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

Measure For Measure – November 2011


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 25th November 2011

This is a classic example of the difference between rating the production and rating my experience of a performance. The production is worth 10/10, absolutely no doubt, but with my view frequently restricted by actors’ backs, I was continually frustrated as I attempted to see one or another character’s reaction to events as they unfolded. Of course, the cause of my frustration was the excellent performances – I wouldn’t have been so bothered if it had been an average production.

The Duke began proceedings with a display of control and showmanship, altering the lighting, doing some little magic tricks, and it was perfectly topped off when he set himself up to welcome Escalus from one direction, only to have him walk on from another. That’s probably the earliest laugh I’ve ever experienced at this play. Raymond Coulthard had been at the pre-show talk earlier, along with assistant director Adam Lenson – apologies from Roxana – and this section had changed a great deal from the previews apparently, where they had attempted to show the Duke in a great haste to leave. Now he’s more leisurely in his actions, but still focused on executing his plans, and his fur coat and hat complete his outfit beautifully. There’s a hint of campness to the performance, but just enough to bring out the humour, and for once the Duke is fully central to the production, either as himself or as the friar. He produced the commissions for Angelo and Escalus by means of a magic trick as well.

The brothel scene was done as an S&M dungeon, with Lucio?, Froth and the others being beaten or whipped according to their preference. I think there was a judge involved at some point as a customer? The costumes were a mixture, being mainly modern-ish with Elizabethan references, such as the embossed codpiece (which had a cross on it as well – weird!). The dialogue was very clear, so I was aware that there’s actually an international conflict going on, which gave the Duke a plausible reason for being out of the country. The sense of a change in policy also came across well, with the locals being so used to getting away with their sexual peccadilloes that the law might as well not have existed.

Claudio and Juliet were being paraded through the streets to display their shame, and Claudio ended up chained to one of the mini-posts along the sides of the stage. These were about 5 inches high, gold coloured, with embossed square studs all round them and a gold chain dangling off each one. Juliet was 8 months 29 days pregnant, and I wasn’t sure if the glittery silver horns on her head were part of a fancy headband she was wearing, or whether they were meant to indicate the nature of her venal sin – they looked nice, though.

At the monastery, the chanting monks brought on a bier with a body, covered over by a cloth. Once the other monks had left, the friar who was the Duke’s accomplice removed the cloth to reveal the Duke, still in his posh clothes. The friar wasn’t happy at all about the Duke’s plan, and didn’t seem convinced about the propriety of him impersonating a monk, but he went along with the Duke’s orders. When they left, the nuns came on, also singing, and moved the bier to behind the whiplash curtain (more details on the set later). This left Isabella and one nun behind, and it’s clear that Isabella is several stages beyond devout. If anything, she may be too ferociously puritanical for these nuns, so I suspect they may have had a narrow escape.

Lucio tried to converse with the nun when he arrived, but she couldn’t talk with him as her face was visible. This led to some laughs, as Lucio is determined to speak with the nun, and all she can do is shake or nod her head while making grimaces at Isabella to help out. Fortunately Isabella soon realised that she was the one Lucio wanted to see, and the message about her brother’s imminent execution was soon delivered. Isabella’s quick decision to get this matter sorted before she took orders showed her leadership capabilities to the full, so much so that the nun was looking a bit askance at her blithe assumption that she can leave the nunnery as she pleases. If she did join a nunnery, she’d be abbess within two years, or she’d know the reason why!

Angelo and Escalus heard the case against Pompey and Froth with either impatience or humour, according to their temperament. Froth was a nice-looking chap, and didn’t he know it, posturing and posing himself, as well as overacting the bereft son when Pompey mentioned the death of his father. Lots of humour in this performance. Elbow was marvellous, with every Malapropism coming across clearly (doesn’t always happen) along with his total indignation that anyone should claim his wife was a respected woman! Pompey was also superb, the best I’ve seen, although he gets more to do in later scenes. Geoffrey Beevers was also good as Escalus, ready to see the funny side of things, but also with enough gravitas to explain his position within Duke Vincentio’s court.

