A Midsummer Night’s Dream – October 2013

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Grandage

Venue: Noel Coward Theatre

Date: Wednesday 23rd October 2013

There was an unusual experience for us today; Steve rated this performance much lower than I did. However, he did have a chesty cold which inevitably reduced his enjoyment, so I’ve stuck with my rating overall.

The opening set consisted of tall window panels with just a small wooden base to each. The windows formed two archways, one behind the other, and behind these was a solid wall of windows with what looked like a door or doors concealed within it. There was some misting on the window panes, suggestive of age and decay, and with a soft yellowish light glowing through the panes, the whole set had a bronzed antique effect. The Athenians costumes were 1950s in style, but the fairies were another matter.

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Peter And Alice – April 2013

Experience: 6/10

By John Logan

Directed by Michael Grandage

Venue: Noel Coward Theatre

Date: Saturday 27th April 2013

We both enjoyed this but felt that the second half began to drag, with too much repetition of the same ideas in between the new snippets of biography. This caused the energy to flag, and despite the standing ovation the cast received at the end, which was not entirely undeserved, we reckon the play itself needs more work to tighten it up. Unfortunately, with two such stars in the lead roles the audiences are likely to be less discriminating, so rewrites are probably not on the agenda at the moment. A second production might help with this, though if it were also to depend on star casting, the play’s own merits may never become clear.

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Privates On Parade – February 2013

Experience: 9/10

By Peter Nichols, music by Denis King

Directed by Michael Grandage

Venue: Noel Coward Theatre

Date: Monday 11th February 2013

Fabulous! We missed an earlier performance due to train troubles, so we were really pleased to see it tonight. I thought the production was excellent, very reminiscent of the Donmar musicals this director has put on in the past, and if there was anything lacking at all I’d put it down to a somewhat patchy audience response. From comments I heard in the interval, I suspect that some of the attendees were expecting It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum – The Musical, whereas this was a much more nuanced piece, mixing satire with sexual innuendo, drama with cheesy puns. I was moved to pre-sniffles at least once, when Sylvia was being consoled by Acting Captain Terri Dennis after discovering that Steven was leaving her behind – not the done thing to bring a heavily pregnant half-caste woman back to Swindon as his bride. Dennis did the decent thing instead, so hopefully the little one will have more tolerant parents than most.

The treatment of and attitudes to the local population were all too accurate, an embarrassing reminder of Britain’s colonial past, and I felt the play had a lot in common with Oh What A Lovely War and The Entertainer. The play began with the two Malay servants hitting gongs, starting with single bongs and moving into the continuous ringing sound. This sound was used a few times during the play, but I don’t know exactly what it was meant to represent. After the concert party left the country, the final image on the screen at the back was of modern-day Singapore at night, while the two servants, now in suits, shook hands centre stage. It was quite a jump from then to now, but it worked, showing us the growth in prosperity since the British left, and leaving us to ponder how much the colonial power contributed and how much it held the local population back.

The set was basically a very run down theatre building with the pros arch towards the back of the stage, doors showing above it, and side entrances – the usual. With lighting changes and the swift arrival of furniture, the other locations were deftly set up and the screen at the back, when not covered by a backdrop, showed appropriate pictures. The costumes were excellent, especially Dennis’s outfits as he gave us his Marlene, Carmen Miranda and one other woman we didn’t recognise. His Noel Coward was good fun too (and very apt for this theatre).

The performances are the key to this show, and this production was strong in that department. I found John Marquez’s accent too strong for me and I couldn’t tune into his dialogue very well, but the rest of the cast were generally clear. Angus Wright was very good as the upright and uptight Major, producing some very John Cleese-like leg movements for one number. Mark Lewis Jones was a fine villain, Harry Hepple was very good as Lance Corporal Charles Bishop, while Davina Perera had taken over the role Sylvia, and didn’t look out of place at all. The big draw was Simon Russell Beale, though, and his performance as Acting Captain Terri Dennis was wonderful, both in the glamorous frocks and out of them, bringing out the character’s humour and showing us his caring side. We enjoyed ourselves very much, and were glad we’d made the extra effort to catch this one.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Richard II – December 2011


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 15th December 2011

This was an interesting production, a reasonably clear version of the story which placed the emphasis on the political situation. The set had lots of Gothic arches, there was a carved stairway on the right hand side, the wood had a distressed effect, and there was a strong smell of incense as we entered. The costumes had a strong mediaeval influence. Richard himself sat on a throne towards the back of the stage in the centre, and stayed there, motionless, till the play actually started.

The performance began with several young men coming on, kneeling before him, and then taking their place behind him, first one, then another. These were Bushy, Bagot, Green and Aumerle. Then the Duke of York and the Queen entered together and curtsied, and finally the Lord Marshall and John of Gaunt took up their positions in the front corners of the stage. It was a slow start, and with such a wordy play there’s a need for a brisk pace to keep the energy levels up. This production didn’t do too badly in that department, thankfully, and with the political aspects being brought out so strongly it felt like a political thriller at times, which helped to keep me involved.

The mention of Gloucester’s death troubled the king and his supporters, though he recovered well. Eddie Redmayne played the king as an effete young man, aware of his power and impatient of the old-fashioned niceties. He stood in poses, like a mannequin which could move, and this allowed for a clear change once he’d lost power and his movements became more natural. Having failed to make peace between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, the date for the duel is set and the king leaves.

The widowed Duchess of Gloucester’s complaints to her brother, John of Gaunt, were clear, and again the point about Richard himself being responsible for his uncle’s death came across strongly. Sian Thomas doubled this part with the Duchess of York, and did both very well. The duel scene had the king and his companions up on the balcony, with the combatants and the Lord Marshall down below. I think there was a lot of cutting here, as it didn’t seem to be as long as my text indicates. Richard came down to say his farewells to both Bolingbroke and Mowbray, and then returned to the balcony. The knights put on their armour, including big helmets, and strode off stage for the fight, one at each corner. When Richard threw his baton down, the knights had to come back on stage, while the king had a huddled conference with his court up above. The banishing was over with quickly, and then Richard tried to be kind to his uncle in reducing Bolingbroke’s sentence by four years. The smile on his face suggested he expected his generosity to be well received, but John of Gaunt wasn’t impressed. The father and son leave-taking was edited down, and soon we’re back with the court, and Aumerle’s cheeky comments about Bolingbroke’s departure. Richard’s dislike of his cousin, his willingness to use any means necessary to raise money, and his delight at the prospect of John of Gaunt’s death, all came across loud and clear.

