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Titus Andronicus

 

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Photograph by Helen Maybanks.

I had not seen this play before and I approached the theatre with some trepidation aware of its grisly depictions of murder, and mayhem that was once so popular with a Tudor audience. Having said that, I tell myself,  modern audiences seem to share this insatiable appetite for horror  given the popularity of ‘Scandi noir ‘and its imitators.

What impressed me about Blanche McIntyre’s production is how well the play works in a modern day setting. The sudden changing allegiances and betrayals where honour and integrity are abandoned and lies and deceit hold sway seem terrifyingly familiar to our world. The Goths enter Rome as prisoners of war and then suddenly their queen is chosen to be  the Roman emperor’s wife, the world is topsy turvey and frightening, the old certainties have gone as the empire crumbles.

The acting is superb, the sets and music excellent and the audience find themselves laughing at times ( admittedly a little uneasily!) I try not to single out individual performances in these blogs but  I must mention David Troughton’s masterful  playing of Titus Andronicus. The descent of the character from blind loyalty to the state to madness as he sees his family betrayed and destroyed prefigured  King Lear. David Troughton captures Titus’s rage and bewilderment perfectly.

This play is a worthy inclusion in the RSC’s Roman season. Well worth seeing.

Salome

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Photograph by David Isaac.

Herod’s palace reverberates to thunderous power chords of Perfume Genius and we are led to the dungeons where political prisoners and holy men are detained. Iokanaan, the prophet, rails against the corruption and depravity of the court which intrigues Herod’s stepdaughter, the princess Salome. Salome played by an androgynous Matthew Tennyson in a slip and red high heels captures the wilful self absorption of the princess whose anger at the prophet’s rejection of her advances will bring about his destruction.

Herod’s obsession with Salome and his determination that she should dance for him and his leering courtiers leads him to offer ever more extravagant rewards in return for her performance. The prize she demands is the head of the prophet. Herod must comply with Salome’s uncompromising demand and endure the curse that must fall upon his house.

Alex Waldman Q&A.

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Photograph by Helen Maybanks.

The talk began with a resume of Alex’ career. The interviewer had done his homework and put it to Alex that he had been working continuously in classical theatre for the past 13 years without ‘resting’. A remarkable record for any actor. Alex joked that his year long stint at the Almeida gave him more job security that many of his friends enjoyed working in the City!

The discussion then focused on Alex’s much lauded playing of Brutus in Julius Caesar. He shared his insights into Brutus’s desperate and delusional justification of his actions as he becomes increasingly seduced by power. Alex drew our attention to Shakespeare’s ambivalence towards Brutus in Mark Antony’s questionable judgement that Brutus was ‘the noblest Roman of them all.’

Commenting on the decision to play Julius Caesar in togas rather than modern dress, Alex pointed out that when a play has a long run, as this production will, dress that looks topical at the beginning of the run can look out of date remarkably quickly.

Finally, Alex spoke about the difficulties of reconciling an actor’s life with the demands of a young family. He thanked the RSC warmly for its flexibility and understanding.

Vice Versa

Vice Versa
Photograph by Pete Le May.

A hugely enjoyable theatrical experience. Vice Versa is the funniest thing that I have seen in a theatre for a long time. The plot is familiar, canny servant tricks her master into letting his concubine Voluptua escape with her lover while simultaneously freeing his servant, Dexter, from slavery. So far, so unremarkable except this is played with such zest and fun that the audience is totally captivated. The jokes and double entendres are clever and genuinely funny. The physical comedy makes more than a nod at post war British comedy (grey socks, suspenders and sandals are de rigeur).

Music and props add to the general mayhem. The songs are memorable, costume and sets inventive and full of humour, even a mobility scooter doubling as a chariot is met with gales of laughter by the delighted audience.

The plot is predictable the script revels in a familiar irreverence and vulgarity beloved of British comedy. The audience loved it.

The Hypocrite.

'The Hypocrite' by Richard Bean

Photograph by Peter Le May.

This is a lot of fun. A bawdy romp, a pantomime, loosely based on the events of 1642 when the grandees of Yorkshire were trying to decide whether to support King or Parliament in the coming conflict. The answer for Sir John Hotham is to swear loyalty to both sides and pocket the money. The difficulties that his hypocrisy creates provokes witty exchanges as Sir John desperately tries to keep his head. Trapdoors open and close there is much coming and going through slammed doors all in the finest tradition of farce.

More serious reflection on events is provided by three leveller musicians whose songs appeal for equality and democracy with more than a nod at the current Brexit debate.

Antony and Cleopatra.

Anthony and Cleopatra

 Photograph by Helen Maybanks.

Rome and its braying fanfares proclaim its military might through the public humiliation of the vanquished in an official triumph. Meanwhile, Cleopatra’s court beguiles the listener with music that is elusive and dreamlike.
Cleopatra, regal and seductive, offers Antony a tantalising glimpse of a hedonistic and exotic world remote from Rome’s ceaseless demands. At the centre is The Egyptian queen – bewitching and mercurial. Constant in her love for Antony she quizzes Diomedes about the attractions of Octavia, her rival for Antony’s affections, in a scene where acid wit and comic timing delight the audience.

The lovers self absorption generate tensions within the governing Roman triumvirate. Notwithstanding attempts to heal the rift through Mark Antony’s ill judged marriage to Octavius’s sister divisions widen. Anger bubbles up within the ruling triumvirate, an attempt to create an illusion of cameraderie through a shipboard drinking session is predictably doomed to failure.

Antony and Cleopatra are both determined to avoid a shameful and degrading death. Nonetheless, Mark Antony’s botched and prolonged suicide is a messy and ignoble affair. Cleopatra manages a more memorable, dignified, and tragic death. It is some consolation that the lovers escape the horror of Octavius’s triumph.

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.