A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It ) – August 2012


By Dmitry Krymov, loosely based on some elements of Shakespeare’s play

Directed by Dmitry Krymov

Company: Chekov International Theatre Festival/Dmitry Krymov’s Laboratory/School of Dramatic Art Theatre

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 15th August 2012

For lovers of this director’s work, this was a joy, but it certainly won’t persuade me to sample the rest of his repertoire. The performers were all brilliant at what they do, and there were some fun moments during the hour and forty minutes it took to get through (plus a cute little dog running around on stage), but the rest just dragged, and I was surprisingly unmoved by the deaths of the two lovers at the end. For once, I didn’t even have the heart to pretend to applaud, apart from the ballet dancers. Fortunately the regular fans more than made up for my lack of enthusiasm, and gave them a standing ovation.

Despite the title, this was not A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the director found he could only relate to the mechanicals in this play, so all we got was their presentation of Pyramus and Thisbe. Nothing else – no Duke, no lovers, no fairies. Before the start, the stage had wooden flooring covered with a large plastic sheet. The backs of the chairs near the stage had cloth covers too, and Steve soon realised that water was likely to be involved.

We sat by the right hand walkway, only this time it had been removed and stairs put in (similar on the other side). Along the length of these stairs lay a huge tree trunk, with the base resting on one of the steps up to the stage. Several of the mechanicals were guarding it and chatting to members of the audience as well. Above the central aisle hung a huge chandelier, swathed in white cloth and hanging quite low. At the back of the thrust on both sides were two makeshift boxes, and I assumed these would be for the onstage audience. They had assorted chairs, and were marked off with planks of wood resting on piles of bricks or whatever else was around. The areas of the circle above them were also sectioned off, and I could see colourful throws spread on the backs of the seats. At the very back was a sheet, but it didn’t come into use till later, and apart from that I think the stage was bare.

With the house lights still up – they were regularly on for the audience participation sections – the action began. The mechanicals started talking loudly amongst themselves, and lifting up the tree trunk they carried it onto the stage. Others came along with branches, and because the items were so big, they filled the stage and even brushed the audience as the mechanicals swung them around trying to sort them out. There was also a small dog, a terrier, which ran down the tree trunk and around the stage, getting to know the audience.

The tree and its branches disappeared off the back, and then a fountain was brought on down the same aisle, with water pouring out of it intermittently on either side. We didn’t get splashed much in the end, and the performers were quick to get the buckets under the flow (and towels were handed out immediately afterwards). The fountain was also taken off at the back, and neither tree nor fountain was seen again, although the sheet at the back had some smudgy markings that may have been intended to represent leaves. The dog stayed behind, and positioned itself centre back, while a screen came down on which was projected a long-winded description of the mechanicals argument. Apparently they had been discussing Shakespearean verse styles, and there appeared to be lots of in-jokes about the director’s wife; the fans were laughing, but apart from some lines I didn’t find it particularly funny. The dog sat up a few times during this, and again the fans thought this was hilarious. I noticed the dog had something attached to its collar – possibly to give it instructions remotely?

I’m not sure of the exact order of events – always a problem with non-textual business – but fairly soon the mechanicals came on stage half-dressed and proceeded to put on their evening clothes. They were in a tight group in the centre of the stage, and when they were done they formed up in rows and waited. At one point a woman tried to push her way to the front, but couldn’t get through. Then the on-stage audience arrived. There were lots of them, including two young girls, and they took a long, long time to get on stage, look around, and then take their seats. There was some fun as a stroppy older woman character, who was carrying a bunch of flowers, used it to brush wood shavings off the plank at the front of their box; this was when I realised there were wood shavings on all their chairs, indicating the rough and ready nature of the mechanicals’ performance. The way that woman cleared the chairs was good fun, even if it went on far too long. Then there was the inevitable wrecking of the boxes themselves, with people falling into the stalls and planks of wood landing on the stage. It was all very predictable and took many minutes to sort out, and it was probably at this point that I first considered leaving before I wasted too much of my precious time.

After they were seated, the on-stage audience were all given champagne to drink (yawn), and then there were several minutes of ringing phones to sort out. Later in the performance, one chap took a call on his mobile and we saw the dialogue come up on the surtitles. He told someone he was in Stratford (funny) and was paying a fortune for international roaming! (even funnier) He had several goes at switching his phone off before the ‘action’ continued.

Back at the start, the on-stage audience were seated, refreshed, and phone-free, so they waited for the performance to begin, as did we. And we waited. And we waited. I found myself thinking that Communism had given the Russian people great patience – all that queuing for bread, perhaps. Then the performer front right whispered something to the chap next to him, and it was passed back, one to another. When the surtitles started up, we learned that the chap who plays the lion was being told not to pare his nails (he didn’t, he informed us).

One of the performers came to the front and turned to face the group on the stage. He delivered an approximation of Peter Quince’s wonderful prologue, conveying the sense of awkwardness and confusion beautifully. He wanted the audience on stage to know that their performance wasn’t ready yet, but as they hadn’t seen it before they wouldn’t know that. They weren’t intending to give the audience any enjoyment, though if they did enjoy it that was fine. They just wanted to give a good performance. They pushed some of these surtitles through so fast that I could only just catch the sense of the last one; something about enjoying the fact that we realised the performance wasn’t ready. Whatever the punch line, the rest of the speech was funny, and for once the time they took was worth it. I even started to enjoy myself. But it wasn’t to last.

After the speech and whispering (they may have happened the other way round) one of the actors fell flat on his face, passing out from all that waiting. The others picked him up, and he ran back as if to go off stage to deal with his bloody nose, but then he stopped and came back to the front to explain what they were doing. They had obtained a copy of a very ancient text from a friend who was working for the RSC, or possibly from the KGB vaults, and had learned that Pyramus and Thisbe were real people and that theirs was the first true love story. Forget Adam and Eve – who else could they fall in love with? – this was the real thing, and all other lovers’ stories sprang from them. The list was long, and there were several laughs along the way. But each love story has a THING, the THING that caused Eve to eat the apple, etc. The THING in Pyramus and Thisbe’s case was a LION. They had decided to strip the Pyramus and Thisbe story down to the essentials and were going to present that to us.

I think the group broke up after this bit, and then two large black bags were carried onto the stage and placed on either side. The one on the left turned out to be Pyramus’s puppet, while Thisbe’s was on the right. They spent a lot of time setting up Pyramus; the puppet was at least ten feet tall, with the performers just able to walk under his legs. He had two large hands, one of which could actually grasp things, and the face stuck to his head looked like an icon’s face, a young one at that, and quite good looking. They played with the idea that the puppet was difficult to control, having it fall over a couple of times by the boxes, and then brought it over to the front of the stage where it teetered on the brink for a few moments. As it was just by us, I spotted the puppet’s reaction to not falling on top of the audience – he wiped his hand across his brow and then flicked it to one side. I found it amusing, but I suspect the gloomy lighting hid it from the fans in the audience as there was no response from them. Mind you, there was plenty going on with all the mechanicals rushing around, the dog scampering here and there, and occasional interruptions from the on-stage audience, particularly the outspoken older lady who’d been cleaning the seats with her flowers. When they did interrupt, the performers stopped what they were doing and waited patiently for them to finish.

Once they had Pyramus up and walking, he went over to the circle on the left side and held out his hand to the people there. The woman who was with the children up there was frightened, and swatted at his hand with her bunch of flowers to make him go away. The older girl realised what was wanted, took the flowers and gave the bunch to the puppet, who grasped them in his hand. Then the stroppy one on the other side took a rose out of her bouquet and demanded that Pyramus pick that up as well. This was when the balancing acts came to the fore. The Shustov brothers, highly regarded acrobats in Russia (and I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment) did a couple of routines to hand Pyramus extra flowers to put in his bouquet. To give him the rose, they first had to get one of them on the other’s shoulders, and this took a few goes, as the upper one kept falling over the lower one and landing on the stage. Once they were balanced, someone handed the top guy the rose (flicked up from another acrobat’s foot?) and he held it out as Pyramus came over and took it in his right hand, then moved it over and slotted it into the bouquet he was holding in his left hand. It was impressive work for a puppet. To cap all this, the brothers then went into reverse, as it were, and handed Pyramus another colourful bunch of flowers with one balanced on the other’s head, and the flowers held in his outstretched foot. It was impressive, I’m sure, but as my view was blocked almost entirely for this bit I had to guess at what was going on from the audience’s reactions. They did take a break during this section – don’t remember if it was another audience interruption or not – and I could see the top brother walk his way down the wall and rest there, at right angles to the lower brother, while whatever else was going on was completed. Pyramus added these flowers to the bouquet with equal dexterity, and to much applause.

