Macbeth – August 2011

8/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 26th August 2011

Good as it was to see this play again from a different angle, we did lose the surprise factor the second time around, and I felt a little more distant from the action this time at the start – perhaps it was the chilly nature of the auditorium, which for an August day felt more like November. There were some things I saw better from our more central angle, and I noticed a few changes, as well as enjoying some of the ‘fun’ bits again. It’s still a good production, and I hope to catch it in London when it transfers.

As I watched the opening speech by Malcolm, I realised that having him deliver it emphasises Macbeth’s achievements compared to his. Malcolm is wounded, disoriented, and is merely reporting the victory that Macbeth has won. I spotted the mention of the Thane of Cawdor in Ross’s report, and later wondered why Macbeth, who has been battling the Norwegians and their allies in Scotland, i.e. Cawdor, doesn’t realise that the thaneship is likely to become vacant in the near future. It’s a minor quibble, of course, but these things do catch my attention from time to time.

Lady Macbeth seemed less concerned about hiding the letter tonight, and there was a small change when she was persuading Macbeth to commit murder – she put the emphasis on ‘screw’ this time (‘but screw your courage to the sticking-place’). Once convinced, Macbeth behaved very differently, with much more confidence and a willingness to deceive.

The dagger scene was done without the mist tonight, the murder all went down the same way as before, and then the porter gave us all the fun of seeing other audience members being picked on – not me tonight, thank goodness – then the explosions, and finally the warning about not going back to a lit firework. Still got a laugh and applause. Macbeth didn’t look intently at the porter tonight; in fact, the porter was gazing intently at him this time while Macbeth wandered to the front of the stage to wait for the inevitable outcry. After it came, and Macbeth did the dirty on the grooms, I kept an eye on Lady Macbeth as she listened to Macbeth’s justification and watched the court’s reactions. I reckon her faint was strategic, but as I couldn’t see the lords’ faces this time I can’t be sure. If not, then it may have been a foretaste of her madness later on.

Ross’s meeting with Macduff segued into the coronation, with Ross starting the falsetto singing after Macduff leaves. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth came down on a bench, the bowl was brought on for the water, and Macbeth’s head was dunked as before. Then I saw that Lady Macbeth held her hands in the water, washing them, before throwing water into Macbeth’s cupped hands. ‘God save the King’ was chanted three times, and then we were straight into Macbeth’s line ‘Here’s our chief guest’.

The banquet scene straddled the interval as before, and the rest of the action seemed pretty much the same to the end of the play. I did notice that when Macbeth was with the children again, and has been told about Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane, his response includes the line ‘Who can…bid the tree Unfix his earth-bound root?’ There had been some comments about the nature and volume of the foliage on show in this production, and I reckon this line may have been the reason why the tree and branches that were used all had roots on them. They also act as a reminder of the general theme, that Macbeth is childless while Banquo is the father of a line of kings.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – August 2011

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 25th August 2011

We knew the ‘theme’ for this production would be East End gangster – Mark Wootton is wonderfully indiscrete – and I was prepared to give it a chance. I’ve also liked everything I’ve seen of Nancy Meckler’s work, including the Complete Works Romeo and Juliet which seemed remarkably unpopular with so many people. But I’m sorry to say that I found this concept-driven version of Midsummer Night’s Dream too heavy rather than too dark. The comedy was doing its best to break free from the constraints of the staging, and when the concept took a back seat (a white leather armchair, in fact) the performance managed to  give us short bursts of laughter that were sadly not sustained throughout.

The set was massive. The back of the stage was all brick wall, with a metal staircase descending on the right hand side. There was a pillar back left, and various exits and doors. A large white leather sofa with matching armchair were placed mid stage, and there was a small table with three chairs towards the front and left. The overall effect was of an industrial building which was being used as gang headquarters by some fairly seedy criminal types. Three men in suits prowled around, playing cards and also playing with the two prostitutes who were on hand for whatever was needed – serving drinks, etc. There should have been three women in skimpies, but the third was playing Hermia tonight, as the original had suffered an injury during the vigorous fight sequence in the forest – more on that story later.

Hippolyta was also there, looking bored and unhappy as she sat elegantly on the sofa in her glamorous togs, including a fur coat. It looked as if her passport was being kept from her, which suggested an enforced stay in ‘Athens’. This state of ennui went on for some time before the play proper started with the arrival of ‘Duke’ Theseus, played by Jo Stone-Fewings. With slicked back hair and an incongruous (in terms of the Athenian setting) East End accent, his lines rather jarred, and although it was certainly clear that Hippolyta wasn’t happy with their impending nuptials, her lines didn’t quite fit either.

