King Lear – June 2007

6/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Trevor Nunn

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Saturday 9th June 2007

This is a relatively new experience for me, having to commend a production for its performances and some interesting insights, and yet come to the conclusion that it was all rather dull. It was the same thing last night at The Seagull, both by the same director, so it’s probably down to his style of production. I just find it odd that I should be able to get so much out of the performances, and yet feel so unenthusiastic at the end that clapping all through the bows was an effort. I’ve seen a number of productions where I clapped and clapped till my hands were sore, and still went on – Coriolanus in the Swan springs to mind – yet here I felt nothing much, not elated, not wrung out, not inspired, not cheated……. nothing. It’s very strange.

The performance did get off to a really bad start from our perspective – literally. As the organ ground out a massive ceremonial tune, a procession of all the nobles entered, togged up to the nines. They swept to the front of the stage, and then fanned out, beautifully obscuring the view, almost completely in our case. Fortunately, when Lear came on, they all bowed, knelt, and some even prostrated themselves (as far as I could see, that is). He was got up in some fancy robes that were more akin to religious finery than royal garb, although there’s often only a skimpy line between the two. He waved his arms around as if giving a Papal blessing to everyone, and then most of them wafted off, leaving Kent and Gloucester to introduce the novices in the audience to the political situation, and to Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund.

Throughout the play, information about what was going on was very clearly delivered. I learned more about the plot than I’ve ever known before, and this opening scene was no exception. The only downside was that I didn’t get any real sense of embarrassment on Edmund’s behalf about the way his father refers to him. However, it was clear that Edmund got the point, and wasn’t too happy about things.

Next up is the division of the spoils of war. The war in question is a war of words amongst the three daughters of Lear – who can flatter Daddy the best? Sadly, like a TV quiz, the winner has been picked in advance, and both Goneril and Regan are playing off for the minor places. (And they know it!)

Let me describe as best I can the way this was staged. Various servants brought forward a table towards the rear of the thrust, while a couple of chairs were placed in the front corners. One of these was just in front of us. Then, as the royal family and nobles enter, Regan and Goneril are shown to the chairs, and sit there for most of the scene, wide skirts fanning out beautifully to block even more of the view. Their respective husbands stand behind them, adding to the effect. So I can only tell you from the later events, that there was also a lectern to the left of the table, and it’s from here that Lear reads his apparently prepared speech, from index cards, tossing them away after he’s finished with each one. It is also from here that Goneril speaks, invisibly, to her father, and receives his approbation. When Regan does her turn, with her husband there behind her, giving her encouragement, I could at last see what I’d been missing. Fortunately, Monica Dolan gave us an excellent Regan. Hesitant at first, she gathers pace after a glance at her husband, and smarms a smile onto Lear’s face – he’d been bored with her comparisons to her sister. When she comes over to see what she’s getting, there’s a lovely look of concern and nosiness on her face, and as she heads back to her chair, she’s pouting at what she obviously sees as an inadequate return for her efforts.

Cordelia was standing behind her father during all of this, so we don’t get her asides this time. She delivers her “Nothings” just fine, and Lear sends her packing, which in this case means off to the entrance on our left. I found the Burgundy/France scene moving, and had a few sniffles, as I often do. Lear’s rage was well done, and sets us up nicely for his coming madness, and his two elder daughter’s concerns for the future. Incidentally, Regan picks up on Masha’s fondness for a glass of something, as she’s the only one to take a cup of whatever celebratory drink was on offer. In fact, she’s rarely seen without a glass in her hand, which proves her undoing later.

Kent is banished before Gloucester returns, so there’s a look of puzzlement on Gloucester’s face as they pass on his way in. Cordelia says goodbye to her sisters, and they then confer, more cosily than I’ve seen before. The impression so far is of Lear as a tyrant, ruling with absolute authority and becoming subject to serious mood swings. If he looks angry, everyone ducks. The costumes suggest Russia. The only problem, and it’s the usual one, is that if Lear is so despotic, why is Kent so loyal? Or Cordelia, for that matter?  It weakens them both to be devoted to such a cruel King.

As the chairs and table are removed, we see Edmund, on all fours, close to the ground towards the back of the stage. As I dealt with my irritation from the early difficulties with the sightlines, I reckoned I would start to get involved with his first monologue. It’s usually entertaining to see a villain lay out his wares, and this was a good reading of the part. He winds up Gloucester beautifully. I realised that Gloucester wasn’t there when Kent was banished, so of course he’s muttering about that as he comes on. I also liked Edgar’s little yawn and look of boredom when he confirmed he’d spent a couple of hours in conversation with his father the previous evening.

Kent comes back on in disguise, and we get to see the rabble of knights that Lear has surrounded himself with, as they lollop on stage, baying and shooting and generally causing mayhem. I do have some sympathy for Goneril at this point. Yes, she’s a malicious bitch (look who brought her up), but it would drive anyone mad to have to put up with a geriatric lad-about-town and his accomplices. I noticed that her complaint to Lear was in incredibly formal language, and quite hard to understand – why, I wonder?

Now we get the first appearance of the fool. Sylvester McCoy was good, though not the best I’ve seen. A lot of the humour and criticism of Lear came across, but not all. As we might have expected, he gets to use his spoons. At least there were several knights with Lear, to suggest his large retinue. There are some early signs of madness, as Goneril rejects his demands and he heads off to Regan. Lear’s cursing of Goneril leads to something of an over-reaction from her, I felt.

The tiff between the messengers was OK, but nothing special. I noticed that Regan was still at the booze. The scene where Kent, in disguise, is put in the stocks was quite mundane, and didn’t get much across.

The rumblings of the storm start a little earlier than I remember happening before, and I enjoyed the lengthier build-up. Lear’s increasing loss of sanity is very well depicted, and Edgar was also very good as Poor Tom. I liked Lear’s recognition of the plight of the homeless, and his decision to strip off makes perfect sense. When Gloucester helps him, he brings him secretly back into his own home, against orders, and the first half ends with Gloucester, having just got the King away, being arrested by armed guards, and the Fool being hanged, just for fun. Good staging.

