Hamlet – August 2013

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 15th August 2013

The Prince is now in the building! After our earlier visits in March and May had left us wondering if Jonathan Slinger would ever get his performance together, I’m delighted to report that his Hamlet is now alive and kicking until the final seconds of this splendid production. With the rest of the cast putting their all into the show, this is one of the strongest versions of Hamlet we’ve seen. Tonight we sat by the right hand walkway, with a good view across the stage diagonal. Some extra aspects were clearer from this angle, and although there were one or two minor changes to the staging, on the whole the production was as I noted it up before. The strength of the central performance was the main difference, and it changed the standard tremendously.

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Othello – June 2013

Experience: 10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Sunday 16th June 2013

This was a fantastic performance. The modern setting enriched the detailed characterisations while the set gave us the necessary locations without being too elaborate. We had one understudy on stage today: Robert Demeger was indisposed so Jonathan Dryden Taylor took his place as the Duke.

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Hamlet – May 2013 (1)

Experience: 7/10

Public Understudies Performance

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Tinuke Craig

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 16th May 2013

These understudy runs can be really good fun and very interesting; seeing how an actor manages to find their own performance within an established production can be enlightening, so we were keen to see how the understudies would handle their roles in this unusual, design driven production. Apart from Greg Hicks playing the roles of Claudius and the ghost – John Stahl was unavailable – everyone else was playing a different part while most of the other leads – Jonathan Slinger, Pippa Dixon, Alex Waldmann and Robin Soans – were occasionally on stage as extras. Jonathan Slinger took the part of Gonzago in the initial mime sequence.

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Long Day’s Journey Into Night – August 2012

Experience: 9/10

By Eugene O’Neill

Directed by Anthony Page

Venue: Apollo Theatre

Date: Monday 13th August 2012

This was a fantastic production, with two stunning performances in the central roles of husband and wife by David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf. David Suchet showed the full range of the father’s behaviour, from the charming actor through to the mean drunk who could rage at anyone with or without justification. Laurie Metcalf took the mother from the opening high of sweetness with just a hint of nerves all the way down to the depths of her addiction to morphine. I don’t know how Eugene O’Neill managed it, but despite this being nearly three hours spent watching other people’s suffering, anger, miserliness and stupidity, I not only enjoyed myself but left feeling uplifted.

Although neither of the young men playing the sons had the power of the two leads, they were good enough to keep the play in balance, as was Rosie Sansom who played the maid Cathleen. James junior (Trevor White) didn’t manage the rapid switches in the emotional journey of a drunk as well as I would have liked in the final act, but his performance was strong enough overall. Tom Railton did very well as the understudy for Edmund. His youthfulness was just right for the character, and I didn’t notice any significant slips or any imbalance in his scenes with the other characters. I don’t know when he took the part on – we heard some extra rehearsing before the doors were opened – but he fitted in just fine.

There were lots of laughs, more than I expected. The first time we saw this I think it was Timothy West and Prunella Scales as the husband and wife, and I remember it as a very heavy production with the emphasis on suffering. Another production with Charles Dance and Jessica Lange didn’t go as deeply into the characters, but this current version was very detailed, bringing out a lot of humour as well as taking us to a very dark place. Talk about dysfunctional families! We laughed when David Suchet glanced up towards the ceiling lights which he’d switched on in a fit of drunken abandon; as he sobered up, his character’s ingrained stinginess came out, and we recognised the signs even before he spoke, though his line about switching them off caused an even bigger laugh.

Laurie Metcalf’s final disintegration into a doped-up emotional wreck was difficult to watch. She lay half on the floor, curled up around the leg of the sofa, unable to relate to the other characters at all, lost in a nightmarish past. The play closed with the three men sinking into the chairs round the table and preparing for a night of drinking themselves into a similar oblivion. After the morning’s bright possibility of recovery had been snatched away, they were resigned to having lost her again. It should have been depressing, but it wasn’t. Magnificent.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – August 2011

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 25th August 2011

We knew the ‘theme’ for this production would be East End gangster – Mark Wootton is wonderfully indiscrete – and I was prepared to give it a chance. I’ve also liked everything I’ve seen of Nancy Meckler’s work, including the Complete Works Romeo and Juliet which seemed remarkably unpopular with so many people. But I’m sorry to say that I found this concept-driven version of Midsummer Night’s Dream too heavy rather than too dark. The comedy was doing its best to break free from the constraints of the staging, and when the concept took a back seat (a white leather armchair, in fact) the performance managed to  give us short bursts of laughter that were sadly not sustained throughout.

