“Richard III” by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Saturday 28th July 2012

Many actors explain that for every character they play, no matter how evil, they have to be sympathetic in order to craft a truthful performance. In Richard III at the Globe, Mark Rylance goes a step further, ensuring audiences fall deeply in love with the anti-hero. We don’t love to hate him, but love to love this gentle, misunderstood and unstable Richard. But though Rylance’s performance and the support from those around him are strong, under Tim Carroll’s direction the two never quite work together.

From the moment he limps onto stage, Rylance is utterly magnetic. He holds the attention of the audience with a simple look or a well-timed sniff. At one point, a mobile phone beeps and he darts his head in the direction of the sound like a meerkat looking out over the desert. His laugh bellows around the auditorium, and it’s not until he’s bumped off a few enemies that we realise he’s the bad guy. Rylance suggests a slight autism in this Richard; his remarkable cunning is balanced by relatively weak social skills, meaning that along with his deformity he is truly an underdog. Like true Brits, we support him wholeheartedly, and indeed are implicit in his rise to power, taking the part of the civilians in the monk scene. Then again, we also support his downfall, as Richmond summons our cheers; just like our everyday selves, we can be played by politicians’ hyperbole, and change our mind without hesitation.

Rylance’s final scenes are truly heartbreaking, as the suggestion that he never really knew what he was doing becomes apparent. He sees the ghosts of his victims during his battle with Richmond (after seeing them looking like white turds in his dreams) and it suddenly dawns on him that he’s a murderer. His struggle is a constant one between latent violence and pure gentleness, and its the meeting of these which cause his demise.

Contrary to my words in my Henry V review, the Globe here finds strong support for Rylance. Liam Brennan’s grounded and kingly Clarence shows what England missed out on, and Paul Chahidi’s somewhat effeminate Hastings shows the corruption doesn’t just lie with Richard. Roger Lloyd pack is somewhat prone to declamation as Buckingham, but his comic timing forgives this, and though it initially seems James Garnon’s Duchess of York is going to be a caricature, there is surprising depth to this portrayal which goes beyond the visual joke of her gliding across the stage. Johnny Flynn’s Lady Anne doesn’t quite manage to capture the hurt the new queen suffers, though perhaps his performance is simply made to look weak against Samuel Barnett’s fine turn as Queen Elizabeth, demonstrating strong, principled opposition to Richard’s actions.

But though Carroll discovers some intriguing performances, it’s difficult to see why this group of people weren’t able to stop this gentle Richard. Their weaknesses are barely tangible; the only way this Richard would be able to come to power would be if he was surrounded by bumbling sycophants, but in this case the court is (mostly) fairly astute.

I also suspect that Jenny Tirimani’s Elizabethan costume and design, though gorgeous, doesn’t help matters. A Richard as different as Rylance’s needs an alternative context in which to work due to its removal from Shakespeare’s initial pantomimic portrait. The reason behind the decision to have an all-male cast in this instance also eludes me, for it seems to neither to add nor take away anything. These performances would not be much different in a black-box studio with a mixed cast (at least then we’d be rid of the Globe’s determination to create lazy comedy). Some would argue that ‘original-practices’ is a form of avant-gardism, which is ludicrous, seeing as to do so is to reject the last four hundred years of development in theatre. Still, that argument is for another day.

Watching Richard III on the same day as Henry V brings an interesting contrast to light. At the climax of each tetralogy of the Histories, Shakespeare shows two major uses of theatre; as reflection on issues within society (Richard III) and as a vehicle for hope (Henry V). And though it’s not quite as simple as that, it strikes me that perhaps this is the reason why neither production really works. There are elements of exposing corruption and hope respectively, but neither goes the whole hog. Nonetheless, they are representative of a general rise in the Histories’ popularity over the past few years (since the RSC’s cycle) as these plays get the recognition they deserve and we attempt to understand better our own links with history and where that may lead us in the future.

