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All posts for the month January, 2011

King Lear at the Roundhouse

Published 30/01/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

Older actors than Greg Hicks have played the eponymous king in recent years, but his age does nothing to detract from his ability to portray an elderly man of ‘fourscore and upward’.  This current production is far more of an ensemble RSC piece than a vehicle for an older actor wishing to prove himself.

Whilst I have mixed feelings about the overall production, my overriding impression was of having seen one of the best King Lears in recent years.  The stage set with its backdrop of dilapidated walls and windows, resembling a crumbling warehouse  with fizzing, flickering lights, left me a little confused, as did the range of costumes, stretching from medieval through to World War I, but the quality of the acting more than compensated for these ambiguities.

Hicks is a versatile actor and a stalwart of the RSC over many years; it was interesting for me to see him as the tyrannical Julius Caesar and the mad King in the same week.  In this current production I feel that he came across as a difficult ageing king and father, a man who needed his daughters to make public pronouncements of their feelings.  They accomplished this by literally standing on soap boxes to proclaim their loves for him.  It was made obvious that Cordelia (Samantha Young) was his favourite child, especially when he gently prompted her to ‘Speak again’ after her avowals of ‘Nothing’.  The father who quickly flew into a rage and disclaimed ‘all my paternal care, / Propinquity and property of blood, / And as a stranger to my heart and me / Hold thee from this for ever’ was equally rash and quick tempered when crossed by Goneril (Kelly Hunter) and cursed her womb and any child she may subsequently bear.  Wicked as Goneril may later turn out to be, at this point she was a creature of pathos, displaying the pain and misery she felt on listening to her father’s words.  Katy Stephens’s Regan was a scheming, self-centred, cruel woman who made her strength clear from the moment she was rewarded with a third of the monarch’s kingdom, and then had it augmented with Cordelia’s third.

Tunji Kasim’s Edmund was not evil enough for my liking.  Like Iago, the actor playing him needs to convey wickedness to the audience, but guile to those he is duping.  However Charles Aitken’s Edgar was convincing as both the wronged son of Gloucester (Geoffrey Freshwater) and as Poor Tom, the Bedlam Beggar.  Freshwater combined both arrogance and misogyny when boasting of his relationship with Edmund’s unmarried mother, but moved me to tears after the loss of his eyes, and particularly in the scene where he meets the mad king.

Darrell D’Silva’s Kent was a strong, principled and loyal courtier.  A man prepared to do anything to help his king, including the willingness to follow his master to the grave.  John Mackay as Albany and Clarence Smith as Cornwall were both adequate in their roles, but having seen Mackay as Cassius earlier in the week, I felt as if I was again seeing him playing a soldier acting on his beliefs.

The final scenes in the play are always the most harrowing, from Lear’s misguided belief that he and Cordelia will live out their final days together in prison, through his entrance with her dead body, and then his own demise.  I always find myself echoing Kent’s question ‘Is this the promised end?’.  The play is so bleak, and there are just a few men left alive.  How can there be a future when the stage is littered with dead women?  Perhaps the setting of this production went some way towards conveying the crumbling, dilapidated state of the royal house.

This production aligns me with Lear’s claim that he is ‘a man / More sinned against than sinning.’  He didn’t seem to deserve the treatment meted out by his elder daughters, but then again perhaps a king should know better how to treat others, but above all he should know his daughters as well as they appeared to understand his nature ‘You see how full of changes his age is.’

The RSC Julius Caesar at the Roundhouse

Published 28/01/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

The programme notes to the current production of this play drew my attention to two separate ideas: James Shapiro remarks on the resonances between the Roman politics portrayed in the play and Shakespeare’s own contemporary societal concerns, and Jonathan Stamp comments on the brutality of Caesar’s Rome. Stamp is a historian who acted as an advisor on the BBC/HBO series Rome.  This two-part series portrayed a city and a historical period that were far removed from the classical ideology that we imagine nowadays.  There may have been senators ruling Rome, but there was also an abundance of violence in a city where the rulers were juxtaposed against the proletariat.  Lucy Bailey, the director of this production, professes to being influenced by the violence and brutality of the television series.  But she also foregrounds the parallels drawn by (by Shapiro) in his book 1599 between Shakespeare’s Rome and the England of the dramatist’s own time.

