Othello – July 2015

Experience: 5/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Iqbal Khan

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 24th July 2015

This was a strange experience. Both Steve and I rated one performance considerably higher than the production as a whole, and that doesn’t happen often. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, we’re looking forward to our second viewing as we’ve often found in the past that once we’ve adjusted to the way a production is being done, we can get a lot more out of a return visit, not to mention the possibility of improvements happening over time.

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Wendy & Peter Pan – January 2014

Experience: 5/10

Adapted by Ella Hickson from the novel by J M Barrie

Directed by Jonathan Munby

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 22nd January 2014

Steve and I are firmly in the ‘kids of all ages’ category, and we’ve enjoyed many a show that’s been aimed at children or a family audience; Swallows And Amazons and The Heart Of Robin Hood spring easily to mind. So we were a bit disappointed to find that this version of the Peter Pan story was sadly lacking in the fun department, with the writer’s feminist agenda making for an uneven and often boring play. We didn’t clap for Tinkerbell (die, bitch, die) but there were enough who did for her to spring to life again. Our fondness for Guy Henry meant that we preferred Captain Hook to the Lost Boys, and although I sniffled a bit during the final scene when Wendy and her mother made an emotional connection over the dead brother/son, this was not enough to make up for the rest of the evening. Once more we will be returning tickets for a second viewing; unusually for us, an evening in front of the telly would be more enjoyable than seeing this production again.

I want to make it clear that my criticism is entirely about the writing; the actors did a splendid job with the material they were given, the set had some magical aspects and I’m glad to say that there was some response from the audience at times, especially during the Tinkerbell poisoning incident. Even so, this is not a production that’s likely to be revived anytime soon. The second circle was empty and there were gaps in the stalls, so word has clearly got round.

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A Life Of Galileo – February 2013

Preview

Experience 5/10

By Bertolt Brecht, translated by Mark Ravenhill

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 6th February 2013

Given the standard of the other two productions in this mini-season, I was a little disappointed to find I didn’t enjoy this third production as much as I’d hoped. There were a number of reasons for this, and since they’re still only halfway to press night it would be unfair to judge the entire run on one early performance. Steve would have rated tonight’s effort slightly higher than I did (6/10) so we were in broad agreement, and we both expect this rating to improve the next time. [Sadly we missed a later performance, due to car trouble. 25/3/13]

We started the evening with a director’s talk. This can be a two-edged sword, as hearing about the production before we see it can spoil our enjoyment or even warp our expectations so much that we have to work hard to get anything at all out of the performance. We intend to see previews before the talks in future, if we can, and we’ll see how that turns out.

For tonight, Paul Allen was in conversation with Roxana Silbert, and we learned plenty about the production and even Roxana’s family background. She had wanted to do this play for many years; with a father and brother who were and are physicists, she grew up in a house where Newton, Galileo and Einstein were part of their regular table talk. Only scoring 9% in her O-level physics, she admitted to being ‘interested, but not able’ in the subject of science. Her brother wrote some program notes for this production (she freely confessed the nepotism) and they had the services of Stuart Clark (scientist and science blogger on The Guardian) to take them through the scientific aspects of the play so that the actors would have enough of an understanding for their parts.

This new translation/adaptation by Mark Ravenhill was an attempt to freshen the play up, although with the Brecht estate being very protective of his work, they had to get approval for all aspects of the production. Fortunately, Galileo is the least Brechtian of Brecht’s plays, and since it was written over a long time span and reflected changes in Brecht’s own attitudes, there are a number of versions which can be blended together for each new interpretation. This production is mercifully short (about two and a half hours) and some of the scene choices reflect the film script rather than the play. (Brecht moved from an absolutist view of rationality and science via Hiroshima to an understanding that scientific work must be tempered with humanity.)

The nature of the material meant that it was difficult to be ‘authentic’ with the costumes or setting. Brecht used Galileo to tell the story of not just Renaissance science but some later discoveries as well, e.g. gravity, so some flexibility was needed in the choice of costumes. When Galileo is demonstrating his telescope to the Venetian senators, for example, the contrast between Galileo’s advanced understanding of the universe and the outdated attitudes of the establishment figures is apparently underscored by having Galileo in modern dress and the others in ruffs etc.

Having an established ensemble to work with had both good and bad points. On the one hand, the actors are working very hard, having got two other productions up and running, plus the understudy work which we hardly ever see, so they’re pretty tired when they arrive for rehearsals with her. On the other hand, they’re already working well together and they’re more prepared to take risks. They’re also familiar with the performance space, so when she asked them to try something out, they would do it immediately, almost before she’d finished explaining it to them. Overall, she reckoned their ensemble experience took three weeks of initial learning off the rehearsal process.

Ian McDiarmid wasn’t cast because of his role in the Star Wars movies; Roxana had worked with him in a Howard Barker play before he was ‘famous’ (for the films). Ian had also played Galileo in another production of this play when he was in his twenties, and one aspect of that production was the use of a puppet to play the young Andrea in the opening scene. Roxana chose to use the same actor throughout as Andrea, rather than cast a young boy and a grown man separately, so that the audience would be able to engage more easily with the father figure/son relationship better. She also felt that this technique emphasised the importance of children in the play, through giving the audience that stronger connection.

Brecht’s theory of theatre inevitably got a mention, as did his tendency to confuse the issue by apparently ignoring his own precepts at every opportunity. Roxana has clearly studied Brecht’s writings on the subject, including one book which showed that his directing style wasn’t that different from any other director. Shortly after this discussion, the fire alarm went off and we all trooped out of the theatre. We were nearly at the end of the talk anyway, so with a short burst of applause in the gardens, we were free to find somewhere warm to huddle until the theatre opened up again, which happened pretty quickly.

The set was interesting. As Roxana mentioned during the pre-show chat, there was graph paper hanging down at the back in three broad strips, with the central one forward of the other two to provide a couple of entrances at the back. We also noticed some obvious markings on the stage – various rectangles of red tape – which fitted in with Brecht’s preference to show the innards of the theatrical machine at work. Someone had asked a question about the red ladders; these were step ladders on wheels of various sizes which were wheeled on and off as needed and which were usually positioned on one of the red rectangles. Not so obvious till the show started were the screens back and sides which showed the location and date of each scene, while other screens, hung vertically, also had information scrolling up or down them which was very hard to read. Some other furniture was used from time to time, all modern including plastic chairs, and as it turned out virtually all the costumes were modern with the occasional ruff or frill here and there. The religious uniforms, especially for the Pope, were timeless, so there was very little sense of a clash of time periods at all, sadly. In fact, with the modern setting I found Galileo’s opening speech made me think how outdated he was, as we now know so much more than they did in his time. I accept that he is one of giants on whose shoulders others stood, but as Galileo’s character himself points out, there is no book which can only be written by one person.

This was only a minor point though; my main concern was that I just couldn’t engage with any of these characters as people. Despite Roxana’s belief that Galileo was a fully rounded person, that didn’t come across in this performance for me, and I simply didn’t care about any of the other characters. The scenes were so bitty, and there seemed to be so much activity at the expense of storytelling that I was feeling bored and looking at my watch long before the first hour was up.

