The Taming of the Shrew – June 2008

6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Conall Morrison

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 10th June 2008

Fortunately, Steve checked the time of the performance, so we got here for the start. From the look of the stage, we’re getting the full Christopher tonight, and in modern dress. Signs for ‘fully licensed bars’, ‘hotel’ and ‘video exchange’ adorn a tower building at the back of the thrust, to our left. ‘Hotel’ is apparently a euphemism for knocking-shop, and the first signs of action are when a posh bird and Michelle Gomez have a minor altercation over money. Michelle appears to be the ‘hotel’ keeper, one Marion Hackett, and the posh bird is presumably her employer, who insists on getting every last farthing from her employee. After a short wordless exchange, Marion hands over the money she was hoping to keep for herself, and then the rowdies arrive.

It’s the stag do from hell. A bunch of men, of various ages (almost all the men in the cast, from what I could see), indulging in those pointless male activities such as shouting, doing silly dances, waving inflatable dolls about, and mooning the audience. Only they kept their knickers on. How tame. Christopher Sly is almost part of the group – he looks like he’s joining in even though he may not know anyone, you know the type. However, he is the one who accosts the pole dancer, and gets thrown out by the bouncer, and….did Shakespeare really write this stuff?

Well, now the dialogue gets going it’s recognizable as Will’s work. We’ve already had some spicy language from Marion Hackett as she leans out of her window during the stag party, making a mobile phone call that included lines like “not another denarius” and “cunt…ry”. (Must be the bad quarto.) From Sly’s ejection, we’re back with a recognizable plot, and he’s left to snooze off his drunkenness in a cleaner’s cart. Along comes the posh bird with her huntsmen, all East End boys from the sounds of it, and she gets the idea to mess with Sly’s mind. There’s a nice connection here with her being a lady (not sure if it’s an official title or just a description), and also the vice madam. Made her dosh from porn and sleaze, and now she’s gone up in the world (after years of going down, no doubt). It emphasises the topsy-turvy nature of status in the worlds of the play – Sly is down, then up, then down. Let’s not get too philosophical though – the play continues, and by this time I was starting to get into it a lot more.

The trick is set up, with the posh bird arranging things with her servants. I’d noticed one of the actors this afternoon had quite a feminine face, and he’s the one who ends up playing Sly’s ‘wife’. He looked very fetching in an acid green slip and blond wig, so it’s no surprise when Sly wants to make it up to her for all the years she hasn’t had him in her bed. There’s some chasing around that bed before a swift punch fells Sly, and when he wakes up he’s persuaded to hold off on the sex for a bit, as his doctors don’t think it’s a good idea so early in the day. I wasn’t sure this Sly would go along with it, but he does.

While he was being prepared for the next bit, off stage, the actors arrive. It’s done beautifully, with the right hand side of the back flats opening to allow the rear end of a lorry to reverse into the gap, complete with beeping noises. The tail of this lorry has “The Players” emblazoned across it, in the style of the RSC logo, and underneath are the words “comical”, “tragical”, “historical”, “pastoral” (Hamlet, in case you were wondering). At the end, as the lorry takes the actors away, I wondered if the licence plate was also connected in some way. We may never know.

As the ramp is lowered, the actors appear, huddled in the back of the lorry. With several bounds, they were free, and boy did they bound. Mainly the younger actors, it must be said, who pranced around the stage doing their warm-up exercises while the older actors took their time, and the baby-face who becomes Sly’s pseudo-wife listens to his iPod. This bit was entertaining for us, but even more entertaining for a group up in the gallery to our left, who hooted with laughter very loudly at all the antics. I suspect they were friends, family, fellow actors, etc., and I did find it distracting at first, but later I was caught up in the performance and it wasn’t so noticeable. (Steve reckons someone had had a word.)

Having persuaded Sly to forgo sex for the theatre (am I the only one who thinks that’s a fair trade?), the actors trundle on some cute mini Italian style houses, some benches and stools, and the tower in the corner is rotated to show a couple of ornate doors with awnings. The flats at the back are changed behind the tower (the lorry is still backed onto the stage at this point) to show a jumble of Paduan houses, and then Lucentio and Tranio are unleashed to start the ball rolling. Steve spotted that Lucentio had a wrist-sundial, very fetching. He also has an overly dramatic style, but he does get the lines across, while Tranio, common as muck, does his best to support him. Sly and baby-face are watching from the walkway to our right, lying down so as not to get in anyone’s sightline.

