Othello – June 2013

Experience: 10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Sunday 16th June 2013

This was a fantastic performance. The modern setting enriched the detailed characterisations while the set gave us the necessary locations without being too elaborate. We had one understudy on stage today: Robert Demeger was indisposed so Jonathan Dryden Taylor took his place as the Duke.

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People – February 2013

Experience: 7/10

By Alan Bennett

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Saturday 2nd February 2013

A very enjoyable new play by Alan Bennett, poking fun at various establishment targets such as the National Trust, the Church of England (de rigeur these days), eccentric aristocrats and modern technology. The porn industry even took a few hits, but mostly this was a slightly nostalgic look at modern times from the perspective of those who were young adults in the 60s, ripping through some of our modern illusions and preoccupations and giving us plenty of laughs along the way.

The set was fairly elaborate. All the action took place in a large drawing room which at the start looked very dilapidated. A swathe of grey plastic sheeting covered the large central rose in the ceiling, the enormous picture on the back wall was likewise draped with plastic sheeting, and there were dust sheets over a lot of the furniture. I spotted two obvious gaps on the walls where pictures used to hang, and there were various items of furniture and bric-a-brac dotted here and there. I assume the tin bath was a ‘leakage solution’. Two armchairs were positioned near the front of the stage facing a small electric heater, and there were lights, tables, etc. around them. On the far right stood a bureau.

The film crew for the porn shoot didn’t change much of this, but they did bring on a four-poster bed along with all their equipment, having moved the central chairs over to one side. They took their equipment with them when they left, and not long afterwards the restoration work transformed the room to a magnificent version of itself. The sheeting covering the central part of the ceiling was removed (downwards, I think) and a properly restored rose replaced it. The tatty bits of decoration were either removed or covered up, as with the pictures placed over the obvious gaps on the right wall. The ensemble worked their way round the room from left to right, making various scrubbing and polishing actions to indicate the work that was going on, and once they’d finished the room looked splendid, if a lot more formal. One thing puzzled me. The large canvas on the back wall had been removed at the start of this process; all well and good, presumably off for restoration. During and following the changeover there was some dialogue going on, and the area behind that wall suddenly transformed into another room, or so it looked to me at first. Then I thought it might have been a large mirror, and we were seeing a reflection of the room, but the image didn’t quite tie up. Finally the picture was dropped back into position, and I’m still none the wiser as to what was going on with that ‘other room’. [Just checked the play text – the author suggests that during the transformation there may be “a vision of the Adam saloon at the rear of the stage”. But why?]

Apart from that minor point, the story was pretty straightforward. Dorothy Stacpoole (Frances de la Tour) was the elder of two sisters, and living in the family mansion which was now crumbling to bits, located somewhere in the North of England. Her companion Iris (Linda Bassett) was the only other resident, and they spent most of their time huddled in a small part of the large room, trying to keep warm. Dorothy’s sister June (Selina Cadell) was in the Church of England in a middle management position (I have no memory for the ranks of that organisation) and but for the recent vote against giving women too much power, would no doubt have her sights set on the top-job-but-one.

June’s intention was that the house be given to the National Trust, but Dorothy, who actually owned the place, wanted to check out other options. When Bevan, a valuer from one of the big auction houses, suggested selling to a private consortium of the very wealthy who would pay handsomely to keep the house for their exclusive use, she found the idea tempting, but in the meantime there were bills to pay. A ‘quickie’ with the makers of a porn film at least provided hot water and hot meals, as well as a trip down memory lane for Dorothy. The producer/director was someone from her past, when she was a top fashion model, and the chance to wear her 60s haute couture again was irresistible.

At last the decision had to be made, and the Trust won the day. The final scene showed us the visitors wandering around the room while a screen (facing us so we could see the film) showed Dorothy in her bag lady clothes talking about the room and its history. The visitors gradually left and Dorothy had a final encounter with Louise, the makeup lady from the porn film, giving her a farewell gift. As she left the now empty room, Dorothy triggered the recorded announcement “The House is now closed”, and that was that.

The cast were all good, but again we had a triumvirate (or should that be trifeminate?) of excellent performances at the centre of the piece. Frances de la Tour, Linda Bassett and Selina Cadell were magnificent, and although there were good supporting performances, particularly by Peter Egan and Miles Jupp, the women carried the day. It underlines the complaints about the lack of roles for women over thirty, when we have so many talented female actors who can dominate the stage at that age and beyond.

While I enjoyed this play well enough and there were plenty of laughs to be had, I did feel it was a bit thin at times. The targets were easy, even lazy ones, and the slick bon mots occasionally felt recycled. The short opening scene, which set up the idea of the porn film, was entertaining but didn’t flow into the following scene, and this got the play off to an uneven start. I did like the scenes with Bevan though, especially his suggestion that the house might be moved somewhere warmer and more accessible, like Dorset. And I liked the way June changed her attitude towards him once she realised he was involved in the purchase of Winchester Cathedral. They occasionally sang hits from the 60s, such as Downtown, which gave us a very strong sense of time and meant we left the theatre singing to ourselves. Good fun.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Timon Of Athens – October 2012

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Sunday 14th October 2012

This was a stunning production, making use of the current financial situation to create a powerful modern-dress retelling of the story, with a striking set design bringing each scene vividly alive. However, this is still Timon, a play with few likeable characters and some impenetrable dialogue, so the overall effect wasn’t as enjoyable as it might have been, especially as Alcibiades’ role was severely cut to make it fit the production’s setting. But even so, this was well worth seeing, and given the current climate someone just had to do this kind of production; the National has certainly done it well.