“Henry V” by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Saturday 28th July 2012

Two years ago, following the superb Henry IVs Parts 1 and 2, I begged “for Jamie Parker as Henry V at some point in the near future”. Well, my prayers were answered (yes, I like to think this was all down to me) and I wasn’t wrong; in Dominic Dromgoole’s production of Henry V at the Globe, Parker gives a wonderful performance as the charismatic king. Unfortunately, however, the production is let down by a less than impressive ensemble and rather indulgent direction.

I don’t understand how it has become normal at the Globe to have strong central performances and weak supporting actors. Granted, it’s a hard space to master, but the likes of Parker, Rylance, Allam and Best prove it’s not impossible. Why, then, do shows consistently cast actors who feel it necessary to gesticulate wildly and lose all trace of awareness of the space? It’s all well and good to do straight-laced productions of Shakespeare, but the least we expect from that is a strong cast.

One of the worst perpetrators of this in Henry V is Sam Cox, who plays Pistol as a cross between Russell Kane and Jack Sparrow but who is let down by supreme self-awareness and seems to be working by the mantra ‘do anything, as long as it gets a laugh’. Brid Brennan’s Chorus is equally uninspiring, and speaks the lines with such anger and wide-eyed menace that it’s difficult to take her seriously; there is little chance we will imagine the scenes she asks us to with such bizarre delivery. When Olivia Ross speaks her lines as the young boy, her hands seem to be imitating an air traffic controller, though she is redeemed by her sweet portrayal of Katherine.

Nigel Cooke’s Exeter injects some charisma into proceedings and Brendan O’Hea’s Fluellen is – most of the time – hilarious. But no one even comes close to matching Parker’s affable, strong-willed, knowing Harry. He walks around the stage with such ease and converses with the audience in such laid-back tones that we really do feel part of his army. “Once more unto the breach” is delivered with searing energy and when he looks you square in the eye and says “We happy few”, it’s explicit that you’re on his side. It’s only a shame he didn’t get to play the king in the same season as Hal; I suspect his performance would be even richer in a shorter timeframe.

Jonathan Fensom’s set is a disintegrated version of the Henry IV design, and the squabbles between the nations of Britain here are brought to the forefront, showing a kingdom on the edge of collapse (with so much talk of “Britain” at the moment this play comes across as supremely English). The stylised fight scenes are also a nice addition, though more enthusiasm from certain members of the cast at these points wouldn’t go amiss.

But perhaps what’s most interesting about this production, especially considering so many aspects are taken from the previous Henry IVs, is that it shows Henry V to be very much a play which only makes sense in the context of the histories. The Falstaff scenes are lost on much of the audience and some of the characters are paper-thin in this play without the aid of previous narratives. The fact Dromgoole doesn’t attempt to smooth over these issues is an oversight, and though Parker shines, its difficult not to think he’s driving a slightly faulty vehicle.

“Democracy” by Michael Frayn

at the Old Vic Theatre, Wednesday 25th July 2012

History, supposedly, died at the fall of the USSR and the reunification of Germany. If there’s anything the ideological discussions and revolutions of the past few years have taught us, however, (and let’s be honest, some idiots haven’t learnt enough from these events), it’s that history is far from over. The ideas presented in Paul Miller’s production of Michael Frayn’s Democracy, though set before the fall of the Berlin Wall, demonstrate to audiences in 2012 that the debates which began in 70s Europe are far from over.

There is something mildly Shakespearean about Frayn’s 2003 play; an historical era is used to reflect a contemporary one, the play spans vastly over time and space, and the language has a poetic rhythm to it, elevating the central characters. But more than all this, we are treated to not one, but two tragic heroes. The Chancellor Willy Brandt and his aide Gunter Guillaume both fit into the tragic mould, for they each believe they are doing what they believe to be right even though everything around the pair conspires against them. Miller’s production is presented in such a way which mimics this epic quality, playing the text at breakneck speed and using little more than the characters and words to demonstrate time and place.

