Review – The James Plays, National Theatre of Scotland, Derngate, Northampton, 16th April 2016

The James PlaysAs a Sassenach, it’s fairly shocking how Scottish history pre-1603 didn’t get taught at school when I was a lad. Everyone knows that James VI of Scotland became James I of England, but who were James I – V? Thanks to Shakespeare, we know of Macbeth, and by association Duncan, but I reckon most English people would be hard-pressed to give you the name of any other Scottish monarch. So one function of Rona Munro’s The James Plays is already sorted – filling the gaping holes in the brains of us folk south of the border with some of the missing bits of Scottish history. It’s almost a shame she confesses in the programme that she made some of it up.

James IThe James Plays were premiered in 2014 in a joint production between the National Theatre of Scotland, the National Theatre of Great Britain and the Edinburgh International Festival. Now they’re back for a UK and International tour, popping up for weekends in a theatre near you, where all three plays are performed on each day – James I in the morning, James II for the matinee, and James III in the evening. What struck me was how self-contained each play is. Mrs Chrisparkle and I grasped the production with all our mettle and saw all three plays on the same day – rather like we did with Young Chekhov last year. But that isn’t necessary. You don’t even need to see them in the chronological order, although the final tableau of James III makes more sense if you do.

Steven MillerEach play also has its own very distinctive vibe, with the three kings having very different personality characteristics. James I – The Key Will Keep The Lock is on a grand scale, full of warrior declamations, court scenes, a Royal Wedding, and plenty of bloody deaths. It’s the tale of the ascent of the king and his subsequent downfall. It’s the one that felt most Shakespearean to me; it’s also, by far, the funniest. Yes, you don’t expect these plays to be funny, do you? At times, James I (the play, not so much the man) is hysterically funny. James II – Day of the Innocents feels much more introverted by comparison, dealing with the shy boy king and his growing friendship with William Douglas. Once again it’s a play featuring the strategies of war and political motivations, but it’s seen more from the perspective of emotions and relationships. It also sports a tremendous trick on the audience with a repeated scene where his mother becomes his wife – you’ll have to see it to appreciate what I mean. James III – The True Mirror has an almost surreal atmosphere at times, with a king whose grasp on sanity is sometimes questionable, and a Royal court in disharmony due to adultery and financial mishandling, but ending with a more optimistic sense of what the future is going to hold.

EnsembleThe three plays are directed by Laurie Sansom and it’s a pleasure to welcome him back to the theatre where he was Artistic Director until 2013. I can’t think of a safer pair of hands to tackle this triptych of treachery than Mr Sansom. Having seen a number of his productions, I remain convinced that no one can create a pure sense of ensemble within a cast like he can. I don’t know how he does it. Maybe he adds a little cement to their breakfast cereal in the mornings. But whenever you see a Sansom show you can instantly recognise that amazing understanding between cast members which leads to a generosity of performance, a truly confident fluidity of movement, and a communal sense that they’re all in it together. You can even see this in the casting; one actor will take a major role in one of the plays, then merely be listed as ensemble in another. Not that ensemble is a second-class role when Laurie’s at the helm.

StewartsFor this production you can choose from the standard auditorium seating or tiered seating on the stage. I’m usually jealous of people who see a production from the stage because I always think they’re getting an intimate involvement with the action that I’m missing out on. That’s because, when I was 15, I went on a school trip to see Equus,- brave of the teacher if nothing else – and we were perched on on-stage benches in spitting distance of the late Colin Blakely and Gerry Sundquist and it was theatrical magic. However, it wasn’t that long ago that I retried the experiment with onstage seating for Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios and it was a total disaster. Couldn’t see a bloody thing. So this time I went with my gut reaction to take my usual Row G of the Stalls and it was the best decision. There would be a few scenes where you could not see what was going on if you were seated on stage, and you would certainly lose the overall impact of the grand spectacle. Plus, there’s a socking great sword stuck into the stage and if you were sat behind that, I doubt if you could see past the hilt.

