The Merchant Of Venice – March 2007

10/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Darko Tresnjak

Company: Theatre For A New Audience

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 29th March 2007

This was just fantastic. I sobbed and sobbed, and all before the interval. Then I sobbed some more during the interval. Then some more during the second half. Great. Oh, and I also laughed a lot. Also great.

The set was wonderful. At the back were some glass screens, overlapping to allow for doorways. In front of these stood three tables, on which stood three Apple Macs, open, with backs facing the audience. Above the Macs were three screens. Up to the start of the play, these displayed a request to turn off mobile phones, pagers and the like, in English, Hebrew and Italian. I’ll describe later displays as I go. The rest of the stage was bare, and pretty much stayed that way – a couple of chairs were brought on for the trial scene, but otherwise the furniture didn’t get in the way of the action. Just how I like it. The overall effect was high-tech industrial, and the program describes the time as “the near future”. We would see later how well they used the technology. Costumes were mainly suits and dresses, with Jessica, as a page boy, wearing a hoodie, and Launcelot Gobbo sporting jeans, t-shirt and trainers for his opening scene. As often happens, the order in which I report these scenes may not be the order in which they appeared on stage.

The play opened with Antonio entering in sombre mode, all over the city gent. His two friends (Solanio and Salerio) come on with a coffee for him, and try to winkle out the cause of his sadness. They’re much younger than him – this Antonio, as so often happens, likes to surround himself with young, good-looking men. They have a jokey way with them, but Antonio refuses to be cheered up. Along comes Bassanio with his mates, Lorenzo and Gratiano, and we get to see how Gratiano simply cannot be made to shut up. His expressive manner reminded me of Jim Carrey – wide eyes and wide, grinning mouth. His joshing with Antonio is off-key, given Antonio’s mood, and so, finally, he heads off with Lorenzo, and we get to see the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio.

This Bassanio seems quite a serious young man compared with most performances I’ve seen. Antonio is obviously besotted with him, though it’s not exaggerated in this production. There’s a later scene where Solanio and Salerio discuss Antonio’s fortunes, or lack of them, and come to a knowing understanding that Antonio dotes on Bassanio, but even that’s not as in your face as some productions. Bassanio soon gets Antonio’s promise to lend him his credit so he can get a loan, and off he goes to try his luck on the Rialto.

The screen display for these scenes is simply numbers – suggesting the financial sector. I haven’t a clue what was on them, if anything, for the next scene, because this was all about Launcelot Gobbo, the servant of Shylock. He comes on, looks around him, opens his bag, and takes out a halo headdress, all white and fluffy. He checks out the audience on his right (our left), and spots an older lady in the front row. She’s his conscience, so he heads over and puts the headdress on her. (She’s spotlit, so it’s obviously down to whoever sits in that seat.) Then he pulls out a red headband, with horns on it! Now we know what’s going to happen, so there’s a murmur of enjoyment as we all look to see whose going to get this one! The spotlight lands between a couple sitting on the other side. The woman laughs, as she thinks it’s her partner who’s been picked, but at the last minute Launcelot swerves, and puts it on her head. Great fun. This is the longest intro to this scene I can remember, and then we get a superb reading of the lines. Launcelot is played by a black actor, and although he’s not rapping as such, he does get a huge amount of humour from the rhythm of the words. I know this piece of text reasonably well, and this was one of the best deliveries I’ve heard.

I think the next scene is the meeting between Bassanio and Shylock, and later Antonio. F Murray Abraham played Shylock with a tremendous amount of intelligence and compassion. It’s clear from his portrayal that he seriously hates Antonio, and that he has much justification, based on the way he’s been treated. When describing his mistreatment by Antonio, he takes his handkerchief out of his pocket, as if to wipe away the spittle – his hatred and the memory of the abuse are physically rooted in him. He also gets across the sense that Shylock has a right to feel this way, that he has a valid culture and traditions, and that he’s living in a society that treats him and his fellows as less than human. The Christians have their faults, but this production has the awareness that there’s good and bad on both sides, and stays neutral, allowing the characters to speak as individuals, rather than mouthpieces for one ideology or another. For example, I was very aware, when Antonio makes some angry comment about the Devil quoting scripture, that the very scripture he’s talking about is largely shared between these religions. Anyway, at this point, Shylock is staying very smooth, and holds back the fullness of his emotions for later. He still speaks out pretty strongly against Antonio’s previous treatment of him, but manages to lure him in to the agreement with clever words. Antonio’s rage and contempt came across more than clearly. He may be a good friend to Bassanio, and respected by his fellow traders, but he’s got a mean streak coupled with some nasty prejudices, all perfectly normal for his time and place, though sadly they don’t seem entirely out of place today.

