Review – Tamburlaine, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1st September 2018

TamburlaineI often recall one of raconteur and director the late Ned Sherrin’s favourite quotes, where he overheard two elderly female American tourists emerge at the end of the full two-parter of Tamburlaine the Great at the National Theatre in 1976. After a considerable silence between each other, one turned to the other and simply said “more of a play than a show, really…” I’m sure Marlowe would have been thrilled with that description.

TamburlaineThe overpowering character (in more ways than one) of the great Amir Timur, born in present-day Uzbekistan in 1336, continues today in his home country with statues and palaces in his name; in his birthplace of Shakhrizabz, newlyweds still like to have their photos taken underneath his statue, in the hope that some of his success rubs off. Over 35 years of active warring, treachery, theft and mass-murder, he expanded his empire throughout Persia, Afghanistan, and into modern day Pakistan, India, Syria, and Turkey. Marlowe’s account of his exploits set London Society into a riot of Tamburlaine-mania. He even influenced London fashion, with the exotic colours and styles of the Middle East that were being seen for the first time in England.

Don't trust these guysFull of grandiloquent speeches, political intrigue, deception and savagery, Marlowe’s play grips you by the throat and doesn’t let up until he’s wrung every inch of passion and fear out of his warrior-in-chief, his entourage, and his victims. You can’t call Tamburlaine a “tragic hero” in the same way that you can a Macbeth or a Hamlet. Amazingly, considering all the people he exploited and defeated, Tamburlaine isn’t murdered. He suffers and grows weak from an unspecified illness during a winter campaign and returns to Persia to die in the comfort of his own palace. If there is a moral to his tale then it would be that courage, might and ruthlessness are everything you need to succeed; anyone who doesn’t aspire to or achieve these virtues is a wimp. The programme draws interesting comparisons between the lawlessness of Tamburlaine’s regime and the Putins, Tumps, and Orbans of today. Tamburlaine’s brash audacity of power is as relevant in 2018 as it ever has been. And that doesn’t really bode well for any of our futures.

MycetesMichael Boyd has created a magnificent production that keeps you transfixed throughout. Powerful and emotional performances keep the story moving forward at a vital pace – remember these are two full five-act plays compactly abridged into three-and-a-half hours. Sometimes it can be a little hard to keep up, actually, and you’re grateful for the few comedic moments when actors explain that they’ve changed roles so that you know where you are! The occasional non-Marlovian addition, like the brief impersonation that accompanies the appearance of the King of Fez, really helps to break the tension. On a similar note, I also loved how the excellent James Tucker, playing a series of different retinue-lords, each swearing allegiance to his man on the one hand and supporting a rival on the other, ended up jumping over the dead bodies of his former lieges as he rushes off to stay alive by following the next successful leader. It very nicely highlights the brittle nature of allegiance.

Welcome everyoneJames Jones’ incidental music plays perfectly alongside the action – heavy drumming when something dangerous and portentous is happening; a wistful curious motif when someone gets the idea that the best way out is suicide. Colin Grenfell’s lighting is atmospheric and enticing; and the use of a bucket of blood, applied on a victim with a paintbrush or generously tipped over them, to signify the moment and barbarism of their death, works chillingly well. It’s a graphic depiction of blood but it lets your own imagination fill in the details of precisely how each individual died. There’s a lot of blood about; but nothing like as much as in The Duchess of Malfi, where they were positively swimming in it.

Tamburlaine in controlJude Owusu’s central performance as Tamburlaine is superb. A perfect portrayal of someone so confident in their own abilities, so fearless in their ruthlessness, so determined in their purpose, that anything that stands in his way is eradicated. You’re either on his side – and demonstrate that you are, by deeds and emotions – or you’re toast. Within a few minutes of his first appearance on stage, he emotionlessly twists the neck of Magnetes in response for the latter’s slight note of sarcasm in his voice. There’s no question that you’re in the presence of true danger. But he’s charismatic too, shown by how Edmund Wiseman’s grippingly performed Theridamus is instantly taken in by his spell and forsakes his allegiance to the drippy Mycetes. And there’s no mistaking Tamburlaine’s love for Zenocrate, both in the wooing and in the mourning. It’s such a demanding role, with so many long speeches and physical scenes, but Mr Owusu takes it all in his stride in his amazingly impressive performance. I hadn’t seen Mr Owusu on stage before; I sincerely hope it’s not too long till the next time.

