A Number – August 2015

Experience: 4/10

By Caryl Churchill

Directed by Michael Longhurst

Joint production by Nuffield Theatre and Young Vic

Venue: Maria Theatre

Date: Wednesday 5th August 2015

More nonsense from the Young Vic. When we went to pick up our tickets, the young woman at the box office kept the actual tickets and instead gave us a couple of blanks printed with numbers, in this case 211 and 212. In other words, we were given a number so we could get in to see A Number, geddit? I don’t know how long it took the creative team to come up with that particular gem of wit, but if it was any longer than ten seconds they deserve to be fired. This sort of crass idea is becoming all too prevalent nowadays, and while I have no problem with whimsy and humour, this just came across as heavy-handed and patronising. Fortunately Steve got hold of our real tickets as well, so the archives will be complete.

Continue reading

Hamlet – January 2012

4/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Ian Rickson

Venue: Young Vic

Date: Wednesday 18th January 2012

We were taken on another of the Young Vic’s ‘journeys’ on the way in today. I presume this was to get us in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate the production’s design concept. Well, it got me in the mood alright, a foul mood. I don’t like being made to go on these long treks regardless. At least there weren’t any steps this time, and thankfully it wasn’t raining while we waited outside, but this kind of thing just isn’t for me. This particular trip took us round the theatre, in by a back door, past assorted installations which related to the lunatic asylum concept – signs on doors about treatment schedules, a window looking into the gymnasium with the fencing apparatus, etc. – and various members of the cast sat, stood or moved purposefully along corridors looking like hospital staff. We finally emerged through an office onto the stage itself. While this makes a welcome change from the RSC’s ‘look, don’t walk’ stage policy, it didn’t add anything to my understanding or enjoyment of the play. We were lucky to see the play today mind you; as we were walking along one bit of corridor I wondered what was behind a wooden drop-down panel. I opened the clasps – it wasn’t locked – and saw a lot of electrical stuff in there. I don’t know if it was part of the installation or a genuine part of the theatre’s electrics, and I didn’t tamper with anything, but still….

The set was mostly open at the start, with the seats on three sides. The office at the back had a desk, probably two or three chairs, some lockers and another keypad door off to the right as you look at it from the seats. There was glass from floor to ceiling between the office and the rest of the stage, with glass double doors in the middle. The back wall looked like a school gym, with a basketball hoop on the left, and we learned very quickly that there were two electronic doors that covered the whole of the glassed area, eventually – they moved very slowly. The central flooring looked like carpet tiles, and there was a coffin sitting on planks above a hole towards the front of the stage, with a well worn (leather?) overcoat and a dagger lying on top of it. I tested the weight of the dagger- pretty heavy.

They didn’t add much furniture during the performance, just the chairs and small wheeled medical tables which could store files, medicines, that sort of thing. They did remove a large chunk of the stage at one point – more on that story later – and they also used the upper left balcony for one scene; again, I’ll record that when I get to it. Overall the impression was of institutional drab, with some high tech bits but mostly old style, stuff that would fit into a 60s production, say. Entrances were limited to the office doors, either side at the back and a passage through the middle of the seats at the front, and characters often came and sat on the stairs at each front corner.

The performance started with Hamlet alone on stage, looking at the coffin, and obviously going through an emotional experience. I did wonder if he was going to go into ‘To be, or not to be’ at this point – now that would be an interesting choice – but he didn’t. He did snatch the coat and dagger off the coffin and held them tightly, breathing in the smell for some time. Then he took them away and some of the asylum staff came on and lowered the coffin into the hole, replacing the floor afterwards.

Perhaps now would be a good time to mention the costumes. The asylum staff wore green uniforms with orange markings, the chap whom I assume was in charge wore a suit, Polonius wore a strange grey coat over shirt, trousers and a sort of waistcoat/gilet, and Gertrude wore an off-white dress with a flared skirt, knee-length, and over it she wore a kind of lacy pinafore – this disappeared at some point. Hamlet wore a kind of tweedy suit, changing to institutional drab after the abortive trip to England. Laertes was a natty dresser, with a tweedy green suit and brown boots, while Ophelia wore a simple frock in pale colours, until her stint as Osric when she wore riding breeches, shirt and cravat. Other characters wore relatively modern dress – the player king wore a camel overcoat – and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern both wore severe grey outfits. I noticed when they arrived that they were given trainers to put on instead of their own shoes, and when Reynaldo was talking with Polonius about his trip to France, he also changed out of his hospital uniform into civvies. Horatio also wore a dark suit, possibly black. I’ll describe the Mousetrap costumes when I get there.

The opening scene proper used an almost full blackout and torches to create suspense, which worked reasonably well. The electronic doors had been closed, so there was a sense of security procedures in operation, and the ghost’s appearance was heralded by a flashing red light and some sound effects – it reminded me of the effects used in Jekyll to indicate the change of personality. The ghost itself was mainly a silhouette, with someone wearing the coat and casting a big shadow. The dialogue for this scene may have been cut, as a chunk of it relates to Fortinbras who was minimally involved today, but to be honest I don’t remember much of the dialogue from this scene at all. Perhaps it was cut, perhaps it was the delivery, perhaps I was still sulking from the enforced tour of the premises – we may never know. I did wonder who was wearing the overcoat, as the cast list didn’t include a ghost, but I didn’t have to wonder for long.

At the start of the next scene, Hamlet turned up on stage with a suitcase and a bag, carrying a piece of paper. At first I thought he might have been a new arrival at the clinic, looking to get in for some treatment following the death of his father. There was no one else around at first, so he took one of the chairs and put it a bit away from the doors, with his bags beside it. As he waited, quite fidgety and impatient, others started to arrive. Gertrude and Polonius started putting out more chairs, including the two black ones with arms. Someone – it may have been Polonius – brought on a trolley table, which went between the two black chairs, and the other characters began to turn up as if for a therapy session. Hamlet held Ophelia’s hands for a few moments before she moved on to embrace Laertes, and Gertrude and Polonius had a little competition over who got to sit in the other black chair – the more central one was clearly for Claudius.

