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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

Review – The Merry Wives of Windsor, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 14th August 2018

The Merry Wives of WindsorAh, The Merry Wives of Windsor. The name sounds so innocent doesn’t it? Tea on the lawn at Runnymede. Happy jumble sales at Datchet. Street parties for the Queen down Windsor High Street. Well indeed, it was the Queen who wanted this in the first place, as the first scene of Fiona Laird’s new production at the RSC showed at first hand; a projection of Queen Elizabeth I querulously observing that her favourite Falstaff was being written out of Shakespeare’s next play, so she demands a new offering, showing Sir John in love, to be ready in two weeks. Much to Shakespeare’s chagrin.

FalstaffThe ever constant challenge to make new productions of Shakespeare plays modern and relevant is just as valid in the frothy comedies as it is in the heavyweights. But Merry Wives is a significant play in many ways and deserves treating seriously. It’s one of the few Shakespeare plays that is completely original. It is the only one to be written entirely in prose. It’s the only one to be concerned with middle-class life in a small English town; to that extent, it’s the most similar in structure to a modern-day sitcom. Not uniquely, but it’s one of the plays where the action is most driven by female characters; and where female characters win the day. It’s also a contender for being Shakespeare’s funniest play. No wonder it keeps coming around, again and again.

Evans, Pistol, Bardolph, NymThis is the 5th time I’ve seen the play; George Murcell as Falstaff at the now defunct St. George’s theatre in Tufnell Park in 1977; Peter Jeffrey in the RSC’s production at the Barbican in 1986; the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s productions in the grounds of Wadham College in 2005 and 2013; and now David Troughton as the randy big man with the RSC again in Stratford. Each one marvellous in their own way; and this latest production has more entertainment value than you can shake a stick at.

CaiusAnd that’s down to the engagement of one Mr Toby Park, boss of Spymonkey, as Physical Comedy Director. We’ve seen Spymonkey several times, with their endlessly creative, pomposity-puncturing, ridiculousness-worshipping productions; if you’ve never seen a Spymonkey production, You Haven’t Lived. There are elements of Spymonkey-business running through this show like a stick of rock. But does the double-directorship work, dovetailing the comic business with the rest of it? Or is it an Eton Mess? (See what I did there?)

Mistresses Ford and PageI usually agree with the old saying, less is more. Maybe it’s because of my innate conservatism (small C, please note.) Maybe it’s due to my Public School upbringing – you’re not meant to have fun. If it hurts, it’s doing you good. Or maybe it’s because I value quality over quantity, in virtually all matters. However, when it comes to Spymonkey, I change my mind. In this production they throw absolutely everything at it. From the disgusting wheelybin to the pink flamingos by the side of the Fords’ swimming pool, from the stagestruck golf cart to Falstaff’s extravagant codpiece, from Dr Caius’ frenchisisms to Master Brook’s false nose; no visual joke, no audio prompt, no quirky playing with the script goes unmissed. It’s a numbers game. The more funny business you put in, the funnier the end product comes out. I’d say a good 95% of the comic content sticks solidly like… well you provide your own simile. If the main intention of a production of Merry Wives is to make the audience laugh – and why would it be anything else – this is a five-star extravaganza.

Falstaff, QuicklyFiona Laird has picked this production up and moved it from west of the M25 to the east, to create a TOWIE version of the play – The Merry Wives of Billericay. The wise woman of Brentford has become the wise woman of Brentwood, which is somehow strangely funnier; Mistress Ford has her own beautician, which I’m sure isn’t in the original; the refuse guys who come to take away the lurid pink coloured wheelybin (belonging to the Royal Borough of Windsor and Essex) exchange jokes in Polish. Mistress Page hides behind a decadently large electric barbecue; Falstaff hides under a poolside lounger.

Caius, Shallow, Slender, Hostess, PageLez Brotherston’s fantastic costume designs enhance this Estuary Grandeur; Mistress Ford is genuinely stunning in her Versace trousers and tight-fitting top; the Hostess of the Garter is a vision in leopard skin; Pistol’s handbag (you read that right), Dr Caius’ bandana (ditto) and Fenton’s suitcase all reek of expense; and, above all, Master Ford and Master Slender are so trendy that they’ve given up on the socks. And the costumes and padding for Falstaff are genuinely hilarious and incredibly inventive; a quite remarkable achievement.

HostessI can’t decide whether the creative team encouraged the cast to portray their characters partly as impersonations, or whether it’s some natural, evolutionary by-product of the rehearsal procedure. But in any event it’s a delight to see Sybil Fawlty as Mistress Page, Julia Davis as Mistress Ford, Tracy Emin as the Hostess of the Garter, Ricky Gervais as Shallow, Del Boy Trotter as Master Ford, and my cousin Trevor as Slender. No offence, Trevor, but Tom Padley had you down to a T.

Mistresses Ford, Page and QuicklyThe performances are gleefully brilliant from first to last. David Troughton is just magnificent (and only barely recognisable) as Falstaff, completely self-obsessed and repulsive, so puffed up in his own affairs that duping him is like taking candy from a baby. Of course, when a character is so set up in a high and mighty fashion, it makes you deliriously happy to see them crash and scarper in shame. Rebecca Lacey’s Mistress Page, outwardly so respectable but in reality a truly tough nut, can’t wait to interfere in Falstaff’s plans and eggs Beth Cordingly’s sassy Mistress Ford into playing the tart for the fat knight. Together they are a perfectly mischievous pair, and make a great comedy duo.

EvansDavid Acton almost steals the show with his childishly excitable performance as Evans the Welsh parson, his face lit up with joy as he revels in every prank; encouraging us all to join him in a Cardiff Arms Park (his words) chorus of Cwm Rhondda. He’s also a great partner-in-crime for Jonathan Cullen’s Dr Caius, murdering the French language with fantastic ease, espousing all the Spymonkey tenets of making yourself look as ridiculous as possible. I’ve been an admirer of Mr Cullen since I first saw him perform in the First Year Students’ competition at Oxford, when I was in the second year. We always knew he’d go far.

Caius, RugbyTim Samuels is a beautifully mealy-mouthed (and violent) Shallow and Tom Padley simply hilarious as his gormless nephew Slender, constantly trying to cover up his incessant faux pas. Luke Newberry invests the otherwise worthy but dull Fenton with a string of brilliantly performed pratfalls, Josh Finan is an irrepressible Nym, Katy Brittain a superb lush of a Hostess at the Garter, Vince Leigh a fabulously jealous Ford and Paul Dodds a proper bossy Page. But the whole cast work together to make a really funny and entertaining ensemble show.

Anne PageAt the end of the day, it’s up to you whether you like the transferred location away from small town Berkshire to somewhere Chez Lakeside. I thought it worked fine. There are numerous liberties taken with the script, but if any Shakespeare play can take messing around with, it’s this one.

FordMrs Chrisparkle pointed out that in previous productions of Merry Wives that we’ve seen, Falstaff has been even more humiliated in that final horns and spirits scene. In this production, his shame is quickly achieved, and quickly over, which actually made a pleasant change – there’s only so far that you can humiliate one fat randy old knight. However, I sense something didn’t go quite right with that scene; there were a few spirits just hanging around doing nothing and blundering into each other. And the whole imagery of the ghosts and ghoulies is much scarier in its original location of a woodland glade than in a town centre piazza. Maybe it needs a little tightening up.

SimpleStill that’s a small quibble with such a great show. We laughed, and laughed, and laughed. I’m sure you would too. Can’t recommend it strongly enough. It’s in the RSC repertoire at Stratford until 22nd September and then it’s on at the Barbican from 7th December until 5th January 2019 – that would be a perfect Christmas treat!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Miss Littlewood, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 3rd July 2018

Miss LittlewoodThere was a time in the 60s and 70s when you couldn’t read anything to do with drama without seeing Joan Littlewood’s name somewhere in the influences. Today she’s largely forgotten – probably because, in retrospect, although she was a larger than life character, she wasn’t actually associated with that many memorable productions that have stood the test of time. She’s most famous for creating the Theatre Workshop at Stratford East, but people don’t tend to remember company names or buildings.

