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.
Finally the Tourist gets to see this. Took a chance that it would, after the mostly strong reviews, eventually find a home in London, and waited for the run to settle in to secure a fairly priced ticket. If you are of a similar mind, and haven’t seen it yet, I would advise you to do the same in the remaining few weeks. I am not sure it is quite the triumph some of the criterati would have you believe but the spry adaptation of James Fenton, the creative staging under Angus Jackson’s animated direction and the straight man – funny man double act of David Threlfall and Rufus Hound make it impossible not to enjoy.
Indeed once you strip out the comedy, Rufus Hound’s audience patter, the gags, the pratfalls, the puppetry, the knowing asides, the gurning, the mugging, the bun fight, all superbly orchestrated by comedy director Cal McCrystal, this is actually a moving, and occasionally, insightful play. In that regard it captures the spirit of the Cervantes novel(s). DQ may be an aged eccentric, living in a fantasy world, harking back to a world of chivalry unknown by early C17 Spain, let alone today, but he is also a man of conviction and belief, and this, surprisingly, just about squeaks through in this RSC production.
As the bond between DQ and sidekick Sancho Panza develops, and as we see the melancholic DQ doggedly stick to his quest despite the incredulity of those around him, we get ever closer to the “real” character. Result: a hushed audience taking in a closing deathbed scene, (sorry folks DQ does snuff it), where DQ regains his sanity, that is both moving and poignant. That this should be so is in part due to the sincere warmth that a padded-out Rufus Hound brings to SP, but mostly thanks to the wonderful performance of David Threlfall. Whilst the rest of the cast shifts, swirls, sings and dances around him, playing characters who, predominantly see him as a figure of fun to be endlessly mocked, DT plays it absolutely straight, even when flying Peter Pan like above the stage.
Mr Threlfall is no longer, unfortunately, the most prolific performer on stage or screen. The Tourist has only seen him once before, in the Young Vic Skellig many years ago. The last TV outing I can remember is his performance in the valuable, if flawed, recent BBC/Netflix retelling of the Greek myths, where he played Priam. Now it looks to me like DT is only interested in parts that allow him to proudly display his magnificent silver hair and beard. For his Don Quixote there is a whiff of aged Frank Gallagher, in looks, if not moral complexion, with whiskers, straggly hair and crumpled stockings. After the humorous introduction to SP, his wife and the villagers, all it takes is a few quick deft touches, by both adapter and actor, before we are convinced that reading too many chivalric romances from previous centuries could inspire our geriatric hidalgo to become a knight-errant and set off on his fantastic adventures. He may be deluded but we believe that the world he sees is all too real.
A short three hour play (it breezes by) is never going to be able to capture the complexity of Cervantes’s picaresque novel. There is a reason, actually there are many reasons, why DQ is considered the greatest literary work from the Spanish Golden Age, indeed one of the greatest of all time, comparable with contemporary Shakespeare. The first “modern” novel indeed. It is both stirring adventure (the Tourist’s take on first reading when a tween) and fountain of intertextuality (the lesson from the second reading a couple of decades latter). It is tragicomedy, genuinely both funny and sad, a plea for the primacy of the individual non-conformist and a nuanced social commentary, a satire on misplaced nationalism, a discourse on the nature of truth and reality and a tragedy centred on the corruption of idealism. It is road movie, buddy movie, heroic fantasy, action movie, tall tale, parody, burlesque, fairy tale, slipstream fiction and psychological thriller.
Cervantes’s own precarious upbringing and life of adventure (duels, midnight flits, military service, serious illness, paralysis, years of slavery in Africa, prison sentences, stabbings, affairs) are reflected in its pages. It is pretty much the only work for which Cervantes is remembered but, despite the great success of Part 1 (1605) and then sequel Part 2 (1615) he barely made a penny out of it. He died in poverty a few days after Shakespeare.
