Uncle Vanya – March 2012


By Anton Chekov, translated by Michael Frayn

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Friday 30th March 2012

Pretty impressive for the first preview performance. Overall I would say this is a balanced production, giving us plenty of humour along with an understanding of the characters.

The set was expansive (for the Minerva) and detailed. A wall of windows along the back of the stage had a couple of doors in it. Trees were visible through the windows, and there were several dotted around the stage as well, with one right up against the seats over on the left side. [From the post-show in April, one woman would happily have chopped it down!]  The first scene is set outside, so there was a large table with chairs, the samovar on a table over on the right at the back with a couple of chairs, and not much else.

The set changes took a long time, but the results were effective. The dining room had a carpet, the main table and chairs plus some others, and ceiling lamps were lowered as well. The drawing room was much the same, but had an extra carpet and a chaise longue, while Vanya’s room had a small table for the doctor’s stuff and lots of paperwork was laid out on the main table for Sonya and Vanya to work on. The costumes were all fine, and Yelena had a new outfit for every scene, as befitted her role of trophy wife.

There were a few problems tonight. I couldn’t always make out the doctor’s dialogue, although everyone else seemed pretty clear. I would have cast Sonya and Yelena the other way round, as Dervla Kirwan (Sonya) is much better looking than any other Sonya I’ve seen, and Lara Pulver didn’t radiate the glamour required for a Yelena – this may come with time. Timothy West stumbled a bit over his lines in the third act, a bit more than we can allow for an elderly character, but again this should improve with time.

During the second act, when Sonya interrupted Vanya, Astrov and Telegin singing their rowdy song I was reminded of Twelfth Night, and the similarity was very strong in this performance. Throughout the play I felt the characters were each living in their own universe, with little or no contact between them, and although this is a valid way to present these people, it doesn’t help me to engage with them as much as I’d like to. I found myself wondering if Chekov’s five plays are perhaps done too often, given that there isn’t the same scope to reinterpret them as there is with Shakespeare’s work, and he wrote over thirty plays! I certainly didn’t feel I was discovering anything new from tonight’s offering although it was enjoyable, and it will be interesting to see how the production comes on when we see it again in April.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Definitely The Bahamas – March 2012


By Martin Crimp

Directed by Martin Crimp

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 29th March 2012

This was the older of the two plays in this afternoon’s performance, and for us it was the more enjoyable piece. Done originally as a radio play, it worked very well in this staging; the cast set up the space as a radio studio, with tables and chairs at diagonally opposite corners, a sound desk far left from us, microphones suspended above each table and not much else. Obi Abili sat by the sound desk, but didn’t have any lines.

Done as a rambling reminiscence, we gradually learned about these two characters, Milly (Kate Fahy) and Frank (Ian Gelder), their son and daughter ( I forget their names now) and Marijke (Lily James), their au pair. The brightness of their opening chatter took a darker turn, with hints of sexual abuse, but while there were fewer laughs later on, the whole play had a lot of insight into human nature which made it interesting for us.

The humour mainly came through the communication between Milly and Frank, and after all our years of marriage, Steve and I could recognise some of the patterns. They argued over whether an incident had happened in one place or the other, and although the conversation had moved on some time before, when Milly went out for a moment, Frank returned to the point of contention with “It was definitely the Bahamas”, which got a good laugh.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Play House – March 2012


By Martin Crimp

Directed by Martin Crimp

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 29th March 2012

This was an odd little play, a two hander about a young couple just starting out in married life. Done in short scenes, there was no definite storyline, just two declarations of love to bookend the piece and lots of odd snippets in between. There was an overall sense of the woman having a troubled past, with family members who had mental and emotional difficulties, while the man seemed more straightforward but did seem to enjoy being trampled on at times. The scenes spilled over into fantasy at times, so we weren’t always sure what had actually happened, but there was enough energy in the performances to keep us interested at least.

With a play like this it is all down to the performances, and the cast today did an excellent job of bringing these two people to life. Lily James as Katrina and Obi Abili as Simon made them believable and engaging, especially when they danced. They began to set up the props for the play themselves, before the start. There were two long benches, on the far left and right hand sides of the space. They each brought on various items and placed them carefully, and I noticed a few adjustments going on. Lily would place something down and Obi would move it slightly, only for Lily to readjust again next time she passed by. I don’t know if this was intentional or not.

The items were used in the various scenes, including a manky fridge which was brought on to be cleaned for an early scene. At the end, the benches and items were thrown around to create a barricade, with Katrina and either a baby or a doll behind it, and Simon attempting to communicate with her from the other side. It wasn’t clear whether she had a doll, or had taken someone else’s baby – from the timeline, it couldn’t be hers as she wasn’t noticeably pregnant a few weeks earlier. Either way, it was a fitting end to this strange play, and although it didn’t do a lot for me, it passed the time well enough.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Farewell To The Theatre – March 2012


By Richard Nelson

Directed by Roger Michell

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Wednesday 28th March 2012

This was a disappointment. From a quick scan of the program, I was aware that the author was writing about a period in the life of Harley Granville Barker when he considered giving up the theatre for good; this play was apparently using that situation to present a discussion of theatre’s pros and cons, but I have to say I wouldn’t have known that from actually watching the piece. If that was the author’s intention then there’s some serious rewriting to be done. I don’t mind the lack of action, and the actors all brought their characters to life really well, it’s just that I wasn’t engaged with them or their situations at any time, although the death of Frank’s wife was a little moving.

Apart from the writing, one difficulty I had was hearing the dialogue when the actors weren’t facing forward. The acting space had been opened up, removing some of the seats to provide a vast cavernous area for both the garden and the refectory scenes. This may well have contributed to the lack of atmosphere, and certainly didn’t help the actors with their delivery. I could hear them perfectly well when they were facing towards me, so the set was presumably the main culprit in the loss of volume.

Mind you, I have to confess to nodding off a bit during the early section of this play. There was so little of interest happening on stage that I just couldn’t stay awake. The energy picked up a bit when Henry arrived, and I was fine after that till the end, although it’s always rash to have an actor say something like ‘I wondered when it was all going to end’ – you and me both, sunshine. Steve confirmed that I hadn’t missed much; he enjoyed it more than I did, but still felt it lacked sparkle. It didn’t lack coughing, mind you; not the best audience today.

The play was set in America in 1916. There were a number of references to the war, but even so it didn’t seem to impinge too much on these people’s lives. Most of the characters were English, but had lived in America for many years. Barker himself only came to America for the occasional tour, lecturing and the like, and there was also one American student, Charles. The location was a college campus in Williamstown, where Barker was staying with Henry, a professor of English at the college, and his sister Dorothy, the widow of a professor who had apparently kept a mistress on the same campus. Dorothy had been so unpopular that no one had told her of this other woman until the day of her husband’s funeral, and since that day she had worn black all the time to compete with the other ‘widow’ in a game of mourning brinkmanship. Henry was another who had done the lecture circuit until being offered this professorship; now he was being systematically abused by the head of the English department through public ridicule and humiliation, but as he had nowhere else to go he had to put up with it. Dorothy’s cousin, George, was also staying with them; he was happy to eat the free meals and still keep in with the head of English in case there was a chance of snaffling Henry’s position – he wasn’t a nice man.

The guests included Barker himself, Frank who was a Dickens man – did readings from the books – and Beatrice, an ex-actress and lover of young Charles. Her infatuation with him made her blind to everything else, including the vicious treatment meted out to Henry after a performance of Twelfth Night by the student group, Cap and Bells. Barker was livid about it, going into all the details for Dorothy when he arrived back in the darkened refectory. I almost felt he went too far, but she needed to know, as did we. Her sharp comment later to Beatrice, that Henry‘s message was just to get her out of the room, was well deserved, as Beatrice kept going on about how wonderful Charles’s performance had been (he played Feste). I liked Barker’s bitchy comments to Charles which sounded like compliments, as by this time we’d learned that Charles had made a complaint about Henry being drunk during rehearsals in order to become president of the Cap and Bells, a post in the gift of the head of English.

As a study of the bitchiness and political in-fighting within American academic circles, a subject Richard Nelson knows well and has covered before, this was fine, but as a debate on the usefulness or otherwise of theatre, it was seriously lacking. The play ended out in the garden where it began, with the other characters giving Frank a welcome home present in the form of a Mummers’ play. It was short and livelier than the rest of the play, so we finished on a more upbeat note but it did seem to come out of nowhere, despite Barker’s little speech about recognising that theatre could do some good after all.

Although I didn’t enjoy this production much, I would be willing to give the play another chance as long as I don’t have to travel so far to see it. I would be much more interested in seeing the Granville-Barker original, mind you – hopefully some company will stage it again, as we missed the recent production at the Rose.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King Lear – March 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company: Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Saturday 24th March 2012

Wow! This not only came on, it was significantly better than the earlier experience. I’ve upped the rating to the max, but it can’t really reflect just how good this performance was, with much more detail in all the portrayals, and a tremendous level of energy for the last performance of the run. I’ll cover as many points as I can remember, but I won’t be able to get it all down.

