Absurd Person Singular – August 2012


Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

A Stephen Joseph Theatre/CFT co-production

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 30th August 2012

Surprisingly, given that this production was directed by Ayckbourn himself, we didn’t find it quite as funny as a previous outing (Oct 2008). It was still good though, and great fun to see the cast of Surprises playing completely different characters.

Part of the difference tonight lay in the casting. While everyone was perfectly cast for the other play, and most were similarly good in this, I felt that Ayesha Antoine wasn’t convincing as the suicidal Eva in the second act. This was a great pity as that part is central to the comedy of the whole scene; she may not say a word until she starts singing at the end of the scene but her presence is crucial, and tonight it wasn’t strong enough for me. And for once the in-the-round space actually worked against the humour, as the focus was harder to maintain with bits of furniture and the building getting in the way.

Even so, we enjoyed the second act, and the darker aspects of the characters certainly came out strongly tonight. There was less business with the gin bottle in the third act, but that act is always less funny than the others as the characters mostly continue their downward spiral.

The sets were beautifully evocative of the three couples. The first was replete with aspirational Formica and linoleum, the second full of painted wood and raffia seats with wooden floorboards, while the final act had a stone flagged floor, an Aga and mpre upmarket wooden furniture. The costumes matched the sets, with the aspirational couple’s clothes improving in each scene. Not a bad production then, though not the best we’ve seen.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Last Of The Haussmans – August 2012


By Stephen Beresford

Directed  by Howard Davies

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Wednesday 29th August 2012

Yet another DFCD (dysfunctional family confrontation drama), the twist this time being a reassessment of the 1960s Flower Power generation in today’s world. It had a marvellously detailed set, was a good first play by this writer, had excellent performances, and for those who like this sort of thing it was a great production. There were delicious sparkles of humour through most of the play, but the relatively turgid family ‘discussions’ left me cold.

The start was very promising. We were quickly introduced to Nicky and Libby, a brother and sister with assorted problems, including a drug habit, a rich and varied homosexual past (and present) and a stroppy teenage daughter. Libby’s daughter, Summer, was a representative of the daughter-as-bitch camp, slagging off her Mum at every opportunity and generally behaving badly most of the time. Judy, Summer’s gran and Nicky and Libby’s mother, was recovering from cancer surgery, and this seemed to be the trigger which had brought Nicky back to visit after many years’ absence. The story unfolded in fits and starts, with some lovely humour, mainly from Nicky; the energy dropped when his character was absent for a while. The play ended with a funeral for the last of the Haussmans, and a rather confused new start for Nicky and Libby after the family home had been sold.

The set used the large revolve to move the building round. It was a large Art Deco period house which had been sadly neglected, and with Judy’s hippy past there were plenty of Eastern trimmings to brighten the place up. I spotted, amongst the jumble, wind chimes, a dream catcher and a Tibetan cloth (judging by the shape); the only thing missing was the pungent aroma of incense (probably just as well). Around the front was the garden area, and there were two strange curved wooden pergola affairs on each side of the stage. They were used for exits and entrances to the garden, and were lavishly draped with colourful bunting, but apart from that I have no idea what they were meant to be. They may also have been responsible for our occasional problems hearing the dialogue; with nothing to bounce back from, some of the lines were probably crystal clear backstage but sounded muffled to us. The scenes were mainly set outside, though one was in the music room and another in the kitchen.

The two other characters we saw included a doctor, whose services to Judy included reminiscing about the 60s long into the night, drinking and singing songs. He was also having an affair with Libby which lasted until his wife found out. The other was Daniel, a young man whose talent as a swimmer was being nurtured with regular practice in Judy’s swimming pool. This seemed a bit unbelievable; if she couldn’t keep the house tidy, the swimming pool was likely to be a major health hazard. Anyway, he was a fit young athlete and the eye candy for many of us in the audience, as well as for Nicky.

Rory Kinnear was excellent as Nicky, and well matched by Helen McCrory as Libby, although hers were the lines I had most difficulty hearing. Julie Walters was clearly having a great time playing the aging rebel Judy, and Matthew Marsh was perfect as the randy doctor. The young actors were also very good. Isabella Laughland as Summer conveyed her character’s hostility and occasional vulnerability very well, while Taron Egerton showed us a Daniel who matured a lot during the period of the play, partly due to his experiences at the house and with the family.

The only reason for my lack of enthusiasm about this play is that we’ve seen so many of these family confrontations before and it takes something special in the writing or performances to engage my interest nowadays. I’m also beginning to wonder if the elaborate set didn’t dwarf the play too much; perhaps a studio setting, emphasising the relationships and allowing the location to fade into the background, would have helped the production more. It’s certainly the set that I remember most from this performance, which is not a healthy sign.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Surprises – August 2012 (2)


Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Stephen Joseph Theatre and CFT co-production

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 28th August 2012

No surprises tonight, though the performances had all tightened up as the cast have become familiar with the Minerva space. The opening act was funnier – we laughed more – and although there were a few gaps again after the first interval, the rest of us clearly enjoyed ourselves, including the chap who sang along to the songs and completed the actors’ lines for them!

Some things I forgot to mention last time: each act began and ended with a song. The first one was Keep Young And Beautiful, a scratchy version suggesting an old recording. The others weren’t scratchy, but were old-style crooner ballads, don’t know which ones. I think they ended each act with the same song, but I’m not sure. The caption on the statue’s plinth was “Venus No 2”.

I wasn’t entirely sure last time if Sylvia’s crush was on Jan or Lorraine; I assumed from later developments that it had been Jan, but this time round it wasn’t so obvious.  The final scenes with the virtual reality and real characters both on stage at the same time were clearer tonight. Perhaps they’d changed their timing slightly, or perhaps it was the different angle, but I was aware of the real people saying their lines first, and the avatars following them. Later, when the couple were telling each other who they really were, the avatar or the real character would stay silent, miming the line at the same time as their counterpart spoke the line. This allowed their growing relationship to be highlighted without distracting us with too much repetition; after all, they were each moving past the need for a false persona to represent them in a fantasy world. Their final meeting, huddled together against the rain, was quite moving, and I had to wipe away the moisture from my eyes before I applauded. Lovely.

From the post-show, I gathered that in the Stephen Joseph Theatre the front row are practically sitting on the stage, so the cast enjoyed having a little more room in the Minerva. A lot of the discussion got bogged down in what the play was about, which I didn’t find so interesting, but the cast seem to be having a good time down here, which is nice. As often happens, I thought of my ‘burning’ questions afterwards – too late!

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Comedy Of Errors – August 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 23rd August 2012

This was great fun tonight. We thought this production had potential when we saw it in preview, and they’ve proved us right. There were a few changes and some things which I saw for the first time from our new angle, while the dialogue was much clearer than before.

There were no changes to the set as far as I could see. [Having checked my earlier notes again, I think the two bollards at the top of the raised ramp at the back had disappeared by this time. Either that or I just couldn’t see them from my position.] The opening scene was likewise the same, and although some people laughed at the violence, I found it unenjoyable. It did get the story of the twins across quite well though, which is important. When the crates arrived at the dock, I spotted Dromio of Ephesus passing through the scene this time, and being chased off by the dock workers.

When he returned to summon his master, as he thought, to dinner, his hand gestures were even more persistent than before. He kept moving them from pointing in Antipholus’s direction round to the far exit, encouraging him to go. It was very funny, although I did wonder if it was getting in the way of the scene a bit, as I wasn’t listening to Antipholus so much. Still, I love the two Dromios in this, so I’m loath to criticise their comic business.

The same three illegal immigrants came out of the other crate, though this time the woman offered Antipholus the track suits and then the bags – no sale. Again this business interrupted the dialogue a lot, and risked losing the energy as well, but they kept it going just fine.

Adriana and Luciana were good, with their dialogue being much clearer, apart from the time when Adriana stuck her napkin in Luciana’s mouth to stop her wittering on about marriage when she’s still a spinster. Dromio leapt up on to the struts of the ceiling to avoid Adriana’s wrath, and I forgot to mention last time that she took a cupcake off the stand on the table after Dromio had gone and smashed it into her face when she was talking about losing her beauty.

When Antipholus of Syracuse met his own Dromio in the next scene, he took his jacket off to be able to beat him the better, and handed it to Dromio to hold. It was dropped on the ground at some point, and later Dromio picked it up to put it back on his master, only to start with the wrong sleeve. When he did get the sleeve right, he failed to get it on Antipholus’s arm, so the whole jacket slid over his shoulders. Antipholus took it off Dromio and put it on himself, just before Adriana and Luciana arrived. (They cut the lines after “purchase me another dry basting”.) I noticed that Adriana threw her lovely coat with a fur collar down on the stage after she arrived, but almost immediately picked it up and gave it to Luciana to hold; care of one’s clothes seems to be a theme of this production.

