See How They Run – August 2008

7/10

By Philip King

Directed by Ian Masters

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 29th August 2008

I enjoyed this performance very much. The play stands the test of time very well, with some of the humour becoming slightly less effective (references to Ladysmith, for example) while some lines gained a whole new meaning. Guy Siner, playing the escaped German, has to say the line “listen very carefully” – well, it had to get a big laugh. After a slight acknowledgement, almost apologetic I thought, the play went on.

The set was recycled (Arsenic and Old Lace, amongst others) but with double doors instead of a window to our right. The stairs were a bit skimpy – the Reverend Toop tripped up a couple of times, but recovered well.

The plot concerns a former actress who has become the wife of the vicar of Merton-cum-Middlewick, her husband the Reverend Toop, their maid Ida, the wife’s uncle who is the Bishop of Lax, a substitute vicar, an old acting friend of the wife’s, an escaped German prisoner, and an embittered old spinster from the village who had hoped to get her claws into the vicar herself, but now has to content herself with bitching about the vicar’s wife to the vicar. It’s a heady brew. We end up with four vicars, a drunken spinster (a remarkably flexible performance from Helen Jeckells – she managed a very slow slide down the side of the sofa) and the arrival of a policeman who’s part of the hunt for the missing German. All ends happily, except for the spinster, though as she’s still nine sheets to the wind and unconscious from being punched, she doesn’t know anything about it.

The punch in question was from Private Lives, as the wife and her actor friend had toured in that play for months some years ago, and could still remember their lines. Naturally they get into an argument about it, and have to go through it again to resolve the dispute, and the spinster, misunderstanding the nature of the physical tussle going on in the vicar’s sitting room, gets herself in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up unconscious on the sofa. I remarked to Steve in the interval that it was handy we’d only just seen Private Lives again, so it was fresh in our memory.

All the performances were good, but the two that made it so enjoyable for me were Helen Jeckells as Miss Skillon, who did the best drunk I’ve seen in a long time, and Harriet Usher as Ida, the maid. She managed to make the simple country girl relatively believable, and provided us with most of the best bits, such as when the Bishop tells her to say ‘your Grace’ when addressing him, and she starts off with ‘for what we are about to receive…’. The usual routine of the chase of the vicars was well done, including the little jumps over legs that are no longer there, and I left feeling well cheered up. Jolly good show.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Portrait Of A Lady – August 2008

6/10

By Henry James, adapted by Nicki Frei

Directed by Peter Hall

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 28th August 2008

The set was a forward curve of arches, with ledges on the columns, and all in dark marble. Chairs and tables were brought on and moved around as needed, while the curved backdrop had different vistas projected onto it.

The performances were good. Although Finbar Lynch had trouble maintaining a consistent accent, he portrayed the menace of his character really well. Jean Marsh was only a tad better with her accent, but she did get some good lines, and the revelations at the end came from her character. All the other accents were fine, and Christopher Ravenscroft in particular livened things up in his one scene. The scenes themselves were sometimes bitty, and the scene changes could drag on a little. I wasn’t keen on the backward timeline for this particular story; knowing how it ends means I don’t get to enjoy the full emotional journey, and the later scenes from earlier times tend to be box-tickers, filling in the details to which we’ve had clues in the previous future scenes (gosh, it’s hard work explaining this so I can remember it).

The second half was definitely better than the first – both Steve and I felt the first half was a bit pedestrian – but then I found myself getting a bit lost with the time travel element. Mr Goodwood in particular suffered from this, as he turned up only occasionally and I lost track of when we’d seen him before, in the future. In fact, although I found the second half generally more interesting, I also felt it was more confusing with all the jumping around in time.

I didn’t know the story at all before today, so I’ve no idea how well it represented the original novel. My impression at the end is that Isabel Archer is a bright but not particularly shrewd young lady, whose main character flaw is a passion for independence. She’s determined to make up her own mind and make her own choices, which she then sticks to tenaciously, as they represent such an important part of her. She has the bad luck to fall in with a spider of a man, eager to lure a rich woman into his web, and with the wit to let her walk in of her own free choice. Mind you, I’m not sure from the alternatives on offer that she’d have been happy with any of her other suitors. Maybe Lord Warburton could have made it work, but she would probably have found the conventions of the English aristocracy too stifling. A heroine doomed to misery then, and we lucky people get to share bucketloads of it with her. Oh joy.

Still, the story was interesting in its own way, despite the method of telling it, and I was taken once again by how much James’s American characters are drawn to all things European, despite many of them considering the American way to be better. Admittedly, several of the American characters in this story are ex-pats who’ve lived in Europe for many years, often since childhood, so the pattern isn’t so obvious this time around. I did like the music between scenes, which is also part of Isabel’s first meeting with Madam Merle – it turns out Mme Merle’s an accomplished pianist, and it was her  playing that we heard. For the beginning of each scene, the characters held a tableau, emphasising the “portrait” aspect of the piece, and indeed I often felt while watching the first few scenes that I was looking at a setting for some formal portraits. The costumes looked fine to me, though the need for quick changes meant our heroine seemed to be wearing black more than was strictly necessary or helpful. As the story unfolds, though, there seem to be lots of reasons for full or partial mourning, so perhaps that explains it. Even so, I felt it lessened the impact of the change in her character that she was dressed so drably for most of the play.

So, not my favourite James adaptation, then, but still a good afternoon in the theatre.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Collaboration – August 2008

6/10

By Ronald Harwood

Directed by Philip Franks

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 26th August 2008

The set was as for Taking Sides, but whole. The wall is unripped, the floor uncracked. There are no suitcases on the balcony or anywhere else, and so we have a door back left. The furniture is period (don’t ask me which one), with elegant legs and lots of lovely wood – piano, tables, chairs. There were two (or possibly three) telephones, a footstool and a radio. Warm orange light shines through diamond patterned windows, casting long shadows across the stage. This represents the Strauss villa, while a curved pattern of light and shadows slanted the other way shows us Zweig’s pad in Vienna.

The title Collaboration is a nice play on words. The story concerns Richard Strauss’s artistic collaboration with Stefan Zweig on an opera, The Silent Woman (based on Ben Jonson’s play Epicoene). We also get to see some of the effects the Nazi government had on artistic affairs, and the pressure that was put on Richard Strauss to collaborate with them. His son had married a Jewish woman, so she and the two grandchildren were under direct threat. This point was hammered home by a thoroughly unpleasant chap called Hinkel, one of those oily young thugs the Hitler Youth was so good at producing.

The story ranges in time from 1931, when Strauss is desperate for a new librettist after the death of his previous collaborator, to 1948, when he had to testify before a Denazification Board in Munich. In 1931, his wife, a practical and formidable woman, suggests he write to Zweig, and the response is both immediate and rapturous. Zweig can’t believe his luck, admires Strauss’s work beyond praise, and already has a couple of ideas for operas. The second one, an adaptation of the Jonson play, is the one that appeals to Strauss, who goes by gut instinct on these things. I was so aware during this scene how familiar educated Europeans were with a wide range of literature, plays, etc., and it reminded me how insular we Brits can be sometimes.

