Thursday, October 18, 2018

COMPANY at the Gielgud Theatre: Side By Side.. By Side

Constant Reader, as you will recall, I am wandering through my 50 favourite musicals elsewhere on this blog and Stephen Sondheim's groundbreaking COMPANY from 1970 landed at #46.  It's not my favourite musical of his as you can see; don't get me wrong I love the score but I have found George Furth's book to be dated.  So how will Marianne Elliott's re-appraised and gender-flipped version work?

Um.. about the same really!  For all it's promised looking from a new angle at the show, it still left me loving the score and slightly enervated by the linking scenes.  Playwright George Furth had written a collection of one-act plays for mercurial actress Kim Stanley which were to be directed by Anthony Perkins... who showed them to his friend Stephen Sondheim... who showed them to Hal Prince who agreed that the short plays could be the basis of a new kind of musical where they could be solo scenes linked by a single character observing the action.  There is no word on how pissed Stanley or Perkins must have been to see their project side-lined.

So COMPANY was born: Robert is surprised on his 35th birthday by his close-knit group of friends, five sets of partnered couples.  As he attempts - and fails - to blow out his candles, he remembers occasions when he has been alone with the five couples when their happy facade showed cracks.  Ultimately Robert has to face that, for all his fear of commitment, "alone is not alive".  COMPANY was one of the first non-linear musicals and after mixed reviews out-of-town - Variety infamously said "As it stands now it's for ladies' matinees, homos and misogynists", it struck a zeitgeist-y moment on Broadway and won six Tony Awards, and has seen popular revivals since.

Director Marianne Elliott approached Sondheim with the idea of reworking the show so Robert is now Bobbi, a 35 year-old woman who, after concentrating on the goals of education and a career, finds herself in an emotional limbo.  Sondheim wasn't particularly excited by it but with his old adage "a revival can tinker but the original will always be there" he agreed for her to give it a go; it helped that he was a big fan of her work - indeed, when we first saw WAR HORSE at the National Theatre my attention was drawn to an elderly man a few row down from us on the aisle BLUBBING at the play's climax... it was Sondheim.

Elliott's vision certainly fits the musical's frame - with the implied idea that the biological clock is running too - and of course, in updating the material to include mobile phones and texting, there is also the opportunity to replace one of the couples for a gay couple and, to a less noticeable extent, swap another couple's roles: she is the provider, he is the house-husband.  Elliott's redrawn COMPANY succeeds more because of the production and ensemble rather than the actual material.  I have said how I think the linking scenes are the show's weakness and, again, I just found most of them - for all their modernizing - neither insightful or particularly humorous.  Furth's friends are a collectively unsympathetic lot to be honest and the book's flaws are all the more evident when they co-exist next to Sondheim's effortless wit and insight.

However, as I said, Marianne Elliott has attacked the show with such passion and focus that it is a pleasure to watch.  Helped by Neil Austin's bright neon framing for Bunny Christie's adjoining boxed sets, the show is an unexpected visual treat while at the same time, Sondheim's score sounds fantastic under musical director Joel Fram although having him and the orchestra perched above the set on a bridge is distracting and makes it look like they are sitting on Evita's balcony.  Liam Steel's choreography doesn't really move beyond quirky.

That I liked the production is established and it is the most cohesive vision of the musical I have seen but, for the life of me, I do not understand Marianne Elliott's obsession with Rosalie Craig, who as Bobbi, is the production's dead centre.

Rosalie Craig is a go-to actress for directors such as Elliott, Josie Rourke and Rufus Norris - I presume she takes direction well and doesn't get in the way of their concept-heavy approaches but from THE LIGHT PRINCESS to CITY OF ANGELS, from AS YOU LIKE IT to here in COMPANY she has turned in anonymous after anonymous leading performances.  She is certainly capable, with a pleasant singing voice - although it strains itself in the upper register - but she has zero charisma with no variance in tone - at no time did she surprise me onstage - which here is alarming as Robert / Bobbi is the glue that holds her the show together: at best Craig provides the Pritstick.

