Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre review ****

Antony and Cleopatra

National Theatre Olivier, 11th December 2018

Simon Godwin is a director who has shown he has a bit of a way with the sprawling masterpieces in the dramatic canon in recent years. Especially from the Bard. His recently opened Timon of Athens at the RSC, albeit with the force of nature that is Kathryn Hunter in the lead, seems to have gone down well with the criterati. Previously at the National his Twelfth Night, (OK so that’s not really sprawling but it is stuffed to the gills with characters all wanting time to shine), was a belter, his excellent African inspired RSC Hamlet announced Papa Essiedu to the world, and further back the Tourist can bear witness to the success of his interpretations of Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem, Shaw’s Man and Superman and O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, none of which falls into the snappy, straightforward category.

He doesn’t go in for the flashy, but neither is he by any means “conservative”, here being resolutely modern-dress. What I think he does do is think carefully about every single character’s attributes and motivations, and how they fit together, and ensures they have enough “space” to show those attributes and motivations. So even the most far fetched plot seems eminently reasonable. He is at it again with Antony and Cleopatra. You can see that from the string of 4* reviews and the gongs already handed out to the incomparable Sophie Okonedo (who has also I see now bagged a CBE from Her Maj) and the redoubtable Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes (who I believe has never been so honoured though he is, as you might expect with that moniker, a distant relative of our beloved Royals).

So you probably don’t need me to tell you this is probably about as good an interpretation of the still flawed A&C as you are ever likely to see. (And you can still see it if you are crafty, and lucky, with the returns that invariably pop up a day or so ahead). Still, redundancy, and/or sluggishness, have not prevented me venturing an opinion in the past so here goes.

The problem with A&C, which was readily apparent in the last, somewhat unconvincing, RSC offering, lies in the flamboyance of the language, the articulation between the “great events” which provide its context and the domestic “at home with the … ” drama of our ageing lovebirds, and the potentially wearing effect of seeing the celeb couple always “showing off” to real, and imagined, audiences. Simon Godwin however has chosen to take these challenges head on.

First up he takes his time. At near 3.5 hours with the interval, across 42 scenes, this does mean there are one or two moments where audience concentration will waver but, with little in the way of cuts (though I am not expert enough to be sure), it means that the historical big picture is unclouded and that all the characters, and not just the power couple, get the chance to show themselves fully. Moreover the lines themselves are given air to breathe and the detail of the domestic exchanges has been rigorously thought out, especially the comic and ironic inflections. Interestingly only the final suicide scenes feel a little rushed with the snake being a bit of an indulgence. We had come this far so I would have been happy to see a more measured take on Tony’s botching and Cleo’s scrupulous choreographing of her own demise.

Obviously it helps that the acting is so strong. And not just from our Sophie and our Ralph. Tim McMullan as Enobarbus, especially shaven-headed for the part, is as wonderful as everyone says he is. It helps that Enobarbus is gifted with some of the best lines in the play but even so he brilliantly walks the tightrope of truth and cynicism (central to the whole play) in his capacity as detached observer and explainer of events and as the embodiment of corrupted honour. And he does all of this whilst barely appearing to try. Now I am pretty sure that Mr McMuillan doesn’t want for work, so good an actor is he, but I would like, no I demand, a Richard II and an Iago from him in the relatively near future. And a lead role in a new play at the NT.

The other standout was Fisayo Akinade as Eros, given full rein to ramp up the comedy but also squeezing a ton of emotion out of a character that normally is just a bit part. The smart money already knows this young man is going places. Re-gendering Agrippa definitely worked, especially with Katy Stephens stepping up, I really enjoyed the performances of Gloria Obianyo and Georgia Landers as Chairman and Iras, more put upon bessies than intimidated hand-maidens, joining Eros and Enobarbus as the conflicted confidantes required to soothe and distract their nominal bosses.

