Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Henry IV part one - National Theatre Olivier - 19 April 2005

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Designed by Mark Thompson
I find that the third time is the charm when it comes to Shakespeare’s plays. The third time I see any individual Shakespeare play I seem to see the whole of it for the first time. I am always aware that I haven’t really heard some scenes properly before and the third time it all seems to fit together. Of course I still miss stuff; I remember, in my sixth watching of King Lear, when I suddenly heard the “could you undo this button” line. In fact at the time I remember wondering if it was a genuine ad-lib.
Is this production there was a whole “anon, anon, sir” bit that I don’t remember before.
Having said that I stopping missing bit in the third viewing I was up against Michael Gambon’s accent which I couldn’t quite place (West Country, Irish or both?), and which swallowed many of his sentences. When Gambon as Falstaff, first entered with Hal they both apparently urinated. Hal was standing near a tap on a standpipe but I couldn’t see is Falstaff were using anything. Directors seem to like showing characters urinating especially in Shakespeare. They would probably argue that it ‘grounds’ their characters, makes tem seem more realistic. For me, I know that it is more often than not faked – too difficult to guarantee the timing or amount (I think Jane Horrocks as Lady Macbeth was the only time I’ve seen it for real and that’s only because she was dressed in Y-fronts and a vest at the time) – so I don’t quite see the point. It is all faked on stage. Why unnecessarily fake something extreme when everybody knows that stagehands would object to mopping up the real stuff. Jane Horrocks had to bring on a small piece of carpet for her scene.
Michael Gambon’s performance reminded me of his performance in the Caretaker a few years. His Falstaff had more dignity and authority than his tramp but the voice the hair and the drunken attempts to ingratiate himself with Hal did have echoes.
Michael MacFadyen’s Hal (wearing greyish jeans to Falstaffs red/crimson crushed velvet baggys), seemed to be more of an observer than a participator in Falstaff’s revelry. His character seemed to be controlled by his early line about one day having to give up his debauched ways. Another character that seemed different to how I remember him was Ned Poins who here seemed to be a criminal rather than an upper class rogue in a similar mould to Falstaff (much thinner of course) as he is usually seems to be played.
I thought, initially that this was the first time I’d seen Matthew MacFadyen but I have seen him several time before, including a warm and slightly sweaty version of Much Ado About Nothing with Saskia Reeves half a dozen years ago (the heat and sweat was a stage effect rather than bad air conditioning).
The costumes were by and large modern but worn and arranged to give them a slightly older setting. Court characters, especially David Bradley’s Henry IV, wore long coats or modified priests’ robes.
The set was a broad stepped wooden platform in the centre of the stage. It was slightly curved and at the back rose more steeply to a hill-like hump. To the sides were trees receding into the darkness that could produce a gloomy or even desolate appearance to a scene. At the back of the stage were three wide strip-like screens onto which would be projected trees, London streets, stained glass windows or castle ramparts, as appropriate. Mostly they would use a curtain or arras that dropped to halfway back along the platform making a smaller acting area. A hidden flight of stairs led down under the stage from the platform.Ever since I saw the seven of the eight plays in Shakespeare’s Richard-to-Richard sequence (I missed Richard the second) I find myself tempted to trace characters throughout the sequence. For instance the troublesome Aumale in Richard II succeeds his father to become the Duke of York and is killed at Agincourt in Henry V. Of course he doesn’t appear at all in either Henry IV play, but there are others like John of Lancaster who becomes the Duke of Bedford in the Henry VI plays as well as Humphrey the Duke of Gloucester. The male Percy (Duke of Northumberland) line eventually died out in the reign of James I (gunpowder plot I think). Most problematic are the Edmund Mortimers that run through the plays. The Mortimer family seemed to have a habit of naming their first two sons Roger and Edmund. This appears to have gone on for several generations with Rogers calling their first sons Edmund and vice versa. As a result of this there were a lot of Edmund Mortimers knocking around and Shakespeare managed to conflate several of them in later Henry plays.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Julius Caesar - Barbican Theatre - 18 April 2005

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Deborah Warner
Designed by Tom Pye
I think that I might be very suggestible. During the interval I overheard a complaint, from another member of the audience, about the terrible acoustics in the Barbican Theatre. I’ve long heard this theatre vilified and declared the ‘worst’ but I’ve not seen it myself. I don’t find the seats that uncomfortable, like the fact that I don’t have to stand up every time people want to pass, and will put up with the brown plush trim. I also like the doors at the end of the rows that shut automatically just before the play begins.
