A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It ) – August 2012

2/10

By Dmitry Krymov, loosely based on some elements of Shakespeare’s play

Directed by Dmitry Krymov

Company: Chekov International Theatre Festival/Dmitry Krymov’s Laboratory/School of Dramatic Art Theatre

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 15th August 2012

For lovers of this director’s work, this was a joy, but it certainly won’t persuade me to sample the rest of his repertoire. The performers were all brilliant at what they do, and there were some fun moments during the hour and forty minutes it took to get through (plus a cute little dog running around on stage), but the rest just dragged, and I was surprisingly unmoved by the deaths of the two lovers at the end. For once, I didn’t even have the heart to pretend to applaud, apart from the ballet dancers. Fortunately the regular fans more than made up for my lack of enthusiasm, and gave them a standing ovation.

Despite the title, this was not A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the director found he could only relate to the mechanicals in this play, so all we got was their presentation of Pyramus and Thisbe. Nothing else – no Duke, no lovers, no fairies. Before the start, the stage had wooden flooring covered with a large plastic sheet. The backs of the chairs near the stage had cloth covers too, and Steve soon realised that water was likely to be involved.

We sat by the right hand walkway, only this time it had been removed and stairs put in (similar on the other side). Along the length of these stairs lay a huge tree trunk, with the base resting on one of the steps up to the stage. Several of the mechanicals were guarding it and chatting to members of the audience as well. Above the central aisle hung a huge chandelier, swathed in white cloth and hanging quite low. At the back of the thrust on both sides were two makeshift boxes, and I assumed these would be for the onstage audience. They had assorted chairs, and were marked off with planks of wood resting on piles of bricks or whatever else was around. The areas of the circle above them were also sectioned off, and I could see colourful throws spread on the backs of the seats. At the very back was a sheet, but it didn’t come into use till later, and apart from that I think the stage was bare.

With the house lights still up – they were regularly on for the audience participation sections – the action began. The mechanicals started talking loudly amongst themselves, and lifting up the tree trunk they carried it onto the stage. Others came along with branches, and because the items were so big, they filled the stage and even brushed the audience as the mechanicals swung them around trying to sort them out. There was also a small dog, a terrier, which ran down the tree trunk and around the stage, getting to know the audience.

The tree and its branches disappeared off the back, and then a fountain was brought on down the same aisle, with water pouring out of it intermittently on either side. We didn’t get splashed much in the end, and the performers were quick to get the buckets under the flow (and towels were handed out immediately afterwards). The fountain was also taken off at the back, and neither tree nor fountain was seen again, although the sheet at the back had some smudgy markings that may have been intended to represent leaves. The dog stayed behind, and positioned itself centre back, while a screen came down on which was projected a long-winded description of the mechanicals argument. Apparently they had been discussing Shakespearean verse styles, and there appeared to be lots of in-jokes about the director’s wife; the fans were laughing, but apart from some lines I didn’t find it particularly funny. The dog sat up a few times during this, and again the fans thought this was hilarious. I noticed the dog had something attached to its collar – possibly to give it instructions remotely?

I’m not sure of the exact order of events – always a problem with non-textual business – but fairly soon the mechanicals came on stage half-dressed and proceeded to put on their evening clothes. They were in a tight group in the centre of the stage, and when they were done they formed up in rows and waited. At one point a woman tried to push her way to the front, but couldn’t get through. Then the on-stage audience arrived. There were lots of them, including two young girls, and they took a long, long time to get on stage, look around, and then take their seats. There was some fun as a stroppy older woman character, who was carrying a bunch of flowers, used it to brush wood shavings off the plank at the front of their box; this was when I realised there were wood shavings on all their chairs, indicating the rough and ready nature of the mechanicals’ performance. The way that woman cleared the chairs was good fun, even if it went on far too long. Then there was the inevitable wrecking of the boxes themselves, with people falling into the stalls and planks of wood landing on the stage. It was all very predictable and took many minutes to sort out, and it was probably at this point that I first considered leaving before I wasted too much of my precious time.

After they were seated, the on-stage audience were all given champagne to drink (yawn), and then there were several minutes of ringing phones to sort out. Later in the performance, one chap took a call on his mobile and we saw the dialogue come up on the surtitles. He told someone he was in Stratford (funny) and was paying a fortune for international roaming! (even funnier) He had several goes at switching his phone off before the ‘action’ continued.

Back at the start, the on-stage audience were seated, refreshed, and phone-free, so they waited for the performance to begin, as did we. And we waited. And we waited. I found myself thinking that Communism had given the Russian people great patience – all that queuing for bread, perhaps. Then the performer front right whispered something to the chap next to him, and it was passed back, one to another. When the surtitles started up, we learned that the chap who plays the lion was being told not to pare his nails (he didn’t, he informed us).

One of the performers came to the front and turned to face the group on the stage. He delivered an approximation of Peter Quince’s wonderful prologue, conveying the sense of awkwardness and confusion beautifully. He wanted the audience on stage to know that their performance wasn’t ready yet, but as they hadn’t seen it before they wouldn’t know that. They weren’t intending to give the audience any enjoyment, though if they did enjoy it that was fine. They just wanted to give a good performance. They pushed some of these surtitles through so fast that I could only just catch the sense of the last one; something about enjoying the fact that we realised the performance wasn’t ready. Whatever the punch line, the rest of the speech was funny, and for once the time they took was worth it. I even started to enjoy myself. But it wasn’t to last.

