Hayfever – October 2010

7/10

By: Noel Coward

Directed by: Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 7th October 2010

This was a bit disappointing. We were glad to be seeing Celia Imrie on stage, and hoped the production would be better than the one at Chichester last year, which was rather let down by Diana Rigg’s age. Celia Imrie is a better age for the lead role, but her portrayal came across as too schoolmarm-ish at times, and much too self-aware, which reduced my enjoyment somewhat. She did her best, and the rest of the production was perfectly fine with the two Bliss children being particularly good and Alexandra Galbraith giving us the sultriest vamp I’ve ever seen on stage.

The set was the usual eclectic jumble. The stairs were to the right, French windows centre back, door to the library on the left, and there was a pretty landscape visible through the windows. The effects of rain and sun were clearer at Chichester, with the sun coming out almost before the guests had finished fleeing the scene, and overall I find I preferred that production despite its flaws, but we still enjoyed ourselves well enough this afternoon. The writing is still as good, and there are plenty of lines that are almost guaranteed a laugh. I hope they do well for the rest of the run.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Sweet Nothings – April 2010

3/10

By Arthur Schnitzler

Directed by Luc Bondy

Company: Young Vic

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Wednesday 21st April 2010

I have enjoyed Schnitzler’s work in the past, but then again…. This was a very trivial story, which may have been well translated, but the production left me cold. For the first time in my life, I found myself wanting to nod off, but that didn’t happen until about two thirds through the first half. The second half started better, what with an interesting performance from Hayley Carmichael as the busybody neighbour, always ready to pass on a bad word or two, and always from someone else’s opinion, not her own. The latter part of the scene, after the father had come and gone, was also more enjoyable, as we got to see the situation from the perspective of the two young women, Mitzi and Christine, but on the whole the second part was very predictable and not particularly interesting, and I was happy to catch up on my sleep some more during this part too. At least the first half had several funny lines in it, such as when Theo tells Fritz to play some music to accompany him having sex with Mitzi, and she tells Fritz to make it a short piece. The second half was all downhill, and became very dreary by the end.

The set was mainly on a large revolve, which did an approximately 90 degree turn each half, very slowly for the most part. There was a small extended area in front of the stage and large panels behind, with a circular frame suspended above the revolve which kept pace with it. For the first half, the location was the reception room in Fritz’s flat, with a grand piano, a sofa, a rumble seat and a screen on the revolve, a sideboard with various paraphernalia in the orchestra pit, and a window and several lights dangling from above. They also added candles and a table during the action. The panel at the back was a coral pink colour, and swept across the rear of the stage in graceful curves – a feminine backdrop to the male environment.

The second half was set in Christine’s bedroom, though you’d have thought it was a waiting room at Clapham Junction the way folk just strolled in and out. There was a bed, an arrangement of hanging rails, a table with a chess set beneath the window, two chairs, an empty music stand on the revolve and more music stands with chairs in the pit. Again, things were moved around so that the centre of the stage was clear for the final game of pass the parcel – Christine was determined to visit Fritz’s grave, her father, Mitzi and Theo kept grabbing her to stop her. That’s how it ended, apart from the sound effect of a shot. Costumes were 1920s style and very good.

The story was beyond simple. Fritz had fallen for a married woman, and Christine had fallen for him. Married woman’s husband challenges Fritz to a duel and kills him. Christine is terribly upset. Pass the parcel. That’s it. That’s what took nearly two and a half hours of stage time to tell. Amazing. Few of the characters were even remotely interesting, the stylised production made the whole thing even more antiseptic – why did they bother? A few people in the audience clearly appreciated this kind of thing, judging by their laughter at odd moments, but they were definitely in a minority. We changed seats during the interval, as did a number of others, so it was hard to tell just how many people had left during it, but we were nowhere near a full complement to begin with, and even less than that for the second half.

Steve and I had booked seats in the circle for this one originally, just to see what they were like, but were informed that we’d been moved, as there was some aspect of the set that blocked the view from that part of the auditorium. Search me what it was. The windows scarcely got round that far, and they were pretty insubstantial anyway. No, we decided it was probably just a ruse to cluster us all in the middle stalls because ticket sales had been so poor. We were happier with our new seats; well, I could snooze there just as well as in the other ones.

