The Cherry Orchard – July 2011

10/10

By: Anton Chekov, in a version by Andrew Upton

Directed by: Howard Davies

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 19th July 2011

This was the most wonderful production. Even before the start I liked the look of the set, or what I could see of it in the gloom. Instead of the usual palatial if somewhat dowdy nursery, this was a very rustic house with dilapidated plank walls and drab old furniture. It gave me the sense of a house in the back of beyond as well as creating a stronger contrast with the luxury and style of Paris, and emphasised the rose-tinted aspects of Madam Ranyevskaya’s nostalgia. The telegraph/telephone pole to the right of the stage (there were actually two of them, but the other one was hidden at this point) was a reminder of the technological changes that were underway around that time, and this opening set had me engaged before a line of dialogue had been spoken.

I spotted the body on the seat as well, though I’d forgotten it was Lopakhin who would be under the blanket. I realised this was a structural motif, beginning and ending the play with someone asleep; although Firs could well be dead – in this production he’s simply lying on the floor –  it tops and tails the play nicely. I also spotted the similar technique in the second act, which starts with Dunyasha and Yasha emerging from the long grass and ends with Trofimov and Anya disappearing into it.

The performance itself did not disappoint. The dialogue was crisp and clear – an excellent translation by Andrew Upton – and despite the modernisms it felt right. The story hadn’t been tampered with much, although there was a car instead of a carriage and horses, but I felt there was more being said between the characters this time which may be down to the new version. Not having seen the original Russian version, I can’t tell.

But I did get a lot more out of this production than I have previously. While there was plenty of humour, the performances took the characters and their situations seriously, and set all these in an historical and political framework which made sense of every part. I could see how the cherry orchard symbolised Mother Russia, which had become exhausted through supplying beauty and luxuries to the idle rich, its fresh potential largely untapped due to the nostalgic clinging of the elite landowners. Trees for the few have to be cleared to make houses (i.e. better living conditions) for the many. There’s no place in this new Russia for those who adhere to the old ways, so Madam Ranyevskaya has to leave, and Firs, sadly neglected, can only die. Others have to make new lives as best they can – I wonder what happens to them all? Before the Revolution, that is.

Another good aspect of this production is the additional ensemble that provides the extra characters for the party scene, as well as the extra servants. It does give a much better sense of the community that exists around the estate, even if the quality of the guests isn’t up to the standards of yesteryear (according to Firs).

And so to the individual performances. Conleth Hill as Lopakhin was worth the price of admission alone. He was absolutely spot on as the peasant made good who could never shake off his past but who desperately wanted acceptance from Ranyevskaya. His plans for the estate were lucid and sensible, and his desire to help Ranyevskaya was almost palpable. He’s delighted to have bought the estate at the auction, heady with the success of it, and I felt he was at some level getting back at Madam Ranyevskaya for her rejection of him. When it came to the proposal to Varya, he might have gone ahead with it if he hadn’t been interrupted at the crucial moment. But then again, maybe not.

Emily Taaffe played Dunyasha, the maid with ideas above her station. She’s looking for romance instead of a steady husband and is easily seduced by Yasha, the manservant who has come back from Paris with Madam Ranyevskaya. She’s unlikely to have a happy life, wanting so much that she can never get. Yasha was played by Gerald Kyd and came across as a nasty piece of work, used to satisfying his own pleasure and with little concern for anything or anyone else. Dunyasha’s other suitor, Yepihodov, was played by Pip Carter, and he was brilliant at portraying this character’s complete ineptness. We could tell from his first entrance what he was like, saying all the wrong things and clumsy with it. His attempted wooing of Dunyasha in the garden scene was very funny as he strolled around trying to look manly and failing, while Yasha just sat there oozing testosterone from every pore.

Anya, played by Charity Wakefield, was fine, while Zoe Wanamaker was wonderful as Ravyenskaya. She came across as an emotional junkie, always getting involved with the wrong sort of men and with no grasp of practical matters. When she was given the telegrams in the first act she became quite upset, and it was to help distract her that Gaev, her brother, launched into his paean of praise for the bookcase, looking at her almost all the time to see if she was listening. Everyone else was aware of her unhappiness too, and I noticed several characters glance at her with sympathy.  This was another strong point of this production; the reactions from everyone on stage indicated they were all involved in whatever was going on, which kept a high level of  energy  throughout.

Ranyevskaya’s shock at finding out who had bought the estate was also very moving, and contrasted well with Lopakhin’s jubilation. She was very still, looking out towards the audience and clearly distressed. Despite her flaws I could still understand her point of view – she’d grown up with the cherry orchard and it was all she knew. She couldn’t handle the idea of it being cut down to make way for anything, never mind holiday homes. She was also still mourning the loss of her son years before, and her brittleness was all too evident.

Claudie Blakely as Varya was another gem. She’s held things together for so long, and with so little appreciation and thanks. Her unhappiness at Lopakhin’s failed proposal was very moving. I was strongly reminded of the relationship between Sonya and Vanya from Uncle Vanya when I saw her and Gaev together, although Gaev’s probably never been as productive as Vanya was in the pre-professor days. Gaev was played by James Laurenson, and was a lovely bumbling character with great kindness and verbal diarrhoea. The billiards references weren’t emphasised so much this time, but that wasn’t a problem.

Charlotta was played by Sarah Woodward, an actress I’ve always enjoyed watching on stage. Her Charlotta was bright and snappy, but without any malice, very matter-of-fact. The magic tricks were good fun, and the appearance/disappearance was done next to a folding room divider with tall windows down to about three feet from the floor, so not a lot of room to hide people. Her dog was a cloth puppet, as was the baby at the end, of course.

Simyonov-Pishchik, constantly trying to borrow money, was played by Tim McMullan, and again I enjoyed his performance very much. (What is that white mud the Englishmen are paying him so much for?) Kenneth Cranham as Firs looked more robust than many I’ve seen, but played the faithful retainer very well, while Mark Bonnar as Trofimov caught perfectly all of that character’s passionate idealism, contempt for the past, and reluctance to do any actual work. It was interesting to note that he was just as disturbed by the arrival of the passer-by (Craige Els) as everyone else – perhaps Trofimov won’t do as well in the Revolution as he thinks.

There was plenty of dancing in this production, which made it very lively. The back wall of the nursery at the start opened out to form side walls for the garden scene, and these were then brought back for the living room in Act three. The final Act was also in this room, rather than recreating the nursery. The clarity of the dialogue, the detail in the performances and the relationships, and the superb way the story was contextualised within Russian history makes this one of the best Chekov productions I’ve ever seen, if not the very best. Full marks to the whole team.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Emperor And Galilean – July 2011

8/10

By: Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Ben Power

Directed by: Jonathan Kent

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 12th July 2011

We were always going to be keen to see this rarely performed Ibsen, and this production, of a Ben Power adaptation, didn’t stint when it came to the cast or the set. Andrew Scott’s strong central performance as Julian anchored the piece brilliantly, and while the play doesn’t have a lot of laughs, our attention was hooked throughout.

It came across to me as a debate play, looking at religious conflict in general, and specifically the clash between spiritual and temporal power, self-will or God’s will, hence the title. Would Julian choose to take on the mantle of emperor to bring about the ‘third kingdom’ which would unite man’s worldly and divine natures (yes, I know, nutty as a fruit cake), or would he choose to be subservient to the will of the god represented by Jesus Christ, the Galilean? Given that these early Christians are so full of the Holy Spirit that they joyfully massacre anyone who follows a different path, it’s a tough call, especially as Julian has lived his life on the brink since Constantius had the rest of his family murdered when he and his brother, Gallus, were small boys.

