All Places that the Eye of Heaven Visits

Mark Rylance and Shakespeare’s Globe brought a company of 23 actors to Westminster Abbey for a unique event to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday. They created a beautiful and unexpected world where you could meet the war-weary soldier or the hapless lover, behold a great Monarch or bide awhile with a lone and prayerful soul as you explore the famous Abbey. This is a collection of fleeting and intimate encounters with Shakespeare’s drama, poetry and song beneath the soaring ribs of London’s tremendous Westminster Abbey. And it’s sold out, so you need to book for next year.

As you wander the Abbey you can be accosted by a player or two, some like students with backpacks emerging from the the strolling crowd, others in full Shakespearean dress, others just idling in jeans and sweatshirt by the tomb of this or that monarch. Each deliver a passage from a play or sonnet – some well known, others less so (to me at least). You can’t see everything and don’t worry about what you miss. What you do see will be worth it.

Having been last year we knew what to expect. It is tempting to follow the crowd but we knew that you soon split naturally into smaller groups so we immediately left the madding crowd for one of the aisles of side chapels. And almost immediately fell in with Mark Rylance himself, one of our finest current actors whether in a Shakespearean or contemporary setting. Rylance clearly enjoys bringing Shakespeare closer to the people and he is as content performing to the two of us (and a few others who had followed our lead) as to 2,000 on a wider stage. He did some more theatrical speeches elsewhere in the evening but for us – Sonnet 81:

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live (such virtue hath my pen)
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

In his battered suit with a raincoat over his arm, he was a man of the people as he wandered the Abbey.

And at the end as we all reassembled close to the tomb of the unknown soldier, summoned by mournful Elizabethan horns, Rylance mingled with the crowd, greeting old friends and acknowledging the good wishes from others. The Abbey columns were illuminated with gentle coloured lights. And then the whole of the players joined the audience and then made their way to the centre, voices raised in a soaring spring-themed song.

Only an hour and a quarter, but so much packed in to a truly wonderful experience. Watch out for tickets next year – but not until we’ve got ours.

To Kill a King

That’s what many people think Rufus Norris has done with his new production of Macbeth in the National Theatre. Take a stalwart of Shakespearean drama and completely murdered it. Many critics were scathing about all aspects of the play. “It is ugly to look at” – What’s on Stage, “bleak and often brutal” – Henry Hitchings, “the play struggles to rise about the sheer Stygian ghastliness” – Ann Treneman, and largely summed up by “The aim, I presume, was to create an especially atmospheric Macbeth, one seeped in inky-black mystique. But unfortunately the result is bizarrely flat,” – Rosemary Waugh.

In fact, most of the criticism was directed at the stage design rather than the performance, but I found that one of the most attractive things about this production. This is not the best Macbeth I have seen. Not by a country mile. But it is not the complete turkey that the criteratti set out to find.

Let’s deal with that set design first of all. The backdrop to this massive stage at the National was what seemed to be crumpled black plastic drapes, twisted and heavily layered, sheet upon sheet. At times it gave an immense depth to the play acting out in in front of you. At others it limited the vision to the a more intimate portion of the stage. Someone described it as seaweed crossed with shredded bin-liner, and that’s exactly what it looked like. When it wasn’t looking like Highlands of Scotland, or tapestries in Cawdor Castle, or Burnham Wood.

A rotating castle set exposed different rooms of Cawdor and other castles, and a sweeping runway gave height and depth to the broader action on moor and mountain.

It was on this runway we first meet the witches. No mysterious phantoms these. A simple threesome. No animatronics or flying trapezes, but one takes a high-speed run around the place, with an equally high-speed trill of a cackle.

And for the main parts? For me this is where the disappointment, if there is some, lay. Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff take the lead roles and whilst some argue that the cuts to the script made by Norris left them little to play with, I think it was the playing which lacked something. This was an ordinary bloke (and his ordinary wife) who was told by some witches that he would be King. An ordinary bloke would have said “OK, that’s nice. Let’s see what happens.”

Neither Macbeth, nor – crucially – Lady Macbeth have that pent up psychopathic fervour which drives them in other productions. And so it all becomes slightly unbelievable. A bit soft round the edge where it should be hard as steel.

