Posts Tagged ‘theatre review’

Antony and Cleopatra, Chichester Festival Theatre, CFT, September 2012

15 September, 2012

At the start of this production Cleopatra stands in a long golden gown with her back to the audience, and before committing suicide towards the end she appears in the identical position. Thus was framed Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, brilliantly served by Peter McKintosh’s fine designs and beautiful lighting by Paul Pyant. The split-level, with ladders leading from upper to lower, assisted rapid changes of scene as we move between Egypt and Rome, and sound effects by Sebastian Frost were excellent.

Antony in Egypt, all images Georgia Oetker

The comparatively long hair for Antony and his chief aide Enobarbus gave them a slightly alien air compared to other Romans, like colonial officers gone native, and Michael Pennington made full use of his wonderful voice in the role of Antony. As Octavius Caesar, Martin Hutson gave a wonderfully convincing performance showing a leader taking pains to be reasonable while keeping clear of messy entanglements, and his careful cleaning of the edge of a barrel before sitting on it in the drunken scene was a nice touch. In the small role of his sister Octavia, Ruth Everett was outstanding, and as the understudy for Cleopatra it would have been very interesting to see her perform that role. As it was we had American actress Kim Cattrall who came good in the end though her mercurial and manipulative histrionics at the start were unattractive, and there was little chemistry between her and Antony.

Cleopatra

It’s difficult to know whether this was partly due to a lack of focus by director Janet Suzman, and whether better direction might have helped Ian Hogg in the important role of Antony’s right hand man Enobarbus. His speeches lacked clarity and conviction, and the important turning point when he decides to switch sides came and went with little impact. Martin Herdman as Lepidus, the third member of the triumvirs, was excellent in the drunk scene, and there were some fine performances in smaller roles, with Jack Bannell very strong as the Roman officer Proculeius, and Offue Okegbe giving a sympathetic portrayal of the eunuch Mardian at Cleopatra’s court.

Octavius Caesar

In the end my main impression was of Michael Pennington’s Antony as a tragic figure, and Martin Hutson as the sure-footed young Octavius (he was 32 when Antony died) who will later become Caesar Augustus, while Cleopatra seemed more of a catalyst for these historical figures rather than a fascinating and intelligent woman in her own right.

Performances continue until September 29 — for details click here.

Timon of Athens, National Theatre, NT Olivier, August 2012

14 August, 2012

Timon is a tragic figure who fails utterly to understand himself, and therefore cannot come close to understanding others. His vast wealth is from lands he owns and mortgages, and he spends it eagerly on his acquaintances along with others come to him for help. When there is no more left he abandons the city, and then chances upon hidden treasure that he also gives away. From loving the people around him, whom he mistakenly regards as friends, he learns to hate everyone, and Simon Russell Beale gives a riveting portrait of this absurd person.

Timon entertains, all images NT/ Johan Persson

The production by Nicholas Hytner sets Shakespeare’s play in a modern city with high-rise banks visible through a huge window. We see the Timon Room in an Art Gallery paid for by his largesse, but the counterpoint to his lavish generosity is embodied in the cynic philosopher Apemantus, well portrayed by Hilton McRae. He criticises everyone and everything, as when he tackles the poet who has received generous payment from Timon and considers him a worthy fellow, “Yes, he is worthy of thee, and to pay thee for thy labour: he that loves to be flattered is worthy o’ the flatterer”.

Timon and Apemantus

They all flatter Timon, but when he finds himself in financial difficulties no-one will help. There is a sub-plot with a man named Alcibiades, warm-hearted and impulsive, who would have helped Timon, but is in exile. He raises a small force, takes the city and comes to terms with its leaders, but by the time Timon could be welcomed back the now-wretched man is dead. Alcibiades never quite comes over as sincere in this production, unlike Timon himself, but that is the magic of Simon Russell Beale.

Timon and the treasure

Magic too appears in Bruno Poet’s lighting and the striking dichotomy of the flourishing city and the arid concrete exterior, expressed in Tim Hatley’s designs. This play nearly vanished completely from the record, and is rarely performed, so go to see it but do not expect too much. It is hardly King Lear.

