Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I would like to give you, Constant Reader, A Tale Of Two Ricksons.

A couple of weeks back Owen and I *finally* caught up with Ian Rickson's production of JERUSALEM which is now back on in the West End. After opening at the Royal Court to tumultuous reviews for Jez Butterworth's play and Mark Rylance's lead performance, it transferred to the Apollo Theatre then onto Broadway winning in close succession the Olivier Award and the Tony Award for Best Actor. Now the production has returned to the Apollo for one last hurrah.

Rylance - in a performance that threatens to eat you alive - plays Johnny 'Rooster' Byron, a drop-out who lives in a caravan deep in a forest in Wiltshere that borders a small town. Byron, although hated by the town's community as a supplier of drugs, is a natural focus for the town's bored and restless youth who party the night away with Johnny and his slacker mate Ginger (Mackenzie Cook).
As the play opens, Lee, one of Rooster's clique, is travelling to Australia and as his friends try to put him off, Rooster faces his own life-changing events - the local council are going to enforce an overdue eviction notice; his ex-lover threatens to stop him seeing his young son and the father of an absconded girl threatens to lynch Rooster if the father finds out Rooster is involved. All this and it's St. George's Day too.

The last point is quite salient as Jez Butterworth's play is a comment on the state of late 2000s England. Butterworth has Rooster represent the anarchic, subversive and pagan side of England becoming more and more threatened by the advance of the dull grey stupidity of the modern world. Butterworth and Rylance have stated in interview that the character of Rooser was further worked on during the preview period at the Royal Court and it shows. Rooster almost seems to have grown beyond the play and all the characters opposing him are made as unsympathetic as possible.Rickson directs the piece with a surety of hand which makes the running time of three hours hardly noticeable and the play's heady combination of scatter-gun scatology, dangerous undertow and ruminations on the English soul are socked over the footlights by the remarkable ensemble.

Particularly impressive were Alan David as a ruminating English professor out of step with the modern world, Geraldine Hughes as Rooster's ex- Dawn and Mackenzie Crook as Ginger, Rooster's slacker friend. A special mention to Ultz' forest setting which in the closing moments takes on a life of it's own.But bestriding the stage and play was Rylance, it's impossible to think of another actor playing the role as it seems to come as natural to him as breathing. He was quite extraordinary.

Fast forward a few weeks and along with Sharon and Eamonn we found ourselves schlepping around the side of the Young Vic auditorium to enter the soulless, authoritarian, high security asylum which was the setting for Ian Rickson's production of HAMLET.
The big selling-point of this production was the chance to see Michael Sheen give us his melancholy Dane - how I wish he had been doing it as a one-man show.

Everything that seemed so right with Rickson's direction in JERUSALEM seemed so wrong here, his first Shakespeare production. The whole thing seemed trapped in the all-encompassing 'concept'. Nicholas Hytner's version at the National Theatre last year was set in an Elsinore that was rife with surveillance cameras and ever-watchful courtiers but at least the production had room within it to live and breath - here any life is drained away by the heavy-handed concept clamped down over the text. It's view of Elsinore as a maximum security nuthouse is strained and simply ugly.What purchase can there be in Hamlet's feigned and Ophelia's genuine flights of madness if they are outdone by Sally Dexter's jittery, scratchy Gertrude, all wild hair and exposed nerves. I was greatly disappointed in her performance but at least she made an impression which is more than can be said for James Clyde's woeful Claudius. He is not helped by having his one big scene - Claudius' speech as he attempts to pray - performed in a glassed-in office, his speech relayed to the audience by intercom.

All through the play, Rickson's annoying tricks kept shouting "look at this - you never expected to see a Hamlet like THIS eh?" It all smacked of a 1970s theatre collective production - is there to be NO progress? It also didn't help that I missed the final coup-de-theatre by having a bloody actor standing in my eye line. Allegedly Fortinbrass removes his helmet and swipe me, it's Hamlet. Ooops. Spoiler alert.Every so often a performance sparked interest - Hayley Carmichael briefly shone in the last minutes as a female Horatio, Pip Donaghy's gravedigger seized his moment, Michael Gould was occasionally effective as Polonius (played in the usual office bore style) and Vinette Robinson was the latest in quietly effective Ophelias but the casting of light-skinned black actresses in this role is becoming depressingly obvious. Again she was saddled with annoying business - handing out pills instead of flowers during her mad scene - did no one realise this leads to the background to her suicide? - and P.J. Harvey's tunes for Ophelia's snatches of song merely dragged out the playing length.

I also have to say that the idea of having the stage resembling a large open grave from Ophelia's burial scene to the end of the play worked excellently when Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes and Hamlet were piled in next to Ophelia and Polonious, really bringing home the sense of two families laid waste.All of which means that Michael Sheen will be needing some serious chiropractor sessions after carrying this damn show for nearly three months.

He was certainly charismatic, switching from Hamlet's soliloquies to his gallows humour in the bat of an eye, and investing the role with moments of real humanity. Sadly the one thing I didn't feel for him was any empathy and when Hamlet is left alone with Horatio facing his encroaching mortality, surely you need to have empathy for him. I also felt I was sometimes watching "the wheels go round" during some of his line readings - by trying to speak the text as naturally as possible I was... aware of... the... odd pauses... during his... lines.

Poor Michael Sheen... Ian Rickson done rained on your parade.

Oh and so did I when I sneezed LOUDLY towards the end of "To Be Or Not To Be"


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