King Lear – April 2016

Experience: 9/10

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Max Webster

Produced by The Royal and Derngate in association with ATG

Venue: The Royal, Northampton

Date: Tuesday 12th April 2016

We’ll go a long way for a good Shakespeare production, and we were more than eager to see Michael Pennington give us his King Lear. We weren’t disappointed: although some aspects of the production could have been stronger, there was no mistaking the majestic central performance, and with his skill in delivering the lines, there was also no need for any gimmicks to support the performances. Shakespeare neat, on the rocks: just how we like it.

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Antony And Cleopatra – September 2012 (2)


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Janet Suzman

Venue: CFT

Date: Tuesday 18th September 2012

It’s been only two weeks since the opening performance, but this has really come on. The dialogue was razor sharp and the story-telling clear and detailed. I heard for the first time the passing reference Antony makes to Cleopatra’s past relationship with Pompey, as well as the one with Julius Caesar. The tempo was just that bit quicker, and despite an audience which seemed determined not to join in the fun, this was the best performance of this play that I can remember.

The staging was almost entirely as before; the only change was in the Monument scene, where the hoist worked tonight. Instead of pulling Antony up, he was lowered down through the trapdoor in the balcony, strapped into a chair device. Once down, he was laid on the mattress which was then pulled forward a little way so that it rested on the stage trapdoor. The dialogue was altered to reflect the change of direction, and the rest of the scene was the same as before. I did notice one additional minor change after this – the snake delivery man didn’t look at the throne this time, nor register who his customer was.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Antony And Cleopatra – September 2012

7/10 (preview)

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Janet Suzman

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 7th September 2012

This was the very first performance of this revived production. Kim Cattrall played Cleopatra before in substantially the same production in Liverpool back in 2010, with the same director, designer and many of the same cast but with a different leading actor (Jeffrey Kissoon took the role in 2010). The Liverpool Playhouse doesn’t have the thrust stage of the Festival Theatre, of course, so changes must have been made to the design, and it’s impossible to say how much the intervening two years has added to the cast’s understanding, so I’ll just concentrate on our experience of this production.

First, the set: from the publicity photos on the Liverpool Playhouse website, I would guess that the basic design is largely unchanged, though presumably the balcony comes further forward than before. A wall of bricks at the back, with a few window arches to break the monotony, had several tall screens in front of it, with the gaps creating doorways; towards the end a complete row of screens blocked the wall off altogether. In front of these was a curved balcony, supported by two pairs of metal pillars down which ran ladders. The open metalwork had simple lines, with a shiny black reflective surface. The floor was also shiny and black in a tiled effect, with a reddish circle in the middle. From the ceiling hung a number of eastern-style lamps; these were lowered at the start, to show we were in Egypt, and raised out of the way for the non-Egyptian scenes. A rectangular trapdoor was well used throughout the performance, particularly to bring up furniture for the various locations and also to remove Enobarbus’s body. The lighting changed significantly from scene to scene, creating a strong sense of location, and while the scene changes were sometimes a little on the slow side, on the whole they kept the pace up reasonably well; this is one aspect that will undoubtedly improve with practice.

The casting was interesting. The Egyptians were almost all played by black actors, with one Indian actor playing the soothsayer and Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra. I reckoned this was to show that the Ptolemies were actually Greek rulers, not native Egyptians. The Romans were all white, and for once this non-colour blind casting was very appropriate. Apart from Jeffrey Kissoon playing Antony, it looks as if this aspect of the casting was similar to last time, and while the style of the costumes was definitely the same, there were individual changes particularly to Cleopatra’s clothes. Kim Cattrall was also playing Cleopatra as a blond this time around; she’d been a brunette before. The costumes were modern for the Romans, with skimpy outfits for the Egyptians and an Indian style get-up for the soothsayer.

The performance began in darkness, with a hissing, whispering sound that made me think of the play’s political contrivances as well as the asps in the final act. I could just make out a figure rising up on a plinth in the centre of the stage, while others were sneaking on round the sides. The music was quite dramatic and when the spotlights hit Cleopatra she was standing on a dais with her back to us, arms outstretched, wearing a golden robe. I have to admit that when the lights shafted down on her, I had a momentary sense that I was watching a horror movie rather than a Shakespeare play, and this effect was strengthened a minute later when she turned around and I could see she was wearing a moulded golden mask – creepy! But I got over it pretty quickly, especially when Demetrius and Philo began their conversation up on the balcony while the rest of the cast stayed frozen down below.

Or almost frozen; during their dialogue Cleopatra turned round and her attendants began to remove her finery – presumably she’d been to a formal function and was now disrobing for some personal time. The final item was the face mask, and after she’d taken it off her dialogue with Antony could begin. She was kittenish, while he (played by Michael Pennington this time) was an old roué who was clearly infatuated with this beautiful younger woman. He capered about, clicking mini castanets, and generally behaving like an old fool, while she indulged and caressed him. Their delivery was clear and it’s nice to be able to hear the dialogue so well but the pace was a little slow, a fault which will again be sorted with a bit more practice.

After Antony and Cleopatra left, Demetrius and Philo finished the scene with their closing comments and departed. Down below, Cleopatra’s attendants had been clearing the stage and so were still present for the next scene with the soothsayer. An Indian actor had been cast in this role as with the 2010 version, and this soothsayer took on other jobs as well. For now, he simply looked briefly at each woman’s hand and then closed it up; there was little reaction to seeing their fates and he remained smooth, unruffled and courteous throughout.

