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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Hamlet – May 2013 (2)

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 31st May 2013

It’s an interesting experience watching a production over several performances, especially in a long run. The ‘normal’ expectation is for growth: actors will develop their roles, the cast will work better together, and a deeper and broader view of the play will emerge through both the actors’ greater experience and the repeated viewings, which are often helped by a different angle. When we first saw this production during the previews, we were confident that the next performance we saw (ignoring the understudy run) would have come on considerably. Unfortunately, we were wrong. Jonathan Slinger still hasn’t got to grips with his role as the vacillating prince, and although there were some interesting changes to some of the staging, and some improvements in individual performances, it would seem that our enjoyment last time round was largely based on the surprise factor, which was understandably lacking tonight.

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Hamlet – March 2013

Preview

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Monday 25th March 2013

For such a well-known play, it was refreshing to see a distinctly different take on many aspects of the story, coupled with a version of the text which dropped many familiar lines. Of all David Farr’s productions at the RSC that we’ve seen, this one is definitely the strongest, and as this was only the eleventh performance (press night tomorrow) there is plenty of scope for the actors to develop their roles within the overall structure. Mind you, they’re starting from a high baseline, with much to enjoy already in this lively, if a tad over-long, production.

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The Tempest – September 2012

(unrated)

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 27th September 2012

I had such an unusual experience tonight that I can’t rate this performance properly. I left the auditorium shortly after the second half started – apologies to anyone I disturbed on the way out – and was let back in round the other side after a few minutes by the very helpful ushers they have at the RSC. As it turned out, my view was probably better than Steve’s for that half as a result, with a string of characters standing in front of him for long periods. We’ve heard from various actors at the RSC that they’ve been told not to stand still for more than thirty seconds: they may have been told, but from our experience they’re not actually doing it as often as they should. After I came back in, I was sitting right round the side on the left of the auditorium, and my only problems were the overhang and a pillar which between them blocked a good deal of the action. However the audience around me were a good deal quieter than the couple behind our original seats, and since that’s why I walked out I was considerably happier, even before I found out about the blocking Steve had suffered after my departure.

So with all this going on it wouldn’t be fair to rate this evening’s efforts; I wouldn’t want to pin a low experience rating on what was a decent enough set of performances. I would be happy to pin a very low rating on the set and production though, and I’ll explain as I go along. We did see this play back in May, but I nodded off a fair bit then and so didn’t do proper notes; this will be the main record for this production and I’ll include the points I have noted down from the previous performance.

The set was basically the same as for the other two plays, but not as cluttered. There were rocks strewn about the place and some gaps in the flooring. Some of the lumps on the stage were shaped like bits of a statue; I surmised these could be bits of a ship’s masthead which were mouldering on the island after Prospero and Miranda were wrecked there. There was a small table and chair on the right of the stage with a black object on the table; I thought at first it was a telephone but it turned out to be a radio receiver. At the back on the right was a large Perspex box with a door, which served as Prospero’s cell and was used for various effects; the box could be clear or obscured by different lighting and some smoke effects.

Prospero wore a suit for most of the play, and it had obviously seen better days. There was a sandy stain running down the right side of the jacket and a few rips and tears. Miranda wore a dress last time, but tonight she had a white vest and shorts made out of a pair of her father’s trousers. This made more sense, as Gonzalo might have smuggled clothes for a child on board the ship, but would he have provided an entire wardrobe for a growing girl? The boat wasn’t that big after all. Still, she magicked up a fetching green frock for the final scenes (runs in the family) while Ferdinand was back in his immaculate naval uniform with its white jacket and coloured sash. The rest of the Italians wore appropriate modern dress for their status, with a female Sebastian in a deep pink figure-hugging dress and matching shoes, most of the courtiers wearing suits, and Stephano and Trinculo in appropriate uniforms for their jobs as butler and cook.

Ariel’s costume was interesting. He wore a suit which matched Prospero’s exactly, from the stain to the rips, and I had the impression that he was an airy spirit who had chosen to embody in the same form as Prospero, his master. When Prospero changed clothes at the end, coming out of his cell in a smart navy suit (the colour, not the armed service) Ariel reacted with fascination. It was as if he hadn’t realised that the clothes Prospero wore weren’t part of him (cf. the Doctor Who episode “The Doctor Dances”). I was seeing this from behind, mind you, so my interpretation may be wonky on this point. Ariel went over to Prospero and touched the jacket, feeling the cloth (we think – Steve’s view was blocked as well) and then buttoned the jacket up. Prospero was quite moved by this reaction from his fairy servant. There were other spirits, but I wasn’t sure if they were actually other spirits or simply other manifestations of Ariel; given his power that wouldn’t be surprising, and the way they all left at the end strongly suggested that was the intention – I’ll describe that bit later.

The play began with Miranda sitting at the table doing her homework using a chalk and slate. The radio began to crackle, then came a ‘mayday’ call, and then the storm scene was played out in the Perspex box, with the dialogue being played over speakers to indicate that Miranda was hearing all this on the radio. This certainly explained how she knew about the storm and the supposed fate of those on the ship, but it didn’t make for the greatest clarity in the dialogue. Nick Day was good, as usual, and the boatswain occasionally came to the front of the box and bellowed so we could hear some of his lines, but the rest was lost. I found myself tuning it out and losing interest during this bit, though as I know what’s supposed to be happening it didn’t matter too much.

