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Twelfth Night

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Photograph by Manuel Harlan.

Twelfth Night is probably the best loved of Shakespeare’s comedies and this production was well received by a delighted audience. The comic scenes are played with gusto and accompanied by meticulously researched music hall ditties that add to a distinctly upbeat and joyful production.

Chris Luscombe’s sumptuous and ingenious set is an engineering marvel and a perfect backdrop to Orsino’s world of aesthetic self absorption. The references to India and the mystical east in the rich costumes cleverly links the Raj and the hedonistic sensibilities of the aesthete.

Much fun is had with the confusion caused by Sebastian’s and Viola’s gender swap. The hesitation over the lovers sexual preferences at the play’s resolution is hilarious and provides a contemporary slant that would surely amuse the bard.

Miss Littlewood.

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Photographer: Topher McGrillis.

This new musical is full of humour, warmth, and energy. The dancing, singing and music are all excellent and a tribute to the multi talented cast. The sense of Joan Littlewood’s company being akin to a family is strongly conveyed in this entertaining production.

The stage sets remind us of an era when the proscenium arch was almost universal in theatres. Clever lighting and props show us how Joan broke this old convention. We begin to understand that she was a new kind of theatre director, bold and inventive.

The central conceit of the play works by having seven actors play Joan at different times in her life. This device enables the musical to illustrate Joan’s personal qualities and her passionate commitment to the political and social issues of the time.

We first meet Joan as a fostered child being taught Macbeth by nuns (an hilarious vignette). Next she gains a place at RADA which she leaves without graduating, disillusioned with the rather anaemic dramas being played in British theatres in the inter war years.

Joan’s compassion and resilience feature in the scenes that show her fighting to establish a theatre for the working classes at Theatre Workshop. Her battle to secure recognition and funding is unremitting and ultimately successful. In The final scenes we see Joan reflecting on her life and loves whilst wondering whether her new found commercial success has distanced her from the working class people that she cared so much about.

Clarence Smith Q&A.

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Photograph by Elli Kurttz

Clarence praised the quality of Drama in his south London school but admitted that its initial attraction was as an alternative to Chemistry. Crossing Chelsea Bridge to join a youth drama group opened up a new world for Clarence. It was here that he first met director and writer Danny Boyle who encouraged him to apply to the Central School of Speech and Drama.

Clarence explained his subsequent success as an actor with a 28 year association with the RSC in typically self effacing terms; ‘ It is all about make believe’ and later, describing playing Claudius’s role in Hamlet; (You aim to)’Create a drama that lives in the moment’. Clarence’s long association with classical drama includes playing 5 King Lear’s and being married to all of Lear’s daughters!

Clarence contrasted the greater opportunities for black actors in the United States compared to Britain whilst giving credit to the quality of British actors and their high standing with American directors and audiences. Clarence revealed that he was set up to move to the USA but had been lured back to classical drama when an offer to play Claudius was made.

As always the Friends audience had plenty of questions; ‘What does a conversation with a director consist of?’ asked one person. Clarence laughed and revealed that beyond an appreciation of each other’s work (or love fest!)it was an exploration of what kind of actor you are and what you can bring to the role being cast.

A final question, ‘Which female character would you most like to play?’ Unhesitatingly Clarence replied, ‘Cleopatra’.

King Lear.

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Photograph by Isaac James.

An impressive production with outstanding performances from the large cast. What was remarkable was not only the consistently high standard of the acting but also the nuanced playing of even the minor roles.

The sets and props intensify the bleak mood of the play. The set and costumes are monochrome, the court identifiable by dull gold decoration and heralded by braying trumpets.

Lear makes his entrance in a glass sedan chair which emphasises his detachment from court and kingdom. The King believes he is making a generous settlement on his daughters which will enable him to retain the benefits of kingship. The ensuing exchanges between the daughters and their father are furious, passionate and utterly convincing. The King expresses his fury and incredulity whilst gradually descending into confusion and loss as his mind unravels. Meanwhile, Lear’s Fool provides a darkly humorous and prophetic commentary on the action which was much enjoyed by the audience.