To begin with, I forgot to mention the music which was used so effectively in this production. It was mostly drums and trumpets, with fanfares for the arrival of important people and the like. We were also ‘treated’ to somebody’s musical ringtone for several seconds tonight which was a bit distracting, especially as it occurred during the bit where Regan is trying to persuade Lear to go back and stay with Goneril. They also used sound effects of hunting horns and dogs to convey the sense of Edgar being hunted, and therefore having to take on a disguise.

The opening section was much as before, although Kent and Gloucester were facing each other across the table at the start. Edmund was more clearly uncomfortable with the constant repetition of the story of his birth, not helped by his father mussing his hair, and his desire for advancement shone through in the obsequious way he offered his service to Kent. The entrance of the court was the same, but from our new angle I could see the reactions of the older daughters and their husbands much better tonight, and they were much more affected by Lear’s behaviour than I realised last time. Goneril was much more nervous than Regan, who came across as the more manipulative sister. I thought she might have been the much loved younger daughter at one point, and then along came Cordelia to spoil it all. Lear’s temper was much stronger this time, and his rage sent the other family members scuttling for cover. It made Goneril and Regan’s comments about his changeability quite plausible, and for once I felt they had reasonable grounds for complaint. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Kent was in my eye-line during Cordelia’s ‘nothing’ speech, and I could see how he approved of her comments. She was in fact being very reasonable, and Lear’s attitude was shown up as being completely deluded; Kent even used the word ‘mad’ to describe it, which didn’t please Lear. The Duke of Burgundy still had his cane with him, but didn’t need it this time, and after the court left, Edmund discussed the bastardy issue with us as usual but didn’t crumple the letter. As the servants cleared the soft furnishings, one threw the circlet onto the throne rather dismissively tonight.

The fool’s performance was much clearer than before, and he was very snappy with Lear in his opening scene, due to Lear having sent Cordelia away. I didn’t hear his lines ‘for so your eyes bid though your mouth…’ tonight, although there were other places where I heard lines I wasn’t used to. When he and Lear were sitting, waiting for the horses to be brought, Lear was more reflective this time.

I noticed the servants giggling behind Regan and Edmund when Kent was insulting everyone at Gloucester’s house, and it seemed clearer this time that Regan and Goneril were working out how to handle their father on the wing. Lear refused to weep at their mistreatment of him, but just then the thunder started, as if nature would do the weeping for him.

The fool didn’t give Poor Tom the close scrutiny he had last time; he was much more concerned about Lear. The blinding scene wasn’t any gorier from the other side, although my own vision was partly obscured by a combination of eyelids and hands. Edgar’s closing lines were a fitting ending, suggesting a brighter, if sadder, future. The rest was as before, and we left very happy that we’d seen such a tremendous performance.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Richard III – March 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 23rd March 2012

This was only the second preview performance (press night 17th April), and although it was a little patchy there were signs of great potential for the future. It was also lovely to see a production that’s not distorted by some heavy concept which the director has imposed on it; this was a relatively straightforward telling of the story with some nice touches in the staging and some lovely comic performances.

The set first. At the back of the thrust there was a silvery grey panelled wall which could provide doors, windows, etc. as needed, as well as opening wide to reveal the space behind all the way to the bricks at the back. Above the stage hung a selection from the RSC’s vast store of light bulbs (Midsummer Night’s Dream) – good to see them recycling so effectively. They brightened, they dimmed, and for each execution one or two bulbs descended lower to represent the lives snuffed out. During the dream sequence, the bulbs came down again as each ghost had its say in Richard’s nightmare, and they stayed lowered during the rest of the play; only one or two had to be raised a bit again to avoid the flashing swords. That was it, although chairs, tables, thrones and the rest were brought on as needed. The costumes were a mixture; mainly modern, they were combined with armour and swords, and it worked for us.

The opening was done by having the king (Edward, that is) proceed onto the stage with his queen through the partially opened doors at the back. He was accompanied by his children, his brothers and his in-laws, and they were clearly celebrating the final victory of the Yorkist line. Even Richard looked happy. When the others left, he stayed behind to inform us of the situation – everything’s going well, but he’s not happy about it so he’s going to take the crown. Jonjo O’Neill wouldn’t have sprung to my mind as likely casting for this part, and from these opening speeches I would say he has some way to go to cover the full range this part demands. He’s more at home with the comedy, and once we were past the early scenes he managed that aspect very well, but these opportunities to show us the inner workings of his villainous mind were lacking in depth and clarity, which he’ll hopefully develop with more experience of the role. He’s also better looking than I would expect for a Richard, which threw me a little bit. Not that the other actors have been totally repulsive physically, but they have usually manifested a greater degree of deformity of body, mind or both. We’ll have to see how it goes.

Clarence and Hastings were soon dealt with, and for once I was aware that Mistress Shore had been involved with Edward and was now ‘attached’ to Hastings. After Richard left, Anne arrived with the corpse of her dead husband, Henry VI, carried on a bier and covered with an ornate red cloth. Pippa Dixon was a very good Anne, and played her part strongly. Richard’s wooing of her could do with being a bit crisper, but that will come in time. Her arguments against Richard were strong, and for once I wasn’t clear about her conversion; that may also have been my angle, which was blocked a lot tonight; don’t ask me about King Edward’s performance – he might as well have been a potato for all I could see of him! Anne did at least leave with some tartness in her final line, and then Richard halted the bearers to speak his first question – “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?” – to them.

The queen entered for the next scene looking worried, and Rivers and Grey’s attempts to comfort her were in vain. I thought at first that Siobhan Redmond was using her own Scottish accent for this part, but later I realised she was using a posh English accent instead. However, it didn’t come easily from the sound of it, and I could still hear the Scottish intonation at times, and even a few vowel sounds when her character was letting rip. Not a problem, but again that will probably improve in time. By contrast, Stanley was played with as thick an accent as you could wish for, and later on I found his dialogue completely unintelligible because of it. I don’t mind accents as such, but when they get in the way of hearing the lines I reckon they need to cut back on them for clarity’s sake.

This is the scene where the brawling court unites against the previous queen, Margaret. She appeared in a tall window at the back, invisible to the court at first and also to me, sadly, as Paola Dionisotti gave one of the strongest performances of the entire play. She was still lively, not burdened with age but brisk and light on her feet. She was angry and bitter and wanted revenge, but her mind was sharp and she delivered her lines so beautifully that their meaning became crystal clear. Once she inserted herself into the scene properly, she walked around, unfazed by the scorn coming her way from the newly allied court, and dishing out plenty of her own in return. She was momentarily taken aback by Richard ending her curse early, but she soon recovered. When she was warning Buckingham about Richard, she stood next to him in the centre of the stage and spoke quietly. Richard was at the back of the stage, and when he asked Buckingham what Margaret had said, she was already on her way to the exit when Buckingham gave his reply.

After the brawling court had left the stage, Richard had a bit of a chat with us and then his two murderers turned up. This was where the humour really got going, as these two lads were very funny. Richard handed over the warrant which Catesby had only just handed to him before leaving the stage with the rest of the court. That done, we moved to the Tower, where Clarence told Brakenbury his dream. He sat on his bed – Brakenbury stood all the while – and although it’s not my favourite sequence I found this enjoyable enough. The whole scene lifted with the arrival of the murderers, though. Their discussion was brisk and very funny, and despite Clarence making a strong attempt to dissuade them, the first murderer stabbed him from behind while he was focused on persuading the second murderer, who was wavering. The body and the bed were soon disposed of, and we moved back to the court for the mock reconciliation scene.

This was the scene where I could see very little of the king. He was on a high throne – a chair that needed three steps to get up to it – with the queen on a normal throne to his right and the rest of the nobles spread around the stage. I can’t really comment on the staging of this bit as I saw so little of it, but the dialogue remained the same.

The Duchess of York had her little conversation with Clarence’s son and daughter, and then the queen came on to announce the death of the king; more complaining by the women, but they did it well enough that I wasn’t bored. The arrival of Richard, Buckingham and the rest put a stop to the complaints for now, and Richard’s performance was starting to get into its stride with the humour coming more to the fore. Buckingham made his allegiance clear, and then we skipped the citizens’ discussion of the political situation and moved straight into a shortened version of Act 2 scene 4, where the duchess, the queen and her younger son heard the news that Rivers and Grey have been sent to Pomfret on the orders of Gloucester and Buckingham.

Nothing much to report there, but when the new King arrived in London and Richard was explaining the absence of two of his uncles, Edward skipped the line “God keep me from false friends! But they were none”. I don’t know if that was intentional or a mistake; it certainly seemed odd but that may just be my familiarity with the lines. Richard also repeated “sanctuary children” with a smile and a shake of his head; what an absurd idea!