Zweig comes up with a synopsis that greatly pleases the composer, and after a major tizzy when Zweig announces he can’t start on Act 1 for a month (Strauss wants it yesterday), the two settle down to a companionable working relationship. Strauss’s wife has established for us that Zweig has an attractive young secretary who’s devoted to her boss, and an absent wife, so at least one of the plot developments won’t be a surprise.

It’s taken us quite a while to get this far, and although the performances were fine, I was finding it all rather dull; a bit too much biography and not enough drama. The next scene started the adrenalin flowing, with the secretary, Lotte, turning up at Zweig’s house with blood on her head and on her blouse. Although Austria was still independent, the Nazi influence was spreading across the border (Zweig lived close enough to see Hitler’s country retreat up in the mountains), and a couple of young men had tormented Lotte and her friend, with no one intervening on their behalf. It’s the first signs of the brutality to come, although none of that is shown in any great detail.

The Nazis start to control the arts in Germany, and soon appropriate their most famous composer for their own ends. As they’re having a spot of bother with Furtwängler, they appoint Strauss as President of the Reich Chamber of Music, with Furtwängler as his deputy. This is just the first step. When Strauss insists that he must work with Zweig, a Jew, the authorities allow a few performances of The Silent Woman, but do their best to keep Zweig uncredited. Strauss overrules this, and gets into more trouble. He writes a letter which would seem innocuous now, but in declaring himself not to be anti-Semitic, he falls foul of Nazi dogma and has to be put in his place. This is where the threat to his family is spelled out, and it’s also when the wall rips apart. He’s told to resign from the Reich Chamber of Music post, and ordered to write a hymn for the Olympics the following year, which he does. Meanwhile, in Austria, Zweig and Lotte scarper while they still can, and end up in Brazil, where they carry out a suicide pact in 1942. The final scene shows us Strauss, with his wife’s help, giving evidence to a denazification hearing. This covers the rest of the war, and supposedly gives us Strauss’s real feelings, though I would take that with a pinch of salt.

The biggest problem with this play is the lack of dramatic tension. Zweig and Strauss get on so well that there’s none there. They get on so well that they find themselves actually becoming friends, an unusual experience for both of them from what they say. The conflict with the Nazis does improve things a bit, but it’s so one-sided that it doesn’t last. It’s sad to see what happens artistically, of course, but that’s just narration, and we don’t see much of the later horrors as the bulk of the play takes place before the war. So without some gripping focus to the play, what do we have?

Well, it’s interesting to see something of how the Nazis developed prior to the war. It’s always difficult to see this sort of thing clearly with hindsight, as we can’t really know how much the German people knew, what other speculations and rumours were part of daily life, etc., but from this play it seemed to me that only an idiot would have been unaware of the Nazis’ intent, even if the full extent of their activities was hidden. Zweig knows enough to leave ahead of disaster, and Strauss’s own efforts to rescue his daughter-in-law’s family, unsuccessfully, shows that he didn’t believe they were off to some sunny holiday camp where they could get on with their lives without inflicting their sordidness on the pure Aryan race (they did talk some rubbish, these Nazis).

There were some good lines, the running time was only two hours, and from what I saw of the performances, they were very good. The staging, with the two main locations being on the diagonals, had one unfortunate side effect. Particularly at the Strauss villa, one or other character would sit in the chair almost directly in front of us. This meant we had such an oblique view of their profile that they might as well have had their back to us. This is to be expected in this kind of acting space, and it can work as  long as the characters move around. Sadly, once a character was in that chair, they rarely moved, so we found ourselves in some of the worst seats in the house. I admire Michael Pennington greatly, and I would have loved to see his performance when Strauss is being confronted with his family’s vulnerability, but alas, I missed it all. Fine as Martin Hutson’s Hinkel was, seeing only one side of that discussion was not enough.

Of course, Steve has had a moderating effect by explaining his view of the play. In Taking Sides, the difficulties are in the conflict between the two men at the centre of the play, whereas in Collaboration, the two central characters do have a good relationship, but external forces make it impossible for them to work together. It’s a good point, and had the external forces been better represented, and from earlier in the drama, I might have changed my mind a bit. We both felt the play was a bit slow in the first half, but picked up in the second. Had the people at the post-show for Taking Sides not been so enthusiastic about this play, we might have had different expectations and enjoyed it more. As it was, we both felt it was not as powerful as others had made out.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Private Lives – August 2008

8/10

By Noel Coward

Directed by Chris Jordan

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Saturday 23rd August 2008

This was a very enjoyable production of a classic play. The cast were well balanced, and apart from not being able to hear Elyot so well when his voice dropped, I found it a very clear performance. The sets were good, and the audience slightly better than last time.

Perhaps not surprisingly after a week at the RSC Summer School, which culminated with a visit from some of the actors doing The Taming Of The Shrew, I saw for the first time connections between this play and Shakespeare’s. I could see Petruchio and Kate in Elyot and Amanda, while Bianca and Lucentio are reflected by Sybil and Victor. This idea was prompted by Elyot asking Sybil if she’s trying to control him, if she’s planning to manage their lives together while appearing to be all sweetness and light. It’s unusual for me to link Shakespeare and Coward in this way, but not unprofitable. The insight didn’t add to my enjoyment of the performance, but I did enjoy the extra views along the way.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Merchant Of Venice – August 2008

Experience: 5/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Tim Carroll

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 20th August 2008

I wondered back in June if the first team would be as enjoyable to watch as the reserves (the football metaphor is apt, for a number of reasons). Sadly, this time I found they weren’t, although some of the individual performances were very good. From the session with Tim Carroll this afternoon (perhaps it would have been better scheduled tomorrow), I was hopeful that his neutral approach would lead to fresh awarenesses, but sadly it seems to have led to a bland and surprisingly lifeless production, with only Shakespeare’s excellent writing saving the day.

Firstly, I’ll cover the things that didn’t work so well for me this time around. Gratiano was played well enough, but William Beck as the understudy did such a good job that I found myself enjoying this performance much less. The laughter started considerably later as well, and the character seemed nondescript compared to the other version. No criticism of John Paul Connolly is intended here; I reckon the directorial style doesn’t help to create clear characterisations – more on that story later.

There were some distractions tonight that didn’t happen before. I noticed people moving around up on the top level of the balcony, musicians I expect. We were in similar seats for the understudy run, but I didn’t notice any movement then, so whether it was just me or not I don’t know. Also, during the casket choosing by Bassanio, I noticed Launcelot Gobbo and the other maid eyeing each other up. Although I knew they were going to have a snog later, I still found this distracted me from the main event, without adding anything to the performance.