After the speech and whispering (they may have happened the other way round) one of the actors fell flat on his face, passing out from all that waiting. The others picked him up, and he ran back as if to go off stage to deal with his bloody nose, but then he stopped and came back to the front to explain what they were doing. They had obtained a copy of a very ancient text from a friend who was working for the RSC, or possibly from the KGB vaults, and had learned that Pyramus and Thisbe were real people and that theirs was the first true love story. Forget Adam and Eve – who else could they fall in love with? – this was the real thing, and all other lovers’ stories sprang from them. The list was long, and there were several laughs along the way. But each love story has a THING, the THING that caused Eve to eat the apple, etc. The THING in Pyramus and Thisbe’s case was a LION. They had decided to strip the Pyramus and Thisbe story down to the essentials and were going to present that to us.

I think the group broke up after this bit, and then two large black bags were carried onto the stage and placed on either side. The one on the left turned out to be Pyramus’s puppet, while Thisbe’s was on the right. They spent a lot of time setting up Pyramus; the puppet was at least ten feet tall, with the performers just able to walk under his legs. He had two large hands, one of which could actually grasp things, and the face stuck to his head looked like an icon’s face, a young one at that, and quite good looking. They played with the idea that the puppet was difficult to control, having it fall over a couple of times by the boxes, and then brought it over to the front of the stage where it teetered on the brink for a few moments. As it was just by us, I spotted the puppet’s reaction to not falling on top of the audience – he wiped his hand across his brow and then flicked it to one side. I found it amusing, but I suspect the gloomy lighting hid it from the fans in the audience as there was no response from them. Mind you, there was plenty going on with all the mechanicals rushing around, the dog scampering here and there, and occasional interruptions from the on-stage audience, particularly the outspoken older lady who’d been cleaning the seats with her flowers. When they did interrupt, the performers stopped what they were doing and waited patiently for them to finish.

Once they had Pyramus up and walking, he went over to the circle on the left side and held out his hand to the people there. The woman who was with the children up there was frightened, and swatted at his hand with her bunch of flowers to make him go away. The older girl realised what was wanted, took the flowers and gave the bunch to the puppet, who grasped them in his hand. Then the stroppy one on the other side took a rose out of her bouquet and demanded that Pyramus pick that up as well. This was when the balancing acts came to the fore. The Shustov brothers, highly regarded acrobats in Russia (and I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment) did a couple of routines to hand Pyramus extra flowers to put in his bouquet. To give him the rose, they first had to get one of them on the other’s shoulders, and this took a few goes, as the upper one kept falling over the lower one and landing on the stage. Once they were balanced, someone handed the top guy the rose (flicked up from another acrobat’s foot?) and he held it out as Pyramus came over and took it in his right hand, then moved it over and slotted it into the bouquet he was holding in his left hand. It was impressive work for a puppet. To cap all this, the brothers then went into reverse, as it were, and handed Pyramus another colourful bunch of flowers with one balanced on the other’s head, and the flowers held in his outstretched foot. It was impressive, I’m sure, but as my view was blocked almost entirely for this bit I had to guess at what was going on from the audience’s reactions. They did take a break during this section – don’t remember if it was another audience interruption or not – and I could see the top brother walk his way down the wall and rest there, at right angles to the lower brother, while whatever else was going on was completed. Pyramus added these flowers to the bouquet with equal dexterity, and to much applause.

There was another balancing act as well, but neither of us can remember what was given to Pyramus by this means. This time it was Boris Opletaev (as far as I can tell from the pictures in the program) who stacked several cylinders, with short wide ones being placed rim down and longer narrow ones placed across them on their side and oriented in different directions. When he placed a board on top of these, we could see that the stack rolled every which way, and yet he stepped up onto it, steadying himself with a hand on a nearby shoulder, and stood there, rocking relatively gently, to do whatever this bit required. It was an impressive performance – they all were – and a momentary relief from the monotony.

With Pyramus good to go, we only needed Thisbe, so her bag was unpacked too. The woman who had been hanging around at the start turned out to be Thisbe’s voice; she and one of the men sang beautifully to convey the characters’ feelings, sometimes just ‘ah’ sounds, sometimes songs in German. Thisbe herself was as tall as Pyramus, and made out of odds and ends as he was. She had a white skirt, two breasts, and a doll’s head, large size, and her mouth worked when she was talking. We didn’t get any surtitles for the songs, but her “Nein” in response to Pyramus’s declaration of love was pretty straightforward. She said ‘no’ a few times, and Pyramus had to flaunt his shapely leg before she would sit down with him and chat.

Once seated towards the back of the stage, the wooing could proceed in earnest. First the food. Pyramus obviously likes his women well fed, so he gave her a peach, then a pair of cherries, then a pineapple, still with its spiky top. It was impressive enough the way he held out his hand, grasped the fruit which was put into it, then transferred it round to Thisbe’s mouth. She was a girl with a good appetite, too; her head had been changed during the move to the back of the stage, and now she had a head which flipped back at mouth level so she could swallow large fruits whole, which was very funny. She did stop Pyramus when it came to the pineapple though; instead, she took the fruit herself and put it in her own mouth, leaving a bit of the top sticking out, also funny.

For entertainment, the dog act came forward, and the lovely little chap (I’m talking about the dog) did some fun tricks, including a back flip. With the foreplay done, Pyramus needed some help to get ready for the next stage. Accompanied by many sound effects, his metal crotch panel was unscrewed and a large penis thrust through the gap. It was lying on the floor, and a pump had been brought on to get it upright, when the on-stage audience started to protest about the appropriateness of such things when there were children present. To be fair, it was mainly the old lady, but even so they had to interrupt the coitus, and a deflated Pyramus left the stage through the back curtain.

