The Tempest – September 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 27th September 2012

I had such an unusual experience tonight that I can’t rate this performance properly. I left the auditorium shortly after the second half started – apologies to anyone I disturbed on the way out – and was let back in round the other side after a few minutes by the very helpful ushers they have at the RSC. As it turned out, my view was probably better than Steve’s for that half as a result, with a string of characters standing in front of him for long periods. We’ve heard from various actors at the RSC that they’ve been told not to stand still for more than thirty seconds: they may have been told, but from our experience they’re not actually doing it as often as they should. After I came back in, I was sitting right round the side on the left of the auditorium, and my only problems were the overhang and a pillar which between them blocked a good deal of the action. However the audience around me were a good deal quieter than the couple behind our original seats, and since that’s why I walked out I was considerably happier, even before I found out about the blocking Steve had suffered after my departure.

So with all this going on it wouldn’t be fair to rate this evening’s efforts; I wouldn’t want to pin a low experience rating on what was a decent enough set of performances. I would be happy to pin a very low rating on the set and production though, and I’ll explain as I go along. We did see this play back in May, but I nodded off a fair bit then and so didn’t do proper notes; this will be the main record for this production and I’ll include the points I have noted down from the previous performance.

The set was basically the same as for the other two plays, but not as cluttered. There were rocks strewn about the place and some gaps in the flooring. Some of the lumps on the stage were shaped like bits of a statue; I surmised these could be bits of a ship’s masthead which were mouldering on the island after Prospero and Miranda were wrecked there. There was a small table and chair on the right of the stage with a black object on the table; I thought at first it was a telephone but it turned out to be a radio receiver. At the back on the right was a large Perspex box with a door, which served as Prospero’s cell and was used for various effects; the box could be clear or obscured by different lighting and some smoke effects.

Prospero wore a suit for most of the play, and it had obviously seen better days. There was a sandy stain running down the right side of the jacket and a few rips and tears. Miranda wore a dress last time, but tonight she had a white vest and shorts made out of a pair of her father’s trousers. This made more sense, as Gonzalo might have smuggled clothes for a child on board the ship, but would he have provided an entire wardrobe for a growing girl? The boat wasn’t that big after all. Still, she magicked up a fetching green frock for the final scenes (runs in the family) while Ferdinand was back in his immaculate naval uniform with its white jacket and coloured sash. The rest of the Italians wore appropriate modern dress for their status, with a female Sebastian in a deep pink figure-hugging dress and matching shoes, most of the courtiers wearing suits, and Stephano and Trinculo in appropriate uniforms for their jobs as butler and cook.

Ariel’s costume was interesting. He wore a suit which matched Prospero’s exactly, from the stain to the rips, and I had the impression that he was an airy spirit who had chosen to embody in the same form as Prospero, his master. When Prospero changed clothes at the end, coming out of his cell in a smart navy suit (the colour, not the armed service) Ariel reacted with fascination. It was as if he hadn’t realised that the clothes Prospero wore weren’t part of him (cf. the Doctor Who episode “The Doctor Dances”). I was seeing this from behind, mind you, so my interpretation may be wonky on this point. Ariel went over to Prospero and touched the jacket, feeling the cloth (we think – Steve’s view was blocked as well) and then buttoned the jacket up. Prospero was quite moved by this reaction from his fairy servant. There were other spirits, but I wasn’t sure if they were actually other spirits or simply other manifestations of Ariel; given his power that wouldn’t be surprising, and the way they all left at the end strongly suggested that was the intention – I’ll describe that bit later.

The play began with Miranda sitting at the table doing her homework using a chalk and slate. The radio began to crackle, then came a ‘mayday’ call, and then the storm scene was played out in the Perspex box, with the dialogue being played over speakers to indicate that Miranda was hearing all this on the radio. This certainly explained how she knew about the storm and the supposed fate of those on the ship, but it didn’t make for the greatest clarity in the dialogue. Nick Day was good, as usual, and the boatswain occasionally came to the front of the box and bellowed so we could hear some of his lines, but the rest was lost. I found myself tuning it out and losing interest during this bit, though as I know what’s supposed to be happening it didn’t matter too much.

Prospero’s narration of the back story was next up, and while Jonathan Slinger’s delivery was clear, it was also very slow and deliberate. He chose to deliver many of these lines in short bursts, leaving pauses that were sometimes ridiculously long, and the lack of flow meant that I felt my energy drop considerably – now I know why I nodded off so much last time. Peaceful oblivion was denied me tonight; there were times when I would have liked nothing better than to spend time with Morpheus, but it was not to be. At least these notes will cover more of the staging as a result, so all’s well that ends well. (Now where have I heard that before?)

From last time I remember that Miranda’s reactions to her father’s story were excellent – I assume the same was true tonight – and even if it took too long we were pretty clear about who had done what to whom. We also had some insight into the father and daughter relationship, with Prospero even checking Miranda’s work on the slate during the scene. When Ariel had his mini-rebellion, Prospero went into his cell, and I wasn’t sure if he heard Ariel’s complaints or whether Ariel was simply talking out loud to himself, which in its own way was a moving sight. As part of his lecture, Prospero had Ariel sit at the table like a naughty schoolboy to teach him his lesson yet again. Sandy Grierson played Ariel, and I thought it was the best performance of the evening. He moved in a slightly unnatural way, with angular movements which suggested he was imitating human behaviour as best he could. He also sang beautifully – the best vocal musical performance of the season – and that’s an important attribute for any Ariel.

With Ariel brought back into line, Prospero woke Miranda (has she ever fallen asleep for real, I wonder?) and she was standing on the stage when Ariel brought Ferdinand on, still caught up in a spell. Ferdinand didn’t see the others at first, but when he did he was naturally attracted to Miranda, and so Prospero’s plan began to unfold. Ariel was sitting on a rock slightly behind Ferdinand when he drew his sword, so Ariel grabbed it and we had a laugh at the way Ferdinand was struggling to get his sword back.

When the King of Naples and his attendants arrived, Sebastian and Antonio stood at the front corners to pass their comments on the others; while I could hear and see them perfectly well, the action they were commenting on was a little obscured, and again my knowledge of the play came to the rescue. Even so, I was getting a little tired of the dullness of the set, and the lighting was so flat and stark that I was beginning to wish for slumber. Ariel came on using an instrument that looked like a metal xylophone with the bars arranged out of order. He played one of the bars with a violin bow, making a haunting, eerie sound which caused all but Sebastian and Antonio to fall asleep. Antonio’s seduction of Sebastian was OK, but I did find myself wondering, given that Sebastian was a woman, whether she could automatically assume that she would succeed to the kingdom. Perhaps I’m being too picky, but despite Elizabeth’s reign it was still a tough task for a woman to gain and then hold a crown in those days. Of course nowadays it’s fine, and since this was a modern dress production perhaps we were meant to ignore these points.

One aspect of this production which I did like was the performance of Amer Hlehel as Caliban. He wore a very tattered version of Prospero’s suit, as if he’d been given a decent one years ago but his menial workload had reduced it to rags. He also stood upright, didn’t look deformed or ugly, and spoke well, with the occasional glimpse of dignity. Fair enough, he’d wanted to rape Miranda, who would presumably have been under age at the time, but given the circumstances of the island it’s not that surprising. This casting and performance emphasised Prospero’s need for control, with the suits suggesting he was trying to recreate everyone else in his own image. I felt sorry for Caliban at times, especially when he cried “freedom” at a time when he was basically committing himself to slavery for a different and unworthy master.

