My Darling Clemmie – April 2010

8/10

By Hugh Whitemore

Directed by Gareth Armstrong

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Friday 30th April 2010

This was a lovely one-woman show which took us on a brisk trip through the life of Clementine Churchill, and particularly her marriage to Winston. In fact, the play opened with her first sight of the man, and ended with a memory of that moment. I sniffled a great deal, though as we were in the front row, I tried to do it as unobtrusively as possible.

The set was very simple. A rug in the middle of the stage, a writing table and chair to the left, and another chair to the right. The lighting didn’t change much, so it was entirely up to the actress to keep us involved for over an hour and a half. And this she did. Rohan McCullough gave an excellent performance as Clemmie, very upright, delicate and refined. I never knew the woman, of course, but this portrayal seemed in keeping with the little I know of her.

And of course we have the letters. Hers to him, his to her, and a few others thrown in along the way to round out the story of this famous couple, as seen from the wife’s point of view. It was funny, entertaining and moving, and a very enjoyable evening in all ways.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Bingo – April 2010

6/10

By Edward Bond

Directed by Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 27th April 2010

This play is just tolerable, thanks to the second half opening scene in the tavern, with Ben Jonson and Will getting totally blotto, and giving us most of the play’s sparse jokes in one chunk. This was a very good production, mind you, and the performances were all splendid, but Edward Bond can be so dreary. I suppose he feels he has something to say about life, or in this case about money and death, but he overestimates his abilities in my view.

I saw this one on my own for once, as Steve, bless him, had come down with a bad cold and couldn’t stop coughing. The performance was the quieter, apart from a mobile going off during the closing stages! It’s strange not to have our usual discussion afterwards, but as we’ve booked again for this one he’ll have a chance to catch up later. I’ll be interested to see how the performance changes in that time.

The set was entertaining in itself. The first scenes are set in the garden of New House, Shakespeare’s retirement place in the country. There were large hedges at the back with a central opening, symmetrical beds, indicated by woodchip mulch, on either side, and also at the front. The stage had angled corners on two levels and was cut away to provide triangular steps at the front and side. There was a gate front right corner, and a bench back left.

For the rest of the first half, there was an unspecified location. The hedges were on a revolve, and on the other side were bricks, which were now at the back. In front of them was a wooden pillar, and the poor Young Woman was set up there, now dead. She did at least have a wooden headrest to help her stay still. The gate and bench were removed, and the woodchip scattered across the stage. I thought it might be a barn at first, but the gallows with grass at the base suggested an outdoor scene.

The second half starts in the tavern, and the front of the revolve now has walls either side and a fireplace in the middle, thrust forward. There were two tables and assorted stools, Ben and Will at the one to the right. For the next scene, outside in the snow, the revolve turned to give us an open space – don’t remember what was at the back – and a pile of fake snow which was swept vigorously forward to cover the stage (and the feet of the folk in the front row). Simple and effective.

The final scene is set in Will’s bedroom, so it took a minute or two to set up. The walls are back, but this time with a sturdy-looking door between them. There’s a bed to the left, an upright chair to the right, and a small, very small writing desk in front, covered in papers.

The story covers Shakespeare’s last months in Stratford, and brings in the enclosures and the hardships facing the poor at that time. Shakespeare is approached by William Coombe to agree to the common land being enclosed, and eventually agrees to that provided his rents are guaranteed. A young woman wanders into their lives, who shows us the restrictions on movement between parishes. There are protests against the enclosures, and in the meantime, Will is in a kind of depression as he toils towards death. He doesn’t get on with his family, loathes them in fact, so living in Stratford is torture for him, though he no longer wants to be in London. Frankly, just about everyone is miserable.

Bond is a political writer, so there’s a bit of drum-banging going on, but on the whole I’d have to agree with Patrick Stewart’s comment at the post-show that this was one area where Bond was scrupulously balanced. It is, after all, the area he’s most interested in, and he does understand the other points of view, at least well enough to present them fairly. I’d also agree that it’s the only area that’s balanced. I was very aware that many of the characters simply don’t communicate with each other, and while that’s certainly a valid situation to demonstrate and explore on stage, it doesn’t necessarily work if the lack of communication extends to the audience as well. Surely Judith could have been given more opportunity to express her feelings about her absentee father? Surely she could have made better points about his lack of care towards his family? There was enough to hint at the past injuries, on both sides, but I never felt the personal was anything more than a side issue for Bond.

