Much Ado About Nothing – September 2012

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Iqbal Khan

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Thursday 13th September 2012

Third time around and there was much more detail in the performances, including some more changes by the director, especially in the gulling scenes. This was part of the Supporters evening, and was followed by a lovely meal in the Ashcroft room, which was so well attended that they only had enough cast for one per table. We were honoured to have Madhav Sharma, Leonato himself, sitting next to us for the entire meal, and he was an entertaining companion with plenty of amusing and interesting stories.

For the play itself, I may not be able to get the changes noted up in order, but here goes. The bickering between Beatrice and Benedick in the first scene was a dead giveaway – they could have been married already. I heard three “Bendy Dick”s tonight – the first when Benedick left the Prince and Claudio alone, the second one I’ve forgotten, and the third just before the weddings at the end, which I’d spotted during an earlier performance. When Hero and Claudio bumped into each other, I couldn’t tell if it was deliberate on either part or just an accident.

This time I noticed that when the women came on before the party scene, singing their rowdy song and dressed up in the soldier’s clothes, Hero and Margaret were smoking and drinking. When Leonato arrived, they hastily passed their cigarette and drink to Verges, who stood there looking guilty while the ‘princess’ and her maid looked as innocent as new born babes. As with Desdemona, this father’s ‘jewel’ is quite capable of deceit when she cares to use it. Beatrice held on to her drink, presumably not a problem for her. After the prince proposed to Beatrice, she reacted with laughter and Leonato gestured to warn her that the prince had been serious and she’d hurt his feelings, hence her abrupt change of tack and the apologies for her behaviour.

The biggest change was in the first gulling scene. After Benedick sent the maidservant for his book, the speech about his ideal woman was much better this time, getting smallish laughs several times on the way through. Then after the Prince, Claudio and Leonato started their trickery, Benedick avoided the roof and instead came down to the ground level after climbing the tree; he was behind the house façade, but we could see him through the open doors. He took a blanket off Dogberry (loud sounds of arguing just before this) and wrapped it round himself, then came on stage for the final section of the gulling pretending to be a servant. He also had a broom and used it to sweep up some fallen leaves rather ineffectively. The servant girl was less distracting in this bit – she did less of a performance – but the acting she did do helped to cover Benedick’s presence and allowed the others to appear to ignore him more easily. They treated him as a servant, so he ended up cleaning Claudio’s shoes and then the prince’s, planting himself in turn on the stools in each front corner. When Don Pedro insulted Benedick, he spat on the prince’s shoe, all in order to clean it of course. This worked a lot better than the previous version.

When Beatrice came to call Benedick in to dinner, Benedick was on the swing, grinning happily and swinging so much that she broke off the line “against my will” and just looked at him, amazed. After a few moments (to give us time to finish laughing) she regained her composure and carried on. And for Beatrice’s gulling, Hero stayed in front of the window on the balcony this time for the early part of the conversation with Verges and so the dialogue was much clearer.  Otherwise it was the same.

When the watch were doing their duty outside Leonato’s house, they had removed the umbrella that got in my way the first time, and Borachio had been to the loo before he came on stage so no pissing all over the constable (thank goodness). There was still thunder, but they just pretended it was raining. This time I noticed that Don John came on to the balcony and saw the watch apprehending Borachio and Conrade. This certainly explained his flight after the wedding, though the man has some balls to risk staying that long – his men might have given him up before the ceremony.

Speaking of which, the wedding scene had a few more changes. Leonato was at ground level from the start of this scene, bustling the servants along and greeting the guests who arrived from the audience. This made the dialogue with Dogberry and Verges, still holding up the two pairs of trousers, much easier to follow. Leonato’s interpolated “no thanks” after Claudio offered Hero back was not appreciated by Madhav, who felt that it wasn’t necessary to add to the text in this way, and I agree with him. Overall though, the denouncement of Hero was just as shocking this time, and I do feel that the use of the microphone made it worse for Hero, as it was clear there were a large number of people witnessing this event.

Benedick and Beatrice were very strong in the “kill Claudio” scene, and I could see how their relationship and the challenge to Claudio are woven skilfully together, the one leading to the other and back again. Paul’s hand was better tonight, so he was able to grab Beatrice by the arms as planned.

I was aware when the watch did their interrogation tonight that the down side of having the household servants play these characters as well is that they already know what’s happened in the wedding scene, so it’s hard for them to react appropriately as the story comes out. The wedding platform was partly removed during this inquisition of the prisoners, and Borachio and Conrade were actually placed on the last section of it and wheeled off, waving to the crowd. This speeded up the scene change a lot which was helpful. This time, the look of sadness on Verges’ face as she held together the red ribbons, waiting for them to be lowered, showed us the grief, the loss of what should have been. The ribbons were also whisked off stage much sooner leaving Leonato and Antonio alone on stage for more of their dialogue in the following scene. I still found Leonato’s delivery too slow tonight, especially during this scene and the wedding scene, but overall the pace was better.

When the prince and Claudio turned up, they reacted much more strongly to Leonato’s criticisms, and from their reactions I was aware tonight that this was the first they had heard of Hero’s death – Benedick was obviously a bit slow to get the news to them. The rest of the play was as I remembered it, though with a smaller audience the atmosphere wasn’t quite as lively as last time. The side stalls were relatively empty during the first half, but they filled up a bit for the second, more than compensating for the few gaps which had appeared.

