Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – February 2018

Experience: 6/10

Adapted by David Edgar from the story by Robert Louis Stevenson

Directed by Kate Saxon

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 15th February 2018

This was a decent attempt to put Stevenson’s story on the stage, but suffered from the usual problems of such adaptations – having to shift scenes very quickly as well as coping with visual changes which are done much more easily on TV and film. The cast did a reasonable job overall, and Phil Daniels created two clearly distinct performances as Jekyll and Hyde. The addition of a singer for this production was largely wasted on me, and I found the gloomy lighting a problem at times, as with increasing age I need more light to see by, not less. But this performance certainly kept my attention much better than the afternoon’s offerings, for which I was grateful.

The set had to accommodate several locations, and while it wasn’t the most sophisticated I’ve ever seen, it did the job pretty well. An upper balcony stretched across the centre of the stage, with a spiral staircase at the left side. Underneath was a filler wall which could be either the doors to Jekyll’s sister’s garden or the fireplace of Jekyll’s flat. For other locations it was usually left open. There were doors at either side of the wide stage, and an additional door, coloured bright red, in Jekyll’s lodgings, this being the door to the lab. Once through this door, a tall rack of glass bottles containing coloured liquids masked the right-hand door, while a table and overhead light took centre stage. With all of the furnishings removed, the stage became a gloomy London street.

The costumes and décor all contributed to the murky nature of the production. Dark clothes and dark paintwork made for dismal surroundings, but the cast did their best to keep things moving, and for the most part it worked quite well. My main problem was with the maid, Annie. It took me a long time to adjust to her accent, probably because it travelled round the British Isles at a fair lick. If it had settled down in one place, I would have been alright. Steve and I heard hints of Irish, Scottish and West Country, and that, combined with a tendency to gabble her lines, meant I got very little from her part at all. Since she was the one in the lab with Jekyll/Hyde at the end, when the final revelations were being presented, I lost most of the connection I’d had with the plot and found myself looking at my watch more than once. Even so, we enjoyed ourselves well enough, along with the rest of the audience.

© 2018 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Far From The Madding Crowd – November 2008

6/10

By Thomas Hardy, adapted by Mark Healy

Directed by Kate Saxon

ETT and Exeter Northcott

Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Tuesday 11th November 2008

Oh, the perils of expectations! We had seen this same creative team do a wonderful production of The French Lieutenant’s Woman back in September 2006. I had also read this book and seen the film, plus another adaptation, so I clearly didn’t manage to reset my expectation meter to zero before the off. It’s a pity, as I would probably have found it more enjoyable, though not hugely, I suspect. The adaptation and production were pretty good, much higher than my rating for the performance, but there were problems above and beyond any I brought with me.

To begin with, the set was good, similar to The French Lieutenant’s Woman, with a raised platform to the right, and a lower platform to the left. This had an area with removable covers which held water for washing, sheep dipping, etc. There was one large arch which spanned the stage diagonally and suggested a barn, and other poles and planks with tree trunks interspersed among them, so there was plenty of scope for the different locations, though not always enough clarity, I felt. For the fire scene and the saving of the hay ricks from the storm, the cast brought on ladders which could be inserted into holes in the stage to keep them upright as the actors clambered all over them, while sound and lighting effects suggested the rest. I found these bits very effective. There were also some chairs, tables and benches brought on as required, but mostly the action was pretty free-flowing, with actors in one scene moving amongst the actors in another scene quite effectively.  Sheep were not present, either actual or fake, so the actors had to do a lot of miming, but again this worked well.

We may have felt less involved because we were too much to one side, but on the whole I think the main difficulties with this production were the lack of sparkle, and the casting of the main part. Bathsheba Everdene simply has to stand out in a crowd. It doesn’t always have to be down to looks, although some beauty is preferable, but her personality must command the stage. Ensemble acting is all very well, but this is one part that requires a kind of star quality, and tonight we just didn’t get that. I felt that this Bathsheba wouldn’t have stood out in a crowd of three, and that meant I couldn’t feel for her plight in being a guy magnet. The other actors did their best – Phil Cheadle as Gabriel Oak was the best for us – but the whole performance was generally dull. Also, the accents being used were no doubt very accurate, but I lost at least half of the dialogue because of it, and even Steve had difficulties following it all. There was little humour, which always helps things along, and some of the little dances they did to symbolise something or other left me cold. I suspect this adaptation could work better with stronger casting and perhaps a less cluttered set, but I also recognise that these kinds of stories, as well as being incredibly difficult to condense into a manageable length for the stage, are not my favourite type of tale. So, some good points, but overall a bit dull.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Chains Of Dew – April 2008