We’d heard from Kirsty Bushell that she did some business to suggest that Adriana noticed some changes in her husband – the Antipholi are very different in height – and we spotted these tonight. She’s also playing Olivia in Twelfth Night, and one of the directors had told her that when her characters see the other twin, they are in such a needy place that they overlook what’s obvious to the rest of us. It’s a fair point, though not quite enough to cover the discrepancies in these productions, but we managed to overlook the problem so as to enjoy ourselves more.

The look of puzzlement between Antipholus and Dromio got the laugh that normally comes on “plead you to me, fair dame?”, which is fair enough, and Dromio almost fell in the water trying to get away when Antipholus was angry with him over Adriana’s confirmation of his earlier encounter with Dromio of Ephesus – “for even her very words thou didst deliver to me on the mart”. When Antipholus and Adriana kissed, Luciana looked away, embarrassed, while Dromio seemed more concerned about being beaten again. The door was hoisted onto the stage, and although I didn’t find the opening scene funny, I did laugh at the slapstick when Dromio was hit by the door, twice.

With the Syracusan pair safely installed in the Ephesian house, Adriana’s real husband turned up with his mates for dinner. The scene was as before, though we had a better view of some aspects from the side. The two Dromios looked through the letterbox at one point and both backed off rapidly from the door, scared by what they saw. I didn’t see much of Nell this time until she chased Dromio of Syracuse off the stage with a large squash. After Antipholus of Ephesus left, his Dromio chased after him carrying the “iron crow” he’d asked for. I foresee another beating when he catches up with his master; he interpreted that instruction by bringing a weather vane with a crow on top of it.

The scene between Antipholus of Syracuse and Luciana was OK, and certainly made it clear that Luciana fancied this Antipholus a lot. The following section, with Dromio relating Nell’s attributes, was very entertaining, and then we just had the delivery of the chain by Angelo and the capture and shooting of the other illegal immigrant before the interval. This time the captain offered his gun to Antipholus to shoot the man, but he ran off in a panic, naturally enough. The lights went out before the shot, as before, and although the audience took a little while to realise it was time for applause, we dished out plenty when the penny dropped.

It was a brisk first half, and the second opened with the disposing of the dead body – no improvement there.  Then followed the scene with Angelo in danger of being arrested over the money he owed to a merchant. When Antipholus of Ephesus arrived, they argued over who had the chain, and at one point the goldsmith was so stressed he had to use his inhaler. When Dromio of Syracuse arrived, he was carrying a lifejacket and had a bright orange life preserver round his neck – very funny.

The next scene had Adriana dunking Luciana in another goldfish tank; I assume no fish were harmed in this production, even though Steve spotted Luciana spitting one out when she lifted her head out of the water. This time the water torture was funny, especially when Adriana dunked her own head in there at the end. The platform was still suspended for this scene, but apart from a few spins and Dromio of Syracuse being nervous about stepping off it, it didn’t add much.

When the platform was being winched on and off again, they covered the scene change with some business, usually having the band troop across the stage. For this change they also laid out some barrels and rolled Antipholus of Syracuse across them. When the others left, Antipholus was balancing on one remaining barrel, holding a bag (as provided by the woman from the crate) and for some unknown reason a scrap of green cloth. He delivered the lines well enough, but he could have done it just as well standing on the ground.

When he did get down, we noticed he placed the bag under the barrel to stop it rolling down the stage. The courtesan was much the same, but one thing I forgot to mention before was that after the Syracusans left, and when she was planning to visit Adriana, she took the padding out of her bra – four separate pieces – and threw them behind her. This got a good laugh. When Dromio of Ephesus passed across the stage, he was carrying a big bundle of rope – we know what he’s going to do with that – and when she threw her shoe at him tonight she almost hit him. This is a dangerous production for the male actors with the women being so violent; even the Madonna has hit someone in passing.

Speaking of which, Adriana dealt with the officer by twisting his arm behind his back, and after the abbess had dealt with Adriana’s attack by crushing her fist in her hand, both the officer and another chap leapt out of her way when she went back into the abbey, all very funny. In general, the scenes through to the final confrontations in front of the abbey were good fun with no significant changes to report. There was a strong response to the merchant, the one to whom Angelo owed money, taking out a machete to fight Antipholus of Syracuse. When Dromio of Ephesus confirmed that his master had not dined at home, he revealed to Adriana that they had dined with the courtesan. Her story had been that Antipholus had rushed into her house and stolen her ring, but now Adriana knew the truth she was not a happy bunny – that was what led to her slamming the courtesan’s head against the oil drum. She also pulled down the hem of the courtesan’s skirt earlier as it had been riding much too high, entirely intentional on the courtesan’s part. The rest was as before. I sniffled, I laughed, and the ending was just as good as the last time.

There were a few new bits of business that I find hard to place. Nell came running across the stage after Dromio of Syracuse who had just left, crying “Dromio, Dromio, wherefore are thou Dromio?” which was very funny. But then Dromio of Ephesus came on stage, spotted her leaving and rushed after her saying “shakalaka” or some such vocalisation of desire. During another of the scene changes, the woman from the crate wheeled her shopping trolley onto the stage and was selling to the citizens. Dromio of Ephesus and his Nell wandered on and were looking at the goods – presumably he was going to buy her a present – but the police came along and the woman, along with everyone else, was off like a shot. When Angelo was talking about the chain to Antipholus of Ephesus, he tried to mollify Antipholus’s anger by repeating some of the  tune they’d been singing earlier, to no effect.

This production has really come together. There’s still too much unnecessary violence and tricksy staging for my liking, but the cast have overcome all of that to tell the story really well and provide us with a lot of humour along the way. The two Dromios are still the best thing in it, but the others have caught up a lot, and they deserve to play to packed houses. Good luck to them.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King John – August 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Maria Aberg

Venue: Swan Theatre, Stratford

Date: Wednesday 22nd August 2012

Our experience tonight was much better than last time, and there were several reasons for this. Firstly, the performances had come on a lot since May which was to be expected, although the seven week layoff (barring one performance) could have been a problem. Secondly we heard an excellent talk this afternoon by Robert Maslan about the play, and although he based it on the regular text rather than this production, we learned more details which helped in our understanding. Our position was different too, which helped, and of course we knew this time that we weren’t seeing the usual version of the text, so we could relax and enjoy this interpretation without getting hung up on the casting or the set.

The opening was the same, but as we’d also had a session with Pippa Nixon this morning I’m afraid we Summer Scholars got a bit carried away with Land Of Hope And Glory and nearly ruined the entrance of the court. The Bastard’s ukulele playing hasn’t improved much, I’m sad to say. John did the same little tease with the crown as before, and again ignored the French ambassador for a while before listening to him. When the bastard Falconbridge and her brother came on, Pippa started to use her feminine charms to win the argument, unzipping her top and displaying her cleavage to good advantage (as she had done last time), but although John noticed her looks, the sexual attraction between them was kept in check most of the time which allowed the other aspects of their relationship to be explored much more, and overall I felt that helped the performance.

In front of Angiers, the wrangling between the two sides was clearer this time. The citizens stood round the balcony and spoke in unison, first to declare their allegiance to the King of England, then to point out that they didn’t know who that was, and then to put forward the suggestion that Blanche and the Dauphin marry to create peace between France and England. I didn’t spot when Constance and Arthur left this scene; probably during the general exit before the townsfolk made their marriage proposal. From our position tonight I could see Blanche and Louis sitting on the steps while this talk was going on, and I had a much clearer view of their incompetent wooing. Louis was totally self-regarding, seeing himself when he looked in her eyes, while her lines were delivered so jerkily that it was impossible to tell whether she liked the Dauphin or not, as was intended.

Again Elinor had to prompt John with a cough to add Anjou to the list of provinces in Blanche’s dowry, and again she held her hand to her head in reaction to him giving away thirty thousand marks as well. The bargain was sealed with a chest bump between the two kings, and then they partied. The court posed on the steps as before, and following today’s talk the “commodity” speech came over much better. When John brought out the microphone he started speaking the line “the moment I wake up”, then began singing with the next line “before I put on my makeup”. The King of France carried on, and then everyone joined in. Soon Blanche and Louis were holding the microphones and stood facing each other on a couple of the benches. Their song wasThe Time Of My Life, and really got the crowd rocking, especially with their Dirty Dancing routine.

Eventually the party moved off stage and Constance, accompanied by Arthur, Salisbury and Pembroke, came on (Pembroke is an addition to my text). Her grief was more like anger, which helped to keep the energy levels up. I’ve often found her whining rather dreary in past productions, by Susie Trayling was very good in this role, and kept me watching and listening for once.

