Much Ado About Nothing – July 2012

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Iqbal Khan

Venue: Courtyard

Date: Tuesday 31st July 2012

We’ve seen a number of Much Ados over the years; some have been splendid, some have failed to get off the ground, but tonight’s performance is undoubtedly in the former category. This was the final preview before press night, and from the pre-show director’s talk we learned that about twenty minutes had been cut from the previous performance (and at three and a half hours that was just as well!) so the cast were having to deal with lots of changes. That, the blocking and some clunky stagings were the reason for only rating this at 7/10; with practice the actors will speed up and from a different perspective we should see a lot more of the crucial scenes. It only remains for the director to tighten up a few scene changes and we’ll be well on our way to full marks.

In the pre-show talk, the director explained how he came to Michael Boyd’s attention, via Meera Syal. He also discussed the concept for the piece; at first he didn’t want ‘Asian’ and insisted on having a free choice to do the play in whatever way suited it. After some research, including a visit to Delhi, he felt modern India would fit the play better than setting it in the past – historical India has too many political resonances which would drown out the issues dealt with in the play. He treats the text with respect, not reverence, and considers that his job is to serve the audience, not the author. Over the years he has done a one and half hour Othello and a four hour Hamlet, so he clearly takes each production as it comes. He also likes to make use of what the actors bring – twenty heads are better than one. He was asked about caste issues; they did discuss these during rehearsals, but again the director felt that those concerns belong to another play. I did learn that darker skin means lower caste, which made Claudio’s comment about his second bride – “were she an Ethiop” – much more telling in this interpretation.

Now to the performance. Announcements both inside and outside the auditorium were made by Dogberry, and included ‘switch off your digital crotches’ and ‘do not abuse your mobile phones’. Photography was going to be acceptable for once, until another servant corrected him. The set was a wonderful paved courtyard space, with a building behind on two levels – three if you count the roof. A balcony had rooms to left and right of a central door, and a large tree in front of it to the right, with lots of branches and a seat underneath. There was a swing hanging on this tree from a branch to the right of it; normally hung up against the tree, the swing was brought down several times.

It was lovely to see that the balcony of Leonato’s house blended with the Courtyard balcony. There were stairs up to balcony on the left hand side of the house, and steps up to the stage at the front – we noticed the grille during the pre-show and realised there would be water. Both voms had been removed, but there were steps up to the stage at each side.

Before the start, the washing was hung up over the stage, and Leonato’s household were getting the sheets down. Verges (Ursula in most productions) was bossing everyone about, while Dogberry was joining in and getting so stroppy with the people up above that he banged his foot against a seat. I laughed at this, and got some choice remarks sent in my direction (nothing I couldn’t handle) about his bunion hurting. Other members of the household staff arrived, and we could also see Beatrice sitting up on the balcony with what looked like a folder or book; it turned out to be an iPad, which she brought down to show to the audience. Apparently her nephew had been setting her up with potential suitors, but she wasn’t impressed and showed us the picture of an elderly man sitting in his library, making some disparaging comments about his suitability. This section felt like we were part of the community of this house, neighbours who just happened to be sitting around, and certainly got me involved from the start. The band were back right for most of the play, under the balcony, then moved somewhere else and did a lap of honour at the end.

Hero and Margaret returned from a shopping trip, well laden, and showed off some of their purchases to Beatrice, who had returned to the balcony. Leonato arrived at the front of the stage, bearing the message about the prince, and at some point Verges sent everyone scurrying to prepare for visitors. They brought out a floral garland and a tray with the powder on it, which Beatrice held for her uncle when the prince arrived. Before that, the chat between her and the soldier was fun and he eventually conceded defeat with good grace.

Don Pedro arrived with his brother, Claudio and Benedick. For this scene, it was Don John blocking our view, but not too badly. Leonato greeted Don Pedro with the garland and put the spot on his forehead (tilak?), and then Beatrice and Benedick were into their battle of wits. When Leonato welcomed Don John, he was indeed “not of many words”, which got a laugh. When Claudio was talking with Don Pedro and Benedick about Hero, Dogberry and Borachio were clearing some things off the stage, and thus heard about Don Pedro’s plan to woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf. Claudio blocked my view of Benedick asking the prince to “constrain me to tell”, but from the delivery I could tell it was entertaining.

After these three left, we could see Dogberry whispering his version of the story to Antonio. Leonato called out to his brother from the balcony, and Antonio reported what he’d heard, while Dogberry slunk away before he could be called on to confirm the details. The next scene had Conrad and Don John on stage. A servant brought them bottles of beer, and while they were drinking and talking, Borachio came along with his news. Don John came across as someone who simply liked to be contrary, and given the downturn in his fortunes he was determined to cause as much trouble as he could. Borachio was another drinker – he was hardly ever without a drink in his hand before his arrest.

The party scene took a little while to set up, with Leonato and Antonio putting on scarves and some make up, while the women wore the men’s military jackets over their dresses and acted the male parts. There was a lively dance, with the Prince’s men also wearing scarves, and occasionally the rest of the dancers moved to the back of the stage so that a conversation could take place at the front. This included Margaret’s chat with Balthazar and Verges’ (Ursula’s) chat with Antonio. Her references to head-wagging were very appropriate.

After Beatrice and Benedick’s conversation most of the dancers left the stage, so only Claudio, moping on the tree seat, Don John and one of his followers were left. They stirred up Claudio, pretending to think he was Benedick, so Claudio stormed off when Benedick arrived to take him to the Prince, and Benedick also left when Beatrice arrived. I noticed it was Beatrice who found and brought Claudio to the Prince; clearly a competent woman.

Claudio’s halting protestations of love to Hero (once Don Pedro gave him the good news) were not highly thought of by the others, hence Beatrice’s plea to Hero to “let him not speak neither”. Don Pedro was upset at being refused by Beatrice, and I wasn’t sure how much his plan to have her and Benedick fall in love with each other was devised partly out of spite for that rejection.

Borachio and Conrad were drinking, or rather Conrad was too far gone to drink so one of the others took his bottle, for the scene where they planned Hero’s downfall, and Borachio helped Conrad off at the end. Don’t know why they went so far with the alcoholism. Then came the first gulling scene. One of the servants, a woman, was sitting on the swing. Benedick arrived, took off his shoes and sat on the bench, and asked her to go for his book. She demurred, so Benedick chased her off and then sat on the swing himself to deliver his next speech. It was rather rushed, and didn’t get the full humour out of his total refusal to wed followed by his detailed list of the attributes his bride would require – that may come with time.

When the three other men arrived, Benedick ran off the stage to begin with and then lurked round the far side next to the audience, while Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro used the whole of the stage. Balthazar sang a funky Indian version of “Sigh no more”, which was very good, before leaving them to it. Leonato was having the usual difficulty in keeping up with the others, but managed to think of a funny story when prompted by the prince.

During this talk, the servant came back with the book, and was trying to give it to Benedick but couldn’t get his attention. After he took to the tree and then the balcony, she gave up and started listening to the story the others were telling. She even became part of the action after the “between the sheets” gag, falling to the ground and acting out Beatrice’s suffering as the story unfolded. Benedick was up on the roof at the end, and after he came down she was trying to give him the book still, but failed. Don Pedro and Claudio didn’t fancy leaving when Leonato said “My Lord, will you walk?” but fairly ran off the stage when he added “dinner is ready”.

This scene still needs work, I feel. The director made changes here before tonight’s performance, so that doesn’t help, but Benedick is so out of touch with the others when he’s up on the roof, and possibly out of sight of the audience as well, that it takes a lot of the fun out of the scene. The servant’s inclusion does add some humour, but at the expense of seeing Benedick being tricked into loving Beatrice, although I reckon he’s really being tricked into admitting his true feelings for her.

Beatrice came out with her mobile phone when she called Benedick to dinner. He was back on the swing at this point, with a stupid grin on his face. His attempts to make Beatrice’s surliness seem like indicators of love were funny. For Beatrice’s gulling, Hero gave Verges a phone and then went inside – we could see her behind the shutters of an upstairs room, where Margaret joined her after getting Beatrice involved. Verges and Hero conversed using the speakers on their mobiles. Meanwhile, Beatrice had been brought out onto the balcony, hair in a towel, bleaching cream on her top lip, and ended up on the tree seat just far enough round to appear hidden but without actually being out of sight.

