Boris Godunov – January 2013

Experience: 8/10

By Pushkin, adapted by Adrian Mitchell

Directed by Michael Boyd

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 11th January 2013

This has come on a lot since last November. The story-telling was clearer overall (although not as good as The Orphan Of Zhao) and they’d either managed to make the plot more connected or our greater familiarity helped us handle the storyline’s somewhat chaotic nature. I suspect a lot of the improvement was down to the performances as I saw a lot more detail tonight in most of the major parts, and there was a stronger sense of energy and drive through most of the play. I was more engaged with the characters than before, and some aspects of the staging which I had found distracting before, such as the use of the hanging coats at the back of the stage, weren’t so prominent from our position round the side tonight, allowing me to focus more on the plot.

The opening scene, where the inhabitants of the city rushed off to beg Boris Godunov to be their Tsar, was fine, although again it helped that we knew what was going on. Vorotynskii and Shuiskii, the aristocrats left in the city, explained things nicely, and I noticed that James Tucker seemed to be giving Shuiskii a colder, creepier edge; we were on the other side last time and mainly saw his back, so it may just have been our better angle that allowed us to see his performance more clearly. The baby battering sequence was a bit funny at first, but I found it impossible to laugh second time around. I saw more of the details in this crowd scene, undoubtedly a combination of more performances and prior knowledge.

I noticed that the first scene with the old monk took a while to connect up with what we’d already heard, and I found myself contrasting this with the superb connectivity of Orphan, where the scenes flowed together almost organically. Fortunately the young monk, Grigory (Gethin Anthony), brought up the subject of the murder of the young Tsarevich, Dmitry, and we were back on track. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on with the younger monk who encouraged Grigory to launch his career as pretender to the throne in a later scene; he appeared in the scene after that as well, apparently criticizing Grigory as being led by the devil, so I can only assume he was playing both ends against the middle. Perhaps the meddling monk is a regular feature of Russian literature – they certainly turn up in droves in Shakespeare – but this one was under-explained for me.

Still, we were soon into the fun and games of Grigory’s escape to Lithuania. At a tavern in a frontier town Grigory turned up in the company of two monks-on-the-make. They drank plenty, he stuck with water, and when a couple of guards turned up looking for a runaway monk, Grigory took advantage of a general state of illiteracy to point the finger at one of his travelling companions. This was understandable, since the chief guard had made it clear that when the warrant said ‘arrest’ it meant ‘arrest and hang’; for someone who couldn’t read, he was remarkably good at reading between the lines. When his ruse was discovered, Grigory had to make a quick escape, aided by the tavern’s barmaid, and so to freedom and his new life as Dmitry.

Meanwhile Boris was having a tough time as Tsar. He did his best for the people, fed them when there was famine, and rebuilt their houses when they burned down, but did they thank him for it? Not a bit! They blamed him for the fire and kept on grumbling, ungrateful sods.

His daughter was having a tough time too. Her fiancé died before their weeding, and she spent her time carrying his portrait around with her and mourning his loss, excessively. This was represented by her character walking round the stage holding on to a large picture frame on the other side of which was an actor dressed up as her fiancé. They walked around for a bit, then as I recall the fiancé actor left the stage and she simply held the frame to remind us of her obsession. Her lines from the text seemed to be drastically reduced, so it wasn’t entirely clear first time round what was going on. Boris made a reference to her situation, so we did find out, but even knowing this I found her character rather irrelevant without her lines.

Perhaps they made this choice to concentrate our attention on Boris’s young son Fyodor. Even though the real lad was much older, they showed him here as a young boy, about the age of the deceased Tsarevich, Dmitry, which meant that the boy kept reminding Boris of his guilty secret. When we first saw Fyodor, he was up a step ladder painting red blobs onto a huge map of Russia to represent towns. (Geography lessons were much more sedate in my day.) Boris was pleased to see his heir taking his future responsibilities seriously, but later, after discussing the news of the pretender in Poland, Boris saw the boy again at the back of the stage with a red gash on his neck. As he’d just been going over the details of Dmitry’s death with Shuiskii, the connection was clear, but it turned out to be his own son who’d simply had an accident with the paint brush. They used this crossover again, but this was the most powerful occasion, and according to the text, this was where Boris made more than a passing reference to Henry IV with the line “Oh heavy is the crown worn by a Tsar”.

The story then moved to Poland, where Grigory was winning over the various groups whose support he needed to make a challenge for the Tsardom. These included the Church, disaffected Russians, the Poles, Cossacks and even a poet! Everyone was captivated by the young ‘prince’, except for his potential bride, Maryna (Lucy Briggs-Owen). She wasn’t just playing hard-to-get either; she knew her own worth, perhaps too much, and she wouldn’t settle for anything less than a Tsar. Concerned that she didn’t love him for himself, he decided to come clean and she was appalled. Love was not on the agenda for her; he had to have rank, even pretend rank, or she wasn’t interested. At her response he decided to man up and tell her where to shove it; ironically the ideal wooing tactic for Maryna, as it showed that he could cut it as a serious pretender to the throne. Women!

