Dunsinane – February 2010

Experience: 8/10

By David Greig

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Company: RSC

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Wednesday 24th February 2010

We’ve come to expect very little from the RSC’s new writing in recent years – interesting ideas, good performances, but the plays need work (sometimes a lot of work). So it’s a delight to find that this new play is not only interesting and not only has some great performances, but is also a fully fledged piece which I would like to see have a longer run, preferably at Stratford (in the Swan, please).

The Hampstead Theatre’s auditorium was seriously remodelled for this production. The first three rows of seats were removed, and placed on the right hand side of the stage, which cascaded out in a triangular shape into the space between the seats. From the left of the stage, now the back, a set of irregular stone steps flowed down from a high point, topped by a Celtic cross. The ground below was fairly neutral, both in colour and texture. There was one fire pit opened up during the second half, otherwise it stayed the same (as far as I can remember). There were three ‘chandeliers’ hung across the stage – basic flat wooden circles with numerous candles – and in the second half some bare tree trunks with a few branches were planted here and there. Centre back were some doors, removed in the second half. Furniture was brought on as needed, and the removal men were very efficient. Costumes clearly reflected each ‘side’ or nationality, with the English soldiers wearing chain mail covered by white tabards with the red cross, and the Scots being dressed in leather tunics, cloaks and woollen breeches, apart from the women, of course. The queen wore a lovely deep blue gown which set off her long red hair beautifully, while her women looked more like nuns in their simple clothes. Almost forgot – the band were at the very back, looked like a three-piece.

The play began with a young English soldier telling us of his experiences on the way to Scotland. He spoke to us a few times during the play, as if he were writing letters to his mum. The next thing, all these other soldiers trooped on carrying skimpy bits of branches with leaves. The sergeant handed a branch to the young lad and told him to pretend he was a tree. He then gave the group some coaching in how to look like a forest. It was a very funny scene, and got us off to a good start. To the RSC’s credit, they put enough bodies on stage to make a credible army which really helped the performance, especially as they got them on and off remarkably swiftly.

Next we saw the queen and a couple of men, but as they were speaking Gaelic I haven’t a clue what they were saying – no surtitles. She hugged one of them and he headed off while the other chap, who’d been shooting arrows through the window of the door, stayed behind. When the English soldiers turned up he was soon killed, and pretty quickly the fighting was over. Siward learned of the death of his son, while another Englishman, Egham, entertained us all by doing his man-flu routine over a minor arrow-in-the-shoulder injury. Siward pulled it out for him, not that he got any thanks as Egham passed out from the pain.

Now we were into the post-war phase, or peace, as Siward liked to think of it. Trouble is, it turned out that not only was the queen still alive, she has a son who was now in hiding (the chap who ran off earlier) and not all the Scottish nobles are straining at the leash to shower Malcolm with their vows of allegiance. When Siward raised these points with Malcolm, he was given a wonderfully funny lesson on the Scottish way of using language, which seemed to involve a fairly liberal use of the word ‘seems’. In other words, Malcolm told the English what they needed to hear to get them to invade, but calling Malcolm a liar to his face will get you into trouble. Ring any bells?

After this, Macduff gave Siward an explanation of Scottish politics that made my head swim, never mind his, and I knew a little bit about the setup beforehand. Basically, there were two royal houses in Scotland, Moray and Alba, constantly at war with one another. Gruach, the queen who is still alive, is the highest ranking princess in the Moray line, and whoever she marries becomes king, while her children are the heirs. Personally I think passing the kingship through the female line is a much more sensible approach, since before DNA testing it wasn’t always possible to know who the father was, but the mother was pretty obvious. Of course, even now there can be doubts about royal bloodlines, despite our modern technology, but that’s another story.

Back to the historical situation. Malcolm is the heir of Alba, and apparently unencumbered with wife and kids, so Siward’s proposal at the end of the first half that Gruach and Malcolm marry to unite the two houses must have seemed like a really good idea at the time, at least to him. My first thought was, who’s going to kill who first? The festivities had scarcely got under way when Gruach’s followers invaded the castle, killed a load of people and took her away, a fitting climax to the first half.

