The Effect – January 2013

Experience: 6/10

By Lucy Prebble

Directed by Rupert Goold

Company: NT and Headlong co-production

Venue: Cottesloe Theatre

Date: Wednesday 23rd January 2013

For this new Lucy Prebble play, the Cottesloe had been transformed into a (large) waiting room at a pharmaceutical company facility where trials of a new drug were taking place. We were up on the balcony for this one; our experience of the cramped benches of the House of Commons (This House) had put us off risking more uncomfortable seating from the ‘reality’ school of design. Today’s effort looked quite nice though – simple bench sofas with plenty of legroom – and if you could put up with the ubiquitous mustard yellow colour, it was probably a pleasant experience.

The seating was in two rows and went all the way round a rectangular performance space, with gaps on each side for the entrances which were diagonally opposite each other near the corners. There were low tables in the middle of each row apart from the far end, which had a larger sideboard with a display rack beside it. Vases of flowers stood on the tables, while four more low tables stood in each corner of the central space.

An inner rectangular space was outlined in this central area, and most of the acting was done within it, but occasionally spread throughout the downstairs area. Outlined with subdued strip lighting, the initial set up of this rectangle was in line with the rest of the room: two L-shaped seats stood in diagonal corners, and the flooring and the seats were in the same yellow colour. Above this area hung another rectangle which looked like some kind of lighting, though I didn’t notice it doing anything during the performance. Perhaps it contributed in some way to the projections that appeared beneath it; the central area was frequently adapted with light displays, including laser mapping, a mosaic floor and a video of a brain being flooded with some liquid.

There were also two screens positioned at either end of the balcony which showed various bits of information. At first they displayed the ‘Rauschen’ logo – the company involved in the trial – but they also showed when the drug dosage was being increased, and were used for the Stroop test, where various words are shown and the subjects have to name the colour of the word. All good fun, and for me this set up worked pretty well, with the cast being able to change locations briskly and no real confusion as to location.

The story was pretty simple: we followed two test subjects from their initial interviews through the drug trial and beyond – Connie (Billie Piper) and Tristan (Jonjo O’Neill). There were also two doctors: Dr James (Anastasia Hille) who ran the test and Dr Toby Sealey (Tom Goodman-Hill) who was well up the food chain and involved in senior management at the company. Tristan and Connie developed a relationship and the play was, in part, discussing how much our feelings are controlled by chemicals and how much they are just our emotional reactions to events in our lives. I found this aspect of the play much less interesting. I didn’t care for either of the characters, who seemed bland and featureless, and the extended scenes between them went on for too long; at times it felt like an odd couple relationship drama with some science bits attached. The early scene which set up the pattern of the drug trial, with lots of measurements being taken and showing us the strict timing of each dose, was overlong, and there were plenty of other scenes which started well but continued on past their effectiveness or were simply played at too slow a pace. The cross-cutting of scenes worked well, and both Steve and I reckoned that the play would work much better if around 20 to 30 minutes were surgically removed.

I found I engaged most with Dr James, as she was the only one who really wanted to help others, and on the whole I preferred the exchanges between the two doctors. There were early indications of a prior relationship, and these hints developed through the play to give us a much rounder picture of their characters. The scientific parts of the debate were aired more thoroughly with these two, and although it’s too big a subject to cover fully in one play, it was at least a promising start. Again, trimming the piece to about two hours (it ran for 2 hours 45 minutes, including interval) would help to focus the issues better.

Some aspects of the plotting could also do with more work. It was scarcely believable that Dr James would admit to one of the test subjects that another subject was receiving a placebo despite the emotional tension of the situation, and her vacillation over whether or not Connie could or would stay on the trial was bizarre. There were a number of odd anomalies like that which undercut the impact of the play, and with the sexual scene and nudity, I did wonder if they were just ramping up the sensationalism for the sake of bums on seats to the detriment of the production itself. Not that the nudity was salacious in any way; in many ways that scene was well staged with various brief poses giving a sense of the drug-heightened physicality of the couple’s relationship. But it didn’t add to the central theme of the piece, that we are not just bags of chemical reactions, but something more which is harder to define. The consequence of Dr James placebo revelation was also very predictable in general terms, which blunted the ending for me.

It sounds like I’m asking for a complete re-write, but there was a lot to enjoy as well. Plenty of humour, an interesting subject, and excellent performances from all the cast made for a decent afternoon’s entertainment, and I would be prepared to give this play another try in the future, especially if I hear it’s had further work.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at

The Merchant Of Venice – September 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 14th September 2001

Amazingly enough, seeing this for the third time, and from a different angle, gave us a completely different experience of the production. We enjoyed it much more, got a lot more from the performances, and while the last scene still just didn’t work from our perspective, our overall feeling was that this is a decent production. I would have rated it 8/10 but for the down-beat ending.

I don’t think there were many changes that we noticed, although I can correct some of my earlier descriptions and add some extra detail. We arrived much earlier, and found that Antonio was on his own in the casino to begin with, apart from the dealer, that is. The others gradually joined in, and Steve noticed Bassanio trying to borrow money off other characters. The music started gently – Luck Be A Lady Tonight when we arrived (good choice) – and gradually the rhythm picked up, the cast started moving faster, repeating their actions, and then Elvis rose again and launched into Viva Las Vegas to get us going. There may have been something wrong with his microphone tonight, as we couldn’t hear the words clearly and his voice didn’t carry as much as I remember from before.

Two things about the conversation in the lift tonight – one is that I was distracted by all the details in the performances of the other lift users, which meant I lost some of the Salad boys’ dialogue, but I did notice that at the end of the lift conversation, the janitor ends up in the basement, and is called over by the little girl. As it’s the same actor playing the Prince of Arragon, it appeared that the janitor has simply been seconded to play a fake suitor for the purposes of the ‘reality’ show. If so, that means the program is being filmed in the basement of the casino, so why on earth does Bassanio need three million dollars to travel a few floors in the lift? Apparently that bit of casting was something they decided in rehearsal, so again the cast knew far more about the production than they could get across in performance. I’ve found that a lot with this production – chats with the actors have been more interesting and enjoyable than the performances themselves, a bit arse over tip if you ask me.

The trapeze work was in the right front corner tonight, and happened as Antonio was hiding out in the audience, when Shylock and an officer were coming to arrest him. This was the place last time, I remember. I suppose it could mean that Antonio was simply watching one of the shows the casino puts on, but then why was Shylock wandering around with a torch? I certainly didn’t get that impression last time we saw it, so I guess this is another of those things that makes sense to the cast, but never mind the audience.

The janitor also featured in the trial scene. When Shylock is making his point about the slaves which the Christians own, he brings the janitor, possibly an illegal immigrant from Mexico, over, which certainly makes a relevant contemporary point. Shylock reads a prepared speech for his first lines about not explaining his decision to pursue Antonio through the court system, and this didn’t ring true – the rhythm was all wrong. When Antonio is being prepared for the knife, the janitor is given the rope to hold, and the police officer puts a pad in Antonio’s mouth to help him avoid screaming.

I was paying more attention to Portia this time when she entered for the trial scene, and I saw that she was having difficulty opening her briefcase – what was that all about? I could see past Antonio to where she stood on the staircase, but I still have no idea about her sudden rescue of Antonio. Did she know in advance? Did she come up with the ‘no blood’ solution herself? We may never know, and frankly, I no longer care. We deliberately chose to ignore the setting and weird production choices tonight, and that’s the main reason why we enjoyed the performance much more, up to the final scene. From Scott Handy’s session at Living Shakespeare the next morning, we learned that the final scene had been much too slow – in his view, they hadn’t done it well the previous night. That may be true, but he also informed us that this ending had been decided by Rupert Goold from the outset, which helped to explain for me why it felt out of step with the rest of the production.

I did notice that several aspects of this version had been toned down from the original, suggesting that the cast may be reclaiming the play in beneficial ways. For example, instead of a strange movement and grimacing smile from Patrick Stewart after judgement is given against Shylock, he kept his response much more low-key, suggesting that although Shylock is hurt by the experience, he’ll bounce back in the future, and may well carry on plotting against Antonio. The changes between scenes were tighter, and little bits were being dropped, such as the near-accident and squealing brakes at the end of the car scene.  Between these improvements and our change in attitude, it’s no surprise we had a better time last night. Even so, I’m glad we won’t be seeing this one again.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

The Merchant Of Venice – August 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Monday 22nd August 2011

There were some improvements to our experience this time compared to June’s performance, but on the whole I found it rather dreary to have to sit through such an uninspiring production again.

On the plus side, we were viewing from a different angle, and in the stalls, so I caught some of the expressions that I hadn’t been able to make out before. We had also heard two very interesting talks today from Susannah Fielding who played Portia and Scott Handy who played Antonio, and although I still don’t agree with many of the choices this production makes, it did at least give me some points of interest to look out for during the show. Another bonus was that we could make out the dialogue much better this time, a common experience amongst those who had seen the production before, while those who were seeing it for the first time still found it hard to make out what the characters were saying. Familiarity is clearly important with this piece.

On the down side, I still didn’t connect with or care about any of the characters enough to want to watch the story unfold again. The sheer negativity of the production is unrealistic in my view, and while I accept that the choices made can be supported to some extent by the text, there’s so much in the play that isn’t being addressed that the performance seems superficial and distorted. However, it is leading to a lot of discussions, which is always a good thing.

Most of the differences I noticed tonight came in the second half, which I found the better of the two, but I’ll start with the first half. I noticed some extra business with the suitors; in particular, Portia and Nerissa recited the inscriptions along with the two unsuccessful suitors, and for the Prince of Arragon they were also waving guns around. The Prince of Arragon was less Manuel-ish this time around, but his accent was so over the top that I couldn’t make out much of his dialogue at all.

I found the scene with Launcelot Gobbo, the angel and the devil easier to follow this time round. I suspect they may have moved the slot machines further forward to improve visibility, and the angel and devil seemed to be taking longer over their lines, fondling poor Gobbo as much as they could, so it worked better for me (he didn’t seem to be enjoying it at all!). The scene in the car seemed shorter also, though I couldn’t say why.

The short chat between the salad boys took place in a lift, depicted by means of a square light shining down, a ‘ting’ as the lift door opened and closed, and all the occupants lifting up on their toes each time it started down. At the end, only the janitor was left, and he got out in the basement – this was just before the second casket scene. This was the same staging as before, from what I can remember. The first half ended after Shylock’s conversation with Tubal, with Shylock doing a little dance to show his suffering, anger and desire for revenge.

The second half started with Bassanio’s casket scene, and the reason I ‘enjoyed’ the second half more was that I could see much more from Bassanio in both this and the trial scene. I spent most of the first half thinking that Richard Riddell had a very inexpressive face, but the second half proved that wrong. He managed to portray a man who could be in love with Portia given half a chance, but who then realises how much Antonio means to him, and destroys his marriage before it’s begun. I still found Portia’s emotional uncertainty at the point when she should be happiest a bit inexplicable. Susannah Fielding had talked about it earlier, but I reckon it’s one of those things that may work in an actor’s head, and yet doesn’t necessarily come across in performance. Her grimacing continued in fine style to the end of the play, and I could almost sympathise with Bassanio in the final scene, as he realises he’s landed himself with a complete nut job.