Now the modern technology starts to kick in. At Belmont, Portia and Nerissa discuss the various suitors for Portia’s hand. Portia hands over her mobile to Nerissa, so she can flick through either their pictures or a contact list. The usual banter is well done, and this Portia isn’t shy about admitting her affections for Bassanio when Nerissa mentions him. She’s also very relieved to hear that her flock of suitors is leaving. At this point, her general factotum, Balthazar, enters. Done up in black like a stage manager, and sporting an earpiece, he announces that another suitor is arriving, the Prince of Morocco. His was one of the funniest portrayals of the evening. To get all the information about the Prince’s arrival, he had to manoeuvre round the stage to get a good enough signal on his headset. Then the Prince of Morocco arrives. With the sound of an aeroplane in the background, the Prince, dressed in a vivid pink jumpsuit, bursts onto the stage, trailing his parachute and a ground crew servant. He’s also a black actor, but with bleached hair, and he oozes arrogance and self-belief. After throwing off his chute, he unzips the top of the jumpsuit to give Portia the full benefit of his manly chest, medallion and all. Much laughter. Off they go to prepare for the selection process, with Balthazar eyeing up the Prince’s servant.

Next we see Bassanio organising his party using his mobile to contact people. Lorenzo is also organising his own party – a raid on Shylock’s house to take Jessica away and marry her. The scenes with Jessica follow thick and fast at this point. I suspect it’s because they couldn’t squeeze in the quick changes necessary to flip between Belmont and Venice, but it worked quite well. When Launcelot takes his leave of Shylock, we see Jessica, looking very downtrodden, polishing some silver for her father. Launcelot is unhappy to leave her (he’s got enough luggage!), and she’s very sad to lose his company. (No senior Gobbo this time.) The short time Shylock spends with his daughter during this scene shows very little affection between them – I got the impression that it’s not because he doesn’t love her, it’s just that he doesn’t seem able to express it. Later, when he’s chopping and changing his mind about going to supper with Bassanio, his main concern seems to be his goods, and the sanctity of his home. One nice touch at the end of this section was that Jessica dropped something when she came down to Lorenzo. I didn’t see what it was, but as Shylock returned, he spotted the item, which turned out to be his keys. He realised something was terribly wrong, and ran to check his house. Too late. For Jessica’s whispered conversation with Lorenzo, when he comes to get her, she’s positioned in the first gallery, in the usual gap between the seats, off to our right. I wondered if she would climb down the post (they have footholds), but no, she used the stairs.

Now we get the first stab at the caskets. Balthazar, showing off to the Prince’s servant, goes along the row of Macs, pressing the right button, and up comes the inscription on the screen. First lead, then silver, then gold. Portia and the Prince enter. He’s dressed down, a bit, and before making his choice, takes a scimitar out of the case presented to him by his man, and gives it to Portia. Then he poses for a picture with her, still holding the sword. I liked this Prince of Morocco; he was flash, but not as over the top as some. I got all of his lines clearly, as I did for almost the entire evening. When he made his choice, the “key” Balthazar gives him is a USB stick, which he puts into the Mac’s port. The inscription then dissolves, like a computer virus simulation, to reveal a grinning skull against a background of flames, and the verse is actually a recording. Brilliant. One of the best uses of technology I’ve seen on stage. Off the Prince goes, followed by his servant – much concern from Balthazar, as they’d obviously been getting on so well, but he has to make do with a “call me” gesture.

One little meaningful point – as Portia leaves, she makes some comment about God saving her from all of such complexion. Nerissa is played by a black actress, and she obviously notices and takes offence at this comment, and rightly so. This reminder of Portia’s own prejudices is echoed later on during the trial scene, to good effect. The second suitor, the Prince of Arragon, is dispatched pretty quickly – we only need him so we know what’s in the silver box – a fool’s head – and which casket is the right one. His gift to Portia is a lifebelt, and again he poses for pictures, which she’s got used to by this time.

There are a couple of scenes with Solanio and Salerio, giving us the information about Shylock’s suffering and Antonio’s losses. Then we see Shylock directly, as he confronts these two and their taunts. The two set pieces in this play were handled very well, but this one, “Hath not a Jew eyes?…” was the best I’ve ever heard. The whole speech was knit together beautifully, as Shylock’s justification for revenge. His passion really comes out here for the first time, and the standard lines take on the expression of his absolute conviction that he is only doing what he’s seen others do. Instead of being a reminder of our common humanity, the comparisons are a reminder of the gutter we all come from, and in which Shylock is determined to thrive.

Then we have the phone call from Tubal, still in Genoa (or the upper balcony). This was the one time when I couldn’t make out the lines very well, when Shylock was speaking into his phone. But I got enough to find the scene moving, though a bit disjointed. Tubal sends Shylock a picture of the ring, making it easier to understand how he knows which ring it is, and in his reaction to this news, I found myself moved to tears. The line “I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” usually moves me, but here I caught a glimpse of the love that this man had been capable of, and which he’s buttoned up in sorrow since his wife’s death, never showing it to his daughter who needs it so much. It was a tremendous insight into this man’s character, and although I know it’s there, it was more clearly expressed tonight than ever before in my experience. As Shylock leaves the stage, full of sadness, we get the interval, and a chance to blow my nose. How thoughtful of them.

