Plays

All posts in the Plays category

Review of Top Girls at the Trafalgar StudiosCaryl Churchill’s Top Girls is in the throes of a successful revival, nearly thirty years after it was originally produced at the Royal Court. Max Stafford Clark again directs this version and it seems absolutely relevant and up-to-date. Originally written by a socialist feminist during the Thatcher years, the play is just as potent today. Women’s equality battles are still being fought and are far from being won. The opening scene makes a strong impact as Marlene (Suranne Jones) celebrates her promotion to Managing Director of the Top Girls employment agency. Her chosen guests are all women from history: Lady Nijo, (Catherine McCormack) a twelfth century Japanese courtesan who later became a Buddhist nun; Patient Grizelda (Laura Elphinstone) from Chaucer, Boccaccio and Petrarch; Isabella Bird (Stella Gonet), the nineteenth-century Scottish traveller and explorer; Pope Joan (Lucy Briers) and Dull Gret (Olivia Poulet), who fought the devils in hell in Brueghel’s painting. They are all strong, active women (with the exception of Griselda), who have overcome obstacles of some kind. Many of them have broken through boundaries, but are still confined in a patriarchal society of women in a men’s world. The least empowered of all the women is the waitress, who could possibly be said to be on a par with Griselda. Despite the various period costumes, the same seven actors double their roles and portray the remaining twentieth-century characters during the play’s subsequent scenes. This gives a sense that women are still fighting the battle of the sexes and the war is far from over. Marlene may have achieved promotion over the head of an older male colleague, but we later learn the cost to her and her sister of her career. When Marlene decides to visit her sister back at home in Suffolk, the contrast between the two and their lives is unmistakable. Although she dresses down from the smart cocktail dress and power suit she sports in other scenes, she still wears Prada jeans; her sister’s (Joyce played by Stella Gonet) jeans are older and shabbier, without a designer label. Even Joyce’s house is a far cry from Marlene’s smart London office. The older sister’s resentment is palpable when the two women argue over the choices they’ve made, or had thrust upon them. Joyce is still working at several jobs to make ends meet and hasn’t lost her East Anglia bur, whereas Marlene sounds as if she were a Londoner. However the realisation that Marlene, and not Joyce, is Angie’s (Olivia Poulet) mother is quite a shocker. Marlene has turned her back on her own daughter and allowed her sister to raise her as her own. Is this the price that must be paid for women to make it in a men’s world? There are also the unanswered questions of what will happen to the slightly backward Angie, and even the possibility that her father may have been Joyce’s husband. Women couldn’t have it all in 1982, when the play was written, and they still have to make sacrifices today in a world where equality with men is yet to be achieved.

Published 03/09/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls is in the throes of a successful revival, nearly thirty years after it was originally produced at the Royal Court.  Max Stafford Clark again directs this version and it seems absolutely relevant and up-to-date.  Originally written by a socialist feminist during the Thatcher years, the play is just as potent today.  Women’s equality battles are still being fought and are far from being won.

The opening scene makes a strong impact as Marlene (Suranne Jones) celebrates her promotion to Managing Director of the Top Girls employment agency.  Her chosen guests are all women from history: Lady Nijo, (Catherine McCormack) a twelfth century Japanese courtesan who later became a Buddhist nun; Patient Grizelda (Laura Elphinstone) from Chaucer, Boccaccio and Petrarch; Isabella Bird (Stella Gonet), the nineteenth-century Scottish traveller and explorer;  Pope Joan (Lucy Briers) and Dull Gret (Olivia Poulet), who fought the devils in hell in Brueghel’s painting.  They are all strong, active women (with the exception of Griselda), who have overcome obstacles of some kind.  Many of them have broken through boundaries, but are still confined in a patriarchal society of women in a men’s world.  The least empowered of all the women is the waitress, who could possibly be said to be on a par with Griselda.

Despite the various period costumes, the same seven actors double their roles and portray the remaining twentieth-century characters during the play’s subsequent scenes.  This gives a sense that women are still fighting the battle of the sexes and the war is far from over.  Marlene may have achieved promotion over the head of an older male colleague, but we later learn the cost to her and her sister of her career.

