Measure for Measure – Shakespeare at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

I’m not quite sure why we decided to book tickets for this production as we went thinking we didn’t like the play and, despite the excellent reviews, no expectations of an enjoyable evening.

Still, money was spent on tickets so along we went…and I’m so glad we did.

The last time we saw this play was 2003, in the middle of the Complete Works festival/programme sandwiched between some more frivolous and fun productions. It was in the old Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which was a more traditional stage and so you watched the play rather than being engaged with it.

This production was set in 1900s Vienna and brought it within a period of moral ambiguity we have some resonance with. And this is a morally ambiguous play. There are no clear goodies or baddies here.

Lucy Phelps, Sandy Grierson and Antony Byrne were excellent as Isabella, Angelo and Duke of Vienna. You could understand why Angelo and the Duke would fall in love with Isabella and empathise with her anguish trying to do the right thing for her and her doomed brother.

The set worked to emphasise the ambiguity too, with mirrors along the back of the stage that sometimes reflected back and at others could be seen through.

The humour was provided by Lucio, who said what he thought people wanted to hear, Elbow the constable with his malapropisms and the bawdy house scenes. I don’t know the play well enough but I suspect some of their sub-plot stories had been trimmed from the play to arrive at the compact production we saw.

My one niggle with the production was some of the diction. When actors were turned away from me I struggled to hear the lower pitched voices. This may be because I’m more used to the smaller Swan Theatre and it’s acoustics. It may be, in part, due to problems with my left ear but…

Overall, I loved this version of the play. I’d go and see it again if I get the chance. And I recommend anyone who wants a play that makes them think and provokes discussion go see it.

 

Tartuffe, directed by Iqbal Khan for RSC

I knew of Tartuffe before seeing this play but I’ve never seen it performed before and I don’t know the text so this theatre trip was a bit of an adventure.  I wasn’t sure what to expect although I knew it had been given an update by Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto.

Moliere’s original was about poking fun at, and satirising, “directeurs de conscience” in 17th century France.  These Catholic lay preachers exerted high levels of influence on the individuals they battened onto and not all of them were genuinely pious, religious or working in the best interests of their “clients”.

The play is about exposing the hypocrisy of the people who exploit the tenets and beliefs of devout people.

This RSC version has been transported to Birmingham and to a family of Pakistani Muslims.  The father, Iqbal, meets Tartuffe at the mosque, believes him to be a holy man and brings him home.

The rest of the family – children Damee and Mariam, wife Amira, friend Khalil and cleaner Darina – can see through Tartuffe but Iqbal continues to believe and to retreat into more traditional beliefs. The crux comes when Iqbal expects Mariam to break off her engagement to the man she loves and marry Tartuffe, when he signs away the family home and business to Tartuffe and when Tartuffe makes it clear to Amira that he wants her.

Darina, the main narrator, helps Amira devise a way out and Tartuffe is exposed as a con man.

The play starts with a bang – literally – as Darina explodes onto the stage listening to heavy metal music “through her headphones” and starts explaining what’s happening. It’s funny from the beginning and the audience continued laughing throughout the play.

There is some brilliant wordplay between characters and during the rap interludes.

I think that the underlying story has enough credibility for the audience to understand that it is universal. It doesn’t matter whether the family are Muslim, Catholic, Survivalists, wedded to the tenets of Napoleon Hill or another business guru, etc, etc, etc, the potential is there for an unscrupulous hustler to take advantage of a guileless follower.

I think the play also reflected how, in a world that has changed so much during their lifetime, older people can feel the need to find something that gives them a sense of certainty they lost when their generation became “the grown ups”.

On the whole I think the stage set worked well, although I am puzzled as to why some of the furniture needed to be moved around on Scalextric-style pegs in slots.  It was slightly distracting from the play trying to work out the why!

I really liked Michelle Bonnard as Darina, Raj Bajaj as Damee and Zainab Hasan as Mariam.  They inhabited their roles well.  I didn’t think anyone was miscast and, given some of my recent rants, everyone was audible.

Overall, a really fun evening at the theatre with an underlying message that kept us discussing it, on and off, all the way home from Stratford to Yorkshire.

Click here to find out Iqbal Khan’s view of the play

Click here for the What’s On Stage review

Macbeth – directed by Polly Findlay for RSC

Macbeth, my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays and the one where I feel I haven’t seen a truly memorable production yet.