Cleopatra arrived on the balcony with a black shawl over her head. She quickly left when Antony approached, and he heard the messengers on the main stage. Enobarbus’s comments about the women were again a little slow-paced, but we started to warm up with his comments about seeing Cleopatra die so often. That business done, Cleopatra returned and this time I could see how her line “I am sick and sullen” was an instruction to her servants so they could follow her lead in whatever playacting she had chosen. And just as well, as her tendency to collapse meant her servants had to be quick to hold her up. Mind you, she was soon on the floor, then up again, then back on the ground, and changed from sickness to anger in the blink of an eye. Antony was getting more and more frustrated that she wouldn’t listen to him, but when he did get his news out, including the information that Fulvia was dead, Cleopatra still turned it back on him, chiding him for not showing more sadness at the death of his wife. (Honestly, women!) He had almost left the stage before she called him back to say “something”, and her gentleness led to their reconciliation before his departure.

In Rome, Octavius wore a suit, while Lepidus was in formal military gear as I recall. Martin Hutson played Octavius last time as well, and his performance showed a lot of detail which was presumably based on the earlier run. His expressions were a little on the large side for this space and gave him a comical aspect, a bit like his Prince John in The Heart Of Robin Hood earlier this year, but his performance worked well in terms of the play as a whole. I think he was referring to papers in his hand for some of this speech; he certainly did so later on, after the whipped messenger had returned. His lines “this common body, like to a vagabond flag upon the stream, goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide, to rot itself with motion”, a disparaging comment upon the fickle nature of the plebeian class in Rome, was addressed in the audience’s direction, heaven knows why. He left the stage before the end of the scene, and Lepidus had to call him back so he could plead to be kept in the intelligence loop.

Down came the lamps again and we were back in Egypt. Cleopatra was lying back on the couch with her feet in Charmian’s lap. Mardian and Iras were sitting by the front of the stage, and Mardian was occasionally strumming his lute (or similar) and singing explosively to make Iras jump, which she did, as well as giggling. It wasn’t a pleasant sound, and Cleopatra soon shut him up. I did wonder, given that she was a queen, why she didn’t have musicians who were more to her liking, but who knows what goes on in the corridors of power? And with the casting emphasising that Cleopatra was Greek rather than Egyptian, I suspected that she may have felt the need to have an Egyptian musician on the payroll to reassure her subjects that she was part of their culture, regardless of her own preferences. I’m not sure if it was Alexas who brought the news about Antony or another messenger, but the dialogue was still good and clear, so this time I heard the lines about the “twenty several messengers”  which made sense of Cleopatra’s following comments. Charmian was so annoying, going on about Julius Caesar instead of praising Mark Antony, and then Cleopatra left to write yet another letter.

Menecrates became Menas for this production, and he and Pompey stood on the balcony for their discussion. Varrius arrived below, and I think Pompey went down one of the ladders to meet him. It was the first time someone had done this, and there was a loud noise as the bar protecting the actors from falling off the balcony was rattled back to give Pompey access to the ladder. This was a minor distraction, and hopefully they’ll find some way to do this more quietly during the previews. I got the gist of this scene, but the dialogue wasn’t as clear as elsewhere.

For the next scene in Rome, a table and some chairs were set up in the middle of the stage. A tray with two carafes and some glasses was placed on the table and someone [Lepidus] poured drinks for the two main guests. A glass of water was placed on the left of the table for Octavius, and a glass containing a red liquid on the right, for Antony. Lepidus and Enobarbus were chatting while this was going on, and then Caesar and Antony arrived, each coming on from their side of the stage and bristling at the other. They moved to the table, and Lepidus, standing by the middle chair, tried to bring them together with his speech. They unbent enough to pronounce the basic civilities, but when Caesar said “sit”, Antony refused, saying “sit, sir”, and they had a mini confrontation over who would sit first. Octavius lost out, and tempers were soon rising again over the rebellion by Fulvia and Antony’s brother. Various matters were raised by Octavius and Antony dealt with them all, rebuffing Enobarbus when he made his comment about borrowing “one another’s love for the instant”. Agrippa’s suggestion of the marriage between Antony and Octavia didn’t seem to be instigated by Octavius this time, and when the question was put to Antony he took his time, draining the wine glass before giving his circumlocutory answer. Again, Lepidus was almost left behind when Octavius and Antony hurried off to Antony’s wedding.

Enobarbus’s description of Cleopatra was well done, and then Octavius, Antony and Octavia entered for a very short scene. One more change to the Liverpool production; CFT had sprung for an extra actress to play Octavia, instead of Pompey having to double the part. The soothsayer was on the balcony, and gave Antony the warnings about Octavius, after which Antony made it clear that this was a political marriage only; he would be back with Cleopatra the first chance he got.

I think the next short scene with Agrippa, Maecenas and Lepidus was dropped, and we were back in Egypt again. Mardian’s music was still not to Cleopatra’s liking, hence her quick change of mind when he turned up with his instrument. The messenger arrived, and had the usual difficulty delivering his message, thanks to Cleopatra’s constant interruptions. When she said “there is gold”, she indicated Alexas who was holding a folder and just looked at her. When she offered more gold, he reacted by shaking his head and turning away – apparently the coffers were empty, or else he was upset that she was squandering her wealth on so many undeserving people; either way it was amusing. Her servants had to haul her off the poor messenger after she heard the bad news, but once she recovered herself she started to show some of the nobility of a queen.

The next scene had Pompey and his men on the balcony and the rest below.  Again, Pompey wasn’t entirely clear, but his emotional reaction to the memory of his “noble father” was. He turned and sobbed for a bit on the back railing, and I was surprised to find that Octavius’s line “take your time”, which sounded like a modern insertion, is actually in the text. Pompey came down a ladder during the dialogue – I think it was when he was spelling out the terms of the proposal – and was on the stage when he and Mark Antony shook hands.

