Richard III – July 2011

8/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Edward Hall

Company: Propeller

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Saturday 9th July 2011

This was a fantastic production, with a great central performance by Richard Clothier which was well supported by a strong and balanced ensemble.

The setting was a mix of hospital and abattoir. Open metal girders on either side, curtains of plastic strips which were held back by chains, and a box frame which had assorted cutting and drilling implements dangling from it represented the abattoir, while hospital screens in drab grey, white coats on the non-specific characters, and trolley tables represented the hospital. The characters in white coats were basically those not directly involved in each scene, and they also wore masks with holes for the eyes and mouth, which made them look very sinister. When characters arrived in the middle of a scene, for example Hastings’ release from the Tower, they had the white coats pull two sets of screens across the stage from opposite sides, and when they finished crossing over, the new arrival would be discovered in the middle of the stage. This worked very effectively.

It took me longer than Steve, but we both realised that the murders in the play were being done in the manner of various horror movies, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre being the most obvious. This certainly got across the nastiness of the violence, and I suspect it freed up Richard Clothier to present the humour of Richard’s part more strongly for the rest of the time, which he did brilliantly. I couldn’t place all the other references as I’m not into horror movies, but the association was clear, even to me.

The performance began with the actors done up in the white coats and masks gradually taking up positions on the stage, silently. They were not so much menacing at this time as strangely disturbing, as they stood there gazing out at us. I don’t remember now exactly how they got into the first line of the play – I think there was some kind of mime first? –  but once started, they went along at a fair clip.

The wooing scene went very well, despite the dead body in the middle of the stage, and I felt this time, as I have before, that it’s Richard’s flattering comments about her beauty that do the trick with Anne. Jon Trenchard played Lady Anne, and made her much more feminine than Propeller usually does; in fact all the women were noticeably less butch than usual – is this a change of policy?

The two young princes were represented by puppets, which worked really well. They had shop dummy faces, which reminded me of the Autons in Doctor Who, another creepy reference. They were slightly nervous children though, hanging round their mother’s skirts a lot, except when they arrived at the Tower and the younger lad was being cheeky to his uncle Richard.

The murderers were good fun. In suits, and acting well ‘ard, they almost came a cropper with their bursts of conscience, but managed to kill poor Clarence just in time. Richard turned up just afterwards, and instead of giving them their reward, killed them both. Nasty.

After Edward’s death, when the court has agreed to bring the Prince back to London for his coronation, Buckingham’s comment to Richard about being in the party that accompanies the Prince came across as the first time that Buckingham has sided with Richard against the other factions. I also felt that Richard was acting the innocent with Buckingham at this stage, allowing himself to be led in the direction he intended to go anyway. This made their disagreement after Richard’s coronation easier to understand.

At the meeting to arrange the Prince’s coronation, Richard’s accusations against Lord Hastings are clearly preposterous, but it’s equally clear than no one dares to speak up against the most powerful man in the country. Tyrrel, the murderer of the two princes, is another creepy character. He wears a grinning mask and a tool belt with some nasty-looking pieces of equipment dangling from it. I didn’t get the film reference, but I assume it must be one. After he killed the two young boys I noticed he also had a small teddy bear attached to the belt – I think it was the same as the teddy bear which Richard gave him as the token to gain access to the princes.

The alternating scenes before the final battle were also well done, with both Richard and Henry sleeping in the middle of the stage, side by side, while the ghosts lined up behind them and then came round in front to deliver their curses/blessings. The only trouble I had with this was that the dialogue overlapped, so it was hard to hear either part clearly, but as I’m familiar with this scene it didn’t bother me too much.

I also found that the production flagged a bit once Richard was downcast. His personality had driven the action and kept us entertained, and once his light dimmed, the whole energy of the piece dropped as well. This made the final scenes less interesting, and although the ensemble worked very well together, this was a production based on the central performance, and it suffered as a result. Mind you, the rest of it had been good enough to beat most other productions, so it’s not a major complaint.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Darker Shores – December 2009

6/10

By Michael Punter

Directed by Anthony Clark

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Saturday 12th December 2009

The set for this piece was wonderfully atmospheric, and completely suited a Victorian Christmas ghost story, with several banisters going across parts of the stage at various angles and many layers of black curtain swags. Very creepy, and all in black. The central space had a bed over to the left, a table which kept fairly central but did get moved a couple of times, a bureau back right and several very creepy statues on plinths which were covered with black cloth. The back left area was concealed by a curtain, and could be either the French windows to an otherwise inaccessible terrace or an open space, used for the golf course or similar. To the right was a big black door, which could open on its own if required. The scene was set for thrills and terror.

This play opens with two men. One, Tom Beauregard, an American of the Southern persuasion, claims to be a medium and a Doctor of Spiritual Science. The other, Gabriel Stokes, is a scientist, a natural history professor at Cambridge and keen to write a book that will, once and for all, completely refute Darwin’s preposterous assertion that man is descended from apes by distilling the evidence against from that authoritative scientific tome, the Bible. Not the brightest chimp at the tea party, then.

Her does, however, have an intriguing experience which he wants help with. The story was a bit complicated, and I’m sure I didn’t get all of it, but the gist is this. Stokes, who has lost both his wife and young child, was staying at an old house somewhere on the bleak and desolate Sussex coast. (Bleak and desolate? Sussex?) The house had previously been owned by a chap who was now dead, but who had created a beautiful garden terrace outside his window accessible only through the French windows in his room. A subsequent owner had been involved in dubious practices, despite being a missionary, and had disappeared in Africa, presumed dead. His housekeeper, Mrs Hinchcliffe, still looked after the place and took in paying guests, hence Mr Stokes’s involvement.

