The Alchemist – RSC

Isn’t it infuriating when you “did” a book or play at school and then x number of years later find you can’t remember a blinking thing about it!

In this instance it was The Alchemist by Ben Johnson, which I think I did for o-level English Lit.  All I could remember, when I booked the tickets 10 months ago, was that it was funny and about a servant turned con artist.  By the end of last week I’d managed to dredge up that there was a woman whose name I thought was Doll and maybe someone called Subtle!

It’s really refreshing going to see something you don’t know much about.  There’s no weight of expectation, no wondering how they’re going to tackle a particular bit of the play and no comparison with the last time you saw it.

I really like going to the Swan Theatre at Stratford.  The seats aren’t very comfortable but it has an intimacy that draws you in and makes you forget that you’re jammed up against two people, one of whom is a complete stranger, and that your bum has gone numb.

For this production there is a tapestry backcloth overlaid by a red velvet theatre curtain.  The props on stage as you enter set the scene; a table with candles, a cloak and a skull on it.

The opening of the play is frantic and full on – and funny – and throws you straight into the mayhem of the scam.  This play is a classic farce; get one party out of one door as the next is coming in through the other; wear one suit for one “client” and quickly change into another for the next.

The play shows, in a funny way, how people are conned through their desire to get something for nothing or find a quick easy way to increase their wealth.  Face, Subtle and Dol Common tap into the same gullibility that the email scammers of today exploit.

I liked the way Polly Findlay, the Director, kept the play moving along and the set designer kept the staging simple.  There was no faff to get in the way of the actors telling the story.

The actors playing Face, Subtle and Dol worked well as quarrelling co-conspiritors and involved the audience in their conspiracy.  One of the dangers of being on the front row is you often get co-opted into the play.  This time is was my turn with Dol Common learning over the stage having a rant at me; all I could do was laugh, which can’t have been much fun for her as I’d had a fairly garlicky tea!

I came out of the theatre feeling that I’d like to see the play again.  Partly because it was fun and partly to pick out bits that I missed this time.  It reminded me the Ben Jonson plays are always worth a look.  The characters don’t have the 3D quality that the best plays have but you can have rollicking good fun with 2D ones.

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War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

I’ve had this book on my shelves, meaning to get round to reading it, for years.  I think this is fairly typical for this book.  Somehow it always looked and felt a bit daunting so I never started it.

What convinced me to read it was the recent BBC production which I found unsatisfying in that it didn’t allow the characters time to develop, time for us as viewers to get to know them.

So, I downloaded the book onto my Kindle.  I’ve found that it’s a good way to read heavy (in all senses of the word) books because you can’t see how big they are.  Plus we were heading off on our travels so it wasn’t adding weight to my luggage.

Anyway, to the book.  I think this is a book of two parts and that Tolstoy forgot the book he set out to write about half way through.

As someone who is interested in people I enjoyed the “storybook” element; the development of Pierre, the relationships between the various characters and the picture of upper class life in Tsarist Russia.  It shows a way of life that we have no understanding of and, I think, helps us to understand why Russia was ripe for a revolution with casual comments such as “he paid 3 families of serfs for his chef”.  In what circumstances is it acceptable to buy something with the lives of a family!

As a person who is interested in the Napoleonic Wars I found the other stand of the book interesting but also quite annoying.  I don’t know much about Russian involvement in the Napoleonic War other than a little about the French retreat from the French perspective so it was a good starting point to read about it from the point of view of fictional characters; a bit like reading the Sharpe novels as starting point to the British perspective.  However, Tolstoy makes several diversions into the background and history of Napoleon’s invasion and this is where I think he loses track of his novel.  These sections are heavy going and quite detailed.  I think they belong in another book and nowadays a good editor would strip them out of the book leaving a smaller more generally readable novel.  This is particularly true of the second epilogue which is a treatise on historians, free will and causation; and is truly turgid!

I also found it annoying and astounding that Tolstoy can write so much about the Napoleonic Wars and mention everyone involved and their key Generals whilst completely ignoring the Peninsula War and Wellington!  The inference is that Kutuzov engineered Napoleon’s defeat.  I accept that he did as far as Russia is concerned. And that Borodino marked a key turning point. But you can’t just write a whole army and a major strategist out of history.  Anyway, rant over.

To summarise, I enjoyed reading most of this book.  I’d recommend having a go at it and I’d completely understand if you skipped a few chapters here and there.

Richard III at Almeida Theatre

Richard III

All historical fact to one side, I really like Richard III.  Shakespeare created the best boo-able villain in play writing history when he wrote Richard.

I’ve seen several excellent version over the years (Ian McKellan – most sinister, Robert Lindsay – best humour, Kenneth Brannagh – most human) so I was interested to find out what Rupert Goold would create with Ralph Fiennes in the title role.

I loved the way the scene was set with the archaeologists digging in the Leicester car park and members of the cast, in modern dress, coming to watch the excavations.  It was a good link to all the recent publicity about Richard.  The dig also made for a circular ending to the play as when Richard died (hope that wasn’t a spoiler for anyone!) he fell into the pit and the scene was reset to the archaeologists.

One of the joys of the Almeida Theatre is that it is small an intimate so the cast can use more subtle tones of vocal variety.  This meant that when Richard gave his opening soliloquy it was a conversational chat with the audience rather than a big pronouncement and Queen Margaret, played by Vanessa Redgrave, was quietly mad with her grief and anger rather than raving.

In terms of the relationships within the play I thought this version played them strongly.  It was clear that the House of York was a family riven by internal squabbles but who closed ranks to any outside threat.  The relationship between Richard and Buckingham was brilliant portrayed as one where both parties are playing the power game and where Buckingham thinks he’s going to become the next Kingmaker, underestimating Richard’s villainy.

I felt the cast worked well together.  The first time I saw Ralph Fiennes on stage was Richard II, also an Almeida production, and he dominated the stage to the point you wondered why anyone would want to get rid of such a charismatic king and replace him with the boring Bolingbroke.  In this production Rupert Goold’s direction made sure there was balance and whilst Richard III is undeniably the central character the other actors held your attention as well.

The one piece of casting I think didn’t really work for me was Joanna Vanderham as Lady Anne.  She come across as too assertive a woman to meekly allow Richard to woo her and kill her off.  It was a bit similar when she played Desdemona for the RSC last year.  I’d love to see her play Queen Margaret in a few years.  I suspect that’s a part she could have some fun with!

Other things I wasn’t sure of are the big disk thing hanging over the stage.  I’m not sure what it was meant to represent or it’s purpose.  Queen Elizabeth didn’t look much like a “painted Queen” at the beginning and I think her clothes needed to be brighter and more “sun of York”.  Finally, I know it’s historically accurate to have rain at the Battle of Bosworth but it didn’t add anything to the scene.

Overall, I really enjoyed this performance and, given that we saw it on 25/06, enjoyed the poignancy of Richard’s final speech when he tells us that England is mad!