The Winter’s Tale. Cheek by Jowl. Live relay from Silk Street Theatre, London. 19-04-17

Eleanor McLoughlin as Perdita. Production photograph by Johan Persson.

A Cheek by Jowl production is always full on and very theatrical, the company thrives on ideas and effects which can only be done in a live setting, using physical theatre and always prepared to take chances. Their production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale which was live streamed from Silk Street Theatre in London was no exception. I had some reservations- that almost always comes alongside risk taking- but overall it was an exciting and vibrant account of the play which resolved itself beautifully into harmony and forgiveness at the end.

There was no problem with Leontes sudden irrational jealousy in the opening scenes as it was made very clear by both the staging and by Orlando James fine performance that Leontes is suffering an episode of mental illness of some kind. He creates his wife’s infidelity in his own head and this is symbolised by having him create pictures of what he imagines by moving the bodies of Hermione and Polixenes into the compromising positions which he describes. It is a very effective device and Orlando James has extraordinary technical control as he does it while acting at a full pitch of emotion. His son Mamillius also has behaviour problems and Hermione’s quiet attempts to calm both of them- something that is obviously part of daily life in their household- are very telling. It really works, making sense of the difficult opening scenes and drawing us into a family that has been ready to implode for a long time. The first half zips along as we watch that implosion take place. Natalie Radmall- Quirke’s Hermione was especially strong and moving in the trial scene. It’s a gift of a scene for any actress and she made the most of it.

In the second half we were given a more decadent and wilful Bohemia than is usual. You could easily see why Florizel’s father was worried about his son leaving court to spend time there. There was danger, violence and licence at the sheep shearing celebration, these were not just well meaning homely peasants enjoying the simple life. There is always a dangerous side to Autolycus- the picker up of other people’s trifles- but in this production it spills over into brutality. While I liked Ryan Donaldson’s performance I wasn’t sure about that decision. I missed that open hearted freedom of Bohemia which is such a relief after the grey, irrational, claustrophobic court. Thankfully there was a wonderful Perdita, Eleanor McLoughlin, who had a strong, calm presence, absolutely believable as the daughter of Hermione.

The final scene where things are resolved and Hermione’s statue comes to life after all Leonte’s hope has gone and he has learned his lesson after long years of pain have passed was as magical as you could wish it to be. It was simply staged by candlelight, which is all it needs, and the reactions of all the company were true and heartfelt. The calm after the storm.

Declan Donnelan’s direction- particularly in those opening scenes- is masterly. It is always clear what he is aiming for and it never gets in the way of the performances. Cheek by Jowl has a long tradition of getting excellent young actors to work with them and it is easy to see why they would be attracted to the company. Nick Ormerod’s design is stark and simple, three raised wooden stage areas with wooden slatted drop down fronts behind an empty space. They are flexible enough to allow a variety of effects but there is nothing that isn’t needed- Edward Gordon Craig would have been proud. I have never seen the exit pursued by a bear done better.

It was a great treat to be given the chance to see the production by live relay without paying a penny. As ever I wish I could have been there but you can’t have everything.

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Hamlet. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough.

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Alan Mahon as Hamlet. Production image by Mark Douet.

Any production of Hamlet where Polonius stands two feet away from my front row seat in the round at the Stephen Joseph and speaks one of the most famous lines in the play directly to me- “though this be madness yet there’s method in’t”- gets my vote. This production by the Tobacco Factory theatre company works a treat- it was a very good place for the young people who were lined up along the back row to start. It is clear, fast and well edited and it zipped along in the small space like a thriller. The company know how to use the round to full effect and it showed.

Alan Mahon has had very good reviews for his performance in the title role and I am happy to add to them. He reminded me that Hamlet is young, naive and untried- the actor is only 23 himself and it is unusual and refreshing to see someone so young in the part. By chance I had just watched two great Hamlets, Simon Russell-Beale and Adrian Lester, talking about playing the part and they had agreed that Hamlet was naive. I hadn’t thought about this properly before and then the very next day along came a Hamlet who showed me exactly what they meant. More than ever the death of this particular sweet prince was the loss of someone with potential, someone who might have done great things. He is clever but he has been too busy studying rather than developing social skills. He doesn’t really understand about the unpleasant realities of the world until they kick him the face and he is forced to face up to them- a steep learning curve that he first tries to avoid and ultimately doesn’t survive. Alan Mahon also worked on the cuts made with the director, Andrew Hilton, so some of that fast moving thriller quality that I saw is partly down to him. I am glad that he was given his chance. To see the soliloquies spoken by Hamlet alone in the centre of a small space was very moving. Some of the quiet, thoughtful qualities that can be there in Hamlet were not so evident but that was not what was being played so I didn’t mind. Every Hamlet is different- especially the really good ones- and that’s what keeps you coming back.

