Hamlet – January 2012

4/10

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 ilovetheatre.me

The Charity That Began At Home – January 2012

7/10

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 ilovetheatre.me

Written On The Heart – January 2012 (1)

8/10

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 ...

Image via Wikipedia

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 ilovetheatre.me

The Heart Of Robin Hood – January 2012

10/10

By David Farr

Directed by Gisli Örn Gardarsson

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 4th January 2012

This was a fantastic Christmas show for kids of all ages! Written by David Farr, the story was based on the Yorkshire version of Robin Hood, back before he became a good-looking defender of the poor in revealing tights. Admittedly this Robin was also good looking, but his leather trousers weren’t as revealing as tights, and at the start of the story he’s not remotely interested in giving anything to the poor at all. It’s only through the intervention of Marion, or Martin of Sherwood as she became, that his heart began to open and he turned into the hero we’ve been led to expect in recent years. There was a post-show chat (naturally) and I’ve included some of the comments from that in my description below.

David Farr brought in a creative team from Iceland to help him realise his ideas on the main Stratford stage. This was an excellent choice. Börkur Jonsson designed an amazing set which really contributed to the physicality and magic of the performance. At the back was a steeply sloping wall of artificial grass, which came down in the region of the old proscenium arch. It had several sections within it which could be lowered to form platforms which represented various bits of the castle, and there were also holes through which several heads appeared for the cathedral scene – more on that story later. Above the stage hung the branches of a mighty oak; mighty scary to sit in, apparently, especially when the artificial snow made the branches wet! But these actors are tougher than they look, except for the excellent actor, also Icelandic, who played Pierre, the clown character. They had planned to set the opening scene actually in the branches, but apart from realising that the actors were hard to see up there, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Darri) has a greater affinity for solid ground, and as he opens the play, that was that as far as Pierre was concerned.

The rest of the stage, the walkways and even the steps up to the stage in front, were all covered in artificial grass. There was a pond to the right of centre stage, with a few tufts of grass masking it from our view. The water tank wasn’t that deep, we were told later, but although the water was warm at the start, it got very cold by the end, so poor Alice, who spends lots of time in there in the final scene, ended up shivering and wanting the rest of the cast to hurry up and finish. The surface of the stage was all lumpy – god knows how there weren’t more accidents, although they did say there had been a few during the run. (The main problem seemed to be friction burns when they were learning how to slide down the grassy slope in the first few weeks.) Apart from all of this, there were at least a couple of trapdoors, one to the left of the stage, and another in the front right corner – they’re making good use of the excellent resources they have in their new theatre – and lots of ropes everywhere for vertical entrances and exits.

The performance style was really interesting. It’s a darker piece than I expected for a family show, but they kept it light through massive amounts of humour all the way through. Of course the kids loved the yucky bits, such as a tongue being cut out and waved around a lot, and given the nature of children’s stories through the ages, this wasn’t going to give them any nightmares. But there were also bits for us ‘grown-ups’ to enjoy, such as the reference to Jaws – a shark’s fin crossing the pond while the music played – and even a reference to Malvolio in Twelfth Night when Prince John is being taken away at the end and says “I’ll have my revenge on every one of you”. But mostly the humour crossed the age boundaries and gave us all a lot of fun. One of my favourite scenes was the puppetry session, with the recently deceased Guy of Gisborne (Tim Treloar) being manipulated by Little John to have a silent (on his part) conversation with Prince John. It was a masterpiece of movement, with a final rude gesture to the departing Prince causing a lot of laughter.