They trimmed the confrontation between Richard and the young Duke of York, but kept the request for the knife and the ensuing leap onto Richard’s back. Both Richard and the young Duke ended up on the floor, and Richard appeared to be trying to strangle the little chap until Buckingham put an end to their wrestling match. Catesby left to sound out Hastings, and Richard promised Buckingham a reward for his services once he was king, and then the scene changed to Hastings’ house. This was shown by having a window opened on the right of the wall with a door in the centre. We could see Mistress Shore through the window, indecently dressed (it is 4 a.m.) and she came along a bit later to help Hastings get dressed, as I recall. The first messenger warned Hastings to flee – he ignored him – and then Catesby turned up and put it to Hastings that the country would be better off with Richard on the throne. Hastings was having none of it, and rather stupidly suggested that his head would have to be cut off before he’d allow such a thing. How these people arrange their own downfall! Even Stanley couldn’t talk any sense into the man.

Rivers and Grey were executed next. Two bulbs were lowered, and then the men came on flanked by two guards each, Ratcliffe being one of them. A rope was put round each man’s neck, and they just had time to point out how Margaret’s curse had come upon them before the ropes were pulled tight and they were strangled to death.

Back in London, the council was meeting. The table was in the middle of the stage, two benches either side, and a chair at the far end. Hastings was in the chair, and the Bishop of Ely to his left, with Stanley on his right. Buckingham was free range for this scene. I’m not sure what gave me the impression, but I felt that this was one of several meetings that had been held for some time, possibly several weeks, and that they were finally prepared to set the date. I’ve never had that impression before, but as time is even more relative in Shakespeare than Einstein deduced, it was an interesting idea. The change in Hastings’ fortunes was swift, and the man recognised his doom. A light bulb was lowered for him as he commented on his fate, slightly shortened by a few well-placed cuts (to the comments).

The comedy level now reached new heights with the persuasion of the mayor. Richard and Buckingham re-arranged the furniture, throwing over the table and chairs, and with their armour on, prepared to act as if they were under siege. There were windows in the back wall at this point, and from behind the wall came the sounds of swords clashing, but we were aware that it was just Ratcliffe, on his own, banging several swords against each other. Occasionally Richard leant out and had a go himself, as Ratcliffe provided the sound effects of a multitude of soldiers. This was very funny.

As they were preparing the scene, Richard asked Buckingham if he could play his part in the pretence. Buckingham was very scornful in his reply, using a posh Scottish accent instead of his usual one, mimicking the voice and behaviour of “the deep tragedian” nicely. With the arrival of the mayor, they got down to business. Ratcliffe soon entered with Hastings’ head, holding it by the ear, and the emotional suffering displayed by Richard and Buckingham was great fun. The mayor was easily led into agreeing to tell the citizens the ‘correct’ version of events, and Buckingham was sent after him to add some extra details to promote Richard’s cause.

When Ratcliffe left the stage earlier, he placed Hastings’ head on the floor by the back wall. The next character to come on, the scrivener, was able to refer to this when he informed us of the strange goings-on at court; how he was asked to write the indictment on Lord Hastings long before he’d been charged, and now here he was, dead. It didn’t come across so well to me this time, though I liked the staging. I think the scrivener may have taken the head off with him.

When Buckingham returned, he told Richard of the populace’s silence at the story he was spinning them. The details about the recorder were omitted, as were the few who cheered, so Richard had to leave very quickly to set up the prayer book and two churchmen photo op. The mayor arrived with some of the citizens, and they stood all around the auditorium and on the balconies. Catesby was sent out, very reluctantly, to speak to them first. His stumbling over the story to be told suggested this was a hastily cobbled together plan rather than a carefully prepared one, which is usually the way. With Catesby coming out a second time, and Buckingham spinning the ‘news’ for all it was worth, this was a very funny scene, especially as we could see ‘monks’ running around behind the windows, and once Richard actually prompted Catesby loudly from behind the wall. When Richard did appear with the churchmen, he and they stood in the three windows at the back, apparently oblivious to the assembled throng. I don’t remember if they made anything of the reference to a prayer book. The arguments between Buckingham and Richard were edited, and soon Richard was proclaimed king. With the crowd gone, the monks were paid off by Catesby, and the rest of Richard’s team left him alone on stage. The first half ended with him standing in that middle window, grinning, as the lights went down.

The second half opened with the gathering of the women, intending to visit young King Edward in the Tower. Earlier I had the thought that there must have been an amazing number of high-quality boy players in the Chamberlain’s Men around the time Will wrote this play, as there are so many strong parts for women in it. And they all get very long speeches to do as well. Anyway, the actresses playing these women were all good, so although these parts are often trimmed, they carried them off pretty well. Mind you, the moaning and groaning does go on a bit, so judicious editing is a must, and I would have preferred a little less of Anne’s speech before she went off to be crowned; it’s mostly a repeat of what she said earlier, so a bit of pruning wouldn’t go amiss.

Richard had been crowned, and entered with his court from the back of the stage. The high throne had been brought on, but with its back to the audience which was quite funny – when he sat on it he was forever looking round at us, which made us part of the whispering. He motioned for the rest of the court to shove off and carry on the party on the far side of the wall, and then he got down to suborning Buckingham for the deaths of his nephews. Unfortunately Buckingham also had his back to me, so I don’t know how he played this bit, other than requesting some time to think about it. Richard called Ratcliffe over and asked him to suggest a possible murderer, he suggested Tyrell, fetched him over, and the deal was soon struck. Richard and Hamlet have very little in common as far as getting things done is concerned – this was very brisk and decisive.

When Buckingham came back, he was too late to get involved, and Richard dismissed his pestering requests for the promised reward by emphatically stating “I am not in the giving vein today”. The other conversations Richard had with other characters were slotted in somewhere along the line, and then we moved on to Tyrell’s description of the murder of the two young princes in the Tower. After he reported this to Richard, and Richard explained his various stratagems to us, the news of the defections of Ely and Buckingham arrived, and the final battle wasn’t far off.

First, though, there was a short remembrance ceremony for the two princes, as wreaths and bouquets were brought on stage and left by the back wall.  Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, overlooked by Margaret, added to them, and had another go at expressing their grief and suffering. Margaret could top them all, and it was another opportunity to hear Paola Dionisotti’s marvellous delivery of these lines. When Richard turned up, he shocked the women by adding his own contribution to the flowers – two teddy bears, one with a blue ribbon round its neck, the other with a red ribbon. I didn’t see this bit fully from my position, and Steve didn’t see it at all; hopefully we’ll get a fuller picture next time around.

During Richard’s negotiation with Elizabeth over her daughter, I noticed that Siobhan Redmond was clenching her fists behind her back, both when she had her back to us and later, when she was facing the other way. I took this to mean that Elizabeth was not convinced by Richard’s arguments, and was simply going along with the political reality. They did this scene pretty fully, and then the battle plans started. From here it’s fairly straightforward to the end of the play, with the executed and murdered lining up on the side of Richmond, and hardly anyone supporting Richard. Messengers rushed on and off to bring us updates on the military situation, Stanley made his position clear to Richmond when they met briefly, Buckingham was executed – another light bulb, another reference to Margaret’s abilities – and then Richmond and Richard squared up, metaphorically speaking, for the decisive battle. No replays, it’s winner take all on the day.

The two sides came on at the back and occupied the stage briefly while they told us the necessary information, and then Richard came on to do his pen and ink bit. They set up a desk and chair to the right of the stage, and he fell asleep over it. At this point, the ghosts began to come forward, starting with the young king, Edward, who ran on and snatched the crown off Richard’s head, making him wake up. As each ghost came on to add their curse, a light bulb descended as they had for the deaths. Hastings ended up with the crown, and after Richard had been thoroughly demoralised, he was lying at the front of the stage looking towards the back where Richmond stood, arms outstretched, receiving the blessings of the ghosts. This was a nice double effect; Richard didn’t just get the curses, he also saw the ghosts bless Richmond, while Richmond himself was having this wonderful dream about how all the people whom Richard had killed were coming to him and giving him their support. I liked this staging very much.

The next day, we heard each manager’s team talk before the battle. Richmond was noble and uplifting as you would expect, while Richard was sneering and contemptuous. The fighting was kept to a minimum, with four on Richard’s side walking to the front of the stage and turning to face four on Richmond’s side who lined up at the back – the panels had been folded back to reveal the full depth of the stage by this time. The two lots charged at each other and fought for a bit, then they cleared away leaving Richard lying in the middle of the stage with blood on his mouth, calling for a horse. Richmond came on and they fought, with Richmond naturally winning. The young Elizabeth of York was present for Richmond’s final speeches, and ran to embrace him, showing that this will be a love match rather than an arranged political marriage. With all the living and most of the dead now happy, it was a good point to end the play, so they did.