I was aware that many of Hero and Verges’ comments were accurate; Beatrice does scorn all offers and turns “every man the wrong side out”. I found it harder to hear all the lines with this staging, but I got the gist. Verges moved over to the tree seat herself as the conversation progressed, and somewhere around “Yet tell her of it”, Beatrice slid round next to Verges who had to acknowledge her presence. Her lines after that were said with Beatrice right there, and when the ‘gulling’ was concluded and Beatrice was left alone, she took off the towel, wiped her lip, and resolved to requite Benedick’s love. She danced around a bit, waving the towel, then caught it in her arms and stood there, rocking it like a baby. After a few seconds she realised what she was doing and threw the towel down before heading off.

Benedick had been quick about getting shaved and putting on some hair dye. His hair had been grizzled at the start; now his black locks gleamed against his clean-shaven face. His military garb had been transformed into trousers and a long turquoise top, and if I hadn’t known who he was I might not have recognised him. He responded to the prince and Claudio’s barbs with spirit, and although his shaven face was revealed at the start of the scene, which is too soon for me, the overall effect was fine. Don John stirred up Claudio and the prince as usual, and then the watch arrived. They used the household servants for this, and made it out to be a special guard duty which they were doing on a one-off basis for the wedding. We were blocked again from seeing some of this scene, but the lines were OK. When Dogberry left the first time, the watch sat down on the steps, apart from one chap who squatted near us with a see-through umbrella over him.

The director mentioned that he’d cut two scenes together, and this was that spliced section. During the earlier scenes, the staff had set up a wedding platform underneath the tree. A mannequin stood to the left of this with the wedding dress on it, and for the first bit of this scene I could just make out Margaret and Hero on the platform, behind the chap with the umbrella. Then Dogberry came back briefly, and then I think they finished the scene on the platform with Beatrice’s arrival. After this, the women left, taking the wedding dress with them. Then it was the arrival of Borachio and Conrad, still drinking, to be arrested by the watch. The chap with the umbrella stood up to listen to the two men, and Borachio obviously took him for a tree, because he peed all over him. (This is becoming a little tedious now.) The others crept forward from the steps onto the stage, surrounded the villains and apprehended (or as Dogberry would say “comprehended”) them. Interval.

During the interval they finished setting up the stage for the wedding, and again Dogberry and Verges were bossing people about. Cloth streamers were handed out to the few members of the audience who had stayed in the auditorium with instructions to pass them back. Eventually they were all attached to wires and drawn up to form a canopy over the platform – a nice effect, but perhaps a little costly later on?

The second half started with Beatrice on the balcony singing “Sigh no more”, followed by Dogberry and Verges turning up to report their arrest of Conrad and Borachio. It seemed slightly strange that Leonato called Dogberry “good neighbour”, but it was even stranger that Dogberry and Verges were holding a pair of trousers each, presumably from the arrested men. They held the trousers up to show Leonato, but he was too focused on his daughter’s wedding, and sent them away. If only…

The wedding scene was very good, from what I could see of it. Dogberry and Verges got several audience members up on the stage and sitting on cushions. The families processed onto the stage from each side, and garlands were exchanged; Beatrice and Benedick also exchanged grimaces with theirs. Hero and Claudio sat side by side on the platform, and it all seemed to be going very well. The music was very lively, there was a lot of colour and smiling faces. What could possibly go wrong?

They were using the term ‘Pandit’ instead of “friar” for this scene, and they also used a microphone for the wedding ceremony, passing it from speaker to speaker. Claudio certainly used it when he accused Hero of not being a virgin, although it was put aside at some point. Hero stayed on the platform, collapsing there, while her father ranted near the front of the stage. I didn’t have the best view, because the stool in front of us was occupied during most of this bit, first by Antonio(?), then Benedick, then the Pandit (sigh). (As a result, though, I can grass up the Pandit; his comments about “noting of the lady” were spectacularly inaccurate tonight, as he spent very little time looking in her direction.)

Despite my restricted view, I was able to spot Margaret’s reaction to the story the prince and Claudio were telling. She clearly realised her part in all this, and left quickly. I hope to get a better idea of this scene another time, but it came across quite strongly all the same. The use of the microphone plus the upbeat start served to emphasise Hero’s public humiliation, and made Claudio and the prince’s acts all the more shocking.

After Hero was taken away, the scene between Benedick and Beatrice was very good; she was very strong, and he seemed to grow up a lot in this scene. I reckoned it was the emotional trauma that allowed them to come into some sort of relationship, especially the fact that Benedick supported her family and was on Hero’s side. Her line “Kill Claudio” raised a laugh, which I always find hard to understand. This is a serious request, and a sobering one, not some silly adolescent joke. Benedick’s response shows how reluctant he is to take such an extreme measure, thereby also emphasising his feelings for Beatrice when he eventually accepts the task.

After they left, the watch, their prisoners and the sexton arrived for the interrogation scene. Not only were Conrad and Borachio without their trousers, they were trussed together, back to back, so walking was difficult for them, They had to sit back to back on the stage while the sexton, who sat on the platform, took notes. The watch were much better at giving evidence than Dogberry and Verges, as usual, and the final insistence by Dogberry, that everyone “remember that I am an ass!”, was very funny.

Now the wedding platform and decorations had to be taken away, and this was done during Leonato and Antonio’s opening speeches in the next scene. The cloth streamers were lowered and unhooked, and finally dragged off through the doors, while the swags and other fancy bits were also removed. This took some time, and during it the two men had to be careful where they stood, as they could easily have disrupted the whole process by standing on a bit of cloth. There may also have been a reluctance to talk while the servants were around, but I think the main problem was the delaying effect of removing so much cloth from the stage. This slowed the start of this scene down so much that it almost stopped altogether, but once the stage was de-weddinged, the pace picked up with Leonato’s comment “My soul doth tell me Hero is belied”, and the rest of the scene, though slow, worked OK.

The verbal fisticuffs between the old men and the soldiers was a bit dull, possibly because of the earlier lack of pace, but once Benedick came on the energy lifted a bit. He handled the prince and Claudio’s mocking very well, staying focused on his primary intent, which was to challenge Claudio. The prince and Claudio reacted to the news that Don John had left, but without changing their attitude completely.

When Dogberry and the watch brought on the prisoners again, they were in an even worse state than before. Their shirts had gone, and they were still struggling to get on and off the stage tied together as they were. Borachio’s confession changed the situation, and Claudio knelt down and put his head to Leonato’s feet as he was apologising. Leonato handled things well, I thought, and for once Antonio didn’t react when Leonato suggested that Claudio should marry his niece, Antonio’s daughter “almost the copy of my child that’s dead”. Either he’s a bit slow on the uptake, hard of hearing, or the brothers had already planned this way of bringing Hero back to life (my preferred interpretation). I think Leonato gave Dogberry some paper money for his “pains”.

The next scene showed us Margaret, apparently recovered from her guilt over her part in Hero’s dishonouring, bantering with Benedick.  After she left we were treated to Benedick’s appalling lack of talent in the musical department, followed by his inability to rhyme, all of which was mercifully cut short when Beatrice turned up. They sat on the swing together while they discussed their attraction to each other.

To create the setting for the scene in the memorial, the central part of the building was opened up while the side doors were folded back, creating a space on either side. They chose to have rain at the back of the stage, behind the building, and it ran forward, hence the grilles in the steps at the front. Several of the cast were out in the rain, with umbrellas keeping them dry. For the reciting of the poem, Claudio was at the front along with the prince and a veiled woman, didn’t see who. Steve remembers Hero being on the steps to the left, wearing a veil. Balthazar sang the song, standing on the little bit of balcony that remained, and after the prince and Claudio left to prepare for the wedding, Leonato and his family emerged from their mourning garb to make their own arrangements. Hero wasn’t entirely happy with her father at this point, refusing to embrace him, and who can blame her? With the women off the stage, Benedick made his request for Beatrice’s hand in marriage, and then the prince and Claudio returned for the final scene.

Given the amount of rain, the staff had been very busy drying the floor during all of this. Otherwise the set remained the same, although I did spot the ends of two carpets or rugs sticking out at the very back of the stage, off to the left, presumably to do with the wedding ceremony. As well as changing “friar” to ‘Pandit’, references to “church” had become ‘temple’, which worked just fine for me.