Not only were Egeus, Demetrius and Lysander already present from the start of this scene, Helena was also in the room, but up on the stairs at the back. I gather that people with seats at the back of the side stalls couldn’t see this bit, which is a shame, as at least it allowed us to be introduced to all of the young characters, and it gave us more of Lucy Briggs-Owen’s performance, easily the best of the night, and one of the best Helenas I’ve ever seen.

With the gangster setting, the prospect of Hermia being actually bumped off seemed more likely, which skewed the comedy for me. I can accept a criminal underworld boss being the law in his domain – The Syndicate in the Minerva showed us a similar situation in Italy – but why would this ‘Duke’ be unable to overturn a ‘law’ which was solely based on his own authority? An established country, ruled by a proper Duke, might have this problem, but the gangland scenario just didn’t support the text at this point, and many other times throughout the play.

Anyway, the lovers did a good enough job, and there were the usual laughs when Lysander suggests that Demetrius should marry Egeus. Nothing special about this scene, except for the way the dream theme is set up. Instead of leaving at the end of her bit, Hippolyta curls up in the armchair, which is pushed to the back of the stage, and goes to sleep, suggesting that the rest of the play is her dream. The set design supports this, with Titania’s bower being another white leather armchair all done up with flowers, the special flower with the drug being the same as the one Theseus offers Hippolyta and which she rejects, and a whole lot of chairs dangling at odd angles to represent this out-of-shape dream world.

The problem with this concept is knowing where the dream ends. Does it end with Hippolyta and Theseus ‘coming to’ as themselves after Titania’s ‘dreamed’ awakening? If so, how come everyone else has experienced this same dream too? Does the dream last to the end of the play? In which case, what happens when Hippolyta finally does wake up? I suspect the creative team would like us to forget all these points and just go with the flow, but then why have such a thought-provoking setting if you don’t want people to think about what’s going on? I like ambiguities and multiple possibilities, but this is a case of too many questions and not enough answers.

The mechanicals are next up, but this time they’ve already made their first entrance earlier. During the pre-show episode, the lights blew for some reason I don’t remember, possibly the sound system overloading? After a minute or two, a group of workmen turn up, flashing their torches everywhere, and they’re shown into the basement via a trapdoor towards the front of the stage which has smoke or steam coming out of it. That got a few laughs at the time, and now that everyone else (apart from the sleeping Hippolyta) has left, they re-emerge onto an empty stage, and Peter Quince decides it’s an ideal opportunity for their first planning meeting.

The majority of the mechanicals’ bits were fairly standard, and that helped to get the humour across. Francis Flute was dismayed to be playing a woman, but I didn’t see the others laughing at him much. They did laugh at Starveling playing Thisbe’s mother, though, probably because of his beard.  Bottom was as keen as ever to play all the parts himself, and Mark Wootton did a good job of getting his character across. It’s just as well he was only doing Pyramus, mind you – the scripts for the other actors were a few pages each, while Bottom’s part was several inches thick!

This helped the mechanicals to get off stage with plenty of laughter, and then Puck and a couple of fairies turn up to start the third aspect of this play. Puck is doubled with Philostrate in this production, along with the usual Titania/Hippolyta/Oberon/Theseus pairings. I like Arsher Ali as an actor, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a Puck who’s noticeably taller than his Oberon, but there was so little life or animation in this Puck that a great deal of the humour and fun just disappeared. I always hold the director rather than the actor responsible for these strange interpretations that don’t work for me, but I’m at a loss to know why this Puck was so underpowered. Not enough rehearsal time? Whatever the cause, it’s a serious weakness in this play to have the main mischief maker act like a wet blanket.

Other than that, the fairies were pretty good, all sexy underwear and freaky hairstyles – quite menacing in fact. Hippolyta is redressed by the fairies so she can appear on stage as Titania, and Pippa Dixon managed to carry off the change pretty well, and even if the long, frequently boring weather report speech did drag a little, she did better than most with this section of the play. One of her fairies acted out the vot’ress’s pregnancy, and the resulting ‘baby’ – a piece of cloth bundled up – allowed for a game of pig-in-the-middle as Oberon’s crew try to snatch it from Titania and her girls. This was all quite vigorous, and then we’re left with Oberon telling Puck to fetch the magic flower. There was humour in Puck’s unenthusiastic response, but not enough to make up for his overall lethargy.

While Oberon waits for Puck’s return, Demetrius and Helena arrive. Lucy Briggs-Owen and Alex Hassell have worked together a lot this season, and it shows in their well-honed performances. Helena, in her neat cream outfit, is every inch the Home Counties young lady, destined for a husband, two children, a twin-set and pearls, making it even funnier (or perhaps harder?) to see her crawling on her hands and knees to fetch the shoe that Demetrius has thrown for her. Well, she did ask to be used as his spaniel, and he really didn’t think she would do it, but that’s infatuation for you.