Prospero’s narration of the back story was next up, and while Jonathan Slinger’s delivery was clear, it was also very slow and deliberate. He chose to deliver many of these lines in short bursts, leaving pauses that were sometimes ridiculously long, and the lack of flow meant that I felt my energy drop considerably – now I know why I nodded off so much last time. Peaceful oblivion was denied me tonight; there were times when I would have liked nothing better than to spend time with Morpheus, but it was not to be. At least these notes will cover more of the staging as a result, so all’s well that ends well. (Now where have I heard that before?)

From last time I remember that Miranda’s reactions to her father’s story were excellent – I assume the same was true tonight – and even if it took too long we were pretty clear about who had done what to whom. We also had some insight into the father and daughter relationship, with Prospero even checking Miranda’s work on the slate during the scene. When Ariel had his mini-rebellion, Prospero went into his cell, and I wasn’t sure if he heard Ariel’s complaints or whether Ariel was simply talking out loud to himself, which in its own way was a moving sight. As part of his lecture, Prospero had Ariel sit at the table like a naughty schoolboy to teach him his lesson yet again. Sandy Grierson played Ariel, and I thought it was the best performance of the evening. He moved in a slightly unnatural way, with angular movements which suggested he was imitating human behaviour as best he could. He also sang beautifully – the best vocal musical performance of the season – and that’s an important attribute for any Ariel.

With Ariel brought back into line, Prospero woke Miranda (has she ever fallen asleep for real, I wonder?) and she was standing on the stage when Ariel brought Ferdinand on, still caught up in a spell. Ferdinand didn’t see the others at first, but when he did he was naturally attracted to Miranda, and so Prospero’s plan began to unfold. Ariel was sitting on a rock slightly behind Ferdinand when he drew his sword, so Ariel grabbed it and we had a laugh at the way Ferdinand was struggling to get his sword back.

When the King of Naples and his attendants arrived, Sebastian and Antonio stood at the front corners to pass their comments on the others; while I could hear and see them perfectly well, the action they were commenting on was a little obscured, and again my knowledge of the play came to the rescue. Even so, I was getting a little tired of the dullness of the set, and the lighting was so flat and stark that I was beginning to wish for slumber. Ariel came on using an instrument that looked like a metal xylophone with the bars arranged out of order. He played one of the bars with a violin bow, making a haunting, eerie sound which caused all but Sebastian and Antonio to fall asleep. Antonio’s seduction of Sebastian was OK, but I did find myself wondering, given that Sebastian was a woman, whether she could automatically assume that she would succeed to the kingdom. Perhaps I’m being too picky, but despite Elizabeth’s reign it was still a tough task for a woman to gain and then hold a crown in those days. Of course nowadays it’s fine, and since this was a modern dress production perhaps we were meant to ignore these points.

One aspect of this production which I did like was the performance of Amer Hlehel as Caliban. He wore a very tattered version of Prospero’s suit, as if he’d been given a decent one years ago but his menial workload had reduced it to rags. He also stood upright, didn’t look deformed or ugly, and spoke well, with the occasional glimpse of dignity. Fair enough, he’d wanted to rape Miranda, who would presumably have been under age at the time, but given the circumstances of the island it’s not that surprising. This casting and performance emphasised Prospero’s need for control, with the suits suggesting he was trying to recreate everyone else in his own image. I felt sorry for Caliban at times, especially when he cried “freedom” at a time when he was basically committing himself to slavery for a different and unworthy master.

Trinculo and Stephano were fine, another good comedy pairing of Felix Hayes and Bruce Mackinnon. I was starting to enjoy the humour a bit, and their lines were certainly clear. Using a recognisable glass bottle of whisky when Stephano clearly states that he made the bottle out of the bark of a tree was a bit puzzling, but then this island is full of magic, so who knows what may have happened? They cut Caliban’s song at the end of their first scene, which I was happy about, while their second scene gave us a fun start to the second half. Caliban carried on a strip of optics, some with bottles attached which had some liquor in them. Trinculo caught it deftly when Caliban let it go – there’s a man who likes his drink. Ariel stirred up the usual mischief by saying “thou liest” several times, which had us laughing a lot, mainly at Felix Hayes’ reactions.

Ferdinand brought on some planks as part of his chores, but soon put them down to talk with Miranda. Two of the spirits had come on stage at the start of this scene and sat on rocks at the front and back of the stage holding a rope between them. It was held just off the ground throughout the scene, like a skipping rope, but nothing else was done with it. I think there was more done to keep the two young people apart last time, but I don’t remember what; either way it was a strange bit of staging with no clear purpose. The courting between the two youngsters was fine, and Prospero came on from the back to keep an eye on things and then break it all up. Was it during this scene that the noise got too much for me and I left the auditorium?

I returned in time for the harpy scene. Just before the restart, Ariel had come on stage and this time I realised he was sewing a part of his harpy costume – a nice touch. It also meant he was on stage for the arrival of the clowns. Now a feast was laid out on a table for the famished lords, and when Gonzalo tasted the food he pronounced it excellent. Before they could eat though, the harpy descended from the sky at a tremendous rate – Ariel in a black spiky costume, half spider, half bat – and scared the shit out of them. I couldn’t see him properly from my seat – Steve had a better view. I forget how the lords left the stage, but then came the masque scene, and this was very well done.