After the initial discussion, and Claudio making his remark about an “Ethiop”, the women returned. The prince and Claudio were confronted by four women with veils over their heads which were also held out on front of them. For once, I had no idea who was who, and neither did Benedick when he tried to find Beatrice, although I could guess which one she had to be. The exchange of written love letters was very good, with Beatrice reacting strongly to the inadequacy of Benedick’s efforts, then changing her response so as not to hurt his feelings. The prince sat near the front as Benedick told him to get a wife, and the news about Don John’s arrest was also quickly dealt with by Benedick.

They finished with a lively dance, Indian style, which went on for some time. I clapped along, but the audience was pretty unresponsive until the dance stopped, and then we all applauded well enough for two rounds of bows, with the musicians taking their lap of honour after the first lot. And a marvellous job they’d done, too.

Overall, the only problem with this production was the slow pace, which I suspect was largely due to the many changes the cast had had to assimilate plus the cumbersome scene changes. The dialogue was mostly clear, though the use of Indian accents sometimes blurred the lines too much. Again, that should improve with practice, and I’m looking forward to seeing this one again.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Twelfth Night – July 2012

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 26th July 2012

This was the production we liked best in the main house earlier this year, and it’s still the best this time, but not by as much. There were some changes we spotted, plus additional aspects we hadn’t seen before, and a very appreciative audience meant there was a great atmosphere. The performances had undoubtedly come on, but they were pretty well established before, so the improvement wasn’t so noticeable. I could have done without some additional commentary from the people behind us, but it didn’t happen too often and didn’t ruin the evening.

As we knew how the performance started, we lost the advantage of surprise which can make a huge difference with such a spectacular staging. So it probably took me a little longer to warm up than last time, but not much. I wasn’t sure if there were fewer actors creeping on stage during the blackout, but this time I noticed the blinking red light towards the top of the pillar, which indicated the port scenes. During Orsino’s first speech, I was aware that his comments about Olivia’s capacity for love, grieving as she is for a dead brother, would apply equally as well to Viola, grieving over Sebastian’s bag at the front of the stage while this scene is going on.

Some minor differences during the early scenes: no applause for Sir Andrew’s moonwalk, sadly, and Cesario didn’t cough over his cigarette. When Olivia gave Malvolio the ring to take to Cesario, she took it off her finger this time instead of a chain, and it was easy to see how her flirtatiousness was being misinterpreted by Malvolio. The beeping of the trolley wasn’t as loud as before – perhaps other people had trouble with their hearing aids as well – and the ring still ended up in the water.

Sir Andrew’s dunking did happen as a result of Malvolio’s arrival. He (Sir Andrew) edged backwards along the diving board, and fell in at a suitable moment. Three splashes for the front row, though none of them seemed as big as in the earlier performance – perhaps they’re getting the hang of it. The comments about Orsino’s mind being like an opal may have been trimmed, as Feste exited after the word “opal” this time. Cesario’s discussion with Orsino about the nature of male and female love was good, and as I was watching this scene, and others during the performance, I found I was able to register Cesario as a boy, and see the situation from Orsino’s perspective.

For the letter scene, the business with the three objects on the reception desk had changed; now Sir Toby or Sir Andrew grabbed one of the items to throw it at Malvolio, and Fabian deftly removed it just in time. Otherwise it was all as I remembered, and just as funny, with the audience responding brilliantly to every little gesture or comment. The rest of the first half was as before, and we left Olivia sitting on the bench seat with her head in her hands.

The second half started as before. Sir Andrew didn’t get his “yes, I’ll hold” in this time, but otherwise it was the same, and still funny. The ditching of his mobile in the water didn’t please the audience though; there was a slight murmur which suggested we were seeing a less funny side to Sir Toby’s pranks. Olivia didn’t release the chandelier nor change into her summer frock as early as I’d thought last time; the chandelier releasing happened as she was about to go to church to marry Sebastian, and her summer frock appeared after the wedding. One other thing I forgot to mention last time; Cesario did some hand slapping with the guards as he crossed the stage at one point, and when they met with Sebastian later, they did the same with him, much to his surprise.

With so few changes from last time, the improvement we experienced was partly down to the practice the cast have had, a stronger audience response, and our different angle which revealed some things we hadn’t seen before. We have another performance booked, and we’re looking forward to it already.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Comedy Of Errors – July 2012

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 25th July 2012

There were a number of differences between tonight and the first time we saw the production, and all for the better. The stage was less cluttered, although the shiny black ‘water’ in the corner, with all the bits of rubbish ‘floating’ in it, had been replaced by real water – oo-er (glad we weren’t sitting over on that side tonight). The band seemed to walk across the stage much less tonight – I certainly don’t remember them in the red tracksuits – and there were some other cuts as well, with a few additions. Overall the dialogue was delivered better, but for some reason Adriana and Luciana were hard to understand after their first scene, and I missed most of their lines for the rest of the play.

The Duke’s treatment of Egeon at the start was just as harsh, but it was clearer that it was derived from the equally harsh treatment meted out to Ephesians by Syracuse. Once Egeon’s story was underway, he was only dunked once more (gratuitously, I thought), but his treatment began to improve as the Duke’s hard heart defrosted slightly. At the end, the Duke had softened enough to dab at Egeon’s wet patches with his towel, and offered him the opportunity to find a friend who could help him out.

Antipholus of Syracuse (A/S) and his Dromio (D/S) arrived the same way as before, but when A/S was on his own, even more characters came out of the other crate. First the black guy who was caught at the end of the first half, then a priest in a long black robe, then the woman selling the knock-off goods.

For Adriana and Luciana’s first scene, the platform was (slowly) brought on, but this time it was lowered all the way to the ground and stayed there – hooray! This made it much easier to follow what was going on, and I found I was engaging with the women much more this time. Actually, it was easier to engage with Adriana, as Luciana is such a wimp, and in this production a bit of a prude as well. The next scene, with D/S meeting his master, was fine, and if I had been able to see more of Adriana’s speech to her ‘husband’ I would probably have enjoyed that section as much as the rest of the audience. Again they didn’t seem able to get the laugh on “Plead you to me, fair dame?” At one point both D/S and A/S were edging towards the water and I wondered if they would fall in, but they were safe this time.

I could see more of the arrival of Antipholus of Ephesus (A/E) this time, and although the reactions were good, it didn’t seem any funnier than before. I noticed Dromio of Ephesus’s (D/E) attempts at rap more though; possibly these have increased? I wasn’t sure what went on between Adriana and A/S; how could they have had sex if only a short while later he was declaring that his soul abhorred her? Yet that was the implication of Adriana looking out of her window with only a sheet wrapped round her, and A/S leaving the house still doing up his shirt and tie.

After A/S’s chat with Luciana, then sending D/S to find a ship and getting the chain from the goldsmith, the young black man from the crate came on again and was caught by the police. Instead of A/S joining in the group photo, he just ran off stage, glad to get away, while the lights went down on one of the guards holding a gun to the young man’s head, about to shoot.

The second half rattled along much as before until we came to the courtesan scene. When D/S rolled the oil drum at her, the flattened bit didn’t stop it, but it was going so slowly that she easily stopped it with her foot and pushed it back. After they left, D/E came running across the stage, and she threw her shoe at him, thinking he was the Dromio who’d just left. They did this a number of times during the play, with the two Dromios often on stage together, or following very closely but not catching sight of each other, and that added to the humour for me.

When Adriana caught up with her husband, bringing along Pinch and his henchmen, A/E was sent flying over one of the oil drums and nearly landed in the water; Adriana had to run over and help him out. This was the only use of the water that I could see. Adriana’s expression when the courtesan claimed her ring was not a happy one. Otherwise the staging was the same up to the end, with the flying Virgin Mary actually hitting one of the cast as she swung back across the stage. [The following day we learned he had been in the wrong place and with his eyes shut. No real damage done, but he won’t be doing that again in a hurry!] There was no second coming tonight though; at the very end, after the Dromios had said their lines and held hands, they walked towards the abbey door, stopped briefly for a hug (aahh), then walked on holding hands again. Just before they got to the abbey, the security door slid shut, and they stood there for a second before the lights went out. Brilliant, much better than the previous version.

