Review – Richard III, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th May 2019

Richard IIIIt was five years ago that we saw that disastrous production of Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios, starring Martin Freeman. I say disastrous; it was from the angle of our seats, which were the (relatively expensive) ones on stage “to get closer to the action” – but in fact our view of the action was so totally interrupted by the set that we may as well have been listening to a radio play. Never again will I fall for the “get a seat on the set” gimmick – it’s way too risky.

So nebulous was our memory of that show that Mrs Chrisparkle and I went into this production of Richard III thinking it was the first time I’d ever seen it – and, to all intents and purposes, it was. Its not a play with which I’m particularly familiar, but that’s definitely been my loss all these years. Richard III (the character) combines the ambition of Lady Macbeth with the ruthlessness of Iago and the bloodlust of Titus Andronicus. He’s the archetypal nasty piece of work but what a joy it is to watch him scheme and slime his way around a stage.

Although Richard III only ruled from 1483-85, he certainly left his mark on the annals of history. I’m no expert, but I believe he wasn’t quite as bad a chap as popular culture would have us believe. Shakespeare offers us the Princes in the Tower episode as just one incident in a life of murderous manipulation, and the play is, basically, an observation of the motives and modus operandi of a Machiavellian maniac. That’s what makes it so enjoyable! We cower at his evil but giggle at how he overshares his total lack of shame.

John Haidar’s production for Headlong, in association with the Bristol Old Vic, Alexandra Palace, Oxford Playhouse and the Royal and Derngate, has just finished its tour last week in Northampton, and – no buts about it – it was an absolute triumph. Plantagenet though the king may be, there is a distinct modern feel to the production, with smart suits and jackets/turtle necks combos the order of the day; Richard himself sports a set of callipers which I doubt would have been available at the end of the fifteenth century. Rather than get bogged down in its language – apparently, uncut, it’s the longest Shakespeare play apart from Hamlet – the production concentrated on vivid characterisation, striking visual and sound effects, and creative use of a row of mirror doors surrounding the back of the stage. Feydeau would have been fuming with envy. The cuts and re-arrangements of the play (don’t expect it to start with Now is the Winter of our Discontent) work incredibly well to give it a fast pace and a clear vision.

The cast was superb throughout, but I have to mention three particular performances that stood out for me. There’s a gloriously elegant performance by Stefan Adegbola as Buckingham; immaculately presented as the courtier supreme, politely attending on the whim of his masters – loyal of course, but always with an ear out for chances of preferment. When he realises his chance to impress Richard by assisting his plans – even giving him ideas for villainy – his star rises; but once reason starts to kick in, and he doesn’t instantly support Richard’s plan to kill the princes in the tower, his fate is sealed; and that self-assured elegance becomes confused and furious rebelliousness. It’s a magnificent performance.

I was also very impressed with the physical stage presence of Heledd Gwynn in her roles as the sensible Hastings – far too sensible to survive under Richard – and henchman Ratcliff, but also as the chillingly slick murderer sent to despatch Clarence. You almost believe she’s listening and responding to his pleas for mercy; then she shocks us by proving herself a most worthy murderer. There are also great performances from Leila Mimmack as the hopeless Anne and Eileen Nicholas as the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother who – let’s just say – is very, very disappointed in him.

But it’s Tom Mothersdale’s performance as Richard that absolutely takes your breath away. Contorting himself in the most awkward of poses to suggest Richard’s deformity, he doth bestride that stage like a Colossus. Revelling in a wonderful range of facial reactions from pretend horror to faux modesty, from amused self-realisation to blinding fury, you cannot take your eyes of him for one moment. His soliloquies are never just him talking to himself; he’s always talking to us, the audience, proudly letting us into his filthy world so that we detest him – but we love him too, resentfully, as he makes us complicit in his wretchedness.

Our emotional reactions to Richard’s situation are very complex; when the spirits of all his victims arrive to taunt him – each blowing silver corpse dust into his face so that he is lost in a sea of ghostly talc – we’re completely supportive of the spirits wanting to seek revenge but also strangely sorry for Richard’s plight. And when they appear and disappear at him from behind their magic mirrors, the fear this engenders is terrifyingly real and dark. It’s a memorable image that remains with you long after the show.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mrs C start a standing ovation before, but this was a no-brainer. A sensational production brought alive by some truly outstanding performances. It would be a true Shakespearean tragedy if this was never to be seen on a stage again – someone really should snap it up! Gripping, terrifying, and funny too. First-class!

