Black Coffee – July 2012

8/10

By Agatha Christie

Directed by Joe Harmston

Company: The Agatha Christie Theatre Company

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Sunday 15th July 2012

What joy! Not only an Agatha Christie, but with David Suchet himself as Poirot! Heaven! And then they added a short Q&A with David afterwards! Bliss! (And I’ve used this year’s quota of exclamation marks in one short paragraph!)

This was a rehearsed reading of the only Agatha Christie play to feature Poirot. The Agatha Christie Theatre Company chose to present this reading in the radio play format, as they do with Murder On Air. Before the start, the stage had the back wall of the Heartbreak House set (very appropriate, as it turned out) with a bank of chairs in front of it, a sound effects table on the far left (the side we were sitting on) and about seven or eight microphones placed around the front area of the stage, not quite at the front. When the cast trooped on through the doors on the set, they were in evening dress, and I suspect Trevor Cooper was wearing his costume from Heartbreak House. No sign of David Suchet or David Yelland (playing Hastings), but as the butler started the play by arranging a cab to pick two gentlemen up from the station, we knew they would be arriving soon. Joe Harmston was also there in full evening dress, and he introduced the reading with a few words and gave us the opening stage directions – the library of Sir Claud Amory’s house, 8p.m.

It was a little strange at first to have the radio format when the play is meant to be staged, but I soon got used to it. Steve tried listening with his eyes shut for a bit, but it didn’t make any difference. There were gaps in the dialogue for the action, which the sound effects filled very effectively most of the time, and we enjoyed a number of these additions, especially the occasion when Jared Ashe, the Foley man, actually powdered his face to fit with the dialogue.

The situation was soon clear; Claud Amory was a scientist who had made a lot of money from his inventions. He had discovered a powerful new explosive (hence the appropriateness of the set) but the formula had been stolen, and only the people in the house could have done it. He had sent for Poirot to solve the case, but was going to give the culprit a chance to return the formula anonymously. The lights were going to go out for a couple of minutes, and if the formula was on the table when they came back on, he would send Poirot away. If not, ……

Well, the formula may have been returned, but Sir Claud’s death meant that Poirot still had a case to solve, and with various twists and turns there was plenty to sort out before Japp arrived. Hastings as usual showed his weakness for the fairer sex, while also providing the comment that triggered Poirot to find the correct answer through the mist of red herrings. Japp (George Layton) made the usual simplistic assumptions, but was more than ready to help Poirot when the crunch came, and there were lovely contributions from the rest of the cast. Susie Blake in particular was excellent as the gossipy maiden aunt who made disparaging remarks about foreigners.

I must record Poirot’s entrance, as it was a remarkable moment. The lights had gone out, there were various noises, and then the lights came back up just as the door knocker signalled Poirot’s arrival. The butler announced him, and then there was a long pause. We had realised when we saw the setup that we were likely to get a full-on version of the great detective, and so we weren’t surprised when the man himself walked through the doors to great applause. Fully in character, Poirot took his time to ensure the perfection of his appearance before accepting his copy of the script from the director; he checked his moustaches (we laughed), he checked his cuffs, and when he was sure he was immaculate, he accepted the proffered script and turned to mince to the central microphone for his first lines. I noticed he even made sure his feet were perfectly parallel before speaking.

The rest of his performance matched the start, and we loved every minute of it. There were the usual funny remarks by other characters about the strangeness of foreigners, and a huge laugh when Poirot himself commented that he was often taken for an Englishman. David Yelland gave us a fine Hastings to match this definitive Poirot, and we especially liked the way he coughed and spluttered after claiming that Poirot couldn’t blow dust in his face. It was also handy to have him there when Poirot and Doctor Carelli, another suspicious foreigner, were going to converse in Italian or French; not much use to the rest of us, but Hastings came to our rescue with a suitably funny interjection.

We pieced the clues together to figure out whodunnit before the final revelation, but it was still very enjoyable to watch it all unfold. Poirot ended the play by adjusting some papers which had bothered him with their lack of symmetry, which was a good way to end the performance, and we all applauded long and loud. A great experience to witness, and many thanks to all those involved who gave up their time to allow us to share it with them.