The two Dromios were still the best part of this show, but the rest of the cast have come on so much that it’s now a pretty balanced production. There were lots of lovely touches in the comic business, such as at the end, when D/S was using gestures to indicate Nell, and D/E pulled his hand wider to reflect a more accurate size. So despite the difficulties of the restricted view and loss of lines, I enjoyed myself much more tonight and happily applauded when they came on for their bows. There was another treat, too. Bruce Mackinnon stopped us after the second lot of bows and asked if we would stay for a picture to be taken of the audience applauding, for the RSC website. We duly obliged, and then it turned out our hands weren’t visible so we had to clap again with them raised. We happily did this as well, and even called out for more. After several minutes of a rapturous reception, which the cast didn’t seem to mind one bit, the signal came that the job was done and we could all go home (though in our case we went next door to the Swan for the post-show after A Soldier In Every Son).

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Richard III – July 2012

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Tuesday 24th July 2012

It’s difficult to assess this performance. The production has come on a lot from the second preview that we saw, with stronger performances all round, but the emphasis on the comic aspects of Richard’s career as a serial killer is still holding it back in my opinion. Seeing it from a different angle brought out some details we’d missed before, and I spotted some changes, but mostly it was just the natural improvement that comes with practice.

Slight change at the beginning; this time Edward, Richard and Clarence all came on from the front right walkway while the rest of the royal family came through the opening at the back. They stood in the middle of the stage, hands clasped together, a victorious threesome. Richard’s wooing of Anne had improved, though Pippa Dixon’s drooling put me off a bit. Siobhan Redmond’s accent was much clearer this time, and I could make out Stanley’s dialogue much better.

Our position made it easier to see Paola Dionisotti during the early stages of her first scene, and her performance was just as good as before. Our view of King Edward was much better this time too, so the reconciliation scene worked better for me. I noticed that Queen Elizabeth was very upset at news of Clarence’s death, and was crying by the end of the scene.

All was much the same through to the arrival of the young prince Edward. I didn’t hear Richard repeat “Sanctuary children” this time, though as the prince didn’t say the line “God keep me from false friends! But they were none” again, I assume it was a deliberate choice, even though there was a noticeable pause after Richard’s previous line. I did notice that he looked very mature and king-like for such a young boy; definitely a threat to Richard had he lived. It took Buckingham a lot longer to prise Richard’s hands from the Duke of York’s throat this time – what fun they’re having.

During the persuasion of the Lord Mayor, I couldn’t see Buckingham and Richard’s reactions so well this time, but Catesby fainted when he turned round and saw Hastings’ severed head being carried by Ratcliffe. When Ratcliffe left, he hung the head on a hook on the back wall; presumably it wasn’t visible enough on the floor when the scrivener came on.

The wooing of the people scene was very good. Buckingham’s description of his disastrous first attempt to persuade the people to support Richard’s kingship led into this second attempt, hence the unprepared nature of the scene. This made more sense, and was a good reading of the scene. The first half ended as before, with Richard grinning in his central window.

In the second half, the coronation scene was easier to see from our seats this time. Buckingham seemed to be oblivious to the risks that Richard saw in letting the young princes live. His ambition stretched no further than putting Richard on the throne; keeping him there was beyond his remit.

Skipping on to the floral tributes in front of the tower, we had a great view of the three women sitting or lying on the ground, going over their wrongs and their suffering. I found this quite moving, and when Richard came and laid the teddy bears by the wreaths, I found I was ignoring the comedy of the lines and getting the darker side. It took some time for the audience as a whole to tune into this, but there were gasps when Richard suggested he make amends to young Elizabeth for murdering her brothers and uncle, by marrying her and giving her children to replace the relatives she’s lost.

It was interesting to see how this wooing reflected the earlier scene with Anne, only this time the ex-queen is having none of it. She is in charge of this debate, and counters every attempt by Richard to seduce her into willingly speaking to her daughter on his behalf. With greater confidence, Siobhan no longer needed to clench her fists behind her back to show us her character’s resistance; through her performance she demonstrated that the queen only submitted to Richard’s demands out of political necessity, and even then she used a delaying tactic to cover her exit.

The messengers, dreams and battles were as before, and I didn’t notice any other changes. Jonjo O’Neill’s performance did have greater range, although the comedic aspect was still the strongest part of it. The whole cast are working very well together on this one, and with more central seats I suspect we’ll get even more out of it. Roll on August.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Soldier In Every Son – July 2012 (2)

8/10

By Luis Mario Moncada

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Monday 23rd July 2012

This performance was just as good as the one we saw earlier this month. Some of the Mexican actors were clearer in their dialogue – the English lessons are definitely working – although with all the unfamiliar names some of the lines could still be difficult to make out, regardless of who was speaking. The audience was a reasonable size, but still not as much as the production deserves.

I forgot to mention the death walkers last time. These were actors done up in black skeleton suits with skull faces; they stalked the dead and dying, hungry to get at them, and their touch would guide the dead body off the stage, a neat way to do this awkward task. The music was so good I didn’t notice it, though the short dance at the start of the second half had a real rock’n’roll sound to it.

The play started with one character blowing a conch-shell in all four directions, and as he did this the rest of the cast approached from the sides. They then did a rousing dance, with lots of arm movements and sideways bouncing steps. The opening scene then had prince Ixtlixochitl painting lines on his favourite slave girl, Zilamiauh, in an attempt to explain the geography of the area to her, which also allowed us to get the basics. His friends turned up once they’d dealt with the surface contours and were about to probe the deeper regions – not embarrassed about sex, these Mexicans. One of his friends, called Tochitzin, brought news that the king wanted Ixtlixochitl back at the palace pronto so he could woo his arranged bride Tecpa, daughter to Tezozomoc, king of the Tepanecas. The marriage was intended to seal a treaty between the Tepanecas and Acolhuas, but Prince Ixtlixochitl wasn’t looking forward to it, as Tecpa had a terrible reputation and had already messed up at least two previous arranged marriages. To help him practice his excuses to the king for his late arrival, he and Tochitzin did a Shakespearean homage by reprising the scene from Henry IV Part 1, where Falstaff pretends to be the king and reproaches Hal for his bad behaviour. This time it’s Tochitzin taking that role, and naturally he recommends himself as the one exception to the prince’s dissolute companions.

Back at the palace, king Techotlala is discussing the situation with two of his closest advisors. There’s plenty of scope for humour in this scene, with Huexotla in particular dishing the dirt in Tecpa in a very entertaining way. After making his apologies to his father, prince Ixtlixochitl takes on the challenge of wooing that lady, and that’s when the trouble really starts. She was determined that her future husband must give up his concubines and slave girls until her first son is born, so as to avoid any awkward inheritance issues. Ixtlixochitl will not give up his right to dip his wick wherever he pleases, given that he will provide Tecpa with a son and other children too, if she wants. A practical attitude towards sex was clearly prevalent in this community, but Tecpa remained a resolute exception, and the wedding was off (again).

This did not please her father, Tezozomoc, who threw a right royal strop when she returned to her family, unmarried. Tayatzin, his heir-apparent who arranged the treaty and the marriage, also came in for a bit of stick, but the main problem was Maxtla, the king’s first born son by a peasant woman, who wanted war so that he could inherit the kingdom through his military ability, in place of his brother the peace-maker. With the Aztecs fighting for Tezozomoc, there was little chance of the Acolhuas winning a war at this time, so Tezozomoc decided to mount a blockade and starve them into submission. Back in Texcoco, king Techotlala died, but with his last words he gave his son the best advice he could: marry an Aztec princess, so that your children will be Acolhuas rulers that the Aztecs can support, and play nice with Tezozomoc until you’re in a position to kill him. Words to live by.

So the new king Ixtlixochitl married Mayahuel, an Aztec princess, and they had a son, Nezahualcoyotl. After about ten years, with many of his people starving due to the blockade, Ixtlixochitl tried to patch things up with Tezozomoc. Tayatzin was the go-between again, and managed to arrange a compromise whereby he and Maxtla will attend a ceremony acknowledging Nezahualcoyotl as heir to the Acolhuas kingdom, while the Acolhuas will pay even more tribute than before, with the blockade being lifted. Seemed like a reasonably good deal, except that Maxtla wasn’t one for diplomacy, and his flagrant insults to Ixtlixochitl at the ceremony caused an immediate outbreak of war, just what Maxtla wanted. However, with the help of Mayahuel and Itzcoatl, the offspring of a previous Aztec king and a slave girl, Ixtlixochitl persuaded the Aztecs to leave the battle, and against the odds the Acolhuas won! Generous in victory, Ixtlixochitl let Tezozomoc live, but now Ixtlixochitl was the ‘great king’ who gets tribute from everyone else.

