The Winter’s Tale – January 2013

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Lucy Bailey

Venue: RST

Date: Tuesday 29th January 2013

So far, the productions we’ve seen this year have been almost universally excellent, and tonight this continued with a stunning interpretation of The Winter’s Tale. We weren’t at all keen on Lucy Bailey’s Julius Caesar a few years back, her Taming last year had some good points and some less good aspects, but this production is sheer brilliance throughout. Bearing in mind this was the fifth preview (press night is tomorrow) and the actors always improve with practice, this looks set to be one of the RSC’s hit shows – good job we’ve already booked a second helping.

Our seats tonight were on the middle aisle of the centre front stalls, close enough to piss on from the stage (which one of the dancers did during the traditional sheep-shearing clog dance – I hope it was just water). There were a few aspects of the staging which may not have been visible to everyone, but on the whole the production seemed to be pretty egalitarian – I’d be interested to hear other people’s experiences on that one.

I’ll go through the set changes first before  describing the action, as I’ve found it a bit complicated to merge the two. The time period was early Victorian, and the opening set looked more like Illyria than Sicilia. The deep blue Mediterranean sparkled brightly in the distance on the back wall (or screen). Rocky outcrops jutted out (up) from the shore, and from the suggestion of a balcony terrace in the left-hand corner, the stage was clearly an open-air space, with a circular raised dais five steps up from the rest of the stage. A bench with a carved back curved round the rear of the dais. Brightly coloured rugs covered the front of the stage, and piles of cushions, a crown, a book, a bowl of fruit, etc. were placed strategically around. A hookah was brought on for the opening scene, when the Sicilian court lay around the stage in a state of stupor during Camillo and Archidamus’s initial exchange.

After the opening scenes, the rugs, cushions and other paraphernalia were carried off and the whole atmosphere changed. The stage was relatively bare, while the video image at the back showed a close-up of some waves rippling at the water’s edge, in sombre colours. Leontes and his men wore black and white, and although the queen and her women were still in bright colours initially, the mood had darkened. The trial scene was (deliberately) reminiscent of Anne Boleyn’s trial and execution, and by now the colour had completely gone. Only Mamillius’s knight’s tabard gave a soft glow of heraldic red and blue to point up Leontes’ loss even more, when the nursemaid brought it on with the news of his son’s death.

After Leontes’ resolution to mourn his lost wife and children, he prostrated himself on the dais, which gradually rose up and became the top of a tower. He was still in a spotlight – I didn’t notice when it went out but it had done so by the interval – while the picture behind the tower changed to a storm-tossed sea with a sailing ship visible on the right hand side. The bear was CGI’d into the storm scene, which looked most peculiar as it was standing in the middle of the waves, and rushed across the screen to chase the old man off the stage. The young shepherd came on along the right hand walkway and stood watching all of this, then after he left the screen changed to show the sailors drowning in the ocean. When the two shepherds met up to discuss their day, the stormy sea was back on the screen, but noticeably without the ship.

For the interval a sheet was lowered in front of the tower – we’d seen it earlier during the director’s talk – and to continue Lucy’s liking for bedsheets this one looked like part of a mattress cover, with holes where the stitching would have been. It showed an image of the tower with the tide rising and falling and a full moon arcing one way while the constellations rotated in the other direction. This evidently took the place of Time, so the second half opened with Polixenes and Camillo talking at the front of the stage. The rest of Bohemia wasn’t clearly visible at this point, but we had seen a deckchair or two being placed on the stage in front of the sheet during the interval. Sure enough, when the lights came up for the first full-on Bohemian country scene, the sheet rose and we could see the whole layout. This Bohemia looked like an industrial Northern coastal town with a pier (bottom left on the screen), some ocean and a lot of dark sky, a tower with a circular sewage pipe running round it and some hungover locals who were sleeping in the deckchairs or on the ground – a mirror image of the Sicilian scene at the start. It was slightly bizarre to have a sheep-shearing festival in this context, but I was enjoying myself so much that I’m prepared to allow artistic licence on this one.

Another interesting point – Leontes was still visible on top of the tower, now in an orangey robe and looking pretty rough. It was a reminder that while Bohemia was all fun and jollity (for the most part) the suffering was still going on in Sicilia. For the final scenes back in Leontes’ court, the tower turned round and showed the inner spiral staircase with a platform part way down. The picture at the back was of calmer waves, rippling gently across the screen. The rotating tower was also used to reveal the statue, initially hidden behind a white curtain which was shaped like a tent. I didn’t notice if the screen had changed for the final dance – crying too much, apart from anything else – so I’ll have to watch out next time.

The costumes were as described above for the Sicilian court, while the nursemaids wore grey uniforms. The Bohemian court was more casual in tone, with both Polixenes and Camillo wearing suits. The ‘country’ folk generally wore rougher clothes; the shepherds had oilskins for their first appearance and smarter suits for the later scenes. The clog dancers had red velvet shorts and white shirts – very natty – and Autolycus wore a variety of clothes which I’ll describe as I go.

Now for the performance itself. When the play started, the three main characters were sprawled together in the middle of the stage, although I didn’t spot this immediately. I found the opening exchange between Archidamus and Camillo a little hard to follow tonight; the lines weren’t as clear as I would have liked. As they discussed the young prince, Mamillius obligingly ran on stage and hid under Leontes’ dressing gown to escape the pursuing nursemaids; they left once Camillo had pointed out where Mamillius was hiding, presumably satisfied that the young prince was in safe hands.

The three royal folk on the central cushions woke up just before Polixenes’ first line, and Leontes and Hermione had a long kiss while Polixenes was talking. All was going well until Leontes’ sudden onset of jealousy. On the line “too hot”, the lighting changed and the court almost froze while Leontes spoke of his feelings to us. Hermione and Polixenes were slightly to the left of the stage, and continued to move in slow motion, with Leontes free to move around in front of them. The stage was awash with red light, and the screen at the back changed to reflect this, with the colours becoming garish and unnatural. I felt this was very effective, and emphasised both the abruptness of Leontes’ madness and how dangerous this delusion might be.

After Leontes’ talk with Camillo, and Camillo’s conversation with Polixenes, all of which were very clear, Hermione came back on with Mamillius, the two nursemaids and some of her staff. The nursemaids teased Mamillius as they prepared him for bed, and Hermione went to the steps to pour a couple of drinks before taking Mamillius over to some cushions at the front of the stage to hear his story. As they sat there, the lights came up on the back of the stage where Leontes and his remaining lords were discussing Polixenes and Camillo’s escape. Leontes strode forward at the appropriate moment and snatched Mamillius away from Hermione. During their argument he slapped Hermione in the face, which was pretty shocking, even though it was apt.

As the lords exited they removed all of the rugs and cushions apart from one lot to the right of the stage. I think Leontes stayed on the platform at the back, lying down so as not to get in the way of the following scene at the prison. Paulina was very insistent about seeing Hermione or one of her women, and although Amelia indicated that the queen had also thought of sending the new baby to the king, this time I was aware it was a very risky option.

This scene was brisk and soon over, and then we saw a video of Leontes falling into the water prior to the real king waking up from a bad dream and complaining about his lot. Paulina arrived wearing a long black coat inside which she held the baby so that it wasn’t visible to begin with. The men were very wary of her, especially her husband, and we enjoyed that part. When she did reveal the baby, she then laid it down on the few cushions which had been left on stage. They all clustered round the little girl as Paulina described her likeness to Leontes, and started grinning those soppy grins people have when they see a cute little bundle of babyhood. Leontes had to climb over the back of the bench to get away from Paulina as she pursued him round the stage with her arguments, which was funny, but I accepted Leontes’ comment that if he had been a tyrant she wouldn’t have dared to speak out as she did. I noticed that one of the courtiers, probably Antigonus, actually sat on the bench while the king was standing; surely a breach of etiquette, but perhaps they just wanted to underline how easy-going Leontes had been up to this point.

Once Paulina was gone, Leontes rounded on Antigonus, and only the support of the other lords saved him from having to throw the baby on a fire. Leontes’ line “I am a feather for every wind that blows” was quite accurate I felt, although the strongest wind was the one blowing through his brain and forcing all sense out of it.

Once the court had left, Cleomenes and Dion came on, dressed like Victorian explorers in tweeds and plus fours, carrying knapsacks and the like. They talked of the wonders they had seen, planning how to report them, and completed each other’s sentences as they did so. They were both uplifted by their journey and hopeful of a positive outcome for Hermione, and it was nice to see these minor characters given such strong characterisations for once.

