Basket Case – November 2011


By Nick Fisher

Directed by Robin Lefevre

Company: CFT & Royal and Derngate

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Monday 28th November 2011

This was a first-time stage play by Nick Fisher, who wrote Manchild for the BBC, which starred Nigel Havers. Nigel is back for more as an immature divorcee who can’t quite come to terms with the loss of everything – his wife, the family home, his dog, a game of golf. It’s pretty lightweight stuff, and covered familiar ground, but the performances were all good and there’s enough fun to make this an enjoyable evening. The dying pooch would have stolen the show, as usual, but for being very still in its basket for most of the play. It did manage a slight bow during the applause – don’t know how they worked it but we all loved it anyway.

The play started with Miranda, played by Christine Kavanagh, making muffins in her deluxe country kitchen for comfort food while she waits for little Toby to breath his last. The vet, Martin (Graham Seed), arrived to care for the pooch, and from their conversation it’s clear that Toby hasn’t got long. Guy (Nigel Havers), Miranda’s ex, turns up with his friend James (David Cardy); they’d been playing golf, but the imminent death of his dog is important enough to trump the fairway, though only just from the sound of it. Given that Guy has hardly seen Toby since leaving Miranda for another woman, he’s hardly in a strong position to complain about Miranda’s choice of vet and proposed treatment of the dog, but this is comedyland, so of course he does.

It’s all a reaction to finding out that Miranda is now unavailable, as she’s got a new man in her life, one who makes her feel good as a woman (and we all know what that means!). Guy’s relationship with Sonya, the other woman, has failed (I wonder why?) and several times he tries to tell Miranda something, but she doesn’t let him. It seemed pretty clear that Guy wanted to get back with Miranda, and equally clear that he wasn’t going to succeed, but that didn’t stop him trying. His rant about Miranda conspiring with Martin to have Toby put down so she could be with her new man (Evre?) was funny at first but went on a bit too long. Fortunately the roasted espadrilles cut it short, and with Toby dying just before the end, they were briefly reunited in grief, but not for long I suspect.

The structure of the play was a series of sketch-like scenes in the kitchen between various characters, often alternating between Guy and Miranda, and Martin and James. James was completely unconcerned about the dog but did want his dinner, and the muffins were soon polished off, as were some crisps and a slice of quiche. Martin was the nerdy type, correcting James’s sweeping statements about salmon, for instance, but joining in the discussion about which snacks were entitled to be put in bowls – yes to cashews apparently, but no to peanuts unless they were honey roasted. This sort of thing was pleasant enough, but there were fewer laughs in these sections. The conversations between Guy and Miranda however had more punch; given their past relationship, that wasn’t surprising, and it’s where the occasional ‘fuck’ and ‘bugger’ were used, and used appropriately.  In fact the first half ended on a ‘fuck’ (Miranda had just exited after telling Guy her new man’s name). When Miranda revealed that she’d already sold the house, and to someone Guy knew, his reaction was very funny. Even if the new owner was one of his friends, there was a rivalry there, and Guy wasn’t happy at all.

Apart from this, there was a one-sided phone call in the opening section when Miranda was on her own – their son had discovered he’d left his wallet at home after filling his car with petrol, could Mum pay for it with her credit card over the phone? Then in the second half, to get some revenge on Miranda’s new man, Guy took his espadrilles and put them in the hottest part of the four-oven Aga. We’d already heard that you can’t smell anything from an Aga as they have a flue, so the shoes and the Le Creuset would be ruined before Miranda noticed. Neither of the other two men did anything about this – James did set the timer for forty minutes, as requested – so when Miranda finally smelt the unusual recipe, she’s pretty miffed. The men tried to stop the smoke alarm that had been set off when the dish was taken out of the oven, but it obligingly broke before they could belt it with the broom that Guy brought in – we assume that was a genuine mistake.

When Miranda left for some fresh air, having shooed James and Martin out as well, Guy is left to say farewell to little Toby, still just hanging on in his basket. After explaining the joy of a precision-made golf club, Guy took another sporting implement out of his golf bag, and when he took the cover off it turned out he had a shotgun. He loaded it and had several goes at finishing off Toby himself, but just couldn’t do it. Then he looked for a bag to put over Toby’s head, and this led to the best laugh of the evening when all he could find was a ‘bag for life’. Just as he was about to do the deed, he found Toby was finally gone. At that point Miranda returned, leading to their final embrace over the dead body, with Guy sneaking his hands on to Miranda’s buttocks – ever the opportunist.

The set was basically the kitchen, with a large island in the middle, the Aga back left, a range of fitted furniture to the right of that, and some chairs around the place. Some oak beams overhead gave the countrified feel – the play was set in Wiltshire – and the dog basket was towards the front on the left.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Measure For Measure – November 2011


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 25th November 2011

This is a classic example of the difference between rating the production and rating my experience of a performance. The production is worth 10/10, absolutely no doubt, but with my view frequently restricted by actors’ backs, I was continually frustrated as I attempted to see one or another character’s reaction to events as they unfolded. Of course, the cause of my frustration was the excellent performances – I wouldn’t have been so bothered if it had been an average production.

The Duke began proceedings with a display of control and showmanship, altering the lighting, doing some little magic tricks, and it was perfectly topped off when he set himself up to welcome Escalus from one direction, only to have him walk on from another. That’s probably the earliest laugh I’ve ever experienced at this play. Raymond Coulthard had been at the pre-show talk earlier, along with assistant director Adam Lenson – apologies from Roxana – and this section had changed a great deal from the previews apparently, where they had attempted to show the Duke in a great haste to leave. Now he’s more leisurely in his actions, but still focused on executing his plans, and his fur coat and hat complete his outfit beautifully. There’s a hint of campness to the performance, but just enough to bring out the humour, and for once the Duke is fully central to the production, either as himself or as the friar. He produced the commissions for Angelo and Escalus by means of a magic trick as well.

The brothel scene was done as an S&M dungeon, with Lucio?, Froth and the others being beaten or whipped according to their preference. I think there was a judge involved at some point as a customer? The costumes were a mixture, being mainly modern-ish with Elizabethan references, such as the embossed codpiece (which had a cross on it as well – weird!). The dialogue was very clear, so I was aware that there’s actually an international conflict going on, which gave the Duke a plausible reason for being out of the country. The sense of a change in policy also came across well, with the locals being so used to getting away with their sexual peccadilloes that the law might as well not have existed.

Claudio and Juliet were being paraded through the streets to display their shame, and Claudio ended up chained to one of the mini-posts along the sides of the stage. These were about 5 inches high, gold coloured, with embossed square studs all round them and a gold chain dangling off each one. Juliet was 8 months 29 days pregnant, and I wasn’t sure if the glittery silver horns on her head were part of a fancy headband she was wearing, or whether they were meant to indicate the nature of her venal sin – they looked nice, though.

At the monastery, the chanting monks brought on a bier with a body, covered over by a cloth. Once the other monks had left, the friar who was the Duke’s accomplice removed the cloth to reveal the Duke, still in his posh clothes. The friar wasn’t happy at all about the Duke’s plan, and didn’t seem convinced about the propriety of him impersonating a monk, but he went along with the Duke’s orders. When they left, the nuns came on, also singing, and moved the bier to behind the whiplash curtain (more details on the set later). This left Isabella and one nun behind, and it’s clear that Isabella is several stages beyond devout. If anything, she may be too ferociously puritanical for these nuns, so I suspect they may have had a narrow escape.

