Review – The Box of Delights, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 20th November 2023

Box of DelightsThere’s no escaping it – Christmas is coming. The streets of Stratford-upon-Avon are glittering with sparkly lights, snowflakes are projected onto the side of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and, inside, the RSC’s Christmas production of John Masefield’s much loved children’s book, The Box of Delights, adapted by Piers Torday, is well underway. I say “much loved”; I believe that to be the case, but the book never crossed my path during my childhood or indeed the intervening years. So I went to this production without a preconceived notion of what my ideal Box of Delights would look like.

Kay HarkerKay Harker (funny name for a boy?) is entrusted with this magical box that can basically allow him to do anything. Time travel, flight, shrinking – you name it, the box can do it. Unsurprisingly there are villains out there who would do anything to get their hands on it. But Kay is not the kind of lad to let them get away with anything so unscrupulous as box theft. Cue a lot of sinister looking and sounding baddies wreaking havoc with the great and the good of Tatchester, leading to the big question: will Kay be able to save Christmas? (Spoiler – yes, he does.)

CastI get the feeling that criticising the book and the tale told within it would be committing a cardinal sin – like picking a fight with Moses because you weren’t happy with all ten commandments. It has such a high reputation that you’re on a losing streak if you don’t appreciate it. I have to say that for me personally the story and structure weren’t really my cup of tea; but I know I am in a minority.

PhoenixSo what kind of box of delights is it? It’s a fair mix of scrummy caramels and hazelnut whirls but also with a few uneaten strawberry cremes left behind when the rest of the box has long been scoffed. Production-wise, it’s got a lot going for it. Ben McQuigg and his merry band play Ed Lewis’ score with affection and crispness, contributing significantly towards creating a Christmas vibe. Tom Piper’s set is one of the busiest you’ll ever see on stage, with more nooks and crannies than you can shake a stick at. But it works very well to emphasise the magical elements of the story, with unexpected hideaways for scrobbled individuals (see the show and you’ll understand), and it blends with Prema Mehta’s lighting perfectly, as mood after mood is innovatively suggested against the architectural or domestic backdrop.

BarneyAll the puppetry is excellent, including a very ethereal and proud phoenix; but Barney takes the biscuit for endearing puppet doggies. Accompanied by Rhiannon Skerritt, Barney is perhaps the most lifelike dog (who isn’t really a dog) I’ve ever seen on stage. Not overplayed, not stupidly exhibitionist, but just a lovely, cuddly, friendly dog whom you want to take home with you. He really should have his own TikTok account.

ColeMy main problem with the show was that I found it surprisingly hard to follow. It’s rather stodgy and heavy going at times and the use of English and the accents employed are often stilted and tiresome. Many of the characters are the most exhaustingly posh specimens to be found on a stage, and I did wonder quite how relatable they, and their story, are to modern day audiences. If only the Five Go Mad in Dorset team had seen this first, they would have had a field day! The second act drove the story along a little more clearly but even then, it still got bogged down at times.

PouncerThat said, Stephen Boxer is very impressive as Cole Hawlings/Grandad, full of kindly care and wise words, and a splendid stubborn resistance against the baddies. Nia Gwynne makes for a lively and sparky Pouncer the thieving “Witch”, Callum Balmforth a suitably heroic Kay and Jack Humphrey a delightfully self-aware silly ass of a Peter. There’s excellent support throughout the cast including Timothy Speyer’s nicely pompous Bishop, Melody Brown’s over-enthusiastic Mayor, and Tom Kanji’s snidely sneering Charles.

KidsIf 1930s children’s nostalgia is your thing, then all your wants will be met. It’s a highly competent production and full of Masefieldesque charm; it would have been nice if it had all been just a little more fun.


Production photos by Manuel Harlan

3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Review – Cowbois, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 24th October 2023

CowboisYou could almost taste the anticipatory buzz in the foyers at Stratford yesterday for the press night for Cowbois – Charlie Josephine’s rollicking queer Western, as the RSC has it. I’m not sure what John Wayne would make of it, but the first night audience loved it. Not unlike untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play currently at the Young Vic, it’s exhilarating to see an established, familiar genre of entertainment – whether it be musicals set in South-East Asia, or Westerns set in the Wild West – turned on their heads so you can see them from a different perspective. And Cowbois certainly does that.