After Puck’s return and his and Oberon’s exit, Titania reappears and goes to sleep in her comfy armchair. Oberon doses her eyes, and in this production they use a small light which disappears as they cast it onto the sleeper’s eyes. Titania and her chair are then lifted up while the skew-whiff chairs are lowered down for Lysander and Hermia’s entrance. He’s all over her in this bit – it sets up a good contrast for his temporary rejection of her later on – but she repels him firmly and so they settle down to sleep draped over different chairs. [13/9/11 Not so, they slept on the ground] Puck anoints his eyes – took him a while to spot the Athenian youth lying practically in front of him – and then Demetrius leaves Helena in the same spot to lament her ugliness. The way Lucy Briggs-Owen did this speech was excellent, going much further in childish tears than anyone I’ve seen before. She really did look pretty ugly on the line ‘I am as ugly as a bear’, but in a nice way, and it got a strong laugh. Lysander waking up and falling for her was all much as usual, followed by Hermia’s awakening and departure, at which point the chairs are removed to allow space for the mechanicals’ first (and only!) rehearsal.

This scene didn’t really sparkle for me to begin with. A lot of the dialogue fell flat, while Thisbe’s dialogue was too unclear for the mistakes to be heard, cutting the humour out altogether. Things improved with the transformation. Bottom’s long, blond curly wig made a good pair of ass’s ears, while his nether regions were adorned with a large salami and his hands were covered with tin cans. These were items that the mechanicals had as part of their rehearsal picnic – well, an actor’s got to eat. His lines after the other have fled were also well delivered, most of them ending with a braying sound. Naturally, Titania was smitten at once, and her fairies were soon introducing themselves to her new love. One of the named fairies had already been dropped as there were only three ‘big’ fairies to play the parts, so with one of these seconded to play Hermia, we saw Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed (I think Peaseblossom was the one they dropped) as little red lights, held by the two remaining big fairies. [13/9/11 Correction: it was Moth they dropped] This worked quite well, I thought – not as cluttered as some productions, and they didn’t dwell too long on the obscure humour either.

I think they took the interval here, and restarted with Oberon wondering what’s happened to Titania. Puck arrives immediately to give him the news, and this story was delivered better, with more life to it. Then Demetrius and Hermia arrive, and kick off the long section of the lovers’ quarrels and fights. Oberon and Puck spend most of this time on the back stairs, and again were invisible not only to the lovers but also to some of the audience. The lovers’ verbal sparring was matched by their vigorous physical wrestling as well – hence the original Hermia’s injury – and some of it was very funny, but for the most part it didn’t quite come together. I know the understudy has had a few performances already, and was doing a good job, but I didn’t feel she was fully up to the level of the others – hopefully more performances will bring her on even more.

This whole section has a lot going on, so I’ll just note the things I remember. Demetrius was lying on the couch when Oberon anointed his eyes. The chairs were brought down for Lysander and Demetrius’s attempted fight, and the lovers ended up asleep, draped over chairs at the front of the stage. When Puck removed the spell from Lysander, the chairs were gradually removed as well, so that the lovers tumbled gently into two groupings, nicely snuggled together.

After Titania has had another scene with Bottom, and Oberon has freed her from her infatuation, Bottom’s chair is pushed to the back of the stage, the chairs descend again, and with lots of music and a whirling dance, Oberon and Titania dress each other in their Athenian clothes and become Theseus and Hippolyta again. As the chairs disappear upwards, the couple ‘wake up’ in the middle of the stage, and since the hunting dialogue wouldn’t work here, we’re straight into the discovery of the two pairs of lovers. Their conversation and departure is followed by Bottoms’ awakening and exit and then the mechanicals’ regretting their situation – all pretty straightforward. In the final act, Philostrate uses a microphone to announce the possible entertainment options, and then Oberon and Hippolyta move to sit on the stairs at the front of the stage, while the other couples occupy the walkways on either side, lying down to let us all see what’s going on.

The Pyramus and Thisbe performance was good fun. Not all of the dialogue came across, but there was enough funny business to make it enjoyable anyway. Bottom and Flute were revealed snogging behind the curtain at one point, while Thisbe’s speech became somewhat moving as Flute appeared to suddenly realise the situation his character is in, faced with a dead lover. His delivery of the lines conveyed the emotion, despite their silliness, and although it wasn’t as full on as some productions, I was still moved. Moonshine’s dog was another home-made prop – couldn’t see what it was made of this time – Thisbe’s scarf went AWOL as usual, while Wall simply looked scruffier than usual and used his fingers to create the chinks. The song at the end was loud and modern, and there was no hint of recognition between Bottom and Hippolyta that I could see – a perfectly reasonable choice. The fairy blessing and Puck’s epilogue were pretty standard – nothing sticks on my memory – and then they took some brisk bows, to much applause, and headed off.

