Coriolanus – March 2007

7/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Greg Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 28th March 2007

This is the last production, and performance, we’ll be seeing in this version of the main house – ever! I felt quite sad at the end, although given that the seat I was in tonight wasn’t at the best angle for my back, I’m sure I’ll appreciate the improvements when they come. Still, we’ve had many a happy hour in this theatre, and I’m looking forward to a backstage tour on Friday.

Coriolanus is a fascinating play. It’s not done very often, though Steve says he’s always surprised by this – each production we’ve seen has shown it’s a very interesting piece. There’s so much to it that I’d be up all night if I tried to report everything I saw tonight, so here’s the gist.

First off, I recognised so much in this production that echoed other Roman and Greek productions in this Complete Works Festival. I don’t know if this was deliberate, or just the natural effect of seeing so many Shakespeare plays together – all the common threads are highlighted. The Titus Andronicus was represented by the steps leading up to the stage, the Julius Caesar by the opening scene of plebeians causing a rumpus, the Troilus and Cressida by the angled wall, and the Antony and Cleopatra by smeared paint across the columns and the wall. Quite an achievement (or quite a coincidence, depending).

The set featured the steps at the front, a wall which could move down towards the front and which had a window high up on the right giving a view of the Volscian flag, and large doors on the left and right. It also angled to form a sloping roof. There was a series of square arches going off into the distance – these were raised and lowered as required, and formed the opening set. For some scenes, all these items disappeared, and we had a bare stage – very effective during Volumnia’s pleading scene.

The costumes used red for Romans and grey for Volscians. It’s a common technique, and does at least distinguish the two sides effectively, but like any colour coding, it can look a bit naff when it’s overdone. The style was a kind of Elizabethan version of Roman, with pleated skirts for the Roman soldiers, and bog standard olde worlde rough clothes for the workers. The pleated skirts had an extra frill at the top, which frankly looked absurd, especially on the Tribunes. However, the women had decent costumes, and the performances largely rose above such mundane matters.

The performance I liked best was Janet Suzman as Volumnia. She portrayed all her authority and total commitment to Roman patrician values (state before family) without making her a blinkered battleaxe. This Volumnia obviously knew exactly what price her son would have to pay in letting Rome off the hook, and her dignified grief on her return to Rome was very moving. At the same time, her enthusiasm for sending her son off to war at an early age so that he could earn honour is still appalling – if fewer women took that attitude today the world might be a bit safer.

Timothy West as Menenius was as good as I’ve seen in the part. I followed all his long-winded speeches this time, and although I think there’s more humour to be got out of his mistaken beliefs in the second half (that Coriolanus will listen to him, then that he won’t listen to the women), I really got the sense of Menenius’ laid-back authority with the people.

Coriolanus was played by William Houston, whom we’ve seen before as Sejanus, and as Roman General in Believe What you Will. Is this a trend? I find his physical behaviours tend to be repetitive, even mannered. He has a stance which he adopts at every opportunity, wide-legged, elbows bent, and hands clasped, and while he may deliver the lines well enough, I find this monotonous position rather distracting. (It wasn’t helped tonight by the pleated skirt.) However, this was a good performance, and showed more versatility than I’d seen before, so there’s hope yet. I was particularly impressed with his appearance at Aufidius’ feast, and his delayed emotional response to Volumnia’s pleading. What also came across very clearly is that Coriolanus is haughty, but not vain; he doesn’t seek glory or riches for himself, it’s all done for the good of Rome. However, he’s a warrior through and through, and doesn’t see why the common folk who don’t fight for Rome should have a say in how the city is run, and that includes voicing their approval of him as consul. His outspokenness gets him into trouble time and again, and while I can respect and admire his skills as a warrior, they cannot compensate for his lack of social and political skills.