WesternThe plot could be taken from any Western story. The women of this obscure little town have been left behind by their men, out hunting gold. It’s been a year or more, they’ve not heard from them; they’re probably dead. All the women have to sustain them is their faith, their school teaching, their running the saloon, and a drunken sheriff. There’s a bounty on the head of one Jack Cannon, one half of the Cannon brothers, the slickest gunslingers in the West. The other half, Harry, is now dead and buried at the hands of Tommy, leader of Tommy’s Toothless Boys, whom Harry hired to hold up stagecoaches so that he and Jack could relieve them of $200,000 worth of gold coins. But Jack, being one of those slickest gunslingers, took out seven of the Toothless Boys – by which I mean shot them, not wined and dined them – and now everyone is seeking both revenge and cash. So when Jack wanders into town, the women are unsurprisingly all a-quiver. I hope you’re keeping up here.

Kid and castHowever, it doesn’t matter if you don’t grasp the plot – that really isn’t what the play is about. Never has that old saying to assume makes an ass out of u and me proved more appropriate. In the first act of the play, Charlie Josephine creates an environment where apparently cis straight women feel safe to give way to their inner selves; by falling in love with a trans man, or by starting to trans to a man themselves. Even the sheriff allows a new aspect of his personality to come to the fore. There is a beautiful, life-affirming moment when the Kid – farmer Mary’s son – meets someone he has always known as a woman but is now dressed as a man and with a male identity, and merely says “oh, ok” in complete unprejudiced acceptance. It gets a massive roar of approval and applause from the audience. Everyone is comfortable with their new outlook or identity – what could possibly go wrong?

The menWhat goes wrong is the return of their husbands in the second act. They’re still alive, against all odds, and when they turn up at the saloon to find a queer party going on, it’s no surprise that they’re taken aback. Seeking to return to the relationships they left, their only options are to either dominate and cow the women back to their previous suppressed lives, or to accept the new order. Jack quickly absents themself from the situation – again no surprise. But how is all this going to get resolved, and what happens when bandit Charley Parkhurst arrives, also looking for Jack, and Tommy and the Toothless Boys also show up? In the words of Harry Hill, there’s only one way to resolve this – fight!

Lillian and JackThe set-up, dialogue and unpredictable plot development in the first act are all outstanding. Charlie Josephine has created terrific characters, well-drawn, full of their own funny idiosyncrasies, and beautifully reflecting the staleness of lonely life in the town. There’s absolutely no reason, for example, why the conversations about the way Miss Lillian eats her breakfast grits should be so funny – but it is. And when Jack Cannon arrives on the scene, all eyes are upon them as – in my humble opinion – they are one of the most charismatic and spellbinding characters to appear on a stage for a very long time.

BathtubThe one downfall of the play is that the second act cannot live up to the high expectations set by the first. Primarily, Jack is absent for much of the act and the audience really misses them. And sadly, I can’t help but feel the writer missed a trick by making all the men either violent bullies or plain thick. Their toxic masculinity comes across as a blunt tool when all the other characters have such nuance. Whilst the wives all go on substantial personal journeys, the men remain static; what a hoot it would have been to have had a Brokeback Mountain moment in there too. But I guess that was not a priority for the writer – after all, it has been done before. But the trans element of Cowbois is what sets this play apart from pretty much any other play I’ve come across – and that’s a superb achievement.

Vinnie HeavenGrace Smart has designed an elegant, simple set, with the saloon bar towards the back of the stage, and a nicely hidden sunken bath towards the front, of which Jack and Lillian will – shall we say – take advantage. The costumes are excellent throughout; she has given Jack a few suitably eye-catching outfits, and the sheriff’s second act hat is a work of amazing millinery civil engineering. There’s some entertaining semi-country music from the small band of four musicians nestling stage right; and co-directors Charlie Josephine and Sean Holmes make maximum use of the theatre’s non-stage spaces for the shootout climax – even if it does go on a bit too long.

LJ Parkinson and castVinnie Heaven’s performance as Jack is a marvel. Cheeky, charismatic, and hugely likeable – not bad going for someone who’s only recently killed seven men. No wonder all the townswomen go weak at the knees. From the moment Jack arrives on stage you know that they’re in charge. But they’re not just a brash Lord Flashheart type, their performance is subtle, charming, brimming with both confidence and vulnerability. A terrific performance. Sophie Melville is also excellent as Miss Lillian, saloon landlady and Jack’s new love. As with most of the female roles, she particularly shines in the first act, with comic authority and conviction. I loved her double act with Emma Pallant’s deeply religious Sally Ann, disapproving of everything from sexual attraction to shooting to save your life. There’s a stonkingly fun performance from LJ Parkinson as nonbinary bandit Charley Parkhurst, cavorting around the stage with dangerous devilment. Lee Braithwaite’s transformation from Lucy to Lou is touchingly done, and, in our performance last night, the surprisingly mature and endearing Alastair Ngwenya smashed it as the Kid, as young people would say.