The party returned, coming on from both sides at the top of the stairs. Not seeing Constance at first, Philip was very happy and announced a new French public holiday. Then he and John, arms on each other’s shoulders, turned and walked down the steps, to be confronted by a very angry woman. Oops. I did like the extra party hats, especially the clown’s hat worn by Austria which rather undercut his macho attempts to stop the Bastard insulting him, and we both appreciated the devil’s horns which Elinor had chosen to wear on her head.

Fortunately the Pope’s legate, Pandulph, arrived to speak to John about releasing the Archbishop of Canterbury. Unfortunately, John decided not to cooperate with the Holy Father’s request, and was excommunicated. Philip struggled to find a way out of his predicament; he didn’t want to lose the new-found peace by going to war against England, but the threat of being excommunicated himself was too much to resist. Blanche’s situation was no better; she was now connected to both sides, and would lose either way. I wasn’t particularly moved by any of the performances tonight, but the one that came closest was this, when Blanche expressed her divided loyalties and the suffering this was causing her. She went with Louis, but was never happy again.

After introducing us to Austria’s head, the Bastard took on Hubert’s role, meaning that Essex had to take on the Bastard’s job of raising money in England. When suborning the Bastard to kill young Arthur, John first gave him his own silver dog tags to wear, which the Bastard was proud to receive. The sexual attraction got in the way of this scene first time round; it was better tonight without such distractions.

The next scene with the French included Blanche as well, though being without dialogue she sat on the steps and said nothing. Constance was excellent in this scene, with all her arguments coming across clearly. After she left, followed by King Philip, Pandulph began to manipulate Louis into attacking England in order to claim the throne by right of his marriage to Blanche. This caused Blanche’s only reaction in this scene – she stood up when Pandulph first made this suggestion, not happy at the prospect of war between France and England.

The attempt at blinding Arthur was OK; I heard quite a lot of the lines, and I’d been aware since this morning’s talk how often eyes and sight were mentioned in this play, but the main point of the scene in this version was to show the change in the Bastard’s attitude to King John. When the Bastard led Arthur off they took the interval, and again there were fewer seats occupied in the second half, though it wasn’t as obvious as with Troilus And Cressida last week.

The second half started with another song from the Bastard, and during it John appeared at the top of the stairs. (I haven’t been able to track down the lyrics – something about keeping baby teeth in a drawer with jewellery.) Again he placed his crown on his own head and stood there while she sang. When the song was finished, the balloons were released, along with lots of confetti which landed on the audience as well. The Bastard dragged the microphone stand off after looking at John on the steps; I wondered if this was meant to reflect her change of attitude.

John’s discussion with Salisbury and Pembroke was interrupted by the Bastard, and from the lords’ comments it was clear that they had heard of the King’s intent to kill Arthur and that the Bastard had been chosen to carry out the murder. The announcement of Arthur’s death was no surprise to these men, and after they left John received the news of the Dauphin’s army, his mother’s death and Constance’s death, while from the Bastard, resuming her non-Hubert shape, he heard of the unrest in the country. John was not a happy bunny. He ranted at the Bastard for misinterpreting his commands, but then she showed him the very order which he had signed. He next complained that she hadn’t prevented this mistake on his part, and frankly I wanted to shout ‘man up’ at the little wimp. After a bit of rough-housing, he had the Bastard on her back and was viciously grabbing at her crotch, but she managed to get away and finally admitted, Hubert-like, that she hadn’t done the deed. Relief all round, and John sent the Bastard running off to tell the peers.

Meanwhile, at the castle Arthur was making his escape. The walls were high and slippery, and with the lights lowered he had difficulty making his way to safety. They staged this differently according to my earlier notes. Arthur came down the steps some way, saying his lines, then another Arthur edged out along the top. They reflected each other’s positions, facing in opposite directions, then fell down, one behind the steps and the other onto the ground. With the balloons hiding the body, it was quite plausible that the lords could come on, discussing their meeting with the French, and not see the corpse until well into the scene. Of course with the Bastard and Hubert being one and the same, the lines were rearranged considerably, and the long dialogue between the two characters was severely cut. When Salisbury drew his ‘sword’, the Bastard drew her gun, which was funny, and being a woman she couldn’t actually pick up the dead boy; she cradled him in her arms, and his corpse walked off stage later when the next scene was under way.

The rapprochement between John and Pandulph was next. John came to the front of the stage and took off his shirt, then knelt down with his coronet over his praying hands, facing Pandulph who had come down the steps. She asserted her authority over him by staying well back, so he had to shuffle towards her on his knees, then bowed right down before her. When she lifted up his hands to remove the crown, he held on to it briefly, as if loath to let it go, but released it eventually. As soon as he’d been crowned (again) he became all business-like, telling the legate to hurry and stop the French army, while Pandulph was confident that what she had started she could stop. The Bastard reported the latest information to the king, including Arthur’s actual death, and was incensed to hear of yet another compromise, on this occasion with the Church. This time, I was aware of John giving the Bastard authority to run things. I also spotted that the ‘For God and England’ neon sign at the back was flickering and losing some of its letters, another indication that the country was going to rack and ruin.

When Louis met with the English lords, Blanche was present again, but only just. I don’t know what she’d been taking, alcohol or drugs or both, but she looked terrible. Her marriage wasn’t turning out well for her, and I wondered if, like Lady Anne in Richard III, she wouldn’t be long for this world. When Pandulph turned up, she learned that it wasn’t so easy to stop a war as to start one, and with the Bastard making defiant declarations it looked like there might be a battle after all.

King John was with his son, Prince Henry, when he felt ill and had to go to Swinstead Abbey. The next three scenes were trimmed to the essentials only, and played out in a repeating fashion from the balconies. John was down below, watching these events, as if he was being given the news while his fevered mind tried to make sense of it. The Bastard said the lines “Show me the very wound of this ill news: I am no woman. I’ll not swoon at it” (unfortunate, given that she was a woman), the French reported their lost supplies and the changing allegiance of the English, the French count Melun warned the English lords that the Dauphin meant to kill them after the victory was won, and these sections were repeated several times. This phase was brought to a conclusion by the reply to the Bastard, informing us that the king had been poisoned. Then things got even more surreal.

The king sat on one of the benches, clearly unwell. This went on for a bit, then he got up, the music started and he began to do a dance routine, looking like he was fine. He went through the routine a couple of times so we could see what it was meant to look like, then he began to suffer, as did the dancing, and finally he staggered to the steps and collapsed there, reaching towards the bottles of champagne – partying to the end. The Bastard arrived as did Prince Henry, and with a few speeches from the final scene, the king finally died. The Bastard hugged him, wept, and looked more distressed than the young prince, who took up the crown and held it till the end. The Bastard closed the play with the familiar speech, and I found myself pondering that England had indeed been conquered, by William, and not that long before. Still, it was a good ending, and we were much happier at the end of this performance than last time.

Once again, having consulted the text, I’m aware that this was only a version of the play, and a much adulterated version to boot. The production hung together well enough in its own terms, but I wasn’t moved by any of the characters, and while the female Bastard/Hubert seemed to work better this time around, I’m not convinced it’s a helpful interpretation overall. Pippa Nixon’s excellent performance made a difference, and she and Alex Waldmann came on to take some bows together tonight, which seemed appropriate. His performance as John was very good, and I hope the RSC will find more work for him to do in the future (we already know that Pippa is coming back to give us Rosalind and Ophelia). Credit to the rest of the cast as well; they worked well together and that’s vital for a good performance.

We’re not usually concerned to see ‘traditional’ Shakespeare – as if there was such a thing – but I’d certainly prefer see a production of this play which sticks more to the text than they did tonight. The similarities with modern times were reasonably appropriate, and the energy and humour were good fun, but we still felt there was something lacking, that the production wasn’t as meaty as it could have been. I do hope other actresses can find this level of anger and passion in the Constance role though; it really helps the performance to have that character played so strongly. But now that we’ve had the Complete Works and World Shakespeare Festivals, perhaps they’ll return to doing this play less frequently; we’ll see.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Richard III – August 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Tuesday 21st August 2012

This was another strange performance, the first after a three week break while Troilus And Cressida had its run. They had a line run in the afternoon, which would account for their dialogue being crystal clear for the most part (Stanley was the notable exception – his lines were less understandable than before!) but the energy petered out after a good start, leading to a relatively lacklustre performance. There were some distractions tonight; Steve had to leave during Clarence’s dream speech as his cough wouldn’t behave itself and some teenagers on the left side of the stage were very fidgety during the second half, leafing through programs and the like, which didn’t help. But mostly the pace was just a fraction too slow, and I suspect they needed this performance to get back fully into their stride.

Jonjo was accessing more of the dark aspects of the play this time, though not as much as I would have liked. I heard the conversation between Clarence and Richard in full tonight, and understood the political implications much better. I could also see Clarence’s reactions as Richard commented on Mistress Shore; he smiled and almost laughed a few times at Richard’s bitchiness.

