A Number – August 2015

Experience: 4/10

By Caryl Churchill

Directed by Michael Longhurst

Joint production by Nuffield Theatre and Young Vic

Venue: Maria Theatre

Date: Wednesday 5th August 2015

More nonsense from the Young Vic. When we went to pick up our tickets, the young woman at the box office kept the actual tickets and instead gave us a couple of blanks printed with numbers, in this case 211 and 212. In other words, we were given a number so we could get in to see A Number, geddit? I don’t know how long it took the creative team to come up with that particular gem of wit, but if it was any longer than ten seconds they deserve to be fired. This sort of crass idea is becoming all too prevalent nowadays, and while I have no problem with whimsy and humour, this just came across as heavy-handed and patronising. Fortunately Steve got hold of our real tickets as well, so the archives will be complete.

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Farewell To The Theatre – March 2012

4/10

By Richard Nelson

Directed by Roger Michell

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Wednesday 28th March 2012

This was a disappointment. From a quick scan of the program, I was aware that the author was writing about a period in the life of Harley Granville Barker when he considered giving up the theatre for good; this play was apparently using that situation to present a discussion of theatre’s pros and cons, but I have to say I wouldn’t have known that from actually watching the piece. If that was the author’s intention then there’s some serious rewriting to be done. I don’t mind the lack of action, and the actors all brought their characters to life really well, it’s just that I wasn’t engaged with them or their situations at any time, although the death of Frank’s wife was a little moving.

Apart from the writing, one difficulty I had was hearing the dialogue when the actors weren’t facing forward. The acting space had been opened up, removing some of the seats to provide a vast cavernous area for both the garden and the refectory scenes. This may well have contributed to the lack of atmosphere, and certainly didn’t help the actors with their delivery. I could hear them perfectly well when they were facing towards me, so the set was presumably the main culprit in the loss of volume.

Mind you, I have to confess to nodding off a bit during the early section of this play. There was so little of interest happening on stage that I just couldn’t stay awake. The energy picked up a bit when Henry arrived, and I was fine after that till the end, although it’s always rash to have an actor say something like ‘I wondered when it was all going to end’ – you and me both, sunshine. Steve confirmed that I hadn’t missed much; he enjoyed it more than I did, but still felt it lacked sparkle. It didn’t lack coughing, mind you; not the best audience today.

The play was set in America in 1916. There were a number of references to the war, but even so it didn’t seem to impinge too much on these people’s lives. Most of the characters were English, but had lived in America for many years. Barker himself only came to America for the occasional tour, lecturing and the like, and there was also one American student, Charles. The location was a college campus in Williamstown, where Barker was staying with Henry, a professor of English at the college, and his sister Dorothy, the widow of a professor who had apparently kept a mistress on the same campus. Dorothy had been so unpopular that no one had told her of this other woman until the day of her husband’s funeral, and since that day she had worn black all the time to compete with the other ‘widow’ in a game of mourning brinkmanship. Henry was another who had done the lecture circuit until being offered this professorship; now he was being systematically abused by the head of the English department through public ridicule and humiliation, but as he had nowhere else to go he had to put up with it. Dorothy’s cousin, George, was also staying with them; he was happy to eat the free meals and still keep in with the head of English in case there was a chance of snaffling Henry’s position – he wasn’t a nice man.

The guests included Barker himself, Frank who was a Dickens man – did readings from the books – and Beatrice, an ex-actress and lover of young Charles. Her infatuation with him made her blind to everything else, including the vicious treatment meted out to Henry after a performance of Twelfth Night by the student group, Cap and Bells. Barker was livid about it, going into all the details for Dorothy when he arrived back in the darkened refectory. I almost felt he went too far, but she needed to know, as did we. Her sharp comment later to Beatrice, that Henry‘s message was just to get her out of the room, was well deserved, as Beatrice kept going on about how wonderful Charles’s performance had been (he played Feste). I liked Barker’s bitchy comments to Charles which sounded like compliments, as by this time we’d learned that Charles had made a complaint about Henry being drunk during rehearsals in order to become president of the Cap and Bells, a post in the gift of the head of English.

As a study of the bitchiness and political in-fighting within American academic circles, a subject Richard Nelson knows well and has covered before, this was fine, but as a debate on the usefulness or otherwise of theatre, it was seriously lacking. The play ended out in the garden where it began, with the other characters giving Frank a welcome home present in the form of a Mummers’ play. It was short and livelier than the rest of the play, so we finished on a more upbeat note but it did seem to come out of nowhere, despite Barker’s little speech about recognising that theatre could do some good after all.

Although I didn’t enjoy this production much, I would be willing to give the play another chance as long as I don’t have to travel so far to see it. I would be much more interested in seeing the Granville-Barker original, mind you – hopefully some company will stage it again, as we missed the recent production at the Rose.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Hamlet – January 2012

4/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Ian Rickson

Venue: Young Vic

Date: Wednesday 18th January 2012

We were taken on another of the Young Vic’s ‘journeys’ on the way in today. I presume this was to get us in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate the production’s design concept. Well, it got me in the mood alright, a foul mood. I don’t like being made to go on these long treks regardless. At least there weren’t any steps this time, and thankfully it wasn’t raining while we waited outside, but this kind of thing just isn’t for me. This particular trip took us round the theatre, in by a back door, past assorted installations which related to the lunatic asylum concept – signs on doors about treatment schedules, a window looking into the gymnasium with the fencing apparatus, etc. – and various members of the cast sat, stood or moved purposefully along corridors looking like hospital staff. We finally emerged through an office onto the stage itself. While this makes a welcome change from the RSC’s ‘look, don’t walk’ stage policy, it didn’t add anything to my understanding or enjoyment of the play. We were lucky to see the play today mind you; as we were walking along one bit of corridor I wondered what was behind a wooden drop-down panel. I opened the clasps – it wasn’t locked – and saw a lot of electrical stuff in there. I don’t know if it was part of the installation or a genuine part of the theatre’s electrics, and I didn’t tamper with anything, but still….

The set was mostly open at the start, with the seats on three sides. The office at the back had a desk, probably two or three chairs, some lockers and another keypad door off to the right as you look at it from the seats. There was glass from floor to ceiling between the office and the rest of the stage, with glass double doors in the middle. The back wall looked like a school gym, with a basketball hoop on the left, and we learned very quickly that there were two electronic doors that covered the whole of the glassed area, eventually – they moved very slowly. The central flooring looked like carpet tiles, and there was a coffin sitting on planks above a hole towards the front of the stage, with a well worn (leather?) overcoat and a dagger lying on top of it. I tested the weight of the dagger- pretty heavy.