With Thisbe left alone, the lion made his appearance. Another black bag had been brought on and left near the front. Not as big as the others, it was still large enough to have a person inside it, so I wasn’t surprised when the lion leapt out. Don’t know who played him, but it was a lovely costume, with claws on the knees as well as the hands, a shaggy mane and a long tail. One chap held the tail and used it to drag the lion back when needed – I assume it would be too difficult to move backwards in that costume – and two other men attached bat wings to the lion’s back and held them open, flapping them to suggest a devil-lion. As they stood in front of me throughout this scene I had to rely on my knowledge of the story to guess what was happening. After each lunge of the lion towards Thisbe, I did see one chap come forward and place strips of white cloth and red ribbon around the centre of the stage, obviously representing the bloody cloth that Pyramus will find later. At some point, possibly before the lion left the stage, the stroppy old woman interrupted the action to tell a long-winded story about a lion that had destroyed a town, some of which was quite funny.

After several lunges at Thisbe, the lion left the stage. Thisbe was in a terrible state. She was so terrified that she peed in a basin for a very long time. Then she too left the stage, and they used a lovely piece of staging to create the moonshine. A rope of some reflective or glowing material was laid out in a wavy pattern on the stage further back from most of the bloody strips of cloth. Behind the sheet, a wobbly moon rose, and as it did so, the rope lit up, shining in the moonlight. It was a beautiful effect.

Pyramus returned to discover the bloody strips of cloth by this light, and he went to pieces at this point, literally. His arms came off and danced around towards the front of the stage, while his head came off and turned around towards the back. When it turned back again, his face had aged – a good trick – and as this happened twice he ended up with what looked like a bearded Christ face. He stabbed himself through the stomach and fell forward, dead or dying.

Thisbe returned accompanied by four swans carried by four of the performers. The swans had red beaks which looked suspiciously like dildos to me, and the rest of the swan was made of a sheet wrapped round and round for the neck and bundled together for the body. While the woman on stage had normally sung for Thisbe, I think it was the woman in the circle who now sang, and she had a lovely contralto voice, deep and rich. Thisbe saw Pyramus, and after a short lamentation she also fell on top of him, with the swans grouped round them, bobbing their heads. Pyramus raised his head briefly when Thisbe arrived, but it sank back down again quickly, and finally the show was over. Or was it? There was no way of telling with this production.

The on-stage audience were offered the option of an epilogue or a dance, and the old lady was very emphatic that they do the dance. Being Russian, this naturally meant ballet, and four dancers in tutus came to the front of the stage. As the music for the Dance of the Cygnets started up, they formed a line – with difficulty, as one of the four was preening herself in front of the audience too much – and did a set or two of the dance in step with each other. After that, things went from bad to worse, with heads going in different directions, bobbing up instead of down, and some cygnets forgetting which direction they were dancing in. It was a lovely interpretation of Shakespeare’s scene: with the Russian fondness for ballet this would instantly have illustrated the mechanicals’ ineptness, and it reminded me of the Nine Worthies scene at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The on-stage audience gradually left during this dance (lucky people), and when they’d finally gone the dancers stopped, very relieved and gasping for breath. Most of the cast were towards the back of the stage, with the dancers breathing heavily near the front, when the stroppy old lady came back to have a word with the man who was sweeping the stage. He’d been getting in the dancers’ way, wanting to sweep the bit of stage they were dancing on, but now he stopped and talked with the woman. She had recognised him – he’d played Shakespeare – and although the surtitles didn’t give us much of their conversation, I gathered that she was arranging to see him sometime soon. It was a little romance to end the evening with, after this tale of thwarted love. The music started up again, the dancers tried to carry on, but they were completely out of sync this time and the whole show ground to a halt.

The man with the bloody nose came to the front to tell us that although there was no need, he’d summed up the story for us. He handed a piece of paper to the main singer, who stood centre front and started scat singing – quite funny. The woman also came forward and tore off the bottom half of the paper, then joined in with a different set of scat noises. Others also joined in, some taking smaller and smaller bits of paper, until there was a cacophony of music. I don’t remember how they ended this bit, but eventually the cast disappeared off the back of the stage, though the bloody nose chap came back on to remove something which he’d used near the start to keep some raised flaps in place. As they fell back, he left the stage and the applause suggested we were finally at the end of the performance. The whole cast came back on to take their bows, the director presumably appearing as well although I couldn’t see him; some in the audience stood, there was lots of cheering, and I left after the first set of bows, glad to be getting out into the fresh air.

While this description of the staging may sound interesting, I’ve left out a lot of the boring bits, mainly because nothing happened during them. The Russian ability to pause is beyond belief, and the length of time they spent on some sections of the business left me cold. The physical business was usually telegraphed well in advance, and while I enjoyed some bits, and laughed quite a few times, there wasn’t enough of that for me. I like puppetry very much and I was becoming very fond of these two giant people, but the pauses for other business, including the woman’s lion story, drained any enthusiasm I’d developed for the performance, and I was very glad when it ended. I haven’t looked at my watch so often at the theatre for a very long time, and I hope I never feel the need to do so again. Brilliant as the performers clearly are, this just didn’t work for me, but thankfully most of tonight’s audience enjoyed it more than I did.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The City Madam – June 2011

6/10

By: Philip Massinger

Directed by: Dominic Hill

Company: RSC

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 10th June 2011

This play was written in the post-Shakespeare period and before the Civil War. While I could see elements of later Restoration comedy, we both spotted lots of ‘echoes’ of other stories, especially from Will’s work – the masque from The Tempest, the hidden authority figure watching a deputy’s behaviour from Measure For Measure, the statues coming to life from The Winter’s Tale, etc. etc. It’s a good job there were some familiar things in the play; for the most part, I found the first half difficult to follow, not helped by our long trip beforehand admittedly, but the sheer number of characters and the unfamiliar language didn’t help either.

