The Tempest. RSC at the Barbican theatre.

The Tempest 2017. Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

The Tempest is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays and I have seen it quite a few times over the years but never like the current RSC production which is gracing the stage of the Barbican theatre. I am going to start by talking about the set and production design- usually a bad sign but not this time. There are moments- whole scenes even- where I could hardly believe what I was seeing. In the hands of the designer Stephen Brimson Lewis and The Imaginarium Studios the island becomes a real character in a way that most productions can only hope for. Its noises, sounds and sweet airs become tangible, set amongst shimmering patterns of light and colour. Bravura spectacles are conjured out of thin air. I was able to watch a Prospero who really did seem to be able to do magic- a fact which made the ending all the more powerful as I had seen with my own eyes what he was giving up. It is the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen on a stage, filling the Barbican theatre with light, colour and illusion. From the moment that the huge ribs of the wooden ship which formed the set began to shake in a fierce sea, an effect created purely by a trick of the light, until Prospero’s perfectly judged, simply spoken, final speech standing in a small pool of white light, over one thousand people were held in the grip of the kind of experience that only live theatre can give you. As the applause started I looked across into the audience, surprised to remember that there were other people alongside me. All that spectacle had been stripped away, distilled down into a single figure on the stage, speaking gently to each one of us individually. If this isn’t the future of large scale theatre I’ll be astonished.

The Tempest. London Barbican 2017. Mark Quartley (centre) as Ariel and Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Of course the real wonder of the production lies in Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Prospero. It might have been tempting for an actor playing Prospero, set against that kind of spectacle, to overplay, feeling that they had to be somehow bigger, more commanding just to match up to it. Simon Russell Beale asserts himself quietly by using simple honesty and truth. He means every word that he says. He is the greatest Prospero that I have seen- and I saw Paul Schofield be wonderful in the part when I was a teenager. There is power- as in the electrifying moment when he screams in Ariel’s face, realising that Ariel has greater compassion than he can find in himself at that moment and his own magical power is not enough- but there is great gentleness and humanity too. His scenes with Miranda are tender and raw and his relationship with Ariel is both complex and heartbreaking. This is a play about mortality, a play about accepting your own limitations and those of others, a play about forgiving and letting go. It takes an actor with a big heart and great delicacy to stand at the centre of it and show us that.

The Tempest. London Barbican 2017 Mark Quartley as Ariel. Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Ariel is one of the most fascinating characters in Shakespeare and in this production he is placed centre stage both as a character and within the virtual reality. We see him trapped, we see him as a giant screaming harpie, we see him tease, we see him fly. He truly is a watchful, mercurial spirit, belonging everywhere and nowhere, who is both mysterious and strange, but alongside the virtuoso special effects we also need to see and feel a real presence who sulks, does his master’s bidding eagerly or reluctantly, and who longs for his freedom. This can only come from an actor who is physically present. Mark Quartley gives a fine performance which both acknowledges his alter ego and creates a strong, vibrant, yet ethereal presence on stage. It is typical of the attention to detail which is obvious throughout the production that when he is finally released from his bondage he runs out to freedom through the one exit which has not been used at all during the show. We have no idea where he is going.

Jenny Rainsford and Daniel Easton have some nice moments as Miranda and Ferdinand and the comedy is well played- especially when Trinculo hides with Caliban- but it does seem a little thin in comparison to the wonders surrounding it. Jonathan Broadbent is a loathsome and believable usurping brother who deserves all he gets. There is nobody in the cast who lets the side down. It is particularly good to see the masque performed as it is often cut and it is wonderfully sung and staged. The play makes much more sense with it there.

Special effects of any kind can be a mixed blessing. they can overwhelm and take the place of real feeling and humanity. It is a real tribute to the work of the cast, and to the director Greg Doran’s deep understanding of the play that this never happens here. There is a unity of vision which allows the verse to continue to dominate and have clarity.

Just a few times in my life I have seen a production which makes me feel privileged to be there. When the play is The Tempest, one of the first Shakespeare plays that I saw as a young girl, there is a definitive central performance and my favourite character is allowed to run riot among great beauty………. well it just doesn’t get much better than that.

King Lear. National Theatre. Live relay to the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough.

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Production photograph by Mark Douet.

The National Theatre’s current production of King Lear gives us a public tragedy, showing what happens when a once powerful totalitarian ruler who no longer has the strength in mind and body to maintain control of what was an authoritarian state comes to grief. The resonances from recent history are considerable. There is a private family tragedy here too, when the damage which has been done to the next generation cannot be undone, but for much of the play it is the public one, beautifully designed by Anthony Ward, which takes centre stage in the vast Olivier auditorium and fills it with great style. It is a convincing, well thought through reading of the play which brings with it both great gains and some losses.