Still fidgety, Hamlet had to endure a very truncated speech from Claudius, with no ambassadors and scarcely any mention of Fortinbras. When he moved forward to ask for leave to go, he was clearly frustrated when Claudius turned to Laertes next. Finally it was his turn, but his request was turned down, and I think Claudius tore up his papers – he’d already torn up the ones relating to Fortinbras when he said ‘so much for him’.

I didn’t get a great deal from this scene other than Hamlet’s eagerness to leave, but at least they rattled through it at a good clip. The next scene brought Horatio on to broach the subject of the ghost’s appearance, and this was good and brisk too; no ‘season your admiration for a while’, this Horatio got down to business very abruptly. The end of this scene used a staging choice that I’ve not seen before, and which they repeated at least once more; Horatio was about to leave, but was called back when Hamlet addressed his next words to her – “My father’s spirit in arms!” The rest of that short speech was also spoken to her, and she ended up leaving with Hamlet instead of before him. It was different, and it worked, although as I don’t feel they made much of Horatio’s character in this production, never mind the fact that they’d cast a woman in the role, it was rather wasted.

I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but it may have been during this extra bit with Horatio that Gertrude was seen behind them, looking for pills in the office. It’s clear that she’s a junkie and that Claudius is supplying her with pills, and their kissing in the office before they head off for some privacy was pretty unpleasant, suggesting that Claudius was manipulating her through her addiction. Hamlet saw them, and his disgust was obvious.

The next scene was Laertes’ leave-taking. He came on carrying a bag, and Ophelia folded a shirt for him. When Polonius arrived he was carrying a box, such as fancy dresses are presented in, and gave it to Ophelia. But it wasn’t for her – this was a parting gift for Laertes. When telling him to wear good but not gaudy clothes, Polonius opened the box (Ophelia had left it on a chair) and took out a jumper, which he brought over to hold against Laertes’ chest. It was an embarrassingly bad gift, very nerdy, and we laughed a lot at this all too recognisable family situation.

For once, Polonius was quite cuddly with his children, holding Ophelia’s hands, embracing her and Laertes, and seemed genuinely concerned for their welfare. He gave Laertes a wodge of money, as usual, and tried to do it discretely without Ophelia seeing (as if). His worry about Hamlet’s vows of love being false came across clearly, and seemed to be his main motivation for telling her to avoid him in future.

With Laertes gone, I think the security doors were closed for the next platform scene, but it was difficult to tell as most of the scene was played in darkness. The opening section had some of the staff going through the office at the back, clearly having a party, and going out through the side door, leading to the lines about the king taking his rouse. Then there was a complete blackout. At least the lines that were left came across clearly, and then the lights started flickering, the electrical sounds came on, and with some light coming back we could see the ghost. Hamlet, dressed in his father’s coat, seemed to be possessed with his father’s spirit (or insane of course) and spoke the ghost’s lines in a deeper, richer voice. His audience was Horatio and Marcellus, both too stunned to speak, understandably. It also meant we didn’t get Hamlet’s own responses to the ghost apart from one line – I forget which one – and a lot of the later lines were cut as well as they would have been inappropriate. The ghost didn’t speak during the swearing bit, so wasn’t mentioned, and the whole effect was to have the ghost as completely internal to Hamlet’s mind, a product of his grief and jealousy and the strongest emphasis on the psychological aspects of the play that I’ve seen.

After they left, Polonius and Reynaldo turned up, although if you didn’t know the play you wouldn’t have known it was Reynaldo; Polonius’s memory loss extended to that character’s name, and he glossed over it by carrying on. The only charge which Polonius suggested that Reynaldo put on Laertes was drabbing, and there was another moment of memory loss before the scripted one. Polonius looked like he really had forgotten the line at this point, and repeated himself to try and get back into it, which he eventually did. I suspect this was a genuine lapse, but given the nature of this scene, I can’t be totally sure. After Reynaldo’s departure, Ophelia came on to give the account of Hamlet’s apparent madness, and again Polonius was more emotionally involved in his daughter’s life than most other productions, really listening to her and being troubled by the mistake he’d made about Hamlet’s motives.

When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrived, they were shown into the main room and were soon joined by the king and queen for their little chat; this was when they changed shoes. Rosencrantz was easily distinguished from Guildenstern this time, being played by a woman. They still went with Claudius getting the names wrong and Gertrude correcting him; in this production, and given the controlling nature of this Claudius and drug-addled performance of Gertrude, I think it might have worked better if Claudius had got it right, and then had to cover for Gertrude’s mistake – I’d certainly be interested to see that tried some time.

Forget the ambassadors; next we were straight into Polonius and Ophelia’s entrance and the long-winded exposition on time, brevity, madness and the rest. Despite his relatively caring manner so far, Polonius was quite callous in this scene, making Ophelia read out the letter from Hamlet herself. He interrupted to complain about the word ‘beautified’, and snatched the paper away from her when she started talking about bosoms! He searched through the letters to find something more suitable, and gave her what looked like a postcard to continue reading. There were some cuts, and for once Polonius didn’t recommend execution as a fitting consequence if he’s wrong about the cause of Hamlet’s madness; I assume they took a line or two from another version of the play – haven’t had time to check it out.

When Polonius confronted Hamlet after the king and queen left, he took out a recording device – he’d shown it to all of us earlier during Claudius’s first speech, so we could see what it was and also the red recording light – and his asides were spoken into the machine as if he was evaluating Hamlet’s condition, a nice touch given this context.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were next up, arriving as Polonius left, and during this scene I started to get the impression that Rosencrantz had a serious crush on Hamlet. The ‘man delights not me’ interchange was more pointed because Rosencrantz was a woman, and I started to wonder about Hamlet. Apart from Ophelia, here are two other women – Horatio and Rosencrantz – who appear to be close friends of his; what is this man up to? Is he a serial heart-breaker? Is he just completely unaware of his effect on women? I watched closely through the rest of the play and couldn’t make up my mind about this.

The players were definitely in a touring production – only three of them this time. Hamlet was OK at delivering the lines, needing a bit of support from the actors to remember it all, and then the player king took over. This wasn’t the strongest delivery I’ve heard; he was sitting down for most of it, and did the speech pretty briskly, but it worked OK. Hamlet didn’t ask for The Murder Of Gonzago, and therefore couldn’t ask to insert any extra lines this time, leaving me wondering how the play would be staged. Hamlet’s soliloquy was OK, nothing memorable, and then the king and queen came on again to hear R&G’s report. At one point I remember Claudius giving Gertrude a credit card so she could go off and do some shopping; she left very happy, and it may have been this scene where it happened.

