Macbeth – April 2010

6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Declan Donnellan

Company: Cheek By Jowl

Venue: Silk Street Theatre

Date: Monday 5th April 2010

Two hours without an interval! And on less padded seats than I would like! And it’s a Cheek By Jowl production, which may be great, but then I didn’t go the distance with their Troilus And Cressida! God help us.

So far, so good. It’s a nice little theatre, attached to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and although the seats are firm, they’re not uncomfortable. The set is gloomy and misty, an open space with boxes and upended long crates flanking either side of the stage. That’s it.

Well, I managed to stay the distance, but I nodded off towards the end as the going got heavy. Steve and I agreed on this one – some 8/10 good bits, but some equally dull 4/10 sections, so overall a 6/10 rating is appropriate.

The cast were all in basic black, apart from the porter – more on that story later – and were often visible on stage, at first at the edges, then increasingly in the middle, surrounding the action without distracting from it, although I did find that they took away the focus from the active characters at times. During ‘If ’twere done…’, I found myself wondering what difference it would make if Macbeth were alone on the stage, and I decided it would be harder work for the actor to really make his presence felt, and also much more intense for the audience. I wasn’t convinced that Will Keen, much as I like his work, could have done that with this interpretation, although Anastasia Hille as Lady Macbeth was managing fine.

The staging had some good aspects, but there were puzzles. Why were some of the accents obviously Scottish, and others not? Lady Macbeth stayed on the stage after the sleepwalking scene – why? It seemed to work as Macbeth was seeing her there, sitting on a stool, but then the news of her death came – she had left the stage just beforehand – so presumably he was looking at a….what? A vision? A ghost?

There was a lot of mime used to replace props and gore. In many ways this was good – speeds up the action as actors don’t have to deal with the props or bother with blood bags – but again there were questions. The bloody man at the start appears to stab himself for no apparent reason. Steve reckoned it may have been to explain to the uninitiated why he’s called the ‘bloody man’, as they might think Duncan is just swearing, but the mime was unclear to me, so maybe I just didn’t get it. The victims of murder (and there are quite a few in even this edited version) all mimed their own killing, which I thought worked very well.

The witches were done as disembodied voices – there were only two women in the cast – and with the cast standing behind Banquo and Macbeth at the start; I found this very effective. For the prophecy scene, the rest of the cast carried children (dolls, that is) in a circle around Macbeth, ending with Banquo himself. Also good, as was the use of lights to represent the other spirits.

There were some long pauses during the staging, which were at odds with the rest of it. Lady Macbeth takes the pretty route when coming on stage to greet Duncan, and by the way, why was Duncan blind? Don’t ask me. Macduff was posed with his family before the killing scene, and stayed there for a bit as his wife and son had a very truncated dialogue about the wickedness of men. It made the point, emphasised in some other productions, that Macbeth does not have children to follow him, but it was also a bit distracting as well.

The porter was extremely memorable. The other woman in the cast played this part, and was done up in the only colourful costume of the production. Day-glo almost. And she was definitely the worse for wear – been out with her mates for a long pub crawl by the looks of her. Her cubby-hole was in one of the tall crates which was wheeled round to the centre of the stage. She spoke into an entrance phone, and was the liveliest character on stage, and with the broadest Scots accent, if I remember correctly.

All the other performances were fine, and the set, if I can call it that, was certainly atmospheric. But the production had too many flaws for me to rate it any higher.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Troilus And Cressida – May 2008

2/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Declan Donnellan

Company: Cheek By Jowl

Venue: Barbican Theatre

Date: Saturday 31st May 2008

The set was the same basic layout as for Boris Godunov, with five strips of some marbled spongy fabric laid lengthways down the stage. (I checked this in the interval – it felt like textured paper, like heavy wallpaper, but from the way it hung, I’m not sure exactly what it was. The black stuff underneath seemed to be the spongy bit.) To our right, the outer four strips curved up to the ceiling, while the fifth appeared to be cut off and lifted up to create a canopy over the entrance formed by the gap. To our left, the central three strips formed right angles and rose vertically, but were staggered to create gaps. Colour wise, they were a marbled cream. Four grey stools/tables placed in what might loosely be called the corners of the stage completed the layout at the beginning. As it turned out, these larger stools were made up from four individual stools, and these were moved around, turned over, and even cleaned (by Thersites) as required.