Don't trust this familyAs I suggested earlier, you can’t pick out one star performer or role who leads the cast as you might in most standard productions. So let’s start with the kings and work backwards. James I is played by that charismatic and exciting actor Steven Miller, whom we last saw as the most convincingly manipulative Iago in Frantic Assembly’s Othello. He brings to the role a sense of innate nobility and quiet power which makes so strong a contrast with Henry V and the ruffian Stewart family whose capture he witnesses and whose company he has to endure. He really brings out the humanity of the character, trying to do the right thing and to balance his regal and family obligations. He also adds a tremendous naiveté to the whole wedding scene. I think he’s definitely One To Watch.

James IIAs James II, Andrew Rothney is totally believable as the nervous little boy shutting himself away in his kist, slowly finding his confidence to become an assertive young man. Is it wrong of me to wish that his birthmark hadn’t been shaped like the outline of Scotland? But I also thought Mr Rothney was chillingly superb as the malicious Walter Stewart in James I, scornfully patronising the king and justifying his own inhumane behaviour. Matthew Pidgeon’s James III is an increasingly disturbing portrayal of a man on the edge, constantly pushing at barriers to see what he will get away with next. With his eyeliner and ever closer interest in all things camp, he reminded me of a psychotic Tim Minchin. And his Henry V is a brilliantly rumbustious and argumentative presence, combining arrogant brutality with a surprising vulnerability. Three fantastic performances.

Andrew RothneyThese regal leaders have some feisty women to contend with too. Rosemary Boyle is brilliant as Joan, particularly in her younger days, fussing and fuming with an explosive vitality, assuming an air of responsibility whilst she’s still really just a little girl. Her torment as she is married to the unpredictable king is wonderfully portrayed in the scene where he is late – then absent – for dinner when they should be providing hospitality to the Stewarts. Blythe Duff’s Isabella is an unapologetically assertive opponent who’s not above psyching out the queen with her “soup”, but her reaction to her personal tragedy of losing her sons is genuinely heartbreaking, and her perpetual presence up in the prison is really moving. She’s also terrific as the sarcastic but also kindly Annabella, a hanger-on at court but giving much needed support to her self-hating great-nephew at the end. Malin Crépin is excellent as James III’s queen Margaret, a true survivor, combatting her liege’s excesses by distracting him with colourful scarves, carrying on the business of ruling behind his back, defeating the influence of his girlfriend with the use of the mirror, and even assuming power in his absence.

James IIIOther stand out performances include Sally Reid as the cheeky but loyal Meg, sent as a “present” to Joan and who becomes James II’s nanny; Andrew Still, outstanding as William Douglas, James II’s boyhood friend but eventual enemy; John Stahl, forceful and dominant as Murdac the Regent of Scotland prior to James I’s coronation; Ali Craig, as the aggressive and powerful Big Jim Stewart; Peter Forbes as the wretched Balvenie, picking his way through the politics to get the best deal for himself; and Daniel Cahill, as the son that James III didn’t care for and abandoned, who develops into a 14-year-old warrior and, in a very moving and brave final scene, comes to terms with his regicidal action and prepares to become James IV hereafter – kudos to you sir. But, as I said earlier, this is primarily an ensemble production and every single member of the cast gives to the day a huge commitment, great style, and brings the best out of Rona Munro’s wonderfully modern text.

Mary Annabella and BalvenieExpect a day of fantastic spectacle, superbly evocative music, and thoroughly engrossing drama. The costume, and most particularly lighting departments exceed all expectations and play a truly dynamic role in the overall production. Yes, I did think the second play would have benefited from being about twenty minutes shorter; and yes, although it was highly amusing in its anachronism, I was most surprised that the court of James III was so keen on The Human League’s back catalogue. But, above all, expect a day of electric performances and riveting drama. The tour continues till June and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

P. S. I bumped into Laurie Sansom during the interval of James III. I told him he hadn’t lost it. He seemed relieved.

Review – Othello, Frantic Assembly, Oxford Playhouse, 21st October 2014

OthelloOne of the great things about Shakespeare is that you can play him dead straight, at the time in which the play was written, all Elizabethan costume, jesters and madrigals, and it works just fine. Or you can jazz him up and modernise him, setting the play in any era, under any governmental regime, anywhere in the world, and as like as not it will adapt to its new surroundings – to some extent. I wasn’t overly keen on the 1970s setting of the recent Richard III – a bit cynical, I thought; but I loved the anarchic rock concert of Filter Theatre’s Twelfth Night, the East London Comedy of Errors at the National a couple of years ago, and all those anachronistic garden capers at the Oxford Shakespeare Company are a joy.