Just a couple of other points: I forgot to mention in previous notes that the Prince looked amazingly like Chuck’s friend Morgan (from the TV series Chuck) which was a momentary distraction for me. Also I noticed tonight that Don John accosted the servant girl in an unpleasant way in an early scene, and Verges protected her. The singer’s treatment of the girl later wasn’t pleasant either, given that he’d invited her to join in the dancing, but when she became over-enthusiastic he grabbed her roughly to make her stop.

This has become an amazingly good production, and the cast are clearly enjoying themselves now that the director has (hopefully!) stopped tinkering with it. I gather that the atmosphere in rehearsals wasn’t particularly comfortable; the director likes to push his actors well beyond any comfort zones, and isn’t as open to discussion as we understood from his talk earlier in the run.

The problem of Asian actors not being cast as widely as black actors now are, still rumbles on, and I’m in two minds about this sort of all-Asian production. On the one hand, it’s absolutely valid to show how Shakespeare’s plays work in all sorts of cultures; after all it’s why he’s so admired and performed all over the world. And given that, it would be awkward to people the world of the performance with non-Asian actors, as that would raise other issues such as the colonial ones which the director here has chosen to avoid. But when these productions are staged, I can’t help feeling that they blur the statistics and make it seem as if there are more employment opportunities for Asian actors than is the case. I don’t know what the answer to this conundrum is, but I look forward to seeing another Asian Hamlet or perhaps a first Asian Henry V within a mixed cast, not as a box-ticking exercise but as a valid recognition of this pool of talent.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Much Ado About Nothing – August 2012

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Iqbal Khan

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Monday 20th August 2012

There’s been a huge improvement in this production since we saw it last. The timing of the scene changes is quicker, and the whole cast is working very well together. I don’t know if the accents had been modified or whether we were more used to them, but the dialogue was clearer, and although I only noticed a few specific cuts, the running time was down to three hours (from three and a half!). Our angle tonight was different too, so I saw some things I hadn’t noticed before, while losing one or two other things. There’s a truly magic feel to the performance, and with a packed audience responding warmly to the action it was a tremendous evening.

No real changes to report for the pre-show business or the early scenes, although I spotted that Hero deliberately managed to bump into Claudio before she left with the rest of the household. Don John was also present when Don Pedro returned to Benedick and Claudio. He stayed skulking by the front steps; after Benedick left, he received a pointed look from his brother and reluctantly went through the doors at the back, closing them with sarcastic precision. Dogberry and Borachio came on stage to remove the fan which had been working throughout the opening scene, and took it to the back of the stage before finally removing it altogether. Dogberry didn’t have long to tell Antonio what he’d heard before Antonio reported it to Leonato, dismissing Dogberry at the same time.

After Don John’s scene, Beatrice, Hero, Ursula and Margaret came through the audience and onto the stage at the front, singing and wearing the soldier’s jackets. Leonato and Antonio came through the doors to meet them, and after some chat they were dressed up in the scarves, ready for the party. The conversations at the party were easier to see from this angle, although the continuing music made them harder to hear. The prince and Hero appeared on the balcony during the dance, celebrating, while Claudio came across more clearly as immature tonight; his petulance at what he thought the prince had done – wooing Hero for himself instead of Claudio – was a childish reaction, and there was every possibility that he would grow out of such tantrums in time.

We had learned from the director that kissing in front of one’s elders is still frowned upon in India, so when Beatrice told Hero to stop Claudio’s “mouth with a kiss”, Leonato intervened and Hero and Claudio stayed apart. Again Don John’s scene had no changes to report, and then Benedick arrived on stage for the first gulling scene. His delivery of the speech “I do much wonder that one man….” was a bit better than before, but still lacked the detail of previous productions, and only got a laugh at the very end. Balthazar sang as before, and the servant who was bringing Benedick his book was persuaded to join in the dancing. She was much too vigorous, and Claudio backed off when she started hitting him with her scarf. Benedick was up on the roof again tonight, but he was visible (just) and the maid’s antics helped the scene along, as Benedick doesn’t actually have any lines for a fair chunk of it. At the end of the scene, when Benedick was assessing the ‘revelations’ he’d just heard, he kept bending down to put one shoe on, then leaving it to speak another line. He managed to get them both on before Beatrice came to call him in to dinner.

The gulling of Beatrice was done as before, with Hero’s lines still a bit muffled by the speaker on the mobile. Verges spotted Beatrice, who had slid round to sit beside her, after the line “Yet tell her of it: hear what she will say”, and so her “O! do not do your cousin such a wrong” was said with Beatrice right beside her. Beatrice put her finger to her lips to tell Verges to be quiet at “His excellence did earn it, ere he had it”, which explained Verges’ sudden change of subject.

Benedick was brought on to the stage for the next scene by Dogberry, who seemed to be the very barber talked of a short while later. The prince made much of not recognising Benedick, and his appearance was very different. The interval was taken after Don John’s assertion of Hero’s disloyalty, which meant the wedding platform could be set up during the interval, saving a good deal of time.

