Henry IV part 1 – July 2007


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 31st July 2007

This needs work, but as we were seeing only the fourth performance, that’s not surprising. The press night isn’t for a couple of weeks, and we’re due to see it again in November, so I’ll be interested to see how much it’s come on by then. There’s certainly enough entertaining stuff to hope this will be worked up into a very good production.

The main problem is the unevenness. There’s a lot of roaring and quick-paced dialogue, making it hard to follow what’s going on, interspersed with some slower, static sections, which I felt were a bit dull at times. Falstaff in particular hardly moved in a couple of scenes. I appreciate that as a character he’s not keen on unnecessary movement (unlike Big Brother’s Helen, he probably doesn’t care for blinking), but as a stage performance it drags the energy right down, and makes it harder to tune in to the faster-paced scenes following. Occasionally the onlookers stood in rows at the back, as in the tavern scenes, and it seemed so false. Hopefully that will all be tightened up.

Having said that, I started to enjoy the production during the robbery scene, when Falstaff puts on his disguise – a false nose and moustache! It’s so important that such a dissolute character has at least one semi-redeeming feature, and with Falstaff it’s usually his love of life and his sense of humour. I hope they emphasise these more as they develop the performances.

Hal took a bit of getting used to. He seemed very surly at first, lying in bed with Falstaff, and it was hard to see why he was spending time with him. It was also hard for the people behind us to hear, and the other problem with the static staging was that it kept the characters further back than was acoustically helpful.  Hal did develop a bit into the honourable prince role, but as I couldn’t make out much in the expressions, I possibly lost some of the detail. The fight scene with Percy looked a little shaky still, but practice will take care of that.

Hotspur himself was the usual firebrand, but he lacked definition in his speech, so that we lost most of the lovely comedy when he constantly drowns out his uncle, Worcester. In a few scenes he was fine, and the lines came across very clearly – his explanation of Henry’s faults and an earlier scene back home just before he heads off for Wales – but mostly it was a jumble, though not through lack of volume. His scene with Glendower just lacks a little oomph – we need to see more of Glendower’s arrogance and pride about his birth, to set off Hotspur’s total lack of social skills in denouncing the significance of the trembling ground. I think it’s important to see how incompatible Henry’s opponents are, to fully appreciate their eventual destruction and Henry’s unifying effect (which is sadly lost a couple of generations later).

King Henry’s performance was very interesting. At the start, I noticed a reprise of some of the work done in The Pilate Workshop, where Pilate washes his hands at a table covered in a white cloth. He uses a basin, with a jug beside it. I’m not sure if the candlesticks were also there, but I wouldn’t be surprised. As Clive Wood played Pilate, perhaps he suggested it to Michael Boyd? Anyway, there’s a biblical reference just afterwards, as Henry begins to speak, so the symbolical washing of hands fits very well, emphasising the guilt and the political concerns that Henry has at this point, having provoked Richard’s death, if not directly caused it. His performance continued strongly throughout, and looks like it could provide the strong bedrock for the whole production to flourish. I particularly liked his references to Hal showing himself too much to the public, as Richard had, which was supported by the choice of costumes. Henry is still in solid black, while Hal sports a more cheerful off-white, with hints of the flounces and ruffs of Richard’s over-the-top drag act. (I mean that in the nicest possible way!) It also made me wonder what’s going on, as in Richard II it’s Bolingbroke who seems to court the public, but perhaps it simply indicates the newspeak of the new court – reality is as he says it is.

Falstaff (David Warner) took a while to get going. Perhaps it’s the static staging as mentioned before, perhaps it’s just taking a while for the character to click, but there are glimpses of how good this could be. His story of how 2/4/7/9/82 (or whatever) men attacked him, was very entertaining, and benefited from good reactions from the onlookers, especially Hal and Poins, of course. In fact, the lack of reactions from others on stage was a definite weakness throughout the production, which I hope will be addressed. I’m realising what a difference it makes to my interest in a speech if the other actors don’t look too involved in it themselves. This was particularly true with the Hotspur ranting mentioned earlier – a lot of the comedy I’ve seen before tends to come from his father and uncle’s reactions to his over-the-top tirades. Falstaff’s dislike of honour came across very well, too, although it took a while to get going. His “killing” of Hotspur certainly had the comedy, but I feel there’s more to come with this situation yet.

