Archive for June, 2011

26/06/11

Note:  This review is based on a preview performance, so the finished piece may slightly alter.

Having never read nor seen Richard III prior to this performance, I approached this production with timidity. Would the story make sense to me? Would the production assume I had prior knowledge, and would I become lost in the dense history of the play? Happily I had nothing to worry about, as Mendes has created a creatively brilliant and accessible production here.

Collaborating with Sam Mendes for the first time since American Beauty, Spacey’s portrayal of Shakespeare’s anti-hero has been hotly anticipated. The last production in the transatlantic Bridge Project, Spacey takes on the title role in Richard III, a role which allows Spacey to unleash his darker side and revel in the glorious anarchy Richard creates.

The first thing we see upon entering the auditorium is the word “Now,” projected in white on a black screen: a suggestion that the production is aiming for contemporary relevance, however, the design suggests a timeless quality. Catherine Zuber’s costume decisions seem firmly grounded in the 40’s and 50’s, while other elements are very modern – this is complimented by Tom Piper’s minimal but incredibly effective stage design, with the space expanding and contracting as the story requires, easily portraying the dank intimacy of a prison cell in one scene, a sprawling battlefield in another.

We are all aware of Mendes’ ability to create clean and beautiful imagery, and he certainly achieves that here, but can Spacey take on one of the Bard’s greatest villains? Kevin Spacey’s Richard is every inch the bottled spider Queen Margaret describes him as. His twisted and hunched body is supported by a fearsome looking leg brace on his left leg, his back hunched and his arm shrunken and useless. The decision to portray Richard in this manner is a stroke of genius, as it allows Spacey to sidle and creep around the stage like a predator stalking it’s prey – his gait gentle, but always deliberate. There is nothing grotesque about Richard – indeed, his disability (which I assumed to be Cerebral Palsey from the hints we were given) is barely noticed most of the time – that is to say, barely noticed by everyone but Richard.

Spacey’s Richard is never a panto-villain – rather than revel in the Machiavellian qualities we see in the character, Spacey focuses all of his decisions on Richard’s deep sense of self-loathing and isolation. He plays the role of the villain as though it is an inevitability rather than a joy – he doesn’t even seem particularly interested in power, but instead seems to revel in dragging those around him down to his level. As his mother (played admirably by Haydn Gwynne) shuns Richard for his tyranny, and informs him that she will support Richmond in the approaching fight, we see Richard’s true heart as his eyes fill with tears, his face heartbroken, before the mask of anger is fixed back in place and he resumes his villainy. It is a subtle and beautiful moment that explains Spacey’s Richard completely.

Spacey teases out the humour in each scene, supported by some fantastic choices in staging (I am particularly reminded of the video relay, wherein Richard, surrounded by a bible and costumed monks, comically plays up to the idea that he doesn’t want to be king.) and because of this we immediately understand his charm and charisma; the way he is able to manipulate those around him so effectively is certainly chilling. There are also some startling moments, from the sudden ferocity with which he turns on Buckingham with the line “I am not in the vein!”, to the wooing of Anne and his disbelief at his own audacity. It is an incredible interpretation, and a great achievement for Mr Spacey.

There’s an able supporting cast, most notably Chandler Williams as a deeply sympathetic Clarence to Chuk Iwuji’s Buckingham, who succeeds in making sense of the character’s journey from co-conspirator to doomed rebel. Gemma Jones is also spectacular as the prophetic Margaret, her eyes frightening and her voice full of grief and anger as she becomes a kind of Macbethian Wyrd sister in this production.

I would say this production is as near to perfection as a play gets, however, there is one thing that forbids me from saying that. The running time is made bearable by the spectacular action on stage. It maintains fluidity, momentum and drive throughout, with dramatic scene changes underscored by excellent sound and music, but does any play really need to be 3 hours 20 minutes long? The baffling decision to break for interval after more than two hours meant I was worriedly looking at my watch instead of being sucked into the action. I understand the desire to remain true to Shakespeare’s text, but for a modern audience that run time is almost too much to bear.

