Review – Miss Littlewood, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 3rd July 2018

Miss LittlewoodThere was a time in the 60s and 70s when you couldn’t read anything to do with drama without seeing Joan Littlewood’s name somewhere in the influences. Today she’s largely forgotten – probably because, in retrospect, although she was a larger than life character, she wasn’t actually associated with that many memorable productions that have stood the test of time. She’s most famous for creating the Theatre Workshop at Stratford East, but people don’t tend to remember company names or buildings.

Daisy Badger as Rosalie, Claire Burt as JoanOh What A Lovely War, of course, remains her stand-out show. She worked with Lionel Bart on Fings Aint Wot They Used T’Be. She encouraged (and largely re-wrote) the young Shelagh Delaney to create A Taste of Honey. She collaborated with Brendan Behan (when he was sober) to produce The Quare Fellow and The Hostage. But, as the very charming penultimate song in Sam Kenyon’s musical dedicated to the life and works of Joan Littlewood states, Nothing Much Happened After That. And the memories of Miss Littlewood are now well and truly faded. Perfect timing, then, for a look back at her life.

Oh What A Lovely WarLet me start by saying that the press night audience absolutely adored the show. Lots of laughter, high applause levels and about a 30% standing ovation at the end. I, too, really wanted to love this show. Its subject has been too long ignored, and when you flip through the programme to discover that real-life people like Shelagh Delaney, Barbara Windsor, Lionel Bart, Victor Spinetti are actually featured in the show, it captures your imagination and makes you itch for something special. And whilst there are some elements that are absolutely fantastic, there are other aspects which, for me, turned me into something of a grumpy curmudgeon by the end.

The CompanyIt’s a show that gives with one hand, but then takes with the other. Take the structure; a perfect recreation of a Brechtian dream, with the character of Joan Littlewood both acting in, and narrating through, the entire show; introducing individual scenes with their scene number, and telling us in advance what would take place during the scene. Giving the role of Joan to seven different performers deliberately makes it virtually impossible to identify with her. The majority of the songs don’t evolve organically, instead they are artificially announced and plonked in place, which not only distances us from the story but distances us from the notion that this is, in fact, a musical. The show is also happening right here, right now; on the stage of the Swan Theatre, with you the audience and them the cast. There’s no fourth wall, it’s in a permanent state of demolition, as Joan argues the toss with us about the play itself; walking out at a bit she doesn’t like, telling members of the cast that they’d better watch out or else she’d sack them, that’s the kind of edgy presentation that dominates this show. Brecht was known for his Marxist theories and anti-bourgeois stance – much like Joan Littlewood herself, who actually directed and appeared in his Mother Courage and her Children – so, for me, this structure was absolutely perfect to represent her.

Solomon Israel as Gerry and all the JoansBut with the rough comes the smooth. Part of the distancing effect of having seven Joans is that it is at times very hard to follow; particularly as the various actors all have other roles too and sometimes it’s hard to work out which of those roles they are performing. That’s great for a distancing effect, but lousy for understanding a show. I appreciate why they chose to split the role like that; the programme notes include a quote from Murray Melvin (who was in A Taste of Honey, Oh What A Lovely War AND is a character in Miss Littlewood), regarding the seven Joans saying: “thank God for that[…] when people ask what she was like, you want to ask, “which one”?” I’ve seen a production of The Tempest that featured six Ariels (it got a better reception, ho ho – geddit?) but seven Joans just becomes rather messy in the end. It did work well, however, in the scene where they were all surrounding Gerry Raffles in his sick bed.

Greg Barnett as Jimmie Miller, Dawn Hope and Amanda Hadingue as Archie HardingAh yes, Gerry Raffles. Ay, there’s the rub. Given that Joan Littlewood was a strong woman, a firebrand, a female innovator in a man’s world, what a shame that so much of her story had to be told through the rose-tinted glasses of her love for a man. “We know about so many unremarkable men, and so few remarkable women” says Joan, early in the play, to a rousing cheer from the audience. But then they go and spend so much time in this play on, frankly, an unremarkable man! Mrs Chrisparkle believes, and I concur, that this was a slap in the face for the sisterhood and an opportunity missed. It also makes so little sense. Throughout the early part of the show, Gerry’s first appearance is being anticipated, both by Joan herselves, and Rosalie (her assistant? director? stage manager? I was never sure). Then at the end his passing is lamented; but we never see why he had such an effect on her. He was a philanderer; there was no particular physical chemistry with Joan; to me he seemed no more than any other of her (basically unpaid) employees. I wasn’t convinced.

