Macbeth NTL – July 2013

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford

Manchester International Festival

Venue: Ritz cinema, Worthing

Date: Saturday 20th July 2013

This was our first time watching a live broadcast of a theatre performance in a cinema. It may not be our last, but that won’t be from choice. As this was the only way we were going to see this production I’m glad we did it, but as we suspected the cinematic process reduced our enjoyment by a huge amount. Still, it looked like a great production in many ways and from the massive number of curtain calls, the Manchester audience clearly loved it; wish we’d been there.

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A Streetcar Named Desire – August 2009

9/10

By Tennessee Williams

Directed by Rob Ashford

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 20th August 2009

The weather was cooperating today to give us the full sensuround experience – hot and humid, perfect for the Deep South. The actors didn’t have to do quite so much acting to convince us of the sultry weather in the play.

The set had the usual rough back wall, with fancy ironwork for the balconies, a spiral staircase far right (looking straight on at the stage) and an iron archway supporting something I couldn’t see properly. There was a bench against the back wall, two chairs against the posts and a cupboard or two on the far side, near what might be window shutters. A flickering gas lantern hung left of centre and I could see some indoor lights of the period lurking in the ceiling. A tiled floor and an angled door to our left completed the initial set.

After the opening lines, when all the men plus Stella head off to the bowling alley, Blanche arrives, looking two weeks short of completing a month’s rehab. The Kowalsky’s dining room table also arrives, just in time for Mrs. Hubbel to show Blanche in. The next scene is preceded by the arrival of the bedroom furniture and Blanche’s large trunk, and apart from props and set dressing that was the final setup. I liked the relative sparseness of it and the use of lighting to change the mood or highlight Blanche’s memories. Some scene changes may have taken a little longer, perhaps, but it gave an overall effect of vagueness that Blanche herself would have been proud of.

The sense of location on stage may have had its top buttons undone and one sleeve hanging off its shoulder, but the sense of time and character was as precise as an officer’s uniform. Both Steve and I felt sure that the text for this production must have been edited in some way, as it seemed so different to productions we’ve seen before. Possibly influenced by the iconic film, most productions seem to concentrate almost exclusively on the love/hate relationship between Stanley and Blanche, with Stella being quite a minor figure. This production certainly demanded a lot from Rachel Weisz as Blanche, demands that she fulfilled superbly, but it also created a more believable world around her, with strong performances from Ruth Wilson as her sister Stella, Elliot Cowan as Stanley, and Barnaby Kay as Mitch, the one fragile hope Blanche has to find happiness, or at least a reliable meal ticket.

I didn’t remember the story of Blanche’s husband killing himself, but it’s etched into my memory now. There were various references to her doomed love early on, and occasionally a good looking young man would appear at some corner of the stage, dressed in a white dinner jacket, and remain there, spotlit, to demonstrate what Blanche is remembering. At one point, an older man joined him and the two of them walked off together. Then finally, after Blanche has revealed the whole story to Mitch, we see the party re-enacted with Blanche dressed up as she was that night.

These were powerful images, which kept me aware of how much she was damaged by this early experience and made me more sympathetic towards her. Unlike my feelings towards Stanley, who was not completely repulsive, but whose dark side certainly got an outing this afternoon. His constant refrain “I’ve got a friend who…” got some good laughs, making this the funniest Streetcar by a long way. Despite this, and his unequivocal rape of his sister-in-law, he came across more sympathetically than I thought he would at one point. He’s not well educated or used to fine manners, but he’s the sort of man who will work hard to bring home the money to keep his wife and family, which is no bad thing. He also needs to be the boss in his own house, and Blanche upsets the equilibrium just by being there. She’s like the professor and Yelena in Uncle Vanya, turning everyone else’s routine upside down without contributing anything themselves. Stanley can’t be kind and let Blanche have her fantasies; he has to crush her, mentally and physically, and so he does. Even so, it’s possible to see the good in him, and that he might not have turned into a monster but for Blanche’s arrival. Or perhaps he would. Who knows?

Stella herself was magnificently played by Ruth Wilson. For once, these two women really seemed to be sisters, with different temperaments, true, but also with a shared upbringing and a fondness for each other. Her expressions while listening to Blanche’s stories were worth the price of admission on their own.

Barnaby Kay as Mitch gave us a good contrast to Stanley. A single man, still living with his mother, he was attracted by Blanche’s ladylike qualities and then repelled by her unladylike ones. It’s a small part but an important one, similar to the gentleman caller in The Glass Menagerie. His clumsy attempts to have sex with Blanche are fended off, while Stanley is much more brutal only a few hours later. And Stanley’s cruelty in telling Mitch the truth about Blanche’s recent sexual activities in Laurel is emphasised by showing Mitch to be a decent chap, who’s also suffered the loss of someone he loved many years ago.