Mendes’s production is a thoroughly involving and gripping piece, and it ends the Bridge Project on a terrific high. Given its director and its casting, this was always going to be a hit and a sell out. Happily, it deserves to be. It is a shame that my favourite company in the world, Propeller, are doing their own version of Richard III at Hampstead theatre, as people will inevitably make comparisons, but these are two very different styles – go to Hampstead if you’d like a more anarchic version of this play, but for a classic take on the War of the Roses, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Programmes – £4

Running time – 3 hours 20 minutes (though as this was a preview, this may change slightly)

 

 

18/06/11

When we are thrown into the world of Dunsinane, Macbeth is all but defeated and the battle appears to be won. The soldiers we follow are trained in being a forest, and then thrown into a bloody skirmish. Peace takes hold of Dunsinane, but in Greig‘s adaptation, it isn‘t as simple as that.

Dunsinane follows the English officer, Siward, who seeks to impose order in Scotland after the death of Macbeth and Malcolm’s installation on the throne. He finds peace-keeping in the chaotic tribal run country fraught with hidden pitfalls.

When Siward orders his comrade to “Tell the men we’ll be in Scotland a little longer than expected.”, immediate parallels are drawn between 11th-century Scotland, and the current situation in the Middle East. The struggles faced by Siward, accompanied by an army ill-equipped to deal with the guerilla tactics of the native population, are fascinating to watch. The more the English officers and soldiers attempt to understand Scottish culture and the alien land they have been thrown into, the more hapless their efforts to tame it look.

The problems of negotiating a foreign land and its people are also wittily portrayed from the point of view of the common soldier, with one boys letters to his mother back home providing moments on levity and a stark insight into the morale of the troops.

This is definitely a character piece, and the performances are amazing. I first came across Jonny Phillips playing Iago at Riverside Studio’s – it was this performance that first ignited my passion for Shakespeare, so it was a delight to see him tackle this equally meaty role. He is glorious as Siward, conveying the bubbling frustration and confusion beneath his grizzled surface, while constantly trying to maintain his honour and principles.

Siobhan Redmond is superb as the formidable Gruach, the proud queen seeking to restore her son to the throne. While her accent is a little odd at times (which I find strange considering she is actually Scottish), she leaves the audience in no doubt that, while she is prisoner, she is the person who possesses the real power in Scotland.

In contrast to this, Brian Ferguson’s deadpan Malcolm is just hilarious. Sporting an oversized crown, his mannerisms and speech let the audience know immediately that he is not the man to unite the clans of Scotland, indeed, he seems to actively hate Scotland, and all the clan leaders to boot! He becomes a scene-stealer in any scene he finds himself in, peppering the otherwise depressing situation with sardonic witticisms that skewer Anglo-Scottish behaviour and highlight the futility of the situation.

The stage itself is wonderfully simple: a large Celtic cross perches on some stone steps, overlooking a rocky layered stage. This simplistic design allows for the fast pace we see throughout, with soldiers running through the Swan Theatre as though the battle is taking place just beyond the walls of the theatre. Live music is also handled brilliantly, with some very beautiful Celtic singing framing a lot of the action.

David Grieg’s Shakespearean sequel, expertly directed by Roxanna Silbert, is an outstanding addition to the RSC’s season. At 2 hours 30 minutes long, they appear to have cut a lot from the daunting 3 hour run time that many complained about at Hampstead Theatre; this seems to have created a much slicker play. The timing throughout this piece is wonderful, tripping delicately between comedy, tragedy and satire with the greatest of ease.

In a speech delivered cautiously by Malcolm, we come to realise that peace is not a default situation in this Scotland, but rather a rare freak occurrence, like a calm sea before the waves come. It is a depressing, but beautiful allegory, and one that demonstrates the futility of modern conflicts much more simply than any news report ever could.

Yesterday I got my programme for Edinburgh Fringe.

Edinburgh is quite simply my favourite time in the entire theatrical calendar – a time when the little companies that normally work throughout the country, touring alone or fleetingly visiting cities, all converge within the space of one tiny street. The Royal Mile is a piece of theatre in itself, with companies vying for your attention by any means necessary – there is performance art, offers of free food, free drink, anything to get you to see their show. What is normally a little sub-culture, where everyone knows everyone, suddenly becomes a massive international event, and everyone wants to join our club!