The Dukes of York and Lancaster were having a good bitch-fest in the next scene – does Richard have any friends amongst his family? John of Gaunt’s main speech was excellent. The central part is such a well-known piece, it can sometimes seem like a couple of verses of Land of Hope and Glory, losing the context of those lines completely. Here, Michael Hadley kept the thought going through the entire speech: this country is wonderful, and look how he’s buggered it up! When Richard arrived, he kept up the harangue, and again Richard wasn’t too pleased with him. Even so, his abrupt change of subject to the Irish wars after a brief moment to acknowledge Gaunt’s death, was both funny and shocking, leading to York’s strong outburst against the theft of Bolingbroke’s inheritance. Richard’s choice of York to act as regent in his absence was quite funny in these circumstances.

After the king departed, the remaining lords start the plotting that will eventually put a new king on the throne. Again, this scene was well cut to leave a strong impression of the political storyline. The next scene, with the queen, Bushy and Bagot learning about the invasion of Bolingbroke, was fine, and Ron Cook, as the Duke of York, gave a lovely performance of an elderly man who just can’t get his head round what’s going on.

Northumberland’s flattery of Bolingbroke wasn’t really commented on in this performance, although it still seemed over the top to me. Hotspur was remarkably restrained for once, and the Duke of York was wonderfully stroppy at first when he arrived, ticking off his nephew like he was a naughty schoolboy. The others stood up to him pretty well, and of course he’s not able to actually do anything in military terms to stop them. He was almost off the stage before he invited them in to his castle for the night.

I think this was where they took the interval. Richard had come onto the balcony around the start of this scene, and as it progressed, he moved forward and stood at the railing, hands held in a pose of prayer. As the scene ended, he was held in a spotlight for a few seconds before the lights went out. The play restarted with Salisbury trying to keep his Welsh troops together and failing, followed by the execution of Bushy and Green – don’t remember how or if they staged these executions.

Richard’s return to England was well done. He still had the haughty attitude to begin with, but as he went through the various levels of despair, that shifted, and by his final exit he looked resigned to having lost the crown. I liked Phillip Joseph’s Bishop of Carlisle very much in this scene; he watched Richard approvingly when the king talked about his divine right to rule – “if angels fight, weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right” – and chided him strongly when he was in despair. Richard’s “sad stories of the death of kings” came across very well, as did the remaining ups and downs of this scene.

The rest of the story trundled through quite well. The Duchess of York was the queen’s companion in the garden, which worked very well for me, and again the political points were very clear. There was some humour in the gauntlet-flinging episode, though not as much as I’ve known before, and the deposition scene was fine. Richard held the crown up across the throne, and told Bolingbroke to “seize the crown”, as usual. Bolingbroke hesitated, so Richard continued with “on this side my hand, and on that side thine” – then Bolingbroke took hold of the other side. The mirror speech was good too, and then Richard heads off to the tower, the new king leaves the stage, and another plot starts up.

Richard and his queen take their leave of each other, and then there’s the Aumerle pardoning sequence, which they did OK, not as funny as some I’ve seen, but still enjoyable enough. When the Duchess got up off her knees, she leaned on her husband’s shoulder, and stopped him getting up; in fact, she nearly flattened him! That was a nice touch.

For the Pomfret scene, I wasn’t sure if they were doubling the groom and Aumerle because of the restricted number of actors, or if it was meant to be Aumerle in disguise. The way the king hugged him after throwing back his hood suggested it was. The speeches were OK, but I didn’t get anything extra out of them; the political stuff was all done by this time, so the play lost a little focus at the end. The final scene, with the deaths of the conspirators who wanted Henry dead, was fine. A coffin was brought on to represent Richard’s body, but we didn’t get a peek inside. We were a pretty appreciative audience, and we gave them plenty of applause, which they well deserved.

It’s difficult, after the intense and richly detailed experience of the Michael Boyd History Cycle, to view many of these plays as isolated works. The depth and interconnectedness of the full cycle can lead to one-off productions seeming weak by comparison (although Richard III usually overcomes this). I did like the political focus in this version, but there was a lack of the personal aspects which made it less enjoyable than some other productions we’ve seen. The cast were all fine – Andrew Buchan did a good job with the part of Henry Bolingbroke, even though there wasn’t a lot for him to do – but overall the performance didn’t sparkle. It was still interesting and fairly enjoyable, so not a bad final production for Michael Grandage.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King Lear – Janaury 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 20th Janaury 2011

I wasn’t too hopeful that I’d enjoy this production, as the previous Shakespearean tragedies we’d seen directed by Michael Grandage had always seemed to lack depth, especially in the emotional department. Today was a revelation. A sparse set, rich but sombre costumes, and some tremendous acting from the whole cast made this the perfect Lear. I laughed, I cried – Steve overheard Ron Cook comment ‘terrific audience’ on his way out, so I suspect we weren’t the only ones having a great time.

I felt that Goneril’s voice was a little weak early on, but I reckon that was to make her seem like the good little daughter – she found her lungs and her power soon enough when the crown was on her head. Derek Jacobi went bright red with anger on a number of occasions, and I was quite worried for him, but he lasted the performance (thank goodness), and his acting was both very powerful and very detailed, bringing out subtle nuances and making all the lines clearly intelligible, both in terms of what he said (didn’t really need the hearing aids with him), and what it meant. The fool was trying to cheer him up after they’d met Poor Tom, but it was clear that Lear was too far gone to relate to him anymore. The fool was brushed aside as Lear was helped off the stage to Gloucester’s offered shelter, and at that point makes the difficult decision to leave the king. I was also aware during the Lear/Gloucester duet that Lear has taken on some of the attributes of the fool, pointing out many of the vanities and injustices of the world.