Isabella’s pleading to Angelo was one of the scenes I found I couldn’t see enough of, but what I did see was pretty splendid. There’s always a point where Isabella’s own passion kicks in, thanks to Lucio’s insistence that she keep going and the fact that Angelo’s arguments are so close to the ones she wants to use herself, at least initially. At least, that’s how I see it. Without seeing all the reactions, I can’t fully record this scene, but I understood the way the two protagonists affected each other, with Isabella finally finding not just her voice but also her heart, and putting the argument for mercy as forcefully as she might have put the opposite ones just minutes earlier. She’s not cold, this Isabella, just strongly devout. Angelo on the other hand is cold, and it’s the passion of her arguments and the clarity of her wits that kindles the flame of lust in him. I felt there was almost a chance for this Angelo to back off from the rash choice that gets him into trouble, but of course we wouldn’t have a play if he didn’t plunge into the dark side. It was mentioned in the pre-show, that for such absolutists the choice is either good or bad, and if you can’t be one, you have to be the other. As Adam Lenson pointed out, grey is such a useful shade. I was also aware that Isabella is more distressed by the possibility of Claudio’s execution being too soon for his soul to be prepared for heaven than by the bare fact of his execution. It was such an immediate response compared to the way she’d had to be pushed into pleading for her brother’s life. Again I was reminded of how this scene echoes the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice, with Isabella putting an equally strong case for mercy.

In the jail, the ‘Friar’ is soon meddling away to his heart’s content. He’s quite the manipulator, this Duke, and after the pre-show chat it was interesting to watch how Raymond Coulthard develops his character. He set up his plans, and then something happened which wasn’t what he expected, and so he had to adapt and change things. It was a good interpretation of the role, and allowed for plenty of humour as well as the tough decisions. When he was catechising Juliet at the start of this next scene, I reckoned the Provost had been deliberately keeping the news of Claudio’s execution from Juliet, and isn’t best pleased that the friar blurts it out so unfeelingly.

The second scene between Isabella and Angelo was absolutely brilliant. The dialogue was remarkably clear – I often have trouble with some of the lines in this play, so it’s a relief that they managed this – and the reactions were spot on for their characters. Isabella really didn’t understand what Angelo was getting at to begin with. She thought he was concerned that granting a pardon would be a sin, and was happy to take that burden on herself. It seemed to me that Angelo became even more the villain as the scene wore on and he had to spell his offer out to Isabella ever more clearly. I was very aware of the risk to her of revealing what he’s said, but I got the feeling that she’s a strong and resourceful person, if a bit idealistic and optimistic about her brother’s reactions to the news she’s about to bring him.

In the jail, the Duke coached Claudio in how to handle his situation, not that he has to suffer it for long. Claudio looked a bit bashed round the edges – had he been fighting?  When Isabella arrived, the Duke eavesdropped from behind the whiplash curtain, and was clearly disturbed to hear of Angelo’s corrupt offer. Claudio’s fall from grace caused Isabella to get really cross, and then the Duke interrupted to start meddling again. Isabella waited by the front of the stage while the Duke had a few words with Claudio; I was struck that this was one gabby Duke, as near as dammit revealing the secrets of the confessional. Isabella was very keen to help the Duke with his plot, no hesitation or concern once she grasped what he was proposing, and she’s very quick on the uptake, this one.

