As You Like It at the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch review ***

As You Like It

Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, 26th August 2019

I don’t think I was alone in praising the first initiative in the collaboration between Public Acts and the National Theatre last year which brought amateur and professional creatives together to produce a piece of large scale community theatre. That was Shakespeare’s (and George Wilkins’s) Pericles. Just marvellous.

Well this was the second effort. Shakespeare again. This time in collaboration with East London’s finest the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, masterminded by Emily Lim (who now heads up Public Arts and who directed Pericles), directed by QTH’s AD Douglas Rintoul, different amateur actors and partner groups drawn from the local community and across London, and with an adaptation, music and lyrics courtesy of Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery who created the work for the Public Theater in New York.

Just five professional actors, and more importantly singers, Beth Hinton-Lever as a mildly sardonic, rather than full on depressive, Jaques, Rohan Reckford as the overweening Duke Senior, Linford Johnson as less heroic man’s man and more perplexed metrosexual, Orlando, especially in the presence of Ebony Jonelle’s plucky Rosalind, and Vedi Roy as the impish Touchstone (who has a lot less to say than normal). Which handed plenty of opportunity to the community players. Too numerous to mention I am afraid as, apart from hacking away at big Will’s plot and verse and adding in copious song, music, dance and performance, the named cast list and chorus was expanded well beyond standard dimensions. A good thing too. Having said that I would draw attention to the contributions of Kayode Ajayi as Oliver, Malunga Yese as Silvia, Harleigh Stenning as Andy and, especially, Marjorie Agwang as Celia. If they were nervous they didn’t show it and they, as everyone on stage did, put their all into the performances.

Now you Shakespeare buffs will probably have worked out that the characters above do not all accord with the usual dramatis personae. As You Like It is ripe for gender switching, after all that is pretty much the point of the play, and the creative team didn’t hold back here. Indeed inclusivity, as well as love and forgiveness, was the name of the game and the reason why As You Like It was chosen for the project. And, having alighted on these themes, no-one involved held back. Moving and uplifting for sure but it rather left poor Shakespeare behind. This may not be big Will’s greatest play, or even comedy, or pastoral, or whatever you want to call it, but, in their subtracting and adding, basically ending up with a musical, the adapting team left very little of the Bard remaining. And, to be polite, the prose that is added to simplify and move the plot on was, shall we say, workmanlike. A shame in some ways because AYLI is a crowd pleaser even when left alone. Still, in most cases the songs that Ms Taub has created to amplify the key moments really did work, lyrically and, more often than not, musically.

Which meant that I, and the audience, had a great time. Especially with the giant chorus pieces. It’s just that the spectacle wasn’t quite as successful as Pericles as a piece of theatre, independent of its worthy purpose. Even so I look forward to where Public Arts goes next. If Shakespeare again I guess a Dream, or R&J, though a Merry Wives might be fun.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle at the Barbican Theatre review ****

The Knight of the Burning Pestle

Barbican Theatre, 8th June 2019

The Tourist has fallen embarrassingly behind on his documentation of a cultural life. Ironically because he has been on holiday. Unfortunately for you though this is not (yet) one of those countless dormant blogs, casualties of time and application. So back to early June, the Barbican and the inestimable Cheek by Jowl. But this time the Russian ensemble under the direction and design of Declan Donellan and Nick Ormerod. The last time they visited was 2015 with Measure for Measure, though I venture I recognised a couple of cast members from the rep season earlier this year of the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre (on this stage, of course) who make up the CbJ company.

Now The Knight of the Burning Pestle makes a fair claim to being the first work of meta-theatre in the English language. Written by Frances Beaumont in 1607, and first published in 1613, it is a satire on the chivalric romances of earlier centuries, in a similar vein to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which specifically parodies the work of contemporaries Thomas Heywood, The Four Prentices of London, and Thomas Dekker, The Shoeman’s Holiday. CbJ stick fairly closely in this adaptation to the original plot, though of course, delivered here in Russian with English sur-titles. Which heritage provides inspiration for a further twist. Since before the grocer George and his wife Nell emerge from the audience to berate performers and director on stage, and subsequently promote the acting “talents” of their inept nephew, we are treated to some hard core minimalist European auteur theatre (of the type that CbJ itself excels at). Monochrome, mannered and mystifying, beginning with actors shuffling up chairs in hands, even a few minutes of this leaves the audience feeling like it is going to be in for a long, “high concept”, night.

So that the laughs which come when Alexander Feklistov and Agrippina Steklova, our “low” culture delegates, pipe up, are as much from relief as from the character’s gaucheness in breaking theatrical convention. They want to be entertained (we later find out they couldn’t get tickets for The Lion King!) and demands changes. Our bemused director Tim (Kirill Sbitnev), the spit of Brecht, eventually persuades then to sit stage left and we return to the staging of “The London Merchant” but it is not long before the couple call young Rafe (Nazar Safonov) to the stage and insist he be allowed to act out his own “knight (grocer) errant” role complete wit burning pestle heraldic device, apparently a medieval knob gag.