The set was very simple. Two double doors centre back, flanked by two upright wooden chairs. That’s it, although there was a big painting across this back wall showing a young man kneeling at the feet of an older man, with another young man looking on. I took this to be the story of the prodigal son, although it wasn’t entirely clear how this fitted in with the play. Perhaps the program notes will help. Anyway, the chairs were painted to blend in with this painting, so it was hard to make them out. Other furnishings were added as needed – a table, cushions, etc. – and chandeliers dropped down from above.

There were puppets, too. For the masque, Orpheus and Eurydice, there were puppets for Orpheus, Eurydice, Cerberus and the hands that dragged Eurydice back to Hades, as well as three human singers and a bunch of musicians. The masque was very well done, and there were additional magic tricks, Prospero-like, carried out by the chief American Indian, including a burning book.

The plot was fairly straightforward. Sir John Frugal has a wife, two daughters, an ex-con brother and a vast business empire. He’s ruthless in his business dealings, but apparently unable to rein in the frivolous excesses of his wife and daughters, who spend their time, and his money, on increasingly lavish outfits and plans for the daughters to wed into the nobility. Sir John’s brother, Luke, is treated badly by these women, and appears to be a changed man. No more materialistic concerns for him. He revels in the new-found simplicity of his life, or so it seems.

A friend of his, Lord Lacy, believes that Luke is truly repentant, and tries to persuade Sir John to treat him better. Sir John believes he hasn’t changed a bit, and that if he were given half a chance, he’d be just as bad as before. I wasn’t clear about this plotting at the time, but I soon grasped what was going on when Lord Lacy announces to Sir John’s family that he, Sir John, has gone to a monastery and left all his worldly possessions in the control of Luke, in the expectation that he will take care of his sister and nieces and deal kindly with Sir John’s various, and many, debtors. With so much wealth suddenly thrust upon him, Luke has the chance to show his wisdom and humility and stun us all.

Don’t hold your breath. With the key to the Frugal treasury clutched firmly to his bosom, Luke is set to become the world’s most rapacious usurer – cold, merciless, avaricious. He starts to call in all the debts, but first he sets the people up for a bigger fall, encouraging them in their profligacy before setting the bailiffs on them.

Lord Lacy brings along three men from the newly established American colonies, who wish to be converted to Christianity. Their chief is clearly Sir John himself, while the other two are his daughters’ suitors, who wouldn’t accept the life of total slavery the women tried to impose on them as a condition of their marriage. These three work on Luke’s greed, and finally persuade him to hand over Lady Frugal and her two daughters, now in plainer clothes, in return for riches beyond his wildest dreams.

Having sent all his debtors to prison, Luke takes the time to threaten Lord Lacy with the loss of the lands which carry his title, before settling down to enjoy a birthday banquet and some entertainment which the Indian chief has laid on for him. The masque comes first, of course, but then all the arrested folk are led on in chains, to see if Luke will feel pity for them. No chance. So then the daughters come on with their mother, to say goodbye to their former suitors, now supposed dead, by speaking to their statues. None of this moves Luke at all. So at last the chief uses his magic to bring the statues to life (Winter’s Tale and Don Juan!), and the final revelations can take place, with Luke being stripped (literally) of his position, and sent out to fend for himself.

The story wasn’t complicated as such; the difficulty lay in the vast number of characters, and the fact that the doubling wasn’t always clear. We did spot the Indian disguises OK, but there were one or two other situations where we weren’t sure if the actors were playing the same characters in different clothes, or different characters. I accept that Massinger was attempting to show how widespread the decadence and corruption went, but I still feel there’s scope for some serious editing to bring the play into sharper focus.

There were many nice touches in this production which suggest it would be well worth seeing again. I liked the way the suitors staggered about a bit after being the statues – I’ve done life modelling, and I know how hard it is to stay still for that long. Unfortunately, the blocking really was blocking tonight, and our view was obstructed many times, which certainly didn’t help. We’ve booked seats in a different part of the auditorium next time, so that should be better. Also, the language isn’t as easy to follow as Will’s, probably because we don’t hear these plays as often as the Shakespearean cannon, and with the plot being unfamiliar, I just couldn’t follow it as well as I would have liked. Second time around should be better.

All the performances seemed very good (those I could see, anyway). I particularly liked Sara Crowe as Lady Frugal – her face had some wonderful expressions flitting across it – and Jo Stone-Fewings as Luke. His transformation from puritan to rampant miser was beautifully done, and for all his unpleasant behaviour, he also provided much of the humour.

Finally, it’s remarkable how modern some of the play’s points are, with so many people running up debts and not being able to pay them back. I could see the National doing another modern dress version of this one, like The Man Of Mode and The Revenger’s Tragedy, as it would fit right in to that style of production.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Tempest – March 2011

6/10

By: William Shakespeare, edited by Peter Glanville and Phil Porter

Directed by: Peter Glanville

Venue: Swan Theatre, Stratford

Date: Thursday 24th March 2011

Interesting to see another collaboration between the RSC and Little Angel. This was similar to a Young Person’s Shakespeare, in that it was trimmed to an hour and a quarter, but the use of puppets made it a bit special. The audience included youngsters of all age groups, and while I felt the performance overall lacked atmosphere, there was a lot to enjoy in the interpretations, puppetry and music.