I found Portia less interesting and less lively this time around too. I mentioned last time that I’d like to see Amara Karan’s Viola sometime, whereas Georgina Rich, although giving a good performance for the most part, seemed to lack confidence throughout. This worked fine during the trial scene, where she’s understandably unsure of carrying off her portrayal of a man (for all her boasting to Nerissa) and unsure of how to get Antonio out of his predicament. (In this performance I was very clear that she finds the life-saving loophole at the last minute.) But it doesn’t sit so well with a woman who “but now .. was the lord of this fair mansion, master of my servants, queen o’er myself”, nor a woman who could dare to take on a man’s role and successfully argue a case in law in which a man’s life was at stake. I don’t suggest brazen arrogance would be appropriate, but this degree of nervousness did seem out of place.

As far as the staging goes, there were some extra details which I don’t remember from last time (see below), and which I felt improved the effects; however I found the ring delivery staging, with the actors only visible from the shoulders down, just as strange as before, although the lines did come across more clearly. The filling of the wine glasses with red liquid was completely undercut in this staging, as the lights were so dim I couldn’t actually see the colour being used – it just looked dark. I knew it was red from the understudy run, which must have been better lit, but while I was prepared to reassess this effect, had it been the same, all I can say now is that it left me cold.

As did much of the performance. The lines were often very clear, and I did catch some more snippets than before. However, the delivery was often very choppy, leading to the effect seen in Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Quince delivers the speech beginning “If we offend, it is with our good will.” The sense was lost or garbled. Some of the long pauses worked quite well, some made the speeches unintelligible. It was very hit and miss, and I felt the production style left a lot to be desired in getting the play across, if this was the best they could do. For Portia’s speech before Bassanio chooses, when she’s at the back of the stage, I couldn’t make out a word.

The ‘big’ speeches were also undersold, which can be fine. They are so well known that it’s nice to see them slipped into the dialogue as if they’re just extensions of the characters’ thought processes (which they are) instead of sing-along arias, where the play grinds to a halt while the soloist gives their all, and the audience’s applause can lead to an encore. I know this doesn’t actually happen in today’s theatre (did it happen in the past, I wonder?), but it can feel like that. However, tonight’s really big two – “Hath not a Jew eyes?” and “The quality of mercy is not strained” – were approached differently but each had their problems. The “quality of mercy” speech was really clunky, and didn’t seem to arise out of anything other than that was what the script told her to say at that point. The “Hath not a Jew eyes?” snuck up on me unexpectedly, which was very nice, and it certainly sprang directly from the character’s need to express these ideas at this time, but it was less moving than it could have been, and possibly less effective as a result.

The main problem I had with this performance was the lack of engagement. I really didn’t care about these characters. I wasn’t moved by any of it – they seemed to be empty husks saying the lines clearly, for the most part, but missing the point of the dialogue entirely. I was frankly bored for large chunks of the first half, and nodded off for a bit. I wouldn’t have believed this possible from our earlier experience with the understudies.

So what did I like about this performance? Well, Angus Wright, an actor we’ve both liked for many years, was very good as Shylock. His lines always came across clearly, sprang directly from his character, and he was powerful both in premature victory and in defeat. His stance over the prostrate Antonio on the breakfast bar was definitely menacing, and even at the end, with the conditions placed on him that would be almost unbearable, he confronted Antonio nose to nose, and kept his dignity. The way he crossed himself as he left got a small laugh – it suggested to me that he would play their games, but without any change in his convictions, or his loathing towards the “Christians”.

The three caskets turned out to be blocks of ice, with the keys being small icicles. There was some reference during today’s talk of ice representing virginity, but I didn’t understand what he was talking about – they didn’t use these caskets during the understudy run. When the correct casket was chosen, the ice block cracked open, as I suspected it would.

The final scene was very enjoyable, and I’d put that down mainly to Will’s fantastic writing. Antonio looked more than embarrassed to find he’d inadvertently got his friend into trouble – his face was a picture. The performances were good enough to get all the usual laughs, and the finding of the letters in the audience was slightly better than before. Antonio even tries to ask the dear old lady who handed over his letter, for more information about his ships and where she got the letter, which was well done and amusing. It even delayed Portia’s next line for a while. Nerissa had stowed her letter away in her sleeve this time, and all ends happily. I wasn’t so frustrated by the dance this time, as my urge to applaud wasn’t so great, but still I joined in willingly when the time came.

As to how we feel this style of production works or doesn’t work for us, Steve saw it in footballing terms, as when George Graham sold Malcolm MacDonald because he didn’t want stars in his team (couldn’t handle them, Steve reckons), while I saw it more as an inkblot production, putting the responsibility on the audience to make something of it, rather than making choices for them. While this seemed like a good idea this afternoon, I now see it as less appealing, although I accept that for some people this may be the sort of production they yearn to see. My problem is I don’t relate well to inkblots (and let’s face it, Shakespeare’s plays are themselves inkblots, so an inkblot production of an inkblot play isn’t going to give us much to go on.) I have a perfectly good imagination, but I also see quite clearly, so unless there’s something, some idea or sense of the characters or story or situation that I can begin to relate to, I’m stymied. I like to observe productions closely, and pick up on the minute nuances of a performance, but here there was nothing to go on, and so I found it less than enjoyable for the most part. I also sense that it may have stopped the actors from really getting to grips with their characters, as back stories and inner lives seemed to be excluded from the rehearsal process.

It was all the stranger because the understudies had given such life to their performances. I reckon they were probably raising their game – Championship contenders playing Premiership opposition in the Cup – and the influence of the Assistant Director may well have played a part, but in any case, I’m glad I won’t be seeing this again.

P.S. Apropos of my comment for the understudies performance about wondering just how rich Portia is, Steve had an interesting insight today. He realised that Portia wasn’t just rich, she was mega-rich compared to the merchant class of Venice. He reckoned she would have been in the same sort of position as Christina Onassis – too rich to be able to trust anyone, least of all the men who came wooing. This makes her father’s strange arrangement in his will more sensible. He may have realised he wouldn’t be around to vet all the prospective suitors, so set up the tests to weed out the undesirables. Those who went for gold were ruled out, as were those with a bit more wit, but considerable vanity. Only those who were prepared to give everything at the risk of receiving nothing would be worthy of her hand. Given the totally unlikely possibility that the secrets of the caskets would remain secrets in this day and age, when failed suitors would be posting the information on their Facebook page within seconds, it still makes much more sense to me with this new perspective.

Also, apropos of nothing, did Shakespeare set so many of his plays in Catholic countries, especially Italy, so he could get Catholic imagery into his plays more easily? Discuss.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Hamlet – August 2008

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 19th August 2008

This was an absolutely superb production. The director’s version of the text, culled from different sources, kept the action moving along nicely, and the story hung together really well. The performances were beyond excellent, and gave me lots of insights into the play. We’re seeing this again a couple of times, and I’m looking forward to it.

The set was basically the mirrored screen and polished black floor we’d seen for the Dream, with beds, chairs, etc brought on as needed, not that there was much of that. Francisco paced about the darkened auditorium, with distant clanging noises sounding faintly, and using a torch to see where he was going. The other characters entered along our walkway, also with torches. With almost no other lighting that I could see, the effect was quite creepy. Torches were shone on the ground, and the beams reflected up into the air, looking like spotlights, and giving us just enough light to see what was going on. The ghost was in full kit – armour, helmet with raised beaver – and walked among them twice, giving them ample opportunity to reach out and touch him, if they so desired. But nobody thought of this simple test, and just as well, or the play would be over pretty quickly.

