Yes, Prime Minister – January 2012


By Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn

Directed by Jonathan Lynn and Tim Hoare

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 31st January 2012

Nice to see this one again. Although it’s a touring production they’re getting a couple of weeks in Chichester, where the play premiered last year, before heading off round the country. We saw it twice last year, and really enjoyed it – how would this version fare?

The set was almost identical to last year’s; the only change I noticed was the removal of the trailing greenery around the edge of the stage – a practical necessity for a touring production. The post-show chat confirmed that the script had been revised, and it certainly seemed tighter than last year although I couldn’t name any specific changes. It did seem to flow better, though whether that was the changes or our familiarity I can’t say.

The performances were very good for so early in the run. Graham Seed was wonderfully scatty as the Prime Minister, and although he seemed to stumble over his lines occasionally, he could get away with it given this characterisation. Michael Simkins, whom we remember fondly from A Small Family Business many years ago at the National, was very good as Sir Humphrey, and both of his set speeches were warmly applauded. His gravitas combined with his comic timing were a perfect foil for the PM.

Clive Woodward gave us another good performance as Bernard Woolley, and was suitably naïve as well as erudite; Sir Humphrey has a lot of exposition in the early stages, and Bernard is his excuse for all of that. Polly Maberly was good as the SPAD, Claire, and Sam Dastor reprised his role as the Kumranistan ambassador very entertainingly. Tim Wallers, the ersatz Paxman, was strongly reminiscent of the man himself, and Tony Boncza was fine as the Director General of the BBC (but was this part trimmed since last year?).

The post-show was unusually low-key tonight and we had to be quick as the stage crew needed to strike the set for a concert tomorrow. The three leads and Tim Hoare, the associate director, came and chatted with us for a while. They felt the history of the TV version was largely irrelevant as they had to find their own ways to play the parts, but the TV characters hovered in the background providing some guidelines; as Michael Simkins put it, he wouldn’t get away with playing Sir Humphrey as Arthur Mullard. They found the Chichester stage demanding, as usual, and not entirely suited to farce, although you do get a good connection with the audience compared to a pros arch. The problems with hearing the dialogue were mentioned, and the actors agreed this was an issue in this sort of space; even though Chichester uses a subtle form of sound enhancement, it’s hard to get a balance that will work for everyone.

They were asked if it was distracting having a sign language interpreter working beside them for the signed performances. Not after the first minute or so, they said, although there was the danger of becoming too interested in what was being signed and forgetting what you were meant to do. They start blocking for the pros arch stages tomorrow, and from the sound of it they’re all looking forward to the tour. Despite our small numbers, we were very appreciative, and went away happy with our evening. This is an enjoyable revival, and I hope they have a great time on tour.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Measure For Measure – January 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 27th January 2012

Second time around, and we were seeing this performance from a completely different angle. This allowed us to catch up on some of the reactions we hadn’t seen before, but of course we still only getting a proportion of the performance. Even so, we could see areas which had come on for the practice, and the central characters and their relationships were still very clear.

The changes which I noticed: Pompey went into a lot more detail about the inhabitants of the prison, picking on lots of folk in the audience and involving all of us at the end, which was very funny. He made some comments about “it’s in the folio”, and “I can only work with what you give me”, lots of stuff like that. The Duke’s human lampshades were more demure on their second appearance when Angelo was there, folding their arms over their chests, and he snapped his fingers to get them off stage in a hurry when Isabella approached, obviously embarrassed. The third time around, they held their hands in a prayer posture in response to Angelo’s reference to praying, and they left of their own accord when Isabella was announced.

I found the arguments between Isabella and Angelo even clearer than last time, especially when he was trying to get her to understand his ‘proposition’; Isabella seemed less intense, but just as passionate. It was much clearer this time that the Provost knew what was going on once he’d read the Duke’s letter off stage. He was clearly in cahoots with the Duke during the final scene, beckoning Elbow over to his corner of the stage to stop him dragging the Duke/friar off to prison.

Things I forgot to mention before or which weren’t clear: in the early scene at the monastery, the Duke handed his hat, scarf and coat to the friar as if he were one of the Duke’s servants; the friar looked a bit bewildered, but still took them. Lucio was indeed at the brothel first time round. The interval came after the Duke’s second encounter with Lucio at the jail, after Pompey had been arrested and Lucio refused to bail him.

And of course the performance had moved on from the last time we saw it. I was aware this time how Escalus’s common sense judgement of Pompey, Froth and Elbow was being contrasted with Angelo’s absolute approach. In the final scene, Isabella was quite stunned to discover who the Duke was and took a while to adjust, although she was still taking in the other events that were going on and still chose very quickly to support Mariana’s plea for mercy. She took longer to accept the Duke’s offer of marriage at the end tonight, I thought, and she didn’t look as happy when she turned round at the end, before they started the dance, so she’s presumably doing this differently to when we saw it earlier. Otherwise, the performance was just as brilliant as before, and despite complaints from some that the darker aspects weren’t explored enough, I felt this was a very satisfying exploration of the play.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

The Taming Of The Shrew – January 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Lucy Bailey

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 26th January 2012

For an early performance, this wasn’t bad. We were right round the side in Row D, so although we inevitably missed some things, we did get a reasonable idea of the whole production, and as we’re seeing it again soon we can hopefully catch up on what we missed. And given that it’s early in the run and they’ve had to adjust to an accident which has meant recasting one of the actresses, they may well come on quite a bit for an extra couple of weeks.

We went to the director’s talk on Tuesday, so we were aware that the overall production concept was the marital bed. From a talk earlier today by Michael Dobson and Nicola Watson we learned that a previous experience of watching Henry V had been incorporated into this production by means of a brown cloth area. So it was that we were confronted by a massive hump of mattress and brown cover, raising the level of the RST stage enough so that we couldn’t see the faces of the people across from us. What this was like for the people in Row A I’ve no idea; I do know that one woman asked to move further back because she couldn’t see, and she had started in row B! (They found her another seat, bless ‘em.)

The back of the stage was covered by a curtain in some nondescript brownish colour. From this, a lumpy ramp (pillows) led down to the stage floor. The cast had some difficulty travelling down this ramp at times; although it wasn’t nearly as steep as the Heart of Robin Hood ramp, it was still difficult enough to suggest why a broken ankle had happened so early in the run. When the curtains were drawn back, we could see wooden panels behind them, which turned out to be multi-faceted doors – they could open wide top to bottom or smaller panels within them could be opened as needed. There was also a space behind these in which several of the cast waited to appear for various scenes. I noticed the servant types early on, but I’ve no idea if we could see them because of our acute angle or if they were visible from the front. Time will tell.

The time period for this production was post WWII in Italy, a setting which allowed for the sort of attitudes towards women which would fit with the play, and yet be contemporary enough for an audience to relate to. We had also learned from the director’s talk that the induction would feature prominently in this production, and it did. There was music and a rumpus behind the curtain, and then Christopher Sly was thrown out of the pub, rolling down the slope to land on the stage. I didn’t follow much of the dialogue for this bit, and I was a bit worried that I might not hear enough of the lines to enjoy myself, but it turned out to be only a short spell at the start, thank goodness. Sly ended up near the front of the stage, asleep or comatose, and then the bar staff and customers turned into dogs and started having a go at Sly’s body. Fortunately the huntsmen turned up in time and called them off, and the Lord also arrived, fresh from some hunting. I recall some discussion of the relative merits of a couple of hounds, and then the Lord spotted the sleeping Sly. As he came up with his plan to give Sly a fantasy makeover, I found myself thinking that this play has a strong theme of people learning their place, both in terms of gender and class. I also reckoned that Will might have been saying to those that would listen that the only things differentiating a lord from the common people were his clothes and the way people treated him.

There were plenty of servants in this production, but even so they could hardly move Sly, who was stoutly built. They did manage to get his outer clothes off, and despite his existing smell, and the additional burden of a loud fart, they had him snug in bed in no time in a corner of the stage. We had a few laughs during this part, especially when one servant waved his smoking censer in the vicinity of the bed after the fart.

The plans for the masquerade were pretty long-winded, but we got the gist. Bartholomew, the servant who was to play Sly’s ‘Lady’ had been sent off with the players, and was back again sorting out the curtains when he was taken away to become a woman. Meantime everyone else was fawning over Sly, and doing their best to convince him he was indeed a lord. When he asked if he had ever spoken in the fifteen years he had been out of his wits, only one man answered, and everyone looked at him; he was really on the spot. He got out of it well, though, and after this Sly seemed to be convinced that they were telling the truth. Then his ‘Lady’ arrived, and she looked very fetching indeed. She wasn’t too happy when the rest left him alone with Sly on his command, and despite several attempts to get out of the room, she eventually had to reason her way out of it.

There was plenty of crudity in this production, and here it took the form of Sly masturbating when he found he couldn’t have sex with his ‘wife’; I don’t mind it as such, but I’m not sure if it’s necessary to make the point. Anyway, Sly and his wife settled down in one of the front corners to watch the players, pulling the bedspread over them. I did wonder how good the view would be for anyone over that way; it might be us next time.

With the play proper starting, the doors at the back opened up and for the first time we saw sunshine. Lucentio was a bookish sort, definitely wet behind the ears, while Tranio was OK but not as well defined as some I’ve seen. When they stood to one side it was because of the music; a brass band heralded the arrival of Baptista Minola and his daughters, while I had already noticed Gremio lurking around the doors at the back.

The music and procession went on for some time, and when we finally saw Kate I realised that she had been taken round the streets in a scold’s fiddle – a fiddle-shaped form of the stocks which went round a person’s neck and held the wrists in two other holes to one side; a nasty implement for publicly humiliating someone who didn’t conform to society’s norms. This was quite a shocking image to deal with early on, and I felt the comic tone of the rest of the scene jarred slightly with this entrance. Once out of the ‘fiddle’ though, Kate soon took her revenge, and there were few characters left on stage who didn’t feel the force of her anger. The reason for the ‘fiddle’ was also evident; one poor chap had been walking behind her with his face bandaged up, clearly one of her previous victims. And also a current one, as she got in a good swipe at him again.

