Love’s Labour’s Lost – October 2008 (3)

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Peter Hall

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 30th October 2008

Having recently seen the RSC production of this play, as well as the understudy performance to refresh our memories, I was concerned that I would not be able to set my prejudices aside and give this production the attention it deserved. I didn’t have to worry for long. Although this was almost a complete mirror image of the RSC version, I found myself enjoying it well before the end of the first scene.

The set was in complete contrast for a start. The whole width and depth of the stage was being used, and in a stark, simple way. The floor was all wood strips, there were metal balcony railings and two metal ladders, and there was a pair of wrought iron gates in the centre, between two pillars. Somewhat like those ranch gates they used to have in westerns – nothing for miles around, and a few poles forming a gate for visitors to ride through. Bizarre in that setting, but here it worked. There was also a reading desk to the right hand side of the stage.

When the king arrived with his three henchmen, I nearly giggled. The Elizabethan costume in the RSC production worked very well. Here, in this sparse environment, it looked a little silly. All the men wore black – more of a Jacobean influence, I think. The hats were also humorous, so I was finding it a bit difficult to give my all for the beginning section, though they carried it off well enough. In fact, I would say the clarity of speech in this production far exceeded that in the RSC’s version. Admittedly I had the benefit of seeing the play twice before today, and checking the text as I did these notes, so I was far more familiar with the dialogue than usual, but even so the lines came across very clearly here, and I got a lot more out of some of the relatively opaque sections.

The biggest contrast, and the one I want to get out of the way first, was between the Berownes. David Tennant is tall, agile, and very expressive with both his face and body. Finbar Lynch is short, tends not to move much if he can avoid it, and his range of facial expressions is not much greater than Mr Potato Face. (I mean this in a nice way, honest.) Both can deliver a line very well, though, and given the nature of this play, that’s just as well. So, while the RSC version goes for almost over the top physical manifestations of the text’s jokes, this production settles for getting the text across, and letting the audience do their bit. Both ways are fine (though the attentive reader will deduce my preferences from my ratings).

I think there was more of the text used in this production, though as I heard more of it I can’t be sure which were bits I just missed in the other performances. The staging was very straightforward, with the reading desk brought on and off as required, and benches and stools provided for the nobility to rest their legs. For such a big, empty space, they managed to fill it with people and action very well, and used it to the full. There were extra attendants, but they didn’t come on that often, so it was mainly the known characters.

Peter Bowles as Don Armado deserves a special mention for keeping his character within the bounds of reason and decency, and not using a ridiculous accent to get his laughs. That’s partly why I understood a lot more of his dialogue throughout. Jaquenetta’s “dish-clout” he actually receives from her when he’s telling her he’ll meet her in the lodge. Ella Smith has an embonpoint that could win gold medals, and when she teases an end of cloth out from between two fleshy mounds, what can the poor man do but take it gratefully and keep it next to his heart?

Moth was played by Kevin Trainor, an older actor than usual, but it helped with the delivery of his lines. He came across as a bit camp, but that may have been to indicate his youth, and the wit was very well conveyed. He had a good partner in Costard, played by Greg Haiste, who was all grins and lolloping cheerfulness. Nothing could get him down, and he worked a very nice double act with Moth at times.

Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel were different again. Both were cleanly dressed (this was a much more hygienic production all round), and the schoolmaster’s lewdness was not remarked on at all. His pedantry and stupidity came across beautifully, though, and I finally got the section where he complains about Don Armado’s pronunciation of certain words, getting them completely wrong himself. Like pronouncing the “b” in “debt”. William Chubb did this all wonderfully well, helped by Paul Bentall as Sir Nathaniel, the well-meaning but easily led curate. Peter Gordon as Dull was fine, and we all enjoyed his line about not understanding a word that had been said, even though I actually found I had understood most of it.

Rachel Pickup was lively and intelligent as the princess, and Susie Trayling was a fine Rosaline, with plenty of wit and common sense. Again, I understood much more of the banter and raillery amongst the Frenchwomen than I had before. At least one, Katherine (Sally Scott) knows how these games of love can damage the human heart –  her sister died from Cupid’s attentions. Boyet, played by Michael Mears, was good, though perhaps not my favourite of the current crop.

The king (Dan Fredenburgh) and his men were also fine; not as well differentiated as I’ve seen, but still enjoyable. The RSC’s version makes the men very immature, and so the women seem less grown up as a result. Here the men are simply being silly, but are still men worthy of being considered as suitors, so that the women seem more mature as well. The overall effect was of a more sophisticated version of the play, relying more on the language and characters to get the humour across, and they did it very well. I’m hopeful the Rose can keep up this sort of standard with its next productions.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Ivanov – October 2008


By Anton Chekov, English version by Tom Stoppard

Directed by Michael Grandage

Donmar in the West End

Wyndhams Theatre

Wednesday 29th October 2008

Wow. This was an amazing production of this play, the sort of production that makes you wonder why it isn’t done more often. The performances were all excellent, and the set design, costumes, etc made it all the more enjoyable. As far as we could see, the audience were definitely a more theatrical crowd than usual, including Joseph Millson and Niamh Cusack, but even so the coughing was a problem. Ah well.