The political commentary between the ghost’s two appearances was nice and crisp, and for the first time I was aware that Hamlet senior won land by killing Fortinbras senior (they had no imagination when it came to naming their children, these folk), and the extent of that land may be larger than I’d realised – at the time I thought it might even have been the whole kingdom of Denmark, which gives a completely fresh picture of the habits of these Scandinavians in relation to kingship. Checking the text again, I find it unlikely that the land won was that significant, but that’s certainly the impression I had while watching this performance.

After these characters leave, planning to tell Hamlet, the court arrives on stage with elegance and some pomp. Hamlet is first to arrive, after the servants, takes a glass of champagne and stands on the corner to our right. He’s in a decent black suit, hair slicked back, and looking grim rather than sorrowful. Gertrude looks radiantly happy, dressed in a lovely white gown, and playing the gracious hostess for all she’s worth. Claudius is firmly in control, and there are just one or two hints that Gertrude has been coaching him in what to say (or do those come later?). I noticed there was a churchman there as well – I’m not good with religious uniforms, and he’s not an official character, so I’ll call him a bishop for these notes. Cornelius has had a sex change and become Cornelia, but otherwise the scene is much as expected, although Claudius actually looks at Hamlet before addressing Laertes.

I was aware of the public nature of this scene. Gertrude in particular is having to deal with a domestic tizzy at a public ceremony, and although she comes across as very loving, I could see the tightness in her manner. She didn’t want Hamlet fucking up this big day for her and Claudius, but also didn’t want to have a full-on screaming row with him in front of the court. Hamlet’s position also seemed more in the public eye, and there was that sense of everyone being watched throughout the play – not watched so much as in surveillance, but simply because there were servants around, or reporters, or paparazzi types, that kind of thing, ready to seize on any gossip they could about the royal family. Later, when Polonius arrives to say a long farewell to Laertes, he has Reynaldo with him, who hovers in the background until Polonius dismisses him so that he can have a quiet word with his daughter. That sort of thing was very apparent.

When the court leaves, Hamlet’s emotional state becomes very apparent, too. He delivers his first soliloquy from the back of the stage, curled up in a ball, almost sobbing with grief. His distress and anger are clear through every line, but he manages to pull himself together enough to welcome Horatio enthusiastically when he arrives with the others.

After the greetings, and Horatio’s agreement that the marriage came remarkably soon after the funeral, Horatio is startled to hear Hamlet say he thinks he sees his father, and is clearly unsure how to broach the subject of his own sighting of the ghost. But only for a moment. Perhaps he realised the risks involved in telling the suffering Hamlet such news, or perhaps he was worried that he might be thought crazy. Either way, he decides to go ahead, and unfolds the whole story. Hamlet is certainly amazed, and I sensed he was excited by the possibility of seeing his father’s ghost, but I was also aware that he was keeping a little aloof, holding back from believing instantly, which I thought would tie in well with his later choices.

Now Laertes comes on stage, with servants bringing his bags. He’s carrying his foils. Ophelia enters as well, and she’s busy sorting out some piece of cloth and putting it in one of his cases while he warns her not to take Hamlet’s show of affection too seriously. She’s very light-hearted and a bit coquettish, showing us both that she’s a young woman becoming aware of her own attractiveness, and that she has a good relationship with her brother, for all that he’s been abroad for a while. She even rummages in his suitcase and discovers his condom stash to illustrate her “primrose path” comment. Laertes has to hide them pretty quickly, as Polonius arrives just then.

His advice to Laertes is obviously well known to both of them – they even complete “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”. Once Laertes has left, Polonius, with a slight sideways movement of the eyes, shows that he’s picked up on Ophelia’s parting comment to her brother. His mood changes, and he starts to question her, sending Reynaldo away so as to be private with her. She’s compliant, willing to tell her father everything he asks about – she’s unlikely to say a word more than she has to about what’s passed between her and Hamlet – and she’s also willing to obey his order not to see Hamlet again, although not happy with it.

Now we’re on the platform again, and Hamlet with Horatio and Marcellus arrive to watch for the ghost. The trumpet and cannon bit was fine, but I’m always reminded that Horatio is something of an enigma. Is he Danish? He doesn’t seem to know the royal court’s customs, he hasn’t seen the king more than once, but he knew him well enough to confirm the ghost’s identity. It’s a difficult part, with less than the average amount of personality for a Shakespeare character who’s on stage for so long, but I see him more as a necessary plot device; not only does he stop Hamlet having to soliloquise even more than he does, but he shows us that Hamlet is still capable of an affectionate relationship with someone he trusts. It’s just that right at this moment he’s surrounded by a bunch of devious bastards, some of whom may want him dead. Hamlet’s ready acceptance of Horatio contrasts with the way his initial welcome turns to mistrust of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are clearly working for the king and queen. Horatio also allows us to see that Hamlet is indeed feigning madness, as otherwise they couldn’t have the relatively straightforward conversations that they do have.

Back to the performance now, and when the ghost arrives and gestures to Hamlet to follow, he has the usual trouble getting away from his friends. I don’t remember now if he drew a gun, or if it was a dagger, but he heads off after the ghost with the others deciding to follow and protect him. The empty stage is very useful here, as there’s nothing to get in the way. The ghost, also played by Patrick Stewart, tells his story, and Hamlet is clearly affected by it. This seems to be the first time he thinks of revenge. It’s understandable that he chooses to act a bit crazy when Horatio and Marcellus catch up with him, as it’s a lot to take in. I found myself wondering when the ghost is bellowing “swear” at them, whether they were shifting their ground to match up with the ghost, or running away from it. It makes more sense to me if they’re trying to stand on the same bit of ground, though I’ve never seen it done that way – they always seem to be steering clear of it. But then the bellowing is hard to locate, so maybe I’ve completely misunderstood that scene all this while.

Polonius gives Reynaldo his lesson in using deception as an interrogation technique. It’s a lovely scene, and I wish it was done more often, as it shows us a lot more of Polonius’ character, and in this production also sets up the idea that it’s OK to use a lie to get at the truth. Shortly after this, we see Hamlet again, and I was aware that that’s the very strategy he’s using to find things out himself, what with the pretend madness. Oliver Ford Davies has been one of our favourite actors for many years, and his ability to get across Polonius’ senior moments was lovely. I saw him as a shrewd politician who’s worked for the previous king for many years, but who’s now reaching his retire by date. I also wondered if perhaps some of the younger politicos in the Danish court were wary of backing Claudius too soon, whereas Polonius saw it as an opportunity at the latter end of his career. In any case, he’s obviously the chief minister, with Claudius relying heavily on him as well as Gertrude.