All this sort of stuff was meat and drink to writers, and readers, in C17 Spain, and clearly given the speed with which its fame spread, the rest of the Western world, but its cultural ubiquity ever since speaks to its resonance. Films, TV shows, books, songs, paintings, illustrations, tapestries, sculptures, operas, ballets, tone poems. And of course a Broadway musical in the form of The Man From La Mancha. A quick perusal of London entertainment guides will show you that in the next few weeks you can see this very musical at the ENO or, should you prefer, Marius Pepita’s ballet version at the Royal Opera House.
Whilst not quite matching the stirring cheesiness of Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh’s To Dream The Impossible Dream, this production has plenty of catchy Hispanic-inflected songs courtesy of Grant Olding and James Fenton. This does add to the somewhat episodic nature of the production, as does the need to wheel out the various sceneries, props, puppets and the like. Then again that is entirely in keeping with the tone and structure of the novel, as is so much here, and there is enough pantomime distraction to maintain momentum. The attempt to mimic the meta-theatricality of the novels by having DQ’s fame preceding him in the second half is a little stilted but, again, offers something to chew on besides the generous humour.
The set design of Robert Innes Hopkins, in common with his other recent RSC outings, has an elegant simplicity (and he does like to emphasis the vertical), and another meta touch with the giant cut-out of our hero as a backdrop, and the lighting of Mark Henderson and sound of Fergus O’Hare expertly delineates the mundane from the fanciful. Most notable however is the puppetry of Toby Olie, notably a peckish falcon, an angry lion and some convincing sheep (though maybe not quite the army that DQ sees!). Now frankly the Tourist is a bit fuzzy on the art of puppetry so he can’t be sure that the constructions signifying horse and donkey, with their human appendices, fall into the category, but they are the basis for some mighty fine entertainment.
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.
Gielgud Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, 18th July and 25th August 2018
I don’t read much. Don’t have the patience or the imagination. Much easier to get my kicks from the theatre, or from film, where other people can do all the hard work. Also suspect years of reading, writing and talking, to no great effect, in an office, for the greater good of neo-liberal capitalism, has shredded what grey matter I once had. Not like the SO. A voracious reader.
All of which means I have no view on the novelist Robert Harris. Never read anything he has written. Always had him down as a writer of pot-boiling political thrillers. Not even seen any of the film adaptions. On the strength of this majestic entertainment, an adaption of Mr Harris’s trilogy of novels about Cicero adapted by Mike Poulton, I think I might have missed a trick. It looks like Mr Harris’s books would be right up my street and he sounds like a terribly good bloke as well.
So next holiday reading now nailed down what about this RSC blockbuster? Apparently Mike Poulton had to be fairly judicious with what he took from the book, focussing on certain episodes in the maturity of the great orator’s life, but what he has conjured up, together with RSC AD Gregory Doran, is a fantastic slice of theatre. OK so there are times, as in some of Shakespeare’s weaker sections in the history plays, where the shuffling of characters on and off the stage, and the expository repeats, become a bit cumbersome, but generally Mr Poulton and Mr Doran have, through a variety of devices, ensured that, throughout the 7 hours or so of the two plays, we know exactly who is doing what to whom and, mostly, why. We also get an insight into the mind of one of history’s greatest thinkers, (or at least one of the greatest thinkers in a Western culture still in thrall to the Classical), and some universal lessons about the nature of politics and representation, and the symbiosis of word and deed in history, or at least the history of “great men”.
The plays also succeeds thanks to the casting of the two main protagonists. Richard McCabe is a thoroughly convincing Cicero, principled, courageous, sardonic, egocentric. Joseph Kloska as his secretary and our narrator Tiro, is equally impressive even if he has less to work with. There is more than a touch of the buddy movie about their central relationship. The audience is frequently dragged in to proceedings whether as the imagined Senate that Cicero and others address, the mob, or, breaking the wall, as conspirators in the events on stage. Not formally innovative but very satisfying in this kind of “one thing after another” history play. The political canvas, as we pass through Cicero’s election as Consul, his machinations with Catiline, Clodius, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and, finally, Octavian (Augustus), all to protect the values of the Republic and, take note, the rule of law, is contrasted with the domestic, Cicero’s dysfunctional relationships with wife, family and proteges. If you know your Roman history and/or your Shakespeare, this is a delight. Even if you don’t the touch is so light that it is a breeze to follow.
