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Posts Tagged ‘RSC’

I really enjoyed this play by South African actor and playwright John Kani, who also plays one of the two roles. He has lived in South Africa throughout the apartheid period and the twenty-five years since. His fellow actor Antony Sher was born in South Africa and lived there for twenty years during apartheid, and is now a great Shakespearean actor of similar age as his character. There can be no better pairing to tell this story.

Lunga Kunene is a nurse. He has switched from working in hospitals to providing live-in twenty-four hour care in the Johannesburg homes of seriously ill patients. His latest is Shakespearean actor Jack Morris, with stage four liver cancer. Despite his condition, Jack is rehearsing his lines to play King Lear in Cape Town later in the year. He has a long-standing drink problem and despite his condition continues to drink, with bottles stashed everywhere.

The one thing they have in common is a love of Shakespeare, Lunga since he learnt Julius Caesar in his native language in school, Jack having made a career playing his roles. Jack’s behaviour towards Lunga is disgraceful, indicative of the worst white attitudes during apartheid. Lunga fights back and tries to get Jack to understand apartheid from his perspective. They discuss their disappointment at the post-apartheid period.

Their very personal stories perfectly illustrate what apartheid did to a nation and how long it will take to heal. Though it covers serious issues, there is a lot of humour, but its also sometimes shocking, with the audience gasping, and at other times deeply moving. It’s a play of great humanity and I was captivated by it. Kani and Sher are both brilliant in their respective roles, the former assertive and dignified, the latter angry and troubled.

Great to see this co-production between Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre and the RSC in the West End, and to see these fine actors together again.

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There’s something wonderful about visiting a 70-seat underground theatre a stones throw from Piccadilly Circus, where you have to cross the stage to get to the loo, to see four world class actors, directed by the man who ran both the RSC and NT, in three Samuel Beckett plays – for a few pounds more than going to the cinema around the corner. I love this city.

Beckett wrote twenty-two stage plays, many of them one act, some as short as fifteen minutes. You don’t always (ever?) entirely understand them, but you can bask in the language and exercise your brain finding meaning. Always fascinating and intriguing, never dull, somewhat addictive. I’ve seen about two-thirds of them. Another two will come along in three weeks with four more great actors in a theatre with 997 more seats!

The first of this triple-bill is Krapps Last Tape, where a man sits at a table reading his diary of some thirty years before, digging out, listening to and occasionally commenting on the meticulously indexed reel-to-reel tapes which contain the audio record of his 40th year. Oh, and he eats bananas. I’ve been lucky enough to see John Hurt and Harold Pinter, and now James Hayes in this fascinating memory play.

In Eh Joe, a man sits on his bed in silence listening to a woman’s voice in his head, his face telling you everything you need to know about his feelings as he listens to her. You can’t take your eyes off Niall Buggy, so expressive, whilst the great Becket interpreter and scholar Lisa Dwan voices the woman. This was written for TV. I first saw it on stage with Michael Gambon in a theatre 10 times the size but watching Niall Buggy, a few feet away, his face projected live on the wall behind him, was mesmerising, a way more intimate experience. Another memory piece, looking back.

The best is saved until last. The Old Tune, a radio play adapted from a Robert Pinget stage play, where two men in their seventies meet one Sunday morning and sit on a bench reminiscing, as the noisy traffic passes by. They have clear recollections, though they often differ, a source of irritation and indignation for them and humour for the audience. Memory again, but lighter and funnier and performed to perfection by Niall Buggy as Gorman and David Threlfall as Cream, a thirty minute gem that fully justifies its move from radio to stage and will stay with me forever.

These three plays belong together as if they were written as companion pieces. Though each was originally in a different form, they were written only eight years apart in the late 50s / early 60s. Trevor Nunn stages them beautifully, with help from set and costume designer Louie Whitemore, sound designer Max Pappenheim and lighting designer David Howe.

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When I first saw this 1897 Edmund Rostand play 35 years ago, in a version by Anthony Burgess for the RSC, it was Derek Jacobi with a prosthetic nose swashbuckling around the Barbican stage with his sword. Last night there were no prosthetics or swords, it was staged in a plywood box with a few of those orange plastic chairs and some microphone stands and everyone was dressed in contemporary clothes. It’s certainly radical, but it works because its a play about words and poetry and we heard and absorbed them all.

Martin Crimp’s version uses modern language, with slang and expletives, spoken by the actors in their natural voices, all amplified, but it’s still in verse. From the outset you hear someone beatboxing over sacred music and then someone rapping, which is maybe what Cyrano would be doing today. Once the surprise wears off, you find yourself listening intently, more so than you would natural dialogue. It’s faithful to the original story; the only change I could detect was in the opening scene in the theatre where they are putting on Hamlet instead of Clorise. Some actions and interactions are implied or mimed, and it sometimes feels like a rehearsed reading.