Now that I could hear more of the dialogue, I was also aware of how much this interpretation of Portia is at odds with her speech. How exactly does a ditzy blond airhead know about young Alcides and the Dardanian wives? And there were other lines that just didn’t fit with this heart-led southern gal persona. But at least Bassanio’s thought processes as he faced the three caskets were good and clear – hooray – and I was very conscious of his comments about ‘snaky golden locks’ being wigs, and not natural at all. When Portia did un-wig herself (and perhaps that speech gave her the confidence to do it?) there was a wry smile on Bassanio’s face, as if he recognised the falseness, and didn’t mind it. At this point, it looked like he was willing to be a good husband and might even end up in love with Portia, if she could let go of her protective image and show him another, stronger side to her personality.

This time, I noticed that Nerissa had lost the high heels and was wearing sensible trainers when she and Gratiano joined the two on stage. After Bassanio has read the letter from Antonio, and the situation is explained, Portia asks how much is owed. Her reaction when she’s told that it’s three million dollars is wonderful – petty cash as far as she’s concerned. We’ve realised before that she’s very, very rich, but this rewording really does bring it home in today’s terms. The reaction from the others to her response was also good – jaws drop, and Gratiano looks at Nerissa and wordlessly asks if Portia’s really that wealthy? Nerissa nods, and Gratiano is stunned. Thirty-six million dollars is a drop in the ocean to this woman (‘Double six million, and then treble that’). I also noted the line ‘Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear’, and heard a reference to it again later.

The next bit was the same as last time, I reckon, but we could see it better. Antonio snuck on stage and dropped into the seat in the first row, far side of the left walkway, just across from us. The lights were low, and Shylock came on with a torch, searching for him. When he found him, he called on the LVPD officer to arrest Antonio – I spent my time peering at the badge on the officer’s uniform to check they’d used the LVPD name, but I couldn’t see it clearly. Too much CSI, I’m afraid. The short dialogue between Antonio and Salarino which is part of this scene was hived off, and shown later.

The girls’ night in was much as before, though I was able to see the expressions more clearly, and Portia’s patronising attitude to Jessica came across very strongly. I saw Jessica as more grown up this time, unhappy with some aspects of her situation, but able to handle them better than Portia will be later. Nerissa still looked shocked and unhappy at the idea of ‘prayer and contemplation’ – how will she get her hair and nails done?

The postponed scene between Antonio and Salarino may have been inserted here, as the trial scene isn’t far away. Antonio is now in the fetching orange jumpsuit so favoured by American prisons, and is sitting on a stool near the front of the stage, while Salarino is up on the balcony. They talk on the phone, and when they finish, Antonio puts the phone down and is led away by the guard.

Now I don’t remember exactly when the trapeze bit happened, but it was around here somewhere. A trapeze was lowered down near the front left corner of the stage, and one of the actors, in a fetching blue leotard as I recall, wiggled about on it a bit. Then the trapeze was taken back up and the next scene started. What was all that about?

The scene with Launcelot, Jessica and Lorenzo is swiftly followed by the trial scene. This time, Antonio wasn’t standing in the same place all the time, but did have to be there for a considerable period. I was conscious of Scott Handy’s comment earlier on about Antonio’s mind being ready for death but his body wanting to stay alive, and that certainly came across tonight. His body was quivering and trembling, and it was hard to keep watching, but equally as hard to look away. Portia’s dawning realisation of the relationship between the two men was clear, but it did take away from her performance as a lawyer – too much going on. The rest of the scene was much as before, and I still felt there was no way that Portia got the answer she did, despite Susannah’s efforts. Gratiano’s exclamations in praise of Balthazar were powerful and worked really well tonight, so on the whole I was happier with this trial scene.

One thing I remember that I can’t find in the text is Bassanio saying to Antonio something along the lines of Portia’s words ‘Since you are dear bought, I will love you dear’. Since it appears to be an insertion, I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but I’m confident it was in the trial scene.

The final act was similar to before, but this time the touching between Antonio and Bassanio was up front – across Portia’s lap – so no mistaking the meaning there. Everyone’s as miserable as last time, there’s still a lot of wasted humour, and we left the theatre glad to be free at last. Will we put up with it for a third time? Wait and see.

One interesting point that came out of a later talk by Dr Erica Sheen is the sheer number of references to flesh and blood in the text. I hadn’t realised this before – god bless these academics, poring over a hot text day and night to give us these insights – and I certainly wasn’t aware of it from this production, but it’s something to look out for in the future.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

The Merchant of Venice – June 2011

Experience: 5/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Monday 13th June 2011

Well, this started off on a high note, and gradually got weaker and weaker until it fizzled out. The production concept was a mix of Las Vegas casinos and a reality marriage show, but as often happens, those concepts were used until the text could no longer support them, and then just disappeared. The performances were all good, given these production choices, and as it’s still early days there may well be more to come. Rupert Goold is always willing to change things that don’t work, or to improve a performance, so we’re not too concerned that we’ve already booked to see this one again.

The set had two staircases sweeping down on either side of the stage, with a landing in between and space underneath for slot machines or an entrance way. The floor was covered in a diamond pattern of blue tiles, and there was a similar pattern in lights on the back wall above the stairs. Before the play started, there were three casino tables on the stage with lots of punters at each, waitresses brought drinks to various customers, and there was a strong beat to the (loud) music as well as some heavy-duty rhubarb going on.

The music and action continued when the auditorium lights went down, until Elvis himself rose up through one of the tables and began to sing. Viva Las Vegas was the opening number, and with two dancers helping him out, this song covered the removal of two of the gambling tables. This left the one table at which Antonio sat, largely ignoring the song and dance going on around him. The rest of the customers had joined in, though, and this was a very lively start to the play.

When Elvis left the stage, taking most of the cast with him, the remaining blackjack table was moved to the centre, and were left with the ‘salad boys’ and Antonio for the opening scene proper. One of the salads was the dealer, while the other was sitting at the opposite end of the table from Antonio, and just looked like another player. No previous relationship amongst them was indicated by this setup. The American accents used in this production certainly fitted in well with the location, but now it became clear that they were going to interfere with the clarity of the lines. The dialogue came across well for the most part, but at times I had to struggle to make out what was being said, and this was one of those times. Scott Handy as Antonio was fine all the way through, and admittedly this is an opening scene that I’ve rarely seen done well, so perhaps the accents weren’t entirely to blame.

I had heard that this production made Antonio very keen on Bassanio, and although I couldn’t be certain of this when he was talking to the salad boys, it became very clear when Bassanio himself turned up. As soon as Bassanio started talking about Portia, Antonio closed down in his body language, folding his arms, moving away from Bassanio. It hurt him a lot, but his love for the man made him offer everything he had to help him in pursuit of another love. I was a bit puzzled when Antonio gave Bassanio his credit cards at the end of the scene – if he could use these, why would he need to borrow money on the Rialto? – but it was only a minor point. I did like the change from three thousand ducats to three million dollars, as it made it easier to grasp the enormity of the sum, and of course it emphasises just how rich Portia is, later on.

The Belmont scenes appear at first to be set in a TV studio, where a reality show called Destiny is being filmed. There are signs for ‘Applause’ and ‘On Air’, two banks of TV screens to show us the camera’s viewpoint (the cameras were placed well back on the walkways), and there were glamorous hostesses as well as a sweet little girl in a bridesmaid’s dress. Portia and Nerissa were on a sofa which rose up in the middle of the stage, and they were glammed up from head to toe. Portia had a large blonde wig, white outfit and huge heels – think Paris Hilton and you won’t go far wrong. Nerissa was dark, in a blue/green outfit, and they chatted for a bit before the announcement that they were about to go on air.

As soon as they did, Nerissa became the slick interviewer, toning down her southern accent and ditzy attitude to quiz Portia about her suitors. Portia is all rich airhead at this point, also with a southern accent, and I found myself wondering how this interpretation was going to cope with the demands of the trial scene? But back to the interview. The descriptions of the lords were pretty good (no Scottish lord), and then the little girl came on at the back and handed Nerissa an envelope with the Destiny logo. This contained the news that the suitors had all left, to Portia’s relief. They went off air after the announcement that the Prince of Morocco had arrived to try for Portia’s hand.

Back in Vegas, Shylock is examining the model for his latest project – a multi-million dollar development with lots of strangely shaped buildings from the look of it. It seemed a bit over the top for a despised money-lender – if he was accepted enough into the community to be getting approval for that sort of project, he wouldn’t still be a money-lender on the Rialto, surely? Anyway, Shylock is portrayed as a silver fox, a ruthless businessman who can nevertheless be somewhat ingratiating, especially after Antonio’s outburst later, but I never felt that Patrick Stewart had nailed the American accent – it was just a bit too British underneath.

Antonio is furious about having any dealings with Shylock, and it’s one area where I felt this production did a good job, showing the their mutual antipathy. These men really loathed one another. However, Antonio is pleased with Shylock’s offer to charge no interest and set up only a ‘joke’ penalty if the bond is forfeit, and so the deal is struck.

Back in the studio, the Prince of Morocco has arrived to take his chance. The understudy took the role tonight, and he was dressed in a boxing outfit, complete with gloves, and looked like one of those paunchy, older boxers who just won’t retire. Several bananas were thrown on the stage as he entered, which Steve found quite disturbing; it’s certainly more overtly racist than I’ve seen before, and not really necessary in my view. It’s also the first time I’ve noticed that Portia uses the word “hazard” when she talks to the Prince. I’d noticed she does it when she talks to Bassanio, which could be interpreted as an attempt to point him in the right direction, but using it here suggests otherwise; it’s just an appropriate word in the circumstances.

The filming ended with some razzamatazz, and then slot machines were inserted into the gap between the stairs, and Elvis is singing again, I forget what. Turns out, the Elvis impersonator is Launcelot Gobbo, and he’s at the middle of the three slot machines with his back to us. Seated on his left is an angel, dressed in white and with little wings, representing his conscience, and on his right was a devil, dressed in red (and did she have horns?). The angel and devil turned round and spoke their own lines, and although they fitted the words together very well, I felt I’d seen much better versions of this speech. When he’s finished deliberating, the slot machines, angel and devil leave, and in this production we get to see Old Gobbo, although of course, he doesn’t see us! I don’t know why this scene was included, as I didn’t get anything from it.

It’s during this next phase of Merchant that many productions try to minimise the scene changes. Not so here, with many little snippets coming thick and fast, which lost some of the play’s momentum, as so much scenery had to be changed. Firstly, we switch to Shylock’s house, all gloomy and dull, especially compared to the glitzy casino and TV studio settings. One light bulb hangs down towards the front of the stage, and Jessica, plainly dressed, has to fetch a plain chair to be able to turn it on. She then sits on the chair, reading a book. Launcelot comes on with a massive suitcase, and they say their farewells.

The next scene has the salad boys with Lorenzo and Gratiano discussing their plans for the party/abduction later that night. During the open day yesterday, we saw a session which took us through how this scene was developed in rehearsal, with the help of six or seven volunteers. They all had acting experience of some kind, and after a short while, with some coaching from Lisa Blair, this production’s assistant director, their delivery improved and they started to add some actions as well. With prompting, they came up with the idea of the four of them sitting in a car, playing music, and drinking. The car was represented by four chairs. As things developed, the actual effects were added in, and the final effort was very good. We loved it, especially as we’d seen it grow from nothing, so when it came to the real thing, we were always likely to feel disappointed, and that’s what happened. The pumping music included the words “Barbara Streisand”, the salad boys were in the back and Lorenzo was driving, instead of Gratiano in yesterday’s version. Launcelot came on from the front, I think, and the car screeched to a halt when they see him. He hands over the letter, and is called back by Lorenzo so that he can take something to Jessica – from yesterday’s session I gather it’s a crucifix. The salad boys get out as well, and then Lorenzo and Gratiano drive off, with Gratiano reading the letter. With a blaring of horns, Lorenzo slams the brakes on to finish the scene. The car this time emerged from under the stage, and returned that way, of course, which should have helped to speed up the changes, but the flooring took a while to come back into place, so the next scene wasn’t as quick to start as it could have been.

