Sweet William – June 2007

6/10

By: Michael Pennington

Venue: Mill Studio, Guildford

Date: Friday 29th June 2007

This was a lovely evening in the company of an actor with tremendous in-depth knowledge of Shakespeare and his work. We’d heard Michael Pennington describe his introduction to Shakespeare at the age of eleven before, at the RSC Summer School, but apart from that enjoyable reprise, everything was new and all of it was very interesting.

He combined a trip through Shakespeare’s life with extracts from the plays. So for Will’s childhood, we got the dialogue between Mamillius and Leontes from The Winter’s Tale. He emphasised that very little is known about Shakespeare’s life, and he adds in one of his own ideas to explain Will’s disappearance for several years before emerging as an actor in London. He reckons that Will was himself working and travelling with the strolling players who were common in England at that time. He backed this up with one of the sonnets – sorry, don’t know which one – about returning to one’s true love after straying, which suggests to him the experience of a young man travelling about the country and enjoying the freedoms of many young players at that time.

I don’t remember all the details of his performance now, but it was a delightful evening, full of interest and moving performances.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Pete & Dud: Come Again – June 2007

3/10

By: Chris Bartlett and Nick Awde

Directed by: Owen Lewis

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Tuesday 26th June 2007

This performance suffered from a number of factors. Firstly, the audience was as sparse as I’ve seen in the Connaught for a long while. They normally get better attendances than this, but tonight there was very little atmosphere from our side of the curtain. Secondly, the comedy material in the show was not really designed to get the audience involved. The Morecambe and Wise tribute show, The Play What I Wrote, is the opposite of this. They did their time learning how to get an audience on their side, and the material in that show gives the actors plenty of opportunity to interact with the crowd. But the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore stuff is at the start of alternative comedy – satirical and surreal – so it’s more up to the audience to get themselves involved, and if they’re not interested, tough.

Thirdly, the structure of the show didn’t help too much, either. It was done as a chat show from the 80s, with Dudley Moore being interviewed by a combination of Russell Harty and Terry Wogan, and Peter Cook showing up part-way through. We got flashbacks of their days with Beyond the Fringe, etc, so we did get to see a fair bit of their material, but we also got snippets of behind the scenes stuff. I felt this made the whole evening rather clunky. To get into the flashback, they had to get props, etc, and while the set was well constructed to allow for all the different settings, it did limit their movements. Also, the need to dispose of the props, hats, and the rest, after the flashback, meant there were longer gaps than I would have liked between scenes.

Finally, the contents of the play are well known, and have already been explored well on TV, so it’s hard to know just who this play was intended for. Aficionados of their work would only get a modest amount of the humour presented to them, and the darker side of their relationship wasn’t explored in enough depth to be really satisfying.

What did I like? Well, the performances were good enough, and some of the sketches were still fun to see, although it’s very difficult to impersonate such a one-off as Peter Cook effectively. I did like the way that neither Pete nor Dud was made the scapegoat for the problems in their relationship. The various TV programs I’ve seen about them often seem to take one side or the other, but while there’s no doubt that in his later years the drinking made Peter Cook a difficult man to deal with, it’s also likely that there were other factors as well. So well done for keeping a balance. I also liked the way the action often contradicted what was being said on the chat show.

All in all, I was glad when it ended, though I hope it has better luck and bigger audiences for the rest of its run.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Macbeth – June 2007

3/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Conall Morrison

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 21st June 2007

I found this a very ramshackle production. There were some interesting ideas, and some good performances, but it didn’t work satisfactorily as a whole. I felt disinterested and often bored, which I don’t experience too often at the RSC.

There was a scene inserted at the start which I presume was intended to give focus and meaning to the whole production. To begin with, there were a number of chairs placed on the stage in rows, with one on its side. At the start, the doors at the back opened, and with much screaming, yelling and clashing of swords, various people rushed onto the stage, some pulling carts. The men grabbed the chairs, and piled them up as a barricade against the doors, while the women got the wagons into a circle… sorry, wrong genre. The women hid behind the carts as best they could. To no avail. The marauding forces under Macbeth forced the doors open, and Macbeth himself took on and killed the men, then turned his attention to the women and children. We could see he was barely alive, in that his humanity had been squashed out of sight by all the killing he had endured, and although he held one of the babies quite tenderly for a while, he still wrung its neck without compassion.

