The Orphan Of Zhao – October 2012

8/10

Adapted from a traditional Chinese story by James Fenton

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 31st October 2012

This was amazing, and only their second performance! The house wasn’t full but we did our best to be appreciative at the end, calling them back on for a second set of bows. And they deserved it. This is another dynastic difficulties piece, similar to A Soldier In Every Son, but thankfully the names were easier to pronounce. A corrupt emperor, an ambitious captain of the guard who arranges to become the emperor’s chief minister, a loyal minister forced to commit suicide leaving his pregnant wife defenceless (although she’s the emperor’s daughter so killing her is out of the question) and an orphan boy who grows up not knowing who his real father is nor the destiny he has to fulfil. That’s the short version; now read on.

The set was wonderfully simple and evocative. Chinese style fretwork delineated the circular arches – one large one at the back and smaller ones round the side balcony openings. Four large Chinese lanterns hung above the stage, and apart from the severed heads being lowered down and a few items of furniture being brought on and off, that was it. The costumes were also in the Chinese style, including some of the elaborate headdresses, but thankfully the music had been seriously westernised – I have no desire to attune my ears to the sound of traditional Chinese music. And although there were several in the cast of Asian descent, there were no problems with heavy foreign accents, which gave the play the best possible chance for a British audience.

The performance began with a character called the ballad-singer. His opening number was a long song which conveyed the idea of grief and suffering without being specific about the story we were going to see. During the song the other characters processed onto the stage, taking up their positions round the outside and facing inwards for the end of the song. The cast then left the stage to Tu’An Gu, the villain of the piece, superbly played by Joe Dixon. He had us laughing within a very few minutes as he described the frustration he felt at not being the clear top dog amongst the Emperor’s advisors. Speaking of dogs, he had one to show us, a huge mastiff which he had trained to attack anyone wearing a purple robe. The dog was a puppet and looked really vicious, although it was quite sweet when it cuddled up to Tu’An Gu, even if he had to shove its muzzle out of his crotch a couple of times.

Having explained his dastardly plans to us, we were then introduced to the three honourable ministers, one of whom, Zhao Dun, wore a purple robe. Oh dear. They were following an old yearly tradition of going out to the peasants to encourage them in their farming, but had to do without the Emperor’s help as this incumbent was only interested in pleasure of every kind. His Peach Gardens had been built by Tu’An Gu as the location for all this fun, and within it the new Crimson Cloud Tower rose high above the ground. From here, the Emperor informed us, the people looked like ants, so he decided to use them for target practice. The first arrow stuck in the middle of the stage but the rest of the shots missed the audience completely, although from the descriptions, the people in the Peach Gardens were being killed unmercifully by the lunatic ruler. Zhao Dun rushed back on, exclaiming against the slaughter, and Tu’An Gu tried to use his rash statements against him. He didn’t quite manage it, but the senseless killing so upset the three good ministers that one of them retired, one sent himself into exile, guarding the country’s borders, while Zhao Dun stayed in the court – bad move.

After a failed assassination attempt – the assassin killed himself rather than execute such a noble man as Zhao Dun – Zhao Dun tried to accuse Tu’An Gu of the attempt but was brought down by the mastiff which naturally ran straight for the purple robe which Zhao Dun was wearing. Zhao Dun’s servant tried to help him, stabbing the mastiff in the process, but his master was eventually found in his own garden and given a choice of three suicide methods – poison, dagger and bowstring. He chose the dagger and showed his courage by killing himself. His wife, the princess, was kept prisoner in her palace to wait for the baby to be born, and the rest of the Zhao clan were executed. And if you’re worried about the mastiff, it was put out of its misery by Tu’An Gu, poor thing.

With a baby on the way, a country doctor, Cheng Ying, was sent for – none of the regular doctors would take the risk – and he came along next and introduced himself to us. In his discussion with the palace guard he learned of the severed heads, and the guard was already picking out the spot where he would hang Cheng Ying’s head if he was given the task of executing him. Cheng Ying was eventually shown in to see the princess and discovered that she was no longer pregnant as she’d had the baby during the night. She entrusted it to Cheng Ying and made him promise to take care of him, bring him up and teach him of his heritage so that he could avenge the wrong done to the Zhao clan.

The next section was a bit complicated, but it boiled down to this: to save the orphan of Zhao, Cheng Ying substituted his own baby boy for the orphan and placed his son with one of the exiled ministers, Gongsun Chujiu. Cheng Ying then ‘betrayed’ this minister, with his connivance, to Tu’An Gu so that Tu’An Gu would kill the baby believing it to be the orphan. Cheng Ying would then be free to raise the orphan as his own boy, but fate had another twist in store for the lad.

Tu’An Gu was so pleased with Cheng Ying for leading him to the orphan of Zhao, as he thought, that he offered to adopt Cheng Ying’s son (the real orphan of Zhao) as his heir. He would bring the boy up to learn the martial arts, while Cheng Ying would teach him medicine. The self-sacrifice of both Gongsun Chujiu and Cheng Ying himself was remarkable, although his wife’s point of view was different. She wanted to save her son and have the real orphan returned to the court no matter what happened to him. Eventually she realised that all the children were in danger, as a decree had been issued that all young boys would be killed if the orphan wasn’t found – sound familiar? Even so, she was damaged by the actual exchange of one baby for the other, and we learned later that she died of sorrow.

The final scene of the first half showed us General Wei Jiang, the other exiled minister, who brought us up-to-date. Eighteen years had passed since he left the court and he was now on the furthest edge of the Emperor’s lands, constantly fighting against the enemy. A young man was brought to him, a student of medicine who was collecting rare plants and who had a message for the general: the Emperor was dying, and the general was needed back at court. Although the young man wasn’t introduced to us or the general, we realised he was the orphan of Zhao, and fortunately the general liked his attitude so took good care of him. The first half ended with the general considering his next moves and the risk he took if he went back to the court too soon.

The second half opened with another song, this time about the orphan Cheng Bo’s coming of age. He was given his bow and arrows and set off to do some hunting while his supposed biological father, Cheng Ying, decided to give him one more day as a carefree child without knowing his true identity. However in the next scene Cheng Ying was spotted by the returning general Wei Jiang, who considered him a traitor for giving away the hiding place of the orphan of Zhao and getting his friend Gongsun Chujiu killed as well. His soldiers gave Cheng Ying a good beating, but he managed to tell the general that he knew a secret which must not die with him, and so the general listened to him for a while. Cheng Ying told him the situation, that the orphan was alive and only he knew his identity. The general finally believed him, and was amazed to find he had already met the orphan himself (I think the sniffles started about now).

Cheng Bo himself came forward next to tell us his story. The journey to give General Wei Jiang the message (and to gather the plants) had changed the young man completely. From a relative innocent who loved both of his fathers equally, he had come to realise that there was much suffering in the country, and a lot of it was either caused by Tu’An Gu and the Emperor or allowed to flourish due to their indifference to good government. An interesting paragraph in the text has been cut for performance, but it explains how the tax system had been corrupted so that the ordinary people were suffering exorbitant penalties while the Emperor still only got his regular income. I don’t know why they cut it – maybe taxation isn’t a popular enough subject – but it helped me understand the situation better afterwards.