Lucio tried to converse with the nun when he arrived, but she couldn’t talk with him as her face was visible. This led to some laughs, as Lucio is determined to speak with the nun, and all she can do is shake or nod her head while making grimaces at Isabella to help out. Fortunately Isabella soon realised that she was the one Lucio wanted to see, and the message about her brother’s imminent execution was soon delivered. Isabella’s quick decision to get this matter sorted before she took orders showed her leadership capabilities to the full, so much so that the nun was looking a bit askance at her blithe assumption that she can leave the nunnery as she pleases. If she did join a nunnery, she’d be abbess within two years, or she’d know the reason why!

Angelo and Escalus heard the case against Pompey and Froth with either impatience or humour, according to their temperament. Froth was a nice-looking chap, and didn’t he know it, posturing and posing himself, as well as overacting the bereft son when Pompey mentioned the death of his father. Lots of humour in this performance. Elbow was marvellous, with every Malapropism coming across clearly (doesn’t always happen) along with his total indignation that anyone should claim his wife was a respected woman! Pompey was also superb, the best I’ve seen, although he gets more to do in later scenes. Geoffrey Beevers was also good as Escalus, ready to see the funny side of things, but also with enough gravitas to explain his position within Duke Vincentio’s court.

Isabella’s pleading to Angelo was one of the scenes I found I couldn’t see enough of, but what I did see was pretty splendid. There’s always a point where Isabella’s own passion kicks in, thanks to Lucio’s insistence that she keep going and the fact that Angelo’s arguments are so close to the ones she wants to use herself, at least initially. At least, that’s how I see it. Without seeing all the reactions, I can’t fully record this scene, but I understood the way the two protagonists affected each other, with Isabella finally finding not just her voice but also her heart, and putting the argument for mercy as forcefully as she might have put the opposite ones just minutes earlier. She’s not cold, this Isabella, just strongly devout. Angelo on the other hand is cold, and it’s the passion of her arguments and the clarity of her wits that kindles the flame of lust in him. I felt there was almost a chance for this Angelo to back off from the rash choice that gets him into trouble, but of course we wouldn’t have a play if he didn’t plunge into the dark side. It was mentioned in the pre-show, that for such absolutists the choice is either good or bad, and if you can’t be one, you have to be the other. As Adam Lenson pointed out, grey is such a useful shade. I was also aware that Isabella is more distressed by the possibility of Claudio’s execution being too soon for his soul to be prepared for heaven than by the bare fact of his execution. It was such an immediate response compared to the way she’d had to be pushed into pleading for her brother’s life. Again I was reminded of how this scene echoes the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice, with Isabella putting an equally strong case for mercy.

In the jail, the ‘Friar’ is soon meddling away to his heart’s content. He’s quite the manipulator, this Duke, and after the pre-show chat it was interesting to watch how Raymond Coulthard develops his character. He set up his plans, and then something happened which wasn’t what he expected, and so he had to adapt and change things. It was a good interpretation of the role, and allowed for plenty of humour as well as the tough decisions. When he was catechising Juliet at the start of this next scene, I reckoned the Provost had been deliberately keeping the news of Claudio’s execution from Juliet, and isn’t best pleased that the friar blurts it out so unfeelingly.

The second scene between Isabella and Angelo was absolutely brilliant. The dialogue was remarkably clear – I often have trouble with some of the lines in this play, so it’s a relief that they managed this – and the reactions were spot on for their characters. Isabella really didn’t understand what Angelo was getting at to begin with. She thought he was concerned that granting a pardon would be a sin, and was happy to take that burden on herself. It seemed to me that Angelo became even more the villain as the scene wore on and he had to spell his offer out to Isabella ever more clearly. I was very aware of the risk to her of revealing what he’s said, but I got the feeling that she’s a strong and resourceful person, if a bit idealistic and optimistic about her brother’s reactions to the news she’s about to bring him.

In the jail, the Duke coached Claudio in how to handle his situation, not that he has to suffer it for long. Claudio looked a bit bashed round the edges – had he been fighting?  When Isabella arrived, the Duke eavesdropped from behind the whiplash curtain, and was clearly disturbed to hear of Angelo’s corrupt offer. Claudio’s fall from grace caused Isabella to get really cross, and then the Duke interrupted to start meddling again. Isabella waited by the front of the stage while the Duke had a few words with Claudio; I was struck that this was one gabby Duke, as near as dammit revealing the secrets of the confessional. Isabella was very keen to help the Duke with his plot, no hesitation or concern once she grasped what he was proposing, and she’s very quick on the uptake, this one.

I’m not sure of the order of scenes at this point, as I think the first half ended after the Duke has sent Isabella off to arrange the secret tryst with Angelo, and involved some more magic tricks, with a coin this time. I also think the Duke spoke the lines at the end of Act III scene II. The second half then opened with Mariana singing a song, accompanied by a guitar-playing monk. She sat on a swing, and although she was a little sad in manner, she seemed relatively self-possessed compared to some Marianas we’ve seen (booze, fags, etc.). I don’t remember if some of the in-between scenes were cut or simply inserted elsewhere – I’ll try to pick up on this when we see it again in January. One thing we both noticed was Mariana’s comment about the Duke/friar – ‘a man of comfort, whose advice hath often still’d my brawling discontent’. Given that he only became a friar a day or so ago, how ‘often’ has been with Mariana? This led me to wonder if she actually knew he was the Duke, and that perhaps the Duke himself had been comforting her, looking for a way to bring her and Angelo together. However, there was no sign of that, so I just had to assume this is one of Will’s wonky time bits – he has plenty of those.

One thing to mention now, though, about the Duke’s first disguised confrontation with Lucio, was that the Duke became very angry and threatening towards Lucio. Between ‘..too unhurtful an opponent’ and ‘But indeed I can do you little harm’ he remembered his disguise, and changed his tune completely, with the second sentence being said meekly and with hands held in prayer. It was funny, and emphasised the way this Duke really didn’t get the ‘friar’ bit, acting much too cocky for the part, ordering people around as if he were….. well, the Duke. His arrogance later in the final scene was deliberate, but there’s still a lot to spare during these scenes as well.

Back at the jail, Pompey was entertaining during his job interview, and even more entertaining later on when telling us about all the familiar faces he’d met while in prison. Many of them were sitting in the audience tonight, in fact, which kept us laughing for a while. Before that, when the orders came from Angelo to carry out the executions regardless, the Duke had to think quickly of a new plan to delay things. The Provost was very reluctant to begin with, but once he did decide to join in, he was all gung-ho with the planning.

Barnadine stuck his head up through a small window in the floor at first, then came up from the basement to tell the Duke straight out that he wasn’t going to be hanged today. Some productions try a bit too hard with this character; this version was very well done by Daniel Stewart and was funny without being ludicrous – he just wasn’t going to cooperate with other people’s plans. The Provost’s suggestion that they take advantage of the fortuitous death of Ragadine was played for humour, as was the Duke’s response, and we all joined in the fun with our laughter.

Raymond Coulthard had explained earlier that he saw the Duke’s decision not to tell Isabella that her brother is alive when she arrives at the prison as a spur of the moment thing. He doesn’t want to tell her partly because he doesn’t think she could carry off the next part of his plan – accusing Angelo – if she knew the truth, but also because he’s still testing her. Of course his lines give another reason as well, but in any case I could see the need for a quick choice in his performance tonight – his plan hasn’t worked the way he expected, he’s moved to plan B (or is it C?) and it’s all happened a bit too quickly for him to sit back and consider all the angles.