Of course I’d never really thought about the acoustics and once I did I really started to notice. I also remembered not being able to hear some things properly in the first act. It probably wasn’t too bad but there was strange echo effect that occurred once or twice when Simon Russell Beale stepped into the small trapezoidal apron that juts out from the stage.
One of the selling points of this show, other than the quality director and all-star cast, was the 100-strong crowd, some of whom were members of the public. The crowd was obviously well orchestrated but there were a quite a number of proper actors among them and have seem quite a few of them on stage. It was probably intended that the crowd would bring the roman mob to life, but I kept thinking that there weren’t enough of them. It had something to do with the good marshalling. They would flood onto the stage take positions behind crowd barriers and then politely follow the lead of the actors amongst them. If they had use real actors or background artists, they may have got an organised chaos that would have added to the mob feel of things. There would have been danger and no need for barriers or the ring of security guards that were always there.
The problem with an all-star cast is that some of the stars aren’t required to do much. The main case in point in this production was Fiona Shaw as Portia. Shaw was fine, walking stick, falling over etc. but there wasn’t enough of her – it’s too small a part. Also now I come to think about it I didn’t believe a word of her character’s professions of weakness (Fiona Shaw – weak? – pah).
All-star is a relative term as it was only a starry cast if you know your theatre actors. Simon Russell Beale and Anton Lesser might be recognisable outside theatre circles but the likes of David Collings, John Shrapnel, Struan Rodger, Clifford Rose and John Rogan are respected actors but the names mean nothing to most. Actually John Rogan who I saw doing a frightening Inquisitor in Don Carlos a few years ago was also in the tiniest of roles.
The major ‘star’ in the production is probably Ralph Fiennes and this was probably the first time I can remember seeing him, enjoying a role or being so relaxed. Antony was the ‘good time’ guy whose eventual demise in Antony and Cleopatra was signalled.
There were a couple of other actors who I was interested to see. Paul Shearer was in the “Cellar Tapes” Cambridge Footlights Revue with Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and Tony Slattery, as well as being a regular in the Fast Show. I sometimes think he ought to have made more of an impact.
A few weeks ago I saw an item on an Internet message board that went something like “Robert Demeger. What’s the point?” I didn’t read the full message thread and it was removed not long after it was posted but it did make me think. It is as if I have difficulty in believing that he’s an actor. It isn’t that he can’t act, in fact a quick Internet search produces glowing reviews for some of his performances. It’s more that if you were asked to point out all the actors in a room, you’d never pick him, even if he were the only person in the room. It’s horribly unfair to say or think it and there was nothing wrong with his performance in this.
Another actor to mention was Tim Potter who I remember as Dali in a production of Hysteria by Terry Johnson and as Charles II in the Libertine. He played the soothsayer carrying a consistently filled thin wine glass that his character had obviously been regularly draining.
Initially the set consisted of a wide shallow set of marble steps (filling most of the stage area) surrounded, on three sides by glass panels. There was also a number of square-cut stone columns of different low heights at the side of the steps. I wasn’t at all sure why they were there, other than that some actors stood on them during the crowd scenes so that they could be seen as they spoke. I seem to remember something similar in the way of columns in Deborah Warner’s production of Good Person of Sichuan at the National 16 years ago – almost certainly a coincidence.
For the second half (or final third) the stage was emptied, with furniture whisked on and off, when necessary, by rushing soldiers. In the battle scenes household debris (broken furniture, clothes and toys) was dumped on the stage from on high. This obviously had a deep significance but I chose not to think about it. There seemed to be some kind of video projection on the back wall of the theatre in the last scenes and there were all sorts of video designers and operators mentioned in the programme. However the video seemed to be random noise patterns (like an untuned TV) in green. It was probably art.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Someone Who'll Watch Over Me - New Ambassador's Theatre - 13 April

Written by Frank McGuinness
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole
Designed by Anthony Lamble
The first time I saw Aidan Gillen he looked a little as if he’d lost a few fights. Hooded eyes, flattened nose, more a failed pugilist than a romantic lead. That was in the early 90s. A few years later he had somehow transformed himself - eyes lager, nose sharper. It may just have been losing the puppy fat but I can’t get rid of the impression that it was more surgical. Looking at the programme there is a picture of him that is reminiscent of his old self. In this picture as with his old publicity photograph he is looking down which narrows and hoods his eyes so perhaps that explains it.
