A Midsummer Night’s Dream – November 2013

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Edward Hall

Company: Propeller

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 12th November 2013

Steve saw this production in 2003 in London. I say ‘saw’; an extremely large American chap blocked his view for the first half, and Steve was rather pleased when he didn’t come back after the interval. As we were in the front row tonight, there was no risk of a repeat, although I was a bit concerned about the extent of audience participation when I realised I was right beside one lot of steps up to the stage. I needn’t have worried though; apart from a flying button and some glitter, we were unmolested all night.

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Twelfth Night – November 2012

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Edward Hall

Company: Propeller

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Wednesday 14th November 2012

What a difference five years and an almost complete change of cast can make! When we saw this production in May 2007, it was paired with The Taming Of The Shrew, the latter being part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival. Although we like the actors involved in that ensemble, we just didn’t care for their take on these plays, so it was always going to be interesting to see this revival.

The set and staging were almost identical, but the performances were so different that we enjoyed ourselves enormously. They blended the dark and light aspects of this tricky comedy perfectly, and while we missed Tony Bell’s version of Feste, Liam O’Brien did an excellent job as well; not so much a Lord of Misrule this time, but still a strong character and with a lovely voice too. He played a guitar of some sort instead of a fiddle, but the music was still beautiful.

The start was the same, with Christopher Heyward’s Orsino being wonderfully melodramatic in his love-sickness. I was reminded of The Woman Hater at the Orange Tree (January 2008), with the over-the-top couple the Wilmots giving us plenty of laughs at their absurd over-reactions to events. Orsino’s behaviour seemed more in keeping with the grief theme than any form of love, and it also made me think that both he and Olivia are over-reacting to their situations – playing the drama queens – and that Viola and Sebastian bring them back to earth. I was keen to see how Olivia would be played in this respect, and Ben Allen did indeed play the role in keeping with Orsino’s portrayal, all moody and over-sensitive.

During the storm and shipwreck scene, I noticed a large glass bottle with a sailing ship in it which was held up as part of the choreographed storm movements. I suspect this was present in the previous version but I either didn’t notice it or didn’t note it down. The sea captain had some nicely detailed reactions to Viola’s dialogue, which isn’t normally the case.

Maria was played by Gary Shelford this time, who gave a much more memorable performance than the previous Maria. ‘She’ had a very expressive face, giving knowing winks or being serious when required, and really brought the part to life. This casting also explained her affinity with Sir Toby, as it made her a distant cousin of Bardolph (Gary’s role in Henry V). She moved round the stage during her first conversation with Sir Toby, removing the remaining dust sheets and putting the chairs upright. Vince Leigh was an affable Sir Toby, tetchy at times but too much of a drinker to be a real menace – it’s Maria who tricks Malvolio after all. He didn’t throw up properly on stage this time, just gushed some liquid out of his mouth – unpleasant, but not as gross as the earlier version. Sir Andrew, played by John Dougall, was older than usual and the humour was less obvious, but his pathetic attempts to join in and impress people were still good fun, and the sadness behind his silliness was plain to see. He held a long pause before the line “I was adored once, too”, and Sir Toby snatched off his ridiculous wig in the final scene, leaving him exposed and humiliated.

I didn’t realise at first that it was Viola who came through one of the wardrobes and took a grey jacket off the rail, but I did notice the flower in her hair about the same time she did; she threw it away to complete her disguise, and then Curio, in Valentine’s absence, started the next scene. I was concerned that I might not spot the difference between the twins, as both had bleached blond hair and were very similar in looks, but there was enough variation for me to know who was who. I found that Joseph Chance’s Viola was much more manly in disguise as Cesario, and while that lost some aspects of Orsino and Olivia’s confusion in their attraction to the ‘boy’, it did emphasise for me the general sense of ambiguous sexuality pervading the play. This was heightened by Antonio’s attraction to Sebastian which was shown to be clearly physical, although Antonio tried to hide it by making excuses for his ‘love’. Sebastian was uncomfortable with this affection (not averse to Olivia’s advances, fortunately) and I was conscious that Antonio was probably falling in love with Viola through her brother, as Olivia falls in love with Sebastian through his sister.

Olivia warmed up nicely to Feste’s fooling, while Malvolio (Chris Myles) glowered in the background. Chris is shorter than usual for this role, which added another dimension to Malvolio’s arrogance and self-regard. He played the steward’s role pretty straight, until the reveal of the yellow stockings, that is. He also had a badger goatee, with two dark grey strips on either side of a white one, which added to the impression of pomposity.

When Olivia sent the ring after Cesario, she had a devil of a job getting it off her finger, which got a laugh. Sebastian’s description of his sister to Antonio was emphasised by having him look into one of the wardrobe mirrors as he talked, while Viola stood on the other side and the lighting allowed her face to show through.

The late night drinking party went very well to begin with. Feste’s first song was very pleasant, and Sir Andrew and even Sir Toby added some extra vocals. The catch was as rowdy as one could wish, and when Maria turned up I was slightly distracted by the vivid red fluffy mules she was wearing. Mind you, that was nothing compared to the fact that Malvolio had taken the trouble to put his chain of office round his neck over his dressing gown before accosting the reprobates who were having a drunken orgy downstairs. It was a nice touch, and said a lot about Malvolio’s character.

