Antony And Cleopatra – April 2009

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company: SATTF

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Thursday 30th April 2009

This was a fantastic production. For the first time I felt I understood the play, at least to some extent. Previously I’ve commented on how it’s a political play, a love story and an historical piece all rolled into one. Now, partly thanks to the program notes and mostly thanks to the performance, I’m seeing it as a love story set within a political framework which dooms the lovers. They’re too important as public figures for their private love affair to be consequence-free. It’s a discourse on the conflict between the private and the personal, and when better to set such a discussion than in Roman times, when Roman aristocrats were expected to make their mark on the world, and personal matters took second or even third place.

Also, the historical context may be providing camouflage as many contemporary issues couldn’t be discussed openly in Will’s day, though what the contemporary references would be I’m not entirely sure. Certainly a queen like Cleopatra could be seen as a version of Elizabeth, though tonight I glimpsed some echoes of another queen, Mary, of France and Scotland, and the sort of turbulence her lively personality and not entirely disciplined emotional life brought to her reign. Given that the play was written, though possibly not performed, during the reign of her son it may not be too fanciful to see some allusions there.

For this production the “set” was as usual. There were a chaise longue and stool for the Egyptian scenes at the start and more basic tables and chairs for the Roman scenes. This meant a fair deal of furniture removal during the first half especially, with lights down, but on the whole the cast kept things moving and it didn’t get in the way. Costumes were again set in the pre-Civil War period, and Cleopatra’s were gorgeous! No flying scabbards this time, but there were a few wayward plastic glasses in the second half, and an unfortunately timed thump from behind us after Caesar’s lines about Antony’s death, “The breaking of so great a thing should make/ A greater crack.”. On the whole though, the audience were good as gold.

As were the performers. It was a warm night and they must have sweated bucketloads during the evening, especially with those costumes. The opening scenes gave us a very clear picture of the drunken, sensual Egyptian court, and Cleopatra’s sneaky ways of dealing with her besotted lover, Antony. Her women were well tipsy and prone to giggling, and I felt the hand of doom early on as the soothsayer fudged the bad news of their futures as best he could. They just laughed and joked as usual, silly girls. Antony and Cleopatra were clearly in love, though at this point it was mainly coming across as the physical kind; lots of sex, drinking and other sports. The deeper aspects were in question, and indeed were tested to the limit by the events they go through, but it became clear that something stronger than simple lust bound this couple together.

Caesar started this play pretty much as he finished the previous one, sitting at a table planning his conquest of the world. It’s nice to have these two plays not only performed in sequence but cast in tandem so that we can see Octavius become Caesar, and Antony both rise and fall. The contrast is clear; Caesar is disciplined and puts public affairs (and his political ambitions) first, while Antony has lost it completely through self-indulgence. Even when Octavia arrived back in Rome to try and broker a peace deal between her brother and husband, Octavius dealt with the political aspects of the situation first and only then, after a lengthy delay, went over to his ‘much beloved’ sister to comfort her. And how did he do it? By assuring her that her husband’s definitely off to dally with a strumpet in Egypt, and doesn’t care for her anymore. Not particularly tactful, but I suppose he meant well.

The meeting between Antony and Caesar was suitably tense. Strictly speaking, Lepidus was there, but really he wasn’t. He did start the ball rolling by reading from a prepared speech and Antony cut him short; no doubt he’s heard enough of Lepidus’s speeches in the past. When Antony and Caesar got down to it, it was clear these are two powerful and experienced political operators with significant military experience as well. Equals, in fact, which goes some way to explaining Octavius’s grief over losing Mark Antony at the end. They may have been rivals for the position of world ruler, but the loss of Antony diminishes Caesar. Agrippa’s offer of Octavia’s hand in marriage to Antony, to heal the rift between the two men, was another hand of doom moment, as Enobarbus rightly commented later to the pirate, Menas.