The cuts were deep, but they didn’t distort the story, nor leave me feeling I was missing out in any way. The shipwreck that begins the play was done as a puppetry mime with a wooden boat which obligingly split apart and was finally whirled off the stage to represent the apparent disaster. I had hoped to see it again, restored, but the need to work through all the much-doubled characters at the end presumably made that impossible. Prospero’s tale to Miranda, which can often put the audience to sleep long before Miranda gets heavy-eyed, was not only brief, but Prospero used a chess board and pieces to demonstrate the characters and story. This chess board makes a second appearance later, of course; here it was a useful tool and very engaging.

The shipwrecked lords are reduced to the basic four, and much of their dialogue is cut, as is the comedy with Trinculo and Stephano (“for this relief, much thanks”), and the drunk fighting stirred up by Ariel. The final scene is also minimalist, with Prospero having to deal with several groups of characters independently, and we’re left at the end with Caliban and a few seagulls, alone on the island.

The seagulls opened the play as well, and this was the first time I felt the pace was a bit too slow. Four seagulls coming on and flapping around, landing on various raised points and squawking a lot may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it didn’t inject much energy into the opening section. While admiring the skill of the puppeteers, the gulls themselves never folded their wings, which looked a bit bizarre (we see a lot of them down our way, so I should know). There were several occasions like this, when the puppets were on stage for too long, and while sometimes this may have been to give the actors time for a quick change, that can’t have been the case at the start. If this aspect was tightened up, I think the whole piece would benefit.

The set itself was brilliant. At the back of the stage was a massive chunk of decayed ship, with its timbers curved round like whale ribs, and providing a marvellously imaginative acting space, as well as setting the scene magnificently. Some piles of books were scattered around the stage, and there was a cloth curtain which came down in front of the ship’s remains a couple of time to good effect; otherwise, the stage was bare. The costumes were elaborate yet simple. Prospero looked like a man who’d been left on an island for many years, with pretty scruffy clothes and a rather wild expression – not quite Ben Gunn, but the scent of toasted cheese was definitely wafting up the foreshore. Miranda had a remarkably nice outfit for a girl who’d been castaway as a three-year-old, but it’s The Tempest, so who cares? The nobles were in splendid gear, very rich looking, and the king of Naples’ coat and hat were actually displayed to Ferdinand early on, which made it easy for us to recognise him later. Nice touch. Trinculo and Stephano were in livery, not so grand but clearly they work for someone important. Caliban didn’t have any clothes at all, and not even much of a body, poor chap, but I’ll come to him later.

After the seagulls have departed, Prospero starts the storm by running his staff up a curved plank of the ship, like striking a match. He has to do this a few times before the storm ‘lights’ (ain’t that the way of it?), and then the wooden ship does its dance of destruction. After explaining their situation to Miranda, he puts her to sleep under the ship’s planks, and calls for Ariel. Naturally, Ariel is manifested by a puppet, about two feet high(?), wearing a green outfit and having filmy wings which fluttered as he flew around the stage. I wasn’t taken with him at first, though I did get used to him, but the only time I found him expressive enough was when he curled up into a foetal ball when Prospero reminded him of Sycorax. When putting the lords to sleep, he put his hand on their head.

Caliban, on the other hand, was a much more robust specimen. He was bigger than the humans, quite lumbering, with holes in his body where the ribs showed through, a big monster-like face and a tail. It’s a bit of a leap to imagine him as a person that Prospero and Miranda would have civilised, but then we’re used to seeing human actors take this part. With all the talking dinosaurs, ants, whales, etc. that throng our screens these days, I suspect the younger folk in the audience at least would find him plausible. He did endear himself to us, though, and I felt quite sorry for him at the end. As someone said later, what would these youngsters think when they next see the play and are confronted with a more ‘traditional’ Caliban? It would be interesting to find out.

The furies that terrify the lords at the mock feast were delivered on large platter with domed covers, looking like a delicious meal. When the lids came off, they were three more puppets with monster-like ambitions, one of which was right beside us. The garment scene involved two beautiful dresses which take on a life of their own and dance with Stephano until they suddenly turn inside out and become two snarling dogs which chase them away from the stage. Beautifully done.

The masque scene was done by having Prospero open his book to two reflective pages, and with the curtain down, he directed a spotlight onto the curtain to represent a spirit form, while the part was sung by one of the actresses. After this, the light came from behind the curtain, and we saw two wire puppets, with the suggestion of human shape, moving around behind the curtain until Ferdinand and Miranda came forward and merged with these other shapes within a beam of heart-shaped light. Quite magical.

Other nice touches included the doll that Miranda carried at the start. It’s a miniature image of her, and once she meets Ferdinand she leaves it behind. Prospero sees this, and from the way he picks it up and holds it, it’s clear he recognises that his little girl isn’t a girl anymore. David Fielder as Prospero was very good, so much so that I would love to see him play the part in a full-scale production some time.

The music was new, and mainly consisted of songs that told the story from time to time. I quite enjoyed them – they’re a talented lot, these actors – but it didn’t add much, and some folk felt it slowed things down too much.

So not a bad attempt to blend the puppetry in with action, but the performance was a bit slow-paced for me to really get into it.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Goodnight Mister Tom – February 2011

7/10

By: David Wood

Directed by: Angus Jackson

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Friday 4th February 2011

This was a sweet little story, with a surprising amount of darkness, and unusual in that it clearly worked for audience members of all ages. I hadn’t read the original book, nor seen the TV version (Steve had), so I came to this completely fresh. I enjoyed it more than I expected, and although this was early in the run (it starts at Chichester and then goes on tour), I felt that they’d got up to a good standard already, no mean feat given that there are three teams of children to cover the tour dates.

