Waste – October 2008

5/10

By Harley Granville Barker

Directed by Sam West

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 25th October 2008

This was a bit of a waste, as it turned out. The talent was there, but the style of the piece just didn’t allow me to enjoy it as much as I had before, although the similarities with current events were abundantly clear.

To begin with, I forgot to get the remote for my hearing aids out, and so I missed some of the early dialogue which was just too quiet for me to catch. Having said that, even with my aids on full volume I still missed some of the later dialogue, either because the lines weren’t said clearly enough – the intonation or diction were a little sloppy – or because the set design meant that characters were addressing the far wall in order to speak to other characters, and didn’t project enough to fill even that small space. The amount of coughing was also a problem, and several lines were lost under that fusillade.

Even so I heard enough to get the gist of the story, though I didn’t remember the details from the earlier production we saw at the RSC. The opening scenes of each half were by far the best for us, especially the start of the second half, when the politicians gather to protect one of their own. The story concerns an independent MP, Henry Trebell, who has an affair with the wife of an Irish Catholic. When she gets pregnant by him, she decides to have an abortion, and that operation goes tragically wrong, resulting in her death. If the affair becomes public during the inquest, the bill which Trebell has been drafted into the Cabinet to spearhead, will fail. This bill is to disestablish the Church of England, and remove its connection to and influence on the British Parliament. So, lots of contentious issues there, and the play is even stronger because Trebell decides to kill himself once he loses his government appointment. The bill was his real baby; he comes across as a cold and pretty heartless person apart from his love of change, and especially change in this area. It’s not too surprising that the Lord Chamberlain refused to allow the original version onto the stage, and even this revised version had a long wait to appear in public.

The performances were mostly very good, clarity of speech aside, and my only real problem was in the portrayal of the two lovers. Trebell was too cold to be entirely believable as a man with carnal passions, and Amy O’Connell, the supposed lover, was a strange character, strong then weak, cynical then neurotic, so I could never make up my mind what was going on with her. With this weakness at the heart of the play, or rather this lack of a heart to the play, I found only the scenes with the politicians were really interesting, and the rest were tolerable. Hugh Ross as Cyril Horsham, the newly-elected Prime Minister, was excellent, as were all of his Cabinet, and I enjoyed Bruce Alexander as Gilbert Wedgecroft, a doctor who was closely connected to all these powerful people, and who could give us information on the abortion front, not that the word itself was bandied around much.

Finally, the set was an interesting design. There were three locations, and the design allowed for all of them. The opening scene was in a v-shaped drawing-room, with a door to our left, a corner of the room going back to some French windows, and a bookcase to our right. There was a piano and various chairs and sofas. With very little work, the central part of the set was rotated, and the “v” of the corner became another corner pointing outwards, making an “L” shaped office space. The door became a bookcase, the bookcase became a door, there was a desk and chairs, and voila, we are in Trebell’s office. The politicians gathered in a reprise of the first room, though now done up as a library, and then it’s back to the office for the final scenes. Very economical and effective.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Dealer’s Choice – March 2008

8/10

By Patrick Marber

Directed by Samuel West

Venue: Trafalgar Studio 1

Date: Thursday 20th March 2008

I was hugely impressed by this play, as well as the production. This was Patrick Marber’s first effort at playwriting, apparently, and it’s tremendously well constructed, with plenty of insight and humour. A modern classic.

The first half of the play takes us up to just before the poker game starts, while the second half covers parts of the game itself. The game is held in the cellar of a restaurant, with the earlier scenes being set in the restaurant and kitchen up above, allowing for an interesting scene change during the interval. The players are mainly those connected to the restaurant – the owner, his staff and his son – but tonight there’s a new player to contend with. The son, Carl, owes money to Ash, who’s been subbing him and teaching him how to play poker, blackjack, etc. Carl fits nicely into the category known as “mug punter”, and doesn’t have the money that Ash needs to pay his debts, so Carl gets Ash a seat at the poker game downstairs. With his talent, Ash makes plenty towards covering what he owes.

