The Government Inspector – June 2011

4/10

By Nikolai Gogol, in a new version by David Harrower, from a literal translation by Charlotte Pyke

Directed by Richard Jones

Venue: Young Vic

Date: Wednesday 29th June 2011

This was something of a disappointment. We’ve seen this play before and enjoyed it, though not in this translation, and recent stage performances by TV comedians have been fine, so perhaps my hopes were a little too high. The trip into the auditorium was enough to lower them, mind you.

Ever since the Young Vic’s revamp, the productions I’ve seen have been more about showing off a fancy set design than presenting the play, and today’s effort was no exception. Once again, the audience had to traipse around three sides of the theatre before wandering through the set and out into the seating area. Some rustic locals were present, playing cards or peeling potatoes (don’t know if they were cast members or not) but given the absurdist style of this production, and the proscenium arch layout, why bother?

Anyway, I decided to ignore the warning lights flashing in my brain, and just enjoy the play. If only! It started in a strange way, with Julian Barratt getting out of bed on the far right of the stage to chase the word ‘incognito’ around the room. This sneaky little word was being projected onto the stage and kept getting away from him. When he opened the far right door to look for this ‘incognito’, there was only a pair of boots sitting there – I presumed they represented the unknown man. (I was wrong about the boots – see later.)

I had just about warmed up to this approach by the time the play itself started. It was funny when Julian, as the Mayor, now in the ‘real’ world, used the bedroom door to go through to the main room, instead of walking through the wall, but it was pretty much downhill from there. His delivery was monotonous, and he looked uncomfortable as he stood around waiting for his next line, unlike the other actors who inhabited their characters brilliantly throughout. He was acting as if he was still in a sketch show, so perhaps he hasn’t got the experience yet to provide a fully sustained performance on the stage.

Amanda Lawrence was particularly good as the postmaster, and we enjoyed seeing Steven Beard again as the unctuous German Dr Gibner. Doon Mackichan was good as the Mayor’s wife, tarting herself up excessively to impress the young stranger, and I thought Louise Brealey was brilliant as the Mayor’s daughter, simpering and sidling round the room in an assortment of outfits to try and catch the young man’s eye while her mother monopolised the sofa. Kyle Soller was fine as Khlestakov, the stranger who’s mistakenly believed to be the government inspector, but I felt he didn’t have enough to play against with such a weak Mayor, and the best scenes for me were the ones where the Mayor was absent. For one of these, the ‘loans’ scene, there were fistfuls of cash being waved at Khlestakov from all angles – through the floor, through the wall, etc. – and I loved the way the Doctor simply sidled through the room and thrust his contribution at Khlestakov without saying a word, before disappearing through the other door.

Fortunately, the performance finished a good twenty minutes early, as I was finding the last section very tedious. I did like the rats when they scuttled along the wall and also when they appeared in the doorway at the end; at the beginning I took them for a pair of boots, but this time I could see them more clearly and realised what they were. It wasn’t good enough to make up for the rest of it, though.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Eden End – June 2011

6/10

By: J B Priestley

Directed by: Laurie Sansom

Company: English Touring Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Tuesday 28th June 2011

From tonight’s performance, I would guess this is an early Priestley play which draws very strongly on Chekov, a kind of Uncle Vanya meets The Seagull in a remote Birmingham suburb. I have still to read the plentiful program notes, as theatres are too gloomy and font sizes too small for my eyesight these days. The performances all seemed fine, with one very good one, so we’re not sure if it was the rather predictable writing or something about the staging that just wasn’t right tonight. To be fair, the sudden heat wave didn’t help, as the theatre was so stuffy I found myself ‘resting my eyes’ a few times during the first half. Also, there was an unusual amount of noise from the audience, not just coughing but also a lot of creaky chair sounds, so perhaps we weren’t seeing this production at its best. Even so, I feel there’s more available from this play, and we’d both like to see it again if we get the chance.

The set was clearly for a touring production, with a circular platform holding the drawing room furniture, a set of stairs leading off from the centre back to the right, some steps front right leading to the garden, and a screen of wires hanging behind all this with a rectangular hole for the doorway. There were lots of lights hanging down just in front of this see-through screen, but apart from a bluish glow once or twice, neither of us could figure out what this was meant to represent. There was also a raised platform behind the screen, on the left, which was used for occasional tableaux, such as the opening section, and later when we saw Lilian, clearly upset, brushing her hair in her room. The furniture was period, which the dialogue told us, with a good deal of emphasis, was 1912, and one of the play’s themes was the juxtaposition of the characters’ bright hopes for the future with our knowledge of what’s just around the corner – very Chekhovian.

The house, Eden End, is the home of Dr Kirby. Apart from the two children currently under his roof – Lilian and Wilfred – there’s another daughter, Stella who ran away to be an actress some years ago. There’s also a housekeeper, Sarah, who’s the usual common sense, unconditional love for the children type of character, and visitors include Geoffrey Farrant, a former flame of Stella’s on whom Lilian is pinning her hopes, and Charles Appleby, Stella’s husband, another actor with a not-so-great career.

The opening scene was a bit dull, but it did establish who was who, that the mother had died, that Wilfred was working out in Africa, and the general political situation with the suffragettes vying for top billing with home rule for Ireland. The new-fangled telephone came in for a bit of use, and was clearly dividing opinion much as mobile phones do now.

Things really kicked off when Stella arrived back, leading to the family’s relationships and attitudes being re-examined and changed. Lilian makes the call that brings Stella’s husband down for a short stay, out of jealousy and a desire to reclaim Geoffrey for herself – never going to happen. Stella is hoping to find a safe haven back in the house she loved, amongst her family, and finally realises it’s not what she imagined all those years while she was on the road. Dr Kirby confides to her that he’s not long for the world, and with Wilfred heading back to Africa and looking forward to a promotion in say, 1916, Geoffrey leaving to make a new life for himself in Australia or similar, and Stella and her husband heading back to London, it looks like a lonely life for Lilian, with only Sarah for company once her father passes on. Bit of a downer, really.