The set was massive. The back of the stage was all brick wall, with a metal staircase descending on the right hand side. There was a pillar back left, and various exits and doors. A large white leather sofa with matching armchair were placed mid stage, and there was a small table with three chairs towards the front and left. The overall effect was of an industrial building which was being used as gang headquarters by some fairly seedy criminal types. Three men in suits prowled around, playing cards and also playing with the two prostitutes who were on hand for whatever was needed – serving drinks, etc. There should have been three women in skimpies, but the third was playing Hermia tonight, as the original had suffered an injury during the vigorous fight sequence in the forest – more on that story later.

Hippolyta was also there, looking bored and unhappy as she sat elegantly on the sofa in her glamorous togs, including a fur coat. It looked as if her passport was being kept from her, which suggested an enforced stay in ‘Athens’. This state of ennui went on for some time before the play proper started with the arrival of ‘Duke’ Theseus, played by Jo Stone-Fewings. With slicked back hair and an incongruous (in terms of the Athenian setting) East End accent, his lines rather jarred, and although it was certainly clear that Hippolyta wasn’t happy with their impending nuptials, her lines didn’t quite fit either.

Not only were Egeus, Demetrius and Lysander already present from the start of this scene, Helena was also in the room, but up on the stairs at the back. I gather that people with seats at the back of the side stalls couldn’t see this bit, which is a shame, as at least it allowed us to be introduced to all of the young characters, and it gave us more of Lucy Briggs-Owen’s performance, easily the best of the night, and one of the best Helenas I’ve ever seen.

With the gangster setting, the prospect of Hermia being actually bumped off seemed more likely, which skewed the comedy for me. I can accept a criminal underworld boss being the law in his domain – The Syndicate in the Minerva showed us a similar situation in Italy – but why would this ‘Duke’ be unable to overturn a ‘law’ which was solely based on his own authority? An established country, ruled by a proper Duke, might have this problem, but the gangland scenario just didn’t support the text at this point, and many other times throughout the play.

Anyway, the lovers did a good enough job, and there were the usual laughs when Lysander suggests that Demetrius should marry Egeus. Nothing special about this scene, except for the way the dream theme is set up. Instead of leaving at the end of her bit, Hippolyta curls up in the armchair, which is pushed to the back of the stage, and goes to sleep, suggesting that the rest of the play is her dream. The set design supports this, with Titania’s bower being another white leather armchair all done up with flowers, the special flower with the drug being the same as the one Theseus offers Hippolyta and which she rejects, and a whole lot of chairs dangling at odd angles to represent this out-of-shape dream world.

The problem with this concept is knowing where the dream ends. Does it end with Hippolyta and Theseus ‘coming to’ as themselves after Titania’s ‘dreamed’ awakening? If so, how come everyone else has experienced this same dream too? Does the dream last to the end of the play? In which case, what happens when Hippolyta finally does wake up? I suspect the creative team would like us to forget all these points and just go with the flow, but then why have such a thought-provoking setting if you don’t want people to think about what’s going on? I like ambiguities and multiple possibilities, but this is a case of too many questions and not enough answers.

The mechanicals are next up, but this time they’ve already made their first entrance earlier. During the pre-show episode, the lights blew for some reason I don’t remember, possibly the sound system overloading? After a minute or two, a group of workmen turn up, flashing their torches everywhere, and they’re shown into the basement via a trapdoor towards the front of the stage which has smoke or steam coming out of it. That got a few laughs at the time, and now that everyone else (apart from the sleeping Hippolyta) has left, they re-emerge onto an empty stage, and Peter Quince decides it’s an ideal opportunity for their first planning meeting.

The majority of the mechanicals’ bits were fairly standard, and that helped to get the humour across. Francis Flute was dismayed to be playing a woman, but I didn’t see the others laughing at him much. They did laugh at Starveling playing Thisbe’s mother, though, probably because of his beard.  Bottom was as keen as ever to play all the parts himself, and Mark Wootton did a good job of getting his character across. It’s just as well he was only doing Pyramus, mind you – the scripts for the other actors were a few pages each, while Bottom’s part was several inches thick!

This helped the mechanicals to get off stage with plenty of laughter, and then Puck and a couple of fairies turn up to start the third aspect of this play. Puck is doubled with Philostrate in this production, along with the usual Titania/Hippolyta/Oberon/Theseus pairings. I like Arsher Ali as an actor, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a Puck who’s noticeably taller than his Oberon, but there was so little life or animation in this Puck that a great deal of the humour and fun just disappeared. I always hold the director rather than the actor responsible for these strange interpretations that don’t work for me, but I’m at a loss to know why this Puck was so underpowered. Not enough rehearsal time? Whatever the cause, it’s a serious weakness in this play to have the main mischief maker act like a wet blanket.

