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

Timon Of Athens – October 2012


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

London Assurance – May 2010


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

The Winter’s Tale – June 2009 (3)


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

A Slight Ache – August 2008


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

Much Ado About Nothing – January 2008


By; William Shakespeare

Directed by: Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 30th January 2008

We’d seen such a great Much Ado last summer in the Swan, part of the Complete Works, that I was a bit worried that we wouldn’t appreciate this one fully. I didn’t have too much to worry about, though. While it wasn’t as lively as the RSC production, this performance had some of the best interpretations of the lines I’ve heard, and seen. Some of the business was off the text, but still incredibly funny, and the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick was detailed and moving, as well as bringing out the humour brilliantly.

The set used the revolving box from The Alchemist (Oct 2006), with wooden slatted walls on two sides, and pergolas along them. There were flats with upper windows at various angles behind the box. Furniture was brought on as needed, and with the revolve, the next scene could be set up without distracting us from the current scene – very effective. During the marvellous overhearing scenes, there was a pond in the main area, and it’s put to good use – both Beatrice and Benedick fall in it. Although this set up allowed for greater flow between the scenes, I did feel the pace was a bit slow at times.

The costumes were a mixture, part Jacobethan, part Olde Worlde, as far as I could tell; let’s face it, I’m not an expert in these matters, and that’s probably why I don’t get put off productions that have made unusual costuming decisions. Anyway, I liked them. So there.

There were several of the female cast on stage at the start, nibbling away at fruit and the like, and chatting. Leonato arrives with Beatrice, and joins them. I do like this kind of opening –we have to pay attention for longer to see what’s going to happen. Unfortunately, they work best if the audience cooperates, and this time we had a chatty couple behind who weren’t going to give up their talking time just to allow us all to drink in the atmosphere being so carefully set up for us. (B*$^&@#>.)

Along comes the messenger, giving Leonato a letter, and so out of breath he has to sit down for a bit. They get him some food and water to wash in, etc. Beatrice is sprawled on a chair at the end of the table, and joins in with her bitchy questions from there. It’s a good start, giving us the background, the information that Hero fancies Claudio, and the beginning of a understanding of the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick.

When Don Pedro does arrive, attended by various nobles, the bows and curtseys are quite formal, indicating that Don Pedro, a prince of Arragon, is pretty senior in this society, and not to be trifled with. He, on the other hand, has no concerns about trifling with other people. I was very aware in this production that he seems to be determined to get involved in everyone else’s life, and doesn’t seem to have much of a life of his own. The reactions from Claudio later on, when Don Pedro is spelling out how he’ll woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf, make it quite clear that Claudio isn’t keen on the idea, but doesn’t know how to get this point across to the prince. Likewise, when Beatrice has made it clear that she’s been romantically involved with Benedick before, and it didn’t end happily, the prince suddenly announces he’s going to play a trick on both Beatrice and Benedick to get each to fall in love with other, and all for sport! What a great laugh they’ll all have. It’s a really unpleasant side to the prince’s character, and I’ve never seen it brought out so much before (or I just never spotted it before). Admittedly, Beatrice has just made a faux pas – not only does she reject Don Pedro’s suggestion that she and he could become an item, she possibly triggers the offer by getting a bit frisky, and slapping the prince on the bum! It’s possible he feels hurt (emotionally, that is) and wants some revenge, but I didn’t get that from this performance. On the whole, it came across as the prince just being incredibly insensitive to the feelings of those around him, and this may partially explain why Don John, his brother, doesn’t like him.

Back with the prince’s first entrance (I hope you’ve got a cup of tea, this may take some time), Benedick and Beatrice are soon sniping at each other, while the others drift off towards the back of the stage. That was one of the things I liked about this staging – the set design made it easy for characters to drift in and out of the main playing area, whichever one was facing us at the time, and to wend their way around as the set rotated, making this much less static, and much more interesting. I got the impression that Benedick is fending Beatrice off – he’s had enough of her rough tongue, and wants to avoid her as much as possible. Yet, when he’s trying to talk Claudio out of being in love with Hero, he readily refers to Beatrice in superlative terms. She “exceeds her [Hero] as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December”. Pretty clear what he thinks of Beatrice as a woman, then. And this lays the groundwork nicely for the declaration of love in the church.

