Doctor Faustus – March 2016

Experience: 3/10

By Christopher Marlowe

Directed by Maria Aberg

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 30th March 2106

Maria Aberg is fast heading for “Danger, Will Robinson” status, given to those directors whose work we avoid so as not to waste any of our precious remaining minutes on this planet. This production moved her a good few notches closer – only memories of her As You Like It stand between her and oblivion. (I doubt this will trouble her in the least.) Tonight’s offering was dire in every way except the performances by the lead actors – we have huge respect for the work they do, and given the unfortunate nature of the production they did as well as could be expected. Even so, I avoided adding to the applause at the end, and Steve’s contribution was polite but unenthusiastic.

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Candide – September 2013

Experience: 3/10

By Mark Ravenhill

Directed by Lyndsey Turner

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 6th September 2013

Well that’s one and three-quarter hours of my life I’ll never get back again. As I was on the aisle for this one (left side) I did think of nipping out after the first scene (and then after the second, then during the third, the fourth and even the fifth) but I always have that nagging worry that the evening will suddenly take off and I’ll have missed the good bits. I needn’t have worried tonight; apart from some so-so laughs there was nothing to miss, and an hour or so in the bar waiting for Steve would have been much more entertaining.

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Macbeth – April 2013

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Venue: Trafalgar Studios

Date: Thursday 25th April 2013

We were running late today and nearly missed this performance; the day would have gone better if we had. Steve may have ‘enjoyed’ this slightly more than I did, but then he was one in from the end of our row and thus could see a bit more of the action. Our seats were at the back of the stage, second row, and while they gave us an interesting perspective, the poor sightlines made our experience worse than it might have been had we sat elsewhere. (We were late booking, I should point out.) Judging by the gaps we could see after the interval, we weren’t alone in our opinion of the production; only our eternal optimism kept us there for another turgid hour or so.

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Salome – May 2010

3/10

By Oscar Wilde

Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Company: Headlong

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Wednesday 26th May 2010

We saw a production of this many years ago at the Barbican (1989). That one was directed by Steven Berkoff, who also played Herod, and the design was strongly black and white art deco with everyone except John the Baptist in evening dress. The cast moved in a smooth and stately manner, almost slow motion, and when sitting, they were almost completely still. I didn’t find it Wilde’s most enjoyable work, but it was interesting to see it staged, and there was one gem that has stayed with me. When Herod was trying to persuade Salome to take some reward other than the head of John the Baptist, he went through a long, long list of all the riches, especially the jewels, which he owned, to tempt her to change her mind. At one point, he mentioned two large emeralds, and from the look Herodias gave him at that moment, it was clear she hadn’t been brought up to speed on those particular items. Until now. It was a very subtle reaction, given that none of the actors were moving much physically, but it spoke volumes.

This was another stylised production, but today’s theme was the oh-so-fashionable industrial grunge. We both hope that directors and designers get past this phase as soon as possible. It works sometimes, but so often it just seems to be out of kilter with the play, and this was one of those times. They even used the cliché of a gangsta rap, done by one of the white boys, the lad who was attracted to Salome.

The stage was almost filled by a raised platform, which made it difficult for us to see the action properly (no complaints from us), and it was surrounded by lighting racks – like we need to be reminded we’re watching a theatrical performance. The ‘action’ started early, with actors coming on stage one at a time and prowling round, climbing the lighting racks, etc. Presumably they knew what this was meant to be about, but nobody told us. It went on so long, I started to giggle as the thought went through my head that this might be all there was. One hour and twenty-six minutes of prowling actors. Then there was a loud noise, and two blasts of steam shot in the air. Unfortunately, from where I sat, this just looked like two of the cast had done a special effects fart, so again I had the giggles.

It took me a while to settle into the performance, but after about ten minutes I started to enjoy myself a bit. The grunge disappeared into the background, and the dialogue was coming across clearly. Salome came on and pouted her way around the stage for a bit, finally demanding to speak to John, or Iokanaan as they were calling him. Her behaviour was a bit peculiar throughout this performance, very twitchy and nervy and with lots of sexual posturing. I haven’t spent much time with drug addicts, so I don’t know if that’s what they were trying to suggest, but it’s the only explanation I can come up with. Admittedly, Herod’s court had a reputation for decadence. Trouble is, if you reduce the royal court to a bunch of boozy cokeheads, it takes away from the effect of their actions.