Part of the problem was the wonderful experience I had at the National’s production back in October 2006, with Simon Russell Beale playing Galileo. I do my best not to let past productions influence my experience of each new staging, and in this case I was surprised how much the earlier performance had imprinted itself on me. Those scenes were so much richer, the characters so much clearer, the arguments against the new science were put forward by people who absolutely believed what they were saying, and I felt deeply for so many of the characters. There was none of that tonight; the thrust of the play seemed to be almost entirely didactic, despite Mark Ravenhill cutting a lot of that stuff out.

I’ve often found, though, that when a reworking of a foreign play is significantly different from those I’ve seen before, I need a test drive to recalibrate my perceptions so that I can appreciate the newer version properly. I’m hoping that will be the case here, as we’ve another performance already booked later in the run. And they may well have tweaked things by then or simply bedded the production down so that it works better. We shall see.

I did find some of the later scenes more enjoyable, especially the last scene when Galileo gave Andrea a copy of his final scientific work to smuggle out of Italy and publish. I felt there was little tension in the scene where Galileo’s family and friends were waiting for the result of his meeting with the Inquisitor; apart from Virginia’s constant (and loud) reciting of prayers, nothing much seemed to be happening, and I was surprised when the others suddenly celebrated what they thought was Galileo’s resistance – that section probably went on too long.

I also noticed that there were very few laughs during the evening. Not that I expect this sort of play to be a light comedy, but even The Orphan and Boris, dark though much of those plays are, had plenty of lighter moments to keep us going to the end. It may have been the audience holding things back, of course; I spotted what looked like a school party on the far side (we sat on the left side of the stalls, front row) who seemed bored at times, and there were frequent outbursts of coughing throughout the performance which didn’t help.

Another difficulty was that, despite the use of microphones by various cast members to give us more information between scenes, I couldn’t make out a lot of what they said. The song which opened the second half was typical; I didn’t understand the verses, and I only just got the chorus of ‘Who doesn’t want to be his own master’ before the words were pinned up at the back. I suspect the clarity will improve with practice, and maybe the humour will improve as well.

One final point to make is that the performance seemed to be directed too much to the front, and from our side view we may have missed things which could have helped us engage more with the production. I’m not too downhearted though; this is an excellent ensemble, and with time I’m confident this production will be well worth seeing again, even if it’s not my favourite type of play.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Troilus And Cressida – August 2102

5/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte for The Wooster Group

Directed by Mark Ravenhill for the RSC

Venue: The Swan Theatre, Stratford

Date: Thursday 16th August 2012

This was always going to be a bizarre experience; fortunately, it was also an interesting one. Prompted by Rupert Goold, the RSC and the Wooster Group, an experimental theatre group based in New York, started looking at a co-production of a Shakespeare play, possibly Coriolanus. The Wooster Group took the idea on board and began to work on Troilus And Cressida, and when the RSC commitment became uncertain, they planned to go ahead themselves anyway (a lot of this info came from the post-show). When Rupert couldn’t squeeze every possible project into his tight schedule, the co-production looked finished, but then Mark Ravenhill came to the rescue. Well, all he was doing at the time was sitting in a cottage in Stratford writing a play for the RSC, so of course he had time to spare! (I jest, of course.) Still, out of this strange Frankenstein-like experiment of two groups of actors rehearsing the same play separately has come a weird progeny: like the creature in that story, it has both innocence and darkness, ugliness and beauty in about equal measure. Let’s give it a chance to breathe before we decide whether to kill it or let it live.

The two tribe concept was immediately apparent from the set. A wall of steel panels spanned the back of the stage with a tepee in front of it, surrounded by various objects such as metal drums, old tyres, etc. These were generally painted with bright colours, so it took me a while to realise what they were. This side of the wall represented the Native American location (Troy) and there was often a cooking fire, complete with suspended cooking pot, in the centre of the stage for these scenes. Electronic wizardry was also noticeable on either side at the back, poles with video screens in each corner and extra screens at the back of the stage and at the front of the circle.

When the wall turned round to the other side we were in the Greek camp, where they used a hospital trolley and screens to represent Achilles’ tent, and when the wall was end on to us or at an oblique angle it marked the scenes where both sides met in between, usually the battle scenes. The Native American costumes were a mix of modern and historical (I would guess) and their warriors wore bodies on their backs when fighting. It was as if they’d skinned more than a scalp off the enemies they killed and were using these trophies to show off their prowess in battle. I noticed when Pandarus was introducing the Trojan warriors to Cressida, one of them was a bit weaker looking and had no body on his back, presumably a beginner. The Greek soldiers wore British army fatigues, except when Achilles dressed up in a bright red evening dress, slit to the hip and with a low-slung back – very fetching. Thersites mostly knelt in a wheelchair, suggesting his lower legs had been cut off, and was usually in drag with wig, makeup and Spandex top.

The prologue was ditched altogether, and the play started with Troilus complaining to Pandarus that he’s still waiting to get Cressida’s love, whiny little brat that he is. Mind you, I wouldn’t have known that from the dialogue, as I wasn’t able to tune in to the accents being used for quite some time, and the actors’ delivery was rather monotonous which didn’t help. The American actors were also miked up, so the volume was fine, but they lacked clarity, which wasn’t. The talk between Troilus and Aeneas was likewise hard to follow, and I was beginning to regret coming. I did find some aspects of this staging funny though, especially the ludicrous wigs these non-Native Americans were wearing, and I was keen to see how the two halves would merge, so I stayed put.

Cressida’s arrival improved things slightly. Her initial exchange with Pandarus, spoken more quietly at the front of the stage, started to engage me even though I still wasn’t hearing the full dialogue. To view the returning warriors, she clambered on top of the tepee, with Pandarus standing just beside her. The warriors each came on stage, stood in a large circle at the centre and did a little dance before leaving. After Pandarus left, Cressida gave us her soliloquy quite well at the front of the stage before departing.

Now for the Greeks. Their arrival was pretty rumbustious; they were singing loudly to some heavy rock drumming, and the energy of the performance went up several notches. The dialogue became instantly clearer, and with no microphones we could easily identify the location of each speaker, which was proving much harder with the miked actors. This scene is very wordy, but with Scott Handy playing Ulysses we were in safe hands. He expressed Ulysses’ arguments so well that each phase of his reasoning followed on from the last, and all were necessary – no mean feat. Achilles had been lying on the trolley after their group entrance, but when Ulysses described Achilles’ slothful behaviour, the trolley came forward and Achilles even spoke some of the lines which Ulysses was reporting. I noticed Ulysses had a notebook which he checked to get Achilles’ exact words, which also suggested he had spies everywhere. Patroclus also acted out the impersonations which Achilles asked him to do, so we could clearly see what was going on.

