Archive for October, 2011

23/10/11

Marat/Sade is really due to be restaged. With riots in the streets only months ago, and camps springing up in protest of the financial turmoil brought upon us by those in positions of power, the idea of revolution, of a nation rising up against it’s ruling class, has never been more poignant. I was quite excited about this show, not least because it came with a warning email beforehand, a pretty high age limit, and the fact I studied this play at university and knew exactly what was in store.

Saying that, staging a production of Marat/Sade is not without risk. There is something inherently ‘60’s’ about Peter Weiss’s drama, and indeed the Artaudian Theatre of Cruelty style it is presented in. Also, this is the RSC, dahling – and as the Daily Mail has so readily demonstrated with it‘s ridiculously sensationalised summary of this show (which I won’t add a link to for reasons of intelligence and decency) this material still has the capability to shock, and a traditional RSC audience is not used to such outlandish scenes.

So let’s get this out of the way first. Yes, Anthony Neilson’s production is shocking. As someone used to every kind of theatre you can think of, I still balked at the image of a bishop getting sucked off my a buxom midget, or of a cross-dressing Marquis De Sade being tied up and repeatedly tasered, or even of Nicholas Day being stripped naked and gang raped by a giant dildo – but this isn’t shock for shock’s sake, there is a point to be made here.

Set in 1808 in a post revolutionary France, Marat/Sade is almost entirely a “play within a play”. This play is being staged by the inmates and nurses of Charenton Asylum, and overseen by the infamous Marquis De Sade (played charismatically by Jasper Britton). His play attempts to tell the story of the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat. Throughout, De Sade conducts many philosophical dialogues with Marat about the nature of revolution, and observes the proceedings with detached amusement as the disturbed individuals around him enact scenes of revolution and rebellion.

The most obvious change from the original piece is that Neilson has updated the action. It is still set in the 1800’s, but the physical look of the show has changed. While we are witnessing the fallout of the French revolution, there is a distinct Middle Eastern theme to Charlotte Corday’s costume as she kills Marat with a handgun, and patients are controlled via smart phones.

Speaking of the physical look of the piece, I have to mention Chahine Yavroyan’s lighting. I’m not normally one to dwell on scenography, preferring instead to take in the piece as a whole, but Yavroyan’s lighting was a triumph. It set the scene perfectly and used some mind-boggling effects at times – indeed, the moment when the whole theatre seemed to sway and move was so impressive I completely forgot about the spectacle on stage, staring dumbstruck at the balcony opposite me as it seemed to move and shift.

The staging too, is beautiful in it’s simplicity – a bare stage with bare iron ladders curving over the audience, creating a grid and an empty space to create any image the ever-changing story dictates. The whole thing is incredibly well designed and executed, allowing the patients of the asylum to loom over the audience on the ladders, hang off precariously at times, and use the runways to get up close and personal to those seated in the stalls.

The piece is performed admirably by the large cast, with all committing to the play’s strong demands from its actors. I was uncomfortable at first with the idea of an able-bodied cast doing out-dated impressions of patients with learning difficulties, but this aspect of the production is approached tastefully, and no one in the cast has slipped into caricature or cliché, instead portraying these patients subtly when necessary, but also allowing them the freedom to lash out when the script dictates it.

Jasper Britton, as I previously mentioned, stands out as De Sade who is the orchestrator of this event, but there are great performances from all, most notably Imogen Joel as a shivering and narcoleptic Charlotte Corday, and Lisa Hammond who gives a spectacular take on the Herald – revelling in every aspect of the play being performed, especially the more disturbing and sadistic acts.

And so we come to the main flaw in Neilson’s production, and it is a flaw that marred the entire production for me. It all looks very good, and it’s certainly shocking, but in focussing so doggedly on the shock-and-awe tactics employed here, Neilson seems to bypass the main points of the play. Marat’s freedom from oppression is something that could really speak to a modern audience, but it is a message that is lost in the hubbub around it. In the same way, the individualism that Sade champions is something a modern audience can identify with, but that message is only ever drilled home when something utterly appalling is happening on stage at the same time, so is lost in the ether.

This is an insightful play, but the sensationalist staging here means that anything I might have taken away from it was lost. Instead I left as many did, a bit shell-shocked, impressed at the grandeur and ambition of the piece, but totally confused about why it all happened.