Trinculo and Stephano were fine, another good comedy pairing of Felix Hayes and Bruce Mackinnon. I was starting to enjoy the humour a bit, and their lines were certainly clear. Using a recognisable glass bottle of whisky when Stephano clearly states that he made the bottle out of the bark of a tree was a bit puzzling, but then this island is full of magic, so who knows what may have happened? They cut Caliban’s song at the end of their first scene, which I was happy about, while their second scene gave us a fun start to the second half. Caliban carried on a strip of optics, some with bottles attached which had some liquor in them. Trinculo caught it deftly when Caliban let it go – there’s a man who likes his drink. Ariel stirred up the usual mischief by saying “thou liest” several times, which had us laughing a lot, mainly at Felix Hayes’ reactions.

Ferdinand brought on some planks as part of his chores, but soon put them down to talk with Miranda. Two of the spirits had come on stage at the start of this scene and sat on rocks at the front and back of the stage holding a rope between them. It was held just off the ground throughout the scene, like a skipping rope, but nothing else was done with it. I think there was more done to keep the two young people apart last time, but I don’t remember what; either way it was a strange bit of staging with no clear purpose. The courting between the two youngsters was fine, and Prospero came on from the back to keep an eye on things and then break it all up. Was it during this scene that the noise got too much for me and I left the auditorium?

I returned in time for the harpy scene. Just before the restart, Ariel had come on stage and this time I realised he was sewing a part of his harpy costume – a nice touch. It also meant he was on stage for the arrival of the clowns. Now a feast was laid out on a table for the famished lords, and when Gonzalo tasted the food he pronounced it excellent. Before they could eat though, the harpy descended from the sky at a tremendous rate – Ariel in a black spiky costume, half spider, half bat – and scared the shit out of them. I couldn’t see him properly from my seat – Steve had a better view. I forget how the lords left the stage, but then came the masque scene, and this was very well done.

After Prospero’s dire warnings about pre-marital sex, Ferdinand and Miranda sat down on a rock near the front of the stage to watch the spectacle. The goddesses were played by three actresses, done up in Elizabethan style gowns. The first was lowered down to stand on top of the box, the second came out of a hole near the front of the stage as far as I could see, and the third came out from the box. They may have been played by actresses, but they were actually puppets, marionettes manipulated by one or other spirit, with Ariel himself working Juno. The goddesses moved like puppets, and the spirits moved with them so the effect was magical, appropriately enough. I saw this better last time, but I could still see enough to enjoy it this time although I wasn’t really getting the dialogue for this bit.

When Prospero remembered the dastardly plan which Caliban had set in motion, he chased everyone away and then crumpled up on one of the rocks, looking overwhelmed with misery at what he had to deal with. Ariel came and sat beside him, and again there was surprise for Prospero at Ariel’s awareness. He told Ariel to put the clothes on “this” line –  no line was visible, but the spirits came up through the holes wearing the fancy garments which were also in Elizabethan style, slightly odd in terms of this production but never mind. As Stephano crept ever closer to the cell door, Trinculo suddenly noticed the gaudy apparel and soon they were having a clothing frenzy, grabbing everything they could and stacking the surplus up on Caliban to carry away with them. As each spirit had its fancy clothes removed, it slipped back down through the hole it had come up from.  They soon returned with wolf masks on, and chased the naughty threesome off the stage.

So to the final act. Ariel’s expression of potential pity moved Prospero (and me). The King of Naples was brought on stage with his court, still spellbound, and while they gradually came to their senses, Prospero went to change his clothes, and that was when Ariel checked out the new suit.

After Prospero announced himself to the others, he took Sebastian and Antonio aside to warn them that he knew what they’d been up to. He also got the ring of his dukedom back from his brother, and then gave him a hug (ah). Miranda and Ferdinand were revealed playing chess in the cell, and everything was heading for a happy ending, especially when the ship’s crew turned up and informed the King that their ship was fine. Only Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano remained to be dealt with, and they gave us some final laughs before everyone went into the cell apart from Prospero and Ariel.

When Prospero freed Ariel, Ariel took off his jacket and dropped it at Prospero’s feet and the other spirits stuck their heads up through the other holes in the stage. Ariel then turned and held the sides of the hole nearest to him, dropping into it gently with his head still sticking up. At a gesture from him, all the spirits disappeared at the same instant, which is what led me to believe they were all intended to be aspects of Ariel. Prospero’s request for applause was again rather stilted, so although I’m familiar with the play I wasn’t absolutely sure when he’d finished. We figured it out eventually though, and there was decent applause all round.

There were a couple of strange choices that haven’t come up in these notes so far. One was Gonzalo’s accent, which was frequently and clearly East End, but with Nick Day’s plummy voice it sometimes glided into posh RP. I have no idea why this choice was made. The other event was when some figures appeared in the smoke-filled cell wearing Elizabethan ruffs and moving as if they were drowning or at least moving under water. There was some reference to the King of Naples and his people at the time, but I couldn’t see what the connection was. Overall, I felt the set design lumbered the production with too much unnecessary detail, and while some of the staging choices worked very well, others were a distraction. The flatness of the lighting when viewed from the front bleached all the energy out of the performance as well, while from the side the same lighting made interesting shadows which lifted the set up from the mundane.  Unless this pointless variation is part of the grand plan, they really need to have people checking these things out from all parts of the auditorium in future. The use of the Perspex box was also unfortunate, as they sometimes shone lights directly onto it from the front and the glare nearly blinded us. As Steve pointed out, if he’d wanted to listen to a radio play he wouldn’t have spent the money on top-price tickets to the theatre.

These problems aside, I did like the performances, and we’re hoping for improvements in the way this stage is used now that Greg’s taken over.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Twelfth Night – September 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 26th September 2012

We’ve seen this twice before and liked it both times. Our view tonight was even better – we were in the circle – but I felt more distanced from the stage and the action as we were further away than I expected. Still, apart from the revolving door we could see every part of the set, and there was plenty of audience response to help things along.

No changes to report on the staging. There was one thing missing though: Malvolio’s cart must have malfunctioned tonight as although we heard the beeping sound, which caused Viola to look round and pause, Malvolio walked on stage to deliver the ring to Cesario. The recalcitrant vehicle still turned up in Malvolio’s darkened room, but it couldn’t get a laugh as most people didn’t know the significance. I also noticed Feste’s use of electrodes on Malvolio this time – couldn’t remember if this was new or not, but it certainly tied up well with Dr Pinch’s treatment policy in Comedy.

Malvolio’s exhibition of himself in his cross-gartered yellow stockings was just as daring as before and the audience loved it, especially the cheeky way he went up the stairs at the end. We thought the shipwrecked twins were more careful when they left the water not to make too big a splash, but Sir Andrew couldn’t help it – he fell, he splashed. Sargon Yelda, last night’s limping Angelo, appeared briefly tonight as Valentine to deliver the bad news about Olivia in the opening scene, but I didn’t see him again so hopefully he was resting that leg. The youngsters near us were very vocal in their appreciation of the snogging aspects of the production (in a good way) and from what little I heard of their chat during the interval they seemed to be enjoying the performance a lot; this cast are certainly doing a good job of entertaining people.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Comedy Of Errors – September 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi

Venue: RST

Date: Tuesday 25th September 2012

The performances tonight seemed as good as last time, and the crowd were certainly having a good time. I noticed one or two moments which I hadn’t remembered to note down or hadn’t seen before and overall we still enjoyed ourselves, but as this was the fourth performance we’d seen it didn’t surprise us and some of the non-textual humour was wearing a bit thin, hence the lower experience rating.

          Being close to the front this time meant I could check out the pool of water in the corner, and I saw that a shopping trolley had been submerged in it; I assume this was an extra protection for A/E to stop him rolling into the water. Angelo was limping tonight, and we learned that he had damaged his calf and was in a lot of pain, poor lamb. I spotted the fish which Luciana spat out after her first head dunking this time. Earlier, when D/E reported that his master wouldn’t come home to dinner, “send some other messenger”, he indicated Luciana – she backed off, alarmed, and gestured ‘no way’ with her hands. The two Dromios didn’t look through the letterbox at each other tonight during the dinner scene, and I think their positions were reversed for the final part of the play tonight, with D/S on the left and D/E on the right. Maybe it was deliberate, maybe not. The audience responded well to them holding hands, then the hug, then the door slamming shut, so again it was a very good ending which I saw through the sniffles.