I did wonder if Polonius and Claudius would hide behind the hospital screen in the corner, but they closed the security doors halfway and lurked in the office instead, with Claudius poking his head out from behind the security door at least once to see what was going on. We also lost Claudius’s admission of guilt in this scene, which again gave the impression that he may not have done the murder after all, and that it may just be Hamlet’s delusion that we’re dealing with.

Ophelia was sitting on the steps near us during ‘to be or not to be’; it was an OK speech with nothing significant to report. Hamlet was already showing his disgust at women but things got really nasty after Ophelia’s hesitation about where her father was. Hamlet didn’t leave the stage at the usual point, so Ophelia’s lines about ‘a noble mind’ were spoken in his presence, but he did leave before Polonius and Claudius came back on. Their final lines seemed to be severely cut, and soon they were preparing for the play.

There was no dialogue for the play at all. With Claudius and Gertrude sitting in the black chairs, Hamlet used a megaphone to introduce events. He and the actors did a short procession playing pipes, and then one of the actors put a blindfold on Gertrude as she was dancing with Hamlet. She then danced with the player king, without necessarily knowing who it was. Then a devil-figure crept behind the chair that Claudius was sitting on and leapt up, joining in the action. He took over from the player king, and as he and Gertrude swivelled together to a Roy Orbison number, he gave her an apple – she correctly guessed what it was – and a necklace strung with pill bottles, which she recognised and ruefully acknowledged. By this time the player king was lying down on the far side of the stage, and the devil character came over to this side of the stage to get his vacuum hose pumped up for action. When Gertrude realised what it was, or what it represented, she wasn’t happy, and I think she left the action at that point. Meanwhile devil-man was lengthening his hose considerably, and it eventually became a snake which coiled its way over to the sleeping king to bite him in the ear. Things became very confused at this point, with Hamlet yelling some of the lines through the megaphone which made them hard to hear, and Claudius stalking off and calling for light in a remarkably reasonable voice. I don’t remember what everyone else got up to, I just had the impression of a load of people running around. Only Hamlet was left on the stage as I remember, and then they took the interval.

The restart was at the same point, with Horatio and then R&G talking with Hamlet. To be honest, I hadn’t noticed a lot of reactions to the play, and those I had seen were pretty muted, given the chaos around them. Fortunately with all the cutting we were soon through this bit. When Rosencrantz pointed out ‘My lord, you once did love me’, her anguish was very evident, and from Hamlet’s reaction I got the impression that he hadn’t known or had forgotten how she felt and was embarrassed and uncomfortable to be around her distress.

With Hamlet off to visit his mother, Claudius returned with R&G and sent them to prepare for the journey to England. Polonius passed through on his way to Gertrude’s closet, and then Claudius was finally left alone to reveal to us (or not) the level of his guilt. Would they cut this as well, or would we finally know the truth?

This scene took place in the office at the back. Claudius went in and closed the doors, and then treated us to as hammy a display of temper as I’ve seen on stage. He flung some papers off the desk, threw over one of the lockers and then stood in some ‘I’m suffering’ poses for a while, finally sinking onto his chair and putting his head in his hands – totally unbelievable. We did get some of the lines via the loudspeakers though. Hamlet came on during this part and spotted Claudius. He fiddled with some switches in a cabinet to the right of the office doors, and suddenly we could hear Claudius talking in the office. Not the full speech, but enough. Hamlet’s choice to leave him till a more suitable opportunity made sense at this point, and I found myself thinking about the contrast between the scientific emphasis on psychology and the spiritual references in the play, mostly made by Hamlet in this version. He was starting to come across as a religious obsessive, whose delusions made his choice not to kill Claudius appear rational to him. His disgust with the effect women had on men now came into focus as another aspect of this obsession, a puritanical streak which has been known to lead some people to become serial killers. I wasn’t sure if the production as a whole supported this interpretation, but it was an interesting angle to pursue.

Fortunately, the loudspeakers were still on after Hamlet left, so we could hear Claudius’s final lines of this scene. Then we were in Gertrude’s chamber, which strangely enough also seemed to be in this central hall. Polonius hid behind the hospital screen – three curtained sections on wheels – and was soon despatched. He must have been in a strange position behind the curtain, judging by the location of his stab wound, in the ear. Hamlet took on the ghost persona again briefly, after some more flickering from the lights; I think we just got a line or two about looking to Gertrude. The total lack of any other spiritual manifestation really put the emphasis on Hamlet’s madness in this scene; otherwise there’s nothing much to report.

After Claudius had learned of Hamlet’s slaughter of Polonius, we saw Hamlet drag the body onto the stage, looking for a place to hide it. He went over to the left-hand side of the stage and tested the floor tiles. Finding what he wanted, he pulled up a few tiles and the drainage cover under them – pause to mime a bad smell – and then lugged the body over to put it in the hole; I got the impression it had dropped some way down, so god knows how R&G were going to get it back again. He put the cover and the floor tiles back just in time before R&G came on stage. Rosencrantz seemed a bit huffy now, as I recall, but at least she’d stopped crying.

The next scene started with Claudius on the phone to some unspecified person talking about how tricky the situation was. Then Hamlet was brought on by two guards and put in a chair with wheels. As he was being strapped in, they did some of the usual dialogue between Hamlet and Claudius, and then Claudius gave him a tablet with some water to wash it down, followed by an injection – this man really takes no chances. However Steve spotted that Hamlet spat out the pill after he’d been left alone. Bizarrely enough, the attendants simply wheeled Hamlet over to the back of the stage on the right, where he’s conveniently placed, yet again, to turn on the loudspeaker and hear the end of Claudius’s phone call, which turned out to be with ‘England’. So Hamlet doesn’t need to read R&G’s commission to know what the king’s planning. Then he was wheeled back to the left side of the stage while one of the attendants fussed about with a blanket to put over him. As he was doing this, the TV in the office was showing something in black and white; when Hamlet asked the attendant what it was – the attendant had been looking at it himself – we got the very basic information about Fortinbras.

