The Rape Of Lucrece – June 2014

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Elizabeth Freestone

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 26th June 2014

We saw this same production three years ago and were keen to see how they were doing it now. We had contrasting opinions this time: I didn’t think the production had changed much (although the performances had naturally developed) while Steve felt it was very different and preferred this performance to the previous one. To be fair, he didn’t rate our first viewing as high as I had, a fact which, in the glow of a wonderful evening, I seem to have omitted from my notes.

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The Rape Of Lucrece – April 2011

10/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Elizabeth Freestone

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: 1st April 2011

This was a mesmerising performance by Camille O’Sullivan, accompanied by Feargal Murray. We didn’t see her cabaret act during the ramp up events last year, but I’m very glad we caught this wonderful version of The Rape Of Lucrece tonight. There was a rehearsed reading of the poem during the Complete Works Festival in 2006, but this was far, far better in my view.

The set was very simple. The piano was under the stage balcony on the left, and there were several large stacks of paper on the stage, one forward of the piano and another on the front corner to our right. A pair of white ladies’ shoes was placed towards the other front corner. As she entered, Camille was carrying a pair of men’s boots, and as she began to weave her spell, telling us of the writing of the poem, she moved around the stage, placing the boots back right, forming a diagonal with the other pair. These items of footwear represented the two main characters in this piece, Tarquin and Lucrece, and were spot lit at various times to highlight the story. Camille herself was dressed in a thigh-length black coat, under which she wore a long white top over black leggings. Her feet were bare, and her hair was scooped up quite tightly at the back.

After describing the context of the poem’s creation, she then started into the story of the poem. Her delivery was so good, that I’m not sure at what point she started using the poem itself, but soon she was well into it, and her gestures and intonation got across many aspects of the lines that I wasn’t able to catch directly, through missing the odd word or just because of the complexity of the language. I would have sworn I saw the candle, and the doors, and the knife with my own eyes – there were no such props, just her skill and the wonderful language.

The story was the same as with the rehearsed reading, of course. The Roman nobles, away at war, boast of their wives, and one, Lucrece’s husband, outdoes the others for bragging. Fortunately for him, when the men all sneak back to Rome, his wife is the only one they find being virtuous – the others are all having fun, which is not what Roman wives are meant to do when their husband’s backs are turned. Tarquin, inflamed with passion for Lucrece’s beauty, returns later to visit her, and despite the feeble flickering of his conscience, rapes her. Distraught, she has a good long rant and rave, then summons her husband back home so he can witness her suicide and revenge the wrong which Tarquin has inflicted on her honour, which he does.

It’s a difficult story, not least because of the rape, but here it was staged with great sensitivity, not overdoing the suffering and brutality, but showing it in a way that reflected the poetry of the language, allowing our imaginations to skip over the sordid details to experience the emotional and mental pain caused by such an act. From time to time, when the characters themselves were speaking, she moved into song, using the poem’s lines, of course, but adding a tune and a delivery which emphasised the meaning, sometimes harsh, sometimes pure and sweet. With her bare feet often drumming out a rhythm, these aspects combined to produce the magical effect which only theatre can provide.

There were several vivid moments of staging that impressed me. Firstly, when Tarquin was sneaking towards Lucrece’s bedroom, she used a closing hand gesture in the direction of each of three lights, and the control room obligingly turned them off, all at a menacingly gentle pace. Once in Lucrece’s room, she prowled around the bed, describing Tarquin’s growing lust, or rage, as the poem has it. Then, as the poem continued, she removed the black coat, and used it to demonstrate Tarquin smothering Lucrece’s cries as he began to rape her. As she was doing this, she gradually turned over to become Lucrece, unpinning her hair, and with several moaning cries she indicated Lucrece’s agony at her violation. It was a very moving scene, not difficult to watch or embarrassing, but painful all the same.

With the rape over, the poem focuses on Lucrece’s feelings and her thoughts, especially her increasing desire to kill herself to redeem her honour. In the Complete Works version, I found myself annoyed that she regarded her blood as tainted and dishonoured by Tarquin’s actions. Tonight, it made more sense as part of her emotional reaction to being raped. Her emotional distress was well portrayed in song, with the rage and grief both coming across strongly. She also threw some of the paper stack by the piano across the floor, kicking at it in her frustration.

Finally, as Lucrece stabbed herself, and she was describing the blood flowing out in two rivers to surround the body, red petals floated down to cover the centre of the stage – a beautiful image for a sad event.

Her father’s lament was done as a song, and then her husband took the knife with which she stabbed herself, swearing to avenge her rape and death. Tarquin was banished, and Lucrece’s reputation restored to honour. Not a happy ending, but a fitting completion to this amazing emotional journey we’d been taken on.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Tragedy Of Thomas Hobbes – December 2008

5/10

By Adriano Shaplin

Directed by Elizabeth Freestone

Company: RSC

Venue: Wilton’s Music Hall

Date: Saturday 6th December 2008

Wilton’s Music Hall currently has the decorators in, so it looks worse than any other temporary home the RSC has used in London to my knowledge. The toilets were OK, though strapped for space, but everything else could do with improvement. I wasn’t impressed with the acoustics, the chairs were comfortable enough (given the state of many West End theatres, they were above average) but space was at a premium in every direction. We arrived later than we would have liked so had to sit in the balcony, and my neck is just about de-cricked from the excessive twisting it had to do. The ice creams in the interval were below average, and I won’t even go into the horrendous crowd that was the bar area.

