a real difference. I did like the fake feast, though. The fairies brought on a large seal (deceased) on a sledge. The nasty folk fell to, hands full of bloody blubber, while the good guys stood aloof. Then Ariel bursts forth from the seal carcass, with additional wire effects of wings and claws, and scares the shit out of everyone. Excellent. Incidentally, this Ariel was on a go-slow. I’ve seen this done before – a steady, graceful glide rather than a nimble hyperactive sprite, and it can work very well. Here it was OK, but didn’t add anything for me.

          One thing that did work, though, was the exchange between Prospero and Ariel, where Ariel’s own sense of pity for the wrongdoers’ suffering here effectively triggers Prospero’s own forgiveness. He was obviously heading for resolution anyway, but I got the feeling Ariel’s expression of pity surprises Prospero, and softens his plans somewhat. I could be wrong, but that’s how I took it.

          So now I suppose I have to tackle the hardest subject of all – what I thought of the central performance. Look, I’ve enjoyed so much of Patrick Stewart’s work that I hate having to say anything less than ‘he played a blinder’. Indeed, till this season, I didn’t think I’d have to, such is the man’s talent and experience. I guess I’ll just have to accept that this reading of the play didn’t work for me. I couldn’t get any real sense from the performance of the man’s past, nor much sense of his emotional journey through the events of the play. Unless it was meant to be an unsympathetic reading, in which case, fine. But I couldn’t help feeling there was a lot more to be got out of this major part, and I just wasn’t seeing it. Ah well.

Overall, I felt the staging worked against the text in too many ways, and brought the whole production down.

[Update from the front lines: Steve saw this again in London, and confirmed that it had come on a great deal since we saw it in Stratford. The performances were more expressive, some of the staging had been changed, especially in the scene where we first see Prospero, and he felt it was a much better performance than before.]

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Father – September 2006

Experience: 8/10

By August Strindberg, adapted by Mike Poulton

Directed by Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Wednesday 27th September 2006

          We were due to see this play on Monday, followed by a post-show talk, but there was a cancellation due to a medical emergency, so we came tonight. I haven’t seen this play before, in any version, so had no expectations, other than being aware Strindberg is considered a bit grim and possibly misogynistic. I was pleasantly surprised for the most part.

         This production ranges from rampant comedy at the start to gut-wrenching psychological drama at the end – quite a range. I wasn’t surprised that Jasper Britton could handle it; I was only surprised that it took me a whole five minutes to recognise him – that man is a chameleon. The comedy at the start related to an unfortunate soldier who has been caught having it away with the kitchen maid, and is expected to take responsibility for the child she is carrying. His response is to question the paternity, as the woman has had sex with many men, not just him. This episode sets up one of the main issues of the play – that a man cannot know who has fathered his wife’s children (not so much of an issue now with DNA testing, but still relevant in terms of potential infidelity).

         Adolf, the father of the title (Jasper Britton) complains of the women in his life controlling him. He wants to get his daughter out of the house and into town where she can develop her own perspective on life. His wife, Laura (Theresa Banham), wants to keep the girl with her. The battle of wills between them is the nub of the play. The wife is described, by her own brother no less, as someone who has to get her own way, and who will stop at nothing to achieve that. We see as the play develops just how ruthless she can be. She has prevented her husband from working on his one real pleasure, his mineralogical studies, by not posting his letters to bookshops, colleagues, etc. and instead writing to these people herself, telling them her husband is going mad. And in the frustration and incomprehension she creates in him, he is slowly going mad. This woman is an early sociopath.

         Having said that, this adaptation is very skilful at leaving the audience undecided for a long time about many things. Both characters have their dark side – she is undoubtedly highly manipulative and demanding, he has a desire for control that nowadays we see as unhealthy, but what is really going on between them? At times, I wondered if he was going mad, and the wife was genuinely concerned for his sanity. At others, it was plain that she was a monster, and in other moments, it seemed possible he had driven her to behave this way. By the end, it’s clear that their relationship, lasting seventeen years, has honed their viciousness towards each other. Both entered the relationship not understanding their partner, and those misunderstandings led to their downfall. A sad story, with a very sad ending. As the wife manipulates her way to apparent victory, the father is reduced to a sedated, mumbling wreck of a man, trussed up in a straitjacket. His final act of defiance is to die, presumably leaving his widow with little money (a small pension, according to the text), when what she was after was a decent living, and full control.

