A Life Of Galileo – February 2013


Experience 5/10

By Bertolt Brecht, translated by Mark Ravenhill

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 6th February 2013

Given the standard of the other two productions in this mini-season, I was a little disappointed to find I didn’t enjoy this third production as much as I’d hoped. There were a number of reasons for this, and since they’re still only halfway to press night it would be unfair to judge the entire run on one early performance. Steve would have rated tonight’s effort slightly higher than I did (6/10) so we were in broad agreement, and we both expect this rating to improve the next time. [Sadly we missed a later performance, due to car trouble. 25/3/13]

We started the evening with a director’s talk. This can be a two-edged sword, as hearing about the production before we see it can spoil our enjoyment or even warp our expectations so much that we have to work hard to get anything at all out of the performance. We intend to see previews before the talks in future, if we can, and we’ll see how that turns out.

For tonight, Paul Allen was in conversation with Roxana Silbert, and we learned plenty about the production and even Roxana’s family background. She had wanted to do this play for many years; with a father and brother who were and are physicists, she grew up in a house where Newton, Galileo and Einstein were part of their regular table talk. Only scoring 9% in her O-level physics, she admitted to being ‘interested, but not able’ in the subject of science. Her brother wrote some program notes for this production (she freely confessed the nepotism) and they had the services of Stuart Clark (scientist and science blogger on The Guardian) to take them through the scientific aspects of the play so that the actors would have enough of an understanding for their parts.

This new translation/adaptation by Mark Ravenhill was an attempt to freshen the play up, although with the Brecht estate being very protective of his work, they had to get approval for all aspects of the production. Fortunately, Galileo is the least Brechtian of Brecht’s plays, and since it was written over a long time span and reflected changes in Brecht’s own attitudes, there are a number of versions which can be blended together for each new interpretation. This production is mercifully short (about two and a half hours) and some of the scene choices reflect the film script rather than the play. (Brecht moved from an absolutist view of rationality and science via Hiroshima to an understanding that scientific work must be tempered with humanity.)

The nature of the material meant that it was difficult to be ‘authentic’ with the costumes or setting. Brecht used Galileo to tell the story of not just Renaissance science but some later discoveries as well, e.g. gravity, so some flexibility was needed in the choice of costumes. When Galileo is demonstrating his telescope to the Venetian senators, for example, the contrast between Galileo’s advanced understanding of the universe and the outdated attitudes of the establishment figures is apparently underscored by having Galileo in modern dress and the others in ruffs etc.

Having an established ensemble to work with had both good and bad points. On the one hand, the actors are working very hard, having got two other productions up and running, plus the understudy work which we hardly ever see, so they’re pretty tired when they arrive for rehearsals with her. On the other hand, they’re already working well together and they’re more prepared to take risks. They’re also familiar with the performance space, so when she asked them to try something out, they would do it immediately, almost before she’d finished explaining it to them. Overall, she reckoned their ensemble experience took three weeks of initial learning off the rehearsal process.

Ian McDiarmid wasn’t cast because of his role in the Star Wars movies; Roxana had worked with him in a Howard Barker play before he was ‘famous’ (for the films). Ian had also played Galileo in another production of this play when he was in his twenties, and one aspect of that production was the use of a puppet to play the young Andrea in the opening scene. Roxana chose to use the same actor throughout as Andrea, rather than cast a young boy and a grown man separately, so that the audience would be able to engage more easily with the father figure/son relationship better. She also felt that this technique emphasised the importance of children in the play, through giving the audience that stronger connection.

Brecht’s theory of theatre inevitably got a mention, as did his tendency to confuse the issue by apparently ignoring his own precepts at every opportunity. Roxana has clearly studied Brecht’s writings on the subject, including one book which showed that his directing style wasn’t that different from any other director. Shortly after this discussion, the fire alarm went off and we all trooped out of the theatre. We were nearly at the end of the talk anyway, so with a short burst of applause in the gardens, we were free to find somewhere warm to huddle until the theatre opened up again, which happened pretty quickly.

The set was interesting. As Roxana mentioned during the pre-show chat, there was graph paper hanging down at the back in three broad strips, with the central one forward of the other two to provide a couple of entrances at the back. We also noticed some obvious markings on the stage – various rectangles of red tape – which fitted in with Brecht’s preference to show the innards of the theatrical machine at work. Someone had asked a question about the red ladders; these were step ladders on wheels of various sizes which were wheeled on and off as needed and which were usually positioned on one of the red rectangles. Not so obvious till the show started were the screens back and sides which showed the location and date of each scene, while other screens, hung vertically, also had information scrolling up or down them which was very hard to read. Some other furniture was used from time to time, all modern including plastic chairs, and as it turned out virtually all the costumes were modern with the occasional ruff or frill here and there. The religious uniforms, especially for the Pope, were timeless, so there was very little sense of a clash of time periods at all, sadly. In fact, with the modern setting I found Galileo’s opening speech made me think how outdated he was, as we now know so much more than they did in his time. I accept that he is one of giants on whose shoulders others stood, but as Galileo’s character himself points out, there is no book which can only be written by one person.

This was only a minor point though; my main concern was that I just couldn’t engage with any of these characters as people. Despite Roxana’s belief that Galileo was a fully rounded person, that didn’t come across in this performance for me, and I simply didn’t care about any of the other characters. The scenes were so bitty, and there seemed to be so much activity at the expense of storytelling that I was feeling bored and looking at my watch long before the first hour was up.

Part of the problem was the wonderful experience I had at the National’s production back in October 2006, with Simon Russell Beale playing Galileo. I do my best not to let past productions influence my experience of each new staging, and in this case I was surprised how much the earlier performance had imprinted itself on me. Those scenes were so much richer, the characters so much clearer, the arguments against the new science were put forward by people who absolutely believed what they were saying, and I felt deeply for so many of the characters. There was none of that tonight; the thrust of the play seemed to be almost entirely didactic, despite Mark Ravenhill cutting a lot of that stuff out.