With Jonjo O’Neill reining back his accent a bit, there weren’t too many problems with his lines tonight, though his performance was definitely on the lighter side of the Richard III spectrum. The story was told relatively clearly, and with practice this should be a good production, with some excellent performances already. I’ve mentioned Paola Dionisotti earlier; Alex Waldmann was both funny and menacing as Catesby, as was Neal Barry as Ratcliffe and Joshua Jenkins as the second murderer. Worth catching again.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Twelfth Night – March 2012

7/10 (preview)

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 22nd March 2012

This was an excellent production with very good performances, and a huge improvement on last night. The set was by the same designer, Jon Bausor, and used the same basic design. The floorboards were still there, and there was still no walkway front left. This time the corner area did have water in it, and we were reminded of Singing In The Rain at Chichester last year, so sitting in row C, right by the aisle, we were glad Steve brought a carrier bag to protect the program. As it happened, the ‘tsunami’ didn’t wash up as far as our row, but there were a few wayward splashes – warm water, of course – and others who were nearer did feel the effect. The staff were very good in the interval, sorting out any problems, though some in the audience may have wished they’d provided more of a warning beforehand as well as the towels that were so freely available after the first half!

The crane track had become a girder tonight, and was partly boxed in. There was another girder at right angles to it, also partly covered, and around the join there was an area of crumbling ceiling, very reminiscent of the industrial grunge set of David Farr’s King Lear a few years ago, also a Jon Bausor design. The metal post with ironwork was more visible tonight, and it turned out to be a whole row of them which had been mostly hidden during The Comedy Of Errors. The vertical part of the ramp from yesterday seemed to be at a couple of different angles tonight creating a slightly lower angle, and tonight the objects on there included a bed (reminded Steve of the recent Taming bed, much reduced in size) and a table with a lamp. There was also a bathtub suspended over that general area – took me a while to spot what it was. Behind all of this I could now see the back wall of metal with at least two portholes in it. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops for The Tempest.

At the back of the thrust and to the right of the stage a sloping ramp led off, and was blocked by a revolving door set at the same slanting angle. Just to the left of that was the reception desk area, with lots of pigeonholes behind a short curve of desk. A small screen to the right of this desk, combined with a telephone, allowed Maria to observe who was at the gate, which was a nice touch. This was also the hiding place for Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian during the letter scene. To the left of that was a pillar leaning drunkenly, with a leather seat around it; the leather looked the worse for wear as did most of the furniture on stage. Further to the left was another leather armchair, and beside that a large globe with the land areas positioned round an open mesh. Behind this chair, towards the back of the stage, was a lift, the old fashioned kind with expanding metal doors. With a small platform beside it at the top, the lift shaft was encased in a metal mesh, so we could see a lot of what went on inside it, though it was used for a magnificent reveal later on. Further to the left, a flight of stairs led up to the first balcony, and below that stood a grand piano with a picture of Olivia’s brother on it surrounded by candles, flowers, etc. I didn’t spot this right away, but then there was so much else to look at.

Coming forwards, there was a low padded stool over on the front right of the stage which seemed to have a chess board set up on it; there was still room for people to sit on it or put a tray with coffee things there if need be. A plain chair sat further back from that, while over on the water side there was a diving board built out from almost the centre of the stage to just over the water. The floorboards had a ragged end, in keeping with the style of set, and some dipped down towards the water. The only other thing I remember at this time was the chandelier, which was swathed in black cloth. I first noticed it when someone in Olivia’s household switched it on, a nice reminder of her emphatic mourning.

The costumes were all modern dress, and worked very well I thought. The men usually wore suits, although Sir Toby was in casual gear with a colourful Hawaiian shirt, and Sir Andrew tended towards casual sportswear. Olivia’s maidservants wore black dresses with white aprons, and Malvolio was immaculate in his pinstripe suit, toupee severely slicked down to one side. There were two guards in uniform – white shirts, black trousers – and Antonio wore a large waterproof jacket. Olivia was in black for the first half, a calf-length dress, and changed to a flower print frock during the second half, via an ivory wedding dress. I’ll describe the Viola/Sebastian combo later, along with the nifty outfit Malvolio chose to impress Olivia with.

So to the staging (this may take some time). When the lights went down at the start, I saw various actors come on and take up their positions, mostly lying down. I thought we were going to get the shipwreck stuff first tonight, as the performance opened with Viola emerging suddenly from the water (there’s a long slide apparently, so they don’t have to hold their breath for too long). She stood up in the water, then clambered out, and turning to the audience she asked “What country, friends, is this?” She then spotted the bag lying by the side of the water; it was clearly Sebastian’s, and she knelt there, grieving over the bag and her lost brother while Duke Orsino leapt up, from the chair I think, and carried on with “If music be the food of love”. He was in a pretty rough state with his clothes dishevelled, as you might expect. The good news was that from the beginning tonight we could hear almost every line perfectly well – no worries there. After this scene, the sea captain continued by answering Viola’s opening question, coming on from the back somewhere and bringing on a blanket for her to use. He agreed to help her disguise herself, and I was very aware that with her brother’s bag she would naturally have some of Sebastian’s clothes to wear.

Sir Toby emerged through the revolving door for the next scene, and was as drunk as a skunk, if not drunker (apologies to skunk-lovers, and indeed, skunks everywhere). I think a servant may have switched on the chandelier at this point, but I’m not sure. Sir Toby sat in the armchair, and dangled his feet over the side when he was talking about his boots. Maria was brisk in her chiding, and for once Sir Toby seemed to be in earnest when he complimented Sir Andrew. Given his state of inebriation, he might actually have believed what he was saying.

Sir Andrew’s arrival a short while later was all we could have wished. We heard his horn before we saw the man, and he entered still wearing his biker’s helmet. When the helmet came off, his fair hair erupted into a tousled mop which got a laugh all on its own. Bruce Mackinnon’s performance was absolutely impeccable, and we were soon warmed up and chuckling away at his wonderfully funny delivery of the lines plus his comic expressions and business. He illustrated the “back-trick” by moonwalking backwards – we applauded, eventually – and when he left the stage the audience was definitely in a livelier mood than when he entered.

Valentine and Cesario came on next, and while Valentine sat on the diving board to light up a cigarette, Cesario stood in the middle of the stage, wearing green trousers, a light blue jacket and a patterned shirt, and also lit up. Her inexperience with cigarettes was obvious – she had the cigarette the wrong way round and nearly lit the filter, then coughed a bit once she did get it going – and then Orsino rushed on, clothes still in disarray, to speak with his new favourite. They didn’t make anything of the other servants being sent away that I could see, which is fine, and during their conversation Orsino took the cigarette from Cesario to smoke it himself. Emily Taafe’s Cesario was well done; with her short hair and slight figure she did look boyish, and her voice was low pitched enough to fit with a young lad, so it was believable that the Duke would see the female aspects of Cesario without realising he was actually a woman.

It was at the end of this scene, after Viola’s “myself would be his wife”, that she stood in the middle of the stage with the lights lowered on her and the rest of Orsino’s staff, and then Sebastian also popped up out of the water, sloshing a bit more onto the floor around that corner. He also stood up, slicked back his hair – Viola echoed that movement – and as they were wearing identical costumes it was clear this was the very Sebastian whom Viola had assumed was drowned. He pulled himself out of the water and lay beside it, resting, while the next couple of scenes played out; a little distracting, but not a problem.

The next scene had Maria scolding Feste this time. She brought on some coffee and cups on a tray and put it on the stool near the front. Feste looked hung over and was wearing sunglasses, wincing a bit as he took them off and the light hit him. The jesting between them was pretty good, and then Olivia turned up with her small entourage. She was pretty snippy with Feste at first, but softened as he wormed his way back into her good books with his catechising of her. For this bit she was sitting in the armchair, and he took another upright chair, placed it beside her with the back of the chair between them, as in a confessional box, while he knelt behind the chair to act the priest, as he would do later, of course, with Malvolio.

Malvolio’s reactions during this scene were excellent. He clutched his folder tightly, looking severe and grimacing when something particularly unpleasant happened, such as somebody having fun, even when it wasn’t at his expense. The animosity between him and Fests was palpable, and set us up nicely for his later mistreatment at the hands of Sir Toby and the rest. Olivia echoed his folded hands when she talked of “a known discreet man”, gently reproving him with those lines.

Maria was using the screen on the reception desk when she informed Olivia that there was someone at the door. Sir Toby seemed even drunker than before when he turned up – a lovely performance by Nicholas Day – and had great difficulty getting his words out, the way drunks do when they have to think long and hard about everything, like words, walking, breathing, etc. He reminded me of Frank Gallagher in Shameless at this point.

When Malvolio returned he was clearly disturbed to have spent time with someone who upset the natural order. Olivia had some trouble getting him to describe the young gentleman, and as her back was to me at the relevant point, I’m not sure what it was that piqued her interest enough to have the young man brought before her. She had her maids cover themselves as well, and as at least one of them took off her apron as well, I could see how difficult it would be for anyone who didn’t know the household to tell which woman was Olivia. All four of them sat or stood around the room, so when Cesario arrived, he was immediately unsure of himself.

