Doctor In The House – April 2008

3/10

By Ted Willis, from the novels by Richard Gordon

Directed by Bruce James

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Tuesday 15th April 2008

I only managed the first half of this – I had some digestive trouble and couldn’t relax and enjoy myself, so it seemed better to head home. Steve stayed for the rest, and gave me feedback later. 3/10 was my rating for the first half, though as I wasn’t feeling so good, that may have been a bit mean. Steve reckoned a lowish 5/10 though, so perhaps I wasn’t so far off.

We are both familiar with the Doctor in the House storyline, and there was nothing new here. To put it on the stage, all the action was set in the flat that the students were sharing, which meant that the surgery “sketch” had to become a demonstration in the flat. Nothing wrong with that, but the material did seem dated and rather flat.

Whether this was accurate or not, it certainly seemed to be the opinion of the director, and possibly the cast as well. Steve described it as the “Morecambe and Wise” version of the story. The cast mainly got their laughs by making deliberate mistakes, fluffs, etc., and apparently ad libbing to the audience. We’ve seen this sort of thing before, and it looked to both of us early on that it was planned rather than accidental. For example, Simon Sparrow was using a microscope at one point, and a piece came off and rolled onto the floor. Fine, he came and got it, making a suitable funny comment, but then he kept playing with it. Whenever there’s a genuine mistake like that, the actors usually leave well alone, so it was pretty clear that this was a setup. Confirmation came when the performance ended on the button – no chance of that if they’d really been screwing up that much.

Having said this, the performances were very good. Damian Williams as Simon Sparrow did most of the fooling around, and did it very well. Eric Potts, one of our favourites, was playing Sir Launcelot Sprat, and although he was a bit too much on the cuddly side at times to strike fear into anyone, he was still very entertaining. The play was framed by the device of asking if there was a doctor in the house, as the leading lady had had an accident. Two doctors responded – two of the cast – and they started reminiscing about their time together as students. Cue the flashback. James Campbell as Grimsdyke did the occasional narration piece during the play, between scenes, and also finished it off, but there was nothing much to it other than emphasising that the action takes place in the 1950s, and allowing the numerous asides to the audience to fit in more comfortably. It’s a good enough device, and the performances were good, but there was one big drawback. The asides and funny business, while entertaining, tended to point out how unfunny most of the actual dialogue was. I certainly found the fooling around more fun than the play itself. Sadly, that wasn’t enough for me in my condition, and might not have been enough even if I’d been in top form. However, I’m happy to give the play the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps if it had been done with more enthusiasm for the original piece, I might have enjoyed it a lot more.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Othello – July 2007

3/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Wilson Milam

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Tuesday 17th july 2007

At least this was the actual play that we ascribe to Shakespeare! On that score, it was a huge improvement on the Complete Works version. The problems here were mainly lack of clarity and projection, coupled with a staging that led to the majority of the important bits being spoken while the actors involved had their backs to us. I found I could only make out about a third of the lines – and that’s being generous. However, there were quite a few good points to praise.

One of the best was the part of Rodorigo, played by Sam Crane. He gave a beautifully detailed performance as the gullible, romantic, besotted fool, whom Iago easily parted from his money. To paraphrase how Steve saw it, this man had “loser” tattooed on his forehead at birth. He pouted, he snivelled, he flounced out, he despaired, he enthused, he did everything with such total presence that I can safely say this was the best Rodrigo we’re ever likely to get.

Another good performance came from Paul Lloyd as Othello’s servant, known to those of us who read programs as Clown. He kept up a running battle with the musicians, from the pre-opening where he attempts to make his “turn off your mobile phones”, etc. speech, through telling them to play the silent pieces only, and even after the interval, where they’re sitting on his basking spot. There wasn’t much to this part, but he gave us more than was there. Of course, the musicians fought back, and didn’t shut up when he yelled at them. His announcement was one of those stop/start duels with a trombonist that set us up nicely for the play itself, which is, after all, pretty dark.

Other than these, the performances were fine, but nothing special. Eamonn Walker as Othello wasn’t so clear as the others, and Tim McInnerny as Iago had that phlegm buzz to his voice when he upped the volume that made it harder to distinguish the words. Apart from that, I could hear most of the lines provided the actors weren’t pointed away from us, but as I said earlier, that happened rather too much for my liking. A lot of the staging seemed very static compared with other plays we’ve seen on this stage, and while that may be partly down to the play itself, I’m sure more could have been done to vary the actors’ movements.

Other points I noticed were that Cassio assumes Othello will send him to fetch Desdemona, and is effectively ignored by Othello when he sends Iago instead. Desdemona’s speech about the different loves she has for father and husband is equally applicable to Cordelia’s situation, and I found myself spotting several echoes of other plays. Amelia’s condemnation of men’s behaviour was roundly delivered, although the resulting mood change back to Desdemona’s sadness was a bit jarring.

The drinking scene was well done. The men sat round a table, and Iago leapt up onto his bench to sing a couple of silly songs, in English, apparently. The fights were good, and the scene where Rodrigo tries to kill Cassio was superb. They played it as if in a blackout (the wind was so strong at times that various lanterns and torches blew out anyway), so the fight was a slow motion grope rather than cut and thrust. Very entertaining. The final dance was also good fun, especially as Iago refused to join in, apart from a possible twitch of the shoulders at the end?

There were some other distractions that took my attention away from the stage, such as a flash going off, and one of the stewards in front of the stage doing some gesturing to another steward while Iago was giving us one of his scheming soliloquies. Most unfortunate timing. Also, the number of people coming and going was higher than last week, and as the door was right behind us, we were treated to a fair number of squeals and clatters during the play.

All in all, I was mostly not engaged by this production, but I’m glad I saw the good bits.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Pete & Dud: Come Again – June 2007

3/10

By: Chris Bartlett and Nick Awde

Directed by: Owen Lewis

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Tuesday 26th June 2007

This performance suffered from a number of factors. Firstly, the audience was as sparse as I’ve seen in the Connaught for a long while. They normally get better attendances than this, but tonight there was very little atmosphere from our side of the curtain. Secondly, the comedy material in the show was not really designed to get the audience involved. The Morecambe and Wise tribute show, The Play What I Wrote, is the opposite of this. They did their time learning how to get an audience on their side, and the material in that show gives the actors plenty of opportunity to interact with the crowd. But the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore stuff is at the start of alternative comedy – satirical and surreal – so it’s more up to the audience to get themselves involved, and if they’re not interested, tough.

Thirdly, the structure of the show didn’t help too much, either. It was done as a chat show from the 80s, with Dudley Moore being interviewed by a combination of Russell Harty and Terry Wogan, and Peter Cook showing up part-way through. We got flashbacks of their days with Beyond the Fringe, etc, so we did get to see a fair bit of their material, but we also got snippets of behind the scenes stuff. I felt this made the whole evening rather clunky. To get into the flashback, they had to get props, etc, and while the set was well constructed to allow for all the different settings, it did limit their movements. Also, the need to dispose of the props, hats, and the rest, after the flashback, meant there were longer gaps than I would have liked between scenes.

