Richard III at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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Richard III

Arcola Theatre, 10th June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Othello at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****

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Othello

Wilton’s Music Hall, 17th May 2017

I think Othello is my favourite Shakespeare tragedy. And it follows, therefore, that it is my favourite Shakespeare play since the tragedies generally kick the most arse. And it therefore also follows that it is probably my favourite ever play since no-one bests big Will. Mind you I have so much more to explore so lets not be hasty. But to date this is the Daddy.

This means I might not be the most objective judge. Which for this production really helped. I fear that a combination of my hearing which is no longer up to snuff, my seating position up in the gallery, the acoustic at Wilton’s and, perhaps, the sound engineering here meant that I couldn’t clearly hear a lot of the lines. Which is a shame as pretty much everything else about this Othello was mightily impressive as it cut straight to the core of what this play is about.

So what made it so good despite my blinking ears?

Well, first off, the programme is at pains to explores Othello’s “otherness” as a “Moor” in terms of his colour, but also more so his faith, as probably a Muslim who is forced to, or chooses to, embrace Christianity. The production serves to handsomely illuminate this (it starts with Othello on a prayer mat and crucifixes are liberally bandied about), such that it is not just the vitriolic racism that is on show but also the suspicion accorded Othello by the Venetians because of his roots in Islam. This despite his victories over the “Turks”. This may be C16 Venice (and Wilton’s itself does a nice line in atmospheric material decay), but clearly there is plenty of food for thought in this production for our own times.

It also rightly centres on Iago. There are multiple ways to explore why Iago is driven to do what he does but I think this production gets as close as possible to the heart of what drives him.

Of course Iago is disfigured by the racism and misogyny of the society that he lives in. And, as he says, being passed over for preferment in favour of Cassio portends a powerful grudge. His hatred of Othello is certainly borne of envy yes – of his masculinity, his power, his sexual relationship with Desdemona (in contrast to what may be his stagnating marriage to Emilia, look out for the “non-kiss”) – but at its heart is the dissonance between his admiration (and even attraction) to Othello and his incomprehension that this “other” should have everything he can’t have. He loathes himself and cannot, and will not, stop until he has brought this man down. His jealously is so all encompassing that he can justify his actions to himself and, for me, the final vow of silence is a sign that he still believes he was “right” to do what he did in his own mind.

So the “why the f*ck should he get everything when I am better than him” is the bigger lesson here. And this is what Will S nailed as it seems as if it is a permanent feature element of the human condition. It is this deep psychological impulse that lies at the heart of the alienation that pervades neo-liberal capitalism and is what some will always seek to exploit. So the play is relevant in my mind, not just because of the way it explores the “fear of the other”,  but also because it shows the hate people can be driven to by perceived “unfairness”.

Blimey I think I may have got all carried away there. Sorry.

Anyway none of this would work if the players are not up to the task. And here Mark Lockyer as Iago was about as good as it is possible to be. His Iago properly hates himself. Not just in his words but in his movement – pacing, pointing, finger-clicking, advancing and retreating – all in some sort of Prosperian performance to justify his thoughts and actions to himself, as well as hide his intentions from others. Brilliant and horribly plausible.

In contrast I saw a “man-child” Othello who was maybe more open to manipulation than in other productions which perhaps better explains, whilst still condemning, his brutally misogynistic destiny. It is stating the obvious that debutant Abraham Popoola has an extraordinary physical presence, but the way he used this in the scenes with Desdemona, both tender and violent, and especially with Iago, where Iago is winding his jealously up to the max, was remarkable. As Othello oscillates between his disgust at the imagined betrayal by Desdemona and his trust in her true nature, so Iago oscillates between a visible fear that he has pushed Othello too far (he actually physically shrinks when this Othello gets right in his face) and an almost smug satisfaction in what he can do to his “friend” and, always remember, his military superior.

There is also another very fine performance in the form of the diminutive Norma Lopez Holden as a sensual Desdemona. Constantly in motion, tactile and perfect in conveying, even to the end, the sense of disbelief at what has come over her husband. Throughout the sexual attraction between her and Othello pervaded the theatre. This actor will surely go far. To round it off we had a fine, upright Cassio in Piers Hampton and an Emilia in Kate Stephens who is, ultimately, the best side of our nature. In fact the whole ensemble seemed to me to perfectly execute director Richard Twyman’s laser-guided vision.

BTW Mt Twyman s a very important man. As Artistic Director of English Touring Theatre he will have a hand in bringing the best of theatre to venues outside of the London commercial and subsidised venues. A vital role. From what I have seen of their past production and what he has achieved here it is therefore an immense blessing that he is very, very good at his job.

