War Horse – March 2009

Experience: 9/10

By Michael Morpurgo

Directed by Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 17th March 2009

This was a very emotional experience. I sobbed when Joey the foal gave way to Joey the horse, then when Joey gave his all to win the ploughing competition, and I wasn’t entirely dry-eyed during the first, traumatic cavalry charge. And this was just the first half. After the interval, I deployed tissues on a number of occasions; Topthorn’s death didn’t move me quite so much, but there were plenty of other opportunities to increase the profits of Kleenex – Joey volunteering to pull the ambulance for one. The finale, with Joey saving his own life by responding to Albert, was almost embarrassing as I struggled to keep quiet and avoid disturbing the neighbours. But it was a marvellous release of all the emotions stirred up by this powerful piece.

I suspected there had been a few changes, and checking last year’s notes has confirmed this. The biggest change, apart from most of the cast being different, was that Emilie, the little girl in France, was played by an actress this time instead of a puppet, and magical though the puppet was I feel this version worked even better.

From our backstage tour last summer, we had learned that the horses were being rebuilt to make them lighter as well stronger and hopefully better able to take the wear and tear of regular performance. I certainly noticed the difference – the animals seemed lighter, and Topthorn was carrying a lot less condition this year. Steve reckoned they got him in from the paddock earlier this time. Maybe because of this, or perhaps because we were a lot closer, I noticed the horses moving around a lot more. They seemed to be more flexible and more responsive to whatever was going on.

The other puppets were much as before. The goose was just as annoying and the nasty crow had competition for the eyeballs this time. The cast changes didn’t affect the performance too much. I preferred Angus Wright as the German officer; Patrick O’Kane played the part reasonably well but his performance occasionally seemed over the top, with much larger physical movements than necessary. They might have been intended to carry to the back of the auditorium, but then why weren’t the other actors to scale? Albert was played by Kit Harington this time and I found it harder to spot him in the crowd initially. His father was in competition with his own brother – a definite change from last time – which made his father more sympathetic this time, I felt. Still unpleasant but understandably so, as he was the one excluded by his family. Albert’s mother was evidently an Irishwoman who had married into a Cornish family, and had picked up a few traces of the Cornish accent but still used her original brogue whenever possible. The Song Man was the understudy today but I didn’t notice any drop in quality in that department.

An excellent revival and I wish it well for the West End run too.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

War Horse – January 2008


By: Michael Morpurgo (novel) adapted by Nick Stafford

Directed by: Marianne Elliot

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Thursday 24th January 2008

Although I enjoyed this production, I probably found it less good than some of the reports we’d heard, mainly because our expectations were higher than usual. The horse puppets were indeed fantastic, and I certainly cried at the end, but our distance from the stage meant we weren’t as involved as we normally like to be. I had hoped that the size of the production would carry that far back, but I did miss seeing the actor’s expressions clearly. Another reminder that we like to get up close and personal with the action, though preferably not within soaking range.

The set was sparse and effective. At first, I thought the strip of white, torn paper across the centre of the stage was actually in front of a curtain of some sort. As the action progressed, I realised the stage was open to the back, and the way this strip was  lit made it seem to be floating in the air. It also allowed for scenes to be projected onto it, giving us information on the time and place of each scene, and showing some shadow puppeteering for the action that couldn’t be fitted onto the stage. The floor had the revolve painted up as streaks and patches of brown and grey. This very effectively suggested furrows, mud, rutted paths, and probably a few other things as well. A bit of this decoration spilled over to the rest of the stage, which was otherwise plain black floorboards running front to back. I noticed what seemed like a forked tree trunk in the shadows to our left – this turned out to be a plough – and to our right were a couple of boxes. Doors, carts, wagons, and even a tank were brought on as needed.

The key to this whole production has to be the marvellous puppet work. Apart from the horses themselves, there was a goose, running around, pecking at the ground and hissing at people, several birds flying across the sky at different times, a young girl in occupied France who makes friends with the horses, and a rather nasty crow who shows an unpleasant interest in the corpses littering the place. But the horses were spectacular. Full sized puppets, with two men inside them working the legs with hand controls, and another chap at the head, giving them life and movement. They were rarely still, always shifting and nosing at things, as horses do, and even though I could see the person working the head, it was easy to forget that and just see the horses.