Bianca was slightly taller than Kate, and looked all demure and innocent, but we women know how these things work and Kate’s comment about sticking a finger in your eye was clearly based on knowledge – Bianca milked the sympathy vote for all it could give. I don’t know if they dropped Lucentio and Tranio’s asides, or if I just didn’t hear them as they were on the other side of a very busy stage. We did get to hear their lines after everyone else had left, and Lucentio was wonderfully silly, skipping around like a new-born lamb with delight at the thought of his love. Tranio was more practical, as ever, and fortunately they were a similar size, so swapping clothes wasn’t a problem. Sadly, they left it at the jackets and hats tonight – no trousers were removed.

After a comment or two from Sly the play continued with Petruchio’s arrival. At the talk this morning, Michael Dobson had passed on a comment from one of his daughters that if David Caves took his shirt off, he’d do fine as Petruchio. He did take his shirt off later as it happened, but I think it only fair to point out that even before that action sealed his performance, he was already doing pretty well fully dressed. The doors at the back had been closed, and during the fight with Grumio, Petruchio battered at it with Grumio’s head (Simon Gregor used his forearm to thump the door – one of the advantages of the side view). The Ulster accents of both men worked very well; they not only indicated they were relative outsiders to this community, but a sense of wildness and unpredictability came with it which suited the characters down to the ground. Petruchio certainly seemed wild, and definitely only interested in money at this stage, but would that change?

A nice touch with Hortensio was to have him a bit phobic about bodily fluids. When Petruchio spat on his hand before they shook on their deal, Hortensio took it willingly enough but wiped his hand immediately afterwards, and also put his handkerchief on the ground before he sat beside Petruchio on the ramp. He also put in a lovely pause after “Her only fault” when describing Kate; we filled in the gap and obligingly laughed. The gathering of the suitors was good fun too, and soon they were off a-wooing.

For the next scene, Kate came through the doors first, smoking. No sign of Bianca. She did turn up, though, bound hand and foot, and with something in her mouth. She had to hop through the door, and roll down the ramp before spitting out the gag and getting into the fight with her sister. They went at it pretty hard, and Baptista had to break things up before Kate smothered Bianca with a pillow. Of course Bianca did her victim number again – bitch – but she showed her true nature with lots of rude gestures at Kate behind their father’s back.

With the girls off stage the suitors turned up, and this was another entertaining run through the various characters, many of whom were in disguise. I always love the way Baptista responds to Petruchio’s first question – “Pray, have you not a daughter call’d Katherina, fair and virtuous?” with “I have a daughter, sir, call’d Katherina”. This was as good as usual, and as Steve pointed out, it’s just the sort of thing comedy writers are doing nowadays.

The tutors were presented, and Baptista gave the books to the musician and the lyre to the academic. They exchanged the gifts when they left the stage to go to Baptista’s daughters, and soon we heard the sound of a lute, played not very well, coming from behind the doors. We also heard the sound of the lute being broken over Hortensio’s head, and he re-emerged shortly afterwards to show us the damage. This whetted Petruchio’s appetite, and he was really keen to meet this woman who might actually be worth his while. I wasn’t sure about Baptista’s reactions to some of this part as he had his back to us for most of it, so I’m hoping to get a better view of that next time.

Kate came through the doors and kept herself aloof beside them, smoking again and with a hip flask. I got the impression that Petruchio was taken with her on first sight, whether by her looks or her attitude I couldn’t tell. They were soon sparring verbally, although Kate took a long pause before one of her early responses, and there were plenty of sexual references in the physical actions accompanying their joust. Petruchio mirrored Kate’s actions whenever she threw a tantrum, like banging on the doors, and this made her stop what she was doing; it was clearly the first time she’d met someone who wasn’t frightened or put off by her behaviour. Although he threatened to hit her if she struck him again, he didn’t beat her up, just had a fun time wrestling with her. She seemed to realise pretty quickly that she couldn’t get the better of him physically – he was a good deal taller than her – so she stuck to words, and even there he kept going past her ability to respond. She did seem to find his body attractive as well, so I was aware that they were potentially well matched, which made the dialogue easier to accept.

There was another unpleasant moment during this confrontation, when Kate, on the left walkway, lifted up her skirt and apparently peed on the floor. Of course it was faked, and there was a bit of a delay as the contraption didn’t work at first; it’s another thing I don’t mind but which didn’t actually help the production. Those nearby who were splashed weren’t so happy, though.

The financial fisticuffs between Gremio and Tranio-as-Lucentio was amusing, though I found myself remembering the wonderful Generation Game conveyor belt scene from our first Taming many years ago. (Just taken a quick break to review the cast at’TAM198304’&dsqCmd=Show.tcl – great fun!) The competition between the tutors was also entertaining, and although she wasn’t entirely convinced, Bianca was clearly favouring Cambio over Licio. There were two chairs on stage at this point, and each tutor kept pulling one of them away so the other chap fell down, which was more amusing than it sounds. Cambio in particular got himself into all sorts of contorted positions while he was ‘construing’ with Bianca, while Licio sang each line of his ‘gamut’ after Bianca read it out – very funny.

The wedding itself was pretty lively. We were given the full text, as far as I could tell, so Biondello had his chance to romp through the almost unintelligible speech about Petruchio and his nag – he did this very well, using postures to illustrate the descriptions. Petruchio and Grumio looked like they’d come straight from a particularly bawdy stag do – Petruchio had ‘Petruchio and Kate’ written on his chest in big black letters, while Grumio had ‘Grumio’ on his. They were scantily clad in what might loosely be called trousers, with greenery attached at strategic points and a large salami down Grumio’s trousers; this became his ‘weapon’ later. Kate was wearing a simple white tailored dress, while Bianca was in a pink ensemble. It took some effort for Kate to actually utter the word ’entreat’, but she managed it, and still she ended up being wrapped in Petruchio’s coat (or cloak) and carried off. There was a good laugh when she said ‘Father, be quiet’, given that he was behind her at that point.

They took the interval here, which meant that Sly had to get off stage as well. They’d kept him on throughout this first half, and between the early scenes they’d done a bit of under the covers rummaging. At first it was Bartholomew escaping his lord’s clutches, then Marion Hackett appeared for some unknown reason and stole Sly’s underpants. By the time of the interval, he was the only one of the induction scene characters left, and when he realised everyone else had left the stage, he held his vest over his willy and eventually made his way off. I found this stuff mildly amusing, but as they didn’t do much with it in the second half it was rather wasted for me, especially as it disrupted the rhythm of the play. They moved the bedspread around so much during those bits that some cast or crew had to come on and straighten everything out again before the action could continue.

Sly also came on at the start of the second half, on his own, holding a small saucepan over his nether regions. He went off stage at the back beside the pillows, as I recall, but he was hanging around during the next scene for a while, watching the action among the players. There was hardly any Curtis at all with this production – lost in rehearsal, poor chap – and they prepared for the scene by having lots of actors come on and pose themselves on the stage, asleep. The chairs which had been left there were put on their sides with somebody draped over the one nearest us. There were actors lying on the pillows, on the stage and hanging out of the back area, all fast asleep. Grumio woke them up and Petruchio came in soon after, with Kate crawling in after him. Her dress was a bit mucky, and I think she was shoeless, but otherwise she seemed fine. They skipped through this scene pretty quickly and after a short report from Curtis about the non-event in the bedchamber, Petruchio returned to give us a situation report. He waited quite a long time to see if anyone in the audience could suggest another way to achieve the desired result – no response.

The next scene is where Tranio craftily gets Hortensio to swear off Bianca, and although I couldn’t see all the action behind the doors, I got a clear idea of what was going on. Basically, Lucentio and Bianca were pre-empting the marriage vows and going at it, hammer and tongs. They started by kissing, but were soon into rampant sexual intercourse in all sorts of positions, culminating in pleasurable exhaustion when they finally joined Tranio. The activity was revealed by opening various panels in the doors, showing different parts of the lovers as they got it on. Early on, both Tranio and Hortensio were right by the doors, but fortunately the lovers were oblivious; later on it was just Tranio winding Hortensio up by opening yet another panel.

At the end of this scene, Tranio persuaded the travelling pedant to pose as his father, and then we were back in Petruchio’s house, with Kate trying to get hold of some food from Grumio. When Petruchio and Hortensio came on with the dish of meat, Hortensio ended up straddling Kate, who was face down on the stage, and as there was too much to eat he stuffed some items in his pockets to clear the plate.

The argument over the dress was good fun. The dress and hat themselves were very attractive, and the dressmaker arrived with a live model to show off his work. She was rather upset at having her sleeve ripped off, and Kate took the sleeve back off Petruchio and put it back on the model, only for it to be ripped off again, along with the other one and the cape. I think this was the scene where Kate paused the argument, got one of the chairs, put it in front of Petruchio, and stood on it so she could argue with him face to face – excellent fun.

The scene where Baptista met the fake Vincentio and then Biondello explained to Lucentio the basics of elopement, was pretty standard and then we saw Petruchio, Kate and Grumio returning to Padua for a family reunion. Kate finally decided to stop arguing, couldn’t tell why, and then the real Vincentio turned up. Dressed in a very natty suit, and wearing sunglasses, he was also accompanied by a bodyguard who wasn’t keen on letting these strangers anywhere near his boss, especially when they talked so weirdly. Vincentio wasn’t bothered though, and waved him away. After Kate and Petruchio had their fun, and Petruchio spoke to the new arrival to find out who he was, Vincentio joined in the game by addressing Kate as ‘Fair sir’ and Petruchio with ‘and you my merry mistress’. So at least he has a sense of humour; he’ll need it later after Tranio abuses him.

The party was going full swing when they arrived at Padua, and the melee in front of the house was mildly entertaining. Petruchio and Kate stood over at the far side of the stage, so I couldn’t see what they were up to, but I got the impression that they were chatting to each other instead of watching the action.

For the final scene, the rest of the cast entered through the doors, and Kate and Petruchio were a bit behind them. Kate was clearly embarrassed that they were still wearing their soiled clothes, and the other two wives were clearly sneering at her. She went back to the doors and stood along from Petruchio there, having nicked his hat and put it on her head. There was dancing, and Bianca was enjoying herself with Gremio as they did the tango.

