Baby Makes Three – February 2009

6/10

By Georges Feydeau

Directed by Michael Friend

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Friday 27th February 2009

This evening’s entertainment comprised two one-act plays by Georges Feydeau.  The first was titled An Interesting Condition, and started with a husband and his very pregnant wife marching up and down the dining room carpet making noises – all the variations on “ooh” and “aah” you can think of. She’s suffering all sorts of agony as the baby is apparently due that day, although it’s one month early. The husband is just trying to have a little dinner, but somehow that simple desire brands him as a selfish bastard who doesn’t care a jot for his wife, despite getting her into this condition. Good job she’s not the complaining sort!

Her mother arrives and soon takes her daughter’s side. Between them, they manage to get the husband to put a chamber pot (unused) on his head (it was a dream the wife had had). The wife retires to her room.

Then the midwife arrives and starts bossing everyone around, demanding food (there’s only macaroni cheese) and wine (she settles for champagne). The wife’s father also arrives, annoyed at being dragged away from a game of cards at his club, and the exasperation of all parties mounts until finally the midwife announces that it’s all been a lot of fuss over nothing. The wife has had a phantom pregnancy. Aspersions about the husband being too useless to get his wife pregnant lead to references about his chamber-pot-wearing predilections, and the lights go out just after the husband has put the chamber pot on the father’s head so we miss out on the final punch up. But we can tell it’s going to be fun.

This was quite a funny one act play, though if we judged by the mortuary audience they had in tonight you wouldn’t have known it. The couple behind us spent the early stages scraping ice cream tubs and squeezing coffee cups, another woman leapt about a bit before settling down (she was in the front row, so it was a bit distracting) and the audience in general seemed indisposed to laugh. I thought the performances were all good and I would have rated this experience higher if the atmosphere had been more conducive to merriment.

The second piece was called Going to Pot. Another husband and wife have a number of altercations, mainly about the wilful refusal of their daughter, Toto, to take a laxative. She’s been constipated for, ooh at least three hours, so it’s obviously a major concern. All this while the husband is trying to convince an official from the Department of Defence to buy umpteen thousand chamber pots, soldiers, for the use of, which he believes will make him a fortune. One slight drawback is the tendency of the ceramic pots to smash when thrown on a solid floor. The other drawback is the presence of the wife, still en déshabillé, and the rebellious daughter, who contrives to get both the official and her father to drink the unwanted laxative while she munches on the sweeties.

It’s very funny, especially when the idea of the husband wearing a chamber pot on his head is briefly mooted, a nice echo of the earlier piece. It starts with the husband not able to find ‘les Zebrides’ in the encyclopaedia, under ‘Z’. It took me a few moments, but then I realised he was looking for the Hebrides. His wife comes in and corrects him pretty quickly, telling him he won’t find them under ‘Z’. He has to look under ‘E’. For ‘les Ebrides’. More laughter. The audience had finally warmed up, relocated, and shut up too, so this half was much more enjoyable than the first.

At long last the wife finds the entry under ‘H’, where the husband had sarcastically suggested she look. Cue an argument about whose idea it was to look there. And this was just the warm up. As the battle over the laxative heats up, the wife becomes ever more crazed, eventually forcing the official to drink a dose to show their daughter that it’s OK. He has a nervous stomach so it doesn’t do him much good. When the official’s wife and her male cousin turn up, the wife rashly informs the official that he’s a cuckold, as the closeness between the two cousins has been common gossip for some time and the rumour mill has done its worst. With that threesome storming off, the husband dashing to the loo (he took a glass of fruit salts by mistake) the daughter can pretend to her mother that she actually drank off the glass of laxative, and the play closes with mother and daughter in a fond embrace, happy at last.

Again, we liked all the performances, with Keith Myers, who played the husband both times, and Raymond Daniel-Davies (father-in-law and official) just nosing in front of a very good field. The set was straightforward, though tight for space, and the costumes were all fine. Even with the lukewarm audience response, this was still a good evening out.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Tempest – February 2009

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Janice Honeyman

Company: RSC and Baxter Theatre Centre

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 25th February 2009

Overall, this was an enjoyable and well trimmed production, full of energy, colour, music, dance and puppetry. The trimming and the brisk pace, while keeping the running time to two hours twenty, did lose a lot of the details, but it brought out the humour even more, and in the process gave the play a cartoonish aspect. Even so, I found some interesting ideas popping into my head, which added to the experience for me.

Looks-wise, the set was almost perfect. The tree (or trees) that swarmed over the back of the stage reminded me of the recent Love’s Labour’s Lost, but this tree was altogether more primitive and potent. It spread from wing to wing, and seemed to touch the roof. Branches arched in all directions, providing walkways and perches. The branches and trunks were bound with raffia-like weaving, holding them together, and giving them a makeshift, unreal aspect. To the right, a steep ramp curved up to meet the tree at a central point. To the side of this was a flight of steps, which led up to Prospero’s cell, back right. Underneath, there was an entrance to Caliban’s abode. To the left, in front of the tree, there was a raised curved slope, with rocks on it. Opposite it, on the right of the stage, there was a tree stump and another rock. The whole effect was very African, very aboriginal, and just the sort of place where magic could happen.

