Comedy Of Errors – April 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Paul Hunter

Venue: RST

Date: 2nd April 2011

After such a superb Comedy at the Tobacco Factory, I was prepared for this to be much less enjoyable. The opening sequence to this version suggested this might happen, but I warmed up once the dialogue started and I could see the style of the piece – basically, a jolly romp through the play with lots of fun for young and slightly less young alike. By the end, I was as enthusiastic about the performance as anyone in the audience.

The set was industrial drab, yet again, with a square raised platform in the middle of the stage, a grubby sheet as a curtain hanging at the back, musical instruments ranged along the back of the stage in front of this curtain, and assorted electrical appliances secreted here and there – some under the stage, some along the back such as a fridge. The cast were mainly in an eclectic mix of scruffy outfits, and when they did glam up it was usually by throwing a glitzy number over the original togs, making for even more fun. Only the Antipholuses and Luciana looked remotely normal, she in a pretty summer dress and thick socks, they in matching suits and ties. The Dromios wore matching track suits and hats.

The performance started in stealth mode, with the actors strolling on, as they do, strumming guitars, chatting to the audience, strewing bits of straw all over the place (this was James Tucker – you could tell he didn’t have to clear it up afterwards). After a bit of this, the rest of the cast shoved off to the back of the stage, while the Ephesus Dromio (Dyfan Dwyfor), woke up, came out from under the platform and started to play some catchy rhythm on a toast rack. Mariah Gale snuck up behind him, grabbed the toast rack and kept the rhythm going, while the rest of the cast joined in on anything they could lay their hands on. Soon we were all clapping along with the beat. It was an energetic start to the performance, but I did start to wonder just when we going to get to the actual play.

The Duke arrived, resplendent in a fancy jacket and red tracksuit bottoms, and Egeon was taken out of the fridge to hear his doom. It was at this point that I started to get involved. Clearly, they were going for humour all round – no moving story of Egeon’s sad life here. Instead, they demonstrated in mime on the platform the story Egeon was telling the Duke, and this is where the performance really got going.

As he described how he left his wife in Syracuse and the birth of the twins, etc., these characters appeared on the platform, and acted out the story with some brilliant comic business. The first set of twins was born – Richard Katz (A/S) and James Tucker (A/E) – and to make them look identical, they each had one of those false nose, glasses and moustache sets. Given the difference in looks, this was not only a great device, it let us all have a tremendous laugh at the absurdity of it all. Then the Dromios were born – Dyfan Dwyfor (D/E) and Jonjo O’Neill (D/S) – followed by the tale of the shipwreck. This was beautifully done, with the children being tied together, a ‘rock’ breaking through and holding back the one lot while the others were dragged off stage by the stormy waves. So now we knew what they all looked like, and we’d got the laughing muscles well warmed up.

Somehow, this bit blended into a musical number, with A/E at the front of the platform giving a virtuoso (mimed) performance on the spoons, to the delight of the assembled crowd. (The actual player was Dyfan Dwyfor.) When A/E finishes, to much applause, he heads off stage to our right, the crowd waving goodbye all the while. So when A/S and his Dromio arrive to our left, the crowd do a nice double take before clearing the stage.

To save on actors, there’s no other merchant to warn A/S about the situation in Ephesus, so after he sends D/S off to their lodgings at the Centaur, he takes a (free) paper that’s conveniently being distributed right next to him and gets the news about the Syracusan merchant being condemned to death from that. Then A/S has his first encounter with D/E, and the rolled up newspaper came in very handy for a few blows. This was all very energetic, and the humour came across very well.

Next we were introduced to Adriana and Luciana, at home in their sitting room, complete with telly and a lovely picture on the wall of A/E holding his spoons (i.e. James Tucker holding a frame and the aforementioned musical implements). I felt the energy dropped a bit at this stage, but it picked up again when D/E arrived. When he was recounting the story of his meeting with the man he took to be his master, A/S stood by a microphone back left, and said his lines, with D/E mouthing them on the platform.

The next scene rattled through straightforwardly, then with A/S off to dinner with his ‘wife’, A/E appears with his cronies, and they’ve clearly been enjoying themselves. This time, there’s an actual door to knock on, right in the middle of the platform, and D/S, with help, keeps them out. In the process, A/E takes off his jacket, and when he puts it back on again, it’s inside out, and stays that way for the rest of the performance.