It’s about now that we saw Tecpa again, and time clearly hadn’t done anything to heal her wounds. Carrying a special flask, she was with a witch-doctor, asking him to cast a very detailed spell to cause all sorts of nasty things to happen to Ixtlixochitl – hair falling out, going blind, dribbling, penis dropping off, that sort of thing. She got a bit carried away and included other people as well, such as his son, but the witch-doctor kept reminding her he didn’t do third-party curses. After her long list was complete, he waved some feathers and incense smoke over the flask and told her to go through a process of burying it, washing it, etc. When Tayatzin was taking the first load of tribute to Ixtlixochitl, Tecpa gave him the flask as a special gift, for Ixtlixochitl’s lips only. But things didn’t go to plan.

Having banished Tochitzin when he became king (shades of Henry IV part II), Ixtlixochitl welcomed him back when he turned up at the post-battle celebration and carve-up of the booty, all the more so because he was accompanied by Zilamiauh, who is heavily pregnant with Ixtlixochitl’s child. While Ixtlixochitl gave a few last instructions to his generals before retiring to spend time with Zilamiauh, Tochitzin drank some of the poison himself and went berserk, killing Zilamiauh and her baby. Ixtlixochitl stabbed Tochitzin in revenge, but when he was told that the flask was poisoned, he naturally assumed that Tezozomoc had caused her death. He knocked back the last of the poison himself and went on a rampage, trying to kill Tezozomoc single-handed.

Despite a few soldiers protecting him, he was soon captured and led before Tezozomoc tied to a spear. There he learnt that Tecpa sent the poison, but too late; Maxtla killed him and headed off to find his son to remove the heir to the Acolhuas kingdom. Tezozomoc was more than happy to take advantage of this turn of events and proclaimed himself king of Acolhuas. Maxtla found the boy and killed his guard, then told his servant Tonahuac to kill the boy. Tonahuac went off with the boy, then brought a bowl with a bloody heart in it to Tezozomoc, and the final image of the first half was Tezozomoc standing triumphant, holding up the heart, now re-crowned as king of kings. (But if you know your King John, you may be wary of assuming that the Acolhuas heir was actually dead.)

I’d forgotten how much the first half was Prince Hal/Henry V, while the second half was mostly Richard III.  After the opening dance, the performance re-started with a monologue from Itzcoatl, explaining the situation as he sees it. Then Tezozomoc died, and a few minutes later his son, heir and the next king of the Tepanecas, Tayatzin, followed him. Maxtla was so incensed that his father gave the crown to his younger, legitimate, brother that he strangled him with the king’s own standard. Tacuba was looking on, but didn’t intervene; he clearly didn’t want to get involved in a family squabble, and it made Tecpa’s earlier concern about rival heirs seem quite reasonable, while the death walkers were having a field day.

With Maxtla now lording it over everyone else and suspicious of plots against him, Itzcoatl took advantage of his king, Quimalpopoca, being summoned to visit Maxtla. He arranged for a muxe (a third gender in this culture, a man dressed as a woman) to kill Quimalpopoca in Maxtla’s palace, and then turned up, all innocent, asking to see his king. When Maxtla finally confessed that Quimalpopoca had somehow been murdered, war broke out again, and now Itzcoatl played his trump card. Having manoeuvred the Aztec council into proclaiming him king ahead of Quimalpopoca’s son, Itzcoatl revealed that he had kept Nezahualcoyotl prisoner for years, and he’d grown up to be the spitting image of his dad, minus a birth mark on his face. With their real king restored, the Aztec and Acolhuas united to defeat the Tepanecas, and aside from the gory detail of Maxtla delivering Itzcoatl’s mother’s head to him in a basket, that’s basically it. The final scene, with Itzcoatl, Nezahualcoyotl and Tacuba forming a triple alliance to rule over the whole valley, was illustrated by the emergence of the triple emblem on the back wall, and sealed by the sacrifice of young Ohtonqui, the heir ousted by Itzcoatl. The boy went willingly, as it was a noble death (what do they teach them in school?), and was held up by four death eaters as a priest made the sacrifice and removed the heart. Again, the final image was of a heart being held up, not the most uplifting to us, but a fitting climax for this story.

The audience was still too sparse for such a good production, but we did our best. The line about the father and son being identical got another good laugh tonight. I noticed the arm movements more this time; although I don’t know what they meant, they obviously had significance to the characters. The symbols at the back were more mixed than I reported before, with combinations of the three main symbols cropping up as the political situation ebbed and flowed. I noticed that the mat placed under the child at the end was showing the effect of so many sacrifices, with a red stain showing up nicely in the middle, while Steve noticed a grimace from the young Nezahualcoyotl when Ixtlixochitl and Zilamiauh kissed.

The names were beginning to sound familiar to me this time, so although I couldn’t pronounce most of them, I found that helped my understanding. It’s a bit like the Henry VI’s, when all those place names make my head spin. Even so, there were parts that were still hard to follow, and although I got more of the detail I can’t claim to have followed it completely. I’ll just have to read the script when I get home.

[Post-show Wed 25/7/12 – This was reasonably well attended, and I even managed to speak briefly to Siobhan Redmond and Sandra Duncan to compliment them on their performances in Richard III. They’d been involved in a reading of Soldier back in January, and came along to the post-show to support their colleagues.

The cast who came back were a mix of British and Mexican, with Andrés Weiss (Tayatzin) doing most of the talking for the Mexican contingent. His knowledge of English was very good, but the work done by all the Mexican cast members in coming over and learning a new language was acknowledged by the British actors. The Mexican’s openness and ability to work together was also mentioned as being far ahead of the usual British experience, although the closeness which the rest of the cast had developed from working on the other plays meant they weren’t too far behind.

The changes in the length of the play were discussed, along with the strange rehearsal process whereby some of the cast were performing during the evenings and matinees as well as rehearsing. The costumes and set were complimented, and the similarity to Shakespeare’s plays was touched on as well, without going into much detail. I would have liked to ask a lot more questions, but time ran out and we had to leave, satisfied that we’d supported such an amazing cast and production.]

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Taming Of The Shrew – July 2012

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Toby Frow

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Thursday 19th July 2012

Brilliant production! The whole cast were excellent, and the choice to do the play simply, with few fancy stagings but a lot of good business, led to a clear and enjoyable performance which the audience participated in fully.

The set was slightly revised from before. The triangle at the front had been chopped short, with a ramp leading up to the front edge from deep in the pit. The side stairs were still there, and the scaffolding had been replaced with a colonnade and balcony in distressed wood, with the tattered remains of white paint. The balcony backdrop showed the cityscape of fair Padua, except when it had a blue curtain and a deer’s head was hung on the balcony to represent Petruchio’s country estate. The furniture removal men were in full swing as usual, and the musicians wore natty red numbers while the rest of the cast were in appropriate gear for the time and place.

The musicians started proceedings with the latest entries in the mediaeval hit parade, but were interrupted by a rather coarse gentleman in an England shirt, who was obviously the worse for wear. Well, we’re not novices when it comes to this play, so we weren’t worried, but the stewards were, and they were having the devil of a time trying to get him out of the theatre. He broke away from one young lady after kicking her in a nasty place, and ran onto the stage; well, staggered onto the stage. The toilet humour continued with him pissing against the far pillar and then spraying the liquid around a bit, especially over one poor chap at the front of the crowd. After being accosted by a security guard (they managed to find one? Not using G4S, then) he collapsed on the stage and was pronounced dead.

Whispered conversations between the guard and stage manager led to the announcement that the show would have to be cancelled – we voiced our disappointment. Some of the actors had snuck on stage to see what was going on, and after some protests from the stage manager, proceeded to suggest that they could do the show anyway; it helped that the drunk had recovered enough to throw up on the stage, thereby saving himself from an early grave. The suggestion was made “What think you, if he was conveyed to bed…”, and we were into the induction, with us, the audience, being fully complicit this time in the deception practised on Sly. Later, when Sly was asking for assurance that he was, indeed, a lord, he turned to the audience, and we, shameful liars, all called out ‘yes’. (He did check with one woman at the front first, but presumably he didn’t believe her.) This was a good way to start things, as it got the audience very involved from the beginning.