The text was very well edited; it told the story fully but without the extra flourishes, and the clarity of the dialogue wasn’t limited to the king. The pace was brisk, but not to the detriment of understanding, and also even, with every cast member following the same beat. Another nice touch was playing the storm scene in relative quiet. The gaps in the wooden planks allowed lights to shine through, just suggesting lightning. No actual water was used although there was a drain along the back wall, and the thunderstorm effects were kept to a minimum. Lear was therefore able to whisper his first lines of these speeches, and increase the volume gradually, which made it much more powerful in my view. The fool also looked as though he was moving in slow motion, suggesting that these thoughts were flashing through Lear’s brain faster than the lightning itself.

The cast was trimmed to the minimum, but no problems there. Some rhubarb from behind us gave the impression of a large crowd of hangers-on, and for the most part they relied on the text and their acting abilities, both of which were well up to the task. If only more productions would do the same. We were also spared the procession of bodies at the end, with Edmund dying offstage, along with both sisters. I noticed some pinker patches on the white floor planks, so perhaps they did make an appearance early on? The eye removal wasn’t the worst I’ve seen, but there was enough blood to leave me feeling suitably squeamish.

In the early scenes, Edgar came on stage before Regan and Goneril departed, and they were already noticing the handsome young man who’s new at court. Edgar’s reactions to his father’s introduction of him to Gloucester were spot on, including not being too happy to find out he’s being sent away, again.

The sisters were less wolfish than usual; in fact I found them quite reasonable to begin with. OK, Lear’s being incredibly foolish playing his little game with them all, but they both handled it smoothly, and even convincingly. The rot set in once they had the power and no longer had to pretend to love their father. That, coupled with lust for Edmund and jealousy of each other, seemed to be the main driving forces for those two. But then, this production wasn’t so much trying to do an in-depth psychological examination of dysfunctional family relationships, as tell a cracking good story which contained both humour and suffering.

The scene between Kent and the messenger chap seemed to have more lines than I remember – must check text.

I was very aware when Edgar was leading Gloucester up the pretend slope to the cliff top, that here was a young man helping his blinded father whom he loved (yes, the hanky was out good and early). I could relate to how difficult it must have been to be with his father and still pretend.

The fight scene was good. I was a little worried they might get too close to the audience, but all was well, in that only Edmund received a fatal wound. Goneril grabbed a dagger before running off.

Lear’s final scene and death were very touching. He carried Cordelia on, and she was soon lowered to the floor, very gently, by Kent and Albany, if memory serves. Lear eventually sank back into Kent’s arms, and with some racking breaths, let out a final, deep sigh to signify his passing. Kent stayed there, cradling his body. I wondered if he had been wounded in the fighting, by the way he walked on for the final scene, but there was no other indication of that.

Edgar rose from a crouching position to speak the final lines, suggesting his acceptance of the kingship. And so it was over, and we gave our all in the applause.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Twelfth Night – March 2009


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Grandage

Donmar in the West End

Venue: Wyndham’s Theatre

Date: Saturday 7th March 2009

Well, this was quite an amazing experience from the word go. A couple of fatalities in the Norbury area a couple of weeks ago kept us from seeing this production as originally booked. The only available alternative performance was the last Saturday matinee, and the only seats for two were in Box 1. I’d never been in a box before – neither had Steve – but despite the restricted view we decided it was worth it to be able to see this production. Now, sitting here, I can safely say these are the best restricted view seats I’ve ever sat in. The box is the size of a (very) small bedsit, the actors will be within spitting distance (not that I plan on doing any such thing) and if I learn forward (very carefully) I can see almost every part of the stage, including some parts few other eyes can reach. I’m thoroughly enjoying myself and the performance hasn’t even started yet!

The set had scumbled wooden louvered doors floor to ceiling in autumnal colours, all along the back and round the side, with broad wooden floorboards, a bit rough and nibbled at the ends, covering the stage. These represented the seashore and large country house aspects of the play very well. During the play the doors at the back rose up and we could see the stage behind. Another set of doors were lowered down, in a concave arch, and for some scenes they were removed altogether. For furniture, there was just a chaise brought on and off and a windbreak used in the letter discovery scene, but otherwise the stage was bare and characters often sat on the floor. I realised after a while that the floor was also curved, dipping down from the sides towards the centre. From our angle, I had no idea of the rake.

The costumes were of uncertain period – Steve reckoned Edwardian, similar to Chichester’s production last year, while I thought they might be a little later. Either way, they were more up-to-date than Elizabethan. Feste wore a tattered patchwork coat over scruffy top and trousers, while Orsino wore very little until the latter scenes – pyjama bottoms and a robe, which hung open most of the time revealing a well honed torso, with good muscle definition and a nice covering of hair……. Sorry, where was I? Both Viola and Sebastian wore military-style outfits with short jackets, striped trousers and a sash at the waist. At the start Viola wore a tattered dress, fitted to the waist then full to the floor with a lacy overskirt; the sea-green colour made her look like a mermaid. Olivia started out in a black dress likewise fitting on top and spreading below, which also had a small bustle. Once smitten, she changed into a slash neck striped top, casual cream trousers and cream and tan shoes – very smart. Maria was in a black number with spots, the sailors were dressed as such, Sebastian wore a knitted one-piece swimsuit for his main scene with Antonio, Malvolio was in sombre black until adopting a natty yachting outfit with shorts and cross-gartered yellow stockings and the remaining men’s outfits were light-coloured suits. Actually, I reckon Steve’s right about the Edwardian period now I’ve listed it all.

This production managed to start with both a reference to the shipwreck and the regular opening line. At first there was the sound of thunder, then shortly afterwards Orsino came through the doors and started the opening speech. This Orsino looked pretty rough. He was obviously neglecting himself due to being in the pangs of love, and he was really determined to get Olivia to marry him.  The next scene had the sea captain carrying Viola on to the stage (how they must pray for a light actress) and he was already taking the male clothes out of the bag while she was finding out where she was and who lived there. I didn’t find the emotional aspects of her situation coming across so much this time, and Victoria Hamilton, although excellent with her facial expressions, did lack some of the vocal clarity of the rest of the cast. Being so much to one side I lost some of her dialogue when she was facing away from us, though the rest of the cast were fine.