Now I should mention here that I can only report on the first half of this production, and then only on the parts that I was actually awake for. It’s a play with difficult language to get across, the afternoon was humid, and the Barbican facilities and management not up to the standard of old, although the temporary seating was much more comfortable than I remember (which doesn’t actually help with the snoozing option, of course). For that matter, the production itself wasn’t up to much, with just a few interesting points which I will record below, and with me being well into my menopausal phase, a little thing like being told I couldn’t take our ice creams into the auditorium was enough to put me off the second half. I decided I could snooze just as well in the foyer as in my seat (I hadn’t realised that drum practice was on the agenda), but I insisted that Steve sit through the rest of it and report back (see below).

So, what was the production actually like? Helen herself gave us the prologue, although as I didn’t know it was her at the time I can’t tell if that had any significance. She walked down the stage, from left to right as we saw it, before speaking. She looked gorgeous in a white strapless gown, fitted to just below the hips with flounces to the floor. Long white gloves completed the outfit, and it was clear we were in for modern dress. The prologue goes into some detail on place names that didn’t mean much to me, and there were a number of soldiers who arrived on stage around whom she was delivering her speech – I don’t remember who they were, presumably generic soldiers, although they may have been meant to represent actual characters. I suspect not, though, as later on they took the trouble to bring characters on to the stage when they were being talked about, so we would know who was who; if they were meant to be doing that during the prologue it needs some work.

The opening discussion between Troilus and Pandarus was a bit dull. The characters’ motivations weren’t at all clear to me. We did get to see Cressida during this, and as Troilus and Pandarus talked, she and another actor mimed her father’s leaving, which did make her situation painfully clear. After Troilus leaves, Cressida then talks with Pandarus. He tries to persuade her to fancy Troilus, while she focuses all her attention on Hector. Both of these actors come on stage, Hector first, and they do some sword practice while the other two talk. Then there’s the parade of Trojan nobility, which Pandarus hopes will turn Cressida’s head. Various people come onto the stage from our left and, in the case of smartly dressed Paris and the beautiful Helen, accept the crowd’s enthusiastic applause like any pair of self-regarding vacuous celebrities (boy that menopause is really kicking in now). I was distracted during this bit as someone had been let in late (despite emails being sent out warning that this wouldn’t be allowed, so be here on time or miss out!), and he was having a discussion with the people right behind us about where his seat was. After a ridiculously long time, he moved to a vacant seat in row B, and we were finally able to focus back on the play.

Pandarus was on the steps to our left, Cressida on the steps far right, so they had their private chat talking loudly across the stage at each other. This was fine, as it meant I could hear perfectly, not always easy with this sort of layout. The soldiers who entered not only accepted the cheers from the crowd, they stood on the stools to give the masses a chance to properly admire them. Troilus in particular came across as quite wimpish in this company, but still managed to snaffle a stool ahead of Hector. One point to note here was that I wouldn’t have known from this scene that Cressida was actually dead keen on Troilus herself, and was only pretending to prefer Hector to wind Pandarus up. I mean that both in terms of her behaviour while talking with Pandarus, and from the little speech she has at the end of the scene, telling all to the audience. Good job I know the play.

The next scene was presumably cut to the bone. It’s often very tedious, and this version wasn’t the best nor the worst. Various Greek warlords strut their stuff, then Aeneas arrives with a challenge from Hector aimed at luring Achilles into single combat. There’s potential to show a lot about the relationships between the Greek leaders, but either this was lacking, or I missed it because the width of the stage meant that too many actors were effectively out of sight for large parts of the scene.

Achilles was being played more like a bureaucrat than anything else. He handed out papers to support his argument about the divided nature of the Greek forces, and was remarkably diffident about making his points. Apparently he thought his silver tongue wasn’t as effective as a spreadsheet with accompanying footnotes. He also laid out a couple of photos of Ulysses and Patroclus in compromising intimacy (they were too small to get any detail, sorry), but given the Greek attitudes to man on man action, I doubt that it’s the indecency that would figure in his argument so much as the waste of valuable fighting time (as recorded on the timesheets which this Ulysses has no doubt filed away meticulously in his tent).