After Aeneas’s arrival and the issuing of the challenge from Hector, all but Ulysses left the stage, with Nestor last of the group. He was called back by Ulysses, who described his plan for getting Achilles to cooperate with the other Greek leaders. His description of Ajax was scathing, but not inaccurate as we learned a few moments later when Ajax turned up and began to knock lumps out of Thersites. Ajax was played by Aidan Kelly, wearing a muscle suit which had ‘Ajax’ tattooed on the right breast in Greek letters, a Nike swoosh on the left breast (cheeky) and ‘I’M AWESOME’ plastered across his back in large letters. That was funny in itself, but his arrogant and stupid behaviour had us laughing often. He left off hitting Thersites after Achilles and Patroclus arrived, but he had already dragged Thersites from his wheelchair and left him on the ground. Achilles put him back in his chair, and then Thersites insulted everyone and left. Not a nice man. Ajax finally found out about the proclamation – that the Greeks would select their champion to meet Hector by lot – and that was the Greeks finished with for a while.

Back in Troy the king and his lords were discussing whether to send Helen back or not. Hector was all for it, Troilus argued against. I heard more of this debate than most of the previous Trojan dialogue, so that helped. Cassandra’s dire prophecy came over on the screens and loudspeakers rather than in person, although I did spot a woman peering out of the tepee towards the end of that speech; it may have been her, or maybe not. I suspect some dialogue was cut, as I don’t remember it taking too long to get through this scene, and then we were back with the Greeks.

Thersites’ explanation as to why he, Achilles, Patroclus and Agamemnon were all fools came across very clearly, and although I wasn’t sure at first about Zubin Varla’s portrayal, I quickly came to like his Thersites very much. The dialogue was clear, it commented on and explained the action very well, and his characterisation of Thersites as a Mancunian drag queen didn’t jar with this production. He often used a hand held microphone to deliver his lines, which worked very well in this version of the play. (And I learned from Zubin Varla after the post-show that he saw Thersites’ comments on the action as effectively being stand-up.)

When Agamemnon arrived, Achilles withdrew to his tent; the screen was partially drawn across but we could still see what was going on from our angle. Thersites stayed with Achilles, but Patroclus acted as door keeper and repelled all would-be boarders. Ulysses was pushed into the tent, and had a bedpan emptied over his head while he was there. Meanwhile Ajax was becoming even more vain and boastful, and the other Greek generals puffed him up as well, showing by their expressions to us what they really thought of him. When Agamemnon suggested that Ajax visit Achilles, Ulysses, while still drying himself off, cleverly prevented this by suggesting that Ajax was too important to run errands to Achilles, puffing him up even more.

In Troy, Pandarus had his witty exchange with a servant, and this time the humour came across much better. Scott Handy was doubling Ulysses and Helen in this production – given his lovely falsetto voice that was no surprise – and I liked the way this brought out the forced change of culture that both Helen and Cressida undergo. This Helen certainly looked like a fish out of water. Her clothes were a mixture of Greek and Trojan, she seemed disoriented and not at all happy to be amongst these people, but when the dancing started up she did join in a bit as if this was one of the few things she had found to enjoy in her new home. It was a sad performance (in a good way) and easily overshadowed the mushy presentation of this scene by the other actors. I only heard Helen say a few lines so the scene must have been severely cut, but apart from Scott’s performance it could have been dropped entirely for all the benefit I got from it.

The next scene showed us the first coming together of the eponymous lovers, and it worked reasonably well. With Pandarus sitting on his stool at the back making salacious comments, Troilus and Cressida spent most of the scene avoiding each other until the final moments of contact. We learned a few things about the Wooster Group’s techniques during the post-show, and this scene was a good example of how these manifested in performance. The actors spent a lot of time watching the screens to see the images, which were usually either from films that have influenced their creative thinking for the production or video filmed as part of their research into Northern Mid-West Native American tribes. On top of this they all had ear pieces as well as mikes, and during their scenes they had spirit voices which would talk in their ears, giving them messages to incorporate or ignore, or occasionally falling silent. That they managed to give any sort of coherent performance with all this going on is commendable, but how did it affect the audience perception?

For most of the scene Troilus and Cressida avoided physical contact. They sat on the stage together, stood and looked at the screens, did little dances or ran round in a circle. Their dialogue was connected, but they weren’t. When the moment of physical contact came with a touching of outstretched hands, the technology enhanced the moment with flashes from the screens and a loud noise to suggest an explosion or electrical discharge. The two lovers collapsed backward when this happened, an apt metaphor, but recovered to finish the scene with the prophetic vows.

I found this disconnection between the lovers less engaging, and it didn’t add anything to my understanding of the play. Pandarus was more engaged with both of them and as a result he came across much better as a character as well as his dialogue being more intelligible. The images being shown on the screens also didn’t add anything for me; there was usually so much happening on the stage that I rarely looked at them, although with this scene being a bit slower I did spot that there were stills from various movies being shown, images of lovers kissing for example. We didn’t know about the spirit voices at this time but I was certainly aware that the characters didn’t seem fully present, which was a bit insulting in a way as we were fully present, and had paid good money for the privilege! Despite this, I was again impressed by the way that Shakespeare’s text, given the tiniest opportunity, will reach out and hook the listener, keeping them interested and involved. So when they took the interval after this scene, the usual place, I was happy to stay for the second half to see how the experiment ended.

No so everyone. There were large gaps amongst us when the second half started with the Greeks hearing Calchas’s plea to exchange Antenor for Cressida, his daughter. As Danny Webb was doubling Agamemnon and Diomedes, he indicated the change of character by throwing a different hat onto the ground; when he picked it up and put it on, he was Diomedes, and spoke with an Australian accent to help us distinguish between them. He made good comic use of this technique, especially when Diomedes and Agamemnon were in the same scene, swapping hats briskly to change character.

For the tricking of Achilles, the Greek lords started over on the left side of the stage, with Ulysses lurking on the left walkway until the appropriate time. Achilles and Patroclus were centre stage, and I think Patroclus was wearing high heels by now – I don’t remember seeing them before this. The lords walked past the pair with attitudes of disdain, upsetting Achilles very much. After Achilles had registered his concern at being ignored, Ulysses made his entrance reading a book and again his subtle use of argument pushed Achilles in the very direction Ulysses wanted him to go. Mind you, it’s a dangerous thing to get Achilles worked up emotionally; he grabbed Ulysses at one point towards the end of their encounter and threw him across the stage; he had to be restrained by Patroclus. Ulysses managed to escape unharmed, however, and Patroclus was finally able to give Achilles much the same warning about his reputation, information which Achilles had been unwilling to listen to before. With Thersites’ arrival, we learned of Ajax’s preposterous behaviour which Thersites imitated for their benefit. He pulled his blond wig over his face and made nonsense answers to Patroclus and although I didn’t catch all of it, the lampooning was good fun.

In the next scene Diomedes arrived in Troy to take Cressida back to the Greek camp. Diomedes’ evaluation of Paris, Menelaus and Helen was clear, and then we returned to Troilus and Cressida after their night together.  Troilus came out of the tepee first, carrying his boots and clothes, and as I recall it was a little while before Cressida joined him – I don’t remember what he did in the meantime. She was wrapped in a blanket when she did appear, and with bare feet. They were closer physically this time. Aeneas warned Troilus that Cressida was about to be taken away, then Cressida herself heard the bad news from Pandarus and she and Troilus said their farewells and exchanged tokens. She wore a long yellow glove while he had some cloth on his arm, and holding hands they transferred first the cloth and then the glove across from one to the other. It was a nice touch, but otherwise I found the scene a bit dreary. The singsong intonation they were using had outstayed its welcome and I was feeling less charitable towards these Trojan-only scenes as a result.