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17/09/11

On seeing the RSC’s Othello, directed by Kathryn Hunter, I swore never to see another production of Othello again. It is my favourite Shakespeare play, and she butchered it. Never again would I witness Shakespeare’s greatest villain laughing like a pantomime baddie as the curtain came down, never again would I see my favourite of Shakespeare’s stories ruined by someone who just didn’t get it…yet two years later, here I am.

I have never seen The Wire, so it was not the lure of Dominic West and Clarke Peters that drew me; but I did want to remedy the damage that Kathryn Hunter did, and pay another visit to my favourite play. Directed by Daniel Evans, this Othello is presented in traditional garb and traditional simplicity, but don’t for any second think this is boring. This is one of the most psychologically detailed and rich productions of the play I have seen – and I’ve seen a few!

From the opening scene we see Iago, a plainly spoken Northern soldier. He is not the spider we see in other adaptations of this text, nor is he some master chess player, moving the pieces to suit his own end – instead he is a negative, destructive bull of a man, who’s surface honesty is such, that it is totally unfathomable to anyone around him that he could be villainous. This is the only interpretation of Iago I have seen that drew laughs from the audience – even in moments of abject horror, the audience are complicit with Iago and are almost on his side, despite the horror of his actions.

West’s grip of the dialogue is such that nothing is thrown away, and we see the bitterness simmering just beneath the surface. The best example of this is when Emilia calls him ‘honest‘, drawing attention to his working class background among officers, he sneers in hatred, before gritting his teeth and barking out a sarcastic laugh, leering in at Emilia as he does it. It is a moment that sends a chill down the spine. West’s Iago moves from one reason to another in a bid to explain why he does what he does – he is angry at being passed over for officer, he hears rumour Othello has bedded his wife – but this Iago in such a way that even he isn’t really sure why he does it.

I’ve always found Othello a difficult role – he is incredibly intelligent and eloquent, charming the court and Desdemona’s father with the story of their courtship, yet he falls for Iago’s lies so easily. Peters is compelling, but I found his portrayal erratic. It is only because I’m so familiar with the text that I was aware of it, but he appeared to reword some of the lines, and in some cases, forget to say them altogether.

It seems Peters fell into the ‘Shakespeare trap’, as my old tutor used to call it, wherein he tried to force emotion through the dense dialogue, instead of allowing the text to do the work for him. I did see this play very early in the run, so I hope this is something he has now remedied, as I’m sure there is potential for a mind-blowing performance. Saying that, Peters had some moments where he rose to the challenge, particularly when playing against West, who seemed to bring out the best in Peter’s performance.

There’s also some fantastic work from the supporting players. Cassio, played by Gwylim Lee solves the problem of Othello’s jealousy coming from nowhere, by actually giving him something to be jealous of. Cassio is a smooth-talking, charismatic, Florentine gentleman, who clearly has chemistry with Desdemona. Even though that chemistry isn’t acted upon, it’s not at all surprising that Othello suspects the pair, and it’s not surprising that Iago selects him as an enemy. Iago lingers over the fact that Cassio, unlike himself, has never seen battle, and only knows of a soldiers life through books – yet he takes the officers job over the ‘honest’ Iago. Hell, I’d be looking for a bit of revenge if I were Iago!

Alexandra Gilbreath’s Emilia, the put-upon wife of Iago, is another little gem. Emilia lights up the stage, beautifully portraying the entire spectrum of emotions Emilia goes through as she skirts around West‘s barrelling Iago. The maternal relationship she has with Lily James’ Desdemona is really quite touching, and her guilt, as she gradually becomes aware of her role in her husbands scheming, is breathtaking. It’s just a fantastic performance of a role that is often overlooked.

Morgan Large’s set is deceptively simple, and incredibly well used. With a looming stone wall at the rear, and a beautifully constructed mosaic of the floor which subtly shifts throughout the performance, the space is left completely open and interchangeable. The production as a whole was incredibly strong throughout – in previous adaptations directors have focussed on the possibility of Iago’s latent homosexuality, or the idea that Othello did indeed bed Emilia, but Evan’s production does not make such presumptions. Instead this show presents Shakespeare’s text exactly how it is written, and no doubt not a million miles away from how it was originally performed, with its many verbal nuances and shades, open to any interpretation an audience member wishes to make. I am rarely disappointed when I visit the Crucible, and this is just another example of the great work they’re doing up there.

There are certainly ups and downs in this production, but it’s rare to get such clarity in a production of this play, and it’s worth the trip up north simply to witness the best portrayal of Iago I have ever seen.