Quentin Letts won’t like it, but if you suspect you might, I reckon you’ll love it. It’s not perfect, but then it’s about people, and people aren’t perfect. Recommended!

Production photos by Henri T

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – The Merchant of Venice 1936, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 26th September 2023

Merchant 1936If you’re going to update Shakespeare, you might as well go for broke. And that’s exactly what Brigid Larmour and Tracy-Ann Oberman have done with their reimagined Merchant of Venice, produced by Watford Palace Theatre and Home Manchester, in association with the RSC. They have set it in the East End of London at the time of the Battle of Cable Street in 1936; this was the march organised by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, designed to intimidate the people living in an area that contained a large number of Jewish and other immigrants. Up to 5,000 Blackshirts, maybe 7,000 police and innumerable counter-protestors clashed on the streets, and it’s considered to be the turning point where 1930s British fascism began its downfall.

CastGiven that this took place less than ninety years ago, it is extraordinary how it has been largely forgotten or indeed, never learned by most of the population; and this production serves a very useful purpose in bringing it back into our minds. It intertwines superbly well with Shakespeare’s play, with Antonio and his friends adopting the roles of BUF activists, Portia seen as a Diana Mitford-type character, and Shylock as a Jewish outsider, emblematic of what the fascists would regard as everything that’s wrong with the country. And it’s more relevant today than ever; the news radio on the drive home after the show reported a speech by the Home Secretary that was described by an interviewee as being further to the right than anything ever said by the British National Party in its heyday.

ShylockAt just two hours running time including an interval, the play is, by necessity, heavily cut. But it’s not a brutal cut; it’s a sensitive cut, keeping all the essential themes, plot threads and great speeches. Shakespeare must have sat back and congratulated himself on a good day at the office having written about The Quality of Mercy, All that Glisters is not Gold, and Hath not a Jew Eyes. Antonio, Bassanio, Gratiano, Portia and of course Shylock are all well-written, memorable characters, and this is without doubt one of Shakespeare’s Big Plays.

Shylock and blackshirtsUnfortunately, one of the major problems with The Merchant of Venice to a modern audience is not so much the exploration of antisemitism, but the plot content of Act Five. It feels like the whole story is wrapped up after Shylock gets his (her, in this instance) come-uppance for not showing that aforementioned quality of mercy. Thus the final scenes concerning how Bassanio and Gratiano have given away their rings to “complete strangers” often appear as an afterthought – but are necessary to give way to the usual happy ever after Shakespearean comedy ending. In this production, aligning so strongly 1930s fascism with the story of Shylock and those general themes of antisemitism, racism and othering, this ending seems all the more superfluous; even though they rattle through it at breakneck speed. For me, the final scene, where the ensemble reveal their They Shall Not Pass protest on Cable Street, comes as a rather disjointed add-on. However, the cynic in me admired the device of ensuring a standing ovation at the end.

Tracy-Ann ObermanWith strong use of vintage footage of the Blackshirts and newspaper headlines of the time projected on to the backdrop, Liz Cooke’s design brings you firmly into the drab, grey East End, although Portia’s glamorous outfit makes a superb contrast. The three caskets laid out on the basic kitchen trolley provide a nice visual suggestion of the idea of a stark choice, and the graffiti on Shylock’s door tells its own story.

Protest!The idea of making Shylock female is integral to the entire directorial vision of the play. Her characterisation was inspired by Tracy-Ann Oberman’s own great-grandmother, an immigrant to London from Russia to work in a factory. When you change the gender of a well-known character it inevitably makes you see that character in a new way, and this is no exception. This Shylock is a matriarch, proud and protective of her family, and even more of an outsider being a woman in a man’s world. It disgusts her to have to interact with the likes of Antonio, who has publicly reviled her in the past and avowed he will probably do so in the future, Still, business is business, and sometimes you just have to trade with your enemies. Tracy-Ann Oberman’s performance is simply a knock-out. Her presence, her expressions, the glare of her eyes, her pride, her resilience and her eventual defeat are all perfectly pitched – plus she adopts a powerful, alienating foreign accent which exemplifies her otherness. She is just superb.