Frantic Assembly’s Othello takes place in a pub; a world where power struggles and sex take place on the pool table, where private arguments are carried out in the Ladies’ toilet, where chalking the end of your man’s cue is foreplay, where Venetian sea skirmishes happen in the car park, where broken bottles of Stella and baseball bats replace Shakespeare’s knives and “bright swords”. It’s an environment where hail fellow well met can turn in an instant to You’re going home in a St John’s Ambulance. It’s a place where courtship rituals can be at their most provocative, with the inevitable rivalries, jealousies, passions and secrets that follow; everything from love to hate and all that’s in between. In other words, a perfect place to set Othello.

Iago and RoderigoNine performers play ten roles in this neatly compressed and creatively scissored adaptation by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett. There’s no Duke, no Gratiano, no Clown; no sundry gentlemen, messengers, sailors, senators or other attendants; cutting away some extraneous characters creates an additional sense of urgency and focus as Iago sets about manipulating all the pub regulars in rapid crescendo, like some godlike puppeteer. It’s really not for purists; speeches are swapped around and given to other characters, completely out of context – I can’t help but think that if you were seeing this production to help you with English Literature A level, it could confuse you more than assist. But that’s really not the point of it. The point is to make a dynamic, punchy, vivid drama in a recognisable setting, whilst retaining the original’s linguistic style and main themes – which, as always with Shakespeare, never go out of fashion and always remain relevant.

The Moor of VeniceYou enter the auditorium to the loud jangling sound of technothrob (although there’s no jukebox, there’s maybe a rave going on somewhere) which really sets the mood of sweaty youth going for it hammer and tongs; in fact, throughout the whole play the invasive music by Hybrid becomes a useful tool in speeding the story along to its inexorable conclusion. The set and design are excellent, portraying a seedy pub that hasn’t had money spent on it for years. Old, cheap furnishing, grimy wallpaper – we’ve all been in that kind of watering hole. The pool table is the centre of the action, the place where the pecking order is settled, the natural magnet for all the testosterone bubbling under the surface. The fruit machine becomes a hideaway for onlookers and eavesdroppers, its flashing lights creating a hollow sense of excitement in this drab venue. If this is where you go for a good time – then you need to up your game a little.

Othello and DesdemonaThis modern setting is obviously going to attract more younger people to the theatre – and I’m all for that. However, I did have a slight panic when I saw quite how many under 18s there were at the performance we attended last Tuesday night. In a play that poses many questions about prejudice, I guess it highlighted one of mine – a fear that too many youngsters in a theatre leads to giggling, chatting, fidgeting, texting and over-whooping. Well, in the modern vernacular, My Bad. Yes there was a whoop when it started. After that – silence, attention, mesmerisation; that unmistakable body language of people sitting as far forward in their seats as possible in an attempt to get closer to the action; proportionate reactions of laughter and horror to what’s happening on stage. Whatever it is they’re doing in this production, they’re doing it right. The sold-out audience was totally rapt.

Pool players balletI was expecting a modern telling of the story; what I wasn’t expecting was such excellent physical theatre. The incorporation of balletic movement and mime into some set pieces worked astoundingly well. It begins with a lengthy but compelling scene where the characters confront their passions, hopes and fears around the pool table, jostling for prominence, ridiculing the weak, exercising laddish behaviour to the full – all done to riveting dance and movement direction by Eddie Kay. Naturally it distances the performance from reality to a certain extent – you don’t normally get pool players doing a pas de deux – but it’s no more unreal than spending the next 100 minutes talking in iambic pentameters. There’s another scene that depicts Cassio getting drunk, acted out in a similar way. It’s a few minutes of utterly stunning physical theatre, performed by the cast with strength, precision and humour. A fantastic mix of styles that really stands out.