It was a powerful scene, and in many ways it promised well for the rest of the performance, but even so, I found myself wondering, in the midst of all this emotive force, where does he go from here? This Macbeth has none of “the milk of human kindness” left in him. There’s nothing in his life but senseless slaughter – he’s an empty shell. He’s already at “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”, yet the rest of us are three hours away from it. It would take some masterstroke to connect the dots to give us a satisfying explanation of this character’s journey from here, and sadly, we didn’t get one. There were some good bits to the central performance, true, but overall the range was limited and the verse-speaking not quite up to the job. Lots of energy, but not enough detail – “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

The opening scene hadn’t quite finished, however. The three women that Macbeth had killed, jerked alive again after he’d gone. I had suspected this might happen – come on, three women, in Macbeth, can’t just be coincidence. Sure enough, these lately deceased became the three weird sisters, and their motivation was plain and stark – they wanted revenge for their slaughtered children. Steve saw them as avenging angels, though not necessarily heavenly ones, and that’s a good image. They thoughtfully removed the bodies, which allowed the rest of the action to continue, but they did linger over it, and I felt the first intimations of the boredom that was to become all too familiar during the evening.

Next up was the pirate king. You don’t remember him from Macbeth? Well, he’s called Duncan, and David Troughton played him in what Steve reckoned was a West Country accent with Scottish moments, long straggly hair, and a leather coat. What else were we meant to think? I had to work hard to stifle a fit of the giggles at this point, because the wounded soldier who arrives to tell the King what’s happened is speaking with one of the worst Scots accents I’ve heard in a while. It’s not helped by the fact that some of the cast are putting on a Scottish accent, some have Caribbean inflections, the Irish contingent apparently felt their own brogue to be sufficiently Scots-like not to bother, and we had a Welsh second murderer. Most of the black actors chose the West Indian/African route, so it was doubly surprising to hear one of their number attempt a comedy version of the Scottish accent. I barely suppressed my giggles, but suppress them I did. I have no idea why these choices were made – we could tell from the post-show yesterday that the actors mostly weren’t using their own accents, so it had to be a deliberate decision. (At least it helps to explain why David Troughton kept correcting himself when referring to “English” actors in the post-show.)

The scene where the three witches greet Macbeth was fine, nothing special to report. The women left through the back door, which Macbeth and Banquo are apparently oblivious to. Likewise the arrival of Ross and Angus to inform Macbeth that the first prophecy has come true is also OK, but adds nothing to my understanding of the play. Duncan’s thanks to Macbeth and Banquo are fine, and Macbeth does at least register well his shock at hearing Malcolm created heir to the throne.

I’ve never quite understood exactly when Macbeth writes the letter he sends to Lady Macbeth. He’s riding furiously to prepare for Duncan’s arrival chez lui, yet he manages to knock off a reasonably lengthy letter (Lady Macbeth is obviously part-way through when we first see her), and the postman’s quicker than he is. This is one time when text-messaging would seem to be the answer, but sadly they didn’t have it in those days. Anyway, next up is Lady Macbeth and the letter, and boy, was she good. Derbhle Crotty managed to get across a sense of an ordinary woman gone seriously bad. No histrionics, nothing over the top, just plain negativity focused and concentrated. Her invocation was very grounded and, as she speaks her final lines, and with Macbeth appearing in the doorway behind her, she freezes with her eyes wide and staring, as if her later madness is already within her. Which of course it is.

Duncan’s arrival was again average, and this time my view of Lady M was blocked by all the entourage standing about, so I felt my attention slipping again. Macbeth’s soliloquy “If it were done” was OK, but with one very good piece of interpretation, given this production’s focus on the personal – for “we still have judgement here”, there was a long pause before the “here”, and as he said it, he placed his right hand on his heart, indicating that his own conscience was what he meant, rather than the usual reference to the world in general. That I liked very much.

Again, there’s the difficulty from the opening scene in getting to grips with how Lady M persuades her husband to kill Duncan. From Terminator-like assassin, he’s become a picky wimp, and she has to work hard to get him to change his mind. Frankly, I didn’t think she’d manage it, good though her performance was, but then I wasn’t buying much of Macbeth’s emotional posturing at this point. However, I did enjoy Derbhle’s performance. She managed to be hard as nails, yet a little nervy with it, taking us a bit further along Lady M’s descent into hell.

The opening to the next scene, Banquo’s arrival leading into the dagger speech, was a bit hesitant. The language didn’t seem to come across too well, but the arrival of the witches certainly helped. One came on and dropped a dagger into the stage in perfect time for Macbeth to give his speech. As he went to grab it, she whisked it away, and another of the three, having already come on, dropped another dagger in another part of the stage. And so it went on, a nice piece of staging and perfectly timed, with the last dagger being removed just before “There’s no such thing”. As the bell tolls, he climbs up the ladder to go to Duncan’s room.

Lady M appears, and is now showing her nervousness more clearly. Their dialogue was largely lost for me, as it was rushed through so quickly. I know they’re agitated, but there’s no need to lose it altogether. Lady M might be able to speak brave words to her husband, but her face gives her away when she grabs the daggers – she’s not looking forward to this at all.