In fact, it’s only the humour of the clash between the characters expectations of a better world in the making, and our own knowledge of the coming horrors of WWI, that keep our spirits up; that, and the lovely comedy of Daniel Betts’ performance as Charles Appleby. The scene where he and Wilfred stagger home, very late at night, trying to be quiet so as not to wake the household, and pinching Dr Kirby’s brandy, was very funny. Just before this, Charles and Wilfred did a song in front of the curtain, a music hall number about the army, I think, which set us up nicely for the next bit.

I found I was out of sympathy for a lot of the characters in this play. I was concerned that the doctor chose only to tell Stella about his illness – if she hadn’t turned up at that point, would he have told anyone? – and while Lilian’s behaviour wasn’t ideal, I felt that Stella complaining that Lilian didn’t understand the suffering she’d been through all those long years on tour, etc. etc., was all pot, kettle and black. Stella wasn’t taking into account the suffering she’d caused by her actions, particularly as she’d hardly bothered to keep in touch with the family during her absence – they hadn’t even known she was married! As often happens, the servant was about the only one I’d give tuppence for, which does make plays less engaging, I find. Still, there was enough of interest to keep me watching, and as we’re fond of Priestley, we still hope to see this one again, preferably in a more substantial production.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Dunsinane – June 2011

9/10

By: David Greig

Directed by: Roxana Silbert

Company: National Theatre of Scotland (presenting the RSC production in association with the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh)

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 23rd June 2011

Be careful what you ask for – you might get it, is the warning. Well, I asked to see this play again, in a longer run, and preferably at Stratford, and lo and behold, here it is, in Stratford, in a production by the National Theatre of Scotland, based on the RSC’s production which we saw back in February last year, and with some of the same cast as before. Yippee.

Although the NTS production was originally blocked for a proscenium arch theatre, we were seeing this in the Swan, so the cast had to adapt yet again to a different set up. The raised bit from last time was to the back and left of the stage, under the balcony, and everything else was so close to last time that I didn’t spot any changes. This was true of the text as well; although the final scene seemed shorter, I couldn’t have told you what was changed. It was only at the post-show chat that we were told this last scene, Winter, had been the most reworked part, with serious editing, particularly in relation to the dead boy. I’ll have to get another text and compare them sometime.

Overall, I felt this performance was more focused and clearer than the first time we saw the play. Naturally, some of this is down to us being familiar with the story and the text, and some of it will be due to their greater experience with the play, especially performing it in Scotland. But I also think the contrast between the subtle political machinations of the Scottish nobility and the blunt directness of Siward came across more clearly this time. The humour was still there; in fact I reckon it was stronger than last time, but I also felt there were times when I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, such as the final situation where Siward is about to kill the baby. There were some laughs from the audience, and I could understand why, but I didn’t feel like it at that point myself. This came up in the post show discussion too, with people feeling discomfort at some of the ‘funny’ bits, such as the tit-shooting section.

The cast were very forthright in the discussion, and seem to have a great affection for this play. Basically, if anyone offers them a chance to put it on, they’ll be there. There’s a possibility of the States, and I would certainly like to see this again to savour even more of its subtleties, hopefully in Scotland. Siobhan Redmond said that Scottish audiences were immediately aware that Malcolm was a Machiavellian character, whereas English audiences took time to realise what he was up to, and that he wasn’t as weak as he seemed at first.

Something I forgot to mention first time round was the music. I wondered if they’d made any changes this time round, as the rhythms seemed more modern tonight, but both the music and the singing were just as lovely as last time, absolutely beautiful. Having checked my last set of notes, I notice that there was a fire pit in the earlier production which wasn’t used tonight. Otherwise, no other changes that were apparent from my notes.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

She Loves Me – June 2011

6/10

Book by Joe Masteroff, Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick

Directed by: Stephen Mear

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 16th June 2011

This was an excellent production of an above average musical. As we’re not great fans of musicals, I haven’t rated it that highly, but I don’t want to imply any lack of professionalism or talent on the part of the performers – they were all top-notch, and managed some amazing dance routines on a very cramped stage. The singing was excellent too, and other audience members were clearly enjoying themselves enormously; at the post show, several had seen the show at least once before.

The story is the familiar one of two people who think they don’t like each other gradually realising they’re in love and getting together. It’s done via letter-writing through a dating service, so although they work together every day, they don’t know who they’re writing to until an arranged meeting which leaves one of them still in the dark. Around all this is wrapped the story of a shop which sells all sorts of potions and creams to beautify women, and the characters who staff this shop. There’s some good songs, including one which uses Ravel’s Bolero as part of the tune, and a fair bit of comedy, although I found I didn’t laugh as much as the person behind me, who clearly loved the show.

Set: circular tiled pattern on floor, echoed by circular curved wheel structure above with globe lamps. The backdrop of a street perspective is screened by another curve, this time windows with a central door. The windows also have elaborate curved patterns on them, with bird images and coloured bottles on shelves creating a stained glass effect. The words above the shop door were “Maraczek, Parfumier”. The shop front was on a revolve, and there was another counter-revolve outside that, so the location could be changed pretty quickly, but from the post-show I gathered the cast needed a lot of practice to be able to walk on them. Most of the action takes place inside the shop, but we also visit a hospital room and Amalia Balash’s flat. The band was split between left and right balconies. The setting is an American version of a European city in the 1930s. The accents used were mostly American, as this fitted better with the dialogue, although the names were middle European and the prices shown were good old LSD! Such is the magic of theatre that we didn’t particularly mind.