The trial scene began with four young men being dragged on to the stage, bound and gagged, while an executioner with a huge sword took up his position on the platform. This was meant to represent Anne Boleyn’s trail, though if you didn’t know that it might have seemed a bit strange. The idea was that these men had been tortured to obtain confessions that the queen had been sleeping around – bit pointless in this play as Hermione has only been accused of one adulteress affair, and the man in question is now far away, but this director likes symbolic imagery even if it gets in the way of the performance at times. Not that we were affected by it either way, but the scene works perfectly well without this extra window dressing. (Now if these good-looking young men hadn’t been wearing their shirts, I might have had a different response.)

For the early part of this scene, and the section with the oracle, Leontes sat on the steps at the front of the stage. Hermione came on and initially stood on the first step of the platform. She was wearing a sombre black dress, similar in style to Paulina’s. Everyone looked on edge from the start of this scene, and it didn’t get any easier as it played out.

Hermione’s delivery at the start was a bit jerky, but I took this to represent her fatigue and emotional distress. She became smoother during her argument with Leontes, and like Paulina she followed him around the stage to make her points. At “Therefore proceed”, she sat down on the steps and moved her hair out of the way of her neck to make life easier for the executioner, who raised his sword to deliver the fatal blow. She then interrupted her own execution to deliver the rest of her speech, calling on the oracle to clear her name before she died. The courtier charged with handling this was very eager to get the job done, and brought a sword forward (not the executioner’s) so that Cleomenes and Dion could swear their oath, kiss the sword, and the oracle could be read. I don’t remember hearing Hermione’s lines about her father.

There was great relief all round at first when the oracle was read out, especially by the lord doing the reading. I thought there may have been a little puzzlement when it came to the last bit, but maybe I imagined it.  Only Leontes remained unmoved, sitting on the front steps and considering his options. His choice made, it was only seconds later that one of the nursemaids ran on stage to tell him of his son’s death, holding out the red and blue tabard which Mamillius had worn in the opening scene. Leontes was so overcome that he collapsed and rolled down the steps of the platform, lying unconscious for a bit before continuing the scene. His reformation was instantaneous, and he readily accepted Paulina’s chiding.

At the end of the scene, Leontes stood on the platform and it started to rise up, as previously described. As he stripped off his clothes, the tower finished its upwards journey and Antigonus and the seaman came on stage and sheltered at its base. After the seaman left, Antigonus placed the wicker crib he was carrying down towards the front of the stage, and told us of his dream. He put the necessary items in the basket with the baby and as he went back to the ship, the bear came out of the water and made towards him. Any killing took place out of our sight, and then the video of the seamen drowning came on screen, followed by the storm.

The old shepherd arrived pushing his bike, and left it lying on the right side of the stage before launching into his speech. He walked back and forth across the stage and cast several curious glances at the wicker basket before checking it out and finding the baby. The young shepherd’s description of the ship and bear scenarios seemed a little unnecessary tonight as we’d just seen it all on the screens. As they left, the young shepherd took the bike with him, while his father carried off the basket and the box with the gold.

I’ve already described the interval setup with the sheet and the images, and the second half started with Polixenes talking to Camillo at the front of the stage. The dialogue was clear, and Camillo was, as usual, unhappy with the idea of a disguise.

Before the lights came up, the actors bestowed themselves about the place, echoing the first scene. The young shepherd and his two women were the threesome in the middle of the stage, wrapped around each other in an intimate way. As Autolycus crept on stage, singing his song, he was accompanied by the only other person who was awake – the accordion player who stood or sat by the tower steps. Leontes was still up on top of the tower, in his orange robes.

Autolycus was dressed in a long black coat with a scruffy shirt and trousers. He carried a large umbrella-like structure; after he planted it in the centre of the stage, he opened it up to form a small tent with side openings and a small window. While he told us of his naughty ways, he took a bottle of beer and an ice cream from some of the sleepers in the deck chairs, along with some other items. When the young shepherd woke up, Autolycus hid in his tent, and when he realised there would be rich pickings from the young man, he snuck out and took sunglasses and half a fishing rod (he broke it in two) from the sleeper on the left. Telling the shepherd he was blind, he easily filched his purse from a back pocket before insisting he was fine.

Florizel and Perdita entered, with most of the sleepers still on the stage. Her accent was a bit strong at first so I missed some of her dialogue, but their love for each other shone through. When the guests for the feast arrived, the music started up as well and all the sleepers woke up. Polixenes and Camillo, in disguise, were part of the throng, and Perdita’s welcome to them was lively and funnier than usual, with her references to middle age coming across as quite cheeky. There was a dance (not the clog dance yet) and Mopsa and Dorcas began fighting over the young shepherd. This fight was turning into the main event, with some of the guests sitting down to watch and others trying to hold the women down, when the news of the pedlar came and a truce broke out.

Autolycus was also in disguise, with a grey beard and wearing eastern attire in the form of baggy leggings. He came out of the tent playing an accordion, but it was actually the accordionist inside the tent we were hearing. When Autolycus stopped, the musician carried on, and Autolycus had to tell him to be quiet. He then returned to the tent and started to speak through the window, but the accordionist kept playing which annoyed him, so he broke off to tell the man to stop.

The song was good fun, with Mopsa and Dorcas singing with Autolycus and really getting into their parts (and even some of his!). The young shepherd got jealous then, and dragged them away to buy goods from Autolycus, who followed them off stage.

Instead of a satyr dance they had a clog dance. Florizel took part, though he joined in late as he was still putting his clogs on, with Perdita’s help. He was dragged into the middle of the group to do a little solo, and did it well enough, obviously his way of earning respect in that culture. Autolycus came on with a camera on a tripod, and the dancers tried to freeze in a dancing pose for a picture. He took the cover off the lens and they stood, and they stood, and we laughed, and they stood, until they couldn’t stand any longer and collapsed on the stage, at which point Autolycus removed the camera.

Florizel’s love for Perdita led him to promise marriage to her in public, and when Polixenes became more forceful in challenging Florizel to tell his father, the other dancers grabbed him and took him round to the back of the tower. With a quick change of clothes, he soon came out of the pipe at the front looking extremely messy, but once he revealed himself as the king, no one felt inclined to comment. The rest of the dancers scarpered double quick, leaving Florizel, Perdita and the old shepherd to face Polixenes’ wrath, with Camillo as a bystander. To even things up with Leontes, Polixenes also hit his son several times before rounding on Perdita and her supposed father.

Camillo’s guidance to the young couple was fine, and then Autolycus returned with his tent and his ill-gotten gains. His description of his purse-picking was very well done, and as he talked he removed his turban, placed it on the ground, gradually drew out the purses he had taken and poured the coins into the turban. He was very wary of Camillo’s approach, but soon realised what was going on. He, Florizel and Perdita all ended up in the tent, changing clothes. When they emerged, Florizel still had his red velvet shorts on, but had Autolycus’s black coat over it, Perdita had the baggy leggings on under her dress, and Autolycus was down to his long johns. Camillo’s line “Nay, you shall have no hat” covered Autolycus’s reluctance to part with the (extremely valuable) turban, and Florizel and Perdita then left.

When the shepherds arrived, Autolycus moved his tent over to the back left corner of the stage, and hid in there to listen to their conversation. Polixenes’ white coat had been discarded on the steps earlier, and Autolycus snuck out of the tent to grab it and put it on, tucking his false beard into one of the pockets. With the coat on, he lounged against the tower and made his first enquiries of the shepherds, “How now, rustics, whither are you bound?” He adopted a posher accent, and with some exaggerated mannerisms gave us a number of laughs as he conned the shepherds (to their own good as it turned out).

Next the tower turned back round and we could see its innards, with the spiral staircase and landing over half way up. Leontes was still on the top, and Paulina with Cleomenes and Dion were below. When Florizel and Perdita arrived, it struck me as a little unlikely that they hadn’t changed clothes, although they had tidied themselves up a bit. As Perdita walked beside Florizel to the centre of the stage before turning and bowing to Leontes, I was aware that she was doing her best to mimic Florizel’s manners and appear like a princess. Leontes had come down to the landing to welcome them, keen to see the son of the man whom he’d wronged so many years ago.

The next scene had the lords and Autolycus recounting the details of Polixenes’ arrival and the discovery of Perdita’s true identity. The lords were smoking cigars and were clearly celebrating – I think there was at least one bottle of champagne on view. When the shepherds arrived, I had thought they might have had fresh outfits to reflect their higher status, but no change in that department apart from gold chains around their necks.