          It was interesting to see this production so often through its run. The first time we saw it was during its previews in March when we rated it at 5/10, recognising its potential but not really liking the heavy emphasis on violence. The cast were clearly struggling a bit at that time to handle the demands of the set along with the demands of the play itself, but we knew that they would improve with practice.

The second time we saw the production was in July, and we gave it 7/10. Some of the business had changed, the current ending was in place, and the cast were much more settled and giving stronger performances all round. Our view wasn’t as good that night, but the improvements made up for that.

Our third experience was in August, and earned 8/10. The performance had come on even more from July, and we had great fun with the enjoyable parts of the production. Our sight lines were good, and there was a sparkle to the evening. I didn’t feel that same sparkle tonight, though whether that was them or me I don’t know. The violent bits were still unpleasant and even boring, and I found that knowing that the young man who leapt out of the crate early on would be dead by the interval took all the fun out of the event for me. Steve reckoned the dialogue wasn’t as clear tonight, and certainly a lot of lines were obscured by the comic business. Our view was also blocked in different ways tonight, and so we missed out on some of the visual humour we’d seen before, though in the case of Nell’s marrow that was probably just as well.

From my observations tonight I would suggest that non-textual business, though it can be great fun at times, doesn’t last as well as text-based humour, be it verbal or physical, and when the comic business is allowed to dominate at the expense of the dialogue, it shows a level of disrespect for the text which may be indicative of other problems. Anyone seeing this production only once may well love the way the comedy is presented, but there doesn’t seem to be anything more to gain from repeated viewings, unlike some other productions we’ve seen a number of times. Still, I’m glad the cast have overcome the inherent difficulties imposed on them by the designer and director to produce a lively and engaging piece of work – good for them.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Bully Boy – September 2012


By Sandi Toksvig

Directed by Patrick Sandford

Venue: St James Theatre

Date: Saturday 22nd September 2012

I always find it hard to write notes on this sort of play; I was so moved by the story and the characters, not to mention the memories which are being stirred which I need time to explore and bring into focus, that it’s difficult to find the words to convey my experience of the performance. I can record that I found this a very good play, the performances by both actors were superb and we both feel that this new theatre has a promising future if this is the sort of work they’re going to be doing.

The theatre itself is much like the Trafalgar Studios, with steeply raked stalls sweeping down to the stage. There’s a little bit of wrap-around from the front rows, but mostly the audience are end-on. The seats have good straight backs (very necessary for us older folk) and firm padded seats (not as padded as I might have wished after an hour and a half) with adequate leg room. The loos were good, and the bar menu looks interesting if we feel in need of a snack. I have instructed my theatre liaison department (Steve) to join their membership scheme immediately.

The Simon Higlett set was simple and worked very effectively with the use of projections and sound effects to change the location and create the atmosphere of a war zone. Angled back and side walls were marked with straight lines which emphasised the perspective, and the side wall was leaning backwards as well. A window shape was outlined on the back wall, while the entrance way was in the side wall to the right of the stage. A desk, some chairs and various props were used, but mostly it was just the two men talking, or not talking, to each other – there was no escape or distraction from the truth of their experience.

The play deals with the effects of war on the young soldiers who are being sent out to fight these inconclusive and unclear battles on our behalf. It’s a tough subject, and hard to get people to watch. Sandi Toksvig has leavened the suffering with some humour, entirely appropriate for the situation, and that helped me to get through the hundred minutes of this performance. It’s sobering to be reminded that these soldiers are living through more than a hundred minutes of these events and can’t just get up and walk out after their curtain calls, and while this play gives us no answers it does pose many of the necessary questions. It should be recommended reading in schools, as is Our Country’s Good, another play being staged in this theatre next year.

I was aware during the opening speech by Major Hadley (Anthony Andrews) that he was also a soldier who had suffered from his experiences of war, in his case the Falklands ‘campaign’. The cause of his injuries took a while to come out, but when they did it created more of a bond between the young soldier Eddie and the older man. Eddie (Joshua Miles) even carried him up Pendle Hill to see the view, and it was clear to me that these men shared something which no one who hadn’t been through similar experiences could ever fully comprehend. I won’t go in to the details of the story, but it was woven together very well, with events such as an explosion being demonstrated in a simple manner – white light flashing round the sections of wall – and a mostly linear progression to events which made it easier to follow. The resolution was inevitable and moving, and there were many of us standing at the end to applaud – richly deserved I may add.

Much of this play will stay with me for some time. I was taken with Eddie’s comment early on that there was no ‘front line’, because there was no safe place behind this mythical line for the soldiers to go. This is ‘total war’ taken to extremes. I feel I have a better understanding of what these young men are going through, and it makes me sad and angry that such illegal wars are still being started by our politicians, but our troops are the ones fighting and dying, or surviving with great afflictions; if the politicians were put in the front lines I suspect there would be no more war. I now want to know more about the experiences of those living in these countries which have been invaded by ‘liberators’; sadly, the traumatic effects are not restricted to the combatants in these conflicts.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Private Lives – September 2012


By Noel Coward

Directed by Jonathan Kent

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Friday 21st September 2012

The very first performance, and already they’ve got the characters established. We were a good audience as well, laughing early and plentifully throughout the evening, so we got them off to a good start. With such strong casting for all the parts the two leading roles didn’t dominate as much as usual, and the overall production was the better for it. The final argument between Sybil and Victor was very strong, and made Elyot and Amanda’s sneaky exit even funnier, partly because it echoed Victor and Sybil’s entrance at the end of the second act beautifully.

The sets were also beautiful. The stage itself had been raised up for this production, with Art Deco scalloped edges at the front and stylish black herringbone floorboards running front to back. About halfway back there were a number of small lights set into the floor which glowed like the lights of the town for the first act and were covered with a carpet for the rest of the play. The balconies themselves were splendid. A large picture frame spanned the width of the stage, with the two sets of French windows underneath. The balconies were also curved outwards a little, and the ironwork of the railings was all curves. There were tall gauzy curtains behind all this, and the effect was of sumptuous luxury. The costumes were a perfect match for all of this elegance.

The interval was taken after the second act, so the scene change between acts one and two had to be brisk. Victor and Sybil remained on their respective balconies when the lights went out, and the crew immediately brought on the furniture for the flat and started setting it up. There was a chaise on the left of the stage, a scooped sofa at the front and a single chair with side table on the right further back. A carpet was rolled out in the centre. Meanwhile, the balconies which were on the revolve had rotated round to the back, revealing the rest of the flat with its Art Deco Chinoiserie style wallpaper, contemporary pictures on the walls, concealed swing door to the kitchen (identifiable by the decorative plate hanging there), dining table and chairs and a grand piano on the left hand side. The main door was in the centre, and when it opened up the balcony railings became the landing railings – a nice touch. There were also two bedroom doors, one on each side of the stage, and plenty of other matching items, with masses of cushions everywhere.

