Posts Tagged ‘Royal Shakespeare Company’

Review – Queen Anne – Royal Shakespeare Company at Theater Royal Haymarket

July 12, 2017

As a blogger, I don’t usually get invitations to West End shows, so it was hard to not say yes to an opportunity to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Queen Anne here in Londoninium. I was also intrigued by the subject matter, a modern treatment of a lesser monarch (by Helen Edmundson), and given that I’ve recently been to Blenheim Palace (for the Max Richter concert of music from Woolf Works) there was some additional interest for me. And the RSC is a rare treat for me, as I don’t usually travel to see shows and their tickets when they’re in London are not inexpensive. I expected high quality acting, costuming, and sets … the question would be how is the play?

The set for this show was gorgeously simple, an arched double level wall that from the top occasionally served as windows or balconies and from the bottom, the doors to various rooms. But most of the action took place in bedrooms – usually that of the princess and later queen, Anne (Emma Cunniffe), although also that of her closest friend and confidante, the Duchess of Marlborough (Romola Garai). It is in the interaction of these two women that most of the play’s plot is twined, although there is also some forward motion brought to play by the distant cousin (Abigail – Beth Park) that the Duchess (Sarah) has placed in the queen’s household. It’s interesting to see how close both women are to the queen – while the Duchess advises (and cajoles) on politics in contrast to Abigail’s job of changing the bandages on Anne’s suppurating legs, they both sleep in her bed regularly and provide as much emotional support as they do practical. There’s also a hint of a more sexual tone to Sarah’s relationship with the Queen, although it seems to be of far less import than the fact that the poor monarch endured 17 pregnancies with no surviving children to show for her efforts.

Anne’s personal tragedies – the loss of so many children, her own bad health, and the death of her husband midway through her reign – are certainly remarkable, but the historic times in which she lived, with ongoing Catholic versus Protestant conflict, substantial wars abroad, and the battle for Scotland via “The Great Pretender” are of such import that the story of her impact as a monarch is just as weighty a story and one well worth being told on stage. We get a fair amount of detail about the War of Spanish Succession (including financing thereof) and the maneuvering to get peace with Scotland; all of which are most welcome to see covered on stage. Even better is the Whig versus Tory split which makes itself known in attempts to influence Anne to pick one versus another to advice her cabinet. And yet, for some reason, the author of this play chose to focus on … Sarah’s temper tantrums when she thinks Abigail is now more popular with the queen than she is?


All of this history and suddenly we’re watching Mean Girls?

What makes it even worse is that neither the political wisdom Sarah Churchill must have had through close contact with her husband (or which she shared with him!) nor the relationship that Anne would have had with her own husband (who must have taken some interest in the country he lived in!) receive much attention at all. The broadsheets that mocked the queen get some attention, but a play just about how they worked behind the scenes to rake mud seems like a more intriguing yarn. Instead, we watch these two women play out one-note lives – Anne as Eeyore and Sarah as Regina George – while Abigail is entirely ignored as a plot opportunity. Cunniffe probably could have eked a bit more out of Anne but ultimately this is a case where the blame falls firmly at the writer’s feet. People interested in filling an evening with a learning a bit of history may find this show passable; but it is far from a classic. Let us hope the misadventures of the pamphleteers get their chance at some point in the future.

(This review is for the performance that took place on Tuesday, July 11,  2017.)


Review – Death of a Salesman – Royal Shakespeare Company at Noel Coward Theater

May 14, 2015

It seems pretty ridiculous when you think about it that I’ve never seen Death of a Salesman, but it has just always seemed so canonical that there didn’t seem to be any real pressure to go. I mean, seeing a rarely produced Arthur Miller play, now that’s an event. But his most famous one? I’d studied it in high school, and, well, now that I think about it, it just didn’t seem to get produced all that much … anyway, so here I am, it’s 2015 and I’ve never seen Death of a Salesman, so when I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production was coming to the Noel Coward, I jumped right on buying a ticket, especially because I wanted to hit the sweet preview pricing. My reward was a £30 seat in the back of the Royal Circle which, while it did leave dents from my knees in my chest, gave me a fully unobstructed view of the stage and would have been perfect if I’d only been three inches shorter.