Daisy Badger as Rosalie, Claire Burt as JoanOh What A Lovely War, of course, remains her stand-out show. She worked with Lionel Bart on Fings Aint Wot They Used T’Be. She encouraged (and largely re-wrote) the young Shelagh Delaney to create A Taste of Honey. She collaborated with Brendan Behan (when he was sober) to produce The Quare Fellow and The Hostage. But, as the very charming penultimate song in Sam Kenyon’s musical dedicated to the life and works of Joan Littlewood states, Nothing Much Happened After That. And the memories of Miss Littlewood are now well and truly faded. Perfect timing, then, for a look back at her life.

Oh What A Lovely WarLet me start by saying that the press night audience absolutely adored the show. Lots of laughter, high applause levels and about a 30% standing ovation at the end. I, too, really wanted to love this show. Its subject has been too long ignored, and when you flip through the programme to discover that real-life people like Shelagh Delaney, Barbara Windsor, Lionel Bart, Victor Spinetti are actually featured in the show, it captures your imagination and makes you itch for something special. And whilst there are some elements that are absolutely fantastic, there are other aspects which, for me, turned me into something of a grumpy curmudgeon by the end.

The CompanyIt’s a show that gives with one hand, but then takes with the other. Take the structure; a perfect recreation of a Brechtian dream, with the character of Joan Littlewood both acting in, and narrating through, the entire show; introducing individual scenes with their scene number, and telling us in advance what would take place during the scene. Giving the role of Joan to seven different performers deliberately makes it virtually impossible to identify with her. The majority of the songs don’t evolve organically, instead they are artificially announced and plonked in place, which not only distances us from the story but distances us from the notion that this is, in fact, a musical. The show is also happening right here, right now; on the stage of the Swan Theatre, with you the audience and them the cast. There’s no fourth wall, it’s in a permanent state of demolition, as Joan argues the toss with us about the play itself; walking out at a bit she doesn’t like, telling members of the cast that they’d better watch out or else she’d sack them, that’s the kind of edgy presentation that dominates this show. Brecht was known for his Marxist theories and anti-bourgeois stance – much like Joan Littlewood herself, who actually directed and appeared in his Mother Courage and her Children – so, for me, this structure was absolutely perfect to represent her.

Solomon Israel as Gerry and all the JoansBut with the rough comes the smooth. Part of the distancing effect of having seven Joans is that it is at times very hard to follow; particularly as the various actors all have other roles too and sometimes it’s hard to work out which of those roles they are performing. That’s great for a distancing effect, but lousy for understanding a show. I appreciate why they chose to split the role like that; the programme notes include a quote from Murray Melvin (who was in A Taste of Honey, Oh What A Lovely War AND is a character in Miss Littlewood), regarding the seven Joans saying: “thank God for that[…] when people ask what she was like, you want to ask, “which one”?” I’ve seen a production of The Tempest that featured six Ariels (it got a better reception, ho ho – geddit?) but seven Joans just becomes rather messy in the end. It did work well, however, in the scene where they were all surrounding Gerry Raffles in his sick bed.

Greg Barnett as Jimmie Miller, Dawn Hope and Amanda Hadingue as Archie HardingAh yes, Gerry Raffles. Ay, there’s the rub. Given that Joan Littlewood was a strong woman, a firebrand, a female innovator in a man’s world, what a shame that so much of her story had to be told through the rose-tinted glasses of her love for a man. “We know about so many unremarkable men, and so few remarkable women” says Joan, early in the play, to a rousing cheer from the audience. But then they go and spend so much time in this play on, frankly, an unremarkable man! Mrs Chrisparkle believes, and I concur, that this was a slap in the face for the sisterhood and an opportunity missed. It also makes so little sense. Throughout the early part of the show, Gerry’s first appearance is being anticipated, both by Joan herselves, and Rosalie (her assistant? director? stage manager? I was never sure). Then at the end his passing is lamented; but we never see why he had such an effect on her. He was a philanderer; there was no particular physical chemistry with Joan; to me he seemed no more than any other of her (basically unpaid) employees. I wasn’t convinced.

Sophia Nomvete as Joan and Solomon Israel as GerryHere’s another rough with the smooth element: it’s actually, for the most part, a pretty funny script, with some very knowing moments, especially between Joan and the audience. It starts off with more than a nod to Richard Bean’s One Man Two Guvnors, with not only a member of the audience taking a role but also a plant in the audience. Then there are several “in” jokes about acting – the show takes place in Stratford (but not this Stratford); Rosalie takes Oscar Wilde’s great line from The Importance of Being Earnest about “all women become like their mothers, that is their tragedy; no man does, and that is his” and replaces it with references to actors and directors; and finally Joan gets her claws into Arts Council officials, describing them as wankers. But I can’t help but think that, knowing Joan Littlewood’s passion for the democratisation of the theatre, and her striving to making it a place where everyone is welcome and not just the privileged few, this “in-joke” style is completely inappropriate.

The Company in full swingHowever, on the good side, what the play does achieve is a great insight into her collaborative style; most effectively portrayed in the scene where Barbara Windsor wants to walk out of Oh What A Lovely War and Joan deftly manipulates her back in; and also the scene where Jimmie Miller (later Ewan MacColl) and Howard Goorney almost come to fisticuffs and Joan deconstructs their fight direction. And the show highlights that she clearly was an enigma,; her despising wealth and the bourgeoisie but nicking the coats of every performer who wants to join the company points towards some kind of troubled soul. I got the feeling that, in today’s terms, if she’d been turned down by the Arts Council again she would definitely have crowdfunded her next project.

Dawn Hope as Joan and Emily Johnstone as Barbara WindsorMusically, I found the show rather disappointing; Sam Kenyon’s music goes for 50s/60s workaday showtime pastiche or dingy club vibes, but with not one outstanding song or memorable melody – it’s all filler. Jimmie Miller’s Wanderer’s Lament and Barbara Windsor’s A Little Bit of Business help us to understand those characters – and were immaculately performed by Greg Barnett and Emily Johnstone – but, along with the other songs, they are quickly forgotten. I was disappointed in the presentation of Shelagh Delaney as some kind of secretarial sex-kitten, pertly wobbling on her office chair, when in fact she was as much of a strong woman go-getter as Littlewood was; with a song about A Taste of Honey that derives humour from the fact that the character of Geof is “not the marrying kind”- (knowing titter) – whereas Delaney’s own attitude to gay people in plays was of complete acceptance and no fuss. It just didn’t ring true at all.

Aretha Ayeh as Joan and Amanda Hadingue as NickFortunately, the performances are excellent throughout, and one thing that having seven Joans does achieve is a high sense of ensemble playing. Claire Burt’s Joan Littlewood (the one that stays constant throughout the whole show) is an excellent portrayal of this complex, hard-hitting personality, sometimes fair, sometimes foul. Coming across as the unlikely lovechild of Che Guevara and Mary Portas, it’s a very knowing, very confident combination of the public and the private life of the woman. Perhaps surprisingly, she doesn’t constantly dominate the stage, frequently stepping back and observing the action so that we forget she’s there, which is a nice touch.

 Amanda Hadingue as JoanAmanda Hadingue is superb throughout, with her wonderfully arty avant-garde art teacher Nick, the dandy Victor Spinetti and other roles, including Joan 6. Emily Johnstone’s turn as Barbara Windsor is beautifully judged, suggesting the much-loved Babs without being an impersonation – and it works really well. There are excellent performances too from Aretha Ayeh as Joan 3 (her young challenging phase), Tam Williams as Howard Goorney and a delightfully soft-spoken Murray Melvin, Greg Barnett as the charismatic Jimmie Miller and Daisy Badger as the haranguing and harangued Rosalie. Best of all, the fabulous Sophie Nomvete steals every scene as the hard-working and inspirational Joan 4, and the “posh northern” Avis Bunnage – although they did play that open-voweled joke to death. Ms Nomvete broke our hearts as Sofia in The Color Purple and in Miss Littlewood she spreads joy with every breath she takes.

Sophia Nomvete as Avis BunnageFor me, there was much to enjoy and much to bang my head against a brick wall about. A true curate’s egg. The show is in repertoire at the Swan Theatre until 4th August.