The dialogue was well done for this bit, and soon Olivia and Cesario were alone. Olivia was well unhappy at Cesario’s insult regarding the tenacity of her looks, but I didn’t spot any particular reaction from Cesario on finding out how beautiful his ‘rival’ was. Later, when Cesario was telling Olivia of the lengths he would go to if he loved her as Orsino does, my view was blocked by Olivia herself, so I’ll have to pick up on their expressions next time, but even from the back I could tell that Cesario’s passion was having an effect on the lady.

That effect continued through Cesario’s departure and her reflections on the speedy nature of infatuation. There was such a loving glow about her that when she gave her ring to Malvolio – she turned her back on him and removed it from a chain about her neck by ripping it off, hiding the chain in her hand – he mistook her radiance combined with the way she put her hand on his arm as a sign of affection towards him, another pointer to his later misapprehension of the letter.

Finally Sebastian was able to get up from the floor, as he responded to Antonio’s question. Their conversation was short, and for once I could have sworn Sebastian actually mentioned Viola’s name, but it’s not in my text and apart from some lovely comedic touches later on, I didn’t spot any significant changes during the play. They did cut some lines, but that’s to be expected. Cesario entered next, and shortly after she came on we heard a beeping sound. It turned out to be the sound of one of those trolley cars, as used by the elderly, only this time it was being driven by Malvolio. Health and safety requirements were well to the fore, as the beeping noises continued throughout the scene (my hearing aids were going nuts!) as well as two flashing amber lights. I liked this staging very much; it not only explained how Malvolio managed to catch up with Cesario, but gave us an extra laugh as he drove the cart round in a large circle before parking it near the back, so we could all see the sign on the back of the seat: For Management Use Only. The ring was dropped contemptuously on the rug in front of the chair (stops it rolling away, I would guess) and after Viola had finished sharing her thoughts on this latest development, she threw it into the water tank. No real splash; it was too small.

Sometime earlier I had noticed an actor sneak on to the left of the stage and lie down behind the piano. I wasn’t sure who it was, but it now became clear – it was Sir Toby, who struggled to his feet to advise Sir Andrew, likewise well gone, on the exact nature of ‘early’. They were both wonderfully drunk, so drunk that a rowdy song was inevitable, and I enjoyed this scene from beginning to end. Feste wasn’t as bad as the other two, but he joined in the merriment, and even took a picture of the three of them together at the appropriate moment on his mobile phone – “Did you ever see the picture of we three?”

Feste had brought on something I didn’t recognise at the start of this scene, and left it on the stool at the front. When he sang ‘O mistress mine, where are you roaming’, this turned out to be an electronic keyboard of some kind, which he used to accompany the song. He also used a microphone. It was a slow, melancholy number, and nicely done. They were soon into the livelier number ‘Hold thy peace’ – I think they cut Sir Andrew’s line about constraining “one to call me knave” – with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew playing bottles, and Feste using the reception desk bell as his instrument. This expanded into Feste banging an oar on the floor, Sir Toby possibly using the microphone(?) and something equally noisy from Sir Andrew.

Maria couldn’t persuade them to keep quiet, and when Malvolio turned up in his dressing gown he was suitably nasty to them all. He even grabbed Maria’s arm when she went to get some wine for Sir Toby, and she was quite shaken by his threat to tell Olivia. The plan to trick Malvolio is always hers, but often the others, especially Sir Toby, are involved to some extent; this time the others are on no fit state to devise any plan whatsoever. Sir Toby’s enquiry as to the reason for Sir Andrew to beat a puritan was dropped (worked well for me, especially as the line itself got a good laugh).

I’m not sure when it happened, but sometime during the first half Sir Andrew took a little dip. (The trouble with non-textual business is that it’s harder to remember where it occurred.) He was sitting on the end of the diving board, with Feste beside him, and I noticed he was gradually edging further back. Finally he fell off, and caused a huge wave of water to wash over the side of the tank, soaking anything on the ground level around it. (Programs were replaced.) I reckon this must have been the scene, presumably when Malvolio turned up, but I really can’t be sure – I’ll pay closer attention next time.

Back at the Duke’s court, Orsino was looking all rumpled again. His chat with Cesario about love was fine, and then Feste turned up again to sing his song ‘Come away death’. He used a guitar this time for accompaniment, but I thought it was little out of tune; he only strummed it occasionally so I wasn’t sure. (It’s always a problem with stringed instruments, bringing them onto a stage under lights – changes the tuning horribly.) I enjoyed his comments to Orsino this time about his mind being an opal; they came across much better than I remember from previous productions. After Cesario’s story of his ‘sister’, which was OK but I missed some of the visuals again, they left the stage and we were into the letter scene.

Fabian made the third in this production, a nice performance by Felix Hayes. The ‘box-tree’ they hid behind was actually the reception desk, and for most of the letter-reading they were peering over the desk with an object held in front of each of them – a vase of flowers, a book and a soda siphon. When one of them made an exclamation, he put down his object, and then had to grab the item held by the person next to him, which went down the line, so the objects were being passed around on a regular basis. Later, Sir Toby left the shelter of the desk and wandered over behind the pillar seat, which he had to dive under to hide himself once or twice. It was all wonderfully funny, including Sir Andrew’s recognition of himself as a “foolish knight”.

Maria left the letter on the stool, propped up on the chessboard I think, which didn’t seem a very obvious place to leave it. Even so, Malvolio managed to spot it, after he’d done a lot of preening and primping beforehand, of course. There was a slight adjustment to the toupee, and a fair amount of posturing, but the main comedy lay in the delivery of the lines, and the comments by the watchers. For “revolve”, Malvolio went over to the revolving door and did a circuit there.  His “smiling” was also funny, although he did actually produce some leering smiles from time to time before that. Maria was anxious to know if her trick had worked, and Sir Toby literally prostrated himself before her when she first came on, so delighted was he with their success.

Next up was Feste, sitting on the pillar seat with his keyboard, playing a little music, so when Cesario came along their conversation began very naturally. The chat with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew was brief but funny, and then Olivia came along to make her declaration of love to Cesario. Rebuffed, the first half ended with her sitting sad and alone on the stage, with the lights going out.

The second half began with Sir Andrew’s determination to leave immediately. He was on his mobile phone calling for a taxi at the start, and at some later point in his conversation with Fabian and Sir Toby said ‘yes, I’ll hold’, all very funny. Sir Toby took his mobile away from him, and ditched it in the water at the end of this bit, before Maria arrived to fetch them to see Malvolio. Then there was the short scene between Sebastian and Antonio, followed by the much anticipated arrival of Malvolio on stage.

In this scene, Olivia entered first, and it was clear that she’s been much affected by her passion for Cesario. I think this may be where she pulled a rope at the side of the stage and removed the black cloth from the chandelier; in any case she’s definitely in a state over her situation, having declared her love to a ‘man’ who doesn’t want her. Malvolio’s appearance, far from being the sober, calm presence she wanted, was entirely unsuitable for any occasion. He came down in the lift, and although the walls were see-through, they obscured enough of his costume for it to be a mystery all the way down. I felt this was a good way to make his entrance – we got the full impact all at once, and it was certainly an eyeful!

He was wearing yellow stockings, and they looked a bit tight from where I sat. They were cross-gartered all the way up, which didn’t help the circulation either. He had on a yellow tie which we could see when his jacket opened up, usually when he spread his arms wide, and little else. The posing pouch which adorned his nether regions was well padded (I cast no aspersions) and had studs; apart from that he was butt-naked, literally. This outfit, plus the grinning, would have sent many another woman screaming from the stage, but Olivia was made of sterner stuff. She did back away from him down the diving board, and for a short while I thought we were in for another splash, but at the last minute she grabbed him so she could swivel him around – he enjoyed that bit – and she was free! (And dry!)

Malvolio’s scene with Sir Toby and the rest was very funny too, and I loved Fabian’s line about “an improbable fiction”. With Malvolio gone, the mischief makers moved on to Sir Andrew when he turned up with his freshly drafted challenge. As Sir Toby read it out, I enjoyed Fabian’s comments; Felix Hayes has a deep resonant voice, and his comments of “good” were perfectly timed to make the most of the humour. After Olivia’s short scene with Cesario, Sir Toby and Fabian returned again to issue the challenge to him. Cesario was terrified, of course, and attempted to flee up the stairs to get back to the house. Fabian blocked his way, and as they were struggling on the steps, Sir Andrew came back on via the walkway. Sir Toby’s comment that “Fabian can scarce hold him yonder” was very apt, and gave Sir Andrew completely the wrong impression. Instead of his horse, he offered to give Cesario his Kawasaki 750 – he handed Sir Toby the keys – which fitted very well with the situation.

Each ‘man’ was given something to fight with – not swords as such, just bits of wood – but there was very little chance of them doing any damage as they never got near the other with their wild swings. Not that Antonio noticed this when he arrived and drew on, as he thought, Sebastian’s side. The officers were there amazingly quickly to arrest him – one of them, Solomon Israel, was using a West Indian accent – and Antonio was almost off the stage before he could even ask ‘Sebastian’ for his money. Viola reacted to being called ‘Sebastian’ – this is the first indication she’d had that her brother might be alive – even before her lines indicated that was the way her thoughts were going.