Production photos by Marc Brenner

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2017 – Shakespeare for Breakfast, 20th August 2017

Shakespeare for BreakfastI thought I’d make our earliest start of the week on the first morning whilst we were still not that tired – and it’s something we’re really looking forward to, Shakespeare for Breakfast, at C Venues – C on Chambers Street, at 10:00 on Sunday 20th. Here’s the official description: “The Bardic Breakfasters are back! C’s sensational Shakespearience returns for its 26th sell-out year, with free coffee and croissants! A pleasing plethora of pentameter, puns and pastry. Perfect for hardened Bard fans, blank verse virgins and those just after some quality fun over freshly-brewed coffee and freshly-baked croissants. ‘A bouncy and boisterous take on Willie’s work’ (List). ‘Well worth getting out of bed for’ (Independent). ‘No holds Bard’ (FringeGuru.com). ‘Irreverent humour… clever’ (Stage). ‘Side-splitting… glorious’ (BroadwayBaby.com). ‘Full of fun’ (RemoteGoat.com). ‘Sizzling’ (Scottish Daily Express). Free coffee and croissants! Book early.”

Last year we saw them slaughter A Midsummer Night’s Dream and it was just sensational. Not sure which play is getting the croissant treatment this year but it’s bound to be hilarious. Check back shortly after 11am to see just how funny it was. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

What can I say, as brilliant as ever! This year it was Macbe… I mean Gary, it’s unlucky to say Macbeth, ah no….. Five such likeable and funny performers giving it everything, and a really funny parody of the Shakespeare Play set in the cut throat world of the allotments of Thistly Bottom. Absolutely loved it, and a sell out as usual. A must see!

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2016 – Shakespeare for Breakfast, 22nd August 2016

Shakespeare for BreakfastIt was actually Mrs Chrisparkle who spotted this little nugget in the schedules, and she didn’t even seem put off by having to get up early to see it. It’s Shakespeare for Breakfast, on at +1 at C Venues – C, Chambers Street, at 10:00 am, on Monday 22nd. Let’s look at the blurb: “The bardic breakfasters are back! C’s sensational Shakespearience returns, for its 25th sell-out year, with free coffee and croissants! A pleasing plethora of pentameter, puns and pastry. Perfect for hardened Bard fans, blank verse virgins or those just after some quality fun over freshly-brewed coffee and freshly-baked coissants. ‘A bouncy and boisterous take on Willie’s work’ (List). ‘Well worth getting out of bed for’ (Independent). ‘No holds Bard’ (FringeGuru.com). ‘Irreverent humour… clever’ (Stage). ‘Side-splitting… glorious’ (BroadwayBaby.com). ‘Full of fun’ (RemoteGoat.com). ‘Sizzling’ (Scottish Daily Express). Free coffee and croissants! Book early.”

SforB castIf it really has been going for 25 years, and who am I to doubt, it must be doing something right! I believe this year we’re in for a dream of a Dream, so I am expecting a lot of Bottom humour and some very rude mechanicals. Check back around 11.15am to see if the cast of Emily Jane Kerr, Roseanna Connolly, Jonathan Davenport, Laura B Mortermore, and Noah Young were as funny as they sound, and by then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

Post-show update:

That was just the funniest thing! How come we’ve never heard of this before? Five brilliant actors take A Midsummer Night’s Dream and make a totally different play out of it, with so many hilarious cultural references and not a little audience participation. One of the best dishes of Shakespeare ever served. No wonder it’s been going 25 years. If anything is worth getting up for early on a Monday morning – this is it! 

Review – Twelfth Night, Oxford Shakespeare Company at Wadham College, Oxford, 1st August 2015

Twelfth NightWhat a crowd descended on Oxford last Saturday night! Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by not only Lady Duncansby and Sir William (her butler), and the Duchess of Dallington, but also Lady Lichfield and her daughter the ex-Duchess of Dudley who’s relinquished her title due to the fact that she has ideas above her station (apparently her station is Knightsbridge, not Smethwick Galton Bridge). Even our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra together with their Mum and Dad were there. Where’s Hello magazine paparazzi when you need them?