Finally, the contents of the play are well known, and have already been explored well on TV, so it’s hard to know just who this play was intended for. Aficionados of their work would only get a modest amount of the humour presented to them, and the darker side of their relationship wasn’t explored in enough depth to be really satisfying.

What did I like? Well, the performances were good enough, and some of the sketches were still fun to see, although it’s very difficult to impersonate such a one-off as Peter Cook effectively. I did like the way that neither Pete nor Dud was made the scapegoat for the problems in their relationship. The various TV programs I’ve seen about them often seem to take one side or the other, but while there’s no doubt that in his later years the drinking made Peter Cook a difficult man to deal with, it’s also likely that there were other factors as well. So well done for keeping a balance. I also liked the way the action often contradicted what was being said on the chat show.

All in all, I was glad when it ended, though I hope it has better luck and bigger audiences for the rest of its run.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Macbeth – June 2007

3/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Conall Morrison

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 21st June 2007

I found this a very ramshackle production. There were some interesting ideas, and some good performances, but it didn’t work satisfactorily as a whole. I felt disinterested and often bored, which I don’t experience too often at the RSC.

There was a scene inserted at the start which I presume was intended to give focus and meaning to the whole production. To begin with, there were a number of chairs placed on the stage in rows, with one on its side. At the start, the doors at the back opened, and with much screaming, yelling and clashing of swords, various people rushed onto the stage, some pulling carts. The men grabbed the chairs, and piled them up as a barricade against the doors, while the women got the wagons into a circle… sorry, wrong genre. The women hid behind the carts as best they could. To no avail. The marauding forces under Macbeth forced the doors open, and Macbeth himself took on and killed the men, then turned his attention to the women and children. We could see he was barely alive, in that his humanity had been squashed out of sight by all the killing he had endured, and although he held one of the babies quite tenderly for a while, he still wrung its neck without compassion.

It was a powerful scene, and in many ways it promised well for the rest of the performance, but even so, I found myself wondering, in the midst of all this emotive force, where does he go from here? This Macbeth has none of “the milk of human kindness” left in him. There’s nothing in his life but senseless slaughter – he’s an empty shell. He’s already at “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”, yet the rest of us are three hours away from it. It would take some masterstroke to connect the dots to give us a satisfying explanation of this character’s journey from here, and sadly, we didn’t get one. There were some good bits to the central performance, true, but overall the range was limited and the verse-speaking not quite up to the job. Lots of energy, but not enough detail – “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

The opening scene hadn’t quite finished, however. The three women that Macbeth had killed, jerked alive again after he’d gone. I had suspected this might happen – come on, three women, in Macbeth, can’t just be coincidence. Sure enough, these lately deceased became the three weird sisters, and their motivation was plain and stark – they wanted revenge for their slaughtered children. Steve saw them as avenging angels, though not necessarily heavenly ones, and that’s a good image. They thoughtfully removed the bodies, which allowed the rest of the action to continue, but they did linger over it, and I felt the first intimations of the boredom that was to become all too familiar during the evening.

Next up was the pirate king. You don’t remember him from Macbeth? Well, he’s called Duncan, and David Troughton played him in what Steve reckoned was a West Country accent with Scottish moments, long straggly hair, and a leather coat. What else were we meant to think? I had to work hard to stifle a fit of the giggles at this point, because the wounded soldier who arrived to tell the King what had happened was speaking with one of the worst Scots accents I’ve heard in a while. It wasn’t helped by the fact that some of the cast were putting on a Scottish accent, some had Caribbean inflections, the Irish contingent apparently felt their own brogue to be sufficiently Scots-like not to bother, and we had a Welsh second murderer. Most of the black actors chose the West Indian/African route, so it was doubly surprising to hear one of their number attempt a comedy version of the Scottish accent. I barely suppressed my giggles, but suppress them I did. I have no idea why these choices were made – we could tell from the post-show yesterday that the actors mostly weren’t using their own accents, so it had to be a deliberate decision. (At least it helps to explain why David Troughton kept correcting himself when referring to “English” actors in the post-show.)

The scene where the three witches greet Macbeth was fine, nothing special to report. The women left through the back door, which Macbeth and Banquo were apparently oblivious to. Likewise the arrival of Ross and Angus to inform Macbeth that the first prophecy has come true was also OK, but added nothing to my understanding of the play. Duncan’s thanks to Macbeth and Banquo were fine, and Macbeth did at least register well his shock at hearing Malcolm created heir to the throne.

I’ve never quite understood exactly when Macbeth wrote the letter he sends to Lady Macbeth. He’s riding furiously to prepare for Duncan’s arrival chez lui, yet he manages to knock off a reasonably lengthy letter (Lady Macbeth is obviously part-way through when we first see her), and the postman’s quicker than he is. This is one time when text-messaging would seem to be the answer, but sadly they didn’t have it in those days. Anyway, next up was Lady Macbeth and the letter, and boy, was she good. Derbhle Crotty managed to get across a sense of an ordinary woman gone seriously bad. No histrionics, nothing over the top, just plain negativity focused and concentrated. Her invocation was very grounded and, as she spoke her final lines, and with Macbeth appearing in the doorway behind her, she froze with her eyes wide and staring, as if her later madness was already within her. Which of course it was.

Duncan’s arrival was again average, and this time my view of Lady Macbeth was blocked by all the entourage standing about, so I felt my attention slipping again. Macbeth’s soliloquy “If it were done” was OK, but with one very good piece of interpretation, given this production’s focus on the personal: for “we still have judgement here”, there was a long pause before the “here”, and as he said it, he placed his right hand on his heart, indicating that his own conscience was what he meant, rather than the usual reference to the world in general. That I liked very much.

Again, there was the difficulty from the opening scene in getting to grips with how Lady Macbeth persuades her husband to kill Duncan. From Terminator-like assassin, he’d become a picky wimp, and she had to work hard to get him to change his mind. Frankly, I didn’t think she’d manage it, good though her performance was, but then I wasn’t buying much of Macbeth’s emotional posturing at this point. However, I did enjoy Derbhle’s performance. She managed to be hard as nails, yet a little nervy with it, taking us a bit further along Lady Macbeth’s descent into hell.

The opening to the next scene, Banquo’s arrival leading into the dagger speech, was a bit hesitant. The language didn’t seem to come across too well, but the arrival of the witches certainly helped. One came on and dropped a dagger onto the stage in perfect time for Macbeth to give his speech. As he went to grab it, she whisked it away, and another of the three, having already come on, dropped another dagger on another part of the stage. And so it went on, a nice piece of staging and perfectly timed, with the last dagger being removed just before “There’s no such thing”. As the bell tolled, he climbed up the ladder to go to Duncan’s room.

Lady Macbeth appeared, and was now showing her nervousness more clearly. Their dialogue was largely lost for me, as it was rushed through so quickly. I know they’re agitated, but there’s no need to lose it altogether. Lady Macbeth might be able to speak brave words to her husband, but her face gave her away when she grabbed the daggers – she wasn’t looking forward to this at all.

