The Merry Wives of Windsor

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David Troughton and Beth Cordingly © RSC, photo by Manuel Harlan

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare – Barbican Theatre, London

The Merry Wives of Windsor is often looked-down-upon as a casual piece of throwaway entertainment lacking substance or serious intent, with little for scholars to get their teeth into. However, this is a play whose time is surely coming again: a Shakespeare in which the leads are played by women, who drive the plot and control the action has almost unique appeal. And it is genuinely funny, a quality brought out with delightful energy in the RSC’s current version, now transferred from Stratford to the Barbican.

The most immediately striking aspect of Fiona Laird’s production is Lez Brotherston’s set, which features the timber skeletons of two Tudor buildings, with parking and tourist-board signs subtly locating them in the 21st century. Not only do they rotate to supply interiors and exteriors, they also glow in exceptionally tacky rainbow colours, This is Windsor via The Only Way is Essex which, with reality tv the soap operas of today, makes sense.  Brotherston’s costumes are also a treat, combining doublets with suits, Elizabethan lace collars with rugby shirts and brocade bodices with patterned leggings. Meanwhile, we know Falstaff is out of his depth by the MCC blazers and Union Jack waistcoats he wears, belonging to a different world. The performers are right behind the concept, delivering a succession of comic treats. The two conspiring wives, Mistresses Ford and Page, who set up and humiliate Falstaff three times in a row, are played with Essex verve by Beth Cordingly and Rebecca Lacey, who have a particularly good time acting out conversations the benefit of the concealed Falstaff in hilariously wooden style. Katy Brittain also stands out as the merrily drunken Hostess of the Garter Inn, who enjoys herself more than everyone else put together, always clad head-to-toe in leopard print.

David Troughton gives a subtle and compelling performance as Falstaff, who simply cannot understand why he is the butt of the jokes. Troughton plays him as an alcoholic who thinks he is on top of things, but is only barely connected to reality. He is venal, violent and self-obsessed but, like any comic victim, the audience cannot help but feel sorry for him. The production does have its weaknesses. Every RSC show these days seems to require a lengthy, pointless preamble, perhaps to avoid panicking the audience with difficult dialogue upfront. Laird gives us a full set of introductions to the cast, who then go on to introduce themselves anyway in Shakespeare’s text, and a film of Elizabeth I commanding the play to be written, a theory that the production’s own programme thinks is a myth. It also seems wrong that the final scene around Herne’s Oak in Windsor Great Park, which opens the play beyond the inward-looking Tudor suburbia, is relocated to a statue in the town square, presumably for convenience.

However, this is an excellent production with a seriously watchable cast. Merry Wives is a play that deserves to be taken seriously. It is highly unusual in Shakespeare’s canon in that it is almost entirely in prose and concerns middle-class characters (and their servants) with no hint of the aristocracy, other than Falstaff himself, and no mention of politics. It is a straightforwardly funny play, without the usual distractions of a  Shakespeare comedy, and highly accessible. It is also full of insight into the lives of ordinary people and makes for a thoroughly enjoyable evening, just as Shakespeare intended. 

 

 

Happy Hour

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Happy Hour by Lobke Leirens and Maxim Storms – Vooruit, Ghent

Lobke Leirens and Maxim Storms are two unmistakable performers. Their appearance in ‘Another One‘ at the 2018 Edinburgh Festival, part of the Big in Belgium programme at Summerhall, was a revelation. Their show was complex, physical, dark, comic, and unclassifiable. It sent me to Ghent to see their new show, performed for only two nights as part of the Podium programme of new work, at Vooruit, the city’s fantastic workers’ palace arts centre. In ‘Happy Hour’ they take up where they left off, leaving the audience unable to guess what they might do next, but delighted by the unfolding of their bizarre, inexorable logic.