After Prospero’s dire warnings about pre-marital sex, Ferdinand and Miranda sat down on a rock near the front of the stage to watch the spectacle. The goddesses were played by three actresses, done up in Elizabethan style gowns. The first was lowered down to stand on top of the box, the second came out of a hole near the front of the stage as far as I could see, and the third came out from the box. They may have been played by actresses, but they were actually puppets, marionettes manipulated by one or other spirit, with Ariel himself working Juno. The goddesses moved like puppets, and the spirits moved with them so the effect was magical, appropriately enough. I saw this better last time, but I could still see enough to enjoy it this time although I wasn’t really getting the dialogue for this bit.

When Prospero remembered the dastardly plan which Caliban had set in motion, he chased everyone away and then crumpled up on one of the rocks, looking overwhelmed with misery at what he had to deal with. Ariel came and sat beside him, and again there was surprise for Prospero at Ariel’s awareness. He told Ariel to put the clothes on “this” line –  no line was visible, but the spirits came up through the holes wearing the fancy garments which were also in Elizabethan style, slightly odd in terms of this production but never mind. As Stephano crept ever closer to the cell door, Trinculo suddenly noticed the gaudy apparel and soon they were having a clothing frenzy, grabbing everything they could and stacking the surplus up on Caliban to carry away with them. As each spirit had its fancy clothes removed, it slipped back down through the hole it had come up from.  They soon returned with wolf masks on, and chased the naughty threesome off the stage.

So to the final act. Ariel’s expression of potential pity moved Prospero (and me). The King of Naples was brought on stage with his court, still spellbound, and while they gradually came to their senses, Prospero went to change his clothes, and that was when Ariel checked out the new suit.

After Prospero announced himself to the others, he took Sebastian and Antonio aside to warn them that he knew what they’d been up to. He also got the ring of his dukedom back from his brother, and then gave him a hug (ah). Miranda and Ferdinand were revealed playing chess in the cell, and everything was heading for a happy ending, especially when the ship’s crew turned up and informed the King that their ship was fine. Only Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano remained to be dealt with, and they gave us some final laughs before everyone went into the cell apart from Prospero and Ariel.

When Prospero freed Ariel, Ariel took off his jacket and dropped it at Prospero’s feet and the other spirits stuck their heads up through the other holes in the stage. Ariel then turned and held the sides of the hole nearest to him, dropping into it gently with his head still sticking up. At a gesture from him, all the spirits disappeared at the same instant, which is what led me to believe they were all intended to be aspects of Ariel. Prospero’s request for applause was again rather stilted, so although I’m familiar with the play I wasn’t absolutely sure when he’d finished. We figured it out eventually though, and there was decent applause all round.

There were a couple of strange choices that haven’t come up in these notes so far. One was Gonzalo’s accent, which was frequently and clearly East End, but with Nick Day’s plummy voice it sometimes glided into posh RP. I have no idea why this choice was made. The other event was when some figures appeared in the smoke-filled cell wearing Elizabethan ruffs and moving as if they were drowning or at least moving under water. There was some reference to the King of Naples and his people at the time, but I couldn’t see what the connection was. Overall, I felt the set design lumbered the production with too much unnecessary detail, and while some of the staging choices worked very well, others were a distraction. The flatness of the lighting when viewed from the front bleached all the energy out of the performance as well, while from the side the same lighting made interesting shadows which lifted the set up from the mundane.  Unless this pointless variation is part of the grand plan, they really need to have people checking these things out from all parts of the auditorium in future. The use of the Perspex box was also unfortunate, as they sometimes shone lights directly onto it from the front and the glare nearly blinded us. As Steve pointed out, if he’d wanted to listen to a radio play he wouldn’t have spent the money on top-price tickets to the theatre.

These problems aside, I did like the performances, and we’re hoping for improvements in the way this stage is used now that Greg’s taken over.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Twelfth Night – September 2012

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 26th September 2012

We’ve seen this twice before and liked it both times. Our view tonight was even better – we were in the circle – but I felt more distanced from the stage and the action as we were further away than I expected. Still, apart from the revolving door we could see every part of the set, and there was plenty of audience response to help things along.

No changes to report on the staging. There was one thing missing though: Malvolio’s cart must have malfunctioned tonight as although we heard the beeping sound, which caused Viola to look round and pause, Malvolio walked on stage to deliver the ring to Cesario. The recalcitrant vehicle still turned up in Malvolio’s darkened room, but it couldn’t get a laugh as most people didn’t know the significance. I also noticed Feste’s use of electrodes on Malvolio this time – couldn’t remember if this was new or not, but it certainly tied up well with Dr Pinch’s treatment policy in Comedy.

Malvolio’s exhibition of himself in his cross-gartered yellow stockings was just as daring as before and the audience loved it, especially the cheeky way he went up the stairs at the end. We thought the shipwrecked twins were more careful when they left the water not to make too big a splash, but Sir Andrew couldn’t help it – he fell, he splashed. Sargon Yelda, last night’s limping Angelo, appeared briefly tonight as Valentine to deliver the bad news about Olivia in the opening scene, but I didn’t see him again so hopefully he was resting that leg. The youngsters near us were very vocal in their appreciation of the snogging aspects of the production (in a good way) and from what little I heard of their chat during the interval they seemed to be enjoying the performance a lot; this cast are certainly doing a good job of entertaining people.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Twelfth Night – July 2012

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 26th July 2012

This was the production we liked best in the main house earlier this year, and it’s still the best this time, but not by as much. There were some changes we spotted, plus additional aspects we hadn’t seen before, and a very appreciative audience meant there was a great atmosphere. The performances had undoubtedly come on, but they were pretty well established before, so the improvement wasn’t so noticeable. I could have done without some additional commentary from the people behind us, but it didn’t happen too often and didn’t ruin the evening.

