Henry IV Part Two. RSC. live relay from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough.

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Jim Hooper, Antony Sher and Oliver Ford-Davies as Justice Silence, Falstaff and Justice Shallow. Production photograph by Tristram Kenton.

In Henry IV part one we have seen the excitement and tension of a rush towards civil war, in which a feckless prince faces up to his duty and proves himself to be a hero. It has a strong, single narrative drive and it races along, laced with a good deal of humour, towards a thrilling single combat between two bitter rivals, Hal and Hotspur. Henry IV part two is a much darker, more sombre play in which we see the consequences of that war, broken families, heartbreak, disillusionment and a country in crisis. There is humour still, but it is melancholy and wistful. It contains some of the best scenes that Shakespeare ever wrote and sets the political against the nakedly personal in a way that allows them to shed light on each other. Ideally the two should be seen together and usually they are.

After enjoying his performance in part one I was looking forward to seeing Jasper Britton play one of my favourite scenes in all Shakespeare, Henry IV’s blistering attack on Hal, and he didn’t let me down. It was a heartfelt, visceral performance. I just wish that he had been given a Hal with a bit more fire to play against. It is both a key moment for the nation and a portrait of every father and son who were ever disappointed in each other and it takes two.

Antony Sher and Paola Dionisotti make the most of their opportunities to develop their characters in part two. Sher is a fine Falstaff who plays the cynicism of the character particularly well. Paola Dionisotti is a great Mistress Quickly, funny and poignant, and she makes the most of the greater opportunities for the character that she is given later in the plays.

Antony Byrne put in the necessary barnstorming comic performance as Pistol but I wasn’t convinced that he was also dangerous and I think that you need to be.

In the Gloucestershire scenes Shakespeare is on home ground, writing about a setting that he knows well. There is a lot of pathos and some broad comedy for the actors to relish and they are beautifully done in this production. Oliver Ford-Davies is both funny and touching as Justice Shallow, bringing all his experience to bear, and together with Jim Hooper’s marvelous Justice Silence, he provides an object lesson in perfect theatrical timing and truthfulness. Just the kind of acting I relish.

A lovely production with a lot to enjoy. There were a few weaknesses too, for me, but the strengths more than made up for them and I am left looking forward to the next time.

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Henry IV Part One. Screening from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

 

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Antony Sher as Falstaff. Production photograph by Tristram Kenton.

Henry IV part one is a wonderful play, moving from the personal to the political and showing us a snapshot of England both at court and in the lively teeming streets of Eastcheap. Along with its second part it brings us as close as we are ever likely to get to the England of the time. We can understand it perfectly as so little of what matters has changed. Look around you and you will find the descendants of Hal, Bardolph, Mistress Quickly and the rest. The scope of the play, both socially and emotionally, is fascinating. The history plays were Shakespeare’s most popular works among his contemporary audiences. By the time he wrote Henry IV parts one and two he was an experienced writer who knew exactly what his audiences wanted and how to give them it. We see a national crisis- an inevitable civil war brewing- and a family crisis when a charming, feckless royal son is forced to face up to his duty and destiny and become the great hero that Shakespeare’s audiences knew him to be. Add in a cracking sword fight to end a bitter rivalry and Falstaff, the greatest lovable rogue who has ever walked a stage and there really isn’t a lot more that you can want.