I particularly liked Annette McLaughlin as Ilona Ritter, the good-time girl shop assistant who finds one man who’s disgracefully unfaithful and another who’s more the marrying kind, and Steve Elias as Ladislav Sipos, the only married shop assistant who has some of the best lines. His comment about the anonymous letter – next time, I’ll name names! – was really funny. But there were many good performances, though sadly, no more chances to see them as no transfer has been arranged. Shame. This was a good start to the season at the Minerva though, so if the rest are up to this standard we’re in for an excellent summer.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Macbeth – June 2011

9/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: RST

Date: Tuesday 14th June 2011

This was fantastic! The whole production worked wonderfully well, with some great performances and some startling new interpretations. The initial set was a derelict church. The back wall, across the back of the thrust, had wood panelling on each side, and a large wooden door in the middle underneath a wide balcony. Defaced paintings either side of the door suggested the Reformation period. Above this, the remains of two large stained glass windows stood either side of two saint niches – one of these had been blasted through to the outside, while the saint in the other one was damaged. Stairs ran down to the stage on the left, and there were two piles of rubble in front of the back wall, either side of the door; the remains of the missing saint could be seen on one pile. Two lines of strip lights went back to front of the stage, and there were some missing bits in the floorboards. Although it wasn’t a factory setting, it reminded me of last year’s King Lear set, and I was a bit worried at first. But I soon realised that this set didn’t dominate the action, and it was tidied up in the interval, with significant repairs for the final scene. I wondered later if the sense of destruction may have been intended to suggest that the country was more divided in Duncan’s time than they were letting on?

Before the start, three women carried their cellos onto the balcony, and sat there throughout the action. Oho, we thought, could these represent the three witches? But no, they played some beautiful music, moody and melancholic, but there were no witches in this production, so tough. In fact, the play started with the bloody man’s speech, only this time the bloody man is Malcolm, and he’s prompted several times by Ross before he gets going. This confused me a bit – neither Steve nor I can figure out what the prompting was intended to convey, either at the start or later on – and that may have been why I didn’t understand the first bit of Malcolm’s speech properly. For the most part, the dialogue was extraordinarily clear; this was about the only bit I had difficulty with.

After the initial report of the battle, the witches are supposed to put in a second appearance, but here we go straight to Macbeth and Banquo arriving on stage. Did I detect a hint of limp as Macbeth first walked onto the stage? Or was it just the memory of Richard III? Anyway, there’s little for Macbeth and Banquo to say at this point, until three figures are lowered down on meat hooks at the front of the stage. At first I thought they were dummies, then I realised they were alive, and not only that, they were three children, two boys and one girl. Wearing drab clothes, they had dark crosses painted on their foreheads. Steve was aware that these represented the crosses for birth and death. They spoke their first lines from the air, hailing Macbeth and priming him with the seductive titles, then descended and removed their hooks while Banquo is saying his lines. The children turn to leave, but Banquo calls them back, and they give his prophecies in a very solemn way, before bursting into childish laughter (think The Turn Of The Screw) and running off. This was very creepy. I didn’t have a clear view of Macbeth while all of this was going on, so I want to watch carefully another time to see his reactions to the children’s greetings.

Ross and Angus arrive, and Macbeth is clearly stunned to hear himself addressed as Thane of Cawdor. He stays towards the front of the stage to talk to us while Banquo chats with Ross and Angus back left. After they leave, Duncan walks on from the back, while Malcolm, now cleaned up but still with a scar on his forehead, reports the death of Cawdor. As Duncan emphasised the line “He was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust”, I was aware that he’s about to make the same mistake again.

Macbeth and Banquo approached this gathering down the centre aisle, and again all the lines were totally clear. There’s just a hint of Macbeth leaning forward as Duncan turns in his direction to announce that Malcolm is to be his successor; Malcolm was standing next to Macbeth at the time. Macbeth’s lines about heading off to his castle to prepare for the king’s visit sounded stilted and jerky compared to his previous lines, but the court presumably put it down to battle fatigue.

As they left the stage towards the front, Lady Macbeth sneaks on at the back. She’s clearly come into another room to read Macbeth’s letter; I got the impression that she’s read the start of it, realised it wasn’t for public viewing, and stepped aside to read the rest in a private chamber. This was a great performance, with clarity in the dialogue, and a sense of someone not so much evil as ruthless, and prepared to go as far as she could to achieve her ambition. In some ways, this was more disturbing than seeing her as a monster; she could just as easily be a suburban housewife as a wannabe queen.

Macbeth arrives, and she soon realises she’ll have to persuade him to murder Duncan. Then Duncan himself arrives, and is greeted warmly by Lady Macbeth. Macbeth’s soliloquy “If it were done when ‘tis done” was delivered well; Jonathan Slinger tended to do all of these speeches from the sweet spot, or as near as he could get from up a ladder, suspended in a chair or whatever. There wasn’t much movement, but he included us all, and as we were right round one side, I was impressed. During the persuasion scene, Macbeth actually walks off part way through. Lady Macbeth stops him with “I have given suck”, and gets him back with “but screw your courage to the sticking point and we’ll not fail”, with a strong emphasis on “your courage”.

When Banquo comes on with Fleance, I wasn’t sure why he gave the boy his sword to hold at first, but then he handed Fleance a jewelled orb to hold as well, posing him carefully, and it dawned on me; he wants to savour the prospect of his children being kings! The orb is the diamond he gives to Macbeth shortly afterwards, and then we’re into the famous dagger speech. This time, the dagger is totally imaginary, although with a swirling mist in the middle of the stage, we could be forgiven for thinking there might be something there, if only we could see it! (I jest; actually the mist wasn’t that thick this time.)

After he leaves, Lady Macbeth comes on from the side, and has clearly been drinking with the grooms. The owl’s screech is actually done by the little girl running across the stage from the back to the far walkway, invisible to Lady M. The rest of the scene is nicely edgy; both characters are showing the strains of murder, and Macbeth especially is far too loud for comfort; Lady M puts her hand over his mouth to quiet him at one point.

The next scene is the porter, and here I have to admit to one of the few occasions when I have been so deeply impressed by one performance that all others fail miserably by comparison. I’m referring to Adrian Schiller’s marvellous portrayal of a completely sozzled porter many years ago, when he fell down between two bits of scenery and re-emerged still holding his drink. We will always remember that porter, and so we have no great expectations of this scene in any other production. This version wasn’t too bad, though, and now that I’ve read the program notes, I can see that the business was intended to reflect the failed gunpowder plot of 1605. The porter, dressed in a red outfit (this is relevant – read on), with a bulging coat and blood on his face, staggered on and leered at us all. He opened his coat, and there were lots of sticks of dynamite strapped to his body. He took one out, and as he identified each new arrival in hell, he lit the fuse and placed the stick of dynamite in front of the poor audience member. I knew they wouldn’t blow us up, but even so, I found myself riveted on the fuses as they burned down. They were different lengths, so they all reached the dynamite at about the same time, and then stopped. Nothing. The porter picked them all up and threw them in disgust in the corner, amongst the rubble, where they went off with fairly loud bangs. Good fun. Then he warned us not to go back to a lit firework, which got another laugh and applause.