Hannah Morrish did her steely, vulnerability thing again as Octavia. Nicholas Le Provost did his Nicholas Le Provost voice to perfection as a slightly feeble Lepidus, though Tim McMullan’s impersonation might actually improve on the real thing, and Sargon Yelda was an adept Pompey. In fact the only slightly jarring performance came from Tunji Kasim (who is a fine actor make no mistake) whose Octavius seemed overly stilted compared to the naturalistic verse and prose delivery on show elsewhere.

This delivery and the afore-mentioned deliberate pacing also meant that the “performances” of A&C were foregrounded. A&C were the hammed-up actors in their own blockbuster, not just in terms of the ludicrously over the top way they voice their love but also in the way they inject this passion, this risk-taking, into their behaviour in the political arena. Whilst also knowing they are a bit too old and tired for all this display and that it is unlikely to end well. But there egos can’t help themselves. This is also perhaps what has made the story, and especially the “idea” of Cleopatra, so alluring to subsequent generations. (Though as the preposterous flummery of Dutch/British Victorian artist above shows most of these generations preferred their Cleo to look like she had come from Surrey).

Making sense of the “epic” in the tale whilst still permitting us to make a personal, emotional, connection is Mr Godwin’s, and his casts’, smartest achievement here. Hildegard Bechtler’s revolving set (note to designers: always use the revolve on the Olivier to avoid the “acres of space” illusion) is sumptuously minimal, or minimally sumptuous, making the delineation between efficient Rome (modern war room with split screen conflict footage), sultry Egypt (Alexandrian palace with complete with pool – only slightly Vegas) and all places in between, including a submarine, clear without being fussy. Once again it does slow down proceedings but, like I say, that gives time to process what we learn from each of the sometimes rapid-fire scenes.

I’ve no doubt that Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench did it better but this was the first time the play properly worked for me. Sophie Okonedo, dolled up in slinky ballgowns (Evie Gurney and the costume team can certainly tailor), breezes through Cleo’s caprice, wit, quick temper, self-obsession, but still manages to make her exposed, needing her soldier-boy especially when he is not there. The bickering is patently borne of adoration and mutual dependence, as well as their individual self-regard.

Ralph Fiennes brings a little of the faded rock star from A Bigger Splash as he dons baggy salvars when relaxing with his lady love. Yet he also, as you might expect, nails military bearing when required. Throughout he does seem troubled, burdened if you will, shoulders hunched, as if he knows how the picture will end. As do we particularly given Simon Godwin’s decision to show us the end at the beginning (and the end, obvs). I had forgotten how many wonderful lines Shakespeare gives Antony to grapple with his failure, his fading from view. Loved it.

Eternity was in our lips and eyes …. ‘fraid not Cleo as this excellent production shows. It will never be the Tourist’s favourite Shakespeare but finally I see the attraction.

Titus Andronicus at the Barbican Theatre review ****

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Titus Andronicus

Barbican Theatre, 13th December 2017

Titus Andronicus is a comedy right. Yet I see it is customarily bracketed with the other Shakespearean tragedies, and here forms part of the RSC’s latest take on the quartet of Roman tragedies, entitled, er, Rome.

Now I know this comedy/tragedy/history play division is confusing at the best of times, but here, trust me, it is piffle. Big Will packed sad bits and sundry trials for his heroes even in the lightest of his confections. And, even in the most miserable passages of the serious stuff there are plenty of gags, (though sometimes a bit obscure I admit). In this play though all I really see is one long, (it only just about stops short of one scene too many), parodic, black comedy. This kind of thing is ten a penny now, particularly in the world where art-house and horror cinema mix, but big Will was on to this over 400 years ago. Since there has never been anyway to match him, in English at least, in most other forms of dramatic expression, it should be no surprise that he could effortlessly turn his pen to a genre p*ss-take.

After all the revenge tragedy had been a sure-fire box office hit in the previous three decades before Titus Andronicus hit the South Bank in 1594. Jasper Heywood had translated Seneca’s tragedies, Troades, Hercules Furens and, most famously, Thyestes, in the 1560’s. Thyestes particularly spawned a whole host of imitations, not least of which Titus Andronicus itself which draws on elements of Seneca’s gore fest. (I see that the Arcola staged a version of Caryl Churchill’s version of Thyestes directed by Polly Findlay a few years ago. Wish I had seen that). Norton and Sackville’s Gorboduc came out in 1561. First early modern tragedy, first blank verse drama, a veiled commentary on contemporary politics. (Wish I had seen that too. Especially with Lizzie I in the room). And, most successfully, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy had wowed audiences in the 1580s already.

