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Tag Archives: antony sher

King Lear (Barbican)

My second Lear of this month is rather more traditional and definitely much safer than the one over at the Old Vic.

Another collaboration from RSC power couple Antony Sher and Gregory Doran, this Lear is opulent, regal, but, except for David Troughton’s magnificent Gloucester and Natalie Simpson’s sweet Cordelia, the play is strangely unmoving.

A very lengthy opening scene has the displaced and homeless sitting on the stage until they are rudely scattered ready for the entrance of the king, a Sher hunched up and swathed in furs, with a rasping voice.  He appears behind glass which is slowly lowered to reveal the full majesty.

He gives away his kingdom to the empty flattery of his daughters, who clearly loathe him (later, each will recoil from his offered embrace), and in a first display of a mind in disorder, disowns his ‘joy’, Cordelia, cast adrift in her bridal gown to be taken up by a sympathetic King of France.

Antony Byrne portrays Kent and in disguise, particularly, as a tattooed skinhead, he excels, and his final scene is well played.  Graham Turner plays a Fool first confident, funny and chatty, but eventually bewildered in the eye of the storm.  We do not see him in the second half, as is usual, but we are concerned for his survival.

As the brothers who war due to the one’s legitimacy and the other’s bastardy, Paapa Essiedu was not convincing for me due to his total sarcasm for all around him and his throwaway asides; better was Oliver Johnstone’s Edgar who went from a bookish fop through impersonation as Poor Tom to sword-wielding champion with ease.

The relationship between Regan (Kelly Williams) and Cornwall (James Clyde) is presented very much as one orchestrated by her (when he is mortally wounded and asks for her hand, she coldly walks away without a glance).  I much preferred Nia Gwynne’s Goneril, a lady with pure ice in her veins.

The eye-gouging scene may be misjudged – I had trouble hearing lines spoken within the perspex box from the stalls, so I feel for the gallery – but the effect is probably on a par with the thrown eyeball over at the Old Vic.

Where this production misses for me is the final mental disintegration of Lear.  I was not moved either by his recognition of Cordelia or his ‘howl, howl’ at her death.  And I know Sher has the emotional pull in other roles (his superb Willy Loman, for example, so this was a surprise).

I am glad to have had the opportunity to see both London Lears at such close proximity, and both have much to recommend them.  So see both if you can, but you have to move quick to see Glenda Jackson in the role (to December 3rd).

The RSC King Lear continues at the Barbican until December 23rd.

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Death of a Salesman (RSC at the Noël Coward Theatre)

It is Arthur Miller’s centenary year, and as one of the foremost 20th century playwrights it seems fitting that several productions of his plays have recently been staged within the UK – last year’s The Crucible at the Young Vic, All My Sons at Richmond, the recent West End visit of A View From The Bridge, and now this one, perhaps his best known work, a look at the flipside of the American Dream.

salesman

Willy Loman is a sixty-three year old salesman who works out in New England, driving hundreds of miles a week to flog goods to an increasingly tough crowd of buyers, who no longer know or respect him.  His boss, Howard, is a whizz-kid obsessed with technology and profits, and not swayed by the bonds of friendship which had been extended to his staff by his father, Frank.

At home, Willy’s wife Linda is increasingly desperate and sad to see his rambling shuffling at night, his frequent car accidents (passed off by tiredness, inattention (‘imagine all my life on the road and looking at scenery’), and poor eyesight), and his talking to himself while in dreams of a past that might not have existed.  Their sons, Biff and Happy, are thirty-something and still living at home, having made little of themselves.  Biff, as we see in flashbacks, had been an active sportsman during school, expected to succeed far beyond his puny and weedy swot friend Bernard.  Happy is always trying to get his parents’ attention (‘I’m losing weight, have you noticed?’), but their neglect of their second child has led him to become a shallow narcissist who uses woman and has no thoughts for anyone but himself.

Next-door, family friend Charley (and father of Bernard) is a success in business, and once Willy loses salary and is put on commission, gives him fifty dollars a week so he doesn’t lose face at home, despite Linda being clearly aware of what is going on.  We see Willy’s bluster and confidence over the years erode into a quiet depression which builds and eventually blows up in an intense second half when he finally sees that Biff is not the man he wants him to be, and that his own dream of success – represented by his ghostly brother Ben (‘when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, when I was twenty-one I walked out, and by God I was rich!’).

