Two Gentlemen Of Verona – April 2013

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company: SATTF

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Wednesday 17th April 2013

One of the joys of arriving early to queue for our seats in the Tobacco Factory is the opportunity to see some of the cast chilling out before the show. Tonight we were lucky enough to see a major star relaxing on one of the sofas – Lollio, aka Crab. His long black form lay elegantly on the seat opposite; he was completely unfazed to be among his adoring public. Eventually, after a languorous stretch, he strolled into the auditorium to prepare for an arduous evening’s performance – more on that story later.

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Richard III – March 2013

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company: Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Tuesday 26th March 2013

After a late night yesterday, I confess to nodding off a little in the early stages of this performance, but I got the gist of the staging and by the second half I was all attention. The energy drooped a little in the final scenes, a problem inherent in the play rather than the performances, but otherwise it was a brisk and straightforward telling of the story which managed to come in at just over three hours. We didn’t find it quite as sparkling as previous SATTF productions, but that just means it was very good instead of superb.

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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

King Lear – March 2012

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company: Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Saturday 24th March 2012

Wow! This not only came on, it was significantly better than the earlier experience. I’ve upped the rating to the max, but it can’t really reflect just how good this performance was, with much more detail in all the portrayals, and a tremendous level of energy for the last performance of the run. I’ll cover as many points as I can remember, but I won’t be able to get it all down.

To begin with, I forgot to mention the music which was used so effectively in this production. It was mostly drums and trumpets, with fanfares for the arrival of important people and the like. We were also ‘treated’ to somebody’s musical ringtone for several seconds tonight which was a bit distracting, especially as it occurred during the bit where Regan is trying to persuade Lear to go back and stay with Goneril. They also used sound effects of hunting horns and dogs to convey the sense of Edgar being hunted, and therefore having to take on a disguise.

The opening section was much as before, although Kent and Gloucester were facing each other across the table at the start. Edmund was more clearly uncomfortable with the constant repetition of the story of his birth, not helped by his father mussing his hair, and his desire for advancement shone through in the obsequious way he offered his service to Kent. The entrance of the court was the same, but from our new angle I could see the reactions of the older daughters and their husbands much better tonight, and they were much more affected by Lear’s behaviour than I realised last time. Goneril was much more nervous than Regan, who came across as the more manipulative sister. I thought she might have been the much loved younger daughter at one point, and then along came Cordelia to spoil it all. Lear’s temper was much stronger this time, and his rage sent the other family members scuttling for cover. It made Goneril and Regan’s comments about his changeability quite plausible, and for once I felt they had reasonable grounds for complaint. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Kent was in my eye-line during Cordelia’s ‘nothing’ speech, and I could see how he approved of her comments. She was in fact being very reasonable, and Lear’s attitude was shown up as being completely deluded; Kent even used the word ‘mad’ to describe it, which didn’t please Lear. The Duke of Burgundy still had his cane with him, but didn’t need it this time, and after the court left, Edmund discussed the bastardy issue with us as usual but didn’t crumple the letter. As the servants cleared the soft furnishings, one threw the circlet onto the throne rather dismissively tonight.

The fool’s performance was much clearer than before, and he was very snappy with Lear in his opening scene, due to Lear having sent Cordelia away. I didn’t hear his lines ‘for so your eyes bid though your mouth…’ tonight, although there were other places where I heard lines I wasn’t used to. When he and Lear were sitting, waiting for the horses to be brought, Lear was more reflective this time.

I noticed the servants giggling behind Regan and Edmund when Kent was insulting everyone at Gloucester’s house, and it seemed clearer this time that Regan and Goneril were working out how to handle their father on the wing. Lear refused to weep at their mistreatment of him, but just then the thunder started, as if nature would do the weeping for him.