Tu’An Gu had a short speech next before joining his son on a hunting expedition. The horses were two actors who held the bridle end of the reins in their hands while father and son rode on. After Cheng Bo shot two geese with one arrow, they dismounted and held on to the reins of their horses. The bridle ends were held higher this time, to reflect their position relative to their horses, and every so often one or other ‘horse’ would snort and shake its head – not quite War Horse but still pretty good.

In retrieving the geese, Cheng Bo entered the garden of his mother’s palace where she was still being kept prisoner. He spoke with the guard and with her, briefly, but it was enough to give him some troubling thoughts. On his return to the horses, he lied to his second father for the first time, which Tu’An Gu immediately spotted.

Back in the capital, the Emperor gave Wei Jiang his imperial seal, effectively putting him in charge. The Emperor spoke to the general from behind a wispy curtain, which was held up on poles by two servants. Every so often the Emperor would walk through the curtain to speak to Wei Jiang directly, and it was interesting to see the choices here. Then came the difficult scene where Cheng Ying told Cheng Bo of his true identity. Prompted by the ghost of Gongsun Chujiu, Cheng Ying started to paint a scroll telling of the events which happened in the Peach Gardens all those years ago. Cheng Bo joined him, and while the full details weren’t exposed on the scroll yet, Cheng Bo was able to reveal that he suspected he wasn’t Cheng Ying’s son, and this led to the exposure of his true identity.

Wei Jiang accosted the captain of the guard and ensured his cooperation. Cheng Bo paid another visit to his mother and it seemed he received her blessing, and then came the climax of the play – the revenge of the many Zhao clan ghosts against the man who had had them killed – Tu’An Gu. He was standing in the audience room, doing up his shirt, while guards and others rushed about, ignoring him. He tried to get hold of the captain of the guard, but not only did the other guards ignore him, one of them went up to him and slapped him in the face, followed by another. He realised that power was slipping from his grasp, but he didn’t yet know that it was already safely tucked up in another’s bed.

Cheng Bo came on and stood still, just looking at him. Tu’An Gu naturally assumed that Cheng Bo was still on his side and gave him instructions about organising the guards etc. However Cheng Bo stayed where he was to begin with, and when he did move it was to set out the three suicide options for Tu’An Gu. It was clearly difficult for Tu’An Gu to realise what was going on, and even when he did he couldn’t bring himself to kill Cheng Bo, despite having the opportunity. He also couldn’t bring himself to commit suicide, so Cheng Bo had to help him. The general and the Princess arrived, and the revenge scene ended with the Princess holding Cheng Bo as the ballad-singer sang of the dead calling to him while the ghosts walked along the outer edge of the auditorium and on to the stage.

The final scene was the saddest of the lot, but a very fitting ending all the same. Cheng Ying stumbled through a graveyard to find the resting place of his true son’s body. The ghost of that son, now grown up, talked with him, and accused him of hating his son. He denied it; he had always loved his son. But the ghost said he had always loved the orphan of Zhao. Cheng Ying was only there to kill himself, and did so with the ghost’s help. The final image was of the ghost cuddling his dead father’s body, realising at last that he had been loved all along. It was a very moving moment, and a good way to end the story.

There were excellent performances all round from the cast, and some lovely touches in the staging which added to the atmosphere of the story. When someone died, red petals were dropped down onto the stage, which was a beautiful and simple effect. When the two babies were together on the stage, waiting for the decision to be made about swapping them, the relevant actors sat cross-legged diagonally opposite each other on the same side as their baby and made the crying noises – very effective. The story was complicated but told so well that we followed it quite easily, and if this is the standard when they’ve only just started, what will it be like when we see it next?

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Merry Wives Of Windsor – October 2012

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Philip Breen

Venue: RST

Date: Tuesday 30th October 2012

They’ve had some technical difficulties with this production and cancelled the first previews, so this was only the second performance. The cast need a bit longer to get into their full stride, but already this is shaping up to be a classic production of this play, on a par with the famed Bill Alexander version. I even detected a nod to that earlier staging in the pumpkin lantern placed in the corner of an upstairs window of Master Page’s house, the opening backdrop to the performance. The pumpkin lantern also helped to identify the very specific time of this version – late autumn 2012 – and the rest of the design supported that setting beautifully.

In fact, the set design was the first thing that made us hopeful of a good evening’s entertainment. Finally, we saw a design which used the thrust stage as a performance space rather than as the venue for an art installation which would do its best to trip up the actors, obscure them from view or generally get in the way of the actor/audience relationship. Mind you, there were plenty of technical ‘challenges’ to this design as well, and I suspect there are already a few aspects which the actors would like to ditch altogether, but on the whole this was a ‘proper’ set which supported the performance instead of competing with it.

The flooring across the whole of the stage (as far as I could tell) was a diamond pattern of wooden boards with occasional insets of patterned wood. Behind the thrust at the start was the front of the Page’s mock-Tudor manor house, complete with embossed wooden door, lots of windows and a rampant ivy which spread its gnarled limbs across the full width of the stage. It had dropped a lot of its leaves, this being the autumn, but the remaining clumps were vivid red, a lovely sight to see.

This façade was lifted up when not in use, and a number of different settings became available behind it, from the relatively open rugby pitch, through the back wall of the Garter pub to the simple and elegant glass and metal décor of the Ford’s luxury home. I did like the emphasis on Ford and Page being middle class nouveau riche people. It explained Falstaff’s interest in them, or rather their wives, much better, and although they kept to the original text for the various sums of money, I found it easier to grasp that Anne Page’s seven hundred pounds was a huge amount when the design made it clear that her parents were rolling in it.

For the Garter, they brought on a pool table which sat centrally near the front of the stage, while the bar itself was a U-shaped projection which came forward once the house front was lifted. It was a traditional country pub bar with glasses above and wooden bar below with old fashioned real ale pump handles. Steve spotted Bardolph with a dartboard first time round; he gave it to a member of the audience to hold then made as if to throw a dart at it, but of course health and safety wouldn’t let him actually do it.

For the Ford household, a white carpet was brought on and rolled out to cover the middle of the stage, the back of the stage had glass panels and glass double doors and there were metal stairs rising to either side with a metal balcony across the back. The sofa came up via a trapdoor about two thirds of the way back; it was complete with a side table which held a table lamp and a recalcitrant vase and flower, but the latter were only there the first time around.

The rugby pitch was done very well; two rugby posts were lowered down towards the back of the thrust and these were roughly to scale, while a second set, in miniature, were placed further back to give a false perspective. A folding chair and coolbox had been brought on by Anne Page and young William at the start of the scene and stayed there till the end. Falstaff’s upper room at the Garter was simply a bed which came up through the same trap as the sofa, and another long trapdoor which opened up at the very front of the stage to give access. I don’t remember how they screened off the back of the stage for those scenes.

For the very brief scene where the host of the Garter arranged to hire out his horses to some Germans, a red phone box rose up in the front left corner of the stage, and two characters – I realised later it had to be the doctor and the parson – crammed themselves into it to make their hoax phone call. The host took their call up on the balcony of Ford’s house, but as the lights had been lowered and only these two locations were lit, it could have been anywhere.

