Review – Measure for Measure, Royal Shakespeare Company, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 4th July 2019

Measure for MeasureOne of the most rewarding aspects about watching Shakespeare in the 21st century is to realise how little has changed. RSC supremo Gregory Doran has set his new version of Measure for Measure in the Vienna of the 1900s, a time and a place of louche decadence, during the final knockings of the Habsburg Empire. The play may have been written over 400 years ago, but it was equally relevant a hundred years ago, and indeed today – particularly with the #metoo generation in mind, where (you could say) the puritan Angelo is just as bad* as your Harvey Weinsteins* of today (*allegedly). (*I didn’t say that).

Duke and AngeloAs an introduction to the plot, in case you don’t know… The Duke of Vienna has had enough of the limelight so leaves the administration of the city in the capable hands of his deupty, Angelo, and his assistant Escalus. Whilst Escalus is a safe pair of hands, and can be expected to mete out justice fairly, Angelo reveals himself to be a puritan fanatic. He unearths old laws that prohibit anything bawdy, and as a result closes all the whorehouses, and sentences a young man, Claudio, to death for having got his fiancé with child. Given that she was a willing participant in the exercise, that’s more than a bit tough. Claudio’s friend Lucio tells the condemned man’s sister Isabella about her brother’s fate, so she attends on Angelo to try to persuade him to change his mind. But Angelo’s price to preserve Claudio’s life is more costly on a personal level than Isabella is prepared to pay… Aha.

Lucio, Claudio and ProvostMeasure for Measure is delightfully uncategorisable; hence its consideration as one of Shakespeare’s three Problem Plays – and probably the most accessible and relatable of those works. Broadly it’s a comedy, but with some very savage aspects, and an ending that doesn’t comply with the usual multi-marriage tie-ups you expect from the genre. It has the bawdiness of the Merry Wives, the clownish policing of Much Ado, the plea for mercy of the Merchant of Venice and the uncompromisingly uncertain final resolution of Love’s Labour’s Lost. It satirises puritanism more sinisterly than Shakespeare’s treatment of Malvolio, and it reveals hypocrisy like the best Molière. It even cheerfully beheads a prisoner whose time hasn’t come yet.

Claudio and IsabellaThe 1900s setting works well enough, with hints of Viennese waltzes, frock coats and painted trollops, although the timelessness of the story and its quiet, understated horror, means you quickly forget about the outward show, and, to be honest, it could be anytime, anyplace. Deep down, it’s all about the powerplay between Angelo and Isabella, and the Duke’s subsequent devious plans to right the wrongs without being castigated for handing over control. The contrast between the Angelo’s clinical brutality and, say, the jokey shenanigans of the pimp Pompey or the foolish constable Elbow, is stark and uncomfortable; but they do very successfully show that it takes all sorts to make a dukedom. Only Lucio bridges the gap between the classes, being both educated and courtly, but also absurd and foppish; whilst he mixes in the high circles of power, and, with apologies for mixing my analogies here, like Icarus he flies too close to the sun.

Escalus, Angelo and JusticeThis is a fine, strong, satisfying production with great performances across the board. Lucy Phelps’ Isabella is a hearty, determined young woman but who won’t allow her moral standards to slip. It’s a great portrayal of a small cog in a big machine, out of her depth when the consequences of her actions become clear. There’s a great scene between Ms Phelps and James Cooney, as the forlorn, clueless Claudio, when he’s uncomprehending as to why she wouldn’t make this sacrifice for him and she’s furious that he should even ask such a thing; two little people lost in a vast, cruel world.

Pompey and FrothSandy Grierson is excellent as the cold, calculating Angelo; looking like a cross between Uriah Heep and Vladimir Putin, and about as trustworthy as both of them, he assumes mock humility at first but is quick to gain ruthless confidence. It’s a measure of the seriousness of his performance that when he cowers on the floor, trembling at the prospect of a night of extorted rapture, that we don’t find it funny, like we would Malvolio. This Angelo allows us the wry smiles of recognising hypocrisy but no more; even when he is condemned to marriage with Mariana, we don’t laugh at his woe. Mr Grierson gives us a superb portrayal of a man who is ugly on the inside; a chancer who spreads misery where he can but is powerless against true authority.