The next scene, scene V, covers Ophelia’s madness and Laertes’ return from France. I had been praying for a release from the boredom for some time, and finally I had a reprieve – I snoozed. So nothing to report for this bit, although the reprieve was short-lived, as even these scenes were cut to the quick (according to Steve who remained relatively alert throughout). Horatio received the letter from Hamlet in a room on the upper left-hand side of the stage, and read it out. I kept wanting her to have difficulty reading Hamlet’s writing – don’t know why, maybe I was just desperate for something to entertain me. They left immediately to take the other letters to the king, and shortly afterwards, after Claudius and Laertes had been discussing their plot centre stage, the messenger duly arrived at the office doors. As he gave the letters to the king, Horatio stood in the doorway observing what was happening, until the messenger was dismissed and she left as well.

The plotting continued without much of interest, and then Gertrude arrived to inform them of Ophelia’s death. The speech was delivered well enough, but it was the hem of Gertrude’s dress that I noticed – it was stained brown, as if she’d been with Ophelia at the time and tried to save her, but couldn’t. That little touch was one of the most moving things in this production for me, firing my imagination into overdrive as I pictured Gertrude’s despairing attempts to rescue the drowning girl. Or perhaps she got there too late, and stained her dress when she waded into the water to hold the dead body. Whatever, it was a touching moment.

For the burial scene a large square section of the stage floor was lifted up. Hamlet came on stage, I think after the four corners had been attached to the wires, and stood looking at the area of ground revealed by this manoeuvre. It was a pretty noisy process, and they added music or sound effects, so there was no dialogue during this bit – very wise. Horatio joined him at this point, with the floor out of the way, and with the gravedigger taking his place, Hamlet started discussing death and bones. Within the sandpit was a shallow trench with two piles of sand on either side and some white bones gleaming in the bottom. A blue box stood by the head of the grave to take these bones, and was gradually filled by the gravedigger, though he put one of the skulls to one side. As Hamlet recited the possibilities for each skull, the gravedigger inspected it, often scraping off some muck, before adding it to the box. It was slow and tedious, I’m sorry to say, until Hamlet actually struck up a conversation with the man. The standard humour went down pretty well, and then came the burial.

With such a small cast, there were never going to be many mourners, but I was still surprised to see only Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes turn up. The priest’s arrival was interesting; from the side of the sand pit, under the stage, a figure emerged as if from another grave. It was Polonius, still with the bloody gash on the side of his head but now wearing a crucifix and carrying a Bible as well. Hamlet was stunned to see him, putting his hand to his ear, an action which was mirrored by this new arrival. Suddenly, he snapped into being the priest, and looked at Hamlet strangely, while Hamlet was still clearly disturbed by this ‘apparition’. I’ve no idea what was meant by this, so I can’t say if it was effective or not, but it did use the necessary doubling in a thought-provoking way.

The burial itself was OK, though Gertrude only had some bits of a flower from her buttonhole to throw on the grave. Some of the sand was thrown on Ophelia, carefully avoiding her face, before Laertes told them to stop. The fight between Hamlet and Laertes was fine, and for once I felt that Hamlet wasn’t so much trying to best Laertes’s love for his sister as claim his own love to be the equal of it.

When the characters all left the stage, I wondered what they would do with the pit – nothing, was the answer. They left it as it was, with Ophelia’s body still lying there. Hamlet and Horatio came on at the back, and Hamlet brought Horatio up to speed with the grim fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Then things got a little spooky again. For Osric’s entrance, the dead body in the grave rose up and dusted herself off, to reveal that she was now in riding breeches and a shirt with a ruffled collar. Hamlet was transfixed again, and found it difficult to talk to this person, while Osric was remarkably calm – being dead seems to do that to people.

With the match agreed, some of the staff came on and started raking the sand to level it out. I thought this might mean they would have the fencing match in the pit, but it was not to be; they did it at the back, although the pit came in very handy by the end for all the dead bodies. The table with poisoned wine (no ‘union’ that I saw) was at the front of the pit, the rack of swords was at the back of the stage, and the fencing was done behind the pit. Laertes ended up in the pit when the enraged Hamlet chased and killed him, Gertrude collapsed towards the back of the stage, and Claudius ended up in the pit, don’t remember exactly how, although Hamlet not only stuck him with the sword but forced him to drink the remaining wine. The cups were cheap plastic – I mean, really! Hamlet died in Horatio’s arms down in the sandpit, and then Fortinbras turned up.

His men were dressed in black, and all wore black fencing masks. They opened out a large black plastic sheet to cover the pit over entirely, with Horatio walking out of the pit just ahead of it. They put Gertrude’s body in the pit, removing a corner of the sheet and then replacing it. They’d finished the lines by now, so this all seemed a bit ho-hum. It was worth it, though, as Fortinbras himself came to stand behind the pit for the final climactic moment of the play. As he stood there, he took off his mask, and it was….. Hamlet! At least, I assume it was Hamlet. It was Michael Sheen, of course, and perhaps he was Hamlet, perhaps Fortinbras was Hamlet’s half-brother, perhaps this was another ghost risen from the dead…… The staging didn’t make anything clear, but it was a dramatic moment, and a good finish to the performance.

Despite all these interesting choices, I wasn’t that taken with this production. I find the emphasis on the reality ‘experience’ doesn’t support the imaginative aspects of theatrical performance. In fact, I’m increasingly aware of how important the imagination is to theatre of all kinds, and I’m less impressed when productions seem intent on blocking it at every turn.

The psychological emphasis in this production was the main choice that I liked, but after thinking about it, and especially through writing these notes, I realised that they didn’t go as far as they could have. How about cutting Claudius’s guilt out altogether? The plot to kill Hamlet would then be a consequence of Hamlet’s madness rather than outright villainy on the part of Claudius. It’s an intriguing idea, but I don’t feel this production quite had the balls to go that far. Instead I felt they were doing the old striptease routine – setting up some question marks to provoke discussion amongst the audience, without realising that we actually discuss these plays quite a lot already, and what we want to see is the cast and director figuring out some answers – much more likely to provoke discussion, I find. Anyway, I’m glad I’ve seen this, and that it’s brought out some different staging choices to enrich my experience and understanding of the play. I’m also glad I don’t have to sit through it again, as the bits between the concept set pieces – e.g. ghost scene, burial scene – were very pedestrian.

