Posts Tagged ‘RSC’

Antony and Cleopatra at the RSC

May 15, 2017

I’ve also been lucky enough to have taught this play to sixth formers a good number of times; again, a play I’d never seen on stage till now, although I admire the Trevor Nunn film version which we used to use in the classroom. But I’m utterly convinced now that Antony and Cleopatra is my favourite Shakespeare play, and also that this performance is probably the best Shakespeare performance I’ve ever seen on stage. I was utterly gripped throughout apart from a brief moment during the sea battle scene: I was able once to remind myself that I was ‘only’ watching a performance on a stage, but from my seat in the centre, towards the front of the stalls, I was there, and it was riveting.

Given that it’s quite a bitty play in a lot of ways, flitting from Rome to Egypt and back again so many times in a large number of very short scenes at certain points, what made it work here? Simplicity of the set and a clear visual definition of Rome and Egypt certainly helped, as did the pace of the performance – not rushed, but not disjointed either, which helped convince me of the inevitability of Antony‘s disintegration, as Rome slips through his fingers. The sense of tragedy develops surely and certainly from the coincidence, as we see Antony realising as he loses Rome, that Cleopatra is more important to him, the most important thing in his world: I was totally convinced of their love for each other, although this is perhaps harder to detect in Cleopatra, who is empress of Egypt and used to having everything just as she wants it, her every whim satisfied on the instant. For me it worked. Cleopatra is inevitably selfish, never having had reason to be anything else, but I felt she came to realise her love for the man who has lost all, given all for his love of her.

Cleopatra was superbly cast and played, exuding luxury and sensuality and Egypt, Antony and Octavius were very convincing and Enobarbus, whom it’s impossible not to love, was outstanding. Even his death, which must be one of the hardest to carry off effectively onstage nowadays (he dies of a broken heart) convinced. And I came to understand much more about Cleopatra’s women too, their love, loyalty and devotion to their queen shown through the adoration in their eyes fixed on her and ready to respond to her slightest look, word, gesture or whim.

For me, the sense of tragic waste with the death of Antony, and then of his lover, was full and complete. It was marvellous to hear the gorgeous language that Shakespeare poured into this play delivered so effectively and powerfully; the stagecraft was astonishing and it was, for me, an amazing production.

Julius Caesar at the RSC

May 15, 2017

I’ve just got back from my annual Shakespeare week, having seen productions of both Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.

They’re doing a Roman season at the RSC, so there’s a certain coherence to the staging and set design, which I really liked, and I think one of the things that struck me most about this production was its coherence: all the characters worked well together and the set enhanced the overall effect. And I was fortunate enough to have a seat in the middle of the third row, so the view was stunning.

Brutus and Cassius made a really good pairing, and I got a strong, clear picture of the closeness of their friendship, and their centrality to the play which I did not have from previous readings of the play and filmed performances. We see the strength of the bond between them, the stresses and tensions it endures, and its survival to the bitter end: the scene of their quarrel in the Roman camp was very moving, particularly when it came to the news of Portia‘s death; despite his stoicism, Brutus’ humanity shone through as well. And the moment of their final farewells to each other on the morning of the battle, which I’ve always found effective even in a reading, was very touching.

The nature of the stage set made the moments after the murder of Caesar astonishingly effective: you really had the impression that not only had the conspirators not thought things through beyond the actual killing, but also that they somehow had not fully realised that they were going to kill someone, and what that meant…

There were strong performances from other characters, too: Caesar’s physical weaknesses and frailties were well portrayed; Antony was clearly a chancer and a gambler, and the callow youth that Octavius was seemed very real, like an arrogant sixth-former who has just been chosen as deputy head-boy, polite and well-behaved but with a power-hunger just below the surface. It’s not a play with strong female roles; Portia worked for me, but Calpurnia didn’t: I just couldn’t see her as Caesar’s wife.

I’m really glad to have finally seen a performance after having taught it so many times in the past; the BBC Shakespeare film version never really cut the mustard for me, so this really was a special treat.

The Alchemist at the RSC

May 29, 2016

Ben Jonson‘s The Alchemist is a wonderful play to read – full of deception, abuse, wit, fast-paced, hectic, non-stop action; I was looking forward to seeing it in performance. We saw the first preview, which is the first time it’s played before a live audience, and so were warned to expect some rough edges. And there were some; the whole performance had me thinking more deeply about the kind of play it is and how a twenty-first century audience can respond to a seventeenth-century social satire.

Herein lies the problem, it seemed to me: it’s a genre we aren’t familiar with, and cannot really liken to anything we are familiar with: it’s not farce, it’s not pantomime, it’s not sitcom, though there are elements of all of these. It’s hilarious – when the audience gets the jokes – and that isn’t always.