In the role of Willy Loman, Antony Sher puts in a huge and pitiful performance as everything continues to stack up against him, whether he is begging for money to pay his insurance from a boss who has past caring, flashing back to an affair with a greedy woman who takes the packs of stockings meant for Linda (who has to sit and home and mend and darn her own threadbare items), or motivating his boys to be materialistic and thoughtless while failing to recognise the true qualities of success and friendship.

Willy is a man who has lost his way.  At first, we might find his plight amusing, a man who mutters about progress and wonders about cheese in a can.  Soon, though, and thanks to an affecting performance from Harriet Walter as the ever-concerned Linda, we see the grip of mental illness taking its toll on this man who once had a dream to walk into every buyer’s office and be ‘liked’.  Alex Hassall, last seen as Prince Hal to Sher’s Falstaff (a different father-son dynamic) in the Barbican production of Henry IV, is excellent as the wild-eyed, increasingly unhinged Biff, whose dream of cattle ranches overshadows his limitations in business and as a man.  As Happy, Sam Marks (who had played Poins in that Henry IV), stands on the sidelines, almost a mute observer in this tragedy.  He is as much a sham as everything else around him.

A powerful play in a tower of strength from the whole cast, this is yet another production to showcase theatre’s top power couple, Sher and his spouse Gregory Doran, the RSC’s artistic director and helmsman of tonight’s play.  We await their next collaboration on King Lear in 2016 with great interest.  Incidentally, another couple appear in the cast – Walter and her husband Guy Paul, who is rather excellent as the white-suited Ben, almost the voice of the devil in human form.  Willy always wished he had followed his brother to Alaska, but we have no idea whether or not this would have been wise.

Several scenes work well in a claustrophobic set of lighted tenement apartments surrounding the Loman house (paid for at the close of the play, described by Linda as their being ‘free and clear’).  The first flashback shows a carefree Willy playing ball with his sons, with Biff getting all the adultation.  Later, we switch to his advising his son back in the present on how to approach an old colleague for a loan (‘if something falls off his desk, don’t you pick it up, they have office boys for that’), mirrored by his own painful meeting with Howard where, when something does fall, Willy bends to retrieve it.  The discussions with Ben, whether in the past (where Linda dissuades him from leaving), or in the present, where the spectre of his brother interrupts a card game with Charley, are well-done, and the restaurant sequence where father and son rail at each other, culminating in Biff and Happy leaving with the girls they have just picked up (Happy to the waiter: ‘He’s not my dad, he’s just some guy’) is emotionally devastating.

The final coda, after the death of the title, sees no one coming to the funeral beyond family and Charley with his son.  Willy Loman, for all his dreams, has been forgotten, and life moves on.  Happy might declare his father has ‘not died in vain’, but we don’t see how he can make a difference, and Charley’s contempt of the sons who might have eased their father’s final troubled days speaks volumes.

With Joshua Richards as Charley, Tobias Beer as Howard, Brodie Ross as a sympathetic Bernard, who has grown to become a man of the law, Sarah Parks as The Woman, as Ross Green as the typically cheery waiter, Stanley.


Henry IV parts 1 and 2 (RSC at the Barbican)

Making its home for Christmas at the Barbican Centre (one-time London home of the Royal Shakespeare Company), these productions of the two Henry IV plays have been heavily trailed with Sir Antony Sher’s return to the Company in the role of Falstaff, collaborating professionally once more with his off-stage partner of twenty-seven years, the RSC’s Artistic Director Gregory Doran.

The two plays are very different in tone – Part 1 is a mix of battles and comedy, while Part 2 is more reflective on the passing of time and the onset of maturity on the part of Prince Hal (Alex Hassell, who is very good indeed and a potential rising star for the RSC).

henry iv i

The scene which opens Part 1 may be a trifle bewildering for those who were not present at Doran’s earlier production of Richard II, as the ghost of that deposed and murdered king appears to watch over the scene where Henry IV (Jasper Britton) puts on the crown you see center stage.

Britton portrays the anger and doubt of the King, but misses the depth of feeling required to portray such scenes as the character’s exchanges with his dissolute son in both parts, especially those which should be moving to watch in Part 2.  The son of veteran actor Tony Britton, he also resembles his father at times but does not achieve the majesty or power of an anointed monarch.  I found myself thinking back to David Troughton’s portrayal of Henry IV (also for the RSC) back in 2000, in which he was convincing as both dangerous warrior and sick man losing his grasp on power and life.