After they leave, A/S reappears, still wearing his napkin (which stays there till the end), and we get the bit about how the people he meets in the street keep giving him things (Act IV, scene 3). It struck me as a little odd – he’s just come from dinner and hasn’t been in the street for a while – but I put that down to me knowing the play really well by now, and let it pass. Luciana comes on to lecture A/S at this point, and in the course of wooing her he produces lots of red paper hearts and throws them everywhere. One of them landed near us, and we kept it as a souvenir. Luciana evidently kept one as well – more on that story later.

With Luciana’s exit, D/S arrives at a run, and we get a much shortened description of Nell, his ‘betrothed’, with the countries expunged. A/S sends him off to find a ship, receives the chain from Angelo, and leaves quickly while the goldsmith is still on the platform with his back turned, calculating the chain’s cost. When he turns round again, there is A/E who has just sent D/E for a rope’s end. Angelo tackles A/E for the money, and after the usual misunderstanding, the other merchant who has claims on Angelo turns up, and the whole multiple arresting process gets underway. I must say, this A/E was the most relaxed about being arrested I’ve ever seen.

Before he leaves the stage, D/S arrives to tell his master he’s found a ship that’s leaving that night. Aware of the risks, he’s taken the trouble to disguise himself in a large cardboard box – I spotted it creeping on via the gangway to our right. D/S holds it up a little to say his lines, and then someone finally takes the box off to reveal him crouched there. A/E sends him to get a purse from Adriana for his bail, and then we’re back in the sitting room, where Adriana is letting rip at her husband for trying to chat up her sister. This time, the picture of A/E responds to her ranting by pulling faces at her while her back is turned – very childish and very funny – and then D/S rushes on to get the money, and they all head off.

A/S reappears, and is met by his own Dromio this time, with the money. The courtesan (Mariah Gale in a tacky blond wig), spots him and wants her chain, which he refuses, and he and D/S leave. Her speech about Antipholus being mad, and telling his wife about him stealing her ring is followed by a song. A microphone is placed at the front of the platform and she does a raunchy little number, with the rest of the cast as her backing vocalists. All good fun.

Next came the scene with A/E meeting his wife, sister-in-law, D/E and the courtesan, and the confusions start to build, with various people swearing to different bits of different storylines. Now it all happened thick and fast. A/E and D/E are taken away, bound, and put into the fridge, A/S and D/S turn up and are chased into the abbey, represented by a pair of curtains at the back of the platform. When the Abbess comes out to deal with the crowd, she appears to have originated from one of the rougher parts of London, judging by her snarled ‘shut it’ and the like. She also missed out on a performing career to take the veil, judging by her readiness to launch into a song and dance routine at the first opportunity.

Anyway, the Duke and Egeon also turn up, the various stories are put forward, with Luciana being the one who brings the news of A/E and D/E’s escape, and finally the Syracusan branch of the family are revealed. The two Antipholuses react brilliantly to each other, taking off their glasses in slow motion and moving them towards each other (they’re both on the platform only a few feet apart).

With the mystery mostly explained, A/S turns to Luciana and makes his play for her affections, at which point she takes out the red paper heart that she’d kept and holds it open over her heart. Ahhh. This is the point where the abbess prolongs her speech long after everyone else has gone inside the abbey. The final exchanges between the pairs of brothers were fine, and then they rounded the whole thing off with more music before their much deserved applause.

All the performances were absolutely splendid, and the comic business was tremendously inventive. It’s a good job Steve and I are flexible in our approach to Shakespeare performances; it means we can get the most out of such diverse versions of the same play. I was also aware of how well this group of actors worked together, a benefit of the ensemble philosophy. Long may it continue.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Hamlet YPS – March 2011


By: William Shakespeare, edited by Bijan Sheibani and Tarell Alvin McCraney

Directed by: Tarell Alvin McCraney

Venue: Swan Theatre, Stratford

Date: Friday 25th March 2011

I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as last time. I was much more tired this evening compared to last August, and the Swan was unfortunately very stuffy tonight, which accounts for some of the difference, but I also suspect that the change from the Courtyard to the Swan, much as we love the latter, may not have helped, as the rhythm of the piece seemed off tonight. The audience was very appreciative, mind you, so it wasn’t off by much.