I did find it a bit more confusing when Joey, the star of the show, was a foal. He was so small that there were three people working him from the outside, and as they were dressed the same as the actors, I did find it hard to tell sometimes whether they were people holding the horse or non-existent puppeteers. This was especially true at the horse market, with lots of folk milling around. However, we soon got past that, and seeing actors actually riding these magnificent puppets was quite amazing. It was particularly sad when we got to the later stages of the war and some of the horses were bags of bone, dying as they tried to pull the guns from place to place. It was heartbreaking to see them die.

It was certainly a sad story, and I fully expected Albert to find Joey just as he was breathing his last – a truly sad ending. I was surprised when this animal actually managed to survive, despite the hard work, the lack of food and all the other hardships, but then the story is aimed at children. The basic plot is that Joey is bought as a foal by a farmer who’s  in competition with his more successful brother-in-law. He spends all the mortgage money on him, and his son, Albert, trains the horse up so they can sell him. Albert and Joey get on really well, and then Albert finds out that his silly father has bet that Joey will plough a strip of land by a particular Sunday – I forget what it was called. As Joey is more suited to riding than ploughing, no one expects him to win, but Albert keeps working with him (he has a whole week, after all!), and sure enough, Joey manages it, just. Thinking Joey’s now safe, and his, Albert lets his guard down, and his father then sells Joey off to the army as a cavalry horse, just in time for him to be shipped off to France for WWI. We then see Joey’s story, as he gets to meet Topthorn, the other horse in the story, and they’re ridden in a cavalry charge, only to have their riders shot off the top of them. The horses then wander round the battlefield, until a German cavalry officer finds them, and recognising their quality does his best to protect them. The opportunity comes when horses are wanted to pull an ambulance cart. At first, it doesn’t look like Topthorn will handle the harness, but Joey remembers it from his ploughing days, and volunteers. Topthorn then joins in, and the cavalry officer takes advantage of this and a later opportunity to take on the identity of a dead ambulance man, to keep the horses safe on a farm over the winter.

By this time, Albert has joined up, thinking he’ll be joining the cavalry regiment and be able to find Joey, only he’s sidetracked into the infantry, and gets caught up in the fighting. Joey and Topthorn are taken back into service pulling the German artillery, and eventually Topthorn dies. Joey survives, and wanders over the battlefield, until he gets caught up in some barbed wire in no-man’s land (OK, I was crying by this time). The German and British soldiers have a temporary truce to try to recover him; the British soldier wins the coin-toss, and takes him back to their lines, but he’s badly injured. Albert has taken a shell-blast and is temporarily blinded, and both he and Joey end up at the same medical station. As the medical staff are declaring that they can’t treat the horse, Albert is talking with his mate, and Joey recognises his voice, and I can’t go on, I can’t see the keys for the tears…..

(Several tissues later…) Well, it all ends happily, as I said before, and if it hadn’t been so sad, I think I would have enjoyed it more. I accept it’s a sad subject, and I don’t expect it to be tarted up, but maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for something so powerful. I’m still glad I saw it, and some of the images will stay with me for a long time.

One other thing to mention was that much of the Germans’ dialogue was in German, without surtitles. A bit confusing, but nicely realistic, especially as one of the German officers was suspicious of his colleagues who spoke in English.

At the end, all the puppeteers came on as themselves to begin with, and after taking the first bows, they dashed off. I was hoping they’d come back on as the horses, and they did, rearing up, and taking their bows beautifully. I still feel like I’ve seen actual horses on stage. This was a masterpiece in many ways, and I hope they can find some other way to use these magnificent puppets again.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Saint Joan -September 2007


By: George Bernard Shaw

Directed by: Marianne Elliot

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 25th September 2007

This was an amazing production. At first, I wasn’t sure if I would take to it, but once I got used to the style being used, I became completely enthralled, and cried buckets. It’s as if, finally, we’re starting to get enough distance from Shaw to do proper modern productions, without the concern for his detailed stage directions and vision. This was such a contemporary version, that both Steve and I felt the dialogue had been updated – it seemed so modern.