We’ve already spent the first couple of acts learning about the other characters. Stephen, the restaurant owner, is a fairly tough cookie, but his son is definitely a weak spot in his armour. The chef, Sweeney, has plans to visit his daughter the next day, and initially says he won’t be playing, but gets suckered in as usual, losing all his money. Mugsy, the junior waiter, is well named. He has aspirations, which at this point consist of planning to open up a fancy restaurant in the Mile End road in a converted public loo. He also loses his money, so the prospects don’t look good, but he is good value in terms of humour, with his immature attitudes and boundless enthusiasm. The other waiter, Frankie, is more sensible, though that’s not saying a lot in this company. Ash cleans up at the table, though as someone points out near the end, he’s welcomed at the big boys’ tables because he’s their mug player, even if he’s better than this crowd.

The cast included Ross Boatman, a well-known poker player himself, but despite the emphasis on poker it wasn’t so much about that as about the characters and how they’re hooked on gambling. The performances were all excellent, the set was very good, and I’m glad I’ve finally seen this play.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Betrayal – July 2007

5/10

By: Harold Pinter

Directed by: Roger Michell

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 12th July 2007

We’ve seen this play before, so I knew the general setup before it started. It’s basically the story of a love affair, told in reverse, with the final outcome shown first, and the start of the affair at the end. It’s an interesting structure, and means I have to pay attention even more.

With such an excellent cast – Sam West, Dervla Kirwan and Toby Stephens – I tried to keep my expectations low so as not to be disappointed. What I felt with this production was that the play is actually quite slight, that the reverse order is necessary to hide this fact, and that the interest is in the acting performances, which in this case were superb. Dervla as Emma came across as quite vulnerable at first, a person of refinement and sensitivity who rarely unleashes her emotions. In fact, she spends most of the play looking miserable, with only a short spell of actual happiness in the middle of the affair, and a sense of anticipation at the start (which we see at the end).

Toby Stephens as Jerry, Robert’s best friend who also sleeps with his wife, was wonderfully louche. He was stunned to find out that Robert had known about the affair for years, and was practically stalking Emma to get the affair started. Robert, played by Sam West, is rather prissy, wears velvet suits, and could come across as quite cruel at times. However, Steve reckoned his reported confession of his own affairs was a sham, designed to make it easier to end the marriage. I’m not so sure; it seemed to me he was simply concerned to keep his relationship with Jerry more than his marriage.

The set was fairly plain. There were long, lightweight curtains floating down from a track, and these were moved around, almost like a soft furnishing train set, not to create settings but to indicate the passage of time, usually in reverse. Bed, table and chairs were brought on and off as needed, often obscured by the curtains, and a range of years were projected onto the back wall and curtains as they moved. The year of each scene was clearly defined before it started.

Looking back, I find it hard to understand why Emma married Robert in the first place, but then that’s a natural part of other people’s relationships. I can’t fault anything with the performances, I just didn’t find this totally satisfying.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

As You Like It – March 2007

6/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Sam West

Company: Sheffield Theatres

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 8th March 2007

This was an interesting and often enjoyable version of As You Like It, or, given the sheer amount of dressing up opportunities, Hat You Like It. There was a great deal to like about the staging, and the performances, and above all, it was fantastic to see and hear Will’s actual words, and see women playing the women’s parts (even if one did pretend to be a man occasionally) – it’s been so long!

This production opens with Jacques coming into the auditorium, as if at the last minute, and looking for his seat. After worrying some of the front row across from us, he suddenly strides across the stage, declaiming “All the world’s a stage…” and the action begins. Several actors carry on a long oblong form, covered in a black cloth, obviously representing a coffin, while Rosalind and her father, also dressed in black, stand together at the front of the stage. Orlando stands by the coffin, flanked by two umbrella bearers, clearly mourning his recently departed father, while Rosalind’s father takes his leave of her. Both characters are left, alone, mourning their lost fathers. I liked the juxtaposition of these two scenes, and it occurred to me that perhaps they’re linked causally as well as emotionally – perhaps the death of Sir Roland de Boys, a supporter of Duke senior, led to his banishment, as he no longer held the balance of power at the court.

