Sunday, October 23, 2011

A few weeks ago we went to the Arts Theatre (and it's not often I can say that) to see the new revival of Frank Marcus' notorious THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE.

Now I have to say that I have never liked the film - yes, I know it has Beryl Reid and Coral Browne in it but the sheer heavy-handed awfulness of Robert Aldrich's direction makes it a dreadful experience.

The play opened in 1964 with Reid and Eileen Atkins as her child-like girlfriend and the cast also included Lally Bowers as Mercy Croft and Margaret Courtenay as the neighbouring clairvoyant. A cast and a half who would more than be able to carry a play along no matter what it's deficits.

Sadly in Iqbal Khan's wonky production the performers don't have the confidence to grab the material by the scruff of the neck. Khan's direction is woefully uneven in tone and it leaves the performers all having to fend for themselves... some better than others.
Meera Syal's last stage performance was as a winning SHIRLEY VALENTINE but here she only fitfully engaged as June, the ageing actress facing the ignominious decision by her producers to bump off her popular character in a radio 'soap' series not unlike The Archers. Not helped by the ugly costume design by Pam Tait, she certainly suggested the desperation of June's situation but she seemed at sea with the odder elements of the character, namely the hints of sado-masochism between her and Alice.

By far her better scenes were with Belinda Lang who gave the best performance of the evening as Mrs. Mercy Croft, the woman from the BBC with a cut-glass accent and a redundancy letter in her handbag. Belinda Lang had no problems playing the villain but she played it with nice shadings of character and with killer timing.
Sadly the evening was scuppered by the am-dram performance of Elizabeth Cadwallader as Alice. It's a role that is as equally difficult to play as June as so much of the part is playing the girly-girl but with the ability to turn on a dime and show the character's predatory side, a survivor always on the lookout for the next protector. June's reveal at the end should also make dramatic sense but with the casting of the obviously young Cadwallader it simply didn't.

The casting of Helen Lederer as the spare-wheel character of Madam Xenia must be looked on as another of the production's problems. This utterly meaningless character was dropped from the film and Lederer's already - um - idiosyncratic performance style simply highlighted this character's absurdity.
And this was all played out on to a truly schizoid set design by Ciaran Bagnall - downstage an Agatha Christie touring production, upstage a standing set for RADIO GA-GA: THE MUSICAL.

The Arts Theatre has had an uncertain life recently with more threatened closures than hits. If they are banking on ho-hum productions like this as a lifeline then they had better think again.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sorry about that delay in blogging... life, you know...

Our second exposure to the Bard showed the truth in the old phrase of the mountain coming to Mohammad.

Sometimes you just gotta get out of town... so a few Saturdays ago found Owen and I sitting on a train chuffing merrily out of St. Pancras International to ... wait for it.... Sheffield. Sheffield yet! So what could get me to up sticks and venture north? Well, it was the news that the thrilling partnership of Clarke Peters and Dominic West which proved so successful in the epic US tv series THE WIRE was to be made flesh at the Sheffield Crucible in OTHELLO. There was no mention of a London transfer so a day-trip to the home of The Human League was a must.
It was also good to finally see inside the famous Crucible auditorium so beloved of the World Snooker Championships and it makes you understand how, with the right match, the atmosphere must be tense.

The theatre itself isn't all that exciting - it's form seems to echo so many regional late 20th Century builds, all concrete and large windows overlooking either the main road or the car park! But the place seemed very buzzy and busy, no doubt down to the excellent reviews the production had garnered the week before.

The actor Daniel Evans has landed the Artistic Director role at the Crucible and he made his Shakespeare directorial debut with this production. Surprisingly he made an excellent job of it - while playing up the - ahem - black comedy of such a hissable villain as Iago, Evans also gave us a thorough, uncluttered reading of the play with a momentum which moved smoothly but relentlessly ever-onward, like a shark honing in on it's prey.
Oddly enough, the play's final scene did dissipate this momentum but Shakespeare did rather prolong the end of his play - how many times *does* Desdemona have splutter to life after having been smothered? However by then Evans and his talented cast had done enough to deserve the ovation that they genuinely deserved.

Evans gave us a fairly traditional setting for his version of the play with doublets, jerkins and wide skirts a-plenty against Morgan Large's set comprising a large functional brick wall with central doors which with Lucy Carter's subtle lighting worked well in exterior and interior scenes.

I guess the best Shakespearean productions should seem to introduce the play to you afresh and this it certainly did. I can't remember laughing so much at the tale of the tragic Moor but I suspect a lot of that was down to the inspired central casting.
It's a shame that the exciting performances of Dominic West and Clarke Peters will not be seen by a wider audience but I feel very lucky to have done so. The chemistry revealed in THE WIRE was built on here and their scenes together fizzed and sparked as Iago teased and wheedled Othello from his benign married state into a jealous murderous husband.

Dominic West was the true star of the show, using a broad Yorkshire accent to suggest a hail-fellow-well-met character who secretly relishes the carnage his malicious lies provoke. No one is safe from him including his wife Emilia and here West was perfectly matched with Alexandra Gilbreath who brought an earthy wisdom to the role. As with the best performances, it was her a pleasure to watch her silent reactions to others as well as speaking her lines - her slow realization that she was an unknowing contributor to her husband's scheme was heartbreaking.
Clarke Peters came in for some unfairly critical reviews in the press but he gave a fine performance, becoming more and more unravelled as his jealousy took hold until his mania was scary to see. Peters is an actor who you instinctively can trust on stage and this performance proved again his wide-ranging versatility and powerful presence.

Desdemona is a sticky role but Lily James made a good fist of her inherent innocence and her scenes with Peters and Gilbreath gave her ample opportunity to show her versatile playing. In a small but impressive cast, special mention should go to Gwilym Lee as Cassio, Luciano Dodero as Montano and Leigh McDonald as the courtesan Bianca.

C'mon someone, film this production and give these fine actors the wider acclaim they deserve.
Oh and well done HMV Sheffield for stocking the dvd of Vanessa Redgrave in ISADORA which the HMV Piccadilly Circus haven't done!