Julius Caesar – May 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 31st May 2012

This was only the fourth preview, and I gather there have been quite a lot of changes to each performance so far, so this production will undoubtedly settle and improve in the next few weeks. The central idea, of setting the play in an African context, worked very well, but the African accents did obscure a lot of the dialogue. Lots of extras made for a really effective crowd, highlighting the way the mob was being manipulated, but it also raised the energy levels so much when the stage was full that the quieter scenes occasionally suffered by comparison. That may well change with practice, of course, and overall this has the potential to be a very good production.

The stage had been converted into a monumental, slightly crumbling football stadium, with lots of steps and terraces at the back, an impressive central entranceway with platform above, and behind the stands we could see the back of a massive statue, one hand raised in salute. I didn’t realise immediately that it was a statue of Caesar; that became clear later on. The stage floor also had a raised central section, which came up even higher for Mark Antony’s speech, and the tent scene was played in this area with the help of an awning stretched forward from the entranceway. A music combo was perched on the upper right section of terracing at the start, and they returned there from time to time, although music was available in all areas throughout the evening.

Across the back of the stage, behind the terraces, were lots of bits of something – looked like paper with writing on it. The image I got was of the proscription/missing person lists, which were as abundant in the Rome of this period as in many a totalitarian regime today. Don’t know if this was the intent, but it worked well for me. The costumes were modern but included a lot of ceremonial robes which could be from a wide range of periods. One item of African formal wear was a strip of cloth which draped over the body, just like a toga – how convenient. The soothsayer was just about wearing a tattered skirt, and his body was caked in white powder which also plastered his hair down. During the battles, the government forces led by Antony and Octavius wore natty military kit, while the conspirators’ guerrilla rebels had a more bring-your-own-kit look.

Before the start the stage was alive with celebration. The band played, the extras were chatting, dancing, laughing, and looking forward to welcoming Julius Caesar back from his victory over Pompey. This was much better than the naff videos used in the previous production in the main house, and an enormous improvement on the few scuttling individuals who usually stand in for the mass of the Roman populace. The soothsayer turned up in the middle of all this and the whole crowd went silent, but as he started to dance, everyone else joined in. Eventually the killjoy tribunes turned up and told the plebs off. They held long, curved sticks, and whacked them on the ground in a very scary way – no wonder the ordinary folk kept their eyes down. Mind you, the cobbler was nice and cheeky, but to no avail; the common folk were driven away and Flavius and Marullus, clearly Pompey supporters, set off to clean up the city.

Caesar and his entourage entered next, with Brutus and Portia clearly part of this group. After asking Mark Antony to touch Calpurnia during the race – a touch embarrassing for her, I thought, to have her lack of children commented on so publicly – the soothsayer called out Caesar’s name. The soothsayer was huddled at the back of the platform above the entrance, and as Caesar demanded to know who spoke, he stood up, dropped the blanket he’d been wrapped in, and came to the front of the platform to deliver his warning. Despite Caesar ordering that the man be brought before him, he wasn’t, and when the rest left for the race, Brutus and Cassius stayed behind for the first ‘private’ scene of the play.

This came across OK, with roars from the off stage crowd punctuating their discussion, but it will hopefully be clearer with practice. Caesar’s comments about the lean Cassius (not too unbelievable with this casting) were said loud enough to make me wonder if Cassius was meant to hear them; this Caesar was definitely into obvious social snubs. Casca (Joseph Mydell) was wonderfully bitchy in his recounting of Caesar’s dismissal of the kingship, and got probably the biggest laugh I’ve heard yet for “it was Greek to me”.

The storm scene was a bit underpowered, though the sense of the supernatural, and of the characters’ belief in omens and mystical happenings, was much clearer than usual. The following scene, in Brutus’s house, set up the character of Lucius, his young servant. From the director’s talk beforehand, we had learned that this character had been expanded to include Brutus’s companion at the end, as they both shared the trait of falling asleep at every opportunity. Brutus’s contemplation explained his reasoning pretty well, and then the rest of the gang arrived. Already we could see how Brutus was taking charge and countermanding Cassius’s decisions; he was held in such high regard by everyone that he could get away with it.

The arguments for and against Caesar going to the senate were fine, and when the conspirators arrived to accompany Caesar there, Cassius also arrived, last of all, but was noticeably not welcomed by Caesar. (He’s not in the text, so it’s an insertion, but a telling one.) The scenes with Artemidorus and Portia didn’t really register with me – I’m not sure what they’re meant to convey, other than to tell us that Artemidorus is about to expose the conspiracy – but the soothsayer was again a strong presence, reminding Caesar that the Ides of March aren’t over yet. The 3D effect of the thrust stage worked well for the assassination scene, with the conspirators milling about and manoeuvring themselves into position to stab Caesar in turn. There was a greater sense of the threat of discovery, even though the only people on stage were the assassins and their victim. Again, Brutus overrides Cassius regarding Mark Antony, and their doom is set.

