Review – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Old Vic, 22nd April 2017

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are DeadProposition: The works of Tom Stoppard become progressively more irritating the older you become – Discuss. And a syllogism: One) recently I’ve seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Travesties and Arcadia and they were all heavy going. Two) those plays were written by Tom Stoppard in the 60s, 70s and 90s. Conclusion: Stoppard is all mouth and no trousers.

Old VicIt’s a shame, really it is. I remember how I loved this play with a passion when I was 15. I saw it at the Criterion on a school jaunt, with Christopher Timothy and Richard O’Callaghan as the cipher courtiers. I read it avidly. I marvelled at the wordplay. I was fascinated by Stoppard’s refreshingly innovative themes. I adored (still do) the originality of its structure. What never struck me was the possibility that it was all just too clever-clever and lacked heart. Watching it today, that’s almost the only thing that does strike me. I’m a huge drama fan and I’ve fallen out of love with Tom Stoppard. Woe is me, I am undone. Ecce homo, ergo elk.

Daniel RadcliffeLet’s just dwell on that structure again. Somewhere in space and time, the play of Hamlet is taking place. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, friends of Hamlet, although two of the most minor characters of the play, are offstage, because they haven’t had their first cue yet. They have no other purpose in life – not to the play, not to Hamlet (despite allegedly being “friends”), not to themselves. Basically, they just have to sit around, spinning coins, and waiting for something to happen. Eventually the play of Hamlet catches up with them, as Claudius and Gertrude welcome them to the court, with the whole Hamlet scene invading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s stage. They have their conversation about keeping an eye on how Hamlet’s behaving, and then the king and queen sweep off, signifying that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have left the action of Hamlet, and remain behind to inhabit their own lives for a little while until the next time their and Hamlet’s lives intersect.

Joshua McGuireMeanwhile the Player King, Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia and so on drift in and out of R & G’s world as Shakespeare’s plot develops, even though R & G’s involvement doesn’t. Eventually they get given a job to do – to accompany Hamlet to England (and to his intended death). Students of the Bard have argued for centuries whether Rosencrantz and Guildenstern knew that they were escorting Hamlet off this mortal coil, or whether they were also innocents abroad. Stoppard makes it crystal clear that R & G were the fall guys, as we see Hamlet return to Denmark, but they do not (dead, see.) It’s an incredibly clever piece of writing – the linguistic representation of some mathematic genius. And you do, indeed, feel sorry for our antiheroes, caught up in a web of international intrigue, when all they’re really any good for is spinning coins.

Player King and the TragediansFor the illusion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to work, you have to believe absolutely in the concept of the two parallel plays taking place at the same time and how they interweave at those dangerous corners. Therefore, it’s vital that you believe unquestioningly in the stage dominance of Claudius and Gertrude. In Hamlet, they control proceedings alongside the eponymous hero. Sadly, in this production, I found that Wil Johnson’s Claudius, in particular, had an element of pantomime about him, and I couldn’t see him as this strong, villainous, murdering king. Diminish the power of the Hamlet element to this play and you diminish the play as a whole. Similarly, Luke Mullins’ Hamlet was for me a little too jocular, a little too stagey. I didn’t get the sense of his troubled soul; and without it, R & G are even more pointless than they are in the first place.

R&G 2And then you have the Player King and his entourage: David Haig in full declamatory mode, puffing up the character’s already considerable sense of self-importance, mortally wounded to have lost their audience participation at their first encounter, idly taking mild sexual advantage of the young tragedian Alfred. It’s not an easy role to get the tone absolutely right; and I did find the character a little more monotonous than when I remembered it, or imagine it in my mind’s eye. It wasn’t helped by those travelling tragedians; although their performance was probably exactly how those roving casts used to appear, I still found the sight (and sound) of them rather wearing. I found it all rather laid on with a trowel and could have appreciated something a little subtler. As I said, I’ve fallen out of love with Stoppard.

Rosencrantz and GuildensternThat’s not to say there aren’t elements of the production that weren’t highly entertaining. The moment, for example, when our two courtiers attempt to force Hamlet to drag Polonius’ body into their “trap” is simple and extremely funny. Perhaps wisely, they don’t follow Stoppard’s original stage direction of having Rosencrantz’ trousers fall down whilst he’s removed his belt. The scene where it appears that Guildenstern has murdered the Player King is incredibly effective. But there aren’t many moments of physical humour to alleviate the burden of the cerebral nature of the nub of the play.