The anarchy that results from the breakdown in political authority is exemplified in the fall and mutilation of the Earl of Gloucester. Persuaded to disinherit his legitimate son by the villainous Edmund, Gloucester is subsequently mutilated by Lear’s daughter Regan and her husband. Gloucester represents the shocking ease with which a kingdom can be suborned by the ruthless self interest of a few and the blindness of the many.

A visceral and powerful production. The audience’s response was sustained and rapturous applause.

Romeo and Juliet

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Photograph by Topher McGrillis

Erica Whyman’s production continues RSC’s exploration of contemporary social and political issues. The youthful cast, some making their debut season others drawn from local schools, clearly related to this evocation of urban violence. The fight and dance scenes capture the frenetic energy of youth, the mood switches from fast talking banter to dark menace and the glint of knives in the dark. The teenage audience were enthralled and voiced their enjoyment with loud cheers at the final curtain.

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich
Photograph by Helen Maybanks.

This rarely staged play by the once lauded female dramatist, Mary Pix, deserves to be better known. All credit to the RSC for reviving it. It engages a modern audience because its themes of snobbery, misogyny, and women’s ambition to improve their position in society reflect many contemporary concerns. All of this is delivered by a hugely talented cast with great energy and brio in this fast moving comedy.

The musicians and the props all contribute to this affectionate recreation of the seventeenth century theatre. The costumes are lavish, the dialogue is acerbic and witty, there are even well behaved dogs for the audience to fawn over. Mary Pix’s hilarious confection is a real delight. Buy your tickets now!

Macbeth

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Photograph by Richard Davenport.

The electrifying performances of Niamh Cusack had the audience on the edge of their seats. There is a powerful and convincing chemistry between the two protagonists as they will one another to contemplate a murder that will shake the established order and unleash a violent chain reaction.

The tension is heightened by a soundscape of thunderclaps and lightening bolts that flash and fizz through the theatre reminding us of the traditional accompaniments of the horror film. Meanwhile the monochrome set is captioned with ominous lines from the play, dire warnings that will result from Macbeth’s murderous actions.

An ingenious piece of stagecraft is the hospitality box that looks down upon the main stage and enables the Macbeths to plot whilst other actors are unaware of the evil deeds being planned elsewhere.

Original features of this production include the lugubrious porter  who constantly patrols the stage with his Eubank carpet sweeper. Enigmatic and malicious by turns. The witches are played by three young girls in pink onesies offering Macbeth their misleading riddles. Eerie and unsettling , do the girls presage the revenge that Macbeth will suffer for destroying the future?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi Photograph by Helen Maybanks.

Oh horror! A stage soaked in blood and strewn with bodies, the Jacobeans loved a gorefest.

Surely this has little to inform our contemporary issues? Not so, Webster’s powerful and disturbing play portrays a misogynistic society in which the constant threat of violence is used to control women. The set becomes a gym in which pumped up jocks dominate the space transforming themselves into an intimidating, testosterone fuelled pack all to a soundtrack of thunderous drums. Meanwhile, a huge butchered carcass of uncertain provenance hangs ominously in the shadows like something from a Francis Bacon painting.

The Duchess, superbly played by Joan Iyiola, has infuriated her brothers by marrying a man of a lower class without their permission. They work themselves into a fury and launch a campaign of threats and mental torture culminating in the murder of the Duchess, her husband, children and waiting woman.Today it might be called an ‘honour killing’.

Violence begets more violence as the perpetrators try to justify their actions, blame others and ultimately turn their anger onto their confederates in the massacre. We are appalled by the destruction of young lives and the stupidity of those who thought it was justified.

This production is a sobering and thought provoking experience which speaks to a modern audience as directly as it did to Webster’s contemporaries. You could hear the audience holding its collective breath as the play ended. Well worth seeing.