The crowd was an excellent part of the forum scene, with lots of chanting and heckling to accompany the speeches. The nature of the oratory used by Brutus and Antony was clearer in this setting; Brutus appealed to the nobler sentiments in the crowd, while Antony knew how to stir their emotions and engage with their baser instincts. Ironically, for all that Antony makes deliberate references to Brutus as ‘an honourable man’ to create the impression that he isn’t, it is, in fact, a true statement. Just shows you what a “scurvy politician” can do with the truth. At some point during the riots, Caesar’s statue at the back was pulled down. [5/7/12 Not so: the statue was pulled down when Caesar’s ghost appeared to Brutus in his tent.]

They were running this play through without an interval, so we were straight into the unfortunate demise of Cinna the poet, followed closely by the first meeting of the triumvirate. Octavius was young, and clearly ambitious, a similar foil to Antony as Brutus was to Cassius, overriding his will and ultimately destined to bring about his downfall. The awning was brought forward for the tent scene, and the argument between Brutus and Cassius was acted strongly, although I wasn’t so clear about their reconciliation. The military planning was clearer than usual, with the layout of the potential battle area being demonstrated on the front part of the thrust. Poor Cassius, overruled again. Caesar’s ghost gave the usual warnings, and then we were into the battle scenes. Nothing much to note till the end, other than the use of Lucius to do Strato’s office and hold the sword for Brutus to run on.

The power in this play came out more strongly with this setting and casting, and I would expect it to come on once they’ve had some more performances and the production settles down. We’re due to see it again, and although I would still prefer an interval – after the killing perhaps? –  at least they’ve kept it brisk enough that I can manage the non-stop version. Only one other thing to record; although we both like Ray Fearon as an actor, his tendency to spray while speaking was quite a distraction most of the time. He had a cloud of mist around him during some of his speeches which was rather unpleasant, and I hope he can get that under control.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Marvellous Year For Plums – May 2012


By Hugh Whitemore

Directed by Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 24th May 2012

This is the second play in the main house this year, and I’m already a little worried that this anniversary celebration of Chichester’s 50 years is recalling the blander offerings of the past rather than the much stronger work of recent years. This new play was enjoyable enough but has some problems, and while it was always likely to appeal to the traditional Chichester audience profile, it’s doubtful whether it would make its mark elsewhere. The cast did their best, of course, and looked relieved to receive a warm response at the end, but the play needs work to realise its potential.

Stories about the Suez crisis are semi-topical in this day and age, but even with such relatively recent history a lot of exposition is going to be necessary, and this can tend to slow things down, as well as leading to some clunky dialogue at times. The set was broad brush, allowing for quick-ish changes of scene, and created a hazy effect of memories surfacing and time being fluid. With the appearance of Eden senior at various times, this style pointed to a focus on one man’s life, the central character in the British involvement in Suez, but the rest of the play didn’t support this take. With the introduction of Hugh Gaitskill, and his affair with the wife of Ian Fleming, author of the Bond stories, the play became about the levels of deceit that were commonplace amongst the political elite at that time, and could have been suggesting that the prevalence of such loose morals was a factor in the decisions that were made. Unfortunately, the play never got round to that sort of suggestion; while I’m all for writers letting the audience make up its own mind about these things, this was so neutral as to be negligent. I was more inclined to see the possibility of Eden’s health problems as a contributing factor, although again that wasn’t given any real consideration.

As a retelling of the story of the events leading up to the Suez crisis it worked well enough, given that Harold MacMillan was noticeably absent, but there was very little sense of tension – we do know the result, after all – and the story was only partially told, with big jumps in the timeline and only fleeting references to the political fallout. With a similar offering from the National in recent years – Howard Brenton’s Never So Good, which told Harold MacMillan’s story – this play seemed very unsure of itself, and would benefit from being tightened up and given a clear focus and through story.

Having said all that, it was still enjoyable enough, despite the structural issues and some awkward staging. The set had a strip revolve which helped with the scene changes, but as the floor was slanted, I did find it funny, and even alarming at first, to see tables and chairs sliding off the stage as if by gravity. The dancing that was used to cover the scene changes was also a distraction; it seemed to signal the time changes, but as the dancers could also be characters, I wasn’t sure if we were meant to get something else out of it. Also, this device was used to much better effect in Never So Good; using it here in such a similar piece was unfortunate – looked like copying, although perhaps it was intended as a homage?

The dates were projected onto the back wall, which was a montage of country estate and London posh, and which was used to show a lot of video footage during the evening, including some large scale pictures of speeches made by Eden and Gaitskill on stage. I’m sorry to report that I spent more time checking the pictures against the reality to see if the video was live or recorded than I did listening to the speeches, which were the usual political blather. (I got the impression they were pre-recorded.)

The play began with some music, and as the chandelier was lit and raised up, there were some dancers gliding across the floor – why? I‘ve no idea what we were meant to take from this. I did wonder if the chandelier had been left hanging low down and raised up so that we would actually notice it, but as it came into play later on that was unlikely. After this puzzling opening, Eden came on and stood near the front of the stage, speaking some words in Arabic, while the script appeared on the back wall. He said the lines in English afterwards – ‘the moving finger writes…’. Unfortunately, in the gloom I saw Eden’s face as being very like Hitler’s, and with the guttural sounds of Arabic being not unlike German, I wondered for a brief moment or two if this was what we were being shown – a speech from Hitler which had been a strong influence on Eden’s life. I suspect that similarity wasn’t intended, and perhaps I’m the only one who saw it this way, but even so this opening was muddled and low-key; not a good start.

