The Witch Of Edmonton – October 2014

Experience: 7/10

By William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and possibly others.

Edited and directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Tuesday 28th October 2014

We missed the RSC’s previous Witch as we weren’t coming regularly to Stratford at the time, so this production was one we were very keen to see. This final part of the Roaring Girls season – Greg was accepted as an honorary ‘Roaring Girl’ by the other (female) directors – was the only one to be done in Jacobean dress, which made a pleasant change from the persistent updating in the other three productions. Modern dress or similar is fine, but we agreed with Greg’s point in the pre-show talk about the risk of not allowing the audience to make their own connections to present-day circumstances, something clearly not considered often enough by many directors today.

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Henry IV part 1 – May 2014

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 28th May 2014

This is a rather clunky production at the moment, but there’s potential for improvement. We have some other visits planned for later in the year, so hopefully we’ll enjoy seeing the performances come on.

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Richard II – January 2014

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Greg Doran

Venue: Barbican Theatre

Date: Wednesday 15th January 2014

Although we hadn’t been able to choose our seats for this performance, we were pleased with our allocation which put us on the far end of the front row on the right. I had thought the production might seem rather 2D after the thrust stage in Stratford, but from our angle there wasn’t a lot of difference. The small stub of stage that pushes forward in the Barbican was almost level with our seats, so it was similar to sitting by the right walkway in the RST, down to the occasional blocked view as an actor stood in the ‘corner’ of the stage. Fortunately this wasn’t much of a problem today, and the benefits of being so close and seeing the action in even more detail far outweighed the minor inconvenience.

The set and staging hadn’t changed much, so I’ll get that out of the way to begin with. The cathedral space at the start looked even more imposing than before; it seemed higher than I remember. The bereaved Duchess of Gloucester came on alone this time, but approached a monk who had entered before her, whether to ask for assistance or for permission to sit by the coffin I don’t know. He helped her on her way, and she bowed to him before she sat down on the stool. While the side lights were still on at this point, the overhead lights had been turned off, so for once the audience grasped that the performance had started and were quiet through the beautiful singing – bliss.

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Richard II – November 2013

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 7th November 2013

Prime seats tonight, looking straight down the centre aisle. As we suspected, the production had shifted up a gear, and tonight’s performance was a huge improvement on the preview we saw. The imbalances we’d seen before had gone, with strong acting all round and more detail in the performances, and they also brought out much more of the humour in the play which usually indicates that the cast have settled in. Richard’s hair seemed to be behaving better – David Tennant looked uncomfortable with it last time – and Bolingbroke had toned down his barrow boy accent to a sensible level. There were no significant changes to the staging that I saw, but I was reminded of several details which I hadn’t noted last time, so here goes.

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Richard II – October 2013

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Greg Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 16th October 2013

It’s early days yet – tomorrow is the press night – and while some areas are patchy and uneven, there are good performances and good ideas which should become more pronounced with practice. The set worked very well for the most part, and this production has the loveliest music I’ve heard for a long time at the RSC. It’s a promising start to Greg’s reign proper, and with David Tennant in the lead role, at least they’re assured of a sell-out run.

The basic set was largely visible during the director’s talk beforehand – more on that story later. A series of screens overlapped behind the thrust, giving a false perspective. They were coloured blue and shimmered, which turned out to be a 3D effect; when the opening images of the inside of a church were projected onto them, the resulting effect was of a vast Gothic chamber – very impressive. Thin metal pillars, like bars, continued the effect, and coming forward from these there were stumpy pillars hanging over the front part of the stage, so it really felt like we were in a huge cathedral space, lit softly to give a misty gloom.

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The Orphan Of Zhao – January 2013

Experience: 9/10

By James Fenton, based on a traditional Chinese story

Directed by Greg Doran

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 10th January 2013

Well, this was another great theatrical experience. I’d have to say the cast haven’t come on all that much, but as they were pretty close to perfect when we saw the second performance, that isn’t an insult. They’ve taken things up a notch, the story-telling seemed even clearer (but perhaps that’s just our familiarity?) and I noticed a few extra details which are worth noting up. Otherwise it was just as good as before, and with a substantial audience, though sadly still not a full house, the atmosphere was great.

The beginning had changed slightly. The cast processed onto the stage after forming up at the back, which took a few minutes. Then they stayed on stage for the first lines of Tu’An Gu’s opening speech. The Emperor was standing behind Tu’An Gu with the rest of the court bowing to him, which did at least give us some idea of who was who at the start, and then they left the stage fairly briskly so that Tu’An Gu could continue to entertain us with his villainy. He stood, holding his helmet in one hand, and said “To be…”, which amused us regular Shakespeare watchers very much. The dog was introduced to us again and was just as vicious as before, although we noticed the trainer had managed to stop it thrusting its nose into Tu’An Gu’s crotch.