Performances continue until November 1 — for details click here.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Minerva Theatre, CFT Chichester, July 2012

12 July, 2012

Bertolt Brecht wrote this play, parodying Hitler as Chicago mobster Arturo Ui, in less than a month in 1941 while awaiting his US visa in Helsinki. Other main characters represent various people Hitler either used or killed to get where he was. Its didacticism is intended for an American audience, and although the first act dragged a bit, the second proved to be far more riveting, and the acting was superb.

Nightclub musicians at the start, all images Manuel Harlan

Henry Goodman in the title role gave an extraordinary performance, showing a hunchback worthy of Richard III, and comic elements worthy of Peter Sellers. After a row among his accomplices when he says, “I want what’s best for you. And I know what’s best for you!”, he is left alone, and the scene with the piano was pure Inspector Clouseau. This is followed by a magnificent coup de theâtre brought on by the dramatic appearance of a 1930s car at night with headlights blazing.

Ui and right hand man Roma

William Gaunt gave a fine portrayal of the highly respected Dogsborough (Paul von Hindenburg), and some of the low-life Chicago accents were brilliant, particularly Michael Feast as Roma and Joe McGann as Giri (representing Ernst Röhm and Joseph Goebbels). Helpful notes in the programme tie the various scenes to historical facts from Hitler’s rise to power up until the Anschluss with Austria, represented here by the Chicago suburb of Cicero. In reality Cicero was ethnically Czech, but fiercely independent of Chicago, as Brecht doubtless knew. Lizzy McInnerny as the powerful lady of Cicero, wife of the murdered Dullfoot (Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss), made a welcome female addition to an mostly male cast, and her interactions with Hitler — I mean Ui — were carried off to perfection.

Ui on the way up

This excellent production by Jonathan Church ends with the dictator on a high podium, from which the cover is later torn off revealing the means by which he arrived there. In the meantime we have been treated to wonderful theatrical effects, well lit by Tim Mitchell, with very effective designs by Simon Higlett, and music by Matthew Scott that includes excerpts from Wagner: Siegfried’s funeral march in Act I, and the Pilgrims’ march from Tannhäuser just before the end.

The play was not staged until 1958, after Brecht’s death, but with the rise and fall of numerous dictators today — some comical like this one, some less so — productions are surely welcome. And finally the text allows Henry Goodman to remove his moustache and utter the ominous lines, “Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is on heat again”.

Performances continue until July 28 — for details click here.

The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London, July 2012

5 July, 2012

“I’ve come to wive it wealthily in Padua”, as Petruchio sings in Kiss Me Kate, but here at the Globe things seemed very different. Before the start a drunken football hooligan stumbled his way onto the stage and urinated on two plants in the audience before collapsing flat on his back. The plants walked out, and that disturbance caused someone in the cast to announce that the show was off, but nothing is quite as it seems in this hugely entertaining Shakespeare work, and Toby Frow’s production at the Globe did it proud.

Kate and Petruchio, all images Manuel Harlan

The drunken hooligan, who was of course Master Sly, eventually turned into Petruchio himself, full of wit and absurdity. Looking like Don Quixote and behaving like John Cleese on a bad day, Simon Paisley Day bowled his maiden over, turning her from shrew to loving wife. As Kate herself, Samantha Spiro glowed with energy from her very first appearance, making a highly attractive, if shockingly feisty and argumentative, prospect. She even knocked the wall down when her father and sister went inside the house and left her out. But there’s much more than mere outrage here — it’s all really very funny. When Petruchio says, “Antonio, my father is deceased”, his servant Grumio kicks a bucket, to huge laughter from the audience.

Kate being tamed

And the production is very physical, with a convincing punch-up between Kate and her sister Bianca, and when their father Baptista accepts that Petruchio is the man, and raises one of his arms with one of Kate’s saying, “Tis a match!” the audience burst into spontaneous applause. Pip Donaghy made a fine Baptista, and Pearce Quigley was quietly convincing as Grumio, the butt of his master’s dangerous inclinations for mockery and fun.

When Lucentio and his servant Tranio undress to exchange clothes, the better to woo Bianca, Sly in the audience is so disgusted he walks out, reappearing as Petruchio. And then he disrobes almost completely, down to tatty boots and a dance belt, which brought cheerful laughter from the audience when he turned his back to exit the stage. Jamie Beamish was delightfully over the top as Tranio, and his brief singing interlude looked set to turn this into a musical.

