Posts Tagged ‘richard II’

Review – Richard II – Malachite Theater at St Leonard’s Church (Shoreditch)

July 8, 2014

This year is one in which I’m pretty much seeing no Shakespeare at all. I blame burnout – last year I saw, what, seven versions of three plays? – but also a rebellion on my side: I’m tired of theaters making lazy programming decisions because they want secure audiences (as I’m convinced it’s not the lack of copyright that’s the motivating factor). Seriously, the Michael Grandage season featured two Shakespeares out of the five plays they did, wasting what could have been an incredible opportunity to expose people to new work. So this year my new year’s resolution was to see no plays I’ve seen before, a vow I took mostly because I was burnt out on Shakespeare hashed and rehashed and hashed again. It’s saved me from Malfi but perhaps led to a mistake in View from the Bridge … and yet, there I was Friday night in Shoreditch getting ready for Richard II. What gives?

In this case, it’s partly living up to my “duties” as a reviewer, but it’s also a desire to see a project through. See, the Malachites are doing all 19 of Shakespeare’s Bishopsgate plays to Shoreditch, and I want to see the project through. But also, I was so impressed by their Titus that I’ve wanted to continue supporting the company by reviewing their shows (as long as you understand this is a bit of a risk for both of us, because I’m not going to hide the bad news if that’s what I have to give – my contract with you, my imaginary reader, holds true, that I will give you an honest take on whatever I see).

So: I last saw Richard II at the Donmar, where I came up with some distinct impressions of the script: Richard, a king who is obsessed with his God-given right to kingship; the extraordinarily melancholy garden scene with Queen Isabella listening to a painful metaphor delivered by a wise servant; and the extraordinary speech Richard gives while he hands his crown (and his ability to direct his life) to Henry IV.

For this Richard, the Malachites presented us with Nick Finegan, who, with his strawberry blond hair, pale skin, and sense of utter composure seemed every bit the man who believed in his own divine right to rule. There was no sense of his needing to get assent from the commons or even the nobles; he was above and beyond all of this earthly nonsense. Interestingly enough, Finegan’s interpretation was less otherworldly than Eddie Redmayne; he also seemed more, er, heterosexual (although it is a bit difficult to imagine Richard bothering with this kind of proletariat stuff I thought it was very odd how effeminately he was played at the Donmar).

In vivid contrast to him is Martin Prest as Henry Bolingbroke, who is incredibly dynamic and charismatic as the wronged king-to-be. I couldn’t help but contrast his performance with that of the watery Jude Law as Henry V (one of the shows that burnt me out on Shakespeare for the year). Instead of watching a name actor swagger lazily through one of the best written roles in English-language theater, we got a man fighting to be vibrant, likeable and believable … and succeeding. Bolingbroke is a man who still respects the monarchy yet also wants to fight for justice (admittedly in this case for himself). I couldn’t help but get swept up in Bolingbroke’s cause: he seemed like a natural leader and the description of the commons fawning before him as he paraded through the streets of London seemed all too believable. Prest has the crown coming to him from the moment he challenges Thomas Mowbray to a duel; Richard’s voyage to Ireland to lead the army seems, by contrast, a little boy going on a school holiday. Both of them are noble, yet both of them portray opposites of the spectrum of what it means to be a king. Watching their war of words (and silence) as Richard struggles to hand over the crown to his successor is simply electrifying. (And let’s not forget watching Richard “negotiate” while hiding in the organ loft: wearing a not very scary helmet, he looked like a child playing at soldiers, yet also an adult realizing that he has, in every way, lost.)

Even if he seems out of touch, Richard’s end is heartbreaking. Trapped in the Tower, in the dark (the church was lit only with candles for an amazing effect in this scene), naked but for a cloth around his hips, Richard can only be pitied. He understands all he has lost, and it seems that even his hold on his mind has been loosened; he fears death at every step. Finegan seemed just insane enough to kill by accident, while sane enough to fully understand how tragic his fall is; this effect is emphasized by the thick shadows, which has him looking like a Caravaggio Christ. At the end, when his broken body is brought to the king, it’s hard not to feel crushed by sadness; who would think that Richard II could be so fragile?

While I once again had troubles with the acoustics in this building, the strong performances, charismatic leads, and inventive staging made it a Richard to remember. It’s certainly more than worth the £12 ticket cost – and just 50 pence more buys a cup of tea at the interval! Life in the Cheap Seats very much approves.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, July 4th, 2014. I saw origins of American attitudes towards rule of law – the attitudes that led us to our revolution – in this play. Most fitting! It continues thorugh July 26th.)

2011 Theater Review Revue

January 1, 2012

While for most people who do reviews, picking the best shows is as easy as going to your five (or four) star list and then culling from there, it’s a more difficult matter for me. First, I don’t really “star” reviews – certainly not on my blog. For me, the issue is enjoyment, and my enjoyment of a show is tied to the entertainment value crossed with the amount of money I had to pay for the ticket. Did I fork out sixty quid? Wow me, baby. Did I pay ten? I’m hoping for an evening that chases my troubles away, not one that knocks my socks off. Too frequently, though, I find the expectations set with less expensive tickets means I’m much easier to make happy in less extravagant shows.

