Posts Tagged ‘good shows for good prices’

Review – Women Beware Women – National Theatre

April 24, 2010

Thomas Middleton is a writer whose position in the body of English plays is that of an entire genre: the Jacobean equivalent of the slasher flick. Off to see Middleton? Expect a cast full of nasties and an ending that leaves you feeling not particularly sad about how many people died at the end; somehow, his deaths seem not so much tragic as well deserved, and the quantities of them are so generous as to lean toward laughter.

Unfortunately sometimes this all becomes just a bit too heavy and the two plays I’ve seen of his before this one (The Changeling and The Revenger’s Tragedy) left me bored long before their resolution; the first show went for a Grand Guignol approach, the second (at the National) was like a watered-down Three Penny Opera with the charm sucked out of it.This plus a rumored three hour running time nearly stopped me in my tracks on my way into the National to see Women Beware Women; I was tired, it had been along day, and I couldn’t imagine myself suffering along happily while a variety of people were evil to each other and then finally met a come-uppance I predicted in the first twenty minutes (or even before buying the tickets). I’m glad, though, that I didn’t, because this is not just the most successful rendition of Middleton I’ve seen, but was a dark and exciting night of theater that richly rewarded my time and financial investment.

We start in a setting of not quite genteel poverty; a young clerk (Leantio, Samuel Barnett) is returning to his mother’s house with his pilfered noblewoman bride; a sixteen year old beauty who is a cross between Catherine Deneuve and Jaqueline Kennedy, clearly slumming in her husband’s pitiful household. Theirs appears to be a relationship driven entirely by lust, appropriate enough in two such young people; but Bianca (Lauren O’Neil) appears pitiful, a gracious woman with a poor future ahead of her.

Bianca’s situation contrasts strongly with Isabella (Vanessa Kirby), a young, intelligent woman who, rather than running off with her lover, is about to be married off to an utter dolt, with her father giving her no choice in the matter. Yet, “thanks” to the intervention of her aunt Livia (Harriet Walter in a truly grand role), suddenly she’s able to face her horrid future with hope; the man whom she loves can be her secret lover and support her through this upcoming lifetime of matrimonial misery. In this “happy ending” we have our first betrayal, for the man she loves is her uncle Hippolito (Raymond Coulthard), and it is her aunt who tells her a lie to recast this affair as something besides incest so that she will accept him as her lover. Woman Beware Woman indeed. Auntie Livia is a real piece of work; intelligent, twice-widowed, “all of 39,” and independently wealthy. She seems to have fallen right off of the map of morality, yet not actually appear evil; her acts seems to be ones merely aimed at procuring pleasure for those whom she loves, at the expense of those who are, well, in the eyes of the nobility, nobodies. Nobody (nobodies) are harmed, so where is the harm in it?

Livia is a lovely model of feminine power and awareness and the horrible easiness that allows people to be cruel to those who don’t really exist in their eyes. The next victim of her machinations is Bianca, whom “the duke” (Richard Lintern) has seen and wished to seduce. The power play between Bianca and the Duke becomes a very powerful thing; given that Middleton doesn’t really write heroes and can barely be bothered with creating sympathetic characters, the question is not so much what will be her fate, but how will she take revenge on those who wronged her. I was quite excited about seeing “Kill, Barbie, Kill Kill!” in action, a veritable inverse of Elle Woods, all deliciously full of rage. Forget a sisterhood between the women; these people’s interactions were dictated soley by age, money, family, honor, and perceived advantage. Love never has a hope.

And, really, I just loved it all. Our beautiful, well-decked, arrogant nobility; the weak and stupid poor they preyed on; the gleeful anticipation of everyone getting their comeuppance. The whole was done on a brilliant set that for once used the Olivier’s revolve without making a big show of it, nicely catching the Duke’s palace on one side and the dingy backside of Florence on the other; the music captured both the 60s ambiance the design team was aiming for and the horrid rigidity of 17th century morality; and _oh_ but the staging was a treat, from the duke’s grand parade, in a spotlight with glitter showering down on him from above, to the madness of the final bloody dinner scene, with dagger-wielding masked angels smoking drugged pipes with their soon-to-be victims, the nearly dizzying revolution of the stage, the lighting highlighting one horror after another (the ghost of one murder victim being especially delicious), the fights of victims and aggressors which, flickering in a well-placed spotlght, Bianca, now shimmering with sexuality and triumph like Poppeia, reigned above an entire dining hall full of flowers and murder and nearly no blood at all. It wasn’t needed; we saw each of them die, and, truth be told, we had to feel good about watching this room full of evil people meet the fate they deserved. My goodness, it was a very satisfying night. And all of this is available under the Travellex 10 program – I’d say book your tickets now.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Wednesday, April 21st, 2010. It continues through July 4th, 2010. For more reviews, please see UpTheWestEnd.com.)