Next comes the opening scene proper, as the coffin is transformed into a bench, by simply removing the cloth covering it. Orlando does this, after removing his own coat, and with Adam, begins to pick up the apples scattered in front of the bench by another actor. Orlando’s complaints came across very well; it’s easy to understand why he’s frustrated and angry, and the following dialogue between Orlando and his brother Oliver makes it clear that they just don’t get on. If only Jerry Springer had been around in those days to help heal their relationship! The scuffle whereby Orlando demonstrates his wrestling credentials was well done, although I did get a bit worried when the carpet they were fighting on got rucked up, in case someone tripped over and hurt themselves. But all was well. Now, where can I find a bookie and get a quick bet on Orlando for the wrestling match?

Charles the wrestler was one of the best I’ve seen, all charming Italian, and apparently willing to help Oliver out by killing his brother. Oliver’s non-explanation of his hatred for Orlando was good. It made me think this was just one of those karmic things – a necessary negative flaw which would help to resolve the situation over time. In any case, he made a good villain, more realistic than some I’ve seen.

There was one line that caused a laugh for reasons other than the text or business. Charles refers to the banished Duke living in the forest of Ardennes (as this is France, theoretically), and compares him to Robin Hood. Given that Orlando is played by Sam Troughton, recently seen in the latest incarnation of Robin Hood on TV, most of the audience spotted the humour.

The next scene takes us to the court, and this is represented by several mounted antlers being lowered in front of the back curtain. I did enjoy this. We could see the Duke in his wheelchair behind the curtain, with his men, but first we get to see Rosalind and Celia, as they slip through the curtain and spend some time away from the company.

These were two very good performances, and once again, we have a Celia who is a good match for Rosalind. I notice when I see such a balanced pairing, how many lines Celia actually has. Often, she hardly seems to speak a line, but in this production, as with Amanda Harris’s portrayal, she came across as a strong character in her own right, at times stronger than Rosalind.

The girls are obviously very good friends, and their teasing of Le Beau is merciless. I often feel sorry for Le Beau, and I was wondering if they would send this one into the forest to find Duke senior. Touchstone is also introduced at this point, and although I enjoyed some of this role tonight, I didn’t feel I really “got” what he was about, and some of his lines were pretty dull. But it is a difficult part, so no criticism of the actor is intended.

The wrestling was reasonably well done, although I wasn’t keen on the “spare” actors stamping on the ground as it was going on. The growing attraction between Rosalind and Orlando was nicely done, even though I couldn’t see all of the expressions from our position. The Duke’s change of attitude when he hears of Orlando’s parentage was very clear, and added even more to the feeling of menace created by his body guards, one of whom had drawn a gun on Orlando when he announced who his father was. We knew something bad was going to happen. Le Beau’s assistance to Orlando seemed pretty full this time, and he’s obviously going to have to leave the court, as he’s overheard by the gun-toting minder. In fact, just about everyone’s leaving the court – Rosalind and Celia disappear with Touchstone, Oliver’s sent a-wandering to find his brother, and we don’t go back to the court after that, so who’s banished whom?

Rosalind and Celia’s leaving plans seemed more mature this time around, more of a plan than just desperation. Adam’s warning to Orlando was OK, but this bit often seems to drag, and this was no different, especially as there were some long pauses between lines. Fortunately, we’re soon off to the forest, and down come the antlers.

This is where it all starts going a bit pear-shaped for me. I did enjoy the staging up to now. The use of the coffin/bench, the apples (the scene is in an orchard), the antlers, etc. Once in the forest, things became a little crazy. In some ways, this is fine, as there’s that magical, fantastical element to the second half of the play. However, I didn’t find the staging giving me the sense of letting go so much as annoying and distracting me. Some elements were just plonked down on the stage without being related to the performance in any way I could fathom (what was that massive bird all about?), while some aspects worked really well for me, for example, the silver cut-out tree, raised up by Corin and Silvius. I didn’t entirely go for ribbons being draped on it instead of sheets of paper, but at least it looked pretty. At the end of the first half, either Audrey or Phoebe came on while the Duke is threatening Oliver, and placed a tiny sculpture on the far side of the stage, towards the front. She then sprinkled some sand(?) over it. Why? During the interval, this was replaced by short sticks, with hats sitting on top of them. I guessed this was a bigger version of the sculpture, though it was just a guess, but I still didn’t have a clue why this was on the stage. Some characters used some of the hats during the second half, admittedly, but not enough to justify it, given how it got in the way of some of the action. There was also a huge balloon, which lit up. Hooray. God bless modern art, and preferably bless it as far away from me as possible.