Aufidius is another important part, and this time I found the performance somewhat crude. This actor has a tendency to wide-eyed declamation, possibly with some nostril-flares creeping in as well. This, coupled with some stiffness in movement made the part less interesting for me this time, although the dialogue all came across pretty well, and his changing motivations were clearly, if a little crudely, expressed.

The Tribunes were also a bit weak, I felt. It may be a bit unfair to compare them to the excellent performances we saw with the touring production a few years back (Tom Mannion and Geoffrey Freshwater), but I couldn’t help noticing the lack of detail in these roles this time. Other supporting actors were very good. I liked the servants at Aufidius’ feast, and the plebeians worked very well in this production – it was a good strong start to the play.

Other points I noticed: the turning point in Menenius’ persuasion of the plebeians at the start seems to be his opportunity to ridicule the chief troublemaker by likening him to a big toe. Once that chap’s lost his authority, Menenius has no opposition to his point of view. This fits very well with my understanding of Roman society, where rhetoric was more important than facts, even in court cases. The turning point for Coriolanus, listening to Volumnia, is her threat that he will be remembered shamefully, not as a hero. The fickleness of the people is a theme shared with Julius Caesar, and jealousy and envy have plenty of work to do, along with pride. The constant dilemma is this – the mass of people want leaders, but don’t want to be held to a discipline. Bugger. So heroes come and heroes go, each one discarded when they threaten the masses’ comfort zone, or are no longer required, or when the war crimes tribunal is sitting. I have no idea how this will ever be resolved, so Coriolanus should be doing good business for many centuries to come.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Merry Wives The Musical – January 2007 (2)

10/10

By: William Shakespeare, adapted by Gregory Doran, music by Paul Englishby, lyrics by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by: Gregory Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Saturday 31st January 2007

This was the last time of seeing this musical this time round, and one of the last times we’ll see a play in the main house as it is. Boo hoo. Although, as we were in the Gods, and the seats were neither as comfortable nor gave us as good a view as what we’re used to, the regret isn’t too strong – we’ll manage.

This was not just as good as before, it was even better. Firstly, we knew what to expect – we’d seen such a great performance at the Winter School. Secondly, we had a completely different view, and although we lost some of the detail, especially seeing the expressions, on the other hand we got a much better overview of the action, which helped enormously when there was a lot of action on stage – the final fairy scene, for example, was much clearer, and I suspect it was more due to our position than any change in performance, though of course I can’t be absolutely sure.

Thirdly, knowing this was our last time, and that we’re getting towards the end of the Complete Works Festival, and the end of the main house as we know it, made it all a bit more emotional. I noticed some changes in the performances – as if the cast have relaxed even more into their parts, and with relatively few performances left, are going even further with the business. There was more detail with Mistress Page and the first letter, and I noticed a number of other “upgrades” as we went through, though none I can remember for these notes, sadly – maybe they’ll come back to me later. One point I must note down tonight – the houses rotating into haystacks – I’m not sure if I noted that down before.

Our seats were quite uncomfortable in the first half – less room and less cushioned than downstairs. However, the couple next to us moved for the second half, so we were able to spread ourselves out and it was much easier to relax and enjoy the show. I still think they need to introduce the “Merry Wives” tune in the overture – it’s the main theme, and the one everyone’s going to come out singing or humming to themselves.

The audience seemed quite quiet for the first half – I wasn’t sure if we just weren’t hearing them so well up with the Gods, but they livened up for the second half, so maybe it just took time for them to get warmed up.

I’m still impressed by how well all the characters are introduced. It’s a complicated play, with lots of sub-plots, and although the priest and doctor never get round to exacting their revenge on the landlord of the Garter, everything seems much more straightforward in this version. I like the way Anne Page and Fenton are introduced to us in the traditional way of musical lovers, so we know they’re going to get together at the end. And the introduction of Henry IV dialogue in places makes the Mistress Quickly/Falstaff storyline work much better. So, apart from the quibble about introducing the main theme earlier, I find the whole adaptation pretty brilliant, and I do hope they revive it sometime soon – perhaps when they have the new main house?