In scene after scene, my attention strayed to whoever else was on stage, no matter how good they were.  People might be saying "Let's see COMPANY, Marianne Elliott is directing it" not "Let's see COMPANY, Rosalie Craig is in it".  At one point I thought if only they had asked Cynthia Errivo... imagine what she could do with "Being Alive"?

As I said, it was easy to look through Craig to see some good performances: Mel Giedroyc was a delight as Sarah, forever in contest with husband Harry; it is a bit of stunt casting as her pulling power out-weighs her small role but she was great fun and well matched with Gavin Stokes as Harry who also sang the lovely "Sorry / Grateful" wonderfully.  The classic Sondheim tongue-twisting number "Getting Married Today" is sung by Jonathan Bailey - as Jamie, not Amy - and although he pitched it a little too hysterical to catch all the lyrics it played well to the peanut gallery. Far better was the scene that follows when Jamie's paranoia leads him to break-up with his partner Paul, only to change his mind when Bobbi suggests they marry each other instead; Bailey and Alex Gaumond made a very good partnership.

There was also good work from Bobbi's three lingering boyfriends: Richard Fleeshman was a revelation as the air-head air pilot Andy who wrestles to leave Bobbi to fly to "Barcelona" while Matthew Seadon-Young was very good as Theo, the lover that somehow got away; sadly George Blagden couldn't do much with his big number "Another Hundred People" but that was probably due to the distracting choreography behind him, but the three combined well to deliver a great "You Could Drive A Person Crazy".

And the bitter cherry on the cake is Patti LuPone as Joanne, Bobbi's older and cynical friend, now on her third - possibly fourth - husband, who finally manages to break through Bobbi's defences after delivering her coruscating study of upper-class Manhattan wives, "The Ladies Who Lunch".  This classic was wonderfully paced and sung, and of course, LuPone was a sensation.  Luckily we were sitting halfway back in the stalls so there was no repeat of when we last saw her sing that song at the Leicester Square Theatre when she hurled her martini / water into the audience and I ended up soaked!

Elliott was lucky to get Patti: after suffering such pain from a needed hip operation that her last Broadway show had to close early, LuPone announced that she was finished with musicals - shortly before Marianne Elliott asked her to play Joanne!  LuPone was also a fan of Elliott's previous work so agreed - "if I had turned her down she may never have asked me again" LuPone has said.  Thank goodness she changed her mind.  As great as she was at socking over "The Ladies Who Lunch", her playing of the whole scene was a masterclass in nailing a character and holding her moment.

So, despite Craig, everybody rise... COMPANY is back in town.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

THE INHERITANCE at the Noel Coward - "Only connect the prose and the passion..."

We first heard about Matthew Lopez' play THE INHERITANCE in July 2017 after a rehearsed reading of BENT at the Lyttelton; in an after-show Q+A director Stephen Daldry said that his next project was an epic two-part play for the Young Vic called THE INHERITANCE.  When it was announced that Vanessa Redgrave would be appearing in it I managed to snap up tickets for both parts last May.

In May we got about 20 minutes into Part One before the lights blew!  After an agonizing 45 minutes, Daldry appeared onstage to announce that the problem could not be fixed and the show was cancelled - AUGH!  An agonizing wait for replacement tickets led to finally hearing that the Young Vic had re-booked us for it's West End transfer to the Noel Coward Theatre.  So, we begin...

Matthew Lopez was raised in the conservative Florida Panhandle, with feelings of otherness as his family were the only Puerto Ricans in town and also bullied at school for being gay.  His aunt is the actress Priscilla Lopez - the original 'Diana' in A CHORUS LINE - and he saw Broadway shows on family trips to New York, sparking interest in theatre. A concomitant love of films led him at the age of 15 to see James Ivory's HOWARDS END with his teacher mother, primarily because Emma Thompson was being considered a front runner for the Best Actress Oscar.  In his own words "that day changed my life".

Lopez was haunted by EM Forster's story and when his mother bought him the original book, he read it repeatedly.  Ten years later, Lopez was living in New York and finally realized why HOWARDS END meant so much to him when he learnt that Forster was homosexual.  Galvanized by Forster's influence and using HOWARDS END as a template, Lopez started writing a play about a group of professional gay men living in the New York of today and the often unspoken dichotomy of what has been gained since the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s and more importantly, what has been lost.

