Tag Archives: RSC

“The Tempest” at the Barbican

If you ever needed a reason to forgive computer company Intel for its annoyingly catchy ad jingle then its collaboration with the RSC is it. A large team, working with designer Stephen Brimson Lewis, has added ground- breaking effects to Gregory Doran’s production of Shakespeare’s late romance, and the result is a big theatrical event.

It’s a good choice of play to unleash the clever technical trickery on. From the shipwreck that sends Prospero’s enemies into his territory, the island becomes awash with projections. And spirits really do melt into air in the case of Ariel, played by Mark Quartley, as a live motion capture suit is employed on stage for the first time. The resulting imagery is appropriate and surely becomes more and more impressive if you understand how difficult it all is. Even so, the designers might be a tad aggrieved to know that all eyes are really on the live actor. Quartley gives a sensitive performance of remarkable physicality that doesn’t really need assistance.

The tech goes to town with the masque that Prospero conjures, its design based on Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones’ work, so that part of the play that can drag looks great. But again, beyond the spectacle, it’s the basics of the show that really work. A large cast of spirits add immeasurably and this is truly an island “full of noises” with a strong score composed by Paul Englishby that combines a variety of genres.

There’s a glitch in the application, too. The autochthonous Caliban could be the key to the island but he isn’t granted any modern magic. This rationale makes sense but it makes the character out of place, with no link to his inheritance – surely a missed opportunity? It’s a game performance from Joe Dixon, but the monster costume, the only foot Brimson Lewis puts wrong, suggests the aim is to get some laughs – what else can an actor do if he gets given a fish as a prop?

The key ingredient isn’t the intel inside but Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Prospero. Directed as a family drama, the relationship with Jenny Rainsford’s Miranda – an excellent performance – is deeply moving. Similarly, as his treacherous brother, Jonathan Broadbent makes a role often forgotten memorable. A complex relationship with Ariel, suggesting a substitute son, is also explored.

Russell Beale can be magisterial with ease but focuses on Prospero’s neurotic moments. The all-powerful magus sees his plan on a knife-edge, adding excitement to the production. This Prospero has many a mini breakdown, as the tension of plotting gets the better of him – at one point he even screams, and the prospect of changing overwhelms him. Doran was clearly sensitive to the possible drawbacks of a high-tech collaboration. Never losing sight of the fine cast here, his supervision shows a calm hand at the helm.

Until 18 August 2017

www.barbican.org.uk

Photo by Topher McGrillis

“King Lear” at the Barbican

Gregory Doran and Antony Sher consistently turn out gold-standard work for the RSC. Their latest offering from Stratford is Shakespeare’s tragic monarch – a big challenge no matter how good your credentials – and they deliver in predictably impeccable style. Here, Lear is presented as a pagan priest. With Celtic touches from designerNiki Turner and an imperiousness from Sher that few could match, exhortations to the gods make a lot of sense. And there are plenty of well-used supernumeraries: Lear’s “insolent retinue” of Knights are out in force, while the unwashed masses that the king has neglected are there from the start. The additions, on top of traditional foundations, ensure interest and create a grand scale.

Despite Doran’s keen eye on the extras, Sher’s Lear has been allowed to overpower the production. The rest of the cast includes some fine performances, but other roles struggle to make a mark. One exception is Antony Byrne’s Kent, whose transformation into Caius is so fine that you almost believe he’s unrecognisable. Another is Paapa Essiedu’s Edmund. The parallel plot of the elderly Gloucester’s trials and his bastard son’s betrayal is delivered with intelligence and vigour. Essiedu joins the list of ones to watch.

As for Sher in the title role, while it has to be admitted that he takes few gambles, his delivery never fails. This is a physically frail old king, whose movements seem limited and difficult. Oddly, this fails to generate the sympathy you might expect and means tension slacks at some points when Lear should still seem capable of violent assault. But it’s a classy affair with key speeches marked out (it’s easy to imagine the pages turned down in a copy of the text), and Sher always sounds splendid. His charismatic presence further consolidates our monumental impression of this colossal production.