Despite all this criticism, I must praise all the actors, who gave very good performances. Sadly, the material and production just weren’t to our taste.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Dumb Show – April 2010

2/10

By Joe Penhall

Directed by Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 15th April 2010

Dire. Superficial. Banal. I rarely get to use these words to refer to a performance we’ve seen, but today they’re all apt. The second half showed some improvement, but not enough to raise the overall rating, and although there were a few good laughs, for the most part this was a waste of a good afternoon. (Although as it was also the day of the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud closing UK airports, that may a little unfair.)

The story was of Barry, an Asian performer whose show was never clearly specified, being courted for business purposes in a hotel suite by a couple of bankers, who are actually investigative journalists out to get a story for the Sunday sleaze papers about how a well-loved entertainer is actually involved in naughty stuff, such as booze, drugs, improper sexual advances, etc., etc. You know the sort of thing. With a name like Barry, I assume the central character was originally more home-grown, but with Sanjeev Baskar playing the part it was fine-tuned to reflect his background.

The reporters, played by Emma Cunniffe and Dexter Fletcher, want to get more details from Barry to confirm what they’ve already got, and to find even more juicy bits to make the story bigger. They use all sorts of tactics, from bullying to enticements, and it was very clear that nothing they said could be believed. There was a short spell in the second half when Barry stood up to them, but then he went back to being putty in their hands, for no discernible reason I could see. Eventually he left, threatening them with all sorts of lawsuits if they published their story, and the final scene shows Barry meeting again with Liz in the same hotel room so she can tempt him to provide a follow-up story of how much he loved his wife Valerie, now dead from the cancer(?) that she’d been suffering from during Barry’s earlier stint in the room. The play ends with Barry, who’d been going to walk out on her, taking the phone to speak to her editor and after thinking for a long while, asking how much the fee would be.

The story wasn’t new, given how much this topic gets bandied about these days, and from this performance I’d have to say that the writing was pretty weak. There weren’t enough laughs to make it a properly enjoyable piece, and while the superficiality of the writing might be excused on the grounds that these are superficial people, that level of dialogue doesn’t support this long a play unless it’s done entirely for laughs. It takes a much better standard of authorship to make us care about the shallow, conceited, callous folk on show here. The opening was so fast and furious it reminded me of David Mamet’s work, but this was definitely sub-sub-sub Mamet in quality.

However, we’re both agreed that if this play does come around again with a different cast, we might be prepared to give it a go. Emma Cunniffe was fine, and Dexter Fletcher would have been fine if he had projected sufficiently for us to catch more of his lines, but Sanjeev Baskar was just too nice to give the production the darker edge it needed. Far from seeming the alcoholic, cheating husband who snorted cocaine like his life depended on it, he looked more like a man who would be home in good time for dinner because his wife might tell him off in a loud voice if he didn’t. His emotional range was limited, so that, apart from a flash of anger in the second half, his character didn’t seem to be feeling much at all. In the opening scene, when the two journalists are wheedling him into having some champagne, more could have been made of Barry’s alcoholism, and the fact that their pressure makes them seriously complicit in his bad behaviour later, after he’s downed most of the contents of the mini-bar.

That aside, Sanjeev can deliver a funny line really well; if only there had been a lot more of them, we’d have really enjoyed ourselves.

© 2010 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

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

Born In The Gardens – October 2008

6/10

By Peter Nichols

Directed by Stephen Unwin

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 9th October 2008

The first half of this play seemed to be by Orton out of Beckett. The set was a large room in a mock Tudor mansion, with a billiards light in the centre of the ceiling, a drum kit centre back, a coffin to the left of that, complete with dead body and floral tributes, a suit of armour back right, and a chair front right facing an old TV on a small table, which had its back to us. There were other chairs and a sideboard, plus a bookcase and standard lamp, etc. The coffin was removed for the second half, which gave them a lot more room. The back wall was dark wood, presumably oak, and panelled.

The father of the family has died, and the mother, Maud, and her younger son Maurice are waiting for the rest of the family to turn up for the funeral. It’s a small group. Hedley, the elder son, left home many years ago and made a career for himself as a politician. He’s now a back-bench MP with the Labour party, and still trying to make a name for himself. He has a wife, who from the sound of things is almost as crazy as his mother, two kids whom we don’t see, and a mistress, though we don’t find out about her until the second half.