The NY gay community, the AIDS crisis and the two-part play of course echoes Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA and THE INHERITANCE can be seen as a complement - and reaction to - that epic's polemic and storytelling.  I think it's remarkable that both plays have had huge success in early productions in London: in fact THE INHERITANCE has still to be performed in America.

Ten students wrestle with how to tell a story.  An older man appears and selects one to show how to structure a narrative, he asks the student to use a favourite book as a template - of course the book is HOWARDS END and the older man is revealed as the spirit of EM Forster.  Out of the group emerge the young man's central couple: Eric Glass and Toby Darling.

Eric and Toby live together in an upper-East Side rent-controlled apartment that previously belonged to Eric's grandmother.  They lead a busy cultural and politically-engaged life surrounded by similar gay professional friends.  Toby has published a successful novel about a handsome, wealthy gay man in New York which he is adapting into a Broadway play.  They take Adam, a young actor and adopted son of a wealthy couple, under their wing.  He is cast as the lead in Toby's play and Toby joins him in a Boston preview tryout. Toby becomes obsessed with the enigmatic Adam, while Eric, alone in the apartment, befriends Walter, an older neighbour who lives with his longtime partner, Henry Willcox, a rich property investor.

Walter tells Eric of his life and how he is haunted by the devastation that AIDS brought to his friends and the fear and stigma they all felt. Walter also discloses how his and Henry's relationship  suffered when, on finding an old friend called Peter destitute and dying, Walter brought him to their upstate NY country house to spend his last days in comfort.  When Henry found out, he angrily denounced Walter for bringing the disease to their home and handed over the house to Walter, washing his hands of it. Walter made it a place to bring other gay men to die in peace as Peter had.

Walter dies suddenly before he can show Eric his house.  The bereft Eric - also rocked by Hillary Clinton's defeat - finally admits to Toby that their apartment is being reclaimed as it was in his grandmother's name only and they have to leave; Toby provokes a fight with Eric and walks out on their life, however when he tells Adam this, Toby is shocked to discover that the actor is dating the play's director.  Toby can't shake his obsession for Adam and sleeps with Leo, a rent-boy who resembles the actor.

Eric shares his grief over Walter with the enigmatic Henry Willcox who slowly becomes charmed with Eric's goodness; but even he is appalled when a note is found written by Walter saying he would like Eric to have the summer house.  Henry and his two grown sons destroy the note, swearing to keep it secret.  After Henry finds Eric a new apartment, he takes Eric to Walter's country home.  As Eric explores the deserted house, he is welcomed by the ghosts of the men who died there, including Walter's friend Peter.  Eric has found his spiritual home....

In the second play we see the ramifications of the characters' actions: Toby starts a relationship with Leo but as his chems addiction grows, Leo is left hurt emotionally and physically but still sees an anonymous, rich 'john'.  Despite Eric's friends being horrified that Henry is a Republican who happily financed the Trump campaign, Eric still agrees to marry Henry when he proposes.  Their wedding is disrupted by a drugged-up Toby, but Henry's violent anger at the presence of Toby's guest Leo makes Eric realize that he has been the anonymous man using Leo for sex.

The hurt and anger that all the characters feel make for new alliances: Toby finally confronts the fact that his assumed 'golden boy' status was in fact as unreal as his book - he came from a deprived home and faked his way into the NY scene, while Eric becomes friends with a contrite Adam again and discovers Leo destitute and badly sick with HIV.  Disgusted at Henry's refusal to help Leo - and haunted by Walter's actions - he takes Leo to Walter's old house.  On arrival, they meet Margaret, an elderly neighbour who has become almost a caretaker to the house, both physically and spiritually.  Eric discovers that, rather than just storing his grandmother's old furniture from the apartment there, Margaret has furnished the empty house with it.

Margaret reveals her son was one of the men who Walter brought to the house; she had never accepted her son's gayness and was reconciled with him only moments before he died.  She stayed on to nurse the following dying men to atone in some way for her actions and her revelations bring the story full-circle and all the characters to a conclusion which echoes Forster's famous phrase "only connect".