I’ve often found, though, that when a reworking of a foreign play is significantly different from those I’ve seen before, I need a test drive to recalibrate my perceptions so that I can appreciate the newer version properly. I’m hoping that will be the case here, as we’ve another performance already booked later in the run. And they may well have tweaked things by then or simply bedded the production down so that it works better. We shall see.

I did find some of the later scenes more enjoyable, especially the last scene when Galileo gave Andrea a copy of his final scientific work to smuggle out of Italy and publish. I felt there was little tension in the scene where Galileo’s family and friends were waiting for the result of his meeting with the Inquisitor; apart from Virginia’s constant (and loud) reciting of prayers, nothing much seemed to be happening, and I was surprised when the others suddenly celebrated what they thought was Galileo’s resistance – that section probably went on too long.

I also noticed that there were very few laughs during the evening. Not that I expect this sort of play to be a light comedy, but even The Orphan and Boris, dark though much of those plays are, had plenty of lighter moments to keep us going to the end. It may have been the audience holding things back, of course; I spotted what looked like a school party on the far side (we sat on the left side of the stalls, front row) who seemed bored at times, and there were frequent outbursts of coughing throughout the performance which didn’t help.

Another difficulty was that, despite the use of microphones by various cast members to give us more information between scenes, I couldn’t make out a lot of what they said. The song which opened the second half was typical; I didn’t understand the verses, and I only just got the chorus of ‘Who doesn’t want to be his own master’ before the words were pinned up at the back. I suspect the clarity will improve with practice, and maybe the humour will improve as well.

One final point to make is that the performance seemed to be directed too much to the front, and from our side view we may have missed things which could have helped us engage more with the production. I’m not too downhearted though; this is an excellent ensemble, and with time I’m confident this production will be well worth seeing again, even if it’s not my favourite type of play.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Richard III – August 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Tuesday 21st August 2012

This was another strange performance, the first after a three week break while Troilus And Cressida had its run. They had a line run in the afternoon, which would account for their dialogue being crystal clear for the most part (Stanley was the notable exception – his lines were less understandable than before!) but the energy petered out after a good start, leading to a relatively lacklustre performance. There were some distractions tonight; Steve had to leave during Clarence’s dream speech as his cough wouldn’t behave itself and some teenagers on the left side of the stage were very fidgety during the second half, leafing through programs and the like, which didn’t help. But mostly the pace was just a fraction too slow, and I suspect they needed this performance to get back fully into their stride.

Jonjo was accessing more of the dark aspects of the play this time, though not as much as I would have liked. I heard the conversation between Clarence and Richard in full tonight, and understood the political implications much better. I could also see Clarence’s reactions as Richard commented on Mistress Shore; he smiled and almost laughed a few times at Richard’s bitchiness.

On to Act 3 scene 1, and some points I forgot from the previous performance. Buckingham tilted the Cardinal’s hat after accusing him of being “too senseless-obstinate”, and flicked back the corners of his cape. When Buckingham was briefing Catesby for his errand to Hastings, he wheeled forward the throne for Catesby to sit on, which he did, savouring the experience.

The scrivener was also hard to understand this time, while Catesby sat amongst the audience after his initial contributions to the wooing of Richard so that he could respond as part of the crowd. Richard’s parting kiss to the ex-queen Elizabeth was really unpleasant, and she was holding herself very stiffly so as to avoid the contact as much as possible. Richard said “relenting fool” before she’d walked away from him, but kept the rest of that speech till she’d gone.

Anne spat at Richard again during the ghost sequence, and the young Edward briefly stood between Richard and Richmond when they were fighting. I forgot to mention before that when Richmond was strangling Richard at the end, echoing the way Richard tried to strangle the young Duke of York earlier, Richard took off his coronet and hit Richmond with it a few times before finally dying. It was a funny gesture, and appropriate given the way they staged the ghost sequence.

Apart from the greater clarity, that was about it for tonight. It still feels like a good production, and the cast certainly look like they’re all working well together now.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Richard III – July 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Tuesday 24th July 2012

It’s difficult to assess this performance. The production has come on a lot from the second preview that we saw, with stronger performances all round, but the emphasis on the comic aspects of Richard’s career as a serial killer is still holding it back in my opinion. Seeing it from a different angle brought out some details we’d missed before, and I spotted some changes, but mostly it was just the natural improvement that comes with practice.

Slight change at the beginning; this time Edward, Richard and Clarence all came on from the front right walkway while the rest of the royal family came through the opening at the back. They stood in the middle of the stage, hands clasped together, a victorious threesome. Richard’s wooing of Anne had improved, though Pippa Dixon’s drooling put me off a bit. Siobhan Redmond’s accent was much clearer this time, and I could make out Stanley’s dialogue much better.

Our position made it easier to see Paola Dionisotti during the early stages of her first scene, and her performance was just as good as before. Our view of King Edward was much better this time too, so the reconciliation scene worked better for me. I noticed that Queen Elizabeth was very upset at news of Clarence’s death, and was crying by the end of the scene.

All was much the same through to the arrival of the young prince Edward. I didn’t hear Richard repeat “Sanctuary children” this time, though as the prince didn’t say the line “God keep me from false friends! But they were none” again, I assume it was a deliberate choice, even though there was a noticeable pause after Richard’s previous line. I did notice that he looked very mature and king-like for such a young boy; definitely a threat to Richard had he lived. It took Buckingham a lot longer to prise Richard’s hands from the Duke of York’s throat this time – what fun they’re having.

