Bring Up The Bodies – January 2014

Experience: 8/10

Adapted by Mike Poulton from the novel by Hilary Mantel

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 23rd January 2014

My experiment with these novels and plays has borne fruit. While Steve, not having read the books at all, would have rated this play slightly higher than me, I found the lack of background knowledge a hindrance for the first half, and although I picked up the threads quite quickly, the brisk pace left me feeling unsatisfied – I was too aware that there was a lot of detail missing and as I haven’t yet read the novel, I wasn’t privy to Cromwell’s inner thoughts. The final stage of the experiment will be to read Bring Up The Bodies and see what that feels like now that I’ve seen the play.

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Wolf Hall – January 2014

Experience: 8/10

Adapted by Mike Poulton from the novel by Hilary Mantel

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Monday 20th January 2014

Knowing these adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s work were coming up, I chose to read Wolf Hall before seeing the plays, and intend to read Bring Up The Bodies afterwards. I wanted to get a sense of how the dramatization had changed the novel’s interpretation, and to understand what it’s like to see a play when I’ve already read the book. Of course, that assumed I would finish Wolf Hall, and at one point I thought I might abandon the book altogether – the middle third was tedious compared to the opening section – but fortunately some friends advised me to persevere. The final section picked up tempo and left us with a tantalising ending, so how would reading the book beforehand affect my experience of the play?

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Wallenstein – June 2009

2/10

By Friedrich Schiller, adapted by Mike Poulton

Directed by Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Wednesday 10th June 2009

It’s rare for me to miss the second half of something, as even quite dull productions can improve after the interval, but tonight’s performance was too much even for my boredom threshold. I wasn’t interested in the political manoeuvrings, the characters were largely insipid, there was no tension or drama for me and although I’d smiled at a few of the jokes, there were too few of them to keep me coming back. I admit it’s been a tiring week so far, but in similar circumstances I’ve managed to enjoy a number of productions more than this one, so I don’t think it’s entirely down to me.

The set was a sprawl of paving slanted across the stage with a slight rake. At the back was a peculiar wall – couldn’t really make it out – with double doors in the middle facing the slanted paving. A couple of bare tree trunks completed the picture. We could see through to the back at either side, and presumably through the doors when they were open (we weren’t in the right position to see).

The story concerns Wallenstein, the leader of the Holy Roman Empire’s forces for a large part of the Thirty Years War. He was promised the Kingdom of Bohemia by the Emperor when he took the job on, but the Emperor has not been “in the giving vein” for quite some time, so ambition is vying with loyalty and Wallenstein is contemplating a pact with the Swedes (currently enemies) so he can turn his forces on Vienna, clear out all his political opponents and gain his crown. His daughter and wife are involved (in a minor key), he has various generals who are loyal to him and some who are in the pay of the Emperor’s people, there are emissaries from Vienna and the Swedes (at least in the first half) and we get an early glimpse of a friar who preaches against Wallenstein to his own men (he’s bundled off stage pretty quickly).

It’s the familiar story of the successful leader brought down by the jealousy and fears of others, albeit a version with lots of nooks and crannies, and for once the leader himself has plenty of ambition and arrogance. There are a lot of arguments presented but few real feelings, which is probably why I found it difficult to get involved. Steve had seen a previous adaptation years ago at the RSC so perhaps he enjoyed this one more because he’s already seen a good production. Schiller had so much material when writing about Wallenstein that another version apparently runs to ten hours on stage, so at least this adaptation is a reasonable length but perhaps that’s its problem – too much to cram into the time. The actors were all doing a fine job, as usual, but it wasn’t for me.

I did like the emphasis on the fact that Wallenstein and his generals were paying their men out of their own coffers. It makes it seem even more unreasonable for the Emperor to sack Wallenstein and still expect to keep his armies to fight with, but that’s politicians for you. I wish they’d made more of the fact that this was a war where people kept changing sides, enemies becoming friends and vice versa. Despite the apparent principles involved – Catholicism versus Protestantism – there’s little to be seen of principles through the smoke of war, and bringing out that contrast more could have given the piece more humour and more focus, but it was not to be. Ah well.