Stephen Daldrey's wonderful production - despite it's combined length of 6 and a half hours - never once lost my attention, his incisive direction knowing exactly when and how long to linger on a scene or a line, knowing that particular moment would gain greater resonance further into the story.  It was a pleasure to be able to pinpoint the moments that reference Forster's book - and rather than seem to be ripping off HOWARDS END, it illuminates the characters and the play.  Daldrey's patience in telling the story reaps massive rewards.

Lopez's play also touches on so many different levels and each play leaves space for two hugely enjoyable - almost Shavian - arguments: in the first, Eric and his friends debate the uneasy balance of gay life in the 21st Century, by gaining access to the straight world, does that mean that gay identity is defanged, it's history forgotten and it's very words co-opted and devalued into the straight world.  In the second play Lopez dissects the gay response to Trump when Eric's Hillary-voting circle of friends are appalled that Henry Willcox is not just a Republican but also contributed financially to Trump's campaign.  His polished intellectual debate to their emotive one is fascinating to watch.

But it's not all politics; Matthew Lopez slowly constructs fascinating characters whose inner lives are slowly revealed while also leading to highly emotional climaxes that really strike at the heart.  It is also as wildly funny as it is tender and hard-hitting.  What is THE INHERITANCE of the title?  The apartment that was Eric's family home? The inherited sadness of the AIDS crisis on the gay community?  The inheritance of the art and culture of previous generations?  The denied inheritance of Walter's house to Eric?  It's all of these and more.  Bob Crowley's wonderful design of a stark marble stage rising and lowering to suit the play's mood against the black backdrop which parts to reveal certain locations, make you really concentrate the mind to the characters and what they are saying.  Jon Clark's lighting and Paul Englishby's score also help to make the plays' shine.

Six and a half hours is a long time to concentrate on just 14 performers but Daldry's ensemble act with an intensity and fearlessness that is truly thrilling.  Kyle Soller takes on the central role of Eric and is magnificent: it is difficult to play someone who is a force of goodness and compassion but he manages it by making Eric warm and sympathetic that you root for him from the start, while Andrew Burnap, again in a difficult role, makes Toby also charismatic and interesting, even at his most heartless.

John Benjamin Hickey is excellent in the difficult role of Henry Willcox, a man used to living his life to his own intellectual rules who can only react with anger when faced with emotional decisions that cannot register in his ordered mind, and Paul Hilton is equally fine as ethereal Walter, a man out of time, and he deliciously turns on a sixpence to become the intellectual and conservative Forster, also in a sense out of his time, quietly marvelling at the quality of life he was never allowed living in the Edwardian era.

Samuel H. Levine again showed marvellous versatility in his dual roles as Toby's obsessions: Adam, the gay Eve Harrington who worms his way into the lead in Toby's play, and Leo, the lonely hustler with the bruised heart and secret love of literature.  He captured the narcissism and desperation of the two characters wonderfully.  And then there was Vanessa Redgrave as Margaret: you have to wait a long time for her as she appears in the penultimate scene of Part 2, but once she is onstage she illuminates all that has gone before.

In her thrilling monologue, Vanessa hits the grieving but loving heart of the play; Margaret is forever haunted by her disgust at her son's teenage revelation of being gay and her subsequent blotting him out of her life.  Without sentiment but conveying the truth of the character, Vanessa played the remembered moments of seeing her dying son and their fleeting reunion before his death, a tremor in her voice and a catch in her throat was all that was needed to show the grief.  As important as her performance is to the play, her sheer presence alone is special - while watching her I could not forget her first husband Tony Richardson died from an AIDS-related illness in 1991, a year after the death of her friend Ian Charleson.  There was also another reason to celebrate her appearance in Matthew Lopez' play: she, of course, played Margaret Willcox in the film of HOWARDS END that so inspired him as a teenager - the film is even mentioned in the play which provokes a character to yell "Emma Thompson!  Vanessa Redgrave!!"

The other actors all deserve to be mentioned: Hugo Bolton, Robert Boulter, Hubert Burton, Syrus Lowe, Michael Marcus, Jack Riddiford, Michael Walters and Joshua De La Warr.

THE INHERITANCE is at the Noel Coward Theatre until the 19th January, click on the cast shot below to book tickets...