The current RSC version of the play reminds us of these ideas, but it also reinforces the fact that Caesar’s Rome was a pre-Christian society that was heavily influenced by superstition and augury.  Careful attention is paid to the unnatural phenomena that occur before the assassination of the city’s ruler.  Before we even learn of Calphurnia’s (Noma Dumezweni) ominous dream, we hear the noises she describes.  Nature seems to be in turmoil in a prediction of the war that will exist between Mark Antony (Darrell D’Silva) and Octavius (Joseph Arkley) in their conflict with Brutus (Sam Troughton) and Cassius (John Mackay).  The Soothsayer has already warned Caesar to ‘Beware the Ides of March’ and Calphurnia has correctly interpreted the warnings in her dream (related by her husband) in which his statue ‘Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts, / Did run pure blood; and many lusty Romans / Came smiling and did bathe their hands in it.’  Even the augurers advise against Caesar leaving his home but he pays them no regard, especially when informed that the Senate wish to reward him with a crown.  Shakespeare equivocates: the conspirators believe that Caesar wishes to be crowned, but Antony rhetorically disputes this.  Should we take the part of the conspirators or should we side with Antony?

The superstitious tropes are extended into the appearance of Caesar’s ghost to Brutus near Sardis, but this production also brings the spectre back again to haunt Brutus’s suicide.  When he runs onto Strato’s (Larrington Walker) sword, Caesar walks between them, and it is his sword that strikes the fatal blow.  The older man’s spirit is now able to rest after the death of his murderer; Caesar has become the ghost in a revenge tragedy.

The current RSC Romeo and Juliet is heavily imbued with fire, but this Julius Caesar is dowsed with generous doses of blood.  The play opens against a projected backdrop of the statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf against a red background, reminding us that the twins fought to the death for the leadership of Rome.  Before the play’s first scene, we are treated to the sight of two men wrestling and, of course, Caesar’s assassination is accompanied by the necessary amount of blood required for the conspirators to wash their hands in his wounds.  They may have argued against butchery and in favour of carving him ‘as a dish fit for the gods’, but to spectators in a theatre he always appears to have been butchered.  Shakespeare was extremely fond of his contradictions.

Bailey makes the play’s contradictions even more apparent.  Greg Hicks’s Caesar is a lean and sinewy man, whilst his avenger is on the beefy, overweight side, rather like a rugby player who has knocked back too many pints.  This Mark Antony will definitely turn into the decadent man who will be undone by his affair with Cleopatra.  Octavius, on the other hand, is another slim, fit young man, who will be worthy to inherit the leadership of Rome.

The current production moves at a pace, but above all it reminds us that the Rome of 2000 years ago was not a city of classically correct marble buildings, inhabited by orating senators in flowing togas; rather it was like any modern city where mobs try to control mobs and the citizens (and plebeians) are politically divided.

 

The King’s Speech

Published 26/01/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

It was time for me to see the film that recalls the dark period of England’s history, the time when we were preparing to go to war with Germany for the second time in a quarter of a century. Although the film ends with the declaration of war under the kingship of George VI, it takes us back to his father’s reign, the abdication crisis of 1938 and to his own personal battle to overcome his stammer. In a world dominated by the media of film and television, it’s difficult for us to project back to a time when radio (or ‘the wireless’) was the nation’s chief source of news. The film opens with the, then, Duke of York’s live speech to the British Commonwealth at the closing of the British Empire Exhibition, and uses this occasion as the springboard for the Duchess’s (later the Queen Mother) quest to find a speech therapist to help her husband conquer his vocal problems.

We have recently embraced a resurgence of English period drama, but this film moves on from the Edwardian period (as in Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs) and into the between-the-war years from 1925 until 1939. The imagery of the British Empire Exhibition and the glimpses of the BBC network that encompassed the British Commonwealth lead us conveniently into the Duchess of York’s meeting with Lionel Logue, an unorthodox speech therapist from Australia. Nearly a century later, and with the loss of most of our old empire, it is difficult to imagine how much of a reach England, and her Royal Family, had around the world. This film makes England’s dominance paramount.

