Queen Anne – January 2016

Experience: 8/10

By Helen Edmundson

Directed by Natalie Abrahami

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 13th January 2016

We enjoyed seeing this again, and while the performance had certainly come on a bit since November, I felt that overall it was just as good as last time, although Steve would have rated it at 9/10. Natascha McElhone showed a great deal more confidence as Lady Sarah Churchill, and the dialogue may have been even crisper, though as this was the captioned performance, and our seats put us almost in a direct line with the screen, I can’t be sure. One very noticeable change was that the auditorium was packed tonight – almost every seat was filled. The two next to us on the aisle were vacant – more on that story later – but otherwise it was close to a sell-out.

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The Heresy Of Love – March 2012


By Helen Edmundson

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Company: RSC

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 8th March 2012

This is a great new play; I really don’t think I’ll be able to fully express how moving and entertaining it was, but I’ll do my best. As an experience it felt very complete, and the actors in the post-show commented on how little the dialogue was changed during the rehearsal process. There were great performances all round and plenty of humour, although as the play drew to its conclusion that naturally lessened as death and destruction rained down on Mexico. It was full of ideas and arguments, but underpinning it all was that understanding of the direct approach of the heart, which knows no boundaries and heeds no rules made by man. And it was men making the rules in this society, and then using those rules to supress one half of the population – shame on them. They had their reasons, and I loved the way every character not only had a chance to express their point of view, but were given a valid perspective which I could respect, even if I completely disagreed with it; the piece was the stronger for it.

The play was based on the life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a Mexican nun who defied the rules to read widely and to write – plays, poetry and other material on a wide range of subjects. Her success was due to the influence of the Mexican court, especially the friendship and support of the Vice Regent’s wife, while her downfall was due to the unease felt by many men within the Catholic hierarchy at such a graphic and popular demonstration of mental ability by a woman. It was clear from the play that women’s roles in Spanish society at that time were very limited – wife and mother, nun, or fallen woman were all that seemed to be on offer – and so Sor Juana’s choice to take the veil had a degree of ambiguity to it; did she cloister herself from her love of Jesus or from her love of learning? And are the two things actually incompatible, or was that just the official (male) view at the time?

The play opened with a scene demonstrating the change of policy that came with the new archbishop, Aguiar Y Seijas (Stephen Boxer). The laxity of the Mexican Catholic community had troubled the central command of the Spanish church, so the new archbishop had been chosen to restore order, which included a crackdown on the freedoms enjoyed by, amongst others, the nuns of various orders. Two other clergymen had been summoned to meet him privately; one, Bishop Santa Cruz (Raymond Coulthard) was known for his work with women, especially nuns given to ecstatic visions, while the other, Father Antonio (Geoffrey Beevers) was Sor Juana’s confessor and in that role had persuaded her to take the veil. He was a vacillator: when chastened by the new archbishop about Sor Juana’s literary activity, not normally allowed to a nun in any order, he confessed that he had probably been weak in his work with her, but he had hoped to convince her of the error of her ways. Sor Juana’s view was that he had supported her in her activities, and she was quite shocked to discover his change of heart. Bishop Santa Cruz saw Sor Juana as a splendid example of what women could achieve, but given the way he was passed over for promotion and the incompatibility of his views with the new regime, he became interested in Sor Juana mainly as a political pawn, someone he could use to torment the archbishop while in public seeming to be on his side. His political manoeuvring supplied a lot of the comedy moments in the play, and was an interesting counterpoint to the machinations of the Duke in Measure for Measure, the other role played by Raymond Coulthard in this mini-season.

The scenes in the convent were usually in either the locutory or Sor Juana’s cell, if cell it could be called – bit bigger than the usual allocation. The locutory was set up by a circular wall of railings which was moved round onto the stage. It had a small door to the right, and stools were often set up outside it, as with the first visit of the Vice Regent and his wife. Sor Juana’s cell had a small table and chair against the back wall – this was covered by a large picture of the head of Christ on the cross – and not much else, although the characters talked of and pretended to look at lots of books which she’d collected. For the final scenes, the convent started to crumble, and so a large piece of the wall fell forward and stayed that way till the end of the play. For the scenes in the archbishop’s palace, there was a chandelier, a throne and not much else as I recall. The set supported the production beautifully, with costumes to match.

In the convent there was a lot of affection for Sor Juana which seemed to be based mainly on her popularity at court, with many gifts being brought for her (and what happened to the vow of poverty?) and many visits from the vice-regal couple. There was also jealousy, of course, manifesting in the bitterness of Sister Sebastiana (Teresa Banham) who was the convent’s gatekeeper. Her desire for revenge was so strong that she connived in the seduction and ravishing of Sor Juana’s niece, young Angelica, who was not yet old enough to take holy orders. The seducer was Don Hernando (Simon Thorp), one of the Vice Regent’s supporters, who had no compunction in ruining Angelica’s life and prospects of marriage. Sister Sebastiana also used Bishop Santa Cruz’s known interest in visions to lure him away from his support for Sor Juana; I reckoned at the time she was making it all up, although as she was clearly highly strung it’s possible that she believed in these experiences.