I’m not sure if the scenes follow the same order as my text at this point, so I’ll go with the order of scenes in my text unless I remember otherwise. So now it’s Shylock leaving for the party, and warning Jessica to shut all the doors, etc. followed by the abduction scene. As Shylock left his house, lots of costumed folk came on stage, cavorting about and having fun, not that Shylock was interested. When Batman arrived, he turned out to be Lorenzo, and when Jessica throws off her coat to reveal her disguise, she’s done up as Robin. This was good fun, but otherwise the scene was fairly tame – all Batman costume and no knickers.

The next scene is back at Belmont, with the first televised casket choice. One problem with this staging is that if the choices are televised, everyone watching will know the correct casket after the second wrong choice, making the whole thing pointless. Anyway, three stands are wheeled on with gold, silver and lead boxes, Portia is done up in bridal gear, the little bridesmaid sits at the front of the stage, and there’s plenty of showmanship on display. When the Prince opens the gold casket, a glass cube rises up, with a skull and a scroll. When he leaves, there’s a little bit where Portia and Nerissa end the show with “The ancient saying is no heresy: Hanging and wiving goes by destiny” from Act 2 Scene 9, and then they’re off air. Portia drops the fake happiness, and makes her comment about the Prince.

The Salad boys have their conversation about Antonio on the balcony, so we’re very quickly into the next choosing scene at Belmont. This time, the Prince of Arragon is dressed like Manuel from Fawlty Towers, and the choosing is fairly straightforward, with the silver casket being placed to the front of the three this time and containing a fool’s head, as promised. There’s a reprise of the “Hanging and wiving” lines, and then the news of Bassanio’s arrival, which cheers Portia up no end.

Back to the casino, and some café tables appear for the next scene. The salad boys are having a drink and discussing Antonio’s bad luck. Shylock comes on, and chooses to sit at the other table, but comes over to theirs to deliver the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. Unfortunately, I wasn’t impressed with the style of delivery chosen, which seemed jerky and unconvincing. I was sympathetic to Shylock overall, but this speech didn’t help. Tubal uses his phone to show Shylock a picture of the ring which Jessica has swapped for the monkey, and Shylock’s reaction was moving at last – I got a real sense of what that ring meant to him. Otherwise, the scene was uneventful.

In Belmont the studio is set up again, and Bassanio is sitting in a chair on the set for his discussion with Portia. He seems to be in love with her, judging by his words, but there was no other evidence throughout the play, so I’m at a loss to know what was intended with this portrayal. Bassanio is led off when Portia says “Away then!”, and part way through her next speech the show goes on air. When she says “Go, Hercules”, Bassanio appears at the back, dressed as Hercules, to make his choice. The lead casket is, of course, at the front this time.

They included the song, I think, and then it’s a nervous few minutes for Portia, who’s standing on the stairs to our left. Bassanio reasons things out OK, and I noticed the box wasn’t actually locked this time – he just opens it without a key. Previously the keys had been supplied by the little girl, who also led off the unsuccessful suitors from the front of the stage. This time, I don’t think the little girl was there, and by the time Bassanio has made his choice, the show is no longer referenced. The screens are blank, and there’s absolutely no sense of the world watching this private moment, which in terms of a reality show is completely unreal.

The lead box simply contains a remote control(?), which sets off a recording on the screens, of Portia reading the final scroll, so Bassanio can’t comment on Portia’s loveliness by comparing her to her picture. Her reaction to this bit was puzzling. She’s happy that Bassanio had chosen correctly, and she’s obviously recorded the speech, but she seems as surprised as Bassanio when she sees it. Perhaps it will come across more clearly when we see it again. Portia has taken off her wig and shoes, so Bassanio can see her “such as I am”. I got no sense of any reaction from him to this transformation; without her wig she’s dark-haired, and still pretty, but perhaps not what he expected.

Gratiano and Nerissa announce their wedding plans, and then Lorenzo, Jessica and Salanio arrive with the letter for Bassanio. Jessica stays on the stairs, reluctant to join in, even when Nerissa goes up to welcome her. With their arrival, Portia puts her wig on again, and is bright and cheerful. The reading of the letter brings Antonio on to speak the lines himself, then they all leave in haste without even having married, as far as I can see.

There’s a short scene where Antonio has been arrested, and is being taken away to prison, then Portia, Nerissa and Jessica come up on the sofa again in dressing gowns, having a girls’ night in, with Jessica attempting to put two slices of cucumber on her eyes. Portia appoints Lorenzo as her steward, and when Balthazar comes on he’s carrying two large bags with Portia and Nerissa’s disguises – men’s suits – which they put on before leaving.

The conversations between Launcelot and Jessica, and then with Lorenzo, were OK, and then the court scene is set up, which takes a while. The setting is now an old butcher’s warehouse, with lots of meat hooks hanging down, and strips of plastic at the back entrance. A case is placed in the front right corner of the stage, and Antonio, in a badly-fitting orange jumpsuit is led over to the case and stands there, all through the scene. It’s a nightmare bit of blocking for anyone behind him, as he doesn’t move for a long while, and then two guards are holding on to him when Shylock is about to take his pound of flesh. Frankly, they should be selling those seats as restricted view – you have been warned.

There’s also a table in the front left corner for Shylock, who puts his briefcase there, and a desk back right for the lawyers. The Duke could almost be a Mafia boss in his dress style, but then why the concern for the rule of law? Antonio and Shylock’s hatred of each other came across loud and clear, but otherwise the scene lacked the tension that’s usually generated here. Instead of tension, we got sensationalism. When the time comes for Shylock to take his pound of flesh, all pleas falling on deaf ears, they take a long time to set the process up. Antonio is suspended from one of the meat hooks, and one of the guards is pulling the rope tight behind him, while the other holds him down. Antonio’s already removed his jumpsuit to the waist, and stands there, chest heaving with nerves, while Shylock takes an age to prepare, even stroking Antonio’s flesh with the knife, toying with him. It all goes on for far too long, while Portia, near the top of the stairs on our left, seemed to get the answer once, but too early, so had to go round again, looking anxious, glancing at the bond, then finally stopping Shylock just as the knife is about to go into Antonio’s flesh. How she got the answer I’ve no idea, because although she’s not a complete air-head, she’s not the super-smart bunny we’ve known from other productions.

Once he’s thwarted in his plan, Shylock naturally wants the money instead, but this Portia takes a gloating pleasure in denying him even that. Antonio has collapsed on the suitcase, understandably, and only stirs when Shylock is told about the seriousness of his situation. There’s definite malice in insisting that Shylock convert to Christianity, and Shylock’s reaction is unusual; he grins, flips his yarmulke off and acts all happy before asking to leave. At least, that’s what I could make out from behind the man – hopefully I’ll get a better view next time.

I couldn’t see why Bassanio changed his mind about the ring this time, although Antonio seems to want Bassanio to choose him over Portia. Portia and Nerissa are on the balcony when Gratiano catches up with them, and then we’re back to Belmont for the final scene. Lorenzo and Jessica rise up on the sofa and have their little teasing section – hard to tell what’s going on there – and then Stephanie turns up with news that Portia is coming back. When she arrives with Nerissa, I didn’t hear any lines about hiding their absence from Bassanio, and it all seemed very rushed. The ring section was weak due to this interpretation, and got very little in the way of laughs. When Portia greets Antonio, they sit on the sofa, and when Bassanio joins them, he makes contact with Antonio behind Portia’s back. I wasn’t absolutely sure that she spotted this, but her manner changes afterwards, so I guess she did. Nerissa ends up on the left walkway, with Gratiano saying the final line to her, and then we get the final Elvis song, Are You Lonesome Tonight?  During this, Antonio sits on the sofa on his own, Bassanio has gone all moody and wanders around on his own, Portia has taken off her wig and is dancing with it alone in the middle of the stage, crying, and everyone seems to be completely miserable. I have no idea why this is going on; maybe I’ll get a better idea from a different perspective.

I felt the visual aspects of this production were very good, and some of the ideas were interesting, but most either fell by the wayside or just didn’t work for me. None of the characters was likeable, and although I felt some sympathy for Shylock, on the whole I just wasn’t engaged with the play at all. The accents may have contributed a lot to this; Gratiano in particular had a very unpleasant voice which put me off this normally entertaining character entirely. There was no real tension in the trial scene, and the racism was too blatant and crude for my understanding of this play – Shakespeare’s not that simplistic. If they can improve the delivery of the lines considerably, I may find this an OK production, but otherwise it’ll have to remain a less than successful Merchant.

One thought that occurred to me the next day was that the Princes of Morocco and Arragon represent Muslim and Catholic suitors. Not sure if that was an intention of this production, but I’m grateful to it for helping me to this insight.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Romeo and Juliet – March 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 23rd March 2011

This was a significant improvement on the performance we saw last year. Still deeply flawed, this production has become more balanced, partly by toning down the worst excesses of the early days, but also, sadly, by ‘clowning up’ the main parts to make them fit better with the comedy style. Well, it’s a choice, I suppose.

Firstly, the bits that have gone, or were reduced in some way. The flashes of fire almost completely disappeared, and the video projections were very muted, so we were clearly in Verona this time. Some steam still rose occasionally from the vents, but that was minimal too, and much more effective as a result. The opening fight seemed quicker this time, and Steve reckoned there were fewer knives discarded by Capulet – I wasn’t so sure – although the attempted burning of Benvolio was still included. This time, though, I found it very contrived, as our position round the side meant I could clearly see the people waiting in the wings to bring on the post and rag, etc.

For the party scene, the music was much quieter, and we could actually hear the dialogue between Capulet and Tybalt – hooray! It was well delivered too. After the party, when Mercutio and Benvolio are looking for Romeo, Mercutio’s obscene mime was definitely shorter, even though it was still getting laughs, mainly from the younger members of the audience; I wondered if Jonjo O’Neill was getting a bit bored with it.

The lines about Romeo and rosemary both beginning with an ‘R’ were gone, and I wondered if in fact the time we heard them before was a mistake. Perhaps the lines had been cut, but were accidentally said by whoever, because the conversation ended abruptly without making sense. I was conscious that it must be very hard for actors to constantly chop and change their lines each night, and mistakes are bound to happen from time to time. The winding up of Tybalt had been cut a bit as well, and the fight itself seemed more serious. The golden display which bookends the interval was less over-the-top, and the final scene was almost completely reworked (see below).

Bits that were still much the same included Juliet’s twirly toy, the use of the stools as stepping stones when she heads off to Friar Laurence’s cell, her painful spasms after taking the Friar’s potion, the use of a singing telegram to bring Romeo the news of Juliet’s death, and Lady Capulet running a couple of times around Juliet’s death bed, although this action was presented more clearly as being linked to her call for help, so it seemed more natural this time.

Fresh disasters included a Benvolio who appeared to be auditioning for the role of Igor in a remake of Young Frankenstein – his gurning and manic prowling were completely inappropriate. Romeo also took to making strange prancing movements during the balcony scene, which upped the humour quotient a bit, but lowered the believability of the lovers. In fact, I didn’t buy these two as lovers at all this time round, snogging notwithstanding, mainly because Juliet saw Romeo a few times during the dance and ignored him, then suddenly she’s desperate to kiss him just because he grabbed her by the hand? I don’t think so.