Sophia Nomvete as Joan and Solomon Israel as GerryHere’s another rough with the smooth element: it’s actually, for the most part, a pretty funny script, with some very knowing moments, especially between Joan and the audience. It starts off with more than a nod to Richard Bean’s One Man Two Guvnors, with not only a member of the audience taking a role but also a plant in the audience. Then there are several “in” jokes about acting – the show takes place in Stratford (but not this Stratford); Rosalie takes Oscar Wilde’s great line from The Importance of Being Earnest about “all women become like their mothers, that is their tragedy; no man does, and that is his” and replaces it with references to actors and directors; and finally Joan gets her claws into Arts Council officials, describing them as wankers. But I can’t help but think that, knowing Joan Littlewood’s passion for the democratisation of the theatre, and her striving to making it a place where everyone is welcome and not just the privileged few, this “in-joke” style is completely inappropriate.

The Company in full swingHowever, on the good side, what the play does achieve is a great insight into her collaborative style; most effectively portrayed in the scene where Barbara Windsor wants to walk out of Oh What A Lovely War and Joan deftly manipulates her back in; and also the scene where Jimmie Miller (later Ewan MacColl) and Howard Goorney almost come to fisticuffs and Joan deconstructs their fight direction. And the show highlights that she clearly was an enigma,; her despising wealth and the bourgeoisie but nicking the coats of every performer who wants to join the company points towards some kind of troubled soul. I got the feeling that, in today’s terms, if she’d been turned down by the Arts Council again she would definitely have crowdfunded her next project.

Dawn Hope as Joan and Emily Johnstone as Barbara WindsorMusically, I found the show rather disappointing; Sam Kenyon’s music goes for 50s/60s workaday showtime pastiche or dingy club vibes, but with not one outstanding song or memorable melody – it’s all filler. Jimmie Miller’s Wanderer’s Lament and Barbara Windsor’s A Little Bit of Business help us to understand those characters – and were immaculately performed by Greg Barnett and Emily Johnstone – but, along with the other songs, they are quickly forgotten. I was disappointed in the presentation of Shelagh Delaney as some kind of secretarial sex-kitten, pertly wobbling on her office chair, when in fact she was as much of a strong woman go-getter as Littlewood was; with a song about A Taste of Honey that derives humour from the fact that the character of Geof is “not the marrying kind”- (knowing titter) – whereas Delaney’s own attitude to gay people in plays was of complete acceptance and no fuss. It just didn’t ring true at all.

Aretha Ayeh as Joan and Amanda Hadingue as NickFortunately, the performances are excellent throughout, and one thing that having seven Joans does achieve is a high sense of ensemble playing. Claire Burt’s Joan Littlewood (the one that stays constant throughout the whole show) is an excellent portrayal of this complex, hard-hitting personality, sometimes fair, sometimes foul. Coming across as the unlikely lovechild of Che Guevara and Mary Portas, it’s a very knowing, very confident combination of the public and the private life of the woman. Perhaps surprisingly, she doesn’t constantly dominate the stage, frequently stepping back and observing the action so that we forget she’s there, which is a nice touch.

 Amanda Hadingue as JoanAmanda Hadingue is superb throughout, with her wonderfully arty avant-garde art teacher Nick, the dandy Victor Spinetti and other roles, including Joan 6. Emily Johnstone’s turn as Barbara Windsor is beautifully judged, suggesting the much-loved Babs without being an impersonation – and it works really well. There are excellent performances too from Aretha Ayeh as Joan 3 (her young challenging phase), Tam Williams as Howard Goorney and a delightfully soft-spoken Murray Melvin, Greg Barnett as the charismatic Jimmie Miller and Daisy Badger as the haranguing and harangued Rosalie. Best of all, the fabulous Sophie Nomvete steals every scene as the hard-working and inspirational Joan 4, and the “posh northern” Avis Bunnage – although they did play that open-voweled joke to death. Ms Nomvete broke our hearts as Sofia in The Color Purple and in Miss Littlewood she spreads joy with every breath she takes.