They didn’t add much furniture during the performance, just the chairs and small wheeled medical tables which could store files, medicines, that sort of thing. They did remove a large chunk of the stage at one point – more on that story later – and they also used the upper left balcony for one scene; again, I’ll record that when I get to it. Overall the impression was of institutional drab, with some high tech bits but mostly old style, stuff that would fit into a 60s production, say. Entrances were limited to the office doors, either side at the back and a passage through the middle of the seats at the front, and characters often came and sat on the stairs at each front corner.

The performance started with Hamlet alone on stage, looking at the coffin, and obviously going through an emotional experience. I did wonder if he was going to go into ‘To be, or not to be’ at this point – now that would be an interesting choice – but he didn’t. He did snatch the coat and dagger off the coffin and held them tightly, breathing in the smell for some time. Then he took them away and some of the asylum staff came on and lowered the coffin into the hole, replacing the floor afterwards.

Perhaps now would be a good time to mention the costumes. The asylum staff wore green uniforms with orange markings, the chap whom I assume was in charge wore a suit, Polonius wore a strange grey coat over shirt, trousers and a sort of waistcoat/gilet, and Gertrude wore an off-white dress with a flared skirt, knee-length, and over it she wore a kind of lacy pinafore – this disappeared at some point. Hamlet wore a kind of tweedy suit, changing to institutional drab after the abortive trip to England. Laertes was a natty dresser, with a tweedy green suit and brown boots, while Ophelia wore a simple frock in pale colours, until her stint as Osric when she wore riding breeches, shirt and cravat. Other characters wore relatively modern dress – the player king wore a camel overcoat – and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern both wore severe grey outfits. I noticed when they arrived that they were given trainers to put on instead of their own shoes, and when Reynaldo was talking with Polonius about his trip to France, he also changed out of his hospital uniform into civvies. Horatio also wore a dark suit, possibly black. I’ll describe the Mousetrap costumes when I get there.

The opening scene proper used an almost full blackout and torches to create suspense, which worked reasonably well. The electronic doors had been closed, so there was a sense of security procedures in operation, and the ghost’s appearance was heralded by a flashing red light and some sound effects – it reminded me of the effects used in Jekyll to indicate the change of personality. The ghost itself was mainly a silhouette, with someone wearing the coat and casting a big shadow. The dialogue for this scene may have been cut, as a chunk of it relates to Fortinbras who was minimally involved today, but to be honest I don’t remember much of the dialogue from this scene at all. Perhaps it was cut, perhaps it was the delivery, perhaps I was still sulking from the enforced tour of the premises – we may never know. I did wonder who was wearing the overcoat, as the cast list didn’t include a ghost, but I didn’t have to wonder for long.

At the start of the next scene, Hamlet turned up on stage with a suitcase and a bag, carrying a piece of paper. At first I thought he might have been a new arrival at the clinic, looking to get in for some treatment following the death of his father. There was no one else around at first, so he took one of the chairs and put it a bit away from the doors, with his bags beside it. As he waited, quite fidgety and impatient, others started to arrive. Gertrude and Polonius started putting out more chairs, including the two black ones with arms. Someone – it may have been Polonius – brought on a trolley table, which went between the two black chairs, and the other characters began to turn up as if for a therapy session. Hamlet held Ophelia’s hands for a few moments before she moved on to embrace Laertes, and Gertrude and Polonius had a little competition over who got to sit in the other black chair – the more central one was clearly for Claudius.

Still fidgety, Hamlet had to endure a very truncated speech from Claudius, with no ambassadors and scarcely any mention of Fortinbras. When he moved forward to ask for leave to go, he was clearly frustrated when Claudius turned to Laertes next. Finally it was his turn, but his request was turned down, and I think Claudius tore up his papers – he’d already torn up the ones relating to Fortinbras when he said ‘so much for him’.

I didn’t get a great deal from this scene other than Hamlet’s eagerness to leave, but at least they rattled through it at a good clip. The next scene brought Horatio on to broach the subject of the ghost’s appearance, and this was good and brisk too; no ‘season your admiration for a while’, this Horatio got down to business very abruptly. The end of this scene used a staging choice that I’ve not seen before, and which they repeated at least once more; Horatio was about to leave, but was called back when Hamlet addressed his next words to her – “My father’s spirit in arms!” The rest of that short speech was also spoken to her, and she ended up leaving with Hamlet instead of before him. It was different, and it worked, although as I don’t feel they made much of Horatio’s character in this production, never mind the fact that they’d cast a woman in the role, it was rather wasted.

I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but it may have been during this extra bit with Horatio that Gertrude was seen behind them, looking for pills in the office. It’s clear that she’s a junkie and that Claudius is supplying her with pills, and their kissing in the office before they head off for some privacy was pretty unpleasant, suggesting that Claudius was manipulating her through her addiction. Hamlet saw them, and his disgust was obvious.

The next scene was Laertes’ leave-taking. He came on carrying a bag, and Ophelia folded a shirt for him. When Polonius arrived he was carrying a box, such as fancy dresses are presented in, and gave it to Ophelia. But it wasn’t for her – this was a parting gift for Laertes. When telling him to wear good but not gaudy clothes, Polonius opened the box (Ophelia had left it on a chair) and took out a jumper, which he brought over to hold against Laertes’ chest. It was an embarrassingly bad gift, very nerdy, and we laughed a lot at this all too recognisable family situation.

For once, Polonius was quite cuddly with his children, holding Ophelia’s hands, embracing her and Laertes, and seemed genuinely concerned for their welfare. He gave Laertes a wodge of money, as usual, and tried to do it discretely without Ophelia seeing (as if). His worry about Hamlet’s vows of love being false came across clearly, and seemed to be his main motivation for telling her to avoid him in future.

With Laertes gone, I think the security doors were closed for the next platform scene, but it was difficult to tell as most of the scene was played in darkness. The opening section had some of the staff going through the office at the back, clearly having a party, and going out through the side door, leading to the lines about the king taking his rouse. Then there was a complete blackout. At least the lines that were left came across clearly, and then the lights started flickering, the electrical sounds came on, and with some light coming back we could see the ghost. Hamlet, dressed in his father’s coat, seemed to be possessed with his father’s spirit (or insane of course) and spoke the ghost’s lines in a deeper, richer voice. His audience was Horatio and Marcellus, both too stunned to speak, understandably. It also meant we didn’t get Hamlet’s own responses to the ghost apart from one line – I forget which one – and a lot of the later lines were cut as well as they would have been inappropriate. The ghost didn’t speak during the swearing bit, so wasn’t mentioned, and the whole effect was to have the ghost as completely internal to Hamlet’s mind, a product of his grief and jealousy and the strongest emphasis on the psychological aspects of the play that I’ve seen.

