Richard II – January 2014

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Greg Doran

Venue: Barbican Theatre

Date: Wednesday 15th January 2014

Although we hadn’t been able to choose our seats for this performance, we were pleased with our allocation which put us on the far end of the front row on the right. I had thought the production might seem rather 2D after the thrust stage in Stratford, but from our angle there wasn’t a lot of difference. The small stub of stage that pushes forward in the Barbican was almost level with our seats, so it was similar to sitting by the right walkway in the RST, down to the occasional blocked view as an actor stood in the ‘corner’ of the stage. Fortunately this wasn’t much of a problem today, and the benefits of being so close and seeing the action in even more detail far outweighed the minor inconvenience.

The set and staging hadn’t changed much, so I’ll get that out of the way to begin with. The cathedral space at the start looked even more imposing than before; it seemed higher than I remember. The bereaved Duchess of Gloucester came on alone this time, but approached a monk who had entered before her, whether to ask for assistance or for permission to sit by the coffin I don’t know. He helped her on her way, and she bowed to him before she sat down on the stool. While the side lights were still on at this point, the overhead lights had been turned off, so for once the audience grasped that the performance had started and were quiet through the beautiful singing – bliss.

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Richard II – November 2013

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 7th November 2013

Prime seats tonight, looking straight down the centre aisle. As we suspected, the production had shifted up a gear, and tonight’s performance was a huge improvement on the preview we saw. The imbalances we’d seen before had gone, with strong acting all round and more detail in the performances, and they also brought out much more of the humour in the play which usually indicates that the cast have settled in. Richard’s hair seemed to be behaving better – David Tennant looked uncomfortable with it last time – and Bolingbroke had toned down his barrow boy accent to a sensible level. There were no significant changes to the staging that I saw, but I was reminded of several details which I hadn’t noted last time, so here goes.

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Richard II – October 2013

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Greg Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 16th October 2013

It’s early days yet – tomorrow is the press night – and while some areas are patchy and uneven, there are good performances and good ideas which should become more pronounced with practice. The set worked very well for the most part, and this production has the loveliest music I’ve heard for a long time at the RSC. It’s a promising start to Greg’s reign proper, and with David Tennant in the lead role, at least they’re assured of a sell-out run.

The basic set was largely visible during the director’s talk beforehand – more on that story later. A series of screens overlapped behind the thrust, giving a false perspective. They were coloured blue and shimmered, which turned out to be a 3D effect; when the opening images of the inside of a church were projected onto them, the resulting effect was of a vast Gothic chamber – very impressive. Thin metal pillars, like bars, continued the effect, and coming forward from these there were stumpy pillars hanging over the front part of the stage, so it really felt like we were in a huge cathedral space, lit softly to give a misty gloom.

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Much Ado About Nothing – July 2011

7/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Josie Rourke

Venue: Wyndhams Theatre

Date: Monday 11th July 2011

I was a bit disappointed with tonight’s experience, not so much due to the production as the audience. With so many David and Catherine fans, the laughter came all too easily, and while some of it was very well deserved, there were times when it swamped the dialogue, times when it was strangely absent, and times when it came for no apparent reason at all. This was not your regular Shakespeare audience, and while I’m glad this run has been so successful, and hope that it will turn one or two youngsters on to Shakespeare’s work, I found that the uncritical adulation spoiled my enjoyment a bit.

The set was excellent, with four big pillars on a revolve surrounded by slatted panels and doorways suggesting the warm Mediterranean location perfectly. The costumes were also excellent – modern dress, with military costumes and formal suits rubbing shoulders with scruffy dungarees and T-shirts. Benedict’s costume for the masked ball looked like a cross between Lily Savage and Olivia Newton John in the final scene of Grease, Hero’s wedding dress echoed Diana’s, and Dogberry wore military fatigues with the word ‘officer’ across his chest.

The parts that didn’t work so well for me included the second part of the eavesdropping scene and some of the ruined wedding scene. The eavesdropping scene was staged with a couple of decorators bringing their trolley on stage and touching up the paintwork on a door and then one of the pillars. This allowed Benedict to get white paint on one hand, which then ended up on his face, clothes, etc. All this was very funny, but the trouble is there’s another round of eavesdropping to go, and Beatrice not only has to do something different, it really has to top Benedict’s efforts or the energy will flag. Tonight, Beatrice’s comic business involved covering herself with the painters’ tarpaulin, then groping her way towards the back of the stage where she could be attached to a hook and lifted up. All well and good, and very funny to start with, but then the laughter just drowned out the dialogue and I switched off very quickly. I’ve seen this done better.