From our position, we missed some of the items I noted up last time, such as the blue cloth for Ophelia’s drowning, and there were definitely some changes as there was only one bit of audience participation tonight, for the player king. This time they had two volunteers to fill the role, but they handled it well. I suspect there have been other changes, but I couldn’t spot anything specific. Good to see it again, though.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Hamlet YPS – August 2010


By William Shakespeare, edited by Bijan Sheibani and Tarell Alvin McCraney

Directed by Tarell Alvin McCraney

Company: RSC YPS

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Saturday 21st August 2010

All sorts of excitement today. We’d only been watching this seriously trimmed production for about ten minutes when the stage manager came on stage and told us all to get out! Well, she actually asked us to evacuate the building, so we did – not raining at the time, thank goodness – and about fifteen minutes later, they let us back in. No official explanation, but at least we got to see the rest of the performance.

The cast handled it very well, I thought. The break came just as Polonius was interrogating Ophelia about Hamlet’s interest in her, so they restarted from the beginning of that scene, and there were no more interruptions before the end.

The story was minimalist, to put it mildly. This is the version that’s done for the young folk, so I can appreciate the need to keep it short and simple, and we both reckoned they’d done a good job of telling the basic story. There was even some audience participation along the way. Fortinbras had obviously gone, as had most of the players’ involvement, though we did get the crucial Mousetrap mime. Horatio was Horatia, although they didn’t change the lines, and the opening scenes in particular were intercut rather than played through in order.

The opening mime showed us the old king dying, and the mourners covered him with their umbrellas so he could sneak off stage. These umbrellas were well used in this production, as they doubled for guns, a nice touch. Then Claudius told us about the Danish royal family’s situation – old king dead, new king married to the widow – and then we saw the ghost walking for the first time. Then it was Laertes leaving, and Peter Peverley as Polonius did a lovely thing with the line ‘He hath, my lord, wrung from me my slow leave’. He only said the ‘He hath’, but held the ‘He’ so long, it fully conveyed the sense of the whole line.

After this, we were pretty much back on track, although everything was very much shortened to fit the seventy minute schedule. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were played almost as twins, wearing identical blazers, and bringing a lot of comic touches to the performance, mostly through their expressions.

I forget at which point they first asked for help from the audience. Hamlet brought a little girl up from the front row, by the left side aisle, and used her hands like a puppet to speak to another character, but I’ve completely blanked when. The second time was for the play-in-a-play. Ophelia, as one of the players and using a very strange accent, asked for a volunteer from the audience. A young woman from the circle put her hand up straightaway, and came down to help out. She had to be the pretend player king who gets the poison put in his ear, so all she had to do was wear a big fur coat and lie on the ground. Actually, she also had a line to say. Hamlet did an abbreviated version of his speech to the players about how to act, and she replied, ‘I will, my lord.’ Then we had the play itself. Both volunteers were applauded before they left the stage.

Ophelia’s drowning was demonstrated by means of a blue cloth, and for the burial scene she was carried in wrapped in the same cloth. When Hamlet’s ghost was describing his own murder (and there’s a scene that deserves to be seriously cut in any production) Claudius helpfully appeared on stage and showed, in mime, the actions the ghost was describing. As the ghost, Patrick Romer wore a small mask and moved in a slow, stately manner, which I found quite creepy. Polonius hid behind an open umbrella instead of an arras, and the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was also demonstrated in mime at the rear of the stage while Hamlet described it.

The fencing was reasonably brisk – nearly at the end – and Hamlet’s death was the quickest on record. I think he only said a couple of lines, finishing with the usual ending. And that was the end. The cast only took one set of bows, but then we had been delayed, and there was a matinee of King Lear due on in just over an hour, so I assume they were under orders to keep it short. The audience could have gone another round, but that’s how it goes sometimes. An excellent effort, and nice to see some of the minor role actors getting a chance to show what they can do, even in such a modified version.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at

Comedy Of Errors – YPS – September 2006

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Elizabeth Freestone

Company: Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 13th September 2006

This was a very good production, with excellent staging and a well-edited text. The performance began with all the cast coming on stage in two files, with the Duke and a blindfolded Egeon at the back. The rest of the cast formed up in two rows at the front of the stage, and all were carrying rifles. They turned, raised the rifles, and knelt down, preparing to fire. The Duke, at the last minute, asks Egeon for his story (removing the blindfold as he does so), and as he tells it, the firing squad get so caught up that they gradually lower their rifles, and just listen. Egeon’s tale, though edited, still covers the salient points, and but for the rampant coughing from the audience, would have been very moving. Incidentally, to make ends meet on this long quest, Egeon has apparently taken painting and decorating jobs – his sleeves and the bottoms of his trousers were covered in white paint.

I really enjoyed this opening sequence. The firing squad gave it immediacy, a real sense of danger. The Duke, while chatting to Egeon, is perilously close to getting shot himself – just one twitchy trigger finger… This staging emphasises the Duke’s clemency, giving Egeon till sunset to find some way of paying the fine.

