Measure For Measure – November 2011

8/10

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

9/10

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

6/10

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

Dunsinane – February 2010

Experience: 8/10

By David Greig

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Company: RSC

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Wednesday 24th February 2010

We’ve come to expect very little from the RSC’s new writing in recent years – interesting ideas, good performances, but the plays need work (sometimes a lot of work). So it’s a delight to find that this new play is not only interesting and not only has some great performances, but is also a fully fledged piece which I would like to see have a longer run, preferably at Stratford (in the Swan, please).

The Hampstead Theatre’s auditorium was seriously remodelled for this production. The first three rows of seats were removed, and placed on the right hand side of the stage, which cascaded out in a triangular shape into the space between the seats. From the left of the stage, now the back, a set of irregular stone steps flowed down from a high point, topped by a Celtic cross. The ground below was fairly neutral, both in colour and texture. There was one fire pit opened up during the second half, otherwise it stayed the same (as far as I can remember). There were three ‘chandeliers’ hung across the stage – basic flat wooden circles with numerous candles – and in the second half some bare tree trunks with a few branches were planted here and there. Centre back were some doors, removed in the second half. Furniture was brought on as needed, and the removal men were very efficient. Costumes clearly reflected each ‘side’ or nationality, with the English soldiers wearing chain mail covered by white tabards with the red cross, and the Scots being dressed in leather tunics, cloaks and woollen breeches, apart from the women, of course. The queen wore a lovely deep blue gown which set off her long red hair beautifully, while her women looked more like nuns in their simple clothes. Almost forgot – the band were at the very back, looked like a three-piece.

The play began with a young English soldier telling us of his experiences on the way to Scotland. He spoke to us a few times during the play, as if he were writing letters to his mum. The next thing, all these other soldiers trooped on carrying skimpy bits of branches with leaves. The sergeant handed a branch to the young lad and told him to pretend he was a tree. He then gave the group some coaching in how to look like a forest. It was a very funny scene, and got us off to a good start. To the RSC’s credit, they put enough bodies on stage to make a credible army which really helped the performance, especially as they got them on and off remarkably swiftly.

Next we saw the queen and a couple of men, but as they were speaking Gaelic I haven’t a clue what they were saying – no surtitles. She hugged one of them and he headed off while the other chap, who’d been shooting arrows through the window of the door, stayed behind. When the English soldiers turned up he was soon killed, and pretty quickly the fighting was over. Siward learned of the death of his son, while another Englishman, Egham, entertained us all by doing his man-flu routine over a minor arrow-in-the-shoulder injury. Siward pulled it out for him, not that he got any thanks as Egham passed out from the pain.

Now we were into the post-war phase, or peace, as Siward liked to think of it. Trouble is, it turned out that not only was the queen still alive, she has a son who was now in hiding (the chap who ran off earlier) and not all the Scottish nobles are straining at the leash to shower Malcolm with their vows of allegiance. When Siward raised these points with Malcolm, he was given a wonderfully funny lesson on the Scottish way of using language, which seemed to involve a fairly liberal use of the word ‘seems’. In other words, Malcolm told the English what they needed to hear to get them to invade, but calling Malcolm a liar to his face will get you into trouble. Ring any bells?

After this, Macduff gave Siward an explanation of Scottish politics that made my head swim, never mind his, and I knew a little bit about the setup beforehand. Basically, there were two royal houses in Scotland, Moray and Alba, constantly at war with one another. Gruach, the queen who is still alive, is the highest ranking princess in the Moray line, and whoever she marries becomes king, while her children are the heirs. Personally I think passing the kingship through the female line is a much more sensible approach, since before DNA testing it wasn’t always possible to know who the father was, but the mother was pretty obvious. Of course, even now there can be doubts about royal bloodlines, despite our modern technology, but that’s another story.

Back to the historical situation. Malcolm is the heir of Alba, and apparently unencumbered with wife and kids, so Siward’s proposal at the end of the first half that Gruach and Malcolm marry to unite the two houses must have seemed like a really good idea at the time, at least to him. My first thought was, who’s going to kill who first? The festivities had scarcely got under way when Gruach’s followers invaded the castle, killed a load of people and took her away, a fitting climax to the first half.

The second half was less funny, but then there was more killing, including the execution of Gruach’s son, and Gruach herself wasn’t around till the final scene as we were seeing the action from the English perspective. Questions about the English reasons for still being there abounded, as they now indulged in great brutality with no clear purpose in view. Siward wanted ‘peace’, but hadn’t grasped that there are some wars you can’t win in a pitched battle, the simple way. They need a devious kind of political understanding, and even then the deep rooted loyalties keep getting in the way, even when these allegiances are always shifting and ephemeral. The best option all round was for the English forces to get out, but we didn’t get to see that far in this play. Instead, we were left at the end with Siward delivering Gruach’s son’s mutilated corpse to her, and her showing Siward her grandchild who is, at least in her view, the next king of Scotland. When he couldn’t bring himself to kill it, to try and create some kind of unity out of the mess that he’s helped to bring about, Siward headed off, leaving Gruach alone on the stage, a dramatic and powerful conclusion.

There was much more humour than this description brings out, and I really enjoyed myself this afternoon.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me