Twelfth Night – February 2011

7/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Peter Hall

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Thursday, 24th February 2011

A slightly weaker production than I would have expected. Some performances were excellent, especially Charles Edwards as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, but Viola and Olivia were remarkably bland. Both actresses were reduced to grinning and simpering a lot, with no sign of the grief that both characters are supposedly suffering. Most peculiar. Malvolio was a nasty piece of work, and his mistreatment particularly unpleasant, as he was penned in a large bird cage and had to crouch on the perch with his knees up around his chin. His later appearance indicates how this has affected his knees. Sir Toby was full of life, and Feste was an older version, with good delivery of the lines, but overall the piece felt lacking in pace and focus.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Rivals – February 2011

7/10

By: Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Director: Peter Hall

Venue: Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Date: Saturday 19th February 2011

Bit disappointing, this. The set was fantastic, all in cream, with a marvellous trompe l’oie curve of Georgian rooftops in a crescent above the flat back wall, which had a magnificent central door, and two smaller doors to either side. Exits and entrances could also be made directly from the wings, and the curve of the rooftops came forward to yet another Simon Higlett picture frame, about halfway up the stage. In front of this were two elaborate doors, one on each side, and I did finally notice a beautiful parquet oval in the floor. So the location was abundantly clear, and with the extra furniture brought on and off (by liveried servants to boot), and wonderful costumes, there was plenty to enjoy visually.

This version of the play was an amalgam of the three ‘original’ versions, and while it was coherent, it did feel a bit minimalist at times. However, we got a fuller Mrs Malaprop than usual, which in this case was a real treat. Perhaps just shaded by my memories of Stephanie Cole’s portrayal, Penelope Keith did a fine job of getting across her character’s misuse of the English language, and I’m sure there were several instances which I’d never heard before. Peter Bowles was entertaining as Sir Anthony Absolute – not as physical as some we’ve seen, but he conveyed the changes of mood very nicely. The servants, Fag and Lucy were splendid, and I’ve often thought the servants’ parts are some of the best in the Restoration Comedies.

The main problems I found today were the weakness of the romantic leads, and the lack of a brisk pace to keep the energy up. It’s a problem with Peter Hall’s directorial style now that his productions are a lot less physical, and this can make things a bit dull, although there’s no doubt the language comes across brilliantly. Jack Absolute was played by Tam Williams, and seemed a bit weak. Lydia Languish was played by Robyn Addison, making her professional stage debut, and was sadly wooden and inexpressive. Annabel Scholey was fine as Julia, although Tony Gardner, excellent in other stage comedies we’ve seen, was rather dull as Faulkland. Gerard Murphy was good as Sir Lucius O’Trigger, but had relatively little to do, and I did like Keiron Self as Bob Acres, the unsuccessful suitor to Lydia, who manages to avoid a duel, but not the makeover from a tailor.

I still enjoyed seeing the play again – it’s a total classic – but I wouldn’t recommend the production as the best I’ve seen. Perhaps they’re just getting a bit jaded towards the end of their run.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Browning Version – September 2009

8/10

By Terence Rattigan

Directed by Peter Hall

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 10th September 2009

How embarrassing. This was a double bill; the first play was Swansong, a piece by Anton Chekov. However I’m not able to rate Swansong as I kept nodding off through it; not a reflection on the actors, just that I was more tired than I realised. I heard a fair bit of laughter, so it must have been pretty good.

The Browning Version is another matter altogether. I’ve only seen this once or twice before and my memory wasn’t clear on all the details so I had to pay close attention to this one. The story concerns an older teacher, Andrew Crocker-Harris, steeped in the classics, who is about to leave the public school he’s taught at for eighteen years due to health problems. He has another job – he’s due to start next term at a ‘crammer’ – but he won’t be earning as much, and today the headmaster tells him he won’t be getting a pension as he hasn’t done the full twenty years. This piece of information drew a few gasps from the audience, and there was more to come.

His wife’s unfaithfulness throughout their marriage is represented here by her latest lover, a younger science teacher, and we learn about Crocker-Harris’s reputation amongst both staff and boys through a chat between a student, Taplow, and this science teacher, Frank Hunter, while both are waiting in Crocker-Harris’s study. Crocker-Harris himself becomes aware of this reputation through the innocent use of his school nickname “the Himmler of the lower fifth” by the youthful chap who’ll be replacing him next term. This, coupled with an almost sadistic barb from his wife over a book which Taplow has given him as a farewell present (more gasps from the audience) appears to put the final nail in his coffin, and his disappearance from the stage clutching his medicine bottle made more of us than just his wife think he was going to end it all.