One final point – I must remember to have a hanky ready if I see this again – I was sobbing heartily during Ford’s song asking forgiveness from his wife. Lovely.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Merry Wives The Musical – January 2007 (1)

Experience: 10/10

By William Shakespeare, adapted by Gregory Doran, music by Paul Englishby, lyrics by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by Gregory Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 5th January 2007

Another big change. This time, the cast seem to have got to grips with the production and given it a good shaking out. Everything gelled tonight. I could hear more of the words, the music fitted with the dialogue better, and the weaker singing voices had strengthened up. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half, and although the energy drops a little in the last quarter, I still found the whole experience much better than first time around. In fact, the musical aspects had improved so much that the “Merry Wives” song no longer seems the highlight that it was!

Specific changes to performances: Slender had developed even more in small touches, including kissing Mr Page when they meet for the first time. Alistair McGowan as Ford seems to be getting more expression into his performance, and his voice has definitely come on. His song to Mrs Page asking for forgiveness was very moving tonight, and I was reminded of The Taming of the Shrew in reverse. We had been warned that Judi Dench did something different every night when coming on at the back of the stage, but tonight was the same as we’d seen before – reacting to the size of the buildings with surprise and confusion.

Our seats were to the right of centre this time, across the aisle, and I actually preferred this, as I found I could see the whole of the stage in one glance, which is absolutely vital in a production where so much goes on. I spotted a lot more detail, although I still missed Dr Cauis’ performance between injecting himself in the neck and falling into the buck basket – if we get to see it again, I must look out for that. I saw so much that I hadn’t before, but I can’t be sure what was new and what I simply missed, so I’ll just include it all in the first set of notes.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Merry Wives The Musical – December 2006

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare, adapted by Gregory Doran. Music by Paul Englishby. Lyrics by Ranjit Bolt

Directed by Gregory Doran (does the man ever sleep?)

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 13th December 2006

This was great fun. I tried not to have too high expectations, but it was difficult. The cast was to drool over, Merry Wives can be such fun, and it has the added frisson that this is one of the last two productions we’ll see here before the main house closes for redevelopment. All in all, a mouth-watering, highly charged prospect.

This adaptation and production didn’t disappoint. There’s definitely room for improvement, but it’s off to a good start. We chose to see the winter plays now, and again as part of the Winter School, and we’re already looking forward to seeing this one again. I suspect it will come on for the extra three weeks or so.

The set was lovely. It’s definitely an Elizabethan setting, all gables and oak beams. There are two houses on either side of the stage at the beginning. Chez Page is to our left, while the one opposite may be the Ford’s, though that’s not clear. To make this stage Windsor look more populated, there are false perspective houses towards the back. I was thinking that the actors would have to be careful not to get too close to them, and then a few scenes later, Mistress Quickly (Judi Dench) came on from the back. She did a lovely double take over the size of the buildings compared to her – very entertaining. Just about every part of the set moved to create the other locations; the interior of Ford’s house, the tavern, and the forest. The forest was basically the remaining wooden uprights when the rest of the set had been taken away – a nice, simple way to evoke a wood. Costumes were by Elizabethan out of the 1950’s – an interesting mixture of doublet, hose, and billowing skirts with layered petticoats. It all looked gorgeous.