The second half was less funny, but then there was more killing, including the execution of Gruach’s son, and Gruach herself wasn’t around till the final scene as we were seeing the action from the English perspective. Questions about the English reasons for still being there abounded, as they now indulged in great brutality with no clear purpose in view. Siward wanted ‘peace’, but hadn’t grasped that there are some wars you can’t win in a pitched battle, the simple way. They need a devious kind of political understanding, and even then the deep rooted loyalties keep getting in the way, even when these allegiances are always shifting and ephemeral. The best option all round was for the English forces to get out, but we didn’t get to see that far in this play. Instead, we were left at the end with Siward delivering Gruach’s son’s mutilated corpse to her, and her showing Siward her grandchild who is, at least in her view, the next king of Scotland. When he couldn’t bring himself to kill it, to try and create some kind of unity out of the mess that he’s helped to bring about, Siward headed off, leaving Gruach alone on the stage, a dramatic and powerful conclusion.

There was much more humour than this description brings out, and I really enjoyed myself this afternoon.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King Lear – February 2010

5/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Monday 22nd February 2010

This was only the fourth performance. I felt there was some good stuff, and some things that didn’t work so well. The biggest problem was blocking – Darrell d’Silva as Kent kept blocking our view through several scenes, and didn’t budge for up to five minutes! Also, I didn’t care for the flickering lights – if the acting can’t create the tension required, those lights ain’t gonna do it. And when there was a good atmosphere of suspense created, I found the lights distracted me.

The set design was a warehouse, much dilapidated and crumbling – very industrial grunge. A square plinth was raised or lowered in the middle of the stage as required. Assorted lights hung over the stage, from a chandelier to modern strip lights. There was also a bell in the far right corner with a rope that hung down to the stage. Furniture and other props were brought on as needed, and the setup and removal was pretty brisk.

They used Edwardian/first world war costumes and uniforms for the daughters’ side, with Lear and Cordelia in romantic medieval dress, and using swords. Contrasting the disillusionment of the ‘modern’ age with the romantic ideals of earlier times, perhaps? This production also used the technique of bringing the characters for the next scene on stage, having them speak the first few lines of that scene, then holding their position while the stage is cleared or reset. I only remember it being done a few times – will this change? Also, this production blended three scenes so that all three sisters are on stage at the same time – Goneril reading her letter from Edmund, Cordelia praying for her father, and Regan trying to tempt Goneril’s letter to Edmund out of Oswald’s keeping. Nice touch.

In terms of the staging itself, they had enough actors in the cast to provide Lear with a number of followers at the start, but I felt there wasn’t enough of a reaction from them when Goneril was telling her father off. The advantage of having large numbers to show how Lear’s followers leave him was negated by the deadening effect if we don’t see any reactions.

The storm scene used ‘real’ rain, falling on the raised plinth, with only Lear getting wet. Not much thunder, so the lines were easier to hear, but there was much less tension. The interval was taken after this, when Gloucester led Lear away to shelter.

When Lear has been brought to shelter, and has the trial of his daughters, Edmund had previously been left at the back, sitting in a chair at a desk, having just betrayed his father. As the next scene is set up, Goneril appears from behind the curtain and straddles Edmund. Didn’t see what else happened – too caught up in the scene in the foreground. After the trial, the Fool chooses not to go with Kent and Lear to Dover, and isn’t seen again, hanged or otherwise.

The battle sequence, with Gloucester still lying in a corner of the stage, was done by each side striding across a lit diagonal, followed by the sound effects of gunfire, etc. Then several bags deposited small piles of sand across the stage, although one bag kept going with a small dribble of sand through the rest of the scene – intentional or accident? Certainly distracting. [From understudies run, it was an accident – didn’t happen for that performance.]

Edmund has a pistol during the duel, but with a big two-handed sword to deal with, he doesn’t get a chance to draw it until later, when a watchful soldier disarms him. The duel was over quickly, a good choice, I think.

The performances: Kathryn Hunter was good as the fool. I don’t know if I’m just getting familiar with the lines or they were better delivered tonight, but I got more than usual from this part – probably a bit of both. Greg Hicks’ performance is good overall, but still a little patchy. Once or twice he reminded me of Lily Savage – not an image I usually associate with Lear. I think it was the large fur collar on his jacket that gave that impression. He was believable in the mad scenes, although he didn’t display as much emotion as some I’ve seen. Not sure what Lear was like before the play begins, how did he ever hold a kingdom together? This production may have suffered a bit from the discrepancy between the set and the costumes, especially in the first half – the performance didn’t seem to fit in that space. I felt it worked better in the second half, as the military uniforms blended in more.