When Marlene decides to visit her sister back at home in Suffolk, the contrast between the two and their lives is unmistakable.  Although she dresses down from the smart cocktail dress and power suit she sports in other scenes, she still wears Prada jeans; her sister’s (Joyce played by Stella Gonet) jeans are older and shabbier, without a designer label.  Even Joyce’s house is a far cry from Marlene’s smart London office.  The older sister’s resentment is palpable when the two women argue over the choices they’ve made, or had thrust upon them.  Joyce is still working at several jobs to make ends meet and hasn’t lost her East Anglia bur, whereas Marlene sounds as if she were a Londoner.  However the realisation that Marlene, and not Joyce, is Angie’s (Olivia Poulet) mother is quite a shocker.  Marlene has turned her back on her own daughter and allowed her sister to raise her as her own.  Is this the price that must be paid for women to make it in a men’s world?  There are also the unanswered questions of what will happen to the slightly backward Angie, and even the possibility that her father may have been Joyce’s husband.  Women couldn’t have it all in 1982, when the play was written, and they still have to make sacrifices today in a world where equality with men is yet to be achieved.

The Cherry Orchard at the Olivier

Published 04/07/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is currently in production at the Oliver Theatre, in a new version by Andrew Upton.

Zoe Wannamaker stars as a very childlike Ranyevskaya, a woman who is unable to stand up to the future and the changes it holds.  Her refusal to leave the past behind is the reason why the cherry orchard of the play’s title will be demolished, and the family will have to leave their country estate and family home.  At times I felt that I could have given her a good shake, so well does she inhabit the girl clinging to the past.  She refuses to heed Lopakhin and continues to represent a time that is passing. Conleth Hill’s merchant, Lopakhin anticipates the oligarchy that arose after the dissolution of the USSR and the rise of the free market.  He never ceases to remind the audience that he was born to a serf and has achieved success and a fortune in his own lifetime.  Mark Bonnar’s Trofimov is the idealist scholar, the philosopher and forerunner of the communists that will later rule Russia.  Howard Davies, the director of this production, brings out the divisions between the three characters, who all have ample time and space to voice their own opinions.

Lower down the social hierarchy, the young manservant, Yasha (Gerald Kyd), entertains illusions of grandeur, whilst the old retainer, Firs (Kenneth Cranham), never forgets his place, although his age and health are against him.  Varya, (Claudie Blakley) Ranyevskaya’s adopted daughter, will have to move down through the social classes, and will never marry Lopakhin, as he moves upwards.  They pass like ships in the night as the social order changes.  Even Gaev, (James Laurenson) Ranevskaya’s brother will have to put his indolent life of playing billiards behind him, and go to work in a bank.  Meanwhile his sister’s rejection of a changed future sees her returning to her lover in Paris.  She is the only one who cannot see the writing on the wall.

The play was written in the early years of the twentieth century and foreshadows the changes of the coming years.  As if to emphasise these changes even further, the current production uses a new version, and one that didn’t entirely work for me as I found some of the language too modern to be uttered by actors in costumes of that era.  However I thought the set design of an old wooden house was perfect and provided a fine elegiac illustration of a class in decline, and an estate on the verge of destruction. 

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 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.

A story of woe: Review of Romeo and Juliet

Published 16/12/2010 by damselwithadulcimer

Michael Billington points out in his review of Romeo and Juliet (which has now transferred from Stratford to London’s Roundhouse) that ‘the eternal difficulty with this play is making us believe that the tragedy is inherent rather than a tacked-on product of a faulty postal service’ http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/dec/03/romeo-and-juliet-review.  Rupert Goold manages to overcome this problem by presenting the prologue as an audio guide that is listened to by Sam Troughton’s Romeo as he visits Verona.  Both he and Juliet (Mariah Gale) wear modern dress as they fall hopelessly and fatefully in love against a background of Renaissance Italy and feuding families.