There was a post-show discussion tonight, which lots of people stayed for, and we had some good questions for the cast who turned up and Drew Mulligan, the assistant director. The chairs came in for some comment – not everyone got what they were for, but lots of people liked them – and there was a lot of praise for Imogen Doel, the understudy who has been playing Hermia for a short while now. I don’t remember the rest of the questions now, but it was a good session, ably chaired by Nicky Cox.

One idea came to me a few days later. Someone had pointed out the way that Dukes in Shakespeare’s plays have a habit of claiming they can’t change the law of wherever, and then doing that very thing by the end of the play. Theseus is the main culprit quoted in this context. It occurred to me that his line “Egeus, I will overbear your will” could mean that he was going to prevent Egeus from demanding that the law be applied to his daughter, rather than actually ignoring the law this one time. Or, in the vernacular of this concept, he was going to make Egeus an offer he couldn’t refuse.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Cardenio – August 2011

7/10

By: God only knows

Directed by: Gregory Doran

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 24th August 2011

It was good to see this again, and as I suspected, we got a lot more out of it, mainly because we had a much better view. From the front row, no less, which led to some unexpected audience participation on my part.

The dialogue was easier to hear too, so I understood Luscinda’s arguments much better during her first scene with Cardenio. I enjoyed the way she kept trying to speak and he kept talking over her, especially as he then found his father doing the same thing to him when he tried to broach the subject of a possible marriage with Luscinda. It took a little time for the audience to warm up, I felt, but we were soon laughing at the humour, especially when Fernando was strutting his stuff. Mind you, there are parts of this play where the humour isn’t clear, and occasionally I felt the audience was a bit quiet, but overall we seemed to give the actors a decent enough response.

It’s hard to tell from such a different angle, but I suspect the performances have come on a bit since June. I didn’t spot any specific changes, but the storytelling seemed a bit sharper all round, which usually happens with experience. We were talking with our neighbours during the interval about the risks the front row audience run of finding someone in your lap, or some similar event, and then there was an extended struggle in the second half with several actors throwing themselves round the stage quite vigorously. I found myself thinking that they actually rehearse these bits thoroughly so that there are no accidents, and then I realised that Cardenio himself was lunging towards me, restrained by two other characters, and ended up with his hand just a couple of inches from my throat. I was surprisingly calm about the whole thing – Steve tells me I didn’t even flinch – and I felt honoured to be this night’s ‘victim’.

With more familiarity, the only part of the play where I thought Shakespeare might have had an influence was the scene where Dorotea, disguised as a boy, unknowingly reveals her plight to the concealed Cardenio and his two helpers (this was just after he attempted to strangle me). It was a moving scene, with typical Shakespearean features, so I wouldn’t entirely dismiss the Shakespeare DNA concept, but I’d still need much better evidence to believe it.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Homecoming – August 2011

7/10

By: Harold Pinter

Directed by: David Farr

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Tuesday 23rd August 2011

I was keen to see this play again. We’d seen it back in February 2008, and despite the nastiness of the characters, the language gave it tremendous power. I probably took longer to tune in to this production because of the memories of that earlier one, but by the second half I was well in.

The set was more open due to the nature of the Swan. The walkways at the front had been cut off to leave a square stage which held the sitting room. A red carpet sat in the middle of the floor, with a red comfy chair back left, a wooden chair back right with a small table beside it, and another wooden chair front right, facing across the front of the stage. There was a cupboard of some kind behind the other chairs, and a gap to the stairs and front door further back. The front door was on the left, while the stairs went from midway up to the right, and had a long sideboard in front of them. The kitchen was offstage back right, and we could hear the clattering of pots and plates when Sam was washing up. The stairs went up in two flights to the second balcony, and we could see when characters were coming down them. Beside the front door hung a number of garments, coats presumably, which seemed to be stained with blood. I took this to be a reminder of the butcher’s shop that Max owned. The blank bits at the start of each scene also had the sound of flies buzzing, which was another reminder. The stage would be dark at these times except for several strips of light along the edge of the stage and up above – I have no idea what this was meant to suggest.

The performance style was similar to the earlier production, but I felt there was a lot less menace in the atmosphere. This may be partly down to the audience, with plenty of laughter coming early on and throughout the first half which diluted the tension, making it more of a light comedy. I also found it hard to hear Jonathan Slinger at times, as he kept his voice relatively soft which meant it didn’t carry as much. As a result, I found the first half less interesting, and nearly nodded off a couple of times, but Ruth and Teddy’s arrival sorted that out.

