Versailles – March 2014

Experience: 7/10

Written and directed by Peter Gill

Venue: Donmar

Date: Thursday 20th March 2014

Steve rated this higher than me – 8/10 – but I found some aspects of the play rather dull and not totally in line with the rest of the piece. Still, the discussions about the Versailles Treaty were interesting, and there was plenty of period detail and humour to enhance the otherwise dry nature of the subject matter. And Leonard’s passion about the fate of the Saar coalfields in Germany brought out the importance of this treaty in laying the groundwork for WWII. It was mainly the homosexual relationship between Leonard and Gerald which I felt was out of place in terms of the play’s scope – why was this relationship between Leonard and Gerald’s ghost relevant to the time, the subject or the rest of the play?

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The Same Deep Water As Me – September 2013

Experience: 8/10

By Nick Payne

Directed by John Crowley

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 12th September 2013

I’m not sure how well the sponsored front row initiative is succeeding at the Donmar. The idea of having front row seats released two weeks before a show seems like a great way to get new people into the theatre at an affordable price, but looking at the occupants of the front row today, I’m not sure it’s having the desired effect. The average age was around 55 to 60, and they mostly looked like regular theatregoers to me. Of course, the matinee audience may have a different profile to evening performances, and no doubt there will be some statistics published eventually puffing what a great success the scheme has been, but for those of us who’ve supported the theatre for many years, it’s still a bit galling to find the best seats not available for advance booking and yet possibly not going to those for whom the scheme was intended. Ah well.

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Trelawney Of The Wells – March 2013

Experience: 8/10

By Arthur Wing Pinero, with ornamentation by Patrick Marber

Directed by Joe Wright

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 28th March 2013

This was a real eye-opener. A previous touring production we’d seen had been rather bland and we remembered very little of it. Today’s performance was anything but bland, and the memories will keep us chuckling a good while yet. It’s not clear from the play text how much Patrick Marber has added, nor which bits are his, and since I don’t know the play that well I can’t be sure how much his work affected our experience. It would be interesting to see another version sometime to compare them, but that may not happen anytime soon. This version is definitely affectionate towards the original, and well worth seeing.

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Julius Caesar – January 2013

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 17th January 2013

We only just made this performance with a few minutes to spare. The fire at Victoria station this morning meant our planned train was cancelled, but the next one ran pretty much to schedule and with some faster than usual walking (for us) we made it to the Donmar with just enough time for me to make a quick trip to the ladies – with two hours and no interval, I wanted to be prepared.

Mind you, I wasn’t happy when I entered the auditorium and saw the plastic bucket seats. Friends had warned us about this but I’d forgotten, and after all the stresses of the morning I wasn’t in a good humour when I sat beside Steve and ran through my pre-flight checklist: glasses, clean; phone, OFF (you know who you are); cough sweet, in (ditto); tissues, handy.

My feeling of depression deepened as I took in the ‘realistic’ prison setting: drab walls, locked doors with viewing windows, a scruffy sofa and some chairs in the right hand corner, some institutional paraphernalia in the other and along the back wall, a drum, an electric guitar, etc. There were two levels of balcony with metal steps on the right hand side. The spotlights were like searchlights, and there was strip lighting above the central area, mostly switched off once the play started. There was a trolley of some sort which was used from time to time, but the stage was usually bare of furniture.

The costumes were in keeping with this design concept. The women prisoners wore grey tracksuits with grey hoodies, and used woollen masks to cover their faces when needed. They also wore great coats, army fatigues or dresses as the occasion required, and there was even a spot of nudity, though not in a salacious way. The red rubber gloves will get a mention later on.

I knew that a women’s prison was the setting beforehand, but the full awfulness of the situation only dawned as I came into the acting space. There was some suitably unpleasant stuff at the beginning of the performance as well, with the prisoners being marched on stage and standing in line followed by a short display of anarchy as they ran around, shouted and screamed, hurled some stuff about and generally behaved badly. What pulled them together was the announcement from the first balcony, by Antony as it turned out, that ‘she’ was coming. The dialogue for this bit was mainly invented, but they did include the soothsayer’s first warning to Caesar, and they staged it pretty well. Carrie Rock played the soothsayer as a girl-woman who often sat by herself cradling a baby doll. The others regarded her as crazy or off her head with drugs, so when she approached Antony on the balcony she was allowed through. She was holding a magazine and pointed to it when she warned of the Ides of March; Antony took the magazine and made it clear this was an astrological prediction with some lines about Libra being very successful but having to watch out you don’t upset others.

