King Lear – March 2014

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Sam Mendes

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Sunday 2nd March 2014

I was a little disappointed with this production today. I felt the concept didn’t quite work with this play, although there were some very good performances and one excellent piece of editing. The concept also meant I had no sympathy with Lear, thus no emotional engagement with him, and that’s a pretty big hole in the centre of the play.

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The Hothouse – July 2013

Experience: 7/10

By Harold Pinter

Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Venue: Trafalgar Studio 1

Date: Thursday 18th July 2013

The heat definitely affected my enjoyment today, as the Trafalgar Studios simply don’t have air conditioning worth the name. And having experienced cinemas in Hong Kong where we had to wear a cardigan indoors because of the chill, there’s no excuse for the sort of heat we had to endure today. Of course, if it was difficult for us it must have been hell for the actors, especially with those suits, but at least they could get off stage from time to time to cool down, and with only forty-five minutes each way it was just bearable.

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Privates On Parade – February 2013

Experience: 9/10

By Peter Nichols, music by Denis King

Directed by Michael Grandage

Venue: Noel Coward Theatre

Date: Monday 11th February 2013

Fabulous! We missed an earlier performance due to train troubles, so we were really pleased to see it tonight. I thought the production was excellent, very reminiscent of the Donmar musicals this director has put on in the past, and if there was anything lacking at all I’d put it down to a somewhat patchy audience response. From comments I heard in the interval, I suspect that some of the attendees were expecting It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum – The Musical, whereas this was a much more nuanced piece, mixing satire with sexual innuendo, drama with cheesy puns. I was moved to pre-sniffles at least once, when Sylvia was being consoled by Acting Captain Terri Dennis after discovering that Steven was leaving her behind – not the done thing to bring a heavily pregnant half-caste woman back to Swindon as his bride. Dennis did the decent thing instead, so hopefully the little one will have more tolerant parents than most.

The treatment of and attitudes to the local population were all too accurate, an embarrassing reminder of Britain’s colonial past, and I felt the play had a lot in common with Oh What A Lovely War and The Entertainer. The play began with the two Malay servants hitting gongs, starting with single bongs and moving into the continuous ringing sound. This sound was used a few times during the play, but I don’t know exactly what it was meant to represent. After the concert party left the country, the final image on the screen at the back was of modern-day Singapore at night, while the two servants, now in suits, shook hands centre stage. It was quite a jump from then to now, but it worked, showing us the growth in prosperity since the British left, and leaving us to ponder how much the colonial power contributed and how much it held the local population back.

The set was basically a very run down theatre building with the pros arch towards the back of the stage, doors showing above it, and side entrances – the usual. With lighting changes and the swift arrival of furniture, the other locations were deftly set up and the screen at the back, when not covered by a backdrop, showed appropriate pictures. The costumes were excellent, especially Dennis’s outfits as he gave us his Marlene, Carmen Miranda and one other woman we didn’t recognise. His Noel Coward was good fun too (and very apt for this theatre).

The performances are the key to this show, and this production was strong in that department. I found John Marquez’s accent too strong for me and I couldn’t tune into his dialogue very well, but the rest of the cast were generally clear. Angus Wright was very good as the upright and uptight Major, producing some very John Cleese-like leg movements for one number. Mark Lewis Jones was a fine villain, Harry Hepple was very good as Lance Corporal Charles Bishop, while Davina Perera had taken over the role Sylvia, and didn’t look out of place at all. The big draw was Simon Russell Beale, though, and his performance as Acting Captain Terri Dennis was wonderful, both in the glamorous frocks and out of them, bringing out the character’s humour and showing us his caring side. We enjoyed ourselves very much, and were glad we’d made the extra effort to catch this one.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Timon Of Athens – October 2012

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Sunday 14th October 2012

This was a stunning production, making use of the current financial situation to create a powerful modern-dress retelling of the story, with a striking set design bringing each scene vividly alive. However, this is still Timon, a play with few likeable characters and some impenetrable dialogue, so the overall effect wasn’t as enjoyable as it might have been, especially as Alcibiades’ role was severely cut to make it fit the production’s setting. But even so, this was well worth seeing, and given the current climate someone just had to do this kind of production; the National has certainly done it well.

