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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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I don’t really understand why Shakespeare takes as fascinating a short slice of British history as any, but fails to make it as interesting as any of his other history plays. It’s rarely staged and though you can see why, this is a good production and rather timely given that I saw it on the eve of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which King John will forever me remembered for but which hardly gets a mention in Shakespeare’s play.

John’s secession is challenged by his father’s illegitimate son, who he buys off with a knighthood. That doesn’t stop the bloody French trying to replace him with his young nephew Arthur. The Pope interferes via his legate and the people of Angiers (in John’s realm) suggest he marry his niece to the French Dauphin to make peace with them. John captures Arthur and the consequences, and his fate, forms the core of the piece. The English nobles flip-flop their allegiance between John and the French (how dare they!). Somehow it doesn’t come together to create as compelling a story as we’re used to from Will, but it has its moments.

I’m not sure I fully understand why religion is so prominent in director James Dacre’s production. It’s set on a red cross which extends into the groundling space and sideways to steps leading to the exits and there are monks chanting all over the place. John is apparently poisoned by a monk, but I wasn’t clear why. It also places the interval very late which, given the uneven quality of the play, makes the first part a real challenge to the attention span. It finds some unexpected humour and The Bastard’s engagement with the audience is fun. Overall I liked the production.

Jo Stone-Fewings gives a very good performance as a troubled John, somewhat out of his depth and perhaps less interested in ruling than a king needs to be. I also liked Alex Waldmann as The Bastard and Laurence Belcher as both Arthur and John’s son and successor Henry. Tanya Moodie is terrific as Constance.

A good production and timely staging of one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays.

 

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The last Shakespeare at the Almeida was a dreadful production I named ‘The Designer Macbeth’ which was devoid of any passion and the only occasion I’ve ever seen the talents of Simon Russell Beale wasted.

Fortunately, this is a fine interpretation of a very difficult ‘morality’ play. The modern setting works really well (it starts with lap dancers!) as the themes, including the abuse of power, are just as relevant today. Les Brotherston’s set allows the action to move swiftly between office, street, prison etc. and Michael Attenborough handles the ambiguity of the ending brilliantly.

Rory Kinnear as Angelo and Anna Maxwell-Martin as Isabella are both hugely impressive; it’s a pity Angelo is offstage for much of middle of the play as he’s enthralling when he’s on. Amongst a very good ensemble, I have to single out an outstanding Lucio from Lloyd Hutchinson. I was less convinced by Ben Miles’ Duke – he seemed distracted, resulting in somewhat idiosyncratic verse speaking! – though he did improve as the play went on.

Great to have such a good Shakespeare production anywhere, but particularly welcome at the Almeida.

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