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Posts Tagged ‘Royal Shakespeare Company’

Well, what a good play this is. Tim Morton-Smith has written a really meaty piece about the team that invented the bomb, and in particular it’s leader Robert Oppenheimer. It covers so much factual and ethical ground with great objectivity in an epic sweep and holds you in its grip for three hours. It makes most new plays seem flimsy and superficial.

It starts in academia where the scientists who are soon to assemble in Los Alamos, New Mexico, are surprisingly left wing, some members of the communist party. They are fundraising for Spain’s fight against fascism just before they commence a project with the objective of ending fascism in dramatic fashion. We follow the project and its key players and their relationships, so its as much a personal story as it is an historical one. During the project, the secret service is everywhere, concerned about leaks to allies as well as enemies. The pressure they are under is intense. As they reach their goal, an ethical debate is introduced – will this bomb end all wars, as it is meant to do, or will it be yet another, infinitely more lethal armament of war. It continues after its first use, exploring the consequences of this, and the affect on the scientists and the public’s attitude to them.

Angus Jackson’s staging zips along, making full use of the Swan space and a 20-strong cast; strong being the appropriate word. There’s a real period feel, with terrific costumes by Robert Innes Hopkins and brilliant music from Grant Olding, some danced to Scott Ambler’s dreamy 40’s style choreography. The cast doesn’t have a fault in it and it’s led by a towering performance by John Heffernan who’s shoulders seem to sink as the responsibility weighs upon him. I’ve seen him do great things, but nothing greater. This, together with his recent performance as Edward II at the NT, place him at the forefront of actors of his generation.

Well worth the trip to Stratford, but surely it will visit London, badly in need of great new plays like this?

 

 

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The opening image and sound are simply beautiful. A cathedral created by projections onto shimmering ‘screens’, three sopranos chanting heavenly music, the distraught Duchess of Gloucester crouched over her late husbands coffin. One of the best things about this production is its visual beauty and simplicity, in period costumes with very little else. Well, apart from that hair.

Despite the fact he really wasn’t interested in being king, Richard lasted longer than the ones before or after – 22 years in fact – but Shakespeare decided to concentrate on a short period at the end of his reign, so we get the events unleashed by Gloucester’s murder as his cousin Bolingbroke seeks to go beyond restoring his lands to challenge the monarch, who by now seems somewhat disengaged. It’s a more complex story than the other history plays, focusing more on the psychology of the characters than politics and battles and this production succeeds in that sense.

My problem with it was the pacing of the first three acts. I’ve never known so many pauses or so much silence in a Shakespeare play. During the Duchess of Gloucester’s scene with her brother-in-law, John of Gaunt, they were so long I thought Jane Lapotaire had forgotten her lines. When Richard and the Duke of Amerle were having a tender moment, it lasted beyond the point of being comfortable and I was convinced some stage machinery had failed and we were waiting for the stage manager to come on and say ‘because of a technical fault….’ This all slows it down, the 105 minutes of the first half dragged and my mind started wandering.

Though David Tennant is very good, this is no star vehicle. It’s one of the best RSC ensembles I’ve ever seen, with luxury casting of seasoned Shakespearians like Michael Pennington, Oliver Ford Davies and Jane Lapotaire in relatively small roles. The one who impressed me most, though, was the least experienced Shakespearian, Nigel Lindsay, who brought great complexity to Bolingbroke. I was also impressed by Sean Chapman’s passionate Northumberland and Oliver Rix’s performance as Aumerle, a role I think is very difficult to pull off.

There has been a tendency of late to camp up Richard. Tennant’s isn’t as camp as Kevin Spacey’s, but I really don’t think that voice and hair would have been evident at the time and it brings a touch of implausibility to this reading. Like all Greg Doran’s work, it’s elegant and lucid, but safe. It’s a good production, but it doesn’t match or better the Donmar’s with Eddie Redmayne and Andrew Buchan.

My second ex-Doctor Who in four days, both proving you can command a stage again after a lengthy bit of telly, with the benefit of full houses regardless  – but in these cases, deserved too.

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Seven years ago I was wowed by a site specific show which took place in Scotland’s Register House in Edinburgh and dreamthinkspeak, the company responsible for it, instantly became one to follow. Two years ago they blew me away with a show based on The Cherry Orchard over six floors of a disused department store in Brighton. This one, part of the World Shakespeare Festival and originated at the Brighton Festival, is completely different but just as inventive and original.

You stand in a dark space surrounded on four sides by reflective screens. At various times, films and images are projected onto the screens and they light up to reveal 10 rooms, three of which change during the 90 or so minutes running time. Scenes from Hamlet are enacted in modern dress in bedrooms, a bathroom, dressing room, office, a large lounge which takes up one side of the space and a boat! The characters are from Hamlet – Gertrude & Claudius, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, Polonius, Laertes & Ophelia and Hamlet himself (oh, and The Ghost of course).

The story is surprisingly intact, though it’s not the whole of the play in exact chronological order. You have to change where you look as the scenes unfold in different ‘rooms’ and at times you don’t know where to look as things are happening all over the place. At one point almost everyone seems to be doing the ‘To Be or Not to Be’ speech in different spaces, starting at different times and overlapping. At another point, there are three versions of Hamlet’s bedroom simultaneously, with Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius each occupying one of them – Hamlet trashing it, Gertrude tidying it and Claudius searching it.

I don’t always like shows which mess around with classics (Katie Mitchell is the biggest culprit) but here you get the essence of the play even though you don’t get every word in the right order; but all the words are Shakespeares. Somehow, I got under Hamlet’s skin and fully understood how he felt as much, if not more, than any other production of the play. It was compelling, captivating and deeply satisfying.