Production photos by Topher McGrillis

Review – Romeo and Juliet, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 1st May 2018

Romeo and JulietThere’s an argument for believing that Romeo and Juliet is the greatest love story of all time; although maybe they’re too young, and in love too briefly, to lay claim to that accolade in full. Of course, today, to be termed a Romeo is more of an insult than a compliment. It implies all show and no commitment; possibly a roving eye and a love ‘em and leave ‘em attitude. True, Shakespeare’s Romeo starts off in love with Rosaline (Juliet’s cousin, so he was always attracted by those damned Capulets) but all it takes is just one glimpse of Juliet, and Rosaline’s toast. Funnily enough, no one ever gets called a Juliet, by comparison.

R&J9Erica Whyman’s new production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has a few stand-out and inventive aspects. It toys with sex and sexuality to an extent that I’ve not really seen done seriously in a Shakespeare play before. For example, both recent productions of Julius Caesar that we’ve seen over the last year or so have featured a female Cassius, which was interesting inasmuch that it shows that a woman can be just as good a lead conspirator as a man – no real surprise there. But in this production, we go one (or possibly several) steps beyond.

R&J5Escalus, Prince of Verona, is played by a woman, Beth Cordingly. She’s a no-nonsense, strict ruler who has to act decisively to keep the peace between those pesky Montagues and Capulets; but she’s always referred to as a Prince, and it’s a strong, authoritative performance from Ms Cordingly. Mercutio, Romeo’s friend and cousin of Escalus, is also played by a woman, Charlotte Josephine. The character is always referred to as “she”, so she’s definitely female, although they haven’t gone down the line of feminising the name into Mercutia. This Mercutio has all the blokey belligerence you’d normally expect from the role, and I guess you’d see her as something of a tomboy. I wasn’t expecting this characterisation, and at first I confess it irritated me a little, but as I got used to her, I appreciated that she had as much right to be part of the gang as anyone else. It was a challenge to me, and one that caught me out at first – and that’s definitely my bad.

R&J12Benvolio, on the other hand, is still played by a man, Josh Finan, but with a mancrush on Romeo as a big as a rainbow coloured unicorn. Bally Gill’s Romeo comes across as 100% straight, and doesn’t remotely notice how Benvolio has to catch his breath and fan himself after he plants a big excited smacker on Benvolio’s lips. Mr Finan gives an excellent performance as Benvolio and really highlights the difficulties of being gay in a very straight group. These modern interpretations certainly bring the play bang up to date and help our understanding of these characters and the issues they face.

R&J4But a play like Romeo and Juliet is nothing if it doesn’t speak clearly to its audience. No degree of directorial embellishment, no manipulation of the text to support weird clever-clever theories, or re-imagination of the play in another time or place simply because we’ve got some great props can make the slightest bit of difference if the story isn’t told simply, from the heart, and true to the original. I’m so glad to be able to report that this Romeo and Juliet is about as clear as you can get.

R&J1At least, that’s true after the first fifteen minutes or so. For the first scene we are bombarded with a cacophony of lines from a bunch of people whom we know nothing about and I was instantly lost. To be fair I think this was the Chorus’ speech that begins Act Two of the play; but the alert amongst us realised we were only at Act One. I felt harangued and deliberately confused, and feared the worst for the rest of the night. Warring factions started to form; Montagues and Capulets, no doubt, literally thumbing their nose at each other and then running away like naughty schoolkids. I blame the parents. Romeo’s caught up in this bunch of idiots; a lot of street-fighting, anger, teasing and generally bad behaviour. I thought we’d skipped Romeo and Juliet and gone straight to the gang violence of West Side Story but without the songs.

R&J2However, once it had all settled down, and we’d been introduced to the youthfully ebullient Juliet (Karen Fishwick), her gossipy, fussy and slightly coarse Nurse (Ishia Bennison) and her hands-off, hesitant and generally inadequate mother (Mariam Haque), the production just took on its own life force and thrilled, delighted and horrified its way through the next two and a half hours, never taking a wrong turn. Tom Piper’s design consists of a box. That’s all there is. You can move it around so that it becomes a cave, or Juliet’s balcony, or the Capulet Family Tomb, but, at the end of the day, it’s just a box. And the simplicity of that reflects the simplicity of the story-telling, enabling the audience’s imagination to fill in all the blanks, which is just how I like it.

R&J7But it’s all about R & J, isn’t it? Two incredible, first rate performances that make you laugh and (almost) cry; certainly that remind you of your younger days when you used to make a fool of yourself over someone you fancied, and how you were horrified when your new-found love didn’t go down well with the rest of the family. Bally Gill’s Romeo is the embodiment of that chap that all the girls want to be with and all the guys want to be like; bright, great company, funny and hideously good looking to boot. As he sidles up to the Capulet garden party only to veer away at the last minute through embarrassment you know this is someone you can identify with. Montague or Capulet, he’s our Romeo. We’re completely on his side. And for Shakespeare purists, when it comes to his delivering the classic lines of poetical love, he’s as eloquent and passionate as you could wish.

R&J6And he’s matched by a sensational Juliet in the form of Karen Fishwick; if you think Juliets should be all pure and demure, think again. Ms Fishwick plays her as a spirited wild child, full of adventure, a giggling provocatrice who can’t wait to start living and loving – provided it’s with the man she chooses. When her domineering father sets her up with Paris – to be wed a few days after her cousin Tybalt has been killed (and awkwardly having already married his murderer) – you won’t believe the fit of fury that overtakes Juliet, pounding the cushions with flailing fists, shrieking her refusal to comply. You can see where she gets this hot-headedness from; her father Lord Capulet disciplines her with a substantial roughing-up that takes you by uncomfortable surprise – a very good physical performance there by Michael Hodgson.

R&J3I loved Ishia Bennison’s kind-hearted, meddlesome but very knowing Nurse, who created a good deal of comedy out of her characterisation. Andrew French gave a perfect portrayal of Friar Laurence, just the kind of cleric you would want as your own family priest; understanding, non-judgmental and with a sense of humour – the kind of person you could confide in. Raphael Sowole’s Tybalt is a figure of intimidating power, although no match for Romeo’s fancy footwork with a knife; and I really liked Afolabi Alli as Paris, a refined, polite characterisation but showing just that flash of sleaziness as he relishes the prospect of getting Juliet between the sheets.

R&J11An intelligent yet accessible production of what may be considered the ultimate tragedy, yet retaining a brilliant lightness of touch to reflect the youthful aspirations of its characters. Hugely entertaining, and you leave with a much deeper insight into the characters than you had before. It’s in the Stratford repertoire until 21st September then in the Barbican repertoire from November to January 2019. Highly recommended!

Production photos by Topher McGrillis

Review – Macbeth, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 14th April 2018

MacbethI remember having to write an essay on Shakespeare’s As You Like It at university. I enjoyed the play, and considered it from many angles, and then I thought I’d identified something no one else had seen before. Taking much of my idea from Touchstone’s lengthy scene with Jaques describing the degrees of a lie, and particularly his conclusion: “Your If is your only peacemaker: much virtue in If”, I constructed an (if I may say so) elegant, well-reasoned and convincing argument that the whole play is about the art of compromise. I read it enthusiastically to my tutor and eagerly awaited his response. He merely looked over his intimidating spectacles and murmured the two words: “possible interpretation”, at which point I instantly realised I’d run amok with my mad idea and had completely missed the point. For “possible interpretation” read “wrong”.

MacbethAs Don says in Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist, “it’s much more important for a theory to be shapely than for it to be true.” So, to Polly Findlay’s new production of Macbeth for the RSC. If I’d taken time to read the programme before it started (yes, my bad, I know), I would have realised that the whole production centres on Macbeth’s relationship with time. And there’s little doubt in my mind that time is indeed one of the themes of the play. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”; “the seeds of time”; “untimely ripp’d” and so on; they’re all there. However, I’ve always felt that the ultimate theme in Macbeth is “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself”. Then you have those important themes of power; cruelty; tyranny versus nobility; not to mention the supernatural element. Macbeth’s also one of the finest examples of dramatic irony, which applies to all true tragedies, where the hero doesn’t know his character failings nor his outcome but the audience does. And then, of course, there’s the hope for the future. Scotland’s afraid to know itself until the noble Malcolm becomes King. So many options for so much dramatic indulgence.