The first proper scene was between Eden and Nutting, whose position was never entirely clear but who seemed to be involved with the Foreign Office in an economic role. He was the main sounding board for Eden’s rants about Nasser, and later resigned over the deceit involved in the Suez operation. He also put the case for giving the Arabs, including Egypt, more support rather than less through this transition period. Eden stuck to the old Imperialistic attitudes, lumbering, dinosaur-like, to his doom. Nutting, a married man, was also having an affair, although what that had to do with anything wasn’t clear. He was missing for a large chunk of the second half – resigning your post will do that to a character – and only turned up again for the final flourish, a meeting with Selwyn Lloyd, in which we learn that Nutting has written a book about Suez. It was in this conversation that Selwyn Lloyd also delivered the long-awaited punchline ‘a marvellous year for plums’. Having a good title is all very well, but leaving it to the last minute to show us the connection simply weakened the effect. I would have preferred to use the old standard of starting the play with this meeting, going into flashback, and rounding the play off with the title line – it’s hackneyed, true, but it works. Of course, the interior Eden would have to be shelved in this version, but that’s a price worth paying in my view, as those parts didn’t work for me anyway.

Selwyn Lloyd was involved a lot throughout the play, not just at the end, and helped to hold the story together. A nice performance from David Yelland, this character gave us the legal and political insights of the situation, including the possibility that the Americans would have ‘winked’ at the British and French continuing their attack on Egypt, if it had produced the desired result of removing Nasser from power. History is full of such examples of the importance of deniability.

Hugh Gaitskill and Ann Fleming were ably played by Nicholas le Provost and Imogen Stubbs, although neither was stretched by these fairly standard roles, and I’m not sure what Gaitskill’s involvement was meant to achieve. He did introduce a letter published in the Times which neatly expressed the despair felt by many people who had to watch their country’s involvement in an illegal ‘police operation’, but as the letter was read by the writer herself (up on the balcony), I’m still not clear about his role in the play. Ann Fleming was a close friend of Clarissa Eden, and her involvement was necessary to show us the personal view, while Ian Fleming’s contributions were always enjoyable – a good performance by Simon Dutton – but Gaitskill’s inclusion suggests too much research on the part of the writer, and too much concern to cover all the angles.

Clarissa Eden was played by Abigail Cruttenden, and was all that could be wished for – beautiful, charming, intelligent, and a strong support for her husband. Antony Andrew’s Eden was good, though I would have preferred his vocal delivery to be less accurate, as Eden’s strangulated tones made it hard to hear his lines a lot of the time. He certainly captured the sense of a man out of his time, and struggling to make old attitudes work in a new world. His breakdown on stage was uncomfortable to watch, as it should be, and although he made some terrible choices, it was hard not to like the man, and feel that he was indeed honourable at his core.

Martin Hutson did a good job as Anthony Nutting, and I was particularly impressed as the last time we’d seen him was as the uber-villain Prince John in The Heart of Robin Hood in Stratford. Ian Fleming commented on the importance of a good villain in his stories – how true. The supporting cast all did fine work, the dancers especially, and the costumes were all lovely and suitably period. Daniel Easton did a nice turn as John Prescott, a steward on a cruise ship who was studying history and wanted to go into politics; despite seeming unlikely, I gather that John Prescott was indeed a ship’s steward and did indeed meet Eden when he took his post-Suez cruise in 1957.

I enjoyed this performance well enough; my dissatisfaction is largely based on the sense that there’s a good play in there somewhere, and if they can rework the material enough to get it out, then I would be delighted to watch the result. As it is, this is not one to see again.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King John – May 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Maria Aberg

Venue: Swan Theatre, Stratford

Date: Thursday 17th May 2012

Controversial! This re-interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s least-loved plays had some interesting ideas and stagings, but ultimately proved to be a triumph of style over substance. The stage was covered in a chain-link carpet in drab brown, with steps at the back and various rectangular blocks around the place for tables, seats, etc. there were potted plants, an art deco sunburst chandelier, and a netted swathe of large balloons above the steps, completely blocking out a neon ‘for God and England’ which appeared once the balloons were released at the start of the second half. This was a sleazy, corrupt, eighties-style country, with everyone out for financial gain and not much else, and lots of strong women pushing the men around. An interesting starting point, but would it bring out aspects of the play we hadn’t experienced before?

Before the play proper, Pippa Nixon, in multi-coloured tights and a short black dress, warmed us up with a shaky rendering of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on her ukulele. We joined in as best we could, at her insistence, then they started their version of the play itself with the entrance of the king and his court. This opening section was good fun, with Alex Waldmann’s King John a stronger presence than I’ve seen before. With the whole court assembled, he stood on the steps and toyed with them by starting to put the coronet on his own head, then stopping, then actually going through with it. The court was caught mid-bow or courtesy, but then there were cheers and applause. When a man in a pastel pink suit arrived, he was told to wait, and was kept waiting for some time until the king deigned to speak with him. This turned out to be Chatillon – the king read out his name tag in slow syllables before letting it ping back – and the bickering between France and John over the true king of England had begun.

