I’ve seen Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ on at least six occasions (including Ian McKellen at Leeds, Derek Jacobi at Sheffield, and London appearances from Patrick Stewart, Antony Sher and Roger Allam at The Globe).
It’s a magical romance which concerns the deposed Duke of Milan (here played by the reliable Simon Russell Beale, himself a former stage Ariel), who is shipwrecked on an island ‘full of noises’ with his daughter Miranda; here they live with his library of books, a monstrous creature named Caliban who they keep as servant, and an airy sprite called Ariel who gives service to his master in anticipation of gaining his freedom.
Gregory Doran’s production is one of flashy technical and digital effects, in collaboration with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios, including a 3D representation of Ariel – although I found this more distracting than anything else, as the actor playing the part (and causing the body movements of the character) was on stage in all his scenes. However, the technical effects ranging from the light and sound giving the impression of a moving ship at the beginning of act one, a huge depiction of slavering dogs, and the memory of Ariel’s imprisonment in the cloven pine, were impressive.
Joe Dixon’s Caliban and Mark Quartley’s Ariel were very memorable and touching, balanced out well by the comedy of Simon Trinder’s sinister Trinculo and James Hayes’ Stephano (although the ‘two-legged monster’ routine could have been funnier than it was). For me, Jenny Rainsford took a while to come into her own as Miranda, and I didn’t feel connected to her until the ‘brave new world’ speech near the end, and Daniel Easton’s Ferdinand was bland and uninteresting.
Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero is the highlight of this production, his small, stocky statute mirrored by that of Jonathan Broadbent’s little ball of hatred as his brother Antonio. What this Prospero brings to the text is sometimes missed by his colleagues, and the final speech is truly touching as the audience is released (‘let your indulgence set me free’) – if this was Shakespeare’s way of saying goodbye to his beloved theatre, it is an effective one.
The final play in the Shakespeare Tetralogy which has now evolved into ‘King and Country’, so from next month, if you missed the first three plays, ‘Richard II’ and ‘Henry IV parts 1 and 2’, go forth to the Barbican and make good that omission.
This is, surprisingly, the very first ‘Henry V’ I have seen on stage. Of course I have seen the Olivier and Branagh films, with their rousing St Crispin’s Day speeches, and the BBC Shakespeare and Hollow Crown versions, but have missed out on real life versions. So even if I hadn’t seen the preceding plays, I would have hot-footed it to this one.
Alex Hassell returns as the king he became at the end of ‘Henry IV part 2’, and he is still not quite the regal or commanding monarch: he had doubts, he shows some emotion at the losses of battle and the tough decisions he has to make to maintain army discipline. It is an excellent performance, and I believed in him completely.
Also good in this cast are Oliver Ford Davies as a beautifully enunciated Chorus in a cardigan, the ever-reliable Jim Hooper in two roles and two beards (an early scene as the Polonius-like Archbishop of Canterbury pulls the humour out of an Act One scene), a delicate Jane Lapotaire as the Queen of France, and Joshua Richards in a brace of roles as boozy Bardolph and fiery Welshman Fluellen. The set is rather good, too, with golden beads hanging in chains at each side of the stage, clouds, rain, and, as the Chorus asks us, a set of imaginary horses.
Gregory Doran’s productions often put humour ahead of the more serious aspects of the play, and here there was a bit of what can only be called ‘audience participation’ in Henry’s wooing scene with Katherine (Jennifer Kirby, who runs with both her scenes, playing broken English for fun) which didn’t quite work. However, post-battle, there was a moment when the balconies and stage filled with mournful singing for the dead which was very moving.
I should also mention Sarah Parks’ Mistress Quickly, and her account of the last moments of the life of the (unseen) Sir John Falstaff, who died ‘babbling o’ green fields’, and Simon Yadoo’s impenetrable Scottish soldier, who offered comic relief in the calm before the storm of Agincourt.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
This new production of ‘Richard II’ is the first in a new, three-year partnership between the Royal Shakespeare Company and its old London base, the Barbican Centre, and if it suffers a bit from ‘show casting’ with David Tennant in the lead, it actually acquits itself fairly well by the final curtain call.
Edmund Wiseman played the part of Bolingbroke at both shows yesterday in place of Nigel Lindsay, and he was absolutely excellent, displaying a certain amount of chemistry between himself and Tennant. Reviews of Lindsay’s performance have compared him to Rory Kinnear’s Iago in the National Theatre’s recent ‘Othello’, and if this is so, Wiseman is quite a different type of Bolingbroke, young and hungry for power but no thug on the make.
Tennant’s Richard has been publicised heavily as the main draw here, and he is very good in places, although for me he didn’t quite convince as either the vain and arrogant king led on by flatterers in the first half, or the pathetic man stripped of his power and the divine right of kings after the interval. His fans have a habit of laughing at moments which should be serious and affecting, and although this is probably not Tennant’s fault, it does harm his performance a little bit. The choice of a long wig as well has perhaps given his Richard a touch of effeminacy which colours his depiction of the king deposed in the second half (and his white smock and bare feet emphasise a link with God/Christ in a rather heavy-handed way).
The sets are superb, although on the surface, minimalist. A chapel setting which opens the play with a choir and the grieving Duchess of Gloucester (Jane Lapotaire) with the coffin of her murdered husband gives way to open ground, castles, courts, and halls with a clever use of lighting, music, video projection and a few stage tricks. This is a Richard with spectacle, where something is always going on and even the smaller roles and walk-ons are in the thick of the action (Elliot Barnes-Worrell stepping up to play Harry Percy, Keith Osborn as Scroop, Joshua Richards in a number of roles including the palace gardener, Jim Hooper as the Bishop of Carlisle, Oliver Rix, impressive as Aumerle).
In supporting players, we have a quartet of senior actors (Lapotaire already mentioned – her grief stricken Duchess may be a little over the top for this production but it is good to see her fighting fit again following her stroke and rehabilitation; Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt, his ‘Methinks I am a prophet’ speech beginning in an almost conversational way rather than the speech with gravitas some of his predecessors such as Gielgud have chosen to interpret this dying Royal princes final words of blessing for his country; Oliver Ford-Davies, superb as York, playing at times for comedy and at times for tragedy, as all gifted actors do, keeping their performance balanced; and Marty Cruickshank as the Duchess of York, bringing a touch of light relief after the deposition scene).
Gregory Doran’s production takes a couple of liberties with the plot, notably near the end where the ‘reveal’ of Richard’s murderer is distracting, and a weird addition to the original play. His adaptations have often been described as ‘safe’ and I think I would agree that this Richard takes no real risks, but it is a good evening out, and although I would still not describe David Tennant as an accomplished Shakespeare actor (he plays to the gallery, as they say, as his old ‘Doctor Who’ role a bit too much), he’s improved markedly from the days I saw him at Stratford in The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night.
While watching this Richard I was thinking of the production I saw at the RSC some years ago, with Samuel West in the lead and David Troughton as Bolingbroke – very much a case of the delicate, spoiled prince opposite the rough warrior duke – and noting that this new production is much more traditional, opulent and showy. It isn’t as emotionally engaging, though, although there are moments I’ll remember – the queen and her king’s last farewell, Richard’s descent in full regalia despite the knowledge he has lost his support and his kingdom, the soundless depiction of father/son dynamics (Gaunt and Bolingbroke, York and Aumerle), the nuggets of comedy where they are required.