Othello – January 2008

7/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 31st Janaury 2008

The advantage of the Donmar is that, even at the back of the stalls, we were only four rows away from the action. I do love this theatre.

This production was pretty good too. I haven’t seen Shakespeare done in this more than intimate space before, and it worked pretty well. The down side is that there’s no room to put extra characters on stage to pad out the larger scenes, so here the Duke is in conference with only one other member of Venice’s governing body, a trifle sparse for realism. But it does trim everything down to the essentials, and some aspects of these plays come out all the clearer for that.

Here the staging was minimalist, as you might expect. A grating ran along the floor in front of the back wall, and allowed for some dripping water. There were just a few hints of a canal-based society, in the rings attached to the back wall, for example. There was a lovely effect when some golden curtains dropped down from above to create the bedroom scene – a beautiful mist of golden rain. There were also some canopies used earlier in the play, but as we were in the back row, I didn’t get a very good view of these.

I also didn’t get a good view of James Laurenson as Brabantio, as he was located above us on the balcony for the opening scene. This wasn’t a problem, as most of the dialogue came across perfectly well, and Brabantio was soon downstairs, determined to get his revenge for his lost daughter. It was an OK performance, but again I found I lost a lot of his dialogue during the play. Roderigo was good, a gullible nobleman, but not quite as stupid as some I’ve seen.

Othello’s speech to the court was interesting. I got the distinct impression he’s a real storyteller, embellishing real incidents to get the most drama out of them – a drama queen but with some basis in truth. He also seems to believe the stories he tells, and this suggested to me his readiness to believe other people’s stories. Chiwetel Ejiofor paced his performance very well. At first he just didn’t seem to get what Iago was trying to tell him, showing he was free from any suspicions of Desdemona, then as he grasped what was being said, he was all too ready to embellish it himself. This man has never learned to temper his emotions with thought, unlike Iago, who has more thought than emotion in this production. At times I felt that Othello was falling into the traps as fast as Iago could set them, and some indication of Iago reacting to his good fortune would have been welcome. However.

Back to the earlier scenes. I was aware of Desdemona’s willingness to deceive her father – despite her demureness, there’s a real spirit there, and perhaps less pure innocence than she would have us believe. I did think her love for Othello was pure, but she’s not as above board as is often made out. After all, she prevaricates about the handkerchief instead of coming clean, so she’s certainly capable of lying. I found her less convincing towards the end, although these are difficult scenes for any actress.

The killing worked well, with Othello strangling her on the floor, then putting her on the bed. As we were in the back row, we could easily hear the “noises off” – they were right behind us – including Amelia’s calls which interrupt Othello in the act. This final scene has a strange rhythm. There are lots of long speeches from Othello, while others stand around, amazed, “and know not what to say” (Hermia, Dream), which can seem a little odd. Likewise, Amelia, determined to dish the dirt on her husband, now she knows just what he’s been up to, spends most of her time telling us she’s going to tell all, before getting round to actually doing it. I did feel this time that it was touch and go as to whether the listeners would believe her or her husband, but once he’d stabbed her, it was obvious to everyone who was telling the truth. This interpretation made a lot of sense to me.

So, overall I enjoyed the performance, even though I found myself nodding off a little at the start of the second half (more tired than I realised, and not enough happening on stage). My main concern was the weakness of Iago. He told us that he hated Othello and why, then he did everything he could to bring about his downfall, so I have to believe he meant it, yet I couldn’t have told from his body language or delivery of the lines that he was remotely bothered about the man. I don’t need actors to writhe around in fits of agony, nor go bouncing off walls, but I do think such apparent passion for revenge would give us some tell-tale signs, especially during the soliloquies. There are people who bottle up their emotions, true, but they’re a lot less interesting to see performed on stage than in other media – we’re there, for God’s sake, so give us something to work with! Anyway, the lines were spoken well, and I understood from those what was going on inside this Iago, so that will have to do.

Almost forgot – the play started very abruptly, as is appropriate, without the usual dimming of the lights. Just Iago and Roderigo rushing on, yelling out to Brabantio. Nice touch, and it meant we were all awake for the opening scene.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Much Ado About Nothing – January 2008

9/10

By; William Shakespeare

Directed by: Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 30th January 2008

We’d seen such a great Much Ado last summer in the Swan, part of the Complete Works, that I was a bit worried that we wouldn’t appreciate this one fully. I didn’t have too much to worry about, though. While it wasn’t as lively as the RSC production, this performance had some of the best interpretations of the lines I’ve heard, and seen. Some of the business was off the text, but still incredibly funny, and the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick was detailed and moving, as well as bringing out the humour brilliantly.

The set used the revolving box from The Alchemist (Oct 2006), with wooden slatted walls on two sides, and pergolas along them. There were flats with upper windows at various angles behind the box. Furniture was brought on as needed, and with the revolve, the next scene could be set up without distracting us from the current scene – very effective. During the marvellous overhearing scenes, there was a pond in the main area, and it’s put to good use – both Beatrice and Benedick fall in it. Although this set up allowed for greater flow between the scenes, I did feel the pace was a bit slow at times.

The costumes were a mixture, part Jacobethan, part Olde Worlde, as far as I could tell; let’s face it, I’m not an expert in these matters, and that’s probably why I don’t get put off productions that have made unusual costuming decisions. Anyway, I liked them. So there.

There were several of the female cast on stage at the start, nibbling away at fruit and the like, and chatting. Leonato arrives with Beatrice, and joins them. I do like this kind of opening –we have to pay attention for longer to see what’s going to happen. Unfortunately, they work best if the audience cooperates, and this time we had a chatty couple behind who weren’t going to give up their talking time just to allow us all to drink in the atmosphere being so carefully set up for us. (B*$^&@#>.)

Along comes the messenger, giving Leonato a letter, and so out of breath he has to sit down for a bit. They get him some food and water to wash in, etc. Beatrice is sprawled on a chair at the end of the table, and joins in with her bitchy questions from there. It’s a good start, giving us the background, the information that Hero fancies Claudio, and the beginning of a understanding of the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick.

When Don Pedro does arrive, attended by various nobles, the bows and curtseys are quite formal, indicating that Don Pedro, a prince of Arragon, is pretty senior in this society, and not to be trifled with. He, on the other hand, has no concerns about trifling with other people. I was very aware in this production that he seems to be determined to get involved in everyone else’s life, and doesn’t seem to have much of a life of his own. The reactions from Claudio later on, when Don Pedro is spelling out how he’ll woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf, make it quite clear that Claudio isn’t keen on the idea, but doesn’t know how to get this point across to the prince. Likewise, when Beatrice has made it clear that she’s been romantically involved with Benedick before, and it didn’t end happily, the prince suddenly announces he’s going to play a trick on both Beatrice and Benedick to get each to fall in love with other, and all for sport! What a great laugh they’ll all have. It’s a really unpleasant side to the prince’s character, and I’ve never seen it brought out so much before (or I just never spotted it before). Admittedly, Beatrice has just made a faux pas – not only does she reject Don Pedro’s suggestion that she and he could become an item, she possibly triggers the offer by getting a bit frisky, and slapping the prince on the bum! It’s possible he feels hurt (emotionally, that is) and wants some revenge, but I didn’t get that from this performance. On the whole, it came across as the prince just being incredibly insensitive to the feelings of those around him, and this may partially explain why Don John, his brother, doesn’t like him.

Back with the prince’s first entrance (I hope you’ve got a cup of tea, this may take some time), Benedick and Beatrice are soon sniping at each other, while the others drift off towards the back of the stage. That was one of the things I liked about this staging – the set design made it easy for characters to drift in and out of the main playing area, whichever one was facing us at the time, and to wend their way around as the set rotated, making this much less static, and much more interesting. I got the impression that Benedick is fending Beatrice off – he’s had enough of her rough tongue, and wants to avoid her as much as possible. Yet, when he’s trying to talk Claudio out of being in love with Hero, he readily refers to Beatrice in superlative terms. She “exceeds her [Hero] as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December”. Pretty clear what he thinks of Beatrice as a woman, then. And this lays the groundwork nicely for the declaration of love in the church.