After Chatillon’s departure, while John was giving orders for the church establishments to pay for the expected war, the dispute between two of Robert Falconbridge’s ‘sons’ came before John, only this time the elder ‘son’ was actually a daughter, played by Pippa Nixon. Both Queen Elinor and John registered their recognition of the Bastard’s similarity to Richard Lionheart, although we had nothing to go on, of course. The forthright battling spirit of the Bastard matched well with Elinor’s attitude and added to the play’s emphasis on strong women, but I was concerned at the Bastard’s lack of physical prowess – would she really be able to cut her way through a mass of soldiers? – and the added element of sexual attraction between her and John didn’t help the play at all as far as I was concerned. It might have worked better for me if they’d simply had Pippa playing the Bastard as a man, but perhaps not. Either way, they feminised the language, and although this interpretation conflicts with historical reality, not to mention the text, at least Pippa had one of the clearer deliveries of the evening and her high energy levels helped to keep me awake for most of the performance.

Lady Falconbridge, the Bastard’s mother, arrived by motorbike; for a brief moment I thought it might actually be coming onto the stage, it was so close, but in the end it was just the lady herself in her leathers, and good fun it was too. Then the action moved to the French court, where we met Austria, Arthur and Constance, as well as the French king and the Dauphin. This was where the dialogue started to lose clarity, and although I got the gist I was beginning to miss more than I heard. Added to this problem was the dreadful blocking. From the post-show we learned that the director didn’t bother blocking the scenes. From experience I can safely say that if they don’t block, they will block, and badly too. The effect of this was to cut our view and muffle the sound so that we might as well have been in another theatre for all that we could tell of the performance at times. Not the RSC’s finest hour, and something that could and should be addressed.

I was aware that Constance advised the French king to wait for the ambassador to return before attacking the English-held city in front of them, just in case, only for the ambassador to turn up a few moments later to warn of the impending arrival of the English army. And indeed they did turn up almost immediately, and settled down to a long war of words. At one point, King John made as if to put the coronet on Arthur’s head, but again snatched it away at the last moment and placed it back on his own. Constance, played by Susie Trayling, was another strong performance and also very clear, and I enjoyed the bickering between her and Elinor very much. Elinor produced a will which Constance grabbed, tore and scrunched up before throwing the bits away – I only mention this because there was a lot of that in this production, paper being ripped and/or scrunched up and tossed to one side, leading to an accumulation of debris.

The citizens of Angiers (for so it was, according to the text) appeared around the stage on the first balcony level while John and Phillip made their speeches asking for their support. Two microphones on stands were brought forward, and John did his speech first, followed by Phillip. It was a bit like a reality kingship game show, with the final choice going to the public vote, but there was a twist in this case. Not happy with the citizens’ indecision, and prompted by the Bastard’s fighting talk, Phillip and John agreed to join forces temporarily to destroy Angiers and carry on their own battle afterwards. Only the quick wits of the Angiers delegation prevented this, with their suggestion that Louis the Dauphin should marry Blanche, John’s niece.

The deliberations following this suggestion were nicely done, as far as I could see. Elinor was happy that the union would strengthen John’s claim to the throne, and encouraged him by a look to add Anjou to Blanche’s dowry. She wasn’t so happy about the thirty thousand marks John threw in as well, though. The actual contributions by Louis and Blanche themselves were largely hidden from my view and I couldn’t tell from the delivery what was going on, but it certainly seemed to be the clumsiest wooing ever by a long way. Since Constance wasn’t around to shove her oar in, and only the Bastard was unhappy that the fighting was over before it had begun, they went straight into the wedding ceremony.

Blanche put on her fancy togs at the top of the stairs – 50s pink skirt, socks, high heels – but I couldn’t see what Louis was doing. The microphones were cleared away, and the party began. With the two courts posed together on the steps, the Bastard took a photo, and then the courts froze while the Bastard talked us through the commodity speech – a long time for some of the cast to hold their poses.

After the speech, the action started up again with music and dancing, including a karaoke number from John. He brought a microphone back on and used that – cries of ‘speech’ from the others – but instead he went into an old number, I forget which, and with the rest of the cast joining in it all became a bit rowdy. John even took the microphone off the stand and was holding it out for the audience to sing along. Blanche took the microphone herself and had a go, and then the bride and groom said their vows followed by another slow dance between them which turned into a Dirty Dancing number. With much hilarity, the couple left the stage followed by the rest of the partygoers, leaving an empty stage for Constance to have a rant on. Arthur and Salisbury were there too, of course, but it’s Constance’s big number, and she did it very well. The contrast with the upbeat, high energy party scene was very effective, even more so when the revellers came back on, still in party mode but with extra hats, tinsel and the like. They stopped when they saw Constance, and it was an awkward moment.