The porter was played by all three witches, tossing a pig’s head between them – not a scene that I’ll be fondly remembering anytime soon. The words were too garbled (keen to get past the unintelligible stuff quickly, perhaps?) and the actions not particularly helpful. The one witch who stayed behind to actually talk to Macduff and Lennox was pretty graphic about standing to and not standing to, and really enjoyed her own joke, but it wasn’t the best porter scene I’ve experienced. Of course, they need time for Macbeth to get cleaned up, as he would be back on stage pretty soon to greet Macduff himself. Then we had the discovery of the murder, lots of people rushing on stage in various states of attire, Macbeth admitting to having killed the grooms, and Lady Macbeth throwing up over the top balcony railing, before collapsing and being carried off. As so much was going on, I’m not sure how she was playing that bit; whether it was a device to distract the others from Macbeth’s maladroit justification of his actions, or just because it’s all got too much for her. Anyway, my main thought at this time was a forensic one. Macbeth’s really smart here, because not only has he got rid of two potential witnesses in the grooms, he’s covered up any evidence of him killing Duncan – if the CSI people were to check him for blood, he could always claim he got Duncan’s blood on him from the grooms. When I find myself thinking like this during a performance, it’s not usually a good sign.

The play trundled on in the usual way – I must say, they did at least stick pretty much to the standard version, and after a year of viewing Shakespeare from just about every angle except right way up, this was a pleasant change. Donalbain and Malcolm fled, people chatted about what’s going on, Banquo was getting his hopes up, King Macbeth and his Queen were looking happy with the world, Banquo went off riding, Macbeth invited the murderers onto the stage, the Queen talked with him afterwards, and was even more worried by him not confiding in her, and then the murderers, joined by one of the witches as the third murderer, tackled Banquo and Fleance.

Having a witch as the third murderer worked very well, I thought. Remember, the witches are working to bring down Macbeth, and in this scene she was the one who put out the light, making it harder for the murderers to do their job. If I heard correctly, she told Fleance to flee even before his father did, and although she went after him, she showed no signs of attacking him. This was a good way to interpret the scene, I found – one of the better ways in which the witches were woven into the fabric of the staging.

When Banquo was killed, he was lying to our right, near the front corner of the stage. I remember thinking, that’ll be handy for him when it comes time to join in the feast. Sure enough, when the time came, the weird women helped him up, smeared his face with blood, and placed him in the empty chair. Macbeth freaked out, as usual, and sent him packing, and they took him off. A little later, I noticed the tablecloth twitch a bit, and reckoned he’d be coming up through the trapdoor for his next entrance. Sure enough, he did. Some blood had been dripped over the fruit in the middle of the table, and then he rose up, sending the middle trestle flying, and the food and fruit went everywhere. I took a moment or two to stop a bloody apple from landing in my lap. As Lady Macbeth tried to calm her husband down, off to our left, a grinning Banquo was seated at what remained of the table, and the witches were waving his hand at them. It was both funny and scary – I could understand why Macbeth was freaking out. Unfortunately, he was so upset that he let fly with his hand and swept a cup off the table, so that Steve and I (and people for several rows back) were sprayed with a large amount of fake wine. It was a bit of a shock, as I’m not used to this sort of audience participation, so I really didn’t notice much of the rest of that scene, but it finished pretty soon anyway, and we could begin to clear up the mess. As did the stage staff.

We wiped ourselves down, and Steve went to change the program, as that had been splashed. He likes to keep them, so a clean copy is essential. As he did this, I realised I wasn’t happy sitting there any longer. Rather than just leave (although I was tempted), I asked if there were any other seats available. I must say the RSC staff were very helpful, and it turned out there were tickets for two seats in Row H which hadn’t been collected, so as these seemed perfectly good, we took them. There was more cleaning up to do, but fortunately, we were both wearing red or pink tops (I was in the pink), so the evidence of our splashing was fast disappearing.

I was happy with the change because I had felt too close to the action during the first half. That’s not usually my complaint, but this production had evidently taken “sound and fury” to heart, and there was so much going on at times, and on different parts of the stage, that I was having to look round a lot more than usual to be aware of what was going on. This isn’t a criticism of the staging, as I like productions to use the Swan to the full, but in this case I felt happier being further back, so that I could get a better overview of the action (and no more wine).

Hecate was dropped, as I would expect with this interpretation, and so they restarted with the review of the story when Lennox and another Lord had a little chat. Fortunately, I had been paying attention, so it didn’t matter that this didn’t come across clearly. The witches came on carrying suitacses for their consultation with Macbeth. Instead of the various items they were chanting about, they took dolls and babies’ clothes out of the suitcases to put in the cauldron/pit. I found this very moving. When Macbeth arrived, demanding answers, there was a strange extra section where the witches sat him in a chair, put a bag over his head and then a noose, and proceeded to hang him. Not to death, obviously, but just a bit. Why? Time of the month? No explanation was forthcoming, and it didn’t add to the play for me. They used dolls to represent the various apparitions. To show Banquo’s line, lots of dolls dropped down from the ceiling.

Macduff’s family was next in line to be killed. Again, I found this to be less clear than I’ve seen before, although choosing to show Lady Macduff about eight months gone added to the emotional emphasis on childlessness. One of the three witches came on to advise Lady Macduff to fly, and she was apparently speaking out of turn: the other witches made this clear when they turned up. The killings were added to by the killers raping her, largely out of sight, but still unnecessary, even in this context. I was looking forward to the end already.

About this time I was beginning to despair. I felt I’d lost my ability to keep an open mind, and to adapt to new productions and different ways of doing things. Then I thought back to all the performances we’d seen over the past year, and which I’d written up in these notes. I realised this was just a temporary blip, that actually we’re pretty good at accepting these productions on their own terms, and I felt much better. Thank goodness for this writing – it’s something concrete I can refer back to if I lose track again.

The meeting between Macduff and Malcolm worked better than a lot of the scenes. In particular, the line “He has no children” was fairly howled out by Macduff – very moving. Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking confirmed the madness that had been set up earlier and beautifully developed, and was one of the best versions I’ve heard. Then we’re basically into the battle preparation and final fights, and then home. The messenger who came on to tell Macbeth about the forest moving was one of the witches, and she grinned as she left, knowing she’s just told him something fearful. The cry of women was done by the three sisters from the top balcony, and was piercing and eerie. The final confrontation between Macduff and Macbeth worked well enough, and so to bed.

As I write this, I feel I haven’t quite done it justice. It wasn’t as boring as it might seem from my terse descriptions, although I don’t regret any of them. The delivery of lines was poorer than I’m used to, and some of the contrived extras – the rape, the hanging – did nothing for me. Having seen all these actors in Macbett the night before, we know they’re all good at their job, so I have to put the problems down entirely to the director and his concept for the piece. The idea of having the three witches as women avenging the deaths of themselves and their children is superficially tempting, but it shifts the balance of the play too much for me. It became partly a revenge drama, rather than a tragedy based on extremes of ambition. I liked the emphasis on inner psychology in places, but then the witches were definitely supernatural, which contradicts that reading a bit. All in all, it was too unbalanced to be really enjoyable, though I will remember some bits with great pleasure.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Macbett – June 2007

3/10

By: Eugene Ionesco, English version by Tanya Ronder

Directed by: Silviu Purcarete

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 20th June 2007

What a bum-number! Don’t get me wrong, great performances from all of the cast, and probably the best production we Brits are likely to get, but still, what a bum-number! At least it kept to two and a half hours, and there were some really funny bits, plus the post-show was interesting, so the evening wasn’t a complete waste (though it came as close as I can remember!).