At the start of the second half, Bassanio arrives at Belmont, and goes straight to choosing. I noticed that Portia uses “hazard” in her opening lines to him; this word is also in the winning lead inscription – is she trying to give him a subtle hint? His reasoning came across clearly – it may have been cut, but I suspect it was also down to the delivery. Everyone is happy with the result, and Balthazar brings on champagne.  As they’re celebrating, Lorenzo and Jessica arrive, bringing the bad news about Antonio. There’s no specific sign that Jessica isn’t being welcomed, although Launcelot is strangely unhappy about being left behind to serve her and Lorenzo. Given that he seemed to like her in Shylock’s house, why the change? The banter between them later on seems pretty nasty.

Nerissa is decidedly not impressed at Portia’s decision to let the men go off before consummating their marriages, and not too happy about heading off to the monastery either.  However, she goes along with Portia’s plan to follow the men to Venice, though with some reservations.

For the trial scene, the Duke was above and behind us, Bassanio to our left, Gratiano and the others on the upper gallery. Two modern, plastic chairs were brought on, and the centre table brought forward. Shylock puts his scales on these, then unwraps a piece of meat to use as a weight. Antonio is in orange prison garb, with his hands taped together. He’s put in one of the chairs. Shylock is smooth, implacable, and makes it clear he’s out for vengeance. Nerissa enters, to explain that the young Balthazar (Portia’s name in disguise) has come from the other lawyer to give the court the benefit of his advice. One nice touch here is that the actual Balthazar is also with them, with a fake moustache.

Portia and Nerissa are dressed in smart suits, and wearing small moustaches. These disguises are good ones, not that that should stop Bassanio and Gratiano seeing through them. But, as usual, they don’t. The trial follows its usual course, and Antonio is clearly ready for the knife.  The “quality of mercy” speech was a little lacking here.  I didn’t feel Portia was giving it her all, but still there was a fair bit of tension throughout the scene. Bassanio is with Antonio as Shylock prepares to cut, while Antonio’s hands have been taped to the chair. Shylock has Antonio by the neck, reaching round from behind to make the incision, when Portia stops him, and metes out the justice he had been so keen to have. It’s noticeable here how she, such a strong advocate for mercy, is adamant that now Shylock shall have only justice and the law. This is where I find the echo of her earlier prejudice. She may be slow to take offence, but when she does…..! There’s definitely an edge to her delivery of justice. When Shylock is told he will have to convert to Christianity, he reels, and falls to the ground behind the table. Antonio snatches off his skull cap, leaving the poor man distraught.

This scene brings up such mixed emotions, such is the skill of the writing, and the skill of these performers. There’s nothing much to rejoice in here, as no one has behaved particularly well. But Shylock is in such despair that it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him.

As the lawyers take their leave, Portia is obviously relieved that Bassanio won’t part with his ring. Antonio, probably out of jealousy, urges him to send it after the lawyer, and Bassanio does. There could be problems coming up in this marriage. Portia and Nerissa are still in their suits when they get back to Belmont, and yet their husbands still don’t spot what’s happened, till they come back on in full disguise, with moustaches. The ring bit was as funny as ever, and I always love the way Gratiano rats out Bassanio. Antonio has been happy again, in Bassanio’s company, but is naturally depressed again when he finds out the ring was actually given to Portia, and he’s lost Bassanio after all.

Before they get back to Belmont, we see Jessica and Lorenzo, in bathrobes, having their little lovers’ tiff. On the whole, this is fairly light, but turns sour when Lorenzo mentions her stealing away from her father. She seems to be suffering from guilt and grief at betraying him. Shylock’s skull cap is still lying on the stage where Antonio threw it during the courtroom scene, and Jessica picks it up. By the end, she seems to have come to terms with her decision to run away and marry a Christian, and as she rejoins Lorenzo, they appear to be reconciled. (And Lorenzo’s got a nice bum.)

This was a fabulous production, and I’m really glad we saw it.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Coriolanus – March 2007

7/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Greg Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 28th March 2007

This is the last production, and performance, we’ll be seeing in this version of the main house – ever! I felt quite sad at the end, although given that the seat I was in tonight wasn’t at the best angle for my back, I’m sure I’ll appreciate the improvements when they come. Still, we’ve had many a happy hour in this theatre, and I’m looking forward to a backstage tour on Friday.

Coriolanus is a fascinating play. It’s not done very often, though Steve says he’s always surprised by this – each production we’ve seen has shown it’s a very interesting piece. There’s so much to it that I’d be up all night if I tried to report everything I saw tonight, so here’s the gist.

First off, I recognised so much in this production that echoed other Roman and Greek productions in this Complete Works Festival. I don’t know if this was deliberate, or just the natural effect of seeing so many Shakespeare plays together – all the common threads are highlighted. The Titus Andronicus was represented by the steps leading up to the stage, the Julius Caesar by the opening scene of plebeians causing a rumpus, the Troilus and Cressida by the angled wall, and the Antony and Cleopatra by smeared paint across the columns and the wall. Quite an achievement (or quite a coincidence, depending).