He didn’t, and with the science teacher’s eyes being opened by the wife’s behaviour another opportunity emerges. The wife’s off to Bradford, but Crocker-Harris has decided to stay at the school until he goes to Dorset to take up his new post. Frank Hunter has taken his address and arranged a date to visit him there. Before sitting down to dinner, Crocker-Harris calls the headmaster to tell him that he will, in fact, make the final speech tomorrow, a position he’d allowed himself to be pushed out off for a more popular, but junior master. As he and his wife start their meal, there’s a lovely sense of the worm turning and the possibility of some happiness in the future.

I do like the way that Rattigan sets these people before us without much in the way of judgement, so we can see the situation from a number of points of view. Crocker-Harris comes across as a dry old stick to begin with, but as we get to know more about him and the people around him, we see more to the man than that. All the performances were fine as was the set. Now all I have to do is make sure I stay awake in future, and all will be well.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Where There’s A Will – March 2009

6/10

By Georges Feydeau, adapted by Nicki Frei

Directed by Peter Hall

Company: English Touring Theatre

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 6th March 2009

This was a good adaptation of a Feydeau farce, with perfectly good staging and performances. It took the audience a while to warm up to the production and I felt there was a lot of humour going unrewarded in the early stages, but after the interval the laughs came more readily and it ended up as a good evening’s entertainment.

We’d seen this play before and recognised it within a few minutes of the start. Angèle’s second husband is finding it very difficult to put up with his wife’s obsessive suspicion that he’s having an affair. Her first husband cheated on her left, right and centre, but she was very naïve and trusting, so it came as a terrible blow when she discovered his infidelity. Now she’s gone the other way, convinced that every man cheats on his wife, and armed with her first husband’s journal of excuses, she’s determined to catch husband number 2 in flagrante, even if it means embarrassing him by interrupting an official meeting (he’s a politician).

Despite her watchfulness, her husband is still managing to see his mistress whenever her husband goes away on business. He does this by hypnotising his wife, leaving her asleep in the sitting-room with the lights turned down and the doors locked. He gets an opportunity to do this during the play (lucky for us, eh?) but what he doesn’t know is that the coachman and the maid have taken to using the sitting-room for their trysts when everyone is out, as signalled by the room being dark. There’s an extra complication (they can never keep it simple, these farceurs) with the arrival of an old friend of Angèle’s first husband, who had himself fallen in love with Angèle (unreciprocated) and to spare his friend had left for the Far East. Now he’s back, and the news of his friend’s death fills him with hope that Angèle will finally be his. When he finds out he’s too late, he’s distraught, but he hangs around long enough to discover the new  husband’s trick and to try and make use of it himself. With the husband arriving home early, being chased by his mistress’s husband, the scene is set for a lot of fun as each character struggles to come out on top, or at least not get killed.

The performances were all good. Tony Gardner as the first husband’s friend turned out to have a talent for physical comedy, getting himself into all sorts of funny poses as well as delivering his lines really well. His realisation that Angèle, believing her experiences to be a dream, was about to reveal to her husband his own impassioned declarations of love, was wonderfully expressed through his body language and judicious use of “ooh la la”.

The set was as it needed to be for this piece, with double doors to a balcony centre back, double doors to the room back left, two chaises right and left of the middle, assorted furniture appropriate to the setting, and doors either side at the front. Very much as we remembered from the past.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Love’s Labour’s Lost – October 2008 (3)

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Peter Hall

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 30th October 2008

Having recently seen the RSC production of this play, as well as the understudy performance to refresh our memories, I was concerned that I would not be able to set my prejudices aside and give this production the attention it deserved. I didn’t have to worry for long. Although this was almost a complete mirror image of the RSC version, I found myself enjoying it well before the end of the first scene.

The set was in complete contrast for a start. The whole width and depth of the stage was being used, and in a stark, simple way. The floor was all wood strips, there were metal balcony railings and two metal ladders, and there was a pair of wrought iron gates in the centre, between two pillars. Somewhat like those ranch gates they used to have in westerns – nothing for miles around, and a few poles forming a gate for visitors to ride through. Bizarre in that setting, but here it worked. There was also a reading desk to the right hand side of the stage.

When the king arrived with his three henchmen, I nearly giggled. The Elizabethan costume in the RSC production worked very well. Here, in this sparse environment, it looked a little silly. All the men wore black – more of a Jacobean influence, I think. The hats were also humorous, so I was finding it a bit difficult to give my all for the beginning section, though they carried it off well enough. In fact, I would say the clarity of speech in this production far exceeded that in the RSC’s version. Admittedly I had the benefit of seeing the play twice before today, and checking the text as I did these notes, so I was far more familiar with the dialogue than usual, but even so the lines came across very clearly here, and I got a lot more out of some of the relatively opaque sections.