I liked the way the King’s men came on for the battle of Shrewsbury, backlit in the central doorway, moving slowly in unison, with slow-motion sword play. I spotted they all had crowns on, though not straightaway, and this points up the fact that Henry has several doppelgangers in his army, which the Douglas decides to kill off one by one. He does actually come across the real king, and I think he’s the one who refers to him as a counterfeit king (?). I felt this was a very apt line, as Henry has usurped the crown, and that’s what’s triggered all the coming bloodshed, and given Will so much to write about. I really got a sense of that tonight; that once Richard was deposed, never mind killed, the crown was up for grabs, and with Edward III’s proficiency at providing heirs, it would take a long time to work through all the options. There’s a great sense of the future reaching back through time and the past reaching forward through time with this cycle, and I’m enjoying seeing pre-echoes as well as post-echoes in all the plays.

The ending sets us up nicely for part 2. All the dangling ropes from the battle scenes were tied up into nooses, again reminding us that there will be deaths now the battle is won, but also foreshadowing more deaths from future battles. Then we see Henry’s remaining opponents lined up in the tower’s gallery, while Henry and his followers are ranged below them. As the lights go down, you just know there’s trouble to come.

There was a fair bit of coughing during the performance, which I found distracting occasionally. I was also aware of the lighting a couple of times during the battle scenes. When Hotspur dies, the bright white light that had bathed the stage went out, leaving it rather starkly lit, and I found it rather unwelcoming and distancing. Other than that, I only noticed the lighting when it was effective, such as at the start of the battle.

Steve saw an analogy with pre-season matches, where the players can be a bit ropy till they get their touch back. I predict promotion this season, based on this friendly, but they will need to spend some time on their set pieces.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Richard II – July 2007


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Monday 30th July 2007

This could take a while. It was a great production, and some great performances. Well, actually all the cast were great, and I liked lots about the staging and ideas and echoes of earlier/later themes. What’s coming out of this year’s work is the element of time – plays written earlier which are later chronologically, and the echoes backwards and forwards.

Before each of these plays, we were treated to the usual announcement about switching off mobile phones, etc. A different actor came on each night, and there were some entertaining variations on the theme. Tonight’s announcemen was pretty straightforward, although he did advise us not to switch off pacemakers!

The start of the play was good. The other characters, led by Bagot, all came on in stately procession, moving slowly, and performing some kind of stately dance, with lots of bowing and courtesies, while Richard II walked on through the auditorium, accepting all the bowing and scraping as nothing less than his due. Jonathan Slinger was done up as Elizabeth I – effectively Queen Richard II. He played the part as very effeminate, very wimpish (I could understand why some of the hetero lords wanted rid of him) and very immature. I was thinking it might be difficult to move from there to Richard’s later awareness of the superficiality of it all, but he handled that very well, with the gradual stripping away of his finery underlining the changes. There was still an element of petulance in his telling Percy that his cosy relationship with Henry IV wouldn’t last, but his desperate understanding of his situation in his prison cell was very moving. I became aware of how in Shakespeare’s time, not having decent TV, they might spend time comparing and contrasting situations, just for fun, and Richard’s forcing of the issue, then coming up with a very good metaphor for humanity and its foibles, worked very well.

Mowbray and Bolingbroke complimented the King at the opening to the dispute scene, and I felt Mowbray was trying to outdo Bolingbroke, reminiscent of the opening of King Lear. I couldn’t see Richard’s responses to much of the Bolingbroke/Mowbray dispute, but for once I was really sad to see him break up the fight. They’d set up two jousting horses (suspended saddles) and it looked like we might have some fun, but then Richard threw his baton at a lady in the front row and it was all over. [Turns out the jousting is specifically referenced in Henry IV part 2, so although cumbersome I suspect this may stay.]

Tonight we had a very good John of Gaunt pre-death scene. He came across as really ill, and it was all he could do to get his lines out. Not too surprising he didn’t last much longer. Richard was wonderfully temperamental – at first consoling, then snappy, then pious, then practical about nicking his dead uncle’s dosh and never mind the rightful heir.

There was some unexpected and presumably unwelcome audience participation tonight during the gardeners’ scene. The head gardener was John of Gaunt, still wearing the same clothes, so this was similar to when the dead bodies were recycled in the Henry VI trilogy. He sprayed some folk off to our right with water (he was carrying a hose) and Chuk Iwuji, as the other gardener, looked a bit too keen to use his shears. No dancing nun this time, sadly, but still a good scene overall, with some telling points made about the importance of managing the country well (one of Will’s hobby horses, that).

With Bolingbroke’s return, the difference between him and Richard is emphasised by his much plainer dress sense, and his refusal to be seduced by flattery. When Percy tried to brown-nose Henry about how his wonderful company made the long journey shorter, Henry just ignored him, and I fancied there was a slight look of distaste in his expression. He also communicates more directly and is far more business-like in his dealings. When he meets the Duke of York, tasked with protecting the realm while Richard is away, he gets a good telling off from his uncle for coming back, but then the Duke admits that he can’t do anything to stop him, so invites him in for dinner. I haven’t seen the character played as so weak before. He’s also in much more of a dither when trying to handle the crisis earlier, more so than I’ve seen before.