The food scene was very wittily done, and when the first kiss occurs four musicians in red play for all they are worth. It was all highly entertaining, with Samantha Spiro giving a delightful account of Kate’s final speech, and looking far happier than the other two recent brides.

“Why there’s a wench, come on, and kiss me, Kate!”, and the dance at the end was beautifully choreographed by Siân Williams. A show not to be missed.

Performances continue until October 13 — for details click here.

Henry V, Globe Theatre, London, June 2012

14 June, 2012

Jamie Parker in the title role gave a superb account of a king come of age since his youthful indiscretions, and that wonderful St. Crispin’s day speech, responding to Westmorland’s wishing a few more men for the forthcoming battle of Agincourt, is delivered as if he is making it up as he goes along. In fact the whole expedition to France carries an air of unlikely providence about it, led by the king’s determination to requite the insulting gift of tennis balls from the Dauphin of France. And at one point Parker enters the audience to clap a tall chap on the upper arm and shout, “God for Harry!”

The Battle, Globe image/ Stephen Vaughan

This fine production by Dominic Dromgoole has the feel of historical authenticity, with Jonathan Fensom’s costumes admirably showing the dirt and grime of the fifteenth century, and those English crosses painted onto several tunics add to the effect. In fact the feeling of being in another time starts right at the beginning as Canterbury and Ely converse while engaged in their ablutions, washing their hands afterwards in a bowl provided by the Chorus. And when Henry’s ambassador goes to France he unrolls a family tree, elegantly made and showing descent from Edward III. These are serious moments, but interspersed with lightness that caused the audience to laugh out loud, and Sam Cox as Pistol was wonderful fun. So was Brendan O’Hea as Captain Fluellen, and Kurt Egyiawan, with his superb diction, gave an amusing spin to the grandiloquence of the Dauphin.

Pistol and Gower, Globe image/ John Haynes

Jamie Parker himself created laughter and applause near the beginning as he stopped at a good moment to allow the noise of a circling helicopter to die away. It came back and buzzed around for ten minutes, but nothing could put this performance out. We were immersed in a short period of the Hundred Years’ War, even if Brid Brennan as Chorus in the prologue regretted the inadequacy of a stage drama to represent the glory of one of the greatest battles in that war.

Katherine and Henry, Globe image/ John Haynes

But this was a team effort with fine acting that conveyed the drama exquisitely, and Olivia Ross was wonderful, both as the English boy and the French Princess Katherine, who marries Harry of England. As history tells us, their son, born the year before his father’s death became Henry VI, the last of the house of Lancaster. The Globe is surely the greatest venue for Shakespeare, particularly under the direction of Dominic Dromgoole, and this Henry V comes over with huge appeal.

Performances continue until August 26 — for details click here.

Antigone, National Theatre, NT, May 2012

30 May, 2012

The story behind this play is that before he died, Oedipus cursed his sons, and they ended up killing one another in a battle for Thebes. The city is now ruled by Creon, brother to Oedipus’s mother/wife Jocasta.

Antigone and Ismene, all images NT/ Johan Persson

Creon has commanded that one of the two dead brothers — he who ruled the city and exiled his brother — be honoured, while the other lies outside the city walls to be devoured by carrion. Their sisters, Antigone and Ismene appear at the start of Sophocles’ Antigone, outside the walls, with Antigone asking her sister’s support in giving her brother a burial. This yields a clash between familial obligations and the rule of the State, represented by Creon. The theme is timeless, and in Polly Findlay’s production it is staged in modern dress.

The set, with Creon’s office at its centre and various desks in a large common area to the front, can be rotated to show the outside of the city walls. Good designs by Soutra Gilmour, darkly lit by Mark Henderson and with occasional threatening musical crescendos by Dan Jones. But what of the acting?

Jodie Whittaker was a strongly sympathetic Antigone, and Luke Newberry as Creon’s son Haemon, was superb at respectfully, and then less respectfully, countering his father’s arguments. He loves Antigone, is betrothed to her, and the two of them were the heroes, defying the tyrant’s power, but I would have preferred a more nuanced treatment by the director. There are serious issues here about the right of the individual to challenge the power of the state, and Sophocles has given eloquent arguments to both sides.