With Caesar’s arrival (Frances Barber), things took a more orderly and more menacing turn. She spoke to the crowd and had them in the palm of her hand, and then they started a little exercise routine which had me laughing. Designed to show Caesar’s power over her followers, it made me think that Frances Barber was playing a megalomaniac criminal aerobics instructor. She had the group moving to one side, then the other, going down then up, and the whole thing was hilarious. Some face masks had been thrown down before this, and when the group turned round there was the strange effect of seeing so many Caesars facing us. I assume this was also meant to be chilling or disturbing in some way, but it reminded me of Frances Barber’s recent role in Doctor Who, and I suspected they were trading on that to impress the younger audience members. Whatever the reason, it didn’t engage me, and I was already thinking I’d give the performance fifteen minutes before walking out, something I don’t even consider normally.

Fortunately, once Caesar went off with her followers to an upstairs corner, we were left with Cassius (Jenny Jules) and Brutus (Harriet Walter), and there was no way anything short of a nuclear explosion was going to get me out of my seat once those two got started. Their delivery of the lines was crystal clear and their portrayal of these two characters was the best I’ve ever seen. Admittedly there was a lot missing in this heavily cut production, but the set pieces between these two were pretty much intact and gave us a very detailed picture of their difficult relationship. When they were talking, the setting disappeared into the background (the lights were lowered at this point as well) and the play began to come alive. Cassius’s passion came across strongly, and I could believe for once that there was an existing close friendship between these two people. The accounts of Caesar’s weakness, especially the swim across the river, were so vivid that Cassius’s resentment of Caesar’s success became very clear and understandable.

During this scene there were the necessary cheers from the upper corner, and when Caesar came back down with her followers they made a lot more of this short section than usual. They had placed a table and two chairs in the middle of the stage some time before Cassius and Brutus started their dialogue, and now Caesar put what looked like a pizza box down on the table, threw back the lid and invited everyone to grab a slice. Later, I realised it must have been a box of doughnuts, or perhaps it was a mixture, who knows? Cassius held aloof over on the right of the stage, but Brutus dived in as fast as the others and ate her food by one of the pillars under the balcony, just on Caesar’s left. Caesar’s comment about ‘fat, sleek-headed men’ was accompanied by her stroking Brutus’s head very affectionately, and instead of the rest of the speech being done as a side conversation, or as an open insult by ignoring Cassius’s presence, here Cassius was brought over to sit on one of the chairs and had half a doughnut stuffed in her mouth by Caesar. I didn’t have the presence of mind to check out Brutus’s response to this, as the tension had built up and I was focused on Cassius and Caesar. The derogatory description of Cassius was then given to all and sundry, including Brutus, and this demonstration of total power was rounded off by Caesar biting off the other bit of doughnut that was sticking out of Cassius’s mouth and then giving her a kiss. Cassius was mostly frozen during this scene, but her anger was evident and I noticed that she clenched her fists during the kiss.

Once Caesar had established her authority, she left with Antony and the gang and the other two sat down with Casca to find out what the cheering had been about. Ishia Bennison was excellent as Casca, with a rueful, world-weary cynicism that brought out the humour of her speech perfectly. With the foundations of the plot laid, they skipped the storm scenes altogether and immediately returned to Brutus’s house with Brutus calling for the sleepy Lucius. Again Harriet Walter delivered Brutus’s lines superbly well, and I was particularly struck by the line “Th’abuse of greatness is when it disjoins Remorse from power.” How true.

The letter was thrown down from the balcony instead of brought in by Lucius, and when the conspirators arrived they all wore woollen masks. These were gradually removed as the scene progressed, and when the oath was suggested by Cassius, all the others came and knelt in a circle by Brutus, holding out their hands to swear whatever was required. Brutus spoiled the party, as usual, but her words were inspiring, reminding them all of their common bond and their noble nature. Mind you, Cassius was really starting to get hacked off when Brutus also shoved her oar in about killing Mark Antony. I got the impression that Cassius respected Brutus too much to cause a fuss, and went along with her interpretation of the situation with fewer misgivings than Cassius often shows.

Once the other conspirators had left, Brutus was confronted by Portia, played by Clare Dunne (doubled with Octavius). This is normally the part where I start to lose interest, but again the relationship between these characters fairly crackled with energy, and I enjoyed this scene more than I ever have before. I did find Clare’s Irish brogue a little strong at times, but the fact that she was several months pregnant, with a significant bump, added to both Brutus’s concerns for her welfare and Portia’s own argument that Brutus is neglecting her own health. Her thigh wound was made just before the line “I have made strong proof of my constancy”, and I didn’t spot any fake blood this time, though as Brutus covered her wound very quickly I may have missed it.