Isabella’s reaction here was good, and set things up for her final choice of the evening. She’s sad that her brother is dead, but accepts, with a little nod, the Duke’s instruction to go along with next part of his plan. For once, this Isabelle has grasped that devotion to God involved forgiveness, and this greater level of flexibility explains why she can pull through such adverse circumstances. The Duke had been moved by her actions earlier, when she was so willing to trust him and cooperate with his plan. During one of these scenes, she held his hands, and after she left it was clear that her touch as well as her personality had affected him.

Angelo is off stage for quite a while during all this plotting, so when he came on again with the letter from the Duke, it was our first chance to see what state of mind he was in. A bit unsure at first, perhaps, but he talked himself into greater confidence, and if he didn’t get his comeuppance a short while later he might have become a hardened villain eventually – suppressed guilt can do that to people.

The final scene had the Duke arriving back with lots of his friends. The friar who showed Mariana and Isabella where to stand had also attached a line to scoop up much of the curtain strands, so there was a bit more room at the back – very necessary for this scene. The Duke was full of praise for everyone, but especially Angelo – setting him up for a bigger fall. Isabella’s accusation was soon rebuffed, but the Duke had to make several attempts to get her to mention the ‘friar’s’ involvement in the ‘plot’. Raymond Coulthard had mentioned this aspect of the scene earlier – that the Duke needs the others to say the right lines so his plan can unfold properly. Once she brought the friar into it, Isabella could be sent off to prison while Mariana had her turn. Of course the Duke also had to stop Lucio prattling on and on, telling the Duke how this friar had been spreading all sorts of lies about him.

When Mariana entered, she had a simple black blindfold on her eyes, and again the Duke had to work hard to get her to reveal that Angelo himself is her husband. Once her identity was revealed, the Duke absented himself, having sent the Provost to fetch this troublesome friar. He returned pretty soon in his monk’s disguise, but not before Angelo had given Lucio free rein to slander the man even more. With his plot coming to a head, the Duke/friar was arrogant with Angelo and Escalus, and they soon determined to bring him down a peg or two. It was Lucio who wrestled with him to get his hood off, managing to give him a spanking on the way. When the robe was off and the Duke revealed, Lucio sank to his knees saying ‘it’s the Duke’ in a way that suggests he was fully aware of how much trouble he was in.

Naturally the Duke pardoned Escalus, but started to turn the screw on Angelo, sending him off to be married to Mariana. I didn’t see Isabella’s reaction to the uncovering of the Duke’s disguise, but she didn’t seem upset or hugely disturbed. She seemed to adapt quite quickly to the new situation, and when Mariana asked for her help to plead for Angelo’s life, she didn’t have to think for long before making her own plea for clemency. And it wasn’t forced or reluctant; her argument that Angelo’s death won’t bring back Claudio seemed to be exactly what she thought and felt.

Next he had the Provost (who was very relieved now he knew he’d actually been helping the Duke) bring out Barnadine, and dealt with him, showing his magnanimity. Barnadine was brought on with a hood over his head; when it was removed, he simply stood there and smoothed back the hair on one side, then the other, getting a good laugh. The other prisoner, also with a hood, was then revealed – Claudio! As he looked around him, a little dazed, Isabella was very happy to see him and gave him a long hug.

The Duke made one attempt to propose to Isabella, but realised it wasn’t the best time.  There’s just one other matter to deal with – Lucio – and then he can have another go. Lucio’s ‘punk’ turned up at just the right time (for her, not for Lucio) and he was off to a fate that he considers worse than death. The ‘lady’ in question was slovenly, with torn tights and scruffy clothes, and she carried her young child on her hip (but is it also Lucio’s?).

Finally the Duke turned his attention to Isabella, and this time he did a full proposal, on one knee, emphasising her willingness in the choice. She was pretty quick to accept him; her experiences had taught her a lot about life in a short time, and from her expression I guessed she’d fallen for this strange Duke/friar hybrid. A cloistered life was no longer viable for her, and in terms of their mettle, they’re well matched. However she’s spent her time with the friar – will she find the Duke as much to her liking?

It was a high-energy performance which they rounded off with a dance. We applauded mightily, and left very happy with our evening’s entertainment. This play is so often treated as ‘dark’ piece, and it made a pleasant change to see it given a lighter touch, bringing out more of the comedy. The choices all worked well together, and we’re looking forward to seeing this again in January.

The performances were all excellent. Raymond Coulthard’s Duke was very much in charge, but not infallible. When the Duke is set up to be too good, there’s always the question of how he let the problems arise in the first place. The setting for this production made it clear that the decadence the Duke is trying to stamp out by way of Angelo’s appointment is at all levels of society; he just hadn’t noticed it creep up on him. One Duke’s erotica is a working man’s porn, that sort of thing. He got so much humour out of the part that it may be difficult to watch another version for a while – we’ll miss the laughter.

Jodie McNee gave a very intelligent performance as Isabella. Not an intellectual one – this was an Isabella who wasn’t a prude as such – but well thought out and as quick in understanding as any Rosalind. She’ll soon be president of several charities while bringing up numerous children, running the Duke’s household and probably writing uplifting books for the edification of the general population in her spare time. Not someone I’d care to spend much time with, but much more likeable than most Isabellas.

Jamie Ballard did a good job with Angelo. It’s a difficult part, because although he’s a villain in one sense, he doesn’t set out to be one like Richard III, for example. While many have commented on Isabella’s lack of dialogue at the end of this play, Angelo also has to be present without speaking a lot as well, and Jamie managed this very well. I still want to see more of the exchange between Angelo and Isabella to get a clearer picture, though.

Paul Chahidi was very good fun as Lucio, and I always enjoy seeing Bruce Alexander on stage; his Provost was a nicely detailed performance. I’ve already praised Elbow (Ian Midlane) and Pompey (Joseph Kloska), and the rest of the cast did equally well in the smaller roles.

Finally I’ll describe the set. It was an interesting mixture which set the scene perfectly.  The floor had sections of black leather with a circular pattern punched in them – a spiral of dots. These encompassed the large trapdoor in the middle, and two smaller windows fore and aft of this. At the back of the thrust there were strands of black leather hanging down to form a curtain – it may not have been leather, of course, but that’s the impression it gave. There were at least three layers to this whiplash curtain, which allowed for concealed characters, as well as lots of possible entrances and exits. Assorted furniture was brought on and off, and there were two human lamps on either side under the balconies. These came on at the start, when the Duke was manipulating the lights, and switched on when he snapped his fingers, then stood there with their hands posed, looking very elegant. When Angelo saw Isabella for the second time, I noticed the lamps again, but this time their hands were held in prayer – he was clearly affecting the furniture as well. We were aware that some people apparently enjoy being used as furnishing items – there’s probably a word for it, but I’m not going to search the internet to find out – so again that suggested the sexual corruption in this Vienna was at all levels of society. The Duke himself wore a leather corselet which echoes the dominatrix gear Mistress Overdone and the other prostitutes had on, while the Duke’s servant who announced Isabella wore a French maid’s outfit which was too sexy to be real. Other characters wore mainly modern dress, but with Elizabethan-type references, giving a sense of this being a world of its own, neither one thing nor another, and so representing all times.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Call Mr Robeson – November 2011


By Tayo Aluko

Directed by Olusola Oyeleye

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Thursday 24th November 2011

I knew very little about Paul Robeson before tonight – black singer and actor, politically active, married a white woman (wrong, they were only ‘close’ friends) which angered both the white and black communities in America; that was about it. Turns out I knew more than many Americans do about this amazing man, who stood up for the rights of black people, but even more strongly for the rights of all working people, regardless of skin colour, and whose powerful influence was so cruelly wiped out by a hostile American government that his name is largely forgotten amongst many of the groups who ultimately benefitted from his contribution.