Feste had to leg it pretty quick over to the Duke’s court for the next scene, where he was called on to sing yet another song. Orsino listened to it while sitting on the coffin (oops, forgot to mention that, just wait a bit) with Cesario sitting beside him. During this song, Cesario adopted a more feminine posture, and as Orsino was affected by the song and became emotional, Cesario ended up holding him until Orsino tore himself away at the end of the song.

The coffin: it was brought on when Olivia first arrived and sat centre back, then it was brought forward for the following scenes. Feste lay in it at one point, probably during the drunken revel. As I recall, it was taken off when the stage was cleared for the letter scene, and the triangular box trees were brought on instead. There seemed to be more of them this time, two sets of five, and there were three statues at the back, the same as before. The plinth for Olivia’s statue was front right, and again the statue held the letter out for Malvolio to spot, with two fingers sticking up at him all the while. Sir Andrew’s question about “her c’s, her u’s and her t’s” was answered by Sir Toby whispering in his ear, after which Sir Andrew smothered a laugh and disappeared behind the shrubbery again.

With Fabian not present, Feste took part again in this scene. The other masked actors did plenty of sound effects to cover the noise of the hidden men, mostly in the form of birds cawing and flying off. The statues were more active than the people, and were constantly reforming, often including one of the characters as well. Malvolio was too excited at his discovery to notice much, and rushed through the letter without losing clarity, although his hands were trembling. The “revolve” led to the letter itself being rotated vertically, and his final grimacing ‘smile’ was a sight to behold! The first half ended with Maria’s explanation of the trick and their exit.

No songs during the interval, sadly, but there was plenty of music at the start of the second half on stage. Viola interrupted this with her question to Feste, and the rest of the masked men gradually eased themselves off stage till they were alone for their conversation about cheverel gloves. After Feste left, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew came along, and Sir Andrew was again completely flummoxed by Cesario’s simple French reply to his own greeting.

Olivia seemed to come to terms with Cesario’s refusal to enter into a personal relationship with her, but her feelings got the better of her and she ended up on the floor, clutching Cesario’s hands in a desperate attempt to persuade him to stay – no chance. Sir Andrew entered for the next scene carrying a large suitcase and a smaller bag, and began packing his clothes which were on the rail. Sir Toby and Feste manipulated him into writing a challenge, and then Maria arrived to inform them that Malvolio was about to make a fool of himself.

Sebastian and Antonio’s scene was straightforward, and then Olivia came back for her first encounter with the new Malvolio. He leaned on the side of the door, grinning broadly at her, until stepping forward to strip off his trousers and reveal what lay underneath. Yellow stockings covered in black fishnet tights were complimented by a leather studded codpiece of considerable proportions. We laughed, and kept on laughing as Malvolio chased Olivia round the stage. Then when Sir Toby, Feste and Maria turned up, they had to use a large syringe to sedate him, leaving him fast asleep at the front of the stage as Feste delivered the “improbable fiction” line to much laughter.

Sir Andrew’s outfit for the fight scene was almost as funny as Malvolio’s. He still wore his evening jacket but with white satin boxing shorts and boxing gloves, and his hair was pulled up through the holes in his protective helmet giving him a very strange and funny appearance. The challenge was read out, with Maria giving Fabian’s responses. The mock duel was well done, with lots of struggling to avoid the fight on the part of both duellers, and never a blow struck in earnest with the boxing gloves. Antonio soon parted them and was arrested, and Cesario reacted noticeably to the mention of Sebastian’s name.

The real Sebastian threw Antonio’s purse at Feste to get rid of him – very generous – and after his fight with Sir Toby he was quite happy to accept Olivia’s offer of entertainment, while she was absolutely thrilled at his acceptance. With two such similar ‘twins’, there was no difficulty believing that one could be mistaken for the other, quite a change from recent productions.

The stage was darkened for the next scene, with Maria, Sir Toby and Feste up on top of the wardrobes looking down on Malvolio beneath them. Malvolio was down to only the codpiece this time, and chained up. Sir Topas stayed up on the wardrobe for his initial conversation with Malvolio, while Feste came down afterwards to talk to the man directly. Sir Toby’s parting instruction to Maria – “Come by and by to my chamber” – suggested a close personal encounter was in the offing.

Sebastian was again in bed for the start of the next scene, and again the sheet which he’d wrapped around himself fell off when Olivia arrived with the priest – nice. Fabian’s request to see the letter was dropped, so the next scene began with Orsino’s entrance and rattled along very nicely, with all the fun of the revelations and a few sniffles as well. The reunion between the twins was moving; it was understandable that they would both be reluctant to believe the evidence of their eyes, given what they’d been through.