We had to put up with the droning background music again at the start, while the back half of the stage was filled with tents to represent the Occupy protest outside St Paul’s. At least this kept my expectations down. There were a few people sitting or standing around the tents and a couple of placards facing away from us right at the back. The meaning was clear, and it was through this setting that Timon and his entourage swept, completely ignoring it, while the wall was lowered into position across the middle of the stage. It had a large central area which held a huge painting for this first scene, but could also have a huge window with various backdrops during later scenes. There were two doorways, normal sized, on either side which served to emphasis the height of the main wall.

The first scene was set in an art gallery where the new room being sponsored by Timon was being unveiled – ‘The Timon Room’ appeared above each doorway to great applause during this scene. Waiters held trays of champagne, and the various guests ebbed and flowed around the main man while two of the guests, the painter and the poet, came to the front of the stage to have their little chat. They indicated the actor and the jeweller, who were standing by the drinks tray at that point, and produced their own works during this scene; we saw the book but only the back of the painting.

Timon didn’t speak until the messenger came from Ventidius, but his actions had already given us a sense of his character. He was a man so used to wealth from birth that he couldn’t imagine not having money, and he had presumably only known ‘friends’ who were attracted to his wealth and could be bought. That he was buying them too dear was soon evident, regardless of his steward’s comments, and I had the impression that his extravagance reflected a competitive approach to wealth – to show how wealthy he was he had to give back more than he received. Or it could just have been his natural generosity.

After Ventidius was freed he came to give Timon his thanks and his money back. Timon ripped up the cheque with a confident assertion that his friend would do the same for him if he was ever in need. Before this we had already had Lucullus complaining to Timon that Lucilius, Timon’s servant, had won Lucullus’s daughter’s love and he, Lucullus, wasn’t happy about it. He didn’t want his daughter married to a servant! Timon did the decent thing and matched the dowry so that his servant could marry the woman he loved and who loved him, but his generosity was clearly misjudged in this case as both Lucilius and Lucullus, as they left the stage, grinned and congratulated each other on their success at milking Timon of some more of his wealth. Paul Bentall was particularly good as Lucullus, a man so miserly he practically boasted of it in public.

Then the poet, painter and jeweller presented their ‘gifts’ to Timon, followed by Apemantus’s long diatribe against all the folly on show. Timon seemed to be gently puzzled by Apemantus’s hostility to all the lovely people whom Timon considered his friends. Timon left after this part, with Alcibiades’ entrance being cut, and after Apemantus and the lords had their say, the banquet was brought on to stage by means of the revolve, with the table and chairs coming through one of the doorways. A curtain was dropped to cover the picture and the guests milled about, looking for their places. Ventidius arrived, as did Apemantus, and the starter was served around Apemantus’s line “I scorn thy meat”, with his subsequent lines referring to the dinner guests. Alcibiades was cut again, and the ladies who wished admittance were two ballet dancers who performed on a stage which was revealed when the curtain was drawn back. Their dance was a kind of graceful battle, and afterwards they came round to join the rest at the table.

Yet again there were gifts for the guests, with lots of boxes on a tray presumably holding jewellery or watches. This was the occasion of Flavia’s first lines about Timon’s overspending; played by Deborah Findlay, this was another cross-gender casting which worked perfectly well. After Timon gave out a few boxes directly, he indicated the remaining pile and there was a general rush by most of the guests to grab what they could. I noticed one of the dancers had several boxes in her hands. The party over, the guests left apart from Apemantus, and this time Timon was more short with him as if he was concerned about Apemantus rocking the boat. Apemantus took it badly, and left with a biting comment about Timon’s deafness to flattery.

Almost immediately the set changed to show us an office, clearly an investment bank or similar. There were identifiable city buildings outside the window, but as I don’t know London well enough I couldn’t be more specific. One of the bankers was concerned about Timon’s financial status, and the sight of a façade crumbling under scrutiny was completely up-to-date. The employees who were sent to collect money from Timon were fobbed off yet again by Flavia, but it was obvious that matters were only going to get worse. When Timon did finally realise he was bankrupt, he turned on Flavia and tried to blame her, but she was able to defend herself by reminding him of all the times she’d tried to tell him what was going on and was ignored.