On to Act 3 scene 1, and some points I forgot from the previous performance. Buckingham tilted the Cardinal’s hat after accusing him of being “too senseless-obstinate”, and flicked back the corners of his cape. When Buckingham was briefing Catesby for his errand to Hastings, he wheeled forward the throne for Catesby to sit on, which he did, savouring the experience.

The scrivener was also hard to understand this time, while Catesby sat amongst the audience after his initial contributions to the wooing of Richard so that he could respond as part of the crowd. Richard’s parting kiss to the ex-queen Elizabeth was really unpleasant, and she was holding herself very stiffly so as to avoid the contact as much as possible. Richard said “relenting fool” before she’d walked away from him, but kept the rest of that speech till she’d gone.

Anne spat at Richard again during the ghost sequence, and the young Edward briefly stood between Richard and Richmond when they were fighting. I forgot to mention before that when Richmond was strangling Richard at the end, echoing the way Richard tried to strangle the young Duke of York earlier, Richard took off his coronet and hit Richmond with it a few times before finally dying. It was a funny gesture, and appropriate given the way they staged the ghost sequence.

Apart from the greater clarity, that was about it for tonight. It still feels like a good production, and the cast certainly look like they’re all working well together now.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Much Ado About Nothing – August 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Iqbal Khan

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Monday 20th August 2012

There’s been a huge improvement in this production since we saw it last. The timing of the scene changes is quicker, and the whole cast is working very well together. I don’t know if the accents had been modified or whether we were more used to them, but the dialogue was clearer, and although I only noticed a few specific cuts, the running time was down to three hours (from three and a half!). Our angle tonight was different too, so I saw some things I hadn’t noticed before, while losing one or two other things. There’s a truly magic feel to the performance, and with a packed audience responding warmly to the action it was a tremendous evening.

No real changes to report for the pre-show business or the early scenes, although I spotted that Hero deliberately managed to bump into Claudio before she left with the rest of the household. Don John was also present when Don Pedro returned to Benedick and Claudio. He stayed skulking by the front steps; after Benedick left, he received a pointed look from his brother and reluctantly went through the doors at the back, closing them with sarcastic precision. Dogberry and Borachio came on stage to remove the fan which had been working throughout the opening scene, and took it to the back of the stage before finally removing it altogether. Dogberry didn’t have long to tell Antonio what he’d heard before Antonio reported it to Leonato, dismissing Dogberry at the same time.

After Don John’s scene, Beatrice, Hero, Ursula and Margaret came through the audience and onto the stage at the front, singing and wearing the soldier’s jackets. Leonato and Antonio came through the doors to meet them, and after some chat they were dressed up in the scarves, ready for the party. The conversations at the party were easier to see from this angle, although the continuing music made them harder to hear. The prince and Hero appeared on the balcony during the dance, celebrating, while Claudio came across more clearly as immature tonight; his petulance at what he thought the prince had done – wooing Hero for himself instead of Claudio – was a childish reaction, and there was every possibility that he would grow out of such tantrums in time.

We had learned from the director that kissing in front of one’s elders is still frowned upon in India, so when Beatrice told Hero to stop Claudio’s “mouth with a kiss”, Leonato intervened and Hero and Claudio stayed apart. Again Don John’s scene had no changes to report, and then Benedick arrived on stage for the first gulling scene. His delivery of the speech “I do much wonder that one man….” was a bit better than before, but still lacked the detail of previous productions, and only got a laugh at the very end. Balthazar sang as before, and the servant who was bringing Benedick his book was persuaded to join in the dancing. She was much too vigorous, and Claudio backed off when she started hitting him with her scarf. Benedick was up on the roof again tonight, but he was visible (just) and the maid’s antics helped the scene along, as Benedick doesn’t actually have any lines for a fair chunk of it. At the end of the scene, when Benedick was assessing the ‘revelations’ he’d just heard, he kept bending down to put one shoe on, then leaving it to speak another line. He managed to get them both on before Beatrice came to call him in to dinner.

The gulling of Beatrice was done as before, with Hero’s lines still a bit muffled by the speaker on the mobile. Verges spotted Beatrice, who had slid round to sit beside her, after the line “Yet tell her of it: hear what she will say”, and so her “O! do not do your cousin such a wrong” was said with Beatrice right beside her. Beatrice put her finger to her lips to tell Verges to be quiet at “His excellence did earn it, ere he had it”, which explained Verges’ sudden change of subject.

Benedick was brought on to the stage for the next scene by Dogberry, who seemed to be the very barber talked of a short while later. The prince made much of not recognising Benedick, and his appearance was very different. The interval was taken after Don John’s assertion of Hero’s disloyalty, which meant the wedding platform could be set up during the interval, saving a good deal of time.

The second half still started with Beatrice singing “Sigh no more” on the balcony, with Dogberry on guard down below. This was followed by the first part of the watch scene, up to Dogberry’s final exit. Then came the first part of the wedding preparations, up to the conclusion of Margaret’s jest about “the heavier for a husband”. Then Borachio and Conrad had their conversation and were arrested by the watch, after which Beatrice turned up and completed the scene with Hero and Margaret. Dogberry and Verges showed the two pairs of trousers to Leonato as before, and then we had the wedding scene.

I wasn’t aware of any changes to this, but our view of the action was much better. The guests were brought up from the audience as before, and Beatrice and Benedick were startled to find themselves giving garlands to each other. We clapped along to the music as everyone arrived and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The microphone was still being used, and the way it was being passed around, or rather grabbed by various people, was very funny. The Panditji moved over to the corner of the stage at “Stand thee by,” with one of the servants bringing over the stool that proved so awkward last time. I’m not sure if Benedick sat down on it tonight, so the people sitting over that way may have suffered less than we did.

The rest of the scene was as before, just clearer, and the scene between Beatrice and Benedick was just as strong. The examination of Borachio and Conrade was followed by the clearing of the wedding platform and the cloth streamers, which worked better tonight although it was still slow. Leonato and Antonio managed their lines without the servants’ activities being so distracting, and I’m sure they got the stage cleared a line or two earlier this time.

Antonio took off one of his shoes and used it to attack Claudio, in lieu of a proper challenge. Claudio threw the shoe on the ground, and when Antonio bent to pick it up he reacted to a twinge in his back – we older folk knew just how he felt, but we all laughed. Benedick was very stern with both the prince and Claudio, and refused to be drawn into their banter, while Borachio’s confession shocked the pair of them deeply. They cut Claudio’s lines “Rightly reasoned, and in his own division….”, and I noticed this time that Antonio nodded his head slightly when Leonato mentioned his ‘niece’. They also cut Margaret and Benedick’s lines “who I think has legs.” “And therefore will come” which I remember hearing last time. No wonder half an hour has vanished.

To set up the temple scene, the two side blocks of the building slid back and were pushed off to either side; hence the disappearance of the musicians. They stayed in the same place, but the place itself moved back stage. I spotted Hero on the stairs this time, and when it came to finding Beatrice, Benedick was absolutely frantic, running here and there, finally asking which she was. Beatrice then tried to run off, but was prevented by a crowd of people and returned to face it out. The line “Peace! I will stop your mouths” was given back to Leonato, from whom a succession of editors had stolen it, and the shock of this forced kiss startled the pair at first. Then, with most of the others off stage, they decided to have another go, and spent quite some time in a passionate snog. After the messenger had brought the news of Don John’s capture, and Benedick had promised to sort him out tomorrow, the play ended with the servant girl finally handing Benedick the book he’d asked for several acts ago. It was funny, and a good way to end the drama part of the evening, but of course there was the dance to enjoy before we left. And enjoy it we did.

Some final points: I saw that Hero embraced her father before heading off for her marriage, so all was well there too, and in one of the later scenes Claudio referred to Benedick as “Bendy-dick” – Steve reckoned he heard this variation earlier as well. I did have a few sniffles this evening – emotions rather than a cold – but there was definitely more laughter than tears which is as it should be.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Troilus And Cressida – August 2102


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte for The Wooster Group

Directed by Mark Ravenhill for the RSC

Venue: The Swan Theatre, Stratford

Date: Thursday 16th August 2012

This was always going to be a bizarre experience; fortunately, it was also an interesting one. Prompted by Rupert Goold, the RSC and the Wooster Group, an experimental theatre group based in New York, started looking at a co-production of a Shakespeare play, possibly Coriolanus. The Wooster Group took the idea on board and began to work on Troilus And Cressida, and when the RSC commitment became uncertain, they planned to go ahead themselves anyway (a lot of this info came from the post-show). When Rupert couldn’t squeeze every possible project into his tight schedule, the co-production looked finished, but then Mark Ravenhill came to the rescue. Well, all he was doing at the time was sitting in a cottage in Stratford writing a play for the RSC, so of course he had time to spare! (I jest, of course.) Still, out of this strange Frankenstein-like experiment of two groups of actors rehearsing the same play separately has come a weird progeny: like the creature in that story, it has both innocence and darkness, ugliness and beauty in about equal measure. Let’s give it a chance to breathe before we decide whether to kill it or let it live.