In the deposition scene, the passing of the crown was fine, with just enough of a lingering feel to it. If anything, Richard was more sparky than earlier, standing up for himself more now there’s nothing more to lose. He tore off his wig and wiped off his makeup as he deposes himself. I didn’t see that bit clearly, but then he has his own face as he looks in the mirror, which was a safety mirror so it didn’t shatter when he smashed it down. Later, for the farewell scene with his wife, there was some kind of dust raining down on his head for a long time – what was it? [sand, we discovered] I wondered how he could breathe and speak his lines. It did suggest a washing off of the anointing, and his transformation into a penitent.

During the second challenge scene, the vast number of gauntlets was really funny. It’s interesting that after accusing Mowbray, Henry now seems to be investigating what actually happened – or is it just a ploy to get rid of a political opponent? What is going on here?

For the Aumerle pardoning scene, it’s the first time I’ve seen other people come on stage with the Duke of York. Percy keeps the door shut on the Duchess, but you can’t keep Maureen Beattie off stage for long. (More than his life’s worth!) Richard Cordery as the Duke of York was glowering magnificently as his wife pleads for her son’s life. Even before he fell to his knees to plead against the pardon, he was well unhappy, and it showed.

Bagot took the role of murderer this time. He came down playing the piano, with a mask on. [Apparently the harness he had to wear meant a lot of talcum powder was used!] Chuk Iwuji played the groom, and there were three other knights with masks who came to kill the king, but he managed to fight them off, with Bagot killing him in the end. Richard’s dead body was dragged off by an arm and a leg, creating a swathe of blood on the stage – reminiscent of the pool of gore in the original Henry VI part 3. Lots of traitors’ heads were brought on in bags for the final scene and dumped in front of Henry, who was sitting on the steps which Richard stood on earlier.

Chuk Iwuji wafted around doing various messenger jobs, having started off as Thomas of Woodstock’s dead body, and this casting emphasised the haunting aspects of the play. Katy Stephens as the Duchess of Gloucester (still married to Chuk, I see) also pre-echoed the revenge theme with her tirade against her husband’s death.

Other things to mention: Richard had a lot of costume changes, reflecting both his descent from power and the opulence he lives in initially. The music was lovely, with some haunting singing which set up a good atmosphere for this staging. There was a strange light bulb sculpture – what was that for? It was interesting, but I’m not clear about its purpose.

I couldn’t possibly get down all my impressions of this performance, as there was so much detail, and so much I liked. I’m very much looking forward to seeing it again, and also seeing the way this play sets up the rest of the history cycle in these productions.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Gaslight – July 2007


By: Frederick Knott

Directed by: Peter Gill

Venue: Old Vic Theatre

Date: Wednesday 25th July 2007

This was good fun. It’s a well-known story, so I don’t have to explain much. The performances were excellent, getting as much detail as you could possibly get out of each character. The whole production was just about perfect, the set and costumes all contributing to the overall effect.

First, the set. The detail was amazing. For once, we actually get to see the hall and stairs outside of the living room, and the dressing room to the left where ex-Detective Rough hides. The main room is full of knick-knacks, the walls lined with pictures (apart from the obvious gap), and everything was draped with heavy fabrics. Above the walls, we could see some chimney tops and sky, which I felt was the only slight (and I emphasise slight) negative for the design. The significance of the noises in the upstairs room is lessened when there doesn’t seem to be an upstairs to have strange noises.

Rosamund Pike as Bella Manningham gave a marvellous central performance. She reminded me of Grace Kelly – she has the same luminous quality, projecting innocence and decency, and easily making us sympathise with her predicament. She was all nerves and paleness, starting up from her seat with every fleeting emotion. It was a very clear picture of a woman driven to near madness by a scheming and unsympathetic husband. Her moment of revenge was also very good, as she reprised her madness for her husband’s benefit (or rather, to his detriment). I got the impression that she’ll be all right now she’s out of his clutches.

Andrew Woodall as her husband, Jack Manningham, delivered a matching performance. He was creepy without being over the top, although he was very menacing with Elizabeth, the housekeeper. I found it uncomfortable at times to see how he was manipulating his wife to keep her unbalanced, and drive her deeper into despair. It was good to see him get his comeuppance, though I would have liked to have seen his expression as she tormented him briefly at the end (he had his back to us).