ZenocrateRosy McEwen is also truly impressive in the dual roles of Zenocrate and Callapine. As Tamburlaine’s queen she explores all the divisive emotions of being in love with him yet also holding her father and her homeland in high esteem. Tamburlaine will ransack and conquer Egypt, but spare the life of her father the Soldan by making him a tributary king. As Callapine she reveals the character’s essential nobility, sweet-talking the jailer to let him go free, and avowing revenge on Tamburlaine for the death of his father. In both roles Ms McEwan is crystal clear in her enunciation, has magnificent stage presence, and both moves us and makes us admire her characters. Ms McEwan only graduated from the Bristol Old Vic School last year and is definitely a Name To Watch Out For.

ZabinaMark Hadfield brings a comedic touch with his delightfully ridiculous portrayal of the petulant Mycetes, as well as the Soldan and Almeda. David Sturzaker is excellent as the double-crossing but quickly defeated Cosroe (amongst other roles); David Rubin and Riad Richie make a terrific partnership as Tamburlaine’s ever-present warrior followers Techelles and Usumcasane; Sagar I M Arya invests Bajazeth with the most beautifully spoken pride and contempt for Tamburlaine, and there are smart supporting performances from Anton Cross as Tamburlaine’s enthusiastic son Celebinus, Debbie Korley as the devastated Zabina, wife to Bajazeth, and Ross Green in more roles than you can shake a stick at. But the whole ensemble put in a terrific performance and there is not one weak performance anywhere.

BajazethIf I’m honest I wasn’t that impressed with the solution of what to do with the dead bodies. Anyone killed by Tamburlaine or his retinue is left on the stage at the end of the scene, then slowly stands up, looks around them quietly and vengefully, and then slopes off. I can see that this gives the sense that the characters’ ghosts are still there, observing what’s happening, although I don’t think that sense exists in Marlowe’s original; once they’re dead, they’re dead. I felt it looked clumsy, and a bit desperate for a practical idea of how to clear the stage. At least when Olympia receives her dying husband and murders her son for his own good (#yeahright) she tips them both down into the cellar tout de suite.

Theridamas and OlympiaA minor quibble in an otherwise fascinating and magnificent production. I’m guessing this might be something of a hard sell for the RSC – at last Saturday’s matinee there were loads of available seats, but I can assure you it’s most definitely worth spending your theatre pounds on a ticket. It’s on at the Swan Theatre until 1st December and it would be a crime to miss it; and you definitely wouldn’t want to incur Tamburlaine’s displeasure….

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

Review – Made in Dagenham, Adelphi Theatre, 27th December 2014

Made in DagenhamHaving endured a not altogether rewarding experience in the afternoon at the matinee of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, I looked forward to our evening visit to see Made in Dagenham with some trepidation. I’d heard from one friend who had seen a preview that it was ace and that we would love it; I met someone else at a party who thought it was unmitigated rubbish and extended sympathy to us that we had paid for full price tickets in advance. Surely we couldn’t be unlucky twice on the same day?

Gemma ArtertonNot a bit of it. Made in Dagenham is a funny, emotional, feel-good show that takes an important aspect of social history and brings it to life with an engaging cast that keeps up high energy levels throughout the whole evening. It has been adapted from the original 2010 film, with music and lyrics by David Arnold and Richard Thomas, and the book by the ubiquitous Richard Bean. Knowing Mr Bean’s penchant for involving the public in his shows we wondered if there would be any audience participation in this one – thankfully, not.

Adrian Der GregorianIn 1968 the female sewing machinists working at the Ford plant in Dagenham went on strike for equal pay, to bring them in line with their male colleagues. The inequality had been underlined by the decision to class the women as unskilled workers, whilst the men were skilled. Today the concept of equal pay is a given (even if in practice, it still doesn’t quite exist) but in the 1960s, many people considered it was more important, if not desirable, for men to be paid more than women. This included the government, as well as an overwhelming number of the men at Dagenham. The story is based on the fictional character of Rita O’Grady, one of the workers there who had no ambition to be anything other than a mother, wife and sewing machinist, but who gets propelled into the world of union negotiations, finds she has something of a flair for it, and ends up conducting high level discussions with the powers that be, even though she’s largely out of her depth and comfort zone. The success of the campaign, and its effect on her home and family life, are what the show’s all about.