Antigone bundled away

Christopher Eccleston played Creon as a harsh tyrant, looking like a cross between Vladimir Putin of Russia and Bashir Assad of Syria. Perhaps that was the intention, but his downfall lies not in his initial decision to deny burial to one brother but his stiff-necked refusal to ignore well-meaning advice. As it was he looked like a loser from the start, his eloquence turning to rants. When Jamie Ballard as the blind seer Teiresias enters, he too ends up ranting, which rather spoils the effect. Towards the end, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith held the stage brilliantly as the messenger, delivering news of Antigone’s death and Creon’s final clash with his son.

The mixture of accents, some of which sounded unnatural, did not help, but Antigone is always worth seeing, and I liked the sets, costumes, music and lighting.

Performances continue until July 21 — for details click here.

A Marvellous Year for Plums, Chichester Festival Theatre, May 2012

18 May, 2012

Following the debacle of the Suez crisis, Anthony Eden resigned as Prime Minister in January 1957, and he and his wife took ship to New Zealand. In this play a young Steward serves him tea, and Eden commends him on winning a boxing competition on board. They get into conversation, and when Eden asks the young man his name he gets the response, “Prescott, Sir”. The audience fell about.

Ian Fleming, Eden, Clarissa and Ann, all images Manuel Harlan

But this clever play by Hugh Whitemore is no comedy. And nor was the meeting between Eden and Prescott mere poetic licence, just a light moment amidst a serious study of political events that went badly wrong in 1956. Yet the grave nature of what was going on is relieved by a love affair, along with brief dancing interludes to excellent musical arrangements from Matthew Scott. The clever set designs by Simon Higlett allow scenes to merge from one to the next as various characters are slowly swept in or out of view by a revolving ring on the stage, aided by subtle lighting from James Whiteside, and this production by Philip Franks has great forward momentum.

Gaitskell and Ann

1956 was of course the year that Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, and this play shows Eden’s extraordinary mishandling of the crisis. Firm in resolve to take military action, then willing to back off under American pressure even when the French told him to sleep on it first. Eden interrupts the French PM at lunch when he is discussing the formation of the European Economic Community with the Germans, and acting as perfidious Albion didn’t help Britain’s case, to say nothing of the lack of moral clarity that surely affected our response to the Soviet invasion of Hungary. What a year it was.

Anthony Andrews portrayed Eden as a decent man yet inadequate prime minister, with Abigail Cruttenden entirely convincing as Clarissa his devoted (second) wife. Nicholas Le Prevost was excellent as Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the opposition, who is carrying on an affair with the delectable Ann Fleming, elegantly played by Imogen Stubbs. Gaitskell accused Eden of being the captain of a sinking ship that he steered onto the rocks, but the real opposition close at hand was Anthony Nutting, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. Fiercely played by Martin Hutson, we see him with David Yelland as an urbane Selwyn Lloyd, successor as Foreign Secretary to Eden himself, but described by Macmillan as “a middle class lawyer from Liverpool”.

Eden and his wife

These were the days when Class counted in a way that it doesn’t now, and three of the characters in this play were Old Etonians: Eden, Nutting, and Ian Fleming, while Gaitskell went to Winchester, and Selwyn Lloyd to Fettes. Fleming appears very much as a man of the world, attractively played by Simon Dutton, and he and his wife Ann are friends of the Edens. They are with them when the telephone call comes through saying the last troops have been withdrawn from Egypt. Eden spills his drink and lets out a yell like a wounded animal. This was a man who lost two brothers in the First World War and a son in the Second. His attempt to be a man of peace brought war, albeit briefly, and humiliation for both himself and Britain.

How would it have been different if they’d pushed on? Selwyn Lloyd muses on these things, and has no answers. But towards the end, Eden’s father, an irascible baronet whose occasional stage appearances lie in Eden’s imagination, has some cutting words to say about how to live your life, “Run straight … don’t play a double game …”. Eden did and he failed. We hear Rab Butler’s gibe that Eden was “half mad baronet, half beautiful woman”, referring to his father and mother, and towards the end we even see them both dancing together.