Until 23 December 2016

www.barbican.org.uk

Photo by Ellie Kurttz

“Henry V” at the Barbican

Reprising his role as Hal, after last year’s turn in Henry IV Parts I & II, Alex Hassell ascends to the throne in a Christmas treat for Londoners from the RSC. Gregory Doran directs, offering a fulsome and classy production. Hassell is a suitably thorough performer. Strongest when showing the nervousness of a new monarch dwelling on the morality of war, his transformation into a convincing martial leader is a carefully paced achievement.

Doran’s populous show looks and sounds great. There’s an exhibition about the gorgeous lighting, designed by Tim Mitchell, in the Barbican’s foyer space. Period instruments and a beautifully sung Te Deum (performed by Helena Raeburn) are highlights. Most memorable is an avuncular performance from Oliver Ford Davies as the chorus. Placed to the fore, his humorous calls to our imagination give the show a surprising intimacy and his modesty makes a pleasant foil to the production’s grandeur.

This is a long Henry V. Scenes of light relief are given plenty of time: one section of Act 3 Scene 2, often discarded, has not just an Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman but also a Welshman thrown together for fun (Joshua Richards’ Fluellen is satisfying throughout the show). And Doran wants to address the peace as much as the war – perhaps a little more than Shakespeare can be bothered with. The romance between Henry and Kate is rather dragged out (despite Jennifer Kirby’s charming Katherine) and Jane Lapotaire’s Queen Isobel takes centre stage for a speech on the state of France that is, again, sometimes skipped. Even though you might be left agreeing with productions that condense the action, this luxury edition of the show drips quality.

Until 19 December 2015. The King and Country four play cycle of productions, including Richard II, will be performed in January 2016.

www.rsc.org.uk

Photo by Keith Pattison

“Death of a Salesman” at the Noël Coward Theatre

Gregory Doran’s revival of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman fully justifies the director’s claim that this is the greatest American play of the 20th century. Although rooted in post-war US society, Miller’s family tragedy and critique of capitalism transcends time and place. Perhaps recent economic woes make this powerful play freshly pertinent: the loss of job security for long-serving salesman Willy Loman rings alarm bells for us all. And perhaps, too – aided by our increased awareness of dementia – Willy’s tragic decline has added poignancy. Just as likely, the play is simply a masterpiece.

Antony Sher is confident and controlled in the lead role. Clearly passionate about the part, Sher projects an intensity that enfolds you. It’s an exceptionally subtle and intelligent delivery: for all Willy’s faults, we see why his family loves him, he isn’t made an underdog and there are no excuses for his behaviour – but he still retains our sympathy. Willy’s confidence seesaws constantly, moments of self-doubt are carefully hinted at. When Willy is presented with the gas pipe he plans to kill himself with, Sher’s whole body becomes frozen. It’s a tremendous theatrical moment.

Backed by Harriet Walter as Willy’s wife, with Alex Hassell and Sam Marks as his sons, the family struggles with the delusions of success and excess of optimism that construct their dreams. This is an unbeatable quartet of performances. The fight to see facts instead of fantasy is a relentless focus. Willy’s memories, possibly false, presented as the consequence of his age and misfortune, slide into the action dynamically. The downward spiral of the whole family in the second half is gut-wrenching and miraculously suspense-filled. We can all predict what’s coming but Doran makes it riveting, obeying the play’s demand that “attention must be paid”.

Until 18 July 2015

www.rsc.org.uk

Photo by Ellie Kurttz

“Oppenheimer” at the Vaudeville Theatre

The RSC’s transfer of Tom Morton-Smith’s new play immerses us in the history of the first atomic bomb and the mind of its maker, J Robert Oppenheimer. It’s a story with overwhelming potential – a rich mix of documentary and speculation – and the play is fascinating, if over ambitious. Angus Jackson’s direction deserves credit for inventive staging that aids dryer moments, using Robert Innes Hopkins design, and an impressive injection of music from Grant Olding.