BarnadineClaire Price is fantastic as Escalus, beautifully upright, clear and decisive in her pronouncements; Joseph Arkley imbues Lucio with true upper-crust mischief making; and there are brilliant comic turns from Michael Patrick as the overzealous but under-accurate Elbow, and David Ajao as the wisecracking wide boy Pompey. Great support also from Amanda Harris as the surprisingly kindly Provost, Graeme Brookes as the flustered Mistress Overdone and the bizarrely assertive Barnadine, and Sophie Khan Levy as the much-wronged Mariana.

DukeBut it’s Antony Byrne’s magnificent portrayal of the Duke, with his innate authority at court and his overwhelmingly positive masquerade as Friar Lodowick that knits together all the threads of this superb production, full equally of humour and underplayed horror, and that helps to make this – in my humble opinion – the RSC’s best revival this year so far. Plenty of opportunities to see it, as it’s playing at Stratford until the end of August and then is on tour throughout the country until April, including the Christmas season at the Barbican. An excellent production of this perpetually relevant play.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

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 Provoked Wife, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 9th May 2019

The Provoked WifeWas there nothing that Sir John Vanbrugh couldn’t do? Architect of such national treasures as Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, writer of such enduring Restoration Comedies like The Relapse and The Provoked Wife, political activist, even working for the East India Company in Gujarat. He must have been such a Smart Alec.

MusicLet’s get up to date with the plot: Lady Brute, tired of being ignored and despised by her waster of a husband, Sir John, decides to take a lover to spice up her life and to give him a virtual bloody nose into the bargain. She tries to instigate a liaison with Constant, a gentleman, whilst his friend Heartfree, who’s something of a misanthrope – especially against women, falls for Lady Brute’s confidante and niece Bellinda. To add to the mess, Constant and Heartfree are also pals with Sir John. The plot, as it so often does, thickens. Meanwhile, the vain and silly Lady Fancyfull, inspired by her companion Mademoiselle, also wishes to try her luck with Heartfree. Their plans all fall apart in a series of farcical meetings, with ladies hiding behind arbours, and gentlemen heeding the ever-familiar instruction to secrete themselves “into the closet”. But, as Browning was to ask 150-odd years later, what of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?

Sir JohnThe Provoked Wife was Vanbrugh’s second comedy, first performed in 1697, with what was, at the time, an all-star cast. The whole nature of restoration comedy, a natural rebellion against the Cromwellian frugality and puritanism of a few decades earlier, required as much careless wit, bawdy and foppery as you could cram into a few hours. Stock characters abound, their names proclaiming their characteristics; but even so, they have hearts too, and social disgrace means precisely that. Reputation is key, and when a character cries “I am ruined!” they’re not kidding.

Sir John in troublePhillip Breen’s new production for the RSC teems with life and laughter – until about the last thirty minutes. Not because the production goes off the boil, far from it; but because the villainous, murky side of Vanbrugh’s characters take control of the play. Up till then, it’s all knowing winks, powdered faces, nicking an audience member’s programme, and a wonderful selection of pomposity-pricking moments. However, despite its obviously comical – indeed farcical – main plot of wannabe sexual shenanigans and the hilarity of cuckolding a cruel husband, there’s a savage underbelly that makes you question whether you should be laughing at it; and that knife-edge is at the heart of all the best comedy, from Shakespeare to Ayckbourn. As the plot switches from major to minor, the effects of what’s been happening to these figures of fun, who are indeed flesh and blood after all, becomes apparent, and by the end there’s very little to laugh at.

Show that ankleMark Bailey’s simple set presents us with a solid proscenium arch complete with traditional overhangings and a useful curtain to hide behind. And an all-important back door, which is our glimpse of the outside world, the entry and exit point for all things comical or threatening; and even a way to demonstrate superiority (watch two self-important women try to struggle through it at the same time and you’ll see what I mean). Paddy Cunneen has composed some lively, cheeky tunes for our five on-stage musicians, who herald the end or start of scenes and accompany Lady Pipe or Mr Treble with their pompous warblings.

Lady BruteAlexandra Gilbreath’s Lady Brute is a brilliant portrayal of a woman coming out of her shell; wonderfully confiding, slow to react, discovering the truth of her own meanings as she’s speaking the words. She is matched by an equally superb performance by Jonathan Slinger as Sir John Brute, who sets the tone of the evening with a hilarious opening scene of grumbling and misogyny, and who rises to the challenge of playing the old drunk vagabond impersonating his wife perfectly. It’s their scene when we see his true brutal nature and his attempt to rape his wife where the play turns its corner; challenging and uncomfortable, but played with true commitment and honesty.