Maria was on stage for this scene, although she did try to sneak off when the letter was handed to Olivia. No such luck; she was called back, and gave Fabian’s speech, suitably altered, in which she announced her marriage to Sir Toby and flashed her ring, a large gaudy one, at the assembled throng. Malvolio mustered some dignity as he limped off, and the performance ended with Feste’s final song. Despite this seeming a rather downbeat ending, we were all very happy as we applauded, and even carried on singing the song as we left. A huge improvement on last time, and a reminder that it’s well worth seeing this sort of production more than once, as even with the same cast there can be lots of changes.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Henry V – July 2012

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Edward Hall

Company: Propeller

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Wednesday 11th July

I may have rated this experience slightly lower than the first time we saw this production, but that doesn’t reflect just how much the performances have come on since that early part of the tour. The energy is still there, the dialogue has become much clearer, and this is definitely one of the best Henry V’s I’ve seen. The only thing affecting the rating is that there wasn’t the surprise factor this time, and that often makes an experience less enjoyable for me. The audience certainly seemed as responsive, so I don’t think that came into it.

The set was as before, as were the costumes (Alice didn’t have to sign for the bath this time, though). I think the opening had been changed slightly, with the actors taking different parts of the Chorus perhaps? Understandable on a long run, keeps it fresh. The Archbishop and Bishop’s conversation was crystal clear this time round, and as we weren’t distracted by ‘crap’ staging this time (Globe production), I was aware that the Archbishop’s offer of money for a war had been interrupted by the arrival of the French ambassador – sitting smirking on the chest behind them – and that the king was due to hear the rest of the Archbishop’s Salic law reasoning shortly. Now why can’t they always be that clear?

There was quite a long song to cover the change of set, and then the religious pair kept the king waiting even longer. The Salic law point was dealt with quickly, but in reasonable detail, and the arrival of the tennis balls was just as before. However, this time they made sure they were all off the set before continuing! I’ve seen search terms on this blog connecting ‘Propeller’ and ‘injury’, so I suspect experience has taught some hard lessons on this tour.

The chorus bit was just about over before the balls were all cleared, and then we had the traitors bit. They weren’t taken up the stairs for their execution, just made to kneel on the stage, but they did all die from one axe stroke. Henry didn’t take the axe with him this time. London Calling was still the intro to the rougher elements of the play, but what a change in the dialogue. Admittedly we’d seen the Globe’s production only a couple of weeks ago, and they made this scene clearer than usual so I had a head start, but this was much more understandable through not only their delivery of the lines but also the actions used to indicate their meaning. Again the two scenes were combined, and Mistress Quickly, in her wedding dress, was present without having much to say; they did get the ‘prick’ gag in, though. At the end, when Pistol told the others to kiss his new wife as they left, there was a range of reactions from the crew; some made a valiant attempt, most were put off by the smell, but Nym was the saddest – he couldn’t bring himself to kiss her. She gave him one of the tennis balls padding her bra instead, which he held to his face as he ran off, overcome with emotion. This time I could see the red heart that Pistol gave her, and it had a little glowing light in it – ahh.

Another rendition of Chanson D’Amour, and then the discussion amongst the French nobility; I didn’t spot the Dauphin reacting to the mention of Crecy this time, but we were on the other side of the stage. The rest of the first half was as before, and we headed out quickly to hear the singing and joined in most of the songs.

Katherine was at her toilette when we got back, with her face all white. Just the cheeks and some lipstick and she was ready for her bath. The English lesson came across very well, and then we were back into battle. There were a few changes to the staging that I noticed: Exeter killed Bardolph himself, and the body lay flat with only the boots showing at the front of the platform. Pistol’s prisoner dragged himself onto the stage this time, and the blood sprayed on the boy was a very weak red – running out of Kensington gore? When Henry had his argument with Williams, I noticed that Bates, the other soldier who tells them “Be friends, you English fools”, was played by Gary Shelford, who also played Bardolph, the peace-keeper between Nym and Pistol earlier in the play, and with the same argument – fight the French, not each other.

Apart from a couple of oaths by Pistol that we don’t remember from before – ‘bloody Welsh’ (after the leek-eating incident), and ‘Merde’ (as the French came on to the stage for an early scene) – the rest of the performance was as we remembered, and we joined in the rapturous applause at the end, happy to have seen such a great production a second time.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Henry V – November 2011

9/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Edward Hall

Company: Propeller

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Thursday 10th November 2011

A typical Propeller production, this – lots of energy, good music, a clear telling of a trimmed down story, and some lovely touches in the performances. Even though it’s early in the tour, the performances were well established, and the whole evening was powerful and very enjoyable.

The set was very familiar – all of the metal framework from Richard III was in place, along with the balcony-on-wheels, but we didn’t get the plastic sheets or hospital trolleys this time. Instead there were large wooden boxes, a pair of wheelie steps and a couple of punching bags either side for the second half. They also brought on a bath for the first scene with Katherine, just after the interval – her maid had to sign for it – and there were thrones and chairs, etc. as needed.