The fool didn’t give Poor Tom the close scrutiny he had last time; he was much more concerned about Lear. The blinding scene wasn’t any gorier from the other side, although my own vision was partly obscured by a combination of eyelids and hands. Edgar’s closing lines were a fitting ending, suggesting a brighter, if sadder, future. The rest was as before, and we left very happy that we’d seen such a tremendous performance.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King Lear – February 2012

9.5/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Friday 17th February 2012

I’m rating this at 9.5/10 tonight, it was so good. As we’re seeing this again, and there’s some room for it to come on, I want to leave the 10/10 rating, just in case.

The set at the start: a table covered with black cloth edged with gold tassels stood centre and left of the stage, with an hourglass seat or throne behind it to our left, and at that end of the table there was a gold coronet. At the other end of the table was a stool covered with cream brocade, also with complementary tassels. Behind this were two other stools in dark blue and red, on either side of the stage. The pillar nearest us had the hexagonal seat round it, and all the pillars were disguised as tree trunks (silver birch, from the look of it) with some stubby bits of branch projecting out higher up. Behind the throne was a black door with a corresponding gap in the seating.

To open the first scene a map was spread on the table, and someone was studying it – turned out to be Kent. Gloucester’s comment about the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany was very relevant in this context, and Kent rolled up the map before he responded, holding it in his hand. Edmund came on and stood on the other side of the table; while Gloucester introduced him to Kent his expression gave away his discomfort at the story of his birth, though he put a sycophantic smile on his face when necessary. When he was told who Kent was, his desire to serve him may have been genuine – it was hard to tell – but I certainly had the impression that Edmund was a young man determined to climb the greasy pole by any available means.

When the court arrived, Goneril and Regan came through first with their husbands, and took their places by the stools – red for Goneril, blue for Regan. After them came Lear and a servant who sat to one side and wrote everything down – he had a small writing desk with him. There was a pause while Lear waited for Cordelia, who finally came skipping on with a girlish giggle. Lear led her round to the central stool and sat her down, then stood behind her placing his hands on her shoulders and kissing her hair, very tenderly. Then he moved round to the throne and as he made to sit down he gestured to the other daughters to sit, a huge difference in attitude.

Goneril drew the short straw in having to go first in praising her father; her speech was rather stumbling as she groped her way to find suitable phrases and comparisons to please the king. I couldn’t see Regan’s reaction to this as she was sitting on our side of the stage with Cornwall standing behind her. When Lear showed Goneril the extent of her new realm, she looked very pleased.

Regan was more assured on her turn – she’d had some time to prepare – and I got the impression this was some kind of family game, with neither of the elder sisters taking it seriously. Goneril didn’t look at all put out when Regan topped her efforts, and the laughter at what Cordelia was saying sounded almost genuine. Cordelia gave us her asides from the stool and her lines were delivered very strongly, although she looked very young compared to her sisters. This was a forthright Cordelia who spoke her mind, and when she pleaded with Lear to exonerate her of any serious wrongdoing when France and Burgundy were present, I found her description of her ‘offence’ much clearer than before, which meant that France’s recognition of it made more sense. I felt she and France were well matched, as he obviously appreciated her for herself, and this contrasted well with Goneril’s marriage – she’s married to an older man and it’s clearly an arranged match. Burgundy was using a cane and limping a bit during this scene, and also as the Herald later; hopefully he’ll be recovered when we see this next – it’s a dangerous life being a fight director.

Lear’s response to Cordelia’s “nothing” was quite gentle at first – he just couldn’t believe she wouldn’t join in the game. This was where the rest of the family were laughing as well. After a bit, though, the rage came out, and the others moved quickly to get out of Lear’s way as he threw his tantrum. Kent’s interjection didn’t help matters, and soon everyone was leaving, in different directions. Regan seemed much more relaxed about their father’s behaviour than Goneril, whose “We must do something, and i’ th’ heat” became quite desperate at the end.

After they had all left, Edmund came back on and made good use of the writing desk while the servants cleared the stage. They took the cover off the table, the covers off the three stools, and the throne went as well. During this time, Edmund was penning the very letter that would cause all the problems in his family. He made as if to scrunch it up and throw it away, but kept it and then launched into his diatribe against primogeniture. When he used the word ‘legitimate’, he recognised how good it was and went over to the writing desk to add it into the letter. I could see the messy nature of the writing from where I sat – he did wave the letter around a bit – and so I was very pleased when Gloucester came to read it that he had to look hard to get some of the words. ‘Legitimate’ had clearly been added, and that was one of the ones he had to peer at a bit. Again, Gloucester’s first response was sadness and grief at being deceived, but then his anger took over.