As the various characters leave, one soldier remains, and becomes Antipholus of Syracuse (A/S). Slinging his rifle over his shoulder, he sends Dromio off to the Centaur, and both he and Dromio share any relevant lines of the missing merchant.

A/S’s opening soliloquy, “He that commands me to mine own content…”, was very well done. The gestures used were moving, and repeated at the end to close the piece (although this could probably have been dropped, as the audience were ready to applaud as soon as the Dromios left the stage). I got a sense of someone who’d been searching so long and so desperately that he no longer expected to find what he was seeking – which explains why neither he nor his Dromio twig what’s going on.

Dromio of Syracuse (D/S) then returns, and the real comic business begins. Good comic timing from both sets of twins made this very enjoyable. When Adriana first arrives and addresses A/S as her husband, his look of amazement was a joy to behold. D/S just pats him on the shoulder as if to say ‘you’re on your own, mate’, and sits out most of the discussion. Adriana is, as usual, pretty intimate with the man she believes to be her husband. On the line “Am I in earth, in heaven or in hell” A/S indicates Dromio, Luciana and Adriana in turn.

The set: it’s still the Much Ado set, but without the rubble all over the floor. White cloth at the back, various pallets arranged round the stage, higher at the back. Back left, on an angle, sat a chest (holds the money Adriana gives D/S to redeem her husband), and one pallet came half-way across the front, and doubled as a door for both Antipholus’s house and the abbey. Part of the pallet hinged up, and was held in place by a rope. The costumes were all various shades of blue, with a tie-dye/ washed out effect. Both Dromios had bright blue hair, and the women wore underskirt hoops on the top of normal skirts – why?

The advantage of having two sets of twins (instead of doubling) is that the scenes they’re both in are easier to do. When Antipholus of Ephesus (A/E) arrives home for lunch, it becomes very clear he’s got a temper, and a pretty violent one at that. With the pallet-door, there are lots of gaps, through which guns, bars, etc. are thrust, giving D/S plenty of opportunity for ducking and diving.

The wooing scene after lunch was well-edited, and we got D/S’s descriptions of his (un)intended in full, but at a fair lick. D/S arrived for this scene at full tilt, with his trousers round his knees – evidently the kitchen wench doesn’t mean to wait till the wedding night for a piece of her betrothed! Next there’s a lovely piece of action with the goldsmith and the chain. When A/S, on receiving the chain, urges the goldsmith to take his money now, in case he never gets it, the goldsmith takes out his pocket book, thumbs to the right page, and starts to work out how much he’s owed. This takes a short while. In the meantime, A/S has said his lines and leaves to find D/S. The merchant, just missing him as he leaves, turns and sees A/E walking towards him from a different direction. Without batting an eye (they must be used to this sort of stuff in Ephesus), the goldsmith immediately tells A/E how much the chain costs, and then the confusion tumbles on through the arrival of a merchant (Balthazar) and the officer, so that A/E is bound and carted off before he knows what’s happening. Sending D/E off to get a rope’s end has been squeezed in here – normally it’s at the beginning of A/E’s entrance – but overall it’s a lovely piece of editing and staging.

D/S comes back to tell him there’s a ship about to leave, and stands bemused by what’s going on – not the scene he expected. He takes his time before heading back to Adriana, reluctant to see his fiancée again. After D/S gets the money, we see A/S even more bewildered – people are greeting him, giving him things, measuring him up for a suit, and still he doesn’t twig. He and D/S become even more panic-stricken when the courtesan arrives, and demands the chain she’s been promised. Off they flee, so that A/E can come on again to be suitably angry with D/E, who’s returned with the rope. Lots of physical stuff now, as the officer has to forcibly restrain A/E from attacking D/E. They really did throw themselves around, this lot.

More good editing – no Pinch to contend with. Luciana speaks any of his lines that are needed, and has some great business in the process. As A/E is seriously agitated by this time, the officer has him at gunpoint. As Luciana goes towards him, he makes to lunge at her, and she steps back, shoves the officer out of the way, and grabs his gun. After brandishing it rather wildly (everybody ducks as she swings it round), they get A/E and D/E tied up, and march them off to Adriana’s. The officer’s line “He is my prisoner…” was delivered very well, showing the officer’s nervousness.