Feste’s argument with Sebastian was good fun – I was increasingly happy with Kevin McMonagle’s interpretation – and the fight with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew went badly as usual. Sebastian had two of them holding him and still managed to break free, although he took a tumble over the chair as a result. This was the turning point for Sir Toby; Olivia was so angry with him for hurting her beloved that even he realised he couldn’t go on causing problems in her household, and although his lines to that effect don’t come till a later scene, his reaction at this point made it clear. I’m not sure exactly when Olivia changed into her summer frock, but I reckon she was wearing it by this time. Sebastian was ready and willing to go along with whatever this beautiful woman wanted, and she was delighted to find him so amenable.

Now the stage was darkened, and I could just make out a vague shape rising up through a trapdoor in the centre of the stage. I did wonder briefly about the mechanics of the water slide vis-à-vis this trapdoor, but that’s a question for a post-show discussion sometime. Up on the platform by the lift, Maria was kitting Feste out with his Sir Topaz outfit, and after Sir Toby arrived, Feste went down in the lift to visit Malvolio. A faint light allowed us to see the poor man, now stripped of his jacket and tied to his cart, which appeared to be broken although the amber lights were flashing (no beeping this time, thank goodness). Feste’s taunting of Malvolio was soon over, and for once I could see the inference that ignorance was a worse form of darkness than the lack of physical light. When Sir Topaz met Feste himself (a neat trick) he slapped him a couple of times before heading back to the lift.

Sebastian came down the stairs from Olivia’s chamber bare-chested (not an ordeal to watch, by any means) and continued to dress himself as he reflected on the strange situation he was in. When Olivia arrived with the priest, decked out in her wedding dress and saying “Blame not this haste of mine”, I suddenly thought she was worried she might start to show a bump before the marriage and lose her reputation. Sebastian was clearly a quick decision-maker, and accepted her offer of marriage on the spot.

Fabian and Feste were next on, and the short exchange between them was good, with Feste giving Fabian Malvolio’s letter and then taking it back again before he’d had a chance to read it. Mind you, he was pretty slow in that department. With the Duke’s arrival we were into the end game, and it all happened pretty fast from here on. At least Orsino had tidied himself up for this visit; instead of his usual scruffiness he looked smart, and his attendants carried the flowers and chocolates which he intended to give to Olivia. Feste’s fooling was well done, and Antonio’s arrival filled the time nicely till Olivia came along.

She was in a foul mood though, at least with Orsino. She dumped his flowers and chocolates in the water, but kept making sheep’s eyes at Cesario. It was so obvious that Orsino would have had to have been even stupider than Sir Andrew not to have spotted it, and this Duke was no fool. He was already going through the revolving door, with Cesario hard on his heels when Olivia’s “husband” called them back. With the priest confirming Olivia’s matrimonial claims, things already looked bad for Cesario when Sir Andrew came through the door with a smear of blood on his forehead. He shied away from Cesario when he saw him, as did Sir Toby who followed shortly afterwards. His line “I hate a drunken rogue” seemed to give him pause, as if he was starting to realise that he may fall into that category himself.

And then Sebastian turned up, went straight over to Olivia and apologised on bended knee for hurting her kinsman. The crowd were all alarmed – seeing twins seems to have that effect in Shakespeare’s plays. Olivia was standing on the board, Viola front right, Orsino back right and Antonio back left at this point. With Sebastian looking at Olivia to begin with, he didn’t notice Viola at all, and then when he saw Antonio and faced him, Viola was directly behind him. When he did turn round, their reunion was as good as I wanted (sniffled, of course), and Olivia for once seemed perfectly happy with her good fortune, after the initial embarrassment of realising that she had actually fallen in love with a woman!

With these twins having a significant difference in their height, they didn’t go in for further mistaken identities this time, which suited me fine. Malvolio made his entrance clad in just his suit trousers this time, and despite Olivia being conciliatory he was too far gone to do anything but snarl his threat of revenge at them before he left. He even included the audience this time, not nice.  The priest was on stage for this final scene, and reacted a bit to Feste’s admission that he impersonated Sir Topaz, though there’s scope for more there I fancy. Orsino and Olivia were well reconciled by the end, and as Feste settled down to sing us the final song, both couples ended up on the bed at the back; first the women perched themselves on it, then the men followed and snuggled up beside their partner. I was again reminded of the Taming production, where Lucy Bailey had commented that the whole point of a comedy is to get two people into bed together: mission accomplished. We gave them a long round of enthusiastic applause, and left well satisfied that we would be seeing this one again.

What else do I need to say at this stage? The lighting was a bit gloomy for me, until the end when a golden glow brightened the stage considerably. Olivia lay on the bed at the back through all the opening scenes, until shortly before she arrived on stage herself. I didn’t realise it was her at first, but as various characters rose up from their positions on the stage to take part in the play, it became obvious who she had to be. We were both very relieved that the problems with delivering the lines which we’d experienced last night with The Comedy Of Errors were not apparent in this performance, so I apologise if any of my comments on that performance reflected badly on the cast; they’re clearly up to the challenge of Shakespeare already, but perhaps the Comedy production just needs longer to settle than this one. This was only the fourth preview performance of this play, with press night scheduled for 25th April (the Comedy press night is a matinee).

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Comedy Of Errors – March 2012

5/10 (preview)

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 21st March 2012

This has the potential to be a very good production, but as yet the cast still seem to be finding their feet. This was only the 5th preview (press night 25th April). The dialogue was far from clear, so although I know the play pretty well, I reckon I would be struggling to follow the plot if it was new to me (and assuming I hadn’t read the program notes). The two Dromios are both well matched and also well differentiated; each wore an ‘I ♥ ____’ T-shirt with either ‘Syracuse’ or ‘Ephesus’ on it. They were the best thing in this performance, but even their comic business was being lost at times by the excessive staging.

The set was very important in this production. Ephesus is a thriving international port in this play, so that’s where they’ve set it; a good choice overall, though it did make the domestic scenes a little difficult to stage. The front left walkway had been removed, and that corner of the stage had been given a glossy black finish, representing water, and lots of rubbish has been plastered on it, representing the detritus floating in many a modern harbour. Another puddle sat a bit further back from this, also with a rim of debris, and there were wooden crates, oil drums and those big white canvas-looking builders’ bags around the place. A crane track ran diagonally from back left to front right, and various items were lifted onto the stage by this means, including the Virgin Mary (I kid you not!).

The rest of the stage was covered with wooden floorboards; at the back these rose up from the stage, first in a short shallow ramp, then as a vertical backdrop with jagged edges, lower at the left where the crane was operating. Several sacks had been stuck on this upright floor, and there were two bollards near the top with ropes wrapped round them which disappeared up into the flies. It was an interesting perspective, suggesting a topsy-turvy world as well as being a clear reminder we were at a port. Behind this panel of floorboards we could see an old fashioned metal post that’s the upright for some structure or other; it had curved metalwork corners suggestive of Victorian architecture. [23/8/12: Since learned that this is a structure in the Roundhouse which can’t be moved, so they decided to incorporate it into the set in Stratford as well.] There was another panel behind that which looked like corrugated iron(?) but I couldn’t see it clearly enough to be sure. There were two obvious trapdoors in the shallow ramp and the vertical part at the back, while others were concealed below oil drums and crates. At the start, there was also a fish tank sitting in the middle of the stage.

So it was a pretty grim setting for such a light comedy, and with gloomy lighting as well making it harder to see what was going on, this wasn’t the brightest version of the play I’ve seen. The opening sequence can be a  very moving scene, with the Duke explaining to Egeon (and us) just how much trouble he’s in, and Egeon in turn telling the Duke (and us) the sad history of his life. This time it was both unpleasant and unclear. The lights went down, and when they came up Egeon was having his head dunked in the fish tank by an armed guard, while another guard directed the light and the Duke came on in his dressing gown using a microphone to broadcast his words over the tannoy system. He only used this for the first few lines and some others during this scene; the rest of the time he spoke normally, which was a shame, as I found I could hear him much better with the amplification.

Egeon’s head was dunked several times, and at first I felt this was unnecessary brutality – this is a comedy, after all. Then I considered that this was simply a way of showing the life and death risk that Egeon, his son Antipholus and his Dromio are all taking by coming to Ephesus. Fair enough, but this is still a comedy, and I found myself wondering if the current generation are perhaps becoming too desensitised to this sort of thing, as was discussed during the post-show for Marat/Sade. Anyway, when Egeon hesitated before telling his story, the guard dunked him again a couple of times, and by this time I had spotted the Duke’s hand gestures to the guard telling him when to raise and when to lower. He even looked as his watch once to time it – very callous. Once Egeon did get started, the dunking stopped, thank goodness, and there were some signs that his listeners were being affected by his tale, but only a few. The dialogue wasn’t clear, I had the Duke’s back to me for a fair chunk of this section, and only my knowledge of the play kept me going – I just wasn’t engaging with these characters at all for once.