There were some scenes back in Moscow concerning apparent miracles done by the dead Dmitry and the attitudes of the common people, and then we had a few battle scenes where the horses were actors; when Grigory’s horse died under him on the battlefield it was actually an actor whose back he’d been standing on. Boris then became a monk just before his death – a tradition for Russian Tsars at that time – and his general Basmanov decided to change allegiance and support Grigory. The play finished with the announcement of Grigory as the new Tsar Dmitry, though there was still a lot of tension in the situation.

These final scenes were quite short, with a lot of rushing about followed by quieter moments. The whole performance felt a little uneven, but at least I did follow the story better this time. Overall I liked the staging; it was relatively simple and flowing, and created the locations effectively. I’m still not sure about the coats hanging at the back, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. The fountain (for the wooing scene with Maryna) was made of actors holding bowls and jugs; it was a nice idea but they couldn’t sustain it, so the fountain headed off stage before the end of the scene, which was a bit bizarre.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Boris Godunov – November 2012

Experience: 6/10

By Pushkin, adapted by Adrian Mitchell

Directed by Michael Boyd

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 23rd November 2012

We saw the Declan Donnellan production of this play with the Chekov International Festival Theatre company, in Russian with surtitles (May 2008). Reviewing my notes I realise that I’d grasped the gist and enjoyed the staging, but now I was looking to get more of the details of the story, in English – hooray! As it turns out, I was probably better off in some ways with the Russian version, as Pushkin’s play seems to be a rambling piece with no clear focus, and in English this deficiency became more apparent. However the performances were all very good and made up for some of the gaps in the writing, and I definitely understood the story better this time around. As it’s still in preview, it will undoubtedly get stronger and it will be interesting to see it again next year.

The opening scene with the conversation between the two princes was a good start. They explained the situation, and one of the princes, Shuiskii, had actually been sent to investigate the death of the crown prince Dmitry and report back to the Tsar, so he knew the facts of the case. His prophecy that Boris would keep refusing the crown until the people practically forced him to take it proved true, and these scenes were a nice counterpoint to the equivalent bits in Richard III. I felt I could have done with more of these two throughout the play, as their conversations were both informative and fun, but they were relatively minor characters.

Boris’s suffering did come across, though I wasn’t entirely clear about the causes. Some of the crowd scenes were a bit of a jumble, though we did laugh at the treatment of a baby. First it was told to be quiet and got hit when it wouldn’t stop crying, then they wanted it to cry to show Boris their suffering, and it was hit again and even thrown on the ground to make it cry. Nasty stuff, but it was funny at the time.

Grigory’s wooing of the Polish princess Maryna was good fun. Lucy Briggs-Owen was clearly not interested in declarations of love, and his acting like a wimp didn’t attract her at all. There was enough of a change in Grigory’s behaviour to make sense of her change of heart, and I enjoyed her performance as much as those of the two princes.

The set mainly consisted of an open balcony at the back; there was a forest of coats hanging under this, and these were taken by characters as they came on stage so they gradually disappeared. There were ladders up to the central section of the balcony, and a large map of Russia hung in front of it for one scene. Otherwise, the furniture was brought on and off as needed, and there was only one use of a trapdoor as I recall. That’s it for now – so many plays and so little time.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Macbeth – August 2011

8/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 26th August 2011

Good as it was to see this play again from a different angle, we did lose the surprise factor the second time around, and I felt a little more distant from the action this time at the start – perhaps it was the chilly nature of the auditorium, which for an August day felt more like November. There were some things I saw better from our more central angle, and I noticed a few changes, as well as enjoying some of the ‘fun’ bits again. It’s still a good production, and I hope to catch it in London when it transfers.

As I watched the opening speech by Malcolm, I realised that having him deliver it emphasises Macbeth’s achievements compared to his. Malcolm is wounded, disoriented, and is merely reporting the victory that Macbeth has won. I spotted the mention of the Thane of Cawdor in Ross’s report, and later wondered why Macbeth, who has been battling the Norwegians and their allies in Scotland, i.e. Cawdor, doesn’t realise that the thaneship is likely to become vacant in the near future. It’s a minor quibble, of course, but these things do catch my attention from time to time.

Lady Macbeth seemed less concerned about hiding the letter tonight, and there was a small change when she was persuading Macbeth to commit murder – she put the emphasis on ‘screw’ this time (‘but screw your courage to the sticking-place’). Once convinced, Macbeth behaved very differently, with much more confidence and a willingness to deceive.