From here, it’s pretty straightforward to the end, and all the reunions. At the very end, after the Dromios have left the stage, A/S re-enters, and stands, repeating the gesture with his hands that marked one drop of water seeking another in the ocean. Nicely done, but as I said before, this could probably be dropped.

The trouble with trying to describe such a lively and inventive production is that the description always falls far short. Much of the humour was in the business and in the reading of the lines. I would happily see this one again.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at

The Tempest – YPS – September 2006

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Patsy Rodenburg

Company: Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Monday 11th September 2006

I was a little disappointed with this, although there were a number of good points. The performances were generally good, but the delivery wasn’t always powerful enough, so lots of lines were lost. While I would agree with the cuts that had been made – the shipwreck, the performance of the goddesses, the fake feast – the resulting text felt a bit clumsy, and in some cases, where a ‘famous’ line had been kept, there were references that didn’t make sense in this version.

However, the staging worked well on the whole. The initial shipwreck is suggested with a piece of blue cloth held up, waist-high, by the characters on the ship (dressed in suits). At each end stands Ariel – in this production Ariel is being played by two actors, a man and a woman. This was a very unusual choice for me, and I thought it worked very well. In this case, it allowed the Ariels to start moving the cloth from side to side, causing the characters to sway, more and more, until eventually they are flung off, and leave the stage, while the Ariels float the cloth up like a roof. A very good evocation of the storm and shipwreck.

The dialogue starts with Miranda’s plea to Prospero to calm the storm, followed by his explanation (long overdue, it would seem) of their arrival at the island. Prospero has pictures which he gives Miranda to look at, of his disloyal brother, the King of Naples, and the good Gonzalo, this time played by a woman. As he mentions each one, the characters come on stage so we can see who they are; as an audience member, I always find this a helpful device.

Caliban is an unhappy creature, chained up when first we see him. He certainly doesn’t pay much attention to personal hygiene, but given the circumstances, that’s understandable. He tends to lope around on all fours, very like Crab in Two Gentlemen of Verona. I usually feel sorry for him; personally I think Prospero’s a bit of a control freak who’s taken over the island without a by-your-leave, and Caliban had every right to at least make a pass at Miranda, but I may be in the minority here.

Anyway, Prospero introduces Miranda to Ferdinand, achieves the desired result, and then we rattle through the attempts to cheer up the King, and the potential coup. I felt a lot of the humour was lost here, although some supporters behind us were doing their best to add a laughter track at every opportunity. (The giveaway was the laugh coming before anything funny had happened on stage.) But we do get a good sense of the King mourning for his son, believed dead. Meantime, Miranda and Ferdinand agree to marry, and after this we meet Trinculo and Stefano. Their business is so curtailed that it’s hard to make anything much of them. However, Trinculo is also played by a woman, and she gives the character all the trembling cowardice it needs, though the drunken scenes are weaker.

From here, it’s all straightforward to reconciliation, and a happy ending, finishing with Prospero’s ‘farewell’ to the spirits – no epilogue. I don’t think this play condensed as well as the others – I missed more than with the other YPS productions. But there were some good performances, and I dare say the children will enjoy this one – it’s very visual.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at

Richard III – YPS – September 2006

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Jennie Buckman

Company: RADA

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 8th September 2006

They were performing on the set for the RSC’s Much Ado About Nothing – a Cuban bar – with a pole, light bulbs strung round the place and bits of broken up tarmac on the stage. This made for lots of crunching sounds as people walked, danced, etc., and left lots of bits on costumes. At times, given how much Richard was leaping about, it was like a crunchy soft shoe shuffle. Very unfortunate. The RADA set itself was a simple white sheet, hung over the back balcony, and used for silhouettes, projection, and with a slit for a doorway. Very effective.

The costumes were very retro. Doublet and hose for the men, period dress for the women. While it’s nice to see lots of lean and muscular masculine legs, there was no benefit in choosing this style. It didn’t add to the production. There were some costume changes, because of the doubling.

Overall, this production needed better editing of the text. The already excessive one hour twenty-five minutes overran by 15 minutes – a long time to expect young kids to sit still on a gym floor. I was toiling towards the end, because of the long drive up. The opening was strangely drawn-out, and for me it added nothing to the production. For about five minutes before the start, there were two couples standing in the front corners, chatting quietly to each other – whispering sweet nothings, judging by the actions. A couple of servants appeared at the curtain, and shortly afterwards the house lights went down. The King came through the curtain, with the Queen, and the three couples began a dance. While this was going on, Richard of Gloucester crept slowly onto the stage, finally launching into one of the most famous opening lines of all time. At least he could indicate the King when talking about “this sun/son of York”. And we were shown, in mime, the initial stages of Clarence’s arrest. Otherwise a slow way to start a play that already has time problems.