During the persuasion of the Lord Mayor, I couldn’t see Buckingham and Richard’s reactions so well this time, but Catesby fainted when he turned round and saw Hastings’ severed head being carried by Ratcliffe. When Ratcliffe left, he hung the head on a hook on the back wall; presumably it wasn’t visible enough on the floor when the scrivener came on.

The wooing of the people scene was very good. Buckingham’s description of his disastrous first attempt to persuade the people to support Richard’s kingship led into this second attempt, hence the unprepared nature of the scene. This made more sense, and was a good reading of the scene. The first half ended as before, with Richard grinning in his central window.

In the second half, the coronation scene was easier to see from our seats this time. Buckingham seemed to be oblivious to the risks that Richard saw in letting the young princes live. His ambition stretched no further than putting Richard on the throne; keeping him there was beyond his remit.

Skipping on to the floral tributes in front of the tower, we had a great view of the three women sitting or lying on the ground, going over their wrongs and their suffering. I found this quite moving, and when Richard came and laid the teddy bears by the wreaths, I found I was ignoring the comedy of the lines and getting the darker side. It took some time for the audience as a whole to tune into this, but there were gasps when Richard suggested he make amends to young Elizabeth for murdering her brothers and uncle, by marrying her and giving her children to replace the relatives she’s lost.

It was interesting to see how this wooing reflected the earlier scene with Anne, only this time the ex-queen is having none of it. She is in charge of this debate, and counters every attempt by Richard to seduce her into willingly speaking to her daughter on his behalf. With greater confidence, Siobhan no longer needed to clench her fists behind her back to show us her character’s resistance; through her performance she demonstrated that the queen only submitted to Richard’s demands out of political necessity, and even then she used a delaying tactic to cover her exit.

The messengers, dreams and battles were as before, and I didn’t notice any other changes. Jonjo O’Neill’s performance did have greater range, although the comedic aspect was still the strongest part of it. The whole cast are working very well together on this one, and with more central seats I suspect we’ll get even more out of it. Roll on August.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Soldier In Every Son – July 2012 (2)


By Luis Mario Moncada

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Monday 23rd July 2012

This performance was just as good as the one we saw earlier this month. Some of the Mexican actors were clearer in their dialogue – the English lessons are definitely working – although with all the unfamiliar names some of the lines could still be difficult to make out, regardless of who was speaking. The audience was a reasonable size, but still not as much as the production deserves.

I forgot to mention the death walkers last time. These were actors done up in black skeleton suits with skull faces; they stalked the dead and dying, hungry to get at them, and their touch would guide the dead body off the stage, a neat way to do this awkward task. The music was so good I didn’t notice it, though the short dance at the start of the second half had a real rock’n’roll sound to it.

The play started with one character blowing a conch-shell in all four directions, and as he did this the rest of the cast approached from the sides. They then did a rousing dance, with lots of arm movements and sideways bouncing steps. The opening scene then had prince Ixtlixochitl painting lines on his favourite slave girl, Zilamiauh, in an attempt to explain the geography of the area to her, which also allowed us to get the basics. His friends turned up once they’d dealt with the surface contours and were about to probe the deeper regions – not embarrassed about sex, these Mexicans. One of his friends, called Tochitzin, brought news that the king wanted Ixtlixochitl back at the palace pronto so he could woo his arranged bride Tecpa, daughter to Tezozomoc, king of the Tepanecas. The marriage was intended to seal a treaty between the Tepanecas and Acolhuas, but Prince Ixtlixochitl wasn’t looking forward to it, as Tecpa had a terrible reputation and had already messed up at least two previous arranged marriages. To help him practice his excuses to the king for his late arrival, he and Tochitzin did a Shakespearean homage by reprising the scene from Henry IV Part 1, where Falstaff pretends to be the king and reproaches Hal for his bad behaviour. This time it’s Tochitzin taking that role, and naturally he recommends himself as the one exception to the prince’s dissolute companions.

Back at the palace, king Techotlala is discussing the situation with two of his closest advisors. There’s plenty of scope for humour in this scene, with Huexotla in particular dishing the dirt in Tecpa in a very entertaining way. After making his apologies to his father, prince Ixtlixochitl takes on the challenge of wooing that lady, and that’s when the trouble really starts. She was determined that her future husband must give up his concubines and slave girls until her first son is born, so as to avoid any awkward inheritance issues. Ixtlixochitl will not give up his right to dip his wick wherever he pleases, given that he will provide Tecpa with a son and other children too, if she wants. A practical attitude towards sex was clearly prevalent in this community, but Tecpa remained a resolute exception, and the wedding was off (again).

This did not please her father, Tezozomoc, who threw a right royal strop when she returned to her family, unmarried. Tayatzin, his heir-apparent who arranged the treaty and the marriage, also came in for a bit of stick, but the main problem was Maxtla, the king’s first born son by a peasant woman, who wanted war so that he could inherit the kingdom through his military ability, in place of his brother the peace-maker. With the Aztecs fighting for Tezozomoc, there was little chance of the Acolhuas winning a war at this time, so Tezozomoc decided to mount a blockade and starve them into submission. Back in Texcoco, king Techotlala died, but with his last words he gave his son the best advice he could: marry an Aztec princess, so that your children will be Acolhuas rulers that the Aztecs can support, and play nice with Tezozomoc until you’re in a position to kill him. Words to live by.