So. It’s not great. But it’s not as bad as some critics say. Definitely give it a go if you get the chance. It won’t stand comparison with the great productions – Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth on stage, Michael Fassbender in the recent film – but, to borrow a phrase from the Good Doctors’ film reviews, it’s not entirely without merit. And if you like seaweed crossed with shredded bin-liner you’re in for a treat.

☆☆☆

The Best Man

Gore Vidal’s play of the battle between corrupt and honest (or less corrupt) politics of the 1960s still resonates today as it has done under different guises throughout the ages.

Richard III, the West Wing, House of Cards, the Thick of It. They all carry similar themes, but the Best Man takes us to the heart of how candidates are selected to become the representative of a party in the US presidential elections. Something we seem to ask a lot this side of the pond. Who…? How on earth…?

This production at the Playhouse Theatre has assembled a stellar cast to play the fictional characters. That fiction means you won’t necessarily know the result before it arrives and you will have no plot spoilers from me today.

The one big advantage of placing your story in the convention hotel where the party is meeting to choose its candidate is that all the rooms look the same. So you only need to change the people inhabiting it to change the scene, and that was done with swift expertise throughout. That gave this witty production a pace which one imagines would be similar to that experienced at a real world event – even if the truth is a little slower.

Martin Shaw appears to be Vidal’s favoured candidate – as was JFK until he fell out of love with him – but he is the flawed Secretary of State, Bill Russel. Certainly a womaniser. Possibly with mental health problems. His opponent, Senator Joe Cantwell is played by Jeff Fahey (an American actor with an American accent just about as believable as Shaw’s) as a brash, do anything, shaft anyone to win sort of guy – who could that be? Certainly this is played as good against evil. We are more used to bad against slightly less bad.

The battle for votes is adjudicated by the dying former President played by Jack Shepherd who fails to declare his support for one or the other before expiring without influencing the vote one way or the other. When they came to take their curtain call Shepherd still looked at death’s door, so he’d obviously put a lot into his performance.

As in many political tales of this era, the real business is done by the men, the candidates and their campaign managers. The women – the wives, the representative of the women’s caucus – are the bright lights which illuminate the murkier politics. But they do reflect their male counterparts – slightly good, slightly bad, slightly vacillating. Maureen Lipman in particular has an archly comic presence as the voice of women’s suffrage, Sue-Ellen Gamadge. She could easily have morphed into Lady Bracknell at any time.

Running at two hours 30minutes, for some reason it had a start time of 7.45pm so it was touch and go for the train home at a reasonable hour. Nevertheless, a tight production of a classic play. At times tense, always smart and witty, occasionally laugh out loud. And with a neat twist (no plot spoilers). Well worth seeing.

☆☆☆☆

The Plough and the Stars

The Plough and the Stars

The last time we saw Seán O’Casey’s great play about the events surrounding the Easter Rising of 1916, it was at the National Theatre (in London, rather than Ireland) and it was firmly set in the tenements of Dublin. The rising shaped the events. Shaped the people. The realism of the setting of the play gave it exact context.

This version at the Lyric Hammersmith is without doubt about the people, and their stories unwind on a backdrop that could certainly be Dublin in 1916. But it could also be Romania in 1989, or Mexico in 1994. Or a dystopian Los Angeles of 2049. The troubles here, as in all great plays, are the troubles of relationships rather than the troubles of the bomb and the bullet.

The play is bookended by songs. The Soldier’s Song is a poignant opening as Mollser, played by Julie Maguire, collapses in a bloody coughing fit which heralds the tuberculosis which will kill her later. She inhabits the stage throughout, neglected and ignored, save by a drunken Protestant neighbour who delights in singing Jerusalem and waving the Union Flag. The solider who arrives to escort her coffin for burial, plaintively sings Keep the Home Fires Burning to close the play.

The open, scaffolded set allows both the sense of any place, and the specific cheek by jowl place of the Irish tenements of 1916 and provides the backdrop for the over-arching themes against which these complex and simple relationships are played out -“Ireland is greater than a mother” and “Ireland is greater than a wife.”