Still, she gets some quality time with John, which she mostly spends blowing hot and cold about his physical attractiveness. I couldn’t make her out at all in this section – was she scared, was she aroused, was she angry? I haven’t a clue. Her promise that she would kiss John’s mouth was mildly chilling, but then we knew the story ahead of time.

Herod and Herodias turn up, and this is where I found sleep getting the better of me. I grasped that Herod was infatuated with Salome, and that Herodias wasn’t happy about that, and then I mercifully missed a chunk, coming to shortly before Herod asked Salome to dance for him, which she agreed to do despite her mother’s objections. Steve has confirmed I didn’t miss much.

Steve and I have pondered this version of Salome’s dance, and we’ve come to the conclusion that it was done this way to show just how much Herod was obsessed by Salome. Not only did he jerk off to her pitiful attempt at dancing (we assume he was miming) but for some reason we are probably too old to understand, Salome had done herself up in a black gauze dress, pink undies, pink makeup and a vivid pink wig. The beatbox was fine, though her attempt to turn the raising of the aerial into a seductive movement left a lot to be desired. She jerked her way unevenly between bits of a dance routine, finally going for a strip (forget the tease), and only kept her panties partially on because Herod had already come in his pants. Like I say, we weren’t complaining about the restricted view.

After this, she claimed the head of John as her reward, and after Herod’s offered her everything else he can think of, he orders his men to give her what she wants. Herodias was delighted that her daughter held her ground – no reaction here to the jewels, but then I think that part was cut. As the stage lights were turned out, the final image, held in the light of several torches, was of Salome kissing the lips of the severed head. Gruesome.

As usual, the performances were fine, we just didn’t care for the way this design choice appeared to have been used for no good reason. I also found the high-pitched voice of Herod off-putting. Steve said it reminded him of the childish gods in the first Dido he saw many years ago; he didn’t like that one, either.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Sweet Nothings – April 2010

3/10

By Arthur Schnitzler

Directed by Luc Bondy

Company: Young Vic

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Wednesday 21st April 2010

I have enjoyed Schnitzler’s work in the past, but then again…. This was a very trivial story, which may have been well translated, but the production left me cold. For the first time in my life, I found myself wanting to nod off, but that didn’t happen until about two thirds through the first half. The second half started better, what with an interesting performance from Hayley Carmichael as the busybody neighbour, always ready to pass on a bad word or two, and always from someone else’s opinion, not her own. The latter part of the scene, after the father had come and gone, was also more enjoyable, as we got to see the situation from the perspective of the two young women, Mitzi and Christine, but on the whole the second part was very predictable and not particularly interesting, and I was happy to catch up on my sleep some more during this part too. At least the first half had several funny lines in it, such as when Theo tells Fritz to play some music to accompany him having sex with Mitzi, and she tells Fritz to make it a short piece. The second half was all downhill, and became very dreary by the end.

The set was mainly on a large revolve, which did an approximately 90 degree turn each half, very slowly for the most part. There was a small extended area in front of the stage and large panels behind, with a circular frame suspended above the revolve which kept pace with it. For the first half, the location was the reception room in Fritz’s flat, with a grand piano, a sofa, a rumble seat and a screen on the revolve, a sideboard with various paraphernalia in the orchestra pit, and a window and several lights dangling from above. They also added candles and a table during the action. The panel at the back was a coral pink colour, and swept across the rear of the stage in graceful curves – a feminine backdrop to the male environment.

The second half was set in Christine’s bedroom, though you’d have thought it was a waiting room at Clapham Junction the way folk just strolled in and out. There was a bed, an arrangement of hanging rails, a table with a chess set beneath the window, two chairs, an empty music stand on the revolve and more music stands with chairs in the pit. Again, things were moved around so that the centre of the stage was clear for the final game of pass the parcel – Christine was determined to visit Fritz’s grave, her father, Mitzi and Theo kept grabbing her to stop her. That’s how it ended, apart from the sound effect of a shot. Costumes were 1920s style and very good.

The story was beyond simple. Fritz had fallen for a married woman, and Christine had fallen for him. Married woman’s husband challenges Fritz to a duel and kills him. Christine is terribly upset. Pass the parcel. That’s it. That’s what took nearly two and a half hours of stage time to tell. Amazing. Few of the characters were even remotely interesting, the stylised production made the whole thing even more antiseptic – why did they bother? A few people in the audience clearly appreciated this kind of thing, judging by their laughter at odd moments, but they were definitely in a minority. We changed seats during the interval, as did a number of others, so it was hard to tell just how many people had left during it, but we were nowhere near a full complement to begin with, and even less than that for the second half.