Other than that, the fairies were pretty good, all sexy underwear and freaky hairstyles – quite menacing in fact. Hippolyta is redressed by the fairies so she can appear on stage as Titania, and Pippa Dixon managed to carry off the change pretty well, and even if the long, frequently boring weather report speech did drag a little, she did better than most with this section of the play. One of her fairies acted out the vot’ress’s pregnancy, and the resulting ‘baby’ – a piece of cloth bundled up – allowed for a game of pig-in-the-middle as Oberon’s crew try to snatch it from Titania and her girls. This was all quite vigorous, and then we’re left with Oberon telling Puck to fetch the magic flower. There was humour in Puck’s unenthusiastic response, but not enough to make up for his overall lethargy.

While Oberon waits for Puck’s return, Demetrius and Helena arrive. Lucy Briggs-Owen and Alex Hassell have worked together a lot this season, and it shows in their well-honed performances. Helena, in her neat cream outfit, is every inch the Home Counties young lady, destined for a husband, two children, a twin-set and pearls, making it even funnier (or perhaps harder?) to see her crawling on her hands and knees to fetch the shoe that Demetrius has thrown for her. Well, she did ask to be used as his spaniel, and he really didn’t think she would do it, but that’s infatuation for you.

After Puck’s return and his and Oberon’s exit, Titania reappears and goes to sleep in her comfy armchair. Oberon doses her eyes, and in this production they use a small light which disappears as they cast it onto the sleeper’s eyes. Titania and her chair are then lifted up while the skew-whiff chairs are lowered down for Lysander and Hermia’s entrance. He’s all over her in this bit – it sets up a good contrast for his temporary rejection of her later on – but she repels him firmly and so they settle down to sleep draped over different chairs. [13/9/11 Not so, they slept on the ground] Puck anoints his eyes – took him a while to spot the Athenian youth lying practically in front of him – and then Demetrius leaves Helena in the same spot to lament her ugliness. The way Lucy Briggs-Owen did this speech was excellent, going much further in childish tears than anyone I’ve seen before. She really did look pretty ugly on the line ‘I am as ugly as a bear’, but in a nice way, and it got a strong laugh. Lysander waking up and falling for her was all much as usual, followed by Hermia’s awakening and departure, at which point the chairs are removed to allow space for the mechanicals’ first (and only!) rehearsal.

This scene didn’t really sparkle for me to begin with. A lot of the dialogue fell flat, while Thisbe’s dialogue was too unclear for the mistakes to be heard, cutting the humour out altogether. Things improved with the transformation. Bottom’s long, blond curly wig made a good pair of ass’s ears, while his nether regions were adorned with a large salami and his hands were covered with tin cans. These were items that the mechanicals had as part of their rehearsal picnic – well, an actor’s got to eat. His lines after the other have fled were also well delivered, most of them ending with a braying sound. Naturally, Titania was smitten at once, and her fairies were soon introducing themselves to her new love. One of the named fairies had already been dropped as there were only three ‘big’ fairies to play the parts, so with one of these seconded to play Hermia, we saw Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed (I think Peaseblossom was the one they dropped) as little red lights, held by the two remaining big fairies. [13/9/11 Correction: it was Moth they dropped] This worked quite well, I thought – not as cluttered as some productions, and they didn’t dwell too long on the obscure humour either.

I think they took the interval here, and restarted with Oberon wondering what’s happened to Titania. Puck arrives immediately to give him the news, and this story was delivered better, with more life to it. Then Demetrius and Hermia arrive, and kick off the long section of the lovers’ quarrels and fights. Oberon and Puck spend most of this time on the back stairs, and again were invisible not only to the lovers but also to some of the audience. The lovers’ verbal sparring was matched by their vigorous physical wrestling as well – hence the original Hermia’s injury – and some of it was very funny, but for the most part it didn’t quite come together. I know the understudy has had a few performances already, and was doing a good job, but I didn’t feel she was fully up to the level of the others – hopefully more performances will bring her on even more.

This whole section has a lot going on, so I’ll just note the things I remember. Demetrius was lying on the couch when Oberon anointed his eyes. The chairs were brought down for Lysander and Demetrius’s attempted fight, and the lovers ended up asleep, draped over chairs at the front of the stage. When Puck removed the spell from Lysander, the chairs were gradually removed as well, so that the lovers tumbled gently into two groupings, nicely snuggled together.

After Titania has had another scene with Bottom, and Oberon has freed her from her infatuation, Bottom’s chair is pushed to the back of the stage, the chairs descend again, and with lots of music and a whirling dance, Oberon and Titania dress each other in their Athenian clothes and become Theseus and Hippolyta again. As the chairs disappear upwards, the couple ‘wake up’ in the middle of the stage, and since the hunting dialogue wouldn’t work here, we’re straight into the discovery of the two pairs of lovers. Their conversation and departure is followed by Bottoms’ awakening and exit and then the mechanicals’ regretting their situation – all pretty straightforward. In the final act, Philostrate uses a microphone to announce the possible entertainment options, and then Oberon and Hippolyta move to sit on the stairs at the front of the stage, while the other couples occupy the walkways on either side, lying down to let us all see what’s going on.