In the second half, when Gloucester sends off a servant to lock the dangerous letter in his closet, Edmund takes the key from the servant when he returns – he’s shaping up nicely as a serious villain. I didn’t look too closely at the blinding bit, but I did notice that Regan was squealing almost orgasmically as each eye was removed. She’s another nasty piece of work. She helps Cornwall off this time, rather than ditching him.

Edgar’s performance was very moving both before and during the discovery of his father’s fate. Gloucester’s eyes weren’t bandaged this time. Regan does her best to entice Oswald to give it up (the letter to Edmund, that is), and is well unhappy when he refuses.

Albany is a bit wimpish throughout. Edgar’s gulling of his father about the cliff felt a bit flat (like the ground itself!), though his caring for his father, and Gloucester’s acceptance of his situation came across clearly. I missed Edgar’s comments on the two old men chatting together, which were cut, but then their sufferings were plain to see. In Edgar’s fight with Oswald we start to see how he’s toughened up.

After the battle, the doctor is brought on with Lear and Cordelia, and leaves his medicine chest behind. Goneril spots this, and sits on it, carefully taking a bottle out of the top shelf and secreting it in her pocket. She then uses it to poison the bottle of champagne that she pours Regan a glass from. Will Regan drink it? Of course she will, she’s got as little restraint as Masha. Even when Regan’s doubled up in pain, and carried off by some guards, she’s not going to let go of that bottle!

The fight between Edgar and Edmund was very good. It took some time, and involved wrecking the stage, such of it as hadn’t already been trashed by previous events. I got the impression that Edgar had probably had some training in how to use a sword when he was younger, but didn’t really care for the sport. However, he’s changed enormously through his own suffering, and seeing what’s happened to others, especially his father, and now he’s ready to put his fighting skills to use. They’re pretty rusty, but they get him through. Edmund, of course, is a seasoned villain and swordsman, but just can’t overcome his unknown opponent.

Lear carries Cordelia on – she’s a tall girl, so Ian McKellen must be stronger than he looks. Kent actually heads off after his line about joining his master, lifting up the flap of his holster to get his gun out as he goes. Finally, we get the closing lines, and we can all go home. Hooray!

It’s a shame I found this production so uninspiring, but there were good performances and some interesting ideas. Better luck next time.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – May 2007

10/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Tim Supple

Company: DASH Arts

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 11th May 2007

This is the second time we’ve seen this production, and it hasn’t lost anything in all those months. In fact, it’s improved – ten star plus! As I’ve gone over most of the staging in the first set of notes (see RSC Complete Works), I’ll just cover the changes here.

The early stages were as before. I remembered how Ajay starts off as Philostrate, with his long robe. The singing stone was just as magical, and the action much the same, and just as enjoyable. The first change I noticed was the mechanicals. The clattering pots and pans didn’t seem so loud, and the actors seemed to have developed their parts more. I suspect that comedy in particular needs the experience of an audience to grow and develop, and from the look of things, this group has taken full advantage of all the performances to learn as much as possible.

The fight between Titania and Oberon had changed slightly – it wasn’t quite so fierce. The sexual action between the lovers had really hotted up, however, and it was clear that both the men and the women this time were feeling the full force of rampant hormones, as the women started to respond sexually, even to the men they didn’t want.

When Oberon describes the effect of the flower he sends Puck to pick, he demonstrates the eye-smearing method, and Puck is so affected by just this display, that he’s extremely taken with a pretty blonde lady in the front row, but Oberon snatches him back before things get out of hand.

The rehearsal scene seemed to have even more interaction with the fairies. Bottom’s gourd was still there, and I was pleased to see the production promoting safe sex – when he reappears later with Titania, there’s a bright red condom on the end of it. The fairies’ reaction to him seems to be clearer as well – Titania might be in love, but they’re not at all keen, especially when he wants them to scratch him. Yuck!

The reconciliation between Titania and Oberon gives rise to a beautiful dance, which I don’t remember happening before, or at least not to this extent. It’s just after this that the couple change back into Theseus and Hippolyta. The elastic rope that tangles the lovers seemed to be less than before, and knowing what was going on I was able to concentrate more on the lovers this time, and I enjoyed the whole scene much better. Oberon’s pursuit of Puck through the tangle was also good fun. He was giving him a real ticking off, and Puck just didn’t want to let him get too close. He may have looked a bit downcast at times, but still, he was obviously enjoying every minute of the mischief.

Thisbe seemed to be even more disinclined to play a woman during the rehearsal, but changed her mind when it came to the performance in front of the Duke. All the animals and set design parts were doing more, it seemed. I particularly felt for Moonshine, ridiculed by the aristocrats. His dog, though, was a lovely touch – as he’s played by the tailor, his dog is an adapted sewing machine (an idea from the actor himself). One nice aspect that I didn’t notice before was that Egeus shows his acceptance of the situation at the end by hugging his daughter.

I was aware this time of the dangers of the forest, not that it wasn’t there before, but tonight it was heightened. I also saw the playlet at the end not only as a treat for the audience, but as a kind of healing therapy for the lovers. They, too, had been through a trial, facing dangers in an attempt to find their loved one despite parental opposition. Here was an even more comic version of their story, to take the sting out of their experience, and to give them a chance to laugh, not only at their mischance, but also at themselves. And this includes Theseus and Hippolyta, as they’ve been fighting, and have only just come to an understanding.

I noticed that the list of possible performances was handed to Hippolyta to read out – presumably because she would find it easier to give the English version. I also felt that perhaps the cast are themselves more comfortable with the different languages, as they gain in experience, and receive such a great response from a wide range of audiences.

Post-show. It covered some of the same ground as before, naturally, but I noticed there was less need for translation, so I assume all of the cast have become reasonably comfortable with English, enough to get the gist of what was said.