 

This production is heavy with Catholic imagery and prompts us to imagine ourselves as an Elizabethan audience that has endured fifteenth-century England’s religious upheavals; we are Protestants and sceptical of anything to do with popery.   Italians are Catholics, hence the misguided interference of Friar Laurence, the necessity of attending Confession and the imagery of saints shared by the two lovers at their first meeting.   Early modern society also viewed Mediterranean races as hotter than those from northern Europe.  The anger and rivalry between the Capulets and Montagues is all there in the language of the play, but Goold also introduces fire as a recurrent motif throughout this production.  The opening fight scenes are interspersed by flashes of fire, Benvolio is narrowly saved from death by burning and a back projection of flames accompanies many of the scene changes.  Religious martyrs were frequently burned at the stake, and fire and flame are metaphors for love and passion.

 

Against this fast moving background of imagery and poetry two young people meet and fall in love despite parental opposition and familial enmity.  We all know the ‘story … of Juliet and her Romeo’ but what is often missed in the staging of a play that moves at such speed, is the fact that the tragic tale, from beginning to end, is laid down within the prologue (‘A pair of star-crosssed lovers take their life’).  We are also regularly reminded of the outcome throughout the drama: from their first meeting the lovers are aware that their relationship could end in death, they both suffer from dreams and premonitions where each sees the other dead, and they both make references to knives, daggers and poison during the course of the play.  None of this is missed in Goold’s production, making the poignancy of the ending even stronger and more inevitable.

 

However before the fateful ending is reached we are privileged to share an amazing theatrical experience.  This RSC ensemble piece, which has been in the current repertoire since the spring, is a tightly acted play.  The lovers share a tension and electricity, the sensuality of which is underpinned by the rhythmic pounding of the music at their first meeting.  They convey an awareness that this is a new experience for both of them, particularly for Juliet, who first appears petulantly playing with a child’s whip.   Romeo’s asides, during Juliet’s balcony scene, are directed at the audience from the edge of the stage; the effect is to make us even more complicit in their relationship.

 

The all-excluding romantic love of Romeo and Juliet is balanced by the bawdiness of both the Nurse and Mercutio.  The latter is brilliantly and comically portrayed by Jonjo O’Neill, resplendent in a blonde wig and black eye liner.  He may look like a New Romantic, but his hip-thrusting bawdiness verges on pornography and even begins to disgust Benvolio.  Tybalt (played by Joseph Arkley) is as hot-headed as his uncle, Lord Capulet (Richard Katz).  The nephew’s desire to fight with Romeo is equally matched by the older man’s anger and paternalistic control over his daughter, particularly in the confrontation over his wish to marry her to Paris when he appears to be about to assault her.

 

This production also uses a mix of regional accents: Lady Capulet (Christine Entwisle) is a Northerner; Peter Peversley (understudying the Scottish Forbes Masson in the version I saw) is a Geordie

Friar Laurence; Tybalt is a Scotsman; Peter is Welsh and Jonjo O’Neill speaks with his native Belfast accent.  This miscellany of voices suggests that we all suffer the same experiences wherever we hail from, but this is further underpinned by the RSC’s colour blind casting.  We are all the same under the skin, especially when attending a masked ball.

Shakespeare The Man From Stratford

Published 02/08/2010 by damselwithadulcimer

Shakespeare the Man from Stratford

Simon Callow’s new one man show, Shakespeare The Man from Stratford, is written by Jonathan Bate.  Like Bate’s earlier biography of Shakespeare,Soul of the Age,  this theatre piece is also framed by Jaques’s speech ‘The Seven Ages of Man’ taken from As You Like It.  Over the past fifteen years Callow has performed other literary characters on stage.  His first one-man play was Michéal mac Liammór’s The Importance of Being Oscar, and he followed this some years later with The Mystery of Charles Dickens, written by Peter Ackroyd.  His latest offering on Shakespeare follows the same format as the two earlier plays: he relates the stories of the writers, whilst also bringing to life various characters that they have created.  Writing in the Richmond and Twickenham Times, to coincide with the play’s week long run at the Richmond Theatre, Callow looks back over these two earlier dramatisations and states that his ‘adoration for Dickens has been eclipsed by the man from Stratford’.