The bickering continued, especially between Constance and the king of France, and only stopped when the Pope’s legate, Pandulph, arrived on the upper balcony. Another female version, this Pandulph was played by Paola Dionisotti in a white shirt and smart black trouser suit (well, she is Italian). John’s defiance of the Pope’s instructions (to release the Pope’s chosen Archbishop of Canterbury) led to Pandulph excommunicating him, and the pressure was on Phillip once again to go to war with England. Despite a crafty attempt to manoeuvre the legate into providing a third option, Phillip was faced with the stark choice of being excommunicated himself or fighting John. I’m not sure if the contrasting arguments of Constance and Blanche were cut; if not, they didn’t make much of an impact on me, though I was vaguely aware that Blanche had a difficult choice to make. I assume she went with Louis; again, it wasn’t clear to me.

The next scene had the Bastard coming on stage with a big bag from which she took the head of Austria. She placed the head near the front of the stage, and then the king turned up with young Arthur. Normally Hubert pops up as well at this point, but to save confusing the audience (the other choices were straightforward, were they?) the Bastard took on this role as well. (We women are just so good at multi-tasking.) King John asked the Bastard to take care of Arthur, and a short while later he made it clear exactly what ‘take care of’ meant. Like Richard III, he wants the only other contender for the throne removed before there’s any more trouble. The Bastard was very willing, and agreed immediately out of loyalty to the king rather than any great desire to kill children.

It was during the next scene, which according to my text has a debate among Phillip, Louis, Constance and Pandulph, that I started to lose consciousness. Despite Constance having anger in her grief, she does go on a bit and the later reaches of this scene, after Constance had left, are mostly blank. Apparently Pandulph worked on Louis to make him desire the English throne for himself, through his marriage to Blanche, and we would see the consequences of that later on. For now, it was peaceful slumber, and although I was aware of the change of scene to the Bastard (as Hubert) and Arthur, I have no clear recollection of that either. The fast pace of the start had given way to a gentle lull, and either I was more tired than I realised (possible) or the performance hadn’t engaged me as much as I would wish (also possible). Either way, I soon had a chance to stand up, move around and wake myself up for the second half, as the Bastard’s inability to kill the little boy was followed by the interval.

The second half opened with another song from the Bastard – don’t know this one either – and then the balloons were freed and the paper confetti released to smother the stage in a wild celebratory gesture. Only there was just John and two lords on the stage, and the whole effect was of a damp squib. The balloons went everywhere, and had to be kicked out of the way from time to time, but for once I didn’t mind – the effect was worth it.

The political bickering continued, then the Bastard reported that Arthur was dead. This news was not well received by the lords, and John became very unhappy with the Bastard for following his orders. I didn’t get all of this bit, and the next scene was no better. Arthur was on the ramparts of the castle, edging steadily along a dangerous wall on top of the steps. As he jumped off the stairs, falling behind them, a dummy was dropped in front of the steps to represent the dead body. This was what the lords found, and the Bastard, having told the king that Arthur was still alive, had to contend with the awkward reality of the boy’s body. This section also wasn’t fully clear to me, and the text is no help either, as Hubert and the Bastard are both present in this scene and have a long dialogue together. I assume this was truncated to a soliloquy, but don’t quote me.

With the French already on English soil, John had to swallow his pride and bow to Rome’s authority. For his third coronation, John was practically naked, and prostrated himself before Pandulph, who then gave him his crown again, just as the English lords were about to join with the Dauphin and support his challenge for the kingship. Pandulph then arrived to send Louis packing, but found it harder than expected to control the Dauphin’s actions. The King was taken ill, and the English lords, warned of the Dauphin’s intended treachery towards them, changed allegiance again. Too late; John died, his son became king, end of play.

There were some good performances in amongst all this, but with the unclear dialogue and resulting loss of the storyline, I couldn’t really get into this version of the play. We’re seeing it again later in the run; perhaps we’ll enjoy it more, perhaps not.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King Lear – May 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Dominic Hill

Venue: Citizens Theatre

Date: Wednesday 9th May 2012

I’d seen some great productions at the Citizens back in the 1970s, so I was really keen to visit it again; something of a nostalgia fest for me. I reckon that’s why Steve and I rated this performance differently, which doesn’t often happen. He gave it 7/10, while I was much happier with a 9/10 rating.

We couldn’t see all of the stage from the start, but I’ll describe it all now – saves time later on. At the beginning, there were steps leading up to the stage centre front, and there was a transparent curtain of plastic strips right across the stage near the front. The lights from the auditorium created a pattern of glowing waves on this curtain. I could just about see that behind it was a table with chairs, and that was all.

Once the action started, the central section of the stage became clearer. With a girder delineating each corner, the centre of the stage held various items of furniture, from the opening dinner table complete with fancy chandelier, through various other chair and table combos, then wheelchairs, a bed, a shopping trolley, piles of rubbish, etc., as well as occasionally being vacant. Behind this central section was a wall of high glass panels. Lurking figures could be seen through this, the homeless folk who inhabited the world outside the confines of the play. Pianos were everywhere, and provided the music and sound effects throughout, sometimes played in the usual fashion, and sometimes the strings were exposed and played directly, giving lots of crashing discords. The overall colour scheme was murky grey, but despite the apparent drabness the performance was full of life (till the end and all those dead bodies, of course). The costumes were modern, with occasional hints of historical peasant garb.