The performance began with the cast all done up in modern military gear tramping through the auditorium, singing a song. Like a bunch of soldiers arriving at a temporary shelter, they sat around the stage having a well-earned break. Then one of them, given a crown out of one of the boxes, started the play’s opening chorus – ‘O for a muse of fire’ – and we were off. The cast shared the chorus work, which gave us all a chance to not only see each actor but hear his voice too. For the first scene, two of the soldiers put on clerical robes, and with still grimy faces gave us the conversation between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely. After this, I think there was a song to cover the cast changing the set slightly, and then Henry himself appeared for the first time. I hadn’t seen Dugald Bruce-Lockhart in the opening bit, and since he also disappeared off before the closing lines of the play, it made me think that the soldiers, who were enacting the play in their break between skirmishes, had invoked the ghost of King Henry, the epitome of the heroic military leader, to complete their cast.

The discussion with the clerics was quick and pretty much to the point, and with the defence of the kingdom sorted, we could settle down to watch the French ambassador. He was very haughty, wore a scarf so we would know he was French, and carried a wooden box, holding it high as he came in and stood in front of Henry. The king used the slighting ‘dolphin’ pronunciation, and was clearly goaded by the references to his wayward past. He managed to control himself, though, which was just as well, because the floor of the stage was soon covered in tennis balls – a few even escaped into the auditorium – and he could have given himself a nasty injury if he’d let his anger get the better of him.

However, before the balls arrived, the ambassador, emphasising the correct way to say ‘dauphin’, offered the wooden box to the king, claiming it contained ‘treasure’. Henry signalled his uncle to inspect the box, and as the actor playing Exeter is on the short side, there’s a lovely moment when the ambassador, realising that Exeter won’t be able to see into the box, lowered it down for him. Exeter took the box, and as he poured out the ‘treasure’, two big bins full of tennis balls were emptied from the balcony onto the stage. Henry was livid, and soon we were off to war with the French.

There was a brief attempt at ball-clearing during the next chorus bit, but plenty still remained on stage for the rest of the first half. As the chorus introduced them, we were shown the three traitors, and then the discovery of their plot. One of the three had a hip flask, into which a chorus member put several drops of a liquid, which we naturally assumed was poison. This flask was offered to the king, but Exeter, knowing of the plot, indicated that he shouldn’t drink it. The ‘commissions’ given to the three men were in manila folders, and their execution was swift and nicely staged. After Exeter arrested them, tearing off their epaulets in the process, they were taken up to the balcony area, made to kneel, and were then blindfolded. Meanwhile a wooden stump was brought on to the front of the stage, and a man wearing a black executioner’s mask came on with an axe. When all three were ready, he swung once at the block, burying the axe in it, while all three traitors slumped as one up above. After the gore-fest of Richard III, this was simpler and very effective. Henry snatched up the axe and held it while giving us the closing lines of the scene.

The next scene combined the two on either side of the traitors’ discovery, and started with London Calling and the shaking of many a beer can (they like it messy). The argument between Pistol and Nym was still pretty incomprehensible, as usual, and Mistress Quickly didn’t have much to say, while Falstaff was completely expunged, which is fair enough as he’s not really relevant to this play on its own. When Pistol left, he gave his Nell a red heart, which she treasured.

Now to France, and to inform us of the change of scene, the cast sang Chanson D’Amour – very entertaining, and some of the audience were joining in by this time. The French king, played by John Dougall, was a gloomy personality, not keen to do anything in haste, and the previous French experience at Crecy was clearly preying on his mind. The Dauphin was also clearly fed up with this old story, turning away from the king and mouthing ‘Crecy’ when he could see the subject coming up, yet again! The messenger who brought news of the English ambassadors spoke with a strong English regional accent (forget which one) and I remember him saying more lines than I have in my text – don’t know what happened there.

When Exeter turned up, he was accompanied by another soldier who stood on top of the wheelie steps holding a scroll which he unfurled at the appropriate moment. It was a long scroll, and all we could see was ‘Edward III’ in large letters at the top, and ‘Henry V’ in equally large letters at the bottom – the details were too faint to make out. When passing on Henry’s message to the Dauphin, Exeter marched over and stood nose to chin – the Dauphin was slightly taller – and delivered the speech right in his face. The French king was reluctant to commit himself at this point, while there was a strong reaction, from the Dauphin at least, to the news that Henry was already in France.

More chorus work, and the soldiers delivered a lot of the lines crouched behind a couple of wooden shields. The ‘Once more unto the breach’ speech was OK, and then Bardolph, Pistol, Nym and the boy were left behind in the rush for the battle. After Fluellen caught them, there was a pause moment – the other characters held their positions while the boy told us what villains and knaves his three masters were, slightly edited. The scene with the Scotsman, the Irishman and the Welshman (Fluellen) was completely cut, so we moved briskly on to the surrender of Harfleur.

For this, the main body of the English army was on stage, pointing several spotlights at the left hand balcony in the auditorium, where the Harfleur representative was standing. Henry talked at length about the dire consequences if the town didn’t surrender, but he’s really wasting his breath, as the hoped-for French relief hasn’t arrived, and the townsfolk have already decided to concede defeat.

With Harfleur won, Henry and his men headed off for some well-earned rest, and we got our break as well. But this time the cast were out in the foyer, standing on the stairs, entertaining us all with some songs and a plea for money. Apparently they raise money for charity on each tour, so the bucket soon came round. The songs were good fun – we joined in The Wild Rover and Sloop John B – and then they walked up the foyer stairs and down into the auditorium for the second half, still singing.