After they left, Polonius and Reynaldo turned up, although if you didn’t know the play you wouldn’t have known it was Reynaldo; Polonius’s memory loss extended to that character’s name, and he glossed over it by carrying on. The only charge which Polonius suggested that Reynaldo put on Laertes was drabbing, and there was another moment of memory loss before the scripted one. Polonius looked like he really had forgotten the line at this point, and repeated himself to try and get back into it, which he eventually did. I suspect this was a genuine lapse, but given the nature of this scene, I can’t be totally sure. After Reynaldo’s departure, Ophelia came on to give the account of Hamlet’s apparent madness, and again Polonius was more emotionally involved in his daughter’s life than most other productions, really listening to her and being troubled by the mistake he’d made about Hamlet’s motives.

When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrived, they were shown into the main room and were soon joined by the king and queen for their little chat; this was when they changed shoes. Rosencrantz was easily distinguished from Guildenstern this time, being played by a woman. They still went with Claudius getting the names wrong and Gertrude correcting him; in this production, and given the controlling nature of this Claudius and drug-addled performance of Gertrude, I think it might have worked better if Claudius had got it right, and then had to cover for Gertrude’s mistake – I’d certainly be interested to see that tried some time.

Forget the ambassadors; next we were straight into Polonius and Ophelia’s entrance and the long-winded exposition on time, brevity, madness and the rest. Despite his relatively caring manner so far, Polonius was quite callous in this scene, making Ophelia read out the letter from Hamlet herself. He interrupted to complain about the word ‘beautified’, and snatched the paper away from her when she started talking about bosoms! He searched through the letters to find something more suitable, and gave her what looked like a postcard to continue reading. There were some cuts, and for once Polonius didn’t recommend execution as a fitting consequence if he’s wrong about the cause of Hamlet’s madness; I assume they took a line or two from another version of the play – haven’t had time to check it out.

When Polonius confronted Hamlet after the king and queen left, he took out a recording device – he’d shown it to all of us earlier during Claudius’s first speech, so we could see what it was and also the red recording light – and his asides were spoken into the machine as if he was evaluating Hamlet’s condition, a nice touch given this context.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were next up, arriving as Polonius left, and during this scene I started to get the impression that Rosencrantz had a serious crush on Hamlet. The ‘man delights not me’ interchange was more pointed because Rosencrantz was a woman, and I started to wonder about Hamlet. Apart from Ophelia, here are two other women – Horatio and Rosencrantz – who appear to be close friends of his; what is this man up to? Is he a serial heart-breaker? Is he just completely unaware of his effect on women? I watched closely through the rest of the play and couldn’t make up my mind about this.

The players were definitely in a touring production – only three of them this time. Hamlet was OK at delivering the lines, needing a bit of support from the actors to remember it all, and then the player king took over. This wasn’t the strongest delivery I’ve heard; he was sitting down for most of it, and did the speech pretty briskly, but it worked OK. Hamlet didn’t ask for The Murder Of Gonzago, and therefore couldn’t ask to insert any extra lines this time, leaving me wondering how the play would be staged. Hamlet’s soliloquy was OK, nothing memorable, and then the king and queen came on again to hear R&G’s report. At one point I remember Claudius giving Gertrude a credit card so she could go off and do some shopping; she left very happy, and it may have been this scene where it happened.

I did wonder if Polonius and Claudius would hide behind the hospital screen in the corner, but they closed the security doors halfway and lurked in the office instead, with Claudius poking his head out from behind the security door at least once to see what was going on. We also lost Claudius’s admission of guilt in this scene, which again gave the impression that he may not have done the murder after all, and that it may just be Hamlet’s delusion that we’re dealing with.

Ophelia was sitting on the steps near us during ‘to be or not to be’; it was an OK speech with nothing significant to report. Hamlet was already showing his disgust at women but things got really nasty after Ophelia’s hesitation about where her father was. Hamlet didn’t leave the stage at the usual point, so Ophelia’s lines about ‘a noble mind’ were spoken in his presence, but he did leave before Polonius and Claudius came back on. Their final lines seemed to be severely cut, and soon they were preparing for the play.

There was no dialogue for the play at all. With Claudius and Gertrude sitting in the black chairs, Hamlet used a megaphone to introduce events. He and the actors did a short procession playing pipes, and then one of the actors put a blindfold on Gertrude as she was dancing with Hamlet. She then danced with the player king, without necessarily knowing who it was. Then a devil-figure crept behind the chair that Claudius was sitting on and leapt up, joining in the action. He took over from the player king, and as he and Gertrude swivelled together to a Roy Orbison number, he gave her an apple – she correctly guessed what it was – and a necklace strung with pill bottles, which she recognised and ruefully acknowledged. By this time the player king was lying down on the far side of the stage, and the devil character came over to this side of the stage to get his vacuum hose pumped up for action. When Gertrude realised what it was, or what it represented, she wasn’t happy, and I think she left the action at that point. Meanwhile devil-man was lengthening his hose considerably, and it eventually became a snake which coiled its way over to the sleeping king to bite him in the ear. Things became very confused at this point, with Hamlet yelling some of the lines through the megaphone which made them hard to hear, and Claudius stalking off and calling for light in a remarkably reasonable voice. I don’t remember what everyone else got up to, I just had the impression of a load of people running around. Only Hamlet was left on the stage as I remember, and then they took the interval.

The restart was at the same point, with Horatio and then R&G talking with Hamlet. To be honest, I hadn’t noticed a lot of reactions to the play, and those I had seen were pretty muted, given the chaos around them. Fortunately with all the cutting we were soon through this bit. When Rosencrantz pointed out ‘My lord, you once did love me’, her anguish was very evident, and from Hamlet’s reaction I got the impression that he hadn’t known or had forgotten how she felt and was embarrassed and uncomfortable to be around her distress.

With Hamlet off to visit his mother, Claudius returned with R&G and sent them to prepare for the journey to England. Polonius passed through on his way to Gertrude’s closet, and then Claudius was finally left alone to reveal to us (or not) the level of his guilt. Would they cut this as well, or would we finally know the truth?