I have been looking forward to seeing this production even though the reviews in the papers haven’t been all that great; I like Polly Findlay as a director, I think Christopher Eccleston is an interesting actor and I’ve only ever seen Niamh Cusack in a read-through production before.

On the whole the stage set worked well.  It was adaptable and not too faffy.  I found the clock counting down the minutes of Macbeth’s reign a bit distracting but I really liked the Porter resetting it at the end.  I found the overhead, behind-the-perspex bit of the set way too distracting.  A couple of times I noticed that I’d missed bits because I was trying to work out who was up there and what was happening.  I feel this bit needs to be more static.

One thing I wasn’t looking forward to, having read a coupe of reviews, was the fact that Findlay has done quite a lot of playing around with the text.  As someone who knows the text reasonably well I though it might be distracting when familiar lines didn’t follow on from each other.  It wasn’t and I stopped noticing very quickly as I was drawn into the action.

Christopher Eccleston made a good Macbeth.  He was credible as soldier, insecure King and madman.  The only bit that didn’t work for me was the invisible dagger scene where I didn’t feel Macbeth was shocked to see this dagger floating in midair.

Despite the reviews, I thought Niamh Cusack was a good Lady Macbeth; an ambitious woman who wants the status promised by the weird sisters and is prepared to take the necessary steps to achieve her ends.  I thought Cusack did a good job of showing what happens to people who are too shallow to consider the consequences of their ambition and who end up falling to pieces.

That said, I didn’t think Eccleston and Cusack were particularly believable as a couple, let alone a couple who love are supposed to love each other.

It was an interesting idea to use children to play the Weird Sisters/Witches.  They looked innocent and harmless and yet, with the way they played with their dolls, they were creepy; almost like the children in horror stories who turn out to be psychopathic mass murderers!  Again, one slight distraction in that towards the end of the play, one of the girls was losing her slipper sock and I was distracted by the thought she might slip and hurt herself.  It sounds silly but costumes really shouldn’t be a distraction to the audience.

Michael Hodgson did a great job as a creepy Porter/Satan.  He was on stage all the way through the play, keeping tally of the murders and marking the countdown to Macbeth’s fall.  He didn’t appear very drunk when he delivered the knocking at the door scene and the humour was played down.  I thought this worked well for this production but I feel that if you’re playing down the humour you may as well cut the effects of alcohol section; I don’t think most people in the audience noticed it.

The end of the play and the crowning of Malcolm worked really well and I loved the way Fleance was woven into it.

The evening ended very abruptly however, with only one curtain call.  The play was very well received by the audience and I don’t think it is unreasonable for the actors to make more than one appearance to make their bow, particularly as the play finished before 10pm.  It felt a little mean and discourteous of the cast to not allow the audience to show their appreciation of the play.

Overall, I still don’t think I’ve found my definitive Macbeth but I do think I have found a measuring stick for other productions to live up to.

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich – RSC

My first trip to the theatre in what seems like forever and the first production I’ve seen of the RSC Spring/Summer season.

The play is a comedy from around 1700 and was originally called The Beau Defeated and is about women making their own choices and wielding their own power. The play is written by Mary Rix, an almost forgotten contemporary of Aphra Benn.  In fact she is so forgotten that I can’t find any more information about her on-line so am relying on the programme notes.

Mrs Rich is wealthy but wants to improve her social standing.  Lady Landsworth has social standing but wants love.  Sir John Roverhead, Mrs Trickwell and Lady La Basset have social standing but want money.  Sir John, Mrs Trickwell and Lady La Basset think they are using Mrs Rich.  Mrs Rich knows she is being used and is allowing it to go on for her own ends.  The play ends with Mrs Rich having married a title and Lady Landsworth having found her love.

I loved the costumes designs for the play.  They immediately tell you what you need to know about the character without anyone having to spell it out.  The set design also did a great job of setting the scene too – simply and without too much faffing.

Sophie Stanton was a wonderful Mrs Rich; a restoration version of Hyacinth Bucket.  She showed her character as being both shrewd and human.

Leo Wringer and Amanda Hadingue were also well cast as the funny country bumpkins Elder Carimont and Toni, a hard act to pull off as they were almost always overshadowed by the gorgeous Lossie and Theia, Elder Carimont’s dogs!

I can’t think of anything I particularly disliked or didn’t enjoy about the play, which I think says quite a lot about it; on the whole is washed over me rather than really engaging me.  It has a good point to make about ambition being a good thing for women to have and it made that point, it just doesn’t really have anything in it that lingers in the imagination and nags to be brought out and chewed over.

