Hamlet – May 2013 (1)

Experience: 7/10

Public Understudies Performance

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Tinuke Craig

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 16th May 2013

These understudy runs can be really good fun and very interesting; seeing how an actor manages to find their own performance within an established production can be enlightening, so we were keen to see how the understudies would handle their roles in this unusual, design driven production. Apart from Greg Hicks playing the roles of Claudius and the ghost – John Stahl was unavailable – everyone else was playing a different part while most of the other leads – Jonathan Slinger, Pippa Dixon, Alex Waldmann and Robin Soans – were occasionally on stage as extras. Jonathan Slinger took the part of Gonzago in the initial mime sequence.

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King Lear – May 2010

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Vik Sivalingam

Company: RSC Understudies

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 4th May 2010

The first time we saw this was back in February, when it had only just opened. Today’s understudies run had a few differences, but it was basically the same, and no more interesting than before as a production, though the understudies gave good to excellent performances. Several of them were preferred to the original cast, though to be fair we would need to see this again to see how it’s come on.

Our seats were on the opposite side, giving us an interesting change of perspective. We lost some things – couldn’t see the nuns in the upper level, for instance – but gained on others, although I still didn’t pay close attention to the blinding scene. The flickering lights were still unnecessary, but from the side the industrial shambles set wasn’t so intrusive, which helped.

Darrell d’Silva took a break, presumably to help his hand injury heal, so there were fewer ‘other part’ players available. The march across the diagonals by each side in the battle was reduced to one side only – Lear, Cordelia and one other – and the rabble of knights seemed depleted from the off, but that may have been our angle. Lear was joined on the platform during the thunderstorm by the fool, an interesting doubling with Cordelia, but this production was predicated on two separate actors so couldn’t make anything of it. Hannah Young played Goneril today, but as she understudies Regan as well, Katy Stephens played her own part. I must say, the understudies didn’t seem out of place at all.

The performances were more broad-brush this time around, which may have worked better for us, but we were still moved during the later scenes, such as Edgar’s discovery of his father’s blinding. I did nod off a bit during the first half, but since the World Snooker Championship final didn’t finish till well after midnight last night, it was only to be expected.

Paul Hamilton did well as Kent (and didn’t block our view once), Adam Burton was nicely evil as Edmund, Ansu Kabia did a good job of Edgar, and I liked Sophie Russell both as the fool and as Cordelia. James Gale did well enough as Lear, though there’s so much range to the part that it’s asking a lot for an understudy to get a performance up to speed so quickly. Still, I could see him as the kind of man to revel in flattery and then go insane when he comes into contact with harsh reality.

An interesting afternoon then, if not the most enjoyable one.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Romeo And Juliet – March 2010 (2)

7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Fentiman

Company: RSC Understudies

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 30th March 2010

This was much better than yesterday, with less of the excessive comic business, and some very good performances from this permutation of the ensemble.

The introduction by Michael Fentiman was a stumbling effort – he was clearly nervous – but he still managed to make us laugh a few times. The initial staging for the prologue was the same, but Romeo took some time to get his headphones untangled, so there were fewer pictures taken of the inside of whatever building we were in. Capulet, Montague and the Prince were all much better today, with more gravitas, and the scene where Juliet defies her father was very strongly acted. But Mercutio showed the greatest improvement, and not only increased our enjoyment of the performance, but also cut the running time by ten minutes by not doing all the unnecessary stuff we saw last night.

As it was the understudies’ run, Mrs Montague wasn’t in the final scene tonight, but her death was still not announced. Balthasar spoke the closing two couplets, and the second song he sang was as the friar heads down to the crypt. The Romeo/rosemary lines were missing today, as was almost all of Mercutio’s miming – hooray. This Mercutio was much better, clear and lively and intelligent. I was sorry to see him go this time, but there was a lot more blood and he was clearly wounded. Romeo was just as good (Peter from yesterday), and the Friar was also pretty good.

There was a lot of coughing in the second half. I’d noticed this last night, and where we were sitting today I found out why. All the smoke from the nurse’s pipe and Lady Capulet’s cigarettes drifted over our way, and I felt my throat tickle a few times. Juliet was less sulky today, twirling her toy thingy for fun, because she’s still a child, although this interpretation doesn’t fit so well with her clever sharing of the sonnet form with Romeo.

For the potion scene, Juliet wasn’t writhing around in pain this time, she just moved a little bit and then lay still. Her reactions weren’t so ludicrous during the death scene either. Lady Capulet didn’t do her keep fit routine at all today – hooray! We could see better today from this position – consider for future. The hip-hop references by Romeo and Juliet were dropped. I was more aware of Paris’s plight, poor man, in love but doomed to failure. Steve spotted that, during the party when Lady Capulet leaves the upper level, she went past Tybalt and kissed him – something you want to tell us, m’Lady? Steve reckoned she may have been closer to Tybalt than anyone’s ever suggested before.