The play opened with Pierre introducing himself to us, and framing the story as an explanation of how he, a posh servant with fancy clothes and meringue-styled hair, had come to be a country lover with simple tastes. Pierre is the servant of Marion, daughter of the Duke of York who is away in the Holy Land, helping King Richard on crusade. She’s just received a letter from her father which says he’s going to be another year at least, and with her guardian wanting to marry her off, and Prince John due to visit the castle, she decides to head off into the forest and seek out Robin Hood. She may be a sensible sort of tomboy, but she still has romantic notions about the man, thinking he’s a noble outlaw who steals from the rich to give to the poor. We’ve already seen him stealing from a couple of rich folk, the very folk who bring Marion the letter from her father, and Robin showed no sign of helping anyone but himself. When Marion finds him, she realises the mistake she’s made, and leaves the forest temporarily. However, when she nears the castle, her sister finds her and delivers the news that Prince John has arrived and wants to see Marion straightaway. Knowing that he intends to make her his bride, she dons a disguise and returns to the forest as Martin of Sherwood, determined to be the noble outlaw she believed Robin Hood to be, by stealing from the rich to help the poor.

Thwarted in his ambition to meet his future bride, Prince John isn’t too pleased. He’s in the area for more than his wedding, though – his men are out collecting the Holy Contribution, which the Prince says is to help his brother in the Holy Land. Not all the locals are happy with this extra tax burden, and one man, Robert Summers, is actively speaking out against it. To make an example, he and his two children are arrested; after he is hanged, his son is made to proclaim his own father a bad person, and not only support the Holy Contribution, but even express his devotion to Prince John himself. Of course, young Jethro Summers only does it to save his sister, Sarah, but their future is anything but secure.

Meanwhile, back in the forest, and after a few weeks of Martin’s new rob-the-rich-feed-the-poor regime, Robin and his men are finding it hard to rob anyone, as all the carriages passing through the forest have already been picked clean. This is an affront to their territorial rights as outlaws, so they disguise themselves as rich travellers to smoke out their competitor. When Martin (with Pierre, who’s now called Peter) tries to rob them, they reveal themselves, and Martin realises she’s taken on more than she can handle. When Robin and his men insist that Martin and Peter strip naked so they can steal their clothes, Martin is terrified that she’ll be discovered, and makes a rash gamble. She bets her clothes that she can beat one of them in a fight, and loses. Despite this, she’s still determined not to give herself away, so she proposes another bet, with the stake this time being her life. Robin accepts, and after an even harder struggle, she’s beaten again. Before he can execute her, though, a peasant woman arrives, asking for her help to rescue the two Summers children who are being held in the castle.

For the first time, with two children’s lives at risk, even Robin’s men are keen to help somebody other than themselves. Robin just wants to get on with the execution, but the pleas from all and sundry make him rethink, especially when Martin claims to know a way to get into the castle. When Jethro had made his false proclamation to save his sister, the executioner who had been summoned to convey the explicit threat, is ordered away again. Only it isn’t the real executioner, it’s Robin Hood, and his men are with him. After a big fight, they rescue the children and escape back to the forest, leaving Prince John fuming.

There was a short scene which in the text was meant to be the Duke of York, Marion’s father, speaking a message to Marion to tell her that Prince John is planning an uprising, and that he’s on his way to prevent it. He tells her to do all she can to delay things until he gets there. In performance, it was done by her guardian, Makepeace, reading the letter that’s arrived for her, and naturally being disturbed by the news. Rather rashly, he confronts John in a later scene, and this leads to his tongue being cut out by Gisborne, Prince John’s right hand psychopath, and as nasty a piece of work as the Prince himself, if not nastier.

In the forest, however, Martin ends up chatting to Robin about his no women in the forest policy. She discovers that he did meet a woman, once, who was different to all the rest, and it’s clear he means Marion herself. Unfortunately, she’s in no position to reveal herself to him, but she does a short while later, to the dog, Plug. She doesn’t realise that Sarah has been listening until she turns around and sees her standing there. Sarah hasn’t spoken since her father’s death though, so her secret’s pretty safe, for now.

Gisborne, on John’s orders, has inflamed the locals to hunt down and kill the demonically possessed children. At the same time Alice, the Duke of York’s other daughter, is out in the forest looking for her sister when she’s surprised by the outlaw band. Marion, still disguised as Martin, gets into an argument with her and the others let her get on with it, but it soon turns out they’re all in deep trouble. The townsfolk have them surrounded, and are coming for the children. Marion realises her only chance of saving them is to return to the castle as herself and persuade Prince John to spare their lives; she doesn’t actually spell it out, but we can see what she’s planning.