After the leaders left to feast together, Menas and Enobarbus had their private chat which made it clear that Octavius and Antony would be at war before long. The others then returned – the servants’ dialogue was cut – and in all the activity I didn’t see Octavius cleaning the top of the barrel or box he was going to sit on. Fortunately, Steve spotted this action; it’s good to have two pairs of eyes at these times. With his suit and business-like manner, Octavius was well established as a prissy politician, very different from Antony, the grizzled veteran of many a battle. Their difference was emphasised in this scene, with Octavius very reluctant to drink, then not able to keep it down, then standing on the table to announce that he was leaving, then nearly falling off it as he made to leave. Antony helped him down, and it was all nicely done.

The rest of the feast was fine, with Lepidus definitely the worse for wear, and enough reaction from the others to indicate the humour of the crocodile description. Menas took Pompey to the front of the stage for their little chat, and the song may have used the lyrics in the text – I didn’t hear them well enough. I don’t remember the next scene with Ventidius explaining the danger of a lieutenant outperforming his general, although it may not have been clear what was going on; either way, Enobarbus and Agrippa were soon back on stage, making fun of Lepidus and his fawning over Antony and Octavius. Octavia’s leave-taking followed on, and when she broke off her line I thought at first she’d forgotten it, but she was just in character.

Back in Egypt, Cleopatra interrogated the messenger about Octavia. He did his best to please this time, but his guess at Octavia’s age (thirty) was received in stony silence. The rest of his comments made Cleopatra happy and she did a better job of twisting the information to her liking than Malcolm Tucker. Two short scenes showed the start of the conflict between Antony and Octavius; in the first Antony agreed to let Octavia go to Rome to attempt to broker a peace between the two leaders, while in the second Enobarbus and Eros discussed the latest state of play, informing us that Lepidus had been disposed of. These scenes felt bitty, because the changeovers took too long compared to the length of the scene, but they did get across the important information. Octavius and his men were on the balcony while they discussed Mark Antony’s behaviour in Egypt, but Octavius came down one of the ladders once his sister arrived and they took the interval after this scene.

When they restarted, Cleopatra came on dressed for war, arguing with Enobarbus over her participation in the imminent battle. Her armour seemed to consist of a golden breastplate and not much else, and since this piece of equipment was shaped like a naked female chest it was no surprise that Canidius, who arrived with Antony, spent most of the scene staring at the two round bulges in her armour.

Despite the protestations of his men, Antony was determined to fight at sea while Cleopatra seemed more like a bimbo than a queen, supporting her man with no regard for reasoned arguments. The next scenes were also short but as they alternated between the stage and the balcony they seemed to flow better. I also felt that the cast looked more confident in the second half, as if they’d started to get a feel for the space. We learned of Cleopatra’s flight from the battle and that Antony followed her, and then we saw the man himself, discouraged and disheartened, telling his men to take his treasure and leave. As they left, Cleopatra crept on from the back of the stage, wrapped in a black cloak, and again they were reconciled.

The soothsayer rather than the schoolteacher brought Antony’s message to Octavius, who was again on the balcony at this point. Seeing that the man was a foreigner, Octavius leant forward and spoke slowly and loudly, in a patronising manner. It was very funny, and when Octavius had finished with his instructions there was a pause and then Octavius, with prompting, did the anjali mudra (hands held together in front of the chest) to which the soothsayer responded and left. Octavius then sent Proculeius to seduce Cleopatra away from Antony.

In Alexandria, Enobarbus and Cleopatra were joined by Antony and the soothsayer to discuss Octavius’s offer. Thidias arrived to speak to Cleopatra, and she was paying close attention to everything he said while she calculated her best move in the situation. She was only too happy to agree to the idea that Antony had forced her into his bed, and Enobarbus quickly left to inform Antony what was going on. Antony’s rage led to Thidias being whipped by Antony’s men, while Cleopatra kept quiet, observing the scene during Antony’s temper tantrum. She soon had him eating out of her hand again, and when she mentioned “it is my birthday”, Antony clapped his hand to his mouth, the traditional gesture for a man who’s forgotten a woman’s birthday.

Octavius was again reading a letter for the next scene and referred to it as he listed Antony’s insults. I did think he could have gestured elsewhere for the whipped messenger to suggest he’d actually spoken to the man, but it didn’t make much difference overall. Antony’s dismal speech to his servants was fine, and then the soldiers entered both on the balcony and below for the strange music scene, often dropped. Cleopatra helped to put on Antony’s armour next, and managed to buckle on a whole kneepad without breaking a nail.

Again the scenes came thick and fast. Antony learned that Enobarbus had left and sent him his treasure, while Octavius ordered that Antony’s former troops be put in the front of the battle, and as he spoke these lines he looked directly at Enobarbus who had already come on stage and stood below him. Then Enobarbus was told that his treasure had arrived and headed off to die. Antony and his men came on stage, rejoicing at their victory, and when the soldier he commended to Cleopatra was given her hand, he tried to sneak a second kiss but Antony snatched her hand away first – very possessive, this chap.

Enobarbus’s death scene was staged with a shallow sunken area in which he laid himself before dying, so his body was easily removed under cover of darkness. Even shorter scenes now, and the actors hardly had time to leave the stage between them, so dramatic changes of lighting helped to make each scene different. The battle lost, Antony was in a rage (again) with Cleopatra, and she slunk off while he called for Eros.

The road to the monument was along the balcony, with Mardian being sent to give the message of Cleopatra’s death, and when Antony heard this news he went for the assisted suicide option. Unfortunately, while he stood, bracing himself against one of the balcony’s pillars, Eros demonstrated the unassisted suicide option and stabbed himself in the guts. Call me picky if you like, but I don’t believe in the stab-yourself-in-the-guts-and-die-instantly trick. After all, Antony botched his own suicide and lived for quite a lot of lines afterwards, so why shouldn’t Eros?