The opening scene puzzled me, until I read a program note about the Zulu belief that great serpents control the forces of nature, and when they move from one pool to another, they can cause great disturbances to the weather. At the start, Prospero (Antony Sher) appeared, and presumably summoned up this serpent to create the storm. It was a big bugger – easily as long as the diagonal of the Courtyard, if not longer – and Prospero bowed to it before it finally headed off. This was only the first of a magnificent array of puppets we were to see, and although I didn’t understand the significance at the time, I still felt it set the tone of other-worldliness and magic perfectly.

There were also some human-sized spirits who arrived after the snake left, bringing on the storm-tossed characters. They shepherded them over to the raised curve, and penned them there, as the music crashed around us all, and the actors bellowed their lines as best they could. I couldn’t make out a word of it, but I did enjoy looking at some brightly patterned sails that had dropped down over the stage, and which were flapping around to suggest the wind.

With the storm over, Miranda made her feelings known to her father, and this Miranda would be a shoo-in for the Jerry Springer show – she was totally unselfconscious and expressed her feelings easily, directly, and pretty much as soon as she felt them. I liked this performance very much. I found this interpretation of Miranda’s lack of social experience much more believable, and certainly more entertaining, than some recent productions (oh, alright, I preferred this to the Rupert Goold version). And this was also the liveliest and most involved Miranda I’ve ever seen. Her delight at seeing such a buff young man (Ferdinand was stripped to the waist for some time, so I speak with authority on this point) was expressed through a natural touchy-feeliness, which suggested their honeymoon will be a corker. No inhibitions there (at least not on her side).

Prospero’s explanation of their history was well done. When he talked about his love for his esoteric studies, he moved to his big magic book, which was displayed towards the back, and almost caressed it. I was very aware of how much he’d been distracted from affairs of state by this obsession. I also saw in Miranda the kind of free-spirited tomboy type that I’ve seen in other people who grew up abroad and had acres of space to roam around in, along with relatively few social pressures to conform. One of the themes this production was bringing out was the colonial aspects of the play, and this was the first time I was aware of that.

I found Ariel’s appearance a little disappointing, but I soon warmed to him when I saw his reaction to Prospero’s news that there would be more work to do. His face just fell, and when he threw his wobbly it was clear he felt hard done by. I got a sense of promise after promise being broken, goalposts constantly on the move, while Prospero was presumably still expecting the spirit world to obey his orders just as the men of his dukedom used to in the old days. I did have one passing thought as Prospero was describing how fate had brought his enemies into his reach – how did he know they were there? Yes, he’s a wiz at magic, but even so.

Ariel was scantily clad, and covered with patterns in white body paint. At the end, Prospero washed these off, symbolically releasing him, to his great joy. I realised that Prospero really does love Ariel; on a number of occasions he reached out to touch him, but Ariel is made of air, so he either held back or grasped nothingness, it was difficult to tell. Ariel was harder to figure. He wants Prospero’s love, but he also wants his freedom. When Prospero was contemplating his revenge on the bastards who betrayed him, holding a shotgun which he’s just loaded, it was clear he was out for revenge, despite his response to Ariel’s comments about being moved by their plight. Here it’s Ariel who, through his gesture, indicated that he was influencing Prospero to remember his better nature and forgive them – a reminder that primitive doesn’t necessarily mean barbaric.

Caliban was played by John Kani, and there was no attempt to make him look deformed or ugly. He was dressed pretty shabbily, and he may have ed badly if he wasn’t being allowed to wash often enough, but he was basically an elderly native man who’s been treated badly. He has his faults – he was ready to rape Miranda, and he didn’t spot the foolishness of the King’s servants until too late – but he’s not ugly and he’s not completely depraved. This is fine, as long as the production makes some use of that, but here they were basically telling the story in a fun way and leaving interpretation way behind. I didn’t feel much about this Caliban, not repugnance, not even sympathy, as he didn’t seem to be connected to the rest of the characters, although I did like the ending of the play. Prospero gave us the epilogue, up to the final lines, then picked up his suitcase to leave. Caliban arrived, and Prospero’s final request to be freed was addressed to him. He let Prospero go, and then, throwing away his walking sticks, he walked up the previously forbidden steps to the centre of the tree, and stood there, triumphant, spotlit. The lights went down to finish, and it was a bold and dramatically satisfying ending, suggesting a number of things. Native peoples regaining their land after the colonisers are removed from positions of power. The potential isolation and impoverishment of native populations if they completely cut off contact with the outside world, and specifically those who colonised their country – coming to terms with the past is better than rejecting it totally.