After the prince’s arrival, Benedick is quick to mention that he’s bursting to tell him everything – blabber mouth. I loved the delivery of these lines. Simon Russell Beale has such an ability to speak Shakespearean lines as though they made sense, which means they often do, and this was no exception. Along with the other members of the cast, I must add, who all contributed to this intelligent and intelligible production.

This was one of those occasions when the stage revolved to allow the characters to move into another part of the premises. As the men are talking, well, actually, as Benedick is railing against marriage with short contributions from the other two, they move round into the prince’s bedchamber, so he can change his shirt. While he does this, and after Benedick has left, the prince and Claudio discuss Hero, and the prince comes up with his plan to do the wooing for Claudio. Claudio keeps trying to get some words out to express his concern about this, but doesn’t quite manage to say anything. Off they go, and the effect of their conversation will be picked up by others shortly.

Leonato has a short conversation with his brother, Antonio, who informs him that the prince is in love with Hero, and intends to woo her at the dance. It’s exciting news, but this time Leonato restrains himself, and decides to wait and see what happens. He’ll warn Hero though, just in case. Next we see Don John, the sulky one, brooding intently round the back of the set. Conrad, one of his servants, tries to advise him to be more sociable, as he’s only recently been reconciled to his brother, but Don John is determined to be himself, and sulk as much as he wants to. This makes him sound like a stubborn teenager, but Andrew Woodall played him with some gravitas, making me wonder if he was just suffering from depression. Borachio arrives, with the news about the wooing, and this time, it’s the correct version, that the prince intends to woo Hero on behalf of Claudio. The prospect of throwing a very large spanner in the works cheers up Don John enormously – he almost smiled – and off they go to cause mischief. It’s always nice to know where you stand with the villains.

The dance scene begins with the ladies, Leonato and Antonio sitting in the seats at the side of the floor; the other men haven’t yet arrived. Beatrice’s comments on the unsuitability of any man to be her husband are entertaining enough, and her comments about men with no beards are funnier because her uncle, Antonio, is clean-shaven. The bickering continues between different couples as the dancing gets underway, and eventually the set rotates us round to where Beatrice had just been told something about herself by a masked man. Who can it be? The nose of his mask is extraordinarily long, yet the form seems familiar. Zounds, it’s Benedick, but did Beatrice spot him? I should think so, despite her obvious delight in knocking back the wine. Benedick comes off second best, again, and his reactions are clear, despite the disguise.

Now Don John does his evil work with Claudio, deliberately mistaking him for Benedick. Frankly, this is absurd, given their respective shapes, but we mustn’t let that get in the way of an enjoyable bit of theatre. And in any case, Claudio’s sulk doesn’t last long, as eventually Don Pedro tells him that Hero is won. Before that, we and the prince get to hear Benedick ranting at great length about how terrible Beatrice is. Honestly, to listen to him go on and on and on, anyone would think he’s besotted by her. Even though he asks the prince to send him away on some impossible mission as soon as she reappears with her relatives. Mind you, he does dash off almost immediately after that, so he’s clearly still upset at his verbal pasting from Beatrice.

She, on the other hand, has brought Claudio along to be given the good news about Hero, and rightly divines what’s upsetting him. It’s noticeable how little Claudio has to say at this point – everyone on stage notices, never mind the audience. With the RSC production last year I was reminded that actually Hero and Claudio have probably not spoken at all; here it was just a reflection of Claudio’s youth and inexperience. He reminded me of Romeo – all passion and flowery romantic words, but no real understanding of relationships, nor any real trust in Hero, as it turns out. It’s often a concern as to why she’s willing to take him back after his treatment of her, but this production handles that very well. Later. (It’s at this time that Beatrice lets her hand stray too far, and ends up having to deflect the proposal from Don Pedro.)

His first attempt at upsetting everyone having lost its momentum, Don John now picks up Borachio’s offer to delude the prince and Claudio and derail the marriage altogether. It’s not altogether clear why Borachio is doing this. I assume it’s because he supports Don John in mischief. The RSC had Borachio being the only man who actually woos Hero, and who wanted to stop this marriage to give himself a chance again, but here it’s not specified. I also realised for the first time that we never actually see this discovery scene. It’s so well described that I feel I must have seen it, yet it’s only in the words. This makes me realise how important some of these apparently trivial scenes can be.

Now for the water feature. The sunken pool on the terrace comes into its own. Benedick sends one of the household maids to fetch his book, rather than a boy. He then has one of the best soliloquies in Shakespeare – I love the way he disdains marriage, then spends ages spelling out his ideal woman. When the prince, Claudio and Leonato arrive, the slatted walls serve for cover, and Benedick nips behind one, taking his chair with him. At one point, the folding chair decides to fold up, and we have one of those lovely moments when the people on stage have to ignore an obvious giveaway, just so they can carry on with their entrapment. They include the music in this production, and it’s quite enjoyable, though I’ve never figured out why Balthazar is going on about what a bad singer he is. Anyway, it’s pleasant enough, and then the three conspirators get down to business.

This is one of the best scenes in Shakespeare’s comedies, and these actors got full measure out of it. Leonato has tremendous difficulty remembering what to say, unlike the two soldiers, who’re obviously used to practical jokes. Benedick’s reactions are marvellously funny; in fact it’s difficult to know which way to look during this scene. They helped out by having Benedick move around a lot, eventually lurking behind the chair he’d draped his jacket over at the start. I did like they way he sidled up to the thin pillar of the pergola and tried to hide behind it – Wile E. Coyote might have managed it, but cuddly Simon…..

They staged this scene so that the prince and his cohorts wend their way to the back of the stage, only to return for their final lines. Benedick, meanwhile, has come onto the main part of the stage, and begins his lines (I think). When they return, he’s trapped, and ends up diving into the pool to hide – massive splash. This was funny enough, but then, after a long pause, while the others are busy trying not to crack up completely, the top of Benedick’s head appears over the side of the pool. The expression in Simon Russell Beale’s eyes was hilarious. And the idea that the others couldn’t see him was farcical (good farcical, that is). After the others leave, Benedick stays in the pool for a bit, thinking through what he’s just heard, and leaning on the side of the pool as if he were at a spa. When Beatrice comes on to call him in for dinner, he’s out of the pool, and stands there, dripping wet. After her tart summons is over, there’s the wonderful line “‘Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner ,’ there’s a double meaning in that.” Benedick’s euphoria as he grasps this fictitious straw of hope is side-splitting.

And, just so we don’t get bored, the next eavesdropping scene follows on immediately. Will knew when to report a scene, and when to show us it in full. This time it’s Hero and Ursula setting the trap, and sending Margaret off to lure Beatrice into it. This time, the set has been on the turn, and so Beatrice is able to hide better than Benedick. Again, she reacts well to the two women’s chat, even putting her hands through the slats to try and strangle Ursula after some pointed comment. She also thinks about hiding behind a pergola pole at one point, but finds a better opportunity to overhear them. One of the maids is mopping up after the last big splash, and Beatrice borrows her hat, mop and bucket. In their talk, Hero and Ursula have lost sight of Beatrice, and look around for her, eventually spotting the lady herself, despite the amazing disguise. Ursula signals to the “maid” to carry on cleaning up, and when she accidentally knocks her bucket into the pool, indicates she should get it out. This Beatrice attempts to do without giving herself away, and the inevitable happens – another splash! This was even funnier, though we knew it was coming. Hero and Ursula are soon off the stage, and Beatrice heaves herself out pretty quickly – these dresses soak up a lot of water – and heads off to dry herself.

By now, Benedick has not only dried himself, he’s had a shave as well, and the prince, Claudio and Leonato discover him round the other side of the stage. He tries to hide his face, but they soon discover what’s going on and let rip with their jests. Benedick manages to get away with Leonato to discuss a matter of some importance, leaving the coast clear for Don John to plant more evil seeds in men’s minds. And now the interval.