The actual play concerns the attempted elopement of Jasper Merrythought (Kirill Chernyshenko) and Luce (Anna Vardevanian), who is betrothed to toff Humphrey (Abdrei Kuzichev). The lovebirds dream up a fake elopement scam, Jasper’s long suffering Mum (Anna Karmakova) decides to leave his feckless Dad (Alexei Rakhmanov) taking younger brother Michael (Danila Kazakov), there is some jewellery, a coffin, fights, testing of devotion, but all ends happily. At the same time the hapless knight Rafe gets in on the action, swanning off to Moldavia, rejecting a princess, before, egged on by his employers, giving us his ostentatious death scene.

Amongst all this meta upon meta upon meta conflation, (the set is a rotating cube, each scene is announced by Brecht-like projections, there is live video, obvs, there is a psychedelic-dance-dream routine to thumping techno), the daft story is actually quite entertaining, the crack Russian cast, especially Mr Feklistov and Ms Steklova, actually manage to project real character, and there are a fair few laughs, even if of some of the theatrical in-jokes went over my head. And the serious point about what theatre is for and who “owns” it, audience, writer or performers, is deftly made. Of course the Tourist would expect nothing less from Messrs Donellan and Ormerod. And even if the main, conceptual, joke wears a little thin after a while the whole thing is wrapped up in 90 minutes and thus easily forgiven. Apparently in versions that stick to the original text this can top 3 hours.

Francis Beaumont started out as a lawyer before studying with Ben Jonson no less, and went on to write in partnership with John Fletcher who collaborated with Shakespeare on Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost Cardenio. On the strength of this it would be interesting to see a new take on the Beaumont/Fletcher collaborations which generally went down well with Jacobean audiences, in contrast to TKOTBP which bombed apparently as the punters failed to appreciate the irony and satire. Which, if you think about it, probably gave Beaumont a great deal of pleasure given that his play is about the failure of an audience to appreciate the play presented to it. I also wonder what they would make of current popular culture, dripping as it is, with self-reverential, meta-, post-modernism.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre review *****

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Bridge Theatre, 6th June 2019

Go join the Shakespeare party down at the Bridge. Nick Hytner pretty much always nails the Bard and he has done it again here. Ignore the lukewarm reviews from the critics who seem to have got a little bit antsy with Hytner’s central inversion of Titania/Hippolyta and Theseus/Oberon. Yes this creates a couple of creaky moments, but what it gains in its celebration of non-binary, gender fluid sexuality, more than compensates. And it helps make this the funniest Dream I have ever seen. Add to this the sense, if not maybe the actuality, of immersion which comes from the promenaders in the pit, (though this may not be the best place to take everything in), and the multiple wow moments that flow from set, staging, costumes and cast, and, for me, this became unmissable. My only regret is being tucked away in a corner on my tod because I couldn’t persuade any of the usual suspects that this would be a Shakespeare production free from their usual misgivings. Should have tried hared.

Did I also say that the cast delivers the full text with perfect transparency? Because they do. OK so maybe a little of the poetry gets sidelined amidst all the activity, and there are some fairly unsubtle, though often very amusing, additional lines. But if you want a Dream to show exactly what is going on along the way then this is for you. The unpleasant nature of the genesis of the story is also not shirked. Theseus was the king in Greek myth who founded the Athenian democracy, having defeated the Amazons led by Hippolyta, whom he subjugated.. The play opens with a “celebration” of this event, here with the women dressed in religious habits and Hippolyta in the form of the imposing guise of Gwendoline Christie, (you know who in you know what), imprisoned in a glass cage. Oliver Chris, who I confess I am now even more a little bit inn love with, cuts a rigid Theseus. All the guff about the little baby and Egeus’s (Kevin McMonagle) demands of his daughter starts to make sense. Hippolyta looks at Hermia (Isis Hainsworth) and the brutal truth of the patriarchal norm is established.

Not for long though. AMND after all is all about the dreams. What happens when we are plunged into another, freer “reality.” And how that other “reality” affects our real reality, if you see what I mean. And it is joy, celebration, sexy time and swapping which defines this particular “reality”. So to invert the two dual characters makes perfect sense and lets fly the interventions which fuel all sorts of other passions, from the Athenian lovers, from the fairies and best of all from Bottom (Hammed Animashaun) and the now liberated Oberon. You would be hard pressed tp find a better double act on any stage than these two. Anywhere. Anytime. I am constantly amazed just how good a comedy writer big Will was and how, in sympathetic hands, even gags I have heard multiple times can still make me smile. Though here it is much what we see as what we hear that makes it so funny.

Anyway once all the shenanigans in the forest is over and we return to the city, and the weddings, and the mechanicals, the change in Theseus rings true. His world changed for good over one blinding night out. Like I say I cannot praise Oliver Chris enough. In my book one of the best comic actors on the British stage. As is Hammed Animashaun. A Bottom who might have stepped off any London street today.

Mt Hytner has not neglected the rest of the play to perfect his central conceit. The mechanicals here are mixed gender led by Felicity Montagu’s sincere Quince. She is another comic acting genius. We all have our top ten funniest Partridge moments. An honest appraisal will see Lynn feature in many of them. (BTW if you don’t have a Partridge top ten I have to wonder why you are here as clearly you have no sense of humour). Ami Metcalf as Snout, Jamie-Rose Monk (I need to see her one woman show) as Snug, Francis Lovehall as Starveling and Jermaine Freeman as Flute are equally amusing. In both the rehearsal scene and Pyramus and Thisbe, every comic detail has been thought through to leave the real audience in stitches.