Then came Timon’s belief in the generosity of his friends. His servants looked sceptical when he told them to go to his various ‘friends’ to ask for large sums of money, but they went anyway. The first, Flaminia, turned up in Lucullus’s office in the City, and Paul Bentall was again magnificent as the grasping miser who assumed another lavish present was on its way and then had to refuse to lend some money; it wasn’t difficult for him, and he didn’t bother to cover it with a pretence of sorrow. He did try to cuddle up to the young attractive (female) Flaminia though, dirty old man. She repelled his advances and left, sorrowfully.

The second and third servants fared no better, with the third approaching one of the politicians, Sempronia, who gave the least valid excuse of all, but did it expertly as befitted her political skills. Timon’s anger flared up with the bad news, and he ordered his servants to bid the various ‘friends’ to another dinner, over-riding Flavia’s objections that they couldn’t provide one. Alcibiades’ run in with the Athenian government was dropped, and so we were straight into the ‘feast’, complete with covered dishes, which was eagerly attended by the same sycophantic crew from the earlier meal. Timon’s prayer of thanks at the start of the feast was full of his contempt and anger, thinly disguised with a veneer of politeness, and caused a few strange looks from the guests, but it was the revelation of the ‘turds au naturel’ when the lids were removed that really shocked them. Timon threw some about to add to the unpleasantness, and I assume the liquid offered to the guests was of a matching vintage. The guests soon fled, and Timon had his rant against mankind, tearing off his jacket and throwing away his credit cards as he did so.

I think the next scene came after the interval. Back at Timon’s house, there were various packing cases sitting in the middle of the floor and the three servants were leaving, carrying boxes with their personal effects. Flavia gave them some of her remaining money, and their collective sorrow at Timon’s downfall was almost surprising – he had clearly managed to earn some goodwill without always buying it. Flavia declared her intention to follow Timon and serve him as best she could, and then the wall was lifted to reveal a scarred industrial landscape with lots of concrete pillar bases littered about the place. The metal reinforcing rods were still sticking up out of them, and there was a large grating beside one of these pillars near the front. There was an air of decay and filth, though I didn’t see much debris around the place – just a few black bin liners near the front pillar. This was the setting for the remainder of the play.

Timon approached from the rear of the stage, pushing a supermarket trolley filled with bags and other items, and continued his diatribe against humanity. He came to the forward pillar and parked his trolley behind it, and when he started to ‘dig’ he actually lifted the grating and looked underneath. They shone a golden light up from the hole to indicate the golden hoard he’d discovered, and he pulled out two sizeable money boxes and some ingots before putting the grating back. He then stashed the boxes and ingots in his trolley, covering them up with a sleeping bag or blanket.

Alcibiades, the leader of the Occupy protest in this version, turned up with his followers and stood on the pillar to give a speech to them. Timon hid at first, but joined the rear of the group and eventually joined in with the regular text; where Alcibiades’ lines came from I don’t know. Timon produced one of the money boxes and tipped it out for the protesters to scramble for – they made short work of clearing the stage.

After they left, Timon rummaged in the bin liners for something to eat, discovering a foil tray and a glass bottle. Before he could eat his find, Apemantus arrived, and they had a shortened version of their conversation. Apemantus offered Timon some food, but he turned it down and Apemantus left, full of scorn for Timon’s extreme change of attitude. The thieves also paid Timon a visit and gave him a beating as well. He gave them the second money box and plenty of curses to go with the contents.

Flavia was the next to arrive, and she offered Timon what money she had, plus her service as his steward. She gave him a napkin to clean his bloody nose, but he still sent her away. He then took a little break himself, which gave an opportunity for the painter and the poet to have a chat with each other when they walked on stage. They were eager to find out whether Timon had indeed found more riches, and he took the opportunity to insult them mercilessly. He did offer them food – the remains he’d picked out of the bin bag, which they were too cowardly and greedy to refuse.