One nice touch with this portrayal was the way Ulysses took the written challenge and started tinkering with it, reading it carefully and considering how to spin it to their advantage, i.e. to get Achilles out of bed and killing Trojans. The idea of Ulysses as a subtle Greek spin doctor has its attractions. Sadly the rest of his performance undermined the benefits, and the rest of the Greeks were unremarkable.

Now we get Thersites and the Greeks. At first I thought they’d cast a woman as Thersites, but once ‘she’ spoke I realised this is a tranny Thersites, all the more impressive because he/she’s done up in a blue boiler suit and wears rubber gloves. Admittedly the makeup and long plait help the female persona, but the voice is still too butch to mistake him for her. Imagine a bitter and rancorous Lily Savage dressing down as a caretaker, and if you haven’t fainted from shock you’ll have a pretty good idea of the character.

Ajax, that well-known cleaning fluid, would seem like an ideal companion for Thersites in this mode, but they just don’t get along. ‘She’ even spits in his coffee. Mind you, it took me a while to penetrate the thick, and somewhat variable accent that Ajax was hiding his lines in – good job this was a captioned performance. Turns out he’s Scottish! And Lily Thersites is Scouse. I wasn’t aware of any other specific accents, so why these choices? Just another baffling point that got in the way of enjoying the play.

They were doing the usual trick of bringing the next scene’s characters on just before the previous scene finishes, which you would have thought would have shortened the running time from the three hours twenty it’s currently at. However, this time they bring on Priam, on his sick bed, for the debate on How Do You Solve A Problem Like Helen? Paris gets a good slap from Priam, which was the best bit of the scene, and Cassandra has a good rant, showing off her knickers to all and sundry as various brothers try to haul her off. Not a great scene, but at least I stayed awake through it.

Now it’s back to the Greeks, with Thersites showing he’s not biased, because he rants at Patroclus as well, while the latter is doing his tai chi practice. The Greek generals arrive, and talk for quite a while, trying to get Achilles to get his act together, but no luck, and no entertainment value either. Then Pandarus has his chat with Helen and Paris. These two came on with the entourage for a photo shoot, and posed for several minutes while lackeys did their hair and makeup, positioned their frocks, etc. Frankly, although this was very entertaining, I confess I can’t remember anything else about this scene – what the characters discussed, why Pandarus wanted to talk to them in the first place, nothing. As such, this scene effectively represents the whole of the production, at least as much as I saw of it, and from Steve’s comments later, the rest of it as well.

Given the lack of anything remotely interesting happening on stage, it’s no surprise that the next scene, where Troilus and Cressida meet for the first time, was where I started to lose the will to stay awake. I did my best, but the stuffiness, the unintelligible delivery of the lines, and the bland acting all conspired to lull me away to dreamland – a much more profitable experience, trust me.

Steve’s views on the second half were not much different. The characters were not coming across clearly as different people, and he wouldn’t have rated the performance much higher than I did, if at all. Thersites’ Lily Savage resemblance was emphasised in the second half, as ‘she’ dressed up for the party between the Greeks and Trojans (don’t they know there’s a war on?) in Helen’s flouncy frock, and wore a large blond wig.

For a sell-out, there were quite a few seats empty at the start, and even more after the interval, with an almost embarrassing lack of applause at the end. Troilus and Cressida were coming back on for another set of bows when the clapping had all but stopped. Still, some of the critics liked it, so that’s all right then.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Boris Godunov – May 2008

8/10

By Alexander Pushkin

Directed by Declan Donnellan

Company: Cheek By Jowl

Venue: Barbican Theatre

Date: Saturday 17th May 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Cymbeline – June 2007

8/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Declan Donnellan

Company: Cheek by Jowl

Venue: Barbican Theatre

Date: Saturday 2nd June 2007

We seem to get lucky with Cymbeline productions – of the six we’ve seen, half have been excellent. This was one of them.

After Kneehigh’s version, it was nice to get back to a more “normal” edition of the play, although the staging certainly wasn’t traditional, unless you count it as traditional Cheek by Jowl, that is. The Barbican had been transformed, yet again, so that the chairs (temporary seating) were raked back in a slight curve from the stage area, which was a large, open expanse, with only two massive pillars, reminiscent of the Globe’s pillars, to either side of centre. Otherwise, all was black, bare and not immediately appealing. For this production, we also had two bars with piles of cloth in front of them – they rose up to be swagged curtains – a couple of chairs, and a table with glasses and a bottle. Once the curtains rose up, we could see a chaise longue by one pillar and a big trunk by the other.