We had to put up with the droning background music again at the start, while the back half of the stage was filled with tents to represent the Occupy protest outside St Paul’s. At least this kept my expectations down. There were a few people sitting or standing around the tents and a couple of placards facing away from us right at the back. The meaning was clear, and it was through this setting that Timon and his entourage swept, completely ignoring it, while the wall was lowered into position across the middle of the stage. It had a large central area which held a huge painting for this first scene, but could also have a huge window with various backdrops during later scenes. There were two doorways, normal sized, on either side which served to emphasis the height of the main wall.

The first scene was set in an art gallery where the new room being sponsored by Timon was being unveiled – ‘The Timon Room’ appeared above each doorway to great applause during this scene. Waiters held trays of champagne, and the various guests ebbed and flowed around the main man while two of the guests, the painter and the poet, came to the front of the stage to have their little chat. They indicated the actor and the jeweller, who were standing by the drinks tray at that point, and produced their own works during this scene; we saw the book but only the back of the painting.

Timon didn’t speak until the messenger came from Ventidius, but his actions had already given us a sense of his character. He was a man so used to wealth from birth that he couldn’t imagine not having money, and he had presumably only known ‘friends’ who were attracted to his wealth and could be bought. That he was buying them too dear was soon evident, regardless of his steward’s comments, and I had the impression that his extravagance reflected a competitive approach to wealth – to show how wealthy he was he had to give back more than he received. Or it could just have been his natural generosity.

After Ventidius was freed he came to give Timon his thanks and his money back. Timon ripped up the cheque with a confident assertion that his friend would do the same for him if he was ever in need. Before this we had already had Lucullus complaining to Timon that Lucilius, Timon’s servant, had won Lucullus’s daughter’s love and he, Lucullus, wasn’t happy about it. He didn’t want his daughter married to a servant! Timon did the decent thing and matched the dowry so that his servant could marry the woman he loved and who loved him, but his generosity was clearly misjudged in this case as both Lucilius and Lucullus, as they left the stage, grinned and congratulated each other on their success at milking Timon of some more of his wealth. Paul Bentall was particularly good as Lucullus, a man so miserly he practically boasted of it in public.

Then the poet, painter and jeweller presented their ‘gifts’ to Timon, followed by Apemantus’s long diatribe against all the folly on show. Timon seemed to be gently puzzled by Apemantus’s hostility to all the lovely people whom Timon considered his friends. Timon left after this part, with Alcibiades’ entrance being cut, and after Apemantus and the lords had their say, the banquet was brought on to stage by means of the revolve, with the table and chairs coming through one of the doorways. A curtain was dropped to cover the picture and the guests milled about, looking for their places. Ventidius arrived, as did Apemantus, and the starter was served around Apemantus’s line “I scorn thy meat”, with his subsequent lines referring to the dinner guests. Alcibiades was cut again, and the ladies who wished admittance were two ballet dancers who performed on a stage which was revealed when the curtain was drawn back. Their dance was a kind of graceful battle, and afterwards they came round to join the rest at the table.

Yet again there were gifts for the guests, with lots of boxes on a tray presumably holding jewellery or watches. This was the occasion of Flavia’s first lines about Timon’s overspending; played by Deborah Findlay, this was another cross-gender casting which worked perfectly well. After Timon gave out a few boxes directly, he indicated the remaining pile and there was a general rush by most of the guests to grab what they could. I noticed one of the dancers had several boxes in her hands. The party over, the guests left apart from Apemantus, and this time Timon was more short with him as if he was concerned about Apemantus rocking the boat. Apemantus took it badly, and left with a biting comment about Timon’s deafness to flattery.

Almost immediately the set changed to show us an office, clearly an investment bank or similar. There were identifiable city buildings outside the window, but as I don’t know London well enough I couldn’t be more specific. One of the bankers was concerned about Timon’s financial status, and the sight of a façade crumbling under scrutiny was completely up-to-date. The employees who were sent to collect money from Timon were fobbed off yet again by Flavia, but it was obvious that matters were only going to get worse. When Timon did finally realise he was bankrupt, he turned on Flavia and tried to blame her, but she was able to defend herself by reminding him of all the times she’d tried to tell him what was going on and was ignored.

Then came Timon’s belief in the generosity of his friends. His servants looked sceptical when he told them to go to his various ‘friends’ to ask for large sums of money, but they went anyway. The first, Flaminia, turned up in Lucullus’s office in the City, and Paul Bentall was again magnificent as the grasping miser who assumed another lavish present was on its way and then had to refuse to lend some money; it wasn’t difficult for him, and he didn’t bother to cover it with a pretence of sorrow. He did try to cuddle up to the young attractive (female) Flaminia though, dirty old man. She repelled his advances and left, sorrowfully.