Performances – all very good. Some quibbles. Judi Dench didn’t entirely convince as Mistress Quickly – a bit too intelligent. But her performance was good, especially the interaction with the houses. Simon Callow as Falstaff was excellent. It’s hard to believe he hasn’t worked here before. He made a great deal of the Shakespearean lines especially, which brought out how entertaining his character can be to others. And his comments on other people’s use of the English language were quite reasonable, given his command of it. Alistair McGowan’s performance as Ford is shaping up very nicely. I would like to see him do more with Brooke, though. Given the range he’s capable of, I would prefer to see more differentiation of the two “characters”, and more of the jealous reaction to Falstaff’s stories. But maybe this wouldn’t fit in with the overall feel of the piece. Haydn Gwynne and Alexandra Gilbreath were fine as the two wives, and took full advantage of the operatic (and even melodramatic) aspects of their roles. Simon Trinder – best Slender I’ve seen, helped by an extra drinking song to open the second half. Paul Chahidi was OK as Dr Cauis – didn’t always get his mangling of English, though. Brendan O’Hea was the best Pistol I’ve seen. Dressed like Russell Brand on a bad hair day, his part came across clearly, and his wooing of Mistress Quickly (they pinched bits from Henry IV part 2 to pad out the story) was great fun.

The music and lyrics were fine, though again I didn’t get all of them. We bought the CD afterwards, so we’ll probably be listening to it a bit before the second viewing. The best songs were the second half opening (a drinking song, where Simon Trinder as Slender gets royally pissed) and the Merry Wives song -a  bit of a hoe-down, catchy tune, and good lyrics. They could do with using this song more in the piece, to pull it together.

I realised there can be problems mixing the musical format and Shakespeare’s language – different rhythms means it can be confusing at first to go from one to the other. Also, I enjoy the original so much, it was a wrench to miss out on some of the dialogue and have to put up with a song instead. Although they did it well, the first gulling of Falstaff lost a lot through being sung, for me. Also, it invites comparison of the writing skills – dangerous territory.

Couple of points to remember – individual eyeshades on Brooke’s sunglasses, and Falstaff and cronies arriving on a half-timbered motorbike. Roll on January.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Julius Caesar – September 2006

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Sean Holmes

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 29th September 2006

As Steve put it afterwards, this was effectively a radio play on stage. Not as a criticism, more as an appropriate way of describing the production. The set was non-existent, apart from microphones dangling from above (at first I thought they might be light bulbs). We could just see the musicians at the back of the stage, to left and right. Props were brought on as necessary, but were few and far between. A tailor’s dummy served as Caesar’s statue, and for the storm scene we had actual rain and a thunder board at the back. Otherwise, all was created by lights and acting. When Cassius and Brutus withdraw to Brutus’ tent, a square of light delineates it for us – a lovely touch, very simple and effective. I gather some people have been very unhappy with this set up, but it worked fine for me – text, text, and more text.

This also meant there was no time wasted in scene changes – the action flowed very quickly, and you had to keep your wits about you. The costumes were also simple. The opening revellers had vibrant coloured robes, the soldiers wore red tops and leggings, Roman senators had togas, and the women had simple shift dresses. For the assassination, all white robes were used, with the togas being made of some wipe-clean, non-absorbent stuff. Very practical, even if the slight sheen of the surface did look a little strange. Lots of gore was used, naturally enough, and there was even a small patch left at the front of the stage for the second half – normally these things are scrupulously cleaned up at the interval, but not this time.

The play opens with the revellers enjoying themselves with some Asian-sounding music and dance. It looked for all the world as though they’d been so impressed by the DASH Dream, that they thought they’d try a bit of Asian culture in this production as well. It struck me as out of keeping, especially when I’d seen the rest of the production, but then there’s many aspects of Roman culture I don’t know about. Anyway, the rabble is cleared by two Roman senators, and although I could hear the lines perfectly well, I didn’t feel there was much going on with the characters on stage. The rabble just did as they were told, and there was no sense of them reacting to the senators’ telling off, either to grumble or to be ashamed. This lack of reaction permeated the play, so that it was more like a rehearsed reading at times. However, the lines were delivered clearly, and so I got a great deal out of this production, despite the unusual style of performance.