The final visitors were the senators of Athens, attempting to persuade Timon to return with them and help prevent Alcibiades’ attack on the city. Timon scorned them also, and left the stage for the last time. The closing scene was back in the city, with a long table and Alcibiades and two senators sitting behind it, giving a news conference. Some of Alcibiades’ lines were used to provide a speech for him, and then a soldier brought the news of Timon’s death. Alcibiades’ final lines closed the play, and there was strong applause from everyone, with some standing amongst the audience that I could see.

I liked a lot about this production, with its contemporary take on this difficult play. The performances were all superb and there was strength in depth, as there always is at the National. Deborah Findlay was good as the female steward Flavia, Hilton Macrae did a good job as Apemantus and Paul Bentall, as mentioned before, was magnificent as Lucullus the miser. Simon Russell Beale was an excellent Timon, with his tremendous ability to deliver the lines with clarity and meaning. His attitude towards money was well defined, showing us someone who has never had to check the balance in his account before splashing out on some extravagance or other, but who was also very dependent on others and his own wealth for his self-esteem. I could understand why his servants cared about him and also why he was so easily duped into giving his money away. The change into angry Timon was also good, although the dialogue does go a bit downhill from then on.

Apart from the severe cuts to Alcibiades’ part, which I felt unbalanced the play a little, I was aware of one potential downside to such a detailed staging; when Timon discovered the gold hidden under the grating, my first thought was that the criminal gang which hid it there would probably want it back before long, and Timon would be well advised to leave it where it lay. Keeping the setting vague and forest-like doesn’t create that problem, but with so much emphasis on present day ‘reality’ it was an inevitable consequence. Not a major problem, of course, but I still found it a distraction from the flow of the story. I have seen productions I’ve preferred to this one, but it was still a good offering, and nice to see this less popular play being staged in the Olivier and getting both full houses and rave reviews! Wonders will never cease.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

London Assurance – May 2010

9/10

By Dion Boucicault

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Saturday 29th May 2010

The only reason this isn’t rated 10/10 is our unfortunate lateness, arriving half an hour after the start, and having to stand at the back of the circle till the interval. (A trespasser on the line between Haywards Heath and Three Bridges, or a suspected blockage in the Balcombe tunnel, depending on which of the many apologetic announcements you believe.) Even so, we were laughing loudly within a couple of minutes, at the servant, Cool’s comment ‘How polite. Must be a lawyer.’ And we kept on laughing, even before we took our seats for the second half.

It was good to see Simon Russell Beale giving us a fop again. It’s a good few years since his grounding in such roles at the RSC, and he hasn’t lost his touch, just refined it superbly with experience. His clothes weren’t as OTT as is usual with fops, but his affected mannerisms told the story just as well, possibly better. The way he threw a cushion to the floor in preparation for dramatically throwing himself on it in his pursuit of Lady Gay, was almost as funny as his pained expression when he did manage to collapse onto said cushion. There comes a time in life when romantic gestures have to become more restrained – Sir Harcourt is long past that time.

Fiona Shaw was perfect as Lady Gay Spanker – her entrance alone had both her and the audience hooting with laughter, never mind her excellent delivery of the lines. I would have loved to be closer to see her racing-commentator-style description of a recent steeplechase, but even from the gods it was good fun.

The set was just right, too. Enough detail to evoke the country squire’s manor, but not too fussy. The walls were a z-shape, with the inside portion showing us the drawing-room, and the other side, courtesy of the revolve, showing us the outside of the property. The hunting theme was established early on with lots of stuffed heads on the walls, and given that I know nothing about these things, I assume the furniture and costumes were period perfection – the NT knows how to do these things properly. Of course, we missed the earlier scenes in London, so I’ve no idea what that bit looked like; if we can get to see this again, I’ll be keen to get there on time to enjoy that part as well.

I believe I’ve described the story well enough in a previous set of notes, and although Richard Bean had assisted with some updates, there were no changes to the overall plot. The most notable updating was that Solomon Isaacs, the moneylender from whom Charles Courtly has been hiding, turns out to be from the East. Not Cheltenham, as one character suggests, but farther east than that. A gentleman of Chinese extraction, in fact. The look of surprise on the faces of the assembled throng were a joy to behold, with Lord Harcourt’s expression of astonishment topping them all. Before he leaves, Solomon Isaacs rounds it off by advertising that he’s willing to give anyone with money troubles a consolidated loan, interest-free for the first eighteen months. Lady Gay was quick to take a card, I noticed.