Doctor Caius’s surgery was a modern office space. There were two metal chairs to the right for waiting patients, and a desk with a computer came up through the trap along with Mistress Quickly. The back wall had a half-timbered look and there was one modern door with a glass panel in it for the cupboard. For the finale, Herne’s oak was a magnificent change from the urban to the rural. With the backdrops lifted, the space behind was filled with the shape of a fallen oak trunk and branches – the trunk was so big that they had to wait till the wall had been lifted before they could swing it round, and its roots stuck out into the stage a fair way. The little ‘elves’ had an actual pit to hide in at the front of the stage; this appeared and disappeared depending on the action – don’t want those little children falling and hurting themselves. Apart from these, there were a couple of locations which were pretty much blank stage, as with the places where the doctor and parson had been told to meet for their duel.

The costumes were similarly rich and varied. Mistress Page was the tweedy country wife to perfection, with welly boots for the rugger match and a headscarf most of the time. Mistress Ford was much more alluring. She’d kept her figure and believed in showing it off, although to be fair she only dressed seductively for Falstaff as part of the deception. Ford himself was the sporty type; he was in his kit after the rugby match and was also carrying a racquet later on, while Page had also been playing rugby from the looks of it and often wore a sports-type anorak. The doctor was a natty dresser and even had the full fencing gear for the duel, unlike the parson who was less well dressed and certainly didn’t look like he knew which end of a rapier was which. Falstaff was mostly in tweed or similar, apart from his brief spell in drag, and the rest of the cast wore appropriate clothes for their station. I’ll describe the final scene’s costumes later.

The opening scene with Justice Shallow having a rant at Falstaff was OK, but I had some lovely views of people’s backs and missed some of the dialogue – they’ll be much clearer once they’ve bedded the production down I’m sure. Slender had his right arm in a sling – don’t know if that was related to the cancelled previews or to the treatment he received at the hands of Pistol, Nym and Bardolph. He wasn’t wearing it later, so we assume it was the latter.

When they knocked on Page’s door, there was a laugh when young William opened it as they were expecting someone a good deal taller. His father soon appeared behind him, however, and I noticed that William stayed on stage during the rest of the scene until most of the group went back in to dinner. This was something mentioned by the director in his pre-show chat, that the children were always present in the play; they certainly were tonight.

Falstaff’s first appearance was a treat. Desmond Barrit wore a fat suit to create a very rotund Sir John, and he made the most of his bulk throughout the performance. Slender was noticeably nervous of Pistol and Nym – nobody seemed to mind Bardolph – and with Mistress Ford’s arrival, sadly obscured from my view, all but Slender went inside to enjoy the venison pasty announced by Mistress Page.

Slender rushed over to Peter Simple when he appeared and gave him a big hug; I wasn’t sure if this was a sign of deeper affection than usual or just an indication of Slender’s nerves. The parson and Shallow came out to talk with him, followed by Anne and then her father. The dialogue was still a bit limp at this point, and with Slender being so central to these exchanges I felt this portrayal needs more work. His final exit into the house was nicely awkward, and then Sir Hugh came out to give Simple a letter to take to Mistress Quickly.

The first Garter scene followed, with Sir John lying on the pool table when they wheeled it on. It took him a while to come to, and then he began downsizing his entourage. I suspect the host regretted his offer to take Bardolph on almost immediately, as Bardolph managed to fall down the stairs to the cellar and from the subsequent sounds of breakages he’s likely to be an expensive employee.

As Sir John expanded on his financial plight to the other two, he gradually shifted himself off the table and was standing to one side when Pistol cracked the joke about Falstaff’s girth. They ditched the line “No quips now, Pistol”, and Falstaff acknowledged the truth of Pistol’s jest before turning to the serious matter of cozening money out of the wealthy of Windsor. His men turned their noses up at being mere messengers so young Robin, who had been sitting on a bar stool all the while, was sent in their place. Falstaff‘s rejection of Pistol and Nym was followed by their decision to land him in it with the two husbands, and that was that.

In Dr Caius’s surgery, Jack Rugby took an age to come when Mistress Quickly called him, but eventually he turned up to act as lookout and she could attend to Peter Simple. Dressed in a fitted grey suit, Anita Dobson played Mistress Quickly as a kindly busybody, using a light girlish voice for the most part and very occasionally dropping the pitch a couple of octaves to the deep tone she used when playing Joan Crawford in a recent tour, but without the American accent of course. It was quite effective, and added to the humour. She also had a tendency to bend down as if talking to a child, which was fine when she was talking to one of the children, but as she was usually doing it with adults it was amusingly patronising, though entirely in keeping with her character. Having said that, she was the only one who noticeably deferred to Sir John, curtsying regularly whenever she was in his presence, apart from her last visit to his room.

When Dr Caius turned up he was almost unintelligible, which is fine in one way as he’s meant to have a poor grasp of English, but I wasn’t even able to tell when he was speaking English or French, it was such a jumble. He did settle down in the later scenes, and his “by Gar” was clearly “bugger”. For now, he was in a rage when he discovered Peter Simple in his closet, dragging him out and throwing him on the floor. Jack Rugby brought the rapier, and despite Simple trying to slip away, he ended up on the floor again and about to be skewered when Dr Caius finally allowed him to explain his presence. Dr Caius left the room to write his letter, and after his massive tantrum it was fun to hear Mistress Quickly comment “I am glad he is so quiet”.

Dr Caius sent Simple off with the challenge for the parson, and Mistress Quickly smoothed the doctor’s ruffled feathers with assurances that Anne Page would be his. Fenton arrived after the doctor left, and was also reassured that Anne loved him. I caught the reference to the wart this time – never noticed it before – and it seemed an amusingly absurd item for Anne to be talking about with Mistress Quickly; from Fenton’s expression he was puzzled about it as well.

The rugby pitch was the next location, and after Anne and William had brought on the chair and coolbox, Mistress Page arrived in her welly boots. I don’t remember if she sent them off or they just left, but once she was on her own she took out the letter she’d received and read it out loud. Despite her initial scorn at receiving a love letter at her age, she was quite affected to find herself complimented so much, even making allowances for the tactless remark about her age given that the writer was equally blunt about his. Even though she wouldn’t have acted on the offer of a liaison, she was clearly enjoying the flattery until she turned the page over and read the last couple of lines followed by the signature. That changed everything. She was amazed and appalled in equal measure. Mistress Ford turned up a few moments later, and the two women were soon comparing the letters and planning revenge.

When their husbands arrived, Page tried for some time to open the coolbox to get a beer but it refused to budge. His wife walked over, lifted the lid and handed him a bottle – how we laughed. The chat between the two men was very clear, and although I noticed a strong physical similarity between Ford and Page in this scene – they were of a height, both bald and with a similar build – I was aware of who was who. I don’t know if this casting was deliberate or just a chance occurrence.