For the next scenes, Caesar’s arrival, and Cassius’ wooing of Brutus, etc., the staging was interesting. Cassius and Brutus were left at the front of stage, with Caesar and the rest heading to the back. Those actors stayed there, in plain sight, and the cheering offstage was made more apparent by this group being lit at those points. It was very clear who was who and what was going on, including Cassius’ duplicity in seducing Brutus to his cause. The soothsayer was a bit disappointing. He crept up the ramp leading to the stage, reminding me of Hamlet’s ghost from a couple of years back, somewhat melodramatic in such a sparse production.

Brutus’ soliloquy was probably very good, but sadly I was seized with a coughing fit, out of the blue, and not only missed a lot of it, but probably spoiled things for some of the audience. Sorry. I felt terrible about it, not least because I wanted to get out of there to spare everyone, but the ramp to the stage was on the near side, blocking that exit, and I didn’t know if I could make it all the way along the row to the other aisle without causing even more of a disturbance. While I debated this, not an easy thing to do when I was trying not to choke, the fit started to ease, so I held on, but not before I’d had to let out several racking coughs. Not an experience I want to repeat anytime soon.

The plotting rattled on in the meantime, and again there was little background reaction to Brutus taking over the conspiracy and leading it down the path of virtuous failure. Cassius really should be doing more here, I feel, but at least the dialogue was crisp and intelligible. Off they go to encourage Caesar to go to the Senate, and the idea that he might lose out on the crown really got across, both to Caesar, and to the audience. Of course, he didn’t want to look like a total wimp either, but he might have put up with it if there hadn’t been anything at stake. The wipe-clean togas were a bit of a giveaway, but all went to script (and to history, for once), and soon Caesar lay dead, pumping blood like a vampire drive-through. The interval came soon after, following Mark Antony’s brief soliloquy over the corpse. So far, so good, though nothing spectacular.

One point to mention, though. During Antony’s speech, at the line “And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,” Caesar’s body did indeed rise up and stood there, joining in the speech, mouthing along to “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war”. The ghost then wandered off gradually, reappearing as required, leaving the bloody and torn toga to represent the corpse being shown to the masses. Interesting staging. We’ve seen before that there are limited ways to get a dead body off stage – they can either be carried off or walk off. Otherwise they just litter the place up (as in Venice Preserv’d, I seem to recall, at the Citizens, many years ago. And that was a small stage, gradually getting smaller as the bodies mounted up). This was as good a way of handling it as any other, and certainly got across the point that this was Caesar’s ghost we’re seeing, handy later on for those who don’t know the play.

The second half was where this production came to life. Antony’s manipulation of the populace was masterly, as usual, so much so that he had to rein back the riot he’d provoked to add the finishing touch – the details of Caesar’s will  which showed how much he’d loved the people of Rome. All balderdash, but when can you ever trust a politician? This was much more lively than anything that had gone before, and the whole production gained energy from it. Brutus’ magnanimity, fine in itself, is once again the conspirator’s Achilles’ heel, and civil war ensues.

I’ve mentioned the effective use of light to create Brutus’ tent. The scene between him and Cassius was well played, still not in as much detail as I’ve seen before, but with much more emotion evident. I especially noticed the mention of Portia’s death, and how it affected Cassius, genuinely, I think. It seemed odd to have Brutus then deny all knowledge of the event when the other generals gather to discuss strategy, but it looked like he was either unwilling to discuss the matter, or checking to see if the information was good. Most likely the former. Again, Brutus overrules Cassius in matters of strategy, and they head to their doom.

Caesar’s appearance to Brutus was simply done, with Caesar’s ghost standing at the back of the stage, and spotlit during his lines. The microphones that I mentioned at the start were used to good effect here, as they had been throughout the play, giving a bit of echo and amplification to the ghost’s voice.

The short scene with Antony, Octavius and Lepidus came over much better than I’ve heard before. It’s clear what’s going on, and also that Antony is as guilty of treachery in advance as the conspirators. Octavius seems to be playing his cards close to his chest, though from his comment ”some that smile have in their hearts, I fear, Millions of mischiefs”, it’s clear he views Antony much as Antony views Lepidus. All predators on the prowl.