The set was reminiscent of the Romeo and Juliet directed by Nancy Meckler as part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival. There was a square raised area in the centre of the stage, sloping slightly from back to front, and around the back of the stage were blasted tree trunks at various angles. Otherwise, the stage seemed completely bare. A stack of chairs stood on the platform, all piled up higgledy-piggledy, and the opening to the play had a number of the cast (there was one woman and about twenty men) come on from the back in slow motion, and gradually unpack the chairs. They stood for a moment at the back, doing what looked like tai chi hand movements – don’t know what that was meant to represent – then a number went round the sides of the platform and stood there, while others got onto the platform and passed chairs down to them. All of this was done in slow motion, very gracefully, almost balletic, and all the while there was haunting music filling the space. There was also a woman’s voice, with a song that was somewhat medieval, somewhat religious, somewhat folk music.

Given the staging, I wasn’t surprised to find the chairs being slammed down onto the stage from time to time – in similar vein to the poles in Romeo and Juliet – as a stylised form of combat. At one point, a chair had taken too much punishment and disintegrated, having to be carried off in pieces by the actor.

Almost forgot – at the very start, there was a church cross on a pole at the back of the stage, and some chap took it off. OK, so there we were with two rows of chaps on either side of the platform, holding chairs, and obviously going to slam them down all at the same time, which they did. I had hoped this would lead us straight into the wonderful opening line – one of the best in all drama – but there was more slow-motion stuff as the stage was prepared. When we did finally get “No eggs!”, there wasn’t much energy around to give it any punch, which I do feel is a waste. I also found it distracting to have all the other actors standing around, or sitting, as the scenes were acted on the platform. The slow motion was also used a lot, as characters would suddenly “go slow” as they left the platform, and either stand still waiting for their next entrance, or walk off very slowly. At first this was distracting, then the play started to work its magic, and I found it all helped to build a superb atmosphere.

The platform in the middle also showed more flexibility than I expected. I thought it might be a bit dull having such a sparse set, but as the scenes changed, the platform rotated (on the revolve) and later rose up, to create a slope for the walls of Orleans, and a lean-to effect behind the political discussion between the English and the Catholic Church’s representative. For some scenes, the revolve was slow but continuous, creating interesting changes of perspective throughout the scene.

All the performances were terrific. Anne-Marie Duff was a great Joan. She gave us the wilfulness and naivety along with her courage and absolute faith in her connection to God through her voices. This only wavered when she was confronted with the horror of being burned at the stake, and her fear of physical pain came to the fore. Her renewal of her faith once she realises she could be kept a prisoner for the rest of her life was very moving, and I sobbed. (Actually, I sobbed many times during the performance, this was only one of them.) I was very aware of the fact that there were no other women on the stage, and that hers was a lone voice speaking up against the dogmatism of learned men, some honourable, some not, but all out of touch with the reality of Spirit. In some ways I’m amazed at the marvellous lines Shaw gives Joan and the other characters. I’ve not always thought of Shaw as the greatest observer of human nature – good, but not the greatest – but here he showed such compassion and balance in the writing that I may have to consider this his masterpiece.

Other performances I want to mention include Michael Thomas, Angus Wright and Paterson Joseph as the three plotters who perhaps contribute the most to Joan’s downfall. Michael Thomas plays the Chaplain de Stogumber, Angus Wright plays the Earl of Warwick, and Paterson Joseph plays the Bishop of Beauvais. The chaplain seems to be anti everything – a Daily Mail reader, but with more right-wing views. His character gets to express straightforward anti-Semitism in a way that would be virtually impossible in a modern play, but in this context it simply shows what sort of ideas these people had. The Earl of Warwick is educated, but doesn’t let that stand in his way. He’s a political animal, looking for the best solution for English interests, and prepared to make a pact with the devil if that will do the job. He generally smoothes over the feathers ruffled by his outspoken chaplain, but is capable of ruffling a few himself. The Bishop is concerned for the Church’s position, and also for Joan’s soul, but as the Church’s position has often relied upon political manoeuvring, he and the Earl can come to an accommodation. The discussion among these characters was fascinating and showed understandable motivations for the aspects of society they represent. They’re not villains, but they are dangerous if you’re on the “wrong” side.

Finally, Paul Ready as the Dauphin was wonderfully pouty and reluctant, a spoilt royal brat with no interest in taking charge. Unfortunately, when he finally does, it’s to renounce Joan and her advice, so he’s obviously not much good at gratitude either.