There was another balancing act as well, but neither of us can remember what was given to Pyramus by this means. This time it was Boris Opletaev (as far as I can tell from the pictures in the program) who stacked several cylinders, with short wide ones being placed rim down and longer narrow ones placed across them on their side and oriented in different directions. When he placed a board on top of these, we could see that the stack rolled every which way, and yet he stepped up onto it, steadying himself with a hand on a nearby shoulder, and stood there, rocking relatively gently, to do whatever this bit required. It was an impressive performance – they all were – and a momentary relief from the monotony.

With Pyramus good to go, we only needed Thisbe, so her bag was unpacked too. The woman who had been hanging around at the start turned out to be Thisbe’s voice; she and one of the men sang beautifully to convey the characters’ feelings, sometimes just ‘ah’ sounds, sometimes songs in German. Thisbe herself was as tall as Pyramus, and made out of odds and ends as he was. She had a white skirt, two breasts, and a doll’s head, large size, and her mouth worked when she was talking. We didn’t get any surtitles for the songs, but her “Nein” in response to Pyramus’s declaration of love was pretty straightforward. She said ‘no’ a few times, and Pyramus had to flaunt his shapely leg before she would sit down with him and chat.

Once seated towards the back of the stage, the wooing could proceed in earnest. First the food. Pyramus obviously likes his women well fed, so he gave her a peach, then a pair of cherries, then a pineapple, still with its spiky top. It was impressive enough the way he held out his hand, grasped the fruit which was put into it, then transferred it round to Thisbe’s mouth. She was a girl with a good appetite, too; her head had been changed during the move to the back of the stage, and now she had a head which flipped back at mouth level so she could swallow large fruits whole, which was very funny. She did stop Pyramus when it came to the pineapple though; instead, she took the fruit herself and put it in her own mouth, leaving a bit of the top sticking out, also funny.

For entertainment, the dog act came forward, and the lovely little chap (I’m talking about the dog) did some fun tricks, including a back flip. With the foreplay done, Pyramus needed some help to get ready for the next stage. Accompanied by many sound effects, his metal crotch panel was unscrewed and a large penis thrust through the gap. It was lying on the floor, and a pump had been brought on to get it upright, when the on-stage audience started to protest about the appropriateness of such things when there were children present. To be fair, it was mainly the old lady, but even so they had to interrupt the coitus, and a deflated Pyramus left the stage through the back curtain.

With Thisbe left alone, the lion made his appearance. Another black bag had been brought on and left near the front. Not as big as the others, it was still large enough to have a person inside it, so I wasn’t surprised when the lion leapt out. Don’t know who played him, but it was a lovely costume, with claws on the knees as well as the hands, a shaggy mane and a long tail. One chap held the tail and used it to drag the lion back when needed – I assume it would be too difficult to move backwards in that costume – and two other men attached bat wings to the lion’s back and held them open, flapping them to suggest a devil-lion. As they stood in front of me throughout this scene I had to rely on my knowledge of the story to guess what was happening. After each lunge of the lion towards Thisbe, I did see one chap come forward and place strips of white cloth and red ribbon around the centre of the stage, obviously representing the bloody cloth that Pyramus will find later. At some point, possibly before the lion left the stage, the stroppy old woman interrupted the action to tell a long-winded story about a lion that had destroyed a town, some of which was quite funny.

After several lunges at Thisbe, the lion left the stage. Thisbe was in a terrible state. She was so terrified that she peed in a basin for a very long time. Then she too left the stage, and they used a lovely piece of staging to create the moonshine. A rope of some reflective or glowing material was laid out in a wavy pattern on the stage further back from most of the bloody strips of cloth. Behind the sheet, a wobbly moon rose, and as it did so, the rope lit up, shining in the moonlight. It was a beautiful effect.

Pyramus returned to discover the bloody strips of cloth by this light, and he went to pieces at this point, literally. His arms came off and danced around towards the front of the stage, while his head came off and turned around towards the back. When it turned back again, his face had aged – a good trick – and as this happened twice he ended up with what looked like a bearded Christ face. He stabbed himself through the stomach and fell forward, dead or dying.

Thisbe returned accompanied by four swans carried by four of the performers. The swans had red beaks which looked suspiciously like dildos to me, and the rest of the swan was made of a sheet wrapped round and round for the neck and bundled together for the body. While the woman on stage had normally sung for Thisbe, I think it was the woman in the circle who now sang, and she had a lovely contralto voice, deep and rich. Thisbe saw Pyramus, and after a short lamentation she also fell on top of him, with the swans grouped round them, bobbing their heads. Pyramus raised his head briefly when Thisbe arrived, but it sank back down again quickly, and finally the show was over. Or was it? There was no way of telling with this production.

The on-stage audience were offered the option of an epilogue or a dance, and the old lady was very emphatic that they do the dance. Being Russian, this naturally meant ballet, and four dancers in tutus came to the front of the stage. As the music for the Dance of the Cygnets started up, they formed a line – with difficulty, as one of the four was preening herself in front of the audience too much – and did a set or two of the dance in step with each other. After that, things went from bad to worse, with heads going in different directions, bobbing up instead of down, and some cygnets forgetting which direction they were dancing in. It was a lovely interpretation of Shakespeare’s scene: with the Russian fondness for ballet this would instantly have illustrated the mechanicals’ ineptness, and it reminded me of the Nine Worthies scene at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The on-stage audience gradually left during this dance (lucky people), and when they’d finally gone the dancers stopped, very relieved and gasping for breath. Most of the cast were towards the back of the stage, with the dancers breathing heavily near the front, when the stroppy old lady came back to have a word with the man who was sweeping the stage. He’d been getting in the dancers’ way, wanting to sweep the bit of stage they were dancing on, but now he stopped and talked with the woman. She had recognised him – he’d played Shakespeare – and although the surtitles didn’t give us much of their conversation, I gathered that she was arranging to see him sometime soon. It was a little romance to end the evening with, after this tale of thwarted love. The music started up again, the dancers tried to carry on, but they were completely out of sync this time and the whole show ground to a halt.

The man with the bloody nose came to the front to tell us that although there was no need, he’d summed up the story for us. He handed a piece of paper to the main singer, who stood centre front and started scat singing – quite funny. The woman also came forward and tore off the bottom half of the paper, then joined in with a different set of scat noises. Others also joined in, some taking smaller and smaller bits of paper, until there was a cacophony of music. I don’t remember how they ended this bit, but eventually the cast disappeared off the back of the stage, though the bloody nose chap came back on to remove something which he’d used near the start to keep some raised flaps in place. As they fell back, he left the stage and the applause suggested we were finally at the end of the performance. The whole cast came back on to take their bows, the director presumably appearing as well although I couldn’t see him; some in the audience stood, there was lots of cheering, and I left after the first set of bows, glad to be getting out into the fresh air.

While this description of the staging may sound interesting, I’ve left out a lot of the boring bits, mainly because nothing happened during them. The Russian ability to pause is beyond belief, and the length of time they spent on some sections of the business left me cold. The physical business was usually telegraphed well in advance, and while I enjoyed some bits, and laughed quite a few times, there wasn’t enough of that for me. I like puppetry very much and I was becoming very fond of these two giant people, but the pauses for other business, including the woman’s lion story, drained any enthusiasm I’d developed for the performance, and I was very glad when it ended. I haven’t looked at my watch so often at the theatre for a very long time, and I hope I never feel the need to do so again. Brilliant as the performers clearly are, this just didn’t work for me, but thankfully most of tonight’s audience enjoyed it more than I did.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Boris Godunov – May 2008


By Alexander Pushkin

Directed by Declan Donnellan

Company: Cheek By Jowl

Venue: Barbican Theatre

Date: Saturday 17th May 2008

I knew nothing about this play except for its name, and that it was Russian. It was also being done by Russian actors, in Russian. Given my experiences during the RSC’s Complete Works festival, it’s surprising I chose to go to this, but we do like Cheek by Jowl’s work – the Twelfth Night had been exceptionally good. So here I was, knowing nothing of what was to come, but looking forward to a new experience.

Our seats were on the Barbican stage. Actually, the temporary seating ran down both sides of the stage, the former auditorium was screened off, and the acting space was a long narrow platform sandwiched between the two. Still, I can always claim I’ve been on stage at the Barbican, if I ever feel the need.