I did attend the post-show, and there were some interesting questions and answers. Nothing that changes my opinion of this production, alas, but I’d be more interested in seeing a different version. The adaptor’s focus was on showing a man who had a fantasy of kingship but who didn’t really understand what it was about. I might have engaged with the piece better if that aspect had come out more in the first half. The cast apparently didn’t do much research into the history or the full Schiller version as it wouldn’t have helped; the real history and geography are merely ‘inspirational material’ for Schiller in a similar way to Shakespeare’s histories. The audience were generally appreciative, and I’m glad there were so many staying behind for the post-show as it made for a better discussion.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Rosmersholm – June 2008

8/10

By Henrik Ibsen, in a version by Mike Poulton

Directed by Anthony Page

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 14th June 2008

The set was a drawing room, with scruffy walls in depressing shades of blue, a window to our left, a stained mirror, portraits on the walls, nice formal furniture, and a white tiled stove in an angled recess. There was an attractive bowl of flowers on the table, otherwise it was as austere and gloomy as an Ibsen play. (So the designer’s done a good job, then.)

The second act has the same window and stove, but the rear wall is further forward, the furniture is more relaxed, and there are bookcases and no portraits. This was the private sitting room/study off Rosmer’s bedroom. The final scenes revert back to the first set, and all the action takes place over three days.

Rosmer is one of Ibsen’s naïve, idealistic heroes. His wife committed suicide a year ago, and he is just starting to get involved again in the life of Rosmersholm, the town his family have effectively ruled over for a couple of centuries. He’s been helped by a woman, Rebecca West, who was originally nursing his wife through her illness, and who’s stayed on in order to assist Rosmer to find his true vocation. It appears nothing improper has happened, but the situation leads to rumours, and while Rosmer remains a pillar of the community they’re unlikely to affect him much. However, as he’s not only stopped being a priest but renounced his religious beliefs as well, he finds himself friendless and vulnerable to gossip and suspicion. He’s keen to support the movement for change that was surfacing in Norway at that time, and Rebecca’s support for this has been a key factor in his recovery from his wife’ suicide. Various revelations through the play make past events fairly clear to us, although the possibility of incest in Rebecca’s past is left as a suggestion only, and the final choice of the unconsummated lovers is as downbeat as one might expect from Ibsen.

The other characters are interesting. Rebecca West herself is less likeable than Ibsen’s usual women – Strindberg would have approved. She represents the kind of free-thinking women that must have been coming out of the kitchen closet at that time, but here she’s not necessarily a force for good. It’s interesting that this character has the same name as the famous writer, although the play was written six years before the real person was born.

The doctor, Kroll (very close to troll?), represents the absolutist establishment view. He’s for God, King, country and keeping the peasants in their place. His friendship with Rosmer appears to be based more on the Rosmer family’s status and his friend’s earlier traditional opinions than on any great affection for the man himself. He frequently tells Rosmer how gullible he is, and is only reconciled to him once the revelations make Rosmer ready to doubt his support for change. Malcolm Sinclair gave us a wonderfully detailed performance, with many good lines delivered impeccably.

Ulrik Brendel is Rosmer’s old tutor, currently a down and out but hoping to make it big now that the political tide has turned in his direction. He talks big, but there’s nothing behind it. It’s a fetching performance by Paul Moriarty, and allows us to see how easily Rosmer can be swayed, and how kind and generous he can be as well.

Mortensgaard is the editor of the left-wing paper, and his insights are very entertaining. At first delighted to find that Rosmer has given up the priesthood, he’s quite candid about his disappointment that Rosmer has left the church altogether. He wants people still in the church to come out in support of the new ideas, so that ordinary people will listen to them. Another atheist is no good to him, so he just won’t mention that part. It’s a useful part for showing us how impractical Rosmer’s idealism is. Sitting in his ivory tower, hatching plans with Rebecca to change people’s attitudes, he’s completely unaware of how opinions are influenced and shaped. He had hoped to stay above it all, a pure radiant beacon of light showing others a better way to live, and he’s sidelined so quickly he hardly has a chance to take it all in.

This leaves the maid, Mrs Helseth, a strict but kind Christian woman, prone to believing superstitions, such as the local one about a ghostly white horse presaging death. She shows us the ordinary people who still hold the church and its priests in high esteem; she still calls Rosmer ‘pastor’, though I assume she knows he’s defrocked himself. Her view of events on the fatal footbridge gives us the ending of the play.