An already memorable year in theatre-going has just been made more wonderful by THE INHERITANCE.  If you love theatre and the alchemy of a wonderful script, committed performances and exquisite direction, you must see THE INHERITANCE.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

50 Favourite Musicals: 37: CLOSER TO HEAVEN (2001) (Neil Tennant, Chris Lowe)

The 50 shows that have stood out down the years and, as we get up among the paint cards, the shows that have become the cast recording of my life: 

First performed: 2001, Arts Theatre
First seen by me: as above
Productions seen: two

Score: Neil Tennant, Chris Lowe
Book: Jonathan Harvey
Plot:  Shell meets her gay estranged father Vic again at the club he owns, where she also meets Straight Dave an Irish bartender and Billie Trix, the club's star performer who is a druggy former pop singer and actress. Shell and Straight Dave start a relationship just as he is offered a place in a new boy band, but when Dave also meets Mile End Lee, Billie Trix' drug dealer, he finds himself falling in love again...


Right this is tricky... how can this musical beat some good competition to get this place in my list when it has such a bad book?  Any fule kno that a musical needs a good book to hold the show together, no matter how great the score, and Jonathan Harvey's book is truly one of the worst.  It clatters along without any regard for creating even remotely interesting characters - maybe Billie Trix and Straight Dave at a push.  The worst offence is that the last quarter of the musical DEMANDS we understand the pain of Straight Dave when his young lover dies from a drug overdose but the character has had only a few scenes and is fairly two-dimensional - it's difficult to feel a character's pain when he only appears to have met his lover twice.  No, CLOSER TO HEAVEN is here on the basis of it's original production, directed by Gemma Bodinetz which, though hampered by the afore-mentioned book, had the benefit of performers who managed to create depth through their own personalities into the characters that the script refused to do.  Paul Keating as Straight Dave, Stacey Roca as Shell, Tom Walker - aka Jonathan Pie - as Mile End Lee, David Burt as Vic - who, when CTH closed early, simply jumped ship to TABOO, the other gay pop musical set in Soho clubland - and primarily Frances Barber, gloriously over the top as the Anita Pallenberg-esque Billie Trix.  The original production was only meant to run from May till September 2001 but initial packed houses made The Really Useful Company extend it to January 2002, however the shaky reviews and declining audiences made them think again and it closed in October.  If proof be needed to the galvanizing presence of the original cast, a 2015 revival at the Union Theatre was appalling; without the benefit of strong, charismatic performers with good voices, the plot made even less sense and even the Pet Shop Boys score couldn't rescue it.  The cast recording of the PSB score remains a favourite with it's mix of PSB bangers for the club scenes and big ballads for the characters: it is very noticeable that any character development at all happens through the songs and not through the scenes in the book.     

Well I think I have found out one good reason why it closed... there is no video recordings of the original production anywhere apart from this 47 second clip of Frances Barber, Paul Keating, Stacey Roca, David Burt and Tom Walker singing the opening number MY NIGHT (although the cast recording is dubbed over it).  Indeed, Neil Tennant bemoaned the show's bad marketing after it closed.  There is a YouTube video of the same number filmed from the back of the Arts Theatre but it's an awful transfer.  Hunt out the casting recording to get a better idea of the PSB score.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

The IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST at the Vaudeville Theatre: Classic Spring has sprung...

The year-long celebration of Oscar Wilde at the Vaudeville Theatre has been an enjoyable season courtesy of Dominic Dromgoole's Classic Theatre Company, a debut season in their mission to present classic writer's plays on the proscenium arch stages that they were written for.

A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE, LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN and AN IDEAL HUSBAND have led inexorably to the climax of the season, his magnificent comedy THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. Sadly the production sits very shakily on the top of the others' achievements.  The play has been dazzling audiences since 1895 and will continue to do so... but through no thanks to director Michael Fentiman who imposes himself between the glorious words and the audience from the start.

EARNEST is the blistering, blissful apex of Wilde's career in all possible ways; the pure distilled joy of his invention, his previously Melodramatic plots are here whipped into a creamy souffle of confused identities and his seven main characters confound and delight with every whiplash line of epigrammatic pleasure.  It is impossible to stage any play by Oscar Wilde without seeing it refracted through the cut-glass shards of his downfall, in which EARNEST sits as an innocent bystander.