The thought also occurred to me that it was often those without power or riches in their own country who headed off to the colonies to make their names and/or fortunes – younger sons, poorer members of the upper classes, members of the lower classes with talent and probably bucketloads of ruthlessness. Don’t quite know if that fitted with tonight’s performance, but it did cross my mind towards the end.

Trinculo and Stephano were OK, but unremarkable. One good scene was when Ariel makes his comments to stir up trouble in the drunken group. He stood behind Trinculo, who was on the raised curve, and mimicked his movements beautifully. It was also clear that Ariel found the whole thing very funny. I wasn’t sure if he’d planned it – the usual interpretation – or if the first “you lie” just slipped out, and he liked it so much he did a few more. Anyway, it was one of the better bits with the clowns.

The King of Naples and his attendants were also a bit bland; however the way the spirits messed with their minds was great fun. For the feast, a large, box-shaped fish swam onto the stage, and after it settled in the middle of the stage, the top opened up and two spirits emerged proffering food. When the lords tried to eat something, the food was snatched away, the fish swam off as fast as its legs could go, and Ariel walked on balanced on mini-stilts – the curved spring type of leg – which raised him up a few feet. He wore a headdress with a beaked mask and red tresses, and looked pretty ferocious. He told off the king for his treatment of Prospero, linking that with the supposed loss of his son, and then the lords were chased off stage.

The puppetry was spectacular, and in many ways was the highlight of the show. When Prospero reminded Ariel of his previous torment at the hands of Sycorax, we were shown those hands, literally, trapping him in the pine tree. Puppeteers carried on various parts of Sycorax’s body on poles – two eyes, a nose, a mouth, hair, the two large hands and a pair of tits – and moved them into place so that Sycorax magically appeared. Her hands then grabbed Ariel and held him, illustrating his prison, and letting us see how Prospero freed him.

Later on, the little show that Prospero put on for Ferdinand and Miranda was also puppet-based, with lots of brightly coloured spirits joining in as well. In particular, there were two very tall puppets, a man and a woman; all of these taller puppets had to bend double to leave the stage, as none of the exits were tall enough for them. The clothes that distracted Trinculo and Stephano were carried in what looked like two haystacks. When they took the clothes, the haystacks unfolded to become another two ‘monsters’, which chased off the silly boys, scared out of their wits (not that they had much of those to begin with).

With so much cut out, I didn’t get the full emotional journey of the play, but I did enjoy myself, and it was never boring. I was reminded of the Magic Flute done by Impempe Yomlingo, while Steve was reminded of the magical Midsummer Night’s Dream, Indian-style, both of which we enjoyed. One of the best so far this year.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Gethsemane – February 2009

6/10

By David Hare

Directed by Howard Davies

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Tuesday 24th February 2009

This was a much better piece than David Hare’s usual offerings, mainly because he seems to have decided to let the audience have some fun and kept the political pontificating to a couple of speeches in the penultimate scene. Hooray! He is a good writer, but this is probably the first time I’ve enjoyed of one of his plays so much.

The play is a look at the various aspects of political life in contemporary Britain, seen through the eyes of a number of different people. To start and end with, there’s the idealistic musician, still believing that people can make honest choices, and that politicians don’t have to sup with the devil as part of the job. Lori gave up a job as a music teacher to busk on the Tube, because she reached a Gethsemane moment, a period of being tested, and in this case she decided that teaching wasn’t for her.

One of her former students, Suzette (and what parent would name their child after a crepe?), has been caught taking drugs, and is possibly going to be expelled from her posh private school. However, her mother is the Home Secretary, Meredith Guest, and the party fixer, Otto Fallon, who just happens to be on the board of governors (because Meredith’s minder Monique could see that Suzette was a disaster not just waiting to happen but about to arrive any minute), arranges for a generous donation to the school for a new gym. The school doesn’t want any adverse publicity, so case solved. Except that a journalist, Geoff Benzine (where does he get these names?) gets to hear about this from Suzette herself, while he was shagging her. He’s just one of five men she has on the trot, in an attempt to cure her unhappiness (it doesn’t work). So, the PM, Alec Beasley, has to interrupt his drum practice to have a little chat with Meredith, to see if she’s prepared to fall on her sword for the good of the party. She says no, and so the party machine spins on, with Suzette out of the way in Italy, chaperoned by Lori, and Meredith turning up at a party thrown by Otto to celebrate his appointment to the board of the Royal Opera House.