The set featured the steps at the front, a wall which could move down towards the front and which had a window high up on the right giving a view of the Volscian flag, and large doors on the left and right. It also angled to form a sloping roof. There was a series of square arches going off into the distance – these were raised and lowered as required, and formed the opening set. For some scenes, all these items disappeared, and we had a bare stage – very effective during Volumnia’s pleading scene.

The costumes used red for Romans and grey for Volscians. It’s a common technique, and does at least distinguish the two sides effectively, but like any colour coding, it can look a bit naff when it’s overdone. The style was a kind of Elizabethan version of Roman, with pleated skirts for the Roman soldiers, and bog standard olde worlde rough clothes for the workers. The pleated skirts had an extra frill at the top, which frankly looked absurd, especially on the Tribunes. However, the women had decent costumes, and the performances largely rose above such mundane matters.

The performance I liked best was Janet Suzman as Volumnia. She portrayed all her authority and total commitment to Roman patrician values (state before family) without making her a blinkered battleaxe. This Volumnia obviously knew exactly what price her son would have to pay in letting Rome off the hook, and her dignified grief on her return to Rome was very moving. At the same time, her enthusiasm for sending her son off to war at an early age so that he could earn honour is still appalling – if fewer women took that attitude today the world might be a bit safer.

Timothy West as Menenius was as good as I’ve seen in the part. I followed all his long-winded speeches this time, and although I think there’s more humour to be got out of his mistaken beliefs in the second half (that Coriolanus will listen to him, then that he won’t listen to the women), I really got the sense of Menenius’ laid-back authority with the people.

Coriolanus was played by William Houston, whom we’ve seen before as Sejanus, and as Roman General in Believe What you Will. Is this a trend? I find his physical behaviours tend to be repetitive, even mannered. He has a stance which he adopts at every opportunity, wide-legged, elbows bent, and hands clasped, and while he may deliver the lines well enough, I find this monotonous position rather distracting. (It wasn’t helped tonight by the pleated skirt.) However, this was a good performance, and showed more versatility than I’d seen before, so there’s hope yet. I was particularly impressed with his appearance at Aufidius’ feast, and his delayed emotional response to Volumnia’s pleading. What also came across very clearly is that Coriolanus is haughty, but not vain; he doesn’t seek glory or riches for himself, it’s all done for the good of Rome. However, he’s a warrior through and through, and doesn’t see why the common folk who don’t fight for Rome should have a say in how the city is run, and that includes voicing their approval of him as consul. His outspokenness gets him into trouble time and again, and while I can respect and admire his skills as a warrior, they cannot compensate for his lack of social and political skills.

Aufidius is another important part, and this time I found the performance somewhat crude. This actor has a tendency to wide-eyed declamation, possibly with some nostril-flares creeping in as well. This, coupled with some stiffness in movement made the part less interesting for me this time, although the dialogue all came across pretty well, and his changing motivations were clearly, if a little crudely, expressed.

The Tribunes were also a bit weak, I felt. It may be a bit unfair to compare them to the excellent performances we saw with the touring production a few years back (Tom Mannion and Geoffrey Freshwater), but I couldn’t help noticing the lack of detail in these roles this time. Other supporting actors were very good. I liked the servants at Aufidius’ feast, and the plebeians worked very well in this production – it was a good strong start to the play.

Other points I noticed: the turning point in Menenius’ persuasion of the plebeians at the start seems to be his opportunity to ridicule the chief troublemaker by likening him to a big toe. Once that chap’s lost his authority, Menenius has no opposition to his point of view. This fits very well with my understanding of Roman society, where rhetoric was more important than facts, even in court cases. The turning point for Coriolanus, listening to Volumnia, is her threat that he will be remembered shamefully, not as a hero. The fickleness of the people is a theme shared with Julius Caesar, and jealousy and envy have plenty of work to do, along with pride. The constant dilemma is this – the mass of people want leaders, but don’t want to be held to a discipline. Bugger. So heroes come and heroes go, each one discarded when they threaten the masses’ comfort zone, or are no longer required, or when the war crimes tribunal is sitting. I have no idea how this will ever be resolved, so Coriolanus should be doing good business for many centuries to come.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Sailor Beware – March 2007

8/10

By PhilipKing  and Falkland Cary

Directed by Ian Dickens

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Tuesday 27th March 2007

This is a great example of the perils of in-laws. Albert Tufnell, a sailor who’s been an orphan from his early days, was about to marry Shirley, only daughter of Henry and Emma Hornett. This play covered the afternoon and evening leading up to the big day and the morning itself. Things didn’t go according to plan, at least not to Emma’s plan which was all she seemed to care about.