His life story was compellingly told by Tayo Aluko, who also wrote the piece. He had been ignorant of Paul Robeson’s existence until a chance remark by someone at a concert he performed at.  He had unknowingly sung a song performed by Robeson, and the person commented on this. Once he’d heard the name, the Paul Robeson biography pretty much threw itself at him in a library, and he was hooked. He wrote this play not just as a tribute to the great man, but to make people more aware that he existed, and to promote a passion to fight for a better world for all, a passion which Paul Robeson exemplified.

The set was interesting. At first it looked a bit of a jumble, with boxes, flags, books and photos everywhere. The piano was far left, draped with what turned out to be the flag of one of the International Brigades, and we were entertained as we entered the auditorium by Michael Conliffe, a talented pianist who accompanied Tayo for the evening. As I sat and looked at the objects, I realised there was a pattern. The centre of the stage had an irregular piece of an old record, a single of Going Home, much enlarged. Then I registered that there were other sections of broken record placed around this, with some hanging up at the back, and the pattern fell into place. The flags which were draped over some of the boxes – USSR, Wales, USA, titchy little Union Jack – represented places that were important to Robeson, and the photos were part of his story too. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was a great lover of books, reading a great deal and with a ‘yearning for learning’ – the books represented that aspect of his personality.

When the lights went down, the singing started off stage – I forget which song. Gradually the voice came nearer, and then we saw him, standing but bent under the weight of a heavy load (he had a plain chair upturned on his shoulders), coming from the back of the small acting space to place the chair down on the centre of the record. The lights had come up gently, and when this entrance was complete, we could see a tall, dapper man in a smart, slightly flashy suit. He started into Ole Man River, and was well into it when he was interrupted by his wife, who didn’t want him singing ‘that darn song’ anymore. From here on he told us his story in a blend of narration, acting and singing that was very effective. There were recorded sound effects used as well, and one of these related to the title of the play: ‘Call Mr Robeson’ was the effect used when he was being summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

He covered some aspects of Robeson’s youth, especially his American football career and the attack on him by not just the opposition but his own team as well. This story brought out his father’s encouragement that he should stand up for what he believed, and to set an example which would help every black boy who came after him. Other events, such as his mother’s death (in a fire?) were glanced at, but he avoided the detail while showing us Robeson’s emotional reaction – a very compact form of storytelling, and I very much liked this layered effect. I feel I could watch the play several times and come away with some new aspect of his life that I hadn’t realised before.

The story continued for about 75 minutes, covering Robeson’s hugely successful early career, the unfortunate remarks which were misinterpreted quite viciously in the American press, the government’s suppression of his work by keeping him a prisoner in his own country, the suicide attempt, his appearance before the McCarthy hearings, his all too brief reprieve and travel abroad, and the final ignominy of being unrecognised by a journalist who asked him for his views on the Civil Rights movement as he walked through Harlem. The final song was Going Home, and he reversed the entrance by taking the chair up on his shoulders again and walking off. It was a fitting end to the evening’s performance, but we weren’t done yet.

After we’d applauded for a while, Tayo interrupted us to say that he was happy to answer any questions we might have, unless we needed to leave, which would be fine. Nobody left. The questions were mainly specific ones about Paul Robeson’s life, but we also found out about Tayo’s discovery of the man (see above) and learned that he is hoping to perform the show at Carnegie Hall on his 50th Birthday next year – good luck with that. He’s also planning some new plays, including one on the exploitation of the Congo – sounds interesting.

It was a powerful evening all round, and the chance to ask questions afterwards was the icing on the cake. I felt moved by the story many times, and the section describing Robeson’s treatment by the US government was hard to listen to. This stifling of his talent was a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ for such a man, not to mention robbing the world of its enjoyment of his talent. No doubt his popularity would have waned in due course as new styles of music came along; good as the songs were, and the singing, they were simpler than the modern taste prefers. Still, in his time he was the biggest star, and for him to speak up as he did was perceived as a threat by the people in power at that time – we can only hope we don’t see such events again, but don’t hold your breath.

I enjoyed the story of the Welsh miners singing in London during the 1930s, and I liked the shift in Robeson’s awareness to a recognition that working people all over the world were being oppressed, not just black folk. After the show, Tayo told us a story from a time he’d been in Wrexham and someone had pointed out the hotel (no longer there) where Robeson had sung from a balcony to raise money for a local mining disaster. His feeling for the ordinary working folk came over very strongly, and was probably the most attractive aspect of his character.

Not that he wasn’t attractive in other ways. He had a succession of ‘close’ female friends throughout his life, but always returned to his wife Essie, who acted as his agent and manager. His fulsome praise for the Soviet Union was unfortunate; they may have treated him as an equal, but we now recognise that their workers weren’t as free as they claimed under Kremlin rule, so his views now seem politically naïve. Even so, his compassion and caring for his fellow human beings shone through.

His deteriorating mental state was signalled by Robeson interrupting himself and looking around, as if there was someone there. This had happened with his wife in the early stages, so I wasn’t concerned at first, but eventually it became clear that Robeson had become paranoid about being spied on (presumably he was being spied on?) and his breakdown was very difficult to watch. Apparently Robeson had some ECT treatments in England which may have been at too high a dose, and this may have led to his inability to resume his career afterwards. It was a sad end to a remarkable life, and sadder still that his name has been largely forgotten by so many. Steve and I are old enough to know of him, and I suspect most of tonight’s audience did, but in America his reputation appears to have been virtually obliterated. Hopefully this play can change all that.

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© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Lovesong – November 2011


By Abi Morgan

Directed and choreographed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett

Company: Frantic Assembly

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Wednesday 16th November 2011

This was our first experience of Frantic Assembly’s work, and it was pretty impressive to see the strong following they have amongst the younger audience. Their style is very physical – the actors even rehearsed on the actual set, which is almost unheard of – and there was a lot of poetry to the performance style. The layered effect of the overlapping scenes was well done, and the music, movement, set and lighting combined very effectively. The performances were all excellent, and blended together really well. The only downside for us was that the story itself was pretty thin, and the movement sections, while they were well done, slowed everything down so much that I was nodding off a bit during the middle section. The idea was good – the same couple seen at the start of their marriage and at the end – and there was one really moving scene, but overall there wasn’t enough material for even the one and half hours without interval.

The set was fairly simple, but there was a lot going on. There were several tall panels at the back at various angles, which created both a barrier and lots of entrances. Their surface was slightly textured, and they were plain white, with lots of Chinese lanterns hidden behind them which were brought out for the final scene. In front of these panels was a wide space with a fridge far left, a wardrobe far right, a bed beside the wardrobe, and a plain kitchen table with three chairs to the left near the fridge. Around all this, and covering a large apron-shape to the front, was a bed of flowers, bright yellow things with hints of green leaves. In amongst these, several peaches had been hidden – even more important to stop the audience walking on the stage today – and some of these were discovered and eaten during the course of the play. The fridge and wardrobe were also entrances, with characters, particularly the early couple, appearing and disappearing through them from time to time.

The bed was also an ingenious contraption, with a secret hole which allowed the actors to slide up onto the bed and down again. This was used during a prolonged section of activity on the bed, when all four characters were interacting with one another; from the post-show, this was done to show the amount of sexual activity that went on, and how the older couple were still seeing their partner as the younger version, or perhaps remembering how things used to be. It’s a good idea, and well executed, but I’ve never related to movement so well as speech, and it went on far too long for me. I was amazed at how well Sian Lloyd and Sam Cox managed all the physical stuff – sliding on and off the bed so smoothly must have been hard work. At the post-show, they told us how the director/choreographers had worked with each actor’s own ability level, and with practice they’d all strengthened up and the movements became easier. (And apparently Sam Cox can do more pushups than Ed Bennett.)