When Zhao Dun was offered the three suicide options, I spotted this time that the Emperor, a nasty piece of work, was standing on the far balcony observing the ritual. I didn’t notice this last time, but he may have been there. Skipping further on, I understood tonight that the severed heads were actually the heads of the court doctors who had been executed so that they couldn’t betray the Emperor, presumably by hiding the Princess’s baby. While our position at the back round one side did seem to reduce the volume of some of the lines, I was able to follow the story perfectly well, and some points such as this one came across more clearly; whether this is repetition, clearer delivery or some change to the dialogue I have no idea.

The sniffles started earlier tonight than last time; knowing the story I found the difficult choices the characters had to make very moving. When Cheng Ying’s wife had to give up her own baby to raise another woman’s child, I felt her suffering. If I’d had a box of tissues with me I might have used them all; as it was I had to ration myself to a single pack of pocket size tissues, but they did the job.

At the start of the second half, I remember in the previous performance that Cheng Ying said some lines about allowing Cheng Bo one more day as a boy – that didn’t happen tonight, it was all down to the ballad singer. I was in floods of tears all through General Wei Jiang’s confrontation with Cheng Ying – I found Cheng Ying’s predicament particularly moving – and from there the staging was as before. One detail which Steve had spotted last time – the petals fell for every death except Tu’An Gu’s. There were a few petals during Wei Jiang’s takeover of the Palace Guard which presumably represented the Emperor’s death, and I realised the number of petals related to that person’s ‘goodness’ – Cheng Ying had a huge cascade of petals at the end – mega sniffles!

This is such a great production that it deserves full houses and standing ovations every night. I don’t know if it will get them, but we are looking forward to seeing this again in a couple of months, so 2013 is off to a very good start.

[Sadly missed the third session – car problems. 25/3/13]

© 2013 Sheila Evans at

The Orphan Of Zhao – October 2012


Adapted from a traditional Chinese story by James Fenton

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 31st October 2012

This was amazing, and only their second performance! The house wasn’t full but we did our best to be appreciative at the end, calling them back on for a second set of bows. And they deserved it. This is another dynastic difficulties piece, similar to A Soldier In Every Son, but thankfully the names were easier to pronounce. A corrupt emperor, an ambitious captain of the guard who arranges to become the emperor’s chief minister, a loyal minister forced to commit suicide leaving his pregnant wife defenceless (although she’s the emperor’s daughter so killing her is out of the question) and an orphan boy who grows up not knowing who his real father is nor the destiny he has to fulfil. That’s the short version; now read on.

The set was wonderfully simple and evocative. Chinese style fretwork delineated the circular arches – one large one at the back and smaller ones round the side balcony openings. Four large Chinese lanterns hung above the stage, and apart from the severed heads being lowered down and a few items of furniture being brought on and off, that was it. The costumes were also in the Chinese style, including some of the elaborate headdresses, but thankfully the music had been seriously westernised – I have no desire to attune my ears to the sound of traditional Chinese music. And although there were several in the cast of Asian descent, there were no problems with heavy foreign accents, which gave the play the best possible chance for a British audience.

The performance began with a character called the ballad-singer. His opening number was a long song which conveyed the idea of grief and suffering without being specific about the story we were going to see. During the song the other characters processed onto the stage, taking up their positions round the outside and facing inwards for the end of the song. The cast then left the stage to Tu’An Gu, the villain of the piece, superbly played by Joe Dixon. He had us laughing within a very few minutes as he described the frustration he felt at not being the clear top dog amongst the Emperor’s advisors. Speaking of dogs, he had one to show us, a huge mastiff which he had trained to attack anyone wearing a purple robe. The dog was a puppet and looked really vicious, although it was quite sweet when it cuddled up to Tu’An Gu, even if he had to shove its muzzle out of his crotch a couple of times.

Having explained his dastardly plans to us, we were then introduced to the three honourable ministers, one of whom, Zhao Dun, wore a purple robe. Oh dear. They were following an old yearly tradition of going out to the peasants to encourage them in their farming, but had to do without the Emperor’s help as this incumbent was only interested in pleasure of every kind. His Peach Gardens had been built by Tu’An Gu as the location for all this fun, and within it the new Crimson Cloud Tower rose high above the ground. From here, the Emperor informed us, the people looked like ants, so he decided to use them for target practice. The first arrow stuck in the middle of the stage but the rest of the shots missed the audience completely, although from the descriptions, the people in the Peach Gardens were being killed unmercifully by the lunatic ruler. Zhao Dun rushed back on, exclaiming against the slaughter, and Tu’An Gu tried to use his rash statements against him. He didn’t quite manage it, but the senseless killing so upset the three good ministers that one of them retired, one sent himself into exile, guarding the country’s borders, while Zhao Dun stayed in the court – bad move.