I won’t go into the story: the performances, however, are another matter. I’ve already commented on the strong casting of the supporting roles; now it’s the turn of the leads. Toby Stephens was excellent as Elyot. He’s good at upper class roles anyway, but here he conveyed all the louche arrogance of this immature but charming character extremely well. The only minor point was that I couldn’t always hear him when he spoke softly – the Minerva is deceptively small, and even softer speech has to be given a boost – but I’m confident he’ll sort that out before we see it next time. Anna Chancellor matched him perfectly with Amanda’s waywardness and elegance. They managed to make the long second act bearable and even enjoyable, which is some feat. I’ve found before that spending such a long time in the company of two people who are so immature, who can be intermittently charming but are ultimately shallow, self-absorbed and uninteresting, usually palls about half-way through this act; not so tonight. The two actors have so much class that they gave these rather two-dimensional characters a hint of 3D, a sense that they might be real after all (god help us!) with real feelings and experiences. The resulting twists and turns in their relationship, as they unfolded in the second act, became compelling viewing, from the gushy happiness of the post-dinner glow through the inevitable bickering held less and less in check by ‘Solomon Isaacs’, to the final all out blazing row with full-on violence. I did feel a little bit of tedium creep in towards the end, but compared to my usual experience this was a huge improvement, and as the punch-up started soon afterwards I didn’t have anything to complain about.

Anthony Calf as Victor and Anna-Louise Plowman as Sybil did a fine job in these often underplayed roles. Their stiffness and conventionality are just as important to the play as Amanda and Elyot’s wild and carefree existence, and these two nailed their characters to perfection. The result was a great deal more humour, especially in the third act and particularly when Victor and Sybil finally erupted into their own flaming row, no doubt the first of many. I must also mention Maggie McCarthy as the maid. She wasn’t on stage for long, and along with Victor and Sybil I didn’t understand everything she said (it’s a long time since I did French at school) but she was wonderfully grumpy about everything, and again this was strong casting for such a small part. Maggie seems to have cornered the market in maids and nurses; this year already we’ve seen her in Uncle Vanya (Minerva again), The Doctor’s Dilemma (Lyttelton) and here – she’s been a busy woman.

With such a strong cast and excellent production I’m sure this will sell out, so we’re glad we’ve already booked for another performance, the last for this year and the last before the main theatre is revamped.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Yours For The Asking – September 2012


By Ana Diosdado

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 20th September 2012

This is a play by a female Spanish writer, written and produced during the tail end of Franco’s repressive regime and looking at general themes of that period. Such is the nature of life that those themes are also relevant today, which is why Sam Walters decided to give it this UK premier.

The set consisted of a table and two chairs in the middle of the stage, covered with newspaper and magazine cuttings. I don’t mean there were a lot of cuttings sitting on these items of furniture, I mean the cuttings had been stuck on every surface of the table and chairs to create a colourful jumbled collage, with some specifically worded strips of paper on the table top – “Who is Susi Roman?” for example. The table also had a fake typewriter and old-style cassette player which were simply boxes in the appropriate shape covered with a picture of the object. The black telephone was real and there was a black mat under the table.

On each side of the balcony was a large screen with a black and white picture of a beautiful woman, scantily clad but not actually revealing too much. The slogan ‘SHE is yours for the asking’ was on each picture. As there was no obvious sign of what was being advertised, these pictures emphasised for me that this kind of advertising is about selling the woman, not the product. The word “SABO” was discreetly placed in a corner of each advert and we learned in the post-show that this was the name of the laboratory mentioned in the play.

The story unfolded in interwoven snippets with some longer scenes in between. It became clear early on that suicide was a likely ending, but they kept the detail of who had done it well hidden till the end, although I’d guessed beforehand (I’ve watched too many crime dramas). A journalist, Juan, returned from a week-long stay with a young model whose face (and body) had become the logo of a perfume campaign. When some bad publicity emerged about the laboratory which made the perfume she became the scapegoat in the public’s mind, and with so many people hounding her, the journalist was surprised to find her granting him an interview. She needed to talk to someone, and despite the unpromising start – he was stuck in the lift for a while – he got the interview of a lifetime. The play began with him arriving home to write the article, and ended after a reprise of that scene and a finishing speech from the coroner.

The other characters involved were the journalist’s wife, the photographer who went with him to take pictures for the article, and several Everymen, all played by one actor. These characters included the coroner, a porter, a neighbour who came to help when the lift was stuck, etc., and they often used similar language when talking to the model to show the massed ranks of hostility she faced from the general public.

The performances were all excellent and believable, and it was remarkably easy to follow the story as it slipped from present to past and location to location. The way these changes were staged was amazingly simple and effective. To represent Juan being stuck in the lift the actor crept under the table (hence the mat). When Susi was doing her dancing routine at the nightclub, she stood on the table and danced while the lighting indicated the location and the music was played very loud. In general, characters simply stood or sat in a location and sound effects indicated what was happening. So when Juan sat at the typewriter, the sound of keys being hit was played but his hands didn’t move. This was both effective and practical; he didn’t have to pretend to type and the sound could be lowered when it might get in the way of the dialogue – the scenes often overlapped. To show someone arriving they would stand at the ‘door’, the lights would change with the sound of the door opening, they would step through and then we would hear the door closing. Likewise people would stand to one side of the set and some music would start, so we knew where the record player was.

It might sound cumbersome as I describe it, but these were straightforward effects which allowed us to engage our imaginations and participate more fully with the story; from the post-show feedback this recognition of the audience’s intelligence was greatly appreciated. It turned out the clippings stuck all over the table related to the story as well. While Juan was ‘interviewing’ Susi in her bed, Manny, the photographer, had been investigating the health scare which had triggered Susi’s fall from grace. He’d discovered some interesting facts which suggested that the laboratory had engineered her fame in order to divert attention from their role in the health scandal, and that they’d done this several times before to deflect bad publicity. The clippings he brought to show them were the ones on the table – a nice touch. The article which Juan wrote included this damning information, but for political reasons it was never published, reflecting the way Franco’s regime squashed any suggestion of social problems like suicide or corrupt companies.

They told the story much better than I have, and the characters were sympathetically drawn. It’s an impressive piece of work, not least because of the difficulties faced by women dramatists in Spain at that time, and to air these themes at all must have taken courage. Sometimes plays written under repressive regimes seen a bit tame to us now, as we’re used to relatively open media and creative arts; this one was just as moving and challenging as if it had been written here instead.

The post-show covered a range of questions. I asked about the staging choices, whether they were derived from Spanish theatre or had been created here. They were all practical choices which came out of the rehearsal process, and once they realised that they didn’t need a literal typewriter or recorder, they pretty much got rid of anything that wasn’t essential. Only the table, chairs and telephone were left; they didn’t even have drinks in their glasses, although there was a sandwich on the plate during the bedroom scene. We liked this a lot, and there seemed to be general agreement that theatre doesn’t need as much realism as TV or film. We’d missed a couple of productions here for various reasons, and it was good to see such a strong performance on our return.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Antony And Cleopatra – September 2012 (2)


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Janet Suzman

Venue: CFT

Date: Tuesday 18th September 2012

It’s been only two weeks since the opening performance, but this has really come on. The dialogue was razor sharp and the story-telling clear and detailed. I heard for the first time the passing reference Antony makes to Cleopatra’s past relationship with Pompey, as well as the one with Julius Caesar. The tempo was just that bit quicker, and despite an audience which seemed determined not to join in the fun, this was the best performance of this play that I can remember.

The staging was almost entirely as before; the only change was in the Monument scene, where the hoist worked tonight. Instead of pulling Antony up, he was lowered down through the trapdoor in the balcony, strapped into a chair device. Once down, he was laid on the mattress which was then pulled forward a little way so that it rested on the stage trapdoor. The dialogue was altered to reflect the change of direction, and the rest of the scene was the same as before. I did notice one additional minor change after this – the snake delivery man didn’t look at the throne this time, nor register who his customer was.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Much Ado About Nothing – September 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Iqbal Khan

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Thursday 13th September 2012

Third time around and there was much more detail in the performances, including some more changes by the director, especially in the gulling scenes. This was part of the Supporters evening, and was followed by a lovely meal in the Ashcroft room, which was so well attended that they only had enough cast for one per table. We were honoured to have Madhav Sharma, Leonato himself, sitting next to us for the entire meal, and he was an entertaining companion with plenty of amusing and interesting stories.