The second half still started with Beatrice singing “Sigh no more” on the balcony, with Dogberry on guard down below. This was followed by the first part of the watch scene, up to Dogberry’s final exit. Then came the first part of the wedding preparations, up to the conclusion of Margaret’s jest about “the heavier for a husband”. Then Borachio and Conrad had their conversation and were arrested by the watch, after which Beatrice turned up and completed the scene with Hero and Margaret. Dogberry and Verges showed the two pairs of trousers to Leonato as before, and then we had the wedding scene.

I wasn’t aware of any changes to this, but our view of the action was much better. The guests were brought up from the audience as before, and Beatrice and Benedick were startled to find themselves giving garlands to each other. We clapped along to the music as everyone arrived and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The microphone was still being used, and the way it was being passed around, or rather grabbed by various people, was very funny. The Panditji moved over to the corner of the stage at “Stand thee by,” with one of the servants bringing over the stool that proved so awkward last time. I’m not sure if Benedick sat down on it tonight, so the people sitting over that way may have suffered less than we did.

The rest of the scene was as before, just clearer, and the scene between Beatrice and Benedick was just as strong. The examination of Borachio and Conrade was followed by the clearing of the wedding platform and the cloth streamers, which worked better tonight although it was still slow. Leonato and Antonio managed their lines without the servants’ activities being so distracting, and I’m sure they got the stage cleared a line or two earlier this time.

Antonio took off one of his shoes and used it to attack Claudio, in lieu of a proper challenge. Claudio threw the shoe on the ground, and when Antonio bent to pick it up he reacted to a twinge in his back – we older folk knew just how he felt, but we all laughed. Benedick was very stern with both the prince and Claudio, and refused to be drawn into their banter, while Borachio’s confession shocked the pair of them deeply. They cut Claudio’s lines “Rightly reasoned, and in his own division….”, and I noticed this time that Antonio nodded his head slightly when Leonato mentioned his ‘niece’. They also cut Margaret and Benedick’s lines “who I think has legs.” “And therefore will come” which I remember hearing last time. No wonder half an hour has vanished.

To set up the temple scene, the two side blocks of the building slid back and were pushed off to either side; hence the disappearance of the musicians. They stayed in the same place, but the place itself moved back stage. I spotted Hero on the stairs this time, and when it came to finding Beatrice, Benedick was absolutely frantic, running here and there, finally asking which she was. Beatrice then tried to run off, but was prevented by a crowd of people and returned to face it out. The line “Peace! I will stop your mouths” was given back to Leonato, from whom a succession of editors had stolen it, and the shock of this forced kiss startled the pair at first. Then, with most of the others off stage, they decided to have another go, and spent quite some time in a passionate snog. After the messenger had brought the news of Don John’s capture, and Benedick had promised to sort him out tomorrow, the play ended with the servant girl finally handing Benedick the book he’d asked for several acts ago. It was funny, and a good way to end the drama part of the evening, but of course there was the dance to enjoy before we left. And enjoy it we did.

Some final points: I saw that Hero embraced her father before heading off for her marriage, so all was well there too, and in one of the later scenes Claudio referred to Benedick as “Bendy-dick” – Steve reckoned he heard this variation earlier as well. I did have a few sniffles this evening – emotions rather than a cold – but there was definitely more laughter than tears which is as it should be.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Much Ado About Nothing – July 2012

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Iqbal Khan

Venue: Courtyard

Date: Tuesday 31st July 2012

We’ve seen a number of Much Ados over the years; some have been splendid, some have failed to get off the ground, but tonight’s performance is undoubtedly in the former category. This was the final preview before press night, and from the pre-show director’s talk we learned that about twenty minutes had been cut from the previous performance (and at three and a half hours that was just as well!) so the cast were having to deal with lots of changes. That, the blocking and some clunky stagings were the reason for only rating this at 7/10; with practice the actors will speed up and from a different perspective we should see a lot more of the crucial scenes. It only remains for the director to tighten up a few scene changes and we’ll be well on our way to full marks.

In the pre-show talk, the director explained how he came to Michael Boyd’s attention, via Meera Syal. He also discussed the concept for the piece; at first he didn’t want ‘Asian’ and insisted on having a free choice to do the play in whatever way suited it. After some research, including a visit to Delhi, he felt modern India would fit the play better than setting it in the past – historical India has too many political resonances which would drown out the issues dealt with in the play. He treats the text with respect, not reverence, and considers that his job is to serve the audience, not the author. Over the years he has done a one and half hour Othello and a four hour Hamlet, so he clearly takes each production as it comes. He also likes to make use of what the actors bring – twenty heads are better than one. He was asked about caste issues; they did discuss these during rehearsals, but again the director felt that those concerns belong to another play. I did learn that darker skin means lower caste, which made Claudio’s comment about his second bride – “were she an Ethiop” – much more telling in this interpretation.

Now to the performance. Announcements both inside and outside the auditorium were made by Dogberry, and included ‘switch off your digital crotches’ and ‘do not abuse your mobile phones’. Photography was going to be acceptable for once, until another servant corrected him. The set was a wonderful paved courtyard space, with a building behind on two levels – three if you count the roof. A balcony had rooms to left and right of a central door, and a large tree in front of it to the right, with lots of branches and a seat underneath. There was a swing hanging on this tree from a branch to the right of it; normally hung up against the tree, the swing was brought down several times.