During the confrontation between Mercutio and Tybalt, Mercutio used the bicycle pump to ‘inflate’ first one finger, then a second. Just as crude as yesterday, perhaps, but much funnier. After he bent Tybalt’s sword, he used it as a fishing rod today, instead of playing cricket. Romeo rode around the stage in circles when he first visited Friar Laurence, who stopped him with a hand on the handlebars when he guessed, correctly, that Romeo hasn’t been to bed. Romeo siad ‘nope’ when the friar guessed he was up early, and when he told the friar that he wanted him to conduct the marriage ceremony between himself and Juliet, he did an imaginary drum roll before saying ‘today’.

When Capulet was first speaking to Paris, there were various sellers walking around with boxes on their heads – fruit, flowers, that sort of thing – and Paris selected a bunch of flowers from one of them.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

As You Like It – June 2009

6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Fentiman

Company: RSC Understudies

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 9th June 2009

This was a good performance of an interesting production with some nice touches. The standard was still good, although it’s play that needs sparkle and it’s asking too much of the understudies to produce that level of performance first time out. The introduction by Michael Fentiman warned us that Christine Entwisle would play Phoebe for the final scene as Debbie Korley was doubling both Phoebe and Audrey, making her a potential bigamist without this extra help. As there was a dance at the end, it would indeed have been difficult to get away with just one woman playing two parts.

The set was interesting as well and reminded me of a number of things, particularly the DASH Arts Dream. The back wall was made up of lots of squares of what looked like patterned paper, or possibly wood. The squares looked like they would easily come out or open up to make doors or windows, and it reminded me of the paper-covered back wall in the aforementioned Dream. There were double doors in the centre of the wall and a couple of larger panels above. The floor was likewise made up of patterned squares, all in a light colour. The lighting on this stark set was equally decisive; a stream of white light poured across the stage on the diagonal, matched by another diagonal later on; there were a few gloomy scenes to contend with, but mostly it was fairly bright all over with no specific highlights.

The first glimpse of the wintery forest came with the exiled Duke and his lords appearing through trapdoors. Then Celia, Rosalind and Touchstone arrived at Arden and the plants began to take over. Touchstone was covered in undergrowth (though in his case it’s more like overgrowth) and during the intermission the doors and panels started to come off the back wall, with trees starting to show through. I liked the split personality of the set in the second half; they never quite got rid of the back wall but the bundle of overgrowth stayed on stage throughout. The forest was also liberally peppered with Orlando’s verses. Large bits of cardboard appeared all over the place, hanging from the roof, stuck on the side walls and around the first balcony, stuffed into the foliage behind the wall and just about everywhere you looked there was at least a letter or word. Very effective.

The individual performances were good, with James Howard’s Jacques being excellent. His first entrance was solo, carrying a guitar and singing “Under The Greenwood Tree”, a song normally sung by Amiens. Instead of Jacques asking the absent Amiens for more, he asked us if we wanted more, so some of us obliged him by calling out. He carried on, and finally took lots of bows. At first we applauded, then we laughed, then we applauded again, then we laughed again, then the other lords came on and we laughed at his reaction. Now he could play his musical trick on the other lords and that was good fun too, with entertaining reactions from the lords who sprang apart as if bitten. He also managed a good version of the seven ages of man speech which is normally very boring – he managed to get a couple of laughs – and his character came across very clearly throughout. I was aware of his melancholy, which wasn’t unfunny this time, and how he and Touchstone were so similar; this forest wasn’t big enough for the both of them. One minor weakness – Clarence Smith as Charles, the Duke’s wrestler, was less good in his delivery of the lines. He didn’t project quite enough so that lines said facing away from us tended to get lost, and his diction wasn’t quite as clear as the others, but it wasn’t a bad performance – I’m sure he’ll get better with practice – and he managed the wrestling scene very well which can’t be easy with so little rehearsal.

Staging. During Orlando and Oliver’s first conversation, or slanging match if you prefer, Orlando showed his talents as a wrestler by pinning his brother to the ground. I noticed how well the conversation between Oliver and Charles gave the audience all the background information it needs about the situation at court. When the court arrived it was with a formal dance, more Spanish than French to my mind, with lots of foot stamping. The Duke and his followers swept out, leaving a sad Rosalind to be cheered up by her cousin. Their dialogue came across clearly, as did the banter with Touchstone. He arrived before the girls had finished their bit and took the opportunity to down a bottle of something, presumably alcoholic, which he’d hidden down the front of his trousers. But before he could down the second bottle, similarly secreted, he had to speak to the girls and then it was too late; they kept him talking so long the wrestling was about to start before he could wet his whistle again.

Rosalind was surprisingly keen to see the bone-breaking wrestling match, though her change into love-struck woman was beautifully done, as was Orlando’s smitten-ness, resulting in a lack of dialogue. The wrestling itself involved a lot of banging heads against the back wall, and there was a suitable amount of blood on each contestant’s head by the end. The court was spread around the auditorium with Rosalind and Celia just along from us. I noticed that the court applauded Charles’s successes, while the girls clapped and cheered for Orlando. This may have been what tipped the Duke into banishing Rosalind, not liking the way she influenced his own daughter. The Duke is certainly shown as full-blown tyrant in this production.

