Thursday, December 13, 2007

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, Olivier Theatre, 10-Dec-2007 – Directed by Nicholas Hytner

An enquiring mind can be a terrible thing; I made the mistake of checking up on Zoë Wanamaker's age and discovered that she's 3 years younger than Felicity Kendall. Not really relevant other than that I first saw Much Ado about Nothing in 1989 starring said Felicity Kendall and Alan Bates and I mistakenly thought she was a little old for the role. I was wrong of course, age-wise (and otherwise if I could claim to remember) she was fine.
Age-wise Zoë Wanamaker is probably too old for the role of Beatrice and although she didn't look or act like it, the fact of her age popped into my mind at inopportune moments. Interestingly the programme goes into some detail about how old Benedicks could be which may have been coincidence or a way of saying that if the men could get away with being old then why not the women?
In fairness if anyone wasn't quite right for his role it was Simon Russell Beale who was a bit too much the Prince's jester and not enough the tall, fine-looking soldier as I believe Benedick is described somewhere. This isn't really a complaint because he was a lot of fun in the role and he and Zoë Wanamaker had good chemistry.
One thing that I think they tried to do in this production was to indicate that the Beatrice and Benedick are in love before the play starts but are each too scared of ridicule from the other to announce it. I heard familiar lines illustrating the interest they had in each-other (Beatrice wanting news of Benedick, Benedick pointing out the greater beauty – age memory alert – of Beatrice) with more or just imagined emphasis. There were also little touches like the bunch of flowers that Benedick appeared to be bringing for someone when he first entered. It also made me realise that the line about Beatrice lending Benedict her heart, really needs to be better explained in the play.
Mark Addy and Trevor Peacock are likely to get a lot of praise for Dogberry and Verges, their scenes were funny, assured and moved along quickly. However, for me, Mark Addy didn't quite surpass Sarah Woodward in the all-female version of the play at the Globe a few years back. I realise of course that I'm not comparing like with like, the performances had each had their own style.
I keep wanting to describe the set as a grandiose rotating pergola. That doesn't make it sound as good or as impressive as it was but somehow captures it for me. Although it was an open structure with close set wooden uprights forming a central see-through wall I failed to notice people uncovering the pond. And although Simon Russell Beale was very funny when he fell into the pond, I felt that when Zoë Wanamaker fell in later it was almost because her agent had insisted on her having a comic immersion too.
The rotating set together with several cast members in common (Zoë Wanamaker, Susannah Fielding and Maggie McCarthy) reminded me of The Rose Tattoo earlier this year. I half expected a goat to be chased around the set.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Othello by William Shakespeare, Donmar Warehouse, 5 Dec 2007 – Dirested by Michael Grandage

I'm not sure if this was the best production of Othello (of a half dozen or so) that I've seen; it was certainly the best Othello. In fact this was the first time that I've understood why great actors in the past have chosen to black up as Othello rather than play what seemed (according to the productions I've seen) to be the stronger role of Iago.
It has been a pet theory of mine for a while, that productions have centred on Iago because, since no white actor is allowed to black up anymore, that is where the casting people put their biggest star (who would most likely be white). Of course I could mention the dread phrase institutional racism but I'll leave that to those who believe it to be true or just want to twit liberal theatre establishments. It is certainly true that the Othello productions I’ve seen have focussed more on Iago and have been sold to the public mostly based on their Iago (in my case people like Ian McKellen, Simon Russell Beale and Antony Sher).
On the face of it this, production has its biggest star playing Iago. However in play itself Ewan McGregor’s acting was several notches below that of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Othello. You couldn’t say that Chiwetel Ejiofor stole the show because it is meant to be Othello’s show (hence the name) he outshone almost everyone else. Actually I could not quite buy McGregor as the villain; there is just a little too much un-dissembling charm about him. He certainly was not the nice guy but also he was far from the Machiavellian bigot that I’ve seen before. I didn't get the feeling that he was motivated hatred or that he was transferring of his own jealousy about his wife onto Othello. It did make me wonder if the Iago's jealousy about Emilia might be a good way of explaining his motivation. Certainly in this production I got the impression that Emilia was trying to be in love with her husband even if he had given up. Doubtless this will have been speculated about many times before by people who study Shakespeare rather than just watch it but it was the first time that I've noticed it.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Absurd Person Singular by Alan Ayckbourn, Garrick Theatre, 4 Dec 2007 – Directed by Alan Strachan

There was a time when I couldn't stand Alan Ayckbourn's plays; the problem is that I can't remember exactly why, other than it had something to do with the way that he seemed to sneer and laugh at the very people that made up his audience. Of course that was probably what he was trying to do. The thing is that, in the case of this play, he created a group of very unsympathetic characters almost fitting into stereotypes: the upper middle class couple, polite but grounded in their superiority; the intellectual couple who can’t quite cope with the world and the chiselling lower middle class box-wallah couple who act almost as the nemesis for the rest.
This difficulty for the audience in caring about the cast wasn't helped in the production by the glacial pace of the first act. Still worse were the several occasions when the stage was left empty and the silence in the theatre was so profound that I imagined hearing conversations of passengers as their tube trains rattled past a few feet from the auditorium. Perhaps this will be seen as an exciting and dangerous innovation by the time the production gets reviewed.
I can't help feeling that this production has been a bit rushed. It was only announced a few weeks back as a replacement for Bad Girls so it was possibly being prepared for a tour. The odd month of single week-long runs around the country would probably have knocked things into shape and certainly would have upped the speed and the laugh count.
As it was my companions for the evening decided that they'd had enough after the first act and left. This was a bit of a pity because the play picked up in the second and third acts. They also missed David Bamber stripping down to his vest which was remarkable because he seems to have acquired the arms and torso of a body builder. He looked a bit like Brad Pitt's body double and I half expected him to start shouting “Stella, Stella” and stalk off looking for a Blanche Dubois to ravish.
Another oddish thing was that David Horovitch seemed to be channelling William Franklyn. It suited his character quite well but it was strange to see.

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