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.

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


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 ****


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.


Edward II at Greenwich Theatre review ****


Edward II

Greenwich Theatre, 24th January 2018

Right then, This is what theatre is all about. Take a cast-iron classic history play from Jacobean bad-boy Kit Marlowe, hack out thematic repetition, wordiness and some characters, pare back set, costumes, sound and lighting, and let a young, hungry cast do its thing. This is not the first time that Edward II has been given this treatment, (there are echoes of Joe Hill-Gibbons divisive NT production a few years ago), and it won’t be the last given the plays themes. Marlowe often proves just too juicy for directors who feel compelled to make their artistic mark. The risible Faustus from Jamie Lloyd a couple of years ago shows just a mess some have made of this opportunity. We walked out at the interval leaving it to those whooping at Kit Harington’s bum and munching on McDonalds (I kid you not).

On the other hand if you let the “actors” get too actorly, and treat every word of Marlowe’s text with solemnity, then it can turn into an impenetrable slog. It shouldn’t. This is a salacious shocker but it also draws out its themes, of homophobia for sure, but also, and more importantly, class division and religious hypocrisy, with brutal clarity. Ricky Dukes as adaptor and director, and his team at Lazarus Theatre, have performed a minor miracle in getting this down to 90 minutes whilst still highlighting these themes, drawing out the characters and their motives and preserving the flavour of Marlowe’s delicious verse. And it is properly thrilling as well. The Spensers and Sir John of Hainault, together with various toffs and hangers-on, are dispensed with. The scenes pre and post the unpleasantness with the poker are all collapsed into one tableaux, replete with scary clown masks, a lot of fake blood, polythene sheets, (practical as well as visually impressive), and, given the Greenwich Theatre air-con is pretty fierce, I should imagine a cold, naked Eddy II. The play ends with tween Eddy III admonishing all over the phone. It is a stunning last 20 minutes.

This cut means that the focus is on Eddy II and Gaveston’s relationship and the early manoeuvrings of the nobles, here just Kent, Mortimers pere et fils, Warwick, Lancaster and Canterbury, for and against them. It also gives more focus on Queen Isabella’s stratagems. The staging from designer Socha Corcoran is utilitarian. Cristiano Casimiro costume design sees the men in rolled up shirts and suit trousers looking like they have have been standing outside a City (or Wharf) bar for a few hours on a summer’s evening. (And what with the shouting and arguing they also sound like they might have downed a few). Edward II gets a sparkling, heavyweight crown and a robe, Queen Isabella a simple blue gown. Costumes and props remain on stage as do the entire cast with Eddy II and Gaveston standing on chairs when not involved as the nobles plot against them. Ben Jacobs’s lighting is harsh and Neil McKeown’s sound is aggressive and dramatic. Ricky Dukes and the team have learnt from the best that contemporary theatre direction can offer, (hello Katie Mitchell), but have avoided going over the top, so that the modern dress and stark set serve the play, not overwhelm it.

Best of all the young cast, even when down to the undies at the end, deliver Marlowe’s concrete verse crisply and clearly and ensure that the questions posed by Marlowe, albeit with deliberate ambiguity, are to the fore. Edward II was, by reputation a vain, immature man-child who presided over a period of weak government and fiscal chaos. Just as well son Eddy III came to the rescue and make England great (again?). Timothy Blore captures Edward Ii’s apparent callow sense of entitlement and his supposed infatuation with Oseloka Obi’s more knowing Galveston. The pair show real tenderness in the “love” scenes but Mr Obi makes sure we are uncertain as to Gaveston’s true motives and his manipulative nature. Jamie O’Neill delivers an excellent Mortimer as he orchestrates the others into first banishing Galveston, and later conspiring to see Edward murdered. Getting rid of, replacing or curtailing the powers of flawed kings, (here the Ordinances of 1311), has, after all, been an occupational requirement for the nobility/elite of this country across the centuries. Kings and queens after all are simply symbols to support the fiction of nationhood and underpin the theft of property. But too often they thought they could do what the liked, because, in essence they could.

Alex Zur as the protective Kent, David Clayton as the vengeful Canterbury, Stephen Smith as the Elder Mortimer, Stephen Emery as Lancaster and John Slade as Warwick are, to a man, superb. Topping them however is Alicia Charles as Isabella whose wounded pride cannot get in the way of her own, and eventually her son’s, destiny.

As I understand it homosexuality was tolerated in medieval and early modern society. The act of sodomy was theoretically punishable however, up to, and including, death. This reflects the influence of the church, always obsessed with the mechanics of sex. Such was the context in which Marlowe, regularly accused of blasphemy, (amongst other things), penned the play. He examined homosexual relationships in other plays and poems, notably in the opening of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and in his descriptions of Leander.

Whatever Marlowe’s own sexuality, and whether or not he was avowedly atheist, he presents his themes with provocative equivocation (to use the Jacobean buzzword). Was he tempting his contemporary audience to celebrate, condone or be moved by the central relationship? How critical is he of the social order which sees Gaveston’s real crime as his anonymous upbringing, a “minion”? How playful is Ed and Gaveston’s mocking of Canterbury, (who stands in for the Bishop of Coventry in this condensed production)? How true are Ed II’s emotions, after all he accedes to Gaveston’s banishment and execution? Is Gaveston driven by passion or the pursuit of power and wealth? What is the true relationship between Isabella and Mortimer and how does this influence their actions? Their lust for power doesn’t end well remember. War, pestilence, famine, the Scots and the French sticking their noses in, seizure of lands and possessions, trials, executions. All this followed from this struggle between king and his toffs. On the other hand some good came out of all this as it hastened in the beginning of Parliament as we know it.

There is so, so much more to Marlowe’s play than a some gay clinches, a poker and an arse and Lazarus’s production is an excellent contemporary attempt to capture this richness. This is a play that looks back to the defining philosophies of its setting, but also goaded and asked questions of its contemporary Elizabethan audience, and, because Marlowe’s writing is so wise and we are essentially the same then as now, (bar the technology), it can make us think today.

Short, sharp, brutish it is. Very short given the cut and paste Mr Dukes has taken to the text and action. But sweet too. I can see that other reviews of this productions are mixed to say the least. There are a fair few that seem not to know quite what had hit them. Not saying I did but I was persuaded and will be back to see Lazarus’s take on Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Thanks very much Lazarus.