I also had a fit of the (silent-ish) giggles early on. We’d had a talk from Dr Penelope Freedman this afternoon in which she’d commented on the variety of accents, so I was more attuned to them tonight. When Del Boy Montague opened his mouth, I had this vision of some barrow boy who’d built up his retail empire from nothing, was given a title, married a bit of posh, and was now one of Verona’s gentry. At least it kept me amused.

Last time, Steve had noticed Tybalt and Lady Capulet having a kiss during the party scene. This time, they were really going at it, apparently (he didn’t give me a nudge so I could check it out for myself – I was watching the rest of the action). This certainly explained Lady Capulet’s grief at Tybalt’s death, and her intense desire for revenge, but as it’s not textually based, and adds nothing to the main story, I couldn’t see the point of it, although it was well enough acted. I suppose it did underline the fact that arranged marriages aren’t necessarily happy ones -do we need a reminder? – and for a few moments I also toyed with the idea that perhaps Juliet was Tybalt’s child instead of Capulet’s, but that seemed unlikely.

Another thing that didn’t work for me was the attempt to blend so many styles, specifically the reality-based modern dress parts and the Elizabethan costume stylised, bordering on surreal, bits. For example, Juliet’s toy-twirling while her mother’s talking to her about marriage is very in-your-face reality, but her mother has asked the nurse to leave to have some privacy with her daughter, yet she has three or four women dressing her at that point. OK, she recalls the nurse, but the discrepancy jarred a bit, though not as much as the fact that Lady Capulet appears to be getting herself done up as an extra from Gormenghast.

The variety of approaches with Juliet’s performance also troubled me a lot. Portraying her as a little girl one minute, then a randy teenager the next, then a sensible young woman who understands a great deal about life….. I know girls and boys of that age can fluctuate between child and adult as they mature, but this was too much to be believable. It didn’t feel like considered character development so much as a pick’n’mix of performances to suit the needs of the moment. However, Mariah Gale delivered the dialogue better than most, which got me through most of her scenes. Only the pre-potion scene jarred, as she recounted the terrible things that might happen as if she were a child happily going over all the really cool gruesome bits of a frog dissection, rather than a young woman who’s facing some potential horrors, and screwing her courage “to the sticking point”.

So what did work better this time around? Well, Capulet in particular was played much more seriously, and the scene where Juliet refuses to marry Paris was considerably more powerful as a result. I could feel Capulet’s anger, and the threat to Juliet was very real. While the balcony scene suffered from Romeo’s extra clowning, the overlaid scenes between Juliet and the nurse, and Romeo and the Friar, worked very well this time. I was actually starting to get emotionally involved, though of course it was a bit late by this time. I particularly liked the way Romeo stood up for himself and pointed out to the Friar that he couldn’t know how Romeo felt because he wasn’t in Romeo’s situation, and since the Friar was presumably celibate (not guaranteed, I know), it’s a reasonable argument, even if Romeo was making it in the heat of passion.

When the family discover Juliet dead, as they think, I was aware of how much suffering they’re going through, and it crossed my mind that the Friar was doing more harm than good in more ways than one. I also felt that the reason for Friar John  being delayed actually seemed quite plausible this time, given that plague of various sorts did the rounds from time to time all over Europe and beyond.

But I think the greatest improvement was in the ending. As we watched the beginning of the play, with ‘Romeo’ appearing to run into the church/cathedral as if escaping something, and the hint of a siren in the background(?), I felt as if he was coming straight from the tomb scene, a modern person caught in some time-warp loop and doomed to repeat the same tragic story over and over again. However, the revised final scene added a new dimension to that. Instead of the mix of costumes as before, the live characters, Friar Laurence excepted, are all in modern dress, and after Friar Laurence’s explanation of the situation, and a few of the Duke’s lines, the actor who played Balthazar enters, in similar clothes to ‘Romeo’ at the start, wearing headphones, and hearing the audio guide in the Italian accent reciting the closing lines. Spooky. A much shorter ending, removing even more than the previous cuts, but tying it all up much better, and lifting the production considerably further out of the mire. Steve also felt it suggested that the underlying problems of the story are with us still in the present, and are not just historical. He could see the original ‘Romeo’ as a contemporary person who was actually banished, and this was him escaping to the quiet of a church, then getting caught up in a historical version of the same love tragedy, but with the final scene reverting to the present day, hence the modern dress for the other characters. Interesting idea

So not such a bad experience as before, and although it was too patchy for me to enthuse about it, we both enjoyed ourselves much more than we anticipated. It’s also a good reminder of how much a production can change over time, and particularly with Rupert Goold, who to his credit is willing not only to take risks with his productions, but to change and refine them when needed.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Enron – September 2010


By Lucy Prebble

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 16th September 2010

Fantastic! We’d wanted to see this again, after enjoying it so much last year in the Minerva, and we weren’t disappointed. This cast were almost as good as the originals, and the production hadn’t changed much; a lot of the video clips had been dropped, we noticed, including the ones with the three blind mice in the Enron advert, which may have been confusing for some of the audience. But the raptors were still there, the lights, the music, the dancing, the humour, and, sadly, the massive financial collapse.

The post-show was entertaining as well. Apparently the show had started out as a musical (made sense – that’s what we’d felt last year). American critics hated the show, but many Americans enjoyed seeing it – a sort of guilty pleasure. There were some veterans in the cast and some new folk, and keeping up with the changes had been hard work. I’ve forgotten the rest now, but it was a very good evening.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at

Romeo And Juliet – March 2010 (1)

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Monday 29th March 2010

This was an interesting experience. Steve and I have seen so many Shakespeare productions that we can no longer hope for that wonderful experience of seeing a play of his for the first time (Cardenio excepted, possibly). Tonight, however, we were treated to a rare thing, a performance of the RSC’s production of The Comedy of Romeo and Juliet. It’s possible of course that Rupert Goold was simply trying to stage that well known, but sadly lost piece, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, but with no extant text had to base it on the closely related Romeo and Juliet with which many of us are familiar, and simply add as much comedy as he could. Or, of course, he was trying to do the Romeo and Juliet, but chose to go for every cheap laugh available, leading to a diminished sense of the tragedy (what am I saying, diminished? The only tragedy was that the performance lasted three hours and twenty minutes, about three hours and ten minutes too long!), and establishing such a comedic perspective that I was seeing jokes all the way through, and doing my best not to laugh out loud at them. (Didn’t quite manage that – sorry.)

Let me give an example. When Juliet’s ‘body’ was discovered, the nurse was so upset she just stood still. Lady Capulet, on the other hand, after the first shock, apparently remembered that she hadn’t done her daily workout yet, and ran round the stage for several laps before collapsing in a heap. Steve reckoned she was training for the marathon, though on this evidence she wouldn’t make it to the first refreshment point. I found myself thinking that the RSC might be going in for a new form of Shakespeare-related merchandising – the Lady Capulet fitness DVD, perhaps?

And another one: when the modern-dress police turned up at the tomb to investigate the multiple homicide, complete with walkie-talkies and apparently unfazed by the fact that most of the suspects, and indeed the victims, were in Elizabethan fancy dress, I fully expected a forensics team to walk on set and start taking photos, look for blood spatter, etc.

And that wouldn’t have been out of keeping with this production. The opening request for the audience to turn off, not shoot, not record, etc, was made by Noma Dumezweni, dressed in a suit and using a Caribbean accent. The set, as far as I could see at this point, consisted of some gates at the back of the thrust, some kind of opening above, and an ironwork window pattern in the centre of the stage, courtesy of a single light. The use of church music beforehand set the scene very well, and it became clear after Noma’s announcement that she was a guide in some cathedral or other. When Sam Troughton arrived in his modern clothes, including a hoodie, and carrying a camera, she gave him a headphone set for the audio tour. He had to fiddle with it a bit to get the English version, and then that was how the prologue was given. Neat. After he wandered off to explore more of the building, the actors for the first scene arrived, and went straight into the thumb-biting scenario (Samson and Gregory didn’t get a chance to puzzle us all at the start with their dextrous word-play around the word ‘choler’). The fight soon escalated, and Benvolio, doing his best to stop it all, ended up tied to a stake in the middle of the stage with a cloth stuffed in his mouth. Tybalt was about to set it on fire (eugh! Just how nasty do you have to be to get the point across?) when the principals in this conflict turned up. Sadly, this didn’t help, since they pitched in as well, and even the Ladies got into a cat fight (a pretty pathetic one, mind you). When the Duke finally got there, we went from truly nasty to comedy, as the clatter of weapons being dropped on his command goes on, and on, and on. Capulet in particular never left the house without a good dozen knives secreted about his person. Sitting down must be a precarious thing to do – he could easily stab himself in the groin.

This humour was OK, but already it was undercutting the seriousness of the situation; it was hard to tell whether the warring families are in Apocalypse Now or Love Thy Neighbour. [After the understudies performance, I realised that the attempt to fry Benvolio happened after Montague and Capulet joined in, and some petrol was poured over Benvolio first from a can. Also Tybalt had previously lit a match and thrown it down on the grill in the centre, causing a huge flame to flare up.]

With the factions sent packing, and only the Montagues left on stage, the next bit of dialogue was badly delivered – I know roughly what they’re saying, but tonight it just didn’t come across. Once Romeo arrived, the delivery improved, but sadly Benvolio was being played as a buffoon, and again this weakened the performance. In fact, just about every character was played as a buffoon, the lovers and possibly Paris and the friar excepted, which boosted the comedy alright, but…..well, I think my views on this point are already well established.

Sam Troughton’s Romeo still had the camera, and it was put to good use in this scene, with Romeo showing Benvolio the picture of his love (Rosaline) on the screen, and Benvolio using the camera to take a picture of a woman in the audience to show Romeo that his love wasn’t the only beauty around. This bit of humour also worked well, with Romeo holding out his hand in apology to the audience lady when he compared her unfavourably to his love.

There was a good deal of overlapping of scenes in this production – it’s a tried and tested method for speeding things up, and can provide some interesting juxtapositions – and I think this may have happened when Capulet arrived on stage for his next scene before Romeo and Benvolio have left. Played by Richard Katz, Capulet is another weak interpretation (I blame the director), played more for comedy than gravitas. Peter was sitting on the steps which were pushed through the gates, and the humour of his performance when he was given the task of inviting the guests to Capulet’s party was entirely appropriate and very well done. His cringing attempt to get noticed by Romeo and Benvolio was very funny, as was Romeo’s blatant reaction to seeing the name ‘Rosaline’ on the guest-list. When Peter mentioned the name Montague, he hawked and spat superbly, so no prizes for guessing where his loyalties lay.

After they left, Lady Capulet appeared at the upper balcony, with several makeup artists whose help she evidently needs. Her hair was a mess, she was only partly dressed, and to be frank, she wasn’t looking her best. As they got to work, the nurse below summoned Juliet, who came on carrying something strange, a three foot long piece of rope with a light at the end – some new-fangled toy, I expect. She started twirling this around, casually at first, but with increasing vigour as the conversation went in directions she found unpleasant, and even raised it above her head when things got really bad and marriage was mentioned. As a way of showing her inner sulky brat, it worked quite well, though it was a bit distracting, and meant she never showed us her relationship with her nurse which usually gets its first outing in this scene. Noma did her best with the nurse’s part, but against the whirling she was a bit low-key. Also, I wondered if she’d been smoking the old wacky-baccy in her pipe, as her manner suggested a relaxed calm not entirely at odds with such a practice. But there was no other indication, so perhaps I just made it up. By the end of the scene, Lady Capulet was looking much better, and that’s about all I can remember from that bit.