The porter is played by all three witches, tossing a pig’s head between them. Not a scene that I’ll be fondly remembering anytime soon. The words were too garbled (keen to get past the unintelligible stuff quickly, perhaps?) and the actions not particularly helpful. The one witch who stayed behind to actually talk to Macduff and Lennox was pretty graphic about standing to and not standing to, and really enjoyed her own joke, but it wasn’t the best porter scene I’ve experienced. Of course, they need time for Macbeth to get cleaned up, as he’s back on stage pretty soon to greet Macduff himself. Then we have the discovery of the murder, lots of people rushing on stage in various states of attire, Macbeth admitting to having killed the grooms, and Lady M throwing up over the top balcony railing, before collapsing and being carried off. As so much was going on, I’m not sure how she was playing that bit; whether it was a device to distract the others from Macbeth’s maladroit justification of his actions, or just because it’s all got too much for her. Anyway, my main thought at this time was a forensic one. Macbeth’s really smart here, because not only has he got rid of two potential witnesses in the grooms, he’s covered up any evidence of him killing Duncan – if the CSI people were to check him for blood, he could always claim he got Duncan’s blood on him from the grooms. When I find myself thinking like this during a performance, it’s not usually a good sign.

The play trundles on in the usual way – I must say, they did at least stick pretty much to the standard version, and after a year of viewing Shakespeare from just about every angle except right way up, this is a pleasant change. Donalbain and Malcolm flee, people chat about what’s going on, Banquo’s getting his hopes up, King Macbeth and his Queen are looking happy with the world, Banquo goes off riding, Macbeth invites the murderers onto the stage, the Queen talks with him afterwards, and is even more worried by him not confiding more in her, and then the murderers, joined by one of the witches as the third murderer, tackle Banquo and Fleance.

Having a witch as the third murderer worked very well, I thought. Remember, the witches are working to bring down Macbeth, and here she is the one who puts out the light, making it harder for the murderers to do their job. If I heard correctly, she tells Fleance to flee even before his father does, and although she goes after him, she shows no signs of attacking him. This was a good way to interpret the scene, I found – one of the better ways in which the witches were woven into the fabric of the staging.

When Banquo is killed, he’s lying to our right, near the front corner of the stage. I remember thinking, that’ll be handy for him when it comes time to join in the feast. Sure enough, when the time comes, the weird women help him up, smearing his face with blood, and place him in the empty chair. Macbeth freaks out, as usual, and sends him packing, and they take him off. A little later, I noticed the tablecloth twitch a bit, and reckoned he’d be coming up through the trapdoor for his next entrance. Sure enough, he did. Some blood had been dripped over the fruit in the middle of the table, and he then rose up, sending the middle trestle flying, and the food and fruit went everywhere. I took a moment or two to stop a bloody apple from landing in my lap. As Lady M tries to calm her husband down, off to our left, a grinning Banquo was seated at what remained of the table, and the witches were waving his hand at them. It was both funny and scary – I could understand why Macbeth was freaking out. Unfortunately, he was so upset that he let fly with his hand and swept a cup off the table, so that Steve and I (and people for several rows back) were sprayed with a large amount of fake wine. It was a bit of a shock, as I’m not used to this sort of audience participation, so I really didn’t notice much of the rest of that scene, but it finished pretty soon anyway, and we could begin to clear up the mess. As did the stage staff.

We wiped ourselves down, and Steve went to change the program, as that had been splashed. He likes to keep them, so a clean copy is essential. As he did this, I realised I wasn’t happy sitting there any longer. Rather than just leave (although I was tempted), I asked if there were any other seats available. I must say the RSC staff were very helpful, and it turned out there were tickets for two seats in Row H which hadn’t been collected, so as these seemed perfectly good, we took them. There was more cleaning up to do, but fortunately, we were both wearing red or pink tops (I was in the pink), so the evidence of our splashing was fast disappearing.

I was happy with the change because I had felt too close to the action during the first half. That’s not usually my complaint, but this production had evidently taken “sound and fury” to heart, and there was so much going on at times, and on different parts of the stage, that I was having to look round a lot more than usual to be aware of what was going on. This isn’t a criticism of the staging, as I like productions to use the Swan to the full, but in this case, I felt happier being further back, so that I could get a better overview of the action (and no more wine).

Hecate is dropped, as I would expect in this reading, and so we’re back with the roundup of the story so far as Lennox and another Lord have a little chat. Fortunately, I had been paying attention, so it didn’t matter that this didn’t come across clearly. The witches come on for their consultation with Macbeth, carrying suitcases. Instead of the various items they’re chanting about, they take dolls and babies’ clothes out of the suitcases to put in the cauldron/pit. I found this very moving. When Macbeth arrives, demanding answers, there’s a strange extra section where the witches sit him in a chair, put a bag over his head and then a noose, and proceed to hang him. Not to death, obviously, but just a bit. Why? Time of the month? No explanation was forthcoming, and it didn’t add to the play for me. They used dolls to represent the various apparitions. To show Banquo’s line, lots of dolls drop down from the ceiling.