Kenneth Cranham played ex-Detective Rough, and gave the part full gravitas and authority. It seems a tricky part, carrying most of the exposition, but a seasoned performer like Kenneth wasn’t about to let us down. With the dressing room in view, we get to see him avoiding the husband when he’s changing his collar and tie, and that certainly added to the tension. He also contributed most of the humour, including skipping nimbly round the room on occasion.

What also added to the tension was the excellent reactions of Rowena Cooper as Elizabeth, the housekeeper who does her best to help Bella. Knowing that Rough is hiding in the dressing room, she waits for the outcry from Mr Manningham, and her expression changes wonderfully as she realises they might just get away with it. This is the point where Mr Manningham behaves threateningly towards her, so she has to cover quite a range in one scene. She recovers well to swear undying loyalty to the husband, but we know where her heart lies.

Sally Tatum as Nancy, the sluttish maid who intimidates Bella, was also excellent. She played a first-class guttersnipe, if that’s not too much of a contradiction, and talk about wanton! When asked to kiss the Bible, she almost manages to slip it the tongue!

The attention to detail included the business of tea-pouring, cigar lighting, and, of course, lighting the gas lamps. Nobody rushed these things, and the pace felt right for the times. In particular, Bella takes her time to pour the tea so delicately, and all these points helped to create a real sense of time and place. The claustrophobia was also evident, and when Rough is talking about the murder of Alice Barlow, I felt there was ghost story hovering in the wings. Despite the feeling of menace, however, there were also a few good laughs, including a topical one when Rough mentioned that the weather “merits a world of comment at the moment” (we’ve been having a lot of rain and flooding recently).

All these factors combined to make for a very enjoyable afternoon, and the best production I’ve seen of this play. The audience obviously agreed, and when they took their bows, we booed Mr Manningham, and cheered Rough and Bella. Great fun.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Othello – July 2007


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Wilson Milam

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Tuesday 17th july 2007

At least this was the actual play that we ascribe to Shakespeare! On that score, it was a huge improvement on the Complete Works version. The problems here were mainly lack of clarity and projection, coupled with a staging that led to the majority of the important bits being spoken while the actors involved had their backs to us. I found I could only make out about a third of the lines – and that’s being generous. However, there were quite a few good points to praise.

One of the best was the part of Rodorigo, played by Sam Crane. He gave a beautifully detailed performance as the gullible, romantic, besotted fool, whom Iago easily parted from his money. To paraphrase how Steve saw it, this man had “loser” tattooed on his forehead at birth. He pouted, he snivelled, he flounced out, he despaired, he enthused, he did everything with such total presence that I can safely say this was the best Rodrigo we’re ever likely to get.

Another good performance came from Paul Lloyd as Othello’s servant, known to those of us who read programs as Clown. He kept up a running battle with the musicians, from the pre-opening where he attempts to make his “turn off your mobile phones”, etc. speech, through telling them to play the silent pieces only, and even after the interval, where they’re sitting on his basking spot. There wasn’t much to this part, but he gave us more than was there. Of course, the musicians fought back, and didn’t shut up when he yelled at them. His announcement was one of those stop/start duels with a trombonist that set us up nicely for the play itself, which is, after all, pretty dark.

Other than these, the performances were fine, but nothing special. Eamonn Walker as Othello wasn’t so clear as the others, and Tim McInnerny as Iago had that phlegm buzz to his voice when he upped the volume that made it harder to distinguish the words. Apart from that, I could hear most of the lines provided the actors weren’t pointed away from us, but as I said earlier, that happened rather too much for my liking. A lot of the staging seemed very static compared with other plays we’ve seen on this stage, and while that may be partly down to the play itself, I’m sure more could have been done to vary the actors’ movements.

Other points I noticed were that Cassio assumes Othello will send him to fetch Desdemona, and is effectively ignored by Othello when he sends Iago instead. Desdemona’s speech about the different loves she has for father and husband is equally applicable to Cordelia’s situation, and I found myself spotting several echoes of other plays. Amelia’s condemnation of men’s behaviour was roundly delivered, although the resulting mood change back to Desdemona’s sadness was a bit jarring.

The drinking scene was well done. The men sat round a table, and Iago leapt up onto his bench to sing a couple of silly songs, in English, apparently. The fights were good, and the scene where Rodrigo tries to kill Cassio was superb. They played it as if in a blackout (the wind was so strong at times that various lanterns and torches blew out anyway), so the fight was a slow motion grope rather than cut and thrust. Very entertaining. The final dance was also good fun, especially as Iago refused to join in, apart from a possible twitch of the shoulders at the end?

