The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – December 2011

6/10

By CS Lewis, adapted by Adrian Mitchell

Music by Shaun Davey

Directed by Dale Rooks

Company: Chichester Festival Youth Theatre

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 27th December 2011

This is the first Chichester Festival Youth Theatre production we’ve seen, and it’s not a bad standard overall. They had the advantage of a Simon Higlett set, which worked really well and looked fantastic. The opening set had the façade of a building, with a couple of flying buttress platforms to either side; between them they allowed for all sorts of rooms, and a twisting dance through lots of doors. The central double doors became the doors of the wardrobe, and each time the children went through them, the two halves of the set opened up and were swung round – good old elbow grease – to reveal a magical winter set, with two snow-covered slopes, frosty trees, etc. Other locations were simply set up with a table and a few chairs, while the White Witch’s front garden was chock-a-block with frozen statues.

With a large cast, there were plenty of winter sprites about the place, and all the usual characters for this magical story. I was a little disappointed with Aslan at first; he was played by three young lads, two of them holding shields on either side for the body, while the front one held the face and mane and did the talking. Once I got used to it though, I thought it worked very well. We particularly liked Mr Tumnus (Joel Banks), Mr and Mrs Beaver (Sam Peake & Alice O’Hanlon) and the White Witch (Georgina Briggs – very good evil laugh), though there was plenty of talent on show all round.

The performance started with a group mime of the evacuees’ train journey, and I was finding it a bit dull until the train got going. The children with their suitcases were all lined up across the stage at this point, and as the train whistle blew, the suitcase of the lad in front let out a puff of smoke, while the suitcases behind gradually started to move like train wheels – very effective, and it got me laughing as well. The rest of the audience seemed a bit quiet though, and I did feel they could have responded more – they were doing enough on stage to deserve it. Even so, I enjoyed myself and had the mandatory sniffles in the later stages, so not a bad end to the year’s theatregoing.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Comedy Of Errors – December 2011

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Dominic Cooke

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 20th December 2011

I liked the liveliness of this production, and the contemporary London setting was effective too, especially in the chase sequence. I felt the cumbersome nature of the set slowed things down a bit at times, but overall it was a really enjoyable production with some good performances.

The opening scene was set in a disused warehouse, with lots of balconies, windows and stairs, very effective when they were miming the shipwreck in Egeon’s story, although this was one of the times when the set did slow things down. At first it looked like Egeon was being mugged, with the Duke’s men taking his money, and I suspect they kept a fair bit for themselves before they handed the rest over to the Duke – that’s how he can estimate Egeon’s resources so accurately. When the Duke turned up he wasn’t friendly, but once he’d heard Egeon’s story he was kinder to the man.

The scene changes were covered by a street band singing familiar songs in a foreign language – couldn’t tell you which ones, though a couple of the tunes were familiar. For the next scene, the buildings rotated to reveal street cafes with metal tables and chairs in amongst office buildings – London, in effect. There were several other people at the café, and when Antipholus of Syracuse beat up Dromio of Ephesus he also caused mayhem with the food and drink on the tables.

The next scene was at the Phoenix, an ultra modern housing development nestled between two older buildings. Adriana and Luciana were on the first floor balcony, and Dromio of Ephesus spoke to them from the ground level, hiding under the overhang to swig from a bottle. This setting restricted the women’s movements, and I felt it held the scene back a little, certainly from our perspective, being close in. It may have worked better for people further back.

The following scene was set in a snooker hall, where Dromio of Syracuse found his Antipholus playing at one of the tables. Dromio got into trouble, yet again, for not knowing about his twin’s visit to this Antipholus, and Antipholus made good use of the snooker cue to give him a beating. This done, and some sense of jesting restored, we saw the two women walking past the snooker hall window. When they saw Antipholus, they came in, drawing the attention of the other men in the place, with several lewd looks and a whistle or two. Adriana was very seductive in her complaint to Antipholus, and there was the usual laugh at Antipholus’s amazed comment “To me she speaks”.