After the prince’s arrival, Benedick is quick to mention that he’s bursting to tell him everything – blabber mouth. I loved the delivery of these lines. Simon Russell Beale has such an ability to speak Shakespearean lines as though they made sense, which means they often do, and this was no exception. Along with the other members of the cast, I must add, who all contributed to this intelligent and intelligible production.

This was one of those occasions when the stage revolved to allow the characters to move into another part of the premises. As the men are talking, well, actually, as Benedick is railing against marriage with short contributions from the other two, they move round into the prince’s bedchamber, so he can change his shirt. While he does this, and after Benedick has left, the prince and Claudio discuss Hero, and the prince comes up with his plan to do the wooing for Claudio. Claudio keeps trying to get some words out to express his concern about this, but doesn’t quite manage to say anything. Off they go, and the effect of their conversation will be picked up by others shortly.

Leonato has a short conversation with his brother, Antonio, who informs him that the prince is in love with Hero, and intends to woo her at the dance. It’s exciting news, but this time Leonato restrains himself, and decides to wait and see what happens. He’ll warn Hero though, just in case. Next we see Don John, the sulky one, brooding intently round the back of the set. Conrad, one of his servants, tries to advise him to be more sociable, as he’s only recently been reconciled to his brother, but Don John is determined to be himself, and sulk as much as he wants to. This makes him sound like a stubborn teenager, but Andrew Woodall played him with some gravitas, making me wonder if he was just suffering from depression. Borachio arrives, with the news about the wooing, and this time, it’s the correct version, that the prince intends to woo Hero on behalf of Claudio. The prospect of throwing a very large spanner in the works cheers up Don John enormously – he almost smiled – and off they go to cause mischief. It’s always nice to know where you stand with the villains.

The dance scene begins with the ladies, Leonato and Antonio sitting in the seats at the side of the floor; the other men haven’t yet arrived. Beatrice’s comments on the unsuitability of any man to be her husband are entertaining enough, and her comments about men with no beards are funnier because her uncle, Antonio, is clean-shaven. The bickering continues between different couples as the dancing gets underway, and eventually the set rotates us round to where Beatrice had just been told something about herself by a masked man. Who can it be? The nose of his mask is extraordinarily long, yet the form seems familiar. Zounds, it’s Benedick, but did Beatrice spot him? I should think so, despite her obvious delight in knocking back the wine. Benedick comes off second best, again, and his reactions are clear, despite the disguise.

Now Don John does his evil work with Claudio, deliberately mistaking him for Benedick. Frankly, this is absurd, given their respective shapes, but we mustn’t let that get in the way of an enjoyable bit of theatre. And in any case, Claudio’s sulk doesn’t last long, as eventually Don Pedro tells him that Hero is won. Before that, we and the prince get to hear Benedick ranting at great length about how terrible Beatrice is. Honestly, to listen to him go on and on and on, anyone would think he’s besotted by her. Even though he asks the prince to send him away on some impossible mission as soon as she reappears with her relatives. Mind you, he does dash off almost immediately after that, so he’s clearly still upset at his verbal pasting from Beatrice.

She, on the other hand, has brought Claudio along to be given the good news about Hero, and rightly divines what’s upsetting him. It’s noticeable how little Claudio has to say at this point – everyone on stage notices, never mind the audience. With the RSC production last year I was reminded that actually Hero and Claudio have probably not spoken at all; here it was just a reflection of Claudio’s youth and inexperience. He reminded me of Romeo – all passion and flowery romantic words, but no real understanding of relationships, nor any real trust in Hero, as it turns out. It’s often a concern as to why she’s willing to take him back after his treatment of her, but this production handles that very well. Later. (It’s at this time that Beatrice lets her hand stray too far, and ends up having to deflect the proposal from Don Pedro.)