The second and third servants fared no better, with the third approaching one of the politicians, Sempronia, who gave the least valid excuse of all, but did it expertly as befitted her political skills. Timon’s anger flared up with the bad news, and he ordered his servants to bid the various ‘friends’ to another dinner, over-riding Flavia’s objections that they couldn’t provide one. Alcibiades’ run in with the Athenian government was dropped, and so we were straight into the ‘feast’, complete with covered dishes, which was eagerly attended by the same sycophantic crew from the earlier meal. Timon’s prayer of thanks at the start of the feast was full of his contempt and anger, thinly disguised with a veneer of politeness, and caused a few strange looks from the guests, but it was the revelation of the ‘turds au naturel’ when the lids were removed that really shocked them. Timon threw some about to add to the unpleasantness, and I assume the liquid offered to the guests was of a matching vintage. The guests soon fled, and Timon had his rant against mankind, tearing off his jacket and throwing away his credit cards as he did so.

I think the next scene came after the interval. Back at Timon’s house, there were various packing cases sitting in the middle of the floor and the three servants were leaving, carrying boxes with their personal effects. Flavia gave them some of her remaining money, and their collective sorrow at Timon’s downfall was almost surprising – he had clearly managed to earn some goodwill without always buying it. Flavia declared her intention to follow Timon and serve him as best she could, and then the wall was lifted to reveal a scarred industrial landscape with lots of concrete pillar bases littered about the place. The metal reinforcing rods were still sticking up out of them, and there was a large grating beside one of these pillars near the front. There was an air of decay and filth, though I didn’t see much debris around the place – just a few black bin liners near the front pillar. This was the setting for the remainder of the play.

Timon approached from the rear of the stage, pushing a supermarket trolley filled with bags and other items, and continued his diatribe against humanity. He came to the forward pillar and parked his trolley behind it, and when he started to ‘dig’ he actually lifted the grating and looked underneath. They shone a golden light up from the hole to indicate the golden hoard he’d discovered, and he pulled out two sizeable money boxes and some ingots before putting the grating back. He then stashed the boxes and ingots in his trolley, covering them up with a sleeping bag or blanket.

Alcibiades, the leader of the Occupy protest in this version, turned up with his followers and stood on the pillar to give a speech to them. Timon hid at first, but joined the rear of the group and eventually joined in with the regular text; where Alcibiades’ lines came from I don’t know. Timon produced one of the money boxes and tipped it out for the protesters to scramble for – they made short work of clearing the stage.

After they left, Timon rummaged in the bin liners for something to eat, discovering a foil tray and a glass bottle. Before he could eat his find, Apemantus arrived, and they had a shortened version of their conversation. Apemantus offered Timon some food, but he turned it down and Apemantus left, full of scorn for Timon’s extreme change of attitude. The thieves also paid Timon a visit and gave him a beating as well. He gave them the second money box and plenty of curses to go with the contents.

Flavia was the next to arrive, and she offered Timon what money she had, plus her service as his steward. She gave him a napkin to clean his bloody nose, but he still sent her away. He then took a little break himself, which gave an opportunity for the painter and the poet to have a chat with each other when they walked on stage. They were eager to find out whether Timon had indeed found more riches, and he took the opportunity to insult them mercilessly. He did offer them food – the remains he’d picked out of the bin bag, which they were too cowardly and greedy to refuse.

The final visitors were the senators of Athens, attempting to persuade Timon to return with them and help prevent Alcibiades’ attack on the city. Timon scorned them also, and left the stage for the last time. The closing scene was back in the city, with a long table and Alcibiades and two senators sitting behind it, giving a news conference. Some of Alcibiades’ lines were used to provide a speech for him, and then a soldier brought the news of Timon’s death. Alcibiades’ final lines closed the play, and there was strong applause from everyone, with some standing amongst the audience that I could see.

I liked a lot about this production, with its contemporary take on this difficult play. The performances were all superb and there was strength in depth, as there always is at the National. Deborah Findlay was good as the female steward Flavia, Hilton Macrae did a good job as Apemantus and Paul Bentall, as mentioned before, was magnificent as Lucullus the miser. Simon Russell Beale was an excellent Timon, with his tremendous ability to deliver the lines with clarity and meaning. His attitude towards money was well defined, showing us someone who has never had to check the balance in his account before splashing out on some extravagance or other, but who was also very dependent on others and his own wealth for his self-esteem. I could understand why his servants cared about him and also why he was so easily duped into giving his money away. The change into angry Timon was also good, although the dialogue does go a bit downhill from then on.

Apart from the severe cuts to Alcibiades’ part, which I felt unbalanced the play a little, I was aware of one potential downside to such a detailed staging; when Timon discovered the gold hidden under the grating, my first thought was that the criminal gang which hid it there would probably want it back before long, and Timon would be well advised to leave it where it lay. Keeping the setting vague and forest-like doesn’t create that problem, but with so much emphasis on present day ‘reality’ it was an inevitable consequence. Not a major problem, of course, but I still found it a distraction from the flow of the story. I have seen productions I’ve preferred to this one, but it was still a good offering, and nice to see this less popular play being staged in the Olivier and getting both full houses and rave reviews! Wonders will never cease.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Travelling Light – February 2012

7/10

By Nicholas Wright

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Tuesday 21st February 2012

This was the story of a young Jewish man in an Eastern European shtetl, Motl Mendl, being inspired by a motion picture camera to make movies, and his subsequent career in Hollywood – sort of Fiddler On The Roof meets Tales From Hollywood. It’s set around the end of the nineteenth century and in 1936, with the 1936 character being the narrator for the earlier parts, having changed his name to Maurice Montgomery.