When the actors were trying to persuade Sly – “O this it is that makes your lady mourn” etc. – they chanted the lines and then sang them. When Pip Donaghy wanted to deliver “O noble lord, bethink thee of thy birth…”, the others kept on singing the words after him, and he had several goes at telling them to stop before they all finally shut up and let him speak the lines unaccompanied. One other thing with this staging; when they were setting the initial scene for Sly’s awakening, one actor held up two framed pictures, as if they were on a wall. Later, these pictures were held up while they described them to Sly, along with a frame which an actor posed behind.

The actors already being on stage, the lines about their arrival and the arrangements for the play were ditched. A tall lad was chosen to play Sly’s wife, and after he persuaded Sly that sex would be a bad idea, they went down to the pit and stood at the front of the stage to watch the play. This lasted till the two young men started taking off their clothes, and with cries of “obscenity” (not in the text), Sly and his lady departed. No further reference was made to this sub-plot afterwards, thankfully, and it was good to see them sticking to the text as we have it for once.

To get back to the start of the play: while Lucentio and Tranio were introducing themselves and discussing their ‘to do’ list for their stay in Padua, there were various sober churchmen and the like sitting on the benches round the pillars, along with a refreshments seller. The two scholars on our side held small pamphlets, and when Tranio was talking about studying philosophy, he nicked one of the pamphlets to demonstrate his point. (He did return it.) The seller supplied him with two cups of something or other, and Lucentio drained his willingly before the line “Gramercies, Tranio, well dost thou advise”.

When the older gentlemen realised that Kate was coming on stage – I think there was some noise to that effect – they scarpered as quickly as they could, and the seller was so keen to get away that he left his tray behind. This was an early clue to Kate’s reputation, and her first appearance did nothing to change that. Samantha Spiro’s Kate was so feared by everyone in Padua that she only had to pretend to throw her apple at the men and they flinched. Bianca was good as gold in this scene, and Lucentio fell in love with her from the balcony, where he and Tranio observed the scene. The dialogue wasn’t entirely clear at this point, but my knowledge of the play got me through it OK. When her father slammed the door shut in her face, Kate stepped back and took a run at it, knocking it flat with a ferocious kick. Definitely not a woman to meddle with.

Gremio waved goodbye to Hortensio several times, keen for him to leave so he could disclose to us his cunning plan, but Hortensio lingered long enough to hear the details. He soon persuaded Gremio of their common interest – finding a husband for Kate – and they left together, while Lucentio and Tranio came down from the balcony and went through their routine. Lucentio was so far gone that he knelt down and kissed the stage – Bianca hadn’t even walked on that bit! He went further and further until he was lying on the ramp, and when he came back up to kneeling, his sword was in a suggestive position. I couldn’t see Tranio’s reactions to Lucentio’s idea that they could change places – sometimes he’s actually keen to do it, sometimes not – but this was when they started shedding their clothes and Sly and his ‘wife’ left.

The two lads went further than usual, mind you, with only their underpants preventing an indecency prosecution. When Biondello arrived (the former pretend wife), they explained the plot and exited, just as Petruchio and Grumio entered from our left and walked up the ramp to visit Petruchio’s old friend Hortensio. Grumio, played by Pearce Quigley, was on the slow side and took Petruchio’s instructions literally, hence the problems. I reckoned he’d spent too much time on the estate and wasn’t as street smart as Tranio. I also felt he hadn’t spent as much time with Petruchio as is usually suggested, which was supported by Hortensio’s tentative reference to him as “your ancient, trusty, pleasant servant”. Grumio struck Petruchio as he stood by the top of the ramp, Petruchio grabbed Grumio by the head and used that to knock at the door, and Hortensio appeared on the balcony to enquire about the noise. As Grumio staggered back towards the front of the stage, Hortensio saw him first, and then Petruchio walked out from under the balcony to be greeted by his friend; I think some of the dialogue was cut here.

There was the usual laugh when Hortensio described Katherine, pausing before mentioning “her only fault”. Gremio turned up with Lucentio in disguise, and then Tranio, disguised as Lucentio, arrived. As Tranio, he had an Irish accent but talked as posh as he could while pretending to be a gentleman. He was also wearing a wig, and while he wasn’t as ludicrous as some we’ve seen, he was sufficiently inappropriate to be funny. When challenged about his purpose in going to Baptista Minola’s he drew his sword on Gremio, who drew a sword out of this walking stick in response. When Hortensio joined in the questioning, Tranio turned the sword on him, and Petruchio supplied Hortensio with a weapon. With two swords to his one, Tranio soon became reasonable, and joined the confederacy willingly enough. Also, when Gremio declared himself a suitor to Bianca, Grumio snorted with laughter, a reasonable response in the circumstances as Michael Bertenshaw was playing Gremio with a serious stoop.

As they left, Bianca stumbled onto the stage, blindfolded and with her hands tied together. She tried a few steps, but didn’t get very far, and then Kate arrived, brandishing a bullwhip. She cracked it a number of times and Bianca was scared at first, but then she rallied and began to fight back. When her hands were untied, they really started brawling, rolling on the stage as they fought, but then Bianca saw their father coming along and fell back, sobbing. The cow! We weren’t impressed, and there was a lot of sympathy for Kate in this scene, but not from her father and certainly not from Bianca, who made all the usual rude gestures at Kate behind her father’s back, including biting her thumb (see Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 1).

The procession of visitors was funny, with Hortensio disguised by a beard, glasses and a pillbox hat, and Biondello carrying a huge stack of books which he could only just manage (and he’s a tall chap). Petruchio’s question to Baptista “have you not a daughter call’d Katherina, fair and virtuous?” got more of a laugh on the question rather than Baptista’s stunned response, and the introduction of ‘Licio’ was quite funny too; I wasn’t sure if Petruchio had agreed the fake name with Hortensio beforehand or not. Everyone else left the stage to Petruchio and Baptista for the dowry discussion, and there was one bit of screaming and thumping before Hortensio reappeared, hat askew. The lute wasn’t wrapped round him this time, but a broken instrument was thrown out onto the stage a few moments later, accompanied by another snarling sound, so that we could see what he was describing. He looked pretty unhappy at his treatment, and for once I was aware that he was a gentleman, not used to acting like a servant and certainly not used to this sort of treatment, as he usually stayed well out of Kate’s reach. This incident got across what an unpleasant woman Kate is at this point, treating servants like punch bags.

Hortensio cheered up a lot when Baptista suggested he work with Bianca, and from dragging himself round the stage, he fairly skipped off to do Baptista’s bidding. Baptista was clearly keen for Petruchio to meet Kate out of doors – less damage to the household goods – and Petruchio readily agreed. When Kate arrived, and he turned to see her, their first look was clearly one of mutual attraction; he was stunned that she was so beautiful, and she was surprised to see someone she liked the look of. They both recovered enough to start their wrangling, and there was a fair bit of physical sparring as well. It all happened so fast that I can’t remember it all, but it included Petruchio holding her at arm’s length while she tried to hit him, and a game of chase round the pit, where Kate pretended to punch some of the audience members. Petruchio tripped her up as she came back up the stairs, hence the reference to her limp. When the others came back, I think they were sitting side by side on the stage, with her skirt partly over Petruchio’s legs (but I may be wrong). Kate was shocked and unhappy to overhear Petruchio’s excuse to the rest that she would “still be curst in company”.

The bidding for Bianca was enjoyable enough, and I realised that although the details Gremio is giving seem strange to us now, the value of these objects in those days would be much greater than we appreciate in our mass production culture. Earlier, Gremio tells Cambio that he will have some books of love “very fairly bound”, and from recent documentaries we’ve learned just how expensive such things were, so presumably the other items were worth mentioning as well. Tranio really enjoyed trumping Gremio at every turn, and we were sorry for poor Gremio when he could offer no more.

The wooing scene between Licio, Cambio and Bianca was good fun, with Bianca starting to assert herself more without actually appearing shrewish herself. She and Cambio sat on a bench to begin with, but moved forward to the ramp as their discussion progressed. During the music lesson, Licio strummed his lute after Bianca read each line of the gamut, which was funny.