Katy Stephens was good as Regan, and well matched by Kelly Hunter as Goneril. Both were predatory, and I got the feeling that their treatment of Lear wasn’t premeditated from the start, but when they confronted Lear together at Gloucester’s place they took the opportunity to tighten the noose. I’m not sure about the other performances yet, although James Tucker was good as Oswald, those lines that he was left with anyway.

The cuts we noticed – if it be lawful, I take up what’s cast down (one of my favourite bits!), Oswald’s lines asking Edmund to take the letter to Edgar, Lear’s lines at the end about Cordelia reviving.

Overall, I hope this improves, but I’m not banking on it.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

11 And 12 – February 2010

Experience: 6/10

Adapted from the work of Amadou Hampate Ba by Marie-Helene Estienne

Directed by Peter Brook

Company: C.I.C.T./Theatre des Bouffes Nord

Venue: Barbican Theatre

Date: Saturday 20th February 2010

What a day we’ve had! Congestion on our usual route to Haywards Heath meant a long detour via Crawley. We caught the last possible train to London Bridge, only to find that the various tube line closures had led to a horde of would-be travellers clogging up the platforms of the Northern Line, so we had to wait, in a growing crowd, for the gates to open. After enduring all the jostling that such a pent-up mass of people creates, we were glad to finally get to Moorgate and the open, empty spaces of the Barbican, that cultural hub in the City. As Steve said, we thought things couldn’t get any worse, and then…..

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Six Degrees Of Separation – February 2010

6/10

By John Guare

Directed by David Grindley

Venue: Old Vic Theatre

Date: Wednesday 17th February 2010

We’d seen this years ago with Stockard Channing and Adrian Lester, and apart from bits of the story, what I remember most from that production was the cynical humour, showing up the high flyers in New York society as vain, superficial and gullible. This production was much nicer to the socialites, and with the cultural references dating the play so quickly, perhaps that was inevitable. Steve rated this higher than I did, based on the excellent performances and the overall quality of the production. I agree with him on all of that, I just find the piece too insubstantial to rate it any higher.

The set was simple, with a sofa and table on the revolve, starting with its back to the audience, a double-sided Kandinsky hung at the back and rotating gently before the start, and four curved wall sections that sneakily backed away at one point (I didn’t notice them moving) to open the stage up. Two side walls had the main entrances and the main colour was a plush warm red, with the sofa in green. The inkwell and the dog picture that the husband is concerned about at the start are dangled over the side of the balcony (or box?) to right and left, and spotlit, so we won’t miss them.

The story concerns a young black man who cons his way into rich people’s apartments by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier. He’s very charming, talks knowledgeably about Catcher In The Rye, and gets small sums of money from his hosts. When the Kitteridges find out he’s also brought a rent boy into the house for some casual sex, they’re horrified (of the ‘we could all have been murdered in our beds’ kind).

There’s a lot of humour in the situation as the couples discover a number of them have been taken in, and when they try to report the incidents to the police, they realise that no actual crime has been committed. A little more investigation on the parents’ part brings their kids into the play – sulky teenagers or what! The shock expressed by one of them that they gave away his pink shirt was good fun, though I think that bit went on a little too long. The prospect of the children narrowing down their friends to a small group of suspects by looking for drug addicts, alcoholics, homosexuals and similar brought suitably contemptuous responses. As if!

Ms Kitteridge soon figured out who to talk to, a chap who was now at MIT, and she got the full story of Paul’s start on his career of non-crime. The MIT chap bribed Paul to have sex with him by teaching him how to speak and behave, and feeding him all the information about his classmates’ families that Paul would use later to carry out his con trick.

When these families go public, Paul has to change tack, and now he cons a young couple from Utah, up in New York to make it big. This time, he tells them he’s Mr Kitteridge’s illegitimate and unacknowledged son, living in Central Park, and trying to get in to see his father. They offer him a bed, he cons the guy out of their savings after the woman has turned him down, and then spends the money treating himself and Utah guy to a great night out at the Rainbow followed by sex. Realising what’s happened, Utah guy throws himself off a building (took me a while to get that it was him), and with Utah woman making a complaint, the police finally have something to go on.

When Paul makes a phone call to the Kitteridges, they, or rather Mrs Kitteridge, persuade him to wait where he is; they will come and pick him up and take him to the police themselves. She makes all sorts of promises to him, as his fantasies are rampant, and although he clearly has brains and charm we can see he needs a lot of help if he’s going to be able to use his talents. Mr Kitteridge, much less tolerant than his wife, lets the police know where Paul is, and with heavy traffic delaying them, the Kitteridges arrive too late.

