Doctor Faustus – February 2013

Experience: 7/10

By Christopher Marlowe and Colin Teevan

Directed by Dominic Hill

Co-production by West Yorkshire Playhouse and Citizens Theatre

Venue: Quarry Theatre

Date: Monday 25th February 2013

This was a bonus performance for us; on our way to Glasgow for Takin’ Over The Asylum tomorrow night, we needed to stop off somewhere and Leeds was a good option. As this was only the second(?) performance, we didn’t expect too much, but I felt this was a remarkable production which fused some modern rewriting of the central sections with Marlowe’s original beginning and end, and came up with a much more accessible piece. Normally I’m not a fan of ‘accessibility’, but I find Marlowe’s work can be tedious and often unintelligible without significant research into the background. Even then he’s not always the most fun to watch, so anything that helps to put this play across to a modern audience has to be good in my view.

We sat on the left-hand aisle, four rows back. To left and right on the stage were two rows of makeup tables, with lights round the mirrors. The middle area of the stage held a double bed (centre back), a washstand on the left with a TV next to it in the front left corner, and a desk and chair front right. There was a standalone door back right with a Portaloo partially hidden behind it, and several old-style CRT TVs around the place, showing nothing but snow. There was a background hum, and occasional announcements in a female voice which we couldn’t make out – a bit like hearing the one-sided conversations coming over the radio in a taxi. (They were meant to be backstage announcements, judging by the middle section of the play.)

Behind all this were some long steps and a curtain, which when opened revealed a shallower stage to the rear of the main one. The curtain was fully removed later, and a hospitality table laden with champagne stood to one side on this upper level. Amongst various items of clothing, chairs, etc. we spotted a panda head sitting on the floor to our right, next to the makeup tables on that side; neither of us spotted it in action, so I don’t know if we missed it or if it was simply cut. The TV screens never showed any pictures, so perhaps there were technical glitches, or perhaps that was also down to the usual state of flux in the early performances. Steve noticed from the text that the final Chorus speech had been cut, though as the ending was a bit uncertain tonight, perhaps it might be back in later on.

It was clear from the outset that this was a modernised reworking, even before I read the details in the programme notes. With some uncertainty over the provenance of Marlowe’s ‘original’, which was published in two different editions after his death, and the likelihood that some of the comic scenes were by other writers and only inserted to poke fun at the Pope and his cardinals following the excommunication of Elizabeth I, the creative team felt comfortable with producing a major adaptation to bring out the central themes of the work in terms familiar to contemporary culture: greed, celebrity, dissing God, etc. Overall this approach worked well, and it’s a production well worth catching if you can.

Before the start of the play, a young Faustus was brought on to sit on the bed as the cast filtered onto the sides of the stage, getting themselves ready. The Chorus was shared between various actors, and a short demonstration of Faustus’s parents leaving him in the room with a packet of crisps and just the TV for company illustrated their low-born status. The older Faustus soon appeared though, and with pauses between scenes to change the set as needed, we learned of his contempt for all other studies except necromancy and saw his first efforts to raise Mephistopheles.

During his initial speech Faustus used a laptop to access the various subjects he was referring to, but he brought out a proper book for the necromancy parts. His good and bad angels tussled verbally for a while, then the good angel, a woman dressed all in white and with a white fur hat, retired to a chair to knit while the bad angel slouched in the opposite corner.

The discussion with his friends wasn’t entirely clear to me, but I did gather that they had been involved with magic for some time and were keen to teach Faustus what they knew. In the next scene, Faustus brought in a bag which appeared to contain a bloody something (possibly a head?), and used the blood to mark out a circle on the floor. The lights were down for this bit – it was night after all – so it was hard to see exactly what was going on. His comments about the other markings on the ground seemed a bit over the top, since all we saw were those few bloody smears, but perhaps they were markings he’d prepared earlier.

Mephistopheles initially emerged through the sofa bed in a hideous form at first, then at Faustus’ command he sank back into the bed and a minute or so later a nun entered through the door – Mephistopheles in disguise. Played by Siobhan Redmond, this Mephistopheles had been a man in the past, and was now damned for all eternity along with Lucifer. Wagner, Faustus’s servant, was also a female role in this version, leading to some interesting scenes later on.

Skipping on to the signing of the deed of gift, Faustus wrote the deed in his own blood, it congealed, Mephistopheles brought fire, cupped in her hands, to soften it, and then the fun began. One of the chaps sitting at the side was wearing a short tutu or petticoat. As soon as Faustus declared that he wanted a wife, this man leapt up, all excited, and rushed to put on a bridal gown hanging at the back of the tables. With the dress, a wig and a bouquet, he was ready and eager at the door as soon as Mephistopheles let her in. Between ‘her’ arrival and Faustus’s line “A plague on her for a hot whore” there was some very heavy petting going on until Faustus realised he’d been had. Later, when Faustus was exploring the book Mephistopheles had given him, the bad angel helped him to locate all the items he asked for, which was mildly amusing.