After Reynaldo leaves, Ophelia enters, all upset because Hamlet’s paid her a visit and was acting strangely. She’s already come a long way from her carefree attitude during her first scene; first she was downcast at her father’s disapproval, now she’s disturbed by Hamlet’s behaviour. I fear for her sanity if this goes on.

If I’ve remembered the order of scenes correctly, this is where Hamlet gives us “to be or not to be”. The speaker earlier today who told us of the three texts for Hamlet, pointed out that this speech was the most often moved, and that there were often concerns about placing it where it supports Hamlet’s emotional journey. Here I found it suggesting that Hamlet’s enthusiasm for revenge is already on the wane, and he feels the unfairness of being asked to carry out this task. Or I may have completely forgotten what came next.

Claudius and Gertrude welcome Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with the usual warmth, and again, Claudius has to be corrected by Gertrude as to which is which. It was also clear that this was probably her idea, that she’d coached Claudius in what to say – his speech was rather prepared and formal – and that she was working hard both to support Claudius and charm these lads from Hamlet’s youth. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were the usual sort, both willing to help out royalty, and there was little else to report from this bit. As Gertrude is ushering them out, Polonius begins to tell Claudius that he’s figured out why Hamlet’s crazy – doesn’t use so few words, of course – and Claudius tells her of this as she rejoins them. Naturally she wants to know right away, but she keeps her patience while the returning ambassadors are dealt with.

I was pleased to see the bit about allowing safe passage for Fortinbras across Danish land has been dropped. Frankly, it’s a bizarre proposal, to allow a chap who’s been raising an army to fight you to simply say, oops, sorry, and let him bring those very troops onto your soil so he can allegedly attack someone else! Stupider people than Claudius would baulk at that, so here it’s cut, and as a result he doesn’t come across as such a dumbo. Other productions have indicated that Polonius, or the second ambassador, have disagreed with the wisdom of this agreement, but here it was avoided altogether.

As a result, the ambassadors are off stage very quickly, and the remaining group can get down to business, Polonius having brought Ophelia along. Polonius is as fond of hearing himself speak as Gertrude is frustrated at how long it’s taking him to get to the point. Understandable, of course, this is her son they’re talking about. Good job she’s got manners, or she might have brained him with some heavy ornament for keeping her on tenterhooks. Then Polonius swings from being long-winded to tactlessly abrupt, in declaring that Hamlet’s mad – it made poor Gertrude jump. Claudius seems to find the whole thing funny – he’s obviously figured out what Polonius is like, and has to hide his grins behind his hand a lot. This also suggested to me that he’s not concerned about Hamlet on a personal level, but as a direct threat to himself.

Polonius’ reading of Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia is as laboured as one would expect from such a greybeard, though he has to be pretty nippy to keep it out of Gertrude’s hands – she’s all over him trying to get a peek. Once the details are known, I think Gertrude is a bit happier; at least this would be a reasonable explanation for Hamlet’s apparent madness, though I don’t think she’s completely convinced. Neither is Claudius, but he does like the method suggested by Polonius to check it out. As Gertrude leaves, she comments that she hopes that Ophelia may be the cause of Hamlet’s distraction, but has to think for a moment to remember her name. Obviously, Ophelia hasn’t been much at court, so Gertrude hasn’t bothered to memorise it. It’s a nice touch.

Polonius gives Ophelia a book to carry and pretend to read – she’s also clutching some letters – and he and Claudius hide behind one of the mirror panels. This may be where “to be or not to be” was done (pay attention next time!), but in any case, Hamlet encounters Ophelia, goes through all the usual chat, realises they’re being watched and then goes completely Looney Tunes, after which she’s left there, more upset than ever at what she’s seen. Polonius and Claudius emerge, and the last bit of their scene is deferred, as we haven’t set up the play yet. Ophelia struggles off, dropping her book, which Hamlet, re-entering, picks up. This is the book he’s holding when Polonius accost him with “What do you read, my lord?”, and so we are led into Hamlet’s meeting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

This was nicely done. For the first time, we saw Hamlet not join in the laughter about their comparison of themselves to fortune’s privates. He obviously finds that a bit low for his taste, which is why Rosencrantz has to think hard to find an excuse for laughing at “man delights not me”. He obviously was thinking of women at that point, but doesn’t want to be caught out in another crudity, so he’s relieved to remember that the players are coming to Elsinore. This distracts Hamlet so much that he forgets their role as spies to welcome the players.

Again, it was a first for me to see Hamlet not managing to remember the speech perfectly after his initial false start. The players have to prompt him, and although they are kind in their response, he’s not that much cop as an actor in this production. I realised as well, for the first time, that the reason he chooses this speech is because it shows a wife’s deep grief for the loss of her murdered husband, the very thing he wants to see from his own mother. He’s completely engrossed in the speech, and there’s more of a sense of focus with this Hamlet.

I think the next bit was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reporting back, mentioning the play, and then as Gertrude ushers them out, Claudius and Polonius confer, making it clear she’s not needed, so she leaves. I was reminded of the way Lady Macbeth is increasingly left out of things by her husband once the killing really gets going, and this exclusion is clearly not to Gertrude’s liking. She is the one who’s been helping Claudius establish himself after all, and she presumably saw herself as a more powerful figure now that she had a junior partner. Not anymore. Claudius and Polonius agree that Hamlet will be shipped off to England after the play, as his madness is too dangerous to leave him free.

The stage is set for the performance now, and I did find myself wondering when they were going to take the break. It’s sometimes done after “the play’s the thing”, and nowadays is often taken after the play itself, but there aren’t a lot of places to do it conveniently past this bit. It’s not that I was getting bored at all, just that I was aware that an interval should be coming up, and I wondered where they would take it. Anyway, Hamlet does his usual bossy bit with the actors, and then he’s left alone to talk with Horatio. Although Horatio is a bit of a blank character, I could really see Hamlet’s affection for him, and how much he values him as a person and a friend.

The king and queen enter, with entourage, and take their seats. There are two fancy seats towards the back of the stage, though still on the thrust, a rug across the middle, and I remember some curtains hanging down at the back – I presume they brought some structure onto the stage to back the seats. Hamlet takes a chair over to the front of the stage, to share with Ophelia, and the rest are positioned to the sides of the royal box.

The opening mime for the play was much coarser than I’ve seen before, and so it may not have got its point across so well. The actual play was performed by characters in Elizabethan costume – the queen was in a black dress that might have been worn by Elizabeth herself – and upsets Claudius as usual. His reaction was quieter than usual, however – he walks to the front of the stage and picks up one of the lanterns himself, looking at Hamlet, before heading off. Hamlet is jubilant, and I don’t remember if Horatio heads off to get the recorder when Hamlet asks for it, or one of the servants, perhaps a player. Either way, it arrives in time for Hamlet to issue his musical challenge to Guildenstern. When Polonius comes on, and Hamlet baits him with the cloud shapes, Horatio laughs at his teasing of the old man.