References to coalition politics within the play naturally assume a relevance, but it is particularly the themes surrounding the cult of personality and backhanded politics which are most intriguing. Politics has always fetishised personalities, but it is only since the dawn of photography and subsequently television that leaders have become chosen for who they are rather than what they do. Willy Brandt sits on the boundary, keen to make a genuine difference to the lives of his citizens but fully aware that in the world of politics, the man with the camera is king. Some of the most memorable moments in Democracy are (smartly), those which recreate infamous images of Brandt whilst his advisers watch in amazement.

The underhand politics which occur, epitomised by Helmut Schmidt and Herbert Wehner (the slimy and stern David Mallinson and William Hoyland), is countered by the Shakespearean semi-soliliquies given to Brandt and Guillaume. They reject the party politics of those around them in favour of a more ideological, hopeful agenda, which Frayn demonstrates is possible even though the pair have human flaws. Craftily, the two spies of the piece – Guillaume and Arno Kretschmann (marvelously underplayed by Ed Hughes) – are the two who seem most open to the audience; though they are working behind others’ backs, at least they have nothing to hide from us. That is far from the truth in the case of Brandt’s sinister advisers.

Aidan McArdle’s performance as Guillaume is gloriously comic, allowing his humanity and awe to shine through. His stocky viciousness is contrasted beautifully with Patrick Drury’s towering, gentle Brandt; and though they rarely look into one another’s eyes, the connection clearly runs deep. Miller’s smart staging uses Simon Daw’s stylish design to high effect; though only one entrance exists, characters file in and out without pause, and an almost stylised, methodical way of moving around the stage is broken by various characters at key moments. Mark Doubleday’s lighting is ever-shifting, just like the playing spaces on which Brandt and his government act.

Democracy shows Michael Frayn at the height of his powers as a dramatist, and manages to mingle entertainment, drama and political comment to startling effect. Miller’s production offers an economically created world and is balanced in its presentation of these historical figures. And, though the realisation of this world is complete and exists in isolation, it is its relation to today’s political world which makes it so compelling.

“The Doctor’s Dilemma” by George Bernard Shaw

at the Lyttelton Theatre, Saturday 21st July 2012

*The performance reviewed was a late preview”

Watching Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma on the same day as Joe Penhall’s Birthday is incredibly fitting; both plays ask questions about the need for a non-privatised health service and the way in which is should be run. But whilst Penhall’s play manages to make us laugh and think about the deconstruction of the NHS simultaneously, Nadia Fall’s production of Shaw’s play does neither.

Colenso Ridgeon is a doctor, newly knighted for his discovery of how to treat tuberculosis, and busy with sick patients he has to cure (though we never see them and they’re only mentioned in passing). His friends are all idiots; Leo Schutzmacher, Patrick Cullen, Cutler Walpole, Ralph Bloomfield Bonington and Dr Blenkinsop. All of them favour quack cures over proper science and cure patients only by fluke. Ridgeon is then visited by the beautiful Jennifer Dubedat (who he falls in love with instantly) asking him to cure her husband, an artist. It then transpires the doctor has to make a choice between saving the artist husband of the woman he loves or his doctor friend. This takes seventy long minutes to set up.

The issues with the play are numerous. Firstly, I question the verisimilitude of the plot; it’s utterly ridiculous that an old, seemingly professional and moral doctor should be so callous as to not think the situation through reasonably. The ‘dilemma’ of the title just isn’t believable and fails to cause any kind of tension. Secondly, the representation of women and the working class is laughable, for the former are shown to be stupid and the latter amoral (perhaps Shaw is supposed to be making a satirical comment, but it doesn’t come across in Fall’s production). The play also fails to make any kind of comment; I imagine the way in which these doctors take care into their own hands for personal or monetary gain is supposed to demonstrate the need for state-run care, but it’s tenuous. In any case, our own experience is of investors rather than doctors attempting to run health care, making it irrelevant. Oh, and this ‘comedy’ is also not funny.

Fall’s production doesn’t do much to help matters. The pacing is too slow and the blocking lazy (though this was a preview, so perhaps that can be forgiven). And though Shaw’s language doesn’t exactly lend itself to naturalism, her cast overact and look to the audience far too frequently. David Calder’s Cullen and Malcolm Sinclair’s Bloomfield Bonington verge on pantomimic, whilst Genevieve O’Reilly’s Jennifer Dubedat, though engaging, wouldn’t be out of place in a melodrama. Aden Gillett’s as Ridgeon manages to bring to humanity to proceedings, and Tom Burke in the role of Dubedat has an endearing foppish charm which means his is the only story we really care about.