For the reunion scene, the tower turned round again (it had rotated back after the previous scene, so that the statue could be set up) and another tent, a white gauzy one this time, was suspended from the landing; we could dimly see a shape inside it. A nun was also present and drew back the curtain to reveal the ‘statue’, while the other characters spaced themselves round the stage. Paulina stayed by the steps, and had to move fast to stop Perdita and then Leontes from touching the statue.

The awakening scene was very moving – I couldn’t quite see it clearly for some reason (sniff) – and I noticed that Polixenes and Hermione wouldn’t look at each other; Leontes had to take their hands to bring them together. The impending nuptials of Camillo and Paulina were just as bizarre as ever – just when did Leontes have time to ”partly know his mind” – and they ended with another dance, occasionally doing some slow motion moves, and with the rest of the cast joining in. There was clapping and slapping of thighs, to echo the clog dance, and hand to hand moves to echo the court dances at the start. The final image was of Florizel and Perdita spotlit together in the middle of the stage, surrounded by the others; I noticed that Hermione had to kneel down so as not to block the audience’s view of the young couple. It was a fitting ending, putting the emphasis on the next generation, and we applauded mightily.

I’ve left my notes on the director’s pre-show talk till after the performance notes this time. Lucy Bailey had worked as an assistant director on a previous RSC production, and had taken against the play as a result. Apparently Michael Boyd is very good at ear-tickling, because she found herself agreeing to direct this production anyway, and then went through the usual process of discovering how wrong she’d been when she actually read the text.

She wanted to bring out the happiness of the original Sicilian scenes, before it all goes horribly wrong, while for the Bohemian scenes she wanted to emphasise the working-class nature of the characters. Hence the way the Bohemian ‘rural’ scenes looked industrial and the Sicilian scenes looked verdant and lush. Threesomes were another important aspect of the play for her, and she wanted to show Polixenes’ jealousy as well as Leontes’, hence the violence towards Florizel.

She was happy to give Pearce Quigley some licence to play around with Autolycus’ part, as she felt that was what the clowns in Shakespeare’s day would have done, plus they updated some of the language to reflect Victorian sheep-shearing practices. There was more which I don’t recall now, but overall the talk accurately reflected the performance we saw, and didn’t hinder our enjoyment in any way.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at

The Effect – January 2013

Experience: 6/10

By Lucy Prebble

Directed by Rupert Goold

Company: NT and Headlong co-production

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Wednesday 23rd January 2013

For this new Lucy Prebble play, the Cottesloe had been transformed into a (large) waiting room at a pharmaceutical company facility where trials of a new drug were taking place. We were up on the balcony for this one; our experience of the cramped benches of the House of Commons (This House) had put us off risking more uncomfortable seating from the ‘reality’ school of design. Today’s effort looked quite nice though – simple bench sofas with plenty of legroom – and if you could put up with the ubiquitous mustard yellow colour, it was probably a pleasant experience.

The seating was in two rows and went all the way round a rectangular performance space, with gaps on each side for the entrances which were diagonally opposite each other near the corners. There were low tables in the middle of each row apart from the far end, which had a larger sideboard with a display rack beside it. Vases of flowers stood on the tables, while four more low tables stood in each corner of the central space.

An inner rectangular space was outlined in this central area, and most of the acting was done within it, but occasionally spread throughout the downstairs area. Outlined with subdued strip lighting, the initial set up of this rectangle was in line with the rest of the room: two L-shaped seats stood in diagonal corners, and the flooring and the seats were in the same yellow colour. Above this area hung another rectangle which looked like some kind of lighting, though I didn’t notice it doing anything during the performance. Perhaps it contributed in some way to the projections that appeared beneath it; the central area was frequently adapted with light displays, including laser mapping, a mosaic floor and a video of a brain being flooded with some liquid.

There were also two screens positioned at either end of the balcony which showed various bits of information. At first they displayed the ‘Rauschen’ logo – the company involved in the trial – but they also showed when the drug dosage was being increased, and were used for the Stroop test, where various words are shown and the subjects have to name the colour of the word. All good fun, and for me this set up worked pretty well, with the cast being able to change locations briskly and no real confusion as to location.

The story was pretty simple: we followed two test subjects from their initial interviews through the drug trial and beyond – Connie (Billie Piper) and Tristan (Jonjo O’Neill). There were also two doctors: Dr James (Anastasia Hille) who ran the test and Dr Toby Sealey (Tom Goodman-Hill) who was well up the food chain and involved in senior management at the company. Tristan and Connie developed a relationship and the play was, in part, discussing how much our feelings are controlled by chemicals and how much they are just our emotional reactions to events in our lives. I found this aspect of the play much less interesting. I didn’t care for either of the characters, who seemed bland and featureless, and the extended scenes between them went on for too long; at times it felt like an odd couple relationship drama with some science bits attached. The early scene which set up the pattern of the drug trial, with lots of measurements being taken and showing us the strict timing of each dose, was overlong, and there were plenty of other scenes which started well but continued on past their effectiveness or were simply played at too slow a pace. The cross-cutting of scenes worked well, and both Steve and I reckoned that the play would work much better if around 20 to 30 minutes were surgically removed.

I found I engaged most with Dr James, as she was the only one who really wanted to help others, and on the whole I preferred the exchanges between the two doctors. There were early indications of a prior relationship, and these hints developed through the play to give us a much rounder picture of their characters. The scientific parts of the debate were aired more thoroughly with these two, and although it’s too big a subject to cover fully in one play, it was at least a promising start. Again, trimming the piece to about two hours (it ran for 2 hours 45 minutes, including interval) would help to focus the issues better.

Some aspects of the plotting could also do with more work. It was scarcely believable that Dr James would admit to one of the test subjects that another subject was receiving a placebo despite the emotional tension of the situation, and her vacillation over whether or not Connie could or would stay on the trial was bizarre. There were a number of odd anomalies like that which undercut the impact of the play, and with the sexual scene and nudity, I did wonder if they were just ramping up the sensationalism for the sake of bums on seats to the detriment of the production itself. Not that the nudity was salacious in any way; in many ways that scene was well staged with various brief poses giving a sense of the drug-heightened physicality of the couple’s relationship. But it didn’t add to the central theme of the piece, that we are not just bags of chemical reactions, but something more which is harder to define. The consequence of Dr James placebo revelation was also very predictable in general terms, which blunted the ending for me.

It sounds like I’m asking for a complete re-write, but there was a lot to enjoy as well. Plenty of humour, an interesting subject, and excellent performances from all the cast made for a decent afternoon’s entertainment, and I would be prepared to give this play another try in the future, especially if I hear it’s had further work.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at

Julius Caesar – January 2013

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 17th January 2013

We only just made this performance with a few minutes to spare. The fire at Victoria station this morning meant our planned train was cancelled, but the next one ran pretty much to schedule and with some faster than usual walking (for us) we made it to the Donmar with just enough time for me to make a quick trip to the ladies – with two hours and no interval, I wanted to be prepared.

Mind you, I wasn’t happy when I entered the auditorium and saw the plastic bucket seats. Friends had warned us about this but I’d forgotten, and after all the stresses of the morning I wasn’t in a good humour when I sat beside Steve and ran through my pre-flight checklist: glasses, clean; phone, OFF (you know who you are); cough sweet, in (ditto); tissues, handy.

My feeling of depression deepened as I took in the ‘realistic’ prison setting: drab walls, locked doors with viewing windows, a scruffy sofa and some chairs in the right hand corner, some institutional paraphernalia in the other and along the back wall, a drum, an electric guitar, etc. There were two levels of balcony with metal steps on the right hand side. The spotlights were like searchlights, and there was strip lighting above the central area, mostly switched off once the play started. There was a trolley of some sort which was used from time to time, but the stage was usually bare of furniture.

The costumes were in keeping with this design concept. The women prisoners wore grey tracksuits with grey hoodies, and used woollen masks to cover their faces when needed. They also wore great coats, army fatigues or dresses as the occasion required, and there was even a spot of nudity, though not in a salacious way. The red rubber gloves will get a mention later on.

I knew that a women’s prison was the setting beforehand, but the full awfulness of the situation only dawned as I came into the acting space. There was some suitably unpleasant stuff at the beginning of the performance as well, with the prisoners being marched on stage and standing in line followed by a short display of anarchy as they ran around, shouted and screamed, hurled some stuff about and generally behaved badly. What pulled them together was the announcement from the first balcony, by Antony as it turned out, that ‘she’ was coming. The dialogue for this bit was mainly invented, but they did include the soothsayer’s first warning to Caesar, and they staged it pretty well. Carrie Rock played the soothsayer as a girl-woman who often sat by herself cradling a baby doll. The others regarded her as crazy or off her head with drugs, so when she approached Antony on the balcony she was allowed through. She was holding a magazine and pointed to it when she warned of the Ides of March; Antony took the magazine and made it clear this was an astrological prediction with some lines about Libra being very successful but having to watch out you don’t upset others.

