The History Boys – January 2011


By: Alan Bennett

Directed by: Christopher Luscombe

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Monday 24th January 2011

I wasn’t drawn to this play when it was on at the National; no idea why, it just didn’t grab me despite having an excellent cast, and being by a great writer whose work I usually enjoy. I was happy to go to Chichester to see it, though, and at least now I have some idea why I wasn’t keen to see it earlier. Some of the problems were down to this production, one was unfortunately in the audience itself, but some were definitely down to the play.

Firstly, the audience. The couple behind us were determined to have as many ‘chatter’ moments as they could. They cut it pretty fine at the start, almost talking over the dialogue, and they used every scene change to continue their not very quiet conversation, but it was at the start of the second half, when they did carry on over the first lines, that I turned round to tell them to shut up. In no uncertain terms. And thankfully, they kept quiet for the rest of the play, which is probably why I enjoyed it more in the second half.

The next problem was the delivery. I could hear some of the dialogue clearly, and the singing was fine, but I missed a lot as well, including some of the jokes. The accents didn’t help, but I got the impression that this was a proscenium arch production that hadn’t been fully adjusted for the wide thrust stage, and the actors may not have been prepared for how much more they would have to work to get the lines across.  Naturally, that ruined much of my enjoyment. Also, with the proscenium arch staging, I found it hard to see some of the action properly, especially the opening scenes of each half where Irwin, in a wheelchair, was mostly obscured by the furniture. I gather from Steve that the opening scene at least was done by video at the National, so presumably they didn’t want to tour with that level of technology, or else they just wanted to do it differently. Fine, but I wasn’t involved enough at the start because of it.

Then there were the performances themselves. Mostly fine, there were some weaker areas. Much as I love Philip Franks as an actor, with many fine memories of his work through the years, I felt his Hector wasn’t ‘strange’ enough to make sense of the role, and not entirely believable as the closet gay teacher who gropes his pupils’ balls while driving his moped with one hand and much too fast. I say ‘closet’ gay – this was one closet that had lost its doors. Steve reckoned Richard Griffiths was much more eccentric, and that worked better.

Likewise, I found some of the other characters weren’t well drawn enough. The female teacher, Mrs Lintott, while having some of the best lines, didn’t seem to have any particular character, Irwin was very weak, both in delivery and characterisation, and although the main boys were very good, there was a lack of depth in the ‘chorus’ that left me cold. I suspect we may have caught this production very early in its tour, and that it needs some time to get to grips with the play. [Not so; after checking websites, this tour started in 2010] At the moment, it feels like the actors are relying on Alan Bennett’s writing too much, and that just saying the lines should be enough. For me, I want to see more acting as well, and especially I’d like to be able to hear the lines they’re saying as well.

Finally, there’s the play itself. I’m not a boy, my education experience was very different from the one shown on stage, and I found I not only disagreed strongly with many of the opinions expressed, I also felt the thinking in this area seemed very shallow. I didn’t get any real sense of the different attitudes to teaching – Steve says this came across more strongly in the National production – and therefore much of the play seemed pointless. And what exactly is wrong with encouraging students to think for themselves and have a different point of view? I agree it can be used simply as a technique to make someone sound more intelligent and knowledgeable than they are, but it is also a valid way to make a point, and in general, I think it does history, as well as other subjects, no harm at all to have to tackle multiple viewpoints. After all, many of the cultures the British colonised for so many years have had opinions which differed from the accepted British Empire view of history, and these have been and are being assimilated into a greater world view – what’s wrong with that? I certainly agree that much of the TV history presentation is akin to journalism – naturally, since that’s what works on TV. And what’s wrong with journalism exactly? None of this was explained; it just seemed to be assumed that we would all agree on the ‘correct’ standards, and so find the jibes at one or other target to be funny. Well, some were, most notably the emphasis on league tables and the treatment of women in the academic professions. But a lot weren’t which is unusual for a writer of Bennett’s calibre. I can only assume that with so many parents concerned about their children’s education, this play touched a funny nerve, which is why it was so popular.

So not the best evening in the theatre, then. I’m glad I’ve seen it, and I wouldn’t rule out seeing it again, in a much better production. Steve reckoned he would have given the National version a nine or ten-out-of-ten rating, and this one only a six, so clearly there are problems to be sorted out from our perspective. Regardless, I do hope they have a good tour, as many people last night were clearly enjoying themselves more than we were.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

King Lear – Janaury 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 20th Janaury 2011

I wasn’t too hopeful that I’d enjoy this production, as the previous Shakespearean tragedies we’d seen directed by Michael Grandage had always seemed to lack depth, especially in the emotional department. Today was a revelation. A sparse set, rich but sombre costumes, and some tremendous acting from the whole cast made this the perfect Lear. I laughed, I cried – Steve overheard Ron Cook comment ‘terrific audience’ on his way out, so I suspect we weren’t the only ones having a great time.