There was good support from the rest of the cast too. I particularly liked Laertes- I always do- Callum McIntyre was suitably dynamic and good looking and the sword fight at the end was terrific. Isabella Marshall was a heartfelt and gentle Ophelia and I enjoyed the fatherly qualities that Alan Coveney brought to his Horatio, who was older than usual. I felt that there can be more to Claudius and Gertrude than we were shown by Paul Currier and Julia Hills but I am not complaining about anyone in the cast. The speed of the production and the cuts perhaps made it harder for the characters who surround Hamlet to make their mark. There are always gains and losses in any approach.

I don’t often praise directors- unless it is to say that I am glad that they have not done too much- but I was full of admiration for the detailed work that Andrew Hilton has done to make this production so clearly told and speedy and give us the Hamlet that he and Alan Mahon wanted. The whole show was almost entirely without props or furniture and it ran like clockwork. I also had the pleasure of a close up view of some very beautiful Elizabethan costumes designed by Max Johns- a more unusual sight in a production of Hamlet than you might think. I was very happy.

The Merry Wives. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough. 28-04-16

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Becky Hindley and Nicola Sanderson as Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. Production photo by Nobby Clark.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is not a great play. There is an early tradition that another Falstaff play was requested from Shakespeare by Elizabeth I, who loved the character, as did most of her subjects. The company would have also been very happy to have another money spinner of a play with one of the most popular characters he ever wrote making another appearance. We can’t know for sure whether this is true but it certainly feels like Shakespeare was writing to order rather than from the heart. The Falstaff in the Henrys is a much darker, more rounded character than the one in Merry Wives and while a lot of the other names are familiar, Bardolph, Pistol, Nym, Mistress Quickly and Justice Shallow, they are not fleshed out and made real. If you have seen Henry IV parts one and two you can’t help but feel short changed. Merry Wives is a light hearted romp, probably swiftly written to order, and the best parts are the new characters, especially Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, who have a wonderful time running rings round the men while keeping their dignity and pointing out a few home truths. I am pretty sure that Elizabeth would have liked them very much. There is no harm done, just a few pretensions made fun of and a few egos punctured. It’s all good fun and nobody takes anything too much to heart- not even Falstaff who is the butt of most of the jokes.

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Barrie Rutter as Falstaff. Production photo by Nobby Clark.

Nevertheless I was glad to see the play again as it isn’t often done. I enjoyed it twenty three years ago when Northern Broadsides performed it outdoors in Valley Gardens, Saltburn. It was only their second production and they have come a long way since. The new production takes a while to get off the ground- the play’s fault rather than the company’s I think- but once it does it is well paced and there is a lot of laughter and some nice set piece moments which probably work now in exactly the same way that they did for it’s first audiences. I shall remember the fat woman of Ilkley running for her life for a long time. With apologies to Barrie Rutter, who is a natural Falstaff and the backbone of the production as actor and director, I have to say that my two stars were Becky Hindley as Mistress Ford and Nicola Sanderson as Mistress Page. They work beautifully together and they are a real pleasure to watch. You understand exactly what they are thinking and get behind them, willing them to succeed. I also liked Andy Cryer very much as Ciaus. He gave an over the top, full blooded performance which did a lot to help the play along- especially in the first half. It was all great fun and there is not enough of that in the world.

The Winter’s Tale. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough. 22-10-15

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Mike Hugo as Autolycus. Photograph by Nobby Clark.

There was a lot to enjoy in Northern Broadsides new production of The Winter’s Tale. The first half of the play is cold and dark as a tragedy starts to unfold and then opens out into something quite different as Shakespeare allows what will be a happy ending to come out of nowhere. We never quite know how sunlight and forgiveness is allowed In, but the moment when Leonte’s folly and anger is repented of and then wiped away, by the sight of a statue which lives and breathes, bringing him what he most longs for is one of the most moving moments in all his work. It is a play which moves between low comedy and delicate beauty and it is not easy to get right.

Nowhere is this more true than in the character of Leontes. Sudden irrational jealousy directed at his good and faithful wife, Hermione, which comes on him out of nowhere has to be made sense of and a deeply unlikeable man has to gain our sympathy and earn his second chance for the ending to work properly. Conrad Nelson does a fine job, never overplaying the anger and jealousy- there is no need as it is all in the violent unpleasant language which Shakespeare gives him- and returning to us in the latter part of the play as a broken and contrite man, full of self knowledge, who is unable to forgive himself. He is helped by his own direction and two really good performances from Hannah Barrie and Jack Lord as Hermione and Polixenes. Polixenes, the visiting king of Bohemia,is a real charmer and Hermione- who is marooned in a grey austere court with a husband who is a difficult man- is glad of the chance for some warmth and fun. Leontes has real cause to worry, whether it has come to anything yet or not. Seeing Polixenes provide his wife with that warmth that he can’t give her tips him over the edge. He will listen to nobody, and the playing out of the consequences of his outraged retaliation towards his baby daughter and his wife, and the death of his young son, make for a grim first half. Only the mercy of Camillo, in a lovely performance by Andy Cryer, allows a thread of hope for the plot to hang on in the second half.