This version of Macbeth clearly expresses Ionesco’s own antipathy to any form of totalitarian state, be it Fascist or Communist. It can be summed up quite succinctly in the quote “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” [Lord Acton] Duncan is a despot who rules a Dukedom in an unspecified place (OK, the play says Scotland, but this is Absurdist theatre, so nothing’s that straightforward). We actually get to see Glamiss and Candor (Cawdor) plotting their coup. They’re unhappy about how much of their wealth the King/Archduke is creaming off, particularly when it comes to chickens and eggs. There’s a mention of how many virgins he’s taken, but they do seem to come some way down the list. During their plotting session, a huge picture of the Archduke is positioned behind them, and from time to time others come on and bow reverentially. Both Banco and Macbett come on and chat to the two men, so we get to see how they fit in – they’re 110% loyal to the current ruler. Even so, Glamiss and Candor agree to rise up and overthrow the tyrant.

On the one hand, this staging does get across the situation pretty well, and there’s some humour in it. Everyone’s carrying a case of some kind – briefcase, suitcase – and the two plotters interact well with the audience. What comes across very nicely is how they move from specific personal grievances to glossing it with the idea that they’re acting “for the public good”, a typical trick of power-crazed megalomaniacs. On the other hand, we’re much more aware of state surveillance nowadays, and so any sense of real menace was sadly lacking.

The war between the two sides was reasonably entertaining. Lots of soldiers in bulky combat-type gear loped about – it’s a physical style that I found very reminiscent of Rhinoceros, years ago at Chichester. (Mind you, they probably didn’t have many options for how to move in those outfits.)  There was an Absurdist touch with a lemonade seller, wandering about, trying to sell restorative lemonade to people, and who gets into a confrontation with a killing machine, fresh from the battlefield. At least, I assume that’s what it was meant to be. The actor had lots of clunky bits of costume, and moved a bit robotically, with lines suggesting a great relish for slaughter. Various soldiers were killed, and then revived, soldiers chased each other, then swapped places – all the ways to represent mayhem and senseless bloodshed you can think of, without actually using fake blood. (Or real blood, of course.)

The bloody theme was emphasised by a duet of speeches from Macbett and Banco. I say duet, although what actually happened was that they took it in turns, each one stepping aside from the battle temporarily to reflect on the situation. Both speeches were identical, and portrayed in very similar ways. From the post-show, we learned that in France, these speeches are meant to be delivered identically (must be a nightmare if the first guy farts!), but for this production, they felt the audience would get the repetition (we did), and would appreciate the variations according to character (we did).

The speeches give numbers to those killed, and start off with a few men shot, more burned, thousands buried under rubble, millions killed in other ways, etc. The death theme is certainly given a vigorous outing here. Both men also shoot the lemonade seller. (Well, she’s groaning a bit from being beaten up by the killing machine earlier, so you can understand them just wanting a bit of peace and quiet.)

The Archduke finally turns up, accompanied by his wife, Lady Duncan. He is clutching his throne – a small chair, almost a stool, with a picture of a crown on the backrest. He cuddles this throughout the play, at least while he’s alive, and there’s an entertaining tussle over it later on when Macol comes to revenge his fathers and claim his crown from Macbett. More on that story later. The Archduke’s a complete coward, but like a lot of that type, totally critical of anyone else’s weakness. An injured soldier turns up – he’s got a spear through his middle – and they question him to find out what’s going on at the front. The soldier can’t tell them much – he was press ganged by the rebels, then captured by the Archduke’s troops and forced to fight for them. He was wounded (not by the spear, that must have come later, as if it matters in Absurdia), and when he woke up the battle had moved on. Lady Duncan is about to kill him with her knife (she’s a bloodthirsty cow, that one), but her tells her not to trouble herself, he can top himself and save her the effort. So off he goes with his grenade and blows himself up. Thoughtful of him. The Archduke’s servant and his wife’s maid also feature in this scene, and do a lovely job. The servant, so loyal he beheads himself later after bringing Duncan bad news, seems to reappear with a reattached head later, while the maid spends most of this first scene holding onto a rope that leads off behind the plush red curtain, possibly attached to her Ladyship’s horse? Who knows? She spends most of her time carrying suitcases around.

Duncan sends his wife off to the front to check on how things are going. While all around are diving for cover, she breezes in, hardly bothering to check for stray bullets, and asks for info. Banco’s there first, and tells her what he can, then swaps with Macbett. Finally the fighting’s over, Duncan’s troops have won, and Glamiss and Candor are prisoners awaiting their fate. It’s now safe for the King to arrive, which he does eventually, after many announcements that he’s just coming. (Funny at first, soon gave way to dull. Apparently that’s just how the French like it.)

The first to be brought on for execution is Candor, wrapped up in black plastic sheeting. He’s given a final speech to read out, and there’s some fun while he tries to get his hands free of the sheeting to be able to hold it, and then to be able to hold the megaphone. Megaphones are well used throughout this production, especially in the battle scenes, and at a lot of other times as well.

Now the slaughter begins. The King sentences Candor and Glamiss to have their heads cut off, together with all their followers, and he expects the executioners to make it snappy – they’re all to be done by tonight. Macbett is told to sit by the Queen/Archduchess as they watch, and he’s soon on the receiving end of her orgasmic pleasure at seeing so much bloodshed, which he thoroughly enjoys. The staging has a large white curtain at the back, behind which the King’s men disappear, emerging with heads in bags which they dump down the central pit. As each head is removed, an artistic blood spatter appears on the sheet, so pretty soon it’s more red than white, while the number of heads carried to the dump keeps increasing. We get the message.

Sadly, with all this fun on the go, the servant turns up to tell Duncan that Glamiss has escaped. This leads to the order for his execution, as mentioned before. The King is mightily unhappy, and sends Banco and Macbett off to find him asap. And so darkness descends. Literally. I don’t know if the Swan auditorium has ever been so dark during a performance before. Banco and Macbett are searching for Glamiss in the dark and in the rain, so Banco heads off to find a horse. This leaves Macbett alone, in the dark, in the countryside, and we all know what he’s likely to find in the dark, in the countryside, in a version of Macbeth, don’t we? Yes, it’s finally the witches’ turn to give us all a laugh, and they manage it very well, I must say.

The two witches are done with actual masks covering the actresses’ heads, giving them wrinkles long before their time. They also walk with a stoop, using canes, and brilliantly manage to be both old dames waiting for a bus (it’s those suitcases again), and unearthly hags. Their scene with Macbett is echoed later with Banco, but with more changes than in the earlier repeated scene, as each character is told different information. The lights do come on for a short while, in a circle enclosing the central ironwork, and this relates directly to the time when the witches are talking to Banco and Macbett. As the witches move around, we hear the voices coming from different places, and sounding more and more like Lady Duncan.