Raised in Cappadocia as a devout Christian, Julian was brought back to Constantinople with his brother Gallus when they were young men, and kept close to the Emperor to prevent them from taking their revenge. Gallus appears to be honoured by Constantius when he’s given the title ‘Caesar’, and anointed as Constantius’s heir, but then he’s immediately sent to wage war against the Persians. I assume Constantius hoped he would be killed in battle, but in fact he’s victorious, and so he’s sent to Cappadocia as Governor, where he cracks down hard on the locals who’ve taken to fighting each other over religious differences. Finally, with Gallus seeming unkillable, Constantius brings him back to Constantinople, where he dies of something or other, i.e. he’s poisoned.

We hear most of this by report, only seeing Gallus himself in the opening scene. Meanwhile Julian, the nervy sensitive type, is worried about his future. He feels he has a destiny, but what is it? His faith in the Christian god is clearly waning, and he deliberately chooses to play hooky in Athens where he can study at university and find out the truth. Sadly, Athens doesn’t live up to his romantically idealised expectations, so when he hears of a local magician who has brought a statue to life, he’s keen to find this man and learn from him. His friends from Cappadocia, who’ve been with him all this while, start to leave him, and the door to madness swings wide to let him in.

Maximus, the magician, is determined to overthrow the Christian religion, and while it’s admirable that he wants to bring light into the world, and sincerely believes what he tells Julian, it’s clear things are not going to end well. Even Maximus is concerned when first Cain and then Judas appear to Julian in a drug-induced vision, but he seems to get over these concerns remarkably quickly when he finds himself advisor-in-chief to the new emperor. At the end, with Julian dead and Jovian, his general, proclaimed emperor in his place, Maximus expresses his disappointment that Julian turned out to be a dud after all, before indulging in a spot of competitive chanting with Peter, Julian’s only remaining friend from Cappadocia who’s reciting the Lord’s prayer over Julian’s dead body. Their positioning, one on either side holding an outstretched hand, and with Julian’s body down to a loincloth, evoked the crucifixion image used at the start of the play and again later. It suggested to me that the same leader, once dead, could be used by different groups to promote their own, conflicting, agendas, and don’t we know all about that today.

I don’t know if I can use the word ‘set’ to talk about the acting space, as it was anything but static. From the opening scene, with half the revolve dropped away to leave a semicircular chasm with a life-size crucifixion sculpture suspended half-way into it, the stage itself never seemed to settle into any particular format. For the most part, the space was open, and the revolve either dropped or rose to create many levels and locations. There was a low platform for Athens, with a very shallow splash pool and a screen backdrop with a view of the Acropolis. There was a throne room in Constantinople with a throne, a rug and not much else. There were the massive walls of a church, and two equally massive doors, as well as walls for other buildings, including a much smaller church in Antioch. There was one particularly gruesome setting which was on three levels, with the lowest being a kind of basement in which Maximus was evidently doing some heavy duty butchery as part of his advisory duties. The plastic bags and lots of fake blood suggested that many animals had been carved open for entrail-checking purposes, but then why had he kept the remains? Eugh.

The costumes were a mixture of modern and Romanesque, which worked fine for me, and overall the production was visually stunning. The dialogue seemed very fresh, and I have no idea how much of that was the new version, and how much Ibsen. The liberal use of extras for the soldiers, students, etc, added to the sense of historical change sweeping across society, and also created a strong contrast with the more solitary scenes. Ultimately, though, the whole performance depended on how well Andrew Scott carried off the part of Julian, especially as he’s on stage for almost the whole of the play; fortunately, he played a blinder. We hadn’t seen him before on stage, but I do hope we see him again. He showed us Julian’s difficult journey through the twists and turns of political and theological upheaval very clearly, and although it would be easy to dismiss Julian’s character as a whiny, spoilt brat, I never felt completely out of sympathy with him, even when he’s being disastrously insane. Mind you, there were other examples of nuttiness to compete with his, such as Helena, Constantius’s sister, who’s been having sex with a priest believing it’s actually Jesus she’s shagging. She’s another one with the gleam of holy murder in her eye – at one point she’s egging Julian on so much I couldn’t help thinking she’d give Lady Macbeth a run for her money.

This tremendous central performance was well supported by all the cast, so praise all round for a terrific production. We were surprised to see very few gaps in the audience for the second half – for all that we enjoyed it, it wouldn’t be the easiest play to relate to, despite the topical nature of the subject matter – but I’m glad it’s getting such a good response.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Frankenstein 1 & 2 – April 2011

10/10

By: Nick Dear, based on the novel by Mary Shelley

Directed by: Danny Boyle

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Dates: Tuesday 12th and Thursday 14th April 2011

This was another amazing experience from beginning to end. As we were taking our seats, I noticed the mirrored panel hung from the ceiling, with a myriad of light bulbs hung from it. Some were the old fashioned type, some the low energy ones, and some had old-fashioned shades on them. We speculated that there could be all sorts of interesting effects with this set up, and we weren’t wrong.

The set, in fact the whole auditorium, was swathed in textured paper, which reminded me of the set for Fram, and immediately created the impression of an arctic wilderness. Since we knew where the story would end up, that made sense. A large bell was hung over the central aisle, just in front of the balcony, and from time to time one of the cast rang it – boy was it loud! There was background music as well, those low-pitched, thrumming sounds that seemed familiar as a way of suggesting menace, often with an industrial/technological aspect. What I realised second time around was that there were other sounds as well, muffled as from a distance – a man talking, people singing, and then I got it. This was a church service, presumably the reason for Frankenstein’s absence, and an extra nuance to the birth scene – born on a Sunday, during a church service.

I also spotted a coat hanging over on the left wall, but the centrepiece of the initial setting (look away now if you don’t want me to spoil the surprise) was a wooden frame with an artificial womb attached, made of leather or some sort of skin. The strips of skin were cunningly crossed over each other to create a pouch, and inside that pouch something was stirring.

Outside, we’d seen the sign about the auditorium not being opened till fifteen minutes before the performance, and Steve knew right away that meant someone would be on the stage at the beginning. So we weren’t surprised by this so much as enthralled by the imagery. Also, we couldn’t remember which way round we’d booked for these – would it be Benedict Cumberbatch or Jonny Lee Miller emerging from the womb today? (It was Benedict first, then Jonny.)

Whoever it was, we could just see that they were writhing about very slowly within the womb, with the occasional hand or foot being pressed against the skin and becoming easier to see. The frame was on the revolve, and moved round quite a bit during this pre-performance performance, ending up on the right hand side of the stage. With the audience all settled in their seats (we were warned to come early), the lights went down, and the sound of a heartbeat started. Next thing, the lights in the overhead panel lit up, flashing across the ceiling, and the creature began to emerge from its pouch, first one arm, then another, jerkily responding to the lightning flashes until it flopped out completely onto the floor.

The next section was an extended session of movement work. First twitching, then flailing, the creature began to move across the stage, attempting to get its body to do something, but was it remembering movement, or was it finding out for the first time? It became quite painful to watch its struggle, and then gradually it managed a greater degree of control, and started to get to its feet. Naturally, there were failures at first, but the creature’s determination finally got it up and walking, albeit in a very strange way. We also had the first chance to laugh, not so much at the creature, but at its delight at being able to walk, and its comical gait.