The opening was visually striking, with Kenneth Branagh standing on his own, pacing about a sort of courtyard outside his house, looking miserable and depressed. He’s startled by the firing of a gun; Lorcan Cranitch as Borkin decides to cheer him up. Borkin is one of those Energiser Bunny types; he’s always got some scheme on the go, and it’s almost impossible to shut him up. Gradually we meet the people closest to Ivanov – his wife Anna Petrovna (Gina McKee), his uncle Shabelsky (Malcolm Sinclair) who happens to be a count, but doesn’t have any money to go with the title, and Lvov (Tom Hiddleston – Posthumus/Cloten in Cheek by Jowl’s Cymbeline), the doctor who’s attending Anna Petrovna and has diagnosed her condition as tuberculosis. Lvov is priggish and self-righteous, and very angry with Ivanov, believing him to be the main cause of his wife’s illness. Anna Petrovna is the loyal, understanding type, but even she’s being worn down by Ivanov’s apparently inexplicable behaviour. Shabelsky just wants to enjoy himself, without having to marry any of the rich widows that this area seems to have in abundance.

The second act shows us the other household that the play is concerned with. Zinaida (Sylvestra Le Touzel), her husband Lebedev (Kevin R McNally) and their daughter Sasha (Andrea Riseborough) seem to be the centre of attention. It’s Sasha’s birthday, and just about everyone has come to pay their respects. Zanaida wishes they would come to pay her what they owe her. She’s been left very rich (her husband has practically nothing), and she lives on the proceeds of moneylending. Not that she spends a kopeck more than she has to, mind you. When the guests go outside to watch some fireworks (courtesy of Borkin), she goes around the room snuffing out the candles. Ivanov owes her several thousand roubles and the interest is due, but he has nothing to pay her with, hence his trip over to see her to ask for more time. Lebedev is one of those poor husbands who finds himself without authority in his own home, which makes for some very entertaining moments. The “guests”, or hangers-on, are supplemented by another rich widow, Babakina (Lucy Briers), and Ivanov and Shabelsky who arrive with Borkin.

As the birthday party moves outside for the fireworks, various private conversations can go on inside. Borkin jokingly persuades Shabelsky to propose to Babakina, and then Sasha declares her love for Ivanov, which has to be one of the silliest things any Chekov heroine has done. Presumably she believes she can make his life wonderful again. Anyway, he’s about to accept her offer and starting to believe he can be happy again when Anna Petrovna arrives and sees them kissing. She faints. Interval.

The third act is set in Ivanov’s “office” on his estate. It’s a shambles, with painting equipment, a desk, lots of papers, and three men sitting drinking themselves silly. No Ivanov to be seen. Shabelsky, Borkin and Lebedev are chatting and drinking, and waiting for Ivanov. Lvov also turns up, and when Ivanov arrives, just about everyone is clamouring for his attention. He’s in a temper about Shabelsky’s drinking in the office (and the pickled cucumbers, etc), but listens to Lebedev first. Lebedev wants to lend Ivanov enough money to pay the interest he owes to Zinaida, but Ivanov refuses. Lvov then has his turn, and comes out with some ludicrous stuff. He’s so far gone in his arrogance that he can’t see much of what’s happening other than his own prejudices. He believes Ivanov wants his wife to die so he can marry Sasha and get her dowry. Neither man can stand the other, but my sympathies were (just) with Ivanov, as the doctor is almost freakish in his intolerance.

He leaves when he sees Sasha turn up, and then she and Ivanov have their little heart to heart. When Anna Petrovna does arrive, Sasha has gone, but that doesn’t stop them having a row. She’s finally realised that he doesn’t love her anymore (we could have told her that an hour ago), and he lashes out in return, not only calling her a Yid (she was Jewish but converted when she married him), but tells her outright that she’s a dead woman. That gets to her, and although he regrets it, there’s nothing more to be said. I found it wasn’t as shocking as some other moments I’ve seen, such as Freddie borrowing a shilling for the gas meter in The Deep Blue Sea, but it was climactic.

The final act is some time later, after Anna Petrovna has died, and Ivanov and Sasha are about to be married. It’s set in the Lebedev’s sitting room again, only this time the furniture has been cleared out, and there are some decorations (presumably the cheapest). There are various conversations that we get to see. Sasha is having some doubts, but her father talks to her and she’s resolved again. Shabelsky turns up, and before you know it, there are two, then three people having a good cry in the room, with only Lebedev unmoved. I loved it when Zanaida turns up crying as well. I could see that she was in tears at the thought of losing the money Ivanov owed her, as well as having to pay over more roubles for the dowry, rather than any concern for her daughter or emotional upset because there’s to be a wedding.

Ivanov arrives and does his best to persuade Sasha to give him up. She refuses, and after some more confrontations, including another interruption from the doctor, Ivanov takes his courage, and his revolver, into the next room and shoots himself.

Simply telling the story doesn’t begin to get across the impact of this production. With such strong performances, all the characters came to life, and the dialogue, which was modern yet seemed appropriate for the time, sparkled with wit. The character types that Chekov used throughout his career were all here, and I was struck by the way all the people, especially Ivanov, were suffering because of the community they lived in rather than the events of their lives or their personalities. It’s clear Chekov isn’t making any judgements of his characters, which is just as well given the behaviour of some of them. It was a tremendous performance, and possibly the best we’ll see of this play.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Enjoy – October 2008


By Alan Bennett

Directed by Christopher Luscombe

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Monday 27th October 2008

I have absolutely no idea how to categorise this play. It was certainly funny; we were amazed at some of the things we laughed at in this play, including a disabled chap with a plate in his head, the washing of a dead body, someone peeing through a letterbox, obvious poverty, etc. It was also very dark in places, and although there was a surreal air to the suited folk who took the house, and in fact the whole street, off to a museum situated in a park, complete with forgetful old woman, the line between realistic and surreal was so fine as to be almost invisible.