Olivia may have looked to be in strict mourning, but her sense of humour soon peeked through the clouds when Feste got to work. She was obviously fond of him and not too unkind when she reproved Malvolio either. A kind person with a good sense of humour, but absolutely determined not to marry Orsino (relishing her freedom  now she’s her own woman, perhaps, grief or no grief) and equally determined that the household routine was not to be disturbed. (A smart move – look what happens in Uncle Vanya.) Malvolio was suitably stern, and there may have been some looks passed between him and Feste, but on the whole his antics were restricted to the letter scene and the yellow stockings scene.

When Cesario arrived and asks which of the two women present was the mistress of the house, only Olivia had her veil on and was sitting on the chaise longue. Maria was standing up behind her, so Viola’s question showed more cheekiness than usual, as often Olivia gets Maria to veil herself as well. Their banter put Maria out as well, and the dispute with Olivia about the wooing got quite sparky. However, Viola’s passion for Orsino, expressed in her words to Olivia, noticeably thawed the ice, and Olivia is quick to check out the youth’s credentials (not the physical ones).

Sebastian and Antonio made their first appearance, and although there was no obvious signs of the homosexuality that dogs many a production, it was clear that Antonio was smitten. Sebastian was as straightforward as his sister, and with their matching costumes, he was easy to identify. Incidentally, Olivia was still sitting on the chaise during this scene,the lights lowered on that part of the stage, and didn’t leave till this scene was over. I have no idea why.

Viola’s deductions from the ring that Malvolio ‘returns’ to her were nicely done. She figured out the message and was more appalled than amused by it, clearly feeling that there would be trouble ahead until Time sorts things out (she’s not wrong).

Sir Toby and Sir Andrew were an excellent pairing. We’d already seen them drunk in the morning, now we got to see them even drunker at night. Sir Toby was a rogue, but it seemsedbe less out of malice than out of the bottle. He might make a decent husband to Maria, and they certainly match each other in practical jokes. I was very aware this time that Sir Toby’s ploy to get Sir Andrew to challenge Cesario to a duel was the complementary trick to Maria’s letter – wooing by japes, as it were. Sir Andrew, played by Guy Henry, was suitably foppish without being ridiculously over the top. His dancing was very funny, and his reaction of surprise and delight when he finally realised what Maria intended with the letter was excellent.

Sir Toby was much smarter than Sir Andrew, and realised almost as soon as Maria mentioned the idea what she was planning. She clearly thought of the idea as she was talking, and worked it out in front of them. Malvolio has certainly been unpleasant to all of them, although I felt this time, as I often do, that late night carousing when others are trying to sleep is not the most considerate way to treat one’s fellow human beings. (I once shared a flat with four students when I was a working woman, so I say this with feeling and some experience of the subject.) Anyway, playing this joke on Malvolio didn’t seem so unkind as it sometimes does; the man needed to be taken down a peg or two, although how it turned out is another matter.

As to the singing, I must mention that Zubin Varla was very good with all of Feste’s songs. Not the strongest voice, perhaps, but smooth, light and very pleasant. The tunes used gave a sense of Elizabethan style (at least they did to me) and they also included an attempt at the final verse of the Twelve Days Of Christmas, with the trio failing miserably to remember the words until the five gold rings part, and then breaking out into raucous song.

The relationship between Orsino and Cesario/Viola became clearer with the next scene as they listened to Feste’s song, Come Away Death. He wasn’t fancying him/her as in some other productions, but he was very fond of him/her and casually laid his head on his/her leg while the music played. She was a bundle of nerves, desperate to be this close to him as a woman but terrified of revealing herself. She still managed to come up with some good reasoning about women’s faithfulness and ability to love.

Now for the wonderful letter scene. I am coming to the conclusion that this scene is so well written that it would be hard not to have the audience in stitches, but I don’t want to imply that the actors have an easy time of it, nor that they aren’t doing a fantastic job. This lot did an excellent job, starting with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew’s arrival. Sir Toby was carrying a bag with some bottles(?) while Sir Andrew had a folded up windbreak over his shoulder. Casting Ron Cook as Sir Toby had one practical advantage here, as Guy Henry could swing the windbreak round and have it pass over Sir Toby’s head nicely, much to our amusement. They set it up in the part of the stage we couldn’t see so well – back right – but we got enough of the performance to enjoy it. The letter was left sticking up between two floorboards and Maria took the place of Fabian, joining the two knights behind the windbreak.

Derek Jacobi as Malvolio played the whole scene very straight. He was preening himself and practising how to be even more pompous and arrogant as ever, while the hidden threesome made their comments and popped up from behind their shelter from time to time. At one point they were all three peeping out from the side of it, as in the silent comedy films.

Malvolio actually stepped over the letter before registering its presence, which was funny, and then the reading was just hilarious. His agony over the cryptic M-O-A-I was followed by the delight of realising that his name began with ‘M’, and the subsequent struggle to relate the sequence of letters was soon abandoned as the prose part gave him the absolute conviction that all his dreams had come true. The smiling took some time to get, with many a contortion appropriate to a face that hadn’t practised the technique for many a year, but his final breakthrough into a hideous grimace was warmly received by one and all. Exit Malvolio followed shortly afterwards by the eavesdroppers, and then by us for the interval.

The second half was heralded by Feste coming onto stage with a drum and playing it for quite a few minutes. It was very pleasant, and gradually built up as we got closer to the restart. Cesario entered at the back and stood listening for a while, until the drumming stopped. The question about the tabor was even more relevant this time. Viola’s comments about the difficulties of earning a living as a fool were cut, the first actual cut I’d noticed, although with a running time of two and a half hours there had to be lots. Olivia brought out a mat to lie on – planning some sunbathing from the looks of it – and even got Cesario to sit beside her on it for a short while. Olivia was much more sprightly, even flirtatious – so much for grieving over her brother. She didn’t actually jump Cesario’s bones but she looked like she wanted to. She wasn’t happy at being rebuffed again, and as she left Sir Andrew was also in the process of leaving, carrying his bag. Sir Toby, stealing most of Fabian’s lines, persuaded him to stay and lured him into challenging Cesario. After they left, Sebastian arrived in his swimsuit and started drying himself while he chatted to Antonio.