The girls were soon planning their trip to Arden. The line referring to Rosalind’s height was inappropriate with this casting but she tackled it head on and we all took it in our stride, accepting the unusual circumstances. They leave by different exits for once, to carry out the various aspects of their plan.

Next was the arrival of Duke senior and his men in the forest. The first lord and Amiens were played by the same actor so he had to indicate someone else when he mentioned Amiens, but it all worked very well. Immediately we were back with the usurping Duke, and his courtiers were informing him about his daughter’s flight. Hisperia, Celia’s woman, was brought on too, but as she was standing right beside us I couldn’t see her face until she turned to leave when it became apparent that her cooperation with the investigation had been obtained by means of violence – her face was cut and bruised. I got a bad feeling about this Duke.

When Orlando returned home Adam warned him to go away, as his brother wasn’t happy with the news of Orlando’s success. When Orlando rushed over to embrace Adam, he kicked the money box into the audience, which caused some laughter. It was handed back readily enough and didn’t hold up the performance at all. I was very aware, as Adam was asking Orlando to take him along, that people in service didn’t have a lot of options in those days. Adam might have saved some money, but he was probably better off with an employer than on his own. And I’m delighted to say that although Adam wasn’t seen again after the forest feast this production didn’t actually kill him off for once. A gentle retirement, then. How fitting.

Next came the main event – the girls and Touchstone arriving in Arden. Celia, poor lass, was so leg-weary she was actually in a trolley being pulled by Rosalind. And she was covered by a blanket. So her complaints about being too tired to go on seemed just a tad selfish and petulant. Rosalind, for her disguise as Ganymede, had a pencil moustache, a hat over her tied-up hair and ordinary trousers, shirt and jacket. Touchstone, apart from the strands of foliage he manages to get caught up in, was still in his fool’s clothes which in his case appeared to be a set of restraining clothes – a pair of trousers with straps topped with the remains of a straitjacket (one of the arms came off later on when he scrambled his way out of the foliage). When Corin and Silvius turned up, they hid; Celia snuggled under her blanket, Rosalind ducked behind the trolley, and Touchstone nipped off to the side of the stage.

Silvius was playing an instrument and singing his love song to Phoebe as he came on, a common practice in this production. The instrument appeared to be a mandolele (a cross between a mandolin and a ukulele) with ten strings. (I don’t know what it’s called in real life.) After Silvius left, Celia, ever practical, was up from her comfy bed in a trice to suggest they ask the remaining shepherd for food.

Next we had Jacques giving us his song, and then Orlando and Adam arriving in the forest with Orlando helping Adam off the stage until he could get him some food. The Duke turned up again with his men who prepared dinner – meat kebabs over an open flame in one of the trapdoor fire pits – yum. Orlando grabbed one of the lords to persuade them to part with some of their food but was soon charmed into behaving nicely, although there was a lord pointing a gun at him behind his back. There were a lot of guns in this production – everyone following the exiled Duke in the forest had one – but fortunately no need to fire any of them. Jacques delivered the speech about meeting the fool very well, with some nice pauses during the time sequence which made it funnier, as he waited for someone to tell him what the time would be an hour after ten o’clock. Amiens’ song was dropped; instead they just had the Duke leaving the stage, Orlando seeing that Adam was well looked after then following the Duke, and the two of them returning to have a few short words before they all left the stage.

The nasty Duke then confronted Oliver about his missing brother in a very short scene, but it was enough to get across his tyranny, and then we had Orlando in the forest, strumming his guitar and singing some of his poetry written in praise of Rosalind. Trust me, they sounded better sung than said. Plus he has a nice voice. We then got the opening lines of Act 3 Scene 2, with Orlando running off past us after “and unexpressive she”. Oliver then appeared at the centre back of the stage, looking around, presumably for his troublesome brother, and then he headed off in the other direction. Interval.

The stage crew then took some time setting up the stage for the second half, what with sweeping away bits of paper, tidying up the foliage nest that Touchstone had deposited on the far side of the stage, demolishing the back wall and plastering the whole stage with poetry snippets (see above). They may have lacked a lot of the comforts of life in Arden forest, but good housekeeping wasn’t one of them. Forest floor swept and washed on a regular basis. One of the trapdoors had a block set up in front of it, over on our side of the stage towards the back. When all the work was done, Amiens?/lord?/Corin? (that’s the trouble with all this doubling) popped in there and began to skin a rabbit. For real. A real rabbit. A real, dead rabbit. And he was really skinning it. EEUUUGGGHHHHH!!!!! At least that’s what Touchstone thought, as he stood or sat on the other side of the stage, preparing to address the shepherd but not quite able to as first one leg, then another, then the whole body was pulled out of the skin (after the head had been chopped off). I didn’t find it all that grisly (she lied) but Touchstone wasn’t the only person who was finding it tough going judging by the noises coming from the audience. Once fully skinned, the rabbit was put in the bucket and was being carried off stage before Corin noticed Touchstone and started the next bit of Act 3 Scene 2. [Found out in 2011 that the rabbit skinning had to be dropped for New York, as there was a huge outcry from animal lovers over there.]