Gypsy CaravanI’m beginning to lose track of the number of Twelfth Nights we’ve seen recently. There was the English Repertory Theatre at Oxford Castle last year, where all the cast were sick and Sir Andrew Aguecheek had only been in the role for a day and so read from the book; there was Filter Theatre’s Rock concert version, 90 minutes and no interval; and there was the RSC’s more traditional production with Richard Wilson immaculately cross-garter’d and a genuinely funny Feste. Even the Oxford Shakespeare Company, whose Twelfth Night we were watching (hope you’re keeping up) had previously presented the play in 2008, in a very funny and camp production where Malvolio (James Lavender in the same role that he plays in this production) ended up wearing little more than a thong.

David AlwynFor some reason, this current production, directed by Nicholas Green, seems to be played a little less for laughs, and a little more on the brooding side. Maybe it’s the gypsy folk music that is scattered throughout the play that somehow – for me, at least – brings the energy of the show down a bit. Orsino’s requirement that the food of love keeps on playing is an invitation to the cast to let loose on a very moody concoction of instruments that never, to my relatively ignorant ears, quite seem to be properly in tune. I enjoyed the melody and structure of “the rain it raineth every day”, but I felt the other songs were a little, well, drab. It was almost as though the jollity allowance had been rationed in some kind of arts funding governmental austerity measure.

Alice ColesWe also found the play a little harder to follow than usual. Two or three of us, at least, didn’t understand the initial situation of the shipwreck and the apparent loss of Viola’s brother at sea; therefore an awful lot of the first half of the play made precious little sense to them at all. I was explaining to Secret Agent Code November in the interval that Viola was talking about the shipwreck with the sea captain in her first scene. “Oh, he was a sea captain,” she exclaimed, as I could visually imagine plot elements finally falling into place before her very eyes. For all its rough edges, last year’s Oxford Castle version did at least make the shipwreck very clear (by use of a paddling pool and lots of immersion). This OSC production is strictly dry land only.

William FindleyThere was another unfortunate element of confusion – of which I think Code November fell foul – in that the aformentioned James Lavender (playing Malvolio and assorted sea captains) and Robert Madeley (playing Feste and an officer) physically resemble each other, even to the extent of having the same coloured beard. In a production like this you expect cast members to double up roles anyway, but that made it doubly difficult to follow at first. Mrs C told me later she was able to work out which was which because one had a close-cropped beard, and the other was more free-flowing. But it wasn’t very helpful to have this confusion early on. It definitely resulted in some sacrifice of clarity in getting the story across.

Marie FortuneIt sounds as though I didn’t really enjoy it, doesn’t it? But I assure you I did. It’s always a delight to be sat in the gardens of Wadham College, with friends and family, post-picnic, enjoying open-air Shakespeare. It’s one of life’s little luxuries. And there were plenty of entertaining scenes and performances to relish. James Lavender’s Malvolio is a very believable study in pompous officialdom, primly checking his laptop, suffering no fools (how ironic is that), but swiftly losing his inhibitions when he believes Olivia fancies him. In this production, Malvolio’s “letter scene” is a superb piece of comedy, with Feste, Belch and Aguecheek by turns hiding and observing behind the gypsy caravan with great physical comic timing. Malvolio’s suppliers of cross-garters turned out to be from the S&M department at Ann Summers; who knew? I’m always struck just how cruel the characters are to Malvolio – yes, he’s a silly ass and probably deserves taking down a peg or two, Robert Madeleybut his humiliation is abject and complete, and then to be chucked in prison for further deprivation really is cruelty piled on cruelty. By the way, the prison scenes were staged brilliantly, with Mr Lavender’s mouth simply appearing through holes in anonymous black plastic sheeting – it reminded me of the opening sequence of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Samuel Beckett’s Not I. Credit to Mr Lavender, he held the commitment to Malvolio’s character all the way through, and his final protestations to Olivia and rancour against his taunters were full of dignity and quiet revenge. I’m completely on Malvolio’s side on this one. The others seem to get away with it scot-free. Mr Lavender gives an enormous boost to any open air Shakespeare. We saw him four years ago in the OSC’s Comedy of Errors and he stole every scene.

