A Museum in Baghdad – Hannah Khalil for RSC and Royal Lyceum Theatre

I don’t quite know where to start writing this review, in part because I was coming down with a head cold the day we went to see the play and in part because I really don’t know what I think of the play.

With this last set of RSC tickets I have been going to the theatre on a Thursday evening; it’s one of the joys of no longer working full time that you can go to distant theatres mid-week – better ticket availability at cheaper cost, easier to book tables at nice restaurants and a slightly different audience.

What I hadn’t anticipated was audience demand on a rainy Thursday, close to Christmas, for a new play about a relatively unknown subject. Or distinct lack of demand!

I have never been in a theatre in Stratford with so few people in it before. My estimate is around 50 people in the Swan and probably around 45 came back after the interval! It was a slightly unnerving experience and it felt quite exposing; with so few people to act to, would the actors have higher awareness of our individual reactions?

The play was about The Iraq Museum in Baghdad and set in 2 eras; 1926 when Gertrude Bell was setting up the museum and preparing it to open and 2006 when Ghalia Hussein was trying to recover looted artefacts and reopen the museum.

Both eras were depicted on stage at the same time with the stage setting the same for both. The staging worked well. It looked like a functional museum office from the 20s as well as after a period of conflict and looting. There were no faffy scenery changes and nothing to get in the way of the acting.

The quality of the acting from Emma Fielding, as Gertrude Bell, Rasoul Saghir, as a world-weary Abu Zaman, and Houda Echouafni, as Layla Hassan, was good.

At the interval I was confused. What was the play about? Why were certain parts being repeated? Who was the goddess and what did she represent? I can understand why people might have given up on the play and just gone home. Not feeling very well I could have easily been persuaded to do the same. Living with an accountant who wants his money’s worth, this was never going to happen and I’m pleased it didn’t. Whilst the play is never going to be a favourite I’m glad I saw its resolution.

Ultimately, the play asks questions about what nationhood means. Does evolution of the state really works or is revolution necessary to sweep away old ideas? Why are artefacts seen as so important and why do people work so hard to preserve them? Who are museums for? Why do we feel a need to preserve an extinct culture? And, ultimately, shouldn’t we spend all our time and effort on preserving lives?

Do I know really what the play was about? No. Did I enjoy it? Not really. Would I go see the play again? No. If I’d known when I booked tickets what I know now about the play I wouldn’t have booked them. Am I pleased I did go to see it? Yes…sort of. It does me good to see something so different once in a while.

King John – Shakespeare – directed by Eleanor Rhode for RSC

We last saw this play in 2006, when it was set more or less in period and delivered fairly straight.

This version was definitely different, worked in some parts and confused and distracted in others.

The different bits that worked well were Rosie Sheehy playing King John – you forgot that she was a woman most of the time – and Katherine Pearce who was a brilliant manipulative and cynical Cardinal.

The first half, set in the 1960s worked well. I enjoyed the colour, the costumes and the music. And then, in the second half it didn’t seem to know which era it was set in and at the end seemed to have reverted well into the past. Confusing! I have a view that if you’re setting something in a recognisable time or location you need to stick to it or it’s distracting.

Another distracting thing was King John wearing a frock in one scene. Distracting in part because it reminded us that King John was being played by a woman, who up until that point had mainly worn trouser suits. Also, distracting because of the fabric it was made from: it had a fabulous shimmering almost liquid quality to it and I got side-tracked watch it move, making me lose my way in the plot a little.

The food fight at the wedding scene was fun. I liked that King John was holding a cake that looked destined for someone’s face and yet she just carefully put it back onto the table. On the other hand I was slightly appalled by the fact that the foil balloons spelling out “Just Married” were being popped to spell “Just Die”. I get the point being made but it doesn’t seem ecologically sound to have to keep using more and more plastic foil. I’m hoping the bangs came from elsewhere and the intact balloons were smuggled off-stage for reuse.

My final grump is the diction of the actors during the argument/fight scenes. Their lines were quite hard to hear and keep up with. Slowing it down by even half a beat would have made a huge difference to the clarity.

I can’t say I loved either this play or this production. I’m pleased I went to see it though; it reminded me that good acting can make you forget who is playing a part and that humour and laughter can be found in even grim stories.

Venice Preserved by Thomas Otway at RSC

I wasn’t at all sure what to expect from this performance. I knew it had received some good reviews but I haven’t been very well and couldn’t be bothered to read them or much of the blurb I’ve received from RSC by email.