The show had the working title of ‘Folks and Fools’, which gives some sense of the surreal themes of ritual, repetition and folklore that run through the hour-long performance. Then again, the same could have been said about ‘Another One’. Leirens and Storms play strange very well. Storms appears first under a crawling, foam insect-like shell, blundering around the red circle that defines the stage on a fruitless search. Then he dons safari gear, socks and sandals, while Leirens wears rubber leggings and an off-the-shoulder top as sort of film noir moll. Both their necks are blacked with make-up, giving the impression their heads are only loosely attached. They stage a series of set-piece scenes which combine physical performance prowess with a Beckettian, to say the least, sense of humour.

The show is based on their performances together, in relation to one another. Repeated scenes require them to circle each other, separated by a long piece of two-by-four against their backs, stomachs and, agonising, their mouths. They are performing rituals designed, just like every ritual to prevent something and to make other things happen. We never know what, but we witness their extraordinary contortions as they frantically whip one another with cats-o-nine-tails, no holds barred, hopefully ring a bell into the darkness over the edges of the stage, and sing a strange folk song again and again. Leirens appears as a bare-bottomed, bucket-headed Hieronymus Bosch horse creature, and both later emerge as nun/bird hybrids, also straight from a Bosch vision of hell. They play a game in which Storms, obscured entirely by a furry suit, shoots urgent hand signals, interpreted by Leirens as an ever-changing mantra: “He gave me eight fears, two lies…” until she reaches the end point with “He gave me nothing, he gave me nothing.”

As an image of the futility of superstition it is hard to forget, but there is hope too and, by the end, the pair are ringing their bell into the shadows again. Their work is dark, but much more than that. It is considered, complex and often very funny too. Many influences are apparent, from art and film to music and dance, but the interpretations they provide are impossible to anticipate or predict because they are entirely original. It is safe to say you will not see anyone else doing what Leirens and Storms are doing, because no-one else could. This makes them two of the most exciting performers occupying a European stage at the moment. The audience in Ghent knows how good they are, and loved every moment.  If they bring their work back to Edinburgh this summer, it is absolutely not to be missed.

 

Doctor Faustus

TELEMMGLPICT000182785926_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqN7kF8Fb6ID_G1m99xXXMyybAEVXuTIPp2O86Sz6MwB8Jocelyn Jee Esien as Faustus. Image by Marc Brenner

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London

The Globe project, now led by Michelle Terry after recent upheavals, has become an even more remarkable thing. In its two experimental theatre spaces Elizabethan and Jacobean works are rediscovered in their original settings while, as part of this living history, Terry has enthusiastically embraced gender-blind casting. The women now playing male roles mirror the boys who played women 400 years ago, while allowing the Globe to push the boundaries of contemporary theatre with every production. It’s an exciting proposition, and Paulette Randall’s production of Doctor Faustus casts women in the lead roles of Faustus and Mephistopheles. If the production is a qualified success, it offers plenty to consider and to enjoy.

The usual problem with Christopher Marlowe’s play is that, while it contains some of the most glorious poetry in the English language, it also features some of the crudest drama. It is an odd combination, and the impression is of a play perched on the cusp of modernity, on the verge of breaking through into the universally recognisable forms of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Yet the play has been rediscovered recently, with three major productions at the RSC, in the West End and at the Globe itself after a generation of indifference. The simplicity of Marlowe’s central concept – the sale of a soul – is irresistible. For the RSC, Maria Aberg chose the two lead actors on the strength of a burning match every night, highlighting Faustus’ incendiary affront to the heavens and the interchangeable selves that embrace heaven and hell. Randall’s approach is much more traditional. Pauline McGlynn’s Mephistopheles is the leering, gleeful devil of folklore, enjoying herself a great deal in the part. It is, however, noticeable that Marlowe did not provide her with enough lines to make the most of the part. McGlynn is a powerful stage presence, but her performance could do with a little more ambiguity to increase its impact.