Unfortunately, the political side also felt underwritten. One of the main protesters, Son, son of Old Woman and Old Man, Will’s servants (God, these names are dreadful!) was so caught up in religious rhetoric, and spoke with such a strong accent that I lost most of his lines. I got the anger, but the arguments against enclosure were decidedly lacking. In fact, the best argument against was the wonderfully sleazy performance by Jason Watkins as William Coombe, the main mover in the land grab campaign. I will just say that the accents were all fine, as far as I could tell, and if I’d remembered, I would have liked to ask about them during the post-show, but they did make it hard to follow the dialogue at times.

So it wasn’t the greatest evening, but the time did pass fairly quickly, and we had some laughs along the way.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Sweet Nothings – April 2010

3/10

By Arthur Schnitzler

Directed by Luc Bondy

Company: Young Vic

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Wednesday 21st April 2010

I have enjoyed Schnitzler’s work in the past, but then again…. This was a very trivial story, which may have been well translated, but the production left me cold. For the first time in my life, I found myself wanting to nod off, but that didn’t happen until about two thirds through the first half. The second half started better, what with an interesting performance from Hayley Carmichael as the busybody neighbour, always ready to pass on a bad word or two, and always from someone else’s opinion, not her own. The latter part of the scene, after the father had come and gone, was also more enjoyable, as we got to see the situation from the perspective of the two young women, Mitzi and Christine, but on the whole the second part was very predictable and not particularly interesting, and I was happy to catch up on my sleep some more during this part too. At least the first half had several funny lines in it, such as when Theo tells Fritz to play some music to accompany him having sex with Mitzi, and she tells Fritz to make it a short piece. The second half was all downhill, and became very dreary by the end.

The set was mainly on a large revolve, which did an approximately 90 degree turn each half, very slowly for the most part. There was a small extended area in front of the stage and large panels behind, with a circular frame suspended above the revolve which kept pace with it. For the first half, the location was the reception room in Fritz’s flat, with a grand piano, a sofa, a rumble seat and a screen on the revolve, a sideboard with various paraphernalia in the orchestra pit, and a window and several lights dangling from above. They also added candles and a table during the action. The panel at the back was a coral pink colour, and swept across the rear of the stage in graceful curves – a feminine backdrop to the male environment.

The second half was set in Christine’s bedroom, though you’d have thought it was a waiting room at Clapham Junction the way folk just strolled in and out. There was a bed, an arrangement of hanging rails, a table with a chess set beneath the window, two chairs, an empty music stand on the revolve and more music stands with chairs in the pit. Again, things were moved around so that the centre of the stage was clear for the final game of pass the parcel – Christine was determined to visit Fritz’s grave, her father, Mitzi and Theo kept grabbing her to stop her. That’s how it ended, apart from the sound effect of a shot. Costumes were 1920s style and very good.

The story was beyond simple. Fritz had fallen for a married woman, and Christine had fallen for him. Married woman’s husband challenges Fritz to a duel and kills him. Christine is terribly upset. Pass the parcel. That’s it. That’s what took nearly two and a half hours of stage time to tell. Amazing. Few of the characters were even remotely interesting, the stylised production made the whole thing even more antiseptic – why did they bother? A few people in the audience clearly appreciated this kind of thing, judging by their laughter at odd moments, but they were definitely in a minority. We changed seats during the interval, as did a number of others, so it was hard to tell just how many people had left during it, but we were nowhere near a full complement to begin with, and even less than that for the second half.

Steve and I had booked seats in the circle for this one originally, just to see what they were like, but were informed that we’d been moved, as there was some aspect of the set that blocked the view from that part of the auditorium. Search me what it was. The windows scarcely got round that far, and they were pretty insubstantial anyway. No, we decided it was probably just a ruse to cluster us all in the middle stalls because ticket sales had been so poor. We were happier with our new seats; well, I could snooze there just as well as in the other ones.