This is the scene with the speechifying, as Mike, Lori’s husband, who did work for Meredith but took a job with Otto to do fundraising for the party, finally quits due to concerns about the morality of what’s going on. He’s the amiable duffer type – good at his job, but unambitious, and easily led by the canny operators (or sharks) that want his talents on their side. He expresses that vague sense of unease that something’s wrong, that we’ve got our priorities mixed up, that sort of thing, without being able to deliver a killer blow. Meredith has a much stronger response to that. She’s discovered that, in the final analysis, you might as well do exactly what you want to, as ‘they’ aren’t going to like you whatever you do. It’s true enough, though in this case, it leads to politicians who get the country into a total mess, and appear not to care. They don’t even resign; as long as they can spin that they’re doing the best they can, we have to keep on putting up with them.

The play has a number of scenes, interspersed with monologues from most of the characters. Lori starts it off by talking about people who believe in a book, and wondering where those who don’t believe without question fit in nowadays.  Monique tells us about warning politicians where the elephant traps are, only to watch them fall right in. Meredith tells us that we’re all at risk, but for security reasons she can’t tell us what the threat is, so we just have to trust her, and Mike tells us about meeting Lori for the first time. We also get a couple of monologues from Frank, Otto’s right-hand man. He’s a character who’s relatively uninvolved; his deadpan and laconic delivery are a joy to watch, and he gets some wonderfully funny lines, too. He starts off by discussing food choices (chicken and salmon), and then gives us an insight into the homosexual nature of Parliament. The best lines, though, were Monique’s, when she made an observation about the people becoming more sceptical and yet electing people who are more devout. It got a huge laugh, and she had to wait a few seconds before continuing.

The play ends with Suzette and Lori in Italy, and as they talk, Lori brings up the idea of Gethsemane again. Suzette finds it funny that Lori’s got the wrong end of the stick; the point of the story is that, despite all the doubts and reluctance, Jesus still went ahead. It’s a story of keeping on regardless, not about changing tack because you’re not certain anymore. When Suzette leaves, Lori starts to play the piano on the table top, and as the music fades in, the lights fade out.

There was a lot to admire in this play. The performances were very good, the writing was excellent – very clear and not too pompous – and there were a lot of laughs. I liked the first encounter between Otto and Mike; the language was almost Pinterish, and the characterisations were nicely detailed. However, I found the play a bit out of date already as we’re past the Blair years, and the financial situation has changed dramatically since the time this play was set. There wasn’t a lot that was new to me either, so while it was very enjoyable, it wasn’t particularly meaty. Still, good fun though, and I hope he continues in this vein.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Pack Of Lies – February 2009

6/10

By Hugh Whitemore

Directed by Christopher Morahan

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 16th February 2009

We saw this back in 1983 (Theatre Royal, Brighton) when Judi Dench and Michael Williams played the married couple at the heart of this story. I don’t recall much of the performances (I’m sure they were excellent) but in any case I’m sure I’d still have enjoyed this production just as much.

Jenny Seagrove and Simon Shepherd play Barbara and Bob Jackson, neighbours to Peter and Helen Kroger, good friends and Russian spies, both at the same time. The play takes us from the good times, through the initial request for help from the British Secret Service and the gradual realisation of the true nature of their ‘good friends’, to the tragic ending with the death of Barbara. The strain of having to keep their secret, not just from their friends but also from their daughter, Julie, proved too much for a woman of nervous disposition.

The set was much as I remember. It’s the interior of the ground floor of a semi-detached house in a London suburb, Ruislip in this case, showing us the sitting room, entrance hall and stairs, and kitchen. All very 1950s. The costumes all matched the time period perfectly, with Barbara and Bob being conservative, even dowdy, and Helen being flamboyant and glamorous. The paintings on the sitting room wall which are meant to be by Barbara are of decent quality for an amateur (I’ve seen a lot worse in The Deep Blue Sea), and seeing the old Bakelite telephone reminded me of the days when a phone call was an event, and people formed communities with those they lived close to, rather than logging on to the global village. How things change.

It’s an interesting play which never drags, for all the relative lack of action and amount of information to get across. Due to Roy Marsden’s indisposition, the part of  the Secret Service chap, Stewart, was played by David Morley Hale, who made good use of his character’s notebook to remind himself of the lines. His delivery was a bit flat as result – he’ll be better once he’s off the book – but it’s a fairly dry part anyway, so I don’t think we lost too much from the cast change, and I suspect most of the audience were just grateful he was there.