As Faustus, Jocelyn Jee Esien is a direct, rather than a poetic presence. Generally, the actor in this role soars with the gorgeous rhetoric that bookends the play. Instead, her performance takes the role back to earth, an approach that pays off in the usually strained scenes where Faustus exercises her devil-bought powers. These scenes of farcical capering – baiting princes and monks tricking ostlers – are remarkably entertaining, played with energy by an excellent, committed cast including an extra-jumpy Sarah Amankwah and the comic duo of John Leader and Louis Maskell. Lily Bevan brings great presence to  several parts, including that of Beelzebub himself. Randall uses the trapdoor effectively to create authentic 17th century effects, but misses a trick by skating over the ritual incantations that summons Mephistopheles from Hell. The still-astonishing, candle-lit setting of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse creates a powerful sense of a gloomy, enclosed Wittenberg study, stacked with books. The wide open spaces of the mind, which Marlowe’s writing at its best opens up, feel diminished by both performance and production style.

While there are areas of weakness in Randall’s production, the evening is drive by the sense of seeing something new: a play that may never have been performed with female leads on the professional, in the only setting of its kind. Doctor Faustus certainly provides an entertaining evening and, if it raises questions as well as providing answers, its approach is fresh, important and fascinating.

Hadestown

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André De Shields as Hermes. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Hadestown by Anaïs Mitchell – Olivier, National Theatre, London

Singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell‘s ‘folk opera’, Hadestown, is based on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, the ultimate ancient story about music. It has evolved from a song cycle for just Mitchell and her guitar to become a theatrical production, first touring regional US venues, then Off-Broadway and now in the wide, open spaces of the Olivier Theatre. ‘Folk’ was always a misleading description for music that it is as much influence by New Orleans jazz and blues. However, in the ten years it has taken to reach London, Hadestown has become a surprisingly conventional musical. It does not provide enough of the unexpected, and somewhere along the line has mislaid its edge. The end result is a rather middling entertainment with high points and low points, but ultimately a lack of coherence.

The show, directed by Rachel Chavkin and designed by Rachel Hauck, is set in an underground night spot that surrounds the Olivier with tiers, tables and chairs for the onstage band. The drummer plays behind the bar in a perspex chamber. Apart from general atmosphere, the setting contributes nothing more to the evening than filling the space, which is a disappointment. The idea of a nightclub as portal to the underworld is mostly represented by silver-suited André De Shields, as the messenger god Hermes. His glorious voice makes all his numbers a delight. He is one of the show’s highlights, another being Eve Noblezada as a backpacking Eurydice, with a singing voice that commands the material. Meanwhile Persephone, Queen of the Underworld is a raucous Amber Gray who likes to party. And Hades himself, Patrick Page, has the world’s deepest voice which astonishes the theatre. In the stand-out number, ‘The Wall’, he asks “Why do we build the wall, my children?” They reply, “We build the wall to keep us free.” Written some time before the advent of Trump Mitchell’s song hits home hard, and Page sings it like Tom Waits.

However, while these are highlights the show is uneven. It is undermined by the portrayal of Orpheus (Reeve Carney) who is written and played as a sort of Justin Bieber character in a denim jacket, who carries a guitar everywhere and singing annoying, lightweight ballads at the drop of a hat. It is a tough task to write songs for a legendary musician who can charm the very stones, but the entire approach seems misconceived. With the rest of the show seeking an after hours atmosphere, he does not belong at all.The wider setting is also incoherent. Hades and Persephone, perched on a balcony above the bar, seem ready to go in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’. Hell is revealed as a 1930s ‘Metropolis’ nightmare rather than addressing 21st century concerns, which defuses the political impact. Meanwhile, Eurydice and Orpheus have blown in from the early 2000s, Hermes is an all-purpose MC for hire. The show is also obsessed with the Olivier’s revolve, which spins and counterspins at the slightest excuse, concentrating all the action into a small circle in the middle of the stage. While Mitchell has written some barnstorming numbers, they do not come together to form a show with the same consistency or impact as her music at its best.