This scene took us through both Rosalind and Celia reading out some of the poetry and into their private discussion of the verse-writer. This time, I was aware that Rosalind was reading these verses as Ganymede, but hearing them as herself. When it comes to the revelation about who has written the verses I always find Rosalind completely obtuse at this point, despite her quick wits. I can only suppose she’s used to people writing fancy verse in her praise, and doesn’t expect to see Orlando again anytime soon which is why she takes so long to absorb Celia’s information. Anyway, this is the first time I’ve seen Rosalind, describing her disguise, drop her trousers and take the padding out of her crotch. Very effective, very funny, and it showed an astonishing attention to detail. When Orlando and Jacques turned up, she and Celia snuck off stage and round the back where they could watch what went on. Orlando had the guitar which he handed to Jacques, who took it off with him when he went.

There was a moment when Orlando first saw Ganymede that told us he saw the similarity to Rosalind immediately. But then he ‘realised’ he was talking to a boy and he snapped out of his romantic dream in a chappish sort of way, becoming brisk and manly, as you do. Their banter was also pretty brisk which got us through the rest of the scene quite quickly. To give them a break, Touchstone brought on Audrey to woo and wed her. Sir Oliver Martext arrived carrying a flaming cross (don’t ask me why). Jacques dissuaded Touchstone from marrying badly in the forest, so off they went and we were back to Rosalind and Celia wondering where Orlando has got to. To pass the time they headed off to see Silvius and Phoebe do their turn, with all the lovesick problems that brings. Phoebe was carrying a tray of fresh baked rolls which she dropped when she laid eyes on Ganymede. Silvius picked them all up again, having previously stolen one to keep next to his heart; he slipped it out of sight quickly when Phoebe looked at him.

Back at the shepherd’s house Rosalind and Celia entered with Jacques, who disappeared quickly once Orlando arrived. The wooing was good fun, and when it came to the end of the scene Orlando headed off to serve the Duke, Rosalind went off to sit somewhere quiet and Celia lay down on the stage to sleep for a while all on her own. The next scene is a puzzling one to us modern folk; Jacques leading the forest court in a stag-romp with lots of horns on view. Here it was done as a dream sequence, with Celia’s father coming on with his court in a reprise of the earlier dance entrance. Then the forest lords came on and the two groups formed into two lines. They danced around, there were lots of horns but no singing, and Celia joined in the dancing. After a short while she dropped back down onto the floor and the rest left, so that Rosalind could come back on and wake her up. Puzzling, but no worse than the original scene.

Next we got the letter from Phoebe declaring her love for Ganymede, followed by the arrival of Oliver to apologise on Orlando’s behalf for his non-appearance and to explain what’s happened. The connection between him and Celia was noticeable, though not so rampant as I’ve seen before. Next up were Audrey, Touchstone and William, with Touchstone making it clear to William that he’d better give up any plans he had to marry Audrey, as Touchstone has first dibs. (Actually William had first dibs, but who’s going to argue with a highly-trained court jester?)

When Orlando came on with Oliver he had his right arm in a sling, and when Oliver clasped him firmly before leaving to arrange his wedding, Orlando winced with pain. Even so, once the marriage arrangements are made amongst Orlando, Ganymede, Phoebe and Silvius, he got rid of the sling so he could put on a jacket for the marriage day. This removed the need for the scene with Touchstone and Audrey listening to a song. As Orlando and the exiled Duke discussed the situation it was clear that neither of them has realised who Ganymede is, despite both of them being strongly reminded of Rosalind when they saw the boy. (Where exactly did Rosalind get her quick wits from?) Touchstone dids his seven points of a quarrel speech, Audrey turned up looking completely different from before (it’s amazing what a wedding makeover can do for a woman) and then Hymen brought on Celia, accompanied by any spare cast members who were done up for a country-style wedding ceremony. Rosalind sneaked on to the stage at the front and all was finally revealed. With the news that the usurping Duke has gone off to be a hermit, and Jacques heading off to wait for the new/old Duke in his former cell, the stage was clear for merriment and dancing, after which they all left the stage except for Rosalind.

The epilogue is one of the best known bits, and rarely dropped. Here she said the opening lines and then sang a verse of The Parting Glass, a lovely old song and well performed but not as much fun as the regular epilogue. Still, we’d all enjoyed ourselves so much that there was rapturous applause, well deserved. Nothing more to add, looking forward to the regular version in August.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Winter’s Tale – June 2009 (1)

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Helen Leblique

Company: RSC Understudies

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 3rd June 2009

Another touch of the ‘Smallwoods’ again today. Despite the lack of rehearsal time plus all the other distractions RSC actors are hit with during a summer at Stratford, this was another very good performance, up to a regular professional standard. There may have been a fluffed line or two, but not so’s you’d notice. Nobody was doubling up roles that were on stage at the same time, so the whole thing ran smoothly as for a regular performance. There may have been some cutting – I noticed the song by the shepherd’s love triangle was missing – but we won’t really know until the main event.