As we knew how the performance started, we lost the advantage of surprise which can make a huge difference with such a spectacular staging. So it probably took me a little longer to warm up than last time, but not much. I wasn’t sure if there were fewer actors creeping on stage during the blackout, but this time I noticed the blinking red light towards the top of the pillar, which indicated the port scenes. During Orsino’s first speech, I was aware that his comments about Olivia’s capacity for love, grieving as she is for a dead brother, would apply equally as well to Viola, grieving over Sebastian’s bag at the front of the stage while this scene is going on.

Some minor differences during the early scenes: no applause for Sir Andrew’s moonwalk, sadly, and Cesario didn’t cough over his cigarette. When Olivia gave Malvolio the ring to take to Cesario, she took it off her finger this time instead of a chain, and it was easy to see how her flirtatiousness was being misinterpreted by Malvolio. The beeping of the trolley wasn’t as loud as before – perhaps other people had trouble with their hearing aids as well – and the ring still ended up in the water.

Sir Andrew’s dunking did happen as a result of Malvolio’s arrival. He (Sir Andrew) edged backwards along the diving board, and fell in at a suitable moment. Three splashes for the front row, though none of them seemed as big as in the earlier performance – perhaps they’re getting the hang of it. The comments about Orsino’s mind being like an opal may have been trimmed, as Feste exited after the word “opal” this time. Cesario’s discussion with Orsino about the nature of male and female love was good, and as I was watching this scene, and others during the performance, I found I was able to register Cesario as a boy, and see the situation from Orsino’s perspective.

For the letter scene, the business with the three objects on the reception desk had changed; now Sir Toby or Sir Andrew grabbed one of the items to throw it at Malvolio, and Fabian deftly removed it just in time. Otherwise it was all as I remembered, and just as funny, with the audience responding brilliantly to every little gesture or comment. The rest of the first half was as before, and we left Olivia sitting on the bench seat with her head in her hands.

The second half started as before. Sir Andrew didn’t get his “yes, I’ll hold” in this time, but otherwise it was the same, and still funny. The ditching of his mobile in the water didn’t please the audience though; there was a slight murmur which suggested we were seeing a less funny side to Sir Toby’s pranks. Olivia didn’t release the chandelier nor change into her summer frock as early as I’d thought last time; the chandelier releasing happened as she was about to go to church to marry Sebastian, and her summer frock appeared after the wedding. One other thing I forgot to mention last time; Cesario did some hand slapping with the guards as he crossed the stage at one point, and when they met with Sebastian later, they did the same with him, much to his surprise.

With so few changes from last time, the improvement we experienced was partly down to the practice the cast have had, a stronger audience response, and our different angle which revealed some things we hadn’t seen before. We have another performance booked, and we’re looking forward to it already.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Twelfth Night – March 2012

7/10 (preview)

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 22nd March 2012

This was an excellent production with very good performances, and a huge improvement on last night. The set was by the same designer, Jon Bausor, and used the same basic design. The floorboards were still there, and there was still no walkway front left. This time the corner area did have water in it, and we were reminded of Singing In The Rain at Chichester last year, so sitting in row C, right by the aisle, we were glad Steve brought a carrier bag to protect the program. As it happened, the ‘tsunami’ didn’t wash up as far as our row, but there were a few wayward splashes – warm water, of course – and others who were nearer did feel the effect. The staff were very good in the interval, sorting out any problems, though some in the audience may have wished they’d provided more of a warning beforehand as well as the towels that were so freely available after the first half!

The crane track had become a girder tonight, and was partly boxed in. There was another girder at right angles to it, also partly covered, and around the join there was an area of crumbling ceiling, very reminiscent of the industrial grunge set of David Farr’s King Lear a few years ago, also a Jon Bausor design. The metal post with ironwork was more visible tonight, and it turned out to be a whole row of them which had been mostly hidden during The Comedy Of Errors. The vertical part of the ramp from yesterday seemed to be at a couple of different angles tonight creating a slightly lower angle, and tonight the objects on there included a bed (reminded Steve of the recent Taming bed, much reduced in size) and a table with a lamp. There was also a bathtub suspended over that general area – took me a while to spot what it was. Behind all of this I could now see the back wall of metal with at least two portholes in it. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops for The Tempest.

At the back of the thrust and to the right of the stage a sloping ramp led off, and was blocked by a revolving door set at the same slanting angle. Just to the left of that was the reception desk area, with lots of pigeonholes behind a short curve of desk. A small screen to the right of this desk, combined with a telephone, allowed Maria to observe who was at the gate, which was a nice touch. This was also the hiding place for Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian during the letter scene. To the left of that was a pillar leaning drunkenly, with a leather seat around it; the leather looked the worse for wear as did most of the furniture on stage. Further to the left was another leather armchair, and beside that a large globe with the land areas positioned round an open mesh. Behind this chair, towards the back of the stage, was a lift, the old fashioned kind with expanding metal doors. With a small platform beside it at the top, the lift shaft was encased in a metal mesh, so we could see a lot of what went on inside it, though it was used for a magnificent reveal later on. Further to the left, a flight of stairs led up to the first balcony, and below that stood a grand piano with a picture of Olivia’s brother on it surrounded by candles, flowers, etc. I didn’t spot this right away, but then there was so much else to look at.