The dagger scene was done without the mist tonight, the murder all went down the same way as before, and then the porter gave us all the fun of seeing other audience members being picked on – not me tonight, thank goodness – then the explosions, and finally the warning about not going back to a lit firework. Still got a laugh and applause. Macbeth didn’t look intently at the porter tonight; in fact, the porter was gazing intently at him this time while Macbeth wandered to the front of the stage to wait for the inevitable outcry. After it came, and Macbeth did the dirty on the grooms, I kept an eye on Lady Macbeth as she listened to Macbeth’s justification and watched the court’s reactions. I reckon her faint was strategic, but as I couldn’t see the lords’ faces this time I can’t be sure. If not, then it may have been a foretaste of her madness later on.

Ross’s meeting with Macduff segued into the coronation, with Ross starting the falsetto singing after Macduff leaves. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth came down on a bench, the bowl was brought on for the water, and Macbeth’s head was dunked as before. Then I saw that Lady Macbeth held her hands in the water, washing them, before throwing water into Macbeth’s cupped hands. ‘God save the King’ was chanted three times, and then we were straight into Macbeth’s line ‘Here’s our chief guest’.

The banquet scene straddled the interval as before, and the rest of the action seemed pretty much the same to the end of the play. I did notice that when Macbeth was with the children again, and has been told about Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane, his response includes the line ‘Who can…bid the tree Unfix his earth-bound root?’ There had been some comments about the nature and volume of the foliage on show in this production, and I reckon this line may have been the reason why the tree and branches that were used all had roots on them. They also act as a reminder of the general theme, that Macbeth is childless while Banquo is the father of a line of kings.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Macbeth – June 2011

9/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: RST

Date: Tuesday 14th June 2011

This was fantastic! The whole production worked wonderfully well, with some great performances and some startling new interpretations. The initial set was a derelict church. The back wall, across the back of the thrust, had wood panelling on each side, and a large wooden door in the middle underneath a wide balcony. Defaced paintings either side of the door suggested the Reformation period. Above this, the remains of two large stained glass windows stood either side of two saint niches – one of these had been blasted through to the outside, while the saint in the other one was damaged. Stairs ran down to the stage on the left, and there were two piles of rubble in front of the back wall, either side of the door; the remains of the missing saint could be seen on one pile. Two lines of strip lights went back to front of the stage, and there were some missing bits in the floorboards. Although it wasn’t a factory setting, it reminded me of last year’s King Lear set, and I was a bit worried at first. But I soon realised that this set didn’t dominate the action, and it was tidied up in the interval, with significant repairs for the final scene. I wondered later if the sense of destruction may have been intended to suggest that the country was more divided in Duncan’s time than they were letting on?

Before the start, three women carried their cellos onto the balcony, and sat there throughout the action. Oho, we thought, could these represent the three witches? But no, they played some beautiful music, moody and melancholic, but there were no witches in this production, so tough. In fact, the play started with the bloody man’s speech, only this time the bloody man is Malcolm, and he’s prompted several times by Ross before he gets going. This confused me a bit – neither Steve nor I can figure out what the prompting was intended to convey, either at the start or later on – and that may have been why I didn’t understand the first bit of Malcolm’s speech properly. For the most part, the dialogue was extraordinarily clear; this was about the only bit I had difficulty with.

After the initial report of the battle, the witches are supposed to put in a second appearance, but here we go straight to Macbeth and Banquo arriving on stage. Did I detect a hint of limp as Macbeth first walked onto the stage? Or was it just the memory of Richard III? Anyway, there’s little for Macbeth and Banquo to say at this point, until three figures are lowered down on meat hooks at the front of the stage. At first I thought they were dummies, then I realised they were alive, and not only that, they were three children, two boys and one girl. Wearing drab clothes, they had dark crosses painted on their foreheads. Steve was aware that these represented the crosses for birth and death. They spoke their first lines from the air, hailing Macbeth and priming him with the seductive titles, then descended and removed their hooks while Banquo is saying his lines. The children turn to leave, but Banquo calls them back, and they give his prophecies in a very solemn way, before bursting into childish laughter (think The Turn Of The Screw) and running off. This was very creepy. I didn’t have a clear view of Macbeth while all of this was going on, so I want to watch carefully another time to see his reactions to the children’s greetings.

Ross and Angus arrive, and Macbeth is clearly stunned to hear himself addressed as Thane of Cawdor. He stays towards the front of the stage to talk to us while Banquo chats with Ross and Angus back left. After they leave, Duncan walks on from the back, while Malcolm, now cleaned up but still with a scar on his forehead, reports the death of Cawdor. As Duncan emphasised the line “He was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust”, I was aware that he’s about to make the same mistake again.