HeartfreeJohn Hodgkinson plays Heartfree with just the right amount of cynicism, i. e. not too much, because you have to believe that he genuinely turns from a callous cold fish to an unexpectedly affectionate suitor. Natalie Dew is a sweet and thoughtful Bellinda – mischievous enough to encourage Lady Brute to cast off the shackles of her miserable marriage, but virtuous enough to attract the attentions of Heartfree. Rufus Hound’s Constant is just that; played very calmly and straight, respectable but always with a twinkle in his eye as he looks for preferment. There are also some terrific performances from the minor characters, with Isabel Adomakoh Young’s Cornet a delightful fly in Lady Fancyfull’s ointment, Sarah Twomey a beautifully manipulative and mischievous Mademoiselle, Kevin N Golding a bemused Justice and Steve Nicholson a hilariously plain-talking Rasor. I was excited to see that Les Dennis is in the cast but was disappointed at how small his role as Colonel Bully is – just a little bit of drunk swagger in a scene or two; hopefully he’s keeping his powder dry for his appearance in the RSC’s Venice Preserved later this month.

Lady FancyfullBut it’s Caroline Quentin’s Lady Fancyfull that makes you beam with pleasure from start to finish. A vision of self-importance, who clearly pays well for flattery; she coquettishly protests modesty whenever she hears praise, and vilifies anyone who dares to contradict her own opinion of herself. In an age today where people often have self-esteem issues, here’s what happens when you go to the opposite end of the scale! Yet it’s a measure of the intelligence of Ms Quentin’s performance that when Lady F is shamed and mocked at the end of the play, her face-paint and wig cast aside, that you do feel some compassion for the wretched character. It’s a great comic performance and she brightens up the stage whenever she’s on.

The BrutesTo be fair, at a little over 3 hrs 15 minutes, the production does feel a trifle long, and leafing through my copy of the text, I don’t think they made any cuts apart from removing the epilogue. However, it’s a very entertaining and lively way to spend an evening; just remember never to provoke your wife.

Production photos by Pete Le May

Review – Kunene and the King, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 6th April 2019

Kunene and the KingJack Morris, an ailing, white, Shakespearean actor with liver cancer brought on by excessive drinking, has been hired to perform King Lear at a theatre in Johannesburg. The promise of playing this iconic role is the only thing that keeps him going – well, that, and the Gordon’s gin. Enter Sister Kunene – Sister as in nurse, rather than in family – a black carer from Soweto who has been hired to live with Jack until he dies (I mean, until he gets better). Both men will need to learn the art of compromise if this professional relationship is going to work. But they have one thing in common: Shakespeare.KATK 3 Kunene’s only knowledge of Shakespeare is Julius Caesar, taught in the townships as a warning about conspiracy, but he longs to know more. So when he starts helping Jack with his lines, not only does he start to appreciate the grandeur that is Lear, he also learns how best to communicate with his patient. Whether the patient is prepared to meet him half-way is another matter…

KATK 7Janice Honeyman’s production for the RSC and Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre is an engrossing, vivid, and honest (sometimes brutally so) insight into the world of these two disparate men and the search for the common humanity that must link them. Birrie le Roux’s two-part set portrays both the cluttered, egotistical, bookish home of the actor, no longer able to take care of himself; and the simple, clean dignity of the nurse’s kitchen, making the best of sixty-year-old furniture, with just his football team’s scarf as a decorative note.KATK 8 Incidentally, it’s while we’re enjoying Lungiswa Plaatjies’ mesmeric performance of Neo Muyanga’s strong, entr’acte vocal compositions that somehow the actor’s pad gets transformed into the nurse’s kitchen without our even noticing. Very smooth!

KATK 2There are few greater names associated with the last fifty years of South African theatre than that of John Kani. Actor, playwright, director; a shining beacon in the fight against apartheid through the medium of the stage. It had always been an ambition of mine to see him on stage – and with Kunene and the King, all my expectations of his stage presence and performance quality were exceeded. KATK 5And not only John Kani, but we get another of South Africa’s theatrical heroes, Sir Antony Sher. It was only a few months ago that he was chillingly brilliant in One for the Road, part of the Pinter at the Pinter season. As Jack Morris he is delightfully irascible, dictatorial, and bossy; but also, like Lear, vulnerable, confused and a foolish, fond old man. It’s a fantastic portrayal of a once powerful character, losing his potency through age and sickness; still immensely proud and independent, harking back to the old days when there’s absolutely no way he would have allowed a black man in his house.KATK 9 John Kani’s Kunene is also a proud and dignified man; nobody’s maid or servant, but a highly qualified professional person, and he needs it to be recognised. When Morris challenges Kunene’s integrity and position, Kunene has to find a way to work through the anger and resentment of the decades in order to carry out his professional role.

