Review – Venice Preserved, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 30th May 2019

Venice PreservedSo it’s Thomas Otway who wrote Venice Preserved, not John Otway. My mistake. He’s the guy from Aylesbury who wrote Cor Baby That’s Really Free. Very easy to get the two confused. Actually, it makes you wonder what kind of person was writing plays in 1682 that weren’t Restoration Comedies. Thomas Otway must have had a hard life. Indeed, although he was apparently the talk of the town after the success of Venice Preserved, three years later he died in penury, allegedly choking to death on a bun which he purchased after someone gave him a guinea in the street when they discovered who he was. It shouldn’t happen to a playwright.

CompanyVenice Preserved is, I think it’s fair to say, rather an unpleasant play. Whilst it was perennially popular for its first 150 years or so, its attraction died away with the Victorian era; too dark and comfortless for those snowflakes, I suspect. This is the first British major production of the play for 35 years; and Prasanna Puwanarajah’s production pulls no punches when it comes to shedding light on some of the darker parts of human existence.

Stephen Fewell and Michael Grady-HallWhen we consider how people are today brainwashed into fighting for a cause like Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups, we’ve a tendency to believe that this kind of radicalisation is something new. However, Venice Preserved shows us that it’s a concept as old as the hills. History tells us, from Roman times to the present day, that charismatic leaders with ulterior motives can bluff their way into the public’s affections and then lead them all on to mass destruction. Otway presents us with another version of that simple truth.

Michael Grady-HallThe mild – if slightly eccentric – Jaffeir is convinced by his soldier friend Pierre to join the revolution against the failed city state of Venice. Pierre’s motivation is driven by personal animosity against the corrupt Senator Antonio, who has sexual gallivanting sessions with Pierre’s own mistress, Aquilina. Jaffeir, however, is simply swept away by Pierre’s charisma. When Jaffeir offers his beloved wife Belvidera as a hostage, to prove his commitment to the cause, it’s pretty obvious things have got out of hand. True, he comes to his senses when she narrowly escapes rape by the mercenary Renault, and the pair of them attack and kill her prison guard to set her free. But he cuts a very pathetic figure when trying to explain to her that he did it all because of “his friend”. Clearly there was need for a Restoration version of the Prevent programme.

Natalie DewAlongside all the political intrigue, two other plots delve into the characters of the story. The enmity continues to grow between Priuli, a senator and Belvidera’s father, and his son-in-law Jaffeir, who he insists “stole” her from him, even though Jaffeir saved her from drowning. His is the resentment and selfishness of the lone parent who refuses to accept that their children are growing up. And there’s the ludicrous relationship of senator Antonio, Otway’s satire on the character of the real-life Earl of Shaftesbury, with the courtesan Aquilina. He prefers it when she’s in a charge, getting his kicks in fetish gear and pleading to be spat on and kicked in the groin. Whilst on the face of it these scenes are the equivalent of Carry On Restoration, there’s something incredibly awkward and distasteful – even though it may appear strangely delicious – about seeing the sexual peccadilloes of the high and mighty revealed so graphically. Antonio is like a restoration comedy character transplanted into a sea of tragedy; I’m not surprised that Bowdlerized versions of the play in the 19th century completely removed the character of Antonio, and that Aquilina was only mentioned in passing.

Stephen Fewell and companyAt the end of the day, people like Jaffeir and Pierre are mere puppets. Promised safety if they grass on the names of all the conspirators, they’re still sent to their deaths and Belvidera is left to die in mental torment. In a touching scene, just before he dies, Jaffeir gives the priest Belvidera’s love token, that he’s been carrying around all the time, asking him to make sure she receives it. But once he’s dead the priest simply nicks Pierre’s ring, chucks the token in the gutter, and wanders off. Used and abused; there’s no trust in Venice. The City State may be preserved, but unless you have status, you’re nothing.

Steve NicolsonPrasanna Puwanarajah attributes his noir style for this production to his early interest in cyberpunk films and cartoons of the 1980s. This initially put me off; as I have very little interest or knowledge of such works, I assumed that this production somehow wouldn’t be for me. However, if that genre does influence this production, it didn’t impact on me. For me this was a classic presentation of a centuries-old drama, essentially tragic with a few light moments to break up the darkness.