Macbeth and Banquo approached this gathering down the centre aisle, and again all the lines were totally clear. There’s just a hint of Macbeth leaning forward as Duncan turns in his direction to announce that Malcolm is to be his successor; Malcolm was standing next to Macbeth at the time. Macbeth’s lines about heading off to his castle to prepare for the king’s visit sounded stilted and jerky compared to his previous lines, but the court presumably put it down to battle fatigue.

As they left the stage towards the front, Lady Macbeth sneaks on at the back. She’s clearly come into another room to read Macbeth’s letter; I got the impression that she’s read the start of it, realised it wasn’t for public viewing, and stepped aside to read the rest in a private chamber. This was a great performance, with clarity in the dialogue, and a sense of someone not so much evil as ruthless, and prepared to go as far as she could to achieve her ambition. In some ways, this was more disturbing than seeing her as a monster; she could just as easily be a suburban housewife as a wannabe queen.

Macbeth arrives, and she soon realises she’ll have to persuade him to murder Duncan. Then Duncan himself arrives, and is greeted warmly by Lady Macbeth. Macbeth’s soliloquy “If it were done when ‘tis done” was delivered well; Jonathan Slinger tended to do all of these speeches from the sweet spot, or as near as he could get from up a ladder, suspended in a chair or whatever. There wasn’t much movement, but he included us all, and as we were right round one side, I was impressed. During the persuasion scene, Macbeth actually walks off part way through. Lady Macbeth stops him with “I have given suck”, and gets him back with “but screw your courage to the sticking point and we’ll not fail”, with a strong emphasis on “your courage”.

When Banquo comes on with Fleance, I wasn’t sure why he gave the boy his sword to hold at first, but then he handed Fleance a jewelled orb to hold as well, posing him carefully, and it dawned on me; he wants to savour the prospect of his children being kings! The orb is the diamond he gives to Macbeth shortly afterwards, and then we’re into the famous dagger speech. This time, the dagger is totally imaginary, although with a swirling mist in the middle of the stage, we could be forgiven for thinking there might be something there, if only we could see it! (I jest; actually the mist wasn’t that thick this time.)

After he leaves, Lady Macbeth comes on from the side, and has clearly been drinking with the grooms. The owl’s screech is actually done by the little girl running across the stage from the back to the far walkway, invisible to Lady M. The rest of the scene is nicely edgy; both characters are showing the strains of murder, and Macbeth especially is far too loud for comfort; Lady M puts her hand over his mouth to quiet him at one point.

The next scene is the porter, and here I have to admit to one of the few occasions when I have been so deeply impressed by one performance that all others fail miserably by comparison. I’m referring to Adrian Schiller’s marvellous portrayal of a completely sozzled porter many years ago, when he fell down between two bits of scenery and re-emerged still holding his drink. We will always remember that porter, and so we have no great expectations of this scene in any other production. This version wasn’t too bad, though, and now that I’ve read the program notes, I can see that the business was intended to reflect the failed gunpowder plot of 1605. The porter, dressed in a red outfit (this is relevant – read on), with a bulging coat and blood on his face, staggered on and leered at us all. He opened his coat, and there were lots of sticks of dynamite strapped to his body. He took one out, and as he identified each new arrival in hell, he lit the fuse and placed the stick of dynamite in front of the poor audience member. I knew they wouldn’t blow us up, but even so, I found myself riveted on the fuses as they burned down. They were different lengths, so they all reached the dynamite at about the same time, and then stopped. Nothing. The porter picked them all up and threw them in disgust in the corner, amongst the rubble, where they went off with fairly loud bangs. Good fun. Then he warned us not to go back to a lit firework, which got another laugh and applause.

Macduff arrived, and as he went in to wake the king, Macbeth, Ross and the porter waited outside – Ross took the part of Lennox. Again, I couldn’t quite see what was going on between the porter and Macbeth, but Macbeth was looking very intently at him. The alarms and clamour were all well done, and I could see that the situation could appear too risky for Malcolm to stay and claim his crown as Duncan’s heir. Macbeth’s justification for killing the grooms was strong enough to sound reasonable this time, and I couldn’t see enough of Lady Macbeth’s faint to know how that was set up. There was a strong atmosphere of suspicion and uncertainty.