Things improved with the arrival of the other two Syracusans, Antipholus and Dromio. As the tank was cleared, and Egeon was dragged off to search through the city for someone to bail him out, a crate was carried on by the crane and lowered down on the far side of the stage. A nervous-looking chap paid off one of the workers and lifted the lid using a crowbar. Out popped Antipholus and Dromio, clearly determined to get into Ephesus by any means available to them, while the merchant’s opening lines warning them of their danger were almost irrelevant given this staging. With Dromio dashing off to the Centaur and the merchant very eager to free himself from Antipholus’s handshake as quickly as he could, Antipholus of Syracuse was soon left alone on stage to comment on his situation. Again, the lines weren’t delivered well enough for me.

Before Dromio of Ephesus arrived, another crate opened up towards the back of the stage and a young chap came out of it. When he turned round and saw Antipholus, he froze for a moment; they regarded each other warily, and then the young man ran off. Illegal immigrants were clearly a problem in this Ephesus. I think this was where the woman came out as well, with her fake designer handbags and red tracksuits. There was some good humour in this; it was clearly a Mary Poppins crate, with more coming out than the crate could hold. After the woman ran off to sell her wares, the scene between Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus was OK, and I found myself wondering how easy it was to follow this story if you didn’t know it at all, especially if the dialogue didn’t come across well. Dromio of Ephesus was very clear, mind you, and suffered a lot of physical abuse for it. I do hope they don’t get too many injuries during the run.

The next scene with Adriana and Luciana was staged on a hanging platform which was brought on by crane. With a post at each corner, it held a dining table and three chairs, as well as the two women. It was lowered to the ground at first, I think, but later on it was raised slightly. This meant that it swung around a bit, as well as leaning drunkenly depending on where the characters stood, and they even made it spin deliberately, just to add to the distraction. And it was a distraction; this was probably the least interesting Adriana and Luciana I’ve seen so far. Mind you, the weak delivery of the lines and bland characterisation didn’t help – I’m assuming this will change for the better with practice. To be fair, Steve did reckon the actresses looked nervous on their swinging perch, so perhaps that was behind the lack of depth to these portrayals – they certainly came across better when their feet were on solid ground.

With that scene over the platform was raised again and carted off while the action continued below. Again, this was pretty bland, and much of Dromio’s humorous dialogue was cut, sadly. With more beating of servant by master, there wasn’t much of the joshing relationship between this pair that we’ve seen before, which weakened the performance for me.

Adriana’s arrival and pleading to her husband was reasonably good, but ‘Plead you to me, fair dame?’ was followed too quickly by the next line, and the laugh was lost. I did like the way they shifted the scene to the front door of the house, though. A door was carried over by the crane and lowered down towards the back. The characters all went through this, with Dromio being hit twice by the door, once by Adriana and once by Antipholus. It was funny each time, and half the pleasure was the anticipation – we could see it coming a mile off.

Antipholus of Ephesus’s arrival with his friends was a strange affair, not so much because of their entrance but because a group of younger folk behind us were clearly finding a lot more humour in the performance than I was. Their laughter was inexplicable to me a lot of the time, and even got to the point where I felt I was watching a not very funny play and hearing canned laughter which was slightly out of sync with the action, an unusual and rather surreal experience. I did miss a few funny moments admittedly, such as Adriana’s reaction later on when her husband gave the ring back to the courtesan and thanked her for her hospitality – hope to pick that up next time around – but for the most part I reckon we just had different senses of humour. Anyway, Antipholus of Ephesus came on with his mates, singing a song, and that was that.

The door obligingly swung round a bit during the next bit so that we could see both Dromios as well as Nell, with her graphic vegetables. She was well padded, and took every opportunity to get up close and personal with her man, as she believed Dromio of Syracuse to be. Antipholus of Ephesus probably lost his temper – I know the play so he must have – and before he left with the others he took several runs at the door but it defeated him each time, finally leaving him prostrate on the ground.

After they left, Antipholus of Syracuse re-entered, doing up his shirt and trousers, although it wasn’t so clear this time how they came to be undone. Luciana followed him a few moments later to tell him off; I have no idea how the lines went, but she was only too ready to rush into his arms and kiss him a short while later so I guess it was business as usual. I was looking forward to the interval by this time. When Luciana left, the door rotated with her on the other side, so as it came round she was in front of it again. They played with this nicely; Luciana realised she was back in the same room as Antipholus, and after a bit of simpering she turned the door back round again. (It was pink on the reverse so we would know which side was which.)

Dromio of Syracuse’s description of Nell was so-so – again, the lack of a comedic relationship between master and servant didn’t help with this – and then he was sent off to find a ship they could leave on while Antipholus of Syracuse met up with the goldsmith and received the chain. When Antipholus suggested the goldsmith take his money then and there, he actually held out a banknote to him. I reckon it was nothing like the amount the chain cost, judging by the goldsmith’s reaction; he laughed indulgently and turned it down with the line “You are a merry man, sir”. After Antipholus’s final lines, the young man who had also emerged from a crate came on stage trying to get away from the guards, but they had him cornered. As they closed in, Antipholus was convinced they were going to catch him as well, but of course they thought he was their Antipholus. They surrounded the two men, arrested the young man, and included Antipholus in their group photo which ended the first half.

The second half began with an invented scene. The Duke, Egeon, some guards and the band entered on the right hand walkway, with the recording of the Duke’s earlier line about finding someone to help Egeon blaring out several times. The band was good musically, though they had a strange habit of turning up in all sorts of different costumes during the play. They were in dockers’ gear, including hard hats and Day-Glo vests, in S&M outfits, all in red tracksuits (the ones the woman had been selling) and one or two other costumes. I suppose they fitted in with whatever else was going on, but it didn’t add to the performance for me. Anyway, the guards hoisted up a dead body wrapped in black clingfilm – we could see a foot sticking out at the top of the parcel – and hooked it up to the crane. It was then taken towards the back, swinging slightly as these things do, and dropped off the dock behind the floorboards; there was a splashing sound and some glitter was thrown back over the boards to suggest water. Another reminder of the harshness of this regime and the high risk of death – they must think we’re incredibly stupid and/or have very short attention spans. I did think the body may have been that of the man they captured just before the interval, but if so his foot looked decidedly lighter in colour than the skin tone of the live man, so I don’t know if that was the intent. This extra bit didn’t really add anything for me.

The next scene proper had the merchant and the goldsmith entering with the officer – a menacing looking individual with a nasty looking stick – and the goldsmith was very keen to get his debt paid and avoid arrest. The scene unfolded in a pretty straightforward way, with Antipholus of Ephesus’s arrival, the arguments over who has the chain, etc., etc. I did enjoy Dromio of Syracuse’s entrance with a lifejacket and lifebuoy; he was so enthusiastic that we couldn’t help laughing at him.

For the scene between Adriana and Luciana, the platform came back with the fish tank on it, and Adriana was dunking Luciana in it, demanding to know what her ‘husband’ had said. This made more sense, and did at least give us some comic payoff from the opening scene. I noticed that the water level was much lower this time around, presumably so that Luciana’s hair didn’t get too wet. When Dromio of Syracuse turned up, they spun the platform round again, and got a little humour out of the way Dromio had to either run round with it to talk to Adriana, or stand still and speak to her every so often when she came around again. She also lashed out at him with her foot a few times when she came round. At the end of the scene, Adriana put her own face in the water as a sign of her dejection, also funny, but the bulk of the dialogue was lost again in the spinning.

For Antipholus of Syracuse’s next entrance, the band and everyone else were wearing the red tracksuits and showering him with gifts. When they left, Antipholus was standing on an oil drum which was on its side, so he had to balance on it as it gradually rolled a little backwards – an impressive feat. When his Dromio turned up with the money he’d got from Adriana, Dromio started off his questioning about the strangely absent officer by mouthing the words at first, which I enjoyed. Then he went through the long, roundabout descriptions, and finally Antipholus got his meaning; this was the first sign of some connection between these two. The courtesan arrived in a slinky short dress that left almost nothing to the imagination. Her posturing was also pretty graphic, although this wasn’t the coarsest Comedy I’ve seen by a long way. Dromio hid behind an oil drum during this scene, gesturing to Antipholus to run away from this she-devil, but as she was bending provocatively over another oil drum at the time, Antipholus was finding it hard to concentrate on anything else. Eventually Dromio tried to roll his oil drum at her to chase her off, but it had been specially flattened on one side and didn’t go very far. As Antipholus finally ran off, he threw her over it, another opportunity for injury, and as she got up she hissed in reply to Dromio’s parting words. I remember she took off a shoe – she was wearing very high heels – and threw it at somebody – don’t remember who – before saying her lines about going to Adriana and then limping off.