Meanwhile, back on the stage, Katherine had been getting herself ready for the opening scene of the second half. Karl Davies, in an off-white negligee, was sitting in front of a mirror on the left of the stage. His face was white, and he was applying some more makeup while everyone else got settled for the restart. Actually, once the soldiers arrived, Katherine started flirting with them, even letting them take her picture – terrible sluts, these Propeller men. Her maid, Alice, was Exeter in drag, i.e. he wore a skirt instead of trousers, and still had his pencil moustache – quite a sight.  Alice signed for the bath when it was delivered centre stage, and then when the scene actually started, she checked the water temperature was acceptable for the princess, who got into her bath still dressed. The dialogue went pretty well; when Katherine attempts ‘neck’, she comes out with ‘nick’, and as Alice was shaving her legs at that point, there was an unfortunate correlation between the words and the action.

I think the next bit had two overlapping scenes – the French court preparing for war and Fluellen reporting that the bridge has been held – no Gower in this version. Bardolph was taken up onto the balcony for his execution, and the masked executioner simply twisted his neck to signify the hanging. Bardolph’s corpse lingered there, draped over the bars, for Henry to see when the matter was reported to him later. By the time Mountjoy arrived to ask what ransom Henry’s prepared to pay, the French court had left the stage. Henry had been given Bardolph’s pendant by Pistol; when he told Mountjoy ‘There’s for thy labour’ he handed the pendant to him.

The wonderfully funny scene with the French court preening themselves and boasting about their armour, horses, etc, was cut to the bone, and only took a couple of minutes up on the balcony, which was now towards the back of the stage. The chorus then took us into Henry’s camp at Agincourt, and with a few small pans of flame we got the camp fires and Henry’s meetings with the ordinary soldiers, starting with Pistol. Fluellen and Gower were next, then the two soldiers with whom Henry discussed the responsibilities of a king towards his soldiers. (There are actually three soldiers in the text, but apart from the opening line, one says nothing, so two will do fine.) I always find Henry’s arguments a bit specious here. When he compares the actions of a king with those of an employer or a father, claiming that they don’t intend the death of the people they send on various errands, I reckon it’s a bit different to starting a war when there’s a very good chance some of the soldiers you take with you will be killed. Death is part of the package. However, his point about the soldier cleaning up his soul so that either his death or his life will the better for it, came across clearly this time, and made more sense of the end of that argument. When Erpingham has called him, Henry’s final prayer ditched the first part about his men, and he went straight into ‘Not today, O Lord’, emphasising Henry’s remorse over the killing of Richard II.

Then there’s another round of the French, and then back to the English camp, where Westmoreland rashly wished for more men to help fight the French. Well, that was a red rag to Henry’s bull, and yet again we get the long, long speech to raise his troops’ morale. This one worked really well, though, and as the audience were included in the throng, we were all ready to fight by the end of it. Mountjoy’s final request for a ransom offer was delivered as if he was really worried that the English were all going to be killed, and Henry was strongly defiant.

As the battle started, the punch bags were released, and two men in masks came on wielding baseball bats. As the French attacked, the few English soldiers left on the stage responded to each blow of bat on bag as if they’d been hit, and soon it looked like a French victory. However, these soldiers got up and left and Pistol came on stage, dragging a French prisoner, and accompanied by the boy with a couple of large bags. Pistol held a bar or bat himself, and struck the bags from time to time, all of which his prisoner felt. At the end of the scene, the boy was left in the middle of the stage, a bag on either side, and when the French ran on, alarmed at the state of the battle, they slew the young lad by hitting the punch bags. Another two men had also come on holding spray guns, and they squirted red colouring all over the dead boy. When Henry and his men got back, he held the boy in his arms for a short while, and he was clearly angry. There’s another scene with Fluellen, but I don’t’ remember where it came, and then the French herald turned up again to ask for permission to search the field for the dead and wounded. He looked shell shocked, as he would have been with so much carnage all around.

The king’s argument with Williams was resolved without getting Fluellen to wear the glove in his cap, which cut out a lot of dialogue, and then Mountjoy returned with the body count. The figures were truly amazing, and after Henry has commanded that only God is to get the credit, the cast launch into a Te Deum for the next scene change. While the chorus talked us through Henry’s return to England and next journey into France, a table was made out of the boxes, with a blue cloth placed over the left side for the French, and a white cloth with a red cross over the right, for the English. A silver crucifix was placed in the middle, and Fluellen stood guard. Shortly after, a hand reached up from behind the table, and groped its way to the crucifix. Fluellen launched into ‘God pless you, Aunchient Pistol’, and soon Pistol was munching his way through a large leek. Fluellen happily took a bite out of another – greengrocers must love it when Henry V comes to town – and with Gower still missing we’re left with Pistol mourning the loss of his wife. He took the heart he’d given her out of his rucksack, and I almost felt sorry for the man. But then he headed off to England to cheat and con the population out of their money, so no chance of sympathy for him.