The play started with Edie, Henry’s sister, and Emma. The wedding cake had just arrived, and in her confusion Edie put the hot teapot down on Emma’s lovingly polished sideboard, leaving a mark. Ructions ensued, as Emma browbeat Edie into polishing the mark to see if she could get it out. At first, I had some sympathy for Emma, as Edie was one of those nervous, bumbling, people who can really get on my nerves, but as events unfolded we came to see Emma as she really was – a domineering woman who didn’t let anyone have a moment’s peace. She felt it her duty to point out everyone else’s mistakes and shortcomings, of which there were many. I thought when Shirley came along we’d see a different type of woman, but amazingly, Albert had fallen for a younger version of Emma! And despite spending a couple of long leaves with the family, as well.

Thanks to Edie, with whom Albert flirted outrageously, he found out that Emma had put down a deposit on a house three doors along the road, and with Shirley’s connivance. He’d been planning to move a few miles away to get work when his stint in the Navy was finished, and he wasn’t at all happy to hear this news. He gave Shirley several opportunities to tell him about it, but she flunked them all. He spent the night thinking about this, and decided not to go to the wedding the next morning. He came back to the house afterwards though, to ask Shirley to marry him but on his terms. She agreed, and the play ended with the family heading back off to the church for the wedding.

There was lot to enjoy in the play and in the performances. I liked the balance between the characters, and the fact that there was no black and white – everyone had their good points. Edie was annoying, but kind. She’d been left at the altar herself, so she decided there’s a curse on the family when the same thing happened to Shirley. Henry was seriously henpecked, but did speak up for himself increasingly as the play goes on. His final outpouring, after Albert and Shirley had come to an understanding, was great fun, especially as he didn’t just rubbish his wife for making everyone’s lives miserable. He knew she was also the one who made the comfortable home he was living in, who had put up with Edie for over twenty years, and who had his meal on the table every evening; there was a reference to other wives who are down the pictures when their husbands come home, with fish and chips in the oven for them – the Reverend winced when he mentioned this. Henry coped by having his ferrets to look after – they’re a good deal more affectionate than his wife. One of Rosie’s litter died on the morning of the wedding, and there was some fun when Henry and Edie tried to hide the body from Emma.

Emma herself was quite a character, and held the whole plot together. This performance was excellent and got across her personality, warts and all. There were too many good bits to list them all, but a special mention must go to the scene where the Reverend wanted a quiet word with Albert and Shirley and Emma naturally assumes that meant her as well!

Albert was the other main character in this comedy. He was the first person to stand up to Emma since she was born, from the looks of things, and he came across as being lively but with good common sense. Now that he’d put his foot down, hopefully Shirley won’t turn out like her mother.

The rest of the characters weren’t so significant, but there were some good performances all the same. Carnoustie, Albert’s Scottish pal from the Navy who was going to be his best man, was an uptight puritanical type to begin with, but he loosened up after Daphne made a play for him. She was Shirley’s cousin and one of the bridesmaids, and game for anything by the looks of her. Shirley was quite snippy with her at first – after all, she walked in the room to find Albert holding Daphne’s rather shapely leg. Shirley was a close copy of her mother, but was obviously feeling guilty about not telling Albert about the house deposit. She managed the change into a more reasonable human being very well.

The next door neighbour made a few appearances, always when there was a pot of tea arriving at the table. She even swiped the cup intended for Shirley, after the trauma of being jilted. The main problem I had was not being able to hear her dialogue very well, while all the others came across loud and clear. Finally, there was the Reverend, who only turned up towards the end. I found this performance rather out of keeping with the rest of the production – a bit over the top, with a loud voice and clumsy gestures. I got the impression it’s an understudy’s part – not too much to do, so the ASM can take it over if the understudy’s called on for a bigger role. There were still plenty of laughs, but I felt there was more there.

It was a very entertaining evening, and a cut above the Connaught’s usual fare. Even though it was obviously of its time, this play had a directness to it that made it seem very modern. Good fun all round.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Sizwe Banzi Is Dead – March 2007

7/10

Devised by: Athol Fugard, John Kani, Winston Ntshona

Directed by: Aubrey Sekhabi

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Thursday 22nd March 2007

This was a great performance of a really good play. I hadn’t heard of it before, and didn’t know what to expect – perhaps something a bit serious and weighty. Not a bit of it. The proceedings start with John Kani coming on stage with a newspaper. He’s wearing a white coat over his clothes, and he takes the chair to the front of the stage, sits on it, and starts to read the paper, chatting to the audience all the while. The house lights are up, so there’s no hiding place. The rest of the stage is almost bare – there’s just a table, a board on an easel at the back with Styles Photographic Studio across it, covered with lots of photos and indications of his work – “Weddings”, “Passports”, etc. To the left is an old-fashioned camera on a tripod, and to the right a smaller table with a telephone and some bits and bobs. Nothing else, although even these items are removed when not needed, leaving a very bare acting space.

John Kani chats to us in the persona of Styles for quite some time – almost 45 minutes, I think. The production only lasts 90 minutes, so I did wonder when we would be seeing Winston Ntshona. But the chat was so entertaining. He laughed a lot, this character, telling us what was in the paper, then telling us about his time at the factory (very funny, especially when he was translating for the “baas”), and then telling us about the magic of his studio, where people come to live out their dreams. He even gets a couple of audience members up from the front row to show them his pictures. Today, Sophie Okonedo was one of those selected, and she looked so shy getting up onto the stage. Styles chatted with them, as he chatted with all of us, including us all as part of his community.