Normally I try to hide plot details from people in my reviews, but I’m not really going to do that this time – be warned: like Romeo and Juliet and Carmen, the details of Death of a Salesman are something I’m going to assume you’re familiar with, and I’ll talk about it all freely here. But before I do that, I’m going to share this bit of interval chatter between me and my co-viewer:
“Well, how about that? It’s pretty good, huh? But I wish you could see a version on Broadway.”
“Why would I want that?”
“Well, you know, so you could see all of the famous American actors.”
“Are these actors not famous? I don’t really know.”
“Well, yeah, Antony Sher, and I think Harriet Walter …”
“Look, I don’t need to see anybody else in this play. This cast is perfect. Biff is a little weird but it’s basically the way he’s written. I could not ask for a better production of this show. It’s the kind of thing that makes me thrilled to live in London, where I can see stuff like this, absolutely excellent realistic theater, every night. I can practically expect it. And yet still it’s a bit of a surprise when it’s all as good as this is. Now let’s sit down and watch Willy Loman fall apart.”

Right, off you go people who don’t know the plot.

Thirty years after I last dealt with this play, I’m amazed at both how timelessly its depiction of American values bears up, and how very much my emotional response to the characters’ voyages has changed. As a picture of America, Miller got it spot on in 1949 just as carelessly accurately as O’Neill did in Ah, Wilderness! – but I experience it differently now that I’ve become estranged from my country of birth. Americans’ focus on positivity, the lies people tell when life gets ugly, the materialism and shallowness – it blows me out of the water to see society so unchanged nearly seventy years later. But the vibrancy of the characters Miller created gleamed across the decades as well, and was well polished by the outstanding delivery the RSC’s troupe gave us. As a teenager, I found all of the characters detestable, much as Biff rejects his father for falling short of his moral standards: but as an adult, I can see the shortcomings of all of them through more forgiving eyes. The mother, Linda, whom I hated for being a doormat as well as being disloyal to her sons – now, as a woman near her age, I can see how outstanding her loyalty to her husband is: and with Harriet Walter in the role, I was able to believe, to the soles of my shoes, that Linda truly, deeply loved Willy, and that she understood that he was falling apart and needed her more than ever. The sons, Happy and Biff, well, I can see where Miller has tried to draw them in a way that we can see how their childhood has made them into the people they are today: but I now believe that Biff is a badly created character rather than a detestable human being. Both Biff and Happy treat their father repulsively, but Biff’s inability to get his own life in gear simply doesn’t have a believable basis per Miller’s writing. Alex Hassell gives it his best, but I can’t buy him because I can’t buy the character.

Willy Loman, though, wow, what a tour de force. On paper, reading Linda saying that he is “tired” didn’t work for me; but twenty five years of trying to make sure I have enough money for rent every month has made me blaze with sympathy for the horror of Willy being stuck back on commission and losing his salary – at 60. I’m also more familiar with the way aging affects the mind, and as I watched this man who’s spent his life shilling stockings try to make sense of why his life now seems like shit, well, I am seeing early onset dementia (especially in the Ben scenes) as well as stress. I used to hate Loman for cutting his wife off but I know see how he’s desperately grasping for any life preserver he can find, and his shushing is more to keep his focus than to show any dislike of Linda; and his relationship with his best friend (he seems abusive to him as well) now, once again, reeks of deep, unconditional love on the side of his best friend Charley, which was doubtlessly built over the years and thus is able to be sustained, on Charley’s side, in the face of Loman’s mental collapse – which is brilliantly, diamond-sharp brought to life by Anthony Sher. Every up and down, dream and delusion is made real: his mercurial outbursts, his scrabbling, his begging – it was a believable, absorbing journey from start to finish. I simply could not believe how damned good this play could be, but with a cast this fine, Miller’s tiny wobbles were simply wibbles. I loved it. I’m so glad I had an opportunity to see this definitive performance of this excellent play – I recommend it without reservation at any price level (provide you’re buying from the box office).