The next scene is the second comedy classic – the arrival of Malvolio in yellow stockings and cross-gartered. It’s always fun to see how they do this, and today was no exception. Having mastered the smile, Malvolio has matched it with a pair of knee-length shorts, a captain’s jacket and hat, yellow socks and a pair of x-shaped garters below each knee. The effect was as repulsive as it sounds and therefore extremely funny. Olivia was appalled and soon ran off to see Cesario, leaving Malvolio to the not-so-tender care of the very people who wished him ill.

After Malvolio left, Sir Andrew brought his challenge, and the reactions from Sir Toby and Maria told us all we need to know about how badly he’d written it. The interchanges with the two reluctant duellists seemed shorter than usual, and I felt they got less out of them than before, but the ‘fight’ was still good fun. Antonio entered and was arrested, and Cesario’s refusal to give him his purse started the long chain of events that leads to the ‘happy’ ending. It can be difficult to show why Viola doesn’t just accept that her brother is in fact alive and well, similar to the problem in The Comedy Of Errors, but here I thought she was so convinced that her brother was dead that she hesitated to believe it in case it turned out not to be true.

Now Sebastian really did turn up, and after fighting Sir Andrew briefly and almost fighting Sir Toby, Olivia turned up and stopped all this silly boys’ stuff. Then came probably the shortest bit of wooing in any of the plays, if you don’t count the amount of effort that’s gone into courting Cesario, and Olivia was absolutely delighted when Sebastian very quickly agreed to anything she wanted. Yippee!

The darkened room that Malvolio is in was represented by a hinged trapdoor raised about a foot off the floor. I think there were bars at this ‘window’, but it was dark so I couldn’t see very well. The gulling of Malvolio was much as usual, and this time it was very clear that Sir Toby knew he was out of favour and wanted to put an end to the joke. To differentiate between Sir Topaz and himself, Feste turned somersaults over the trapdoor – very impressive.

After the short scene where Sebastian agreed to go and marry Olivia, Orsino turned up at her door and has some banter with Feste, who went off to call Olivia. Antonio arrived, guarded, and then Olivia turned up, still determined not to marry Orsino. It was clear she favoured Cesario and that Orsino knew this. He and Cesario were only halfway across the stage towards the killing grounds when Olivia’s “husband” brought them back, and Cesario found he/she has a lot of explaining to do. Not that he/she has a clue how to go about it.

Sir Andrew’s arrival with a bloody head led to more confusion; when he saw the person he thought he was fighting where he doesn’t expect him to be, he was startled and also scared, keeping well away from Cesario just in case. I don’t remember if Sir Toby spotted him as well, but the knights were soon removed and as Sebastian ran on to the stage he and Viola changed places, he at the front, she at the back. The rest of the characters were gobsmacked, and the truth finally came out. Viola and Sebastian were together in the middle of the stage, and when Orsino went over to them to offer marriage to Viola, he took her by the arm and walked over to Olivia. At first I thought they were avoiding the mistaken identity option, but no. He left Viola with Olivia and walked back to Sebastian to make his proposal. Oops. It’s soon sorted, though, and then Malvolio’s letter was read out, I forget by whom, as Feste is appropriately inappropriate when he tried to read it. Malvolio was in a dirty version of the same outfit when he came on, and his “I’ll be revenged…” was said quietly to Feste first (he had just reminded him of the insult to his clowning abilities) and then he opened out the “on the whole pack of you” to include the wider group. I think that during Feste’s final song, we saw Sir Andrew leaving, bag packed, followed by Sir Toby and Maria, or Lady Maria I suppose by then, but I couldn’t swear to it. At any rate, we applauded for quite a while, as we’d enjoyed ourselves so much.

This was a straightforward, clear production, which pretty much allowed the text to do the work. The performances were very good, and the staging as simple and direct as I would expect from the Donmar. Despite cutting the comments about a fool’s job not being easy, I still found I was very aware of the difficult position of the servants in this  society and how much easier life was for the aristocrats. Good fun, and I’m very glad we booked again to see it.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Ivanov – October 2008


By Anton Chekov, English version by Tom Stoppard

Directed by Michael Grandage

Donmar in the West End

Wyndhams Theatre

Wednesday 29th October 2008

Wow. This was an amazing production of this play, the sort of production that makes you wonder why it isn’t done more often. The performances were all excellent, and the set design, costumes, etc made it all the more enjoyable. As far as we could see, the audience were definitely a more theatrical crowd than usual, including Joseph Millson and Niamh Cusack, but even so the coughing was a problem. Ah well.

The opening was visually striking, with Kenneth Branagh standing on his own, pacing about a sort of courtyard outside his house, looking miserable and depressed. He’s startled by the firing of a gun; Lorcan Cranitch as Borkin decides to cheer him up. Borkin is one of those Energiser Bunny types; he’s always got some scheme on the go, and it’s almost impossible to shut him up. Gradually we meet the people closest to Ivanov – his wife Anna Petrovna (Gina McKee), his uncle Shabelsky (Malcolm Sinclair) who happens to be a count, but doesn’t have any money to go with the title, and Lvov (Tom Hiddleston – Posthumus/Cloten in Cheek by Jowl’s Cymbeline), the doctor who’s attending Anna Petrovna and has diagnosed her condition as tuberculosis. Lvov is priggish and self-righteous, and very angry with Ivanov, believing him to be the main cause of his wife’s illness. Anna Petrovna is the loyal, understanding type, but even she’s being worn down by Ivanov’s apparently inexplicable behaviour. Shabelsky just wants to enjoy himself, without having to marry any of the rich widows that this area seems to have in abundance.