However, to get back to the play, Antony did his best by jamming the knife into one of the joints of the pillar and then ran onto it, but he wasn’t successful and lay on the ground, groaning. His soldiers refused to finish him off and one of them took Antony’s knife to Octavius – not the actual killing weapon as far as I could see. The next messenger from Cleopatra arrived too late, as usual, and they didn’t seem to make much of this moment which can be quite funny.

When we first saw the set, we reckoned we knew where the monument scene would be played, but as it turned out we were completely wrong. There were two men on the balcony before the scene started; they did some work with wires and hooks and opened up a trapdoor in the balcony floor, but something must have gone wrong because the hooks were taken up again, the trapdoor closed and the men left the balcony, while Cleopatra and her staff came on to the stage from the right hand side. There was just enough of a climb to explain the need to “draw him hither” and they put Antony on a mattress which had been placed on the stage trapdoor. We’re assuming there was some sort of technical hitch tonight, and perhaps we saw Plan B in action; we’ll be interested to see what happens in this scene next time.

They played out the scene on the stage, with Antony held in Cleopatra’s arms till he died. She then said her lines and stayed kneeling beside his body, head down, arms across her chest, unmoving. Her women were concerned that she had died too, but she was just overwhelmed by her loss.

Up on the balcony Octavius was still micro-managing everything, and when Antony’s man turned up with the knife, Octavius was terrified and lunged to the far side of the balcony to stay away from him. Once Octavius realised that Antony was dead he came down the ladder and took the knife himself, wiping it clean before the end of the scene as he invited the soldier who had brought it to go to his tent to hear his version of history. The messenger from Cleopatra was Alexas, and Octavius sent Proculeius to secure Cleopatra for his triumphal march through Rome.

In her Monument, Cleopatra had indeed learned some lessons about the transitory nature of power. Dressed in simple black, she was cool towards Proculeius, though she bowed low to him to demonstrate her submission to Caesar; her women followed her lead. When the Roman guards rushed on, they roughed up the women and stabbed Mardian. When Dolabella arrived, he dismissed Proculeius and the guards and they left, taking Mardian’s dead body with them. Dolabella was much more sympathetic, and Cleopatra soon knew the truth about Octavius’s intentions.

When Octavius himself was announced, Cleopatra and her women all bowed down in a semi-circle with their veils over their faces, making it impossible to tell who was who. Octavius asked “which is the queen of Egypt?”, and Dolabella walked over to stand beside Cleopatra. They included the treasury section, with Alexas as the treasurer, and he handed Octavius a folder which presumably contained the details of Cleopatra’s wealth, or at least those parts she was willing to admit to. Octavius possibly handed the folder back to Cleopatra when he told her “still be’t yours”, but she wasn’t fooled by his charm for all her bowing and sweetness towards him.

The asp basket was brought on by a cheerful chap who just wouldn’t stop talking. He clearly didn’t realise who he was talking to until the end of his dialogue, when he was leaving. Charmian and Iras returned with Cleopatra’s throne, and when he saw this he registered shocked surprise and then hurried off the stage.

Charmian and Iras dressed Cleopatra in the same golden robe she wore at the start, plus her crown – no face mask this time as she needs to speak dialogue. After Iras collapsed, Cleopatra sat on her throne and Charmian placed the basket in front of her. She took the first asp and placed it on her breast, and when she took the second snake she placed it on the other side of her breast so that when she died she was sitting there with her arms folded over her chest. Charmian had to grab the basket quickly after the guard came in, but managed to get the asp out in time, and then Octavius finished the play. I wasn’t sure if the look he gave Dolabella meant that he suspected his involvement in Cleopatra’s death.

There’s more to come with this production, and I’m confident it will be much stronger when we see it again in a couple of weeks’ time. The pace will undoubtedly be quicker, and the cast will be used to the space and be judging their performances better. Tonight they were simply too big, presumably to make sure they carried to the back of the auditorium, but as we found from The Deep Blue Sea last year it’s amazing how well small details can travel in this theatre, and with a play like this which combines the epic and the intimate, this may be just about the perfect space to perform it in. But it was a good start and an enjoyable performance even at this early stage.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

The Syndicate – August 2011


By: Eduardo de Filippo

Directed by: Sean Matthias

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 16th August 2011

We’ve seen some of De Filippo’s work before – Inner Voices, Filumena and Saturday, Sunday and Monday that I specifically remember. His detailed explorations of Neapolitan life are certainly interesting, and probably very accurate, but I felt tonight that this was another play in which the research done by the cast during rehearsal gave them an insight and connection to the characters that didn’t come across fully to the audience, at least not to me. The performances were all excellent of course, but the writing was aimed at those in the know, and we weren’t. Having said that, it was a very good production, and I wouldn’t object to seeing this play again sometime – perhaps I’d get more out of it second time around.

The set was fabulous. We’d seen it several times already, as some of the rehearsed readings of Rattigan plays that Chichester are doing this summer had this set as a backdrop. The location is the reception room of the local Mafia boss, Don Antonio Barracano at his villa in the hills above Naples. A sweep of French windows round the back of the stage was matched by a beautiful inlaid parquetry floor with a classical oval pattern in the middle. There were doors to right and left, and also a couple of paintings, one on each side of the windows, which concealed such useful devices as the telephone. To the right stood the Don’s desk, a large table with one chair – his – and there was a comfy chair and table centre front. A large chandelier hung in the centre of the room. The opulence was clear.

The story was fairly simple. Don Antonio is the real authority in the area – the police and judges are just a bureaucratic nuisance that has to be endured from time to time – and his day is largely spent dealing with the various disputes and requests from his ‘subjects’. One of these encounters leaves the Don with a serious wound, and as various ‘witnesses’ gather for a farewell feast, the question is: who will succeed this powerful man, and what will happen to his empire as a result?