 

Moonlight / Night School

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Brid Brennan and Robert Glenister in Moonlight. Photo: Marc Brenner

Moonlight & Night School by Harold Pinter – Pinter Theatre, London

The fourth installment in Jamie Lloyd’s consistently enjoyable season of Harold Pinter’s short plays contrasts plays from either end of the writer’s career. ‘Moonlight’, perhaps surprisingly, is performed first. It’s the heavyweight of the evening, a play from Pinter’s final 1990s career surge when his Almeida premieres were the hottest tickets in town. ‘Night School’ is a much earlier work, a radio play from 1960 that was not performed on stage for another twenty years, and a slighter work. Both, however, provide a combination of dark humour and precisely honed language for which most playwrights would kill.

‘Moonlight’, which has a Tempest-like late career feel, takes place around the death bed of Andy (Robert Glenister), a civil servant beset by memories. His Bel (Brid Brennan) sits by his bed, but the characters and timelines from his life constantly shift and overlap. It is as though Andy is hallucinating fragments of Pinter’s oeuvre. There is partner swapping, underworld characters, social ritual as absurd comedy, language as surface, film imagery and the impossibility of substantiating memory or meaning. Andy loved Janie Dee’s glamorous Marie while Bel, either in reality or fantasy, loved a football referee called Fred (Peter Polycarpou). Meanwhile he has children, but they won’t come to his bedside. Can it really because they are a pair of Pinter-effete gangsters who claim to run a Chinese laundry. And why do the same actors (Dwane Walcott and Al Weaver)  sometimes morph into civil servants who engage in high-Pinter wordplay involving parades of colleagues who they refer to only by their surnames? And why is Andy haunted by his daughter who only appears as a young woman, a refugee from ‘Don’t Look Now’? Glenister makes the most of the role, rude to everyone in sight but with his influence over what remains of his life gone. Brennan, as his wife, exudes dangerous calm as she is, finally, in complete control. Polycarpou is a treat as the chummy ex-referee, whose reality keeps eluding Andy. Lyndsey Turner directs an excellent revival of this compelling play.

‘Night School’ is an oddity, a play with all the characters of an early Pinter play,but none of the double meaning. It has the boarding house setting of ‘The Birthday Party’ with a pair of landladies, played with glee by Janie Dee and Brid Brennan, and a supposedly perfect house guest, a school teacher called Sally played with very funny directness by Jessica Barden. Walter (Al Weaver) turns up, fresh from prison, wanting his room back. The sexual tension ratchets, and Robert Glenister’s crime boss landlord gets involved. Glenister, in more familiar, menacing mode, discovers Sally is not a school teacher, and Peter Polycarpou has another very enjoyable cameo as a nervous club owner. It’s fun, but all the secrets are systematically revealed in way that is most untypical. Ed Stambollouian, who directs, uses an on-stage drummer to provide the text with the rhythms it otherwise lacks. The play is definitely more of a curiosity than an essential piece of viewing, but even Pinter’s ephemera is well worth the effort. Continuing thanks are due to Jamie Lloyd for staging a rare treat for London theatregoers that keeps on giving.

Thirteen Cycles

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Image (c) Guillaume Querard

Thirteen Cycles by Project 2 – Rosemary Branch Theatre, Hoxton

Project 2 – Katy Schutte and Chris Mead – are improvising thirteen shows, a different one for every night of their run at the Rosemary Branch Theatre. Their theme is sci-fi and, triggered by a spacey location chosen from a list shouted by the audience, they are off with the assistance of Star Trek-esque space uniforms and a small selection of set-building blocks. On the night in question, the story took shape in “a garage where spaceships and things are mended”. Schutte and Mead rapidly spin out a generation-spanning futuristic sitcom scene set in a garage from nothing, with a grandfather and grandson, hidden family tension, thwarted dreams and a spacecraft called an Omni Machine (Model 400) which is having problems with its “elevation”.

The idea of using sci-fi as a context for improvisation is clever, because it allows scope for futuristic deus ex machina solutions whenever the performers are in fix. A “robot heavy lifting machine” (Mead, providing his own sound effects) supplies both light relief and plot lubrication. Sci-fi is also a nebulous concept, and its defining characteristic is usually that it analyses the time in which it’s written, while pretending not to. This provides scope to reflect on the here and now, but the focus of ‘Thirteen Cycles’ seems too unclear to make effective use of this freedom. Lacking a social context, the darker aspects of the show (violent rebellion, laser execution, assassinations, inequality, injustice), which were fully explored by the performers, carry very little weight or wider meaning.