The bickering was entertaining enough, with Kate really having a go at the widow over her ‘mean’ comment. Bianca was very lively, and then the women left the stage. The men were more laddish once they’d gone, and the money for the bet was soon on the floor in the middle of the stage. A chair was placed beside the money, and each husband waited on it, expectantly. Biondello gave the bad news to two of them, then Grumio went off for the final message, with Petruchio hoping for a good result. Even he was surprised by Kate’s arrival, and I always reckon this is where he goes a bit over the top because he’s worried she’s no longer got any spirit to her.

When he challenged her to tell the other two wives about their duty, she had to think about it for a while, and everyone else assumed she wasn’t going to do it. She sat on one of the chairs and lit up a cigarette, but just as the rest had given up on her, she started on the speech. I couldn’t decide on her motivation; it wasn’t clear to me why she’d decided to speak up, although the lines themselves were very clear. Her final offer to put her hand beneath Petruchio’s foot was OK, and he seemed to have realised that she was still the Kate he fell in love with. He took her in his arms, and then they were kissing, and rushing to the back of the stage to get their kit off and snuggle under the bedclothes.

The rest of the play was a bit of a blur. I don’t remember how the rest of the cast left the stage, but soon it was bare and in relative darkness. Sly staggered back on and collapsed on the far side of the stage, and from the noise behind the doors he was outside the inn we’d started from. Two characters came on and went over to him; Steve reckoned they were the Lord and Bartholomew, while I wasn’t sure it was the Lord himself. Either way, he left some money on Sly’s chest, while Bartholomew ran back to leave his scarf with Sly. The performance ended with Marion Hackett standing on top of the ramp and looking at Sly, while he held up some of the money and then collapsed back again on the stage.

I wasn’t taken with this ending; it wasn’t clear to me what was going on, and I only realised it was money on Sly’s chest when he held some of it up at the end. Since Lucy Bailey had described the play as the journey to get the two leads into bed, why carry on after that’s been done? And with the Sly subplot petering out during the second half, why go back to it? Maybe we’ll understand it better next time we see it as our angle will be better, although the way this bed set blocks the view, I’m not so sure.

This was a lively retelling of the story with lots of physical humour, some of which worked for me, some of which didn’t. The relationship between Kate and Petruchio was believable, and the rest of the performance was at least watchable with some nice touches. Steve wondered if Kate was actually challenging Petruchio at the end by offering her hand, testing him to see how he would take it. That’s possible, and we’ll both be watching closely next time to see if it becomes clearer.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Written On The Heart – January 2012 (2)


By David Edgar

Directed by Greg Doran

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 25th January 2012

This was a definite improvement on my experience of 20 days ago; not quite enough to warrant a 10/10 rating, but oh so close. There were three factors involved in this change: the first and most influential was our prior knowledge of the play, which meant we could follow the arguments better and appreciate the political exchanges as well as the personal stories. As we suspected, this play does benefit from some advance knowledge of the people and the situation. The second factor was the talk we’d had at the Winter School this afternoon, not only us but the entire group, of course. As a result we were a more responsive audience than before, and that naturally enhanced the experience for us. And finally there were almost certainly some improvements in the performance, but as we were in different seats, and given the effect of the other two factors, I have absolutely no idea what they were.

I did notice some things that I either missed last time around or got wrong. The Yorkshire rant about the constant changes to religious practices was done by the church warden, not the Lady of the manor. Before we visited Tyndale’s cell, there was a short scene at the back showing the priest being blessed by, I assume, the Pope; there was lots of singing and fancy dress. The second half started with the candles on the triangular chandeliers being lit by the choir, who then stood and sang for a bit before the play continued: again, the singing was a bit too dissonant for my taste, but I may have been warming to it. In the Yorkshire scene, I forgot to mention last time that the church warden came back into the church while the clerk and the chaplain were having their discussion, and lurked behind the screens to overhear them. We suspected later on that he may have been the one who betrayed the clerk to the authorities in revenge for his treatment of the windows, amongst other things.

I found the story much more moving this time, with plenty of sniffling opportunities along the way. I understood better the Bishop of Ely’s guilt at having been so harsh to the prisoners he visited, as represented by the Puritan clerk. That scene, of the prison visit, was played out in front of the Bishop, and I got the impression that Tyndale knew about it and forgave the man. The parallel with Tyndale’s own experience has only just become apparent to me; I claim the mercy of the court on account of my increasing years. Or senility. Or both.

The massive amount of exposition didn’t seem so clunky this time around, which helped, and the humour worked just as well if not better. I liked the way they went through some of the Biblical words and expressions that we use today, often disparaging them; ‘beautiful’ and ‘allegory’ are the only two I can remember off hand. It was not only amusing, but also a good way to link the story to the present. The maid’s rant at the end had less of an impact on me this time – may have been the angle we were seeing it from – and I could see in the Bishop of Ely’s discussion with her that he may well have been thinking of the Civil War to come, although I also take it as a reference to all future religious disputes based on rigidity and intolerance.

From today’s talk, I gathered that there were in fact only 47 translators involved in the work; I’m not sure where the 54 mentioned in the play came from, although Steve reckons that was the number they started with, but six years of translation took its toll. Very like.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Neighbourhood Watch – January 2012


Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Stephen Joseph Theatre Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 23rd January 2012

This was an enjoyable evening which ended rather unfortunately. A memorial statue which was meant to be revealed at the end refused to drop into place – looked like it was hanging the wrong way up – and so the cast had to take their bows without the punch line having been delivered, a real shame for them after their hard work. And it was hard work with this audience; we both felt, despite it being one of Ayckbourn’s darker offerings, that there was more humour in this play than the audience response indicated. It may be that the subject matter was a bit too close to home for comfort; we noticed that several jokes about Daily Mail readers received a lukewarm chuckle, but a similar disparaging remark about Guardian readers a few lines later got a huge laugh.

The play covered current concerns about security, and the trend towards high-security compounds for the ‘posh’ folk to protect them from the ‘yobs’ from the sink estates. We followed the experiences of a brother and sister, newly arrived at the Bluebell Hill development, from their housewarming party to the memorial service for the brother, Martin, after his sad demise while fighting to protect the standard of life for the local residents. The opening scene, and what would have been the last had it worked, were set at the memorial service; the rest of the scenes were in chronological order.

The set was straightforward. There were black walls at the back with gaps right and left, and two curved sofas on either side covered in a plain fabric with large flower outlines and with three matching cushions on each. In the centre was a fake circular fireplace with a flicker effect which they turned on whenever there were guests, and a large rim which doubled as a table. There were also two side tables on the audience side of the sofas. An extra chair was brought on for some of the meetings, and there was carpet on the floor up to the patio door on the right, where a section of the stage had been tiled to show the outside area. They acted the patio door, thank goodness.

The characters were a lovely mixed bunch. Martin and Hilda, brother and sister, were very prim and proper, with a strong moral and religious streak. Actually she was much more rigid than he was, and during the course of the play he even developed a relationship with another woman and planned to leave his sister. His death shortly afterwards meant she could ignore this inconvenient fact in her eulogy, while freeing her up to develop her own unconventional relationship.

Rod was one of their neighbours who was retired from some kind of security job, and was positively rabid about the threats they faced from the scum who lived in the estate nearby, across a field. He had even forced his way into someone’s house to retrieve a hedge trimmer which he knew this man had stolen, searching the place while the man was there. He eventually found his hedge trimmer and walked off with it, only to find himself in trouble with the police! His hedge trimmer was now in custody as it was evidence, and he was livid about the whole incident. He certainly showed us the potential for violence and law-breaking from the self-righteous, aggrieved middle classes, who feel everyone else is out to get them.

Dorothy was another retired neighbour who used to work on the local paper. We were led to believe she was a reporter, so there was a good laugh when she finally admitted that she worked on small ads. She was a good source for the local gossip which allowed us to find out a lot about the situation and the people, and she took on the media work for their neighbourhood watch scheme when it attracted lots of media attention.

Luther and Magda were the next door neighbours. He was a bully and a wife beater, she was a woman who had been abused from an early age and who ended up staying with Martin and Hilda for protection. Luther was the one person who spoke up against the rather extreme measures taken by the neighbourhood watch committee, and he was also the Guardian reader, but he seemed a bit underwritten compared to the others. Magda was a musician who also gave lessons, and her description of her early experiences was quite hard to listen to. Her final choices indicated that she’d found another strong character to take charge of her life.

Gareth and Amy were the final two characters. He was an older man who liked tinkering in his shed, but his main motivation for supporting the neighbourhood watch was that his wife, Amy, was a total slut, sleeping around with every man on the development regardless of their marital status. She’d married Gareth on the rebound, and he’d been regretting it ever since. It did give him an interest in various forms of public punishment, including the stocks, the pillory, scold’s bridle, etc., and the committee made good use of his woodworking talents and this interest. Amy wore very fitting dresses with very high hems with red hair and lots of makeup. She was very interested to find that Martin and Hilda were siblings rather than married, and we weren’t surprised to find Martin’s attitudes changing a bit over the course of the play.

The housewarming scene led to the inaugural meeting to set up the neighbourhood watch scheme. When the police were unable to attend to give advice, and someone threw Martin’s garden gnome through the window, destroying it completely, Martin decided they should go it alone and include some people who weren’t keen to be involved if the police were part of it. These turned out to be the local crime boss and his two thuggish sons; patrols were very effective and crime was slashed, but their methods were rather drastic, and when a house on the estate was burned down when they went to ‘have a word’ with its occupant, the police turned up at the Bluebell Hill security gatehouse demanding to get in to arrest the two sons.

After making sure that the stocks weren’t visible, Martin authorised the security chief (Rod) to radio the gatehouse to let them in. Unfortunately, they only caught one of the sons, which meant that an angry armed sociopath was hiding within the security fence, waiting to get his revenge for being shopped to the police. Fortunately he was too stupid to count properly, so it was the house next door to Martin and Hilda’s that went up in flames, and it was when the fire service and police were trying to deal with that problem that Martin, armed only with a statue of Jesus, went out into his garden and met his fate.

The final scene showed us the aftermath through the preparations for the memorial service, and then a curtain came down to shield the fireplace from our view while they lowered the statue chosen to commemorate Martin’s life. Being so close, we could see a bit of it, and at first it looked like a giant dildo which made us laugh to ourselves. But then we realised it was the hat of a large garden gnome, about three feet high I would guess, and gold coloured, which had slipped onto its side and just wouldn’t come down onto the fireplace. A stage hand came on at the back and realised he couldn’t do anything, so they just had to leave things there and take their bows. We felt for them; it was clearly meant to be a funny punchline as Hilda’s opening speech had claimed this was not only a fitting memorial, but also a symbol of much greater and higher things. A garden gnome would have been very funny, but alas not tonight.