In this directing role, and along with his sound and, especially, lighting team, he has brought a prodigious energy to this Othello and some absolutely first rate scenes with an absolute minimum of props and costume, particularly through Acts 2 to 5. The soldier’s partying and drinking, the big fight scene, the Iago wind up of Othello, the murder of Cassio in the dark, Emilia and Desdemona’s drunken but unswerving dissection of the relationship between the sexes, Desdemona’s murder (a yoga mat replaces the usually crassly symbolic bed and calls back the beginning) – all these scenes were as good as I have seen. And that wretched hanky gets an early look in – as part of the apparently non-Christian wedding ceremony at the start – how brilliant is that.

But if I was to single out one contributor it would be movement director Renaud Wiser. Like I said some of the lines, particularly Othello’s, floundered on the rocks of my dodgy hearing. This, together with the harsh downlighting and fluorescent tubes at the corner of the tight, bare, in-the-round stage, maybe meant I focussed on movement in a way that I might not normally do but here I could see just how vital this ingredient was to the whole.

So, as you may have gathered, I liked this. And this despite the aural handicap without which I might even be prepared to rate it alongside Nicholas Hytner’s NT production in 2013 which, to this day, still leaves me nervous of befriending anyone who comes across like Rory Kinner’s matey Iago.

So please go along. There’s another three weeks or so and it looks like plenty of tickets. Probably best to go downstairs, maybe have a quick snifter beforehand and it will help if you like the play already. But if you do go you will be reminded of just how vital Shakespeare can be. I am pretty sure Mark Lockyer’s Iago will rank as one of the best performances of the year. And all this for 25 quid tops.

This is the first time that I have seen a production by Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory. If this is what they do then it won’t be the last. Hopefully Wilton’s Music Hall will snap up anything they tour to allow the good burghers of London a chance to enjoy. Otherwise I now have the perfect excuse to go to Bristol. Here is the link to the website. Read it. This is how theatre should be done.

Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory

The Winter’s Tale at the Barbican review ****

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The Winter’s Tale

Silk Street Theatre, 18th April 2017

Now I have always thought if you just cut out the “pastoral comedy” fourth act from the “comedy” The Winter’s Tale, stopped calling it a “romance” because you can’t think of a better name and reined back the “magic” then you would have a perfectly good tragedy with a partial redemption at the end.

Leontes is a jealous man-child from the off and he just can’t suppress or hide it. It consumes him. Camillo and Paulina can see it and will take steps to try limit the damage. Shove in an oracle to show the truth, ignore it, then pay the consequences with death of Son, Mamillius, and abandonment of pregnant wife, Hermione. Luckily Daughter, Perdita, is subsequently saved by nice peasants and falls in love with spurned friend’s Son, Florizel. All return and discover wife never died in the first place but just to make sure you have learnt your lesson Leontes, create elaborate “statue comes to life” illusion. Happy ever after excepting memory of dead Son which is the punishment for uncontrolled jealously.

No need for shepherds, clowns or, most importantly, annoyingly unfunny pedlars and no real need for magical explanations. Oracle, Bear, Time and Statue just interesting theatrical opportunities to move us on to where we need to be and a bit of fun for designers. No need to keep it real here – those stage directions might just be big WIll having a laugh.

Anyway I have yet to see a production that boots out Act 4 but I guess it has been done. I enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s version at the Garrick in 2015 (on the big screen not in the theatre) though this was mostly down to him (he really is a very fine actor when he wants to be) and Dame Judi obviously. Wish I had seen it live. I saw the Painkiller with LD as part of that Branagh season, which we thought was hilarious (and again where Branagh was outstanding), but also Harlequinade which didn’t float my boat at all and The Entertainer which, I have to conclude, is just a rubbish play.

So we (SO and I) also enjoyed Cheek By Jowl’s last visit to the Barbican in 2014 with their perennial Tis Pity She’s A Whore (once SO was apprised of the fact that this was a tragedy and not a comedy) which is/was a pretty visceral take on Ford’s everyday tale of incest. deception and murder.

It seems to me that Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, the brains behind CBJ, could never be accused of taking the lazy path and think carefully about all of the classics that they take on. This is no different. Orlando James’s Leontes clearly has a massive temper on him and his irrational and violent behaviour is there from the off. Mamillius (Tom Cawte who really makes a mark) is an unpleasant chip off the old block – witness his full blown tantrum. Hermione, again an excellent performance by Natalie Radmell-Quirke, seems perversely only to wind him up further with her blamelessness. There is that sense that both husband and wife are helpless to stop the worst happening – watch Leontes positioning Hermione and Polixenes to visualise his suspicions. And everyone in the Court looks like they have seen this all before, notably Camillo and Paulina (David Carr and Joy Richardson).