After a failed assassination attempt – the assassin killed himself rather than execute such a noble man as Zhao Dun – Zhao Dun tried to accuse Tu’An Gu of the attempt but was brought down by the mastiff which naturally ran straight for the purple robe which Zhao Dun was wearing. Zhao Dun’s servant tried to help him, stabbing the mastiff in the process, but his master was eventually found in his own garden and given a choice of three suicide methods – poison, dagger and bowstring. He chose the dagger and showed his courage by killing himself. His wife, the princess, was kept prisoner in her palace to wait for the baby to be born, and the rest of the Zhao clan were executed. And if you’re worried about the mastiff, it was put out of its misery by Tu’An Gu, poor thing.

With a baby on the way, a country doctor, Cheng Ying, was sent for – none of the regular doctors would take the risk – and he came along next and introduced himself to us. In his discussion with the palace guard he learned of the severed heads, and the guard was already picking out the spot where he would hang Cheng Ying’s head if he was given the task of executing him. Cheng Ying was eventually shown in to see the princess and discovered that she was no longer pregnant as she’d had the baby during the night. She entrusted it to Cheng Ying and made him promise to take care of him, bring him up and teach him of his heritage so that he could avenge the wrong done to the Zhao clan.

The next section was a bit complicated, but it boiled down to this: to save the orphan of Zhao, Cheng Ying substituted his own baby boy for the orphan and placed his son with one of the exiled ministers, Gongsun Chujiu. Cheng Ying then ‘betrayed’ this minister, with his connivance, to Tu’An Gu so that Tu’An Gu would kill the baby believing it to be the orphan. Cheng Ying would then be free to raise the orphan as his own boy, but fate had another twist in store for the lad.

Tu’An Gu was so pleased with Cheng Ying for leading him to the orphan of Zhao, as he thought, that he offered to adopt Cheng Ying’s son (the real orphan of Zhao) as his heir. He would bring the boy up to learn the martial arts, while Cheng Ying would teach him medicine. The self-sacrifice of both Gongsun Chujiu and Cheng Ying himself was remarkable, although his wife’s point of view was different. She wanted to save her son and have the real orphan returned to the court no matter what happened to him. Eventually she realised that all the children were in danger, as a decree had been issued that all young boys would be killed if the orphan wasn’t found – sound familiar? Even so, she was damaged by the actual exchange of one baby for the other, and we learned later that she died of sorrow.

The final scene of the first half showed us General Wei Jiang, the other exiled minister, who brought us up-to-date. Eighteen years had passed since he left the court and he was now on the furthest edge of the Emperor’s lands, constantly fighting against the enemy. A young man was brought to him, a student of medicine who was collecting rare plants and who had a message for the general: the Emperor was dying, and the general was needed back at court. Although the young man wasn’t introduced to us or the general, we realised he was the orphan of Zhao, and fortunately the general liked his attitude so took good care of him. The first half ended with the general considering his next moves and the risk he took if he went back to the court too soon.

The second half opened with another song, this time about the orphan Cheng Bo’s coming of age. He was given his bow and arrows and set off to do some hunting while his supposed biological father, Cheng Ying, decided to give him one more day as a carefree child without knowing his true identity. However in the next scene Cheng Ying was spotted by the returning general Wei Jiang, who considered him a traitor for giving away the hiding place of the orphan of Zhao and getting his friend Gongsun Chujiu killed as well. His soldiers gave Cheng Ying a good beating, but he managed to tell the general that he knew a secret which must not die with him, and so the general listened to him for a while. Cheng Ying told him the situation, that the orphan was alive and only he knew his identity. The general finally believed him, and was amazed to find he had already met the orphan himself (I think the sniffles started about now).

Cheng Bo himself came forward next to tell us his story. The journey to give General Wei Jiang the message (and to gather the plants) had changed the young man completely. From a relative innocent who loved both of his fathers equally, he had come to realise that there was much suffering in the country, and a lot of it was either caused by Tu’An Gu and the Emperor or allowed to flourish due to their indifference to good government. An interesting paragraph in the text has been cut for performance, but it explains how the tax system had been corrupted so that the ordinary people were suffering exorbitant penalties while the Emperor still only got his regular income. I don’t know why they cut it – maybe taxation isn’t a popular enough subject – but it helped me understand the situation better afterwards.