So with all this affecting my sensitive nature, it’s no surprise it took me a wee while to get involved in today’s performance. Also, not being able to see some of the action was a drawback, though not so serious as not being able to make out the dialogue clearly. Hence the comment about the acoustics. The volume was fine, but I just couldn’t make out enough of the words to follow the early stages. However, things improved, especially when there weren’t half-a-dozen people talking at the same time on stage, and I started to get what was going on about the time that Robert Boyle (I thought it was Foyle from the way they said it) took Rotten into his service and they attended a demonstration of an experiment (sadly, the dog died).

Basically this play, commissioned by MIT, is about the beginnings of full-blooded scientific research practices, and the tussle between the experimental scientists and the natural philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes. The arguments didn’t always come across clearly, but I gather that Hobbes (he wrote Leviathan, don’t ask me what it was about) was in favour of rational thinking and testing of hypotheses, but stopped short of actually getting his hands dirty by testing said hypotheses against physical reality. The new boys on the block, including Boyle, Robert Hooke, some others less well known, and eventually Isaac Newton, wanted to go all out with repeatable experiments that would verify or refute theories.  And all of this was played out against the backdrop of the Civil War and the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. It’s a busy period, and with so much to be crammed into just under three hours, there wasn’t much opportunity for a nap, thank goodness.

The play makes good use of self-deprecating and self-referencing humour. At the start of the second half, Rotten and Black, former actors currently resting due to the interregnum, are seen rehearsing a piece by Hobbes, which is intended to counter the arguments of his opposition. Rotten and Black make some entertaining comments about how they can change the piece to make it more acceptable to the audience, and suggest Hobbes play himself, but in disguise.  When they interrupt a demonstration by the newly formed Royal Society, they’re dismayed to find the king is present, so they don’t get to finish their piece. A shame, as Angus Wright looked particularly fetching in a large bush of pubic hair and not much else. The play itself finishes with an extract from another play, The Virtuoso by Thomas Shadwell, which poked fun at the new scientists and especially Robert Hooke. Hooke was now under threat from the up and coming Newton, and found himself in a similar position to Hobbes, with his views being derided and fresh approaches being put forward.

It may be that that was what was intended by the title of this piece; that the tragedy wasn’t just that of Hobbes, but the tragedy of any scientist who failed to keep up-to-date with his thinking. Other than that, I can’t for the life of me see why the title was chosen, as Thomas Hobbes himself is around far less than Boyle, and isn’t a particularly appealing character in any case. It’s still a good play, and I’d like a chance to see it in better circumstances than today’s.

The set was about as rickety-looking as the theatre itself, though with health and safety rampant, I suspect the scaffolding and ladders were actually more robust than the building they were in. Actors accessed all levels – we had them pounding the floorboards behind us a few times, which could be distracting, if only because it let us know the scene was coming to an end – and even came up through a trapdoor, as well as using the space in front of the stage, the sides of the auditorium, etc. About the only thing they didn’t do was swing from the ceiling, but if Michael Boyd had his way….

The performances were all very good, and possibly excellent, given our unfortunate location. I especially liked Arsher Ali, first as John  Lilburne, giving us his “what about the workers” diatribe, and then as Charles II, exiled to France and then resplendent as the restored king. He had a soft spot for Hobbes, his old tutor, but not soft enough to overlook his misbehaviour, nor to ignore that he had fallen behind the times. Stephen Boxer as Hobbes also gave us a good performance, though as I’ve said, there didn’t seem to be enough of it. Robert Boyle was played by Amanda Hadingue, the only woman in the cast, which did rather emphasise the lack of female roles in this play, while Jack Laskey was excellent as Robert Hooke, growing from young enthusiastic scientist from a poor background to self-important self-appointed leader of the scientific establishment, finally ousted by the likes of Isaac Newton. We were also treated to two old men, called Statler and Waldorf, à la The Muppets, who commented on the developments on stage, and even joined in a bit. Overall, it was an interesting play, and deserves better than a short run in this small, out-of-the-way theatre, I hope it gets it.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Comedy Of Errors – YPS – September 2006

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Elizabeth Freestone

Company: Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 13th September 2006

This was a very good production, with excellent staging and a well-edited text. The performance began with all the cast coming on stage in two files, with the Duke and a blindfolded Egeon at the back. The rest of the cast formed up in two rows at the front of the stage, and all were carrying rifles. They turned, raised the rifles, and knelt down, preparing to fire. The Duke, at the last minute, asks Egeon for his story (removing the blindfold as he does so), and as he tells it, the firing squad get so caught up that they gradually lower their rifles, and just listen. Egeon’s tale, though edited, still covers the salient points, and but for the rampant coughing from the audience, would have been very moving. Incidentally, to make ends meet on this long quest, Egeon has apparently taken painting and decorating jobs – his sleeves and the bottoms of his trousers were covered in white paint.