The boundary between improvisation and pre-planned structure is also unclear. While the first scene is entirely off the cuff, seemingly pre-planned break points and storylines became apparent and the evening settles into a series of surprisingly conventional dramatic scenes. When the performers were clearly making the entire show up on the spot, the audience was engaged and willing to forgive them anything. As soon as that feeling of danger dissipated, the limits to the quality of the drama began to dominate.

Thirteen Cycles benefits greatly from its soundtrack and lighting design. The former is a low-key, expertly concocted brew of electronics, performed lived by musician Fred Deakin (of Lemon Jelly fame). The retro-futuristic laser-style projections by Guillaume Querard were clever and effective, adding serious atmosphere. The show is certainly enjoyable, Schutte and Mead are engaging and no-one will feel short-changed. However, it lacks the conceptual clarity needed to make it something more than a fun night out.

 

The Wild Duck

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Edward Hogg, Lyndsey Marshal and Clara Read. Image by Manuel Harlan.

The Wild Duck by Henrik Ibsen – Almeida Theatre, London

Robert Icke’s run at the Almeida Theatre has been game-changing. Most recently his Hamlet with Andrew Scott was probably the best of the decade, and his lead-swapping Mary Stuart with Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson a show to treasure. These productions were special because they convinced the audience they were seeing well-known texts for the first time, both an incredibly difficult thing to do and a sure sign of real innovation. Icke’s new production of ‘The Wild Duck’ is bold and controversial, but  delivers an interpretation that strikes home very hard indeed

Icke’s approach is to present the play as explicit fiction, with interludes of narrative reflection from the characters including discussion of Ibsen’s own life, with its revealing parallels to the action. The play, although sometimes regarded as Ibsen’s masterpiece, is much less performed or known in Britain than, for example, ‘Hedda Gabler’. There is therefore less expectation around the play and more room for radical presentation, although plenty of scope to offend doyens of theatre criticism. The play presents two incomplete families, darkly and fatally entwined. The production begins with the house lights up and a bare stage, the actors addressing the audience with a microphone. Almost imperceptibly, the show acquires a set and morphs into a traditional production, but the direct focus on people creating characters by talking to one another establishes an intensity which runs through the remainder of the evening, and highlights the roles in which everyone seems trapped.

The play is full of rich parts, and the cast is more than up to the task. Edward Hogg’s James Ekdal (character names are updated, and the cast pruned) is prickly, immature and self-destructive. The underrated Lyndsey Marshal is heart-breaking as his wife Gina, capable and determined mother with a secret she knows will tear down her life as soon as it is exposed. Nicholas Farrell is perfect as Ekdals’ drunken fantasist father, a lovely grandfather and a terrible father. Perhaps the stand-out performance comes from Kevin Harvey as Gregory Woods, sane on the surface but entirely unhinged not far beneath, his peculiar idealism a danger to everyone. The only character in the play who can really see what’s going on is Rick Warden’s doctor, Relling, who drinks to avoid the truth but still knows right from wrong. ‘The Wild Duck’ needs a very strong young performer to play the Ekdal’s daughter Hedwig, and Clara Read (on the night I saw the show) has the exactly the right combination of insight and vulnerability.

The play concerns truth and lies: whether the truth is a more destructive force than the lies that allow us to managed our lives. Icke brings in Ibsen’s own biography, revealing that he fathered an illegitimate daughter whom he supported until she was thirteen, then never contacted again. Hedwig, whose thirteenth birthday is the play’s tragic climax, is misled about her real parents. The conflation of a writer’s own life with their fiction is risky, these events seem particularly telling. While apparently distancing the audience, the production  opens up Ibsen’s work for closer inspection and brings us very close indeed to the characters. The result is eccentric and, as technique, probably unrepeatable. However, it results in a spell-binding evening in which the anguish of the characters as they wrench apart stays with us, long after we leave the theatre.