The film is beautifully photographed, using stately homes as well as Royal parks, as locations. I’m sure that one of the earlier scenes, where the Duchess takes a taxi through a pea-souper, will appeal to those filmgoers abroad that wish to believe that London is still cloaked with fog. Additionally the attention to period costumes is a fashion watchers delight. More than anything else we are reminded of the stilted Received Pronunciation that was prevalent amongst the upper classes and obligatory for BBC presenters. The King’s Speech is not concerned with the lower classes as were the programmes mentioned above, although a clash of social groups occurs when the Duke and Logue fall into dispute. However this is later surmounted when the postscript at the end of the film informs us that the King and Queen remained lifelong friends with the Logues.

This is a piece of cinema that reminds us of our past, hints at England’s struggles during World War II, but also pinpoints the private struggle of a very public person to overcome a speech defect. Several times during the film we see a young Princess Elizabeth (later to become Queen Elizabeth II on her father’s early death in 1952) and this serves as a reminder that she is still on the throne and was an observer to the events portrayed in the film. Additionally there are several perfect cameo roles to support Colin Firth’s Duke of York/King George VI and Helena Bonham Carter’s Duchess of York/Queen Elizabeth. Derek Jacobi is a beautifully sycophantic Archbishop of Canterbury, complete with gaiters; Michael Gambon is a convincing and bullying King George V and Timothy Spall encapsulates Winston Churchill without caricature. T S Eliot believed that his past was in his present, and this is a perfect encapsulation of what England once was and is a cinematographic piece of history that deserves to be duly rewarded.

The Winslow Boy

Published 06/01/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

Although it has been around for more than ten years, I finally caught up with David Mamet’s film version of Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy.  Rattigan may have been left behind in the theatre stakes when the ‘angry young men’ came to prominence around the middle of the twentieth century, but this play (set approximately one hundred years ago) still speaks to us today.

 

I think that (the late) Nigel Hawthorne manages to strike the right note in his depiction of the Edwardian paterfamilias.  He is not quite as repressed and buttoned-up as a Victorian father, although he may appear so initially.  His love for his family and his respect for his eldest daughter, a thirty-year-old, who supports female suffrage and who comes to be the strongest supporter and protestor of her younger brother’s innocence, are just below the surface.  This is a man who would discipline his children if he believed it necessary, but who also understands them instinctively and emotionally.  He knows sacrifices will have to be made in the struggle to clear his son’s name, but he doesn’t unconditionally demand that his family make them; he gives them a choice.

 

Rebecca Pidgeon (Catherine Winslow) is a match for her father, although she may be more intellectual than he is.  Her reading matter and political beliefs prepare her for the legal battle that she will need to pursue to clear her brother’s (Dickie) name.  She is the one who finds Sir Robert Morton, the barrister and MP, who takes on the defence of her brother.  Despite her social standing as a middle class spinster, she knows exactly how to deal with him.  Her initial assessment of him as a ‘whore’ who is only interested in earning money from his legal practice, is destroyed when she learns that he has turned down a prestigious job as a reward for dropping the Winslow case.  Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert) also has some reassessments to make when we learn that his cool demeanour and sang froid are compromised as he sheds tears in court after winning his case.  From here it is only a short step to accepting that he and Catherine have each come to learn more about the opposite sex and that they would have a life together if the play were to have a sequel.  Initially they both seem emotionally repressed (although she loses her fiancé because of her brother’s trial, she doesn’t act like a woman in love) but their fight for a common cause and a belief that holds them both, brings them together.

 

The play and film examine family relationships at a time of great strain, the fight to prove somebody innocent at all odds after they have been falsely accused, and show how a fourteen-year-old boy is able to take on the establishment and win.  Nowadays, when we hear how so many family relationships have broken down and how young people have no role models, it reminds us that it wasn’t always thus.

 

The verdict is delivered so suddenly, and reported rather than portrayed, so even this remains very low key.  They story may have started on a celebratory note as Catherine announced her engagement, but Dickie’s vindication is deserving of a much greater celebration.  This doesn’t take place, but in our hearts we are more than overjoyed, both at his acquittal, and at the way his family have never lost their trust and belief in him.