The central performance by Michael Sheen was very good, and if the production had supported it more I would have been very happy. Despite the quality of the cast, however, the rest of the characters seemed two-dimensional compared to Hamlet, and that naturally affected my overall experience. Steve would have rated this slightly higher – 5 star – but otherwise we agreed that it was not as good as we’d hoped. I’m even considering ignoring future Young Vic productions, as I no longer seem to be part of their target audience; I’m confident I won’t be missed.

Our final conclusion is that this production was too much of a mish-mash. They tried to combine the realism of the asylum setting with an impressionistic version of the play, which left us feeling dissatisfied with the whole. For example, we weren’t sure if the characters in the play were actually people in the asylum hierarchy or inmates who were doing a bit of drama therapy. If Hamlet was the ‘ghost’ in the platform scene with Horatio and Marcellus, was he also the ‘ghost’ they saw at the start? And if it was just his madness, why did the lights flicker?

We’ve seen productions which raise such questions before, but the best of them lead to greater awareness and understanding of both the play and the production. For example, the touring Coriolanus we saw many years ago in the Swan, with Greg Hicks in the lead role, used a Japanese setting and incorporated a geisha-like court reporter noisily typing when Coriolanus was being interrogated by the Romans about his actions. Despite some choices which were puzzling on the night, we realised after some time to consider that they were showing a cultural change from old-style nobility to modern western-style decadence. This enhanced our understanding, and left us with an even greater respect for the performance and the work that had gone into it. The more we consider this Hamlet, however, the less sense it makes, and the less interesting the questions it raises become. This is usually a sign that not enough work has been done, which is a shame, as some of the ideas were worth exploring more fully.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Government Inspector – June 2011

4/10

By Nikolai Gogol, in a new version by David Harrower, from a literal translation by Charlotte Pyke

Directed by Richard Jones

Venue: Young Vic

Date: Wednesday 29th June 2011

This was something of a disappointment. We’ve seen this play before and enjoyed it, though not in this translation, and recent stage performances by TV comedians have been fine, so perhaps my hopes were a little too high. The trip into the auditorium was enough to lower them, mind you.

Ever since the Young Vic’s revamp, the productions I’ve seen have been more about showing off a fancy set design than presenting the play, and today’s effort was no exception. Once again, the audience had to traipse around three sides of the theatre before wandering through the set and out into the seating area. Some rustic locals were present, playing cards or peeling potatoes (don’t know if they were cast members or not) but given the absurdist style of this production, and the proscenium arch layout, why bother?

Anyway, I decided to ignore the warning lights flashing in my brain, and just enjoy the play. If only! It started in a strange way, with Julian Barratt getting out of bed on the far right of the stage to chase the word ‘incognito’ around the room. This sneaky little word was being projected onto the stage and kept getting away from him. When he opened the far right door to look for this ‘incognito’, there was only a pair of boots sitting there – I presumed they represented the unknown man. (I was wrong about the boots – see later.)

I had just about warmed up to this approach by the time the play itself started. It was funny when Julian, as the Mayor, now in the ‘real’ world, used the bedroom door to go through to the main room, instead of walking through the wall, but it was pretty much downhill from there. His delivery was monotonous, and he looked uncomfortable as he stood around waiting for his next line, unlike the other actors who inhabited their characters brilliantly throughout. He was acting as if he was still in a sketch show, so perhaps he hasn’t got the experience yet to provide a fully sustained performance on the stage.

Amanda Lawrence was particularly good as the postmaster, and we enjoyed seeing Steven Beard again as the unctuous German Dr Gibner. Doon Mackichan was good as the Mayor’s wife, tarting herself up excessively to impress the young stranger, and I thought Louise Brealey was brilliant as the Mayor’s daughter, simpering and sidling round the room in an assortment of outfits to try and catch the young man’s eye while her mother monopolised the sofa. Kyle Soller was fine as Khlestakov, the stranger who’s mistakenly believed to be the government inspector, but I felt he didn’t have enough to play against with such a weak Mayor, and the best scenes for me were the ones where the Mayor was absent. For one of these, the ‘loans’ scene, there were fistfuls of cash being waved at Khlestakov from all angles – through the floor, through the wall, etc. – and I loved the way the Doctor simply sidled through the room and thrust his contribution at Khlestakov without saying a word, before disappearing through the other door.

Fortunately, the performance finished a good twenty minutes early, as I was finding the last section very tedious. I did like the rats when they scuttled along the wall and also when they appeared in the doorway at the end; at the beginning I took them for a pair of boots, but this time I could see them more clearly and realised what they were. It wasn’t good enough to make up for the rest of it, though.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Sweet Nothings – April 2010

3/10

By Arthur Schnitzler

Directed by Luc Bondy

Company: Young Vic

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Wednesday 21st April 2010

I have enjoyed Schnitzler’s work in the past, but then again…. This was a very trivial story, which may have been well translated, but the production left me cold. For the first time in my life, I found myself wanting to nod off, but that didn’t happen until about two thirds through the first half. The second half started better, what with an interesting performance from Hayley Carmichael as the busybody neighbour, always ready to pass on a bad word or two, and always from someone else’s opinion, not her own. The latter part of the scene, after the father had come and gone, was also more enjoyable, as we got to see the situation from the perspective of the two young women, Mitzi and Christine, but on the whole the second part was very predictable and not particularly interesting, and I was happy to catch up on my sleep some more during this part too. At least the first half had several funny lines in it, such as when Theo tells Fritz to play some music to accompany him having sex with Mitzi, and she tells Fritz to make it a short piece. The second half was all downhill, and became very dreary by the end.

The set was mainly on a large revolve, which did an approximately 90 degree turn each half, very slowly for the most part. There was a small extended area in front of the stage and large panels behind, with a circular frame suspended above the revolve which kept pace with it. For the first half, the location was the reception room in Fritz’s flat, with a grand piano, a sofa, a rumble seat and a screen on the revolve, a sideboard with various paraphernalia in the orchestra pit, and a window and several lights dangling from above. They also added candles and a table during the action. The panel at the back was a coral pink colour, and swept across the rear of the stage in graceful curves – a feminine backdrop to the male environment.

