Botticelli in the Fire at Hampstead Theatre review **

Botticelli in the Fire

Hampstead Theatre, 20th November 2019

Us pensioners, well nearly in the case of the Tourist, as well as the real-dealers who haunt the matinees at which he largely frequents, are getting our eyes opened in Roxana Silbert’s first season as AD at the HT. Nothing fusty about the main stage offerings, what with scandal and corruption in China the subject of The King of Hell’s Palace, Cold War by proxy through chess in Ravens on now, and the threat from data capture and surveillance in Haystack to come. And this by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, a queer history set in a Renaissance Florence, plagued by, er, plague, centred on the artist Sandro Botticelli.

It starts well. Dickie Beau as Botticelli, who serves up as committed a performance as you could expect to see on this or any other stage, in skinny jeans and leather jacket, opens with a direct to audience confessional which broadsides the artist’s sybaritic outlook and the challenges his art and his sexuality present in a liberal state lurching towards repression. That is the message and James Cotterill’s costumes, and the artist studio set that soon emerges, do a grand job in bringing a contemporary resonance to that message, though don’t quite fill the space. Best of all this soliloquy is filthily funny. Mr Tannahill introduces Botticelli’s assistant, on Leonardo Da Vinci (a measured Hiran Abeysekera), and debauched bessie the vivacious Poggio Di Chiusi (Stefan Adegbola).

Leonardo of course apprenticed in the workshop of Verrocchio, as did Botticelli briefly, and I am pretty sure Poggio is fictional, but the combination serves the purpose well and reflects the fact that both artists were accused of sodomy when the moral clampdown led by radical Girolamo Savonarola (Howard Ward). Before we get to the pivotal scene, again based on fact, where Botticelli trades some of his work, to be consumed in the Bonfire of the Vanities of 1497, in return for immunity, we meet first Clarice Orsini (Sirine Saba). She is the outspoken wife of political and banking big cheese, and Botticelli’s patron, Lorenzo de Medici (Adetomiwa Edun), who it transpires is Botticelli’s lover, Clarice not Lorenzo, though one can imagine. Ms Saba also playa the Venus in that painting which Lorenzo has commissioned.

Plenty to get your dramatic teeth into you would think. The problem is that Mr Tannahill’s modern vernacular text isn’t really up to the task. His legitimate determination to stick with the hedonistic tone established at the outset and reinforce his queering of history intention means the plot starts to get overwhelmed by the spectacle and the arguments that the characters advance, the purpose of art, sexual freedom, the exercise of political and religious power, the mobilisation of parochial populism against the liberal elite, become perfunctory. I suppose there were clues in the opening address, “this is not just a play, it’s an extravaganza”, and “the historians, I’m sorry, you can all go and fuck yourselves”.

Jordan Tannahill is plainly a talented young man, turning his hand to all many of multi-media collaborations, but a play, particularly one which takes as its starting point a lesson from history, (however this is re-imagined), needs a solid grounding in the text. I loved the look and the performances, performance artist Dickie Beau has bags of stage presence, but even he was unable to demand any sustained emotional or intellectual investment from the audience. Blanche McIntyre’s pliant direction, with help from the lighting and sound designs of Johanna Town and Christopher Shutt, engineers some arresting scenes, a camp dance routine, a choreographed squash game, the burning, but cannot compensate for the sparsity of character and contention. In the end, the play, like its protagonist, is so in love with itself that it doesn’t really look out to see what is going on around it.

Richard III at the Alexandra Park Theatre review ***

Richard III

Headlong, Alexandra Park Theatre, 17th March 2019

Right. Let’s get the gripe out of the way. Maybe in the smaller venues where this production will tour it might creep up to a 4* but Alexandra Park Theatre, whilst an undeniably superb space after the refurbishment, is just a little too cavernous to accommodate the claustrophobic history/tragedy/comedy/thriller/psychodrama/vaudeville which is Dickie 3.

Chiara Stephenson’s Gothic, dark, old-school castle with a twist, namely the introduction of multiple full length, revolving mirrors, together with the lighting of Elliot Griggs, is a winner set-wise. But it utilises barely a third of the huge proscenium stage, and I would guess, since all is shielded in dark fabric, only a similar portion of the depth. To rectify this the actors, in addition to coming on and off through the glass revolves, enter from the auditorium to the side of the stage, and, for the London scene, pop up in the “slips” and bark back to the stage. It is the right look for John Haidar’s galvanic production and Tom Mothersdale scorpion delivery as Dickie but seems lost in all this volume. As do the lines. Not because of the delivery. In most cases this is sound as a pound but set against George Dennis’s throbbing, pounding, electronic sound the intensity is diluted, and occasionally, for the aurally challenged such as the Tourist, lost completely.