After Hamlet has had his say about the witching hour, Claudius bustles on with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to arrange for Hamlet’s immediate departure for England. This fits well with the earlier scenes – Claudius was already sensing danger, and now he’s convinced that Hamlet has to be got out of the way, and the sooner the better. Polonius comes on to tell the king that he’s off to watch over Gertrude and Hamlet’s conversation, and then Claudius is left alone.

I’m not a fan of projectile vomit on stage, so I was glad that Claudius only retches at this point. Mind you, it looked pretty severe. He does his best to attempt prayer, and again I was reminded of Macbeth and his moral dilemmas. As Claudius kneels down, towards the front of the stage, Hamlet enters at the back. As he walks across the stage, he spots the man he wants to kill, and coming forward, he raises his knife above the unheeding king and says “now might I do it.” And the lights go out. That was a great way to take the interval, and for all that I know the play well, it still felt like a cliff-hanger. Brilliant.

The second half naturally opened with the same dramatic image, and this time Hamlet takes a step back to consider the situation. For once, I felt his reasoning about not killing Claudius came across as trying to get the best possible revenge rather than a delaying tactic. Now we need a bedroom for Gertrude, and it’s a splendid one, with a large bed, bedside table, dressing table, etc. As all this is wheeled on, we see Gertrude obviously upset, cause she’s at the fags and the booze, having taken off her wig. This is how she behaves when she’s not on show, and it gives her a very human touch. She and Hamlet have a ding-dong family row, and then Hamlet hears the noise of Polonius. He lunges across the bed, grabs the gun from Gertrude’s bedside table, and shoots Polonius through the mirror, which rotates to show the shattering effect, while Polonius staggers to the ground, dead. I suspect the timing of the effects was a bit off tonight, as it didn’t seem quite right.

I was sure I heard some lines tonight that I haven’t heard before in this scene – giving the mix and match approach to the text, it’s not impossible. I couldn’t always make out what Hamlet was saying, but his anger came across clearly, and given the circumstances the less than perfect diction was acceptable. The ghost sits on the bed while Hamlet is comforting Gertrude – I thought she was doing her best to avoid seeing the ghost, although she seemed to feel him brushing her hair with his hand, running her own hand over her hair immediately afterwards. Following this bit, Hamlet sounds much calmer and saner than before. There’s an unusual reaction from Gertrude towards the end of this scene. When Hamlet’s finished having a go at her, she laughs. I got the impression this was because she just can’t take it all in. The situation is worse than she thought – either Hamlet’s mad or her new husband murdered her first – and what on earth does Hamlet expect her to do about it? She shows more signs of extreme emotional distress, verging on madness, than I’ve seen before in this scene. She also reneges on her promise to Hamlet, and continues her relationship with Claudius, although she doesn’t tell about Hamlet feigning madness. Best of both worlds? Or does she just think he is actually mad? Or does she simply prefer that option over the other one?

When Claudius arrives, there are several servants coming in with him, and Gertrude suddenly realises she’s only in her silk pj’s, and feels vulnerable. Claudius is now much more concerned about keeping his own power than about his relationship with Gertrude, which is presumably why she  seems much more unhappy from now on.

The guards who rush off with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dolled up in all their finery, so they seem even more absurd when they have a mini-pile up on one of the walkways as they finally catch up with Hamlet. The comedy is emphasised when Hamlet makes his escape through one of the guard’s legs. It’s a bit like the Keystone Cops chase in David Tennant’s Comedy of Errors. When they do bring him on stage to confront Claudius, he’s on a wheelie chair, hands and feet taped to it, and with a strip of tape across his mouth. Claudius doesn’t seem to mind hurting Hamlet when he rips it off, but then neither did we, as Hamlet’s reaction to it got a good laugh from the audience.

Also present are the bishop who was in the first court scene, and a doctor. Hamlet says his lines about looking for Polonius in heaven directly to the bishop, and the doctor gives him a jab of something before wheeling him off for his trip to England. I suppose it could have been his travel inoculation, but from the context I suspect a sedative would be more likely. Good job Claudius wasn’t filling the syringe.

Ophelia’s madness was very well done. She’s angry as well as crazy, and it’s difficult to watch, but not as embarrassing as this bit usually is. She also has a lovely singing voice, even though she has to sing crazily. The first time she’s wearing her dress from earlier, but the second time she’s down to her slip, and she looks like she’s been getting into all sorts of rough places to pick her weeds and things. Her legs are muddy and bloody, and she’s carrying stuff that looks ready for the compost heap. She gives items to everyone, even the servant in the background. Laertes is angry as well as weeping, and Claudius is concerned that this anger will take him over, after working so hard to get it contained. Gertrude’s expression suggests weariness, but also that she considers there are other priorities for her now. She seems to be less bothered by the political needs.

Of course, Laertes has turned up between Ophelia’s bouts of madness, and I found it ironic that Claudius would tell Gertrude to leave Laertes alone with his speech about the divinity that hedges a king – didn’t work too well for his own brother, did it? He came across to me as quite a poker player here, willing to take calculated risks. Gertrude’s speech about Ophelia’s death came across as we’d seen in the talk on Monday, adding each bit to flesh out the story. There didn’t seem to be any spin, and I wondered if she’d actually seen her death but been unable to help. (This was confirmed next day by Penny Downie when she came to chat to the Summer School – her take was that Gertrude watched from an upstairs window, and couldn’t get help in time.)

I was also very aware during these scenes that when Claudius is dealing with Laertes at first, he’s assuming Hamlet will be killed in England, so Laertes’ desire for revenge will have to be diverted somehow. He’s been looking for a suitable time to broach the subject of Hamlet’s death, and then just when he might be able to, the letters come from Hamlet, Claudius stealing the one for Gertrude as well. His mind works quickly, and he’s soon plotted a way to bump Hamlet off without putting himself at risk, then tests Laertes’ resolve before showing him the plan, winding him up in the process. He’s also careful to make sure there’s a plan B. He is such a crafty schemer that I can’t believe Hamlet’s derogation of him to Gertrude. He obviously has ability, and has probably had to endure years in relative obscurity while his brother was king, with other people assuming he only got where he was because he’s the king’s brother. It would sour better people than Claudius.

The scene with Fortinbras’s troops came in the middle of these court scenes, and I liked the fact that Hamlet is on his own. I realised he was now on his way back to Denmark – the usual staging has him reflecting on Fortinbras’s rampant activity versus his own pathetic lack of effort, while being carted off to England by his old school chums – but here he’s done up like  a backpacker, looking like he’s hitched his way back to Denmark. We don’t actually see Fortinbras at this time; his troops are indicated by helicopter sounds, and some men in combat fatigues waving those little light wands around. Some other men were rushing around being busy, while one of the military chaps explains to Hamlet what’s going on.