The second half was set in Christine’s bedroom, though you’d have thought it was a waiting room at Clapham Junction the way folk just strolled in and out. There was a bed, an arrangement of hanging rails, a table with a chess set beneath the window, two chairs, an empty music stand on the revolve and more music stands with chairs in the pit. Again, things were moved around so that the centre of the stage was clear for the final game of pass the parcel – Christine was determined to visit Fritz’s grave, her father, Mitzi and Theo kept grabbing her to stop her. That’s how it ended, apart from the sound effect of a shot. Costumes were 1920s style and very good.

The story was beyond simple. Fritz had fallen for a married woman, and Christine had fallen for him. Married woman’s husband challenges Fritz to a duel and kills him. Christine is terribly upset. Pass the parcel. That’s it. That’s what took nearly two and a half hours of stage time to tell. Amazing. Few of the characters were even remotely interesting, the stylised production made the whole thing even more antiseptic – why did they bother? A few people in the audience clearly appreciated this kind of thing, judging by their laughter at odd moments, but they were definitely in a minority. We changed seats during the interval, as did a number of others, so it was hard to tell just how many people had left during it, but we were nowhere near a full complement to begin with, and even less than that for the second half.

Steve and I had booked seats in the circle for this one originally, just to see what they were like, but were informed that we’d been moved, as there was some aspect of the set that blocked the view from that part of the auditorium. Search me what it was. The windows scarcely got round that far, and they were pretty insubstantial anyway. No, we decided it was probably just a ruse to cluster us all in the middle stalls because ticket sales had been so poor. We were happier with our new seats; well, I could snooze there just as well as in the other ones.

Despite all this criticism, I must praise all the actors, who gave very good performances. Sadly, the material and production just weren’t to our taste.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Kafka’s Monkey – April 2009

6/10

Adapted by Colin Teevan from A Report To An Academy by Franz Kafka

Directed by Walter Meierjohann

Venue: Maria Theatre

Date: Wednesday 1st April 2009

This was our first time in the Maria theatre. It’s an interesting space; bit cramped for leg room but reasonably intimate. Apparently this performance was being recorded, but I don’t think it affected the standard either way; the audience were very appreciative, even of the nit-picking.

My rating for this production is based on my enjoyment of the piece as a whole. Kathryn Hunter’s performance was superb – both Steve and I rated it as 10/10, and hopefully she’ll receive the recognition she deserves come award time – but the play itself was rather dull and after the early stages I found my attention wandering a bit.

The set was very plain. A large white square screen stood several feet from the back wall, plumb centre, and for a large part of the performance a picture of an ape was projected onto it. A lectern stood to the right at the front and there was a stool on the left at the front with a tray carrying two bananas. Some climbing apparatus on the left wall was the only other thing I can remember.

Kathryn Hunter entered through the fire doors back right carrying a suitcase and cane. She, or rather her character Red Peter, was dressed formally, in tails with a white collar and tie, and with a top hat. She made it clear she was waiting for us to welcome her which we did, eventually, and then she set down her suitcase and cane, very carefully, and strolled over to the lectern to begin her address.

I realise as I write this that it feels more natural to say ‘she’ when talking about this ape-man, so perhaps there was a flaw in the performance after all, as I really can’t get past her gender. Anyway, she told us that she couldn’t do what she’d been asked here to do, to talk about her time as an ape, as her memory of those days had been superseded by her experiences as a man. But she did offer to tell us about her memories of the period following her capture and how she changed into a semi-human.

The story was quite difficult to listen to at first, despite many funny moments. Some sailors had shot at her pack of monkeys and she was the only one wounded. They took her on board and kept her in a small, cramped cage, where she couldn’t stand or lie down or sit. She spent the first days in captivity with her back pressed against the bars and her face to the wall. It was unpleasant to listen to and brought up echoes of the slave ships and humankind’s general bad treatment of animals.

She learned to copy the humans she saw, culminating in drinking off a bottle of rum which led to her first spoken words. She was sent to a variety of trainers and with hard work developed enough skills to become independent. She now performed in variety theatre and otherwise led a quiet life, with only a female chimpanzee for company at night. The story over, she left us the way she came.

Her movements were totally in keeping with her character. The way Kathryn Hunter managed to twist her arms round to point behind her looked impossible, but she did this regularly, usually to point at the screen. She picked up the tray of bananas and offered them to people in the front row, again using a very peculiar twisted arm movement. After the two women in the front took the bananas, there was an extra treat for one of the women as Peter checked out her hair for insects, eating what she found and commenting that there were lots in there. She also made use of a chap on the other side of the front row. She gave him the empty rum bottle that she was using to demonstrate that story and when she was caught in a cage of light she gestured to him to bring her the bottle, which he did. She also romped into the audience at least one other time, as well as using the climbing bars at the side, and given her small size this was probably as close as a human being can get to impersonating an ape.

I wasn’t sure what Kafka had meant by his original story, but I decided this was meant to be an allegory on the way society imposes its norms on the untrained human being, taking them from a place of ignorant freedom to a prison of education and knowledge. I was glad that the state of innocence wasn’t presented as some kind of ideal, a paradise to be yearned for and whose loss we should mourn. Mind you, there was still a strong sense of loss in the ape’s story, a sense that the suffering and hardships had left their mark and that there was no going back to the old ways. A creature caught between two worlds, neither of which was home anymore.

An interesting afternoon then, with some marvellous moments but ultimately less satisfying than I’d hoped for.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King Lear – February 2009

6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: Young Vic Theatre

Date: Wednesday 11th February 2009

The set was interesting, and needs to be described in detail. We were sitting just to right of centre, in the second row. The seats this time were in a wide horseshoe, with the entrance off to our left. At the back of the stage was a set of concrete steps, some chipped and worn, with grasses and flowers sprouting from them; the effect was something like a disused railway station. There was a doorway back left, and about halfway down on that side there was a platform area, big enough to contain a trapdoor. On the right, there was a broken-off tunnel entrance towards the back, and another entrance nearer ground level. A small door on that side gave access under the stairs. Centre front, and very close to the front row (which is why we sat in the second row), was a water trough, partly filled with water. A curved tap arched over the left hand side of the trough, while the right hand side had a wooden cover, allowing it to be used as a seat. The trough was also used for the stocks. In the opening scene, there was a throne sitting in the middle of the steps, and two plush chairs front left and right. Other furniture was brought on as required, though as most entrances involved steps, it must have involved a lot of planning.