The Pyramus and Thisbe performance was good fun. Not all of the dialogue came across, but there was enough funny business to make it enjoyable anyway. Bottom and Flute were revealed snogging behind the curtain at one point, while Thisbe’s speech became somewhat moving as Flute appeared to suddenly realise the situation his character is in, faced with a dead lover. His delivery of the lines conveyed the emotion, despite their silliness, and although it wasn’t as full on as some productions, I was still moved. Moonshine’s dog was another home-made prop – couldn’t see what it was made of this time – Thisbe’s scarf went AWOL as usual, while Wall simply looked scruffier than usual and used his fingers to create the chinks. The song at the end was loud and modern, and there was no hint of recognition between Bottom and Hippolyta that I could see – a perfectly reasonable choice. The fairy blessing and Puck’s epilogue were pretty standard – nothing sticks on my memory – and then they took some brisk bows, to much applause, and headed off.

There was a post-show discussion tonight, which lots of people stayed for, and we had some good questions for the cast who turned up and Drew Mulligan, the assistant director. The chairs came in for some comment – not everyone got what they were for, but lots of people liked them – and there was a lot of praise for Imogen Doel, the understudy who has been playing Hermia for a short while now. I don’t remember the rest of the questions now, but it was a good session, ably chaired by Nicky Cox.

One idea came to me a few days later. Someone had pointed out the way that Dukes in Shakespeare’s plays have a habit of claiming they can’t change the law of wherever, and then doing that very thing by the end of the play. Theseus is the main culprit quoted in this context. It occurred to me that his line “Egeus, I will overbear your will” could mean that he was going to prevent Egeus from demanding that the law be applied to his daughter, rather than actually ignoring the law this one time. Or, in the vernacular of this concept, he was going to make Egeus an offer he couldn’t refuse.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Merchant of Venice – June 2011

Experience: 5/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Monday 13th June 2011

Well, this started off on a high note, and gradually got weaker and weaker until it fizzled out. The production concept was a mix of Las Vegas casinos and a reality marriage show, but as often happens, those concepts were used until the text could no longer support them, and then just disappeared. The performances were all good, given these production choices, and as it’s still early days there may well be more to come. Rupert Goold is always willing to change things that don’t work, or to improve a performance, so we’re not too concerned that we’ve already booked to see this one again.

The set had two staircases sweeping down on either side of the stage, with a landing in between and space underneath for slot machines or an entrance way. The floor was covered in a diamond pattern of blue tiles, and there was a similar pattern in lights on the back wall above the stairs. Before the play started, there were three casino tables on the stage with lots of punters at each, waitresses brought drinks to various customers, and there was a strong beat to the (loud) music as well as some heavy-duty rhubarb going on.

The music and action continued when the auditorium lights went down, until Elvis himself rose up through one of the tables and began to sing. Viva Las Vegas was the opening number, and with two dancers helping him out, this song covered the removal of two of the gambling tables. This left the one table at which Antonio sat, largely ignoring the song and dance going on around him. The rest of the customers had joined in, though, and this was a very lively start to the play.

When Elvis left the stage, taking most of the cast with him, the remaining blackjack table was moved to the centre, and were left with the ‘salad boys’ and Antonio for the opening scene proper. One of the salads was the dealer, while the other was sitting at the opposite end of the table from Antonio, and just looked like another player. No previous relationship amongst them was indicated by this setup. The American accents used in this production certainly fitted in well with the location, but now it became clear that they were going to interfere with the clarity of the lines. The dialogue came across well for the most part, but at times I had to struggle to make out what was being said, and this was one of those times. Scott Handy as Antonio was fine all the way through, and admittedly this is an opening scene that I’ve rarely seen done well, so perhaps the accents weren’t entirely to blame.

I had heard that this production made Antonio very keen on Bassanio, and although I couldn’t be certain of this when he was talking to the salad boys, it became very clear when Bassanio himself turned up. As soon as Bassanio started talking about Portia, Antonio closed down in his body language, folding his arms, moving away from Bassanio. It hurt him a lot, but his love for the man made him offer everything he had to help him in pursuit of another love. I was a bit puzzled when Antonio gave Bassanio his credit cards at the end of the scene – if he could use these, why would he need to borrow money on the Rialto? – but it was only a minor point. I did like the change from three thousand ducats to three million dollars, as it made it easier to grasp the enormity of the sum, and of course it emphasises just how rich Portia is, later on.

The Belmont scenes appear at first to be set in a TV studio, where a reality show called Destiny is being filmed. There are signs for ‘Applause’ and ‘On Air’, two banks of TV screens to show us the camera’s viewpoint (the cameras were placed well back on the walkways), and there were glamorous hostesses as well as a sweet little girl in a bridesmaid’s dress. Portia and Nerissa were on a sofa which rose up in the middle of the stage, and they were glammed up from head to toe. Portia had a large blonde wig, white outfit and huge heels – think Paris Hilton and you won’t go far wrong. Nerissa was dark, in a blue/green outfit, and they chatted for a bit before the announcement that they were about to go on air.