The set design arose from practical considerations, plus ideas Tim and the designer had worked on before rehearsals, but they were open to new ideas all the time, and the red earth and wooden grid at the back just materialised during rehearsals, so they went with it.  There is a strong tradition in Indian theatre for quick changes on stage – just a turn or slip behind a screen, and immediately the new character is there, or the same character is somewhere else. (I asked about this in relation to Titania and Oberon changing back to Hippolyta and Theseus on stage.) I also asked Tim as we were leaving if he was doing any more cross-cultural projects, and he is, one using actors from Africa and around the Mediterranean (?), and the other with a huge mixture of Asian, South American and others. I shall look forward to seeing those.

When someone asked if the actors ever get nervous climbing the ladders and ropes, there was a long pause, then Joy Fernandes said he didn’t – big laugh, as he’s the only one who doesn’t go clambering over the set.

Someone asked if the amount of sexuality and physical contact on display had caused problems in India, where there appear to be more concerns about showing these things publicly. There was a pause, and then Joy pointed out that they had come up with the Kama Sutra, so presumably Indians knew sex existed. Apparently there was one place where some people reacted negatively about the sexuality, but mostly, everyone in India enjoyed it immensely. In Calcutta (I think), the audience sat very quietly during the performance, and Tim thought they’d absolutely bombed, but then the applause at the end was very enthusiastic, so obviously in that place they have a tradition of not making much noise during a performance. He also reckoned there’d been as much difference between reactions in India, as between India and England.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Merchant Of Venice – March 2007

10/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Darko Tresnjak

Company: Theatre For A New Audience

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 29th March 2007

This was just fantastic. I sobbed and sobbed, and all before the interval. Then I sobbed some more during the interval. Then some more during the second half. Great. Oh, and I also laughed a lot. Also great.

The set was wonderful. At the back were some glass screens, overlapping to allow for doorways. In front of these stood three tables, on which stood three Apple Macs, open, with backs facing the audience. Above the Macs were three screens. Up to the start of the play, these displayed a request to turn off mobile phones, pagers and the like, in English, Hebrew and Italian. I’ll describe later displays as I go. The rest of the stage was bare, and pretty much stayed that way – a couple of chairs were brought on for the trial scene, but otherwise the furniture didn’t get in the way of the action. Just how I like it. The overall effect was high-tech industrial, and the program describes the time as “the near future”. We would see later how well they used the technology. Costumes were mainly suits and dresses, with Jessica, as a page boy, wearing a hoodie, and Launcelot Gobbo sporting jeans, t-shirt and trainers for his opening scene. As often happens, the order in which I report these scenes may not be the order in which they appeared on stage.

The play opened with Antonio entering in sombre mode, all over the city gent. His two friends (Solanio and Salerio) come on with a coffee for him, and try to winkle out the cause of his sadness. They’re much younger than him – this Antonio, as so often happens, likes to surround himself with young, good-looking men. They have a jokey way with them, but Antonio refuses to be cheered up. Along comes Bassanio with his mates, Lorenzo and Gratiano, and we get to see how Gratiano simply cannot be made to shut up. His expressive manner reminded me of Jim Carrey – wide eyes and wide, grinning mouth. His joshing with Antonio is off-key, given Antonio’s mood, and so, finally, he heads off with Lorenzo, and we get to see the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio.

This Bassanio seems quite a serious young man compared with most performances I’ve seen. Antonio is obviously besotted with him, though it’s not exaggerated in this production. There’s a later scene where Solanio and Salerio discuss Antonio’s fortunes, or lack of them, and come to a knowing understanding that Antonio dotes on Bassanio, but even that’s not as in your face as some productions. Bassanio soon gets Antonio’s promise to lend him his credit so he can get a loan, and off he goes to try his luck on the Rialto.

The screen display for these scenes is simply numbers – suggesting the financial sector. I haven’t a clue what was on them, if anything, for the next scene, because this was all about Launcelot Gobbo, the servant of Shylock. He comes on, looks around him, opens his bag, and takes out a halo headdress, all white and fluffy. He checks out the audience on his right (our left), and spots an older lady in the front row. She’s his conscience, so he heads over and puts the headdress on her. (She’s spotlit, so it’s obviously down to whoever sits in that seat.) Then he pulls out a red headband, with horns on it! Now we know what’s going to happen, so there’s a murmur of enjoyment as we all look to see whose going to get this one! The spotlight lands between a couple sitting on the other side. The woman laughs, as she thinks it’s her partner who’s been picked, but at the last minute Launcelot swerves, and puts it on her head. Great fun. This is the longest intro to this scene I can remember, and then we get a superb reading of the lines. Launcelot is played by a black actor, and although he’s not rapping as such, he does get a huge amount of humour from the rhythm of the words. I know this piece of text reasonably well, and this was one of the best deliveries I’ve heard.

I think the next scene is the meeting between Bassanio and Shylock, and later Antonio. F Murray Abraham played Shylock with a tremendous amount of intelligence and compassion. It’s clear from his portrayal that he seriously hates Antonio, and that he has much justification, based on the way he’s been treated. When describing his mistreatment by Antonio, he takes his handkerchief out of his pocket, as if to wipe away the spittle – his hatred and the memory of the abuse are physically rooted in him. He also gets across the sense that Shylock has a right to feel this way, that he has a valid culture and traditions, and that he’s living in a society that treats him and his fellows as less than human. The Christians have their faults, but this production has the awareness that there’s good and bad on both sides, and stays neutral, allowing the characters to speak as individuals, rather than mouthpieces for one ideology or another. For example, I was very aware, when Antonio makes some angry comment about the Devil quoting scripture, that the very scripture he’s talking about is largely shared between these religions. Anyway, at this point, Shylock is staying very smooth, and holds back the fullness of his emotions for later. He still speaks out pretty strongly against Antonio’s previous treatment of him, but manages to lure him in to the agreement with clever words. Antonio’s rage and contempt came across more than clearly. He may be a good friend to Bassanio, and respected by his fellow traders, but he’s got a mean streak coupled with some nasty prejudices, all perfectly normal for his time and place, though sadly they don’t seem entirely out of place today.