From there we jump straight into Richard’s hyper performance – waving his arms around like he’s trying to use semaphore as well as speak the part, striding the length and breadth of the stage just to show us his legs do work. This was definitely over the top, and I wondered at the time if such a young actor would be able to handle the demands of this role.

Fortunately, the next scene we get is Anne escorting King Henry VI’s body to church. Despite her early attempts to outdo Richard in the histrionics department, this gradually settled down into a nice exchange between these characters, Richard displaying his brass neck to full advantage, and Anne managing to find it in her heart to call a truce, if not forgive entirely. I don’t know if this is a really tricky scene to do, or if it’s so well written it’s almost infallible, but at least the performances were shaping up.

Other good points: the servants we see at the start turn into the two murderers, both excellent performances. First murderer, Forest, is played with a Welsh accent, and displays a perfectionist’s commitment to the important task of bumping off a member of the royal family. He lays out his bundle of implements carefully, checks them all, and then puts on his apron and large red rubber gloves with precision. All this business takes him right through the dialogue, so he’s ready for action when Clarence wakes up. The second murderer, Dighton, is much more panicky, but recovers himself as quick as you like once Forest reminds him of the money involved. Clarence himself was very good in this scene. Without the preamble of his fatal dream, he has to start from scratch, and manages to express greater panic in pleading for his life than I’ve seen before. Here, it worked.

I liked the use of silhouettes to show Richard at prayer with the monks, and also the bribing of the audience to shout “Long live Richard, England’s worthy King”. Sadly, the money was fake, so being typical peasants, we refused to do anything for it, but Richard was still offered the crown anyway. While they might have edited out the dream scene before the battle, I did like they way the ghosts spoke their lines all together – not only saving time, but emphasising the sheer number of people Richard had both pissed off and bumped off during his villainous career. One slightly naughty tweak to the text gave the young king, Edward V, a play on words that allowed Richard and Buckingham to laugh sycophantically. “Fie! what a slug is Hastings, that he makes not haste to tell us…” instead of the “comes” in my edition. Still a good laugh, so I’m not complaining.

Not so good points: they could have cut a lot more of the play, especially much of the women’s wailing and cursing, the pre-battle dream sequence, and the opening dance. It was a difficult piece to choose from an editing point of view. I don’t know if they were given a free hand, or a shortlist, or what. The action is all very well, but the heart of the play is the nature of Richard’s villainy and its outcomes, and that didn’t come across so well in this version. The humour was fine, but it didn’t satisfy me.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at

Much Ado About Nothing – YPS – September 2006

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by John Hartoch

Company: Bristol Old Vic Theatre School

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Tuesday 5th September 2006

This was excellent. But for the severe truncation of the play, it would have been a 10/10 performance. I was amazed to find these actors had completed only the first year of a two-year course – several looked so accomplished I would have thought they were already professionals.

Although this telling was succinct, there was time to cover all the high points of the full version, and to include some original business as well. At the beginning, two soldiers march a surly-looking fellow (Don John?) onto stage. Leaving him in the middle, they march to one side and prepare to fire. Another man appears (the Prince?), and gives the signal to shoot. The guns fire, and streamers shoot out – it’s a joke! Not that the chap being shot at enjoys it much.

Then the regular plot starts, with Leonato telling his daughter and niece of the Prince’s return. I was delighted with this Beatrice (Emma Clifford). She nailed Beatrice’s character beautifully – full of chiding without any real malice, but unable to hold her tongue for long. Michelle Lukes was as lively a Hero as I’ve seen, registering a lot more of the character’s emotions, especially during her repudiation at the church. Adam Thomas gave a good performance as Leonato. An older student, he had the advantage of his own years to convey Leonato’s, and he carried the part well, doing a good impression of a bumbling amateur during the deception of Benedick.

When the men arrive, we confirm that the characters in the initial mime were indeed the Prince and Don John. Oliver Millingham plays the Prince as a lively man, fond of practical jokes and arranging other people’s lives for them. Claudio (David Oakes) is tall, handsome and full of nobility and courage, while Benedick (Peter Basham) is a robust type, older than Claudio, and with a healthy dislike of marriage. He pines to “see a bachelor of three score again.” His sparring with and wooing of Beatrice were lively and entertaining, and he moved into the more sombre scenes smoothly and convincingly. His was one of the best performances in a good all-round cast.