With Caesar’s arrival (Frances Barber), things took a more orderly and more menacing turn. She spoke to the crowd and had them in the palm of her hand, and then they started a little exercise routine which had me laughing. Designed to show Caesar’s power over her followers, it made me think that Frances Barber was playing a megalomaniac criminal aerobics instructor. She had the group moving to one side, then the other, going down then up, and the whole thing was hilarious. Some face masks had been thrown down before this, and when the group turned round there was the strange effect of seeing so many Caesars facing us. I assume this was also meant to be chilling or disturbing in some way, but it reminded me of Frances Barber’s recent role in Doctor Who, and I suspected they were trading on that to impress the younger audience members. Whatever the reason, it didn’t engage me, and I was already thinking I’d give the performance fifteen minutes before walking out, something I don’t even consider normally.

Fortunately, once Caesar went off with her followers to an upstairs corner, we were left with Cassius (Jenny Jules) and Brutus (Harriet Walter), and there was no way anything short of a nuclear explosion was going to get me out of my seat once those two got started. Their delivery of the lines was crystal clear and their portrayal of these two characters was the best I’ve ever seen. Admittedly there was a lot missing in this heavily cut production, but the set pieces between these two were pretty much intact and gave us a very detailed picture of their difficult relationship. When they were talking, the setting disappeared into the background (the lights were lowered at this point as well) and the play began to come alive. Cassius’s passion came across strongly, and I could believe for once that there was an existing close friendship between these two people. The accounts of Caesar’s weakness, especially the swim across the river, were so vivid that Cassius’s resentment of Caesar’s success became very clear and understandable.

During this scene there were the necessary cheers from the upper corner, and when Caesar came back down with her followers they made a lot more of this short section than usual. They had placed a table and two chairs in the middle of the stage some time before Cassius and Brutus started their dialogue, and now Caesar put what looked like a pizza box down on the table, threw back the lid and invited everyone to grab a slice. Later, I realised it must have been a box of doughnuts, or perhaps it was a mixture, who knows? Cassius held aloof over on the right of the stage, but Brutus dived in as fast as the others and ate her food by one of the pillars under the balcony, just on Caesar’s left. Caesar’s comment about ‘fat, sleek-headed men’ was accompanied by her stroking Brutus’s head very affectionately, and instead of the rest of the speech being done as a side conversation, or as an open insult by ignoring Cassius’s presence, here Cassius was brought over to sit on one of the chairs and had half a doughnut stuffed in her mouth by Caesar. I didn’t have the presence of mind to check out Brutus’s response to this, as the tension had built up and I was focused on Cassius and Caesar. The derogatory description of Cassius was then given to all and sundry, including Brutus, and this demonstration of total power was rounded off by Caesar biting off the other bit of doughnut that was sticking out of Cassius’s mouth and then giving her a kiss. Cassius was mostly frozen during this scene, but her anger was evident and I noticed that she clenched her fists during the kiss.

Once Caesar had established her authority, she left with Antony and the gang and the other two sat down with Casca to find out what the cheering had been about. Ishia Bennison was excellent as Casca, with a rueful, world-weary cynicism that brought out the humour of her speech perfectly. With the foundations of the plot laid, they skipped the storm scenes altogether and immediately returned to Brutus’s house with Brutus calling for the sleepy Lucius. Again Harriet Walter delivered Brutus’s lines superbly well, and I was particularly struck by the line “Th’abuse of greatness is when it disjoins Remorse from power.” How true.

The letter was thrown down from the balcony instead of brought in by Lucius, and when the conspirators arrived they all wore woollen masks. These were gradually removed as the scene progressed, and when the oath was suggested by Cassius, all the others came and knelt in a circle by Brutus, holding out their hands to swear whatever was required. Brutus spoiled the party, as usual, but her words were inspiring, reminding them all of their common bond and their noble nature. Mind you, Cassius was really starting to get hacked off when Brutus also shoved her oar in about killing Mark Antony. I got the impression that Cassius respected Brutus too much to cause a fuss, and went along with her interpretation of the situation with fewer misgivings than Cassius often shows.

Once the other conspirators had left, Brutus was confronted by Portia, played by Clare Dunne (doubled with Octavius). This is normally the part where I start to lose interest, but again the relationship between these characters fairly crackled with energy, and I enjoyed this scene more than I ever have before. I did find Clare’s Irish brogue a little strong at times, but the fact that she was several months pregnant, with a significant bump, added to both Brutus’s concerns for her welfare and Portia’s own argument that Brutus is neglecting her own health. Her thigh wound was made just before the line “I have made strong proof of my constancy”, and I didn’t spot any fake blood this time, though as Brutus covered her wound very quickly I may have missed it.

The Caius Ligarius part was axed, so the next scene was Caesar’s decision to go to the senate/not to go to the senate/go to the senate. At first Caesar was helped into her black coat by a couple of servants, then she took it off when Calpurnia’s persuasions succeeded, and put it back on again once Casca (instead of Decius Brutus) had her say. Caesar responded very angrily when Casca asked for a reason to give the senate, and everyone else looked cowed. After walking across the stage, Caesar softened enough to give her reasons, for Casca’s ear only, and Casca had to work fast to think of an alternative interpretation of Calpurnia’s dream. This began to change Caesar’s mind, but the absolute clincher was the mention of a crown – how Caesar’s eyes lit up at that word! She was scathing towards Calpurnia after that, and soon had her coat back on for the trip to the senate.

The soothsayer’s part was trimmed to “Caesar, beware ……. It is bent against Caesar”. She said these lines in a disjointed way, wandering around the stage and eventually leaving it, followed by the short scene between Portia and Lucius in which the soothsayer didn’t appear at all. It was very clear that Portia, now knowing about the plot, was extremely worried about Brutus’s safety, and equally as worried about letting slip any information which would spoil the assassination.

As Caesar was arriving at the Senate House, Mark Antony approached a woman in the front row, almost directly in front of us, and asked her to move to another chair which, along with a few others, had been placed just in front of the area covered by the balcony. This left the central seat for Caesar to sit on, and the audience became “his Senate”. We had a very good view of the pleas by Metellus and the others for the repeal of Publius Cimber, and both the best and worst of views for the actual assassination itself. I spotted Casca coming along our row shortly before the deed, and she was right behind Caesar when she delivered the line “Speak hands for me” and stabbed Caesar in the back (or neck; as I said before, in some ways we had the worst of views). The other conspirators took their turns, and when Brutus stepped up to finish Caesar off, looking deeply unhappy that such an act was necessary, we could see her face as she almost hugged Caesar while stabbing her. Caesar came out of the chair and clung to Brutus for a few moments, trying to get out her last line; eventually she collapsed, centre stage, and like a true drama queen wrung every last gasp out of the death.

It was at this point that someone drew forward a basket with red gloves in it. As they hadn’t used fake blood for this scene either, I had wondered how they were going to dip their hands, but as they discussed their actions and their next steps, they put the gloves on their hands to represent the blood, which I found very effective. I also thought it was a typical woman’s approach – don’t use fake blood, we’ll only have to clean it up afterwards.

Mark Antony arrived immediately, without a herald, and shook hands with the conspirators. Again Brutus overruled Cassius about the funeral arrangements, and this time Cassius was less happy to acquiesce. After the conspirators left, Antony drew her right hand out of her pocket and it now wore a red glove; this was the hand which had grasped the conspirators’ gloves. The servant from Octavius was soon moved to tears at the sight of Caesar’s corpse, and Antony was very angry when she said “Get thee apart and weep”, driving the poor servant away from the body; bit possessive, I thought.