His first attempt at upsetting everyone having lost its momentum, Don John now picks up Borachio’s offer to delude the prince and Claudio and derail the marriage altogether. It’s not altogether clear why Borachio is doing this. I assume it’s because he supports Don John in mischief. The RSC had Borachio being the only man who actually woos Hero, and who wanted to stop this marriage to give himself a chance again, but here it’s not specified. I also realised for the first time that we never actually see this discovery scene. It’s so well described that I feel I must have seen it, yet it’s only in the words. This makes me realise how important some of these apparently trivial scenes can be.

Now for the water feature. The sunken pool on the terrace comes into its own. Benedick sends one of the household maids to fetch his book, rather than a boy. He then has one of the best soliloquies in Shakespeare – I love the way he disdains marriage, then spends ages spelling out his ideal woman. When the prince, Claudio and Leonato arrive, the slatted walls serve for cover, and Benedick nips behind one, taking his chair with him. At one point, the folding chair decides to fold up, and we have one of those lovely moments when the people on stage have to ignore an obvious giveaway, just so they can carry on with their entrapment. They include the music in this production, and it’s quite enjoyable, though I’ve never figured out why Balthazar is going on about what a bad singer he is. Anyway, it’s pleasant enough, and then the three conspirators get down to business.

This is one of the best scenes in Shakespeare’s comedies, and these actors got full measure out of it. Leonato has tremendous difficulty remembering what to say, unlike the two soldiers, who’re obviously used to practical jokes. Benedick’s reactions are marvellously funny; in fact it’s difficult to know which way to look during this scene. They helped out by having Benedick move around a lot, eventually lurking behind the chair he’d draped his jacket over at the start. I did like they way he sidled up to the thin pillar of the pergola and tried to hide behind it – Wile E. Coyote might have managed it, but cuddly Simon…..

They staged this scene so that the prince and his cohorts wend their way to the back of the stage, only to return for their final lines. Benedick, meanwhile, has come onto the main part of the stage, and begins his lines (I think). When they return, he’s trapped, and ends up diving into the pool to hide – massive splash. This was funny enough, but then, after a long pause, while the others are busy trying not to crack up completely, the top of Benedick’s head appears over the side of the pool. The expression in Simon Russell Beale’s eyes was hilarious. And the idea that the others couldn’t see him was farcical (good farcical, that is). After the others leave, Benedick stays in the pool for a bit, thinking through what he’s just heard, and leaning on the side of the pool as if he were at a spa. When Beatrice comes on to call him in for dinner, he’s out of the pool, and stands there, dripping wet. After her tart summons is over, there’s the wonderful line “‘Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner ,’ there’s a double meaning in that.” Benedick’s euphoria as he grasps this fictitious straw of hope is side-splitting.

And, just so we don’t get bored, the next eavesdropping scene follows on immediately. Will knew when to report a scene, and when to show us it in full. This time it’s Hero and Ursula setting the trap, and sending Margaret off to lure Beatrice into it. This time, the set has been on the turn, and so Beatrice is able to hide better than Benedick. Again, she reacts well to the two women’s chat, even putting her hands through the slats to try and strangle Ursula after some pointed comment. She also thinks about hiding behind a pergola pole at one point, but finds a better opportunity to overhear them. One of the maids is mopping up after the last big splash, and Beatrice borrows her hat, mop and bucket. In their talk, Hero and Ursula have lost sight of Beatrice, and look around for her, eventually spotting the lady herself, despite the amazing disguise. Ursula signals to the “maid” to carry on cleaning up, and when she accidentally knocks her bucket into the pool, indicates she should get it out. This Beatrice attempts to do without giving herself away, and the inevitable happens – another splash! This was even funnier, though we knew it was coming. Hero and Ursula are soon off the stage, and Beatrice heaves herself out pretty quickly – these dresses soak up a lot of water – and heads off to dry herself.

By now, Benedick has not only dried himself, he’s had a shave as well, and the prince, Claudio and Leonato discover him round the other side of the stage. He tries to hide his face, but they soon discover what’s going on and let rip with their jests. Benedick manages to get away with Leonato to discuss a matter of some importance, leaving the coast clear for Don John to plant more evil seeds in men’s minds. And now the interval.