For the final scene, a throne had been placed on the right hand side of the stage, and a plain chair on the left. This was the chair the French king sat in during the ‘negotiations’; he also looked stunned and shocked at what had happened. Henry sat on the throne, and after the French king and the others had left, he wooed Katherine like a man not well equipped in the words department. So often these speeches are delivered in a way that makes the man out to be liar, but tonight I could well believe what he’s saying, that he would much rather fight than woo a woman. His attempts at French had Katherine in fits of giggles, and the kissing was done by each character kissing their own fingertips and placing them on the other’s mouth. When the French king and the rest came back, the peace treaty and the marriage were soon settled, and with his final lines, Henry left the stage. The chorus then finished the play, and we applauded mightily for such a good evening’s entertainment.

There were other songs during the play which I don’t remember specifically now, and the whole energy of the performance, plus the clarity of most of the dialogue, made the play seem fresh and new. Dugald Bruce-Lockhart seemed a little weak in some of his speeches, especially the earlier ones, but his performance grew as the evening went on, and I wouldn’t fault his portrayal in the second half at all. Tony Bell was great fun as Fluellen, and did a nice cameo as Mistress Quickly too. Chris Myles was very good as Exeter and Alice, with some lovely reactions in both parts, and I really enjoyed Gunnar Cauthery’s Dauphin – an arrogant hothead with no redeeming qualities whatsoever (although he did play the accordion very well). All the rest of the cast contributed strong performances too, making it a very powerful production. And this is just the opening week! We’re already checking the tour dates to see if we can fit it in again – I’d love to see how something this good can improve.

I was delighted to see the Yvonne Arnaud theatre packed out for tonight’s show; Propeller have established a great reputation for enjoyable productions of Shakespeare (Taming of the Shrew aside). We even had Jon Trenchard and Dominic Tighe nearby during the performance, both of whom had been in the Richard III from earlier this year. I hope the cast get as good a response on tour – they certainly deserve it.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Richard III – July 2011

8/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Edward Hall

Company: Propeller

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Saturday 9th July 2011

This was a fantastic production, with a great central performance by Richard Clothier which was well supported by a strong and balanced ensemble.

The setting was a mix of hospital and abattoir. Open metal girders on either side, curtains of plastic strips which were held back by chains, and a box frame which had assorted cutting and drilling implements dangling from it represented the abattoir, while hospital screens in drab grey, white coats on the non-specific characters, and trolley tables represented the hospital. The characters in white coats were basically those not directly involved in each scene, and they also wore masks with holes for the eyes and mouth, which made them look very sinister. When characters arrived in the middle of a scene, for example Hastings’ release from the Tower, they had the white coats pull two sets of screens across the stage from opposite sides, and when they finished crossing over, the new arrival would be discovered in the middle of the stage. This worked very effectively.

It took me longer than Steve, but we both realised that the murders in the play were being done in the manner of various horror movies, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre being the most obvious. This certainly got across the nastiness of the violence, and I suspect it freed up Richard Clothier to present the humour of Richard’s part more strongly for the rest of the time, which he did brilliantly. I couldn’t place all the other references as I’m not into horror movies, but the association was clear, even to me.

The performance began with the actors done up in the white coats and masks gradually taking up positions on the stage, silently. They were not so much menacing at this time as strangely disturbing, as they stood there gazing out at us. I don’t remember now exactly how they got into the first line of the play – I think there was some kind of mime first? –  but once started, they went along at a fair clip.

The wooing scene went very well, despite the dead body in the middle of the stage, and I felt this time, as I have before, that it’s Richard’s flattering comments about her beauty that do the trick with Anne. Jon Trenchard played Lady Anne, and made her much more feminine than Propeller usually does; in fact all the women were noticeably less butch than usual – is this a change of policy?

The two young princes were represented by puppets, which worked really well. They had shop dummy faces, which reminded me of the Autons in Doctor Who, another creepy reference. They were slightly nervous children though, hanging round their mother’s skirts a lot, except when they arrived at the Tower and the younger lad was being cheeky to his uncle Richard.

The murderers were good fun. In suits, and acting well ‘ard, they almost came a cropper with their bursts of conscience, but managed to kill poor Clarence just in time. Richard turned up just afterwards, and instead of giving them their reward, killed them both. Nasty.

After Edward’s death, when the court has agreed to bring the Prince back to London for his coronation, Buckingham’s comment to Richard about being in the party that accompanies the Prince came across as the first time that Buckingham has sided with Richard against the other factions. I also felt that Richard was acting the innocent with Buckingham at this stage, allowing himself to be led in the direction he intended to go anyway. This made their disagreement after Richard’s coronation easier to understand.

At the meeting to arrange the Prince’s coronation, Richard’s accusations against Lord Hastings are clearly preposterous, but it’s equally clear than no one dares to speak up against the most powerful man in the country. Tyrrel, the murderer of the two princes, is another creepy character. He wears a grinning mask and a tool belt with some nasty-looking pieces of equipment dangling from it. I didn’t get the film reference, but I assume it must be one. After he killed the two young boys I noticed he also had a small teddy bear attached to the belt – I think it was the same as the teddy bear which Richard gave him as the token to gain access to the princes.

