Posts Tagged ‘Mike Poulton’

The first two books in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Oliver Cromwell and Henry VIII were adapted and staged by the RSC seven years ago, five years after the publication of Wolf Hall and just two after Bring Up the Bodies. This third part took another eight years to be published, but just one more to hit the stage. I think the seven year gap means it loses something, as does the bigger theatre (I saw the first two parts on the same day in The Swan Theatre at Stratford), but even so, it’s a well staged and expertly performed slice of a fascinating period in our history.

We pick up the story after Anne Boleyn is despatched and Jane Seymour quickly wed, taking us through Jane’s death soon after the birth of Edward and the desperation of bringing Anne of Cleves from Germany (based on a picture Holbein was despatched to paint, which may have flattered her, but for reasons more political than romantic) for a loveless match, the dissolution of which humiliates Henry and deposes Cromwell, as he falls from favour with Henry while the Howard’s and their gang are positioning their Catherine as wife No. 5.

It zips along, but not at the expense of good storytelling, holding you in its grip throughout. The language is modern and there is much humour, which doesn’t detract from the dramatic events portrayed. I couldn’t help thinking that ninety-nine percent of the population at the time would have probably been oblivious to what was an obsession for the other one percent; a bit like politics today really. Some have said the adaptation – by Mantel and Ben Miles, the actor who has played Cromwell in all three parts – doesn’t live up to Mike Poulton’s adaptation of the previous two parts, but I don’t feel the seven year gap allows comparison.

Christoper Oram’s stage design is simple, almost non-existent, so the creation of the period relies on his fabulous, sumptuous costumes. Jeremy Herrin’s staging too seems unobtrusive, so it’s down to the performances to do the heavy lifting, and the fine ensemble rise to the occasion. Ben Miles and Nathaniel Parker reprise their roles as Cromwell and Henry and both are brilliant in portraying such contrasting characters, and a number of others return from the previous parts. I particularly liked Nicholas Woodeson’s Norfolk, a poison dwarf, Ian Drysdale as the French Ambassador and Rosanna Adams as Anne of Cleves, an impressive professional debut.

Notwithstanding the gap and the bigger theatre, I think its well worth staging, and I felt it was a lot better than the critical consensus, which may be part of a Mantel backlash. The British today like to bring down the successful, just like they did in the 16th Century!

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Cicero gets nine lines in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar; here he gets a play in two parts, each of three acts, with a playing time of six hours. The RSC have given us a number of two-part epics in recent years. from Nicholas Nickleby through Canterbury Tales to Wolf Hall. Mike Poulton was responsible for the adaptation of the last two of these, as he is for this adaptation of Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy, a big slice of fascinating Roman history littered with contemporary parallels, and it’s brilliant.

Cicero may be the most significant Roman you don’t know much about. That’s because he was an orator and lawyer rather than an Emperor or military figure, but was considered the father of the republic and the go-to man for legal advice and rhetorical coaching, becoming a philosopher in later life. His life was extraordinarily well documented by his slave-turned-confidente & biographer Tiro. Though his papers were lost, they were known to Plutarch, who was the source for Shakespeare’s play, so Harris’ books and these plays have a solid foundation in fact, based on Plutarch.

When it starts, Rome is a republic, with democracy of a sort, two consuls elected annually by a senate made up of the great and the good of Rome, most rich patricians, but some self-made plebeians like Cicero. Cicero is a Consul and protector of the republic, but Julius Caesar is due back in triumph intent on turning Cicero’s precious republic into a dictatorship. Cicero is sent into exile, but is allowed to return before Caesar’s assassination, in which he doesn’t really play a part, though he does approve of the return of the republic, or so he thinks.

Next up is Mark Anthony, whose wife Fulvia is ‘the power behind the throne’ and he seems permanently pissed. Cicero is their biggest critic but he fails to take the Senate with him in his plan to deal with Mark Anthony, and ends up in exile once more, while Mark Anthony & Fulvia continue their life of excess and corruption. Cicero is approached by Julius Caesar’s chosen heir Octavian, who he takes a shine to and decides to help, but he too is more than meets the eye. and when he forms an alliance with Mark Anthony, Cicero is violently dispatched. Octavian will go on to become Augustus, the next dictator.