The play begins with a shooting, triggered by an argument between two men who are rival rent boys working the docks to pick up sailors. One, belonging to the Don’s clan, had been ill, and when came back to work he found another man had taken his place, a very lucrative spot. The wounded man is brought into the room and the doctor (Michael Pennington) is woken up to treat him. It all looked horribly real to us, but I’m sure no actors were harmed in the making of this performance. When the Don has risen, breakfasted (on bread and milk) and dressed, he deals with these two strictly but very fairly, and although I wasn’t entirely convinced there’d be no more trouble, it was a much better result than lots of bloodshed.

That was the gist of the Don’s approach, which emerged as he talked with the doctor, a long-time partner in crime, and some of the others. He just wanted to make the world a better place. This could seem absurd, but this was an earlier time, when the Mafia weren’t into hardcore drugs and sex trafficking, and a large part of their attraction for ordinary Italians in the post-war years was their ability to maintain order when the state institutions were in a shambles. As we’re not shown the Don actually being violent, they could just about get away with this approach, although I did find the Don’s exculpation of his Rottweiler’s attack on his wife very creepy. Through questioning her, he discovered that she’d crossed the line by entering the chicken coop, and as the dogs were meant to guard the chickens, amongst other things, she actually caused the attack herself! Her willingness to agree with him was comic, but also suggested that he’s not the big softy he was claiming to be.

Another young man turns up with a pregnant woman, and asks for the Don’s help. He and the woman want to get married, and there are family difficulties. In the course of dealing with the young man’s problems, the Don is stabbed by accident, and realises that he hasn’t got long to live. To save his family from the intrusion of the authorities, he heads for their town house in Naples, and arranges an impromptu feast, with the doctor and lots of the minor characters invited. In his final speech, he passes control of his organisation to the doctor, who’d previously been keen to give it all up and leave. Now, with the Don dead in the next room, he not only assumes the mantle of Don-ship, he displays a vigorous enthusiasm for his new job, quite at odds with his earlier sentiments. It’s a believable volte-face, reminiscent of many similar changes of heart, especially by politicians, but although it was credible I didn’t find it an entirely satisfactory conclusion to the play. I wasn’t engaged enough by the characters to care what happened to them, so the denouement, while it was a slight surprise, didn’t particularly move me. Just one of those things.

Ian McKellen gave a good performance as the Don, full of whimsical fancies with the occasional suggestions of both menace and madness (and what can be more menacing than madness in powerful people?). I particularly liked his solution to the young man’s debt problem; when the greedy creditor wouldn’t let up on his demands, the Don paid back the debt himself, using the stash of transparent money he kept in the (locked) invisible drawer at the front of his desk. The threat under the light-heartedness was clear to see, and the creditor couldn’t say no.

While I agree with the observation that it’s how the other people treat you that shows who the king is, I did feel that a bit more from Ian McKellen would have helped in this department. He was just a bit too cuddly at times, so the reactions from the others were sometimes at odds with his interpretation rather than supporting it. He did cover a fair range in his performance, and no doubt he enjoyed himself in the process, but perhaps a bit more steel from him would have helped overall. Again, we’re not Neapolitans, so we needed a little more information at times to help us relate to these people and their situations more fully.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Love Is My Sin – January 2011


By: Wiliam Shakespeare

Directed by: Peter Brook

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 7th January 2011

This piece was devised by Peter Brook to link a number of Shakespeare’s sonnets together. First performed in Paris, here we had Michael Pennington and Natasha Parry delivering a series of sonnets exploring love and time from different angles. While I’m fascinated by the sonnets, I find their language too complex to be readily understood, and so although some lines came across really well, for the most part “it was all Greek to me”. I found Natasha Parry’s delivery a little weak, and our position didn’t help, as our view was regularly blocked. The music was charming, but with the heat in the auditorium, I nodded off a few times when the music took over. Still, it was a pleasant evening, and I would still be happy to attend other sonnet readings in future.

The highlight of the evening was an unexpected treat – Peter Brook and Michael Boyd in a post-show conversation. Paul Allen made the third, and I was totally taken with Peter Brook’s deep listening presence, and the tremendously good sense that he talked. His view on professors and their declarations about Will’s work were spot on (and good fun), and although I don’t remember all the details, I thoroughly enjoyed his contributions.

Michael Boyd was equally entertaining. In fact, the two made a great double act. I left the theatre feeling I’d been in the presence of two masters of theatre, that as with great theatre I’d been uplifted and improved just by being there. A great night.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Collaboration – August 2008


By Ronald Harwood

Directed by Philip Franks

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Tuesday 26th August 2008

The set was as for Taking Sides, but whole. The wall is unripped, the floor uncracked. There are no suitcases on the balcony or anywhere else, and so we have a door back left. The furniture is period (don’t ask me which one), with elegant legs and lots of lovely wood – piano, tables, chairs. There were two (or possibly three) telephones, a footstool and a radio. Warm orange light shines through diamond patterned windows, casting long shadows across the stage. This represents the Strauss villa, while a curved pattern of light and shadows slanted the other way shows us Zweig’s pad in Vienna.

The title Collaboration is a nice play on words. The story concerns Richard Strauss’s artistic collaboration with Stefan Zweig on an opera, The Silent Woman (based on Ben Jonson’s play Epicoene). We also get to see some of the effects the Nazi government had on artistic affairs, and the pressure that was put on Richard Strauss to collaborate with them. His son had married a Jewish woman, so she and the two grandchildren were under direct threat. This point was hammered home by a thoroughly unpleasant chap called Hinkel, one of those oily young thugs the Hitler Youth was so good at producing.