Speaking of which, Pompey’s involvement was not as strong as I’ve seen it be this time around. He’s needed to bring the two leaders together, and to put pressure on them to bury their differences for a short while, but he didn’t come across as such a strong character in this performance. The two scenes where he met with his opponents and feasted them on his ship seemed shorter than usual, although I suspect that they’re simply padded with song and dance in other productions. At least we got to see Caesar enjoying the teasing of Lepidus, and not being able to handle his drink as well as the others. Steve reckoned this was another example of his desire for control – he didn’t like being drunk – and I saw it as one of the few things Mark Antony could do better than him, which Octavius hated. Or a bit of both.

The planning for the various battles came across more clearly than ever before. I usually feel there’s a lot of repetition here, with Antony and Cleopatra losing a battle, regrouping, then losing another battle. This time I could see the differences, which this production brought out beautifully. The first battle at sea is lost because of Antony’s stupidity and Cleopatra’s fear. Their reaction to the defeat is different; he rails against it, she’s already manoeuvring politically by sweet-talking Caesar’s ambassador. Tonight I spotted, for the first time, the way that Antony’s ranting at her over the kiss Thidias gives her (on her hand) was a mirror image of the ranting she did at Antony early on, when he had just found out that Fulvia was dead. Neither allowed the other to speak, and the overall impression was that they’re well matched in temperament but that she’s probably the shrewder political animal, as she can’t rely on military might to get her way and has to use subtler methods. I found myself wondering how flirtatious Queen Elizabeth could be when she felt it would work for her, especially in the early days when her position wasn’t entirely secure (was it ever?) and she was a very attractive prize.

Then followed more political manoeuvring, leading to Antony and Cleopatra choosing to fight again. This time Cleopatra stayed behind, but the result was the same – a win for Octavius. The outcome was different though, as Antony’s rage at Cleopatra caused her to send him the fatal news of her own death, which led in turn to his botched suicide attempt. I don’t know if it always got laughs or if it was just played that way tonight, but there was a surprising amount of humour when Alexis brought the news that Cleopatra was still alive. Antony, who was slumped in a peculiar position, face down on the ground, reacted along the lines of ‘Oh bugger, I’ve killed myself for no good reason!’, which was very funny. I’ve not seen it played that way before but I felt it worked just fine, as we’d been to hell and back already and more was to come; a spot of light relief was welcome.

With this venue, Cleopatra’s Monument was never a goer, so the final meeting between the lovers was trimmed down but still powerful, with Antony dying in Cleopatra’s embrace. Now the action slowed down, as we’re left with Cleopatra’s final steps to prevent Caesar getting what he wants – to lead her in triumph through Rome’s streets. Steve saw Alexis’s apparent betrayal of his queen over her financial assets as being part of her grand plan. She wanted Caesar to think she was keeping money back, perhaps as part of a plan to escape, in order to convince him she wasn’t contemplating suicide. From Caesar’s response it worked, though Steve wasn’t sure if Alexis was in on the scheme or not. Just the way she said “speak true” with a meaningful look, was enough. I can’t say I spotted this, but I did hear tonight for the first time the details of her excuses for the deception, all intended to present herself as a feminine woman, not too clever, keen to look her best and to ingratiate herself with the new power in town. Which simply reinforced my opinion of her as a very shrewd operator, and also gave Caesar the impression that she wasn’t seeking death.

The final death scene was moving, with Iris taking the plunge before her mistress, and Charmian following her shortly afterwards. The asp man was OK, nothing special, while Dolabella was clearly smitten with the queen, and his reverence for her was clearly noticed by the rest of the Romans. As he rose to his feet they were all looking at him, and then the lights went down. A good ending.

The performances were all excellent, again. Despite the many parts taken on by some of the ensemble, I was pretty clear throughout who was who and which side people were on. Simon Armstrong as Enobarbus gave us all his lines with the right amount of cynicism and humour, while Byron Mondahl as Octavius was a marvellous combination of petulant and shrewd. It’s a shame there isn’t a play in the cannon which lets him show us the full Augustus, as it were.