Sophia Nomvete as Avis BunnageFor me, there was much to enjoy and much to bang my head against a brick wall about. A true curate’s egg. The show is in repertoire at the Swan Theatre until 4th August.

Production photos by Topher McGrillis

Review – The Duchess of Malfi, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 8th March 2018

The Duchess of Malfi“Webster was much possessed by death and saw the skull beneath the skin” says T. S. Eliot. Wasn’t he just? But maybe not quite as much as Maria Aberg, whose visceral and highly stylised Duchess of Malfi opened last night at the Swan Theatre. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a bloody stage in 52 years of theatregoing. If you sit in the front row you will be issued with regulation grey blankets to cover yourselves when you return from the interval. The lady seated next to me told me that she’d heard that on its first performance, blood spurts reached as far as Row H. Fortunately I can advise that the gore has been sufficiently turned down so that it no longer has such a far-reaching trajectory.

Joan Iyiola and Paul WoodsonThere’s not a lot of plot. The Duchess (young, widowed) has been forbidden to take on a second husband by her villainous brothers The Cardinal (not a Mafia nickname even though we are set in Italy) and her twin Ferdinand, who employs Bosola, a knavish and complicitous gentleman, to spy on her. The Duchess knows her own mind and secretly weds Antonio, her steward, with whom she has three children. When the Cardinal and Ferdinand eventually twig that she has gone against their wishes, they have her murdered. And her children. And her husband is killed. And the spy. And themselves. And anyone else within a hundred kilometres of Malfi.

The Company and Joan IyiolaI jest. If you haven’t seen it before, The Duchess of Malfi is a superbly exciting and suspenseful tragedy in the Jacobean tradition, first performed around 1613, written by John Webster from source material by William Painter (his “Palace of Pleasure” from 1567) and loosely based on the true story of Giovanna d’Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi, who died in 1511. The Duchess is a feisty, independent, free-thinking spirit, a bright spark of warmth attacked by the cold rays of her enemies from all angles. Diamonds are of most value, they say, that have pass’d through most jewellers’ hands, she avers; and like diamonds, the Duchess is one tough cookie. Even when there is no hope of her survival she remains dignified and defiant to the end – I am Duchess of Malfi still is her simple self-proclamation that no one can take away from her. The Cardinal, Ferdinand and Bosola, however, show exactly the opposite traits; controlling, manipulative, double-crossing and, in the case of Ferdinand, ultimately weak-willed. The evil characters are all men; the women are all good.

The company HakaI think that’s why the production so strongly centres on the struggle between masculine cruelty and feminine virtue. There is a chorus of officers, gentlemen and other assorted guys who weave in and out of the production; gym bunnies working out and pumping iron, or a rabble of enemies to the Duchess, or a group of madmen whose only purpose is to distress and derange her. It’s as though they arrive on stage, perform a set piece, and then disperse.

Joan Iyiola and Alexander CobbIt’s very unsubtle; but then again, is it a subtle play? Cuts from the original text have certainly made it less subtle, downgrading the influence of Antonio, and removing insights into the motivation of the characters. For me, the regular appearance of the brutal male chorus doesn’t grow organically from everything else we see on stage; indeed, in a rather excellent put-down, Mrs Chrisparkle thought of them as the RSC Haka, limbering up for the next scene. After all, it isn’t as though the portrayals of the Cardinal, Ferdinand, or Antonio are excessively masculine. But there is a balance between the forces of good and evil in this play, and Maria Aberg’s vision seems to me to address the evil too strongly and not concentrate enough on the good. In its attempts to prove certain theoretical points about the nature of masculine cruelty, the actual truth of the play has got lost in places. Rather than illuminating the text, I felt it obscured it at times.