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on May 12th, 2015. It continues through July 18th.)

Review – Wolf Hall – Royal Shakespeare Company at Aldwych Theater

May 22, 2014

There is event theater and there is event theater, and for a certain sort of well-educated, well-read, upper middle class (or just upper class) Londoner, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Wolf Hall was the event they’d been waiting for, enough to pull them out of their sleepy suburbs at 90 quid a head and sell out the first month’s run of the (first half of the) Hilary Mantel double bill practically before it had opened. And there I was, surrounded by people wearing very nice clothes, laughing at all of the “in” English history jokes (“Oh that Jane Seymour! Ha ha ha!”) and British geography jokes (“Yorkshiremen eat Londoners for lunch! An endowed university in Ipswitch! Ha ha ha!) and somehow seeming very pleased that they knew how these things were going to end in the end … or, rather, in the present.

With a nearly bare set – just walls of concrete with crossed lines of light in the back (symbolizing the influence religion on everything) – the actors were left to pull magic from the air with little more than their words, some really luscious costumes, and occasional walls of flame. And personalities really came through – Henry (Nathaniel Parker), who wants so much to be liked (but perhaps confuses lust and kingly duty) – Anne (Lydia Leonard), who has a clear vision of what it takes to achieve power – and Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles), who is unswervingly loyal and yet still very, very human.

Or that, I think, is what Hilary Mantel would have us think: for, in this production, none of these creatures comes across as human; only when informed by our memories of her book. It’s a beautiful historical pageant, full of color and movement, but devoid of real emotion. We clapped and cheered and were entertained and perhaps dazzled, but I simply was not in the least bit touched by this show. It’s a shame: there is so much in the source material that I had really hoped it would be there, and while I can’t deny the professionalism and production qualities were tops, I want to feel when I pay that much money. And I didn’t. So while this was an entertaining night out, it was ultimately forgettable, though very popular in a sort of upper class fangirl way. People who want to go to the theater to feel good about themselves and their position in life, this show is for you: if you want to learn a little something about human nature, for my money you’d do much better to see Birdland at the Royal Court.

(This show is for a performance that took place on Thursday, May 15, 2014. It continues through the summer, running in rep with Bring Up The Bodies. Tickets can be bought through the RSC site or Ticketmaster but, really, just read the book unless you can get one of the £10 day seats.)

Mini-review – Julius Caesar – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Noel Coward Theater

August 12, 2012

It’s hard not to get a little more excited about shows when you can see them building up day by day. This is what led me to get tickets for the RSC’s Julius Caesar at the Noel Coward theater – something about watching the load in made me much more excited about this show than I might have been, given that I’m way past my standard annual Shakespeare limit (four so far and I doubled up on Henry V). But I’d never seen this play before, and they had some seats going for £12.50 (if you buy them at the box office; otherwise there’s an extortionate £2 charge per ticket), so I sweet talked my roommate and next thing you know there we are about the 2nd night of previews. Woo hoo! (Note: I couldn’t find any discounts for this show anywhere, but the highest tier of the gods was closed, so if I’d bought there I would have done better than for my irritatingly restricted side balcony seat – much leaning forward was necessary.) I didn’t really know anything about this show, other than having someone tell me it was an all-black cast.

The setting for this version of Julius Caesar is most decidedly Africa: to me, it felt a bit like what I might expect of South Africa (especially with the rubber tire “necklace”), but the shamanic figure and music didn’t give me a solid setting: it was more of a feeling of any place where dictators might rise and fall, where armies of men stood ready to fight at a moment, where the populace was ready to cheer or riot as necessary. It seemed very much to be Anycountry, but for the undercurrent of a total dedication to freedom and rejecting tyranny: that made it Rome, ancient Rome all the way, no matter what clothes anyone was wearing or what sort of guns they carried. Shakespeare’s words held true, and even in a world of cement blocks crumbled by war, to me we were a few blocks from the Forum, talking about a way of life and an ethos that had long since vanished.