The wedding scene started very well, with a nice change of pace into the darker phase of the play. Benedict’s reactions were particularly good here, making it clear that even this joker recognises the enormity of the Prince and Duke’s accusation. Then when Beatrice and Benedict are left alone, the humour of their mutual admissions of love were funny, but the excessive audience reactions jarred with the previous mood, and when Beatrice tells Benedict that she wants him to kill Claudio, this was also greeted with laughter, which is so wrong and certainly not how it was played. Even so, I was very moved by this scene, not as far as needing a hanky, but my eyes were definitely wet. This sort of insensitive response detracts from the performance for me, although not completely, thank goodness.

Other negatives in the staging included the strange bit after Claudio has read the poem over Hero’s grave. He has a portable CD player and some booze with him for his all-night vigil, and by dint of playing loud music, swigging the booze and throwing himself around a lot, I deduced we were to understand that he was truly sorry for what he’d done. In case we hadn’t taken the hint, he even took out a gun, and was about to shoot himself when Hero walked in, dressed in black. He’s so amazed by her appearance that he collapses on the floor, where the Prince finds him the next morning. Neither Steve nor I could figure this one out. Was it Hero herself stopping him, in which case how did she get there at just the right moment, or was it a vision he was having, in which case why was she in a completely different outfit? I’m all for ambiguity, but this was just vague.

I was also suspicious of the semi-corpsing when Beatrice came to call Benedict in to dinner. We’ve seen this sort of rehearsed improv before, and it didn’t ring completely true for me, while Steve was out and sure it was a fake. I noticed tonight that Catherine Tate reappeared in the wings briefly after her final departure – no idea why.

The other main problem I had with the performance was Catherine Tate’s weak delivery. She started off well, but in any prolonged speech she tended to lose energy and volume. This wouldn’t have been a problem in a more average production, but with such high-powered performers around her it was very noticeable. I also found Don John and Borachio hard to follow, Don John because of his rather jerky delivery, and Borachio because I couldn’t tune in to the accent he was using. Choosing to replace Leonato’s brother with his wife was an interesting move – trying to balance up the sexes perhaps? – but her part was seriously underwritten as a result, with nothing to say in the wedding scene, and no threat to fight the Prince either. Her delivery was even weaker than Catherine Tate’s, so perhaps it was a blessing she had so few lines.

So what did I enjoy about the play? Well, the other performances were excellent, and even Dogberry came out funnier than usual. John Ramm still struggled with that first scene – when no-one is pointing out the errors it can fall a little flat – but his later appearances went down well, especially his final leave-taking of Leonato. He had a thing with his sidekick, Verges, where they put their fists together and said ‘boom’. He tried to go through the motions of this with Leonato as well, but realised it wasn’t going to be reciprocated, or appreciated. His insistence on being ‘written down an ass’ went down very well with this crowd, which made up for them missing some of the other gems.

David Tennant was, as expected, excellent, with great comic timing and clear delivery of the lines. I noticed he was more static than in his RSC roles, but that’s probably the proscenium arch for you. He did have to mug it up a bit for this audience, but he does that so well, who cares? Both Adam James as the Prince and Tom Bateman as Claudio were very good, and I was impressed with what I could hear of Sarah Macrae as Hero – her part suffered the worst from the excessive laughter. I enjoyed Jonathan Coy’s excellent Leonato, and although I couldn’t always make out Don John’s dialogue, I appreciated Elliot Levey’s portrayal of the part. It reminded me of Richard Nixon, all stiff and formal, and with inappropriate attempts to be one of the boys, including offering a cigarette to the young lad.

The pre-wedding stag and hen nights were a very good piece of staging, and allowed ‘Hero’s’ infidelity to be staged as a shag against the wall in a dark space with Margaret wearing Hero’s bridal veil. It also allowed Don John to craftily get both his brother and Claudio well drunk before showing them the ‘proof’.