For the crowd scene, the lines about some of the people going off to hear what Cassius has to say were dropped, and the ‘plebs’ raced around the stage in a state of panic, with one or another coming to rest, often at a significant moment in Brutus’s speech. Brutus herself was on the trolley, which had been wheeled into the middle of the stage, and with all the helter-skelter activity it was hard to hear her initial lines. This was a decent representation of the very panic which she and the rest of the conspirators had been keen to avoid, but it did detract from important aspects of Brutus’s rhetoric. Given Harriet Walter’s excellent delivery, this seemed too much like dumbing down, emphasising the ‘important’ bits with movement in case the dummies in the audience weren’t up to the language, and naturally it got up my nose. What I did like was the final part of this section, where the crowd congregated around Brutus while they expressed their approval of her actions; as they touched her and moved her around I noticed that they removed her red gloves, a very visual indication that they absolved Brutus of all blame for the murder of Caesar. At the very end, they clustered tightly round Brutus, and when they parted the body of Caesar was lying on the ground, still in the black coat (although it was another actress playing the corpse). The action then moved seamlessly into Antony’s oration, and that’s when things turned ugly.

Antony stood on the ground level to speak to the crowd, and the ‘mantle’ was another version of the black coat, which appeared to have some rips and tears where the shivs had entered. Cush Jumbo delivered Antony’s speech pretty well, and it wasn’t long before there was a mini-riot, with people rushing off the stage to do lots of damage. Antony spoke briefly with Octavius’s servant, and then Cinna the poet arrived for her date with destiny.

The first Cinna was taken away by the guards for some reason – Steve thinks it was to get her medication. Another Cinna had to be pressganged into the role, and since she didn’t know the lines she was given a copy of the text to read from. The rioters were pretty rough with her; she was punched and kicked and slammed against one of the metal pillars. This led to a nosebleed which threatened to stop the whole performance. Two (female) guards arrived, I think the lights came on, and it was only the intervention of Caesar herself, who was apparently also the director of the play, that got things back on track. Cinna was given a hanky to deal with the blood, and the others got on with the play. (This was presumably one reason for not using fake blood during the assassination and other scenes; it would be confusing to have fake blood playing both ‘fake’ blood and ‘real’ blood.)

Antony, Lepidus and Octavius delivered their short scene well. A prisoner was kneeling at the front of the stage, head covered in a hood, while the three leaders stood along the back. After Lepidus left, Antony and Octavius took turns shooting the prisoner, who fell down and then obligingly lifted herself back up to a kneeling position for the next execution. At the very end, Octavius took pity on the prisoner and released her, only to shoot her as she headed off stage, an early indication of Octavius’s ruthlessness.

Brutus’s tent was created by dropping a divided sheet down for the tent opening and having a sofa on one side and a table with stools on the other. The meeting of Cassius and Brutus took place outside this tent, but once they sent off their officers, the lighting changed and we were immediately inside. The scene began with Cassius’s arrival, and was another strong episode in this performance. The dialogue was still crystal clear, and the strength of the relationship between the two characters was very evident. The ‘dagger’ drawn by Cassius was actually a plastic gun, and the entrance of the poet was dropped.

After the passion of the early heated exchange, there was a moment, perhaps inspired by the Poet’s contribution, when Harriet Walter snapped at some sound and swore at the actors who were behind the curtain. I forget what she said, but it was clear her prison character was very angry. It did release some of the tension, and at the time I wasn’t happy about that, but they soon had the scene up and running again with the revelation of Portia’s death and the rest of the scene flowed through very well, with Brutus again overriding Cassius’s better military strategy to hand a clear tactical advantage to the enemy.

The ghost scene was kept simple, with Lucius having a brass instrument and still managing to fall asleep, and Caesar’s ghost appearing for the brief exchange with Brutus. There were no others in the tent, so we were soon on to Octavius and Antony discussing their battle plans up on the balcony. Octavius began to show her tougher side, insisting on taking the right flank, and Antony seemed to be more petulant than a good general should. The confrontation between the two sides’ generals took place on the ground level, and instead of swords they drew their plastic guns again, pointing them at different people depending on the state of the slanging match.

The battle scenes were cut a bit: I remember Brutus and Cassius taking leave of each other, just in case, and then Cassius went through her despair and death, followed by Brutus’s recognition of defeat and her death. Both bodies were still on the floor as Antony and Octavius arrived. With a camera giving us the newsreel footage on the screens, we saw Lucius accepted by Octavius, and then Antony began the closing speeches with “this was the noblest Roman of them all”. She spoke these lines to the camera while the spare cast members picked up Brutus’s body and held it upright behind Antony so it was in shot. Octavius interrupted Antony and spoke over her, taking her lines before she was meant to, and walking in front of Antony to take centre stage. The ‘play’ ended with Octavius’s final lines, and a strong sense that Antony wouldn’t be in charge for long (but that’s another play).

Shortly before the action finished, there had been a reminder from the guards that lock up was only ten minutes away. The prisoners just had time to complete their performance before the guards came back again to take the prisoners back to their cells. It was at this point that we realised that Francis Barber had been a guard all along, which explained her authority and why the play continued after the bloody nose incident. The performance ended with the prisoners being trooped off stage and the lights going out, after which they returned and we gave them rousing applause.

I’m not sure where it happened, but in the later stages the soothsayer wandered naked around the stage carrying her doll, while other actors came on and stood randomly about the place. The soothsayer may have spoken some lines – I don’t remember – and I have absolutely no idea what it was about.

I felt the choice to set the play in a women’s prison was OK, but they didn’t do enough to fully justify it for me. There was the suggestion of lesbian relationships with the ‘wife’ characters, but that wasn’t emphasised nor did it enlighten; on the whole this was a pretty straight reading of the play, albeit a curtailed version. I didn’t have any sense of the way this play impacted on the prisoners’ lives, nor how their experiences influenced their performances or the staging choices, other than the obvious areas of props and furniture. We, the audience, were clearly part of the context, members of the public who had come to see what these prisoners could achieve thanks to the programs paid for by our tax contributions. There were some snarling references to that during the crowd scenes, but nothing worth noting up specifically. Steve did remark on the importance of the play to Harriet Walter’s prison character – her short temper during the tent scene for example, and he saw that she was in tears at the end – but most of the prisoners didn’t seem to care one way or the other. I accept that this setting gave a ready-made explanation for an all-women cast, but again I feel that this sells everyone short: the writer, whose work transcends the ‘realistic’ approach and often works much better when the setting is kept indistinct, the audience, who (mostly) have good imaginations and can go with well-delivered Shakespearean dialogue to just about anywhere, and the actors themselves, who in this case delivered such brilliant readings of their characters that I would happily see this again if I could have a comfy seat. (Actually, I’d probably be willing to forego the comfy seat.)

I left feeling very happy that we’d made it in time to see this production, and also that we’ll be lucky to see such tremendous central performances again. I noticed that Harriet Walter’s slight lisp was more pronounced today, but it didn’t interfere with her delivery, which was impeccable.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at

Boris Godunov – January 2013

Experience: 8/10

By Pushkin, adapted by Adrian Mitchell

Directed by Michael Boyd

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 11th January 2013

This has come on a lot since last November. The story-telling was clearer overall (although not as good as The Orphan Of Zhao) and they’d either managed to make the plot more connected or our greater familiarity helped us handle the storyline’s somewhat chaotic nature. I suspect a lot of the improvement was down to the performances as I saw a lot more detail tonight in most of the major parts, and there was a stronger sense of energy and drive through most of the play. I was more engaged with the characters than before, and some aspects of the staging which I had found distracting before, such as the use of the hanging coats at the back of the stage, weren’t so prominent from our position round the side tonight, allowing me to focus more on the plot.

The opening scene, where the inhabitants of the city rushed off to beg Boris Godunov to be their Tsar, was fine, although again it helped that we knew what was going on. Vorotynskii and Shuiskii, the aristocrats left in the city, explained things nicely, and I noticed that James Tucker seemed to be giving Shuiskii a colder, creepier edge; we were on the other side last time and mainly saw his back, so it may just have been our better angle that allowed us to see his performance more clearly. The baby battering sequence was a bit funny at first, but I found it impossible to laugh second time around. I saw more of the details in this crowd scene, undoubtedly a combination of more performances and prior knowledge.

I noticed that the first scene with the old monk took a while to connect up with what we’d already heard, and I found myself contrasting this with the superb connectivity of Orphan, where the scenes flowed together almost organically. Fortunately the young monk, Grigory (Gethin Anthony), brought up the subject of the murder of the young Tsarevich, Dmitry, and we were back on track. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on with the younger monk who encouraged Grigory to launch his career as pretender to the throne in a later scene; he appeared in the scene after that as well, apparently criticizing Grigory as being led by the devil, so I can only assume he was playing both ends against the middle. Perhaps the meddling monk is a regular feature of Russian literature – they certainly turn up in droves in Shakespeare – but this one was under-explained for me.

