Review – Macbeth, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 11th September 2023

MacbethWhen I saw that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of Macbeth was scheduled to run for over three hours, my heart sank. This is Shakespeare’s second shortest play after Comedy of Errors; so how on earth are they going to make it last three hours? I’m sure when I saw Judi Dench and Ian McKellen at the Young Vic in 1978 they did it in little over two hours. Mind you, that was the production where Dame Judi rattled through Lady Macbeth’s letter scene so rapidly that they dubbed it the telegram scene.

MacbethMy heart sank further when I discovered that the porter scene was to be rewritten by Stewart Lee “because it’s not funny anymore and no one gets the jokes”. I don’t consider myself that much of a Shakespeare purist but there are limits. I was reminded of Julie Walters in the Victoria Wood sketch where the Piecrust Players are staging Hamlet. She pulls Ophelia up on her words: “That lovely line, there’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance – it’s no good bunging a few herbs about saying don’t mind me I’m a loony. This is our marvellous bard – you cannot paraphrase.” The porter’s scene does indeed pose problems and frequently doesn’t work – but occasionally it does, if you do it really, really well. And that’s one of the challenges of staging this play.

WitchesHowever, having seen the show I happily confess both my reasons for heart-sinking were unfounded. Yes, this is quite a slow Macbeth, but not in a dull, laborious way. It takes the opportunity to dwell upon the silent moments in the play; the actions of the witches, the atmospheric eerie portents of the castle and the ghostly visions, not to mention the drawn-out personal battle to the death between Macbeth and Macduff. The densely packed speeches are delivered thoughtfully and respectfully, at a measured pace, allowing us all to appreciate the language and its meaning. It’s so easy to get lost in a Shakespeare production when the actors race through the words so quickly that you don’t know what’s going on. But that doesn’t happen here; the production’s careful tempo keeps the audience sticking with it all the way through.

PorterAnd as for the rewritten porter’s scene; if you’re going to do something differently you might as well go the whole hog. I thought I was either going to hate it or love it; in fact, I did neither. The porter is now re-imagined as a stand-up comedian, with the obligatory microphone stand and compere introduction, addressing today’s audience with a 100% wall-breaking routine that comments on the news, politicians, and on the students watching the play for GCSE research. In a striking moment of disrespecting the audience, she mischievously gives the game away by telling us that Macbeth dies in the end. When she starts to engage Macduff and Lennox in conversation (as in Shakespeare’s original) it’s their turn to go off-piste and complain about things like woke productions and having a black actor play Othello – whatever next?

Duncan and MacbethFor the most part, the new sequence is pretty funny, and the audience hooted all the way through it. Apparently, there are explicit performances and non-explicit performances, depending on the date, which relate to the content of the porter’s script. We saw a non-explicit performance; but, to be honest, I don’t see the point of pussyfooting here. If you’re going to make a big splash with an innovative and offensive scene, don’t hold back. Personally, I thought it could have gone even more outrageous. However, the rewritten scene does weaken the motif of knocking in the play. It’s a relentless buzzer that disturbs the porter rather than the usual knock knock knocking, and it recurs on a few other occasions, which removes that sense of fate knocking at Macbeth’s door, or knocking at his conscience. I’m not sure a buzzing quite does the same trick.

BanquoWils Wilson’s production truly excels in conveying a classic, eerie, dark atmosphere. Dead birds fall from the sky, discordant clangs reverberate from the on-stage musicians, rain pours down. The witches first appear as almost half-formed pupae oozing out of a hole on the stage. There’s also an artificiality that also lends a discomforting air. It’s an almost entirely bloodless production; Banquo’s ghost is a vision of pallor, Lady Macduff’s babies are puppets that get tossed between murderers until you hear an audible crack of their necks and they’re dispatched into binbags. The unwashable blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands is suggested by a red light up her sleeve. Dead bodies are calmly coaxed up and walk off the stage at the invitation of the witches. On the whole, the production doesn’t do histrionics; Macbeth’s speeches are frequently fragile, Lady M’s criticisms of her husband’s perceived weakness are quietly underplayed, and Macduff’s shock at the loss of his pretty chickens renders him almost speechless.

Macbeth and Lady MAs you might expect, there is some trademark Royal Shakespeare Company gender-shifting amongst some of the roles, usually an opportunity to question your traditional understanding of those characters. Having the porter as a woman and one of the witches as a man works nicely. However, in other areas the concept doesn’t fully flow quite so easily for a couple of reasons. Duncan is now Queen of Scotland – even though Duncan is clearly a male name, she is definitely a woman. Banquo is also a woman, as is the unseen Thane of Cawdor, until she is executed. However, Malcolm is still a male character, even though he is played by a woman, so there’s a lack of consistency there. Perhaps even more of a problem, this production sites women in positions of power with Duncan at the top and Banquo and Cawdor as solid supporting officers; so there’s absolutely no need for Lady Macbeth to bend over backwards to encourage her husband to take the Scottish throne – she could just as easily do it herself.