When the Prince proposed to Beatrice, he was in earnest, and her embarrassment when she realises this was evident. He’s clearly hurt by her rejection, and Leonato’s request for her to ‘look to those things I told you of’ is solely an excuse to get her out of there, for which she’s very grateful.

The young boy was excellent, too – don’t know which one it was tonight, their pictures in the program are too similar. He brought the book back just at the wrong time, and finally Benedict threw it off the stage to get rid of it and him. Later, when Benedict is attempting to compose a love-song to Beatrice using an electronic keyboard, he pushes a button which starts the machine playing some music, and can’t get it to stop. Needless to say, when the young lad walks across the back of the stage, he sees that Benedict’s in trouble, and with the resigned air of the technically savvy youth, walks over, pushes the right button, and leaves. Beautifully done. Benedict then starts checking out some of the other options, before giving up entirely. I think this scene was put before his request to Margaret to fetch Beatrice, but I can’t be sure.

During the wedding scene, the reactions from Don John and Margaret were easy to miss, but well worth catching. Don John was smirking a bit when Hero was accused, while Margaret looked shocked, then worried, then guilty, and her mother hustled her out of the church quickly at the end.

Overall, it was a lively and fairly straightforward interpretation of the play, with lots of humour and affection between the characters, and despite the audience reactions, I enjoyed it very much.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Hamlet – November 2008

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Courtyard Theatre

Thursday 6th November 2008

Another amazing performance. This time we saw it from the front row round the right hand side, so we caught a lot of details we’d never seen before, and missed very little of the major stuff, so it was a marvellous evening.

I didn’t notice any significant changes in the staging, but again the performances had all come on, and I did find myself noticing things about the play, partly this version, and partly in general. Firstly, it really hit me during the Ophelia/Laertes/Polonius scene, that Ophelia has confided in her brother, but not told her father. This does not bode well for that relationship. We spotted the way Ophelia took Polonius’s arm, by stealth as it were, after reporting Hamlet’s madness, and how often Polonius gives her a handkerchief instead of something more supportive. I also noticed that when Claudius asks Polonius how Ophelia has responded to Hamlet’s overtures of love, Polonius talks entirely about himself. He knows absolutely nothing about Ophelia’s response to Hamlet, and clearly doesn’t feel the need to, either. I also saw an echo of the way Polonius strides off to tell the king and queen about Hamlet’s visit to his daughter, leaving an upset Ophelia trailing in his wake, in those occasions when Claudius does much the same thing to Gertrude, noticeably the funeral scene, where Hamlet suddenly becomes ‘her’ son again. To finish off Ophelia (that’s an unfortunate phrase, “finish off” is an unfortunate phrase), I found the mad scenes less moving this time, but still found that I wasn’t embarrassed to watch them. Ophelia’s emotional disturbance is clear to see, and this time I got more from Gertrude and Claudius’s reactions. And Ophelia did clasp hands with Hamlet briefly as she left the stage after the first court scene.

I saw a lot more of Hamlet’s expressions during that early scene, as we now had him to our left. I had the same sense of a private squabble in a public space, and while David Tennant didn’t change expression much, there were a few eye movements, and slight changes of expression to indicate that he found his mother’s marriage unacceptable, especially to that man. I noticed that when he talks about how wonderful his father was, he speaks almost entirely about him in relation to Gertrude, about how much he loved her, not about his achievements as a ruler, or any other personal qualities. I also considered, for the first time, that this ghost has come from purgatory, so if he is Hamlet senior he must have led a less than blameless life to have so many sins to purge. So Hamlet’s praises are undercut yet again.

I also saw a lot more of Horatio’s reactions to Hamlet’s clowning around; I think some of these were stronger than before, as well as us being better able to see them. Following the play scene, when Hamlet gets the recorders, he throws one to Horatio, who normally catches it (well, he has twice before to our knowledge). Tonight he missed, and the recorder fell against the steps. When Hamlet tried it again, Horatio still missed, and this time the recorder split in two parts. Horatio sat on the steps putting it back together again, and trying to keep a straight  face (failed) while Hamlet made remarks like “clumsy” and “it was a bad throw”. How Rosencrantz and Guildenstern handled it I’ve no idea. Horatio and Hamlet had a lot of fun with the crazy cloud sequence, and Polonius was as stroppy as I’ve ever seen him. [Robert Smallwood had told us earlier that “presently” in Shakespeare’s time meant NOW!]