The sad thing, really, is that the words of this production were frequently hard to enjoy. Without studying the work beforehand, it often happens that you just have to let things slip in Shakespeare and figure you’ll catch up with it later when you read the script; but I was really struggling to hear what people were saying on stage. I think the ambient noise and the frequent shouting were just turning things into a mush. Still, the emotional power shone through: of Marc Antony’s manipulation; of Brutus’ abuse of Cassius; of the murderous power of a mob. It all goes by in an incredibly rush, though oddly they’ve decided to put an interval in shortly after the assassination scene (this not present during the Stratford run). Still … a strong production and a good show, nicely framed to show the key elements of truth in the political world of the present.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, August 10th, 2012. It continues through September 15th.)

Review – Matilda the Musical – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Cambridge Theatre

November 24, 2011

Last winter, the raves in the Twittersphere were unanimous: the Royal Shakespeare Company’s musical version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda was a real winner. “That’s great,” I thought, “it’s always good for a new musical to be birthed and loved.” Stratford isn’t normally an affordable venue for me to visit (only really being suited to weekend matinees as the distance otherwise requires a hotel), but it hardly mattered because by the time I had heard about it, it was already sold out.

It was thus a great pleasure when I heard that Matilda was coming to London. I am naturally suspicious of musicals with lots of children in them, but since it was based on a story by Roald Dahl, I figured the sugar level was bound to be low while the darkness would be high. I had some luck with a preview ticket offer – figuring it had already had a solid run in Stratford, in my mind the early London shows would still be high quality. As it turned out, I wound up attending on press night, and with a £40 balcony ticket (at my utter top range unless it’s a birthday present) I was feeling quite suspicious about getting value on the money despite the build up.

Regular readers will know that I like to go to shows without having plot details revealed to me in advance, but be ready to be shocked: unlike most “normal” people, I have never read Matilda. So I had no idea what it was about, other than it was about a little girl and a mean teacher. My ignorance is due, I think, to growing up in America: while I had James and the Giant Peach read to me, saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and read Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, I wasn’t aware there were more Roald Dahl books out there. (Mind, this was about 1976 so there were quite a few less Dahl books at the time.) I had NO IDEA what was going to happen, especially since, with what I knew of Dahl, I igured a traditional happy ending was NOT necessarily in the cards. In fact, in the P.E. scene, when the stage suddenly went all red, I had a bit of a freak out thinking OH MY GOD IT’S GOING TO GO ALL CARRIE ON US and was expecting blood to be splashed everywhere (a thought NOT helped by my friend’s comment about Matilda’s “powers” a few minutes before). COMICALLY KILLER LITTLE GIRL the headlines read selling the show to people who would “get” it, while I sat in a corner, wrapped in a blanket, trying to recover from the terror. Thankfully, this did NOT happen. Rewind to earlier in the evening …

Tickets torn, I walked into a newly bejewelled Cambridge Theater, clutching a bag of chocolates and a rubber newt, and sat down to take in the miracle of the exposed set – all giant letters on wooden blocks, some spelling words, many lit with black lights. It was hard to imagine such a transformation since Chicago left, but it had become quite the little jewelbox. (And yes, there were acres of children in the audience, but, as I expected, they were generally well behaved, even though the show’s running time of 2:45 might have been a bit much for the under 10 set.) It was a good start, really.

Then a table began creeping forward under finger power, the orchestra kicked off, and BANG we were having a show! The kids started out bratty as hell (doing a little number about how each of them was special), a good contrast for introducing Matilda (Cleo Demetriou the night I went), a charming little girl with the trashiest, most ignorant parents (with the most deliciously hideous wardrobe) ever, who are disappointed that she wastes her time doing things like “reading” and “telling stories” and “not being a boy.” Thankfully, as a Dahl heroine, Matilda’s not obliged to be passive and pathetic, but instead shows spunk and rebelliousness. This does NOT go over well at school, where blind obedience is the rule per Headmistress (= principal for fellow Americans) Trunchbull (Bertie Carvel, terrifying and hysterical in a “if only Panto dames were always this awesome” style).