As I recall, the next scene started with Ross on his own, later joined by Macduff, and already Ross is coming across as an appeaser type, wanting things to be well, but nervous about what’s really going on. Macduff is much more straightforward. I forget whether we get Banquo’s lines at the start of the next scene or not, but we do get a coronation. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth come down from above, sitting on either a pair of thrones or a bench, with the other nobles coming on from the sides. Ross has been wearing a crucifix during the play so far, and now with some additional religious dressing, conducts the ceremony. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth kneel facing each other across the middle of the stage, with Ross behind them. A large bowl is placed between the Macbeths, and water rains down from above, filling it up. Ross dunks Macbeth’s head in the water, and uses it to make the sign of the cross. I don’t remember if he does the same to Lady Macbeth. The bowl is removed, after the water has stopped, of course, and a posh new robe is placed on Macbeth along with the crown. The court shouts “God save the King” a couple of times, and then the dialogue picks up again with Macbeth’s welcome to Banquo. After their brief discussion, Banquo tries to take his leave several times, with Macbeth asking a fresh question and keeping him there. Finally he leaves, and Macbeth dismisses the rest of the court, including Lady Macbeth, who’s evidently concerned at being excluded.

Macbeth’s soliloquy was fine, and then I think the murderers were brought on by the porter, or Seyton as we now know him to be. They’re quickly convinced by Macbeth’s arguments, and willing to do the necessary killing. After they leave, Lady Macbeth tells us of her concerns about their situation, and then rallies to encourage her husband when he expresses the same feelings. Macbeth gives his wife a big hug at this point, wrapping his arms and his robe around them both like a huge duvet, making it a little hard to see their expressions, but it’s clear that Lady Macbeth isn’t happy about things.

Seyton joins the two murderers for the attack on Banquo and Fleance. The fight is worth paying attention to; Banquo is stabbed several times, then holds on to one of the murderers to stop him reaching Fleance, who’s standing still instead of running away. Finally Fleance runs and Banquo’s throat is cut from behind. The two murderers run off, and then Banquo rolls over, gets up, and walks through the door which is held open by Seyton/the porter. Seyton’s red outfit echoes the red clothes worn by the gatekeeper to the dead in Michael Boyd’s Histories cycle, and it’s clear he’s carrying out the same role here.

The banquet scene was nice and uncluttered in this production. Instead of bringing on a table and lots of chairs, the stage is left bare, and the Macbeths and the rest of the court simply walk around. We, the audience, are included in the assembled throng. Macbeth’s comment about there not being a place for him at the table is obviously cut. The conversation with the murderer takes place at the back of the stage, and when Banquo arrives the first time, he batters through the door, and walks over to Macbeth before leaving. The second time round, Banquo comes down from the balcony, strides over to Macbeth, and executes the same wounds on him that he received when he was murdered, while Macbeth cries out “Treachery” and “Fly” as Banquo did to Fleance. Lady Macbeth is very upset, and when she complains that Macbeth’s behaviour spoils the mirth, she grins and laughs too much, trying to make the situation into a joke, but no one else joins in. This was clearly the start of her madness.

When Macbeth ‘dies’, the scene is ended, and they take the interval, which reminded us of the Rupert Goold Macbeth in Chichester several years ago. Sure enough, the second half starts with a short reprise of Banquo’s second appearance, only without the ghost, so Macbeth’s ranting and reactions to the blows are caused by nothing. Lady Macbeth goes hysterical, the court is seriously concerned, and after she sends them packing she and Macbeth are both badly shaken. Steve reckoned this was the first time he could see both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth go crazy; she reacts by sleepwalking, he goes hard and cold, and keeps killing people. The seeds of the madness are sown in this scene.

It’s nothing new for productions to skip over Hecate’s next scene, but the following scene is usually between Lennox and another Lord. Here we get Ross, on his own, and deeply troubled. He’s not only nervous, he’s drinking a lot from a flask, and his speech again shows that he’s doing his best to accept Macbeth as a good king, but the evidence keeps mounting up on the other side. That speech finishes early, and then Ross leaves the stage to Macbeth and the three meat hooks.

The three children aren’t around to begin with, but after Macbeth conjures them, we hear them giggling and laughing, and then they come on from the back, each one carrying a doll. They sit in the centre of the stage, and the prophecies are delivered through the dolls, with a lot more dolls falling down from above when Banquo’s line of kings is being shown. For this part, Banquo himself puts in an appearance, bursting up through the stage floor on the far side, leaving a hole which is there for the rest of the performance. The first murderer is the one Macbeth talks to after the apparitions have gone, and it’s clear Macbeth means business. In fact I half expected to see him turn up at Macduff’s castle to do some killing himself, but it was not to be. Interesting idea, though.

At Macduff’s castle, Ross has come to visit his cousins, but although he knows more about the state of the realm, and must have some inkling of how much danger she and her children are in, he doesn’t tell her to run off. Nor, since the messenger has been cut, does anybody else. Her three children are, of course, the three dead children who have been plaguing Macbeth, cleaned up for the occasion, and it’s a bit spooky to realise that they’ve time-travelled in order to get their revenge. The two murderers do their job fairly quickly, although one of them leads the little girl off stage to our right while the other finishes off Lady Macduff by the back wall. When the murderers have left, the dead bodies on stage rise up as Banquo did, and the porter is there to hold the door open for them. Just at the end, the little girl comes running back on stage, so we know she’s been killed as well. Ross appeared at the far balcony just as the dead bodies were removing themselves, so he sees what’s happened for himself.