The second half opened with Dogberry and the watch. Dogberry has always been a problem for me. His mangling of the language has rarely come across well, and there’s often a problem with the reactions of the watch members. If they don’t spot that Dogberry’s talking rubbish, it reduces the humour for me. It works much better when Dogberry’s talking to the gentry, although then there’s a risk of patronising attitudes spoiling the fun. All in all, he’s one of the trickier clowns. Here we have Mark Addy taking him on, and he did a respectable job with it. Verges, played by Trevor Peacock, plays an old doddery man, who lines up behind Dogberry whenever they have to bow, leading to an unfortunate alignment of head and bum. Not the worst watch I’ve seen, by any means, and they catch the villains Conrad and Borachio well enough.

Margaret is helping Hero dress for her wedding, and when Beatrice comes on with a stinker of a cold, Margaret ends up being the lively one. Beatrice evidently didn’t get dry quick enough after her swim. Dogberry turns up just as Leonato is putting the finishing touches to his outfit, and so gets sent off to do the interrogation himself. His lines were funny, and his taking of the wine, including a bottle or two for later, was entertaining.

The church scene is a pivotal one, and this staging brought out the ups and downs very well. First, there’s the lovely entrance of the bride, and the groom’s party. It’s all very solemn and full of expectation. Then there’s the shocking accusations against Hero, and everything’s thrown into confusion. Leonato is enraged against his daughter (silly old fool, too keen on the prince, that’s his problem), Hero is amazed, Beatrice is appalled, the prince’s company, except Benedick, are cold, and the friar keeps his cool remarkably well. There are a number of meddling friars in Shakespeare’s works – this one gets away with it. After the prince’s departure, and after Leonato has been calmed down (no easy task), there’s a quieter phase when Beatrice and Benedick get a chance to talk. I was very aware that there’s no time to reflect on the situation during the manic part of the scene, and it’s lovely to have this section when we can really feel the emotions that have been stirred up. I usually relate best to Beatrice’s grief and anger, probably because they’re the main emotions on show, and I feel it’s important to register what a huge disruption this event has caused to everyone. Benedick manages to express his love for Beatrice now she’s no longer sniping at him, and he sounded a bit surprised at saying it, or perhaps he was just surprised how easily it popped out. For all the context and content, it’s lovely to see the two of them talking as human to human, and learning to work together.

Now Dogberry confronts the villains, and confounds them with his incisive wit, his sharp interrogation techniques…. You’re not believing this, are you? OK, it’s the usual scene, with Dogberry most insistent he be “writ down an ass”. His indignation was lovely to see.

Next Leonato and his brother meet up with the prince and Claudio, and nearly come to blows. Antonio even heads off to fetch his massive broadsword, bigger than himself, and waves it around dangerously. The danger is more that he’ll accidentally hit something than that he’ll actually fight with it, and it was nicely humorous. They soon get it off him, and then Benedick arrives with the serious challenge. The change in his manner is noticeable. He delivers the challenge sincerely, and with enough temper to suggest he really does know what he’s doing with a sword. Just when the prince and Claudio thought things couldn’t get any worse, Dogberry and his watch arrive with the prisoners, and all is revealed. Leonato also turns up, with his brother, and after telling Claudio what he has to do to untarnish Hero’s memory (they think she’s died), suggests that Claudio marry his brother’s daughter instead, “almost the copy of my child that’s dead”. Pity he didn’t warn his brother about this – he nearly spoils the plan by his reactions.

As they all leave, and the set rotates, we see Margaret has been listening in, at least to the last part of this scene, and so realises that Borachio has been arrested, and that she’s probably played a part in getting Hero falsely accused. She’s quick to recover her wits, though, as Benedick asks her to fetch Beatrice to him. He ruminates about love, letting us know he’s not very good at poetry, and then when Beatrice comes they have one of their usual sparring matches, though without the bitterness that was present before.