Back to the play scene. From our angle we could see all the court as they sat there, and so most of the reactions were very clear. Polonius covers his face with his hands at the crudity of the initial dumb-show – clearly not to his taste. When the going starts to get tough, he looks very concerned, and glances at the king. The ladies in the audience get their fans out (one dropped hers tonight, but recovered it discreetly), and most of the court are looking worried. When Claudius asks if there’s any offence in this play, he’s looking to Polonius, whom he would have expected to check these things out, but it’s Hamlet who answers. Horatio has been watching the play, but when the moment draws near, he has his right hand up to his face and is looking directly at Claudius. Hamlet is mouthing the words along with the murderer, indicating that this is the speech he’s given the actor to perform. Claudius spots what’s going on, and his call for a light is very controlled. He holds it together well, but later we see how much it’s rattled him, as it’s only now that we hear him admit even the slightest degree of guilt. It’s interesting that although he’s soliloquising, I felt no sympathy with him as he’s been set up as a complete villain by this time.

The bedroom scene was clearer from this angle, and the relationship between mother and son was touching. I found myself thinking that if only he could have told Gertrude how he felt a lot sooner there might not have been a play. She so loves him, and wants to keep him from harm, but he knows he has other things to do. I like that we get to see very quickly how she responds to Hamlet’s plea to keep away from Claudius – she hugs him for comfort within minutes of Hamlet leaving, although to be fair, she hasn’t let on that Hamlet’s not mad (but then does she even believe that?).

The troop movements were visually interesting from this angle, as the stick wavers were reflected multiple times in the edge-on mirrors, making it look like a much bigger army was on the move. Again, I noticed how cool Claudius was when Laertes is waving a gun in his face, and how ironic his lines about the divinity that protects a king. We didn’t see Gertrude’s reaction when she realises the cup is poisoned, but we saw a lot of other reactions that we hadn’t noticed before. I saw Claudius look to see which cup Gertrude had taken before telling her not to drink. And I saw that Hamlet cuts Claudius’s hand with the sword before making him drink the poison from the cup – is this new?

There was another pause that Claudius makes which I spotted tonight. During the negotiations with Laertes, and after the letters from Hamlet, there’s a moment when Laertes is heading to the back of the stage, and I saw Claudius think of something, pause for a moment as if to consider the implications, and then call Laertes back.

In addition to all the minor points, I saw another pattern in David Tennant’s performance.  I reckoned he was playing Hamlet on a journey to kingship. There are a number of words and lines, including a line from Claudius about not letting Hamlet’s madness “reign”, and Hamlet’s choice of pronoun in “we defy augury”, that indicated he was gradually coming to accept his place as rightful ruler of Denmark. Robert Smallwood had clarified that when Hamlet announces himself during the funeral scene as, amongst other things, “the Dane”, he means the king of Denmark, not just somebody from that country. It’s something I would need to look at in more detail, and I don’t know if I’d just missed it before, but it seemed very evident tonight.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Love’s Labour’s Lost – November 2008

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Courtyard Theatre

Wednesday 5th November 2008

There were some physical problems for me tonight. I had a small coughing fit this afternoon, similar to last year’s ones, and it seemed like it might start up again tonight, but I managed to control it, keep the coughs to between scenes, and drank lots of water to help things. Unfortunately, drinking lots of water has an inevitable consequence, and so I had to leave after the French ladies head off to hunt the deer, and just as Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel are arriving. I was let back in during that scene, so I didn’t miss too much, and if anything I had a better seat, round the other side. I was able to enjoy the rest of the play up to the interval and then rejoin Steve; hooray for the helpfulness of the RSC staff. I managed the second half without too much coughing, though I did have to pay another visit once the play finished, so my mind wasn’t fully on the performance. I did enjoy it, but I did take longer to get involved as I wasn’t seeing as much of the action in the opening scene as I would have liked (and probably sulking as a result). I saw some things better though, such as the way the lovers, apart from Berowne and Rosaline, were looking in each others’ eyes during the final song.