Tu’An Gu had a short speech next before joining his son on a hunting expedition. The horses were two actors who held the bridle end of the reins in their hands while father and son rode on. After Cheng Bo shot two geese with one arrow, they dismounted and held on to the reins of their horses. The bridle ends were held higher this time, to reflect their position relative to their horses, and every so often one or other ‘horse’ would snort and shake its head – not quite War Horse but still pretty good.

In retrieving the geese, Cheng Bo entered the garden of his mother’s palace where she was still being kept prisoner. He spoke with the guard and with her, briefly, but it was enough to give him some troubling thoughts. On his return to the horses, he lied to his second father for the first time, which Tu’An Gu immediately spotted.

Back in the capital, the Emperor gave Wei Jiang his imperial seal, effectively putting him in charge. The Emperor spoke to the general from behind a wispy curtain, which was held up on poles by two servants. Every so often the Emperor would walk through the curtain to speak to Wei Jiang directly, and it was interesting to see the choices here. Then came the difficult scene where Cheng Ying told Cheng Bo of his true identity. Prompted by the ghost of Gongsun Chujiu, Cheng Ying started to paint a scroll telling of the events which happened in the Peach Gardens all those years ago. Cheng Bo joined him, and while the full details weren’t exposed on the scroll yet, Cheng Bo was able to reveal that he suspected he wasn’t Cheng Ying’s son, and this led to the exposure of his true identity.

Wei Jiang accosted the captain of the guard and ensured his cooperation. Cheng Bo paid another visit to his mother and it seemed he received her blessing, and then came the climax of the play – the revenge of the many Zhao clan ghosts against the man who had had them killed – Tu’An Gu. He was standing in the audience room, doing up his shirt, while guards and others rushed about, ignoring him. He tried to get hold of the captain of the guard, but not only did the other guards ignore him, one of them went up to him and slapped him in the face, followed by another. He realised that power was slipping from his grasp, but he didn’t yet know that it was already safely tucked up in another’s bed.

Cheng Bo came on and stood still, just looking at him. Tu’An Gu naturally assumed that Cheng Bo was still on his side and gave him instructions about organising the guards etc. However Cheng Bo stayed where he was to begin with, and when he did move it was to set out the three suicide options for Tu’An Gu. It was clearly difficult for Tu’An Gu to realise what was going on, and even when he did he couldn’t bring himself to kill Cheng Bo, despite having the opportunity. He also couldn’t bring himself to commit suicide, so Cheng Bo had to help him. The general and the Princess arrived, and the revenge scene ended with the Princess holding Cheng Bo as the ballad-singer sang of the dead calling to him while the ghosts walked along the outer edge of the auditorium and on to the stage.

The final scene was the saddest of the lot, but a very fitting ending all the same. Cheng Ying stumbled through a graveyard to find the resting place of his true son’s body. The ghost of that son, now grown up, talked with him, and accused him of hating his son. He denied it; he had always loved his son. But the ghost said he had always loved the orphan of Zhao. Cheng Ying was only there to kill himself, and did so with the ghost’s help. The final image was of the ghost cuddling his dead father’s body, realising at last that he had been loved all along. It was a very moving moment, and a good way to end the story.

There were excellent performances all round from the cast, and some lovely touches in the staging which added to the atmosphere of the story. When someone died, red petals were dropped down onto the stage, which was a beautiful and simple effect. When the two babies were together on the stage, waiting for the decision to be made about swapping them, the relevant actors sat cross-legged diagonally opposite each other on the same side as their baby and made the crying noises – very effective. The story was complicated but told so well that we followed it quite easily, and if this is the standard when they’ve only just started, what will it be like when we see it next?

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Julius Caesar – July 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Greg Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 5th July 2012

There’s been a definite improvement since last time. We heard the dialogue more clearly, partly because we were more familiar with the accents they were using, but mainly because the delivery was that bit stronger. Our viewing angle was very different as well, which helped me to pick up on a lot of nuances I’d missed before, and it so happened this was the captioned performance, which also helped a bit.

The set was as before, and all the crowd scenes and lighting changes seemed identical, though I can’t be totally certain. The preamble, with the music and dancing, etc., was just as good as before, and it was quite a shock when the tribunes broke it up with their sticks. Their anger at the people, and their use of blue sashes to indicate their different allegiance, made it clear that Rome was divided, while their scathing condemnation of the way the populace changed its favourites from day to day was reminiscent of today’s celebrity culture. The cobbler was just as cheeky as before, and got a lot of laughs for his small section.

