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

 

Jack and the Beanstalk – York Theatre Royal

Yes, it’s that time of year again; the Old Jokes Home outing to the pantomime. Hurrah!

I was really looking forward to this, especially since I had 2 exams to sit during the afternoon and was in need of some light relief.

It’s fair to say that with York Theatre Royal pantomime it doesn’t really matter what the title is; it is, essentially, the same panto with the same cast playing more or less the same parts they’ve played for the last millennium just with new music and different costumes.  This pantomime has a cult following; some people have been going to see Berwick Kaler as the Dame for 39 years so the Old Jokes Home at only 9 years are merely babbies and bairns.

Firstly, it was great to see Martin Barrass back in action after missing last year’s panto following a serious motorbike accident.

Secondly, it’s great to see Berwick Kaler looking hale and hearty after his heart bypass surgery.  It wouldn’t be the same without him.

The problem with this year’s panto though is that it was clearly suffering from lack of time to prepare it properly.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it very much.  The slapstick was silly, David Leonard’s evil Dr McCarb was a wonderful baddy and there were the usual pauses whilst cast members got their giggles under control.  It just felt as though there hadn’t been time to do a proper script – I assume there is one so people have a point of reference to riff from – and the time had to be filled up with a lot of singing and dancing.  I did like “Stand by your Mam” though.

York Theatre Royal pantomime is, without doubt, a must-see event, and will continue to be.  But I really hope Berwick Kaler has a more tranquil year in 2018 and more time to write another stonkingly good panto.

 

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

 

Jingle Blues – The Chicago Blues Brothers at Alhambra Theatre Bradford

The perfect ways to relax and have fun after a somewhat busy and stressful end to the week.

I probably wouldn’t have come to see this of my own volition but a friend chose it as the way she wanted to celebrate her birthday.  I’m so glad she did.

You don’t have to be a Blues Brother aficionado to enjoy it although many in the audience were and it helped to make sense of the backdrop, the references and the dancing.

All of the songs you would expect were included and some Christmas songs thrown in as well.

In the first half the audience were polite and remained seated.  In the second half the band encouraged everyone to stand and dance.  I would have liked them to do so in the first half as well.  I find it nigh on impossible to sit still when I’m enjoying the music and would have appreciated some encouragement to stand and dance.

It’s a huge testament to the skill of the band that one of my friends, who is notoriously reticent about being seen dancing, voluntarily started grooving on at least 2 occasions! 🙂

At the end of the evening my feet hurt from trying to dance in one spot and my throat was dry from singing.

What would improve the show?  A couple of things for me.

Firstly, one of the pictures on the slide deck was a back view of a Santa with his arms around two girls wearing thongs, heels and skimpy tops.  Really?  Have we, as a society, not moved on from such pictures that objectify women?  Particularly when your audience is mostly women.  It was a jarring note in what was otherwise a good backdrop for the music.

Secondly, please finish the fringing on the dresses worn by Marcia and Laura in the second half.  The super, swingy fringing looked fabulous from the front and the back of the dresses looked cheap as though they weren’t finished off.

Apart from these minor nit-picks I had a really enjoyable evening and I’d certainly go and see the Chicago Blues Brothers again.

Click here to find out more about The Chicago Blues Brothers

Click here to find out What’s On at Alhambra Theatre Bradford

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.

Osud – Janacek – Opera North

I haven’t been to the theatre for ages and then I ended up going on consecutive nights; once to see this “Little Great” at Opera North and then down to Stratford, which I will report on next week.

I don’t know very much about Janacek and I knew nothing about this short opera but a friend asked if I was interested in going so I did.

The opera is in 3 acts and engaged my attention for the whole 1 hour 25 minutes it lasted; it is part of Opera North’s “Little Greats” season, with 2 short operas each evening.

The plot can be summarised as; the composer Zivny falls in love with Mila, Mila’s mother disapproves and separates them but Mila has a baby. Mila and Zivny meet again and marry, they are poor and looking after their son and Mila’s mother who has gone mad.  the mad mother falls and drags Mila over the balcony with her to their deaths. Zivny greaves and can’t finish the opera he has written.  He dies, as students are rehearsing for the premier of his opera, saying the last act is “in God’s hands”.

I thought the staging was very clever, using minimal scenery to create the schoolroom, a cafe, a poor lodging house and back to the schoolroom.  The small changes created the right feel for the drama at each stage and, along with the music, move the story from serious to lighthearted and back again.

The costumes also worked well.  They created a sense of a different era and country without being too specific or getting in the way of the story.

I don’t have enough experience of opera to proffer an expert opinion but I did think the principles sang their parts well and for the most part acted well.  My one disappointment was the relationship between Zivny and Mila.  I felt that the love was all one way – Mila to Zivny – and that Zivny cared more about his music.  I didn’t feel a strong connection between the two of them.  One of my friends agreed although my more opera experienced friend felt we were wrong and that Zivny was a “tortured soul”.  For me there was just something lacking in the way the Director had created the interaction between the two.  There was no sense of a passionate, unbreakable bond in the relationship.

I also think singing in English disrupted the flow of the music a bit.  There were screens set up to show what was being sung so I think keeping the opera in its original language and maintaining the rhythms of that language with its music would have been preferable.  We could have read the translation on the screens.

Overall though I enjoyed exploring some new music and I wish I’d gone earlier in the season as I might have ventured to one or two more of the “Little Greats”.

Click here to find out more about Janacek

Click here to listen to a bit of Osud

 

 

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

 

La Boheme – Puccini at Grand Opera House, York

It’s odd how life works out sometimes isn’t it?  I haven’t been to see an opera for years and then see two within a couple of months!

This one was more familiar to me than the last one; I knew quite a bit of the music even though I’d forgotten chunks of the story.

I wouldn’t say the Company was the best opera company I have ever seen but both they and the orchestra were competent enough for it to be a pleasant evening.  I know that sounds as though I’m damning them with faint praise, I did enjoy myself, but mostly because I enjoyed letting the music swirl around and cocoon me rather than because I was engaged with what was happening on  stage.

The women played their parts well and, more to the point, looked like the young women they were portraying.  The most distracting part was Mimi working up to a crescendo looking, through her body movement, as though she was about to break out into the Zorba the Greek dance.

The men were a different kettle of fish.  The singing was good but they looked like prosperous middle-aged men rather than starving young artists living in a garret.

The costumes were a bit of a mish-mash too.  The men’s costumes were straightforward and simple.  Mimi looked as though she had strayed out of the Wizard of Oz with her blue dress and white apron.  Musetta started off looking great, then appeared in the most hideous dress I’ve ever seen on stage (including amateur productions) and finally in a black velvet number that had definitely seen better days.  I know operas are expensive to stage but I would have thought opera companies would know not to use black velvet, which never ages well.

I think what really made this opera farce rather than tragedy though was Mimi’s death-bed scene.  Until that point I had been going along with the story and accepting the cast in the characters they were playing.  Unfortunately, as Mimi was breathing her last farewell to Rodolfo and embracing him she slightly dislodged his toupee.  Not enough to create uproar and not enough for most people in the audience to notice it.  But I noticed and, predictably, got the giggles watching him try to straighten it surreptitiously.  I’m not sure whether the people sitting behind, watching my shoulders shaking, realised I was giggling or thought I was moved by Mimi dying.

To summarise, this is what you get from provincial touring opera companies; a pleasant evening without it being particularly engaging or thought-provoking.

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