The second half started with all the men lighting up cigars while Ruth hands round the coffee cups. This was very funny, seeing all these men smartly dressed in their suits because Ruth was there. I enjoyed this half much more, and I saw some different shades of meaning in the performance. For example, I realised that Ruth may actually want to get away from Teddy, and her choice to stay may be based on the power and freedom she feels she has with his family compared to the constraints of her roles as wife and mother with Teddy. She was certainly very snappy and demanding with the family, ordering them to fetch food and drinks – reminded me of the V queen – and she negotiated a very sweet deal to set herself up as a prostitute. I felt she was installed as queen of the household from the start of the second half – possibly earlier – whereas in the Almeida production that was delayed till the end. I hadn’t remembered Sam and Max collapsing towards the end, and again that suggested a shift in power to the new kid on the block.

Overall, I felt the language was delivered better in the Almeida production, but this one also had good performances, and was well worth seeing. We’re booked again, and I hope to get even more out it next time.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Merchant Of Venice – August 2011

4/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Monday 22nd August 2011

There were some improvements to our experience this time compared to June’s performance, but on the whole I found it rather dreary to have to sit through such an uninspiring production again.

On the plus side, we were viewing from a different angle, and in the stalls, so I caught some of the expressions that I hadn’t been able to make out before. We had also heard two very interesting talks today from Susannah Fielding who played Portia and Scott Handy who played Antonio, and although I still don’t agree with many of the choices this production makes, it did at least give me some points of interest to look out for during the show. Another bonus was that we could make out the dialogue much better this time, a common experience amongst those who had seen the production before, while those who were seeing it for the first time still found it hard to make out what the characters were saying. Familiarity is clearly important with this piece.

On the down side, I still didn’t connect with or care about any of the characters enough to want to watch the story unfold again. The sheer negativity of the production is unrealistic in my view, and while I accept that the choices made can be supported to some extent by the text, there’s so much in the play that isn’t being addressed that the performance seems superficial and distorted. However, it is leading to a lot of discussions, which is always a good thing.

Most of the differences I noticed tonight came in the second half, which I found the better of the two, but I’ll start with the first half. I noticed some extra business with the suitors; in particular, Portia and Nerissa recited the inscriptions along with the two unsuccessful suitors, and for the Prince of Arragon they were also waving guns around. The Prince of Arragon was less Manuel-ish this time around, but his accent was so over the top that I couldn’t make out much of his dialogue at all.

I found the scene with Launcelot Gobbo, the angel and the devil easier to follow this time round. I suspect they may have moved the slot machines further forward to improve visibility, and the angel and devil seemed to be taking longer over their lines, fondling poor Gobbo as much as they could, so it worked better for me (he didn’t seem to be enjoying it at all!). The scene in the car seemed shorter also, though I couldn’t say why.

The short chat between the salad boys took place in a lift, depicted by means of a square light shining down, a ‘ting’ as the lift door opened and closed, and all the occupants lifting up on their toes each time it started down. At the end, only the janitor was left, and he got out in the basement – this was just before the second casket scene. This was the same staging as before, from what I can remember. The first half ended after Shylock’s conversation with Tubal, with Shylock doing a little dance to show his suffering, anger and desire for revenge.

The second half started with Bassanio’s casket scene, and the reason I ‘enjoyed’ the second half more was that I could see much more from Bassanio in both this and the trial scene. I spent most of the first half thinking that Richard Riddell had a very inexpressive face, but the second half proved that wrong. He managed to portray a man who could be in love with Portia given half a chance, but who then realises how much Antonio means to him, and destroys his marriage before it’s begun. I still found Portia’s emotional uncertainty at the point when she should be happiest a bit inexplicable. Susannah Fielding had talked about it earlier, but I reckon it’s one of those things that may work in an actor’s head, and yet doesn’t necessarily come across in performance. Her grimacing continued in fine style to the end of the play, and I could almost sympathise with Bassanio in the final scene, as he realises he’s landed himself with a complete nut job.

Now that I could hear more of the dialogue, I was also aware of how much this interpretation of Portia is at odds with her speech. How exactly does a ditzy blond airhead know about young Alcides and the Dardanian wives? And there were other lines that just didn’t fit with this heart-led southern gal persona. But at least Bassanio’s thought processes as he faced the three caskets were good and clear – hooray – and I was very conscious of his comments about ‘snaky golden locks’ being wigs, and not natural at all. When Portia did un-wig herself (and perhaps that speech gave her the confidence to do it?) there was a wry smile on Bassanio’s face, as if he recognised the falseness, and didn’t mind it. At this point, it looked like he was willing to be a good husband and might even end up in love with Portia, if she could let go of her protective image and show him another, stronger side to her personality.