The setting up of the battle scenes was excellent. A rush of soldiers across the stage, leaving battle debris behind them – in an instant we’re there. As soldiers die, they lie there, and when they’re needed as another character, they simply get up and join in again. Simple, effective, and with the earlier rise of Caesar, easy to accept. In some cases, soldiers have cloaks thrown about them, which they can throw off to become another character – Brutus, Cassius, etc. This speeds things up enormously, but despite the potential confusion of so many short scenes, the final act comes across very well, and was quite moving. The final tableau, of Octavius and Antony standing over the defeated Brutus’ body, echoes their earlier meeting, as Antony realises he’s got into bed with as ruthless an operator as himself, and starts to shake.

Although this production was lacking in some areas, I found it interesting and stimulating. It’s nice to see a completely different approach and get a new perspective, though I wouldn’t want to see so little passion in every production.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Tempest – September 2006

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 28th September 2006

I was a bit disappointed with this production – I expected it to be better than it was. There were some aspects I liked, but on the whole I found it uninteresting and somewhat dull.

Before the start, a screen at the front of the stage showed a painting of some sort of radio receiver, on a huge scale. The opening lines were unusual – a shipping forecast that mentioned “North” and “Iceland”, and gave a storm warning in the traditional clipped form of such broadcasts. The speaker part of the radio then faded as the lighting behind revealed the ship’s radio cabin, where all the storm action took place. Ariel appeared towards the end of this scene, to indicate his involvement in the adverse weather conditions.

The good point about this staging was that the lines were fairly clear, and we got a chance to see the various characters – John Hopkins as Sebastian showing his craven character from the off – and Ariel’s arrival was interesting. However, I found the whole sequence off-putting for a number of reasons. Firstly, the shipping forecast makes it clear that the island we’ve arrived at is either Iceland, or somewhere else in the north Atlantic – a frozen waste instead of a Mediterranean rock. Those sailors must have been extraordinarily bad to have arrived in the North Atlantic from Tunis, headed for Naples! If they wanted to get across the connotations of Iceland (barren waste, prison-like, possible Frankenstein?(this was Steve’s thought)), surely we didn’t need such a specific reference. Secondly, the cramped cabin, while making the point that the aristocrats are seriously in the sailors’ way, does make the scene pretty static, and the sense of a life-threatening storm is lost. (Although Jean-Luc’s experience at synchronised ship-rolling probably came in useful here.) Nor did it help that Ariel reminded me of Lurch, the Addams’ family butler. All in all, not the most auspicious start.

Second up, we have Prospero’s account of the family history to Miranda. The scene opens with Prospero standing at a brazier, with his back to us, wearing a fur rug attached to a head-dress made out of an animal’s sacrum and tail bones. Or as I thought at first, some alien life-form that had invaded the island while Prospero wasn’t looking. (I suppose it was inevitable that Star Trek references would start to pop up in what is, after all, a pretty surreal play by Shakespeare’s standards.) The scruffiness of their home, the need for serious warmth on a Mediterranean isle that just happens to be in the North Atlantic, all these things I could live with. I wasn’t taken with Miranda, though. I accept that she’s been on this island from a young age, with only her father and Caliban for company, so she doesn’t know much about the outside world or social graces. And there’s no reason why daughters of aristocracy or royalty always have to be good-looking – our own royal family proves that. Still, I wasn’t keen on a Miranda who looks and acts like a ten-year-old who would rather be playing with her dolls than getting interested in the opposite sex. Her gawkiness was matched by an expression which made her look more pugnacious than usual, although her manner was anything but. In fact, this character could have slept through the entire play for all the animation she displayed. Not a criticism of the actress, who was fine later on as Portia in Julius Caesar, but another way in which this production failed to engage me. It made it hard to believe that Ferdinand would have fallen for her – it may just have been strategy on his part, but it wasn’t played that way as far as I could see. I also found Ariel’s first appearance here rather comic – he pops up out of the brazier! All we see is his head sticking up. Given that I found his appearance pretty funny anyway, I couldn’t take this seriously, although his later ‘magical’ appearance from behind the door was more effective.

