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

Review – Troilus and Cressida, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 18th October 2018

Troilus and CressidaIt’s hard to imagine, but it’s been 42 years (!) since I last saw a production of Troilus and Cressida. Back in 1976, young Master Chrisparkle got on a train to London to see the National Theatre production at the Young Vic, directed by Elijah Moshinsky, starring Denis Quilley, Roland Culver, Robert Eddison, Mark McManus and Simon Ward. Good grief, all those actors are dead now!

Gavin Fowler as TroilusThis is one of Shakespeare’s hard-to-categorise plays. Traditionally it was always lumped into the comedies, because it’s not a tragedy and it doesn’t fit the usual definition of a history, as it doesn’t concern a British king. But it doesn’t sit comfortably as a comedy either, and the temptation has always been to pretend that it doesn’t exist. According to Wikipedia, so it must be true, there were no recorded performances of this play between 1734 and 1898; that’s pretty extraordinary, considering it’s by our Immortal Bard. Along with Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well, it’s now considered a “problem play”, which makes it sound like it’s going to be hard work to appreciate.

Amber James as CressidaBut that’s not the case at all. The excellent programme notes (the RSC always do great programmes but this one is outstanding) include extracts from the late John Barton’s old directorial notes from previous productions, and he points out that the strength of this play is in its sheer bloody-mindedness not to fall into any categories. The characters contradict themselves; the relationships between them change unexpectedly, with neither rhyme nor reason; it doesn’t succumb to any set pattern; in fact, it’s just like real life. So rather than trying to make it a one size fits all kind of play, celebrate the fact that it just goes its own way.

Andrew Langtree as Menelaus, Adjoa Andoh as Ulysses, Suzanne Bertish as Agamemnon, Jim Hooper as Nestor and Theo Ogundipe as AjaxGregory Doran’s new production does precisely that, although he has made one imposition on the play – to cast it 50:50 between men and women. As a result, we have a female Agamemnon, Ulysses, Aeneas, Calchas and Thersites, as well as women playing traditionally male servant roles. In one respect, it makes hardly any difference at all; a military woman is pretty much the same as a military man when uniformed and concentrating on strategies and tactics. In another respect, it does shed different light upon the play; it makes you see something familiar with new eyes, creating an excitement and a freshness that you might not otherwise have expected. This is one of many innovations in this production that works really well.

James Cooney as Patroclus, Andy Apollo as Achilles and Adjoa Andoh as UlyssesIt’s a rewarding, surprising play. It deals with themes of honour and betrayal, order and disorder, even celebrity versus mundanity. Achilles, the celebrity warrior, is sick of fighting and just wants to lounge about with his “masculine whore” Patroclus; his reputation sullied, not so much by his debatable sexuality as by what Agamemnon describes him, “in self-assumption greater than in the note of judgement”. It’s only when his Greek warrior colleagues play a trick on him, pretending not to notice him, that his vanity is offended; and not till Patroclus is killed that he is spurred into action.

Andy Apollo as Achilles and Daniel Hawksford as HectorThe Greeks and the Trojans are locked in a military and political impasse, causing them to bicker between themselves, but showing amity between the two parties. “This is the most despiteful-gentle greeting, the noblest-hateful love that e’er I heard of” says Paris, as Aeneas and Diomed confer amicably. Before Hector and Ajax can fight, they choose peace. “The obligation of our bloods forbids a gory emulation ‘twixt us twain”, says Hector; thus honour prevents him from surely killing Ajax. Yet, Achilles, with gross dishonour, sees Hector killed, not by his own hand in glorious war, but, ironically, outsourced to the Myrmidons while Hector is unarmed.

Amber James as Cressida and Gavin Fowler as TroilusPlonked in the middle of all this is the growing love between Trojan prince Troilus and Cressida, niece to Lord Pandarus, who serves as something of a Courtly Fool. He moves heaven and earth to get the two together, but after one night of connubial bliss, fate separates them; they both, unhappily, accept the fact that the politics of the state are bigger than both of them. They vow to stay true to each other, but that doesn’t last long; another excellent example of how the characters of this play don’t perform as you’d expect. The misleading title suggests that the love affair between the two will be the most important element of this play; but that’s simply not so.