Macduff’s family is next in line to be killed. Again, I found this to be less clear than I’ve seen before, although choosing to show Lady Macduff about eight months gone added to the emotional stress on childlessness. One of the three witches comes on to advise Lady Macduff to fly, and she’s apparently speaking out of turn. The other witches make this clear when they turn up. The killings are added to by the killers raping her, largely out of sight, but still unnecessary, even in this context. I was looking forward to the end already.

About this time I was beginning to despair. I felt I’d lost my ability to keep an open mind, and to adapt to new productions and different ways of doing things. Then I thought back to all the performances we’d seen over the past year, and which I’d written up in these notes. I realised this was just a temporary blip, that actually we’re pretty good at accepting these productions on their own terms, and I felt much better. Thank goodness for this writing – it’s something concrete I can refer back to if I lose track again.

The meeting between Macduff and Malcolm worked better than a lot of the scenes. In particular, the line “He has no children” was fairly howled out by Macduff – very moving. Lady M’s sleepwalking confirmed the madness that had been set up earlier and beautifully developed, and was one of the best versions I’ve heard. Then we’re basically into the battle preparation and final fights, and then home. The messenger who comes on to tell Macbeth about the forest moving is one of the witches, and she grins as she leaves, knowing she’s just told him something fearful. The cry of women was done by the three sisters from the top balcony, and was piercing and eerie. The final confrontation between Macduff and Macbeth worked well enough, and so to bed.

As I write this, I feel I haven’t quite done it justice. It wasn’t as boring as it might seem from my terse descriptions, although I don’t regret any of them. The delivery of lines was poorer than I’m used to, and some of the contrived extras – the rape, the hanging – did nothing for me. Having seen all these actors in Macbett the night before, we know they’re all good at their job, so I have to put the problems down entirely to the director and his concept for the piece. The idea of having the three witches as women avenging the deaths of themselves and their children is superficially tempting, but it shifts the balance of the play too much for me. It became partly a revenge drama, rather than a tragedy based on extremes of ambition. I liked the emphasis on inner psychology in places, but then the witches were definitely supernatural, which contradicts that reading a bit. All in all, it was too unbalanced to be really enjoyable, though I will remember some bits with great pleasure.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Macbett – June 2007

3/10

By: Eugene Ionesco, English version by Tanya Ronder

Directed by: Silviu Purcarete

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 20th June 2007

What a bum-number! Don’t get me wrong, great performances from all of the cast, and probably the best production we Brits are likely to get, but still, what a bum-number! At least it kept to two and a half hours, and there were some really funny bits, plus the post-show was interesting, so the evening wasn’t a complete waste (though it came as close as I can remember!).

This version of Macbeth clearly expresses Ionesco’s own antipathy to any form of totalitarian state, be it Fascist or Communist. It can be summed up quite succinctly in the quote “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” [Lord Acton] Duncan is a despot who rules a Dukedom in an unspecified place (OK, the play says Scotland, but this is Absurdist theatre, so nothing’s that straightforward). We actually get to see Glamiss and Candor (Cawdor) plotting their coup. They’re unhappy about how much of their wealth the King/Archduke is creaming off, particularly when it comes to chickens and eggs. There’s a mention of how many virgins he’s taken, but they do seem to come some way down the list. During their plotting session, a huge picture of the Archduke is positioned behind them, and from time to time others come on and bow reverentially. Both Banco and Macbett come on and chat to the two men, so we get to see how they fit in – they’re 110% loyal to the current ruler. Even so, Glamiss and Candor agree to rise up and overthrow the tyrant.

On the one hand, this staging does get across the situation pretty well, and there’s some humour in it. Everyone’s carrying a case of some kind – briefcase, suitcase – and the two plotters interact well with the audience. What comes across very nicely is how they move from specific personal grievances to glossing it with the idea that they’re acting “for the public good”, a typical trick of power-crazed megalomaniacs. On the other hand, we’re much more aware of state surveillance nowadays, and so any sense of real menace was sadly lacking.

The war between the two sides was reasonably entertaining. Lots of soldiers in bulky combat-type gear loped about – it’s a physical style that I found very reminiscent of Rhinoceros, years ago at Chichester. (Mind you, they probably didn’t have many options for how to move in those outfits.)  There was an Absurdist touch with a lemonade seller, wandering about, trying to sell restorative lemonade to people, and who gets into a confrontation with a killing machine, fresh from the battlefield. At least, I assume that’s what it was meant to be. The actor had lots of clunky bits of costume, and moved a bit robotically, with lines suggesting a great relish for slaughter. Various soldiers were killed, and then revived, soldiers chased each other, then swapped places – all the ways to represent mayhem and senseless bloodshed you can think of, without actually using fake blood. (Or real blood, of course.)

The bloody theme was emphasised by a duet of speeches from Macbett and Banco. I say duet, although what actually happened was that they took it in turns, each one stepping aside from the battle temporarily to reflect on the situation. Both speeches were identical, and portrayed in very similar ways. From the post-show, we learned that in France, these speeches are meant to be delivered identically (must be a nightmare if the first guy farts!), but for this production, they felt the audience would get the repetition (we did), and would appreciate the variations according to character (we did).