I’m not sure of the order of scenes at this point, as I think the first half ended after the Duke has sent Isabella off to arrange the secret tryst with Angelo, and involved some more magic tricks, with a coin this time. I also think the Duke spoke the lines at the end of Act III scene II. The second half then opened with Mariana singing a song, accompanied by a guitar-playing monk. She sat on a swing, and although she was a little sad in manner, she seemed relatively self-possessed compared to some Marianas we’ve seen (booze, fags, etc.). I don’t remember if some of the in-between scenes were cut or simply inserted elsewhere – I’ll try to pick up on this when we see it again in January. One thing we both noticed was Mariana’s comment about the Duke/friar – ‘a man of comfort, whose advice hath often still’d my brawling discontent’. Given that he only became a friar a day or so ago, how ‘often’ has been with Mariana? This led me to wonder if she actually knew he was the Duke, and that perhaps the Duke himself had been comforting her, looking for a way to bring her and Angelo together. However, there was no sign of that, so I just had to assume this is one of Will’s wonky time bits – he has plenty of those.

One thing to mention now, though, about the Duke’s first disguised confrontation with Lucio, was that the Duke became very angry and threatening towards Lucio. Between ‘..too unhurtful an opponent’ and ‘But indeed I can do you little harm’ he remembered his disguise, and changed his tune completely, with the second sentence being said meekly and with hands held in prayer. It was funny, and emphasised the way this Duke really didn’t get the ‘friar’ bit, acting much too cocky for the part, ordering people around as if he were….. well, the Duke. His arrogance later in the final scene was deliberate, but there’s still a lot to spare during these scenes as well.

Back at the jail, Pompey was entertaining during his job interview, and even more entertaining later on when telling us about all the familiar faces he’d met while in prison. Many of them were sitting in the audience tonight, in fact, which kept us laughing for a while. Before that, when the orders came from Angelo to carry out the executions regardless, the Duke had to think quickly of a new plan to delay things. The Provost was very reluctant to begin with, but once he did decide to join in, he was all gung-ho with the planning.

Barnadine stuck his head up through a small window in the floor at first, then came up from the basement to tell the Duke straight out that he wasn’t going to be hanged today. Some productions try a bit too hard with this character; this version was very well done by Daniel Stewart and was funny without being ludicrous – he just wasn’t going to cooperate with other people’s plans. The Provost’s suggestion that they take advantage of the fortuitous death of Ragadine was played for humour, as was the Duke’s response, and we all joined in the fun with our laughter.

Raymond Coulthard had explained earlier that he saw the Duke’s decision not to tell Isabella that her brother is alive when she arrives at the prison as a spur of the moment thing. He doesn’t want to tell her partly because he doesn’t think she could carry off the next part of his plan – accusing Angelo – if she knew the truth, but also because he’s still testing her. Of course his lines give another reason as well, but in any case I could see the need for a quick choice in his performance tonight – his plan hasn’t worked the way he expected, he’s moved to plan B (or is it C?) and it’s all happened a bit too quickly for him to sit back and consider all the angles.

Isabella’s reaction here was good, and set things up for her final choice of the evening. She’s sad that her brother is dead, but accepts, with a little nod, the Duke’s instruction to go along with next part of his plan. For once, this Isabelle has grasped that devotion to God involved forgiveness, and this greater level of flexibility explains why she can pull through such adverse circumstances. The Duke had been moved by her actions earlier, when she was so willing to trust him and cooperate with his plan. During one of these scenes, she held his hands, and after she left it was clear that her touch as well as her personality had affected him.

Angelo is off stage for quite a while during all this plotting, so when he came on again with the letter from the Duke, it was our first chance to see what state of mind he was in. A bit unsure at first, perhaps, but he talked himself into greater confidence, and if he didn’t get his comeuppance a short while later he might have become a hardened villain eventually – suppressed guilt can do that to people.

The final scene had the Duke arriving back with lots of his friends. The friar who showed Mariana and Isabella where to stand had also attached a line to scoop up much of the curtain strands, so there was a bit more room at the back – very necessary for this scene. The Duke was full of praise for everyone, but especially Angelo – setting him up for a bigger fall. Isabella’s accusation was soon rebuffed, but the Duke had to make several attempts to get her to mention the ‘friar’s’ involvement in the ‘plot’. Raymond Coulthard had mentioned this aspect of the scene earlier – that the Duke needs the others to say the right lines so his plan can unfold properly. Once she brought the friar into it, Isabella could be sent off to prison while Mariana had her turn. Of course the Duke also had to stop Lucio prattling on and on, telling the Duke how this friar had been spreading all sorts of lies about him.