When Brook (Ford) turned up in Falstaff’s room, he was wearing a wig, quite a reasonable one for once, but it had a life of its own as we shall see and in any case stage wigs are funny, especially in farce. He also carried an attaché case filled with banknotes, and although Falstaff had it in his hands a couple of times, he didn’t get the full contents at this visit. Mind you, he did have several bundles of notes in his hands by the end of the scene, though I suspected they wouldn’t stay there long. When Brook was telling Falstaff of his suffering at being denied by Mistress Ford, he sat beside Falstaff on the bed and sank his face into his hands. Bent over like that, his wig flopped forward, and we laughed at the expressions on Falstaff’s face as he gave it his attention. He presumably decided that another man’s vanity was no business of his, so Ford’s disguise still worked while we had some fun. Ford wasn’t so over-the-top with his jealousy this time, which was less funny than we’ve seen before but did fit well with this production.

The failed duel came next, and the difference between the two ‘combatants’ was very evident. The doctor arrived on the bare stage in his fencing gear and fully equipped with his rapier, and began to do various exercises to warm himself up while Jack Rugby drove off in the car – an old Morris Minor I think. When the parson entered on his bike, he was normally dressed and his sword was on the back of the bike. I didn’t follow all the dialogue for this bit, but their reaction to the trick played on them by the host of the Garter was clear, and at least it had the effect of resolving their dispute, whatever it was. The car was good fun, too – not quite up to the Ferrari standard, but still enjoyable.

Falstaff’s first visit to Mistress Ford involved the setting up of the buck basket, a huge wicker basket with two handles. Some laundry was already in there, and the basket was placed just off stage on the left walkway. Mistress Page put the vase with a single flower on it at first, but soon realised it looked strange there so put it back on the side table where it didn’t stay long, falling off at the first opportunity – ripe for cutting?

With the room set up, Meg left Alice to her assignation, and Falstaff was soon at the door. To add to the occasion, he’d brought her some Roses – not the flowers, but a small box of chocolates of that name. He put them down on the sofa and got on with his wooing, which was deliciously absurd. Soon Meg was knocking at the door, interrupting their bliss with a warning that Ford himself was on his way to catch her red-handed. With such spartan furnishings, there was nowhere for Falstaff (or anyone else for that matter) to hide, so he was sent up the stairs – torment itself for such a man – and hid behind the curtain which Alice lowered by means of a remote control. Meg had to redo her entrance three or four times because the curtain descended so slowly it took an age to cover Falstaff, another enjoyable bit of business.

With Falstaff out of sight, Meg and Alice sat on the sofa and enjoyed a chocolate or two while they went through their dialogue about Ford’s sudden return. When the buck basket was suggested, Falstaff was downstairs surprisingly quickly and into the basket without quibbling – the women had moved it into the centre of the stage at this point. The two servants were about to take it away when Ford arrived with the others, demanding that the doors be locked and the house searched. As they stood around the basket, Falstaff farted loudly, we all laughed, and after a long pause Alice said “Meg”, and gave a disappointed look at her friend. Meg wasn’t too happy with this attribution, but gallantly took one for the team, which was even funnier.

The servants almost didn’t make it out of the door with the basket, it was so heavy, but once they got it sliding it moved quite quickly and they were gone. With the domestic trivia out of the way, Ford went berserk, chasing round the house, searching every room – sounds off indicated the violent nature of the search – while the wives waited below for his eventual defeat and planned the next phase of their revenge on Falstaff.

The next scene showed us the competing claims of Fenton and Slender for the hand of Anne Page, together with the competition between her mother and father to choose her husband. Very few people seemed to be interested in what Anne herself wanted, and I could see her choice of Fenton as possibly being more to do with teenage rebellion than actual love.

Back at the Garter, Falstaff arrived, wet, dirty and unhappy. Mistress Quickly soon had him interested in another tryst with Mistress Ford, and when Brooke heard the details of Falstaff’s first escape he was naturally furious. The next scene involved a number of the young boys playing around the stage, clearly not in school although they were in uniform. Mistress Page called her son over and asked the parson to test him on his lessons, and the other boys stood in a group near the front of the stage while William came out with his answers, and by their rections we could see how funny it all was. Some of the answers were funny in themselves, some of the humour lay in Mistress Quickly’s misunderstanding of the Latin words, and some was down to the parson’s Welsh pronunciation – “focative” was especially funny and had the boys in fits of laughter. As a demonstration of schoolboy humour this staging worked very well, and made much more sense of the wordplay in the scene.

The second visit to Mistress Ford was even funnier than the first. With the basic set in place, Alice threw some cushions on the floor at the front of the stage, and used the remote control to lower the lights and play some mood music. She was wearing a diaphanous white top and animal print leggings and slinked seductively round the stage, dancing to the music. Falstaff was enchanted, and even joined in the dance a little, but his main aim was to get her into a clinch as fast as he could, while she did her best to fend him off till Meg got there.

When Meg did arrive, Falstaff threw himself onto the carpet and rolled himself up in it, a totally ineffective hiding place. After the women had hit on the idea of using a disguise to get Falstaff out of the house, he was sent upstairs with Meg to get ready, and while servants brought the buck basket out again, Alice went to get some extra items from the kitchen. She returned with two melons, held close to her chest, which drew the attention of the servants (and the audience as well). She told the servants off when she realised what they were grinning at, and dashed upstairs to help with the disguise. This left the men to carry the surprisingly light buck basket towards the door just as Ford and the others came in. As usual, the dirty linen went everywhere, the buck basket was toppled over and Ford even crawled inside to check for hidden compartments before acknowledging the knight wasn’t there.

In the commotion, various items had been thrown around and broken, and when Mistress Ford came down I saw her pick up the bottom end of a snooker cue and hold it behind her back. After she called to Mistress Page to come down with “the old woman”, and her husband had flown into a rage that the old woman of Brent was in his house, she held out the stick for her husband to take on his way up the stairs, even as she was saying “Good gentlemen, let him not strike the old woman”. But he did, and mercilessly too, chasing her out of the house before locking the doors and conducting yet another fruitless search.

The women decided this time to tell their husbands the whole story, but before we saw the result of that there was the trick to be played on the host of the Garter; I’ve described the staging of that earlier on. Once done, the lighting rose again on the rest of the stage and the husbands and their wives, together with the other characters, planned their revenge on Falstaff.

At the Garter, Falstaff reappeared in his own likeness, gave some entertaining answers to Simple and then the host learned how he had been tricked and his horses stolen. Mistress Quickly lured Sir John away to his room to excuse his beating and set up the final assignation, and during his absence Fenton explained to the host (and us) the plans for the marriage of Anne Page to three different men. There only remained the brief visit by Master Brooke to whet Falstaff’s appetite, some short scenes where Anne’s suitors were informed of their signals and then we were off to the forest, to Herne’s oak, for the final scene of the play.

The set change took a little while, but gave us another beautiful setting for the action. The children came on in their fairy disguises with the parson and hid in the pit before Falstaff entered, done up as a stag with antlers on his head. He looked ridiculous, of course. The women arrived shortly afterwards, and they were also done up in deer disguises; Mistress Ford as a sexy doe with a white scut and short horns, and Mistress Page like the front end of a pantomime deer with the back end sticking out behind – very unglamorous. They were soon startled by a noise and ran off, while Falstaff hid behind the trunk. The sprites and goblins came out of the pit and stood listening to the fairy queen’s instructions. The fairy queen was Mistress Quickly, and she was done up like Elizabeth II in the white full length gown with blue sash, another topical reference to the recent Jubilee celebrations.