What’s good here is seeing how the two characters react to the information they’re given. We get to see how their minds work, although with this type of theatre it’s a kind of generic reasoning. They’re both warned that Duncan will refuse to give Banco his title (Glamiss), and will give it instead to Macbett, though without the land and money that should really go with it. They also inform both men that Glamiss is already dead, drowned in the river and washed into the sea. This is the start of both men’s disaffection, though for different reasons – Banco feels he’s been treated unfairly, while Macbett sees his opportunity to get the Queen for himself by taking the throne. David Troughton produced some marvellously excessive facial expressions during this part, really getting across how manic Macbett has become under the witches’ influence. There’s also a lovely bit where one witch informs Macbett that Duncan has a son, Macol, who’s away studying, and another son, Donalbain, but he doesn’t come into Macbett’s story much.

Later (and I’ve lost track of what happens when by this time), we see the witches appear at the back and transform themselves into Lady Duncan and her maid. It’s not clear at this time that the first witch has simply taken Lady Duncan’s place, after kidnapping her and locking her in the dungeon. What I understood was that Lady Duncan was actually a witch, and even after the real Lady Duncan emerges later, I’m still not sure when the witch is meant to have taken over, or even if it matters.

There’s a lovely scene where Duncan sits at a table stacked high with eggs, and starts eating them, apparently raw. This got quite a few “Yeughs” from the younger section of the audience. This is where Macbett and Banco each confront Duncan, Banco complaining about Macbett being given the title he was promised, and Macbett saying he didn’t want the title, and it should be given to Banco instead. Duncan’s having none of this, and this confirmation of the witches’ prophecy, together with Duncan’s intransigence, pushes the two generals into rebellion, just as the witches wanted. Their plotting scene is a reprise of the earlier one, between Glamiss and Candor, except that Banco and Macbett are also getting changed after playing some racquet sport. The end result is the same – another agreement to topple Duncan, with Macbett becoming King and Banco, Prime Minister.

The assassination starts with Duncan coming on, stripped to the waist, carrying his throne. He sets it down, and there’s various lines about a healing ceremony he’s about to do. He’s anointed with black and white face paint, and then wrapped in a large clear plastic sheet, held together with a big “X” of black tape over his heart. It’s even placed slightly to the left side, as I saw it.

First off, a lot of actors wearing the witch-type masks appear at the back, and Duncan “heals” them, represented by them taking off their masks and jumping for joy. After this, Macbett, Banco and the Queen surround Duncan, and mimed stabbing him. Apparently these mimes were too much for Duncan, and he’s finally dead.

Now Macbett is King, and marries the woman whom he thinks to be Lady Duncan. Banco is in the throne room, fantasising about the future the witches promised him, and as he lies there, presumably asleep, Macbett walks in and decides to castrate him, to prevent his children taking away the crown. This isn’t particularly gory, although again the younger audience members reacted pretty strongly to some of it. Macbett appears to eat the off-cuts, only to blow ping-pong balls out at the audience. Sort of good fun.

Now their plan has come to fruition, the witches resume their masked form, and head back to their boss, carried on a flying suitcase. (Actually, it’s a sliding suitcase – you just have to use a bit of imagination.) Macbett holds a banquet, at which he shows he’s losing it big time, and eventually the real Lady Duncan appears, claiming the crown. When challenged about how she knows so much of what’s gone on, she replies that her fellow prisoners tapped out messages – it’s the prison grapevine.

When Macol turns up, he and Macbett have a lovely tug-o-war over the throne. It’s more like they’re both caressing it. Macol wins, and Macbett points out that no man born of woman can kill him. Sadly for Macbett, it turns out that Macol is Banco’s love-child, born of a gazelle, who was transformed into a woman for the sexual act, then re-transformed to carry the child. Damn. But at least Macbett can’t be killed unless there’s a forest present. In an instant, lots of huge flower arrangements are carried on stage, cellophane crackling, and put in a circle round Macbett. Curses, foiled again.

After Macol shoots Macbett, and thrusts him down the pit, he sits down to give his inaugural speech as King. A microphone is placed in front of him, and he gets underway. The speech is taken directly from Macbeth, using Malcolm’s lines when he’s checking out Macduff’s intentions, so it comes across as pretty unpleasant. However, the problem with tyrannies is that society can crumble eventually, with so many needed people killed off, and so it is here. As Macol continues to give his speech, the stage hands come on and start clearing the set, taking away the flower arrangements, his microphone, etc, until the stage is pretty clear. Then the Henry (vacuum cleaner) comes on, and Macol has to skip nimbly out of the way of the wire, as he uses a megaphone to try to get his message across. Finally, David Troughton comes on, dressed for the off, and taps his watch to show Macol his time is up. End of play.

All the above description sounds more interesting than I found the actual presentation to be. The play clearly spells out the corrupting effects of power, that absolute rulers aren’t to be trusted, and that even the most loyal of supporters can turn nasty, given the right circumstances. It also shows that extreme loyalty can lead to ridiculous acts of self-sacrifice. But we already knew this, so I didn’t feel I’d gained any greater understanding. The generalised sense of dictatorship allows for audience members to colour in the background themselves. Sadly, I tend to find that diminishes a portrayal, rather than enhancing it for me. I like ambiguity a lot, but not on a blank canvas. (I’m probably no good at ink blot tests, either.)

The apparent misogyny in the play (I read the program notes) didn’t really come across for me, mainly because of my confusion about the Lady Duncan/witch combo, and partly because none of the men are up to much either. The physicality of the performance was good; although I can always do with less gore, I do enjoy the liveliness and energy, especially when the actions are almost balletic. I’ll be interested to see if the Macbeth is similar in terms of the movement.

The post-show only had male cast members – I assume the ladies are working hard to get The Penelopiad on stage (opens soon).  There were some interesting questions, and we learned that the director, a Romanian, liked to work from the outside in, typical of Continental directors. Because of the way the performances have been developed, externally rather than internally, the actors find they’re still getting to know the piece, and still developing it. Both David Troughton (Macbett) and Sean Keans (Banco) admitted to a competitive streak – each tries to outdo the other in their repetitive speeches in the battle sequence. The suitcases are also in their Macbeth, and it was suggested that we’d seen these plays the wrong way round, as Macbett probably took the Macbeth ideas to a different level, whereas the Macbett might undercut our enjoyment of Macbeth. Ah well.

Another character who fitted in well with the overall effect was a rag and bone man, actually a woman. We heard the call a few times, and she wandered across the stage a bit, but her most telling moment was after the battle scenes, when all the victorious soldiers were saluting Duncan. There were lines about the dead soldiers, and we hear the rag and bone cry from behind us. She’s summoned onto the stage, and while the soldiers take off their outfits (they’re all wearing suits underneath), she bends over as the discarded clothes are heaped up on her back. A couple of the cast lead her off. I remember thinking how appropriate that was, as so many people in the play are now only rag and bone. It reminded Steve of Mother Courage, as did the lemonade seller. I was reminded earlier of Oh What A Lovely War, when the lights around the stage lit up, as if we were in a music hall.