It was lovely to see that the balcony of Leonato’s house blended with the Courtyard balcony. There were stairs up to balcony on the left hand side of the house, and steps up to the stage at the front – we noticed the grille during the pre-show and realised there would be water. Both voms had been removed, but there were steps up to the stage at each side.

Before the start, the washing was hung up over the stage, and Leonato’s household were getting the sheets down. Verges (Ursula in most productions) was bossing everyone about, while Dogberry was joining in and getting so stroppy with the people up above that he banged his foot against a seat. I laughed at this, and got some choice remarks sent in my direction (nothing I couldn’t handle) about his bunion hurting. Other members of the household staff arrived, and we could also see Beatrice sitting up on the balcony with what looked like a folder or book; it turned out to be an iPad, which she brought down to show to the audience. Apparently her nephew had been setting her up with potential suitors, but she wasn’t impressed and showed us the picture of an elderly man sitting in his library, making some disparaging comments about his suitability. This section felt like we were part of the community of this house, neighbours who just happened to be sitting around, and certainly got me involved from the start. The band were back right for most of the play, under the balcony, then moved somewhere else and did a lap of honour at the end.

Hero and Margaret returned from a shopping trip, well laden, and showed off some of their purchases to Beatrice, who had returned to the balcony. Leonato arrived at the front of the stage, bearing the message about the prince, and at some point Verges sent everyone scurrying to prepare for visitors. They brought out a floral garland and a tray with the powder on it, which Beatrice held for her uncle when the prince arrived. Before that, the chat between her and the soldier was fun and he eventually conceded defeat with good grace.

Don Pedro arrived with his brother, Claudio and Benedick. For this scene, it was Don John blocking our view, but not too badly. Leonato greeted Don Pedro with the garland and put the spot on his forehead (tilak?), and then Beatrice and Benedick were into their battle of wits. When Leonato welcomed Don John, he was indeed “not of many words”, which got a laugh. When Claudio was talking with Don Pedro and Benedick about Hero, Dogberry and Borachio were clearing some things off the stage, and thus heard about Don Pedro’s plan to woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf. Claudio blocked my view of Benedick asking the prince to “constrain me to tell”, but from the delivery I could tell it was entertaining.

After these three left, we could see Dogberry whispering his version of the story to Antonio. Leonato called out to his brother from the balcony, and Antonio reported what he’d heard, while Dogberry slunk away before he could be called on to confirm the details. The next scene had Conrad and Don John on stage. A servant brought them bottles of beer, and while they were drinking and talking, Borachio came along with his news. Don John came across as someone who simply liked to be contrary, and given the downturn in his fortunes he was determined to cause as much trouble as he could. Borachio was another drinker – he was hardly ever without a drink in his hand before his arrest.

The party scene took a little while to set up, with Leonato and Antonio putting on scarves and some make up, while the women wore the men’s military jackets over their dresses and acted the male parts. There was a lively dance, with the Prince’s men also wearing scarves, and occasionally the rest of the dancers moved to the back of the stage so that a conversation could take place at the front. This included Margaret’s chat with Balthazar and Verges’ (Ursula’s) chat with Antonio. Her references to head-wagging were very appropriate.

After Beatrice and Benedick’s conversation most of the dancers left the stage, so only Claudio, moping on the tree seat, Don John and one of his followers were left. They stirred up Claudio, pretending to think he was Benedick, so Claudio stormed off when Benedick arrived to take him to the Prince, and Benedick also left when Beatrice arrived. I noticed it was Beatrice who found and brought Claudio to the Prince; clearly a competent woman.

Claudio’s halting protestations of love to Hero (once Don Pedro gave him the good news) were not highly thought of by the others, hence Beatrice’s plea to Hero to “let him not speak neither”. Don Pedro was upset at being refused by Beatrice, and I wasn’t sure how much his plan to have her and Benedick fall in love with each other was devised partly out of spite for that rejection.

Borachio and Conrad were drinking, or rather Conrad was too far gone to drink so one of the others took his bottle, for the scene where they planned Hero’s downfall, and Borachio helped Conrad off at the end. Don’t know why they went so far with the alcoholism. Then came the first gulling scene. One of the servants, a woman, was sitting on the swing. Benedick arrived, took off his shoes and sat on the bench, and asked her to go for his book. She demurred, so Benedick chased her off and then sat on the swing himself to deliver his next speech. It was rather rushed, and didn’t get the full humour out of his total refusal to wed followed by his detailed list of the attributes his bride would require – that may come with time.

When the three other men arrived, Benedick ran off the stage to begin with and then lurked round the far side next to the audience, while Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro used the whole of the stage. Balthazar sang a funky Indian version of “Sigh no more”, which was very good, before leaving them to it. Leonato was having the usual difficulty in keeping up with the others, but managed to think of a funny story when prompted by the prince.

During this talk, the servant came back with the book, and was trying to give it to Benedick but couldn’t get his attention. After he took to the tree and then the balcony, she gave up and started listening to the story the others were telling. She even became part of the action after the “between the sheets” gag, falling to the ground and acting out Beatrice’s suffering as the story unfolded. Benedick was up on the roof at the end, and after he came down she was trying to give him the book still, but failed. Don Pedro and Claudio didn’t fancy leaving when Leonato said “My Lord, will you walk?” but fairly ran off the stage when he added “dinner is ready”.