If you like a colourful, fun and enjoyable night out at the theatre go to see it.  If you like something to make you think this probably isn’t for you.

But well done to the RSC for rescuing more playwrites from oblivion.  We need more Companies to do this.

Click here to find out what’s on at RSC

 

Twelfth Night – RSC

I’ve been looking forward to seeing this for ages – I bought the tickets  in the summer – and I really liked the idea of seeing Twelfth Night on twelfth night.  I enjoy the play, or most of it and I was intrigued at the idea of Vyvyan Basterd playing Malvolio, having not, at that stage, seen Ade Edmondson playing it straight in Bancroft.

The set and setting was what I’ve come to expect from a Christopher Luscombe directed play at RSC; lush Victorian/Edwardian country house.  It looked lovely but was a bit faffy when scenery needed changing and there was a pause every time Orsino’s decadent Turkish setting needed to slide backwards to make room for Olivia’s conservatory or drawing-room to swing forwards.  Good idea but didn’t quite work.

The cast were good, if not outstanding.  I never quite believed Kara Tointon’s Olivia was smitten by Cesario/Viola but it didn’t distract from the story. Antonio’s love for Sebastian was more believable.  Dinita Gohil and Esh Alladi were good as Viola and Sebastian.

I liked the fact that Sir Toby was portrayed with an edge of malice to both his duping of Sir Andrew and the revenge he exacts on Malvolio for trying to curb his excesses.  It made more sense of his and Maria’s treatment of Malvolio and the way they run off together.

I was disappointed by Vivien Parry as Maria.  I found her difficult to hear even when she was towards the front of the stage.  She was much better in A Christmas Carol.

Michael Cochrane acted Sir Andrew Aguecheek well but, without being too rude, he looked too old for the part.  A Sir Andrew of that age would have been duped out of his fortune well before Sir Toby got his hands on him.

So, I guess the question raised by my comment at the beginning of this article is how well did Adrian Edmondson do?  My answer would have to be pretty well!  He was stately and on his dignity at the beginning, believable when he is reading the letter purporting to come from Olivia and revengeful when he finds out about the trick that has been played on him.  He didn’t light up the stage in the same way John Lithgow did when he played the role (my favourite Malvolio to date); I think this was mainly down to the scene where he approaches Olivia cross-gartered and smiling, which wasn’t quite grotesque enough.  I would be interested to see him in other roles.

Who’d have thought in the early 1980s that Vyvyan and Theophilus P Wildebeeste would turn into serious actors!

Overall this was a fun, enjoyable evening at the theatre and I’d recommend you see it if you get the chance – there’s a live screening on 14/02, which broadens your choices.

Click to find out more about the live screening

Click to find out more about RSC

 

Imperium Parts I & II – based on the books by Robert Harris and adapted by Mike Poulton for RSC

A long title for today’s post and a very long day driving down to Stratford, watching two plays in a day and driving back again!

I haven’t read any of the three books these plays are based on although I have read some of Robert Harris’ books and have one sitting in my pile of books to read. I also don’t know that much about ancient Rome, other than what I’ve learned from seeing Shakespeare’s Roman plays, so this felt like an adventure into the unknown.

Rather than being two definite plays these are more like two lots of three “playlets” each covering a chapter in the life of Cicero.

The first play starts with Cicero coming to power as Consul, unusual in that he is a self-made man, and trying to reinstil the old values of the Republic into the populace. Julius Caesar, Catiline and Crassus are plotting against him.

The second segment of play I covers Catiline’s uprising and Cicero’s handling of the crisis, ending with Cicero passing death sentence on some of the conspirators but sparing Caesar.

The final segment is entitled Clodius. Clodius is a friend of Cicero who commits an act of sacrilege against the Vestal Virgins. Knowing him to be guilty Cicero refuses to defend him. He manages to get acquitted and swears revenge on Cicero.  Cicero is then inveigled into defending Hybrida and ends up being accused himself.  Cicero is forced to seek Caesar’s protection.

Play II covers the more familiar territory of Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavian as seen in Shakespeare’s plays Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, but seen from the perspective of Cicero whose star is fading but who is still a pawn in the power politics of the era.

I enjoyed the plays and learning something more about ancient Rome; I shall need to look out a book on the Roman Empire, if anyone can recommend one.

I thought Richard McCabe did an amazing job of portraying Cicero from new Consul to old relic on the sidelines.  He must have been exhausted by the end of the day having been in pretty well every scene of the two plays.