The Caius Ligarius part was axed, so the next scene was Caesar’s decision to go to the senate/not to go to the senate/go to the senate. At first Caesar was helped into her black coat by a couple of servants, then she took it off when Calpurnia’s persuasions succeeded, and put it back on again once Casca (instead of Decius Brutus) had her say. Caesar responded very angrily when Casca asked for a reason to give the senate, and everyone else looked cowed. After walking across the stage, Caesar softened enough to give her reasons, for Casca’s ear only, and Casca had to work fast to think of an alternative interpretation of Calpurnia’s dream. This began to change Caesar’s mind, but the absolute clincher was the mention of a crown – how Caesar’s eyes lit up at that word! She was scathing towards Calpurnia after that, and soon had her coat back on for the trip to the senate.

The soothsayer’s part was trimmed to “Caesar, beware ……. It is bent against Caesar”. She said these lines in a disjointed way, wandering around the stage and eventually leaving it, followed by the short scene between Portia and Lucius in which the soothsayer didn’t appear at all. It was very clear that Portia, now knowing about the plot, was extremely worried about Brutus’s safety, and equally as worried about letting slip any information which would spoil the assassination.

As Caesar was arriving at the Senate House, Mark Antony approached a woman in the front row, almost directly in front of us, and asked her to move to another chair which, along with a few others, had been placed just in front of the area covered by the balcony. This left the central seat for Caesar to sit on, and the audience became “his Senate”. We had a very good view of the pleas by Metellus and the others for the repeal of Publius Cimber, and both the best and worst of views for the actual assassination itself. I spotted Casca coming along our row shortly before the deed, and she was right behind Caesar when she delivered the line “Speak hands for me” and stabbed Caesar in the back (or neck; as I said before, in some ways we had the worst of views). The other conspirators took their turns, and when Brutus stepped up to finish Caesar off, looking deeply unhappy that such an act was necessary, we could see her face as she almost hugged Caesar while stabbing her. Caesar came out of the chair and clung to Brutus for a few moments, trying to get out her last line; eventually she collapsed, centre stage, and like a true drama queen wrung every last gasp out of the death.

It was at this point that someone drew forward a basket with red gloves in it. As they hadn’t used fake blood for this scene either, I had wondered how they were going to dip their hands, but as they discussed their actions and their next steps, they put the gloves on their hands to represent the blood, which I found very effective. I also thought it was a typical woman’s approach – don’t use fake blood, we’ll only have to clean it up afterwards.

Mark Antony arrived immediately, without a herald, and shook hands with the conspirators. Again Brutus overruled Cassius about the funeral arrangements, and this time Cassius was less happy to acquiesce. After the conspirators left, Antony drew her right hand out of her pocket and it now wore a red glove; this was the hand which had grasped the conspirators’ gloves. The servant from Octavius was soon moved to tears at the sight of Caesar’s corpse, and Antony was very angry when she said “Get thee apart and weep”, driving the poor servant away from the body; bit possessive, I thought.

For the crowd scene, the lines about some of the people going off to hear what Cassius has to say were dropped, and the ‘plebs’ raced around the stage in a state of panic, with one or another coming to rest, often at a significant moment in Brutus’s speech. Brutus herself was on the trolley, which had been wheeled into the middle of the stage, and with all the helter-skelter activity it was hard to hear her initial lines. This was a decent representation of the very panic which she and the rest of the conspirators had been keen to avoid, but it did detract from important aspects of Brutus’s rhetoric. Given Harriet Walter’s excellent delivery, this seemed too much like dumbing down, emphasising the ‘important’ bits with movement in case the dummies in the audience weren’t up to the language, and naturally it got up my nose. What I did like was the final part of this section, where the crowd congregated around Brutus while they expressed their approval of her actions; as they touched her and moved her around I noticed that they removed her red gloves, a very visual indication that they absolved Brutus of all blame for the murder of Caesar. At the very end, they clustered tightly round Brutus, and when they parted the body of Caesar was lying on the ground, still in the black coat (although it was another actress playing the corpse). The action then moved seamlessly into Antony’s oration, and that’s when things turned ugly.