This scene still needs work, I feel. The director made changes here before tonight’s performance, so that doesn’t help, but Benedick is so out of touch with the others when he’s up on the roof, and possibly out of sight of the audience as well, that it takes a lot of the fun out of the scene. The servant’s inclusion does add some humour, but at the expense of seeing Benedick being tricked into loving Beatrice, although I reckon he’s really being tricked into admitting his true feelings for her.

Beatrice came out with her mobile phone when she called Benedick to dinner. He was back on the swing at this point, with a stupid grin on his face. His attempts to make Beatrice’s surliness seem like indicators of love were funny. For Beatrice’s gulling, Hero gave Verges a phone and then went inside – we could see her behind the shutters of an upstairs room, where Margaret joined her after getting Beatrice involved. Verges and Hero conversed using the speakers on their mobiles. Meanwhile, Beatrice had been brought out onto the balcony, hair in a towel, bleaching cream on her top lip, and ended up on the tree seat just far enough round to appear hidden but without actually being out of sight.

I was aware that many of Hero and Verges’ comments were accurate; Beatrice does scorn all offers and turns “every man the wrong side out”. I found it harder to hear all the lines with this staging, but I got the gist. Verges moved over to the tree seat herself as the conversation progressed, and somewhere around “Yet tell her of it”, Beatrice slid round next to Verges who had to acknowledge her presence. Her lines after that were said with Beatrice right there, and when the ‘gulling’ was concluded and Beatrice was left alone, she took off the towel, wiped her lip, and resolved to requite Benedick’s love. She danced around a bit, waving the towel, then caught it in her arms and stood there, rocking it like a baby. After a few seconds she realised what she was doing and threw the towel down before heading off.

Benedick had been quick about getting shaved and putting on some hair dye. His hair had been grizzled at the start; now his black locks gleamed against his clean-shaven face. His military garb had been transformed into trousers and a long turquoise top, and if I hadn’t known who he was I might not have recognised him. He responded to the prince and Claudio’s barbs with spirit, and although his shaven face was revealed at the start of the scene, which is too soon for me, the overall effect was fine. Don John stirred up Claudio and the prince as usual, and then the watch arrived. They used the household servants for this, and made it out to be a special guard duty which they were doing on a one-off basis for the wedding. We were blocked again from seeing some of this scene, but the lines were OK. When Dogberry left the first time, the watch sat down on the steps, apart from one chap who squatted near us with a see-through umbrella over him.

The director mentioned that he’d cut two scenes together, and this was that spliced section. During the earlier scenes, the staff had set up a wedding platform underneath the tree. A mannequin stood to the left of this with the wedding dress on it, and for the first bit of this scene I could just make out Margaret and Hero on the platform, behind the chap with the umbrella. Then Dogberry came back briefly, and then I think they finished the scene on the platform with Beatrice’s arrival. After this, the women left, taking the wedding dress with them. Then it was the arrival of Borachio and Conrad, still drinking, to be arrested by the watch. The chap with the umbrella stood up to listen to the two men, and Borachio obviously took him for a tree, because he peed all over him. (This is becoming a little tedious now.) The others crept forward from the steps onto the stage, surrounded the villains and apprehended (or as Dogberry would say “comprehended”) them. Interval.

During the interval they finished setting up the stage for the wedding, and again Dogberry and Verges were bossing people about. Cloth streamers were handed out to the few members of the audience who had stayed in the auditorium with instructions to pass them back. Eventually they were all attached to wires and drawn up to form a canopy over the platform – a nice effect, but perhaps a little costly later on?

The second half started with Beatrice on the balcony singing “Sigh no more”, followed by Dogberry and Verges turning up to report their arrest of Conrad and Borachio. It seemed slightly strange that Leonato called Dogberry “good neighbour”, but it was even stranger that Dogberry and Verges were holding a pair of trousers each, presumably from the arrested men. They held the trousers up to show Leonato, but he was too focused on his daughter’s wedding, and sent them away. If only…

The wedding scene was very good, from what I could see of it. Dogberry and Verges got several audience members up on the stage and sitting on cushions. The families processed onto the stage from each side, and garlands were exchanged; Beatrice and Benedick also exchanged grimaces with theirs. Hero and Claudio sat side by side on the platform, and it all seemed to be going very well. The music was very lively, there was a lot of colour and smiling faces. What could possibly go wrong?

They were using the term ‘Pandit’ instead of “friar” for this scene, and they also used a microphone for the wedding ceremony, passing it from speaker to speaker. Claudio certainly used it when he accused Hero of not being a virgin, although it was put aside at some point. Hero stayed on the platform, collapsing there, while her father ranted near the front of the stage. I didn’t have the best view, because the stool in front of us was occupied during most of this bit, first by Antonio(?), then Benedick, then the Pandit (sigh). (As a result, though, I can grass up the Pandit; his comments about “noting of the lady” were spectacularly inaccurate tonight, as he spent very little time looking in her direction.)

Despite my restricted view, I was able to spot Margaret’s reaction to the story the prince and Claudio were telling. She clearly realised her part in all this, and left quickly. I hope to get a better idea of this scene another time, but it came across quite strongly all the same. The use of the microphone plus the upbeat start served to emphasise Hero’s public humiliation, and made Claudio and the prince’s acts all the more shocking.