As soon as they did, Nerissa became the slick interviewer, toning down her southern accent and ditzy attitude to quiz Portia about her suitors. Portia is all rich airhead at this point, also with a southern accent, and I found myself wondering how this interpretation was going to cope with the demands of the trial scene? But back to the interview. The descriptions of the lords were pretty good (no Scottish lord), and then the little girl came on at the back and handed Nerissa an envelope with the Destiny logo. This contained the news that the suitors had all left, to Portia’s relief. They went off air after the announcement that the Prince of Morocco had arrived to try for Portia’s hand.

Back in Vegas, Shylock is examining the model for his latest project – a multi-million dollar development with lots of strangely shaped buildings from the look of it. It seemed a bit over the top for a despised money-lender – if he was accepted enough into the community to be getting approval for that sort of project, he wouldn’t still be a money-lender on the Rialto, surely? Anyway, Shylock is portrayed as a silver fox, a ruthless businessman who can nevertheless be somewhat ingratiating, especially after Antonio’s outburst later, but I never felt that Patrick Stewart had nailed the American accent – it was just a bit too British underneath.

Antonio is furious about having any dealings with Shylock, and it’s one area where I felt this production did a good job, showing the their mutual antipathy. These men really loathed one another. However, Antonio is pleased with Shylock’s offer to charge no interest and set up only a ‘joke’ penalty if the bond is forfeit, and so the deal is struck.

Back in the studio, the Prince of Morocco has arrived to take his chance. The understudy took the role tonight, and he was dressed in a boxing outfit, complete with gloves, and looked like one of those paunchy, older boxers who just won’t retire. Several bananas were thrown on the stage as he entered, which Steve found quite disturbing; it’s certainly more overtly racist than I’ve seen before, and not really necessary in my view. It’s also the first time I’ve noticed that Portia uses the word “hazard” when she talks to the Prince. I’d noticed she does it when she talks to Bassanio, which could be interpreted as an attempt to point him in the right direction, but using it here suggests otherwise; it’s just an appropriate word in the circumstances.

The filming ended with some razzamatazz, and then slot machines were inserted into the gap between the stairs, and Elvis is singing again, I forget what. Turns out, the Elvis impersonator is Launcelot Gobbo, and he’s at the middle of the three slot machines with his back to us. Seated on his left is an angel, dressed in white and with little wings, representing his conscience, and on his right was a devil, dressed in red (and did she have horns?). The angel and devil turned round and spoke their own lines, and although they fitted the words together very well, I felt I’d seen much better versions of this speech. When he’s finished deliberating, the slot machines, angel and devil leave, and in this production we get to see Old Gobbo, although of course, he doesn’t see us! I don’t know why this scene was included, as I didn’t get anything from it.

It’s during this next phase of Merchant that many productions try to minimise the scene changes. Not so here, with many little snippets coming thick and fast, which lost some of the play’s momentum, as so much scenery had to be changed. Firstly, we switch to Shylock’s house, all gloomy and dull, especially compared to the glitzy casino and TV studio settings. One light bulb hangs down towards the front of the stage, and Jessica, plainly dressed, has to fetch a plain chair to be able to turn it on. She then sits on the chair, reading a book. Launcelot comes on with a massive suitcase, and they say their farewells.

The next scene has the salad boys with Lorenzo and Gratiano discussing their plans for the party/abduction later that night. During the open day yesterday, we saw a session which took us through how this scene was developed in rehearsal, with the help of six or seven volunteers. They all had acting experience of some kind, and after a short while, with some coaching from Lisa Blair, this production’s assistant director, their delivery improved and they started to add some actions as well. With prompting, they came up with the idea of the four of them sitting in a car, playing music, and drinking. The car was represented by four chairs. As things developed, the actual effects were added in, and the final effort was very good. We loved it, especially as we’d seen it grow from nothing, so when it came to the real thing, we were always likely to feel disappointed, and that’s what happened. The pumping music included the words “Barbara Streisand”, the salad boys were in the back and Lorenzo was driving, instead of Gratiano in yesterday’s version. Launcelot came on from the front, I think, and the car screeched to a halt when they see him. He hands over the letter, and is called back by Lorenzo so that he can take something to Jessica – from yesterday’s session I gather it’s a crucifix. The salad boys get out as well, and then Lorenzo and Gratiano drive off, with Gratiano reading the letter. With a blaring of horns, Lorenzo slams the brakes on to finish the scene. The car this time emerged from under the stage, and returned that way, of course, which should have helped to speed up the changes, but the flooring took a while to come back into place, so the next scene wasn’t as quick to start as it could have been.