Antipholus and Dromio went along with the women’s mistake, and soon arrived at the Phoenix. They all went up in the lift (only just squeezed in) and shortly afterwards Antipholus of Ephesus entered with his two companions and his Dromio. As I recall, while they were going through their discussion of welcome versus food, we got to see Luce herself tidying up on the balcony. The banter between the Dromios was largely conducted over the speaker phone; once Antipholus of Ephesus joined in, the argument became even rowdier, and when Adriana joined in, she stepped out of the upper room, clad only in a bedsheet! Lunch was a short meal that day.

Once the Ephesian pair have left, Luciana and Antipholus of Syracuse have their scene downstairs, coming out of the building. Dromio joined his Antipholus there, running away from the kitchen maid. His descriptions of her were pretty funny, though not the best I’ve seen, and then Antipholus sent him to the harbour to find a ship leaving that very night. The goldsmith then turned up and gave him the gold chain, after which they took the interval.

The second half started with the Porcupine on the right and a jeweller’s on the left. Antipholus of Ephesus was soon arrested – the goldsmith handed even more cash to the officer than the merchant, so the officer kindly gave the merchant his money back – and the wrong Dromio was sent to get the money from Adriana. This time, however, we were inside the building, and Luciana and Adriana were wheeled onto the stage front and centre. Adriana was lying face down on a massage table (in theory) and Luciana was sitting in a chair having her nails done. Luciana’s expressions were very good here, showing her sympathy for her sister at her (presumed) husband’s abuse, then concern about telling her of said (presumed) husband’s proposal, then self-satisfaction as she recounted the ways in which she had been praised.

Adriana was lying on the table for the first half of this; she kept lifting her head up so she could question or complain, and her masseur kept putting her head back down in the slot, which got some laughs. When Luciana got to the proposal, it was too much for Adriana, and she got up. The masseur held her robe for her, so she was fairly decent by the time Dromio of Syracuse ran in, out of breath. With Dromio despatched carrying the money, Luciana wheeled off her chair, and after another few lines Adriana left with her table.

I think this was the point where there was a knife shop on the left and an empty one on the right, and this was the setup for the chase sequence. The empty building on the right soon had a woman posing in the window, and was revealed as a knocking shop; the courtesan came out of here to accost Antipholus of Syracuse about the chain he’d promised her, and a group of these women ganged up on the hapless visitors. After their departure, and the courtesan’s decision to visit Antipholus’s wife (troublemaker!), Antipholus of Ephesus and the officer came on for the encounter with Dromio of Ephesus. This was followed by the arrival of Adriana and a small entourage, including Pinch. This was a better version of Pinch than some, a modern dress charlatan, and when he was trying to take Antipholus away, a small ambulance van came on stage, and a remarkable number of medical staff came out of it! This led to the chase sequence, and here we had lots of medical folk running around, not quite Keystone cops, but almost that level. One of the team tried to put a straightjacket on someone in the audience, presumably because he/she was wearing a red top, vaguely like the Dromios’ Arsenal strip.

With the two men caught at last, and taken away for their recovery, the other Antipholus and Dromio crept out of the knife shop, carrying some very large kitchen knives. There was another confrontation or two, and finally they were chased into the Abbey, in this case the Abbey Clinic, an imposing looking building with a nameplate and letters above the door. The Abbess, who ran the clinic, was very definite that no one would be entering her clinic to take the men away.

When Luciana suggested an appeal to the Duke, Adriana got her iPhone out, and was scrolling through her contacts for the Duke’s number. She didn’t need to call him, though, as he turned up himself for Egeon’s execution a few moments later. The rest of the story was staged very nicely, and I sniffled a bit, as I usually do – I like happy endings. I also love the way this family, separated for years, take so long to realise what’s going on.