MacduffReuben Joseph is a rather reserved and controlled Macbeth, prone to flashes of petulance revealing a deep-down fragility and a tendency towards mental disorder that becomes more quickly apparent than in most productions. It’s an intelligent and calm reading of the part. For our performance, Lady Macbeth was played by Eilidh Loan, with another restrained and unhysterical characterisation, quietly dominating her husband, but primarily allowing the text to do the hard work – all whilst still retaining her usual role as a witch too, which is some feat! Anna Russell-Martin’s Banquo is a hearty soul, and Therese Bradley plays Duncan with a sunny and beneficent disposition. Amber Sylvia Edwards and Dylan Read are the other two intriguing and spooky witches, and there’s a terrific supporting performance from George Anton as Macduff – noble, respected, and thoroughly persistent. And Alison Peebles makes the role of the porter very much her own, full of cantankerous glaring and sarcasm. At our show there were a number of roles performed by understudies, and the quality of some of the performances was perhaps a little patchy as a result – but you can’t fault that level of commitment.

Lady MacduffBut it’s not the performances that linger in the mind with this production, it’s with the ominous sense of fear and eeriness where it truly succeeds. It’s a cunning blend of the traditional and the innovative, and although it may lack a little in drive and authenticity, it conjures a very powerful atmosphere.

 

Production photos by Marc Brenner.

3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Review – Cymbeline, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 3rd May 2023

CymbelineIn a fortuitous combination of celebrations, not only is this the 50th production directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company by its Artistic Director Emeritus, Gregory Doran, it’s also 400 years since the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio, without which we might not have had several of the great man’s plays, including Cymbeline. Tucked away near the bottom of the list of plays in most collected editions of Shakespeare’s plays, poor old Cymbeline has been overlooked for a century or more. Relatively rarely performed or studied, I managed an entire summer term reading Shakespeare at University and not once did it come into my orbit.

Cymbeline and young PosthumusWhen I was about thirteen, gentle reader, one day I decided I would count the lines in each of Shakespeare’s plays and create a list of how long they all were, to see which was the shortest and which was the longest. What an insufferable little prig I must have been. However, fifty or so years later it remains one of the most useful pieces of research I ever did. Whilst Comedy of Errors heads the list as his shortest play, Cymbeline weighs in at a hefty 3,286 lines, beaten only in the length department by Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, Richard III and Hamlet.

Cloten and PisanioI mention this because there is something of an elephant in the room with this production, or rather in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre; it’s a long play. Including an interval and a five minute pause (which doesn’t really feel long enough to achieve the double whammy of the Gents and the Gin and Tonic), the show lasts for the best part of three and a half hours. Surely, it could be cut back a bit? No. Shakespeare has packed this play with so many fascinating characters and so many plot elements, that’s it’s hard to see how you could pare it back at all, without depriving it of a vital part.

Royal householdThe initial set-up of the play is a little complicated. Cymbeline is King of Britain; he is married to the Queen – she seems to be just called Queen. However, previously he was married to another queen, who gave birth to Imogen. Imogen has given her heart to Posthumus Leonatus, an orphan whom the King brought up but has no royal lineage, and so is considered an unsuitable match for Imogen. Meanwhile, the Queen was also married once before, and that marriage bore a son, Cloten, a foolish braggart, who has been earmarked to marry Imogen. The Queen is not to be trusted, by the way; she asks her doctor Cornelius to supply a bottle of poison because she plans to murder both Cymbeline and Imogen, However, Cornelius hands her a bottle of harmless sleeping potion instead because he can see right through her little game. Oh, and Cymbeline also had two other sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, and they were stolen away as babies, apparently by the banished Lord Belarius, but you needn’t worry about them yet. I hope you’re taking notes, there will be questions later.

Iachimo and his gangPosthumus is also banished, to Italy, where he meets a nobleman, Iachimo, who wagers that he could seduce Imogen with ease. Riled, Posthumus accepts the bet, always convinced that Imogen would remain faithful. And so she is, as Iachimo is disappointed to discover. This leads him to some subterfuge, hiding in her bedroom so that he can report back on the artwork on the walls, and, more tellingly, the mole on her left breast, of which he sneaks a peek. Then follows a sequence of events, including Posthumus instructing Pisanio, his servant, to murder Imogen (he doesn’t), and Imogen having to go rogue and disguise herself as a boy, Fidele, who by chance pals up with Belarius and the two boys (remember them?) living rough outside Milford Haven. I’ve been to Milford Haven; this part of the story is entirely believable.