For the play itself, I may not be able to get the changes noted up in order, but here goes. The bickering between Beatrice and Benedick in the first scene was a dead giveaway – they could have been married already. I heard three “Bendy Dick”s tonight – the first when Benedick left the Prince and Claudio alone, the second one I’ve forgotten, and the third just before the weddings at the end, which I’d spotted during an earlier performance. When Hero and Claudio bumped into each other, I couldn’t tell if it was deliberate on either part or just an accident.

This time I noticed that when the women came on before the party scene, singing their rowdy song and dressed up in the soldier’s clothes, Hero and Margaret were smoking and drinking. When Leonato arrived, they hastily passed their cigarette and drink to Verges, who stood there looking guilty while the ‘princess’ and her maid looked as innocent as new born babes. As with Desdemona, this father’s ‘jewel’ is quite capable of deceit when she cares to use it. Beatrice held on to her drink, presumably not a problem for her. After the prince proposed to Beatrice, she reacted with laughter and Leonato gestured to warn her that the prince had been serious and she’d hurt his feelings, hence her abrupt change of tack and the apologies for her behaviour.

The biggest change was in the first gulling scene. After Benedick sent the maidservant for his book, the speech about his ideal woman was much better this time, getting smallish laughs several times on the way through. Then after the Prince, Claudio and Leonato started their trickery, Benedick avoided the roof and instead came down to the ground level after climbing the tree; he was behind the house façade, but we could see him through the open doors. He took a blanket off Dogberry (loud sounds of arguing just before this) and wrapped it round himself, then came on stage for the final section of the gulling pretending to be a servant. He also had a broom and used it to sweep up some fallen leaves rather ineffectively. The servant girl was less distracting in this bit – she did less of a performance – but the acting she did do helped to cover Benedick’s presence and allowed the others to appear to ignore him more easily. They treated him as a servant, so he ended up cleaning Claudio’s shoes and then the prince’s, planting himself in turn on the stools in each front corner. When Don Pedro insulted Benedick, he spat on the prince’s shoe, all in order to clean it of course. This worked a lot better than the previous version.

When Beatrice came to call Benedick in to dinner, Benedick was on the swing, grinning happily and swinging so much that she broke off the line “against my will” and just looked at him, amazed. After a few moments (to give us time to finish laughing) she regained her composure and carried on. And for Beatrice’s gulling, Hero stayed in front of the window on the balcony this time for the early part of the conversation with Verges and so the dialogue was much clearer.  Otherwise it was the same.

When the watch were doing their duty outside Leonato’s house, they had removed the umbrella that got in my way the first time, and Borachio had been to the loo before he came on stage so no pissing all over the constable (thank goodness). There was still thunder, but they just pretended it was raining. This time I noticed that Don John came on to the balcony and saw the watch apprehending Borachio and Conrade. This certainly explained his flight after the wedding, though the man has some balls to risk staying that long – his men might have given him up before the ceremony.

Speaking of which, the wedding scene had a few more changes. Leonato was at ground level from the start of this scene, bustling the servants along and greeting the guests who arrived from the audience. This made the dialogue with Dogberry and Verges, still holding up the two pairs of trousers, much easier to follow. Leonato’s interpolated “no thanks” after Claudio offered Hero back was not appreciated by Madhav, who felt that it wasn’t necessary to add to the text in this way, and I agree with him. Overall though, the denouncement of Hero was just as shocking this time, and I do feel that the use of the microphone made it worse for Hero, as it was clear there were a large number of people witnessing this event.

Benedick and Beatrice were very strong in the “kill Claudio” scene, and I could see how their relationship and the challenge to Claudio are woven skilfully together, the one leading to the other and back again. Paul’s hand was better tonight, so he was able to grab Beatrice by the arms as planned.

I was aware when the watch did their interrogation tonight that the down side of having the household servants play these characters as well is that they already know what’s happened in the wedding scene, so it’s hard for them to react appropriately as the story comes out. The wedding platform was partly removed during this inquisition of the prisoners, and Borachio and Conrade were actually placed on the last section of it and wheeled off, waving to the crowd. This speeded up the scene change a lot which was helpful. This time, the look of sadness on Verges’ face as she held together the red ribbons, waiting for them to be lowered, showed us the grief, the loss of what should have been. The ribbons were also whisked off stage much sooner leaving Leonato and Antonio alone on stage for more of their dialogue in the following scene. I still found Leonato’s delivery too slow tonight, especially during this scene and the wedding scene, but overall the pace was better.

When the prince and Claudio turned up, they reacted much more strongly to Leonato’s criticisms, and from their reactions I was aware tonight that this was the first they had heard of Hero’s death – Benedick was obviously a bit slow to get the news to them. The rest of the play was as I remembered it, though with a smaller audience the atmosphere wasn’t quite as lively as last time. The side stalls were relatively empty during the first half, but they filled up a bit for the second, more than compensating for the few gaps which had appeared.

Just a couple of other points: I forgot to mention in previous notes that the Prince looked amazingly like Chuck’s friend Morgan (from the TV series Chuck) which was a momentary distraction for me. Also I noticed tonight that Don John accosted the servant girl in an unpleasant way in an early scene, and Verges protected her. The singer’s treatment of the girl later wasn’t pleasant either, given that he’d invited her to join in the dancing, but when she became over-enthusiastic he grabbed her roughly to make her stop.

This has become an amazingly good production, and the cast are clearly enjoying themselves now that the director has (hopefully!) stopped tinkering with it. I gather that the atmosphere in rehearsals wasn’t particularly comfortable; the director likes to push his actors well beyond any comfort zones, and isn’t as open to discussion as we understood from his talk earlier in the run.

The problem of Asian actors not being cast as widely as black actors now are, still rumbles on, and I’m in two minds about this sort of all-Asian production. On the one hand, it’s absolutely valid to show how Shakespeare’s plays work in all sorts of cultures; after all it’s why he’s so admired and performed all over the world. And given that, it would be awkward to people the world of the performance with non-Asian actors, as that would raise other issues such as the colonial ones which the director here has chosen to avoid. But when these productions are staged, I can’t help feeling that they blur the statistics and make it seem as if there are more employment opportunities for Asian actors than is the case. I don’t know what the answer to this conundrum is, but I look forward to seeing another Asian Hamlet or perhaps a first Asian Henry V within a mixed cast, not as a box-ticking exercise but as a valid recognition of this pool of talent.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

The Doctor’s Dilemma – September 2012


By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Nadia Fall

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Wednesday 12th September 2012

I’m going through the annual process of getting my ears syringed, so I decided beforehand that I’d have to put any loss of dialogue down to the cotton-wool effect of the olive oil. As it happened, I found the dialogue very clear throughout, particularly during the second half when my left ear cleared and I could hear very well. The only down side was the couple behind us; coughing is an acceptable sound effect in a play that deals with consumption, but it helps to keep it to the stage. Even so, the performance was very enjoyable and the production better than my experience of it.

The play reminded me of Surprises, in that it presented ideas for the audience to ponder while giving them a fair number of laughs into the bargain. The ideas this time concerned the moral aspects of medical rationing – a very topical subject – and although the stage debates were entertaining, I felt so little sympathy for the artist and his genuine(?) wife that there was no dilemma for me whatsoever. Of course the doctor of the title, the newly knighted Sir Colenso Ridgeon, had more of a problem. A bachelor, he fell in love with Mrs Dubedat as soon as he laid eyes on her. His initial snap decision to help her husband was soon challenged as more information came to light, and then the conflict became complicated by his desire for Mrs Dubedat to become a widow – what should he do?