When Caesar arrived, he was gracious and oozed confidence, waving his fly whisk at the cheering throng who were mostly off stage at this point. When a woman came to put a wreath round Mark Antony’s neck, two security guards tried to stop her, but Mark Antony waved them away. The only jarring note came when the soothsayer stepped forward to deliver his warning; then Caesar looked uncertain, but covered it with a show of bravado. He was already snubbing Cassius in a very deliberate way, and it would only get worse.

Brutus was almost off the stage before Cassius could persuade him to stay. Their discussion was much clearer than before; Cassius was hurt that Brutus wasn’t so friendly towards him, while Brutus was preoccupied with some thoughts that he felt it best not to share. The lines “for the eye sees not itself but by reflection, by some other thing” were said by both men, as if reciting some well-known motto or proverb. Gradually they edged towards an understanding, assisted by the cheers from the crowd. I felt this time that Cassius had been hurt by Caesar in some way, not just through slighted pride at someone else being given the high honours which he perhaps wanted for himself, but a more personal affront, a rejection by someone he had considered a friend. He certainly didn’t come across as just a political schemer tonight, although his manipulation of Brutus showed that he was prepared to use all sorts of dishonest tactics to get what he wanted.

When Caesar returned from the games, his comments to Mark Antony about Cassius were obviously said for all to hear, and Cassius was visibly affected by them. Something has clearly gone on between these two men in the past; perhaps Caesar didn’t like the fact that Cassius had saved his life in the river? After Caesar left, Casca’s descriptions of events were wonderfully funny, and I could see in Brutus and Cassius’s reactions that they were bonding even more as they heard the details.

Casca and Cicero’s conversation during the storm was much clearer this time round, and I understood it to be a combination of telling the audience what was going on – lions in the street, flaming hands, etc. – and allowing Cicero to show the rational perspective, pointing out that signs can be interpreted in all sorts of ways. He was carrying an umbrella – very sensible – and left as soon as he got the information he wanted, that Caesar would be going to the Capitol tomorrow.

Cassius then turned up, shirt open to the elements, and revelling in the danger of it. After Cicero’s comment about interpreting signs, Cassius then demonstrated this very point by re-interpreting the wonders that had frightened Casca into portents which were meant to stir men’s spirits to great deeds. Although he doesn’t actually say it, I got the impression that Cassius’s actions are a challenge to nature to do its worst, a form of augury whereby if he escapes being struck by lightning it indicates the plot is meant to go ahead. Casca was quick to offer the hand of friendship when he found out what Cassius intended, and with some more chat about who’s in the plot and the certainty of winning over Brutus to the cause, the conspirators left the stage to the man himself.

This scene was much stronger than the previous time. Lucius was clearly a boy who could sleep for Rome; he nodded off on the back steps while the conspiracy was being planned, which explains his lack of knowledge of the plot later on. He was told to go to bed and then called back immediately to get something else for Brutus; his reaction was very funny. Brutus’s concerns about Caesar seemed plausible enough, but I could see that they had one great weakness; Caesar hadn’t actually done anything wrong at this point, and Brutus was only trying to prevent future problems instead of addressing present wrongs. Even so, I felt that he was still trying to do the honourable thing and wasn’t out for personal revenge or gain.

His sense of honour was well to the fore during the planning session with the others. Cassius looked baffled and hurt by the way that Brutus kept changing the sensible decisions he’d already made, and then influencing the rest to agree with those changes. Honourable, yes; politically savvy, no. But acting from a position of honour, his choices were almost inevitable. Their doom was sealed. With the Ides of March dawning and Caesar about to leave for the Capitol, their plot seemed rushed, even amateurish, and while they’d given some thought to the aftermath, their vision was clouded by Brutus’s honourable fantasies about the people behaving rationally and reasonably once they’d had the assassination properly explained to them.

The confrontation between Portia and Brutus was much better this time, with Portia’s complaints being absolutely clear, and I noticed she even used some of the same rhetorical tricks that Brutus employed. Caius Ligarius, the sick man, recovered very quickly, giving us another laugh, and then the following scene overlapped a little with this one, as Caesar appeared on the platform before Caius Ligarius and Brutus left the stage. I’ve only just realised that Shakespeare’s done another of his tricks here; the argument between Portia and Brutus is followed almost immediately by the argument between Calpurnia and Caesar, and while Calpurnia appears to win, Decius Brutus soon changed Caesar’s mind with his smooth flattery. His assurance to the conspirators earlier, that he could manipulate Caesar at will with compliments, was amusing; now we got to see him in action (although we had only the back view), and he was as good as his word. The clincher, of course, was the prospect of the crown – couldn’t actually see Caesar salivating when this was mentioned, but he was clearly keen to get to the senate and (finally!) accept this honour.