The speeches give numbers to those killed, and start off with a few men shot, more burned, thousands buried under rubble, millions killed in other ways, etc. The death theme is certainly given a vigorous outing here. Both men also shoot the lemonade seller. (Well, she’s groaning a bit from being beaten up by the killing machine earlier, so you can understand them just wanting a bit of peace and quiet.)

The Archduke finally turns up, accompanied by his wife, Lady Duncan. He is clutching his throne – a small chair, almost a stool, with a picture of a crown on the backrest. He cuddles this throughout the play, at least while he’s alive, and there’s an entertaining tussle over it later on when Macol comes to revenge his fathers and claim his crown from Macbett. More on that story later. The Archduke’s a complete coward, but like a lot of that type, totally critical of anyone else’s weakness. An injured soldier turns up – he’s got a spear through his middle – and they question him to find out what’s going on at the front. The soldier can’t tell them much – he was press ganged by the rebels, then captured by the Archduke’s troops and forced to fight for them. He was wounded (not by the spear, that must have come later, as if it matters in Absurdia), and when he woke up the battle had moved on. Lady Duncan is about to kill him with her knife (she’s a bloodthirsty cow, that one), but her tells her not to trouble herself, he can top himself and save her the effort. So off he goes with his grenade and blows himself up. Thoughtful of him. The Archduke’s servant and his wife’s maid also feature in this scene, and do a lovely job. The servant, so loyal he beheads himself later after bringing Duncan bad news, seems to reappear with a reattached head later, while the maid spends most of this first scene holding onto a rope that leads off behind the plush red curtain, possibly attached to her Ladyship’s horse? Who knows? She spends most of her time carrying suitcases around.

Duncan sends his wife off to the front to check on how things are going. While all around are diving for cover, she breezes in, hardly bothering to check for stray bullets, and asks for info. Banco’s there first, and tells her what he can, then swaps with Macbett. Finally the fighting’s over, Duncan’s troops have won, and Glamiss and Candor are prisoners awaiting their fate. It’s now safe for the King to arrive, which he does eventually, after many announcements that he’s just coming. (Funny at first, soon gave way to dull. Apparently that’s just how the French like it.)

The first to be brought on for execution is Candor, wrapped up in black plastic sheeting. He’s given a final speech to read out, and there’s some fun while he tries to get his hands free of the sheeting to be able to hold it, and then to be able to hold the megaphone. Megaphones are well used throughout this production, especially in the battle scenes, and at a lot of other times as well.

Now the slaughter begins. The King sentences Candor and Glamiss to have their heads cut off, together with all their followers, and he expects the executioners to make it snappy – they’re all to be done by tonight. Macbett is told to sit by the Queen/Archduchess as they watch, and he’s soon on the receiving end of her orgasmic pleasure at seeing so much bloodshed, which he thoroughly enjoys. The staging has a large white curtain at the back, behind which the King’s men disappear, emerging with heads in bags which they dump down the central pit. As each head is removed, an artistic blood spatter appears on the sheet, so pretty soon it’s more red than white, while the number of heads carried to the dump keeps increasing. We get the message.

Sadly, with all this fun on the go, the servant turns up to tell Duncan that Glamiss has escaped. This leads to the order for his execution, as mentioned before. The King is mightily unhappy, and sends Banco and Macbett off to find him asap. And so darkness descends. Literally. I don’t know if the Swan auditorium has ever been so dark during a performance before. Banco and Macbett are searching for Glamiss in the dark and in the rain, so Banco heads off to find a horse. This leaves Macbett alone, in the dark, in the countryside, and we all know what he’s likely to find in the dark, in the countryside, in a version of Macbeth, don’t we? Yes, it’s finally the witches’ turn to give us all a laugh, and they manage it very well, I must say.

The two witches are done with actual masks covering the actresses’ heads, giving them wrinkles long before their time. They also walk with a stoop, using canes, and brilliantly manage to be both old dames waiting for a bus (it’s those suitcases again), and unearthly hags. Their scene with Macbett is echoed later with Banco, but with more changes than in the earlier repeated scene, as each character is told different information. The lights do come on for a short while, in a circle enclosing the central ironwork, and this relates directly to the time when the witches are talking to Banco and Macbett. As the witches move around, we hear the voices coming from different places, and sounding more and more like Lady Duncan.

What’s good here is seeing how the two characters react to the information they’re given. We get to see how their minds work, although with this type of theatre it’s a kind of generic reasoning. They’re both warned that Duncan will refuse to give Banco his title (Glamiss), and will give it instead to Macbett, though without the land and money that should really go with it. They also inform both men that Glamiss is already dead, drowned in the river and washed into the sea. This is the start of both men’s disaffection, though for different reasons – Banco feels he’s been treated unfairly, while Macbett sees his opportunity to get the Queen for himself by taking the throne. David Troughton produced some marvellously excessive facial expressions during this part, really getting across how manic Macbett has become under the witches’ influence. There’s also a lovely bit where one witch informs Macbett that Duncan has a son, Macol, who’s away studying, and another son, Donalbain, but he doesn’t come into Macbett’s story much.