Antony stood on the ground level to speak to the crowd, and the ‘mantle’ was another version of the black coat, which appeared to have some rips and tears where the shivs had entered. Cush Jumbo delivered Antony’s speech pretty well, and it wasn’t long before there was a mini-riot, with people rushing off the stage to do lots of damage. Antony spoke briefly with Octavius’s servant, and then Cinna the poet arrived for her date with destiny.

The first Cinna was taken away by the guards for some reason – Steve thinks it was to get her medication. Another Cinna had to be pressganged into the role, and since she didn’t know the lines she was given a copy of the text to read from. The rioters were pretty rough with her; she was punched and kicked and slammed against one of the metal pillars. This led to a nosebleed which threatened to stop the whole performance. Two (female) guards arrived, I think the lights came on, and it was only the intervention of Caesar herself, who was apparently also the director of the play, that got things back on track. Cinna was given a hanky to deal with the blood, and the others got on with the play. (This was presumably one reason for not using fake blood during the assassination and other scenes; it would be confusing to have fake blood playing both ‘fake’ blood and ‘real’ blood.)

Antony, Lepidus and Octavius delivered their short scene well. A prisoner was kneeling at the front of the stage, head covered in a hood, while the three leaders stood along the back. After Lepidus left, Antony and Octavius took turns shooting the prisoner, who fell down and then obligingly lifted herself back up to a kneeling position for the next execution. At the very end, Octavius took pity on the prisoner and released her, only to shoot her as she headed off stage, an early indication of Octavius’s ruthlessness.

Brutus’s tent was created by dropping a divided sheet down for the tent opening and having a sofa on one side and a table with stools on the other. The meeting of Cassius and Brutus took place outside this tent, but once they sent off their officers, the lighting changed and we were immediately inside. The scene began with Cassius’s arrival, and was another strong episode in this performance. The dialogue was still crystal clear, and the strength of the relationship between the two characters was very evident. The ‘dagger’ drawn by Cassius was actually a plastic gun, and the entrance of the poet was dropped.

After the passion of the early heated exchange, there was a moment, perhaps inspired by the Poet’s contribution, when Harriet Walter snapped at some sound and swore at the actors who were behind the curtain. I forget what she said, but it was clear her prison character was very angry. It did release some of the tension, and at the time I wasn’t happy about that, but they soon had the scene up and running again with the revelation of Portia’s death and the rest of the scene flowed through very well, with Brutus again overriding Cassius’s better military strategy to hand a clear tactical advantage to the enemy.

The ghost scene was kept simple, with Lucius having a brass instrument and still managing to fall asleep, and Caesar’s ghost appearing for the brief exchange with Brutus. There were no others in the tent, so we were soon on to Octavius and Antony discussing their battle plans up on the balcony. Octavius began to show her tougher side, insisting on taking the right flank, and Antony seemed to be more petulant than a good general should. The confrontation between the two sides’ generals took place on the ground level, and instead of swords they drew their plastic guns again, pointing them at different people depending on the state of the slanging match.

The battle scenes were cut a bit: I remember Brutus and Cassius taking leave of each other, just in case, and then Cassius went through her despair and death, followed by Brutus’s recognition of defeat and her death. Both bodies were still on the floor as Antony and Octavius arrived. With a camera giving us the newsreel footage on the screens, we saw Lucius accepted by Octavius, and then Antony began the closing speeches with “this was the noblest Roman of them all”. She spoke these lines to the camera while the spare cast members picked up Brutus’s body and held it upright behind Antony so it was in shot. Octavius interrupted Antony and spoke over her, taking her lines before she was meant to, and walking in front of Antony to take centre stage. The ‘play’ ended with Octavius’s final lines, and a strong sense that Antony wouldn’t be in charge for long (but that’s another play).

Shortly before the action finished, there had been a reminder from the guards that lock up was only ten minutes away. The prisoners just had time to complete their performance before the guards came back again to take the prisoners back to their cells. It was at this point that we realised that Francis Barber had been a guard all along, which explained her authority and why the play continued after the bloody nose incident. The performance ended with the prisoners being trooped off stage and the lights going out, after which they returned and we gave them rousing applause.

I’m not sure where it happened, but in the later stages the soothsayer wandered naked around the stage carrying her doll, while other actors came on and stood randomly about the place. The soothsayer may have spoken some lines – I don’t remember – and I have absolutely no idea what it was about.