The decision was never in much doubt despite the pontificating by all and sundry, and so the artist died in serious poverty leaving a number of excellent paintings, a deeply saddened widow and a plethora of debts. The chap who took his place in the drug trial was never seen on stage again either, although his improved health and prosperity were reported to us. The final scene, with Ridgeon attending the first posthumous exhibition of Dubedat’s work, attempted to resolve the play with a confrontation between the remarried widow and Ridgeon, but the arguments were so woolly-headed that they didn’t work for me. Never mind, the cast had built up such a supply of good will during the rest of the play that I didn’t mind the ending, and at least the final scene was short.

The costumes and sets were absolutely fantastic, as befits the National’s workshops. The opening scene was set in Ridgeon’s study, which had as much dark wood and leather as one could wish for, as well as a drinks tray and a wayward housekeeper (Maggie McCarthy) who bossed her employer around as if she were his nanny. His knighthood had just been announced, and various members of the medical profession called by to congratulate him, from fellow knights Sir Patrick Cullen and Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington through some GPs he’d known during training, to the lowest of the low – a surgeon! Mr Cutler Walpole (Robert Portal) was the flashiest of the group, and utterly convinced that everybody who was suffering anything was suffering from blood poisoning and needed their something-or-other sac removed (a spurious anatomical spare part). Mind you, he was doing very well out of it, and we found it very funny as well.

The assembled doctors gave us an insight into the various medical attitudes of the day, and quite a few laughs too. David Calder was great fun as Sir Patrick, an Irish doctor who may well have represented Shaw’s own views in the play. He poked fun at everyone while still having some sensible things to say, and with his advanced years he was able to comment on how the medical fashions came round on a regular basis. Sir Ralph was played by Malcolm Sinclair and this was an excellent performance. A Royal physician, he professed the same cure for everything and by some lucky fluke hadn’t killed off anyone important. His use of Ridgeon’s formula on one of the Princes had coincided with the Prince recovering, which may have led to Ridgeon’s knighthood. His pomposity was leavened by his knowledge of how the establishment worked, and Malcolm Sinclair played him with great authority and impeccable comic timing.

The successful and rich GP was represented by Dr Leo Schutzmacher, played by Paul Herzberg. With his foreign background and slight accent, it was no surprise to find out later that he was Jewish, although I wasn’t aware of that in the first act. He’d settled in a manufacturing town somewhere north of London and made so much money that he could now retire. The other GP, Blenkinsop, was played by Derek Hutchinson, and he represented those doctors who treated ordinary folk, clerks and shop assistants and the like. He couldn’t earn much because his patients couldn’t afford the expensive cures; nor could he, which is why he was suffering from tuberculosis himself as we learned in act two.

Any of these doctors would have put you off going to the medical profession for life. Their silly debates and insistence on unproven remedies, or using proven remedies for every possible ailment, were humorous if worrying. The issue of who to treat – worthy Blenkinsop or unworthy but talented Dubedat – was clouded by their differing approaches to treatment; ultimately it all came down to Ridgeon’s decision, and he chose the ‘worthier’ man. Being fond of art and beautiful things made the decision harder for him, as did his attraction to the artist’s wife, but the choice was a no-brainer as far as I was concerned.

It was good to catch this Shaw play at last – we’d missed earlier productions, and although some of his plays are done regularly (e.g. Pygmalion, Arms And The Man) there can be long gaps between productions of the others (and then three come along at once – if only!). Personally I would prefer to see more of Shaw and less of Chekov, but that’s just me; as I get older the ‘idea’ plays come to be more interesting.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Antony And Cleopatra – September 2012

7/10 (preview)

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Janet Suzman

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 7th September 2012

This was the very first performance of this revived production. Kim Cattrall played Cleopatra before in substantially the same production in Liverpool back in 2010, with the same director, designer and many of the same cast but with a different leading actor (Jeffrey Kissoon took the role in 2010). The Liverpool Playhouse doesn’t have the thrust stage of the Festival Theatre, of course, so changes must have been made to the design, and it’s impossible to say how much the intervening two years has added to the cast’s understanding, so I’ll just concentrate on our experience of this production.

First, the set: from the publicity photos on the Liverpool Playhouse website, I would guess that the basic design is largely unchanged, though presumably the balcony comes further forward than before. A wall of bricks at the back, with a few window arches to break the monotony, had several tall screens in front of it, with the gaps creating doorways; towards the end a complete row of screens blocked the wall off altogether. In front of these was a curved balcony, supported by two pairs of metal pillars down which ran ladders. The open metalwork had simple lines, with a shiny black reflective surface. The floor was also shiny and black in a tiled effect, with a reddish circle in the middle. From the ceiling hung a number of eastern-style lamps; these were lowered at the start, to show we were in Egypt, and raised out of the way for the non-Egyptian scenes. A rectangular trapdoor was well used throughout the performance, particularly to bring up furniture for the various locations and also to remove Enobarbus’s body. The lighting changed significantly from scene to scene, creating a strong sense of location, and while the scene changes were sometimes a little on the slow side, on the whole they kept the pace up reasonably well; this is one aspect that will undoubtedly improve with practice.

The casting was interesting. The Egyptians were almost all played by black actors, with one Indian actor playing the soothsayer and Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra. I reckoned this was to show that the Ptolemies were actually Greek rulers, not native Egyptians. The Romans were all white, and for once this non-colour blind casting was very appropriate. Apart from Jeffrey Kissoon playing Antony, it looks as if this aspect of the casting was similar to last time, and while the style of the costumes was definitely the same, there were individual changes particularly to Cleopatra’s clothes. Kim Cattrall was also playing Cleopatra as a blond this time around; she’d been a brunette before. The costumes were modern for the Romans, with skimpy outfits for the Egyptians and an Indian style get-up for the soothsayer.

The performance began in darkness, with a hissing, whispering sound that made me think of the play’s political contrivances as well as the asps in the final act. I could just make out a figure rising up on a plinth in the centre of the stage, while others were sneaking on round the sides. The music was quite dramatic and when the spotlights hit Cleopatra she was standing on a dais with her back to us, arms outstretched, wearing a golden robe. I have to admit that when the lights shafted down on her, I had a momentary sense that I was watching a horror movie rather than a Shakespeare play, and this effect was strengthened a minute later when she turned around and I could see she was wearing a moulded golden mask – creepy! But I got over it pretty quickly, especially when Demetrius and Philo began their conversation up on the balcony while the rest of the cast stayed frozen down below.

Or almost frozen; during their dialogue Cleopatra turned round and her attendants began to remove her finery – presumably she’d been to a formal function and was now disrobing for some personal time. The final item was the face mask, and after she’d taken it off her dialogue with Antony could begin. She was kittenish, while he (played by Michael Pennington this time) was an old roué who was clearly infatuated with this beautiful younger woman. He capered about, clicking mini castanets, and generally behaving like an old fool, while she indulged and caressed him. Their delivery was clear and it’s nice to be able to hear the dialogue so well but the pace was a little slow, a fault which will again be sorted with a bit more practice.

After Antony and Cleopatra left, Demetrius and Philo finished the scene with their closing comments and departed. Down below, Cleopatra’s attendants had been clearing the stage and so were still present for the next scene with the soothsayer. An Indian actor had been cast in this role as with the 2010 version, and this soothsayer took on other jobs as well. For now, he simply looked briefly at each woman’s hand and then closed it up; there was little reaction to seeing their fates and he remained smooth, unruffled and courteous throughout.