To England now, and an excellent reading of the scene between Macduff and Malcolm. It started with Macduff coming on stage at the front as his family go through the door at the back. He strides after them, but the door shuts before he can get there, and he hits it forcefully, after which the dialogue started. I found this scene so moving that I cried quite a bit. I reckon Ross delayed the news about the slaughter of Macduff’s family because Scotland’s needs were a greater priority that one man’s. I also spotted that Ross is no longer wearing his crucifix, whether for simplicity’s sake while travelling, or to indicate his moral discomfort, I don’t know. I couldn’t see him properly at the end, so I must look out next time to see if he’s wearing the crucifix again at the end. They included the lines about Edward the Confessor tonight; I think I may have heard them, or some of them, before, although Michael Boyd was sure they were always cut.

The doctor and the gentlewoman are next, and Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene was very well done. When she was washing her hands, it reminded me of the water falling into the bowl during the coronation, as if she’s trying to use holy water to clean herself. She almost walked into the hole in the stage, but her attendant stopped her.

Macbeth’s next entrance is on a throne lowered from above towards the back of the thrust. He’s feeling confident and rather bullish, and there are some laughs at his lines. When the message about the soldiers comes, he actually cuts the messenger’s face himself, and smears the blood over it, although I was too far away to see this in detail. Seyton is sitting up on the balcony, and doesn’t come down until he finally gets Macbeth’s armour. I’ve forgotten now if we see the doctor again – I think that may have been cut, but I’ll watch more closely next time.

When Malcolm and the army arrive, they’re accompanied by Banquo and the dead Macduffs, but not by Siward. This is a Scots-only do. Later, when the army arrives at Dunsinane, Lady Macduff and her children are the ones carrying the branches – in fact she’s carrying a small tree – while the soldiers are unencumbered. The greenery is placed in the hole for the duration.

For Macbeth’s next speech, a ladder rises up from the stage towards the back of the thrust, and Macbeth climbs up it. The start of “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” was good enough, but I felt the rest of speech wasn’t quite there yet, though close. I think this scene runs into the start of battle, and as Macbeth is fighting the Scottish version of young Siward, Lady Macduff comes on carrying a sword, and leaves it beside the door at the back. When Macduff himself arrives, he grabs that extra sword when Macbeth attacks him with two of his own, and finally kills Macbeth on stage. As he lies there, Malcolm enters, and Macduff goes straight into “Hail, king!”. With Malcolm being prompted yet again by Ross for “We shall not spend…..” the play is almost finished, but there’s still one dead body to deal with.

At the very end, while the cello music is playing, Lady Macduff goes upstairs and opens the shutters on the stained glass windows, which are now whole, and which let in a beautiful light. She comes back downstairs, and along with her children spends a few moments just standing at the front of the stage, while they look at the dead Macbeth. Then they leave, and Seyton comes on to escort Macbeth’s dead body off stage. Macbeth rises, as if surprised to find there’s life after death, and looks around, He sees the door and heads towards it, and then the lights go out. Now it’s the audience’s turn to be noisy, and we do our very best.

This was a tremendous emotional journey, with many enjoyable performances. After seeing four of this season’s productions, I think the ensemble is stronger this time than last, with better verse speaking and lots of comic talent. Jonathan Slinger’s performance as Macbeth showed all the power he’s gained from such a long stint in The Histories, and although the connections with Richard III were obvious, I didn’t feel the earlier portrayal got in the way. Scott Handy took Ross on an interesting journey, helped by being given some of the other minor parts’ dialogue. He starts out a bit of an appeaser, then realises things have gone too far and goes to England. While he carried out the coronation, he sang beautifully using his falsetto singing voice which I remember from his Ariel, many years ago. Aislín McGuckin was wonderful as Lady Macbeth, and the whole cast supported the central performances brilliantly. The four children tonight were Jason Battersby, Hal Hewetson, Anwar Ridwan (Fleance), and Isabella Sanders.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Antony and Cleopatra – July 2010

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Thursday 1st July 2010

This has really come on. Darrell D’Silva now has both hands working fully, and with the extra experience his performance as Antony shows much greater assurance and authority. He’s the passionate military man, loving life to the full, and with admirable qualities which inspire devotion in his men. However, he isn’t as politically astute as either Cleopatra or Caesar, and that, rather than his infatuation with Cleopatra, seems to be the root of his downfall in this production.