The second half opened with Dogberry and the watch. Dogberry has always been a problem for me. His mangling of the language has rarely come across well, and there’s often a problem with the reactions of the watch members. If they don’t spot that Dogberry’s talking rubbish, it reduces the humour for me. It works much better when Dogberry’s talking to the gentry, although then there’s a risk of patronising attitudes spoiling the fun. All in all, he’s one of the trickier clowns. Here we have Mark Addy taking him on, and he did a respectable job with it. Verges, played by Trevor Peacock, plays an old doddery man, who lines up behind Dogberry whenever they have to bow, leading to an unfortunate alignment of head and bum. Not the worst watch I’ve seen, by any means, and they catch the villains Conrad and Borachio well enough.

Margaret is helping Hero dress for her wedding, and when Beatrice comes on with a stinker of a cold, Margaret ends up being the lively one. Beatrice evidently didn’t get dry quick enough after her swim. Dogberry turns up just as Leonato is putting the finishing touches to his outfit, and so gets sent off to do the interrogation himself. His lines were funny, and his taking of the wine, including a bottle or two for later, was entertaining.

The church scene is a pivotal one, and this staging brought out the ups and downs very well. First, there’s the lovely entrance of the bride, and the groom’s party. It’s all very solemn and full of expectation. Then there’s the shocking accusations against Hero, and everything’s thrown into confusion. Leonato is enraged against his daughter (silly old fool, too keen on the prince, that’s his problem), Hero is amazed, Beatrice is appalled, the prince’s company, except Benedick, are cold, and the friar keeps his cool remarkably well. There are a number of meddling friars in Shakespeare’s works – this one gets away with it. After the prince’s departure, and after Leonato has been calmed down (no easy task), there’s a quieter phase when Beatrice and Benedick get a chance to talk. I was very aware that there’s no time to reflect on the situation during the manic part of the scene, and it’s lovely to have this section when we can really feel the emotions that have been stirred up. I usually relate best to Beatrice’s grief and anger, probably because they’re the main emotions on show, and I feel it’s important to register what a huge disruption this event has caused to everyone. Benedick manages to express his love for Beatrice now she’s no longer sniping at him, and he sounded a bit surprised at saying it, or perhaps he was just surprised how easily it popped out. For all the context and content, it’s lovely to see the two of them talking as human to human, and learning to work together.

Now Dogberry confronts the villains, and confounds them with his incisive wit, his sharp interrogation techniques…. You’re not believing this, are you? OK, it’s the usual scene, with Dogberry most insistent he be “writ down an ass”. His indignation was lovely to see.

Next Leonato and his brother meet up with the prince and Claudio, and nearly come to blows. Antonio even heads off to fetch his massive broadsword, bigger than himself, and waves it around dangerously. The danger is more that he’ll accidentally hit something than that he’ll actually fight with it, and it was nicely humorous. They soon get it off him, and then Benedick arrives with the serious challenge. The change in his manner is noticeable. He delivers the challenge sincerely, and with enough temper to suggest he really does know what he’s doing with a sword. Just when the prince and Claudio thought things couldn’t get any worse, Dogberry and his watch arrive with the prisoners, and all is revealed. Leonato also turns up, with his brother, and after telling Claudio what he has to do to untarnish Hero’s memory (they think she’s died), suggests that Claudio marry his brother’s daughter instead, “almost the copy of my child that’s dead”. Pity he didn’t warn his brother about this – he nearly spoils the plan by his reactions.

As they all leave, and the set rotates, we see Margaret has been listening in, at least to the last part of this scene, and so realises that Borachio has been arrested, and that she’s probably played a part in getting Hero falsely accused. She’s quick to recover her wits, though, as Benedick asks her to fetch Beatrice to him. He ruminates about love, letting us know he’s not very good at poetry, and then when Beatrice comes they have one of their usual sparring matches, though without the bitterness that was present before.

For the tomb scene, Claudio actually lies on the tomb (hints of necrophilia there, I feel), and as he’s singing his hymn, we see Hero being brought on to watch by her father, from behind the partition. She takes a good long look at Claudio, and then nods to her father, indicating she’s willing to marry him. This was a good piece of staging, as it lets us see that she’s made her own choice, very important after what’s happened.

For the final scene, the ladies all enter with veils, and Claudio resigns himself to marrying some young woman, then has all the joy of finding Hero returned (yes, of course I cried). When Benedick asks the friar to add him and Beatrice to the wedding plans, he puts his hands over his face for a moment before coming out with the dreaded words “honourable marriage”. The poems turn up, and she grabs hers and eats it before he can read it, then reads his, giving a really evil cackle at his pathetic attempts at rhyme. It’s a lovely happy ending, and we applauded for a long time. For all its problems, this is a hugely enjoyable play, and this was one of the best productions I’ve seen of it.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Trip To Scarborough – January 2008

8/10

Variations on the original play by R B Sheridan (itself an adaptation of The Relapse by Vanburgh, itself an adaptation/sequel to a play by Colley Cibber) written and updated by Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 28th January 2008

And what a wonderful trip to Scarborough this was! The blending of the various time settings was pure Ayckbourn, and the “original” 1800 stuff sparkled like a jewel against the more modern scenes. All the long-windedness trimmed down to a few vital (in both senses of the word) scenes, and some comic set pieces by a modern master as well – what joy.

The two later time periods – 1942 and this year – are set in the Royal Hotel, Scarborough, and the action take places in the foyer. There are a couple of hotel servants, Gander and Pestle, who shift between times zones like experienced Time Lords, although they’re not required much in the 1800 scenes. The 1800 scenes are in a mixture of rooms, but as the present day hotel is hosting a fancy dress party, with 19th century period costume, this makes for some entertaining possibilities, and is obviously easier on the cast, as they don’t have to keep rushing backstage to get changed.

The 1800 scenes were a very trimmed down version of a play that has already been through various versions. They mainly occurred in the second half, although the start of the play showed us Hoyden sitting on the steps, holding a doll. Lord Foppington is due to marry Hoyden, the daughter of a Yorkshire gentleman, but his impecunious younger brother gets there first, pretends to be Lord Foppington, and gets the girl. To be fair, he did ask his brother for money first, and if he’d come through for him, then the risky marriage would have been off, but the Lord isn’t one for giving money away needlessly to his family, when he could give it away needlessly to his tailor, wig-maker, etc. (Actually, they didn’t bother with wigs in this production – I suspect it would have been too much to do in the quick changes.)

This story is echoed in the modern scenes, where a valuable manuscript is being sold by the daughter of a wealthy local knight, Sir George Tunberry, without his knowledge, and the dealer, Lance Foppington, is having to fend off the attentions of another young dealer, John Townly, who’s threatening to spill the beans. There’s also a couple of young businessmen staying in the hotel. They’re supposed to be in Aberdeen, at a conference, but they’ve skived off to have some fun in Scarborough instead. One of them spends his time talking to his family on his mobile, pretending to be at the conference, while the other has been caught by his girlfriend having sex with her sister, and now his entire family are giving him earache about it.

In 1942, there’s a regular shindig going on off stage, as some of the pilots are drinking to celebrate a successful mission, except it turns out one of them has been grounded. There’s a mother and daughter also staying at the hotel – the mother has recently lost her husband, and the daughter’s husband is MIA. The main storyline for this period, though, is the mysterious wife swap that one of the guests has done, starting out with wife A, then bringing wife B back from the theatre, and finally reappearing with wife A again. What can this mean? Pestle and Gander are determined to find out, which they do, but sadly without persuading wife B she’s in danger.

All these stories were nicely interwoven, and it was remarkably easy to tell which period we were in. Lighting helped, and the costumes of course. There was a band for the party who gave us music throughout, appropriate to the time zone we were in, and joined in some of the dialogue. The best bits for me were the three airmen giving us their impression of the Andrews sisters (well worth the price of admission alone), Gander’s explanation for deciding to shout “corporal” at wife B (she’s too young to be a sergeant, too intelligent to be a private, and too good-looking to be an officer), and the final revelations in the original time zone, with Lord Foppington getting his comeuppance, and his brother getting a wife.