Edgar came on eating a pear while Edmund sat on the pillar seat near us to do his groaning – nothing else to report for this bit. The set was then changed to a table and two stools, one at either end of the table, with red covers – we were in Goneril territory. After the king arrived, Kent was brought on and laid on the floor, face down. He said most of his lines there too, until the “authority” bit. When Goneril turned up to speak to Lear, Oswald went past them all and out of the door, carrying some papers; I realised this was the letter Goneril had been writing to Regan, a nice touch. Goneril seemed quite intimidated when she confronted Lear. One of Lear’s men was invading her space, looking menacing, and her speech was almost incomprehensible, never mind formal. When Lear cursed Goneril with Albany there too, I was aware that he was cursing Albany as well, in a sense, as he was wishing for neither of them to have children. Goneril was really shocked by this curse. The fool’s dialogue was clear, though I never felt I got much of his personality from this portrayal. I didn’t see much of him at times, as he lurked over on our side of the stage, off to our left.

After this scene, the table and stools were cleared, I think, and the stage was pretty open for most of the rest of the play. Edmund met Curran to hear about the arrival of the Duke of Cornwall, and then stage managed Edgar’s ‘escape’. When Regan and Cornwall arrived, I had the impression that they weren’t definitely villains at this point but that circumstances pushed them that way.

When Kent was waiting outside, he saw Oswald coming and lurked in the shadows to avoid being recognised. When he did come forward and Oswald recognised him, Oswald did his best to avoid drawing his sword, definitely a coward. Kent took off Oswald’s cloak and dropped it so that when Oswald bent to pick it up, he could tip up Oswald’s scabbard causing the sword to come out – drawn by default. That’s when Oswald called for help, and as soon as it arrived he started posing with the sword as if he was more than ready to fight – very funny. After the discussion involving the Duke of Cornwall, Kent was put into the stocks to our right. He didn’t read any letter by the light of the moon – he just laid back and slept for a bit.

When Goenril arrived, it seemed to me that the sisters hadn’t decided what to do about their father, but when Regan went for reducing Lear’s entourage to a mere 25, Goneril saw the opportunity, and then they both worked together, like lionesses, to close the trap. The remaining attendants – 1 lord and the disguised Kent – looked very unhappy during this discussion.

The scene where Lear meets Poor Tom was difficult to watch, especially as ‘Tom’ had bits of twig or some such stuck in his arm. Lear’s grasp of the nature of humanity at its simplest was well delivered, and this time Lear hardly got his trousers unbuttoned before Kent and the fool were on him to stop him taking his clothes off. He’d already thrown his coat and hat on the ground.

The shelter scene was set up using a small bench with a saddle on it, several cushions and a blanket. A lantern was hung up on one of the pillars. I reckoned the fool was suspicious of Edgar’s mad performance; he was looking at him intently all the time, up till the point where Lear was about to lie down and sleep, then he came over and sat by the king. Edgar was uncomfortable with the fool’s scrutiny, and very aware of it. When the three men were sitting on the bench together to arraign the sisters, I was also aware that two of them were in disguise, and therefore, in a sense, lying. The fool’s disappearance was just that – the scene in the shelter ended, with Lear, Kent and Gloucester heading off, leaving the fool and Edgar alone. The fool was holding the lantern, and simply blew it out – darkness. This was also where they took the interval.