Like his other adaptations, this is rich in story and narrative and is a real theatrical feast. It’s a slow burn at first, but by the third act of the first part you’re in its grip, until its subject’s head is on a pole! In Anthony Ward’s design, the Swan has stairs behind, a pit below and a giant globe above, which provide a brilliantly flexible but evocative setting. Paul Engishby’s music, heavy on brass, is particularly good at accompanying the triumphant entries into Rome. This is the sort of production director Greg Doran does so well – lucid, well paced and often thrilling.

Cicero is a huge part and Richard McCabe is magnificent, a career high I’d say. I loved Joseph Kloska as diffident but loyal Tiro, whose journey takes him from slave to assistant to confidente to advisor and biographer. Peter de Jersey has great presence as Julius Caesar and Joe Dixon shines as both Catiline and Mark Anthony, two power hungry chancers, as does Oliver Johnstone as Cicero’s protege Rufus and Octavian and Eloise Secker as Clodia and Fulvia. A terrific ensemble of seventeen actors play all of the remaining roles.

It was a difficult trip to Stratford, where I almost got stranded in the snow, but it was a real theatrical banquet and I don’t regret the travails one bit. This is the sort of theatre you remember for years.

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Playwright Mike Poulton, hot on the heels of his hugely successful stage adaptations of Wolf Hall & Bring up the Bodies, has written a brilliant new play about Terence Rattigan’s ex-lover, with Rattigan as a character, that feels like it could be written by Rattigan himself (after the abolition of censorship, if he came out!). The incident at the core of the play was in fact the source of his classic The Deep Blue Sea, which I am seeing again in a couple of weeks, after another Rattigan play this week. I love it when things coincide like this.

It starts with Kenny Morgan’s attempted suicide, foiled by a neighbour smelling gas. The landlady and another neighbour, a (struck off) doctor, tend to him. His lover is away, so the neighbour calls the first number in his phone book – Rattigan. We learn that Kenny was his en suite lover for ten years, but left to live with Alec who is the age Kenny was when he met Rattigan. Alec is a promiscuous bi-sexual who is clearly using Kenny and is the primary reason for his unhappiness. As the play unfolds, we learn that it wasn’t much happier at Rattigan’s, being hidden away and brought out when needed. He flip flops between staying with Alec or returning to Terry as the play continues. 

It’s such a good cast, with Paul Keating a revelation as Kenny; it’s rare to see an actor invest so much emotional energy into a role. I thought Simon Dutton was spot on with his characterisation of Rattigan; a fine performance. Alec is a somewhat unsympathetic character which Pierro Niel-Mee played extremely well. There is a lovely cameo from Marlene Sidaway as landlady Mrs Simpson, nosy and more than a bit bigoted. Lowenna Melrose as Alec’s ‘friend’, Matthew Bulgo as the neighbour and George Irving as the ‘doctor’ Ritter make up this fine cast. It’s sensitively staged by Lucy Bailey with a suitably seedy period design by Robert Innes-Hopkins.

Fascinating play. Fine writing. Excellent staging. Terrific performances. What more can you ask for? Bring on the next two Rattigan’s……

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Seeing both of these plays in the same day immerses you in 35 years of Tudor history, but it seems odd to hear it unfold in 21st century speech as we’re so used to our history plays being written hundreds of years ago. It’s Shakespearean in scale, narrative drive and characterisation and somehow it feels like something Shakespeare would have written if he’d been writing today. Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s books are actually a bit of a triumph.

Wolf Hall covers the period from Henry VIII’s decision to dump Katherine through to his courting of Jane Seymour whilst still married to Anne Boleyn. Bring Up The Bodies covers a shorter period up to Anne’s execution. Both are told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. It’s an unusual way to present history and it works well because it broadens the canvas from ‘the royals’ to embrace the stories of all of the characters. We don’t have to concentrate so much on the dialogue because it’s everyday speech, so we think more about people’s motivations. In Jeremy Herrin’s production, it races along without feeling rushed and rarely lags.

The Swan space is unadorned; just a few props and some fire. There’s an atmospheric (mostly musical) soundscape. Christopher Oram’s costumes are superb and you see the passage of time through Cromwell’s increasingly grander outfits and Henry’s additional padding! Ben Miles is excellent as Cromwell, unassuming but loyal and determined. I loved Nathaniel Parker’s Henry; I particularly admired the way he captured the changes in him over the period of the plays. Theer are too many more fine performances to single any out; suffice to say it’s an excellent ensmeble.