John Mackay’s Caesar is even more the politician. He’s always in his suit this time – I think he wore fatigues during the battles last time – and the subtle suggestion that Caesar himself is making the marriage proposal via Agrippa, which we picked up on in the understudies run, has developed into a full-blown political manoeuvre now, with Caesar clearly tipping the wink to Agrippa while declaring, in all pretend innocence, that ‘if I knew of….’. As we were sitting by the walkway tonight, I could see the smirk on Caesar’s face as he left the meeting, together with an expression of relief – he seemed to think that bringing Antony into the family would solve a lot of problems.

I mean no disrespect when I say that Kathryn Hunter was just as good as Cleopatra. It’s a measure of her acting skills that her performance back in April was much more developed, so there were fewer obvious changes tonight, although with the stronger output all round, she had more to play against. I know there are murmurings about the ‘courageous’ casting decisions for this production, but personally speaking, both Steve and I find this portrayal believable and powerful. So there.

Some bits I hadn’t noted before: the blue sheet before the first sea battle was pulled out through the doors, while the overhanging blue sheet was pulled back after the battle. The play started with Cleopatra kneeling centre stage, declaiming a couple of lines. Antony joined her, and while they were in a serious clinch, the two Romans entered to speak the opening lines proper.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Antony And Cleopatra – April 2010

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 13th April 2010

This is a pretty impressive standard for an early preview performance to set – here’s hoping that the next time we see it we enjoy it as much, if not more.

It was easy to recognise the Michael Boyd touch tonight, even before I checked the program for the director. The large, curved drum sticking out into the stage space, the curved boards on the floor echoing that shape, the use of ringing chimes to highlight certain words (though I’ve no idea what the connection was this time – it was much more straightforward during the Histories) the emphasis on prophecy and well-depicted battle scenes, though fortunately without the gore should attend it. And the story came across clearly, and with much better balance than I’ve seen before, the recent SATTF production notwithstanding.

The set had the industrial drum shape at the back, on two levels, and with various doors. At the start, a large piece of blue fabric was spread from the centre of this drum at the top out to the sides, with the corners being suspended from the ceiling. This was removed at some point, but the fabric reappeared when Cleopatra welcomed Antony back from his victorious battle. She stood on the upper platform, with the cloth draped round her and falling to the ground. There was also a platform which could be thrust forward between the lower doors, and served as the Monument (of course) as well as another vantage point from time to time. There were posh chairs, basic chairs, and at the end, a couple of suitcases and a trunk which formed Cleopatra’s throne for the final death scene.

The costumes were contemporary, which meant soldiers could report news they were hearing through their earpieces, and guns were as much in evidence as swords. When Cleopatra was buckling on Antony’s armour, it was modern-day webbing with all the boxes on it that she was trying to sort out. Personally, I think this worked very well and I wasn’t troubled by any anachronism, though no doubt there will be complaints from some quarters (there were, in the interval). Cleopatra’s costumes were not just modern but sumptuous, and she had a new set of clothes for each scene which really underlined her status. Mind you, her servants, Charmian and Iras, were changing as often, and into co-ordinated outfits, while even Octavia had more than one ensemble to draw on for her part. Impressive.

So to the staging. The whole balance of the play was completely different from any production I’ve seen before. Instead of focusing heavily on the two central characters, this version took a wider look at the whole picture, giving more attention to all the characters, and showing the political context clearly. The love affair Antony and Cleopatra are carrying on is doomed within this context, as the ambition of Octavius Caesar could only have been restrained by an Antony who was on the ball.

Darrell d’Silva played Antony with his hand bandaged from a recent injury, and had his arm in a sling as well. We’d heard that last night’s performance had been a free one, intended as a run-through for his understudy, but that Darrell had insisted on playing the part himself. His performance will undoubtedly be helped when his hand is better, but that’s not a criticism of his efforts tonight.

The sea battle was staged in a very imaginative manner. The people involved on each side came walking slowly on from opposite corners in battle fatigues (sand colour for Antony, blue for Caesar). Each carried a paper boat held above their heads. At first, I found this funny and absurd, but as they continued with their stately progress across the stage to confront the opposition, with Antony’s fleet executing some deft twirls in the process, it became more engrossing, and I decided it was a very good way to show something as unstageable as a sea battle. When the two sides came together, most of the combatants screwed up their paper ships and threw them over their heads into the audience (one landed on us), and then got stuck in to the fighting. Cleopatra and her girls, however, keeping their ships intact, turned and moved slowly away, causing Antony to follow and abandon the battle. It was a very clear demonstration of what went on, and contributed to my greater understanding of the story this time around.

The feasting scene worked very well, I thought. Lepidus was clearly drunk, and even Caesar enjoyed the way Antony made fun of him with his non-description of a crocodile. When Menas and Pompey have their little chat, everyone else was moving in slow motion, carrying on the party.