I’m not sure if the scenes follow the same order as my text at this point, so I’ll go with the order of scenes in my text unless I remember otherwise. So now it’s Shylock leaving for the party, and warning Jessica to shut all the doors, etc. followed by the abduction scene. As Shylock left his house, lots of costumed folk came on stage, cavorting about and having fun, not that Shylock was interested. When Batman arrived, he turned out to be Lorenzo, and when Jessica throws off her coat to reveal her disguise, she’s done up as Robin. This was good fun, but otherwise the scene was fairly tame – all Batman costume and no knickers.

The next scene is back at Belmont, with the first televised casket choice. One problem with this staging is that if the choices are televised, everyone watching will know the correct casket after the second wrong choice, making the whole thing pointless. Anyway, three stands are wheeled on with gold, silver and lead boxes, Portia is done up in bridal gear, the little bridesmaid sits at the front of the stage, and there’s plenty of showmanship on display. When the Prince opens the gold casket, a glass cube rises up, with a skull and a scroll. When he leaves, there’s a little bit where Portia and Nerissa end the show with “The ancient saying is no heresy: Hanging and wiving goes by destiny” from Act 2 Scene 9, and then they’re off air. Portia drops the fake happiness, and makes her comment about the Prince.

The Salad boys have their conversation about Antonio on the balcony, so we’re very quickly into the next choosing scene at Belmont. This time, the Prince of Arragon is dressed like Manuel from Fawlty Towers, and the choosing is fairly straightforward, with the silver casket being placed to the front of the three this time and containing a fool’s head, as promised. There’s a reprise of the “Hanging and wiving” lines, and then the news of Bassanio’s arrival, which cheers Portia up no end.

Back to the casino, and some café tables appear for the next scene. The salad boys are having a drink and discussing Antonio’s bad luck. Shylock comes on, and chooses to sit at the other table, but comes over to theirs to deliver the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. Unfortunately, I wasn’t impressed with the style of delivery chosen, which seemed jerky and unconvincing. I was sympathetic to Shylock overall, but this speech didn’t help. Tubal uses his phone to show Shylock a picture of the ring which Jessica has swapped for the monkey, and Shylock’s reaction was moving at last – I got a real sense of what that ring meant to him. Otherwise, the scene was uneventful.

In Belmont the studio is set up again, and Bassanio is sitting in a chair on the set for his discussion with Portia. He seems to be in love with her, judging by his words, but there was no other evidence throughout the play, so I’m at a loss to know what was intended with this portrayal. Bassanio is led off when Portia says “Away then!”, and part way through her next speech the show goes on air. When she says “Go, Hercules”, Bassanio appears at the back, dressed as Hercules, to make his choice. The lead casket is, of course, at the front this time.

They included the song, I think, and then it’s a nervous few minutes for Portia, who’s standing on the stairs to our left. Bassanio reasons things out OK, and I noticed the box wasn’t actually locked this time – he just opens it without a key. Previously the keys had been supplied by the little girl, who also led off the unsuccessful suitors from the front of the stage. This time, I don’t think the little girl was there, and by the time Bassanio has made his choice, the show is no longer referenced. The screens are blank, and there’s absolutely no sense of the world watching this private moment, which in terms of a reality show is completely unreal.

The lead box simply contains a remote control(?), which sets off a recording on the screens, of Portia reading the final scroll, so Bassanio can’t comment on Portia’s loveliness by comparing her to her picture. Her reaction to this bit was puzzling. She’s happy that Bassanio had chosen correctly, and she’s obviously recorded the speech, but she seems as surprised as Bassanio when she sees it. Perhaps it will come across more clearly when we see it again. Portia has taken off her wig and shoes, so Bassanio can see her “such as I am”. I got no sense of any reaction from him to this transformation; without her wig she’s dark-haired, and still pretty, but perhaps not what he expected.

Gratiano and Nerissa announce their wedding plans, and then Lorenzo, Jessica and Salanio arrive with the letter for Bassanio. Jessica stays on the stairs, reluctant to join in, even when Nerissa goes up to welcome her. With their arrival, Portia puts her wig on again, and is bright and cheerful. The reading of the letter brings Antonio on to speak the lines himself, then they all leave in haste without even having married, as far as I can see.

There’s a short scene where Antonio has been arrested, and is being taken away to prison, then Portia, Nerissa and Jessica come up on the sofa again in dressing gowns, having a girls’ night in, with Jessica attempting to put two slices of cucumber on her eyes. Portia appoints Lorenzo as her steward, and when Balthazar comes on he’s carrying two large bags with Portia and Nerissa’s disguises – men’s suits – which they put on before leaving.