Macbeth and a clockNow, I love challenging theatre. And I’m all for messing about with Shakespeare (to an extent) – he’s big and strong enough to take care of himself, after all. But if you choose to approach a play from a bold, original and unpredictable angle, there has to be a purpose to it. It should open up the audience’s understanding of the play. It must illuminate where before there was darkness. It has to make you understand things you never fathomed before. But this production does the complete opposite. By linking the play inexorably to theme of time, it imprisons it rather than releases it. Despite knowing the play fairly well, I found the narrative surprisingly confusing and difficult to follow, which doesn’t make for a rewarding night at the theatre. In an attempt to cast new light on one of the most magnificent plays in the English language, the creative team have subjugated it under this all-embracing yoke of time, to the near-eradication of all its other subtleties and glories.

WitchesFor example: out go the three witches, to be replaced by three cute little girls in pink jimjams each cuddling a dolly. Congratulations to whichever three child actors were playing the parts last Saturday evening because they carried it off superbly. But ghoulish hags they aren’t, which renders many of Banquo’s and Macbeth’s comments about them meaningless. My guess is that they were meant to be eerie, like the children in Poltergeist or The Omen, or some such horror movie. Way off the mark, I’m afraid.

PorterOut, too, goes the comedy drunken porter, and in comes a lugubrious presence who sits at the side of the stage for the whole performance and crosses off random chalk tallies on the wall; if there was a symbolic reason for this, I’d love someone to explain it. He has his uses; when Lady Macbeth didn’t properly turn off the tap on the watercooler, he was there with a deft knob turn. More significantly, and elevated to a level of importance way beyond Shakespeare’s original, he sets off an LED clock on the back wall of the stage, ticking down the minutes and seconds from 2 hours to zero, which will be the point at which Macbeth dies. He becomes the Zeitmeister. Sadly, the ticking clock was much more mesmeric than the nonsensical things that were happening on stage; I almost skipped the interval as I couldn’t take my eyes off it. “Here’s a knocking indeed” says the Porter. And he’s right. I’ve never heard such loud knocking – way too loud to be realistic, so I presume they’re going for a symbolic effect. But for me it’s the perfect example of how this production sacrifices subtlety for an attempt at a wow factor.

English ForceFly Davis’ setting incorporates a second small stage high above the first and hidden behind a screen, which can only be seen when it’s lit from within. This provides a useful additional acting space and works very well. What works less well is the constant projection of random phrases from the text at the top of the stage – I’m never a fan of these Brechtian distancing devices, and, believe me, they are very random. To tie in with the ever-present time theme, the word later often appears over the hidden stage. No kidding. Sometimes it says now but mainly it says later. The observant theatregoer already knew they weren’t seeing a production of Pinter’s Betrayal so they guessed it was taking place in chronological order. Everything’s always later, dang my breeches. You only have to look at the ticking clock staring you in the face – of course it’s later, what else could it be? However, the clock is ticking down in real time, but the play doesn’t proceed in real time; so there are now two timescales, and, presumably, two different types of later. Does that help? No. It’s confusing rather than illuminating. And talking of playing with time, the last fifteen seconds of the production completely rewrite both the original and the nature of all Shakespearean tragedy, with the implication that the whole thing is going to start again with another 2 hour countdown. NO! It isn’t! They’re making up their own story, gentle reader. This shouldn’t be called Macbeth, it should be renamed Macbeth’s Time Machine, based on an idea by Shakespeare.

BanquoWhen you pretty much hate everything the production is trying to do, it’s very difficult to see through that and pick out the good aspects. But I’ll try. The set is functional and clear. There’s one exceptionally good performance – more of which shortly. The technical tricks with the clock were accurate and memorable. The lighting is stark but effective. The costumes were of course excellent – well some of them were a little unusual but when have you ever seen the RSC perform with poor quality or inappropriate costumes?

Lady MacbethWith a starry cast headed by Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack I had high expectations for a dynamic duo on stage. But I sensed there was very little magic between them. Theirs felt more like a business arrangement than a marriage. To appreciate the pressure on Macbeth and the influence of Lady Macbeth, you have to believe that if he doesn’t screw his courage to the sticking place he’ll have one helluva domestic price to pay. But in this production, that sense of threat is missing. This Macbeth could easily have gone talk to the hand and said whatever as she was nagging on. Mr Eccleston spends the evening being bluff and dour, with not a lot of light and shade to his delivery. Ms Cusack sometimes looks like she’s on a sugar hyper, so jumpy and over-animated is her behaviour. Only in the dining scene, where Macbeth is tormented by the ghost of Banquo, did Ms Cusack seem at ease with the role, with her embarrassed, hurried excuses to their guests. Bizarrely, throughout the whole play, I also found that many of their speech inflections seemed, well, just wrong; stressing the wrong word in a sentence, or the wrong syllable in a word. Much of it was very alien and uncomfortable to the ear.

Donalbain and DuncanMost of the other roles lacked a sense of individuality, but to be fair they weren’t helped by the over-stylistic presentation. David Acton’s Duncan stood out as a thoughtful, credible portrayal of a noble king, so it was annoying that Macbeth killed him so early. Michael Hodgson’s Porter became something of an audience favourite with his deliberately stilted, mocking, laconic characterisation. It’s not often that I find the Porter’s crude speech funny; and sadly, this was no exception. I did, however, have to resist the temptation to let out at derisory laugh when he got his carpet sweeper out. OK, in the castle, I expect the Porter would have to do a bit of cleaning now and then. But on the battlefield? I’ve never heard of the detritus of war being cleared up with a Ewbank, particularly as slowly as he was doing it. Either I’m too stupid to get it, or it was too stupid to care about. Your choice.

MacduffThank heavens for Edward Bennett as Macduff, who exuded the perfect degree of upright respectability, spoke with utmost clarity, and, in the words of Ronan Keating, said it best when he said nothing at all when told of the murders of the rest of his family. That stunned silence, that emptiness behind the eyes, that controlled need for repeated confirmation of what had happened, all conveyed more emotion, sorrow and quiet fury than the rest of the show put together. Kudos to him and Mr Eccleston for timing their fight so that the lethal blow was struck at the just the right moment – it would have been agony to be a second out. Although Mr Eccleston was hanging around just waiting to be sliced for a little longer than was believable; I guess that’s the price you pay when you sacrifice the truth for the effect.

MalcolmIt wasn’t long into the show before Mrs Chrisparkle fell asleep. She wasn’t tired; she was a combination of bored, confused and irritated. I knew better than to wake her up. The temptation to leave at the interval was strong; but I have to say, everyone came back for the second half which really surprised me; and it received a very warm reception from the audience at curtain call, so I’m fully prepared to accept I’m out of kilter on this one. But I think this is one of the most misguided productions I’ve ever seen, choked by gimmickry. As Macbeth himself says, Confusion hath made its Masterpiece. He’s right there.

Production photos by Richard Davenport

Review – The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 14th April 2018

Fantastic Follies of Mrs RichI don’t think I’ve ever encountered the works of Mary Pix before. She lived from 1666 to 1709 and I presume must be considered one of the earliest female playwrights whose works are performed today; only the still renowned Aphra Behn appears earlier in history. In 1700 Mary Pix wrote The Beau Defeated, or The Lucky Younger Brother, which Jo Davies and her team at the RSC have unearthed and re-shaped into The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, a later Restoration period comedy of manners, and with which they have chalked up a most palpable hit.

Mrs Rich as Mrs RichMrs Rich (employing all the usual subtlety of 18th century character names) yearns for acceptance into society which she feels would fully recognise her innate style, elegance and quality. Trouble is, she’s all cash and no class. Pally with her cheeky maidservant Betty, whom she renames De la Bette because it sounds French, (although it sounds like it would mean of the beast!) she is the widow of a banker (who were clearly as popular in 1700 as they are today) and desperate to marry someone to get a title. Just the mention of the word Countess make her nose twitch excitedly like some Restoration Bisto Kid. In an attempt to become a Lady, she dallies with the foppish Sir John Roverhead, but he has an eye and a kiss curl for other ladies. Will Mrs Rich hit the big time with her social status or not? Will perhaps country squire the elder Lord Clerimont be the man she is looking for? You’ll just have to watch it to find out.