Now the modern technology starts to kick in. At Belmont, Portia and Nerissa discuss the various suitors for Portia’s hand. Portia hands over her mobile to Nerissa, so she can flick through either their pictures or a contact list. The usual banter is well done, and this Portia isn’t shy about admitting her affections for Bassanio when Nerissa mentions him. She’s also very relieved to hear that her flock of suitors is leaving. At this point, her general factotum, Balthazar, enters. Done up in black like a stage manager, and sporting an earpiece, he announces that another suitor is arriving, the Prince of Morocco. His was one of the funniest portrayals of the evening. To get all the information about the Prince’s arrival, he had to manoeuvre round the stage to get a good enough signal on his headset. Then the Prince of Morocco arrives. With the sound of an aeroplane in the background, the Prince, dressed in a vivid pink jumpsuit, bursts onto the stage, trailing his parachute and a ground crew servant. He’s also a black actor, but with bleached hair, and he oozes arrogance and self-belief. After throwing off his chute, he unzips the top of the jumpsuit to give Portia the full benefit of his manly chest, medallion and all. Much laughter. Off they go to prepare for the selection process, with Balthazar eyeing up the Prince’s servant.

Next we see Bassanio organising his party using his mobile to contact people. Lorenzo is also organising his own party – a raid on Shylock’s house to take Jessica away and marry her. The scenes with Jessica follow thick and fast at this point. I suspect it’s because they couldn’t squeeze in the quick changes necessary to flip between Belmont and Venice, but it worked quite well. When Launcelot takes his leave of Shylock, we see Jessica, looking very downtrodden, polishing some silver for her father. Launcelot is unhappy to leave her (he’s got enough luggage!), and she’s very sad to lose his company. (No senior Gobbo this time.) The short time Shylock spends with his daughter during this scene shows very little affection between them – I got the impression that it’s not because he doesn’t love her, it’s just that he doesn’t seem able to express it. Later, when he’s chopping and changing his mind about going to supper with Bassanio, his main concern seems to be his goods, and the sanctity of his home. One nice touch at the end of this section was that Jessica dropped something when she came down to Lorenzo. I didn’t see what it was, but as Shylock returned, he spotted the item, which turned out to be his keys. He realised something was terribly wrong, and ran to check his house. Too late. For Jessica’s whispered conversation with Lorenzo, when he comes to get her, she’s positioned in the first gallery, in the usual gap between the seats, off to our right. I wondered if she would climb down the post (they have footholds), but no, she used the stairs.

Now we get the first stab at the caskets. Balthazar, showing off to the Prince’s servant, goes along the row of Macs, pressing the right button, and up comes the inscription on the screen. First lead, then silver, then gold. Portia and the Prince enter. He’s dressed down, a bit, and before making his choice, takes a scimitar out of the case presented to him by his man, and gives it to Portia. Then he poses for a picture with her, still holding the sword. I liked this Prince of Morocco; he was flash, but not as over the top as some. I got all of his lines clearly, as I did for almost the entire evening. When he made his choice, the “key” Balthazar gives him is a USB stick, which he puts into the Mac’s port. The inscription then dissolves, like a computer virus simulation, to reveal a grinning skull against a background of flames, and the verse is actually a recording. Brilliant. One of the best uses of technology I’ve seen on stage. Off the Prince goes, followed by his servant – much concern from Balthazar, as they’d obviously been getting on so well, but he has to make do with a “call me” gesture.

One little meaningful point – as Portia leaves, she makes some comment about God saving her from all of such complexion. Nerissa is played by a black actress, and she obviously notices and takes offence at this comment, and rightly so. This reminder of Portia’s own prejudices is echoed later on during the trial scene, to good effect. The second suitor, the Prince of Arragon, is dispatched pretty quickly – we only need him so we know what’s in the silver box – a fool’s head – and which casket is the right one. His gift to Portia is a lifebelt, and again he poses for pictures, which she’s got used to by this time.

There are a couple of scenes with Solanio and Salerio, giving us the information about Shylock’s suffering and Antonio’s losses. Then we see Shylock directly, as he confronts these two and their taunts. The two set pieces in this play were handled very well, but this one, “Hath not a Jew eyes?…” was the best I’ve ever heard. The whole speech was knit together beautifully, as Shylock’s justification for revenge. His passion really comes out here for the first time, and the standard lines take on the expression of his absolute conviction that he is only doing what he’s seen others do. Instead of being a reminder of our common humanity, the comparisons are a reminder of the gutter we all come from, and in which Shylock is determined to thrive.

Then we have the phone call from Tubal, still in Genoa (or the upper balcony). This was the one time when I couldn’t make out the lines very well, when Shylock was speaking into his phone. But I got enough to find the scene moving, though a bit disjointed. Tubal sends Shylock a picture of the ring, making it easier to understand how he knows which ring it is, and in his reaction to this news, I found myself moved to tears. The line “I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” usually moves me, but here I caught a glimpse of the love that this man had been capable of, and which he’s buttoned up in sorrow since his wife’s death, never showing it to his daughter who needs it so much. It was a tremendous insight into this man’s character, and although I know it’s there, it was more clearly expressed tonight than ever before in my experience. As Shylock leaves the stage, full of sadness, we get the interval, and a chance to blow my nose. How thoughtful of them.

At the start of the second half, Bassanio arrives at Belmont, and goes straight to choosing. I noticed that Portia uses “hazard” in her opening lines to him; this word is also in the winning lead inscription – is she trying to give him a subtle hint? His reasoning came across clearly – it may have been cut, but I suspect it was also down to the delivery. Everyone is happy with the result, and Balthazar brings on champagne.  As they’re celebrating, Lorenzo and Jessica arrive, bringing the bad news about Antonio. There’s no specific sign that Jessica isn’t being welcomed, although Launcelot is strangely unhappy about being left behind to serve her and Lorenzo. Given that he seemed to like her in Shylock’s house, why the change? The banter between them later on seems pretty nasty.

Nerissa is decidedly not impressed at Portia’s decision to let the men go off before consummating their marriages, and not too happy about heading off to the monastery either.  However, she goes along with Portia’s plan to follow the men to Venice, though with some reservations.