As with mister Gillen the play seems to have changed since I first saw it 13 years ago. I doubt it’s the words; it is down to the direction and the set. The first production, which starred Stephen Rea, Hugh Quarshie and Alec McCowen, seemed cleaner and gentler. I think I remember that the set was more along the lines of a closed off room in an apartment block, than this production’s grottier, high ceilinged dungeon-like room. The actors in the first production were cleaner in clothes and bodies. The differences probably have a lot to do with failure of memory on my part but there is also the fact that the Hampstead Theatre (where I saw the first production) stage was smaller and the make-up and costume budgets weren’t high enough for ground-in filth.
Another major difference was the playing of the relationship between Edward and Michael (the Irishman and the Englishman). It felt softer the first time not quite so acerbic. I don’t remember Edward being quite so angry and antagonistic, although it is all there in the script. Also Alec McCowen was much more sympathetic as Michael, more comfortable and more stable. It felt as if David Threlfall was giving a caricature of a stiff Englishman while it was more natural for Alec McCowen. I also wondered if he was wearing false teeth in order to give his character a more buck-toothed expression.
As I suggested, this may well have been the intention of the script (more anti-English, more spite) and the first production got it wrong. This production made me wonder if Frank McGuinness was putting all his anti-English feeling into the character of Edward and not allowing Michael to mount an adequate defence. In the first production Edward and Michael seemed to part with respect and affection, in this it felt more grudging.
My companion had never heard of the hostage crisis in the late eighties, and I did wonder whether this would be the same for others who didn’t have the excuse of coming from a different country and having been in this one for less than ten years. In spite of contemporary echoes with the taking of hostages in Iraq, I do wonder how many others in the audience remembered names like Keenan, McCarthy and Waite. For myself the hostage taking in The Lebanon always gave me (and still does) a sense of impotent fury. I still have a badge that says “John McCarthy – Hostage”, which I carried around with me for several years, rarely actually wearing it. I don’t know what that says about me.
As I said the set was dirtier than the first production: two radiators (on the left and back walls of the room) and a pipe along the floor (on the right) providing the respective anchor points where the actors were chained by the ankle. There was an extractor fan in the back wall and during scene breaks, the fan would spin while a powerful white light shone from behind. At the same time two thick wall-like panels would descend diagonally to block off the set and an old recording of Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me would be played.It is interesting to contrast the roles I’ve seen Jonny Lee Miller in, in films and in the theatre. In films like Trainspotting and Plunkett & MacLean there seemed to be a wildness and exuberance about him but his theatre work (Festen and Four Nights in Knaresborough as well as this) seems to show something more intense and vulnerable.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Previous Convictions - Orange Tree Theatre - 12 April

Written by Alan Franks
Directed by Michael Napier Brown
Designed by Sam Dowson
There are things about the Orange Tree that make me uneasy. It isn’t the rack of mugs on hooks, Dymo-taped with the names of the cast and crew, which I once saw on a wall at the side of the bar. That was just a cute and homely touch. It’s really that I’d like to see Octavia Walters acting somewhere else. I have actually seen her acting somewhere else (Jane Eyre at the Young Vic eight years ago) but not recently and her biog in the programme doesn’t mention too much other than the Orange Tree. It isn’t that I’ve heard her acting being criticised and I have seen some of her performances praised. It is just that she’s the “daughter of the house” so it is easy for things to look like nepotism. It is no worse, I suppose, than a director choosing a bed-mate in a lead role but it still doesn’t feel quite right.
Actually Octavia Walters seems to have established a pattern in the last couple of roles she has played at the Orange Tree. Both roles had her playing well educated, rather self-absorbed young women, going nowhere, spouting environmentalism and anti-capitalism and being capable of manipulative cruelty. It probably says more about the choice of play than her true personality but I’m not sure I can think of her differently just now.