The performances were all fine, and there was plenty to enjoy, but the audience, like the gnome, weren’t as cooperative as we would have liked.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Swallows And Amazons – January 2012


By Helen Edmundson and Neil Hannon, based on the book by Arthur Ransome

Directed by Tom Morris

Company: Children’s Touring Partnership/Bristol Old Vic

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 20th January 2012

I think I would have been better off not to have re-read the book shortly before going to see this wonderful adaptation. It took me a fair while to adjust my ideas, much as I loved some of the staging choices, and I would have probably found it an 8/10 experience if I’d warmed up sooner. As it is, I was thoroughly hooked by the end, joining in the shouts of ‘plank’ with enthusiasm. The cast all did a great job, and I hope they have a great time on tour.

The stage was littered with all sorts of objects before the start, some of which didn’t become clear until they were used. There were four tall irregular-shaped pillars along the back of the set, which each had a large band of white on them – I noticed during the interval that these were painted, and looked like brick. There was a picture frame hanging centre stage, and some musical instruments over in the far right corner, including a piano. I don’t remember anything else specifically, and they brought so much other stuff on during the play that I’d be misleading myself to attempt any more detail.

The play began with an old lady walking on to the stage, and sitting on a chair in the middle. She’d been carrying a pair of secateurs and a feather duster with bright red, green and yellow sections, and put them down to one side of the chair. As she looked through an old album of photographs, the characters of the Walker family started appearing on stage, with Mother and Father posing together in the central picture frame, Mother holding Fat Vicky, and other picture frames being held up for the rest of the family to pose behind. The old lady herself turned into Titty, and the feather duster and secateurs became the parrot. So now we had the four children, the baby and their parents. Father sailed away, and the action began with Roger arriving, breathless, with the telegram which would give them Father’s answer – to sail or not to sail.

Before I go any further, I must point out that the casting was weird and wonderful. Roger, the youngest child, nearly eight, was played by the tallest actor, and there aren’t many eight-year-olds with a beard! This worked really well, and gave us some humour from the start. The other ‘children’ were mostly to scale, although Susan was a bit on the small side. I always find the telegram a bit sniffly – “Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers won’t drown” – so this got me going early on, and then they were soon through the planning stage and off to the island. This was a musical, and the songs were pretty good, although I couldn’t always make out the words. The packing phase was done to music, and Swallow herself was a prow, a couple of wheeled dollies, a mast with a sail, some ropes and some ribbons – blue ribbons which other members of the cast held out and moved around to represent the water.

The story was told briskly, and while some bits were dropped – going to the farm to get the milk, for example – we didn’t miss much, and it made for a good piece of theatre. Other characters came on as needed, and there was plenty of music all the way through – this is a really talented bunch. Titty’s experience near Cormorant Island was staged as a dream sequence, with lots of pirate types carrying lots of boxes and singing a song, while the two ship’s companies and Captain Flint found the box the first time they searched the island. For the attack on Captain Flint’s ship, they passed out sponges to the audience, and we were told to throw them on the command ‘attack!’ which we did, and a fine old mess it made of the auditorium – great fun. When Captain Flint begged for mercy we were merciless, calling for the plank as loudly as we could (told you I was well into it by then). He dropped down through a trapdoor for this bit, and when he came back up and all was forgiven, they were about to head off for a feast on shore when he decided to give Titty a present for finding his book. The parrot was duly handed over, and with a final rousing song we were done.

The Amazons were also very good; two women with war paint and feathered headdresses. Peggy in particular had a great voice, and Nancy was all scowls, even when you’d expect her to be happy! Titty’s spell alone on the island came across better than the book for me – the way she read out her log entries was very funny. When anyone used the telescope, a round frame was held up and showed what they were seeing, whether it was Captain Flint sitting at his desk writing or Mother on her way to the island. Captain Flint’s ship was represented by a massive prow at the back of the stage, and it had a large mast too which may have been lowered down – I lost track a bit during the busy times. The reed beds were very well done, with the spare cast members holding long sticks and moving around the Swallow to show the way the reeds separated and came together again. The charcoal burners were included, but only to give the message about Captain Flint’s ship needing a lock – we didn’t get to see the snake – and this also allowed us to see John’s embarrassment at being called a liar when he tried to deliver the message to the Captain. It was good to see the way these children learned from their experiences, and from each other’s way of handling things. I also liked the way they meshed their fantasy versions of the lake and its islands, with Nancy recognising that Rio was a good name for the town and the Walkers accepting the Blackett’s name for the island.

Susan was much more priggish than I remember from the book, but it worked well enough for me, and the storm came early in this version, during the night raid on the Amazon’s boat shed. The sailing terminology was used sparingly – terms like ‘leading lights’ were demonstrated down at the harbour – so although it didn’t feel quite as inspiring in terms of the sailing, it still had that sense of adventure and freedom to use one’s imagination which is so strong in the book. The cormorants were quite scary. They were made out of bin bags and garden shears, and flew around in an intimidating manner.

Quite a few of us older children stayed behind for the post-show, and there was much praise from all sections for their performance. There were many stories of children young and old being introduced to the books and loving them; one chap has only got one more book before his wife divorces him, apparently – I hope for his sake that she’s a slow reader. It all went quite well until one man asked a rather hostile sounding question about what they were doing to take this sort of show to disadvantaged kids who might never see a play or read many books. The cast handled it very well, explaining the purpose of the Children’s Touring Partnership, and we finished on a lighter note, thankfully.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

The Lion In Winter – January 2012


By James Goldman

Directed by Trevor Nunn

Venue: Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Date: Thursday 19th January 2012

We were a bit closer for this one than we like – Row B – because we didn’t book early enough. Even so, we had a good view of the action and heard every word, which made for an enjoyable afternoon. Unfortunately we also heard the mobile phone right behind us, and it was at a bad time (there’s a good time?) when Eleanor had just cut her arm. It’s all a ploy to manipulate Richard into giving her what she wants, so nothing to worry about, but the effect was spoiled by the ringtone. Anyway it’s a good old workhorse, this play, and this was a better than average production with some very good performances and a lot of humour. It’s mostly in the first half, true, but there’s still fun to be had in the second half, including one of the best lines – ‘all families have their ups and downs’; in context, it was hilarious.

This play is the archetypal family-from-hell Christmas. Everyone is plotting against everyone else, with the possible exception of Alais, and if I didn’t know the history I would have expected dead bodies to litter the stage. The bickering does get a little tiresome towards the end, but this cast kept our attention all the way through. I really enjoyed Joseph Drake as Prince John; we enjoyed his Nijinsky last summer at Chichester, and this snivelling Prince made a nice contrast.

The set was quite elaborate, making use of two revolves to change the scenery. They had small apartments for intimate gatherings, a larger reception area with a huge Christmas tree – the anachronisms were deliberate – two bedrooms and a wine cellar, all created with the minimum of fuss. I particularly liked the scene in the French King’s bedroom, with two Princes hiding behind the tapestry, another in the four-poster screened by the curtains, and King Henry himself knocking on the door to have a word. The costumes were mock mediaeval, in keeping with the setting, and worked very well.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Hamlet – January 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Ian Rickson

Venue: Young Vic

Date: Wednesday 18th January 2012

We were taken on another of the Young Vic’s ‘journeys’ on the way in today. I presume this was to get us in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate the production’s design concept. Well, it got me in the mood alright, a foul mood. I don’t like being made to go on these long treks regardless. At least there weren’t any steps this time, and thankfully it wasn’t raining while we waited outside, but this kind of thing just isn’t for me. This particular trip took us round the theatre, in by a back door, past assorted installations which related to the lunatic asylum concept – signs on doors about treatment schedules, a window looking into the gymnasium with the fencing apparatus, etc. – and various members of the cast sat, stood or moved purposefully along corridors looking like hospital staff. We finally emerged through an office onto the stage itself. While this makes a welcome change from the RSC’s ‘look, don’t walk’ stage policy, it didn’t add anything to my understanding or enjoyment of the play. We were lucky to see the play today mind you; as we were walking along one bit of corridor I wondered what was behind a wooden drop-down panel. I opened the clasps – it wasn’t locked – and saw a lot of electrical stuff in there. I don’t know if it was part of the installation or a genuine part of the theatre’s electrics, and I didn’t tamper with anything, but still….

The set was mostly open at the start, with the seats on three sides. The office at the back had a desk, probably two or three chairs, some lockers and another keypad door off to the right as you look at it from the seats. There was glass from floor to ceiling between the office and the rest of the stage, with glass double doors in the middle. The back wall looked like a school gym, with a basketball hoop on the left, and we learned very quickly that there were two electronic doors that covered the whole of the glassed area, eventually – they moved very slowly. The central flooring looked like carpet tiles, and there was a coffin sitting on planks above a hole towards the front of the stage, with a well worn (leather?) overcoat and a dagger lying on top of it. I tested the weight of the dagger- pretty heavy.

They didn’t add much furniture during the performance, just the chairs and small wheeled medical tables which could store files, medicines, that sort of thing. They did remove a large chunk of the stage at one point – more on that story later – and they also used the upper left balcony for one scene; again, I’ll record that when I get to it. Overall the impression was of institutional drab, with some high tech bits but mostly old style, stuff that would fit into a 60s production, say. Entrances were limited to the office doors, either side at the back and a passage through the middle of the seats at the front, and characters often came and sat on the stairs at each front corner.

The performance started with Hamlet alone on stage, looking at the coffin, and obviously going through an emotional experience. I did wonder if he was going to go into ‘To be, or not to be’ at this point – now that would be an interesting choice – but he didn’t. He did snatch the coat and dagger off the coffin and held them tightly, breathing in the smell for some time. Then he took them away and some of the asylum staff came on and lowered the coffin into the hole, replacing the floor afterwards.