Cressida was handed over to Diomedes, and this time I think Diomedes was directly involved in the conversation. When Cressida was brought back to the Greek camp, however, the Greeks clustered round the trolley, which was now in the centre of the stage with a dress placed on it, and ignored Cressida’s physical location. They addressed themselves to a Cressida of the imagination who was sitting on the trolley, and kissed thin air. Meanwhile Cressida took off her blanket and other garments before putting on the dress provided; after this, she became visible to the Greeks and started interacting with them directly. It was a strange way to do it, but it did show her assimilation into the Greek camp, and may have been an easier staging given the separate rehearsals. I didn’t feel I understood the attitudes of the Greek generals as well as I have done with more straightforward stagings, though, and Cressida was still a blank.

The meeting between the Greeks and Trojans was enlivened by Achilles’ appearance in his red party dress and lots more railing from Thersites. The scene between Diomedes and Cressida, overheard by Troilus and Ulysses, wasn’t helped by Cressida’s relatively deadpan delivery; again the Greeks were making much more of their lines and the emotional undercurrents of this play. I did feel that Troilus’s grief and anger at her betrayal was justified this time; sometimes he comes across as a whining brat, or I find myself wondering if he would actually have been as true as he’d sworn to be if they’d stayed together, but tonight his reaction seemed appropriate.

Andromache’s attempt to dissuade Hector from fighting was on the dull side, and then we were into the final battles. Achilles struck the first blow against the unarmed Hector, and instructed his Myrmidons to finish him off; they wore white coveralls with masks, like fencing masks. Diomedes and a Trojan – no idea who, sorry – had a fight at one point. Diomedes carried a cricket bat and the Trojan had a lacrosse stick, which was an entertaining way of representing the two cultures having the battle. (The cricket bat was always going to win, of course.) When Thersites was saying his last lines (the “bastard” speech) he stepped out of the wheelchair and stood behind it, taking off his clothes. At the same time, the wall swung round and one of the Trojans was standing on a ladder behind the tepee, also stark naked, apart from the black wig. When Thersites finished, he ran off with the wheelchair, and the wall had swung round again so the Trojan was out of view. No, I don’t have a clue either.

The final lines from Troilus and Pandarus didn’t make much of an impression on me, but I’d enjoyed enough of the performance that I didn’t feel I’d wasted the evening. The post-show was interesting, and we learned more about the Wooster Group’s processes, some of which I’ve included above. Their choice of a Native American setting for the Trojans was partly to enhance the idea of a different culture; they wanted to get away from a generically bland choice that wouldn’t contrast so well with the British half of the production. The singsong style of speech had helped them access the meaning of the dialogue (didn’t do the same for me, sadly) and although they’re not trained vocally to project in such a large space – hence the mikes – they did have a day’s training from an American expert in Shakespearean dialogue, and were rigorous in applying his lessons by obeying line endings, etc.

The videos we could see were not usually visible to the audience, so a thrust stage was obviously a new experience for them. Given this new situation, they were exploring possible changes, such as showing film of the actual cast on screen. The British scenes didn’t have pictures, of course, but they did show the oscilloscope display at times. They had five weeks to rehearse together, and I felt the British cast were supportive of their American colleagues. I commented on the humour I’d found in their performance, and Mark Ravenhill observed that Troilus And Cressida had originally been published as a ‘comedy’! (Though whether that was just to boost sales….) The production is still developing and changing all the time as they learn what works and what doesn’t. There were a number of appreciative comments which were well deserved, and although I wouldn’t endorse this style of experimental theatre, I did leave with respect for the American actors and their efforts. I wasn’t so impressed with their director, who seemed to have that arrogant attitude which implies that if the audience doesn’t get on with the performance it’s their fault, not the director’s. I may have picked that up wrong, but that’s how I saw it.

For me, the biggest drawback with their experimental style is that is goes against the raison d’être of theatre, which is to engage with the audience (and preferably with the other actors). Most of the technologically ‘innovative’ productions I’ve experienced tend to have this problem; the actors are so involved with the technology that they don’t actually relate to the audience at all, or not as much as they could. Technology is great in many ways, and has been used very successfully in a supplemental role, but it can’t drive productions as much as some people seem to think.

Another drawback was the choice of a Native American or Inuit setting for Troy. This led to the singsong delivery (already commented on) and a strange clash between the attention to detail, such as the occasional chanting and documentary-style videos, and the ludicrous costumes they wore which made them look like children dressing-up. I found a lot of humour in this approach, but I suspect it wasn’t intentional. For example, I made a connection between the Wooster Group name (from Wooster Street, apparently) and Bertie Wooster, seeing their style of production as the sort of ‘avant-garde’ rubbish Bertie would latch onto and which Jeeves would frown upon, only to be proved right in the end. It’s not a flattering comparison, but it did spring easily into my mind.

Additionally, my respect for the Native American culture, born out of ignorance I readily admit, meant that I found Pandarus’s speech at the end didn’t really work. He’d been a busybody, true, and eager to get Cressida into bed with Troilus, but he didn’t seem as lecherous as his final speech indicates. The Trojans came across as noble and decent, unlike the war-like Greeks (again, probably just my cultural conditioning).

The disparate styles didn’t bother me so much as the inappropriateness of the Americans’ style for this acting space, and I would happily see this experiment repeated, either with more compatible styles or perhaps using another language for one of the cultures – what chance German ‘Greeks’ attacking British ‘Troy’? The stand out performance had to be Scott Handy’s Ulysses/Helen, and it was worth the other stuff to have seen that alone, though the other Brits did splendid work as well.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King John – May 2012

5/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Maria Aberg

Venue: Swan Theatre, Stratford

Date: Thursday 17th May 2012

Controversial! This re-interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s least-loved plays had some interesting ideas and stagings, but ultimately proved to be a triumph of style over substance. The stage was covered in a chain-link carpet in drab brown, with steps at the back and various rectangular blocks around the place for tables, seats, etc. there were potted plants, an art deco sunburst chandelier, and a netted swathe of large balloons above the steps, completely blocking out a neon ‘for God and England’ which appeared once the balloons were released at the start of the second half. This was a sleazy, corrupt, eighties-style country, with everyone out for financial gain and not much else, and lots of strong women pushing the men around. An interesting starting point, but would it bring out aspects of the play we hadn’t experienced before?

Before the play proper, Pippa Nixon, in multi-coloured tights and a short black dress, warmed us up with a shaky rendering of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on her ukulele. We joined in as best we could, at her insistence, then they started their version of the play itself with the entrance of the king and his court. This opening section was good fun, with Alex Waldmann’s King John a stronger presence than I’ve seen before. With the whole court assembled, he stood on the steps and toyed with them by starting to put the coronet on his own head, then stopping, then actually going through with it. The court was caught mid-bow or courtesy, but then there were cheers and applause. When a man in a pastel pink suit arrived, he was told to wait, and was kept waiting for some time until the king deigned to speak with him. This turned out to be Chatillon – the king read out his name tag in slow syllables before letting it ping back – and the bickering between France and John over the true king of England had begun.