Overall, strong performances balance some over enthusiastic accents – émigré scientists drafted onto the project to build the bomb prove too much of a temptation – so acting that benefits the script sits alongside some delivery that’s tricky to comprehend. The women in the piece stand out, both Hedydd Dylan and Catherine Steadman, as Oppenheimer’s love interests, do well with roles that come perilously close to tokenistic.

There are passages of writing that make it clear how talented Morton-Smith is. But he seems in thrall to history and detail, so the play ends up too long. Are this many characters really needed to explain the allegation that Oppenheimer turned his back on friends and ideals to win fame? And difficult though the science is, I’ve seen better attempts at explaining complex theories on stage. The biggest problem is knowing where to end the story: the bombs’ impact on all our lives might be a whole other play – tacking it on to this one doesn’t do the phenomena justice.

Nor does Morton-Smith make it easy for his leading character. Oppenheimer is a man of iron, cold and remote, yet forced to reveal enough trauma for any lifetime. His affairs, childhood, politics and philosophy are all tackled and none of it is simple. All the more credit, then, to John Heffernan in the title role. Seldom have I seen a show rest so heavily on its leading man. Heffernan’s performance confirms his status as one of the finest actors around – conveying the complexity of the physicist, making all that history and politics seem manageable and even convincing us of his character’s particular charisma. A stunning performance that gives this show enough bang to counter the occasional whimper.

Until 23 May 2015

www.rsc.org.uk

Photo by Keith Pattison

“The Merchant of Venice” at the Almeida Theatre

Rupert Goold’s production of The Merchant of Venice is an eye-catching and entertaining take on Shakespeare’s play. Moving the action from Venice to Vegas, complete with show girls and slot machines, is in keeping with this energetic director’s past work. Since both cities focus on money, more specifically greed, the relocation isn’t crazy, and the parallel between gambling and the risks the merchant Antonio takes really works. So Las Vegas adds fun. Unfortunately, this means some forced interpretations of the text, particularly in the recollections of the servant Lancelet, played by a very game Jamie Beamish transformed into an Elvis impersonator. It’s definitely something you’ll either love or hate.

On firmer ground, Goold stages the competition for Portia’s hand in marriage as a tacky quiz show – think Deal Or No Deal. Portia (Susannah Fielding) and her maid, a co-host, are airhead hillbillies, while suitors choose which box contains permission to marry, on TV. Live recording the action on stage feels like a frill, but the approach adds drama to repetitive scenes that can be dull and develops a theme of role-playing nicely. In the courtroom scene, when Portia comes disguised to defend Antonio, it’s thankfully not a case of Legally Blond, but real desperation she conveys. Portia’s insistence on the law becomes vicious, in keeping with a strain of shock tactics that make the scene gripping.

Ian McDiarmid as Shylock

So here’s the real surprise of the evening. This Merchant of Venice boasts Ian McDiarmid, making a welcome return to the Almeida and never to be missed on stage. Also, the excellent Scott Handy does a superb job as Antonio, the still centre of this often stormy show. But it’s Fielding and the role of Portia that really intrigues. The play’s anti-Semitism is clear and bravely dealt with, yet Goold seems more concerned with its misogyny. The final scene, a happy reunion at Belmont, often a cozy rounding up of the play, has a suggestion of violence towards the young brides that leaves an uneasy feeling. As Portia dons the blonde wig she wore on television, clearly destined to an inferior role in her new marriage, it appears she has lost her bet.

Until 14 February 2015

www.almeida.co.uk

Photos by Ellie Kurttz

“Troilus and Cressida” at the Riverside Studios

The World Shakespeare festival, which this new production of Troilus and Cressida at the Riverside Studio includes, has made audiences more familiar with radical versions of the canon. But this co-production between the RSC and the renowned American company, The Wooster Group, is staged in such a bizarre fashion, the play becomes confusing and alienating. It doesn’t help that the actors interact with videos mounted on big poles as they perform. This gives rise to seemingly erratic movements which have been prompted by the videos. Frankly, makes the whole show downright odd.