Still, we were soon into the fun and games of Grigory’s escape to Lithuania. At a tavern in a frontier town Grigory turned up in the company of two monks-on-the-make. They drank plenty, he stuck with water, and when a couple of guards turned up looking for a runaway monk, Grigory took advantage of a general state of illiteracy to point the finger at one of his travelling companions. This was understandable, since the chief guard had made it clear that when the warrant said ‘arrest’ it meant ‘arrest and hang’; for someone who couldn’t read, he was remarkably good at reading between the lines. When his ruse was discovered, Grigory had to make a quick escape, aided by the tavern’s barmaid, and so to freedom and his new life as Dmitry.

Meanwhile Boris was having a tough time as Tsar. He did his best for the people, fed them when there was famine, and rebuilt their houses when they burned down, but did they thank him for it? Not a bit! They blamed him for the fire and kept on grumbling, ungrateful sods.

His daughter was having a tough time too. Her fiancé died before their weeding, and she spent her time carrying his portrait around with her and mourning his loss, excessively. This was represented by her character walking round the stage holding on to a large picture frame on the other side of which was an actor dressed up as her fiancé. They walked around for a bit, then as I recall the fiancé actor left the stage and she simply held the frame to remind us of her obsession. Her lines from the text seemed to be drastically reduced, so it wasn’t entirely clear first time round what was going on. Boris made a reference to her situation, so we did find out, but even knowing this I found her character rather irrelevant without her lines.

Perhaps they made this choice to concentrate our attention on Boris’s young son Fyodor. Even though the real lad was much older, they showed him here as a young boy, about the age of the deceased Tsarevich, Dmitry, which meant that the boy kept reminding Boris of his guilty secret. When we first saw Fyodor, he was up a step ladder painting red blobs onto a huge map of Russia to represent towns. (Geography lessons were much more sedate in my day.) Boris was pleased to see his heir taking his future responsibilities seriously, but later, after discussing the news of the pretender in Poland, Boris saw the boy again at the back of the stage with a red gash on his neck. As he’d just been going over the details of Dmitry’s death with Shuiskii, the connection was clear, but it turned out to be his own son who’d simply had an accident with the paint brush. They used this crossover again, but this was the most powerful occasion, and according to the text, this was where Boris made more than a passing reference to Henry IV with the line “Oh heavy is the crown worn by a Tsar”.

The story then moved to Poland, where Grigory was winning over the various groups whose support he needed to make a challenge for the Tsardom. These included the Church, disaffected Russians, the Poles, Cossacks and even a poet! Everyone was captivated by the young ‘prince’, except for his potential bride, Maryna (Lucy Briggs-Owen). She wasn’t just playing hard-to-get either; she knew her own worth, perhaps too much, and she wouldn’t settle for anything less than a Tsar. Concerned that she didn’t love him for himself, he decided to come clean and she was appalled. Love was not on the agenda for her; he had to have rank, even pretend rank, or she wasn’t interested. At her response he decided to man up and tell her where to shove it; ironically the ideal wooing tactic for Maryna, as it showed that he could cut it as a serious pretender to the throne. Women!

There were some scenes back in Moscow concerning apparent miracles done by the dead Dmitry and the attitudes of the common people, and then we had a few battle scenes where the horses were actors; when Grigory’s horse died under him on the battlefield it was actually an actor whose back he’d been standing on. Boris then became a monk just before his death – a tradition for Russian Tsars at that time – and his general Basmanov decided to change allegiance and support Grigory. The play finished with the announcement of Grigory as the new Tsar Dmitry, though there was still a lot of tension in the situation.

These final scenes were quite short, with a lot of rushing about followed by quieter moments. The whole performance felt a little uneven, but at least I did follow the story better this time. Overall I liked the staging; it was relatively simple and flowing, and created the locations effectively. I’m still not sure about the coats hanging at the back, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. The fountain (for the wooing scene with Maryna) was made of actors holding bowls and jugs; it was a nice idea but they couldn’t sustain it, so the fountain headed off stage before the end of the scene, which was a bit bizarre.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at

The Orphan Of Zhao – January 2013

Experience: 9/10

By James Fenton, based on a traditional Chinese story

Directed by Greg Doran

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 10th January 2013

Well, this was another great theatrical experience. I’d have to say the cast haven’t come on all that much, but as they were pretty close to perfect when we saw the second performance, that isn’t an insult. They’ve taken things up a notch, the story-telling seemed even clearer (but perhaps that’s just our familiarity?) and I noticed a few extra details which are worth noting up. Otherwise it was just as good as before, and with a substantial audience, though sadly still not a full house, the atmosphere was great.

The beginning had changed slightly. The cast processed onto the stage after forming up at the back, which took a few minutes. Then they stayed on stage for the first lines of Tu’An Gu’s opening speech. The Emperor was standing behind Tu’An Gu with the rest of the court bowing to him, which did at least give us some idea of who was who at the start, and then they left the stage fairly briskly so that Tu’An Gu could continue to entertain us with his villainy. He stood, holding his helmet in one hand, and said “To be…”, which amused us regular Shakespeare watchers very much. The dog was introduced to us again and was just as vicious as before, although we noticed the trainer had managed to stop it thrusting its nose into Tu’An Gu’s crotch.

When Zhao Dun was offered the three suicide options, I spotted this time that the Emperor, a nasty piece of work, was standing on the far balcony observing the ritual. I didn’t notice this last time, but he may have been there. Skipping further on, I understood tonight that the severed heads were actually the heads of the court doctors who had been executed so that they couldn’t betray the Emperor, presumably by hiding the Princess’s baby. While our position at the back round one side did seem to reduce the volume of some of the lines, I was able to follow the story perfectly well, and some points such as this one came across more clearly; whether this is repetition, clearer delivery or some change to the dialogue I have no idea.

The sniffles started earlier tonight than last time; knowing the story I found the difficult choices the characters had to make very moving. When Cheng Ying’s wife had to give up her own baby to raise another woman’s child, I felt her suffering. If I’d had a box of tissues with me I might have used them all; as it was I had to ration myself to a single pack of pocket size tissues, but they did the job.

At the start of the second half, I remember in the previous performance that Cheng Ying said some lines about allowing Cheng Bo one more day as a boy – that didn’t happen tonight, it was all down to the ballad singer. I was in floods of tears all through General Wei Jiang’s confrontation with Cheng Ying – I found Cheng Ying’s predicament particularly moving – and from there the staging was as before. One detail which Steve had spotted last time – the petals fell for every death except Tu’An Gu’s. There were a few petals during Wei Jiang’s takeover of the Palace Guard which presumably represented the Emperor’s death, and I realised the number of petals related to that person’s ‘goodness’ – Cheng Ying had a huge cascade of petals at the end – mega sniffles!

This is such a great production that it deserves full houses and standing ovations every night. I don’t know if it will get them, but we are looking forward to seeing this again in a couple of months, so 2013 is off to a very good start.

[Sadly missed the third session – car problems. 25/3/13]

© 2013 Sheila Evans at

The Merry Wives Of Windsor – January 2013

Experience: 9/10
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Philip Breen
Venue: RST
Date: Tuesday 8th January 2013

As predicted, this has come on a lot with experience. The dialogue was much sharper, and apart from Nym I could make out almost all the dialogue pretty well. This allowed the detail of the plotting to shine through; I’m sure other productions have cut a lot, and even when bits such as the fake German booking at the Garter have been included they weren’t as clear as tonight. This Windsor is a hot bed of intrigue, practical jokes and sneering at your neighbours; the only thing missing is unfaithful wives!

I’ll include revisions from my earlier notes as I go along; these are usually either mistakes on my part first time round or minor changes to the staging, with some additional features added due to our different viewing angle. Slender had his arm in a sling again for the opening scene and his next entrance, so definitely a staging choice. His delivery and timing were much improved on the earlier performance, and Calum Finlay is shaping up nicely in this role. I could see Mistress Ford’s arrival this time, and Falstaff practically made a meal of her on the spot, holding her hand and eyeing her with wanton lasciviousness. Slender still hugged Simple when the latter arrived, but from the way he then shrugged his servant off I suspect he was simply in need of a bit of support.

I spotted Bardolph with the dartboard tonight at the Garter. He handed it to someone in the front row to hold for him, and as he drew his hand back to aim the dart he slipped it behind his ear, so the audience member was never in danger – not sure he was aware of that at the time, though. “No quips now, Pistol” was in tonight – don’t know if that was a change from last time or just my bad memory – and although Pistol and Nym did go on a bit, I was much more aware of their intention to get revenge on Falstaff by revealing his seduction plans to the respective husbands.