Since they’re not family, and don’t know Paul’s real name, Mrs Kitteridge can’t find out what happened to Paul. She hears, some months later, that a young man hanged himself in prison using a pink shirt, and while she’s telling us this, we see Paul walking along the top of the wall towards the picture. I think when he gets there, he points at it, and smiles at the audience. Lights.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Alfie – February 2010

6/10

By Bill Naughton

Directed by Adrian McDougall

Company: Blackeyed Theatre

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Thursday 11th February 2010

The main problem with this performance was the sparse response from the audience. The cast did their best, but with such a small turnout we couldn’t get any atmosphere going until nearly the end, and then the abortion section took all the fun out of things.

Neither Steve nor I have watched the film all the way through (it’s impossible not to have seen clips) but since the story was familiar we reckon we may have seen the play years ago. The vast Connaught stage had no trouble holding the various chairs, tables, beds and other paraphernalia needed for the production and still had plenty of room for the band at the back. The pauses between scenes were often covered by music, but they still slowed things up too much for me. Again, the size of the stage didn’t help them, as they had even further to push or carry the furniture.

There were only five actors in the cast so there was plenty of doubling, and I thought they all did their characters very well. Edward Elks as Alfie was very good, delivering his lines well and getting across the inner emptiness of Alfie’s life of ‘pleasure’. The chauvinist attitudes are largely out-of-date, and so too hopefully is the passive acceptance by the women, though I suspect there’s more of both about than I would like. The change in perspectives probably also contributed to the lack of response, as it was hard sometimes to find Alfie’s banter funny. This production is mainly touring to smaller places and I expect a more intimate venue would improve the experience tremendously.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Celtic Footprint – February 2010

8/10

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Sunday 7th February 2010

The first act was called The Gentle Good, which sounds like a band, but was in fact a solo artiste, Gareth Bonello. A Welsh folk singer/songwriter, he was accompanied on this gig by harpist Harriet Earis. Between them they made light work of some songs (in Welsh) which all seemed to be about sad, depressing subjects, and some livelier tunes which were much more robust than I’m used to hearing from a harp. Harriet kept looking round at us with a broad grin on her face, like a mischievous elf looking for someone to play tricks on. She was probably just checking that we hadn’t all scarpered, because there was the usual wide gulf between us and the musicians, one of the drawbacks of the Festival theatre when it comes to bands. Their set had some lovely pieces, and the CDs are definitely on our list.

Second act was Galician piper Anxo Lorenzo. My God, what an amazing talent! He started at the back of the front stalls, playing on his bagpipes, and then walked down and onto the stage, to join his two mates playing on fiddle and guitar or mandolo (similar to a mandolin, but larger and flatter, with eight(?) strings). His set got us all fully warmed up, with some marvellous tunes played on both the bagpipes and other pipes, and his sense of humour came across really well too. No CD available, sadly.

Third act, after the first interval, was Daimh (pronounced dive). This group was an eclectic blend of Scottish, Canadian and Breton musicians, with songs being sung in Gaelic, and bagpipes again well to the fore.

Finally, for the last long set, Dervish took the stage, an Irish band specialising in music from the Sligo area (references to tunes from other areas of Ireland were somewhat derogatory). Their singer, Cathy Jordan, was dressed in green, and did most of the talking, introducing the songs and suchlike. She has a good voice, and the songs and tunes were fine. There was even some audience participation, strongly encouraged by Cathy.

At the very end, for the encore, everyone else joined them on the stage for a final song – don’t remember which one – and we went away thoroughly happy with our long evening of music.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Graft: Tales Of An Actor – February 2010

8/10

By Steven Berkoff

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Saturday 6th February 2010

Another one and three-quarters straight through! Performed wonderfully by George Dillon, this play is basically a series of sketches, snippets from the life of a generic actor, from the first innocent auditions for drama school to the final final curtain. In the intimacy of the Mill Studio, Dillon held us in the palm of his hand throughout, moving with ease from exaggerated, over-the-top declamation to subtle, quiet moments. We’re shown some of the other people who inhabit the actor’s world – the agent, keen to get the fading talent out of his office, sticks in the mind best – and the corrosive effect of constant criticism is well documented. There’s not as much humour in the later stages as in the earlier, but overall it’s a very good piece, well performed.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me