Co-directors Elizabeth LeCompte and Mark Ravenhill set Shakespeare’s Trojan war love story in an unspecified location with Native Americans against contemporary British soldiers. Sort of. The Trojans have futuristic costumes (by Folkert De Jong) and the British troops have a tendency to don drag. You certainly won’t be bored, but there is no balance – the play is made into a puzzle. It’s true that Troilus and Cressida is full of contradictions, but this company is obsessed with abandoning any coherence: the ideas and delivery may be eye-catching, but they add little humour or, more importantly, drama.

It is the actors who suffer most by this treatment with their performances reduced to bizarre cameos. Marin Ireland and Scott Shepherd deliver the title roles in a deliberately monotonous, stylised, fashion. Among the Trojans only Greg Mehrten’s Pandarus manages to break this spell by the force of his stage presence. The British contingent do better (maybe their delivery is more familiar), but Aidan Kelly’s WWF-inspired Ajax and Zubin Varla’s Thersites stubbornly reject any subtlety and quickly become annoying. Scott Handy has a better night of it as an asthmatic Ulysses, but his brief appearance as Helen is such bizarre casting, it jars. Most damning of all, Shakespeare’s text is delivered so differently that comprehension suffers. Whatever points that LeCompte and Ravenhill wish to make are unclear. Most of the plot is lost as well.

Until 8 September 2012

www.riversidestudios.co.uk

Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Written 31 August 2012 for The London Magazine

“As You Like It” at The Roundhouse

Nowadays, productions of As You Like It are often sensitive to the political content of the play. Duke Frederick is a tyrant, after all, and the Forest of Arden a liminal space where all kinds of conventions are negotiated. Michael Boyd’s production at The Roundhouse takes on board and enforces these ideas. The strength of his vision results in an As You Like It that is as startling as it is entertaining.

It’s snowing in this Forest of Arden. This arcadia is populated by the dispossessed. Heading up a fugitive court with an edge of desperation about it, the exiled Duke Ferdinand (Clarence Smith) has a harrowed look and Jaques’ melancholy makes a lot of sense. Boyd directs his cast towards a deadpan delivery that modern comic sensibilities will appreciate. With Forbes Masson’s Tim Minchin-inspired Jaques this really pays off. Masson’s is a terrific performance – direct, deep and very funny.

Boyd’s treatment is both realistic and high pitched. The court seems an almost gothic place. The best wrestling scene I have ever witnessed is a bloody match between Orlando (Jonjo O’Neill) and Charles (David Carr), who look more like cage fighters than gentlemen at sport. And vegetarians might wish to linger at the bar after the interval in order to miss a rabbit being skinned on stage.

Spring comes to Tom Piper’s minimal design, as his wall of squares opens up to allow shoots of greenery. Not just the auditorium, but also the whole of the Roundhouse is bedecked with Orlando’s verses. It’s an idea the RSC is expanding on with its Adelaide Road project: commissioning the poet Aoife Mannix to conduct writing workshops around the stories of Camden residents, and a promenade on the 14 May along the street that connects The Roundhouse with the RSC’s other London home, The Hampstead Theatre.

Back in Boyd’s forest, things become increasingly enchanting. There is always an edge to this Arden: the dreams and fantastic beasts are frightening, Sophie Russell’s Audrey is hilarious but a little cruel and Richard King’s Touchstone plays too close to the edge for comfort. Yet what romance the play contains bursts out and the real joy of the evening is Katy Stephens’ Rosalind. Hers is a star turn that makes the whole play revolve around her character. Rosalind’s intelligence is combined with a giddy energy in an enormously physical performance that is not to be missed.