When we arrive in Bohemia sixteen years later things brighten up. Leonte’s daughter Perdita, a charming performance from Vanessa Schofield, is now a kind, lovely young woman, happy and in love, living in a rural idyll. There is dancing, laughter and knockabout humour and a terrific performance from Mike Hugo as the trickster Autolycus. He has a great rapport with the audience which always works very well in the round and he introduces himself with the best parody of a cut price Bob Dylan that you could ever hope to hear. There are obstacles to face before happy endings can be found for everybody but Mamillius the poor dead son, but finally, magically, they are swept away. The last scene is beautifully and simply done with handbells and candles for atmosphere and once again the play has worked its magic. Judged by their own very high standards, in recent years particularly, I didn’t feel this was Northern Broadsides at their absolute best but, as we say up north, they will do for me!

Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 11-06-15

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Daisy Whalley as Juliet and Jack Wharrier as Paris. Production photograph by Toby Farrow.

Romeo and Juliet is not my favourite Shakespeare play. The first half is great- a fast paced, exciting portrait of a society which is deeply fractured and dysfunctional- but in the second half the writing loses momentum and becomes just a bit self indulgent. Having said that there is a lot that can be done with it so that even someone like me leaves the theatre both moved and shaken. The Tobacco Factory production comes as close to reconciling the two halves of the play as I have seen.

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Oliver Hoare as Mercutio. Production photograph by Toby Farrow.

There are some excellent performances. Romeo (Paapa Essiedu) and Juliet (Daisy Whalley) are young, naïve and urgent, just as they should be. I liked the way that the Capulet’s marriage was laid bare in just a few pointed moments along the way by Fiona Sheehan and Timothy Knightly. The older members of this society have a lot to answer for, they are the carefully hidden and varnished reason why their young people are running amok and this is clearly shown. Nothing they do or say is quite real. Their souls have been sold a long time ago in favour of pleasure and shallow self indulgence. Those few decent minded young people, like Benvolio and Paris (who might well have made Juliet very happy if she had never seen Romeo) are on a hiding to nothing. Benvolio is a nice part- I usually end up falling for him just a little bit and I did it again. It was good to be close enough to see every detail of Callum McIntyre’s performance. I think he will have a good career ahead of him. I would have liked a stronger Tybalt and clearer verse speaking from time to time and I’m not sure that I was entirely happy with what the production did with the nurse as a character (as distinct from the performance) but all the acting was honest and heartfelt. There were two performances which I absolutely loved, Oliver Hoare as Mercutio and Paul Currier as Friar Laurence. Mercutio is a fascinating character- a potentially dangerous lost soul- and that kind of presence is a very difficult thing for an actor to pull off. I believed in him absolutely and in his relationship with Benvolio particularly- someone who knows him all too well. It was also a very fine stage death made real at close quarters. Paul Currier was as good a Friar Laurence as I ever hope to see, a liberal, well meaning priest who may well have had a murky past. His pain and guilt in the final scene were electrifying to watch and lifted the end of the play. Someone needs to care as the older generation are almost certainly going to paper over the cracks again whatever platitudes they may come out with and he did.

The direction by Andrew Hilton is fast paced. The fights and the violence are really convincing- even in a small space where there is an audience on all sides and nowhere to hide. The costumes are very strong- Fiona Sheehan in particular had some wonderful clothes to wear- and with little set to look at and gain information from this really mattered. The stage design worked beautifully in the small space of the Stephen Joseph, a simple working Merry Go Round which could be taken apart to provide weapons and have a shiny surface revealed underfoot for the Capulet’s decadent masked ball. I love that kind of clever, minimal design that gives you nothing unnecessary and makes every aspect earn its keep.

This was a very clearly thought out account of the play with some strong performances. I always enjoy the Tobacco Factory’s visits to Scarborough. They are one of the best small scale Shakespeare companies in the country and we are lucky to see them so far from their home.

King Lear. Northern Broadsides at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 23-04-15

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Barrie Rutter as Lear and Catherine Kinsella as Cordelia. Production photograph by Nobby Clark.

King Lear is an astonishingly flexible play. It can be a great national tragedy set in a society which is deeply flawed or it can be an intimate family tragedy played out in a small space. It works to enormous effect either way when done well. It is the bleakest of the tragedies and while there is hope at the end you have to look pretty hard to find it. I had seen it played out on a grand stage in the National Theatre’s recent production so I was looking forward to seeing Northern Broadside’s production in our small local theatre. They are always very much at home in Scarborough and there was a full house waiting for them along with me.

