Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me – October 2015

Experience: 9/10

By Frank McGuinness

Directed by Michael Attenborough

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Monday 5th October 2015

This was a fabulous revival of a very intense play. The performances were all excellent and the staging quite superb. It’s no surprise that even such a difficult subject was generating full houses, given Chichester’s reputation for putting on good work in the Minerva, and the only pity is that this production won’t be seen by a wider audience.

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Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me – September 2015

Preview performance

Experience: 8/10

By Frank McGuinness

Directed by Michael Attenborough

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Monday 14th September 2015

Although this was a preview, this production already had a strength and intensity beyond many other plays. It’s one of those pieces where it doesn’t feel right to say we ‘enjoyed’ it, but it was a deeply enriching experience to have attended this performance, even with such difficult subject matter.

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Helen – August 2009

8/10

By Euripides, translated by Frank McGuinness

Directed by Deborah Bruce

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe

Date: Friday 21st August 2009

This was a jolly romp, or as a friend of ours put it “a lot of nonsense, but very enjoyable”. Frank McGuiness has done another excellent version of a Greek play, using modern idiom superbly well when needed, and bringing out the comedy in this rather fantastical piece by Euripides.

The premise is that Helen was not stolen away to Troy but secretly whisked away to Egypt by a vengeful Hera, who substituted a fake Helen, conjured from vapours, to satisfy Paris. (Paris, you will remember, pleased Aphrodite enormously when he picked her as the most beautiful goddess in Olympus, but Hera and Athena weren’t so happy. Olympus may have talent, but it also has spite, jealousy and a nasty taste for revenge.)

Helen is a bit fed up, firstly from waiting for Menelaus to come and get her, then with hearing how she’s reviled by everyone for causing the Trojan War, lots of deaths, etc., and now having to fend off the unwelcome attentions of the new king Theoclymenes who’s looking after her. She was left with his father originally, but he died and his son quite fancies having a Greek queen. The Trojan war was over seven years ago, there’s been no definite word of Menelaus (but lots of rumours that he’s dead) and Theoclymenes sees no reason not to marry Helen, even against her wishes, the brute!

A Greek sailor turns up, who tells Helen her husband’s probably dead, and she’s just getting down to some serious breast beating and wailing when her ‘women’ (several of them played by men) acting as a mini-chorus, advise her to check with the king’s sister first. This sister, Theonoe, is a prophet and knows everything that goes on. If she says Menelaus is alive, then he’s alive. Encouraged by this advice, and with a warning from the chorus to get a straight answer from Theonoe (you know what these oracles can be like) Helen heads off.

Next thing you know, Menelaus is staggering through the audience before collapsing in a heap on the stage. Revived by a singing person (after Streetcar yesterday, another white dinner jacket – is this a trend?) he tells us how difficult it’s been to get home from Troy. He no sooner gets within sight of Sparta than he’s blown to yet another corner of the Med. This time, his ship’s been destroyed and he’s left ‘Helen’ hidden away in a cave, with his men guarding her, while he goes in search of food for them all. His first encounter is with a mouthy servant, straight out of Molière, who tells him to get while the getting’s good. The king doesn’t like Greeks, apart from that Helen woman he wants to marry. This makes Menelaus prick up his ears, and when Helen returns, joyful at Theonoe’s news that Menelaus is alive, they enter into a strange reunion dance, neither one quite able to believe the other’s identity at first. When one of Menelaus’s men comes from the cave to tell him that ‘Helen’ has vanished, Menelaus gets over his doubts and soon they’re plotting how to escape from Egypt.

The first step is to persuade Theonoe not to tell the king her brother that Menelaus has arrived, as he would simply have him bumped off. It’s tricky, as Theonoe is torn between helping Helen’s legitimate husband and loyalty to her brother. Finally, an appeal to consider what her dead father would have done tips the scales; she knows he would have restored Helen to Menelaus, and agrees to keep the information from her brother.

That done, they need to find a ship that will take them all back to Sparta. Menelaus may have been one of the leaders who defeated mighty Troy but he hasn’t much of a clue when it comes to devious manipulation. For that we need Helen’s quick wits. She decides to tell the king that Menelaus has drowned, and before she can remarry she must carry out a symbolic burial at sea to appease the gods or whatnot. Menelaus himself will pretend to be a Greek sailor who saw his death and has brought the news to her. Once aboard the ship, Menelaus and his men can get rid of the Egyptian sailors and sail for home. It’s a good plan, but will the king fall for it?

Of course he will. He doesn’t have a clue about Greek rituals and he’s keen to get on with his own nuptials, so Helen and Menelaus are given carte blanche to kit the ship out with whatever they need for the ceremony.  There’s a nasty moment when the king suggests he should accompany her, but he’s quickly dissuaded, and the couple make their escape safely.

Now all that remains is to hear the news of their escape brought back to the king, followed by a final intervention by Castor and Pollux, and before you know it the band are playing a jazzy little number for the cast to jive to at the end.

It was good fun, and although we had the usual problem at the Globe of not being able to hear all of it, I caught enough to keep me happy. I noticed that both Penny Downie and Paul McGann were much clearer than the others, especially the first sailor who arrived to speak to Helen; he had an accent and a roaring delivery that made it very hard to hear his lines, though he was better when he turned the volume down.