Tonight we got to see the scene where Ventidius tells us of his success against the Parthians. There was a captive on the upper level of the drum with a bag over his head to illustrate the point, and the comments about how risky it can be for the lieutenant to outdo his general came across very clearly. I don’t know if we’ve ever seen this bit before; the way it was staged it felt like a completely new scene. They also included the scene where some soldiers on guard duty see a light and follow it off stage.

There was no asp merchant – the basket was simply stored somewhere, and Charmian went under the stage to retrieve it. This worked well, as this production wasn’t so strong on the emotional side, so injecting humour at this point wouldn’t have helped.

John Mackay as Octavius gave a very good performance. He got across the ruler’s coldness and lack of the social skills that made Antony a great general. Still, Octavius has the wit to see clearly where his advantage lies, and doesn’t hesitate to take every opportunity to improve his situation. Antony is so besotted with Cleopatra that his judgement goes completely. He even tells Cleopatra to trust Proculeius, when he’s definitely Caesar’s tool. There was a nice bit of humour when the news comes to Antony that Cleopatra’s not actually dead. He reacted with a resigned sigh that suggested he was really kicking himself for believing the lie.

Octavius Caesar and Antony each used the audience during a speech, Antony at the start of the second half, when he was telling his men to leave and save themselves, and Octavius when he was trying to persuade us that he’d been scrupulously fair and moral in all his dealings. It was a good start to second half – quiet, but Darrell d’Silva held the stage, and got the energy going again very quickly.

Greg Hicks was good as the soothsayer, a nice straightforward performance, and Paul Hamilton was very good as the hapless messenger who incurs the wrath of Cleopatra for telling the truth. He learned the error of his ways, though, and lied convincingly the second time around. Even so, he still got off stage as fast as he could afterwards, despite her smiles. I was aware for the first time how Shakespeare contrasts Antony’s approach and Cleopatra’s. He wants the truth, however unpleasant – she wants to hear only good news.

Another contrast I was aware of was between the choices made by Ventidius and Enobarbus. Ventidius shows the military choice, that Antony has lost his judgement. Enobarbus shows the personal choice, based on Antony’s nobility.

There was a lot more to this production that I just can’t note up in time. The overall impression was of a very fresh version, with lots of energy and many fascinating details. Roll on performance two.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

As You Like It – August 2009

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 12th August 2009

Not the understudies this time. I was a bit worried, as I’d liked several of the performances in the Understudies run, but I was looking forward to seeing Katy Stephens as Rosalind and Maria Gale giving us her Celia – we’d heard them talking about their roles earlier in the day. I needn’t have worried, of course, as the performances were just as good all round, and some were even better. I won’t name too many names, but Forbes Masson was superb as Jacques, especially in his opening scene, whipping us up into a frenzy of audience participation. Katy Stephens had commented on how hard she was finding it to do Rosalind’s intelligence as she tends to come more from the heart, but personally I found the strength of her Rosalind’s emotions helped the part enormously. After all, the woman has just fallen deeply in love, so I’d expect her to be feeling at least as much as she’s thinking, and that came across clearly in tonight’s performance.

I also loved Mariah Gale’s Celia. Her Rosalind was fine, but as Celia she was definitely on a par with Rosalind as a character. Her subtle reactions during Ganymede’s ‘wooing’ scenes with Orlando showed a young woman concerned for her friend and what she was getting herself into, while still being happy for her in having the man she loves present in the forest. She managed to behave girlishly without being silly, and I loved the way she totally joined in Rosalind’s emotional rollercoaster when Orlando fails to turn up the first time. Both actresses have created a very strong relationship between the characters, the closest I’ve seen on stage.

I was also aware from this angle that the Duke was looking at the girls as they applauded Orlando during the wrestling, and it seemed to me that, having discovered who Orlando is, this is what triggers his banishment of Rosalind, as he thinks she’s having too much of an influence on his own daughter. I didn’t spot any significant changes to the staging, although I did see more of some bits, and of course there were more lords both in the court and in the forest. There was an unpleasant smell after the forest feast – presumably something had been spilled while grilling the kebabs – and a couple of Phoebe’s rolls disappeared into the audience, but otherwise all seemed well. In fact, the only minor (and I mean minor!) quibble I had at the start was that Orlando, the youngest son of Sir Roland, looked older than his brother, but I soon got past that, especially as Katy had informed us that Jonjo O’Neill is a great snogger. (On stage, at least, I have no idea what he’s like in real life.)

The rabbit skinning incident drew fewer squeamish responses from the audience this time and I hope we were suitably supportive of the changed epilogue tonight. Katy certainly looked happy at the end, as did the rest of the cast. And so were we.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me