There was also the Q&A to enjoy, and this was undoubtedly the best attended post-show event we’ve ever seen. Some people did leave, but the house was still crammed when David Suchet and Joe Harmston came back out about fifteen minutes later. After a few comments by Joe, David made some opening remarks. He told us that he had actually trodden these very boards when the theatre was only just built, and before Olivier took over as artistic director. He had joined the National Youth Theatre, and they performed Coriolanus at Chichester (David was a Volscian general) while the builders were still there. So it was entirely appropriate in this fiftieth anniversary year to have him back. He clearly loves Chichester as a performance space, and was delighted to be here on that account, but he was also delighted to add this play to his CV, as he has made it clear that he wants to perform in every story Christie wrote with Poirot in it.

There were plenty of questions from all round the auditorium. David’s favourite part at Chichester was Cardinal Bellini in The Last Confession, a play we and many in the audience had enjoyed very much. David had been sent the script several years earlier and found it unsuitable, but a revised version came along and he found himself intrigued by the central role. He started to do his own investigation into the death of John Paul I, and realised there was something peculiar about it all, so decided to do the play. It worked very well on the Chichester stage; sadly, the director David Jones died before he could see it performed outside the UK.

David also discussed his filming commitments for the remaining Poirot stories on TV. He’ll be filming until July next year, and as these will be the last stories to be done, he knows there will be sadness and a feeling of bereavement to go through. He has a lot of gratitude for the benefits he’s received through doing Poirot, and reckons he will feel a sense of accomplishment at having recorded the complete set of stories to a standard that will keep them available for future generations. Knowing that it will be a difficult process, they’re filming Curtain first, a wise choice I think.

He doesn’t take Poirot home, though he did find it hard to drop a character in the early days of his career. His process, which is intrinsic to him, is to completely immerse himself in the character, to give the writer a voice which otherwise they don’t have. He looks for the significant contribution that his character gives to the overall piece, and when he finds that, he can proceed with confidence. He doesn’t act for himself, which he finds boring, but only to serve the work of the writers as best he can.

He will come back to Chichester if the right play comes along, but he won’t be doing Black Coffee again. We have seen the one and only performance. The choice of the radio play format was explained by Joe, and it was based on the desire to give a good performance while only having a few hours to rehearse. David is currently in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night in the West End, so this was how he spent his only day off this week – and we’re immensely grateful.

His background is not French or Belgian, sadly; he would have liked it to be. But in Who Do You Think You Are he discovered that his grandfather had lied about his background, and the final conclusion was that David is two-thirds Russian and one-third Sandwich, Kent. His favourite Poirot is The ABC Murders, due to Poirot’s lateral thinking, but Murder On The Orient Express is coming up fast in the inside. He likes the way that Poirot’s otherwise clear-cut morality is challenged by the realisation of what has happened, and the effect he could have on so many people’s lives. The book itself is quite dark, and he’s pleased that the production company allowed the film to reflect that. He’s hoping that Hugh Fraser and Philip Jackson will be available to reprise their roles for these last Poirots; that’s currently under discussion. With some final comments about the brilliance of Britain’s waterways, he finished the Q&A and we gave him a standing ovation. It was a real honour to be at today’s event; a memory I will treasure.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Complete World of Sports (abridged) – July 2012

8/10

By Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor

Directed by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor

Company: The Reduced Shakespeare Company

Venue: The Hawth, Crawley

Date: Thursday 12th July 2012

This was another fun offering by the Reduced Shakespeare Company. In just under two hours they took us across all seven continents, through eons of time, and mentioned a great number of the many and varied sports played by people on this planet. Of course they missed a few, but then it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that matters. And they rounded it all off with an Olympish (to avoid trade name disputes with the IOC) finish. Excellent.

The writers and directors were joined by Matt Rippy, and they presented the show in the guise of three American sports analysts; the one who’s played at a reasonably high level but can’t string a coherent sentence together, the intellectual one who knows all sorts of facts about various obscure sports and players (snore), and the eye candy. (Hey, this was their descriptions, don’t blame me.) The back curtain had RSCSN (Reduced Shakespeare Company Sports Network) across it plus several sporting pictures and two doorways. That was pretty much it for the set, although they did have a rope timeline – went all the way from ‘then’ to ‘now’ – and a whiteboard with the various sporting categories on it in rather small letters. The auditorium wasn’t packed tonight (a wet Thursday in Crawley – what do you expect?) but they still managed to spot some sporting stars in the audience; Sue Barker, an American chap I didn’t recognise, and Rasputin. (Rasputin?)