As we came in, there was a church service in progress at the far end of the platform, to our left as we sat down. Russian Orthodox – lots of beards, incense and chanting. To our right, a man sat at a table, tapping away on a battered old typewriter. I took this to be Pushkin, writing the masterpiece we were about to see, but that wasn’t quite it. The chanting continued for some time, and then the lights dimmed as two characters began the play. Dressed in modern suits, they were talking about Boris Godunov having killed the heir to the throne, Dmitry, and how the people would want Boris to become their next ruler. For those familiar with Shakespeare, this was home ground. I was a little confused by the way one of the characters, a prince, was also interacting with Boris as he told the other chap what he’d seen of the heir’s murder. He and Boris played some game with their hands over the crown, which sat on a small throne between the church area and the table. Then Boris removed the crown, and sat on the throne himself. After that, he became colder towards the prince, but I don’t know whether this was based on the prince’s own description of events or a parallel piece of action. Anyway, it was clear that these two characters, both members of the royal family, consider themselves to have better claims to the throne than ambitious Boris. However, the people love him, so it’s Boris’s crown.

After the church stuff is all cleared away, the man at the typewriter starts to talk. Apparently he’s a monk who’s lived through Ivan the Terrible’s reign, as well as his son Feodor’s, and he’s been writing a history of the events so that the Russian people will know about their past. There’s a young lad with him. He came to the monastery as a boy and looks after the older man, despite having one arm shorter than the other – he holds his left arm awkwardly. When the monk gives him the history, telling him to carry on the work, he decides to run away, and possibly plans to become Czar himself – both Steve and I were a bit unsure on this point. The surtitles were very useful, but it was easy to miss a line or two when we were caught up in the action. Anyway, the young man ends up at the Russian/Lithuanian border, and is nearly caught by the officers of the law, who have a written description of the man they’re looking for. Being able to read, he lies about the description to try and throw suspicion on someone else as the runaway, but this other chap remembers enough of his learning to give an alternative version of the officer’s orders, and the young man has to fight to escape. It’s not exactly clear what happens. He seemed to give the officer a jab in the neck, so that he could hardly talk, but then the action shifted to the next scene.

From here the play really began to hook me. The young man pretends to be Dmitry, the deceased heir, and for all sorts of reasons, people believe him. Most importantly, the kings of neighbouring countries choose to support him, and are prepared to provide troops to help him regain ‘his’ throne. Disaffected Russians also flock to him, and there’s a lovely scene where he greets the representatives of various groups who’ve come to offer him their support. It was clearly done in public, and done to make the most of the tributes – a photo-op.

To seal the deal, a Polish nobleman offers to marry his beautiful daughter to ‘Dmitry’. He’s pretty keen, she’s definitely keen, already seeing herself as Czarina, and they have an intimate scene beside a pool that’s appeared in the middle of the stage. He’s torn by doubt – should he tell her the truth or not? Will she love him as he is, or does she only love him because she thinks he’s the heir to the Russian throne? Eventually he decides to confess, and she’s horrified. She has no intention of marrying a peasant! However, she’s also politically astute, and comes to realise that he may be a fake, but he’s a powerful fake, with a good chance of becoming the real Czar, so she better get on board before the train leaves the station. I remember them ending up in the pool, getting very wet, though I’m not sure now how all that related to the dialogue. By this time I was finding it hard to keep an eye on the surtitles as there was so much happening on stage.

The final scenes covered the fighting over the throne, and were back to being confusing. From what I could understand, the fake Dmitry’s forces are defeated and he’s killed, though whether this is after he’d successfully claimed the throne or not, I couldn’t tell. The program notes inform us that he did actually rule for a short time before being ousted, so I assume that’s what the play was telling us.

These Russian actors certainly know how to make the most of their curtain calls. There were a number of bouquets  handed over, and not just to the ladies. Evgeny Mironov who played the pretender received several of them, and the whole cast took their time to revel in the applause, which was pretty strong.

I enjoyed this performance much more than I thought I would, and I may be more willing to check out foreign productions in future (but don’t bet on it).

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Twelfth Night – March 2007


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Declan Donnellan

Company: Chekov International Theatre Festival

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 1st March 2007

This was a superb production, with many, many great aspects, especially the acting, the staging, and the music. It was directed by Declan Donnellan, whose Cheek By Jowl productions have always been enjoyable. Why only 6/10? Shakespeare is still about the language, and I sorely missed it in this performance. Some languages, like Russian and Chinese, from experience, have such a different rhythm and cadence to English, that the feel of the piece changes too much, and I notice the lack. Having said that, this was about the best Twelfth Night I’m likely to see, so maybe I’ll change my mind about the rating at some point. (If it had been in English, it would have easily rated 10/10.)

It was an all male production, not unusual these days (as if there wasn’t already a dearth of good parts for women!), but unlike Propeller, these men did try to look and act like women, and managed it very successfully too. I will refer to the actors as he/she according to their roles as much as possible, though Viola/Cesario is going to be fun! The stage was bare, brick walls showing at the back. Buff coloured board gave us a floor, and that was pretty much it at the start. All the men came on to begin the performance, dressed in white shirts and black trousers, with braces, and carrying instruments. They started with a song, and one chap, standing towards the front, was obviously Orsino. I expected him to launch into “If music be the food of love…”, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Instead we were treated to some of Viola’s lines about losing her brother in the storm. The other actors gathered round, and voila! Viola has a skirt wrapped round her waist. Then she asks the captain who has rescued her about their locality, and he points out Olivia – another actor steps forward – and Orsino – as previously suspected.

At this point I’ve lost track of the exact order of the staging (doesn’t take much to throw me off, you may be thinking, but that’s the trouble when directors play fast and loose with the order of events – it’s great fun, but impossible to remember in detail afterwards). I remember being impressed with Olivia even at this early stage – she stood very still, poised but clearly grieving, looking feminine with just a skirt wrapped round her waist. At some point she also leaves the stage, and we get going with Orsino’s musical foray. They’ve got a pretty good combo going there, the music was excellent throughout, and this was quite a catchy number, with a bit of a beat.

A feature of this production was the overlapping of scenes. Instead of waiting for a scene to end and everyone to get off stage before the next lot troop on (the queuing option), we often had characters from one scene hold still for a few seconds while the next scene got underway, then the first lot would do the final line or lines of their scene, and sweep off past the next scene’s entrants. Good fun, and partly explains how they got the running time down to two and a half hours. The other reason was some hefty cutting, which if anything helped to make the story clearer. That, and the great acting.

This overlapping happened here, with Viola coming back on, dressed in a rather nice straight velour dress, in a peachy/gold colour. This is where we get the line that usually has me in tears – “What should I do in Illyria? My brother, he is in Elysium.” It didn’t affect me at all this time, and that’s probably the major reason I missed Shakespeare’s language. However, I did get my emotional fix later.

At some point, a set of black cloths fell down from a rail at the back of the stage. I had noticed the off-white versions of these earlier, but the black ones had escaped my attention. I liked the way these gave a very simple and effective amount of setting to each scene. In the garden, they could be trees to hide behind. Indoors, they allowed for doors and walls. Also, the overall use of black for everything except Viola’s dress and Orsino’s dressing-gown set the tone of mourning brilliantly. The second half would use cream cloths and costumes to suggest the theme of love, and the changeover was very effective.

Some thoughts on the performances:

Sir Toby – excellent. A really unpleasant drunk. Only problem was, what does Maria see in him? He even hits her. Although he does make it up to her by getting her drunk, so she ends up joining in an even more raucous chorus than the one she stopped. It was a great performance, showing us his drunkenness and ability to manipulate Sir Andrew.

Maria – good performance as a woman. She comes across as more of a worrier, and perhaps that’s why this one goes for Sir Toby – he’s a good retirement plan. She does have some wits, but not as much as I’d like to see.

Sir Andrew was younger than some I’ve seen, and much more modern in dress. He’s an obvious fop and a fool, but without some of the wistfulness I’ve seen in some others – “I was adored once” sounds more like claiming everything Sir Toby claims rather than a pang of lost love. Best bit – standing in front of the cloths in the garden scene after Malvolio comes back in front.

Malvolio – very proper and stiff. A cross between a butler and an undertaker, and better looking than most who play this part. He really is a Puritan, and there’s some lovely business with Olivia lighting up a crafty fag when Malvolio’s out of the room, only to pass it to Feste when he comes back – Feste doesn’t mind taking the heat off his mistress. In some ways this was the most interesting performance. Most Malvolios nowadays are played almost as clowns, just for laughs. This Malvolio seemed to be just a very uptight steward with ideas above his station. His reading of the letter was excellent, even though it lost some of the humour (and I noticed the interruptions pretty much dried up at that point – some were definitely cut). His little bow of head at the end, when they were taking their bows, was still very much in character, and he gets to say his “I’ll be revenged on the pack of you” to the entire audience at the very end. Nicely done.