The biggest contrast, and the one I want to get out of the way first, was between the Berownes. David Tennant is tall, agile, and very expressive with both his face and body. Finbar Lynch is short, tends not to move much if he can avoid it, and his range of facial expressions is not much greater than Mr Potato Face. (I mean this in a nice way, honest.) Both can deliver a line very well, though, and given the nature of this play, that’s just as well. So, while the RSC version goes for almost over the top physical manifestations of the text’s jokes, this production settles for getting the text across, and letting the audience do their bit. Both ways are fine (though the attentive reader will deduce my preferences from my ratings).

I think there was more of the text used in this production, though as I heard more of it I can’t be sure which were bits I just missed in the other performances. The staging was very straightforward, with the reading desk brought on and off as required, and benches and stools provided for the nobility to rest their legs. For such a big, empty space, they managed to fill it with people and action very well, and used it to the full. There were extra attendants, but they didn’t come on that often, so it was mainly the known characters.

Peter Bowles as Don Armado deserves a special mention for keeping his character within the bounds of reason and decency, and not using a ridiculous accent to get his laughs. That’s partly why I understood a lot more of his dialogue throughout. Jaquenetta’s “dish-clout” he actually receives from her when he’s telling her he’ll meet her in the lodge. Ella Smith has an embonpoint that could win gold medals, and when she teases an end of cloth out from between two fleshy mounds, what can the poor man do but take it gratefully and keep it next to his heart?

Moth was played by Kevin Trainor, an older actor than usual, but it helped with the delivery of his lines. He came across as a bit camp, but that may have been to indicate his youth, and the wit was very well conveyed. He had a good partner in Costard, played by Greg Haiste, who was all grins and lolloping cheerfulness. Nothing could get him down, and he worked a very nice double act with Moth at times.

Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel were different again. Both were cleanly dressed (this was a much more hygienic production all round), and the schoolmaster’s lewdness was not remarked on at all. His pedantry and stupidity came across beautifully, though, and I finally got the section where he complains about Don Armado’s pronunciation of certain words, getting them completely wrong himself. Like pronouncing the “b” in “debt”. William Chubb did this all wonderfully well, helped by Paul Bentall as Sir Nathaniel, the well-meaning but easily led curate. Peter Gordon as Dull was fine, and we all enjoyed his line about not understanding a word that had been said, even though I actually found I had understood most of it.

Rachel Pickup was lively and intelligent as the princess, and Susie Trayling was a fine Rosaline, with plenty of wit and common sense. Again, I understood much more of the banter and raillery amongst the Frenchwomen than I had before. At least one, Katherine (Sally Scott) knows how these games of love can damage the human heart –  her sister died from Cupid’s attentions. Boyet, played by Michael Mears, was good, though perhaps not my favourite of the current crop.

The king (Dan Fredenburgh) and his men were also fine; not as well differentiated as I’ve seen, but still enjoyable. The RSC’s version makes the men very immature, and so the women seem less grown up as a result. Here the men are simply being silly, but are still men worthy of being considered as suitors, so that the women seem more mature as well. The overall effect was of a more sophisticated version of the play, relying more on the language and characters to get the humour across, and they did it very well. I’m hopeful the Rose can keep up this sort of standard with its next productions.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

An Ideal Husband – October 2008

6/10

By Oscar Wilde

Directed by Mark Piper (original direction directed by Peter Hall)

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 10th October 2008

This was a revival of the production which toured some time ago, I believe. I thought we had seen it then, but I can’t find any sign of it in our records. Anyway, this revival showed what a good production it was, but sadly the cast didn’t quite match the standard of the original. Tony Britton, although good enough in the later scenes, especially when he could sit down, was struggling to keep up earlier on, while the amount of cosmetic surgery on display for some of the women was a bit of a distraction. Fenella Fielding, in particular, no longer has any elasticity whatsoever, and delivered her lines as carefully as though they might rip something essential. Her timing was still good though, and she got some good laughs, but the power has gone and exits and entrances have to be planned well in advance. Kate O’Mara has still got both power and agility, though her elasticity is also long gone, and the customary lying about one’s age which is so prevalent in Wilde’s work was more a case of necessity here.