The plot is pretty complex and convoluted, basically involving a trio of confidence tricksters fooling all the other characters most of the time, but also fighting amongst themselves; at the end their schemes are brought to a sudden stop and all is revealed, but no-one is really punished. The tricksters are let off (no doubt to have another go another day), and the conned put up with their losses rather than be publicly exposed for the fools they have been…

The first half of the performance was fast-paced, and this was a problem, perhaps with the genre: there was no variation is pace or pitch or tone, which became monotonous and a little tiring. The second half was better in that there was a sense of its gradually building up to a crescendo (actually a real explosion!). The actors were all really good, energetically playing their stereotypical characters to great effect.

Although when reading the play I was aware of the cardboard nature of Jonson’s characters – there’s very little development, and no real need or opportunity for the audience to sympathise, or indeed dislike them – this does also affect one’s response to performance, where the thinness of the characters is going to be much more evident when they are onstage in front of us. In the end, it was quite an enjoyable romp, which will surely be slicker and better and funnier after a few performances. And it was my second play of the day, so I was a bit tired, and probably less appreciative than I’d be another day…

Cymbeline at the RSC

May 28, 2016

This performance was the highlight of the week for me. Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s last plays, perhaps a tragi-comedy, perhaps a romance, depending on how you like your classifications. It’s rarely performed and rarely appears on an exam syllabus; I’d neither taught it nor seen it; having read it and enjoyed it, I was really looking forward to seeing it. It’s noted for seriously tortuous syntax in much of the dialogue, and has the most complex final scene I’ve ever come across in a play…

The setting was a dystopian future one; the various settings in Italy were ‘enhanced’ by the delivery of dialogue translated into Italian (and some French for one of the characters); the Roman ambassadors spoke in Latin. Translations were projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. Such gimmickry – and other touches, too – added nothing, and had the potential to confuse, as well as doing unnecessary violence to Shakespeare’s original. However, I was far too focused on the language and action to spend much time grinding my teeth over the director’s silliness…

The key actors’ performances were stunning. Imogen – or Innogen, as the director insisted she be called (if you want the minutiae of the textual history, you’ll have to look it up), her husband Posthumus, and his loyal friend Pisania (actually Pisanio in the text, but there were several parts taken from males and given to females) worked very well together, Iachimo was extremely convincing as the Italian seducer who failed to seduce, and the Welsh ‘mountaineers’ were superb. Cloten, the doltish son of the queen, was insufficiently doltish.

The action flowed better in the first half, where the story is clearer; it becomes extremely complicated in the second half, especially in the battle scenes, and the masque was pretty naff; masques had become a necessary addition to plays at that time, fashionable and suited to the new indoor theatres being built, and whatever you do with them nowadays fails to convince, as they are something a modern audience has no way to relate to. What you do with a final scene where so many loose ends need to be tied up is a real challenge, but if the actors are strong enough to carry the plot line along securely through all the revelations, it works, and it did here.

The play explores the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation, as do the other final plays like The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest; as all the secrets are revealed in the final scene and all sorts of people are reunited with each other, I experienced these themes working very powerfully and movingly as everything moved towards the conclusion; yes, Shakespeare stage-manages all this, but it really does demonstrate his skill as a dramatist, that he can nearly move you to tears. And, having wondered why the director swapped the genders of Cymbeline and his consort over, I could see that a mother reunited with long-lost children was perhaps even more moving that Shakespeare himself might have imagined. This really was a stunning performance; I watched from the second row and it was wonderful to be able to see the actors’ expressions and gestures so clearly.

Hamlet at the RSC

May 28, 2016

I’m just back from my Shakespeare week. We saw the RSC production of Hamlet, which has a mainly black cast, a black Hamlet, and African-themed set and music. I didn’t find that any of this added anything to the meaning of the play for me, although the opening scenes with Gertrude and Claudius briefly suggested Robert Mugabe and his consort, and I suppose quickly helped establish the idea of Denmark as a corrupt state. But the overall effect was as confusing as it was enlightening, I felt by the end.

What really stunned me was the actor playing Hamlet, Paapa Essiedu. He was amazingly energetic and expressive; his diction was very clear, illuminating the language and its meanings very effectively: I encountered some new ideas and meanings which had never before occurred to me in my years of teaching the play, and seeing it several times onstage, as well as on film. For me, he was one of the best Hamlets I’ve seen.

He was also really illuminating in his portrayal of Hamlet’s madness, which, I think, is one of the touchstones of a good performance: Hamlet sets out by saying he will put on an antic disposition from time to time as it suits him, implying that he will be in conscious control of it, but the text shows that madness takes control of him at times, and he is not able to master it, and a good actor will be able to show this happening. There must be a dynamic which emerges through rehearsal as the actor gradually realises how this can be presented onstage. Anyway, it really worked for me in Essiedu’s performance.

Ophelia was also well-played: again, her madness is something of a touchstone, and it seems to be incredibly difficult to pull off effectively nowadays: the twee-ness of the past no longer works, and some modern efforts, ranting, over-sexualised or just bizarre, can be positively toe-curling. But this Ophelia’s screams were quite spine-chilling, as part of the overall effect: she did seem like someone unhinged by what she had seen and been through.