The alternating scenes before the final battle were also well done, with both Richard and Henry sleeping in the middle of the stage, side by side, while the ghosts lined up behind them and then came round in front to deliver their curses/blessings. The only trouble I had with this was that the dialogue overlapped, so it was hard to hear either part clearly, but as I’m familiar with this scene it didn’t bother me too much.

I also found that the production flagged a bit once Richard was downcast. His personality had driven the action and kept us entertained, and once his light dimmed, the whole energy of the piece dropped as well. This made the final scenes less interesting, and although the ensemble worked very well together, this was a production based on the central performance, and it suffered as a result. Mind you, the rest of it had been good enough to beat most other productions, so it’s not a major complaint.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Deep Blue Sea – March 2008

6/10

By Terence Rattigan

Directed by Edward Hall

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Monday 3rd March 2008

This is one of my favourite plays, but I have seen productions I prefer to this one. Rattigan is the master of restrained emotions, of showing people who have deep feelings within themselves that rarely, if ever, find expression, and when they do, it’s usually not convenient for themselves or others. Here the emotions were clearly displayed, almost overly so, and that feeling of social restraint was completely lost. I couldn’t see why Hester, the wife, wouldn’t just say, “Sod this for a game of soldiers”, and leave with the husband the first time he came calling, but then we wouldn’t have had a full evening, which would have been a shame.

The set was the usual tatty flat. This one was tattier than most, and the back wall had a see-through cut-away so that we could see the action on the landing and stairs. The performances were fine – no criticism of the actors is intended here – but the direction made the whole play seem flabbier than it is. There’s a lot of power under the surface, but when it’s not held back, it doesn’t come across as strongly. Greta Scacchi was a fairly robust Hester, who looked as if she’d be perfectly capable of seeing off several Freddies. Probably captained her school hockey team, you know the sort. She was more restrained in the final scene with Mr Miller, and that worked better for me. Simon Williams was almost too good as the husband. He came across as more understanding and less straight-laced than I’ve seen before, which was fine in terms of relating to the way his character suffers as he sees the woman he loves going under, but doesn’t help to explain why she doesn’t just pack a bag and scarper back to a reasonably good life with a loving husband. I would have.

And given this Freddie, I might not have waited till my husband turned up. I couldn’t make out why Dugald Bruce-Lockhart was veering into campness in his portrayal of Freddie. I realised afterwards that they might have been trying to suggest that the problem with the relationship was that Freddie was a closet homosexual, and so couldn’t love Hester as she wanted to be loved. If so, I can see where they’re coming from. Rattigan was gay, and this play was triggered by his own grief at an ex-lover’s suicide. Not being able to put such matters explicitly on the stage (although the first draft was apparently about two gay men), Rattigan changed the characters round to be more acceptable.

It’s a fine idea, and with another play, or another production, it might work, but although Rattigan has plenty going on inside each character, he doesn’t have a lot of ambiguity going on in his plays. Freddie is clearly an ex-RAF pilot who is having trouble adjusting to regular life after the excitement and lack of responsibility of the war years. If he is a closet gay, he’s not out even to himself, and if they were trying to insert this as a possible motivation for his character, then I feel they did the play a disservice. Trust the text. Whatever the cause, I felt this portrayal unbalanced the play, making it more about Freddie than about Hester’s unreasoning and uncontrollable passion. Given all that, Dugald gave a fine performance of a character that Rattigan didn’t write. His borrowing of the shilling to leave for Hester brought a gasp from the audience. It’s certainly a shocking moment, and came across as well as I can remember.

The other supports were fine. Jacqueline Tong was good as the gossipy landlady Mrs Elton, while Geoff Breton and Rebecca O’Mara grated just enough as the unsophisticated young couple determined to help, and gave us a nice insight into other people’s relationships. Jack Tarlton as Jackie Jackson did a good job of showing us just how embarrassing Freddie had become. But the accolades for the evening had to go to Tim McMullan as Mr Miller, the foreign ex-doctor who helps Hester in more ways than just the medical. He conveyed a sense of that character’s hinterland, which I often feel is as big as most people’s countries. I was moved to tears as he did his best to persuade Hester not to have another go at suicide.

For once, Hester’s paintings were actually visible on the stage, including a study of Freddie. Unfortunately, they were of a quality to stretch credulity when Hester’s husband professed to like one of them. The earlier piece over the fireplace was better, but now I see why they’re often left invisible to the audience.

Although it wasn’t entirely to my liking, I still enjoyed the evening, as it’s a very good play, and the production did have its good moments.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Twelfth Night – May 2007

3/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Edward Hall

Company: Propeller

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 1st May 2007

I’ve enjoyed Propeller’s work before and I was hoping the Taming of the Shrew in the Complete Works was a one-off, but with this paired production I’m not so sure. Both productions demonstrated a lack of female perspective – these men can portray women’s outsides, but not their insides.

With both of these plays the ensemble seemed to have taken them too seriously, a definite problem with comedies. I’m not keen on the gross stuff, true – having Sir Toby actually throw up on stage was never likely to appeal to me. And while the dangling loo roll trick was great in The Nerd, it just looked tacky here. It’s as if they couldn’t really get inside the characters well enough, and so had to do more externally to get the ideas in the text across. Why not just try acting?