Best comedy of the year seems like a shoe-in for the very popular One Man Two Guv’nors, which I certainly enjoyed, but it just had too much of a whiff of Benny Hill and bad panto for me to get behind it. Instead, I vote for Royal Court’s Jumpy, as a play that addressed modern concerns as well as age-old problems AND had a great scene with a disco-dancing, pony girl dominatrix. What did that have to do with mother/daughter relationships? Who cares? All I know is that I went to the theater desperately needing to have my blues chased away and this Jumpy had me laughing so hard I cried.

The best Shakespeare production and second best show overall (and the only full priced one I can get fully behind – thirty quid well spent) was Propeller Theater’s Richard III, a show I gave up paid tickets to another event just for the off-chance there might be a return ticket available. There was. I was blown out of my seat by this freakish combination of Edward Gorey and Neil Gaiman sensibilities. Every now and then you see a Shakespearean performance that sets the standards by which other performances will be judged: this was that play for me. It left all the other Shakespearean performances I saw in the dust – the Tate/Tennant Much Ado, the weird Donmar Richard II, the National’s Comedy of Errors. That said: the most magical show of the year (and also a bargain) was the wonderful Tempest done by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Little Angel Puppet Theater – I don’t feel like it should be in with the other Shakespeares as it was edited quite a bit and some of the actors were, um, puppets, but it made a script I’d previously found stuffy positively sing. And at 10 quid a ticket, it was an incredible deal – the kind of show that makes me feel lucky to live in London.

This leads me to the Best Theater Tip Generator of the year: and the winner is … Twitter. There’s a pile of theater tweeters out there who in addition to talking about work and (occasionally) TV talent shows also will on a nightly basis let you know if what they saw was good, great, or a trainwreck. When I hear two or three of these people say a show is a knockout, I will do what it takes to make sure I get a ticket before it sells out – or decide to stand in line, hoping against hope for returns. They haven’t led me wrong – and they’re saying that this year I need to go see Sweeney Todd since I didn’t make it to Chichester. (I got the memo!) I’m a member of that community, and if you want a short summary, may I suggest you add @140thtr to your followed tweeters? It will expose you to a variety of writers and help you decide if you want to follow any of them directly.

Most misconceived revival/debut has got to go to the interminable Emperor and Galilean, an Ibsen play which was making its debut at the National some 150 years after it was originally written. Per the notes, it wasn’t MEANT to be staged at all; based on what I saw, tradition should have been maintained. It’s about enough to make me think that really, forgotten plays are forgotten for a reason, but then I saw The Belle’s Strategem at Southwark Playhouse and I was proven wrong. I think it might be a bit much to call it best revival of the year, but insofar as it was head to head in the same category as Emperor and Galilean, Red Handed Theater’s joyous Belle knocked it out of the ballpark.

It was a great year for musicals in London, and I took full advantage of this. We had a glorious crop of new ones – Betty Blue Eyes, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Ghost, Top Hat, Love Story – well, Top Hat was only new to the stage and Love Story was more sonorous than glorious – but I was able to revel in my joy of watching people sing (and frequently dance) on stage again and again. Matilda is the one everyone is cooing over, but I got my happy on at Crazy for You (tears in my eyes – tears!) and the warped revival of Salad Days. Sadly, I don’t think any of the songs from the new shows are destined to become standards – though if there was a show I think should be revived quickly, it would be the clever production of Betwixt I saw at Trafalgar Studios. Perfectly suited to a theater geek’s sensibilities, I found myself carefully listening to the lyrics – and laughing a lot. Thanks to all of the people who worked so hard (and put so much money!) into making these shows happen – I realize you may not have had your aspirations met, but as a Londoner, I felt spoiled.

For best dance of the year, it’s the companies that came to London that gave me the big thrills. Merce Cunningham’s troupe left me heartbroken at never seeing them but accepting the closure; the Sadlers Wells Flamenco festival was good but didn’t blow me away. Instead – well, it was the damned Mariinsky with their Balanchine/Robbins program that left me with that spooky, goosebumpy feeling you get when something just perfect has happened while you were in the room. As a bizarre bonus, this was the only program of their generally astoundingly expensive series where any kind of discount could be found; I got stalls seats at half price thanks to Last Minute. All I can say is that going to Russia is now seeming like a reasonable thing to do to get my dance fix going, especially now that Vasiliev and Osipova have left the Bolshoi for the big M.