Steve and I had booked seats in the circle for this one originally, just to see what they were like, but were informed that we’d been moved, as there was some aspect of the set that blocked the view from that part of the auditorium. Search me what it was. The windows scarcely got round that far, and they were pretty insubstantial anyway. No, we decided it was probably just a ruse to cluster us all in the middle stalls because ticket sales had been so poor. We were happier with our new seats; well, I could snooze there just as well as in the other ones.

Despite all this criticism, I must praise all the actors, who gave very good performances. Sadly, the material and production just weren’t to our taste.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Romeo And Juliet – March 2010 (1)

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Monday 29th March 2010

This was an interesting experience. Steve and I have seen so many Shakespeare productions that we can no longer hope for that wonderful experience of seeing a play of his for the first time (Cardenio excepted, possibly). Tonight, however, we were treated to a rare thing, a performance of the RSC’s production of The Comedy of Romeo and Juliet. It’s possible of course that Rupert Goold was simply trying to stage that well known, but sadly lost piece, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, but with no extant text had to base it on the closely related Romeo and Juliet with which many of us are familiar, and simply add as much comedy as he could. Or, of course, he was trying to do the Romeo and Juliet, but chose to go for every cheap laugh available, leading to a diminished sense of the tragedy (what am I saying, diminished? The only tragedy was that the performance lasted three hours and twenty minutes, about three hours and ten minutes too long!), and establishing such a comedic perspective that I was seeing jokes all the way through, and doing my best not to laugh out loud at them. (Didn’t quite manage that – sorry.)

Let me give an example. When Juliet’s ‘body’ was discovered, the nurse was so upset she just stood still. Lady Capulet, on the other hand, after the first shock, apparently remembered that she hadn’t done her daily workout yet, and ran round the stage for several laps before collapsing in a heap. Steve reckoned she was training for the marathon, though on this evidence she wouldn’t make it to the first refreshment point. I found myself thinking that the RSC might be going in for a new form of Shakespeare-related merchandising – the Lady Capulet fitness DVD, perhaps?

And another one: when the modern-dress police turned up at the tomb to investigate the multiple homicide, complete with walkie-talkies and apparently unfazed by the fact that most of the suspects, and indeed the victims, were in Elizabethan fancy dress, I fully expected a forensics team to walk on set and start taking photos, look for blood spatter, etc.

And that wouldn’t have been out of keeping with this production. The opening request for the audience to turn off, not shoot, not record, etc, was made by Noma Dumezweni, dressed in a suit and using a Caribbean accent. The set, as far as I could see at this point, consisted of some gates at the back of the thrust, some kind of opening above, and an ironwork window pattern in the centre of the stage, courtesy of a single light. The use of church music beforehand set the scene very well, and it became clear after Noma’s announcement that she was a guide in some cathedral or other. When Sam Troughton arrived in his modern clothes, including a hoodie, and carrying a camera, she gave him a headphone set for the audio tour. He had to fiddle with it a bit to get the English version, and then that was how the prologue was given. Neat. After he wandered off to explore more of the building, the actors for the first scene arrived, and went straight into the thumb-biting scenario (Samson and Gregory didn’t get a chance to puzzle us all at the start with their dextrous word-play around the word ‘choler’). The fight soon escalated, and Benvolio, doing his best to stop it all, ended up tied to a stake in the middle of the stage with a cloth stuffed in his mouth. Tybalt was about to set it on fire (eugh! Just how nasty do you have to be to get the point across?) when the principals in this conflict turned up. Sadly, this didn’t help, since they pitched in as well, and even the Ladies got into a cat fight (a pretty pathetic one, mind you). When the Duke finally got there, we went from truly nasty to comedy, as the clatter of weapons being dropped on his command goes on, and on, and on. Capulet in particular never left the house without a good dozen knives secreted about his person. Sitting down must be a precarious thing to do – he could easily stab himself in the groin.

This humour was OK, but already it was undercutting the seriousness of the situation; it was hard to tell whether the warring families are in Apocalypse Now or Love Thy Neighbour. [After the understudies performance, I realised that the attempt to fry Benvolio happened after Montague and Capulet joined in, and some petrol was poured over Benvolio first from a can. Also Tybalt had previously lit a match and thrown it down on the grill in the centre, causing a huge flame to flare up.]