Cassio's having a fewAny decent production of Othello has got to have a strong powerful Iago. Steven Miller is perfect. He’s superbly manipulative, wheedling, conniving, and ruthless and you believe in him 100%. When he’s dropping all the hints to Othello about Desdemona’s alleged infidelity, that are purely designed for Othello to latch his suspicions on to, even I started believing him, and I’ve seen the play before. Considering that, depending on your interpretation, this play has at least some element of racism in it, Mr Miller even has the palest of complexions to make the greatest contrast with Othello. Iago has to adopt different tones with so many of the different characters, and Mr Miller gets that variation of tone brilliantly. Mark Ebulue’s Othello stands slightly apart from the rest of the group – as he should – more statesmanlike in the gang, more thoughtful in his responses, and, naturally, with more of his attention on Desdemona than on the lads. His decline into jealousy and barbaric revenge is very neatly done, reacting automatically to almost every titbit thrown out by Iago. Not sure it ever quite reaches tragic hero status, but you probably don’t often get one of those in a public bar anyway.

Kirsty Oswald plays Desdemona with a superb balance between what my mother would have called a “good-time girl” who hangs around blokes in bars but also speaks with gentle and innocent eloquence with her beloved Othello. The balance is very well depicted when she is driven to anger by Othello’s blundering stupidity – no demure sweet girl this, but one who is well able to stand up for herself against the leader of the pack – despite her distress at his falling out of love with her. It’s a very well judged performance. I also very much liked Ryan Fletcher as Cassio, quick to ire, even quicker to overdo the shots, full of bluster and easily fooled; and a chavtastic portrayal of Roderigo by Richard James-Neale, with quirky vocal mannerisms and ineffectual bombast – extremely effective.

IagoI’m not a fan of violence and there’s quite a lot of it in this production. Even when masked by strong dance and movement, there’s no hiding from the gruesomeness of the bloodletting and the old-fashioned kickings meted out. The car park three-way assault by and on Roderigo, Cassio and Iago looks horribly realistic and brutal. Whilst I appreciate that this is the way of life in some places, and that it wasn’t out of place in this production, I still felt that it glorified violence, and I’m uncomfortable with that. I must say though that the final scene, laden with violence as it is, created a stunning visual tableau at the end. The fact that Iago and Emilia are married was only obscurely referenced – I’d actually forgotten about that relationship and it wasn’t until the very end that it was made clear – I had thought she was rather gung-ho in her not caring much about Iago’s taking the handkerchief – that explained it. And another pet hate – no interval! With 110 minutes or so of intense drama, I was shifting buttocks about three quarters of the way in, and I really could have done with a fifteen minute break. There were plenty of points around the Act Three mark where a pause would have created a dramatic cliffhanger, ready for the action to continue once we’d had a short rest. The drive to have no interval is like a false machismo: “My production is so hard that you can’t let the intensity drop”. To all those directors and producers who think this – you’re wrong.

Oth and DesSo with a few minor cavils I’d say this is a really exciting and punchy evening at the theatre that brings an old classic right up to date and exposes its bitter and harsh truths in an unexpectedly suitable new way. The tour continues to Leicester, Doncaster, Birmingham, Salford and the Lyric Hammersmith. If you like your Shakespeare in your face – and you’re not a purist – this is definitely for you!

P.S. If you want to know more about the production and how it grew into what it is today there is an excellent resource at Frantic Assembly’s website.

Review – Peter James’ A Perfect Murder, Milton Keynes Theatre, 5th April 2014

Perfect MurderI love a murder mystery – Poirot, Miss Marple, Dalgleish, Morse (to include Lewis and Endeavour, of course) – it’s pure escapism, a challenge to the little grey cells, and, when done with aplomb, can also be scary, or funny, or both. Mrs Chrisparkle is very fond of the books of Peter James; in fact she and Lady Duncansby swap them during coffees and shopping trips. I haven’t discovered them yet, but I am assured that “Not Dead Yet” is a riveting read.