Player King and AlfredThat said, none of this prevents me from appreciating the two excellent performances from Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire. As Rosencrantz, Mr Radcliffe absolutely nails the introvert intensity of the character; slow to respond and react, keeping his own counsel, simply saying what he sees rather than what he thinks. As the complete opposite, Mr McGuire is perfect as Guildenstern’s extrovert loose cannon; flying off the handle, panicking loudly, trying to understand the whys and wherefores of the situation in which they find themselves. As the characters almost present themselves as two halves of one whole, the intricate dovetailing of their speeches and stage business is done with immaculate accuracy and a beautiful lightness of touch. This is the third time we’ve seen both actors on stage (Mr Radcliffe always as a troubled soul – Equus, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Mr McGuire always as a brash nincompoop – Amadeus, The Ruling Class) and they never fail to impress with their superb commitment and artistry. As an acting masterclass, they give a magnificent display.

R&G discover they're going to dieMrs Chrisparkle fell almost instantly asleep within the first few minutes of the play as she simply couldn’t keep up with Stoppard’s smartarseness. She awoke when the Player King and his entourage took control of the stage about an hour later. That was the point that I yielded to sleep because I found the characters so irritating. We both enjoyed the final act, after the interval, much more. But I think that all probably says much more about our own inability to put up with Stoppard than the production itself. So, if I return to my original proposition: yes he does. And my syllogism: well, it’s a syllogism, innit.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studio 1, 31st January 2015

The Ruling Class1968 – what a momentous year for British theatre. The new Theatres Act did away with the censorship by the Lord Chamberlain’s office and writers now the freedom to convey the characters, the stories, and the satire that they had previously had to employ subterfuge to produce – that is, if they could produce it at all. Watching this revival of Peter Barnes’ savage 1968 comedy The Ruling Class really brings back that atmosphere of challenging the system, daring to be different, taking risks that might or might not work, heaping anarchy on to the stage; having pure expression as your dramatic be-all and end-all.

J McAvoyThere’s no way this play would have been passed by the censor without his blue pen scrawled all over it. The main character spends much of Act One hopping on and off a crucifix (he thinks he’s God by the way, so it’s not inappropriate). The censor’s guidelines that had been handed down since 1909 included a clause that a play should not “do violence to the sentiment of religious reverence”. Well this play does that quite a lot. The 14th Earl of Gurney’s justification for believing he is God – “when I pray to Him I find I’m talking to myself” – is a pretty damning slap down to any fervent Christian.

Serena EvansBut that’s all history now. In 2015 we take it for granted that we can say or do what we like on stage (more or less – there’s always a chance that a Mrs Whitehouse-type person could bring a private prosecution, mind) and as such, for the most part, we don’t tend to push the boundaries that much anymore. It’s already been done, and we frequently take that as an excuse simply not to bother with it nowadays. But back in 1968, boundaries were there to be dismantled. The title itself – The Ruling Class – makes no apologies for its black and white vision of the nobility; a simple tale of old Tory folk, representative of many who basically ran the country.

Joshua McGuireThere’s the traditional family elder who likes to put on a tutu and dangle from a noose, the wet behind the ears toffee nosed cousin destined to be the local MP, the husband and wife who each take lovers as a given right, the mistress who can be employed to marry the Earl just so she can bear an heir, and of course the Earl himself, hidden away for years but who returns to take on the mantle of family leadership, despite being a paranoid schizophrenic who believes he’s God. At least he’s God until the second act, when he starts believing he’s something far more sinister. Outwardly the face of respectability, the play assumes that the Gurney family are typical of the old landed nobility on which the country has relied for centuries, and to whom, in previous decades, dramatists might have handled with kid gloves and loving respect. Not so Peter Barnes, who sideswipes the traditions and reveals the Earl and his family to be the immoral horde of crooks, lunatics and perverts that they are.

Forbes MassonSo is this play relevant today? Given the fact that we still have a considerable class structure, that a mere 1% of the world’s population own 48% of its wealth, and that you still have to have a considerable degree of independent wealth in order to stand for parliament, I’d say yes. Added to that the continued debate about the value of the House of Lords, questions of espionage, and a still inadequate understanding of mental health issues, and this is as relevant as ever. The only way in which the play feels at all dated is in some of the references. Old retainer Tucker goes loco on the news he will inherit £20,000, which at today’s rate would be about a quarter of a million pounds – currently about half the cost of the measliest studio apartment in Chelsea. The musical numbers, that the cast occasionally break into with delightful 60s anarchy, nobody sings anymore. “Dem dry bones” “My Blue Heaven” and the Eton Boating Song definitely represent a different era. Personally, I don’t think that matters much. It was written in 1968 – and it’s set in 1968. Not everything has to be today.