The second half opened with the run up to the blinding scene – always a difficult one. This time, Gloucester was brought over to our corner and tied to a chair right by us. When Cornwall took out the first eye, he got a spatter of blood on his face; I thought at the end of the scene that this may have been done to get the shock and horror across to the audience behind the action – it worked! The servant drew his dagger, Cornwall drew his, and Goneril finished the servant off. There was more blood spatter with the second eye, and what looked like a small round object (nearly done now). I don’t know what the audience on the other side saw – yet! One more thing, Regan was again unnaturally excited by the sight of blood – I could see her becoming a total sociopath if she’d lived, getting her thrills from blood, torture and death.

The person who helped Gloucester after his blinding, and whom he asked to bring clothes for Poor Tom, was played by Eleanor Yates, doubling with Cordelia; it was a nice touch to have the two most caring people played by the same actress.

I was very moved by the scenes between Edgar and Gloucester. When Edgar came on talking about the benefits of having the worst happen to you, he looked very happy with life, all in all. This was when I thought he would make a good king with all he’s been through. When his father arrived, things changed, and I was moved to tears several times as their relationship developed. When Oswald found Gloucester, I was aware that he was only going to draw on him because he thought he was defenceless – the cowardice showing through again.

There wasn’t much laughter from this audience, and perhaps it wasn’t the funniest Lear we’ve seen, but there is a fair amount of humour and I felt this performance warranted more than it got. Edmund’s debate about which sister to have was an exception, though, as we laughed plenty.

Edmund had a real smirk on him when confronting Albany at the end, using the royal ‘we’ before he was fully entitled to it. The duel was good, with both brothers having a go. They clashed swords right by us, and the swords ended up lying on the hexagonal seat, with Edmund drawing his dagger and Edgar reduced to his wits. Goneril was excited by the prospect of Edmund winning – I reckon she was looking forward to her husband having to fight Edmund, so that Edmund could kill him ‘legitimately’.

When the messenger was sent off to rescue Lear and Cordelia, he ran off past us, but Lear brought Cordelia on through the doorway at the far end of the space. His “howl”s were strong, and directed round the room. Kent didn’t walk off at the end; he just knelt by Lear and Cordelia’s bodies, grieving. I had thought earlier in the second half that Edgar would make a better king for having suffered in the way he does, and at the end that impression was even stronger as he accepted the kingship role and spoke the closing lines. He had his back to me this time, so I’m keen to see it from the other side next time to confirm this impression.

Some other bits I noticed: Albany was much stronger than in most productions, really angry with Goneril after she returned from Gloucester’s place. Regan wore a very small black shawl after Cornwall’s death, but only for one scene – a short period of mourning for her. Kent’s ring – we saw him take it off and put it in his pocket when he was first in disguise. Then he took it out to give it to the other chap who was going to Dover. Finally Cordelia gave it back to him when they meet up before Lear was brought on, sleeping, in a wheelchair. When Goneril and Edmund were kissing, Oswald watched for a bit, but glanced away towards the end. There were no bodies brought on stage for once, and they finished early, at 11:10pm.

I love the way SATTF tell these stories so clearly, and without all the fancy designs that can clutter up other productions sometimes. I find I get very involved in the storytelling, and enjoy these performances enormously, even if there aren’t many visual tags for me to remember them by later on, e.g. the eye in the water tank, the sweep of gaudy costumes in the Russian style, etc. The text was a bespoke blend of quarto and folio, so we heard some lines we hadn’t heard before, including the Curran bit and also Edgar mentioning Kent’s visit to his father before he died; this was when he was talking to Albany about what he’s been up to after the duel. I wasn’t aware of missing anything though, apart from Kent not reading the letter while he was in the stocks.

The performances were all good, with some lovely details in each of the main characters. John Shrapnel’s Lear was an interesting portrayal. He wasn’t angry all the time, but he did have his rages, and he lost his reason believably and movingly. It was a really good evening, and I’m glad we’ve booked to see this again.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Antony And Cleopatra – April 2009

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company: SATTF

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Thursday 30th April 2009

This was a fantastic production. For the first time I felt I understood the play, at least to some extent. Previously I’ve commented on how it’s a political play, a love story and an historical piece all rolled into one. Now, partly thanks to the program notes and mostly thanks to the performance, I’m seeing it as a love story set within a political framework which dooms the lovers. They’re too important as public figures for their private love affair to be consequence-free. It’s a discourse on the conflict between the private and the personal, and when better to set such a discussion than in Roman times, when Roman aristocrats were expected to make their mark on the world, and personal matters took second or even third place.