Viola/Cesario – good, only problem was I felt it was less obvious that she was a she when in Cesario’s togs. The emotions and thought processes came across well, and at the end I got a real sense of everything piling up on her as all the accusations of treachery and violence mount up.

Sebastian – good. Liked the end, when he comes on through the cloths, not seeing Viola, who’s shrinking back into them, with everyone else clustered at the front of the stage. Good match for Viola, and that’s often a benefit of ensembles.

Olivia – superb. Dignified, poised, yet capable of behaving a bit naughtily, and of going overboard when presented with a handsome young man. She was smart to lock herself away to mourn her brother – one look and she’s hooked. Brilliant.

Orsino – good, not much of a part, except at the end, when he and Olivia still mistake the twins, and he apologises to Sebastian in that manly way. No sign that he’s in love with Cesario/Viola before the end.

Feste – also superb. A wrinkly jester, who sings a mean song, and competes with Sir Toby to get to the fallen money first. Some of Maria’s lines were passed to him during the drinking scene, and it worked very well. He’s an old retainer, and a smooth operator.

Antonio, the sea-captain deserves a special mention – he took a small part and made it memorable. He’s obviously smitten with Sebastian.

I liked a lot of the staging as well. Orsino’s servants were reluctant to step back fully when Orsino tells them to, when he wants to have a private word with Cesario. When Malvolio catches up with Cesario to “return” Olivia’s ring, he’s able to do so because Antonio’s presence on stage has held Cesario up. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew had obviously visited the off licence before returning to Olivia’s house, as they had a carrier bag filled with booze with them. Sir Toby copied Sir Andrew’s dancing, and Cesario got completely carried away playing the tambourine during Feste’s song.

The duels were both well done, the mock one as well as the real one. The cowardice of both Cesario and Sir Andrew were very clear, and very entertaining. I had my emotional fix with the line “I am all the brothers of my father’s house and all the sisters too.”

Sir Toby and Feste both rushed to grab the money thrown down by Antonio after he thinks Sebastian has denied him help. Malvolio’s cross-gartered yellow stockings were relatively subdued, which fitted well with this production, and later, when imprisoned for madness, he appears in the straightjacket on the darker stage down below, with the others on the upper gallery, lit.

When Viola comes back on in her frock, Orsino takes a bit of time to decide how to treat her, before kissing her. Olivia kisses Sebastian, and thank God, there’s no silly reaction from the audience – it was quite a moving moment. I noticed Viola’s reaction to Antonio’s story; she realises Sebastian is probably alive.

Often someone would pause the action, with the other actors freezing, to say an aside, although some asides were said right in front of the other characters without this. The surtitles were edited severely – we probably only got about half to two-thirds of the lines, regardless of what had been cut from the text.

They finished with a song, and another catchy number, too, with Malvolio back as the faithful servant, serving champagne to everyone. This allowed him to speak his final line at the front of the stage, with everyone else celebrating behind him.

There were a lot of interesting images in this production. I loved the work they’ve obviously done on movement, and there was a lot of detail in all the performances. I’d certainly see this company again.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Henry V – February 2007


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Pippo Delbono

Company: Compagnia Pippo Delbono

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 1st February 2007

This lasted for only an hour and five minutes – the projected time was an hour and a half, so we were back in our room good and early – hooray! On with my notes.

My first laugh came when I looked at the cast list, and saw:

“Henry V                                     Pippo Delbono

Friend of the King                   Pepe Robledo

The French                                Gustavo Giacosa”!

I’ve heard of doubling, but this is ridiculous! Anyway, I had a good laugh about that, which left me in an appreciative frame of mind for this production. I realised it was going to be a mish-mash, songs, dance, some of the text perhaps, conveying the feeling of the piece rather than a production of the actual play, so I was prepared to sit through anything at all for the hour and a half. Actually, I quite enjoyed it, till near the end.

We started in total darkness, with some of the actors clumping around quite loudly, on the stage and round the back and sides. Finally, we got a little light, but only on the surtitle screens, as Henry (though we don’t know it’s him at the time) starts accusing various people of high treason. At each accusation, we hear a wheelchair clattering onto the stage, and position itself at the back. When the lights come up, we see three men sitting in a row at the back of the stage, and Henry is sitting? standing? near the front, using a microphone. He calls forward one of the men, who stands up, and moves to the middle of the stage. This was Gustavo Giacosa – he was very tall and extremely thin, with most of his ribs showing, and at his execution, he folded gracefully to the floor.

With the three men off the stage, another man, Pepe Robledo comes on, naked to the waist, with a bucket, and begins to scrub the floor. He informs Henry that Falstaff is dead, and goes through Mistress Quickly’s lines about his death. Henry is just lying at the front of the stage during this.

I don’t remember the order of everything else, but this is most of what happened. Someone brings on a tall plinth, about waist-high for most people, and Gustavo comes on, wrapped up in a long coat and with a muffler, and using the most amazing flexibility of his legs, puts first one foot on the plinth, then steps right up onto it. It was amazing, and got a good laugh from the audience – reminiscent of John Cleese and the Ministry of Funny Walks. Other actors formed a double line either side of the stage, and Gustav calls out “The King, the King” several times. Henry comes on, fairly diffident at this time, and gradually growing in confidence. Gustav leaves the plinth, and the other actors also leave the stage, as Henry starts shouting “I want France”. The way he said it was very funny. Then we saw the Dauphin, elegantly dressed, sitting on a chair, talking about tennis balls – all colours of balls. After this, the rest of the male ensemble danced their way onto the stage, some hand-in-hand, and formed up behind him. He was laughing a lot, and waving his long limbs around. This became the paean of praise for his horse, and for once, we actually get to see the fantastic horse walking onto the stage (an actor wearing an elaborate horse’s head headdress), opening its fan and standing on the chair to sing a lovely song to the enthralled ensemble. Very talented, this horse.

When in France, and around the “Once more unto the breach” speech, we see the ensemble, finishing with Gustav, assemble themselves into an emotionally moving sculpture to the rear of the stage. The first actor places himself very carefully, lying along the floor, and the others place themselves so they can lean gently on him, and in this way they build up a mound of human bodies. This obviously represents the many dead, on both sides, as a result of the war. There’s also a lot of holding hands over faces, and especially eyes, as the number of dead makes its impact. Later, another symbol of death occurs when the ensemble enter in a line, and start to lay themselves on the stage from the front to the back, lying on their backs, to the sound of Henry reading out the list of the dead. Once done, Henry takes the opportunity to leap around a bit over their bodies and do his peculiar little dance routine, which I still have no explanation for.

And it was around this time that I started to lose interest in the piece. One major symbol of death was fine, but this went on so long it started to become overstated. Fortunately, there wasn’t much to go. Pepe came on, minus an arm and a leg, using a big metal pole as a crutch, and thumping it into the ground very emphatically. He then starts crying out “The war is won”, and seems to be grinning from ear to ear, although in this situation, it’s a little difficult to tell if he’s smiling or crying. He does look at Henry, and the two of them exchange looks of satisfaction, but then Pepe moves back, and the tone changes – he seems to be grieving. Then the actors rose from their places, congregating towards the back of the stage, and after a few more lines from Henry, he and Pepe move to join them and the lights go out. That’s all folks. They take their bows, making the most of it before they go off. A number of people seemed to have really liked it, but I have heard louder applause in the Swan.

Other points include the horse coming on to grieve over the dead body of the Dauphin – I think this happens before the mass grave demonstration towards the end. There was a lot of music used during the production – possibly taped – songs of various kinds, and often played at the limit of endurance, even with a little distortion to the sound at times. The whole production had a balletic quality; they used movement and semi-dance a lot, and the whole piece looked choreographed. The performances were mainly external – based on movement rather than internal emotions and thoughts.