The play tells the story of young William, who is evacuated prior to the outbreak of WWII, along with many other London children. He’s billeted on an old curmudgeon called Tom Oakley (as William’s surname is Beech, I thought they were well matched). [Actually, it’s Beach, so not such a good match except sound-wise] Naturally, the child overcomes his difficulties which were due to the abuse he’s suffered from his mother, while the old man learns to open his heart again after many years mourning his lost wife and baby. In other hands, this could be sentimental schmaltz, but here it’s a moving tale, with many ups and downs, and a real feeling of the community that William ends up being part of. About the only thing missing was the grown-up William as narrator, and possibly all the better for that. There was a good balance between the two stories, with neither of the main characters dominating, and good support from everyone else, especially Sammy the dog.

Now, they say never work with children or animals. We’ve also seen that puppets can be a problem as well. So when we get animal puppets within a few minutes, we know we’re in for a good time, while the actors…… Well, the actors will just have to accept they’re being permanently upstaged. At the post show, Angus Jackson told us that he’d made a similar comment to Oliver Ford Davies during rehearsal, to the effect that he needn’t worry about how he said a particular line as there would be a dog on stage at that point, so no one would be listening to him.

Sammy was lovely. Laura Cubitt, who ‘played’ Sammy, was remarkable, even getting the dog to breathe while he was sitting or lying down, waiting for the next bit of action. In the post-show, she was asked if she’d done any ballet training, and she had, but even so, she found herself getting stiff sometimes with the awkward positions, so Sammy occasionally moved around a bit, sniffing things, to give her a break.

The set worked pretty well, although I felt it was one area which may improve with practice. There are a lot of changes, and occasionally the pace slowed a little too much for me in the first half, although the second half worked much better. The platform in the middle of the stage which served as just about everything from a train platform to a stage to Mr Tom’s house to a shop to everywhere else in the country, rose up reveal the dingy, grimy flat where William’s mother lives, and to which William returns, reluctantly, to find he has a baby sister. His mother is clearly a nutter – she’s obsessive about denying William any fun, and has rules forbidding any sort of normal life, although as she’s produced another baby she’s clearly a hypocrite where sex is concerned. She ties William up under the eaves and leaves him with the baby cradled in his arms, and when Mr Tom finds them (he’s come to London because he’s worried about not hearing anything from William for weeks), the baby is dead.

William ends up in hospital, and because his mother can’t be found, the authorities are about to send him to a special nursing home where he can be tortured by psychiatrists instead. Mr Tom helps him escape, and takes him back to Dorset, where eventually he adopts William as his own son. All looks good for the lad, until his best friend, ????, also returns to London when his father dies, and gets killed by a bomb. It’s a tough time for William, and for us, but overall, we manage to get through it with the help of Mr Tom and Sammy (especially Sammy).

This was a very good production, and I hope they have a great time on tour. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again if it comes back this way.

© 2011 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

The Tempest – February 2009

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Janice Honeyman

Company: RSC and Baxter Theatre Centre

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 25th February 2009

Overall, this was an enjoyable and well trimmed production, full of energy, colour, music, dance and puppetry. The trimming and the brisk pace, while keeping the running time to two hours twenty, did lose a lot of the details, but it brought out the humour even more, and in the process gave the play a cartoonish aspect. Even so, I found some interesting ideas popping into my head, which added to the experience for me.

Looks-wise, the set was almost perfect. The tree (or trees) that swarmed over the back of the stage reminded me of the recent Love’s Labour’s Lost, but this tree was altogether more primitive and potent. It spread from wing to wing, and seemed to touch the roof. Branches arched in all directions, providing walkways and perches. The branches and trunks were bound with raffia-like weaving, holding them together, and giving them a makeshift, unreal aspect. To the right, a steep ramp curved up to meet the tree at a central point. To the side of this was a flight of steps, which led up to Prospero’s cell, back right. Underneath, there was an entrance to Caliban’s abode. To the left, in front of the tree, there was a raised curved slope, with rocks on it. Opposite it, on the right of the stage, there was a tree stump and another rock. The whole effect was very African, very aboriginal, and just the sort of place where magic could happen.

The opening scene puzzled me, until I read a program note about the Zulu belief that great serpents control the forces of nature, and when they move from one pool to another, they can cause great disturbances to the weather. At the start, Prospero (Antony Sher) appeared, and presumably summoned up this serpent to create the storm. It was a big bugger – easily as long as the diagonal of the Courtyard, if not longer – and Prospero bowed to it before it finally headed off. This was only the first of a magnificent array of puppets we were to see, and although I didn’t understand the significance at the time, I still felt it set the tone of other-worldliness and magic perfectly.

There were also some human-sized spirits who arrived after the snake left, bringing on the storm-tossed characters. They shepherded them over to the raised curve, and penned them there, as the music crashed around us all, and the actors bellowed their lines as best they could. I couldn’t make out a word of it, but I did enjoy looking at some brightly patterned sails that had dropped down over the stage, and which were flapping around to suggest the wind.

With the storm over, Miranda made her feelings known to her father, and this Miranda would be a shoo-in for the Jerry Springer show – she was totally unselfconscious and expressed her feelings easily, directly, and pretty much as soon as she felt them. I liked this performance very much. I found this interpretation of Miranda’s lack of social experience much more believable, and certainly more entertaining, than some recent productions (oh, alright, I preferred this to the Rupert Goold version). And this was also the liveliest and most involved Miranda I’ve ever seen. Her delight at seeing such a buff young man (Ferdinand was stripped to the waist for some time, so I speak with authority on this point) was expressed through a natural touchy-feeliness, which suggested their honeymoon will be a corker. No inhibitions there (at least not on her side).