For the trial scene, the Duke was above and behind us, Bassanio to our left, Gratiano and the others on the upper gallery. Two modern, plastic chairs were brought on, and the centre table brought forward. Shylock puts his scales on these, then unwraps a piece of meat to use as a weight. Antonio is in orange prison garb, with his hands taped together. He’s put in one of the chairs. Shylock is smooth, implacable, and makes it clear he’s out for vengeance. Nerissa enters, to explain that the young Balthazar (Portia’s name in disguise) has come from the other lawyer to give the court the benefit of his advice. One nice touch here is that the actual Balthazar is also with them, with a fake moustache.

Portia and Nerissa are dressed in smart suits, and wearing small moustaches. These disguises are good ones, not that that should stop Bassanio and Gratiano seeing through them. But, as usual, they don’t. The trial follows its usual course, and Antonio is clearly ready for the knife.  The “quality of mercy” speech was a little lacking here.  I didn’t feel Portia was giving it her all, but still there was a fair bit of tension throughout the scene. Bassanio is with Antonio as Shylock prepares to cut, while Antonio’s hands have been taped to the chair. Shylock has Antonio by the neck, reaching round from behind to make the incision, when Portia stops him, and metes out the justice he had been so keen to have. It’s noticeable here how she, such a strong advocate for mercy, is adamant that now Shylock shall have only justice and the law. This is where I find the echo of her earlier prejudice. She may be slow to take offence, but when she does…..! There’s definitely an edge to her delivery of justice. When Shylock is told he will have to convert to Christianity, he reels, and falls to the ground behind the table. Antonio snatches off his skull cap, leaving the poor man distraught.

This scene brings up such mixed emotions, such is the skill of the writing, and the skill of these performers. There’s nothing much to rejoice in here, as no one has behaved particularly well. But Shylock is in such despair that it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him.

As the lawyers take their leave, Portia is obviously relieved that Bassanio won’t part with his ring. Antonio, probably out of jealousy, urges him to send it after the lawyer, and Bassanio does. There could be problems coming up in this marriage. Portia and Nerissa are still in their suits when they get back to Belmont, and yet their husbands still don’t spot what’s happened, till they come back on in full disguise, with moustaches. The ring bit was as funny as ever, and I always love the way Gratiano rats out Bassanio. Antonio has been happy again, in Bassanio’s company, but is naturally depressed again when he finds out the ring was actually given to Portia, and he’s lost Bassanio after all.

Before they get back to Belmont, we see Jessica and Lorenzo, in bathrobes, having their little lovers’ tiff. On the whole, this is fairly light, but turns sour when Lorenzo mentions her stealing away from her father. She seems to be suffering from guilt and grief at betraying him. Shylock’s skull cap is still lying on the stage where Antonio threw it during the courtroom scene, and Jessica picks it up. By the end, she seems to have come to terms with her decision to run away and marry a Christian, and as she rejoins Lorenzo, they appear to be reconciled. (And Lorenzo’s got a nice bum.)

This was a fabulous production, and I’m really glad we saw it.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Coriolanus – March 2007

7/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Greg Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 28th March 2007

This is the last production, and performance, we’ll be seeing in this version of the main house – ever! I felt quite sad at the end, although given that the seat I was in tonight wasn’t at the best angle for my back, I’m sure I’ll appreciate the improvements when they come. Still, we’ve had many a happy hour in this theatre, and I’m looking forward to a backstage tour on Friday.

Coriolanus is a fascinating play. It’s not done very often, though Steve says he’s always surprised by this – each production we’ve seen has shown it’s a very interesting piece. There’s so much to it that I’d be up all night if I tried to report everything I saw tonight, so here’s the gist.

First off, I recognised so much in this production that echoed other Roman and Greek productions in this Complete Works Festival. I don’t know if this was deliberate, or just the natural effect of seeing so many Shakespeare plays together – all the common threads are highlighted. The Titus Andronicus was represented by the steps leading up to the stage, the Julius Caesar by the opening scene of plebeians causing a rumpus, the Troilus and Cressida by the angled wall, and the Antony and Cleopatra by smeared paint across the columns and the wall. Quite an achievement (or quite a coincidence, depending).

The set featured the steps at the front, a wall which could move down towards the front and which had a window high up on the right giving a view of the Volscian flag, and large doors on the left and right. It also angled to form a sloping roof. There was a series of square arches going off into the distance – these were raised and lowered as required, and formed the opening set. For some scenes, all these items disappeared, and we had a bare stage – very effective during Volumnia’s pleading scene.

The costumes used red for Romans and grey for Volscians. It’s a common technique, and does at least distinguish the two sides effectively, but like any colour coding, it can look a bit naff when it’s overdone. The style was a kind of Elizabethan version of Roman, with pleated skirts for the Roman soldiers, and bog standard olde worlde rough clothes for the workers. The pleated skirts had an extra frill at the top, which frankly looked absurd, especially on the Tribunes. However, the women had decent costumes, and the performances largely rose above such mundane matters.

The performance I liked best was Janet Suzman as Volumnia. She portrayed all her authority and total commitment to Roman patrician values (state before family) without making her a blinkered battleaxe. This Volumnia obviously knew exactly what price her son would have to pay in letting Rome off the hook, and her dignified grief on her return to Rome was very moving. At the same time, her enthusiasm for sending her son off to war at an early age so that he could earn honour is still appalling – if fewer women took that attitude today the world might be a bit safer.

Timothy West as Menenius was as good as I’ve seen in the part. I followed all his long-winded speeches this time, and although I think there’s more humour to be got out of his mistaken beliefs in the second half (that Coriolanus will listen to him, then that he won’t listen to the women), I really got the sense of Menenius’ laid-back authority with the people.

Coriolanus was played by William Houston, whom we’ve seen before as Sejanus, and as Roman General in Believe What you Will. Is this a trend? I find his physical behaviours tend to be repetitive, even mannered. He has a stance which he adopts at every opportunity, wide-legged, elbows bent, and hands clasped, and while he may deliver the lines well enough, I find this monotonous position rather distracting. (It wasn’t helped tonight by the pleated skirt.) However, this was a good performance, and showed more versatility than I’d seen before, so there’s hope yet. I was particularly impressed with his appearance at Aufidius’ feast, and his delayed emotional response to Volumnia’s pleading. What also came across very clearly is that Coriolanus is haughty, but not vain; he doesn’t seek glory or riches for himself, it’s all done for the good of Rome. However, he’s a warrior through and through, and doesn’t see why the common folk who don’t fight for Rome should have a say in how the city is run, and that includes voicing their approval of him as consul. His outspokenness gets him into trouble time and again, and while I can respect and admire his skills as a warrior, they cannot compensate for his lack of social and political skills.