Alun Raglan as Antony was believable both as the powerful military commander and as the besotted lover, a man who enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh too much for his own good. But the star turn for me was Lucy Black’s Cleopatra. She was beautiful and intelligent, shrewd and manipulative, and very much in love. Her face was rarely still, and the range of expressions she produced gave me a very clear insight into this mercurial character. I noticed the subtleties even when she was buckling on Antony’s armour; she wanted to keep him safe but knew she had to let him go into battle, and it cost her a lot to put on brave face. Her treatment of the unfortunate messenger from Antony was highly entertaining and her death was dignified. I could see why her women were so faithful. I felt I was seeing the woman herself, which doesn’t often happen.

Another great production from this company, and now we have to wait another year for the next. Ah well.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Sign Of The Times – April 2009

6/10

By Tim Firth

Directed by Peter Wilson

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Wednesday 29th April 2009

It’s a while since we’ve been to Richmond theatre and it was nice to be back. According to the program notes, the play started life as a one-act piece for lunchtime diners, was revised for the stage and now has a second act, set five years after the first, to complete the story.

There are two characters; Frank, an older man who’s head of installation at a company that makes illuminated signs and Alan, a young YTS lad, who seems to have no ambition in life other than to play in a rock band and have tea and biscuits on a frequent basis. The first act shows the two men putting up a sign on the roof of the company’s own building. A new retail park is being built on the other side of the main road, so it’s an ideal time to advertise Forshaws work. Only trouble is, the letters are all wrong; they don’t spell Forshaws, and it takes some time for Alan to realise they’re meant to spell ‘For Sale’. That’s when Frank realises he’s not head of installation anymore, and that the absence of the rest of the staff is due to a relocation conference that he’s not been invited to. The act ends with Alan telling Frank to go across the road to get a view of the sign, then rearranging the letters to say ‘Frank’ and lighting it up. It’s a nice gesture, and a crafty piece of design.

The second act is set the other way round – same building, but in the top floor office looking out onto the roof. It’s now an electronics store with lots of individual illuminated letters outside and the usual storeroom jumble plus desk and flipchart inside. When Frank arrives for an interview, he’s amazed to find the deputy assistant manager is none other than Alan. Frank scrapes through the not-too-demanding entrance exam, which involves making a sales pitch for a mid-range toaster, and is rewarded with a name tag, clip-on tie and a chance to shine on the sales floor. Meanwhile Alan practises his next ten minute inspirational lecturette, a pithy, meaningful alphabetical deconstruction of the word ‘pride’ (‘p’ is for… etc.). Frank returns to have his lunch and uses the toaster they were practising with earlier, which he’d taken over to the returned goods department. Unfortunately, the toaster was faulty and smoke is soon pouring out of the next office along. Trapped in Alan’s office and with no reception on the walkie-talkie, things soon get a lot worse. The fire causes a short circuit which blows the fuses on the lights outside, and one of them, the ‘o’, sails across the roof. Trying to stop it, the pair find themselves lassoed by the letter as it continues to spark. It’s live, Frank tells Alan, and with enough volts running through it to fry them both to a crisp. There’s a lovely bit of comedy as Alan uses his mouth to get a special pen-cum-screwdriver out of Frank’s jacket, only to drop it when he responds to Frank’s query, ‘Are you ready?’ Turns out they’re not in danger; Frank was having him on – payback for a similar trick Alan played on him in the first act. The play ends with Frank realising he should have gone to the other electronics retailer over the road for his interview, and Alan deciding to leave with him to get on with his music and art.

It was good fun all the way through, with lots of humour and nice details in the writing and performances. Frank wants to be a writer, and we hear him dictating his spy thriller into a Dictaphone when Alan’s off stage. One of his school friends is now a famous writer, and we eventually find out that a childhood incident when Frank rescued his friend has been successfully used as a source for the other man’s books, while for Frank it seems to be a block. He never had someone rescue him, so he never gets further than that moment in his dictation, desperate to figure out whose hand his hero is clutching. It’s not sentimental, but it is poignant. Alan, on the other hand, is good at his art but lacks the encouragement to go to college and develop his talent.