KATK 1The final scene, where Jack tracks Kunene back to his Soweto home, narrowly avoiding a public transport disaster to get there, in order to get his publicity photos taken for the production of Lear, culminates in a grand argument where they both realise the awfulness of what each of them is doing to the other; thus they then have their own equivalent of a Truth and Reconciliation process. Written to commemorate 25 years of open elections since the end of apartheid, the strained, yet often joyful relationship between the two characters tells some of the story of how South African society operates today.

KATK 6At barely over 90 minutes without an interval, the play fairly whizzes by. It’s a work of delicate quality, insight and structure, and I could easily have enjoyed another 90 minutes. A chance to watch two masters at work, but it’s only on at the Swan until 23rd April. After that, it opens at the Fugard in Cape Town on 30th April. Unmissable!

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

Review – The Taming of the Shrew, RSC, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 19th March 2019

The Taming of the ShrewIf you can’t decide whether a comment is sexist or not, I always think it’s worth imagining what it would sound like if it was said by someone of the opposite sex. Imagine, for instance, Miss World commentaries from the 1970s spoken by a woman about a bunch of men, and it doesn’t sound right. Pretend the presenters of Strictly Come Dancing are men and then say what the female presenters say about the bare-chested male dancers as if they were talking about women. You soon come to a helpful conclusion.

The CompanyWhen you consider those things that men are sometimes apt to say about women, or how they behave with them, or how a male-dominated society treats women, you can probably think of a number of ways in which things ought to change. Justin Audibert’s The Taming of the Shrew sheds light on the dark area of how men have traditionally ruled the roost over women in a fierce, funny and often ghastly new production.

Bianco, Baptista and KatherineImagine, if you will: 1590s England is a matriarchy. Women make the decisions, women hold rank, women own all the wealth, women choose their husbands. It’s Petruchia, rather than Petruchio, who’s come to husband it wealthily in Padua. Men are adornments; chastely virtuous chattel under the dominance of their mothers until it is decreed they should wed the woman of others’ choosing. One such family is headed by Baptista Minola, with her preening, compliant younger son Bianco, who has three suitors, Lucentia, Gremia and Hortensia. The other son is the firebrand Katherine. Yes, Katherine. It’s a girl’s name. All the other swapped-gender characters have masculined or feminined their name endings, but Katherine remains Katherine. No wonder he’s upset. He must have been bullied rotten at school.

Katherine and PetruchiaI don’t have to tell you the traditional story of the Taming of the Shrew, but in a nutshell: Lovely daughter Bianca can’t get married until dreadful daughter Katherine finds a husband. Enter Petruchio, who loves a challenge; woos her, marries her, then tames her by keeping her hungry, psyching her out, and even beating her into submission. At the end, there’s a magical transformation and she becomes the perfect wife. Put in those terms, it was high time for an alternative production. But it’s always been thought of as a comedy, because Katherine normally gives as good as she gets, and it becomes a true battle of the sexes.

PetruchiaAnd that’s where this laudable production slightly falls down. Whilst Petruchia is as alpha female as they get, Katherine himself isn’t really that awful. Yes, he has a temper, and eats like a pig; but apart from that, his general stage presence is surprisingly quiet – demure, almost. In traditional productions, the battles between Petruchio and Katherine are almost 50-50, maybe 60-40 on his side. But in this production, Petruchia wins 80-20, and rather than laugh at Katherine’s attempts to get her own back, we’re dismayed with horror at the sheer domestic abuse landed on the poor chap. Their relationship seems to have made both abuser and victim unhinged, and reminds us that women can abuse men just as easily as men abuse women. KatherineWhen Katherine delivers his final speech about the homely role of men, you sense this is not because his character has been transformed into a duteous, wifely fellow, but because he fears abuse and/or starvation if he doesn’t say it. It’s a shame that this Katherine isn’t feistier, as it might have been a bolder examination of what happens when you swap the traditional gender roles. As it stands, the quieter male Katherine rather lets the production off the hook as it ignores what it could have explored if it had gone a bit further.