In addition to emphasising the verse, some scenes become even more dramatic by being less dramatised. The best example is the balcony scene where Cyrano is feeding lines to Christian as he woos Roxanne. There’s no balcony, and they sit on chairs, but it’s brilliant, and the final scene, where Roxanne hears the truth from Cyrano, is very moving. There were other times like this when I was thinking ‘why is this working?’ while it was, well, working.

It’s the most diverse cast you may ever see on a West End stage, all superb. led of course by James McAvoy, who combines a breathtaking physicality with a visceral, passionate emotionality. He brings the same extraordinary conviction that he did to Macbeth. He’s surrounded by fine performances, though, including Eben Figueiredo as a besotted Christian and Anita-Joy Uwajeh as a somewhat demanding Roxanne. Tom Edden as De Guiche is the man you love to hate.

I wasn’t convinced by director Jamie Lloyd’s similar treatment of Evita as I felt it didn’t serve the story, but here a play which is really about the power of words, poetry and language brings those very much to the fore. I was surrounded by rapt young people, a lot there to see a film star, who having experienced something like this may well become lifetime theatregoers.

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Cervantes was a contemporary of Shakespeare, starting as a playwright (without much success), making his name as a novelist with this, perhaps the first novel as such, certainly the first blockbuster. It’s been adapted many times as play, musical, opera, ballet and film and this is the 2016 stage adaptation for the RSC by James Fenton which has finally transferred to London with the same two leads.

It starts with Rufus Hound’s warm-up act talking directly to the audience, something he does very well, helped on the night I went by jokes at the expense of a sexual health worker in the front row and a woman who had recently been to Antwerp and The Hague! It takes a while before we meet the pompous, idealistic fantasist of the title, but it’s an enjoyably playful start which sets the tone of the evening.

From here it’s a succession of stops on the journey of Don Quixote as he seeks to return to the days of chivalry, of the Knights Errand, with his companion Sancho Panza, each a little story in itself. The novel is episodic, so its no surprise that its stage adaptation is just the same, which makes it more of an entertainment than a play, though quality entertainment as this the RSC after all. There’s much music, with nice songs by Fenton and Grant Olding, and the stage is designed to look just like The Swan.

I was as impressed by Rufus Hound in the musicals Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Wind in the Willows as I am here. He’s an expert at the comedy and is very likeable and engaging. David Threlfall makes an earnest Quixote and looks terrific. There’s an other-worldly quality to his interpretation and when the character is humiliated by some he meets, notably a Duke & Duchess, there’s a pathos which genuinely moves the audience. They make a superb double-act and are supported by a fine ensemble of sixteen.

I recently called the RSC’s Merry Wives TOWIE does panto, and this is a bit panto too, but Cervantes’ stories lend themselves more to the form than Shakespeare’s play does. Go expecting fun seasonal entertainment rather than a classic on stage and you’ll probably go home satisfied.

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Best New Play – The Lehman Trilogy*, The Inheritance* & Sweat*

I find it impossible to choose between these three extraordinary evenings (well, afternoon and evening in the case of the The Inheritance) but they were in very good company with a dozen other new plays in contention. Also at the NT, Home, I’m Darling* and Nine Night* were great, and also at the Young Vic The Convert* became a late addition in December. At the Bush, both Misty and An Adventure impressed (though I saw the former when it transferred to Trafalgar Studios).The remaining London contenders were The Humans at Hampstead Theatre, Pressure at the Park Theatre, Things I Know To Be True at the Lyric Hammersmith and The Wipers Times at the Arts, though these last two weren’t new to London, just me. The Edinburgh Fringe added two, Class* and Ulster American*, both Irish, both at the Traverse and both heading to London, so look out for them. The eight starred are either still running or coming back in 2019, so be sure to catch them if you haven’t seen them already.

Best New Musical – Hamilton*

It opened right at the end of 2017, but I didn’t see it until January 2018 (and again in December 2018). It certainly lives up to the hype and is unquestionably ground-breaking in the same way West Side Story was sixty years before. It was a good year for new musicals, though 40% of my shortlist were out-of-town, headed by Flowers For Mrs Harris at Chichester, with Pieces of String in Colchester, Miss Littlewood in Stratford and Sting’s The Last Ship mooring briefly in Northampton. Back in London, the Young Vic continued to shine with Fun Home and Twelfth Night and the NT imported Hadestown*. Tina* proved to be in the premiere league of juke-box musicals and SIX* was a breath of fresh air at the Arts. Only four are still running, or coming back.