Wilde's state of mind during it's writing is reflected in the what-the-eye-doesn't see engine of it's plot - he wrote the play while holidaying with his wife Constance and his children in Worthing (which explains the town's importance in the play) but as soon as they left, in moved Lord Alfred Douglas.  It turned out to be yet another unhappy experience: Wilde nursed Douglas through a sudden bout of influenza but when he himself became sick, Douglas left him to fend for himself.  Six months after it's initial writing, it was premiered at the St James' Theatre and had been rewritten and reduced from four acts to three.  

The successful opening night was marred by the threat of Lord Alfred's father, the Marquess of Queensberry, who intended to disrupt the curtain call so Wilde had the management rescind his ticket and bar him from the premises but four days later he left the infamous calling card at Wilde's club, the Albermarle, calling Wilde a sodomite.  Wilde sued... and the rest is sad history.  Sir George Alexander, manager of the St. James' Theatre and the original Jack Worthing, took Wilde's name off the posters to try and weather the storm but eventually closed the play after 86 performances.

But EARNEST continued to delight audiences - albeit on small tours and 'fringe' performances while Oscar languished in prison - and two years after his death in 1900, George Alexander revived it at the St James'.  Since then the play has been revived countless times and is now rightly acclaimed as one of the greatest comedies in the English language, not least because of Anthony Asquith's glorious 1952 film with the titanic performances of Edith Evans, Michael Redgrave, Michael Dennison, Joan Greenwood, Dorothy Tutin, Margaret Rutherford and Miles Malleson.

All the film cast's souls will rest easy knowing their hold on the roles are still firm.  As I said Michael Fentiman's directorial choices continually butt in to the production; they cannot really stop the glory of the words but his cheapening of the characters begins to irk after a while.  The sooner Fentiman understands that the audience are there for the play, not his ideas around it, the better.  It's too late for EARNEST however so we shall press on.

It's a production where the women come out on top but only just.  Sophie Thompson's comedic experience is on full display as she swoops and honks her way through Lady Bracknell's dazzling lines but has a touch of humanity about her so the character is less of a gorgon than usual.  Pippa Nixon seems to take her lead from Sophie, her Gwendolen is definitely her mother's daughter with her imperious air and directness.  Fiona Button plays Cecily Cardew with an equal boldness so their second act confrontation was a trifle overpowering - it didn't help that Fentiman has them stuffing each others mouths with the bread and butter.  No, I don't know either.  Stella Gonet was off so we saw her understudy Alana Ramsey as Miss Prism and she was ok.

So to the men... Jeremy Swift was fairly anonymous as Canon Chasuble, just... nothing there.  Mchael Fentiman's heavy-handed approach to the play was all over the actors playing Jack and Algernon: Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (a name to change away from) actually managed to make some impression as Jack especially in the 'interview' scene with Lady Bracknell but in the second half, as the complications and coincidences crash head-on, Fentiman has directed him to play it like Daffy Duck at his most uncontrolled.  I felt sorry for the actor...

The Algernon of Fehinti Balogun was just a mess, he appears to have appeared in several off-west end roles - including ensemble work in Glenda Jackson's KING LEAR - so what on earth made Fentiman think he could carry this lead role in his first proper West End play?  I am sure he is capable of acting but high comedy is certainly not his forte: instead of pitching his lines up and out, he blotted them as he gabbled their delivery.  It says a lot about the production that the most memorable male performance is Geoffrey Freshwater's butler Lane in the opening scene.

And of course, as it's 2018, Fentiman ramps up the subtext, as if it really needs to be spelled out in neon letters instead of leaving it to bubble along in the background.  So we have Algernon absurdly snogging Lane his manservant and doing bizarre nose-rubbing with Jack when they meet in Jack's country house while Gwendolen acts like she has a vibrator up her skirts at the mere thought of marrying Jack aka Ernest.  It's all so reductive and does Wilde's masterpiece a serious disservice.