The set was the sitting room of an old back-to-back, with the door on the left, kitchen door next to it, and stairs next to that. It seemed ludicrously small in the vast space of the main stage, which added to the fun, and presumably made it easier to take it apart at the end. There was a folding table with two chairs to the left of the door, a sofa between kitchen and stairs, and to the right was the chair that Wilf, or Dad as he was mainly called, sat. He had been knocked down by a hit-and-run driver, so couldn’t walk very well and had a plate in his head. He kept his porn stash behind his cushion, and split his time between reminding Connie, or Mam, of whatever she’d forgotten, praising his daughter to the skies (a PA who was actually a whore), and bad mouthing everyone and everything else, especially the son he claimed he didn’t have, and who’d left them many years ago. Mam, played by Alison Steadman, could have lost a memory contest against a goldfish. I lost count of how many times Wilf had to remind her that Linda, their daughter, had gone to Sweden. The joke had a massive payoff though – when Linda arrived back unexpectedly, it turned out she’d actually gone to Swindon.

So far, it’s been a fairly recognisable picture of family life in those kind of houses, and in any period from the fifties onwards. The play was first produced in 1980, and we reckoned it represented the 1970s, but still seemed as if it had been written yesterday. The attitudes are so old-fashioned, but the references are to the 70s, and the feel is very up-to-date. Quite a remarkable achievement, and perhaps that’s why the play seems to be doing better today than it did when it was first produced.

A letter arrives from the council. They’ve been knocking down all the old houses and re-housing the occupants, but now they’ve realised that they’re wilfully destroying the evidence of a bygone age, and so they want to study the remaining inhabitants so they can preserve a record  for posterity, or some such reason. They want Mam and Dad to allow an observer into their house, a lady who won’t speak to them but will record what goes on. Mam decides to let her in, and it’s obvious the woman is actually a man in a grey skirt and jacket. (S)he takes a seat by the table, crosses her elegant long legs and stays completely silent throughout. Of course, Mam and Dad can’t avoid talking to her, and despite claiming to carry on as normal, their behaviour changes noticeably. The best china comes out for a cup of tea, for example, and Dad’s language improves dramatically. Mind you, it isn’t exactly a normal day they’re having, what with Linda coming back and announcing she’s off to Saudi Arabia to marry a sheikh, and Dad getting hit on the head by a local thug (who brings him his porn mags, but who also likes using the letterbox as a urinal). The thug hits him too hard on his metal plate, and Dad goes unconscious. When Mam returns from doing her shopping soon after (she forgot  she wanted a tin of salmon, so got some loo rolls instead), she thinks he might be dead, and gets one of the neighbours to help her deal with the body. Played by Carol Macready, this formidable lady informs Mam that if he is dead, they’ve only just missed him, and then they decide to wash the body, as the local undertakers is now a paving slab place. David Troughton, who played Dad, had to put up with two women groping him all over, taking his clothes off and putting him on the floor. No wonder Wilf gets an erection! It’s all very tastefully done, but the sight of the two women wondering if this reaction is normal with a dead body, while there are two observers sitting serenely, taking it all in (the neighbour brought her own observer), was utterly hilarious.

Eventually Mam decides that she’s had enough of the old ways, and that the Co-op can take care of it. They put Wilf back in his chair, and Mam checks on the “situation” from time to time. It’s about this time that Terry, their son, reveals himself. Of course we guessed who he was before this, and Connie makes it clear she recognised him as well, though her memory problems mean she doesn’t remember this a short while later. Linda comes back, in a temper, as she didn’t make the shortlist for the sheikh’s new wives. She brings another man with her, her latest client, I assume, and there’s a lovely touch when Mam assumes he’s another one of the observers, and comments on how chatty he is, not like the others. This time, Linda’s off to somewhere else, I forget where, and then Wilf revives. He’s only been unconscious after all. But now he finds he can’t move – the blow to his head must have paralysed him. Connie acts like he’s just making it up, or that it’s temporary, but we can see it’s real, and this is when the play gets really dark.

Terry explains that “they” want to take Connie and Wilf away from this place, and after reassuring them both many times that’s they’re not being put into a home, he tells them they’ll be living in the same house, but with a lot more comfort, in the museum in the park. Visitors will come round and see how bad things used to be in the old days. But Wilf  has to be taken to the hospital instead, as he needs to be taken care of, and he’s both terrified and frustrated that he won’t get into their promised new maisonette. As the suits remove the building, wheeling it off to the wings, Wilf is taken off in a wheelchair and Connie appears, dressed up to the nines, ready to go to her “new” home.  The play ends with each of the three main characters isolated in a spotlight, Wilf still in his wheelchair, telling us how their lives are now. Mam still thinks she’s in a home, Terry spends more time with Wilf, who seems to be reconciled to his situation. It’s a downbeat ending, but it works.

There were great performances all round, and some wonderfully observed dialogue, especially when Terry, alone for a moment or two, tells us what he sees in the house. It’s as if Alan Bennett was talking directly to us, and it’s understandable that the play could seem more autobiographical than it is. So a fine night out, then, even if I’ve no idea what type of play I was watching.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Waste – October 2008


By Harley Granville Barker

Directed by Sam West

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 25th October 2008

This was a bit of a waste, as it turned out. The talent was there, but the style of the piece just didn’t allow me to enjoy it as much as I had before, although the similarities with current events were abundantly clear.

To begin with, I forgot to get the remote for my hearing aids out, and so I missed some of the early dialogue which was just too quiet for me to catch. Having said that, even with my aids on full volume I still missed some of the later dialogue, either because the lines weren’t said clearly enough – the intonation or diction were a little sloppy – or because the set design meant that characters were addressing the far wall in order to speak to other characters, and didn’t project enough to fill even that small space. The amount of coughing was also a problem, and several lines were lost under that fusillade.