The Chorus’s description of Faustus’s eight-day journey to view the heavens was cut, so the next scene showed Faustus questioning Mephistopheles about astronomy. Given that our knowledge is much greater now, Mephistopheles’s answers seemed absurd, and left me with the impression that she was telling Faustus whatever he wanted to hear instead of the truth, assuming she knew what it was, of course. As Steve pointed out, Mephistopheles had died long before, so perhaps this was up-to-date for her. Even so, there were one or two pauses before her replies which suggested she was considering the options. Admittedly this section was still the original so the astronomical ‘facts’ did fit the period, but when the piece has been so thoroughly modernised, this lapse into an older time-frame seemed a little discordant.

After Faustus upset Mephistopheles with a reference to God creating the Earth, she left to refer the matter up the management chain – now there’s a version of hell I can relate to! This was when the curtain at the back opened up enough to give us an extra bit of stage, and with a bright light shining through from the back, and Lucifer in a white suit (or was it the shiny one this time?) we were in game show territory. Beelzebub was a no-show, and I think this was where the rest of the cast abandoned the makeup tables and got more directly involved.

The seven deadly sins were entertaining, with actors done up in appropriate masks and costumes, so that although I didn’t always catch the names, I could tell who was who. Mephistopheles played the glamorous hostess, welcoming each of them onto the stage, but when it was the turn of Sloth, she held out her arms…..and nothing. We laughed. She headed into the wings and dragged the lazy bugger onto the stage where he flopped onto the ground and refused to move unless forced to. Now that’s what I call sloth! Lucifer gave Faustus a book as a parting gift, which Faustus promised to keep safe – “This I will keep as chary as my life”.

Following this scene, the stage was transformed more substantially than before to turn it into a dressing room. While this went on, we heard the closing lines of the previous scene over the tannoy, and then Faustus appeared, coming off stage for the interval of his magic show. Between mouthfuls of food, chatting up Wagner and sparring with Mephistopheles, who has some great lines in this section, Faustus eventually changed his outfit and he and Mephistopheles headed off for their second half, at which point I think we took our interval (the text has it later).

The next scene was also in the dressing room, only this time Saxon Bruno, an aging rock star, and Robyn, his girlfriend, were with Faustus. Not that Bruno can remember her name; she’s just the latest disposable pussy. Faustus got very excited when Bruno suggested that he, Faustus, could join him and his band on their next tour, but deflated when it turned out they only wanted him so that he could do some of his magic tricks – explosions and the like – instead of being in the band. (Faustus had played air guitar a number of times, and thanks to Mephistopheles’s magic, an actual guitar riff had sounded each time.) In the text, Faustus takes his revenge by swapping Bruno’s dick and Robyn’s female parts; in performance it became Mephistopheles’s little revenge on Bruno for behaving disrespectfully towards her. Robyn’s dress developed a large bulge (must have made it bigger as well, then) which was drawn irresistibly to Bruno’s nether regions, and she was soon fucking him senseless at the back of the room. After Bruno ran off, with Robyn in hot pursuit, Faustus received the telephone call he’d been waiting for – an invitation to play Las Vegas for the President’s birthday party.

The Las Vegas scenes were still set in the dressing room, with one or two changes to the furnishings. Wagner was preparing for the special guests – setting up the champagne, etc. – while Faustus was trying to connect with her, to have a more meaningful relationship. He did find out that her first name was Grace, symbolically appropriate, and all the time Mephistopheles kept an eye on them to thwart any possible escape from his contract.

Wagner waited in the dressing room while Faustus, helped by Mephistopheles, did his turn for the president. We heard it over the tannoy, but the sound quality wasn’t good enough for me to make it all out. I did gather that Abraham Lincoln was produced to say a few lines, and then Faustus came back to his dressing room to celebrate his success. (Or we had an interval, according to the text.)

The next scene was acted out to the strains of Viva Las Vegas, played loud or soft, depending on whether there was dialogue to listen to. Several of the cast performed a little dance routine on the rear stage, with Mephistopheles and others joining them later, and this dance went on for a long time – quite a workout for them.

Mephistopheles was running a little side line, recruiting new souls for damnation, and in a similar vein to the porter scene in Macbeth, we met a banker, a media mogul and another character who were each given contracts to sign by Mephistopheles from a bundle she had ready. When the banker queried the ‘soul’ bit, he was reassured by her reply that it was “only applicable in the event you have one”, which was well appreciated by the audience.

Even the Pope turned up to have a chat with Faustus, making theological points to remind him that even Lucifer is dependent on God for his existence. A nice addition to the text here: when Mephistopheles offered to entertain the Pope, he refused at first as per the script, but then made a comment that since he’d resigned…., and joined her in the dance. He was a nifty little mover, too.