George HaynesI really liked Alice Coles as Viola; for the most part in Twelfth Night you only see her as Cesario, and a most impishly fetching young knave she made – definitely the prototype for Blackadder II’s Bob. Great acting with her eyes when she suspects she’s going to be found out; and her loving relief at having met Sebastian again was really quite touching. That was the other stand-out scene; at the end where all the true identities are revealed and the relationships that have developed just need a little re-focussing to get back to where they were before. The Secret Agent was hooting in delight at that scene. Molly Roberts was also excellent as Olivia, imperiously out of humour should anyone dare to knock at her door but subsequently girlishly excited at falling in love with Cesario. And I also really enjoyed the performance of Marie Fortune in a number of roles but primarily as Maria, where she really got to grips with the character’s earthy humour and sexually forward behaviour.

James LavenderSome of the men’s roles were played in a style very different from how they are normally portrayed. For instance, George Haynes was entertaining as a slightly less-foppish-than-usual Aguecheek, but still nicely conveying his timidity in conflict and ineffectuality in everything else. Similarly, William Findley’s Sir Toby was less gross than usual, coming across as a rather friendly drunk with a touch of Irish charm rather than the larger-than-life grotesque that you sometimes see on stage. Orsino is traditionally quite noble and courtly, whereas OSC favourite David Alwyn (third year in a row for him here) portrayed him as something of a hippy wanderer, his bare chest besmirched by the elements in a way not usually seen in Illyria. I know his appearance encouraged at least two female members of our party to try to read the tattoo only just concealed by his waistband. Feste can be played either jokily or sombrely and Robert Madeley went for the darker end of the spectrum. As a result you might equate him more like Lear’s wise fool that sees the truth than a traditional court jester. Mr Madeley’s voice was sometimes a little soft in comparison to the rest of the cast, and, as the lead singer whenever they did group numbers, it meant that his voice tended to become outshone by the instruments.

Molly RobertsSo it was a good production from the OSC but perhaps not one of their greatest. Nevertheless, everyone had a wonderful time and we’re always happy to keep coming back. Memories of their spooky Macbeth, petulantly mannered Earnest, and simply hilarious Merry Wives (2005 version) guarantee our annual return!

Review – Comedy of Errors, Oxford Shakespeare Company, Wadham College Oxford, 13th August 2011

Comedy of ErrorsThere are few greater privileges in life than to be able to relax in the beautiful gardens of Wadham College Oxford, take in a picnic, enjoy a bottle of something velvety, and watch a performance by the Oxford Shakespeare Company. We’ve been coming here for many years now, and it’s always a joy. Some years are more joyous than others, depending on the plays. This summer they are bringing back two of their greatest hits. One is The Importance of Being Earnest, which we saw first time around, and is a super show. We may, if we get time and the weather is kind, try and see it again. The other is The Comedy of Errors, first performed by the OSC in 2004, one year before we discovered them. So it was with relish that we bagged our front row seats for last Saturday’s matinee.

Even if you’re a Shakespeare purist, “Comedy of Errors” is one of those plays that really lends itself to modernising and being messed around. On paper, the opening scene is exceptionally wordy and really rather tedious; but there’s no escaping it, otherwise the rest of the play doesn’t make sense. Chris Pickles’ delightful production does a huge amount of messing around with the play, re-inventing that opening scene in Ephesus TV’s studio as a game show, with host and hostess in sparkly garments, challenging Egeon to raise the money for his liberty else he dies, and all just for a bit of fun.

Another piece of inventiveness in this production is the use of Hollywood style songs, which certainly raise a smile and have been chosen cleverly to reflect the story. Some of the cast prove themselves to be very good at the song-and-dance routines! As a device, this didn’t quite work for me, but mainly because of the way I first encountered this play. When I was 17 I was lucky enough to be in the front row at the Aldwych for the RSC’s production by Trevor Nunn, with songs by Guy Woolfenden and starring Judi Dench, Michael Williams, Roger Rees, Francesca Annis, Mike Gwilym and many other brilliant performers. Guy Woolfenden took Shakespeare’s lines and wove them into brilliant, story-progressing songs. The Hollywood songs in this production are apt, but they don’t move the story forward – my bugbear in musical theatre.