I can’t possibly go through their material in order, so here are the highlights. They took a little time to establish a cricket joke which involved one or other of them falling asleep whenever the word ‘cricket’ was used. Fortunately they know their audience, and the punchline for that sketch involved baseball. A later joke about democracy didn’t fly, and while they tried to help it back into the nest they seemed to lose their way a bit, but made a good recovery. That sketch was poking fun at the clichés used by coaches, but being American we didn’t get any ‘sick as a parrot’ or ‘over the moon’ references. Mind you, an early reference to John Terry as a Neanderthal went down well.

The Australian section involved Matt lying on his back doing an upside down report from the antipodes; I couldn’t hear that bit very well, but the ‘Scottish’ accents for the golfing sketch came across loud and clear. Matt did quite a good Sean Connery, and all was forgiven. The audience participation came in two parts, with a chap near us picked for the urine test section. He did pretty well, even though they were taking the piss in a very literal way! Then three others were selected to join in for the parade of nationalities in funny hats routine, which developed into a bull chasing sequence (it’s complicated). They all did very well, and we happy few (i.e. the audience still in our seats) clapped loudly as they left the stage.

Speaking of ‘we happy few’, there were some rousing sports songs which just happened to fit together nicely for a trio (wasn’t that lucky, as they’d just made them up on the spot!). Of course, danger was never far away when demonstrating so many physical activities, but they were mostly uninjured, or at any rate still able to walk at the end. True, Reed did have sharp objects stuck into him to show how unpleasant bull fighting is, and Austin lost an arm during a vigorous scuffle, but they stitched it back on at Crawley hospital, so no harm done.

The show was divided into four quarters, indicated by the horn sound. One time out was taken for a word from the sponsor, Wetherspoons as I recall. Fortunately their cavalier approach to sponsorship meant that the advert could be more accurate than usual, which we all enjoyed very much. And given their founding mission, it wasn’t too surprising that they included a guide to Shakespearean sporting references.

The pressure mounted in the third quarter as the pinnacle of sporting achievement loomed ever larger on the horizon. They intended to cover all thirty-two(?) sports of the Olympish Games, and of course they were going for a world record time. Would they make it? Would Matt get over his daddy issues to join in? Would Austin’s arm be sewn back on in time? You betcha. These guys are pros. With some slow-motion running and a marvellous demonstration of synchronised drowning, the sporting abridgement event of the decade was finally complete. The only thing remaining was the plug of their London season and then the victory song. Hoo-rah!

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Henry V – July 2012

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Edward Hall

Company: Propeller

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Wednesday 11th July

I may have rated this experience slightly lower than the first time we saw this production, but that doesn’t reflect just how much the performances have come on since that early part of the tour. The energy is still there, the dialogue has become much clearer, and this is definitely one of the best Henry V’s I’ve seen. The only thing affecting the rating is that there wasn’t the surprise factor this time, and that often makes an experience less enjoyable for me. The audience certainly seemed as responsive, so I don’t think that came into it.

The set was as before, as were the costumes (Alice didn’t have to sign for the bath this time, though). I think the opening had been changed slightly, with the actors taking different parts of the Chorus perhaps? Understandable on a long run, keeps it fresh. The Archbishop and Bishop’s conversation was crystal clear this time round, and as we weren’t distracted by ‘crap’ staging this time (Globe production), I was aware that the Archbishop’s offer of money for a war had been interrupted by the arrival of the French ambassador – sitting smirking on the chest behind them – and that the king was due to hear the rest of the Archbishop’s Salic law reasoning shortly. Now why can’t they always be that clear?

There was quite a long song to cover the change of set, and then the religious pair kept the king waiting even longer. The Salic law point was dealt with quickly, but in reasonable detail, and the arrival of the tennis balls was just as before. However, this time they made sure they were all off the set before continuing! I’ve seen search terms on this blog connecting ‘Propeller’ and ‘injury’, so I suspect experience has taught some hard lessons on this tour.