Apart from the cramped cabin, the set was a barren landscape, with a mound of debris slightly off-centre, and bits of plank etc., sticking out of it. There were a few poles forming some kind of support for an upturned half-boat, or what was left of it. This appeared to be Caliban’s only shelter, and he’s hiding inside this boat when we first encounter him. As he’s attached to it by a long rope, he also drags it round with him, and it becomes his cover during the storm when Trinculo discovers him. One aspect of the production I liked was the repetition of this dragging theme – Caliban drags his boat, and also some logs. Ferdinand also drags logs, and there were other echoes of this throughout the play. I found this a good visual theme.

Caliban is not as gruesome in this version as in some I’ve seen. He’s a bit mucky, true, and also tends to walk on all fours, but he’s not hideously deformed or ugly. Again, I felt sorry for him, but then I’ve rarely found Prospero a sympathetic character, and his treatment of Caliban is the main cause for that. The business with Trinculo and Stefano was amusing, full of sexual innuendo, but I only laughed out loud once, towards the end, at a bit of business I’ve now forgotten. The kids in the audience loved it, and it was certainly in keeping with Shakespeare’s comedy, but again it left me largely unmoved. There never seemed to be any real threat to Prospero from this group, which can happen.

The scene Prospero conjures up for the young lovers was very different from the standard. The three fairies rose from one of the bunk beds in the cabin, and proceeded to carry out a form of marriage ritual, using earth, fire, water and cloth. All the while they produced a weird chanting, which took a little getting used to, but I did like it. There was none of the usual goddesses, and I found this refreshing, and much more in keeping with this reading of the play.

The King of Naples and his cronies were OK, but without distinction. Ferdinand was fine, but with nothing much to play against, this character on his own couldn’t make a real difference. I did like the fake feast, though. The fairies brought on a large seal (deceased) on a sledge. The nasty folk fell to, hands full of bloody blubber, while the good guys stood aloof. Then Ariel bursts forth from the seal carcass, with additional wire effects of wings and claws, and scares the shit out of everyone. Excellent. Incidentally, this Ariel was on a go-slow. I’ve seen this done before – a steady, graceful glide rather than a nimble hyperactive sprite, and it can work very well. Here it was OK, but didn’t add anything for me.

          One thing that did work, though, was the exchange between Prospero and Ariel, where Ariel’s own sense of pity for the wrongdoers’ suffering here effectively triggers Prospero’s own forgiveness. He was obviously heading for resolution anyway, but I got the feeling Ariel’s expression of pity surprises Prospero, and softens his plans somewhat. I could be wrong, but that’s how I took it.

          So now I suppose I have to tackle the hardest subject of all – what I thought of the central performance. Look, I’ve enjoyed so much of Patrick Stewart’s work that I hate having to say anything less than ‘he played a blinder’. Indeed, till this season, I didn’t think I’d have to, such is the man’s talent and experience. I guess I’ll just have to accept that this reading of the play didn’t work for me. I couldn’t get any real sense from the performance of the man’s past, nor much sense of his emotional journey through the events of the play. Unless it was meant to be an unsympathetic reading, in which case, fine. But I couldn’t help feeling there was a lot more to be got out of this major part, and I just wasn’t seeing it. Ah well.

Overall, I felt the staging worked against the text in too many ways, and brought the whole production down.

[Update from the front lines: Steve saw this again in London, and confirmed that it had come on a great deal since we saw it in Stratford. The performances were more expressive, some of the staging had been changed, especially in the scene where we first see Prospero, and he felt it was a much better performance than before.]