The set was craftily designed to double as the inside of a house in the shtetl and a film set of the inside of a house in a shtetl. Curving round the back was a white curtain which acted as a screen for the movie clips, some of which were also shown on the wall of the room facing us. Below the screen were the rooftops of the other houses in the town, screened by the room itself. A long back wall had a door on the left to the aunt’s small room, a main door in the middle and an alcove on the right which seemed to be the developing room; it could be screened off with a curtain. On the far right wall, above the single bed, were photographs taken by Motl’s father, the village photographer. To the left were the table and chairs, sideboard, etc. In the middle stood a Lumière Brothers Cinematograph, facing the wall; it had two gas tanks at the back for the limelight, and a large wooden stand.

Motl’s father had died some time before, and Motl had only just returned to the shtetl, having missed the funeral. He was hopefully employed as a journalist – hopefully because they hadn’t actually published any of his stories yet – and he wanted to sort out his father’s things and get back to the city as soon as possible. With his aunt telling him the express train didn’t always stop at their station (a fib, as we discovered later) and a local family very keen to have a photograph of their son before he went away to the army, Motl ends up taking not just some photographs of the young man and his parents, but also a short moving picture.

The father was so taken with this that he came every day for a week to watch this movie, projected onto the wall of the room. I don’t remember when they started using the back screen as well to show these movies on a larger scale; it could have been from the start, and they also used the bigger screen when there was no action on stage or the projector wasn’t in use. Anyway, Motl has decided he wants to make movies now, but has no money. Jacob, the father, has been so moved by being able to see his son on film that he recognises a money-making opportunity; if he enjoyed seeing this movie, perhaps everyone will enjoy seeing themselves or loved ones on screen. After a lengthy explanation of his background and his rise to prosperity and respect within the shtetl, Jacob agreed to pay for enough film to capture life in their town. His accountant, Itzak, who was also his son-in-law, had arrived by this time, and the author takes a poke at the involvement of money-men in film-making a couple of times, especially when Itzak’s penny-pinching leads to an embarrassing shortfall in the fiddler department (more on that story later).

Jacob also sent along one of his servants, Anna, to help Motl with his film-making. She’s a very attractive young woman and clever too. It took Motl some time to fall for her – he thought it was just about getting her to star in one of his movies – but they were soon spending time together on the mattress. She also had the idea to edit the bits of film from around the shtetl to tell a story, and even though the locals could all tell that it wasn’t the rabbi buying a coat in the tailor’s shop, they still enjoyed the movie, although the initial focus group, set up by Jacob to make sure the movie is as good as it can be, was full of picky complaints – nothing changes.

From this beginning, they moved on to the make another movie which told the sad story of a woman, spurned by her father and sent out into the world with nothing, etc., etc. Jacob’s daughter thought that she would play the lead role, but both Jacob and Motl wanted Anna to do it. The daughter wasn’t too happy with this, and played one of the sulkiest maids you’ve ever seen, but the combination of producer and director proved too much for her. Mind you, the director had a lot of trouble with the producer’s interference during filming – like I said, nothing changes.

With the filming done, Motl left the shtetl and took the train to the city. Anna had told him she was pregnant, but pretended it might not be his, and his desire to make more and better movies made it a relatively easy decision to leave. During the 1936 sections we learned that he was making a movie based on these early experiences, and after he’d explained a lot of this story to a young actor who would be playing him in the movie, we got to hear the rest of the story from the young man himself; it followed the plot of the staged movie remarkably closely.

They finished the piece with Maurice stepping back into the past and the early characters coming into the room for Shabbos. As the aunt placed her hand over her eyes, the lights went down to end the play – a slightly downbeat ending, but OK.

I did wonder if they could have introduced the framing device earlier, perhaps even from the beginning; we didn’t meet the young man and learn of the intended movie until the start of the second half. But this is only a minor point; the real fun was in the rich detail of the shtetl experience and the beginnings of movie-making, with the reminder of the strong Jewish influence on the early days of Hollywood. Although this play covered some familiar territory, I did still learn some things, and the characters and the humour made for an entertaining afternoon. The performances were all excellent, and the ability of the National to get a good size cast on the stage really helps with the group scenes.

And as for the shortfall in the fiddler department? For the scene where Anna‘s character finds out about her long-lost daughter, Motl had wanted a fiddler to play background music to help her produce the emotional responses he needed for the scene – this was silent movies, remember. To cut costs, Itzak hired a youngster as the regular fiddler was going to charge too much. Everyone was disconcerted when a young boy turned up to do the job. Seeing their attitude, he made some scratchy sounds when they first asked him to play, but he was just winding them up. When it came to the real thing, he put bow to strings and played beautifully; it was a very moving piece. A voiceover by the narrator told us who he probably was – Jascha Heifetz!