Now this being a Headlong production, (albeit in conjunction with Ally Pally, the Bristol Old Vic, Royal and Derngate and Oxford Playhouse, all of which it will travel to, as well as the Cambridge Arts Theatre and Home Manchester), there is still much to admire. With the Mother Courage, This House, Labour of Love, People, Places and Things, Junkyard, The Absence of War, American Psycho, 1984, Chimerica, The Effect, Medea and Enron, Headlong has been responsible for some of the best theatre the Tourist has seen in recent years. He even liked Common, John Haidar’s last outing, putting him in a minority of one. He would therefore never miss anything the company produces. All My Sons at the Old Vic and Hedda Tesman at Chichester already signed up with willing guests.

John Haidar has opted to sneak in a bit of Henry VI to provide context, (complete with first taste of murder before that “winter” even starts), juggles the standard text and cuts out superfluous characters, though doubling is kept to a minimum, and generally encourages a lively approach to the verse, (though nowhere near the gallop of Joe Hill-Gibbons’s Richard II at the Almeida recently) . This means each half barely ticks over into the hour. The focus then, as it should be, is on Tom Mothersdale’s Richard, and the “family” saga, if you will, a family from which Richard is permanently excluded, rather than the politics. Tom Kanji’s Clarence doesn’t take up too much time, the other assassinations are similarly rapidly dispatched, Stefan Adegbola’s smug Buckingham and Heledd Gywnn’s Hastings, (as arresting a presence as she was in the Tobacco Factory’s Henry V), take precedence in the jostling for power, and the scenes with the three women, Dickie’s, to say the least, disappointed, Mum, the Duchess of York (Eileen Nicholas), Edward IV’s Scottish widow Elizabeth (Derbhle Crotty) and sacrificial lamb Anne (Leila Mimmack), are given plenty of air time.

With Heledd Gwynn doubling up as Ratcliffe, Tom Kanji as Catesby and Leila Mimmack as Norfolk, the production achieves an admirable gender balance and also tips Richard’s murderous ascendancy into a joint enterprise, at least until he shafts his mates. The main cast is completed with John Sackville’s ghostly Henry VI, Michael Matus as Edward IV and then Stanley and Caleb Roberts as Richmond (and utility messenger). The stage then is literally set, what with the opening soliloquy and those mirrors, for Dickie to slay his way to the ghostly visitations. Each murder is marked by a red flash and a loud buzz just to make sure we get it.

Now the Tourist has seen young Mothersdale up close in the slightly disappointing Dealing with Clair at the OT recently, in the magnificent John by Annie Baker, as well as roles in Cleansed at the NT and Oil at the Almeida. He’s got it, no doubt. As he shows here. And, as he capers around the stage, in dark Burgundy suit and leather caliper, long-limbed, lank-locked, threatening, cajoling, pleading, squirming at Mummy’s rejection, he is certainly the “bottled spider” of Will’s description. But I am not sure he finds an angle. There is the caricature Richard of Thomas More Tudor myth, as Reformation Elizabethan England found its way in the world ordained by God. There is Richard as psycho executing to a plan, villainy as predestination. There is nudge, nudge, wink, wink comedy Richard who recruits us into the fun. Or there is poor, diddums, “nobody loves me so I’m going to show you” Richard who can’t stop once he gets started. And more. With multiple permutations.

Here we seem to get a bit of everything in this swift, safe production. Not the monomaniac man-child, (any resemblance to a current world leader is surely entirely deliberate), of the brilliant Hans Kesting in Kings of War, not the compulsive egotist of Lars Eidinger in the Schaubuhne production at the Barbican, not the amoral sociopath of Ralph Fiennes at the Almeida with that infamous rape scene, not the trad manipulator of Mark Rylance at the Globe. Of the other recent Dickie’s that the Tourist has enjoyed Tom Mothersdale comes closest to Greg Hicks’ take in the pint-sized, though still extremely effective production, under Mehmet Ergen at the Arcola in 2017. Except that Greg Hicks made every single word count and plumbed some very ugly depths in Richard’s misogynism and unquenchable grievance. And with chain permanently attaching arm to leg he offered a stark visual reminder of his “deformation”.

There are some fine moments, the “seductions”, the ghosts behind the mirrors, TM cringing at Mother’s curses and her recoiling from his touch, some meaningful gobbing, the writhing in the Bosworth mud at the end, and, like I say, this will probably work better at, say, Bristol or Oxford, but I would have preferred a more thoughtful, and yes, longer, interpretation. Still the one thing you know about Richard III’s, like Macbeth’s, Lear’s and Number 38’s, there will be another one along shortly.

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.