Overall, I got some ideas from it, and I did enjoy some of the humour. The cast, particularly the two leads, seemed to be very good at engaging with their audience to tell their story, and it was easy to get involved right away. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see this kind of theatre again, but I wouldn’t completely avoid it either. We both agreed it was a good job we’d booked to see Merry Wives The Musical again this trip, as we might have felt a bit cheated at only getting an hour and a bit of performance out of a trip to Stratford.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King Lear – November 2006

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Tse Ka-shing

Company: Yellow Earth Theatre & Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 23rd November 2006

          Although part of the Complete Works Festival, we opted to see this production in Guildford, on its tour of the UK. I found it interesting, though not as emotionally engaging as I’m used to with Lear. The mixture of actors – half from the UK, speaking mainly English, and half from China, speaking mainly Mandarin – worked pretty well, although it can’t have been easy rehearsing this work. Checking out the surtitles, I realised that sometimes a short English line would translate to about two minutes of Chinese, while long English lines would occasionally produce a few terse Chinese syllables. I did feel this affected the rhythm of the piece, with some bits of dialogue trundling on long past the delivery of the emotional content (or the time it took to read the surtitles, depending).

The core idea was of a slightly futuristic world, with China now the major superpower, and Lear handing over the reins of his global business empire to his three daughters. Some of this worked quite well, and some just jarred. The final battle between Cordelia’s forces and the sisters’ troops was shown as a trading war on the exchange floor, with figures flying up and down so fast it was impossible to see what was going on. Hardly life and death. And what was the purpose? To break the Lear business empire? A bit difficult to do in one trading session, I would have thought. This version weakened the end scenes, when lives have supposedly been, and are being, staked on who ends up in charge. But in other ways this setting worked quite well. The use of mobile phones and text messaging to replace most of the usual letters was very well done. The initial scene with the daughters being asked to vie for their father’s love used video conferencing to good effect. Cordelia has obviously been sent to run the business interests overseas, and so has lost touch with her roots; she finds it difficult to speak what she feels, as Chinese is no longer her first language, and her cultural understanding has changed too. We can readily accept in our society the idea of older, Asian cultures having a strong paternalism that’s no longer so prevalent here. And family business empires are often run by Alpha+ males, who expect everyone else to obey without question, while perhaps having a few quirks of personality that can seem out of place in an otherwise rational person. So all that fitted, and Cordelia’s obvious separation from her family comes across loud and clear. The marriage proposals had to be ditched, but that’s a minor price to pay.

With so few actors there was a lot of doubling as well, even with the cuts. Only Zhou Yemang stuck to the one role, Lear. I found it confusing at first, especially when David Yip came on in one scene, having previously been Gloucester, now playing Albany. I realised eventually that there were subtle changes of costume, but it took me a while to adjust. Overall, it worked reasonably well.

One excellent idea was to have the fool expressed as Lear’s inner thoughts, adding to the sense that he’s cracking up. The rest of the cast, wearing uniform robes, stood round him speaking some of the fool’s lines, while Lear reacted much more emotionally to what he was hearing. I liked this interpretation a lot. In fact, I found Zhou Yemang’s portrayal both restrained and moving – he conveyed a sense of the barriers this man has erected around himself, and the tremendous upheaval he’s going through very well, especially considering the language difference.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Richard II – November 2006

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Claus Peymann

Company: Berliner Ensemble

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Thursday 16th November 2006

This was an interesting experience. Apart from the Othello adaptation at the start of the Complete Works Festival, I haven’t seen much German theatre before, possibly none, so this was a first for me. (I’ve seen Cabaret, but that doesn’t really count.) I found much of it a bit dull, but I did learn a lot, and there were some lovely pieces of action, so all in all, it was quite good fun.

It was done in German, with surtitles, which were mostly in Shakespeare’s own words. It was heavily edited, and had one of the most intriguing bits of doubling I’ve ever seen. More of that later.

The set – the Courtyard was converted into a white box, with lots of panels to make windows and doors as needed, and two gaping holes either side. The walls sloped in towards the back, and white lines painted on the floor gave an exaggerated perspective. The rear panel lifted up (rather slowly – some of the scene changes were painfully slow, although we were entertained by lots of banging and clunking noises in the meantime), and revealed a contracted snooker table also with exaggerated perspective, mostly hidden behind a pillar. The pillar had two ledges on the front, which acted as seats and also the throne. At other times, the pillar and table were taken away to leave a large open space behind the walls, bare apart from two tiny ships, cut-outs, presumably, which were sailing along the back wall, except that one of them was sinking. Were we supposed to make anything of them, I wonder? Nothing was said, no reference was made to them that I caught. The other item on the stage at the start was a dead dummy, which I took to be the murdered Duke of Gloucester, the trigger for the action in the play. The same dummy reappears at the end, this time representing dead Richard, a nice touch.

I tried to avoid reading the surtitles, as I knew the play fairly well, but I wasn’t getting much from the performances at first, so I gave in and read them as often as I wanted to. It was a good choice. Even so, parts of the first half dragged a bit for me. It took me some time to get used to the performance style. The costumes were modern, with a 30’s influence and some surreal touches – one character had what seemed to be a black codpiece strapped over the front of his trousers. The actors were mostly whited up, not too solidly, and there was a black line on Bolingbroke’s face, from one ear, across the jaw and over the other ear, presumably a minimalist beard. Another actor had very red ears – I’m assuming it was make-up! Movements and expressions tended to be either very restrained or totally over the top. Together with the white faces and the blank set, this gave the whole production a surreal, clownish air. I certainly didn’t connect very deeply with any of the characters at this stage.

The gauntlet-throwing scene was the first bit I really enjoyed. The gloves had been stiffened and weighted, with darts inserted through the fingers, so they could be flung down (fairly carefully!) and would stick upright in the floor. Very effective. The second gauntlet-throwing scene was even better. It used the same gloves, but with many more challenges the floor fairly bristled with them. Very funny.

Veit Schubert’s interpretation of Bolingbroke took a bit of getting used to. I’m not sure I liked it though it was interesting to see how he developed the character through the play. He came across more as a buffoon – very nervous and diffident at first in front of the King, flaring up into temper during the accusations, but quickly abashed when the King intervenes. I wasn’t sure how this would work out further on, but he managed to get some menace and authority into the characterisation.

Richard first appears playing snooker (or billiards) with his disreputable mates. He’s a slightly sunken figure, suggesting dissipation and a wasted life. The casual way he ‘remembers’ to put on the crown – gosh, almost forgot he’s king – got a laugh, and there was a lot to like in this performance, particularly in the abdication scene. The Queen doesn’t have much to do in these early scenes, but she makes the most of the later ones – be patient.

John  of Gaunt’s dying speech didn’t particularly move, nor did I find Richard’s “why, uncle, what’s the matter” as funny as I have seen it before. But Richard’s ruthlessness comes across well, and sows the seeds of his downfall. Bolingbroke, returning from exile to claim his lands, will find plenty of supporters in England.

The Queen’s histrionics over her husband’s departure for Ireland, to crush the rebels, were so OTT as to be laughable. But she was also sowing seeds (funny how this play brings out so many gardening metaphors!) for later reaping. One of Richard’s supporters (don’t know which – there’s supposed to be two of them in this scene – we only get one) tries to comfort her, but she collapses with grief. There’s a working tap strategically located on the left stage wall, and he uses it to get water to wake her up, which it does. But this woman is a serial fainter. After another collapse or two, the pattern is set, and little do we know how often she’s going to hit the deck before the end!

Bolingbroke’s meeting with his last remaining uncle, the Duke of York, had a few entertaining moments. The Duke seemed to be more intent on carrying out his duty to defend England and arrest Bolingbroke than I’ve seen before – he was having a real strop! – and was induced to support Bolingbroke more because his forces were too weak to oppose him than by sympathy for his cause. However, they soon make up, and the Duke invites them into his house, which appears miraculously at the edge of the set, peeping from behind the right wall, about a foot high and with lights showing at the tiny windows and door. Ran out of budget? Mind you, it was cute.

The killing of Bushy and Green didn’t do much for me, nor was I all that taken with Richard’s return to England, though I did like the parallel between Bolingbroke kissing the earth of his native land when he leaves and when he returns, and Richard patting the earth with his hands. Earth has always featured strongly in this play – and this production gives it full prominence.

OK, so Richard goes through his ups and downs – first he’s got lots of troops, then there are none, despair, hope, despair, etc. Then Bolingbroke turns up and does the swiftest capture of the King I’ve ever seen. So far, I hadn’t felt particularly engaged with this production. In fact, I had just asked Steve (in a whisper, of course) the rhetorical question ‘There is going to be an interval, isn’t there?’ when the whole thing changed, and the fun began. The herald of this transformation was a nun. A dancing nun. I kid you not. She pranced onto the stage in a seriously lively manner, flinging flower-darts at the floor with gay abandon. (She actually caught the Queen’s dress in one and had to redo it.) This nun then tries to do the impossible – cheer up her companion, the miserable serial fainter. Tough proposition. But this nun’s almost up to the task. She offers dancing, singing and telling stories as possible entertainments, but the Queen’s having none of it (although we do get a bit of singing). Her demonstration for the dancing suggestion consisted of some funky moves that wouldn’t have been out of place in a modern nightclub. Even though the Queen wasn’t joining in, the nun boogied for as long as she could. The amazing dancing nun. I don’t often get to see such a thing, and my mood improved massively.

