The Cherry Orchard – April 2012

7/10

By Anton Chekov, translated by Stephen Mulrine

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company: Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Tuesday 3rd April 2012

This was an enjoyable production, if not up to the level of SATTF’s Shakespeare offerings. The stage was decorated with more furniture than usual – rugs, a small bookcase, tables, chairs, sofas, etc. – and the setting was emphasised with strong lighting changes between acts. The story was told at a fairly brisk pace, and there was a good amount of humour throughout the performance as well as an understanding of the various characters’ situations. I’m finding Chekov’s work less interesting at the moment though; don’t know if it’s just a dry spell or whether I’ve got as much as I can from the plays. Either way I reckon this was a very good production, though not the best I’ve seen.

There was still the sense of characters talking at each other without making a connection at times, and I was aware of the oddness of Charlotta’s speech at the start of the second act. Chekov seems to be presenting us with a melange of characters from rural Russia, and they each get their turn to be centre stage regardless of any plot that might be going on. It’s an OK way to do things, but sometimes I feel it disrupts the rhythm of the piece.

Dorothea Myer-Bennett played Varya, the adopted daughter, and brought out her concerns about money very strongly along with her fear of being called a miser. I wasn’t so clear about her love for Lopakhin this time, but it was still a shame that he couldn’t bring himself to propose to her. Simon Armstrong’s Lopakhin was an energetic, bustling man who would always need to be doing something; I’m not sure this Varya would have suited him so well as a wife. Julia Hills was a fine Ranevskaya, with no sense whatsoever but a great deal of charm, and Christopher Bianchi’s Gaev was a decent, kind man who just talked far too much.

The rest of the cast did good work as well. I liked the truculence of Firs, played by Paul Nicholson, and Piers Wehner gave us a Yasha you just wanted to slap (a good thing in a Yasha). I enjoyed this much better than their Uncle Vanya in 2009 – perhaps the different venue didn’t work so well for me – so I wouldn’t rule out seeing any SATTF non-Shakespeare productions in the future.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Uncle Vanya – November 2009

6/10

By Anton Chekov, translated by Stephen Mulrine

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company: SATTF & Bristol Old Vic

Venue: Bristol Old Vic

Date: Friday 13th November 2009

I was a bit disappointed with this production. I liked the thrust stage, and the minimalist set design was fine as were the costumes, but I just couldn’t relate to the characters and their plight. It seemed to fall between two stools, the comic approach and the serious one and never quite got off the ground as a result. I will also say that the seats we were in, although they gave us a good view, were dreadfully cramped – I hope the refurbishment makes it a more comfortable place to sit. But it is a lovely little theatre, and I wish them every success in giving it the TLC it so clearly needs.

The post-show was an added bonus; they don’t usually announce these until long after we’ve bought our tickets, so it was a lovely surprise to find we’d booked exactly the right performance. The cast and director were there, of course, and the audience were suitably enthusiastic, with a good mix of ages. There was one chap on stage who’s involved in the revamp, and he told us some interesting things about the process, and either he or Andrew Hilton explained that thrust stages had disappeared because of health and safety concerns. Back in the days of wooden buildings a theatre had caught fire and killed lots of people so they brought in a law that introduced the safety curtain to every theatre. All naked flames had to be behind the curtain so that if there was a fire the audience could get out OK (shame about the actors, but that’s life). Since the only available lighting was limelight it meant the footlights at the front of the stage had to be moved back, which meant that actors who came in front of the proscenium arch could no longer be seen clearly and the front part of the stage was therefore redundant and disappeared. Now that we have the magic of electrical lights we can have the actors doing all sorts, swinging from the roof, leaping across the seats, strutting their stuff down aisles and round the back; you name it, an actor has probably performed from that very place. Fascinating stuff.

So a good night out in that we ‘discovered’ a lovely new theatre, learned some interesting things in the post-show, and semi-enjoyed the performance itself.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Doll’s House – September 2008

10/10

By Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Stephen Mulrine

Directed by Peter Hall

Company: Peter Hall Company

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 11th September 2008

This was a marvellous production, with wonderfully detailed performances.  The set design was excellent, courtesy of Simon Higlett, whom we heard giving a talk at Chichester. The set was a cubic frame, with a screen for the back wall. This allowed us to see through to the entrance hall and door, and a corridor running off to the right – Torvald’s study was the first door along. The room itself was sparsely decorated, with a sofa, several chairs, some tables, a small stove, an item which looked like a large candleholder but turned out to be a lamp stand, and an upright piano. A chandelier hung from the right hand side of the ceiling, and there were three doors, one in each of the three invisible walls. (The doors were definitely visible.)

The performances were all excellent. I knew the story well enough now to appreciate some of the finer details. Catherine McCormack as Nora was all edgy nervousness. She got across that character’s attractiveness as well as her childish inability to grasp the way things work. She lives through her emotions; if she feels something strongly, it must be right, and the rest of society must be wrong. Finbar Lynch as Torvald was one of those men who’s tremendously sure of themselves, creepily so, and although he’s fond of Nora, she’s right when she compares herself to a doll that he plays with. Admittedly, he couldn’t possibly know exactly what she’s been up to, but his smugness is just asking to be taken down a peg or eighteen. I loved the way he swung from total anger when he first discovers the truth, to almost ingratiating happiness when the incriminating piece of paper turns up. After her disclosure, Nora was both remarkably still and remarkably quiet, and I could see her growing up and realising how far apart they were as she stood there. There were some other lovely touches, such as Torvald clearing some waste paper off the floor onto the sofa, only for Nora to sweep it all back again so she can sit down. Her action and his reaction told us a lot about both their characters and their relationship. Later on, Torvald wagged his finger to warn Nora not to ask Mrs Linde to stay.