The other performances were also excellent. It was a shame Richard Briers had so little to do as Lady Gay’s husband, but he did all of it brilliantly. Matt Cross as Dazzle, the high-living, lower-class scrounger, doesn’t have so much to do after the start (which we missed), but we both enjoyed his contemporary-sounding ‘walk away’ lines when breaking up a fight. And all the rest were equally as good in this top-notch production.

One final moment to remember – the look of horrified astonishment from Sir Harcourt Courtly as his son, confessing his earlier deception in pretending to be Mr. Hastings, whipped off his glasses to show that he and Mr. Hastings are one and the same! Hilarious, and worth the price of a ticket on its own.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Winter’s Tale – June 2009 (3)

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Sam Mendes

Company: Old Vic Bridge Project

Venue: Old Vic

Date: Wednesday 24th June 2009

This was a superb production, played on a thrust version of the Old Vic stage that was eerily reminiscent of the old RST. The set was plain, with a large square platform slightly raised above the rest of the stage and positioned well to the front, though with enough space for the actors to walk in front of it. The back and side walls were all done in floorboard style, as was the platform. For the opening scene, the platform held a child’s bed, complete with teddy bear, on the left hand side, some cushions with a bottle in the middle, and on the right a table and chairs, a fairly plain wooden set that could be found in many a kitchen today. I could only make out a chess set laid out for a new game, plus some glasses. There were many lamps hanging down at different levels towards the back, together with lots of candles on stands, and two large swings did duty as shelves for another swathe of candle lamps.

The platform was cleared quickly once it was no longer needed, and various tables and chairs were brought on as required. The candle lamps were blown out early on, while the lamps and candle stands kept going till we left Sicilia. That change was done rather well, I thought. The attendants lined up along the back wall, in relative gloom, and first the men, then  the women, blew out the nearest candle simultaneously, while the hanging lamps were gradually drawn up, as were the swings. This left the stage nicely bare for the Bohemia scenes, with the back wall lifting up to show us sky and clouds. The sheep shearing feast (and what idiots would shear their sheep in the autumn?) was a riot of balloons in red white and blue, while the return to Sicilia was given a wonderful mourning effect by the bare stage and just one long bench. For the statue scene, a small plinth was placed at the front of the platform, with an arc of chairs facing it and us. The bear, incidentally, was a ‘real’ bear rather than the paperback version, and did the job nicely. Costumes were some period or other, probably nineteenth century but don’t quote me, and I thought they worked very well; neither as austere nor as bucolic as the current RSC version.

So to the staging. Instead of the usual chit chat between Camillo and Archidamus, Mamillius came to the front of the stage, sat on the platform and using ‘his’ teddy bear, gave us the lines from a later scene about a sad tale being best for winter. I say ‘his’ because Mamillius was doubled with Perdita, both being played by Morven Christie, a doubling that we’ve seen before and which works very well. After this, we got the first line from Leontes, sitting on the bed with his pregnant wife beside him on the floor. Polixenes was sitting by the table, but moved over to recline on the cushions, where Hermione joined him as part of her persuasion strategy. Leontes had to help her up at first, but she was soon down again and lolling against Polixenes in a way that could be seen as overly friendly, if you’re half blind and inclined to think the worst of people. Leontes obviously falls into that category, but his suffering and his madness were clear to see. There was good use of lighting in this production, with asides spotlit and the background action either highlighted or dimmed.

After the initial part of this scene, Camillo and Archidamus had left, so there’s a much greater sense of the intimacy of this group at this point. With Hermione and Polixenes chivvied off stage, Leontes at first told his son to go and play, but then took him over to the bed, and with much tenderness caressed and kissed him. It’s here, in Mamillius’s bedroom where Leontes suborned Camillo to kill Polixenes. When Leontes started to shout at Camillo, Mamillius woke up, and had to be reassured back to sleep. Later, when Polixenes arrived, it was noticeable how quiet he was so as not to wake the sleeping prince.