Biggest non-story of the years: bloggers should not review previews. How many times have people in the traditional media brought this up? How many times have people involved in shows gotten defensive because your poor review is for their preview? (Note this doesn’t happen for positive reviews, which they see as “building word of mouth” before opening night.) For all of you bloggers out there, can we just stop being baited by people who have nothing better to write about than this dull topic? Part of the reason theater blogs are great is because we can get “in print” so quickly that folks who are debating buying tickets can get an early insight into whether or not a particular show is worth forking out for – and my blogging friends have saved me a lot of grief (not to mention intrigued me in Pippin despite the pans). And bloggers ARE fans who like to see shows as soon as possible – it’s rough when you’ve been waiting a year to see the new Mike Bartlett show and it’s RIGHT THERE for sale! Now! – and we pay for the privilege. We see, we pay, we write, and most of us say if it was a preview (or mention the date of the show that was reviewed). Otherwise – this isn’t a story and the theater blogging community should unify in refusing to “feed the trolls.” If theaters don’t want shows written about – then they shouldn’t be selling tickets for them yet.

Given my love for bargains, it’s probably unsurprising, then, that my happiest evening of the year was spent watching Get Santa at the Royal Court.  Not only did I only spend 5 pounds for my ticket, I found the whole evening hopelessly surreal and completely original. I am still laughing about the bacon tree. Why was no script published for this genius piece? I’d be doing it in my house for the holidays every year. Overall, every time I saw another show this year that was great, I’d ask, “But did I like it as much as Get Santa?” And the answer was always no. Thus, for best play of the year, and best night at the theater for me personally, Get Santa takes the prize.

In summary: it was a very good year for me – 136 performances, large chunks of disposable income recycled into the city’s arts coffers, only three walkouts (The Veil, Juno and the Paycock, and Haunted Child) and just a handful of interval-free shows I might have left. I can’t wait to see what 2012 will bring!

December theater mini-reviews – Donmar “Richard II” and Hackney Empire “Cinderella”

December 24, 2011

Santa is leaving nothing for me in my stocking because I’ve been neglecting my theater blog. There’s been so much to see, and I’ve traveled so much (with indulgent trips to Birmingham for “The Nutcracker” and Leeds for “Beauty and the Beast”) that actually getting words on paper (or whatever I’m doing right now) has not been happening. So there’s probably 8 shows I’ve seen this much that I’ve neglected to write up. However, I’m going to try to get reviews up for a few of them that are still open: just be advised I’m doing this in an airport with limited internet access and no programs to reference for actors’ names.

First, the Hackney Empire’s “Cinderella.” Hackney has been the gold standard for pantos for me: aimed at the kids, affordable for families, with an excellent atmosphere that helps me be a kid, too. But they’ve shot over the top with the incredible skills of their dame, Clive Rowe, and the clever songwriting skills and script (full of political jokes and local references) that have made every dusty old fairytale fresh and fun.

I had my worries about “Cinderella” as Clive was taking the year off. What would we do without his wisecracks, amazing improv talents, and fabulous voice? According to a friend, Cinderella doesn’t actually need a dame as the mom is played by a woman, while it’s the stepsisters who do the drag duties. I’m pleased to say that the voices were on and the stepmom was a delicious villain, but a lot of the snap had gone. The improv (from the sisters) was soft (they apologized for going off script, whereas I thought they should have revelled in it!), the references to Hackney were few, and the only real political jokes I heard were references to phone hacking and the difficulty of getting Olympics tickets. Sure, it was good, but I just couldn’t get my enthusiasm up to the wild levels of the past even with front row tickets. Apparently “Aladdin” at the Lyric Hammersmith is the one to beat, but I won’t get to see it. That said, this is still a good show and lacking in the nauseating commerciality I’d seen at some more upscale venues, so I can recomend it as a family afternoon or evening out … and they do need our support. *sigh* PLEASE CAN WE HAVE CLIVE BACK NEXT YEAR? (This show was seen on Wednesday, December 15th, 2011.)

Next up is Richard II at the Donmar Warehouse. Wonderfully, this was a show I didn’t know at all, so I had NO idea how it was going to end: history plays, to what extent are they comedies and to what extent tragedies? It was a typical Donmar set (dark floor, balcony above) but with bonus incense filling the room and a lovely churchy-gold-wood thing going on that helped illustrate Richard’s point about the divinity of kinghood. I thought this was a good insight into the medieval soul as well as some of the core issues that have continued to dog English politics – the peasants will love you as long as you kiss their ass and don’t take too much from their purses. That said, Richard II himself was a queer bird and seemed just bizarrely affected in a way that was possibly meant to indicate impending madness but that came off as “I’ve just come out of acting school and this is the “method” I’ve chosen for this role, you will of course go with it.” I found it off-putting, but with a strong cast, and, hey, Shakespeare, plus ten quid tickets, it was certainly worth my time. Not worth standing the whole evening, mind you, but a great way to knock out a history. Someday perhaps Propeller will do it and then I’ll see what they can really achieve with this script. (This show was seen on Wednesday, December 12th, 2011).

Both of these shows are certainly worth a gander though neither blew my socks off – I’ve really only been reviewing shows I have a lot to say about. Anyway, call ’em serviceable. (Richard II continues at the Donmar through February 4th, 2012; Cinderella through January 8th, 2012.)