Adjoa Andoh as Ulysses and Suzanne Bertish as AgamemnonThis is a lively, funny, and extremely watchable production with some very creative and entertaining highlights. Oliver Ford Davies’ Pandarus’ hilarious running commentary, explaining to Amber James’ Cressida the benefits (or otherwise) of each of the warriors who parade past them like some military Mr Universe pageant, works brilliantly well. His fussing around Troilus and Cressida’s morning after arrangements, checking for signs of consummation on the sheets, is also superbly done. Pitching Sheila Reid’s diminutive and wretched Thersites side by side with the tall and fit Achilles or Ajax also gives some great physical comedy moments. And I loved the play on words with “The Trojans’ trumpet”.

Sheila Reid as ThersitesAnd then there is the innovative involvement of having Dame Evelyn Glennie as the production composer. If you know Dame Evelyn’s work, it’ll come as no surprise that you can expect percussion – and a lot of it. That’s great for the war scenes, as the drums suggest marching armies and the metallic clashes represent sword on shield or armour against armour. Softer motifs also provide incidental music for some of the characters; again the programme notes tell us how she has orchestrated the two central lovers differently. And no opportunity is missed to fill in any details suggested by the text; when Pandarus is irritated by the sound of music, he’s not the only one. But it’s true, sometimes the excitement and creativity of the background music can overwhelm what’s happening on stage, and we found it difficult to make out some of Ms Reid’s bon mots as she observes the vanities of the warrior classes. That’s a shame, because she clearly gives it some suitably savage characterisation. As the other Fool in this play, the crude and visceral Thersites provides a lot of important context; but it’s no good if you can’t hear it.

Suzanne Bertish as AgamemnonThere are long sequences between the Greek warlords that are very wordy, particularly in the first half of the play. To make them more palatable, Gregory Doran has pantomimed-up the characters into a larger-than-life presence. Thus we have Suzanne Bertish’s Agamemnon, all swirling hair and fighting talk, rather like Anna Soubry MP on acid; Andrew Langtree’s Neanderthal Menelaus, constantly interrupted by Agamemnon to stop him from saying something foolish; Adjoa Andoh’s super-intelligent and manipulative Ulysses; Theo Ogundipe’s estuary Ajax, just about stringing a sentence together; Andy Apollo’s languid, too cool for school Achilles; and Jim Hooper’s dirty-old-man Nestor, taking a peck on the cheek with Cressida too far, to the disgusted, retching reaction of the audience. This outrageous, tongue-in-cheek approach to the characters oughtn’t to work; but it does, tremendously. These are all fantastic performances.

Theo Ogundipe as AjaxGavin Fowler gives his Troilus a nice mix of nobility and naivete; hopelessly hapless with his chat-up lines but dignified in his deference to the instructions of King Priam and valorous in battle. Amber James also invests Cressida with some gutsy personality, not backward in coming forward when Troilus is too tongue-tied to step up to the mark, and suitably flexible when she has to hold her own in the Greek camp.

Oliver Ford Davies as Pandarus, Daisy Badger as Helen and Geoffrey Lumb as ParisA couple of things puzzled me; I didn’t understand the significance of the weird collection of pots and pans and old bits of car that suspended from the ceiling, and shook clankingly every so often; and I wasn’t sure why Helen and Paris made their appearances from inside a pod that dangled down to earth, like a celestial conservatory. But John Barton’s notes had already guided me into not expecting to understand everything.

Andy Apollo as AchillesIt’s a thoroughly entertaining production, and if you haven’t seen Troilus and Cressida before, this is a delightfully accessible and stimulating experience, that I’d totally recommend. Terrific performances from Oliver Ford Davies, Suzanne Bertish, Theo Ogundipe and Adjoa Andoh make 3 hours 15 minutes go by remarkably quickly. At the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 17th November – don’t miss it!

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

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