All the conspirators turned up, and I noticed they did a little ritual when they arrived. They each touched the ground with one hand, as if bowing to Caesar or acknowledging him in some way, before rising and being welcomed by him. Cassius came on last, as before, and was left in that position as Caesar ignored him, talking instead to Trebonius. As they left the stage through the central doorway, Artemidorus stood on the platform, reciting the list of names as the men themselves passed under him. He then left quickly, and Portia came on to send Lucius on his errand to the Capitol. Her agitation was clear to us, even if Lucius was completely bemused by lack of orders. Instead of Artemidorus reappearing, the soothsayer came on through the central doorway and stalked forward with a strange, slow rhythm – quite eerie. Portia was spooked by him as well, and he delivered Artemidorus’s lines during his straight journey from the back of the stage, all the way off the front and through the audience. He finished with “Good morrow to you”, as I remember.

He must have run to get back round to the platform for his next meeting with Caesar, and then the senate scene unfolded with great clarity, despite the inevitable blocking through all the conspirators standing around the stage. I could see Trebonius drawing Mark Antony away from Caesar, see Cassius looking nervous about possible discovery, and also see each of the conspirators take their turn to stab Caesar, so I didn’t miss much. Jeffery Kissoon delivered Caesar’s lines strongly throughout the evening, and although there was a lot to admire in his character’s attitudes, he also showed us the pride, the ambition, and the arrogant assumption that he was better than everyone else, not entirely justified by his actions. His intense dislike, even hatred, for Cassius was also easy to spot, and I felt strongly that this Caesar would not have been good for Rome in the long run, though not necessarily worse than the rulers they did get.

I think they asked Lepidus to calm the people instead of Publius in this production. Antony’s political manoeuvring was well done, and Octavius’s servant was overcome with grief when he came on. Brutus’s speech to the crowd worked very well, showing us how he focused the questions to his best advantage, but once Mark Antony took to the platform we could see a master manipulator at work. It was obvious to us, though not to the crowd, that he just happened to have a piece of parchment with Caesar’s seal on it about his person; the way he tore it up later during the discussion with Octavius and Lepidus made that clear. In many ways he spoke the literal truth, but the way he put the pieces together stirred up the crowd’s emotions, and he had to work to get them back to hear the contents of the ‘will’. His promptings to riot, and the denial of those prompting were brilliantly delivered by Ray Fearon, whose Antony was motivated by the death of his friend, rather than any concern for Rome.

Cinna the poet met his fiery end again; someone in the crowd put a tyre over him while they were asking him questions, and after they dragged him off the back of the stage, the red light of flames flickered over the back wall. Nasty. I was reminded of the hysteria around paedophiles some years ago, when paediatricians, amongst others, were being targeted by the ignorant members of the public. The short meeting of Antony, Octavius and Lepidus served to show Antony as the driving force at this point, confident in his power and assuming that, as the senior ‘partner’, he’ll be giving the orders.

The tent scene was another that came across much more strongly this time round. Brutus’s quarrel with Cassius was very emotional, and seemed to be more about Brutus suffering because he’d heard of Portia’s death than because of any specific grievance, even though he listed a number of Cassius’s faults. I noticed that Cassius did little to defend himself, other than comment on their friendship. The poet who interrupted them looked like the soothsayer without most of the white powder – can’t confirm from the cast list. Once they were reconciled, Brutus poured a libation from the bowl of wine before drinking. Their friendship was very apparent, especially as Brutus only shared his reaction to Portia’s death with Cassius, keeping it from the other generals.

The ghost’s appearance was brief, and triggered the falling of the statue, with the paper sections at the back also separating slightly. The slanging match between the teams before the battle was clearer than before, and I found Cassius and Brutus’s farewells quite moving. The battle scenes were all fine, and Lucius was very funny in the nervous and awkward way he held his gun; Brutus had to adjust it once to avoid getting shot. The play ended swiftly after Brutus’s death, and nothing was made of the closing lines but that didn’t matter. We’d had a very good time, and I hope they do well in London.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Julius Caesar – May 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 31st May 2012

This was only the fourth preview, and I gather there have been quite a lot of changes to each performance so far, so this production will undoubtedly settle and improve in the next few weeks. The central idea, of setting the play in an African context, worked very well, but the African accents did obscure a lot of the dialogue. Lots of extras made for a really effective crowd, highlighting the way the mob was being manipulated, but it also raised the energy levels so much when the stage was full that the quieter scenes occasionally suffered by comparison. That may well change with practice, of course, and overall this has the potential to be a very good production.