This time, I noticed that Nerissa had lost the high heels and was wearing sensible trainers when she and Gratiano joined the two on stage. After Bassanio has read the letter from Antonio, and the situation is explained, Portia asks how much is owed. Her reaction when she’s told that it’s three million dollars is wonderful – petty cash as far as she’s concerned. We’ve realised before that she’s very, very rich, but this rewording really does bring it home in today’s terms. The reaction from the others to her response was also good – jaws drop, and Gratiano looks at Nerissa and wordlessly asks if Portia’s really that wealthy? Nerissa nods, and Gratiano is stunned. Thirty-six million dollars is a drop in the ocean to this woman (‘Double six million, and then treble that’). I also noted the line ‘Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear’, and heard a reference to it again later.

The next bit was the same as last time, I reckon, but we could see it better. Antonio snuck on stage and dropped into the seat in the first row, far side of the left walkway, just across from us. The lights were low, and Shylock came on with a torch, searching for him. When he found him, he called on the LVPD officer to arrest Antonio – I spent my time peering at the badge on the officer’s uniform to check they’d used the LVPD name, but I couldn’t see it clearly. Too much CSI, I’m afraid. The short dialogue between Antonio and Salarino which is part of this scene was hived off, and shown later.

The girls’ night in was much as before, though I was able to see the expressions more clearly, and Portia’s patronising attitude to Jessica came across very strongly. I saw Jessica as more grown up this time, unhappy with some aspects of her situation, but able to handle them better than Portia will be later. Nerissa still looked shocked and unhappy at the idea of ‘prayer and contemplation’ – how will she get her hair and nails done?

The postponed scene between Antonio and Salarino may have been inserted here, as the trial scene isn’t far away. Antonio is now in the fetching orange jumpsuit so favoured by American prisons, and is sitting on a stool near the front of the stage, while Salarino is up on the balcony. They talk on the phone, and when they finish, Antonio puts the phone down and is led away by the guard.

Now I don’t remember exactly when the trapeze bit happened, but it was around here somewhere. A trapeze was lowered down near the front left corner of the stage, and one of the actors, in a fetching blue leotard as I recall, wiggled about on it a bit. Then the trapeze was taken back up and the next scene started. What was all that about?

The scene with Launcelot, Jessica and Lorenzo is swiftly followed by the trial scene. This time, Antonio wasn’t standing in the same place all the time, but did have to be there for a considerable period. I was conscious of Scott Handy’s comment earlier on about Antonio’s mind being ready for death but his body wanting to stay alive, and that certainly came across tonight. His body was quivering and trembling, and it was hard to keep watching, but equally as hard to look away. Portia’s dawning realisation of the relationship between the two men was clear, but it did take away from her performance as a lawyer – too much going on. The rest of the scene was much as before, and I still felt there was no way that Portia got the answer she did, despite Susannah’s efforts. Gratiano’s exclamations in praise of Balthazar were powerful and worked really well tonight, so on the whole I was happier with this trial scene.

One thing I remember that I can’t find in the text is Bassanio saying to Antonio something along the lines of Portia’s words ‘Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear’. Since it appears to be an insertion, I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but I’m confident it was in the trial scene.

The final act was similar to before, but this time the touching between Antonio and Bassanio was up front – across Portia’s lap – so no mistaking the meaning there. Everyone’s as miserable as last time, there’s still a lot of wasted humour, and we left the theatre glad to be free at last. Will we put up with it for a third time? Wait and see.

One interesting point that came out of a later talk by Dr Erica Sheen is the sheer number of references to flesh and blood in the text. I hadn’t realised this before – god bless these academics, poring over a hot text day and night to give us these insights – and I certainly wasn’t aware of it from this production, but it’s something to look out for in the future.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Syndicate – August 2011

6/10

By: Eduardo de Filippo

Directed by: Sean Matthias

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 16th August 2011

We’ve seen some of De Filippo’s work before – Inner Voices, Filumena and Saturday, Sunday and Monday that I specifically remember. His detailed explorations of Neapolitan life are certainly interesting, and probably very accurate, but I felt tonight that this was another play in which the research done by the cast during rehearsal gave them an insight and connection to the characters that didn’t come across fully to the audience, at least not to me. The performances were all excellent of course, but the writing was aimed at those in the know, and we weren’t. Having said that, it was a very good production, and I wouldn’t object to seeing this play again sometime – perhaps I’d get more out of it second time around.

The set was fabulous. We’d seen it several times already, as some of the rehearsed readings of Rattigan plays that Chichester are doing this summer had this set as a backdrop. The location is the reception room of the local Mafia boss, Don Antonio Barracano at his villa in the hills above Naples. A sweep of French windows round the back of the stage was matched by a beautiful inlaid parquetry floor with a classical oval pattern in the middle. There were doors to right and left, and also a couple of paintings, one on each side of the windows, which concealed such useful devices as the telephone. To the right stood the Don’s desk, a large table with one chair – his – and there was a comfy chair and table centre front. A large chandelier hung in the centre of the room. The opulence was clear.