The encounters between the Minola family and Bianca’s suitors were fairly straightforward. Michelle Gomez managed to combine truly awful behaviour with a sense that Katherine is right to feel badly treated, or at least to have a regular strop every few minutes, which is a neat trick. It’s easy to see why the men in her vicinity are scared of her. Once they’ve left, and Lucentio and Tranio have swapped jackets (sadly, they rarely opt to do the full monty anymore), it’s time for Petruchio to enter. The lady’s servants bring Sly back centre stage, present him with a paperback of the text, and change his clothes. After a few false starts, Sly hits his stride, and Petruchio appears before us! It was nicely done, especially the change of accent.

If it wasn’t clear before, it certainly became so during the wooing scene that this was going to be a very physical performance. How those two are going to end the run without being black and blue I don’t know. It wasn’t all to my taste, but they did create a lot of humour out of the encounter, and they certainly allowed the darker side full rein too. Grumio had already been well pummelled, so we knew Petruchio had a temper. Now he’s keen to unleash it on Kate. One thing to mention in passing was the comic expressions, particularly the one on Baptista Minola’s face when Petruchio announces he wants to marry Katherine. Joy mixed with incredulity – he just can’t believe his luck.

The story rattled along at a good pace. Petruchio’s outfit for the wedding isn’t as described by Biondello, but it’s pretty gruesome nonetheless, including streaks of blood on his lower half, where he seems to be wearing the remains of a frock. Instead of drawing swords to protect Kate, Grumio produces cutlery, and not the sharp stuff either – spoons? Petruchio carries Kate off, and the rest are happy to let him.

Back at chez Petruchio, the staff are roundly abused, as usual, and there’s certainly a greater sense that they might actually get hit this time. When Petruchio asks for his cousin Ferdinand, so that Kate could greet him with a kiss, I had visions of an ugly, slobbering brute being led on, but Ferdinand is one character we never get to meet. In fact, I think this is the first time I noticed the line.

The knockabout humour continues, with no remarkable pieces of staging that I could see, until the end of the play. The final wedding feast is in modern dress. Kate’s final speech is a bit difficult to figure out. She seems to have been cowed by Petruchio’s treatment, but not as much as I’ve seen before. However, there’s an unpleasant atmosphere when Petruchio gets his own way, and this lasts until the play within the  play is over. Then, the tables are turned, as Sly is returned to harsh reality, and Kate/Marion heads off with the actors to start a new career. As the women change, they treat Sly with contempt, and although there’s no dialogue, this does help to offset the sour taste of the traditional ending. It was as if Sly has been allowed to indulge his fantasy of getting the better of a woman, and they’re making it clear at the end that he has no chance of doing that in real life.

From a quick glance at the program notes, this production is based on commedia dell’arte techniques and themes, hence the physical work and the non-exploration of the psychological areas. There’s some good stuff here, though it’s not my favourite version of the play. Still, it’s nice to see a completely different style of staging, and to expand our understanding of the background in which these plays were written.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Merchant of Venice – June 2008

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Pia Furtado

Company: RSC Understudies

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 10th June 2008

Wow! This was an amazing performance from a group of very talented actors. They’ve set a high standard for the full production to live up to.

The set was simple, a basic purply-red. The upper level had a projecting semi-circular balcony, and the wall in front of that was raised and lowered at times. The play opens with a dance. The cast troop on stage, and with Antonio front and centre, they cavort about a bit, and then most of the group leave the stage to the opening trio. From the opening lines, I was aware of hearing much more than I usually do, even for a play like this which I’m reasonably familiar with. I suspect my hearing aids helped a lot, but the actors were so clear with their dialogue that I heard many of these lines as for the first time. The comments by Salerio and his pal, for example, in this opening scene, never struck me much before. This time I was aware of how they expressed what would be troubling them if they were in Antonio’s shoes.

There was much hugging in this performance. All the Italian men seemed to get on really well and care for each other, so there was no suggestion here that the youngsters were sponging off the older, richer Antonio. Nor was there any hint of homosexuality in the Antonio/Bassanio relationship – it was played completely straight as far as I could see. Gratiano got a lot of laughs from his lines, especially when he came back on again to give even more of his thoughts to his jaded listeners. He played it with a fairly serious expression throughout, and got a lot of detail into his performance.

When Portia and Nerissa discuss the soon to be ex-suitors, various men in the audience were picked out to represent these unfortunate men. Everyone seemed to take it in good part, and this is one way in which a full audience can really help the understudies get used to their parts.

The caskets in this production rose up from the floor to the rear of the stage. Largely undifferentiated, we didn’t get to see the inscriptions nor the contents, all of which worked just fine for me. As each suitors made his choice, Portia was revealed behind the rear wall, fully decked out in her wedding dress, and a part of the balcony wall rose up to reveal a long row of wine glasses, partially filled with water. Several hands appeared and played these glasses – they made a haunting eerie sound, quite beautiful. It was a bit disconcerting at first to see the disembodied hands at work, but I soon got used to it. At the end of the first half, these glasses were again on show, and several of them filled up with red liquid, presumably representing the blood that could be spilled if Antonio can’t be saved in time. Not so effective, I thought.