We then got the scene of Hermione’s arrest. At first, all was going well, with Mamillius drawing or painting at the table, and bantering a little with the two waiting women. Hermione was on the bed, and then Leontes came in with a few courtiers and all hell broke loose. Mamillius was clearly upset and was taken away, while Hermione seemed unbelieving at first. Her attempt to reconnect with the man she knows and loves so well was touching to see, and spoke volumes about the closeness of their relationship previously. The impact of her being accused publicly was also apparent, having been set up by the earlier lack of courtiers. When she was taken off, the platform was cleared for Paulina’s entrance.

She arrived with a couple of suitcases (hers, or intended for Hermione, I wondered?) and the chat with Emilia was as usual. The next scene had Leontes, wrapped in a blanket, coming down to the front of the stage, clearly tortured by the situation. Polixenes and Hermione stood on either side of the stage at the front, motionless, the objects of his jealousy and hate.

When an attendant arrived to tell him about Mamillius, he actually brought the boy on stage in a wheelchair, looking very listless. I think he was wheeled off before Paulina comes on, but I’m not sure. Anyway, she did come on, wrapped in a shawl to disguise the bulky parcel she’s carrying. Not the most ferocious Paulina, perhaps, but certainly with plenty of authority, and the men were definitely not taking any chances with her. The comedy in this scene came across well, and Leontes was almost moved to compassion when he went over to pick up the little baby whom Paulina had left on a chair. This was the cuddliest Leontes I’ve ever seen, showing physical affection both for Mamillius and the baby, though sadly the outcome was the same. He sent Antigonus away with the baby, and then came the news that the oracle’s judgement has arrived. Leontes divested himself of his blanket and put on his jacket while the set was prepared for the trial scene, and in the meantime Cleomenes and Dion sit at the front of the stage talking about the wonders of their trip to Delphi.

Once they’d gone, the trial could begin. There was now a long table across the stage with three chairs, and there were four chairs to the left side of the platform where Hermione’s ladies sat after helping her on. She sat to the left and Leontes to the right of the table, with one of the other courtiers sitting in the middle as judge. He looked like he’d rather not have the job, to be honest, and there was a hint of trembling in his hand as he held the indictment and read it out. Hermione was in a drab shift, not fully recovered from childbirth though without the blood stains that often accompany this scene. She held her own pretty well, reading the first part of her speech from a tatty scrap of paper, while Leontes seemed fatigued and depressed rather than angry and vengeful for most of this scene. It was the judge’s nervousness and unhappiness that really conveyed the harshness of Leontes’ absolute authority.

When the oracle was called for, the judge used a sword for Cleomenes and Dion to swear on, and was clearly relieved to read out the good news of Hermione’s innocence. Unfortunately the king was determined to have a guilty verdict, and the inevitable happened. I liked the way this production allowed the actors to breathe and think instead of having to deliver their lines like a supermarket checkout person – so many per minute. When Leontes was talking with Paulina after she’s announced the death of his wife, he moved over to the table, and during his lines he paused briefly to pick up the piece of paper Hermione had with her during the trial. It was another touching moment, and another example of the layers of detail in the performance which made it such an enjoyable experience.

We were now off to Bohemia and the stage was cleared, with the back panel raised to show us a cloudy sky. Antigonus came onto this stage near the front and left the baby dead centre, speaking his lines to the audience. Which is why he didn’t see the big brown bear sneaking up on him from behind. As he got up to leave he turned and saw the bear, which reared up on his hind legs and …. blackout. The gory details were left to our imaginations. (Thankfully.) Then the old shepherd arrived, calling for his sheep, and set the tone for the comedy to come. The dialogue came across clearly, aided by Richard Easton (nice to see him again) providing some strong expressions to supplement the lines. Just before he headed off after the meeting with his son, he put the baby down and turned round to announce that he was taking on himself the role of time, a lovely way to segue the two scenes. He gave us the Time speech with both Florizel and Perdita standing at the back of the stage, so we would be prepared for who was who in the second half. Interval.