The next scene brought on Mercutio for the first time, with the challenge of the Queen Mab speech. We both like Jonjo O’Neill, and have seen him give any number of good performances, so we don’t mean it unkindly when we say that we were both heartily glad to see the back of this Mercutio. His going, normally a cause for grief, was a real blessing tonight. He wasn’t too bad in this scene, admittedly, although the policy of encouraging some of the actors to exaggerate their natural accents, presumably for comic effect, can lead to many of the lines being unintelligible, and so it was with Mercutio. I did get his point that dreams are nothing, mere fantasy, so the speech wasn’t completely wasted.

And now for the party. Forget the dialogue, this was all about the dancing and music, of which we got plenty. So much so, that most of Capulet’s lines were lost, though the way he held a dagger to Tybalt’s throat conveyed his point well enough. I found myself wondering if there were film influences here that I wasn’t aware of – Romeo + Juliet, perhaps. I definitely had the feeling that I was missing something.

Only Romeo and Juliet themselves were allowed space and silence in this scene to deliver their dialogue, which they did very well, and at this point I had high hopes that this production might work out fine. Juliet had seen Romeo a couple of times during the dancing and shown no interest in him that I could see, so it was a bit of a surprise that she suddenly got into kissing mode with him, but that’s young love for you. They both showed clear reactions to finding out who the other was, and we were set up nicely for their balcony scene.

Unfortunately we had to put up with Mercutio and Benvolio again for a bit. With Mercutio having so few lines, this part usually doesn’t take long, but tonight we were ‘treated’ to as unnecessary a chunk of ‘comic’ business as you could wish not to see. For some reason, Mercutio had to emphasise that he was talking about Romeo screwing his love – at this time they still think it’s Rosaline he’s in love with. Starting with hand gestures, he went from a finger-fuck to an arm, then his whole body climbed inside – much laughter from the younger section of the audience – then there was a surreal sequence where he appeared to be having a cup of tea in the party in her uterus, then he kissed somebody (was he meant to be a sperm that’s come into contact with an egg?), and that scared him so much he ran back out of the vagina, falling flat on the floor from a fart, whether vaginal or anal I couldn’t say. One or two bits of this were mildly funny, but it went on far too long for us.

Fortunately, the scene between Romeo and Juliet was clear and uncluttered by this inappropriate and over-fussy business. Juliet appeared at the upper level, simply standing or sitting with her legs dangling over the edge. Romeo started at the stairs at the front of the stage, then moved around a bit, finally climbing the trellis to claim his snog. In fact, they might have had the wedding night a day early, the way these two were carrying on, but Juliet is a good girl, and pushed him away. This was very well done, and was starting to get me involved, and if they can build on these bits and drop the rubbish encrusting the play, they might do very well. We can only hope.

The next scene introduced Friar Laurence, and Forbes Masson did a perfectly acceptable job with the meddling friar. I did think his displays of temper were a bit out of kilter with his words of moderation, but not enough to give me a problem. Romeo’s change of attitude was remarkable. He arrived on a bicycle, and was full of enthusiasm. Friar Laurence was initially concerned to hear that Rosaline was, like, so yesterday’s news. He even slapped Romeo’s face where he could still see the tear stain, while Romeo’s blank reaction when the Friar mentioned Rosaline’s name was perfect. But after some time to think, the Friar saw the possibilities in the marriage between the feuding families, and agreed to help them out.

Next Mercutio and Benvolio waited for Romeo, and the only thing I got from the dialogue was that Mercutio seemed to be criticising Tybalt, and perhaps others, for faults that were more part of his character than anyone else’s, as of course he does later when he accuses Benvolio of being quarrelsome. When Romeo cycled in, he sparred with Mercutio in a much livelier way, not that I could follow half of it, but it’s clear that he’s back to the Romeo of old, full of wit and spirit. The nurse turned up with Peter, and again the sexual innuendo of Mercutio’s insults to her are emphasised, with him calling her a whore many times over. She was wonderfully funny in her non-delivery of Juliet’s message, and in her readiness to dash off as soon as Romeo has told her he protests. Strangely, some lines that are often included seemed to be dropped, while lines I haven’t heard before, about Romeo and rosemary both starting with the letter ‘R’, were included. God knows why, as I couldn’t see what they were getting at, and the nurse simply pulled out of that conversation and leaves. Bizarre.

For the Nurse’s return to Juliet, there was a platform that raised up in the centre of the stage, similar to the one used in King Lear. It may have been raised earlier, but I specifically remember it in this scene. [Certainly used during party scene, possibly earlier.] Juliet had been waiting impatiently, and her frustration was very clear. When the nurse did arrive, there was the usual bickering as Juliet pushed to get what she wanted, and the nurse took her time to get what she wanted – in this case, a back rub – before divulging her news. There was a nice bit where Juliet started rubbing one side of her back, and the nurse said, ‘other side’ – it gave us a chuckle. The timing of her abrupt change of subject – “where’s your mother” – was very good. Then we were off to Friar Laurence’s cell for the wedding – a short scene, with nothing to comment on.

Now we come to the point where I found the funny side too much for me. It’s the scene where Mercutio and Benvolio encounter Tybalt, get into a fight, and Romeo, in trying to part them, gets Mercutio killed (hooray!). The stairs were forward again, and the platform was raised. The fight between Mercutio and Tybalt was OK, with Mercutio at first threatening him with the bicycle pump (cue for some more sexual innuendo from the pumping action), and then snatching Tybalt’s sword, after which the whole thing escalated until Tybalt, in the final clinch, used his concealed blade, Wolverine-like, to stab Mercutio in the guts. All fine and good, but I was distracted by the sudden bursts of smoke and fire that belched up every so often from vents in the floor and platform. There had also been flame effects projected onto the screens either side of the gates from the first fight scene onwards – these gave the impression that Verona was already ablaze, similar to the Julius Caesar that I was so very unfond of last year. Now, however, I was struck with the thought that this Verona was actually built on Vesuvius, and the constant mini-eruptions were due to that. I found it hard not to giggle, so I did, silently, but from now on my sense of humour was going full blast, and I saw so much to laugh at that I couldn’t take anything seriously again.

During the fighting, Mercutio handed Tybalt the bicycle pump and took Tybalt’s sword. When Tybalt thumped him in the stomach with the pump, Mercutio bent Tybalt’s sword over to a right angle, and then used it to play cricket. Mercutio’s final speech was delivered in as perky as fashion as I can remember from a dying man, while Romeo tried to strangle Tybalt at first, then turned his own blade on him. Benvolio’s clownish nature made his recounting of the fight seem feeble and petty, and so the prince’s concern, and the threat to the families, was again undercut.

The scene between Juliet and the nurse where Juliet discovered what has happened to Tybalt and Romeo, was excellent, with Mariah Gale’s reactions just perfect, and the nurse suitably deadened by the loss. This scene was intercut with the next, where Romeo and the Friar argued over whether banishment was good news or bad. The plus point here was that it got things over quicker, and the nurse could leave from one scene, then reappear quite quickly in the next, linking them together effectively. The down side was that each scene had to have long pauses in it to allow the other scene to continue. As Steve said, if they hadn’t mucked around so much with the rest of the play, this intercutting might have been effective, but as it was, it came across as simply part of the muddle. I quite liked it, but I take his point. I did notice yet again how Juliet talked herself out of despair, but Romeo needed the Friar’s help to stop him killing himself.

Now by this time, I was looking at my watch quite regularly, as I wanted a break, and time was passing, but we still had a little bit to go. Capulet talking with Paris got the expected laugh when he decided Wednesday is too soon, so the wedding will have to be on…..Thursday. Then we saw Romeo climb the balcony to meet his new wife; they kissed and started stripping each other off. The music swelled, the lights went out and it’s the interval. Fairly innocuous, you might think. Well it would have been, but for the high camp use of rays of gold streaming out from the upper level like a sunburst. Totally over the top, and hugely funny. I do hope that was the intention, but I suspect it wasn’t.

We were now two-thirds of the way through, so at least the final part would be quick. After comparing notes, and finding we were of one mind about the production so far, we braced ourselves for the final stint, and although there was much to laugh at, it was also this part that decided me (and Steve) on the three star rating. It was dire. From the still camp sunburst of the opening scene, where Juliet was reluctant to say goodbye, to the final body count at the cemetery, this performance mostly didn’t get past the comic atmosphere it had set up, and when it did, it was just plain boring.

The scene where Lady Capulet breaks the news to Juliet of her arranged marriage was done over breakfast (on the platform). Juliet’s sudden strength of character was fine, as were the rest of the family’s reactions, though I noticed Capulet had a tendency to crush fruit at every opportunity – he’d done it earlier before giving Peter the list of guests. Juliet’s decision to deceive the nurse was swift and unheralded, but fine, and for some strange reason, when the servants were clearing the stools, they held them in a line diagonally from the corner of the platform, so that Juliet could stride along them as she left the stage, with the servants whisking them off immediately afterwards – why?

The scene between Paris, the friar and Juliet was well done, though with her hoodie, the knife she draws on the friar and her agitated manner, she looks like she’s mugging him to get his spiritual counsel, something else that made me chuckle internally. The scene on Juliet’s return to her father and mother was equally OK. I was starting to lose the will to listen by this time, though. Also, I couldn’t stop smiling, and that’s not really the attitude that goes with this play, certainly not at this stage. Juliet’s final thoughts before drinking the potion were OK, and Tybalt’s ghost appeared just before she downed it, carrying a cloth folded across his arms. He placed it at the head of the platform/bed and left. Once Juliet had drunk the potion, she lay down, and started writhing about in some pain – why? It’s a sleeping draught, for heaven’s sake. The other characters whirled about, saying lines which presumably come from the play, until eventually, with Juliet almost in her death-like state, the nurse came in to wake her.

I’ve already commented on the reactions to Juliet’s death – at least seeing the funny side helped to pass the time. I was not only glad that Mercutio died this time around, I was now keen to see the lovers get it as well. I was very aware that the friar gives his instructions about Juliet’s ‘body’ so that his plan will work properly – not such a bungler as often appears, this one. Juliet’s body got up and walked off by itself – her father picked up the folded cloth to represent carrying her away, which worked quite well. No chance the musicians would get a look in, though.

Then it was Romeo in Mantua. Balthasar arrived, and for no reason I could see, sang part of his message to Romeo, attempting a falsetto delivery which didn’t quite come off tonight. This scene was staged with Balthasar on the upper level, and Romeo on the lower, facing forward. Not my favourite way of doing it, and the singing didn’t help either. The apothecary wasn’t as poor as some – dressed in modern clothes, he can apparently afford an iPod, so he must be doing something right.

The bad news came to Friar Laurence and he headed off to the vault, which was formed with the stairs forward and the platform raised. Juliet was carried in by several men and placed on the platform, still in her Elizabethan-style wedding dress. Paris came and went, Romeo kissed Juliet before he took the poison, and one nice touch here was that after the kiss he turned his back on her, and so missed her first stirrings from her sleep; one of those ‘if only’ moments. Pity I just didn’t care by then. He put the poison in a bottle of water and drank it off, crushing the bottle as he did so, which meant there was a plastic bottle knocking around for the remainder of the play, not that’s there’s long to go, thank goodness.