That there is still fun to be had is a tribute to the indestructible magic of the play.  It's just a shame that Classic Spring's excellent season ends with such a mis-firing production.  One wonders who Dromgoole might go for a possible second season, there are plenty to choose from but would they be commercial enough?  The obvious choices almost cancel themselves out by being well-catered for such as Shaw, Chekhov, Rattigan, Orton, Pinter and O'Neill so a less obvious choice might be interesting.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

OTHELLO at Shakespeare's Globe: "Chaos is come again..."

So.. back to the Globe Theatre for a fourth time this year, which in itself is remarkable bearing in mind a year or so ago I was driven away from the place by the sheer ghastliness of Emma Rice's absurdly juvenile look-at-me, look-at-me caperings.  In the productions under new Artistic Director Michelle Terry there has been a focus primarily on the player and the words while stripping back the absurd trappings.  There has still been the odd clanging idiosyncratic choice - usually in the casting - but the productions, each in their own way, have been enjoyable, but Claire van Kampen's production of OTHELLO might just be the best of them all.

Van Kampen has been the Director of Music at the Globe since 1997 and has composed the scores for over 50 productions there. Mr. van Kampen is none other than Mark Rylance and they have worked together constantly, so it is no surprise that he is here cast as Iago, but any thoughts of obviousness are forgotten as he is wonderful in the role, Iago is the motor for the whole play and Rylance here is firing on all cylinders.

His Iago is all the better for being older than I have usually seen played: it makes his anger at Othello promoting the younger Cassio over him more understandable and, played by Rylance as a jovial 'uncle' of the battalion, makes it more understandable that all the characters would confide in him.  The production is taken at a fast pace so Rylance's quick emotional changes between concerned friend to conniving instigator are all the more exciting.  His performance was also full of delightful touches: his increasing insistence that Roderigo bring money when he follows Othello to Cyprus signposts the poor sap is going to be rinsed by Iago, and starting off the lie to Othello about Cassio and Desdemona in such a teasing yet apologetic way.

Although not matching Rylance, AndrĂ© Holland's Othello was very well performed, slowly and inexorably drawn into the quicksand of jealousy and doubt.  While not quite reaching the tragic heights of Othello's final moments it was still a fine portrayal which had solid roots in his first scene, where he established that Othello was by far the most worthy of husbands for Desdemona, his retelling of their courtship was very nicely played so the impression was of a performance that was thought-through from before he even set foot on stage.  He also speaks the verse excellently in his American accent.

He was well-matched with Jessica Warbeck's Desdemona; it is a bugger of a role and I have seen previous Desdemona's slip into insipidness by just over-doing the wide-eyed innocent but Warbeck reined this in and gave a good performance of a woman torn between love and bewilderment.  She was particularly affecting in her bedroom scene, singing the "Willow Song" while haunted by foreboding.

The three principles were surrounded by fine supporting performances: the always dependable William Chubb made an impression as Desdemona's distraught father Brabantio (a role he also played at the NT in Hytner's under-whelming production in 2013), Aaron Pierre's virile Cassio and Steffan Donnelly's duped Roderigo, for once not played as a silly-ass clown but as a young fish-out-of-his-depths.

Van Kampen's production also made me think of how the women all end badly: Desdemona and Emelia dead and Bianca - nicely played by Catherine Bailey - arrested for Cassio's attack. Sheila Atim's Emelia, the cynical wife of Iago who is Desdemona's attendant - was nearly done in by the costume designer's frocks: two pants-suits which were distracting for all the wrong reasons, particularly her first-act gold crushed velvet number which even Prince would have turned his nose up at.  However she gave a full-on fiery performance, particularly in her final speech which in these MeToo times rang clear: 
"Let heaven and men and devils, let them all,
All, all, cry shame against me, yet I'll speak.

Is Othello my favourite Shakespeare play?  It's certainly up there, thanks to no 'rude mechanicals' cluttering up the play with sub-plot, it's masterly construction and it's characters that come so vibrantly to life - and death - when played well.  Psychologically astute and emotionally wrenching, it is somehow wonderfully fitting that after the carnage that he is responsible for has happened, Iago - who until then has never stopped talking to the audience making us unwilling accomplices in his plot - says nothing.  He doesn't need to, the fun was in the plotting... he had no endgame, just revenge...

Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word.