As usual, this was a good ensemble performance, but I did enjoy some parts a little more than others. I was interested to see Ben Lambert playing the various incarnations of John Townly; he was in French Without Tears last February, standing in at short notice for another actor, and did a very good job. He was fine here, allowing for the fact that his Scottish accent in the early stages was meant to be terrible. Richard Stacey as the penniless brother, the grounded Flight Lieutenant, and one of the modern businessmen, was amazing as the lead Andrews sister, and gave a good account of the 1800s stuff. They were all allowed to really mug up their asides to the audience, and they made full use of it. And Terence Booth, who also stepped in last year to help out in If I Were You, another Ayckbourn, gave us a fine pair of comedy villains in Lord Foppington and his degenerate descendant Lance Foppington, the crooked dealer, slipping in a cameo as Len “the spiv” Foppington just for good measure.

It’s hard to put any more detail to this now, as it all blends together so quickly in my mind. We would have seen this again at the Connaught if we’d had a free night, but as it is, we’re glad we’re saw it last night.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

War Horse – January 2008

6/10

By: Michael Morpurgo (novel) adapted by Nick Stafford

Directed by: Marianne Elliot

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Thursday 24th January 2008

Although I enjoyed this production, I probably found it less good than some of the reports we’d heard, mainly because our expectations were higher than usual. The horse puppets were indeed fantastic, and I certainly cried at the end, but our distance from the stage meant we weren’t as involved as we normally like to be. I had hoped that the size of the production would carry that far back, but I did miss seeing the actor’s expressions clearly. Another reminder that we like to get up close and personal with the action, though preferably not within soaking range.

The set was sparse and effective. At first, I thought the strip of white, torn paper across the centre of the stage was actually in front of a curtain of some sort. As the action progressed, I realised the stage was open to the back, and the way this strip was  lit made it seem to be floating in the air. It also allowed for scenes to be projected onto it, giving us information on the time and place of each scene, and showing some shadow puppeteering for the action that couldn’t be fitted onto the stage. The floor had the revolve painted up as streaks and patches of brown and grey. This very effectively suggested furrows, mud, rutted paths, and probably a few other things as well. A bit of this decoration spilled over to the rest of the stage, which was otherwise plain black floorboards running front to back. I noticed what seemed like a forked tree trunk in the shadows to our left – this turned out to be a plough – and to our right were a couple of boxes. Doors, carts, wagons, and even a tank were brought on as needed.

The key to this whole production has to be the marvellous puppet work. Apart from the horses themselves, there was a goose, running around, pecking at the ground and hissing at people, several birds flying across the sky at different times, a young girl in occupied France who makes friends with the horses, and a rather nasty crow who shows an unpleasant interest in the corpses littering the place. But the horses were spectacular. Full sized puppets, with two men inside them working the legs with hand controls, and another chap at the head, giving them life and movement. They were rarely still, always shifting and nosing at things, as horses do, and even though I could see the person working the head, it was easy to forget that and just see the horses.

I did find it a bit more confusing when Joey, the star of the show, was a foal. He was so small that there were three people working him from the outside, and as they were dressed the same as the actors, I did find it hard to tell sometimes whether they were people holding the horse or non-existent puppeteers. This was especially true at the horse market, with lots of folk milling around. However, we soon got past that, and seeing actors actually riding these magnificent puppets was quite amazing. It was particularly sad when we got to the later stages of the war and some of the horses were bags of bone, dying as they tried to pull the guns from place to place. It was heartbreaking to see them die.

It was certainly a sad story, and I fully expected Albert to find Joey just as he was breathing his last – a truly sad ending. I was surprised when this animal actually managed to survive, despite the hard work, the lack of food and all the other hardships, but then the story is aimed at children. The basic plot is that Joey is bought as a foal by a farmer who’s  in competition with his more successful brother-in-law. He spends all the mortgage money on him, and his son, Albert, trains the horse up so they can sell him. Albert and Joey get on really well, and then Albert finds out that his silly father has bet that Joey will plough a strip of land by a particular Sunday – I forget what it was called. As Joey is more suited to riding than ploughing, no one expects him to win, but Albert keeps working with him (he has a whole week, after all!), and sure enough, Joey manages it, just. Thinking Joey’s now safe, and his, Albert lets his guard down, and his father then sells Joey off to the army as a cavalry horse, just in time for him to be shipped off to France for WWI. We then see Joey’s story, as he gets to meet Topthorn, the other horse in the story, and they’re ridden in a cavalry charge, only to have their riders shot off the top of them. The horses then wander round the battlefield, until a German cavalry officer finds them, and recognising their quality does his best to protect them. The opportunity comes when horses are wanted to pull an ambulance cart. At first, it doesn’t look like Topthorn will handle the harness, but Joey remembers it from his ploughing days, and volunteers. Topthorn then joins in, and the cavalry officer takes advantage of this and a later opportunity to take on the identity of a dead ambulance man, to keep the horses safe on a farm over the winter.

By this time, Albert has joined up, thinking he’ll be joining the cavalry regiment and be able to find Joey, only he’s sidetracked into the infantry, and gets caught up in the fighting. Joey and Topthorn are taken back into service pulling the German artillery, and eventually Topthorn dies. Joey survives, and wanders over the battlefield, until he gets caught up in some barbed wire in no-man’s land (OK, I was crying by this time). The German and British soldiers have a temporary truce to try to recover him; the British soldier wins the coin-toss, and takes him back to their lines, but he’s badly injured. Albert has taken a shell-blast and is temporarily blinded, and both he and Joey end up at the same medical station. As the medical staff are declaring that they can’t treat the horse, Albert is talking with his mate, and Joey recognises his voice, and I can’t go on, I can’t see the keys for the tears…..

(Several tissues later…) Well, it all ends happily, as I said before, and if it hadn’t been so sad, I think I would have enjoyed it more. I accept it’s a sad subject, and I don’t expect it to be tarted up, but maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for something so powerful. I’m still glad I saw it, and some of the images will stay with me for a long time.

One other thing to mention was that much of the Germans’ dialogue was in German, without surtitles. A bit confusing, but nicely realistic, especially as one of the German officers was suspicious of his colleagues who spoke in English.

At the end, all the puppeteers came on as themselves to begin with, and after taking the first bows, they dashed off. I was hoping they’d come back on as the horses, and they did, rearing up, and taking their bows beautifully. I still feel like I’ve seen actual horses on stage. This was a masterpiece in many ways, and I hope they can find some other way to use these magnificent puppets again.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Present Laughter – January 2008

8/10

By: Noel Coward

Directed by: Howard Davies

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Tuesday 22nd January 2008

Now that I’ve seen this play a number of times, I realise the main interest in seeing it again is the fantastically different performances by the leading man. We’ve seen Simon Callow, Donald Sinden and somebody else (I wasn’t doing these notes then), and each time the lead actor brings a different emphasis, along with accumulated baggage, most of which enriches the performance. Alex Jennings contributed a more youthful Garry Essendine, one close to the age claimed by Garry, which made his character seem more in touch with reality. He still covered the character’s wide emotional range (or tantrums) beautifully, and there was a nice touch for those of us who remember Alex Jennings’ Peer Gynt some years ago, with Garry being so thankful that his friends had saved him from playing that part. All the performances were perfect, and I enjoyed myself immensely.

I did find the set and staging a bit off-putting, though. Having checked the program notes, I accept that the play itself was written in the run-up to WWII, and that it would have been staged in the West End had the war not broken out just before the opening, but I don’t find any references to the war in the play itself. In fact, if they had been in the early stages of WWII, would Liz have blithely suggested that Joanna spend a month in Paris? Maybe she wanted her to fall into the German’s clutches, as that would have solved all their problems. Or would Joanna actually have gone, only to return a week later because she misses Garry, rather than to avoid those terribly non-U Nazi storm troopers? And the references to what food is available for breakfast take on a different connotation: rather than suggesting a haphazard Bohemian lifestyle, they simply imply that rationing had bitten early. And the biggest elephant in the room was the tour to Africa – that would have been completely disrupted by the events being announced on the stage radio, never mind by Garry’s obsessive lovers (and Mr Maule, who may want to be one of these lovers).