Isla BlairDagenham in 1968 was a very different world from today; a black and white world where everyone was either West Ham or Millwall and the rule of traditional roles applied in families and at work. Although the strikers altruistically lose pay in order to achieve the goals for the greater good – namely a striving for equality – these ladies are no angels. The character of Beryl, for example, makes what today would be very inappropriate sexually intimidating comments to her co-workers of both sexes. Rita’s husband Eddie is a traditional guy who expects Rita a) to be a good wife, b) to be a good mother and c) to do all the shopping and housework. As Rita’s star rises, he falls behind into a position in which he feels very uncomfortable. He knows she’s doing good things, and he knows he ought to support her as much as possible – but it doesn’t come naturally, and when it comes to the crunch, he can’t take it. He’s inadequate, he’s a failure; and his inability to cope with this change of power emphasis is totally realistic.

Sophie StantonIt’s a smart and entertaining production on all levels. Bunny Christie’s superb set conveys both the modesty of the O’Grady residence and the technicality of the factory, with its scenic motif of mechanical parts ready to be punched out of their moulds, rather like the little pieces of plastic we used to click out to create Airfix models back in the day. The costumes perfectly reflect the dowdy uniforms of the workplace, contrasted with the glamorous Swinging Sixties’ styles – such as in the Cortina advert scene. The songs are good quality and keep the story moving forward, and the performances are all terrific.

Mark HadfieldGemma Arterton gives a very strong performance as Rita; likeable, cheeky, irrepressible in the face of adversity from the authoritative figures of government or the employer Ford, and bloodied but unbowed in her grim determination to continue despite the effect it’s having on her family. She’s a great singer with an excellent stage presence. She is matched perfectly by a very effective performance by Adrian der Gregorian as Eddie, his brash personality slowly being beaten down as he struggles to cope with his wife’s increased status. The machinists make an excellent ensemble, although Sophie Stanton is outstanding as the no-nonsense Beryl, and there is a charmingly funny performance by Naana Agyei-Ampadu as Cass, who wants to become an air stewardess – cue for a delightful twist at curtain call time.

Scott GarnhamIsla Blair invests Connie, the self-effacing union rep who sacrifices her home life and her health for the good of her members, with a sense of iconic kindness – it’s not a very exciting role, but an important one. I enjoyed Naomi Frederick’s performance as Lisa, supporting the strike unequivocally despite being married to management, fighting her own battles to be taken seriously as a strong and able woman in her own right. There’s also great support from the rest of the cast, including David Cardy as well-meaning but toothless union rep Monty and Scott Garnham as charismatic Buddy the Cortina man.

Everybody OutLast but certainly not least, there are those famous politicians who played a part in the story. Prime Minister Harold Wilson is depicted as a Vaudevillian parody, doing silly dances and hiding behind his props of pipe and Gannex raincoat, looking after Number One and making sure his pockets are lined before any thoughts about what’s good for the country is concerned. He’s portrayed as being against the strike, not in favour of equal pay – and as such, deserves the mockery that the production heaps on him. He’s played by Mark Hadfield, a master of this self-deprecating, self-mickey-taking kind of comedy. However, possibly the best performance of the whole company comes from Sophie-Louise Dann as Barbara Castle; hearty, confident, calculating, a huge personality, and very credible – and with an amazing voice. We loved her in Forbidden Broadway and she’s superb here.

EqualityThere was only one thing that jarred for me – the characterisation of the parachuted-in big Ford boss from America. The first song of the second act – This Is America – is a hard-hitting criticism of the “Everything is bigger and better in America” syndrome, which may well be worth criticising but to me it came over as rather xenophobic; and then it gets worse when that boss starts calling a member of the UK board “faggot”, which may well have been accurate for 1968 but makes me feel very uncomfortable in 2015.

CortinaNevertheless, you come away from this show with your curiosity piqued by the story, and you want to find more about what actually happened in this strike, and about the real life characters who played a part in it. The show makes you realise the place this particular battle has in the history of equal rights in the UK, and that equal pay to women has been beneficial for both men and women in the long run. Beautifully staged and performed, with that added dimension of social realism, I recommend this very enjoyable show whole-heartedly!

e-cigarettePS. Here’s a first for us: when Act Two started, the woman in front of Mrs Chrisparkle lit up an e-cigarette, and continued to puff away at it for the first ten minutes or so. I have no idea if that was legal or not – but it’s certainly very discourteous and distracting. For one thing, the blue light it emits is as eye-catchingly disturbing as any light from a mobile phone. And then the e-smoke itself clouds the vision; and there’s also the smell, which doesn’t particularly bother me but Mrs C hates it. Oi! E-cigarette users! No!

