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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.

King Lear.

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Photograph by Ellie Kurtz.

The play opens with the mute presence of the ragged homeless who, like ghosts are dispersed by the rich, dark panoply of Lear’s court. The wealthy and powerful are preoccupied with the king’s abdication and the opportunities it presents for personal advancement meanwhile the silent suffering of the people provides an unsettling and recurring leitmotif.

Lear is now a king without authority, hanging on to the trappings of kingship by touring his abandoned kingdom with a hundred ‘riotous knights’, (a good twenty or so are present on stage). Like a rugby team on tour they are egged on in their boorish behaviour by Lear’s fool, the excellent Graham Turner.One cannot help but experience some brief sympathy with duplicitous Goneril, her father’s reluctant hostess.

Antony Sher’s consummate skill as an actor takes us on a roller coaster ride of great emotional intensity as the King comes to terms with the realities of his nominal sovereignty without influence or power. The dark forces and intent that this void unleashes are unflinchingly portrayed, in the scenes where Edgar is exiled and Gloucester is blinded, are both remorseless and terrifying.

It is invidious to single out individual performances,as the whole cast share in the creation of this bleak and powerful masterpiece. Sets and costumes convincingly evoke a dark, pre Roman world. Music and lighting combine to produce a terrifying storm scene and add depth and definition to the crepuscular kingdom.

This is bleak and sobering play that resonates strangely with the present time. The audience was deeply moved and were wholehearted in its appreciation of Greg Doran’s excellent production.

Tanya Moodie Q&A.

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Photograph by Manuel Harlan.

An utterly riveting and enjoyable hour with Tanya Moodie.Tanya led us through the fascinating process of creating Gertrude, Queen of Denmark. She was insistent that other members of the cast bow in her presence and were not allowed to turn their backs on their queen. Tanya also emphasised the need to have A dominating physical presence which she demonstrated by building an impressive ‘bun’ secured with a gold bracelet. This was done expeditiously-essential if she was to make Ophelia’s funeral in time!

Tanya had given much thought to Gertrude as a queen schooled in how to look and move as a queen whilst having little self esteem or agency and ill equipped to take over the throne when her husband died. Tanya also reflected on Gertrude’s dysfunctional relationship with Hamlet and the lot of children sent to boarding schools at a young age.

Friends commented on the excellent diction of the cast in this production. Tanya was complimentary about the training in diction given by RADA and the other English schools of drama. A member of the audience wondered whether television, with its propensity for mumbled delivery, was to blame for poor diction. Tanya was inclined to see that as as different technique for a different media.

Tanya made interesting points about diversity in the theatre and cited Trevor Nunn’s all white War of the Roses which has been justified because it allegedly reflected historical veracity. Tanya said that she did not care what colour the actors were, that directors should be free to choose their cast and that actors should get the job on merit. She believed that historical veracity was a spurious justification anyway and cited the recent discovery of the grave of an African Roman legionary in Stratford. She opined that people of colour and people with disabilities may have been more numerous and visible in medieval and Tudor England than we think.

Tanya talked about her work with drama students at RADA and her need, inspired by her Buddhist beliefs, that she should give something back to the academy that accepted her at the age of 17. She spoke of the need to give aspiring actors hope and not shatter their dreams. It was an inspiring and hopeful end to an excellent Q&A.

The Alchemist

The Alchemist.?

Jonson’s exploration of human greed and folly opens with a memento mori still life- a skull on a table in a heavily draped room into which the river fog creeps. We are in plague ridden Blackfriars in 1610 curiously accompanied by a medley of television theme tunes that reassure us that this is a comedy.

We meet a disparate selection of the avaricious and gullible; religious fundamentalists, a gambler, a lascivious hedonist, a disputatious gentleman and an entrepreneurial tobacconist. All are desperate to be favoured by fortune, all are certain to lose. The gulls are easy prey for the bogus alchemist and his partners in crime, Doll and Face. The fragile criminal partnership shows signs of dissent from the beginning and is sure to end in threats and recrimination.

As the action builds to a climax the gulls become more desperate, the tricksters more outrageous- with hilarious results.

Set firmly in 1610 The Alchemist resonates with a contemporary audience well aware of Internet frauds and plausible rogues. It reminds us that ‘something for nothing’ rarely works out but also revels in the timeless ingenuity and indefatigable optimism of humanity.

Director, Polly Findlay, and her creative team have produced a fast moving production with some wonderful slapstick and utilising seventeenth century costume to great comic effect.
A fantastic production, well worth seeing.