It’s an interesting and enjoyable odd couple comedy, which still has relevance in today’s job market, sadly. Good performances from both Stephen Tompkinson and Tom Shaw, and a very enjoyable afternoon.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Hay Fever – April 2009

4/10

By Noel Coward

Directed by Nikolai Foster

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 24th April 2009

Let’s be clear from the start. This was an excellent cast, with several of the young folk coming straight from the RSC’s recent productions and the rest being well experienced and talented. However, as great an actress as Diana Rigg is, she was definitely too old to be playing Judith Bliss. The humour of that part depends on an actress who is old enough to be worried about losing her looks but young enough to be physically active still, rather than looking like her zimmer frame is parked around the corner.

However, this was a good stab at a classic comedy and Chichester certainly gave them a luscious set to perform on, with plenty of sofas, chairs, tables, a staircase and large windows through which we could see the clouds gather and the rain pelt down, only to clear to bright sunshine when the guests have gone. The costumes were in keeping, and overall we managed to enjoy ourselves.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Burnt By The Sun – April 2009

8/10

By Peter Flannery from the screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov

Directed by Howard Davies

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Tuesday 21st April 2009

This was a very interesting play and an excellent production. I’ve seen a number of pieces which comment on Stalin’s impact on the Soviet Union but this play gives a different perspective, bridging the gap between Chekov’s soon-to-be-ousted upper classes and the thuggish period of the mass cleansings and executions.

The set for this play was a beautifully detailed veranda and adjacent rooms in a dacha, with tall tree trunks round the sides and back. The dacha rotates to change the scene, and at one point two sets of wooden railings are brought round to screen the house while the action takes place on the front of the stage. I can’t comment on the accuracy of the costumes, but they all seemed fine to me.

The dacha is occupied (I don’t know if ‘owned’ is the right word for these times) by General Kotov, a hero of the Revolution who has married a member of the old upper classes and chosen to live in her family’s dacha. He’s generous enough to allow the remaining members of her family to stay there too, so we have Maroussia’s mother and grandmother, her uncle and the grandmother’s friend all living there as well as Kotov, his wife Maroussia and their daughter Nadia. The only servant we see is Mokhova, whom the older generation tease mercilessly when they’re not reminiscing about the old days and complaining at what they have to put with now. Mind you, it’s the uncle, Vsevolod, who notices the coming storm when he reads a story in the paper about how “confessions are the source of all justice”. Nobody wants to debate the issue with him and he’s constantly distracted by lecherous thoughts, so if it wasn’t for our knowledge of what’s to come I can see that many people at the time would have accepted such an announcement without comment.

A former friend of the family, Mitia, arrives back after many years away. It’s clear there was a relationship between him and Maroussia and at first I thought he’d come back to get her to run off with him. He’s been spending a lot of time abroad, playing the piano and singing to make ends meet apparently, but now he’s back and he and Kotov are immediately at odds. The battle is quite subtle at first, then escalates through storytelling and Mitia taking Maroussia away for private conversations. Finally it emerges that Mitia is in fact an agent of the NKVD come to arrest Kotov and garner evidence to be used at his trial (though why they need evidence when he’s going to confess….). The rest of the family have gone to the zoo, a promised treat for Nadia, and after roughing Kotov up a bit (he resisted arrest – honestly, he did) and shooting a lorry driver who came along looking for Mokhova, they drag Kotov off leaving Mitia behind on the veranda. He uses Kotov’s own pistol to play a losing game of Russian roulette with himself, with the lights going out as the shot is fired.

It’s a powerful ending and a pretty powerful play. Light at the start, it darkens down through all the revelations until the final act of desperation snuffs it out completely. The characters are well drawn and well acted, and there’s a lot of humour as well as emotion. I so wanted Mokhova to get together with the driver, who came to the house originally for directions as he was lost. They seemed so well suited, but he turned up in the wrong place at the wrong time and death was inevitable. The old biddies with their twittering, grumbling and opera singing were very reminiscent of Chekovian characters. It was surprising to see how well they’d survived the initial stages of the Revolution, but then there would have been lots of them and only so much time in the day for executions.