Later (and I’ve lost track of what happens when by this time), we see the witches appear at the back and transform themselves into Lady Duncan and her maid. It’s not clear at this time that the first witch has simply taken Lady Duncan’s place, after kidnapping her and locking her in the dungeon. What I understood was that Lady Duncan was actually a witch, and even after the real Lady Duncan emerges later, I’m still not sure when the witch is meant to have taken over, or even if it matters.

There’s a lovely scene where Duncan sits at a table stacked high with eggs, and starts eating them, apparently raw. This got quite a few “Yeughs” from the younger section of the audience. This is where Macbett and Banco each confront Duncan, Banco complaining about Macbett being given the title he was promised, and Macbett saying he didn’t want the title, and it should be given to Banco instead. Duncan’s having none of this, and this confirmation of the witches’ prophecy, together with Duncan’s intransigence, pushes the two generals into rebellion, just as the witches wanted. Their plotting scene is a reprise of the earlier one, between Glamiss and Candor, except that Banco and Macbett are also getting changed after playing some racquet sport. The end result is the same – another agreement to topple Duncan, with Macbett becoming King and Banco, Prime Minister.

The assassination starts with Duncan coming on, stripped to the waist, carrying his throne. He sets it down, and there’s various lines about a healing ceremony he’s about to do. He’s anointed with black and white face paint, and then wrapped in a large clear plastic sheet, held together with a big “X” of black tape over his heart. It’s even placed slightly to the left side, as I saw it.

First off, a lot of actors wearing the witch-type masks appear at the back, and Duncan “heals” them, represented by them taking off their masks and jumping for joy. After this, Macbett, Banco and the Queen surround Duncan, and mimed stabbing him. Apparently these mimes were too much for Duncan, and he’s finally dead.

Now Macbett is King, and marries the woman whom he thinks to be Lady Duncan. Banco is in the throne room, fantasising about the future the witches promised him, and as he lies there, presumably asleep, Macbett walks in and decides to castrate him, to prevent his children taking away the crown. This isn’t particularly gory, although again the younger audience members reacted pretty strongly to some of it. Macbett appears to eat the off-cuts, only to blow ping-pong balls out at the audience. Sort of good fun.

Now their plan has come to fruition, the witches resume their masked form, and head back to their boss, carried on a flying suitcase. (Actually, it’s a sliding suitcase – you just have to use a bit of imagination.) Macbett holds a banquet, at which he shows he’s losing it big time, and eventually the real Lady Duncan appears, claiming the crown. When challenged about how she knows so much of what’s gone on, she replies that her fellow prisoners tapped out messages – it’s the prison grapevine.

When Macol turns up, he and Macbett have a lovely tug-o-war over the throne. It’s more like they’re both caressing it. Macol wins, and Macbett points out that no man born of woman can kill him. Sadly for Macbett, it turns out that Macol is Banco’s love-child, born of a gazelle, who was transformed into a woman for the sexual act, then re-transformed to carry the child. Damn. But at least Macbett can’t be killed unless there’s a forest present. In an instant, lots of huge flower arrangements are carried on stage, cellophane crackling, and put in a circle round Macbett. Curses, foiled again.

After Macol shoots Macbett, and thrusts him down the pit, he sits down to give his inaugural speech as King. A microphone is placed in front of him, and he gets underway. The speech is taken directly from Macbeth, using Malcolm’s lines when he’s checking out Macduff’s intentions, so it comes across as pretty unpleasant. However, the problem with tyrannies is that society can crumble eventually, with so many needed people killed off, and so it is here. As Macol continues to give his speech, the stage hands come on and start clearing the set, taking away the flower arrangements, his microphone, etc, until the stage is pretty clear. Then the Henry (vacuum cleaner) comes on, and Macol has to skip nimbly out of the way of the wire, as he uses a megaphone to try to get his message across. Finally, David Troughton comes on, dressed for the off, and taps his watch to show Macol his time is up. End of play.

All the above description sounds more interesting than I found the actual presentation to be. The play clearly spells out the corrupting effects of power, that absolute rulers aren’t to be trusted, and that even the most loyal of supporters can turn nasty, given the right circumstances. It also shows that extreme loyalty can lead to ridiculous acts of self-sacrifice. But we already knew this, so I didn’t feel I’d gained any greater understanding. The generalised sense of dictatorship allows for audience members to colour in the background themselves. Sadly, I tend to find that diminishes a portrayal, rather than enhancing it for me. I like ambiguity a lot, but not on a blank canvas. (I’m probably no good at ink blot tests, either.)