I felt that Goneril’s voice was a little weak early on, but I reckon that was to make her seem like the good little daughter – she found her lungs and her power soon enough when the crown was on her head. Derek Jacobi went bright red with anger on a number of occasions, and I was quite worried for him, but he lasted the performance (thank goodness), and his acting was both very powerful and very detailed, bringing out subtle nuances and making all the lines clearly intelligible, both in terms of what he said (didn’t really need the hearing aids with him), and what it meant. The fool was trying to cheer him up after they’d met Poor Tom, but it was clear that Lear was too far gone to relate to him anymore. The fool was brushed aside as Lear was helped off the stage to Gloucester’s offered shelter, and at that point makes the difficult decision to leave the king. I was also aware during the Lear/Gloucester duet that Lear has taken on some of the attributes of the fool, pointing out many of the vanities and injustices of the world.

The text was very well edited; it told the story fully but without the extra flourishes, and the clarity of the dialogue wasn’t limited to the king. The pace was brisk, but not to the detriment of understanding, and also even, with every cast member following the same beat. Another nice touch was playing the storm scene in relative quiet. The gaps in the wooden planks allowed lights to shine through, just suggesting lightning. No actual water was used although there was a drain along the back wall, and the thunderstorm effects were kept to a minimum. Lear was therefore able to whisper his first lines of these speeches, and increase the volume gradually, which made it much more powerful in my view. The fool also looked as though he was moving in slow motion, suggesting that these thoughts were flashing through Lear’s brain faster than the lightning itself.

The cast was trimmed to the minimum, but no problems there. Some rhubarb from behind us gave the impression of a large crowd of hangers-on, and for the most part they relied on the text and their acting abilities, both of which were well up to the task. If only more productions would do the same. We were also spared the procession of bodies at the end, with Edmund dying offstage, along with both sisters. I noticed some pinker patches on the white floor planks, so perhaps they did make an appearance early on? The eye removal wasn’t the worst I’ve seen, but there was enough blood to leave me feeling suitably squeamish.

In the early scenes, Edgar came on stage before Regan and Goneril departed, and they were already noticing the handsome young man who’s new at court. Edgar’s reactions to his father’s introduction of him to Gloucester were spot on, including not being too happy to find out he’s being sent away, again.

The sisters were less wolfish than usual; in fact I found them quite reasonable to begin with. OK, Lear’s being incredibly foolish playing his little game with them all, but they both handled it smoothly, and even convincingly. The rot set in once they had the power and no longer had to pretend to love their father. That, coupled with lust for Edmund and jealousy of each other, seemed to be the main driving forces for those two. But then, this production wasn’t so much trying to do an in-depth psychological examination of dysfunctional family relationships, as tell a cracking good story which contained both humour and suffering.

The scene between Kent and the messenger chap seemed to have more lines than I remember – must check text.

I was very aware when Edgar was leading Gloucester up the pretend slope to the cliff top, that here was a young man helping his blinded father whom he loved (yes, the hanky was out good and early). I could relate to how difficult it must have been to be with his father and still pretend.

The fight scene was good. I was a little worried they might get too close to the audience, but all was well, in that only Edmund received a fatal wound. Goneril grabbed a dagger before running off.

Lear’s final scene and death were very touching. He carried Cordelia on, and she was soon lowered to the floor, very gently, by Kent and Albany, if memory serves. Lear eventually sank back into Kent’s arms, and with some racking breaths, let out a final, deep sigh to signify his passing. Kent stayed there, cradling his body. I wondered if he had been wounded in the fighting, by the way he walked on for the final scene, but there was no other indication of that.

Edgar rose from a crouching position to speak the final lines, suggesting his acceptance of the kingship. And so it was over, and we gave our all in the applause.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Hamlet – January 2011


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 19th January 2011

This has really come on since we saw it last. There are still some weak areas, which is why it only gets seven out of ten, but there are also some gems amongst the performances.

Some of the things I noticed this time will have been in the previous performance as well; I just forgot them when I was doing the notes. For example, Polonius shows Ophelia surveillance photos when he confronts her about her relationship with Hamlet, which adds to the feeling of control. Also, the papers Hamlet and Laertes put in front of Claudius are clearly official – both are carrying their passports as well.