This scene took place in the office at the back. Claudius went in and closed the doors, and then treated us to as hammy a display of temper as I’ve seen on stage. He flung some papers off the desk, threw over one of the lockers and then stood in some ‘I’m suffering’ poses for a while, finally sinking onto his chair and putting his head in his hands – totally unbelievable. We did get some of the lines via the loudspeakers though. Hamlet came on during this part and spotted Claudius. He fiddled with some switches in a cabinet to the right of the office doors, and suddenly we could hear Claudius talking in the office. Not the full speech, but enough. Hamlet’s choice to leave him till a more suitable opportunity made sense at this point, and I found myself thinking about the contrast between the scientific emphasis on psychology and the spiritual references in the play, mostly made by Hamlet in this version. He was starting to come across as a religious obsessive, whose delusions made his choice not to kill Claudius appear rational to him. His disgust with the effect women had on men now came into focus as another aspect of this obsession, a puritanical streak which has been known to lead some people to become serial killers. I wasn’t sure if the production as a whole supported this interpretation, but it was an interesting angle to pursue.

Fortunately, the loudspeakers were still on after Hamlet left, so we could hear Claudius’s final lines of this scene. Then we were in Gertrude’s chamber, which strangely enough also seemed to be in this central hall. Polonius hid behind the hospital screen – three curtained sections on wheels – and was soon despatched. He must have been in a strange position behind the curtain, judging by the location of his stab wound, in the ear. Hamlet took on the ghost persona again briefly, after some more flickering from the lights; I think we just got a line or two about looking to Gertrude. The total lack of any other spiritual manifestation really put the emphasis on Hamlet’s madness in this scene; otherwise there’s nothing much to report.

After Claudius had learned of Hamlet’s slaughter of Polonius, we saw Hamlet drag the body onto the stage, looking for a place to hide it. He went over to the left-hand side of the stage and tested the floor tiles. Finding what he wanted, he pulled up a few tiles and the drainage cover under them – pause to mime a bad smell – and then lugged the body over to put it in the hole; I got the impression it had dropped some way down, so god knows how R&G were going to get it back again. He put the cover and the floor tiles back just in time before R&G came on stage. Rosencrantz seemed a bit huffy now, as I recall, but at least she’d stopped crying.

The next scene started with Claudius on the phone to some unspecified person talking about how tricky the situation was. Then Hamlet was brought on by two guards and put in a chair with wheels. As he was being strapped in, they did some of the usual dialogue between Hamlet and Claudius, and then Claudius gave him a tablet with some water to wash it down, followed by an injection – this man really takes no chances. However Steve spotted that Hamlet spat out the pill after he’d been left alone. Bizarrely enough, the attendants simply wheeled Hamlet over to the back of the stage on the right, where he’s conveniently placed, yet again, to turn on the loudspeaker and hear the end of Claudius’s phone call, which turned out to be with ‘England’. So Hamlet doesn’t need to read R&G’s commission to know what the king’s planning. Then he was wheeled back to the left side of the stage while one of the attendants fussed about with a blanket to put over him. As he was doing this, the TV in the office was showing something in black and white; when Hamlet asked the attendant what it was – the attendant had been looking at it himself – we got the very basic information about Fortinbras.

The next scene, scene V, covers Ophelia’s madness and Laertes’ return from France. I had been praying for a release from the boredom for some time, and finally I had a reprieve – I snoozed. So nothing to report for this bit, although the reprieve was short-lived, as even these scenes were cut to the quick (according to Steve who remained relatively alert throughout). Horatio received the letter from Hamlet in a room on the upper left-hand side of the stage, and read it out. I kept wanting her to have difficulty reading Hamlet’s writing – don’t know why, maybe I was just desperate for something to entertain me. They left immediately to take the other letters to the king, and shortly afterwards, after Claudius and Laertes had been discussing their plot centre stage, the messenger duly arrived at the office doors. As he gave the letters to the king, Horatio stood in the doorway observing what was happening, until the messenger was dismissed and she left as well.

The plotting continued without much of interest, and then Gertrude arrived to inform them of Ophelia’s death. The speech was delivered well enough, but it was the hem of Gertrude’s dress that I noticed – it was stained brown, as if she’d been with Ophelia at the time and tried to save her, but couldn’t. That little touch was one of the most moving things in this production for me, firing my imagination into overdrive as I pictured Gertrude’s despairing attempts to rescue the drowning girl. Or perhaps she got there too late, and stained her dress when she waded into the water to hold the dead body. Whatever, it was a touching moment.

For the burial scene a large square section of the stage floor was lifted up. Hamlet came on stage, I think after the four corners had been attached to the wires, and stood looking at the area of ground revealed by this manoeuvre. It was a pretty noisy process, and they added music or sound effects, so there was no dialogue during this bit – very wise. Horatio joined him at this point, with the floor out of the way, and with the gravedigger taking his place, Hamlet started discussing death and bones. Within the sandpit was a shallow trench with two piles of sand on either side and some white bones gleaming in the bottom. A blue box stood by the head of the grave to take these bones, and was gradually filled by the gravedigger, though he put one of the skulls to one side. As Hamlet recited the possibilities for each skull, the gravedigger inspected it, often scraping off some muck, before adding it to the box. It was slow and tedious, I’m sorry to say, until Hamlet actually struck up a conversation with the man. The standard humour went down pretty well, and then came the burial.

With such a small cast, there were never going to be many mourners, but I was still surprised to see only Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes turn up. The priest’s arrival was interesting; from the side of the sand pit, under the stage, a figure emerged as if from another grave. It was Polonius, still with the bloody gash on the side of his head but now wearing a crucifix and carrying a Bible as well. Hamlet was stunned to see him, putting his hand to his ear, an action which was mirrored by this new arrival. Suddenly, he snapped into being the priest, and looked at Hamlet strangely, while Hamlet was still clearly disturbed by this ‘apparition’. I’ve no idea what was meant by this, so I can’t say if it was effective or not, but it did use the necessary doubling in a thought-provoking way.

The burial itself was OK, though Gertrude only had some bits of a flower from her buttonhole to throw on the grave. Some of the sand was thrown on Ophelia, carefully avoiding her face, before Laertes told them to stop. The fight between Hamlet and Laertes was fine, and for once I felt that Hamlet wasn’t so much trying to best Laertes’s love for his sister as claim his own love to be the equal of it.

When the characters all left the stage, I wondered what they would do with the pit – nothing, was the answer. They left it as it was, with Ophelia’s body still lying there. Hamlet and Horatio came on at the back, and Hamlet brought Horatio up to speed with the grim fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Then things got a little spooky again. For Osric’s entrance, the dead body in the grave rose up and dusted herself off, to reveal that she was now in riding breeches and a shirt with a ruffled collar. Hamlet was transfixed again, and found it difficult to talk to this person, while Osric was remarkably calm – being dead seems to do that to people.