Yet, at the same time the lovers, Helena (Tessa Bonham Jones), Hermia, Demetrius (Paul Adeyefa) and Lysander (Kit Young) with their asides and silences as they watch the “performance” reveal that not all has changed gender-relationship wise in Athens. It isn’t entirely clear whether the two cheeky chaps, who even had a snog in the forest, are going to rise to their better selves with their new wives as they lay into the generous, if hapless, mechanicals. Nor do they see the tragedy, which they avoided, in the inadvertent comedy presented by the proles. Clever Mr Hytner and clever Mr Shakespeare.

Whilst in the forest the couples roam, romp , argue and sleep as you would expect. But here the set transforms into a magical world. As in the production of Julius Caesar last year, the stage hands and the marshals doing an incredible job of marshalling platforms and people into position. From which the beds, on which the various lovers frolic, and even a bath for Bottom and Theseus to soap up, create context and structure. Add to this the rise and fall of said beds, (a fair few of the cast spend an inordinate of time suspended, kipping), and the acrobatics of the fairies, Peaseblossom (Chipo Kureya), Cobweb (Jay Webb), Moth (Charlotte Atkinson), Mustardseed (Lennin Nelson-McClure, the leader of the troupe) and Bedbug (Rachel Tolzman), and even those with minimal attention spans would surely be satisfied. The teen next to me was a little restless in the first half and needed a minor dressing down from Mum. Come the second half though and she was as gleefully engaged as everyone around me was.

The fairies were a little wobbly on the lines but their movement and music, (Mr Rascal’s Bonkers a particular highlight), more than made up for this. I praise Nick Hytner so highly because he is the captain of the ship, and I know what he can do with Shakespeare, but frankly all his ideas would have come to naught without Bunny Christie’s set, Christine Cunningham’s costumes, Grant Olding’s composition, Bruno Poet’s lighting and Paul Arditti’s sound. And very especially Arlene Phillip’s movement. Though this went beyond movement into complex, three dimensional choreography. Just wonderful. And Suzanne Peretz also deserves a massive call-out for her wigs, effects, hair and make-up. I am not sure I would be going put looking like one of the fairies at my age but I would have killed for a make-over from her before hitting a club in the glory days of New Romanticism in 1981. The Tourist and partners’ homemade efforts at the time being exactly that, homemade.

Of course our fairies celebrated gender diversity but David Moorst’s Puck goes one step further, a pangender Pan with flat vowels, perfect comic timing and a nice line in exasperation with his now, female, mistress. And you try delivering Shakespeare whilst executing perfect aerial silks. In fact try either one and see if you get anyway close to Mr Moorst’s virtuosity. This is an actor who has not stood out for me before. He did this time.

Now I can see that if you want pure verse, gossamer wings and a donkey head this might not be the Dream for you. But then I am not sure that Dream is relevant, or mines the multiple layers of Shakespeare’s imagination, in any circumstances. I do not believe that even big Will realised the complexity of interpretation that the Dream affords, all that anxiety and repression of urges, though he probably had a pretty good idea, so it is up to each generation to examine its meanings, as well, of course, to entertain. Mr Hytner, as he always does, takes a view, and works it through to almost perfect effect, but he also never forgets to entertain us. These shadows mend all those who would search for offence in who we want to be.

Richard III at the Alexandra Park Theatre review ***

Richard III

Headlong, Alexandra Park Theatre, 17th March 2019

Right. Let’s get the gripe out of the way. Maybe in the smaller venues where this production will tour it might creep up to a 4* but Alexandra Park Theatre, whilst an undeniably superb space after the refurbishment, is just a little too cavernous to accommodate the claustrophobic history/tragedy/comedy/thriller/psychodrama/vaudeville which is Dickie 3.

Chiara Stephenson’s Gothic, dark, old-school castle with a twist, namely the introduction of multiple full length, revolving mirrors, together with the lighting of Elliot Griggs, is a winner set-wise. But it utilises barely a third of the huge proscenium stage, and I would guess, since all is shielded in dark fabric, only a similar portion of the depth. To rectify this the actors, in addition to coming on and off through the glass revolves, enter from the auditorium to the side of the stage, and, for the London scene, pop up in the “slips” and bark back to the stage. It is the right look for John Haidar’s galvanic production and Tom Mothersdale scorpion delivery as Dickie but seems lost in all this volume. As do the lines. Not because of the delivery. In most cases this is sound as a pound but set against George Dennis’s throbbing, pounding, electronic sound the intensity is diluted, and occasionally, for the aurally challenged such as the Tourist, lost completely.

Now this being a Headlong production, (albeit in conjunction with Ally Pally, the Bristol Old Vic, Royal and Derngate and Oxford Playhouse, all of which it will travel to, as well as the Cambridge Arts Theatre and Home Manchester), there is still much to admire. With the Mother Courage, This House, Labour of Love, People, Places and Things, Junkyard, The Absence of War, American Psycho, 1984, Chimerica, The Effect, Medea and Enron, Headlong has been responsible for some of the best theatre the Tourist has seen in recent years. He even liked Common, John Haidar’s last outing, putting him in a minority of one. He would therefore never miss anything the company produces. All My Sons at the Old Vic and Hedda Tesman at Chichester already signed up with willing guests.