Even so I heard enough to get the gist of the story, though I didn’t remember the details from the earlier production we saw at the RSC. The opening scenes of each half were by far the best for us, especially the start of the second half, when the politicians gather to protect one of their own. The story concerns an independent MP, Henry Trebell, who has an affair with the wife of an Irish Catholic. When she gets pregnant by him, she decides to have an abortion, and that operation goes tragically wrong, resulting in her death. If the affair becomes public during the inquest, the bill which Trebell has been drafted into the Cabinet to spearhead, will fail. This bill is to disestablish the Church of England, and remove its connection to and influence on the British Parliament. So, lots of contentious issues there, and the play is even stronger because Trebell decides to kill himself once he loses his government appointment. The bill was his real baby; he comes across as a cold and pretty heartless person apart from his love of change, and especially change in this area. It’s not too surprising that the Lord Chamberlain refused to allow the original version onto the stage, and even this revised version had a long wait to appear in public.

The performances were mostly very good, clarity of speech aside, and my only real problem was in the portrayal of the two lovers. Trebell was too cold to be entirely believable as a man with carnal passions, and Amy O’Connell, the supposed lover, was a strange character, strong then weak, cynical then neurotic, so I could never make up my mind what was going on with her. With this weakness at the heart of the play, or rather this lack of a heart to the play, I found only the scenes with the politicians were really interesting, and the rest were tolerable. Hugh Ross as Cyril Horsham, the newly-elected Prime Minister, was excellent, as were all of his Cabinet, and I enjoyed Bruce Alexander as Gilbert Wedgecroft, a doctor who was closely connected to all these powerful people, and who could give us information on the abortion front, not that the word itself was bandied around much.

Finally, the set was an interesting design. There were three locations, and the design allowed for all of them. The opening scene was in a v-shaped drawing-room, with a door to our left, a corner of the room going back to some French windows, and a bookcase to our right. There was a piano and various chairs and sofas. With very little work, the central part of the set was rotated, and the “v” of the corner became another corner pointing outwards, making an “L” shaped office space. The door became a bookcase, the bookcase became a door, there was a desk and chairs, and voila, we are in Trebell’s office. The politicians gathered in a reprise of the first room, though now done up as a library, and then it’s back to the office for the final scenes. Very economical and effective.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Liberty – October 2008


By Glyn Maxwell, based on the novel by Anatole France

Directed by Guy Retallack

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 24th OCtober 2008

We enjoyed this a lot more than the critics, apparently, even though the audience numbers were sadly depleted. It’s a play about the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, and although I knew a bit about it – guillotine, tricoteuses, new calendar, etc. – I wasn’t up to speed on most of the play’s content, which made it an interesting evening if nothing else.

The play is based on a novel by Anatole France, and uses six of his main characters who represent the different ways in which the French people were affected by, and responded to, the Revolution. One, Evariste Gamelin, is selected to become a magistrate, and we see him evolve from being an idealist who fervently believes in the promises of the Revolution to a fanatic who sends people to their death because that’s the only way for the Revolution to set people free. He’s a nutter, basically, but this play does show how people can become corrupted when they believe their cause is just.

He takes up with a pretty young embroidress, Elodie, and his brainwashing turns  her into a zombie, spouting Revolutionist slogans. She’s rescued by the end of the Terror, and returns to something like normality. Gamelin’s main friend is Philippe, a chap who’s happy to take advantage of the opportunities that abound when there’s a war, and who’s eventually arrested for profiteering. He actually manages to survive the Terror, but Gamelin is not so lucky. The magistrates are being informed against on a regular basis, and so despite his purity and dedication to the cause, he too is taken away and killed.

There’s also an actress friend of Philippe’s, called Rose Clebert, and she suffers through the shutting of the theatres and the banning of any “improper” plays. As she used to play aristocrats, she’s in danger of being seen as one of them, especially when she comes to the aid of Maurice, a former aristocrat who now lodges with Gamelin. She and Maurice were partners in a game the friends were all playing at the picnic which forms the opening scene. That scene doesn’t include the game itself, but it’s often referred to in later scenes. Maurice (a lovely performance by John Bett) opened the second half of the play with his puppets, and gets us all to join in while he gets ready for a puppet show. Rose comes along and they get talking, and it’s all good fun, with a lot of laughs and some audience participation. Then two citizen soldiers arrive and start throwing their weight around, and the whole scene becomes very unpleasant. They make Maurice shag one of his puppets, and Rose might be on the menu as well, but fortunately Gamelin comes along and sends the men packing. It’s only a temporary reprieve however, as both Rose and Maurice are arrested, with Maurice not surviving to the end. Losing him is tough for her, and she ends up reading his book instead of joining in the parties and fun that Philippe and Elodie are off to.

There’s one final character, played by Belinda Lang, who is Louise Rochemaure, a female wheeler-dealer who spends all her time hatching schemes and trying to get to know the people in power. Through Gamelin, whose appointment to the bench she has orchestrated, she gets to know Marat, and is just about to pull off a big coup when someone kills him in his bath, and she’s suddenly up in front of the courts and not doing very well from the sound of it. She also doesn’t survive.

I enjoyed a lot of this play, not least the performances and the humour. I thought the historical information was put into the dialogue very well, and there were only a couple of places where it seemed a bit like a lecture. I could relate to the characters pretty well, especially Maurice and Rose, and I liked the change from humour and fun to seriousness and menace in that opening to the second half. It took a while to get going, and although I could see why the author wanted to start with the picnic scene, I felt that it was too loose somehow to really engage me. Something seemed to be missing, though I couldn’t say what. The audience did its best to make up for lack of numbers, and I hope the cast were as happy with our performance this evening as we were with theirs.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Creditors – October 2008


By August Strindberg, in a new version by David Greig

Directed by Alan Rickman

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 23rd October 2008

I’ve only seen one Strindberg play before, at Chichester, and I was surprised on that occasion to find it more humorous than I’d expected. This play was similar in that respect, and also had the same darkness in all of the characters that appears to be typical of Strindberg’s work.