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Collaborators – December 2011

8/10

By John Hodge

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Werdnesday 14th December 2011

I don’t know how easy it will be to record my impressions of a piece that was both flamboyant and surreal. It was inspired by a play which Bulgakov actually wrote about Stalin’s early life, but which was never performed. It seems to have been part of the Soviet state’s process of playing mind games with dissidents and opponents, and this play reflects that aspect in its imaginary journey through the writing process.

In this play, Bulgakov is commissioned to write a play about Stalin in his younger days, for the great man’s 60th birthday celebrations. It’s meant to be a surprise for Stalin, but of course he knows all about it, and even joins in the creative process. In fact, he does more than join in, he writes the whole thing from beginning to end, scene by scene. Bulgakov only writes a final scene at the behest of a disillusioned NKVD officer in order to expose the truth about comrade Stalin. This scene was soon burned, and the play itself was never seen, because it was all a ploy to subvert Bulgakov into becoming a state stooge.

While he’s working hard at the typewriter, Stalin asks Bulgakov to do some of his government work – a fair division of labour. With a pretence of world-weary frankness, Stalin feeds Bulgakov little titbits to begin with, such as writing notes on steel production reports from the various parts of the vast Soviet Union and signing his mate Joe’s initials. When Bulgakov sees the results – reports of production up by 5% week on week – the nature of creative fiction under an oppressive regime takes on a new twist; Bulgakov wrote his plays and then (occasionally) saw them come to life, Stalin wrote his notes and then subsequent reports create the ‘reality’ he wanted. It’s an intriguing idea, and we get enough time to register it before moving on to the next phase.

During their next meeting Bulgakov is faced with an ethical dilemma. A city needs grain to feed its workers; the local farmers have grain but won’t give up enough of it because they need to feed themselves and their families, and have enough seed for next year’s harvest. What to do? Bulgakov makes his choice, and when he hears of the consequences, he’s shocked. Later, though, his feelings of guilt lead him to defend the government’s actions.

His next decision seems easier. He sees three confessions signed by men Stalin trusted absolutely, confessing that they were plotting against him. Stalin appears unaware of these confessions, and when Bulgakov tells him, he throws an almighty wobbly. To calm him down, Bulgakov suggests carrying out further investigations, and even writes that on the confessions – ‘carry out further investigations’. This calms Stalin down nicely, but at what cost? As the ‘further investigations’ are carried out, more and more people are arrested, and the apparent conspiracy which Bulgakov has helped uncover comes closer and closer to home.

When Bulgakov shows some stirrings of conscience, Stalin stops writing the play to concentrate on studying the conspiracy files. To help him out, Bulgakov rashly suggests a quota system; instead of investigating every case, just do some, and winnow out the traitors that way. Stalin was so taken with this idea that for their next meeting he asked Bulgakov to sign the death orders for the quotas of traitors to be killed and those to be sent to camps or into exile. Now, suddenly, Bulgakov draws the line; these are no longer numbers, they’re individual human beings, and he can’t go along with this job swap any more.

Stalin seems OK with this; he’s got what he wanted, so the final step doesn’t really matter. By now, Bulgakov’s friends have either deserted him or have disappeared. His wife is taken, and as Bulgakov finally collapses on his bed, dying, we see her put through a mock execution, one of the NKVD’s favourite pastimes. The play ends as Yelena, Bulgakov’s wife, finds her husband dead on the bed. The phone rings, and it’s Stalin’s voice asking if it’s true that Bulgakov is dead. She doesn’t answer, the line goes dead, and the lights go out.

This is a very simplified version of the story. In performance, many elements were interwoven, but without losing track of where we were and who was who – a remarkable feat. For example, as the scenes of the play are written and handed over to Vladimir, an NKVD officer and director of the new play, we see them performed by two actors, one young and handsome, the other older. The younger one plays the young Stalin in a noble and heroic style, with gestures and poses reminiscent of Soviet propaganda films of the time. The other actor takes on most of the other parts – prison guard, priest at the seminary, young woman who’s passionately in love with Stalin, etc. His performance as the young woman was particularly funny.

The set was on long sweep of acting space that pushed right across the Cottesloe with the seats wrapped around it. To our left was the kitchen area, with the large cupboard which was Sergei’s bedroom – space was short in those days. A walkway sloped down to the central area which held the typewriter on its table in the middle and the gramophone on the far side. To the right, the stage sloped up again to the bedroom. There were lots of angles to the floor – must have been a nightmare walking on it – and around the whole platform there was space to walk, with a lamppost in the far right corner. This lower walkway also came back up onto the stage on the other side of the central section, so there were lots of potential entrances, including the cupboard doors.

In fact, the opening scene made good use of these doors. Bulgakov was having a nightmare in which Stalin emerged from the cupboard and chased him round the flat, finally grabbing the typewriter and using it to smash Bulgakov over the head. Only we didn’t see that bit; the lights went out and when they came back again Bulgakov was sitting on the bed and Stalin had disappeared. It was a very funny sequence, with appropriate chase music to accompany it, and both actors going completely over the top. At one point, they were facing each other across the table and screaming – hilarious.