I haven’t seen her mother, Auriol Smith, in anything like as many plays and only one at the Orange Tree. I have a slight problem with her, which I’d noticed on occasions I’ve seen her watching plays at the Orange Tree. Her face and her hair don’t match. Her pale face with the bags under the eyes, seems to tell you that she ought to have grey or greying hair, perhaps even dyed blonde to hide the onset of grey, but her hair is a rich brown with only the tiniest hint of grey near the ears. I don’t like to think that she hides the grey by dying her hair - it would seem too vain somehow. There were times during the play however, when colour came to her face and animation to her eyes, that her hair colour ceased to matter.
I last saw James Woolley playing Lord Hutton, in the Tricycle’s Hutton Inquiry restaging, Justifying the War. At that particular production the theatre was insanely hot and stuffy, largely because of the presence of large plasma screens on stage and the fact that the air conditioning was too noisy to be kept running during the play. There was something I found chilling in one drunken rant his character made. He was talking about the failure of his life, how he had drifted through his twenties and thirties without really achieving anything (not really trying either) and how he had reached the age where men become invisible.
One of the things that the Orange Tree prides itself on is that it is London’s only permanent theatre-in-the-round. While this is true I sometimes feel that the plays aren’t always directed with that in mind. It might be that I like sitting in the rows of seats farthest from the door and opposite the control room but I often feel that plays are being played towards that control room. Of course the only way to test this would be to see plays multiple times from all the different angles. It is just a feeling that some plays aren’t made with all sides in mind.The set was a disused bedroom slowly being cleared of clutter. A bookshelf with old Penguin paperbacks interested some of the audience before the play and during the interval. None of them particularly caught my eye other than a biography of Mussolini that was left in the open. I did wonder if it was significant but nothing was made of it. Another book of which nothing much was made, was a diary found towards the end of the play by the daughter. She went into hiding shortly after discovering the diary but it didn’t look as if she’d been able to read it. Yet she was able to talk about what was in it. Not that, when it came to it anything was made of its contents.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

My Name Is Rachel Corrie - Royal Court Upstairs - 11 April

Edited from the writings of Rachel Corrie by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner
Directed by Alan Rickman
Designed by Hildegard Bechtler
It seems enormously petty to mention that I first saw Megan Dodds in a production of Hamlet at the Old Vic in 1999, even if the production featured Paul Rhys giving what I always claim was best performance in the role Hamlet that I’ve ever seen. It seems pointless to point out that, not knowing anything about her, although her name was familiar, she seems to have settled here from America and that that may have been why here accent sounded so authentic to my cloth ears.
This was the story of an American peace activist who died under a bulldozer in Rafah in the Gaza strip and, doing a bit of research on the web, I realise that the middle-aged American couple sitting in the row in front of me, wearing black and white checked Palestinian scarves, may well have been her parents. A newspaper article from their home town talked about the play and said here parents had stopped off on their way back from visiting Gaza and were planning to see it.
One of the problems with the play’s subject matter was mentioned in the play itself. It is the conflation of the Israeli government and the Jewish people – that to criticise the Israeli Government or army is automatically anti-Semitic and a vile attack on the Jewish people. Also any show of support of the Palestinian people gets argued to be support for the suicide bombers. In fact only a few clicked links from the RachelCorrie.org memorial website gets you to an article that describes Rachel Corrie action in standing in front of a bulldozer as an idiotic “suicide on behalf of terrorists” and others that show her burning an American flag drawn on a piece of paper.
The play is in her words, her testimony and her point of view. It is edited and designed to evoke your sympathy. In my case I wanted to know more about her, the background to her activities and her death. There are some rather graphic photographs out there.
Some of the unsympathetic websites paint her as an unpatriotic freak or an oddball but it is a little difficult to justify that point of view when you hear her eloquent, touching and often amusing words. It could be argued that this is all due to skilful editing and there may be some truth in the matter. However the final speech sounded unedited and was taken from a long email she sent before days before her death. It seemed sincere and, although she backed the right to armed struggle in the defence of family and land, she also wrote about the need for non-violent civil disobedience in a Gandhian manner.