The President arrived, slightly preceded by three security men in black suits and sunglasses. They kept a wary eye on everything and everyone. After Faustus welcomed the President, he announced another little surprise, and in a few moments we saw Marilyn Monroe slink on stage. The big blond wig hid her face, but from her appearance I guessed it was the same demon who had been Faustus’s bride earlier. Marilyn sang her throaty little ‘Happy Birthday’ song, after which she shimmied over to the President to sit on his lap, and soon they were kissing. Then things got very active very quickly and everyone could see ‘she’ was a demon. The President was hustled away by his security men and everyone else left in a hurry, leaving Faustus alone.

Depressed, he tried to chat up Wagner again, even giving her a necklace of pearls or diamonds, but she wasn’t keen to be involved with him while he was the devil’s disciple. Her exclamation of impatience “Jesus wept!” was followed immediately by “But not for me” from Faustus; by this time I was getting a little fed up with his whinging self-pity. He left to go back to his hotel room, and this was when Mephistopheles told Grace the story of her own downfall; loving a beautiful woman, giving her to the Emperor in return for power and riches, then turning on him and destroying his empire after he discarded the woman. At the end of this scene, Grace and Mephistopheles left together, and it was pretty clear what was in Mephistopheles’s mind; Grace looked like a bunny transfixed by a snake.

With the room in darkness, the security men came back and started hunting around. They heard a noise and disappeared into the Portaloo just before Faustus came back. When Wagner arrived shortly afterwards she started to behave differently towards Faustus, knocking back a glass of champagne before ripping off her coat and revealing the basque and stockings she was wearing. She was on Faustus like a rampant nympho, leading us to suspect this was not the real Grace, and soon they were making the clothes rail shake with their activity. The security men came out of the Portaloo again, and while two of them were sickened by what they saw and ran back into the loo, the third was made of stronger stuff, and spent some time getting a good picture or two on his mobile phone before also hiding.

When the real Wagner turned up, in distress as she had effectively been raped through Mephistopheles taking over her body, Faustus realised what had happened. Despite an attempt to go back to Wittenberg to spend his last remaining years with Grace, Mephistopheles persuaded him that there was no hope of salvation, yet again, and Faustus sent Grace away.

The action was considerably changed from the text for this next bit. The security men came out again and searched the room more thoroughly, pulling a goldfish bowl out of a briefcase, discovering a self-opening box, etc. When they tried to pull their guns out of their holsters they produced flowers instead. Mephistopheles chased them all away at Faustus’s instruction, and then the dressing room was altered again to represent Faustus on the way down. This time he was visited by a Duke and Duchess; she was visibly pregnant. I didn’t catch all the dialogue, but I gathered that she wanted Faustus to do some of his magic for her, produce something special, and he obliged by providing her with black truffles. She gobbled up as many as she could, and then they left.

The next scene had Faustus back in Wittenberg, with the bed and desk back in place – the washstand had never moved. He had several students around him, and they persuaded him to conjure Helen of Troy so that they could see if she was as beautiful as she was reported to be. Faustus obliged, and the same demon who had played Marilyn Monroe appeared as Helen. The wig had long blond curls, the dress was Grecian, and she wafted across the stage looking rather sad, I thought. The students left and Grace turned up to try and save Faustus from himself, while Mephistopheles handed him a dagger so that he could take his own life, a mortal sin of course.

For this scene, Mephistopheles was wearing partial chain mail and had black wings which stuck out at the sides, much less ‘cuddly’ than her earlier incarnations. After a quickie with Helen of Troy, and more pleas from Wagner, Mephistopheles, the students and the good and bad angels, Faustus finally appeared to give in (though not according to the text) and with a final “Ah, Mephistopheles”, he reached out his hand to her and the lights went out. It was an uncertain ending, and there was a pause before anyone applauded, though once we got going the response was strong.

There’s the makings of a very good production in here, although it might take a little longer to bring that out fully. Having read more of the text now, I can see significant changes in the way they’re playing it, with the potential for even more. Some of the stage directions for the new sections are positively fiendish – how on earth would they be able to make a chicken drumstick turn into a dildo? – and the emphasis on the technical side makes this a tricky prospect to pull off. But the cast gave it their all, and there was enough to enjoy and plenty to think about.

The modernisation undoubtedly brought out some of the aspects of the original very clearly, and making use of our society’s current preoccupation with celebrity meshed very nicely with Faustus’s desire for fame and status. There were some losses, though. Despite the Chorus’s references to Faustus mastering his subjects very quickly, his style of dress and adolescent manner was more suggestive of the geeky young man spending most of his time alone in his bedroom, surfing the web and fantasising about all the wonderful things he could achieve, if only he’d get off his arse and actually do something. In this context, his contempt for the respectable avenues of learning could be interpreted as the uninitiated despising what they couldn’t grasp. The effect of this was to give Faustus more of an Everyman aspect, whereas the original, from what I remember, emphasised that Faustus had such a powerful intellect that he was a major prize for Lucifer to win.