Once Sir John was spotted, the fairies gave him a hard time, and I didn’t really notice the disappearance of the three Anne Pages. The revelation of the trick left Falstaff down but not out, and the announcements of the weddings were good fun, with Page and his wife finally coming round to accepting their new son-in-law. With the closing lines, Ford grabbed his wife and ran off with her, obviously planning to carry out the lying with Ford’s wife sooner rather than later. The others left as well, apart from Falstaff, who sat in the pit with the leaves falling on him as the lights went down, a fitting end.

Given the difficulties they’ve had this was a very good start to the run, and we’re looking forward to seeing it again. Once they can get the dialogue across better it should be a very entertaining experience.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Sacred Flame – October 2012

8/10

By W Somerset Maugham

Directed by Matthew Dunster

Company: English Touring Theatre

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 26th October 2012

It was an interesting choice by ETT to put on this neglected Maugham play. The style of the production was equally interesting, and although I didn’t care for some aspects of the staging, the play itself and the performances quickly had me engaged and involved.

The set was spartan but effective. Blank walls demarcated the space: there was a bedroom centrally placed at the back, a wide space in front of it, a door to the garden back left with some gravel in front of it, and stairs leading up to a balcony on the right. There was a door up there to the upper rooms, and some shelves to the left of the bedroom for the drinks tray, books, etc. The furniture was equally Spartan – apart from the hospital bed for the invalid there were a few chairs and several large fans which were in action at various times; I found the noise a bit distracting, and as there was no reason for them other than the occasional references to hot summer weather, I could have done without them altogether. The costumes were also in period, the late 1920s.

The story and style were both unusual. The story concerned Maurice Tabret, a WWI pilot who was severely injured either during or after the war, and who was completely bedridden, paralysed from the waist down. His young wife, who had married him only a few months before his injury, was doing her best to stay both cheerful and faithful, but it was soon obvious that she was actually in love with Maurice’s brother Colin, who was back on leave from his plantation. Mrs Tabret, Maurice and Colin’s mother, also lived with Maurice and Stella, his wife, and they were visited regularly by Dr Harvester and the recently arrived Major Liconda. Nurse Wayland looked after Maurice daily and lived in, and it was her insistence, after Maurice’s death, that he had been poisoned which created the whole drama. The first half of the play set up the situation and the characters, while the second half dealt with the fallout from the nurse’s assertion about the missing pills.

In dealing with the question of murder or assisted suicide, Maugham is much more explicit about female sexuality than usual, even nowadays. Stella’s difficult situation and her needs, the passionate affection felt by the nurse and the mother’s love for her son are all explored in a somewhat clinical way, yet I found I was engaged with the characters and emotionally involved. There was some lovely humour too; the Major had a very entertaining expression on his face when Mrs Tabret was exposing his feelings for her from many years before, and her dismissal of any current prospects for him were equally amusing.

The play’s language is formal and heightened, like a Greek tragedy, and this was emphasised by the stark nature of the set. This created a claustrophobic atmosphere, entirely suitable for the nature of the accusations which were being flung around. Although this wasn’t a murder mystery as such, we were still keen to know the truth about Maurice’s death, and the final revelation was very satisfactory on that score. The nurse’s decision was also believable, given the circumstances and her personality, and when it finished I was very glad that we’d caught this on tour – it’s a good play, though I can see why it might not be revived very often.

The performances were all very good. Robert Demeger is an established favourite with us, and his Major Liconda was very enjoyable. Margot Leicester was an imposing presence as Mrs Tabret, and she was matched by Sarah Churm as Nurse Wayland. Al Nedjari gave a strong performance as the doctor, and although I found Beatriz Romilly a little lightweight as Stella, overall the rest of the cast were fine.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Second Mrs Tanqueray – October 2012

7/10

By Arthur Wing Pinero

Directed by Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 25th October 2012

As Steve remarked, you wait years for a Pinero and then three come along at once! (The Magistrate at the National and Trelawney of the Wells at the Donmar are the other two – we’ve booked.) We saw this play thirty years ago at the National, with Felicity Kendal and Leigh Lawson playing the Tanquerays alongside a classy support cast. The story had faded; all I could remember at this distance was that Felicity Kendal was a troubled woman with a past, that I felt sympathetic towards her, and that we enjoyed the play. Not a lot to go on, but enough to make us keen to see this revival at long last.

The set had another picture frame straddling the stage, a slim one which didn’t intrude too much into the acting space. The opening scene was set in Aubrey Tanqueray’s rooms at the Albany, at the end of a meal with two of his friends; the dining table with appropriate debris was on the left of the stage with a cabinet behind it, a wide doorway screened with a curtain was centre back and a chair, sofa and fireplace were on the right hand side. For the rest of the play, the location was Highercoombe, Mr Tanqueray’s country house. The second act was in the breakfast room while the final acts took place in the drawing room. The breakfast room had the table on the right of the stage with a different sofa and chair on the left and no curtain over the doorway. The change took a little time, and Mrs Tanqueray had already turned up before it was complete. She waited, looking somewhat bored, while the servants completed their task, then sat down to wait for the start of the scene. During the interval the furniture was completely changed, with a circular seat over on the left, a sofa on the right with a piano behind it and various tables and cabinets. Everything was in period style, as were the costumes, and despite the sparseness of the design it worked well for this production. Not as sumptuous as the National, of course, but better for this space.

The plot was relatively simple, but there was some back story we had to be told during the first act. Mr Tanqueray was a widower with a daughter in a convent whi was shortly due to become a nun. The following day he was to marry again, and his wife had a past, which was why he hadn’t mentioned the impending nuptials earlier to his friends. There was a good deal of discussion as to the social consequences of marrying such a woman, both in terms of Tanqueray himself and in relation to Sir George Orreyed, who had himslef only just married another scarlet woman, much to his mother’s distress.

We learned a lot of this from the conversations between Tanqueray’s friends; Tanqueray obligingly took himself off to write some letters – the 19th century equivalent of sending a few texts. To avoid being disturbed, he went into the next room, so his friends could gossip freely, and what fun it was! Cayley Drummle, Tanqueray’s closest friend, stayed after the others had left to get more information about the bride-to-be, and this was followed by a visit from the lady herself, so by the end of the first act we were pretty well acquainted with the situation. The future Mrs Tanqueray had made her living by associating with a series of men, not actually married to them but adopting their names and being a charming hostess to all their friends. Aubrey was convinced that she’d been treated badly by each and every one of these men (the brutes!) but I wasn’t persuaded so easily. With Tanqueray’s young daughter Ellean (pronounced Ellie-Ann) returning home after receiving ghostly guidance from her deceased mother, there was very little likelihood of this second marriage ending happily, and so it proved. We’d both forgotten the dramatic conclusion to the play, but it was not unexpected given the circumstances.