The oracle scene, with the smart use of video to capture the play of emotions on their faces, works very well. Indeed the whole staging, sparse, as is the fashion, with just a white box with collapsing panels to ring the changes of setting, and with dramatic lighting courtesy of Judith Greenwood and music courtesy of Paddy Cunneen, works extremely well in my eyes.

So all good and gripping. And then Act bloody 4. The team throws a lot at this, with knowing verbal and song references to the miserable and comic bits by Ryan Donaldson’s Autolycus, who has a natty wardrobe, and a Kylesque trash TV skit. It is diverting and better than bales of hay, flutes, sheep and morris dancers, but I still found the whole thing a pointless break in the story. When we get back to Sicily things pick up again and the final, statue scene is very fine for being restrained with a Renaissance style tableau created by the cast at the end as Maxillius returns as, I think, a school kid in a gallery.

So I liked it. I can see it might be a bit analytical for some but if you want a clear exposition of what can be a tricky play then take a look. It may be done and dusted in London but you can see the Livestream recording on the CBJ website or on I Player. So on your night in this week why not swap your Game of Thrones or MasterChef for a bit of Shakespeare. And don’t forget, when that Autolycus appears feel free to fast forward.

Twelfth Night at the National Theatre review ****

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Twelfth Night

National Theatre, 10th April 2017

Now I’m not going to lie to you. The first couple of times when I saw Twelfth Night years ago I had no idea what was going on. Mind you I put no effort in and was, on one occasion I recall, knackered after a few long shifts at work. Even so it put me off a bit. And I still find it a bit more of a tougher nut to crack than the classic Shakespeare tragedies, the history plays and the some of the other comedies.

I know that the whole spiel is that Twelfth Night is a time of mischief and general larking about. I get that we are in a world of sharp reversals in terms of gender, fortunes and behaviours. I can see the “dead” brothers sub-text and the possible link to the death of Hamnet. But that hasn’t stopped me finding the whole thing a bit mannered and a little less than entirely satisfying. And I have previously found Olivia, Viola/Cesario, Sebastian, Orsino and Aguecheek all slightly colourless.

Still never give up. After all if I can’t get my head around these mistaken identity comedy plots then I can’t really count myself a serious theatre-goer can I.

So joys of joys this production has allayed my prior misgivings.

First up, as most everyone has observed, the gender reversal of Malvolio into Malvolia is a stroke of genius. For me it brings a whole new dimension not just to this character, but it spills over elsewhere, particularly into Olivia’s and then Orsino’s relationship with Viola/Cesario. Now you, and they, are really unsure about their identities and sexualities and we get a bit of a head of steam building up to the benefit of the gag quotient.

Of course this dimension is only made possible by the genius of Tamsin Greig. So the family loves her from the telly and though I have only seen her a couple of times on stage, in Jumpy and, most recently, in IHo at Hampstead, she blew my socks off. Great actor, impeccable comic timing. Of course you are primed to laugh at Malvolio/a but she took it to a whole new level in the gulling/topiary scene. And I really believe “she’ll be back” to get the bastards who treated her so badly. At last I savoured this downbeat contrast at the end.

I also think Tim McMullan is a brilliant actor. Sir Toby was another reason I have got frustrated by productions of Twelfth Night in the past. The temptation with this character to slice thinly, marinade overnight and then flash fry the scenery before chewing loudly might prove too great for some actors but Mr McMullan wisely eschews (geddit) this. With a Cooganesque swagger he gets the balance between dick and provocateur bang on. The SO loved him in Man and Superman. And just look a his list of NT credits. If he is in it, it will be good, and so it was here.

I would also call out Phoebe Fox as Olivia and Niky Wardley as Maria. In fact the only slightly unconvincing link in the actorial chain was Doon Mackichan as Feste who just didn’t seem comfortable as a fool, having to ensure we could follow all her fool-ish meaning, whilst moving sharply through the set. Oh yes and what a genius set it was. I think Soutra Gilmour must be my favourite set designer (never thought I would have a favourite set designer) what with this, My Brilliant Friend. Les Blancs, The Homecoming, Strange Interlude, Bull, and Antigone in the last few years.

And finally hats off to director Simon Godwin. After all the masterstroke in the gender rewiring of cast and the freedom of choice with set, place and costume, which in turn emphasised the characters own freedom to maybe be what they want to be, was presumably his call.

So I get the play. At last. Hurrah.