Posts Tagged ‘Swan Theatre’

I’ve only seen this rarely produced Shakespeare revenge tragedy a few times, the first time c.35 years ago and the last c.15 years ago, so I felt ready to see it again, particularly at the lovely candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The space looked as gorgeous as ever and the opening song set a blackly comic tone brilliantly, but sadly it was all downhill from there.

Titus returns from war victorious, lauded by the people, but declines the invitation to become the next Emperor. The prisoners he brought back from the war include Tamora, queen of the Goths, her lover Aaron the Moor and her three sons. When they are liberated by the new Emperor, now married to Tamora, they vow revenge, murder two of Titus’ sons and rape and maim his daughter Lavinia. His revenge on them is to kill them, inviting their mother Tamora and the Emperor, now her husband, to dinner for a rather unique pie.

Despite the fact the play features murders, rape, maiming and cannibalism, this is a bloodless, bodyless affair. Nine women in silk pyjamas, in different pastel shades, all with hair worn back with a pigtail take the stage. They play all of the roles. Each barbaric act is marked symbolically by the despatch of a candle. It’s not that I’m particularly bloodthirsty, but this emotionless take just doesn’t bring out the horror of the events unfolding. The comedy becomes more silly than black.

I struggle to understand the thinking behind this interpretation. I considered leaving at the interval, but decided to see it through and it did get more passionate, but never warranted the description of revenge tragedy. I couldn’t stop memories of a definitive production thirty-five years ago at the Swan Theatre in Stratford with Brian Cox as a manic Titus in chef’s whites flooding my brain, and I couldn’t engage with this production at all.

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Well, what a good play this is. Tim Morton-Smith has written a really meaty piece about the team that invented the bomb, and in particular it’s leader Robert Oppenheimer. It covers so much factual and ethical ground with great objectivity in an epic sweep and holds you in its grip for three hours. It makes most new plays seem flimsy and superficial.

It starts in academia where the scientists who are soon to assemble in Los Alamos, New Mexico, are surprisingly left wing, some members of the communist party. They are fundraising for Spain’s fight against fascism just before they commence a project with the objective of ending fascism in dramatic fashion. We follow the project and its key players and their relationships, so its as much a personal story as it is an historical one. During the project, the secret service is everywhere, concerned about leaks to allies as well as enemies. The pressure they are under is intense. As they reach their goal, an ethical debate is introduced – will this bomb end all wars, as it is meant to do, or will it be yet another, infinitely more lethal armament of war. It continues after its first use, exploring the consequences of this, and the affect on the scientists and the public’s attitude to them.

Angus Jackson’s staging zips along, making full use of the Swan space and a 20-strong cast; strong being the appropriate word. There’s a real period feel, with terrific costumes by Robert Innes Hopkins and brilliant music from Grant Olding, some danced to Scott Ambler’s dreamy 40’s style choreography. The cast doesn’t have a fault in it and it’s led by a towering performance by John Heffernan who’s shoulders seem to sink as the responsibility weighs upon him. I’ve seen him do great things, but nothing greater. This, together with his recent performance as Edward II at the NT, place him at the forefront of actors of his generation.

Well worth the trip to Stratford, but surely it will visit London, badly in need of great new plays like this?



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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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Modern re-setting of Shakespeare is a bit hit-and-miss, though director Rupert Gould has a better hit rate than most; his Stalinist Macbeth is probably the best production of that play I’ve ever seen. So it’s good to report another hit with what is probably his most risky re-setting, in a very contemporary Las Vegas!

Apart from modern dress, he hasn’t really tampered with Antonio and Shylock. Portia and her friend Nerissa, however, are straight out of Legally Blonde, Launcelot Gobbo is an Elvis impersonator (and a good one too!), the Prince of Morocco a big black boxer, the Duke of Venice becomes a mafia godfather, the Prince of Aragon a Spanish stereotype and Gratiano a small time gangster! We’re in a casino, there are a couple of showgirls with feather headdresses and those who claim Portia and her fortune do so in full TV game show tradition. We get what seems to be Elvis’ entire back catalogue, with an unseen big band at the back of the stage.

Of course, it heightens the comedy but the surprise is that it increases the impact of the drama too. The scene where Shylock’s claim is played out has never been more tense and even though you know exactly what’s going to happen, you wince as the knife touches the flesh. The anti-semiticism also seemed heightened, with the audience audibly shocked when Gratiano spits on Shylock as he leaves dejected. This really was staging that served the play.

Patrick Stewart is a great Shylock, but its Susannah Fielding who steals the show as Portia, both in blonde wig and high heels and posing as the male lawyer. I liked Richard Riddell’s Bassanio, but felt Scott Handy as Antonio was a bit too subdued and introspective. There are great supporting performances from Jamie Beamish as Launcelot, Howard Charles as Gratiano and Emily Plumtree as Nerissa.

This was my first visit to the new RST, which is really a large Swan; almost as much closeness as next door and a lot more than before. If this staging was anything to go by, it is a space where you can stage spectacular scenes and intimate conversations. I loved both the show and the space.

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I saw this ‘lost’ Shakespeare play as Double Falsehood at the Union Theatre earlier in the year. This time it has been re-imagined by Gregory Doran with the resources of the RSC to help him. I still don’t know how much of a hand Shakespeare had in it, but I really enjoyed the play nonetheless.

I hadn’t realised that it was based on Cervantes. There’s an authenticity about the Spanish setting that’s created simply by Niki Turner’s costumes and Paul Englishby’s music. It has a passionate Andalusian feel and is staged with great pace.  Cardenio’s delay in obtaining his father’s approval to marry Luscinda means the Duke’s youngest son Fernando makes a move on her (but only after he’s slept with – raped? –  farmer’s daughter Dorotea). Thinking Luscinda has betrayed him, Cardenio disappears into the mountains for his King Lear moment. Fortunately, Dorotea searches for and finds him in order to pursue her claim against Fernando based on the fact that their sexual congress constitutes marriage and his marriage to Luscina is therefore invalid. It’s a good story and I’m now more disposed to believe Shakespeare was involved.

Oliver Rix makes an impressive professional debut as Cardenio. It’s easy to dislike Fernando as played oilily by an excellent Alex Hassell. Both Lucy Briggs-Owen and Pippa Nixon impress as the girls, as do a trio of dad’s – Nicholas Day and Christopher’s Ettridge and Godwin. The Swan is the perfect intimate space for this play; on this occasion with the bonus of fireworks and a superb coup de theatre involving a coffin!

Whether it is or it isn’t, it’s well worth seeing for what it is – a very good pay well staged and performed.

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