With the match agreed, some of the staff came on and started raking the sand to level it out. I thought this might mean they would have the fencing match in the pit, but it was not to be; they did it at the back, although the pit came in very handy by the end for all the dead bodies. The table with poisoned wine (no ‘union’ that I saw) was at the front of the pit, the rack of swords was at the back of the stage, and the fencing was done behind the pit. Laertes ended up in the pit when the enraged Hamlet chased and killed him, Gertrude collapsed towards the back of the stage, and Claudius ended up in the pit, don’t remember exactly how, although Hamlet not only stuck him with the sword but forced him to drink the remaining wine. The cups were cheap plastic – I mean, really! Hamlet died in Horatio’s arms down in the sandpit, and then Fortinbras turned up.

His men were dressed in black, and all wore black fencing masks. They opened out a large black plastic sheet to cover the pit over entirely, with Horatio walking out of the pit just ahead of it. They put Gertrude’s body in the pit, removing a corner of the sheet and then replacing it. They’d finished the lines by now, so this all seemed a bit ho-hum. It was worth it, though, as Fortinbras himself came to stand behind the pit for the final climactic moment of the play. As he stood there, he took off his mask, and it was….. Hamlet! At least, I assume it was Hamlet. It was Michael Sheen, of course, and perhaps he was Hamlet, perhaps Fortinbras was Hamlet’s half-brother, perhaps this was another ghost risen from the dead…… The staging didn’t make anything clear, but it was a dramatic moment, and a good finish to the performance.

Despite all these interesting choices, I wasn’t that taken with this production. I find the emphasis on the reality ‘experience’ doesn’t support the imaginative aspects of theatrical performance. In fact, I’m increasingly aware of how important the imagination is to theatre of all kinds, and I’m less impressed when productions seem intent on blocking it at every turn.

The psychological emphasis in this production was the main choice that I liked, but after thinking about it, and especially through writing these notes, I realised that they didn’t go as far as they could have. How about cutting Claudius’s guilt out altogether? The plot to kill Hamlet would then be a consequence of Hamlet’s madness rather than outright villainy on the part of Claudius. It’s an intriguing idea, but I don’t feel this production quite had the balls to go that far. Instead I felt they were doing the old striptease routine – setting up some question marks to provoke discussion amongst the audience, without realising that we actually discuss these plays quite a lot already, and what we want to see is the cast and director figuring out some answers – much more likely to provoke discussion, I find. Anyway, I’m glad I’ve seen this, and that it’s brought out some different staging choices to enrich my experience and understanding of the play. I’m also glad I don’t have to sit through it again, as the bits between the concept set pieces – e.g. ghost scene, burial scene – were very pedestrian.

The central performance by Michael Sheen was very good, and if the production had supported it more I would have been very happy. Despite the quality of the cast, however, the rest of the characters seemed two-dimensional compared to Hamlet, and that naturally affected my overall experience. Steve would have rated this slightly higher – 5 star – but otherwise we agreed that it was not as good as we’d hoped. I’m even considering ignoring future Young Vic productions, as I no longer seem to be part of their target audience; I’m confident I won’t be missed.

Our final conclusion is that this production was too much of a mish-mash. They tried to combine the realism of the asylum setting with an impressionistic version of the play, which left us feeling dissatisfied with the whole. For example, we weren’t sure if the characters in the play were actually people in the asylum hierarchy or inmates who were doing a bit of drama therapy. If Hamlet was the ‘ghost’ in the platform scene with Horatio and Marcellus, was he also the ‘ghost’ they saw at the start? And if it was just his madness, why did the lights flicker?

We’ve seen productions which raise such questions before, but the best of them lead to greater awareness and understanding of both the play and the production. For example, the touring Coriolanus we saw many years ago in the Swan, with Greg Hicks in the lead role, used a Japanese setting and incorporated a geisha-like court reporter noisily typing when Coriolanus was being interrogated by the Romans about his actions. Despite some choices which were puzzling on the night, we realised after some time to consider that they were showing a cultural change from old-style nobility to modern western-style decadence. This enhanced our understanding, and left us with an even greater respect for the performance and the work that had gone into it. The more we consider this Hamlet, however, the less sense it makes, and the less interesting the questions it raises become. This is usually a sign that not enough work has been done, which is a shame, as some of the ideas were worth exploring more fully.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Marat/Sade – November 2011

4/10

By: Peter Weiss, English version by Geoffrey Skelton, verse adaptation by Adrian Mitchell

Directed by: Anthony Neilson

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 4th November 2011

I’m not fond of protest plays at the best of times, and even though this play was set circa the French revolution, it certainly wasn’t the best of times for us tonight. The underlying intention of shocking the audience into a new view of the world and events never seems to succeed with me, and I find myself expanding my understanding more through sympathetic treatments of difficult subjects or through humour rather than polemics.

The original production, put on by the RSC in the early 1960s, was a response to events at that time, expressing the frustration and anger at the way western society appeared to have failed to bring about a better world for all. There was still social injustice, war, hunger, poverty, ignorance, and many a bra was as yet unburned. Coupled with this discontent was the belief that a better world was possible, a peaceful world where all needs were met and everyone lived a happy and fulfilled life. Well, we were all young once. The older generation, having fought and lived through at least one world war (some had managed two) were perhaps more content with a spell of peace and the end of rationing, but hold the slippers and cocoa for a while, as we take a trip to a lunatic asylum somewhere in France during the reign of Napoleon.

The set was fairly simple, but contained some ingredients of menace. The balcony above the stage at the back held the musicians and some chairs for the on stage audience – the director of the asylum, his ‘guest’ (a very attractive young lady) and several other people, including an Arab gentleman. Below this balcony was a row of security barriers, the sort with alternating bars; these worked like revolving doors. There were four ladders arching out from the sides of the stage – two each side- and connecting with the circle balconies. And above all this was a white circular thing which was lit by a flickering light from time to time – I don’t really know what that was about.

The main piece of furniture was the bath that Marat is killed in – this mainly rose up through the floor, but was wheeled off at one point and brought back on again later. Marat sat in it for long periods – his skin must have been so wrinkly – working on his laptop. There was a loo at one point, and various props such as buckets full of pig entrails, mobile phones, dildos, etc. The costumes were modern, and a lot of the references were contemporary too – hijabs, Marat filming his terrorist manifesto, tasering a prisoner, etc.

The idea of the play is that the Marquis de Sade, who has been locked up in the lunatic asylum for being seriously unpleasant, is putting on a play about the death of Marat with the help of his fellow inmates. The asylum’s professed purpose is to help these poor lunatics, so artistic endeavours are encouraged, and the director and guests are attending the performance along with members of the public (us) to see the results.