This is accessible historical fiction. Easy to digest, often funny and always entertaining. I left the theatre feeling very satisifed indeed.

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This Anglo-Japanese co-production, subtitled The Shogun & the English Samuri, is timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the relationship between Britain & Japan. It was all down to a lowly seaman called William Adams who arrived in 1600 on a Dutch ship and went on to become the Shogun’s confidante. James Clavell used this as a starting point for his 1975 novel Shogun (Adams became Blackthorne), the third in his six-part  ‘Asian Saga’, made into a TV series with Richard Chamberlain. Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures is also based on the opening up of Japan at this time, but less specifically about Britain. Anjin, cowritten by Mike Poulton and Shoichiro Kawar, is no doubt more historically accurate.

When Adams arrives, the Jesuits are introducing Catholicism and presenting their one-sided picture of Europe. The country is in turmoil whilst its council of ministers, ruling on behalf of the 7-year old First Lord, vie for control. The Shogun Ieyasu has taken control as Regent, much to the annoyance of the mother of young Taiko. Adams mission is trade and once he has a modest grasp of local culture and politics, he befriends the Regent who welcomes his insight into the rest of the world, having never left Japan himself. Despite being a husband and father back home, Adams ‘goes native’, marries and fathers two children. When a British ship finally arrives some 13 years later, he declines to return and stays to facilitate trade between the countries.

It has an epic Shakespearian sweep, which is somewhat appropriate as Will was back home writing plays at the time. It encompasses battles, political manoeuvering, cultural clashes, religious bigotry and oppression and more personal stories. There is much humour, mostly at the expense of the Spanish and the British sailors, but also deeply moving moments; when Ieyasu has to explain to a child why he must be beheaded, it is heartbreaking. I think it could have been edited a little and there were moments when I felt it was too slow, but overall it’s a fascinating story that’s very well told in Gregory Doran’s production (for it is he!).

The production team are all Japanese and Yuichiro Kanai’s sets and Lily Komine’s costumes are gorgeous, with the video and lighting showing them off beautifully. The headwear of the warriors is particularly spectacular! There are a lot of scenes and screens aid the flow between them. The dialogue is both English and Japanese with surtitles for the other and this brings an authenticity to the story-telling. The cast is two-thirds Japanese, led by Masachika Ichimura as Ieyasu and Stephen Boxer as Adams who are well matched and you really do believe in their ‘special relationship’. Yuki Furukawa is excellent as a Japanese Jesuit convert who becomes Adams’ translator and friend and prevents the Jesuits from pumping the Regent with a mine of misinformation.

A very satisfying evening which made me reflect on the similarity and differences between these nations, which in my experience is as special a relationship as the other one!


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There was a time when Schiller’s plays were dull and turgid. Then along came Mike Poulton with adaptations which breathed new life into them. His  adaptation of Don Carlos was masterly and now he excels with this cross between Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Romeo & Juliet.

The Chancellor’s son, an army major, is in love with court musician’s daughter Luise, but his father plans to wed him to the Prince’s mistress to provide cover for the Prince and obtain influence for himself.  The Chancellor’s private secretary, appropriately named Wurm, wants Luise himself and with the help of Lady Milford and Hofmarschall ( I wasn’t quite sure what his role is) his machiavellian plans unfold, ending tragically with its R&J moment. It’s a cracking story and the dialogue is sharp and often witty; not a word is wasted.

The Donmar space is simply but beautifully designed and lit by Peter McKintosh and Paule Constable respectively and Michael Grandage’s staging is as ever impeccable. I don’t think even the Donmar has ever assemble an ensemble this good. You totally believe in the love and passion of Felicity Jones and Max Bennett as Luise and Ferdinand. Ben Daniels has never been better than here as the Chancellor, whose craze for power unleashes such tragedy and results in his own deep remorse. John Light and David Dawson provide the intrigue in their deliciously smarmy, oleaginous fashion (and in the case of Dawson, very camp) whilst Alex Kingston is every bit the arch manipulator whose only interest is herself – at any cost . I also really liked Paul Higgins devoted passionate father who does much to illustrate the backdrop of the class divide.

This will I’m sure be one of the highlights of the year, and one of the defining productions of Grandage’s reign at the Donmar. Miss at your peril.

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