The early couple’s story showed us their initial hopes when they moved into their new house – hopes for a family, a successful dental business, etc. With no sign of children, and the years passing, their relationship is put under a lot of strain, with each partner making some difficult choices. The later couple are facing the death of the wife, from some incurable but unspecified disease. Her choice to help things along was sad but understandable, and as both partners face the inevitable ending of their relationship, it’s natural that they would reflect on their time together. The most moving scene was one where the husband finally snaps and tells his wife he won’t take care of himself at all once she’s gone. It was the most telling display of emotion, and showed us how much he still loved her after all those years.

We were joined by all four members of the cast and Scott Graham, one of the director/choreographers, for the post-show. The discussion revealed how much more the play had given to others, particularly the younger audience members. Listening to them I became aware that we all have our journey of experience, and while Steve and I have come further down the road, so that this play seemed weak to us, there are others who have still to experience these things for themselves, and awakening them to these sorts of life events is no bad thing. The enthusiasm of Frantic Assembly’s supporters was good to see, and suggests that theatre is still thriving in this country and still appealing to all ages. Long may that continue.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

The Madness of George III – November 2011


By Alan Bennett

Directed by Philip Franks

Company: Theatre Royal, Bath

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 15th November 2011

This was a fabulous production with an excellent central performance and strong support throughout. I hadn’t seen the original production at the National so I have nothing to compare it with, but I suspect this production would have stood up against it very well.

The set was very sparse, although that was due to the nature of Chichester’s main stage. A black wall with gaps all along the back, and a square of beige flooring in the middle of the stage – that was it! We gathered from the post-show discussion that in the proscenium arch settings, there are lots of backdrops which are used to separate the rooms; with this open set, they had to work a bit harder to get the locations across, and our response was that they’d done that very well. There were lots of chairs and a desk or two which were brought on and taken off, and the costumes were lovely as well, but otherwise it was just acting, and lots of it.

The story is pretty well known now, and although the stage play is necessarily different from the film, they cover the same ground. We weren’t shown the contents of the King’s chamber pots (mercifully!), but we did have to sit through some of the tortures inflicted on him in the name of ‘healing’ – blistering, purging, and that horrible chair.  Thank God for modern medicine.

David Haig’s performance as King George was superb. He was likeable as the relatively sane monarch, with his little idiosyncrasies and his concern for his people, but as the ‘madman’ it was very difficult to watch him at times, especially with such little understanding on the part of those around the king. With the king’s suffering so clear, he brought a huge amount of compassion out in me, which is no bad thing. He told us in the post-show that he’d started learning his lines months before rehearsals began, as it was the only way he could get all that dialogue into his memory in time. His delivery was fantastic – even the gobbledygook was understandable, if you see what I mean.

The queen was magnificently regal, while the Prince of Wales (are we allowed to hiss and boo?) was wonderfully self-centred and petulant, with a face you just wanted to slap (no offence to the actor). Mr Pitt was sober and careful, the Lord Chancellor sly and politically adroit, and Fox, Sheridan and the Prince’s other cronies creepily reminiscent of recent political events. The doctors were marvellously unconcerned about the efficacy of their treatments with the exception of Willis, who although he showed the most concern for the King as a human being, was equally ineffective with his treatments and received a deserved cold shoulder by the end. At least he wasn’t torturing his Lincolnshire patients to make them better. The servants also did a good job, although their parts were less well defined, and the whole cast did a fine job of adapting to the wide open spaces of Chichester. There was plenty of agony along the way, but plenty of humour to lighten the load as well – a good mix.

From the post show we learned that this was the final week of their tour, before the production goes into London in January. The audience who stayed behind were very appreciative of their hard work, and David Haig in particular was very complimentary about the Festival Theatre as a performance space, with the audience wrapped around the stage. Apparently Alan Bennett doesn’t go to revivals of his plays as he always sees things he wants to rewrite, so he prefers to concentrate on whatever play he’s currently developing. He sends his brother Gordon to see the revivals instead!

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Henry V – November 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Edward Hall

Company: Propeller

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 10th November 2011

A typical Propeller production, this – lots of energy, good music, a clear telling of a trimmed down story, and some lovely touches in the performances. Even though it’s early in the tour, the performances were well established, and the whole evening was powerful and very enjoyable.

The set was very familiar – all of the metal framework from Richard III was in place, along with the balcony-on-wheels, but we didn’t get the plastic sheets or hospital trolleys this time. Instead there were large wooden boxes, a pair of wheelie steps and a couple of punching bags either side for the second half. They also brought on a bath for the first scene with Katherine, just after the interval – her maid had to sign for it – and there were thrones and chairs, etc. as needed.

The performance began with the cast all done up in modern military gear tramping through the auditorium, singing a song. Like a bunch of soldiers arriving at a temporary shelter, they sat around the stage having a well-earned break. Then one of them, given a crown out of one of the boxes, started the play’s opening chorus – ‘O for a muse of fire’ – and we were off. The cast shared the chorus work, which gave us all a chance to not only see each actor but hear his voice too. For the first scene, two of the soldiers put on clerical robes, and with still grimy faces gave us the conversation between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely. After this, I think there was a song to cover the cast changing the set slightly, and then Henry himself appeared for the first time. I hadn’t seen Dugald Bruce-Lockhart in the opening bit, and since he also disappeared off before the closing lines of the play, it made me think that the soldiers, who were enacting the play in their break between skirmishes, had invoked the ghost of King Henry, the epitome of the heroic military leader, to complete their cast.

The discussion with the clerics was quick and pretty much to the point, and with the defence of the kingdom sorted, we could settle down to watch the French ambassador. He was very haughty, wore a scarf so we would know he was French, and carried a wooden box, holding it high as he came in and stood in front of Henry. The king used the slighting ‘dolphin’ pronunciation, and was clearly goaded by the references to his wayward past. He managed to control himself, though, which was just as well, because the floor of the stage was soon covered in tennis balls – a few even escaped into the auditorium – and he could have given himself a nasty injury if he’d let his anger get the better of him.

However, before the balls arrived, the ambassador, emphasising the correct way to say ‘dauphin’, offered the wooden box to the king, claiming it contained ‘treasure’. Henry signalled his uncle to inspect the box, and as the actor playing Exeter is on the short side, there’s a lovely moment when the ambassador, realising that Exeter won’t be able to see into the box, lowered it down for him. Exeter took the box, and as he poured out the ‘treasure’, two big bins full of tennis balls were emptied from the balcony onto the stage. Henry was livid, and soon we were off to war with the French.

There was a brief attempt at ball-clearing during the next chorus bit, but plenty still remained on stage for the rest of the first half. As the chorus introduced them, we were shown the three traitors, and then the discovery of their plot. One of the three had a hip flask, into which a chorus member put several drops of a liquid, which we naturally assumed was poison. This flask was offered to the king, but Exeter, knowing of the plot, indicated that he shouldn’t drink it. The ‘commissions’ given to the three men were in manila folders, and their execution was swift and nicely staged. After Exeter arrested them, tearing off their epaulets in the process, they were taken up to the balcony area, made to kneel, and were then blindfolded. Meanwhile a wooden stump was brought on to the front of the stage, and a man wearing a black executioner’s mask came on with an axe. When all three were ready, he swung once at the block, burying the axe in it, while all three traitors slumped as one up above. After the gore-fest of Richard III, this was simpler and very effective. Henry snatched up the axe and held it while giving us the closing lines of the scene.