Susan Salmon, Tam Williams, Sophie Stanton, Sandy FosterMrs Rich is a dream of a comic character; one of a long line of pompous persons in drama who are ridiculed because of their pretentiousness. But she’s not just a female Malvolio. It’s her desire to achieve recognition of her quality to the outside world that is her true weak spot. She’s not actually an unkind person – far from it, although she will trample over you to get what she wants and if she spies a rival, woe betide them. She has Hyacinth Bucket’s need for everything to look perfect; she has Leonard Rossiter’s Rigsby’s desire to impress the mayor and join the golf club. You sense Mrs Rich would definitely wear The Emperor’s New Clothes if she thought it would bag her a Baron.

Laura Elsworthy, Daisy BadgerThis totally superb new production also plays around with the gender assumptions of the era. Though she may not have class, Mrs Rich has power, by virtue of her money. Normally it would only be men with that luxury. We see her powerplay with Sir John through her eyes rather than through his. She is surrounded by her own set of sycophantic women who, of course, support her every whim, until rivalry in love rears its ugly head and a duel ensues – but this time, it’s between two women.Jessica Turner, Daisy Badger In a side plot, it is the Lady Landsworth, who has come to a position of power by inheriting from a rich old reprobate when she was extremely young – we’re sensing Operation Yewtree levels here – who seeks to test potential future husbands/lovers/wealth providers by pretending to be a courtesan to see if they take the bait. Again, women control the men. Lady Landsworth’s object of desire is the pathetically lovelorn young Clerimont, who swoons to his bed with woeful regularity, thereby adopting the traditionally feminine role of languishing and being pursued whilst Lady L does all the running. It’s a fascinatingly different slice of life and of course extremely funny to see it from the other perspective.

Susan SalmonWhen you enter the auditorium, the fantastic orchestra is already there, knocking out Classics’ Greatest Hits but on saxophones! So you’ve already got a classic setting but with a surprisingly modern treatment, which sets the tone for the rest of the show. The backdrops inform you of the setting – so the salon chez Rich has an extravagant Hogarthian large scale painting on the back with the words Mrs Rich’s House spray-painted irreverently over the top. It’s classic, but it’s audacious. Young Clerimont’s rooms are depicted with a backdrop of a washing line with the name Mrs Fidget’s picked out in cross-stitch like a Victorian sampler. Colin Richmond’s costumes are exquisite, reflecting all the finery money can buy for Mrs Rich and her like, the practical country tweed for the huntin’ and fishin’ brigade, and Mrs Fidget’s “seen better days” cheap and cheerful look. Aretha AyehThe songs are by Grant Olding, who seems to be composing everything nowadays, and he’s clearly on top form as Mrs Rich breaks off from the narrative to deliver a few cabaret style numbers that do precisely what all the best songs in musicals do – push forward both the action and our understanding of the characters, with humour and pathos. If there was a cast album, I’d buy it.

Sandy Foster, Sophie Stanton, Tam WilliamsAt the heart of all the action is Mrs Rich, played with a tremendous sense of fun by Sophie Stanton. From the moment we meet her, dignity in tatters following an affront, you never want her to leave the stage. With her hair all bouffant’d up, and her portly skirts all hooped out, she looks like a cross between Madame de Maintenon and one of those dollies your Gran used to conceal a toilet roll. It’s a simply fantastic comic performance from start to finish, with brilliant throwaway lines (don’t forget your things, she mutters, as she dismisses her upstart niece), fabulous knowing looks to the audience we’ve not seen the like of since we saw Tyne Daly on Broadway, and – oh my stars – a complete revelling in the magnificent grandiloquence of her lines. Added to which, she has a startlingly beautiful and sincere singing voice that’s a perfect match for Grant Olding’s songs. She dominates the stage, but it’s a generous performance too, that allows her to be upstaged by the appearance of two lurchers over whom everyone fawns, whilst she’s left to pirouette vacantly as an attention-seeking device because the dogs are much more cute. A memorably classic comic performance.

Solomon Israel, Will Brown, Sadie ShimminShe is accompanied by a brilliant ensemble who take to the comedic opportunities of the show like a canard à l’eau. Too many to mention individually, but here are a few of the performances that really stood out for me. Solomon Israel’s brilliantly feeble Younger Clerimont had me in stitches throughout, as he mopes around in his blanket, lamely seeking solace from his manservant and landlady, the cheeky yet loyal Jack, played absolutely spot on by Will Brown and the delightfully faux-posh Mrs Fidget, played by Sadie Shimmin – whose fabulous drunk act brought back memories of Freddie Frinton.

Solomon IsraelDaisy Badger is a charmingly enthusiastic and confident Lady Landsworth, Laura Elsworthy a fearless and nicely impudent Betty, and Tam Williams a hilariously flamboyant Sir John. “I am…” he bows, flouncingly to Mr Rich, trendily removing “your humble servant” from the usual greeting to show his flighty modernity. “You’re what?” grumpily replies the surly brother in law.

Tam WilliamsMrs Rich’s gaming partners (who of course are out to fleece her) are beautifully played by Sandy Foster as the brilliantly pinch-expressioned and two-faced Mrs Trickwell and Susan Salmon as the trying-very-hard-to-be-French-but-not-quite-that-classy Lady La Basset. Amanda Hadingue is a hearty Toni the gamekeeper, and Leo Wringer an even heartier Elder Clerimont, terrifically conveying the unrefined enthusiasm of the rough diamond out-of-towner; a bit like Crocodile Dundee in New York but without the knives.

Amanda HadingueWe absolutely loved it and laughed all the way through. We could easily have gone back in and watched it again that evening; Duchess of Malfi was on instead though, so it wasn’t an option. I don’t think this is scheduled for a London transfer, so I urge you to get on to the RSC straight away to book tickets. It’s on until 14th June. Refusal is futile. You have to go!

Leo Wringer, Jessica TurnerP. S. Got to love those lurchers. Never work with animals they say, but these two spread joy on every appearance. On its final entrance to the stage the bigger one got sidetracked by the presence of an interesting chap in an aisle seat. You could almost hear the dog’s thought processes. “Hey! You look like a friendly type! Would you give me a stroke? Awww thanks! Any sweeties? I bet you do!! OK better get on with the show now. Bye! See you at the stage door!”

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – The Duchess of Malfi, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 8th March 2018

The Duchess of Malfi“Webster was much possessed by death and saw the skull beneath the skin” says T. S. Eliot. Wasn’t he just? But maybe not quite as much as Maria Aberg, whose visceral and highly stylised Duchess of Malfi opened last night at the Swan Theatre. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a bloody stage in 52 years of theatregoing. If you sit in the front row you will be issued with regulation grey blankets to cover yourselves when you return from the interval. The lady seated next to me told me that she’d heard that on its first performance, blood spurts reached as far as Row H. Fortunately I can advise that the gore has been sufficiently turned down so that it no longer has such a far-reaching trajectory.

Joan Iyiola and Paul WoodsonThere’s not a lot of plot. The Duchess (young, widowed) has been forbidden to take on a second husband by her villainous brothers The Cardinal (not a Mafia nickname even though we are set in Italy) and her twin Ferdinand, who employs Bosola, a knavish and complicitous gentleman, to spy on her. The Duchess knows her own mind and secretly weds Antonio, her steward, with whom she has three children. When the Cardinal and Ferdinand eventually twig that she has gone against their wishes, they have her murdered. And her children. And her husband is killed. And the spy. And themselves. And anyone else within a hundred kilometres of Malfi.