The wedding scene was very good fun. We felt sorry for Kate in her predicament, and Biondello’s speech about Petruchio and his horse went down very well. He had the decency to rush through the long litany of the horse’s complaints, as none of us would have known what they were anyway. The comments ascribed to Tranio in my text were actually said by Licio, which made more sense with Hortensio being an old friend of Petruchio’s. Petruchio’s arrival confirmed the description of him; one boot was hanging off, his clothes were extremely tatty, and his horse was actually Grumio, with a bit between his teeth and a pair of coconut shells to make the hoof beats. Petruchio had a carrot dangling somewhere, which he fed to Grumio, and when he was asked to doff his clothes, he did. Off came the jerkin, off came the shirt, and off came the trousers as well. Fortunately he kept his well-padded posing pouch on “else we had been all shamed”.

Hortensio offered to supply alternative clothes; Simon Paisley Day (Petruchio) is a good bit taller than Rick Warden (Hortensio), and they put in some good business whereby Petruchio held his hand up at his own height and waved it over Hortensio’s head to indicate that the offer just wasn’t going to work. From our angle, we were aware that Petruchio’s cheeks were on show, but when he turned to go into the church there was a huge roar from the crowd. I didn’t hear all the lines between Lucentio and Tranio, but Gremio soon joined them, and his description of the wedding ceremony was as clear as I’ve heard before.

When the wedding party re-entered, I had the impression that Petruchio was figuring out his tactics as he went along. His initial declaration that Kate was his property was not well received by the audience, but he took his time between his descriptions of her, and when he said “my barn” the whole speech took on a surreal air; even Kate was a bit perplexed by the description. After that, we could see the humour of it, and there was even some applause as he and Grumio clip-clopped off to the sound of the coconut shells with Kate slung over Petruchio’s shoulder. The rest of the characters had obviously enjoyed the spectacle, and as they left the stage for the wedding feast, Biondello was at the back of the group and gestured for the rest of us to go and get our own refreshments during the interval. Almost forgot – the priest was leaning on Baptista during this part, after the battering he’d taken during the ceremony.

The second half opened at Petruchio’s place. Some of the cast brought out a long table, some plates, etc., and a large tablecloth. They never actually put the cloth on the table, mind you, though it went just about everywhere else – wrapped around one chap as a skirt, held up as a bed sheet and the like. They sang an older version of The Cuckoo’s Nest – not one we’d heard before – and it was a good warm-up for the audience. There were two chairs, one at either end of the table, with antler-shapes on the arms and across the back. With these and the deer’s head, the setting of an old-fashioned country house was well established.

Grumio arrived with the coconut shells, and after telling us how cold he was, called for Curtis. For once there was no great fuss about getting the work done; as Curtis kept reassuring him, everything was ready. For the fire, Curtis referred to a lit candle on the table – not much use I would have thought – but the fun was in Grumio’s telling of the story to bring us up-to-date which came across better than usual. The other servants arrived when called, eventually, and again the impression I had was of slower-witted country folk, similar to the servants in She Stoops To Conquer.

Petruchio and Kate arrived, and she was definitely bedraggled. He didn’t look much different, but then he was dressed so badly for the wedding who would have noticed? The water was spilled over Kate this time, due to Petruchio tipping up the table at the other end, and I noticed how Kate was becoming much more aware of other people’s suffering. When the meat arrived the servants loaded up the plates, but each servant who held Kate’s plate was distracted by Petruchio’s next instruction. Kate was at the far end of the table when she finally had a plate in front of her, and then came the grace, which took an age. The meat soon went flying, and the large joint was tossed between the servants, too hot for anyone to hold for long. Meanwhile Kate dashed between them, trying to get some meat for herself, a classic game of pig-in-the-middle.

Once they left, the servants cleared the food (there were lots of sausage rolls and bits of carrot all over the place), while Curtis snuck up the stairs to report on events in the bed chamber. We could hear ‘yes, yes, yes, YES’ from Kate, followed by ‘no, no’ from Petruchio. When he came out onto the balcony, he began his speech up there, but came down to the stage pretty quickly. No one responded when he asked for other ideas, not surprisingly. This can be a difficult speech, but this time I was aware that he was showing Kate her own behaviour, and giving her a chance to break free of her habit of scolding everyone. She was already well on the way, so Petruchio didn’t seem unkind or nasty in doing this; instead he seemed to be the only person who could help such a damaged woman.

Tranio and Hortensio entered for the next scene, both in disguise, while Bianca and Lucentio were up on the balcony. They indulged in some kissing, and then slid down below the railing. Various items of clothing were thrown over the rail to the stage below, while Hortensio revealed himself to Tranio by taking off his hat and pulling his beard up to rest on top of his head – very funny. Lucentio and Bianca reappeared on the balcony, still snogging, and finally Hortensio left in disgust. Tranio gave the couple the good news – they came down to join him on the stage – and then Biondello turned up with the sighting of a likely prospect to play Vincentio.

When the pedant arrived, he was more smartly dressed than most. Tranio and Biondello stood in his way at the top of the ramp, and although he got past them eventually, they soon had him hooked with their fake story. The table came back on with the chairs, and then Grumio tormented Kate with all the food she couldn’t have. He kept getting up to go to the kitchen for the food, then realising it might be “too choleric” and sitting down again. The final time he didn’t even move from the table before deciding against the food in question.

Petruchio came on with a whole roast chicken on a platter. He put it fairly central on the table, so it was just out of Kate’s reach when she lunged for it. He moved it even further off, then took it away altogether as she crawled along the table to get at it. She was kneeling on the table when he insisted on being thanked for his effort, and the expressions on her face were priceless; it cost her dear to thank him, but she managed to get a rather sulky “I thank you, sir” out after several attempts. With her sitting at the middle of the table now, and Hortensio at the end, Petruchio kept her distracted for a short time while Hortensio shoved most of the chicken in his napkin and wolfed down the rest.

The table was removed quickly to leave room for the tailor and his goods. Grumio was the model for the dress this time; I couldn’t see the ripping of the sleeve as he was behind the pillar, but the overall effect was clear. The tailor left with the remains of the dress, and Kate was lying on the stage, eyes closed as if asleep. Petruchio noted this and tested her with his reference to the time. Ever alert for a quarrel, she opened her eyes and put him straight, but to no avail.

The scene where Tranio introduced the pedant to Baptista was very funny, with the pedant having difficulty remembering his lines and being prompted by Tranio, Lucentio and Biondello behind Baptista’s back. With Baptista satisfied, and the rest heading off to continue their business privately, Biondello had the usual amount of trouble getting Lucentio to take the hint – Bianca, church, parson; how difficult is it?

Petruchio, Hortensio, Grumio, Kate and two or three other servants came trekking on to the stage, singing a farming list song. They’d obviously been singing it for some time on their journey, as it had quite a few animals on the list already – cow, sheep, etc. As they went up the steps below us, Kate was clinging on to people in the audience, and for her turn she came up with ‘pig’. They had some trouble getting the right pig noise out of her, and then Petruchio started on his moonshine nonsense. The servants who were ahead of them had reached the far steps and stopped for a rest; when Petruchio decided to return to his house, one of them came back while the other actually kept going! Don’t know what happened there. Finally Kate decided to stop arguing, and went along with whatever Petruchio said.

The real Vincentio came along, and Kate began to enjoy herself. She checked with Petruchio that it was indeed the sun that had bedazzled her eyes, and Vincentio joined in nicely by addressing Kate as “Fair sir” and Petruchio as “my merry mistress”, which was taken in good part. I did spot the plot discrepancy in this scene, when Petruchio tells Vincentio that his son is to be married to Kate’s sister and Hortensio confirms it – hasn’t he just agreed with ‘Lucentio’ that they will both shun Bianca? But perhaps a message reached them that we’re unaware of, and Hortensio has got over ‘Lucentio’s’ apparent betrayal of their agreement. (Shows how clearly the story was being told, mind you.)

Their arrival at ‘Lucentio’s’ lodgings was good fun, and although I missed some of it behind the pillars, I got the gist. The pretend Vincentio was wonderfully drunk as he leaned over the parapet to inform the real Vincentio that ‘Lucentio’ needed no money from a stranger, as long as his ‘father’ was here. The reactions of Biondello and Tranio were very enjoyable, and Petruchio and Kate withdrew to the bottom of the ramp to watch the fun. The revelations concluded, off they trooped to the feast, except Kate, Petruchio and Grumio. When Kate finally agreed to the kiss, she and Petruchio were about to indulge themselves on the top of the ramp when they noticed Grumio peering at them. They waved him away, and he slunk off to the stairs near us, where he craftily took a mirror out of his pouch, polished it and used it to check up on the loving couple, who by now were well into a serious snog. The audience responded warmly, both to the kiss and to Grumio’s sneaky trick with the mirror. Kate and Petruchio paused for breath (eventually) and left for the feast themselves.