Peter McKintosh’s gorgeous set is easily the best thing about this production; the attention to detail here would be welcome in the performances. It is lit with relish by Neil Austin, especially in the scenes in Dubedat’s studio, where backlighting is used to high effect. But there is clearly something wrong in a production where the strongest aspect is a good set and the biggest laugh comes from Ridgeon describing journalism as “an illiterate profession, with no qualifications and no public register”, proving that audience crave current themes.

Ultimately, The Doctor’s Dilemma fails because it’s simply a bad choice of play; it’s clear Fall and her team feel this is a relevent text, but the ideas are just too thin and the writing too weak to justify it as a choice. The moments of comedy are few and don’t justify the two-hour-forty running time, whilst sometimes its easy to forget the actors on stage are professionals. Undoubtably some of these issues will be ironed out by press night, but nothing is able to overcome the oversight that this just isn’t the right play to stage.

“Birthday” by Joe Penhall

at the Royal Court, Saturday 21st July 2012

There is a tendency among us leftists to shout down anyone who dares criticise the NHS and defend the institution no matter what. To do so, however, is to ignore its many pitfalls and problems and is counterproductive to the cause for improved social conditions. Rather than provide a case for private healthcare, as some have reported, Joe Penhall in Birthday demonstrates the need for an improved national health service with more funds and better staffing.

The comedy in the piece derives from the central conceit; in this reality, men have been given the opportunity to give birth due to the implementation of artificial wombs. The issues which pregnant women have to face when at the mercy of hospitals are exacerbated and the lack of care in the NHS as it stands is highlighted. The arguments about who in the relationship does the most work are subverted and traits which are generally considered to be ‘male’ and ‘female’ are demonstrated to be little more than products of circumstance. It goes without saying that watching a man worrying about his birth plans is hilarious, and Penhall plays this dynamic between Ed and Lisa wonderfully.

On a bigger scale, however, Penhall shows a health service stretched to breaking point and doing all it can to reduce waiting times whilst staff levels are cut. It is no wonder, he seems to say, that people go private with these conditions. But were the service ran with less bureaucracy and more money was given to it, there would be no need to swap providers.

Birthday satirizes this by using the whole men-giving-birth idea as a metaphor for yet another NHS initiative designed to make life easier when in fact its worse for everyone. Within every system there are those who care (Natasha, played with geeky tenderness by Louise Brearly) and those who would rather be anywhere else (the brash and sarcastic Llewella Gideon), but less talk about ‘protocol’ and ‘reports’ and more focus on saving lives would serve to improve things immeasurably. With a small pot if funds, however, all that can be done is ensure “everyone gets enough, just enough, to keep them alive”.

But though Stephen Mangan and Lisa Dillon give strong performances as Ed and Lisa and smartly switch from ‘masculine’ to ‘feminine’ personas without us noticing, the rest of Roger Michell’s production feels a little flat. Mark Thompson’s set manages to convey the clinical institutionalism of hospitals but the back wall is rather dated and the revolve feels utterly unnecessary. John Leonard’s sound is equally confused, and rather than enhancing the play’s hinted surrealism the production on the whole us somewhat lifeless, which doesn’t help the fact the second half of the play doesn’t sustain the initial original idea.

The premise of Birthday is a hilarious one which manages to challenge common beliefs about the role of men and women and the decline of the NHS, but due to a lacklustre production and a somewhat thin text, these ideas are difficult to find underneath the comedy. The four strong cast give some life (especially Mangan in his final act of fury) but ultimately it’s difficult not to think that Birthday could go further.