Perhaps now would be a good time to mention the costumes. The asylum staff wore green uniforms with orange markings, the chap whom I assume was in charge wore a suit, Polonius wore a strange grey coat over shirt, trousers and a sort of waistcoat/gilet, and Gertrude wore an off-white dress with a flared skirt, knee-length, and over it she wore a kind of lacy pinafore – this disappeared at some point. Hamlet wore a kind of tweedy suit, changing to institutional drab after the abortive trip to England. Laertes was a natty dresser, with a tweedy green suit and brown boots, while Ophelia wore a simple frock in pale colours, until her stint as Osric when she wore riding breeches, shirt and cravat. Other characters wore relatively modern dress – the player king wore a camel overcoat – and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern both wore severe grey outfits. I noticed when they arrived that they were given trainers to put on instead of their own shoes, and when Reynaldo was talking with Polonius about his trip to France, he also changed out of his hospital uniform into civvies. Horatio also wore a dark suit, possibly black. I’ll describe the Mousetrap costumes when I get there.

The opening scene proper used an almost full blackout and torches to create suspense, which worked reasonably well. The electronic doors had been closed, so there was a sense of security procedures in operation, and the ghost’s appearance was heralded by a flashing red light and some sound effects – it reminded me of the effects used in Jekyll to indicate the change of personality. The ghost itself was mainly a silhouette, with someone wearing the coat and casting a big shadow. The dialogue for this scene may have been cut, as a chunk of it relates to Fortinbras who was minimally involved today, but to be honest I don’t remember much of the dialogue from this scene at all. Perhaps it was cut, perhaps it was the delivery, perhaps I was still sulking from the enforced tour of the premises – we may never know. I did wonder who was wearing the overcoat, as the cast list didn’t include a ghost, but I didn’t have to wonder for long.

At the start of the next scene, Hamlet turned up on stage with a suitcase and a bag, carrying a piece of paper. At first I thought he might have been a new arrival at the clinic, looking to get in for some treatment following the death of his father. There was no one else around at first, so he took one of the chairs and put it a bit away from the doors, with his bags beside it. As he waited, quite fidgety and impatient, others started to arrive. Gertrude and Polonius started putting out more chairs, including the two black ones with arms. Someone – it may have been Polonius – brought on a trolley table, which went between the two black chairs, and the other characters began to turn up as if for a therapy session. Hamlet held Ophelia’s hands for a few moments before she moved on to embrace Laertes, and Gertrude and Polonius had a little competition over who got to sit in the other black chair – the more central one was clearly for Claudius.

Still fidgety, Hamlet had to endure a very truncated speech from Claudius, with no ambassadors and scarcely any mention of Fortinbras. When he moved forward to ask for leave to go, he was clearly frustrated when Claudius turned to Laertes next. Finally it was his turn, but his request was turned down, and I think Claudius tore up his papers – he’d already torn up the ones relating to Fortinbras when he said ‘so much for him’.

I didn’t get a great deal from this scene other than Hamlet’s eagerness to leave, but at least they rattled through it at a good clip. The next scene brought Horatio on to broach the subject of the ghost’s appearance, and this was good and brisk too; no ‘season your admiration for a while’, this Horatio got down to business very abruptly. The end of this scene used a staging choice that I’ve not seen before, and which they repeated at least once more; Horatio was about to leave, but was called back when Hamlet addressed his next words to her – “My father’s spirit in arms!” The rest of that short speech was also spoken to her, and she ended up leaving with Hamlet instead of before him. It was different, and it worked, although as I don’t feel they made much of Horatio’s character in this production, never mind the fact that they’d cast a woman in the role, it was rather wasted.

I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but it may have been during this extra bit with Horatio that Gertrude was seen behind them, looking for pills in the office. It’s clear that she’s a junkie and that Claudius is supplying her with pills, and their kissing in the office before they head off for some privacy was pretty unpleasant, suggesting that Claudius was manipulating her through her addiction. Hamlet saw them, and his disgust was obvious.

The next scene was Laertes’ leave-taking. He came on carrying a bag, and Ophelia folded a shirt for him. When Polonius arrived he was carrying a box, such as fancy dresses are presented in, and gave it to Ophelia. But it wasn’t for her – this was a parting gift for Laertes. When telling him to wear good but not gaudy clothes, Polonius opened the box (Ophelia had left it on a chair) and took out a jumper, which he brought over to hold against Laertes’ chest. It was an embarrassingly bad gift, very nerdy, and we laughed a lot at this all too recognisable family situation.

For once, Polonius was quite cuddly with his children, holding Ophelia’s hands, embracing her and Laertes, and seemed genuinely concerned for their welfare. He gave Laertes a wodge of money, as usual, and tried to do it discretely without Ophelia seeing (as if). His worry about Hamlet’s vows of love being false came across clearly, and seemed to be his main motivation for telling her to avoid him in future.

With Laertes gone, I think the security doors were closed for the next platform scene, but it was difficult to tell as most of the scene was played in darkness. The opening section had some of the staff going through the office at the back, clearly having a party, and going out through the side door, leading to the lines about the king taking his rouse. Then there was a complete blackout. At least the lines that were left came across clearly, and then the lights started flickering, the electrical sounds came on, and with some light coming back we could see the ghost. Hamlet, dressed in his father’s coat, seemed to be possessed with his father’s spirit (or insane of course) and spoke the ghost’s lines in a deeper, richer voice. His audience was Horatio and Marcellus, both too stunned to speak, understandably. It also meant we didn’t get Hamlet’s own responses to the ghost apart from one line – I forget which one – and a lot of the later lines were cut as well as they would have been inappropriate. The ghost didn’t speak during the swearing bit, so wasn’t mentioned, and the whole effect was to have the ghost as completely internal to Hamlet’s mind, a product of his grief and jealousy and the strongest emphasis on the psychological aspects of the play that I’ve seen.

After they left, Polonius and Reynaldo turned up, although if you didn’t know the play you wouldn’t have known it was Reynaldo; Polonius’s memory loss extended to that character’s name, and he glossed over it by carrying on. The only charge which Polonius suggested that Reynaldo put on Laertes was drabbing, and there was another moment of memory loss before the scripted one. Polonius looked like he really had forgotten the line at this point, and repeated himself to try and get back into it, which he eventually did. I suspect this was a genuine lapse, but given the nature of this scene, I can’t be totally sure. After Reynaldo’s departure, Ophelia came on to give the account of Hamlet’s apparent madness, and again Polonius was more emotionally involved in his daughter’s life than most other productions, really listening to her and being troubled by the mistake he’d made about Hamlet’s motives.

When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrived, they were shown into the main room and were soon joined by the king and queen for their little chat; this was when they changed shoes. Rosencrantz was easily distinguished from Guildenstern this time, being played by a woman. They still went with Claudius getting the names wrong and Gertrude correcting him; in this production, and given the controlling nature of this Claudius and drug-addled performance of Gertrude, I think it might have worked better if Claudius had got it right, and then had to cover for Gertrude’s mistake – I’d certainly be interested to see that tried some time.

Forget the ambassadors; next we were straight into Polonius and Ophelia’s entrance and the long-winded exposition on time, brevity, madness and the rest. Despite his relatively caring manner so far, Polonius was quite callous in this scene, making Ophelia read out the letter from Hamlet herself. He interrupted to complain about the word ‘beautified’, and snatched the paper away from her when she started talking about bosoms! He searched through the letters to find something more suitable, and gave her what looked like a postcard to continue reading. There were some cuts, and for once Polonius didn’t recommend execution as a fitting consequence if he’s wrong about the cause of Hamlet’s madness; I assume they took a line or two from another version of the play – haven’t had time to check it out.

When Polonius confronted Hamlet after the king and queen left, he took out a recording device – he’d shown it to all of us earlier during Claudius’s first speech, so we could see what it was and also the red recording light – and his asides were spoken into the machine as if he was evaluating Hamlet’s condition, a nice touch given this context.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were next up, arriving as Polonius left, and during this scene I started to get the impression that Rosencrantz had a serious crush on Hamlet. The ‘man delights not me’ interchange was more pointed because Rosencrantz was a woman, and I started to wonder about Hamlet. Apart from Ophelia, here are two other women – Horatio and Rosencrantz – who appear to be close friends of his; what is this man up to? Is he a serial heart-breaker? Is he just completely unaware of his effect on women? I watched closely through the rest of the play and couldn’t make up my mind about this.

The players were definitely in a touring production – only three of them this time. Hamlet was OK at delivering the lines, needing a bit of support from the actors to remember it all, and then the player king took over. This wasn’t the strongest delivery I’ve heard; he was sitting down for most of it, and did the speech pretty briskly, but it worked OK. Hamlet didn’t ask for The Murder Of Gonzago, and therefore couldn’t ask to insert any extra lines this time, leaving me wondering how the play would be staged. Hamlet’s soliloquy was OK, nothing memorable, and then the king and queen came on again to hear R&G’s report. At one point I remember Claudius giving Gertrude a credit card so she could go off and do some shopping; she left very happy, and it may have been this scene where it happened.

I did wonder if Polonius and Claudius would hide behind the hospital screen in the corner, but they closed the security doors halfway and lurked in the office instead, with Claudius poking his head out from behind the security door at least once to see what was going on. We also lost Claudius’s admission of guilt in this scene, which again gave the impression that he may not have done the murder after all, and that it may just be Hamlet’s delusion that we’re dealing with.

Ophelia was sitting on the steps near us during ‘to be or not to be’; it was an OK speech with nothing significant to report. Hamlet was already showing his disgust at women but things got really nasty after Ophelia’s hesitation about where her father was. Hamlet didn’t leave the stage at the usual point, so Ophelia’s lines about ‘a noble mind’ were spoken in his presence, but he did leave before Polonius and Claudius came back on. Their final lines seemed to be severely cut, and soon they were preparing for the play.

There was no dialogue for the play at all. With Claudius and Gertrude sitting in the black chairs, Hamlet used a megaphone to introduce events. He and the actors did a short procession playing pipes, and then one of the actors put a blindfold on Gertrude as she was dancing with Hamlet. She then danced with the player king, without necessarily knowing who it was. Then a devil-figure crept behind the chair that Claudius was sitting on and leapt up, joining in the action. He took over from the player king, and as he and Gertrude swivelled together to a Roy Orbison number, he gave her an apple – she correctly guessed what it was – and a necklace strung with pill bottles, which she recognised and ruefully acknowledged. By this time the player king was lying down on the far side of the stage, and the devil character came over to this side of the stage to get his vacuum hose pumped up for action. When Gertrude realised what it was, or what it represented, she wasn’t happy, and I think she left the action at that point. Meanwhile devil-man was lengthening his hose considerably, and it eventually became a snake which coiled its way over to the sleeping king to bite him in the ear. Things became very confused at this point, with Hamlet yelling some of the lines through the megaphone which made them hard to hear, and Claudius stalking off and calling for light in a remarkably reasonable voice. I don’t remember what everyone else got up to, I just had the impression of a load of people running around. Only Hamlet was left on the stage as I remember, and then they took the interval.