The apparent misogyny in the play (I read the program notes) didn’t really come across for me, mainly because of my confusion about the Lady Duncan/witch combo, and partly because none of the men are up to much either. The physicality of the performance was good; although I can always do with less gore, I do enjoy the liveliness and energy, especially when the actions are almost balletic. I’ll be interested to see if the Macbeth is similar in terms of the movement.

The post-show only had male cast members – I assume the ladies are working hard to get The Penelopiad on stage (opens soon).  There were some interesting questions, and we learned that the director, a Romanian, liked to work from the outside in, typical of Continental directors. Because of the way the performances have been developed, externally rather than internally, the actors find they’re still getting to know the piece, and still developing it. Both David Troughton (Macbett) and Sean Keans (Banco) admitted to a competitive streak – each tries to outdo the other in their repetitive speeches in the battle sequence. The suitcases are also in their Macbeth, and it was suggested that we’d seen these plays the wrong way round, as Macbett probably took the Macbeth ideas to a different level, whereas the Macbett might undercut our enjoyment of Macbeth. Ah well.

Another character who fitted in well with the overall effect was a rag and bone man, actually a woman. We heard the call a few times, and she wandered across the stage a bit, but her most telling moment was after the battle scenes, when all the victorious soldiers were saluting Duncan. There were lines about the dead soldiers, and we hear the rag and bone cry from behind us. She’s summoned onto the stage, and while the soldiers take off their outfits (they’re all wearing suits underneath), she bends over as the discarded clothes are heaped up on her back. A couple of the cast lead her off. I remember thinking how appropriate that was, as so many people in the play are now only rag and bone. It reminded Steve of Mother Courage, as did the lemonade seller. I was reminded earlier of Oh What A Lovely War, when the lights around the stage lit up, as if we were in a music hall.

I wanted to leave one of the best bits to the end. There was a butterfly woman, who came on with a butterfly on a long pole, and carrying a net, which she used to try and catch the butterfly. As the pole was too long, she kept missing, but it was lovely to watch as the butterfly flitted here and there, looked like it was about land on someone’s head, then moved on. This created a lovely sense of peace amidst all the turmoil, especially as the lights had been lowered as well, so there was a peaceful gloom everywhere. The only odd note was the headless body of the faithful servant. He had gone to cut off his own head, then returned to deposit it himself in the pit. What loyalty. The headless body then stood there, as everyone else got off the stage, and remained there until the butterfly catcher guided it off, using its hand to hold the net. This was a remarkably beautiful section. We see the butterfly catcher once more, later on, but I don’t remember anything specific about it.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Big White Fog – June 2007

5/10

By: Theodore Ward

Directed by: Michael Attenborough

Venu: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 16th June 2007

This is a play, written in the 1930s, dealing with the various ways that black folk in US northern cities (Chicago, in this case) handled the discrimination they experienced every day. The family is a mixture. The wife, Ella, is the daughter of a woman (Martha) who’s part-white, born out of wedlock, and inordinately proud of being a Dupree. Ella has married Victor, a fully black man who’s heavily involved in the movement set up by Marcus Garvey, encouraging black people in America to return to Africa to set up a modern state there. Ella’s sister, Juanita, has married Daniel, who’s a wheeler-dealer type, trying to work the system to his advantage, and doing OK at this time, though the Depression gets even him in the end. Daughter Wanda chooses to drop out of school to work in a shop, as she doesn’t see education helping her much, while Les, the son, has received an ambiguous letter suggesting he’ll be accepted for a scholarship to study chemistry at college.

We see how things develop over several years, eventually ending up in the middle of the Depression. Les is turned down for a place at college because he’s black, and the scholarship committee is specifically forbidden from granting scholarships to black people. He turns to communism as an alternative, supported by a Jewish friend. Marcus Garvey does a runner with the money raised to found the Black Star Line, and is eventually put in jail, but Victor stays resolute to the end, becoming even more important in the organisation, and even less able to provide for his family as he’s put all their savings into Black Star Line shares. Wanda, influenced by her friend Claudine, ends up with a white sugar daddy, only she’s the one who has to be sweet to get any money out of him. And there’s also Uncle Percy, Victor’s brother, who spends all his time having fun, drinking and spending his money on clothes (and, presumably, women). He ends up a serious drunk. Meantime, Ella has done her best to keep her family together and cared for, but eventually even she has to speak up and complain.

One of the most interesting aspects of this production is that it’s the complete opposite of the colour-blind casting we’re so used to. It’s totally colour-sensitive. I noticed this first when Claudine comes in, as she’s light-skinned enough for me to be unsure that she’s playing a “black” character. Later, the racism amongst African-Americans comes to the fore, as Martha lets rip at Victor because he’s a black man! I know that no group is free of its own prejudices, but it’s rare to see this shown on stage. We get a touch of Queen Lear at this point, as Martha flounces off to her other daughter, only to return years later, saying she can’t stay with Juanita another night.