The problem I’ve always found with non-violence is that it only seems to work against people that have a sense of shame. Or that the protest effectively shows the people against whom it is being made, that their self-image is a lie. Britain liked to think it was fair minded and treated India well but Gandhi showed them up. The Chinese soldiers in Tianenmen Square didn’t seem to care about the peaceful protestors.There was a photographer on the stairs up to the theatre just outside the upstairs bar. He seemed to be there to photograph dignitaries as they entered and the staggered up. Actually the only time I saw him take a photograph was after an important sounding flurry of activity in front of a blue suited man who turned out to be Karl Johnson. I know who he is because I’ve seen him in more than a dozen plays and he steals every scene he is in, but a photograph at a first night?

Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Cosmonaut's Last Message To The Woman He Once Loved In The Former Soviet Union - Donmar Warehouse - 7 April

Written by David Greig
Directed by Tim Supple
Designed by Melly Still
Brid Brennan has the kind of face which if you saw it on a pvc catsuited and booted, spider-web stockinged hostess at a night club, you would probably know that you’d taken a wrong turn somewhere – in life if not in the street. The clothes worked reasonably well on her but as she turned to face the main part of the audience, I was a little shocked. I was slightly grateful that it was left to Anna Madeley to do the actual pole dancing. Incidentally the pole dancing was done in a slightly strange way: the poles were thinner versions of the real thing about eight foot long and carried and supported by the actress dancing or posing, rather than being fixed.
To be fair to Brid Brennan, her cat-suited character Sylvia, was almost certainly meant to be grotesque - described as a crow in later scenes. Also in other plays, she could certainly do sexy when she needed to. The only real problem I had with her characterisation of Sylvia was that her Tyneside accent kept heading off towards the Irish Sea.
The start of the play was delayed by quarter of an hour, which is normally a sign that the designer has been at it again and their elaborate set doesn’t work or will catch fire in the second act. However when we were let into the theatre I wondered what all the fuss had been about. The set seemed bare with just a couple of pouffes centre stage and a television in a corner towards the front. The wall at the back was blank and black with wide folding double doors set in the middle opening on to the stage. It wasn’t until the play started that there was an inkling of what was held up the play. The back wall lit up showing an array of stars and cosmonauts floated into view. They were, of course, suspended by wires and harnesses. It was well handled, the actors moving slowly and bracing themselves on the wall so that they often stayed horizontal, which prevented the impression that they just hanging. I dare say it’s going to break down one night but at least it worked on the first preview.
The stage had a few points of interest: A long narrow strip trapdoor was opened to show a flowerbed on one side of the stage. A larger trap on the other side contained a bed and the doors of the trap – made from three sections – were folded into triangular sectioned headboards.
As with the other evening there was occasional set change activity while scenes were going on in other areas (unfolding the bed took a fair bit of time) and it was occasionally distracting. Another distraction is that one person in the audience began laughing. For some reason I missed the line that they found so funny, there was some funny stuff in what the cosmonauts were saying at the time but little of it was laugh out loud. I got the impression that a private joke had set this woman off giggling. Her giggling, in turn, set someone else off but until the lines got funny, a little later on, not many others joined in. I find this sort of thing worse than heckling because it felt as if they were having a private laugh at the actors’ expense rather that paying attention to what they were saying and doing.
As I said I’ve seen Brid Brennan a good few times – about ten judging from her biography in the programme. Last year I saw her in The Bog of Cats with Holly Hunter. The last thing I saw her in at the Donmar was a play called The Dark which I remember mostly for scene for a scene where a boy takes a baby from a mother just to see her experience the terror of it. It is the only time that I can remember wanting a scene to end so much that I felt like getting up and stopping it.
Paul Higgins, who played one of the Cosmonauts, is one of the first actors I saw at the Royal Court in the late 80s. It was a play was called American Bagpipes and the only thing I really remember about it was Ken Stott, playing the drunken-policeman father of Paul Higgins character, trying to summon up enough authority to arrest his son and failing.