8/10

By Susan Glaspell

Directed by Kaye Saxon

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Saturday 26th April 2008

First off, the set. We start with an office environment. Tables, printing press to our left, telephone and small models of people to our right. Across from us a bench with open boxes, and other boxes strewn about. A poster on the floor gives contraceptive advice. There are three wooden chairs, and a map of America on the door far right to us, with a number of white tags stuck on it. The second scene is in the Mid-western town where Seymour has his lair, or home, as it’s sometimes called. Rug, settee, chairs, and some fancier desk ornaments give us the picture. There are also two rag dolls on one of the chairs. This set carries us through the rest of the play.

The play took some time to get going. We meet four characters; Nora, a free-thinking, bob-haired woman who’s passionate about birth control; Leon, who’s a publisher and who wants to encourage Seymour to develop into the great poet he believes him to be; O’Brien, an Irish chap who also wants to be a poet, and who provides a useful outsider’s point of view; and Seymour himself. Even at this early stage, it’s possible to see the sanctimonious, conceited prig in Seymour’s language and behaviour. Anyone who sets himself up as a complete ignoramus by telling everyone else how ignorant and immature they are compared to him, is asking for a thoroughly deserved comeuppance, which he gets, to a certain extent, although he’s spared the full suffering of the husband in A Doll’s House.

Of course, we don’t get to see the full range of this man’s self-centred chauvinism until we meet his family in the second scene. The first scene introduces the four characters whose lives are so closely linked in New York. There’s even a semi-jocular attempt to pair up Seymour and Nora, to help Seymour free himself from his social acceptability (by shocking his straight-laced fellow Mid-westerners), but Seymour ducks the opportunity, as he regularly does, we learn. Back in his Mid West home, Seymour’s wife Dottie/Diantha, has been conducting a little rebellion of her own. She’s been skipping the social events – dinner, afternoon tea – to study, and to study poetry at that. She clearly wants to support Seymour in his dream of being free to write poetry, as a good wife should. She hasn’t yet realised that Seymour likes fitting his writing into those few brief moments allowed to him when he doesn’t have to sacrifice his talent to take care of everyone else. Naturally he’s horrified to find his wife is trying to think for herself, but before he can restore normal service, Nora turns up for a visit. We learned in the first scene that she’s been asked to go out in the field, to spread the Birth Control message, so the first place she goes to is Seymour’s home town, where she immediately stirs up a whole heap of trouble, much to our amusement.

Dottie/Diantha is young, very attractive, and gentle, though it’s possible to see real strength of character in her. Seymour’s mother is a wonderful character. She’s the one who makes the dolls, and I reckoned she had a lovely mischievous streak even before she admitted to making the dolls with carefully designed features as a form of revenge. She has some marvellous lines. As a mother of seven children, it carries some weight when she says seven is too many, and that turns to hilarity when Seymour points out that he was her seventh child! Despite her support for the Birth Control ideas, she’s the one who finally convinces Diantha to let go of her new ways and support Seymour by allowing herself to be a burden to him (yes, I know it sounds weird, but it makes perfect sense in context).

There was some discomfort expressed in the post-show that the wife should give up her new-found interests to support her husband’s career. Personally, I think it’s the better option – how on earth would the writer have ended the play otherwise? We’ve already had A Doll’s House, so we don’t need a rehash of that, and it’s a dilemma that many women face, even now, and both options are valid in their own way. Again, the accents were excellent, as were the performances, and apart from the slow start it was a thoroughly enjoyable play which I wouldn’t mind seeing again, as if I’m likely to get the chance.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The French Lieutenant’s Woman – September 2006

Experience: 10/10

Adapted by Mark Healy from the novel by John Fowles

Directed by Kate Saxon

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 1st September 2006

This was an excellent performance of a marvellous production of a brilliant adaptation – there wasn’t a single flaw in the whole thing. Set design, lighting, and costumes were all superb. The whole cast were excellent, the members of the ensemble supported the leading players magnificently. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how well it’s been transferred to the stage, but I enjoyed this piece so much, it doesn’t matter.