Despite all this criticism, I must praise all the actors, who gave very good performances. Sadly, the material and production just weren’t to our taste.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Dumb Show – April 2010

2/10

By Joe Penhall

Directed by Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 15th April 2010

Dire. Superficial. Banal. I rarely get to use these words to refer to a performance we’ve seen, but today they’re all apt. The second half showed some improvement, but not enough to raise the overall rating, and although there were a few good laughs, for the most part this was a waste of a good afternoon. (Although as it was also the day of the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud closing UK airports, that may a little unfair.)

The story was of Barry, an Asian performer whose show was never clearly specified, being courted for business purposes in a hotel suite by a couple of bankers, who are actually investigative journalists out to get a story for the Sunday sleaze papers about how a well-loved entertainer is actually involved in naughty stuff, such as booze, drugs, improper sexual advances, etc., etc. You know the sort of thing. With a name like Barry, I assume the central character was originally more home-grown, but with Sanjeev Baskar playing the part it was fine-tuned to reflect his background.

The reporters, played by Emma Cunniffe and Dexter Fletcher, want to get more details from Barry to confirm what they’ve already got, and to find even more juicy bits to make the story bigger. They use all sorts of tactics, from bullying to enticements, and it was very clear that nothing they said could be believed. There was a short spell in the second half when Barry stood up to them, but then he went back to being putty in their hands, for no discernible reason I could see. Eventually he left, threatening them with all sorts of lawsuits if they published their story, and the final scene shows Barry meeting again with Liz in the same hotel room so she can tempt him to provide a follow-up story of how much he loved his wife Valerie, now dead from the cancer(?) that she’d been suffering from during Barry’s earlier stint in the room. The play ends with Barry, who’d been going to walk out on her, taking the phone to speak to her editor and after thinking for a long while, asking how much the fee would be.

The story wasn’t new, given how much this topic gets bandied about these days, and from this performance I’d have to say that the writing was pretty weak. There weren’t enough laughs to make it a properly enjoyable piece, and while the superficiality of the writing might be excused on the grounds that these are superficial people, that level of dialogue doesn’t support this long a play unless it’s done entirely for laughs. It takes a much better standard of authorship to make us care about the shallow, conceited, callous folk on show here. The opening was so fast and furious it reminded me of David Mamet’s work, but this was definitely sub-sub-sub Mamet in quality.

However, we’re both agreed that if this play does come around again with a different cast, we might be prepared to give it a go. Emma Cunniffe was fine, and Dexter Fletcher would have been fine if he had projected sufficiently for us to catch more of his lines, but Sanjeev Baskar was just too nice to give the production the darker edge it needed. Far from seeming the alcoholic, cheating husband who snorted cocaine like his life depended on it, he looked more like a man who would be home in good time for dinner because his wife might tell him off in a loud voice if he didn’t. His emotional range was limited, so that, apart from a flash of anger in the second half, his character didn’t seem to be feeling much at all. In the opening scene, when the two journalists are wheedling him into having some champagne, more could have been made of Barry’s alcoholism, and the fact that their pressure makes them seriously complicit in his bad behaviour later, after he’s downed most of the contents of the mini-bar.

That aside, Sanjeev can deliver a funny line really well; if only there had been a lot more of them, we’d have really enjoyed ourselves.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Antony And Cleopatra – April 2010

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 13th April 2010

This is a pretty impressive standard for an early preview performance to set – here’s hoping that the next time we see it we enjoy it as much, if not more.

It was easy to recognise the Michael Boyd touch tonight, even before I checked the program for the director. The large, curved drum sticking out into the stage space, the curved boards on the floor echoing that shape, the use of ringing chimes to highlight certain words (though I’ve no idea what the connection was this time – it was much more straightforward during the Histories) the emphasis on prophecy and well-depicted battle scenes, though fortunately without the gore should attend it. And the story came across clearly, and with much better balance than I’ve seen before, the recent SATTF production notwithstanding.