All the performances have come on since our first viewing, with a lot more detail everywhere. Don Armado was not quite so over the top, more controlled, and funnier. The men seemed to be less “silly” but still fun, the girls were more giggly, but still more mature than the boys. I forgot to mention last time about Berowne throwing his hat at the tree in the first scene – still haven’t seen him make it. [According to Edward Bennett, he’s managed it twice, and completely corpsed when he did.] He chatted up a woman on other side of the stage tonight. I was also reminded that the Mummers come on at the start of the second half, and a bear comes on with the Russians, but goes off in disgust when the women won’t pay him any attention. So, apart from a few distractions and some restrictions to our viewing, it was another excellent performance.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Love’s Labour’s Lost – October 2008

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 7th October 2008

Wow! Another production where we had to talk down our expectations to avoid disappointment, only to have all expectations completely blown away by a stunning production. Ignore the critics, this performance made almost every part of the dialogue intelligible, which is a major accomplishment.

As an appetiser to the main course, we went to a pre-show director’s talk. Greg Doran was as interesting as usual, and we learned a great deal about the production, including the slightly unsavoury information that a “dish clout” was a reference to a sanitary towel in Shakespeare’s day. In fact, this play is apparently full of the filthiest language and references of all the canon, which came as a surprise to me, as Will has never seemed shy of making a coarse or crude joke in most of his other work.

Apart from the filth, there’s a scene where Don Armado, Moth and Costard do some fancy stuff with language, and in the rehearsal process they realised that they were playing with the rhythms of speech, so it seemed natural to use rap as the modern equivalent. When we saw the scene, I have to say it worked well for me, although if anything it was on the short side to get the point across fully. The political position of Navarre within France, and the actual existence of several of the characters in the records of a battle, was touched on, although I’ve forgotten some of the details now.

The choice of Nina Sosanya was also mentioned, as there are many references to Rosaline’s complexion and colour in the text, and it was felt that only a black actress could really carry this part off. There was also a fair bit of information about the different levels of maturity of the men and the women, with the women coming out on top. The choice of costumes was also mentioned –  this production has gone for Elizabethan, and very nice it looks too.

Now for the production itself. The set was bare except for the (almost inevitable) mirrored back wall and a massive tree, which spread its roots and branches wide across the stage towards the back. Long strands of vari-coloured glass leaves (more likely to be Perspex?) hung down over the stage, looking gorgeous, especially as we’d seen so much autumnal beauty on the drive up. The longer strands were raised at the beginning to allow the actors to get on the stage – why were they hung so low in the first place? – and it all looked beautiful. The bulk of both the French and Navarre courts were dressed in off-white, but Berowne and Rosaline wore significantly different clothes. Berowne was in fetching light blue doublet and hose, while the material of Rosaline’s dress had a lovely multi-coloured floral pattern on a deep blue background, which made the flowers glow when the light caught them. It was clear these were two outsiders, emphasised by David Tennant’s use of his native accent and the casting of Nina Sosanya as mentioned above.

The actors for the opening scene – the king’s would-be fellow students –  arrived gradually before the actual start. Dumaine arrived first with a guitar or lute, and sat tuning and strumming for a bit, then Longaville joined him, and started nibbling at the remnants of their picnic which were strewn all over the blanket. Berowne also turned up ahead of time, but wasn’t so keen for company, so he just lay down to one side with his hat over his face and took a short nap. This allowed the king to burst onto the scene and wake him up by dropping the chest he was carrying, and almost bellowing “Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives…”, etc. (Yes, that is the opening line, and yes, I did have to look it up.) It was an excellent speech, which got across the braggadocio of the king and at least two of his lords. Berowne looked distinctly unimpressed by it all, and remarkably keen to ditch all the tough bits of the three years’ abstinence (fasting, no women, very little sleep, etc.), but he agrees to it at long last, and in this production they actually do sign a piece of paper.

Naturally, they’re all shocked to remember that the King of France’s daughter is arriving that very day to speak with the king, and given that, if he did so, he would have to “endure such public shame as the rest of the court can possibly devise”, the king grabs the quill back sharpish, and amends the article so he can get away with doing his kingly duty unscathed. The signed declaration is then pinned to the tree.