When Mariana entered, she had a simple black blindfold on her eyes, and again the Duke had to work hard to get her to reveal that Angelo himself is her husband. Once her identity was revealed, the Duke absented himself, having sent the Provost to fetch this troublesome friar. He returned pretty soon in his monk’s disguise, but not before Angelo had given Lucio free rein to slander the man even more. With his plot coming to a head, the Duke/friar was arrogant with Angelo and Escalus, and they soon determined to bring him down a peg or two. It was Lucio who wrestled with him to get his hood off, managing to give him a spanking on the way. When the robe was off and the Duke revealed, Lucio sank to his knees saying ‘it’s the Duke’ in a way that suggests he was fully aware of how much trouble he was in.

Naturally the Duke pardoned Escalus, but started to turn the screw on Angelo, sending him off to be married to Mariana. I didn’t see Isabella’s reaction to the uncovering of the Duke’s disguise, but she didn’t seem upset or hugely disturbed. She seemed to adapt quite quickly to the new situation, and when Mariana asked for her help to plead for Angelo’s life, she didn’t have to think for long before making her own plea for clemency. And it wasn’t forced or reluctant; her argument that Angelo’s death won’t bring back Claudio seemed to be exactly what she thought and felt.

Next he had the Provost (who was very relieved now he knew he’d actually been helping the Duke) bring out Barnadine, and dealt with him, showing his magnanimity. Barnadine was brought on with a hood over his head; when it was removed, he simply stood there and smoothed back the hair on one side, then the other, getting a good laugh. The other prisoner, also with a hood, was then revealed – Claudio! As he looked around him, a little dazed, Isabella was very happy to see him and gave him a long hug.

The Duke made one attempt to propose to Isabella, but realised it wasn’t the best time.  There’s just one other matter to deal with – Lucio – and then he can have another go. Lucio’s ‘punk’ turned up at just the right time (for her, not for Lucio) and he was off to a fate that he considers worse than death. The ‘lady’ in question was slovenly, with torn tights and scruffy clothes, and she carried her young child on her hip (but is it also Lucio’s?).

Finally the Duke turned his attention to Isabella, and this time he did a full proposal, on one knee, emphasising her willingness in the choice. She was pretty quick to accept him; her experiences had taught her a lot about life in a short time, and from her expression I guessed she’d fallen for this strange Duke/friar hybrid. A cloistered life was no longer viable for her, and in terms of their mettle, they’re well matched. However she’s spent her time with the friar – will she find the Duke as much to her liking?

It was a high-energy performance which they rounded off with a dance. We applauded mightily, and left very happy with our evening’s entertainment. This play is so often treated as ‘dark’ piece, and it made a pleasant change to see it given a lighter touch, bringing out more of the comedy. The choices all worked well together, and we’re looking forward to seeing this again in January.

The performances were all excellent. Raymond Coulthard’s Duke was very much in charge, but not infallible. When the Duke is set up to be too good, there’s always the question of how he let the problems arise in the first place. The setting for this production made it clear that the decadence the Duke is trying to stamp out by way of Angelo’s appointment is at all levels of society; he just hadn’t noticed it creep up on him. One Duke’s erotica is a working man’s porn, that sort of thing. He got so much humour out of the part that it may be difficult to watch another version for a while – we’ll miss the laughter.

Jodie McNee gave a very intelligent performance as Isabella. Not an intellectual one – this was an Isabella who wasn’t a prude as such – but well thought out and as quick in understanding as any Rosalind. She’ll soon be president of several charities while bringing up numerous children, running the Duke’s household and probably writing uplifting books for the edification of the general population in her spare time. Not someone I’d care to spend much time with, but much more likeable than most Isabellas.