I enjoyed some parts of this production, but not all, and some of the choices left me completely detached. To begin with, there was a mix of accents, mostly northern but with a couple of Irish as well. I found the actors’ delivery was sometimes weak, and this wasn’t always helped by the accents. The performances were mostly very good, and the relationships between the characters were clear and generally believable. I didn’t take to Edmund; with his Irish accent and lack of clarity he didn’t come across so well for me. The smaller parts were fine, but didn’t have much to do, and although I found Cordelia lacking in personality in the early stages, I was aware for the first time towards the end that she’s reluctant to speak to Lear because she doesn’t know how he’ll feel about her.

For the other characters: the fool (Forbes Masson) was excellent, very bitter and clearly getting through to Lear with his comments. He’s also got a lovely singing voice, which was put to good use several times. Goneril was very good. She came across as an older daughter who’s seen her father behaving badly for many years, and has learned to stay quiet and out of the way till his fit is over or he’s left the room, and that’s what she does. She was very still during the love competition, while the others were doing their stuff, and she mostly looked away, at the ground or occasionally at her husband. She’s about seven months pregnant(?), which gives greater emphasis to Lear’s curses later on.

Regan is clearly the middle daughter, jealous because she’s missing out on his affection, and determined to put on a show of being loving, presumably to try and win Lear’s attention if not his love. She starts up a chorus of “for he’s a jolly good fellow” for Lear’s first entrance. Kent was OK, but didn’t come across strongly. He was wearing a dog collar (religious rather than canine), and neither of us could figure out why. I noticed in the scene with Gloucester, he didn’t have his disguising specs on, and when Gloucester refers to “poor banished Kent”, he realises this, slips them out of his pocket and puts them on discretely.

Gloucester himself was more bluff in manner than I’ve seen before, and the emotional changes didn’t come across as clearly as I’m used to – production rather than acting I suspect. On the whole, I got the impression that Rupert Goold didn’t want to be bothered with all that depressing emotional stuff that usually goes on in Lear, but he did want to have some splendid visual stuff instead, preferably gory and with a high yeugh factor. So for the blinding scene – and this is a first, me actually watching any part of this bit – the second eye was removed by Regan herself. Cornwall held Gloucester down while she pressed on the second eyeball with her manicured fingers, finally leaning forward and sucking the eyeball out with ferocity and for quite a long time. She then stood up and slowly, very slowly, moved towards the water trough at the front, mouth unmoving. At last she squirted the fake eyeball out of her mouth and collapsed over the trough, retching away. Pretty yeugh, for me and quite a lot of the audience. And there was more to come, though nothing can be quite as bad as that scene.

When Edgar comes forward promptly (for once) at the third blast of the trumpet (didn’t sound much like a trumpet to me, and the answering blasts on the siren seemed a bit unnecessary), he emerges from below the rear step with a Union Jack wrapped round his face as a mask, carrying a pole with a small yellow flag on it, and with two wooden swords tied to his waist with a twine belt. Edmund and Edgar then start their fight with these swords, but it’s a silly business, swatting each other’s swords like children, and it’s only when they discard the swords that the real fight begins. They grapple pretty viciously, and finally Edgar gets Edmund on his back on the ground. That’s when the swords come back into play. Or at least one of them. Edgar pushes the point of it into Edmund’s mouth to kill him. It’s unpleasant, it’s messy, and it doesn’t strike me as being an effective way of fatally wounding someone so that they’ll be around just long enough for the reconciliation, the (belated) warning about Lear and Cordelia, and some final words about the two dead daughters. But that’s just me. Anyway, they’d lost me on Edgar’s bizarre entrance, and didn’t manage to get me back again before the end.

Neither of us could figure out the reasoning behind that choice of wooden swords during the trip back to the hotel, though in the morning I realised that it might have been due to the use of modern weaponry in this production. How do you square the sudden use of swords when they’ve been brandishing various types of firearm all evening? Personally I don’t have a problem with that idea – people could still fight a duel with swords if they wanted to – but it’s the only idea I could come up with for that choice.

We had watched the Newsnight Review section on this production, and so we were slightly surprised tonight that certain things were different, particularly the loss of the three glass cases which had been used to demonstrate splitting the kingdom. Whether it was for practical or artistic reasons, these were replaced with three pieces of paper, or envelopes. That worked just as well, for me, and prevented the stage being cluttered up with unwieldy props.

There were a number of other interesting or unusual stagings. When Lear is out in the storm, and Gloucester rescues him, he takes them to a potting shed, where instead of a joint stool, we have two pot plants. The actual plants are removed, so only the pots are being put on trial. The bench in this shed is the one used when Gloucester is being blinded. (No need to go into that again.) Earlier, when Edmund is seducing his father to the dark side, it’s staged with Gloucester as the two lads’ trainer, sitting near the top of the steps while they do their exercises and Edgar goes for several laps of the theatre. During his time off stage, Edmund works on their father, and there are glances at Edgar as he goes by during this scene, with Edmund having to restrain the duke on Edgar’s final pass. Edgar is then conveniently present for Edmund to work on alone. This certainly has the advantages of showing us that Edmund is a risk-taker, and letting novices know who Edgar is, but I found it contrived, and as the idea wasn’t used again, it didn’t deepen my understanding of the characters nor the production.

The fool didn’t die in the storm or afterwards; this time he apparently gets to Dover. He’s with Lear in the awakening scene, dressed in a doctor’s white coat, but with his fool’s outfit underneath, his hat (coxcomb) in his hand, and still wearing his makeup. Well, they do say that laughter’s the best medicine. So when Lear is mourning, amongst other things, that his “poor fool is dead”, it’s likely he also has been hanged for being on the losing side.

The storm scene was an unusual combination of music, movement, water and dialogue. Lear used a microphone – there was another one during the “who loves me best” scene – and he is carried on by the cast, initially held aloft and then lowered to the ground. There’s a fine mist of water coming down over the steps where all this takes place, the music is very loud, and what with the cast doing some slow and impenetrable mime or dance during all this, I completely lost the lines and any sense of what was going on, intellectually or emotionally. It may have looked good, temporarily, but so much was lost that I would have to rate this as the worst staging of the storm scene that I’ve experienced. The water, by the way, ran onto the floor space, but didn’t get anyone else wet. And Goneril went into labour at this point, clutching her belly and having to be helped off (I think). When she turns up back home to discover the news about Cornwall being dead and the war about to start, she’s pushing a pram, so the birth was successful, and the baby is soon picked up by Albany – he’s more maternal than Goneril, especially in this production.