Three characters meet in the lounge of a Swedish hotel by the sea. There are three scenes, and each scene has two of the characters, so we get to see all of the relationships. At the end, all three are together for what is basically a final, short tableau.

The three people are Adolph, a painter who is unwell, Tekla, his wife who is also a writer, and Gustav, who appears to be a doctor. At first Gustav and Adolph are talking, and it’s clear that Gustav has had a very strong impact on Adolph in a short time. Tekla has been away – she’s expected back at any moment – and it’s the relationship between Adolph and Tekla that Gustav is working on, trying to get Adolph to stand up for himself and take back his manly “rights”, whatever they may be. As a result, Adolph doesn’t go down to the ferry to meet his wife, and when she arrives, all concerned for her husband, Gustav has taken himself off to the next room to overhear their conversation so that he can give Adolph some feedback later.

Husband and wife then have a conversation that shows us their relationship and how Adolph has changed towards her. There’s some frank talk about sex and lovers, and it’s clear they have, or had, a very playful relationship. Now that Adolph has been affected by what he’s heard from Gustav, including a very morbid and detailed description of an epileptic fit, he can’t relate to her in the same way. He wants them to leave that night, while she intends to stay to attend a soiree that evening. He leaves to take a walk in the fresh air and after a short time Gustav re-enters the room.

I’d realised by this time that Gustav had to be Tekla’s first husband, and indeed he was. He now shows his true darkness, as he pretends not to have known she was there. Despite their history, he still manages to seduce her enough to get her agreement to have an assignation with him that night after Adolph has left. She’s partly persuaded by a torn photo of her that Adolph left behind and which Gustav is using to good effect. She finally picks up on this because of something he said, and realises, too late, that she’s been had. As Gustav explains to her the way in which he’s corrupted Adolph as revenge for her betrayal, Adolph is revealed at the door. He’s been listening to their conversation, and now he’s succumbed to Gustav’s programming. He falls into the room suffering from his first epileptic fit, and the play ends with Tekla trying to help him and Gustav commenting that she really does love him.

This description doesn’t get across the lightness and humour in much of this play. Despite appearances, and all of the characters being unpleasant in their own way, I liked the gritty way in which Strindberg was examining these relationships. While I find these plays not as satisfying as those which include the light with the dark – Strindberg really isn’t interested in anything “good” about his characters or people in general from what I’ve seen – I find he makes some good observations about men and women, and introduces some interesting ideas. I was struck once again by how much energy for change there was in Scandinavia at that time. This comes out in Ibsen’s work as well. There were also some comments about how we pick up habits from those around us, especially those we are close to, and how difficult it is to tell who has influenced us and how much.

But the main pleasure for me was the performances. Owen Teale as Gustav conveyed just the right amount of malice concealed behind a well-intentioned exterior. I could see why Tekla had left him in the first place. He wanted to control everything and couldn’t stand to let her get away. Anna Chancellor as Tekla was superb, showing us all the intelligence, passion and vulnerability of this modern woman. And Tom Burke as Adolph gave us a believable victim, despite the increasingly absurd and extreme pronouncements of Gustav. He was like a rabbit in the headlights, transfixed and unable to move. A really good production all round.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Don’t Look Now – October 2008


By Daphne Du Maurier, adapted by Nell Leyshon

Directed by Ian Dickens

Company: Ian Dickens Productions

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Wednesday 22nd October 2008

This was slightly disappointing. The play was based on both the original novel and the film with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, which I haven’t seen but Steve has. The story is set in and around Venice.

The set design was a bit boring, even allowing for the fact that this is a touring production. There were lots of walls, arches and balconies, all in washed-out colours. There were a lot of furnishings to be taken on and off between scenes, but as this was done fairly briskly I didn’t find it a problem. In general though, I felt there was very little sense of atmosphere. I suspect the lighting was partly at fault, as it seemed very flat most of the time.

The play started with a young couple sitting at an outdoor table on one of the Venetian islands. Their young daughter, Christina, died a short time ago, and their trip to Venice is an attempt to get over their grief. Their son is back in England, at school. They spot a couple of older women watching them, and make up backgrounds for them – jewel thieves, murderers, that sort of thing. One of the women talks to the wife during a trip to the loo, and this triggers an emotional change in her which disturbs the husband.

The older woman who has spoken to the wife has told her that the other older woman, her sister, is blind, but has developed an ability to see visions. She saw their daughter at their table, and this makes the wife very happy. From being unwilling to let her husband touch her, she changes so much she has sex with him that afternoon. He, on the other hand, thinks the sisters are just conning them, and becomes absurdly insistent that his wife has been taken in by a load of old rubbish.

It’s absurd because his emotions seem out of place in the circumstances. He also takes to seeing what may be their daughter, dressed in the red cloak she used to wear. The sense of foreboding increases when they get a call from England, to tell them their son is in hospital, and needs an urgent operation to remove his appendix. The wife flies back at once, but despite a warning from the two sisters that they should both leave Venice immediately, the husband stays on, planning to pick up their car and drive back.

The next day, he sees his wife with the two sisters, and instigates a police hunt for her, believing that the sisters have lured her back somehow. Then he manages to talk with her by phone, and is greatly relieved to find she’s in England, and their son is well after his operation. The police aren’t too happy when he tells them they were on a wild goose chase, though. They’re trying to track down a murderer who’s killing tourists, and didn’t need to be wasting their valuable time on something else.