It’s a long time after that before we see Stalin again, and in the meantime we meet Bulgakov’s flatmates, and learn about medical treatment in the Soviet Union. Bulgakov is hoping for a diagnosis for his tiredness and other symptoms, but it’s unlikely he’ll get very far with the doctor assigned to him. This chap remembers watching one of Bulgakov’s plays many years before, and being scandalised by the nakedness of a very attractive young actress on the stage. He was even more shocked the next night, when he went back and sat even closer, and even more the night after that, and so on. He kept asking Bulgakov if he knew where the actress was now, as he’d love to get in touch with her. Bulgakov hadn’t a clue, of course, so he had to keep fobbing him off. Later, when Bulgakov is temporarily back in favour, he’s taken to the top hospital, the one where all the top men at the politburo are treated, and although it’s the same doctor, the experience is completely different. The doctor’s smartened up, he has a pretty young nurse – she used to be an actress, but he’s taken her away from all that – and miraculously, Bulgakov’s kidney disease has disappeared. No trace of it at all! Since Bulgakov trained as a doctor, he knows that can’t be true, but the doctor simply gives him a prescription for good food, and that’s it.

The action moves smoothly from there to the setting of the tables for a grand feast, and that’s where the interval was taken. The restart was at the end of the feast, and this is where Bulgakov hears about the fate of the grain farmers. We’d seen The Grain Store back in 2009 which told the story of the famine from the Ukrainian point of view, so we could fill out the story with a greater awareness of the suffering.

Following this feast, we see the session where the confessions are discovered, and from here people start to disappear. Bulgakov is even taken with Vladimir to the arrest of a married couple. The husband’s only ‘crime’ is having ‘objective characteristics’ which could mean he’s part of the conspiracy, while her only ‘crime’ is to be the wife of such a man. When he returns home, Bulgakov finds that their flatmates have gone, and before long Vladimir has also disappeared, with his second-in-command taking over as director of the play. The play has a noticeably darker tone in this second half, as there are fewer people to present the different perspectives. Even Sergei, the committed socialist, is taken away, so that only Bulgakov and Yelena remain, and with his death, she’s on her own.

Early in this play, we saw part of a performance of Bulgakov’s play Molière, showing the death of that playwright during a performance of The Hypochondriac. This was reprised at the end of this play as Bulgakov lay dying on his bed, and the lines about marking the day with a black cross applied to Bulgakov just as well as Molière. Of course, that was the point of Bulgakov’s play, to satirise the Soviet state and Stalin, but sadly it wasn’t as well hidden a satire as it needed to be – the play was banned and had very few performances in Bulgakov’s lifetime. In this play, it’s the carrot that Stalin holds out to keep Bulgakov going, the prospect that Molière will finally be staged. The stick, much in evidence in the later scenes, is the threat against his wife Yelena. Between these two, Bulgakov is easily led where Stalin wants him to go.

The pace was pretty fast throughout this play, even though Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings held some longish pauses during their scenes together. The scenes flowed one into the other, with characters simply turning from one scene to appear in the next. They kept the sense of place going very clear, though, even when there was more than one location being shown on stage at a time; good use of lighting helped here. The humour was another fine aspect of this play, with lots of it in the first half, and while there was less in the second half that was entirely appropriate in the circumstances. This is a cracking good production, and we hope to get another chance to see it in the Olivier to appreciate it even more.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

One Man, Two Guvnors – July 2011

9/10

By: Richard Bean, based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldini

Songs by Grant Olding

Directed by: Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Tuesday 5th July 2011

What a difference from the other day! Still a modern reworking of a classic comedy, but this time the period setting (1963 Brighton) and the TV comedy talent (James Cordon) both worked brilliantly, as did everything else about this wonderful production. It did take me a little while to warm to this adaptation, mind you, as we saw another superb production of The Servant of Two Masters many years ago, and it took me some time to shake off the memories and get down to enjoying this performance fully, but I reckon anyone seeing it for the first time would have loved it.

The pre-show was good, too. A four-piece band, The Craze, was on stage doing parodies of the song styles of the 50s and 60s. I didn’t catch all the words, but I did recognise the references to the Kinks and the Beatles in the interval set. They provided music for the scene changes, too, and most of the cast helped out with these numbers at one time or another. The three ladies did a song, all wearing identical pink frocks and blond wigs, Trevor Laird contributed on steel drum for one number with Derek Elroy funking it up beside him, Martyn Ellis was good on the ukulele, singing a song about his dad, and Chris Oliver contributed some horn tooting on the final change. James Cordon did a lovely snippet on the xylophone, but for me the funniest guest spot was Daniel Rigby, who did a musical chest-slapping sequence which was amazing and hilarious. Of course, they did a song at the end of the show to round it off, so we went out both happy and humming!