The second half began with Polixenes and Camillo, both older, having their little conversation, and the final line – “we must disguise ourselves” – got a good laugh. Then we met Autolycus for the first time. With the cast being split so that British accents were in Sicilia, and American ones in Bohemia, it was no surprise that Autolycus ws dressed like a hobo Bob Dylan, with a guitar which he used to accompany the songs he sings. I felt at the time it was  shame they hadn’t gone for some American country or folk songs instead of the regular Shakespeare stuff, as it’s even harder to get across the jokes with some of the songs than it is with the antiquated references in the dialogue. However. He sang and played well enough, and again the spoken lines came across more clearly than many another player’s.

With such a bare stage, the only place he could hide to avoid the young shepherd (I do wish Will had given the shepherds names) was below the back end of the platform. When he did emerge, it was with a large wooden cross which he proceeded to crucify himself on, only without the nasty business of the nails. This was good fun. He stole the shepherd’s wallet, as per usual, and after they went off to their various destinations, the stage was set up for a regular hoe-down. In addition to the balloons, there was a table laden with food, lots of chairs and a band, who struck up at every opportunity, including the ballads. The flowers were very nice, one of the women was nursing a small baby, and the two visitors were in the traditional long beards, hats and glasses. I thought they might have cut the satyrs dance, but we got a lively version of it here, with three men and three women adding balloons to their outfits to emphasis certain physical characteristics. Two of the women were Dorcas and Mopsa, the young shepherd’s jealous girlfriends, so there was some strategic balloon popping going on which left the young shepherd looking very deflated.

After Florizel’s attempt to marry Perdita had been broken up by his father revealing himself, the couple and Camillo went to the side of the stage to sit down and plot their escape. Meanwhile Autolycus came on, replete with purses, and was suitably happy to be in decent clothes again after the switch. He was a very casual courtier to the two shepherds, sitting in a chair, and it seemed plain that he once was at court and knows the manners instead of acting the total clown as some do. They reacted with terror to the news that they were to be killed, and were only too happy to ask for his help in approaching the king. And so we’re off to Sicilia at last.

The final act started with the bare stage and the bench, and when Leontes and Paulina arrived he was carrying a small bunch of flowers which he left centre front, as if laying them on Hermione’s grave. It was a lovely touch. Only one attendant was with them, and after the argument over the king’s remarriage was settled, the news of Florizel and Perdita’s arrival was brought, followed shortly by the people themselves. There was a moment of recognition from Leontes when he first sees Perdita – she was well cast to resemble Hermione – and I noticed that at the end of the scene, when Perdita was left with Paulina for a moment, Paulina got her first good look at the girl and her face also lit up as she recognised the similarity. I sniffled. I wasn’t sure if Paulina actually realised what the similarity meant, but it was a possibility.

The reporting of the reunions was well done, and then the bench was removed, the plinth brought on (placed over the flowers, I think), and Hermione’s ascent onto the pedestal was assisted by a group of attendants huddling in front of the plinth. She managed to stay pretty still, but it’s not easy for that length of time and so close to the audience. I liked this set up though, as it meant we got a good view of the other characters’ reactions to the statue. I sniffled a fair bit during this scene, as is only to be expected, and then with the reunions finally over we got to applaud good and hard for such a wonderful performance.

I loved the clarity of the dialogue in this production. I heard many lines for the first time and others were fresh and new, or given emphasis by appropriate gestures or expressions. Simon Russell Beale in particular was excellent as Leontes. I’ve already mentioned how much more affectionate he was with the children, and I also got a greater sense of him being driven by his jealousy to behave this badly, almost against his will. His suffering was more evident than I’ve seen before too, all of which made the play more focused and the eventual happiness all the more enjoyable.

The rest of the performances were also good, and the ensemble played very well together. Richard Easton’ shepherd was another highlight, and I suspect I’ll be even more impressed retrospectively after seeing The Cherry Orchard next week, once I’ve got a better appreciation of the actors’ range in different parts.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Slight Ache – August 2008

6/10

By Harold Pinter

Directed by Iqbal Kahn

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Thursday 7th August 2008

This was effectively a platform performance at the Lyttelton – the set was on a raised platform at the front of the Never So Good set. It held enough furniture to represent several rooms in a big house, plus the garden. Chairs were everywhere, including a few on their side in the garden, with plants trailing all over them.