So the new king Ixtlixochitl married Mayahuel, an Aztec princess, and they had a son, Nezahualcoyotl. After about ten years, with many of his people starving due to the blockade, Ixtlixochitl tried to patch things up with Tezozomoc. Tayatzin was the go-between again, and managed to arrange a compromise whereby he and Maxtla will attend a ceremony acknowledging Nezahualcoyotl as heir to the Acolhuas kingdom, while the Acolhuas will pay even more tribute than before, with the blockade being lifted. Seemed like a reasonably good deal, except that Maxtla wasn’t one for diplomacy, and his flagrant insults to Ixtlixochitl at the ceremony caused an immediate outbreak of war, just what Maxtla wanted. However, with the help of Mayahuel and Itzcoatl, the offspring of a previous Aztec king and a slave girl, Ixtlixochitl persuaded the Aztecs to leave the battle, and against the odds the Acolhuas won! Generous in victory, Ixtlixochitl let Tezozomoc live, but now Ixtlixochitl was the ‘great king’ who gets tribute from everyone else.

It’s about now that we saw Tecpa again, and time clearly hadn’t done anything to heal her wounds. Carrying a special flask, she was with a witch-doctor, asking him to cast a very detailed spell to cause all sorts of nasty things to happen to Ixtlixochitl – hair falling out, going blind, dribbling, penis dropping off, that sort of thing. She got a bit carried away and included other people as well, such as his son, but the witch-doctor kept reminding her he didn’t do third-party curses. After her long list was complete, he waved some feathers and incense smoke over the flask and told her to go through a process of burying it, washing it, etc. When Tayatzin was taking the first load of tribute to Ixtlixochitl, Tecpa gave him the flask as a special gift, for Ixtlixochitl’s lips only. But things didn’t go to plan.

Having banished Tochitzin when he became king (shades of Henry IV part II), Ixtlixochitl welcomed him back when he turned up at the post-battle celebration and carve-up of the booty, all the more so because he was accompanied by Zilamiauh, who is heavily pregnant with Ixtlixochitl’s child. While Ixtlixochitl gave a few last instructions to his generals before retiring to spend time with Zilamiauh, Tochitzin drank some of the poison himself and went berserk, killing Zilamiauh and her baby. Ixtlixochitl stabbed Tochitzin in revenge, but when he was told that the flask was poisoned, he naturally assumed that Tezozomoc had caused her death. He knocked back the last of the poison himself and went on a rampage, trying to kill Tezozomoc single-handed.

Despite a few soldiers protecting him, he was soon captured and led before Tezozomoc tied to a spear. There he learnt that Tecpa sent the poison, but too late; Maxtla killed him and headed off to find his son to remove the heir to the Acolhuas kingdom. Tezozomoc was more than happy to take advantage of this turn of events and proclaimed himself king of Acolhuas. Maxtla found the boy and killed his guard, then told his servant Tonahuac to kill the boy. Tonahuac went off with the boy, then brought a bowl with a bloody heart in it to Tezozomoc, and the final image of the first half was Tezozomoc standing triumphant, holding up the heart, now re-crowned as king of kings. (But if you know your King John, you may be wary of assuming that the Acolhuas heir was actually dead.)

I’d forgotten how much the first half was Prince Hal/Henry V, while the second half was mostly Richard III.  After the opening dance, the performance re-started with a monologue from Itzcoatl, explaining the situation as he sees it. Then Tezozomoc died, and a few minutes later his son, heir and the next king of the Tepanecas, Tayatzin, followed him. Maxtla was so incensed that his father gave the crown to his younger, legitimate, brother that he strangled him with the king’s own standard. Tacuba was looking on, but didn’t intervene; he clearly didn’t want to get involved in a family squabble, and it made Tecpa’s earlier concern about rival heirs seem quite reasonable, while the death walkers were having a field day.

With Maxtla now lording it over everyone else and suspicious of plots against him, Itzcoatl took advantage of his king, Quimalpopoca, being summoned to visit Maxtla. He arranged for a muxe (a third gender in this culture, a man dressed as a woman) to kill Quimalpopoca in Maxtla’s palace, and then turned up, all innocent, asking to see his king. When Maxtla finally confessed that Quimalpopoca had somehow been murdered, war broke out again, and now Itzcoatl played his trump card. Having manoeuvred the Aztec council into proclaiming him king ahead of Quimalpopoca’s son, Itzcoatl revealed that he had kept Nezahualcoyotl prisoner for years, and he’d grown up to be the spitting image of his dad, minus a birth mark on his face. With their real king restored, the Aztec and Acolhuas united to defeat the Tepanecas, and aside from the gory detail of Maxtla delivering Itzcoatl’s mother’s head to him in a basket, that’s basically it. The final scene, with Itzcoatl, Nezahualcoyotl and Tacuba forming a triple alliance to rule over the whole valley, was illustrated by the emergence of the triple emblem on the back wall, and sealed by the sacrifice of young Ohtonqui, the heir ousted by Itzcoatl. The boy went willingly, as it was a noble death (what do they teach them in school?), and was held up by four death eaters as a priest made the sacrifice and removed the heart. Again, the final image was of a heart being held up, not the most uplifting to us, but a fitting climax for this story.

The audience was still too sparse for such a good production, but we did our best. The line about the father and son being identical got another good laugh tonight. I noticed the arm movements more this time; although I don’t know what they meant, they obviously had significance to the characters. The symbols at the back were more mixed than I reported before, with combinations of the three main symbols cropping up as the political situation ebbed and flowed. I noticed that the mat placed under the child at the end was showing the effect of so many sacrifices, with a red stain showing up nicely in the middle, while Steve noticed a grimace from the young Nezahualcoyotl when Ixtlixochitl and Zilamiauh kissed.

The names were beginning to sound familiar to me this time, so although I couldn’t pronounce most of them, I found that helped my understanding. It’s a bit like the Henry VI’s, when all those place names make my head spin. Even so, there were parts that were still hard to follow, and although I got more of the detail I can’t claim to have followed it completely. I’ll just have to read the script when I get home.