It is obviously a very good idea to put Barrie Rutter, as Lear and the director Jonathan Miller in a rehearsal room together. His performance begins by being very familiar to those of us who know his strengths but by the final scene he has found an openness and a vulnerability which is not his natural territory and it was deeply impressive and moving to watch. Catherine Kinsella is also very moving as Cordelia. She is simply honest and good and her obvious worth points up the irrational, capricious nature of Lear’s decision, a terrible misjudgment which sets the plot in motion. You can see what she is thinking even when she is silent and I can give no greater compliment to any actor than that. I was also very impressed by Nicola Sanderson’s Regan. She had a very northern face, bitter and self satisfied, and I am haunted by her expressions as she stood centre stage watching the blinding of Gloucester taking place off stage down one of the voms. It takes a pretty special performance to carry that off and make you believe it is actually happening. Jos Vantyler gives a scene stealer of a performance as Oswald, up front but perfectly controlled, making a real person of someone who could easily be just a cypher. and Andrew Vincent made a fine Kent, full of natural dignity. The whole cast was, quite simply, without a weak link.

You can never have everything in a production of a Shakespearean tragedy and there are always gains and losses however you approach it, that’s what makes it worthwhile coming back again and again. I am not sure, for reasons that I don’t think were anything to do with Finetime Fontayne’s performance, which was stylish and precise, that this production managed to completely show the relationship between Lear and his fool. There has clearly been some very perceptive direction in the production as a whole from Jonathan Miller but I would like to have asked him about that.

I have probably been luckier with Lear than any other Shakespeare play over the years and I have seen some great ones. This was a worthy addition to my list.

As a postscript I need to add that there was a long break in the second half due to a medical emergency in the audience and I really wish that I could have seen the production again before writing.

Titus Andronicus. A Visit to Shakespeare’s Globe. 13-07-14

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Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia and William Houston as Titus Andronicus. Production photograph by Nigel Norrington.

It took me a long time to get to see my first production at the Globe theatre on London’s South Bank. Since it first opened in 1997 and I am a regular theatregoer who loves Shakespeare this is is surprising- even though I live a long way from London. The final night of the 2014 revival of Lucy Bailey’s acclaimed production of Titus Andronicus was a good place to start. Red roses were thrown at the curtain call and there was an end of term feeling in the air. There were some fine performances in the grand style, particularly from Indira Varma as Tamora, Obi Abili as Aaron and William Houston as Titus. The production had gathered a lot of publicity from the fact that over 100 audience members had fainted, unable to cope with the violence. There are graphic murders, severed hands and a chopped off tongue. It was a full on production, unafraid of the link between this extreme violence and black comedy- one which took risks. Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia had to carry the brunt of this and the numbers keeling over or being led out were a real tribute to a convincing and heartfelt performance. The audience were fully involved throughout as actors moved among them, were pushed through the crowd on high towers or spoke directly to them and their response was both visible and immediate. Their attention had to be earned and sustained by the hard work of the actors. It was played, as it would have been originally, in daylight and there was no way of avoiding the fact, as is sometimes said, that they were fifty per cent of the show.

The Globe seats 857 with an additional 700 standing “groundlings”. This is about half the audience capacity of the original Globe, built in 1599. It lasted for only a short while before it burnt down on 29th June 1613. I was sitting up in one of the gentlemen’s rooms stage left with seven other people and it was still a surprisingly intimate experience given the size of the space. I was looking out over the standing area as well as the stage and the whole experience became one of watching the audience as well as that of watching the play. Normally this would be quite a damning comment on any production but it isn’t in this case. It is a comment on how a staging of this kind is a communal experience between actors and audience in a shared space. At one point a whole group left their seats to move down into the standing area and one of the cast asked them where they were going without it seeming in the least bit odd. I have no doubt at all that the original performances would have had the same fluidity and direct communication. It isn’t a choice made by the production- it is dictated by the space. I’m also sure that the original Titus audiences would have appreciated the black comedy, although I doubt that many of them would have fainted given that they were well used to seeing violence, both on the street and sanctioned by the state. They would possibly have been far more engaged with the action than some of today’s groundlings as even the standing room was expensive compared to the £5 tickets of today, which allow people to wander in for the price of a couple of mugs of coffee and wander out again when they have seen what it is like. Back then all strata of society went along to the plays and they went often.

Going to the Globe was a strange experience, a mixture of a very good production, people watching, and enjoying being a tiny part of tourist London. What I wouldn’t give to have an evening at the original Globe in the early 1600’s………… now that would be something.