The other point of interest is how much the Depression affects everyone, black and white. Given that the Communists are racially integrated, it’s a sign of hope, but given that the whole country is suffering, it’s a setback for those trying to improve the lot of black people.

I did enjoy this play. It was amazing to see such a huge cast on the Almeida stage, and good to see an “authentic” piece – written by a black playwright at the time. I didn’t feel it was particularly shocking or even that powerful; it seemed quite gentle given the subject it’s covering, but that may be down to my detachment in time and experience from the events depicted. All the performances were excellent, though Novella Nelson (Martha) and Clint Dyer (Percy) were my favourites. The set reminded me of the Eric Sykes show, with the stairs, door and sitting room. Good fun.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Babes In Arms – June 2007

8/10

By: Rodgers and Hart, book by George Oppenheimer

Adapted and directed by: Martin Connor

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Wednesday 13th June 2007

This was sooo much better than last year’s musical. It may be an earlier offering than Carousel, but the wit of the writing and the coherence of the plot were far better. I do hope this gets a London transfer.

We went to the pre-show talk, given by a professor at a university. He gave us an overview of Rodgers and Hart’s career (some people have great jobs!), explaining how they influenced the development of musicals in the 20s and 30s. Until they got going, musicals were mainly cobbled together bits of entertainment – a hangover from Vaudeville. Initially, they wrote using this form themselves, then grew into the idea of tying the songs together with a more substantial plot. Babes In Arms is itself a reference to their early days at college (Hart was several years older than Rodgers, but stayed on to work on the student shows).

They also worked in Hollywood, and often their stage shows were radically changed for the big screen – for Babes In Arms, all but two of the original songs were removed. The version we were seeing tonight had been created from the two stage versions that they produced – the original, and a later version which took out much of the political references and background.

The performance itself got off to a good start. The set was mainly wooden struts fanning out from the back of a barn – actually, the set could be either the inside or the outside of the barn, depending. There was a piano to our left, and various boxes, trunks, etc around the stage. The band played a lively overture, and then we were straight into the action. The plot? Oh well, that was just about some teenagers who’re working for a theatre manager during the Depression, and who want to do their own show. The Manager has brought in a star, a precocious child with a mother of steel (Lorna Luft), to act in a new play called The Deep North…. oh, for goodness sake, you know the story!

The newly grown child star is actually a fine kid, who’s as keen as the rest of them to do something new. I loved the way she did the giggly child with curly blond hair to perfection, as well as the more sensible teenager with talent. In fact, all the performances were superb, full of life and energy, and the dancing was just great. I especially liked the tap dancers, and Light on our Feet was far and away the best thing in a very good show.

I enjoyed the both versions of the scene from The Deep North; the original, to show us just how bad it was, and the revised version, ambushed by the kids. I recognised most of the songs, and came out wanting a cast recording to sing our way home to. Well done.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Bedroom Farce – June 2007

6/10

By: Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by: Robin Herford

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 11th June 2007

This is an early Ayckbourn, and I enjoyed being reminded of his early style. It hasn’t dated too badly, although mentioning emails and still using 70s style phones did seem a bit out of kilter.

The play is set in three bedrooms. Delia (Louise Jameson) and Ernest (Colin Baker) are heading out for an anniversary meal. Their son, Trevor (Ben Porter), is one of those walking disaster areas so pivotal in early Ayckbourn plays, and he’s married Susannah (Beth Cordingly), a good match in terms of an ability to cause chaos without really trying. They’re going through a bit of difficulty in their marriage, and the time they spend in the company of other couples may help them to resolve their problems, but doesn’t do much for the others.

There’s Jan (Hannah Yelland), one of Trevor’s previous girlfriends, of whom Delia is still very fond, and who seems to still have a bit of feeling left for Trevor, despite her reputation for common sense. She’s married to Nick (Timothy Watson), who’s stuck in bed with some painful injury to a motor muscle, and behaving very badly. It may be because of his injury, but I suspect it’s a bit more widespread than that. Jan leaves him for a short while to go to a house-warming at Kate (Natalie Cassidy) and Malcolm’s place. They’re relatively newly married, and still finding out about each other. Malcolm (James Midgley) has a habit of leaving various items in the bed – hairbrush, frying pan, that sort of thing. He also thinks he can do DIY, but can’t, though Trevor’s attempts to help certainly don’t improve things. Between Trevor and Susannah, nobody gets much sleep, despite all of the action being set in the bedrooms of Delia and Ernest, Nick and Jan, and Kate and Malcolm.

As usual, it took a while to get going, as all the characters and relationships had to be established first. I did like Delia’s line about the restaurant keeping the table for them as they were regulars – “we go there every year!” All the performances were very enjoyable. I possibly liked Nick best, though there wasn’t a lot in it. The humour is mainly of the embarrassing sort so I didn’t always feel comfortable with it, but by the end I was thoroughly enjoying it all.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me