My first difficulty with this production was that I couldn’t make out the dialogue very well. Some bits were fine – Jasper Britton as de Sade was good, and one or two others were usually OK – but I lost large chunks of the story, particularly Charlotte Corday’s bits. That meant I couldn’t engage with the characters, and so I lost interest fairly early on. Marat and Corday’s stories were interspersed with the story of the lunatic asylum, and in many ways that was the more interesting, and disturbing, part of the evening.

Every inmate had a mobile phone, and when any of them transgressed seriously enough, they received a text message from the director. All well and good, you may think, but then the creepy bit happened. The offender would kneel on one of the walkways, take out a black hood from a pouch in their trousers, and put it on, They then had to stay in that position for several minutes as a punishment. And the scariest thing  was the way all the inmates accepted this treatment – what had they been subjected to beforehand to make them so compliant?

The tasering was also uncomfortable to watch. It was a part of the ‘show’ in which de Sade starred. He was expounding his philosophy at the time, while also being chained up and then tasered by the inmate playing Charlotte Corday. At one point, she stopped briefly to have her picture taken beside her ‘victim’, with her thumbs up. All of these images evoked the gratuitous violence of the torture camps and prisoners of war, but the point was hard to fathom. Comments were made at the post-show discussion about the public being de-sensitised to violence, but Steve and I have probably seen more horrific images when we were growing up, courtesy of WWI, Vietnam, etc., images that just wouldn’t be shown nowadays. And in the time of the play, just after the French Revolution and in Napoleon’s reign, people regularly saw acts of extreme cruelty and violence which would drive most of us insane.

My problems with using these images on stage are twofold. Firstly, I know it’s a play, so if things get too bad I protect myself by either looking away or by disengaging with the performance. It’s not real, and what matters to me is the emotional impact such depictions can have if used wisely. In fact, there’s often a greater impact when the images aren’t so graphic – less is more. The other problem is my awareness of how often images in the media have been faked, specifically to generate a response of disgust or horror. After many years, I’m not so easily hooked by this sort of sensationalism, which again undercuts any impact the production is hoping to have. In the tasering case, there’s also the difficulty that de Sade opted for the experience, so although Jasper Britton’s suffering was horrifying real-looking, I still wasn’t as affected as the creative team may have intended.

Having heard some stories about the nature of the audience participation, I was also braced for more revolting objects being thrown amongst us than actually happened, which was sort of a relief, but then that expectation may have also kept me from being engaged with the performance – not very helpful. We do our best to avoid this sort of foreknowledge, but it didn’t work this time as the fuss was too high profile – damn the Daily Mail!

So now for the good bits – this won’t take long. Apart from Jasper Britton, who’s always watchable, I liked Golda Rosheuvel very much. Her lunatic act was heartbreakingly believable; she seemed to be listening to voices in her own head, and her occasional claps punctuated the action very cleverly, while still being a sign of her madness. Of course, not everyone in the asylum was there because they were mentally ill, so some of the inmates looked pretty normal, if somewhat scared, but there were also one or two false notes struck in the madness department which let the side down.

One of the other inmates had a sex obsession, and this was played with great gusto by Lanre Malaolu. He was so distracted by his lustful urges that he could hardly get his lines out, apart from a couple of minutes when he’d relieved himself by humping the stage. I also liked Christopher Ettridge’s Director Coulmier; whenever the inmates’ play became too satirical, he was quick to point out how much better things were under Napoleon. At the end, he also takes his clothes off and has some words scrawled on his body. I couldn’t make out if his craziness at the end was meant to imply that he was also crazy, or that the whole world was full of crazy people, or what, but it was an amusing ending.

The music was also good – kept my feet tapping – but despite the cast’s best efforts I just didn’t enjoy this very much. I can understand the desire to bring the play up-to-date, and make it more relevant to today’s world, as well as getting away from any memories of the original production, but I found this approach too bitty. From the post-show we learned that the cast had worked on their characters for the first four weeks, without looking at the text. They’d only turned to that when they ‘knew who they were’, and then had four weeks working with the text. From my perspective, treating a play with such disrespect and focusing on aspects of the performance that aren’t actually going to come across to an audience as readily as the dialogue seems to explain the lacklustre nature of this production.

There was also a very short actress, Lisa Hammond, who played the herald. She had a motorised wheelchair, and was a sort of mistress of ceremonies, a role she shared with de Sade. At one point, she turned to the audience and spun a sob story about being short of money. Getting down into the stalls, she even asked one chap in the audience for money, and apparently he gave it to her! Twenty quid! Nothing much came of it, so I’ve no idea why that was included. At the post-show we found out she varies what she needs the money for. Tonight it was food, but it’s also been shoes and other things.

I might be willing to see another production of this play in the future, but it would probably have to take a different approach to tonight’s version. We couldn’t get a copy of the text – all sold out – so I can’t fill in the blanks and gauge the quality of the play itself. I suspect there’s a lot more there than was on show tonight, despite the blow job and de Sade’s wide-ranging wardrobe.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Merchant Of Venice – August 2011

4/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Monday 22nd August 2011

There were some improvements to our experience this time compared to June’s performance, but on the whole I found it rather dreary to have to sit through such an uninspiring production again.

On the plus side, we were viewing from a different angle, and in the stalls, so I caught some of the expressions that I hadn’t been able to make out before. We had also heard two very interesting talks today from Susannah Fielding who played Portia and Scott Handy who played Antonio, and although I still don’t agree with many of the choices this production makes, it did at least give me some points of interest to look out for during the show. Another bonus was that we could make out the dialogue much better this time, a common experience amongst those who had seen the production before, while those who were seeing it for the first time still found it hard to make out what the characters were saying. Familiarity is clearly important with this piece.

On the down side, I still didn’t connect with or care about any of the characters enough to want to watch the story unfold again. The sheer negativity of the production is unrealistic in my view, and while I accept that the choices made can be supported to some extent by the text, there’s so much in the play that isn’t being addressed that the performance seems superficial and distorted. However, it is leading to a lot of discussions, which is always a good thing.

Most of the differences I noticed tonight came in the second half, which I found the better of the two, but I’ll start with the first half. I noticed some extra business with the suitors; in particular, Portia and Nerissa recited the inscriptions along with the two unsuccessful suitors, and for the Prince of Arragon they were also waving guns around. The Prince of Arragon was less Manuel-ish this time around, but his accent was so over the top that I couldn’t make out much of his dialogue at all.