They started this production with a homeless person slamming the trapdoor open at the front of the stage. Then several of the dispossessed clambered out and gathered in front of the curtain, gazing through it at the dinner party on the other side. This was frozen to begin with, but then one of the homeless chaps removed his anorak and moved through the curtain to join the party, just as there was a burst of laughter from the table; he carried the piece of paper that was the map. The other homeless folk snuck off, though they were visible during the play at the sides and back. The characters at the table included Goneril, Albany, Regan and Cornwall, while Kent and Gloucester were sitting on the near side of the table. Ditching the usual opening about which of the Dukes Lear prefers (tactless in this situation), they went straight into Gloucester introducing Edmund to Kent. The others joined in the ribald laughter at Gloucester’s story, apart from Kent and also Albany, who looked askance at this social indiscretion. Edmund was civil and obliging as usual, but was clearly put out by his father’s announcement that he would be sent away again!

Lear arrived with Cordelia, who took her seat on the near side of the table as well, possibly in Gloucester’s vacated chair. As Lear presented the challenge to his daughters to profess the depth of their love for him, he seemed to be making it up off the cuff, and amidst the surprise Regan reacted by laughing out loud. When Goneril started her speech, she clearly thought that stating the matter was beyond words would be sufficient, and when she realised she was wrong she moved pretty quickly into flattery mode, trotting out the flowery lines like an old pro. Already middle-aged, she’d had plenty of time to practice the ‘oily art’ over the years. Cornwall stood up to watch closely what portion Goneril was being given – obviously keen to get as big a prize as he could from this little game show.

Regan had had time to prepare, of course, so she heaped the praises on with a fork lift truck. Goneril didn’t look too upset at being upstaged, but Cordelia was deeply troubled. I didn’t spot Kent’s reactions at this point, but I suspect he wasn’t keen on Lear’s little game. Regan was given her portion – Cornwall on his feet again, and apparently happy with his wife’s winnings – and then Cordelia had to go and spoil it all. She spoke from her heart, and I noticed Kent was nodding a little, making it clear he agreed with her completely, and setting the scene for his coming outburst. Lear tore the map in two and handed one part each to Albany and Cornwall at the appropriate moment, and I think he was standing on the table when he sent Kent packing. When Gloucester came on to introduce the French king and Burgundy, his confident announcement trailed off with surprise when he realised something strange had happened since he left the room earlier.

For this section, Lear sat behind the table, his beady eyes fixed on the action. When Burgundy refused Cordelia, Lear seemed grimly satisfied that his judgement was being effective against her. He wasn’t so pleased with the King of France for speaking up on Cordelia’s behalf, and his eyes were narrow slits when France declared Cordelia his queen. Lear left with Burgundy, and France had almost left the stage with Cordelia before he paused and told her to say farewell to her sisters, who were still sitting at the table. With their departure, Goneril and Regan had their little chat, and I noticed that Goneril not only appeared more confident than Regan, she was also quick to adopt the royal ‘we’ in her speech, while Regan had yet to realise her new position.

The servants cleared the table and chairs away during that last bit of the scene, and so they soon had the furniture set up for Gloucester’s house – a sofa and not much else. There was an overlap with the previous scene during the clearing; as Goneril strolled off stage she cast an approving eye on Edmund, who came on wearing a grey tracksuit and laid on the ground near the front the stage. After Goneril left and the changes were complete, Edgar came on and sat on the sofa to read the paper and drink his can of beer. I liked this staging; again it got across the domestic nature of the relationships, and increased the risk factor of Gloucester and Edgar finding out Edmund’s trick before it had a chance to work. It also had the benefit of telling us who Edgar is, which is handy when he’s hardly on stage at all before he appears, disguised, as Poor Tom. Edmund’s diatribe against the social exclusion of bastards was more obviously a soliloquy with Edgar being present, and he handled it pretty well. He also spotted the useful quality of the word ‘legitimate’ and added it to the letter he’d prepared earlier.

After Edgar had gone off, presumably to get some more beer, Gloucester arrived carrying a bottle of whisky and a glass, and taking liberal helpings. He sat on the sofa to read the letter he took from Edmund, while Edmund played the concerned brother very well. After Gloucester’s departure, he worked the same trick on Edgar as they sat on the sofa together, and all was set for this strand of knavery.

Back with the dining table and chairs, Goneril gave her instructions to Oswald and then Kent turned up, hair no longer slicked down and without his glasses. From a fairly posh English accent, he chose to move to a broader Glasgow one, and he was ready to offer his service when Lear arrived, carried on the shoulders of one of his followers.