The lives of the women of the play are the strongest themes. Nora Clitheroe’s descent into madness as she loses her husband Jack to the Irish Citizen Army, and then her unborn baby to the stress of battle almost mirrors that of Lady Macbeth. One trying to hold her husband to a normal family life, the other trying to promote him out of it. Nora reflects the ordinariness of family life in 1915, managing the household while uncle and cousin and neighbours talk the talk of revolution at home and in the pub. But when the second half starts in 1916 she is powerless to halt the words turning to actions as the bullets begin to fly.

No one here is a hero. Everyone is ordinary. The soldiers suppressing the rising are not imperialist bullies. Bessie, the drunken Protestant, is not the only one to question the rising, but the fact her son is fighting in the trenches of the first world war is a clear challenge to the priorities that confront these families. Apparently when the play was first performed in Ireland in the 1920s the audience rioted. It was all a bit too raw then.

O’Casey doesn’t rail against independence for Ireland, just the means of getting it, ending with overwhelming sadness and loss for those with little to lose. This play brings out all of that emotion and is well worth seeing, particularly if you have seen one of the more traditional period costume drama versions from recent times.

☆☆☆☆

A Sure Thing. Maybe.

The path of any relationship is full of uncertainties. And Heisenberg at the Wyndham’s Theatre demonstrated that in full. Starring Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham, Heisenberg is a romance which may or may not have had one or more sub-plots. One of which may or may not have been true. And given the American lead character, there may or may not have been some moral tale to tell.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle was referenced several times just to make sure you got the point. Or the wave. If the Principle is unfamiliar- look it up. This is science, do your own research.

Oh, OK then. I’ll do it for you. In simple terms it’s the discovery in the 1920’s that it is not possible to measure with precision simultaneously both the position and the momentum of quantum object. I’m fairly certain about that.

The romance between Alex, the level-headed 75-year-old, and Georgie, a 42-year-old woman who admits most of what she says may be untrue, is developed by a series of apparently random events, starting with a chance meeting, performed on a stage which itself is unstable. The simple but beautifully lit black and white set expands and contracts – a railway platform, a shop, a bedroom, a river bank – but (more Schrodinger-like than Heisenberg) it doesn’t resolve until it is observed.

With the plot we never see enough to resolve whether this is a true love story or a fraud. But it has a charm (see what I did there) and stylish wit throughout. Cranham gives Alex the patient wisdom and self-sacrifice often attributed to those who grew up in London’s wartime. With Duffy’s Georgie you are never sure who she really is – lover, mother, fraudster. At times hysterical, thoughtful, passionate, caring, uncaring.

As with any play about relationships, you need to buy in to the characters, in to the conceit of the play. I did. But I can’t say for certain if you will.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

No Need to Apologise

Stockard Channing (The West Wing, Grease and many, many more) hosts this family get together on her birthday in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia at the Trafalgar Studio. She, a succesful art historian and former radical student and 60s revolutionary, is the lightning conductor for her sons – and to a lesser extent, their girlfriends – who we discover are massively upset they are not mentioned in her recent memoirs. Even though this was an account of her working life rather than the personal. 

We glimpse a broken marriage, the young sons spirited away by a father who is never fully formed. But surely there must be more to it than that. 

To a certain extent it’s these gaps in the canvass that make it such a complete painting. Unlike many plays about family affairs where we care little about any of the characters (yes Hamlet, I mean you) here we want to know more. There seemed to be real emotion generated in the kitchen set. More than would be sparked by the surface plot lines. 

And I think that is what struck a cord with the audience. Everyone could recognise their own family gatherings where the tension is raised by the back-story which is known to the participants but not the observers. Here we had a chance to side with, to understand, to sympathise with all of the characters. Or none, as we pleased.

Channing played the fading radical – her picture of Marx relegated from pride of place to the downstairs loo – as a tough, feisty feminist still calling out her banker son for his lack of ethical trading. But she she also seemed to be going through the motions. For old time’s sake.

She was more than ably supported by the four other members of the cast (both sons played by Joseph Millson) and the sharp script was witty and poignant by turns. Desmond Barrit was magnificent as Hugh, the gay friend and confidant of the matriarch Kristin. The acerbic wit of the character and the comic timing of the player was certainly reminiscent of many a Falstaff. And, indeed, it would have only needed a couple more laugh out loud moments to turn this into a full blown comedy of manners. 

I was left with questions unanswered and instead of the usual shrug of the shoulders I was wanting to see the play again. Or at least to read the script, to see if I’d missed the answers elsewhere. 