As I recall, the previous version went straight into the action, with the characters having to explain a lot of the background direct to the audience. This time, there’s an opening scene in Charlie Clench’s living room, where his daughter Pauline and Alan Dangle are celebrating their engagement. It’s clear we’re in Brighton – the silhouette of the pier in the distance helps, if you missed the actual dialogue – and in the 1960s, and the characters involved are not the most scrupulously honest bunch in the world. Charlie has done time, though less than he should have done thanks to his lawyer, Harry Dangle, also Alan’s dad. Also present are Dolly, Charlie’s bookkeeper who’s an emancipated working woman, and Lloyd Boateng, who’s also done time in Parkhurst and has many fond memories of his time there. He runs the Cricketers Arms pub, a pub that also does food, and is not so much a friend of Charlie’s as trying to get the catering contract for the wedding.

Pauline and Alan are very much in love. She’s as thick as two short planks, while he wants to be an ac-tor, and struts around declaiming mangled bits of plays and striking dramatic poses – all very funny. It turns out that they’re only able to get engaged because her previous betrothed, Roscoe Crabbe was killed recently. She didn’t love this Roscoe – it was a marriage of convenience to mask his preference for men – so everyone’s happy that she can now marry the man she truly loves. Until there’s a knock on the door, and Roscoe’s minder turns up to tell them all that Roscoe’s alive, and wanting both his bride and the money Charlie owes him. Oo-er.

This minder is Francis Henshall, played by James Corden, and when he’s not menacing those at the party with threats of Roscoe not being very happy, he’s looking round for some food to scoff, as he’s very, very hungry. He does get hold of some peanuts and throws them up to catch in his mouth. This got a good response from the audience; frankly, as long as the actor doesn’t actually choke himself, it’s always a sure-fired winner. For the final peanut he ends up going backwards over a chair, and claims he caught it when he got up – this is how it’s actually written in the text, which is remarkably detailed for comic business.

When Roscoe turns up, it’s clear to us that he’s actually a she – Rachel Crabbe, in fact, Roscoe’s non-identical twin sister. She uses Roscoe’s reputation to put the fear of god into the group, and claims Pauline, Roscoe’s bride, for him/herself. It’s a strange choice, but Roscoe was killed by her lover, Stanley Stubbers, and both she and he are on the run from the police. Rachel’s just come to get the money Charlie owes Roscoe so she and Stanley can leave the country.

She sends Francis to the Cricketers Arms where she’s going to stay, and after a song and a scene change, we see him outside the pub, still starving, and reduced to drinking off the dregs of several other drinks, after he’s removed the cigarette stub of course – eugh. He’s about to rummage in the dustbin for leftovers when Stanley Stubbers turns up, also planning to stay at the pub, but without knowing about Rachel’s plans. Francis doesn’t know about Stanley either – he thinks Rachel is Roscoe – but when Stanley hires Francis to be his man, Francis sees a chance to make double the money, and presumably eat twice the food. From here on, it’s a helter-skelter ride of mistaken identity and crossed letters, as Francis tries to keep both of his guvnors happy without either of them finding out about the other.

The trouble is that Francis doesn’t have a very good memory, and both Stanley and Rachel have identical trunks. It’s much too complicated to explain all the twists and turns, but each one ends up thinking the other’s dead, and heads off to the pier to commit suicide. But as they’re both there at the same time, they find out the other one’s alive and it’s a lovely happy ending for them, as it is for Pauline and Alan, who can now get married. Francis, on the other hand, has some explaining to do, but by getting each guvnor on their own, he manages to wangle two weeks paid holiday in Majorca, and a decent bit of spending money into the bargain. Then all he has to do is persuade Dolly to go with him, and he’s in heaven. Naturally she says yes, so happiness for everyone, including the audience, and a rousing song to finish.

The performances were all great, and after the situation had been set up in the opening scene, the humour came thick and fast. James Corden had plenty of comic business to keep us all amused. Apart from the peanut-throwing, there was a very heavy trunk to move after Stanley had employed Francis. Far too heavy, as it turned out; Francis couldn’t move it at all. So he asked for help from the audience, and brought a couple of gents on stage from the front row. Despite their great strength – they almost managed to lift it even with James Corden sitting on it – it took a while to get it off stage, and we had a lot of laughs in the process.

In the first half, possibly before the trunk bit, Francis is going on about how hungry he is, and asks if anyone has a sandwich he can have. Several people in the audience offer him theirs. Despite looking bemused by the whole thing, I assume he’s had to deal with this response before, so we had an entertaining few minutes while he found out what the sandwich fillings were, making funny comments about the situation all the while. Eventually he got things back on track when another character came on stage – he’d been glancing over that way as if desperate to be saved – and the sandwiches were spared.

The meal scene was absolutely brilliant. This is where both Stanley and Rachel, as Roscoe, are having a meal in the Cricketers Arms in different private rooms, and Francis’s job is to serve both of them. He’s helped by the pub’s own waiters, Gareth and Alfie. Gareth is the senior waiter, but even though Alfie’s the new boy – it’s his first day – he looks like he’s got more than one foot in the grave. A lot of the humour came from his attempts to carry the food up the stairs without spilling anything, and the poor man took a lot of knocks for the sake of comedy.