Don John was a credible villain, sulking even more after his humiliation at the fake firing squad. Neil Jennings doubled this part with the second watchman, which gave him a chance to show a lighter touch in a comedic role. Another of the best performances came from Nick Whitley as Borachio. He slipped onto stage during the Prince’s promise to woo for Claudio, and seeing what was going on, hid himself behind the curtain to overhear. After they left, he strolled onto the stage, bottle in hand, to let us know his intentions. Nick looked very assured and gave plenty to this small, but important, supporting role. Don John’s other servant, Conrad, was played by Paul Jellis, who also played the friar. Conrad was fine, and I liked the friar, especially when he settled up with the Prince once Benedick agrees to marry.

The parts of Hero and Margaret were being alternated, and today Margaret was played by Notzarina Reevers, doubling with first watchman. Both of these were good performances. Margaret had her flounces from time to time, but she was still the loyal maid enjoying her part in snaring Beatrice for Benedick. First and second watchmen were a great double act, as first watchman had to assert her authority and retain her pike (they only had one between them!). She did this easily, and took to swinging it around in a dangerous manner, as when Dogberry is questioning Conrad and Borachio. Good fun.

So to Dogberry (David Edenfield) and Verges (Matt Barber, doubling as Messenger). Dogberry is such a difficult part to do nowadays, and I’ve rarely enjoyed it. This part was naturally cut right down, yet the character came across just fine, and the climactic “O that I had been writ down an ass!” was very funny. One of the few parts that benefited from the cuts. Verges and Messenger were small parts, and well done, though without much scope for catching the eye.

The set was very simple, as they have to be. Apparently they must be able to be set up and taken down in ten minutes. A curtain formed of four parts hung at the back of the thrust, with words from the play writ large across it. Underneath these were printed dictionary definitions of some of the words, e.g. love, honour, scorn, folly, etc. Two boxes covered in cloth stood towards either side of the curtain, with individual words on each side, echoing the curtain’s decoration. These boxes were moved forward, singly or together, to form seats, tables, plant pots, etc., and other props were added as needed; chairs, trees, altar cloth, and so on. Live music came mostly from behind the curtain, and sometimes on stage or from the sides. They’re a talented bunch, these actors, as they played all the instruments themselves.

The costumes picked up the general theme, as most of the outfits had a word or two painted on them. The Duke had both “Love” and “Scorn” on his trouser legs, Claudio had “Noble”, Benedick had “Sport” and Beatrice had “Scorn” across her stomach. The Prince was in off-white, Leonato in grey, and Don John in black. Because it was so short, there were no costume changes, so Hero had to start off in her wedding dress (white, drop-waisted, with a voile skirt), while Beatrice was wearing bright red, and Margaret wore a fetching blue number. The watch had pudding basin helmets.

One obvious difference from yesterday was the power of delivery. These guys could really fill the space, vocally. I heard virtually every word clearly, and they obviously knew what their characters were saying as well. There were a few problems with sightlines being blocked, but that’s a natural hazard in this space. All in all, this was an amazing production.

Some of the business has already been covered. The scene where the Prince, Claudio and Leonato convince Benedick of Beatrice’s love was a masterpiece. With Benedick lurking behind the curtain, though not completely out of sight, the Prince dishes out the ‘parts’ to the other players. Leonato, an enthusiastic amateur, manages to drop too many of his pages, and there’s a lovely moment of panic as all three scramble to find his lines. As the Prince and Claudio walk and talk, Claudio’s sword accidentally pulls back the curtain, threatening to reveal Benedick, who has to grab it to stay concealed. This amuses the others so much, they make another pass by the curtain to repeat the trick. Frankly, they were laughing so much that it nearly made Benedick a liar when he says their conference was “sadly borne”.

Finally, to tie the production up, the introductory scene was repeated – Don John was led onto stage, the firing squad prepared to shoot, the Prince raised his hand to give the signal – and then the lights went out, leaving us with a lovely, ambiguous ending. We all loved it so much we applauded past the house lights going up, so they took their final curtain call in semi gloom. Great fun, and I hope they all do well in their future careers.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at

All’s Well That Ends Well – YPS – September 2006

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Gavin Marshall

Company: Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Monday 4th September 2006

This was the first Young People’s Shakespeare that we’d seen. Apparently they’re strictly limited to 75 minutes per performance, so the text has to be drastically reduced. This was (possibly) the first time these had been performed by acting students – normally fully fledged RSC actors do these productions.