With the factions sent packing, and only the Montagues left on stage, the next bit of dialogue was badly delivered – I know roughly what they’re saying, but tonight it just didn’t come across. Once Romeo arrived, the delivery improved, but sadly Benvolio was being played as a buffoon, and again this weakened the performance. In fact, just about every character was played as a buffoon, the lovers and possibly Paris and the friar excepted, which boosted the comedy alright, but…..well, I think my views on this point are already well established.

Sam Troughton’s Romeo still had the camera, and it was put to good use in this scene, with Romeo showing Benvolio the picture of his love (Rosaline) on the screen, and Benvolio using the camera to take a picture of a woman in the audience to show Romeo that his love wasn’t the only beauty around. This bit of humour also worked well, with Romeo holding out his hand in apology to the audience lady when he compared her unfavourably to his love.

There was a good deal of overlapping of scenes in this production – it’s a tried and tested method for speeding things up, and can provide some interesting juxtapositions – and I think this may have happened when Capulet arrived on stage for his next scene before Romeo and Benvolio have left. Played by Richard Katz, Capulet is another weak interpretation (I blame the director), played more for comedy than gravitas. Peter was sitting on the steps which were pushed through the gates, and the humour of his performance when he was given the task of inviting the guests to Capulet’s party was entirely appropriate and very well done. His cringing attempt to get noticed by Romeo and Benvolio was very funny, as was Romeo’s blatant reaction to seeing the name ‘Rosaline’ on the guest-list. When Peter mentioned the name Montague, he hawked and spat superbly, so no prizes for guessing where his loyalties lay.

After they left, Lady Capulet appeared at the upper balcony, with several makeup artists whose help she evidently needs. Her hair was a mess, she was only partly dressed, and to be frank, she wasn’t looking her best. As they got to work, the nurse below summoned Juliet, who came on carrying something strange, a three foot long piece of rope with a light at the end – some new-fangled toy, I expect. She started twirling this around, casually at first, but with increasing vigour as the conversation went in directions she found unpleasant, and even raised it above her head when things got really bad and marriage was mentioned. As a way of showing her inner sulky brat, it worked quite well, though it was a bit distracting, and meant she never showed us her relationship with her nurse which usually gets its first outing in this scene. Noma did her best with the nurse’s part, but against the whirling she was a bit low-key. Also, I wondered if she’d been smoking the old wacky-baccy in her pipe, as her manner suggested a relaxed calm not entirely at odds with such a practice. But there was no other indication, so perhaps I just made it up. By the end of the scene, Lady Capulet was looking much better, and that’s about all I can remember from that bit.

The next scene brought on Mercutio for the first time, with the challenge of the Queen Mab speech. We both like Jonjo O’Neill, and have seen him give any number of good performances, so we don’t mean it unkindly when we say that we were both heartily glad to see the back of this Mercutio. His going, normally a cause for grief, was a real blessing tonight. He wasn’t too bad in this scene, admittedly, although the policy of encouraging some of the actors to exaggerate their natural accents, presumably for comic effect, can lead to many of the lines being unintelligible, and so it was with Mercutio. I did get his point that dreams are nothing, mere fantasy, so the speech wasn’t completely wasted.

And now for the party. Forget the dialogue, this was all about the dancing and music, of which we got plenty. So much so, that most of Capulet’s lines were lost, though the way he held a dagger to Tybalt’s throat conveyed his point well enough. I found myself wondering if there were film influences here that I wasn’t aware of – Romeo + Juliet, perhaps. I definitely had the feeling that I was missing something.

Only Romeo and Juliet themselves were allowed space and silence in this scene to deliver their dialogue, which they did very well, and at this point I had high hopes that this production might work out fine. Juliet had seen Romeo a couple of times during the dancing and shown no interest in him that I could see, so it was a bit of a surprise that she suddenly got into kissing mode with him, but that’s young love for you. They both showed clear reactions to finding out who the other was, and we were set up nicely for their balcony scene.