We enjoyed this production very much. The two pairs of twins were well cast to match each other, although the Dromios’ frizz wigs and some padding under the clothes helped a lot too. Mind you, they needed the padding to take the sting out the many beatings they got. The Ephesus pair talked with London accents, while the Syracusans had strong African accents – this really helped to differentiate them, and was a good reminder that the Syracusans were strangers in a dangerous city. I did find Adriana a bit muted compared to the usual interpretation, which was a surprise, but other than that the cast did a great job. I felt they could have done more with Egeon – they did have people walking through the set during scene changes, as well as the band – but it’s a very minor quibble when the performance as a whole was such great fun.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Steeleye Span – December 2011

Martletss Hall, Burgess Hill   8/10

Sunday 18th December 2011

Lineup: Liam Genocky, Rick Kemp, Peter Knight, Julian Littman, Maddy Prior, Pete Zorn,

Two concerts in two nights! Life is good. Night one, in Burgess Hill, was excellent. It was a bit cold on stage apparently, and it took them a couple of numbers to fully warm up. Maddy wore a patterned print jacket, white blouse, black skirt for the first half, and a swirly blue skirt with shot silk jacket, blue and crimson, for the second half.

First half songs:

Seven Hundred Elves – not a bad start

Drink Down The Moon – fine

Now We Are Six (3 Riddles) – got them all

Thomas the Rhymer – the original is my favourite Steeleye, but this was good fun too. I thought the fiddle and flute weren’t differentiated enough, so those sections were a bit of a muddle, but it’s such a good song that it was great to hear it again.

Mooncoin Jig – excellent. Peter did the intro, and while mentioning the retail opportunity, he told us of a new type of guarantee – if you buy the new Gigspanner CD and don’t like it, send it back to him, and he’ll send you a CD he doesn’t like. Very fair.

Edwin – Rick was in fine singing voice, even if the introduction was up to his usual level of strangeness.

Long A-growing – very good version

Two Magicians – good fun

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star – excellent. Peter’s fiddle playing was clear and bright, and his solo absolutely magical, as always. A lovely updating.

To Know Him Is To Love Him – I never liked the original much; I know it’s just a bit of fun, but Maddy’s voice was just too little-girly for me. This was much better, and I actually enjoyed it. A lot. David Bowie’s stand-in on saxophone was the multi-talented Pete Zorn, of course.

Second half songs:

Today in Bethlehem – from Winter. This was their Christmas selection, all from the same album. I love this one.

Sing We The Virgin Mary – not a favourite, but the fiddle solo was lovely

Bright Morning Star – took a couple of verses to warm up, then a great sound

The Two Constant Lovers – fine

Edward – rocking!

Who Told The Butcher – good

Creeping Jane – also good

Cold, Haily, Windy Night – or ‘Eric’, as Rick likes to call it. (So that his three songs all begin with an ‘E’.) The intro was another lovely ramble through the magic land that is Rick’s mind. As well as trying to flog one of his guitars, he told us about the group getting way off key during the start of this song last night. He claimed that he was only telling us because he felt comfortable sharing with Burgess Hill; he wouldn’t mention it tomorrow night at the Barbican….. We shall see.

Bonny Black Hare – seriously rocking!

Encores: (no surprises here)

All Around My Hat – were we better than Margate? I think we should be told!

Gaudete – lovely

That’s it till tomorrow. Picked up the new CD plus some extra clothes, as usual.

Barbican Hall     10/10

Monday 19th December 2011

Night two – the Barbican. With special guests The Acoustic Strawbs, Martin Carthy and John Spiers. What would change from last night? Well, the sound was much better, and Steeleye were property warmed up from the start. They cut the intros to the bare minimum for the first half. Songs as for the previous night, Maddy’s outfit the same too, for both halves.

700 elves

Drink down the moon

3 Riddles

Thomas the Rhymer – better than last night

Mooncoin Jig – had to visit the loo, but could still hear most of it on the speakers.

Edwin

Long A-growing

Two Magicians

Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star – Maddy dedicated this to Dr Brian Cox, same as last night, and the fiddle solo was just as good, too

To Know Him Is To Love Him – even better, or maybe I’m getting used to it.