Then the real mud-slinging started. A lower panel had been removed, and someone was trying to get a wheelbarrow through the gap. They failed. Umpteen times. The wheelbarrow kept banging against the wall. Of course, it was all deliberate, and eventually the gardener got through, brought the wheelbarrow over to the centre of the stage, and tipped out the earth it carried onto the stage. Several handfuls of dirt had already fallen out with all the banging, so the place looked a right mess by this time. Second gardener comes on, with a hose, connects it to the tap, and turns it on. Water shoots across the stage. The Queen and the nun are already lurking out of harm’s way, but the other gardener is in for a soaking, as is the mound of earth. As the water soaks into it, and runs all over the stage, the first gardener mixes it up, creating a nice splodgy mess. When they’ve got it good and mushy, they put it round the flowers previously planted by the nun.

All this while, the gardeners have been discussing the regime change (yes, the play does actually go on while all this is happening), and the Queen gets upset. And we know what happens when this Queen gets upset, don’t we? She rushes over to tell the gardeners off. Now I thought she’d do her best to keep her lovely white frock clean, but no. First off, she grabs the end of the gardener’s spade and starts shaking it, so she’s already got her hands mucky, plus some dirt gets on her dress. But then the pressure escalates, and plop, down she goes, slap bang in the middle of what’s left of the mud heap. What fun! And how handy there’s a man with a hose ready to wake her up. Definitely not a production to see from the front row, unless you’re well water-proofed. We weren’t surprised that the interval came just after this scene.

We were surprised, though, to find they’d left all the mud on the stage for the second half. Not only that, they added more. As Richard and his queen tried to say their goodbyes, missiles of mud came flying diagonally across from behind the walls to crash against the far walls, making the whole stage look like a disastrous episode of Ground Force. The mud was put to good use, however, as Aumerle uses it to write “Richard forever” or some such on the back wall, just to show he’s about to become a traitor. The race to beg for Aumerle’s pardon/demand that he be executed, was so-so, while the abdication was suitably fraught with “will he, won’t he” tension, and the mirror scene was interesting, as for once Richard holds the mirror up so we in the audience can see his reflection as well. Given what’s gone on before, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the mirror too gets smashed on the floor, but I was. Even more mess to clean up. I also recognised some of the lines as echoing Helen of Troy’s description as “the face that launched a thousand ships”.

Despite there being several “spare” actors who could have taken on the role of Exton, killer of the king, there was an interesting choice made in this production to use the Duke of York for this job. Very interesting choice, emphasising the Duke’s readiness to ingratiate himself with the new regime, and perhaps even the necessity to do this. As a result, the pre-death scenes for Richard have to be slightly curtailed, as he knows his assassin all too well, so we just get his musings on his life now, a bit of the music and his thanks to his jailer (no groom), and then it’s goodnight from him. Richard did come across quite well here, showing a degree of emotional and mental development from the early stages, and I found it quite moving, if a little brief.

The final scene has Henry IV washing the mud off the walls with the hose. With each wall, the Duke of York brings on another computer printout with news of more traitors’ deaths. Henry looks less than happy to be interrupted, and drapes these printouts over the back of his throne. At the end, the Duke announces the delivery of Richard’s dead body (the dummy), and is inevitably banished by the king. One important cut here – I was glancing at the surtitles, and noticed that the part line “love him murdered” was omitted. The implication for me was that Henry really didn’t mind Richard’s murder, but had to make a show of remorse for public consumption. Very interesting choice.

Although I didn’t enjoy this as much as some other productions I’ve seen, I have to admit it was a well-thought out version of the play, bringing out some interesting connections and patterns, and placing much more emphasis on the political aspects. Warfare at home and abroad, regime change, despotic leaders, failed assassination attempts, fearing to express opposition, bumping off political rivals, connections with the land – perhaps there’s something in recent German history that makes these things resonate today?

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Two Gentlemen Of Verona – August 2006

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Guti Fraga

Company: Nos Do Morro and Gallery37

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Sunday 27th August 2006

This was our first visit to the Courtyard Theatre, so I had put all my expectations to one side on two counts. Both the play and the venue turned out to be excellent.

First the theatre itself. This is a larger version of the Swan, much larger, and at first I wondered what sort of atmosphere there would be when there was so much space to fill. The flat, black stage reminded me of so many Swan productions, and there seemed to be the usual balconies and side entrances, although the centrepiece at the back may be part of the Henrys set. [Yes, it is.] The seats were the best I’ve ever sat in – tall back, well padded, plenty of room, including leg room. Although we were in the second row of the stalls, we could see well enough over the heads in front. The screen for the surtitles (a last minute decision to show these, apparently) was placed centrally, roughly halfway up the back construction thingummy. This made it much easier to follow the action and read the lines, although our view was blocked occasionally by the actors.

But who needs the English version when the performance is this good? The production was a joint venture between Nos Do Morro, a company in Brazil which gives young people training in theatre and performing arts, and Gallery37, a project based in Birmingham which is due to spread through the country, which again helps young people with difficult backgrounds. Most of the dialogue was spoken in Portuguese, and I didn’t care. I know the play well enough, and from the opening exchange between Valentine and Proteus the acting made the emotions clear. I am going to have to rethink my preference for hearing the English, as it just isn’t working out.

To start with, a group of about twenty-six young folk assembled on stage, faces straight, looking quite sombre, and packed into a square formation. All at once, they broke into music, dance and song, very lively. I have no idea what the song was about, but it was fun. To finish, they closed back up into the square and ‘switched off’. Then the play proper began. The actors used benches at the back to wait their turn, giving a lovely informal feel to the whole piece.

The opening scene between Valentine and Proteus was well acted. It was clear who was the lover and who the traveller. Behind the main action, within a ring of cloth on the floor, stood two other actors, miming to amplify the exchange between the two friends. Throughout the play, actors stood in for scenery, sometimes as chairs, sometimes as doors or walls. One time the spare actors stood in a line, with two of the women holding cloths diagonally to represent doors. This allowed the actors involved in the scene to burst through one set of doors, and, as the walls and doors flowed round ahead of them, through another set. Very effective.

Cloth was another main feature of the production. As well as cloths being used to mark out spaces, various characters wore ponchos, wrapped bits of cloth round themselves, and the letters and papers used in the play were all cloth. The love letter Julia receives from Proteus is made of cloth patches, loosely stitched together, so that she can rip it apart easily.

Probably the star of the show, if there could be one in such an even-handed production, was the dog, Crab. Often a scene-stealer, this particular dog was of the human variety. He was so mischievous, cocking his leg over the audience, having a crap on stage, and shagging one character’s leg pretty vigorously. Each time, he would end up looking quite innocent, tongue hanging out, head on one side. Marvellous fun.

The British participants were mainly involved in the forest scenes, as part of the outlaw band, so we heard the occasional line in English during these scenes. Mostly, though, it was an energetic, expressive version of the play, which got across all the characters and their relationships really well. It was all the more amazing because the two groups had only got together to work on the piece a few days before, and this was the only scheduled performance, so they had no time to bed it in.

After the enthusiastic applause, we were treated to a post-show discussion with all of the cast and the director Guti Fraga, who founded Nos do Morro. This was basically a giant love-in, as all the actors were still pumped up after their excellent performance, and it obviously meant so much to them to have been so well received. Cicely Berry also joined them, and she is clearly much loved by all in both groups. I don’t remember much of what was said – a lot of the information is in the programme notes, anyway – but there was a lovely sense of camaraderie, of the depth of loving and support amongst the group, and the strength of Guti Fraga’s commitment to helping young people realise their potential in a region of the world that most of us would find challenging. It was a heart-warming experience, and I hope there will be more visits from companies such as this one, once the RSC has completed its redevelopment.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Titus Andronicus – June 2006

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Yulio Ninagawa

Venue: RST

Date: Saturday 17th June 2006

Ah well, it couldn’t last. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Ninagawa’s work in the past – King Lear at the RST and Hamlet at the Barbican – but both of those productions used British actors, and Shakespeare’s text. I liked his slightly stylised approach, with great attention to detail, such that every part of the audience was considered. The pre-show talk was promising too, with Greg Doran chairing a conversation with Ninagawa and Thelma Holt, based on their lengthy collaboration. Even with translation, Ninagawa came across as direct, simple, vastly experienced and still open to learn, with a great sense of humour. Ah well.