The picture of Victorian marriage painted by Pinero was certainly unflattering, and possibly more accurate than not. Many of the social niceties of those times no longer apply, of course, so I had to be patient occasionally as characters went through agonies over some trivial difficulty which wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today. But there was plenty to enjoy as well, and we laughed often throughout the performance. I felt that this production was taking a deliberately lighter tone than the National’s, making it more of a melodrama. The emotions were more exaggerated, and while we felt kinder towards Paula during the second half, she wasn’t a sympathetic character this time with her temper tantrums and shallowness. (Felicity Kendal, just post-The Good Life, was an angel, of course, and entirely sympathetic – how dare these men think anything bad about her!)

Laura Michelle Kelly showed us Paula’s nervousness and waywardness along with some of her charm and intelligence, but I wasn’t always clear why Aubrey found her attractive. Her dignity started to show through in the later scenes, and there was a sense that but for misfortune she might have been both a decent human being and acceptable to Victorian society. James Wilby did reasonably well as Aubrey Tanqueray, but despite his ability as an actor he seemed to be rushing his lines so much that I missed many of them – very puzzling. Rona Morison was suitably priggish as Ellean, with a noticeable change when she arrived back from Paris, and Joseph Alessi gave perhaps the best performance as Cayley Drummle, Tanqueray’s confidante, gossip-monger and the life of the party. There were good supporting performances from the rest of the cast as well, and the production was nicely balanced.

It was good to see this again, and I hope we don’t have to wait so long for our third opportunity.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

This House – October 2012

7/10

By James Graham

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday 18th October 2012

I enjoyed this play a lot. I would have enjoyed it more if the seat layout hadn’t involved a lot of twisting to see the action, leaving me with a sore neck – the transfer to the Olivier next year should make things easier. The action spanned the troubled years of the 1970s between Heath and Thatcher’s governments, when Labour whips had to use every trick in the book and invent a few new ones to hang on to power. I felt I knew too much and too little simultaneously – too much to be surprised by the events and too little to follow some of the fast-flowing short scenes. The use of the MPs’ constituency names instead of their personal names was another drawback, although I was pleased to find I remembered more of these than I expected.

The set was basically the House of Commons debating chamber. There were two long rows of green seats on either side of a central space, with cross benches at the main entrance and the speaker’s chair at the far end. Down the centre were situated the two whips’ offices with the Government one nearer the Speaker. A corridor ran across the middle of the stage, and the narrow gaps between the offices and the front benches were also used as corridors. There were balconies on two levels which gave some extra acting points, and at the far end there was a large image of the clock face of Big Ben with a spiral staircase leading down in the far right corner. The Speaker’s chair could be rotated to give a pub dartboard and other locations, and they used the whole space very creatively for all sorts of other locations although the majority of the action took place in the Palace of Westminster. The band was located by Big Ben, on the left of the balcony.

The political events are a matter of record, so I won’t repeat them here. The play started with a musical number, and involved a lot of MPs and the Speaker doing a processional dance along the stage until the Speaker arrived at his chair and sat down. The Speaker mainly stayed in his chair, announcing each MP (by constituency) as they joined the action and providing the knocking sound when MPs were knocking on doors. The actor had to disappear occasionally to play another part, but the Speaker’s presence was a strong one in both halves.

The two sets of whips were introduced to us, and each team had a newcomer which is always useful for introductions and explanations. We were already aware of the whips’ role in government at that time so it wasn’t difficult to follow, but I found I was losing some of the dialogue, especially when the action was down the other end, which didn’t help. The relationship between the two groups deteriorated as things became more and more difficult for the Labour government, and some ‘cheating’ by the Labour whips to win one particular vote brought about total war. No more pairing meant that all MPs had to be physically present (and preferably alive) in the Palace for their vote to count, and with a slender or no majority the Labour whips had to work flat out to keep their government’s head above water. Losing John Stonehouse to an apparent drowning didn’t help, and they staged that very nicely.

With the others off stage, Stonehouse stood at one end of the central strip and took his shirt and trousers off; he was wearing red underpants, a party man to the last. From the other end a group of actors brought on a white sheet to represent the water, and as the music played Storehouse walked forward onto it, finding the hole in the centre. As the sheet was lifted up, he waded, then swam, and then the tempo became more urgent and he was being thrown around, stepping up onto the chairs as he was gradually swept along and disappearing under the waves as he left the stage. This was nicely done, and with several other deaths taking place during the play, they set up a convention of the dead walking out of that same door while a light shone through it and some mist curled round the sides.

Of course, nobody ever dies in the Palace, so the tradition is to get the body off site pdq and declare the death as having happened elsewhere. One death actually did happen elsewhere. Having caused the original problem which lost them access to pairing, Walter Harrison had to face a tough dilemma during the run-up to the final vote of no confidence in the Labour Government. One old MP whose health was really bad would come and vote for them, but he probably wouldn’t make it out of the Palace alive. His wife wanted him left in peace, while the MP himself wanted to do his duty. The government was down one vote – what to do? In the end, the whips chose to leave him alone, the government lost by one vote, and Maggie Thatcher was returned to power with a large majority.

Along the way there was a lot of manoeuvring, manipulation and negotiation, some of which was very entertaining. I liked David’s Steel’s comment about why Labour and the Conservatives lose elections, and I suspect I would have liked more of the Irish contingent’s comments if I could have understood them – the accents were a bit variable and hard to follow. Despite the setting there were some strong female characters in the mix, and I liked the way the only female Labour whip swore at an intrusion by a Tory whip late in the play. The language was strong at times, but entirely appropriate in my view, and didn’t give either of us any problems.

I did find the overall structure with a lot of very short scenes made it hard to get any momentum going, and I also didn’t care much about any of the characters. Phil Daniels was good as Bob Mellish, the original Chief whip who had to resign after backing the wrong man in the Labour leadership election which Callaghan won. As he’d been given some numbers by Walter Harrison on which he’d based his choice, it was clear that Walter was staging a coup of his own, and his subsequent frustration at not getting the promotion he was after was richly deserved. Phil Daniels came back to sing a song in the second half up on the balcony, shortly after the beginning as I remember.

The second half began with the election of a new Speaker. The previous one stood by the door, surveying the crowd, and then there was a pretend chase with the new incumbent being dragged to the chair and given his gown and wig, after which it was handshakes all round and this new Speaker took charge. I’m not sure now which of the Speakers had the rant about Heseltine’s mace-waving, but it was good fun. Apparently the mace had been replaced the wrong way round and so Parliament couldn’t sit until it was replaced properly, a job reserved for one particular official. Talk about demarcation disputes!

I very much liked Redditch’s ranting complaint about his constituency; his comment “it’s Birmingham” was very funny – no offence to Redditch. Another excellent scene involved Coventry SW being penalised for some offence which I don’t remember. She came down to the whips’ office, apparently to write a letter of apology, but instead took her time to count out the exact amount of the fine, snapped her handbag shut and left the room. The whips were silent until Walter’s approving comment got things moving again.

The performances were all excellent, and with most of the actors having to swap character rapidly there were a lot of props sitting back stage to help with the quick changes. Phil Daniels (Bob Mellish) and Philip Glenister (Walter Harrison) gave two strong central performances, matched by Vincent Franklin as Michael Cocks, who took over as chief whip once Bob Mellish left. For the Tory side, Julian Wadham and Charles Edwards were suitably patrician as Humphrey Atkins and Jack Weatherill, with plenty of other posh types swanning in and out of their office during the play. I was surprised to see Norman Tebbit as a dandy, camping his way around the Commons, but it was entertaining, and may have been a reasonable portrayal for all I know.