I felt the choice to set the play in a women’s prison was OK, but they didn’t do enough to fully justify it for me. There was the suggestion of lesbian relationships with the ‘wife’ characters, but that wasn’t emphasised nor did it enlighten; on the whole this was a pretty straight reading of the play, albeit a curtailed version. I didn’t have any sense of the way this play impacted on the prisoners’ lives, nor how their experiences influenced their performances or the staging choices, other than the obvious areas of props and furniture. We, the audience, were clearly part of the context, members of the public who had come to see what these prisoners could achieve thanks to the programs paid for by our tax contributions. There were some snarling references to that during the crowd scenes, but nothing worth noting up specifically. Steve did remark on the importance of the play to Harriet Walter’s prison character – her short temper during the tent scene for example, and he saw that she was in tears at the end – but most of the prisoners didn’t seem to care one way or the other. I accept that this setting gave a ready-made explanation for an all-women cast, but again I feel that this sells everyone short: the writer, whose work transcends the ‘realistic’ approach and often works much better when the setting is kept indistinct, the audience, who (mostly) have good imaginations and can go with well-delivered Shakespearean dialogue to just about anywhere, and the actors themselves, who in this case delivered such brilliant readings of their characters that I would happily see this again if I could have a comfy seat. (Actually, I’d probably be willing to forego the comfy seat.)

I left feeling very happy that we’d made it in time to see this production, and also that we’ll be lucky to see such tremendous central performances again. I noticed that Harriet Walter’s slight lisp was more pronounced today, but it didn’t interfere with her delivery, which was impeccable.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Physicists – June 2012

6/10

By Friedrich Dürrenmatt, in a new version by Jack Thorne

Directed by Josie Rourke

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 21st June 2012

I’m wary of European writing; it tends to the obscure and dull, and while this was undoubtedly a very funny play, it did have its low points for me, superb performances notwithstanding. Three physicists are housed in an asylum; two of them are convinced they’re Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, while the third actually is Johann Wilhelm Möbius who’s gone mad simply through being a physicist. With two of their nurses dead, and the public prosecutor getting restless, what will happen to the three men? And what has all this got to do with the debate about the responsibility of scientists in the modern world?

The set was almost completely white. The back wall was a mass of doors; the three main doors were helpfully numbered 1, 2 and 3, while the rest of the space was filled with similar doors, some on their sides to fit in the gaps. There were two stubs of brick wall on either side, with megaphone speakers high up – these were never used. Above it all were serried ranks of institutional lights, four rows of five. A table and chair were placed towards the back of the stage and in front of the middle door, while a 60s style armchair with a high curving back, and a matching footstool were on our left. Front right was another round table with a carved wooden chair, all in white. There was a muted green wastepaper basket by the table, a small light on it, and a table and light over by the armchair. The only splashes of colour were the bowl of red apples on this round table – very vivid in this setting – and a huge portrait leaning against the right hand wall. It showed an older man with wire rimmed glasses and a white moustache. The painting also had a hidden drinks cupboard.

The play began in the dark. When the lights went up, a body was lying on the stage in front of us, the body of an attractive blond in a nurse’s uniform. She was clearly dead, and the others present revealed themselves to be a police inspector, his assistants – one medical, one photographical – and a very stern senior nurse for whom all sorts of pleasure were definitely forbidden! They went through the procedures for dealing with a dead body, finally removing the corpse altogether, leaving only a red taped line to show where she had been, and there was a lot of humour all through this section. The inspector then met Newton, who also kept us entertained for a while with his intelligent and barbed comments. The ‘perpetrator’ of the murder, Albert Einstein, was unavailable at this point, though the strains of his violin playing were just discernible from behind the wall; this was his way of calming down. Newton had also murdered his nurse some three months earlier, and his residency in an insane asylum had obviously provided the perfect antidote to arrest and a different form of imprisonment.

The inspector’s investigation petered out after a chat with the institution’s founder and chief psychiatrist Dr von Zahnd, played by Sophie Thompson, recently a marvellous Mrs Hardcastle in She Stoops To Conquer at the National. Her portrayal of Dr von Zahnd involved a hump that would not have disgraced the most outrageous Richard III, and her shambling gait, pale face and clinical manner made me think of a cross between Ygor and Baron Frankenstein. She must win awards for these performances, surely! Her explanations for the murders and assurances that it wouldn’t happen again – the only other physicist left in this part of the institution, Möbius, was entirely harmless – appeared to satisfy the inspector, and the geniuses were left alone to their madness.