CastI also enormously enjoyed Raymond Coulthard’s performance as both Antonio and Arragon. His Antonio is dignified, controlled, suppressed, and resigned; you almost forget he’s a fascist. As Arragon he gives us a splendid comic turn as the vain, flowery prince; more believable than a mere fop but truly wallowing in the sound of his own voice. Xavier Starr gives a terrific professional debut as Gratiano, his height emphasising a kind of lofty condescension and upper class bonhomie, but he descends into the gutter with his superbly delivered antisemitic vitriol. Hannah Morrish impresses as a rather aloof and superior Portia, later taking the guise of a very no-nonsense lawyer. There’s also excellent support from Gavin Fowler as Bassanio and Jessica Dennis as Nerissa and Mary Gobbo.

BondBrevity is the soul of wit, and the comparatively short running time for this production enormously helps in keeping the pace up and captivating our interest completely. If you’re expecting any kind of traditional production you may be disappointed, but this new slant is totally justified and brings a whole new insight into the play. Not perfect, but full of wow factor. After the production leaves the Swan on 7th October, the tour continues to High Wycombe, Malvern, Bromley, Cardiff, Wilton’s Music Hall, York, Chichester and Manchester, and returns to Stratford for another three weeks in January 2024.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

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 – Falkland Sound, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 5th September 2023

Falkland SoundThe Falkland conflict; I remember it so well. I turned 22 during those alarming 74 days in 1982, and if it had escalated to full-scale extended war, I would have been ripe for conscription. Everyone watched and waited; hanging on every word reported by the Ministry of Defence’s Ian McDonald’s daily TV updates, gripped by Brian Hanrahan’s journalism:  I counted them all out and I counted them all back. The nation was divided when the Belgrano was sunk as it was sailing away from the exclusion zone – your attitude towards it basically depended on whether you were a fan of Thatcher. It was the era of Gotcha! and Stick it up your Junta! And of course, the conflict was Thatcher’s golden key to No. 10 for the next eight years.

the islandersRather than concentrating on the conflict’s effects on Thatcher and her government, Brad Birch’s new play tells the story of the Falkland Islanders themselves; their way of life, their environment, their national attachments (to Britain, and by nature of location, to Argentina), their relationships, their work, their leisure. 8,000 miles is a long way away, and few Brits ever get to visit the Falklands, so any extra insight into this loyal community is always welcome. Although they still had access to the pop music of the time, it still seems a world apart; letters take ages to arrive, and the prospect of coming to Britain to study is just a pipe dream for most. Still, if your boss is kindly disposed, he might allow you to let off steam with the occasional two-nighter, which sounds like the maddest hangover experience ever.

GabrielThis is a bold attempt to remind ourselves of the conflict and also that the Falklands are still there, still part of Britain, and still loyal. The characterisations of the islanders are both creative and powerful, with much of the narrative coming from two outsiders – John, who has arrived from England as a teacher, and Gabriel who works at a scientific research establishment and is Argentinian. The experiences they share with us, both concerning their day-to-day lives before the invasion and how they survived both the occupation and the liberation, are told with moving realism and sensitivity.

John and the islandersHowever, these scenes are also juxtaposed with life back in Britain, where the Conservative government was very unpopular and Tory grandees were looking for a way to make Mrs Thatcher look good again – and the Falklands invasion was the perfect opportunity. However, these scenes are depicted in a completely different way; unlike the realism of the Falklanders, the government figures are caricatures. They don’t even have names, just numbers, and there’s an almost pantomime-like ridiculousness to the way they behave. As a result, for me, the UK scenes are much less successful than the Falklands scenes.

Joe UsherThere’s also the problem that, with a lot to say, Brad Birch’s play gets very wordy and rather heavy going at times; to the extent that I found some of the narratives rather difficult to follow, with so many characters involved, including those who are not actually portrayed on stage, so there’s a lot of reported activity and conversation. As the play progresses, the writing improves as Mr Birch can concentrate on the immediate issue at hand – the arrival of the British troops and the recapture of the islands. But overall, the play does feel a bit chewy and long.

IslandersI wasn’t sure about the music; not so much the local playing at the drinking get-togethers, but more why the characters would break into the occasional rendition of, for example, Supertramp’s Goodbye Stranger or Spandau Ballet’s Gold. And it didn’t really aid our understanding of the play to have the islanders regularly picking up their buildings – houses, church, shop, etc – and moving them around the stage. I think the idea was to indicate whereabouts in Port Stanley each scene was set; but in reality it’s just a distraction.