The image of the clock face was important during the play. Michael Cocks liked to visit the clock when Parliament rose, and there were a few scenes where he did this, giving us some extra background information in the process. The first half ended with such a visit, and it was the moment when the mechanism broke, with the ominous silence sounding louder than the chimes. The play’s final image was of Cocks standing on the balcony looking at the clock as the lights went out.

There was obviously a lot more to the play than these few snippets I’ve noted down here, but this gives a flavour of the performance. I would be interested to see it when it transfers to the bigger space to see how they re-stage it, and it was enjoyable enough to warrant a second trip – we’ll see if we can fit it in.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Dry Rot – October 2012

6/10

By John Chapman

Directed by Keith Myers

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Wednesday 17th October 2012

This is an old Whitehall farce involving a small country house hotel and a race-fixing plan. Despite the best efforts of the cast and a willing audience, we felt this touring production didn’t quite sparkle – not so much a decent handicapper, more of a selling plater. Steve thought a few of the cast weren’t quite right for the parts they played and the timing needed to be slicker, but there was still a lot of laughter from the half-full auditorium and there’s always the question in my mind of how well this sort of humour lasts; I’d have to see a top-notch production to be sure.

The set showed the reception area of the hotel, with French windows to the left, the main entrance beside them, dog leg stairs to the upper level beside the door with wooden panelling underneath, and a door and bar area to the right of the stage with the kitchen door in front of that. A radio stood on a table beside the French windows, there was a couch along from that and a table with two chairs stood in front of the bar area. There was also a bell positioned front right beside the kitchen door which refused to work as a bell but when kicked it opened a secret door in the panelling under the stairs, a fact discovered by the gang involved in race fixing but unknown to the owners of the hotel.

The owners were Colonel Wagstaff and his wife, and their daughter was also living with them. They had bought the hotel as a retirement home which would give Mrs Wagstaff something to do, but after six months they still hadn’t entertained any guests. They did have the ‘help’ of Beth, the retarded maid who spoke in a ‘comical’ West Country accent, slouched and broke a lot of things. The plot was under starters’ orders as soon as Beth produced a letter which she’d forgotten to hand over the day before and it turned out to be their first booking. The Wagstaffs assumed that ‘next Tuesday’ meant next week, but when you know farces….. The unexpected knock on the front door came soon after, and they’re off!

The plot is too convoluted to note up in detail, but involved substituting a doped ringer for the French favourite, The Cardinal. When that plan dropped out of contention, the fortunate coincidence which brought The Cardinal’s jockey to the same hotel suggested another option to the gang. There was a hidden passage to add to the fun, and with lots of night-time prowling going on the police were called in. As a result there was a strange police woman on the premises for much of the second half, as well as the diminutive French jockey. The Wagstaff’s daughter Susan was attracted to the young secretary, John Danby, who had been employed by Mr Tubbs, the gang leader, as camouflage, and so we had a little romance going on as well. Frankly, all it needed was a vicar running through the room at some point and we’ve have had a clean sweep.

I thought the cast looked uncomfortable during the curtain calls, though we were appreciative enough. Neil Stacy and Liza Goddard are always dependable and they did well enough in their roles as the Wagstaffs; their conversation about the non-existence of a piano was one of the highlights of the evening for me. Steve Blakeley as Fred, the hapless dogsbody of Mr Tubbs, did the comic business very well, and I liked the Gallic gesturing of Michael Keane as the jockey who spoke not a word of English. The two ingénues were played by newcomers Evelyn Adams and Mark Martin and were OK, and the rest of the cast did their best without distinguishing themselves. I did find the radio commentary of the race was very hard to hear, even when the radio was working, and overall the performance was enjoyable without being memorable.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Timon Of Athens – October 2012

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Sunday 14th October 2012

This was a stunning production, making use of the current financial situation to create a powerful modern-dress retelling of the story, with a striking set design bringing each scene vividly alive. However, this is still Timon, a play with few likeable characters and some impenetrable dialogue, so the overall effect wasn’t as enjoyable as it might have been, especially as Alcibiades’ role was severely cut to make it fit the production’s setting. But even so, this was well worth seeing, and given the current climate someone just had to do this kind of production; the National has certainly done it well.

We had to put up with the droning background music again at the start, while the back half of the stage was filled with tents to represent the Occupy protest outside St Paul’s. At least this kept my expectations down. There were a few people sitting or standing around the tents and a couple of placards facing away from us right at the back. The meaning was clear, and it was through this setting that Timon and his entourage swept, completely ignoring it, while the wall was lowered into position across the middle of the stage. It had a large central area which held a huge painting for this first scene, but could also have a huge window with various backdrops during later scenes. There were two doorways, normal sized, on either side which served to emphasis the height of the main wall.

The first scene was set in an art gallery where the new room being sponsored by Timon was being unveiled – ‘The Timon Room’ appeared above each doorway to great applause during this scene. Waiters held trays of champagne, and the various guests ebbed and flowed around the main man while two of the guests, the painter and the poet, came to the front of the stage to have their little chat. They indicated the actor and the jeweller, who were standing by the drinks tray at that point, and produced their own works during this scene; we saw the book but only the back of the painting.

Timon didn’t speak until the messenger came from Ventidius, but his actions had already given us a sense of his character. He was a man so used to wealth from birth that he couldn’t imagine not having money, and he had presumably only known ‘friends’ who were attracted to his wealth and could be bought. That he was buying them too dear was soon evident, regardless of his steward’s comments, and I had the impression that his extravagance reflected a competitive approach to wealth – to show how wealthy he was he had to give back more than he received. Or it could just have been his natural generosity.

After Ventidius was freed he came to give Timon his thanks and his money back. Timon ripped up the cheque with a confident assertion that his friend would do the same for him if he was ever in need. Before this we had already had Lucullus complaining to Timon that Lucilius, Timon’s servant, had won Lucullus’s daughter’s love and he, Lucullus, wasn’t happy about it. He didn’t want his daughter married to a servant! Timon did the decent thing and matched the dowry so that his servant could marry the woman he loved and who loved him, but his generosity was clearly misjudged in this case as both Lucilius and Lucullus, as they left the stage, grinned and congratulated each other on their success at milking Timon of some more of his wealth. Paul Bentall was particularly good as Lucullus, a man so miserly he practically boasted of it in public.

Then the poet, painter and jeweller presented their ‘gifts’ to Timon, followed by Apemantus’s long diatribe against all the folly on show. Timon seemed to be gently puzzled by Apemantus’s hostility to all the lovely people whom Timon considered his friends. Timon left after this part, with Alcibiades’ entrance being cut, and after Apemantus and the lords had their say, the banquet was brought on to stage by means of the revolve, with the table and chairs coming through one of the doorways. A curtain was dropped to cover the picture and the guests milled about, looking for their places. Ventidius arrived, as did Apemantus, and the starter was served around Apemantus’s line “I scorn thy meat”, with his subsequent lines referring to the dinner guests. Alcibiades was cut again, and the ladies who wished admittance were two ballet dancers who performed on a stage which was revealed when the curtain was drawn back. Their dance was a kind of graceful battle, and afterwards they came round to join the rest at the table.