The set contributed to this sense of the play not quite fitting the mould made for it. Previous productions have used immaculately designed and decorated sets, against which Garry struts his stuff like a peacock. This set was an exaggerated triangle, thrusting quite far back on the stage, and giving more of the Bohemian effect. The walls were painted in a turquoise blue scumbled effect, the sofas and tables were well-worn and old-fashioned, and with the various throws and rugs, it wasn’t actually easy to see, when Garry posed himself on the sofa, which bits were him and which bits were the throws. For someone who likes to play the peacock, this was beyond understated. It also made it hard to spot the change after the farewell party – the place looked much the same, just a few extra bottles which took time to spot. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the references in the dialogue, I might not have noticed. All the luggage seemed part and parcel of the general studio setting as well, so extra bags arriving didn’t build up that sense of pressure that I normally get with the final scene. Despite this, the acting was superb from everyone – the central part is so dependent on the rest of the cast to pull this one off – and there was one lovely piece of business during the third scene. When Daphne is doing her recital, she loses the words at one point (not specified in the text), and everyone else, including Miss Erikson the housekeeper who pops her head through the kitchen door, prompts her. This adds to Daphne’s embarrassment, as it’s another reminder that she’s not the first and won’t be the last to have a fling with Garry. You can certainly count us in for another go.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Henry V – January 2008

10/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Saturday 19th January 2008

Cast changes today – Patrice Naiambana played Chorus instead of Forbes Masson, and Matt Costain played Orlean instead of Kieran Hill. Given these indispositions, it may  be that the comments at Winter School about lacklustre performances have their basis in illness. God knows, we audience members have been suffering, so it’s not too surprising if the cast have had their problems as well.

You may be wondering at what point a production/performance earns a ten-star rating. Well, it varies, but today it was about two minutes into the opening speech. Eschewing the customary request to turn off mobiles, we went straight into the opening Chorus. After some silent sword practise, Chorus begged for “A muse of fire” and gave us a very expressive rendition of the speech, including a slight amendment. Instead of asking if “this wooden O” could do the biz in representing the field of Agincourt, he asked if “this rusty shed” could do the job. Massive hilarity (the Courtyard theatre is, indeed, a rusty shed, though as nice a rusty shed as one could wish for).

Fortunately this change, although well received, didn’t bring the shed down, and next up was the chat between two churchmen about how to avoid losing a lot of the churches’ wealth to the crown. Apparently the strategy is to pay the king lots of money, which kind of misses the point – these two just wouldn’t cut it as tax dodgers. They head off for an important meeting, allowing the King and his advisers to enter and start the discussion that is central to the whole play. Does Harry have any right to claim France as his own, or not? If he does, it means war, lots of deaths and possible defeat, or victory, glory and money. If he doesn’t, we all go home early. We already know the Archbishop of Canterbury is inclined to advise the King to go to war, as then he can offer to help financially and get off the tax bill, so it’s no surprise when he does just that. Before this, when the King enters, Lord Scroop was carrying his crown, and offers it to him. Harry doesn’t want to wear it at that time, so Scroop keeps it during this discussion. When we get to the arrival of the French ambassador, then Harry puts it on, indicating to me that he still has some reservations about his kingship, and keeps the formal show for formal occasions.

Meanwhile, the Archbishop has been explaining that Salic law, which the French have been saying bars Harry from the French crown, applies only to lands in Germany, and that many French nobles and kings have claimed their titles through the female line, validating Harry’s claim. Only he doesn’t say it anything like as quickly (60+ lines). It’s a lovely performance from Geoffrey Freshwater, expressing the boring tedious detail clearly while still making it funny. There were several laughter points during his long speech, especially when he says “So that, as clear as is the summer’s sun”, given the fog of confusion we were all in by that time. Harry listens to it all patiently, and the further arguments of his lords, and clearly decides to go ahead with claiming France.

Now is the time to hear the French ambassador. He arrives through the doors at the back (this is unusual for the French – see later), and delivers the message from the Dauphin. (Although it’s often pronounced as “Dolphin”, they didn’t do it that way this time.) A large box descends from the heavens, carrying the tennis balls the Dauphin has sent in jest – a bitter jest as it will turn out. Harry gets really angry, and opens the box by striking it with his sword. All the balls fall out, covering the stage, and Harry tells the ambassador to tell the Dauphin where to shove it. He leaves, and the English prepare for war.

I’m always worried when there are lots of potential leg-breakers scattered about the stage, and the tennis balls definitely qualified. I also get a little worried that it’s going to take ages to get them all off (health and safety) and the momentum will be lost. This time, Chorus and two helpers brought on very wide brooms, and with a united front, swept most of the balls from the front to the back of the stage. It didn’t take long, and didn’t clear up all the balls either, but it helped, and at the end of it, Chorus was able to step forward for his next speech. In this, he tells us of the English preparations, the French concerns, the English traitors ready to kill the king, and that the next location is Southampton. As he tells us of the traitors, they step forward at the front of the stage, and I realised that Scroop, the crown-carrier, is one of them. For me, this brought home the degree of treachery far more than words alone, although Harry will use plenty of those to express his feelings later. Scroop’s closeness to the king, and the level of trust the king placed in him, were exemplified by his role as crown bearer, and for him to change allegiance means something has gone terribly wrong in Harry’s England. Today, I saw that Harry’s own actions before becoming king, his rowdy youth and dissipation, have contributed to this treachery, as few people have any faith that he will turn out to be a good king. Plus this continues the theme of king-killing and civil war that will become so familiar down the road. So for once, this scene made sense on a lot of levels. I recognised Harry’s unexpressed offer of mercy if the traitors show any themselves towards a prisoner. It reminded me of the courtroom scene in The Merchant Of Venice. They don’t advocate mercy, and so their fate is sealed. For this scene, Harry was sitting roughly centre stage on a crate and fiddling with an arrow, with the three lords in front of him. At one point, when the king had moved closer to them, they moved forward as if to kill him then and there, but he’d already moved back out of their reach, so their attempted assassination was thwarted.

I’ve run these two scenes together because of their connection, but the actual performance, and the text, have another scene between Chorus and the king. It begins at the end of Chorus’s speech, when Bardolph runs on at the back to relieve himself against the metal drum. (I think it was a physical need rather than artistic comment on the set.) In this scene we meet Pistol again, and Nym, who are at odds because Pistol has married Mistress Quickly, who also appears in the scene. I have to say I found much of this scene unintelligible. To show why, here is a small snippet of the dialogue:

Nym   Will you shog off? I would have you solus.

Pistol “Solus”, egregious dog? O viper vile!

The solus in thy most marvellous face,

The solus in thy teeth, and in thy throat,

And in thy hateful lungs, yea in thy maw pardie—

And which is worse, within thy nasty mouth.

Any suggestions? Bear in mind I don’t have an editor’s notes to hand during the performance. Admittedly, this is the worst bit I could find in my text, and there were some good bits. For example, Keith Dunphy portrays Nym as a depressed sort, with not too much weight to carry between his ears. This contrasted nicely with Nicholas Asbury’s rowdy Pistol, and the two finally come to some sort of accommodation with each other, mainly through Bardolph reminding them there’s a war to fight. Maureen Beattie’s Mistress Quickly keeps hovering on the border of good taste – the wrong side of the border, that is. She inserted a delicious pause in the lines

“for we cannot lodge

and board a dozen or fourteen gentlewomen that live

honestly by the prick of their needles,”

after the word “prick”, which got a good laugh. So the time was not wasted after all.

Following this was the discovery of the traitors, and then the Eastcheap boys are back to describe the death of Falstaff. I didn’t get much from this scene in terms of the dialogue, but I do remember thinking that Pistol is, in effect, taking over from Falstaff as the chief rogue of the crew.

Now to France, in an environmentally friendly way – no air miles for us. Three trapezes descend from the lofty ceiling, while the King of France himself appears on the balcony with a couple of attendants. The trapezes were necessary as the French court’s tailor (aka the wardrobe department) had seen fit to add excessively long tails to their coats, making it impossible for them to walk anywhere without tripping over their clothes. This created a nice popinjay effect, added to by the way that they casually swept up their tails and carried them over their arms from time to time. When the Dauphin (John Mackay) did come down to earth, and stood with his back to us, he looked for all the world just like a 1930s starlet in some glamorous evening dress, with his curly blond hair and sweeping train. The only down side to these costumes was that the lord nearest to us was in line with the king, and when his tails hung down, we couldn’t see what was happening on the balcony. But it’s a small price to pay for such a striking visual effect.