It may just be that this was the first time that I’ve seen Anna Madeley rushing around with almost nothing on and – as I’ve mentioned – pole-dancing but she’s never caught my attention before. I must have seen her half a dozen times in RSC stuff as well as at the Royal Court, even in the play Russian in the Woods where she was the only woman. I should pay more attention.
Previous plays can often seriously colour my view of actors. The last thing I saw Michael Pennington in was a Hanif Kureishi piece called When the Night Begins. In the play his character apologised for his “old man’s smell” (or stink); that phrase stayed with me and kept running through my mind as I watched him in this. It was relevant to his performance it was just an association in my head.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Stoning Mary - Royal Court - 6 April

Written by debbie tucker green
Directed by Marianne Elliott
Designed by Ultz

There probably should be a law against designers being allowed to adopt a single name. It’s fair enough, if a designer or artist has achieved so much that they are instantly recognisable by a single name but to deliberately adopt one seems like wishful thinking. I rather hope that Ultz’s real name is something ordinary like Brian Smith and he will one day be exposed.
Ultz doesn’t just design he also directs, in fact Martin Marquez (who was in the play tonight) and his brother wrote a play which Ultz directed. The play, The Snowbull, was a rather patchy affair and on the night I saw it an old women chose a quiet moment, towards the end of the piece, to leave announcing to the world that it was the worst thing she’d ever seen. This was at the old Hampstead theatre and she was sitting less than ten feet from the stage.
It is a little unfair to have a go at Ultz, silly name or not, his designs are often very interesting. I remember a piece called Fireface, where the action took place on institutional Formica tables and the audience sat on office chairs that were chained to the floor. The thing is that Ultz decided that this play required a thrust stage, painted blue; covering almost the entire stalls area. The design was described as ‘exciting’ in the letter from the Royal Court that told me that the seat I’d booked in the stalls was no longer available. I doubt that the finance people at the theatre, found the prospect of losing almost a hundred seats a night, terribly thrilling.
It isn’t the first time Ultz has pulled this particular trick at the Royal Court. A couple of years ago in the play Fallout by Roy Williams the stalls were once again covered over with a steep wide flight of steps leading down into them at one end. In that case I seem to recall that they built additional seating over the stage forming an oval arena for the play. Tonight we just got a blue stage stretching to the back wall of the theatre. Not a uniform blue, lots of different shades but in no particular pattern. At the edges of the stage, especially when it met a vertical surface like the boxes, were outcrops of bubbles that may have been intended to be beach pebbles or stones but were too circular. That was more or less it as far as the set went. There were a few ordinary looking tubular framed chairs in each of the sections. Each of the three settings in the play occupied a different area of the stage although there was some overlap. The areas were only lit while action was going on in them and the names of the settings were projected using moving lights that swept across the stage and ended up on the black back wall of the theatre.
The actors were on stage for the whole piece, leaning against the back wall when they weren’t needed anymore. When the action of their scene was interrupted by a scene in a different area the actors didn’t always freeze, as you might expect, but often fidgeted or repositioned themselves.
I quite liked the device, in the play, of having of somebody playing the character’s ego. I thought it illustrated the arguments well. Also I think I’ll just mention that the egos were both dressed in turquoisey-blue clothes.
Reading the play script beforehand brought up a couple of things. There were several sections that dwelt on the smell of people and with this blog in mind I had hoped to write some stuff about how smell is both a deeply intimate and very public sense but the play didn’t really explore this.
Another thing that was very clear in the script was the deliberately degraded quality of the language that was used – plenty of ‘dunnos’ and lack of glottal stops. The thing is that I could help thinking that Emily Joyce was struggling with this. It felt as if she was battling years of good enunciation and losing but it might just have been my imagination. Knowing her best from a tame sitcom may have played tricks on my perception of her performance.
Another actress to mention is Claire Rushbrook. A couple of years ago I saw her in a play called Food Chain Upstairs at the Royal Court where she had a dreamily weary glamour. It contrasted with tonight where she was distinctly heavier and chavier, which was what was required.
There is an instruction in the script that says that all characters must be white. Presumably this (together with the adverts and pamphlets for action aid in the programme) is to draw attention to the plight of third world countries by putting problems like the mistreatment of women, child soldiers and Aids into a white English context. Unfortunately I didn’t think that the world hung together properly. It is a trivial point but in a place where a young woman can get stoned to death, for killing the boy soldier that killed her parents, the man would always get the Aids medicine before the woman and there would be no debate about it.