Macduff arrived, and as he went in to wake the king, Macbeth, Ross and the porter waited outside – Ross took the part of Lennox. Again, I couldn’t quite see what was going on between the porter and Macbeth, but Macbeth was looking very intently at him. The alarms and clamour were all well done, and I could see that the situation could appear too risky for Malcolm to stay and claim his crown as Duncan’s heir. Macbeth’s justification for killing the grooms was strong enough to sound reasonable this time, and I couldn’t see enough of Lady Macbeth’s faint to know how that was set up. There was a strong atmosphere of suspicion and uncertainty.

As I recall, the next scene started with Ross on his own, later joined by Macduff, and already Ross is coming across as an appeaser type, wanting things to be well, but nervous about what’s really going on. Macduff is much more straightforward. I forget whether we get Banquo’s lines at the start of the next scene or not, but we do get a coronation. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth come down from above, sitting on either a pair of thrones or a bench, with the other nobles coming on from the sides. Ross has been wearing a crucifix during the play so far, and now with some additional religious dressing, conducts the ceremony. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth kneel facing each other across the middle of the stage, with Ross behind them. A large bowl is placed between the Macbeths, and water rains down from above, filling it up. Ross dunks Macbeth’s head in the water, and uses it to make the sign of the cross. I don’t remember if he does the same to Lady Macbeth. The bowl is removed, after the water has stopped, of course, and a posh new robe is placed on Macbeth along with the crown. The court shouts “God save the King” a couple of times, and then the dialogue picks up again with Macbeth’s welcome to Banquo. After their brief discussion, Banquo tries to take his leave several times, with Macbeth asking a fresh question and keeping him there. Finally he leaves, and Macbeth dismisses the rest of the court, including Lady Macbeth, who’s evidently concerned at being excluded.

Macbeth’s soliloquy was fine, and then I think the murderers were brought on by the porter, or Seyton as we now know him to be. They’re quickly convinced by Macbeth’s arguments, and willing to do the necessary killing. After they leave, Lady Macbeth tells us of her concerns about their situation, and then rallies to encourage her husband when he expresses the same feelings. Macbeth gives his wife a big hug at this point, wrapping his arms and his robe around them both like a huge duvet, making it a little hard to see their expressions, but it’s clear that Lady Macbeth isn’t happy about things.

Seyton joins the two murderers for the attack on Banquo and Fleance. The fight is worth paying attention to; Banquo is stabbed several times, then holds on to one of the murderers to stop him reaching Fleance, who’s standing still instead of running away. Finally Fleance runs and Banquo’s throat is cut from behind. The two murderers run off, and then Banquo rolls over, gets up, and walks through the door which is held open by Seyton/the porter. Seyton’s red outfit echoes the red clothes worn by the gatekeeper to the dead in Michael Boyd’s Histories cycle, and it’s clear he’s carrying out the same role here.

The banquet scene was nice and uncluttered in this production. Instead of bringing on a table and lots of chairs, the stage is left bare, and the Macbeths and the rest of the court simply walk around. We, the audience, are included in the assembled throng. Macbeth’s comment about there not being a place for him at the table is obviously cut. The conversation with the murderer takes place at the back of the stage, and when Banquo arrives the first time, he batters through the door, and walks over to Macbeth before leaving. The second time round, Banquo comes down from the balcony, strides over to Macbeth, and executes the same wounds on him that he received when he was murdered, while Macbeth cries out “Treachery” and “Fly” as Banquo did to Fleance. Lady Macbeth is very upset, and when she complains that Macbeth’s behaviour spoils the mirth, she grins and laughs too much, trying to make the situation into a joke, but no one else joins in. This was clearly the start of her madness.

When Macbeth ‘dies’, the scene is ended, and they take the interval, which reminded us of the Rupert Goold Macbeth in Chichester several years ago. Sure enough, the second half starts with a short reprise of Banquo’s second appearance, only without the ghost, so Macbeth’s ranting and reactions to the blows are caused by nothing. Lady Macbeth goes hysterical, the court is seriously concerned, and after she sends them packing she and Macbeth are both badly shaken. Steve reckoned this was the first time he could see both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth go crazy; she reacts by sleepwalking, he goes hard and cold, and keeps killing people. The seeds of the madness are sown in this scene.

It’s nothing new for productions to skip over Hecate’s next scene, but the following scene is usually between Lennox and another Lord. Here we get Ross, on his own, and deeply troubled. He’s not only nervous, he’s drinking a lot from a flask, and his speech again shows that he’s doing his best to accept Macbeth as a good king, but the evidence keeps mounting up on the other side. That speech finishes early, and then Ross leaves the stage to Macbeth and the three meat hooks.

The three children aren’t around to begin with, but after Macbeth conjures them, we hear them giggling and laughing, and then they come on from the back, each one carrying a doll. They sit in the centre of the stage, and the prophecies are delivered through the dolls, with a lot more dolls falling down from above when Banquo’s line of kings is being shown. For this part, Banquo himself puts in an appearance, bursting up through the stage floor on the far side, leaving a hole which is there for the rest of the performance. The first murderer is the one Macbeth talks to after the apparitions have gone, and it’s clear Macbeth means business. In fact I half expected to see him turn up at Macduff’s castle to do some killing himself, but it was not to be. Interesting idea, though.

At Macduff’s castle, Ross has come to visit his cousins, but although he knows more about the state of the realm, and must have some inkling of how much danger she and her children are in, he doesn’t tell her to run off. Nor, since the messenger has been cut, does anybody else. Her three children are, of course, the three dead children who have been plaguing Macbeth, cleaned up for the occasion, and it’s a bit spooky to realise that they’ve time-travelled in order to get their revenge. The two murderers do their job fairly quickly, although one of them leads the little girl off stage to our right while the other finishes off Lady Macduff by the back wall. When the murderers have left, the dead bodies on stage rise up as Banquo did, and the porter is there to hold the door open for them. Just at the end, the little girl comes running back on stage, so we know she’s been killed as well. Ross appeared at the far balcony just as the dead bodies were removing themselves, so he sees what’s happened for himself.