During this scene, the Dauphin comes across as an effete youngster, full of himself and the glory of the French court, and treating Henry with contempt. The Constable of France (Antony Bunsee) however, is a shrewder individual, who has picked up on what the ambassadors have told them of Henry. Perhaps the French king, with an echo of Henry IV, will find himself regretting that he didn’t have a different son and heir once the war is over.

The messenger from England is the Duke of Exeter (Miles Richardson). He brings a stern message to the French king – get off the throne, or else, backed up with a detailed pedigree which he hands to one of the lords on trapezes. It’s ironic that Henry V is telling another king that he’s a usurper, when many in England, and even more in his son’s time, will say that about his family’s claim to England’s crown. This is yet another example of the way in which Shakespeare is constantly comparing and contrasting his historical characters throughout these plays, and these all make Michael Boyd’s interpretation both more interesting and more valid. Anyway, this scene is good at setting up the tensions between the sides, and showing the Dauphin’s readiness to fight as well as suggesting his complete inability to make a good job of it.

Now Chorus has some more work to do, and takes over 25 lines to tell us that Henry’s sailed to France, and is now besieging Harfleur. More to the point, the French king has made an opening bid of his daughter’s hand in marriage and some minor dukedoms, and Henry’s said “no”. With the line “and the nimble gunner With linstock now the devilish cannon touches”, there are some loud bangs, several trapdoors are flung open on stage, and Henry comes on to inspire us all to go back to the beach. Sorry, breach. It’s a rousing speech, and I certainly felt included in the ranks of the listening troops, though thankfully I didn’t have to fight.

After this morning’s talk by Nicola Watson, I was much more aware of the use of Pistol, Bardolph and the rest as a counterpoint to Henry. Bardolph’s first line is “On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the breach!”, a rather half-hearted imitation of the king. He doesn’t inspire much in his hearers, and it’s not till Fluellen comes along and chivvies them back to the action that they go, leaving the boy to tell us what a bunch of rogues they all are. I feel sorry for this lad. He was given to Falstaff by Prince Hal, and now he’s been taken over by Pistol and the others, and dragged off to war. Perhaps Henry really does think war a noble enterprise, or perhaps he’s just forgotten the lad, but I can’t help feeling he could have looked out for him a bit better. The boy himself wants to get away from them as he’s not keen on a life of crime, but alas, too late.

Now the next scene is a difficult one, and I still can’t claim to know what it’s about. I liked the performances well enough, but it feels too much like a joke about a Welshman, an Irishman, a Scotsman and an Englishman, only without the punchline. Fluellen is obviously a man who has studied the accounts of historical battles a great deal – his production of a large book while on the battlefield shows how obsessed he is with the subject – but how this relates to the other characters I have no idea. I will pay closer attention when we see it another time, in the hope of learning more.

The next scene is interesting. Henry addresses the governor of Harfleur, threatening all sort of dire consequences if he doesn’t hand over the town at once. He goes into a lot of detail, while taking care to suggest that the rape and killing would be entirely because his soldiers lost their cool, and nothing to do with him. Bit cheeky, that. In any case, the governor’s reply suggests that Henry could have saved his breath, and his 43 lines, as the town is only too ready to surrender. I guess this scene just shows how ruthless Henry’s prepared to be. Of course, when I’m watching it, I get as carried away with the wonderful words as the next man, and it all seems to make perfect sense – this RSC house writer certainly has a way with words. I can’t make up my mind whether, if he was around today, Shakespeare would be a highly paid Hollywood script writer, or speech writer to US presidents. Or possibly both.

Meanwhile, back at the palace, Katherine, the French king’s daughter, is showing good foresight by taking an English lesson from her maid. It’s a lovely little scene, especially as I know enough French to be able to follow most of it, and these two ladies did it very well. Katherine was suitably pouty at being corrected by her maid, when she’s convinced she’s an excellent student. The exchange lightens the tone nicely, as we’re about to have some really tough scenes, with actual deaths.

Elsewhere in the palace, the king is discussing the situation with his courtiers, and after insulting the English invaders, they get down to business. All the French lords are sent off to tackle the English troops, but the dauphin is told to stay at home with the king, which really annoyed him. He flounced off beautifully in a temper. (Girls will be girls.)

Now Gower and Fluellen are at it again, discussing what’s going on in the fighting, which is elsewhere as it happens. Not that I wish to call these chaps cowards, or anything…. Along comes Pistol, to inform us that Bardolph is to be hanged, and to ask Fluellen to speak up for him, which he refuses to do as discipline is important to him. Pistol heads off in a temper, after passing some choice insults, and Gower and Fluellen get a chance to talk of those knaves who brag about what they’ve done in war, without having actually gone to the trouble of doing it. Pretend war heroes.

The king turns up, and is told of Bardolph’s pending execution. Again, he has to make a choice, and although it’s difficult, he sticks with the kingly role –“We would have all such offenders so cut off”. The French herald turns up again, and delivers some fighting talk. Harry’s response is interesting. He appears to give away too much information by saying that he doesn’t particularly want to fight at the moment, thanks very much, then brags about his troops when they’re fit and well, then accuses the French of being braggarts, then basically ends up by saying, come on then if you think you’re hard enough! Oh and he makes it clear there’ll be no ransom. It’s an intriguing combination of ideas, making him look straightforward, sensible, and capable of handling whatever’s thrown his way. At the end of this scene, as the king leaves the stage, he and we see Bardolph and Nym hanging behind the open doors, and that’s the end of the first half.

To start the second half we get one of the funniest scenes of the whole play, and there aren’t a lot of those to be had in this one. The French, languidly dangling on their trapezes, are waiting for day to break so they can go and kill themselves some Englishmen. That’s if they can find any to kill, because most will probably run off, and there are so few of them anyway, most Frenchmen won’t get a chance if they’re not quick. They pass the time discussing armour and horses, and the dauphin demonstrates rather too much fondness for his horse. Writing poetry in praise of one’s steed is probably over the top in most social circles, and from the reactions of the Constable of France and Orleans, it’s certainly not something to shout about in the French Court. After the dauphin heads off to put on his armour, they bitch about him beautifully, and after a messenger has told them how close the English are, they start champing at the bit to get at them. They even put on some Lancashire accents to make fun of their opponents – very amusing. Their manner was just so contemptuous that it made the whole scene very enjoyable. The dauphin was neighing to emphasise his horse’s attributes, and the Constable caught the bug. He found himself saying “naaaaay” at one point, and looked so disgusted with himself. (Couldn’t find it in the text, presumably an addition.)

Now the play’s spin doctor, Chorus, gets going again with a detailed description of the pre-battle line up. Suitably warmed up, we see Henry conferring with his brothers, and then taking Erpingham’s cloak so he can wander about anonymously among his troops. Firstly he meets Pistol, or rather Pistol emerges from one of the trapdoors. When Pistol finds out that Harry Le Roy is kinsman to Fluellen, he makes a rude gesture and heads off. Not the best of starts for the undercover king.

Next, Fluellen and Gower come on, and Harry listens in. Fluellen is concerned that their camp should be quieter, so that the French won’t overhear them. When Gower points out that French aren’t holding back the noise, Fluellen responds that if the French want to make asses of themselves is that any reason why the English should join in?  A good point, and applicable in many situations. Then three other soldiers come on stage. Harry disputes with them the king’s responsibility for his soldiers’ deaths, and gets into a particular argument with Williams, played by Lex Shrapnel. Echoes of Hotspur to the fore. They exchange gloves, agreeing to challenge each other after the battle, if they both live.

After the soldiers leave, Harry talks us through the burdens of a king. It’s a bit like his father’s complaint when he was having trouble sleeping, but Harry goes into greater detail. This was well delivered, but still I can’t help feeling Harry’s glossing over the problems that other people have, in order to concentrate on and amplify his own. Still, it confirms that he’s not fully comfortable with his kingship yet, although he’s definitely accepted the role of soldier. When Erpingham finds him, he has time for a prayer, which lets us know how much he’s doing to gain pardon for Richard’s death, and then  he’s off to lead his troops into battle.

