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Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Howell’

Eleven years ago I went to see a 17th century play by a Mexican nun as part of the RSC’s Spanish Golden Age season and here I am now seeing a play about that very nun, and a jolly good play it is too.

Based on the life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Helen Edmundson’s play is set at a fascinating time in New Spain (Mexico). The Spanish colonists rule through their Viceroy, but the Roman Catholic church wields as much power in the land through its resident Archbishop. The convents are somewhat more liberal than you might expect, with nuns able to write secular works and employ servants amongst other things. There’s a delicate and complex power balance between Madrid, the Viceroy, the Archbishop and the indigenous people.

A new, more zealous Archbishop arrives and starts to disrupt this balance, questioning Sister Juana’s right to write plays and poetry (even those written in honour of his arrival) and her close friendship with the court, both of which have been tolerated or even encouraged by the local clergy who have ‘gone native’ after many years there. The response starts with book burning as Sister Juana’s confessor, Father Antonio, does the Archbishop’s bidding and the more Machiavellian Bishop Santa Cruz, bitter at having been passed over for promotion, plays a more duplicitous role. There is also an important sub-plot involving the relationship between Sister Juana’s niece Angelica and a member of the court.

It’s an extremely well written play, anchored in a clearly well researched real life but, by necessity I suspect, extrapolated from there. It has great pace in Jonathan Dove’s production, and is often surprisingly funny, without in any way disrespecting its subject. Michael Taylor’s clever but simple design creates a realistic convent with some wrought iron framing, a couple of crests and a lot of books. There’s a trio of musicians led by MD Phil Hopkins playing William Lyons evocative music.

It’s a long way from 1960’s Dagenham to 1760’s Mexico City but Naomi Frederick follows her role in Made in Dagenham with another outstanding characterisation as Sister Juana. Anthony Howell is excellent as the dodgy Bishop, with soliloquies to the audience telling us what he’s really up to. Sophia Nomvete and Gwyneth Keyworth add a delightful light touch as loyal servant Juanita and niece Angelica, and Phil Whitchurch has great presence as the inquisitorial Archbishop.

This new production comes only three years after its RSC première in Stratford. I never saw that so I can make no comparison, but I thoroughly enjoyed this. It seems very much at home at the Globe and it was lovely to see the captivated faces and to hear the whooping, sighs and laughter of the groundlings, particularly young and largely female on this occasion.

Another fine new play at Shakespeare’s Globe.

 

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I’d already booked for Julius Caesar at the Globe before they announced they were going to put on a performance ‘inside’ in the new candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, so I couldn’t resist seeing both – inside then out, as it happened.

The SWP may have uncomfortable wooden benches without backs for seating, but it’s an exciting new venue. For a capacity of 340 it has an extraordinary intimacy and the quality of candle light is very special indeed. My only other venture here (so far) was for a 16th century opera and it was brilliant, and the good news is that it’s brilliant for Shakespeare too.

Dominic Dromgoole’s is a boisterous JC, which starts before you enter either theatre, as if you’re walking through the city of Rome – musicians, someone reciting the Rape of Lucrece, a temple alter, a publicly caged woman and one offering favours for money. With only nine ‘extras’ the crowd scenes are particularly effective. In both theatres they use the auditorium as well as the stage, but the SWP didn’t need the audience to join in for it to seem like you were in Wembley Stadium! The intimate scenes of conspiracy work better in the smaller space as you feel you’re more of a fly on the wall.

In this production, the murder of Caesar is particularly effective, more so in the bigger space. The battle scenes are harder to pull off without a huge cast, but here, somewhat surprisingly, the smaller space helped. Again, the bigger space benefitted the speeches after his death, made more effective by placing characters on wooden crates in the groundling space. Using the same actor who plays Caesar to play the man who assists Brutus kill himself, after Caesar has appeared to him as a ghost, is an excellent idea. I’m not sure of the context of the three women chanting, but they sounded gorgeous and it was highly atmospheric.

The success of this productions is of course very much due to a fine ensemble. George Irving is an older Caesar with a superiority juxtaposed with his ‘man of the people’ words and a very revealing fist entrance where he gifts money to a man in the crowd in a very kingly gesture. Tom McKay’s Brutus and Anthony Howell’s Cassius are both fine characterisations, making their decisions to kill themselves before being killed all very believable. Luke Thompson is a young Mark Anthony who shines in his passionate speech at Caesars body and his more manipulative one after his funeral. Christopher Logan is a particularly oily Casca, but a more reluctant player in the overthrow & murder game.

Even though they were less than two weeks apart, I thoroughly enjoyed both experiences, each bringing something different to this great political play. There were a few things, involving building and dropping, that they could’t do on the inside and there were things that worked better in each space, but they were both successful in their own way and this proved to be a worthwhile experiment which may mean the SWP will get more Shakespeare, which I don’t think was the intention!

This is a great Julius Caesar – inside and out.

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I really regretted not seeing this at The Globe last year. I’d booked for Henry VIII, but by the time I decided I also wanted to see this, I couldn’t make any of the remaining performances. So I was delighted when they brought it back – and that Miranda Raison was to return as AB.

Of course, four hundred years on there is a degree of speculation. Playwright Howard Brenton’s is that Anne was hugely influential in Britain’s return to Protestantism and lays the foundation for her grandson James I’s bible. In fact, the play starts with James, before flashing back to Anne, and returns to his time again later. Though it covers a fairly brief period, it was a very eventful one, packed with manipulation and intrigue by big hitters like Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey and William Tyndale as well as the royals. We begin with the seeds of the romance between Anne and Henry VIII and end with her execution (well, actually start with that, but that’s the magic of theatre!).

Mirana Raison is excellent, but there are also fine performances from James Garnon as a punkish James I riddled with nervous twitches, Julius D’Silva as a manipulative Cromwell, Colin Hurley as an arrogant Wolsey, Anthony Howell as a besotted Henry VIII and a whole host of good supporting performances. John Dove’s staging is excellent, with entrances from front and sides as well as the back and a walkway thrust into the groundlings’ space providing an extra intimacy. Michael Taylor’s period costumes are authentic and elegant and William Lyons music highly effective.

I found the play fascinating and compelling, not in the slightest bit dry and earnest. It was captivating throughout, playful and funny and one of the best new plays they’ve ever done here at The Globe.

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