Of course, there were more moving parts of his dialogue, along with massive amounts of humour, but most of the difficult stuff was in the second half, after the man who had been Sizwe Banzi arrived to have his picture taken. The mood shifted gradually, without ever becoming bleak or terribly dark, yet we were shown the lengths many black people had to go to in order to survive under apartheid. Sizwe Banzi, played by Winston Ntshona, was a simple man from the country, come to town to make some money for his family. By the time he arrives at Styles’ studio, he’s lost his name, and we get to see the process by which this happens. He’s not allowed to stay in town, and his passport has been stamped as such by white officials. He’ll be in real trouble if he doesn’t get back to his family by yesterday. Out on the town with a helpful chap, Buntu, they come across a dead black guy, who happens to have the right kind of stamps in his passport. With much reluctance, Sizwe agrees to take on the dead man’s identity. The next day he goes to the studio to have his picture taken, so he can send it to his wife, and let her know that her “husband” is dead, but that he, Robert, will be sending her money and hopefully a permit so that she and the family can join him in town.

His story is very moving, and still there’s plenty of humour on show. Even the ridiculous lengths to which Sizwe would have to go to get permission to move back to the town is turned to laughter. Buntu spells out in great detail how Sizwe would have to get this letter, then that letter, then this stamp and that stamp, etc., and after a great long speech, sums it up with one word – “Simple!”

The performances were just superb throughout. These two actors helped to devise this piece, and originally played it thirty-five years ago, as much younger men. Not only is it still fresh today (they had reworked it quite a bit in the first half to make it more topical), but their skills have presumably only improved over the years. We’re unlikely to see this play done better. (I enjoyed it so much we bought the play text afterwards, hence my knowledge of the reworking).

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Hound Of The Baskervilles – March 2007

6/10

By: Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted by Clive Francis

Directed by: Robin Herford

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 19th March 2007

We’ve seen a number of Sherlock Homes adaptations recently, and enjoyed the way so few actors could represent so many characters. This promised to be the same, but with Peter Egan and Philip Franks as the two leads, we were having to dampen our expectations, so as not to get too excited.

The production was being done by the same folk who did The Woman In Black – I wasn’t sure what this would mean, but we soon found out. The stage was almost filled with two large screens. On the front one, a view of an open book was projected, with a blank page on the left, and the start of the story on the right. The text was blurred – Steve suggested this was to stop the audience reading the book, and getting to the end before the play did. The screen behind wasn’t visible at first, but as the action moved from place to place, the technical effects came into their own. The first screen “cleared”, and behind it we could see a bridge, with rocks around it. The second screen then gave us the backdrop – hills, hallway, etc – and these, together with the lighting, created a lot of atmospheric settings. We also had glimpses of Holmes from time to time – one item to note was that the violin playing was all done by Mrs Hudson (the actress playing her, that is).

In front of the screens, on what was left of the stage, were four “piles” of books and papers – these served as seats, tables, railway carriages, and anything else required, being shunted around as needed. The backdrop on the front screen changed regularly, which was very helpful in establishing where we were. The billiards table was invisible. So much for the set.

There were three other actors filling out the cast for this play, and they each covered a number of parts. Hattie Ladbury, as well as giving us her violin-playing Mrs Hudson, was the Baskerville housekeeper, Stapleton’s sister/wife, and the woman Stapleton proposes marriage to. Andrew Harrison was mainly Sir Henry Baskerville, but doubled as a cabbie and a postmaster, while Rupert Mason did just about everything else – Barrymore the butler, Stapleton himself, Mortimer the neighbour, plus station porters and a coach driver. I did find myself wishing they could have stretched to another actor to help spread the roles out a bit more, although I don’t intend to fault any of the actors for either their performances or their quick changes. The difference between the bit parts and the leads was noticeable, however, and it would be nice to see the other actors get more of a chance to flesh out their roles, rather than simply differentiating them.

The story is well known, so I won’t go into details. I wasn’t aware of anything missing, although there were some descriptions in the opening scenes which I think were taken from other stories and books. The hound was created by special effects, and worked very well, and the whole evening had a distinctly “Clive Francis” feel to it – slightly camp and pleasantly entertaining.

The main bonus was the two fine central performances. I enjoyed seeing Philip Franks on stage again, and his portrayal of Watson was fine. It didn’t stretch him much, but he gave us a good version of the affable sidekick who’s always that bit behind the main detective, but mainly because he’s working with such a supreme genius. His caring and his emotional reactions, so essential for the audience to relate to, were warming and funny. Peter Egan as Holmes was excellent. He carried such authority, and showed the unpleasant side of Holmes as well – not caring for anything except the mental stimulation and challenge, but so brilliant that people forgave him. It was easy to spot him in disguise, of course, which is another reason an extra actor might have helped for anyone not familiar with the story. Still, it was a classy performance, and one of my favourite Holmes representations.