The chorus bit was just about over before the balls were all cleared, and then we had the traitors bit. They weren’t taken up the stairs for their execution, just made to kneel on the stage, but they did all die from one axe stroke. Henry didn’t take the axe with him this time. London Calling was still the intro to the rougher elements of the play, but what a change in the dialogue. Admittedly we’d seen the Globe’s production only a couple of weeks ago, and they made this scene clearer than usual so I had a head start, but this was much more understandable through not only their delivery of the lines but also the actions used to indicate their meaning. Again the two scenes were combined, and Mistress Quickly, in her wedding dress, was present without having much to say; they did get the ‘prick’ gag in, though. At the end, when Pistol told the others to kiss his new wife as they left, there was a range of reactions from the crew; some made a valiant attempt, most were put off by the smell, but Nym was the saddest – he couldn’t bring himself to kiss her. She gave him one of the tennis balls padding her bra instead, which he held to his face as he ran off, overcome with emotion. This time I could see the red heart that Pistol gave her, and it had a little glowing light in it – ahh.

Another rendition of Chanson D’Amour, and then the discussion amongst the French nobility; I didn’t spot the Dauphin reacting to the mention of Crecy this time, but we were on the other side of the stage. The rest of the first half was as before, and we headed out quickly to hear the singing and joined in most of the songs.

Katherine was at her toilette when we got back, with her face all white. Just the cheeks and some lipstick and she was ready for her bath. The English lesson came across very well, and then we were back into battle. There were a few changes to the staging that I noticed: Exeter killed Bardolph himself, and the body lay flat with only the boots showing at the front of the platform. Pistol’s prisoner dragged himself onto the stage this time, and the blood sprayed on the boy was a very weak red – running out of Kensington gore? When Henry had his argument with Williams, I noticed that Bates, the other soldier who tells them “Be friends, you English fools”, was played by Gary Shelford, who also played Bardolph, the peace-keeper between Nym and Pistol earlier in the play, and with the same argument – fight the French, not each other.

Apart from a couple of oaths by Pistol that we don’t remember from before – ‘bloody Welsh’ (after the leek-eating incident), and ‘Merde’ (as the French came on to the stage for an early scene) – the rest of the performance was as we remembered, and we joined in the rapturous applause at the end, happy to have seen such a great production a second time.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Heartbreak House – July 2012

8/10  (4th Preview)

By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Richard Clifford

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 10th July 2012

I’d seen Heartbreak House once before, with Rex Harrison as Captain Shotover, and found it deadly dull, so I had no great hopes for this production despite the excellent casting. I was delighted when the laughs came early and came often, and despite the ‘strange’ bits towards the end of each half, I found the production very light and enjoyable, with tremendous performances from everyone. I suspect the director chose to minimise the heavy political references and make this more of a Wildean romp through the dottiness of the British middle classes; if so, it was a good choice, which allowed the humour to come through and made for a much more accessible and enjoyable production.

The set was wonderful. The room used in the first acts had a long back wall, angled slightly, with a central tall window and two sets of double doors out to the garden on either side. At the far left was another door to the Captain’s secret stash of rum, while the door to the rest of the house was at the other end of the wall, and at right angles to it. A small corridor space away was another door which led to the front of the house.

The room was furnished appropriately for the time, though with a Bohemian flavour. The floorboards were slightly purple (or was that just the lighting?) and laid diagonally. They covered a large square area, with a smaller square off to the left for the Captain’s rum door, and these squares were surrounded by a glossy black area with a few leaves scattered here and there; this became the garden area in the final act. The fireplace was front and centre, with side seats and fire irons, and there were chairs and sofas, chests for tables, and a large drawing table under the central window with a Captain’s chair where Shotover did his design work from time to time.

For the final scene, the wall rotated and we lost the doors on either side. The garden area had a drinks trolley thoughtfully provided in front of the terrace, along with several benches and chairs. To the sides were panels which looked ivy-covered, and above all this were the upper windows of the house, lit during the night time scenes. To the left of the stage was a spot light, which may have been part of the stage lighting, or could even have been the Captain’s idea of garden illumination, such was the bohemian nature of the family. The costumes were all period, and absolutely lovely, especially Hesione’s evening dress.