Also, the historical context may be providing camouflage as many contemporary issues couldn’t be discussed openly in Will’s day, though what the contemporary references would be I’m not entirely sure. Certainly a queen like Cleopatra could be seen as a version of Elizabeth, though tonight I glimpsed some echoes of another queen, Mary, of France and Scotland, and the sort of turbulence her lively personality and not entirely disciplined emotional life brought to her reign. Given that the play was written, though possibly not performed, during the reign of her son it may not be too fanciful to see some allusions there.

For this production the “set” was as usual. There were a chaise longue and stool for the Egyptian scenes at the start and more basic tables and chairs for the Roman scenes. This meant a fair deal of furniture removal during the first half especially, with lights down, but on the whole the cast kept things moving and it didn’t get in the way. Costumes were again set in the pre-Civil War period, and Cleopatra’s were gorgeous! No flying scabbards this time, but there were a few wayward plastic glasses in the second half, and an unfortunately timed thump from behind us after Caesar’s lines about Antony’s death, “The breaking of so great a thing should make/ A greater crack.”. On the whole though, the audience were good as gold.

As were the performers. It was a warm night and they must have sweated bucketloads during the evening, especially with those costumes. The opening scenes gave us a very clear picture of the drunken, sensual Egyptian court, and Cleopatra’s sneaky ways of dealing with her besotted lover, Antony. Her women were well tipsy and prone to giggling, and I felt the hand of doom early on as the soothsayer fudged the bad news of their futures as best he could. They just laughed and joked as usual, silly girls. Antony and Cleopatra were clearly in love, though at this point it was mainly coming across as the physical kind; lots of sex, drinking and other sports. The deeper aspects were in question, and indeed were tested to the limit by the events they go through, but it became clear that something stronger than simple lust bound this couple together.

Caesar started this play pretty much as he finished the previous one, sitting at a table planning his conquest of the world. It’s nice to have these two plays not only performed in sequence but cast in tandem so that we can see Octavius become Caesar, and Antony both rise and fall. The contrast is clear; Caesar is disciplined and puts public affairs (and his political ambitions) first, while Antony has lost it completely through self-indulgence. Even when Octavia arrived back in Rome to try and broker a peace deal between her brother and husband, Octavius dealt with the political aspects of the situation first and only then, after a lengthy delay, went over to his ‘much beloved’ sister to comfort her. And how did he do it? By assuring her that her husband’s definitely off to dally with a strumpet in Egypt, and doesn’t care for her anymore. Not particularly tactful, but I suppose he meant well.

The meeting between Antony and Caesar was suitably tense. Strictly speaking, Lepidus was there, but really he wasn’t. He did start the ball rolling by reading from a prepared speech and Antony cut him short; no doubt he’s heard enough of Lepidus’s speeches in the past. When Antony and Caesar got down to it, it was clear these are two powerful and experienced political operators with significant military experience as well. Equals, in fact, which goes some way to explaining Octavius’s grief over losing Mark Antony at the end. They may have been rivals for the position of world ruler, but the loss of Antony diminishes Caesar. Agrippa’s offer of Octavia’s hand in marriage to Antony, to heal the rift between the two men, was another hand of doom moment, as Enobarbus rightly commented later to the pirate, Menas.

Speaking of which, Pompey’s involvement was not as strong as I’ve seen it be this time around. He’s needed to bring the two leaders together, and to put pressure on them to bury their differences for a short while, but he didn’t come across as such a strong character in this performance. The two scenes where he met with his opponents and feasted them on his ship seemed shorter than usual, although I suspect that they’re simply padded with song and dance in other productions. At least we got to see Caesar enjoying the teasing of Lepidus, and not being able to handle his drink as well as the others. Steve reckoned this was another example of his desire for control – he didn’t like being drunk – and I saw it as one of the few things Mark Antony could do better than him, which Octavius hated. Or a bit of both.