The second act shows us the other household that the play is concerned with. Zinaida (Sylvestra Le Touzel), her husband Lebedev (Kevin R McNally) and their daughter Sasha (Andrea Riseborough) seem to be the centre of attention. It’s Sasha’s birthday, and just about everyone has come to pay their respects. Zanaida wishes they would come to pay her what they owe her. She’s been left very rich (her husband has practically nothing), and she lives on the proceeds of moneylending. Not that she spends a kopeck more than she has to, mind you. When the guests go outside to watch some fireworks (courtesy of Borkin), she goes around the room snuffing out the candles. Ivanov owes her several thousand roubles and the interest is due, but he has nothing to pay her with, hence his trip over to see her to ask for more time. Lebedev is one of those poor husbands who finds himself without authority in his own home, which makes for some very entertaining moments. The “guests”, or hangers-on, are supplemented by another rich widow, Babakina (Lucy Briers), and Ivanov and Shabelsky who arrive with Borkin.

As the birthday party moves outside for the fireworks, various private conversations can go on inside. Borkin jokingly persuades Shabelsky to propose to Babakina, and then Sasha declares her love for Ivanov, which has to be one of the silliest things any Chekov heroine has done. Presumably she believes she can make his life wonderful again. Anyway, he’s about to accept her offer and starting to believe he can be happy again when Anna Petrovna arrives and sees them kissing. She faints. Interval.

The third act is set in Ivanov’s “office” on his estate. It’s a shambles, with painting equipment, a desk, lots of papers, and three men sitting drinking themselves silly. No Ivanov to be seen. Shabelsky, Borkin and Lebedev are chatting and drinking, and waiting for Ivanov. Lvov also turns up, and when Ivanov arrives, just about everyone is clamouring for his attention. He’s in a temper about Shabelsky’s drinking in the office (and the pickled cucumbers, etc), but listens to Lebedev first. Lebedev wants to lend Ivanov enough money to pay the interest he owes to Zinaida, but Ivanov refuses. Lvov then has his turn, and comes out with some ludicrous stuff. He’s so far gone in his arrogance that he can’t see much of what’s happening other than his own prejudices. He believes Ivanov wants his wife to die so he can marry Sasha and get her dowry. Neither man can stand the other, but my sympathies were (just) with Ivanov, as the doctor is almost freakish in his intolerance.

He leaves when he sees Sasha turn up, and then she and Ivanov have their little heart to heart. When Anna Petrovna does arrive, Sasha has gone, but that doesn’t stop them having a row. She’s finally realised that he doesn’t love her anymore (we could have told her that an hour ago), and he lashes out in return, not only calling her a Yid (she was Jewish but converted when she married him), but tells her outright that she’s a dead woman. That gets to her, and although he regrets it, there’s nothing more to be said. I found it wasn’t as shocking as some other moments I’ve seen, such as Freddie borrowing a shilling for the gas meter in The Deep Blue Sea, but it was climactic.

The final act is some time later, after Anna Petrovna has died, and Ivanov and Sasha are about to be married. It’s set in the Lebedev’s sitting room again, only this time the furniture has been cleared out, and there are some decorations (presumably the cheapest). There are various conversations that we get to see. Sasha is having some doubts, but her father talks to her and she’s resolved again. Shabelsky turns up, and before you know it, there are two, then three people having a good cry in the room, with only Lebedev unmoved. I loved it when Zanaida turns up crying as well. I could see that she was in tears at the thought of losing the money Ivanov owed her, as well as having to pay over more roubles for the dowry, rather than any concern for her daughter or emotional upset because there’s to be a wedding.

Ivanov arrives and does his best to persuade Sasha to give him up. She refuses, and after some more confrontations, including another interruption from the doctor, Ivanov takes his courage, and his revolver, into the next room and shoots himself.

Simply telling the story doesn’t begin to get across the impact of this production. With such strong performances, all the characters came to life, and the dialogue, which was modern yet seemed appropriate for the time, sparkled with wit. The character types that Chekov used throughout his career were all here, and I was struck by the way all the people, especially Ivanov, were suffering because of the community they lived in rather than the events of their lives or their personalities. It’s clear Chekov isn’t making any judgements of his characters, which is just as well given the behaviour of some of them. It was a tremendous performance, and possibly the best we’ll see of this play.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Chalk Garden – July 2008


By Enid Bagnold

Directed by Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 10th July 2008

Wow. Steve and I had seen this play before, but I had very little memory of it, as it hadn’t made much of an impression on me at the time. Today’s production was the complete opposite. Totally memorable, with magnificent performances and excellent writing.

The story is relatively simple. Mrs St Maugham advertises for a governess for her grand-daughter, and gets more than she bargained for. Of the four applicants invited for an interview, only one stays long enough to meet her prospective employer, and she seems very unqualified to take the post. The grand-daughter in question, Laurel, is one of those too-precocious-for her-own-good types, with lots of stories about how dreadful her life has been, all told in a causal, off-hand manner. There’s a manservant, Maitland, who appears to be a nervous wreck, and an elderly man who is looked after by a nurse. We never see this man, but he appears to have a strong influence in the household – he was the butler for many years – and the nurse occasionally comes down to pass on messages. Olivia, Mrs St Maugham’s daughter and Laurel’s mother, also makes an appearance or two, as she now wants to give Laurel a home with her and her new husband. She’s expecting another baby, and she clearly wants to get the family back together again.

Miss Madrigal, the one remaining applicant, seems to have some understanding of Laurel, but is reluctant to stay. She’s put off mainly by her own circumstances and is only persuaded to take the job through Olivia’s intervention. Miss Madrigal is also concerned about the garden. It’s a chalk garden, and the butler has been directing operations so badly that he’s trying to grow all sorts of plants, such as rhododendrons, that hate chalk soil. The analogy between the garden plants and Laurel is obvious, especially with a name like that. Within two months, at the start of the next scene, Miss Madrigal has restored order to both the house and the garden. Laurel is behaving herself – she hasn’t set fire to anything for a long time – and the garden is being licked into shape. The old butler isn’t happy at all, but being stuck in his room, he can’t do anything about it. The nurse does glare at Miss Madrigal when she comes down, but that doesn’t trouble her in the least.

Things change when an old friend of the family comes to visit. He’s a judge, and it turns out he presided over the one trial Miss Madrigal has attended – her own. She was a young girl, accused of murdering her younger step-sister, and her habit of telling lies to get attention backfired when nobody would believe her story at the trial. Now she’s naturally distressed to see the judge again, and convinced he’s rumbled her, she blurts out enough of the truth to jog his memory into remembering her fully.