I was reminded of many other plays and styles during the evening. Wilde obviously, especially in the bright, clever things said by the Hushabyes, Lady Utterwood and Randall Utterwood. The preening of the latter and Hector Hushabye, making full use of the imaginary mirror above the fireplace, was very funny, and also reminiscent of some of Wilde’s characters. Othello was mentioned several times within the dialogue, and King Lear had obvious echoes, with the elderly man and his two ‘dangerous’ daughters. And, written only a few years later, the shambolic treatment of invited guests reminded me strongly of Hay Fever. At least we got to know who was who with the staggered arrivals and repeated introductions, a very useful technique. And with such good characterisations, I found I engaged with the people and the situation much more readily than any tub-thumping production could manage. Derek Jacobi was splendid as Captain Shotover, but the whole cast were magnificent, and as this was only the fourth performance I would expect them to be even better in a short while. The only negatives tonight were some chatter from behind and two short bursts of thunderous rain on the roof which made the dialogue hard to hear, even though the actors upped the volume as much as they could. I hope we get quieter weather next time.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Soldier In Every Son – July 2012

8/10

By Luis Mario Moncada, translated by Gary Owen

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Joint production  by the RSC and the National Theatre of Mexico

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 6th July 2012

One the one hand this is a brilliant new play by Luis Mario Moncada, using some of Shakespeare’s dramatic techniques to tell an epic story of Mexico’s early history while relating it to the present day situation in that country. On the other hand, this is also an amazing romp through many of the scenes of political machination in Will’s various history plays. Human nature is the same everywhere, it would seem, although the long process of translating this play into English and then refining the language to work dramatically, then cutting the full seven hours (I’m not joking) down to less than three may have emphasised the similarity more than intended. Either way, this was really good fun, and I’d be glad to see it again and get more of the detail of the performances, now that I know the story. As with seeing one of Will’s histories for the first time, I could only get the gist; a lot of the finer points just washed over me. And as with a Shakespeare history, I’m aware not to take it literally; still, it was a good introduction to the subject, and it’s whetted my appetite for more.

The set and the costumes created a wonderful fantasy world in which the action unfolded. The base of the stage was coloured blue – water blue – and on top there was a platform on the thrust and three raked ramps at the back. The middle ramp could be lowered to create another entrance, and the platform and ramps were covered in what looked like animal hides. Turned out these were representative of the tree bark scrolls which these pre-Mexican tribes used to record their history, in hieroglyphics. So it was as if the characters in the scrolls had come to life and were acting out the stories in 3D – neat. There was another strip of this tree bark hanging at the back for the video projections, and the floor of the stage was used sometimes as well to show repeating patterns, e.g. wave symbols to show us a lake scene. Mostly the picture at the back showed us the relevant tribal symbols – snake, jaguar or eagle – with the final combined symbol representing the birth of the Aztec empire.

The costumes blended a number of features – Aztec designs of the period,  farthingale skirts from Europe for the women, and colour coding so we would know which tribe we were dealing with. This was very useful, as the characters’ names were not only difficult to pronounce (even for the Mexican actors), they were also difficult for our unaccustomed ears to hear and recognise. The costumes also showed a fair bit of flesh; apparently the male actors had all opted for regular workouts when they realised this.

The story told us of the kings of two main tribes around a lake in Mexico, and their attempts to keep or gain power. Also in the mix were a group of outsiders, the Aztecs, looked down on by the others but ferocious fighters who hired themselves out to the other tribes as soldiers. With some nifty manoeuvring that wouldn’t have been out of place in Richard III, Itzcoatl (Brian Ferguson) ended up as king of the Aztecs and part of a three-headed kingdom, along with Nezahualcoyotl (Alex Waldmann) and Tacuba (Marco Antonio Garcia). In this culture, dying was seen as a goal to be sought after, so although it was a more downbeat ending than we expected, the play finished with the ritual sacrifice of Ohtonqui, son of Quimalpopoca the previous king of the Aztecs. (You see our difficulty with the names?) As with the princes in the tower, Itzcoatl was keen to see off this potential rival for his throne, but fortunately for him this culture had a socially acceptable form of murder to help him achieve his goal.

Apart from spotting the Shakespeare echoes, we enjoyed the humour enormously. Tezozomoc (John Stahl) had a lovely rant at his daughter Tecpa (Susie Trayling), whose arrogance and pride had put the kibosh on yet another marriage. Strong language is fine with us, as long as it knows its place, and this string of meaty oaths was entirely appropriate and very funny. One of the best bits was the casting of Alex Waldmann as both father and son characters; when Itzcoatl commented on the similarity, the audience laughed, and he gave a helpless shrug – so many parts, so few actors.