To England now, and an excellent reading of the scene between Macduff and Malcolm. It started with Macduff coming on stage at the front as his family go through the door at the back. He strides after them, but the door shuts before he can get there, and he hits it forcefully, after which the dialogue started. I found this scene so moving that I cried quite a bit. I reckon Ross delayed the news about the slaughter of Macduff’s family because Scotland’s needs were a greater priority that one man’s. I also spotted that Ross is no longer wearing his crucifix, whether for simplicity’s sake while travelling, or to indicate his moral discomfort, I don’t know. I couldn’t see him properly at the end, so I must look out next time to see if he’s wearing the crucifix again at the end. They included the lines about Edward the Confessor tonight; I think I may have heard them, or some of them, before, although Michael Boyd was sure they were always cut.

The doctor and the gentlewoman are next, and Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene was very well done. When she was washing her hands, it reminded me of the water falling into the bowl during the coronation, as if she’s trying to use holy water to clean herself. She almost walked into the hole in the stage, but her attendant stopped her.

Macbeth’s next entrance is on a throne lowered from above towards the back of the thrust. He’s feeling confident and rather bullish, and there are some laughs at his lines. When the message about the soldiers comes, he actually cuts the messenger’s face himself, and smears the blood over it, although I was too far away to see this in detail. Seyton is sitting up on the balcony, and doesn’t come down until he finally gets Macbeth’s armour. I’ve forgotten now if we see the doctor again – I think that may have been cut, but I’ll watch more closely next time.

When Malcolm and the army arrive, they’re accompanied by Banquo and the dead Macduffs, but not by Siward. This is a Scots-only do. Later, when the army arrives at Dunsinane, Lady Macduff and her children are the ones carrying the branches – in fact she’s carrying a small tree – while the soldiers are unencumbered. The greenery is placed in the hole for the duration.

For Macbeth’s next speech, a ladder rises up from the stage towards the back of the thrust, and Macbeth climbs up it. The start of “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” was good enough, but I felt the rest of speech wasn’t quite there yet, though close. I think this scene runs into the start of battle, and as Macbeth is fighting the Scottish version of young Siward, Lady Macduff comes on carrying a sword, and leaves it beside the door at the back. When Macduff himself arrives, he grabs that extra sword when Macbeth attacks him with two of his own, and finally kills Macbeth on stage. As he lies there, Malcolm enters, and Macduff goes straight into “Hail, king!”. With Malcolm being prompted yet again by Ross for “We shall not spend…..” the play is almost finished, but there’s still one dead body to deal with.

At the very end, while the cello music is playing, Lady Macduff goes upstairs and opens the shutters on the stained glass windows, which are now whole, and which let in a beautiful light. She comes back downstairs, and along with her children spends a few moments just standing at the front of the stage, while they look at the dead Macbeth. Then they leave, and Seyton comes on to escort Macbeth’s dead body off stage. Macbeth rises, as if surprised to find there’s life after death, and looks around, He sees the door and heads towards it, and then the lights go out. Now it’s the audience’s turn to be noisy, and we do our very best.

This was a tremendous emotional journey, with many enjoyable performances. After seeing four of this season’s productions, I think the ensemble is stronger this time than last, with better verse speaking and lots of comic talent. Jonathan Slinger’s performance as Macbeth showed all the power he’s gained from such a long stint in The Histories, and although the connections with Richard III were obvious, I didn’t feel the earlier portrayal got in the way. Scott Handy took Ross on an interesting journey, helped by being given some of the other minor parts’ dialogue. He starts out a bit of an appeaser, then realises things have gone too far and goes to England. While he carried out the coronation, he sang beautifully using his falsetto singing voice which I remember from his Ariel, many years ago. Aislín McGuckin was wonderful as Lady Macbeth, and the whole cast supported the central performances brilliantly. The four children tonight were Jason Battersby, Hal Hewetson, Anwar Ridwan (Fleance), and Isabella Sanders.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Merchant of Venice – June 2011

Experience: 5/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Monday 13th June 2011

Well, this started off on a high note, and gradually got weaker and weaker until it fizzled out. The production concept was a mix of Las Vegas casinos and a reality marriage show, but as often happens, those concepts were used until the text could no longer support them, and then just disappeared. The performances were all good, given these production choices, and as it’s still early days there may well be more to come. Rupert Goold is always willing to change things that don’t work, or to improve a performance, so we’re not too concerned that we’ve already booked to see this one again.

The set had two staircases sweeping down on either side of the stage, with a landing in between and space underneath for slot machines or an entrance way. The floor was covered in a diamond pattern of blue tiles, and there was a similar pattern in lights on the back wall above the stairs. Before the play started, there were three casino tables on the stage with lots of punters at each, waitresses brought drinks to various customers, and there was a strong beat to the (loud) music as well as some heavy-duty rhubarb going on.

The music and action continued when the auditorium lights went down, until Elvis himself rose up through one of the tables and began to sing. Viva Las Vegas was the opening number, and with two dancers helping him out, this song covered the removal of two of the gambling tables. This left the one table at which Antonio sat, largely ignoring the song and dance going on around him. The rest of the customers had joined in, though, and this was a very lively start to the play.

When Elvis left the stage, taking most of the cast with him, the remaining blackjack table was moved to the centre, and were left with the ‘salad boys’ and Antonio for the opening scene proper. One of the salads was the dealer, while the other was sitting at the opposite end of the table from Antonio, and just looked like another player. No previous relationship amongst them was indicated by this setup. The American accents used in this production certainly fitted in well with the location, but now it became clear that they were going to interfere with the clarity of the lines. The dialogue came across well for the most part, but at times I had to struggle to make out what was being said, and this was one of those times. Scott Handy as Antonio was fine all the way through, and admittedly this is an opening scene that I’ve rarely seen done well, so perhaps the accents weren’t entirely to blame.