My first trip to the Fringe was in 2008. During that time I worked at C Venues, working anything from 9 to 16 hour days for barely any pay. I worked night shifts, wired up emergency lighting for an entire 5 storey building despite having no experience whatsoever, I painted, mopped, chopped, sawed, stapled, gaffa’d, tied, swept and wept for 3 weeks, and that was before the fringe even began. But when the fringe begins it’s all worthwhile. It was the post-graduation impetus I needed to make sure I stayed in theatre. It’s the main reason I’m so passionate about innovative theatre, and it introduced me to some of the best companies working in theatre today.

 Receiving the Fringe programme is incredibly exciting; partly just to allow you to plan the visit you’ve been looking forward to all year, but also to give you an idea of where the industry is at this year. What companies have chosen to make the perilous journey up north? Because it certainly is perilous. It is considered a success at the fringe if you break even – and it’s a rare company indeed that goes up there making a huge profit, despite spending thousands on venue hire, living costs and accommodation.

There is an art to reading the Fringe Programme, and it’s very much a ‘How do you eat yours’ dilemma. Obviously, like any sane individual, I jump straight to the theatre section. I then pore over each page, reading the company names first to see if anyone exciting is up. Once the favourite companies have been noted, I’ll go through to find some hidden gems from lesser-known companies – it’s all about the blurb in this part. And then I’ll go through children’s/musical/comedy sections and do the same thing.

 So with that in mind, it’s time to celebrate the wonderful world of theatre, and highlight some of my Fringe Picks meticulously selected from my first few sweeps of the brochure.

 Clockheart Boy -Dumbshow Theatre

Saw this when it was up in 2008 and fell in love with it. Heartbreakingly beautiful – magical, joyous, everything you could want for a fringe piece. Miss it at your peril.

Little Matter – The River People

These are one of my favourite companies working today, and this looks to continue the success of ‘Lilly Through the Dark’ – keeping their home at Bedlam, The River People have their own wagon for this. that’s good enough for me!

 Audience – Ontroerend Goed

After the disturbing, beautiful and slightly baffling ‘Internal’, I’m interested in anything this company has to offer. From the sounds of it, this will, once again, put the audience at the heart of the show.

The Boy James – Belt Up Theatre

Darlings of the Fringe scene, Belt Up, appear to have listened to criticism and scaled down for this fringe. Taking only three actors with them, their season is a muted affair (for them, anyway!) with only three shows in C Soco. I haven’t seen The Boy James yet, so will be favouring that over their two new shows, Outland and Twenty to Nine, which I am certain will arrive in London at some point.

I, Malvolio – Tim Crouch

Having been introduced to Tim with his production of ‘My Arm’, I am continually fascinated by his process and writing choices. Going by past experience, this seems to be about as normal as he gets, so I’m intrigued to see what he does with the character of Malvolio.

What Remains – Grid Iron Theatre

You may have read earlier in this blog, that ‘Decky Does a Bronco’ was one of my highlights of 2010 – and it solely for this reason that I’m going to see ‘What Remains’. They’re a great company, and some of the nicest I’ve worked with when they toured to Oxford last year.

Oedipus – Stephen Berkoff

Something tells me this is going to be the hot ticket this year. You get where this is going, Oedipus seen through the ungouged eyes of Berkoff – what isn’t there to like?

The Wright Brothers – Oxford Playhouse

 Okay, I admit it; I’m a company girl. The people that pay me a lot of money every month are taking their show up this year. Having seen the preview of this already, I’m really interested in how it’s changed, and how a Fringe audience receives it. If the previews were anything to go by, I think this may be an unexpected hit

 Assorted Forest Fringe

At the time of writing, the Forest Fringe programme has not yet been released, but rest assured, I have blocked off many hours to fill with whatever they have to offer. Action Hero are a particular draw for me, but I trust the Forest to provide something interesting no matter what.

 

Notable Absences

Little Bulb Theatre- Though I have been assured by them that they will be appearing BAC Summer Hall at some point – so keep an eye on their schedule!

Dancing Brick – hot on the heels of Thomas Eccleshare’s recent award, it would have been lovely to see them at the Fringe again. One can only assume they’re continuing their international success elsewhere!

Pappys Fun Club – genuinely upset about their absence, and can only hope they’ll be back next year.

 

And that should do it for now. There are many many many more shows I’ll be seeing this year, but that’s just a little taster of what I’m certain will be a spectacular programme. Hope you will all be visiting the ‘Burgh this year – see you up there!