Finally, I enjoyed the way they finished the play, with Mrs Hudson announcing another visitor who refuses to go without seeing Holmes – Professor Moriarty. The lights go down on Holmes and Watson sharing a look of astonishment. Good fun.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Venus And Adonis – March 2007

8/10

By: WIlliam Shakespeare

Directed by: Greg Doran

Company: Little Angel/RSC

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Saturday 17th March 2007

This was a wonderful hour of poetry and motion, with music. Towards the back of the Swan stage was a smallish puppet theatre, about four feet high and maybe seven feet across. (Sorry, 1.3 metres and 2.2 metres respectively.) In front of it stood a bench, and to either side a chair. The guitarist sat to our left, and Harriet Walter, as narrator, sat on the right. With some classical guitar music, we were off, and Harriet spoke the intro to Venus and Adonis, the dedication to the Earl of Southampton.

As I’d been watching the guitarist, I was surprised to look back and see Will Shakespeare had popped up from behind the bench, and was sitting to one side, penning the introduction. Behind him, the curtains of the puppet stage opened, and the Earl was revealed. I didn’t quite follow why Queen Elizabeth then came on and spent some time with the young Earl – I’ll have to look up the poem when I get home.

Then the poem itself started with Venus arriving on stage in a conch shell carriage, pulled by two doves – a lovely picture. Meantime, Adonis arrives on his horse. He’s a pretty boy (Adonis, that is, although the horse wasn’t bad either), but with absolutely no manners. Venus fancies him on sight, pulls him off his horse (and sends the animal packing), and Adonis doesn’t even want to kiss her! She pleads, she cajoles, she strokes and kisses various parts of his anatomy, all without raising his interest. Finally, she swoons, and, worried that she’s dead, he approaches her to check for signs of life. Apparently this involves kissing her, just to see if she’ll wake up (I don’t remember this technique when I did first aid!). He has a couple of goes to find somewhere to rest his hand (Not the breast! Not the crotch!), he plants a serious smacker on her lips, and she miraculously revives. Following some fairly passionate clinching, which had Adonis adjusting his garments afterwards, he runs off, the churl, leaving Venus sad and lonely.

Next day, he’s out again, planning to hunt boar, and refusing to listen to Venus’ warnings about how dangerous it is. Sure enough, the boar gets him, and Venus is upset, and curses love, and it all ends unhappily. Great fun.

That’s the basic story, but there’s more detail, and this is one production where the detail is everything. The puppets are fantastic. Venus is so soft-looking and voluptuous, it’s hard to imagine any red-blooded man not falling for her. She’s full of little touches – literally, as she can hardly keep her hands off Adonis for most of the poem. She walks so beautifully, each foot lifting and stepping so delicately. When she and Adonis do kiss, her feet lift off the ground one after the other, then her legs float up, then his legs float up, then they’re floating together in mid-air (so much easier with puppets than with real actors), then that cunning love-goddess has swivelled round so they’re lying together in mid-air, then it gets a bit pornographic (kept the audience awake, though). At one point, when she’s lying down, suffering the pangs of unrequited love, she still manages to pull her skirt up to show a substantial bit of leg. Her dance with the hands of death towards the end was good, too, as she leapt from hand to hand so gracefully, expressing her happiness when she thinks Adonis is alive after all. She was worked so well and so expressively that I could easily imagine her face changing to display the emotions.

Adonis is an articulated lump of wood by comparison, which is fine, because that’s what he’s meant to be. Solid, unimaginative, makes me wonder what Venus saw in him. He’s only interested in hunting, and doesn’t care for gurls. Funnily enough, he’s going hunting clad only in a skimpy off-the-shoulder very short tunic.  I suspect he’s actually well aware of his looks, and has set out to flaunt as much of his body as he can. A real pussy tease. Well, he gets his comeuppance, poor lad. When he runs off, he goes right across the stage and out of one of the side exits; a lovely mover.

His horse is good-looking, too, and he knows it. The poem describes him in some detail, and for this part, Harriet moves over to the bench where the stallion is posing, to point out the bits she’s talking about. He’s happy to oblige, but he’s even more interested in a serious bit of equine totty that shows up and flirts with him. She’s the reason he runs off and leaves Adonis stranded in the woods with a randy goddess. As Venus points out, his horse knows how to have a good time with a lady. At one point I thought they might go so far as to have the horses mating on stage – they’re in the right positions, and she does lift her tail – but there’s no coitus, interruptus or otherwise, on show.

The boar is an excellent piece of work, really menacing and LARGE! It comes on after Venus has heard the hounds howling and suspects that it’s curtains for Adonis. Meantime, she’s busy hiding herself as the boar enters, and looks around for someone to gore. His tusks are red, his bristles are big, and he’s a well-muscled killing machine. He checks out various parts of the stage, and there was nearly a nasty moment when he spotted the guitar player, and thinks about giving him a good mauling. But fortunately he heads off, leaving Venus to find Adonis’ dead body.

