Richard III at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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Richard III

Arcola Theatre, 10th June 2017

I have had a surfeit of Dickie IIIs over the last few years. Mind you I am not complaining.

Mark Rylance on his return to the Globe found a vulnerable, despairing Richard who didn’t seem to care about his actions. Ralph Fiennes was a ruthlessly efficient c**t which left next to no room for audience complicity. Lars Erdinger was the narcissistic showman, even in the buff, in the Schaubuhne Berlin production at the Barbican. Benedict Cumberbatch, in the Hollow Crown II version (just get this on DVD if you “don’t like Shakespeare” and then change your mind), upped the comedy quotient which I enjoyed but was ingratiating for others. Robert Sheehan (the pretty boy off the telly’s Misfits) was one of the best things in Trevor Nunn’s marathon, “proper Shakespeare” War of the Roses at the Rose Kingston (yep all in one day for me) with his youth offering up a more bolshie Dickie. Best of all was Hans Kesting in Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Kings of War. Like the War of the Roses this had the advantage of providing the back-story for Richard’s tale that the standalone productions don’t have, which ensures the other characters are in the flow of the action from the off. Kesting, with his tight fitting suit and birthmark but with no limp or withered arm, created a Richard with physical presence and superior intelligence who is able to bully all those around him. His actions almost seem reasonable such was his charisma making the final “I am a villain” monologue, when his loneliness is laid bare, here delivered to a mirror, even more disturbing.

I have to say though that Greg Hicks, in this Arcola production directed by its inestimable head honcho Mehmet Ergen, tops the lot. This is because he captured all of the facets of what it is to be a Richard III in my view. Now remember this is a piece of Tudor propaganda as filtered through Will S’s imagination so no need to get too hung up on the “reality” of the body count or the misogyny. A bloody route to kingship was par for the English course through most of history. What matters is how the performance and production seeks to balance the contradiction between the audience’s repulsion and attraction to our leading man and the dialectic between the thirst for power and the self loathing that torments him. The best plays obviously feast on contradiction and big Will serves these up in spadefuls in this play.

Greg Hicks was not setting out to play the joker here, though the delivery of some of the classic asides to audience served that purpose. His crystal clear delivery of the lines, together with changes of tone and phrasing, and the masterful use of pauses, revealed intent in ways that had not been clear to me before, notably in the “group’ scenes with Rivers, Hastings and Stanley. His constant movement of face and body (with leg permanently chained to arm) and habit of getting right in the face of the other characters emphasised the desire to twist events to his advantage. This was a Richard in a hurry. The crown was the payback for the hate meted out to him in the past. The unhidden misogyny and careless manipulation was simply the means to this end. Not “pure evil”, not a charming pantomime villain, not solely motivated by self hate and a desire to avenge, self-aware but still consumed by the deception of rightful inheritance. This is when an intervention by a trained psychotherapist in childhood might had saved a whole lot of bother later on.

The compact Arcola space with its steepish seating, the sparse staging and costumes, sympathetic staging and lighting, all served to focus attention on the actors. The support from this medium sized cast (there was a bit of doubling) was admirable, particularly Paul Kemp as Clarence/Stanley, Sara Powell (so good in the recent The Plague on this very stage) as Elizabeth and Matthew Sim as a full-on psycho henchman Catesby, but matching Mr Hicks proved a big ask.

We know Greg Hicks is an outstanding Shakespearian actor having been and done it with the RSC and NT and I hope there are many more to come. But I would love to see him revisit some Pinter, create a hard-arsed Volpone or have the lead role in a future Martin McDonagh play.  For the moment though I have this performance to savour.

The Plague at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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The Plague

Arcola Theatre, 27th April 2017

I booked this not knowing quite what to expect. I couldn’t really visualise how this was going to be staged but was intrigued at the idea. Well more fool me. Neil Bartlett and the cast have done a wonderful job in bringing Camus’s parable, written in 1947 after the Nazi “plague” that had engulfed Europe in the Second World War, to life. Given Mr Bartlett’s previous work I should probably have never doubted it would be a success.