Prospero’s explanation of their history was well done. When he talked about his love for his esoteric studies, he moved to his big magic book, which was displayed towards the back, and almost caressed it. I was very aware of how much he’d been distracted from affairs of state by this obsession. I also saw in Miranda the kind of free-spirited tomboy type that I’ve seen in other people who grew up abroad and had acres of space to roam around in, along with relatively few social pressures to conform. One of the themes this production was bringing out was the colonial aspects of the play, and this was the first time I was aware of that.

I found Ariel’s appearance a little disappointing, but I soon warmed to him when I saw his reaction to Prospero’s news that there would be more work to do. His face just fell, and when he threw his wobbly it was clear he felt hard done by. I got a sense of promise after promise being broken, goalposts constantly on the move, while Prospero was presumably still expecting the spirit world to obey his orders just as the men of his dukedom used to in the old days. I did have one passing thought as Prospero was describing how fate had brought his enemies into his reach – how did he know they were there? Yes, he’s a wiz at magic, but even so.

Ariel was scantily clad, and covered with patterns in white body paint. At the end, Prospero washed these off, symbolically releasing him, to his great joy. I realised that Prospero really does love Ariel; on a number of occasions he reached out to touch him, but Ariel is made of air, so he either held back or grasped nothingness, it was difficult to tell. Ariel was harder to figure. He wants Prospero’s love, but he also wants his freedom. When Prospero was contemplating his revenge on the bastards who betrayed him, holding a shotgun which he’s just loaded, it was clear he was out for revenge, despite his response to Ariel’s comments about being moved by their plight. Here it’s Ariel who, through his gesture, indicated that he was influencing Prospero to remember his better nature and forgive them – a reminder that primitive doesn’t necessarily mean barbaric.

Caliban was played by John Kani, and there was no attempt to make him look deformed or ugly. He was dressed pretty shabbily, and he may have ed badly if he wasn’t being allowed to wash often enough, but he was basically an elderly native man who’s been treated badly. He has his faults – he was ready to rape Miranda, and he didn’t spot the foolishness of the King’s servants until too late – but he’s not ugly and he’s not completely depraved. This is fine, as long as the production makes some use of that, but here they were basically telling the story in a fun way and leaving interpretation way behind. I didn’t feel much about this Caliban, not repugnance, not even sympathy, as he didn’t seem to be connected to the rest of the characters, although I did like the ending of the play. Prospero gave us the epilogue, up to the final lines, then picked up his suitcase to leave. Caliban arrived, and Prospero’s final request to be freed was addressed to him. He let Prospero go, and then, throwing away his walking sticks, he walked up the previously forbidden steps to the centre of the tree, and stood there, triumphant, spotlit. The lights went down to finish, and it was a bold and dramatically satisfying ending, suggesting a number of things. Native peoples regaining their land after the colonisers are removed from positions of power. The potential isolation and impoverishment of native populations if they completely cut off contact with the outside world, and specifically those who colonised their country – coming to terms with the past is better than rejecting it totally.

The thought also occurred to me that it was often those without power or riches in their own country who headed off to the colonies to make their names and/or fortunes – younger sons, poorer members of the upper classes, members of the lower classes with talent and probably bucketloads of ruthlessness. Don’t quite know if that fitted with tonight’s performance, but it did cross my mind towards the end.

Trinculo and Stephano were OK, but unremarkable. One good scene was when Ariel makes his comments to stir up trouble in the drunken group. He stood behind Trinculo, who was on the raised curve, and mimicked his movements beautifully. It was also clear that Ariel found the whole thing very funny. I wasn’t sure if he’d planned it – the usual interpretation – or if the first “you lie” just slipped out, and he liked it so much he did a few more. Anyway, it was one of the better bits with the clowns.

The King of Naples and his attendants were also a bit bland; however the way the spirits messed with their minds was great fun. For the feast, a large, box-shaped fish swam onto the stage, and after it settled in the middle of the stage, the top opened up and two spirits emerged proffering food. When the lords tried to eat something, the food was snatched away, the fish swam off as fast as its legs could go, and Ariel walked on balanced on mini-stilts – the curved spring type of leg – which raised him up a few feet. He wore a headdress with a beaked mask and red tresses, and looked pretty ferocious. He told off the king for his treatment of Prospero, linking that with the supposed loss of his son, and then the lords were chased off stage.

The puppetry was spectacular, and in many ways was the highlight of the show. When Prospero reminded Ariel of his previous torment at the hands of Sycorax, we were shown those hands, literally, trapping him in the pine tree. Puppeteers carried on various parts of Sycorax’s body on poles – two eyes, a nose, a mouth, hair, the two large hands and a pair of tits – and moved them into place so that Sycorax magically appeared. Her hands then grabbed Ariel and held him, illustrating his prison, and letting us see how Prospero freed him.

Later on, the little show that Prospero put on for Ferdinand and Miranda was also puppet-based, with lots of brightly coloured spirits joining in as well. In particular, there were two very tall puppets, a man and a woman; all of these taller puppets had to bend double to leave the stage, as none of the exits were tall enough for them. The clothes that distracted Trinculo and Stephano were carried in what looked like two haystacks. When they took the clothes, the haystacks unfolded to become another two ‘monsters’, which chased off the silly boys, scared out of their wits (not that they had much of those to begin with).