I liked the way the casual snobbery of the time was thrown in now and again. Describing one neighbouring couple as British, and then qualifying it by commenting that the wife came from Wales, was typically spot-on. The solo speeches to the audience were also good, as they filled in a lot of the information that the structure just wouldn’t accommodate otherwise. In all, a very good evening out.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour – February 2009

6/10

By Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn

Directed by Felix Barrett and Tom Morris

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Friday 13th February 2009

Actually, much of this short play with orchestra merited an 8/10 rating, but then there was the overlong dance interlude, and being dance illiterate I found it dull and pointless. Otherwise, this was an interesting and entertaining look at the Soviet Union’s treatment of dissidents in the 1970s (and even now according to the program notes) through the experience of one man, who had spoken out against the state hospitalizing sane people. This is coupled with another man’s experience of an imaginary orchestra (in which he plays the triangle). Neither man can be released until he denies that which he knows to be true. The dissident is prepared to die for his truth, going on hunger strike and refusing to surrender even when his son pleads for him to say what they want to hear. The triangle player is also quite willing to state that he hears no orchestra, provided the doctor can get them to stop playing! The impasse is resolved by the gaudily uniformed KGB Colonel, sorry, doctor, marching into their cell, sorry, ward, and asking some simple straightforward questions. He asks Alexander Ivanov if he thinks a Soviet doctor would ever commit a sane man to a lunatic asylum, to which the triangle player responds ‘no’. The Colonel/doctor then asks Alexander Ivanov if he hears an orchestra, to which the dissident replies ‘no’. The Colonel/doctor decrees that both men are fit to be released. So, when the Colonel/doctor put two men with identical names in the same room, was he being extremely stupid, or was this a shrewd manoeuvre to get two ‘patients’ off his books? As Steve said, it looked like the first, but was actually the second.

The layout for this performance (I can’t really call it a set) was probably less complicated than it looked. On the revolve sat the orchestra, violins to the left at the start as usual. They wrapped around the conductor’s podium, which was in the centre of the revolve, but there was room at the front for two hospital beds, one occupied by the triangle player (Toby Jones). A light coloured wooden path led from the back wall, in a zigzag pattern, to the side of the beds, and along this path comes the dissident (Joseph Millson). There’s a school desk off to the right, forward of the revolve, and as the revolve turns during the performance, we see another desk, the doctor’s, snuggled in amongst the musicians. There are numerous banks of lights high up around the back wall, and a couple of double bass players are off to the right, also outside the revolve.

The orchestra, after the usual tuning up rituals, began to play silently as Toby rose from his bed, took out his triangle and little metal stick (what do they call those things, anyway?) and listened to the music, waiting for his cue. Gradually, the sound came in, and it was lovely music; in a modern style, with some slight dissonance giving it a bit of an edge but without scaring the horses. The triangle player had to stop them at one point, and told them to restart from the tympani bit, which they did. He strikes the final note on his triangle, and turns around to find a new person is in the room. The dissident has been quiet all this while, trying to figure out which of the two rumpled beds is meant to be his, and eventually plumping for the one Toby’s just left. Triangle player is keen to know what instrument the dissident plays, and isn’t put off by his total lack of experience with any musical instrument. He interrogates him avidly, in between complaining about the standard of the orchestra, and it’s a very funny scene, with lots of clever word play.

From here we get a mixture of music and dialogue, with the dissident explaining in a couple of speeches how he got arrested, and what he’s experienced in prison and hospital, which is what the authorities want to stop him talking about. We also see his son having difficulties in school because he doesn’t conform – his teacher tells him off because he played more notes on his triangle than were in the score – and find out that the doctor is also a part-time violinist in his own orchestra, which all adds to the fun. Then there’s the dance bit, with what looks like various members of the orchestra standing up and dancing a version of kicking the crap out of each other. It may have been good dancing, but it didn’t tell me anything about either Ivanov’s story, or the orchestra experience, so I can only assume it was inserted as some sort of special offer – you get the band, the dancers come for free.

There wasn’t much more after the dance, just the Colonel’s magnificent cure technique and the son finding his father, and then we were done. The orchestra had been leaving their seats gradually during this last bit, so I assume the music was pre-recorded, as I don’t see how they could have kept it going so strongly otherwise, but I’d be happy to learn differently.

And so we return home, reasonably happy with our evening, and hoping the signal failure at Haywards Heath won’t make us too late back. [12:30 a.m.!!! @*&%$£@!!!]

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Tons Of Money – February 2009

6/10

Adapted by Alan Ayckbourn from a comedy by Will Evans and Valentine

Directed by Joe Harmston

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 12th February 2009

Set: standard 20s/30s style living room of the well-to-do. Double doors on the left, fireplace to the right, French windows centre back, with a bit of garden terrace. Sofa centre left, and other chairs and tables round the place or brought on as required.

The set may have been well-to-do, but the couple living in the house certainly weren’t. Aubrey and Louise lived on credit, and had run up so many debts that the husband was due to be declared bankrupt in a week. Into this situation comes a solicitor with news of Aubrey’s brother’s death, and the information that said brother had left him a life interest in his estate, while the capital reverts to a cousin, George Maitland, on Aubrey’s death. It doesn’t take long for the impecunious couple to realise that the life interest, although amounting to several thousands of pounds a year, would soon be gobbled up by the many creditors they’d accrued. Cue a remark or two about the criminality of lending people money and encouraging them to get into debt – I would have thought more people would have laughed. Anyway, the wife is soon hatching a plot for Aubrey to die, then reappear as cousin George, who is believed to have died many years ago in Mexico, though proof has never been forthcoming. All you need to know now is that the butler, Sprules, has overheard part of this plot and snaffles a copy of the will, and that an old school chum of Louise’s, Jean, is due for a visit, at which point she confides that she was also married, briefly, to a man who died out in South America somewhere, and the next two acts pretty much write themselves.