John Haidar has opted to sneak in a bit of Henry VI to provide context, (complete with first taste of murder before that “winter” even starts), juggles the standard text and cuts out superfluous characters, though doubling is kept to a minimum, and generally encourages a lively approach to the verse, (though nowhere near the gallop of Joe Hill-Gibbons’s Richard II at the Almeida recently) . This means each half barely ticks over into the hour. The focus then, as it should be, is on Tom Mothersdale’s Richard, and the “family” saga, if you will, a family from which Richard is permanently excluded, rather than the politics. Tom Kanji’s Clarence doesn’t take up too much time, the other assassinations are similarly rapidly dispatched, Stefan Adegbola’s smug Buckingham and Heledd Gywnn’s Hastings, (as arresting a presence as she was in the Tobacco Factory’s Henry V), take precedence in the jostling for power, and the scenes with the three women, Dickie’s, to say the least, disappointed, Mum, the Duchess of York (Eileen Nicholas), Edward IV’s Scottish widow Elizabeth (Derbhle Crotty) and sacrificial lamb Anne (Leila Mimmack), are given plenty of air time.

With Heledd Gwynn doubling up as Ratcliffe, Tom Kanji as Catesby and Leila Mimmack as Norfolk, the production achieves an admirable gender balance and also tips Richard’s murderous ascendancy into a joint enterprise, at least until he shafts his mates. The main cast is completed with John Sackville’s ghostly Henry VI, Michael Matus as Edward IV and then Stanley and Caleb Roberts as Richmond (and utility messenger). The stage then is literally set, what with the opening soliloquy and those mirrors, for Dickie to slay his way to the ghostly visitations. Each murder is marked by a red flash and a loud buzz just to make sure we get it.

Now the Tourist has seen young Mothersdale up close in the slightly disappointing Dealing with Clair at the OT recently, in the magnificent John by Annie Baker, as well as roles in Cleansed at the NT and Oil at the Almeida. He’s got it, no doubt. As he shows here. And, as he capers around the stage, in dark Burgundy suit and leather caliper, long-limbed, lank-locked, threatening, cajoling, pleading, squirming at Mummy’s rejection, he is certainly the “bottled spider” of Will’s description. But I am not sure he finds an angle. There is the caricature Richard of Thomas More Tudor myth, as Reformation Elizabethan England found its way in the world ordained by God. There is Richard as psycho executing to a plan, villainy as predestination. There is nudge, nudge, wink, wink comedy Richard who recruits us into the fun. Or there is poor, diddums, “nobody loves me so I’m going to show you” Richard who can’t stop once he gets started. And more. With multiple permutations.

Here we seem to get a bit of everything in this swift, safe production. Not the monomaniac man-child, (any resemblance to a current world leader is surely entirely deliberate), of the brilliant Hans Kesting in Kings of War, not the compulsive egotist of Lars Eidinger in the Schaubuhne production at the Barbican, not the amoral sociopath of Ralph Fiennes at the Almeida with that infamous rape scene, not the trad manipulator of Mark Rylance at the Globe. Of the other recent Dickie’s that the Tourist has enjoyed Tom Mothersdale comes closest to Greg Hicks’ take in the pint-sized, though still extremely effective production, under Mehmet Ergen at the Arcola in 2017. Except that Greg Hicks made every single word count and plumbed some very ugly depths in Richard’s misogynism and unquenchable grievance. And with chain permanently attaching arm to leg he offered a stark visual reminder of his “deformation”.

There are some fine moments, the “seductions”, the ghosts behind the mirrors, TM cringing at Mother’s curses and her recoiling from his touch, some meaningful gobbing, the writhing in the Bosworth mud at the end, and, like I say, this will probably work better at, say, Bristol or Oxford, but I would have preferred a more thoughtful, and yes, longer, interpretation. Still the one thing you know about Richard III’s, like Macbeth’s, Lear’s and Number 38’s, there will be another one along shortly.

The Tempest at Greenwich Theatre review ****

The Tempest

Greenwich Theatre, 16th February 2019

As my dear old mum would say “sometimes Michael you would forget your head if it wasn’t screwed on”. Not for the first time the Tourist managed to leave the programme for this performance by Lazarus Theatre Company of The Tempest in a shopping basket in Marks and Spencer’s. Which regrettably means I can’t call out all the excellent performances of this generally young and upcoming cast. Sorry.

I can however once again recommend director Ricky Dukes’s way with classic texts. The Tempest followed on from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lord of the Flies and Edward II. All at the Greenwich Theatre and all created on a shoestring. There is an energy, vitality and intelligence that this director and company bring to their interpretations that put many a bigger company and budget to shame. To be fair this doesn’t quite match the best of the Tempests the Tourist has seen in recent years, the all female Donmar version from Phyllida Lloyd or the technologically enhanced RSC version with Simon Russell Beale, or my all time favourite from the RSC in 1989 with John Wood as Prospero, but it delivered some fresh (to me) insights and some proper spectacle.