The production includes a final scene that I don’t remember from before, but that may just be my bad memory. After she’s been killed, all those involved reappear and discuss their parts in her killing. Some have changed their minds about her, some haven’t. She confronts them, and gradually they all head off, leaving her alone on stage. She also leaves, and we see the opening process of unstacking chairs gone through again, leading right up to the opening of the play, but stopping before the first line.

This is of course suggestive of a repeating cycle, but here I found it inappropriate, as I don’t see Joan’s story as cyclical. Aspects of what happened on stage are constantly recurring, but I didn’t feel the repetition angle was justified by what we’d seen. I was very aware how dangerous dogma can be, especially when people see being different as being wrong. I also felt that somehow France wasn’t in as much danger once the Dauphin had been crowned, that the men who were now in charge would sort things out, eventually, and that they were very concerned to do that themselves, not with the help of a gurl. In fact, perhaps the contrast between then and now in terms of how women are treated, is what makes me feel there isn’t a repeating cycle. The misogyny expressed so clearly would be less likely today, with so much attention to political correctness, however much it may still lurk beneath the surface. I see the relevance of this story to today more in standing up to authority according to the dictates of your heart. Comparisons of Joan to modern-day terrorists seem to miss the point of the play – she was right, and history appears to have vindicated her.

Most of all, I liked this production because it seems to be the first to really shake off the Shavian legacy, and present the play just as a play. I hope to see more such productions, although how well they’ll respond to such treatment remains to be seen.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Therese Raquin – November 2006

Experience: 3/10

By Emile Zola, adapted by Nicholas Wright

Directed by Marianne Elliot

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Tuesday 28th November 2006

          This was a disappointment in a number of ways. Although it started off well, and the performances were excellent, the adaptation has problems, and the production lacked the thrill and suspense I associated with the first version we saw back at Chichester in 1990.

         One of the main difficulties I had was with the “music”. I presume they were trying to depict the tension the couple were living under after the murder, and were using a repetitive, droning chord – I don’t know what instrument was being used, but for me it was an instrument of torture. I believe such sounds are actually used to cause people physical discomfort, and it certainly worked that way for me. I didn’t find it too disturbing until near the end, but by then it was giving me a headache and making it very hard to concentrate on the play. I even considered leaving, but reckoned I didn’t have much longer to endure – even so, I wouldn’t voluntarily go through that sort of abuse again.

         One advantage of the Chichester production was the small space of the Minerva Theatre, which made the whole atmosphere much more claustrophobic. On the Lyttelton stage, a wide open space, it was much harder to create that sense, although the description of the flat as draughty was certainly believable. Somehow the couple’s secret passion didn’t come across so well, perhaps because Therese was played with very little show of emotion, so a lot of the action seemed a bit dreary at times. We certainly didn’t need such a long series of tableaux of the couple’s restlessness and divisions – once through the loop would have been more than enough. Frankly, by the time they chose to end it all, I was glad to see the back of them.

         The set was pretty bleak. A large room, with windows high up, grey walls everywhere, a kitchen area off left, flanking the stairway down to the shop, doors to a walk-in wardrobe, the door to Madame Raquin’s room, then the cubby-hole bed for the son and niece. With only a large table and a few chairs to furnish it, this flat looked very empty. A screen was used to distance us from the action at the start and end of scenes, God knows why, as I already felt distanced enough from the action after a short time. The cast were superb, given the limitations of the adaptation. Camille was talkative and fussy, just the sort of husband you’d want to bump off if a looker like Ben Daniels came your way. I didn’t feel the sense of danger with his Laurent as I did first time round, but that’s this production for you. Therese was very withdrawn, though she did show her passionate side in the early scene with Laurent. Mainly, she seemed to hate rather than love, to want revenge for the way she’d been treated, and sex with Laurent was as good a way as any. Definitely a woman to avoid. It’s not clear in this version how often they’ve been having sex, possibly just the once? Maybe I was just missing bits – with such a large auditorium (more of a lecture hall than a theatre) it can be difficult to pick up all the dialogue.