The staging, against the steps leading up to a pair of giant. mosaic eyes, in Anthony Ward’s set, is as dramatic as it needs to be when serious stuff is playing out, but there is a thread of humour, largely milked by the two leads which prevents it turning into a slog. Sometimes the laughs, and the delivery, edges a little bit towards the Up Pompeii, but this is a good thing in my book, and much better than the alternative of ponderous epic. Composer Paul Englishby and sound designer Claire Windsor have very adroitly managed to plot a way through this tonal warp and weft, not easy to sustain over this length of time. The same is true for Mark Henderson’s lighting composition. Indeed the entire creative crew should be lauded for their studied concentration. It would be easy to let things slide, or for the pace to ease up, when you have this much to show, but, if at any point my concentration wavered, it was my fault not theirs.
With this size of undertaking, 44 named parts and more walk-ons and crowd scenes beyond that, and spanning four decades, most of the cast were doubled up across the two plays. In addition to Cicero and Tiro, Siobhan Redmond as Cicero’s put upon wife Terentia, Jade Croot as his unfortunate daughter Tullia and Paul Kemp as his bluff brother Quintus all stuck to one role, along with Peter de Jersey imperious, (no other adjective will do), Julius Caesar. When he came on all fake chummy to Cicero he captured exactly the air of a big man who knows he can’t be refused. Oliver Johnstone (after young Rufus in Part I) played Octavian with an air of even greater menace as he seized the opportunity given to him by his adoptive father Caesar Mk I. Joe Dixon seemed to relish the roles of, first, entitled aristo Catiline and then, a boozed up Mark Antony, as did Eloise Secker as the scheming Clodia and then Fulvia. This is, unfortunately, not a story with much to offer in the way of female roles, so it was a bit disconcerting, and unusual, to see so many white men on show. Still that was Rome, except that it wasn’t really.
Turning Cicero’s life, through the device of a biography written by his (originally) slave, mediated through millenia of scholarship, a writer of gripping fiction, and then on to the stage, was bound to throw up all sorts of questions about how we interpret the Ancients and how the “principles” they established still inform the world today, politics, democracy and drama, most prominently. Layer that into a fast moving biography, contemporary resonance, (for once not shoehorned in), and a history lesson, and you can see why the team here was pretty much on the case as soon as the ink had dried on the final part of Robert Harris’s trilogy, also entitled Dictator. History does not repeat itself, nor is there some deterministic arc to human progress, but two-bit, populistic tosspot geezers (always men) are ten a penny. Easy to spot, less easy to stop.
For all of you who get sniffy about the RSC and its contribution to the cultural fabric of this country, and, the world, I respectfully suggest you zip it. Here’s a great story, thrillingly told, neither too high or too low brow. Of course, as usual, by the time the Tourist gets round to seeing it and writing about it, it’s pretty much all over but I would hope this adaptation has an afterlife and I for one would love to see more “history” plays delivered in such confident, ambitious style. Like I say, if like me, you just don’t have the attention span to read a book or devote days to a box-set, then this is the thing for you. Proof positive that anyone who thinks theatre is a dreadful, long drawn out bore hasn’t tried and basically doesn’t know what they are talking about.
Working on the premise that it surely is impossible to see Hamlet too often in a lifetime, and keen to make sure the RSC continues to bring as many productions as possible to London, I signed up some time ago for this gig. This despite having already seen the cinema broadcast from Stratford in 2016. A bit excessive I hear you cry. Nope, not when you have an actor as gifted as Paapa Essiedu. His Edmund in the RSC King Lear in 2016 was the best thing about the production, which was pretty good despite some misgivings about the play and Antony Sher’s Lear. Hopefully you had a chance to see him on the tour of this production before it came to the venerable Empire. If you are anywhere near the Kennedy Centre, Washington (DC not Tyne and Wear) in early May I commend you to get along for the last leg of this tour.