The Company and Joan IyiolaI jest. If you haven’t seen it before, The Duchess of Malfi is a superbly exciting and suspenseful tragedy in the Jacobean tradition, first performed around 1613, written by John Webster from source material by William Painter (his “Palace of Pleasure” from 1567) and loosely based on the true story of Giovanna d’Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi, who died in 1511. The Duchess is a feisty, independent, free-thinking spirit, a bright spark of warmth attacked by the cold rays of her enemies from all angles. Diamonds are of most value, they say, that have pass’d through most jewellers’ hands, she avers; and like diamonds, the Duchess is one tough cookie. Even when there is no hope of her survival she remains dignified and defiant to the end – I am Duchess of Malfi still is her simple self-proclamation that no one can take away from her. The Cardinal, Ferdinand and Bosola, however, show exactly the opposite traits; controlling, manipulative, double-crossing and, in the case of Ferdinand, ultimately weak-willed. The evil characters are all men; the women are all good.

The company HakaI think that’s why the production so strongly centres on the struggle between masculine cruelty and feminine virtue. There is a chorus of officers, gentlemen and other assorted guys who weave in and out of the production; gym bunnies working out and pumping iron, or a rabble of enemies to the Duchess, or a group of madmen whose only purpose is to distress and derange her. It’s as though they arrive on stage, perform a set piece, and then disperse.

Joan Iyiola and Alexander CobbIt’s very unsubtle; but then again, is it a subtle play? Cuts from the original text have certainly made it less subtle, downgrading the influence of Antonio, and removing insights into the motivation of the characters. For me, the regular appearance of the brutal male chorus doesn’t grow organically from everything else we see on stage; indeed, in a rather excellent put-down, Mrs Chrisparkle thought of them as the RSC Haka, limbering up for the next scene. After all, it isn’t as though the portrayals of the Cardinal, Ferdinand, or Antonio are excessively masculine. But there is a balance between the forces of good and evil in this play, and Maria Aberg’s vision seems to me to address the evil too strongly and not concentrate enough on the good. In its attempts to prove certain theoretical points about the nature of masculine cruelty, the actual truth of the play has got lost in places. Rather than illuminating the text, I felt it obscured it at times.

 Joan Iyiola and the CompanyThere are articles in the programme about how the music was written trying to explore masculine and feminine rhythms, and how Naomi Dawson’s set was created from ideas of masculine environments – a gym, a sports stadium and an abattoir. I’m not trying to be obtuse, but can’t women use these places too? At the time it wasn’t clear to me that the design was in part meant to reflect an abattoir setting, but in retrospect it makes so much sense. My copy of the play has as its opening scene a conversation between Antonio and Delio, explaining that Antonio has been in France, and setting the character up as the common thread that links the whole play. In something of a surprise change, the opening scene in this production shows the Duchess single-handedly dragging an oversized animal carcass across the stage; slowly, laboriously, exhaustedly. It’s then plonked upstage left, until the Duchess next appears, when she trusses up its legs and suspends them in the air from a chain.

Joan Iyiola as the DuchessAnd then, for the rest of the play, no one mentions the carcass. It’s like the elephant in the room – although apparently it’s meant to be a bull, but actually, it looks much more like an oversized rubber chicken. Now we know what caused the KFC shortage. I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt and wondered what it might represent, symbolically. The Duchess’s own private burden, perhaps? Her vulnerability? Now I understand the abattoir setting, I suppose it presages her slaughter (although not her being sliced up and served on dinner tables, that’s much more Titus Andronicus.) After the interval, Ferdinand comes on and sticks his dagger into the carcass’s belly. And it starts to bleed. And it doesn’t stop. Which is where I refer you to my first paragraph, gentle reader.

Paul WoodsonAs the actors squelch around on stage, variously murdering each other, the blood just seeps everywhere. Not just the floor but all over the costumes, on their faces, in their hair; I can only assume that the water pressure throughout Stratford drops after the show comes down as about 20 actors all huddle under the dressing room showers. Ferdinand and the Cardinal writhe on the floor together in an exhibition of what I can only describe as Blood Wrestling. Pity the Wardrobe Department; I hope they have lots of one-pound coins for the laundrette.

Aretha AyehSo gruesome is the final twenty minutes or so that the audience starts to laugh nervously, almost hysterically, at a few choice moments that you wouldn’t think of as funny – I guess that’s just a natural, human release of the tension. One poor man in the front row buried his head in his regulation blanket so firmly and refused to look at the stage for about 45 minutes, until his friend told him it was safe to come out again. Oh, I forgot to mention the first act contains a superb performance by Aretha Ayeh of I Put a Spell on you, written by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – approximately 343 years after the first performance of The Duchess of Malfi.

Richard Hurst Amanda Hadingue Joan Iyiola and Will BrownNevertheless, despite the heavy-handed symbolism, the savage cuts to the text, the anachronistic add-ons and the excessive blood, it’s still a strong and powerful production. There are some striking mental images that will stick with you for ages – whether or not you want them to. Orlando Gough’s incidental music resounds with tension and fear, immaculately played by the five musicians up in the sky, and Francis Gush’s superb counter tenor performance unsettles with its eeriness accompanying the madmen scene. The Duchess’s sophisticated dresses, Antonio’s classic clerical grey, Ferdinand’s lightweight pink suit and white shirt combination and the menacing black terrorist outfits of the mob are all perfect for the roles.

 Alexander Cobb as FerdinandJoan Iyiola is a magnificent Duchess, entertainingly conveying her playful aspect, strong in her dignity, and heart-rending in her tragedy. I also enjoyed Alexander Cobb’s jittery Ferdinand; villainous through and through, but thoroughly convincing as the conspirator who denies ever having had anything to do with the plots, and very discomfiting in his descent into madness. Paul Woodson is a splendidly clean-cut Antonio, his gentle Geordie accent serving to distance himself further from the murkiness of the Calabrian court. Amanda Hadingue gives great support as Cariola, and there is decent villainy from Chris New as the Cardinal. I wasn’t quite so comfortable with Nicolas Tennant’s performance in the multi-faceted role of Bosola; to my ear he garbled quite a few of his lines and I didn’t really get a feel of quite how sinned against or sinning he was, although he does snatch the horoscope from Antonio’s back pocket rather than having Antonio accidentally drop it, as in Webster’s original, which is clearly the act of a bounder.

Alexander CobbIn the final analysis, this production is all about the visuals; Grand Guignol goes Jacobean. A feast for the senses in many respects; but you may find you need spiritual indigestion tablets to get over it. Love it or hate it, you can’t forget it. Worth going just to see how squeamish you are! It’s on in repertory until 3rd August.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – Imperium, RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 7th December 2017

ImperiumWhat’s an imperium, I hear you ask? Good question. Tiro, Cicero’s slave, whom he frees to become his personal secretary, explains all in the first play of Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy. Imperium is the word the Romans used to mean the power of life and death given by the State into the hands of a single individual. In other words, if you get an imperium, you’re an awfully powerful guy.

Cicero the ConsulI had no expectations of this theatrical treat in advance of the full day’s commitment required to see the plays in one fell swoop. Gentle reader, I am no classics scholar, unless you count my Latin O level, Grade B, of which I am (I believe) justly proud. Before seeing this production, I knew very little of Cicero; apparently, he came from a family of chick-pea magnates, who knew? I haven’t read Robert Harris’ books, although I did spot him in the audience – along with, inter alia, Richard Wilson and Jeremy Irons. I know, shamelessly star-spotting. If anything, I was fearful of a rather dry and dusty Latinate trawl through speeches and murders and Ides of March. And whilst those elements do exist in this seven hours plus marathon (yes, really), there’s absolutely nothing dry or dusty about it. In fact, I had no idea at all that within the first ten minutes I’d be laughing my head off at the interplay between Tiro, nattering intimately with the audience, and Cicero, moaning in the background, complaining of Tiro’s excessive exposition.