Coming forwards, there was a low padded stool over on the front right of the stage which seemed to have a chess board set up on it; there was still room for people to sit on it or put a tray with coffee things there if need be. A plain chair sat further back from that, while over on the water side there was a diving board built out from almost the centre of the stage to just over the water. The floorboards had a ragged end, in keeping with the style of set, and some dipped down towards the water. The only other thing I remember at this time was the chandelier, which was swathed in black cloth. I first noticed it when someone in Olivia’s household switched it on, a nice reminder of her emphatic mourning.

The costumes were all modern dress, and worked very well I thought. The men usually wore suits, although Sir Toby was in casual gear with a colourful Hawaiian shirt, and Sir Andrew tended towards casual sportswear. Olivia’s maidservants wore black dresses with white aprons, and Malvolio was immaculate in his pinstripe suit, toupee severely slicked down to one side. There were two guards in uniform – white shirts, black trousers – and Antonio wore a large waterproof jacket. Olivia was in black for the first half, a calf-length dress, and changed to a flower print frock during the second half, via an ivory wedding dress. I’ll describe the Viola/Sebastian combo later, along with the nifty outfit Malvolio chose to impress Olivia with.

So to the staging (this may take some time). When the lights went down at the start, I saw various actors come on and take up their positions, mostly lying down. I thought we were going to get the shipwreck stuff first tonight, as the performance opened with Viola emerging suddenly from the water (there’s a long slide apparently, so they don’t have to hold their breath for too long). She stood up in the water, then clambered out, and turning to the audience she asked “What country, friends, is this?” She then spotted the bag lying by the side of the water; it was clearly Sebastian’s, and she knelt there, grieving over the bag and her lost brother while Duke Orsino leapt up, from the chair I think, and carried on with “If music be the food of love”. He was in a pretty rough state with his clothes dishevelled, as you might expect. The good news was that from the beginning tonight we could hear almost every line perfectly well – no worries there. After this scene, the sea captain continued by answering Viola’s opening question, coming on from the back somewhere and bringing on a blanket for her to use. He agreed to help her disguise herself, and I was very aware that with her brother’s bag she would naturally have some of Sebastian’s clothes to wear.

Sir Toby emerged through the revolving door for the next scene, and was as drunk as a skunk, if not drunker (apologies to skunk-lovers, and indeed, skunks everywhere). I think a servant may have switched on the chandelier at this point, but I’m not sure. Sir Toby sat in the armchair, and dangled his feet over the side when he was talking about his boots. Maria was brisk in her chiding, and for once Sir Toby seemed to be in earnest when he complimented Sir Andrew. Given his state of inebriation, he might actually have believed what he was saying.

Sir Andrew’s arrival a short while later was all we could have wished. We heard his horn before we saw the man, and he entered still wearing his biker’s helmet. When the helmet came off, his fair hair erupted into a tousled mop which got a laugh all on its own. Bruce Mackinnon’s performance was absolutely impeccable, and we were soon warmed up and chuckling away at his wonderfully funny delivery of the lines plus his comic expressions and business. He illustrated the “back-trick” by moonwalking backwards – we applauded, eventually – and when he left the stage the audience was definitely in a livelier mood than when he entered.

Valentine and Cesario came on next, and while Valentine sat on the diving board to light up a cigarette, Cesario stood in the middle of the stage, wearing green trousers, a light blue jacket and a patterned shirt, and also lit up. Her inexperience with cigarettes was obvious – she had the cigarette the wrong way round and nearly lit the filter, then coughed a bit once she did get it going – and then Orsino rushed on, clothes still in disarray, to speak with his new favourite. They didn’t make anything of the other servants being sent away that I could see, which is fine, and during their conversation Orsino took the cigarette from Cesario to smoke it himself. Emily Taafe’s Cesario was well done; with her short hair and slight figure she did look boyish, and her voice was low pitched enough to fit with a young lad, so it was believable that the Duke would see the female aspects of Cesario without realising he was actually a woman.

It was at the end of this scene, after Viola’s “myself would be his wife”, that she stood in the middle of the stage with the lights lowered on her and the rest of Orsino’s staff, and then Sebastian also popped up out of the water, sloshing a bit more onto the floor around that corner. He also stood up, slicked back his hair – Viola echoed that movement – and as they were wearing identical costumes it was clear this was the very Sebastian whom Viola had assumed was drowned. He pulled himself out of the water and lay beside it, resting, while the next couple of scenes played out; a little distracting, but not a problem.

The next scene had Maria scolding Feste this time. She brought on some coffee and cups on a tray and put it on the stool near the front. Feste looked hung over and was wearing sunglasses, wincing a bit as he took them off and the light hit him. The jesting between them was pretty good, and then Olivia turned up with her small entourage. She was pretty snippy with Feste at first, but softened as he wormed his way back into her good books with his catechising of her. For this bit she was sitting in the armchair, and he took another upright chair, placed it beside her with the back of the chair between them, as in a confessional box, while he knelt behind the chair to act the priest, as he would do later, of course, with Malvolio.