Yet again there were gifts for the guests, with lots of boxes on a tray presumably holding jewellery or watches. This was the occasion of Flavia’s first lines about Timon’s overspending; played by Deborah Findlay, this was another cross-gender casting which worked perfectly well. After Timon gave out a few boxes directly, he indicated the remaining pile and there was a general rush by most of the guests to grab what they could. I noticed one of the dancers had several boxes in her hands. The party over, the guests left apart from Apemantus, and this time Timon was more short with him as if he was concerned about Apemantus rocking the boat. Apemantus took it badly, and left with a biting comment about Timon’s deafness to flattery.

Almost immediately the set changed to show us an office, clearly an investment bank or similar. There were identifiable city buildings outside the window, but as I don’t know London well enough I couldn’t be more specific. One of the bankers was concerned about Timon’s financial status, and the sight of a façade crumbling under scrutiny was completely up-to-date. The employees who were sent to collect money from Timon were fobbed off yet again by Flavia, but it was obvious that matters were only going to get worse. When Timon did finally realise he was bankrupt, he turned on Flavia and tried to blame her, but she was able to defend herself by reminding him of all the times she’d tried to tell him what was going on and was ignored.

Then came Timon’s belief in the generosity of his friends. His servants looked sceptical when he told them to go to his various ‘friends’ to ask for large sums of money, but they went anyway. The first, Flaminia, turned up in Lucullus’s office in the City, and Paul Bentall was again magnificent as the grasping miser who assumed another lavish present was on its way and then had to refuse to lend some money; it wasn’t difficult for him, and he didn’t bother to cover it with a pretence of sorrow. He did try to cuddle up to the young attractive (female) Flaminia though, dirty old man. She repelled his advances and left, sorrowfully.

The second and third servants fared no better, with the third approaching one of the politicians, Sempronia, who gave the least valid excuse of all, but did it expertly as befitted her political skills. Timon’s anger flared up with the bad news, and he ordered his servants to bid the various ‘friends’ to another dinner, over-riding Flavia’s objections that they couldn’t provide one. Alcibiades’ run in with the Athenian government was dropped, and so we were straight into the ‘feast’, complete with covered dishes, which was eagerly attended by the same sycophantic crew from the earlier meal. Timon’s prayer of thanks at the start of the feast was full of his contempt and anger, thinly disguised with a veneer of politeness, and caused a few strange looks from the guests, but it was the revelation of the ‘turds au naturel’ when the lids were removed that really shocked them. Timon threw some about to add to the unpleasantness, and I assume the liquid offered to the guests was of a matching vintage. The guests soon fled, and Timon had his rant against mankind, tearing off his jacket and throwing away his credit cards as he did so.

I think the next scene came after the interval. Back at Timon’s house, there were various packing cases sitting in the middle of the floor and the three servants were leaving, carrying boxes with their personal effects. Flavia gave them some of her remaining money, and their collective sorrow at Timon’s downfall was almost surprising – he had clearly managed to earn some goodwill without always buying it. Flavia declared her intention to follow Timon and serve him as best she could, and then the wall was lifted to reveal a scarred industrial landscape with lots of concrete pillar bases littered about the place. The metal reinforcing rods were still sticking up out of them, and there was a large grating beside one of these pillars near the front. There was an air of decay and filth, though I didn’t see much debris around the place – just a few black bin liners near the front pillar. This was the setting for the remainder of the play.

Timon approached from the rear of the stage, pushing a supermarket trolley filled with bags and other items, and continued his diatribe against humanity. He came to the forward pillar and parked his trolley behind it, and when he started to ‘dig’ he actually lifted the grating and looked underneath. They shone a golden light up from the hole to indicate the golden hoard he’d discovered, and he pulled out two sizeable money boxes and some ingots before putting the grating back. He then stashed the boxes and ingots in his trolley, covering them up with a sleeping bag or blanket.

Alcibiades, the leader of the Occupy protest in this version, turned up with his followers and stood on the pillar to give a speech to them. Timon hid at first, but joined the rear of the group and eventually joined in with the regular text; where Alcibiades’ lines came from I don’t know. Timon produced one of the money boxes and tipped it out for the protesters to scramble for – they made short work of clearing the stage.

After they left, Timon rummaged in the bin liners for something to eat, discovering a foil tray and a glass bottle. Before he could eat his find, Apemantus arrived, and they had a shortened version of their conversation. Apemantus offered Timon some food, but he turned it down and Apemantus left, full of scorn for Timon’s extreme change of attitude. The thieves also paid Timon a visit and gave him a beating as well. He gave them the second money box and plenty of curses to go with the contents.

Flavia was the next to arrive, and she offered Timon what money she had, plus her service as his steward. She gave him a napkin to clean his bloody nose, but he still sent her away. He then took a little break himself, which gave an opportunity for the painter and the poet to have a chat with each other when they walked on stage. They were eager to find out whether Timon had indeed found more riches, and he took the opportunity to insult them mercilessly. He did offer them food – the remains he’d picked out of the bin bag, which they were too cowardly and greedy to refuse.

The final visitors were the senators of Athens, attempting to persuade Timon to return with them and help prevent Alcibiades’ attack on the city. Timon scorned them also, and left the stage for the last time. The closing scene was back in the city, with a long table and Alcibiades and two senators sitting behind it, giving a news conference. Some of Alcibiades’ lines were used to provide a speech for him, and then a soldier brought the news of Timon’s death. Alcibiades’ final lines closed the play, and there was strong applause from everyone, with some standing amongst the audience that I could see.

I liked a lot about this production, with its contemporary take on this difficult play. The performances were all superb and there was strength in depth, as there always is at the National. Deborah Findlay was good as the female steward Flavia, Hilton Macrae did a good job as Apemantus and Paul Bentall, as mentioned before, was magnificent as Lucullus the miser. Simon Russell Beale was an excellent Timon, with his tremendous ability to deliver the lines with clarity and meaning. His attitude towards money was well defined, showing us someone who has never had to check the balance in his account before splashing out on some extravagance or other, but who was also very dependent on others and his own wealth for his self-esteem. I could understand why his servants cared about him and also why he was so easily duped into giving his money away. The change into angry Timon was also good, although the dialogue does go a bit downhill from then on.

Apart from the severe cuts to Alcibiades’ part, which I felt unbalanced the play a little, I was aware of one potential downside to such a detailed staging; when Timon discovered the gold hidden under the grating, my first thought was that the criminal gang which hid it there would probably want it back before long, and Timon would be well advised to leave it where it lay. Keeping the setting vague and forest-like doesn’t create that problem, but with so much emphasis on present day ‘reality’ it was an inevitable consequence. Not a major problem, of course, but I still found it a distraction from the flow of the story. I have seen productions I’ve preferred to this one, but it was still a good offering, and nice to see this less popular play being staged in the Olivier and getting both full houses and rave reviews! Wonders will never cease.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me