There were a few empty seats for the performance I saw. If you get a chance, fill them up. You won’t be disappointed. 

A Knight’s Tale

Unlike George I have been a little behind in tilting at dragons. Or writing theatre reviews. This will change. Starting now.

St George and the Dragon at the National Theatre is a little too early for the panto season, but that is where it should lie. This over bloated allegorical tale is a cross between the Ambridge Xmas Special and the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. Its saving grace is that the intentional jokes in a hopeless script are funny. The rest of the dialogue is jaw-droppingly bewildering and, therefore, often unintentionally funny.

But at no point did I want to leave. Surprisingly.

This is a tale about how progress is the saviour which can release us from our demons (or dragons in this case). Until it isn’t and we have to tear down the progress we have made. I think.

Some people say it’s one can read across to Brexit. Europe good then Europe bad. If so, fine by me because (no plot spoiler – it’s too predictable) the remainers win. But it is too incoherent to have a political message even in today’s more complicated geopolitics.

Rae Smith’s set design brought little England to the National’s revolving stage in an obvious homage to Danny Boyle’s industrial and industrious set in the Olympic stadium. Zip wires and pyrotechnics brought the dragon to full panto realisation – Puff rather than Smaug – rather than human form which mostly represented the collective ills of the nation. Julian Bleach starred as the rather camp personification of the dragon. Think Alan Rickman, Prince of Thieves.

The rest of the cast do a variable but solid job of turning the author’s words into a play.  The only standout performance was from the child playing, er, the child throughout. It maybe that the cast were never really clear whether they were supposed to be playing for laughs. But it was the laughs I liked the best.

Should you go and see it? It’s billed as an epic folk tale for the modern age which is a load of pretentious old bollocks. But it is a bit amusing, occasionally wryly so and occasionally laugh out loud funny. It’s unlikely you will hate it and I’d be surprised if you loved it. But I’m not disappointed I went.

Let’s go

If Kafka did Beckett it would probably be the best Shakespeare in the world. Or something like that.

And that’s pretty much what we seem to have in this realisation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead directed by David Leveaux.

Tom Stoppard’s R&G is deliberately framed on Waiting for Godot, and this production makes certain the references are not missed. The step ladder – standing in for Beckett’s tree – makes it through all three acts from country to court to ship, and is a continuous reminder of Godot, whoever she is.

The simple set allows drapes to contain the action, or lack of it, and provide a screen for rapid scene changes. But in this production the stage is all the world, and all the players merely men and women. This is the ordinary. The hum drum. The inevitable. But at a courtly level and at a furious pace.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are mates, as are their actors Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire respectively in real life. And they are clearly that on stage. The games. The one-upmanship. The petty rows. The serious arguments will all be too familiar to any close friends.

This is an absurdist comic play about those relationships. We are looking in from a different angle on a play we all know very well. And when Polonius addresses the audience in classic ‘old-Shakespearian’ style, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern begin to see that they may be part of a bigger story, with other people watching on, dictating their moves.

Although this is an absurdist, philosophical comedy that doesn’t mean all you get is a knowing, wry humour. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments, and the cast, particularly including David Haig as the impresario actor leading the players within the play (within the play), appear to be having an absolute hoot.

However, there are some serious questions asked. We all know the plot of this play from Hamlet. We know the denouement. That makes the references to death which run throughout even more poignant. Rosencrantz sums this up when he asks “Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death?” But even death can’t hold its sting for long. David Haig’s troupe are able to provide death to order for a guilder or eight. “Deaths for all ages and occasions! Deaths by suspension, convulsion, consumption, incision, execution, asphyxiation and malnutrition! Climatic carnage, by poison and by steel! Double deaths by duel!”

The big difference between this play and Godot, of course, is that even if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have little grasp on what’s happening and no understanding of what lies ahead, we can see it all too clearly. When I see Hamlet (the play, not the character) I have this urge to give the main characters a good shaking and tell them all to pull themselves together. Tonight, Hamlet (the character, not the play) actually seemed self-assured. In command of his own destiny — apart from when he gets killed, of course. It’s poor old Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that need taking out of themselves.

😀😀😀😀

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Old Vic
8 March 2017