Sor Juana remained oblivious to all of these machinations which were whirled around her until a trick by Bishop Santa Cruz exposed her private thoughts on a sermon by the archbishop. With the threat of interrogation by the Inquisition looming over her, she had a final confrontation with the archbishop himself, during which both put forward their arguments passionately and clearly. It was only the mention of her niece’s fate that put Sor Juana off her stride; up to this point she was unaware of what had happened, and her realisation that she failed to keep her niece safe from the dangers of the world, as she was supposed to do, finally weakened her confidence enough to cause her to renounce her work and confess her ‘sins’. The play ended with the Vice-Regent and his family retuning to Spain, along with Don Hernando, as plague and torrential rain swept through Mexico City. Sor Juana, having confessed her sins and renounced her writing, spent her final days tending the sick in the convent, and also died of the plague. The last scene showed Bishop Santa Cruz turning up at the locutory only to hear the news of her death, and his final musings about putting up a statue to this unusual nun were a fitting end to the story of a woman whose talent and determination got her into so much trouble.

The play has so many levels to it that I find it hard to explain its effect on me. Helen Edmundson intended to use many of the themes of the Spanish Golden Age dramas to tell this story, and she’s done an excellent job. There were contrivances, disguises (Angelica pretending to be her much taller aunt was a funny one), servants who help and hinder, and even touches of Measure For Measure in the way the Bishop suddenly found himself sexually attracted to Sor Juana, his intellectual equal; the less well educated women he’d been helping out for many years had never interested him, despite gossip to the contrary. In fact, I reckoned it was this sudden change of awareness and accompanying sense of guilt that made the Bishop so ready to believe Sister Sebastiana’s cunning lie about Sor Juana. She reluctantly ‘confessed’ that she’d heard Sor Juana telling the other nuns about how he touched her during a previous visit, and that was why she was uncertain about spending time with him to describe her visions. This apparent slander on his good name, semi-deserved as it was, offended the Bishop greatly, and Sor Juana would no longer receive his protection. This sort of complexity was rampant throughout the play, and made for a very rich experience.

As Sor Juana, Catherine McCormack gave a splendid central performance. She had no problem conveying the woman’s intelligence, determination and lack of political awareness. I did find myself thinking at times that she was in the wrong to insist on doing something that was against the rules she’d taken a vow to obey, but at the same time she was championing the rights to free thought and free expression which are so important to all of us. It was a sad ending, though not a downbeat one, and I hope to see this play again sometime. It’s been an amazing mini-season in the Swan this winter, with intelligent plays that demand a lot of the audience – long may this continue.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Swallows And Amazons – January 2012


By Helen Edmundson and Neil Hannon, based on the book by Arthur Ransome

Directed by Tom Morris

Company: Children’s Touring Partnership/Bristol Old Vic

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 20th January 2012

I think I would have been better off not to have re-read the book shortly before going to see this wonderful adaptation. It took me a fair while to adjust my ideas, much as I loved some of the staging choices, and I would have probably found it an 8/10 experience if I’d warmed up sooner. As it is, I was thoroughly hooked by the end, joining in the shouts of ‘plank’ with enthusiasm. The cast all did a great job, and I hope they have a great time on tour.

The stage was littered with all sorts of objects before the start, some of which didn’t become clear until they were used. There were four tall irregular-shaped pillars along the back of the set, which each had a large band of white on them – I noticed during the interval that these were painted, and looked like brick. There was a picture frame hanging centre stage, and some musical instruments over in the far right corner, including a piano. I don’t remember anything else specifically, and they brought so much other stuff on during the play that I’d be misleading myself to attempt any more detail.

The play began with an old lady walking on to the stage, and sitting on a chair in the middle. She’d been carrying a pair of secateurs and a feather duster with bright red, green and yellow sections, and put them down to one side of the chair. As she looked through an old album of photographs, the characters of the Walker family started appearing on stage, with Mother and Father posing together in the central picture frame, Mother holding Fat Vicky, and other picture frames being held up for the rest of the family to pose behind. The old lady herself turned into Titty, and the feather duster and secateurs became the parrot. So now we had the four children, the baby and their parents. Father sailed away, and the action began with Roger arriving, breathless, with the telegram which would give them Father’s answer – to sail or not to sail.