The play is a restoration tragedy written in the late 17th century at a time of political uncertainty and upheaval. I can understand why the RSC thought it might be a good time to stage it!

The plot isn’t particularly complicated:

  • Girl weds man her father disapproves of
  • They live happily for 3 years when everything goes wrong and they lose everything
  • Man asks father for help and is refused
  • In his anger man joins group of malcontents threatening to overthrow the senate, handing over his wife as surety for his untried loyalty
  • Wife’s jailer tries to rape wife
  • Man and wife turn states evidence on promise of clemency from senate
  • Senate break their promise and execute man and his friends
  • Wife is left alone to go mad and die

I liked the staging and the costumes for this production. The decaying grandeur of the Venice I remember visiting in my teens was well conjured up with the set: I kept expecting bits to drop off the screen/mosaic that hung from the musician’s gallery.

The costumes were a great evocation of the 1980s. At the beginning, when people were rushing around the stage like commuters in the rain, my heart skipped at the remembered sense of anticipation and excitement when I caught a glimpse of someone dressed exactly like a forgotten crush from my late teenage years. At Aquilina’s nightclub I could pick out the clothes in styles I wore back in those times.

Weaving memories into the fabric of the play certainly helped me to feel that this play was set in familiar territory; a place I knew and could understand.

The first revelation in the acting department was Les Dennis. I expected that the cheesy game show host persona would intrude whilst watching him in this play. Actually, it was until there was a pause just after he’d left the stage that the thought pinged into my head “oh, that was Les Dennis”. Hat’s off to him for having reinvented himself.

Jodie McNee, as Belvidera, and Michael Grady-Hall, as Jaffeir, both acted their roles well. You understood the depth of love they felt and the mixed joy, angst and pain it caused. My problem is that whilst I understood this depth I didn’t feel it was for each other. For all the physical contact they had with each other there was just no spark between them, no sense of deep connection.

John Hodgkinson and Natalie Dew seemed to be having great fun with their parts providing the light relief to the general gloom of the play.

Did I leave really caring about the fate of the characters in the play? No. But I did come away thinking about what it says about where we, the UK, is as a political nation right now. There is a quote in the programme that says “the only truly successful way to escape disillusion during the civil wars was to get killed in them”. I’m not advocating death but I do think we’re a nation riven apart, will disillusionment on all sides and a sense the main political parties will do what is expedient to keep power. What is the right thing? Who is prepared to do it? Who knows?

The Provoked Wife by John Vanbrugh at the RSC

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a play written by the architect responsible for Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. The blurb from the RSC suggested it would be funny and, listening to Jonathan Slinger and Rufus Hound talk about it, it sounded as though the actors were enjoying it.

In some respects this is a typical restoration farce: you can tell a lot about the characters from their names. The main protagonists are Sir John Brute, his wife Lady Brute, Constant the would-be lover of Lady Brute, his friend Heartfree and Lady Fancyfull.

It is, essentially, the story of the Brute’s loveless marriage and ends with the situation unresolved. This makes it sound grim, and the abusive attitude of Sir John to his wife makes for an uncomfortable underlying theme, although there are a lot of laughs on the journey.

The women were particularly funny and well played by Alexandra Gilbreath, Caroline Quentin, Natalie Dew and Sarah Twomey. I always forget what good comic actors Gilbreath and Quentin are and in this production they seem to enjoy working together. My partner particularly enjoyed being flirted with by Lady Brute!

Of the male actors I thought Jonathan Slinger played a good Sir John. Most recently we’ve mainly seen him in more serious roles and I’d forgotten that he also does comedy well. John Hodgkinson was also good as Heartfree, with most of the best one-liners. Rufus Hound on the other hand was a bit disappointingly wooden. He just didn’t seem to inhabit his character, unlike when he played Sancho Panza, and at no point did I believe he was in love with Lady Brute.

There were also a number of named parts in the play who seemed a bit surplus to requirements. It almost felt as though their parts had been cut to the point there was little point to them. They were a short interruption into the main storyline and could have been dispensed with. Weird!#

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the play but I think that the fact I had the time to be interested in and notice the fabrics of the costumes and how they were made tells you how little impact it made on me.

Sorry Sir John Vanbrugh, your plays may have been very popular when they were first produced, but I think you were a better architect than playwright!