[Post-show Wed 25/7/12 – This was reasonably well attended, and I even managed to speak briefly to Siobhan Redmond and Sandra Duncan to compliment them on their performances in Richard III. They’d been involved in a reading of Soldier back in January, and came along to the post-show to support their colleagues.

The cast who came back were a mix of British and Mexican, with Andrés Weiss (Tayatzin) doing most of the talking for the Mexican contingent. His knowledge of English was very good, but the work done by all the Mexican cast members in coming over and learning a new language was acknowledged by the British actors. The Mexican’s openness and ability to work together was also mentioned as being far ahead of the usual British experience, although the closeness which the rest of the cast had developed from working on the other plays meant they weren’t too far behind.

The changes in the length of the play were discussed, along with the strange rehearsal process whereby some of the cast were performing during the evenings and matinees as well as rehearsing. The costumes and set were complimented, and the similarity to Shakespeare’s plays was touched on as well, without going into much detail. I would have liked to ask a lot more questions, but time ran out and we had to leave, satisfied that we’d supported such an amazing cast and production.]

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Soldier In Every Son – July 2012


By Luis Mario Moncada, translated by Gary Owen

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Joint production  by the RSC and the National Theatre of Mexico

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 6th July 2012

One the one hand this is a brilliant new play by Luis Mario Moncada, using some of Shakespeare’s dramatic techniques to tell an epic story of Mexico’s early history while relating it to the present day situation in that country. On the other hand, this is also an amazing romp through many of the scenes of political machination in Will’s various history plays. Human nature is the same everywhere, it would seem, although the long process of translating this play into English and then refining the language to work dramatically, then cutting the full seven hours (I’m not joking) down to less than three may have emphasised the similarity more than intended. Either way, this was really good fun, and I’d be glad to see it again and get more of the detail of the performances, now that I know the story. As with seeing one of Will’s histories for the first time, I could only get the gist; a lot of the finer points just washed over me. And as with a Shakespeare history, I’m aware not to take it literally; still, it was a good introduction to the subject, and it’s whetted my appetite for more.

The set and the costumes created a wonderful fantasy world in which the action unfolded. The base of the stage was coloured blue – water blue – and on top there was a platform on the thrust and three raked ramps at the back. The middle ramp could be lowered to create another entrance, and the platform and ramps were covered in what looked like animal hides. Turned out these were representative of the tree bark scrolls which these pre-Mexican tribes used to record their history, in hieroglyphics. So it was as if the characters in the scrolls had come to life and were acting out the stories in 3D – neat. There was another strip of this tree bark hanging at the back for the video projections, and the floor of the stage was used sometimes as well to show repeating patterns, e.g. wave symbols to show us a lake scene. Mostly the picture at the back showed us the relevant tribal symbols – snake, jaguar or eagle – with the final combined symbol representing the birth of the Aztec empire.

The costumes blended a number of features – Aztec designs of the period,  farthingale skirts from Europe for the women, and colour coding so we would know which tribe we were dealing with. This was very useful, as the characters’ names were not only difficult to pronounce (even for the Mexican actors), they were also difficult for our unaccustomed ears to hear and recognise. The costumes also showed a fair bit of flesh; apparently the male actors had all opted for regular workouts when they realised this.

The story told us of the kings of two main tribes around a lake in Mexico, and their attempts to keep or gain power. Also in the mix were a group of outsiders, the Aztecs, looked down on by the others but ferocious fighters who hired themselves out to the other tribes as soldiers. With some nifty manoeuvring that wouldn’t have been out of place in Richard III, Itzcoatl (Brian Ferguson) ended up as king of the Aztecs and part of a three-headed kingdom, along with Nezahualcoyotl (Alex Waldmann) and Tacuba (Marco Antonio Garcia). In this culture, dying was seen as a goal to be sought after, so although it was a more downbeat ending than we expected, the play finished with the ritual sacrifice of Ohtonqui, son of Quimalpopoca the previous king of the Aztecs. (You see our difficulty with the names?) As with the princes in the tower, Itzcoatl was keen to see off this potential rival for his throne, but fortunately for him this culture had a socially acceptable form of murder to help him achieve his goal.

Apart from spotting the Shakespeare echoes, we enjoyed the humour enormously. Tezozomoc (John Stahl) had a lovely rant at his daughter Tecpa (Susie Trayling), whose arrogance and pride had put the kibosh on yet another marriage. Strong language is fine with us, as long as it knows its place, and this string of meaty oaths was entirely appropriate and very funny. One of the best bits was the casting of Alex Waldmann as both father and son characters; when Itzcoatl commented on the similarity, the audience laughed, and he gave a helpless shrug – so many parts, so few actors.

Even though it was difficult to follow, and the strong accents of the Mexican actors took a while to get used to, this was very enjoyable performance, though sadly one the world has yet to become aware of; the audience was on the sparse side, so we had to applaud even louder to make up for the empty seats. I did think the title of the play was a bit off-putting; even though it’s a line from the play describing the Aztec attitude to warfare, it suggested a much grimmer production than was the case. Don’t know what they could change it to, but hopefully they can get better attendances for the rest of the run.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Richard III – March 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 23rd March 2012

This was only the second preview performance (press night 17th April), and although it was a little patchy there were signs of great potential for the future. It was also lovely to see a production that’s not distorted by some heavy concept which the director has imposed on it; this was a relatively straightforward telling of the story with some nice touches in the staging and some lovely comic performances.