Callow translates Bate’s words from the page to the stage and entertains the audience in the process.  He doesn’t entertain the possibility that anybody but Shakespeare wrote the poetry and plays attributed to the man from Stratford and begins his monologue with the birth of the baby William: ‘the infant, / Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms’.  He points out that the young boy survived an outbreak of the Plague and illustrates the mature dramatist’s depiction of children by using an extract from The Winter’s Tale in which Mamillius, Hermione and her ladies discuss tales.  ‘A sad tale’s best for winter.  I have one / Of sprites and goblins.’  He later describes the dramatist’s depiction of adult grief in the face of childhood mortality, using, as an example, Lady Constance’s suffering after the death of her son, Arthur (in King John).  However, he relates this back to the sorrow that his mother, Mary, must have suffered after the deaths of his elder sisters, Joan and Margaret.  He emphasises that Tudor families were close knit and that the deaths of children would have never been forgotten.

After pointing out that William survived childhood, the next phase in his life is would have been ‘the whining schoolboy, with his satchel / And shining morning face, creeping like snail / Unwillingly to school’.  Bate is at pains to point out that sixteenth-century schooling was rigorous and that the boys learned grammar and Latin, with a strong emphasis on rhetoric.  They would be drilled in the use of the latter, using figures of speech, from antimetabole to zeugma, that are unknown to modern day schoolchildren.  The acquisition of this command of language was more than enough to provide the future dramatist and poet with the skills of his art.  This section of the play anticipates the later debates regarding the authorship of the plays and can be enjoyed as a companion piece to James Shapiro’s Contested Will.  Callow used Mark Antony’s speech at Caesar’s  funeral (from Julius Caesar) to illustrate the effectiveness of a rhetorical argument and how it can influence the beliefs of listeners.

The soldier from Jaques’s speech prompted a discussion of the wars that were never too far away during the 1580s and 1590s and of how soldiers form a solid corpus of characters in the plays: if we are not watching a war being fought on stage, men are often marching off to fight, or returning from battle.

It would be too boring and formulaic if each ‘age’ were to be introduced with lines from As You Like It so Callow also discusses the other stages of Shakespeare’s life in terms of his return to Stratford (the sixth age) and then moves on to the seventh, and final, scene: ‘Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’ and relates it to Macbeth’s speech on the death of Lady Macbeth: ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ before coming full circle and reminding us that Shakespeare was a playwright writing in a metatheatrical style.  Inasmuch as Jaques’s speech foregrounds the conceit of life as acted out on the stage, Macbeth also reminds us that

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more.  It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury

Signifying nothing’

As mentioned earlier, the play doesn’t bother entering into the authorship debate.  There is no question that the basis of Shakespeare’s command of the English language was laid down at the King’s New School in Stratford, and his vivid imagination and descriptions of people, both high and low, were fuelled by his time in London.  The capital city was a bustling, busy place and the dramatist could or would have honed his imagination by watching people as they went about their daily work.  In Renaissance Italy, Leonardo Da Vinci sketched people in the streets, and in Renaissance London, a provincial man from a market town in the West Midlands observed and listened.  In the programme notes, Jonathan Bate opines that Shakespeare:

was a working craftsman who had to make his daily living and to face the problems that we all face every day.  His life was ordinary – it was his mind that was extraordinary.  His imagination leapt to every corner of the earth and every age of history, through fantasy and dream, yet it was always rooted in the real

Jonathan Bate metadramatically brings the dramatist to life and Simon Callow, sometimes a little hyperbolically, speaks the words and acts the parts (a little like Nick Bottom greedily wishes to play many characters).  I almost wished the play would have ended with Puck’s words from A Midsummer Night’s Dream ‘Give me your hands, if we be friends’.  Anyway the audience showed their appreciation and enjoyment without the need for encouragement to applaud.

All My Sons by Arthur Miller at the Apollo Theatre

Published 14/07/2010 by damselwithadulcimer

Arthur Miller wrote All My Sons shortly after World War II, but the theme of soldiers being compromised as they go to war still resonates with us today.  Nowadays claims are made that our army in Afghanistan is insufficiently equipped for battle, but Joe Keller (David Suchet in the play) is responsible for manufacturing cracked cylinder heads for military aeroplanes and these result in the deaths of young pilots.