The Merry Wives of Windsor – Fiona Laird for RSC

Shakespeare twice in one week! And both of them laugh-out-loud funny, leaving me with an aching face.

We haven’t seen Merry Wives for ages – December 2012 in fact – and whilst I usually enjoy it I didn’t expect this version to be as funny as it was.  Think of it as a 17th century pantomime with great word-play, plenty of slapstick and lots of fun being had by the actors.

I certainly never expected audience participation singing Guide Me Oh Thou Great Redeemer!

The stand out performances were, for me, Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingley as the titular Merry Wives, David Troughton, who was a brilliant Falstaff and Katy Brittain as the Hostess of the Garter.  Their exaggerated, stereotype characters were much more believable than the 2-dimensional figures they can sometimes be.

There were nice subtle touches too; Charlotte Josephine’s transformation from rough, loutish Bardolph to a polished young woman with a career in particular.

The staging was a bit faffy in some ways with the skeleton outlines of Dr Caius’ house and The Garter dominating the stage, rotating periodically and bit sliding out.  There also seemed to be  a lot of furniture moving.  I think some of it was unnecessary and the idea of moving from place to place could have been suggested in other ways.

That said, there were some really nice touches like the Visit Britain sign in the window of The Garter and the parking sign outside Dr Caius’ house.

The costumes were excellent; a mix of modern and Elizabethan dress.  The “types” were easily identifiable by their clothes.  David Troughton in his tennis whites and then striped blazer were particularly funny, especially once the whites had been through the wheely bin.

Some of the visual humour and gags based on what’s happening in the world were very funny but, I think, don’t translate to the written page.

I also really liked the way this version of the play ends.  Sometimes the ending feels spiteful and is an uncomfortable end to a comedy.  In this version Falstaff gets his comeuppance but it is done with sympathy and not spite, leaving everyone in a jolly mood to go home.

I thoroughly enjoyed this play and I’d recommend going to see it.

Click here to find out more about RSC and to book tickets

Click here to find out more about the plot of the play

Romeo & Juliet directed by Erica Whyman for RSC

It’s just over a fortnight since we went to see this play and I’ve been chewing over how I feel about it and not able to decide so this review might be a bit fractured and incoherent.

The first thing that I think has set me off-balance is that we went to see it on a Monday evening rather than out usual Saturday.  This completely changes the audience demographic from “people who go to the theatre” and weekend tourists to an audience mainly made up of school parties.

I think the audience make-up reminded me just how far away I am in age from the central characters and from remembering the intense pain and joy of first love; my life experience tells me that one tends to grow out of the person you fall in love with at sixteen as both of you mature and start looking for different things from life.  I don’t mean this to sound cynical, it’s just that this is how it was for me and most of my school friends.

I thought Erica Whyman’s take on the play worked; I can see the parallels with our modern society and increasing knife carrying and stabbings. I also liked the way some traditionally male parts were played by women…although the lady sitting next to me was tutting about it!

Of these I thought Beth Cordingly was excellent as Escalus.  When I saw she was playing the part I doubted she had the gravitas and authority to pull it off.  I am happy to eat my words and confirm she had both.

I liked the idea of Charlotte Josephine’s Mercutio although I think she needs clearer diction and to spit more venom into her “curse on both your houses” speech.

Both Lady Capulet and Lady Montague need to sharpen up their diction too.  It shouldn’t be difficult to hear what people are saying when you’re sitting in row B of the stalls.

I also think all four of the elder Capulets and Montagues need to show more antagonism and hatred to one another.  Their feud is, after all, the underlying raft of the main storyline.

Both Bally Gill, as Romeo, and Karen Fishwick, as Juliet, were excellent and believable as the star-crossed lovers.  The girls in the school parties were entranced by their scenes.  (The boys were equally interested in the macho-posturing fights of the earlier scenes.)

On the whole I liked the staging; clean and simple without too much getting in the way.  The cube that revolved to become different things worked well, with one exception.  The exception was when it was used as Juliet’s tomb.  At this point its place at the back of the stage made it difficult to see what was happening and it removed us, the audience, from the intimacy of the scene.

When I came out of the theatre I was pretty certain that I would never book tickets for a mid-week performance again.  On reflection I think I might; there was a different audience response from what we would normally see on a Saturday evening, it has made me think more and I think it was good for us to be shaken out of our comfortable Stratford routine.

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.

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

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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

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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