Enough of the ranting and raving, on with the production. The character who tells Duke senior about Jacques and the stag by the river is…. Jacques. His disguise is pitiful, though the way it was played, he apparently fooled the Duke, but not his followers. Puzzling, yet sadly not inspiring. By the time Orlando waves his large sword (now how did he come by that in the middle of a forest when he didn’t bring one with him?) at the Duke and his men to get some food, I was getting a little tired of Sam Troughton’s tendency to bellow his lines most of the time. I know I’m usually complaining about lack of volume, so this should make a pleasant change, but I did find myself longing for a remote so I could turn the sound down a bit.

As a boost to the cross-dressing theme, Orlando is wandering round the forest wearing a double string of pearls. Instead of the usual pendant which Rosalind gives him, she’s handed over her pearl necklace, and this, together with a stronger than usual hint of eye makeup, gives Orlando a distinctly feminine appearance. [P.S. Also, Steve spotted his painted toenails.] What with Celia and Rosalind’s own wrestling match and kiss, there’s a strong sense of sexual non-conformity here. Jacques is wearing high heels and a feathered toque, and eventually I realised his shirt was actually a silky slip or dress top. For the final scene, hats and aprons are exchanged between the couples, and a feeling of Saturnalia rules – Hymen has to come in and break it up! Again, all understandable given the nature of the play, but I felt it was overdoing it – underlining, bold type, and an exclamation mark! Trust the text, it’s worked well for many a year.

This is making it sound like I didn’t enjoy the play at all, so I’d better redress the balance. Rosalind and Celia were excellent in this half of the play. Rosalind’s expressions as she deals with the incredibly complex situation she’s in, were worth the price of admission alone. Celia’s reactions to her cousin’s outrageous behaviour were entertaining in themselves, and served to remind us how far Rosalind/Ganymede is going in her pursuit of love. I was aware that Rosalind finds herself trapped by her own disguise. She’s safely in the forest, both her father and the man she loves are here with her, yet she doesn’t know how to reveal herself to them, so she plays the game of wooing. It’s not absolutely clear here whether Oliver, having discovered Rosalind’s secret when he helps her recover from her faint, tells Orlando; at times I thought he might have, then I thought probably not. I do like it when Orlando knows, as otherwise he, and the Duke, seem such dimwits for not recognising her.

The Silvius/Phoebe scenes worked very well. Again, I didn’t see all the expressions, but I saw enough to enjoy it. William proves more than a match for Touchstone, though not for Audrey, who puts her knee to good use. The cow or goat being wheeled around after her was another enigma; best not go there.

All in all, it’s the performances I enjoyed most, and I felt they worked remarkably well in a staging that didn’t always help them. I was relieved when the end came, partly because the boring bits were over, but more because of the epilogue, my favourite of all Shakespeare’s. They teased us though, disappearing off together as if they were done. Eve Best delivered the epilogue beautifully, and so I left the theatre happy, though not elated. Better luck next time.

P.S. A couple of points I missed – the hailstones(?) pummelling Jacques’ umbrella, and the orange dropping from the sky. We liked the long pause Christopher Ravenscroft held before “More villain thou.” It suggested to Steve that this usurping Duke had actually loved his own brother, but that the relationship had soured, and at some level, the Duke has his regrets over it. He played the contrast between the brothers very well.

On the strange manifestations mentioned above, Steve also came up with the idea that this production was paying homage to other, well respected director’s stagings {sorry, didn’t mean to sound so bitchy}. The white, box-like nature of the set echoed the Richard II in the Other Place, which had been transformed into a white box, while the wheelchair for Duke Frederick picked up on John of Gaunt’s wheelchair. The big bird may have been a nod to Ninagawa’s big white wolf, while the falling items, such as the orange, and the sand, may have referred back to Ninagawa’s King Lear. Still don’t know what the big balloon was about, but if the other ideas are valid, I’m not impressed. I did get the feeling this production might be trying to be too clever, and this would confirm that opinion.

When Rosalind sits down with Celia and Corin to watch Phoebe and Silvius, Eve Best borrows a program from someone in the audience. A nice touch, done before, but still good fun. (She does give it back.)

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me