With great delight, the creature began to run around the stage, finally collapsing back down near the pouch, and it’s at this point that Frankenstein arrives. He goes over to the creature, presumably thinking it’s fallen out of the pouch, and is horrified when it moves. (What did he think he was making in his lab? It’s not as if he hasn’t seen it before.) Snarling at it to get back, and obey him, he throws his coat over it and runs off. Not a nice man, then.

The poor creature only wanted some affection, some nurturing, but sadly life isn’t always that kind. He manages to walk out of the lab – the location isn’t as specific as some of the later scenes – and then we have the only bit that I didn’t care for so much in this production. The heavy beat of the music starts up, and a mechanical doodly-whatsit appears through the central doors at the back. It has large cog wheels, emits a great deal of steam, and the various cast members are riding it or walking beside it. I had no idea what was meant by this – it all seemed very surreal, although afterwards I reckoned it represented the town of Ingolstadt.

Second time around I found it much clearer. The contraption appeared to be a train, and when it stopped the workers jumped off and started using their hammers. Sparks streamed out from under the train, and then the work stopped and the men and women lined up as the train was moved back. The women appeared to be prostitutes, and one of them, who was having a bit of client trouble, is grateful when the creature scares that man off. Mind you, she’s not too keen on the man in the cloak when she catches sight of his face, and as he’s not yet able to speak properly, it’s perhaps understandable that they see him as a monster. We, on the other hand, are very much on his side. I know I was.

When the mechanical gubbins is removed, there’s a strip of grass laid down the centre of the stage. Now the creature gets to experience the countryside, starting with the dawn, using lights and a large orange disc on the back wall. Then some birds fly up from the bushes, singing beautifully, and he gets soaked by a shower of rain. He’s been trying to find something to eat, poor lad, and he even tries the grass, but spits it out immediately. (Second time around, he eats it with pleasure, then takes a dump.) He finds a book in one of the coat pockets, and can’t eat that either, although he does find out that it has pages.

Later, some men come along with a fire and cooking pot, and once he’s scared them off, he tries his hand at eating the meat. Finding the pot too hot to handle, he realises that the spoon is touchable, and although the meat is also very hot, he does at least get some food down him. The fire dies down, and he uses the bag the men left as a pillow and falls asleep. The men come back with sticks, though, and give him a beating, before taking their stuff away, so again he has to move on. (Second time around, I noticed he gets some clothes from the bag as the men are grabbing it from him.)

A see-through hut appears beside the grass, and we meet the old, blind man and his son and daughter-in-law. While the couple go off to clear a field of stones, the creature sneaks in and finally finds someone who isn’t terrified of him. This section shows the creature learning to speak and to read. There’s humour in it, with some of the creature’s comments, and the standard of his reading matter – Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example – but then his teacher was a university professor, so naturally he focuses on the classics.

The creature also sees the young couple kissing and canoodling, which leads him to fantasise about a possible partner for himself. A ‘rock’ appears at the front of the stage, where the walkway down the central aisle meets the stage, and metamorphoses into a beautiful woman, though made up and dressed to resemble the creature. She dances with him, he dreams, and then she’s gone.  This situation holds out the possibility of a better life, but sadly, despite the old man’s promises, the son and daughter aren’t so ready to accept the creature, and drive him off, thinking he’s a threat to the old man. One disadvantage of having learned so much from the classics is that the creature’s role models are dramatic kings and heroes, whose natural inclination when faced with an attack or injury is to fight back and revenge themselves. And so the creature commits his first crime; he burns down the hut with the family inside.

Having learned to read, the creature now knows from the book he found in the coat pocket, that he was ‘made’ by Victor Frankenstein, who lives in Geneva. He immediately heads for that city, and the set shifts, with the hut removed and the grass covered by wooden paths which are lowered down to the stage. As this is being set up, there’s a little group at the front of the stage, some adults and children, and one of the women puts a blindfold on one of the boy’s eyes. They head off and re-emerge on one of the wooden walkways – they’re off to play a game of blind man’s buff. When the boy is left on the end of the walkway, the creature appears, and again the child isn’t afraid of him, although as he’s told not to turn round, he doesn’t actually see the man he’s talking to. When the creature finds out that the boy is William Frankenstein, Victor’s brother, he snatches him as a means of getting to Victor.

The rest of the party are soon out looking for the boy, along with Victor and William’s father. Victor is remarkably tactless, telling his fiancée, Elizabeth, that she was responsible for losing him. Given that he’s spent all his time skulking in his room since coming back from Ingolstadt, you’d think their relationship would be on the rocks, but amazingly, Elizabeth is still keen to marry the man. Anyway, the boy’s body turns up in a boat that floats over to their side of the lake, and there are pages from Victor’s missing journal beside him. Victor knows what he has to do.

He heads up the mountain, and soon meets up with the creature. This encounter is pivotal, and was very well done. A semi-circle opens up on the revolve, at the back, presumably to represent a crevasse or cliff, but otherwise, the stage is bare. (The grass strips were taken up with the wooden walkways.) Victor and his creation meet, fight, argue, and eventually, whether by accident or design, the creature provides Victor with the perfect temptation, the chance to create another living being, but this time, to get it right! Pride was always his downfall.

Their debate covered some interesting areas, such as the responsibility of the scientist toward the repercussions of his work, and how responsible the creature could be for his actions, given the lack of nurture and education when he was ‘born’. Frankenstein certainly comes across as a callous, arrogant chap, with a great mind perhaps, but little understanding of the consequences of his actions, and a tendency to pin the blame on others when things go wrong. The creature has difficulty handling his emotions, and lashes out in a rage when he doesn’t get what he wants, but then he is a child, despite the adult body, and needs guidance to help him adjust to his own peculiar brand of life. Overall, my sympathies were with the creature, and my only regret is that Victor doesn’t get his proper comeuppance at the end.

However, he does agree to the creature’s request that he make another creature, a female one, so that his original could have a companion. Only we know that he won’t keep his promise, you can just tell. With this promise, the creature agrees to leave Victor and his family alone, and scampers off up the mountain. Victor heads off, and personally, I thought this would a suitable place for an interval, but I’m not directing the piece so I don’t get a say.

Victor goes straight back to his father to inform him that he, Victor, is leaving immediately. Never mind the death of his brother and the funeral, never mind his fiancée, whom he’s kept waiting for five years already, he’s off and that’s that. His father does at least insist that Victor give the news to Elizabeth himself, which is how I know that she’s still keen to marry him. Poor girl. She’s even willing to go with him and help with his studies, despite her lack of education and not knowing one end of a Bunsen burner from the other. Turning down her offer of help, rather churlishly I thought, he does at least promise to come back and settle down with her, and even give her some regular kids, but with his track record? At least we now know he’s off to Oxford, to study in the libraries there, and then to Scotland, a terrible place, completely unsuitable for a young lady. How we laughed. So when the revolve turns again, and his father’s study (with a strangely sloping floor) moves round to the back, it’s no surprise to see a stone built Scottish cottage emerge from the gloom.

Once arrived, Frankenstein’s first action is to enquire of his two helpers where he can get a supply of freshly dead women. An unusual request, which troubles the younger man, while the older one is keen to have his conscience assuaged by the assurance that it’s all for medical research which will be of great benefit to humanity. That, and a purse of money, seals the deal.

At the dead of night, and right at the front of the stage, they exhume the body of a recently deceased young woman, and take her off to Frankenstein. Soon, we see a familiar wooden frame appear in the cottage, and the figure draped on it is unmistakably female. When there’s a knock on the door – a final delivery of fresh body parts – Frankenstein quickly conceals his work with a blanket. Then, as he rests, he has a dream where his brother, William, rises out of one of the sacks just delivered and questions Victor about his work. He asks a lot of questions, and gradually they come round to the area that concerns Victor most – will the creatures be able to breed (Victor supposes they will), and what will happen when they do? This is clearly a case of Victor’s subconscious trying to get a message through to his waking mind, and for the first time it seems that Frankenstein is starting to consider the consequences of his actions.