Queenie, the sister, is also Maurice’s twin. She also left home many years ago to live in America, where she became a journalist. She’s incorporated the trip back for the funeral into a three week assignment travelling through Europe to report on the situation there. This is the late 1970s, and most of Europe is going through political and economic changes (is this the only drama we’re going to get now? Economic doom and gloom? God help us!). She phones her chap back in LA, just before the interval, only to find he’s not being as faithful as he thought.

Maurice has stayed at home with his parents all this while, and has developed some strange habits. He talks to his mother by reporting what the cat says, thus allowing him to be nice to her himself, but seriously catty as the cat. He plays jazz records (still vinyl in those days), and accompanies them on his drum kit. He also deals in second hand books of a pornographic nature, judging by the short extract Queenie read from one of them. I noticed that Hedley was so horrified when he read it that he completely forgot to hand it back and shut it in his briefcase instead. Maurice also spends most of his time winding his mother up. She’s a batty old dear, what with preferring to watch the TV with the sound off so she can talk to the people she sees on the screen. She believes the sound is broken, but we learn that it’s actually fine; it’s just Maurice who’s kept it turned down, presumably so that he can play his drums.

Maud is very much the heart and soul of this piece. Played superbly well by Stephanie Cole, she comes across as old, gullible, kind-hearted, and stuck in her ways. Despite Hedley’s best efforts, he can’t get her to move out of the big mansion into a small condominium in London, so that they can sell the property for developers to do what developers do. She’s adamant that she wants to stay where she is so she can go to the local hypermarket and buy lots of things really cheaply. Like tampons. She keeps lots of packets of soup in the freezer that Hedley bought her, so he wouldn’t feel she didn’t appreciate his gift. She keeps using the old gas boiler for heating the water, even though it might blow up any minute (we hear several loud bangs to reinforce this point). I don’t know what she’s meant to represent in terms of the author’s experience of Bristol folk, but she’s enough like so many people’s older female relatives to stay just this side of unbelievable (but only just).

There’s also an incestuous relationship between the twins, which accounts for Queenie wanting her brother to come and stay with her in the States, and we learn about their father’s sexual abuse of Queenie which Maurice walked in on and which caused her to leave home as soon as she could all those years ago. All in all, it’s not a happy family, but at least Maud and Maurice are content with their lot. The play finishes with Maud chatting happily away to the silent TV people, while Maurice plays his drums to an accompanying song.

While I enjoyed this performance, I find this type of play doesn’t get me as involved as more straightforward storytelling. The surreal nature of the piece distances me from the characters, and although I found it very funny in places, there was little to engage me emotionally or mentally. And as I don’t know Bristol at all well, I didn’t get much from those aspects either. Still, the performances were excellent, and the humour was good throughout, especially the confusion between duplex, Durex, condominium and condom. I’d still choose to spend an afternoon watching a play like this over a lot of other options.

© 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

The Portrait Of A Lady – August 2008

6/10

By Henry James, adapted by Nicki Frei

Directed by Peter Hall

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 28th August 2008

The set was a forward curve of arches, with ledges on the columns, and all in dark marble. Chairs and tables were brought on and moved around as needed, while the curved backdrop had different vistas projected onto it.

The performances were good. Although Finbar Lynch had trouble maintaining a consistent accent, he portrayed the menace of his character really well. Jean Marsh was only a tad better with her accent, but she did get some good lines, and the revelations at the end came from her character. All the other accents were fine, and Christopher Ravenscroft in particular livened things up in his one scene. The scenes themselves were sometimes bitty, and the scene changes could drag on a little. I wasn’t keen on the backward timeline for this particular story; knowing how it ends means I don’t get to enjoy the full emotional journey, and the later scenes from earlier times tend to be box-tickers, filling in the details to which we’ve had clues in the previous future scenes (gosh, it’s hard work explaining this so I can remember it).