The gravedigger is next. I hadn’t taken a great liking to Mark Hadfield’s performance as Puck, but I thoroughly enjoyed his cheerful gravedigger. There was a chap in a fluorescent jacket there for the gravedigger to put his question to. He gets his papers signed – Health and Safety probably – and takes away the cones, and then Hamlet and Horatio come along, strolling through the graveyard, Hamlet still with his backpack. They’re about to pass by entirely, when a skull gets thrown out of the grave and lands with a clunk on the stage. Hamlet does some rarely heard lines about what that person may have been in life, and the same with another skull that comes sailing through the air. Then he questions the gravedigger, and gets the usual cheeky replies, which the gravedigger finds extremely funny. Horatio is not engaged with this, and is looking around until Hamlet talks directly to him about Yorrick. I could really see Hamlet’s connection with someone from his childhood. How creepy is that, looking at the skull of someone you once knew?

Hamlet and Horatio came and sat by us on the ramp when the funeral procession arrives. Hamlet is very cut up to find out it’s Ophelia who’s died. His fight with Laertes seemed pretty real. Again, Claudius seems to be distancing himself from Gertrude a bit, or perhaps not realising the support she needs at this time, as he’s too caught up in his own concerns about keeping the crown. The way he tells her to put a watch on her son, speaks volumes.

Burial over (the bishop was present, again), we move to the concluding scenes. Hamlet is putting on a shirt as he re-enters, and discussing the situation with Horatio. We don’t get the details of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s deaths tonight, but we do get Hamlet’s dismissal of their end. He’s quite callous when he wants to be. The scene with Osric was a bit over my head, but I did get that Hamlet is playing verbally with him, speaking as fantastically as he can to reflect the other man’s overblown dialogue. Horatio helps him on with his fencing jacket.

The rest of the court turns up, and it took me a while to notice Gertrude. She’s completely out of sorts now, and finds the jollity of the proceedings totally inappropriate. She’s dressed in black, just as Hamlet was at the start of the play. Claudius is all smarm and charm, and Laertes is stiff and formal. His acceptance of Hamlet’s apology is truncated, so he doesn’t talk about standing aloof, but he isn’t very friendly either. Hamlet’s first hit is very quick – Osric really teased out the start of the first bout – and the second is almost as quick. Gertrude comes across to our corner to give Hamlet her napkin, and when she hears Claudius tell her not to drink, she clearly realises what’s in the cup. I don’t know how much her decision to drink it is so she can quit a world she now finds too unpleasant, and how much to save her son, but it was a very moving moment for me, and very powerful.

Soon they’re fencing again. Laertes gets his chance and cuts Hamlet across the back of his neck. Hamlet is furious, and although Laertes has put his foil back amongst the others, fights his way through to find the untipped one. Various racks and stands are tipped over during this, so the stage is becoming a bit of a mess. Hamlet gets Laertes, the queen is dying, Laertes blurts out the truth, and Hamlet gives Claudius the cup at rapier point. No one stirs to help him, so he drinks it and dies. Now Hamlet is feeling death sneaking up on him, and collapses into Horatio’s arms. Horatio has one last go at dying with him, but Hamlet finds enough strength to keep the cup from him and tip the contents out. After Horatio’s last lines to Hamlet’s body, and with the drums rolling and mirror doors opening and Fortinbras just stepping through to look at the strange scene, the lights go out. A lovely way to finish, though probably a bit puzzling for those who don’t know the play so well, as we didn’t see Fortinbras in the earlier military scene.

Despite that, this was an excellent production, and the performances were some of the best I’ve seen. Mariah Gale as Ophelia was very good, young and light hearted at first, and clearly happy about her relationship with Hamlet, but it all goes wrong when he’s not himself anymore. Her madness at losing a father mirrors his pretend madness. Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius was perfect as an old man losing his train of thought and getting too caught up in the words. Patrick Stewart as Claudius was perfect as a scheming villain who would repent if he could – an echo of Macbeth? He showed more of Claudius’s thought processes than I’ve seen before. Penny Downie as Gertrude was just beautiful, with much more of an emotional journey than I’ve seen before, and lots of lovely details in the performance, such as her encouragement of Claudius when they’re talking with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. She obviously knows all the people at court, and she’s keen that they accept Claudius as the new king, so she’s using her political nous to help him prepare, even prompting him once, I forget where.

And then David Tennant as Hamlet was superb. He is the one so many young people have come to see, and he didn’t disappoint, so hopefully there’s a lot more of the younger generation hooked on theatre now. He showed a great range of emotions, was very active physically and very expressive, from leaping around the stage to curling up in a ball. Much more active than reflective, in fact, though there was plenty of that as well. Hamlet’s thought processes came over quite well, though not as well as the emotions. He has tremendous stage presence, and was totally believable as a potential king.

The ideas about madness that we were given during today’s Summer School talk didn’t quite fit with what I saw. I was aware that Hamlet is telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stuff that isn’t necessarily true, as he doesn’t trust them. Instead of explaining that he’s unhappy because he’s found out his uncle killed his father and married his mother to get the crown, which would be very dangerous, he resorts to vagueness. So any idea that he’s suffering from a condition where he is avoiding looking at the root cause of his unhappiness has to be taken with a large block of salt. Based on tonight’s performance, Hamlet is only too well aware of his predicament, and the causes of it, and it does him great credit that he manages to stay as rational as he does in the circumstances. If Freud and the others analysed Hamlet based on his overt speeches, without taking into account the context in which they were said (this is a play, after all), then they missed the point entirely. At least Hamlet didn’t have to pay them for their time.

Also, we were told about the options to use “your philosophy” or “our philosophy” – tonight it was “our”.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – August 2008

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Monday 18th August 2008

This may be based on the production Greg Doran did several years ago, but it seems so different now, and I suspect a lot of that is down to the brilliant stage that the Courtyard has become, as well as the extra experience Greg has mustered in the interim. The set has a mirror wall at the back, which reflects the action on stage wonderfully. I was aware a few times of seeing someone’s reflection, and I loved the images that conjured up. For instance, when Titania has her eyes anointed by Oberon, she’s spotlit, and there’s a lovely reflection of her in the distance. I saw this as showing the parallel universe idea – with the juice on her eyes, she’s about to enter another world where she’ll behave and experience life completely differently to normal. As that’s one of the themes of the play, it fitted in perfectly, and added to my enjoyment.

The rest of the set was magical as well. Light bulbs hung from the ceiling, and these  lit up to represent the fairy activity, as well as being lowered down to create a forest. There was a huge moon globe hanging back left, which was lit in lots of different ways, and apparently made a steady journey across to our right during the first half. It was so smoothly done that I just didn’t notice it at all, until it was already there. We found out later that they had hoped to bring it back during the second half, but the flying fairies got in the way.

The play itself started with Hippolyta and Theseus having a sword fight in Greek masks and armour – she wins – and they both seem very happy. Servants come on, and they change into modern gear before the group of contentious folk arrive. As the concerns of Egeus, Hermia, Demetrius, etc. are aired, Hippolyta is very unhappy to hear about how Athenian law regards women’s rights in marriage. She brushes Theseus away with a sweeping hand gesture or two, and storms off before his “Come my Hippolyta”.