When the creature arrives, bounding into the room through the crumbling roof, he’s delighted with the she-creature, not yet fully animated, but able to walk already. Victor questions the creature about love (I did wonder what the man knew about the subject – we’ve seen precious little evidence of that quality in his character so far) and finally seems satisfied that the creature really does have the capacity to love his future companion.

Telling the creature to wait while he completes the animation process, Frankenstein takes her back behind the screen to finish the job. With the dream fresh in his mind, however, he’s decided that the risk of these creatures breeding and populating the world with what he presumably regards as ‘corrupt’ offspring was too great, and so he kills the woman rather than giving her life and the creature his companion. Naturally enough, the creature doesn’t take too kindly to this, and swears to revenge himself on Victor’s own beloved. Finally, Victor sees the danger to Elizabeth, and instantly decides to rush back to Geneva and marry her.

Back in Geneva, the study has now become the bride’s bedroom, where Elizabeth is preparing to receive her new husband on their wedding night. There’s some humour in the conversation with her maid, and then Victor sweeps in with two armed guards, not the usual companions for an eager new husband. He’s made sure that the grounds have been thoroughly searched, there are guards everywhere, and yet instead of staying with Elizabeth to enjoy their first night together, he’s off again the check the perimeter, or some such. (Second time round, I got that he intends to kill the creature first, before enjoying a night with his new bride. And they called the man a genius.)

I was totally surprised when, after he left and Elizabeth was on her own, the creature leapt from the bed where he’d been hiding under the covers. A good trick – I certainly didn’t spot it in advance. He grabs Elizabeth to stop her screaming, but lets her go when she promises to be quiet. This is the first time he’s spoken to a kind person since the old man, a long time ago, and she’s probably the first to treat him kindly despite his looks. Even so, he’s too strongly hooked on revenge for her kindness to have any effect. After admitting that one of the hard lessons he’s learned is how to lie, he throws her on the bed and rapes her. Frankenstein rushes in at this point, but instead of shooting the creature, stands there in horror, giving the creature time to finish the job by killing Elizabeth, after which he pulls up his trousers, and escapes. Victor is keen to take Elizabeth to his room, where he knows he can revive her, being so recently killed, but his father and the other attendants restrain him, thinking him mad. So Elizabeth is gone forever.

The final scene is in the arctic. The creature arrives, puts down his bundle, and takes out some silverware for a meal. With the central revolve now lowered, there’s a flat surface for Frankenstein to drag his sledge over. (In fact, he and his sled rise up as the flat stage is replaced.) All the while the creature is explaining the situation, how he left Geneva and travelled over Europe, through Russia, up to the frozen expanse of ice and snow, with Frankenstein always following. Now he’s caught up again, he can eat the food the creature has put out for him, but the effort seems to be too much, and he’s suddenly still. The creature cradles him in his arms, feeling the loss of the only person in his life, and tries to revive him with the wine. No response. The creature grieves, and then Victor suddenly comes back to life, and the chase continues. This time, as Victor follows the creature off the back of the stage, they’re heading towards a brilliant display of lights, shining in our eyes through the door at the back. Rapturous applause.

And so to round two. Of course, the first time round was always going to have the benefit of surprise, and the second viewing didn’t have the same emotional charge as a result, but then I did get more out of the piece the second time around, and I find that it’s those performances that have stayed with me more.

I’ve mentioned some of the differences above, so now I want to concentrate on the variations in the central performances. I felt both actors did a good job of both parts. I know some people commented on the wig that Jonny Lee Miller was wearing, but it didn’t bother me. Benedict Cumberbatch had opted for a bald cap to play the creature, so that he had his own hair for the part of Frankenstein, while Jonny Lee Miller had gone the other way – fine with me. Benedict’s creature seemed to have less personality, and took considerably longer to find his feet, literally and metaphorically. His opening sequence of learning to move took several minutes more than Jonny’s version, and was harder to watch. Benedict’s creature seemed to be more of a blank slate for a longer time, and I think there was less humour as a result. Jonny’s creature developed quicker and had a more recognisable personality sooner, which engaged my sympathy on a personal level, whereas first time round I was sympathetic in a more general sense, as I would be for any creature that was treated so badly.

As for the Victors, Benedict’s version was more about the intellectual challenge, while Jonny’s was stronger in terms of the arrogance – I really didn’t like his Victor as a person, while I might have got on with Benedict’s, at least for a short while. I’m still not sure why Frankenstein doesn’t shoot the creature during Elizabeth’s rape and murder, but from the second performance I’ve reckoned that he may not have been willing to kill the very being he, and he alone, has created. Arrogance again.

So overall this was a doubly fantastic experience – not only a really good version of the Frankenstein story, but two slightly different interpretations of it. Brilliant.

© 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

Hamlet – October 2010

Experience: 5/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 26th October 2010

We met with an unfortunate choice of performance – coughing, phones going off, voice over the public address, an understudy for Polonius, and lots more coughing in the second half – have these people never heard of cough sweets?

The set looked like a pop-up version of the Ken Branagh film, all European military style, with walls that slid on and off, or unfurled from the sides to form lots of different acting spaces. The concealed doors were under the military-style crests, while the windows had folding shutters and carefully concealed ashtrays. Apart from one wall which was gray, the overall colour scheme was off-white, and looked suitably palatial, though it’s a shame Gertrude had to make do with a curtain from Poundstretchers for her little alcove. (It has to be stabbed through and torn down many times, so presumably that’s why the stunt curtain from the rehearsal room got the job.) The costumes were modern, with a strong emphasis on the military, and there were a number of security guards in suits who talked into their cuffs a lot, and gave the production its atmosphere of constant, menacing, surveillance.

The opening scene had the soldiers hiding from each other behind the walls – who else were they expecting to see up there? Although, as the opening sound effect was a plane flying overheard, perhaps they thought the ‘enemy’ might send in paratroopers to land on top of the castle for a midnight attack (bear in mind, Marcellus apparently doesn’t know what the heightened military activity is all about, so just who would the ‘enemy’ be?).

The first court scene was done as a TV broadcast from the new king, up to “For all, our thanks.” Then the royal couple could relax – Gertrude was quick to grab a glass of champagne – and deal with the more pressing matters of state. Cornelius became Cornelia, and the ambassadors to Norway were swiftly sent on their way. Hamlet had been sitting near Claudius’s desk, and brought out some papers. He unfolded one of them and laid it on the desk for Claudius to sign, but Claudius, ignoring him (so much for the caring father image), put his feet up on the desk and tackled Laertes first. His bit of paper was soon signed (I assume it was some kind of pass to let him leave the country), and he was off.

Hamlet was not so lucky. Does Claudius ever think, during the later stages of this play, how much simpler his life would have been if he had just let the man go back to university? Anyway, Hamlet reluctantly agrees to his mother’s request that he stay, and as he does so, he tears up the bit of paper and throws it away.

When the rest of the court has left, we get Hamlet’s first soliloquy, and it was pretty good. Then Horatio and the guards arrive, and I found it a little weird that with a huge picture of the former king still in the room – it was the backdrop to the impromptu TV studio – the line “methinks I see my father”, and Horatio’s response “O where, my lord?”, didn’t acknowledge the elephant in the room. Of course, it helps the newcomers in the audience to know what the previous king looks like, but it undercuts those lines a bit, as I found myself wondering how the picture would be used and why it was being ignored.