Peter De Jersey did a good job a Caesar, seemingly rational with bits of megalomania peeping out in the early stages.

Joe Dixon was a bit bonkers in play I as Catiline – some definite scenery chewing going on! – but made an interesting Mark Antony in play II.

I thought the women actors were woefully under used.  All the female parts were very small and either harpies or floozies.  I know ancient Rome was a male dominated society but there are enough examples of women wielding high levels of influence and power in this period to have given an actor of the stature of Siobhan Redmond something more to do!

I loved the stage set for the plays.  It was simple, dramatic and flexible.  It was also slightly disconcerting to have no actual stage and to have to remember to keep your feet tucked in so you didn’t trip up an actor as they walked past.

One thing I wasn’t sure about was the globe hung above the stage. I guess the colour changes represented the changing influences of the planets but it wasn’t obvious and sometimes the patterns playing on its surface were a distraction.  The small boy sitting next to me during the second play was clearly confused by it and kept asking his Dad what it was for.  Dad didn’t have an answer.

I also thought the costume department did a great job.  Sitting so close to the front we got a close up of the level of detail that went into each costume and into making each character look different.

And, as an extra bonus, the lovely staff of the RSC had spotted that it was the 100th performance we had attended and stood us a drink.  Thank you.

Overall, I’m pleased we went to see these two plays.  It will be a long time before we see two plays in one day again – it will take a while for my bum to recover! I learned something about ancient Rome.  And these plays won’t head onto my “must see if they ever do them again” list.

Click here to find out what else is on at RSC

Click here to find out more about Robert Harris and his books

 

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens, adapted for RSC by David Edgar

This early in December I’m still a bit bah humbug about Christmas so I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to book tickets for A Christmas Carol on 2nd December but I’m so pleased I did.

The play starts with Charles Dickens and his friend and editor, John Forster discussing a tract Dickens has written on the iniquities of child labour.  Forster is telling Dickens that sugar-coated pills work better as a way to bring social injustices to people’s attention at Christmas.  So, begins the telling of the famous story.

I thought Phil Davis was an excellent Scrooge and, as he travelled back in time with the Ghost of Christmas Past, I loved the was he and younger versions of Scrooge interchanged with each other.

The plot moved along at a good pace without being too fast and bits of the story that often get missed out, like the Fezziwigs, got included.  There was also time to add in extra bits about the horrible plight of child labourers.

I thought the costumes were amazing; Jacob Marley’s ghost was particularly effective and I loved the garish, exuberant checks worn by most of the men in the cast.

The set overall was effective; it created an impression of the edges of poverty in London.  However, it didn’t quite hang together for me.  The towering backdrop of the warehouse front distracted from the human sized props on the stage, especially during the complicated door sequences in Mr Scrooge’s office.  It could almost have done with the top half being covered to focus the viewpoint on the stage.  And the doors got in the way of the action a bit.  I understand, from the gentleman sitting next to us, that how the scenery is used has already changed from the beginning of the week. I suspect it will change again before the end of the run.

Another part I’m not sure about is the section with Ignorance and Want.  I know that the book was written, in part, as a response to child labour.  Perhaps, in our current society, rather than highlighting child labour, the focus could have been directed at child poverty or poverty in general to remind people that although we live in a different world there are still social injustices to be fought.

There was plenty of light and shade in the production –  the dark parts of Scrooge’s story interwoven with humour, song and dancing – which dissolved some of my bah humbug feeling and has left me humming Christmas Carols.  And, of course, the story has the required happy ending.

Would I go and see it again?  Yes; although I wouldn’t rush back or make a special journey, if I find myself in Stratford and it is still showing I will go again.

Click here to find out more about Dickens’ book

Dido, Queen of Carthage by Christopher Marlowe at RSC

I had no idea what to expect from this play.  I’d vaguely heard of Dido, mainly through a book by Joan Aiken I read as a child.  I knew that Carthage was in what is now Tunisia but had no idea that the Carthaginians are the same people referred to as Phoenicians. Or that Hannibal, who invaded Italy with his elephants, was a descendant of Dido’s brother.

Essentially the plot is that the goddess Venus is complaining that Jupiter is neglecting their son Aeneas who has been caught in a storm on the way from Troy to Italy.  Jupiter allows Aeneas to land on the shore of Carthage where he meets Dido, the queen.  Dido and Aeneas fall in love and Dido tries to prevent him leaving to complete his mission to Italy.  Hermes informs Aeneas that he must leave and fulfil his destiny in Italy and when he leaves Dido burns everything that reminds her of him and kills herself.