Plants featured strongly in the dialogue as well, with the usual Pinterish contretemps between husband and wife over what the plants were called and whether or not the husband actually knows which plants are in his garden. The wife is called Flora, though the husband refers to her as Fanny, even though he appears to be talking about another woman; the usual sort of thing for a Pinter play.

The story is simple. A matchseller has positioned himself by their back garden gate, and has been standing there for months, without apparently selling any matches. The husband tries to talk to him, but can’t get him to say anything. The wife has a go, and manages to get the measure of the man, priapically speaking. The husband has another go, but is stricken with some unnamed affliction, and ends up prostrate on the floor with the matchseller’s tray, while the wife gets the matchseller. End of play.

There’s more to it than that, of course. The opening scene over breakfast includes a wasp-killing sequence that was both gruesome and funny, especially when the husband, fresh from the slaughter, feels invigorated and ready to get on with the day. He’d been feeling a slight ache in his eyes, but killing the wasp seems to have worked better than aspirin.

The wife finds him later in the scullery, wanting to be left alone, and clearly obsessing about the matchseller. When she sits in the chair he’s vacated, she gets a perfect view of the man. It’s after this that the husband tells his wife to bring the man in so he can talk with him in the study. She suggests calling the police, or perhaps the vicar, which got a good laugh. He’s determined, though, so she goes out to ask the man to come in, tempting him with an offer to buy all his matches. He shuffles on stage gradually, looking very decrepit. He’s swathed in heavy clothes from head to foot, and as it’s a hot summer’s day, midsummer’s day in fact, he must be sweltering. We can see his leather balaclava and huge coat, and it turns out later he’s also wearing a jumper and a vest. No wonder he’s going so slowly and looking so weak.

The husband welcomes him into his study, and offers him drinks and a seat, but the chap just stands there, saying nothing. The husband does all the talking, and so we get to hear about the local squire as was and his three daughters, all with flaming red hair. He can’t remember what the third daughter was called, and then he gets it – Fanny, “a flower”. He’s disparaging about Fanny, and if you know your Pinter that tells you instantly she’s his wife. Frustrated at his inability to make the man talk, he does finally manage to shoo him into the corner where he’s in shade and can cool down. When he does eventually sit down, it’s on the bigger chair the husband was sitting on at the start of the scene, the first step in swapping places.

At some point the husband is overcome and has to dash out to the garden for some air. He pretends to his wife that he’s doing better with the chap than  he actually is, but she decides to go and talk to the man herself. This is where she starts to uncover more than her husband achieved. She demonstrates the unholy trinity that applies to almost all Pinter’s women characters – mother, wife, whore. She comments on the man’s disgusting smell, but inhales deeply through the chiffon scarf she’s just used to wipe his head and face. She leaves us in no doubt that she’s found a man she intends to keep, and they won’t just be talking about the garden or killing wasps.

Her husband comes along and boots her out, and it’s clear at this point that his eye trouble is getting worse. He seems to be almost blind, and his emotions are in a right state as well. He tears his jacket off, and pulls his shirt out from his trousers. To be honest, I can’t remember what he was talking about at this point, as it didn’t interest me much. He just seemed to be ranting without giving us any more insight into the play, but then he collapsed on the ground, still ranting, and I knew the end was nigh. Sure enough, the wife returns, takes the matchseller by the hand, then takes his tray away, places it on her husband’s tummy, and leaves with her new man, who’s walking with a spring in his step now.

I assume the play is about female infidelity caused by the rampant sexual lust that rages through all womankind, according to Pinter, and the effect it can have on the poor men who get enmeshed in our snares. As such I find it less interesting than some of his other plays, but still an entertaining use of an hour in the theatre. The performances were splendid, as is to be expected from Claire Higgins and Simon Russell Beale, and Jamie Beamish gave them a good blank page to project onto. This play is being continued and partnered with another short Pinter, but as we weren’t so taken with this one, we may not bother with the double bill.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me