The set was very bookish. Two very large bookcases flanked the central doorway at an angle, just back of the thrust. For the opening scene a long dining table ran diagonally across the stage, towards our corner. It was removed after the initial scenes, with a couple of chairs being left behind. One of these disappeared later, so that Leontes had just one chair to sit in during Hermione’s trial. Although our view was blocked more than I would have liked, on the whole they kept the space pretty open throughout.

The gods’ anger with Leontes ran into the storm scene very well. The bookcases toppled forward and hung there, looming over the stage, with their books thrown onto the floor or hanging off the shelves. A lot of individual pieces of paper fell out as well; we kept the one that floated over to land by our feet – extract from Hansard. The central ceiling light, a large dome intended to be glass, fell down as well but bounced and ended up as a dome on the ground. Antigonus left Perdita there, and when the bear rose up at the back entrance allowed himself to be taken instead of the baby (sniffles). The bear looked as if it had been made of books, with bits of brown paper hanging off its coat. The ending of the first half was quite upbeat this time, with the end of the storm and two chaps relatively happy with their lot, especially as they’d just come into a lot of gold.

I thought the paper would be cleared away during the interval, but not a bit. In fact, more was added. By the time I came back in, there was paper all along the front of the stage and a lady stage hand was just sticking some extra sheets down along the walkway to our right. More books had been piled up underneath the bookcases – it gave the musicians somewhere to sit – and the general impression was of a paper-throwing free-for-all. The centre of the stage was relatively clear to give the actors somewhere safe to walk, but even so there were a few swathes of paper that tried to follow some actors around until a fellow cast member put a stop to it.

The opening to the second half had Time being lowered down in the glass dome, this time hung like a large swing seat (the dome, not Time). In the next scene, Polixenes laid the groundwork for Camillo’s little scheme later on by denying him the chance to go back to Sicilia for his final days. Then Autolycus popped out of the centre of the stage and started chatting with the musicians, getting their help when spinning his sob story to Perdita’s ‘brother’. Some trees descended, with one going right into the opening in the middle of the stage, and although it shook a bit when Perdita climbed out of it, just managing to keep her skirt on, it did well enough to suggest the countryside. The country fair went well enough – we got the satyrs and their enormous appendages – and then Florizel goes and pops the question right in front of his Dad, who’s not too pleased. Actually, I noticed a family resemblance straightaway this time. Pops likes dressing up in silly outfits, especially the worst fake beard I’ve seen in a long time, while his son takes delight in donning the naffest yokel’s smock he could find to cover up his posh clothes. Poor dress sense runs in the family, then. Anyway, the young couple head off to Sicilia, hotly pursued by Polixenes and Camillo and with all the other relevant characters in tow as well.

Back in Sicilia, Leontes is still in the grip of grief. Paulina is constantly rubbing more salt into the wound and fending off the suggestions of the other courtiers that Leontes should get married again. He seems to have fully recovered from his bout of insane jealousy, but Paulina is no doubt waiting for the fulfilment of the oracle’s prophecy before reuniting him with his love. I noticed the way that the revelations are reported to us and how moving they are, when perhaps they might not have been so emotive had they been acted out. Then we get the final revelation, of Hermione’s survival, and this worked very well for me. Hermione was amazingly still – she did have a reasonable posture this time – and I felt she wasn’t entirely sure how Leontes would react to finding his wife alive after all this time. More sniffles.

With everyone who is everyone happily reunited, they all head off through the rear doors to have a jolly good knees up, all except Autolycus, who’s shut out. The play ends with him sitting on the central plinth that held Hermione’s ‘statue’ and looking glum.

Although the bookish theme wasn’t always convincing, it didn’t get in the way, so I found myself enjoying this performance more than I expected. The standard of performance was high, and there were some lovely touches. I liked Noma Dumezweni and Kelly Hunter (normally Paulina and Hermione) nearly coming to blows over the young shepherd, and while Autolycus (Paul Hamilton) may have needed a little help on occasion, such as putting out his wares, he did have some nice lines, even inviting the audience to join in his song as well as chatting up the lady playing the violin. James Gale got across Leontes’ jealousy very well – Steve reckoned it had been building up for some time – and I saw a lot more in Hannah Young’s performance as Hermione than I’ve seen before, how she suffers not only for herself and her children but also for her husband, recognising that he’s trapped in his own delusion. When Leontes says to one of his lords that he won’t be happy until she’s dead, I saw the connection with Paulina’s deception, though whether that was cause and effect I’ve no idea.

Simone Saunders was a formidable Paulina, and whetted my appetite for Noma’s version, while the rest of the cast played their numerous parts very well. It was a true ensemble, as all the cast contributed to the understudy run including the ‘stars’, which gives a completely different feel to the performance.

At the end, David Farr came on stage to say a few words and to explain that this had been the public understudies run, and we applauded even more. I’ll try not to have too high an expectation of the regular performance.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Romeo And Juliet – December 2008

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Neil Bartlett

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 3rd December 2008

We attended a director’s talk before the show which was very illuminating. He was very emphatic that this play is not about a clash of different cultures. The “two households, both alike in dignity” were very similar families, and with similar attitudes. They set out to show this quite deliberately. Casting a black actress as Juliet was accidental in that sense – he went for the best actress to get the qualities he wanted and it just so happened she was black, but he hadn’t noticed until someone asked him about it.