With part of the truth out, there are ructions in the house. Olivia turns up to take Laurel away, and Miss Madrigal supports this. Mrs St Maugham wants to keep Laurel and send Miss Madrigal packing, but once Laurel has left with her mother, she finds the prospect of an empty house too frightening, and grudgingly comes to accept Miss Madrigal’s offer of companionship. The butler chap has died, just at the right moment, so Miss Madrigal can reign supreme in the chalk garden. The play ends with the two women beginning their edgy relationship, one that we know they’ll both benefit from, despite Miss Madrigal refusing to tell the other woman, and us, what we all want to know – did she do it?

Having said this was a simple story, I find I’ve taken a full page to give only a rough précis of the plot. Apart from the humour, of which there was a great deal, the enjoyment lay in teasing out the subtle clues about Miss Madrigal and her background. It became clear she’d been away from society for a long while – she didn’t have references, for example – and her ability to understand and relate to Laurel without joining in her games was a big clue. She wanted to help the child as much as she could, so she wouldn’t end up making the same mistakes as she had, the ones that led to her spending many long years in prison. Her knowledge of gardening was obviously learned there, and there’s one lovely scene where Miss Madrigal speaks out with more passion than usual for her, about taking care of the garden and the plants. It’s moving and very funny, and I must get the text as I can’t remember a word of it. Penelope Wilton played Miss Madrigal, and I suspect I’ll not see better this lifetime.

Margaret Tyzack as Mrs St Maugham will be hard to top as well. She got to perfection the scattiness and hauteur of the character – totally the wrong person to bring Laurel up. Some of her lines were incredibly funny, and impeccably delivered. The others in the cast were also very good, as I would expect from a Donmar production.

We were reminded both of Terence Rattigan and Ibsen in the style of the piece, with its gentle observation and symbolism drawn from nature. I’d certainly go to see this play again, though I won’t expect it to be of this standard.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Othello – January 2008


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 31st Janaury 2008

The advantage of the Donmar is that, even at the back of the stalls, we were only four rows away from the action. I do love this theatre.

This production was pretty good too. I haven’t seen Shakespeare done in this more than intimate space before, and it worked pretty well. The down side is that there’s no room to put extra characters on stage to pad out the larger scenes, so here the Duke is in conference with only one other member of Venice’s governing body, a trifle sparse for realism. But it does trim everything down to the essentials, and some aspects of these plays come out all the clearer for that.

Here the staging was minimalist, as you might expect. A grating ran along the floor in front of the back wall, and allowed for some dripping water. There were just a few hints of a canal-based society, in the rings attached to the back wall, for example. There was a lovely effect when some golden curtains dropped down from above to create the bedroom scene – a beautiful mist of golden rain. There were also some canopies used earlier in the play, but as we were in the back row, I didn’t get a very good view of these.

I also didn’t get a good view of James Laurenson as Brabantio, as he was located above us on the balcony for the opening scene. This wasn’t a problem, as most of the dialogue came across perfectly well, and Brabantio was soon downstairs, determined to get his revenge for his lost daughter. It was an OK performance, but again I found I lost a lot of his dialogue during the play. Roderigo was good, a gullible nobleman, but not quite as stupid as some I’ve seen.

Othello’s speech to the court was interesting. I got the distinct impression he’s a real storyteller, embellishing real incidents to get the most drama out of them – a drama queen but with some basis in truth. He also seems to believe the stories he tells, and this suggested to me his readiness to believe other people’s stories. Chiwetel Ejiofor paced his performance very well. At first he just didn’t seem to get what Iago was trying to tell him, showing he was free from any suspicions of Desdemona, then as he grasped what was being said, he was all too ready to embellish it himself. This man has never learned to temper his emotions with thought, unlike Iago, who has more thought than emotion in this production. At times I felt that Othello was falling into the traps as fast as Iago could set them, and some indication of Iago reacting to his good fortune would have been welcome. However.

Back to the earlier scenes. I was aware of Desdemona’s willingness to deceive her father – despite her demureness, there’s a real spirit there, and perhaps less pure innocence than she would have us believe. I did think her love for Othello was pure, but she’s not as above board as is often made out. After all, she prevaricates about the handkerchief instead of coming clean, so she’s certainly capable of lying. I found her less convincing towards the end, although these are difficult scenes for any actress.

The killing worked well, with Othello strangling her on the floor, then putting her on the bed. As we were in the back row, we could easily hear the “noises off” – they were right behind us – including Amelia’s calls which interrupt Othello in the act. This final scene has a strange rhythm. There are lots of long speeches from Othello, while others stand around, amazed, “and know not what to say” (Hermia, Dream), which can seem a little odd. Likewise, Amelia, determined to dish the dirt on her husband, now she knows just what he’s been up to, spends most of her time telling us she’s going to tell all, before getting round to actually doing it. I did feel this time that it was touch and go as to whether the listeners would believe her or her husband, but once he’d stabbed her, it was obvious to everyone who was telling the truth. This interpretation made a lot of sense to me.

So, overall I enjoyed the performance, even though I found myself nodding off a little at the start of the second half (more tired than I realised, and not enough happening on stage). My main concern was the weakness of Iago. He told us that he hated Othello and why, then he did everything he could to bring about his downfall, so I have to believe he meant it, yet I couldn’t have told from his body language or delivery of the lines that he was remotely bothered about the man. I don’t need actors to writhe around in fits of agony, nor go bouncing off walls, but I do think such apparent passion for revenge would give us some tell-tale signs, especially during the soliloquies. There are people who bottle up their emotions, true, but they’re a lot less interesting to see performed on stage than in other media – we’re there, for God’s sake, so give us something to work with! Anyway, the lines were spoken well, and I understood from those what was going on inside this Iago, so that will have to do.