I had heard that this production made Antonio very keen on Bassanio, and although I couldn’t be certain of this when he was talking to the salad boys, it became very clear when Bassanio himself turned up. As soon as Bassanio started talking about Portia, Antonio closed down in his body language, folding his arms, moving away from Bassanio. It hurt him a lot, but his love for the man made him offer everything he had to help him in pursuit of another love. I was a bit puzzled when Antonio gave Bassanio his credit cards at the end of the scene – if he could use these, why would he need to borrow money on the Rialto? – but it was only a minor point. I did like the change from three thousand ducats to three million dollars, as it made it easier to grasp the enormity of the sum, and of course it emphasises just how rich Portia is, later on.

The Belmont scenes appear at first to be set in a TV studio, where a reality show called Destiny is being filmed. There are signs for ‘Applause’ and ‘On Air’, two banks of TV screens to show us the camera’s viewpoint (the cameras were placed well back on the walkways), and there were glamorous hostesses as well as a sweet little girl in a bridesmaid’s dress. Portia and Nerissa were on a sofa which rose up in the middle of the stage, and they were glammed up from head to toe. Portia had a large blonde wig, white outfit and huge heels – think Paris Hilton and you won’t go far wrong. Nerissa was dark, in a blue/green outfit, and they chatted for a bit before the announcement that they were about to go on air.

As soon as they did, Nerissa became the slick interviewer, toning down her southern accent and ditzy attitude to quiz Portia about her suitors. Portia is all rich airhead at this point, also with a southern accent, and I found myself wondering how this interpretation was going to cope with the demands of the trial scene? But back to the interview. The descriptions of the lords were pretty good (no Scottish lord), and then the little girl came on at the back and handed Nerissa an envelope with the Destiny logo. This contained the news that the suitors had all left, to Portia’s relief. They went off air after the announcement that the Prince of Morocco had arrived to try for Portia’s hand.

Back in Vegas, Shylock is examining the model for his latest project – a multi-million dollar development with lots of strangely shaped buildings from the look of it. It seemed a bit over the top for a despised money-lender – if he was accepted enough into the community to be getting approval for that sort of project, he wouldn’t still be a money-lender on the Rialto, surely? Anyway, Shylock is portrayed as a silver fox, a ruthless businessman who can nevertheless be somewhat ingratiating, especially after Antonio’s outburst later, but I never felt that Patrick Stewart had nailed the American accent – it was just a bit too British underneath.

Antonio is furious about having any dealings with Shylock, and it’s one area where I felt this production did a good job, showing the their mutual antipathy. These men really loathed one another. However, Antonio is pleased with Shylock’s offer to charge no interest and set up only a ‘joke’ penalty if the bond is forfeit, and so the deal is struck.

Back in the studio, the Prince of Morocco has arrived to take his chance. The understudy took the role tonight, and he was dressed in a boxing outfit, complete with gloves, and looked like one of those paunchy, older boxers who just won’t retire. Several bananas were thrown on the stage as he entered, which Steve found quite disturbing; it’s certainly more overtly racist than I’ve seen before, and not really necessary in my view. It’s also the first time I’ve noticed that Portia uses the word “hazard” when she talks to the Prince. I’d noticed she does it when she talks to Bassanio, which could be interpreted as an attempt to point him in the right direction, but using it here suggests otherwise; it’s just an appropriate word in the circumstances.

The filming ended with some razzamatazz, and then slot machines were inserted into the gap between the stairs, and Elvis is singing again, I forget what. Turns out, the Elvis impersonator is Launcelot Gobbo, and he’s at the middle of the three slot machines with his back to us. Seated on his left is an angel, dressed in white and with little wings, representing his conscience, and on his right was a devil, dressed in red (and did she have horns?). The angel and devil turned round and spoke their own lines, and although they fitted the words together very well, I felt I’d seen much better versions of this speech. When he’s finished deliberating, the slot machines, angel and devil leave, and in this production we get to see Old Gobbo, although of course, he doesn’t see us! I don’t know why this scene was included, as I didn’t get anything from it.

It’s during this next phase of Merchant that many productions try to minimise the scene changes. Not so here, with many little snippets coming thick and fast, which lost some of the play’s momentum, as so much scenery had to be changed. Firstly, we switch to Shylock’s house, all gloomy and dull, especially compared to the glitzy casino and TV studio settings. One light bulb hangs down towards the front of the stage, and Jessica, plainly dressed, has to fetch a plain chair to be able to turn it on. She then sits on the chair, reading a book. Launcelot comes on with a massive suitcase, and they say their farewells.

The next scene has the salad boys with Lorenzo and Gratiano discussing their plans for the party/abduction later that night. During the open day yesterday, we saw a session which took us through how this scene was developed in rehearsal, with the help of six or seven volunteers. They all had acting experience of some kind, and after a short while, with some coaching from Lisa Blair, this production’s assistant director, their delivery improved and they started to add some actions as well. With prompting, they came up with the idea of the four of them sitting in a car, playing music, and drinking. The car was represented by four chairs. As things developed, the actual effects were added in, and the final effort was very good. We loved it, especially as we’d seen it grow from nothing, so when it came to the real thing, we were always likely to feel disappointed, and that’s what happened. The pumping music included the words “Barbara Streisand”, the salad boys were in the back and Lorenzo was driving, instead of Gratiano in yesterday’s version. Launcelot came on from the front, I think, and the car screeched to a halt when they see him. He hands over the letter, and is called back by Lorenzo so that he can take something to Jessica – from yesterday’s session I gather it’s a crucifix. The salad boys get out as well, and then Lorenzo and Gratiano drive off, with Gratiano reading the letter. With a blaring of horns, Lorenzo slams the brakes on to finish the scene. The car this time emerged from under the stage, and returned that way, of course, which should have helped to speed up the changes, but the flooring took a while to come back into place, so the next scene wasn’t as quick to start as it could have been.

I’m not sure if the scenes follow the same order as my text at this point, so I’ll go with the order of scenes in my text unless I remember otherwise. So now it’s Shylock leaving for the party, and warning Jessica to shut all the doors, etc. followed by the abduction scene. As Shylock left his house, lots of costumed folk came on stage, cavorting about and having fun, not that Shylock was interested. When Batman arrived, he turned out to be Lorenzo, and when Jessica throws off her coat to reveal her disguise, she’s done up as Robin. This was good fun, but otherwise the scene was fairly tame – all Batman costume and no knickers.