The set was naturally the same as the Taming one, though used differently. Here the wardrobes and chairs were all thrown about, liked the aftermath of some heavy-duty party – appropriate for Twelfth Night. It suggested dissipation, anarchy, and the neglect caused by grief, all themes in the play. The furniture was mostly covered over with dust covers, gradually removed, again suggesting disuse.

The costumes were mainly suits, with Olivia having some fetching sparkly evening dresses after her mourning phase. Maria was in drab black throughout, and Viola had only a short scene in her nightie before opting for the grey suit which her brother also wore. (These were the best matched pair of twins I’ve seen, by the way.) Feste stood out in this company, in more than one respect. He was in a suit, but it was pretty scruffy, with his tie dangling and a general air of carelessness. He carried a violin and looked like he’d just come from an all-night fiddler’s convention. He was the only character who didn’t wear a mask at any time – all the other actors wore them when they were present but not actually in the scene, like ghosts. This gave Feste the appearance of being in control of the proceedings, the Lord of Misrule. He was certainly more involved than some other Festes we’ve seen.

Speaking of the masks, the second scene – the shipwreck – had a lot of the cast on stage, throwing Viola and Sebastian around, then dropping her down near the front of the stage for the lines with the sea captain. With their suits and grey masks, the others looked like ghosts, and they faded away into the background (and wardrobes) as if melting into air. This was a wonderfully evocative staging, reminding me of all the dead people being mourned at the start of the play, and all the others lost in the shipwreck.

For the opening scene, Feste took a sheet off Orsino – he’d been sitting in a chair, completely covered, all the time the auditorium was filling up. I liked this Orsino – he looked pretty rough, he’d been drinking and he was obviously suffering. The music was good, too. At the post-show discussion, we learned that many of the cast just happened to be talented musicians as well, so there was more of an emphasis on music this time.

Olivia was more flighty than I’ve seen before, even camp at times. Sir Toby was a ruffian, very drunk and unpleasant, but I didn’t get his craftiness and villainy in rooking Sir Andrew so much this time. Sir Andrew wasn’t the usual lanky suspect, and he was one character whose normal comedy seemed to get lost. I’ve no objection to overturning conventions, but I do like them to be overturned to a purpose; not so here, unfortunately. Malvolio was excellent, all brooding pomposity and menace in the early stages, through to rampant lunacy and eventual anger. Bob Barrett was in the Nicholas Nicklebys last year, mainly playing affable chaps – he’s shown he can do a lot more in this show. The yellow stockings were indeed cross-gartered, as we saw when he whipped off his trousers. The leather codpiece lent a raunchy air to the whole outfit – no wonder Olivia fled.

Maria was a bit underplayed, I felt. Viola was OK – Tam Williams has had plenty of practice playing women, and has enough of the female in his looks to convey the part well, but even here I felt a lack of emotional depth. The line I love best in Twelfth Night – “What should I do in Illyria? ….” – left me unmoved, and I rarely got any real sense of grief. Even the comedy lines after Malvolio ‘returns’ the ring were largely lost. Everything seemed to go at too fast a pace for any of the characters to register what’s going on inside of them – not a lack I’ve noticed in the text itself!

Sebastian was stronger here, and that’s often the advantage of a true ensemble – these are not treated as such minor parts. The final revelations still had me sniffling, although the sense of everything piling up against Viola/Cesario wasn’t so clear here as in the Russian Twelfth Night (RSC Complete Works). Feste was definitely the strongest character in this production, and although he was generally laid back, he could join in the revenge against Malvolio quite happily.

The set piece with the letter had its good bits, and its no-so-good bits. Overall, I liked that Olivia was posed on a plinth and actually holding the letter. The idea of this lady having a statue of herself in her garden was appealing, and the line “this is her hand” took on an extra meaning. Also, when Malvolio took the letter, after having it practically thrust under his nose, the empty hand happened to have two fingers sticking up at him.

Sir Toby and the others (no Fabian in this version) were hiding behind cones of topiary of varying sizes, but none large enough to really conceal anybody. Other cast members were posing as statues of the three wise monkeys, but frequently changed position as well as interacting with the characters on stage; this led to one entertaining moment when the “speak no evil” statue had his hands clamped over Sir Toby’s mouth. All pretty entertaining, but it still felt overdone. Too much work for not enough return, and not enough attention to delivering the text.

All in all, I would give this production 2/10 for the first half, and 3/10 for the second. As the productions are shaped to a considerable extent by the actors in the company, it may be that this group just do things in a way I don’t appreciate. I’d certainly be willing to see a Propeller production again in the hope that changes to the ensemble may lead to an approach I find more pleasing.

Nearly forgot – how could I? – male nudity alert. Sebastian and Olivia had obviously got to know each other really well. Sebastian got out of bed with a sheet wrapped round him, and just as she entered with the priest he dropped the sheet to reveal all (sadly, not to us). Good fun, and a nice arse.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me