Unfortunately we had to put up with Mercutio and Benvolio again for a bit. With Mercutio having so few lines, this part usually doesn’t take long, but tonight we were ‘treated’ to as unnecessary a chunk of ‘comic’ business as you could wish not to see. For some reason, Mercutio had to emphasise that he was talking about Romeo screwing his love – at this time they still think it’s Rosaline he’s in love with. Starting with hand gestures, he went from a finger-fuck to an arm, then his whole body climbed inside – much laughter from the younger section of the audience – then there was a surreal sequence where he appeared to be having a cup of tea in the party in her uterus, then he kissed somebody (was he meant to be a sperm that’s come into contact with an egg?), and that scared him so much he ran back out of the vagina, falling flat on the floor from a fart, whether vaginal or anal I couldn’t say. One or two bits of this were mildly funny, but it went on far too long for us.

Fortunately, the scene between Romeo and Juliet was clear and uncluttered by this inappropriate and over-fussy business. Juliet appeared at the upper level, simply standing or sitting with her legs dangling over the edge. Romeo started at the stairs at the front of the stage, then moved around a bit, finally climbing the trellis to claim his snog. In fact, they might have had the wedding night a day early, the way these two were carrying on, but Juliet is a good girl, and pushed him away. This was very well done, and was starting to get me involved, and if they can build on these bits and drop the rubbish encrusting the play, they might do very well. We can only hope.

The next scene introduced Friar Laurence, and Forbes Masson did a perfectly acceptable job with the meddling friar. I did think his displays of temper were a bit out of kilter with his words of moderation, but not enough to give me a problem. Romeo’s change of attitude was remarkable. He arrived on a bicycle, and was full of enthusiasm. Friar Laurence was initially concerned to hear that Rosaline was, like, so yesterday’s news. He even slapped Romeo’s face where he could still see the tear stain, while Romeo’s blank reaction when the Friar mentioned Rosaline’s name was perfect. But after some time to think, the Friar saw the possibilities in the marriage between the feuding families, and agreed to help them out.

Next Mercutio and Benvolio waited for Romeo, and the only thing I got from the dialogue was that Mercutio seemed to be criticising Tybalt, and perhaps others, for faults that were more part of his character than anyone else’s, as of course he does later when he accuses Benvolio of being quarrelsome. When Romeo cycled in, he sparred with Mercutio in a much livelier way, not that I could follow half of it, but it’s clear that he’s back to the Romeo of old, full of wit and spirit. The nurse turned up with Peter, and again the sexual innuendo of Mercutio’s insults to her are emphasised, with him calling her a whore many times over. She was wonderfully funny in her non-delivery of Juliet’s message, and in her readiness to dash off as soon as Romeo has told her he protests. Strangely, some lines that are often included seemed to be dropped, while lines I haven’t heard before, about Romeo and rosemary both starting with the letter ‘R’, were included. God knows why, as I couldn’t see what they were getting at, and the nurse simply pulled out of that conversation and leaves. Bizarre.

For the Nurse’s return to Juliet, there was a platform that raised up in the centre of the stage, similar to the one used in King Lear. It may have been raised earlier, but I specifically remember it in this scene. [Certainly used during party scene, possibly earlier.] Juliet had been waiting impatiently, and her frustration was very clear. When the nurse did arrive, there was the usual bickering as Juliet pushed to get what she wanted, and the nurse took her time to get what she wanted – in this case, a back rub – before divulging her news. There was a nice bit where Juliet started rubbing one side of her back, and the nurse said, ‘other side’ – it gave us a chuckle. The timing of her abrupt change of subject – “where’s your mother” – was very good. Then we were off to Friar Laurence’s cell for the wedding – a short scene, with nothing to comment on.

Now we come to the point where I found the funny side too much for me. It’s the scene where Mercutio and Benvolio encounter Tybalt, get into a fight, and Romeo, in trying to part them, gets Mercutio killed (hooray!). The stairs were forward again, and the platform was raised. The fight between Mercutio and Tybalt was OK, with Mercutio at first threatening him with the bicycle pump (cue for some more sexual innuendo from the pumping action), and then snatching Tybalt’s sword, after which the whole thing escalated until Tybalt, in the final clinch, used his concealed blade, Wolverine-like, to stab Mercutio in the guts. All fine and good, but I was distracted by the sudden bursts of smoke and fire that belched up every so often from vents in the floor and platform. There had also been flame effects projected onto the screens either side of the gates from the first fight scene onwards – these gave the impression that Verona was already ablaze, similar to the Julius Caesar that I was so very unfond of last year. Now, however, I was struck with the thought that this Verona was actually built on Vesuvius, and the constant mini-eruptions were due to that. I found it hard not to giggle, so I did, silently, but from now on my sense of humour was going full blast, and I saw so much to laugh at that I couldn’t take anything seriously again.