Even though it was difficult to follow, and the strong accents of the Mexican actors took a while to get used to, this was very enjoyable performance, though sadly one the world has yet to become aware of; the audience was on the sparse side, so we had to applaud even louder to make up for the empty seats. I did think the title of the play was a bit off-putting; even though it’s a line from the play describing the Aztec attitude to warfare, it suggested a much grimmer production than was the case. Don’t know what they could change it to, but hopefully they can get better attendances for the rest of the run.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

I, Cinna – July 2012

2/10

By Tim Crouch (drawing heavily on Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare)

Directed by Tim Crouch

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Friday 6th July 2012

I found this dreadfully boring. Designed as a way of suggesting ideas, mainly to schoolchildren, this was as dull an experience as I’ve had in Stratford. Cinna, the poet, spent about an hour talking us through the play Julius Caesar, attempting to give us some thought-provoking questions along the way. After this there was a post-show discussion so that the audience could air their thoughts and views (I assume, as we didn’t stay for that part). There were one or two good bits – commenting on Caesar (or Antony?) as someone with gold taps in their bathroom was a nice way of relating the story to the present day, as were the other mentions of modern life, such as riot police. I did the writing as requested but I didn’t get much out of it, although as we left the auditorium the youngsters were being warmed up for what may have been a good post-show discussion for them.

The set consisted of a tatty green door at the back of the thrust, which had a number of locks and two strips of wall with manky wallpaper, one on either side. There were bits of paper pinned to each wall, and a large screen above the door which showed the video clips. To the left of this was a table with a waste paper basket under it which was overflowing with paper – the floor was covered with screwed up bundles. An old style TV was front left, facing diagonally across the stage to a chair that sat back right, accompanied by a standard lamp. The control table for the video clips was on the back left walkway, and the woman sitting there also delivered a newspaper through the letterbox about halfway through the performance.

After the assassination, Cinna gave us three minutes to write a poem (does he have so little respect for his craft?) and rearranged the furniture to show the post-assassination world. The chairs and table were thrown over, the door was turned round so we could see the backstage view, and he daubed blood on himself to indicate his own murder. I forget how the performance ended, but I did applaud quite loudly, as Jude Owusu had managed a good performance in the circumstances. We’d been moved from the Swan into the Courtyard theatre, from an intimate venue to a big cavern, and I felt that didn’t help what was ostensibly an interactive piece, especially as our numbers reflected the Swan’s capacity rather than the Courtyard’s. There was relatively little audience response during the play, and that may have made a huge difference; I really can’t tell.

I found myself writing some of these notes on the blank pages in the program, as I just wasn’t feeling involved in the performance at all. One response I wrote on the page, after Cinna made the challenging assertion that ‘we are not free’ was ‘free to ignore what’s on stage and write these thoughts down’, so I did manage to get some inspiration from it after all. I felt the video was underused, and the images didn’t seem to relate to what was being talked about for the most part. They did have film of the assassination, which was a bit bizarre, but otherwise it just seemed to be a jumble. I’ll try to avoid this type of performance in future.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Julius Caesar – July 2012

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Greg Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 5th July 2012

There’s been a definite improvement since last time. We heard the dialogue more clearly, partly because we were more familiar with the accents they were using, but mainly because the delivery was that bit stronger. Our viewing angle was very different as well, which helped me to pick up on a lot of nuances I’d missed before, and it so happened this was the captioned performance, which also helped a bit.

The set was as before, and all the crowd scenes and lighting changes seemed identical, though I can’t be totally certain. The preamble, with the music and dancing, etc., was just as good as before, and it was quite a shock when the tribunes broke it up with their sticks. Their anger at the people, and their use of blue sashes to indicate their different allegiance, made it clear that Rome was divided, while their scathing condemnation of the way the populace changed its favourites from day to day was reminiscent of today’s celebrity culture. The cobbler was just as cheeky as before, and got a lot of laughs for his small section.

When Caesar arrived, he was gracious and oozed confidence, waving his fly whisk at the cheering throng who were mostly off stage at this point. When a woman came to put a wreath round Mark Antony’s neck, two security guards tried to stop her, but Mark Antony waved them away. The only jarring note came when the soothsayer stepped forward to deliver his warning; then Caesar looked uncertain, but covered it with a show of bravado. He was already snubbing Cassius in a very deliberate way, and it would only get worse.