Tristan Sharps staging, with design collaborator Robin Don, is impeccable. Technically, it’s a masterpiece. The performances are uniformly good. Edward Hogg had all the intensity you expect of Hamlet. Ruth Lass & Phillip Edgerley were superb as Gertrude and Claudius. Michael Bryher & Stewart Heffernan (any relation to John?) were playful and funny as Rosencrantz and Gildenstern and Richard Clews, Ben Ingles and Bethan Cullinane were a passionate trio as Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia. Thorston Manderlay’s Ghost stalked the proceedings atmospherically and occasionally scarily.

Apart from Globe to Globe, the World Shakespeare Festival has disappointed me so far, but this raises the bar with something sparklingly original that is brilliantly executed. If you’re interested in Shakespeare, you’d be bonkers to miss it.

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Work got in the way this week, so I missed the Latin American Henry IV’s and the Belarus King Lear (which I am particularly sad to have missed). So it became the Caucasus meets Brazil.

Whilst I was in the Caucasus last year, the Armenians were announced as part of Globe to Globe and our guide said they were rather chuffed and looking forward to it – even though they had drawn a somewhat short straw with King John! Well, they arrived on the Globe stage one-by-one to a round of applause, each carrying a suitcase or trunk. In the first half I was finding it difficult to work out who’s who and what was going on (despite having just read a synopsis and following the scene summary surtitles), but by the second half I was having a fine time. It was an intriguing take on a difficult and rarely performed play and at the curtain call their joy at being here was clear, and the somewhat sparse audience did their best to return it.

Then came the Georgians with their As You Like It, which was a joy from start to finish. They did it as a play-within-a-play, the staging was full of invention and wit and the acting was superb. It was so utterly charming and delightful and completely in keeping with the tone of the play – without question the best AYLI  I’ve ever seen; a thoroughly uplifting experience which had us shouting and cheering at the curtain call. The director was a double for the Globe’s Dominic Dromgoole, which made me smile even more!

The weekend was bookended by Brazilian productions – first the RSC sponsored Two Roses for Richard at the Roundhouse, then Romeo & Juliet at the Globe. Richard didn’t get off to a good start as the surtitles were so small you couldn’t read them from the 8th row of the stalls, and they weren’t Globe-type scene synopsis but complete dialogue. It might not have mattered if it was a straight Richard III, but it was a Katie Mitchell style reinvention, so it became impossible to follow very quickly. From what I saw (the first half – there was no point in staying) it was one of those arrogant, pompous, pretentious directorial ‘deconstructions’, so maybe it was just as well I couldn’t understand it!

Back at the Globe on Sunday, the Brazilian Romeo & Juliet was cheese to Friday’s chalk. This is the only re-visit in Globe to Globe, as Grupo Galpao brought the same show here 12 years ago. My recollection is that it featured a cart, but now it features an onstage car! The cast of ‘clowns’ parade through the yard in carnival fashion, then zip through Shakespeare’s tragedy in 100 minutes. They play it largely for laughs, but when the tragedy hits, you couldn’t hear a pin drop and a little tear formed. Shakespeare narrated his own play (the actor is an uncanny double), Romeo spent most of the time on stilts (as did others), Juliet was a ballerina, Lady capulet carried her pet cockatoo, the nurse bared her boobies and there was lovely ‘latin folk’ music. This was no conventional R&J, yet it seemed to me to be true to the spirit and yet another G2G treat, restoring Brazilian honour at the same time. The warmth at curtain time was mutual and heartfelt and, like the Koreans, they hung around for greetings and photos.

I am so loving Globe to Globe. A Japanese Coriolanus? Bring it on!

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Peter Nichols’ playwriting career is a real puzzle to me. Between 1969 and 1982 London saw almost a play each year. He was one of the freshest, most inventive and funny writers around. In the last 28 years we’ve had no new plays and a handful of revivals, two at the Donmar and one elsewhere in the West End. Apparently he has a drawer full of unproduced work and I understand his take on it is that he’s been deserted by institutions like the NT and RSC who had earlier championed his work. So I jumped at the chance to see this new Nichols play at the tiny Finborough; the stellar cast was a bonus.

Set in a language school on post-war Florence, it explores the lives of its Italian administrator and expatriate teachers; the students are just off-stage voices. The central character is new boy Steven (passionately played by Chris New) who may be autobiographical (in which case Nichols has written himself as a bit of a shit!). He is stalked by infatuated Peggy (Charlotte Randle no less) but beds holocaust-denying Heidi (well-played by Natalie Walter) who had the attentions of administrator Gennaro (an excellent performance from Enzo Cilenti, whose name suggests he’s well qualified to play it!) before an anti-semitic rant. Add to the cocktail Abigail McKern’s terrifically plain speaking Aussie, Ian Gelder’s very English Italophile (who makes no compromises for living in Italy) and Rula Lenska, perfectly cast as an elegant smokey-voiced Russian, and you have a fascinating cast of characters.

The play is an interesting look at sensibilities in post-war Europe, but the narrative doesn’t  really live up to the excellent characterisation. The dramatic flow is damaged by a profusion of very short scenes and monologues and the play doesn’t really go anywhere, though it’s an interesting slice-of-life set in a period few have dramatised. Designer James Macnamara has worked wonders with  four shutters and some projections and director Michael Gieleta uses the tiny space well, with a ‘sound scape’ for the city and the students.

Still, I’d rather be in the sweaty Finborough watching a cast any West End producer would be proud of put on a play that’s better than any new play the National have done recently whilst they (and the Donmar) are pre-occupied with pointless revivals of 19th century German mediocrity. On this form, I think I’m inclined to side with Mr Nichols.

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