The gender-changing added in some ways to the relationships, creating a Faustus-Wagner-Mephistopheles triangle with a sexual aspect which I definitely don’t remember from the original. The down side was losing the focus on the Faustus-Mephistopheles pairing, the central core of the play. In this version, the play became more about Mephistopheles than Faustus, and the sense of humanity constantly falling into the same traps, over and over again, was very strong. Mephistopheles looked thoroughly jaded at having to work with yet another puny example of mankind, whose personal ambition was severely limited by a lack of imagination; not usually an issue in the original, I suspect.

I don’t want to sound too critical, though. Plays are subject to a variety of interpretations, and it’s all too easy to forget that when these classics were written they were referencing contemporary issues, so updating all or part of them is a valid exercise. This new version probably wouldn’t appeal to the purists, but with a largely youthful audience around us, I felt the cast got a good response throughout to help with developing the production. Steve spotted someone at the control desk busily scribbling notes as we left; we don’t know what Dominic Hill looks like, but if we had to put a bet on it….

The performances were good, given that it’s early days, and Siobhan Redmond was superb. She was using a very plummy accent, similar to her Queen Elizabeth in Richard III last year, with very precise diction which made her sound different to the human characters.

I also noticed several echoes of Shakespeare’s work. Apart from the porter scene, the reference to abjuring magic instantly brought to mind Prospero’s line “This rough magic I do abjure”, and of course Shakespeare doesn’t just have a fake Helen of Troy, he provides the real thing in Troilus And Cressida.

Just to catch up with the previous productions I’ve seen: the RSC’s production in 1989/90 was probably a good one, but I found it dreary. I had hoped for more, with Marlowe being such a respected writer and all. The production at Chichester in 2004 had some good points, but it included a promenade during the central section which dissipated the energy as far as I was concerned, while the final scenes, played out in Chichester Cathedral, were difficult to hear – lovely setting, shame about the echo. I’d be willing to see another production some time which relied more on the original published texts just to compare with this experience, and I’ll be careful not to expect too much from it.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King Lear – May 2012

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Dominic Hill

Venue: Citizens Theatre

Date: Wednesday 9th May 2012

I’d seen some great productions at the Citizens back in the 1970s, so I was really keen to visit it again; something of a nostalgia fest for me. I reckon that’s why Steve and I rated this performance differently, which doesn’t often happen. He gave it 7/10, while I was much happier with a 9/10 rating.

We couldn’t see all of the stage from the start, but I’ll describe it all now – saves time later on. At the beginning, there were steps leading up to the stage centre front, and there was a transparent curtain of plastic strips right across the stage near the front. The lights from the auditorium created a pattern of glowing waves on this curtain. I could just about see that behind it was a table with chairs, and that was all.

Once the action started, the central section of the stage became clearer. With a girder delineating each corner, the centre of the stage held various items of furniture, from the opening dinner table complete with fancy chandelier, through various other chair and table combos, then wheelchairs, a bed, a shopping trolley, piles of rubbish, etc., as well as occasionally being vacant. Behind this central section was a wall of high glass panels. Lurking figures could be seen through this, the homeless folk who inhabited the world outside the confines of the play. Pianos were everywhere, and provided the music and sound effects throughout, sometimes played in the usual fashion, and sometimes the strings were exposed and played directly, giving lots of crashing discords. The overall colour scheme was murky grey, but despite the apparent drabness the performance was full of life (till the end and all those dead bodies, of course). The costumes were modern, with occasional hints of historical peasant garb.

They started this production with a homeless person slamming the trapdoor open at the front of the stage. Then several of the dispossessed clambered out and gathered in front of the curtain, gazing through it at the dinner party on the other side. This was frozen to begin with, but then one of the homeless chaps removed his anorak and moved through the curtain to join the party, just as there was a burst of laughter from the table; he carried the piece of paper that was the map. The other homeless folk snuck off, though they were visible during the play at the sides and back. The characters at the table included Goneril, Albany, Regan and Cornwall, while Kent and Gloucester were sitting on the near side of the table. Ditching the usual opening about which of the Dukes Lear prefers (tactless in this situation), they went straight into Gloucester introducing Edmund to Kent. The others joined in the ribald laughter at Gloucester’s story, apart from Kent and also Albany, who looked askance at this social indiscretion. Edmund was civil and obliging as usual, but was clearly put out by his father’s announcement that he would be sent away again!

Lear arrived with Cordelia, who took her seat on the near side of the table as well, possibly in Gloucester’s vacated chair. As Lear presented the challenge to his daughters to profess the depth of their love for him, he seemed to be making it up off the cuff, and amidst the surprise Regan reacted by laughing out loud. When Goneril started her speech, she clearly thought that stating the matter was beyond words would be sufficient, and when she realised she was wrong she moved pretty quickly into flattery mode, trotting out the flowery lines like an old pro. Already middle-aged, she’d had plenty of time to practice the ‘oily art’ over the years. Cornwall stood up to watch closely what portion Goneril was being given – obviously keen to get as big a prize as he could from this little game show.