Casting a female (or indeed non-binary) Prospero is not new. But casting a man as Miranda is to me. Micha Colombo’s Prospero was a benign, loving mother, seemingly devoid of rancour at her fate. She was always going to forgive the nasty Milanese and Neapolitans. Alexander de Fronseca as Miranda (no changes to text required) was the picture of innocence. No sign of the perplexing street-wisery that overtakes some Mirandas in order to simulate agency in the romance. Aaron Peters was a little less secure as Ferdinand, (he suffered, along with the shipwrecked aristos from some sizeable cuts to the text), but they made a lovely couple (and Prospero here seems to agree from the start). Abigail Clay’s Ariel had all the right, sprite moves but, mirroring Prospero, was more accepting of his/her bondage and keen to get the job done and taste freedom. Having Antonio (Peace Oseyenum) as a sister to Prospero also made for an interesting perspective.

The Tempest is about many things: autobiography, art, learning, theatrical illusion, magic, Manichaeism, justice, revenge, forgiveness, free-will, sexuality, post-colonialism and male dominance. It is about as pure a Romance form as big Will conjured up (ha, ha) and strictly obeys the unities of time, place and action, (though with all the supernatural goings-on it is pretty clear that WS is taking the Aristotelian p*ss). It has bags of Classical allusion in text and plot. Overall though, and despite the “flat” nature of the characters, I think the message is that it is good to be alive and good to be human. That is certainly the case here.

Mr Dukes once again makes abundant and inventive use of light (Stuart Glover) and sound (Sam Glossop) to offset a limited budget (I assume) for set and costume (Rachel Dingle). Prospero’s island is imagined as a light filled hexagon on the stage floor which opens up at the front, to reveal a deep blue sea. The light shifts with the narrative so that by the end the stage is bathed in red. Light, sound and the energetic cast literally kick up a storm at the opening. The dance and drone rhythms punctuate the rest of the play. It doesn’t always work but when it does it is undeniably effective. Costumes are work-a-day modern dress except for Prospero, where Micha Colombo is clad in green and red fairy ball-gown and cape (which works far better than it sounds). There is constant movement from the cast with the aisles and auditorium once again playing a part. Umbrellas double up as swords and, rainbow coloured, as props during the masque, here imagined as a blessing, with a shower of gold. Iris and Ceres are thus symbolised without the need for a tiresome “faerie pageant”. Trinculo’s (David Clayton) Union Jack boxers and Stephano’s (James Altson) clipped Home Counties vowels gently hammer home the colonialist theme.

Some of the cast coped with the poetry of redacted text rather better than others. For me the standouts were James Altson and especially Micha Colombo herself. I seem to remember from reading her bio that she has devoted a fair amount of theatrical energy to the other side of the stage, in narration, voice-overs and corporate work , as well as with Lazarus. On the basis of this performance I am surprised she hasn’t landed some bigger roles. Her delivery of the lines is crisp with perfect rhythm and, assuming this is the Prospero that the director imagined, her performance was perfectly pitched. I wish I had an Aunty like this Prospero when I was younger. She would have made me a better person.

Next up (after a re-run of AMSND) is Salome. Suspect Mr Dukes will have some fun here. The blurb is promising “full male nudity, gun shots and scenes of a sexual and violent nature”. Surprise, surprise.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second at the Almeida Theatre review ****

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second

Almeida Theatre, 9th January 2019

Vain, frivolous, self pitying, introverted. Richard II doesn’t come across too well at the beginning of this play, Shakespeare’s first instalment of his histories that chart the origins of the “War of the Roses” and end with the death of Richard III and accession of Henry VII. Yet by the close of Richard II, acutely aware of his own fate, we see, not a different person, but a man who finally realises how his actions, as well as those of his aristocratic rivals, brought him to where he is. The distinction in Joe Hill-Gibbons’s quick-fire take on his tragedy is that his nemesis, Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV, travels in the entirely opposite direction, secure in his right to reclaim his titles, and then the throne, on returning from banishment, he quickly descends into a vacillating arbitrator of facile dispute.

The play highlights the fact that political power often overwhelms those that seek to wield it, as competing interests compromise consensus, a valuable lesson for our troubled times. Kings, and their democratic equivalents, are those that divvy up the prizes, once land, now patronage, to lords and their modern equivalents. These may owe allegiance but they can get mighty uppity if they feel taken for granted or hard done by. The joy, and instruction, of Shakespeare’s history plays, which examine the delicate balance between those that lead and those that keep them there, is that the deadly embrace continues to this day. Only now, we, the hot-polloi, have the right to stick our oar in as well. Apparently the “will of the people”, even if no-one knows what it is, least of all the people, is now the only source of legitimacy. Hmmmm.

In order to get to the heart of this tragedy though the production does take a few liberties with us the audience. First off it starts at the end, kind of, with Simon Russell Beale’s Richard II pronouncing “I have been studying how I may compare/This prison where I live unto the world.” Famous soliloquy dispatched what follows might be, TV drama style, his flashback.

Richard II is written entirely in patterned verse, (as are the first and third parts of Henry VI and the ropey King John), even down to the gardeners who get to comment, memorably, on the state of the country under their warring betters. The verse remains intact through the 100 minutes of the production, (with a few pointed additions), but its rhythms take something of a back seat. Especially in the first half hour or so, when the lines are delivered at breakneck speed. Not a problem for Simon Russell Beale as Richard II or Leo Bill as Bolingbroke (whose lines are deliberately less florid and more direct than Richard’s). However one or two of the less seasoned members of the cast snatched a little, noticeably in the arbitration, tournament and banishment scenes. The rhythm settles down by the time we get to John of Gaunt’s lament (“this sceptred isle …. now bound in with shame … hath made a shameful conquest of itself”; the speech is not about how great we are but how we manage to f*ck it all up, that, and a couple of lines of blatant anti-Semitism). Even then you have to keep your ears open and your wits about you.