The planning for the various battles came across more clearly than ever before. I usually feel there’s a lot of repetition here, with Antony and Cleopatra losing a battle, regrouping, then losing another battle. This time I could see the differences, which this production brought out beautifully. The first battle at sea is lost because of Antony’s stupidity and Cleopatra’s fear. Their reaction to the defeat is different; he rails against it, she’s already manoeuvring politically by sweet-talking Caesar’s ambassador. Tonight I spotted, for the first time, the way that Antony’s ranting at her over the kiss Thidias gives her (on her hand) was a mirror image of the ranting she did at Antony early on, when he had just found out that Fulvia was dead. Neither allowed the other to speak, and the overall impression was that they’re well matched in temperament but that she’s probably the shrewder political animal, as she can’t rely on military might to get her way and has to use subtler methods. I found myself wondering how flirtatious Queen Elizabeth could be when she felt it would work for her, especially in the early days when her position wasn’t entirely secure (was it ever?) and she was a very attractive prize.

Then followed more political manoeuvring, leading to Antony and Cleopatra choosing to fight again. This time Cleopatra stayed behind, but the result was the same – a win for Octavius. The outcome was different though, as Antony’s rage at Cleopatra caused her to send him the fatal news of her own death, which led in turn to his botched suicide attempt. I don’t know if it always got laughs or if it was just played that way tonight, but there was a surprising amount of humour when Alexis brought the news that Cleopatra was still alive. Antony, who was slumped in a peculiar position, face down on the ground, reacted along the lines of ‘Oh bugger, I’ve killed myself for no good reason!’, which was very funny. I’ve not seen it played that way before but I felt it worked just fine, as we’d been to hell and back already and more was to come; a spot of light relief was welcome.

With this venue, Cleopatra’s Monument was never a goer, so the final meeting between the lovers was trimmed down but still powerful, with Antony dying in Cleopatra’s embrace. Now the action slowed down, as we’re left with Cleopatra’s final steps to prevent Caesar getting what he wants – to lead her in triumph through Rome’s streets. Steve saw Alexis’s apparent betrayal of his queen over her financial assets as being part of her grand plan. She wanted Caesar to think she was keeping money back, perhaps as part of a plan to escape, in order to convince him she wasn’t contemplating suicide. From Caesar’s response it worked, though Steve wasn’t sure if Alexis was in on the scheme or not. Just the way she said “speak true” with a meaningful look, was enough. I can’t say I spotted this, but I did hear tonight for the first time the details of her excuses for the deception, all intended to present herself as a feminine woman, not too clever, keen to look her best and to ingratiate herself with the new power in town. Which simply reinforced my opinion of her as a very shrewd operator, and also gave Caesar the impression that she wasn’t seeking death.

The final death scene was moving, with Iris taking the plunge before her mistress, and Charmian following her shortly afterwards. The asp man was OK, nothing special, while Dolabella was clearly smitten with the queen, and his reverence for her was clearly noticed by the rest of the Romans. As he rose to his feet they were all looking at him, and then the lights went down. A good ending.

The performances were all excellent, again. Despite the many parts taken on by some of the ensemble, I was pretty clear throughout who was who and which side people were on. Simon Armstrong as Enobarbus gave us all his lines with the right amount of cynicism and humour, while Byron Mondahl as Octavius was a marvellous combination of petulant and shrewd. It’s a shame there isn’t a play in the cannon which lets him show us the full Augustus, as it were.

Alun Raglan as Antony was believable both as the powerful military commander and as the besotted lover, a man who enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh too much for his own good. But the star turn for me was Lucy Black’s Cleopatra. She was beautiful and intelligent, shrewd and manipulative, and very much in love. Her face was rarely still, and the range of expressions she produced gave me a very clear insight into this mercurial character. I noticed the subtleties even when she was buckling on Antony’s armour; she wanted to keep him safe but knew she had to let him go into battle, and it cost her a lot to put on brave face. Her treatment of the unfortunate messenger from Antony was highly entertaining and her death was dignified. I could see why her women were so faithful. I felt I was seeing the woman herself, which doesn’t often happen.