The story was fairly simple. Don Antonio is the real authority in the area – the police and judges are just a bureaucratic nuisance that has to be endured from time to time – and his day is largely spent dealing with the various disputes and requests from his ‘subjects’. One of these encounters leaves the Don with a serious wound, and as various ‘witnesses’ gather for a farewell feast, the question is: who will succeed this powerful man, and what will happen to his empire as a result?

The play begins with a shooting, triggered by an argument between two men who are rival rent boys working the docks to pick up sailors. One, belonging to the Don’s clan, had been ill, and when came back to work he found another man had taken his place, a very lucrative spot. The wounded man is brought into the room and the doctor (Michael Pennington) is woken up to treat him. It all looked horribly real to us, but I’m sure no actors were harmed in the making of this performance. When the Don has risen, breakfasted (on bread and milk) and dressed, he deals with these two strictly but very fairly, and although I wasn’t entirely convinced there’d be no more trouble, it was a much better result than lots of bloodshed.

That was the gist of the Don’s approach, which emerged as he talked with the doctor, a long-time partner in crime, and some of the others. He just wanted to make the world a better place. This could seem absurd, but this was an earlier time, when the Mafia weren’t into hardcore drugs and sex trafficking, and a large part of their attraction for ordinary Italians in the post-war years was their ability to maintain order when the state institutions were in a shambles. As we’re not shown the Don actually being violent, they could just about get away with this approach, although I did find the Don’s exculpation of his Rottweiler’s attack on his wife very creepy. Through questioning her, he discovered that she’d crossed the line by entering the chicken coop, and as the dogs were meant to guard the chickens, amongst other things, she actually caused the attack herself! Her willingness to agree with him was comic, but also suggested that he’s not the big softy he was claiming to be.

Another young man turns up with a pregnant woman, and asks for the Don’s help. He and the woman want to get married, and there are family difficulties. In the course of dealing with the young man’s problems, the Don is stabbed by accident, and realises that he hasn’t got long to live. To save his family from the intrusion of the authorities, he heads for their town house in Naples, and arranges an impromptu feast, with the doctor and lots of the minor characters invited. In his final speech, he passes control of his organisation to the doctor, who’d previously been keen to give it all up and leave. Now, with the Don dead in the next room, he not only assumes the mantle of Don-ship, he displays a vigorous enthusiasm for his new job, quite at odds with his earlier sentiments. It’s a believable volte-face, reminiscent of many similar changes of heart, especially by politicians, but although it was credible I didn’t find it an entirely satisfactory conclusion to the play. I wasn’t engaged enough by the characters to care what happened to them, so the denouement, while it was a slight surprise, didn’t particularly move me. Just one of those things.

Ian McKellen gave a good performance as the Don, full of whimsical fancies with the occasional suggestions of both menace and madness (and what can be more menacing than madness in powerful people?). I particularly liked his solution to the young man’s debt problem; when the greedy creditor wouldn’t let up on his demands, the Don paid back the debt himself, using the stash of transparent money he kept in the (locked) invisible drawer at the front of his desk. The threat under the light-heartedness was clear to see, and the creditor couldn’t say no.

While I agree with the observation that it’s how the other people treat you that shows who the king is, I did feel that a bit more from Ian McKellen would have helped in this department. He was just a bit too cuddly at times, so the reactions from the others were sometimes at odds with his interpretation rather than supporting it. He did cover a fair range in his performance, and no doubt he enjoyed himself in the process, but perhaps a bit more steel from him would have helped overall. Again, we’re not Neapolitans, so we needed a little more information at times to help us relate to these people and their situations more fully.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Alarms And Excursions – August 2011

7/10

By: Michael Frayn

Directed by: Joe Harmston

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Date: Thursday 4th August 2011

This production consists of a number of short plays by Michael Frayn, all loosely connected by the impact of modern technology on our lives, particularly the difficulties the technology itself causes and our inability to handle them. The set was therefore generic, with lots of flats sliding on and off and furniture trundling hither, thither and yon between each play. None of this was a problem; the set design created each location very effectively, although the actors will no doubt have their own view on all the quick changes they had to manage. With a good crowd, it all made for an enjoyable afternoon.

We missed the first couple of minutes due to heavy traffic in Brighton – we’ll take the train next time – but I don’t think we missed much. We were able to slip into aisle seats as well, so hopefully we didn’t disturb anyone. The first play was called Alarms, and when we arrived it was clear that a dinner party was being interrupted by an irritating beep. It sounded very much like the beep of a smoke alarm with a low battery – the chap behind us recognised it too – but the group having the party didn’t know what it was. While they tried all sort of options, other alarms and buzzers started going off, including the oven timer and a car alarm. The phone system in this house was apparently state-of-the art, which meant no one understood how to work it, so when an urgent call came in for the husband, he couldn’t actually speak to the person on the other end until he’d assaulted the phone out of sheer frustration.