BaptistaThat’s to take nothing away from the grandeur and humour of the production, especially in the first act. The traditional male roles played as redoubtable females are funny, telling, and beautifully performed; and provide a real eye-opener to the imbalance of the sexes, at least as far as this story conveys it. The second act loses some steam; I didn’t enjoy the totally irrelevant song and dance immediately after the interval, performed by characters whom we don’t recognise; and the subsequent scene between Grumio and Curtis goes on excessively long without really achieving much in the way of plot or character development. By then, the buzz of invention that had carried us into the interval had dissipated and for me the production never quite regained it.

GrumioI also found myself (unnecessarily, probably) irked by the fact that they didn’t swap the genders 100%. Why was Petruchia’s servant Grumio still a man? Why wasn’t she Grumia? The opening second act dance routine had men providing the singing with a decorative girl doing the dancing – shouldn’t the genders have been reversed? And why were the servants, who brought furniture props on and off stage, effeminate men rather than strong and able women? For a cheap laugh, I fear. A matriarchal society would surely give those important household jobs that required heavy lifting to reliable women of a lower class.

HortensiaStephen Brimson Lewis’ stately set serves its purpose, with plenty of doors to provide those occasional Feydeau Farce moments. Hannah Clark’s costumes are sumptuous, where sumptuous is required, and alarming where alarming is required. Most impressive were Ruth Chan’s compositions, superbly played by the six musicians perched above the stage, which varied from madrigal to West End showtune, and everything in between. I’m sure one of the group numbers was Italy’s entry to the 1592 Eurovision Song Contest.

Katherine - weddingClaire Price dominates the stage with her tyrannical and, frankly, terrifying performance as Petruchia. Unconventional, go-getting and heartier than Captain Birdseye, her characterisation also reminded me of the late Rik Mayall’s Lord Flash-heart on amphetamines. I think it was the hairstyle that did it. She gives a superb portrayal of someone who’s just allowed himself unfettered access to do whatever he wants, in order to get what he wants, no matter the consequences. Scary, but brilliant. Joseph Arkley’s Katherine never has a chance against her. More petulant than petrifying, it’s a strangely introverted performance; sour faced, but not really a shrew. This is perhaps most visible in the scene where he waits for Petruchia to turn up for their wedding – sulky, and a bit put out; but not angry. Even when he throws the flowers away it’s in despair rather than fury.

BiondellaAmanda Harris’ Baptista is a grande dame, well used to opulence and having the final say, and she runs her household with beneficent, but stern, matronage. James Cooney’s Bianco is an eye-fluttering, hair-wafting fetching young cove; Mr Cooney very cleverly reflects the traditional behaviours of a Shakespearean younger woman in his movement and his stance and it’s a highly convincing performance. There’s great fun between Emily Johnstone’s super-keen Lucentia and Laura Elsworthy’s Trania, her servant who acts as the lady, with all the pomp and circumstance she can muster. Amy Trigg brings out all the humour of her go-between role as Biondella, charmingly insolent with Baptista, yet trying to be a good servant; and Melody Brown gives a very strong showing as the domineering Vincentia.

GremiaBut once again it is Sophie Stanton who steals the show with her brilliantly comic performance as Gremia. It’s an old cliché I know, but Ms Stanton really could make you laugh your head off reading the telephone directory. The comic timing when she’s pleading her case for Bianco’s hand; the way she introduces Cambio “from Rheims”, “cunning in Greek, Latin, and other languages” – it’s just naturally inventive and truly a class act. She amazes you with the physicality of her ability to glide like a hovercraft, and the running gag with the sword and the scabbard is just brilliant. She’s quickly becoming one of my most favourite stage performers of all time.

Vincentia and KatherineIn the final analysis, this production boils down to an exercise to see what a familiar situation looks like when the sexes are reversed; and from that point of view it’s successful, although I think it could have gone even further. At three hours, it’s just as well they’ve dropped the whole Christopher Sly framework story! It’s playing in repertoire in Stratford until August, but then tours alongside As You Like It and Measure for Measure in Salford, Canterbury, Plymouth, Nottingham. Newcastle and Blackpool. Very enjoyable, and worth seeing to draw your own conclusions about this unusual battle of the sexes.

Production photos by Ikin Yum

Review – As You Like It, RSC, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 21st February 2019

As You Like ItThe prospect of seeing another production of As You Like It always fills me with excitement because it’s one of Shakespeare’s true crowd-pleasers. The cheeky, jokey relationship between Rosalind and Celia; the challenge of how to characterise the melancholy Jaques; the knowing sniggering of Orlando chatting up Ganymede when we all know it’s Rosalind; the rustic tomfoolery of Touchstone, Audrey, Silvius and Phoebe. Then there are also those little heart-warming moments, like Adam pledging allegiance to Orlando, and Orlando’s subsequent care for Adam when his life is almost at an end; and Celia facing up to her vicious father and refusing to leave Rosalind’s side. There’s a lot of kind friendship going on here.