After this set, the compère, Kevin Donnelly, rambled on for a bit in a mildly entertaining way while the crew set up the stage for the Acoustic Strawbs. I don’t know the names of some of their songs, so I’ve identified them by any lines I could make out. Their set consisted of:

‘Bless the day’

‘I was blind but now I see’

Ghosts

‘May you rot/ may you rest’

Autumn

Lay Down – we were invited to join in

The King – with Maddy – a world premiere live performance!

The sound setup for them wasn’t great, which may account for my not enjoying their set very much. Dave Cousins did the ‘retail opportunity’ speech after the third or fourth song, and did it very entertainingly. Given the lack of Steeleye intros, he was able to use the ‘special guarantee’ joke – if you don’t like our CD, send it back….etc.

2nd half – Steeleye

Edward – still good

Two Constant Lovers – probably enjoyed it more than last night. Good fiddle solo; he’d been picking the strings during the verses, so when he unleashed the full sound with his bow, it was lovely. Peter repeated his story from last night about the East Sussex version of this song – it’s too short, cause the bloke pushes her over the cliff!

Bright morning star – apart from Gaudete, their only Christmas number

Then they were joined by Martin Carthy and John Spiers (accordion) for:

Padstow – we gave the final ‘wesus’ some welly

Bedlam Boys – good fun

The Lark In The Morning – lovely

Bryan O’Lynn/The Hag With The Money (jigs) – nice and lively

This section was a bit rougher round the edges, but then they wouldn’t have had a lot of rehearsal time. Martin and John then left, and the current lineup completed their set with the final two from last night:

Eric – that’s Cold, Haily, Windy Night to us. Rick did explain the alternative title, but true to his word, he didn’t mention the problems from the night before last!

Bonny Black Hare – still great. They’ve extended the live intro to give Rick a bass solo.

Encores:

All around my hat – with Martin, John and Dave Cousins from the Acoustic Strawbs joining in. We were good, but were we as good as last night? Or Margate?

Gaudete – even stronger with the extra support. Lovely finish.

A great evening, and Steve’s only question was, why didn’t we book for more? Good question.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Truman Capote Talk Show – December 2011

7/10

Written and performed by Bob Kingdom

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Friday 16th December 2011

I loved this performance from the word go, when Truman Capote appeared at the side of the stage, posing by the curtain while the music played and Frank Sinatra sang (New York, New York, as I recall). Bob Kingdom did a very good job of impersonating Truman Capote, at least as far as I could tell, and we were soon hooked into the life story of this unusual, talented writer. He structured it round the four stages of fame –

1. Who’s Truman Capote?

2. Get me Truman Capote.

3. Get me someone like Truman Capote.

4. Who’s Truman Capote?

His delivery made it very funny.

The life story was mostly new to me, but it was very interesting, and told with a dry, bitchy humour that was very refreshing. I felt there was a lot more humour than the audience responded to, even though the man sitting next to me was clearly a Truman Capote fan, as were one or two others in the audience. It’s even inspired me to check out Breakfast At Tiffany’s and one or two of the short stories.

The lighting changes and sound effects worked very well, and I liked the fact that he talked to us as the ghost of Truman Capote, knowing full well that he was dead. He refused to go into details of the afterlife, which left more time for the important stuff we’d come to see – him, basically. At the end, he did a trailer for his new piece about Dylan Thomas, and I’m torn. I’m not a Dylan Thomas fan, but this performance was so good, even I might be converted. Or at least entertained. For now, though, this was a good evening out, and I hope it comes round again, for all that it’s been advertised as a farewell tour.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Richard II – December 2011

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 15th December 2011

This was an interesting production, a reasonably clear version of the story which placed the emphasis on the political situation. The set had lots of Gothic arches, there was a carved stairway on the right hand side, the wood had a distressed effect, and there was a strong smell of incense as we entered. The costumes had a strong mediaeval influence. Richard himself sat on a throne towards the back of the stage in the centre, and stayed there, motionless, till the play actually started.

The performance began with several young men coming on, kneeling before him, and then taking their place behind him, first one, then another. These were Bushy, Bagot, Green and Aumerle. Then the Duke of York and the Queen entered together and curtsied, and finally the Lord Marshall and John of Gaunt took up their positions in the front corners of the stage. It was a slow start, and with such a wordy play there’s a need for a brisk pace to keep the energy levels up. This production didn’t do too badly in that department, thankfully, and with the political aspects being brought out so strongly it felt like a political thriller at times, which helped to keep me involved.