Various things didn’t seem to work. Despite the brilliance of Hamlet’s performance, I didn’t feel a great sense of tragic loss at the end of the play. I felt that the dynamics between various pairs of characters didn’t come across terribly well: you need to feel that there’s a real connection between Hamlet and Horatio, between Laertes and Ophelia – and I didn’t. And the fight scene, done with African weapons – sticks of some sort, with small knives at the ends – didn’t work for me; nothing works better than the fencing foils which Shakespeare put in his text. I’m glad I saw it, just for Hamlet himself.

On a certain 400th anniversary

April 10, 2016

serveimageAs I shall be away on the actual day – 23 April – of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I’ll write something a little early. This piece will be more about my encounters with him, rather than anything academic.

I’ve lived longer than Shakespeare did: I still have the set of commemorative stamps issued to mark his 400th birthday in 1964, at a time when I collected stamps but knew nothing about our greatest writer. Before I first read any of his plays – as preparation for O level English Literature – I remember I had the feeling that he would be dull, difficult and boring.

I have an inspirational teacher to thank for my experience being so different. We had to study The Merchant of Venice, and I was astonished at the level of detail, the hidden meanings, and the messages beneath the surface, as well as the vulgarity. But most of all, even at that relatively early age, I think I was seduced by his masterly use of language, the magic of his verse, and his wit. Over time, I came to like the tragedies best; it took me a long while to engage with the histories, and I’m still wrestling with the comedies…

I was introduced to live performance while at school, too. The wonderful new – at that time – Nottingham Playhouse, with its ground-breaking revolving stage, had only just opened. I remember seeing a wonderful performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a play I’ve little time for – there, and also Ian McKellen‘s first Hamlet.

Obviously I went on to study more Shakespeare at A level – King Lear and Othello – and then at university, where I had the thrill of attending lectures by the great Kenneth Muir, who could stroll around the lecture theatre and reel off any quotation from any play that his train of thought required – just like that… And then I went on to teach Shakespeare to my students for many years.

Now, in retirement, I’m a student again, not a teacher, as each year I head off for a week deep in the Oxfordshire countryside to spend a week looking at three plays – usually two by Shakespeare and one by a contemporary – and then heading off to Stratford to see them at the RSC. There’s good company, and one of the course leaders is the Shakespearean actor Jane Lapotaire, who explores the plays from performance perspectives and is always very illuminating; one thing I did relatively little of as a teacher was drama.

So I have set myself a target in my retirement: finally to get to see all of Shakespeare’s plays in performance. My acquaintance is somewhat limited so far: teaching syllabuses meant that I’ve only taught about a dozen of the plays, and only seen a few more than that, although some I have seen many times, in some very memorable performances. This year I hope to see Cymbeline for the first time…

Though it can be hard sometimes to separate the brilliance from the bardolatry, my love of the richness of our wonderful language and its myriad possibilities does firmly convince me that in Shakespeare’s works is something very special indeed in our literary history and culture.

Shakespeare: Henry V

June 5, 2014

I recently saw the RSC productions of  Henry IV Part One and Two in Stratford during a Shakespeare course I took part in; we also watched a film of Richard II, so I thought I should complete the tetralogy by re-reading Henry V.

Shakespeare starts with a useless king (Richard) and ends with an effective one (Henry V); in between is sandwiched the reign of the illicit and troubled usurper, Henry IV; and yet his actions are suggested to have been necessary for the sake of the realm. Prince Hal has been transformed into Henry V, although there are times when this didn’t seem convincing. Both the plays Richard II and Henry V are very formal, ritualistic even, with much discussion in council and lengthy speechifying, Richard’s being beautiful and ineffectual, Henry’s being crisp, logical and directed. Court life during the reign of Henry IV was just chaotic. So there is a tidy sense of structure to this tetralogy.

Henry V is unlike the others in the use of prologue and choruses; these help shape the effect Shakespeare wants to achieve, heightening the presence and power of the king, and creating description and atmosphere for the campaign in France, particularly by articulating the fears of those who are off to war. There are still lots against the king, but unlike those against his father, there are easily dealt with, and the traitors even repent in the face of Henry’s apparent rectitude and good sense. And the good king still ensures that traitors lose their heads.

A less pretty side to Henry is revealed in the man of war and his threats against the French, but coupled with the conversations of the common people, the overall effect is to suggest what a dreadful thing war is in general, and how foolish those are that seek it (ie the French).

Another interesting effect is that of the king wandering off in mufti and enjoying conversations with the footsoldiers and lower class members of his army; again we see their fears through their arguments with the king, and he is not always at his ease with the new role that has been thrust on him, though he sustains it and develops a sense of fair play and justice of which Shakespeare’s audience would surely have approved, when he reveals his true self to those men later on.

Shakespeare brings the cycle of plays to a successful end with Henry’s victory at Agincourt, though his wooing of Katherine is now either tiresome or toe-curling or both. But what Shakespeare has done most effectively of all is to raise so many questions for us to reflect on, about kings and rulers, about justice, about the rights and fears of ordinary people when faced by power, and about the evils of warfare. All sides are laid bare, no-one escapes lightly, no easy answers are offered…

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