After Hero was taken away, the scene between Benedick and Beatrice was very good; she was very strong, and he seemed to grow up a lot in this scene. I reckoned it was the emotional trauma that allowed them to come into some sort of relationship, especially the fact that Benedick supported her family and was on Hero’s side. Her line “Kill Claudio” raised a laugh, which I always find hard to understand. This is a serious request, and a sobering one, not some silly adolescent joke. Benedick’s response shows how reluctant he is to take such an extreme measure, thereby also emphasising his feelings for Beatrice when he eventually accepts the task.

After they left, the watch, their prisoners and the sexton arrived for the interrogation scene. Not only were Conrad and Borachio without their trousers, they were trussed together, back to back, so walking was difficult for them, They had to sit back to back on the stage while the sexton, who sat on the platform, took notes. The watch were much better at giving evidence than Dogberry and Verges, as usual, and the final insistence by Dogberry, that everyone “remember that I am an ass!”, was very funny.

Now the wedding platform and decorations had to be taken away, and this was done during Leonato and Antonio’s opening speeches in the next scene. The cloth streamers were lowered and unhooked, and finally dragged off through the doors, while the swags and other fancy bits were also removed. This took some time, and during it the two men had to be careful where they stood, as they could easily have disrupted the whole process by standing on a bit of cloth. There may also have been a reluctance to talk while the servants were around, but I think the main problem was the delaying effect of removing so much cloth from the stage. This slowed the start of this scene down so much that it almost stopped altogether, but once the stage was de-weddinged, the pace picked up with Leonato’s comment “My soul doth tell me Hero is belied”, and the rest of the scene, though slow, worked OK.

The verbal fisticuffs between the old men and the soldiers was a bit dull, possibly because of the earlier lack of pace, but once Benedick came on the energy lifted a bit. He handled the prince and Claudio’s mocking very well, staying focused on his primary intent, which was to challenge Claudio. The prince and Claudio reacted to the news that Don John had left, but without changing their attitude completely.

When Dogberry and the watch brought on the prisoners again, they were in an even worse state than before. Their shirts had gone, and they were still struggling to get on and off the stage tied together as they were. Borachio’s confession changed the situation, and Claudio knelt down and put his head to Leonato’s feet as he was apologising. Leonato handled things well, I thought, and for once Antonio didn’t react when Leonato suggested that Claudio should marry his niece, Antonio’s daughter “almost the copy of my child that’s dead”. Either he’s a bit slow on the uptake, hard of hearing, or the brothers had already planned this way of bringing Hero back to life (my preferred interpretation). I think Leonato gave Dogberry some paper money for his “pains”.

The next scene showed us Margaret, apparently recovered from her guilt over her part in Hero’s dishonouring, bantering with Benedick.  After she left we were treated to Benedick’s appalling lack of talent in the musical department, followed by his inability to rhyme, all of which was mercifully cut short when Beatrice turned up. They sat on the swing together while they discussed their attraction to each other.

To create the setting for the scene in the memorial, the central part of the building was opened up while the side doors were folded back, creating a space on either side. They chose to have rain at the back of the stage, behind the building, and it ran forward, hence the grilles in the steps at the front. Several of the cast were out in the rain, with umbrellas keeping them dry. For the reciting of the poem, Claudio was at the front along with the prince and a veiled woman, didn’t see who. Steve remembers Hero being on the steps to the left, wearing a veil. Balthazar sang the song, standing on the little bit of balcony that remained, and after the prince and Claudio left to prepare for the wedding, Leonato and his family emerged from their mourning garb to make their own arrangements. Hero wasn’t entirely happy with her father at this point, refusing to embrace him, and who can blame her? With the women off the stage, Benedick made his request for Beatrice’s hand in marriage, and then the prince and Claudio returned for the final scene.

Given the amount of rain, the staff had been very busy drying the floor during all of this. Otherwise the set remained the same, although I did spot the ends of two carpets or rugs sticking out at the very back of the stage, off to the left, presumably to do with the wedding ceremony. As well as changing “friar” to ‘Pandit’, references to “church” had become ‘temple’, which worked just fine for me.

After the initial discussion, and Claudio making his remark about an “Ethiop”, the women returned. The prince and Claudio were confronted by four women with veils over their heads which were also held out on front of them. For once, I had no idea who was who, and neither did Benedick when he tried to find Beatrice, although I could guess which one she had to be. The exchange of written love letters was very good, with Beatrice reacting strongly to the inadequacy of Benedick’s efforts, then changing her response so as not to hurt his feelings. The prince sat near the front as Benedick told him to get a wife, and the news about Don John’s arrest was also quickly dealt with by Benedick.

They finished with a lively dance, Indian style, which went on for some time. I clapped along, but the audience was pretty unresponsive until the dance stopped, and then we all applauded well enough for two rounds of bows, with the musicians taking their lap of honour after the first lot. And a marvellous job they’d done, too.