There is more to this production, directed by Simon Godwin, than Mr Essiedu however. Mr Godwin has demonstrated that he has a way of breathing new life into classic texts, combining innovation and fealty. (Twelfth Night at the National Theatre review ****). Denmark has been re-imagined as a West African state which yields some interesting insights and a design concept for Elsinore a long way from the usual Northern European Stygian gloom. The programme notes, (I don’t know why people don’t buy programmes, at the very least at the major subsidised theatres, there is so much to learn from them), refer to Hamlet coming “home” after his years studying in Wurttemberg and how he is torn between cultures. There is some mileage in this idea which the production gently explores. There are parallels with Tshembe Matoseh, the main protagonist in Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece Les Blancs. No doubt you clever people can think of other theatrical “culture-clash” conceits. Of course transporting the look and the backdrop of the play to West Africa, whilst still retaining a text and characters anchored in Shakespeare’s vague Denmark, throws up a few contradictions but I think that was largely the point. Your man Hamlet after all isn’t short of cognitive dissonance.
So our sweet Prince is already on edge and suspicious of how Claudius came to power. When he sees Dad’s ghost on the ramparts all togged out in tribal chief paraphernalia, in contrast to the modern dress of the present Court, he quickly resolves to action. There is a sense throughout that this Hamlet, whilst not knowing how and when, and running through the gamut of hesitant self examination, is powered by the powerful urge to right a wrong. His feigned madness, his toying with Polonius, the verbal sparring with Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the taunting of Claudius and Gertrude, the carousing with the players, are all in the service of avenging the old fella. The production breaks at the Claudius prayer scene with Hamlet circling in the shadows, gun in hand. I wasn’t sure but I reckon this was only ever going to be a reprieve for Claudius. (Of course I was sure, we all know what happens, but my point is this was a Hamlet who was just gearing up to the main event not a bottler with an uncertain grip on his own reality). “To be or not to be” is a pep talk to self here, not a page from Kierkegaard.
Paapa Essiedu fits this conflicted, mischievous Hamlet like a glove. There is not one single word, let along line, that doesn’t sound entirely right. He doesn’t hang around or over-elaborate, but there is still enough space around the words to take them in. Not the conversational musing of Andrew Scott at the Almeida or the irked ironic philosophising of Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican. Just a spontaneous intelligence which makes you wonder why other actors seem to agonise over the right tone to take for this admittedly complicated young fella. His movement and expression is flawless. He can project a single glance to the back of the balcony. He seems to find the shifts from comedy to tragedy, well, just easy. Look out for the laugh he conjures up when pulling Polonius’s body from behind the arras. And I know it shouldn’t matter but it really helps that he is the right age and he is beautiful. PE himself seeming to be a combination of child, student, lover, playboy, artist, he knows enough to question what it is all about, but not enough to buckle under the weight of his own existentialist uncertainties. And, despite all the moping about and hissy fits, you can see why people are really drawn to him and crave his approval.
Compare this to Clarence Smith’s Claudius which is far more old-skool declamatory, though this works pretty well in this context. A far cry from the last time I saw this fine actor as the broken Selwyn in Roy Williams’s brilliant latest play The Firm (The Firm at the Hampstead Theatre review *****). I wasn’t entirely convinced initially by the versatile Lorna Brown’s seemingly withdrawn and inert Gertrude, but this made more sense as the production unfolded and the final death scene was very poignant. He’s still her little boy you see.
In the scenes between Polonius (Joseph Mydell), Laertes (Buom Tihngang) and Ophelia (Mimi Ndiweni) there was a real sense of a loving family, something I had not really felt before. Matching Papa Essiedu’s dazzling performance was a tall order for the rest of the cast but Mmi Ndiweni, (taking on the role from Natalie Simpson in the first Stratford incarnation), came pretty close. The mad scene was both very moving and very scary. Mind you I am a sucker for a distraught Ophelia. And, thanks to both actors, Hamlet’s dismissal of Ophelia, here played out whilst writhing around in bed, actually made sense. Romayne Andrews and Eleanor Wyld as Rosencrantz and Guildernstern struck all the right notes, dislocated in this very different Denmark, and Ewart James Walters turned in some scene stealers doubling as a booming Old Hamlet and a Gravedigger who, judging by his accent, had taken a long way round to get to this particular Denmark.