I’ve realised from this year’s experiences that I need Shakespeare’s language to really enjoy his plays, regardless of the style of production. I know the Dream earlier used many languages, but there was enough of the original to make sense, and the performances more than made up for the rest of it. Sadly, not so true for this production of Titus Andronicus with Japanese actors and Japanese words.

In the pre-show, Ninagawa explained the difference between working with British and Japanese actors. British actors are more concerned with the text, and with analysing their characters’ backgrounds. If their character is putting a bandage on his foot, they want to know what type of injury it is, how long they’ve had it, and what that tells them about their character’s background. A Japanese actor would simply register that at that point in the play he had to bandage his foot, and carry on to the next thing. Japanese actors are more concerned about the physicality – what they do. Also, many Japanese actors are trained in one or other of the various Japanese theatre styles, all of which have their own rules and forms. They don’t find it necessary to be naturalistic. This possibly explains why I found such a difference between his previous productions and this one. The stylisation with British actors was more restrained – it was a new way of working to them and either they didn’t take to it so well, or Ninagawa realised he needed to go more slowly. Whatever. With highly trained Japanese actors, however, there was no holding back, and as a result I found the stylisation too much to take at times.

Before the action began, the actors had been dressing themselves on stage, in full view of the audience. Apparently some had also been wandering around in the foyer as well. Some of the actors practised running up and down the steps at the front of the stage, getting ready for the active parts of the play. As performance time neared, instructions in Japanese, with English surtitles, were issued through the loudspeakers, and the cast began clearing away the costume rails, and bringing on the giant wolf (see below). It was an interesting start.

The set was promising – very stark. White everywhere, with moveable walls and a HUGE white statue of a wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, which was trundled on and off, and occasionally rotated. Wide steps led down into the auditorium, and the action flowed through the whole space – we were warned to keep the aisles clear at all times. The forest was represented by lots of large leaf shapes, with one large tree trunk in the middle. The costumes must have been hell in hot weather – the senators wore duvets, the soldiers were in several layers of armour, only the women seemed dressed for the heat. Red streamers were used to represent blood – very effective, and although I found it too much at times, I suspect that’s just because this is Shakespeare’s gore-fest, a proper revenge play, and lots of stage blood would have probably got to me as well. (Actually, too much stage blood and I start to worry about how the costume department is going to get it off the costumes!)

This time I was more prepared for the surtitles, and they kept pace with the action much better than before. I was also trying not to look at them so much, so that I could just absorb the performances, but I found it very difficult, especially as I’m not as familiar with this play. Perhaps if there’s another foreign version I’ll study the play in advance, although I won’t know how the director’s cut the thing. Anyway, this time I was able to concentrate on the performances a lot more, and again, there was a lot to enjoy. Tamara’s anger and lust for revenge was matched by her cunning and subtlety – forget Lady Macbeth, this one’s the real danger. Aaron, her lover, was kept very low-key at the start, but came into his own as the play progressed. He snarled and sneered his way across the stage like a comic-book villain, appropriate from a culture that adores those strongly drawn graphic images. I found it a little slow at times, though, as he drew out every snarl to its full extent, but then it did give me plenty of time to catch up on the surtitles if I wanted to.

Titus himself was effectively and movingly played. The old soldier, upright in his integrity, with a lifetime of service to his country through warfare, and, it has to be said, bonking – he has buried over twenty sons, after all. His political naiveté is evident from the start, and is an echo (or precursor?) to Coriolanus’ own Achilles’ heel. His ruthlessness in killing Tamara’s firstborn is also clear, and also recalls King Lear’s absolutism which is so sorely challenged and overcome at great cost. Whether these echoes are intended in this production or just part of my increasing experience of Shakespeare’s plays, I don’t know, but I thoroughly enjoyed them.

Titus’ emotional journey is also well mapped out. Without the understanding of the long speeches, it’s easier to grasp the emotions being expressed, and they come across here so much more strongly because of the stylisation, which allows the actors to go over the top. Grief here really is grief. In the previous Titus, one problem the actors faced was the lack of emotional expression compared with the mentalising the characters do. No such problems here – this is full-on emotional roller-coaster, with gore.

I was reminded once again how Shakespeare balances out the characters, no clear cut heroes and villains. Lavinia and Bassianus may suffer horrible fates, but they’re no innocent victims. Both show how unpleasant they can be – not to the level that justifies their murder and rape, but not beyond reproach, either. Tamara’s rage seems more intelligible here, too. And I enjoyed Marcus’ performance (Titus’ brother), especially the counterpoint of his descent into furious grief just at the moment when Titus breaks through to laughter – he’s done all his crying, now it’s time for revenge.

The scene with Tamara and her sons acting out Revenge, Rape and Murder was well done, and the humour was a welcome relief. With the final enacting of revenge, especially the murder of Lavinia, done very simply and movingly, the play finished stunning the audience, in all sorts of ways.

I’m glad I saw it, I’ve learned a lot from watching it, and from writing these notes, and I’m also glad I don’t have to watch it again. The question always is – what was Will up to when he wrote this? That’s what keeps me watching, that’s what drives me to go to so many different productions. I hope I never answer that question fully.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – June 2006

Experience: 10/10

By William Shakespeare, with translations by the cast and others

Directed by Tim Supple


Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 16th June 2006

Like the Othello, I ask “Where do I start?” Unlike the Othello, this was one of the most wonderful productions I have seen in many a year. Not better than my favourite Dream, but spectacular nonetheless.

What impressed me most was how well the play’s emotions came across. The play was performed in seven different languages – English, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam, and Marathi. The actors had been chosen at a massive audition festival in India; players with all sorts of backgrounds, including Indian folk theatre, contemporary acting, acrobatics, juggling, rope work, etc. came together to explore the play. Tim Supple, the director, chose the best actor for each part, and then basically used that actor’s main acting language for that character. Some spoke English, others almost exclusively another language, while some spoke several, and a few had to learn the English for some of their lines so that the story could be understood. In some cases, the most appropriate language was chosen, based on the sound. This helped to create the magical effect – so many rhythms, so much music in the performance. Again, some of the English lines took on a new emphasis with the different speech patterns.

The upshot was that I stopped trying to listen to the words so much – after all, I know this play pretty well, as did most of the audience. Instead, I could concentrate on watching the actors express the characters’ thoughts and emotions. I felt so liberated. Also, these actors seemed to project more emotion than I’m used to seeing on the stage. Maybe it’s the different culture (we Brits tend to be so buttoned up), and maybe it’s because they also had to deal with languages they didn’t understand. And from the post-show talk, I gather that it was a deliberate choice to beef up the violence and sex in the play. Anyway, I enjoyed the emotional ride enormously, and the cast thoroughly deserved their standing ovation at the end.

The stage seemed simple at the start, but evolved as time went on. At the back were sheets of white paper, with a door bottom right, and a platform projecting out from the back wall about eight feet up and about ten feet long, also covered in white paper. The floor was covered in red earth over which lay a silk sheet. At the front of the stage were two pools, on either side of a covered sculpture, and in front of these was a sand pit. The musicians were located in both side balconies.

At the start, Puck/Philostrate enters, grinning broadly, which he does throughout the performance. Taking in the audience, he walks to the front, removes the cover from the sculpture and reveals a stone block, smooth and shining, with parallel slices cut through it. Stepping over it, he squats down in the sandpit and cups water from each pool over the stone. Then he begins to stroke it rhythmically, and almost magically, it starts to sing – a beautiful note. At this, Theseus and Hippolyta enter to start the play proper.

Although Theseus mainly speaks in non-English tongues, the opening lines are in English, and it’s clear Hippolyta isn’t happy. And this is no slightly miffed English ice-Amazon, either – this one could throw things – a spear, perhaps, or at least a few plates. Fortunately, or perhaps not, Egeus arrives with his wayward daughter and two young men in tow. Didn’t understand a word, didn’t need to. A pretty little casket obviously held the trinkets Lysander had been “bribing” Hermia with, and the airs of dejection and defiance clearly delineated the two suitors. One lovely line was retained in the English – “You have her father’s love, Demetrius; Let me have Hermia’s: do you marry him.” Hermia spoke throughout in English, as did all the women, and Theseus explained her predicament in English – Hippolyta was even less happy. For a moment it looked like Hermia and Lysander weren’t going to be left alone at the end of the scene, but Theseus commands Egeus and Demetrius away, leaving them to converse, in English, about their plight. They make the usual arrangements, tell all to Helena (always a mistake, I feel), and then the play really hots up.