The first half culminated in the murder of another nurse, this time Möbius’s, following a visit from his ex-wife and their sons. She had remarried, and was heading off to some distant islands in the Pacific with her new husband, who was a missionary. She wanted to say goodbye before she left for good, and the stress of this news seemed to affect Möbius badly. He threw a fit of madness, throwing off his clothes, pouring body lotion all over himself, and generally behaving badly. His ex was glad to leave, and with Dr von Zahnd’s reassurance that Möbius would still be cared for at this expensive facility, she left with a clear conscience.

Möbius’s nurse was well aware that he’d been faking his madness, and now she wanted to marry him and help him achieve the greatness she knew he deserved. This prospect was too horrific for him and so he strangled her with her own belt, leaving her body in almost exactly the same position as the first body we saw, as outlined by one of the policemen in red tape. The second half therefore started in a similar way to the first, with a dead body on the floor (played by the same actress) and the police beginning their investigation. At least the inspector now knew where the brandy was concealed.

After this second body was cleared away, the play moved into a different phase, with male security guards, sorry, nurses, arriving to replace the women – mind you, there was only one female nurse left alive. These men set up the dinner table for the three inmates and left them to it, allowing us to hear their private conversation. It turned out that Einstein and Newton were, indeed, faking it, each having been sent to the asylum by their government to observe Möbius and learn what they could about his scientific discoveries. Newton, himself a respected physicist, was from a totalitarian country, while Einstein, another physicist in disguise, was from a more democratic country, but one where scientists had very little real power. The rest of the play was largely a debate about the responsibility of scientists for the information they discovered, and frankly this bit was rather dull. There was a final twist, not entirely unexpected, which made the whole debate irrelevant, and that was that.

I enjoyed much of this play, and the performances were terrific, but the style and theme weren’t to my taste. I find this kind of discussion too ethereal, lacking pragmatism, as if going over and over these issues can somehow resolve them. The debate itself is valid and can be interesting, but I prefer to be connected to it through caring about the characters, which didn’t happen here. Still a good production, though, and an interesting choice from the new artistic director.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Recruiting Officer – March 2012

8/10

By George Farquhar

Directed by Josie Rourke

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 1st March 2012

A great start for the new regime – a strong production of a classic play with some very good performances. To begin with, the Donmar has changed a bit since our last visit (Richard II) with the wall at the back of the auditorium removed and new seating with patterned cushions. I don’t know if any of that was just for this production, but they don’t usually lash out money unnecessarily so I reckon it’s an upgrade. And very comfortable we were too.

The set was very rustic, with wooden floorboards and wooden planks across the top of the stage, large round candlelit chandeliers and wooden stairs and posts in the back corners. They began proceedings before the start of the play with the band, a five-piece who also played the minor parts. They had a drummer who also strummed a small guitar, a proper guitarist, a fiddler, a flute player and a double bass player who wore his instrument like a guitar for most of the time. When we turned up about fifteen minutes before the off, they were already on stage and entertaining us all with some period music, ranging from slower ballads to lively jigs. They played a lot during the performance as well, particularly the song Over The Hills And Far Away, one of Steve’s favourites – we nearly joined in.

While they played, some of the cast came on stage to light the candles – the chandeliers were lowered for that purpose – which took some time as there were lots of candles on each one. There were also some pretend lime lights all around the edge of the stage – small electric lights inside shaped holders. When everything was ready, the band drew our attention by gathering in the middle of the stage and playing softer and softer, then breaking out into a more lively section. After that finished, they lined up across the stage and began to play some strange sounds. Many in the audience laughed straightaway, but it took me some time to recognise what they were doing – playing ring tones! I spotted the flute at the end, and we applauded when they finished and moved off the stage. When the applause died down, Sergeant Kite came on to start the play proper, and I was reminded of the ending of Our Country’s Good a few weeks ago, when this opening scene was performed in that play’s last scene.

I won’t go through the story for this one, it would take too long. There are two ladies and their suitors, a maid, a country wench, a fop, a judge and a rascally recruiting sergeant who moonlights as a German fortune teller. All end happily except for Lucy the maid, who loses her chance to marry the fop and become a lady. There are plenty of laughs along the way, and although there are undoubtedly references that would be funnier in Farquhar’s day, we didn’t feel left out by the language.

The performances were very good, although I felt the judge was showing his age a little in his hesitant manner; this weakened the performance slightly but not too much. Mackenzie Crook was fine as Sergeant Kite, but really came into his own as the fake German fortune teller, with his false goatee beard and black eye makeup. I liked the way they simply hung up a rope with a bead curtain part way along it to form the entrance to his room; a chaise longue, table and chair completed the furniture, and the table was laden with all sorts of bric-a-brac suitable for the charlatan’s trade. Tobias Menzies as Captain Plume was excellent with his smooth charm and willingness to cheat and swindle anybody to recruit more men into the army, specifically the Grenadiers. Mr Worthy, played by Nicholas Burns, was a good match for him, and I loved the way Worthy and his beloved, Melinda, had a coy little kiss at the end while Plume and Sylvia were having a proper snog in the middle of the stage.