Next up was Laertes saying goodbye to Ophelia. She was fine, all modern teenager with her soft toy and CD player. Their conversation was reasonably clear, although I found Laertes had one of the weaker deliveries of this cast; hopefully there’s some improvement to come. The understudy for Polonius was fine, and got across the man’s tedious need to waffle on at great length, while his children sat on the sofa and tried to hide their giggles at his ponderous fatherly lecture. Polonius telling Ophelia to avoid Hamlet in future was fine, and then I think we moved on to the platform scene for the ghost’s appearance.

This was fine, too, nothing much to report, except that the area the ghost took Hamlet to had some walls, which allowed Hamlet to put a smiley face on one of them at the line “villain, villain, smiling, damned villain”, and then write ‘villain’ underneath. (This logo was used later on for the T-shirts he hands out at the play.) For the swearing bit, I wasn’t clear whether Hamlet was following the ghost or avoiding him.

The briefing of Reynaldo for his trip to France, and Ophelia’s reporting of Hamlet’s madness were OK, and for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s first appearance they shunned the traditional embarrassing confusion on Claudius’s part (finally!). After they left to find Hamlet, the ambassadors are dealt with – no concern whatsoever about an army tramping over the kingdom this time – and Polonius launches into the longwinded dissertation on Hamlet’s madness. Claudius and Gertrude’s reactions were fine, and there were several laughs in this scene. When Hamlet turns up, reading, the set morphs again so we see him arriving in his bedroom and throwing himself down on the bed. Polonius talks to him there, and it was probably the most effective part of Rory Kinnear’s performance, subdued but getting across the feigned madness, his once good relationship with R&G, the onset of suspicion about them, his heaviness of heart about not only the loss of his father but the demands of the situation he finds himself in, and then his sudden quickening when he hears about the players. It’s a lot of changes, and they were done very well.

Now I’m not sure of the order of scenes here – actually, I lost track some time ago, and I’m hoping they were the same as my text, which now has the report back by R&G to the king, followed by Ophelia and Hamlet’s overheard conversation. I think there was another scene put in here – possibly the arrival of the players, but I’m not sure. However, I’ll deal with that next. The players arrived with lots of equipment in the usual modern black and metal cases. Hamlet greeted them all warmly, and the telling of the speech about the dying Priam was moving and more intimate than I’ve seen before. Polonius’s “this is too long” got a good laugh, and for once, the Player King (James Laurenson, doubling with the old Hamlet) looked nervous when Hamlet asked him to play The Murder of Gonzago. He was the first Player King I can remember to seem aware of and concerned about the consequences of performing Hamlet’s chosen play in a court where a recently deceased king has been succeeded by his brother who then marries his sister-in-law. Either the other Player Kings are as thick as two short planks, or they’re comfortable with dangerous political satire.

The overhearing scene was done using modern surveillance equipment, with Claudius and Polonius putting on headphones as they disappeared behind one of the doors. There was nothing special in the scene itself, with Hamlet realising that they’re being overheard.

The play was set up next, with a carpet laid diagonally on the floor for the stage, two chairs to the left of it for the (real) king and queen, various lights around the place, and the sound equipment at the back. The mime at the start is done quickly, with a bed being wheeled on for the king to lie on, and a big blue bottle of poison used by the murderer. The second phase, with the dialogue, was fine, although the reactions from the king and queen weren’t easy to see from our angle. Hamlet was lurking over by the spotlight on the right front of the stage, and turned it on for this part, lighting the players for the relevant part of the plot. When the king stormed off in a temper, the actors were clearly panicked, and rushed off with as much of their stuff as they could grab. The sound equipment at the back was left, though, so Hamlet used it – when he called for music, he simply flicked a switch, and some thumping beat was blasted out through the speakers, not too loud, but not quiet either. And that was the interval, with Hamlet sitting cross-legged at the front of the stage.

The second half started with almost the same setup, although the rest of the players’ equipment had mysteriously vanished to leave a bare stage. The requests for Hamlet to visit his mother were OK, and then Claudius deals with the reports from R&G and Polonius before kneeling in front of his desk to pray. Hamlet appears from behind the wall, sees Claudius through the window, and draws a knife to kill the king, before talking himself out it. Gertrude’s room appears even before Claudius is off the stage, with sofas to left and right, a large portrait of Claudius on the far wall, and the tacky curtain hanging in front of an alcove in the middle of the wall.

Now, this was one scene where our position gave us a problem. The ghost appeared on the far side of the stage, and so when Gertrude turned to look where Hamlet was pointing, we couldn’t see her reaction. It’s possible from what we saw that she actually saw the ghost, or at least something, but was denying it. Hamlet grabbed the portrait of Claudius off the wall to compare with his father’s picture, and it ended up on the floor. Polonius was stabbed through the curtain, and his body dragged off on it. Gertrude certainly didn’t want to be with Claudius after this scene.

Hamlet climbed the ladder at our side of the stage to taunt R&G about Polonius’s missing body, and then Claudius is in what looks like an interrogation room when Hamlet is brought before him. There’s no Polonius to advise Claudius now, of course, and the chap who seems to be the new second-in-command is wearing some sort of military outfit. Later on, he turns out to be Osric. There’s also an interrogation technician with a nasty-looking suitcase, but fortunately Hamlet tells all before he has to get busy with his syringe.

Again, I’m not sure of the order of scenes here, but at some point, Hamlet is handcuffed to the ladder (why?) and thus sees the arrival of Fortinbras and gets to question the lieutenant about him and the forthcoming battle. Fortinbras is well used to the technology of modern warfare, and is followed by his own camera crew, taking every opportunity to record what an excellent leader he is. Hamlet’s change of attitude here was clearly expressed, and the conversation about the small piece of land was also well done.

Now for the dreaded mad scenes. These worked better than I’d hoped. Ophelia comes on pushing a supermarket shopping trolley, filled with various packages and clothes. For the second mad scene, she dishes out these parcels instead of using flowers. One, given to Laertes, was her toy from earlier, which I could now see was Babar the elephant. Claudius got the prop bottle of poison used in The Murder of Gonzago. Nice touch.

Laertes arrived with several other gunmen, following sounds of gunfire outside, and his debate with Claudius was a bit weak, as was his reaction to Ophelia. Later, the plotting to kill Hamlet after his letters have arrived was also underpowered, and I wasn’t that moved by the report of Ophelia’s death. Things started to improve with Hamlet’s reappearance at the graveyard.

The gravedigger was on his own, the banter with Hamlet was trimmed nicely, and so we were soon into the funeral combat. The ‘grave’ was a couple of trapdoors set diagonally towards the front of the stage nearer our side. The skulls (why are there rarely any other bones?) were put in a plastic crate, and Ophelia was in a coffin. I don’t think Laertes actually picks up her body again – would have been difficult anyway with the lid nailed down – and the scuffle between him and Hamlet seemed briefer than usual.

Back in the castle, Hamlet tells Horatio about his travels, and then Osric comes along to invite Hamlet to participate in the fencing competition. At least here they made the fencing into a proper sporting contest, with a strip of matting for the piste and the usual jackets and face masks. Unfortunately, the fencing itself was so-so, and the final deaths felt a bit jumbled, which lost a bit of the tension. Hamlet did slur his speech towards the end as the poison took effect, which was good. Of course, Fortinbras is more than ready to take advantage of this opportunity, making his speech in praise of Hamlet to camera as his first media step in gaining the crown. Then he shakes hands with the remaining members of the court, all eager to be his new bestest friend.