Dull arrives with Costard and a letter from Don Armado concerning Costard’s illicit canoodling with Jaquenetta. Dull, played by Ewen Cummins, was stolid and slow. An older Dull than some, he smoked a pipe, and was a noticeable presence, even though he spoke little. His later comment about not understanding a word of what was said got a good laugh, especially as the audience had been inundated with Latin and flowery prose for a good while before that.

The king and his cronies read out Don Armado’s preposterously worded letter with every sign of appreciation. They’re clearly a bunch of youthful, vigorous fops, with hardly a brain cell between them, and that one belonging to Berowne. The king shows a bit of anger with Costard when he ticks him off, which sets him up nicely for his own comeuppance later on.

Having heard his prose style, we now see the man and his page. Joe Dixon plays Don Armado, with Zoe Thorne as the page, Moth, and it’s a wonderfully comic pairing. She just about comes up to his waist, and has a cheeky impish face. With both of them dressed identically in lavish purple outfits, and pacing majestically onto the stage, page mimicking master, it was funny enough just seeing them. Then they got talking, and the dialogue became a bit difficult to follow, partly because Joe Dixon is using an extravagant Spanish accent for this role. However, the attitudes and responses still came across clearly. Moth was running rings round his master, who was in love with Jaquenetta.

At this point, Jaquenetta, Costard and Dull turn up, so Don Armado and Moth retreat to the tree. Jaquenetta is a busy girl – she has a milk churn with her, and sets it down so she can do a bit of churning. The way she plunged that handle up and down, and up and down, had more than Don Armado’s eyes bulging. He had to fan himself when he was talking to her, only it wasn’t his face that he was trying to cool down. After she leaves with Dull, and Costard and Moth have also left, Don Armado throws himself to the ground so he can kiss the patch of stage she walked over. This man is so far gone, he’s going to make the king and his men look sensible, and what would be the fun of that?

Now all we need is for the women to arrive, and so they do. The princess of France (she doesn’t appear to have a name) arrives with her servant, Boyet, and three of her women. While Boyet heads off to check what’s happening at court (they’ve heard of the king’s vow to avoid women for three years), the princess and her ladies discuss the other men who are with the king. All three ladies seem smitten with one or other of the king’s supporters, but the princess is unmoved. When the king himself arrives, she keeps her back to him, annoyed that she’s expected to stay out in the open instead of being given proper hospitality. It’s like being told to pitch a tent in Green Park instead of being invited into Buck House. They swap formalities for a short while, as the other men and women check each other out, and then the princess turns round, and bingo! They’re in love too.

While the king looks over a written note of the princess’s suit, Berowne tries to chat up Rosaline, and gets nowhere very fast. She’s not impressed, even though she seemed to fancy him, but these women know how to value themselves. Berowne may look a bit tasty, but she’s got to check out his other attributes (oh, do behave) before she can commit.

The king and princess aren’t able to resolve the issue of the return of Aquitaine immediately – they need some papers which are still in transit and will arrive tomorrow – so the king welcomes the princess and her entourage to the field, and heads off with his men. Despite the circumstances, the princess seems happier with her lodgings than she did earlier – I wonder what can have changed her mind? As she and her women retire to the tree, Boyet is summoned by each of the king’s follower’s to confirm what their eyes have already told them – the identity of each of the queen’s women. Shock, horror! These men are in love! And with the queen’s women! What will become of their vows now? They used the side and front entrances to the stage, with Dumaine and Longaville doing “psst” noises to attract Boyet’s attention, and Berowne snapping his fingers. Boyet, played by Mark Hadfield, did a masterful job of keeping a straight face during all this. I notice from my text that once the men have gone the ladies unmask, and this would make more sense of the questions. Here they were bare faced, and it made the men seem even stupider. So that’s alright then.

The next scene brings back Don Armado and his page. Don Armado is playing a guitar, and is so preoccupied with this and making a grand entrance, that he nearly walks into the long tree branch that sweeps across most of the stage. He steps neatly to one side, accompanied by Moth and our laughter, and continues to play. Moth has a small rattling instrument, and is clearly bored at having to play it every so often; he picks his nose while he’s waiting for his next turn. Don Armado sends Moth to fetch Costard, as he wants to use him as a postman, and on his arrival, with a nasty bruise on his shin, we get the rapping dialogue amongst Don Armado, Moth and Costard. This passed surprisingly quickly and pleasantly, and I even got some idea of what they were talking about – “l’envoy”, which, if I understand rightly, is, in effect, a punchline.