As Helena is leaving to blab to Demetrius, she is startled by Philostrate lurking by the door. Once she leaves, he removes the silk sheet to reveal the beaten earth, and with a tremendous ripping sound, the fairies arrive, thrusting and tearing their way through the paper sheets. The sheets were attached to wooden scaffolding, allowing the fairies to climb, swing, and slip away furtively, anything they want to do, in fact. Marvellous. Enter Puck (Philostrate without his robe, therefore pretty much naked except for a bright red loincloth – daring, but he had the figure to carry it off) and several other fairies, led by a young lady who carries much of the scene’s early dialogue. I particularly liked the way the long speeches about who the fairies think Puck is, are shared out amongst the four who turn out to be Titania’s main attendants. That way it wasn’t so boring. And Puck’s reply, equally as long, is spoken in Hindi, with much teasing and mock fighting with his stage audience – another relief from boredom. These fairies are definitely not to be messed with.

Enter Oberon and Titania (doubled with Theseus and Hippolyta), and they really have a go at each other. Rolling around in the dirt, it’s hard to tell if they’re having sex or fighting – very physical and much stronger than the usual distant sniping. These two have history. This scene was helped by the inclusion in the company of a nine-year-old boy from an acrobatic family, used to climbing, rope-work, etc. How they were able to have him on stage for so long I don’t know, but he was present a lot of the time with Titania, and later, Oberon, and made the cause of the quarrel very apparent – the Indian boy. At the end, a mad scramble away through the scaffolding and the fairies have disappeared, leaving Theseus to request the special little herb from his own personal messenger service, Puck. And then the lovers arrive.

For once, Helena and Demetrius look like they’ve been through hell already. Clothes torn, wild-eyed, Demetrius waves a nasty looking blade around while telling Helena to get lost. He really will kill Lysander given half a chance. And this wood is a really scary place. At the post-show, we were told the Indian performances had been conducted in the open air, with the cast having to contend with, amongst other things, jackals and bandits! This gave them and us a real sense of the forest being a very dangerous place.

The flower Puck brings is a lovely one, with several large blooms. In the centre of each one is a small red ball; crushed, it provides Theseus and Puck with red powder, which they smear over the eyes of those they put the spell on. Very effective, and the powder stays on for quite a while, being wiped off when the spell is removed, so it’s a clear reminder of what those naughty fairies have been up to. Anyway, Oberon’s off to punish Titania, and Puck’s off to sort out the “Athenian youth” – what could possibly go wrong?

Believe it or not, we don’t see the mechanicals until now. These are the hard-working men of Athens, gathering to arrange their performance for the marriage. Tom Snout, the tinker, carries a long pole with all the community’s spare cooking pans attached – this man would not sneak up on you unnoticed! When the clattering finally dies down, and the laughter, Quince gets on with it. Bottom was a lovely chap, Joy Fernandes, built like Tony Hancock but with a cheerful disposition. Flute, a tall, gangly youth, is not happy to be lumbered with the lady’s part. The others, older and wiser, are happy to settle for what they can get. A short scene, this, especially with the beards shaved off.

As Titania enters, we have another example of how Puck/Philostrate is orchestrating things. While the mechanicals leave, various ropes and ribbons are lowered to the stage, with Puck, still grinning, releasing them all from their guide ropes. By the time the fairies are ready to sing Titania to sleep, they all have ropes to climb up and dance with. Titania herself makes a cosy nest out of two long red ribbons of cloth, and tucks herself up in it, pulling in the trailing cloth, closing the ribbons up like the bud of a flower. Her nest is then lifted up above the action, and she is beautifully concealed from prying eyes.

Some of the ropes are then removed, but there are more ribbons available for Hermia and Lysander to knot together and rest on. Again, it almost looks like Lysander is going to ignore maidenly modesty, but Hermia’s no pushover, and he backs off. All the rest unfolds as usual, and off everyone goes.

So then Puck and the other company fairies (not the queen’s supporters as such), take away the ropes and bring on the scenery for the mechanicals rehearsal. It was a lovely idea, to have these fairies standing around, holding up various items – banana leaves, wattle screens, etc. – and watching the developing events with amazement and great humour. Worth mentioning was Flute’s totally disenchanted rendition of Thisbe’s lines – no feeling whatsoever, this actor just wanted to be off stage as quickly as possible. Also, no use of “Ninny’s tomb” – possibly doesn’t work so well when there are so many accents and languages being used.

No holds barred in this production so far, so it comes as no surprise that Bottom’s ass’s accoutrements are not only prominent, but completed by a largish gourd hanging from his waist. Nice touch. Exeunt mechanicals, awaken Titania, etc.

The lovers are next up, and with Demetrius’ eyes smeared red as well, both men now pursue Helena. At this point, I found Puck’s interventions a bit distracting. He set up some poles round the outside of the stage, and then started winding elastic rope around and between them, creating a cat’s cradle through which the lovers interacted. This represented very well the difficulties the lovers are dealing with – the dense forest, people holding one another back – but I found it hard to block Puck out of the picture, as this is only a small stage. It might have been OK if there were only a couple of rolls of elastic, but he got through four of them! It took the whole scene to unravel them (and it’s a long scene), and by then I’d lost track of the lovers altogether. A shame, because I’m sure they were performing valiantly through the elastic. With the stage so snarled up, there was nothing else for it but to have the interval here, so Puck leads the lovers into the scaffolding, and leaves them all asleep, removing the red dust from Lysander’s eyes. Ah.

The next scene is the removal of the spell from Titania. This was beautifully done. She and Bottom are sprawled in the ribbon nest, and Oberon, who has been observing from the platform, does some rope work to come down to earth, while the Indian boy follows part way. Oberon cleans Titania up, and she awakens, horrified at what she sees. Bottom is moved to the back of the stage, lying down, and Puck removes his ‘appendages’.

Now at this point, Titania and Oberon leave the stage, and Theseus and Hippolyta enter. Normally, when doubling occurs, Bottom’s awakening gives the poor actors a bit of time to make the changeover. Not here. Both actors stay on stage, and the fairy attendants bring on their outer robes, which are all that distinguish the characters, and dress them there and then. Another beautiful element in the production – to have the faith that the audience can handle it and will go along with it, which of course we did, most happily.

After Bottom’s recovery, and reunion with the rest of his troupe, Philostrate sets up the cushioned areas for the aristocrats to sit and watch the evening’s entertainment. These final scenes are mostly in English; I gather it was difficult to translate, and we would have missed a lot of the jokes.

The Pyramus and Thisbe was very enjoyable. Wall was literally covered in plaster, and carried a pipe across his shoulders, to represent the chink in the wall the lovers talked through. The blood was represented by red cloth, and the whole scene was amusing. It was followed by the bergomask – given the emphasis on movement and dance in this production, this was a lively affair. The drummer was on stage throughout the play and dance.

Finally, the whole cast was on stage for the house blessing, moving slowly and rhythmically, forwards and backwards. Again, beautiful, and hypnotic. With Puck’s prologue rounding it off, still with that mischievous grin, we were completely satisfied, and the ovation was just wonderful. It was an honour to be present there that night, and experience that performance. They deserved all the applause and more.

Post-show: As if the performance wasn’t enough, these amazing people came back a short while later to do a post-show discussion. Tim Supple, the director, was there, too. It was lovely to see how the cast interacted. They developed into two groups, with a few actors acting as translators for the rest. They spoke about the rehearsal process, which challenged them all to explore new areas and built a great sense of trust in the company. There were several translations ready prepared when they arrived, and the dialogue evolved in the course of rehearsals, as languages were tried and changed and refined. The lovely singing when Titania is being serenaded to sleep, started out as “You spotted snakes” etc., and then evolved into a glorious lullaby in whatever language gave it the right rhythm and feel. Puck (Ajay Kumar), still grinning, told us via translation how he had no previous experience of Shakespeare, and was really pleased to find it so enjoyable to do. He had to learn the English for a lot of his part, and also contributed to the translation of the Hindi lines – all the translations were adjusted as they went along. When asked how the cast had worked together with so many different languages, Tim pointed out that we could see the process in action, as two actors translated for the rest of the company – there was a lovely ripple effect as jokes were translated back and forth during the discussion.

More was said that I don’t remember, I just enjoyed so much being there while the happiness generated by the performance permeated everything. A real blessing.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me