Cleopatra arrived on the balcony with a black shawl over her head. She quickly left when Antony approached, and he heard the messengers on the main stage. Enobarbus’s comments about the women were again a little slow-paced, but we started to warm up with his comments about seeing Cleopatra die so often. That business done, Cleopatra returned and this time I could see how her line “I am sick and sullen” was an instruction to her servants so they could follow her lead in whatever playacting she had chosen. And just as well, as her tendency to collapse meant her servants had to be quick to hold her up. Mind you, she was soon on the floor, then up again, then back on the ground, and changed from sickness to anger in the blink of an eye. Antony was getting more and more frustrated that she wouldn’t listen to him, but when he did get his news out, including the information that Fulvia was dead, Cleopatra still turned it back on him, chiding him for not showing more sadness at the death of his wife. (Honestly, women!) He had almost left the stage before she called him back to say “something”, and her gentleness led to their reconciliation before his departure.

In Rome, Octavius wore a suit, while Lepidus was in formal military gear as I recall. Martin Hutson played Octavius last time as well, and his performance showed a lot of detail which was presumably based on the earlier run. His expressions were a little on the large side for this space and gave him a comical aspect, a bit like his Prince John in The Heart Of Robin Hood earlier this year, but his performance worked well in terms of the play as a whole. I think he was referring to papers in his hand for some of this speech; he certainly did so later on, after the whipped messenger had returned. His lines “this common body, like to a vagabond flag upon the stream, goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide, to rot itself with motion”, a disparaging comment upon the fickle nature of the plebeian class in Rome, was addressed in the audience’s direction, heaven knows why. He left the stage before the end of the scene, and Lepidus had to call him back so he could plead to be kept in the intelligence loop.

Down came the lamps again and we were back in Egypt. Cleopatra was lying back on the couch with her feet in Charmian’s lap. Mardian and Iras were sitting by the front of the stage, and Mardian was occasionally strumming his lute (or similar) and singing explosively to make Iras jump, which she did, as well as giggling. It wasn’t a pleasant sound, and Cleopatra soon shut him up. I did wonder, given that she was a queen, why she didn’t have musicians who were more to her liking, but who knows what goes on in the corridors of power? And with the casting emphasising that Cleopatra was Greek rather than Egyptian, I suspected that she may have felt the need to have an Egyptian musician on the payroll to reassure her subjects that she was part of their culture, regardless of her own preferences. I’m not sure if it was Alexas who brought the news about Antony or another messenger, but the dialogue was still good and clear, so this time I heard the lines about the “twenty several messengers”  which made sense of Cleopatra’s following comments. Charmian was so annoying, going on about Julius Caesar instead of praising Mark Antony, and then Cleopatra left to write yet another letter.

Menecrates became Menas for this production, and he and Pompey stood on the balcony for their discussion. Varrius arrived below, and I think Pompey went down one of the ladders to meet him. It was the first time someone had done this, and there was a loud noise as the bar protecting the actors from falling off the balcony was rattled back to give Pompey access to the ladder. This was a minor distraction, and hopefully they’ll find some way to do this more quietly during the previews. I got the gist of this scene, but the dialogue wasn’t as clear as elsewhere.

For the next scene in Rome, a table and some chairs were set up in the middle of the stage. A tray with two carafes and some glasses was placed on the table and someone [Lepidus] poured drinks for the two main guests. A glass of water was placed on the left of the table for Octavius, and a glass containing a red liquid on the right, for Antony. Lepidus and Enobarbus were chatting while this was going on, and then Caesar and Antony arrived, each coming on from their side of the stage and bristling at the other. They moved to the table, and Lepidus, standing by the middle chair, tried to bring them together with his speech. They unbent enough to pronounce the basic civilities, but when Caesar said “sit”, Antony refused, saying “sit, sir”, and they had a mini confrontation over who would sit first. Octavius lost out, and tempers were soon rising again over the rebellion by Fulvia and Antony’s brother. Various matters were raised by Octavius and Antony dealt with them all, rebuffing Enobarbus when he made his comment about borrowing “one another’s love for the instant”. Agrippa’s suggestion of the marriage between Antony and Octavia didn’t seem to be instigated by Octavius this time, and when the question was put to Antony he took his time, draining the wine glass before giving his circumlocutory answer. Again, Lepidus was almost left behind when Octavius and Antony hurried off to Antony’s wedding.

Enobarbus’s description of Cleopatra was well done, and then Octavius, Antony and Octavia entered for a very short scene. One more change to the Liverpool production; CFT had sprung for an extra actress to play Octavia, instead of Pompey having to double the part. The soothsayer was on the balcony, and gave Antony the warnings about Octavius, after which Antony made it clear that this was a political marriage only; he would be back with Cleopatra the first chance he got.

I think the next short scene with Agrippa, Maecenas and Lepidus was dropped, and we were back in Egypt again. Mardian’s music was still not to Cleopatra’s liking, hence her quick change of mind when he turned up with his instrument. The messenger arrived, and had the usual difficulty delivering his message, thanks to Cleopatra’s constant interruptions. When she said “there is gold”, she indicated Alexas who was holding a folder and just looked at her. When she offered more gold, he reacted by shaking his head and turning away – apparently the coffers were empty, or else he was upset that she was squandering her wealth on so many undeserving people; either way it was amusing. Her servants had to haul her off the poor messenger after she heard the bad news, but once she recovered herself she started to show some of the nobility of a queen.

The next scene had Pompey and his men on the balcony and the rest below.  Again, Pompey wasn’t entirely clear, but his emotional reaction to the memory of his “noble father” was. He turned and sobbed for a bit on the back railing, and I was surprised to find that Octavius’s line “take your time”, which sounded like a modern insertion, is actually in the text. Pompey came down a ladder during the dialogue – I think it was when he was spelling out the terms of the proposal – and was on the stage when he and Mark Antony shook hands.

After the leaders left to feast together, Menas and Enobarbus had their private chat which made it clear that Octavius and Antony would be at war before long. The others then returned – the servants’ dialogue was cut – and in all the activity I didn’t see Octavius cleaning the top of the barrel or box he was going to sit on. Fortunately, Steve spotted this action; it’s good to have two pairs of eyes at these times. With his suit and business-like manner, Octavius was well established as a prissy politician, very different from Antony, the grizzled veteran of many a battle. Their difference was emphasised in this scene, with Octavius very reluctant to drink, then not able to keep it down, then standing on the table to announce that he was leaving, then nearly falling off it as he made to leave. Antony helped him down, and it was all nicely done.

The rest of the feast was fine, with Lepidus definitely the worse for wear, and enough reaction from the others to indicate the humour of the crocodile description. Menas took Pompey to the front of the stage for their little chat, and the song may have used the lyrics in the text – I didn’t hear them well enough. I don’t remember the next scene with Ventidius explaining the danger of a lieutenant outperforming his general, although it may not have been clear what was going on; either way, Enobarbus and Agrippa were soon back on stage, making fun of Lepidus and his fawning over Antony and Octavius. Octavia’s leave-taking followed on, and when she broke off her line I thought at first she’d forgotten it, but she was just in character.

Back in Egypt, Cleopatra interrogated the messenger about Octavia. He did his best to please this time, but his guess at Octavia’s age (thirty) was received in stony silence. The rest of his comments made Cleopatra happy and she did a better job of twisting the information to her liking than Malcolm Tucker. Two short scenes showed the start of the conflict between Antony and Octavius; in the first Antony agreed to let Octavia go to Rome to attempt to broker a peace between the two leaders, while in the second Enobarbus and Eros discussed the latest state of play, informing us that Lepidus had been disposed of. These scenes felt bitty, because the changeovers took too long compared to the length of the scene, but they did get across the important information. Octavius and his men were on the balcony while they discussed Mark Antony’s behaviour in Egypt, but Octavius came down one of the ladders once his sister arrived and they took the interval after this scene.