Things I didn’t expect of this story narrative-wise: Matilda is liked by the other kids despite being smart; there is a teacher who positively treasures her (Miss Honey, Lauren Ward); and there is a major subplot involving Matilda telling a story to her librarian friend, Mrs. Phelps (Melanie La Barrie). Matilda’s act of imagination is illustrated ingeniously for the stage, with devices ranging from puppets to amazingly costumed actors to an animated movie that reminded me of the Cray brothers. The creative team could have done so much less but instead they took the opportunity to create real theatrical magic – thanks for that, guys.

While I was terrified that the show was going to be cutesy, sappy, and either candied up or dulled down for the expected (and arrived) young audience, in fact, there was none of that: the song lyrics were thoughtful, the movement and dance was original (and hysterical at time); there was appropriate sexuality for the adults (well, Rudolpho, anyway); the humor was all over the place. Best of all, the darkness I expect and love from Dahl appeared in now way to have been sanitized out. People, even adults and parents, are cruel and hurtful and mean; they don’t have to do it because they’re waiting for something magical to happen that takes their problem away but just because they enjoy power and control; children (and adults) suffer from their inability to have the same power; the world is, really, not concerned with fairness.

Matilda, if it has a lesson, is that you don’t need to take life’s unfairness sitting down; that, even though standing against something that is blatantly not right does not mean you can change the outcome, it will, if nothing else, ensure that you did better than go through life as a victim. It’s hard not to enjoy this show for all of its energy, great design work, and high-caliber acting; but ultimately, the reason to see it again (which I will) is because it makes you feel good, even in a world that has so many wrongs in it. Yeah, my tickets were out of budget for me; but for once, I felt like I had really got my money’s worth. I may not have come out singing the songs (in fact I frequently could not hear the lyrics), but I did feel I’d seen a really great show.

(This review is for the press performance that took place on Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011. It is booking through September 9, 2012. My advice if you want any kind of discount is to go with a large group. Be advised this show does a Sunday matinee but is dark on Monday.)

Review – The Tempest – Little Angel Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company at Little Angel Theatre

April 12, 2011

When the Little Angel Theater Twitter feed covered their work with the Royal Shakespeare Company in producing a child-friendly version of The Tempest, I pretty much ignored it – I don’t really like kid’s shows and I’m not one to travel to see shows (kiddy play, Stratford, whatever). However, my attitude changed when I saw that this show was being brought to London for presentation at the Little Angel’s home venue. I had really dismissed the show as being a throwaway to satisfy parents eager to entertain their tots (or a theater trying to prove it “reaches out” to their non-core audience), but the fact that the Little Angel thought it was good enough to put on their regular season made me think that maybe it was worth checking out and not just a case of them providing a bit of advice on “here’s how we do it.” Little A brings high production values to their shows, and, well, I had guests coming from out of town who needed entertainment on a Sunday night (as it happens the only time I could see it) and it was just opening … so I rolled the dice, bought three tickets, and took two Americans to see a puppet show on their one and only night of London theater.

I’m so glad I trusted my impulses and that they all worked together to encourage me to get tickets for this show. As it turns out, this was a full-blown coproduction of Little Angel and the Royal Shakespeare Company – it was not a “puppet” version of The Tempest (like I’d thought, and which my guests might not have liked), but a production in which two characters are done as puppets and all the rest performed by the tip-top actors of the RSC who are also manipulating puppets – and providing musical accompaniment, both sung and played. Really, I was quite impressed by what performing powerhouses these people were!

The two puppet characters in this show were Ariel and Caliban, which were actually great choices to portray in this way. Ariel was a tiny fairy, about 1 1/2 feet tall, who leaps and flies and stands on Prospero and generally behaves in ways you just couldn’t have done with an actual human actor. I pretty much ignored the person (people) who was (were) manipulating and speaking for Ariel and just focused on the puppet – a sign that the puppeteer actor people were doing a really good job! Caliban, meanwhile, was a big, squat puppet monster (seen in the production photos), and could possibly have been just as well done as a human – but I enjoyed his otherworldly qualities. In fact, with these two puppets, the world of magic that is at the heart of The Tempest came alive for me for the first time ever in a way that all-human productions just hadn’t managed to do. Prospero was a magician cavorting with spirits summoned from his books, and not just a human ruling over other humans of greater or lesser talents.