There is a lot to admire about the RSC’s 2014 production. Antony Sher’s Falstaff is a delight. The character was a huge hit right from the start and all of the charm, love of life, selfishness and cynicism which people responded to back then is still irresistible in his performance. I have been lucky enough to see some great Falstaff’s and Antony Sher’s certainly joins the list. It may be a gift of a part but it still needs someone worthy of it to play it. I particularly liked the way that Falstaff’s aristocratic background (he is a Sir) was obvious in the timbre of his voice and his bearing. The necessary rapport with the audience was there and I regretted the fact that I wasn’t there in person to make the most of that aspect. I was completely bowled over by Trevor White’s performance as Hotspur. This is an easy part to shout your way through without much thought but there was real conviction behind every word he spoke and a compelling stage presence. When we saw him alongside his wife, Lady Percy, a lovely performance from Jennifer Kirby, it was also clear to see how their marriage managed to work in spite of everything and this is a difficult thing to get across. He may be a nightmare of a husband but there is a lot more to it than that. Finally, along with Alex Hassell as Hal, he gave us a terrific climax of a sword fight. Jasper Britton had great conviction as Henry IV and I am really looking forward to seeing him in part two. The Eastcheap scenes in the Boar’s Head were very well done, although it is hard to conjure up the tavern atmosphere on a large stage, and I enjoyed Paula Dionisotti’s performance as Mistress Quickly very much. She looked wonderful and I felt as though I understood her perfectly. It was a thoughtful, detailed and very natural performance. Joshua Richards was perfect as Bardolph- his nose and his comic timing were both something to wonder at. I wasn’t quite so sure about the comedy aspect when it came to Alex Hassell as Hal. He certainly looked the part of the young dynamic hero and I don’t want to suggest that he was in any way lacking, but I’m not sure that performance came from the heart in quite the same way. Hal is a character that I fell in love with from the moment I first saw him on stage so maybe I am just very hard to please. I wasn’t sure about the bromance aspect with Poins, much as I found Sam Marks charming as an actor, so that may have influenced me too.

All in all this was a great treat and I still have some of my favourite scenes to come in part two later this month.

Shakespeare. Staging the World. British Museum. 06-09-12

Shakespeare writes with great perception about human relationships and explores ideas which are still relevant and universal, and this makes it very easy to forget what a different world he lived in. The exhibition, Shakespeare, Staging the World, at the British Museum sets out to put him in context and reminds us of a genius that is all the more remarkable, given the society which nurtured it. It shows us objects and ephemera from the time and relates them to the plays, bringing to life things that we only hear about, alongside beautifully produced extracts from the plays by some of our leading actors. Harriet Walter storms her way through Cleopatra’s death speech and I watched person after person who was idly looking into a display cabinet being gripped instead by Anthony Sher’s rendition of “hath not a jew eyes?” It was mesmerising.

I was in there for two and a half hours and the time flashed by.

When you stand in front of a piece of paper which is browned with age and covered with tiny, elegant, flowing script, perfectly placed on the page, and read that it is the only (the only!) surviving example of a working manuscript in Shakespeare’s own hand it really does take your breath away.

It was a violent world, where cruelty was part of the fabric of life, an everyday occurrence, whether you were a brown bear whose teeth had been filed down and made to face a pack of violent dogs in full cry over and over again to provide “plasant sport”- these bears were well known and even had names- or an alleged gunpowder plotter who was hung, drawn quartered and boiled in public. Well, mostly boiled. There is one of Edward Oldcorn’s eyes still there to amaze us which was “illegally gathered” at the scene and placed in a silver case with a glass window by a catholic sympathiser so that it could continue to look out at the world. It makes you wonder how they managed to get it………….

There were beautiful objects available to buy for those with money. Venice is celebrated by a wonderful glass ewer, pale and cloudy with swirling spinning patterns running through it. No wonder Venice- and in particular its glass making, was one of the wonders of Europe. A woman’s jacket covered with fruit, vegetables and flowers embroidered with professional skill gives you a glimpse of just how colourful and flamboyant dress could be in a world full of dull brown, green earthy colours. The gold thread and new silk must have been astonishingly bright when it was first made. There is the chance to see the Dunstable swan Jewel, Henry IV’s emblem, a tiny white swan with a gold beak and a gold crown round its neck on a delicate chain.