By JupiterI’m going to stop there; but there’s so much more plot to follow. Shakespeare must have had a field day incorporating all his favourite plot twists and characterisations that had proved successful in the past. A girl dressed as a boy, a wicked Queen, a beheaded villain, a chaste woman tested, a sleeping potion that makes people think you’re dead, a banished Lord, even a Deus ex Machina (if you’re going to have one, it might as well be Jupiter, voiced by Patrick Stewart). There are themes of honesty and betrayal, forgiveness and redemption, noblemen foraging in the wild, and foolish fops at court. It shows beautifully how if a common man commits a murder he will die for it, but if a Royal figure does it, that’s ok. There’s a stunning scene – spellbindingly clear and simple – when Posthumus holds Iachimo’s life in the palm of his hand, but rather than choose a path of revenge, responds: “the pow’r that I have on you is to spare you; the malice towards you to forgive you. Live, and deal with others better.” For me, the most telling moment in the entire play. It even asks questions about Britain’s identity; is it part of the Roman Empire or a solo state, refusing to pay the tribute to Rome, because Britain can thumb its nose at Europe? Where have we heard that before? I can just imagine that tribute sum written along the side of a bus.

Final sceneBut what makes this play unique in all of Shakespeare’s works – I think – is the way all these tiny elements and themes become convincingly but hilariously resolved in a riotous final scene that makes your toes curl with pleasure. The play is famously considered uncategorisable. Is it a tragedy? Certainly not in the classical sense. Is it a history? Although the character of Cymbeline is based on Cuneboline, King of Britain from AD 9 to 40, the play owes far more to Holinshed’s Chronicles than any history book. I always think of it as a comedy, but with most of the laughs kept back for that final scene.

Imogen in bedThe Royal Shakespeare Company has developed something of a reputation for pushing the boundaries as far as experimental productions of Shakespeare’s Classics is concerned. Setting them in different times; gender-swapping on major roles; using the powers of the audience’s imagination rather than simply conveying plot and character as they were written. As always, this sometimes works brilliantly, and sometimes fails; experimental ideas can go wrong, and you’ll never know unless you try them. But Gregory Doran’s production is – for the most part – tradition and simplicity itself, unadulterated by unnecessary directorial distractions or clever-clever interpretations. And it feels as fresh as a daisy and as clear as daylight as a result. No need for any stage furniture, other than Imogen’s bed and the chest in which Iachimo hides; no need for a complicated sound plot, other than Ben McQuigg’s band’s simple musical accompaniments and a little rainfall. Matt Daw’s lighting design is effective without being intrusive; there is some occasional use of puppetry which works extremely well.

Cloten and his lordsThe performances are first-rate throughout; some are outstanding. Peter de Jersey makes for a gruff and blustering Cymbeline, physically imposing if with some weakness of health (which becomes clear in that all important final scene), quick to ire but essentially generous of spirit. There’s an element of the pantomime villain in Alexandra Gilbreath’s Queen, but none the worse for that, as she shares her devious plans quite openly with us. Amber James is superb as Imogen; stoic, gracious, and full of pluck. Conor Glean’s Cloten is thuggishly foppish, bombastically arrogant; an excellent portrayal of someone who is all façade and no substance.

Imogen and her two new brothersThe always reliable Mark Hadfield puts in a tremendous performance as Pisanio; the character’s thoughts and feelings being conveyed not only by Mr H’s superbly clear delivery but he also has that enviable ability to express a whole range of emotions with the simplest of facial gestures. Jamie Wilkes chillingly captures all Iachimo’s Lothario-like wretchedness, including how deflated he is when the truth comes out – like all bullies, he is pathetic. There are a couple of terrific double acts, in Scott Gutteridge and Daf Thomas’ Guiderius and Arviragus, and Barnaby Tobias and Tom Chapman as the two lords who attend on Cloten. Jake Mann makes the most of Cornelius’ two scene-stealing appearances, and Theo Ogundipe’s incredible enunciation invests the character of Caius Lucius with huge authority. Perhaps best of all, Ed Sayer’s Posthumus Posthumuscommands the stage with every appearance; lowly-born though his character may be, he truly makes you understand what nobility really means.

The Press Night audience gave it a rapturous reception – quite rightly so. Gregory Doran leaves the RSC with a magnificent legacy of work, and Cymbeline is right up there with the best. It’s on at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 27th May, and if you’ve never seen this hidden gem of a Shakespeare play before, I couldn’t recommend it more strongly.

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – All’s Well That Ends Well, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 13th September 2022

All's Well That Ends WellAll’s Well That Ends Well – it’s a phrase we all use, but are we all familiar with the play? I suggest not; which is rather perplexing, because of the three Shakespearean Problem Plays (the others being Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida) this is the play that has the greatest potential to be a crowd-pleaser. And Blanche McIntyre’s current production for the RSC demonstrates that quality in an often hilarious, always thought-provoking, occasionally confusing way.

