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.

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!

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

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


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


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

Snow in Midsummer – directed by Justin Audibert for RSC

This play is based on a classic Chinese drama written by Guan Hanqing in 13th century.  The source play is about injustice and I’m still pondering what the messages in this reworking were saying to me.  I’m still considering Dou E’s fate, the injustice of what happened to Rocket in revenge for Dou E, drought and the impact of what we do to our planet.  If that sounds mixed up it’s because I found this a multilayered thought-provoking play and I haven’t yet resolved my thoughts.

To back-track slightly, the play is set in modern-day China in a factory town called New Harmony.  As the play opens the factories are about to be sold to a business woman from out-of-town, the seller is about to leave town, with his partner, for a new life and the townspeople are suffering from the effects of a drought that has lasted 3 years.

Then we find that the drought may be caused by the curse of a woman, Dou E, who was wrongly executed for murdering the father of the factory owner.  As she is executed she vows that her blood will not fall but fly up and stain the banner above her, there will be a drought for 3 years and that snow will fall in midsummer and bury her body.

The play then unfolds Dou E’s story and resolves the curse.

I enjoyed seeing the play.  I have no previous experience of Chinese theatre other than traditional Chinese opera (not to my taste!) so wasn’t sure what to expect.  I’d read enough to know it was based on a 13th century play but hadn’t realised it wasn’t going to be a direct translation so the opening took me by surprise a bit.

I enjoyed the shades created by the staging; the bright neon lights of the town, the dingy lighting of the workers cafe and changing light around Dou E.  There was also a great sense of movement around the actors on stage; movement through time as well as space and beliefs/attitudes.  I think this sense of movement reflects China as I saw it when I visited and what I see on TV and in the papers.

I understood the desire of the ghost Dou E for the real murderer to be revealed but I felt it was unfair that poor Rocket bore the initial brunt of that seeking justice.  Rocket had no part in what happened and was appalled when he found out so it seems unjust to me that he had to die.  Even though I also understand he had to die to lay Dou E to rest and to punish the guilty.  I know this sounds contradictory and confusing but that’s what I meant about still pondering the play; it created these contradictory feelings and, I guess, real life creates contradictions too which seems to me why so many people are moving from mainstream political parties towards people who appear to be promising to take them back to a simpler, safer past.

Overall, I thought the acting was good.  I worked out one of the plot twists in advance but not the other.  And I enjoyed the evening.  I’m not sure I’m enjoying the ghosts now living with me until I untangle my thoughts about them a bit more!

Click here to find out more about the RSC production

Click here to find out a (little) bit more about Guan Hanqing

The Seven Acts of Mercy – Anders Lustgarten for RSC

This is a new play for RSC and is a play with two strands. The first strand is that of the artist Caravaggio in Naples painting the Seven Acts of Mercy in the Pio Monte della Misericordia.  The second is a family in Bootle struggling to survive.  The link between the two strands is the painting.

I haven’t seen any of Anders Lustgarten’s other plays and the only other play I’ve seen that Erica Whyman has directed was Hecuba this time last year.

The play is definitely political.  Both strands of the play are about the dispossessed surviving on the margins of society. What I thought was interesting was that, although my partner and I are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, at the interval we both came up with the same word to describe the play; sledgehammer! We, and I think most people who will go to see the play, are intelligent human beings.  We don’t need battering with the message to understand it and we will come back to see more if you treat us like adults and allow us to discern the message from the storytelling.  That said, I felt considerably less battered and more engaged with the play in the second half.

In terms of the staging I really liked the way the pictures were projected onto a screen so we could see what the actors were talking about.  I’m not really familiar with Caravaggio’s work so it was a help to see them.  I thought the setting for the individual scenes were effective but the constant scene shifting I thought got in the way; and the constant unrolling and rolling of the Carragher carpet really got on my nerves towards the end of the play.  As a prop it really didn’t add anything to the the play and, as I said earlier, we’re intelligent people and we can create a run down house from a couple of chairs and a book shelf!

Actors-wise I thought Patrick O’Kane was excellent as Caravaggio.  He portrayed a man trying to paint amends for his rage and violence well.  I’d like to see him in something else in a different type of play to see how versatile he is.

Allison McKenzie, as Lavinia, was much better in this than any of the other parts she has played at RSC this season.  She came alive in this part and showed a level of energy I hadn’t seen before.

Tom Georgeson, TJ Jones and Gyuri Sarossy worked really well as the disfunctional Carragher family.  My favourite bits of the play were when they were having those honest, awkward, emotional conversations that families have when one of the central members knows they are dying.  It rang true and I found it moving.  They were also really funny when talking football.  I’m tempted to buy a copy of the play just so I can read and reread Leon’s description of the various political parties as Premiership football teams.  Exactly the laugh you need when you’re feeling glum about the way world politics is heading.

Of the other actors I felt that Edmund Kingsley, James Corrigan and Lena Kaur were underused.  They must have a lot of sitting around to do and, whilst I’m all for wanting good actors to be employed, wouldn’t it have been better for fewer actors to double up and take on a couple of the smaller roles.

Leon Lopez and Patrick Knowles were good, and Patrick Knowles very funny, as the aspirational thugs Prime and Razor but I really didn’t get the point of their rap/dance just after they’d beaten up Mickey. It seemed as though they’d briefly moved into a different play.  Perhaps that’s an age thing on my part.

The thing that really confused me about the play though, and that we discussed at great length on the way home, is what happened to Anthony Renshaw as “Voice of Hench”?