Sometimes things were kept as curiosities, many objects were being brought back from the far corners of the world and seen for the first time. It was a time of new beginnings and new experiences. A massive narwhal tusk, twisting upwards inside a specially made painted wooden display case, makes you understand why it didn’t seem at all strange to believe in unicorns. Four studies of a marmoset by an unknown German artist are as much little men as monkeys, expressive and human. There are three crystal charm stones which were used for “scarning” (making holy water) which are both beautifully set in precious metal and worth looking at for themselves but also a reminder of how ubiquitous and strange the religious beliefs of the time were.

It is hard to believe that you are actually looking at the very saddle which was described in 1682 as the one Henry V sat on during the wars in France. It was certainly part of his funeral achievements and has been displayed in Westminster abbey ever since that day. Seeing that and hearing one of the great speeches given to Henry by Shakespeare being spoken at the same time is quite something.

There are some wonderful portraits to be admired. Probably the highlight for me was the chance to see Quentin Metsys sieve portrait of Elizabeth I for the first time outside of a book. It is an allegory of virginity, Elizabeth is holding a sieve to recall the roman goddess Tuccia who proclaimed her virginity by carrying water in a sieve. It is the expression on Elizabeth’s face, solemn and still and just a little world weary, which lifts it beyond allegory. She is wearing a rich but restrained black dress and I have a feeling that she is sitting there thinking of time, hard earned wisdom and mortality rather than roman goddesses carrying magic sieves. Metsys has given us far more than was intended. He has reached the woman behind the image in a way that few others were able to do.

One of my favourite paintings has been borrowed from the National Portrait Gallery. Sir Henry Unton’s biographical portrait celebrates his life and shows his birth, work, study, pleasures and travels in a single image. It is touching and almost childlike. There is a fine portrait too of James 1, clearly an intelligent but troubled man who had a lot on his plate and doesn’t look quite happy in his own skin. I was also glad to see the haunting portrait of Richard II from Westminster Abbey again, otherworldly, strange and fey.

Ordinary folk, whose faces are forgotten now, are remembered by an oversized wooden spade and a ceramic watering can which must have been heavy to use.

The exhibition opens with a copy of the first folio, the beginning of Shakespeare’s fame after his death, and ends by reminding us that his genius is for all time by showing Sonny Venkastrathnam’s “Robben Island Bible” open at the page where Nelson Mandela has marked a speech from Act 2 Scene 2 of Julius Caesar as his favourite quote.

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”

Shakespeare was writing for his own time, describing his own world, but he is also for all time. He didn’t just stage his own world, he is still staging ours.

Travelling Light. National Theatre. Leeds Grand Theatre. 24-03-12

Damien Molony as Motl Mendl and Lauren O’Neill as Anna Mazowiecka. Production photograph by Johan Persson.

Nicholas Wright’s new play Travelling Light takes us back to the Jewish origins of early American cinema and into the heart of a small shtetl community. It is about the birth of storytelling in cinema- the moment when people moved beyond simply amazing people by showing them footage of themselves and their neighbours and realised that they themselves could make things happen on screen. It was a revelation which led to an explosion of creativity and a new obsession for the waiting audiences and it changed the lives of those who were the pioneers of the new industry. It is a tremendous subject.

Antony Sher as Jacob Bindl and Damien Molony as Motl Mendl. Production photo by Johann Persson.

Like many of the original Jewish cinema pioneers and moguls Motl Mendl, (Damien Molony) the young hero of Travelling Light, is restless and dynamic and he has ideas which are far too big for him to be able to stay close to his roots. He needs money to fulfil his ambitions which Jacob Bindl (Antony Sher) a wealthy timber merchant, is able to provide on condition that he stays at home. To the bafflement and admiration of his small community he uses the money to start to tell their stories on screen, using his neighbours as actors and the shtetl as a setting. The whole community becomes involved, too involved, and his creativity becomes compromised. Jacob wants to direct and he also wants the woman who is at the centre of Motl’s life and creativity. The situation is never going to be resolved without great cost and sacrifice.