The story ranges in time from 1931, when Strauss is desperate for a new librettist after the death of his previous collaborator, to 1948, when he had to testify before a Denazification Board in Munich. In 1931, his wife, a practical and formidable woman, suggests he write to Zweig, and the response is both immediate and rapturous. Zweig can’t believe his luck, admires Strauss’s work beyond praise, and already has a couple of ideas for operas. The second one, an adaptation of the Jonson play, is the one that appeals to Strauss, who goes by gut instinct on these things. I was so aware during this scene how familiar educated Europeans were with a wide range of literature, plays, etc., and it reminded me how insular we Brits can be sometimes.

Zweig comes up with a synopsis that greatly pleases the composer, and after a major tizzy when Zweig announces he can’t start on Act 1 for a month (Strauss wants it yesterday), the two settle down to a companionable working relationship. Strauss’s wife has established for us that Zweig has an attractive young secretary who’s devoted to her boss, and an absent wife, so at least one of the plot developments won’t be a surprise.

It’s taken us quite a while to get this far, and although the performances were fine, I was finding it all rather dull; a bit too much biography and not enough drama. The next scene started the adrenalin flowing, with the secretary, Lotte, turning up at Zweig’s house with blood on her head and on her blouse. Although Austria was still independent, the Nazi influence was spreading across the border (Zweig lived close enough to see Hitler’s country retreat up in the mountains), and a couple of young men had tormented Lotte and her friend, with no one intervening on their behalf. It’s the first signs of the brutality to come, although none of that is shown in any great detail.

The Nazis start to control the arts in Germany, and soon appropriate their most famous composer for their own ends. As they’re having a spot of bother with Furtwängler, they appoint Strauss as President of the Reich Chamber of Music, with Furtwängler as his deputy. This is just the first step. When Strauss insists that he must work with Zweig, a Jew, the authorities allow a few performances of The Silent Woman, but do their best to keep Zweig uncredited. Strauss overrules this, and gets into more trouble. He writes a letter which would seem innocuous now, but in declaring himself not to be anti-Semitic, he falls foul of Nazi dogma and has to be put in his place. This is where the threat to his family is spelled out, and it’s also when the wall rips apart. He’s told to resign from the Reich Chamber of Music post, and ordered to write a hymn for the Olympics the following year, which he does. Meanwhile, in Austria, Zweig and Lotte scarper while they still can, and end up in Brazil, where they carry out a suicide pact in 1942. The final scene shows us Strauss, with his wife’s help, giving evidence to a denazification hearing. This covers the rest of the war, and supposedly gives us Strauss’s real feelings, though I would take that with a pinch of salt.

The biggest problem with this play is the lack of dramatic tension. Zweig and Strauss get on so well that there’s none there. They get on so well that they find themselves actually becoming friends, an unusual experience for both of them from what they say. The conflict with the Nazis does improve things a bit, but it’s so one-sided that it doesn’t last. It’s sad to see what happens artistically, of course, but that’s just narration, and we don’t see much of the later horrors as the bulk of the play takes place before the war. So without some gripping focus to the play, what do we have?

Well, it’s interesting to see something of how the Nazis developed prior to the war. It’s always difficult to see this sort of thing clearly with hindsight, as we can’t really know how much the German people knew, what other speculations and rumours were part of daily life, etc., but from this play it seemed to me that only an idiot would have been unaware of the Nazis’ intent, even if the full extent of their activities was hidden. Zweig knows enough to leave ahead of disaster, and Strauss’s own efforts to rescue his daughter-in-law’s family, unsuccessfully, shows that he didn’t believe they were off to some sunny holiday camp where they could get on with their lives without inflicting their sordidness on the pure Aryan race (they did talk some rubbish, these Nazis).

There were some good lines, the running time was only two hours, and from what I saw of the performances, they were very good. The staging, with the two main locations being on the diagonals, had one unfortunate side effect. Particularly at the Strauss villa, one or other character would sit in the chair almost directly in front of us. This meant we had such an oblique view of their profile that they might as well have had their back to us. This is to be expected in this kind of acting space, and it can work as  long as the characters move around. Sadly, once a character was in that chair, they rarely moved, so we found ourselves in some of the worst seats in the house. I admire Michael Pennington greatly, and I would have loved to see his performance when Strauss is being confronted with his family’s vulnerability, but alas, I missed it all. Fine as Martin Hutson’s Hinkel was, seeing only one side of that discussion was not enough.

Of course, Steve has had a moderating effect by explaining his view of the play. In Taking Sides, the difficulties are in the conflict between the two men at the centre of the play, whereas in Collaboration, the two central characters do have a good relationship, but external forces make it impossible for them to work together. It’s a good point, and had the external forces been better represented, and from earlier in the drama, I might have changed my mind a bit. We both felt the play was a bit slow in the first half, but picked up in the second. Had the people at the post-show for Taking Sides not been so enthusiastic about this play, we might have had different expectations and enjoyed it more. As it was, we both felt it was not as powerful as others had made out.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Taking Sides – August 2008


By Ronald Harwood

Directed by Philip Franks

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 14th August 2008

We saw this play when it premiered in the Minerva back in 1995, with Michael Pennington playing the part of Major Arnold. Tonight he was playing Furtwängler, so apart from anything else it was going to be interesting to see his performance in the other main role. We’ve also seen a touring production which had Neil Pearson and Julian Glover as the two leads; as I haven’t got any notes for these priors, I’ll probably discuss them a bit later on.