I found the scene with Launcelot Gobbo, the angel and the devil easier to follow this time round. I suspect they may have moved the slot machines further forward to improve visibility, and the angel and devil seemed to be taking longer over their lines, fondling poor Gobbo as much as they could, so it worked better for me (he didn’t seem to be enjoying it at all!). The scene in the car seemed shorter also, though I couldn’t say why.

The short chat between the salad boys took place in a lift, depicted by means of a square light shining down, a ‘ting’ as the lift door opened and closed, and all the occupants lifting up on their toes each time it started down. At the end, only the janitor was left, and he got out in the basement – this was just before the second casket scene. This was the same staging as before, from what I can remember. The first half ended after Shylock’s conversation with Tubal, with Shylock doing a little dance to show his suffering, anger and desire for revenge.

The second half started with Bassanio’s casket scene, and the reason I ‘enjoyed’ the second half more was that I could see much more from Bassanio in both this and the trial scene. I spent most of the first half thinking that Richard Riddell had a very inexpressive face, but the second half proved that wrong. He managed to portray a man who could be in love with Portia given half a chance, but who then realises how much Antonio means to him, and destroys his marriage before it’s begun. I still found Portia’s emotional uncertainty at the point when she should be happiest a bit inexplicable. Susannah Fielding had talked about it earlier, but I reckon it’s one of those things that may work in an actor’s head, and yet doesn’t necessarily come across in performance. Her grimacing continued in fine style to the end of the play, and I could almost sympathise with Bassanio in the final scene, as he realises he’s landed himself with a complete nut job.

Now that I could hear more of the dialogue, I was also aware of how much this interpretation of Portia is at odds with her speech. How exactly does a ditzy blond airhead know about young Alcides and the Dardanian wives? And there were other lines that just didn’t fit with this heart-led southern gal persona. But at least Bassanio’s thought processes as he faced the three caskets were good and clear – hooray – and I was very conscious of his comments about ‘snaky golden locks’ being wigs, and not natural at all. When Portia did un-wig herself (and perhaps that speech gave her the confidence to do it?) there was a wry smile on Bassanio’s face, as if he recognised the falseness, and didn’t mind it. At this point, it looked like he was willing to be a good husband and might even end up in love with Portia, if she could let go of her protective image and show him another, stronger side to her personality.

This time, I noticed that Nerissa had lost the high heels and was wearing sensible trainers when she and Gratiano joined the two on stage. After Bassanio has read the letter from Antonio, and the situation is explained, Portia asks how much is owed. Her reaction when she’s told that it’s three million dollars is wonderful – petty cash as far as she’s concerned. We’ve realised before that she’s very, very rich, but this rewording really does bring it home in today’s terms. The reaction from the others to her response was also good – jaws drop, and Gratiano looks at Nerissa and wordlessly asks if Portia’s really that wealthy? Nerissa nods, and Gratiano is stunned. Thirty-six million dollars is a drop in the ocean to this woman (‘Double six million, and then treble that’). I also noted the line ‘Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear’, and heard a reference to it again later.

The next bit was the same as last time, I reckon, but we could see it better. Antonio snuck on stage and dropped into the seat in the first row, far side of the left walkway, just across from us. The lights were low, and Shylock came on with a torch, searching for him. When he found him, he called on the LVPD officer to arrest Antonio – I spent my time peering at the badge on the officer’s uniform to check they’d used the LVPD name, but I couldn’t see it clearly. Too much CSI, I’m afraid. The short dialogue between Antonio and Salarino which is part of this scene was hived off, and shown later.

The girls’ night in was much as before, though I was able to see the expressions more clearly, and Portia’s patronising attitude to Jessica came across very strongly. I saw Jessica as more grown up this time, unhappy with some aspects of her situation, but able to handle them better than Portia will be later. Nerissa still looked shocked and unhappy at the idea of ‘prayer and contemplation’ – how will she get her hair and nails done?

The postponed scene between Antonio and Salarino may have been inserted here, as the trial scene isn’t far away. Antonio is now in the fetching orange jumpsuit so favoured by American prisons, and is sitting on a stool near the front of the stage, while Salarino is up on the balcony. They talk on the phone, and when they finish, Antonio puts the phone down and is led away by the guard.

Now I don’t remember exactly when the trapeze bit happened, but it was around here somewhere. A trapeze was lowered down near the front left corner of the stage, and one of the actors, in a fetching blue leotard as I recall, wiggled about on it a bit. Then the trapeze was taken back up and the next scene started. What was all that about?

The scene with Launcelot, Jessica and Lorenzo is swiftly followed by the trial scene. This time, Antonio wasn’t standing in the same place all the time, but did have to be there for a considerable period. I was conscious of Scott Handy’s comment earlier on about Antonio’s mind being ready for death but his body wanting to stay alive, and that certainly came across tonight. His body was quivering and trembling, and it was hard to keep watching, but equally as hard to look away. Portia’s dawning realisation of the relationship between the two men was clear, but it did take away from her performance as a lawyer – too much going on. The rest of the scene was much as before, and I still felt there was no way that Portia got the answer she did, despite Susannah’s efforts. Gratiano’s exclamations in praise of Balthazar were powerful and worked really well tonight, so on the whole I was happier with this trial scene.

One thing I remember that I can’t find in the text is Bassanio saying to Antonio something along the lines of Portia’s words ‘Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear’. Since it appears to be an insertion, I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but I’m confident it was in the trial scene.

The final act was similar to before, but this time the touching between Antonio and Bassanio was up front – across Portia’s lap – so no mistaking the meaning there. Everyone’s as miserable as last time, there’s still a lot of wasted humour, and we left the theatre glad to be free at last. Will we put up with it for a third time? Wait and see.

One interesting point that came out of a later talk by Dr Erica Sheen is the sheer number of references to flesh and blood in the text. I hadn’t realised this before – god bless these academics, poring over a hot text day and night to give us these insights – and I certainly wasn’t aware of it from this production, but it’s something to look out for in the future.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Government Inspector – June 2011

4/10

By Nikolai Gogol, in a new version by David Harrower, from a literal translation by Charlotte Pyke

Directed by Richard Jones

Venue: Young Vic

Date: Wednesday 29th June 2011

This was something of a disappointment. We’ve seen this play before and enjoyed it, though not in this translation, and recent stage performances by TV comedians have been fine, so perhaps my hopes were a little too high. The trip into the auditorium was enough to lower them, mind you.

Ever since the Young Vic’s revamp, the productions I’ve seen have been more about showing off a fancy set design than presenting the play, and today’s effort was no exception. Once again, the audience had to traipse around three sides of the theatre before wandering through the set and out into the seating area. Some rustic locals were present, playing cards or peeling potatoes (don’t know if they were cast members or not) but given the absurdist style of this production, and the proscenium arch layout, why bother?