Back at the castle, she discovers that Makepeace has lost his tongue, and he helps her to get changed into a posh frock. Prince John is delighted to see her; although he’s not keen on women having a say in any important matter, he is swayed by her request for the children’s lives to be spared as a gift to his new bride. Despite her revulsion, she goes along with the Prince’s wishes, even though he’s already set their wedding date for Christmas day, only three days away! In the forest, with the children captured, Gisborne comes to the rescue just in time with the order from Prince John. Apparently the demons in the children can be removed by a spot of holy water shaken onto them, which Gisborne does, reciting some Latin as he does so. The “expelliamus” which this line started with was an entertaining reference to Harry Potter. Gisborne’s expression was less than delighted – murdering children isn’t just another job for him, it’s a real vocation – but he lets Robin take the children with him, as he has no orders to prevent it.

With only three days to go till the wedding, there’s a lot to do. Most importantly, Marion has to be shriven so that she can be pure on her wedding day. For this reason, she has to visit the Cathedral and meet with the Bishop. In the forest, Robin and his men are getting very worried about Martin – there’s been no sign of him since he left on his secret mission to stop the children being killed. When Much brings the news of the impending marriage between Prince John and Marion, both Pierre and Robin are appalled, though they try to cover up their concern. To help Marion, Pierre suggests they try to rescue Martin, and Robin actually agrees immediately. Pierre is left behind to take care of the children, and the others head off to the castle.

In the Cathedral, the Bishop’s face is peeking through the central hole in the ramp, with one hand sticking out of each side hole, several feet away! He’s hearing confessions, and the first three who come in are obviously Much, Will and Little John. Robin is next, and his confession is for a sin he’s about to do, i.e. replace the Bishop so he can talk with Marion. Once he’s done this, it’s his face peering through the central hole in the back wall, with two hands appearing at the side holes. His men don wimples and look out through two other holes which appeared higher up and to each side, and when Little John joins in, his hole is below Robin’s. (Do behave.)

Marion’s ‘confession’ was more a chat about Martin, and how Robin could get him out of the castle. They arranged something – didn’t catch all the details – and then Prince John returned to take her away. In the meantime, Gisborne has attempted to capture the children, and although he hasn’t managed that, Pierre has lost them as well, and is in despair. The children are wandering through the forest, and come across the Green Man, who descends on a rope and gives them three wishes. The first was for food, which they’d already eaten. The second was to see their father; their father appeared again and walked over to the front of the stage where a woman was doing some rope work. I realised it was their mother before the Green Man identified her. Jethro’s third wish was for Sarah to speak again – not in the Green Man’s power to grant.

When Robin returned to the forest, he discovered Pierre on his own, and realised that he hadn’t taken enough care of the children. Gisborne also turns up and Robin kills him, which gives him the idea for how to get into the castle. They turn up at the castle gates, with Robin apparently killed and hanging upside down, while Much and Will are off to one side, apparently tied up. This was where Gisborne did his puppet routine, and very funny it was too. Of course, Marion is very upset because she believes what she sees, but when she approaches the ‘corpse’ she learns the truth.

It’s looking good for her escape now, as all she has to do is a quick change into Martin’s clothes and be off with Robin. But unfortunately Alice turns up and spoils the whole thing, calling for the guards. With Robin recaptured, properly this time, Martin goes to fetch Marion, who does her best to save Robin. John isn’t feeling so friendly this time, though, and actually slaps her for suggesting he spare Robin’s life. Nasty.