The mention of Gloucester’s death troubled the king and his supporters, though he recovered well. Eddie Redmayne played the king as an effete young man, aware of his power and impatient of the old-fashioned niceties. He stood in poses, like a mannequin which could move, and this allowed for a clear change once he’d lost power and his movements became more natural. Having failed to make peace between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, the date for the duel is set and the king leaves.

The widowed Duchess of Gloucester’s complaints to her brother, John of Gaunt, were clear, and again the point about Richard himself being responsible for his uncle’s death came across strongly. Sian Thomas doubled this part with the Duchess of York, and did both very well. The duel scene had the king and his companions up on the balcony, with the combatants and the Lord Marshall down below. I think there was a lot of cutting here, as it didn’t seem to be as long as my text indicates. Richard came down to say his farewells to both Bolingbroke and Mowbray, and then returned to the balcony. The knights put on their armour, including big helmets, and strode off stage for the fight, one at each corner. When Richard threw his baton down, the knights had to come back on stage, while the king had a huddled conference with his court up above. The banishing was over with quickly, and then Richard tried to be kind to his uncle in reducing Bolingbroke’s sentence by four years. The smile on his face suggested he expected his generosity to be well received, but John of Gaunt wasn’t impressed. The father and son leave-taking was edited down, and soon we’re back with the court, and Aumerle’s cheeky comments about Bolingbroke’s departure. Richard’s dislike of his cousin, his willingness to use any means necessary to raise money, and his delight at the prospect of John of Gaunt’s death, all came across loud and clear.

The Dukes of York and Lancaster were having a good bitch-fest in the next scene – does Richard have any friends amongst his family? John of Gaunt’s main speech was excellent. The central part is such a well-known piece, it can sometimes seem like a couple of verses of Land of Hope and Glory, losing the context of those lines completely. Here, Michael Hadley kept the thought going through the entire speech: this country is wonderful, and look how he’s buggered it up! When Richard arrived, he kept up the harangue, and again Richard wasn’t too pleased with him. Even so, his abrupt change of subject to the Irish wars after a brief moment to acknowledge Gaunt’s death, was both funny and shocking, leading to York’s strong outburst against the theft of Bolingbroke’s inheritance. Richard’s choice of York to act as regent in his absence was quite funny in these circumstances.

After the king departed, the remaining lords start the plotting that will eventually put a new king on the throne. Again, this scene was well cut to leave a strong impression of the political storyline. The next scene, with the queen, Bushy and Bagot learning about the invasion of Bolingbroke, was fine, and Ron Cook, as the Duke of York, gave a lovely performance of an elderly man who just can’t get his head round what’s going on.

Northumberland’s flattery of Bolingbroke wasn’t really commented on in this performance, although it still seemed over the top to me. Hotspur was remarkably restrained for once, and the Duke of York was wonderfully stroppy at first when he arrived, ticking off his nephew like he was a naughty schoolboy. The others stood up to him pretty well, and of course he’s not able to actually do anything in military terms to stop them. He was almost off the stage before he invited them in to his castle for the night.

I think this was where they took the interval. Richard had come onto the balcony around the start of this scene, and as it progressed, he moved forward and stood at the railing, hands held in a pose of prayer. As the scene ended, he was held in a spotlight for a few seconds before the lights went out. The play restarted with Salisbury trying to keep his Welsh troops together and failing, followed by the execution of Bushy and Green – don’t remember how or if they staged these executions.

Richard’s return to England was well done. He still had the haughty attitude to begin with, but as he went through the various levels of despair, that shifted, and by his final exit he looked resigned to having lost the crown. I liked Phillip Joseph’s Bishop of Carlisle very much in this scene; he watched Richard approvingly when the king talked about his divine right to rule – “if angels fight, weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right” – and chided him strongly when he was in despair. Richard’s “sad stories of the death of kings” came across very well, as did the remaining ups and downs of this scene.