So Will S and chums were keen to meet the public demand for extreme violence on stage. And a few plot holes, (Will was never one to worry overmuch about these), wasn’t going to stand in their way. Lest we forget though young Will wasn’t yet the dominant force he would become in English drama. One farce, The Comedy of Errors, one decidedly dodgy comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, and a few, albeit brilliant, propaganda plays, Henry VI (1,2,3) and Richard III, might not have been enough to guarantee a hit. So Will collaborated with one George Peele, who apparently contributed the busy first Act, (where Titus A, bloody livid after losing most of his sons in the war with the Goths, sets up the cycle of revenge), the scene at the beginning of Act II when the dastardly Aaron goads the Goth brothers, Chiron and Demetrius, into planning their heinous crime, and the beginning of Act IV, the reveal with its classical allusions, specifically Ovid and the rape and revenge of Philomela. Remember dear readers the several hundred year veneration of Classical Antiquity ushered in the patriarchy’s very unhealthy obsession with sexual violence as well as nice pictures of urns.

Anyway it seems to me that Peele’s contributions provide the stout backbone of the classically driven tragedy plot which then leaves Will to engage in the genre twisting anddark humour. Now I admit that a lot of what I thought was funny in the play was not always shared by the entire audience. There were a few other titterers at some of the smutty innuendo and the ludicrous ,cartoonish violence. There may even have been others wryly smiling at Marcus Andronicus’s flowery blank verse when he stumbles across the mutilated Lavinia. For this is the only way I can fathom this bizarre incongruity. He should be hollering for the Roman equivalent of an ambulance not waxing lyrical about her fragrancy and showing off his classical education.

What else? Saturninus suddenly getting the hots for Tamora. The Roman brothers “accidentally” falling into the pit containing Bassanius’s murdered corpse. Titus A thinking it is a good idea to chop his hand off. His chat with that poor fly. Lavinia spelling out the names of the Dumb and Dumber bad boys in the sand. Little Lucius’s knowing asides to us followed by a gag about Horace’s poetry. Aaron taunting us with his “will he, won’t he” dangling of his new baby and then the unsuspecting Nurse talking herself into an early grave. The gruesome pie, of course, and finally the three blink-and-you-miss-them concluding deaths in as many seconds

Others may want to take this all at depressing face value. I can’t. The only way to accommodate the abrupt shifts in tone, I reckon, is to assume that Will was trying to subvert the very thing he had created. I think director Blanche McIntyre is happy to go with the blackly comic flow without over-egging it. Well maybe the messenger on a bike was a bit over the top. Though it got the biggest laugh of the night, proving that nothing works better than a blatant sight gag in Shakespeare.

Make no mistake TA was a huge hit in its first few years but thereafter was confined to the scrapheap by most every commentator until, surprise, surprise, Messrs Brooke and Olivier, worked their magic in 1955. Trying to take this too seriously just want wash in my book. It isn’t a sick pantomime for sure, there is too much stunning rhetoric to allow that to happen, but neither is this a proto-Lear. I don’t see any point in trying to fight against the dramatic conventions which shaped its construction, or in trying to pretend there is some great insight into the human or political condition here. The creative team seem to be suggesting this could be a metaphor for our uncertain political age. Nonsense. Things might look a bit sh*tty out there, and civic discourse is coarsening, (in part because every Tom, Dick and Harry think they can have a view – ah the irony), but government in Western democracies isn’t yet based on vendetta and cannibalism.