Mrs HargreavesThere are some very good performances – Tom Milligan’s John and Eduardo Arcelus’ Gabriel stand out, as does Joanne Howarth’s Mrs Hargreaves and her impressive Mrs Thatcher impersonation. Joe Usher is excellent as Robbie, the British soldier who basically represents the entire British army. At our performance Oliver Hembrough who plays Geoff/Dad was indisposed and assistant director Mariana Aristizabal Pardo stood in, presumably at very short notice, and enabled the performance to go ahead – so three cheers to her!

RosieA fine attempt to tell this important and still relevant story, and it’s a fascinating insight into the lives of the islanders themselves. It’s a little heavy, a little slow, and a little inconsistent. But there’s much more that’s good about it than isn’t.

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – The Empress, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 18th July 2023

The EmpressTanika Gupta’s The Empress first arrived at the Royal Shakespeare Company ten years ago directed by Emma Rice, but here we have a brand new production, now with Pooja Ghai steering the directorial helm. It’s also the first show at the Swan Theatre under the new leadership team of Daniel Evans, Tamara Harvey and Catherine Mallyon. Welcome all!

RaniThe Empress traces the varying fortunes of a handful of characters who emigrated to Britain from India in 1887. 16 year old Rani Das is an ayah – that’s a children’s nursemaid – to a well-to-do English family. Another is a young man named Abdul Karim; there’s also the politician Dadabhai Naoroji, and a wannabe lawyer named M. K. Gandhi (yes, that Gandhi). They all travel on the same ship – and one of the lascars (sailors) on board, named Hari, notices young Rani and pretty much falls in love with her on the spot. On arrival in England, Rani is instantly dismissed by her employers – no employment protection in those days – thus becoming homeless. However, Hari takes her to a boarding house (or should that be bawdy) run by the rough-exterior but kind-hearted Lascar Sally. But this environment is no place for Rani and she quickly absents herself – Hari tries to find her but with no success.

Karim, Victoria, SarahMeanwhile Karim has surfaced as a new young waiter for none other than Her Majesty Queen Victoria. The play then follows the adventures of Rani and Karim; for her the only way is down until she can start climbing back up, and for him the only way is up until the establishment start getting their revenge on him. If you’re familiar with the film Victoria and Abdul then you’re well acquainted with the story of their unusual friendship, and how she elevated him to being her munshi (teacher) – and to be honest, the film gives you much more detail and insight into their relationship than you’ll find in The Empress.

VictoriaHowever, what’s very entertaining is the way that Victoria is reinvented in this play as a rather mischievous person with a keener sense of humour than you might otherwise imagine. It’s that characterisation that makes the Victoria/Karim thread of the story more interesting than the Rani/Hari aspect. One ought to respond emotionally to Rani’s plight and share in her despairs and later joys – but, strangely, somehow, one doesn’t. I found her story in the first act, where she veers from disaster to disaster, oddly cold and unemotional, passive and detached. Her story becomes more interesting in the second act when she starts making a life for herself, re-introduced to Naoroji, building a place for herself in the world. There is a happy ending for Rani – but I confess I found it rather far-fetched.

On board shipBlending fact and fiction, there is a strong narrative here – in fact two separate strong narratives – but they’re crowded out by the production’s obsessive use of music. Background music appears almost everywhere. Yes, it’s beautifully played under the direction of Hinal Pattani, but it has the effect of mollycoddling the hard-hitting aspects of the story with an overwhelming wave of slushy sentimentality. The scene, for example, where Rani is deciding whether her future lies with the man of her dreams or forging her own political career is muted by this blanket of superfluous romantic music – it’s as though the conversation took place in a hotel lift in Mumbai.

Abdul KarimThe Empress is a slightly odd blend of straight drama, interrupted by a few musical numbers – I accept it’s just possible that an early version of Bless Em All could have been sung by sailors at the time but it just feels anachronistic – and a spot of dance fantasy too. Most of the time these musical moments feel very out of place. However, there is a scene towards the end, where Karim promises to bring India to Victoria as she could never get there herself; and it reminded me of one of those strange – but also strangely effective – dream ballet sequences in the likes of South Pacific and Oklahoma. Bharatanatyam dance – beautifully executed by Tanya Katyal, exotic sweetmeats, lavish silks, all the sights and sounds of India are visited upon Victoria who laps it up like an excited child. A vivid dream shortly before her death? Some kind of medically induced hallucination? Or just a stage device for a bit of music and movement? I’m not sure – but, bizarrely, it works.