         (Six days, and three other productions later) There’s some interesting dialogue about religions and atheism in the play. The father is beset by women, yes, but he’s also beset by their many different religious points of view. He’s an atheist, so in one sense he’s out of the loop – most people in that community would presumably have had some religious affiliation. His daughter is being scared out of her wits by her grandmother on her mother’s side telling her about demons, etc. (so we get some idea of what drove her mother to villainy), while the father’s old nurse has great faith in prayer and handing everything over to the Lord. Just the clash of all these religious ideas is enough to make them look ridiculous.

         The wife’s deceit is almost a living thing in the play. She’s so deceitful and manipulative, it would be impossible to live with her. She cannot be trusted, and yet her husband has trusted her, to his own undoing. She is also readily believed by the new doctor, whose help she needs to get her husband declared insane, although he does sound a note of caution now and then.

         So is Strindberg a woman-hater, or just balancing out Ibsen’s view of women as purely good and redemptive?  At one point, Ibsen’s play Ghosts is mentioned. “Rubbish”, says the father, with feeling, and describes Ibsen as “that female apologist”. Women certainly can be as manipulative and destructive as men, and Strindberg happily shows this, but I’m not sure the men get off lightly either. I would need to see more of his work before deciding on this one, not that it will change my mind about this play – thoroughly enjoyable.

         All the performances were excellent. Jasper Britton was especially good, descending into madness via rage and frustration. The set was simple, just a desk and some chairs. One item that got me going was the straitjacket. As soon as it arrived, it was like having a deadly snake on the stage – I couldn’t put it out of my mind. My own fears of being rendered powerless came to the fore, and so I lost a little of the performances. I so much wanted the father to win his battle, and for reason to prevail, but sadly, drama doesn’t always work out as well as real life. Maybe that’s why people find Strindberg gloomy. Ah well.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Pravda – September 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Howard Brenton and David Hare

Directed by Jonathan Church

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 21st September 2006

We saw this play back in the eighties, at the National, with Anthony Hopkins. I found I couldn’t remember much of it, except for Hopkins’ performance, so I came to this production as a virgin, almost. I found the play dated in parts and with a lack of depth to the characters, but still with some very interesting points to make about power and the abuse of it. There are still a lot of ideas coming to the surface.

The set was very stark. White panels at the back, a wide, raised platform for most of the action in the centre, with some snippets at the front and sides. The floor was covered in reverse print, suggestive of the old printing press, which partly lapped up onto the back panels. The two lower panels slid apart to create doors, slightly wider or narrower as required – simple but effective. A great deal of furniture came on and off during the play, but this was cleverly covered by business at the front of the stage, e.g. newspaper vendors selling their wares and giving us useful headlines to carry the action forward. There were also media interviews of various characters. These two writers know how to put something on the stage; I’ll say that for them.

I enjoyed all of the performances, and only had one difficulty – there’s a scene with four characters speaking with contrasting accents, South African, Australian, Yorkshire, and RP. Maybe it was the weird combination, but I found this hard to follow. Some of the accents seemed to be wandering around the globe a bit, and weren’t immediately recognisable, although this scene was the only one that gave me any real problem.

The play is about the takeover of the British media in the eighties by, mainly, Rupert Murdoch. Represented here by Lambert Le Roux, a South African, he bullies his way to the top, discarding the husks of people he’s used along the way. Those who try to fight back are ruthlessly trampled underfoot, until all come under his sway. Only those who walk away can survive with souls intact, although that’s not as clearly stated as one might wish. It was a tremendous performance by Roger Allam in the lead role. Like Anthony Hopkins, he had the strong physical posture – wide stance, very upright, moving from the shoulders like a bull looking for a china shop. I was convinced by his power and ruthlessness, though not so sure that he could be physically violent when need be. Still, it was a great performance, and fortunately, given that this is a play about a strong, dominating character, the other performances were on a par. The whole production has a balanced feel to it, and there were some lovely cameos for minor characters, such as the political correspondent, whose job was to explain the parliamentary lobby system to us innocents.