Malvolio’s reactions during this scene were excellent. He clutched his folder tightly, looking severe and grimacing when something particularly unpleasant happened, such as somebody having fun, even when it wasn’t at his expense. The animosity between him and Fests was palpable, and set us up nicely for his later mistreatment at the hands of Sir Toby and the rest. Olivia echoed his folded hands when she talked of “a known discreet man”, gently reproving him with those lines.

Maria was using the screen on the reception desk when she informed Olivia that there was someone at the door. Sir Toby seemed even drunker than before when he turned up – a lovely performance by Nicholas Day – and had great difficulty getting his words out, the way drunks do when they have to think long and hard about everything, like words, walking, breathing, etc. He reminded me of Frank Gallagher in Shameless at this point.

When Malvolio returned he was clearly disturbed to have spent time with someone who upset the natural order. Olivia had some trouble getting him to describe the young gentleman, and as her back was to me at the relevant point, I’m not sure what it was that piqued her interest enough to have the young man brought before her. She had her maids cover themselves as well, and as at least one of them took off her apron as well, I could see how difficult it would be for anyone who didn’t know the household to tell which woman was Olivia. All four of them sat or stood around the room, so when Cesario arrived, he was immediately unsure of himself.

The dialogue was well done for this bit, and soon Olivia and Cesario were alone. Olivia was well unhappy at Cesario’s insult regarding the tenacity of her looks, but I didn’t spot any particular reaction from Cesario on finding out how beautiful his ‘rival’ was. Later, when Cesario was telling Olivia of the lengths he would go to if he loved her as Orsino does, my view was blocked by Olivia herself, so I’ll have to pick up on their expressions next time, but even from the back I could tell that Cesario’s passion was having an effect on the lady.

That effect continued through Cesario’s departure and her reflections on the speedy nature of infatuation. There was such a loving glow about her that when she gave her ring to Malvolio – she turned her back on him and removed it from a chain about her neck by ripping it off, hiding the chain in her hand – he mistook her radiance combined with the way she put her hand on his arm as a sign of affection towards him, another pointer to his later misapprehension of the letter.

Finally Sebastian was able to get up from the floor, as he responded to Antonio’s question. Their conversation was short, and for once I could have sworn Sebastian actually mentioned Viola’s name, but it’s not in my text and apart from some lovely comedic touches later on, I didn’t spot any significant changes during the play. They did cut some lines, but that’s to be expected. Cesario entered next, and shortly after she came on we heard a beeping sound. It turned out to be the sound of one of those trolley cars, as used by the elderly, only this time it was being driven by Malvolio. Health and safety requirements were well to the fore, as the beeping noises continued throughout the scene (my hearing aids were going nuts!) as well as two flashing amber lights. I liked this staging very much; it not only explained how Malvolio managed to catch up with Cesario, but gave us an extra laugh as he drove the cart round in a large circle before parking it near the back, so we could all see the sign on the back of the seat: For Management Use Only. The ring was dropped contemptuously on the rug in front of the chair (stops it rolling away, I would guess) and after Viola had finished sharing her thoughts on this latest development, she threw it into the water tank. No real splash; it was too small.

Sometime earlier I had noticed an actor sneak on to the left of the stage and lie down behind the piano. I wasn’t sure who it was, but it now became clear – it was Sir Toby, who struggled to his feet to advise Sir Andrew, likewise well gone, on the exact nature of ‘early’. They were both wonderfully drunk, so drunk that a rowdy song was inevitable, and I enjoyed this scene from beginning to end. Feste wasn’t as bad as the other two, but he joined in the merriment, and even took a picture of the three of them together at the appropriate moment on his mobile phone – “Did you ever see the picture of we three?”

Feste had brought on something I didn’t recognise at the start of this scene, and left it on the stool at the front. When he sang ‘O mistress mine, where are you roaming’, this turned out to be an electronic keyboard of some kind, which he used to accompany the song. He also used a microphone. It was a slow, melancholy number, and nicely done. They were soon into the livelier number ‘Hold thy peace’ – I think they cut Sir Andrew’s line about constraining “one to call me knave” – with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew playing bottles, and Feste using the reception desk bell as his instrument. This expanded into Feste banging an oar on the floor, Sir Toby possibly using the microphone(?) and something equally noisy from Sir Andrew.

Maria couldn’t persuade them to keep quiet, and when Malvolio turned up in his dressing gown he was suitably nasty to them all. He even grabbed Maria’s arm when she went to get some wine for Sir Toby, and she was quite shaken by his threat to tell Olivia. The plan to trick Malvolio is always hers, but often the others, especially Sir Toby, are involved to some extent; this time the others are on no fit state to devise any plan whatsoever. Sir Toby’s enquiry as to the reason for Sir Andrew to beat a puritan was dropped (worked well for me, especially as the line itself got a good laugh).

I’m not sure when it happened, but sometime during the first half Sir Andrew took a little dip. (The trouble with non-textual business is that it’s harder to remember where it occurred.) He was sitting on the end of the diving board, with Feste beside him, and I noticed he was gradually edging further back. Finally he fell off, and caused a huge wave of water to wash over the side of the tank, soaking anything on the ground level around it. (Programs were replaced.) I reckon this must have been the scene, presumably when Malvolio turned up, but I really can’t be sure – I’ll pay closer attention next time.