The husband goes out for  a final stroll, and sees the small figure in the red cloak again. He follows it, and it turns out the tourist killer is a midget, dressed in a red cloak, and so the husband ends up dead. The final scene shows us the wife returning to Venice to collect her husband’s body and being supported by the two sisters, who tell her that her husband must have had a vision of this moment when he thought he saw his wife earlier.

It’s a simple enough story, and reasonably well told, but again the lack of atmosphere made it less gripping. The performances were fine, apart from the chief of police, who seemed determined to avoid speaking clearly throughout the whole evening. This, coupled with an Italian accent (I assume; I didn’t hear him well enough), meant that I lost most of his dialogue, and so the information about the tourist killer was lost on me until close to the end. Other than that, this was  a watchable production, but not an inspired one.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Love’s Labour’s Lost – October 2008 (2)


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Cressida Brown

Company: RSC Understudies

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 21st October 2008

This public understudies performance started in much the same way as the regular performance, with Dumaine/Longaville arriving about ten minutes before the nominal curtain-up, and Berowne putting in an appearance with a few minutes to go for his regular snooze. But then we had the pleasure of an introductory comment or two from the director, Cressida Brown (with a name like that, she had to do something involved with Shakespeare). She told us the usual stuff about why they do public understudies performances, and how little time they had had to rehearse for this one, as it’s the last production of the three that this company are doing. She warned us that some of the understudies were doubling up, such as David Ajala playing both Dumaine and Longaville, so occasionally characters would be talking to themselves on stage. She mentioned some of the knock-on effects of an actor being hors de combat, as it were, and in general gave us a good warm up for the main action.

Tom Davey was now playing the king of Navarre (Longaville in the regular cast), and did a fine job, though of course he hadn’t had the time to work up as much of the comic business as the original. David Ajala (Lord) did a fantastic job as both Dumaine and Longaville, managing to clearly differentiate both characters – Longaville stiff and formal (and with a hat), and Dumaine more soft and cuddly, and bareheaded. There was a lot of humour in the way he swapped between the roles at times, especially when he had to run round the back of the auditorium to make another entrance, even getting a laugh and applause for that alone. Robert Curtis (Forester) as Berowne was less expressive, but very clear on the text, and he seemed to relax into the part more in the second half, as a number of them did.

Keith Osborn (Marcadé) played Dull, and was fine, but Ryan Gage (Lord) as Costard was, if anything, better than the original. His lines came across more clearly, his comic business was clearer, and he was generally more expressive in the part. I could see him having a long career playing Shakespearean clowns, as well as other comedy. Don Armado was played by Samuel Dutton, the puppeteer from Little Angel, who gave a splendid performance, clearly distinguished from Joe Dixon’s, and almost as entertaining. Instead of size and bluster, he gave us pretentiousness and a clear delivery of the lines. He didn’t have a purple costume – sombre black was all the costume department could come up with – so he had to put all the braggadocio into the performance, which he did very well. Moth was played by Kathryn Drysdale, one of the princess’s women normally, and she did a very good job. I’m sure I got more of the page’s wit partly because I’d seen this production before, but her performance certainly helped.

The princess was played by Natalie Walter, the other of the princess’s women, and she did a fine job as well, coming across as more flirty and less serious than Mariah Gale. Andrea Harris (Lady) doubled Rosaline and Jaquenetta, which meant that Jaquenetta didn’t appear in the final scene, two months gone, but that didn’t affect the performance. Her Jaquenetta was more explicit when churning the milk, but otherwise was much as before, while her Rosaline was still pretty feisty, and a good match for Berowne. Riann Steele (Jaquenetta) played both of the princess’s ladies – Katherine and Maria – and also managed to get two different personalities across, one of which was remarkably like Natalie Walter’s performance. Fortunately, she didn’t have to run round the theatre to swap roles, but we still enjoyed and appreciated the changeovers. Boyet was played by Sam Alexander, normally Dumaine, and he also did an excellent job for such little rehearsal, with less comic business, but plenty of clarity in his speech.

The double act of Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel was played by Roderick Smith and Ewen Cummins (Dull) respectively, and they both did a decent job, especially as Worthies. David Tennant also doubled up today, playing both the Forester, as advertised, and also Marcadé, who was due to be played by Joe Dixon. Nina Sosanya made a brief appearance as a lady(?) in breeches, who sat on the swing when the ladies were gathering for the second half scene with the presents, and various stage crew filled in as stool carriers, etc.

This was a good fun performance. OK, we weren’t expecting too much, as we knew there were going to be limitations given the circumstances, but the standard of performance was so high, and the audience was so willing to enjoy themselves, that the afternoon passed very quickly and very enjoyably. I also got the chance to correct some of my mistakes in my earlier notes, as I was reminded of how things are actually done in this production.

Apart from the performances themselves, I didn’t notice too many changes from the regular cast. I thought the ladies didn’t join in the teasing of Don Armado this time –  they seemed to be more concerned to stop the blokes throwing this bloody napkin around. I realised for the first time that someone has a line which echoes the “l’envoy” that Moth gives to Don Armado’s original motto. They make some comment about the men being four, and Moth had added a line to the motto about the goose making four. I also remembered what fun it was during the Russian scene, when the king and his men huddle together after each unexpected response from the woman they believe to be the princess. The way they confer to come up with a group answer was very amusing, and just as funny even when there were only three present.

Afterwards there was a talk from the director of the understudies run, Cressida Brown. We learned that some actors prefer not to know what the main actor playing the part is doing, while others are happy to pinch as much as they can, especially when it’s a small part. She’d chosen this production for the public understudies performance, as it had the least time to prepare, and she wanted to give the hard-working cast a carrot to look forward to. The costume department couldn’t stretch to a full re-working for this production, so they had to improvise as much as possible, though for the other productions the understudies have the full kit. She had to snatch what time she could with the actors, as they were so busy with other things, but she found she could arrange time with one actor or small group here and there, and so it all came together.