Kevin N GoldingDesigner James Cotterill’s set suggests a courtyard with just a manhole in the centre from where bedraggled fugitives can emerge, drenched from the sewer; by contrast there’s an elaborate decorated screen above onto which are projected maps of Venice, Pierre’s execution wheel and Aquilina’s social media page. Blue lasers flood down from the ceiling to represent Belvidera’s cell, bringing a little fantasy magic to the stage. Costumes range from the lavish ermine of the Duke, the sharp business suits of the senators, and Pierre’s splendid military uniform to Jaffeir’s stuck-in-the-seventies look and Aquilina’s moderately dominatrix garb.

Jodie McNeeThere’s a star turn from Jodie McNee as Belvidera, full of emotion and sorrow, showing strength and vulnerability at the same time, which is some feat; an ordinary character who shows true heroism when called for. She’s matched by Michael Grady-Hall’s Jaffeir, a classic underachiever, easily influenced; an innocent abroad who takes what’s precious to him for granted and falls prey to wiser powers. It was unfortunate that there was a sightline issue with the jailer’s death towards the end of the first act; I would imagine that a good third of the house would not have been able to work out exactly how Jaffeir and Belvidera did him in – I felt like that was a visual milestone of the play that I was sorry to miss.

Stephen FewellAnother superb performance comes from Stephen Fewell as Pierre, cutting a dashing military figure, a fascinating blend of the manipulative and the trusting but for whom nobility comes first. Les Dennis’ Priuli comes across as a petulant actuary but it’s a very effective characterisation; Steve Nicolson is a lowlife rogue of a Renault; Kevin N Golding makes for a suitably authoritarian Duke, and there’s solid support from Alison Halstead as the hearty Spanish ambassador and Carl Prekopp as the conspirator Eliot. And Natalie Dew conveys Aquilina’s passionate nature and embittered fury with appropriate fervour.

John HodgkinsonBut the scene-stealing performance comes from the ever-reliable John Hodgkinson as Antonio, pompously respectable on the outside and a right little raver on the inside, visibly turned on by the merest threat of discipline. He’s the source of any guffaws or audible cringes that the audience can’t hold back.

Michael Grady-Hall and Jodie McNeeAt almost two-and-three-quarter hours long, this does at time feel a little ploddy and a little repetitive. The text has been cut in part but I think it could do with further pruning. It’s a play that illuminates and informs, but, in my mind, not at all a likeable play. But it’s a fascinating opportunity to see something rarely seen today but which was never out of the West End two hundred years ago!

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – The Country Wife, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 9th June 2018

The Country WifeWilliam Wycherley’s The Country Wife was first performed in 1675, slap bang in the middle of the period when all the theatregoing public wanted was sex – the bawdier, the better. They’d had enough of those puritans, spreading misery and restraint; what they wanted was a damn good laugh, and it had better be a filthy one too.

Lex Shrapnel as HornerIt’s a rather neatly structured and tidy example of the Restoration Comedy genre; cuckolded husbands, rampant fornicators, foppish twerps, licentious servants, as well as a story of true love and an interesting contrast between the ways of the town and those of the country – including the pun in the title, which I’m sure you’ve grasped.

Belinda Lang as Lady FidgetWe first meet the roguish Horner in conversation with his quack, who has let it be known that Horner has been diagnosed as impotent as any eunuch in the orient – so much for patient confidentiality. Horner’s plan is that this will make him irresistible to women because they will either feel safe in his company, or they will want to try to put him to the test. Either way, he wins. His first sortie is to convince Sir Jasper Fidget to get access to Lady Fidget, her sister Dainty, and their constant companion Mistress Squeamish. Easy. As an additional bonus, he gets to cuckold the men of the town in a warped, power-mad desire for dominance; the cuckold dance at the end of the play signifies the complete fruition of all his effort. He has a retinue of mates who love the sound of all that extra-marital hoo-ha, including the foppish Sparkish, who is to marry Alithea, the sister of Margery. She is herself newly married to the wretched Pinchwife, who hides her by locking her in her bedroom so that scurrilous menaces like Horner can’t winkle her out and have their wicked way with her. Does Horner indulge in a little Ladies and Gentlemen with every woman in the town? Does Pinchwife successfully preserve Margery’s virtue? Does Sparkish get to marry Alithea? As the play’s been around almost 350 years now, I’m sure you already know the answer.