This Lady Capulet is very unhappy, and apparently we will see that in this production. Capulet has three opportunities to go to bed with her, and avoids all of them. That’s the reason Romeo and Juliet get on so well so quickly – both come from identical circumstances, so they’re in sync from the word go. We were told to watch when each child is with their parents – they don’t speak to their parents much, if at all. Both are only children, and both carry the full weight of family and society’s expectations.

Shakespeare tells us twice that Juliet is thirteen (which may have been Susannah’s age) – why does he do this? Neil reckons she’s at an age where her parents need to do something about her before she grows old enough to make up her own mind.

He was asked about the choice of setting, and he thinks the play needs to be set in Italy. It’s a country ruled by religion, with a very conservative society. The time is the 1940s, but not a specific year. All the women are very sexy, helped by the costumes, which appear demure but are actually very sexy.

In the original story, the priest is forgiven, while the nurse is hung (‘twas ever thus, he murmured). However, he pointed out that this priest is not very upright; he does a lot of lying, as do the others of course. He wanted to get across a society in which violence was a “normal” part of society, where young men hung around on street corners looking for a fight. In our culture, carrying a knife is weird. In Verona, knives are normal. The violence is technically illegal, but happens a lot because everyone is keen on it. Problems only occur when it goes wrong. It’s a macho culture where men expect to fight each other and treat women as possessions. The characters think that violence is sexy, but the director doesn’t.

The language was mentioned. He said any Renaissance text has language difficulties, and this is not a naturalistic drama.  The casting of the two leads was intuitive. They have to have good technical skills, as the parts are vocally demanding, and to get across the idea of two sexually inexperienced young people.

Asked about the connection between love and death, he said he wasn’t conscious of it. He let things come out, and audience can decide for themselves.

Were there tragic flaws in the lead characters, or was the tragedy due to the other characters? Not in the characters themselves, but there are structural problems in the families and religious ideologies. Basically, there was no place for these young people in Verona.

He told us the story of how one marketing chap had asked him if the play had any sex or violence! Have you read the play? was about the only response he could think of.

Now for the play itself. It wasn’t a full house tonight, though there were plenty of school parties.

The whole production was very gray, white and black. I had some problems distinguishing the characters at first because of this, though fortunately I knew what the leads looked like, and knowing the play as well as we do we could work it out pretty quickly. The set consisted of a black wooden floor, with a back wall that was part rough brickwork, part smooth buttresses. For the final scene, the side sections were swung round to form part of the side walls of the tomb, while the central panel rose up to create a high doorway, through which Juliet’s bed, surrounded by a railing, was wheeled onto the stage. For the balcony scene, there was no balcony, which was interesting. Instead Juliet’s bed, with high brass header and footer, was placed centre stage and the rest was up to our imaginations. Good call.

The opening chorus was done using most of the company, and when it was over they took to the chairs at the back to wait for their turn in the fight. I often like this approach, and it was OK here, but it was only used this once so didn’t really add to the production overall. For some reason, the servants who start it all had a radio with them, and turned it on and off. The asides were done with the rest of the action frozen, and sometimes an actor would snap their fingers to get things going again, but here it seemed to be the radio that did that function. With the fight well underway, a telephone was used to summon Capulet and Montague to the fray. The women joined in the fighting, which is clearly a widespread pastime, enjoyed by much of society.

I was very aware that Mr. and Mrs. Capulet have spent very little time with their daughter. The nurse’s comment about them being in Mantua when Juliet was weaned really brought that home. The nurse (Julie Legrand) was very good, the best performance along with Romeo (David Dawson). Juliet (Anneika Rose) was also pretty good – a bit weaker vocally, but she got her emotions across reasonably well. The nurse was especially good when she delivered the news about Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s subsequent banishment. For once, it was clear that it wasn’t clear; that the way the nurse was telling it, it was natural that Juliet would misunderstand at first.

A microphone was used during the party scene – why? It didn’t add anything and was cumbersome to bring on and off, though the photography session with all the guests lined up for a group photo was OK. It allowed Romeo and Juliet to have a few minutes alone together, out of time.

We got the second prologue which is almost always cut – I’m not actually sure if I’ve ever seen it before – and was between the end of the party and Mercutio and Benvolio’s attempts to find Romeo. This time it consisted of the spare women removing the chairs and bringing on Juliet’s bed, and giving us the prologue as they did so. I’m not sure it helped the play particularly, but then it was so novel I would need time to get used to it. We were warned it would be done tonight; I just didn’t know where it came.

During Juliet’s scene before her second wedding – the potion scene – both Steve and I thought she’d taken the stuff before she went through all the possible ways it could go wrong, so I put some of her emotional state down to the fact that she’d already taken an irrevocable step, and possibly even to the effects of the draught itself. However, she then drank it off again in the usual place, so either she had two healthy swigs from a small bottle, or she didn’t actually go the distance the first time round. This could be made clearer.