Five of Camus witness characters, Dr Rieux (Sara Powell), Tarrou, an unspecified businessman/official (Martin Turner), Rambert, a journalist (Billy Postlethwaite), Gotthard, an unstable petty crook (Joe Alessi) and Grand, a widowed clerk (Burt Caesar) begin reciting their “objective” testimony through microphones in the manner of a Select Commttee appearance. This testimony is returned to throughout the 90 minute play, but is overtaken with “subjective” individual narratives that track the emergence of the mysterious plague, the reaction of the authorities, the quarantining of the unspecified city, the devastation wrought by the contagion and the eventual and surprising disappearance of the plague and the return to normality, a sort of triumph of good over evil.

With a non-naturalistic bare set (and just a handful of props), it is left to the words (and some deft lighting and sound), and the way in which they are delivered, (with some effective use of the actors combined in a chorus at key points), to very effectively conjure up the images (the death of the rats, the nature of the deaths, the increasing desperation and panic in the city, the failure of a serum, the attempted cover up by authorities, the arbitrary nature of the plague). It is not to hard to spot the influence of Mr Bartlett’s early days in Complicite.

So a very smart piece of work both in presenting the still relevant allegory of Camus’s novel and in creating a sense of unease and foreboding which resonants beyond the play itself. I purchased the text and a quick whizz through it shows just how clever Mr Bartlett has been in adapting the novel and concisely delivering a parable for our own times. I have a feeling that when I come to look back at this year’s theatre-going this will rank very highly. After all the most effective drama is that which sticks in your head, and this is already doing exactly that. It has deservedly sold out I think but worth keeping on the radar should it ever re-appear.

And a reminder. For £50 you can buy an Arcola passport which gets you 5 tickets. That is just bonkersly good value. A tenner per trip for work of the quality that is turned out here. Just buy one. Now.

 

Tamburlaine at the Arcola Theatre review ***

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Tamburlaine

Arcola Theatre, 6th April 2017

In many ways this was a brave piece of theatre. Tamburlaine, in two parts, was Christopher Marlowe’s first performed solo play, written in his early 20s, and which changed the course of English drama and massively influenced all the big boys of Elizabethan/Jacobean drama including our Will. Blank verse with lots of tasty, hyperbolic flourish, big themes, heaps of action, proper heroes and villains. No wonder the punters loved him.

And obviously he, Marlowe,  was proper rock n roll – drink and baccy, gluttony, fighting, sexy times across the spectrum, heresy/atheism, conning, spying. Lust for life indeed. And this play is about the life and works of Mongol leader Timur (recast as Scythian), which mostly consisted of trying to conquer the entire known world, and who was also, I suspect, pretty rock n roll as well, and not a man plagued by self-doubt.

So no half measures here. Yellow Earth Theatre is a British East Asian company which has risen to the challenge in conjunction with young director Ng Choon Ping, who has adapted the plays to strip them back to a manageable couple of hours. In the Arcola’s smaller space with just a light wall, a few well chosen props and the taiko percussion of Joji Hirota, they do an admirable job of bringing the play to life. Given the streamlining of the text, the doubling/tripling/quadrupling of some of some characters and the abrupt shifts in location there are times when the action teeters towards a kind of hyped up, declamatory travelogue (Persia, Scythia, Egypt, Turkey, Africa, even Blighty gets a mention), but for the most part the cast does a great job in telling the story and particularly delivering the verse.

The production does capture the interplay between the personal and the geo-political and the tragedy of ambition. It also smartly draws out the innate conflict between differing world-views, Christian, Muslim and Judaism, and how these world-views serve the interests of power. This is not a play that goes easy on religion, and reminds us to beware not to underestimate a man on a mission, in this case being the “scourge of god” – the contemporary parallels are obvious. And it explores the inevitable disappointment of succession in dynastic family (always a potboiler though the solution to a workshy son here might strike some as rather drastic). Hard to single out from a uniformly strong cast but Lourdes Faberes as the eponymous, fearsome tyrant, and Leo Wan in multiple roles, caught my eye.

So all in all a fine effort which might have been better served by more resource. Anyway, Yellow Earth are now firmly on my radar. This is off on a tour to Oxford, Colchester and Birmingham in the next couple of weeks so definitely worth a look.

As an aside when I was a sad, friendless, little tween I had an unhealthy obsession with the rise of the Mongol Empire. It you are/were similar I highly recommend you seek out the film Mongol: The Rise to Power of Genghis Khan, a co-production led by a Russia directing team which explores the early life of its subject. Very satisfying.