There is also, (not unreasonably since, as events pile up, it really works as a conceit, especially when combined with some inspired choreography), a lot of character doubling and more. The Tourist always recommends that Shakespeare is best consumed following a little homework into context and synopsis. A quick Google on the way in is all that is required, as witness BUD who was my guest here, even for those who think they know the plot backwards. Ironing out your Aumerle (here Martins Imhangbe) from your Carlisle (Natalie Klamar) from your York (John Mackay) from your Northumberland (Robin Weaver) always pays dividends. Knowing which aristo is on which side has historically always been a sound real life lesson as it happens: knowing why is a bonus.

Fans of “historical” Shakespeare, whatever that is, are also in for a bit of a shock here. ULTZ’s set is a stark, bare cube, comprised of brushed metal panels riveted together, topped by a frosted glass ceiling. It serves very well as prison cell, less figuratively as castle, garden or jousting field. As a way of showing how power plays out in claustrophobic rooms and crushes those who exercise it, it does the business though thank you very much, and, remember, we might be in the prison of Dickie’s mind anyway.

This set works especially well when combined with James Farncombe’s bold lighting design. JH-G had a huge cast on his last outing and a magnificent recreation of a Soho drinking den at the close of WWII courtesy of Lizzie Clachlan and a fat lot of good that did him. It was awful. Though that was more the play’s fault than his. Here he is on much firmer ground as he was with his excellent Midsummer Night’s Dream and measure for Measure at the Young Vic. His fascination with soil continues, there are buckets of earth, water and blood lined up and neatly notated at the back of the stage. I like to think they symbolised “this England”: they certainly left SRB needing a hot shower post curtain call.

Of the supporting cast I was particularly taken with Saskia Reeves, as I always am, who got to be the argumentative Mowbray, the unfortunate Bushy, (with Martins Imhangbe playing Bagot, his head-losing mate), the other favourite Green, and the Duchess of York, and Joseph Mydell, a composed Gaunt as well as Bolingbroke sidekick Willoughby. Various explicit nobles on both sides are excised from this reading, as is the Queen amongst others, and, should a fill-in be required, out stepped one of the cast from the “chorus”-like crowd. Brutal it may be for purists, but in terms of reinforcing the hurtling momentum, very effective.

Leo Bill once again shows why JH-G has faith in his Shakespearean abilities, but it is Simon Russell Beale who carries the weight of the production on his shoulders. How he ensures that we not only take in but understand the impact of every line he utters is a wonder, especially in the return to England and Flint Castle surrender scenes. Even when he wasn’t dashing out his metaphor and simile strewn lines in double quick time, and wasn’t soaked through covered in mud, this was a cracking performance. The fact that he was, and that we can still savour Shakespeare’s language, and sense the difference between the body politic and the body natural, (the, er, embodiment of the medieval king), shows again why he is now unarguably our greatest living Shakespearean actor.

In this performance Richard’s early, flawed, decision-making seems less vanity or indecisiveness and more high-handed hauteur, the desire just to get the job done regardless of consequences. I’m the king, by divine right, so of course I know what to do. There isn’t much in the way of Christ-like martyrdom here as there was in David Tennant’s guilt-ridden 2013 RSC take or in Ben Whishaw’s petulant Hollow Crown reading. No white robes or flowing mane of hair here. The fact that SRB is “too old”, the real Dickie was in his early thirties for the last two years of his reign when the play is set, and that he, and Leo Bill, look nothing like the generally accepted take on the characters, only adds to the universality of the message.

The early years of the actual Richard’s reign weren’t too jolly for him by all accounts. Acceding to the throne aged just 10, with a bunch of nobles preferring a series of ruling councils to a regency under Uncle John (of Gaunt), the Hundred Years War with France not going England’s way, Scotland and Ireland playing up and labour growing its share of the prosperity pot at the expense of landed capital (the Black Death had led to a sharp spike in agricultural wages). In 1381 the Peasants even had the temerity to Revolt. By now though the young king was throwing his weight around but many of the entitled aristos, (whom we meet in the play), didn’t hold with the company he kept and in 1387 the so called Lords Appellant, (Gloucester, Surrey, Warwick, Bolingbroke and Mowbray), seized control and one by one, tried and disposed of Richard’s favourites.

By 1389 Richard was back in control, with Gaunt’s oversight, and, for a few years, got on with the job. But he never forgot what his opponents had done and, come 1397 he started taking revenge, notably, on Gloucester, his uncle, who he had bumped off. This is often where the play steps off with the King’s bloody guilt informing the four short years before his death, probably by starvation, after Bolingbroke’s usurpation.

Richard was allegedly a good looking lad, see above, who believed absolutely in his divine right to rule at the expense of the uppity Lords. He wasn’t a warrior, rather a man of art and culture, aloof and surrounded by a close knit retinue. As with all the big players in the history plays, our perception of Richard II, is though to some degree shaped by the Bard’s not always favourable publicity (that’s if you have any view at all of course). Via his favourite contemporary historian Raphael Holinshed. There was apparently a time when historians thought Richard was insane: now the wisdom is that he had some sort of personality disorder that contributed to his downfall.

Mind you if you were locked up in solitary confinement you might well lose the plot. There is an extract in the programme taken from Five Unforgettable Stories from Inside Solitary Confinement by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway from Solitary Watch. Solitary Watch tracks the estimated more than 80.000 prisoners in the US system held in solitary confinement on an average day. Here four prisoners eloquently describe their experience. Left me speechless. 80,000. That’s not a typo. Google it.

So another success from the Almeida hit factory, another masterclass from Simon Russell Beale and another validation of Joe Hill-Gibbons radical(ish) way with Shakespeare. BUD, whose first exposure this was to the history plays, agreed. Mind you there isn’t much in this world that he can’t size up within 5 minutes of first introduction.

There is probably a case for JH-G slowing down proceedings just a little, another 15 minutes wouldn’t have been a stretch, just to let the poetry work a bit more magic, give a little more complexity to Bolingbroke and the nobles, and draw out more from the themes. And the stylised, expressionist visual concepts won’t, (and haven’t), pleased everyone. But as a coruscating denunciation of the perennial failure of the political class, you want see much better on a stage even if it was written over 420 years ago.

The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Barbican Theatre review *****

The Merry Wives of Windsor

RSC, Barbican Theatre, 13th December 2018

Confession. This was the first time I had ever seen a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Tourist can’t remember there being an opportunity, RSC or otherwise, in those few periods of his intensive theatre-going in the past, and I don’t think there was a production of sufficient quality over the more fallow years to drag him away from the reality of life, work, kids, drink and the like.

Also, I have to admit, TMWOW has always sounded a bit limp, with the Shakespeare industry being a bit sniffy about its worth, dubbing it “the first sit-com”, compared to the other comedies, Twelfth Night, Dream, Much Ado, As You Like It, Errors, Shrew ….. in fact only The Two Noble Kinsmen of the “pure” comedies seems to get a worse rap. (Well maybe The Taming of the Shrew with its impossible to mitigate misogyny without some dubious directorial device). The other criticism seems to centre on the disappointment of taking one of WS’s most “rounded” characters, analytically as well as literally, out of the history plays and plonking him into a class-based farce as the butt of the comedy.

Well just as Barrie Rutter made a case, albeit not entirely convincing, for WS’s (with John Fletcher) last contractural obligation with his Two Noble Kinsmen at the Globe, so director Fiona Laird has served up a peach for the RSC, (though it is just about to end its run at the Barbican). All I can say is that if TMWOW is normally this funny then all those naysayers who are supposed to know their onions when it comes to the Bard need their heads examined.

If it isn’t normally this funny then Ms Laird is to be further congratulated for making it so to a contemporary audience. Shakespeare’s humour comes from plot – usually will they/won’t they romances and unlikely assignations, from – word-play – badinage, punning and bawdiness – and from physical comedy – which, obviously, is not something made explicit in a text. To make a modern audience laugh it usually makes sense to trust Will and let the plot do what it will, play down the anachronistic, and not always easy to follow, wordery and massively ramp up the caricature, mannerism and visual gags. Which is exactly what this production does. With plenty of new interpolations.

If the audience reaction at the performance the Tourist attended was anything to go by, and it seems this has been supported by critics, professional and amateur alike, this definitively worked. I laughed. A lot. In fact as much as I can ever remember for a Shakespeare comedy. It is not as all round satisfying as the best Much Ado or Twelfth Night production but it was still a revelation.

The plot is contrived. And daft. No question. One theory alleges that Will only had 14 days to come up with it after the Queen requested an entertainment for the Order of the Garter festival in 1597 to feature her favourite of his comic creations, Sir John Falstaff. Now, as I sure you all know, Falstaff is way more than just a comic buffoon, as we see in Henry IV Parts I and II, and as Mistress Quickly explains in her eulogy in Henry V. He may be vain, boastful, corrupt, cowardly, a drunk and petty criminal, but he is charismatic and he embraces life and we, and Prince Hal, therefore love him despite his faults. And he is, of course, fat and as everyone knows us fat people, with our seeming inability to control our appetites, and our apparent physical limitations, are just funny.

Humour invariably validates superiority. It takes what the group or society has deemed as unsettling, threatening or just different and turns it into something safe and tolerable. Falstaff, because the genius Shakespeare created him, is doubly funny because he is both the object of our laughter and also, because of his wit and intelligence, the source. Tricky business humour. I am sure that there are plenty of people who would be happy to make a joke at my expense because I am fat. In the same way it would probably make me happy to make a joke at their expense because they are stupid. Like I say tricky business.

Anyway I suspect big Will didn’t waste too much time mulling over the psychology of humour and just got on with the task, knowing which way the Elizabethan bread of patronage was buttered. Which explains the oft observed “lack of subtlety” in the plot and character. Yet, as all students of the situation-comedy know, the best characters in the genre have one, or more, personality traits amply exaggerated. And the best sit-com plots begin with a plausible set-up that gets incrementally ever more ridiculous. Which, give or take, is what happens in TMWOFW.