Anyway, I decided to ignore the warning lights flashing in my brain, and just enjoy the play. If only! It started in a strange way, with Julian Barratt getting out of bed on the far right of the stage to chase the word ‘incognito’ around the room. This sneaky little word was being projected onto the stage and kept getting away from him. When he opened the far right door to look for this ‘incognito’, there was only a pair of boots sitting there – I presumed they represented the unknown man. (I was wrong about the boots – see later.)

I had just about warmed up to this approach by the time the play itself started. It was funny when Julian, as the Mayor, now in the ‘real’ world, used the bedroom door to go through to the main room, instead of walking through the wall, but it was pretty much downhill from there. His delivery was monotonous, and he looked uncomfortable as he stood around waiting for his next line, unlike the other actors who inhabited their characters brilliantly throughout. He was acting as if he was still in a sketch show, so perhaps he hasn’t got the experience yet to provide a fully sustained performance on the stage.

Amanda Lawrence was particularly good as the postmaster, and we enjoyed seeing Steven Beard again as the unctuous German Dr Gibner. Doon Mackichan was good as the Mayor’s wife, tarting herself up excessively to impress the young stranger, and I thought Louise Brealey was brilliant as the Mayor’s daughter, simpering and sidling round the room in an assortment of outfits to try and catch the young man’s eye while her mother monopolised the sofa. Kyle Soller was fine as Khlestakov, the stranger who’s mistakenly believed to be the government inspector, but I felt he didn’t have enough to play against with such a weak Mayor, and the best scenes for me were the ones where the Mayor was absent. For one of these, the ‘loans’ scene, there were fistfuls of cash being waved at Khlestakov from all angles – through the floor, through the wall, etc. – and I loved the way the Doctor simply sidled through the room and thrust his contribution at Khlestakov without saying a word, before disappearing through the other door.

Fortunately, the performance finished a good twenty minutes early, as I was finding the last section very tedious. I did like the rats when they scuttled along the wall and also when they appeared in the doorway at the end; at the beginning I took them for a pair of boots, but this time I could see them more clearly and realised what they were. It wasn’t good enough to make up for the rest of it, though.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The History Boys – January 2011

4/10

By: Alan Bennett

Directed by: Christopher Luscombe

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Monday 24th January 2011

I wasn’t drawn to this play when it was on at the National; no idea why, it just didn’t grab me despite having an excellent cast, and being by a great writer whose work I usually enjoy. I was happy to go to Chichester to see it, though, and at least now I have some idea why I wasn’t keen to see it earlier. Some of the problems were down to this production, one was unfortunately in the audience itself, but some were definitely down to the play.

Firstly, the audience. The couple behind us were determined to have as many ‘chatter’ moments as they could. They cut it pretty fine at the start, almost talking over the dialogue, and they used every scene change to continue their not very quiet conversation, but it was at the start of the second half, when they did carry on over the first lines, that I turned round to tell them to shut up. In no uncertain terms. And thankfully, they kept quiet for the rest of the play, which is probably why I enjoyed it more in the second half.

The next problem was the delivery. I could hear some of the dialogue clearly, and the singing was fine, but I missed a lot as well, including some of the jokes. The accents didn’t help, but I got the impression that this was a proscenium arch production that hadn’t been fully adjusted for the wide thrust stage, and the actors may not have been prepared for how much more they would have to work to get the lines across.  Naturally, that ruined much of my enjoyment. Also, with the proscenium arch staging, I found it hard to see some of the action properly, especially the opening scenes of each half where Irwin, in a wheelchair, was mostly obscured by the furniture. I gather from Steve that the opening scene at least was done by video at the National, so presumably they didn’t want to tour with that level of technology, or else they just wanted to do it differently. Fine, but I wasn’t involved enough at the start because of it.

Then there were the performances themselves. Mostly fine, there were some weaker areas. Much as I love Philip Franks as an actor, with many fine memories of his work through the years, I felt his Hector wasn’t ‘strange’ enough to make sense of the role, and not entirely believable as the closet gay teacher who gropes his pupils’ balls while driving his moped with one hand and much too fast. I say ‘closet’ gay – this was one closet that had lost its doors. Steve reckoned Richard Griffiths was much more eccentric, and that worked better.

Likewise, I found some of the other characters weren’t well drawn enough. The female teacher, Mrs Lintott, while having some of the best lines, didn’t seem to have any particular character, Irwin was very weak, both in delivery and characterisation, and although the main boys were very good, there was a lack of depth in the ‘chorus’ that left me cold. I suspect we may have caught this production very early in its tour, and that it needs some time to get to grips with the play. [Not so; after checking websites, this tour started in 2010] At the moment, it feels like the actors are relying on Alan Bennett’s writing too much, and that just saying the lines should be enough. For me, I want to see more acting as well, and especially I’d like to be able to hear the lines they’re saying as well.

Finally, there’s the play itself. I’m not a boy, my education experience was very different from the one shown on stage, and I found I not only disagreed strongly with many of the opinions expressed, I also felt the thinking in this area seemed very shallow. I didn’t get any real sense of the different attitudes to teaching – Steve says this came across more strongly in the National production – and therefore much of the play seemed pointless. And what exactly is wrong with encouraging students to think for themselves and have a different point of view? I agree it can be used simply as a technique to make someone sound more intelligent and knowledgeable than they are, but it is also a valid way to make a point, and in general, I think it does history, as well as other subjects, no harm at all to have to tackle multiple viewpoints. After all, many of the cultures the British colonised for so many years have had opinions which differed from the accepted British Empire view of history, and these have been and are being assimilated into a greater world view – what’s wrong with that? I certainly agree that much of the TV history presentation is akin to journalism – naturally, since that’s what works on TV. And what’s wrong with journalism exactly? None of this was explained; it just seemed to be assumed that we would all agree on the ‘correct’ standards, and so find the jibes at one or other target to be funny. Well, some were, most notably the emphasis on league tables and the treatment of women in the academic professions. But a lot weren’t which is unusual for a writer of Bennett’s calibre. I can only assume that with so many parents concerned about their children’s education, this play touched a funny nerve, which is why it was so popular.

So not the best evening in the theatre, then. I’m glad I’ve seen it, and I wouldn’t rule out seeing it again, in a much better production. Steve reckoned he would have given the National version a nine or ten-out-of-ten rating, and this one only a six, so clearly there are problems to be sorted out from our perspective. Regardless, I do hope they have a good tour, as many people last night were clearly enjoying themselves more than we were.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me