The set had a white painted panelled wall across the back, coming apart at the seams – the top was starting to lift away on the right hand side, and the panelling on that side of the wall was disappearing. The balcony on our left held a jumble of suitcases, which also cascaded down onto the set below, covering a doorway on that side. The suitcases were ghostly with dust. There were three desks, filing cabinets, chairs and a phonograph. The grey wooden flooring also had a crack running across it. Things looked bad. The balcony also turned out to be a waiting area for the first two interviewees – we saw them up there when the play started. Delightfully, this set didn’t do anything in the course of the production, it just sat there allowing the action to happen. Much as I like the technological magnificence of all-singing, all-dancing sets, it’s nice to let the play speak for itself occasionally, too.

The story is set in Berlin in 1946, and concerns some interviews conducted by an American major who’s checking up on Furtwängler’s potential involvement in the Nazi regime. Did he support them or didn’t he? Although the play is fictitious, there was an investigation into Furtwängler’s activities at that time, as part of his denazification request. There are no notes or records of the interviews, so this is all guesswork on the author’s part, but I like the result.

There are two other members of the interrogation team. One is David Wills, a young Lieutenant, Jewish, who’s helping Arnold, but whose love of music makes him inclined to help Furtwängler, and the other is Emmi Straube, working as Arnold’s secretary. She’s German, and is the daughter of one of the conspirators who tried to assassinate Hitler but failed.  There are a number of references to that, and to the respect people have for her because of her father’s heroism.

We see two brief interviews before the great man himself enters the room. The first is with Helmut Rode, his second violinist, who praises Furtwängler and tells them the mandatory baton story, and the second is a woman called Tamara Sachs, whose husband Furtwängler saved from the Nazis before the war. Her husband had been the most promising pianist of his generation, but also Jewish, and Furtwängler agreed to help once he heard the young man play. Unfortunately, they went to live in Paris, and when the Germans took over France, her husband ended up in the camps, where he died. She is passionate in Furtwängler’s defence, and has a list of some of the people he helped to get out of Germany. From the major’s response, it’s clear he’s not interested in the evidence unless it points to Furtwängler’s guilt.

When he interviews Furtwängler, things don’t go quite according to plan, and the major loses his temper. Furtwängler is also capable of throwing a strop – he is a musical genius, after all – so the scene gets quite lively. The matter is unresolved when a call comes from the British, informing Major Arnold that they’ve found the archives of a man who helped run the Nazi’s culture ministry, so there’s a chance that they’ll be able to dig up some dirt from those files. Arnold sends Furtwängler away so he can check this out, and hopefully nail him another day.

The second half reiterates the first. First there’s a short scene where Helmut Rode is persuaded (some might say bribed) to turn against Furtwängler and dish the dirt. He does his best, but it’s mostly pretty tame, and I found myself thinking of how unreliable evidence can be when the source is being paid for it. The alleged telegram to Hitler on his birthday, for example, never actually emerges into the light of day. Then there’s a reprise of Tamara Sachs’ evidence, when a large bundle of letters arrives with a covering letter for “to whom it may concern”. These letters are from lots of people whom Furtwängler helped, and Tamara has passed them on as she is back in Paris, and worried that she won’t be able to attend when they hold the hearing in order to give this evidence herself.

Ignoring all the letters, Arnold presses on with the interview. This time, he’s got more specific questions to ask. When he tackles Furtwängler about the birthday telegram to Hitler and Furtwängler denies all knowledge, David helpfully suggests that Arnold produce the telegram, to refresh the maestro’s memory. Arnold has to concede defeat on that one, but soon brings up other information which suggests Furtwängler has less than pure motives for staying in Germany. He had a steady string of women, for example, and has lost count of the number of his illegitimate children, suggesting he’s produced more than a few. He was offered a house and bomb shelter, but refused both. The evidence that he had his competitors and critics sent off to the Russian front was shaky to begin with, and Furtwängler soon deals with Arnold’s botched attacks on these grounds. But now he’s less confident than before, and feels the need to explain, to justify himself. He’s realised how his situation looks to outsiders who haven’t been through the nightmare that was life in Germany under the Nazis, and he tells us about the difficulties of working under a regime that was constantly looking to undermine anyone with authority who wasn’t fully supportive of their ideals and power. He describes himself as naïve for believing that art and politics could be kept separate, but asserts that in his view the importance of music in assisting people to escape from the horrors of their lives took priority for him. Where there’s music and beauty, life can’t be all bad.

This provokes a furious outburst from Major Arnold. We’ve heard earlier that he has actually been at the camps, and seen for himself the horrors they contained. He’s already shown us he has nightmares, and now the terrible effects of what he’s seen come pouring out of him. He’s beyond angry at what the Germans have done to their fellow human beings, and the idea that somehow the playing of beautiful music could compensate for that makes him snarl with rage. This is why he wants to ‘get’ Furtwängler – he wants revenge. He wants to determine who were the ‘bad’ Germans, and who were the ‘good’ Germans, like Emmi’s father. He sees Emmi has her hands over her ears – she greatly respects Furtwängler, and has been distressed by his treatment in the interviews – and he tells her to remove them (the hands, not the ears). She does, but when he goes on about how heroic her father was, she snaps, and lets out an almighty scream, which stops everyone dead in their tracks. Finally, she admits what she’s known all along; that her father only joined the conspiracy when the war was already lost – he was no hero.

Furtwängler himself is overcome with the strain of it all, and has to be helped off stage. With Arnold making a telephone call to confirm that they can mount some sort of prosecution, even if they have to use tame journalists to spread lies about the man, David puts on one of the records of Furtwängler’s work to try and drown out everything else. Arnold yells at him to turn it off, but he just turns it up louder. And so the play fades out.