Back at the Duke’s court, Orsino was looking all rumpled again. His chat with Cesario about love was fine, and then Feste turned up again to sing his song ‘Come away death’. He used a guitar this time for accompaniment, but I thought it was little out of tune; he only strummed it occasionally so I wasn’t sure. (It’s always a problem with stringed instruments, bringing them onto a stage under lights – changes the tuning horribly.) I enjoyed his comments to Orsino this time about his mind being an opal; they came across much better than I remember from previous productions. After Cesario’s story of his ‘sister’, which was OK but I missed some of the visuals again, they left the stage and we were into the letter scene.

Fabian made the third in this production, a nice performance by Felix Hayes. The ‘box-tree’ they hid behind was actually the reception desk, and for most of the letter-reading they were peering over the desk with an object held in front of each of them – a vase of flowers, a book and a soda siphon. When one of them made an exclamation, he put down his object, and then had to grab the item held by the person next to him, which went down the line, so the objects were being passed around on a regular basis. Later, Sir Toby left the shelter of the desk and wandered over behind the pillar seat, which he had to dive under to hide himself once or twice. It was all wonderfully funny, including Sir Andrew’s recognition of himself as a “foolish knight”.

Maria left the letter on the stool, propped up on the chessboard I think, which didn’t seem a very obvious place to leave it. Even so, Malvolio managed to spot it, after he’d done a lot of preening and primping beforehand, of course. There was a slight adjustment to the toupee, and a fair amount of posturing, but the main comedy lay in the delivery of the lines, and the comments by the watchers. For “revolve”, Malvolio went over to the revolving door and did a circuit there.  His “smiling” was also funny, although he did actually produce some leering smiles from time to time before that. Maria was anxious to know if her trick had worked, and Sir Toby literally prostrated himself before her when she first came on, so delighted was he with their success.

Next up was Feste, sitting on the pillar seat with his keyboard, playing a little music, so when Cesario came along their conversation began very naturally. The chat with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew was brief but funny, and then Olivia came along to make her declaration of love to Cesario. Rebuffed, the first half ended with her sitting sad and alone on the stage, with the lights going out.

The second half began with Sir Andrew’s determination to leave immediately. He was on his mobile phone calling for a taxi at the start, and at some later point in his conversation with Fabian and Sir Toby said ‘yes, I’ll hold’, all very funny. Sir Toby took his mobile away from him, and ditched it in the water at the end of this bit, before Maria arrived to fetch them to see Malvolio. Then there was the short scene between Sebastian and Antonio, followed by the much anticipated arrival of Malvolio on stage.

In this scene, Olivia entered first, and it was clear that she’s been much affected by her passion for Cesario. I think this may be where she pulled a rope at the side of the stage and removed the black cloth from the chandelier; in any case she’s definitely in a state over her situation, having declared her love to a ‘man’ who doesn’t want her. Malvolio’s appearance, far from being the sober, calm presence she wanted, was entirely unsuitable for any occasion. He came down in the lift, and although the walls were see-through, they obscured enough of his costume for it to be a mystery all the way down. I felt this was a good way to make his entrance – we got the full impact all at once, and it was certainly an eyeful!

He was wearing yellow stockings, and they looked a bit tight from where I sat. They were cross-gartered all the way up, which didn’t help the circulation either. He had on a yellow tie which we could see when his jacket opened up, usually when he spread his arms wide, and little else. The posing pouch which adorned his nether regions was well padded (I cast no aspersions) and had studs; apart from that he was butt-naked, literally. This outfit, plus the grinning, would have sent many another woman screaming from the stage, but Olivia was made of sterner stuff. She did back away from him down the diving board, and for a short while I thought we were in for another splash, but at the last minute she grabbed him so she could swivel him around – he enjoyed that bit – and she was free! (And dry!)

Malvolio’s scene with Sir Toby and the rest was very funny too, and I loved Fabian’s line about “an improbable fiction”. With Malvolio gone, the mischief makers moved on to Sir Andrew when he turned up with his freshly drafted challenge. As Sir Toby read it out, I enjoyed Fabian’s comments; Felix Hayes has a deep resonant voice, and his comments of “good” were perfectly timed to make the most of the humour. After Olivia’s short scene with Cesario, Sir Toby and Fabian returned again to issue the challenge to him. Cesario was terrified, of course, and attempted to flee up the stairs to get back to the house. Fabian blocked his way, and as they were struggling on the steps, Sir Andrew came back on via the walkway. Sir Toby’s comment that “Fabian can scarce hold him yonder” was very apt, and gave Sir Andrew completely the wrong impression. Instead of his horse, he offered to give Cesario his Kawasaki 750 – he handed Sir Toby the keys – which fitted very well with the situation.

Each ‘man’ was given something to fight with – not swords as such, just bits of wood – but there was very little chance of them doing any damage as they never got near the other with their wild swings. Not that Antonio noticed this when he arrived and drew on, as he thought, Sebastian’s side. The officers were there amazingly quickly to arrest him – one of them, Solomon Israel, was using a West Indian accent – and Antonio was almost off the stage before he could even ask ‘Sebastian’ for his money. Viola reacted to being called ‘Sebastian’ – this is the first indication she’d had that her brother might be alive – even before her lines indicated that was the way her thoughts were going.