After Chatillon’s departure, while John was giving orders for the church establishments to pay for the expected war, the dispute between two of Robert Falconbridge’s ‘sons’ came before John, only this time the elder ‘son’ was actually a daughter, played by Pippa Nixon. Both Queen Elinor and John registered their recognition of the Bastard’s similarity to Richard Lionheart, although we had nothing to go on, of course. The forthright battling spirit of the Bastard matched well with Elinor’s attitude and added to the play’s emphasis on strong women, but I was concerned at the Bastard’s lack of physical prowess – would she really be able to cut her way through a mass of soldiers? – and the added element of sexual attraction between her and John didn’t help the play at all as far as I was concerned. It might have worked better for me if they’d simply had Pippa playing the Bastard as a man, but perhaps not. Either way, they feminised the language, and although this interpretation conflicts with historical reality, not to mention the text, at least Pippa had one of the clearer deliveries of the evening and her high energy levels helped to keep me awake for most of the performance.

Lady Falconbridge, the Bastard’s mother, arrived by motorbike; for a brief moment I thought it might actually be coming onto the stage, it was so close, but in the end it was just the lady herself in her leathers, and good fun it was too. Then the action moved to the French court, where we met Austria, Arthur and Constance, as well as the French king and the Dauphin. This was where the dialogue started to lose clarity, and although I got the gist I was beginning to miss more than I heard. Added to this problem was the dreadful blocking. From the post-show we learned that the director didn’t bother blocking the scenes. From experience I can safely say that if they don’t block, they will block, and badly too. The effect of this was to cut our view and muffle the sound so that we might as well have been in another theatre for all that we could tell of the performance at times. Not the RSC’s finest hour, and something that could and should be addressed.

I was aware that Constance advised the French king to wait for the ambassador to return before attacking the English-held city in front of them, just in case, only for the ambassador to turn up a few moments later to warn of the impending arrival of the English army. And indeed they did turn up almost immediately, and settled down to a long war of words. At one point, King John made as if to put the coronet on Arthur’s head, but again snatched it away at the last moment and placed it back on his own. Constance, played by Susie Trayling, was another strong performance and also very clear, and I enjoyed the bickering between her and Elinor very much. Elinor produced a will which Constance grabbed, tore and scrunched up before throwing the bits away – I only mention this because there was a lot of that in this production, paper being ripped and/or scrunched up and tossed to one side, leading to an accumulation of debris.

The citizens of Angiers (for so it was, according to the text) appeared around the stage on the first balcony level while John and Phillip made their speeches asking for their support. Two microphones on stands were brought forward, and John did his speech first, followed by Phillip. It was a bit like a reality kingship game show, with the final choice going to the public vote, but there was a twist in this case. Not happy with the citizens’ indecision, and prompted by the Bastard’s fighting talk, Phillip and John agreed to join forces temporarily to destroy Angiers and carry on their own battle afterwards. Only the quick wits of the Angiers delegation prevented this, with their suggestion that Louis the Dauphin should marry Blanche, John’s niece.

The deliberations following this suggestion were nicely done, as far as I could see. Elinor was happy that the union would strengthen John’s claim to the throne, and encouraged him by a look to add Anjou to Blanche’s dowry. She wasn’t so happy about the thirty thousand marks John threw in as well, though. The actual contributions by Louis and Blanche themselves were largely hidden from my view and I couldn’t tell from the delivery what was going on, but it certainly seemed to be the clumsiest wooing ever by a long way. Since Constance wasn’t around to shove her oar in, and only the Bastard was unhappy that the fighting was over before it had begun, they went straight into the wedding ceremony.

Blanche put on her fancy togs at the top of the stairs – 50s pink skirt, socks, high heels – but I couldn’t see what Louis was doing. The microphones were cleared away, and the party began. With the two courts posed together on the steps, the Bastard took a photo, and then the courts froze while the Bastard talked us through the commodity speech – a long time for some of the cast to hold their poses.

After the speech, the action started up again with music and dancing, including a karaoke number from John. He brought a microphone back on and used that – cries of ‘speech’ from the others – but instead he went into an old number, I forget which, and with the rest of the cast joining in it all became a bit rowdy. John even took the microphone off the stand and was holding it out for the audience to sing along. Blanche took the microphone herself and had a go, and then the bride and groom said their vows followed by another slow dance between them which turned into a Dirty Dancing number. With much hilarity, the couple left the stage followed by the rest of the partygoers, leaving an empty stage for Constance to have a rant on. Arthur and Salisbury were there too, of course, but it’s Constance’s big number, and she did it very well. The contrast with the upbeat, high energy party scene was very effective, even more so when the revellers came back on, still in party mode but with extra hats, tinsel and the like. They stopped when they saw Constance, and it was an awkward moment.

The bickering continued, especially between Constance and the king of France, and only stopped when the Pope’s legate, Pandulph, arrived on the upper balcony. Another female version, this Pandulph was played by Paola Dionisotti in a white shirt and smart black trouser suit (well, she is Italian). John’s defiance of the Pope’s instructions (to release the Pope’s chosen Archbishop of Canterbury) led to Pandulph excommunicating him, and the pressure was on Phillip once again to go to war with England. Despite a crafty attempt to manoeuvre the legate into providing a third option, Phillip was faced with the stark choice of being excommunicated himself or fighting John. I’m not sure if the contrasting arguments of Constance and Blanche were cut; if not, they didn’t make much of an impact on me, though I was vaguely aware that Blanche had a difficult choice to make. I assume she went with Louis; again, it wasn’t clear to me.

The next scene had the Bastard coming on stage with a big bag from which she took the head of Austria. She placed the head near the front of the stage, and then the king turned up with young Arthur. Normally Hubert pops up as well at this point, but to save confusing the audience (the other choices were straightforward, were they?) the Bastard took on this role as well. (We women are just so good at multi-tasking.) King John asked the Bastard to take care of Arthur, and a short while later he made it clear exactly what ‘take care of’ meant. Like Richard III, he wants the only other contender for the throne removed before there’s any more trouble. The Bastard was very willing, and agreed immediately out of loyalty to the king rather than any great desire to kill children.

It was during the next scene, which according to my text has a debate among Phillip, Louis, Constance and Pandulph, that I started to lose consciousness. Despite Constance having anger in her grief, she does go on a bit and the later reaches of this scene, after Constance had left, are mostly blank. Apparently Pandulph worked on Louis to make him desire the English throne for himself, through his marriage to Blanche, and we would see the consequences of that later on. For now, it was peaceful slumber, and although I was aware of the change of scene to the Bastard (as Hubert) and Arthur, I have no clear recollection of that either. The fast pace of the start had given way to a gentle lull, and either I was more tired than I realised (possible) or the performance hadn’t engaged me as much as I would wish (also possible). Either way, I soon had a chance to stand up, move around and wake myself up for the second half, as the Bastard’s inability to kill the little boy was followed by the interval.

