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Posts Tagged ‘Richard McCabe’

Cicero gets nine lines in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; here he gets a play in two parts, each of three acts, with a playing time of six hours. The RSC have given us a number of two-part epics in recent years. from Nicholas Nickleby through Canterbury Tales to Wolf Hall. Mike Poulton was responsible for the adaptation of the last two of these, as he is for this adaptation of Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy, a big slice of fascinating Roman history littered with contemporary parallels, and it’s brilliant.

Cicero may be the most significant Roman you don’t know much about. That’s because he was an orator and lawyer rather than an Emperor or military figure, but was considered the father of the republic and the go-to man for legal advice and rhetorical coaching, becoming a philosopher in later life. His life was extraordinarily well documented by his slave-turned-confidente & biographer Tiro. Though his papers were lost, they were known to Plutarch, who was the source for Shakespeare’s play, so Harris’ books and these plays have a solid foundation in fact, based on Plutarch.

When it starts, Rome is a republic, with democracy of a sort, two consuls elected annually by a senate made up of the great and the good of Rome, most rich patricians, but some self-made plebeians like Cicero. Cicero is a Consul and protector of the republic, but Julius Caesar is due back in triumph intent on turning Cicero’s precious republic into a dictatorship. Cicero is sent into exile, but is allowed to return before Caesar’s assassination, in which he doesn’t really play a part, though he does approve of the return of the republic, or so he thinks.

Next up is Mark Anthony, whose wife Fulvia is ‘the power behind the throne’ and he seems permanently pissed. Cicero is their biggest critic but he fails to take the Senate with him in his plan to deal with Mark Anthony, and ends up in exile once more, while Mark Anthony & Fulvia continue their life of excess and corruption. Cicero is approached by Julius Caesar’s chosen heir Octavian, who he takes a shine to and decides to help, but he too is more than meets the eye. and when he forms an alliance with Mark Anthony, Cicero is violently dispatched. Octavian will go on to become Augustus, the next dictator.

Like his other adaptations, this is rich in story and narrative and is a real theatrical feast. It’s a slow burn at first, but by the third act of the first part you’re in its grip, until its subject’s head is on a pole! In Anthony Ward’s design, the Swan has stairs behind, a pit below and a giant globe above, which provide a brilliantly flexible but evocative setting. Paul Engishby’s music, heavy on brass, is particularly good at accompanying the triumphant entries into Rome. This is the sort of production director Greg Doran does so well – lucid, well paced and often thrilling.

Cicero is a huge part and Richard McCabe is magnificent, a career high I’d say. I loved Joseph Kloska as diffident but loyal Tiro, whose journey takes him from slave to assistant to confidente to advisor and biographer. Peter de Jersey has great presence as Julius Caesar and Joe Dixon shines as both Catiline and Mark Anthony, two power hungry chancers, as does Oliver Johnstone as Cicero’s protege Rufus and Octavian and Eloise Secker as Clodia and Fulvia. A terrific ensemble of seventeen actors play all of the remaining roles.

It was a difficult trip to Stratford, where I almost got stranded in the snow, but it was a real theatrical banquet and I don’t regret the travails one bit. This is the sort of theatre you remember for years.

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The risk of coming to this late (I saved it up for some visitors) is that it wouldn’t live up to its expectations. By the interval, I was beginning to think that was actually going to happen; it was good but not great. The second half lifted it to another level altogether, so it’s good to report (not that you’re that interested by now anyway) satisfaction rather than disappointment, accompanied by some surprise……

……..surprise that it has been rewritten to reflect Thatcher’s death & funeral plus the abdication of both Queen Beatrix & The Pope, surprise that some PM’s turn up two or three times, surprise that it isn’t chronological, surprise at which PM’s have been left out (most notably Blair) and surprised at the combination of light (comedy) and shade (poignancy) that it achieves.

I thought Helen Mirren got off to a shaky start, but she’s soon in her stride. She’s better playing the older queen than the younger queen, and that’s nothing to do with he own age. Her on-stage quick changes are hugely impressive (without the flashing for which she was once notorious!) and her discussions with herself as a child were very effective.

I liked all of the PM performances, particularly Paul Ritter’s comic Major and Haydn Gwynne’s assertive Thatcher, though by his third appearance Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson shone above all and you could see why he won his Olivier. Another surprise was that what I expected to be a series of two-handers turned out to have 16 actors playing 21 roles.

It’s good to be reminded how good a director Stephen Daldry is and we hopefully won’t have to wait so long again. Bob Crowley’s elegant settings facilitate the speedy scene changes so crucial to the smooth flow of a play with so many of them. All-in-all, it’s an impressive staging.

Of course, Peter Morgan’s play is largely speculative, yet somehow I left the theatre feeling that I’d just seen real events portrayed – perhaps because it confirmed my own prejudices, but probably because that’s just what a well made, well staged and well performed play can do. Good to see one originated in the West End for a change.

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Well no-one can say I didn’t give Edward Bond a fair chance. Eight plays in 18 months. In truth, I’d have probably given up at 7 if it wasn’t for Patrick Stewart leading this one. I feel perfectly entitled to put him in my ‘problem playwrights’ box with Pinter and Chekov, turn the key and move on.

This is a play about Shakespeare (or is it?). I have no idea if it’s historically accurate (how could you know?). Will has returned to Stratford and given up writing – ‘I have nothing left to say’. He hates his daughter and his wife and he’s just waiting to die. It’s the early 17th century, the time of the Enclosures Act, so a land grab by the rich is in full progress and Shakespeare is seemingly complicit as a landowner who turns a blind eye. He’s also watching as a young girl on the run is on the receiving end of rough justice, first beaten, then killed and displayed in public. He’s wrestling with his conscience.

It’s as obtuse as all the other Bond plays. I’m happy to be challenged in the theatre, but I can’t help feeling that this is just covering up the fact that he doesn’t really have anything profound or coherent to say. The first half is extraordinarily dull. If you return for the second (and a lot didn’t) it briefly comes alive in a London tavern scene where contemporary playwright Ben Johnson (an excellent Richard McCabe) gets Shakespeare drunk and rants about anything and everything.

There are some good performances, but Stewart is wasted in this. He’s played it before and quite why he wanted to return to it is beyond me. There’s nothing wrong with the production, it’s just not a good play. I’m prepared to accept that it’s a matter of taste, but it is without a conscience that I give up on a playwright who just doesn’t really do anything for me. To see any more Bond would be just masochistic, I’m afraid.

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