Latitude 2012

Thursday 12th – Sunday 15th July 2012

There is an ever-pervasive sense of irony present at Latitude; tens of thousands of liberal lefties flock to Suffolk every year for a festival which boasts green and ethical credentials but which is run by the gigantic Festival Republic, charges £189 for a ticket and thrives on commercialism. All whilst teens flaunting their ‘alternative’ music and fashion tastes in tweed jackets jump up and down to Bon Iver in innumerable quantities, making their ‘alternative’ label redundant.

So getting away from this odd situation in the theatre tent in the forest is a necessity from time to time, just to make sure we’re not being drowned in irony. I hate to generalise, but the theatre on offer at this year’s festival seemed to fit into two camps (at least from what I saw): the truly brilliant or the truly awful.

I’ll start with the latter so I can finish this retrospective on a high note. Unfortunately, the theatre organisers at the festival seem to commission a lot of companies to do work for them without checking that these groups have created a work of quality. Though I understand it’s tough to do theatre outside whilst competing against sound from bands, Theatre Delicatessen’s Henry V  included only a few actors who seemed to have been trained in projection and in any case merely resembled a low-key and lazy version of the National Theatre’s 2003 production. The Just Price of Flowers, by Stan’s Cafe, attempts to make the 2008 financial crisis more digestible and entertaining by demonstrating its similarities to tulip trading in 17th century Netherlands, but is far too long, monotonous and dull. The Brechtian techniques it uses fall flat due to this repetition and the few endearing moments can be easily overlooked due to the lack of variety. Harold in Havana, a rehearsed reading of snippets of Pinter’s work which was taken to Cuba last year and including David Bradley, Adjoa Andoh and Janie Dee, suffered from the same thing; the piece ran forty minutes over its advertised one hour running time and was simply too repetitive and indulgent to be enjoyable.

Nabokov’s Symphony was also somewhat disappointing, though it did at least remember it was in a festival setting; the production is a trio of plays written by Tom Wells, Ella Hickson and Nick Payne which uses monologue and duologue to tell stories, each of which is interspersed with original songs. The pieces improve as the evening goes on, but each is let down by an abundance of cliché (understandable for a twenty-minute play, perhaps) and shoddy sound. Look Left, Look Right’s Not Another Musical is difficult to watch for the same reasons. Though it went down well with the audience at Latitude, the tongue-in-cheek humour feels lazy and not enough work has been put in to each of the four mini-musicals to make them a genuine satire of the genre.

Aside from RashDash Theatre’s superb Set Fire to Everything, which uses song and music to comment on the difficulties of modern life, the better theatre at the festival was that which, as far as I can tell, had not been created specifically for this setting. Action to the Word’s A Clockwork Orange makes Anthony Burgess’ dreadful script work as a stylised piece of theatre, which commits completely to the all-male cast and manages to make the story relevent to our post-Soviet world. Bank Puppets’ Swamp Juice, though created for children, includes some of the most inventive and funny puppetry I’ve seen and finishes with a genuinely impressive 3D sequence. Theatre Ad Infinatum’s Translunar Paradise, which, like A Clockwork Orange and Swamp Juice, also premiered at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, is a beautiful representation of love, devoid of cliché and featuring hypnotic movement. It is ideal for a festival setting, favouring music and visual aids over speaking and wrenching us away from the madness outside the tent.

The theatrical highlight of the festival came, for me, in the unlikely White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour, presented by the Gate Theatre. The play is only given to the performer, in this case Marcus Brigstocke, as they come onto stage, and is little more than a dialogue between audience, actor and author, but it is without a doubt one of the most challenging and innovative pieces of writing I’ve seen in the past year, creating drama unlike any I have ever witnessed in a theatre. For various reasons it’s difficult to go into much detail, but trust me, if you can a chance, this is a must-see.

More than anything, the theatre at Latitude 2012 raised questions about the nature of staging productions in festival environments;  the productions which worked were simply well-made and thoughtful pieces. It was frustrating to watch so many companies trying to jump over hurdle six before clearing hurdle one; the work itself must first be of a high standard before trying to make it work in a specific environment. In a festival full of irony, the irony here was that the best performances came straight from conventional settings and weren’t trying hard to work amid the hubub outside, fuelling the idea that the best theatre can work anywhere.

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