Simon Russell Beale’s Lear is already losing his grip as the play begins. His division of his kingdom and his rejection of Cordelia is not an arbitrary whim. He has clung onto power for far too long, using fear as a weapon, as his kind of ruler often does and he leaves it in a way which is ill judged and sure to cause chaos for both himself and those around him. He has been used to constant flattery and instant obedience and his years of power have effectively been over for some time, ended by his fading physical and mental strength. We are given a perfect reminder of this in the great statue of the king in his pomp which Kent is shackled to after his quarrel with Oswald. He is not the man that he once was. Simon Russell Beale’s performance grows in stature as the play progresses. He is deeply moving in the later scenes of the play and his fear of the madness which he has suspected may be coming for a long time is heartbreaking. It is a fine performance.

Olivia Vinall makes a fine Cordelia. She has the great gift of being able to speak verse truthfully- everything that she says on stage is said clearly and with conviction. There is precious little goodness and hope in King Lear so what goodness there is becomes crucial and Stanley Townsend is a tower of moral strength as the Duke of Kent. It is a wonderful performance- the best performance of the part that I have seen. If only he had been listened to! The evil in the play was convincingly played and it was very clear where this evil had been nurtured. Gloucester, in some ways Lear’s alter ego, had a moment of cruelty towards Edmund. It was only a moment but it spoke volumes and showed you why his son had ended up as he was. Goneril and Regan had been forced to rein themselves in for too long and submit to their father. They had needed to deceive and flatter and use what resources they had to survive, in particular their sexuality. These were two deeply damaged women brought to life with disturbing clarity by Kate Fleetwood and Anna Maxwell Martin. I was particularly struck, for the first time, by the character of Goneril’s husband Albany in Richard Clothier’s performance. A decent man who has somehow managed to end up in the middle of a nightmare.

I said that there were some losses. For me the production didn’t really manage to make sense of the relationship between Lear and his fool. This was certainly not because of any lack in the performance, Adrian Scarborough is a terrific actor, but more about decisions which had been made within the context of the production. What Shakespeare had written just didn’t quite work for me within the world of the production and one thing which he hadn’t written should, for me, simply not have happened.

With that one important caveat I loved the direction from Sam Mendes. The Olivier is a grand space which needs a director’s vision and a strong overarching design and there were some stunning visual moments. Looming clouds and empty space for the storm scene, the great statue, backlit swathes of heath grass and a large supporting cast who provided the public backdrop of the play. For once we were actually able to see what Goneril and Regan found intolerable in the behaviour of their father’s followers. I will remember this Lear for Simon Russell Beale’s performance in the later scenes but also for the picture that it painted of a dystopian world which is spiralling out of control.

Henry IV Part Two. William Shakespeare. Part of the BBC series The Hollow Crown.

Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal. BBC image.

The second part of the BBC’s Henry IV is a real gem, building on everything that was established in the first part, developing the characters and allowing some powerful pay offs from the work that has been done in the early scenes, while also introducing new things to admire. If you are looking for any criticism I’m afraid that you are not going to find it here. Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff shows new facets of a complex man. He is very moving indeed in the scene where he takes his leave of Doll Tearsheet (played quite beautifully by Maxine Peake) and also, at times, deeply dislikeable. I would have liked more humour, but this part is a difficult trick to pull off for an actor and perhaps you can’t have everything. There are two particularly delightful supporting performances, from David Bamber as Justice Shallow (one of my favourite minor Shakespearean characters) and Geoffrey Palmer as the Lord Chief Justice. The scene where Shallow is looking back with Falstaff at the “days that we have seen” made me ache for their past and what they have lost, and it was good to see Geoffrey Palmer fleshing out the bones of a deeply dislikable, pragmatic politician. One look spoke volumes. Lovely work. I am also going to give a cheer for young Billy Matthews as Falstaff’s page. A very truthful and mature performance.

Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff. BBC image.

But my goodness what about Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal! The scene where Hal tries on the crown, thinking that his father will never wake again, and then has to face his dying fathers rage at what he has done, talking him round and gaining his trust, was simply outstanding. It is great writing, one of Shakespeare’s finest scenes, and he just took it and ran with it. There is nowhere to hide when you are being filmed in close up and we saw every thought. When he made his great speech to his father we already knew that he meant every word because we had seen it in his face as he tried on the crown. He had managed to make Hal’s thoughts visible. There is no doubt in my mind now that Jeremy Irons also gives the greatest performance of his career. The two of them strike sparks off each other. At the end of the play, when Hal disowns Falstaff, we see the results of this epithany. It is an action without spite. He knows what he has to do, and he knows that it has to be done publicly. It is the Lord Chief Justice who finishes the job with brutal efficiency on behalf of his new master. Hal has taken on the heavy duty and responsibility of a monarch and while he admits to his brothers that his new role doesn’t suit him as well as it may appear to do there is no doubt that we now have a hero who will fulfill it and make England proud.