Feste’s argument with Sebastian was good fun – I was increasingly happy with Kevin McMonagle’s interpretation – and the fight with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew went badly as usual. Sebastian had two of them holding him and still managed to break free, although he took a tumble over the chair as a result. This was the turning point for Sir Toby; Olivia was so angry with him for hurting her beloved that even he realised he couldn’t go on causing problems in her household, and although his lines to that effect don’t come till a later scene, his reaction at this point made it clear. I’m not sure exactly when Olivia changed into her summer frock, but I reckon she was wearing it by this time. Sebastian was ready and willing to go along with whatever this beautiful woman wanted, and she was delighted to find him so amenable.

Now the stage was darkened, and I could just make out a vague shape rising up through a trapdoor in the centre of the stage. I did wonder briefly about the mechanics of the water slide vis-à-vis this trapdoor, but that’s a question for a post-show discussion sometime. Up on the platform by the lift, Maria was kitting Feste out with his Sir Topaz outfit, and after Sir Toby arrived, Feste went down in the lift to visit Malvolio. A faint light allowed us to see the poor man, now stripped of his jacket and tied to his cart, which appeared to be broken although the amber lights were flashing (no beeping this time, thank goodness). Feste’s taunting of Malvolio was soon over, and for once I could see the inference that ignorance was a worse form of darkness than the lack of physical light. When Sir Topaz met Feste himself (a neat trick) he slapped him a couple of times before heading back to the lift.

Sebastian came down the stairs from Olivia’s chamber bare-chested (not an ordeal to watch, by any means) and continued to dress himself as he reflected on the strange situation he was in. When Olivia arrived with the priest, decked out in her wedding dress and saying “Blame not this haste of mine”, I suddenly thought she was worried she might start to show a bump before the marriage and lose her reputation. Sebastian was clearly a quick decision-maker, and accepted her offer of marriage on the spot.

Fabian and Feste were next on, and the short exchange between them was good, with Feste giving Fabian Malvolio’s letter and then taking it back again before he’d had a chance to read it. Mind you, he was pretty slow in that department. With the Duke’s arrival we were into the end game, and it all happened pretty fast from here on. At least Orsino had tidied himself up for this visit; instead of his usual scruffiness he looked smart, and his attendants carried the flowers and chocolates which he intended to give to Olivia. Feste’s fooling was well done, and Antonio’s arrival filled the time nicely till Olivia came along.

She was in a foul mood though, at least with Orsino. She dumped his flowers and chocolates in the water, but kept making sheep’s eyes at Cesario. It was so obvious that Orsino would have had to have been even stupider than Sir Andrew not to have spotted it, and this Duke was no fool. He was already going through the revolving door, with Cesario hard on his heels when Olivia’s “husband” called them back. With the priest confirming Olivia’s matrimonial claims, things already looked bad for Cesario when Sir Andrew came through the door with a smear of blood on his forehead. He shied away from Cesario when he saw him, as did Sir Toby who followed shortly afterwards. His line “I hate a drunken rogue” seemed to give him pause, as if he was starting to realise that he may fall into that category himself.

And then Sebastian turned up, went straight over to Olivia and apologised on bended knee for hurting her kinsman. The crowd were all alarmed – seeing twins seems to have that effect in Shakespeare’s plays. Olivia was standing on the board, Viola front right, Orsino back right and Antonio back left at this point. With Sebastian looking at Olivia to begin with, he didn’t notice Viola at all, and then when he saw Antonio and faced him, Viola was directly behind him. When he did turn round, their reunion was as good as I wanted (sniffled, of course), and Olivia for once seemed perfectly happy with her good fortune, after the initial embarrassment of realising that she had actually fallen in love with a woman!

With these twins having a significant difference in their height, they didn’t go in for further mistaken identities this time, which suited me fine. Malvolio made his entrance clad in just his suit trousers this time, and despite Olivia being conciliatory he was too far gone to do anything but snarl his threat of revenge at them before he left. He even included the audience this time, not nice.  The priest was on stage for this final scene, and reacted a bit to Feste’s admission that he impersonated Sir Topaz, though there’s scope for more there I fancy. Orsino and Olivia were well reconciled by the end, and as Feste settled down to sing us the final song, both couples ended up on the bed at the back; first the women perched themselves on it, then the men followed and snuggled up beside their partner. I was again reminded of the Taming production, where Lucy Bailey had commented that the whole point of a comedy is to get two people into bed together: mission accomplished. We gave them a long round of enthusiastic applause, and left well satisfied that we would be seeing this one again.

What else do I need to say at this stage? The lighting was a bit gloomy for me, until the end when a golden glow brightened the stage considerably. Olivia lay on the bed at the back through all the opening scenes, until shortly before she arrived on stage herself. I didn’t realise it was her at first, but as various characters rose up from their positions on the stage to take part in the play, it became obvious who she had to be. We were both very relieved that the problems with delivering the lines which we’d experienced last night with The Comedy Of Errors were not apparent in this performance, so I apologise if any of my comments on that performance reflected badly on the cast; they’re clearly up to the challenge of Shakespeare already, but perhaps the Comedy production just needs longer to settle than this one. This was only the fourth preview performance of this play, with press night scheduled for 25th April (the Comedy press night is a matinee).

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me