This was quite a powerful production. As I watched Michael Pennington’s performance, I found the memory of the earlier production became clearer. Daniel Massey had played Furtwängler then, and he kept his character much more imperious and confident throughout. When left with the silence in the first interview (this was Major Arnold’s trick – he left a gap which the interviewees felt compelled to fill; not so Furtwängler) Daniel Massey was calm and self assured. Julian Glover was equally unconcerned. But Michael Pennington played it with more variation. His Furtwängler was slightly nervous, looking around a little before deciding to wait for another question. Not so much guilty as unsure of what he was expected to do.

There were other variations I noticed as well. The first production was directed by Harold Pinter, so naturally the emphasis then was the two men confronting each other in a room cut off from the outside world, having a verbal battle of wills (seem familiar?). It was very intense and powerful. Michael Pennington’s Major Arnold was more focused, more intelligent, and I wasn’t so aware of the war time context, nor do I remember the other characters so well. With the second production, which we saw at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, the proscenium arch stage naturally made the action less intimate and less intense, but I was much more aware of the situation in which these people were working. Julian Glover was just as commanding as Furtwängler, but Neil Pearson’s Major Arnold gave me the impression of a man close to a nervous breakdown, who had been so deeply affected by the sights at the death camps that it was only this work that was keeping him together. I also remember Emmi’s scream from this production – it was the strongest of the three, and had the most impact on me.

What I liked most about this production were the performances from the minor characters. Helmut Rode (Pip Donaghy) was a broken, shuffling man, ready to do whatever it took to survive, as he would have done during the Nazi years. Tamara Sachs (Melanie Jessop) was a strong woman, who had known great love, and who was prepared to go to great lengths to help someone she revered, not only as the saviour of her husband, but as a great man in his own right. Emmi (Sophie Roberts) was a tense, self-contained young woman, who saw much and said little, and David Wills, the young lieutenant (Martin Hutson), was a strong presence, representing the person with an open mind and a love of music, giving an insight into the dilemma that was facing us, the audience, as we tried to figure out right from wrong. Where I felt this production let the play down somewhat was in the relatively unambiguous playing of Major Arnold. He came across as a bully with an agenda, totally unprepared to listen to any point of view but his own, and with absolutely no regard for any evidence that didn’t fit into his pre-arranged scheme. His arguments always seemed slanted and irrelevant; this may be partly due to our familiarity with the play, so that revelations about Furtwängler’s illegitimate children, for example, don’t come across as significant now – the papers are full of these sorts of stories about public figures so we’re not so shocked as we used to be. Perhaps I was also influenced by the pre-show talk we went to, where we learned of Richard Strauss’s greater involvement with and support of the Nazi regime. In this talk, Furtwängler was clearly referred to as not being a Nazi sympathiser, so perhaps that coloured my judgement more than I realised.

But in the end, I still found that the basis of the Major’s arguments was completely unsound, and given the extent of Furtwängler’s help for endangered musicians, I could only feel sympathy for the man. I can still see Major Arnold’s point of view, but it wasn’t presented strongly enough for me this time around. In fact, checking the play text for the order of events, I found myself reading lines that I just didn’t hear during the play. Were they cut, did I miss them, or were they just not delivered clearly enough for me to register them?

There was a post-show discussion, and I find more people are staying behind for these now. Michael Pennington was asked about the differences between the two productions he’s been in, and was very diplomatic, but did point out that while he had a pretty good memory of Daniel Massey’s performance as Furtwängler, given the number of times he’d seen him do it only a few feet away, he found those memories faded quite quickly as he got into the part for himself. The ambiguity of the play was mentioned quite a bit, and the way that everyone is left to make up their own minds was definitely appreciated. Ronald Harwood has obviously been closely involved with both of these productions (see Collaboration later this month), as there were a number of references to his input. When someone questioned the accuracy of the dialogue, we were told that Ronnie had said ‘you know, Richard the Third didn’t actually say “Now is the winter of our discontent”’, which got a good laugh, as well as being a very good point. Although I didn’t enjoy this performance as much as I’d hoped to, I have found it very thought-provoking, and it’s nice to finally get down my rapidly fading memories of the other productions we’ve seen.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Sweet William – October 2007


By: Michael Pennington, with lots of input from William Shakespeare

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Friday 12th October 2007

This was the second time we’ve seen this one-man show, and we were delighted to find that the material did change from the earlier performance (29 June 2007). We also like the Minerva Theatre, very much, so it was nice to see this in a different setting.

The first half was much the same, and I did find myself nodding a little during it, but I became a lot more alert for the second half, and really enjoyed another romp through the life and times of Will, the master playwright. There was an acknowledgement of the ESC’s time at Chichester with the Wars of the Roses, which we saw, and several of the speeches were different. I’m always impressed by Michael Pennington’s ability to shift into the role that’s speaking, without any changes of lighting, costume, etc. It all comes across clearly, and we’ll be happy to see this show again in the future.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

Sweet William – June 2007


By: Michael Pennington

Venue: Mill Studio, Guildford

Date: Friday 29th June 2007

This was a lovely evening in the company of an actor with tremendous in-depth knowledge of Shakespeare and his work. We’d heard Michael Pennington describe his introduction to Shakespeare at the age of eleven before, at the RSC Summer School, but apart from that enjoyable reprise, everything was new and all of it was very interesting.

He combined a trip through Shakespeare’s life with extracts from the plays. So for Will’s childhood, we got the dialogue between Mamillius and Leontes from The Winter’s Tale. He emphasised that very little is known about Shakespeare’s life, and he adds in one of his own ideas to explain Will’s disappearance for several years before emerging as an actor in London. He reckons that Will was himself working and travelling with the strolling players who were common in England at that time. He backed this up with one of the sonnets – sorry, don’t know which one – about returning to one’s true love after straying, which suggests to him the experience of a young man travelling about the country and enjoying the freedoms of many young players at that time.

I don’t remember all the details of his performance now, but it was a delightful evening, full of interest and moving performances.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at