Regan had had time to prepare, of course, so she heaped the praises on with a fork lift truck. Goneril didn’t look too upset at being upstaged, but Cordelia was deeply troubled. I didn’t spot Kent’s reactions at this point, but I suspect he wasn’t keen on Lear’s little game. Regan was given her portion – Cornwall on his feet again, and apparently happy with his wife’s winnings – and then Cordelia had to go and spoil it all. She spoke from her heart, and I noticed Kent was nodding a little, making it clear he agreed with her completely, and setting the scene for his coming outburst. Lear tore the map in two and handed one part each to Albany and Cornwall at the appropriate moment, and I think he was standing on the table when he sent Kent packing. When Gloucester came on to introduce the French king and Burgundy, his confident announcement trailed off with surprise when he realised something strange had happened since he left the room earlier.

For this section, Lear sat behind the table, his beady eyes fixed on the action. When Burgundy refused Cordelia, Lear seemed grimly satisfied that his judgement was being effective against her. He wasn’t so pleased with the King of France for speaking up on Cordelia’s behalf, and his eyes were narrow slits when France declared Cordelia his queen. Lear left with Burgundy, and France had almost left the stage with Cordelia before he paused and told her to say farewell to her sisters, who were still sitting at the table. With their departure, Goneril and Regan had their little chat, and I noticed that Goneril not only appeared more confident than Regan, she was also quick to adopt the royal ‘we’ in her speech, while Regan had yet to realise her new position.

The servants cleared the table and chairs away during that last bit of the scene, and so they soon had the furniture set up for Gloucester’s house – a sofa and not much else. There was an overlap with the previous scene during the clearing; as Goneril strolled off stage she cast an approving eye on Edmund, who came on wearing a grey tracksuit and laid on the ground near the front the stage. After Goneril left and the changes were complete, Edgar came on and sat on the sofa to read the paper and drink his can of beer. I liked this staging; again it got across the domestic nature of the relationships, and increased the risk factor of Gloucester and Edgar finding out Edmund’s trick before it had a chance to work. It also had the benefit of telling us who Edgar is, which is handy when he’s hardly on stage at all before he appears, disguised, as Poor Tom. Edmund’s diatribe against the social exclusion of bastards was more obviously a soliloquy with Edgar being present, and he handled it pretty well. He also spotted the useful quality of the word ‘legitimate’ and added it to the letter he’d prepared earlier.

After Edgar had gone off, presumably to get some more beer, Gloucester arrived carrying a bottle of whisky and a glass, and taking liberal helpings. He sat on the sofa to read the letter he took from Edmund, while Edmund played the concerned brother very well. After Gloucester’s departure, he worked the same trick on Edgar as they sat on the sofa together, and all was set for this strand of knavery.

Back with the dining table and chairs, Goneril gave her instructions to Oswald and then Kent turned up, hair no longer slicked down and without his glasses. From a fairly posh English accent, he chose to move to a broader Glasgow one, and he was ready to offer his service when Lear arrived, carried on the shoulders of one of his followers.

The attendant lords were a lewd bunch, each one equipped with his own doxy; Kent/Caius was a model of good behaviour by comparison. With plenty of support from acting and music students, the production could at least put lots of bodies on the stage, and these scenes benefitted from the numbers. The confrontation with Oswald was fine, and then the fool arrived. With a whitened face and a cap, this fool was dressed like a mime, and walked with one foot twisted inwards, creating a sense of disability. He also used the piano at the side of stage a lot to accompany his singing in this scene, although it wasn’t the most tuneful version I’ve ever heard. The lines came across well enough though, which is the main thing. I don’t remember any reaction from Lear on the ‘Nothing can be made out of nothing’ line, and Lear himself stood in for the bitter fool this time.

The confrontation with Goneril went badly, as usual, with her reproaches seeming reasonable in the circumstances, and Lear starting to move into madness through his obsessive belief that his daughters owed everything to him. He threw some chairs around before storming off, and the stress he was under came out more in the following scene while he waited with the fool for the horses to be ready.

Curran was included in this production at the start of Edmund’s next scene, and soon Edgar was on the run. Gloucester almost collapsed at the ‘realisation’ that his own son wanted him dead (silly man), and then Cornwall and Regan arrived to ask Gloucester for his advice. Kent’s altercation with Oswald was very good fun; perhaps it was the Scottish accent, but the insults were so well delivered that I heard every one, and the audience finally had a chance to laugh out loud. As I recall, Kent was using a golf club which Gloucester had left leaning against the bench, threatening Oswald with the handle end.