Overall, the only problem with this production was the slow pace, which I suspect was largely due to the many changes the cast had had to assimilate plus the cumbersome scene changes. The dialogue was mostly clear, though the use of Indian accents sometimes blurred the lines too much. Again, that should improve with practice, and I’m looking forward to seeing this one again.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

I, Cinna – July 2012

2/10

By Tim Crouch (drawing heavily on Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare)

Directed by Tim Crouch

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Friday 6th July 2012

I found this dreadfully boring. Designed as a way of suggesting ideas, mainly to schoolchildren, this was as dull an experience as I’ve had in Stratford. Cinna, the poet, spent about an hour talking us through the play Julius Caesar, attempting to give us some thought-provoking questions along the way. After this there was a post-show discussion so that the audience could air their thoughts and views (I assume, as we didn’t stay for that part). There were one or two good bits – commenting on Caesar (or Antony?) as someone with gold taps in their bathroom was a nice way of relating the story to the present day, as were the other mentions of modern life, such as riot police. I did the writing as requested but I didn’t get much out of it, although as we left the auditorium the youngsters were being warmed up for what may have been a good post-show discussion for them.

The set consisted of a tatty green door at the back of the thrust, which had a number of locks and two strips of wall with manky wallpaper, one on either side. There were bits of paper pinned to each wall, and a large screen above the door which showed the video clips. To the left of this was a table with a waste paper basket under it which was overflowing with paper – the floor was covered with screwed up bundles. An old style TV was front left, facing diagonally across the stage to a chair that sat back right, accompanied by a standard lamp. The control table for the video clips was on the back left walkway, and the woman sitting there also delivered a newspaper through the letterbox about halfway through the performance.

After the assassination, Cinna gave us three minutes to write a poem (does he have so little respect for his craft?) and rearranged the furniture to show the post-assassination world. The chairs and table were thrown over, the door was turned round so we could see the backstage view, and he daubed blood on himself to indicate his own murder. I forget how the performance ended, but I did applaud quite loudly, as Jude Owusu had managed a good performance in the circumstances. We’d been moved from the Swan into the Courtyard theatre, from an intimate venue to a big cavern, and I felt that didn’t help what was ostensibly an interactive piece, especially as our numbers reflected the Swan’s capacity rather than the Courtyard’s. There was relatively little audience response during the play, and that may have made a huge difference; I really can’t tell.

I found myself writing some of these notes on the blank pages in the program, as I just wasn’t feeling involved in the performance at all. One response I wrote on the page, after Cinna made the challenging assertion that ‘we are not free’ was ‘free to ignore what’s on stage and write these thoughts down’, so I did manage to get some inspiration from it after all. I felt the video was underused, and the images didn’t seem to relate to what was being talked about for the most part. They did have film of the assassination, which was a bit bizarre, but otherwise it just seemed to be a jumble. I’ll try to avoid this type of performance in future.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Matilda – December 2010

5/10

By: Book by Dennis Kelly, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, based on the book by Roald Dahl

Directed by: Matthew Warchus

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Monday 13th December 2010

Not our cup of tea, but it was an excellent production, with very good to excellent performances. I preferred the adult bits – I found it hard to make out what the children were singing or saying most of the time, so I tended to lose interest when they were on. I didn’t know the story, and I’m not a fan of Roald Dahl’s work anyway, but I was glad to see so many others enjoying themselves. A lot of youngsters stood up at the end to applaud, which was great for the cast.

I also liked the fact that real children were cast in this production. It’s usually adults playing young, which is also fun, but I think this allowed the kids in the audience to feel more involved. I was surprised to see the way the young actors (and some of the older ones) were allowed to throw themselves onto the swings and float out over the audience. Where was health and safety when this was being set up? Not that I disapprove – it made it much more alive and exciting –  but in previous productions the actors have been padlocked to anything that might lift their feet off the ground by even a few inches! As I say, I was surprised to see them get away with all this risk taking – long may it continue.

The set was good, with its constant emphasis on books, books, and books. All sorts of contraptions were brought on and off without disturbing the flow, which helped a lot. The costumes were just perfect, although Rudolfo’s was perhaps less revealing than I (and I suspect many others) would have liked.

The performances of the real youngsters were very good. I particularly liked Lavender – she had good comic timing – and hope she has a long career ahead of her.  Matilda tonight was Kerry Ingram, and she was fine, though the problem with real children on stage is that they lack the range of expressions to convey emotions clearly. I managed to fill in the blanks well enough, though.

Bertie Carvel is one of our favourites, and it’s fair to say we haven’t seen him play the same character twice. Miss Trunchbull was certainly a mile away from anything we’ve ever seen him in before, although we know he does both musicals and comedy very well. His physical comedy was superb, and although Dahl’s style of villains isn’t to my taste, Bertie played this one to perfection. I even heard one woman say to her child as she left for the interval, “OK, then, man or woman?”. I think we know who she was talking about!

Mrs Wormwood was very good, and her song, Shout, was a great example of the barbed wit that was aimed more at the older audience members. Style over substance was her mantra, and don’t we just know all about that today! The contrast between the way the children were treated by their doting parents (little angels) and the way the outside world was going to lay into them (maggots) was spot on, as was the way the parents fussed over their little darlings, leading the teacher to smoke a fag on the steps by us, making faces at the things the parents said. Mrs Warchus (hire one, get the second half price?) was also a very beguiling Miss Honey, the nice one, and her voice worked beautifully with this music.

