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Julius Caesar.

JuliusCaesar

Photograph by Helen Maybanks

Gary Watt’s ‘Handling Shakespeare’s Rhetoric’ presentation really whetted my appetite for Angus Jackson’s new production of Julius Caesar. Professor Watt had focused on Brutus’ and Mark Antony’s funeral orations in Act 3 Scene 2 and I was curious to see how the play would present the crowd’s gullibility and fickle affections. It is not usual to praise crowd scenes but this was wonderfully well done and the link with the current tide of populism, made explicit in the excellent programme notes, made this scene all the more ominous and powerful.

This production is full of memorable scenes that unsettle and chill the blood. Caesar’s bloody assassination and the murder of Cinna the poet due to mistaken identity by the ignorant plebeians. The staging is sparse suggesting the forum’s columns, a sculpture depicting a lion savaging a horse echoes the mood of incipient violence. The music conjures up the tension and foreboding that pervades the play.

Adopting classical Roman dress for this play at this time works extremely well, at once highlighting the parallels between societies two thousand years apart but facing similar challenges to their political structures.

.Professor Gary Watt’s  workshop was erudite, entertaining and inspiring.  (Gary dwelt on the power and musicality of lists comprising three items) . A wrapt audience was treated to a brief history of rhetoric encompassing Demosthenes,  Cicero, Shakespeare and topical British and American examples; Winston Churchill, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the peerless Michelle Obama.

The focus of the workshop was Brutus’ and Mark Antony’s use of rhetorical devices as each sought to persuade the people that Caesar’s assassination was either a necessary act to save the republic or the unjustifiable murder of a a great Roman general and friend of the people.  The textual analysis was utterly absorbing and enlivened with plenty of humorous asides.

Professor Watt asked us to consider the young Shakespeare, well versed in rhetoric since his schooldays in Stratford, thinking about what Mark Antony could have said to persuade the Roman people to accept the destruction of a revered republic and support the gradual but inevitable birth of an empire and by so doing fundamentally change their world.

Shakespeare presents us with a masterclass in the art of persuasion. Brutus, the patrician, fails to engage his audience, fails to ‘sweeten’ his words and so fails to persuade. Conversely, Mark Antony is a master of rhetoric and wins the people’s hearts and minds.

imageThe hour long workshop flew by, it could have been twice as long for Gary Watt is no mean rhetorician himself and his closing words; ‘ ….because Shakespeare is the best’ rang true with his audience.

Snow in Midsummer

This 700 year old Chinese drama is set in a society where the poor are down trodden and exploited by a brutal military regime. It relocates to our world very well. Powerfully rendered on stage through the robotic movements of the soldiers and pounding drum and bass music. Neon flickers and scrawls like lightning bolts across the flats, a neon oxen and horse solemnly observe the unfolding tale, a nod at contemporary Japanese cartoons. A dragon swoops in circles on the stage.

This maybe an updating of an ancient classical tale where revenge for injustice takes the form of  a curse laid upon the community  by a baleful ghost. On the face of it this seems removed from our understanding of the world but there   is a powerful poetic truth being acted out here. The murder of one young woman cries for vengeance against the perpetrators whose lies and deceits slowly unravel. The indifference of society has far reaching environmental consequences. The very big and the very small are linked and the cosmos cries out against injustice.

A child ( played with an amazing  conviction and depth by a very young actor) and the ghost of the murdered woman become snow sisters who lay the curse on the evil doers. These are some of the most lyrical and moving parts of the play accompanied by the most beautiful and haunting music.

Snow in Midsummer is nearing the end of its run, I would recommend you get tickets while you can.

image.Photograph by Ikin Yum.

The Seven Acts of Mercy

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Photograph by Ellie Kurttz.

A brave new play from the RSC this fierce polemic is uncompromising in its attack on government housing and benefit policy and the plight of the poor in contemporary Britain. The powerful and emotional exchanges between the poor, the authorities, and parasitic criminals who thrive in this society are amongst the most powerful scenes in the play.