With so much cut out, I didn’t get the full emotional journey of the play, but I did enjoy myself, and it was never boring. I was reminded of the Magic Flute done by Impempe Yomlingo, while Steve was reminded of the magical Midsummer Night’s Dream, Indian-style, both of which we enjoyed. One of the best so far this year.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

War Horse – January 2008

6/10

By: Michael Morpurgo (novel) adapted by Nick Stafford

Directed by: Marianne Elliot

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Thursday 24th January 2008

Although I enjoyed this production, I probably found it less good than some of the reports we’d heard, mainly because our expectations were higher than usual. The horse puppets were indeed fantastic, and I certainly cried at the end, but our distance from the stage meant we weren’t as involved as we normally like to be. I had hoped that the size of the production would carry that far back, but I did miss seeing the actor’s expressions clearly. Another reminder that we like to get up close and personal with the action, though preferably not within soaking range.

The set was sparse and effective. At first, I thought the strip of white, torn paper across the centre of the stage was actually in front of a curtain of some sort. As the action progressed, I realised the stage was open to the back, and the way this strip was  lit made it seem to be floating in the air. It also allowed for scenes to be projected onto it, giving us information on the time and place of each scene, and showing some shadow puppeteering for the action that couldn’t be fitted onto the stage. The floor had the revolve painted up as streaks and patches of brown and grey. This very effectively suggested furrows, mud, rutted paths, and probably a few other things as well. A bit of this decoration spilled over to the rest of the stage, which was otherwise plain black floorboards running front to back. I noticed what seemed like a forked tree trunk in the shadows to our left – this turned out to be a plough – and to our right were a couple of boxes. Doors, carts, wagons, and even a tank were brought on as needed.

The key to this whole production has to be the marvellous puppet work. Apart from the horses themselves, there was a goose, running around, pecking at the ground and hissing at people, several birds flying across the sky at different times, a young girl in occupied France who makes friends with the horses, and a rather nasty crow who shows an unpleasant interest in the corpses littering the place. But the horses were spectacular. Full sized puppets, with two men inside them working the legs with hand controls, and another chap at the head, giving them life and movement. They were rarely still, always shifting and nosing at things, as horses do, and even though I could see the person working the head, it was easy to forget that and just see the horses.

I did find it a bit more confusing when Joey, the star of the show, was a foal. He was so small that there were three people working him from the outside, and as they were dressed the same as the actors, I did find it hard to tell sometimes whether they were people holding the horse or non-existent puppeteers. This was especially true at the horse market, with lots of folk milling around. However, we soon got past that, and seeing actors actually riding these magnificent puppets was quite amazing. It was particularly sad when we got to the later stages of the war and some of the horses were bags of bone, dying as they tried to pull the guns from place to place. It was heartbreaking to see them die.

It was certainly a sad story, and I fully expected Albert to find Joey just as he was breathing his last – a truly sad ending. I was surprised when this animal actually managed to survive, despite the hard work, the lack of food and all the other hardships, but then the story is aimed at children. The basic plot is that Joey is bought as a foal by a farmer who’s  in competition with his more successful brother-in-law. He spends all the mortgage money on him, and his son, Albert, trains the horse up so they can sell him. Albert and Joey get on really well, and then Albert finds out that his silly father has bet that Joey will plough a strip of land by a particular Sunday – I forget what it was called. As Joey is more suited to riding than ploughing, no one expects him to win, but Albert keeps working with him (he has a whole week, after all!), and sure enough, Joey manages it, just. Thinking Joey’s now safe, and his, Albert lets his guard down, and his father then sells Joey off to the army as a cavalry horse, just in time for him to be shipped off to France for WWI. We then see Joey’s story, as he gets to meet Topthorn, the other horse in the story, and they’re ridden in a cavalry charge, only to have their riders shot off the top of them. The horses then wander round the battlefield, until a German cavalry officer finds them, and recognising their quality does his best to protect them. The opportunity comes when horses are wanted to pull an ambulance cart. At first, it doesn’t look like Topthorn will handle the harness, but Joey remembers it from his ploughing days, and volunteers. Topthorn then joins in, and the cavalry officer takes advantage of this and a later opportunity to take on the identity of a dead ambulance man, to keep the horses safe on a farm over the winter.

By this time, Albert has joined up, thinking he’ll be joining the cavalry regiment and be able to find Joey, only he’s sidetracked into the infantry, and gets caught up in the fighting. Joey and Topthorn are taken back into service pulling the German artillery, and eventually Topthorn dies. Joey survives, and wanders over the battlefield, until he gets caught up in some barbed wire in no-man’s land (OK, I was crying by this time). The German and British soldiers have a temporary truce to try to recover him; the British soldier wins the coin-toss, and takes him back to their lines, but he’s badly injured. Albert has taken a shell-blast and is temporarily blinded, and both he and Joey end up at the same medical station. As the medical staff are declaring that they can’t treat the horse, Albert is talking with his mate, and Joey recognises his voice, and I can’t go on, I can’t see the keys for the tears…..

(Several tissues later…) Well, it all ends happily, as I said before, and if it hadn’t been so sad, I think I would have enjoyed it more. I accept it’s a sad subject, and I don’t expect it to be tarted up, but maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for something so powerful. I’m still glad I saw it, and some of the images will stay with me for a long time.

One other thing to mention was that much of the Germans’ dialogue was in German, without surtitles. A bit confusing, but nicely realistic, especially as one of the German officers was suspicious of his colleagues who spoke in English.

At the end, all the puppeteers came on as themselves to begin with, and after taking the first bows, they dashed off. I was hoping they’d come back on as the horses, and they did, rearing up, and taking their bows beautifully. I still feel like I’ve seen actual horses on stage. This was a masterpiece in many ways, and I hope they can find some other way to use these magnificent puppets again.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me