The restart was at the same point, with Horatio and then R&G talking with Hamlet. To be honest, I hadn’t noticed a lot of reactions to the play, and those I had seen were pretty muted, given the chaos around them. Fortunately with all the cutting we were soon through this bit. When Rosencrantz pointed out ‘My lord, you once did love me’, her anguish was very evident, and from Hamlet’s reaction I got the impression that he hadn’t known or had forgotten how she felt and was embarrassed and uncomfortable to be around her distress.

With Hamlet off to visit his mother, Claudius returned with R&G and sent them to prepare for the journey to England. Polonius passed through on his way to Gertrude’s closet, and then Claudius was finally left alone to reveal to us (or not) the level of his guilt. Would they cut this as well, or would we finally know the truth?

This scene took place in the office at the back. Claudius went in and closed the doors, and then treated us to as hammy a display of temper as I’ve seen on stage. He flung some papers off the desk, threw over one of the lockers and then stood in some ‘I’m suffering’ poses for a while, finally sinking onto his chair and putting his head in his hands – totally unbelievable. We did get some of the lines via the loudspeakers though. Hamlet came on during this part and spotted Claudius. He fiddled with some switches in a cabinet to the right of the office doors, and suddenly we could hear Claudius talking in the office. Not the full speech, but enough. Hamlet’s choice to leave him till a more suitable opportunity made sense at this point, and I found myself thinking about the contrast between the scientific emphasis on psychology and the spiritual references in the play, mostly made by Hamlet in this version. He was starting to come across as a religious obsessive, whose delusions made his choice not to kill Claudius appear rational to him. His disgust with the effect women had on men now came into focus as another aspect of this obsession, a puritanical streak which has been known to lead some people to become serial killers. I wasn’t sure if the production as a whole supported this interpretation, but it was an interesting angle to pursue.

Fortunately, the loudspeakers were still on after Hamlet left, so we could hear Claudius’s final lines of this scene. Then we were in Gertrude’s chamber, which strangely enough also seemed to be in this central hall. Polonius hid behind the hospital screen – three curtained sections on wheels – and was soon despatched. He must have been in a strange position behind the curtain, judging by the location of his stab wound, in the ear. Hamlet took on the ghost persona again briefly, after some more flickering from the lights; I think we just got a line or two about looking to Gertrude. The total lack of any other spiritual manifestation really put the emphasis on Hamlet’s madness in this scene; otherwise there’s nothing much to report.

After Claudius had learned of Hamlet’s slaughter of Polonius, we saw Hamlet drag the body onto the stage, looking for a place to hide it. He went over to the left-hand side of the stage and tested the floor tiles. Finding what he wanted, he pulled up a few tiles and the drainage cover under them – pause to mime a bad smell – and then lugged the body over to put it in the hole; I got the impression it had dropped some way down, so god knows how R&G were going to get it back again. He put the cover and the floor tiles back just in time before R&G came on stage. Rosencrantz seemed a bit huffy now, as I recall, but at least she’d stopped crying.

The next scene started with Claudius on the phone to some unspecified person talking about how tricky the situation was. Then Hamlet was brought on by two guards and put in a chair with wheels. As he was being strapped in, they did some of the usual dialogue between Hamlet and Claudius, and then Claudius gave him a tablet with some water to wash it down, followed by an injection – this man really takes no chances. However Steve spotted that Hamlet spat out the pill after he’d been left alone. Bizarrely enough, the attendants simply wheeled Hamlet over to the back of the stage on the right, where he’s conveniently placed, yet again, to turn on the loudspeaker and hear the end of Claudius’s phone call, which turned out to be with ‘England’. So Hamlet doesn’t need to read R&G’s commission to know what the king’s planning. Then he was wheeled back to the left side of the stage while one of the attendants fussed about with a blanket to put over him. As he was doing this, the TV in the office was showing something in black and white; when Hamlet asked the attendant what it was – the attendant had been looking at it himself – we got the very basic information about Fortinbras.

The next scene, scene V, covers Ophelia’s madness and Laertes’ return from France. I had been praying for a release from the boredom for some time, and finally I had a reprieve – I snoozed. So nothing to report for this bit, although the reprieve was short-lived, as even these scenes were cut to the quick (according to Steve who remained relatively alert throughout). Horatio received the letter from Hamlet in a room on the upper left-hand side of the stage, and read it out. I kept wanting her to have difficulty reading Hamlet’s writing – don’t know why, maybe I was just desperate for something to entertain me. They left immediately to take the other letters to the king, and shortly afterwards, after Claudius and Laertes had been discussing their plot centre stage, the messenger duly arrived at the office doors. As he gave the letters to the king, Horatio stood in the doorway observing what was happening, until the messenger was dismissed and she left as well.

The plotting continued without much of interest, and then Gertrude arrived to inform them of Ophelia’s death. The speech was delivered well enough, but it was the hem of Gertrude’s dress that I noticed – it was stained brown, as if she’d been with Ophelia at the time and tried to save her, but couldn’t. That little touch was one of the most moving things in this production for me, firing my imagination into overdrive as I pictured Gertrude’s despairing attempts to rescue the drowning girl. Or perhaps she got there too late, and stained her dress when she waded into the water to hold the dead body. Whatever, it was a touching moment.

For the burial scene a large square section of the stage floor was lifted up. Hamlet came on stage, I think after the four corners had been attached to the wires, and stood looking at the area of ground revealed by this manoeuvre. It was a pretty noisy process, and they added music or sound effects, so there was no dialogue during this bit – very wise. Horatio joined him at this point, with the floor out of the way, and with the gravedigger taking his place, Hamlet started discussing death and bones. Within the sandpit was a shallow trench with two piles of sand on either side and some white bones gleaming in the bottom. A blue box stood by the head of the grave to take these bones, and was gradually filled by the gravedigger, though he put one of the skulls to one side. As Hamlet recited the possibilities for each skull, the gravedigger inspected it, often scraping off some muck, before adding it to the box. It was slow and tedious, I’m sorry to say, until Hamlet actually struck up a conversation with the man. The standard humour went down pretty well, and then came the burial.

With such a small cast, there were never going to be many mourners, but I was still surprised to see only Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes turn up. The priest’s arrival was interesting; from the side of the sand pit, under the stage, a figure emerged as if from another grave. It was Polonius, still with the bloody gash on the side of his head but now wearing a crucifix and carrying a Bible as well. Hamlet was stunned to see him, putting his hand to his ear, an action which was mirrored by this new arrival. Suddenly, he snapped into being the priest, and looked at Hamlet strangely, while Hamlet was still clearly disturbed by this ‘apparition’. I’ve no idea what was meant by this, so I can’t say if it was effective or not, but it did use the necessary doubling in a thought-provoking way.

The burial itself was OK, though Gertrude only had some bits of a flower from her buttonhole to throw on the grave. Some of the sand was thrown on Ophelia, carefully avoiding her face, before Laertes told them to stop. The fight between Hamlet and Laertes was fine, and for once I felt that Hamlet wasn’t so much trying to best Laertes’s love for his sister as claim his own love to be the equal of it.

When the characters all left the stage, I wondered what they would do with the pit – nothing, was the answer. They left it as it was, with Ophelia’s body still lying there. Hamlet and Horatio came on at the back, and Hamlet brought Horatio up to speed with the grim fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Then things got a little spooky again. For Osric’s entrance, the dead body in the grave rose up and dusted herself off, to reveal that she was now in riding breeches and a shirt with a ruffled collar. Hamlet was transfixed again, and found it difficult to talk to this person, while Osric was remarkably calm – being dead seems to do that to people.

With the match agreed, some of the staff came on and started raking the sand to level it out. I thought this might mean they would have the fencing match in the pit, but it was not to be; they did it at the back, although the pit came in very handy by the end for all the dead bodies. The table with poisoned wine (no ‘union’ that I saw) was at the front of the pit, the rack of swords was at the back of the stage, and the fencing was done behind the pit. Laertes ended up in the pit when the enraged Hamlet chased and killed him, Gertrude collapsed towards the back of the stage, and Claudius ended up in the pit, don’t remember exactly how, although Hamlet not only stuck him with the sword but forced him to drink the remaining wine. The cups were cheap plastic – I mean, really! Hamlet died in Horatio’s arms down in the sandpit, and then Fortinbras turned up.

His men were dressed in black, and all wore black fencing masks. They opened out a large black plastic sheet to cover the pit over entirely, with Horatio walking out of the pit just ahead of it. They put Gertrude’s body in the pit, removing a corner of the sheet and then replacing it. They’d finished the lines by now, so this all seemed a bit ho-hum. It was worth it, though, as Fortinbras himself came to stand behind the pit for the final climactic moment of the play. As he stood there, he took off his mask, and it was….. Hamlet! At least, I assume it was Hamlet. It was Michael Sheen, of course, and perhaps he was Hamlet, perhaps Fortinbras was Hamlet’s half-brother, perhaps this was another ghost risen from the dead…… The staging didn’t make anything clear, but it was a dramatic moment, and a good finish to the performance.

Despite all these interesting choices, I wasn’t that taken with this production. I find the emphasis on the reality ‘experience’ doesn’t support the imaginative aspects of theatrical performance. In fact, I’m increasingly aware of how important the imagination is to theatre of all kinds, and I’m less impressed when productions seem intent on blocking it at every turn.

The psychological emphasis in this production was the main choice that I liked, but after thinking about it, and especially through writing these notes, I realised that they didn’t go as far as they could have. How about cutting Claudius’s guilt out altogether? The plot to kill Hamlet would then be a consequence of Hamlet’s madness rather than outright villainy on the part of Claudius. It’s an intriguing idea, but I don’t feel this production quite had the balls to go that far. Instead I felt they were doing the old striptease routine – setting up some question marks to provoke discussion amongst the audience, without realising that we actually discuss these plays quite a lot already, and what we want to see is the cast and director figuring out some answers – much more likely to provoke discussion, I find. Anyway, I’m glad I’ve seen this, and that it’s brought out some different staging choices to enrich my experience and understanding of the play. I’m also glad I don’t have to sit through it again, as the bits between the concept set pieces – e.g. ghost scene, burial scene – were very pedestrian.