The next scene in my text shows the French preparing to fight, which I don’t remember clearly at this time, and then we have the build-up to the most rousing speech in Shakespeare. With his captains all talking about the opposition’s strength, and Westmoreland rashly wishing for more troops on their side, Harry comes along and gives us his inspirational “St Crispin’s day” speech. It’s a really good piece of motivational speaking; well, it gets me going, anyway. This time, I wasn’t so aware of the words, more of the emotional sense and the effect the speech has on others. It was lower key than some I’ve heard, but more in keeping with this performance of Henry. It certainly has the desired effect on his men, and after another long rebuke to the French herald, they get down to some serious fighting.

The first sign that the England team might be winning is the arrival of Pistol, the boy and a French noble whom Pistol is attempting to take as his prisoner. The language barrier is proving a bit of a problem, though, and the boy helps out here, having a smattering of French. They do a deal, and head off, leaving the boy to comment on Pistol’s knavery and the lack of protection for the English luggage.

Now the French nobles are running away, having found the English too strong. One noble is determined to fight on, but the rest melt away in shame. Even so, when Henry arrives back on stage, to learn of his brother’s death, and that of Suffolk, the battle’s not completely over, as the French troops have rallied. Henry gives the order for all the French prisoners to be killed, and then it’s back into the action again.

It may have been before or after this scene that we see the boy being killed, as the French attack the luggage. I remember Henry seeing his body as he comes on stage, and being deeply affected. I suspect it happened just before his line “I was not angry since I came to France until this moment.” Either way, he really is in a temper, and ready to lash out at anyone. Not a good time for the French herald to come calling, then. Fortunately, he’s not asking for a surrender this time, he’s asking for leave to collect the French dead and wounded, and this stops Henry’s anger in its tracks. He now seems tired, and unsure of the situation, as he asks who’s won the fight. He is very clear that they had God’s help to do it, and stops for a quick prayer before the comic interlude.

Fluellen is busy reminding the king that his grandfather had fought well in France, and the king is happy to agree, when he catches sight of Williams, wearing the glove he gave him. Henry calls him over and asks about the glove, getting Williams to explain the circumstances, and Fluellen to support Williams’s determination to fight. All quite innocent at the moment. But, after sending Williams off to fetch his captain, Gower, Henry asks Fluellen to wear the other glove, telling him he picked it up during the battle, that it belonged to Alençon, and that anyone who challenges him is a supporter of Alençon and an enemy. Fluellen readily accepts the glove, and the honour that he sees going with the task, and is also sent off to fetch Gower. Henry sends his brother and Warwick after him, to make sure no harm comes to anyone, and follows on after them all. I have no idea why he does this, other than to prevent Williams having to accost the king, which would be embarrassing all round. I suspect it had greater meaning in Will’s time, but at least it came across clearly in terms of what’s going on, even if the why is still vague.

Naturally enough, Fluellen and Williams spot each other and come to blows, or at least nasty words, but Warwick and then the king come along before anyone’s injured. Henry’s challenge to Williams to explain his actions the night before is quite a strong one – he looks like he’s not prepared to forgive and forget that a common soldier had the nerve to treat him the way he did – but Williams mounts a good defence, pointing out that the king was in disguise, and so it’s all his own fault. Said more tactfully, perhaps, but that’s the gist. Henry likes his answer, and gives him money, which Fluellen adds to by another shilling, a bit cheeky I always think. This is the same streak in Henry that we saw in the tavern scenes when he’s baiting Frances, the drawer, to say “Anon, anon, sir”, and it’s not his most attractive side, but at least he recognises the consequences of his actions, and isn’t arbitrarily punishing others for his choices.

Next we hear the roll call of the dead. I find this a moving speech, and here it’s clear that Henry is moved as well, as much by the French losses as the English. As they leave, and Chorus fills in the gaps before Henry meets with the French King (back to London, rapturous welcome, back again to France), the cast bring on coffins, wooden boxes which they place in rows so that they can place a platform over them. I realised what they were doing, and thought it was an interesting point, to see the peace being forged over the dead bodies of the English who fell in battle.

First we see Fluellen forcing Pistol to eat a leek, and then the French court assembles on the platform for the final scenes. It isn’t long before the French king leaves with the English nobles, to sort out the details of the peace treaty, leaving Henry and Katherine to be watched over by Alice. I often think Henry’s speeches at this time are a contradiction. He says he’s no good at wooing speeches, but goes on at great length in flowery terms, which makes him seem a bit of a liar. This time, Henry does come across as a soldier with no great resources in rhetoric, who really would be happier “vaulting into [his] saddle with [his] armour on his back”. Katherine is won over, though rather shocked about being asked to kiss Henry before they’re married, and all ends happily. Chorus adds the finishing touch by informing us that in the next Henry’s reign it would all be lost again, and so the cycle both ends and begins.

It was great to finally see this key production in the cycle, and to have all the threads drawn together so well. I can see why Geoffrey Streatfeild found it easier to play Prince Hal after getting this play under his belt, as it answers so many questions. It was great fun, and I hope we can see it again sometime.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Henry IV part 2 – January 2008

6/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Richard Twyman

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Friday 18th January 2008

Unlike yesterday, when we saw a play much improved since the summer, tonight we saw a play which improved in some areas, but which seemed determined to focus its energy on the audience directly in front of the stage. As we were to the side, I found I lost quite a bit in various scenes, especially the tavern scene, although most of the rest worked reasonably well for us ‘outcasts’. Still, Hal’s performance had come on from the summer, and there were a lot of interesting echo points within the cycle.

To start, Rumour entered as before with Richard’s cheap coffin. (Well, he’d spent all of the treasury during his reign, so there probably wasn’t enough money to get him a decent one.) I noticed that Rumour (also Bagot, of course), woke Richard by kissing his hand, which I think is new, and for some of the lines, e.g. “The acts commencèd on this ball of earth”, he indicated by gesturing toward the coffin that Richard’s killing is the source of everyone’s problems. As before, he kindly included all the audience in his “household”.

Next we see the results of Rumour’s naughty ways, as Northumberland is beset with conflicting reports of the battle. As usual, the man who’s wrong, Lord Bardolph, is the most cocksure, and the most crestfallen when the real story is accepted. I noticed that Chuk Iwuji was playing the messenger with the bad news, here called Sir John Colville, though in the text it’s a character called Morton. Chuk also played the messenger part assigned to Scroop in Richard II, and brought similar bad news to that king, drawing out the delivery of it so long that the king had time for several speeches and changes of heart before being finally overwhelmed by it all. Here, Northumberland prevents such a long drawn out affair by going straight to the important part, Hotspur’s death, and keeping the focus on that. A tiny reverse echo, but we’re starting to pick these up now. Sir John Colville also ends with the good news here, while Scroop leaves the worst till last.

Now Falstaff and the Lord Chief Justice (LCJ) have their first sparring match. This came across clearly, and at the end, when Sir John says “I will turn diseases to commodity”, he added a cough, very appropriate at this time. I did feel that Falstaff was lacking the joie de vivre that really has to be part of his character. I felt there was a lack of smugness in the line “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.” On one level, Falstaff actually believes the lies he tells, and that bolsters his already large ego to a point of insufferability, but it also makes him partly innocent of wrongdoing (at least in his eyes), and allows us to like him even as he’s being loathsome. I didn’t get that from tonight’s performance, nor an alternative reading that satisfied me, but the verbal sparring with the LCJ worked well enough, and Falstaff’s relationship with the prince was established sufficiently for Hal’s changes towards Falstaff to show up clearly.

The plotting by the rebels wasn’t so clear this time, and here I felt the reason was that the actors were simply talking too fast for me to make out what they were saying. This happened a few times tonight, and I would rather they hadn’t trimmed ten minutes off the running time (it’s not a competition, lads) and given us more time to savour the dialogue. Mistress Quickly is next up, bringing the officers to arrest Sir John. Again I missed some of this, but I found Maureen Beattie’s performance as the flirtatious but “respectable” widow just as funny as before. Between coming on to the LCJ, and then casting her eyes down in an attempt to look like a virtuous wronged woman, she kept us well entertained.