Jamie Ballard did a good job with Angelo. It’s a difficult part, because although he’s a villain in one sense, he doesn’t set out to be one like Richard III, for example. While many have commented on Isabella’s lack of dialogue at the end of this play, Angelo also has to be present without speaking a lot as well, and Jamie managed this very well. I still want to see more of the exchange between Angelo and Isabella to get a clearer picture, though.

Paul Chahidi was very good fun as Lucio, and I always enjoy seeing Bruce Alexander on stage; his Provost was a nicely detailed performance. I’ve already praised Elbow (Ian Midlane) and Pompey (Joseph Kloska), and the rest of the cast did equally well in the smaller roles.

Finally I’ll describe the set. It was an interesting mixture which set the scene perfectly.  The floor had sections of black leather with a circular pattern punched in them – a spiral of dots. These encompassed the large trapdoor in the middle, and two smaller windows fore and aft of this. At the back of the thrust there were strands of black leather hanging down to form a curtain – it may not have been leather, of course, but that’s the impression it gave. There were at least three layers to this whiplash curtain, which allowed for concealed characters, as well as lots of possible entrances and exits. Assorted furniture was brought on and off, and there were two human lamps on either side under the balconies. These came on at the start, when the Duke was manipulating the lights, and switched on when he snapped his fingers, then stood there with their hands posed, looking very elegant. When Angelo saw Isabella for the second time, I noticed the lamps again, but this time their hands were held in prayer – he was clearly affecting the furniture as well. We were aware that some people apparently enjoy being used as furnishing items – there’s probably a word for it, but I’m not going to search the internet to find out – so again that suggested the sexual corruption in this Vienna was at all levels of society. The Duke himself wore a leather corselet which echoes the dominatrix gear Mistress Overdone and the other prostitutes had on, while the Duke’s servant who announced Isabella wore a French maid’s outfit which was too sexy to be real. Other characters wore mainly modern dress, but with Elizabethan-type references, giving a sense of this being a world of its own, neither one thing nor another, and so representing all times.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Dunsinane – June 2011


By: David Greig

Directed by: Roxana Silbert

Company: National Theatre of Scotland (presenting the RSC production in association with the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh)

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 23rd June 2011

Be careful what you ask for – you might get it, is the warning. Well, I asked to see this play again, in a longer run, and preferably at Stratford, and lo and behold, here it is, in Stratford, in a production by the National Theatre of Scotland, based on the RSC’s production which we saw back in February last year, and with some of the same cast as before. Yippee.

Although the NTS production was originally blocked for a proscenium arch theatre, we were seeing this in the Swan, so the cast had to adapt yet again to a different set up. The raised bit from last time was to the back and left of the stage, under the balcony, and everything else was so close to last time that I didn’t spot any changes. This was true of the text as well; although the final scene seemed shorter, I couldn’t have told you what was changed. It was only at the post-show chat that we were told this last scene, Winter, had been the most reworked part, with serious editing, particularly in relation to the dead boy. I’ll have to get another text and compare them sometime.

Overall, I felt this performance was more focused and clearer than the first time we saw the play. Naturally, some of this is down to us being familiar with the story and the text, and some of it will be due to their greater experience with the play, especially performing it in Scotland. But I also think the contrast between the subtle political machinations of the Scottish nobility and the blunt directness of Siward came across more clearly this time. The humour was still there; in fact I reckon it was stronger than last time, but I also felt there were times when I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, such as the final situation where Siward is about to kill the baby. There were some laughs from the audience, and I could understand why, but I didn’t feel like it at that point myself. This came up in the post show discussion too, with people feeling discomfort at some of the ‘funny’ bits, such as the tit-shooting section.

The cast were very forthright in the discussion, and seem to have a great affection for this play. Basically, if anyone offers them a chance to put it on, they’ll be there. There’s a possibility of the States, and I would certainly like to see this again to savour even more of its subtleties, hopefully in Scotland. Siobhan Redmond said that Scottish audiences were immediately aware that Malcolm was a Machiavellian character, whereas English audiences took time to realise what he was up to, and that he wasn’t as weak as he seemed at first.