Aufidius is another important part, and this time I found the performance somewhat crude. This actor has a tendency to wide-eyed declamation, possibly with some nostril-flares creeping in as well. This, coupled with some stiffness in movement made the part less interesting for me this time, although the dialogue all came across pretty well, and his changing motivations were clearly, if a little crudely, expressed.

The Tribunes were also a bit weak, I felt. It may be a bit unfair to compare them to the excellent performances we saw with the touring production a few years back (Tom Mannion and Geoffrey Freshwater), but I couldn’t help noticing the lack of detail in these roles this time. Other supporting actors were very good. I liked the servants at Aufidius’ feast, and the plebeians worked very well in this production – it was a good strong start to the play.

Other points I noticed: the turning point in Menenius’ persuasion of the plebeians at the start seems to be his opportunity to ridicule the chief troublemaker by likening him to a big toe. Once that chap’s lost his authority, Menenius has no opposition to his point of view. This fits very well with my understanding of Roman society, where rhetoric was more important than facts, even in court cases. The turning point for Coriolanus, listening to Volumnia, is her threat that he will be remembered shamefully, not as a hero. The fickleness of the people is a theme shared with Julius Caesar, and jealousy and envy have plenty of work to do, along with pride. The constant dilemma is this – the mass of people want leaders, but don’t want to be held to a discipline. Bugger. So heroes come and heroes go, each one discarded when they threaten the masses’ comfort zone, or are no longer required, or when the war crimes tribunal is sitting. I have no idea how this will ever be resolved, so Coriolanus should be doing good business for many centuries to come.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Venus And Adonis – March 2007

8/10

By: WIlliam Shakespeare

Directed by: Greg Doran

Company: Little Angel/RSC

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Saturday 17th March 2007

This was a wonderful hour of poetry and motion, with music. Towards the back of the Swan stage was a smallish puppet theatre, about four feet high and maybe seven feet across. (Sorry, 1.3 metres and 2.2 metres respectively.) In front of it stood a bench, and to either side a chair. The guitarist sat to our left, and Harriet Walter, as narrator, sat on the right. With some classical guitar music, we were off, and Harriet spoke the intro to Venus and Adonis, the dedication to the Earl of Southampton.

As I’d been watching the guitarist, I was surprised to look back and see Will Shakespeare had popped up from behind the bench, and was sitting to one side, penning the introduction. Behind him, the curtains of the puppet stage opened, and the Earl was revealed. I didn’t quite follow why Queen Elizabeth then came on and spent some time with the young Earl – I’ll have to look up the poem when I get home.

Then the poem itself started with Venus arriving on stage in a conch shell carriage, pulled by two doves – a lovely picture. Meantime, Adonis arrives on his horse. He’s a pretty boy (Adonis, that is, although the horse wasn’t bad either), but with absolutely no manners. Venus fancies him on sight, pulls him off his horse (and sends the animal packing), and Adonis doesn’t even want to kiss her! She pleads, she cajoles, she strokes and kisses various parts of his anatomy, all without raising his interest. Finally, she swoons, and, worried that she’s dead, he approaches her to check for signs of life. Apparently this involves kissing her, just to see if she’ll wake up (I don’t remember this technique when I did first aid!). He has a couple of goes to find somewhere to rest his hand (Not the breast! Not the crotch!), he plants a serious smacker on her lips, and she miraculously revives. Following some fairly passionate clinching, which had Adonis adjusting his garments afterwards, he runs off, the churl, leaving Venus sad and lonely.

Next day, he’s out again, planning to hunt boar, and refusing to listen to Venus’ warnings about how dangerous it is. Sure enough, the boar gets him, and Venus is upset, and curses love, and it all ends unhappily. Great fun.

That’s the basic story, but there’s more detail, and this is one production where the detail is everything. The puppets are fantastic. Venus is so soft-looking and voluptuous, it’s hard to imagine any red-blooded man not falling for her. She’s full of little touches – literally, as she can hardly keep her hands off Adonis for most of the poem. She walks so beautifully, each foot lifting and stepping so delicately. When she and Adonis do kiss, her feet lift off the ground one after the other, then her legs float up, then his legs float up, then they’re floating together in mid-air (so much easier with puppets than with real actors), then that cunning love-goddess has swivelled round so they’re lying together in mid-air, then it gets a bit pornographic (kept the audience awake, though). At one point, when she’s lying down, suffering the pangs of unrequited love, she still manages to pull her skirt up to show a substantial bit of leg. Her dance with the hands of death towards the end was good, too, as she leapt from hand to hand so gracefully, expressing her happiness when she thinks Adonis is alive after all. She was worked so well and so expressively that I could easily imagine her face changing to display the emotions.

Adonis is an articulated lump of wood by comparison, which is fine, because that’s what he’s meant to be. Solid, unimaginative, makes me wonder what Venus saw in him. He’s only interested in hunting, and doesn’t care for gurls. Funnily enough, he’s going hunting clad only in a skimpy off-the-shoulder very short tunic.  I suspect he’s actually well aware of his looks, and has set out to flaunt as much of his body as he can. A real pussy tease. Well, he gets his comeuppance, poor lad. When he runs off, he goes right across the stage and out of one of the side exits; a lovely mover.

His horse is good-looking, too, and he knows it. The poem describes him in some detail, and for this part, Harriet moves over to the bench where the stallion is posing, to point out the bits she’s talking about. He’s happy to oblige, but he’s even more interested in a serious bit of equine totty that shows up and flirts with him. She’s the reason he runs off and leaves Adonis stranded in the woods with a randy goddess. As Venus points out, his horse knows how to have a good time with a lady. At one point I thought they might go so far as to have the horses mating on stage – they’re in the right positions, and she does lift her tail – but there’s no coitus, interruptus or otherwise, on show.