Tiro the SecretaryThis is a hugely entertaining, beautifully written, superbly performed examination of Cicero at the heart of Roman Republic conspiracies, and one of the most enjoyable trips to the theatre I’ve had in ages. There are two plays – Part One, Conspirator, and Part Two, Dictator, and if you don’t see them all on the same day I would most definitely recommend you see them in the right order. Each is split into three parts, so you get the rather old-fashioned delight of having two intervals. I always think that makes more of an event of an evening at the theatre; Coward, Rattigan and their ilk would have been thrilled. Part One follows Cicero’s successful election as Consul, much to the annoyance of his rival Catiline; and the machinations of those other power-players, the super-rich Crassus and the ambitious Julius Caesar. We also see Cicero’s family life, with his loyal but frequently dismayed wife Terentia, and his adored daughter Tullia; and there are his protégés, Clodius and Rufus, neither of whom are entirely reliable. By the end of the first play, Cicero seems to be on his way down, and Clodius is on the ascendant. The second play moves on to Caesar’s success and his murder – which has consequences that permeate the remainder of the evening, plus the subsequent misrule of Mark Antony, and the rise of young Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son.

Antony the UnreliableAnthony Ward’s superb design literally sets the scene, with a close-up of two mosaic eyes on the back wall suggesting that, when in Rome, Frater Magnus is always watching you. Stairs descend on to the stage, creating the perfect illusion of the Senate; behind them are hidden further stairs where the mob might approach from below. Beneath the surface of the main stage, the floor opens up inventively to reveal further stairs down; or Lucullus’ fish pool; or any one of a number of clever entrance/exit opportunities. Gareth Ellis’ merry band of six musicians play Paul Englishby’s stirring incidental music to great effect, at times both spookily conspiratorial and triumphantly magisterial.

Terentia the HumiliatedThere are a couple of things that slightly irritated me about the production; and they are slight. The first, I guess, is Robert Harris’ fault. I was a little disappointed to discover at the beginning of the second play that we don’t get to see what happened under Clodius’ rule; he ends the first play so menacingly that there’s got to be a fine tale to tell there. Sadly, we don’t see it for ourselves, although good old Tiro fills us in with all the missing information that happened between the two plays. Secondly, why does Cicero age throughout the second play, so that by the end he is an old man, whereas neither Tiro nor Cicero’s brother, Quintus, befall the same fate? Maybe they dosed up on the Caligae Numerus Septem; they should let us know their secret. And they didn’t need the unsubtlety of presenting Pompey as a Roman Donald Trump, which was basically a cheap laugh at the expense of a more appropriate characterisation. He should have taken a leaf out of Tiro’s book, who makes some very funny allusions to 2017 Britain and its crises whilst still remaining definitely Anno B.C. However, having a couple of aberrations in seven-and-a-half hours’ worth of theatre is, I think, perfectly forgivable.

Catiline the BrutalI’ve seen Richard McCabe on stage a few times in the past, but nothing could have prepared me for how stupendously good he is as Cicero. I know it’s a cliché, but this genuinely is the role he was born to play. He captures every aspect of his personality perfectly, from his oratory, his thinly veiled faux-humility when he’s told how great he is, his calculating ability to take a risk when dealing with powerful people, to his doting on his daughter and his severe disappointment to his wife. Noble of spirit, but also delightfully human too, he’s a sheer joy to watch. For much of the time he performs an incredibly effective double act with Joseph Kloska as Tiro. A faithful servant, but always on hand to speak his mind and give valuable advice, Mr Kloska gives a tremendous performance. He takes us the audience into his confidence and we look on him as a likeable old pal and a direct conduit for us to get involved in all these political machinations. We trust and admire Tiro, and believe every word he says. For this to work, it’s vital for Mr Kloska to build a great relationship with the audience and he truly does.

Caesar the RuthlessNo one in this wonderful cast puts a foot wrong, with some stunning individual performances and extended scenes of really exciting and memorable drama. Joe Dixon is superb, first as the aggressive and bullying Cataline, scarred and scary, and then in the second play as the mercurial Mark Antony, with his alternating soft and violent approaches to dealing with the SPQR. Peter de Jersey is also riveting to watch as the cutthroat Julius Caesar, from his early days “discussing land reform with the wife of a client” (yeah right) to his maniacally imperious ascendance to becoming a god. Pierro Neel-Mie is outstanding as the louche Clodius, following his progress from caring Ciceronian acolyte to power-mad Tribune; a man who says it’s time to seek a wife, and this time not someone else’s, a man prepared to commit sacrilege at the temple of the Vestal Virgins by waving his willy at them. Mr Neel-Mie returns in the second play as the quietly vicious Agrippa, Octavian’s right-hand man; and you wouldn’t want to cross him.

Cato the InspirationalThere are also excellent performances from Oliver Johnstone as Cicero’s follower-cum-opponent Rufus, and as the totally unnerving Octavian – if ever butter-wouldn’t-melt turned into the sourest desire for retribution, he’s your man. Siobhan Redmond is excellent as Terentia in a performance that progresses directly from comedy to tragedy; as is John Dougall as a delightfully hesitant Brutus, Michael Grady-Hall as a scruffy but charismatic Cato and David Nicolle as a slimy Crassus. But the whole ensemble is magnificent, and everyone works together to create a superb piece of tight, gripping theatre. You’d never know you’d spent virtually all day in the theatre, it’s so enjoyable that the time just flies by.

Octavian the VengefulIf you don’t know how Cicero’s story ends – well I’m not going to tell you, but if a cat has nine lives, I guess he reached his tenth. Find out for yourself by going to see these brilliant plays between now and 10th February 2018.

Production Photos by Ikin Yum

Review – A Christmas Carol, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 6th December 2017

A Christmas CarolIn the absence of Mrs Chrisparkle, who was called away on urgent business in the States, I was graciously accompanied by Lady Lichfield to see the RSC’s new production of A Christmas Carol, adapted by that fantastic writer David Edgar (Yes! Nicholas Nickleby! Destiny! Albie Sachs! Author of so many superb contributions to our stages over the past forty years or more). There are few books that have lent themselves so effectively to adaptations over the years as A Christmas Carol – from Alastair Sim to the Muppets, and not forgetting Tommy Steele’s regular reappearances in Scrooge The Musical.

Phil DavisAnd here’s another one to add to the canon. David Edgar has taken the familiar redemption story of Scrooge, the Cratchits, Marley and the Ghosts and framed it inside the creative mind of Charles Dickens. Many of the more exhilarating works of art are about the creative process that brings about that very same work of art. Consider the film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which is about the film crew making The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Or Elton John’s Your Song, which is about how he came to write Your Song. Now we get the chance to observe how Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol.

The CompanyHis original notion, according to Edgar, was to create a hard-hitting tract on the poor and the workhouses. But as his editor and friend John Forster, who accompanies Dickens on this creation-fest, points out, it’s Christmas and no one wants to read a gloomy but worthy pamphlet. Forster makes Dickens think again. Brainstorming names, Scratch becomes Scrooge and a legend is born. Dickens then himself appears in many of the scenes as he tries to imagine himself in his own story, encouraging his characters to reveal themselves as truthfully as possible. It’s a fresh and enjoyable approach to the story and helps to place it in the context of early Victorian poverty.

Phil Davis and Gerard CareyNevertheless, I was still surprised by how very sentimental I found it. Of course, it’s up to the individual whether that’s a good thing, or not. Some people like to wallow in it; personally, I find the story rather mawkish. It’s not often that one looks to Agatha Christie for a critical assessment of someone else’s work, but I can’t help but agree with her character Christopher Wren in The Mousetrap, when talking of the snowdrift, says “takes one back to Dickens and Scrooge and that irritating Tiny Tim. So bogus.” When the adult (not so Tiny) Tim emerges at the end, alive and well due to the generosity of Scrooge, Lady Lichfield confessed to releasing a few sobs. Sentimental? I rest my case.

Nicholas BishopIt looks as authentic and ravishing as you would expect from an RSC production, but with your imagination having to do a lot of the work to fill in the blanks – which I always think is more rewarding anyway. A couple of movable doorframes suggest a maze of corridors at Scrooge’s offices or at the Cratchits’ grim digs. A few lush furnishings create a comfortable environment at Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s place. Palely lit windows in the sky are all that’s needed to conjure up a densely populated living city; and with a mere gesture Dickens can cause the snow to fall – because, after all, everything we see is in his imagination.