Brutus was almost off the stage before Cassius could persuade him to stay. Their discussion was much clearer than before; Cassius was hurt that Brutus wasn’t so friendly towards him, while Brutus was preoccupied with some thoughts that he felt it best not to share. The lines “for the eye sees not itself but by reflection, by some other thing” were said by both men, as if reciting some well-known motto or proverb. Gradually they edged towards an understanding, assisted by the cheers from the crowd. I felt this time that Cassius had been hurt by Caesar in some way, not just through slighted pride at someone else being given the high honours which he perhaps wanted for himself, but a more personal affront, a rejection by someone he had considered a friend. He certainly didn’t come across as just a political schemer tonight, although his manipulation of Brutus showed that he was prepared to use all sorts of dishonest tactics to get what he wanted.

When Caesar returned from the games, his comments to Mark Antony about Cassius were obviously said for all to hear, and Cassius was visibly affected by them. Something has clearly gone on between these two men in the past; perhaps Caesar didn’t like the fact that Cassius had saved his life in the river? After Caesar left, Casca’s descriptions of events were wonderfully funny, and I could see in Brutus and Cassius’s reactions that they were bonding even more as they heard the details.

Casca and Cicero’s conversation during the storm was much clearer this time round, and I understood it to be a combination of telling the audience what was going on – lions in the street, flaming hands, etc. – and allowing Cicero to show the rational perspective, pointing out that signs can be interpreted in all sorts of ways. He was carrying an umbrella – very sensible – and left as soon as he got the information he wanted, that Caesar would be going to the Capitol tomorrow.

Cassius then turned up, shirt open to the elements, and revelling in the danger of it. After Cicero’s comment about interpreting signs, Cassius then demonstrated this very point by re-interpreting the wonders that had frightened Casca into portents which were meant to stir men’s spirits to great deeds. Although he doesn’t actually say it, I got the impression that Cassius’s actions are a challenge to nature to do its worst, a form of augury whereby if he escapes being struck by lightning it indicates the plot is meant to go ahead. Casca was quick to offer the hand of friendship when he found out what Cassius intended, and with some more chat about who’s in the plot and the certainty of winning over Brutus to the cause, the conspirators left the stage to the man himself.

This scene was much stronger than the previous time. Lucius was clearly a boy who could sleep for Rome; he nodded off on the back steps while the conspiracy was being planned, which explains his lack of knowledge of the plot later on. He was told to go to bed and then called back immediately to get something else for Brutus; his reaction was very funny. Brutus’s concerns about Caesar seemed plausible enough, but I could see that they had one great weakness; Caesar hadn’t actually done anything wrong at this point, and Brutus was only trying to prevent future problems instead of addressing present wrongs. Even so, I felt that he was still trying to do the honourable thing and wasn’t out for personal revenge or gain.

His sense of honour was well to the fore during the planning session with the others. Cassius looked baffled and hurt by the way that Brutus kept changing the sensible decisions he’d already made, and then influencing the rest to agree with those changes. Honourable, yes; politically savvy, no. But acting from a position of honour, his choices were almost inevitable. Their doom was sealed. With the Ides of March dawning and Caesar about to leave for the Capitol, their plot seemed rushed, even amateurish, and while they’d given some thought to the aftermath, their vision was clouded by Brutus’s honourable fantasies about the people behaving rationally and reasonably once they’d had the assassination properly explained to them.

The confrontation between Portia and Brutus was much better this time, with Portia’s complaints being absolutely clear, and I noticed she even used some of the same rhetorical tricks that Brutus employed. Caius Ligarius, the sick man, recovered very quickly, giving us another laugh, and then the following scene overlapped a little with this one, as Caesar appeared on the platform before Caius Ligarius and Brutus left the stage. I’ve only just realised that Shakespeare’s done another of his tricks here; the argument between Portia and Brutus is followed almost immediately by the argument between Calpurnia and Caesar, and while Calpurnia appears to win, Decius Brutus soon changed Caesar’s mind with his smooth flattery. His assurance to the conspirators earlier, that he could manipulate Caesar at will with compliments, was amusing; now we got to see him in action (although we had only the back view), and he was as good as his word. The clincher, of course, was the prospect of the crown – couldn’t actually see Caesar salivating when this was mentioned, but he was clearly keen to get to the senate and (finally!) accept this honour.