The set first. At the back of the thrust there was a silvery grey panelled wall which could provide doors, windows, etc. as needed, as well as opening wide to reveal the space behind all the way to the bricks at the back. Above the stage hung a selection from the RSC’s vast store of light bulbs (Midsummer Night’s Dream) – good to see them recycling so effectively. They brightened, they dimmed, and for each execution one or two bulbs descended lower to represent the lives snuffed out. During the dream sequence, the bulbs came down again as each ghost had its say in Richard’s nightmare, and they stayed lowered during the rest of the play; only one or two had to be raised a bit again to avoid the flashing swords. That was it, although chairs, tables, thrones and the rest were brought on as needed. The costumes were a mixture; mainly modern, they were combined with armour and swords, and it worked for us.

The opening was done by having the king (Edward, that is) proceed onto the stage with his queen through the partially opened doors at the back. He was accompanied by his children, his brothers and his in-laws, and they were clearly celebrating the final victory of the Yorkist line. Even Richard looked happy. When the others left, he stayed behind to inform us of the situation – everything’s going well, but he’s not happy about it so he’s going to take the crown. Jonjo O’Neill wouldn’t have sprung to my mind as likely casting for this part, and from these opening speeches I would say he has some way to go to cover the full range this part demands. He’s more at home with the comedy, and once we were past the early scenes he managed that aspect very well, but these opportunities to show us the inner workings of his villainous mind were lacking in depth and clarity, which he’ll hopefully develop with more experience of the role. He’s also better looking than I would expect for a Richard, which threw me a little bit. Not that the other actors have been totally repulsive physically, but they have usually manifested a greater degree of deformity of body, mind or both. We’ll have to see how it goes.

Clarence and Hastings were soon dealt with, and for once I was aware that Mistress Shore had been involved with Edward and was now ‘attached’ to Hastings. After Richard left, Anne arrived with the corpse of her dead husband, Henry VI, carried on a bier and covered with an ornate red cloth. Pippa Dixon was a very good Anne, and played her part strongly. Richard’s wooing of her could do with being a bit crisper, but that will come in time. Her arguments against Richard were strong, and for once I wasn’t clear about her conversion; that may also have been my angle, which was blocked a lot tonight; don’t ask me about King Edward’s performance – he might as well have been a potato for all I could see of him! Anne did at least leave with some tartness in her final line, and then Richard halted the bearers to speak his first question – “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?” – to them.

The queen entered for the next scene looking worried, and Rivers and Grey’s attempts to comfort her were in vain. I thought at first that Siobhan Redmond was using her own Scottish accent for this part, but later I realised she was using a posh English accent instead. However, it didn’t come easily from the sound of it, and I could still hear the Scottish intonation at times, and even a few vowel sounds when her character was letting rip. Not a problem, but again that will probably improve in time. By contrast, Stanley was played with as thick an accent as you could wish for, and later on I found his dialogue completely unintelligible because of it. I don’t mind accents as such, but when they get in the way of hearing the lines I reckon they need to cut back on them for clarity’s sake.

This is the scene where the brawling court unites against the previous queen, Margaret. She appeared in a tall window at the back, invisible to the court at first and also to me, sadly, as Paola Dionisotti gave one of the strongest performances of the entire play. She was still lively, not burdened with age but brisk and light on her feet. She was angry and bitter and wanted revenge, but her mind was sharp and she delivered her lines so beautifully that their meaning became crystal clear. Once she inserted herself into the scene properly, she walked around, unfazed by the scorn coming her way from the newly allied court, and dishing out plenty of her own in return. She was momentarily taken aback by Richard ending her curse early, but she soon recovered. When she was warning Buckingham about Richard, she stood next to him in the centre of the stage and spoke quietly. Richard was at the back of the stage, and when he asked Buckingham what Margaret had said, she was already on her way to the exit when Buckingham gave his reply.

After the brawling court had left the stage, Richard had a bit of a chat with us and then his two murderers turned up. This was where the humour really got going, as these two lads were very funny. Richard handed over the warrant which Catesby had only just handed to him before leaving the stage with the rest of the court. That done, we moved to the Tower, where Clarence told Brakenbury his dream. He sat on his bed – Brakenbury stood all the while – and although it’s not my favourite sequence I found this enjoyable enough. The whole scene lifted with the arrival of the murderers, though. Their discussion was brisk and very funny, and despite Clarence making a strong attempt to dissuade them, the first murderer stabbed him from behind while he was focused on persuading the second murderer, who was wavering. The body and the bed were soon disposed of, and we moved back to the court for the mock reconciliation scene.

This was the scene where I could see very little of the king. He was on a high throne – a chair that needed three steps to get up to it – with the queen on a normal throne to his right and the rest of the nobles spread around the stage. I can’t really comment on the staging of this bit as I saw so little of it, but the dialogue remained the same.

The Duchess of York had her little conversation with Clarence’s son and daughter, and then the queen came on to announce the death of the king; more complaining by the women, but they did it well enough that I wasn’t bored. The arrival of Richard, Buckingham and the rest put a stop to the complaints for now, and Richard’s performance was starting to get into its stride with the humour coming more to the fore. Buckingham made his allegiance clear, and then we skipped the citizens’ discussion of the political situation and moved straight into a shortened version of Act 2 scene 4, where the duchess, the queen and her younger son heard the news that Rivers and Grey have been sent to Pomfret on the orders of Gloucester and Buckingham.

Nothing much to report there, but when the new King arrived in London and Richard was explaining the absence of two of his uncles, Edward skipped the line “God keep me from false friends! But they were none”. I don’t know if that was intentional or a mistake; it certainly seemed odd but that may just be my familiarity with the lines. Richard also repeated “sanctuary children” with a smile and a shake of his head; what an absurd idea!