When Juliet woke up and discovered her husband dead beside her, she let out some weird and wonderful cries which made me think, it’s too late to fake an orgasm now, dear. The stabbing was OK, but again her screams were funny rather than moving. I’ve described the final stages already, and both Steve and I noticed there were major cuts in this section, including the bit about Lady Montague being dead. Just as well, as she was standing there large as life, a most unusual occurrence. Balthasar again attempted a song sometime during the final bit, but again the falsetto was too much and he finished it at regular pitch. We still have no idea why he was doing this. With no sign of a monument to the lovers, the final nail was put in the coffin of this play, as the star-crossed nature of the lovers became completely irrelevant. Minor players in a soap opera world. If ever a production could have presented the Nicholas Nickleby version of the Romeo and Juliet ending, this was it – that thought kept me giggling through much of the final part, and to be honest, using that ending would have improved my enjoyment enormously.

There were enough signs here of some good ideas and good performances, but a lot of work needs to be done to strip out the non-essentials and change the whole nature of the production. There were even some hip-hop/rapping references by Romeo and Juliet that felt really out of place. Unfortunately, a lot of folk at tonight’s performance loved it, so there won’t be much pressure for change for a while, even though a few folk left at the interval. We’re both intending to use our next appointments with this production to simply see how it develops, although the understudy run tomorrow obviously won’t have much time. Hopefully the understudies won’t be so extreme either. Wait and see.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at

Time And The Conways – May 2009


By J B Priestley

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Wednesday 27th May 2009

As Steve was saying on the walk back to Waterloo, there are some dramatists you can adapt to your heart’s content, Shakespeare being the most obvious one, and others whose work is much more specific, and which doesn’t necessarily benefit from superfluous gimmickry or convoluted interpretations. Today’s offering was a case of the latter. Fortunately, despite the director ‘Goolding’ the lily with his usual filmic flourishes, the performance was enjoyable enough and the actors mostly did a fine job given the limitations of the production.

The opening sequence was one of those superfluous touches. The metal curtain opened to give us a viewing slit, and with a curtain drawn part way across we could only see a small section of the stage. One of the characters, Hazel, was carrying a suitcase full of clothes and apparently running across the stage (but actually staying on one spot) while some of the other characters moved past behind her, presumably as if they were standing still or just milling around. It wasn’t very effective from my angle, and the few lines were lost in all the hustle and bustle. Then she actually did run forward and off at the side, while the curtain was pulled back. This left us with a long narrow slit showing very little of the set, letterbox viewing gone mad. All I could see was the top of someone’s head, and nothing else for about a minute. Then the metal curtains opened fully and Hazel finally came bursting into the room with the suitcase. A long start, and not a particularly good one. Did the curtain not open when it was meant to? Was the delay intended for some meaningful reason? Or did the complicated opening delay the start because the stage crew had to clear stuff out of the way? I neither know nor care.

The first act unfolded pretty uneventfully, introducing us to the family, their situation (father dead, but family still well off and both sons home safe from the war) and the time period, just after WW1. (See, some writers do manage to tell us these things without too much trouble.) We also get to meet two friends of the family: Joan, a friend of Hazel’s with her beady eye fixed firmly on Robin, the younger son who’s just been demobbed and turns up towards the end of the act, and Gerald, the young lawyer who looks after the family’s legal affairs. Gerald has also brought along Earnest Beevers, an intense young man who would nowadays be called a stalker. He’s got it bad for Hazel, and puts up with the snobbish attitudes of most of the family in order to get to her. The only family member who’s nice to him is Carol, the youngest. There’s also Alan, the elder son who has seen action and is now working as a clerk for the local council, Madge, the eldest daughter who’s rather plain with a good mind and a passion for socialist ideals and reform, and Kay, the birthday girl, whose party we’re seeing. She wants to be a writer, though she hasn’t produced anything she’s happy with yet. And of course there’s Mrs Conway, family matriarch and temperamental diva, capable of great shows of loving and great cruelty, though we don’t see so much of that in this first act.

Everyone is having a wonderful time in that scatty upper middle class way – mercifully the charades are done off stage – and despite a few ominous comments, the tone is light-hearted and happy. With Mrs Conway singing for the guests as the final piece of entertainment (top of the bill, as usual) only Kay sits in the darkened drawing room, listening to the music and trying to get her thoughts and feelings down on paper. Suddenly she has one of her ‘turns’, and we get a freeze frame effect, with the actress, spotlit, on the central seat while the walls start to move and the room revolves, so that we see her from different angles. Then the lights go out. Visually, it’s quite a good effect, but it does have the disadvantage of disconnecting Kay from the older version in the next act. The ‘traditional’ version simply has her going over to the window and being in that same position at the start of the second act. This time, I don’t remember where she was in the room, so the placement clearly wasn’t as evocative for me.

The second act shows us the Conways twenty years on. Another war is looming and the slump after the last war has wiped out most of the value of the family’s assets, those which Mrs Conway hasn’t squandered on the profligate Robin, now unhappily married to Joan and avoiding her and their two kids as much as he can. Well, they’d get in the way of his drinking and complaining about how bad his luck has been. His mother looks as though she’s had a mild stroke, although it may just be bitterness that makes her mouth twist that way when she talks, and she appears to have a greater fondness for port than before.

Hazel has married Earnest, who is doing very well for himself and their family, but he doesn’t intend to help the Conways out with his hard earned cash. Hazel is clearly able to afford whatever she wants, is completely miserable and terrified of Earnest, although I didn’t see much reason for it in this production. Alan is still a clerk with the local council, and despite the contempt some of others have for him, he’s really the most successful and certainly the happiest of the Conways. Kay is a journalist for some paper which sends her out to get stories on film stars. She hasn’t written anything serious for years, and judging by this portrayal, she’s a dipso lesbian with a drug habit and a job in a very camp woman’s prison. Hattie Morahan’s facial grimaces made it hard to engage with this central character. She seemed like a caricature, and long before the comment was made on stage I wondered if the director was deliberately trying to turn this act into another family charade. If so, it didn’t work for me at all.

Hazel was also a bit over the top in this scene I felt, while Ma Conway can get away with anything, such is her character. The others were fine, but the overall effect was spoiled by the lack of balance and I found some bits dragging during this and the final act which never usually happens with a Priestley play, at least not for me.

The drawing room was appropriately empty-looking for this scene in the future. The signs of vanishing fortune were writ large on the bare walls and in the lack of furniture compared with Act 1. At the end of the second act, Kay is standing at the mirror, and again the walls move, but this time the mirror swings in at an angle, and we get a series of similar mirrors, suitably reduced in size, with other actresses dressed like Kay standing at them. There’s a nonsensical movement sequence that ripples down the line, and then the mantelpiece lights are switched off one by one to end the act – another puzzling and unnecessary interpolation.

The final act opens with Kay back in the freeze frame position. They’d cleverly arranged some papers so they could cascade onto the floor and stay there, in mid flight. When the action started up again, she pushed the papers all the way onto the floor, which looked quite effective. Next we get to see some of the events referred to in the second act, and some of the ways that some members of the family bring about the unhappiness of the future. We see how casually Mrs Conway ruins Madge’s best chance at a loving relationship, how Robin woos and wins Joan (not that she was resisting) and we get to see Carol again, the one missing from the second act and described by Earnest as the best of the lot. Kay starts up the kind of grimacing that explains a lot about her future facial expressions, as echoes of the future come back to her. She wants Alan to tell her the lines from William Blake that had given her some comfort in the future, but he doesn’t know them yet. Mrs Conway makes some comfortable and glorious predictions about the family members, accompanied by some more pointless choreographed movements from the girls, and then Kay slips through the curtains at the back with Alan following. Mrs Conway heads off to sing, and then things get really weird.

The lights go down, the curtain comes across, and then goes back again to reveal a smaller proscenium arch with curtains. It seems to represent the Conways’ bow window and curtains. Carol steps through and does a little dance to accompany her mother’s singing, then she goes off and the curtains are drawn back to show us a gauze screen which is used to project images of Alan and Kay, as well as having the actors themselves there, moving in such as way as to interact with their other selves. Lines from the play were repeated at this stage, presumably another attempt to be ‘meaningful’. However it was all pretty pointless and meaningless and was really turning me off, but finally it ended, the lights went out, and the whole performance came to an ignominious end. I held my applause till the actors were actually present on stage, as I didn’t feel the production deserved any reward. The cast had worked hard though, so I wanted to acknowledge them for that, and several performances were as good as they could be in the circumstances. Adrian Scarborough as Earnest and Faye Castelow as Carol were the best for me.

Looking back this evening, I find that writing these notes has reminded me how much was missing from this production. I wasn’t as emotionally engaged, the tweaks and twiddles didn’t add to my enjoyment or understanding and mostly took away from it, and I feel cheated somehow, as if the ‘real’ play is still waiting to come out. I’m glad the National have decided to embrace the dramatic tradition of this country once again, but I hope we get some better productions of these classic plays from them in the future.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at

King Lear – February 2009


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: Young Vic Theatre

Date: Wednesday 11th February 2009

The set was interesting, and needs to be described in detail. We were sitting just to right of centre, in the second row. The seats this time were in a wide horseshoe, with the entrance off to our left. At the back of the stage was a set of concrete steps, some chipped and worn, with grasses and flowers sprouting from them; the effect was something like a disused railway station. There was a doorway back left, and about halfway down on that side there was a platform area, big enough to contain a trapdoor. On the right, there was a broken-off tunnel entrance towards the back, and another entrance nearer ground level. A small door on that side gave access under the stairs. Centre front, and very close to the front row (which is why we sat in the second row), was a water trough, partly filled with water. A curved tap arched over the left hand side of the trough, while the right hand side had a wooden cover, allowing it to be used as a seat. The trough was also used for the stocks. In the opening scene, there was a throne sitting in the middle of the steps, and two plush chairs front left and right. Other furniture was brought on as required, though as most entrances involved steps, it must have involved a lot of planning.

I enjoyed some parts of this production, but not all, and some of the choices left me completely detached. To begin with, there was a mix of accents, mostly northern but with a couple of Irish as well. I found the actors’ delivery was sometimes weak, and this wasn’t always helped by the accents. The performances were mostly very good, and the relationships between the characters were clear and generally believable. I didn’t take to Edmund; with his Irish accent and lack of clarity he didn’t come across so well for me. The smaller parts were fine, but didn’t have much to do, and although I found Cordelia lacking in personality in the early stages, I was aware for the first time towards the end that she’s reluctant to speak to Lear because she doesn’t know how he’ll feel about her.

For the other characters: the fool (Forbes Masson) was excellent, very bitter and clearly getting through to Lear with his comments. He’s also got a lovely singing voice, which was put to good use several times. Goneril was very good. She came across as an older daughter who’s seen her father behaving badly for many years, and has learned to stay quiet and out of the way till his fit is over or he’s left the room, and that’s what she does. She was very still during the love competition, while the others were doing their stuff, and she mostly looked away, at the ground or occasionally at her husband. She’s about seven months pregnant(?), which gives greater emphasis to Lear’s curses later on.

Regan is clearly the middle daughter, jealous because she’s missing out on his affection, and determined to put on a show of being loving, presumably to try and win Lear’s attention if not his love. She starts up a chorus of “for he’s a jolly good fellow” for Lear’s first entrance. Kent was OK, but didn’t come across strongly. He was wearing a dog collar (religious rather than canine), and neither of us could figure out why. I noticed in the scene with Gloucester, he didn’t have his disguising specs on, and when Gloucester refers to “poor banished Kent”, he realises this, slips them out of his pocket and puts them on discretely.