Don Armado gives Costard a letter to take to Jaquenetta, and a small amount of money for his trouble. Three farthings, in fact, which he refers to as a “remuneration”, although his accent turns the word inside out. Then Berowne turns up, and also gives Costard a letter, which he wants Costard to give to Rosaline. For this task, he pays Costard a “guerdon” (I’ve got nothing). The “guerdon” is apparently  a shilling, and Costard makes his feelings vis-à-vis “remuneration” and “gardon” very clear before he exits, leaving the stage to Berowne. This is his chance to win us over, to make us feel for his desperate plight, his lovesick suffering. So what does he do? He insults all the ladies present by comparing us to “a German clock, still a-repairing, ever out of frame…”. David Tennant picked one lady in the audience to address these scurrilous comments to, but we knew he meant all of us. Mind you, she’s the one that got the wink at the end.

Knowing that Costard isn’t the brightest chap, and that he has two love letters to give to two different women, we can see comic possibilities a mile off. The good news is that we don’t have to wait that long, as the next scene gives us the pleasure of seeing Costard deliver Don Armado’s letter to the princess, believing her to be the correct recipient of it. Actually, she snatches it out of his hand, planning to embarrass Rosaline. Boyet reads it out, and the women react in a more scornful way to Don Armado’s flowery prose. It’s a nice contrast with the men’s responses in the earlier scene, and tells us all we need to know about the two groups. Men dumb, women smart. After some more word play, all leave, and we get to meet Holofernes, a schoolmaster, and Sir Nathaniel, a curate, both older gentlemen, and both somewhat grubby in the costume department. Dull is with them.

The princess and her women had been hunting deer before the previous scene, and now Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel are discussing the killing of a deer in that hunt. There’s a lot of quibbling about the precise terms to be used, and we get the impression of Holofernes as a real pedant, not as learned or as wise as he likes to think he is, but full of self importance nonetheless. Sir Nathaniel is more reasonable, but easily led, and in the company of Holofernes, always likely to be led astray. Dull says little, but does come out with some good Malapropisms, such as mangling “allusion” into “collusion” and “pollusion”.

Costard and Jaquenetta turn up, as she needs someone to read her the letter that Costard has brought her. Oops. Sir Nathaniel reads it out and we can hear that it’s of a much better quality than Don Armado’s. Holofernes is scathing about it however, at least when he’s not ogling Jaquenetta. It’s clear that when he “teaches boys the horn-book”, he has extensive experience of the subject, at least in his dreams. Anyway, Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel realise that, as the letter has been sent by Berowne, he’s in breach of his vow, and send Jaquenetta to the king to hand it over. Holofernes then undertakes, over dinner, to explain to Sir Nathaniel why the verses were very poor.

Now comes Will’s second best comedic scene of all the plays (number one for me is the ring scene at the end of The Merchant Of Venice, in case you’re interested). One by one the King and his men, starting with Berowne, arrive on stage to present their attempts at love poetry to us. As each arrives, the one on stage hides, until Berowne (up the tree), the king (behind some tree branches that conveniently dropped lower), and Longaville (behind the tree) are watching Dumaine bring on a very large book. It’s so big, it can conceal the small guitar (or similar instrument) he’s using to practise his love song. We’ve already established he’s the musician of the group, and soon he’s strumming away and singing a pretty little ditty, which the others join in. Then we get the series of denouncements, first by Longaville, then the king, and finally by Berowne, with each guilty party looking suitably abashed by their discovery. Only Berowne rampages unchallenged, lashing the others with his tongue, until Jaquenetta arrives bearing a letter which he immediately recognises. He tries to run away, but the king stops that manoeuvre. However, when the king asks Berowne to read the letter out, he grabs it and, tearing it up, stuffs as much as he can into his mouth to destroy the evidence. They gather the remaining pieces together, and discover enough damning evidence from those few fragments to force a confession from Berowne that he, too, is in love. Then follows some banter about Berowne’s love which contains a lot of the descriptions of Rosaline that led Greg Doran to cast a black actress in the part.