The second half opened with another song from the Bastard – don’t know this one either – and then the balloons were freed and the paper confetti released to smother the stage in a wild celebratory gesture. Only there was just John and two lords on the stage, and the whole effect was of a damp squib. The balloons went everywhere, and had to be kicked out of the way from time to time, but for once I didn’t mind – the effect was worth it.

The political bickering continued, then the Bastard reported that Arthur was dead. This news was not well received by the lords, and John became very unhappy with the Bastard for following his orders. I didn’t get all of this bit, and the next scene was no better. Arthur was on the ramparts of the castle, edging steadily along a dangerous wall on top of the steps. As he jumped off the stairs, falling behind them, a dummy was dropped in front of the steps to represent the dead body. This was what the lords found, and the Bastard, having told the king that Arthur was still alive, had to contend with the awkward reality of the boy’s body. This section also wasn’t fully clear to me, and the text is no help either, as Hubert and the Bastard are both present in this scene and have a long dialogue together. I assume this was truncated to a soliloquy, but don’t quote me.

With the French already on English soil, John had to swallow his pride and bow to Rome’s authority. For his third coronation, John was practically naked, and prostrated himself before Pandulph, who then gave him his crown again, just as the English lords were about to join with the Dauphin and support his challenge for the kingship. Pandulph then arrived to send Louis packing, but found it harder than expected to control the Dauphin’s actions. The King was taken ill, and the English lords, warned of the Dauphin’s intended treachery towards them, changed allegiance again. Too late; John died, his son became king, end of play.

There were some good performances in amongst all this, but with the unclear dialogue and resulting loss of the storyline, I couldn’t really get into this version of the play. We’re seeing it again later in the run; perhaps we’ll enjoy it more, perhaps not.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Play House – March 2012

5/10

By Martin Crimp

Directed by Martin Crimp

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 29th March 2012

This was an odd little play, a two hander about a young couple just starting out in married life. Done in short scenes, there was no definite storyline, just two declarations of love to bookend the piece and lots of odd snippets in between. There was an overall sense of the woman having a troubled past, with family members who had mental and emotional difficulties, while the man seemed more straightforward but did seem to enjoy being trampled on at times. The scenes spilled over into fantasy at times, so we weren’t always sure what had actually happened, but there was enough energy in the performances to keep us interested at least.

With a play like this it is all down to the performances, and the cast today did an excellent job of bringing these two people to life. Lily James as Katrina and Obi Abili as Simon made them believable and engaging, especially when they danced. They began to set up the props for the play themselves, before the start. There were two long benches, on the far left and right hand sides of the space. They each brought on various items and placed them carefully, and I noticed a few adjustments going on. Lily would place something down and Obi would move it slightly, only for Lily to readjust again next time she passed by. I don’t know if this was intentional or not.

The items were used in the various scenes, including a manky fridge which was brought on to be cleaned for an early scene. At the end, the benches and items were thrown around to create a barricade, with Katrina and either a baby or a doll behind it, and Simon attempting to communicate with her from the other side. It wasn’t clear whether she had a doll, or had taken someone else’s baby – from the timeline, it couldn’t be hers as she wasn’t noticeably pregnant a few weeks earlier. Either way, it was a fitting end to this strange play, and although it didn’t do a lot for me, it passed the time well enough.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Comedy Of Errors – March 2012

5/10 (preview)

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 21st March 2012

This has the potential to be a very good production, but as yet the cast still seem to be finding their feet. This was only the 5th preview (press night 25th April). The dialogue was far from clear, so although I know the play pretty well, I reckon I would be struggling to follow the plot if it was new to me (and assuming I hadn’t read the program notes). The two Dromios are both well matched and also well differentiated; each wore an ‘I ♥ ____’ T-shirt with either ‘Syracuse’ or ‘Ephesus’ on it. They were the best thing in this performance, but even their comic business was being lost at times by the excessive staging.

The set was very important in this production. Ephesus is a thriving international port in this play, so that’s where they’ve set it; a good choice overall, though it did make the domestic scenes a little difficult to stage. The front left walkway had been removed, and that corner of the stage had been given a glossy black finish, representing water, and lots of rubbish has been plastered on it, representing the detritus floating in many a modern harbour. Another puddle sat a bit further back from this, also with a rim of debris, and there were wooden crates, oil drums and those big white canvas-looking builders’ bags around the place. A crane track ran diagonally from back left to front right, and various items were lifted onto the stage by this means, including the Virgin Mary (I kid you not!).

The rest of the stage was covered with wooden floorboards; at the back these rose up from the stage, first in a short shallow ramp, then as a vertical backdrop with jagged edges, lower at the left where the crane was operating. Several sacks had been stuck on this upright floor, and there were two bollards near the top with ropes wrapped round them which disappeared up into the flies. It was an interesting perspective, suggesting a topsy-turvy world as well as being a clear reminder we were at a port. Behind this panel of floorboards we could see an old fashioned metal post that’s the upright for some structure or other; it had curved metalwork corners suggestive of Victorian architecture. [23/8/12: Since learned that this is a structure in the Roundhouse which can’t be moved, so they decided to incorporate it into the set in Stratford as well.] There was another panel behind that which looked like corrugated iron(?) but I couldn’t see it clearly enough to be sure. There were two obvious trapdoors in the shallow ramp and the vertical part at the back, while others were concealed below oil drums and crates. At the start, there was also a fish tank sitting in the middle of the stage.

So it was a pretty grim setting for such a light comedy, and with gloomy lighting as well making it harder to see what was going on, this wasn’t the brightest version of the play I’ve seen. The opening sequence can be a  very moving scene, with the Duke explaining to Egeon (and us) just how much trouble he’s in, and Egeon in turn telling the Duke (and us) the sad history of his life. This time it was both unpleasant and unclear. The lights went down, and when they came up Egeon was having his head dunked in the fish tank by an armed guard, while another guard directed the light and the Duke came on in his dressing gown using a microphone to broadcast his words over the tannoy system. He only used this for the first few lines and some others during this scene; the rest of the time he spoke normally, which was a shame, as I found I could hear him much better with the amplification.

Egeon’s head was dunked several times, and at first I felt this was unnecessary brutality – this is a comedy, after all. Then I considered that this was simply a way of showing the life and death risk that Egeon, his son Antipholus and his Dromio are all taking by coming to Ephesus. Fair enough, but this is still a comedy, and I found myself wondering if the current generation are perhaps becoming too desensitised to this sort of thing, as was discussed during the post-show for Marat/Sade. Anyway, when Egeon hesitated before telling his story, the guard dunked him again a couple of times, and by this time I had spotted the Duke’s hand gestures to the guard telling him when to raise and when to lower. He even looked as his watch once to time it – very callous. Once Egeon did get started, the dunking stopped, thank goodness, and there were some signs that his listeners were being affected by his tale, but only a few. The dialogue wasn’t clear, I had the Duke’s back to me for a fair chunk of this section, and only my knowledge of the play kept me going – I just wasn’t engaging with these characters at all for once.