Mickey wants to convince his dying grandfather that compassion still exists in modern Britain and sets out on a quest to search out and photograph examples of kindness that still exists in a callous and corrupt society. Mickey’s self imposed brief is to find examples of seven acts of mercy which he has been shown by his grandfather in a print of Caravaggio’s painting of the same name.The people Mickey meets are desperately trying to halt their descent into destitution and retain their dignity and humanity.

Alternating scenes, signalled by minimal but effective sets juxtapose the suffering of the poor in seventeenth century Rome with that of the destitute in twenty first century Liverpool. The parallels between the lot of suffering humanity in the two cities is poignant. Mickey finds some evidence of compassion for the poor and achieves some personal reconciliation but overall this is a howl of protest against the iniquities of the world.

The Tempest.

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Photograph by Topher McGrillis.

I eagerly awaited Greg Doran’s production of The Tempest and its much publicised use of cutting edge technology to create 3D avatars that could interact with the human actors. The Production Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’s talk at Holy Trinity, a week previously, further whetted my appetite.

This is a spellbinding production. The collaboration between RSC, Intel, and the Imaginarium produces breathtaking magical effects that enhance the text but do not overwhelm or detract from it. Traditional stagecraft produces wondrous effects too, the huge bifurcated shipwreck that reaches out into the auditorium, the projected backdrops that drench the stage in colour like an animated Howard Hodgkin painting together with the haunting and beautiful music make this a memorable production.

Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero provides Shakespeare’s poetry and the conflicting feelings of the exiled duke give emotional depth to the play. The rest of the cast are excellent too. Skilful choreography evokes a convincing spirit world that presents a stately masque accompanied by gorgeous costumes and mellifluous song, whilst the comic sub plot made the audience roar with laughter. This really is an ensemble production with the whole Company contributing to this feast for the senses that seamlessly combines innovation and delight.

Stephen Brimson Lewis Q&A.

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The Friends’ Q&A events always give fascinating insights into the work of the RSC, drawing as they do on the experiences of actors, directors, designers and musicians.

In this talk the designer Stephen Brimson Lewis described the collaboration between the RSC and the Imaginarium to bring groundbreaking digital technology to the RSC’s production of The Tempest.Simon commented that the 2 year partnership ‘…was a huge risk, but shouldn’t theatre be about taking risks? Simon was adamant that the new technology, with its ability to create 3 dimensional avatars that can interact with actors on stage, should always support the text of the play.

The capacity audience were drawn into the discussion and were keen to question Stephen on these points(these sessions are always popular and provoke thoughtful and erudite questions). The ensuing exchanges focused on how successfully actors can intreact with ‘non human’ characters be they puppets, holograms or muppets. Simon believes that where the use of these characters was mere gimmickry it would not convince an audience they would soon tire of it. He concluded that ‘…the best design should be invisible and not show offey…’

The Rover.

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Photograph by Ellie Kurtz

Aphra Behn’s swashbuckling tale of the banish’d cavaliers is a nostalgic and affectionate imagining of the adventures enjoyed by the men who had fought for the Royalist cause some thirty years before and endured poverty and exile for their loyalty.

In this reworking of history these Englishmen are short of funds but not downcast. On the contrary,they are bold, charming, and very amusing- qualities not lost on the ladies they encounter.

The exiles are determined to have a good time behaving badly in foreign lands and what better time than carnival when the usual moral strictures are somewhat relaxed?

The musicians get us into the party mood with Latin American rhythms. Costumes and lighting add to the raunchy mix. There are sword fights and insults, mistaken identities and deceptions. The women see through the cavaliers stratagems and lies but forgive them anyway because marriage to a young and lusty, if penniless Englsh gentlemen has got to be preferable to an arranged marriage to an old man or life in a nunnery hasn’t it?

The cast are full of gusto and invention and deliver this hugely entertaining play with aplomb. The laughter and applause of the audience were noisy testimony to its success.