Celia and RosalindI confess; I struggled to identify director Kimberley Sykes’ vision for this production. My only clue came from an article in the programme about how plays such as these would have been very much performed to and for the audience in Shakespeare’s time. As a result, there’s quite a bit of fourth-wall breaking. It’s as though they’ve taken Rosalind’s final speech, an epilogue delivered directly to the audience, and worked backward from there.

Orlando wrestlingTo be fair, some of this works extremely well. Whilst Orlando and “Ganymede” are wooing each other and pretending to get married, Celia joins us at the edge of the stage and casts tutting glances at individual audience members as if to share the thought, jeez how much longer is this going on? She grabs a programme off someone and tries to identify who’s on stage – and then she finds a funny photo in the programme and cackles with inappropriate laughter whilst pointing at it and others, just like an ill-behaved audience member might. Personally, I found that “irreverent audience member-act” hilarious. In another scene, Touchstone’s camera lens disintegrated so he gave it to an audience member to hold. On yet another occasion, Rosalind and Celia tried to outstare a gentleman in the front row. All these little incidents really helped to build a relationship between cast and crowd. Less so the moment shortly before the interval when Orlando got four people out of the audience to hold up pieces of paper that, when put together, read “Rosalind”. Rarely has so much audience disruption been caused for so little dramatic or comic gain.

Duke FrederickOther effects bludgeon us into some form of reaction. Touchstone is dressed throughout in homage to Scottish/American magician/comedian Jerry Sadowitz. Don’t ask me why. The arrival by the banished characters at the Forest of Arden is marked by the stage lights glowing bright, removal of the backdrop so we can see all the backstage gubbins, members of the cast walking round chatting willy-nilly, and a disembodied voice requiring Miss Stanton to appear on stage to perform her All The World’s a Stage routine (even though we hadn’t got that far into the play yet). Again, don’t ask me why. Many productions do away with the appearance of Hymen, the god of marriage, in the final scene, because it heavily detracts from any sense of realism. Not so with this production, where the stage is dominated by the biggest Hymen (if you’ll pardon the expression) you’re ever likely to see. Out of all proportion, it’s grotesque and ungainly and looks like an accident in a papier-mâché factory.

Forest of ArdenThis is a very strange evening at the theatre. On the one hand, you have some superb performances and a few laugh out loud moments that really take your breath away. On the other hand, the production has a strange energy-sapping effect, and by the time Rosalind/Ganymede has engineered the four-way marriage celebrations, you really just want to get out for some fresh air. Although the production aims to bring the audience and play closer together, it’s only Rosalind, Orlando and Celia who sustain your interest. The plights and intrigues of the other characters can go hang for all you care. Mrs Chrisparkle wore her bored look for much of the evening – OK I realise, that might have been because of me, but I sense (and hope) it was the Arden brigade.

JaquesOn a lighter note, the love triangle of Touchstone, Audrey and William is enhanced by having Tom Dawze’s William act as a sign-language interpreter between the other two characters; Charlotte Arrowsmith delivers all Audrey’s lines by sign language and this excellent element of inclusivity lends an extra dimension and weight to their relationship. Recently we’ve seen quite a lot of gender-bending in productions of the classics, and this production features female portrayals of Jaques, Le Beau, Amiens and Martext, all of which help you to see the familiar characters from a different perspective.

TouchstoneAnd there’s also a female Silvius – now portrayed as Silvia. This means Phoebe is now being pestered by a lovelorn young shepherdess; fair enough. However, the appropriateness of this change all unravels at the final scene. Ganymede promises to marry Phoebe if ever he marries woman. But when it’s revealed that he is a she, Phoebe’s reaction is if sight and shape be true, why then my love adieu – in other words, “oh no, you’re a girl, I only fancy boys”. Nevertheless she’s still instantly married off to a girl! I appreciate that the words of Hymen could imply that he has no problem with equal marriage – which, of course, is great – but it’s being imposed on Phoebe and for me, it didn’t make sense and it didn’t sit comfortably.