The two tribe concept was immediately apparent from the set. A wall of steel panels spanned the back of the stage with a tepee in front of it, surrounded by various objects such as metal drums, old tyres, etc. These were generally painted with bright colours, so it took me a while to realise what they were. This side of the wall represented the Native American location (Troy) and there was often a cooking fire, complete with suspended cooking pot, in the centre of the stage for these scenes. Electronic wizardry was also noticeable on either side at the back, poles with video screens in each corner and extra screens at the back of the stage and at the front of the circle.

When the wall turned round to the other side we were in the Greek camp, where they used a hospital trolley and screens to represent Achilles’ tent, and when the wall was end on to us or at an oblique angle it marked the scenes where both sides met in between, usually the battle scenes. The Native American costumes were a mix of modern and historical (I would guess) and their warriors wore bodies on their backs when fighting. It was as if they’d skinned more than a scalp off the enemies they killed and were using these trophies to show off their prowess in battle. I noticed when Pandarus was introducing the Trojan warriors to Cressida, one of them was a bit weaker looking and had no body on his back, presumably a beginner. The Greek soldiers wore British army fatigues, except when Achilles dressed up in a bright red evening dress, slit to the hip and with a low-slung back – very fetching. Thersites mostly knelt in a wheelchair, suggesting his lower legs had been cut off, and was usually in drag with wig, makeup and Spandex top.

The prologue was ditched altogether, and the play started with Troilus complaining to Pandarus that he’s still waiting to get Cressida’s love, whiny little brat that he is. Mind you, I wouldn’t have known that from the dialogue, as I wasn’t able to tune in to the accents being used for quite some time, and the actors’ delivery was rather monotonous which didn’t help. The American actors were also miked up, so the volume was fine, but they lacked clarity, which wasn’t. The talk between Troilus and Aeneas was likewise hard to follow, and I was beginning to regret coming. I did find some aspects of this staging funny though, especially the ludicrous wigs these non-Native Americans were wearing, and I was keen to see how the two halves would merge, so I stayed put.

Cressida’s arrival improved things slightly. Her initial exchange with Pandarus, spoken more quietly at the front of the stage, started to engage me even though I still wasn’t hearing the full dialogue. To view the returning warriors, she clambered on top of the tepee, with Pandarus standing just beside her. The warriors each came on stage, stood in a large circle at the centre and did a little dance before leaving. After Pandarus left, Cressida gave us her soliloquy quite well at the front of the stage before departing.

Now for the Greeks. Their arrival was pretty rumbustious; they were singing loudly to some heavy rock drumming, and the energy of the performance went up several notches. The dialogue became instantly clearer, and with no microphones we could easily identify the location of each speaker, which was proving much harder with the miked actors. This scene is very wordy, but with Scott Handy playing Ulysses we were in safe hands. He expressed Ulysses’ arguments so well that each phase of his reasoning followed on from the last, and all were necessary – no mean feat. Achilles had been lying on the trolley after their group entrance, but when Ulysses described Achilles’ slothful behaviour, the trolley came forward and Achilles even spoke some of the lines which Ulysses was reporting. I noticed Ulysses had a notebook which he checked to get Achilles’ exact words, which also suggested he had spies everywhere. Patroclus also acted out the impersonations which Achilles asked him to do, so we could clearly see what was going on.

After Aeneas’s arrival and the issuing of the challenge from Hector, all but Ulysses left the stage, with Nestor last of the group. He was called back by Ulysses, who described his plan for getting Achilles to cooperate with the other Greek leaders. His description of Ajax was scathing, but not inaccurate as we learned a few moments later when Ajax turned up and began to knock lumps out of Thersites. Ajax was played by Aidan Kelly, wearing a muscle suit which had ‘Ajax’ tattooed on the right breast in Greek letters, a Nike swoosh on the left breast (cheeky) and ‘I’M AWESOME’ plastered across his back in large letters. That was funny in itself, but his arrogant and stupid behaviour had us laughing often. He left off hitting Thersites after Achilles and Patroclus arrived, but he had already dragged Thersites from his wheelchair and left him on the ground. Achilles put him back in his chair, and then Thersites insulted everyone and left. Not a nice man. Ajax finally found out about the proclamation – that the Greeks would select their champion to meet Hector by lot – and that was the Greeks finished with for a while.

Back in Troy the king and his lords were discussing whether to send Helen back or not. Hector was all for it, Troilus argued against. I heard more of this debate than most of the previous Trojan dialogue, so that helped. Cassandra’s dire prophecy came over on the screens and loudspeakers rather than in person, although I did spot a woman peering out of the tepee towards the end of that speech; it may have been her, or maybe not. I suspect some dialogue was cut, as I don’t remember it taking too long to get through this scene, and then we were back with the Greeks.

Thersites’ explanation as to why he, Achilles, Patroclus and Agamemnon were all fools came across very clearly, and although I wasn’t sure at first about Zubin Varla’s portrayal, I quickly came to like his Thersites very much. The dialogue was clear, it commented on and explained the action very well, and his characterisation of Thersites as a Mancunian drag queen didn’t jar with this production. He often used a hand held microphone to deliver his lines, which worked very well in this version of the play. (And I learned from Zubin Varla after the post-show that he saw Thersites’ comments on the action as effectively being stand-up.)

When Agamemnon arrived, Achilles withdrew to his tent; the screen was partially drawn across but we could still see what was going on from our angle. Thersites stayed with Achilles, but Patroclus acted as door keeper and repelled all would-be boarders. Ulysses was pushed into the tent, and had a bedpan emptied over his head while he was there. Meanwhile Ajax was becoming even more vain and boastful, and the other Greek generals puffed him up as well, showing by their expressions to us what they really thought of him. When Agamemnon suggested that Ajax visit Achilles, Ulysses, while still drying himself off, cleverly prevented this by suggesting that Ajax was too important to run errands to Achilles, puffing him up even more.

In Troy, Pandarus had his witty exchange with a servant, and this time the humour came across much better. Scott Handy was doubling Ulysses and Helen in this production – given his lovely falsetto voice that was no surprise – and I liked the way this brought out the forced change of culture that both Helen and Cressida undergo. This Helen certainly looked like a fish out of water. Her clothes were a mixture of Greek and Trojan, she seemed disoriented and not at all happy to be amongst these people, but when the dancing started up she did join in a bit as if this was one of the few things she had found to enjoy in her new home. It was a sad performance (in a good way) and easily overshadowed the mushy presentation of this scene by the other actors. I only heard Helen say a few lines so the scene must have been severely cut, but apart from Scott’s performance it could have been dropped entirely for all the benefit I got from it.

The next scene showed us the first coming together of the eponymous lovers, and it worked reasonably well. With Pandarus sitting on his stool at the back making salacious comments, Troilus and Cressida spent most of the scene avoiding each other until the final moments of contact. We learned a few things about the Wooster Group’s techniques during the post-show, and this scene was a good example of how these manifested in performance. The actors spent a lot of time watching the screens to see the images, which were usually either from films that have influenced their creative thinking for the production or video filmed as part of their research into Northern Mid-West Native American tribes. On top of this they all had ear pieces as well as mikes, and during their scenes they had spirit voices which would talk in their ears, giving them messages to incorporate or ignore, or occasionally falling silent. That they managed to give any sort of coherent performance with all this going on is commendable, but how did it affect the audience perception?

For most of the scene Troilus and Cressida avoided physical contact. They sat on the stage together, stood and looked at the screens, did little dances or ran round in a circle. Their dialogue was connected, but they weren’t. When the moment of physical contact came with a touching of outstretched hands, the technology enhanced the moment with flashes from the screens and a loud noise to suggest an explosion or electrical discharge. The two lovers collapsed backward when this happened, an apt metaphor, but recovered to finish the scene with the prophetic vows.

I found this disconnection between the lovers less engaging, and it didn’t add anything to my understanding of the play. Pandarus was more engaged with both of them and as a result he came across much better as a character as well as his dialogue being more intelligible. The images being shown on the screens also didn’t add anything for me; there was usually so much happening on the stage that I rarely looked at them, although with this scene being a bit slower I did spot that there were stills from various movies being shown, images of lovers kissing for example. We didn’t know about the spirit voices at this time but I was certainly aware that the characters didn’t seem fully present, which was a bit insulting in a way as we were fully present, and had paid good money for the privilege! Despite this, I was again impressed by the way that Shakespeare’s text, given the tiniest opportunity, will reach out and hook the listener, keeping them interested and involved. So when they took the interval after this scene, the usual place, I was happy to stay for the second half to see how the experiment ended.