In the audience tonight was David Tennant and I was tempted to interpret his glances around the auditorium, as attempts to find out if he’d been spotted by weirdo Doctor Who fans. I studiously avoided his gaze.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Tristan & Yseult - Cottesloe Theatre - 5 April

Presented by Kneehigh Theatre
Written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy
Directed and Adapted by Emma Rice
Designed by Bill Mitchell
Outside the theatre tonight there were a number of white banners on flagpoles. Each banner had a single word on it – war, trust, honour, love and other stirring sentiments. Around the flagpoles were some shallow metal dishes on frames, which were presumably braziers or torches of some kind but looked more like ornate ashtrays and had already attracted the odd cigarette end. I mention these because when I came out of the theatre, the white banners had been replaced with black ones (in keeping with the story).
I first saw a production by the Kneehigh Theatre at the Cottesloe about five years ago, it was a fairly conventional play called The Riot. The next two shows, The Red Shoes and The Bacchae, weren’t. In the first we were treated to an entire shaven-headed cast spending most of their time wearing just Y-fronts and vests – only occasionally putting on clogs. In the second there was a lot of use of sheets of newspaper to make improvised props and costumes were tutus lowered from the fly tower. I may be muddling things up but I’m fairly sure that the Bacchae also featured a number of ladders hung from ropes and pulleys, in such a way that they could be angled and moved.
The ropes and pulleys were back tonight. This time the ropes (three of them) spent much of the time attached to a disc-shaped portion (large enough to hold a person) of the circular stage, in such a way that the disc could be raised up a mast through the disc’s centre. At other times the ropes held character spying on the lovers, a sail for the ship and, most impressively, the lovers as they drunkenly danced – suspended by the wrist - into one another’s arms, under the influence of love potion and alcohol.
When I first entered and saw the band in grey balaclavas, I thought that they might be supposed to be a reminder of chain mail worn by medieval versions of Arthurian knights. It quickly became apparent, as the cast entered and milled about the auditorium, that the balaclavas, blue cagoules (or anoraks), heavily black-framed glasses and the nasal quality of the actors’ voices showed that they were supposed to be spotters of some kind. In this case, love-spotters, observing the story through binoculars and making notes, in the knowledge that they’d never be involved in a love story themselves.
The spotter chorus would occasionally don extra headgear to indicate setting: ‘deely boppers’ with a stars on them for a starry night, the same with beer cans on top for the drunk scene and bushes for a woodland tryst.
The spotter/nerd costumes made it rather difficult to spot the main characters when they were being part of the ensemble rather than the main character (I hope that makes sense). In fact there was a striking difference in the way one actor behaved between playing his main character and being in the ensemble. I’m not saying it was anything special or remarkable, just that I noticed it. The actor in question was Mike Shepherd, one of the founder members of Kneehigh. He has a way of behaving in ensemble that I noticed when I saw him in The Red Shoes and The Bacchae, which drew my attention towards him. It is a sort of deliberate wariness or nervousness in the face of an audience, as if to say ‘don’t stare at me’ while drawing attention towards him. I don’t think that it is intentional attention seeking, it may just be my imagination or the set of his face. The thing is, when he was called on to take off the balaclava and anorak, replace his glasses with fashionable shades and become the King, he was the King. All this may simply be a difference in style between acting with the ‘fourth wall’ up and with it down but I can only say I noticed it.
As might be expected with the cast wandering around the auditorium before the first and second halves there was a fair bit of audience interaction. I have to assume that the spotters were trying to identify and write up lovers on those occasions; I was never close enough or girlfriended enough to hear them properly or attract their attention. If you bought a programme, in addition to a small tube of Love Hearts, you received a balloon that you were asked inflate (without tying a knot in it) and then release to mark the King’s entrance (“I entered to the sound of rapidly deflating balloons). The person sitting next to me disobeyed instructions and knotted their balloon and it spent the interval being batted around the audience with increasing annoyance until someone burst it loudly, eliciting a heart-grip response from (you’ve guessed it) Mike Shepherd. We were instructed in the balloon etiquette by Giles King (a man with pointed sideburns stretching halfway across his cheeks), playing Frocin and he berated a young woman in the audience for not bothering to buy a programme and therefore not having a balloon. He picked on her again when the audience failed to make a good luck toast to the King and Queen but it was all part of the script and not vicious ad-lib.