At the end of the second section – we had an interval and a pause tonight – Cordelia appears at the back with a soldier, and they do a slow-motion thing, backlit, to show that she’s arrived. OK, but didn’t do a lot for me. The early scenes with Lear’s unruly knights were a bit lacking in the knight department, and in general there was more of the domestic about this production than others I’ve seen. Regan is poisoned by a strawberry French fancy, the only one on the plate (the others are chocolate).

So to the main event, as it were, the central performance itself. Pete Postlethwaite is a tremendous actor, and his performance didn’t disappoint. I felt the production hampered it occasionally, but it still shone through, filled with an intelligent understanding of the human experience and the talent to show us lots of small details in what is a huge performance. The production choices meant that this was more of a working-class Lear, a family man who doesn’t understand what family’s about, and who shows remarkably little interest in his future grandchild, though perhaps grandparenthood only kicks in for some people when the baby’s actually born. His erratic behaviour is corroborated by his daughters’ different responses to him. Certainly, they have different personalities, but their attitudes have been shaped by long years with a temperamental man, who can shower affection one minut, and be a block of ice the next. The set implies that Lear hasn’t been a very good king – everything seems to be going to rack and ruin, and Lear’s comment about not having cared enough for the poor compliments this. Despite this, we have Kent and Gloucester, both of whom are loyal and also surprised when Lear banishes Cordelia. This is always a puzzle, and I felt this production didn’t even attempt to provide an answer. Which is fine, though it doesn’t add to my understanding of the play.

Lear was suitably full of himself at the start, all jolly and looking forward to the wonderful things his daughters were going to say about him, especially Cordelia. He brought on the microphone stand himself, and set it up to the left on the lower steps. Goneril was slow to get started, but did her best, Regan had to think for a bit to outdo her sister, and Cordelia, sitting on the trough, gave us all her asides by leaping into the middle of the stage. Lear’s rage at her refusal to play his game was good, and by throwing the last envelope on the floor, we could enjoy a little tussle between Cornwall and Albany about who gets it first.

Lear’s anger when returning from hunting to find all is not at it should be, came across as bluster more than real rage. He’s so used to being obeyed that he doesn’t know how to handle disrespect. Another sign of a decadent kingdom, when he hasn’t even had any opponents to deal with. As I’ve said, the fool was very bitter this time, and Lear does take his points on board, starting to realise that he’s done a foolish thing. His cursing of Goneril is perhaps more powerful with her being pregnant, but as the text doesn’t include her pregnancy, it actually lost some power for me because the obvious bump in her middle wasn’t being referred to explicitly. She holds it together well while he’s there, but she’s clearly shaken by it.

His descent into madness during the storm was obscured by the effects and music, sadly, though I did find it moving at times, and entirely believable. Later, at Dover, with Gloucester saved from himself, Lear appears in a woman’s front-buttoning dress, a floral print with a low V-neck. It’s very fetching, and sets the tone for the following conversation with Gloucester, which was more humorous in this production than I’ve seen before. It was still an emotional experience, mainly due to Edgar’s comments, but there’s always a risk that too much humour will lighten the mood so much that the darker elements don’t get a chance, and I think that happened a little bit here. Lear has been banging away at his crotch during some of his rants, and just before Gloucester asks to kiss his hand, Lear realises he’s produced some unfortunate substance from his nether regions, and gives it a wipe first.

The rest was all fine, and Lear died on the upper steps, with support from some other characters and Cordelia in his lap. The final lines were OK, though as I say I was out of the loop by that time, and they were running late, but the final touch was a nice one. I was very aware that with the birth of Goneril’s baby, there was now a proper heir to the crown, not the usual situation in this play. Albany’s request to Kent and Edgar, now Duke of Gloucester, to rule the country is therefore asking them to be regents rather than joint kings, and the final sound of the play is that of a baby crying. And why not, given the world his elders have left him?

Ultimately this was a patchy version of the play, with some good ideas and some less than helpful stagings. I’m glad I’ve seen it, and perhaps I won’t be so squeamish about the blinding scene in future – it’s unlikely I’ll ever see anything more unpleasant than this one.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Prayer For My Daughter – March 2008

5/10

By Thomas Babe

Directed by Dominic Hill

Venue: Young Vic Theatre

Date: Saturday 8th March

The Young Vic has been transformed for this play. Instead of the seats on four sides round the central stage, there are two steeply raked banks of seats on either side of a long narrow acting space, which is on two levels. At ground level (stage-wise) there’s the precinct room where the action mainly takes place. Above this is the street level, with the entrance stairs. There are balloons and streamers everywhere, as it’s midnight after July 4th, and mercifully, there was a fan blowing. It’s a massive construction, and frankly I don’t know whether it’s entirely necessary, but it’s certainly impressive.

The play, originally staged in 1977, concerns two men brought in for questioning by two cops. An old woman has been shot, and these men are the suspects. As the interrogations, and some beatings, unfold, we also learn that one of the cops has a daughter who’s threatening to commit suicide. His reluctance to go out looking for her is the dramatic focus of the play, and she’s the daughter for whom they say a prayer at the end. During the play, the younger cop takes drugs, and gives some drugs to the suspects, while the older cop, who’s been drinking steadily, has his gun lifted by one of the suspects and nearly gets shot. It’s not exactly an advert for the NYPD.

The performances were good, with Matthew Marsh giving a very strong portrayal of the older cop with a daughter he just doesn’t understand. He makes the character’s choice not to help her seem understandable, even if it also appears callous. The other actors did a fine job too, and the only problem I had with this play is that it seemed tremendously dated. It may have had some punch back in 1977, but nowadays, with all the drama that’s been and gone in between, the situation and characters seem hackneyed to my eyes. Having said that, I didn’t feel bored, and there were some good moments in the script. We were surprised that a woman had brought her three young sons to see the show, as there was a fair bit of blood and violence as well as the drug use, but it takes all sorts. I hope they get a stronger play for next time.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me