When Bassanio comes to make his choice,  Portia is with him initially, then moves to her position at the back. And when he is successful, a servant has to indicate with a jerk of her head that he should go and kiss Portia – he is a bit dim, this guy. Unlike Gratiano, who takes the opportunity to have a good snog with Nerissa. These kisses go on for some time, and it all becomes too much for Launcelot Gobbo, who grabs the female servant and gets his tongue down her throat as quick as you like. She doesn’t push him off, either.

Snogfest over, the bad news about Antonio breaks up the party. I remember thinking as Portia is blithely talking about paying umpteen thousand ducats to help Bassanio’s friend, just how rich is this woman? Her attitude suggests she could get the amount out of petty cash and not notice a hole.

Since Nerissa and Jessica are being doubled, and we need both on stage at this point, I don’t know how this is being staged in the regular version. Here, Nerissa isn’t on stage until after Portia has given instructions to Balthazar, so there’s even more emphasis on the fact that Portia hasn’t told Nerissa her plans. Still, she seems to be up for it, so off they go.

The trial scene was well done, although I wasn’t entirely sure about the long breakfast bar that rose up from the miniscule basement. Running from front to back of the stage, it was long enough for a man to lie down on, and this was where Antonio was placed when it looked like Shylock was going to get his pound of flesh, with Shylock standing over him. Must be quite a sight in the full production, as Angus Wright is pretty tall anyway (Sean Kearns is no short-arse either), and to have him an extra three or four feet up should be pretty dramatic. The audience was a bit nervous this time, though, and there was a bit of giggling, which weakened the tension somewhat. Mind you, Arsher Ali as Antonio didn’t have anything like a pound of flesh to hand over. The most aggressive liposuction would have been lucky to get as much as a few ounces. Even so, I’m looking forward to seeing this part again.

The actual trial worked very well. Shylock had some scales on the far end of the breakfast bar, and was well ready to use them. Bassanio and his mates were in fine form – Gratiano was so obstreperous that he had to shift himself pretty quickly when the security guards started taking an interest. He reappeared on one of the side balconies, hurling abuse like a football fan, and was grabbed and dragged off by the security guards to stop him causing trouble. Bit of a police state, this Venice.

The ladies turn up in suits (and did they have little beards?), looking more manly than many a cross dresser. I’d like to see Amara Karan’s Viola sometime. One nice touch was the way the Duke handed the letter from Bellario over to his clerk to read out from the balcony (it is in the text, but it seemed new to me this time around).

With Antonio saved, there’s really just fun left now, although I did feel sorry for Shylock’s suffering. Gratiano does look concerned when Bassanio changes his mind about giving the ‘doctor’ Portia’s ring, but even so he not only takes the ring to the doctor but ends up giving his own away as well. Silly boys. The scene where he does this had a very peculiar staging. The balcony wall was raised up again, in a similar way to the glass-playing incident, with Portia and Nerissa sitting on the edge of the balcony as if by a stream. So far, so good. However, when Gratiano comes walking along, we can only see him from the waist down, and when the women stand up to join him, they’re likewise obscured from view. Steve reckoned this may have been to put more emphasis on their hands, but it just looked wrong to me.

Back in Belmont, Jessica and Lorenzo are having connubial fun, as usual. There’s a sparkly thing that came down from the ceiling, a bit like a glitter ball but in long strands. These sparkled beautifully, but they kept moving up and down, which I found distracting.

The final ring scene was great. I love the way Gratiano betrays Bassanio without hesitation (other than a pause to let Bassanio say one of the funniest lines of the play). The girls were magnificent, giving their husbands a good winding up, which they thoroughly deserved. When Portia has to produce the good news letter for Antonio, she gets it from a chap sitting in the front row, possibly one of her ex-suitors from the first half. Then Nerissa has to produce a letter for Lorenzo, only she can’t find the gentleman on our side of the front row who’s been given it. Oh dear! It looks like everything’s gone horribly wrong, but the RSC are fond of inserting rehearsed mistakes, and eventually she remembers – she’d tucked it in her waistband.

Other points to note – we get the full Gobbo in this production, father and son. It was well enough done, though it’s always a tricky scene to pull off. The performances were all good, and I liked Sean Kearns as Shylock. He was very business-like, and at this stage relatively unemotional, but the dignity and loathing were there, and I felt for him as he went through his self-inflicted torture.

I felt the final dance went on too long, as all I wanted to do at that point was applaud. This was such a good performance I just hope the ‘real’ one isn’t a disappointment.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me