Antipholus of Ephesus, with his hands tied, assured the officer he wouldn’t try to run away, and then did just that a moment later. Poor fool, there was nowhere to run, and the officer had him in custody again almost immediately. Dromio of Ephesus’s entrance was good fun. He came in on the walkway trailing the rope behind him. As Antipholus stood there, Dromio pulled the rope through and piled it up in his arms; with more and more coming along it made a huge heap, almost obscuring Antipholus’s face. Dromio looked very pleased with himself, but he was soon unhappy again at his master’s anger.

Doctor Pinch’s arrival is something I usually dread, but this was one of the better versions of this scene. Jonathan Slinger gave us a camp gothic Pinch, with a crew of S&M attendants and a nasty pair of electrodes which he used whenever he could. The gleam of pleasure in his eye when he reckoned he had a madman to deal with was alarming, and Antipholus and Dromio were eventually bound in black clingfilm before being taken away on a trolley, accompanied by occasional prods with the electrodes.

Adriana was just sorting out the extent of Antipholus’s debts with the officer when the Syracusan pair arrived, and with this Antipholus brandishing a small knife, the rest ran off, afraid as much of their power to escape Pinch as the ‘sword’ itself. The meeting with the goldsmith and his creditor then followed, and this creditor had managed to conceal a considerably larger sword about his person which would have made the fight with Antipholus rather one-sided had Adriana and the rest not turned up to ‘recapture’ them.

This was when the Virgin Mary turned up. Rising above the boards at the back, her statue was brought forward by the crane. It also swung back and forth a bit, enough to make it funny rather than creepy. Everyone on stage stopped and looked at it, as did the audience. We also laughed. Then some angled doors lit up in the vertical ramp at the back; this was the abbey entrance which Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse escaped through – more laughter.

The abbess came out almost immediately, and in no time at all she had established who was boss. Adriana even tried to hit her, but the abbess grabbed her fist and squeezed, and in no time at all Adriana was on the floor, saying ‘ow’ and with a very sore hand. When the throng threatened to rush the doors, a metal panel slid shut behind them – one of the highest security abbeys I’ve ever seen – but it opened again to let the abbess back in. As she stormed past the characters on stage towards the back, they all got out of her way sharpish, including the officer, who jumped aside looking very alarmed – no way was he going to tangle with that woman!

For the Duke’s entrance, Egeon was brought on by the crane, suspended high up and dangling near the front of the stage. His feet were supported, but even so he was there for quite a long time before being lowered down. The Duke came on with his assistant and guards and they were very jumpy, brandishing their guns around as soon as look at you. The Duke took out his own gun and was pointing it at people when he wanted them to talk, though at first the scene started off amicably enough. Adriana made her plea for assistance, kneeling down to the Duke as she did so. Her servant arrived, and that was when guns were first drawn; the poor chap looked terrified, but then so did everyone else.

When Antipholus of Ephesus and his Dromio turned up, this Antipholus still had a chair attached to one arm by the clingfilm, and there were scorch marks all over his suit. He pleaded with the Duke for justice, everyone told their version of the story, and by the time the Duke sent for the abbess he was waving his gun around and making everyone even more jumpy. At this point Egeon spoke up, and got a good laugh at his lines – he was looking right down at Antipholus of Ephesus at that point. He was lowered to the stage and unhooked while his apparent son and servant disclaimed all knowledge of him, and then the abbess returned, heralding the arrival of the other two twins. I couldn’t see them at first from my angle, so I lost some of the effect of this bit, but they were soon in view for the (sniff) reunion scene.

The Dromios had been very well cast, and looked plausible as twins, as well as having similar comedic styles. The Antipholi (Antipholuses?) weren’t going to fool anybody, being at least six inches different in height, and although they were facially similar, the fact that one of them had a chair strapped to one arm would have surely made it a bit easier to tell which was which. Once again, nothing was made of the wonderful line by the abbess, or Emilia as we then knew her to be – “where is that son who floated with thee on the fatal raft?” There was a general tendency in this production to skip quickly over the text-based humour in favour of the physical stuff, but this really is a gem of a line requiring some reaction from the assembled throng. There was hugging and revelations and I sniffled (I really can’t help it), and then the abbess invited everyone into her place for a feast. When only the Dromios were left, they said their lines very touchingly, but before they exited, the flying Virgin came back again for a final swing across the stage. It got a good laugh, and was OK on that basis, but it did spoil the energy of the ending. This time, the lights simply went out and that was that.

There were some other bits of staging that went quite well, but I’ve forgotten exactly when they happened. Dromio of Ephesus used rap rhythms for a few of his lines to his own Antipholus, which he did very well. The Syracusan pair hid in oil drums at the back of the stage at one point, with Antipholus fitting nicely in his, and Dromio having to lift the drum up and hide his upper body while his legs showed below – good fun. He also ran off still holding the drum, another funny bit. There were enough of these good ideas to make the evening an OK experience, and to suggest that the production may be quite good once it’s worked in, but from my perspective they do need to work on the dialogue a lot more. A lot of the ensemble are making their RSC debuts, so perhaps the voice work they’ll do here will bring them on; it certainly helped a number in the very long ensemble that spanned the Courtyard/new RST period.

The two Dromios – Bruce Mackinnon, a very good Algernon in The Importance Of Being Earnest at the Rose recently, and Felix Hayes, very good as Snug the joiner in the recent RSC A Midsummer Night’s Dream – were the clear stars of this production, and I’m already looking forward to seeing them again in this and in their other roles. Nicholas Day did the best he could with Egeon’s part, but the staging didn’t do him any favours, and of the rest I enjoyed Jonathan Slinger’s Pinch, Sargon Yelda’s Angelo (the goldsmith) and Solomon Israel’s officer.

Almost forgot to mention – the noise of the crane as it moved back and forth was another distraction we could have done without; Steve noticed it more than I did.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Being Shakespeare – March 2012


By Jonathan Bate (with a bit of help from William Shakespeare)

Directed by Tom Cairns

Venue: Trafalgar Studios 1

Date: Saturday 17th March 2012

The set consisted of a square platform with one step along the front and side, placed at an angle to the front of the stage. Four plain wooden chairs were stacked against the dark right-hand wall. The light-coloured wall on the left had two windows high up, and there was another light-coloured part wall behind the platform. Two trees emerged from the darkness at the back of the stage towards the end of the first half, and were replaced by two more trees during the interval; these encroached further forward. The platform held various props – sword, paper crown, globe, cap, books, small mobile with figures dangling from it, etc. – as well as having two trapdoors, one of which provided flames for the early Mark Antony speech from Julius Caesar – “Friends, Romans” – and another occasion later on. There was a sweep of dark marbly bits to the left of the platform – a slight nuisance, as they kept tracking across whenever Simon Callow walked on them – but otherwise the stage seemed bare from our angle.

The play was very interesting and entertaining. Using Shakespeare’s Seven Ages Of Man speech – spoken by Jacques in As You Like It – Jonathan Bate has devised this ramble through Shakespeare’s work and what we know about the historical context in which it was written, both political and personal. Simon Callow delivered it all very well, although at times the lecturing style of the author shone through; not a bad thing, but less dramatic than some other parts of the afternoon. I recognised many of the readings, of course, but there was a lot of newer information as well, and the overall framework made it more easily digestible. Things went a little wobbly around the ‘soldier’ part, with the lack of evidence about Will’s life making it harder to stick to the speech, but with an actor of Simon Callow’s talent we were in safe hands. His delivery was very good, and my only quibble was that he had so little time to set up the speeches that I wasn’t able to make as strong an emotional connection as I would have liked. Still, the purpose of the piece was to take us on the lifetime journey, and that it did very well.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Bette And Joan – March 2012


By Anton Burge

Directed by Bill Alexander

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 16th March 2012

I have to hand it to Anita Dobson and Greta Scacchi, they made it possible to spend nearly two hours in the company of these out-and-out bitches and enjoy ourselves enormously. Of course the writing helped, with its clever intercutting of the conversations each actress was having with the audience – they rarely talked to each other – and the whole evening was a much better experience than I’d hoped for.

Neither Steve nor I had been attracted to Joan Crawford or Bette Davis as actors, or as people for that matter, so we weren’t familiar with their work and hadn’t seen What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? It didn’t matter; we knew enough of their reputations and the back story was cunningly interwoven with their chat to us so that anyone could have followed the story easily. In fact, for a play which was mainly exposition, the writing managed to avoid being clunky or obvious, which was a remarkable feat. There was a lot of humour, often through the juxtaposition of comments from each woman, and enough insight into each actress’s background to allow us to relate to them as people; I still wouldn’t want to spend time with them, but I can at least understand something of their challenges and how they rose to meet them. Or went down to meet them in Joan’s case.

The set was craftily designed to show us both of the dressing rooms, with the mirrors back to back. These didn’t actually exist; the walls were cut away to leave an open space between the two rooms, although in other respects there were a lot of furnishings to set the scene. Joan had her weighted belt to make Bette’s life hell during the lifting scene, while Bette’s trick on Joan was less nasty; she just ordered a Coke dispenser for the studio floor, as Joan’s last husband, now deceased, had been CEO at Pepsi. The performances were excellent, and we were very glad this came on tour after its success in London.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me