We also got our second dose of audience participation in this scene. Francis is keen to have a food stash for later – a little bit from each course that he can indulge in after the bosses have dined. He starts with the remains of the soup by handing the tureen over to a lady in the front row, Christine Patterson. As the courses go by, and more and more food is being put in the tureen, he brings her up on stage, and then has to hide her behind a cut out figure of a cricketer. Later he tries to shove her under the table, and by this time, both Steve and I had spotted that the lady in question was not an innocent member of the public, although the actress did good job with her small part. At the end of the scene she has water thrown over her and gets sprayed by a fire extinguisher, so that’s when they take the interval. All good fun, and well set up by the earlier audience participation.

The second half started really well too, with Francis pointing out that in commedia dell’arte terms, the Harlequin character needs some new motivation to drive his actions now that his hunger’s been satisfied. Just after he tells us that we have to try and spot what that might be, Dolly walks on, and we’re all immediately clear on the subject. There was also a lot of emphasis on the non-identical twins theme, with Rachel even going into great technical detail in the final scene about monozygotic and dizygotic twins. It wasn’t the funniest thing all the time, but that last episode paid for all, with a lovely pause from Charlie before he said ‘What’s your point?’

The whole ensemble worked really well together, and it didn’t feel like a star vehicle, despite the focus on James Corden’s role. Oliver Chris was superb as Stanley Stubbers, the posh boy who’s an accidental murderer, Fred Ridegway was excellent as Charlie Clench, and Daniel Rigby was brilliant as Alan, the wannabe posh actor, whose accent slips under pressure to reveal his true origins. The rest of the cast weren’t far behind, and the band was excellent too. A magical afternoon of comedy.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Hamlet – January 2011

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 19th January 2011

This has really come on since we saw it last. There are still some weak areas, which is why it only gets seven out of ten, but there are also some gems amongst the performances.

Some of the things I noticed this time will have been in the previous performance as well; I just forgot them when I was doing the notes. For example, Polonius shows Ophelia surveillance photos when he confronts her about her relationship with Hamlet, which adds to the feeling of control. Also, the papers Hamlet and Laertes put in front of Claudius are clearly official – both are carrying their passports as well.

Things that may be new, or we saw from a different angle, include Gertrude giving a little squeal of pleasure when Claudius calls Hamlet his ‘son’, a reference which is picked up again when Hamlet says “I am too much i’ th’ ‘son'”. I don’t remember Laertes’s fellow insurgents being led off at gunpoint by palace security before, but it’s probably the same as I do have a vague memory of Ophelia being similarly dragged off, which we see just afterwards. This set me thinking about Gertrude’s report of her death – was she actually murdered? If so, it could be staged by having Gertrude read a report of the death,,,,,,but that’s another production. The actors were taken off at gunpoint after the play as well.

Laertes spoke his lines much better, but was still a weak link overall. Claudius seemed rather stilted, and his delivery was a bit rushed. We got to see David Calder this time, and he turned in a good performance as Polonius, and an absolute peach as the gravedigger, recognizing Hamlet and mouthing ‘is it him?’ at Horatio. It brought an extra poignancy to Hamlet’s recollections of Yorrick, as the gravedigger could remember the man too.

This production seemed to lose sight of the consequences of some of the staging choices. Despite being ‘realistic’ – modern dress, guns, security staff talking into their cuffs, etc. – there were some strange changes of lighting for no apparent reason (other than the need for darkness to cover the change of scenery?), and a number of line readings and other aspects didn’t fit either. For example, Gertrude has a good pair of lungs on her, so when she calls, loudly, for help, is it likely that such a massive security presence would have missed it? These were all fairly minor niggles, but they were a distraction, and showed that the production wasn’t gripping me in the way the last RSC one did.

One thing we specifically wanted to see again from this new angle was Gertrude’s reactions in the closet scene. These suggested she did see the ghost, but wanted to convince herself she hadn’t. I found Laertes’s reaction to Ophelia’s mad scene unconvincing – why doesn’t he follow her and try to protect her? He didn’t seem that affected by her suffering, mind you, so perhaps that’s why.

I was much more aware this time that the characters don’t know what’s going on, and that they’re making every attempt to sort out the situation to their own satisfaction.

The fight scene was much better, though even to my untrained eye Laertes didn’t look like much of a fencer. Again, Claudius seemed relatively unmoved by Gertrude’s imminent death, and just stood around by the far wall after Hamlet has called for the doors to be locked. Not much of a life, not much of a death.

I noticed during the play scene that Polonius reacted more than Claudius to the poisoning of Gonzago – did he know of the plot that put Claudius on the throne? Was he involved? I think we should be told.

I nodded off during the ghost scene – after Ophelia’s mad scenes, it’s my least favourite of the play, although recent mad scenes have been a lot better (or maybe I’m just able to handle them better), but I don’t think I missed much.

Hamlet’s “speak the speech trippingly…” was set up by a mime showing him rehearsing the player queen – a nice touch. Not just a critic, then, also a nervy author.

For the Fortinbras scene, Hamlet was handcuffed to the ladder far left as before, but this time I didn’t see it being set up, so it just seemed peculiar that he would be handcuffed somewhere and left unprotected like that.

It was interesting to see this again, and although I’m a little disappointed that Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet wasn’t supported by a better production, I enjoyed myself well enough.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me