The next scene combined the two on either side of the traitors’ discovery, and started with London Calling and the shaking of many a beer can (they like it messy). The argument between Pistol and Nym was still pretty incomprehensible, as usual, and Mistress Quickly didn’t have much to say, while Falstaff was completely expunged, which is fair enough as he’s not really relevant to this play on its own. When Pistol left, he gave his Nell a red heart, which she treasured.

Now to France, and to inform us of the change of scene, the cast sang Chanson D’Amour – very entertaining, and some of the audience were joining in by this time. The French king, played by John Dougall, was a gloomy personality, not keen to do anything in haste, and the previous French experience at Crecy was clearly preying on his mind. The Dauphin was also clearly fed up with this old story, turning away from the king and mouthing ‘Crecy’ when he could see the subject coming up, yet again! The messenger who brought news of the English ambassadors spoke with a strong English regional accent (forget which one) and I remember him saying more lines than I have in my text – don’t know what happened there.

When Exeter turned up, he was accompanied by another soldier who stood on top of the wheelie steps holding a scroll which he unfurled at the appropriate moment. It was a long scroll, and all we could see was ‘Edward III’ in large letters at the top, and ‘Henry V’ in equally large letters at the bottom – the details were too faint to make out. When passing on Henry’s message to the Dauphin, Exeter marched over and stood nose to chin – the Dauphin was slightly taller – and delivered the speech right in his face. The French king was reluctant to commit himself at this point, while there was a strong reaction, from the Dauphin at least, to the news that Henry was already in France.

More chorus work, and the soldiers delivered a lot of the lines crouched behind a couple of wooden shields. The ‘Once more unto the breach’ speech was OK, and then Bardolph, Pistol, Nym and the boy were left behind in the rush for the battle. After Fluellen caught them, there was a pause moment – the other characters held their positions while the boy told us what villains and knaves his three masters were, slightly edited. The scene with the Scotsman, the Irishman and the Welshman (Fluellen) was completely cut, so we moved briskly on to the surrender of Harfleur.

For this, the main body of the English army was on stage, pointing several spotlights at the left hand balcony in the auditorium, where the Harfleur representative was standing. Henry talked at length about the dire consequences if the town didn’t surrender, but he’s really wasting his breath, as the hoped-for French relief hasn’t arrived, and the townsfolk have already decided to concede defeat.

With Harfleur won, Henry and his men headed off for some well-earned rest, and we got our break as well. But this time the cast were out in the foyer, standing on the stairs, entertaining us all with some songs and a plea for money. Apparently they raise money for charity on each tour, so the bucket soon came round. The songs were good fun – we joined in The Wild Rover and Sloop John B – and then they walked up the foyer stairs and down into the auditorium for the second half, still singing.

Meanwhile, back on the stage, Katherine had been getting herself ready for the opening scene of the second half. Karl Davies, in an off-white negligee, was sitting in front of a mirror on the left of the stage. His face was white, and he was applying some more makeup while everyone else got settled for the restart. Actually, once the soldiers arrived, Katherine started flirting with them, even letting them take her picture – terrible sluts, these Propeller men. Her maid, Alice, was Exeter in drag, i.e. he wore a skirt instead of trousers, and still had his pencil moustache – quite a sight.  Alice signed for the bath when it was delivered centre stage, and then when the scene actually started, she checked the water temperature was acceptable for the princess, who got into her bath still dressed. The dialogue went pretty well; when Katherine attempts ‘neck’, she comes out with ‘nick’, and as Alice was shaving her legs at that point, there was an unfortunate correlation between the words and the action.

I think the next bit had two overlapping scenes – the French court preparing for war and Fluellen reporting that the bridge has been held – no Gower in this version. Bardolph was taken up onto the balcony for his execution, and the masked executioner simply twisted his neck to signify the hanging. Bardolph’s corpse lingered there, draped over the bars, for Henry to see when the matter was reported to him later. By the time Mountjoy arrived to ask what ransom Henry’s prepared to pay, the French court had left the stage. Henry had been given Bardolph’s pendant by Pistol; when he told Mountjoy ‘There’s for thy labour’ he handed the pendant to him.

The wonderfully funny scene with the French court preening themselves and boasting about their armour, horses, etc, was cut to the bone, and only took a couple of minutes up on the balcony, which was now towards the back of the stage. The chorus then took us into Henry’s camp at Agincourt, and with a few small pans of flame we got the camp fires and Henry’s meetings with the ordinary soldiers, starting with Pistol. Fluellen and Gower were next, then the two soldiers with whom Henry discussed the responsibilities of a king towards his soldiers. (There are actually three soldiers in the text, but apart from the opening line, one says nothing, so two will do fine.) I always find Henry’s arguments a bit specious here. When he compares the actions of a king with those of an employer or a father, claiming that they don’t intend the death of the people they send on various errands, I reckon it’s a bit different to starting a war when there’s a very good chance some of the soldiers you take with you will be killed. Death is part of the package. However, his point about the soldier cleaning up his soul so that either his death or his life will the better for it, came across clearly this time, and made more sense of the end of that argument. When Erpingham has called him, Henry’s final prayer ditched the first part about his men, and he went straight into ‘Not today, O Lord’, emphasising Henry’s remorse over the killing of Richard II.

Then there’s another round of the French, and then back to the English camp, where Westmoreland rashly wished for more men to help fight the French. Well, that was a red rag to Henry’s bull, and yet again we get the long, long speech to raise his troops’ morale. This one worked really well, though, and as the audience were included in the throng, we were all ready to fight by the end of it. Mountjoy’s final request for a ransom offer was delivered as if he was really worried that the English were all going to be killed, and Henry was strongly defiant.

As the battle started, the punch bags were released, and two men in masks came on wielding baseball bats. As the French attacked, the few English soldiers left on the stage responded to each blow of bat on bag as if they’d been hit, and soon it looked like a French victory. However, these soldiers got up and left and Pistol came on stage, dragging a French prisoner, and accompanied by the boy with a couple of large bags. Pistol held a bar or bat himself, and struck the bags from time to time, all of which his prisoner felt. At the end of the scene, the boy was left in the middle of the stage, a bag on either side, and when the French ran on, alarmed at the state of the battle, they slew the young lad by hitting the punch bags. Another two men had also come on holding spray guns, and they squirted red colouring all over the dead boy. When Henry and his men got back, he held the boy in his arms for a short while, and he was clearly angry. There’s another scene with Fluellen, but I don’t’ remember where it came, and then the French herald turned up again to ask for permission to search the field for the dead and wounded. He looked shell shocked, as he would have been with so much carnage all around.

The king’s argument with Williams was resolved without getting Fluellen to wear the glove in his cap, which cut out a lot of dialogue, and then Mountjoy returned with the body count. The figures were truly amazing, and after Henry has commanded that only God is to get the credit, the cast launch into a Te Deum for the next scene change. While the chorus talked us through Henry’s return to England and next journey into France, a table was made out of the boxes, with a blue cloth placed over the left side for the French, and a white cloth with a red cross over the right, for the English. A silver crucifix was placed in the middle, and Fluellen stood guard. Shortly after, a hand reached up from behind the table, and groped its way to the crucifix. Fluellen launched into ‘God pless you, Aunchient Pistol’, and soon Pistol was munching his way through a large leek. Fluellen happily took a bite out of another – greengrocers must love it when Henry V comes to town – and with Gower still missing we’re left with Pistol mourning the loss of his wife. He took the heart he’d given her out of his rucksack, and I almost felt sorry for the man. But then he headed off to England to cheat and con the population out of their money, so no chance of sympathy for him.