Another joke that wore thin for me was the use of sound effects. Maybe I’m still suffering from Government Inspector overkill. Part of the circus/madcap/Keystone Kops element in this production includes cheeky sound effects to accompany many of the bits of comedy business. A horn honk for a slap on the tummy, a kazoo rasp for a kick up the bum, a fart sound for… well a fart actually; you get the picture. Funny and clever – at first… but then I have to confess it did slightly get on my nerves by the time we approached the interval. There was one extremely good sound effect – the sassy symbols that heralded each arrival of the Courtesan, more of whom later.

Howard GossingtonNow those topics are out of the way, I can tell you about the wonderful cast. One actor plays both Antipholuses and one both Dromios. That calls for a lot of hard work! Stand out brilliant was Howard Gossington as Antipholus of Syracuse and Ephesus. I had wondered how they would differentiate between the two characters – costume changes I supposed. And yes they do – Antipholus of Ephesus wears a gracious tie and sports a well to do hat, whilst his Syracusian brother has a tie-dye type thing and a fedora. But it’s almost unnecessary, as Mr Gossington invests both brothers with completely different vocal patterns and mannerisms; Ephesus is a rather posh travelling type who obviously went to a good school, and Syracuse is a bit of a Millwall supporting troublemaker. Both characterisations really worked well and it’s a great performance.

Nick ChambersNick Chambers as the two Dromios also puts in a good comic performance but the differences between the two servants are not so easy to define and so we rely a little more on his changing hat – white for Ephesus, black for Syracuse. I particularly enjoyed the relish with which he described the ghastly Nell, who had fallen for him.

Alicia Davies For the Antipholine love interest, Alicia Davies is a stunning Adriana, in a sexy red dress and with cleavage bursting for freedom. She captures all the comedy of Adriana’s shrewish tendencies superbly, although she may slightly underdo her tenderer moments. Alyssa Noble Alyssa Noble makes an excellently bookish Luciana, and preens with hilarious pleasure when Antipholus makes amorous advances towards her.

Benjamin WellsThe other members of the cast all bring great verve and vivacity to their characters; amongst the many parts they play, Benjamin Wells’ Angelo is Alan Sugar with added elegance; Kai SimmonsKai Simmons is a superb Marlon Brando Godfather Balthazar, with a brilliant Mafia voice and mannerisms; Andrew Piper’s Officer is a hilarious sixth member of the Village People; and stealing every scene,Andrew Piper James Lavender, appearing as every other female character, creates a Germanic Jessica Rabbit Courtesan with a high level of naughtiness about her – which included in the show we saw, her singling me out for some amorous attention and the promise of free Bratwurst after the performance. That was just one of many really funny interactions between cast and audience throughout the whole show that were carried off with great aplomb.

James LavenderThere’s a marvellously surreal sequence where Dromio appears to apologise for a bad bit of acting because he can’t quite understand Shakespeare’s drift, whereupon the whole cast turn into a bunch of text-dissecting pretentious luvvies trying to get to the heart of the meaning. I was completely fooled by the scene and genuinely thought Dromio was annoyed with his performance, until the rest chipped in. It’s a magnificent piece of invention. There’s also a bang up-to-date scene with Antipholus’ shopping bags with light references to looting and cross-dressing. Extremely funny stuff.

I’d highly recommend it. Even the aspects I didn’t really care for didn’t in any way spoil my enjoyment of this gusto-filled performance by a captivating cast in fabulous surroundings.

Review – King Lear, Donmar Warehouse Tour, Milton Keynes Theatre, 16th March 2011

King LearWe’ve seen at least three Lears over the past few years. We were very lucky to get good seats for Ian McKellen’s Lear in London a few years ago, and more recently we were slightly less lucky to see the late Pete Postlethwaite’s Lear at the Young Vic. Postlethwaite was excellent but I had lots of problems with the production itself. On the other hand McKellen’s Lear was as majestic as you could imagine.