The attendant lords were a lewd bunch, each one equipped with his own doxy; Kent/Caius was a model of good behaviour by comparison. With plenty of support from acting and music students, the production could at least put lots of bodies on the stage, and these scenes benefitted from the numbers. The confrontation with Oswald was fine, and then the fool arrived. With a whitened face and a cap, this fool was dressed like a mime, and walked with one foot twisted inwards, creating a sense of disability. He also used the piano at the side of stage a lot to accompany his singing in this scene, although it wasn’t the most tuneful version I’ve ever heard. The lines came across well enough though, which is the main thing. I don’t remember any reaction from Lear on the ‘Nothing can be made out of nothing’ line, and Lear himself stood in for the bitter fool this time.

The confrontation with Goneril went badly, as usual, with her reproaches seeming reasonable in the circumstances, and Lear starting to move into madness through his obsessive belief that his daughters owed everything to him. He threw some chairs around before storming off, and the stress he was under came out more in the following scene while he waited with the fool for the horses to be ready.

Curran was included in this production at the start of Edmund’s next scene, and soon Edgar was on the run. Gloucester almost collapsed at the ‘realisation’ that his own son wanted him dead (silly man), and then Cornwall and Regan arrived to ask Gloucester for his advice. Kent’s altercation with Oswald was very good fun; perhaps it was the Scottish accent, but the insults were so well delivered that I heard every one, and the audience finally had a chance to laugh out loud. As I recall, Kent was using a golf club which Gloucester had left leaning against the bench, threatening Oswald with the handle end.

After the ‘combatants’ had been parted, Kent really put his foot in it with the insults to the assembled nobles. I was very aware that Kent was echoing Lear’s behaviour, acting as if he were still entitled to the benefits of his rank even though he’d been exiled and was in disguise. His look of panic as he realised he would be put in the stocks seemed to be partly for himself and partly for the insult to the king; like Lear he had still to learn the new political reality. Gloucester was also disturbed by this proceeding, and his reactions were clear throughout these scenes, not just during his lines. Kent was chained to the bench, and read his letter by moonlight. This done, the lights were lowered on the centre of the stage so that Edgar’s scene could take place near the front, using the same trapdoor that opened the play.

We both found this Edgar a bit strange. His accent was unclear, a strange mix from nowhere in particular – was this deliberate? His delivery was also a bit wimpish, and although I heard most of the lines OK, I wasn’t convinced by the performance that this Edgar would make a good king. Mind you, the way they ended the play suggested a different take, but I’ll deal with that when I get there. At least he established the disguise he was taking on – it’s easy to forget that not everyone knows the story – and there were some background sounds to suggest that people were out searching for him.

Back with Kent, the fool and Lear arrived, and again there was some humour in their exchange, with Lear refusing to believe that Regan would have put his man in the stocks and Kent assuring him she did – almost like pantomime. As the scene developed, I noticed that after Cornwall’s admission that he had Kent put in the stocks, Regan deliberately took over the conversation again, suggesting that like her sister she had come to realise the strength of her position, and that dealing with the king was her business, not her husband’s. After Goneril arrived and the greetings were done, the sisters stood at the front of the stage, one on either side, and tacitly negotiated the final transfer of power from Lear to them. Goneril had a slightly quizzical look when Regan started the process of bidding Lear down – what’s she up to here? – then the declaration of ‘but five and twenty’ made it clear, and a silent pact was made. Like two lionesses bringing down a rampant wildebeest, they held each other’s gaze and were steadfast in their demands while Lear raged impotently at his treatment.

With the storm starting, and Lear heading off into the wilds of Gloucestershire, the glass curtain at the back was raised, and several shadowy figures became visible lurking round the stage. This emphasised for me the world that Lear was entering; not so much the madness aspect but the dispossessed, the naked, those without shelter. And of course there’s a lot of mental illness amongst those sleeping rough, an appropriate connection to make between the play and the present day. Lear’s long rant was clear enough, bringing out the emphasis on ingratitude and his increased awareness of the suffering of the poor. The fool’s prophecy was cut, and we were soon through the discovery of Poor Tom, who stayed well clear of Gloucester when he turned up. The short scenes between Edmund and Gloucester and Edmund and Cornwall were fine, and for the arraignment scene there was a shopping trolley and a mattress, as well as a stool or two, although Goneril wasn’t a joint-stool this time (forget what was used instead). Before he went to bed, Lear actually smashed the fool’s head against one of the stools, giving him a bloody wound, and by the end of the scene the fool had clearly died. When Gloucester arrived to warn them to leave, they put Lear into the shopping trolley and wheeled him off, leaving the fool’s body there. Interval.

The second half started with the blinding scene, of course, and Regan was again much too keen on the unpleasant stuff. She even used one of her stilettos to remove the second eye – eugh! She did at least help Cornwall off after he was injured – some Regan’s don’t – and then we got a chance to see someone being helped on to the stage, as Gloucester was brought on by a servant and met his disguised son. Edgar’s emotional reactions were clear, and they were soon off to Dover.

The scenes come thick and fast now. Goneril had a good snog with Edmund before he left – no reaction from Oswald this time. Albany was a much stronger presence in this scene than usual, and very unhappy with Goneril’s actions. She was equally unhappy with him – I think she threw her handbag at him, or did he grab it off her? – so I don’t see much future in that relationship.