The rest of the story trundled through quite well. The Duchess of York was the queen’s companion in the garden, which worked very well for me, and again the political points were very clear. There was some humour in the gauntlet-flinging episode, though not as much as I’ve known before, and the deposition scene was fine. Richard held the crown up across the throne, and told Bolingbroke to “seize the crown”, as usual. Bolingbroke hesitated, so Richard continued with “on this side my hand, and on that side thine” – then Bolingbroke took hold of the other side. The mirror speech was good too, and then Richard heads off to the tower, the new king leaves the stage, and another plot starts up.

Richard and his queen take their leave of each other, and then there’s the Aumerle pardoning sequence, which they did OK, not as funny as some I’ve seen, but still enjoyable enough. When the Duchess got up off her knees, she leaned on her husband’s shoulder, and stopped him getting up; in fact, she nearly flattened him! That was a nice touch.

For the Pomfret scene, I wasn’t sure if they were doubling the groom and Aumerle because of the restricted number of actors, or if it was meant to be Aumerle in disguise. The way the king hugged him after throwing back his hood suggested it was. The speeches were OK, but I didn’t get anything extra out of them; the political stuff was all done by this time, so the play lost a little focus at the end. The final scene, with the deaths of the conspirators who wanted Henry dead, was fine. A coffin was brought on to represent Richard’s body, but we didn’t get a peek inside. We were a pretty appreciative audience, and we gave them plenty of applause, which they well deserved.

It’s difficult, after the intense and richly detailed experience of the Michael Boyd History Cycle, to view many of these plays as isolated works. The depth and interconnectedness of the full cycle can lead to one-off productions seeming weak by comparison (although Richard III usually overcomes this). I did like the political focus in this version, but there was a lack of the personal aspects which made it less enjoyable than some other productions we’ve seen. The cast were all fine – Andrew Buchan did a good job with the part of Henry Bolingbroke, even though there wasn’t a lot for him to do – but overall the performance didn’t sparkle. It was still interesting and fairly enjoyable, so not a bad final production for Michael Grandage.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Collaborators – December 2011

8/10

By John Hodge

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Werdnesday 14th December 2011

I don’t know how easy it will be to record my impressions of a piece that was both flamboyant and surreal. It was inspired by a play which Bulgakov actually wrote about Stalin’s early life, but which was never performed. It seems to have been part of the Soviet state’s process of playing mind games with dissidents and opponents, and this play reflects that aspect in its imaginary journey through the writing process.

In this play, Bulgakov is commissioned to write a play about Stalin in his younger days, for the great man’s 60th birthday celebrations. It’s meant to be a surprise for Stalin, but of course he knows all about it, and even joins in the creative process. In fact, he does more than join in, he writes the whole thing from beginning to end, scene by scene. Bulgakov only writes a final scene at the behest of a disillusioned NKVD officer in order to expose the truth about comrade Stalin. This scene was soon burned, and the play itself was never seen, because it was all a ploy to subvert Bulgakov into becoming a state stooge.

While he’s working hard at the typewriter, Stalin asks Bulgakov to do some of his government work – a fair division of labour. With a pretence of world-weary frankness, Stalin feeds Bulgakov little titbits to begin with, such as writing notes on steel production reports from the various parts of the vast Soviet Union and signing his mate Joe’s initials. When Bulgakov sees the results – reports of production up by 5% week on week – the nature of creative fiction under an oppressive regime takes on a new twist; Bulgakov wrote his plays and then (occasionally) saw them come to life, Stalin wrote his notes and then subsequent reports create the ‘reality’ he wanted. It’s an intriguing idea, and we get enough time to register it before moving on to the next phase.

During their next meeting Bulgakov is faced with an ethical dilemma. A city needs grain to feed its workers; the local farmers have grain but won’t give up enough of it because they need to feed themselves and their families, and have enough seed for next year’s harvest. What to do? Bulgakov makes his choice, and when he hears of the consequences, he’s shocked. Later, though, his feelings of guilt lead him to defend the government’s actions.