Sandy Grierson, who plays Aeneas, seems to be the go-to lead for Christopher Marlowe plays at the RSC at the moment.  He was an excellent Doctor Faustus last year and plays an interesting Aeneas this year.  He is credible as a General and as a man full of self-doubt.  He was also believable as a man in love with a beautiful Queen who can’t quite belive his luck.  A long way from the ethereal Ariel he played back in 2012.

I thought Chipo Chung was an elegant, poised and beautiful Dido.  I thought in the early part of the play she was excellent as a wise and thoughtful ruler.  The problem was that her strength of character in the early part of the play made it difficult to believe she would just crumble when Aeneas left.  This is probably my modern sensibilities but I think she would probably have made plans to follow him rather than rend and tear everything that reminded her of him! Or she might have stabbed him so he couldn’t leave rather than kill herself because he’d gone.

Overall, I enjoyed the play.  I enjoyed the intimacy you get at The Swan where you’re never too far from the action. And I’d certainly go see another production to have something to compare this one to.

Salome – Oscar Wilde – Directed by Owen Horsley for RSC

I’m really not sure where to start writing this week’s blog.  My partner came out of the theatre saying he didn’t understand the point of Salome being played by a man.  My question was more fundamental; I didn’t get the point of the play!

I don’t think this is particularly a problem with the play.  I think it’s mostly about me and the fact that I’m emotionally knackered with other stuff going on in my life just now.  I just don’t think I had the capacity to engage with what was happening on the stage.

I think this was a useful reminder to me that whatever we watch, read or listen to there needs to be a level of emotional engagement with it for us to either “get it” or reject it.  Salome simply washed over me.

Thinking back over the production I recognise that the acting was good.  Matthew Pidgeon was good as Herod; drunk as a skunk and fascinated by his step-daughter in the early parts of the play and rapidly sobered by the horrific demands of the step-daughter for Iokanaan’s head.

Matthew Tennyson was interesting as Salome; an air of innocence on the cusp of adulthood ripening to thwarted, manipulative lust during the dance.

The words of the play are beautifully poetic and evocative.  At some point, when I can uncover the Complete Oscar Wilde book and a Bible from my piles of books, I’d like to go back to the sources and reflect on how Wilde draws from the Bible and how Owen Horsley draws on both for his production.

In the meantime, note to self; spend some time catching up with myself so next time I’m at the theatre I’m in the right frame of mind!

Click here to find out more about RSC production of Salome

Vice Versa – Plautus via Phil Porter for RSC

A new play by Phil Porter based on the Roman comedies by Plautus with the snappy subtitle of “The decline & fall of General Braggadocio at the hands of his canny servant Dexter & Terence the monkey”!

Knowing the plot wouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of this farce and is, more or less; General Braggadocio has taken Voluptua as his prisoner and made her his concubine.  She is really in love with Valentin, who has left Greece and is staying with the General’s neighbour to find a way to rescue her.  Valentin’s servant, Dexter, has also been kidnapped and enslaved by Braggadocio.  Dexter plans to rescue herself, Voluptua and Valentin by getting Voluptua to pretend to have a twin sister who is madly in love with the General.  After various twists and turns the three escape and Braggadocio is left broke and thwarted.

I always enjoy productions in the Swan when the cast start interacting with the audience before the play starts.  This one started with a con-merchant “selling” gold from inside his coat, a politician handing out leaflets and a sketch artist drawing members of the audience.  It was somehow inevitable that Michael would end up being one of the people being sketched and he is now the proud (?) possessor of a picture of Michelangelo’s David with his head on it, signed by Pysipos!

The play started with a colourful, musical pageant onto stage and set the scene well for what followed.

Felix Hayes was a wonderfully over the top Braggadocio, Sophia Nomvete an excellent Dexter and Geoffrey Lumb a remarkably dim Valentin.

The staging was reasonably simple without any of the props intruding on the action, which is unusual for a farce, and set the scene well.

The most disconcerting part of the play was Kim Hartman as Climax.  She has aged very well and it’s really hard to not still see her as Helga in ‘Allo ‘Allo.  It must be frustrating for her but she is so recognisable…and I wish I’d aged as well as her!

All in all I would say that this play is fun, frivolous and funny.  And fairly forgettable.  I would see it again.  And it would make me laugh all over again.  But it isn’t a play to make you think or ponder.

Click here for link to RSC “about the play”

Click here to find out more about Plautus