I think the next scene was Regan and Oswald – not the Kent scene, and possibly not Cordelia’s either – and although Regan had delved into her extensive wardrobe for a black ensemble, she was clearly preparing for another wedding, to Edmund this time. Oswald’s reluctance to show her Goneril’s letter to Edmund was not easily overcome, despite Regan’s rather crude attempt to offer sexual favours.

Back at Dover, Edmund helped his father up the steep slope to the top of the cliff, etc. I realised later that this is possibly the only scene in Shakespeare’s plays where the description of the location is actually wrong, and yet it’s so good that I find it hard to remember where we are, and it’s often a surprise when Lear comes wandering along the ‘beach’. Here the conversation between Lear and Gloucester was good, though not the best I’ve heard, and the attendants when they arrived were all women and all in white coats. Lear ran off, Edgar fought Oswald and took his letter, and then Lear was brought on in a wheelchair for the reunion with Cordelia. For some reason there was a young woman, one of the homeless, also in a wheelchair at the back and apparently being cared for by the women in white coats; don’t have a clue what it meant, but at least it didn’t get in the  way. The Cordelia/Lear reunion was quite touching, and then we were back with Regan and Edmund for the battle preparations. Edmund’s explanation of his dilemma over the sisters was another opportunity for humour, not really responded to this time which was a shame, as that was the last comfort break before unremitting doom and gloom set in.

The battle lost, Lear and Cordelia were taken away to prison. Regan showed symptoms of poisoning soon after her arrival on stage, Edgar was nearly beaten by Edmund in the duel but managed to keep going and eventually won the fight, and the messenger sent to the prison had hardly run off the first time before Lear arrived on stage with Cordelia’s body, crying ‘howl, howl, howl’. With Lear dead, Kent not only took out a gun while saying his final lines, he also sat in the chair, put the gun in his mouth and fired immediately after he’d finished speaking, as abrupt an end to this character as I’ve ever seen, though other productions have pointed in this direction. After Edgar’s closing lines, he and a group of the homeless folk joined up in a band and walked to the front of the stage, suggesting that the have nots are now taking over the country, and that Edgar’s time as Poor Tom has taught him the lessons that Lear never learned until it was too late. It was a different, and almost a downbeat ending (Lear? Downbeat? Surely not!) without the sense of goodness surviving through the difficulties and some sort of order being restored. This ending suggested a tearing down of the old ways and an almost hostile takeover of society by those who have no investment in the previous regime. It’s an interesting parallel with current events, and one I have some sympathy with, although I’m not sure the play fully supports this reading. Still, I enjoyed this evening enormously, and despite some flaws, the story was told very well with some strong individual performances. I’ll be keen to come back here again for future productions.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Murder On The Nile – May 2012


By Agatha Christie

Directed by Joe Harmston

The Agatha Christie Theatre Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 4th May 2012

Closely related to Death On The Nile – same plot, similar characters, but no Poirot – this production had a lovely set and mostly good performances, making for an enjoyable evening out. It was written by Agatha Christie herself, and she deliberately chose to keep Poirot to the book, using Canon Pennefather as the ‘detective’ in the stage version. All the action took place on the observation deck, magnificently recreated on stage, so Louise had to be shot through the screen across the bar, and the injured Simon Mostyn had to be carried from Dr Bessner’s room a couple of times to take part in the action, but these adjustments all worked just fine.

Kate O’Mara made full use of Miss ffoliot-ffoulkes’s snobbery to give us most of the funny lines and looks of the evening; her grimace of social disappointment when the Canon turned out to be one of the Shropshire Pennefathers, was lovely. Dennis Lill as the Canon made a good substitute for Poirot, and although it meant we couldn’t go into detail on the potential embezzlement motive, he had the necessary level of authority to hold the investigation together. Chloe Newsome did very well as Jacqueline, although her maniacal laugh in the first act could do with a bit more practice, and Ben Nealon, a company regular, hit all the right notes as Simon Mostyn, the husband of the murdered woman. Susie Amy’s lack of experience on stage showed in her rather stilted performance as Kay Mostyn, but as she was killed before the interval that didn’t matter too much, while Vanessa Morley dropped all the right hints as the maid, Louise. Jennifer Bryden and Max Hutchinson were very good as the potential young lovers, and Mark Wynter was a fine Dr Bessner. Hambi Pappas and Sydney Smith were surprisingly strong as the two Arabs who represented the crew (these parts are notoriously undercast as a rule), and while we knew the solution in advance, there’s a good chance that anyone who didn’t would be kept guessing till the final revelation.

The play ended with the lights going out and a single shot being fired – nicely ambiguous. I was aware that there was much less investigation than in the book and film, but that’s inevitable given the limitations of the medium. There was still plenty of psychological content, such as Kay’s inability to recognise guilt when she felt it, while the strong complaints about financiers running people’s lives were totally relevant today (sadly). Even though we’d seen this play way back in the 1980s, neither of us could remember those productions, so it’s safe to say this is the best version so far for us.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me