Lysander’s gifts to Hermia are gone through in detail, ending up on the floor, along with the trinket box Hermia had been keeping them in. Lysander is casual, almost scruffy, Demetrius is prim and uptight. Hermia is a girly girl, well used to bossing men around – she snaps her fingers for Lysander to pick up her box of trinkets – but she has a temper, and they all know that when Helena calls her a dwarf, there’ll be trouble. Helena is a bit of a drip to begin with – specs and a baggy cardie – but maybe that’s the depression.

The mechanicals were very good. They brought on a burger stand and a portable tailor’s cubicle. Unlike Flute, the tailor is really keen to play a woman, and starts selecting cloth as soon as he gets the part. Bottom roars at some women in the audience, to demonstrate just how scary a lion can be, and really does scare them, but they get over it, just as he, eventually, gets over his sulk at not being allowed to play the lion.

Puck emerges from a pile of bin bags, with hairy legs – goat presumably – and hoof-like boots. He often stamps them for effect. The fairies use dolls, and the Indian boy is still a puppet. Titania and Oberon are really not getting on – he’s a bit fierce. Her speech which we heard earlier in the day, came across very clearly, and her arms were certainly moving. I reckoned Oberon is moved by Helena’s speech partly because it’s the kind of devotion he’d like from Titania. Puck has to stop Lysander waking up too soon, and falling for him!

For the first encounter with Hermia and Lysander, the fairies get involved, steal their luggage, and then bring back their clothes on hangers to cause some confusion. They react to what’s being said, agreeing with Helena that she’s ugly (how unkind, and untrue), and repeating some words while prompting some others. They wake up Hermia when Lysander’s gone, and they really rounded out these scenes, so much so that I found myself missing them later on when it was just Oberon and Puck.

Titania going to bed with her fairies singing their song was quite nice, but the silhouettes behind the mirror wall were excellent. We see the fairies she’s sent off to do various tasks, and then a big shadow looms up, and the fairies are scared. They run off, and this huge shadow of Oberon appears to lean over Titania and put the flower drug on her eyes. It’s wonderfully menacing.

The first half finishes with Bottom getting his new head – it’s a big one – and the others running off. Bottom’s attempts at singing were hilarious. He has to overcome a tendency to bray, then he starts dancing along with himself, and he’s trying his best to do all the moves – the DJ shuffle, etc. Titania wakes up, and she’s all over him in no time. The fairies seem to enjoy Bottom’s jokes – they laughed more than we did.

The second half starts with Snug being chased by the fairies, who steal his paper, and then Quince appears, trying to get away with his bike. The fairies pull that to pieces, and the bits chase him off the stage. Wall is also chased off by a paper man, flying through the air at him, and presumably made out of the paper stolen from Snug.

Oberon wants to know if Puck’s done his job, and Puck reports back on Titania’s new obsession. Oberon runs at him, and I wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but he’s really pleased with the result. Puck then tells him he’s sorted out the other matter, but unfortunately for him, the outcome of that blunder is about to turn up.

When the lovers turn up we get all the permutations; Will really goes for broke here with all sorts of declarations of passion and rejection. I would have liked more reaction during this scene from Puck – he tells us he loves this stuff, but he’s looking really miserable while he’s watching it. I noticed that Helena was wavering between enjoying the attention of the men and hating them for treating her so badly. At one point, Lysander and Demetrius slide across the floor to be near her while she chides Hermia for her behaviour, so different from their earlier friendship.

When it came to putting the lovers to sleep at front of stage, Puck had got fed up with how long Lysander kept chatting after he’d lain down, and was doing the hand chattering bit. The fairy porters nearly put Hermia in the wrong place. They’ve had to pick her up as she was too tired to make it on her own (mainly because they kept pulling her back), but Puck has to stop them, and as they reverse to get her in the right place, fairy Health and Safety kicks in and they do the beeping sound.

Then Oberon releases Titania from her enchantment, and here he emerges from behind the trolley that Bottom is sleeping in, which Puck wheels to the back of the stage when he takes the ass’s head off. Theseus and Hippolyta arrive, and when she tells her story of the Spartan hounds, he tries to butt in, but she keeps on. He finally gets a word in edgeways, and tries to show off with his boast that his hounds are bred of the Spartan kind. She’s not impressed. The lovers are really unsure of themselves when they wake up. Hermia isn’t sure if Lysander loves her again, while Helena is convinced it’s all been for nothing, and that Demetrius still doesn’t love her. Her realisation when he does declare his love for her was lovely to see, as was Hermia’s happiness at getting Lysander back.

Bottom recovers well, and takes a long time deciding on the title for his poem, for both parts. This speech got more laughs than usual. His gestures made it clear what he thought he had!

The other mechanicals are clearly depressed, and it’s not helped by Flute going on and on about how they would have got sixpence a day if they’d been able to do their play. Bottom turns up, and after failing to give them any information on his recent experiences, tells them to get ready to perform. Flute is too nervous to contain himself, hence the comment about clean linen.

The couples arrive, Theseus and Hippolyta first. There are more reactions from the youngsters this time to Philostrate’s descriptions of the potential offerings. Lysander in particular seemed keen to see the tipsy bacchanals, but despite Philostrate’s total dissing of Pyramus and Thisbe, Theseus goes for it.

The prologue was nervous, and then ‘truth’ arrives on stage to prepare the audience by telling them the whole story. As he names each one, the characters appear on stage, and as it’s only a small space, it soon gets crowded. Wall is taking up a fair bit of room, and Thisbe gets crushed against the post, still grinning. Lion can hardly find a way through. ‘Truth’ manages a respectable somersault during his stint. Various characters appear and head off again as this stage audience haven’t got the hang of shutting up!

Wall hasn’t got a convenient chink, so we’re treated to his nether regions, clad in red Y-fronts. Thisbe’s remarks about ‘I kiss your stones’ were directed at those items, while ‘I kiss the wall’s hole’ was similarly accurate.

Moonshine was treated badly by the on-stage audience, but we stuck up for him -‘ah’, we all said. The lion had memorised his lines remarkably well, for someone who had only a small strip of paper to study up to that point. (He showed it to Bottom earlier when the latter was devising a great long speech for him to say.)

Thisbe didn’t want to let go of her scarf, so it had to be passed through the curtain, and then changed for the red one, to show the blood. Pyramus’ death scene went on for ages, and was very funny. He even came back to life so he could stagger back to the stage. He’d been lured off it by Hippolyta’s expression of pity – probably developed a taste for posh bird – but he ended up back on stage. Thisbe’s death scene wasn’t as moving as some have done it – it was shaping up that way, despite Flute not even attempting a female voice, but the he/she put an emphasis on his eyes being a  green as leeks, and the laugh kept us away from the emotions. The other actors did peer around the curtains, and that got a laugh as well. Earlier, the whole stage had moved over when the Duke and gents got up to collect champagne, and Wall was a trifle exposed for a moment.

The final dance included the nobility, and then Puck enters through the curtains to start the fairy song. It was a great performance, and much enjoyed by everyone, to judge by the response. I’m looking forward to seeing it again, at least once.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me