Anthony O'DonnellJack’s second act transformation from benign (if loopy) God to Jack the Ripper also highlights one of the time’s major obsessions. I can remember the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle saying there were only two things she hoped would be revealed before she died – proof that the Loch Ness Monster exists (yes, I know) and the true identity of Jack the Ripper. I don’t think either of those mysteries quite captures the imagination of the public today in the way that they did in the 1960s. A modern audience member who hasn’t done their research or bought the programme might well be confused by Jack’s identity change in Act Two, and if you don’t recognise the names of the Ripper victims as they get called out, you might not realise which way the play’s going. However, in 1968 those names would have been instantly recognisable by the entire audience. Of course, many of the Ripper theories suggest that a member of the nobility might have been responsible for the murders, so moving the plot in this direction not only gives it a nice twist but is still in keeping with exploring the reprehensible kind of tricks a family like the Gurneys could have up their sleeve.

Kathryn DrysdaleJamie Lloyd’s production is fairly faithful to the original, although I enjoyed the joke of having two male actors playing the Tory ladies Mrs Treadwell and Mrs Piggot-Jones. With a central role like Jack Gurney, it’s easy to see why it attracts larger than life, charismatic actors like Peter O’Toole, who took the role in the 1972 film and flung his unique magic at it. Now one of our best young actors, James McAvoy, has taken the reins and gives us a really entertaining and credible performance. It would be easy to go over-the-top with this role and make the character into a flamboyant show-off, a mere figure of fun whose eccentricities are there for us to laugh at and ridicule. But like King Lear’s Fool, there’s much more substance to Jack, and by making him a considered, rounded sort of paranoid schizophrenic, it makes his second act development not only perfectly reasonable but also very sinister. Mr McAvoy has great stage presence and excellent comic timing but is also scarily serious when the text calls for it. I’m pleased to report he also gives a graciously happy curtain call.

Ron CookHe’s supported by a talented team who provide us with some excellent performances. It’s been many years since I’ve seen Ron Cook on stage and I’d forgotten what a great actor he is. His Sir Charles Gurney is a delightfully weasly, self-centred, horrid little man, trying to maintain as much power for himself by manipulating those around him. Serena Evans, as his wife Claire, is a perfect match for him, weighing up how do you solve a problem like Jack with seeming innocence, but when she goes in for the kill it’s not quite the kill she expected. Her performance is a classic mix of nobility and tart. Kathryn Drysdale is nicely duplicitous as Grace, the 13th earl’s enamorata, Sir Charles’ mistress and the 14th earl’s wife. She’s in it for what she can get but at the same time shows a surprising loyalty towards her husband. Noblesse obliges for her just as much as anyone. Michael CroninJoshua McGuire, a fantastic Mozart in last year’s Amadeus at Chichester, is perfect as the simpering cousin Dinsdale, a typical Lord Muck character, acting superior whilst being completely lacking in substance; and I also enjoyed the quiet dignity of Elliot Levey’s Dr Herder, seemingly authoritative in his medical knowledge but joining the list of stage psychiatrists who end up on the off-piste side of the mental sticky slope in strait jackets. Joe Orton, who also combines lunatics and doctors in What The Butler Saw, would have loved the idea of the doctor being sexually aroused by a detective’s dead body outline on the floor.

James McAvoyAnthony O’Donnell provides many of the best laughs with his aggressively irreverent manservant Tucker, puffing away on his cigar as he joins the big league, but whilst also confiding in us that he is a Soviet spy – and why not? In Mr Barnes’ world nothing can be taken for granted. Michael Cronin is a pompous windbag of a Bishop, and Paul Leonard and Forbes Masson give excellent support in a variety of minor roles, including the ghastly Tory ladies, and I really liked Mr Masson as fellow Old Etonian Truscott, showing that the Old Boys Network is a solid bond that mere Elliot Leveyinsanity cannot break.

So although it’s very much of its time, this play also reveals timeless truths about timeless issues. A very funny production of a remarkable piece of writing, full of the joy of late 60s freedom and anarchy. A welcome arrival in the West End – we both loved it.

Review – Amadeus, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 2nd August 2014

Amadeus - 2014After a much needed nap – I think the matinee of Miss Julie (and the Chablis) really took it out of us – we wandered back to the newly refurbished Chichester Festival Theatre to see the final performance of Jonathan Church’s revival of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. The theatre foyer has had a very effective makeover, giving an impression of much more space for the punters to mill around (and on a busy night, there are a lot of those), many more bars and café areas and, as it felt to me, great improvement on customer service. I really liked the way there was someone to help you find your interval drinks – reassuring in what can sometimes be a scrum.

Amadeus - 1980I clearly remember seeing the original production of Amadeus at the Olivier Theatre. It was 14th July 1980, seat G59 in the stalls. The ticket cost £5.30. (I don’t have a photographic memory by the way, I simply found my ticket stub.) A dream team of performers headed by Paul Scofield, Simon Callow and Felicity Kendal. I can remember being completely overwhelmed at the brilliance of Paul Scofield. It was a mesmerising performance, Paul Scofieldquite possibly the best individual performance I’d seen by that time, and I can’t think that I’ve seen that many better since. I remember being perplexed at the pronunciation, though. “Amádeus”, whispered the citizens of Vienna, stressing the second syllable as if they were ordering that ubiquitous Portuguese rosé of the time. No such pompous nonsense in this new version, where it’s good old-fashioned “Amadéus”, as in Falco’s 1985 worldwide pop hit.