The rest of the cast supported these central characters really well, and the whole production just soared. A great afternoon out.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Parade – October 2007

8/10

Book by Alfred Uhry, Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, Co-conceived by Harold Prince

Directed and choreographed by: Rob Ashford

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Wednesday 24th October 2007

This was a marvellous experience – the first time I’d seen a musical in the intimate space that is the Donmar. I had no idea how they would fit it all in, but it worked superbly. The set was basically a wooden frame with a raised platform at the back and stairs on the right up to a wooden balcony which could be the office of the factory, a fishing perch by a stream, etc. Chairs and tables were brought on as needed.

The story concerns a real life event in Atlanta, Georgia back in 1913-15. A teenage girl was found murdered in the basement of a factory, and the factory manager, a white Jew from New York, was accused, tried and convicted for her murder, despite the amazingly dubious testimony from the locals, who had been whipped into a frenzy of racist loathing and desire for revenge by the combined efforts of the press, the politicians and the clergy. It’s a powerful story, and one of the amazing things about this production is the way it manages to make us laugh at things that are pretty dark. On more than one occasion I found myself laughing at something and wondering if I really should be. For example, the first song in the second half is a wonderful number where two black characters, Angela and Riley, get to put their point of view about the whole furore. They’re clearing the table after the governor and his wife have finished breakfast, and as they do, they’re commenting on how different it would be if a black man had been convicted, or if a black girl had been killed. Comments about how often you see black men hanging from trees didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the energy and humour of the song, yet the images are shocking, and the contradiction seems to underscore that fact. I feel more moved now than when I was watching it, and maybe that’s the intention. We weren’t beaten over the head about the moral issues, but they snuck in while we weren’t looking and took up permanent residence. Sadly, we weren’t allowed to call for encores, or this number would have worn out the actors before it wore us out.

As would a number of other routines. The dancing was fast and furious at times, though not so much when the stage was packed, obviously, and the standard seemed pretty high to me. I loved the party scene where the governor is stepping out (in the dancing sense) with every pretty girl he can get his hands on, and I especially liked his grimace as he realised he wasn’t as young as he used to be.

The singing was also excellent. Malinda Parris and Shaun Escoffery (Angela and Riley) were particularly good, with Shaun’s voice resonating beautifully and powerfully as he sang a blues number later, on the chain gang. I also felt Bertie Carvel gave an excellent performance as Leo Frank, the Jewish New Yorker who felt like a fish out of water in the South. He was totally confused by the way the local Jews seemed to do things the southern way, rather than the Jewish way. His discomfort was clear to see, and well expressed in some witty song lyrics. It explained a lot of his behaviour around southern folk, and why he acted so strangely. It was bound to make them suspicious anyway, although the pressure was on very early for a quick resolution, and something more special than just hanging another “nigra”.

The most moving part for me was the scene between Leo and his wife, Lucille, in the prison. With his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, Leo’s been moved to a secret location to prevent public disorder, and gets a chance to see his wife. He’s learned a lot about what really matters, and tells her in a very moving song about how much she means to him. I cried. After that, it’s an emotional rollercoaster, as hooded men snatch Leo from his cell and take him away to lynch him. Paradoxically, they’re prepared to let him live out his life in prison if he confesses and repents, but determined to hang him if he continues to claim he’s innocent. Wonky thinking, if you ask me, but then nobody did. There’s a final scene where the journalist gives Lucille Leo’s wedding ring, and then we’re into the finale and a standing ovation for this magnificent company – well deserved. I’m looking forward to getting the cast recording.

The only thing that didn’t quite gel with me was the recurrent theme of the old soldier and his erstwhile girlfriend who was willing to wait for him while he went off to the Civil War. I understood the scene at the start to be establishing the romantic patriotism of these folk, and their determination to defend their state at all costs during the war (even though they did, in fact, lose), but I wasn’t so clear about the other times these characters reappeared during the play. I couldn’t see what they were meant to represent then.

However, that’s only a minor point, and overall the intelligence and wit of this musical was good to see. Reminiscent of Sondheim, the music has themes which echo and repeat, building up complex layers of meaning as different characters take the tune or lines and use them in a different way. “Go on, go on, go on, go on” is one example, used by Mary Phagan and Frankie Epps early on as we find out just how precocious thirteen year old Mary (the murder victim) actually is, and used again during Angela and Riley’s song. There’s also an amazing sequence as Leo acts out the lecherous behaviour the girls are accusing him of at his trial, another brilliant performance from Bertie Carvel. If only this was sort of thing that packed ‘em in in the West End. Ah well.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me