For the tomb scene, Claudio actually lies on the tomb (hints of necrophilia there, I feel), and as he’s singing his hymn, we see Hero being brought on to watch by her father, from behind the partition. She takes a good long look at Claudio, and then nods to her father, indicating she’s willing to marry him. This was a good piece of staging, as it lets us see that she’s made her own choice, very important after what’s happened.

For the final scene, the ladies all enter with veils, and Claudio resigns himself to marrying some young woman, then has all the joy of finding Hero returned (yes, of course I cried). When Benedick asks the friar to add him and Beatrice to the wedding plans, he puts his hands over his face for a moment before coming out with the dreaded words “honourable marriage”. The poems turn up, and she grabs hers and eats it before he can read it, then reads his, giving a really evil cackle at his pathetic attempts at rhyme. It’s a lovely happy ending, and we applauded for a long time. For all its problems, this is a hugely enjoyable play, and this was one of the best productions I’ve seen of it.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

The Alchemist – October 2006

Experience: 9/10

By Ben Jonson

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 11th October 2006

          What fun! The programme notes were very interesting, and I got a huge amount out of this production. Lovely to see not only Simon Russell Beale but also Alex Jennings, whom I haven’t seen for a long time on stage.

The set was another lovely revolve, with two sides of a large room, and masses of doors. A staircase ran up one side of the semi-building, with a door at the top. The style was more Victorian than early 1600s, and the costumes were circa 1950? All these elements worked very well together – the production was clear, and stylish, without being cluttered. A good job too, as the action becomes pretty frantic as the play reaches its climax.

The two male leads are busy arguing at the start of the play. Alex Jennings’ character, Subtle, considers he is the sole provider for the team of con men, while Simon Russell Beale’s character, Face, is pointing out how much work both he and Doll Common do to bring in the dosh. She acts as peacekeeper between them (this involves partly strangling Subtle, so not trained by the UN, then), and gets them to hug and make up, though you can see that rivalry and tension still lurks beneath the surface.

Once they’re into their cons, though, everything starts to go more smoothly. This first scene reminded me of The Tempest, strangely enough, with the quarrelling between Prospero and Caliban. I also noticed that Doll Common emphasises that all their goods are to be held in common, which was something the Anabaptists believed in – perhaps a deliberate reference?

The cons are good fun. A young clerk wants to win at gaming, and believes that the Docto’ will be able to give him a fairy to help him win all the time. (There’s one born every 10 seconds in thisLondon!) An Asian shopkeeper wants advice on the best way to set up his store to maximise profits, and also wants help to snare a young, rich widow. The widow wants her fortune told to find out whom she’ll marry, while her brother, a young Hooray Henry up from the country, wants to be taught how to quarrel. Given the modern dress, this allows for much business with attempted African-American culture. Or Ali G, depending on preference. Very funny.

There’s also a wealthy knight with itchy palms, who wants the philosopher’s stone, so he can turn just about everything into gold and rule the universe, at least for starters. And since he’s given the Doctor loads of pewter and tin plate, the con men also arrange to sell the stuff to some overly serious Puritans. And that’s just in the first half! Face has to switch between the Captain, a suave man about town, who pulls in the marks, and a foreign servant, somewhat resembling Ygor from most Frankenstein movies, shuffling around in a leather apron, looking sinister. Subtle basically just plays the Doctor, an alchemist and fortune-teller, but he has different personas to sell his character to the different marks. So for most people he puts on an American drawl, wearing a headband, sunglasses and beads round his neck, hippy-style. For the Puritans, though, he adopts a different approach, with tweed suit, proper glasses, and a serious demeanour coupled with a Scottish accent. Face also uses a Scottish accent when the Puritans are around. Doll’s main character is a widow, sister of a Lord somebody-or-other (fictitious, I think). She is very intelligent but has a mania. She can’t bear to hear any talk of the Talmud, or Moses, or anything Jewish. Apart from that, she’s fine. And, given her looks, there’s many a man would overlook the odd flaw. They’re lining her up to be taken by the knight, thereby ruining his chance of getting the philosopher’s stone – any naughty business in the house will cause the delicate process of creating the stone to go awry – so they can filch all his money and get away with it. The stone’s demise is accompanied by an almighty explosion, flames, and smoke. Poor Face is covered in soot, especially his face, and it’s a wonderfully funny scene.