His next decision seems easier. He sees three confessions signed by men Stalin trusted absolutely, confessing that they were plotting against him. Stalin appears unaware of these confessions, and when Bulgakov tells him, he throws an almighty wobbly. To calm him down, Bulgakov suggests carrying out further investigations, and even writes that on the confessions – ‘carry out further investigations’. This calms Stalin down nicely, but at what cost? As the ‘further investigations’ are carried out, more and more people are arrested, and the apparent conspiracy which Bulgakov has helped uncover comes closer and closer to home.

When Bulgakov shows some stirrings of conscience, Stalin stops writing the play to concentrate on studying the conspiracy files. To help him out, Bulgakov rashly suggests a quota system; instead of investigating every case, just do some, and winnow out the traitors that way. Stalin was so taken with this idea that for their next meeting he asked Bulgakov to sign the death orders for the quotas of traitors to be killed and those to be sent to camps or into exile. Now, suddenly, Bulgakov draws the line; these are no longer numbers, they’re individual human beings, and he can’t go along with this job swap any more.

Stalin seems OK with this; he’s got what he wanted, so the final step doesn’t really matter. By now, Bulgakov’s friends have either deserted him or have disappeared. His wife is taken, and as Bulgakov finally collapses on his bed, dying, we see her put through a mock execution, one of the NKVD’s favourite pastimes. The play ends as Yelena, Bulgakov’s wife, finds her husband dead on the bed. The phone rings, and it’s Stalin’s voice asking if it’s true that Bulgakov is dead. She doesn’t answer, the line goes dead, and the lights go out.

This is a very simplified version of the story. In performance, many elements were interwoven, but without losing track of where we were and who was who – a remarkable feat. For example, as the scenes of the play are written and handed over to Vladimir, an NKVD officer and director of the new play, we see them performed by two actors, one young and handsome, the other older. The younger one plays the young Stalin in a noble and heroic style, with gestures and poses reminiscent of Soviet propaganda films of the time. The other actor takes on most of the other parts – prison guard, priest at the seminary, young woman who’s passionately in love with Stalin, etc. His performance as the young woman was particularly funny.

The set was on long sweep of acting space that pushed right across the Cottesloe with the seats wrapped around it. To our left was the kitchen area, with the large cupboard which was Sergei’s bedroom – space was short in those days. A walkway sloped down to the central area which held the typewriter on its table in the middle and the gramophone on the far side. To the right, the stage sloped up again to the bedroom. There were lots of angles to the floor – must have been a nightmare walking on it – and around the whole platform there was space to walk, with a lamppost in the far right corner. This lower walkway also came back up onto the stage on the other side of the central section, so there were lots of potential entrances, including the cupboard doors.

In fact, the opening scene made good use of these doors. Bulgakov was having a nightmare in which Stalin emerged from the cupboard and chased him round the flat, finally grabbing the typewriter and using it to smash Bulgakov over the head. Only we didn’t see that bit; the lights went out and when they came back again Bulgakov was sitting on the bed and Stalin had disappeared. It was a very funny sequence, with appropriate chase music to accompany it, and both actors going completely over the top. At one point, they were facing each other across the table and screaming – hilarious.

It’s a long time after that before we see Stalin again, and in the meantime we meet Bulgakov’s flatmates, and learn about medical treatment in the Soviet Union. Bulgakov is hoping for a diagnosis for his tiredness and other symptoms, but it’s unlikely he’ll get very far with the doctor assigned to him. This chap remembers watching one of Bulgakov’s plays many years before, and being scandalised by the nakedness of a very attractive young actress on the stage. He was even more shocked the next night, when he went back and sat even closer, and even more the night after that, and so on. He kept asking Bulgakov if he knew where the actress was now, as he’d love to get in touch with her. Bulgakov hadn’t a clue, of course, so he had to keep fobbing him off. Later, when Bulgakov is temporarily back in favour, he’s taken to the top hospital, the one where all the top men at the politburo are treated, and although it’s the same doctor, the experience is completely different. The doctor’s smartened up, he has a pretty young nurse – she used to be an actress, but he’s taken her away from all that – and miraculously, Bulgakov’s kidney disease has disappeared. No trace of it at all! Since Bulgakov trained as a doctor, he knows that can’t be true, but the doctor simply gives him a prescription for good food, and that’s it.