The second half was definitely better than the first – both Steve and I felt the first half was a bit pedestrian – but then I found myself getting a bit lost with the time travel element. Mr Goodwood in particular suffered from this, as he turned up only occasionally and I lost track of when we’d seen him before, in the future. In fact, although I found the second half generally more interesting, I also felt it was more confusing with all the jumping around in time.

I didn’t know the story at all before today, so I’ve no idea how well it represented the original novel. My impression at the end is that Isabel Archer is a bright but not particularly shrewd young lady, whose main character flaw is a passion for independence. She’s determined to make up her own mind and make her own choices, which she then sticks to tenaciously, as they represent such an important part of her. She has the bad luck to fall in with a spider of a man, eager to lure a rich woman into his web, and with the wit to let her walk in of her own free choice. Mind you, I’m not sure from the alternatives on offer that she’d have been happy with any of her other suitors. Maybe Lord Warburton could have made it work, but she would probably have found the conventions of the English aristocracy too stifling. A heroine doomed to misery then, and we lucky people get to share bucketloads of it with her. Oh joy.

Still, the story was interesting in its own way, despite the method of telling it, and I was taken once again by how much James’s American characters are drawn to all things European, despite many of them considering the American way to be better. Admittedly, several of the American characters in this story are ex-pats who’ve lived in Europe for many years, often since childhood, so the pattern isn’t so obvious this time around. I did like the music between scenes, which is also part of Isabel’s first meeting with Madam Merle – it turns out Mme Merle’s an accomplished pianist, and it was her  playing that we heard. For the beginning of each scene, the characters held a tableau, emphasising the “portrait” aspect of the piece, and indeed I often felt while watching the first few scenes that I was looking at a setting for some formal portraits. The costumes looked fine to me, though the need for quick changes meant our heroine seemed to be wearing black more than was strictly necessary or helpful. As the story unfolds, though, there seem to be lots of reasons for full or partial mourning, so perhaps that explains it. Even so, I felt it lessened the impact of the change in her character that she was dressed so drably for most of the play.

So, not my favourite James adaptation, then, but still a good afternoon in the theatre.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Burial At Thebes – June 2008

8/10

Sophocles’ Antigone translated by Seamus Heaney

Directed by Lucy Pitman-Wallace

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Friday 27th June 2008

This was a very good version of the Greek tragedy Antigone. The language was formal and declamatory for the most part and every word came across clearly. The guard who reported the un-desecration of Polyneices’s body was the only one who spoke in more conversational English and with an accent, differentiating him nicely from the toffs.

The set was very plain. What looked like wooden panels, worn and battered, curved round the back of the acting space, with a central doorway for entrances and exits. There were irregularly shaped holes where there would have been knots in the wood. Centre front was a large bowl, spotlit.

The play opened with two men taking scoops of sand from the bowl, and then backing off to the sides of the stage. Antigone and her sister then tell us what’s been going on. Oedipus their father married his own mother (Greek drama has a way of going to places most other plays avoid) and his children, who are also his half-siblings, are still suffering for his sin against the gods. Their brothers are both dead, one fighting for Thebes and one against. The pro-Theban brother is being given full honours while the other one is being disgraced by not having a funeral rites. Apparently this means he won’t get his heavenly Oyster card and will be doomed (I think that’s the gist). Antigone is all for disobeying the order to leave her brother’s body to decompose naturally, but her sister is too scared to go against Creon’s command. Creon is their mother’s brother and the new king, so what he says goes or else. Antigone isn’t put off – she knows the dangers, but she also knows the duty she has towards a brother and the gods. She’s a tough nut, that one.

Creon appears next, giving an excellent speech designed to win the loyalty of his new subjects. It’s all smarm and charm at this point, but it isn’t long before the paranoid control freak shows through. There’s a bit of concern amongst the gathered bigwigs about the decree against the burial, but Creon soon smoothes that over. However when the guard turns up to tell Creon that someone has carried out the funeral rites for the dead man, he starts to go all Gordon Brown on us (stroppy and authoritarian, that is).  He’s convinced ‘they’ are out to get him, and that some rich people have bribed the guards to turn a blind eye to the funeral rites. He tells the guard to bring him the guilty party or he’ll be strung up instead. Naturally the guard’s a bit miffed by this, and decides to run away.