The scene which introduces both Hassell’s Hal and Sher’s Falstaff here involves a couple of good-time ladies frolicking with the Prince, and a comic reveal to find a Falstaff shaking with DT’s and asking ‘the time of day’ under the sheets at the bottom of the same bed in which the Prince and his ladies had just enjoyed themselves.   It makes clear at once the unhealthy closeness and influence the fat dissolute man has over the heir to the throne.

I felt the scenes in the Tavern were a little muted, perhaps because of the staging, which kept events confined in the middle of the stage.  The battle scenes, though, were excellent, with a backdrop of scenery torn asunder and illuminated in orange light.  But casting went awry with Trevor White’s Hotspur, who came across as part ranting child with ADHD and part tiresome nitwit, and it was a relief to see his demise at the close of part 1.

Strong scenes in part 1 included the memorable segment where Falstaff plays the king interrogating his son about his followers, and Hal then taking on the persona of his father to say he can, and will, ‘banish plump Jack, and banish all the world’.  There is also the amusing scene with Francis the waiter ‘anon, anon, sir’, and the majesty of Owen Glendower (played by Joshua Richards, who is also a rouge-faced Bardolph, and who played Richard Burton in a solo show not so long ago for stage and screen).

henry iv 2

On to the reflectiveness of part 2, in which Oliver Ford Davies and Jim Hooper (trivia fans may note that he was the former long-term partner of Antony Sher, pre-Doran) are a joy to watch as Justices Shallow and Silence, the perfect essayists of vacant ageing and lost opportunity.  Their early scene together, lamenting their friends who are now dead and old, moves into an amusing scene where Falstaff searches for men to join him in battle, and finds a rag-bag of unsuitables similar to the ‘rude mechanicals’ of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The man called ‘Wart’ in particular causes amusement when he cannot even lift a rifle.

Meanwhile, Henry IV is ailing, and sad, and beginning to realise he will never make that promised pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Hal continues to frequent Eastcheap with Poins and to neglect his destiny as leader, until the turning point when he finds his father sleeping and thinks him dead, taking the Crown and reflecting on the grave responsibility which comes with becoming King.  Although this scene is not as powerful as it should be, the ending scene where Hal rejects his former life, and his former friend, with ‘I know thee not, old man’ does pack a punch (especially coming so soon after the amusing drinking scene with Falstaff and the Justices, in which even the reticent Silence finds liquor makes him sing).

This pair of plays is skewed towards Sher’s Falstaff, and he does show a gift for comedy we haven’t often seen before (although in Cyrano de Bergerac in the 1990s he did show signs of a range which included playing for laughs), as well as portraying the increased infirmity which comes of drinking too much sack and being too dissolute – whether wriggling on the ground like a beetle trying to get up at the end of the Shrewsbury battle in which he plays dead, exolting the virtues of drinking sack, or exchanging a rather tender moment with his whore Doll Tearsheet when he is about to leave for the wars.

Elsewhere in the cast memorable turns come from Robert Gilbert as Mortimer in part 1, Jennifer Kirby as Lady Percy, Nia Gwynne as the Welsh singing Lady Mortimer in part 1 and Doll Tearsheet in part 2, Antony Byrne as a wild-haired Pistol, Sam Marks as an excellent Poins, and Paola Dionisotti as a memorable Mistress Quickly.


Theatre review: Travelling Light

Currently playing in rep at the National Theatre’s Lyttleton, this comic drama by Nicholas Wright about the birth of the movies and the influence of the Jews is a delightful mix of stage business and screen whimsy.  Although not in the lead role, Antony Sher has been topped billed and heavily publicised throughout the planning of this piece, which is crisply directed by Nicholas Hytner.

The story begins in 1936 as a successful director in Hollywood looks back at his youth in a small town in Eastern Europe, a place so remote that the advent of moving pictures and the stories they tell comes as an amazing surprise.  Motl Mendl (as he was originally known) inherits a projector and camera from his late father and a set of Lumiere prints – these spur him on to make his own efforts, first vignettes showcasing the daily lives of his neighbours, but then under the financial support of mill-owner Jakob (Sher) he starts to develop more elaborate stories, featuring pretty assistant Anna (Lauren O’Neill), who looks much more luminous in the camera’s eye than she does on the stage, saying something about the mystique and fakery of the silver screen.

The second half, once we move to Hollywood and start to unravel a story featuring a character played by the same actor as young Mendl, becomes a bit obvious and leads to an unsatisfying conclusion.  However, the main story has fizz, humour and charm.  And as the older Mendl Paul Jesson adds some finesse to an underwritten role, and Antony Sher is always worth turning up to see.


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