Sylvia (Nancy Carroll) and Melinda (Rachel Stirling) were also very good. We’re accustomed to Nancy Carroll’s talent for playing men, but this time I felt she made her Wilful a little more feminine, appropriate for this production. Melinda was great fun. At the start she put on such an overly posh accent that we could barely understand her, while Sylvia made excellent fun of her ‘ears’ and graces. At the start of the second half, she spotted the Maltesers on the lap of the lady next to me and made for them with a gleam in her eye, only to stop herself at the last moment with a cry of ‘no’! The same lady was singled out later by Worthy as the person he had been coming to the park to meet, and she took in good part all the references that were made to her during this conversation and later on. Melinda also bumped into one of the posts as she made her way off stage after the reconciliation with Worthy, and did a nice job of staggering around a bit before finding her way past the posts and into the wings.

The maid and Rose, the country wench, were also fine, and we noticed that Plume was very gallant when Rose came on with her skirt all rucked up; he kindly sorted it out for her so she wasn’t showing off her knickers to all and sundry, although from the way she was behaving earlier we weren’t sure if that was part of the performance or not. And finally Mark Gatiss as Captain Brazen was an excellent fop, the sort of man you’d run a mile to avoid, but very funny when you only have to endure him from a comfortable seat in the auditorium. He was very civilised, though – he kept handing his hat or cane to people in the audience to hold for him while he enacted a scene, and always thanked them most graciously when he took those items back again.

The dialogue was very clear throughout, and made more sense than usual; the language of this period can seem very dated if not delivered well, but today it was fresh and understandable, which helped to make the production so enjoyable. The pace was good too, with two and half hours skipping by like frisky spring lambs. It was nice to see this play again, especially so close to Our Country’s Good, and we’re looking forward to the Donmar’s next offering.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Richard II – December 2011

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 15th December 2011

This was an interesting production, a reasonably clear version of the story which placed the emphasis on the political situation. The set had lots of Gothic arches, there was a carved stairway on the right hand side, the wood had a distressed effect, and there was a strong smell of incense as we entered. The costumes had a strong mediaeval influence. Richard himself sat on a throne towards the back of the stage in the centre, and stayed there, motionless, till the play actually started.

The performance began with several young men coming on, kneeling before him, and then taking their place behind him, first one, then another. These were Bushy, Bagot, Green and Aumerle. Then the Duke of York and the Queen entered together and curtsied, and finally the Lord Marshall and John of Gaunt took up their positions in the front corners of the stage. It was a slow start, and with such a wordy play there’s a need for a brisk pace to keep the energy levels up. This production didn’t do too badly in that department, thankfully, and with the political aspects being brought out so strongly it felt like a political thriller at times, which helped to keep me involved.

The mention of Gloucester’s death troubled the king and his supporters, though he recovered well. Eddie Redmayne played the king as an effete young man, aware of his power and impatient of the old-fashioned niceties. He stood in poses, like a mannequin which could move, and this allowed for a clear change once he’d lost power and his movements became more natural. Having failed to make peace between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, the date for the duel is set and the king leaves.

The widowed Duchess of Gloucester’s complaints to her brother, John of Gaunt, were clear, and again the point about Richard himself being responsible for his uncle’s death came across strongly. Sian Thomas doubled this part with the Duchess of York, and did both very well. The duel scene had the king and his companions up on the balcony, with the combatants and the Lord Marshall down below. I think there was a lot of cutting here, as it didn’t seem to be as long as my text indicates. Richard came down to say his farewells to both Bolingbroke and Mowbray, and then returned to the balcony. The knights put on their armour, including big helmets, and strode off stage for the fight, one at each corner. When Richard threw his baton down, the knights had to come back on stage, while the king had a huddled conference with his court up above. The banishing was over with quickly, and then Richard tried to be kind to his uncle in reducing Bolingbroke’s sentence by four years. The smile on his face suggested he expected his generosity to be well received, but John of Gaunt wasn’t impressed. The father and son leave-taking was edited down, and soon we’re back with the court, and Aumerle’s cheeky comments about Bolingbroke’s departure. Richard’s dislike of his cousin, his willingness to use any means necessary to raise money, and his delight at the prospect of John of Gaunt’s death, all came across loud and clear.