RosalindLet’s concentrate on the good things. Lucy Phelps as Rosalind – what a tremendous performance! A perfect blend of mischief and nobility, of girlish goofiness and authoritative courtier. Whether she be sharing a joke with her friend or trying to extricate herself from very serious situations, she constantly reveals little insights about her character and she is so completely believable. Very funny, very dignified; Ms Phelps absolutely nails it.

Rosalind SubmergedSophie Khan Levy, too, is perfect as Celia; long-suffering, easily giving in to temptation, and wickedly sarcastic. I loved how she transformed herself into a rock; and how her cynical side just melted away when she encounters the dreamy Jacques de Bois. She and Ms Phelps form a terrific double-act, both comic and dramatic. David Ajao’s Orlando is a simple, good-hearted soul, exuding enthusiasm in everything he does, and a great match for Ms Phelps as neither can contain their giggly romantic interest in each other.

CeliaSophie Stanton’s Jaques is a very intelligent reading of the role, full of wistful thought and interrupted emotion; calmly and unhysterically delivered. She doesn’t recite All the World’s a Stage like some powerful, previously well thought-out party piece, but as though the idea is coming to her as she says it; a concept developing in her brain as she works her way through the journey of An Average Life. The staging of What shall he have that kill’d the deer is less successful; the combination of Ms Stanton’s eerie vocal delivery and Graeme Brookes’ First Lord’s cervine scampering around the stage makes the audience uncertain whether to laugh or be concerned for their mental wellbeing.

OrlandoAntony Byrne excels at the dual roles of the two Dukes, one nice, one nasty; and I enjoyed the way the one became the other at that otherwise strange border crossing into the Forest of Arden. Sandy Grierson’s eccentric and perceptive Touchstone is a lot to take on board, and treads a fine line between annoyingly comic and comically annoying – which is perfectly reasonable for that character. Richard Clews’ Adam is a noble and moving performance – with a delightful singing voice too, and there’s a nicely bumbling characterisation of Corin by Patrick Brennan. Emily Johnstone’s Madame Le Beau steals every scene in the first act as she teeters into the sinking grass with her stilettos and speaks her servilities with wonderful emptiness.

Rosalind and SilviaThere’s no doubt that the fantastic cast carry this rather underwhelming production. It could do with a few more cuts and a little tightening up; at just over three hours including the interval it is a little trying at times. However, it’s worth paying the ticket price to see Lucy Phelps alone! In repertoire at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 31st August and then across the country between September and April 2020.

Production photos by Topher McGrillis

Review – Timon of Athens, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 13th December 2018

Timon of AthensExcitement stirred in my Shakespearean breast as I realised I’ve never seen a production of Timon of Athens before; and, indeed, apart from having read it as part of my degree, me and Timon have never crossed paths since. This new production by the RSC would be the perfect way to rectify this omission.

It's a partyAs far as Shakespearean tragedies go, plot-wise it’s fairly straightforward. Timon, a nobleman of Athens, gives generously to his friends, who in turn fawn on him with flattery in order to be bestowed with even more goodies. When we first meet him, he pays the debt of an unnamed, imprisoned man, so that he may go free. He makes up a dowry so his servant can marry the girl of his dreams. He buys a ghastly painting so as not to upset the talentless artist. This is Timon’s version of a happy state of order. But when the truth emerges that his money has run out, he assumes he can rely on those friends to whom he has shown such generosity, to give some of it back. One good turn deserves another, right? He sends his servants out on a mission of mercy for some cash; but all to no avail. Timon’s orderliness becomes a state of disorder. The moral of the tale? Friendships bought with gold aren’t worth a penny.

Timon is the hostess with the mostestFaced with mounting debt and no way of paying it back, he finally realises how everything he has taken for granted, and on which he has based his existence, was all a lie. With a Sweeney Todd-like Epiphany, he invites his “friends” back for one more meal where he suddenly bursts into revengeful violence, and throws scalding water over them all (they used the more visceral and easily recognised blood in this production – we don’t know whose blood it is). Turning his back on mankind, and wishing death and destruction on anyone who gets in his way, he flees for the forest. Lear-like, he camps out and survives on a more vegan lifestyle, whilst continuing his war with his fellow man. Unlike Lear, though, who allows himself to be sheltered and returned to “civilisation”, Timon remains Misanthropos and resists all opportunity to return to Athens.