Things that may be new, or we saw from a different angle, include Gertrude giving a little squeal of pleasure when Claudius calls Hamlet his ‘son’, a reference which is picked up again when Hamlet says “I am too much i’ th’ ‘son'”. I don’t remember Laertes’s fellow insurgents being led off at gunpoint by palace security before, but it’s probably the same as I do have a vague memory of Ophelia being similarly dragged off, which we see just afterwards. This set me thinking about Gertrude’s report of her death – was she actually murdered? If so, it could be staged by having Gertrude read a report of the death,,,,,,but that’s another production. The actors were taken off at gunpoint after the play as well.

Laertes spoke his lines much better, but was still a weak link overall. Claudius seemed rather stilted, and his delivery was a bit rushed. We got to see David Calder this time, and he turned in a good performance as Polonius, and an absolute peach as the gravedigger, recognizing Hamlet and mouthing ‘is it him?’ at Horatio. It brought an extra poignancy to Hamlet’s recollections of Yorrick, as the gravedigger could remember the man too.

This production seemed to lose sight of the consequences of some of the staging choices. Despite being ‘realistic’ – modern dress, guns, security staff talking into their cuffs, etc. – there were some strange changes of lighting for no apparent reason (other than the need for darkness to cover the change of scenery?), and a number of line readings and other aspects didn’t fit either. For example, Gertrude has a good pair of lungs on her, so when she calls, loudly, for help, is it likely that such a massive security presence would have missed it? These were all fairly minor niggles, but they were a distraction, and showed that the production wasn’t gripping me in the way the last RSC one did.

One thing we specifically wanted to see again from this new angle was Gertrude’s reactions in the closet scene. These suggested she did see the ghost, but wanted to convince herself she hadn’t. I found Laertes’s reaction to Ophelia’s mad scene unconvincing – why doesn’t he follow her and try to protect her? He didn’t seem that affected by her suffering, mind you, so perhaps that’s why.

I was much more aware this time that the characters don’t know what’s going on, and that they’re making every attempt to sort out the situation to their own satisfaction.

The fight scene was much better, though even to my untrained eye Laertes didn’t look like much of a fencer. Again, Claudius seemed relatively unmoved by Gertrude’s imminent death, and just stood around by the far wall after Hamlet has called for the doors to be locked. Not much of a life, not much of a death.

I noticed during the play scene that Polonius reacted more than Claudius to the poisoning of Gonzago – did he know of the plot that put Claudius on the throne? Was he involved? I think we should be told.

I nodded off during the ghost scene – after Ophelia’s mad scenes, it’s my least favourite of the play, although recent mad scenes have been a lot better (or maybe I’m just able to handle them better), but I don’t think I missed much.

Hamlet’s “speak the speech trippingly…” was set up by a mime showing him rehearsing the player queen – a nice touch. Not just a critic, then, also a nervy author.

For the Fortinbras scene, Hamlet was handcuffed to the ladder far left as before, but this time I didn’t see it being set up, so it just seemed peculiar that he would be handcuffed somewhere and left unprotected like that.

It was interesting to see this again, and although I’m a little disappointed that Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet wasn’t supported by a better production, I enjoyed myself well enough.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Love Is My Sin – January 2011


By: Wiliam Shakespeare

Directed by: Peter Brook

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 7th January 2011

This piece was devised by Peter Brook to link a number of Shakespeare’s sonnets together. First performed in Paris, here we had Michael Pennington and Natasha Parry delivering a series of sonnets exploring love and time from different angles. While I’m fascinated by the sonnets, I find their language too complex to be readily understood, and so although some lines came across really well, for the most part “it was all Greek to me”. I found Natasha Parry’s delivery a little weak, and our position didn’t help, as our view was regularly blocked. The music was charming, but with the heat in the auditorium, I nodded off a few times when the music took over. Still, it was a pleasant evening, and I would still be happy to attend other sonnet readings in future.

The highlight of the evening was an unexpected treat – Peter Brook and Michael Boyd in a post-show conversation. Paul Allen made the third, and I was totally taken with Peter Brook’s deep listening presence, and the tremendously good sense that he talked. His view on professors and their declarations about Will’s work were spot on (and good fun), and although I don’t remember all the details, I thoroughly enjoyed his contributions.

Michael Boyd was equally entertaining. In fact, the two made a great double act. I left the theatre feeling I’d been in the presence of two masters of theatre, that as with great theatre I’d been uplifted and improved just by being there. A great night.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at