After the ‘combatants’ had been parted, Kent really put his foot in it with the insults to the assembled nobles. I was very aware that Kent was echoing Lear’s behaviour, acting as if he were still entitled to the benefits of his rank even though he’d been exiled and was in disguise. His look of panic as he realised he would be put in the stocks seemed to be partly for himself and partly for the insult to the king; like Lear he had still to learn the new political reality. Gloucester was also disturbed by this proceeding, and his reactions were clear throughout these scenes, not just during his lines. Kent was chained to the bench, and read his letter by moonlight. This done, the lights were lowered on the centre of the stage so that Edgar’s scene could take place near the front, using the same trapdoor that opened the play.

We both found this Edgar a bit strange. His accent was unclear, a strange mix from nowhere in particular – was this deliberate? His delivery was also a bit wimpish, and although I heard most of the lines OK, I wasn’t convinced by the performance that this Edgar would make a good king. Mind you, the way they ended the play suggested a different take, but I’ll deal with that when I get there. At least he established the disguise he was taking on – it’s easy to forget that not everyone knows the story – and there were some background sounds to suggest that people were out searching for him.

Back with Kent, the fool and Lear arrived, and again there was some humour in their exchange, with Lear refusing to believe that Regan would have put his man in the stocks and Kent assuring him she did – almost like pantomime. As the scene developed, I noticed that after Cornwall’s admission that he had Kent put in the stocks, Regan deliberately took over the conversation again, suggesting that like her sister she had come to realise the strength of her position, and that dealing with the king was her business, not her husband’s. After Goneril arrived and the greetings were done, the sisters stood at the front of the stage, one on either side, and tacitly negotiated the final transfer of power from Lear to them. Goneril had a slightly quizzical look when Regan started the process of bidding Lear down – what’s she up to here? – then the declaration of ‘but five and twenty’ made it clear, and a silent pact was made. Like two lionesses bringing down a rampant wildebeest, they held each other’s gaze and were steadfast in their demands while Lear raged impotently at his treatment.

With the storm starting, and Lear heading off into the wilds of Gloucestershire, the glass curtain at the back was raised, and several shadowy figures became visible lurking round the stage. This emphasised for me the world that Lear was entering; not so much the madness aspect but the dispossessed, the naked, those without shelter. And of course there’s a lot of mental illness amongst those sleeping rough, an appropriate connection to make between the play and the present day. Lear’s long rant was clear enough, bringing out the emphasis on ingratitude and his increased awareness of the suffering of the poor. The fool’s prophecy was cut, and we were soon through the discovery of Poor Tom, who stayed well clear of Gloucester when he turned up. The short scenes between Edmund and Gloucester and Edmund and Cornwall were fine, and for the arraignment scene there was a shopping trolley and a mattress, as well as a stool or two, although Goneril wasn’t a joint-stool this time (forget what was used instead). Before he went to bed, Lear actually smashed the fool’s head against one of the stools, giving him a bloody wound, and by the end of the scene the fool had clearly died. When Gloucester arrived to warn them to leave, they put Lear into the shopping trolley and wheeled him off, leaving the fool’s body there. Interval.

The second half started with the blinding scene, of course, and Regan was again much too keen on the unpleasant stuff. She even used one of her stilettos to remove the second eye – eugh! She did at least help Cornwall off after he was injured – some Regan’s don’t – and then we got a chance to see someone being helped on to the stage, as Gloucester was brought on by a servant and met his disguised son. Edgar’s emotional reactions were clear, and they were soon off to Dover.

The scenes come thick and fast now. Goneril had a good snog with Edmund before he left – no reaction from Oswald this time. Albany was a much stronger presence in this scene than usual, and very unhappy with Goneril’s actions. She was equally unhappy with him – I think she threw her handbag at him, or did he grab it off her? – so I don’t see much future in that relationship.

I think the next scene was Regan and Oswald – not the Kent scene, and possibly not Cordelia’s either – and although Regan had delved into her extensive wardrobe for a black ensemble, she was clearly preparing for another wedding, to Edmund this time. Oswald’s reluctance to show her Goneril’s letter to Edmund was not easily overcome, despite Regan’s rather crude attempt to offer sexual favours.

Back at Dover, Edmund helped his father up the steep slope to the top of the cliff, etc. I realised later that this is possibly the only scene in Shakespeare’s plays where the description of the location is actually wrong, and yet it’s so good that I find it hard to remember where we are, and it’s often a surprise when Lear comes wandering along the ‘beach’. Here the conversation between Lear and Gloucester was good, though not the best I’ve heard, and the attendants when they arrived were all women and all in white coats. Lear ran off, Edgar fought Oswald and took his letter, and then Lear was brought on in a wheelchair for the reunion with Cordelia. For some reason there was a young woman, one of the homeless, also in a wheelchair at the back and apparently being cared for by the women in white coats; don’t have a clue what it meant, but at least it didn’t get in the  way. The Cordelia/Lear reunion was quite touching, and then we were back with Regan and Edmund for the battle preparations. Edmund’s explanation of his dilemma over the sisters was another opportunity for humour, not really responded to this time which was a shame, as that was the last comfort break before unremitting doom and gloom set in.