David Troughton as Titus A kicks off his performance as stiff, martial hero, a wizened Coriolanus, wedded to the justice of the battlefield and certain in his pronouncements. A brass band follows him around – a smart touch. Limbs and mind unknot as events unfold so that, by the end, he is as batsh*t crazy as you like in chef’s whites and a nice line in one-armed knife work. Martin Hutson’s toddlerish, paranoiac Saturninus is very amusing, and the similarity with a certain contemporary leader well observed. Attempts to shoehorn in other echoes of a chaotic White House administration, and some street riots signposted “austerity”, are less effective however. Hannah Morrish didn’t get much of a look in as Virgilia in the RSC Coriolanus but here, as a noble Lavinia even when mute, she was excellent. Nia Gwynne’s Tamora was a little underpowered. In contrast Stefan Adegbola as Aaron, once he get to open his mouth after prowling around in Act I, didn’t hold back. Let me say it. Aaron is an ugly, racist caricature which pandered to Will S’s contemporary audience. No Othellian complexity here.

Having guffed on above about embracing the funny side of TA I must say that, when the mutilation comes on stage, this production doesn’t hold back on visceral impact. A couple of nurses, a surgery trolley, a saw and some top-drawer illusion courtesy of Chris Fischer mean TA’s hand-job, (as it were), is the best of the gruesome bunch with the stylised throat-slitting of the two bad boys, suspended upside down, coming a close second. Lavinia’s rape and mutilation was genuinely shocking. 

So a production that, with a few maybe superfluous details, looks (and sounds) the part and delivers unflinching horror realism. A memorable central performance, with some excellent support in large part. A director who is not afraid to go where the words and plot take her, even if this points up the anachronistic structure of the play. Ms McIntyre is also very alert to the nature of our “enjoyment” of the play. Is it a bit sick to laugh at some of this? And if you are horrified then why did you turn up in the first place? Just how far can we go in pretending that Shakespeare is always “for all ages” or should we recognise that, early on at least, he was bound to his own time?

Of course it could just be that the diet of Tarantino and Korean revenge films which brings BD and I together has left me inured to this kind of thing. Anyway go see for yourself. There are a few tickets left for the remaining performances. And don’t forget to insert your tongue firmly into your cheek as you walk in.

 

Coriolanus at the Barbican Theatre review *****

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Coriolanus

Barbican Theatre, 16th and 17th November 2017

This angry looking chap is Sope Dirisu and he is playing Caius Martius ,who you might know better as Coriolanus, in the RSC’s latest production of Shakespeare’s last proper “tragedy”. This will be followed from Stratford to London by the other plays in the Rome season, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and the gorefest Titus Andronicus, as part of the “Rome” season. You can read all the proper reviews from the Stratford run, but, if this is anything to go by, I reckon I am in for a treat with the rest, as this was better, in my view, than those reviews let on.

Now it helps that I happen to like this play. A lot. Maybe not as much as Othello, Macbeth and Hamlet, but, whisper it, more than Lear. It is sparse, he (Coriolanus) is a flawed character, and the writing is, by Shakespeare’s sublime standards, a little lacking in poetry and lyricism. This is exacerbated by a “prose driven” production – suits me but maybe not the  purists. Like Macbeth and, indeed Titus A, it tells of a hero, (or maybe anti-hero, that is why it is so clever), whose destiny is bound up with that of his country, in this case 5th century BCE Rome, the early days of the republic. Coriolanus is, like these other “warriors”, a complex and unique personality, whose vanity and inability to compromise leads to his downfall. He harbours powerful homo-erotic desires for his mortal enemy, Tullus Aufidius, and he has the mother of all mother complexes, as it were.

There is some humour, and some satire, though I get that it is a bit buried. The body count, by the standards of Shakespeare tragedy, is minimal, just one at the end. There is War though, unusually very early on, which allows fight scenes that this cast revelled in. Fight  director Terry King deserves a great deal of credit. The plot is straightforwardish, (WS once again pinched his story from Plutarch), and revolves entirely around the Big C himself. It is his connections with his family, his own people and the Volscian people of the enemy state Corioles, that defines the play and what makes it interesting for our, (and probably plenty of other), times. For the play brutally examines the exercise of political power, the relationship between classes, the limits of democracy and representation, the dangers of populism, the nature of patriotism, the business of compromise, the call of duty in both military and civil society, in addition to all the deep, Freudian, psychological stuff. Ancient Rome is fundamentally different to our world today but the issues it grapples with are uncannily similar.