All the conspirators turned up, and I noticed they did a little ritual when they arrived. They each touched the ground with one hand, as if bowing to Caesar or acknowledging him in some way, before rising and being welcomed by him. Cassius came on last, as before, and was left in that position as Caesar ignored him, talking instead to Trebonius. As they left the stage through the central doorway, Artemidorus stood on the platform, reciting the list of names as the men themselves passed under him. He then left quickly, and Portia came on to send Lucius on his errand to the Capitol. Her agitation was clear to us, even if Lucius was completely bemused by lack of orders. Instead of Artemidorus reappearing, the soothsayer came on through the central doorway and stalked forward with a strange, slow rhythm – quite eerie. Portia was spooked by him as well, and he delivered Artemidorus’s lines during his straight journey from the back of the stage, all the way off the front and through the audience. He finished with “Good morrow to you”, as I remember.

He must have run to get back round to the platform for his next meeting with Caesar, and then the senate scene unfolded with great clarity, despite the inevitable blocking through all the conspirators standing around the stage. I could see Trebonius drawing Mark Antony away from Caesar, see Cassius looking nervous about possible discovery, and also see each of the conspirators take their turn to stab Caesar, so I didn’t miss much. Jeffery Kissoon delivered Caesar’s lines strongly throughout the evening, and although there was a lot to admire in his character’s attitudes, he also showed us the pride, the ambition, and the arrogant assumption that he was better than everyone else, not entirely justified by his actions. His intense dislike, even hatred, for Cassius was also easy to spot, and I felt strongly that this Caesar would not have been good for Rome in the long run, though not necessarily worse than the rulers they did get.

I think they asked Lepidus to calm the people instead of Publius in this production. Antony’s political manoeuvring was well done, and Octavius’s servant was overcome with grief when he came on. Brutus’s speech to the crowd worked very well, showing us how he focused the questions to his best advantage, but once Mark Antony took to the platform we could see a master manipulator at work. It was obvious to us, though not to the crowd, that he just happened to have a piece of parchment with Caesar’s seal on it about his person; the way he tore it up later during the discussion with Octavius and Lepidus made that clear. In many ways he spoke the literal truth, but the way he put the pieces together stirred up the crowd’s emotions, and he had to work to get them back to hear the contents of the ‘will’. His promptings to riot, and the denial of those prompting were brilliantly delivered by Ray Fearon, whose Antony was motivated by the death of his friend, rather than any concern for Rome.

Cinna the poet met his fiery end again; someone in the crowd put a tyre over him while they were asking him questions, and after they dragged him off the back of the stage, the red light of flames flickered over the back wall. Nasty. I was reminded of the hysteria around paedophiles some years ago, when paediatricians, amongst others, were being targeted by the ignorant members of the public. The short meeting of Antony, Octavius and Lepidus served to show Antony as the driving force at this point, confident in his power and assuming that, as the senior ‘partner’, he’ll be giving the orders.

The tent scene was another that came across much more strongly this time round. Brutus’s quarrel with Cassius was very emotional, and seemed to be more about Brutus suffering because he’d heard of Portia’s death than because of any specific grievance, even though he listed a number of Cassius’s faults. I noticed that Cassius did little to defend himself, other than comment on their friendship. The poet who interrupted them looked like the soothsayer without most of the white powder – can’t confirm from the cast list. Once they were reconciled, Brutus poured a libation from the bowl of wine before drinking. Their friendship was very apparent, especially as Brutus only shared his reaction to Portia’s death with Cassius, keeping it from the other generals.

The ghost’s appearance was brief, and triggered the falling of the statue, with the paper sections at the back also separating slightly. The slanging match between the teams before the battle was clearer than before, and I found Cassius and Brutus’s farewells quite moving. The battle scenes were all fine, and Lucius was very funny in the nervous and awkward way he held his gun; Brutus had to adjust it once to avoid getting shot. The play ended swiftly after Brutus’s death, and nothing was made of the closing lines but that didn’t matter. We’d had a very good time, and I hope they do well in London.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me