The other main character is death. And this was done very cleverly. The surround for the puppet stage included some moulding, which came away to form two very long arms with big, claw-like hands. At the centre top of the frame was a round device, which I’d spotted earlier, but couldn’t make out what it was. At this point, it transformed into a skull. Venus spends some time chiding death for taking away her beloved, fending his hands off, and getting really cross. Then when she hears the huntsmen, she assumes all is well, and apologises for her behaviour – this is when she has her little dance with the hands of death. It was quite impressive seeing these big hands float around without getting caught up in anything.

Nearly forgot the hare! When Venus is trying to persuade Adonis to hunt anything rather than the boar, she talks about the hare, and we get to see one – standing up, crouched down, loping round the stage. Beautifully done. And there was also a deer at the beginning, that leapt across ahead of Adonis, and puppet silhouettes that ran across the back of the stage – hounds, deer, and boar.

The narration was also excellent. Harriet Walter did a great job of reading out the poem, fitting it beautifully to the puppet’s actions. The puppeteers also added some noises and comments from time to time, and it all worked very well together. I particularly liked one occasion when one of the puppets looked at Harriet, not sure what to do, and she responded with a shrug. The music fitted in so well, I was often unaware of it, but I did enjoy what I heard.

It was such a complete experience that it’s hard to convey it in words. Little movements by the puppeteers gave such amazing performances from the puppets. Venus raising her head when Adonis is checking her vitals, for example, and Adonis holding his hands over his crotch after their romp, then pulling his tunic back into place. And Venus settling herself down to sleep, cradling her head on her arm. Lots of lovely moments, coming thick and fast, while the narration gives us the story. A great way to spend an hour.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Old Times – March 2007

8/10

By: Harold Pinter

Directed by: Peter Hall

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 13th March 2007

At last I’ve seen a production of this play that not only matches my idea of it from studying it at school, but has given me extra ideas. This production gets across the time shifts and different perspectives on past events brilliantly. All three performances were excellent, and I can’t imagine it being done better.

The set was circular, and considerably smaller than the Yvonne Arnaud stage. The first act is set in the sitting room of a converted farm house near the sea. At the start, a curtain curves round the front of the set, with pictures of waves playing across it. Just before the action begins, we see the three characters silhouetted against the curtain, husband and wife smaller on each side, while Anna, the visitor, looms large between them. As the curtain is drawn back, we see Deeley (husband) and Kate (wife) on chairs in the sitting room. Deeley is smartly dressed (for the 70s) while Kate is lounging back in a white hippyish outfit – very country lady. She’s incredibly still and focused, like a cat that’s very comfortable and sees no reason at all to move. At the back, Anna stands at the wide window which sweeps across the back of the stage, facing outwards. From the conversation, she hasn’t arrived yet, but her presence, even her existence, is the sole topic of conversation.

Deeley is fidgety, wanting to know about this person who’s invited herself to their house. Kate claims to hardly remember her, but that seems unlikely. When Anna “arrives”, she’s another cat, this time a purring, predatory one, slinking around the stage in a way that’s both seductive and challenging. She and Deeley are both determined to keep their hooks into Kate, and each sees the other as getting in the way, although it’s Deeley who seems to have the most insecurity at this stage.

For the second half, we move into the bedroom. The silhouette at the start is of just one person – Anna – as she sits on one of the beds. Deeley joins her shortly with coffee, and they talk while waiting for Kate to finish her bath. Gradually a picture emerges of a three-way relationship between the characters, with each one having their own selective memory of it. Deeley remembers meeting Kate at a movie, when she was on her own. Anna remembers going to that movie with Kate, and makes no mention of meeting Deeley there. The women lapse into the past occasionally and increasingly, talking as if they were still in their shared flat. The final moments show us the very scene each has been describing from different perspectives.

While it’s clear to me that this is one event, with each character remembering it differently, I was aware of other options within the play. For example, at one point I found myself wondering whether Kate and Anna were actually the same person – split personality, perhaps, or different expressions of the same person, as in Three Women And A Piano Tuner (Minerva, 2004). I also found Kate’s description of Anna, lying on her bed as if dead, slightly unnerving, and wondered for a moment if that were true, and they were being visited by a ghost. These were interesting ideas, and added to my enjoyment of the play, especially as I love ambiguity. But in the long run, I still think there are three characters here, with complex relationships.

Other points – Anna’s character uses language quite oddly at times, more like written English than spoken. Deeley picks up on a couple of words she uses – “gazes” and “lest” – and comments on how unusual it is to hear them, only to use “gaze” himself a number of times later on. Both women flash plenty of thigh throughout the performance, understandably given the text. Pinter has a great ability to use really banal dialogue well, showing us the characters through the clutter. In this case, they often use repetition like a weapon, and although Kate can seem rather passive at first, she emerges as the strongest character at the end.

I also liked the amount of humour they got out of this play. I remember liking it the best of the ones we studied at school, and it was good to see how funny it could be.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me