The battle lost, Lear and Cordelia were taken away to prison. Regan showed symptoms of poisoning soon after her arrival on stage, Edgar was nearly beaten by Edmund in the duel but managed to keep going and eventually won the fight, and the messenger sent to the prison had hardly run off the first time before Lear arrived on stage with Cordelia’s body, crying ‘howl, howl, howl’. With Lear dead, Kent not only took out a gun while saying his final lines, he also sat in the chair, put the gun in his mouth and fired immediately after he’d finished speaking, as abrupt an end to this character as I’ve ever seen, though other productions have pointed in this direction. After Edgar’s closing lines, he and a group of the homeless folk joined up in a band and walked to the front of the stage, suggesting that the have nots are now taking over the country, and that Edgar’s time as Poor Tom has taught him the lessons that Lear never learned until it was too late. It was a different, and almost a downbeat ending (Lear? Downbeat? Surely not!) without the sense of goodness surviving through the difficulties and some sort of order being restored. This ending suggested a tearing down of the old ways and an almost hostile takeover of society by those who have no investment in the previous regime. It’s an interesting parallel with current events, and one I have some sympathy with, although I’m not sure the play fully supports this reading. Still, I enjoyed this evening enormously, and despite some flaws, the story was told very well with some strong individual performances. I’ll be keen to come back here again for future productions.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The City Madam – September 2011

8/10

By: Philip Massinger

Directed by: Dominic Hill

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 30th September 2011

I can’t honestly say if this production has come on as much as some of the others, although I’m sure the cast are more experienced now; the main reason for our increased enjoyment was that we knew who the characters were and what was going on much better the second time around. As I suspected from our previous visit, familiarity helped a lot.

We were able to follow the plot much better, and although I still found the dialogue hard to follow at times, I caught much more of what was going on this time. The way Luke incites the apprentices to steal from his brother, for example, came across much more clearly. I realised that the suitors aren’t supposed dead when their statues are brought on, they’re meant to be travelling for three years, together. The way young Lacy accepted Plenty’s proffered hand of friendship before they set off together was very funny. Lacy is very effete, while Plenty is a rich landowner who’s used to working his own land – the bluff Yorkshireman type.

The different seats also helped, as I found my view was rarely blocked. In fact, we were very close to Lord Lacy when he came over and sat beside two ladies in the row behind us, nudging them over so he could sit down. His whispered asides to them were clearly audible to the rest of the audience, and it was good fun having him there.

Still not the easiest play to get into first time round, but well worth the effort of a second visit.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The City Madam – June 2011

6/10

By: Philip Massinger

Directed by: Dominic Hill

Company: RSC

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 10th June 2011

This play was written in the post-Shakespeare period and before the Civil War. While I could see elements of later Restoration comedy, we both spotted lots of ‘echoes’ of other stories, especially from Will’s work – the masque from The Tempest, the hidden authority figure watching a deputy’s behaviour from Measure For Measure, the statues coming to life from The Winter’s Tale, etc. etc. It’s a good job there were some familiar things in the play; for the most part, I found the first half difficult to follow, not helped by our long trip beforehand admittedly, but the sheer number of characters and the unfamiliar language didn’t help either.

The set was very simple. Two double doors centre back, flanked by two upright wooden chairs. That’s it, although there was a big painting across this back wall showing a young man kneeling at the feet of an older man, with another young man looking on. I took this to be the story of the prodigal son, although it wasn’t entirely clear how this fitted in with the play. Perhaps the program notes will help. Anyway, the chairs were painted to blend in with this painting, so it was hard to make them out. Other furnishings were added as needed – a table, cushions, etc. – and chandeliers dropped down from above.

There were puppets, too. For the masque, Orpheus and Eurydice, there were puppets for Orpheus, Eurydice, Cerberus and the hands that dragged Eurydice back to Hades, as well as three human singers and a bunch of musicians. The masque was very well done, and there were additional magic tricks, Prospero-like, carried out by the chief American Indian, including a burning book.

The plot was fairly straightforward. Sir John Frugal has a wife, two daughters, an ex-con brother and a vast business empire. He’s ruthless in his business dealings, but apparently unable to rein in the frivolous excesses of his wife and daughters, who spend their time, and his money, on increasingly lavish outfits and plans for the daughters to wed into the nobility. Sir John’s brother, Luke, is treated badly by these women, and appears to be a changed man. No more materialistic concerns for him. He revels in the new-found simplicity of his life, or so it seems.

A friend of his, Lord Lacy, believes that Luke is truly repentant, and tries to persuade Sir John to treat him better. Sir John believes he hasn’t changed a bit, and that if he were given half a chance, he’d be just as bad as before. I wasn’t clear about this plotting at the time, but I soon grasped what was going on when Lord Lacy announces to Sir John’s family that he, Sir John, has gone to a monastery and left all his worldly possessions in the control of Luke, in the expectation that he will take care of his sister and nieces and deal kindly with Sir John’s various, and many, debtors. With so much wealth suddenly thrust upon him, Luke has the chance to show his wisdom and humility and stun us all.