As You Like It plays in rep until 5 February 2011

www.rsc.org.uk

Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Written 18 January 2011 for The London Magazine

Julius Caesar at The Roundhouse

In a week when political assassination is once more in the news, Julius Caesar might seem more relevant to a contemporary audience than ever. The RSC’s production at The Roundhouse could never presage such current events, but the evening gives us plenty to think about. Director Lucy Bailey thrills by her engagement with history.

Lucy Bailey’s Rome is a bloody place. In the opening scene we see Romulus and Remus wrestling to the death – a bloodlust is the city’s heritage from its founders. Working with designer William Dudley and inspired by the recent Rome TV show, Bailey intelligently toys with our notions of the Romans as civilised. Video projections increase the stage presence of the Plebeians (a character in their own right) to great effect – this is a dangerous mob that rules the Empire on a whim.

Greg Hicks is a natural Caesar. Even eclectically garbed as some kind of generic Barbarian, he is commanding enough to cast a necessary shadow over the play. The evening’s highlight is Darrell D’Silva’s Mark Antony. A “masker and a reveller”, he seems drunk on grief and then violence. Reminiscent of Oliver Reed, it is a captivating performance that will make you want to see him reprise the role in Antony and Cleopatra, also part of this year’s season.

However, Julius Caesar is really the story of Brutus and Cassius. Here Brutus (Sam Troughton) is something like a monk; he is dressed like one and even gestures a benediction in a performance that invokes the play’s religious context. To bring complexity to their coalition, John Mackay attempts to make Cassius more than just a Machiavellian figure. Both are interesting ideas and yet, while there are moments of moving intimacy between the conspirators, both strategies fail to hold interest.

All the cast of Julius Caesar are martial. The characters are at home in Bailey’s world and her direction makes sense of the play’s long combat scenes, invariably presented with clarity and dynamism. Yet they disappoint, and we are hard pushed to share the opinion that Brutus was the “noblest Roman of them all”. What should be his tragedy may interest us but ultimately fails to move us emotionally.

Julius Caesar plays in rep until 5 February 2011

www.rsc.org.uk

Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Written 11 January 2011 for The London Magazine

“The Winter’s Tale” at The Roundhouse

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s new London season arrives with the announcement of a five-year partnership with Camden’s Roundhouse. Artistic director Michael Boyd is enamoured of the venue, describing it as both intimate and epic, and the transfer of the Stratford production of The Winter’s Tale helps us to share his excitement.

David Farr’s direction makes the most of the specially constructed thrust stage, which mirrors the company’s current home in Stratford. The format has clearly focused Farr, and his direction is startlingly clear. Jon Bausor’s design takes inspiration from the ballads of Shakespeare’s day, cleverly enforcing the telling of this winter tale and decking Sicilia and Bohemia with so much paper we might feel we are  enveloped in the Forest of Arden.

Greg Hicks’ mellifluous voice is always a delight, and he plays the jealous Leontes with a restraint that marks his maturity. Kelly Hunter is his victimised wife Hermione, tackling the role with a moving humility. Also of note in this industrious ensemble are the appealing young lovers who become the focus of the play’s redemptive power: Florizel and Perdita (Tunji Kasim and Samantha Young). It would be refreshing to encounter the role of the Young Shepherd without a Welsh accent, but at least Gruffudd Glyn’s moniker indicates he is entitled to the part, and he puts in a great comic turn.

Farr’s direction enforces the judicial themes within The Winter’s Tale, drawing the audience in to play the role of arbiter. The moving text’s complex moral exploration and emotional impact are developed wonderfully, and the staging makes escaping into the fantasy of The Winter’s Tale easy. It all bodes well for the RSC’s future at The Roundhouse.

The Winter’s Tale plays until 1 January 2011. The RSC’s London season is at The Roundhouse until 4 February 2011.

www.rsc.org.uk

Photo by Alessandro Evengelista

Written 17 December 2010 for The London Magazine