At first I thought Anthony Howell as Krogstad was a bit too honest-looking, but as the plot unfolded I realised that he had to have a fundamentally good character, otherwise Mrs Linde wouldn’t have fallen for him in the first place. She has to talk him round to marrying her in a very short scene later on, and persuade him to return the bond, so if he’s a complete scoundrel, or totally corrupted by life’s hardships, that bit isn’t going to be believable. In the end, I think Anthony Howell judged it just right.

Susie Trayling as Mrs Linde had an unfortunate mismatch between her hair piece and her natural hair – I’m not sure if it was a deliberate mistake to show us the character’s poverty, or accidental. It distracted me a bit during the first act, but I found I could ignore it better after that. She’s an invaluable character, as she allows Nora to tell us what she’s done early on so that we’re in the know, and also counterpoints Nora’s own way of dealing with financial hardship. While Nora broke the law to take care of her husband, Mrs Linde has worked hard to support hers, and with little thanks, it would seem. Nora’s childish glee at how well off she and Torvald will be once he starts his new job in January shows a complete lack of sympathy on her part for her friend’s situation, but it also allows us to see how the people around Nora tend to forgive her.

Christopher Ravenscroft as Doctor Rank did an excellent job. His attraction for Nora was more clearly expressed than I remember seeing before, and the poignancy of the dual conversation after the party was very moving. For once, we got to see the children, although not for long, but it helped to make this a much more rounded production. The presence of the children in the early stages lets us see their importance to Nora, and emphasises the way she cuts herself off from them later on, after Torvald’s hugely judgemental pronouncement about Krogstad’s criminal activity, which mirrors Nora’s own.

This was a very satisfying production to watch, and made me appreciate the sort of impact this play had when it was first staged. I could see why polite Norwegian society would have been shocked, but I could also see how readily other playwrights took up this way of presenting ‘real life’. I recognised Chains Of Dew (April 2008) as a response to this play, and even saw echoes in Dangerous Corner, with the husband’s insistence on finding out the truth no matter the cost. Maybe I’ll see more connections and influences in the future. At any rate, I’ll be interested to see the Donmar’s version next year.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Uncle Vanya – March 2008

6/10

By Anton Chekov, translated by Stephen Mulrine

Directed by Peter Hall

Company: Peter Hall Company

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Wednesday 12th March 2008

This is one of the few plays where I saw a fantastic production first time out, which makes it difficult for me to be entirely fair to all subsequent productions. This one didn’t do too badly, mind you, and the translation was excellent – suitably up-to-date and flowing without jarring at all.

It was the first production put on in the new Rose Theatre at Kingston, and the set reflects that acting space. The stage is basically an open space, with no flats and minimal dressing. There’s a tree to reflect the countryside, but otherwise it’s just tables, chairs, a piano and an easel, all of which are moved around to create the appropriate rooms. It’s an interesting use of space, giving a very open feel, and acknowledging the theatricality of the piece while still giving us fairly precise locations to frame the action. I liked that awareness of the artificiality. This is the first time I’ve seen a production of a Chekov play where the comedic emphasis really worked. I could see what the writer was trying to achieve – these are comedies after all – and could appreciate the humour he was bringing out by having such over-the-top reactions from such ordinary folk. I still feel there’s more to be got out of the play on the emotional side than I saw tonight, but I have a better understanding of Chekov’s sense of humour now, which I hope will help when I see his other plays.

The performances were good overall. The best for me was Loo Brealy as Sonya. She got across the range of that character’s emotions very well, from her rampant explanation of the doctor’s ideas to her attempt to comfort her uncle at the end of the play. I also liked Ronald Pickup as the professor, as I found I could relate both to his feelings as he goes through his pain and discomfort, and to the effect he’s having on everyone around him, making them dance attendance and disrupting the smooth running of the household. It’s Yelena’s beauty that disrupts the emotional life of the estate, but it’s his presence in the first place that throws the rhythm of their lives out of balance and makes them more vulnerable to the other temptations (I reckon). His grumpiness was mainly down to his ill-health, and once the nanny character gave him some sympathy, he was putty in her hands.

I also noticed how much the characters seemed to be throwing their lines at each other, and not really communicating at all, except sporadically. The soliloquies were also presented clearly, with each soliloquiser coming to the centre front of the stage to speak to the audience. No musing out loud here, which is another way the theatricality of the piece was emphasised.

The doctor, played by Neil Pearson, was sneaking vodka into his tea during the first scene. I was less sure this time that the doctor actually does as much work as he says he does. Like most of the men in this play, he’s good at grumbling, including grumbling about how much other people grumble. Michelle Dockery as Yelena gave me the impression of a fish out of water. She had no idea how to live in the country, and although she was honest enough about her feelings for her husband, that was about the extent of her virtues. She doesn’t want to work, she’s trapped in a loveless marriage, and she doesn’t seem to realise how much of an effect she’s having on the people around her, apart from her husband. I didn’t get the feeling that she’s really interrogating the doctor about Sonya in order to snare him for herself this time.

So overall it was an enjoyable evening, with some interesting variations that have given me a fair bit to think about. The post-show discussion added a few pieces of information, which I’ve incorporated into the notes.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me