There’s one potential hitch. A character called Surly, a friend of the knight, is being lined up for a con, but fails to appear. Instead, he’s setting the con men up by pretending to be a rich Spanish nobleman, in need of sex. This is Surly in disguise. By the time he gets to the house, there are so many other cons under way, that Doll isn’t available, so they decide to set him up with the young widow, telling her that her destiny is to marry a Spanish nobleman. So far, so good. However, Surly explains all to her, and while he’s so taken with her that he wants to marry her, he still confronts the con artists and threatens to expose them publicly. Despite this, the various marks running around the place come to their aid, and chase Surly off. The shopkeeper wants the widow himself, and so on. The character switches the con men are having to do get faster and furiouser, and eventually, all the marks have been seen off (or have they?), and the money safely gathered in.

The clerk who wanted a fairy, and was expecting to see the fairy queen, (his aunt, apparently) was shoved into the privy while some other scam was dealt with, and finally chews his way through the gingerbread gag. At this point, the con artists are packing up as they’ve seen the house’s real owner arriving. Face is looking after the house for his master, and while he’s away fromLondonto avoid the plague, the others have been using the house to ply their trade. As they pack up, Face dons his usual suit, and appears on a balcony to rubbish the neighbours’ reports of lots of people going in and out of the house at all hours. The house has been locked up all this while, he claims, and might just get away with it, but for noises from the privy and the knight and Surly arriving, with the police, ready to break the door down. They enter, but can’t find any evidence of the people the knight and Surly have reported, so go away empty-handed. Meantime, Face comes clean about the whole shenanigans, and sets his master up with the young widow. While they’re off getting married, the three tricksters put all their money into the one box, and lock it, giving Face the key – bad move. He then announces that his master knows all, and sends the other two packing – no honour amongst thieves here. It turns out Face sent for his boss deliberately, and for his reward, he’s given a small (very small) token of gratitude. As the other marks turn up, demanding whatever goods they think they’re entitled to, the master of the house rebuffs them all. He’s got the pewter and tin plate, all the money, and a new wife to boot, and is very pleased with himself. But I’d be careful – Face knows a trick or two, and I wouldn’t put it past him to swindle his master before long.

There’s a huge amount of plot in this, and a lot of background information in the programme as well, about tobacco, alchemy and Puritans. The language is very dense, and I still didn’t get much more than half of it, but what I did get I thoroughly enjoyed. Some of it may have been updated – I would need to check with the text – but it all worked brilliantly. It was the first time Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale had worked together, and it was superb casting. They’re both strong enough to play these parts to the hilt, and I’m not sure I’ll see a funnier production than this. All the other actors were great, too. Special mention to Julian Curry, who stepped in to play Lovewit, the owner of the house. He gave a lovely performance, and didn’t let on that he was in on the plot. Also Tristan Beint was excellent as the quarrelsome young man.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at

The Life Of Galileo – October 2006

Experience: 10/10

By Bertolt Brecht, in a version by David Hare

Directed by Howard Davies

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Wednesday 4th October 2006

This was excellent. It was lovely to see Simon Russell Beale again. I’ve missed many of his performances, for various reasons, and it was good to see he’s still as talented as before. He commands the stage, taking full advantage of the scope this part gives him. Even when he shows us Galileo’s unkindness towards his daughter, we can at least understand some of his reasons. He’s not a monster so much as a man obsessed.

The play covers a range of issues, but the central conflict is between science and dogma. The portrayal of the Catholic Church is refreshingly neutral, with church officials ranging from extreme dogmatists to enlightened thinkers, and it was good to see the niceties of the Church’s concerns put across. It was OK to talk about the Earth going round the Sun as a hypothetical mathematical concept, so long as it was said in Latin so the ordinary folk couldn’t get wind of it. In other words, don’t rock the boat, or we’ll throw you overboard! The overweening concern of those in power to stay in power was clear, although they tried to justify it by pretending their concern was only for those poor people who would lose the will to face such difficult lives without their absolute faith in God, as propounded by the Church. There were some lovely nuances through the play – I particularly liked the subtle innuendo of the Cardinal inquisitor (Oliver Ford Davies – another excellent performance) as he worked on Galileo’s daughter to recruit her as a spy, via her confessor. Although he could just have been warning her that anything they did would get back to him, so watch your step.