 Joan Iyiola and the CompanyThere are articles in the programme about how the music was written trying to explore masculine and feminine rhythms, and how Naomi Dawson’s set was created from ideas of masculine environments – a gym, a sports stadium and an abattoir. I’m not trying to be obtuse, but can’t women use these places too? At the time it wasn’t clear to me that the design was in part meant to reflect an abattoir setting, but in retrospect it makes so much sense. My copy of the play has as its opening scene a conversation between Antonio and Delio, explaining that Antonio has been in France, and setting the character up as the common thread that links the whole play. In something of a surprise change, the opening scene in this production shows the Duchess single-handedly dragging an oversized animal carcass across the stage; slowly, laboriously, exhaustedly. It’s then plonked upstage left, until the Duchess next appears, when she trusses up its legs and suspends them in the air from a chain.

Joan Iyiola as the DuchessAnd then, for the rest of the play, no one mentions the carcass. It’s like the elephant in the room – although apparently it’s meant to be a bull, but actually, it looks much more like an oversized rubber chicken. Now we know what caused the KFC shortage. I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt and wondered what it might represent, symbolically. The Duchess’s own private burden, perhaps? Her vulnerability? Now I understand the abattoir setting, I suppose it presages her slaughter (although not her being sliced up and served on dinner tables, that’s much more Titus Andronicus.) After the interval, Ferdinand comes on and sticks his dagger into the carcass’s belly. And it starts to bleed. And it doesn’t stop. Which is where I refer you to my first paragraph, gentle reader.

Paul WoodsonAs the actors squelch around on stage, variously murdering each other, the blood just seeps everywhere. Not just the floor but all over the costumes, on their faces, in their hair; I can only assume that the water pressure throughout Stratford drops after the show comes down as about 20 actors all huddle under the dressing room showers. Ferdinand and the Cardinal writhe on the floor together in an exhibition of what I can only describe as Blood Wrestling. Pity the Wardrobe Department; I hope they have lots of one-pound coins for the laundrette.

Aretha AyehSo gruesome is the final twenty minutes or so that the audience starts to laugh nervously, almost hysterically, at a few choice moments that you wouldn’t think of as funny – I guess that’s just a natural, human release of the tension. One poor man in the front row buried his head in his regulation blanket so firmly and refused to look at the stage for about 45 minutes, until his friend told him it was safe to come out again. Oh, I forgot to mention the first act contains a superb performance by Aretha Ayeh of I Put a Spell on you, written by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – approximately 343 years after the first performance of The Duchess of Malfi.

Richard Hurst Amanda Hadingue Joan Iyiola and Will BrownNevertheless, despite the heavy-handed symbolism, the savage cuts to the text, the anachronistic add-ons and the excessive blood, it’s still a strong and powerful production. There are some striking mental images that will stick with you for ages – whether or not you want them to. Orlando Gough’s incidental music resounds with tension and fear, immaculately played by the five musicians up in the sky, and Francis Gush’s superb counter tenor performance unsettles with its eeriness accompanying the madmen scene. The Duchess’s sophisticated dresses, Antonio’s classic clerical grey, Ferdinand’s lightweight pink suit and white shirt combination and the menacing black terrorist outfits of the mob are all perfect for the roles.

 Alexander Cobb as FerdinandJoan Iyiola is a magnificent Duchess, entertainingly conveying her playful aspect, strong in her dignity, and heart-rending in her tragedy. I also enjoyed Alexander Cobb’s jittery Ferdinand; villainous through and through, but thoroughly convincing as the conspirator who denies ever having had anything to do with the plots, and very discomfiting in his descent into madness. Paul Woodson is a splendidly clean-cut Antonio, his gentle Geordie accent serving to distance himself further from the murkiness of the Calabrian court. Amanda Hadingue gives great support as Cariola, and there is decent villainy from Chris New as the Cardinal. I wasn’t quite so comfortable with Nicolas Tennant’s performance in the multi-faceted role of Bosola; to my ear he garbled quite a few of his lines and I didn’t really get a feel of quite how sinned against or sinning he was, although he does snatch the horoscope from Antonio’s back pocket rather than having Antonio accidentally drop it, as in Webster’s original, which is clearly the act of a bounder.

Alexander CobbIn the final analysis, this production is all about the visuals; Grand Guignol goes Jacobean. A feast for the senses in many respects; but you may find you need spiritual indigestion tablets to get over it. Love it or hate it, you can’t forget it. Worth going just to see how squeamish you are! It’s on in repertory until 3rd August.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks