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.

My top ten concerts and opera of 2018

Just a list so I don’t forget.

1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – English National Opera – 4th March

Not quite a war-horse of a production but Robert Carsen’s version of Britten’s Shakespearean opera looks, sounds and, well, is just wonderful.

2. Ligeti in Wonderland – South Bank – 11th, 12th and 13th May

Gyorgy Ligeti. Now bitten and no longer shy. If there is one second half of the C20 “modernist” composer every classical music buff should embrace Ligeti is that man.

3. Beethoven Cycle and Gerard Barry – Britten Sinfonia, Thomas Ades – Barbican – 22nd and 24th May

This is how Beethoven should sound. Do not miss the last instalments in the cycle this May.

4. Isabelle Faust, Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord) – JS Bach
Sonatas and Partitas – Wigmore Hall and LSO St Luke’s – 9th April and 16th June

And this is how JSB should sound.

5. Opera – The Turn of the Screw – ENO – Open Air Theatre Regents Park – 29th June

Even the parakeets came in on cue in this magical, and disturbing, evening.

6. Greek – Grimeborn – The Kantanti Ensemble – Arcola Theatre – 13th August

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s breakthrough opera is still a thrill.

7. The Silver Tassie – BBCSO – Barbican Hall – 10th November

And this was a graphic reminder of why his mature masterpiece must be revived on an opera house stage.

8. BBC Prom 68 – Berlin Philharmoniker, Kirill Petrenko – Beethoven Symphony No 7 – Royal Albert Hall – 2nd September

Crikey. I only went for this. If Mr Petrenko keeps going on like this he might just become the greatest ever.

9. Brodsky Quartet – In Time of War – Kings Place – 18th November

A stunning Shostakovich 8th Quartet and then George Crumb’s jaw-dropping Black Angels.

10. Venice Baroque Orchestra, Avi Avital (mandolin) – Vivaldi (mostly) – Wigmore Hall – 22nd December

As rock’n’roll as the Wigmore is ever going to get.

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

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Greenwich Theatre, 24th May 2018

This was the third and final leg of Lazarus Theatre’s hitherto excellent season at the Greenwich Theatre. The previous productions, Edward II (Edward II at Greenwich Theatre review ****) and The Lord of Flies (Lord of the Flies at Greenwich Theatre review ****), both showed off Artistic Director Ricky Dukes’s inventive and combative ideas, and the young, fearless casts, to best effect. This version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was similarly imbued with image, movement and ambition, but fell down a little on the delivery of verse and on pacing.

Getting Shakespeare’s lines out right isn’t easy. There are plenty of experienced actors who steer clear of the challenge. Practice may not make perfect but plainly it helps. Our cast here was, by and large, just out of drama school. Mr Dukes aim is to present theatre to as young and diverse an audience as he can. This will only work if his cast is similarly diverse. In Lord of the Flies he explored the tension from opening up gender in the casting. The young actors largely became the characters from William Golding’s novel filtered through Nigel Williams’s excellent adaptation. In Edward II the slightly more experienced cast, to a man and woman, nailed Marlowe’s muscular prose helped by Mr Dukes’s dramatic reshaping of the text.

Here though the verse was uneven and the spell was, at times, broken. This is not a criticism, just a reality. Max Kinder’s Lysander and Saskia Vaigncourt-Strallen’s Helena were the most accomplished speakers but the rest of the cast shone in other ways. Tessa Carmody played Puck as an enthusiastic, elfin ingenue not really up to the tasks allotted to her by Oberon. She was very funny. Eli Caldwell stepped into the limelight as a camp Flute in a tutu and Zoe Campbell captured the downtrodden air of a mechanical in her Snout. Jonathon George captured Demetrius’s slightly sour air, John Slade’s Quince was an exasperated but ineffective director and David Clayton was a bumptious Bottom, though might have been better served without the full donkey mask. Elham Mahyoub is an extraordinarily expressive actor in terms of face and movement, and, I mean no offence, was perfectly Hermia-sized. Lanre Danmola was a peeved Oberon with an air of making up his mischief as he went along, Ingvild Lakou’s Titania being suitably unimpressed.

The production really came alive when the director’s eye for movement, design (Jamie Simmons once again using the most mundane of materials), lighting (Stuart Glover) and sound (Sam Glossip) came together. Like all three of the Lazarus productions there is idea after idea which is simple but oh so effective. The highlight was Pyramis and Thisbe, here delivered in an hilarious song and dance routine, which the posh quartet get pulled in to. Like most recent productions Lazarus sort to uncover the darker elements in Shakespeare’s pastoral, though it is humour and joy which dominates. With more money, (which this company richly deserves), and more time, I reckon Lazarus, without too much fiddling with the stripped-back aesthetic, could create a memorable Dream. A Festival setting perhaps?

I don’t know what Lazarus will get up to next but I wholeheartedly recommend you check it out. This is not the most polished theatre you will ever see, and there are occasional missteps, it but it will restore your faith in what theatrical classics can deliver if you are already a luvvie, and should persuade you what you have been missing if you are a reluctant newbie. It’s better than Love Island. Mind you most things are.

 

Lord of the Flies at Greenwich Theatre review ****

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Lord of the Flies

Greenwich Theatre, 17th March 2018

The second instalment in the Lazarus Theatre Company residency at the Greenwich Theatre and another cracker after their superb Edward II (Edward II at Greenwich Theatre review ****) On the basis of these two the final production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream should be mandatory viewing I reckon.

It is hard to imagine a more fluent adaption of William Golding’s seminal 1954 novel than that penned here by Nigel Williams, originally staged at the RSC and which was superbly revived at the Open Air Theatre a couple of years ago. Now Lazarus Artistic Director Ricky Dukes and his team have a little less budget, and atmosphere, to play with than Timothy Sheader at Regents Park, (with full size BA fuselage wreckage), but, as with Edward II, they make the most of what they have. The cast enter from the rear of the theatre, and sprint up and downstairs for dramatic effect at points thereafter, one side of the stalls, piled up with chairs, serves as the schoolboy’s makeshift shelter, chairs are put through their paces, we get fire, a stuck pig’s head, lashings of blood, and a couple of gasp-inducing coups de theatre. The plastic sheeting which did such sterling work in Edward II gets a workout. What brings it all together though is another superb lighting display from Ben Jacobs.

Mr Dukes opts to cast Ralph, Sam, Maurice, Rodger and little Percival as women but without changing the pronouns. Golding famously remarked that his story could not have happened with girls involved, sex would have predominated. I venture no opinion. The casting does bring an extra dimension as well as some fine performances notably from Amber Wadey as the vain Ralph and Georgina Barley as the cruel manipulator Roger. I was also impressed by the underlying vulnerability Nick Cope found in macho Jack and Benjamin Victor’s messianic Simon.

There are one or two moments where Mr Dukes’s Brechtian reading does come across as a little too “theatre-school” but this is more than compensated by the energy and intelligence he applies. This isn’t a subtle story and the odds are you will be well versed in why it was written and what it was trying to say. In a world where civil society feels as if it is increasingly under the cosh and the “threat of evil” is everywhere, (it isn’t and it doesn’t compared to history, but that is no reason not to be complacent), then Golding’s tale is well worth telling even if we all know how it goes.

And that is the biggest compliment I can pay to Mr Dukes and the young cast at Lazarus. I knew what was coming yet was pretty much enthralled from start to finish. As you will observe from this blog I see a lot of theatre, probably too much. But I don’t see much consistently more exciting than that I saw here. You really do need to seek this company out.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the ENO review *****

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

English National Opera, 4th March 2018

Out of a long list of wildly inappropriate events that I dragged BD along to when she was younger perhaps provocateur Christopher Alden’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in this very house was the most egregious. Not because the 14 year old her wasn’t up to the task of taking some pleasure from Britten’s opera; she is a very clever young woman who makes me immensely proud, (as do the other two in the very unlikely event that they read this – “Dad, what exactly do you do with you day now you are no longer working”). No, it was because of the audacious sub-text of public school abuse which underpinned the production. Not that this wasn’t an interesting, and very valid, perspective, just that it maybe wasn’t quite the Dream we were expecting.

ENO has reverted then to the older, 1995, Robert Carsen production of AMND, last revived in 2004, to pull in the punters. Good for me because a) I haven’t seen it and b) it is brilliant. Now my regular reader will likely be aware that I struggle with a lot of opera. Monteverdi, some Baroque, Mozart and some C20, can work for me but it is by no means guaranteed. Contemporary opera is what usually really floats my boat. There is a special place for Britten though. This is because it is English, or more precisely was written in English, so I have half a chance of understanding the words with my dodgy ears and don’t have to flick eyes up and down to sur-titles. Moreover, there is a proper marriage between libretto and music. The music fits the words and the drama and not the other way round. Britten chose stories with real drama and assumed that all of his performers could act. This much is reiterated by the interview with Britten in the programme. I care about the voices but I am not smart enough to know just how good the singers really are. In contrast I can understand why an audience gets all juiced up when the Queen of the Night hits those F6’s in Der Holle Racht … but it doesn’t always make up for an unfunny Papageno, risible plot and all that crass symbolism.

So drama first, music second, voices third. BB was judicious in his choice of source material, whether it be Auden, Crabbe, Maupassant, James, Melville or Mann. And why not turn to the greatest of them all in Shakespeare. But where to cut AMND, to avoid creating a 5 hour extravaganza, and how to shape the music around an already musical text? This is where BB, and Peter Pears, who took full joint credit for the libretto with BB, is so clever. By cutting out all the arranged marriage preamble, with the insertion of just one new line, we jump straight to the forest with Oberon and Titania wrangling. We swiftly get to experience the three different, but interlinked, sound worlds that BB has created for fairies, humans and mechanicals. The chop does mean that when Theseus and Hippolyta finally pitch up it’s a bit of a jolt, but by then we have had so many musically signposted episodes it’s easy enough to apprehend. A little bit of nipping and tucking in the order of the episodes to match text to music does also make for some novel juxtapositions: cheeky BB and PP send the lovers to bed unmarried, for example. Anyhow it’s the Dream so most of the audience will be up to speed on the story..

As ever with BB there a lot of essentially simple musical ideas which mean a numpty like me can feel the structure even if I can’t break the language. These ideas are clothed in innovative execution though. The Balinese influences, the debt to Purcell and Ravel, a bit of unthreatening twelve note serialism, all are audible, for this is the opera where Britten meshes the orchestral coloration and technical precociousness of the early operas and orchestral works with the spare stripped back austerity of his last decade or so. That is why, to me, it always sounds strikingly fresh and approachable whilst still endlessly inventive. The repetitions tell us where we are, and who we are with, in the drama but also allow us to soak up those exquisite sonorities that BB excelled in producing.

Intelligent and beautiful music in the service of the drama, not just a parade of flashy tunes. Which is where director Mr Carsen comes in, or more exactly his assistant, Emmanuele Bastet who supervised this revival. If Will S has provided plot and poetry, BB a crystalline musical structure around it, then the director only has to respond with a few big, bold ideas, and, ta-dah, success. Which is what we have here thanks in large part to Michael Levine’s outstanding designs.. A giant sloping bed fills the stage. Emerald green (Oberon) and a nocturnal blue (Tytania) dominate with occasional flashes of crimson. The Trinity Boys Choir of fairies marches on and off in perfect unison. The mechanicals, look like what they are, and their props in Pyramis and Thisbe, strike the right note of amateurish craft. The humans virginal white is gradually besmirched before they appear, alongside King and Queen, in glittering gold. There is coup de theatre in the suspended beds. Backdrops and lighting follow the same sharp, uncluttered aesthetic. A sort of synthesis of symbolist, minimalist and colour-field art, or maybe child-like Expressionism. Whatever, it it spot on. Any AMND, whether opera or on stage, that gets too floaty and ethereal gets the thumbs down in my book. That is not what dreams are made of.

Our Puck here, in the form of actor Miltos Yerolemou, counterpoints the action with his actions as much as his words. He is a very funny clown, (note he last appeared on stage as the Fool in the Royal Exchange Lear with Don Warrington), with pratfalls and tumbles a plenty, but he is the glue which brings the fairy and human worlds, fleetingly, together. As well as the superb design it is the choreography which enthrals in this production, courtesy of none other than Matthew Bourne and updated here by Daisy May Kemp.

Counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie stood out for me as Oberon, but that’s the way the opera is written, and because he is really, really good. The quartet of Hermia (Clare Presland), Lysander (David Webb), Helena (Eleanor Dennis) and Demetrius (Matthew Durkan) were well matched. The last three of these, along with our Tytania, soprano Soraya Mafi, and Theseus, Andri Bjorn Robertsson are all ENO home-grown talents, whose slight lack of projection was more than compensated by their movement and flair for the drama (and comedy). Joshua Bloom was perhaps an overly grandiloquent Bottom but that mattered less when unmasked/un-assed.

AMND doesn’t require a big orchestra which means ENO newcomer Alexander Snoddy, who is Director of the Nationaltheater Mannheim, could bring out all of BB’s eloquent phrasing and still keep the volume restrained enough to ensure the cast could all be clearly heard.

A perfect opera then based on a near perfect play near perfectly realised. At times like these I can accept, just, that opera trumps theatre as the greatest of art forms.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Young Vic review ****

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Young Vic Theatre, 29th March 2017

Earthy. That pretty much sums it up. I don’t generally hunt out productions of the Dream. It isn’t my favourite Shakespeare and I am not sure what surprises cast and director can generally bring to the table.

However once again (as with his Measure to Measure last year also at the Young Vic) director Joe Hill-Gibbons proved me wrong as I hoped he would. Thing is he has an idea/s and he runs with it/them. Obviously fairy dust Dreams are just plain silly. But if you are going down the darker route then follow through on it. This production certainly did that.

Having the cast stuck in a stage full of mud definitely brought the story back to earth. Having the 20 odd cast all on stage throughout the 2 hours also anchored events as they drifted in and out of the action. The fighting couples had real venom. Bottom and Titania had a proper canoodle. Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania had a weariness in their spats. Our Puck was just doing his job, not always with puckish enthusiasm. So like I say firmly rooted in the real world which then means the dreams are properly located in the Freudian and not the fairy, with all the attendant sex and violence impulses. Little but effective flourishes, Bottom’s tights for ears, man boobs and a bottle for a c*ck, Puck’s string vest, a properly compact Hermia. A bit of text tightening and rearrangement and some quality performances and this was delightfully clear. And the mechanicals were rightly kept in check. Funny enough but without distracting.

So a great success for me though I can see why it might wind others up something rotten. There were a bunch of school kids there at the matinee I attended. Well behaved but going in bored. Now I am not saying they were converted but this was clear enough to begin to draw many of them in. And that’s the acid test.

Wouldn’t want to single any of the cast out (all 4 lovers were great) but Leo Bill was a quality Bottom and I am a big fan of Anastasia Hille (in the Barbican Hamlet and NT The Effect previously). Lloyd Hutchison also captured the Puck/Egeus that the director I think demanded to a tee.

So I await with great interest Mr Hill-Gibbins next assignment.