When she talked about all the ghosts she might encounter when she wakes up in the tomb, various cast members drifted onto the stage, including Tybalt. When this had happened before, during the post-nuptials scene, I found it distracting. The extras were required to help Romeo leap from Juliet’s bed to the ground below and then to remove the bed, but I found it intrusive and clumsy to have them there. This time, although I found it intrusive to begin with, once I realised that they represented the family ghosts in the vault, it worked well for me.

We also got the musicians in full tonight, and at the end of that bit one of the musicians lingered behind to become Balthazar and deliver the bad news to Romeo. With the understudy playing Tybalt as well as his usual role of the apothecary, we had the interesting sight of the murdered man reappearing at the back of the stage, blood still evident on his shirt, putting on the apothecary’s white coat to sell his killer the poison that will exact his revenge. It was a nice touch, and a fortuitous one. For the first time ever that I’ve seen, Lady Montague was present for the final scene in the tomb – this avoids an unnecessary distraction, I feel – and I realised tonight that the friar’s recapitulation of the story was essential, not for the audience, assuming we’ve been awake and paying attention, but for its effect on the people there in the tomb.

At the end, I wasn’t sure how genuine the reconciliation between Capulet and Montague would be. With such a negative take on this society, such a “positive” outcome seemed a little perverse, and I could even see the possibility of both men rejecting the idea and continuing the feud. I was also aware that these two noble houses hadn’t just lost two of their children, they’d lost their entire future, as neither family had an heir. So any reconciliation, however genuine, would be hollow. However, as the two men hugged in joint commiseration, I was reminded of Leontes and Polixenes in A Winter’s Tale, and it seemed fitting that these two men should be ‘brothers’ again, as they may have been before.

In the director’s talk before the show, Neil Bartlett had talked about not liking productions which told the audience what to think. I couldn’t help feeling as  I watched this performance that he’d fallen into the very same trap himself. In deciding so much about the play, and in some areas apparently judging the characters and the choices they make, he seems to have fallen out of sync with Will, who never seems to judge and who usually gives us at least two sides to everything. (Often it’s more like three or four, but then you see another one, and another. Why else do we keep coming back to these plays?) Because of these judgements, I found myself out of sympathy with the characters so much tonight that I was willing, nay wanting, Romeo and Juliet to die horribly so that we could all go home. I’m more accustomed to having a little sniffle somewhere in the finishing straight; this time it was all I could do to stay in my seat for the last half hour.

The performances. I’ve already mentioned the nurse and Juliet. Romeo was very good, though with less emotional input than I’m used to; more thinking than feeling, but at least I was clear about his character and emotional journey. I felt the friar was too theatrical, especially during the post-exile scene with Romeo. Romeo was speaking remarkably calmly and making a lot of sense, expressing his emotions and thoughts very clearly. The friar was raving and gesticulating wildly, looking the very picture of a mad fool which he paints of Romeo, so for once the friar seemed to be the immature one needing help from the wiser young man. Yet I was also aware that it’s the friar who points out to Romeo the positive perspective which Juliet has found for herself – that Romeo’s alive and Tybalt, who wanted to kill him, is dead. The friar seemed to be in another play at this point, and with David Dawson having played Smike in Nicholas Nickleby at Chichester, I decided that the overacting going on in the friar’s performance would have fitted very nicely into the Crummles’ production style. At times it bordered on hammy, though it never quite crossed that line. I assumed this was the manifestation of the director’s view that this was not a naturalistic piece of work, though usually I find the language does all that for you and semaphore practice is not required.

I found Lady Capulet’s accent (the actress is Hungarian) a distraction, as it took some time for me to get the hang of it, and I lost a lot of her lines because of it. Mercutio was quite good, especially in the Queen Mab speech, but alas his role was cut short, as usual. Although I liked his performance, I felt his character didn’t matter so much in this play, where all but the leads and nursy were remarkably undifferentiated. It’s as if none of these people mattered all that much, it was Verona itself that killed them all – a touch of Fuente Ovejuna – but here it doesn’t seem to help the play, leaving it remarkably cold. For such a passionate people, with love, sex, fighting and vendettas constantly on the agenda, that seems inappropriate.

The fight scenes weren’t entirely convincing, but that may be partly because of the understudy, so no criticism intended. The finger clicking to restart the action or denote a change of scene, usually when the scenes were being overlapped, was too erratic to be effective. On the whole, I found that the strange mixture of realism – costumes, knives, music, etc – jarred with the stylistically heightened acting, so that I could never fully engage with the production. I actually felt the Victorian type of ending, as depicted  by Dickens, would work just as well here, as so many of the characters came across as clowns. Paris, for example, with his suit and little ‘tache, reminded me of Captain Darling from Blackadder 4, and his behaviour suggested the similarity may not have been accidental. It’s possible that this production works much better on a proscenium arch stage; if so, I hope they adjust rapidly, as we’re due to see this again during the Winter School, and I’m not sure how I’ll handle it if there aren’t some changes. [Didn’t get to see it again, in fact]

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Love’s Labour’s Lost – October 2008 (2)

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Cressida Brown

Company: RSC Understudies

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 21st October 2008

This public understudies performance started in much the same way as the regular performance, with Dumaine/Longaville arriving about ten minutes before the nominal curtain-up, and Berowne putting in an appearance with a few minutes to go for his regular snooze. But then we had the pleasure of an introductory comment or two from the director, Cressida Brown (with a name like that, she had to do something involved with Shakespeare). She told us the usual stuff about why they do public understudies performances, and how little time they had had to rehearse for this one, as it’s the last production of the three that this company are doing. She warned us that some of the understudies were doubling up, such as David Ajala playing both Dumaine and Longaville, so occasionally characters would be talking to themselves on stage. She mentioned some of the knock-on effects of an actor being hors de combat, as it were, and in general gave us a good warm up for the main action.