For the final scene, a throne had been placed on the right hand side of the stage, and a plain chair on the left. This was the chair the French king sat in during the ‘negotiations’; he also looked stunned and shocked at what had happened. Henry sat on the throne, and after the French king and the others had left, he wooed Katherine like a man not well equipped in the words department. So often these speeches are delivered in a way that makes the man out to be liar, but tonight I could well believe what he’s saying, that he would much rather fight than woo a woman. His attempts at French had Katherine in fits of giggles, and the kissing was done by each character kissing their own fingertips and placing them on the other’s mouth. When the French king and the rest came back, the peace treaty and the marriage were soon settled, and with his final lines, Henry left the stage. The chorus then finished the play, and we applauded mightily for such a good evening’s entertainment.

There were other songs during the play which I don’t remember specifically now, and the whole energy of the performance, plus the clarity of most of the dialogue, made the play seem fresh and new. Dugald Bruce-Lockhart seemed a little weak in some of his speeches, especially the earlier ones, but his performance grew as the evening went on, and I wouldn’t fault his portrayal in the second half at all. Tony Bell was great fun as Fluellen, and did a nice cameo as Mistress Quickly too. Chris Myles was very good as Exeter and Alice, with some lovely reactions in both parts, and I really enjoyed Gunnar Cauthery’s Dauphin – an arrogant hothead with no redeeming qualities whatsoever (although he did play the accordion very well). All the rest of the cast contributed strong performances too, making it a very powerful production. And this is just the opening week! We’re already checking the tour dates to see if we can fit it in again – I’d love to see how something this good can improve.

I was delighted to see the Yvonne Arnaud theatre packed out for tonight’s show; Propeller have established a great reputation for enjoyable productions of Shakespeare (Taming of the Shrew aside). We even had Jon Trenchard and Dominic Tighe nearby during the performance, both of whom had been in the Richard III from earlier this year. I hope the cast get as good a response on tour – they certainly deserve it.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Lysistrata – November 2011


By: Aristophanes, adapted by David Stuttard

Directed by: James Albrecht

Company: aod (Actors of Dionysus)

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Tuesday 8th November 2011

This is the no-nooky play, or ‘How the Greek women won the Battle for Peace’. We’ve seen it done before, in masks, and with an all-woman cast. This version, which uses modern dress and (very) contemporary references, had a cast of five – three women, two men – and was a lively romp through the sexual farce and political arguments of the original. They want to tour it, and although we found it patchy, I do hope they get the chance to show it to a wider audience.

The set was nice and simple. There were three plinths of varying sizes dotted round the stage, and a stepped dais with two pillars centre back. A couple of large banners were attached to the balcony – only one of them unfurled today – and there were various props at the sides of the stage – Zimmer frames, shopping trolleys, etc. When the Treasury sit-in started, placards were slotted into the plinths on either side, and the women strung crime scene tape between them and the pillars to create the sense of a barrier. There was also a folding lounger, an inflatable mattress, a pillow and a sheet used in one of the scenes – more on that story later.

The story was told in a succession of scenes, some of which worked better than others. Before the start, we could just make out a news broadcast talking about the war between Athens and Sparta. Unfortunately, many in the audience didn’t realise that this was relevant and kept chattering, which made it hard to hear. We did make out some of the information, including the scheduled summit meeting, and then after the news section there was a brief mention of a new play opening in Athens that night – Lysistrata by Aristophanes – a nice touch. With the news bit starting up again, at a much louder volume, the lights went down and we were into the opening scene.

Lysistrata, or Lucy as she’s called here, entered on her own, and started pacing up and down on the stage, looking at her watch. After the clock struck several times, she told us how disappointed she was that no one else had turned up. She’d summoned all the women of Greece to meet her here at this exact time, and nada. Nobody’s bothered to turn up. Well, actually one woman did turn up a few seconds later – Cleo. Fanny arrived a few minutes later, and then success! The Spartan women turned up, accompanied by the Thracian women. We only got to see the leader of the Spartan women though, played by Joseph Wicks (times are hard) and as she posed on a plinth we can see she’d been working out. She looked rather fetching in her red top and shorts; she was well padded in the tits department but her midriff needed some serious waxing.

With all the women gathered, Lucy was urged to tell them all her proposal. After making sure that all the women were keen to see not only their husbands come home from the war but also their lovers, Lucy finally screwed her courage to the sticking point (they used a lot of Shakespeare quotes in this section) and suggested they all withhold ___ from their husbands. What, they all asked? She was too nervous to get it out the first time, and they had to work really hard to persuade her to have another go. They swore they’d make all sorts of sacrifices to get their men back safely. But when she did finally explain the details of her plan, it was a step too far for these ladies. Give up cock? No way! I even found myself agreeing with Cleo that we couldn’t do without sex (sitting next to an aisle can get you into all sorts of trouble). Still, these women weren’t getting enough as it was, and they did want their men folk back….. Eventually Lucy inspired them to see it through, and when they heard the signal that the Treasury had been taken, the revolution was well and truly under way.

The next section involved a couple of elderly men bringing sticks and a bin on stage to make a fire and smoke the women out of the Treasury. It ended in ignominious defeat for the lads, as the women fought them off with frying pans and plastic doodads (including plastic ducks). I couldn’t make out much of the dialogue in this bit, but it seemed to mainly involve the two men saying dick instead of stick and suchlike.

I think the next scene was a debate between Lucy and an official, where the male view was that women were incapable of serious thought, never mind running the treasury! Lucy did her best to argue against him, but couldn’t overcome the ingrained attitudes of the ancient Greek mind. Despite the modern dress, the prejudices were distinctly old-fashioned, though still depressingly present at times today.

The biggest challenge to the women’s position came in the shape of Dick himself, Fanny’s husband, sporting a massive erection in a tasteful shade of pink. Having seen The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus years ago, we weren’t surprised by the size of the member, though it was used in an unusual way. Wrapping a cloth around it, Dick claimed it was Fanny’s baby which needed her help. She had to come down from the balcony, but of course it was a trick. Mind you, she handled the situation very well, despite her own sexual yearnings. She worked Dick up into a frenzy of sexual excitement (and he wasn’t far off it to begin with) then delayed the moment of pleasure by insisting on a bed, then a mattress, then a pillow, then a sheet. At the end, when she couldn’t delay anymore, she tied her bra over his face, and while he was waiting for her to get on with it, she snuck off back to the treasury building. How cruel! (and very funny)

Eventually the total lack of action got to the men, and they started to consider giving the women what they wanted – peace. The Spartan and Athenian representatives came together to discuss the problem, and their problems were so ‘up front’ they could compare sizes as well (Sparta won). With every incentive to sign a treaty, the men still held off until finally Lucy forced their hand. This was done in the form of a game show, with the ‘contestants’ asked a series of questions, and then given an ultimatum – sign the peace treaty or else. They didn’t fancy the ‘or else’, so they signed, pronto.

There was another scene with two old couples before this, but I couldn’t make out much of it, and I don’t remember how they ended the play either; as I said before, it was patchy. But we did enjoy enough of it to feel happy with our afternoon, and since this was only their second performance, I’m sure it will come on fairly quickly if they get a reasonable run at it. Compared to the Carry On brand of sexual innuendo, the humour was more direct, and I reckon this worked better with so many teenagers in the audience. Nothing wrong with innuendo, of course, but it’s refreshing to have the knob jokes so ‘in your face’, as it were.

There was a short post-show afterwards, and the problem of updating the piece was discussed; the cast found it hard to deal with some of the events, such as the men who signed the treaty being allowed into the Treasury to have sex with any woman they want. The pressure of having so many quick changes made it harder, but also gave the production extra energy; in one scene, the two male actors played two parts each, dragging their own injured characters off stage. And they said men were no good at multi-tasking!