Dr Caius was clearer in the next scene: that is, I could tell he was talking a mangled version of English with some French thrown in. We could see poor Peter Simple being hurled against the closet door after the doctor discovered him in there, and he didn’t fare any better when they burst out onto the stage. Simple held up the magazine he’d been reading at one point to protect himself from the angry doctor’s sword, but with a slash of the rapier it was in two pieces. When the doctor ‘gave’ Simple the letter containing the challenge to the parson, he didn’t actually let go of it – still in a temper, perhaps – so Simple ran off without it and had to come back on, rather cautiously, a short while later to take it from the doctor’s outstretched hand.

Anne and William brought the coolbox and chair onto the rugby pitch as before, and left immediately. Mistress Page came up through the trapdoor and was handed Falstaff’s letter by the pageboy at the start of the scene. There was more of a reaction from Mistress Page as she read the letter – it was so nice to be admired and flattered in this way – so when she turned over the page to read the last line of verse and saw the name, her shock and horror were all the funnier. Her husband still couldn’t get the lid off the coolbox – his “how now, Meg” was an indication to his wife that something was wrong in his universe (and it was her job to fix it). She duly obliged by flipping the handle over, opening the box and taking out two bottles of beer, one for her husband and one for Ford, all with the resigned expression of the dutiful wife/dogsbody.

I forgot to mention last time about Mistress Quickly’s first visit to Falstaff’s room, which happened before Brook’s visit, of course. She was wonderfully talkative, and Falstaff had several goes at getting her to stick to the point, which was amusing. I was more aware tonight that she is as much part of the scheming as the two wives, and enjoys ensnaring Falstaff as much as they do – after a later scene she used a fist pump to celebrate a ‘result’. Following her departure this time around, Falstaff took out a mirror and used it to check out the gorgeous physique which had so enamoured Mistress Ford – his overweening vanity was very funny.

Ford’s visit as Brook seemed to work even better than before, judging by how much we laughed. When Ford had his head in his hands and the wig was waving about in mid-air, Falstaff put his hand towards it as if to push it back into place, but thought better of it. As he did last time, Ford took out a photo of his wife, which Brook obviously kept close to his heart, to show to the knight. The complexities of the plotting in this scene, with Ford actually using a lot of the truth to spin his web of deceit, came across very clearly, and I felt that John Ramm’s portrayal gave Ford more depth than is usual.

I can be clearer about the duelling sequences this time. The doctor, in his fencing gear, was prancing about the stage to warm up while Jack Rugby lounged in the car (a Citroen 2CV in fact) while the background music morphed into the theme tune from The Archers. In the distance stood a telephone box which I noticed this time – presumably the same telephone box used by the doctor and the parson to play their trick on the host of the Garter. Their conversation about the parson’s non-appearance was increased with a bit of business. To demonstrate his superiority (these men as so insecure) the doctor ordered Jack Rugby to place the apple he was holding on his head – ‘la pomme, la tête’, an inserted line. Jack demurred, the doctor insisted, so Jack placed the apple very carefully on top of his head, and with one swish from the rapier the two halves fell to the ground. (From our angle it was clear the blade never got within two feet of the apple, but we enjoyed the effect all the same.)

With the arrival of the host and several townsfolk, the dialogue became less comprehensible, but the ‘V’ sign was used to illustrate ‘clapper-claw’, so we got the gist. Once the stage had been cleared of this lot, the parson arrived with his bike (was he riding it at the time?) and leaned it up against a signpost which emerged through the floor and swung round to indicate that Windsor was 3 miles in the direction of backstage. The parson was much more nervous about the fight and so it was appropriate that he had Slender’s servant Peter Simple helping him, Slender being such a coward himself. The discovery of the host’s trick and the resolution of the quarrel between the two ‘foreigners’ was brisk enough and again we got the gist.

Mistress Page came out of her house with the pageboy Robin next, and encountered Ford who was carrying a racquet bag and another sports bag. She was soon off to see his wife, while Ford enlisted the help of several of the others who were returning from the non-duel. Then the stage was set up for Falstaff’s first encounter with the buck basket. All was as before, although I noticed that Mistress Page actually held the vase on top of the buck basket before deciding it was out of place and then returned it to the side table where it behaved as a vase should this time.

I assume I mistook the order of events at the previous performance; it was this first visit to Mistress Ford when the cushions went on the floor, the lights went down and the music played etc. Falstaff got hold of the remote control at one point and managed to turn the lights out completely (total blackout), while Alice (Mistress Ford) was being extremely provocative, taking every opportunity to present her attractive features to the elderly knight. Due to Falstaff’s lack of alacrity in hiding, Meg (Mistress Page) had to make her entrance four times to warn of the danger, and by the time she was able to speak, she wasn’t able to speak – she was out of breath. A restorative glass or two of champagne later, she informed Alice that her husband was on his way, and everyone (apart from Falstaff) enjoyed the way the curtain shook. The women carried on drinking the champagne and playing their parts, overacting them brilliantly, and Falstaff eventually erupted out of hiding when the possibility of hiding in the buck basket was suggested.

Ford’s arrival with his posse was even more fun than before. I’d forgotten that he ran around the house repeating the word ‘buck’ a lot during this scene – obvious rhyming connotations – and the reactions of the other men just added to the fun. The fart was still there and still being blamed on Meg, who wasn’t any happier about it this time round. While the men helped Ford search his own house, the women discussed the situation, and I was more aware this time that they realised something was up because of Ford’s sudden arrival. His later comment about Falstaff boasting “of that he could not compass” added to their suspicions. When Ford said “Come, wife”, Alice walked off stage with haughty dignity, ignoring his outstretched hand, making it clear her husband had better take several hot water bottles to bed with him to avoid a severe chill.

The interval was after this scene, and they restarted with Anne Page sneaking out of her parents’ house to have a crafty fag. Fenton found her there and went straight into wooing mode, but she wasn’t about to fall into his arms for the sake of some fancy talk. Allowing this scene to be done properly (i.e. according to the first Folio) gave us more insight into Anne’s character than usual, and I got the impression that she’s fully aware of her situation and chooses Fenton mainly because he’s the best option available to her. He’s certainly more attractive in every department than her other suitors, and while they may be happy enough in the future, this isn’t the soppy love match which is usually presented to us. I also appreciated seeing her father show some temper towards Fenton; he’s another character who becomes very bland if this scene is prettified up, but tonight we could see the controlling father underneath the apparently laid-back demeanour. It’s good to have some grit in this play for once.

Falstaff’s arrival back at the Garter was another very funny scene, along with the conversations with Mistress Quickly and Brook. They got the most out of the dialogue, and after Falstaff left to prepare for his next assignation with Ford’s wife, the husband himself didn’t just rant about things; he broke a snooker cue in half and used each half to make horns for himself – very funny.

The schoolboys were next, and again it was the boys’ reactions to what William was saying that indicated a lot of the humour, although this William’s delivery was also very good. Mistress Quickly had her back to me throughout this scene, so I couldn’t see her expressions, but the group of boys standing towards the back of the stage could, and they were really enjoying themselves. At long last Mistress Page sent her son home and went to visit her friend, who by now was getting a little desperate. Alice had been fending Sir John off for some time, and frequent glances at her watch made it clear that she’d expected Meg to arrive much sooner.

The scene played out as before, with Falstaff rolling himself in the carpet, Alice taking the melons upstairs, and Ford going berserk over the buck basket when he arrived. He leapt on it, made others lean on it when he moved away for a few moments, and again crawled inside to try and locate an enormous knight who would have been visible with only a cursory glance inside. It was very funny, and although I found the chase sequence a bit clumsy this time, it was still good fun, especially when one of the melons fell on the floor. The other men agreed to assist Ford in one more search, and there was a strong sense of the community in action here, with neighbours helping one another but also having a say in one another’s behaviour; Ford was clearly on the brink of accepting that he had to stop suspecting his wife, or at least stop such extreme behaviour based on his suspicions.

During the search, the doctor and the parson must have snuck out to the telephone box, as this was when the hoax call was made to the Garter to book the host’s horses. Although the box was right by us, the host and Bardolph were obscured by the balcony, so I didn’t find this as clear as last time. In any case, it sounded like the garbled German part of the call was a recording.

Back at the Ford’s house the women had told the men everything, and Ford made a very fulsome apology to his wife, even if he did go a bit over the top. I noticed that when it came to the final revenge, the women not only had to arrange for Falstaff to go to Herne’s oak, they also have to plan the punishment as well. Do these men actually contribute anything useful? Mistress Page delivered almost all the lines for this bit, with Alice keen to chip in but only just managing a couple of lines. The plans for wedding Anne to Slender and then the doctor were explained to us as various characters went off individually to prepare for the finale.