This play is cleverly constructed, with video images adding a subtle background, and in exposing the British background to the tragedies of 1956 it is hugely effective. As to the title, you have to wait for the words of Selwyn Lloyd’s gardener, for whom international politics holds not the slightest interest. But if you are interested, this is a must-see that should surely go on to the West End.

Performances continue until June 2 — for details click here.

Top Hat, Aldwych Theatre, London’s West End, May 2012

11 May, 2012

If you like a frothy musical with lots of dancing, and numbers like Cheek to Cheek by Irving Berlin, this is for you.

Tom Chambers and ensemble, all images Brinkhoff and Mogenburg

It’s the early 1930s and an American dancer named Jerry Travers has come to London to star in a show produced by wealthy Horace Hardwick. A tap dance routine he performs in his hotel room awakens the lovely Dale Tremont. She treats him with disdain, but he falls for her and spares no effort to bring her round. All would be well, but a case of mistaken identity carries the affair off to Venice.

Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen

There are funny lines aplenty, often inspired by the ridiculous Horace Hardwick, ”A man is incomplete before he’s married. After that he’s finished”. This may not seem very witty when written down, but delivered in a Bob Hope kind of way by a string-bean version of Henry Higgins, it’s funny. Martin Ball gave a fine performance as Hardwick, and talking of string-beans, Stephen Boswell was wonderful as his man, Bates. Vivien Parry carried off the role of Hardwick’s wife with great panache, delivering some superb lines, but the main plaudits must go to Summer Strallen as Dale Tremont: super stage presence and wonderful dancing — she was great.

Tom Chambers starred as Jerry Travers, giving him great charm, and his playful pas-de-deux with the hat stand in Act I was a delight. Super ensemble dancing by the company to choreography by Bill Deamer, and the sets by Hildegard Bechtler were glorious. Lovely costumes by Jon Morrell and good lighting by Peter Mumford. The story line is a bit thin, but Matthew White has directed a hugely appealing show that never flags for a minute, and left the audience with a sense of euphoria.

Booking available until 26 January 2013 — for details click here.

South Downs/ The Browning Version, Harold Pinter Theatre, London’s West End, May 2012

8 May, 2012

Terence Rattigan’s excellent short play The Browning Version is set in a boys’ boarding school, and for the first half of the evening a new play by David Hare, commissioned the Rattigan estate, has a similar setting.

The Browning Version is about one of the masters, and Hare’s counterpoint focusses on one of the boys. In both plays an act of kindness is the fulcrum lifting the main protagonist out of the tramlines of his sad, yet very scholarly, existence.

Alex Lawther as the clever boy, all images Johan Persson

In Hare’s South Downs a pedantic English master, beautifully played by Andrew Woodall, extols the genius of Alexander Pope, saying “only within a cage do we find freedom”. Indeed a firm foundation and attention to detail provides a basis for true creativity, something that began going awry in the 70s after Hare left school. We still suffer the consequences, and although intellectual rigour is now making a comeback, it has a long way to go.

Tea and cake for Blakemore

Yet here in class is a very clever boy, Blakemore, brilliantly played by young Alex Lawther, who challenges the master in order to protect a boy he wants as his friend. Blakemore is disturbed, but finds it impossible to talk to his housemaster, Rev Eric Dewley, a man of the Church of England who believes in consubstantiation rather than trans-substantiation, but isn’t really sure about that. It’s a clever play, with Dewley very well portrayed by Nicholas Farrell, himself the focus of Rattigan’s play in the second half of the evening. Something needs to happen to Blakemore, and Anna Chancellor as the actress mother of one of the prefects gives him tea and sympathy, faulting him for being unable to dissemble. This is something Rattigan himself was extremely good at when he was at school at Harrow, yet in the end Blakemore manages a transformation, and we move on to Rattigan’s play.

The term Browning Version refers to a translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon by Robert Browning, and the dry-as-dust Classics master, Crocker-Harris is a brilliant scholar who is teaching the boys to read it, in the original of course. This is pretty tough stuff. Yet it’s not the boys who are suffering, but Crocker-Harris himself, superbly portrayed by Nicholas Farrell. He is recovering from a heart attack caused by the chronic stress of an apparently charming but deceptive wife who hates him, a headmaster who is happy to see the back of him, and his own despair at casting scholarly pearls before swine.