No so everyone. There were large gaps amongst us when the second half started with the Greeks hearing Calchas’s plea to exchange Antenor for Cressida, his daughter. As Danny Webb was doubling Agamemnon and Diomedes, he indicated the change of character by throwing a different hat onto the ground; when he picked it up and put it on, he was Diomedes, and spoke with an Australian accent to help us distinguish between them. He made good comic use of this technique, especially when Diomedes and Agamemnon were in the same scene, swapping hats briskly to change character.

For the tricking of Achilles, the Greek lords started over on the left side of the stage, with Ulysses lurking on the left walkway until the appropriate time. Achilles and Patroclus were centre stage, and I think Patroclus was wearing high heels by now – I don’t remember seeing them before this. The lords walked past the pair with attitudes of disdain, upsetting Achilles very much. After Achilles had registered his concern at being ignored, Ulysses made his entrance reading a book and again his subtle use of argument pushed Achilles in the very direction Ulysses wanted him to go. Mind you, it’s a dangerous thing to get Achilles worked up emotionally; he grabbed Ulysses at one point towards the end of their encounter and threw him across the stage; he had to be restrained by Patroclus. Ulysses managed to escape unharmed, however, and Patroclus was finally able to give Achilles much the same warning about his reputation, information which Achilles had been unwilling to listen to before. With Thersites’ arrival, we learned of Ajax’s preposterous behaviour which Thersites imitated for their benefit. He pulled his blond wig over his face and made nonsense answers to Patroclus and although I didn’t catch all of it, the lampooning was good fun.

In the next scene Diomedes arrived in Troy to take Cressida back to the Greek camp. Diomedes’ evaluation of Paris, Menelaus and Helen was clear, and then we returned to Troilus and Cressida after their night together.  Troilus came out of the tepee first, carrying his boots and clothes, and as I recall it was a little while before Cressida joined him – I don’t remember what he did in the meantime. She was wrapped in a blanket when she did appear, and with bare feet. They were closer physically this time. Aeneas warned Troilus that Cressida was about to be taken away, then Cressida herself heard the bad news from Pandarus and she and Troilus said their farewells and exchanged tokens. She wore a long yellow glove while he had some cloth on his arm, and holding hands they transferred first the cloth and then the glove across from one to the other. It was a nice touch, but otherwise I found the scene a bit dreary. The singsong intonation they were using had outstayed its welcome and I was feeling less charitable towards these Trojan-only scenes as a result.

Cressida was handed over to Diomedes, and this time I think Diomedes was directly involved in the conversation. When Cressida was brought back to the Greek camp, however, the Greeks clustered round the trolley, which was now in the centre of the stage with a dress placed on it, and ignored Cressida’s physical location. They addressed themselves to a Cressida of the imagination who was sitting on the trolley, and kissed thin air. Meanwhile Cressida took off her blanket and other garments before putting on the dress provided; after this, she became visible to the Greeks and started interacting with them directly. It was a strange way to do it, but it did show her assimilation into the Greek camp, and may have been an easier staging given the separate rehearsals. I didn’t feel I understood the attitudes of the Greek generals as well as I have done with more straightforward stagings, though, and Cressida was still a blank.

The meeting between the Greeks and Trojans was enlivened by Achilles’ appearance in his red party dress and lots more railing from Thersites. The scene between Diomedes and Cressida, overheard by Troilus and Ulysses, wasn’t helped by Cressida’s relatively deadpan delivery; again the Greeks were making much more of their lines and the emotional undercurrents of this play. I did feel that Troilus’s grief and anger at her betrayal was justified this time; sometimes he comes across as a whining brat, or I find myself wondering if he would actually have been as true as he’d sworn to be if they’d stayed together, but tonight his reaction seemed appropriate.

Andromache’s attempt to dissuade Hector from fighting was on the dull side, and then we were into the final battles. Achilles struck the first blow against the unarmed Hector, and instructed his Myrmidons to finish him off; they wore white coveralls with masks, like fencing masks. Diomedes and a Trojan – no idea who, sorry – had a fight at one point. Diomedes carried a cricket bat and the Trojan had a lacrosse stick, which was an entertaining way of representing the two cultures having the battle. (The cricket bat was always going to win, of course.) When Thersites was saying his last lines (the “bastard” speech) he stepped out of the wheelchair and stood behind it, taking off his clothes. At the same time, the wall swung round and one of the Trojans was standing on a ladder behind the tepee, also stark naked, apart from the black wig. When Thersites finished, he ran off with the wheelchair, and the wall had swung round again so the Trojan was out of view. No, I don’t have a clue either.

The final lines from Troilus and Pandarus didn’t make much of an impression on me, but I’d enjoyed enough of the performance that I didn’t feel I’d wasted the evening. The post-show was interesting, and we learned more about the Wooster Group’s processes, some of which I’ve included above. Their choice of a Native American setting for the Trojans was partly to enhance the idea of a different culture; they wanted to get away from a generically bland choice that wouldn’t contrast so well with the British half of the production. The singsong style of speech had helped them access the meaning of the dialogue (didn’t do the same for me, sadly) and although they’re not trained vocally to project in such a large space – hence the mikes – they did have a day’s training from an American expert in Shakespearean dialogue, and were rigorous in applying his lessons by obeying line endings, etc.

The videos we could see were not usually visible to the audience, so a thrust stage was obviously a new experience for them. Given this new situation, they were exploring possible changes, such as showing film of the actual cast on screen. The British scenes didn’t have pictures, of course, but they did show the oscilloscope display at times. They had five weeks to rehearse together, and I felt the British cast were supportive of their American colleagues. I commented on the humour I’d found in their performance, and Mark Ravenhill observed that Troilus And Cressida had originally been published as a ‘comedy’! (Though whether that was just to boost sales….) The production is still developing and changing all the time as they learn what works and what doesn’t. There were a number of appreciative comments which were well deserved, and although I wouldn’t endorse this style of experimental theatre, I did leave with respect for the American actors and their efforts. I wasn’t so impressed with their director, who seemed to have that arrogant attitude which implies that if the audience doesn’t get on with the performance it’s their fault, not the director’s. I may have picked that up wrong, but that’s how I saw it.

For me, the biggest drawback with their experimental style is that is goes against the raison d’être of theatre, which is to engage with the audience (and preferably with the other actors). Most of the technologically ‘innovative’ productions I’ve experienced tend to have this problem; the actors are so involved with the technology that they don’t actually relate to the audience at all, or not as much as they could. Technology is great in many ways, and has been used very successfully in a supplemental role, but it can’t drive productions as much as some people seem to think.

Another drawback was the choice of a Native American or Inuit setting for Troy. This led to the singsong delivery (already commented on) and a strange clash between the attention to detail, such as the occasional chanting and documentary-style videos, and the ludicrous costumes they wore which made them look like children dressing-up. I found a lot of humour in this approach, but I suspect it wasn’t intentional. For example, I made a connection between the Wooster Group name (from Wooster Street, apparently) and Bertie Wooster, seeing their style of production as the sort of ‘avant-garde’ rubbish Bertie would latch onto and which Jeeves would frown upon, only to be proved right in the end. It’s not a flattering comparison, but it did spring easily into my mind.

Additionally, my respect for the Native American culture, born out of ignorance I readily admit, meant that I found Pandarus’s speech at the end didn’t really work. He’d been a busybody, true, and eager to get Cressida into bed with Troilus, but he didn’t seem as lecherous as his final speech indicates. The Trojans came across as noble and decent, unlike the war-like Greeks (again, probably just my cultural conditioning).

The disparate styles didn’t bother me so much as the inappropriateness of the Americans’ style for this acting space, and I would happily see this experiment repeated, either with more compatible styles or perhaps using another language for one of the cultures – what chance German ‘Greeks’ attacking British ‘Troy’? The stand out performance had to be Scott Handy’s Ulysses/Helen, and it was worth the other stuff to have seen that alone, though the other Brits did splendid work as well.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It ) – August 2012


By Dmitry Krymov, loosely based on some elements of Shakespeare’s play

Directed by Dmitry Krymov

Company: Chekov International Theatre Festival/Dmitry Krymov’s Laboratory/School of Dramatic Art Theatre

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 15th August 2012

For lovers of this director’s work, this was a joy, but it certainly won’t persuade me to sample the rest of his repertoire. The performers were all brilliant at what they do, and there were some fun moments during the hour and forty minutes it took to get through (plus a cute little dog running around on stage), but the rest just dragged, and I was surprisingly unmoved by the deaths of the two lovers at the end. For once, I didn’t even have the heart to pretend to applaud, apart from the ballet dancers. Fortunately the regular fans more than made up for my lack of enthusiasm, and gave them a standing ovation.