They trimmed the confrontation between Richard and the young Duke of York, but kept the request for the knife and the ensuing leap onto Richard’s back. Both Richard and the young Duke ended up on the floor, and Richard appeared to be trying to strangle the little chap until Buckingham put an end to their wrestling match. Catesby left to sound out Hastings, and Richard promised Buckingham a reward for his services once he was king, and then the scene changed to Hastings’ house. This was shown by having a window opened on the right of the wall with a door in the centre. We could see Mistress Shore through the window, indecently dressed (it is 4 a.m.) and she came along a bit later to help Hastings get dressed, as I recall. The first messenger warned Hastings to flee – he ignored him – and then Catesby turned up and put it to Hastings that the country would be better off with Richard on the throne. Hastings was having none of it, and rather stupidly suggested that his head would have to be cut off before he’d allow such a thing. How these people arrange their own downfall! Even Stanley couldn’t talk any sense into the man.

Rivers and Grey were executed next. Two bulbs were lowered, and then the men came on flanked by two guards each, Ratcliffe being one of them. A rope was put round each man’s neck, and they just had time to point out how Margaret’s curse had come upon them before the ropes were pulled tight and they were strangled to death.

Back in London, the council was meeting. The table was in the middle of the stage, two benches either side, and a chair at the far end. Hastings was in the chair, and the Bishop of Ely to his left, with Stanley on his right. Buckingham was free range for this scene. I’m not sure what gave me the impression, but I felt that this was one of several meetings that had been held for some time, possibly several weeks, and that they were finally prepared to set the date. I’ve never had that impression before, but as time is even more relative in Shakespeare than Einstein deduced, it was an interesting idea. The change in Hastings’ fortunes was swift, and the man recognised his doom. A light bulb was lowered for him as he commented on his fate, slightly shortened by a few well-placed cuts (to the comments).

The comedy level now reached new heights with the persuasion of the mayor. Richard and Buckingham re-arranged the furniture, throwing over the table and chairs, and with their armour on, prepared to act as if they were under siege. There were windows in the back wall at this point, and from behind the wall came the sounds of swords clashing, but we were aware that it was just Ratcliffe, on his own, banging several swords against each other. Occasionally Richard leant out and had a go himself, as Ratcliffe provided the sound effects of a multitude of soldiers. This was very funny.

As they were preparing the scene, Richard asked Buckingham if he could play his part in the pretence. Buckingham was very scornful in his reply, using a posh Scottish accent instead of his usual one, mimicking the voice and behaviour of “the deep tragedian” nicely. With the arrival of the mayor, they got down to business. Ratcliffe soon entered with Hastings’ head, holding it by the ear, and the emotional suffering displayed by Richard and Buckingham was great fun. The mayor was easily led into agreeing to tell the citizens the ‘correct’ version of events, and Buckingham was sent after him to add some extra details to promote Richard’s cause.

When Ratcliffe left the stage earlier, he placed Hastings’ head on the floor by the back wall. The next character to come on, the scrivener, was able to refer to this when he informed us of the strange goings-on at court; how he was asked to write the indictment on Lord Hastings long before he’d been charged, and now here he was, dead. It didn’t come across so well to me this time, though I liked the staging. I think the scrivener may have taken the head off with him.

When Buckingham returned, he told Richard of the populace’s silence at the story he was spinning them. The details about the recorder were omitted, as were the few who cheered, so Richard had to leave very quickly to set up the prayer book and two churchmen photo op. The mayor arrived with some of the citizens, and they stood all around the auditorium and on the balconies. Catesby was sent out, very reluctantly, to speak to them first. His stumbling over the story to be told suggested this was a hastily cobbled together plan rather than a carefully prepared one, which is usually the way. With Catesby coming out a second time, and Buckingham spinning the ‘news’ for all it was worth, this was a very funny scene, especially as we could see ‘monks’ running around behind the windows, and once Richard actually prompted Catesby loudly from behind the wall. When Richard did appear with the churchmen, he and they stood in the three windows at the back, apparently oblivious to the assembled throng. I don’t remember if they made anything of the reference to a prayer book. The arguments between Buckingham and Richard were edited, and soon Richard was proclaimed king. With the crowd gone, the monks were paid off by Catesby, and the rest of Richard’s team left him alone on stage. The first half ended with him standing in that middle window, grinning, as the lights went down.

The second half opened with the gathering of the women, intending to visit young King Edward in the Tower. Earlier I had the thought that there must have been an amazing number of high-quality boy players in the Chamberlain’s Men around the time Will wrote this play, as there are so many strong parts for women in it. And they all get very long speeches to do as well. Anyway, the actresses playing these women were all good, so although these parts are often trimmed, they carried them off pretty well. Mind you, the moaning and groaning does go on a bit, so judicious editing is a must, and I would have preferred a little less of Anne’s speech before she went off to be crowned; it’s mostly a repeat of what she said earlier, so a bit of pruning wouldn’t go amiss.

Richard had been crowned, and entered with his court from the back of the stage. The high throne had been brought on, but with its back to the audience which was quite funny – when he sat on it he was forever looking round at us, which made us part of the whispering. He motioned for the rest of the court to shove off and carry on the party on the far side of the wall, and then he got down to suborning Buckingham for the deaths of his nephews. Unfortunately Buckingham also had his back to me, so I don’t know how he played this bit, other than requesting some time to think about it. Richard called Ratcliffe over and asked him to suggest a possible murderer, he suggested Tyrell, fetched him over, and the deal was soon struck. Richard and Hamlet have very little in common as far as getting things done is concerned – this was very brisk and decisive.

When Buckingham came back, he was too late to get involved, and Richard dismissed his pestering requests for the promised reward by emphatically stating “I am not in the giving vein today”. The other conversations Richard had with other characters were slotted in somewhere along the line, and then we moved on to Tyrell’s description of the murder of the two young princes in the Tower. After he reported this to Richard, and Richard explained his various stratagems to us, the news of the defections of Ely and Buckingham arrived, and the final battle wasn’t far off.