In the current London production Suchet plays Joe as a family man and successful businessman.  He is well liked (an attribute that Willy Loman deemed highly desirable) by his friends and neighbours, who pop in and out of his suburban garden.  As the play unfolds it would appear that the only member of the cast with a problem is Joe’s wife, Kate (played by Zoe Wannamaker).  She appears unable to accept the reality of the death of their elder son, Larry, during the war.  When her younger son, Chris (Stephen Campbell Moore), proposes to Larry’s former sweetheart, Ann Deever, we believe she opposes the match because accepting the relationship would mean accepting the death of her son.  The Kellers may seem to be a close knit family, but we learn that the Deevers have been torn apart because Steve, the paterfamilias, is serving a prison sentence for the crime of allowing the faulty parts to be used in the planes.  Neither of his children has seen him since his imprisonment, and his wife has been considering divorcing him.  Until the end of the play the audience is not aware that the guilt is Joe’s, and not Steve’s.

On the day that the action unfolds, Anne’s brother George, after visiting his father in prison, arrives to confront Joe with the truth: Joe is responsible for the faulty parts, but he has lied and allowed Steve to take the blame.  Like all tragic heroes (the play adheres to the unities of time, place and action) Joe is responsible for his own downfall.  David Suchet visibly shrinks before our eyes when forced to confront the truth.  He may claim that he allowed the faulty components to be used because he was only thinking of his family, but when he has to accept that Larry suspected his father’s guilt and crashed his plane – revealed in a letter that he wrote to Ann on the day he died – it is all too much for him.  Larry hasn’t died because he was piloting a damaged plane, but because his father has been revealed for the man he truly is.  Kate, who has been aware of her husband’s guilt, is also forced to face up to the truth.  The acknowledgement that Joe has been responsible for the deaths of 21 pilots is too much for him to bear.  His offstage suicide could be construed as an honourable death, divine providence, or the act of a coward who cannot face the prospect of prison.  Not only has Joe destroyed himself, but he has taken his family down with him.  Life for the remaining Kellers will never be the same again.

Cheek by Jowl’s Macbeth

Published 09/04/2010 by damselwithadulcimer

Random thoughts on Cheek by Jowl’s current production of Macbeth

Before the play started I sat in my front row seat looking at a bleak space (not a stage because I was sharing the same level space on which the actors would appear).  There were no curtains and the only props were slatted wooden boxes of various heights that were placed at the sides of the playing space.  Waiting for the players to take the places, I watched swirls of dark mist eddying down into the bleak lighting (‘the dunnest smoke of hell’?).  Once the play commenced, the playing area wasn’t heavily illuminated and, as if to answer Macbeth’s incantatory  appeal to ‘Night’s black agents’,  the players were all dressed in black.
Darkness is associated with evil, but this production tends to be the evil of the mind.  Without props Macbeth’s imaginary daggers (and all the other weaponry in the play) remain just that.  The witches never appear, but their words are voiced by the two females of the company, Act 1 Scene 3 is cut from this production and Act 4 Scene 1 (the cauldron scene) is abridged and begins where Macbeth approaches the ‘secret, black, and midnight hags!’ for intelligence of the future.  There is no cauldron from which to conjure the apparitions, but it has already been hinted at when the cast form a ring to dance a celebratory highland reel at the Macbeth’s castle, and when the stools are placed in a circle for the banquet at which Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo

The imagery extends into mimetic and balletic demonstrations of the onstage murders.  Although Duncan is murdered off stage (as is customary) Banquo mimes his own death, as do Lady Macduff (who appears to be raped first) and her son.  The culmination is when Macduff  ‘murders’ Macbeth.  These actions are all carried out realistically, especially when the men appear to draw swords from behind their backs and their victims fall to the floor as they grasp at life.  There is no human contact during these simulated killings.

In a production that, strangely, sees a blind Duncan wearing dark glasses, we are reminded that ‘There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face’ – but then again this is one of the excised lines of the play.

To my mind it was a highly stylised production, far removed from the recent Rupert Goold production, starring Patrick Stewart as the murderous, ambitious thane.  The earlier visualisation was probably more horrific in its presentations of murder, but this is a more psychological interpretation, one in which the dead return to the stage, and in which the Macbeths still remain close and tactile, even after he has taken the initiative that she has encouraged.