Despite the title, this was not A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the director found he could only relate to the mechanicals in this play, so all we got was their presentation of Pyramus and Thisbe. Nothing else – no Duke, no lovers, no fairies. Before the start, the stage had wooden flooring covered with a large plastic sheet. The backs of the chairs near the stage had cloth covers too, and Steve soon realised that water was likely to be involved.

We sat by the right hand walkway, only this time it had been removed and stairs put in (similar on the other side). Along the length of these stairs lay a huge tree trunk, with the base resting on one of the steps up to the stage. Several of the mechanicals were guarding it and chatting to members of the audience as well. Above the central aisle hung a huge chandelier, swathed in white cloth and hanging quite low. At the back of the thrust on both sides were two makeshift boxes, and I assumed these would be for the onstage audience. They had assorted chairs, and were marked off with planks of wood resting on piles of bricks or whatever else was around. The areas of the circle above them were also sectioned off, and I could see colourful throws spread on the backs of the seats. At the very back was a sheet, but it didn’t come into use till later, and apart from that I think the stage was bare.

With the house lights still up – they were regularly on for the audience participation sections – the action began. The mechanicals started talking loudly amongst themselves, and lifting up the tree trunk they carried it onto the stage. Others came along with branches, and because the items were so big, they filled the stage and even brushed the audience as the mechanicals swung them around trying to sort them out. There was also a small dog, a terrier, which ran down the tree trunk and around the stage, getting to know the audience.

The tree and its branches disappeared off the back, and then a fountain was brought on down the same aisle, with water pouring out of it intermittently on either side. We didn’t get splashed much in the end, and the performers were quick to get the buckets under the flow (and towels were handed out immediately afterwards). The fountain was also taken off at the back, and neither tree nor fountain was seen again, although the sheet at the back had some smudgy markings that may have been intended to represent leaves. The dog stayed behind, and positioned itself centre back, while a screen came down on which was projected a long-winded description of the mechanicals argument. Apparently they had been discussing Shakespearean verse styles, and there appeared to be lots of in-jokes about the director’s wife; the fans were laughing, but apart from some lines I didn’t find it particularly funny. The dog sat up a few times during this, and again the fans thought this was hilarious. I noticed the dog had something attached to its collar – possibly to give it instructions remotely?

I’m not sure of the exact order of events – always a problem with non-textual business – but fairly soon the mechanicals came on stage half-dressed and proceeded to put on their evening clothes. They were in a tight group in the centre of the stage, and when they were done they formed up in rows and waited. At one point a woman tried to push her way to the front, but couldn’t get through. Then the on-stage audience arrived. There were lots of them, including two young girls, and they took a long, long time to get on stage, look around, and then take their seats. There was some fun as a stroppy older woman character, who was carrying a bunch of flowers, used it to brush wood shavings off the plank at the front of their box; this was when I realised there were wood shavings on all their chairs, indicating the rough and ready nature of the mechanicals’ performance. The way that woman cleared the chairs was good fun, even if it went on far too long. Then there was the inevitable wrecking of the boxes themselves, with people falling into the stalls and planks of wood landing on the stage. It was all very predictable and took many minutes to sort out, and it was probably at this point that I first considered leaving before I wasted too much of my precious time.

After they were seated, the on-stage audience were all given champagne to drink (yawn), and then there were several minutes of ringing phones to sort out. Later in the performance, one chap took a call on his mobile and we saw the dialogue come up on the surtitles. He told someone he was in Stratford (funny) and was paying a fortune for international roaming! (even funnier) He had several goes at switching his phone off before the ‘action’ continued.

Back at the start, the on-stage audience were seated, refreshed, and phone-free, so they waited for the performance to begin, as did we. And we waited. And we waited. I found myself thinking that Communism had given the Russian people great patience – all that queuing for bread, perhaps. Then the performer front right whispered something to the chap next to him, and it was passed back, one to another. When the surtitles started up, we learned that the chap who plays the lion was being told not to pare his nails (he didn’t, he informed us).

One of the performers came to the front and turned to face the group on the stage. He delivered an approximation of Peter Quince’s wonderful prologue, conveying the sense of awkwardness and confusion beautifully. He wanted the audience on stage to know that their performance wasn’t ready yet, but as they hadn’t seen it before they wouldn’t know that. They weren’t intending to give the audience any enjoyment, though if they did enjoy it that was fine. They just wanted to give a good performance. They pushed some of these surtitles through so fast that I could only just catch the sense of the last one; something about enjoying the fact that we realised the performance wasn’t ready. Whatever the punch line, the rest of the speech was funny, and for once the time they took was worth it. I even started to enjoy myself. But it wasn’t to last.

After the speech and whispering (they may have happened the other way round) one of the actors fell flat on his face, passing out from all that waiting. The others picked him up, and he ran back as if to go off stage to deal with his bloody nose, but then he stopped and came back to the front to explain what they were doing. They had obtained a copy of a very ancient text from a friend who was working for the RSC, or possibly from the KGB vaults, and had learned that Pyramus and Thisbe were real people and that theirs was the first true love story. Forget Adam and Eve – who else could they fall in love with? – this was the real thing, and all other lovers’ stories sprang from them. The list was long, and there were several laughs along the way. But each love story has a THING, the THING that caused Eve to eat the apple, etc. The THING in Pyramus and Thisbe’s case was a LION. They had decided to strip the Pyramus and Thisbe story down to the essentials and were going to present that to us.

I think the group broke up after this bit, and then two large black bags were carried onto the stage and placed on either side. The one on the left turned out to be Pyramus’s puppet, while Thisbe’s was on the right. They spent a lot of time setting up Pyramus; the puppet was at least ten feet tall, with the performers just able to walk under his legs. He had two large hands, one of which could actually grasp things, and the face stuck to his head looked like an icon’s face, a young one at that, and quite good looking. They played with the idea that the puppet was difficult to control, having it fall over a couple of times by the boxes, and then brought it over to the front of the stage where it teetered on the brink for a few moments. As it was just by us, I spotted the puppet’s reaction to not falling on top of the audience – he wiped his hand across his brow and then flicked it to one side. I found it amusing, but I suspect the gloomy lighting hid it from the fans in the audience as there was no response from them. Mind you, there was plenty going on with all the mechanicals rushing around, the dog scampering here and there, and occasional interruptions from the on-stage audience, particularly the outspoken older lady who’d been cleaning the seats with her flowers. When they did interrupt, the performers stopped what they were doing and waited patiently for them to finish.

Once they had Pyramus up and walking, he went over to the circle on the left side and held out his hand to the people there. The woman who was with the children up there was frightened, and swatted at his hand with her bunch of flowers to make him go away. The older girl realised what was wanted, took the flowers and gave the bunch to the puppet, who grasped them in his hand. Then the stroppy one on the other side took a rose out of her bouquet and demanded that Pyramus pick that up as well. This was when the balancing acts came to the fore. The Shustov brothers, highly regarded acrobats in Russia (and I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment) did a couple of routines to hand Pyramus extra flowers to put in his bouquet. To give him the rose, they first had to get one of them on the other’s shoulders, and this took a few goes, as the upper one kept falling over the lower one and landing on the stage. Once they were balanced, someone handed the top guy the rose (flicked up from another acrobat’s foot?) and he held it out as Pyramus came over and took it in his right hand, then moved it over and slotted it into the bouquet he was holding in his left hand. It was impressive work for a puppet. To cap all this, the brothers then went into reverse, as it were, and handed Pyramus another colourful bunch of flowers with one balanced on the other’s head, and the flowers held in his outstretched foot. It was impressive, I’m sure, but as my view was blocked almost entirely for this bit I had to guess at what was going on from the audience’s reactions. They did take a break during this section – don’t remember if it was another audience interruption or not – and I could see the top brother walk his way down the wall and rest there, at right angles to the lower brother, while whatever else was going on was completed. Pyramus added these flowers to the bouquet with equal dexterity, and to much applause.

There was another balancing act as well, but neither of us can remember what was given to Pyramus by this means. This time it was Boris Opletaev (as far as I can tell from the pictures in the program) who stacked several cylinders, with short wide ones being placed rim down and longer narrow ones placed across them on their side and oriented in different directions. When he placed a board on top of these, we could see that the stack rolled every which way, and yet he stepped up onto it, steadying himself with a hand on a nearby shoulder, and stood there, rocking relatively gently, to do whatever this bit required. It was an impressive performance – they all were – and a momentary relief from the monotony.

With Pyramus good to go, we only needed Thisbe, so her bag was unpacked too. The woman who had been hanging around at the start turned out to be Thisbe’s voice; she and one of the men sang beautifully to convey the characters’ feelings, sometimes just ‘ah’ sounds, sometimes songs in German. Thisbe herself was as tall as Pyramus, and made out of odds and ends as he was. She had a white skirt, two breasts, and a doll’s head, large size, and her mouth worked when she was talking. We didn’t get any surtitles for the songs, but her “Nein” in response to Pyramus’s declaration of love was pretty straightforward. She said ‘no’ a few times, and Pyramus had to flaunt his shapely leg before she would sit down with him and chat.