The settings are quite beautiful, richly textured and atmospheric, and the whole thing is beautifully shot with some wonderful close ups that lead us into the heart of the characters. Evocative of a timeless England and a whole society which is still recognisable to us today. Great directing from Richard Eyre.

There is nothing quite like watching a great production on stage, being there and breathing the same air as the actors, but I am deeply grateful that this Henry IV is on film and on record for all time. It really deserves to be………. and if the RSC cast Tom Hiddleston in anything in the future (something they should just get on with ASAP) nothing on earth will stop me buying a ticket.

Henry IV Part I. William Shakespeare. Part of the BBC series The Hollow Crown.

Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff and Tom Hiddleston as Hal. BBC images.

The first time I saw Henry IV part one it was as part of the English Shakespeare Company’s complete history cycle during a remarkable week at the Theatre Royal Norwich back in the 1980’s. The week ended with a long standing ovation from an audience who had mostly been there all week, sitting in the same seats, and daffodils being thrown. I had never even read the play, although I knew a bit about it as a former English student, and I was pinned to my seat by a sequence of productions which is still what I think of as the finest experience that I have ever had inside a theatre. For the first week of my Easter holidays that year I lived for my trip to the theatre each evening. Those productions were brave, daring, innovative, controversial and absolutely true to the spirit of the plays and the Henrys, where the project started, were by far the best of them. They showed me my own England alongside that of Shakespeare’s, and I recognised it with both joy and pain. One day I shall write about that week in detail as my memories of it are still razor sharp around twenty five years later. Since then I have seen two more great stage productions, both from the RSC, and if I was forced to choose any single Shakespeare play as my favourite Henry IV part I would be it, along with part two. I am not alone in that. From their first performance they were instantly hugely popular with audiences who recognised themselves and their society in them. In particular they loved the quintessentially English character of Falstaff, flawed, charming, untrustworthy, wise and shameless, to distraction. The character of Prince Hal, his troubled relationship with his father, and his growth into a king of heroic stature is also a sure fire crowd pleaser and there is one humdinger of a sword fight at the end to allow the audience to cheer him on. What more could they, or we, want? It’s all there.

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV. BBC images.

The film of Henry IV part 1 which Richard Eyre has made as part of the BBC The Hollow Crown series is a fine piece of work. He has directed it with great flair, never allowing the pace to drop, ratcheting up the tension in the interior scenes, and bringing both the teeming life within the Boars Head and the claustrophobic court of Henry IV vividly to life. The battle scenes are beautifully shot in empty snow strewn winter fields and both close ups and internalised soliloquies are used to great effect. I particularly liked Falstaff’s speech about honour, heard in voice over as we watch him walk silently through the camp before battle. It is a very clear, well thought out reading of the play and there are some excellent performances, and no weak links. Ton Hiddleston is perfect as Hal, even allowing for the fact that Hal is a very easy character to fall in love with, dynamic, articulate and oozing presence. Right from the start there is no doubt at all that he is one day going to step up and become the hero that his father needs him to be but not now, and not yet. He is making hay while the sun shines. His purpose is absolute and he is aware of the cost there will one day be to him when he fulfills it. When his moment comes he recognises it immediately and it is thrilling to see him come together with his father and accept his destiny. We see both the man and the future king and that was as beguiling for Elizabethan audiences as it is today for those who read hello magazine, find pictures of William and Kate, and wonder about their home life. It’s real box office- always was and always will be. I was thrilled to see Jeremy Irons give a full hearted and honest performance as Henry IV. I don’t think I have ever seen him act so well, there was no relying on style or looks, just a complete understanding of the man he was playing, both as a father and as a king. Simon Russell Beale gives Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most difficult and complex characters, a good run for his money. He is everything that the part needs, while perhaps missing a little of the unlikely charm that leavens the character’s unsympathetic qualities, and his scenes in the Boars Head are very fine indeed. I really felt for Hotspur’s wife, a role in life which you certainly wouldn’t volunteer for. Joe Armstrong gives a pile driver of a performance. I’m not even sure whether that is a criticism or not, Hotspur is not exactly meant to be a shrinking violet, but I could have done with a bit of light and shade if it could possibly have been found. These central performances are given context by a wealth of detail from the actors playing the smaller roles. I liked Maxine Peake for instance as Doll Tearsheet and Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy. Two small, underwritten parts where the actor has to do a lot of work to make them live, especially important when there are few women characters in the play.
This film is a great achievement, especially as Shakespeare doesn’t naturally belong on film, and I am already excited about seeing the second part.

