The Rover – Aphra Benn – RSC Swan Theatre

I didn’t know what to expect from this production; I don’t know the play, I don’t know very much about Aphra Benn and my only previous experience of the director, Loveday Ingram, was last year’s Othello.

I started to have an inkling when I saw that Lez Brotherston was the designer.  His sets for Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures are always colourful and interesting.

The pre-opening music also started the evening off well; we were treated to a festival of Spanish/Buena Vista Social Club music.  The musicians looked like they were enjoying themselves, Danusia Samal sang, danced and acted beautifully and Leon Lopez was the consummate lounge lizard crooner.  Pity most of the audience seemed not to notice and were more intent on anxiously finding their seats that taking a moment to smile and emit a response the endeavours of Danusia to get them to at least move to the music.

The play itself is, mostly, light, frothy and fun.  It doesn’t do to think too hard about the characters as they are, on the whole, stereotypes and don’t have enough substance to ponder on after the play has ended.

Essentially it is the story of three Spanish sisters and three exiled Cavaliers.  Two of the sisters are trying to escape their fate; Hellena to become a nun and Florinda suitors approved by her father and brother.  The Cavaliers are in Spain to enjoy the carnival.  The more sensible Belvile is in love with Florinda and Willmore, the titular Rover, is just out to enjoy himself.  The other sister and Cavalier are there to move the plot along in places.  Wound in and amongst the main plot are subplots about the courtesans of the city; one who is all mercenary and one who has found she can love.

My main beef about the story is why would Hellena want to marry the philandering Rover?  However, she goes into her marriage with her eyes open and, I expect, their life together would be colourful and exciting!

The cast looked as though they were having fun with this play.  It even got a bit pantomime when Joseph Millson managed to give Alexandra Gilbreath the giggles.  Credit to her for managing to hold it together and get her lines out.  I think the casting worked well; there was no one who seemed miscast although there were characters who didn’t seem to have much point other than to give members of the Company employment – I assume they have better parts in the two other plays.

The staging was simple and I liked the central staircase and gate arrangement.  It was effective at conveying the different venues for the action and allowed the play to take centre stage.

Overall, I really enjoyed this play and plan to try to see it again towards the end of its run to dispel the winter gloom.

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The Once and Future King – T H White

This book is all 5 of TH White’s King Arthur books brought together in one volume, first published in 1958.  I think it’s important to keep in mind the date it was first published and the fact most of it was written in the run up to WWII as it helps to understand the context in which it was written.

My Mum bought me the first book in the series when I was about 8 or 9 and I never past the first couple of chapters, despite it being the book the Disney film was based on.  I think Wart seemed like a drip and I struggled with some of the concepts.

However, in the here and now, I was much more receptive to it and more tolerant of the characters foibles.  Also, having been to see the RSCs version of Morte d’Arthur a year or so ago, I was interested in learning more about the Arthurian legend but put off by the idea of struggling with Malory’s early English.

I loved the story of Arthur growing into his role as King, making mistakes but willing to learn and to listen.  I enjoyed finding out more about the  Knights of the Round Table and their trials, successes and struggles.  There was a good mix of funny, heroic and sad amongst them.

The book was easy to read and kept my interest through the 812 pages but at the end I felt dispirited.  The author of the afterword, Sylvia Townsend Walker, talks about the Book of Merlyn as an attempt to find an antidote to war yet the book concludes that despite the best efforts of some individuals the human race is incapable of achieving this; that there will always be people who feel a hatred of something or someone that propels them to destroy.

Overall, I think this book says a lot about the human condition and the different and varied facets our our personalities.  It shows that there is good and bad in all of us and that it is a struggle to keep on the straight and narrow when life strews our paths with trials and temptations.

Would I recommend this book?  On balance I think yes.  But with the proviso that you have plenty of cheerful things organised between chapters and books!

Paramour – Cirque du Soleil

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while – I actually went to see it whilst in New York at the end of August – but somehow more recent things got in the way.

This was my first experience of Cirque du Soleil and although I knew they do aerial acrobatics I didn’t know what to expect.

Apparently, this is the first production where Cirque du Soleil have tried to create a blend of musical with circus skills so if you’ve seen one of their productions before I think you would find this different.

I thought the story was a nice simple one; girl loves boy but is made into a star by a movie mogul who is also in love with her but in the end she tries to run away with the boy and neither man ends up with her.

The bar and the movie setting lent themselves to what Cirque du Soleil are reknown for and the chase scene at the end was a slapstick trampolining/chase around the skyline of New York in the best Keystone Cop style.

The best part of the circus skills on display was aerial ballet showing Indigo, the heroine, torn between her love for the two men.  This was graceful., elegant and moving to watch.

The singing and speaking were okay but I’m not sure they added to the story or the quality of the production.  It would have been more powerful to treat the story as a ballet without words and to do more of what Cirque du Soleil are known for.  I was a little disappointed by the amount of circus skills on display as I’d expected more; although what there was, was good.

On balance I would like to see a more traditional Cirque du Soleil production to compare this one to and, although I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t rush back to see it again.

King Lear – RSC Stratford upon Avon

I was a bit apprehensive about seeing this production after seeing Cymbeline, which is largely the same cast but I needn’t have worried.  This is a much better production and the actors were, mostly, audible.

I have to start by saying this is one of my favourite plays, despite having studied it for A-level English Lit.  I can still remember huge chunks of the script, which might account for my being able to hear it better, and I think the stories sizzle along and keep the audience interested.  I have also seen the play twice in 8 days – with different groups of friends.

Greg Doran is, in my opinion, one the best Theatre Directors in the UK.  His productions are almost always good and unfailingly interesting and I liked the way he brought out facets of character in Lear’s daughters and Gloucester’s sons that reflected their father’s personalities.

Antony Sher was a good Lear; credible as a King with an uncertain and changeable temper, as an man who wants to cast aside responsibility and as a confused old man.  I thought his curses against Cordelia could have more angry and vitriolic.  Instead they came across as stage managed anger, which doesn’t fit the idea that Cordelia is his beloved child.

Natalie Simpson did a good job as Cordelia in the first half and at the end.  For once Cordelia didn’t come across as such a drip but as someone who had principles and could stand up for herself.  Oddly, having said that, she was weakest as Cordelia, General of the French army where I didn’t think she was martial or authoritative enough.

The best bits of casting, for me, was the Gloucester family.  David Troughton was excellent as Earl of Gloucester, totally credible as father of Edmund and Edgar, as a bustling courtier and as the broken blinded outcast.  We don’t see him on stage often enough.

Paapa Essiedu was a suitably matter of fact Edgar sharing his thoughts with the audience and drawing us into his plots.  Having seen him I regret not having gone to see him in Hamlet earlier in the year.

I enjoyed seeing Oliver Johnson playing one of the good guys as much as I enjoyed his playing Iachimo in Cymbeline.  I thought he showed the anguish of a son watching his father suffer and the pain of watching evil thrive exceptionally well.

In terms of the stage setting I loved the mostly empty stage and minimalist props.  The storm scene was well done with the moving fabric suggesting the wind and the lighting effects making a brilliant rain storm.

My least favourite bit – both in the setting and the execution – was Gloucester having his eyes put out.  It was obvious as soon as the perspex box came up through the stage that there was going to be splatter effects and I think being able to anticipate it took away some of the shock of the scene.  And I think stamping on an eyeball was a bit childish and unnecessary.

Overall, a much better experience than Cymbeline and I enjoyed this version of the play.