The servants took a few moments to set up the stage with chairs, cushions and chandeliers, and for the first time I was aware that this is Lucentio’s apartments we’re visiting; it’s usually shown as Baptista’s place. One of the servants sat on one of the chairs and it broke! They brought a replacement, so all was well, and with the cast changed into their posh frocks, the final scene began. Kate and Petruchio lounged on cushions near the front of the stage, Hortensio’s widow was on a chair on the far side, while Bianca and Lucentio, as far as I can remember, were on the cushions on the far side. The banter was well done, and the ladies withdrew up the stairs and through the curtain. When the bet was proposed, the servants cleared the chairs and cushions but put a table in the middle of the stage for the money (and drinks). Biondello went through the curtains for the first summons, and while they waited for him they did the speeding-up clapping. He reappeared on the balcony, Bianca-less, and was sent back again for the widow. Again the clapping, again no widow. For Kate’s summoning, the men took no interest, thinking she wouldn’t come, but she was through those curtains like a shot. She held a brief pause, for the men to realise she’d actually turned up, before asking “What is your will, sir, that you send for me?” I always think that Kate must realise there’s something going on – the widow has spotted the same thing – and she’s probably prepared for the call before it arrives. The men were suitably amazed.

She brought the other women out, and we were at the last hurdle. Kate went into the speech promptly this time, and her delivery suggested a woman who was now at ease with herself and the overt position she has in society. She wasn’t downtrodden, she had simply broken free from her old ways of thinking, and her statement of wifely duty was quite straightforward. When she mentioned a husband being “thy lord, thy life” etc., she was looking at the widow, and Hortensio, who was standing beside his new wife, looked a little sheepish at first but then straightened himself up, as if remembering that he was supposed to be all the things that Kate was saying. And although it wasn’t emphasised as such, I noticed that Kate recommends obedience to “his honest will”, implying that there’s no duty to obey a husband’s every whim, but only those directions that are reasonable. Of course, it’s not so easy to handle the comments about women being all soft and cuddly and unsuited to toil when most of us have to go out and work nowadays, nor do those lines apply to the working women of Shakespeare’s time, but the use of Elizabethan costumes did at least allow us to shift perspective at this point and see those lines as part of that culture rather than ours.

The final act, putting her hand on the ground for Petruchio to stand on, was done with great loving, and I sensed an anxiety in the audience (including me) as to what Petruchio would do. He walked over to her slowly, and as he stepped in front of her he knelt down, took her hand up and kissed it, then embraced her with the line “ Why, there’s a wench!” It was a lovely moment, and suggested they would have a happy life together. With no need to go back to the Sly subplot, they could now go into the dance, and we clapped along, very happy with our afternoon. I left the theatre feeling elated, not something that usually happens with this play, and I would happily recommend this production to anyone.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui – July 2012

7/10

By Bertolt Brecht, translated by George Tabori

Script Consultant Alistair Beaton

Directed by Jonathan Church

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 17th July 2012

This is a marvellous production, which treats Brecht’s play with respect but also respects the audience’s desire for a good evening at the theatre. In fact, we got a great evening at the theatre, with both the comedic and dark aspects of the play brought out very strongly. The individual performances were all excellent, and the numbers staying behind for the post-show discussion had to be a record for the Minerva.

The set design was superb as well. Simon Higlett apparently did a great deal of research and included subtle references in the design which wouldn’t be obvious to most people, but which added to the overall effect. For example, there were tramlines representing the train tracks leading into Auschwitz, and the central arch at the back was in the same proportions as the entrance to that establishment (post-show info). The back wall was mainly brickwork, with the arch in the middle and metal stairs leading up to the side balconies. One of these had a ventilation fan on the go, with a light shining through it occasionally.

Under the arch were placed several settings. At the start it was a wall with a large poster of Scarface, the 1932 original version. Later it held the door to the gangster’s speakeasy, the fireplace of Dogborough’s country house, the public benches for the trial scene, the warehouse door for the execution of Roma, and the very large podium from which Ui makes his final speech. At other times it was left open, while furniture and other props were brought on and off as required. This took some time, and was a slightly negative aspect of the staging, as it caused a brief drop in the energy. But with such a strong production the energy soon picked up, and it wasn’t a significant problem.

The show began early, with some great music from the period – Brother Can You Spare A Dime? and We’re In The Money plus others – played and sung by members of the cast. Others sat around the speakeasy, and when the lights went down there was one final song before the master of ceremonies came on to give us the prologue. He used a standing microphone and spoke in rhyming couplets, introducing the main characters to us. As he did so, each character got up, acknowledged the introduction in his own way, and then left. The last person he mentioned was Arturo Ui himself, and this time Arturo entered from the back and marched straight through and off at the front. The reference to his similarity to Richard III was funny, and even more so for those of us who had seen Henry Goodman playing that very part.

When the prologue was finished, the room was cleared of furniture and the Cauliflower Trust started the ball rolling. Their incipient greed was obvious to see, and that was the driver for all that followed. A fake loan needed Dogborough’s backing, as he had such a glowing reputation for honesty and integrity that no one would investigate the details too closely. With a secret gift, the Trust overcame Dogborough’s steadfast refusal to assist in their con trick, and when Ui got to hear of this, he used the leverage to blackmail his way into power. Once there, the violence snowballed, but when Ui had advanced far enough to consider moving his protection racket into the neighbouring town of Cicero, the thugs he’d employed up to now became a hindrance and were removed, by tommy gun. Mind you, the guns were still in evidence when the ‘free and fair’ democratic Cicero elections were held, and amazingly enough there was a huge majority for the proposed Ui protection offer. With the Cauliflower Trust now supplying veg to both Chicago and Cicero, where would it all end?

There was a lot of humour in the early stages, getting less as the darker aspects took over in the second half. Even so, the absurd effect of gangsters talking about killing and arson in order to control vegetable distribution could still get us laughing well into the later scenes. The classic scene with the old actor teaching Arturo how to walk, stand and speak, was brilliant, with many of Hitler’s mannerisms appearing during the lesson. In addition to the very funny “Friends, Romans, countrymen”, this was a version of the play which used a great deal of Shakespearean references, with many familiar lines being mangled to fit the circumstances.

A lot of the time, though, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not, and some scenes were very uncomfortable to watch, especially the trial of the poor chap who was being blamed for the warehouse fire. Doped up to the eyeballs, he recovered for a brief spell, only to be dosed again by the tame court doctor and inevitably convicted by the judge. At the end of the first half, with Arturo on the rise, I wasn’t comfortable about applauding because it felt as if I would be applauding him, though I did want to acknowledge the actors. At the end however, the final speech, warning us to watch out for another Arturo, changed the tone completely and I was very happy to join in the enthusiastic response from the whole audience.

The post-show was incredibly well attended, by both cast and audience. The discussion covered the question of how much historical detail was necessary, with some finding the final part too obvious, but mostly the feeling was that not everyone would know the history, and in any case it was necessary to have that final speech because the play was intended as a warning. The information on what each scene represented wasn’t being shown during the play this time, although the details are in the program. The cast had found some parts of the play not easy to perform, but enjoyed the audience’s reactions to those difficult sections when our feelings were most challenged. The set was complimented, as was the music at the start, and while Henry Goodman’s performance was rightly lauded, we praised the whole cast for their performances as well. The Minerva itself was well liked by the cast (natch), and despite the many hands being raised we finally called a halt at 11:30 p.m.

I enjoyed this production more than I expected, Brecht not being a favourite of mine, but for all that I couldn’t rate it higher than 7 stars. Perhaps the pre-show talk we attended gave too much away; I intend to avoid these in future unless I’ve seen the play first. I did find it difficult to understand the dialogue for a while, as the accents were pretty strong, but I managed to tune in eventually and the rest of the show was fine. I’d certainly see another Brecht at Chichester if they’re going to be done this well.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me