Now Hal is wheeled on, on the bed, in repose, as it were, and we get a reprise of his first scene with Falstaff. This time, it’s Poins who gets the bottle and soaks the prince’s head. Apart from that, there seemed to be more activity than I remember, but again it didn’t come across so clearly as before. From checking the text, I see that Poins is supposed to take the letter from Hal and read out the bulk of it; in this version, Hal continues to read to the end.

The discussion among Northumberland, his wife and Hotspur’s widow, is a confusing scene at the best of times. The ex-Mrs Percy has a good speech, about Northumberland honouring his son’s memory by not dashing off to help others when he refused to help his own son, and I can hear the sarcasm and bitterness of it on the page, never mind in performance. Here it seemed more like an intellectual argument, and Northumberland’s change of mind was inexplicable. Other than letting us know he’s not going to turn up for the battle again, I can’t see the point of this.

The tavern scene was largely lost on me, although I did pick up on some minor details in Falstaff’s performance, especially the way he interacts with Pistol, exchanging looks with him as he lies back in his chair, Pistol above him. One change was that instead of Peto bringing in the news that the King is at Westminster, it’s good old Rumour/Bagot who does that job. It’s also Rumour/Bagot who takes the letters from the King to the Earls of Surrey and Warwick at the start of the next scene.

The King wasn’t looking well in that scene, and he didn’t get any better by the end of it. After the insomniac speech, pretty well done I thought, the Earls arrive, and Warwick begins to show his reasonableness, advising the King not to get things out of proportion. He refers to Rumour during this speech, and it just so happens Rumour has reappeared to underline this reference – he is a busy boy. Now we get some additional lines stolen from Act 4 scene 3. After Warwick and Surrey have calmed the King, Rumour arrives to inform him that Northumberland and several of the king’s other enemies are dead. To prove it, he carries a bloody head in a sack, and throws it at the king’s feet, just as happened at the end of Richard II. The king then takes a funny turn, not too surprisingly, given his guilt at Richard’s death, and possibly even at his deposing. I wasn’t aware that this was a tweak to the text at the time. It just seemed to flow naturally, and made sense of the King’s condition. Following this, Richard II himself appeared on the upper story of the metal drum, and after the lords left, Henry stood, looking at Richard, as the ashes/dust/sand fell from above on his head. Blackout. I liked this ending to the first half, which I’m confident is new since the summer.

I was getting a bit worried in the interval, as I’d told a number of people that there was something worth watching on stage before the second half started, and it seemed to take a long time to get going. But eventually we were treated to Davey (Matt Costain) giving us his silent comedy version of putting up the bunting. Just as good as before, and this time there was a strapping young man in the vicinity to help him get back on his ladder.

This sets the scene very well for Shallow’s orchard, the first time we see the Gloucestershire part of the play. I’m often surprised by how late some scenes appear, and how little we see of some characters, and I reflected that my memory of the previous performance had left me thinking that there were more rural scenes, and that they came much earlier. Ah well, so much for my memory. Still, it means I’m constantly surprised, and often delighted, when I watch plays again, so maybe it’s no bad thing.

I found this the best Shallow and Silence I had seen when we attended in the summer, and I wasn’t disappointed this time either. These scenes, plus Hal’s performance, were the best things tonight for me. Shallow was just as lascivious, Silence just as laconic, and I’m grateful that Michael Boyd hasn’t found a way to add pongorama to his theatrical toolkit, otherwise Mouldy would have been assaulting all our nostrils for real. I still hanker to have a bird falling from the sky after Mouldy has discharged his musket, but maybe that’s too ‘cheep’ for Michael Boyd. (Sadly, ‘cheep’ puns are not too cheap for me.) Unfortunately, I find myself preferring Shallow and Silence to Falstaff in this production, therefore it’s not so easy to enjoy his desire to gull them. The suggestion that maybe Falstaff and Shallow have enjoyed a sexually intimate relationship when at St Clements Inn is clearly expressed in Shallow’s leering when talking about a night they spent together, although as they also talk about  a “bona roba” at this point, it may have been a really wild night!

Next we have the betrayal and capture of the remaining rebels (they’re dropping fast), which was less clear, but still got across the rebels’ stupidity in trusting Prince John. More specifically, the Archbishop’s stupidity – some of the others are not happy to send their troops away. This ups the stakes, and shows a greater level of ruthlessness which will only get worse as civil strife reasserts itself a play and bit away.

The next scene, where Falstaff accepts the surrender of Sir John Colville, is straightforward, but relatively uninteresting apart from Falstaff’s paean on the virtues of sherry sack, which is good fun. Now we return to the dying King, and another good scene where we get to see Henry and Hal’s final reconciliation before Hal becomes Henry V. I very much liked the way Geoffrey Streatfeild shows us Hal having to learn to be a king. So often, once his father dies, his heir simply rips off his cloak and becomes Superking in an instant. Here we get to see the process he’s going through, dealing with his father’s death and what that means on a personal level, as well as the massive change it makes in his life by giving him the crown. Steve saw an echo in the way Hal is lying on the bed beside his father as they’re wheeled off, to the original way Hal and Falstaff first arrived on stage, lying side by side on a bed. I noticed that Hal and the king hold the crown on either side, just as Richard and Henry do in the deposition scene in Richard II. I felt Clive Wood is showing more of the King’s vulnerability and how the illness is affecting his mind, while Geoffrey Streatfeild is showing much more of Hal’s emotional state.

After a short trip back to Gloucestershire, we see Hal’s first steps as king. The court, in the persons of Hal’s brothers, Warwick, and the LCJ, are gravely concerned about the new king’s likely attitude. Hal himself has clearly not yet grown into his kingship, and this is emphasised throughout this scene. The most telling example is Hal’s treatment of the LCJ. Initially, the new king is angry about his earlier treatment at the LCJ’s hands, even clenching his fists in anger, but the LCJ’s arguments win him over, and the new king realises not only that he still has a lot to learn, but that he needs the help and guidance the LCJ can provide. It’s an interesting demonstration of his character’s growth, but more is to come.

The last scene in Gloucestershire gives us a chance to laugh before the emotional finale. Silence has obviously had too much to drink, and is no longer silent, breaking into song every few minutes. Davey is cooking apples on a fire pit, and the rest are busy trying to join Silence in drunkenness, despite Davey’s procrastination in dishing out refills, when Pistol arrives with news of the King’s death and Hal’s succession. Off they all trot, full of the expectation of plenty. Shakespeare cunningly undercuts this immediately, by showing us Doll Tearsheet and Mistress Quickly being dragged off to prison, despite Doll being pregnant by a sofa.

After the coronation, the procession of the king and his court comes down the spiral staircase from the top level. As King Henry reaches the balcony, Falstaff calls out to him, and receives his rebuke and rejection. This costs Henry dearly. It’s clear he’s torn. Although he knows he has to reject Falstaff to fully claim his new life, he doesn’t want to hurt him as such, and the emotional cost is clear on his face. After the rabble have been imprisoned in the big wire cage, Henry reappears at the front of the stage, looking directly at Falstaff, and they stare at each other for a long moment, as the LCJ and Prince John, on the balcony, prepare us for the next play. Finally, Henry turns away, and stands alone at the front of the stage as the lights go out. It’s a very good visual and emotional image to end on.

One point I missed going through – at the start of these plays, members of the cast have been coming on to ask the audience to switch off mobiles, etc. Tonight it was the turn of Hal himself, and Geoffrey Streatfeild did a lovely bit of hesitation before announcing which play was on tonight, as if he couldn’t quite remember. Also, immediately after his father’s death, Hal appears dressed in black to talk to his brothers and the LCJ. This is the only time he wears this colour in this production, and for me it signals his change of allegiance, as well as simply being his mourning clothes. For the coronation, however, he’s back to his splendid white, so it won’t just be business as usual with this king. Roll on tomorrow and Henry V.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me