I wanted to leave one of the best bits to the end. There was a butterfly woman, who came on with a butterfly on a long pole, and carrying a net, which she used to try and catch the butterfly. As the pole was too long, she kept missing, but it was lovely to watch as the butterfly flitted here and there, looked like it was about land on someone’s head, then moved on. This created a lovely sense of peace amidst all the turmoil, especially as the lights had been lowered as well, so there was a peaceful gloom everywhere. The only odd note was the headless body of the faithful servant. He had gone to cut off his own head, then returned to deposit it himself in the pit. What loyalty. The headless body then stood there, as everyone else got off the stage, and remained there until the butterfly catcher guided it off, using its hand to hold the net. This was a remarkably beautiful section. We see the butterfly catcher once more, later on, but I don’t remember anything specific about it.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Attempts On Her Life – May 2007

3/10

By: Martin Crimp

Directed by: Katie Mitchell + company

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Thursday 10th May 2007

This was dreadful. Not all the way through, but it’s an hour and three quarters I’ll never have back again.

The performance style was based on modern media. The actors didn’t play specific characters, instead they morphed in and out of various roles, as well as moving cameras and lights around, filming other actors, then becoming the focus of the cameras themselves. There was a huge screen lowered down so the audience could see what was being filmed, intercut with footage shot previously and with pictures layered and superimposed. All very technical, but to what end?

The general idea seemed to be to look at the role of women in our media-driven society, and particularly issues around women committing suicide. There was no specific woman – it’s any woman. There’s a good section looking at the use of women as sexual objects of desire in advertising, in this case, advertising a car. The advert (in Russian?) was translated into English, so we could get the humour. At the end, the usual caveats are scrolled across the screen, and the combination of these over pictures of a sexy woman, make it clear that we’re not meant to read the words – it’s the advertising equivalent of small print.

Another good part was the Abba imitation – the style is as for one of their Eighties’ hits, but the words are much tougher. The police interrogation sketch didn’t work so well for me – there have been so many comedy send-ups, never mind Life On Mars, that I found most of it just boring. There was one good line, though, when the coppers are pushing this guy to sign his statement, and he says he hasn’t got a pen.

Apart from that, I enjoyed the Newsnight Review sketch, with recognisable imitations of regular participants, e.g. Germaine Greer. Otherwise, I could barely get through the turgid stuff that was passing for a theatrical performance. No criticism of the actors is intended, even though they participated in the staging. I just didn’t find this performance style remotely engaging, in fact, quite the reverse. The use of cameras, the screen, mikes for the actors, etc., meant the whole piece was distanced from the audience – we might as well have watched a film, and the actors might as well have been acting in an empty theatre for all the exchange that was going on between us.

The opening section showed a bit of promise. The prison doors of the stage curtain creaked open to reveal a vast open space, filled with the cameras, etc that took such a central role later on. All the cast are milling around, and finally come forward to talk through some ideas about a woman, like a group of creatives at an advertising agency. There are a few good lines, but mostly, it’s a jumble, and not at all clear where it’s going. However, I stuck with it (unlike one gentleman behind us), and, sadly, was disappointed. The chorus line effect was repeated at the end, only in an even more incoherent fashion, though as I’d pretty much lost interest by this time, I really didn’t care.

With no characters, plot or anything resembling a play taking place on stage, it was impossible to get involved in these performances or any of the issues raised. The distancing effects previously mentioned added to that, and I actually felt disrespected as an audience member, and increasingly irrelevant. For the first time, I chose not to applaud at the end. I will go a long way to avoid seeing anything this banal again.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Twelfth Night – May 2007

3/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Edward Hall

Company: Propeller

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 1st May 2007

I’ve enjoyed Propeller’s work before and I was hoping the Taming of the Shrew in the Complete Works was a one-off, but with this paired production I’m not so sure. Both productions demonstrated a lack of female perspective – these men can portray women’s outsides, but not their insides.

With both of these plays the ensemble seemed to have taken them too seriously, a definite problem with comedies. I’m not keen on the gross stuff, true – having Sir Toby actually throw up on stage was never likely to appeal to me. And while the dangling loo roll trick was great in The Nerd, it just looked tacky here. It’s as if they couldn’t really get inside the characters well enough, and so had to do more externally to get the ideas in the text across. Why not just try acting?

The set was naturally the same as the Taming one, though used differently. Here the wardrobes and chairs were all thrown about, liked the aftermath of some heavy-duty party – appropriate for Twelfth Night. It suggested dissipation, anarchy, and the neglect caused by grief, all themes in the play. The furniture was mostly covered over with dust covers, gradually removed, again suggesting disuse.

The costumes were mainly suits, with Olivia having some fetching sparkly evening dresses after her mourning phase. Maria was in drab black throughout, and Viola had only a short scene in her nightie before opting for the grey suit which her brother also wore. (These were the best matched pair of twins I’ve seen, by the way.) Feste stood out in this company, in more than one respect. He was in a suit, but it was pretty scruffy, with his tie dangling and a general air of carelessness. He carried a violin and looked like he’d just come from an all-night fiddler’s convention. He was the only character who didn’t wear a mask at any time – all the other actors wore them when they were present but not actually in the scene, like ghosts. This gave Feste the appearance of being in control of the proceedings, the Lord of Misrule. He was certainly more involved than some other Festes we’ve seen.

Speaking of the masks, the second scene – the shipwreck – had a lot of the cast on stage, throwing Viola and Sebastian around, then dropping her down near the front of the stage for the lines with the sea captain. With their suits and grey masks, the others looked like ghosts, and they faded away into the background (and wardrobes) as if melting into air. This was a wonderfully evocative staging, reminding me of all the dead people being mourned at the start of the play, and all the others lost in the shipwreck.

For the opening scene, Feste took a sheet off Orsino – he’d been sitting in a chair, completely covered, all the time the auditorium was filling up. I liked this Orsino – he looked pretty rough, he’d been drinking and he was obviously suffering. The music was good, too. At the post-show discussion, we learned that many of the cast just happened to be talented musicians as well, so there was more of an emphasis on music this time.

Olivia was more flighty than I’ve seen before, even camp at times. Sir Toby was a ruffian, very drunk and unpleasant, but I didn’t get his craftiness and villainy in rooking Sir Andrew so much this time. Sir Andrew wasn’t the usual lanky suspect, and he was one character whose normal comedy seemed to get lost. I’ve no objection to overturning conventions, but I do like them to be overturned to a purpose; not so here, unfortunately. Malvolio was excellent, all brooding pomposity and menace in the early stages, through to rampant lunacy and eventual anger. Bob Barrett was in the Nicholas Nicklebys last year, mainly playing affable chaps – he’s shown he can do a lot more in this show. The yellow stockings were indeed cross-gartered, as we saw when he whipped off his trousers. The leather codpiece lent a raunchy air to the whole outfit – no wonder Olivia fled.