Once seated towards the back of the stage, the wooing could proceed in earnest. First the food. Pyramus obviously likes his women well fed, so he gave her a peach, then a pair of cherries, then a pineapple, still with its spiky top. It was impressive enough the way he held out his hand, grasped the fruit which was put into it, then transferred it round to Thisbe’s mouth. She was a girl with a good appetite, too; her head had been changed during the move to the back of the stage, and now she had a head which flipped back at mouth level so she could swallow large fruits whole, which was very funny. She did stop Pyramus when it came to the pineapple though; instead, she took the fruit herself and put it in her own mouth, leaving a bit of the top sticking out, also funny.

For entertainment, the dog act came forward, and the lovely little chap (I’m talking about the dog) did some fun tricks, including a back flip. With the foreplay done, Pyramus needed some help to get ready for the next stage. Accompanied by many sound effects, his metal crotch panel was unscrewed and a large penis thrust through the gap. It was lying on the floor, and a pump had been brought on to get it upright, when the on-stage audience started to protest about the appropriateness of such things when there were children present. To be fair, it was mainly the old lady, but even so they had to interrupt the coitus, and a deflated Pyramus left the stage through the back curtain.

With Thisbe left alone, the lion made his appearance. Another black bag had been brought on and left near the front. Not as big as the others, it was still large enough to have a person inside it, so I wasn’t surprised when the lion leapt out. Don’t know who played him, but it was a lovely costume, with claws on the knees as well as the hands, a shaggy mane and a long tail. One chap held the tail and used it to drag the lion back when needed – I assume it would be too difficult to move backwards in that costume – and two other men attached bat wings to the lion’s back and held them open, flapping them to suggest a devil-lion. As they stood in front of me throughout this scene I had to rely on my knowledge of the story to guess what was happening. After each lunge of the lion towards Thisbe, I did see one chap come forward and place strips of white cloth and red ribbon around the centre of the stage, obviously representing the bloody cloth that Pyramus will find later. At some point, possibly before the lion left the stage, the stroppy old woman interrupted the action to tell a long-winded story about a lion that had destroyed a town, some of which was quite funny.

After several lunges at Thisbe, the lion left the stage. Thisbe was in a terrible state. She was so terrified that she peed in a basin for a very long time. Then she too left the stage, and they used a lovely piece of staging to create the moonshine. A rope of some reflective or glowing material was laid out in a wavy pattern on the stage further back from most of the bloody strips of cloth. Behind the sheet, a wobbly moon rose, and as it did so, the rope lit up, shining in the moonlight. It was a beautiful effect.

Pyramus returned to discover the bloody strips of cloth by this light, and he went to pieces at this point, literally. His arms came off and danced around towards the front of the stage, while his head came off and turned around towards the back. When it turned back again, his face had aged – a good trick – and as this happened twice he ended up with what looked like a bearded Christ face. He stabbed himself through the stomach and fell forward, dead or dying.

Thisbe returned accompanied by four swans carried by four of the performers. The swans had red beaks which looked suspiciously like dildos to me, and the rest of the swan was made of a sheet wrapped round and round for the neck and bundled together for the body. While the woman on stage had normally sung for Thisbe, I think it was the woman in the circle who now sang, and she had a lovely contralto voice, deep and rich. Thisbe saw Pyramus, and after a short lamentation she also fell on top of him, with the swans grouped round them, bobbing their heads. Pyramus raised his head briefly when Thisbe arrived, but it sank back down again quickly, and finally the show was over. Or was it? There was no way of telling with this production.

The on-stage audience were offered the option of an epilogue or a dance, and the old lady was very emphatic that they do the dance. Being Russian, this naturally meant ballet, and four dancers in tutus came to the front of the stage. As the music for the Dance of the Cygnets started up, they formed a line – with difficulty, as one of the four was preening herself in front of the audience too much – and did a set or two of the dance in step with each other. After that, things went from bad to worse, with heads going in different directions, bobbing up instead of down, and some cygnets forgetting which direction they were dancing in. It was a lovely interpretation of Shakespeare’s scene: with the Russian fondness for ballet this would instantly have illustrated the mechanicals’ ineptness, and it reminded me of the Nine Worthies scene at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The on-stage audience gradually left during this dance (lucky people), and when they’d finally gone the dancers stopped, very relieved and gasping for breath. Most of the cast were towards the back of the stage, with the dancers breathing heavily near the front, when the stroppy old lady came back to have a word with the man who was sweeping the stage. He’d been getting in the dancers’ way, wanting to sweep the bit of stage they were dancing on, but now he stopped and talked with the woman. She had recognised him – he’d played Shakespeare – and although the surtitles didn’t give us much of their conversation, I gathered that she was arranging to see him sometime soon. It was a little romance to end the evening with, after this tale of thwarted love. The music started up again, the dancers tried to carry on, but they were completely out of sync this time and the whole show ground to a halt.

The man with the bloody nose came to the front to tell us that although there was no need, he’d summed up the story for us. He handed a piece of paper to the main singer, who stood centre front and started scat singing – quite funny. The woman also came forward and tore off the bottom half of the paper, then joined in with a different set of scat noises. Others also joined in, some taking smaller and smaller bits of paper, until there was a cacophony of music. I don’t remember how they ended this bit, but eventually the cast disappeared off the back of the stage, though the bloody nose chap came back on to remove something which he’d used near the start to keep some raised flaps in place. As they fell back, he left the stage and the applause suggested we were finally at the end of the performance. The whole cast came back on to take their bows, the director presumably appearing as well although I couldn’t see him; some in the audience stood, there was lots of cheering, and I left after the first set of bows, glad to be getting out into the fresh air.

While this description of the staging may sound interesting, I’ve left out a lot of the boring bits, mainly because nothing happened during them. The Russian ability to pause is beyond belief, and the length of time they spent on some sections of the business left me cold. The physical business was usually telegraphed well in advance, and while I enjoyed some bits, and laughed quite a few times, there wasn’t enough of that for me. I like puppetry very much and I was becoming very fond of these two giant people, but the pauses for other business, including the woman’s lion story, drained any enthusiasm I’d developed for the performance, and I was very glad when it ended. I haven’t looked at my watch so often at the theatre for a very long time, and I hope I never feel the need to do so again. Brilliant as the performers clearly are, this just didn’t work for me, but thankfully most of tonight’s audience enjoyed it more than I did.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Long Day’s Journey Into Night – August 2012

Experience: 9/10

By Eugene O’Neill

Directed by Anthony Page

Venue: Apollo Theatre

Date: Monday 13th August 2012

This was a fantastic production, with two stunning performances in the central roles of husband and wife by David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf. David Suchet showed the full range of the father’s behaviour, from the charming actor through to the mean drunk who could rage at anyone with or without justification. Laurie Metcalf took the mother from the opening high of sweetness with just a hint of nerves all the way down to the depths of her addiction to morphine. I don’t know how Eugene O’Neill managed it, but despite this being nearly three hours spent watching other people’s suffering, anger, miserliness and stupidity, I not only enjoyed myself but left feeling uplifted.

Although neither of the young men playing the sons had the power of the two leads, they were good enough to keep the play in balance, as was Rosie Sansom who played the maid Cathleen. James junior (Trevor White) didn’t manage the rapid switches in the emotional journey of a drunk as well as I would have liked in the final act, but his performance was strong enough overall. Tom Railton did very well as the understudy for Edmund. His youthfulness was just right for the character, and I didn’t notice any significant slips or any imbalance in his scenes with the other characters. I don’t know when he took the part on – we heard some extra rehearsing before the doors were opened – but he fitted in just fine.

There were lots of laughs, more than I expected. The first time we saw this I think it was Timothy West and Prunella Scales as the husband and wife, and I remember it as a very heavy production with the emphasis on suffering. Another production with Charles Dance and Jessica Lange didn’t go as deeply into the characters, but this current version was very detailed, bringing out a lot of humour as well as taking us to a very dark place. Talk about dysfunctional families! We laughed when David Suchet glanced up towards the ceiling lights which he’d switched on in a fit of drunken abandon; as he sobered up, his character’s ingrained stinginess came out, and we recognised the signs even before he spoke, though his line about switching them off caused an even bigger laugh.

Laurie Metcalf’s final disintegration into a doped-up emotional wreck was difficult to watch. She lay half on the floor, curled up around the leg of the sofa, unable to relate to the other characters at all, lost in a nightmarish past. The play closed with the three men sinking into the chairs round the table and preparing for a night of drinking themselves into a similar oblivion. After the morning’s bright possibility of recovery had been snatched away, they were resigned to having lost her again. It should have been depressing, but it wasn’t. Magnificent.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me