First, though, there was a short remembrance ceremony for the two princes, as wreaths and bouquets were brought on stage and left by the back wall.  Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, overlooked by Margaret, added to them, and had another go at expressing their grief and suffering. Margaret could top them all, and it was another opportunity to hear Paola Dionisotti’s marvellous delivery of these lines. When Richard turned up, he shocked the women by adding his own contribution to the flowers – two teddy bears, one with a blue ribbon round its neck, the other with a red ribbon. I didn’t see this bit fully from my position, and Steve didn’t see it at all; hopefully we’ll get a fuller picture next time around.

During Richard’s negotiation with Elizabeth over her daughter, I noticed that Siobhan Redmond was clenching her fists behind her back, both when she had her back to us and later, when she was facing the other way. I took this to mean that Elizabeth was not convinced by Richard’s arguments, and was simply going along with the political reality. They did this scene pretty fully, and then the battle plans started. From here it’s fairly straightforward to the end of the play, with the executed and murdered lining up on the side of Richmond, and hardly anyone supporting Richard. Messengers rushed on and off to bring us updates on the military situation, Stanley made his position clear to Richmond when they met briefly, Buckingham was executed – another light bulb, another reference to Margaret’s abilities – and then Richmond and Richard squared up, metaphorically speaking, for the decisive battle. No replays, it’s winner take all on the day.

The two sides came on at the back and occupied the stage briefly while they told us the necessary information, and then Richard came on to do his pen and ink bit. They set up a desk and chair to the right of the stage, and he fell asleep over it. At this point, the ghosts began to come forward, starting with the young king, Edward, who ran on and snatched the crown off Richard’s head, making him wake up. As each ghost came on to add their curse, a light bulb descended as they had for the deaths. Hastings ended up with the crown, and after Richard had been thoroughly demoralised, he was lying at the front of the stage looking towards the back where Richmond stood, arms outstretched, receiving the blessings of the ghosts. This was a nice double effect; Richard didn’t just get the curses, he also saw the ghosts bless Richmond, while Richmond himself was having this wonderful dream about how all the people whom Richard had killed were coming to him and giving him their support. I liked this staging very much.

The next day, we heard each manager’s team talk before the battle. Richmond was noble and uplifting as you would expect, while Richard was sneering and contemptuous. The fighting was kept to a minimum, with four on Richard’s side walking to the front of the stage and turning to face four on Richmond’s side who lined up at the back – the panels had been folded back to reveal the full depth of the stage by this time. The two lots charged at each other and fought for a bit, then they cleared away leaving Richard lying in the middle of the stage with blood on his mouth, calling for a horse. Richmond came on and they fought, with Richmond naturally winning. The young Elizabeth of York was present for Richmond’s final speeches, and ran to embrace him, showing that this will be a love match rather than an arranged political marriage. With all the living and most of the dead now happy, it was a good point to end the play, so they did.

With Jonjo O’Neill reining back his accent a bit, there weren’t too many problems with his lines tonight, though his performance was definitely on the lighter side of the Richard III spectrum. The story was told relatively clearly, and with practice this should be a good production, with some excellent performances already. I’ve mentioned Paola Dionisotti earlier; Alex Waldmann was both funny and menacing as Catesby, as was Neal Barry as Ratcliffe and Joshua Jenkins as the second murderer. Worth catching again.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Measure For Measure – January 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 27th January 2012

Second time around, and we were seeing this performance from a completely different angle. This allowed us to catch up on some of the reactions we hadn’t seen before, but of course we still only getting a proportion of the performance. Even so, we could see areas which had come on for the practice, and the central characters and their relationships were still very clear.

The changes which I noticed: Pompey went into a lot more detail about the inhabitants of the prison, picking on lots of folk in the audience and involving all of us at the end, which was very funny. He made some comments about “it’s in the folio”, and “I can only work with what you give me”, lots of stuff like that. The Duke’s human lampshades were more demure on their second appearance when Angelo was there, folding their arms over their chests, and he snapped his fingers to get them off stage in a hurry when Isabella approached, obviously embarrassed. The third time around, they held their hands in a prayer posture in response to Angelo’s reference to praying, and they left of their own accord when Isabella was announced.

I found the arguments between Isabella and Angelo even clearer than last time, especially when he was trying to get her to understand his ‘proposition’; Isabella seemed less intense, but just as passionate. It was much clearer this time that the Provost knew what was going on once he’d read the Duke’s letter off stage. He was clearly in cahoots with the Duke during the final scene, beckoning Elbow over to his corner of the stage to stop him dragging the Duke/friar off to prison.

Things I forgot to mention before or which weren’t clear: in the early scene at the monastery, the Duke handed his hat, scarf and coat to the friar as if he were one of the Duke’s servants; the friar looked a bit bewildered, but still took them. Lucio was indeed at the brothel first time round. The interval came after the Duke’s second encounter with Lucio at the jail, after Pompey had been arrested and Lucio refused to bail him.

And of course the performance had moved on from the last time we saw it. I was aware this time how Escalus’s common sense judgement of Pompey, Froth and Elbow was being contrasted with Angelo’s absolute approach. In the final scene, Isabella was quite stunned to discover who the Duke was and took a while to adjust, although she was still taking in the other events that were going on and still chose very quickly to support Mariana’s plea for mercy. She took longer to accept the Duke’s offer of marriage at the end tonight, I thought, and she didn’t look as happy when she turned round at the end, before they started the dance, so she’s presumably doing this differently to when we saw it earlier. Otherwise, the performance was just as brilliant as before, and despite complaints from some that the darker aspects weren’t explored enough, I felt this was a very satisfying exploration of the play.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me