The conversations between Launcelot and Jessica, and then with Lorenzo, were OK, and then the court scene is set up, which takes a while. The setting is now an old butcher’s warehouse, with lots of meat hooks hanging down, and strips of plastic at the back entrance. A case is placed in the front right corner of the stage, and Antonio, in a badly-fitting orange jumpsuit is led over to the case and stands there, all through the scene. It’s a nightmare bit of blocking for anyone behind him, as he doesn’t move for a long while, and then two guards are holding on to him when Shylock is about to take his pound of flesh. Frankly, they should be selling those seats as restricted view – you have been warned.

There’s also a table in the front left corner for Shylock, who puts his briefcase there, and a desk back right for the lawyers. The Duke could almost be a Mafia boss in his dress style, but then why the concern for the rule of law? Antonio and Shylock’s hatred of each other came across loud and clear, but otherwise the scene lacked the tension that’s usually generated here. Instead of tension, we got sensationalism. When the time comes for Shylock to take his pound of flesh, all pleas falling on deaf ears, they take a long time to set the process up. Antonio is suspended from one of the meat hooks, and one of the guards is pulling the rope tight behind him, while the other holds him down. Antonio’s already removed his jumpsuit to the waist, and stands there, chest heaving with nerves, while Shylock takes an age to prepare, even stroking Antonio’s flesh with the knife, toying with him. It all goes on for far too long, while Portia, near the top of the stairs on our left, seemed to get the answer once, but too early, so had to go round again, looking anxious, glancing at the bond, then finally stopping Shylock just as the knife is about to go into Antonio’s flesh. How she got the answer I’ve no idea, because although she’s not a complete air-head, she’s not the super-smart bunny we’ve known from other productions.

Once he’s thwarted in his plan, Shylock naturally wants the money instead, but this Portia takes a gloating pleasure in denying him even that. Antonio has collapsed on the suitcase, understandably, and only stirs when Shylock is told about the seriousness of his situation. There’s definite malice in insisting that Shylock convert to Christianity, and Shylock’s reaction is unusual; he grins, flips his yarmulke off and acts all happy before asking to leave. At least, that’s what I could make out from behind the man – hopefully I’ll get a better view next time.

I couldn’t see why Bassanio changed his mind about the ring this time, although Antonio seems to want Bassanio to choose him over Portia. Portia and Nerissa are on the balcony when Gratiano catches up with them, and then we’re back to Belmont for the final scene. Lorenzo and Jessica rise up on the sofa and have their little teasing section – hard to tell what’s going on there – and then Stephanie turns up with news that Portia is coming back. When she arrives with Nerissa, I didn’t hear any lines about hiding their absence from Bassanio, and it all seemed very rushed. The ring section was weak due to this interpretation, and got very little in the way of laughs. When Portia greets Antonio, they sit on the sofa, and when Bassanio joins them, he makes contact with Antonio behind Portia’s back. I wasn’t absolutely sure that she spotted this, but her manner changes afterwards, so I guess she did. Nerissa ends up on the left walkway, with Gratiano saying the final line to her, and then we get the final Elvis song, Are You Lonesome Tonight?  During this, Antonio sits on the sofa on his own, Bassanio has gone all moody and wanders around on his own, Portia has taken off her wig and is dancing with it alone in the middle of the stage, crying, and everyone seems to be completely miserable. I have no idea why this is going on; maybe I’ll get a better idea from a different perspective.

I felt the visual aspects of this production were very good, and some of the ideas were interesting, but most either fell by the wayside or just didn’t work for me. None of the characters was likeable, and although I felt some sympathy for Shylock, on the whole I just wasn’t engaged with the play at all. The accents may have contributed a lot to this; Gratiano in particular had a very unpleasant voice which put me off this normally entertaining character entirely. There was no real tension in the trial scene, and the racism was too blatant and crude for my understanding of this play – Shakespeare’s not that simplistic. If they can improve the delivery of the lines considerably, I may find this an OK production, but otherwise it’ll have to remain a less than successful Merchant.

One thought that occurred to me the next day was that the Princes of Morocco and Arragon represent Muslim and Catholic suitors. Not sure if that was an intention of this production, but I’m grateful to it for helping me to this insight.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead – May 2011

Experience: 6/10

By Tom Stoppard

Directed by Trevor Nunn

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 26th May 2011

I’ve usually found Tom Stoppard’s work a bit cerebral for my taste, and this play was no exception. There are some good bits, and this is likely to be a very good production once it’s settled in, but I wouldn’t say it was one of my favourites.

Tonight’s performance had a ripple of understudies due to the indisposition of Tim Curry, so although I didn’t detect any significant fluffs, future performances are bound to come on a lot. I didn’t catch all the understudy names, and it was too recent a change for printed slips in the program, but I gather that the part of The Player was taken by Chris Andrew Mellon.[Oops, we’ve since found the insert – Chris Andrew Mellon confirmed, and his role as Player King taken by Stephen Pallister 3/6/11] Since they haven’t yet had their understudies run, the audience was suitably appreciative of his efforts, and he managed the part really well, getting across the swagger and bluster, and doing a particularly good death scene, I thought. All the best to Tim Curry, of course, for his recovery.