I was also just amazed by the quality of the acting, which was so much more powerful for being in a small space (Little A seats about 100 or so) – it was full-quality Shakespearean actors basically two feet away from you and really going for it. And the songs (which frequently form a part of the puppet shows here, and which I usually don’t care for) were well made, beautifully harmonized, and accompanied by some solid flute/violin/accordion (etc.) – and they added to the magical atmosphere. Ultimately, my complaints boiled down to “the love song was too soppy” and “Prospero’s brother looked like an escapee from Black Adder with his awful wig.” Really, I just thought the whole thing was great, I was completely sucked up from about minute two, and at the end I thought, “My God, did I really just pay 12 quid for that amazing show? This is what living in a country that provides real support for the arts means.” Which is what I told my visiting American friends, basically, that we see shows like this just by accident on our way home from buying groceries. But it’s not true; this show is actually very, very good. I’d say buy your ticket immediately if you’re thinking about it, because once the word gets out, there won’t be any more left.

(This review is for the 7PM show that took place on Sunday, April 10th, 2011. It continues through May 15th.)

Review – Dunsinane – Royal Shakespeare Company at Hampstead Theatre

March 7, 2010

Dunsinane, presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Hampstead Theatre, had all of the benefits a good budget and well-trained company can bring to the stage with all of the risks of a new script. In this case, the risk was somewhat mitigated by a fairly established playwright (David Greig) working within the context of some extremely well-known Shakespeare (Macbeth); the question than became, could it live up to its source of inspiration? Might it even be another Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead?

What it managed to be was competent and yet uninspiring, a good window into Scottish culture with a nice tie-in to current issues that had occasionally beautiful language. First to appear of the main characters was “The Boy Soldier” (usually called “Boy,” played Sam Swann), who got most of the poetical text (frequently describing the landscape of Scotland) and seemed like he might have come out of Black Watch or some other play set in a modern war – basically an innocent providing a grunts-eye view of conflict. This character was the most unlike anything in the Shakespeare, as instead of operating in the world of royalty and commanders he was stuck in the mud, as far from master of his destiny as one could be. Another new character was “Gruach” (Siobhan Redmond) – well, actually, she was meant to be Lady Macbeth but was completely unlike the character of the first play. She was far more regal and, in my opinion, far more Scottish; less hateful, more nuanced, and more believable, if still ultimately Machiavellian. Redmond played her wearing the world’s worst wig and a dress straight out of a Millais painting, but still was convincing – mostly. At times she sounded heavy and forced, as if she was reading from a ballad.

Most interesting of the characters was red-headed King Malcolm (Brian Ferguson), who was a king unlike any other I’ve seen on stage; seriously concerned with staying in power, weak but thoroughly aware of the cultural milieu in which he was placed and attempting very actively to make the best of it – through wine and wenching. His explanation of his theory of rule was highly unique. I found him reminding me of the Shah of Iran – placed in power from the outside but very interested in keeping control.

Finally, we have Siward (Jonny Phillips), the commander who “just wants to make things right.” He has all of the power Malcolm wants, but no desire to rule; he wants to make Scotland a peaceful country, but because he’s utterly ignorant of Scottish history and culture, he will not be able to succeed. To me, he really seemed to represent the US ambitions in Iraq – dreaming of making a better world for its own sake, but wrecking the country, the people, and himself.

Despite these strong characters and the high degree of competence with which all roles were performed, Dunsinane never managed to get anywhere near the level of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or even a Crucible. Ultimately, I think it will be a bit of a historical curiosity, but unlikely to be revived other than by high schools or Shakespearean societies, and without the top-drawer talent RSC was able to provide, its weak bones will show themselves all too clearly.

(Dusinane ended its run at the Hampstead Theatre on March 6th, 2010. This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, March 5th. For another tardy review, see SansTaste.