StagingOtherwise, the production looks good; simple, unobtrusive but authentic stage design from Rosa Maggiora and excellent costumes reflecting both the British and the Indian traditions at play. And the show benefits from having uniformly first-rate performances all round. Alexandra Gilbreath stands out as the surprisingly impish Queen Victoria, her grumpy frown (when used) belying her usually hidden inner charm. You really feel the anger and resentment when the officials, led by her unseen son Bertie, demand that she retracts the privileges she has granted to Karim – stressed and annoyed, she even mixes up her own pronouns of “we/our” and reverts to “I/my” in a very nice touch of 19th century misgendering. Francesca Faridany makes for a good sparring partner in the form of her lady in waiting, Lady Sarah, protecting Victoria from the inappropriate advances of her munshi and frequently getting into trouble for it.

NaorojiRaj Bajaj cuts a commanding and dignified figure as Karim and subtly shows us how he started to lord it over more minor characters as his fortunes rose – for example by politely patronising the artist whom Victoria has engaged to paint his portrait. Tanya Katyal is also excellent as Rani, a wide-eyed innocent youth who develops into a self-assured and perceptive woman. Aaron Gill gives a good performance as the rather reckless Hari, Avita Jay is a delightfully feisty Firoza and Simon Rivers is a strong, benign presence as the first British Indian MP Naoroji. There’s also excellent support from Nicola Stephenson as Lascar Sally, Miriam Grace Edwards as Georgina, Sarah Moyle in a number of roles including Rani’s unkind employer, and Oliver Hembrough as the lascivious Lord John Oakham.

HariRather like India herself, The Empress is a melting pot of narrative, style and imagination. Sometimes the story suffers from excess sentiment, sometimes it’s powerful and telling. But even when it’s at its weakest, it’s still rescued by excellent performances. Enjoyable, but somehow you feel it could just be a bit better than it is.  The Empress continues in rep at the Swan Theatre until 18 November 2023, and also plays at London’s Lyric Hammersmith between 4 – 28 October.

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Review – As You Like It, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 11th July 2023

As You Like ItThere’s currently a curious interest in theatre where the production is designed to draw the attention of the audience to rehearsal proceedings and backstage insights. A prime example is The Motive and the Cue at the National – and from December at the Noel Coward – which details the creative process that led to the Burton/Gielgud Hamlet on Broadway in 1964. Omar Elerian’s new production of As You Like It that opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre last month puts yet another perspective on a backstage approach to a production. Here we have a group of (they won’t mind me saying it) veteran actors, many of whom were in a production of the same play in 1978; and they have come together (with a few thrusting younger performers) to re-enact for us their 45-year-old performances.

Celia Touchstone and RosalindThey weren’t the only veterans at last night’s performance. Not only does this show clearly attract an older demographic, but I also clearly remember the 18-year-old me going to see this production when it moved to London’s Aldwych Theatre in September 1978. Look – here’s the programme!

Interestingly, none of the actors on stage in Stratford was in that Aldwych show – although I did notice one leading actor from the 1978 production in our audience! I recall how I was bowled over by the production, and for many years it was probably in the top ten shows I’d seen. I have a feeling  that some of the music in the current production – the arrangement of Under the Greenwood Tree for example – is either the same as, or extremely similar to, the musical arrangements in the 1978 production. So for me, I also had a lot of opportunity to wallow in the nostalgia of the evening.

PhoebeAna Inés Jabares-Pita’s design primarily concerns itself with a rehearsal room, where the actors present the play, although with all the pictures and written sheets on the back wall it reminded me more of a police murder hunt case room. Of course, it’s a totally artificial presentation in many ways. As the cast gradually arrive on stage at the beginning, they natter with the audience until a stage manager gives the nod that the show is due to start. Then Michael Bertenshaw, who plays Oliver, addresses the audience to explain what’s about to take place. On more than one occasion, James Hayes (Touchstone) turns to the audience to remind them that he is a classical actor, implying that he’s scraping the barrel by appearing in this show – indeed, on one exit, he adds to Shakespeare’s text, “I’m wasted here”. You get the drift. For reasons known to others but not to me, a rock band slowly descends on the stage like a deus ex machina at the end of the first act – giving the cast a chance to have a bop and a boogie. The modern cage contraption that forms this piece of rigging is totally at odds with the bucolic charm we’re straining to imagine and it gets in the way. Admittedly it lifts early in the second act, taking Orlando with it – heaven knows why.