The set was quite beautiful, one of Simon Higlett’s best. The floor of the stage was covered in glossy black boards which followed the stage’s shape apart from two triangular cut-outs, one on each side, giving the overall effect of an arrow head. Above this was a similarly shaped layer of black boards, but with gaps, like a pergola. The back wall and surround were full of stars for the outdoor night scenes, and the central rear doors were flanked by two concealed doorways with false perspective arches, which gave a fantastic impression of a vast castle.

At the start, there was a tree centre back; this was removed when the players arrived with their cart (very Mother Courage), but it was done so well that I just didn’t spot it. After the players leave, R&G are transported straight to the castle, so the arches are on show for a major chunk of the play. There’s some set dressing for The Murder Of Gonzago – this time we’re seeing the dress rehearsal – which was mainly four tall candle holders, a rug and two small chests.

Once off to sea, part of a ship and three barrels are carefully positioned on the stage. The ship has an upper deck with a deckchair, screened by a large umbrella; it turns out that Hamlet has been snoozing there through the start of this scene. The barrels are large, which is just as well, as the players, scared by the hostile reception of their play at court, have stowed away by hiding in them. One of the best bits tonight was watching them all clamber out.

After the ship scene, I think the set was bare till near the end, when some of the Gonzago trimmings were brought back on for the very end of Hamlet itself, when the ambassadors from England have arrived to report that R&G are dead.

The play is certainly interesting, taking a sideways look at these two minor characters as they wend their short path through this famous play, and bringing up many philosophical ideas along the way. It’s those philosophical bits that tend to drag, in my view. It may be that Jamie Parker as Guildenstern (or was it Rosencrantz?) will find a delivery that brings out more humour in those lines, but I suspect they would be a bit dry for me regardless. Samuel Barnett as Rosencrantz (or ………?) was more down to earth, stupider and generally had the funnier lines, and his was the more assured performance at this point in the run. The constant coin tossing had some humour, though it went on a bit long, and the players were good fun, though also a bit long winded. I enjoyed the mathematical joke of the bet – that a date of birth, doubled, will be even – and it shows how wide-ranging this content of this play is.

With their arrival at Elsinore, the actual Shakespearean dialogue makes an appearance, and it’s to Stoppard’s credit that he manages to blend the two styles so well. Many another writer has incorporated chunks of Will’s work into theirs, only to show up their own inadequacies; Stoppard holds his own just fine, and although I wasn’t totally loving this, I didn’t find myself wishing I was watching Hamlet instead, a good sign. (Mind you, I did wonder if the actors having a go at a partial Hamlet were wishing they could do the full version.)

The dress rehearsal was nicely done, adapting the snippet we see in the regular version into a reprise of the Hamlet plot, with two new characters, looking uncannily like R&G, involved in this one. We even get to see the executions in England. R&G are troubled by the similarities for a while, especially when their doubles take off their capes and their costumes are so similar to the original R&G’s, but the pair soon reassure themselves that all is well.

There’s a string of pearls used in this section – I think it was presented by the usurping king to the widowed queen to persuade her to marry him – and tonight the string broke, scattering pearls everywhere. Presumably this was not meant to happen. The actors soon cleared up most of them, but a stray pearl travelled further than the rest, and it was Rosencrantz who did the honours and removed it in passing.

When the duplicate R&G’s are killed, and their capes placed over them, the lights go down – it’s after Claudius has stormed off – and when they come back up, it’s the ‘real’ R&G who are under the capes. These two are on stage all the time, with the action of Hamlet coming to them, so they can’t actually go anywhere to search for Hamlet, leading to an entertaining scene where they opt to go in different directions, then together, then one way, then another. There’s a short scene on the beach, where Hamlet encounters Fortinbras’s men, and then they’re on the boat. When Hamlet is saying his soliloquies, by the way, he has a tendency to drift to the back of the stage and mutter to himself.

In the process of figuring out what they’re going to say when they get to the English court, R&G role play that encounter, and as a result they open the letter and find out that Hamlet is to be killed. Much consternation. Then they go to sleep, Hamlet sneaks down from his deckchair and swaps the letters, and they’re on their way to oblivion.  The players emerge from the barrels, the pirates attack, and Hamlet disappears with them, leaving R&G with nobody to present to the king of England, so they redo the role play to get some ideas, open the letter again, and hey presto, they’re now the ones for the chop. That’s pretty much it for these two. We don’t see their executions, and the final scene shows their deaths being reported to the Danish court, or what’s left of it.

The performance showed signs of this being a very good production, once they’ve had time to bed it down. It’s not my ideal kind of play, but I hope it does well here and in the West End.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me