Nicholas Farrell as Crocker-Harris in The Browning Version

He’s on track to leave the school — without even a pension — and go to work at a crammer. Could anything be more absurd? Here is a man who should be teaching classical texts at university level, yet to the lower fifth he’s simply the Crock, a beast to beware of. Oh, he understands his position all right. A ‘hen-pecked husband’ to an ‘unsatisfied wife’, the butt of contempt or fear by others. But what can he do about it?

Anna Chancellor as the wife

“Rules are rules” he responds when the disturbingly disappointing news comes down from the trustees about his pension. The pompous fraud of a headmaster, played with carefree abandon by Andrew Woodall, almost seems to relish giving him the bad news, coupled with a request that he diminish himself by allowing someone else to speak last at the end of year celebrations. His dry speech with a hyper-scholarly joke or two is all prepared, and he accedes to the headmaster’s proposal.

Yet suddenly an act of kindness by one of the boys turns everything on its head. This is vintage Rattigan, and I was longing to know what his new speech might be — we never do, of course.

But we do know that precision and attention to detail by a clever scholar can work wonders, as long as he can divest himself of the psychological baggage weighing him down. What might Crocker-Harris have achieved with a less spiteful wife? And how much better might this performance have been if Anna Chancellor as the wife had delivered the main line in the play facing the audience rather than stage rear? In this fascinating and moving portrayal of the dry scholar by Nicholas Farrell we find hope that the precision of Greek translation can once again give huge pleasure and revitalise his life.

These two plays together yield a wonderful evening of theatre. Performances continue until July 21 — for details click here.

Uncle Vanya, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, April 2012

7 April, 2012

For mockery and a self-deprecating sense of humour, Roger Allam’s Vanya is hard to beat.

Roger Allam as Vanya, all images Johan Persson

From his first clumsy entrance onto stage, to his bumbled expostulation, “I could have been a Dostoevsky”, and his failure to shoot the brother-in-law he’s learned to detest, this was a Vanya fated to manage the estate as an also-ran. The brother-in-law, Professor Serebryakov is a clever narcissist, attractive to the ladies, and as portrayed by Timothy West an endearingly frail old fool.

Timothy West as Serebryakov

Both Vanya and Dr. Astrov, very engagingly portrayed here by Alexander Hanson, are enamoured of Serebryakov’s young (second) wife Yelena, played by Lara Pulver, but she lacked allure, and seemed overly neurotic. By contrast, Vanya’s niece, Sonya is supposed to be very plain, and Dervla Kirwan managed to make herself a rather dull fish, without being tiresome like Yelena. Maggie McCarthy and Anthony O’Donnell were a delight as the homely consciences of the house, providing earthy background against which Vanya could lose his head and his heart, and Astrov and Sonya just their hearts. But in this production by Jeremy Herrin, in a colloquial translation by Michael Frayn, the youthful anima of Yelena never gave them a reason to become so besotted.

I liked the sets by Peter McKintosh with the windows at the rear of the stage through which we see the outside world as in a mist, with rain dripping down when the storm comes exactly on cue with Vanya’s prediction. I liked the lighting by Chahine Yavroyan that gave that mistiness to the outer world, and I loved the two musicians setting the scene by playing wind and strings behind the windows.

Sonya and Uncle Vanya

This Chekhov play is a wonderful vehicle for taking an irreverent sweep at those nit-picking academics, in their fake-ivory hovels, who dissect the work of other more creative people. And Vanya’s pamphlet-reading mother, trying to understand the work of second-rate minds, is a harbinger of the later nonsense that was to engulf Russia, less than two decades after the author’s death. Yet the irritating narcissism of Vanya’s mother and the Professor were subdued in this production, and I wonder whether some of her lines were cut. The most irritating presence was the young wife Yelena, but in the end as she and her husband leave, Roger Allam’s Vanya is the focus of our attention in the slow dénouement. Will he blow his brains out, or accept his niece’s emotional support in doing the numbers and seeing that the point of life is life itself, as Dr. Chekhov well knew.

Performances continue until May 5 — for details click here.