The scene at the Garter was as before, and the parson and the doctor each turned up to inform the host that he had been tricked – how they laughed. The pub had been decorated with all sorts of German trimmings – flags, a “Welkommen” sign, plates of frankfurters, etc., and there were two blond barmaids in German country-style frocks while the host was in full liederhosen. It was a bit overwhelming, but it did show that the host had gone to a lot of expense for his supposed guests, and made his concern easier to understand. The rest of the action was as before, with the necessary information about Anne’s various disguises coming across clearly. When the wives came on stage before the final scene, I noticed that Mistress Page was towing a shopping trolley and I realised it held her costume – Mistress Ford was already prepared under her coat.

The oak didn’t look as good from this angle as it had last time, but the performance of the ‘fairies’ was clearer and I spotted not only the white and green trimmings but also the moments when each ‘Anne’ was removed, the real Anne having red ribbons on her skull headdress. Mistress Quickly as the fairy queen spoke much more like our current monarch than I recall from the previous performance, and there were quite a few laughs during the fairy scene but on the whole I felt it went on a bit too long. With Sir John in the pit, being attacked by the children, the Pages and Fords finally returned to call a halt to the punishment. Ford was in a Hulk costume, very appropriate for a man who suffered from jealousy, while Page needed a good deal of padding to fill his Superman suit. After the final line, Mistress Ford squealed and ran off stage pursued by her husband, and at the very end, with Falstaff left alone in the pit, he lit up a cigar and had a ‘Hamlet’ moment. For those of us old enough to remember the cigar adverts, it was an even more fitting end to the performance.

Most of the cast came out again a short while later for the post-show chat, and the director was also there. He explained some of his initial ideas and inspirations for the production, and there were interesting comments by the cast too. Desmond Barrit remarked that he preferred doing modern dress productions of Shakespeare; the audience seem to engage better with the performance and often think that the language has been updated! The strength of the women’s parts was commented on, along with the importance of playing characters ‘seriously’ even though it’s a comedy; after all, the characters don’t know they’re in a funny play. The director had focused on the two buck basket scenes as being the most important in terms of the humour, so they spent some time working on them. The cast seemed to be having a good time, and I suspect we were a decent audience, so a good night was had by all.

Now that it’s settled into its run, I felt the standard of performances varied a bit tonight, but overall the production worked extremely well. Alexandra Gilbreath and Sylvestra Le Touzel nailed the middle class wives to perfection, with Alexandra vamping it up brilliantly and Sylvestra giving us a glimpse into a life spent looking after others without much time for personal fun. The husbands were also good, with Page being more rounded a character than usual, and Ford being more sympathetic; his unreasonableness seemed more reasonable, if I can put it that way, and the man was clearly suffering from his obsessive jealousy. Desmond Barrit’s Falstaff was truly monumental, and he wrung every last drop of humour out of both the dialogue and the comic business – his attempt to dance seductively was wonderfully funny. The success of the production lies in the collective effort though, and this combination of performances on this set has created an excellent and novel experience. It’s a shame when productions this good don’t transfer to London or anywhere else, and I hope the RSC will look at ways to make these successes more widely available in the future.

Some ideas which occurred to me when I was watching this performance: there’s a great deal of arguing going on in this play, lots of people playing tricks, changing allegiances and the like. Windsor is not a happy place, and the men seem to define themselves by their quarrels. Even Slender, trying to be a man, talks a lot about fighting but is easily alarmed by a dog’s bark. Against this, the women come across as much more cooperative, with the three Mistresses – Page, Ford and Quickly – combining to give Sir John some serious punishment for his impudence.

I was also aware of the ‘threes’ in this play. Slender sequentially accuses Sir John’s three followers, who, like the three-card trick, each escape detection. Anne has three suitors, and each suitor has an ‘Anne’. There are three assignations arranged with Falstaff as well, and I’ve already mentioned the three Mistresses; even if they aren’t three wives, they still represent middle-aged womanhood – spinster, wife, mother. Even if the dialogue doesn’t use the poetical and rhetorical techniques of the other plays, the structure seems to be grounded on similar principles.

Steve also spotted that the daughter’s name is Anne, she was being married off at a young age (for the Elizabethans) and had a younger brother, William. Was this in any way a mirror image of the marriage of another, teenage, William marrying a much older Anne? And now I think about it, were the choices this Anne faced any reflection of another Anne’s situation? We shall probably never know, but it is fun to speculate.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at

Sauce For The Goose – January 2013

Experience: 8/10
By Georges Feydeau, translated by Peter Meyer

Directed by Sam Walters

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 3rd January 2013

This was an entertaining start to the year’s theatre-going. I wasn’t sure how well a farce like this would work in the round, and although the constant doorway miming got a little tedious at times, it did the job reasonably well and even allowed for some extra humour, mostly between the acts. The cast did a good job, as usual, and despite the slightly excessive number of characters and the complicated plot, they told the story well and got a good deal of humour out of the play.

The set was fairly complicated as well, transforming itself twice into three different locations. For the first act, the Vatelin’s flat was decorated in gaudy colours, with a crudely painted ‘carpet’ in the middle of the floor, a fake fireplace on the left wall, the effects desk by the left entranceway, and a long pouf along the far left side with a regular pouf close by. A table with two chairs stood against the far right wall; from the veneer pattern painted on it, it was a folding table. On the right side stood a sofa, coffee table and armchair. The furniture was as crudely painted as the carpet, and the whole effect was both garish and modern, or at least modern for its time.

The second act was located in a hotel room; this was soon produced by rearranging the furniture and providing some extra dressing. The sofa, poufs and coffee table became a bed against the far right wall, the fireplace was moved round to the far left wall, the table was realigned (it did fold after all) and moved across to the left side, while a bedside table and some bedclothes completed the scene. There were also some nick-knacks and a trunk belonging to the current occupant of the room, but she soon moved out to make way for all the fun and games. Farce being what it is -there were lots of clothes and bags distributed around the room by the end of the act – it took a fair chunk of the interval to change everything round to Redillon’s flat for the final act. The furniture was much the same as for the first act, but with a different layout.

The plot revolved around Pontagnac (David Antrobus) and his obsession with chasing other men’s wives. This time he’s followed home Lucienne, who happens to be the wife of one of Pontagnac’s friends, Vatelin. When Lucienne complains to her husband that a man has been following her, Vatelin is shocked and denounces such behaviour as disgraceful; it’s a different matter when he learns that the man in question is Pontagnac, his friend, and Vatelin soon loses his outrage which doesn’t please Lucienne.

We soon discover that Lucienne has every intention of staying faithful to her husband, provided he doesn’t stray himself; if he does, she’ll be in another’s arms in a trice, and she knows just the man to help her out – Redillon. He hangs around their house all the time, desperate for an affair with Lucienne, but she holds him off resolutely. Things change when a German lady, Heidi, pays a visit to Vatelin and we find out that what happened in Germany was meant to stay in Germany, but hasn’t! Various twists and turns later, there’s quite a party going on at the hotel Ultimo, with all the characters we’ve already met plus a few new ones waltzing in and out of room 13, much to our amusement.

The final act provides Redillon with his long-wished-for opportunity to enjoy Lucienne’s delights, and there’s even another wife keen to get revenge on her unfaithful husband – Madame de Pontagnac. But sadly, a night spent with a beautiful prostitute, Armandine, has left Redillon with a temporary shortfall in the loving department. With Lucienne overhearing (by Redillon’s design) her husband’s tortured confession of his one and only lapse while away in Germany on business, the couple are reunited and, for the most part, everything ends happily.

At the time I felt the play could do with some serious pruning to give us more of the main characters and fewer distractions, but thinking about it afterwards I’m not sure what could be cut apart from Armandine. The servants had some nice little scenes, especially at the hotel, and between the acts they also opened the ‘doors’ so that the stage crew could get into the rooms and move the furniture around – a nice touch.

From the post-show we learned that the actors figure out where to move as they work on the play; apart from some set positions, such as taking tea at the table in the hotel room, they’re free to do whatever feels right. The original play had Vatelin travelling to England for business and used the Channel as the barrier between him and France. In translating the play, Peter Meyer had changed the location to Germany, using the Rhine as the water barrier, and giving Heidi some time spent in England to account for her love of tea. I forget the rest of the points, but it was one of the more interesting discussions.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at