During the fighting, Mercutio handed Tybalt the bicycle pump and took Tybalt’s sword. When Tybalt thumped him in the stomach with the pump, Mercutio bent Tybalt’s sword over to a right angle, and then used it to play cricket. Mercutio’s final speech was delivered in as perky as fashion as I can remember from a dying man, while Romeo tried to strangle Tybalt at first, then turned his own blade on him. Benvolio’s clownish nature made his recounting of the fight seem feeble and petty, and so the prince’s concern, and the threat to the families, was again undercut.

The scene between Juliet and the nurse where Juliet discovered what has happened to Tybalt and Romeo, was excellent, with Mariah Gale’s reactions just perfect, and the nurse suitably deadened by the loss. This scene was intercut with the next, where Romeo and the Friar argued over whether banishment was good news or bad. The plus point here was that it got things over quicker, and the nurse could leave from one scene, then reappear quite quickly in the next, linking them together effectively. The down side was that each scene had to have long pauses in it to allow the other scene to continue. As Steve said, if they hadn’t mucked around so much with the rest of the play, this intercutting might have been effective, but as it was, it came across as simply part of the muddle. I quite liked it, but I take his point. I did notice yet again how Juliet talked herself out of despair, but Romeo needed the Friar’s help to stop him killing himself.

Now by this time, I was looking at my watch quite regularly, as I wanted a break, and time was passing, but we still had a little bit to go. Capulet talking with Paris got the expected laugh when he decided Wednesday is too soon, so the wedding will have to be on…..Thursday. Then we saw Romeo climb the balcony to meet his new wife; they kissed and started stripping each other off. The music swelled, the lights went out and it’s the interval. Fairly innocuous, you might think. Well it would have been, but for the high camp use of rays of gold streaming out from the upper level like a sunburst. Totally over the top, and hugely funny. I do hope that was the intention, but I suspect it wasn’t.

We were now two-thirds of the way through, so at least the final part would be quick. After comparing notes, and finding we were of one mind about the production so far, we braced ourselves for the final stint, and although there was much to laugh at, it was also this part that decided me (and Steve) on the three star rating. It was dire. From the still camp sunburst of the opening scene, where Juliet was reluctant to say goodbye, to the final body count at the cemetery, this performance mostly didn’t get past the comic atmosphere it had set up, and when it did, it was just plain boring.

The scene where Lady Capulet breaks the news to Juliet of her arranged marriage was done over breakfast (on the platform). Juliet’s sudden strength of character was fine, as were the rest of the family’s reactions, though I noticed Capulet had a tendency to crush fruit at every opportunity – he’d done it earlier before giving Peter the list of guests. Juliet’s decision to deceive the nurse was swift and unheralded, but fine, and for some strange reason, when the servants were clearing the stools, they held them in a line diagonally from the corner of the platform, so that Juliet could stride along them as she left the stage, with the servants whisking them off immediately afterwards – why?

The scene between Paris, the friar and Juliet was well done, though with her hoodie, the knife she draws on the friar and her agitated manner, she looks like she’s mugging him to get his spiritual counsel, something else that made me chuckle internally. The scene on Juliet’s return to her father and mother was equally OK. I was starting to lose the will to listen by this time, though. Also, I couldn’t stop smiling, and that’s not really the attitude that goes with this play, certainly not at this stage. Juliet’s final thoughts before drinking the potion were OK, and Tybalt’s ghost appeared just before she downed it, carrying a cloth folded across his arms. He placed it at the head of the platform/bed and left. Once Juliet had drunk the potion, she lay down, and started writhing about in some pain – why? It’s a sleeping draught, for heaven’s sake. The other characters whirled about, saying lines which presumably come from the play, until eventually, with Juliet almost in her death-like state, the nurse came in to wake her.

I’ve already commented on the reactions to Juliet’s death – at least seeing the funny side helped to pass the time. I was not only glad that Mercutio died this time around, I was now keen to see the lovers get it as well. I was very aware that the friar gives his instructions about Juliet’s ‘body’ so that his plan will work properly – not such a bungler as often appears, this one. Juliet’s body got up and walked off by itself – her father picked up the folded cloth to represent carrying her away, which worked quite well. No chance the musicians would get a look in, though.