SilviusThere are some nice moments where the older age of the actors is deliberately at odds with the younger age of the characters – David Fielder and Celia Bannerman as Silvius and Phoebe, for example, put an interesting slant on young romantic love. And Rosalind’s reworked epilogue, which reflects the autumn of everyone’s years, is a neat piece of writing – although, I’m not sure it was completely necessary, the epilogue as written by Shakespeare contains ageless pieces of advice! However, I couldn’t help asking myself, beyond entertainment for entertainment’s sake – and of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, what actually is the point of this production? And I don’t mean that negatively – it’s great to get a new perspective, and for the most part it works. But I  got the impression that they were doing this production this way simply because they could; to be honest, it’s more “filler” than “killer”.

RosalindThere are some lulls in the proceedings too; the second act suffers from a lack of scenery and a lack of costume, and whereas it’s easy to imagine the Duke’s Court in the Rehearsal Room it’s far harder to envisage woodland glades. At the end of the show, the back wall gives way to reveal a beautiful tableau of the Forest of Arden – it’s as idyllic a presentation as you could possibly imagine. And it’s at that point that you realise that thatthe Forest – is the main thing that has been lacking in the show. The episodic nature of the later courtship scenes, with Silvius, Phoebe, Audrey and so on, are normally fun as they dart playfully all over the stage forest, but in this production this all feels very static – and I confess, I did get a little bored, which is the cardinal sin of the theatre. It’s also when the forest is revealed, and the actors move towards it that the sense of nostalgia is at its most acute; when their voices start to merge with the recorded voices of the past, it feels like they are genuinely going back in time.

Rosalind and CeliaThere are some splendid performances that really keep the show lifted. Geraldine James as Rosalind and Maureen Beattie as Celia are a perfect pairing, and the evening revolves around them completely. James Hayes brings tons of comedy to Touchstone, and Malcolm Sinclair proves himself to be a remarkably youthful Orlando. Robin Soans does a terrific good cop bad cop routine as the two Dukes – Senior and Frederick; and amongst the younger members of the cast, I particularly enjoyed Rose Wardlaw, especially as Le Beau, realising after a while that he was meant to be French, and Tyreke Leslie whose calm quiet voicing of the role of Adam was very touching.

OrlandoIt’s very quirky, at times it’s very funny, occasionally it’s rather moving, but most of all it’s very charming. Perhaps it’s fair to say this is more of an experiment than an actual production per se, but it succeeds on those grounds. Despite its faults it’s still very entertaining and I’ve never seen a Shakespeare play performed this way before, so that’s a first!

TouchstoneP. S. I did like the fact that, unusually (but like the 1978 production) they didn’t cut Touchstone’s speech about rhetoric, which culminates in his insightful observation, “Your If is your only peacemaker – much virtue in If”. Remembering this production when I was writing an essay about this play at university back in 1980, I pounced upon this line as the key to the whole play, which I determined was all about the art of compromise. I read my essay as my tutor listened in stony silence. His verdict at the end was the brief but damning comment: “Possible interpretation”. In other words, I got it wrong.

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Hamnet, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 17th May 2023

HamnetRe-opening the Swan Theatre after its pandemic closure is Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s 2020 novel Hamnet, a fictionalised account of the Shakespeare family, based on their son who died aged 11. Like nearly all influential novels of the 21st century, I haven’t read it, but I daresay you have, gentle reader. And so have many other thousands, otherwise the production wouldn’t have more or less sold out at the Swan even before its opening, gaining at West End transfer at the Garrick at the end of September.

Will and AgnesBut first things first; let’s have a quick word about the refurbished Swan Theatre. Plunged into darkness by Covid, it’s sprung back refreshed three years later and looks a proper treat. Super-comfortable fold out chairs make it easier to get to your seat and give you a great view of the stage. The upper floors create the impression of luxury teak bannisters and give the whole venue a classy feel. This isn’t the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s little brother anymore, it’s a fully-fledged grown-up theatre all of its own. Fantastic job!