John HodgkinsonPhil Davis is every bit as good as you would imagine as Scrooge; viciously arrogant and miserable when at work on Christmas Eve, his mouth curling with disgust at what he interprets as the weak laziness of others, who expect to be given a day off work and for him to bear the financial loss. His unease turns to genuine fear as he encounters the three (female) Christmas ghosts; and there’s a lovely, funny scene where, invisible, he observes the games they play at nephew Fred’s and how he is hurt by the things they say about him – all this, while the Ghost of Christmas Present (a surprisingly hilarious performance by Brigid Zengeni) is tucking into their candied fruits. And I did like the not-so subtle dig at Boris Johnson.

Vivien ParryScrooge’s transformation to a paragon of charity is very nicely done and contributes to another excellent scene with Gerard Carey as Bob Cratchit, where, at the end of his tether, Cratchit finally plucks up the courage to tell Scrooge exactly what he thinks of him….and then realises how the miser has changed his tune – very funny. Among the rest of the cast, Nicholas Bishop is an amusing Dickens, John Hodgkinson a hearty Fezziwig, Vivien Parry a scary ghost and a comic aunt (Is it a Bison?) and Emma Pallant a singularly unamused Mrs Cratchit. But the whole cast work together splendidly as an ensemble.

Brigid ZengeniThere are a few musical and dance interludes that I found a little self-indulgent; one early in the show seems to go on for ages, long beyond what I felt the story required or could sustain at the time. And there was something about the show overall that for me didn’t quite soar. It’s sentimental, but in a very shallow way; I didn’t get a pounding of emotion at anyone’s plight. But there’s no doubt that it’s a classy show with an excellent central performance and an unusual approach which gives it an extra kick. If you’re a fan of the story, you’ll definitely want to see this blend of the traditional with a quirky modern take. It’s in repertoire at the RSC until February 4th.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Twelfth Night, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 9th November 2017

Twelfth NightTwelfth Night is one of those true, perennial crowd pleasers. It lends itself so well to modern reinvention, in new settings and new eras, and when you’ve got a central comedic role like Malvolio it’s a gift for a grumpy comic actor to breathe new life into it. It has songs – so you can make as much or as little of them as you want; it has a girl dressed as a boy making up to another girl on behalf of another boy (that’s bound to lead to trouble); it has drunks and idiots; it has separated twins who dress alike even though they haven’t seen each other for ages; it even has a Fool. If you were to cut up little pieces of all the Shakespeare plays throw them up in the air and then try to put all the most typical aspects back together into one play, you’d come up with Twelfth Night.

Orsino and CesarioChristopher Luscombe’s new production draws inspiration from the late Victorian era. Orsino’s Illyria is a Wildean, Swinburnean palace of decadence, where the Duke paints pictures of pretty young men with few clothes on and despite his protestations of love for his countess seems naturally more attracted to fellas. As a result, the whole Viola/Cesario setup takes on a greater significance. When Viola as Cesario is telling the entranced Duke about how she/he plans to return to Olivia to woo her even more, the Duke gets closer and closer to Cesario until he can’t resist but plant a big sloppy kiss on his/her lips, much to Cesario’s (and ours) dumbstruck surprise. Oh those Illyrians.

Sebastian and ViolaIn more Victorian design, the garden at Olivia’s country estate backs on to a beautifully realised minor extension to the Temperate House at Kew Gardens; and Feste, her jester, here is cast as her munshi ( Victoria and Abdul has a lot to answer for). That reassessment of the role of Feste absolutely makes sense in this setting. Shipwrecked foreigners Viola and Sebastian have clearly travelled from the East Indies or thereabout, with their stunning Maharajan robes looking strangely none the worse for their experience. Britain in the late 19th century was fascinated by all things oriental; it affected their costumes, their designs, their artefacts, even their drugs. Simon Higlett’s magnificent sets and costumes capture both the spirit of that fascination and the general sense of Victorian England, with the train station, garden statuary, Orsino’s studio and so on. I loved the use of the old-fashioned Polyphon player to provide Feste his backing tracks – a really nice touch.

MalvolioAs seems to be on trend at the moment, we opened with Viola’s arrival, off the shipwreck, for the first scene and then went to Orsino’s studio for his music be the food of love scene, rather than the other way around, as Shakespeare had it. Which among us is going to tell Shakespeare he got it wrong? This way round is much better; it somehow allows for a greater understanding of the characters and the opening scenario if we meet the earnest Viola first and then move on to the louche Orsino.

Malvolio crossgarteredAs in virtually every Shakespearean production nowadays there are a few tinkerings with the script or characterisations; and they are all successful and constructive – apart from just one aspect, in my humble opinion. There’s a lot of incidental music; and nine times out of ten it’s either too loud, or the actors’ amplification is too soft. Many speeches are drowned out by the music – Feste seemed to me to be the biggest casualty – and it’s simply too intrusive. On occasion it’s almost as though they’re trying to make it into a musical; that doesn’t work as there simply isn’t enough music to achieve that. Musically, it’s neither one thing nor the other and I was a little irritated at that imbalance. As usual, as Malvolio’s plight develops, we see him as more sinned against the sinning (yes, I know, different play), and Olivia’s final assessment that he has been most notoriously abus’d is quite right. However, this Twelfth Night is totally played for laughs, and the finale involves the whole cast singing all the songs again (really?) so any lingering sadness for Malvolio gets kicked into touch straight away. Maybe the production sacrifices a little of the play’s darker side so that it can end with one foot in the air going oi, oi, which isn’t necessarily for the best.

Sir TobyWhere this production really does come into its own is with some superb performances and truly entertaining characterisations. Let’s start with Malvolio – Adrian Edmondson in that role sounds like a dream come true and will rightly encourage plenty of bums on seats. He’s wonderfully dour as the strict puritan steward, dishing out death stares to reprobates, straightening out the angle of a stationary teapot with pernickety accuracy; and his transformation into a yellow stocking’d, cross garter’d, grinning ninny is very funny and not remotely over the top.

OliviaI absolutely loved Kara Tointon as Olivia. Her girlish relish at her constant meetings with Cesario is a sheer joy; her facial expressions really share that sense of physical enjoyment! John Hodgkinson puts his height and his vocal power into a strong performance as Sir Toby Belch, making what can be a somewhat tedious character genuinely funny; farting noisily and uncontrollably as he leaves the stage. Michael Cochrane’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is another genuinely funny characterisation, collapsing through drink whenever it’s necessary, teetering across the stage in a discreet attempt to escape, mangling his words as he juggles dignity with debauchery. There’s a lovely scene where Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Sarah Twomey’s gutsy scullery maid Fabia have to blend in with the broken statues in Olivia’s garden in order to hide from Malvolio. Simple physical comedy in many respects, but beautifully done.

MariaVivien Parry, last seen as the hilariously over-ambitious Mrs Walsingham in Half a Sixpence, brings a huge dollop of Welsh intrigue to the role of Maria; she couldn’t have been more dramatic (and indeed hilarious) in her account of how Malvolio has fallen for her trick – and it’s a really lovely reading of the part. Beruce Khan’s Feste is suitably mystic and exotic, combining the tradition Fool elements with a little touch of munshi magic. Dinita Gohil brings a natural dignity and nobility to the role of Viola; I really admired her clarity of diction with just that hint of Indian refinement that’s particularly pleasing to my ear. Esh Alladi’s Sebastian is a delightfully straightforward chap who can’t believe his luck with Olivia, and he exudes thorough decency whenever he’s on stage. Hats off to the casting department for uniting Mr Alladi and Ms Gohil in these two roles; with their similar heights and frames you really could believe they were twins. And there’s an excellent performance from Nicholas Bishop as Orsino, overflowing with artiness, always confusing the girl for the boy; a perfectly underplayed Victorian version of a Restoration fop.

Sir AndrewThe press night audience absolutely loved it, and it does fill the theatre with genuine contented vibes and a wonderful sense of good humour. I’d just like them to hold back on the musical intrusions a little; apart from that, what’s not to love?

P. S. Interesting to note from the programme how many of the cast of this show will also be appearing in the RSC’s A Christmas Carol, which opens next month; the two productions being played in repertoire until February. I’ll look forward to seeing that!

Production photos by Manual Harlan