The boar is an excellent piece of work, really menacing and LARGE! It comes on after Venus has heard the hounds howling and suspects that it’s curtains for Adonis. Meantime, she’s busy hiding herself as the boar enters, and looks around for someone to gore. His tusks are red, his bristles are big, and he’s a well-muscled killing machine. He checks out various parts of the stage, and there was nearly a nasty moment when he spotted the guitar player, and thinks about giving him a good mauling. But fortunately he heads off, leaving Venus to find Adonis’ dead body.

The other main character is death. And this was done very cleverly. The surround for the puppet stage included some moulding, which came away to form two very long arms with big, claw-like hands. At the centre top of the frame was a round device, which I’d spotted earlier, but couldn’t make out what it was. At this point, it transformed into a skull. Venus spends some time chiding death for taking away her beloved, fending his hands off, and getting really cross. Then when she hears the huntsmen, she assumes all is well, and apologises for her behaviour – this is when she has her little dance with the hands of death. It was quite impressive seeing these big hands float around without getting caught up in anything.

Nearly forgot the hare! When Venus is trying to persuade Adonis to hunt anything rather than the boar, she talks about the hare, and we get to see one – standing up, crouched down, loping round the stage. Beautifully done. And there was also a deer at the beginning, that leapt across ahead of Adonis, and puppet silhouettes that ran across the back of the stage – hounds, deer, and boar.

The narration was also excellent. Harriet Walter did a great job of reading out the poem, fitting it beautifully to the puppet’s actions. The puppeteers also added some noises and comments from time to time, and it all worked very well together. I particularly liked one occasion when one of the puppets looked at Harriet, not sure what to do, and she responded with a shrug. The music fitted in so well, I was often unaware of it, but I did enjoy what I heard.

It was such a complete experience that it’s hard to convey it in words. Little movements by the puppeteers gave such amazing performances from the puppets. Venus raising her head when Adonis is checking her vitals, for example, and Adonis holding his hands over his crotch after their romp, then pulling his tunic back into place. And Venus settling herself down to sleep, cradling her head on her arm. Lots of lovely moments, coming thick and fast, while the narration gives us the story. A great way to spend an hour.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

As You Like It – March 2007

6/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Sam West

Company: Sheffield Theatres

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 8th March 2007

This was an interesting and often enjoyable version of As You Like It, or, given the sheer amount of dressing up opportunities, Hat You Like It. There was a great deal to like about the staging, and the performances, and above all, it was fantastic to see and hear Will’s actual words, and see women playing the women’s parts (even if one did pretend to be a man occasionally) – it’s been so long!

This production opens with Jacques coming into the auditorium, as if at the last minute, and looking for his seat. After worrying some of the front row across from us, he suddenly strides across the stage, declaiming “All the world’s a stage…” and the action begins. Several actors carry on a long oblong form, covered in a black cloth, obviously representing a coffin, while Rosalind and her father, also dressed in black, stand together at the front of the stage. Orlando stands by the coffin, flanked by two umbrella bearers, clearly mourning his recently departed father, while Rosalind’s father takes his leave of her. Both characters are left, alone, mourning their lost fathers. I liked the juxtaposition of these two scenes, and it occurred to me that perhaps they’re linked causally as well as emotionally – perhaps the death of Sir Roland de Boys, a supporter of Duke senior, led to his banishment, as he no longer held the balance of power at the court.

Next comes the opening scene proper, as the coffin is transformed into a bench, by simply removing the cloth covering it. Orlando does this, after removing his own coat, and with Adam, begins to pick up the apples scattered in front of the bench by another actor. Orlando’s complaints came across very well; it’s easy to understand why he’s frustrated and angry, and the following dialogue between Orlando and his brother Oliver makes it clear that they just don’t get on. If only Jerry Springer had been around in those days to help heal their relationship! The scuffle whereby Orlando demonstrates his wrestling credentials was well done, although I did get a bit worried when the carpet they were fighting on got rucked up, in case someone tripped over and hurt themselves. But all was well. Now, where can I find a bookie and get a quick bet on Orlando for the wrestling match?

Charles the wrestler was one of the best I’ve seen, all charming Italian, and apparently willing to help Oliver out by killing his brother. Oliver’s non-explanation of his hatred for Orlando was good. It made me think this was just one of those karmic things – a necessary negative flaw which would help to resolve the situation over time. In any case, he made a good villain, more realistic than some I’ve seen.

There was one line that caused a laugh for reasons other than the text or business. Charles refers to the banished Duke living in the forest of Ardennes (as this is France, theoretically), and compares him to Robin Hood. Given that Orlando is played by Sam Troughton, recently seen in the latest incarnation of Robin Hood on TV, most of the audience spotted the humour.

The next scene takes us to the court, and this is represented by several mounted antlers being lowered in front of the back curtain. I did enjoy this. We could see the Duke in his wheelchair behind the curtain, with his men, but first we get to see Rosalind and Celia, as they slip through the curtain and spend some time away from the company.

These were two very good performances, and once again, we have a Celia who is a good match for Rosalind. I notice when I see such a balanced pairing, how many lines Celia actually has. Often, she hardly seems to speak a line, but in this production, as with Amanda Harris’s portrayal, she came across as a strong character in her own right, at times stronger than Rosalind.

The girls are obviously very good friends, and their teasing of Le Beau is merciless. I often feel sorry for Le Beau, and I was wondering if they would send this one into the forest to find Duke senior. Touchstone is also introduced at this point, and although I enjoyed some of this role tonight, I didn’t feel I really “got” what he was about, and some of his lines were pretty dull. But it is a difficult part, so no criticism of the actor is intended.