First off, Aubrey reappears disguised as cousin George. Sprules believes this to be his brother Henery, whom he has inveigled to play the part of the missing cousin so they can get the money, and a lot of the humour in these later acts was down to Sprules and his intended, the maid, attempting to communicate with “Henery” using the agreed signals – stroking the elbow, tugging the ear, tapping the nose, and, if all else fails, dropping something, like a tray. There was a lovely scene where Sprules, hidden behind one of the double doors, throws a series of larger and larger trays through the other door in a desperate attempt to alert his brother to danger. Later, when he believes Henery is dead, he’s so caught up in his grief that he completely ignores the real Henery’s signals. It was great fun, and Sprules was beautifully played by Christopher Timothy.

However, neither Henery nor anyone else is dead yet. Once Louise discovers that Jean is married to cousin George, and that Aubrey seems all too ready to get cracking on the honeymoon, she has to think of some other solution to the problem. The solicitor (I assume he’s charging for all these trips from London) informs her that she’s the residuary legatee in the original will – gets all the dosh if George dies first – so she tells Aubrey to go off to the river and drown, as George, then come back later as someone completely different, and then he can marry her, the rich widow.

You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to get a stretch of river all to yourself for a quick spot of drowning, but they manage it in the end. Naturally, Sprules is devastated at losing his brother, and the plot is further thickened when another George Maitland turns up, this time Henery in disguise. He’s also very pleased to find he’s got an attractive wife along with the money, and doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of the situation. While he’s chasing Jean round the garden, another George Maitland arrives, this time the real one. With Aubrey reappearing, disguised as a monk, Brother Brown, the final act tests Louise’s wits to the limit. She finally decides that Aubrey will have to come back to life (he was so dazed by the explosion that supposedly carried him off the first time, that he’s been wandering round the area for weeks not knowing who or where he was), only for the much-travelled solicitor to inform them all that the estate, now realised, comes to the grand sum of one pound, a few shillings and some pence.  Still, at least Aubrey and Louise, and George and Jean have all been happily reunited, as have Sprules and Henery.

We’d seen this before at the National, over twenty years ago, and neither of us could remember it at all. This version left me with two impressions – that the humour was mainly in the performance, and that even with Alan  Ayckbourn’s updates for the National production, the piece was still pretty dated. The cast did good work, and we did enjoy ourselves, but either this production didn’t do the piece justice, or it had reached the historical curiosity stage. It’s surprising, given the current financial situation, that the play didn’t come across better, but that’s theatre for you.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King Lear – February 2009

6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: Young Vic Theatre

Date: Wednesday 11th February 2009

The set was interesting, and needs to be described in detail. We were sitting just to right of centre, in the second row. The seats this time were in a wide horseshoe, with the entrance off to our left. At the back of the stage was a set of concrete steps, some chipped and worn, with grasses and flowers sprouting from them; the effect was something like a disused railway station. There was a doorway back left, and about halfway down on that side there was a platform area, big enough to contain a trapdoor. On the right, there was a broken-off tunnel entrance towards the back, and another entrance nearer ground level. A small door on that side gave access under the stairs. Centre front, and very close to the front row (which is why we sat in the second row), was a water trough, partly filled with water. A curved tap arched over the left hand side of the trough, while the right hand side had a wooden cover, allowing it to be used as a seat. The trough was also used for the stocks. In the opening scene, there was a throne sitting in the middle of the steps, and two plush chairs front left and right. Other furniture was brought on as required, though as most entrances involved steps, it must have involved a lot of planning.

I enjoyed some parts of this production, but not all, and some of the choices left me completely detached. To begin with, there was a mix of accents, mostly northern but with a couple of Irish as well. I found the actors’ delivery was sometimes weak, and this wasn’t always helped by the accents. The performances were mostly very good, and the relationships between the characters were clear and generally believable. I didn’t take to Edmund; with his Irish accent and lack of clarity he didn’t come across so well for me. The smaller parts were fine, but didn’t have much to do, and although I found Cordelia lacking in personality in the early stages, I was aware for the first time towards the end that she’s reluctant to speak to Lear because she doesn’t know how he’ll feel about her.

For the other characters: the fool (Forbes Masson) was excellent, very bitter and clearly getting through to Lear with his comments. He’s also got a lovely singing voice, which was put to good use several times. Goneril was very good. She came across as an older daughter who’s seen her father behaving badly for many years, and has learned to stay quiet and out of the way till his fit is over or he’s left the room, and that’s what she does. She was very still during the love competition, while the others were doing their stuff, and she mostly looked away, at the ground or occasionally at her husband. She’s about seven months pregnant(?), which gives greater emphasis to Lear’s curses later on.