Now we’re introduced to Haemon, Creon’s son, in song. As the chorus sings of his great abilities and virtues, the character demonstrates these in mime. This is just a short intro – in fact, I don’t think I got his name at this point – and then we’re into Antigone’s arrest by the guard and the hearing before Creon and the chorus. Creon shows little pity – he thinks women should stick to the home, never mind disobeying him or carrying out a funeral service. It doesn’t seem to bother him that it’s his niece he’s condemning to death, though it does disturb the chorus. Mind you, their main concern seems to be that she’s engaged to Haemon, and how will he take it?

Very well, apparently. After Antigone has had her say, insisting that following the gods’ instructions is more important than obeying the whim of a mere king, she’s taken away to be walled up in a cave. Her sister did try to be noble and join her in her final prison but Antigone rebuffs her – if she didn’t do the crime, she doesn’t do the time. Creon keeps changing his mind about the sister – she’s for the chop, then she isn’t, then she is. Anyway, when his son arrives there’s some friendly words of warning from some of the chorus, but Creon’s not listening. At first, his son speaks up for his father in total support, as a good son should in ancient Greece. This gladdens Creon’s heart, but it doesn’t last. Before long Haemon is suggesting very strongly that his dad should reconsider – better to admit a mistake than upset the gods.

Well, Creon’s not having that, so disaster is pretty much assured (as if there was any doubt!). Tiresias, the blind seer, turns up and his advice is so pointed and so clear that even Creon begins to doubt his actions. He sends people to release Antigone and to tidy up what’s left of the corpse, but too late. Eurydice, Creon’s wife, appears just in time to hear the sad news of Haemon’s death. He stabbed himself after hanging Antigone (or she got him to hang her, whatever). If these people hadn’t been so keen to die all might have been well, but then it wouldn’t be a tragedy. Eurydice is ominously quiet and heads off to top herself, and Creon drags on his son’s dead body – Eurydice’s arrives a few minutes later – for the final weeping and wailing. The play ends with the whole group assembled on stage in near darkness, with just the bowl at the front spotlit.

This was absolutely great. The cast worked brilliantly together. Various actors would discard assorted sheets and blankets to emerge as a character, then re-robe to blend back into the chorus. There wasn’t any humour (which is why I tend to be flippant in my notes) but I don’t expect any in a Greek tragedy, and the intensity of emotion was just right for me. The translation was excellent and very understandable, with a good rhythm and tone that seemed perfect for the tragedy style. One of the best things we’ve seen here.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Tartuffe – June 2008

6/10

By Moliere, adapted by Roger McGough

Directed by Gemma Bodinetz

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 12th June 2008

The set had a curved wall at the back, with lots of semi-obscured mirror panels, two doors and six windows, shuttered to match the décor. A chandelier hung from the ceiling, and two red brocade chairs and two carved wooden chests placed symmetrically completed the layout. Once the play started, we learned there was also a hidden cupboard between the two doors, which was put to good use later on.

The translation was very good. It was in verse, as expected, and made good use of some French phrases, puns and the like. E.g. ‘You wretch. I soon will!’ He rhymed ‘interloper’ with ‘faux pas’, and got away with it! Orgon’s mother gave a tortuous version of the English proverb ‘he who laughs last, laughs longest’. Before she could give the ‘translation’, she was told ‘I know what it means’. During the second half we  had a number of others like that – hogs will take to the air, if there’s smoke there’s something burning, that sort of thing, and to end the play we got ‘all swells that end swells’ (not in text). The only joke I didn’t really get was the way everyone kept correcting the maid’s pronunciation of Tartuffe, simply because I couldn’t hear her mispronounce it in the first place. (According to the text, she calls him ‘Tartooth’.)

The language was a lot looser in the second half as well, and although the audience didn’t always get the references, such as mentioning the Priory as an alternative to the convent, we all seemed to be having a good time. Fortunately the program included the play text, which for once I may well read just for the fun of the language.

The whole cast gave us good performances, but I do just want to mention Marianne and Valere (Emily Pithon and Kevin Harvey). They were like a couple of spoilt six year olds during their main scene together; clearly in love with each other, but each one sulking because the other one hadn’t said the right thing. Beautifully done.

This was another good production here, and I hope they can soon start producing their own stuff.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me