Mitia is an interesting contrast to the other, raincoat clad NKVD men. He’s bright, articulate and full of stories and song, which gives him excellent camouflage in spying out the Russian exiles who might be a danger to Stalin. He clearly feels the loss of everything he cared about when he first left the area, initially to fight in the Revolution and then sent away to spy by none other than Kotov. It was Mitia’s protest that he had to get back to see Maroussia that led Kotov to investigate this woman, fall in love with and marry her, so Mitia’s grudge is easy to understand. His despair at what he has to do to keep his bosses happy is evident, and his final act completely at one with his personality and situation. Rory Kinnear’s performance was superb in this role, showing off his many talents to perfection.

Holding all of this together is Ciaran Hinds’ Kotov. A man of the people, he’s proud of having achieved so much in his life entirely on merit. He’s hard but not completely ruthless; believing that the victory has been won, he’s inclined to relax and enjoy life a little. He doesn’t seem to be aware of the danger he’s in immediately although he’s certainly suspicious of Mitia’s arrival. But then, he knows the sort of work Mitia’s been doing, so no wonder. He comes across as a loving father and a generally decent man, though prepared to take tough decisions when he has to. It’s sad to see him brought down by Stalin’s paranoia but that’s how it was. Anyone who was popular or successful was a threat and had to go.

There was a fair bit of humour during the play but I’ll just mention two bits here. The first happened in the opening scene when Kotov is roused by neighbours complaining that there are tanks in the fields of wheat. Kotov uses his rank to get them removed and the change in attitude of the two young soldiers is very entertaining. At first they’re throwing their weight around, thinking they’re dealing with peasants (or comrade peasants) but when they realise who they’re talking to, they turn into simpering schoolgirls and are only too happy to put him through to their commander. In relating Kotov’s instructions, one soldier translates “piss off” as “go away”, which also got a good laugh.

The second occasion was the singing near the end when the family is heading off to the zoo. The NKVD men have arrived, and to provide a cover story Mitia introduces them as his colleagues. The family assume that means they’re musicians with the Moscow Philharmonic, and from the expressions on their faces these blokes wouldn’t know one end of a bassoon from another. Still, they end up joining in a chorus or two of Evening Bells, and one chap even sounds quite good. It’s a nice bit of humour before the unpleasant ending.

Although I’ve mentioned a few of the actors by name, all the performances were excellent. I liked the set very much, although the veranda rail was in the way for a lot of the breakfast scene, cutting off the actors’ mouths, which was a bit irritating. It was well worth seeing, and I hope to catch it again sometime.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Killing Time – April 2009

6/10

By Richard Stockwell

Directed by Ian Dickens

Company: Ian Dickens Productions

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 20th April 2009

Two-handers can be tricky in the theatre. There’s often little action, and it’s easy to lose the audience to other interests or the soft embrace of Morpheus. But there was no such problem tonight, as this production took us through a series of twists and turns that would have exhausted a well-trained rat in a maze. I did guess most of the twists, but usually only a short while before they were revealed anyway, so all credit to the writer for keeping us so attentive.

The play started with two people arriving at a remote house. Apparently, the chap, Rick (not his real name), had been given a lift by Jane (possibly not her real name) whose shopping he paid for after she had lost her wallet. Their conversation was fairly light and general at first, but within a short time there were indications that something more was going on, and soon we were up to our eyeballs in a complicated plot that led to at least one death.

Both actors did a good job, the set was suitably detailed, and although I felt the final twist involving a red jumper was a little unlikely, it didn’t bother me too much. So all in all a fun evening.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Dimetos – April 2009

3/10

By Athol Fugard

Directed by Douglas Hodge

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 16th April 2009

This was disappointing. The performances were fine, but neither Steve nor I could find much of interest in the play itself. I dozed a bit in the first half, it was so soporific, but Steve confirmed that I hadn’t missed much. Even though we were well round the side, we don’t think that affected our enjoyment that much, although we would prefer to be more central in future.