Regan is clearly the middle daughter, jealous because she’s missing out on his affection, and determined to put on a show of being loving, presumably to try and win Lear’s attention if not his love. She starts up a chorus of “for he’s a jolly good fellow” for Lear’s first entrance. Kent was OK, but didn’t come across strongly. He was wearing a dog collar (religious rather than canine), and neither of us could figure out why. I noticed in the scene with Gloucester, he didn’t have his disguising specs on, and when Gloucester refers to “poor banished Kent”, he realises this, slips them out of his pocket and puts them on discretely.

Gloucester himself was more bluff in manner than I’ve seen before, and the emotional changes didn’t come across as clearly as I’m used to – production rather than acting I suspect. On the whole, I got the impression that Rupert Goold didn’t want to be bothered with all that depressing emotional stuff that usually goes on in Lear, but he did want to have some splendid visual stuff instead, preferably gory and with a high yeugh factor. So for the blinding scene – and this is a first, me actually watching any part of this bit – the second eye was removed by Regan herself. Cornwall held Gloucester down while she pressed on the second eyeball with her manicured fingers, finally leaning forward and sucking the eyeball out with ferocity and for quite a long time. She then stood up and slowly, very slowly, moved towards the water trough at the front, mouth unmoving. At last she squirted the fake eyeball out of her mouth and collapsed over the trough, retching away. Pretty yeugh, for me and quite a lot of the audience. And there was more to come, though nothing can be quite as bad as that scene.

When Edgar comes forward promptly (for once) at the third blast of the trumpet (didn’t sound much like a trumpet to me, and the answering blasts on the siren seemed a bit unnecessary), he emerges from below the rear step with a Union Jack wrapped round his face as a mask, carrying a pole with a small yellow flag on it, and with two wooden swords tied to his waist with a twine belt. Edmund and Edgar then start their fight with these swords, but it’s a silly business, swatting each other’s swords like children, and it’s only when they discard the swords that the real fight begins. They grapple pretty viciously, and finally Edgar gets Edmund on his back on the ground. That’s when the swords come back into play. Or at least one of them. Edgar pushes the point of it into Edmund’s mouth to kill him. It’s unpleasant, it’s messy, and it doesn’t strike me as being an effective way of fatally wounding someone so that they’ll be around just long enough for the reconciliation, the (belated) warning about Lear and Cordelia, and some final words about the two dead daughters. But that’s just me. Anyway, they’d lost me on Edgar’s bizarre entrance, and didn’t manage to get me back again before the end.

Neither of us could figure out the reasoning behind that choice of wooden swords during the trip back to the hotel, though in the morning I realised that it might have been due to the use of modern weaponry in this production. How do you square the sudden use of swords when they’ve been brandishing various types of firearm all evening? Personally I don’t have a problem with that idea – people could still fight a duel with swords if they wanted to – but it’s the only idea I could come up with for that choice.

We had watched the Newsnight Review section on this production, and so we were slightly surprised tonight that certain things were different, particularly the loss of the three glass cases which had been used to demonstrate splitting the kingdom. Whether it was for practical or artistic reasons, these were replaced with three pieces of paper, or envelopes. That worked just as well, for me, and prevented the stage being cluttered up with unwieldy props.

There were a number of other interesting or unusual stagings. When Lear is out in the storm, and Gloucester rescues him, he takes them to a potting shed, where instead of a joint stool, we have two pot plants. The actual plants are removed, so only the pots are being put on trial. The bench in this shed is the one used when Gloucester is being blinded. (No need to go into that again.) Earlier, when Edmund is seducing his father to the dark side, it’s staged with Gloucester as the two lads’ trainer, sitting near the top of the steps while they do their exercises and Edgar goes for several laps of the theatre. During his time off stage, Edmund works on their father, and there are glances at Edgar as he goes by during this scene, with Edmund having to restrain the duke on Edgar’s final pass. Edgar is then conveniently present for Edmund to work on alone. This certainly has the advantages of showing us that Edmund is a risk-taker, and letting novices know who Edgar is, but I found it contrived, and as the idea wasn’t used again, it didn’t deepen my understanding of the characters nor the production.

The fool didn’t die in the storm or afterwards; this time he apparently gets to Dover. He’s with Lear in the awakening scene, dressed in a doctor’s white coat, but with his fool’s outfit underneath, his hat (coxcomb) in his hand, and still wearing his makeup. Well, they do say that laughter’s the best medicine. So when Lear is mourning, amongst other things, that his “poor fool is dead”, it’s likely he also has been hanged for being on the losing side.