While there were some interesting choices in this staging, on the whole I found the tedium getting to me, and I nodded off a few times as a result. Some of the lines were delivered so badly I thought they were in a foreign language, which didn’t help. Steve reckoned Horatio was the worst offender, speeding up so much with each line that he was unintelligible by about line six. I felt the problem was more widespread, and combined with some fluffed lines (Horatio obligingly leaves the stage after the burial scene although Claudius clearly asks Laertes to go), and some strange cuts, the whole production had a very patchy feel. There were some excellent parts, and Rory Kinnear gave a consistently sound performance, but the rest needs work. It’s only a few weeks since it opened, so it may come together later in its run. I do hope so.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

London Assurance – May 2010

9/10

By Dion Boucicault

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Saturday 29th May 2010

The only reason this isn’t rated 10/10 is our unfortunate lateness, arriving half an hour after the start, and having to stand at the back of the circle till the interval. (A trespasser on the line between Haywards Heath and Three Bridges, or a suspected blockage in the Balcombe tunnel, depending on which of the many apologetic announcements you believe.) Even so, we were laughing loudly within a couple of minutes, at the servant, Cool’s comment ‘How polite. Must be a lawyer.’ And we kept on laughing, even before we took our seats for the second half.

It was good to see Simon Russell Beale giving us a fop again. It’s a good few years since his grounding in such roles at the RSC, and he hasn’t lost his touch, just refined it superbly with experience. His clothes weren’t as OTT as is usual with fops, but his affected mannerisms told the story just as well, possibly better. The way he threw a cushion to the floor in preparation for dramatically throwing himself on it in his pursuit of Lady Gay, was almost as funny as his pained expression when he did manage to collapse onto said cushion. There comes a time in life when romantic gestures have to become more restrained – Sir Harcourt is long past that time.

Fiona Shaw was perfect as Lady Gay Spanker – her entrance alone had both her and the audience hooting with laughter, never mind her excellent delivery of the lines. I would have loved to be closer to see her racing-commentator-style description of a recent steeplechase, but even from the gods it was good fun.

The set was just right, too. Enough detail to evoke the country squire’s manor, but not too fussy. The walls were a z-shape, with the inside portion showing us the drawing-room, and the other side, courtesy of the revolve, showing us the outside of the property. The hunting theme was established early on with lots of stuffed heads on the walls, and given that I know nothing about these things, I assume the furniture and costumes were period perfection – the NT knows how to do these things properly. Of course, we missed the earlier scenes in London, so I’ve no idea what that bit looked like; if we can get to see this again, I’ll be keen to get there on time to enjoy that part as well.

I believe I’ve described the story well enough in a previous set of notes, and although Richard Bean had assisted with some updates, there were no changes to the overall plot. The most notable updating was that Solomon Isaacs, the moneylender from whom Charles Courtly has been hiding, turns out to be from the East. Not Cheltenham, as one character suggests, but farther east than that. A gentleman of Chinese extraction, in fact. The look of surprise on the faces of the assembled throng were a joy to behold, with Lord Harcourt’s expression of astonishment topping them all. Before he leaves, Solomon Isaacs rounds it off by advertising that he’s willing to give anyone with money troubles a consolidated loan, interest-free for the first eighteen months. Lady Gay was quick to take a card, I noticed.

The other performances were also excellent. It was a shame Richard Briers had so little to do as Lady Gay’s husband, but he did all of it brilliantly. Matt Cross as Dazzle, the high-living, lower-class scrounger, doesn’t have so much to do after the start (which we missed), but we both enjoyed his contemporary-sounding ‘walk away’ lines when breaking up a fight. And all the rest were equally as good in this top-notch production.

One final moment to remember – the look of horrified astonishment from Sir Harcourt Courtly as his son, confessing his earlier deception in pretending to be Mr. Hastings, whipped off his glasses to show that he and Mr. Hastings are one and the same! Hilarious, and worth the price of a ticket on its own.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Mother Courage And Her Children – December 2009

6/10

By Bertolt Brecht, translated by Tony Kushner

Directed by Deborah Warner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Saturday 5th December 2009

Straight off I was worried by the setup, especially the droning music in the background. Actually, it was more like the foreground. It was a really unpleasant sound, and, like the Therese Raquin earlier (Lyttelton, November 2006) I was considering leaving, only this time it would have been before the play began!

The set suggested some kind of protest situation, with an area roped off, cones and tape everywhere, and an industrial feel to the stage. When the play started, with the army recruiters meeting up to discuss business, the music stopped (thankfully), but the stage was the same. It was only at Mother Courage’s entrance that things started to liven up.

The gaping hole in the middle of the stage allowed a platform to be raised up, and on it was the travelling van Mother Courage used to peddle her wares. It was being pulled by two of her children, and once it had reached stage level, it went on a long journey round the place. All the while, Mother Courage (Fiona Shaw) was standing on top of the van, singing her song, wearing a peculiar costume which suggested both modern and old, and demonstrating her star status with a pair of sunglasses. The musicians may also have started to appear on stage around this time, as they frequently did. The band, led by Duke Special, did some excellent numbers throughout, ranging across styles, and making the production much more entertaining.

The sets changed frequently, always using the simplest techniques to create the locations. For an army tent, one canvas sheet would be lowered, with flaps for windows and doors. There were more elaborate pieces for the scene where Courage’s daughter warns the sleeping townsfolk, and often the van was the centre of it all. We were also treated to short readings by Gore Vidal of the bits between the scenes, telling us what was happening in the war, and what life was like for the people (usually dire). Brecht’s dry wit shone through, despite the horrors being related.

Fiona Shaw’s performance was excellent. She gave us a very clear picture of a woman who thought she was taking advantage of the war, but who was completely caught up in it, and eventually almost destroyed by it. Her family certainly was, as all three children died as a result of the war, and she was left alone, trying to keep going.  Her courage and brazen rapaciousness were both attractive and repellent, but it’s her greed for life that stands out most for me. Even after the beating that life gives her, she’s still battling on, perhaps stupidly, and perhaps bringing about her own downfall, but still keeping on. And clearly a punk, as Fiona’s dancing during one of the numbers indicated.

The other performances were also good, and I’m glad I stayed to watch it, but even so, it’s still Brecht, and there were lots of tedious patches which simply had to be endured. I also find it difficult to relate to these characters, which reduces my enjoyment, but for those who like this sort of thing, I suspect this was a very good production. It certainly got an enthusiastic response from the audience, and I’m glad to report that there were plenty of youngsters around us today.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Death And The King’s Horseman – June 2009

8/10

By Wole Soyinka

Directed by Rufus Norris

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 17th June 2009

On seeing this set, Steve thought it was the latest installation by Anthony Gormley. How awkward, I thought, when they’re trying to put on a play at the same time. When I saw it, I was intrigued. The stage floor was dark and shiny, with a broad red stripe curving round the front and more red speckles behind it. The rest of the floor seemed to be shiny black. There were about twelve figures spread across the centre of the stage; I assumed they were examples of Nigerian carving. They were eerie and beautiful at the same time – I don’t know the significance, although they may be a reference to the ancestors, so important in Nigerian culture.

There was a torn slit curving along the back at eye level with a bright white light shining through, and above it hung a long bundle of something indistinct – body parts, clothes? – which was lit from above. The overall effect was of a strange world, where spirits may walk and other values than our own hold sway – a good start.