Which is why, in its way, its the best “Brexit” play I have seen this year. People’s visceral reactions to what is “right” and what is “fair” and the way in which they are, or think they are, being treated by their leaders, is what lies at the heart of this play. The continuing tensions between the haves and the have-nots, the “leaders” and the “led”. As ever though, there is no black and white with big Will, as you oscillate between hating and maybe admiring Coriolanus’s actions and intentions, and you see the ways in which those around him react, Mum, wife, nemesis, tribunes, friends, soldier colleagues and substitute Father, all try to influence and manipulate him.

Now a twist of fate “permitted” me to watch the first half twice, up to Big C’s banishment. A technical issue on the first performance I saw meant a return the next day to see the rest. I confess I was so pumped up by the first half and by the cliff-hanger when Coriolanus tells Rome to go f*ck itself that I was bound to return. And the tightwad in me wasn’t going to miss a free hour and a half of this. Turns out the repeat viewing was an insight into how the interplay of text, action, acting and audience can create a very different experience. Same play, same production but different lines and words leapt out; I focussed on different characters at different times and thought about different aspects of plot and message as it evolved.

Sope Dirisu turned out to be a suitably virile military man and the camaraderie and mutual admiration between him, Charles Aitken’s ardent consul Cominius, and Ben Hall’s pragmatic general Titus Lartius, rang true. As did his hesitation with Hannah Morrish’s wispy wife Virgilia. The turning point scenes with mother Volumnia also stood out. Whether extolling the virtues of her son’s military achievements in full on patrician mode, or achingly pleading with him to curb his revenge even though she knows what this will lead to, Haydn Gwynne was magnificent in the role. Duty trumping family. The best performance of the evening. Mr Dirisu also shines in the scenes with Tullus Aufidius, but once again this as much reflects the skill of James Corrigan’s performance as the bested Volsci. It is tricky to convey the admiration, nay passion, that he feels for Coriolanus whilst still letting us know that he intends to play him to his country’s advantage when Big C turns treacherous.

It does take a bit of time for our Coriolanus to ramp up from haughty disdain to bilious disgust of the people, and the two tribunes, Sicinius Veletus and Junius Brutus, who orchestrate them. This though created a welcome ambivalence in our political sympathies. Should we side with the put-upon plebeians, hungry and overlooked by the out of touch Senate and the aristocratic Consuls, or with fearless Coriolanus, who may saved Rome from the enemy, but who sneers at the people and refuses even a pretence of the humility expected to secure their approval for his election as Consul?

Having two women play the tribunes, given Coriolanus’s conflicted relationship with the opposite sex, added an interesting dimension, and the contrast between Martina Laird’s more measured Junius and Jackie Morrison’s more provocative Sicinius was also well observed. Paul Jesson’s patient, though frustrated, Menenius, father, mentor and apologist for Coriolanus, was another fine performance.

Now as it happens Paul Jesson has a bit of form with Coriolanus having played Junius Brutus in Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 film version. This is an outstanding production, with a magnetic performance by Mr Fiennes, who also directed, a stunning cast and the uneasy backdrop of Serbia. Angus Jackson, with this modern dress production, has, perforce, created a somewhat different tone, but, I think, similarly makes the case for what I think, is a riveting play. It seems to me that there is a case for moderating Coriolanus’s “pride” and subsequent “fall” and for questioning the political “rights and wrongs” and, if that is true, Mr Jackson’s definitely direction succeeded here. A bully oozing utter contempt may lead to more powerful lead performances but can be overbearing. I liked the contrast of Mira Calix’s string and voice led score and Robert Innes Hopkins design (excepting the troublesome plinth) was coherent (it carries through the whole season).

Coriolanus a tricky, difficult, awkward play. Nonsense, as many recent productions have shown. Mind you I’ve never understood the difference between Shakespearean tragedies and comedies, so you can safely ignore me.