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Romeo and Juliet – September 2006

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 14th September 2006

I’ve enjoyed Shared Experience’s work in the past in smaller venues, so I was looking forward to seeing what Nancy Meckler had done in the main house at Stratford. I wasn’t disappointed.

We had been warned that there was a framing device, a play outside the play, where a community was re-enacting the tragic deaths of Romeo and Juliet. The set emphasised this. At the back was a huge picture frame. A couple of trees at the sides gave the impression of an open-air venue, and there was a square platform for the action. This moved back during the vault scene to allow access to Juliet’s body. Overhead, a lighting rig ran diagonally across this smaller stage. Seats were provided at the sides for the ‘actors’ to rest on between scenes. There was even a little girl running around – obviously a family affair.

And given the Italian setting, it was a ‘family’ affair in more ways than one. Before the start, the ‘actors’ were getting ready, setting up the stage, getting into costumes, etc. The men were trying out the taps on their shoes, and some quarrel broke out. There was a bit of a scuffle, then the older and wiser men broke it up, but you could see there was still a lot of tension. Incidentally, the main agitator turned out to be the man playing Tybalt – so cast to type, then. I liked the way this suggested that the conflict the re-enactment was supposed to ease still lingered. People obviously hadn’t learned their lesson.

As tempers rose, the oldsters decided it was time for the men to hand in their weapons – a lovely piece of staging. It started off with knives being handed over (placed in a large blanket), then hand guns, then rifles. I was hoping they’d got the RSC to spring for a few Kalashnikovs, but apparently not. Anyway, once the armoury was put to one side, the ‘play’ could begin. (Later on, the ‘actor’ playing Tybalt was still angry enough to try and retrieve his weapon, but was stopped.)

One of the things I loved most about this production was the use of tap dancing to represent fighting. The men each had a staff they could bang on the ground, which with the sound of the taps got the action across beautifully. And the framing device allowed for it perfectly too – these people are not meant to be doing it for real. The choreography of the fights changed depending on who was fighting. Great stuff.

All the performances were good. I particularly liked Romeo, Juliet and the Friar. Romeo came across as a bit wimpish, still immature at times, yelping and squealing and whimpering like a child. But at other times he showed what a man he might have made. Juliet was still a child at the start, but with quick wits, and a temper! The relationship with the nurse was cosy and domestic at the start, but she actually hits her when she doesn’t get the news she wants quick enough. She matures even quicker than Romeo, and has to learn to handle her own emotions entirely from her own resources, as even the nurse can no longer help her. I found this a very moving performance. The Friar was a good counterpoint to last night’s Duke in Measure for Measure – this monk lays his plans, and then they all go horribly wrong – no rabbits get pulled out of his hat! When he’s telling his story at the end, he was more nervous than I’ve ever seen before in this part – and rightly so, considering what he’s been up to without the Duke’s knowledge.

I liked the use of a pillar of ladders for the balcony scene. It allowed for more movement in what can sometimes be a fairly static scene, and the lighting effects, with lights shining up from below, were lovely. It also meant an easier time for Romeo, as he didn’t have any precarious climbing to do. The apothecary appears from below (trapdoor), which worked well. There was a Shared Experience moment at the end, when all the stories are being told. The acting audience listens, and moves as one, slowly and steadily to observe each part of the tale. A nice touch, especially as we, the real audience, already know what’s happened, and can otherwise get a bit bored.

One thing that didn’t work for me was the use of the characters’ jackets to remind us of who’d been killed. When Mercutio and Tybalt die, their jackets are taken off and hung from the lighting rig. This was OK, but then when Paris is killed in the vault, the removal of his jacket was a bit clumsy and obvious, and there was no time to get it hung up. If I had to opt for one way or the other, I’d leave it out.

At the end, all the ‘actors’ shake hands and hug, indicating that perhaps the re-enactment has done its job and helped to bring the community together. But I couldn’t help noticing that Tybalt and some other of the younger men weren’t there – perhaps not a complete success, then. Unlike this production, which was.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me