I felt this was a very good production of an interesting play. I enjoyed the arguments and the insight into the upheaval that Norway was going through at that time. The program notes identified this play as the crossover point between the external threats in Ibsen’s plays (An Enemy of the People), and the interior conflicts (Doll’s House). I’d agree with that, and that’s part of what made it so interesting for me.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Father – September 2006

Experience: 8/10

By August Strindberg, adapted by Mike Poulton

Directed by Angus Jackson

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Wednesday 27th September 2006

          We were due to see this play on Monday, followed by a post-show talk, but there was a cancellation due to a medical emergency, so we came tonight. I haven’t seen this play before, in any version, so had no expectations, other than being aware Strindberg is considered a bit grim and possibly misogynistic. I was pleasantly surprised for the most part.

         This production ranges from rampant comedy at the start to gut-wrenching psychological drama at the end – quite a range. I wasn’t surprised that Jasper Britton could handle it; I was only surprised that it took me a whole five minutes to recognise him – that man is a chameleon. The comedy at the start related to an unfortunate soldier who has been caught having it away with the kitchen maid, and is expected to take responsibility for the child she is carrying. His response is to question the paternity, as the woman has had sex with many men, not just him. This episode sets up one of the main issues of the play – that a man cannot know who has fathered his wife’s children (not so much of an issue now with DNA testing, but still relevant in terms of potential infidelity).

         Adolf, the father of the title (Jasper Britton) complains of the women in his life controlling him. He wants to get his daughter out of the house and into town where she can develop her own perspective on life. His wife, Laura (Theresa Banham), wants to keep the girl with her. The battle of wills between them is the nub of the play. The wife is described, by her own brother no less, as someone who has to get her own way, and who will stop at nothing to achieve that. We see as the play develops just how ruthless she can be. She has prevented her husband from working on his one real pleasure, his mineralogical studies, by not posting his letters to bookshops, colleagues, etc. and instead writing to these people herself, telling them her husband is going mad. And in the frustration and incomprehension she creates in him, he is slowly going mad. This woman is an early sociopath.

         Having said that, this adaptation is very skilful at leaving the audience undecided for a long time about many things. Both characters have their dark side – she is undoubtedly highly manipulative and demanding, he has a desire for control that nowadays we see as unhealthy, but what is really going on between them? At times, I wondered if he was going mad, and the wife was genuinely concerned for his sanity. At others, it was plain that she was a monster, and in other moments, it seemed possible he had driven her to behave this way. By the end, it’s clear that their relationship, lasting seventeen years, has honed their viciousness towards each other. Both entered the relationship not understanding their partner, and those misunderstandings led to their downfall. A sad story, with a very sad ending. As the wife manipulates her way to apparent victory, the father is reduced to a sedated, mumbling wreck of a man, trussed up in a straitjacket. His final act of defiance is to die, presumably leaving his widow with little money (a small pension, according to the text), when what she was after was a decent living, and full control.

         (Six days, and three other productions later) There’s some interesting dialogue about religions and atheism in the play. The father is beset by women, yes, but he’s also beset by their many different religious points of view. He’s an atheist, so in one sense he’s out of the loop – most people in that community would presumably have had some religious affiliation. His daughter is being scared out of her wits by her grandmother on her mother’s side telling her about demons, etc. (so we get some idea of what drove her mother to villainy), while the father’s old nurse has great faith in prayer and handing everything over to the Lord. Just the clash of all these religious ideas is enough to make them look ridiculous.

         The wife’s deceit is almost a living thing in the play. She’s so deceitful and manipulative, it would be impossible to live with her. She cannot be trusted, and yet her husband has trusted her, to his own undoing. She is also readily believed by the new doctor, whose help she needs to get her husband declared insane, although he does sound a note of caution now and then.

         So is Strindberg a woman-hater, or just balancing out Ibsen’s view of women as purely good and redemptive?  At one point, Ibsen’s play Ghosts is mentioned. “Rubbish”, says the father, with feeling, and describes Ibsen as “that female apologist”. Women certainly can be as manipulative and destructive as men, and Strindberg happily shows this, but I’m not sure the men get off lightly either. I would need to see more of his work before deciding on this one, not that it will change my mind about this play – thoroughly enjoyable.

         All the performances were excellent. Jasper Britton was especially good, descending into madness via rage and frustration. The set was simple, just a desk and some chairs. One item that got me going was the straitjacket. As soon as it arrived, it was like having a deadly snake on the stage – I couldn’t put it out of my mind. My own fears of being rendered powerless came to the fore, and so I lost a little of the performances. I so much wanted the father to win his battle, and for reason to prevail, but sadly, drama doesn’t always work out as well as real life. Maybe that’s why people find Strindberg gloomy. Ah well.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me