Lodged in the very room with the garden terrace outside and dominated by the creepy statues, it’s not long before Stokes is disturbed by lots of banging about in the room above, which had been the missing-in-Africa owner’s workroom. Nobody else hears these banging noises, and then Stokes sees a figure at the windows. He’s pretty scared by all of this, naturally enough (I was holding Steve’s hand a fair bit throughout this play) so he asks Beauregard to come down to Sussex and sort the whole thing out.

Beauregard is keen enough at first, but when Stokes uncovers his trickery during their first séance he decides to leave immediately. A chat with Mrs Hinchcliffe changes his mind, and during an attempt to contact the deceased spirit by the others (Stokes, Mrs H and the maid, Florence) Beauregard returns to witness the denouement.

I must admit the arrival of the ‘ghost’ was very well done, and the choice Stokes makes was pretty much inevitable. While it wasn’t as scary as The Woman In Black, it still had its chills, along with several funny lines and excellent performances from all. The only thing holding it back was the lack of response from the audience who seemed a bit sluggish.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Signalman – September 2009

6/10

By John Goodrum, based on the short story by Charles Dickens

Directed by John Goodrum

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Tuesday 15th September 2009

I vaguely remember reading a ghost story involving a signalman many years ago, but I was basically ignorant of what would happen tonight. As it was I found myself drawn in to the stories told by the two characters, the signalman and his visitor, and the denouement gave both of us a shiver.

The staging was very good, I thought. The arch of a railway tunnel was centre back, with a red light high beside it on the left. High rocky walls enclosed the cutting on either side, while the signalman’s hut was front right. The lighting emphasised each location as the action shifted between outside and inside. The signalman’s hut had few furnishings, but the telegraph signal machine was prominent.

I very much liked the way they showed a train coming through the tunnel. A white light shining from within the tunnel indicated the train, and there was be some smoke and steam coming out as well. Then the lighting flickered over the set like the light from passing carriage windows as the train rushed past, together with the appropriate sound effects. It was an impressive way to deal with it, and certainly got my imagination fully engaged. I realised after a few of these that the signalman was looking up at the train because he was at ground level, not on a platform.

The opening scene was well done, creating just the right sense of chill, as only the visitor was talking. The signalman’s reaction, apparently frozen with fear, got my nerves tingling and the spooky sound of the visitor’s calls from on high at the start also contributed to this. I gather this tour had only started about a week ago which explains why the signalman was having difficulty remembering his lines, and didn’t always deliver the ones he could remember as clearly as I would have liked, but we got the gist and given that the signalman was meant to be a man in the grip of a strong emotional quandary the mixing up of a few words was entirely in keeping. The visitor was perfectly clear, and with the excellent staging this made for an enjoyable and slightly scary evening.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Turn Of The Screw – March 2008

5/10

By Henry James, adapted by Ali Gorton

Directed by Ali Gorton

Venue: Connaught Theatre

Date: Thursday 13th March 2008

I nearly gave this a 3/10 rating, as the first half was very weak. It picked up in the second half though, and so I felt that overall a 5/10 rating was just appropriate.

There were a number of problems with the production. The set was another portmanteau effort, which seemed too jumbled to give me any real sense of place most of the time. The scene down by the lake was good, with some of the furniture removed, and mist billowing out across the stage and auditorium, but otherwise I found the locations quite confusing. Added to this was the lighting, which was often dim. For good reason admittedly, but it still made it harder to see what was going on. The story was told in a strange sequence, with the last scene chronologically shown first, then a flashback to the governess being offered her post, then another flashback to when the two servants were alive, then a flash forward to the governess’s arrival at the house. Knowing the story reasonably well, I wasn’t too worried, but I did wonder how someone who didn’t know it would get on.

Apart from that, there were some odd effects, such as having one of the lights flash on and off rapidly. It was presumably meant to tell us something about the ghostly apparitions, but I certainly didn’t get anything from it. And the horrendous wig the previous governess was wearing was only scary in the humorous sense. But the biggest problem was in the delivery of the lines. Again, I knew the story fairly well, so I was able to get by, and perhaps a headset would have helped a bit, but unfortunately Honeysuckle Weeks showed a distinct lack of vocal prowess in this part. She gabbled a lot of her lines as if she were in a race. We had started fifteen minutes late, and I briefly wondered if they were hurrying to catch up the lost time, but it was just the pace they were playing it at. Her voice definitely needs to be developed if she’s going to do much on the stage. [18/9/11 Seen her several times since and she’s been fine – don’t know what went wrong tonight]

Despite that, she got across a good picture of a highly strung young woman of a romantic disposition, used to her own family, who gets caught up in the atmosphere of the first house she goes to work in. The possibility of the ghosts being entirely in her imagination is one that was new to Steve, though I’d come across it before in a TV adaptation, and it’s well presented here. Personally I think there’s a bit of both options going on. The two servants have left an emotional legacy which has been ignored up to now, and the sensitive governess picks up on this and takes it further than she has any right to, making serious misjudgements along the way. There were some scary moments – I held Steve’s arm for a while – and the death scene was well done, so the evening ended better than it had begun.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me