There were plenty of references to Greece’s current financial problems – very topical – and the two or three scenes that worked well made up for the ones that didn’t. I do hope they get a chance to continue with this show.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Marat/Sade – November 2011


By: Peter Weiss, English version by Geoffrey Skelton, verse adaptation by Adrian Mitchell

Directed by: Anthony Neilson

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 4th November 2011

I’m not fond of protest plays at the best of times, and even though this play was set circa the French revolution, it certainly wasn’t the best of times for us tonight. The underlying intention of shocking the audience into a new view of the world and events never seems to succeed with me, and I find myself expanding my understanding more through sympathetic treatments of difficult subjects or through humour rather than polemics.

The original production, put on by the RSC in the early 1960s, was a response to events at that time, expressing the frustration and anger at the way western society appeared to have failed to bring about a better world for all. There was still social injustice, war, hunger, poverty, ignorance, and many a bra was as yet unburned. Coupled with this discontent was the belief that a better world was possible, a peaceful world where all needs were met and everyone lived a happy and fulfilled life. Well, we were all young once. The older generation, having fought and lived through at least one world war (some had managed two) were perhaps more content with a spell of peace and the end of rationing, but hold the slippers and cocoa for a while, as we take a trip to a lunatic asylum somewhere in France during the reign of Napoleon.

The set was fairly simple, but contained some ingredients of menace. The balcony above the stage at the back held the musicians and some chairs for the on stage audience – the director of the asylum, his ‘guest’ (a very attractive young lady) and several other people, including an Arab gentleman. Below this balcony was a row of security barriers, the sort with alternating bars; these worked like revolving doors. There were four ladders arching out from the sides of the stage – two each side- and connecting with the circle balconies. And above all this was a white circular thing which was lit by a flickering light from time to time – I don’t really know what that was about.

The main piece of furniture was the bath that Marat is killed in – this mainly rose up through the floor, but was wheeled off at one point and brought back on again later. Marat sat in it for long periods – his skin must have been so wrinkly – working on his laptop. There was a loo at one point, and various props such as buckets full of pig entrails, mobile phones, dildos, etc. The costumes were modern, and a lot of the references were contemporary too – hijabs, Marat filming his terrorist manifesto, tasering a prisoner, etc.

The idea of the play is that the Marquis de Sade, who has been locked up in the lunatic asylum for being seriously unpleasant, is putting on a play about the death of Marat with the help of his fellow inmates. The asylum’s professed purpose is to help these poor lunatics, so artistic endeavours are encouraged, and the director and guests are attending the performance along with members of the public (us) to see the results.

My first difficulty with this production was that I couldn’t make out the dialogue very well. Some bits were fine – Jasper Britton as de Sade was good, and one or two others were usually OK – but I lost large chunks of the story, particularly Charlotte Corday’s bits. That meant I couldn’t engage with the characters, and so I lost interest fairly early on. Marat and Corday’s stories were interspersed with the story of the lunatic asylum, and in many ways that was the more interesting, and disturbing, part of the evening.

Every inmate had a mobile phone, and when any of them transgressed seriously enough, they received a text message from the director. All well and good, you may think, but then the creepy bit happened. The offender would kneel on one of the walkways, take out a black hood from a pouch in their trousers, and put it on, They then had to stay in that position for several minutes as a punishment. And the scariest thing  was the way all the inmates accepted this treatment – what had they been subjected to beforehand to make them so compliant?

The tasering was also uncomfortable to watch. It was a part of the ‘show’ in which de Sade starred. He was expounding his philosophy at the time, while also being chained up and then tasered by the inmate playing Charlotte Corday. At one point, she stopped briefly to have her picture taken beside her ‘victim’, with her thumbs up. All of these images evoked the gratuitous violence of the torture camps and prisoners of war, but the point was hard to fathom. Comments were made at the post-show discussion about the public being de-sensitised to violence, but Steve and I have probably seen more horrific images when we were growing up, courtesy of WWI, Vietnam, etc., images that just wouldn’t be shown nowadays. And in the time of the play, just after the French Revolution and in Napoleon’s reign, people regularly saw acts of extreme cruelty and violence which would drive most of us insane.

My problems with using these images on stage are twofold. Firstly, I know it’s a play, so if things get too bad I protect myself by either looking away or by disengaging with the performance. It’s not real, and what matters to me is the emotional impact such depictions can have if used wisely. In fact, there’s often a greater impact when the images aren’t so graphic – less is more. The other problem is my awareness of how often images in the media have been faked, specifically to generate a response of disgust or horror. After many years, I’m not so easily hooked by this sort of sensationalism, which again undercuts any impact the production is hoping to have. In the tasering case, there’s also the difficulty that de Sade opted for the experience, so although Jasper Britton’s suffering was horrifying real-looking, I still wasn’t as affected as the creative team may have intended.

Having heard some stories about the nature of the audience participation, I was also braced for more revolting objects being thrown amongst us than actually happened, which was sort of a relief, but then that expectation may have also kept me from being engaged with the performance – not very helpful. We do our best to avoid this sort of foreknowledge, but it didn’t work this time as the fuss was too high profile – damn the Daily Mail!

So now for the good bits – this won’t take long. Apart from Jasper Britton, who’s always watchable, I liked Golda Rosheuvel very much. Her lunatic act was heartbreakingly believable; she seemed to be listening to voices in her own head, and her occasional claps punctuated the action very cleverly, while still being a sign of her madness. Of course, not everyone in the asylum was there because they were mentally ill, so some of the inmates looked pretty normal, if somewhat scared, but there were also one or two false notes struck in the madness department which let the side down.

One of the other inmates had a sex obsession, and this was played with great gusto by Lanre Malaolu. He was so distracted by his lustful urges that he could hardly get his lines out, apart from a couple of minutes when he’d relieved himself by humping the stage. I also liked Christopher Ettridge’s Director Coulmier; whenever the inmates’ play became too satirical, he was quick to point out how much better things were under Napoleon. At the end, he also takes his clothes off and has some words scrawled on his body. I couldn’t make out if his craziness at the end was meant to imply that he was also crazy, or that the whole world was full of crazy people, or what, but it was an amusing ending.

The music was also good – kept my feet tapping – but despite the cast’s best efforts I just didn’t enjoy this very much. I can understand the desire to bring the play up-to-date, and make it more relevant to today’s world, as well as getting away from any memories of the original production, but I found this approach too bitty. From the post-show we learned that the cast had worked on their characters for the first four weeks, without looking at the text. They’d only turned to that when they ‘knew who they were’, and then had four weeks working with the text. From my perspective, treating a play with such disrespect and focusing on aspects of the performance that aren’t actually going to come across to an audience as readily as the dialogue seems to explain the lacklustre nature of this production.

There was also a very short actress, Lisa Hammond, who played the herald. She had a motorised wheelchair, and was a sort of mistress of ceremonies, a role she shared with de Sade. At one point, she turned to the audience and spun a sob story about being short of money. Getting down into the stalls, she even asked one chap in the audience for money, and apparently he gave it to her! Twenty quid! Nothing much came of it, so I’ve no idea why that was included. At the post-show we found out she varies what she needs the money for. Tonight it was food, but it’s also been shoes and other things.

I might be willing to see another production of this play in the future, but it would probably have to take a different approach to tonight’s version. We couldn’t get a copy of the text – all sold out – so I can’t fill in the blanks and gauge the quality of the play itself. I suspect there’s a lot more there than was on show tonight, despite the blow job and de Sade’s wide-ranging wardrobe.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at