Advertisements

Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Southwark Playhouse

February 14, 2009

Last night I went with a group of friends to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Southwark Playhouse. I’d never been there before and was enticed to attend the performance strictly on the basis of the flyer I saw at the Union Theater last month – and the fact they said the whole performance took only 90 minutes*! (The previous Midsummer I’d seen, at the Roundhouse, seemed to go way too long, and I didn’t want a repeat of that, even on a Friday.) The flyer showed a girl made up to look like an apprentice Geisha (with a strong touch of The Mikado in her styling), and just looked so pretty and charming that I thought, hey, this looks like something that could really work, and it’s one of those cute little south London theatrical spaces that need my support, and why not go? So seven of us rolled the dice and descended on the Southwark Playhouse in hope of a good night out.

As it turns out, my hope was repaid in spades. Everything about this performance was a pleasure to me, from the sound design to the set to the movement, the costuming, the props, and (of course) the performance – including the number of actors they’d chosen to perform it (utterly fat-free at seven). Instead of the normal uncomfortable yuck I felt with the arrival of the usually painfully imaginary Greek monarchs** Theseus (Kenji Watanabe) and Hippolyta (You-Ri Yamanaka), I was actually pulled in my their regal bearing and effortlessly graceful movement (as they knelt on stage to accept the petitions of Egeus and the youngsters) and … by God, they’d created a court in front of me, and I bought that the humbly bowing Hermia (Nina Kwok) actually had her life on the line by daring to reject her father’s match. I don’t think Demetrius (David Lee-Jones) and Lysander (Matt McCooey) were entirely believable as samurai – but that was okay, we had a story to tell and the accommodation was a small one since the overall premise of the show (the ball that starts the drama rolling) had actually been made digestible to me for the first time ever.

With so much of the play pared away, the dialogue popped way to the fore, and I found myself paying far more attention and actually really being able to enjoy the poetry of Shakespeare’s words. The description of love and lovers seemed gorgeously suitable for a pre-Valentine’s play, and Lysander’s later rejection of Hermia as “an acorn … a dwarf!” incredibly harsh and cutting (and funny). Hermia and Helena (Julia Sandiford)’s light and dark pink kimono were both suitably romantic, young-lady appropriate, and plain enough to do double duty – or in this case triple duty, as they played themselves, two members of the acting troupe AND members of Titania’s fairy court! I was really impressed at how well the actors handled all of these transitions and that they were able to appropriately convey them with the addition of an apron or a mask, while the bodies remained dressed in the same colors (nice job to the costumer, whom I’m guessing is Wai Yin Kwok, credited as “designer” in the program). Possibly more impressive were the props, which consisted entirely of … fans. Not a bunch of fans, either, but about six, which were cups to be drunk from, flowers to be plucked, scripts, scrolls, you name it – everything except for the wall and the lion’s mane used by the Rude Mechanicals in their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe.

I also liked the way the performance was done movement-wise, in two ways. First, the hall was set up so that we were watching – er – theater in the oblong. You see, there was a long ramp down the middle, with a painting on both ends, and we the audience set up on both sides of the stage. And yet (though I was sat in the middle), I only felt once or twice like I was missing any of the action due to blocked sight lines. I liked having the actors exit from both ends of the theater – and I liked how they could appear at the top of the back wall (over the painting of the tree) or even from behind the stage (when Titania awakes to behold her lovely ass-headed Bottom).

The second thing I enjoyed about the movement was how it was used to convey character. This is most especially true in the case of Puck (Jay Oliver Yip, also Egeus and Quince of the acting troupe), who bounced along in a way that was entirely different from any “Puck-ish” fairy I had ever seen, and yet who was entirely believable as a supernatural being because of his movement. He also was good at conveying impishness, resentment, and a variety of other emotions through his body, and, as an actor, set himself up as an utterly different character from the uptight Egeus and the blowsy Quince. Titania got hairpins and lost her Hippolyta shawl to convey her change, but Puck pretty much just had to do his transformation with the way he walked. Very nice job!

Have I enthused enough? As we walked out, we were all chattering madly away about what a good time we’d had. One of my friends found Theseus occasionally a bit hard to understand, but no one complained about the use of Japanese – it all seemed to fit in nicely and I didn’t feel like we were losing any of the Shakespeare because of it. And we were talking about the irony of having the different actors play the different characters, and the fun of the fans, and the cool set, and … what a good evening it had been and what a find the theater was and on and on and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d walked out of a Shakespearean play with more energy than when we’d walked in and at the end of a work week, nonetheless. So hats off to Jonathan Man for his brilliant realization of this play and thank you to all of the people who came together to create this really great night out.

*Ultimately the play runs more like 120 minutes as there is an interval, and that 90 minutes is only if you see one of the school productions. Still, I was back in Tooting at about 10:15, which seemed quite reasonable.

**painful due to the utter dissociation with what I’d expect of BCE Greek performance. I mean, please, you can look at all the Greek theater you want and it never reads a bit like Shakespeare’s version of Greece.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, February 13th, 2009. The show continues until February 28th.)