It was a very enjoyable afternoon, and a lovely way to round it off.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Leaving – October 2008


By Vaclav Havel

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 16th October 2008

The set was a country garden. There was a pergola beside me with ivy trailing around it, a stone arched doorway far right, more bits of shrubbery round the walls, and a female nude in the stonework over the entranceway. A swing hung down towards the stone arched doorway, there was a round patio table with metal chairs in front of us, and a wooden bench to the left. The floor was part stone flagged, part brown carpet, which may represent dead lawn.

The play was about a Chancellor who has left office, and how things change once he’s no longer in power, especially as his political opponents are now in charge. Vilem Rieger, played by Geoffrey Beevers, is a middle aged man who had massive popular support when he took office, but now his legacy is coming under scrutiny. He has a long-time companion Irina, who herself has a ‘friend’ called Monika, and he lives with them and his mother in one of the official residences. A couple of former aides are helping him to pack up his things, although he feels he should be allowed to carry on staying in the house. His mother, known only as Grandma, potters about, making unfortunate comments, and there’s also a manservant, Oswald, who’s so old and rickety he should really be retired. Along with this group, there are Rieger’s two daughters, Zuzana and Vlasta, Patrick Klein, a member of the opposition party now in power, who manages to make a miraculous climb up the greasy pole right to the top in the course of the play, some journalists interviewing the great man now he’s no longer so great, and a political scientist Bea, who’s simply drawn to power and is willing to do the usual sort of things to latch on to the top dog. She starts off being attracted to Rieger, then drops him like a hot potato when Klein takes over. And before I forget, there’s also Vlasta’s husband Albin, who says little but is still scolded for being a chatterbox, and who streaks across the stage at one point, completely nude. He’s also wheeled on in the same state, having spent the night in the garden. And there’s a gardener who basically comes on to announce the various political changes in the country, like the gardeners in Richard II.

In fact, this play deliberately references other plays, specifically The Cherry Orchard and King Lear. Oswald is clearly Firs, the old servant who gets left behind when the family leaves, and who lies down on the sofa to die – Oswald does much the same thing. Both plays have a cherry orchard, but while the orchard in Chekov’s play is only being chopped down at the end, this orchard is being chain-sawed from a much earlier point. The King Lear references are abundant, as when Rieger finds he no longer has any influence, and is not only going to be booted out of the house, but may find himself in even deeper trouble. He ends up having to back the new regime, who have adopted his slogans and buzzwords, even though it’s clear they don’t intend to do anything about them. It was interesting to see that Irina, who seemed to be an older version of Bea, only staying with Rieger because he was powerful, actually stays loyal to him until this point, when he throws away his principles and supports the new power elite, specifically Klein. Once he does that, she leaves with Monika, although it’s possible Klein and Monika might develop a ‘special relationship’ themselves.

There’s also a Lear connection with the daughters. Zuzana is confident her boyfriend (French?) can put them up for a while, but later we hear that he’s been arrested on suspicion of something or other. Vlasta starts by offering her father a place to stay in their flat, then changes her mind as the pressure mounts. It may have been Albin’s (Albany) disagreement with that which led to her telling him to shut up as he was talking too much, and presumably triggered his bizarre behaviour.

There’s a load more stuff going on as one of the former aides plots to get himself into a good position in the new government, while the other worries about accounting for paper clips and a bust of Gandhi. Klein keeps turning up, each time with a more impressive job, until he’s finally made it to the top. He buys the residence, and plans to chop down the orchard and build a condo complex with facilities such as pubs, restaurants, shops, cinemas, and, of course, a posh brothel, located in the grand old house itself. He’ll be living in one of his other villas by then, as he’s cannily snapped up a job lot going cheap as the incoming party tries to balance the books. There’s also a lot of references to the Gambaccis, a Mafia-like family with fingers in more pies than they have fingers, if you see what I mean. All in all, this play gives us a complex and absurd picture of a country going to the dogs once a new party takes control, despite having had a good, if ineffective, leader for many years.

The autobiographical aspects are enhanced in this production because the author himself reads some entertaining notes during the performance – a disembodied voice telling us about the writing process, what the author intended at this point, how an actor should say a line, and generally giving us a humorous take on the whole process of writing a play. There’s a lovely spell when the stage has been left empty, and after quite a long pause, Havel talks about the difficulty of judging just how long to leave the stage unpeopled before the audience think the play’s finished and start leaving. Although I found his delivery a bit monotonous, I did enjoy his comments; the long boring bits were worth listening to for the punchlines.

I found myself enjoying this much more than I would have expected. I thought it might be a bit dull, but I now realise that Vaclav Havel probably wouldn’t know how to do dull. Although it obviously referred to Czech politics (Patrick Klein has the same initials as the chap who succeeded Havel), there were a lot of echoes of our own political scene, with Tony Blair having left office not so long ago. In the post-show chat, there were a couple of contributions from Czech ladies; an older woman who had lived through much of the massive changes that country has been through, and a younger woman who confirmed that she saw the play as essentially Czech in nature. She reckoned non-Czechs wouldn’t be able to get as much out of it, but even so, this production was apparently funnier than the original done in the Czech Republic.

There were only a few of the usual questions, what with these comments and questions about the nudity, etc. Someone asked about Irina being such a bitch, but I think the general feeling was that the characters all had some redeeming qualities, and that they weren’t just heroes and villains. I am definitely looking forward to the rest of the Havel season now.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

The Magic Flute – October 2008


By Mozart

Directed by Mark Dornford-May

Company: Impempe Yomlingo

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 14th October 2008

This was the first production we’d seen by this South African based company. Hopefully, it won’t be the last. It was also Steve’s first sight of The Magic Flute, and after the first half he took my advice and read the Synopsis for Act 2. It’s a weird plot at the best of times, and with no guarantee that we’d get much in English I felt it was wise to remind myself of the story beforehand, even though I had seen it on stage before.