When they restarted, Cleopatra came on dressed for war, arguing with Enobarbus over her participation in the imminent battle. Her armour seemed to consist of a golden breastplate and not much else, and since this piece of equipment was shaped like a naked female chest it was no surprise that Canidius, who arrived with Antony, spent most of the scene staring at the two round bulges in her armour.

Despite the protestations of his men, Antony was determined to fight at sea while Cleopatra seemed more like a bimbo than a queen, supporting her man with no regard for reasoned arguments. The next scenes were also short but as they alternated between the stage and the balcony they seemed to flow better. I also felt that the cast looked more confident in the second half, as if they’d started to get a feel for the space. We learned of Cleopatra’s flight from the battle and that Antony followed her, and then we saw the man himself, discouraged and disheartened, telling his men to take his treasure and leave. As they left, Cleopatra crept on from the back of the stage, wrapped in a black cloak, and again they were reconciled.

The soothsayer rather than the schoolteacher brought Antony’s message to Octavius, who was again on the balcony at this point. Seeing that the man was a foreigner, Octavius leant forward and spoke slowly and loudly, in a patronising manner. It was very funny, and when Octavius had finished with his instructions there was a pause and then Octavius, with prompting, did the anjali mudra (hands held together in front of the chest) to which the soothsayer responded and left. Octavius then sent Proculeius to seduce Cleopatra away from Antony.

In Alexandria, Enobarbus and Cleopatra were joined by Antony and the soothsayer to discuss Octavius’s offer. Thidias arrived to speak to Cleopatra, and she was paying close attention to everything he said while she calculated her best move in the situation. She was only too happy to agree to the idea that Antony had forced her into his bed, and Enobarbus quickly left to inform Antony what was going on. Antony’s rage led to Thidias being whipped by Antony’s men, while Cleopatra kept quiet, observing the scene during Antony’s temper tantrum. She soon had him eating out of her hand again, and when she mentioned “it is my birthday”, Antony clapped his hand to his mouth, the traditional gesture for a man who’s forgotten a woman’s birthday.

Octavius was again reading a letter for the next scene and referred to it as he listed Antony’s insults. I did think he could have gestured elsewhere for the whipped messenger to suggest he’d actually spoken to the man, but it didn’t make much difference overall. Antony’s dismal speech to his servants was fine, and then the soldiers entered both on the balcony and below for the strange music scene, often dropped. Cleopatra helped to put on Antony’s armour next, and managed to buckle on a whole kneepad without breaking a nail.

Again the scenes came thick and fast. Antony learned that Enobarbus had left and sent him his treasure, while Octavius ordered that Antony’s former troops be put in the front of the battle, and as he spoke these lines he looked directly at Enobarbus who had already come on stage and stood below him. Then Enobarbus was told that his treasure had arrived and headed off to die. Antony and his men came on stage, rejoicing at their victory, and when the soldier he commended to Cleopatra was given her hand, he tried to sneak a second kiss but Antony snatched her hand away first – very possessive, this chap.

Enobarbus’s death scene was staged with a shallow sunken area in which he laid himself before dying, so his body was easily removed under cover of darkness. Even shorter scenes now, and the actors hardly had time to leave the stage between them, so dramatic changes of lighting helped to make each scene different. The battle lost, Antony was in a rage (again) with Cleopatra, and she slunk off while he called for Eros.

The road to the monument was along the balcony, with Mardian being sent to give the message of Cleopatra’s death, and when Antony heard this news he went for the assisted suicide option. Unfortunately, while he stood, bracing himself against one of the balcony’s pillars, Eros demonstrated the unassisted suicide option and stabbed himself in the guts. Call me picky if you like, but I don’t believe in the stab-yourself-in-the-guts-and-die-instantly trick. After all, Antony botched his own suicide and lived for quite a lot of lines afterwards, so why shouldn’t Eros?

However, to get back to the play, Antony did his best by jamming the knife into one of the joints of the pillar and then ran onto it, but he wasn’t successful and lay on the ground, groaning. His soldiers refused to finish him off and one of them took Antony’s knife to Octavius – not the actual killing weapon as far as I could see. The next messenger from Cleopatra arrived too late, as usual, and they didn’t seem to make much of this moment which can be quite funny.

When we first saw the set, we reckoned we knew where the monument scene would be played, but as it turned out we were completely wrong. There were two men on the balcony before the scene started; they did some work with wires and hooks and opened up a trapdoor in the balcony floor, but something must have gone wrong because the hooks were taken up again, the trapdoor closed and the men left the balcony, while Cleopatra and her staff came on to the stage from the right hand side. There was just enough of a climb to explain the need to “draw him hither” and they put Antony on a mattress which had been placed on the stage trapdoor. We’re assuming there was some sort of technical hitch tonight, and perhaps we saw Plan B in action; we’ll be interested to see what happens in this scene next time.

They played out the scene on the stage, with Antony held in Cleopatra’s arms till he died. She then said her lines and stayed kneeling beside his body, head down, arms across her chest, unmoving. Her women were concerned that she had died too, but she was just overwhelmed by her loss.

Up on the balcony Octavius was still micro-managing everything, and when Antony’s man turned up with the knife, Octavius was terrified and lunged to the far side of the balcony to stay away from him. Once Octavius realised that Antony was dead he came down the ladder and took the knife himself, wiping it clean before the end of the scene as he invited the soldier who had brought it to go to his tent to hear his version of history. The messenger from Cleopatra was Alexas, and Octavius sent Proculeius to secure Cleopatra for his triumphal march through Rome.

In her Monument, Cleopatra had indeed learned some lessons about the transitory nature of power. Dressed in simple black, she was cool towards Proculeius, though she bowed low to him to demonstrate her submission to Caesar; her women followed her lead. When the Roman guards rushed on, they roughed up the women and stabbed Mardian. When Dolabella arrived, he dismissed Proculeius and the guards and they left, taking Mardian’s dead body with them. Dolabella was much more sympathetic, and Cleopatra soon knew the truth about Octavius’s intentions.

When Octavius himself was announced, Cleopatra and her women all bowed down in a semi-circle with their veils over their faces, making it impossible to tell who was who. Octavius asked “which is the queen of Egypt?”, and Dolabella walked over to stand beside Cleopatra. They included the treasury section, with Alexas as the treasurer, and he handed Octavius a folder which presumably contained the details of Cleopatra’s wealth, or at least those parts she was willing to admit to. Octavius possibly handed the folder back to Cleopatra when he told her “still be’t yours”, but she wasn’t fooled by his charm for all her bowing and sweetness towards him.

The asp basket was brought on by a cheerful chap who just wouldn’t stop talking. He clearly didn’t realise who he was talking to until the end of his dialogue, when he was leaving. Charmian and Iras returned with Cleopatra’s throne, and when he saw this he registered shocked surprise and then hurried off the stage.

Charmian and Iras dressed Cleopatra in the same golden robe she wore at the start, plus her crown – no face mask this time as she needs to speak dialogue. After Iras collapsed, Cleopatra sat on her throne and Charmian placed the basket in front of her. She took the first asp and placed it on her breast, and when she took the second snake she placed it on the other side of her breast so that when she died she was sitting there with her arms folded over her chest. Charmian had to grab the basket quickly after the guard came in, but managed to get the asp out in time, and then Octavius finished the play. I wasn’t sure if the look he gave Dolabella meant that he suspected his involvement in Cleopatra’s death.

There’s more to come with this production, and I’m confident it will be much stronger when we see it again in a couple of weeks’ time. The pace will undoubtedly be quicker, and the cast will be used to the space and be judging their performances better. Tonight they were simply too big, presumably to make sure they carried to the back of the auditorium, but as we found from The Deep Blue Sea last year it’s amazing how well small details can travel in this theatre, and with a play like this which combines the epic and the intimate, this may be just about the perfect space to perform it in. But it was a good start and an enjoyable performance even at this early stage.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at