The action moves smoothly from there to the setting of the tables for a grand feast, and that’s where the interval was taken. The restart was at the end of the feast, and this is where Bulgakov hears about the fate of the grain farmers. We’d seen The Grain Store back in 2009 which told the story of the famine from the Ukrainian point of view, so we could fill out the story with a greater awareness of the suffering.

Following this feast, we see the session where the confessions are discovered, and from here people start to disappear. Bulgakov is even taken with Vladimir to the arrest of a married couple. The husband’s only ‘crime’ is having ‘objective characteristics’ which could mean he’s part of the conspiracy, while her only ‘crime’ is to be the wife of such a man. When he returns home, Bulgakov finds that their flatmates have gone, and before long Vladimir has also disappeared, with his second-in-command taking over as director of the play. The play has a noticeably darker tone in this second half, as there are fewer people to present the different perspectives. Even Sergei, the committed socialist, is taken away, so that only Bulgakov and Yelena remain, and with his death, she’s on her own.

Early in this play, we saw part of a performance of Bulgakov’s play Molière, showing the death of that playwright during a performance of The Hypochondriac. This was reprised at the end of this play as Bulgakov lay dying on his bed, and the lines about marking the day with a black cross applied to Bulgakov just as well as Molière. Of course, that was the point of Bulgakov’s play, to satirise the Soviet state and Stalin, but sadly it wasn’t as well hidden a satire as it needed to be – the play was banned and had very few performances in Bulgakov’s lifetime. In this play, it’s the carrot that Stalin holds out to keep Bulgakov going, the prospect that Molière will finally be staged. The stick, much in evidence in the later scenes, is the threat against his wife Yelena. Between these two, Bulgakov is easily led where Stalin wants him to go.

The pace was pretty fast throughout this play, even though Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings held some longish pauses during their scenes together. The scenes flowed one into the other, with characters simply turning from one scene to appear in the next. They kept the sense of place going very clear, though, even when there was more than one location being shown on stage at a time; good use of lighting helped here. The humour was another fine aspect of this play, with lots of it in the first half, and while there was less in the second half that was entirely appropriate in the circumstances. This is a cracking good production, and we hope to get another chance to see it in the Olivier to appreciate it even more.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Hearing The Song – December 2011

8/10

By Will Gore

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Saturday 10th December 2011

We stayed to see the response piece for Next Time I’ll Sing To You. Called Hearing the Song, it lasted fifteen minutes, and was a much more interesting little play than the work that inspired it, in my view. It was written by Will Gore, with a cast of two – Alex Mugnaioni and Huw Parmenter – and it was a very good short piece, with a number of echoes of the main play.

The two actors introduced the play as ‘themselves’; the writer character wanted to get a move on as they only had ten minutes, while his brother kept going off track – telling us about his limited amateur acting career, questioning the authenticity of the script, wanting to know where his long speech had got to – and had to be brought back to the point by the writer. This sort of thing went on in NTISTY, one of the echoes.

The subject matter of the play was an interaction between the brothers some years before, which was dramatised in a scene where the brother visited the writer early one morning at the writer’s request. The story that gradually emerged – not too gradually, obviously – picked up on a major theme of NTISTY, that of grief. The writer brother had been seeing his mother, long dead, and hearing a tune that she used to sing. The brother wasn’t entirely sympathetic, although as he’d apparently laughed out loud when the writer originally told him, he was being much kinder in the reconstruction.

The play ended with the brother going off to work, and telling the writer to take care of himself. For such a short play, and with very little rehearsal time, the two actors got a lot of detail into their performances, and with the humour in the writing as well, we enjoyed this very much. It probably also benefitted from us finding the main piece a bit dull, but even so we were well impressed.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me