The set had the industrial drum shape at the back, on two levels, and with various doors. At the start, a large piece of blue fabric was spread from the centre of this drum at the top out to the sides, with the corners being suspended from the ceiling. This was removed at some point, but the fabric reappeared when Cleopatra welcomed Antony back from his victorious battle. She stood on the upper platform, with the cloth draped round her and falling to the ground. There was also a platform which could be thrust forward between the lower doors, and served as the Monument (of course) as well as another vantage point from time to time. There were posh chairs, basic chairs, and at the end, a couple of suitcases and a trunk which formed Cleopatra’s throne for the final death scene.

The costumes were contemporary, which meant soldiers could report news they were hearing through their earpieces, and guns were as much in evidence as swords. When Cleopatra was buckling on Antony’s armour, it was modern-day webbing with all the boxes on it that she was trying to sort out. Personally, I think this worked very well and I wasn’t troubled by any anachronism, though no doubt there will be complaints from some quarters (there were, in the interval). Cleopatra’s costumes were not just modern but sumptuous, and she had a new set of clothes for each scene which really underlined her status. Mind you, her servants, Charmian and Iras, were changing as often, and into co-ordinated outfits, while even Octavia had more than one ensemble to draw on for her part. Impressive.

So to the staging. The whole balance of the play was completely different from any production I’ve seen before. Instead of focusing heavily on the two central characters, this version took a wider look at the whole picture, giving more attention to all the characters, and showing the political context clearly. The love affair Antony and Cleopatra are carrying on is doomed within this context, as the ambition of Octavius Caesar could only have been restrained by an Antony who was on the ball.

Darrell d’Silva played Antony with his hand bandaged from a recent injury, and had his arm in a sling as well. We’d heard that last night’s performance had been a free one, intended as a run-through for his understudy, but that Darrell had insisted on playing the part himself. His performance will undoubtedly be helped when his hand is better, but that’s not a criticism of his efforts tonight.

The sea battle was staged in a very imaginative manner. The people involved on each side came walking slowly on from opposite corners in battle fatigues (sand colour for Antony, blue for Caesar). Each carried a paper boat held above their heads. At first, I found this funny and absurd, but as they continued with their stately progress across the stage to confront the opposition, with Antony’s fleet executing some deft twirls in the process, it became more engrossing, and I decided it was a very good way to show something as unstageable as a sea battle. When the two sides came together, most of the combatants screwed up their paper ships and threw them over their heads into the audience (one landed on us), and then got stuck in to the fighting. Cleopatra and her girls, however, keeping their ships intact, turned and moved slowly away, causing Antony to follow and abandon the battle. It was a very clear demonstration of what went on, and contributed to my greater understanding of the story this time around.

The feasting scene worked very well, I thought. Lepidus was clearly drunk, and even Caesar enjoyed the way Antony made fun of him with his non-description of a crocodile. When Menas and Pompey have their little chat, everyone else was moving in slow motion, carrying on the party.

Tonight we got to see the scene where Ventidius tells us of his success against the Parthians. There was a captive on the upper level of the drum with a bag over his head to illustrate the point, and the comments about how risky it can be for the lieutenant to outdo his general came across very clearly. I don’t know if we’ve ever seen this bit before; the way it was staged it felt like a completely new scene. They also included the scene where some soldiers on guard duty see a light and follow it off stage.

There was no asp merchant – the basket was simply stored somewhere, and Charmian went under the stage to retrieve it. This worked well, as this production wasn’t so strong on the emotional side, so injecting humour at this point wouldn’t have helped.

John Mackay as Octavius gave a very good performance. He got across the ruler’s coldness and lack of the social skills that made Antony a great general. Still, Octavius has the wit to see clearly where his advantage lies, and doesn’t hesitate to take every opportunity to improve his situation. Antony is so besotted with Cleopatra that his judgement goes completely. He even tells Cleopatra to trust Proculeius, when he’s definitely Caesar’s tool. There was a nice bit of humour when the news comes to Antony that Cleopatra’s not actually dead. He reacted with a resigned sigh that suggested he was really kicking himself for believing the lie.

Octavius Caesar and Antony each used the audience during a speech, Antony at the start of the second half, when he was telling his men to leave and save themselves, and Octavius when he was trying to persuade us that he’d been scrupulously fair and moral in all his dealings. It was a good start to second half – quiet, but Darrell d’Silva held the stage, and got the energy going again very quickly.