Derek Jacobi So it was with great expectations that we witnessed Derek Jacobi’s interpretation of Lear. And I must say it’s a very different, but completely valid and credible portrayal of the misguided king. Whereas Lear is often a towering, bullying, bossy kind of guy, Jacobi’s pre-heath Lear is spoilt, petulant and wheedling, insisting on a peck on the cheek from Goneril before she starts buttering him up, his voice going very high tenor when he wants to get his way – you can imagine his bedroom having a royal cot with lots of toys on the floor. His descent into madness isn’t as gradual as some Lears – to me he seemed pretty on top of his wits until his encounter with Poor Tom, which seemed to flip him over the edge. When he referred to Tom as a philosopher I felt the madness kick in. Technically, as you would expect from an actor of his stature, it’s a beautiful performance. Every word is clear; no line is wasted; his eyes and his manner convey precise meaning when the Shakespearian language gets a little dense.

Gina McKeeThere are lots of other jewels in this crown of a production. If self-deluded Lear is every inch a king then Gina McKee’s Goneril is every inch a bitch. When she tells Lear how much she loves him in the opening scene her words are not directed at her father but at Cordelia, her eyes challenging her to “beat that” when it comes to her turn. It’s a very mature and physical performance – when she comes on strong to Edmund she really turns on the sex-factor, frankly masturbating in front of him. You wouldn’t want to upset her; I’ve never seen Albany being grabbed by the testicles to mock his weakness before. “Goneril and the Gonads” makes a very sharp impression, and the audience cringes with discomfort.

Justine MitchellShe is well matched in villainy by Justine Mitchell’s Regan. Looking all butter-wouldn’t-melt she beautifully underplays the scorn with which she suggests Lear’s retinue is diminished from a hundred to barely one. Her squeal of childish glee when Gloucester’s eyes are removed was stunningly horrific. It had all the excitement of a little girl unable to contain herself at a birthday party.

Alec Newman As the other bastard in this play, although this time a real Bastard too, Alec Newman is a very dashing Edmund, and totally believable; you’d swear he was telling the truth about Edgar’s plot to kill his father. Some Edmunds are rather cold and collected in their approach to their plot, but this is a very excitable one, glorying in his wicked plans, impatient to get on in life. When he’s playing Goneril and Regan off against each other you can see his genuine delight at the sport, it’s a really sexy game for him.

Gideon Turner The rest of the cast all play their parts very well, Gideon Turner’s Cornwall was very convincing as the unapologetically malevolent putter-outer of Gloucester’s eyes (I particularly liked –if that is the word – the way he threw the second eye on to the floor and you heard it bounce) and Gwilym Lee Gwilym Lee as Edgar’s Poor Tom character did actually bring a tear to my eye with his sorrow at seeing his blind father. As is often the case, Lear’s entry with the dead Cordelia in his arms brought a lump to the throat. It was Jacobi’s “Howl! Howl! Howl!” (Act V Scene III, line 256) that did it.

One thing I really admired about this production is how there was barely any staging or furniture. The unchanging set is just three walls and a ceiling made of planks with various shades of white and grey daubed on them (with additional splashes of red after Gloucester’s blinding). Lights behind slim gaps between the planks create the lightning effect for the heath. For props and furniture, there was a chair, a joint-stool, a map, a few letters, some jewellery and swords and a bit of earth for Edgar’s Tom make-up. This really means that all your attention is on the words, the characters, the acting. Having seen a number of over-staged productions recently it’s thrilling to see the drama evolve unadulterated by minutiae.

Additionally I should mention that Adam Cork won the Olivier Award for best Sound Design for this production, which is a fitting reward for the moody, scary, disquieting atmospheres that he has created. Lear on the heath is a very different interpretation from the traditional – the words are delivered much more calmly and quietly than usual – but the sound design helps create a very spooky experience.

It’s excellent that the Donmar is making this production available to a much larger audience. The Milton Keynes Theatre was sold out for a Wednesday evening, which is good news for business. It’s a great, stark production that lets the text do the talking and with some fine characterisations of its villains and victims to inhabit it.