There were plenty of characters representing concerned friends, who wanted to support Galileo’s work, but who feared for his safety and that of his daughter, and others who supported him and wanted him to challenge the establishment and damn the consequences. Some of these were very disappointed, even angry, when they realised he had recanted his views, and I realised how much we human beings invest in our images of other people, how much we expect them to be perfect or heroic for us, rather than taking responsibility for our own lives and accepting others’ human frailties. I also saw how much we do this to God as well. So many people in this play saw no alternative to the Earth-centred, God created view of the world that would still allow God to exist as God. If not the still Earth at the centre, then chaos. Weird, given our greater knowledge now. Still, reason did not completely win out. The effects of Galileo’s choices left his daughter without a husband, so the human cost also had to be considered.

At one point I almost shouted out to contradict the Senior Cardinal, one of the pompous opponents of Galileo’s work. His view was that God would not have sent His only son to some little backwater of a planet on the edge of the universe. I felt like pointing out that He allowed His son to be born in a manger, so there! Obviously, this play got to me more than I realised, but I like that.

All the performances were excellent. The carnival scene reminded both of us of Cabaret, and I loved the astronomical images projected onto the back screen. The set was on a revolve, with the grid of an observatory dome at the back, not moving, three sets of French windows in bay formation at the front, or rotated to the back, and various doorways and walls with windows which could be moved around to form all sorts of acting spaces. Costumes were modern dress, and this worked well for me.

Some of the fun moments: Galileo is visited by a Dutch student looking for tuition, who tells him of the telescope people inHollandare using. Galileo grasps the idea immediately, sends out for some lenses, and pinches the idea in order to get a higher salary from the Venetians. The Dutch student’s main complaint is that he’s coloured the tube red. Then the fun begins. When the young Duke of Florence, Cosimo de Medici, comes to check out the telescope with his entourage, we get to see some of the ridiculous objections people had to Galileo’s discoveries. The mathematician objects to looking through the telescope, because logic dictates that if the agreed view of the solar system held that there were no objects orbiting bodies other than the Earth, then the telescope must be doing something wrong if it shows such things. The philosopher objected because he believed Aristotle to be correct, therefore the telescope must be wrong. (I’m getting the impression that far from being an important early scientist, Aristotle was a bit of a road block on the path to discovery.) When challenged to believe the evidence of his own eyes, he retorted that he did believe their evidence, when reading Aristotle! This nonsense was very entertaining, and although it has some echoes today, I found it more interesting as an indication of how far we’ve come since then.

We also get to see the robing of a Pope, Urban VIII. This is a long-winded business. The poor chap has to wear so many layers, presumably all representing something significant to Catholics at that time, that he wouldn’t be able to use a toilet easily. This is also the scene where the Cardinal Inquisitor requests permission to torture Galileo to get him to recant. Given Galileo’s squeamish nature, he reckons he only needs to show him the instruments of torture to do the trick, and the Pope agrees to that. The recantation scene itself was masterfully done. We see Galileo’s supporters waiting outside – his daughter, his housekeeper’s son, Andreas, whom Galileo introduced to science, the monk who ‘converted’ to Galileo’s views, and his lens-grinder. His daughter was praying for him, presumably so that he would recant. The others were bolstering their confidence by assuring each other that he wouldn’t. As the news broke, and the declaration is being read out, they crumble, none more so than Andreas, who rushes to attack Galileo when he appears. We actually see Galileo approaching first, through the windows, and he hesitates, obviously aware how his choice will have upset his friends. My thoughts about imposing expectations of heroism on others are above.

The masked ball was good, too. Again, the modern dress worked fine, and they were just skimpy masks rather than huge ones, but it got the effect across very well.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at