The story is absurdly simple. Dimetos is an older man, an engineer, who has left “the city” to live in a remote village. He does very little these days, although the opening of the play is a scene which shows him, with the help of his niece, rescuing a horse which fell into a well. Dimetos’ knowledge of pulleys and the like allows him to construct the necessary equipment to winch the horse out, while his niece Lydia, stripped to her skimpies, is lowered down to put the ropes round the horse, played by Alex Lanipekun. It’s an effective scene, though too long, and after that it’s all downhill.

Dimetos has a housekeeper, Sophia, and the quartet of characters is completed by Danilo, a visitor from the city, who tries to persuade Dimetos to return to help out with all the engineering challenges the city dwellers are facing with an ever-growing population. Dimetos gets him to stay by agreeing to consider his proposal, but then arranges for him to be alone with Lydia a lot, and the inevitable happens. He falls for her (she’s an attractive young lady), and that leads to a clumsy attempt to have sex which she repulses. After Sophia has been unsympathetic, and Dimetos reveals his own passionate feelings towards her, Lydia chooses to hang herself rather than go on living.

Finally Dimetos is tracked down to his even remoter hideaway by Danilo, and after their confrontation, Dimetos suffers a mental breakdown, which resolves itself into a story about a man dreaming he’s a horse who gets trapped down a hole, etc. In the process the few props get thrown around the set, leaving quite a mess for the stage crew to clean up, but without actually creating anything interesting to watch. The final image is of Dimetos holding out his hands, waiting to receive whatever the universe, or the gods, give him.

This is an attempt to do an updated Greek tragedy, but it doesn’t work on so many levels. The language was uninspiring (soporific, as I mentioned earlier), the characters didn’t involve me at all, there were no interesting discussions of any of the issues raised in the play – incestuous feelings, the overcrowding and excessive use of resources in modern societies, etc – the plot was predictable and dull, and only the performances made it remotely watchable. The relationships between the characters came across clearly, and I got the impression that the actors knew what the piece was about, but sadly the production didn’t include us in that awareness. Not one I’d rush to see again, although I wouldn’t completely rule out another viewing of a different production.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Last Cigarette – April 2009

6/10

By Simon Gray and Hugh Whitemore

Directed by Richard Eyre

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Monday 6th April 2009

I was torn between giving this production a 6 or 7/10 rating. The acting was very good, there was a lot of humour and some moving moments, yet overall I found it not as interesting as other pieces on the same subject; the John Diamond/Victoria Coren A Lump In My Throat, for example.

The set was a three-way split, with three identical desks, chairs, pile of books and pair of slippers carefully arranged along radiating patches of carpet. From what I could see (and from a surreptitious feel of the texture) the carpet was a basic mid-blue, with ray-shaped bands which had been speckled with gray paint, resembling cigarette ash. There was a large screen at the back, and although there was a selection of images to illustrate the story being told, the main image was that of a man, presumably Simon Gray himself. Unfortunately, and I don’t know if this was intentional or not, the image was blurred, with two identical pictures being projected slightly out of sync. It was mildly distracting, as I tried to figure it out at first, and then, once I’d realised what it was, I occasionally looked at it again when the offerings on stage weren’t so engrossing.

The three actors, Felicity Kendal, Jasper Britton and Nicholas le Provost, played three versions of the author. Like some gargantuan inner conversation, they took us on a reminiscence through Simon Gray’s life and some of the circumstances around his experience with cancer. The advantage of having three actors doing this was that the ‘spare’ ones could play the parts of the other people in each scene, and the down side to that was that I wasn’t always clear when they were back playing the author again. Felicity Kendal was the hardest for this; although she was very good as a man, so to speak, she naturally played all the woman’s parts required, and I sometimes found I lost track of who she was. But this is a minor quibble; the play was still very entertaining, and we enjoyed ourselves more than we’d expected to.

One more point. Having read one or two reviews beforehand, and at least one from a critic who’d known the man himself, I was glad that we hadn’t known him at all as we didn’t expect accurate impersonation, just a tribute in play form to his life and work. Which we got, and were well satisfied.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me