Power to the People - well, at least to the women.

Power to the People – well, at least to the women.

I had the delightful experience of attending the press preview of Women in Power, a new version of an old (very old) play, at the the Nuffield City Theatre in Southampton.

Directed by Blanche McInityre, this is a new interpretation of Aristophanes’ satire on the weakness of government, a Parliament of Women.  Originally performed by men for men, these comic plays were the Spitting Image of the day. Rude, crude, comic and with a political barb with which to prod the incompetent and pompous politicians and celebrities of ancient Athens. Or as one of the many amusing explanatory display boards pointed out – “as we like to call it, modern Athens”.

Co-authored by poets, performers, comics and Labour’s vey own Jess Phillips MP, this collaboration took me back to the days when we were first trying to get local parties to accept women only shortlists for parliamentary and local government selections (and unfortunately still true today, a generation later, in some places). “No women want to put themselves forward” was all too often the mantra of the those happy with the status quo, “if you force us to have AWS, we’ll only get stupid women.” To which my invariable, and rather intolerant, response was, “Well you won’t notice the difference in that case because you’ve got plenty of stupid men.”

This satire could have been brought up to date. It would have been easy to set something similar in the corridors of Westminster today, or the White House or Kremlin, or the amongst the captains of industry around the world. But the original conceit would have been lost, and there were enough references in the language, the costumes and the props to draw parallels with the modern world without over-cooking it into a Trumpian parody.

In one of the more modernised speeches to win the idea of ceding power to woman, the story of the search for a new senior member of staff is recounted. Despite the number of well-qualified and capable women, it is always Colin from accounts who is promoted. But as a result of the vote in the Assembley, women don’t get equality, but absolute power. Over everything.

The six performers brought a tremendous energy to the play which additionally brought together dance, music and song. And they were clearly having great fun at the same time. The story rattles along from women disguising themselves as men to subvert the government and place all power in the hands of women, to the turmoil of creating an egalitarian society where no one can agree whether all, or just some, property is theft.

Like Aristophanes a couple of thousand years ago, today’s authors explore the real issues of governance, power and equality with humour. But this isn’t just gentle satire, although it is that too. It is laugh out loud funny from fake facial hair start to giant penis end (of the play, that is).

And the early rejoinder “fuck off Colin” will live with me for a long time.

★★★★☆

At the Nuffield City Theatre, Southampton until 29 September.

  • Co-authored by Wendy Cope, Jenny Eclair, Suhayla El-Bushra, Natalie Haynes, Shappi Khorsandi, Brona C Titley and Jess Phillips MP.
  • Performed by Lydia Rose Bewley, Elizabeth Boag, Anna Fordham, Lisa Kerr, Alicia McKenzie, and Anne Odeke.

The Mad Dog is Dead

Simon Russell Beale, who knows a thing or two about Shakespearean theatre, seemed to enjoy this production of Richard III from his seat immediately in front of us.

Almost as long as Richard’s reign, this production at the Almeida didn’t have the pace of many recent productions. It did seem to have every single last line that Shakespeare penned (plumed?) but that didn’t detract from the power and menace of the piece.

With an audience used to the full War of the Roses tale being built in the three plays of the Hollow Crown, this production had to carefully bring people up to speed with the monster Gloucester who was to become the tyrant King Richard III. This was elegantly achieved from the very opening scenes of the modern day excavation of Richard’s remains from a car park, complete with BBC voice over. A combination of modern day dress and mobile phones with period armour and swords gave a broad landscape on which to paint this brutal tale.

Finbar Lynch played Buckingham, Richard’s right hand thug, with a stylish authority – right up to the point he was shot in back for daring to be hesitant in ordering the murder of the princes in the Tower. A lesson for all right hand thugs who seek to promote their master above their level of competence.

And that, of course, is Richard’s great failing. He seizes power because he can. He enjoys the game of plotting against his enemies, friends and family. He uses all means, fair and foul (well, actually, foul and foul) to remove obstacles from his path to – nowhere. With no plan other than to be King, no plan to govern, no plan of action at home or overseas, and certainly no broad appeal other than to his increasingly narrow band of thugs, he simply wanted to be the King.

As is customary these days Ralph Fiennes played the ambitious Duke of Gloucester partly for laughs, at least in the first half. But the laughs were often cut short by yet another death on his murderous rise to the top. Unusually, all the murders took place in plain view, again adding to the running time but making sure no-one was left in any illusion about the depravity of the central character. The only death scene which struck a slightly sour note – maybe the wine was off  – was the drowning of the Duke of Clarence in the barrel of Malmsey. The obviously emptying empty barrel resonated, not with the gurgles of a drowning man trying to gasp for air, but the heaving breathing of an actor stuffed head first into a small barrel. Obviously it is competing with the Martin Freeman production where Clarence was drowned – very convincingly – in a fish tank but it was still a petty poor effort.