There were some other distractions that took my attention away from the stage, such as a flash going off, and one of the stewards in front of the stage doing some gesturing to another steward while Iago was giving us one of his scheming soliloquies. Most unfortunate timing. Also, the number of people coming and going was higher than last week, and as the door was right behind us, we were treated to a fair number of squeals and clatters during the play.

All in all, I was mostly not engaged by this production, but I’m glad I saw the good bits.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Betrayal – July 2007


By: Harold Pinter

Directed by: Roger Michell

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 12th July 2007

We’ve seen this play before, so I knew the general setup before it started. It’s basically the story of a love affair, told in reverse, with the final outcome shown first, and the start of the affair at the end. It’s an interesting structure, and means I have to pay attention even more.

With such an excellent cast – Sam West, Dervla Kirwan and Toby Stephens – I tried to keep my expectations low so as not to be disappointed. What I felt with this production was that the play is actually quite slight, that the reverse order is necessary to hide this fact, and that the interest is in the acting performances, which in this case were superb. Dervla as Emma came across as quite vulnerable at first, a person of refinement and sensitivity who rarely unleashes her emotions. In fact, she spends most of the play looking miserable, with only a short spell of actual happiness in the middle of the affair, and a sense of anticipation at the start (which we see at the end).

Toby Stephens as Jerry, Robert’s best friend who also sleeps with his wife, was wonderfully louche. He was stunned to find out that Robert had known about the affair for years, and was practically stalking Emma to get the affair started. Robert, played by Sam West, is rather prissy, wears velvet suits, and could come across as quite cruel at times. However, Steve reckoned his reported confession of his own affairs was a sham, designed to make it easier to end the marriage. I’m not so sure; it seemed to me he was simply concerned to keep his relationship with Jerry more than his marriage.

The set was fairly plain. There were long, lightweight curtains floating down from a track, and these were moved around, almost like a soft furnishing train set, not to create settings but to indicate the passage of time, usually in reverse. Bed, table and chairs were brought on and off as needed, often obscured by the curtains, and a range of years were projected onto the back wall and curtains as they moved. The year of each scene was clearly defined before it started.

Looking back, I find it hard to understand why Emma married Robert in the first place, but then that’s a natural part of other people’s relationships. I can’t fault anything with the performances, I just didn’t find this totally satisfying.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Merchant Of Venice – July 2007


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Rebecca Gatward

Venue: Globe Theatre

Date: Tuesday 10th July 2007

It was good to get back to the Globe again, after a long gap. Unfortunately, there were knee and back problems again today, although it was the other way round – the lady in front kept leaning back into me for the first half, and I found it difficult to keep my knees out of her way. She sat further along for the second half, so I was able to concentrate more. We were also distracted by a number of late arrivals finding their seats around us – I do feel they should have a better way of doing this, as the wooden floor and seats make it all noisier than the average theatre.

This was a good basic production of The Merchant Of Venice, with some nice touches, but not a lot of depth. The performances were fine, and some were very good. We particularly liked Launcelot Gobbo (Craig Gazey), who did a good job in the RSC’s Complete Works season in The Tempest and Antony And Cleopatra. His dithering over the advice of his Fiend (cupcake) and Conscience (picked clean bone) was very entertaining, and he did pretty well with that part which is usually dropped – the duologue with his father. The final scene was also excellent, as the cast got the full measure of humour out of that little ring misunderstanding.

The Globe had been decked out with a Venetian bridge, a jetty and another set of steps. There were five balconies – the usual three and two extras between them. Before the start, we were treated to a scene of Venetian life, with small shop fronts in the back wall, goods being transported into a storeroom, a courtesan wandering around looking for business, a tailor’s dummy displaying his wares, and drinks being served on a barrel. Several young Venetian men were frolicking around, making fools of themselves, and the crowd was enjoying all the sights. Eventually, a more sombre man appeared, with two companions, and as others started packing away their wares, they launched into the play proper.

This Antonio was more responsive than many I’ve seen, making faces at his friends’ constant attempts to find a reason for his melancholy. When Bassanio, Lorenzo and Gratiano stagger on (Bassanio carrying the other two) and collapse in a drunken heap, the first two beat a hasty retreat, evidently keen to be on their way. For once, Bassanio seems to be as much of a merrymaker as Gratiano. It’s clear from the way Antonio pats Bassanio’s knee that he’s absolutely smitten with him, and while this message gets across clearly, it didn’t feel overdone. It’s also noticeable that he might have done better to show his affections to Gratiano, who looks at him longingly on several occasions.