John Hodgkinson as PinchwifeThis very modern version of the play – drinks trolleys, pizza boxes, neon-signed nightclubs, Ann Summers shopping bags – puts less emphasis on the fun aspect that the original 1675 audience would have relished, and more on the sordid nature of Horner’s life and game-playing, and its wider effects on those about him. We have no sympathy for Horner; we don’t identify with him and aren’t jealous that he gets all the girls. He’s a loathsome wretch, waking up on the sofa in a post-alcoholic stupor; adding more notches on his bedpost simply because he can, and because there’s nothing much else for him to do that he’d be good at. The final scene shows him back on his sofa, still knocking back the remnants of last night’s booze. He has progressed not an inch. Pinchwife’s just as bad, threatening his wife with violence, locking her away like a caged bird; and at the end of the play it’s Margery who is visibly broken by the entire experience, the true victim of all that has gone before. So, whilst it’s a lively and enjoyable production, you’re never far from having something of a dirty taste at the back of your throat.

The CompanySoutra Gilmour has designed a dark and functional set, very bachelor pad in its creature comforts; the reversable back wall has three doors, useful for highlighting the Feydeau Farce aspect of the play, and a Restoration Comedy word cloud is projected onto the back wall from time to time, just in case you forget the naughtiness of the era. There’s a lot of zaniness going on at each scene change, with chairs, beds, and what-have-yous all being swirled around in circles on their way on or off stage, as though to highlight the uncontrollably madcap nature of Horner’s world. The costumes are perfect, from Lady Fidget’s business chic and Sir Jasper’s staid old codger’s suit to the trendiest clothes you can get in H&M for all the young people. Musical man of the moment, Grant Olding, has composed some mind-joltingly harsh techo-jingles to accompany the scene changes and Jonathan Munby’s direction is slick and unsentimental.

Scott Karim as SparkishThere are smart performances throughout: Lex Shrapnel’s Horner is very believable as that lowlife swine who looks on the world as something to be wrung out to dry for his own benefit, a professional manipulator who doesn’t even need much in the way of charisma to get what he wants. John Hodgkinson’s Pinchwife is a tetchy mass of nervous energy, constantly on his guard against unwanted approaches; it’s an excellent portrayal of a man brought to the brink of anxiety by his own selfishness, whose only fuel left in his tank is to attack the one he loves. Belinda Lang is a delightfully over-the-top poseuse as the affected Lady Fidget; Scott Karim gives a good account of the foppish Sparkish, including the most insincere chuckle you’ve ever heard; and there’s excellent support from Ashley Zhangazha and Jo Herbert as Harcourt and Alithea, the genuine young lovers caught up in all this nonsense.

Susannah Fielding as MargeryThe night, however, belongs to Susannah Fielding, who is superb as Margery, with wonderful wide-eyed innocence mixed with her sad, suppressed and frustrated expressions as she languishes pointlessly alone on her bed. There’s a wonderful scene where Pinchwife has to lead Margery through the town so she is disguised as a man – or in this case, a schoolboy, nevertheless pretending to be Pinchwife’s brother – much to the amusement of the onlookers. You’ll never think of Wee Jimmie Krankie in the same way again. An immaculate performance bringing out all the pathos and humour that befits the role.

Jo Herbert as AlitheaThis was a preview performance, so there was always a possibility that some things might change before press night. It’s a little long at just under three hours, but it’s difficult to see where any further cuts could be made. Certainly, the second part of the play feels more rollicking than the first, which was a shame for those dozen or so people who decided to leave at the interval; a harsh judgment on their part, I thought. It’s a powerful, relevant production, perfect for introducing a new generation to the wicked world of the Restoration.

Ashley Zhangahza as HarcourtP. S. As it was gone 10.30 pm when it finished, it was too late for us to pay our usual homage at the Cote Restaurant in Chichester; it’s a town that likes to go to bed early. So for the first time we stayed behind at the Minerva Bar and Grill and had some of their sharing plate suppers – and they were absolutely delicious. A bottle of Merlot and terrific service eased our way almost into the new day. Definitely recommended as a brilliant way to finish your evening at the theatre!

Production photos by Manual Harlan

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