As well as the odd balloon descending on me from the circle, the audience was leafleted by an invading army (“People of Kernow. Don’t be alarmed” etc.), and in a love scene, silk flower petals were dropped.
The wedding party had a strange and rather joyous dance routine. The most interesting move consisted of the actors holding a leg in the air and kicking it out to the side while slowly rotating.
Something else that I think I remember from the Bacchae was some of the actors breaking into different languages. In that case it was possibly because two of the actors were from different eastern European countries and it had felt right during rehearsal to do it. It might have been the same tonight as the Hungarian actress Eva Magyar said many of her lines in Hungarian (I think) before a discreet hand gesture from the members of the cast caused her to repeat them in English. Tristan Sturrock (who broke his neck last year according to the programme) playing a French Tristan also did many of his lines in French but was only required to translate when it went beyond ‘schoolboy’ vocabulary.

The only other things to mention are the model ships to carried by the actor sailing in it, the small cello that Tristan occasionally carried strapped to his back and which he played like a guitar (across the knee and plucking), and the strange greeting gesture some characters used that a cross between looked like a slow-motion vertical clap and a sedate estimate of a piskie’s height.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Hecuba - Albery Theatre - 4 April

Written by Euripedes (version by Tony Harrison)
Directed by Laurence Boswell
Designed by Es Devlin
I was thinking that this was the first time that I’d seen Vanessa Redgrave in a really tragic role. When I’ve seen her previously there’s always been humour in her performance; something relaxed and knowing. Even when I first saw her years ago, in a “Redgrave” Three Sisters where she played Olga, she seemed to be having immense fun with the part, at least not taking it as seriously as her sister and her niece. Having seen Claire Higgins doing an intense Hecuba last year, I did wonder how Vanessa Redgrave would approach it.
There were no tears or screaming, in fact there was something very cold and calm in the way she took here revenge. Her justification for murder was well argued and efficient but I wouldn’t have called it heartfelt. This isn’t to say I wasn’t convinced by her but there was a placidity there which may well get interpreted, by the critics, as repressed intensity.
On trivial matters there was a moment when Vanessa Redgrave reminded me of her daughter Joely Richardson. Hardly surprising really but suddenly as she crouched over Polydorus’ body her blue eyes pierced out into the audience and I thought of her daughter. Another thing was that as she dragged Polydorus’ body off the stage, I thought “here’s someone who wants to play Mother Courage” – it was the way she carried herself and she’s probably played the part anyway.
The set was made up of a number of curved walls that, at first, formed a drum (before the play started), spent most of the play as a semi circle and finally turned in on themselves, to form a passage between two curved walls. There was probably some significance in this that escaped me, as a black backdrop with a huge white splash was revealed. Actually I suspect something went wrong here, the rear wall of the drum slowly and non-silently moved to reveal the backdrop while Vanessa Redgrave was speaking.
I always like to think that I like Tony Harrison’s Greek translations but that may well be because his reputation is a good one. I’d like to say that I hadn’t noticed his point-making before (Troy equals Iraq, references to bombing or blasting Troy, the Greeks in a ‘coalition’ and a digs at Europe attacking Asia), but I remember that when he reconstructed the Trackers of Oxyrynchus fifteen years ago, it was peppered with social comment.
The Chorus who sang almost all their lines (requiring Vanessa Redgrave to almost sing along with them at one point) were dressed in a style that I’d associate with places like Turkey or possibly Georgia – long coat-like dark coloured dresses (mostly green) and dark head scarves. They also wore make-up to make their faces much paler. This had an unfortunate (possibly deliberate) effect on one olive-skinned actress as she ended up looking a pale green – almost green enough to be a Kathikali dancer. I found myself a little disappointed with the music. It wasn’t bad but I couldn’t help thinking that given the costumes the composer should have gone for Spanish Phrygian mode and some very close intervals in the harmonies but perhaps that would have been a cliché.

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