Apart from these performances, the actors were still good enough for the parts, although older than one might wish in some cases. Steve reckoned the cast was about ten years too old, and I would tend to agree with that assessment. I do hate making these points, but I decided these notes would be warts-and-all, so that’s how it is. Michael Praed gave signs of being able to cope with more than he was given to do, as did Robert Duncan, and Carol Royle was fine as the morally righteous wife whose idealistic temperament is put to the test. There was good support from the other cast members, as society gents and ladies, and Isla Carter did a fine job as Mabel, the young sister who gets Lord Goring in the end. So even though the performance would have benefitted greatly from some fresh blood, we did still enjoy ourselves tonight.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Doll’s House – September 2008

10/10

By Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Stephen Mulrine

Directed by Peter Hall

Company: Peter Hall Company

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 11th September 2008

This was a marvellous production, with wonderfully detailed performances.  The set design was excellent, courtesy of Simon Higlett, whom we heard giving a talk at Chichester. The set was a cubic frame, with a screen for the back wall. This allowed us to see through to the entrance hall and door, and a corridor running off to the right – Torvald’s study was the first door along. The room itself was sparsely decorated, with a sofa, several chairs, some tables, a small stove, an item which looked like a large candleholder but turned out to be a lamp stand, and an upright piano. A chandelier hung from the right hand side of the ceiling, and there were three doors, one in each of the three invisible walls. (The doors were definitely visible.)

The performances were all excellent. I knew the story well enough now to appreciate some of the finer details. Catherine McCormack as Nora was all edgy nervousness. She got across that character’s attractiveness as well as her childish inability to grasp the way things work. She lives through her emotions; if she feels something strongly, it must be right, and the rest of society must be wrong. Finbar Lynch as Torvald was one of those men who’s tremendously sure of themselves, creepily so, and although he’s fond of Nora, she’s right when she compares herself to a doll that he plays with. Admittedly, he couldn’t possibly know exactly what she’s been up to, but his smugness is just asking to be taken down a peg or eighteen. I loved the way he swung from total anger when he first discovers the truth, to almost ingratiating happiness when the incriminating piece of paper turns up. After her disclosure, Nora was both remarkably still and remarkably quiet, and I could see her growing up and realising how far apart they were as she stood there. There were some other lovely touches, such as Torvald clearing some waste paper off the floor onto the sofa, only for Nora to sweep it all back again so she can sit down. Her action and his reaction told us a lot about both their characters and their relationship. Later on, Torvald wagged his finger to warn Nora not to ask Mrs Linde to stay.

At first I thought Anthony Howell as Krogstad was a bit too honest-looking, but as the plot unfolded I realised that he had to have a fundamentally good character, otherwise Mrs Linde wouldn’t have fallen for him in the first place. She has to talk him round to marrying her in a very short scene later on, and persuade him to return the bond, so if he’s a complete scoundrel, or totally corrupted by life’s hardships, that bit isn’t going to be believable. In the end, I think Anthony Howell judged it just right.

Susie Trayling as Mrs Linde had an unfortunate mismatch between her hair piece and her natural hair – I’m not sure if it was a deliberate mistake to show us the character’s poverty, or accidental. It distracted me a bit during the first act, but I found I could ignore it better after that. She’s an invaluable character, as she allows Nora to tell us what she’s done early on so that we’re in the know, and also counterpoints Nora’s own way of dealing with financial hardship. While Nora broke the law to take care of her husband, Mrs Linde has worked hard to support hers, and with little thanks, it would seem. Nora’s childish glee at how well off she and Torvald will be once he starts his new job in January shows a complete lack of sympathy on her part for her friend’s situation, but it also allows us to see how the people around Nora tend to forgive her.

Christopher Ravenscroft as Doctor Rank did an excellent job. His attraction for Nora was more clearly expressed than I remember seeing before, and the poignancy of the dual conversation after the party was very moving. For once, we got to see the children, although not for long, but it helped to make this a much more rounded production. The presence of the children in the early stages lets us see their importance to Nora, and emphasises the way she cuts herself off from them later on, after Torvald’s hugely judgemental pronouncement about Krogstad’s criminal activity, which mirrors Nora’s own.

This was a very satisfying production to watch, and made me appreciate the sort of impact this play had when it was first staged. I could see why polite Norwegian society would have been shocked, but I could also see how readily other playwrights took up this way of presenting ‘real life’. I recognised Chains Of Dew (April 2008) as a response to this play, and even saw echoes in Dangerous Corner, with the husband’s insistence on finding out the truth no matter the cost. Maybe I’ll see more connections and influences in the future. At any rate, I’ll be interested to see the Donmar’s version next year.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me