Review – Uncle Vanya, Vaudeville Theatre, 2nd January 2013

Uncle VanyaIt’s always a delight to get your teeth into a meaty chunk of Chekhov, and I wasn’t that certain if I’d ever seen a production of Uncle Vanya before. If I have, it was a jolly long time ago. Mrs Chrisparkle was pretty sure she had never seen it. So, with a rather exciting looking cast it was an obvious choice for one of our three nights in London at the beginning of January.

Ken StottWritten as the 1800s turned into the 1900s, the play is chock-full of the themes you would expect to find in your average Chekhov. Unrequited love, people growing old tragically alone, the pompous pretensions of the middle classes, selfish older people, too much vodka and forestry. Never forget the forestry. Remember the Cherry Orchard, which ends with the trees being chopped down, representing the end of the old order? In Uncle Vanya you have the woefully underachieved Doctor Astrov, Anna Carteretwho likes to spend his time tending the forests, which activity is obviously attractive to the downtrodden Sonya, who admires and values his hard work. Today you would guess they would both work for the Forestry Commission. The forests that surround the Serebryakov estate depict life – but still, dull, fruitless, dark, never changing life. The kind of life that bored, sad Yelena has married into; she who is a beacon of light for both the doctor and the useless eponymous uncle (actually brother-in-law as far as Yelena is concerned), but a light neither of them will ever get to see by.

Paul FreemanNo one gets a happy ending but nevertheless it’s not a depressing evening. It’s a fascinating play that gives you loads to think about on the way home, and its flashes of humour are very believable and provide dramatic highlights in this production. It’s thoughtfully and gently directed by Lindsay Posner with no wacky modern ideas of souping it up. Christopher Oram’s sets are very realistic and claustrophobic, but they take a helluva long time to shift from Acts 1 to 2 and 3 to 4, to the detriment of the dramatic tension on stage, which begins to ebb away as a slight impatience for the next scene arises. If the slow scene changes are a subtle way of telling us that life in 19th century Russia moves at a snail’s pace, it doesn’t work.

Samuel WestOne other aspect of the general design that I wasn’t entirely happy with, is that there are a number of moments when a character either observes something without other characters noticing, for example Vanya catching Astrov and Yelena in an embrace, or when someone talks about another character out of their earshot, as when Vanya criticises his brother. The Vaudeville stage isn’t that wide, and with the sets as detailed as they are, it is fairly impossible to provide enough visible space between the onlookers and the others to give a credible impression that one bunch of actors can’t see what’s going on at the other end of the stage. Yes I know this is one of those theatrical things where you have to suspend belief, but actually I found it quite hard to suspend it to that extent.

Anna FrielKen Stott is a brilliant Vanya. He’s gruff and blustery, passionate and outspoken, but it’s easy to see that’s mainly a front and that deep down he’s a pretty inadequate human being. He could have done something with his life – maybe – his criticising mother (a suitably stern and grumpy Anna Carteret) certainly thinks so; but then he’s 53 and she still doesn’t treat him as an adult, so I don’t suppose he cares what she thinks. He is equally critical of Serebryakov, who has enjoyed some distant success, and Ken Stott plays Vanya’s dismissiveness of his brother’s achievements with a very credible glee. The scene where Vanya shoots his brother is a delight; both Mr Stott and Paul Freeman as the hideously self-obsessed Serebryakov react hilariously to the outcome.

Laura CarmichaelTwo other scenes that worked really well – and brought out the humour in the sadness – were the encounter between Astrov (Samuel West giving a great performance of charming inanity) and Yelena (Anna Friel giving equal weight to the character’s mischievousness and sense of total defeat) when she feigns interest in the doctor’s map collection in order to get his attention, ostensibly to find out if he fancies Sonya. He goes all anorakky about it and she fails to convince any interest in the dull old maps whatsoever; June WatsonMrs C and I both recognised some of the worst defects in our own personalities there, just as I expect millions of people have done for the last 114 years. I also very much liked the scene in Act Four where Vanya and the Doctor are sitting side by side on Vanya’s bed and he can no longer control his great sadness at the way life has turned out. It was a very moving conversation, played to perfection by Messrs Stott and West.

Mark HadfieldLaura Carmichael plays the hopeless Sonya with quiet dignity and gives a very convincing performance of someone who clings on to the tiniest hope even though she knows it’s absolutely fatuous. June Watson’s Marina is a kindly and strong old Chekhovian retainer and the always reliable Mark Hadfield brings out both the humour and the weakness of the wretched old landowner Telyegin.

All in all it’s a very satisfying and straightforward presentation of a thought provoking and still relevant play. Definitely recommended.