It’s interesting to compare our attitudes then and now. I remembered on the journey home how much the British media had been in thrall to Murdoch when he first started mauling his competition. The BBC, in particular, struck me as very wimpish in not standing up to his criticism and fighting their corner. He was a shark swimming into waters that had never seen anything bigger than a herring and he killed at will, but now everyone’s toughened up and shark is the norm.

This play has stood the test of time, and is a good record of the attitudes then, and a warning of how things can change. As Lambert says, “You never used your editorial freedom when you had the chance.” The price of freedom is indeed eternal vigilance, and plays like this help.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Habeus Corpus – September 2006

Experience: 3/10

By Alan Bennett

Directed by Peter Hall

Company: Peter Hall Company

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Tuesday 19th September 2006

I found this disappointing; Alan Bennett doing Joe Orton, not really my cup of tea. The performances were excellent, as usual, and it was weird to see several actors whom we’d seen last week in Measure for Measure at the Courtyard in Stratford, appear again tonight. I hadn’t realised that the Peter Hall Company was touring two plays, so we got to see both within a week of each other.

There were some laughs, and as I say the performances were fine, but much of the writing was very dated, and some of the jokes were telegraphed minutes before they arrived. This piece could do with a good rewrite to bring it more up-to-date, or else be left in a drawer somewhere till it’s old enough to be a classic.

Good points – Barry Stanton without a beard (and I haven’t seen that before!) playing a charlady with an uncanny knack for knowing everything that’s going to happen or has happened – has she read the script? Edward Bennett was superb as Canon Throbbing, desperate to get laid, and Paul Bentall, recently the Provost inVienna, was enjoyable as a travelling artificial breast fitter who mistakes a real pair (Annette Badland’s ample bosom) for his company’s work.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Orestes – September 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Helen Edmunson, from the play by Euripedes

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Company: Shared Experience

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date Friday 15th September 2006

This is an adaptation of the Orestes by Euripides, done by Helen Edmundson. Set in a lavish bedroom, with gold sheets on the bed and pairs of gold shoes hanging on the door, I found it was an interesting production which raised some good questions about the reasons people have for killing each other, without trying to come to any specific resolution to answer them all. I like this type of theatre.

The performances were excellent. Electra (Mairead McKinley) was the powerhouse of the piece. She was the one who had seen their father killed in his bath, but was unable to take revenge until Orestes’ return. She is an odd combination of sanity and obsession, not helped by Helen’s cruel remarks about her (relative) ugliness and lack of children. She conveys all the suffering which can lead to a lust for revenge, together with the intelligence and cunning that comes from waiting a long time to get that revenge. She it is who hits on the idea of killing Helen, to pay back Menelaus for daring to take the throne from her and her brother, the rightful heirs (or matricides, as the mob outside the palace prefer to call them). She has more loose screws than B&Q, yet she’s still saner than her brother, whose final descent into total insanity horrifies even her, although that’s partly because he’s just buggered up their one chance to escape the mob. She is also able to argue convincingly against Tyndareos, their grandfather (yes, it’s another Greek dysfunctional family, folks), who is practically baying for their blood, though in slightly more civil terms than the mob outside. His focus is the law – they have killed their mother (his daughter), so they must die. He’s not so hot on why the law didn’t crack down on Clytemnestra and her lover when they killed Pops, but that’s politicians for you. A lovely performance from Jeffrey Kissoon.

Menelaus (Tim Chipping) is wonderfully portrayed as a weak, indecisive type, who’s nevertheless prepared to take advantage of his niece and nephew’s plight to gain political clout for himself. After depleting the forces of wherever he ruled before the Trojan War, he’s now looking for a new country to rule, and here’s a place that’s just lost its rulers, and about to execute their heirs/killers, and hey, he just happens to be family, so why not offer to step into the breach? Do not allow this man to make you a cup of tea; if you’ve got anything he wants, it’ll be laced with something deadly. Despite this, Menelaus comes across as one of the nicer people to begin with – bit softer, more caring and understanding, willing to help the besieged couple. Not that he’s prepared to carry through with it, and in the end, he loses more than he’d bargained for.