It’s clear Bassanio is only after Portia to make good his depleted fortunes. He doesn’t even remember her name at first, and I got the impression he was telling himself “Sounds like a car  … Porsche!”. With such rampant greed and shallowness, I wondered how he was ever going to get past Portia’s father’s cunning traps, but I also wondered if Portia would use the “hazard” to give him a clue. I can only assume both Antonio and Portia fell for this Bassanio’s looks, as he really doesn’t have much else going for him. His gratitude for Antonio’s help is expressed with a kiss, causing the usual reaction from the youngsters in the audience, and a hug. Poor old Antonio – getting what he wants, but not in the way he wants it.

At Belmont, we first see Portia being greeted by her current crop of suitors. There are various lewd gestures and movements, and indeed this production makes extensive use of the bawdy elements in the play. Portia’s descriptions of the suitors are good fun, and include the Scottish lord for once. In fact, this production was as full as I’ve known it – there may have been no cuts at all, or only a very few. The actress playing Portia had originally been cast as Nerissa, and was now promoted, while another actress had been brought in to play Nerissa. Both were good, though I really liked Jennifer Kidd (Nerissa) and look forward to seeing her again. I don’t know how long the new arrangement had been in place, but their performances were very assured, so I assume they’d had some time to get into their parts.

The meeting with Shylock went OK, but I didn’t get as much of a sense of past history between him and Antonio as I have done in other productions. This Shylock (John McEnery) was no grotesque caricature, but seemed a much more ordinary man, albeit one who had more rules about what to wear than clothes in his wardrobe. His coat had a yellow spot on it, very reminiscent of Nazi Germany, but in fact it was required for Jews in Venice at that time to wear a yellow symbol if they left their getto during the day (they weren’t allowed to leave it at night – yes, I read the program notes beforehand). His hatred for Antonio is clear, and there’s no love lost the other way, either.

The Prince of Morocco makes a good show on his entrance, and is soon off to make his choice from the caskets. Launcelot Gobbo gives us his entertaining thoughts on decision making, ends up with a blob of cream on his nose, and chats with his father, then asks Bassanio for a job, which is granted. Gratiano also asks for a favour – to go with Bassanio to Belmont, and Bassanio agrees, but asks that Gratiano checks his natural exuberance.

Now we see Launcelot again, in his new livery, dragging a large case behind him and sobbing as if his heart would break. He’s sad at having to leave Jessica, Shylock’s daughter. This was another good comic scene by him, helped by his livery, which was as varied a combination of different tartans as you could imagine. (Actually, don’t try imagining it, you might make yourself sick.)

The plot for Lorenzo and Jessica’s elopement develops nicely, but wasn’t as clear as some of the other bits. What was clear was Shylock’s dislike of going to feast with Christians, and for a moment or two it looked like he might not go, but he does. Jessica chucked down a casket, then scarpers herself, and it’s not definite with this relationship how grasping Lorenzo is. Does he really love her, or is he only after her father’s money? I felt there was more of a relationship here than just gold-digging, but maybe I missed some clues.

By this time the audience had pretty much settled down, and knees aside, I was able to focus more on the action on stage. The caskets were large, orb-like creations, mounted on tall glass plinths, and covered with cloths. Portia stood in the balcony, while the Prince of Morocco made his choice below. I wasn’t sure if Portia already knew which casket held her picture – I got the impression she probably didn’t, and finds out through the two suitors who choose wrongly – but it wasn’t emphasised either way for me. The Prince gives us a good round-up of all the inscriptions, handy for future reference. Once he’s made his choice, the keys are presented to him on a cushion, and he takes the golden one only to find …. a grinning skull. While he read the scroll out, the head rotated, which got a good laugh.

Back in Venice, Antonio’s mates give us the first intimations of how the bond plot will develop. Shylock is making a spectacle of himself round Venice, weeping and wailing for his daughter and his ducats, while Antonio’s fortunes seem to be on the wane. Oo er. In Belmont, the next suitor to try his luck with the caskets is the Prince of Arragon. He chooses silver, silly boy, and gets a jack-in-the-box for his trouble. He’s evidently not impressed at having to pick the key up himself from the proffered cushion, but he does redeem himself a bit by giving us his final lines very well – “With one fool’s head I came to woo, But I go away with two.”

Antonio’s mates now tackle Shylock directly, and find him committed to revenge on Antonio. Tubal also helps to feed that desire, by describing Jessica and Lorenzo’s behaviour in Genoa. There’s no shading here, no sense of grief at Jessica giving away Leah’s ring for a monkey, just bitterness and anger.