Digging a holeTimon’s an odd chap in the Shakespearean universe. Hamlet, for example, is liked by his family and friends, but, in return, is rotten to almost all of them. Othello is liked by everyone except Iago, and pays them back by being rotten to everyone except Iago. Lear is liked by most of his followers and family – so he banishes them. Macbeth is universally liked and universally evil. However, Timon is basically disliked. His so-called friends have no time for him in his hour of need, even though he has always treated them with overwhelming generosity, both in gold and in spirit. So when he finds buried gold in the forest (as you do), he sees no value in it for himself; and, after using it to taunt and trick both thieves and followers, ends up giving it to his steward. After that, there’s nothing left for him to do. Perhaps it’s no surprise he’s the only Shakespearean character (I think?) to announce his own, premeditated, suicide.

Darlings!It’s definitely a game of two halves; the programme discusses that the reason might be because the play is thought to have been written in collaboration with Thomas Middleton, who may have been responsible for the Athenian scenes of wealth and society. The final acts, set in the forest, have Shakespeare written all over them. It was probably written about the same time as Macbeth, but lacks that play’s dramatic intensity, basically taking one theme and doing it to death. Still, it’s fascinating to have the opportunity to see the play, and Simon Godwin’s vision for this enjoyable production dwells on the contrasts between lavish Athens and brutal forest survival.

Do you have it in gold?On arrival in the auditorium you are met with servants laying out a gracious banquet, and there’s gold as far as the eyes can see. Gold chairs, gold table, gold wall-hangings; when guests start to arrive, they are wearing gold suits, gold pyjamas, gold coats. A gold sheet is draped across the front of the painting; the jeweller teases us with some magnificent gold bling. When Kathryn Hunter’s Timon (yes, Timon is female in this production) makes an entrance in a stunning gold evening dress, you expect her to burst into a Shirley Bassey rendition of Goldfinger. Gorgeous Greek-style orchestrations from the musicians up above drift down and give you a vision of golden sunshine and golden beaches. We’re talking serious gold here. The later arrival of the creditors, all dressed in harsh, comfortless black, announces an end to the golden lifestyle, and, indeed, when Timon next appears, her golden dress has been muted to a (nevertheless still stunning) darker creation with only some little highlights of gold flashing in it. Very nice work from designer Soutra Gilmour there.

Looks like troubleThe Royal Shakespeare Company are never ones to shy away from a theatrical challenge – which is one of the things I most love about them – so this Timon has a number of roles which would traditionally be played by men, performed by women . Not only Timon herself, but the revolutionary Alcibiades, whose forces discover Timon in the forest, and Apemantus the philosopher. Flattering Lord Lucius becomes Lucia, and servant Flaminius is Flaminia. In its original version, Timon of Athens is incredibly male-oriented, so these changes create a much more realistic environment of both rich and poor lifestyles today. Another fiddle with the original text that works brilliantly well is having the three scenes where Timon’s servants chase up money from the “friends”, cut together so that they all appear on stage at once – an Alan Ayckbourn, How The Other Half Loves moment. Not only does it save time, it triples the impact.

Kathryn HunterA question I must ask myself: why have I never seen Kathryn Hunter on stage before? She’s superb. A pocket-sized dynamo who lends herself so convincingly to the opulence of those early acts and the wretchedness of the later scenes. She has an extraordinarily expressive voice, like a mix of yogurt and honey, that flows mellifluously until she peppers it with some staccato delivery that stops the audience in their tracks. She got a huge laugh for her one word: “oh!” when she first sets eyes on the ghastly painting. She had to briefly stop the show when one audience member laughed so much at her “would thou wert clean enough to spit upon” because Ms Hunter gave the line such unexpected power. A physically demanding performance, full of emotion and a fine balance between comedy and tragedy; you couldn’t take your eyes off her.

Patrick DruryThere’s great support from the fully committed cast; I particularly enjoyed Debbie Korley’s warrior-like Alcibiades and Nia Gwynne’s sarcastic Apemantus, who both put the pressure on Timon to examine herself and mend her ways. Patrick Drury’s steward Flavius hit the perfect note between obsequiousness and genuine warmth for his mistress, and there were some terrific characterisations from Anton Cross’ hapless thief, James Clyde’s self-centred Sempronius, Sagar I M Arya’s chancer of a painter and Ralph Davis’ wannabe Machiavellian poet.

Fun fun funIf you’re thinking that Timon of Athens is probably some minor work and you should save your Shakespearean pennies for better known plays, think again. This production is a feast for the eyes and the ears, and features a stand-out lead performance. It’s on at Stratford until 22nd February and I wholeheartedly recommend it!

Production photos by Simon Annand