The stage had been converted into a monumental, slightly crumbling football stadium, with lots of steps and terraces at the back, an impressive central entranceway with platform above, and behind the stands we could see the back of a massive statue, one hand raised in salute. I didn’t realise immediately that it was a statue of Caesar; that became clear later on. The stage floor also had a raised central section, which came up even higher for Mark Antony’s speech, and the tent scene was played in this area with the help of an awning stretched forward from the entranceway. A music combo was perched on the upper right section of terracing at the start, and they returned there from time to time, although music was available in all areas throughout the evening.

Across the back of the stage, behind the terraces, were lots of bits of something – looked like paper with writing on it. The image I got was of the proscription/missing person lists, which were as abundant in the Rome of this period as in many a totalitarian regime today. Don’t know if this was the intent, but it worked well for me. The costumes were modern but included a lot of ceremonial robes which could be from a wide range of periods. One item of African formal wear was a strip of cloth which draped over the body, just like a toga – how convenient. The soothsayer was just about wearing a tattered skirt, and his body was caked in white powder which also plastered his hair down. During the battles, the government forces led by Antony and Octavius wore natty military kit, while the conspirators’ guerrilla rebels had a more bring-your-own-kit look.

Before the start the stage was alive with celebration. The band played, the extras were chatting, dancing, laughing, and looking forward to welcoming Julius Caesar back from his victory over Pompey. This was much better than the naff videos used in the previous production in the main house, and an enormous improvement on the few scuttling individuals who usually stand in for the mass of the Roman populace. The soothsayer turned up in the middle of all this and the whole crowd went silent, but as he started to dance, everyone else joined in. Eventually the killjoy tribunes turned up and told the plebs off. They held long, curved sticks, and whacked them on the ground in a very scary way – no wonder the ordinary folk kept their eyes down. Mind you, the cobbler was nice and cheeky, but to no avail; the common folk were driven away and Flavius and Marullus, clearly Pompey supporters, set off to clean up the city.

Caesar and his entourage entered next, with Brutus and Portia clearly part of this group. After asking Mark Antony to touch Calpurnia during the race – a touch embarrassing for her, I thought, to have her lack of children commented on so publicly – the soothsayer called out Caesar’s name. The soothsayer was huddled at the back of the platform above the entrance, and as Caesar demanded to know who spoke, he stood up, dropped the blanket he’d been wrapped in, and came to the front of the platform to deliver his warning. Despite Caesar ordering that the man be brought before him, he wasn’t, and when the rest left for the race, Brutus and Cassius stayed behind for the first ‘private’ scene of the play.

This came across OK, with roars from the off stage crowd punctuating their discussion, but it will hopefully be clearer with practice. Caesar’s comments about the lean Cassius (not too unbelievable with this casting) were said loud enough to make me wonder if Cassius was meant to hear them; this Caesar was definitely into obvious social snubs. Casca (Joseph Mydell) was wonderfully bitchy in his recounting of Caesar’s dismissal of the kingship, and got probably the biggest laugh I’ve heard yet for “it was Greek to me”.

The storm scene was a bit underpowered, though the sense of the supernatural, and of the characters’ belief in omens and mystical happenings, was much clearer than usual. The following scene, in Brutus’s house, set up the character of Lucius, his young servant. From the director’s talk beforehand, we had learned that this character had been expanded to include Brutus’s companion at the end, as they both shared the trait of falling asleep at every opportunity. Brutus’s contemplation explained his reasoning pretty well, and then the rest of the gang arrived. Already we could see how Brutus was taking charge and countermanding Cassius’s decisions; he was held in such high regard by everyone that he could get away with it.

The arguments for and against Caesar going to the senate were fine, and when the conspirators arrived to accompany Caesar there, Cassius also arrived, last of all, but was noticeably not welcomed by Caesar. (He’s not in the text, so it’s an insertion, but a telling one.) The scenes with Artemidorus and Portia didn’t really register with me – I’m not sure what they’re meant to convey, other than to tell us that Artemidorus is about to expose the conspiracy – but the soothsayer was again a strong presence, reminding Caesar that the Ides of March aren’t over yet. The 3D effect of the thrust stage worked well for the assassination scene, with the conspirators milling about and manoeuvring themselves into position to stab Caesar in turn. There was a greater sense of the threat of discovery, even though the only people on stage were the assassins and their victim. Again, Brutus overrides Cassius regarding Mark Antony, and their doom is set.