The Dukes of York and Lancaster were having a good bitch-fest in the next scene – does Richard have any friends amongst his family? John of Gaunt’s main speech was excellent. The central part is such a well-known piece, it can sometimes seem like a couple of verses of Land of Hope and Glory, losing the context of those lines completely. Here, Michael Hadley kept the thought going through the entire speech: this country is wonderful, and look how he’s buggered it up! When Richard arrived, he kept up the harangue, and again Richard wasn’t too pleased with him. Even so, his abrupt change of subject to the Irish wars after a brief moment to acknowledge Gaunt’s death, was both funny and shocking, leading to York’s strong outburst against the theft of Bolingbroke’s inheritance. Richard’s choice of York to act as regent in his absence was quite funny in these circumstances.

After the king departed, the remaining lords start the plotting that will eventually put a new king on the throne. Again, this scene was well cut to leave a strong impression of the political storyline. The next scene, with the queen, Bushy and Bagot learning about the invasion of Bolingbroke, was fine, and Ron Cook, as the Duke of York, gave a lovely performance of an elderly man who just can’t get his head round what’s going on.

Northumberland’s flattery of Bolingbroke wasn’t really commented on in this performance, although it still seemed over the top to me. Hotspur was remarkably restrained for once, and the Duke of York was wonderfully stroppy at first when he arrived, ticking off his nephew like he was a naughty schoolboy. The others stood up to him pretty well, and of course he’s not able to actually do anything in military terms to stop them. He was almost off the stage before he invited them in to his castle for the night.

I think this was where they took the interval. Richard had come onto the balcony around the start of this scene, and as it progressed, he moved forward and stood at the railing, hands held in a pose of prayer. As the scene ended, he was held in a spotlight for a few seconds before the lights went out. The play restarted with Salisbury trying to keep his Welsh troops together and failing, followed by the execution of Bushy and Green – don’t remember how or if they staged these executions.

Richard’s return to England was well done. He still had the haughty attitude to begin with, but as he went through the various levels of despair, that shifted, and by his final exit he looked resigned to having lost the crown. I liked Phillip Joseph’s Bishop of Carlisle very much in this scene; he watched Richard approvingly when the king talked about his divine right to rule – “if angels fight, weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right” – and chided him strongly when he was in despair. Richard’s “sad stories of the death of kings” came across very well, as did the remaining ups and downs of this scene.

The rest of the story trundled through quite well. The Duchess of York was the queen’s companion in the garden, which worked very well for me, and again the political points were very clear. There was some humour in the gauntlet-flinging episode, though not as much as I’ve known before, and the deposition scene was fine. Richard held the crown up across the throne, and told Bolingbroke to “seize the crown”, as usual. Bolingbroke hesitated, so Richard continued with “on this side my hand, and on that side thine” – then Bolingbroke took hold of the other side. The mirror speech was good too, and then Richard heads off to the tower, the new king leaves the stage, and another plot starts up.

Richard and his queen take their leave of each other, and then there’s the Aumerle pardoning sequence, which they did OK, not as funny as some I’ve seen, but still enjoyable enough. When the Duchess got up off her knees, she leaned on her husband’s shoulder, and stopped him getting up; in fact, she nearly flattened him! That was a nice touch.

For the Pomfret scene, I wasn’t sure if they were doubling the groom and Aumerle because of the restricted number of actors, or if it was meant to be Aumerle in disguise. The way the king hugged him after throwing back his hood suggested it was. The speeches were OK, but I didn’t get anything extra out of them; the political stuff was all done by this time, so the play lost a little focus at the end. The final scene, with the deaths of the conspirators who wanted Henry dead, was fine. A coffin was brought on to represent Richard’s body, but we didn’t get a peek inside. We were a pretty appreciative audience, and we gave them plenty of applause, which they well deserved.

It’s difficult, after the intense and richly detailed experience of the Michael Boyd History Cycle, to view many of these plays as isolated works. The depth and interconnectedness of the full cycle can lead to one-off productions seeming weak by comparison (although Richard III usually overcomes this). I did like the political focus in this version, but there was a lack of the personal aspects which made it less enjoyable than some other productions we’ve seen. The cast were all fine – Andrew Buchan did a good job with the part of Henry Bolingbroke, even though there wasn’t a lot for him to do – but overall the performance didn’t sparkle. It was still interesting and fairly enjoyable, so not a bad final production for Michael Grandage.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me