Maria was a bit underplayed, I felt. Viola was OK – Tam Williams has had plenty of practice playing women, and has enough of the female in his looks to convey the part well, but even here I felt a lack of emotional depth. The line I love best in Twelfth Night – “What should I do in Illyria? ….” – left me unmoved, and I rarely got any real sense of grief. Even the comedy lines after Malvolio ‘returns’ the ring were largely lost. Everything seemed to go at too fast a pace for any of the characters to register what’s going on inside of them – not a lack I’ve noticed in the text itself!

Sebastian was stronger here, and that’s often the advantage of a true ensemble – these are not treated as such minor parts. The final revelations still had me sniffling, although the sense of everything piling up against Viola/Cesario wasn’t so clear here as in the Russian Twelfth Night (RSC Complete Works). Feste was definitely the strongest character in this production, and although he was generally laid back, he could join in the revenge against Malvolio quite happily.

The set piece with the letter had its good bits, and its no-so-good bits. Overall, I liked that Olivia was posed on a plinth and actually holding the letter. The idea of this lady having a statue of herself in her garden was appealing, and the line “this is her hand” took on an extra meaning. Also, when Malvolio took the letter, after having it practically thrust under his nose, the empty hand happened to have two fingers sticking up at him.

Sir Toby and the others (no Fabian in this version) were hiding behind cones of topiary of varying sizes, but none large enough to really conceal anybody. Other cast members were posing as statues of the three wise monkeys, but frequently changed position as well as interacting with the characters on stage; this led to one entertaining moment when the “speak no evil” statue had his hands clamped over Sir Toby’s mouth. All pretty entertaining, but it still felt overdone. Too much work for not enough return, and not enough attention to delivering the text.

All in all, I would give this production 2/10 for the first half, and 3/10 for the second. As the productions are shaped to a considerable extent by the actors in the company, it may be that this group just do things in a way I don’t appreciate. I’d certainly be willing to see a Propeller production again in the hope that changes to the ensemble may lead to an approach I find more pleasing.

Nearly forgot – how could I? – male nudity alert. Sebastian and Olivia had obviously got to know each other really well. Sebastian got out of bed with a sheet wrapped round him, and just as she entered with the priest he dropped the sheet to reveal all (sadly, not to us). Good fun, and a nice arse.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

 

Pericles – January 2007

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Dominic Cooke

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 4th January 2007

What a difference from our previous experience! These seats were central, but they were in the back row of the upper gallery, and our view of the action in the first half was severely limited. Fortunately, having seen it before, we could at least fill in some of the details for ourselves, and the modern pentathlon was still mostly visible. But had we been sitting here when we first came, we probably wouldn’t have rated this production, and might not have wanted to see it again. This layout seems to be creating serious problems for the audience, or not, depending on your position.

I still enjoyed the second half, however, as most of the action takes place in the middle. In fact, we probably had a better view of the scene where Marina and Pericles meet. I was certainly very moved by all that section, through to the rediscovery of Thaisa. Shame about the first half.

I thought one piece of action was new. When Lysimachus, the governor of Mitylene enters the bawdy house, he “chested” Boult a few times. Neither Steve nor I remember this from the first performance we saw. I was unsure whether some of Gower’s gestures had changed – perhaps we were just seeing them more clearly than before. Otherwise, it seemed much the same, and I found myself wondering whether the changing nature of the promenaders made it less likely the actors’ performances themselves would develop so much over the run.

With the talk from this afternoon still fresh in my mind, I was more aware of the introduction of Marina. I knew they were using the same actress to play both Antiochus’ daughter and Pericles’ daughter, echoing the abandonment and actual/potential incest, although again I felt the risk of incest between Marina and Pericles was non-existent in this production. I was watching when the actress came on to represent Marina, still a baby, and to do her crying for her, and I got a sense of the spirit of Antiochus’ daughter returning to haunt Pericles. Do right by this one to clear your debt to me, sort of thing. I wondered how those who didn’t know the play took this staging, and whether it confused them. I also found myself wondering how close the coast of Ephesus was to Tarsus, and whether Thaisa’s coffin could have realistically floated there in the time. Get a grip woman, it’s only a play, and a fantasy play at that!

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Therese Raquin – November 2006

Experience: 3/10

By Emile Zola, adapted by Nicholas Wright

Directed by Marianne Elliot

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Tuesday 28th November 2006

          This was a disappointment in a number of ways. Although it started off well, and the performances were excellent, the adaptation has problems, and the production lacked the thrill and suspense I associated with the first version we saw back at Chichester in 1990.

         One of the main difficulties I had was with the “music”. I presume they were trying to depict the tension the couple were living under after the murder, and were using a repetitive, droning chord – I don’t know what instrument was being used, but for me it was an instrument of torture. I believe such sounds are actually used to cause people physical discomfort, and it certainly worked that way for me. I didn’t find it too disturbing until near the end, but by then it was giving me a headache and making it very hard to concentrate on the play. I even considered leaving, but reckoned I didn’t have much longer to endure – even so, I wouldn’t voluntarily go through that sort of abuse again.

         One advantage of the Chichester production was the small space of the Minerva Theatre, which made the whole atmosphere much more claustrophobic. On the Lyttelton stage, a wide open space, it was much harder to create that sense, although the description of the flat as draughty was certainly believable. Somehow the couple’s secret passion didn’t come across so well, perhaps because Therese was played with very little show of emotion, so a lot of the action seemed a bit dreary at times. We certainly didn’t need such a long series of tableaux of the couple’s restlessness and divisions – once through the loop would have been more than enough. Frankly, by the time they chose to end it all, I was glad to see the back of them.

         The set was pretty bleak. A large room, with windows high up, grey walls everywhere, a kitchen area off left, flanking the stairway down to the shop, doors to a walk-in wardrobe, the door to Madame Raquin’s room, then the cubby-hole bed for the son and niece. With only a large table and a few chairs to furnish it, this flat looked very empty. A screen was used to distance us from the action at the start and end of scenes, God knows why, as I already felt distanced enough from the action after a short time. The cast were superb, given the limitations of the adaptation. Camille was talkative and fussy, just the sort of husband you’d want to bump off if a looker like Ben Daniels came your way. I didn’t feel the sense of danger with his Laurent as I did first time round, but that’s this production for you. Therese was very withdrawn, though she did show her passionate side in the early scene with Laurent. Mainly, she seemed to hate rather than love, to want revenge for the way she’d been treated, and sex with Laurent was as good a way as any. Definitely a woman to avoid. It’s not clear in this version how often they’ve been having sex, possibly just the once? Maybe I was just missing bits – with such a large auditorium (more of a lecture hall than a theatre) it can be difficult to pick up all the dialogue.

         The family friends – M Grivet and M Michaud – who turn up regularly to play dominoes, were great fun, especially Mark Hadfield as Grivet, all fussiness and self-concern. Madame Raquin managed a good line in self-concern as well, resolutely thinking of nobody but herself, and by extension, Camille, the whole play through. Actually, it’s a little amazing that Therese stayed as sane as she did.