Best Play Revival – The York Realist and Summer and Smoke*

Another category where I can’t split the top two. The former a gem at the Donmar and the latter shining just as brightly at the Almeida. I didn’t see the Old Vic’s glorious A Christmas Carol* until January, so that was a contender too, along with The Daughter-in-Law* at the Arcola and The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the West End. Then there were four cracking Shakespeare’s – The Bridge Theatre’s promenade Julius Caesar, the RSC’s Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu visiting Hackney Empire, Ian McKellen’s King Lear transfer from Chichester, and the NT’s Anthony & Cleopatra* with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okenedo. Another four still running / coming back.

Best Musical Revival – Company*

The leanest category this year, with Marianne Elliott’s revival of Sondheim’s Company exceeding expectations; I shall be back at the last night. Chichester brought yet more joy with Me & My Girl and right at the end of the year, the Mill at Sonning came up trumps for the third year running with a great favourite of mine, Guys & Dolls* Finally, The Rink at Southwark Playhouse, the only contender this year from the usually more prolific fringe. Two to catch if you haven’t already.

Theatre of the Year – The Young Vic

Though five of my thirty-seven contenders were at the NT, The Young Vic shone even more brightly with four, all new works. Only four originated in the West End, which further emphasises how crucial the subsidised sector and the regions are. You can still see half of them, but some close soon, so get booking!

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The RSC’s latest revival of The Merry Wives of Windsor is TOWIE does panto. I’m normally OK with updating and though there’s stuff to enjoy here its pushed a bit too far to be for me. The reference to Brexit was the last straw.

The Ford’s and Page’s are more Essex than Windsor, dressed appropriately, chavily. For some reason, other characters wear doublet and hose which makes for an incongruous combination. The stage boasts two two-storey houses which revolve to become backdrops but nothing really signposts the various locations; the denouement isn’t in Windsor Great Park, but a town square. There’s a Physical Comedy Director, so that tells you a bit about what you’re in for, though it’s mostly crude slapstick. There’s added references and changed lines and a lot of music from a live band who sounded a bit disconnected and distant playing in the wings.

The chief reason for seeing it is David Troughton’s terrific turn as Falstaff. He towers over everyone else, most of whom seem to be more caricatures than characters. He squeezes every ounce of comedy out of his character, without making him one-dimensional. In addition to the classic moments, like hiding in a basket, here a wheelie bin, there are other sublime additions, like swimming in an imaginary pool at the front of the auditorium.

Though I had reservations, the rest of the audience appeared to have none, so maybe I was ending 2018 as a grumpy old man. See for yourself, but there are only three performances left!

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Within minutes of it starting, I knew travelling to Stratford (upon Avon) to see this was a good idea. I’m a big fan of Joan Littlewood, even though I never saw any of her work. When my Tardis arrives, one of my first journeys will be back to the late 50’s / early 60’s to visit her Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal in Stratford (East London). She revolutionised British theatre as much as people like Peter’s Brook and Hall, but isn’t recognised as much, though she does now have a statue outside Stratford East.

Writer Sam Kenyon uses seven Joan’s to tell her story, with the wonderful Clare Burt as Joan the narrator, encouraging and instructing the others to pass the baton, her trademark cap, to the next as she ages. It briefly covers her arrival in the world, school, an early trip to Paris and RADA, before political theatre in the North West, where she meets and marries future folk royalty Ewan MacColl (then Jimmie Miller). The whole of the second half covers the Theatre Workshop period in Stratford East, using the development of productions like A Taste of Honey, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be and Oh What A Lovely War to propel the story forward.

It’s warts and all, so though it’s a homage, it shows the negative too. Along the way we meet Victor Spinetti, Barbara Windsor, Shelagh Delaney, Lionel Bart, Hal Prince (that collaboration was new to me!), Murray Melvin (whose insight Kenyon benefited from, and who was in the audience at this performance) and John Gielgud playing Macbeth! All of these are played by the ensemble regardless of age, sex or race. Her reciprocal love of Gerry Raffles shines through.

Designer Tom Piper has put a gold proscenium arch and red velvet curtains at the back of the apron stage, much like Stratford East, above which there’s a strip of screen on which projections signpost places and productions, with the band in the gallery above that. There’s an anarchic, playful quality to Erica Whyman’s production which seems entirely in keeping with the story. It feels like it’s being created as we watch, in the same way Joan’s shows were developed. It isn’t perfect, but for the first production of someone’s second musical, it’s impressive.

In addition to Clare Burt as Joan and Solomon Israel as Gerry Raffles, an ensemble of ten play the other five Joan’s and more than thirty other roles. Sophie Nomvete and Emily Johnstone give great turns as Avis Bunnage and Barbara Windsor respectively. They also play two of the Joan’s, receiving / passing the baton (cap) from / to Aretha Ayeh, Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue and Dawn Hope, all excellent. I felt for Tam Williams, playing Murray Melvin with the man himself just feet away; he also gets give us Gielgud’s Macbeth!

Well worth the trip to Stratford, hopefully to have a life beyond The Swan.

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