The Tempest – September 2012

(unrated)

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 ilovetheatre.me

Twelfth Night – September 2012

7/10

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 ilovetheatre.me

Comedy Of Errors – September 2012

7/10

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 ilovetheatre.me

Bully Boy – September 2012

8/10

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 ilovetheatre.me

Private Lives – September 2012

9/10

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 ilovetheatre.me

Yours For The Asking – September 2012

7/10

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 ilovetheatre.me

Antony And Cleopatra – September 2012 (2)

9/10

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 ilovetheatre.me