Then it was Romeo in Mantua. Balthasar arrived, and for no reason I could see, sang part of his message to Romeo, attempting a falsetto delivery which didn’t quite come off tonight. This scene was staged with Balthasar on the upper level, and Romeo on the lower, facing forward. Not my favourite way of doing it, and the singing didn’t help either. The apothecary wasn’t as poor as some – dressed in modern clothes, he can apparently afford an iPod, so he must be doing something right.

The bad news came to Friar Laurence and he headed off to the vault, which was formed with the stairs forward and the platform raised. Juliet was carried in by several men and placed on the platform, still in her Elizabethan-style wedding dress. Paris came and went, Romeo kissed Juliet before he took the poison, and one nice touch here was that after the kiss he turned his back on her, and so missed her first stirrings from her sleep; one of those ‘if only’ moments. Pity I just didn’t care by then. He put the poison in a bottle of water and drank it off, crushing the bottle as he did so, which meant there was a plastic bottle knocking around for the remainder of the play, not that’s there’s long to go, thank goodness.

When Juliet woke up and discovered her husband dead beside her, she let out some weird and wonderful cries which made me think, it’s too late to fake an orgasm now, dear. The stabbing was OK, but again her screams were funny rather than moving. I’ve described the final stages already, and both Steve and I noticed there were major cuts in this section, including the bit about Lady Montague being dead. Just as well, as she was standing there large as life, a most unusual occurrence. Balthasar again attempted a song sometime during the final bit, but again the falsetto was too much and he finished it at regular pitch. We still have no idea why he was doing this. With no sign of a monument to the lovers, the final nail was put in the coffin of this play, as the star-crossed nature of the lovers became completely irrelevant. Minor players in a soap opera world. If ever a production could have presented the Nicholas Nickleby version of the Romeo and Juliet ending, this was it – that thought kept me giggling through much of the final part, and to be honest, using that ending would have improved my enjoyment enormously.

There were enough signs here of some good ideas and good performances, but a lot of work needs to be done to strip out the non-essentials and change the whole nature of the production. There were even some hip-hop/rapping references by Romeo and Juliet that felt really out of place. Unfortunately, a lot of folk at tonight’s performance loved it, so there won’t be much pressure for change for a while, even though a few folk left at the interval. We’re both intending to use our next appointments with this production to simply see how it develops, although the understudy run tomorrow obviously won’t have much time. Hopefully the understudies won’t be so extreme either. Wait and see.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Caucasian Chalk Circle – October 2009

3/10

By Bertolt Brecht, translated by Alistair Beaton

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Company: Shared Experience

Venue: Richmond Theatre

Date: Wednesday 21st October 2009

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. This wasn’t advertised as a schools matinee but that’s effectively what it was. The vast majority of the audience, at least in the stalls, were teenagers. This made the audience unbalanced and at times I felt completely out of touch with most of the people around me, which didn’t help me to feel involved with the production. For example, there’s a short scene where a senior soldier tells off a junior soldier because although he restrained and beat up the husband while the senior man raped the wife, he clearly didn’t enjoy it as a good soldier should. The kids screamed with laughter at every use of the word ‘dickhead’, they gasped and squirmed when the soldier very coarsely mentioned raping the wife, but the humour about the standards of the common soldier, which we found funny, evidently passed them by. They continued to laugh at every sexual innuendo, verbal or physical, and while I found some of it very funny myself I also felt at times that I was at a pantomime with a lot of little kids.

With all these distractions it took till nearly the end of the first half before I fully engaged with the story. The first section, the prologue, was very good, with an official type talking to villagers returning to their war-ravaged land, and trying to persuade them that the land should be given to those who could make the best use of it. Only in this case, he’s referring to consolidation of the small subsistence plots into big enough farms for the agri-businesses to move in and make a killing. The villagers aren’t sure what choice to make, so they decide to put on a play which deals with all of the issues being debated, and which will help them come to a conclusion. It’s called The Chalk Circle, and since they’re in the Caucasus, it becomes The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

The story then unfolds of a rich and important man, who has a wife and a baby son. He lives in a country which is at war, and seems to have been at war for a very long time, but he’s doing very nicely for himself all the same. One Easter Sunday, some rebels rebel, he’s captured and killed, and his widow runs for her life, leaving their baby son Michael behind. Actually, the widow had to be carried away kicking and screaming because she couldn’t bring along five large suitcases full of fancy clothes. She spent so much time trying to get her servants to pack properly, she nearly got caught herself. It’s clear where her priorities lie, and it’s not with the baby.