Bassanio’s turn to choose has come, and in this production, Portia definitely gives him a clue when she pauses to emphasise the word “hazard”. We can see Nerissa and Gratiano conspiring down below, and when Bassanio comes down to make his choice, he looks to Gratiano for guidance, the first time I’ve seen that done. I must say, Bassanio’s speech about outward show being deceptive sounds strange coming from a man of his character, but I suppose you could argue that he knows that truth better than anyone. Still, it comes as a change of pace; after all, he hasn’t been through any real challenges so far. The director seems to consider he only falls in love with Portia when he sees her picture – debatable – and he hasn’t yet experienced the anguish he’ll be going through later, when Antonio’s life is almost ended, an experience that could cause him to grow up fast. So I guess we’ll just have allow for artistic licence, and go with the flow.

The image of Portia is in fact a little doll, dressed exactly as she is, and Bassanio does indeed speak rapturously over it, but he does also assert that the doll, though beautiful, is far behind the real Portia in every way. Gratiano obviously bears Bassanio’s words of caution about his behaviour in mind when telling the two lovebirds about his match with Nerissa – he’s quite stilted, holding his arms in unnatural postures, and looking very uncomfortable. Fortunately, all is well, until the bad news comes from Venice. Bassanio’s confession to Portia that he “was worse than nothing” was very honestly done, and showed courage, and Portia takes it all in her stride. She is one very wealthy woman. In Venice, Antonio attempts to talk with Shylock, who refuses to hear him, while Portia and Nerissa also head off to Venice, to have some fun. Interval.

The second half (actually the final third, as the first part took the best part of two hours, and there was only another hour to go) began with Launcelot and Jessica quarrelling. This time it was fairly gentle, and Jessica isn’t too disturbed by it. Launcelot, accurately described by Shylock earlier as “a huge feeder”, has a plate of chipolatas and ham in his hand, and toys with a sausage all through the discussion. When Lorenzo finally gets him to go and get dinner ready, he stuffs the remainder in his mouth, and sulks off.

It’s been a while coming, but now it’s here. The court scene. It’s much as you might expect from the production so far, with Antonio giving a good performance as a man ready to die, and Shylock sharpening his knife on his boot. The Duke was standing on the bridge to begin with, and as the clouds had come over, I was a bit worried he might get wet, but the rain stayed off for the whole performance, thank goodness.

Portia and Nerissa manage to carry off their disguises by the miracle of disbelief suspension, as they’re nothing like as manly as some we’ve seen. The “quality of mercy” speech is done well, run into the general dialogue between Shylock and Portia, rather than a set piece which the whole cast lumbers up to. The best parts are the way Portia only thinks of the catch that will prevent Shylock getting his pound of flesh at the last minute – the very last second, in fact – and the wives’ comments to their blissfully ignorant husbands about how their wives would react to their proposed self-sacrifices on Antonio’s behalf. Afterwards, when Antonio has persuaded Bassanio to send his ring after the clerk, Gratiano is noticeably distracted by the courtesan, who’s back in business.

Now we’re on the last lap, and the finishing post is in sight. Lorenzo and Jessica are more teasing here with their litany of unhappy lovers, and I didn’t get any sense that their relationship is on trouble. Portia and Nerissa have changed back into female attire before returning, and Bassanio and Gratiano have at least thought to do a little shopping before they come back, as both are carrying small carrier bags – presents for the wives. It’s not long before the first fight breaks out, and then the women are in fine fettle, working the men up brilliantly. Bassanio tries to sneak off down the steps, and hide the missing ring by pulling his long cuff down over his hand. No use, he ends up having to confess all. Antonio helps out by pledging his soul that Bassanio will be a good boy in the future, and Portia accepts this, bringing all their misery to an end.

It was such a good finish to the performance that I felt really upbeat as we left. I always enjoy that scene, and they’d done it so well. I still feel there was more to be got out of the play, even given this interpretation, but it was an enjoyable afternoon overall.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Waltz Of The Toreadors – July 2007


By: Jean Anouilh, translated by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by: Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Monday 9th July 2007

This performance was all knees, shoulders, and trips to the loo. As a result, I missed some of it, and couldn’t focus well enough on the rest, so I’m giving it a six star rating overall, allowing for distractions.

Our seats were prime, I thought, central and not too far back. This was until I found I needed to lean back to get comfortable (I prefer more upright seats), and found the knees behind were almost permanently jammed into my shoulders.  The people attached to them moved around a fair bit as well – obviously they had less leg room than was comfortable – so not a good advert for the theatre’s designers. For the second half, I was able to move into the seat the other side of Steve, and the lady behind me there was so small that there was no chance of her knees reaching anywhere near me. Thank goodness. Then I felt a need to dash just before the final scene, and again during the post-show, but we won’t go into details on that one. Suffice it to say that the screen outside the auditorium came in very handy, and the staff were very solicitous – thank you.