         I found Suzanne, Michaud’s niece, an odd character. The part seemed to be well enough played, although I probably missed more of her lines than anyone else’s, but I was never too clear on what her part in the drama was. Was she just there to show a more normal approach to relationships? Or were we meant to contrast her naivety and idealism with Therese’s experience and world-weariness? We may never know. And given that I didn’t enjoy this production enough, I’m unlikely to read the playtext to find out.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Tempest – September 2006

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 28th September 2006

I was a bit disappointed with this production – I expected it to be better than it was. There were some aspects I liked, but on the whole I found it uninteresting and somewhat dull.

Before the start, a screen at the front of the stage showed a painting of some sort of radio receiver, on a huge scale. The opening lines were unusual – a shipping forecast that mentioned “North” and “Iceland”, and gave a storm warning in the traditional clipped form of such broadcasts. The speaker part of the radio then faded as the lighting behind revealed the ship’s radio cabin, where all the storm action took place. Ariel appeared towards the end of this scene, to indicate his involvement in the adverse weather conditions.

The good point about this staging was that the lines were fairly clear, and we got a chance to see the various characters – John Hopkins as Sebastian showing his craven character from the off – and Ariel’s arrival was interesting. However, I found the whole sequence off-putting for a number of reasons. Firstly, the shipping forecast makes it clear that the island we’ve arrived at is either Iceland, or somewhere else in the north Atlantic – a frozen waste instead of a Mediterranean rock. Those sailors must have been extraordinarily bad to have arrived in the North Atlantic from Tunis, headed for Naples! If they wanted to get across the connotations of Iceland (barren waste, prison-like, possible Frankenstein?(this was Steve’s thought)), surely we didn’t need such a specific reference. Secondly, the cramped cabin, while making the point that the aristocrats are seriously in the sailors’ way, does make the scene pretty static, and the sense of a life-threatening storm is lost. (Although Jean-Luc’s experience at synchronised ship-rolling probably came in useful here.) Nor did it help that Ariel reminded me of Lurch, the Addams’ family butler. All in all, not the most auspicious start.

Second up, we have Prospero’s account of the family history to Miranda. The scene opens with Prospero standing at a brazier, with his back to us, wearing a fur rug attached to a head-dress made out of an animal’s sacrum and tail bones. Or as I thought at first, some alien life-form that had invaded the island while Prospero wasn’t looking. (I suppose it was inevitable that Star Trek references would start to pop up in what is, after all, a pretty surreal play by Shakespeare’s standards.) The scruffiness of their home, the need for serious warmth on a Mediterranean isle that just happens to be in the North Atlantic, all these things I could live with. I wasn’t taken with Miranda, though. I accept that she’s been on this island from a young age, with only her father and Caliban for company, so she doesn’t know much about the outside world or social graces. And there’s no reason why daughters of aristocracy or royalty always have to be good-looking – our own royal family proves that. Still, I wasn’t keen on a Miranda who looks and acts like a ten-year-old who would rather be playing with her dolls than getting interested in the opposite sex. Her gawkiness was matched by an expression which made her look more pugnacious than usual, although her manner was anything but. In fact, this character could have slept through the entire play for all the animation she displayed. Not a criticism of the actress, who was fine later on as Portia in Julius Caesar, but another way in which this production failed to engage me. It made it hard to believe that Ferdinand would have fallen for her – it may just have been strategy on his part, but it wasn’t played that way as far as I could see. I also found Ariel’s first appearance here rather comic – he pops up out of the brazier! All we see is his head sticking up. Given that I found his appearance pretty funny anyway, I couldn’t take this seriously, although his later ‘magical’ appearance from behind the door was more effective.

Apart from the cramped cabin, the set was a barren landscape, with a mound of debris slightly off-centre, and bits of plank etc., sticking out of it. There were a few poles forming some kind of support for an upturned half-boat, or what was left of it. This appeared to be Caliban’s only shelter, and he’s hiding inside this boat when we first encounter him. As he’s attached to it by a long rope, he also drags it round with him, and it becomes his cover during the storm when Trinculo discovers him. One aspect of the production I liked was the repetition of this dragging theme – Caliban drags his boat, and also some logs. Ferdinand also drags logs, and there were other echoes of this throughout the play. I found this a good visual theme.

Caliban is not as gruesome in this version as in some I’ve seen. He’s a bit mucky, true, and also tends to walk on all fours, but he’s not hideously deformed or ugly. Again, I felt sorry for him, but then I’ve rarely found Prospero a sympathetic character, and his treatment of Caliban is the main cause for that. The business with Trinculo and Stefano was amusing, full of sexual innuendo, but I only laughed out loud once, towards the end, at a bit of business I’ve now forgotten. The kids in the audience loved it, and it was certainly in keeping with Shakespeare’s comedy, but again it left me largely unmoved. There never seemed to be any real threat to Prospero from this group, which can happen.

The scene Prospero conjures up for the young lovers was very different from the standard. The three fairies rose from one of the bunk beds in the cabin, and proceeded to carry out a form of marriage ritual, using earth, fire, water and cloth. All the while they produced a weird chanting, which took a little getting used to, but I did like it. There was none of the usual goddesses, and I found this refreshing, and much more in keeping with this reading of the play.

The King of Naples and his cronies were OK, but without distinction. Ferdinand was fine, but with nothing much to play against, this character on his own couldn’t make a real difference. I did like the fake feast, though. The fairies brought on a large seal (deceased) on a sledge. The nasty folk fell to, hands full of bloody blubber, while the good guys stood aloof. Then Ariel bursts forth from the seal carcass, with additional wire effects of wings and claws, and scares the shit out of everyone. Excellent. Incidentally, this Ariel was on a go-slow. I’ve seen this done before – a steady, graceful glide rather than a nimble hyperactive sprite, and it can work very well. Here it was OK, but didn’t add anything for me.

          One thing that did work, though, was the exchange between Prospero and Ariel, where Ariel’s own sense of pity for the wrongdoers’ suffering here effectively triggers Prospero’s own forgiveness. He was obviously heading for resolution anyway, but I got the feeling Ariel’s expression of pity surprises Prospero, and softens his plans somewhat. I could be wrong, but that’s how I took it.

          So now I suppose I have to tackle the hardest subject of all – what I thought of the central performance. Look, I’ve enjoyed so much of Patrick Stewart’s work that I hate having to say anything less than ‘he played a blinder’. Indeed, till this season, I didn’t think I’d have to, such is the man’s talent and experience. I guess I’ll just have to accept that this reading of the play didn’t work for me. I couldn’t get any real sense from the performance of the man’s past, nor much sense of his emotional journey through the events of the play. Unless it was meant to be an unsympathetic reading, in which case, fine. But I couldn’t help feeling there was a lot more to be got out of this major part, and I just wasn’t seeing it. Ah well.

Overall, I felt the staging worked against the text in too many ways, and brought the whole production down.

[Update from the front lines: Steve saw this again in London, and confirmed that it had come on a great deal since we saw it in Stratford. The performances were more expressive, some of the staging had been changed, especially in the scene where we first see Prospero, and he felt it was a much better performance than before.]

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me