I really enjoyed this opening sequence. The firing squad gave it immediacy, a real sense of danger. The Duke, while chatting to Egeon, is perilously close to getting shot himself – just one twitchy trigger finger… This staging emphasises the Duke’s clemency, giving Egeon till sunset to find some way of paying the fine.

As the various characters leave, one soldier remains, and becomes Antipholus of Syracuse (A/S). Slinging his rifle over his shoulder, he sends Dromio off to the Centaur, and both he and Dromio share any relevant lines of the missing merchant.

A/S’s opening soliloquy, “He that commands me to mine own content…”, was very well done. The gestures used were moving, and repeated at the end to close the piece (although this could probably have been dropped, as the audience were ready to applaud as soon as the Dromios left the stage). I got a sense of someone who’d been searching so long and so desperately that he no longer expected to find what he was seeking – which explains why neither he nor his Dromio twig what’s going on.

Dromio of Syracuse (D/S) then returns, and the real comic business begins. Good comic timing from both sets of twins made this very enjoyable. When Adriana first arrives and addresses A/S as her husband, his look of amazement was a joy to behold. D/S just pats him on the shoulder as if to say ‘you’re on your own, mate’, and sits out most of the discussion. Adriana is, as usual, pretty intimate with the man she believes to be her husband. On the line “Am I in earth, in heaven or in hell” A/S indicates Dromio, Luciana and Adriana in turn.

The set: it’s still the Much Ado set, but without the rubble all over the floor. White cloth at the back, various pallets arranged round the stage, higher at the back. Back left, on an angle, sat a chest (holds the money Adriana gives D/S to redeem her husband), and one pallet came half-way across the front, and doubled as a door for both Antipholus’s house and the abbey. Part of the pallet hinged up, and was held in place by a rope. The costumes were all various shades of blue, with a tie-dye/ washed out effect. Both Dromios had bright blue hair, and the women wore underskirt hoops on the top of normal skirts – why?

The advantage of having two sets of twins (instead of doubling) is that the scenes they’re both in are easier to do. When Antipholus of Ephesus (A/E) arrives home for lunch, it becomes very clear he’s got a temper, and a pretty violent one at that. With the pallet-door, there are lots of gaps, through which guns, bars, etc. are thrust, giving D/S plenty of opportunity for ducking and diving.

The wooing scene after lunch was well-edited, and we got D/S’s descriptions of his (un)intended in full, but at a fair lick. D/S arrived for this scene at full tilt, with his trousers round his knees – evidently the kitchen wench doesn’t mean to wait till the wedding night for a piece of her betrothed! Next there’s a lovely piece of action with the goldsmith and the chain. When A/S, on receiving the chain, urges the goldsmith to take his money now, in case he never gets it, the goldsmith takes out his pocket book, thumbs to the right page, and starts to work out how much he’s owed. This takes a short while. In the meantime, A/S has said his lines and leaves to find D/S. The merchant, just missing him as he leaves, turns and sees A/E walking towards him from a different direction. Without batting an eye (they must be used to this sort of stuff in Ephesus), the goldsmith immediately tells A/E how much the chain costs, and then the confusion tumbles on through the arrival of a merchant (Balthazar) and the officer, so that A/E is bound and carted off before he knows what’s happening. Sending D/E off to get a rope’s end has been squeezed in here – normally it’s at the beginning of A/E’s entrance – but overall it’s a lovely piece of editing and staging.

D/S comes back to tell him there’s a ship about to leave, and stands bemused by what’s going on – not the scene he expected. He takes his time before heading back to Adriana, reluctant to see his fiancée again. After D/S gets the money, we see A/S even more bewildered – people are greeting him, giving him things, measuring him up for a suit, and still he doesn’t twig. He and D/S become even more panic-stricken when the courtesan arrives, and demands the chain she’s been promised. Off they flee, so that A/E can come on again to be suitably angry with D/E, who’s returned with the rope. Lots of physical stuff now, as the officer has to forcibly restrain A/E from attacking D/E. They really did throw themselves around, this lot.

More good editing – no Pinch to contend with. Luciana speaks any of his lines that are needed, and has some great business in the process. As A/E is seriously agitated by this time, the officer has him at gunpoint. As Luciana goes towards him, he makes to lunge at her, and she steps back, shoves the officer out of the way, and grabs his gun. After brandishing it rather wildly (everybody ducks as she swings it round), they get A/E and D/E tied up, and march them off to Adriana’s. The officer’s line “He is my prisoner…” was delivered very well, showing the officer’s nervousness.

From here, it’s pretty straightforward to the end, and all the reunions. At the very end, after the Dromios have left the stage, A/S re-enters, and stands, repeating the gesture with his hands that marked one drop of water seeking another in the ocean. Nicely done, but as I said before, this could probably be dropped.

The trouble with trying to describe such a lively and inventive production is that the description always falls far short. Much of the humour was in the business and in the reading of the lines. I would happily see this one again.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me