Helena and BertramIn a nutshell – orphan Helena was taken into care by the kindly Countess of Rossillion but has fallen in love her son, Bertram. The Countess is fine with this; Bertram not so much, as he feels his status is somewhat better than marrying “a poor physician’s daughter”. Reluctantly he weds her on the instruction of the King of France, who owes Helena a favour for having saved his life (long story). But Bertram flees to the Tuscan wars on his wedding night with his pal Parolles (who’s no better than he ought to be.) Helena follows him and tricks him into bed by pretending to be Diana, a local girl with whom Bertram has become infatuated (we need to suspend disbelief on that front). Helena becomes instantly pregnant (it worked that way in those days) and, following a public humiliation at the French court, Bertram eventually agrees to stick with Helena; thus all’s well that ends well.

King of FranceMcIntyre has brought 17th century France and Florence bang up to date with a 2022 world of social media, online gaming, smartphones and selfies. This contemporary setting works well for the play’s characterisations and interactions, and of course has the prospect of opening up the play to a younger generation of theatregoers. However, I’m not sure that Helena’s magic “prescriptions” that she dispenses to transform the health of the ailing King of France quite make sense in what must also be a world of advance scientific breakthroughs – we need to suspend disbelief on that front too. But it’s a fun concept – and, if anything, could have been taken a little further. The back projections of social media interaction never stay there for long, and I don’t think there was much in the way of trolling, which would have been very relevant!

Countess and LavacheRobert Innes Hopkins has designed a fascinating structure that looms on top of or over the stage the whole time, like a huge shuttlecock. It works pretty well – reminding you of perhaps a conservatory at the Rossillion residence, or a tarpaulined tent in the war scenes. The costumes show a nice divide between the haves and have nots – the Countess wears classy trouser suits, Bertram and the King are a dapper pair of clothes horses, and Helena makes do with something pleasant and practical from Primark. The military fatigues are stock standard camouflage gear, and Parolles comes dressed in a pseudo-military, pseudo-flamboyant outfit, reflecting the character’s shallowness and duplicity. There’s a very effective scene where Parolles gets all his kit off apart from his comic book hero underpants, and especially removes a sturdy stocky torso covering, exposing himself to the elements rather like Edgar’s Mad Tom, thereby revealing that, underneath it all, this big wannabe burly hero is actually just a bit of a weakling like you or me.

Countess and LafewSome extremely good performances brighten up the show enormously – and maybe highlight the fact that one or two of the performances are perhaps slightly tentative. Rosie Sheehy commands the stage from the start as the forthright Helena, her voice full of confidence and assertiveness, perfect for the role of the young woman who knows what exactly she wants and is determined to get it at all costs. Claire Benedict’s Countess is superbly dignified, fair-minded, and naturally gracious; it’s not surprising that she would have extended her kindness to looking after Helena.

Dumain and BertramIt struck me that Shakespeare doesn’t give the actor playing Bertram many memorable juicy lines to establish his full character, but Benjamin Westerby makes a good job of portraying his young callousness and poor decision-making. Bruce Alexander is very good as the King of France, all wheezy and feeble at first, then properly regal later; he comes into his own in the final scene where he adjudicates in the Bertram/Helena/Diana love triangle, with beautifully timed vocal tics and challenging expressions.

Parolles and the guysAmong the lesser characters I really enjoyed the performance by Simon Coates as Lafew, the old courtier who’s seen it all and naturally gets the better of a jumped-up little chappie like Parolles in a series of truly hilarious vocal skirmishes. I also loved Eloise Secker as the Younger Dumain, for whom the pricking of pomposity comes as a fine art. Perhaps best of all, Jamie Wilkes’ Parolles is a wonderful comic creation; if ever the phrase all mouth and trousers was designed to fit anyone, it would be this fellow. Mr Wilkes gives us some terrific breaking the fourth wall moments, full of braggadocio for anyone who will stop still and listen until he’s captured and becomes the biggest Squealer since Animal Farm. It’s a brilliant performance, hugely entertaining; he makes you wonder why All’s Well That Ends Well doesn’t get performed more.

Duke of Florence and armyThe final moment on stage (which I shan’t reveal) simply and effectively drives home the uncertain future that faces the young couple. This isn’t all sweetness-and-light, it’s a tale full of bitterness and disloyalty which the production conveys extremely well. I confess I occasionally lost track of what was going on, particularly with the war scenes, and the D-Rum concept, and the energy did sag occasionally. But I thought this was a very brave stab at bringing back a rarely performed play and giving it a new relevance for today. Lesson: beware of girls in fluorescent wigs at discos.

Production photos by Ikin Yum

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!