Something I forgot to mention first time round was the music. I wondered if they’d made any changes this time round, as the rhythms seemed more modern tonight, but both the music and the singing were just as lovely as last time, absolutely beautiful. Having checked my last set of notes, I notice that there was a fire pit in the earlier production which wasn’t used tonight. Otherwise, no other changes that were apparent from my notes.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Little Eagles – May 2011


By: Rona Munro

Directed by: Roxana Silbert

Company: RSC

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Wednesday 4th May 2011

For those of us who’ve been paying attention, this play offered little new information about the Soviet Union’s early space program, and although it told the story well enough, with some good performances, I could have done with more humour to lighten the fairly dark tone of the piece, especially with a running time not far short of three hours.

The set had a back wall with large, dirty windows and central double doors. Above these, a platform could be revealed when needed. To the right was a sweep of metal, curving up into the flies. Furniture was brought on and off as needed, and once or twice I felt this was a bit slow, but it worked OK for the most part. The costumes were presumably authentic for the period (they should be – with all the Russian plays the RSC’s been doing, their costume department must be bulging at the seams with this stuff).

The opening scene had Stalin speechifying from the platform about the threat from without and within. As he spoke, a couple of guards and some shambling prisoners came on to the stage, and gradually, through collective mime, we were led to understand that this was a labour camp, and conditions were really, really bad. Personally I felt they overdid this bit, with the mime looking very actors’ workshop, and although parts of this scene were useful later on, it could probably be trimmed if not dropped altogether with some rewriting elsewhere. Anyway, we met Korolyov, the father of the Russian space program, his mate Old Man, and a young female doctor who’s inexperienced in the ways of the gulag, but soon learns the ropes.

The next scene is set in the prison factory where the USSR is developing its own ICBMs, out in the back of beyond. Korolyov’s wife and daughter have just arrived from Moscow, and we learn that if Glushko, Korolyov’s current boss, didn’t shop him during the purges, his wife certainly did. This makes it a bit difficult for her to stay with her husband, especially as she wants her Moscow life, and he gets so obsessed with his work that he wouldn’t see much of them anyway.

It’s a big day for the project, as they’re being visited by members of the Politburo and they have to present them with a success story. Turns out Stalin is dead, Khrushchev has taken over, and with his right hand man Brezhnev, he’s keen to be brought up to speed on Uncle Joe’s secret little project. When Korolyov gives him the information in a way he can understand, Khrushchev puts him in charge of the whole project, and pardons all the prisoners. Not only that, Korolyov is finally able to put forward his dream of space flight, and with Khrushchev keen to beat the Americans at something, Sputnik can finally fly.

We soon get through the early years of the space program. From Sputnik’s beeping at the world we move swiftly on to the cosmonaut program, glossing over the animal test flights with a mendacious assurance to the first four test pilots that all the dogs came back alive. The reality is admitted to Geladze, the military officer responsible for selecting cosmonaut trainees, and who provides the hard line Communist perspective through to the end of the play. For example, he recommends Yuri Gagarin as the first cosmonaut because he has impeccable proletarian credentials, even though his test scores weren’t as high as at least one of the other pilots.

There’s also a glimpse of the degree of suffering which the Soviets were prepared to inflict on their own men, when we see a short encounter between Gagarin and a human guinea pig, a wreck of a man slumped in a wheelchair. He’s been through the same physical endurance tests as the trainees – heat, cold, oxygen deprivation, large g-forces – and taken to the limit of each so that the scientists know how far they can push the trainees without killing them, the implication being that some of the guinea pigs weren’t so lucky. In some ways it was harder to watch than the gulag stuff, not only because I found it easier to relate to a specific individual, but because he was so happy to be serving his country in this way. The doctor looking after him was the doctor from the camp in scene one.