Before I go any further, I must point out that the casting was weird and wonderful. Roger, the youngest child, nearly eight, was played by the tallest actor, and there aren’t many eight-year-olds with a beard! This worked really well, and gave us some humour from the start. The other ‘children’ were mostly to scale, although Susan was a bit on the small side. I always find the telegram a bit sniffly – “Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers won’t drown” – so this got me going early on, and then they were soon through the planning stage and off to the island. This was a musical, and the songs were pretty good, although I couldn’t always make out the words. The packing phase was done to music, and Swallow herself was a prow, a couple of wheeled dollies, a mast with a sail, some ropes and some ribbons – blue ribbons which other members of the cast held out and moved around to represent the water.

The story was told briskly, and while some bits were dropped – going to the farm to get the milk, for example – we didn’t miss much, and it made for a good piece of theatre. Other characters came on as needed, and there was plenty of music all the way through – this is a really talented bunch. Titty’s experience near Cormorant Island was staged as a dream sequence, with lots of pirate types carrying lots of boxes and singing a song, while the two ship’s companies and Captain Flint found the box the first time they searched the island. For the attack on Captain Flint’s ship, they passed out sponges to the audience, and we were told to throw them on the command ‘attack!’ which we did, and a fine old mess it made of the auditorium – great fun. When Captain Flint begged for mercy we were merciless, calling for the plank as loudly as we could (told you I was well into it by then). He dropped down through a trapdoor for this bit, and when he came back up and all was forgiven, they were about to head off for a feast on shore when he decided to give Titty a present for finding his book. The parrot was duly handed over, and with a final rousing song we were done.

The Amazons were also very good; two women with war paint and feathered headdresses. Peggy in particular had a great voice, and Nancy was all scowls, even when you’d expect her to be happy! Titty’s spell alone on the island came across better than the book for me – the way she read out her log entries was very funny. When anyone used the telescope, a round frame was held up and showed what they were seeing, whether it was Captain Flint sitting at his desk writing or Mother on her way to the island. Captain Flint’s ship was represented by a massive prow at the back of the stage, and it had a large mast too which may have been lowered down – I lost track a bit during the busy times. The reed beds were very well done, with the spare cast members holding long sticks and moving around the Swallow to show the way the reeds separated and came together again. The charcoal burners were included, but only to give the message about Captain Flint’s ship needing a lock – we didn’t get to see the snake – and this also allowed us to see John’s embarrassment at being called a liar when he tried to deliver the message to the Captain. It was good to see the way these children learned from their experiences, and from each other’s way of handling things. I also liked the way they meshed their fantasy versions of the lake and its islands, with Nancy recognising that Rio was a good name for the town and the Walkers accepting the Blackett’s name for the island.

Susan was much more priggish than I remember from the book, but it worked well enough for me, and the storm came early in this version, during the night raid on the Amazon’s boat shed. The sailing terminology was used sparingly – terms like ‘leading lights’ were demonstrated down at the harbour – so although it didn’t feel quite as inspiring in terms of the sailing, it still had that sense of adventure and freedom to use one’s imagination which is so strong in the book. The cormorants were quite scary. They were made out of bin bags and garden shears, and flew around in an intimidating manner.

Quite a few of us older children stayed behind for the post-show, and there was much praise from all sections for their performance. There were many stories of children young and old being introduced to the books and loving them; one chap has only got one more book before his wife divorces him, apparently – I hope for his sake that she’s a slow reader. It all went quite well until one man asked a rather hostile sounding question about what they were doing to take this sort of show to disadvantaged kids who might never see a play or read many books. The cast handled it very well, explaining the purpose of the Children’s Touring Partnership, and we finished on a lighter note, thankfully.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Orestes – September 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Helen Edmunson, from the play by Euripedes

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Company: Shared Experience

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date Friday 15th September 2006

This is an adaptation of the Orestes by Euripides, done by Helen Edmundson. Set in a lavish bedroom, with gold sheets on the bed and pairs of gold shoes hanging on the door, I found it was an interesting production which raised some good questions about the reasons people have for killing each other, without trying to come to any specific resolution to answer them all. I like this type of theatre.

The performances were excellent. Electra (Mairead McKinley) was the powerhouse of the piece. She was the one who had seen their father killed in his bath, but was unable to take revenge until Orestes’ return. She is an odd combination of sanity and obsession, not helped by Helen’s cruel remarks about her (relative) ugliness and lack of children. She conveys all the suffering which can lead to a lust for revenge, together with the intelligence and cunning that comes from waiting a long time to get that revenge. She it is who hits on the idea of killing Helen, to pay back Menelaus for daring to take the throne from her and her brother, the rightful heirs (or matricides, as the mob outside the palace prefer to call them). She has more loose screws than B&Q, yet she’s still saner than her brother, whose final descent into total insanity horrifies even her, although that’s partly because he’s just buggered up their one chance to escape the mob. She is also able to argue convincingly against Tyndareos, their grandfather (yes, it’s another Greek dysfunctional family, folks), who is practically baying for their blood, though in slightly more civil terms than the mob outside. His focus is the law – they have killed their mother (his daughter), so they must die. He’s not so hot on why the law didn’t crack down on Clytemnestra and her lover when they killed Pops, but that’s politicians for you. A lovely performance from Jeffrey Kissoon.