Things improved with the arrival of the other two Syracusans, Antipholus and Dromio. As the tank was cleared, and Egeon was dragged off to search through the city for someone to bail him out, a crate was carried on by the crane and lowered down on the far side of the stage. A nervous-looking chap paid off one of the workers and lifted the lid using a crowbar. Out popped Antipholus and Dromio, clearly determined to get into Ephesus by any means available to them, while the merchant’s opening lines warning them of their danger were almost irrelevant given this staging. With Dromio dashing off to the Centaur and the merchant very eager to free himself from Antipholus’s handshake as quickly as he could, Antipholus of Syracuse was soon left alone on stage to comment on his situation. Again, the lines weren’t delivered well enough for me.

Before Dromio of Ephesus arrived, another crate opened up towards the back of the stage and a young chap came out of it. When he turned round and saw Antipholus, he froze for a moment; they regarded each other warily, and then the young man ran off. Illegal immigrants were clearly a problem in this Ephesus. I think this was where the woman came out as well, with her fake designer handbags and red tracksuits. There was some good humour in this; it was clearly a Mary Poppins crate, with more coming out than the crate could hold. After the woman ran off to sell her wares, the scene between Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus was OK, and I found myself wondering how easy it was to follow this story if you didn’t know it at all, especially if the dialogue didn’t come across well. Dromio of Ephesus was very clear, mind you, and suffered a lot of physical abuse for it. I do hope they don’t get too many injuries during the run.

The next scene with Adriana and Luciana was staged on a hanging platform which was brought on by crane. With a post at each corner, it held a dining table and three chairs, as well as the two women. It was lowered to the ground at first, I think, but later on it was raised slightly. This meant that it swung around a bit, as well as leaning drunkenly depending on where the characters stood, and they even made it spin deliberately, just to add to the distraction. And it was a distraction; this was probably the least interesting Adriana and Luciana I’ve seen so far. Mind you, the weak delivery of the lines and bland characterisation didn’t help – I’m assuming this will change for the better with practice. To be fair, Steve did reckon the actresses looked nervous on their swinging perch, so perhaps that was behind the lack of depth to these portrayals – they certainly came across better when their feet were on solid ground.

With that scene over the platform was raised again and carted off while the action continued below. Again, this was pretty bland, and much of Dromio’s humorous dialogue was cut, sadly. With more beating of servant by master, there wasn’t much of the joshing relationship between this pair that we’ve seen before, which weakened the performance for me.

Adriana’s arrival and pleading to her husband was reasonably good, but ‘Plead you to me, fair dame?’ was followed too quickly by the next line, and the laugh was lost. I did like the way they shifted the scene to the front door of the house, though. A door was carried over by the crane and lowered down towards the back. The characters all went through this, with Dromio being hit twice by the door, once by Adriana and once by Antipholus. It was funny each time, and half the pleasure was the anticipation – we could see it coming a mile off.

Antipholus of Ephesus’s arrival with his friends was a strange affair, not so much because of their entrance but because a group of younger folk behind us were clearly finding a lot more humour in the performance than I was. Their laughter was inexplicable to me a lot of the time, and even got to the point where I felt I was watching a not very funny play and hearing canned laughter which was slightly out of sync with the action, an unusual and rather surreal experience. I did miss a few funny moments admittedly, such as Adriana’s reaction later on when her husband gave the ring back to the courtesan and thanked her for her hospitality – hope to pick that up next time around – but for the most part I reckon we just had different senses of humour. Anyway, Antipholus of Ephesus came on with his mates, singing a song, and that was that.

The door obligingly swung round a bit during the next bit so that we could see both Dromios as well as Nell, with her graphic vegetables. She was well padded, and took every opportunity to get up close and personal with her man, as she believed Dromio of Syracuse to be. Antipholus of Ephesus probably lost his temper – I know the play so he must have – and before he left with the others he took several runs at the door but it defeated him each time, finally leaving him prostrate on the ground.

After they left, Antipholus of Syracuse re-entered, doing up his shirt and trousers, although it wasn’t so clear this time how they came to be undone. Luciana followed him a few moments later to tell him off; I have no idea how the lines went, but she was only too ready to rush into his arms and kiss him a short while later so I guess it was business as usual. I was looking forward to the interval by this time. When Luciana left, the door rotated with her on the other side, so as it came round she was in front of it again. They played with this nicely; Luciana realised she was back in the same room as Antipholus, and after a bit of simpering she turned the door back round again. (It was pink on the reverse so we would know which side was which.)

Dromio of Syracuse’s description of Nell was so-so – again, the lack of a comedic relationship between master and servant didn’t help with this – and then he was sent off to find a ship they could leave on while Antipholus of Syracuse met up with the goldsmith and received the chain. When Antipholus suggested the goldsmith take his money then and there, he actually held out a banknote to him. I reckon it was nothing like the amount the chain cost, judging by the goldsmith’s reaction; he laughed indulgently and turned it down with the line “You are a merry man, sir”. After Antipholus’s final lines, the young man who had also emerged from a crate came on stage trying to get away from the guards, but they had him cornered. As they closed in, Antipholus was convinced they were going to catch him as well, but of course they thought he was their Antipholus. They surrounded the two men, arrested the young man, and included Antipholus in their group photo which ended the first half.

The second half began with an invented scene. The Duke, Egeon, some guards and the band entered on the right hand walkway, with the recording of the Duke’s earlier line about finding someone to help Egeon blaring out several times. The band was good musically, though they had a strange habit of turning up in all sorts of different costumes during the play. They were in dockers’ gear, including hard hats and Day-Glo vests, in S&M outfits, all in red tracksuits (the ones the woman had been selling) and one or two other costumes. I suppose they fitted in with whatever else was going on, but it didn’t add to the performance for me. Anyway, the guards hoisted up a dead body wrapped in black clingfilm – we could see a foot sticking out at the top of the parcel – and hooked it up to the crane. It was then taken towards the back, swinging slightly as these things do, and dropped off the dock behind the floorboards; there was a splashing sound and some glitter was thrown back over the boards to suggest water. Another reminder of the harshness of this regime and the high risk of death – they must think we’re incredibly stupid and/or have very short attention spans. I did think the body may have been that of the man they captured just before the interval, but if so his foot looked decidedly lighter in colour than the skin tone of the live man, so I don’t know if that was the intent. This extra bit didn’t really add anything for me.

The next scene proper had the merchant and the goldsmith entering with the officer – a menacing looking individual with a nasty looking stick – and the goldsmith was very keen to get his debt paid and avoid arrest. The scene unfolded in a pretty straightforward way, with Antipholus of Ephesus’s arrival, the arguments over who has the chain, etc., etc. I did enjoy Dromio of Syracuse’s entrance with a lifejacket and lifebuoy; he was so enthusiastic that we couldn’t help laughing at him.

For the scene between Adriana and Luciana, the platform came back with the fish tank on it, and Adriana was dunking Luciana in it, demanding to know what her ‘husband’ had said. This made more sense, and did at least give us some comic payoff from the opening scene. I noticed that the water level was much lower this time around, presumably so that Luciana’s hair didn’t get too wet. When Dromio of Syracuse turned up, they spun the platform round again, and got a little humour out of the way Dromio had to either run round with it to talk to Adriana, or stand still and speak to her every so often when she came around again. She also lashed out at him with her foot a few times when she came round. At the end of the scene, Adriana put her own face in the water as a sign of her dejection, also funny, but the bulk of the dialogue was lost again in the spinning.