The next scene is back at Belmont, with the first televised casket choice. One problem with this staging is that if the choices are televised, everyone watching will know the correct casket after the second wrong choice, making the whole thing pointless. Anyway, three stands are wheeled on with gold, silver and lead boxes, Portia is done up in bridal gear, the little bridesmaid sits at the front of the stage, and there’s plenty of showmanship on display. When the Prince opens the gold casket, a glass cube rises up, with a skull and a scroll. When he leaves, there’s a little bit where Portia and Nerissa end the show with “The ancient saying is no heresy: Hanging and wiving goes by destiny” from Act 2 Scene 9, and then they’re off air. Portia drops the fake happiness, and makes her comment about the Prince.

The Salad boys have their conversation about Antonio on the balcony, so we’re very quickly into the next choosing scene at Belmont. This time, the Prince of Arragon is dressed like Manuel from Fawlty Towers, and the choosing is fairly straightforward, with the silver casket being placed to the front of the three this time and containing a fool’s head, as promised. There’s a reprise of the “Hanging and wiving” lines, and then the news of Bassanio’s arrival, which cheers Portia up no end.

Back to the casino, and some café tables appear for the next scene. The salad boys are having a drink and discussing Antonio’s bad luck. Shylock comes on, and chooses to sit at the other table, but comes over to theirs to deliver the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. Unfortunately, I wasn’t impressed with the style of delivery chosen, which seemed jerky and unconvincing. I was sympathetic to Shylock overall, but this speech didn’t help. Tubal uses his phone to show Shylock a picture of the ring which Jessica has swapped for the monkey, and Shylock’s reaction was moving at last – I got a real sense of what that ring meant to him. Otherwise, the scene was uneventful.

In Belmont the studio is set up again, and Bassanio is sitting in a chair on the set for his discussion with Portia. He seems to be in love with her, judging by his words, but there was no other evidence throughout the play, so I’m at a loss to know what was intended with this portrayal. Bassanio is led off when Portia says “Away then!”, and part way through her next speech the show goes on air. When she says “Go, Hercules”, Bassanio appears at the back, dressed as Hercules, to make his choice. The lead casket is, of course, at the front this time.

They included the song, I think, and then it’s a nervous few minutes for Portia, who’s standing on the stairs to our left. Bassanio reasons things out OK, and I noticed the box wasn’t actually locked this time – he just opens it without a key. Previously the keys had been supplied by the little girl, who also led off the unsuccessful suitors from the front of the stage. This time, I don’t think the little girl was there, and by the time Bassanio has made his choice, the show is no longer referenced. The screens are blank, and there’s absolutely no sense of the world watching this private moment, which in terms of a reality show is completely unreal.

The lead box simply contains a remote control(?), which sets off a recording on the screens, of Portia reading the final scroll, so Bassanio can’t comment on Portia’s loveliness by comparing her to her picture. Her reaction to this bit was puzzling. She’s happy that Bassanio had chosen correctly, and she’s obviously recorded the speech, but she seems as surprised as Bassanio when she sees it. Perhaps it will come across more clearly when we see it again. Portia has taken off her wig and shoes, so Bassanio can see her “such as I am”. I got no sense of any reaction from him to this transformation; without her wig she’s dark-haired, and still pretty, but perhaps not what he expected.

Gratiano and Nerissa announce their wedding plans, and then Lorenzo, Jessica and Salanio arrive with the letter for Bassanio. Jessica stays on the stairs, reluctant to join in, even when Nerissa goes up to welcome her. With their arrival, Portia puts her wig on again, and is bright and cheerful. The reading of the letter brings Antonio on to speak the lines himself, then they all leave in haste without even having married, as far as I can see.

There’s a short scene where Antonio has been arrested, and is being taken away to prison, then Portia, Nerissa and Jessica come up on the sofa again in dressing gowns, having a girls’ night in, with Jessica attempting to put two slices of cucumber on her eyes. Portia appoints Lorenzo as her steward, and when Balthazar comes on he’s carrying two large bags with Portia and Nerissa’s disguises – men’s suits – which they put on before leaving.

The conversations between Launcelot and Jessica, and then with Lorenzo, were OK, and then the court scene is set up, which takes a while. The setting is now an old butcher’s warehouse, with lots of meat hooks hanging down, and strips of plastic at the back entrance. A case is placed in the front right corner of the stage, and Antonio, in a badly-fitting orange jumpsuit is led over to the case and stands there, all through the scene. It’s a nightmare bit of blocking for anyone behind him, as he doesn’t move for a long while, and then two guards are holding on to him when Shylock is about to take his pound of flesh. Frankly, they should be selling those seats as restricted view – you have been warned.

There’s also a table in the front left corner for Shylock, who puts his briefcase there, and a desk back right for the lawyers. The Duke could almost be a Mafia boss in his dress style, but then why the concern for the rule of law? Antonio and Shylock’s hatred of each other came across loud and clear, but otherwise the scene lacked the tension that’s usually generated here. Instead of tension, we got sensationalism. When the time comes for Shylock to take his pound of flesh, all pleas falling on deaf ears, they take a long time to set the process up. Antonio is suspended from one of the meat hooks, and one of the guards is pulling the rope tight behind him, while the other holds him down. Antonio’s already removed his jumpsuit to the waist, and stands there, chest heaving with nerves, while Shylock takes an age to prepare, even stroking Antonio’s flesh with the knife, toying with him. It all goes on for far too long, while Portia, near the top of the stairs on our left, seemed to get the answer once, but too early, so had to go round again, looking anxious, glancing at the bond, then finally stopping Shylock just as the knife is about to go into Antonio’s flesh. How she got the answer I’ve no idea, because although she’s not a complete air-head, she’s not the super-smart bunny we’ve known from other productions.