The set was amazing. Designed by Libby Watson, it seemed very simple, yet had many layers and possibilities. Split between two levels, there were curved platforms, curved steps, and in the middle an office space with typewriter and books, cleverly stacked so they could be used to climb up or down between levels. There were metal pillars, as used for seaside architecture, holding up the platforms, and small areas of grass and rock blending in with the scenery. From the steps and upper level rose tall posts, like tree trunks, but with snatches of rope and net, so they could be masts or trees or part of some beach or harbour construction. All very evocative, and it all worked together, so the action could move from outside to inside in an instant.

The play opens with the author, as a character in the play, asking how does he begin? He talks us through the way various characters come and go in his mind, but he ignores most of them. The other actors, in costume, are roaming the stage at this point, as the characters who are trying to catch his attention, and they’re quite miffed he’s dismissing them so easily. However, one character attracts him – he doesn’t know who she is, and wants to find out more. He introduces the character representing himself – the actor comes on like a robot, smoothly enough but without personality, waiting to be ’activated‘. Then the author has to decide how they will meet, and this leads to the opening scene of the hero seeing the French lieutenant’s woman, Mrs Woodruff, on the end of the mole. From here, the author is quite involved in the action, as he has to decide on the characters’ names, stories, etc. As the hero is talking with his fiancée and her aunt, the aunt has to pause several times, waiting for the author to fill in the relevant name. All very entertaining.

From here the author moves back a bit, and the action develops very nicely, with just some narration. We see the repulsive Mrs Poultney profess to charitable inclinations (as long as they don’t inconvenience her too much), and end up employing Miss Woodruff as a secretary, or dogsbody if you prefer. Mrs Poultney is one of those women who has read too much of the Bible and believed it all, at least all the really nasty bits where people (other people, that is) are damned and punished for their sins. As unpleasant an old lady as you could wish not to meet. Fortunately, our heroine stands up to her, and she even stands up to the author! In the job interview with Mrs Poultney, the author has her make some explanation for leaving her previous job. She rounds on him, and tells him she would never say that. Her choice is to say nothing, and so the scene is replayed with her doing just that. A marvellous device, this; it adds so much to our understanding of her character and I assume it follows the book more closely than the film.

We follow the two main characters through their doomed love affair, with various changes being made on the fly by the author, and at least one more significant change made by Miss Woodruff herself – it’s her choice not to tell the hero about their baby. At one point, the author decides to involve himself more closely with the action, and takes on the role of Doctor Grogan himself. He tries out several accents for his opening line, rejects the first two, and finally settles on a mild Irish brogue. (At least, I think that’s what it was – I was never very good with accents.)

All of this was so well done that I fell in love with it. The dialogue was excellent – so often in a Dickens or Bronte or Austen adaptation, the dialogue seems so stilted. It may represent contemporaneous speech patterns more accurately, but it’s bloody awful to have to listen to for hours. This dialogue carried the sense of period beautifully, but also felt real, the sort of things real people would say in these situations. The hero was over wordy and a bit pompous – typical – and Mrs Woodruff was much more direct and blunt, even when lying. The other characters were well formed – Ernestina’s girlish enthusiasm and outspokenness, her aunt’s good sense and kindness, Mrs Poultney’s bitterness and vitriol, Doctor Grogan’s authority and Sam’s ambition – all of these came across clearly, and drove the action plausibly. The interval came after the hero has left Mrs Woodruff in the cabin, and she asks the author, will he return? The author’s answer – I don’t know, give me some time – leads us nicely into the break.

Apart from mentioning that it was fun to see the respectable aunt transformed into a brothel-keeper in one scene, I’m not sure if I can add anything more to this. I might read the book; it’s a good enough play to at least pique my interest in that. I would certainly see it again, if I get the chance, and I would love to get the play text. I was totally drawn into the lives portrayed, the characters mattered to me, and time flew by. It was a great night out, and I would have clapped for ten, if I could have.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me