I will just record here the singers who took the lead parts for this performance. Tamino – Sonwabo Ntshata; Papageno – Lizo Tshaka; Queen of the Night – Bongiwe Mapassa; Pamina – Zolina Ngejane; Sarastro – Sebastian Zokoza; Monostatos – Malungisa Balintulo; Papagena – Asanda Ndlwana.

This adaptation of The Magic Flute took us into a South African township setting to tell us the story from that perspective, using Mozart’s music in combination with African rhythms and harmonies, African dancing, and with the cast playing just about everything on adapted marimbas. It was an eclectic and exciting mix. The lyrics and dialogue (there was no recitative) was in a mixture of languages, including English, but slipping from one to the other easily. As a general point, I find that I prefer the operas I see not to be in English. Trained opera singers have to use Italian vowel sounds when singing, as these use an open throat to minimise the strain on the voice. English sung with these vowels is usually unintelligible, and so rather than straining to make out what they’re singing, I prefer to regard the voice as another instrument and just relax and let the beautiful sounds wash over and through me, taking me on the emotional journey of the piece. For this reason, I make sure I know what’s going on in each scene so I can follow the plot, but without having to hear any words. This has worked well for me in the past, and I see no reason to change things now. Although I did find I could make out some of the words during the sung bits, I found I could switch off that part of my brain for most of the performance, and just enjoy myself as usual. The dialogue was easier to get, and I quite liked the pithy comments they came out with at times.

The set was mainly a large wooden ramp in the middle of the stage, with spaces on either side for the marimbas. Behind these was scaffolding with another level or two, and they also used trapdoors in the ramp for the dragon and the trials of fire and water. There were stools for the gathering of tribal elders, a screen of cloth which dropped down from the scaffolding for projected stuff, and nothing much else except the performances and the costumes, which ranged from Supremes outfits for the three female spirits to African tribal costumes, and included a chorus of pink singing birds.

For the overture, the conductor stood on the stage, and the screen dropped down, so that we could see a projection of what he was doing, as he faced the back of the stage. I found the marimbas interesting, but I was aware that with only one instrument, we were missing a lot of the texture of the music that a regular orchestra can give. We were soon into the opera itself, though, and here the marimbas worked very well when accompanying the singing. (They did have some metal drums to use as well, but these weren’t used very often.) There were some problems with the lighting for one side of the marimbas, so it was all the more impressive that they kept it all together.

The standard of singing was pretty good. Pamina was superb; she had a rich strong voice and hit all the notes cleanly without straining. Some of the others were a little weak at the extremes of their range, but it all worked very well with the performances, and the dancing more than made up for it. They used all sorts of rhythms during the piece, with one number sounding more like a cabaret song, which was appropriate in context. The three Spirits were dressed as the Supremes, and for one of their songs, when they persuade Pamina not to kill herself (she thinks Pamino has gone off her), they’re done up in pink negligees and carrying pink teddy bears. When Pamina cheers up, she takes one of the teddies, so the Spirits have to jostle amongst themselves for the remaining two, until a helpful cast member throws another teddy bear on stage.

Given the unusual instrumentation, it was no surprise that the magic flute wasn’t a flute, and Papageno’s magic bells weren’t bells. It was a surprise that the flute was represented by a trumpet (played by the conductor, and very well too), while the bells were done using partly filled bottles. The whole performance was so lively that the evening flew past, and after rapturous applause, they treated us to an encore of African music with some great dancing to round off the evening. Great fun, and I do hope they come back again sometime soon.

For the post-show, we were joined by the conductor, Mandisi Dyantyis, and Pauline Malefane who is one of the earliest members of the group and sang Carmen in their first production. Mark Dornford-May joined us later. To begin with, Mandisi and Pauline told us how this piece had come about, with the group working through several ideas till it became clear that Flute was the one to do. They wanted to tell stories that people in the townships could relate to, and so they kept it simple. Everyone who came along was auditioned, so there are a number of singers in the group with no classical training, or any training for that matter. If they could sing, they were in. Everyone also had to learn the marimbas, and with little grasp of musical notation, that was a tough job for most of them. But Mandisi kept at it, and eventually things fell into place.

The marimbas themselves had to be modified, as traditional marimbas couldn’t manage all the notes they needed –  the black notes had to be added. (As I type this, I see the irony.) They have more projects planned. They workshop first and then decide what to develop. They’re looking at doing a history of apartheid in South Africa, but they’re not sure exactly which period to look at.

They’re enjoying Britain. It’s taking some time to establish their audience in South Africa, but over here the theatres have been full. We learned how Pauline had been picked from the chorus to sing Carmen. Basically, it’s such a demanding role, with a very wide range, that the director thought they’d have to get a classically trained singer for it, but she would have to be black. The only black opera singer they could find was Swedish, but after she’d been rehearsing with them for a few weeks, it was clear that her voice wasn’t up to the standard of most of the others, even though they were untrained. With only a few weeks to go, they had to make a tough choice, and when they tested the chorus members, they found Pauline was up to the job. She was suitably modest about the whole thing –  there’s a great feeling of ensemble with this company.

I was sorry to see that when Mark Dornford-May turned up, the other two became a lot quieter, as their enthusiasm and energy, even after a performance, were lovely to be around. Still, they’re getting the talent out there, where people can be opened up to new ideas and different ways of doing things, so congratulations to them all.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at