For Antipholus of Syracuse’s next entrance, the band and everyone else were wearing the red tracksuits and showering him with gifts. When they left, Antipholus was standing on an oil drum which was on its side, so he had to balance on it as it gradually rolled a little backwards – an impressive feat. When his Dromio turned up with the money he’d got from Adriana, Dromio started off his questioning about the strangely absent officer by mouthing the words at first, which I enjoyed. Then he went through the long, roundabout descriptions, and finally Antipholus got his meaning; this was the first sign of some connection between these two. The courtesan arrived in a slinky short dress that left almost nothing to the imagination. Her posturing was also pretty graphic, although this wasn’t the coarsest Comedy I’ve seen by a long way. Dromio hid behind an oil drum during this scene, gesturing to Antipholus to run away from this she-devil, but as she was bending provocatively over another oil drum at the time, Antipholus was finding it hard to concentrate on anything else. Eventually Dromio tried to roll his oil drum at her to chase her off, but it had been specially flattened on one side and didn’t go very far. As Antipholus finally ran off, he threw her over it, another opportunity for injury, and as she got up she hissed in reply to Dromio’s parting words. I remember she took off a shoe – she was wearing very high heels – and threw it at somebody – don’t remember who – before saying her lines about going to Adriana and then limping off.

Antipholus of Ephesus, with his hands tied, assured the officer he wouldn’t try to run away, and then did just that a moment later. Poor fool, there was nowhere to run, and the officer had him in custody again almost immediately. Dromio of Ephesus’s entrance was good fun. He came in on the walkway trailing the rope behind him. As Antipholus stood there, Dromio pulled the rope through and piled it up in his arms; with more and more coming along it made a huge heap, almost obscuring Antipholus’s face. Dromio looked very pleased with himself, but he was soon unhappy again at his master’s anger.

Doctor Pinch’s arrival is something I usually dread, but this was one of the better versions of this scene. Jonathan Slinger gave us a camp gothic Pinch, with a crew of S&M attendants and a nasty pair of electrodes which he used whenever he could. The gleam of pleasure in his eye when he reckoned he had a madman to deal with was alarming, and Antipholus and Dromio were eventually bound in black clingfilm before being taken away on a trolley, accompanied by occasional prods with the electrodes.

Adriana was just sorting out the extent of Antipholus’s debts with the officer when the Syracusan pair arrived, and with this Antipholus brandishing a small knife, the rest ran off, afraid as much of their power to escape Pinch as the ‘sword’ itself. The meeting with the goldsmith and his creditor then followed, and this creditor had managed to conceal a considerably larger sword about his person which would have made the fight with Antipholus rather one-sided had Adriana and the rest not turned up to ‘recapture’ them.

This was when the Virgin Mary turned up. Rising above the boards at the back, her statue was brought forward by the crane. It also swung back and forth a bit, enough to make it funny rather than creepy. Everyone on stage stopped and looked at it, as did the audience. We also laughed. Then some angled doors lit up in the vertical ramp at the back; this was the abbey entrance which Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse escaped through – more laughter.

The abbess came out almost immediately, and in no time at all she had established who was boss. Adriana even tried to hit her, but the abbess grabbed her fist and squeezed, and in no time at all Adriana was on the floor, saying ‘ow’ and with a very sore hand. When the throng threatened to rush the doors, a metal panel slid shut behind them – one of the highest security abbeys I’ve ever seen – but it opened again to let the abbess back in. As she stormed past the characters on stage towards the back, they all got out of her way sharpish, including the officer, who jumped aside looking very alarmed – no way was he going to tangle with that woman!

For the Duke’s entrance, Egeon was brought on by the crane, suspended high up and dangling near the front of the stage. His feet were supported, but even so he was there for quite a long time before being lowered down. The Duke came on with his assistant and guards and they were very jumpy, brandishing their guns around as soon as look at you. The Duke took out his own gun and was pointing it at people when he wanted them to talk, though at first the scene started off amicably enough. Adriana made her plea for assistance, kneeling down to the Duke as she did so. Her servant arrived, and that was when guns were first drawn; the poor chap looked terrified, but then so did everyone else.

When Antipholus of Ephesus and his Dromio turned up, this Antipholus still had a chair attached to one arm by the clingfilm, and there were scorch marks all over his suit. He pleaded with the Duke for justice, everyone told their version of the story, and by the time the Duke sent for the abbess he was waving his gun around and making everyone even more jumpy. At this point Egeon spoke up, and got a good laugh at his lines – he was looking right down at Antipholus of Ephesus at that point. He was lowered to the stage and unhooked while his apparent son and servant disclaimed all knowledge of him, and then the abbess returned, heralding the arrival of the other two twins. I couldn’t see them at first from my angle, so I lost some of the effect of this bit, but they were soon in view for the (sniff) reunion scene.

The Dromios had been very well cast, and looked plausible as twins, as well as having similar comedic styles. The Antipholi (Antipholuses?) weren’t going to fool anybody, being at least six inches different in height, and although they were facially similar, the fact that one of them had a chair strapped to one arm would have surely made it a bit easier to tell which was which. Once again, nothing was made of the wonderful line by the abbess, or Emilia as we then knew her to be – “where is that son who floated with thee on the fatal raft?” There was a general tendency in this production to skip quickly over the text-based humour in favour of the physical stuff, but this really is a gem of a line requiring some reaction from the assembled throng. There was hugging and revelations and I sniffled (I really can’t help it), and then the abbess invited everyone into her place for a feast. When only the Dromios were left, they said their lines very touchingly, but before they exited, the flying Virgin came back again for a final swing across the stage. It got a good laugh, and was OK on that basis, but it did spoil the energy of the ending. This time, the lights simply went out and that was that.

There were some other bits of staging that went quite well, but I’ve forgotten exactly when they happened. Dromio of Ephesus used rap rhythms for a few of his lines to his own Antipholus, which he did very well. The Syracusan pair hid in oil drums at the back of the stage at one point, with Antipholus fitting nicely in his, and Dromio having to lift the drum up and hide his upper body while his legs showed below – good fun. He also ran off still holding the drum, another funny bit. There were enough of these good ideas to make the evening an OK experience, and to suggest that the production may be quite good once it’s worked in, but from my perspective they do need to work on the dialogue a lot more. A lot of the ensemble are making their RSC debuts, so perhaps the voice work they’ll do here will bring them on; it certainly helped a number in the very long ensemble that spanned the Courtyard/new RST period.

The two Dromios – Bruce Mackinnon, a very good Algernon in The Importance Of Being Earnest at the Rose recently, and Felix Hayes, very good as Snug the joiner in the recent RSC A Midsummer Night’s Dream – were the clear stars of this production, and I’m already looking forward to seeing them again in this and in their other roles. Nicholas Day did the best he could with Egeon’s part, but the staging didn’t do him any favours, and of the rest I enjoyed Jonathan Slinger’s Pinch, Sargon Yelda’s Angelo (the goldsmith) and Solomon Israel’s officer.

Almost forgot to mention – the noise of the crane as it moved back and forth was another distraction we could have done without; Steve noticed it more than I did.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me