Rupert EverettCourt Composer Salieri is on his deathbed and relives his life and times in musical service to Emperor Joseph II – specifically in regard to the arrival of that impudent and irreverent musical genius, one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Salieri was a humdrum composer, a safe pair of hands, writing uninspired fodder that did the musical job but nothing more. By contrast, Mozart could write a symphony in a day, could memorise anything he’d heard just the once and then extemporise and improve on it; and moreover he could sleep with any opera singer he wanted – especially the one that Salieri had had his eye on for ages. None of this was going to endear the young pretender to the established composer. From then on, Salieri’s continued status relied on his working hard to undermine all Mozart’s attempts at furthering his position, by being a false and duplicitous friend, tricking his wife into a position where she would compromise her virtue (such as it was), and, at the end of it all, poisoning him. Or did he?

Joshua McGuireBefore I’d seen the play the first time, I’d never given the first thought to what Mozart’s character might be like. I’ve no idea whether Peter Shaffer’s version of him is true, but it’s a great juxtaposition of ideas that the creator of such immortal and beautiful music should be a manure-mouthed little jerk, irresponsible, irritating and irredeemably immature. The court may well love what he produces, even if his works do contain “too many notes”, but there’s no reason to love him at all. The difference between Mozart’s behaviour and the dignity of the rest of the court is a great source of, at first, humour, and, later, tragedy, as Mozart falls further and further into decline.

Jessie BuckleyThis is a staggeringly good production. Simon Higlett has designed a beautiful backdrop that conjures up aristocracy, class and elegance, and which neatly provides extensive stage entrance and exit opportunities. Other than that, and some occasional furniture, the stage is bare to allow for the maximum freedom of movement for the large cast. Fotini Dimou’s costumes are immaculately in keeping with the time and the place. Tim Mitchell’s lighting design is superbly evocative; whether it be at the very beginning when all the candelabras light up and ascend into the heavens, or individual moments when Salieri is picked out by a ray of sharp light from above, it was all exquisite.

John StandingHardly off stage is Rupert Everett as Salieri, an immense tour de force that takes your breath away. He glides effortlessly from senile old man with fragile voice and stooping gait to feted courtier with grand gestures and magisterial tone. The role requires a lot of engagement with the audience as he comments on the characters and events that unfold, so Mr Everett’s fantastic stage presence works a treat as he gains our confidence and shared his secrets with us, so that we really feel we know the character intimately. I’ve only seen him on stage once before – in his early 1980s West End debut, in Another Country, in which he was brilliant. I feel like I’ve missed out a lot, not having seen him in the meantime.

Simon JonesJoshua McGuire is perfect for the role of Mozart. With his cheeky smile and bouncy personality, he gives the character a horrendously shrieky laugh that you instinctively know is just right. He really conveys the childish, impetuous, uninhibited aspects of a personality who would have been told he was brilliant when he was just six and has never let the world forget it. He is excellently matched by Jessie Buckley as Constanze, a little (but not much) more responsible than Mozart, as polite in court as she can be (with her usual “oh ta very much” response to compliments), superbly reflecting the youthful exuberance of being young and in love, her humiliation at being abused by Salieri, and her woe in the declining years at the loss of her old Wolfie. There’s also excellent support from such trusted old hands as John Standing as Count Orsini-Rosenberg, Timothy Kightley as Count von Strack, and a delightfully under-enthusiastic but terribly polite Emperor Joseph played by Simon Jones – “there it is”. James Simmons and Derek Hutchinson make a great double act as the venticelli, the little winds that blow rumour into Salieri’s ears – a linguistic fugue if ever there was one. Jonathan Church’s revival played for a criminally short three-week run. This surely must be a worthy candidate for a London transfer. If you were lucky to see it, wasn’t it great? If you missed out – book earlier next time!

Timothy KightleyP. S. I rarely give standing ovations, even in a show I’ve really enjoyed. It has to be in the top 1 or 2% of all shows for me to give that accolade. As I’d put this show in, say, the top 5%, I didn’t join in the standing ovation that many of the other patrons gave it. However, when Rupert Everett announced during curtain call that, for that final performance of Amadeus, we had none other than Peter Shaffer in the audience – and I turned around and saw he was barely a few seats away – it was an honour for me to stand and applaud the writer of not only this but Equus, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Black Comedy, White Liars, Five Finger Exercise, The Private Ear and the Public Eye, amongst many others. His has been an outstanding contribution to 20th century drama.