The storm scene was an unusual combination of music, movement, water and dialogue. Lear used a microphone – there was another one during the “who loves me best” scene – and he is carried on by the cast, initially held aloft and then lowered to the ground. There’s a fine mist of water coming down over the steps where all this takes place, the music is very loud, and what with the cast doing some slow and impenetrable mime or dance during all this, I completely lost the lines and any sense of what was going on, intellectually or emotionally. It may have looked good, temporarily, but so much was lost that I would have to rate this as the worst staging of the storm scene that I’ve experienced. The water, by the way, ran onto the floor space, but didn’t get anyone else wet. And Goneril went into labour at this point, clutching her belly and having to be helped off (I think). When she turns up back home to discover the news about Cornwall being dead and the war about to start, she’s pushing a pram, so the birth was successful, and the baby is soon picked up by Albany – he’s more maternal than Goneril, especially in this production.

At the end of the second section – we had an interval and a pause tonight – Cordelia appears at the back with a soldier, and they do a slow-motion thing, backlit, to show that she’s arrived. OK, but didn’t do a lot for me. The early scenes with Lear’s unruly knights were a bit lacking in the knight department, and in general there was more of the domestic about this production than others I’ve seen. Regan is poisoned by a strawberry French fancy, the only one on the plate (the others are chocolate).

So to the main event, as it were, the central performance itself. Pete Postlethwaite is a tremendous actor, and his performance didn’t disappoint. I felt the production hampered it occasionally, but it still shone through, filled with an intelligent understanding of the human experience and the talent to show us lots of small details in what is a huge performance. The production choices meant that this was more of a working-class Lear, a family man who doesn’t understand what family’s about, and who shows remarkably little interest in his future grandchild, though perhaps grandparenthood only kicks in for some people when the baby’s actually born. His erratic behaviour is corroborated by his daughters’ different responses to him. Certainly, they have different personalities, but their attitudes have been shaped by long years with a temperamental man, who can shower affection one minut, and be a block of ice the next. The set implies that Lear hasn’t been a very good king – everything seems to be going to rack and ruin, and Lear’s comment about not having cared enough for the poor compliments this. Despite this, we have Kent and Gloucester, both of whom are loyal and also surprised when Lear banishes Cordelia. This is always a puzzle, and I felt this production didn’t even attempt to provide an answer. Which is fine, though it doesn’t add to my understanding of the play.

Lear was suitably full of himself at the start, all jolly and looking forward to the wonderful things his daughters were going to say about him, especially Cordelia. He brought on the microphone stand himself, and set it up to the left on the lower steps. Goneril was slow to get started, but did her best, Regan had to think for a bit to outdo her sister, and Cordelia, sitting on the trough, gave us all her asides by leaping into the middle of the stage. Lear’s rage at her refusal to play his game was good, and by throwing the last envelope on the floor, we could enjoy a little tussle between Cornwall and Albany about who gets it first.

Lear’s anger when returning from hunting to find all is not at it should be, came across as bluster more than real rage. He’s so used to being obeyed that he doesn’t know how to handle disrespect. Another sign of a decadent kingdom, when he hasn’t even had any opponents to deal with. As I’ve said, the fool was very bitter this time, and Lear does take his points on board, starting to realise that he’s done a foolish thing. His cursing of Goneril is perhaps more powerful with her being pregnant, but as the text doesn’t include her pregnancy, it actually lost some power for me because the obvious bump in her middle wasn’t being referred to explicitly. She holds it together well while he’s there, but she’s clearly shaken by it.

His descent into madness during the storm was obscured by the effects and music, sadly, though I did find it moving at times, and entirely believable. Later, at Dover, with Gloucester saved from himself, Lear appears in a woman’s front-buttoning dress, a floral print with a low V-neck. It’s very fetching, and sets the tone for the following conversation with Gloucester, which was more humorous in this production than I’ve seen before. It was still an emotional experience, mainly due to Edgar’s comments, but there’s always a risk that too much humour will lighten the mood so much that the darker elements don’t get a chance, and I think that happened a little bit here. Lear has been banging away at his crotch during some of his rants, and just before Gloucester asks to kiss his hand, Lear realises he’s produced some unfortunate substance from his nether regions, and gives it a wipe first.

The rest was all fine, and Lear died on the upper steps, with support from some other characters and Cordelia in his lap. The final lines were OK, though as I say I was out of the loop by that time, and they were running late, but the final touch was a nice one. I was very aware that with the birth of Goneril’s baby, there was now a proper heir to the crown, not the usual situation in this play. Albany’s request to Kent and Edgar, now Duke of Gloucester, to rule the country is therefore asking them to be regents rather than joint kings, and the final sound of the play is that of a baby crying. And why not, given the world his elders have left him?

Ultimately this was a patchy version of the play, with some good ideas and some less than helpful stagings. I’m glad I’ve seen it, and perhaps I won’t be so squeamish about the blinding scene in future – it’s unlikely I’ll ever see anything more unpleasant than this one.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me