The Half. Photography by Simon Annand. Scarborough Art Gallery. 12-05-11

For anyone who has been going to the theatre regularly for the last thirty odd years as I have this exhibition is completely enchanting. Simon Annand has had the privilege of being allowed to photograph actors at close quarters during the half as they prepare to go on stage for roughly the same period of time as I have been sitting in audiences and he has made the most of it. It is a highly charged time, full of nervous anticipation, a great subject, and he has produced a dramatic, intimate and varied collection of images which take us into another world, a world between real life and make believe. It brought back great memories for me of both productions which I have seen and productions which I wish I had seen.

There are some lovely contrasts to enjoy. There are two Miss Adelaides from Guys and Dolls, Jane Krakowski at the Piccadilly in 2005, a beautifully lit thoughtful introspective study of concentration, and Imelda Staunton at the National Theatre in 1982, looking straight into the camera and posing gleefully in full costume on her way to the stage. Two pantomime performers are also portrayed very differently. A moving, timeless image of  a melancholy introspective Spike Milligan sitting staring into space preparing to go on as Spike the Stupid in Babes in the Wood at Chichester Festival Theatre in 1985 is set against a lovely image of Roger Lloyd Pack in full dame make up and padding, just lacking a frock. He is clearly preparing to go out and have a blast on stage in Dick Whittington at the Barbican in 2006, grinning happily and striking a pose with his hand on his hip. There are two Hamlets, Simon Russell Beale at the National in 2006, all nervous agitation seen through his dressing room window from a distance, and Ben Whishaw at the Old Vic in 2009, hair over his eye and flirting outrageously with the camera.

Some of the images are much more sombre. Nobody could ever describe preparing to go on in Rockaby, Samuel Beckett’s short but quite terrifying one woman play as preparing to have a blast and Billie Whitelaw’s portrait seen through her dressing room mirror at the Riverside studios in 1989 is a stark image of mortality. Her pale ghostly face is matched by what looks almost like a death mask next to her- the photograph of her face fully made up that she is using as a guide. Max Wall is preparing for another Beckett one man play, Krapp’s Last Tape, a huge challenge, and he is deadly serious and alone with his thoughts, already a world away.

It is sometimes easy to guess which actors enjoyed the moments of company and attention and which of them would probably rather have been left alone. Sarah Kestleman smokes a fag and grins knowingly at the camera before going on in Bussy D’Amboise at the Old Vic in 1987, while Alison Steadman looks up balefully from her script, interrupted in her preparations for Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Arts theatre in 2001. There is a lovely sequence of images of Jane Birkin, who is wonderfully expressive, captured as she talks and gesticulates clad in a simple white vest.

Sometimes the performance is already fully there and ready to hit the stage and sometimes it isn’t. Helen Mirren’s portrait taken as she strides down a corridor on her way to the stage at the National is most definitely of Phedre rather than the actress, while Daniel Radcliffe is still very much himself as he sits on the shelf in front of his dressing room mirror before a performance of Equus in 2009, still in his day clothes, with the beginnings of a soft fluffy beard and moustache shadowing his face. It is a touching portrait of a boy becoming a man, and it mirrors the enormous challenge that he had set himself by choosing to play a high profile, challenging stage part after enormous film success. He made himself very vulnerable by making that choice and took a great risk and this is all there in the portrait.

Sometimes it is the details that are moving. Perhaps a frozen moment, as in the portrait of Michael Williams where he completes his transformation for Two Into One at the Shaftesbury in 1984 by putting on a bowler hat. Two Into One is a Ray Cooney farce, but there is only a quiet wariness visible as he confronts himself in the mirror, while his wife smiles out from the wedding photo sitting next to him.

If you love theatre make sure that you see this exhibition. Even f you don’t you will still relish the skill of a wonderful photographer who uses the light and mirrors of the dressing room cleverly to illuminate and frame his subjects. I am glad that it had a showing at the V&A in London before coming up north to Scarborough. It was richly deserved.

Major Barbara. NT. 2-4-08

Simon Russell Beale is one of the actors that I would pay to see without being told what play he was in or what part he was playing. He is often described as Britain’s greatest living stage actor and he’d certainly get my vote. His timing is impeccable and he caught both the humour and the practical ruthlessness of Andrew Undershaft. He handled the great speeches in the second half beautifully and it was fascinating to watch his jousting with Barbara and Aldolphus. All the acting was first rate, although I felt Barbara herself was a bit underpowered. It was a lovely performance but I would have liked to have paid more than ten pounds for my ticket and seen it close up. Just great to see Shaw back in the Olivier again though- I hope that they make it three times in a row next year and do Heartbreak House. It’s no more than he deserves.
Not quite as pitch perfect as St Joan was but pretty damn good.