Once he’s thwarted in his plan, Shylock naturally wants the money instead, but this Portia takes a gloating pleasure in denying him even that. Antonio has collapsed on the suitcase, understandably, and only stirs when Shylock is told about the seriousness of his situation. There’s definite malice in insisting that Shylock convert to Christianity, and Shylock’s reaction is unusual; he grins, flips his yarmulke off and acts all happy before asking to leave. At least, that’s what I could make out from behind the man – hopefully I’ll get a better view next time.

I couldn’t see why Bassanio changed his mind about the ring this time, although Antonio seems to want Bassanio to choose him over Portia. Portia and Nerissa are on the balcony when Gratiano catches up with them, and then we’re back to Belmont for the final scene. Lorenzo and Jessica rise up on the sofa and have their little teasing section – hard to tell what’s going on there – and then Stephanie turns up with news that Portia is coming back. When she arrives with Nerissa, I didn’t hear any lines about hiding their absence from Bassanio, and it all seemed very rushed. The ring section was weak due to this interpretation, and got very little in the way of laughs. When Portia greets Antonio, they sit on the sofa, and when Bassanio joins them, he makes contact with Antonio behind Portia’s back. I wasn’t absolutely sure that she spotted this, but her manner changes afterwards, so I guess she did. Nerissa ends up on the left walkway, with Gratiano saying the final line to her, and then we get the final Elvis song, Are You Lonesome Tonight?  During this, Antonio sits on the sofa on his own, Bassanio has gone all moody and wanders around on his own, Portia has taken off her wig and is dancing with it alone in the middle of the stage, crying, and everyone seems to be completely miserable. I have no idea why this is going on; maybe I’ll get a better idea from a different perspective.

I felt the visual aspects of this production were very good, and some of the ideas were interesting, but most either fell by the wayside or just didn’t work for me. None of the characters was likeable, and although I felt some sympathy for Shylock, on the whole I just wasn’t engaged with the play at all. The accents may have contributed a lot to this; Gratiano in particular had a very unpleasant voice which put me off this normally entertaining character entirely. There was no real tension in the trial scene, and the racism was too blatant and crude for my understanding of this play – Shakespeare’s not that simplistic. If they can improve the delivery of the lines considerably, I may find this an OK production, but otherwise it’ll have to remain a less than successful Merchant.

One thought that occurred to me the next day was that the Princes of Morocco and Arragon represent Muslim and Catholic suitors. Not sure if that was an intention of this production, but I’m grateful to it for helping me to this insight.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Cardenio – June 2011

7/10

By: Very good question – lots and lots of people, but probably not Shakespeare (see below)

Directed by: Greg Doran

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Saturday 11th June 2011

Our view was obscured again tonight as a pillar blocked a fair bit of the stage, and being so far round one side meant we couldn’t see the balcony scenes on that side. The cramped leg room didn’t help either. However, this play was much more accessible than The City Madam – we knew who every character was from an early stage, and the plot developments were clear throughout, not to mention very familiar from a lot of other sources.

First, the authorship question. We attended a talk this afternoon by Greg Doran and Tiffany Stern, hosted by Paul Edmonson, at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (listen to the podcast at http://bloggingshakespeare.com/listen-to-cardenio-in-conversation). The historical evidence, limited as it is, was unequivocal; there’s no definite evidence that Shakespeare ever co-wrote a play called Cardenio, or any other play based on the story of Cardenio as told in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Of course, there were lots of caveats and perhapses during the afternoon, but having seen the version presented by the RSC at this time, of a play adapted from an earlier play which may have been based on a possible manuscript of a play that may have been in the vicinity of Fletcher and/or Shakespeare at some time, my conclusion is that any hypothetical input Will may have had has been so squeezed out by the reworking that it’s almost a breach of the Trades Descriptions Act to put his name anywhere near the play’s title on the advertising, two inserted Hamlet lines notwithstanding. Having said that, I’m very fond of the RSC, and in these difficult times I see no real harm in them milking this ephemeral ‘connection’ for all it’s worth.

And as it happens, they’ve come up with quite a good play, Shakespeare or no. I don’t know the original story, which isn’t told in proper sequence anyway, so I can’t comment on that, but after a short spell of introducing the characters and setting up the plot, there was a great deal to like about this piece. Cardenio, the son of Don Camillo, is a friend of Fernando, the ne’er-do-well second son of Duke Ricardo, a very important man. This duke, by the way, likes to stage dry runs of his own funeral, so as to leave nothing to chance, and the opening of the play has Fernando, unknown to us at this time, sneaking on stage to have a practice go in the empty coffin. This was both weird and puzzling, but we were soon into the dialogue so I let it go.

The duke and his elder son, Pedro, are concerned about Fernando, who’s off on a horse-buying spree. Pedro has found out that Cardenio is Fernando’s friend, and also involved in the horse purchasing, so the duke sends for Cardenio to enlist his help in monitoring Fernando’s activities. The timing is a bit unfortunate, as Cardenio has just got up the courage to ask for his father’s approval of his choice of bride – Luscinda, a neighbour’s daughter and a real feisty woman as well – but the duke’s summons and his father’s excitement at the potential for preferment, get in the way. When Cardenio and Fernando end up in the vicinity of Luscinda during their travels, Cardenio takes the opportunity to visit her, and shows her off to Fernando, and that’s where the problems begin.

Fernando has already impressed us with his fickleness, rampant lust, etc. He’s wooed a young woman, Dorotea, of too low a class to be considered suitable as his bride. Using promises and a ring, he gets a chance to have sex with her, and it’s not entirely clear whether she’s given reluctant consent or none at all. With the deed done, Fernando’s love is gone, so he’s primed and ready to ‘fall in love’ again, this time with Luscinda. The ins and outs of his attempts to wed Luscinda, her attempts to put him off, Dorotea’s experiences as she follows Fernando, and Cardenio’s suffering make up the rest of the play.

There was plenty of humour throughout the performance. The subject matter – betrayal, with a side order of rape – was serious, but still there was a lot to laugh at. Alex Hassell as Fernando did a particularly good job of getting the humour out of the part without becoming either a fop or a buffoon, and all the other performances were good too. The situation was resolved in a neat manner, although I have serious doubts about Fernando and Dorotea’s marriage surviving, never mind being happy. So we’re looking forward to seeing this again, from a better position, and I’ve no doubt we’ll get even more out of it next time.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me