Tom Davey was now playing the king of Navarre (Longaville in the regular cast), and did a fine job, though of course he hadn’t had the time to work up as much of the comic business as the original. David Ajala (Lord) did a fantastic job as both Dumaine and Longaville, managing to clearly differentiate both characters – Longaville stiff and formal (and with a hat), and Dumaine more soft and cuddly, and bareheaded. There was a lot of humour in the way he swapped between the roles at times, especially when he had to run round the back of the auditorium to make another entrance, even getting a laugh and applause for that alone. Robert Curtis (Forester) as Berowne was less expressive, but very clear on the text, and he seemed to relax into the part more in the second half, as a number of them did.

Keith Osborn (Marcadé) played Dull, and was fine, but Ryan Gage (Lord) as Costard was, if anything, better than the original. His lines came across more clearly, his comic business was clearer, and he was generally more expressive in the part. I could see him having a long career playing Shakespearean clowns, as well as other comedy. Don Armado was played by Samuel Dutton, the puppeteer from Little Angel, who gave a splendid performance, clearly distinguished from Joe Dixon’s, and almost as entertaining. Instead of size and bluster, he gave us pretentiousness and a clear delivery of the lines. He didn’t have a purple costume – sombre black was all the costume department could come up with – so he had to put all the braggadocio into the performance, which he did very well. Moth was played by Kathryn Drysdale, one of the princess’s women normally, and she did a very good job. I’m sure I got more of the page’s wit partly because I’d seen this production before, but her performance certainly helped.

The princess was played by Natalie Walter, the other of the princess’s women, and she did a fine job as well, coming across as more flirty and less serious than Mariah Gale. Andrea Harris (Lady) doubled Rosaline and Jaquenetta, which meant that Jaquenetta didn’t appear in the final scene, two months gone, but that didn’t affect the performance. Her Jaquenetta was more explicit when churning the milk, but otherwise was much as before, while her Rosaline was still pretty feisty, and a good match for Berowne. Riann Steele (Jaquenetta) played both of the princess’s ladies – Katherine and Maria – and also managed to get two different personalities across, one of which was remarkably like Natalie Walter’s performance. Fortunately, she didn’t have to run round the theatre to swap roles, but we still enjoyed and appreciated the changeovers. Boyet was played by Sam Alexander, normally Dumaine, and he also did an excellent job for such little rehearsal, with less comic business, but plenty of clarity in his speech.

The double act of Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel was played by Roderick Smith and Ewen Cummins (Dull) respectively, and they both did a decent job, especially as Worthies. David Tennant also doubled up today, playing both the Forester, as advertised, and also Marcadé, who was due to be played by Joe Dixon. Nina Sosanya made a brief appearance as a lady(?) in breeches, who sat on the swing when the ladies were gathering for the second half scene with the presents, and various stage crew filled in as stool carriers, etc.

This was a good fun performance. OK, we weren’t expecting too much, as we knew there were going to be limitations given the circumstances, but the standard of performance was so high, and the audience was so willing to enjoy themselves, that the afternoon passed very quickly and very enjoyably. I also got the chance to correct some of my mistakes in my earlier notes, as I was reminded of how things are actually done in this production.

Apart from the performances themselves, I didn’t notice too many changes from the regular cast. I thought the ladies didn’t join in the teasing of Don Armado this time –  they seemed to be more concerned to stop the blokes throwing this bloody napkin around. I realised for the first time that someone has a line which echoes the “l’envoy” that Moth gives to Don Armado’s original motto. They make some comment about the men being four, and Moth had added a line to the motto about the goose making four. I also remembered what fun it was during the Russian scene, when the king and his men huddle together after each unexpected response from the woman they believe to be the princess. The way they confer to come up with a group answer was very amusing, and just as funny even when there were only three present.

Afterwards there was a talk from the director of the understudies run, Cressida Brown. We learned that some actors prefer not to know what the main actor playing the part is doing, while others are happy to pinch as much as they can, especially when it’s a small part. She’d chosen this production for the public understudies performance, as it had the least time to prepare, and she wanted to give the hard-working cast a carrot to look forward to. The costume department couldn’t stretch to a full re-working for this production, so they had to improvise as much as possible, though for the other productions the understudies have the full kit. She had to snatch what time she could with the actors, as they were so busy with other things, but she found she could arrange time with one actor or small group here and there, and so it all came together.

It was a very enjoyable afternoon, and a lovely way to round it off.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me