Gloucester himself was more bluff in manner than I’ve seen before, and the emotional changes didn’t come across as clearly as I’m used to – production rather than acting I suspect. On the whole, I got the impression that Rupert Goold didn’t want to be bothered with all that depressing emotional stuff that usually goes on in Lear, but he did want to have some splendid visual stuff instead, preferably gory and with a high yeugh factor. So for the blinding scene – and this is a first, me actually watching any part of this bit – the second eye was removed by Regan herself. Cornwall held Gloucester down while she pressed on the second eyeball with her manicured fingers, finally leaning forward and sucking the eyeball out with ferocity and for quite a long time. She then stood up and slowly, very slowly, moved towards the water trough at the front, mouth unmoving. At last she squirted the fake eyeball out of her mouth and collapsed over the trough, retching away. Pretty yeugh, for me and quite a lot of the audience. And there was more to come, though nothing can be quite as bad as that scene.

When Edgar comes forward promptly (for once) at the third blast of the trumpet (didn’t sound much like a trumpet to me, and the answering blasts on the siren seemed a bit unnecessary), he emerges from below the rear step with a Union Jack wrapped round his face as a mask, carrying a pole with a small yellow flag on it, and with two wooden swords tied to his waist with a twine belt. Edmund and Edgar then start their fight with these swords, but it’s a silly business, swatting each other’s swords like children, and it’s only when they discard the swords that the real fight begins. They grapple pretty viciously, and finally Edgar gets Edmund on his back on the ground. That’s when the swords come back into play. Or at least one of them. Edgar pushes the point of it into Edmund’s mouth to kill him. It’s unpleasant, it’s messy, and it doesn’t strike me as being an effective way of fatally wounding someone so that they’ll be around just long enough for the reconciliation, the (belated) warning about Lear and Cordelia, and some final words about the two dead daughters. But that’s just me. Anyway, they’d lost me on Edgar’s bizarre entrance, and didn’t manage to get me back again before the end.

Neither of us could figure out the reasoning behind that choice of wooden swords during the trip back to the hotel, though in the morning I realised that it might have been due to the use of modern weaponry in this production. How do you square the sudden use of swords when they’ve been brandishing various types of firearm all evening? Personally I don’t have a problem with that idea – people could still fight a duel with swords if they wanted to – but it’s the only idea I could come up with for that choice.

We had watched the Newsnight Review section on this production, and so we were slightly surprised tonight that certain things were different, particularly the loss of the three glass cases which had been used to demonstrate splitting the kingdom. Whether it was for practical or artistic reasons, these were replaced with three pieces of paper, or envelopes. That worked just as well, for me, and prevented the stage being cluttered up with unwieldy props.

There were a number of other interesting or unusual stagings. When Lear is out in the storm, and Gloucester rescues him, he takes them to a potting shed, where instead of a joint stool, we have two pot plants. The actual plants are removed, so only the pots are being put on trial. The bench in this shed is the one used when Gloucester is being blinded. (No need to go into that again.) Earlier, when Edmund is seducing his father to the dark side, it’s staged with Gloucester as the two lads’ trainer, sitting near the top of the steps while they do their exercises and Edgar goes for several laps of the theatre. During his time off stage, Edmund works on their father, and there are glances at Edgar as he goes by during this scene, with Edmund having to restrain the duke on Edgar’s final pass. Edgar is then conveniently present for Edmund to work on alone. This certainly has the advantages of showing us that Edmund is a risk-taker, and letting novices know who Edgar is, but I found it contrived, and as the idea wasn’t used again, it didn’t deepen my understanding of the characters nor the production.

The fool didn’t die in the storm or afterwards; this time he apparently gets to Dover. He’s with Lear in the awakening scene, dressed in a doctor’s white coat, but with his fool’s outfit underneath, his hat (coxcomb) in his hand, and still wearing his makeup. Well, they do say that laughter’s the best medicine. So when Lear is mourning, amongst other things, that his “poor fool is dead”, it’s likely he also has been hanged for being on the losing side.

The storm scene was an unusual combination of music, movement, water and dialogue. Lear used a microphone – there was another one during the “who loves me best” scene – and he is carried on by the cast, initially held aloft and then lowered to the ground. There’s a fine mist of water coming down over the steps where all this takes place, the music is very loud, and what with the cast doing some slow and impenetrable mime or dance during all this, I completely lost the lines and any sense of what was going on, intellectually or emotionally. It may have looked good, temporarily, but so much was lost that I would have to rate this as the worst staging of the storm scene that I’ve experienced. The water, by the way, ran onto the floor space, but didn’t get anyone else wet. And Goneril went into labour at this point, clutching her belly and having to be helped off (I think). When she turns up back home to discover the news about Cornwall being dead and the war about to start, she’s pushing a pram, so the birth was successful, and the baby is soon picked up by Albany – he’s more maternal than Goneril, especially in this production.

At the end of the second section – we had an interval and a pause tonight – Cordelia appears at the back with a soldier, and they do a slow-motion thing, backlit, to show that she’s arrived. OK, but didn’t do a lot for me. The early scenes with Lear’s unruly knights were a bit lacking in the knight department, and in general there was more of the domestic about this production than others I’ve seen. Regan is poisoned by a strawberry French fancy, the only one on the plate (the others are chocolate).

So to the main event, as it were, the central performance itself. Pete Postlethwaite is a tremendous actor, and his performance didn’t disappoint. I felt the production hampered it occasionally, but it still shone through, filled with an intelligent understanding of the human experience and the talent to show us lots of small details in what is a huge performance. The production choices meant that this was more of a working-class Lear, a family man who doesn’t understand what family’s about, and who shows remarkably little interest in his future grandchild, though perhaps grandparenthood only kicks in for some people when the baby’s actually born. His erratic behaviour is corroborated by his daughters’ different responses to him. Certainly, they have different personalities, but their attitudes have been shaped by long years with a temperamental man, who can shower affection one minut, and be a block of ice the next. The set implies that Lear hasn’t been a very good king – everything seems to be going to rack and ruin, and Lear’s comment about not having cared enough for the poor compliments this. Despite this, we have Kent and Gloucester, both of whom are loyal and also surprised when Lear banishes Cordelia. This is always a puzzle, and I felt this production didn’t even attempt to provide an answer. Which is fine, though it doesn’t add to my understanding of the play.

Lear was suitably full of himself at the start, all jolly and looking forward to the wonderful things his daughters were going to say about him, especially Cordelia. He brought on the microphone stand himself, and set it up to the left on the lower steps. Goneril was slow to get started, but did her best, Regan had to think for a bit to outdo her sister, and Cordelia, sitting on the trough, gave us all her asides by leaping into the middle of the stage. Lear’s rage at her refusal to play his game was good, and by throwing the last envelope on the floor, we could enjoy a little tussle between Cornwall and Albany about who gets it first.

Lear’s anger when returning from hunting to find all is not at it should be, came across as bluster more than real rage. He’s so used to being obeyed that he doesn’t know how to handle disrespect. Another sign of a decadent kingdom, when he hasn’t even had any opponents to deal with. As I’ve said, the fool was very bitter this time, and Lear does take his points on board, starting to realise that he’s done a foolish thing. His cursing of Goneril is perhaps more powerful with her being pregnant, but as the text doesn’t include her pregnancy, it actually lost some power for me because the obvious bump in her middle wasn’t being referred to explicitly. She holds it together well while he’s there, but she’s clearly shaken by it.

His descent into madness during the storm was obscured by the effects and music, sadly, though I did find it moving at times, and entirely believable. Later, at Dover, with Gloucester saved from himself, Lear appears in a woman’s front-buttoning dress, a floral print with a low V-neck. It’s very fetching, and sets the tone for the following conversation with Gloucester, which was more humorous in this production than I’ve seen before. It was still an emotional experience, mainly due to Edgar’s comments, but there’s always a risk that too much humour will lighten the mood so much that the darker elements don’t get a chance, and I think that happened a little bit here. Lear has been banging away at his crotch during some of his rants, and just before Gloucester asks to kiss his hand, Lear realises he’s produced some unfortunate substance from his nether regions, and gives it a wipe first.

The rest was all fine, and Lear died on the upper steps, with support from some other characters and Cordelia in his lap. The final lines were OK, though as I say I was out of the loop by that time, and they were running late, but the final touch was a nice one. I was very aware that with the birth of Goneril’s baby, there was now a proper heir to the crown, not the usual situation in this play. Albany’s request to Kent and Edgar, now Duke of Gloucester, to rule the country is therefore asking them to be regents rather than joint kings, and the final sound of the play is that of a baby crying. And why not, given the world his elders have left him?

Ultimately this was a patchy version of the play, with some good ideas and some less than helpful stagings. I’m glad I’ve seen it, and perhaps I won’t be so squeamish about the blinding scene in future – it’s unlikely I’ll ever see anything more unpleasant than this one.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at

Six Characters In Search Of An Author – July 2008


By Luigi Pirandello, in a new version by Rupert Goold and Ben Power

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Wednesday 2nd July 2008

This was a typical Rupert Goold production – a number of really good ideas but patchy in execution. I have wanted to see this play for a long time, as I’m a great fan of Pirandello – I’m still waiting! The adaptation was so wide-ranging that I felt I wasn’t necessarily getting a reasonable picture of the original intention. I may be wrong, but without knowing more about the play, I won’t be able to tell. Even so, there was a lot to enjoy in this production, although it did have some tedious bits as well.

The ‘plot’ is almost irrelevant. The intention of the piece is to explore the nature of reality and truth, and to challenge the audience’s perceptions. The overall idea was of a documentary film team, reviewing their work on a euthanasia story with the executive producer, and then being hijacked by a bizarre group of people who claim to be six abandoned characters looking for an author to help them tell their stories. The performance then unravels layer upon layer of reality, often with disturbing or uncomfortable images, including paedophilia, rape, murder, etc. Pirandello himself even puts in an appearance, to complain that he doesn’t know how to end the piece. He didn’t know what should be in the rest of it, either, if one of the conversations in this adaptation is anything to go by – he wrote six different versions of the play.

The set was a suitably bleak utilitarian office space, with various tables, chairs, computers, etc. spread around. Behind this office, visible through the windows, is a widthways corridor with another office space on the other side of that. The opening scene has the documentary team reviewing the tape, and stopping it a couple of times to make comments. At one point, a doctor who’s speaking to camera puts her hand up to her eye as if she’s crying – well, it’s a sad subject. However, as a long-standing contact lens wearer, I could see that the hand movement wasn’t quite right for an emotional reaction – I guessed she had something in her eye, and so it turned out. Her contact lens had shifted. It was a neat trick, though, reminding us how easily these sorts of things can be exploited in the editing suite to give a completely false perspective of the situation.

The discussion during this phase was full of topical references, and almost constantly referenced the current climate where so many revelations of fakery have led to program makers cracking down in all areas. There was also an explanation of the difference between drama documentary and docu-drama – don’t expect me to tell you now, I didn’t really understand it at the time. A lot of it seemed like splitting hairs, but what did come across, here and elsewhere,  was the definite belief that faking an event can somehow be more ‘real’ and truthful than filming the actual occurrence. (Doesn’t work for sporting events, mind you.)

The executive has left, to the accompaniment of a finger and several gratuitous insults, and the team are considering their options when six people troop into the room. All dressed in black, three of them, the father, mother and one of the daughters, start to plead to be given the chance to tell their story. The other three characters, a young boy and girl, and an older boy, pretty much stay silent throughout this scene, and indeed for most of the play.