         The family friends – M Grivet and M Michaud – who turn up regularly to play dominoes, were great fun, especially Mark Hadfield as Grivet, all fussiness and self-concern. Madame Raquin managed a good line in self-concern as well, resolutely thinking of nobody but herself, and by extension, Camille, the whole play through. Actually, it’s a little amazing that Therese stayed as sane as she did.

         I found Suzanne, Michaud’s niece, an odd character. The part seemed to be well enough played, although I probably missed more of her lines than anyone else’s, but I was never too clear on what her part in the drama was. Was she just there to show a more normal approach to relationships? Or were we meant to contrast her naivety and idealism with Therese’s experience and world-weariness? We may never know. And given that I didn’t enjoy this production enough, I’m unlikely to read the playtext to find out.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Much Ado About Nothing – September 2006

Experience: 10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Marianne Elliot

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 8th September 2006

For the first half, I felt this was the best ever production of anything I’d ever seen, anywhere. I was going to revise my star ratings to give this eleven! Then the second half opened with Dogberry, and the soufflé collapsed. To be fair, this was one of the better Dogberry’s I’ve seen, so it didn’t collapse far, and I would still recommend everybody on the planet to see this production at least sixteen times before they die.

To start with, all the dialogue was delivered so clearly, and with such good understanding of what was being said, that I understood the play far better than I ever have before, and I got all of the jokes, which is no mean feat. The setting worked brilliantly. Pre-Castro Cuba, with lots of heat, bars and cigars, the air was steamy long before the lovers got going. We were entertained to some Latin-American music from the band before the start, and there was plenty more during the show as well.

I can’t possibly note up everything that happened, so here’s a jumble of thoughts and memories. Benedick as a moving pot plant – totally over the top and brilliantly done. We laughed so much at this, that the following eavesdropping scene, with Beatrice, felt a bit flatter, but Beatrice managed to go one better than Benedick and actually creep right up to the bench that Ursula was sitting on. Ursula even put her hand, accidentally, on Beatrice’s, and had to pretend not to notice. Before that, we had a slightly predictable joke when Beatrice moved next to the Vespa parked on stage, and naturally set off the horn. Little bit obvious, but still enjoyable. My favourite part was at the beginning of that scene, when Beatrice enters from the side, and runs along the front of row A to hide at the back, hopefully not treading on anyone’s toes.

Benedick winking at the Duke to get him to insist on Benedick revealing all about Claudio. Borachio’s interest in Hero, causing his jealousy and hence the assistance he gives to Don John. Borachio actually spends time with Hero, which we don’t see Claudio do till after the Duke’s done the deal.

The tempo eases down in the second half, partly because Dogberry is played at a slow pace, and partly because the story gets a lot darker. I realised that what brings Beatrice and Benedick together in this section is the seriousness of what happens to the people they care about – they’re not able to joke about this stuff, and so they’re able to express their truer feelings about each other as well. Once the problems are resolved, they’re back to sniping at each other again, but too late to deny their feelings.

The crunchy floor isn’t particularly noisy in this production – must be the soles of their shoes. Still sticks to everything, though.

Dogberry was OK, making him better than most I’ve seen. I even found some of his jokes funny. Verges we were already familiar with from a couple of seasons at Chichester, and I enjoyed what there was of the part. The watch were good, hiding out amongst the audience to overhear Borachio and Conrad, but on the whole I preferred the YPS watch – they made much more of them, although it was a shorter version.

The second half was more moving. I always feel for Hero in her suffering after the false accusation. This time, Margaret, realising what she’s been involved in, runs from the church, really upset. They made a lot of some pearls which Claudio gives Hero, and to my mind, Hero was just a bit too interested in them rather than the man. Not sure this is going to be a happy marriage for Claudio (but then, does he deserve one?)

Masks for the first ball – the Prince has a lion mask, Benedick a monkey, and Claudio a clown, all very appropriate.

One quibble about the scene with Benedick in his floral shirt – it’s clear he’s changed, and shaved his beard, so perhaps the Prince could have played it up as a bit more of a joke – there’s no ‘discovery’ of the changes, so no need to play it straight.

Wonderful use of a megaphone to bid Benedick “come in to supper”, especially as Beatrice is standing about a foot in front of him at the time. His reaction to this summons was wonderful too – his conviction that there’s a double meaning in her words was beautifully insane and another one of the many funny moments in this production.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me