Menelaus (Tim Chipping) is wonderfully portrayed as a weak, indecisive type, who’s nevertheless prepared to take advantage of his niece and nephew’s plight to gain political clout for himself. After depleting the forces of wherever he ruled before the Trojan War, he’s now looking for a new country to rule, and here’s a place that’s just lost its rulers, and about to execute their heirs/killers, and hey, he just happens to be family, so why not offer to step into the breach? Do not allow this man to make you a cup of tea; if you’ve got anything he wants, it’ll be laced with something deadly. Despite this, Menelaus comes across as one of the nicer people to begin with – bit softer, more caring and understanding, willing to help the besieged couple. Not that he’s prepared to carry through with it, and in the end, he loses more than he’d bargained for.

Orestes seems to be under his sister’s thumb in many ways, and yet she looks to him for leadership, strength and love. It’s that odd kind of relationship where it can be difficult at times to tell who’s leading and who’s following. He’s plainly more affected by their killing spree than she is – she’s wanted the revenge all along, but he’s suffering the guilt, and it’s after killing Helen that the guilt drives him to lose it completely. Alex Robertson judged his performance in this role very nicely. There’s an intriguing moment as they are heading down the suicide route, where they kiss and look like they’re tempted to make love. I don’t think this implied any pre-existing sexual relationship between them, although as this is based on Greek drama, I could be completely wrong. I just saw it as a last despairing expression of love between them, especially as Electra had been so hurt by Helen’s complete refutation of her womanhood. Still a virgin, this could be her only chance.

Helen arrives in the palace ahead of Menelaus. She’s brought their baby, who is tended to by a slave woman. Helen, though beautiful, comes across as a real bitch. Admittedly, she’s talking to the pair who killed her sister, so you have to make some allowances, but she’s so full of herself, being part-God as she claims (and there’s a cock-and-swan story, if ever I heard one!), that she’s bound to cause trouble wherever she goes. Still, she reminds us of the massive impact of the Trojan war on this world, equivalent to the First World War in more recent times, where so many died for so little reason. And those deaths are the trigger for all that happens afterwards. There are red figures lurking at the back of the stage – dummies – and for me they mainly represented the many dead on all sides because of one beautiful woman and her fatal choice. It’s a powerful confrontation, Helen and Electra, and Claire Onyemere as Helen more than holds her own. The slave woman, played by Claire Prempeh, has little to do but nurse the baby and shrink into the background, and I would have liked to have heard more from her. She does have a short conversation with Electra later, which demonstrates that, for all her reasons to suffer, she’s much more at peace than any other character in the play.

Both brother and sister rely heavily on an alleged oracular injunction to justify their actions, and it’s here that the play’s main interest lies. Is it OK to kill people because ‘God’ tells you to, or not? This, despite ‘God’ having spent centuries passing on the message that killing is not a good idea. In many languages! Through many wise people! I am firmly in the ‘killing is not a good idea’ camp, and I regard with deep suspicion anyone claiming that ‘God’ has given them a licence to kill. However, it does happen, and we need to come to terms with this particular insanity, which never seems insane to those who find it a handy excuse. It’s noticeable that these young siblings ask for their gods’ help after they’ve decided to kill Helen, not before. I got the impression that Electra was getting a taste for murder by then.

The couple try kidnapping Menelaus’ baby as a way of negotiating an escape, but it all goes horribly wrong when Orestes tries to fly off a cliff. Oops. Not having a handy cliff on stage, the shoe-laden door had to double as a dangerous precipice (from comments at the post-show, this didn’t involve any acting on the door’s part). I found this ending a bit confusing, because there was so much going on. On the cliff, we have Electra, in front of her brother but supposedly looking forward at him. He’s behind her physically, so he can use a rope to brace himself and appear to be flying or falling (take your pick). Menelaus is down below, screaming at everyone because he’s petrified his baby is going to be killed, and Helen’s dead body has somehow rolled itself onto the stage. God knows what Tyndareos and the slave woman are doing – I couldn’t keep track of it all. Orestes has also sprouted some feathers at his shoulders, which were intriguing, but didn’t help with the clarity at this point. Also, the rear semicircle of the stage burst into flames as all this is happening, so we had a few hazards to keep our minds off the action. Normally I like Shared Experience’s multi-layering, but this was a bit too much. I basically focused on Electra and Orestes, and left the rest to their own devices.

There wasn’t much else to report on the staging; the set worked well to convey the place and situation – an opulent prison – and the main focus was simply the performances, all of which were first rate. I would happily see this again.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me