It is somehow fitting that OTHELLO should play the Globe as it's creator, actor Sam Wanamaker played Iago opposite Paul Robeson's Othello in 1959 at Stratford-upon-Avon in a production directed by Tony Richardson.

It is a pleasure to be able to recommend productions at The Globe again and although OTHELLO is sold out until the end of it's run on October 13th, there is always the chance of returns sold 90 minutes before the show's 7.30pm start.


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

This year marks the 30th anniversary of my only visit to Stratford-upon-Avon.  Why the long delay in returning?  Well, my reason for going in 1988 was to see Barbara Cook in CARRIE: THE MUSICAL.  That left a deep mental scar which has turned me hysterical whenever a trip to Stratford has been mentioned since.  Even the pleasure of meeting a rueful Cook afterward was not enough to wipe out memories of that show... see, bad musicals based on films aren't a recent thing.

But the decision was made to visit Stratford last week during my two-week holiday from work so we tied it in with a visit to the theatre to see the RSC's latest revival of Shakespeare's comedy THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR.

I had only seen the play before when the National Theatre staged it's one-and-only production of it in 1995, with a cast including Denis Quilley as Falstaff and Brenda Bruce as Mistress Quickly.  The production was directed by Terry Hands... who had also directed CARRIE.  How cyclical theatre can be eh?  By the way - speaking of WIVES - Terry Hands shares with his fellow-RSC artistic and associate directors Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn and John Caird the staggering number of 15 wives!  Shaggers.

But here we were, in the unfriendly surroundings of the RST with it's warren-like stairs and passageways - not to mention the ghastly high-stool seats we were in - to see Fiona Laird's revival of Shakespeare's comedy of circa 1597 which included an extended introduction of it's supposed origins: allegedly Queen Elizabeth asked Shakespeare for another play featuring Sir John Falstaff, preferably a comedy of him in love.

Indeed the play feels like a star vehicle for the actor playing Sir John, and here he was wonderfully brought to life by David Troughton in true rambunctious fashion. Thanks to a very good fat suit he is truly larger-than-life and gave a performance that rattled the rafters.  Thank goodness too because he was surrounded by cartoonish portrayals that tipped the play into CARRY ON STRATFORD!

The action is transplanted to the garish world of Essex in it's awful collective lack of taste.  Sir John Falstaff has found himself financially embarrassed so hits upon the idea of romancing the two wealthiest wives of the town; what he doesn't know is that they are best friends and, when they show each other his identical letters of love, decide to get their revenge on him.

Throw into the dizzying mix that Mistress Page's daughter is being chased by various suitors that her parents approve of but she secretly loves the sweet but bumbling young Fenton and that Mistress Ford's husband is sure she is unfaithful to him so disguises himself to ask Falstaff to seduce his wife for a fee.

Although most of the attempts of desperate gag-cracking left me cold, I will admit that the production was not without a pleasant charm and there were nice performances from the Merry Wives themselves - Rebecca Lacey as Mistress Ford and Beth Cordingley as Mistress Page - Jonathan Cullen as the English-mangling French doctor Dr. Caius and Luke Newberry as the accident-prone Fenton.

But there were two calamitous performances from Ishia Bennison as Mistress Quickley and Katy Brittain as a gender-swapped Hostess of The Garter Inn, screeching and clattering around in leopardskin coats and dresses: the unholy spawn of a gene pool consisting of Barbara Windsor and Lesley Joseph.

Fiona Laird left no bargain-basement gag untouched and we got Brexit, wheelie-bins, viral YouTube videos - "FENTON!!" - audience singalongs of "Bread of Heaven", and knob and bum jokes galore.  I felt that the grafting of the The Only Way Is Essex onto Shakespeare's comedy drowned it; rather than laughing with Shakespeare's characters, the thinly-veiled snobbery of the approach made you laugh *at* them instead.

As I said there were some nice performances to lighten the load and Lez Brotherston's designs were an eye-popping delight and luckily there was David Troughton to bring a whiff of real bawdy Bard realness to give us some genuine laughs.  I will not soon forget his roaring disdain of having an egg in his goblet of Sack: "I'll have no pullet-sperm in my brewage!"

The good news is that I was so taken with Stratford that hopefully it won't be 30 years till I return again.