The wrestling was reasonably well done, although I wasn’t keen on the “spare” actors stamping on the ground as it was going on. The growing attraction between Rosalind and Orlando was nicely done, even though I couldn’t see all of the expressions from our position. The Duke’s change of attitude when he hears of Orlando’s parentage was very clear, and added even more to the feeling of menace created by his body guards, one of whom had drawn a gun on Orlando when he announced who his father was. We knew something bad was going to happen. Le Beau’s assistance to Orlando seemed pretty full this time, and he’s obviously going to have to leave the court, as he’s overheard by the gun-toting minder. In fact, just about everyone’s leaving the court – Rosalind and Celia disappear with Touchstone, Oliver’s sent a-wandering to find his brother, and we don’t go back to the court after that, so who’s banished whom?

Rosalind and Celia’s leaving plans seemed more mature this time around, more of a plan than just desperation. Adam’s warning to Orlando was OK, but this bit often seems to drag, and this was no different, especially as there were some long pauses between lines. Fortunately, we’re soon off to the forest, and down come the antlers.

This is where it all starts going a bit pear-shaped for me. I did enjoy the staging up to now. The use of the coffin/bench, the apples (the scene is in an orchard), the antlers, etc. Once in the forest, things became a little crazy. In some ways, this is fine, as there’s that magical, fantastical element to the second half of the play. However, I didn’t find the staging giving me the sense of letting go so much as annoying and distracting me. Some elements were just plonked down on the stage without being related to the performance in any way I could fathom (what was that massive bird all about?), while some aspects worked really well for me, for example, the silver cut-out tree, raised up by Corin and Silvius. I didn’t entirely go for ribbons being draped on it instead of sheets of paper, but at least it looked pretty. At the end of the first half, either Audrey or Phoebe came on while the Duke is threatening Oliver, and placed a tiny sculpture on the far side of the stage, towards the front. She then sprinkled some sand(?) over it. Why? During the interval, this was replaced by short sticks, with hats sitting on top of them. I guessed this was a bigger version of the sculpture, though it was just a guess, but I still didn’t have a clue why this was on the stage. Some characters used some of the hats during the second half, admittedly, but not enough to justify it, given how it got in the way of some of the action. There was also a huge balloon, which lit up. Hooray. God bless modern art, and preferably bless it as far away from me as possible.

Enough of the ranting and raving, on with the production. The character who tells Duke senior about Jacques and the stag by the river is…. Jacques. His disguise is pitiful, though the way it was played, he apparently fooled the Duke, but not his followers. Puzzling, yet sadly not inspiring. By the time Orlando waves his large sword (now how did he come by that in the middle of a forest when he didn’t bring one with him?) at the Duke and his men to get some food, I was getting a little tired of Sam Troughton’s tendency to bellow his lines most of the time. I know I’m usually complaining about lack of volume, so this should make a pleasant change, but I did find myself longing for a remote so I could turn the sound down a bit.

As a boost to the cross-dressing theme, Orlando is wandering round the forest wearing a double string of pearls. Instead of the usual pendant which Rosalind gives him, she’s handed over her pearl necklace, and this, together with a stronger than usual hint of eye makeup, gives Orlando a distinctly feminine appearance. [P.S. Also, Steve spotted his painted toenails.] What with Celia and Rosalind’s own wrestling match and kiss, there’s a strong sense of sexual non-conformity here. Jacques is wearing high heels and a feathered toque, and eventually I realised his shirt was actually a silky slip or dress top. For the final scene, hats and aprons are exchanged between the couples, and a feeling of Saturnalia rules – Hymen has to come in and break it up! Again, all understandable given the nature of the play, but I felt it was overdoing it – underlining, bold type, and an exclamation mark! Trust the text, it’s worked well for many a year.

This is making it sound like I didn’t enjoy the play at all, so I’d better redress the balance. Rosalind and Celia were excellent in this half of the play. Rosalind’s expressions as she deals with the incredibly complex situation she’s in, were worth the price of admission alone. Celia’s reactions to her cousin’s outrageous behaviour were entertaining in themselves, and served to remind us how far Rosalind/Ganymede is going in her pursuit of love. I was aware that Rosalind finds herself trapped by her own disguise. She’s safely in the forest, both her father and the man she loves are here with her, yet she doesn’t know how to reveal herself to them, so she plays the game of wooing. It’s not absolutely clear here whether Oliver, having discovered Rosalind’s secret when he helps her recover from her faint, tells Orlando; at times I thought he might have, then I thought probably not. I do like it when Orlando knows, as otherwise he, and the Duke, seem such dimwits for not recognising her.

The Silvius/Phoebe scenes worked very well. Again, I didn’t see all the expressions, but I saw enough to enjoy it. William proves more than a match for Touchstone, though not for Audrey, who puts her knee to good use. The cow or goat being wheeled around after her was another enigma; best not go there.

All in all, it’s the performances I enjoyed most, and I felt they worked remarkably well in a staging that didn’t always help them. I was relieved when the end came, partly because the boring bits were over, but more because of the epilogue, my favourite of all Shakespeare’s. They teased us though, disappearing off together as if they were done. Eve Best delivered the epilogue beautifully, and so I left the theatre happy, though not elated. Better luck next time.

P.S. A couple of points I missed – the hailstones(?) pummelling Jacques’ umbrella, and the orange dropping from the sky. We liked the long pause Christopher Ravenscroft held before “More villain thou.” It suggested to Steve that this usurping Duke had actually loved his own brother, but that the relationship had soured, and at some level, the Duke has his regrets over it. He played the contrast between the brothers very well.

On the strange manifestations mentioned above, Steve also came up with the idea that this production was paying homage to other, well respected director’s stagings {sorry, didn’t mean to sound so bitchy}. The white, box-like nature of the set echoed the Richard II in the Other Place, which had been transformed into a white box, while the wheelchair for Duke Frederick picked up on John of Gaunt’s wheelchair. The big bird may have been a nod to Ninagawa’s big white wolf, while the falling items, such as the orange, and the sand, may have referred back to Ninagawa’s King Lear. Still don’t know what the big balloon was about, but if the other ideas are valid, I’m not impressed. I did get the feeling this production might be trying to be too clever, and this would confirm that opinion.

When Rosalind sits down with Celia and Corin to watch Phoebe and Silvius, Eve Best borrows a program from someone in the audience. A nice touch, done before, but still good fun. (She does give it back.)

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Twelfth Night – March 2007

6/10

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