Don’t hold your breath. With the key to the Frugal treasury clutched firmly to his bosom, Luke is set to become the world’s most rapacious usurer – cold, merciless, avaricious. He starts to call in all the debts, but first he sets the people up for a bigger fall, encouraging them in their profligacy before setting the bailiffs on them.

Lord Lacy brings along three men from the newly established American colonies, who wish to be converted to Christianity. Their chief is clearly Sir John himself, while the other two are his daughters’ suitors, who wouldn’t accept the life of total slavery the women tried to impose on them as a condition of their marriage. These three work on Luke’s greed, and finally persuade him to hand over Lady Frugal and her two daughters, now in plainer clothes, in return for riches beyond his wildest dreams.

Having sent all his debtors to prison, Luke takes the time to threaten Lord Lacy with the loss of the lands which carry his title, before settling down to enjoy a birthday banquet and some entertainment which the Indian chief has laid on for him. The masque comes first, of course, but then all the arrested folk are led on in chains, to see if Luke will feel pity for them. No chance. So then the daughters come on with their mother, to say goodbye to their former suitors, now supposed dead, by speaking to their statues. None of this moves Luke at all. So at last the chief uses his magic to bring the statues to life (Winter’s Tale and Don Juan!), and the final revelations can take place, with Luke being stripped (literally) of his position, and sent out to fend for himself.

The story wasn’t complicated as such; the difficulty lay in the vast number of characters, and the fact that the doubling wasn’t always clear. We did spot the Indian disguises OK, but there were one or two other situations where we weren’t sure if the actors were playing the same characters in different clothes, or different characters. I accept that Massinger was attempting to show how widespread the decadence and corruption went, but I still feel there’s scope for some serious editing to bring the play into sharper focus.

There were many nice touches in this production which suggest it would be well worth seeing again. I liked the way the suitors staggered about a bit after being the statues – I’ve done life modelling, and I know how hard it is to stay still for that long. Unfortunately, the blocking really was blocking tonight, and our view was obstructed many times, which certainly didn’t help. We’ve booked seats in a different part of the auditorium next time, so that should be better. Also, the language isn’t as easy to follow as Will’s, probably because we don’t hear these plays as often as the Shakespearean cannon, and with the plot being unfamiliar, I just couldn’t follow it as well as I would have liked. Second time around should be better.

All the performances seemed very good (those I could see, anyway). I particularly liked Sara Crowe as Lady Frugal – her face had some wonderful expressions flitting across it – and Jo Stone-Fewings as Luke. His transformation from puritan to rampant miser was beautifully done, and for all his unpleasant behaviour, he also provided much of the humour.

Finally, it’s remarkable how modern some of the play’s points are, with so many people running up debts and not being able to pay them back. I could see the National doing another modern dress version of this one, like The Man Of Mode and The Revenger’s Tragedy, as it would fit right in to that style of production.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Prayer For My Daughter – March 2008

5/10

By Thomas Babe

Directed by Dominic Hill

Venue: Young Vic Theatre

Date: Saturday 8th March

The Young Vic has been transformed for this play. Instead of the seats on four sides round the central stage, there are two steeply raked banks of seats on either side of a long narrow acting space, which is on two levels. At ground level (stage-wise) there’s the precinct room where the action mainly takes place. Above this is the street level, with the entrance stairs. There are balloons and streamers everywhere, as it’s midnight after July 4th, and mercifully, there was a fan blowing. It’s a massive construction, and frankly I don’t know whether it’s entirely necessary, but it’s certainly impressive.

The play, originally staged in 1977, concerns two men brought in for questioning by two cops. An old woman has been shot, and these men are the suspects. As the interrogations, and some beatings, unfold, we also learn that one of the cops has a daughter who’s threatening to commit suicide. His reluctance to go out looking for her is the dramatic focus of the play, and she’s the daughter for whom they say a prayer at the end. During the play, the younger cop takes drugs, and gives some drugs to the suspects, while the older cop, who’s been drinking steadily, has his gun lifted by one of the suspects and nearly gets shot. It’s not exactly an advert for the NYPD.

The performances were good, with Matthew Marsh giving a very strong portrayal of the older cop with a daughter he just doesn’t understand. He makes the character’s choice not to help her seem understandable, even if it also appears callous. The other actors did a fine job too, and the only problem I had with this play is that it seemed tremendously dated. It may have had some punch back in 1977, but nowadays, with all the drama that’s been and gone in between, the situation and characters seem hackneyed to my eyes. Having said that, I didn’t feel bored, and there were some good moments in the script. We were surprised that a woman had brought her three young sons to see the show, as there was a fair bit of blood and violence as well as the drug use, but it takes all sorts. I hope they get a stronger play for next time.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me