The Gagarin launch scene was done in an unusual way, and I’m still not sure if I liked it or not. With various people scurrying around the stage, and tempers fraying as the deadline approaches, Gagarin was up on the platform waiting, while his backup was in his flight suit on the stage, hoping his chance would come. It didn’t. Gagarin was given the go-ahead, and came down onto the stage, where he was attached to two wires. As the spacecraft took off, he was gently lifted up, while the other actors peered upwards as if watching the rocket disappearing into the sky. The stage was darkened, small blue lights shone out all across the back wall and the sweep of metal, and when the rest of the cast left the stage, there was Yuri, swinging around in space, telling us all how beautiful it looked. It was a fairly effective piece of staging, though rather spoilt by cast members coming on once or twice to set Yuri spinning – this was when he was making his re-entry.

His landing in a country field was well done, though, with two women working in the field and being understandably suspicious of a strange chap parachuting in. Gagarin’s keen to take them, and some other farm workers who turn up, for a drink before the official welcoming party arrive, but he’s too late, and the officials whisk him away to see Comrade Khrushchev as quick as you like.

I have no idea what the scene with Khrushchev and Gagarin waving to the crowds from the balcony was intended to give us. With those two at the back of the stage, we were left with Mrs Gagarin and Korolyov having a conversation, and I found a good deal of this dialogue incomprehensible due to Samantha Young’s delivery. I did get that she thought their reception was an honour, and that she was shy, but not much else.

After the interval, we had another speech from the platform, this time by Khrushchev. I nodded off for a bit during the next scene, but I gathered that it covered Korolyov’s remarriage, a major disaster with long-range missile testing, the Soviet side of the Cuban missile crisis, and the increasing rivalry between Korolyov and Glushko. With mounting pressure to beat the Americans, deadlines become ever tighter, and finally Korolyov is facing a crunch moment. Brezhnev, now in charge, arrives to sack him and put Glushko in charge. The evidence mounts against Korolyov – his ill-health, dubious decisions, etc. – until finally he makes Brezhnev a guarantee that he will have his Soyuz rocket ready to launch in eighteen months. With this chance to regain the competitive lead over the US, Brezhnev leaves Korolyov in charge, and now things get even tougher for his team.

We’ve seen him before being ruthless and tyrannical, insulting people and driving them to do their best, then being best buddies with them when things are going well. Now he’s much worse, even using the idea put forward by Geladze earlier that they can get by with only six hours sleep in every forty-eight. Some clamps are discovered to be defective, but with such tight deadlines and a limited budget, there’s no opportunity to change them. As a result, the cosmonaut’s capsule fails to re-enter properly, and he’s blown up. This was another use of the wires, with much more spinning this time, and although I experienced the emotional effect of knowing this chap won’t survive, I didn’t feel this staging worked as well as the first time.

Just before this, Korolyov was sent to Moscow for surgery, and in the final scene, we learn that he died during the operation due to problems caused by the beating he took way back in the gulag. The doctor has defected to America, and this scene is part of her debriefing. She’s still obsessed about getting an apartment, and there’s some humour in the US airman’s comment “everyone gets an apartment”. After the airman leaves, Korolyov’s ghost appears, and the final lines are a question from the doctor about the meaning of Korolyov’s achievements.

It was an OK ending, but I still feel the play hasn’t quite come into focus yet. There’s the historical stuff, of course, and that story’s pretty well told, but the use of ghosts was a bit clunky at times, and there’s too much done with Gagarin’s character in the middle section which takes the attention away from Korolyov needlessly, I feel. I’d prefer to see the first scene cut, with the information conveyed during later scenes, which would give us more personal time with these characters as well, but then I’m not a dramatist, just an enthusiastic observer.

Decent performances all round. Greg Hicks was excellent as Geladze, doubled with Old Man, while Brian Doherty as Khrushchev and Phillip Edgerley as Brezhnev gave nice little cameos. Noma Dumezweni was perfection, as usual.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me