Greg Hicks was good as the soothsayer, a nice straightforward performance, and Paul Hamilton was very good as the hapless messenger who incurs the wrath of Cleopatra for telling the truth. He learned the error of his ways, though, and lied convincingly the second time around. Even so, he still got off stage as fast as he could afterwards, despite her smiles. I was aware for the first time how Shakespeare contrasts Antony’s approach and Cleopatra’s. He wants the truth, however unpleasant – she wants to hear only good news.

Another contrast I was aware of was between the choices made by Ventidius and Enobarbus. Ventidius shows the military choice, that Antony has lost his judgement. Enobarbus shows the personal choice, based on Antony’s nobility.

There was a lot more to this production that I just can’t note up in time. The overall impression was of a very fresh version, with lots of energy and many fascinating details. Roll on performance two.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Macbeth – April 2010

6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Declan Donnellan

Company: Cheek By Jowl

Venue: Silk Street Theatre

Date: Monday 5th April 2010

Two hours without an interval! And on less padded seats than I would like! And it’s a Cheek By Jowl production, which may be great, but then I didn’t go the distance with their Troilus And Cressida! God help us.

So far, so good. It’s a nice little theatre, attached to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and although the seats are firm, they’re not uncomfortable. The set is gloomy and misty, an open space with boxes and upended long crates flanking either side of the stage. That’s it.

Well, I managed to stay the distance, but I nodded off towards the end as the going got heavy. Steve and I agreed on this one – some 8/10 good bits, but some equally dull 4/10 sections, so overall a 6/10 rating is appropriate.

The cast were all in basic black, apart from the porter – more on that story later – and were often visible on stage, at first at the edges, then increasingly in the middle, surrounding the action without distracting from it, although I did find that they took away the focus from the active characters at times. During ‘If ’twere done…’, I found myself wondering what difference it would make if Macbeth were alone on the stage, and I decided it would be harder work for the actor to really make his presence felt, and also much more intense for the audience. I wasn’t convinced that Will Keen, much as I like his work, could have done that with this interpretation, although Anastasia Hille as Lady Macbeth was managing fine.

The staging had some good aspects, but there were puzzles. Why were some of the accents obviously Scottish, and others not? Lady Macbeth stayed on the stage after the sleepwalking scene – why? It seemed to work as Macbeth was seeing her there, sitting on a stool, but then the news of her death came – she had left the stage just beforehand – so presumably he was looking at a….what? A vision? A ghost?

There was a lot of mime used to replace props and gore. In many ways this was good – speeds up the action as actors don’t have to deal with the props or bother with blood bags – but again there were questions. The bloody man at the start appears to stab himself for no apparent reason. Steve reckoned it may have been to explain to the uninitiated why he’s called the ‘bloody man’, as they might think Duncan is just swearing, but the mime was unclear to me, so maybe I just didn’t get it. The victims of murder (and there are quite a few in even this edited version) all mimed their own killing, which I thought worked very well.

The witches were done as disembodied voices – there were only two women in the cast – and with the cast standing behind Banquo and Macbeth at the start; I found this very effective. For the prophecy scene, the rest of the cast carried children (dolls, that is) in a circle around Macbeth, ending with Banquo himself. Also good, as was the use of lights to represent the other spirits.

There were some long pauses during the staging, which were at odds with the rest of it. Lady Macbeth takes the pretty route when coming on stage to greet Duncan, and by the way, why was Duncan blind? Don’t ask me. Macduff was posed with his family before the killing scene, and stayed there for a bit as his wife and son had a very truncated dialogue about the wickedness of men. It made the point, emphasised in some other productions, that Macbeth does not have children to follow him, but it was also a bit distracting as well.

The porter was extremely memorable. The other woman in the cast played this part, and was done up in the only colourful costume of the production. Day-glo almost. And she was definitely the worse for wear – been out with her mates for a long pub crawl by the looks of her. Her cubby-hole was in one of the tall crates which was wheeled round to the centre of the stage. She spoke into an entrance phone, and was the liveliest character on stage, and with the broadest Scots accent, if I remember correctly.

All the other performances were fine, and the set, if I can call it that, was certainly atmospheric. But the production had too many flaws for me to rate it any higher.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me