Three paragraphs in, and now I can start to talk about the play. It’s a “gritty” comedy, one that Anouilh intended to have a darker edge to it, making for uncomfortable viewing. (I don’t think he intended the discomfort to be quite as literal as I experienced.) The play tells the story of an older couple, a soldier and an actress, whose love has disintegrated over the years and now they spend their time tearing each other to shreds. There’s a long-lost lover, a newly discovered child, a couple of ugly sisters and a sensible doctor. It’s like a cross between Chekov and Molière.

Peter Bowles had been ill just a few days before and they’d managed to cover for him, but he was back now and in fine form, although not fully recovered yet. Even so, his performance was excellent. He played the husband, General St Pé, whose cynical and often cutting observations on marriage, his wife and his two daughters, provided most of the humour. This is a man who can loathe his wife and at the same time be enraged at the idea of any other man enjoying her. He keeps trying to challenge the doctor to a duel over her, as he believes the doctor has had an affair with his wife. Actually, it turns out she’s had lots of affairs, none of which he knew about.

The wife, Amélie, was played by Maggie Steed, and this was another brilliant performance. We don’t get to see her for some time, as she spends the first part of the first scene screeching at her husband from her bedroom next door. She’s convinced he’s off rogering some maid or other, while he’s just trying to get a few moments of peace and quiet to write his memoirs. Eventually, he shuts the door on her – she’s unable to leave her bed – but his day doesn’t get any better.

At first, I felt a bit more sympathy for the husband here. He seems to be stuck with a horribly nagging wife and gets little peace. But then we find out about his former lover who has waited seventeen years for him to be free, seventeen sexless years, and who now arrives to suggest they get started on their relationship. Then, later, we learn from his wife about her loneliness as he flirted with everything in a skirt, and how she went home from a dance, escorted by another officer, and started her string of affairs that very night. It’s the same night the General, then a junior officer, met his lover, Mlle Ghislaine de Ste-Euverte, and they danced to The Waltz Of The Toreadors. By this time my sympathies are with no-one, as they’ve both shown how unpleasant their possessive love can be, and I could just sit back and watch the plot unravel.

The lover, Ghislaine, tries to kill herself by throwing herself out of the window, but falls instead on top of the General’s secretary, who carries her upstairs. At the same time, the General and the doctor bring Amélie back in her wheelchair – turns out the inability to walk was a sham; she’s been skipping round the neighbourhood like a perky lamb as soon as everyone’s back was turned. There was an uncomfortable moment tonight when the General got Ghislaine’s hair caught in his over-abundant braid. Catherine Russell, playing Ghislaine, found it very funny, but composed herself, and Peter Bowles finally managed to detach himself without help. We did wonder whether the secretary was meant to carry Amélie off, or if that had been a quick bit of recovery.

Left alone with the secretary, Ghislaine finds out just what she’s been missing all these years, and although at first she thinks it’s the General who’s kissed her, she soon finds out, and decides to go for the younger model who’s more like the General was when she fell in love with him. With other revelations, it all ends happily enough for the average comedy, but with the darker aspects of this one, I’m not sure any of this lot are going to be happy for long.

All the performances were excellent. The set was simple, but did have to be changed a couple of times. Two walls festooned with crossed swords (handy for such a temperamental dueller), a desk, chaise longue, chairs and carpet for the study, and for the bedroom, the other sides of the walls, the same desk (too difficult to move?) a bed and bedside tables.

I don’t remember all the funny bits, but one is worth a mention. When the General finds out his Ghislaine is now attached to his secretary, he naturally challenges him to a duel, but can’t get the swords down off the wall. He actually asks the secretary to help him, then realises how inappropriate that is.

In all, this was a very funny piece, but I felt the darker aspects were never explored enough to be interesting, so they fell a bit flat for me. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again, but hopefully in more comfortable circumstances.

The post-show brought out some interesting information, mainly about the way the parts had been covered while Peter Bowles was out of action. Nicholas Woodeson had played the General, the Curé had played the doctor, and someone from the mass of actors available in Chichester this time of year had popped in to play the Curé. When asked about how they felt having the audience so close to them, Catherine Russell confessed she’d been really worried when she saw the layout, but in fact, once they were playing the piece, she saw how well it worked and now she liked it. They were also asked how they coped getting on and off stage in the blackouts, and referring to the earlier question, one actress pointed out how handy it was to have the audience so close, as they could always feel for the front row’s knees, and grope their way out!

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me