The remaining text for this play focused intensely on the main characters. Ten performers covered all the parts. This made several things very clear. Firstly, I understood for the first time the importance of showing up Parolles as the fool and coward he is. Bertram’s judgement is so poor, as it is in rejecting Helena, that he needs a wake-up call. Secondly, I could see more clearly how determined Helena is to earn Bertram’s love – it’s a quest story, though as usual Shakespeare has turned it upside down by having the woman seek the man – very Women’s Lib.

Finally, seeing the truncated version made me appreciate Will’s talent even more. Not only can cut-down versions of his plays be very enjoyable, but I have greater insight into how important the ‘non-essential’ parts are. They don’t just pad things out, they contribute a lot to the characterisation, they allow the audience time to absorb what they’ve seen, catch up with the plot from their neighbours, and keep the rabble amused. The short version is fine, and I can still enjoy the longer version, too.

Full scale productions also have the advantage of more people on stage, which gives more opportunities for fun. I’m thinking particularly of the scene at the end where the King, not having learned his lesson, promises Diana her choice of husband from among his noblemen. When you have a dozen or so spare nobles pottering about on stage, there’s a lot more to be made of their reactions – here it just whizzed by without comment.

This production started with a song, a kind of wailing, which we came to realise was a mourning dirge for the recently deceased Count of Rousillion. The actors processed from the side to form up in two lines on the stage, women to the left, men to the right, with a priest figure in front, ringing a bell. The singing wasn’t too bad, though I felt they were trying to be overly ambitious with the harmonies, given the few singers available. Either that, or they were just a bit shaky in this department.

After the funeral, Bertram takes his leave, and we get our first insight into Helena’s wit, as she spars with Parolles, Bertram’s follower. The story rattles through – the King welcomes Bertram, the Countess discovers Helena’s affections and supports her in going to the King to see if she can cure him, bearing in mind her double reason for going. She cures the King, claims Bertram and so begins the long chain of unhappy events. Bertram quits the court, to go off to the wars (has the man gone mad? or does this just show how much he loathes his new wife?). Helena, having returned to Rousillion, sneaks off after him, leaving the Countess to inform the world that she has died. In Italy, she encounters the very women who can help her to win Bertram – just how lucky can one girl get? The widow with whom she lodges has a daughter, Diana, who has caught Bertram’s eye. Now the widow makes out that Diana’s virtuous, but it seems to be a bargaining tool, because from Diana’s behaviour it’s obvious she fancies a bit of nobleman herself, and it’s only her mother’s advice to fend them off till the marriage is sealed that’s kept her pure! Anyway, they agree to help Helena, and Bertram’s fate is sealed – he can’t outwit one woman, what chance does he have against three?

Parolles is also up against it when he’s kidnapped by his own team, and soon reveals all in front of Bertram, fresh from his tryst with Diana/Helena. Back at the French Court, the three women confront Bertram and all is, hopefully, made good.

With such a shortened script, there was very little time to play around. Parolles’ part probably suffered most, as it usually relies on business and a fancy costume to get across the humour, and much of that was cut out. But there were some lovely pieces of staging.

Firstly, there was a nice touch during the opening funeral scene. Simple hand gestures indicated dirt being thrown onto the coffin. The stage was almost bare – only six stools positioned at the back of the thrust, carrying a bell, a purple cushion, a crown and a drum. Actors took their places here often at the beginning of the previous scene, so the action was almost non-stop. Actors also stood there when a letter their character had written was being read out so they could say the words themselves.

A messenger arrives at one point, sits on the stage, and proceeds to take his shoe and sock off to tend to his sore foot. Parolles comes on, and tries to sneak a peek at the messenger’s bag, or at least nick his hip flask. No chance – this messenger has obviously encountered Parolles before, and he’s not letting anything out of his sight, eventually sitting on his bag to stop Parolles walking off with it.

The hip flask featured later, as the messenger, now playing a soldier, tries to chat up a woman in the audience, even offering her a swig, which she declined. As an officer looms up, the soldier hides the flask with her, but sadly the officer is wise to this, and he ends up losing both woman and flask.

The audience were also involved when Parolles is about to be tortured. As he tries to get away, he grabs the legs of someone in the front row, and has to be dragged off, screaming. He made a wonderful coward, yelling his head off when he thought he was about to be killed.

That’s about it. The costumes were plain and functional. Parolles had a red scarf to indicate his flashy dressing! Generally, there were weaknesses in delivery, with a lot of lines being lost, but overall it was well played and enjoyable.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at