The production really comes to vibrant life when the colours, sounds and dance of West Africa are brought to the stage thanks to Paul Anderson (lighting), Sola Akingbola (composer), Christopher Shutt (sound) and Mbulelo Ndabeni. The players are no afterthought here. Locating Hamlet’s antic disposition in the artistic milieu of Jean-Michel Basquiat works far better on stage than on paper. You are left wondering if Simon Godwin and the team might have found a few more visual or textual signifiers to flesh out Claudius’s rise to, (diplomatic duplicity alongside an arranged murder?), and fall from, power, and the effect of conflict with the “Norwegian” neighbours, though I get this might have made for an uneasy narrative. It may have helped ease the shift into the bloody carnage of Act V though.
Anyway not quite a perfect Hamlet (play) if such a thing where ever possible. But certainly a near perfect Hamlet (bloke) thanks to Paapa Essiedu. I think I have been guilty of saying too often that I can’t wait to see what xxxx does next on stage in this blog. In this case it is really true and I suspect most of those who have seen this production would agree. On this evidence anything is possible from this rare talent. There are some actors who convince but stay firmly rooted to the stage behind the invisible wall. There are some though that seem to magically come off and out to play to you alone. PE is one of these.
Booking opens 5th May (earlier for members of various hues) for the new batch of productions at the National Theatre. I reckon tickets for Follies, the Sondheim musical with a cast of thousands and the pocket rocket Imelda Staunton in the lead, will sell like the proverbial hot cakes. I also have my eye on Mosquitoes, the new play by Lucy Kirkwood (Chimerica, NSFW, The Children) with Olivia Colman off the telly.
Booking for the 4 way RSCShakespeare Roman plays extravaganza is now open at the Barbican.
The new Bridge Theatre inaugural season is announced and I am so excited. Public booking opens 27th April. I recommend all 3 of the openers. Young Marx with Rory Kinnear as Marx, Oliver Chris as Engels, written by Richard Bean and Clive Colman and directed by Nicholas Hytner himself. The Julius Caesar not only has Ben Wishaw as Brutus but David Morrissey (last seen in the magnificent Hangmen by Martin McDonagh – best play of the last 3 years) as Mark Antony. And there is a new work, Nightfall by Barney Norris, which sounds intriguing (the refurbished Bush Theatre has While We’re Here, another new play by busy Barney, coming up). And the Bridge has lined up future new works by Nina Raine (about Bach yesssssss !!!! with Simon Russell Beale yessssss !!!), whose Consent I have yet to see at the NT, and by Lucy Prebble based on Bizet’s opera Carmen, as well as by Sam Holcroft and Lucinda Coxon.
Against at the Almeida will be booking from mid May.
The Old Vic is set to stage The Divide, the new play by Alan Ayckbourn, set in a future dystopian England, after a run at the Edinburgh Festival. Sounds like a cracker, mind you not too many laughs I am guessing from the blurb. No booking details yet.
I am casting an eye over Little Foot (by South African playwright Craig Higginson) and Doubt, A Parable (JP Shanley which was made into a film I gather) at the Southwark Playhouse (who are also bringing back Kiki’s Delivery Service which is a belter if you have littl’uns).
Everything Between Us (by David Ireland), Food and Mr Gillie look like the best of the bunch in the new Finborough theatre season.
And I have booked 3 of the 5 offerings at the end of July at the Orange Tree where they are letting young directors’, studying at St Mary’s round the corner in Strawberry Hill, loose on early plays by James Graham, Brad Birch, David Ireland, Enda Walsh and Kate Tempest. £7.50 a pop to support aspiring talent. Go on.
Finally I am weighing up the RSC Queen Anne at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the transfer from Stratford but can’t quite make up my mind though Romola Garai in the lead may tip the balance.