Although the railing has been good fun, now the lovers turn their attention to the serious business of how to get out of their vows. (Note that the option of keeping their vows doesn’t actually occur to them.) It’s Berowne’s job, as keeper of their collective brain cell, to resolve this problem, so the others leave the stage to him as they sit down across the front of it to hear his weighty verdict. In truth, it’s all flim-flam, but it’s what they want to hear, so he gets away with it. And as we want to see what they get up to next in pursuit of their loves, we’re happy too. Interval.

The second half starts with Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel after dinner, and very pleased with themselves, meeting up with Don Armado and his flotilla of Moth and Dull. Don Armado has been sent to arrange some entertainment for the visiting princess, and they decide to present the Nine Worthies later that day. The fun in this scene is firstly in the preposterous language, with Don Armado informing the somewhat horrified schoolmaster that the prince often played with his “excrement” with his fingers (meaning his moustaches), and secondly in the over-the-top performance of Joe Dixon as Don Armado. Again, I missed some of the language, but not much, and I found this scene much more entertaining than usual.

Now we get to see the princess and her entourage again. They’re sitting around on cushions, and checking out the gifts sent to them by the king and the other men. They compare notes, and the men don’t do too well out of it. Then Boyet arrives to inform them that he’s overheard the king and his crew planning a secret visit to the women they adore. Instead of turning up as themselves, they plan to arrive disguised as Russians. Boyet can hardly get the story out, he’s laughing so much. The princess decides they’ll play a trick themselves, and gets the women to swap gifts and hide their faces, which they do by lifting their skirts over their heads, like massive hoods. They certainly manage to conceal themselves, although it looks a bit cumbersome, and I wasn’t sure that the gifts were actually visible.

The men are dressed in Russian garb of Elizabethan times (apparently), and look absolutely ridiculous, with bulky coats and long beards. After a hilarious mock Russian dance routine that looked more like something the less gifted contestants on The Generation Game would do, they try to find the lady of their dreams by checking out the gifts they’ve sent, and of course Rosaline takes the lead, as she’s playing the princess. The wooing done, the Russians leave, and the women swap favours again, so that the men, returning without their disguises, will be fooled all the more.

When the men do turn up, the women make fun of them, as expected, and then Costard arrives to ask whether the Three Worthies can come on or not. They agree, and so the nobles take their seats to enjoy the pageant. Pompey does alright, but Alexander has a bad time of it, drying completely and having to be escorted off, and then Moth and Holofernes arrive as Judas Maccabeus and a young Hercules. Moth does the serpent strangling just fine, and wisely gets off stage before the heckling of Judas really gets into its stride. This is very like the heckling towards the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but here the men are seen as unpleasant, and the women are clearly not happy with their behaviour, although they do join in the teasing of Don Armado a short while later. He turns up as Hector, and is being hectored by the men, when Costard informs the company that Jaquenetta is pregnant, by Don Armado. When Costard challenges him, he refuses to remove his jacket as he has no shirt on, but he does have the “dish-clout” of Jaquenetta’s under his jacket, and this the men remove and start throwing around, with the women joining in.

This is becoming very unpleasant, and then the messenger from the French court arrives with the news of the King of France’s death, and the mood changes completely. The men are keen to get the ladies’ agreement to marriage before they head off, but the women are too smart for that. Once the new queen has set a task for her would-be husband, the others follow suit, and so the attempted wooing has been unsuccessful for this time. The play ends with a song, in praise of the owl and the cuckoo, sung by the Three Worthies cast, and then all leave the stage. Only Berowne and Rosaline linger on the two walkways, and see the owl flying around the stage – it’s a puppet worked by Samuel Dutton of Little Angel. It’s a haunting way to end this production. The play has such a strange change of mood at the end, and this finale sums it up perfectly, while allowing for the possibility that these lovers will get together after a year has passed. Or not, as the case may be.

This play is all about the language, and this production actually makes a lot of it understandable, which is no mean feat. The recognition of crudity in the language is not overdone, although the tampon tossing incident may not be to everyone’s taste, but the real joy is in the way the characters are brought to life and made entertaining while spouting some of the most difficult dialogue Will could devise, sonnets included. It’s a real treat, and we’re seeing it again (yippee!). Life is good.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me