As Fiennes’ Richard gathered momentum to his thankfully inevitable destruction at Bosworth Field, friends and foe joined forces to bring this particular experiment to a merciful end. And one of the good things about this play is when the end comes it is short – nasty and brutish, but mainly short. No drawn out death speeches.

Apart from Fiennes and Lynch the standout performances came from the female leads. In the play they are threatened, bullied, beaten and raped. They have their husbands and sons murdered. But they are the constant reminder to Richard that he is vulnerable to power and they provide the driving force to the opposition which brings his short region to an end. In particular Aislin McGuckin as Queen Elizabeth and Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Margaret command the stage.

Not the best Richard I’ve seen – Martin Freeman on stage and Cumberbatch in the Hollow Crown are difficult to beat – but certainly up there. But when Ralph Fiennes does play for laughs, whether in a serious piece or a period comedy, I occasionally get the unnerving feeling that I’m watching Rigsby from Rising Damp – a TV sitcom of a generation ago for younger readers. I was tempted to ask Simon Russell Beale if he felt the same.

 

Richard III – Some like it Cold

Freeman Richard III

I never expect much from the Telegraph.

When their theatre reviewer says that Martin Freeman playing Richard III is like “sending a boy to do a man’s work” they fail to reach even that lowly expectation. This was, in fact, a stunning performance of real power. This Richard III sets out his coup within a coup in a stark, relatively modern setting. The programme notes refer to some modern history which influenced some of the thinking of the production – but this was never overtly evident in the staging and direction of this simple and direct power grab.

It looked and felt like any country which had not yet completed the struggle from dictatorship or dictatorial monarchy to democracy. A pretty accurate rendition of the 15th century.

Freeman’s Richard was delivered with a cold blooded ruthlessness which has been lacking in some recent versions. The attempt to make Richard seem victim rather than villain has no place in this production. The rather unbelievable seduction of his murdered brother’s wife, Ann Neville, often seen in modern productions is swept away. This Richard makes clear the benefits of marriage and by implication the contrary. Ann quickly recognises which way the wind blows. And it blows cold and strong.

Unfortunately – for her rather than the audience – she makes the usual error of failing to take up the offer of butchering Richard with his own knife when she is offered the chance.

The cramped space of the Trafalgar Studio makes this a play where you are literally on top of the action. And yet that small space allows the actors and the action to easily describe the locations from the intimate rooms of conspiracy to the expanse of Bosworth Field.

Giving a 20th century look to this war of Lancaster and York means this was full on Guns’n’Roses. But as always some historical elements remain. Knives give the requisite amount of blood that can’t quite be fulfilled by a Walther PPK. And the amount of blood was prodigious. Usually the result of off-stage murders which resulted in the bloody murderer, bloody ghost, or bloody severed head appearing on-stage. In one on-stage murder, the fountain of blood justified the front four rows of the tiered seats donning the splatter gowns at the break. A shame that a few people assumed the bloody havoc would be restricted to the final battle of Bosworth. Oops.

This was the most spectacular blood and guts scene, but each murder whether on or off-stage was represented with chilling brutality. The drowning of Clarence in an office fish-tank – complete with live goldfish – was skilfully and realistically enacted. The one-handed strangling of Ann by Richard full of terror.

Although Freeman’s was a cold blooded performance of ruthless ambition, some of it was delivered with genuinely comic humour. If only Richmond had declared in the final blade against pistol confrontation with Richard, “Call that a knife? This is a knife.” the evening would have been complete.

As it turned out the pistol saved us from the one failing of almost every Shakespearean production – the lingering death. No chance here for Freeman to stagger around bleeding from multiple wounds. He had scarcely finished pleading for a new horse when he was dropped stone dead with a single shot. A fitting end for this Richard. Straightforwardly ruthless. Straightforwardly dead.

Lift your faces

Lift your faces

“The people don’t lift their faces from their screens long enough to see what is going on.”

1984

That was certainly true of a row of American students at the Almeida Theatre, eyes glued to their iPhones, texting their friends. Or their teachers. Or their dogs (you must read October Jones).

And they were the lucky ones.

This production of 1984 by Headlong is an irritating mixture of interesting ideas and techniques and a cacophony of deafening noise and blinding light. When it is bad, it is shockingly bad, and not in a good way. There is no real shock. There is no fear. There is no brooding menace.

There is shouting. There is a very shrill whistle. There are very bright lights.

Unfortunately there is no light shone on Orwell’s book by this too clever by half production. The use of a video wall at first is a method of seeing as well as hearing “noises off”. As well as offering a reflection of Big Brother’s screens. And in the end it is a gimmick used because it’s there.

The action of the book is being mulled over at the start and end (and occasionally in-between) by a book-club who can’t work out whether it’s fact or fiction, current or history. Winston Smith oscillates between 1984 (or whenever) and the book-club tempting us to ask meaningful questions. Like “what the fuck is going on now.”

Frankly it was like someone had the germ of a good idea of how to make this book into a stage play and unfortunately ended up making it into a ghastly mess.

It was such a shame.

There were some really good bits in this performance.

I just can’t seem to remember what they were. Or where I am.