The set had a large mound on the near side of the stage with a hidey-hole part way down it at the front. There was a lot of scaffolding everywhere, which allowed characters to climb up the far pillar, and some huge letters, presumably Greek ones, with equivalent cut-outs in the back wall. The letter nearest us was lifted up towards the end. Otherwise the stage was the usual size, and personally I think that’s a better size for this performance space.

The preamble to the play had two builders wandering round the set making desultory efforts to work. One of them even sat down and had his lunch, as well as reading the paper. There was some sparring between them because a tool which one dropped was moved by the other, leading to retaliation. These two turned up as Castor and Pollux at the end, with the addition of cute wings which was good fun, though I have no idea what the connection with the initial builders bit was.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Oedipus – November 2008

8/10

By Sophocles, translated and adapted by Frank McGuinness

Directed by Jonathan Kent

Olivier Theatre

Saturday 15th November 2008

What a journey we had to get here. The road past Haywards Heath station was closed off, so we had a long detour to reach it another way. Then there were roadworks outside Waterloo East that made us take another detour. At least, I thought, the Lyttelton performance will already have started, so the Ladies will be relatively empty. Not so; the Lyttelton performance was also starting at three o’clock, and the place was hoatching (Heaving, adjectival description of a busy location – Wikipedia). All this, and having to put our rucksacks into the cloakroom, meant we made it to our seats with only a few minutes to spare. Still, as I told Steve, if we think we’re having a bad day, what about Oedipus? How we chuckled.

The set was fantastic, though I was a little distracted by its brilliance. We’d seen the dome taking shape in the workshops during a backstage tour, and now we could see it completed. It filled the centre of the Olivier stage, and was tipped slightly forward. The surface was like weathered copper, slightly roughened, and with patches of copper colour mixed with the green. It reminded me of a globe map, with the copper as land and the green as sea. There was a large doorway towards the back, facing the audience, with two vast metal doors between chunky posts and lintel, and to our left, near the front of the stage, was a long table with two matching benches. Panels at the back of the stage opened about four times when people arrived, one on each side, and each time there were trees on display. The first time they were all silver, the second time vultures had been added, and the third time they were golden autumn colours. The fourth time they were blasted stumps. (I hope they’re mentioned in the playtext, as I can’t remember exactly when they happened.)

The set used the slow revolve to perform a complete circle during the course of the play, finishing shortly before Oedipus arrives, covered in blood, for his final speeches of suffering. The table and benches didn’t move at all, however, and this was what distracted me briefly, as I looked for the groove that had to accommodate whatever was supporting the table. I spotted it fairly quickly, and I also noticed some of the chorus, when they were sitting on the benches, having to adjust their feet from time to time as the floor passed underneath them. Still, it was only a minor distraction.

The chorus was very good, with plenty of singing, chanting and speaking, often interleaving their lines. I thought the translation/adaptation was excellent. It kept the feel of a Greek tragedy, with some nicely poetic rhythmic lines, but also introduced some apposite modernisms, such as Creon saying he’d hang every terrorist. There were fine performances from Ralph Fiennes as the man who curses himself, and Clare Higgins as the mother who finds she’s married her son. Both were over-confident and scornful of the gods and prophecy, only to find the truth too much to bear. The other characters  were also very good, especially Jasper Britton as Creon, who, despite his apparently sincere declaration that he wasn’t seeking the top job, looked remarkably comfortable in the role once he’d got it. Also Alan Howard was powerful as Tiresias, the blind seer who gives Oedipus his first cryptic warnings of the doom to come. The question was asked several times, if Tiresias was so smart, how come he didn’t spill the beans a lot earlier and prevent all this suffering? Thebes is in a pretty bad way, crops not growing, women not having proper babies (buckets of blood were mentioned), and food apparently rotting in folk’s mouths (I assume this was poetic rather than literal). There’s no satisfactory answer to this question, except that Tiresias serves Apollo, so we’ll just have to assume that Laos, the previous king and Oedipus’s daddy, upset Apollo big time, and that’s why the entire family, and the country, suffers so much.

For Oedipus’s final appearance, the doors dropped down, and the panels at the back slid open to reveal emptiness. Oedipus gets a brief chance to be with his children, hugging his two little girls, before being sent inside on Creon’s orders, away from the public view. Creon tries to stop the girls from helping him, but I noticed that the elder – Antigone, I assume – escapes his clutches to lead her father off (she’ll defy Creon again, but that’s another play). The stage is left to the chorus and one or two of the other characters. As the chorus spreads out across the stage, the lights dim, and finally go out.

I love the way Greek drama is so direct. The characters speak lines that would rarely, if ever, come out of ordinary people’s mouths, yet, like Shakespeare’s poetic dialogue, they can be so much more moving. Also, we get to hear all sorts of arguments and points of view debated and discussed. We do also have to put up with unpleasant violence and lots of deaths, but on the whole I think it’s a fair price to pay, especially as performances tend to come in under two hours. This production was well worth the effort to get here.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me