Fortunately, Pierre has managed a bit of robbery on his own. He steals Lord something-or-other’s identity, and by pretending to be on John’s side, gets the guard in charge of the prisoners to give him his gun and then the keys, enabling him to free Robin and his men. During the wedding, when the bishop asks if anyone knows of any reason, etc., Sarah finally speaks again, and tells everyone that Marion is actually in love with another man. John is busy trying to get back to the wedding ceremnoy, but when he calls in the soldiers to take the girl away, who should they be but Robin, Much and Will! Big fight, a very big fight. Alice ends up in the pond (described as the font in the text), and Robin, Marion and the others defeat the Prince of Evil just before the Duke of York turns up to arrest him. Despite Robin’s complete lack of social status, the Duke bows to the inevitable (he clearly knows his daughter well) and accepts Robin as his future son-in-law. Given their history, the only place for the wedding is in the forest, so they all head off there. At the very end, Alice suddenly sticks her head up out of the pond, clambers out, and realising we’re all looking at her, smoothes back her hair and starts to preen herself on the way out, no easy task as she’s dripping wet and only has one shoe on. A very funny ending.

That’s just the basics of the story, an amazing amount to cram in, but they did it so well and so fast that we took it all in and the time just flew by. There was a lot of humour in the performance, and a lot of music, with many of the cast playing instruments as well as acting, throwing themselves down the ramp, etc, occasionally at the same time! The animals were particularly good, with an actor and a musical instrument combining to represent the various creatures. For example, there was a white duck which was one of the actresses done up in a white tutu affair and playing a clarinet(?) waddling across the stage. She was very flexible – squatting and walking at the same time isn’t easy. This was during a scene with Prince John talking to either Makepeace or Gisborne. The Prince tried to shoot the duck, but it ducked out of sight down one of the trapdoors each time, so he missed. The other character kept handing the Prince another loaded gun, so he had several goes, but we were glad the duck got the better of him and survived. Actually, Steve thought the white bird was a swan (we were in Stratford, after all) while I thought it was a goose. We were able to get the correct identification afterwards.

There was also a boar which attacked the children in the forest; this was an actor with a cello, and after they killed the boar – a brave act by young Jethro – they kept the cello while the actor slipped off stage, and roasted it over a fire. All of this was very evocative, but the best of all was the performance of Plug the dog (Peter Bray). Similar to Crab in The Two Gentlemen Of Verona during the RSC Complete Works Festival, Jethro’s dog was played by an actor, who used a woodwind instrument (possibly an oboe?) to make the dog noises. He was great fun, cocking his leg at the audience, and generally being a regular dog. Of course he snarled at the baddies and bit Gisborne, and we all loved him enormously.

There were too many good bits to record them all, but I’ll just mention a few extra funny moments. There was the wonderful way Pierre said “We!” when Marion was talking about how “we” could go to the forest, etc. It was a lovely performance all the way through by Darri, and I do hope they can cast him in something else in the future – he’d make a great Falstaff. And when Marion first met Robin in the forest, his men were all off stage, but Little John, played by a very short actor, Michael Walter, rose up through the trapdoor on the left as she was saying “you and your merry…”. She paused, looking at him, and then finished the line with “man”. Very funny. When Marion first appears as Martin, she’s spotted by Prince John, who chats to her for a bit. She ends up with a limp, thanks to a contribution from Pierre, and the Prince ends up believing her attitudes towards women are entirely in tune with his own. He’s almost overcome at one point – it’s so rare for him to find anyone who understands his point of view. Apparently David Farr allowed the actors free rein to embellish the characters themselves, and Martin Hutson, as Prince John, certainly brought out the Prince’s inner psychopath very clearly. Alice (Flora Montgomery) was also very funny, being completely obsessed with appearance and social status. She’d have been more than happy to marry Prince John herself, but he did have some standards.

The rest of the cast all did a good job too, and the whole production was really entertaining. It didn’t matter that the fight scenes were a bit confusing, that I couldn’t make out all of the dialogue, nor that there was a lot of chatter from young voices to contend with; it was such good fun, and had so much energy all the way through, that I totally enjoyed myself. And from the enthusiastic questions from the youngsters afterwards at the post-show, so had they.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me