The crowd was an excellent part of the forum scene, with lots of chanting and heckling to accompany the speeches. The nature of the oratory used by Brutus and Antony was clearer in this setting; Brutus appealed to the nobler sentiments in the crowd, while Antony knew how to stir their emotions and engage with their baser instincts. Ironically, for all that Antony makes deliberate references to Brutus as ‘an honourable man’ to create the impression that he isn’t, it is, in fact, a true statement. Just shows you what a “scurvy politician” can do with the truth. At some point during the riots, Caesar’s statue at the back was pulled down. [5/7/12 Not so: the statue was pulled down when Caesar’s ghost appeared to Brutus in his tent.]

They were running this play through without an interval, so we were straight into the unfortunate demise of Cinna the poet, followed closely by the first meeting of the triumvirate. Octavius was young, and clearly ambitious, a similar foil to Antony as Brutus was to Cassius, overriding his will and ultimately destined to bring about his downfall. The awning was brought forward for the tent scene, and the argument between Brutus and Cassius was acted strongly, although I wasn’t so clear about their reconciliation. The military planning was clearer than usual, with the layout of the potential battle area being demonstrated on the front part of the thrust. Poor Cassius, overruled again. Caesar’s ghost gave the usual warnings, and then we were into the battle scenes. Nothing much to note till the end, other than the use of Lucius to do Strato’s office and hold the sword for Brutus to run on.

The power in this play came out more strongly with this setting and casting, and I would expect it to come on once they’ve had some more performances and the production settles down. We’re due to see it again, and although I would still prefer an interval – after the killing perhaps? –  at least they’ve kept it brisk enough that I can manage the non-stop version. Only one other thing to record; although we both like Ray Fearon as an actor, his tendency to spray while speaking was quite a distraction most of the time. He had a cloud of mist around him during some of his speeches which was rather unpleasant, and I hope he can get that under control.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Written On The Heart – January 2012 (2)


By David Edgar

Directed by Greg Doran

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 25th January 2012

This was a definite improvement on my experience of 20 days ago; not quite enough to warrant a 10/10 rating, but oh so close. There were three factors involved in this change: the first and most influential was our prior knowledge of the play, which meant we could follow the arguments better and appreciate the political exchanges as well as the personal stories. As we suspected, this play does benefit from some advance knowledge of the people and the situation. The second factor was the talk we’d had at the Winter School this afternoon, not only us but the entire group, of course. As a result we were a more responsive audience than before, and that naturally enhanced the experience for us. And finally there were almost certainly some improvements in the performance, but as we were in different seats, and given the effect of the other two factors, I have absolutely no idea what they were.

I did notice some things that I either missed last time around or got wrong. The Yorkshire rant about the constant changes to religious practices was done by the church warden, not the Lady of the manor. Before we visited Tyndale’s cell, there was a short scene at the back showing the priest being blessed by, I assume, the Pope; there was lots of singing and fancy dress. The second half started with the candles on the triangular chandeliers being lit by the choir, who then stood and sang for a bit before the play continued: again, the singing was a bit too dissonant for my taste, but I may have been warming to it. In the Yorkshire scene, I forgot to mention last time that the church warden came back into the church while the clerk and the chaplain were having their discussion, and lurked behind the screens to overhear them. We suspected later on that he may have been the one who betrayed the clerk to the authorities in revenge for his treatment of the windows, amongst other things.

I found the story much more moving this time, with plenty of sniffling opportunities along the way. I understood better the Bishop of Ely’s guilt at having been so harsh to the prisoners he visited, as represented by the Puritan clerk. That scene, of the prison visit, was played out in front of the Bishop, and I got the impression that Tyndale knew about it and forgave the man. The parallel with Tyndale’s own experience has only just become apparent to me; I claim the mercy of the court on account of my increasing years. Or senility. Or both.

The massive amount of exposition didn’t seem so clunky this time around, which helped, and the humour worked just as well if not better. I liked the way they went through some of the Biblical words and expressions that we use today, often disparaging them; ‘beautiful’ and ‘allegory’ are the only two I can remember off hand. It was not only amusing, but also a good way to link the story to the present. The maid’s rant at the end had less of an impact on me this time – may have been the angle we were seeing it from – and I could see in the Bishop of Ely’s discussion with her that he may well have been thinking of the Civil War to come, although I also take it as a reference to all future religious disputes based on rigidity and intolerance.

From today’s talk, I gathered that there were in fact only 47 translators involved in the work; I’m not sure where the 54 mentioned in the play came from, although Steve reckons that was the number they started with, but six years of translation took its toll. Very like.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at