When the lights went down (a bit late – there were a lot of people who needed to change seats because they found themselves in the wrong place) a trapdoor opened behind the figures and the cast began to emerge. The first, a woman, had a long lighted taper, and she came forward to light several flames round the front of the stage. By this light I could see that the red stuff was small granules, which some of the other women started to brush out of the way with the bundles of sticks they carried. Some of the men were taking the figures off stage, and with the musicians setting a good beat, it wasn’t long before dancing broke out, with one group of young women and another group of young men chasing each other around the stage. Meanwhile, Lucian Msamati (Pericles in the latest RSC production) and Jenny Jules were sitting on stools near the front being whited up. It was a very colourful, dynamic opening, where we could take in the spectacle and some of the details at our leisure.

Then, with all the figures off the stage and most of the actors having left as well, the play proper started with the dancing haystacks. Three of them, and they were dancing with the women. The Elesin (played by Nonso Anozie, the RSC Academy King Lear) came along and played hide and seek with the women amongst the haystacks until a chap in a bright blue outfit turned up, complaining that he’d been left behind. I didn’t follow all of it, but I gathered that the great man, the Elesin, the king’s horseman, was meant to have the services of someone to sing his praises, and this was the blue peacock’s job. I got the impression that the Elesin wanted to get on with chasing the young ladies, but he relented, and told the peacock to follow him. Their relationship reminded me of Shrek and the donkey – it was just as difficult to get peacock man to shut up.

At the village, there’s much rejoicing when the great man turns up, with lots more song and dance. The Mother of the market turns up (Claire Benedict) and is wonderfully gracious and commanding at the same time. She’s treated with great respect by Elesin, and after a bout of mock anger by him, they tog him out in some fresh clothes. During the dancing he spots a lovely young girl and is determined to have her that very night, even though she’s betrothed to another man. He talks it over with the Mother, and persuades her that he needs to unburden himself of his seed and leave it to grow in the earth before he dies that night. The image of the plantain is used a lot for this, the idea that the sap never dries out, that the old stem withers to feed the new sapling, that the cycle of life is continuous. The Mother agrees with him, but warns him not to leave seed that will harm the people. The marriage goes ahead, with the tendrils of the bundle descending over the couple, and then they sneak off to the marriage bed.

Just to explain – the King has died, and his horseman, the Elesin, is meant to die shortly afterwards, to continue serving the king in the afterlife. He’s expected to commit suicide, and this is what he plans to do that night.

Now we get to see the whited up characters, the District Officer and his wife. Mind you, we don’t get to see them at first, because they arrive in two magnificent red costumes with headdresses covering their faces completely, and dancing. Their furniture, veranda and two bushes also arrive dancing – I thought the lampshade in particular looked very fetching. The costumes are for a fancy dress party they’re off to that night and they’re used by the natives to represent the dead, or death. So when the sergeant turns up to report the imminent death of the Elesin, he can hardly get a word out for his fear of the costumes. Eventually the District Officer tells him to write down his information and get back to work.

The District Officer and his wife then try to find out what’s going on with the Elesin, so they question their steward, Joseph. He’s been Christian for a couple of years so isn’t bothered by the costumes. He is bothered by the drums, though, as they’re sending mixed messages. One minute they’re saying the king will die, then they say he’s getting married. With typical colonial insensitivity, the District Officer orders his men to arrest the Elesin to stop him killing himself, then he and his wife head off to the party.

When the two policemen arrive at the village they’re hounded mercilessly by the young women, who use their small brushes to good effect. The Mother arrives, but also chides them for wanting to take the Elesin away from his bride on the wedding night. There’s a lovely section where the women do impressions of the posh white folk (I’d have liked to have heard more of the lines) and the men are eventually sent packing after one of them has his underpants removed by the women.

Now the Elesin arrives, fresh from the consummation. The Mother shows a cloth round all the women to prove that sex has taken place. His wife, now a fully fledged woman herself, is led off, and after the women smear blue paint on his body the Elesin is left alone to die and accompany his king into the world of the ancestors. Interval.

The second half shows us more of the ‘white’ people at the fancy dress party. Some of the women carry yokes on their shoulders so they can carry two other dummy characters, one on each side – I’m not sure if the men were doing this too. All the party people were in historical frocks and outfits, except for the District Officer and his wife. They did some dancing, and then the District Officer was called away to deal with the problem of the Elesin and his intended death. His men catch the Elesin and bring him to the prison to prevent him committing suicide.

Around this time the Elesin’s son turns up. We’d already heard in the first half how the District Officer helped this young man to leave Africa and go to England to train as a doctor. As the eldest son, he would have been expected to carry on his father’s tradition and become horseman to the next chief. With his father not able to do what needs to be done, the young man kills himself instead to keep the cycle of life intact. Hearing this, the Elesin, manacled at the end of a long chain that hangs from the ceiling, also kills himself by wrapping the chain round his neck and strangling himself. It’s a sad ending, but a powerful and moving story, well told.

The experience of seeing black actors whiting up was a good one; at last there was some balance after years of the other way round, and although I must admit it was a bit of a jolt at first, I soon saw the funny side and loved every minute. There were some good pointed comments about colonialism, from a different perspective than we’re used to, and while I’m not keen on ritual killings per se, the overall impression was of a culture in closer touch with nature and the natural cycles than we ‘civilised’ folk often are, and full of life and the enjoyment of it. A very good afternoon’s entertainment, and a tremendous ensemble performance.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

War Horse – March 2009

Experience: 9/10

By Michael Morpurgo

Directed by Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 17th March 2009

This was a very emotional experience. I sobbed when Joey the foal gave way to Joey the horse, then when Joey gave his all to win the ploughing competition, and I wasn’t entirely dry-eyed during the first, traumatic cavalry charge. And this was just the first half. After the interval, I deployed tissues on a number of occasions; Topthorn’s death didn’t move me quite so much, but there were plenty of other opportunities to increase the profits of Kleenex – Joey volunteering to pull the ambulance for one. The finale, with Joey saving his own life by responding to Albert, was almost embarrassing as I struggled to keep quiet and avoid disturbing the neighbours. But it was a marvellous release of all the emotions stirred up by this powerful piece.

I suspected there had been a few changes, and checking last year’s notes has confirmed this. The biggest change, apart from most of the cast being different, was that Emilie, the little girl in France, was played by an actress this time instead of a puppet, and magical though the puppet was I feel this version worked even better.

From our backstage tour last summer, we had learned that the horses were being rebuilt to make them lighter as well stronger and hopefully better able to take the wear and tear of regular performance. I certainly noticed the difference – the animals seemed lighter, and Topthorn was carrying a lot less condition this year. Steve reckoned they got him in from the paddock earlier this time. Maybe because of this, or perhaps because we were a lot closer, I noticed the horses moving around a lot more. They seemed to be more flexible and more responsive to whatever was going on.

The other puppets were much as before. The goose was just as annoying and the nasty crow had competition for the eyeballs this time. The cast changes didn’t affect the performance too much. I preferred Angus Wright as the German officer; Patrick O’Kane played the part reasonably well but his performance occasionally seemed over the top, with much larger physical movements than necessary. They might have been intended to carry to the back of the auditorium, but then why weren’t the other actors to scale? Albert was played by Kit Harington this time and I found it harder to spot him in the crowd initially. His father was in competition with his own brother – a definite change from last time – which made his father more sympathetic this time, I felt. Still unpleasant but understandably so, as he was the one excluded by his family. Albert’s mother was evidently an Irishwoman who had married into a Cornish family, and had picked up a few traces of the Cornish accent but still used her original brogue whenever possible. The Song Man was the understudy today but I didn’t notice any drop in quality in that department.