Almost forgot – the play started very abruptly, as is appropriate, without the usual dimming of the lights. Just Iago and Roderigo rushing on, yelling out to Brabantio. Nice touch, and it meant we were all awake for the opening scene.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

John Gabriel Borkman – April 2007


By: Henrik Ibsen, in a new version byDavid Eldridge

Directed by: Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 5th April 2007

This was a fascinating play, and an excellent production. The intimate setting of the Donmar worked very well, as the play focused on the peculiar domestic situation of the Borkman family. The senior generation were basically a bunch of loony tunes trying to get by on their delusions, which all come to a sudden, shattering end when JGB’s son finally decides to speak up for himself, and to run off with the woman he loves (and a spare).

The set was simple. A row of windows at the back look out on to some trees, dead now in winter, as snow gently drifts down. A wide bench sofa in the middle has some grey crochet work on it, while to our left is a table and chair. Deborah Findlay, as Mrs Borkman, is restlessly sitting, crocheting, and pacing, as she waits for her son’s arrival. But the first arrival is a woman, unknown to the maid, who is obviously both well known to Mrs Borkman, and seriously disliked by her. Mrs Rentheim (Ella), is played by Penelope Wilton, and it turns out she had taken away Mrs Borkman’s son, Erhart, when JGB was sent to prison, many years ago. He’d used other people’s money to live a more lavish lifestyle than he could afford, and to speculate in the emerging market to exploit Norway’s mineral and other resources. We learn of the women’s rivalry for Erhart’s affection, and how Ella, whose money had been completely untouched by JGB’s depredations, bought the family estate, and allows them to continue living there. Mrs JGB seems particularly obsessed, repeating the idea that her son has a destiny to restore the family name. Like most of the characters in this drama, she feels she has suffered the worst, more than those who lost all their life savings, because she has suffered the loss of the family name. At the very end of the scene, Ella clarifies their relationship, as twin sisters.

Towards the end of their confrontation, Erhart arrives home, with Frida and a Mrs Wilton. They are off to a party at the Hinkel’s. Mrs Wilton is a very sociable woman, and it’s evident that Erhart is smitten with her. Frida heads upstairs to play piano for JGB, while Mrs Wilton takes her leave to go to the party. However, soon Erhart follows her, much keener for her company than his mother and aunt’s.

The second act is set in the upstairs room where JGB spends his days, pacing up and down, and occasionally being entertained by Frida. She plays Danse Macabre – his favourite, apparently. The room is similar to the one downstairs, but the windows are shuttered, and the furniture is different, with several piles of books dotted about the place. After she leaves, by the back stairs, her father, Vilhelm, arrives. He spends his spare time trying to be a poet, and writing a play. From JGB’s reactions, it’s clear he doesn’t think much of these efforts, but he does need an audience for his own views. As we need to hear them too, we’re treated to his megalomaniac diatribe against the forces which brought him down, specifically a lawyer whom he considered a friend, and to whom he’d confided too much. The lawyer, Hinkel (yes, the same one), passed some letters on to the authorities, and JGB was doomed. He’s spent the last eight years going over and over the trial – the evidence, the prosecution’s case, his own defence – and time and time again he comes to the same conclusion – he’s innocent! Yet again, we have a character who feels “more sinned against than sinning”. I suspect Ibsen is having a go at the older generation, perhaps those who seem to be constantly passing the buck for their decisions, and expecting the next generation to make everything better. I don’t know any historical context for this play, but that seems to be the message.

JGB and Vilhelm quarrel, and after Vilhelm leaves, JGB is visited by Ella. She’s determined to have Erhart for her last few months on earth, and she wants JGB to help her convince Mrs Borkman to let him go. When he attempts to help out (and this involves going downstairs, something he hasn’t done since he came back from prison eight years ago), everything falls apart. Mrs Borkman sends for Erhart, to force him to decide between them, but he drops a bombshell of his own. He’s leaving that very night, with Mrs Wilton and Frida. They’re travelling to Europe, where Frida will get further training in music, and probably some other things as well. Mrs Wilton is quite frank about the inevitability of their relationship ending, and Erhart’s eventual need for a replacement – she’s just making sure he’s got one handy. At last Erhart speaks up for himself and renounces all his elders’ plans for him. By this time, even JGB is planning to re-enter the world and rebuild his life, and wants Erhart to go with him. But Erhart will have none of them. He doesn’t want to work, he just wants to have fun. So off they go.

The penultimate scene sees the three older folk outside, looking for the sleigh that will carry Erhart away from them for good. They hear the ringing of silver bells further down the hill, and then Vilhelm appears. He’s come from his house to tell them the good news; that Frida’s off to study music in Europe. Mrs Wilton’s taken her, and there’s a tutor to teach her other subjects as well. JGB explains what’s happened, and he’s delighted – unlike the others, he seems to see good in everything that happens. He was even knocked down by the very sleigh that was taking his daughter away, an event that doesn’t bother him – he’s more impressed by the fact that the sleigh had silver bells, showing how wealthy Mrs Wilton is.

The final scene is JGB and Ella walking through the night to a bench they used to spend time together on. He’s refusing to enter that house ever again. He talks of the opportunities he can feel in his blood, the ores and other riches lying in the cold ground, calling to him to release them and let them fly. His one regret is not having been able to do that. He dies, from the cold, and slumps down on the bench. Mrs Borkman arrives, with the maid, and sends her for help. The two sisters talk, their animosity apparently at an end, but although they speak of holding  hands over the dead body, I noticed that this staging had them at either end of the stage, and showing no signs of getting any closer. (According to the stage directions in the text, they do hold hands over JGB’s dead body.) Interesting.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this play, and the actors portrayed the various characters brilliantly. Their willingness to show total obsession, rampant megalomania, and all sorts of other less popular traits, was admirable. Not a family you’d want to spend time with, but absorbing to watch on stage. None of the characters is appealing, although Ella does at least seem to be more concerned that Erhart should live his own life than any of the others. She was JGB’s great love, but he left her to Hinkel in return for the position at the bank which would allow him to carry out his schemes. She loved JGB, and was devastated when he renounced her. More unnecessary suffering.

I liked the honesty and humour of the production, and the symmetry of the opening scenes – three women confronting each other, and then three men, although Hinkel isn’t physically present. I found my sympathies changing a bit over the performance, though nothing could make JGB remotely likeable. A very enjoyable afternoon.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me