The father and the feisty daughter (not actually his, we discover) are at odds, and it soon becomes clear that he’s been doing something he shouldn’t have with her. The mother is a highly dramatic person, very Italian and expressive. Played by Eleanor David, she’s also drop-dead gorgeous, and sings divinely, but more of that later. The basic story is that the father employed a handsome young secretary, the secretary and the mother fell for each other, the father allowed it and even encouraged them to set up house together with his financial support, they ended up leaving town and when the secretary died, the mother returned with her three children – the two girls and the younger boy – and the father knew nothing about it. When he visited a local brothel (twinned with a hat shop), he doesn’t recognise the girl in the bedroom as his step-daughter. The mother discovers them together, and is deeply shocked. The father then takes them all back to his house, where his son, the legitimate one, takes against the new family members with all the resentment of the young. He’s not too keen on his mother for deserting him, either. She felt she was turned out by her husband, and so it goes on, each person having a different view of the events. Actually, the story that does emerge is fairly coherent, and I felt it was only the interpretations and reactions to it that varied, rather than actual ‘facts’, if a fictional story can have any of those.

The producer is gradually won over by this bizarre crew. Not interested at the start, she becomes intrigued by their pleading. She’s initially torn by her desire to do justice to her original story about assisted euthanasia, and she takes some persuading to put that aside and spend some of her precious time recording the details of this new account. She already has a couple of actors available for dramatic reconstructions, so she asks her team to get a suitable set prepared for filming. This takes some time to set up, and instead of an interval, we sit through the cumbersome set construction, with a couple of clips from the documentary footage showing on the screens. The first clip is simply recording the producers feelings as they arrive in Holland, and the second I’ve forgotten the details of, but I think it showed more of the euthanasia stuff. The first wasn’t particularly interesting, the second was a bit better, but on the whole I would have preferred to have taken a break at this point.

The second scene was definitely the most entertaining of the evening. The installed set represents the bedroom in which the father and the daughter are found by the mother in a sexually explicit, though not climactic, situation. The two main participants are concerned to get the room right, while the film crew just want to get on with it. There’s a lot of fun in the way the producer tries to placate the characters, especially when they find out that they won’t be doing the scene themselves. The actors will be recreating the scene for the cameras. This is where most of the ideas about recreations being more faithful to the truth comes out, and I found it hugely entertaining to see actors, playing ‘real’ characters telling another actress, playing a producer, that they could do a better job than the actors because they are the events, i.e. the events are entirely what they are about, and they only live through these events. It’s fun juggling all these different levels of reality, though I can see why Pirandello found this play so difficult to write. Anyway, the characters eventually accept the situation, and after describing their experiences a bit, the actors get down to it.

This was the funniest bit of the play, as the actors do their warm-ups and try to get into their roles. As they attempt to do the scene in the bedroom, the characters fill in more of the details, and it turns out that a certain Mr Pace (pronounce Pa-chay) had been present at the time – owner of the hat business as well as pimp. The hat business employed the mother, and Mr Pace employed the daughter in other ways. The producer asks if they can get hold of Mr Pace, and the characters oblige by summoning him with lots of hats (from the studio’s store). With much grunting and a few other weird noises, Mr Pace emerges from underneath the bed, an impressive trick, and one I didn’t expect after seeing the stuff brought on to build the floor. Mr Pace is what I would call a grotesque, all flailing arms and a weird accent. There’s some sexual action on the bed, which the producer cuts short, and then we get the scene between the father and daughter. Turns out he brought along a child’s dress for her to wear, and since we’d heard he also stalked the girl when she was still known to him as his step-daughter, it’s clear he’s someone who prefers them young. It’s a dark and quite powerful section of the play, strong meat for now never mind the 1920s when it was written. Now they’re into their stride these two warring characters are working together to tell this story, and it’s brought a lot of depth to what was a relatively superficial piece up to this point.

Just as the father is about to get more deeply involved, as it were, the mother bursts into the room, and starts singing. Not any words, just sounds, amazing sounds, expressing her emotions wonderfully. I was taken aback at first, but after a few seconds I realised what was happening and really enjoyed it. I felt in need of something to express the emotions that the previous bit had stirred up, and this was perfect. The singing went on for some time, and the father joined in with a weird barking howl that I can’t adequately describe. It got across both his suffering and his disfunctionality.

I think the interval came just after this, but I don’t really remember the detail. With such a mixed up play, it’s hard to get a grip on the order of things. The second half started with a video clip of the producer talking about how important documentary making was to her, and how she saw her role in that process. There were a couple of screens for viewing these clips. One dropped down centrally, and gave a big but grainy picture, while another was positioned over to our left, and gave a better quality but smaller picture. From our distance, we couldn’t see much detail on that one. When the film crew were working, there were often other screens in the office showing the pictures as well, and I could also see the screen on the camera, for example when they were filming the daughter being interviewed about the bedroom events.

During the interval the installed set and most of the office paraphernalia were cleared, and a large rectangular water tank was wheeled on. Placed centrally, it had what seemed to be fronds and rather milky water in it. Other than that, and possibly a chair or two, the room was bare. The characters arrive, with the producer, who is carrying a camcorder. She doesn’t know where they are, and the father explains she’s now in the story with them. She resists this notion, but he questions her on who she is, even showing her a clip from a much earlier interview where she expresses a completely different point of view about euthanasia from her current one. The father’s argument seems to be that as they (the characters) are unchanging, and she, and all other ‘real’ people are constantly changing, then the fictional characters are more real than the ‘real’ people. It’s a load of rubbish, but he is so convincing, and she is so uncertain that she accepts it in the same way as a rabbit accepts the oncoming car bumper.

The final part of their story is now revealed. With so many negative emotions swirling around in that ‘family’, it’s not surprising that  a tragedy happens. The tank represents a pond in the garden of the house. With the mother and father away, the elder daughter and legitimate son head off to the forest to get to know one another better, leaving the two younger children unsupervised in the garden. First the girl falls into the pond and drowns (she had a hidden breathing tube, so she could stay under for a horribly long time), and then the boy gives himself a fatal injection and dies. The producer is horrified by this. She doesn’t appear to do anything to try to save the girl, but then this is only a representation of the garden – she may have been many yards away instead of a few feet. However, her scream at the drowning is what the other characters hear, and which alerts them to the deaths, mingling the layers of ‘reality’ beyond any hope of disentanglement.

With the boy, the producer tries to get help for him, and picking him up she runs out of the theatre. We know she does this, because the screens now take up the story and show us a film of her running downstairs, across to the main house (oh, of course, it’s The Music Man tonight) running into the main house, into the auditorium, onto the stage (seventy-six trombones, if you’re interested), off again, and back the way she came, still clutching the boy, and still not getting any help, despite the fact that the theatre staff were very obligingly holding doors open for this poor woman who’s carrying a young boy in her arms, clearly distressed. I found this part quite boring. It’s been done before (Fram, Brief Encounter), it didn’t add anything to my understanding of the emotional content of the scene, the attempted layering of realities would have worked better if the theatre staff hadn’t been so obviously present (I’ve always found them very solicitous and helpful on the rare occasions I’ve been in need), and I can’t for the life of me think of any good reason why this film was necessary. The boy was just as dead at the end of it as he was before, and she was just as distressed.

Returning to the Minerva stage, the producer collapses in a heap by the back wall of the office, and from there she witnesses a strange series of events. On the big screen, the director’s comments option is highlighted, and we hear a couple of voices talking about the film they’ve just made. It’s about a documentary team who get taken over by some characters, etc. The fun here was in the reshowing of the first scene. All the original characters are there, and apart from the producer, go through the same actions. The voices don’t need to see it all, however, so they fast forward through bits of it, and the actors on stage have to do the scene very fast. It’s hilariously funny. As I recall, the producer stays where she is, but says her lines as needed. Then the back office is lit up, and the same executive is listening to two guys selling him their concept for adapting Six Characters. It’s just out of copyright and they want to get in before the National does its version. The executive goes along with it, finding the idea of the stupid executive in the adaptation very funny, and phones up somebody to get clearance from the estate for this version to go ahead. This is where we get the information about Pirandello writing six different versions.

Then there’s a strange bit where the two guys pitching the idea are butchered by the father and daughter, and then we see Pirandello working hard to finish at least one version of the play. His servant(?) comes in to tell him dinner’s ready, and they have what appears to be a forgettable conversation, and then that’s all cleared and the back office lights up again. This time it contains the family of characters, preparing a bed for the producer. She goes through, takes to the bed, and accepts the syringe she’s given, injecting herself before lying down in the bed, lovingly looked after by the fatal group. I think that’s how it ended, but it seemed to disintegrate in the later stages, so I may be misremembering.

There was a suitably Pirandello-ish moment at the end when the actors came trooping on to take their bows. The young lad who was ‘dead’ at the back of the office didn’t move, and for a moment or two I wondered if this was another level of confusion for the audience. But it wasn’t. He got up, they all took their bows and headed off, while we hung on for the post-show (where we found out he had simply fallen asleep).

Before I mention any post-show comments, I’ve a few of my own concerning the evening’s entertainment. All the actors gave excellent performances. Ian McDiarmid as the father was wonderfully creepy, yet authoritative. Eleanor David I have already mentioned, and Denise Gough as the step-daughter was superb at showing us her anger and her disturbing involvement in prostitution. I will also mention Dylan Dwyfor as the legitimate son, whom we have seen before in The Comedy Of Errors in the RSC’s Complete Works Festival (Young Person’s Shakespeare). He didn’t get a lot of lines, and his character mainly sulks in the background, but he did it well.

My main praise though has to be for Noma Dumezweni as the producer. In many ways she holds this piece together, and as the crossover character she allows us into that nightmare world of uncertainty about our own existences. The producer had been deeply affected by her sister’s long illness and death, and that had caused her attitude towards euthanasia to shift 180 degrees. She was also perhaps looking for a way out for herself, and so this final choice didn’t feel like a new idea, but something that had been building for quite some time. I did feel at times that the characters were actually mass murderers, and that they’d be off to find another victim as soon as they’d buried this one, offering to tell their story again with equally deadly results.

One point that was made during the play and again in the post-show was that fictional characters are eternal. Bollocks. There are a lot of lost works of fiction that nobody remembers, so as far as this physical level is concerned, all their characters are dead. As dodos. For other levels of existence, that’s a different matter, but then the rules for ‘real’ people change at other levels too, so it’s still a silly point. Comes of people fearing death and wanting something to live forever, I suppose.

The post-show attracted a lot of people this time, more than usual for the Minerva. There were the inevitable questions about what the play meant, what was going on and what actually happened. No satisfactory answers were forthcoming, unsurprisingly. A woman expressed a more general concern about the young boy being present during some pretty disturbing activities, but we were reassured by the cast that he wasn’t at all bothered about it. He often had his back to the action, and didn’t really understand what was going on. We found out about the breathing tube, and apparently the actress diving in to ‘drown’ found it really exciting to do. (If you ever needed proof that actors are strange…..) I found I was out of step with the majority of the crowd, so I refrained from making any comments as I see no need to spoil the party on such occasions and I couldn’t think of any constructive questions to ask. On the whole, the audience were puzzled but appreciative, whereas I was not so much puzzled as disappointed, but on reflection it may have been a better production than I experienced on the night. It was still in the review period, so there may well be changes as they get more experience.

It’s certainly a very Chichester-based production, and with a lot of contemporary references, it won’t transfer to another stage or time easily. However the central idea of the adaptation wasn’t bad, and it seems other directors have made huge changes as well in the past, so we may never see a ‘traditional’ production ever in our lifetimes. Get used to it.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at