John and NedMaggie O’Farrell’s book transfers smartly to the stage, with a first act that depicts the early days of Will and Agnes’ courtship, her pregnancy with Susanna, their marriage (in that order), the later arrival of the twins Hamnet and Judith, and Will’s ascent in the playwrighting business, requiring him to move to London, keeping the family at home. The second act shows his rise to fame set against the backdrop of family activities and health problems back in Warwickshire. Judith is a sickly kid but Hamnet is a robust, precocious young cove with bags of energy and even more cheek.

Will and JohnSPOILER ALERT! When the Plague hits the village, it makes straight for Judith much to the devoted Hamnet’s horror. Agnes relies on her herbaceous remedies as usual, but the word goes out to Will that he must come home. Terrified that Judith will die, Will rushes home, only to be relieved to find a healthy Judith; but the Plague has taken Hamnet. The subsequent grief and ways in which the family members cope with it form the rest of the play. It’s a strong story, strongly told. Perhaps the first act is a little slow in part, but the second act races through with a growing sense of urgency as we reach the inevitable conclusion.

AgnesWhat’s in a name? asks Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet and it’s a question that gets a lot of attention in this play. Everyone knows who William Shakespeare is, but who’s this Agnes? Wasn’t he married to Anne Hathaway? Maggie O’Farrell discovered that in her father Richard’s will he names her as “my daughter Agnes”. So maybe Anne was just a shortened form or a pet-name for her; and it’s clearly the goal of both writer and adaptor to put her at the heart of the play, so she’s reinstated in her full Agnes glory. Neither the book nor the play mentions either the names Shakespeare or Hathaway in an attempt to leave their reputations behind and just portray them as an ordinary rural couple; thus they’re both only ever Agnes and Will.

HamnetAnd as for Hamnet; apparently it was a local variant on the name Hamlet, so when Will’s renowned tragedy of the same name appeared a few years after his son’s death, it was quickly assumed that the choice of name was clearly influenced by the lad. And it may well have been simply that obvious; or, it may be that Shakespeare took the name from the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, whose fortunes and adventures are clearly the source for Will’s eponymous tragic hero. Taking his son’s name in vain, without clearing it with Agnes first? Honouring the memory of his son in what would probably be thought of as his finest piece of writing? Or pure coincidence? Audience: you decide.

Burbage and WillThere is a little imbalance between the two acts; they almost feel like they’re telling two different stories. To help connect the two, Hamnet and Judith appear in spirit form in the first act, which adds to a sense of dramatic irony; we know the boy’s going to die soon and they don’t even know he’s going to be born yet. I thoroughly enjoyed the overlay of Will’s London theatricals on top of the crises happening back home; rehearsing the death of Tybalt whilst the Plague has hit the family, unable to control his temper during the final scenes of Comedy of Errors – and I thought it was a very nice trick to have the same actor play both Hamnet and Thomas, the boy actor who is struggling with the girls’ roles, emphasising how the two halves of Will’s life interweave.

Will and AgnesIt’s extremely well-acted throughout, but particularly by the main two actors, Madeleine Mantock as Agnes, and Tom Varey as Will. Ms Mantock plays Agnes full of spark as a girl and a young woman, which turns into strong, courageous resilience as the horrors of losing a child completely shape the rest of her life. Tom Varey’s Will also has a cheeky spark as a young man, that develops into a kind of maturity as he gets older, although of course he’s not averse to going out drinking with his theatrical buddies.

Joan and WillPeter Wight is excellent as John, Will’s gruff and impatient father, disapproving of everything his wayward son gets up to – and by association, with the rest of his family. He also entertains as the larger-than-life actor Will Kempe, all wind and ad-lib; very nice. There’s great support from Elizabeth Rider as Will’s hardworking mother Mary, Harmony Rose-Bremner as the grumpy Susanna, and Sarah Belcher’s vindictive Joan, Agnes’s stepmother.

Hamnet and JudithI really enjoyed Alex Jarrett’s performance as Judith; her brief speech about what do you call a twin whose other twin has died was possibly the most poignant moment of the whole production. What’s in a name? again. And it’s a very believable and winning performance from Ajani Cabey as Hamnet/Thomas, both sprightly and spritely, running rings around his mother and sisters, and hopelessly devoted to Judith.

Girls will be girlsA very enjoyable sideways glance at a family you think you know a little bit about but who in fact are largely anonymous to us today. Plenty of relevance to the present time, and an ultimately very rewarding evening at the theatre. Catch it at the Garrick from September 30th to January 6th if you’re too late to see it in Stratford!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

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!