Orestes seems to be under his sister’s thumb in many ways, and yet she looks to him for leadership, strength and love. It’s that odd kind of relationship where it can be difficult at times to tell who’s leading and who’s following. He’s plainly more affected by their killing spree than she is – she’s wanted the revenge all along, but he’s suffering the guilt, and it’s after killing Helen that the guilt drives him to lose it completely. Alex Robertson judged his performance in this role very nicely. There’s an intriguing moment as they are heading down the suicide route, where they kiss and look like they’re tempted to make love. I don’t think this implied any pre-existing sexual relationship between them, although as this is based on Greek drama, I could be completely wrong. I just saw it as a last despairing expression of love between them, especially as Electra had been so hurt by Helen’s complete refutation of her womanhood. Still a virgin, this could be her only chance.

Helen arrives in the palace ahead of Menelaus. She’s brought their baby, who is tended to by a slave woman. Helen, though beautiful, comes across as a real bitch. Admittedly, she’s talking to the pair who killed her sister, so you have to make some allowances, but she’s so full of herself, being part-God as she claims (and there’s a cock-and-swan story, if ever I heard one!), that she’s bound to cause trouble wherever she goes. Still, she reminds us of the massive impact of the Trojan war on this world, equivalent to the First World War in more recent times, where so many died for so little reason. And those deaths are the trigger for all that happens afterwards. There are red figures lurking at the back of the stage – dummies – and for me they mainly represented the many dead on all sides because of one beautiful woman and her fatal choice. It’s a powerful confrontation, Helen and Electra, and Claire Onyemere as Helen more than holds her own. The slave woman, played by Claire Prempeh, has little to do but nurse the baby and shrink into the background, and I would have liked to have heard more from her. She does have a short conversation with Electra later, which demonstrates that, for all her reasons to suffer, she’s much more at peace than any other character in the play.

Both brother and sister rely heavily on an alleged oracular injunction to justify their actions, and it’s here that the play’s main interest lies. Is it OK to kill people because ‘God’ tells you to, or not? This, despite ‘God’ having spent centuries passing on the message that killing is not a good idea. In many languages! Through many wise people! I am firmly in the ‘killing is not a good idea’ camp, and I regard with deep suspicion anyone claiming that ‘God’ has given them a licence to kill. However, it does happen, and we need to come to terms with this particular insanity, which never seems insane to those who find it a handy excuse. It’s noticeable that these young siblings ask for their gods’ help after they’ve decided to kill Helen, not before. I got the impression that Electra was getting a taste for murder by then.

The couple try kidnapping Menelaus’ baby as a way of negotiating an escape, but it all goes horribly wrong when Orestes tries to fly off a cliff. Oops. Not having a handy cliff on stage, the shoe-laden door had to double as a dangerous precipice (from comments at the post-show, this didn’t involve any acting on the door’s part). I found this ending a bit confusing, because there was so much going on. On the cliff, we have Electra, in front of her brother but supposedly looking forward at him. He’s behind her physically, so he can use a rope to brace himself and appear to be flying or falling (take your pick). Menelaus is down below, screaming at everyone because he’s petrified his baby is going to be killed, and Helen’s dead body has somehow rolled itself onto the stage. God knows what Tyndareos and the slave woman are doing – I couldn’t keep track of it all. Orestes has also sprouted some feathers at his shoulders, which were intriguing, but didn’t help with the clarity at this point. Also, the rear semicircle of the stage burst into flames as all this is happening, so we had a few hazards to keep our minds off the action. Normally I like Shared Experience’s multi-layering, but this was a bit too much. I basically focused on Electra and Orestes, and left the rest to their own devices.

There wasn’t much else to report on the staging; the set worked well to convey the place and situation – an opulent prison – and the main focus was simply the performances, all of which were first rate. I would happily see this again.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me