The central performance by Michael Sheen was very good, and if the production had supported it more I would have been very happy. Despite the quality of the cast, however, the rest of the characters seemed two-dimensional compared to Hamlet, and that naturally affected my overall experience. Steve would have rated this slightly higher – 5 star – but otherwise we agreed that it was not as good as we’d hoped. I’m even considering ignoring future Young Vic productions, as I no longer seem to be part of their target audience; I’m confident I won’t be missed.

Our final conclusion is that this production was too much of a mish-mash. They tried to combine the realism of the asylum setting with an impressionistic version of the play, which left us feeling dissatisfied with the whole. For example, we weren’t sure if the characters in the play were actually people in the asylum hierarchy or inmates who were doing a bit of drama therapy. If Hamlet was the ‘ghost’ in the platform scene with Horatio and Marcellus, was he also the ‘ghost’ they saw at the start? And if it was just his madness, why did the lights flicker?

We’ve seen productions which raise such questions before, but the best of them lead to greater awareness and understanding of both the play and the production. For example, the touring Coriolanus we saw many years ago in the Swan, with Greg Hicks in the lead role, used a Japanese setting and incorporated a geisha-like court reporter noisily typing when Coriolanus was being interrogated by the Romans about his actions. Despite some choices which were puzzling on the night, we realised after some time to consider that they were showing a cultural change from old-style nobility to modern western-style decadence. This enhanced our understanding, and left us with an even greater respect for the performance and the work that had gone into it. The more we consider this Hamlet, however, the less sense it makes, and the less interesting the questions it raises become. This is usually a sign that not enough work has been done, which is a shame, as some of the ideas were worth exploring more fully.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

The Charity That Began At Home – January 2012


By St. John Hankin

Directed by Auriol Smith

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 12th January 2012

This was an enjoyable drawing-room comedy set in Edwardian England, showing the effects of good intentions gone too far. Lady Denison has invited an odd assortment of ‘difficult’ people to her country mansion for a few weeks’ stay. There’s General Bonsor, who could bore for Britain; Mrs Horrocks, ditto and with social pretensions to boot; Mr Firket, an unctuous little man who keeps trying to sell things to Lady Denison – a billiard table, a car, etc. – all the while promising large discounts from the regular price; Miss Triggs, a German governess (that’s a governess who teaches German) with a pronounced forward stoop and brusque manner; and Mr Verreker, an orphan who’s estranged from his uncle and whose departure from the army is as yet unexplained. Along with these we have Mr Hylton, whose views on the need to extend charity to those we don’t like have led Lady Denison to invite these people down, and Mrs Eversleigh, Lady Denison’s sister-in-law, whose forthright, practical and somewhat judgemental views counterpoint Mr Hylton’s perfectly. Add in Margery, Lady Denison’s daughter who is even more focused on helping others than her mother, and Soames, a butler whose lack of references led to Lady Denison hiring him, and you have all the ingredients necessary for an almost Wildean comedy of manners.

We got our first explanation of Lady Denison’s unusual invitation policy when she had a conversation with her sister-in-law shortly after she arrived. Mrs Eversleigh wasn’t impressed by what she heard, and was scornful of Mr Hylton and his ideas until she found out that he was actually well off, with a house in the country, and before you know it she decided that Lady Denison was simply going along with these crazy but relatively harmless notions in order to snare Mr Hylton as a husband for Margery, a plan of which she thoroughly approved. Lady Denison protested her innocence in vain; Mrs Eversleigh was very impressed by her tactical astuteness in the marriage stakes.

If we ignore William’s attempt to give her ladyship his notice shortly before tea, the first cracks in this perfection began to appear when Lady Denison’s maid, Anson, confessed off stage to being with child, the culprit (i.e. father) being Soames. Lady Denison naturally wanted her sister in law’s help to decide what to do, but she also wanted Mr Hylton’s views as well; she was finding this constant philanthropy difficult to keep up. She also wanted Anson to stop sniffling, and eventually sent her out of the room so she could sniffle elsewhere. Soames was relatively unrepentant, though he was happy to marry Anson if he could; sadly he was already married, so no solution there. Hylton was all for giving the man another chance, while Mrs Eversleigh was adamant that he should go (Anson could go back to her mother’s, apparently), and so the final decision was up to Lady Denison, who hated making decisions. Finally, she remembered the importance of charity and Soames stayed. I forget what happened to change this, perhaps the cook planning to give her notice, but the first half ended with Lady Denison changing her mind and deciding to dismiss Soames.

The next crack was a bit larger, and rocked even Mr Hylton to his core. It started with some news from the General about Mr Verreker, which he had learned from an old friend of his, a colonel in Verreker’s old regiment. Apparently Verreker misappropriated some of the mess money, and when his botched attempt to cover it up came to light, he was forced to resign. The way the General delivered this information was priceless. Move over, Polonius, and make room for a real windbag. It was lovely the way the general kept drifting off the point into irrelevant connections – who was married to whom, what year it was, etc. Lady Denison kept bringing him back to the point and we got the information eventually, but we also had a lot of laughs along the way.

Just as this information came to light, Margery and Mr Verreker arrived back in the drawing room. They’d been out for a walk with Miss Triggs and Mrs Horrocks, but Verreker had twisted his ankle, poor dear, and so Margery helped him back to the house. I’m assuming it was clear to everyone watching that this ‘twisted ankle’ was on a par with many footballing injuries, which appear to cause great suffering at the time, but can be recovered from in a split second if need be. The real bombshell was about to be dropped; Margery couldn’t wait to tell her mother the good news – she and Hugh (Verreker) were engaged!

For once, even Mr Hylton was against the engagement. His affection for Margery, clearly unexpressed, led him to argue fiercely that Verreker was not good enough for Margery, and Mrs Eversleigh had the unusual experience of agreeing with him. Lady Denison was suddenly decisive for once, and also insisted that Margery call off the engagement at once. But Margery was adamant; after all, she’d been brought up to believe that there’s nothing more important in life than helping others, so naturally she sees marriage as a way of helping some unfortunate man to improve himself. There would be no point in her marrying a good man, as he wouldn’t need the help she can give. And she already knows all about Verreker’s army experience – he cunningly told her all about it earlier, so that she would know the worst about him. To benefit the rest of us, he goes over his story again, and when he stood up to do this, Steve reckoned Margery looked at him a bit strangely, as if she couldn’t quite understand where his limp had gone.

Verreker’s version of his story naturally put him in a better light, but even so, Lady Denison was still keen to prevent the engagement. Hylton had changed his mind, though; he was back to his charitable ways and now supported the engagement, apologising for his rudeness earlier. With his backing, Lady Denison gave grudging consent, and as peace appeared to be breaking out, Mrs Eversleigh attempted to throw a spanner in the works by revealing to Verreker the real reason for his, and the others’ invitation to the house. He was very amused by it all, but unfortunately he decided to tell the General about it, to get back at him for grassing him up. As he explained the charitable philosophy behind the visitors’ invitations, he failed to notice Mrs Horrocks and Miss Triggs coming into the room behind him, and so they also found out the cruel truth – that they were invited not because they were wanted, but because they weren’t! (Mr Firket had already left, I assume, as I hadn’t seen him in this scene at all.)

Naturally these folk all left by the next train, so there were only five people left for dinner, and this was where the set was changed (see below). Verreker talked a lot in this scene, mainly about the tiring day he’s had helping Margery with her good works. There was a short power cut during which the candles came in very handy, and we learned that the chap in charge of the new-fangled generator was another of the lame ducks, prone to drinking. He’d improved, apparently, and soon the lights came back on – very helpful.

After the ladies left the men alone, they had a frank conversation about Margery and the likely future for Verreker and her after their marriage. Verreker had begun to realise what life with Margery would be like, and actually did the most charitable act of the whole play – he asked Margery to break off their engagement, as it would be miserable for the pair of them in a very short time. His comments about unhappy marriages were very perceptive, and again some of the ideas expressed seemed very modern in approach, but we’re used to being ‘surprised’ by Victorian and earlier works. Margery was a stubborn girl, for all her sweetness, but finally she had to agree to Verreker’s request. It was a difficult thing for her to understand, because despite her earnest desire to help others she really had very little understanding of other people’s lives. With Verreker confessing that he was actually only concerned for her, as he knew that he’d be alright regardless, the play ended, and we were able to show our appreciation.

With such a large cast, I found my view was blocked more than usual at the Orange Tree, but they really couldn’t help it. I was still able to follow the various reactions, and get much of the humour, and although it was a very gentle satire on posh do-gooders, there were a lot of funny lines, well delivered. The casual cruelty of the upper classes towards their servants – telling Anson to stop sniffling, for example – was contrasted with the declared intention to make the world a happier place, and the unintended consequences of their actions made for a good deal of the humour. The performances were excellent, as usual, and I found myself thinking about the situation a lot on the trip home, with more ideas and connections coming up all the time. It’s nice to find such an apparently gentle play has so much to it.

The set for the drawing room (first three scenes) consisted of ornate furniture on all sides; sofa, chairs, side tables and a plush rug in the middle of the floor. There were Wedgwood-style panels above three of the regular entrances and a horsy picture above the main entrance. The two regular entrances on the far side had been blocked off with seats, and two doorways, complete with fancy swags and muslin drapes, stood square on to the stage. There were two clusters of wall lights on the side panels on the opposite diagonal to the main entrance. On one of the tables sat a basket with some crochet in it – nice blue wool – and I did spot a bell push on one of the posts by the main entrance.