Overall, it wasn’t something I’d choose to see again, but it’s the last production we’re guaranteed to see in the Courtyard, and it wasn’t too much of an ordeal.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Hamlet YPS – August 2010

7/10

By William Shakespeare, edited by Bijan Sheibani and Tarell Alvin McCraney

Directed by Tarell Alvin McCraney

Company: RSC YPS

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Saturday 21st August 2010

All sorts of excitement today. We’d only been watching this seriously trimmed production for about ten minutes when the stage manager came on stage and told us all to get out! Well, she actually asked us to evacuate the building, so we did – not raining at the time, thank goodness – and about fifteen minutes later, they let us back in. No official explanation, but at least we got to see the rest of the performance.

The cast handled it very well, I thought. The break came just as Polonius was interrogating Ophelia about Hamlet’s interest in her, so they restarted from the beginning of that scene, and there were no more interruptions before the end.

The story was minimalist, to put it mildly. This is the version that’s done for the young folk, so I can appreciate the need to keep it short and simple, and we both reckoned they’d done a good job of telling the basic story. There was even some audience participation along the way. Fortinbras had obviously gone, as had most of the players’ involvement, though we did get the crucial Mousetrap mime. Horatio was Horatia, although they didn’t change the lines, and the opening scenes in particular were intercut rather than played through in order.

The opening mime showed us the old king dying, and the mourners covered him with their umbrellas so he could sneak off stage. These umbrellas were well used in this production, as they doubled for guns, a nice touch. Then Claudius told us about the Danish royal family’s situation – old king dead, new king married to the widow – and then we saw the ghost walking for the first time. Then it was Laertes leaving, and Peter Peverley as Polonius did a lovely thing with the line ‘He hath, my lord, wrung from me my slow leave’. He only said the ‘He hath’, but held the ‘He’ so long, it fully conveyed the sense of the whole line.

After this, we were pretty much back on track, although everything was very much shortened to fit the seventy minute schedule. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were played almost as twins, wearing identical blazers, and bringing a lot of comic touches to the performance, mostly through their expressions.

I forget at which point they first asked for help from the audience. Hamlet brought a little girl up from the front row, by the left side aisle, and used her hands like a puppet to speak to another character, but I’ve completely blanked when. The second time was for the play-in-a-play. Ophelia, as one of the players and using a very strange accent, asked for a volunteer from the audience. A young woman from the circle put her hand up straightaway, and came down to help out. She had to be the pretend player king who gets the poison put in his ear, so all she had to do was wear a big fur coat and lie on the ground. Actually, she also had a line to say. Hamlet did an abbreviated version of his speech to the players about how to act, and she replied, ‘I will, my lord.’ Then we had the play itself. Both volunteers were applauded before they left the stage.

Ophelia’s drowning was demonstrated by means of a blue cloth, and for the burial scene she was carried in wrapped in the same cloth. When Hamlet’s ghost was describing his own murder (and there’s a scene that deserves to be seriously cut in any production) Claudius helpfully appeared on stage and showed, in mime, the actions the ghost was describing. As the ghost, Patrick Romer wore a small mask and moved in a slow, stately manner, which I found quite creepy. Polonius hid behind an open umbrella instead of an arras, and the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was also demonstrated in mime at the rear of the stage while Hamlet described it.

The fencing was reasonably brisk – nearly at the end – and Hamlet’s death was the quickest on record. I think he only said a couple of lines, finishing with the usual ending. And that was the end. The cast only took one set of bows, but then we had been delayed, and there was a matinee of King Lear due on in just over an hour, so I assume they were under orders to keep it short. The audience could have gone another round, but that’s how it goes sometimes. An excellent effort, and nice to see some of the minor role actors getting a chance to show what they can do, even in such a modified version.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King Lear – August 2010

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Friday 20th August 2010

What a difference from the first performance we saw in February. The set wasn’t so intrusive, perhaps because we were used to it, although there may have been some changes. But the main change was in the performances, which were much more detailed and authoritative throughout. The opening scene, particularly, worked brilliantly this time for me, with Lear clearly trying to wheedle a ‘loving’ response from Cordelia so as not to ruin his planned praise-fest. Greg Hicks had told us at the Summer School this morning that he had now learned to speak more directly to the audience, for regular dialogue as well as soliloquies, and the change was amazing. I also agreed with Greg Hicks that Lear already has the seeds of madness in him at the start of the play; here we get to see those seeds sprouting very quickly.

For the very start, Edgar was on stage, hunkered down at the back. He stood up and walked to the centre of the stage, looking at the flickering light. Cordelia and the other characters for the first scene also came on, looking the same way. Suddenly, Edgar broke off, and ran off stage at the back. The rest of the cast formed up, and the play began. I reckon this was the way it started back in February, I just forgot that detail when I was writing my notes (and I probably didn’t realise it was Edgar we were seeing, either).

Several of the lines came across more clearly, and with much greater meaning tonight. Both Cordelia and Edmund have improved their delivery enormously – their accents made their dialogue seem very flat before, but they’ve got more flexibility into their voices.

Greg mentioned the possibility of incest this morning, and while it wasn’t emphasised, there was much too much physical contact between him and Regan when he’s talking with her at Gloucester’s place. I was also aware of how unreasonable his behaviour was, and what sort of strain that could put his daughters under, which would explain a lot about their attitudes to him.

No changes to the staging that we noticed, so the improvement is entirely down to the acting. I’m looking forward to seeing this again, probably when they open the new theatre, and hopefully I’ll be in better health so I can enjoy the performance even more.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me