Falstaff is on his uppers. He pitches up in Windsor, or, in this production a place that feels suspiciously like Chigwell. He resolves to woo a couple of wealthy married women, Mistress Alice Ford and Mistress Margaret Page. He commands his servants, Pistol and Nym, to deliver the ladies identical love letters. They refuse and tell the ladies’s husbands. Page (Paul Dodds) isn’t too bothered but Ford is the jealous type, and he is introduced to Falstaff by the Host(ess) of the Garter Inn masquerading as a Master Brook in order to unveil Falstaff’s plans. Meanwhile, (yep there is always a meanwhile or two in these plots), three other chaps are trying to woo the Ford’s daughter, Anne; absurd French doctor Caius, asinine youth Master Abraham Slender, cousin (here nephew) to Justice Robert Shallow and young Fenton (Luke Newberry), a gentleman now bereft of his fortune.

Cue confusions, set-ups and comic revenges. By the three suitors on the Host(ess), by the two Mistresses on Falstaff, by “Brook” on Falstaff, by Ford on his wife, by everyone on Falstaff, and by Page and his wife on Slender and Caius, and by Anne and Fenton on the parents. It all ends happily though.

These farcical set pieces, replete with disguise and concealment, offer plenty of opportunity for clowning, which the cast, directed by Spymonkey specialist Toby Park, relish and have perfected over the run in Stratford and now London. David Troughton is a brilliant Falstaff, decked out in “fat suit” and priapic codpiece, and booming out his perfectly timed lines. Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingley are sensational as the conspiratorial and true friends, Mistresses Page and Ford, with exaggerated TOWIE accents and hamming up their humiliations of Falstaff, both in the laundry basket scene, here a wheelie-bin, and in the Woman of (now) Brentwood scene. Vince Leigh, who I remember pulled off a similar trick in Propellor’s all -male Taming of a Shrew as Sly/Petruchio, manages to make Ford’s jealousy palpable, and not a little pungent, but still amusing, and even gracious, when his suspicions prove unfounded. It is possible to believe that he and Beth Cordingley could be a couple who care beneath the mutual scorn.

Tim Samuels and Tom Padley make a fine double act as Shallow and Slender. All the servants, Ishia Bennison as Mistress Quickly, here housekeeper to Caius, Steve Basaula as his man Rugby, Nima Taleghani as Falstaff’s pageboy and John Macaulay as Simple, offer wry indulgence to the whims of their “betters”. Charlotte Josephine, Afolabi Alil and Josh Finan are also able to inject at least some of the personalities of Bardolph, Pistol and Nym, though these are more developed in the history plays. TMWOW is, at its heart, a satire on the pretensions and affectations of the “middling” class, their preoccupations with wealth, marriage prospects and position in society. Aristocracy is conspicuous by its absence, other than Falstaff and his young doppelgänger the spendthrift Fenton, though Shakespeare chucks in enough references which gently mock his Court audience, and the servants are generally enablers rather than protagonists. This then is obviously immediately recognisable territory for the modern audience, “we are all middle class now”, made more so here by the Essex milieu.

The comedy also takes a swipe at that staple of “English” comedy, foreigners, and specifically their funny accents. No obviously progressive way to do this so best wade right in. David Acton does exactly that with loquacious Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans, another from the Shakespeare school of Welsh windbags, but Jonathan Cullen goes even further with Dr Caius, offering a Gallic strangling of the English language which goes well beyond the simply Clouseau-esque. A couple of deft retouches create some priceless, and filthy, moments, one of which I fear I might have made up in my own dirty mind as no-one else seemed to laugh. I particularly enjoyed the addition of the East Europeans who come to remove the wheelie-bin, who are snootily looked down on by the assembled throng whilst they, it transpires, are chatting about the scene’s resemblance to Proust.

The final theme of TMWOW seems to me to lie in the power executed by the women. By casting Katy Brittain as the Hostess of the Garter pub she too, along with the Mistresses, Anne, (another fine performance from Karen Fishwick to set alongside her Juliet in this season), and Mistress Quickly, run rings around the lads. They get their own way, and get revenge on the sexual predators, not through compromise, simpering or abasement but through their own agency, and they have a right laugh in the process. Switching the denouement to the town square, rather than Windsor Great Park, with Elizabeth’s statue towering over it, may slightly invalidate Falstaff’s Herne the Hunter garb, though Epping Forest isn’t too far away I’ll warrant, but it does, finally, leave the women on top. I wonder if Liz I herself would might been pleased with this ending.

Lez Brotherston’s set, turning seamlessly to reveal the skeletal interiors and exteriors of the half-timbered houses, is as ingenious as his hybridised costumes, which mix modern and Elizabethan fashions. There is plenty of blingey accessories on show, particular favourites for the Tourist were the blow-up flamingos, Mistress Page’s all in one cerise pink throne and foot-bath, Anne’s fluffy pooch, the f*ck-off massive gas barbecue, the remote-control golf cart and the white leather bar stools. Caroline Burrell has recreated Tim Mitchell’s lighting design particularly effective when the houses turn neon. Gregory Clarke’s sound design didn’t intrude and Fiona Laird’s own composition completed the jolly mood.

OK so there are a couple of occasions when my snob-o-meter vibrated. The Bread of Heaven chorus and the Dick Emery reference might have been steps too far but that is my problem not Ms Laird’s and the RSC’s. Overall this is a cracker of a show, very funny, easily digested and with a few points to prove. Carry On.

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