The dialogue was marvellously tailored to the events. The caller was still trying to get the husband to pick up the phone, and saying things like ‘you can’t hide under the table’, while at the same time the visiting wife had accidentally been covered up by the dining table for reasons I won’t go into now. All of this was great fun, and although this is an extreme version of reality, much of it was recognisable in our own lives.

The second play, Doubles, was set in two adjacent hotel rooms. Two couples arrive at almost the same time, and we see their identikit lives play out. The walls are thin enough for sounds to carry, and this leads to some hilarious misunderstandings, with couple one (Serena Evans and Robert Daws) believing they’ve heard couple two (Belinda Lang and Aden Gillet) having sex when they’ve actually been trying to kill a mosquito, and couple two thinking couple one are called Kevin and Sharon, when that’s the names they’ve been using for couple two. It took a little while to set up the situation, but then we had a great time seeing all the variables of social embarrassment play out. The final situation is that both couples are staying in their rooms until they see the other couple get into their car – it could be a long wait.

After the interval came Leavings, the sequel to Alarms, with the two original couples going through the end-of-party process of leave-taking. The husband has fallen asleep, and there’s not much conversation going on amongst the rest of them. After several declarations that they must leave, the visiting couple finally get up to go, but when the husband wakes up, he assumes he’s the visitor and starts to head off himself. We then see all the last minute conversations that crop up at these times. The husbands get into a rambling, pointless conversation about things being unnaturally natural, while the wives are subsequently distracted by some gossip about an affair. This eventually draws the men in as well, and the upshot is that the visiting couple decide to make themselves something to eat as they’re so hungry.

Pig In The Middle is a short conversation between a husband and wife about the message left by a repair man about some thingy that needs fixing. The husband has a rant about the message, because he knew the man would say it was the bit inside that needs fixing when it was always the bit around the back, and the wife gets a bit fed up with being the one to pass on all these messages instead of her husband dealing with it himself. She gets her own back, though. After checking the shopping he’s brought back with him, she points out that he’s got the wrong sort of something. When he claims that they never have the right sort, she tells him he always goes to the place inside instead of going round the back! It was a lovely piece of word play, and Steve and I could both recognise our own liberal use of the word ‘thingy’, although we’re lucky enough to actually understand what we mean most of the time.

Toasters had three of the cast in office outfits, standing next to a plant on a stand and carrying a folder, a plate and a glass. While the company’s boss makes a tedious rambling speech, they have to juggle these items to keep up, opening the folders to all the mentioned pages, raising their glasses to toast some success story, and putting their stuff down when they have to applaud even more success. Or are they meant to toast? Or applaud? The uncertainty had them squirming, and kept us laughing.

Finishing Touches was another short piece, with a husband and wife sitting at a restaurant table at the end of a meal. He has a very slow delivery, with lots of very long pauses, so she finishes his sentences for him. This goes on for a short while, then he starts finishing her sentences as well – it’s the only time he can talk quickly. Their snippiness is evident, and I noticed there was at least one couple who laughed loudly all through this sketch (not us, as it happens). Clearly this situation was closer to home for some of the audience.

Look Away Now was a funny variation on the safety demonstration given at the beginning of each plane flight. The passengers were actually told not to pay attention, but one of the three on this flight was a new boy (reminded me of my first time – the only pair of eyes in a sea of papers) and he was actually watching. He did open a paper to show willing, but because he was listening, he realised the air hostess was actually taking her clothes off! The expression on his face was wonderfully funny. Unfortunately for him, he’d been spotted, and the final part of the announcement was to the effect that he wouldn’t be getting any dessert because he’d peeked.

The final play was called Immobiles, and a voiceover explained to the audience before it started that it was set in the past, at a time when people had to use landlines and public phones if they wanted to talk to one another. We’d seen Alarms And Excursions before, in 1999, and this was the scene I remembered best from the previous occasion. Dieter has arrived in Britain to visit some friends, and calls to leave a message on their answer phone. The husband also calls to leave a message – he’s at Heathrow to pick up Dieter but can’t find him. The wife, when she gets in, uses the answer phone announcement to tell them what to do, and then heads off to pick up Dieter, at Gatwick! She’s forgotten that her mother is also due to arrive, so in a short time we have four people making phone calls, leaving messages and eventually blocking each other’s calls. With so much going on, the poor answer phone blows up, and I don’t blame it. Makes me glad we have mobiles now.

I enjoyed all of these plays, although I do think they might have been better ending the show with Leavings, to top and tail the performance with the same couples. However, it’s only a minor point, and doesn’t take away from the excellent performances. All four actors are superb with this sort of comedy, and we’re glad we saw this again. According to the program notes, Michael Frayn had added some new material for this production; I don’t know which bits exactly, as it all seemed to mesh very well.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me