Damien Molony as Motl Mendl and Lauren O’Neill as Anna Mazowiecka. Production photo by Johan Persson.

The production is beautiful to look at. Bob Crowley’s design gives us a realistic Shtetl community and Bruno Poet’s lighting design is atmospheric and haunting. A giant screen across the back allows us to see film extracts which can be both touching and funny. The supporting cast do an excellent job of peopling the Shtetl with warmth and humour, and make a believable community. Lauren O’Neil has a nice dignified presence as Anna, Motl’s love, and Antony Sher is a wonderful actor who has no difficulty whatsoever in giving us Jacob, with all his warmth, enthusiasm and irritating contradictions and interferences. The stand out performance, however, comes from Damien Molony as Motl. The part needs a young actor who is dynamic and full of conviction as the play relies on the audience buying into his passion for cinema and willing him to succeed, and it has found one. This is only Damien Molony’s second stage role, after a stunning stage debut as Giovanni in Tis Pity She’s a Whore at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and he is a joy to watch. He is able to play strong emotion with great economy and truth and that is a real gift.

There is a lot to admire about this production then, and a lot that is interesting and engaging. My only sadness comes from the fact that some of Nicholas Wright’s writing doesn’t quite match up to the quality of the production which it is given by Nicholas Hytner as director, and his company. The ending is a little rushed, with too much information given rather too suddenly, and the device of having an older Motl looking back at his early life isn’t quite made to work well enough. It is not bad writing- I would hate anyone to think that- but I feel quite strongly that this story had the potential to be a great play rather than a good one which was helped along by a talented cast, a clever production and a beautiful stage design and that is a shame.

The Tempest. Baxter theatre company/RSC at Leeds Grand Theatre. 2-4-09

Production still by Alastair Muir.

I walked in to find myself in the middle of a matinee audience packed out with high school students. The noise was quite something and the atmosphere was excited and unsettled. Not good. I knew enough about the production to realise that there was hope so I wasn’t too worried and the production proved me right. It was clearly told, well spoken, fast paced and visually stunning and it held their attention, drawing cheers from some of them at the end. Good to think that a few of them will have been turned onto theatre for life as I was when I was taken down from school to see Macbeth (Helen Mirren and Nicol Williamson) and Richard II (Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson) at a similar age. I can put up with a few bottles of water being dropped and the odd urghh at a stage kiss when I think of that.
I loved Antony Sher’s Prospero. This is a favourite play of mine and I have never seen a Prospero where he was so clearly at the end of a long bitter struggle with himself in exile, only sustained by his love for his daughter Miranda. When he finally has his chance for revenge he has to make a difficult journey during the play and realise that he needs to both forgive his enemies and let go of both his bitterness and also allow his daughter to find happiness with Ferdinand away from him. The pain of this is obvious, but when he has done it he can lay down his powers and accept his mortality calmly and peacefully. As he says his every third thought will now be of death.

Production still by Alastair Muir.

It was a wonderful Caliban from John Kani. Most definitely a dignified and dispossessed man rather than a monster, the insults heaped on him became racist insults and his taking possession of his island again is the final image of the production and a very satisfying one too. Like Prospero he can now be at peace.
Ariel was strong and forceful- nothing airy or flighty about him at all and visually and vocally he was stunning. It was a great image when he was set free and Prospero washed off his painted markings with running water. Ariel is one of my favourite characters in all of Shakespeare and he did it justice.
The set was of thick twisted tree roots and branches reaching up to the top of the stage. Every bit of it was used beautifully and lit perfectly to change the mood and focus of a scene. The puppetry was visually stunning, perfectly executed, and set the play in an African context along with the dance and movement. It was exciting and fun to watch. The spirits/puppeteers also added a great deal during the play making the magic of Prospero and Ariel a constant watchful presence.
A perfect piece of storytelling then, clear as a bell, which swept you away and gave you plenty to wonder at and enjoy.