Simona Armstrong and Steven MillerSo I thought it would be a popular choice to see this touring production of Peter James’ A Perfect Murder, his 2010 novella (160 pages long according to Amazon). I thought it might become a springboard for me to start reading his books and spur Mrs C on to reading some more. Well I can’t compare it with his written work (and Mrs C hasn’t read this particular book yet) but her comment after the play was – “if he was hoping to sell a lot of books on the strength of this show he might have to think again”.

Les Dennis and Claire GooseThat sounds quite harsh to me – it’s not that bad a play at all; but I guess if you rate the books really highly and have quite precise and demanding expectations of how his plots might translate onto the stage – as well as how his detective Roy Grace might appear in the flesh (so to speak) – the result is likely to be a disappointment; and that, I think, is what Mrs C experienced. OK, this is no masterpiece, but it’s a lightly amusing, cleverly structured, frothy piece of nonsense with more twists than a plate of fusilli.

Gray O'Brien and Claire GooseIt’s hard to tell you much about the plot without giving the whole game away – and in a murder mystery that’s unforgiveable. Suffice to say, Victor Smiley, a middle-aged IT manager with an ironic surname, is going to seed, with his only enjoyment coming from regular visits to an eastern European hooker. He and his wife are trapped in a loveless, bitter marriage where the only pleasure they get comes from taunting each other. Victor confesses to his prostitute that the only way out of his miserable existence is to bump his (well-insured) wife off, and then he (and the prostitute if she wants) can live happily ever after. He says he has devised the perfect murder – nothing can go wrong. But do such plans ever really succeed? That’s basically all I knew about the story before I saw it, and it’s just enough to whet your appetite without spoiling Scene Two onwards.

Simona Armstrong and Les DennisI did have a couple of problems with the play – firstly the characters are all either slightly or very unlikeable (well maybe not the policeman) so you don’t in any way identify with any of them. There’s a major twist in the story that is so unlikely as to be quite ludicrous, although one does have to concede that I suppose it might, just might, possibly, at a push, conceivably, happen. The plot includes elements of the supernatural, which seemed a bit out of place in the suburban setting of Saltdean – although to be fair the dénouement takes care of them. But there’s one brief moment in Act Two where a character appears at a door, then seems to disappear, and then another character appears a second later at the same door without apparently bumping into the first character at the same time. It’s quite an essential moment to the plot – but I don’t think in real life it could happen. Maybe I think too much.

Claire Goose and Gray O'BrienNevertheless the cast work well together to create these rather bleak relationships and bungled solutions. Les Dennis is perfect as the slightly past-his-best, completely selfish, occasionally mischievous, occasionally devious Victor, a man set in his miserable ways and resentful of everything that goes on around him. He is nicely matched by Claire Goose as his spiteful wife Joan, never missing an opportunity to belittle Victor, and rather good at spooked-out screaming when things go awry. Together they provide a credible insight into this self-centred, unkind marriage; they absolutely deserve each other – if you were married to either one of them they would drive you insane. They have very good support from Gray O’Brien as the “plumber” Don, whose bare chest got a small round of elderly whoops of approval (I don’t know, these matinee pensioners have no idea how to behave at a theatre); Simona Armstrong as psychic hooker Kamila (I enjoyed her when she was “Romanian” Maria in “How do you solve a problem like…” a few years ago) and Steven Miller as a quietly determined D. C. Roy Grace, even though he was absolutely nothing like how Mrs C had envisaged the character. He isn’t actually in the original book, but has been letrasetted-in for the play adaptation, with the intention of showing what the young Grace might have been like in his early days. Maybe, for Grace aficionados, this was a mistake.

Steven MillerWhilst you knew that the storyline as it stood at the end of Act One was never going to be the end result, it was still impossible to predict which way the plot would turn, and I certainly didn’t guess the final outcome until it was actually happening before my eyes. The play went down very well with the audience, and within the limits of a murder mystery written purely for fun and entertainment, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Mrs C was still not overly impressed though – but she did enjoy it more than The Mousetrap.