The dining room setting for the final scene was on a similar basis, with a central table, five chairs, a sideboard, another serving table, two large candles and the remnants of the final course. The real joy was in the way they changed the set over. I’ve commented on the way the Orange Tree do this sort of thing before (Chains); today we saw the servants come on and remove the sitting room furnishings that were no longer needed and replace them with the dining room necessaries. Several of them were played by cast members who had played guests in the earlier scenes – the cook had been Mrs Horrocks, while the housekeeper had been the governess – and they each brought a touch of character to the process. I felt like applauding at the end of it, but they were quickly into the scene itself, so we didn’t.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Written On The Heart – January 2012 (1)


By David Edgar

Directed by Greg Doran

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 5th January 2012

The opening scene of this new play by David Edgar was well complicated, with all sorts of historical characters, done up in drag most of ‘em, chattering on about different bits of the Christian Bible and which English word they should use for which Hebrew, Latin or Greek one. This was a hastily summoned meeting of several of the important members of the translation committee (who were 54 men in total) with the Bishop of Ely (at his London residence apparently) to finalise the last few controversial verses of the new King James Bible. It was hard to follow and a little dry at times, but as we learned in the post-show session, David Edgar had likened this bit to The West Wing, where no quarter is given to the uninitiated audience, and characters talk freely and fast in full blown jargon until we catch up.  Fortunately there was also some humour to keep us going, mainly through the political aspects of the different choices, and with the Bishop refusing to put in an appearance for a while (busy praying) the stage gradually cleared so that we could savour some discussions between just two or three characters at a time. Much easier to follow, and now I felt I was getting a handle on the debates. A lot was at stake, literally in the case of the Protestant Martyrs burned by Queen Mary, and it was enlightening to see such passions involved in what to us is now a very abstruse and academic subject.

This first scene was set in London in 1610. The next scene took us to Flanders in 1536, while the third scene, set in Yorkshire in 1586, bridged the gap between then and 1610, to which we returned for the final scenes. For Flanders, a small square platform rose up from the bowels of the stage, containing a table and chair, a stool, an unlit stove, and William Tyndale. This was Tyndale’s prison cell, and as he was due to be executed very soon, a Catholic priest had been sent to persuade him to recant his ‘heretical’ views, particularly those relating to his translation of the Bible into English. He refused, and in his heartfelt urging of the importance of a Bible that a ploughboy could read for himself, he converted the young priest to his way of thinking. As a result, Tyndale’s translations of several more books of the Old Testament  were rescued by the priest, just in the nick of time. The guard, helpfully setting a fire in the hitherto unused stove, was planning to use Tyndale’s work as kindling; the priest deftly substituted his own now worthless papers about Tyndale’s ‘crimes’, and secured the precious translations for posterity.

They had one minor problem with this scene when the candle, blown out to distract the guard, unhelpfully went out a second time before its cue, but never mind. I did find the long opening section of this scene a bit too gloomy, in terms of the lighting rather than the mood, but I appreciate it’s a tough call when Tyndale’s main complaint is that he hasn’t been allowed any artificial light in his cell, thereby hindering his work. They had to give us a lot of information at the start of this scene, to establish who was who, when, what had happened, etc., and on the whole this worked OK, although I was surprised that Tyndale had to explain what the Pentateuch was to a priest. However I know a lot of that was to explain it to the audience, and I’m sure many of them were grateful for that. Oliver Ford Davies explained at the post-show that with David Edgar, you had to keep pushing him to explain things so the audience can follow what’s going on. He’s worked with David on a number of plays now, so he spoke from experience, and with feeling.

The next scene, in Yorkshire, is set during Elizabeth’s reign, and shows the visit of a group of clergy to a small church which does not appear to have done everything it could to remove all traces of Popery. There are still stained glass windows, pictures of saints have been reapplied to the whitewashed panels within the building (intruders, apparently) and there’s no record of the disposal of the gold chalice or some ornate vestments. The visiting group have the authority to punish the churchwarden for these offences, and one chap, a clerk, is just about to smash the windows when a local lord and his wife turn up and try to put a stop to it. It doesn’t help that this Lord isn’t as familiar with the Ten Commandments and Articles of Faith of the Church of England as he ought to be to take Communion, but at least he distracts the clerk from his mission of destruction. With some stiff warnings to the errant churchwarden, and his promise to get rid of the remaining Catholic accoutrements, the group is relatively satisfied with their work.

At the start of this scene, the young priest from Tyndale’s cell met the Archdeacon who leads the visiting group, and after a little while I realised this was the same man at two stages in his career. The archdeacon used Tyndale’s very words when expounding on the necessary changes to religious practices, and it was very interesting to see that, despite being ignored and rejected during his lifetime, Tyndale’s approach had finally become the accepted norm in England. During the course of this scene, we also get to see a discussion between the clerk, a rampant Puritan, and the Chaplain, who turns out to be a younger version of the Bishop of Ely – this is how the scenes bridge between the time zones. I didn’t follow all of their conversation, but I did gather that the Puritans were keen to disassociate themselves from the ‘impure’ in society (judge not, least ye be judged?) and the chaplain was strongly against that idea, seeing the divisions it would cause. In the second half, which is all set in London, we get flashbacks to this earlier time, with the clerk now in chains being visited by the chaplain, who has been given the same task as the young priest in the second scene – get the man to confess to save his soul. It’s not entirely clear, but it seems that the Bishop of Ely is full of guilt over his treatment of this man, whom he may have betrayed to the authorities, and whose fate he almost seems to relish. To return to the end of this third scene, the chaplain buys the chalice off the churchwarden, claiming that he can get a better price for it in York than the churchwarden could get locally, and then as the Bishop comes on stage for the end of the first half (we have covered a lot of ground, haven’t we?) passes the chalice to him.

The second half begins with the Bishop at prayer, yet again, kneeling at the altar at the back of the stage. Samuel Ward, one of the translators with a serious concern about allowing any hint of Catholic terminology into the King James Version, brings on a pile of books, a pile which he’d taken from the Bishop’s servant to take to the Bishop at the end of the first scene, another nice link. They have another chat about the choices facing them; the Bishop just wants to wash his hands of the whole thing and leave the decisions to others, while Ward is vociferous in his convictions about how a number of the verses should be translated.

Then things get a little more complicated. After Ward leaves, the Bishop still wants help with the situation, and suddenly hears a voice speaking to him. A moment or two later, Tyndale (the ghost of) walks on stage, and there follows a most entertaining conversation between the two men, with the Bishop bringing Tyndale up to date on the rash of English Bibles since his time (and even an officially approved one during Tyndale’s last year on earth!) and Tyndale having a good old rant about how much of the Catholic tradition is still flourishing in the ostensibly Protestant Church of England. It really brought home both how much of Tyndale’s battle had been won and how much had been lost.

During their conversation, we see the flashback to the younger version of the Bishop, visiting the clerk in prison, and when that finishes Tyndale has gone and the translators have turned up. Tyndale’s dictation to the Bishop, resolving the contested verses, is seized upon by the rest of the committee members as giving them the finality they need. Unfortunately the paper gets blotted with ink (the Bishop being clumsy) and they can’t read it all.

Prince Henry turns up, the Prince of Wales, with his younger brother Charles, the future king. With Henry taking charge of the discussion, the decisions are made surprisingly quickly for once, and the resulting hodgepodge, which includes the classic ‘swords into ploughshares’, is quickly taken to the printers. With the departure of the Royal entourage and most of the committee members, the Bishop has a change of heart, and accepts his servant’s offer to write a letter at his dictation to the Archbishop of Canterbury to suggest the revisions may themselves need to be revised. His servant, a woman who was brought up on the English Bible and the stories of the martyrs – her grandmother was one of those burned as a heretic in Mary’s reign – does the writing OK, but she gets very upset at the idea of changing the word of God. Her fanatical zeal for leaving things as they are (in which case the Bible she adores would still be in Latin, if not Hebrew) is terrifying, and gives a clear link to some of the religious issues facing us today, where a little learning coupled with passionate beliefs can have horrific results. However, she does agree to take the letter, and after she leaves, the Bishop starts looking up the sources for some lines from Genesis. Tyndale makes a handy reappearance to help him, and the play finishes with these men facing each other over the texts on the table.

Although I found it hard going at the start, once we got into Tyndale’s story it all flowed much better. The humour was lovely, and there was lots of it. I felt for the poor folk in Yorkshire; the Lord’s wife expressed the difficulty so many people had when they were told to worship one way, then it was changed, then changed back again, and yet again. They just wanted to be left in peace to do things the way they’d always done them. The linking of the scenes with the younger and older versions of characters was nicely done, and again the author hasn’t taken sides in this debate, just shown us the sort of things that went on to increase our understanding; we can all make up our own minds about the issues, of course.

English: William Tyndale, Protestant reformer ...

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The crucial aspect of the whole piece is the way that Tyndale (right) emphasises the heart rather than the head; this stops it being just an intellectual debate which could have become very boring. I found I could relate to the characters and their situations, and it left me feeling I understood more of that period and the huge importance placed on theological ideas. Earthly kingdoms were at risk, never mind heavenly ones. I hadn’t realised how much I expected to hear the King James Version, and how odd some of the others sounded, although I found I preferred some of the alternatives on offer and I have a sense of liberation now that I don’t have to take any translation as gospel!

The set was pretty impressive, making the Swan feel very much like a church for most of the performance. There were carved arches with central double doors screening off the rear of the stage; these were dressed differently for the different locations. Four large circular candelabras were lit at one point, and apart from the platform for scene two there were tables and chairs brought on and off as needed. The costumes were period – this led to one approving comment from a member of the audience later – and there was music between scenes. The singers were good, but there was a little too much dissonance in the music for me.

The performances were all excellent, especially those of the two central characters, Tyndale (Stephen Boxer) and the Bishop of Ely (Oliver Ford Davies). Almost the entire cast came out for the post-show, and there were some very good questions again tonight. The cast had eleven weeks for rehearsals, but this was split between two plays, so they had to move pretty sharpish from one rehearsal room to the other at times. They covered the difficulty of the massive amounts of exposition in the play, not to mention the relatively undramatic nature of the story, and they did a lot of research themselves into various related subjects. Jodie McNee, who played the Bishop’s servant Mary, researched the Protestant Martyrs, and discovered the story of a plough girl who was burned as a heretic. With Tyndale’s emphasis on ploughboys being able to read the word of God, this girl’s story was added to the script during Mary’s passionate speech at the end of the first scene.

There was a lot more that I don’t remember now, but it was a thoughtful discussion with plenty of humour, as was the play. Having slept on it, I reckon this is such a detailed piece of work that it really needs to be seen at least twice to fully appreciate it; good job we’ve already booked.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at