I’d decided to check out the Barbican’s induction loop facilities today, and I was relieved to find they were using a little box with an antenna and headphones. When we go again, I can hopefully use my own headphones, as their ones were still uncomfortable after a while. Anyway, I managed to work it OK, left it switched off till the play began (I don’t need to hear crowd mutterings in detail), and then, as the lights went down I switched it on, only to find it wasn’t working! Oh dear. At the interval I discovered the antenna had come out, and screwed it back in, so the second half came across clearer than the first, but as we were sitting in Row B, this wasn’t really an issue.

So I missed the very opening of the play, as I was cursing (quietly) and fiddling with my knobs. When I started paying attention, the main cast were all posed behind the second curtain, as in a family photo, and two of the men were discussing the situation. What with stolen sons, exiled husbands and second marriages, this play reminds me that people often think that if Shakespeare was alive today he’d be writing for the soaps. Rubbish, that doesn’t pay nearly enough, he’d be a script-doctor in Hollywood! But I digress.

After the introductions, we’re straight into the action (there’s a lot to get through in this play), and Posthumus and Imogen are saying their farewells, supposedly assisted by the new Queen (hiss, boo). It’s clear Imogen doesn’t like her, but the main focus is her love for Posthumus, and the sorrow of their parting. The Queen does her double dealing pretty swiftly (start as you mean to go on), and soon brings the King along to discover the couple. He flies into a rage, and sends Posthumus packing.

The story from here seems pretty standard, although the book given to Posthumus by his parents still wasn’t included. The main interest is in the staging. When Cloten comes on, I didn’t realise at first that it was the same actor playing both Posthumus and this part. [Olivier Award for Best Newcomer 2008] He looked so different, moved so differently, and all through the play, it was absolutely clear which character he was playing. He got across Cloten’s braggadocio and cowardice very well, and also Posthumus’ integrity and studiousness (Posthumus wears glasses, always buttons his jacket, etc.). Cloten had a couple of yes men with him who were happy to flatter him, without showing any signs of actually respecting him.

The emptiness of the stage allowed for quick scene changes. As with the Russian Twelfth Night, the final line or exit from one scene was held as the next scene’s characters came on stage, paused, and then the scenes followed each other seamlessly – finish one, straight into the next. Also, when someone is giving an aside, the others freeze, helping to clarify what’s going on.

The Italian section was fine, and the setting up of the bet worked very well. Posthumus is reasonably intelligent, but he lets himself down badly here. Mind you, we know Imogen’s love is bomb-proof, so he’s not really so daft. Iachimo gets off on the wrong foot with Imogen, and this time she never really trusts him again. However, she’s too innocent to see any problem in keeping his trunk for him, so the trap is set.

The scene where Iachimo convinces Posthumus of Imogen’s unfaithfulness makes it clear that Posthumus isn’t too readily convinced. Unfortunately there’s a mole involved, and finally he succumbs. Off the Italians go to Britain, to sort out the non-payment of tribute.

Imogen’s receipt of Posthumus’ letter was fully as excited as the Kneehigh version. She showed a huge range of emotions in this performance, always with intelligence. The Welsh scenes are well edited (I don’t remember hearing the lads’ Welsh names at all), and the cave is basically a space in the middle of the stage, with some boxes and a record player beside the fire. I like that kind of staging – I’m perfectly capable of using my imagination to fill in the details, and I enjoy productions that encourage me to do that.

Of course, with Cloten and Posthumus being virtual twins, Imogen’s misidentification of Cloten’s body makes a lot of sense. The dream in which Posthumus’ parents speak to him is set as a family picnic, and the God is a disembodied voice. The final scene, with Cymbeline victorious, and the guards apparently ready to shoot all the prisoners out of hand, was considerably more tense than I’ve seen before. The prisoners all have sacks over their heads, so no chance of anyone being recognised. Not that they’re recognised immediately when the sacks come off, mind you, but at least the coverings make the delays more plausible.

None of the above really gets across the sheer energy of this production, nor the amount of detail in each performance. There was a lot of movement, with characters swirling round the stage, or occasionally holding still, or creeping about, like Iachimo. The physical aspects were very important, and added to the energy and tension. I know the story, but still I wanted to find out how it would work out this time. Roll on the next Cheek By Jowl!

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me