Another great production from this company, and now we have to wait another year for the next. Ah well.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Julius Caesar – March 2009

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company: SATTF

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Thursday 19th March 2009

Here we are, back at the Tobacco Factory, and it feels a longer gap than just a year. The place is much the same but the entrance to the auditorium has been moved. We now enter via the southwest corner, which is more straightforward and may help the ventilation(?). The only other set dressing is hexagonal grilles round the base of each pillar. Now for the play.

The Elizabethan costumes reminded me of the significance of this play in Shakespeare’s day – discussing politics publicly was a dangerous, but important part of that society. The fact that the two patricians at the start are dressed in the sombre black I associate with the Puritans adds to the effect; they are, after all, about to spoil the working men’s fun. The cobbler was entertaining, and I understood many more of his references about mending soles (souls) and how provocative such comments could have been.

Mark Anthony was a little difficult to understand at first, partly the grief and partly something strange in his accent that I haven’t been able to pin down yet. He was much better in the second half. I especially liked the way the rabble (all six of them) drowned out the start of Mark Anthony’s famous speech. “Friends, Romans, countrymen” was completely lost in the hubbub, and it took till “The evil that men do lives after them” before I could hear what he was saying. A little cowardly, perhaps? Or just showing how difficult his task was after Brutus had convinced the populace that Caesar had deserved to die? I think the latter, and here Mark Anthony did his job so well that he had to stop the riot twice before he finally unleashed the frenzied mob on Rome.

I noticed how in this production, the conspirators got things badly wrong in the first half. They assumed that Caesar was the problem, and yet it became clear that the people were the real source of Caesar’s power. Even though they were being manipulated, they could make or break the political careers of the ‘ruling’ classes. There was also an emphasis on the conspirators’ perception of their assassination as reducing the amount of time for Caesar to fear death. Yet Caesar had made it clear that he didn’t fear death, or anything else for that matter. Did the man protest too much, or was he being accurate? (Personally, I wouldn’t believe any of this shower if they told me the sky was blue on a sunny day.)

These ironies and contrasts were brought out throughout the performance. Calpurnia is barren (a dreadful thing for a Roman wife) while Portia is pregnant. Caesar is surrounded by false friends, while Brutus can hardly find anyone to help him die. Brutus accuses Caesar of putting the Republic at risk through wanting to be king, yet ends up acting so autocratically that he might as well have put a crown on his own head. His behaviour before the battle was so authoritarian that despite Brutus and Cassius’ strong friendship, it was clear the Republicans were doomed.

The Empire, however, was in much stronger fettle, even with the glaringly obvious fault lines. Lepidus is indeed a feeble makeweight, whom Anthony derides at great length while Octavius watches and listens. It dawned on me that Anthony is inadvertently talking about the way Octavius sees him, a bit like a fox telling a crocodile about the silly bunny he’s going to have for his lunch, not realising the crocodile is eyeing him up for dinner. At the end, with Brutus to bury, Octavius bagsies the body – from Anthony’s reaction he’s not happy with that, and is beginning to realise what a shrewd political animal he’s up against – and while Octavius leaves in one direction, Anthony, looking grim, heads off in another. All is not well in paradise.

Calpurnia was a little weak, I thought, but the other performances were good, with all the main characters being strong. Brutus’ deception when he denies knowing of Portia’s death struck me as a way of showing his strength to his generals, something Cassius understands although he doubts his own ability to carry it off so well.

The interval was taken after the assassination, to get the body off and the stage cleaned up. Something, a scabbard probably, flew into the audience as the conspirators made for Caesar – Steve headed it behind him (over ‘ere son, on me ‘ead), and it was retrieved during the interval.

Another good performance from SATTF, though not as strong as last year’s. We’re booked for Antony and Cleopatra in a few weeks, so it will be interesting to see how these productions relate to each other.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me