An excellent revival and I wish it well for the West End run too.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

England People Very Nice – March 2009

8/10

By Richard Bean

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 3rd March 2009

Set: dominating the stage at the start is a big rectangular block of boards. Actually, it’s a double-decker set of doors, with six across the top, and the two on the right hand side of the bottom row turned horizontal. I expected something like the top one opening up to become a stall or some such, and I wasn’t far off. In front of these doors there’s a bigger raised area of floorboards. To the right of that and round the front are the wide black floorboards, while on the left the stage seems to be bare – I could see the line of the revolve quite clearly.

Behind the doors, many of which are open at the start, a mesh fence spreads across the stage from wing to wing, with two openings, one on each side. Through the fence and the open doors we can see rails of clothes, presumably costumes, and possibly some of the props. A set of stairs runs up behind the doors. There’s a drum kit to the right of the doors and some other musical instruments in that corner, and a red plastic chair, standard issue, centre stage. The whole effect is stripped down, as if the production is laying something bare.

Before the start, the cast gradually drift onto the rear of the stage, though one chap does come and sit on the red plastic chair. He’s working on his laptop and then he puts it aside and looks at some papers – photos perhaps, or artwork. Then there’s an announcement, telling the cast to assemble on stage, and we’re into the action for real.

Or not, as it happens. The play uses a framing device; all these people are at a detention centre, either working there or potential immigrants. They’ve been devising a play about the English response to successive waves of immigrants since the Romans, and they’re just about to give us their dress rehearsal. First though, the director, Philippa, gives some notes, and this gives us a chance to meet some of the “real” characters, as well as prepping us very nicely for some of the jokes, particularly the “fucking _____” gag, which worked particularly well, and the “wagon” joke, which only worked because it didn’t.

The director’s priceless pearls are regularly interrupted by an annoying man who turns out to be a Palestinian, Taher. He’s unpopular with everyone, and is banned from mentioning Israel – I sensed the backstory involved a lot of aggravation during the rehearsal process. Despite the interruptions, and the shock discovery that the “Imam” has shaved off his beard the night before the performance (he stuck it all back together to make a fake one), the dress rehearsal goes ahead as planned.

It’s at this point that the multimedia aspect of the production becomes apparent. We’ve been told that Elmar, the chap with the laptop, has done some animations for their play (he regularly won a silver something-or-other in Azerbaijan), and these are projected onto the block of doors and the back wall throughout the play to add to the story. The first section deals with the original Brits, living their primitive lives, and being taken over by the Romans, who kill the man and ravish the woman (they didn’t have a lot of original Brits to work with). Then the Roman soldiers are killed by the Angles and Saxons, and it’s all much the same thing. This is all done to a jolly song, while the animation shows these successive invaders running up behind the previous lot, and then the next lot of actors come on to hew and slash, before shagging the woman. As the dead bodies mount up, the animation shows them filling the screen. We both liked this use of multimedia from the word go, as it didn’t distract from the performance at all, just gave it a more immediate effect as well as adding to the humour.

This quick series of invaders slows right down when a town crier announces from the upper storey that the French king has kicked the Protestants out of his kingdom, so there will be a lot of “frogs” coming London’s way. As the Huguenots are skilled cloth manufacturers, the local weavers are soon up in arms about the detrimental effect they’re having on local workers, while the French build themselves a church, and plan to civilise the English. This church, and the subsequent synagogue and mosque, are drawn in animation, with the appropriate symbol appearing physically above the roof. There’s the beginning of an eternal love story which echoes through the ages when Norfolk Danny, a silk weaver in Spitalfields, is persuaded to give shelter to a Frenchwoman, Camille, and her brother, also a weaver. The situation gets ugly when the weavers guild find this out, and when they interrupt Danny’s coitus to smash his loom, he stabs one of the men who attacks Camille, leading to his eventual hanging (and the “wagon” joke). This was shown on the screens behind, a good use of the film media.

Meanwhile, another set of characters have been introduced to us who will also echo down the years. The lower horizontal door slid forwards and becomes a bar, a table and chairs are brought on to the left of the stage, and we’re in the generic pub, with Fred Ridgeway as the landlord Laurie, Sophie Stanton as the barmaid Ida, and Trevor Laird as the pub regular Rennie, latterly from Barbados. Ida is the source of the “fucking ______” jokes, with the blank being filled with “frogs”, “Micks”, “yids” and a few other derogatory terms. The humour was in Sophie’s delivery of the lines (excellent), especially in the second half, when she holds a long pause after the “fucking”, gets the laugh anyway, and then compounds it by adding “yanks”. If we hadn’t guessed before, we knew at that point that we were up to the Second World War.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This first time it’s the “frogs” she’s upset about. Rennie tells us a number of French folk have moved in above him, and provides the insider’s view of life with the French (too unsavoury to repeat here). He’s an unlucky fellow, because the same thing happens when the Irish turn up (keep pigs), the Jews, and the Asians. (The Irish don’t build their own church, by the way; they have to worship in secret at “art appreciation classes”.)

Anyway, things come to a head when war breaks out between Britain and France. The leader of the French community changes his accent and starts talking colloquial English, and then I think they all move to Redbridge(?), leaving room for the new incomers, the Irish (but I might have got that wrong).

When the Irish arrive, Ida is now the granddaughter of a French immigrant, and we get to see how these groups have assimilated themselves, and laugh at the funny side. Later on, this same point is made about the other groups, but I think it came across most strongly this first time, possibly because that early tranche of immigrants was too long ago for anyone to get upset about now, unlike some of the later groups. The cycles repeat themselves, with the previous set of immigrants complaining about the new lot, and the only variation I could see was that the English Jews were equally as unhappy about the Jewish incomers as the non-Jewish residents.

The final group are the Muslims, and here the tension rises a bit as some of the Muslim community become militant, and start aggressively attacking the parts of British culture they don’t like (most of it, from what I could see). The play does show that not all Muslims take this hard-line stance; there are clear references to the Wahibi sect as the cause of the problem, and the Imam who arrives to take over from his more tolerant predecessor has two hooks for hands. This is the final wave of immigration they can show, and brings us up-to-date, with a pair of twins being born to a Pakistani man and a British woman from an adulterous relationship. The idea of the children, especially the boy, being our hope for the future was floated, but couldn’t be resolved within the scope of this piece.

The overall idea of the play within the play was that love conquers all, and can bring disparate and even warring communities together. Despite this happy ending, the context play ends with the guard handing out letters to the immigrants to tell them if they’ve made it into Britain. Some do, some don’t, and some don’t get a letter. This had a sobering effect, and I found myself, in the final moment, recognising that the director can walk out of the “detention centre” and go wherever she likes, while even those who have been accepted by Immigration will be limited in what they can do to begin with. Those turned down have few, if any, choices.

I didn’t find the play particularly racist, but then I don’t have the sensibilities of some people or groups, nor a readiness to take offence. I don’t know how I would have reacted to jokes about the Scots or Welsh, mind you. I do think this play had a specific scope – to show the effects of immigration on English culture and society over a long period, using a particular area, Spitalfields, to focus the drama, and then widening the focus to show us the reality of today. I appreciated the humour, and I suspect some of the critics were taking it (and themselves?) too seriously, as some folk did with Till Death Do Us Part, thinking that Alf Garnett was speaking up for the racists when he was actually a figure of fun. I’m certainly happier that plays like this can be staged, especially at such a high-profile venue, and I only wish more writers with different experiences and points of view would take up the challenge of showing us these subjects from another perspective. We can only hope.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me