Realising that the rebels will want to kill the baby as well, all the other servants run off, leaving Grisha to look after him. They’ve told her to go as well, and abandon the baby, but she can’t. Eventually, when the soldiers arrive, and it’s clear the baby will be killed if it’s found, she runs off, taking little Michael with her. The rest of the first half is the story of how she evades capture, including the brutal bashing in of the rapist soldier’s head (she’s vicious when she’s protecting the baby), and an arranged marriage with a man from the next valley along from her brother. This poor chap is on his death bed when the extremely drunk Welsh priest ties the knot, and the wedding party is busily turning into funeral wake when news comes that the war is over, and that they won’t be taking away any more of the young men to be soldiers. You’ve never seen a dead man recover so fast. Oops. Now Grisha’s married to one man, in love with another (a soldier wooed and won her before the trouble broke out), and bringing up a baby that’s neither hers nor either of theirs.

So ended the first half. I started to enjoy myself from the wedding scene onward – the Welsh priest was such joy to watch – even though I’d spent most of the first half wondering if I should just cut my losses and go for a coffee while Steve finished the play for both of us. Talking it over with him afterwards, we decided it was mainly the audience that gave us the difficulties, and given that things improved in the second half that may well be true. The youngsters certainly seemed to have calmed down a lot, though we noticed a lot of gaps in the stalls where older audience members had been sitting. The story picked up again, too, though in a strange way. We followed Grisha and Michael a bit further, with Michael being played by a lovely little dark-skinned puppet – an example of colour-blind casting even in the puppetry department. We saw how unpleasant Grisha’s husband was (squeals from the youngsters as a man, naked but for a pair of underpants took to the stage), then she met her soldier again across the river, and just as she’s trying to reassure him that the baby isn’t hers, she has to claim it is to stop the soldiers taking it. But they do, nevertheless.

Now the play switches back to that Easter Sunday two years ago when the rebels struck and Grisha had to take Michael away. Only this time, we’re going to hear how one man became their judge. He’s a local scoundrel, an intellectual who can’t be bothered doing a proper job so he poaches rabbits and suchlike instead. He helps the Grand Duke to escape, mainly because he didn’t like the policeman he could have handed him over to. When he’s brought in for poaching, he makes an impassioned speech to the soldiers, assuming this is a popular uprising on behalf of the working man. Turns out it was actually a coup by the fat prince (yes, that’s what it says in the program) to take power, and now he wants to get his son or nephew voted in as the new judge. The soldiers, for all he paid them to kill the revolting peasants, reckon he’s only giving them a vote because he’s not yet securely in power. So they decide to take advantage of the situation and hold auditions for the post of judge. The scoundrel plays the part of the Grand Duke for the purposes of a mock trial, and his impersonation is so good it gets all the soldiers laughing (and us). He then speaks in the Grand Duke’s defence, making all the political points Brecht wanted – the aristocracy don’t take any of the risks themselves, they send other people’s sons off to fight while making fat profits from their military contracts, they don’t even supply a lot of the equipment they’re being paid for, etc., etc., all too depressingly familiar from current events. The soldiers boot out the fat prince’s relative, and elect the scoundrel instead; at least when he takes bribes from the rich he helps the poor with the money and his judicial decisions.

But two years go by, and now the war is over the Grand Duke and Michael’s mother are both returning to claim what’s theirs. There’s a long wrangle over who should have the baby, with two lawyers arguing on the biological mother’s side. One of them lays on the sentiment with a trowel, only to be completely undercut by the other one pointing out that she needs Michael as his father’s son and heir to allow her to gain control of her dead husband’s money and land. Finally the judge opts for the chalk circle test. A chalk circle is drawn on the ground, the puppet is put in the middle with each ‘mother’ holding a hand, and the winner is the one who can pull the baby out of the circle. They have two goes at it, as Grisha complains that she didn’t have a proper grip the first time, but both times she lets the child go so as not to hurt him. I sobbed. (The audience laughed.) Naturally the judge awarded Grisha custody of Michael, and for good measure, ‘mistakenly’ authorises her divorce from her husband, so that she can marry her soldier (instead of allowing an old couple to divorce, who been out of love with each other since they met). I would have sobbed some more, but I’d run out of tissue and the young folk were groaning and ‘eugh’ing at the loving reunion between Grisha and her true love.

So, with a final moral from the judge, who’d returned to being the singing narrator again, about how everything should be given to those who can look after it best, including the land, we were done. Thankfully.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me