Happy New Year!
I’ve looked back on my year of theatre in 2016, which means it’s now time to focus on what lies in store over the next twelve months. The good news is that there is already quite a lot to be excited about and below are 17 shows I’d put on your list for the new year!
1. Hamlet (Almeida Theatre, 17th February – 8th April)
There is so much I’m excited about regarding the forthcoming Almeida production of Hamlet. It’s my favourite Shakespeare play, directed by probably my favourite director at the moment, Robert Icke, whose Oresteia and current Mary Stuart productions are some of the finest plays I’ve seen and it will see Andrew Scott take the title role. He may be best known for playing Moriarty in Sherlock, but he is also a superbly versatile stage actor and I cannot wait to see what he and Icke come up with for this production. All it needs is a strong ensemble cast, which it is well on the way to having wth Juliet Stevenson and Jessica Brown Findlay and this has the potential to challenge the RSC’s 2008 production as my favourite. Can you tell I’m excited?!
2. Angels In America (National Theatre, from 11th April)
Ever since the National’s 50th anniversary celebration featured a scene from this play, I’ve been hoping it would return to the London stage and 2017 sees that happen. It’s such an iconic award-winning play, which made such an impact originally in the 90s and this revival promises to be very special with actors including Denise Gough, Andrew Garfield, James McArdle, Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey announced and directed by Marianne Elliot. Tickets will go quickly for this. You have been warned!
3. Don Juan In Soho (Wyndham’s Theatre, 17th March – 10th June)
2017 also sees David Tennant return to the stage and this time it’s not Shakespeare. For me, he is one of the finest stage actors we have in the UK and I’m very excited to finally see him live on stage performing a non-Shakespeare role. Patrick Marber’s play is described as a savagely funny and filthy play, which has me intrigued to say the least! Directed by Marber and also starring the brilliant Adrian Scarborough, the only question for me is just how many times I’ll see this show over its run!
4. Hamilton (Victoria Palace Theatre, from November)
The juggernaut that is Hamilton finally arrives in London late this year at the Victoria Palace (which is undergoing refurbishment in advance of becoming the hottest theatre spot in town). I have heard so much about this show, but have resisted the urge to listen to any music from it before I see it. With crazily expensive tickets for the New York run, hopefully the London production will be a little easier to get in to!
5. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Harold Pinter Theatre, 22nd February – 27th May)
After her performances in Sweeney Todd in 2012 and Gypsy in 2015, I’d go and see the incredible Imelda Staunton in anything! Next on her list before Gypsy heads to Broadway is this production of Edward Albee’s play. Also starring Conleth Hill (now better known as Varys in Game of Thrones), this promises to be another gem in the 2017 calendar.
6. the ferryman (Royal Court Theatre, 24th April – 20th May)
The Ferryman makes the list even though it is technically already sold out. This does not mean it should be ruled out however (I for one will be queuing as long as it takes for returns after failing to book this fast enough)! Jez Butterworth’s reputation for brilliant and exciting theatre was established with Jerusalem, but I also loved The River and I’m intrigued to see what is next. The production will also mark the Royal Court directorial debut of Sam Mendes.
7. Obsession (Barbican Theatre, 19th April – 20th May)
This year also sees Ivo Van Hove, whose recent productions of A View From A Bridge and The Crucible both made quite an impression on anyone who saw them (including me) directing one of three Toneelgroep Amsterdam productions at the Barbican. Jude Law leads a cast of Dutch and British actors in Visconti’s drama where two people’s attraction to each other leads them to plot murder. This season as a whole is on my must-see list, but I’m rather intrigued by this one in particular.
8. The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (Theatre Royal Haymarket, 24th March – 24th June)
Spring also sees two of Britain’s finest actors, Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo together on stage in Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? Described as a dark comedy, I am rather excited about seeing these two together and directed by Ian Rickson too!
9. Woyzeck (Old Vic, 6th May – 24th June)
Woyzeck isn’t a play I’ve seen before and therefore I’m thrilled to be able to have a chance to tick this highly regarded piece of literature off my list. Set in 1980s Berlin, John Boyega (now of Star Wars fame) tackles the story of a young soldier on the border of East and West trying to build a better life for his family. This new version of Georg Buchner’s classic has been written by Jack Thorne, whose recent hits include This Is England for the screen and the Harry Potter play.
10. Speech & Debate (Trafalgar Studios, 22nd February – 1st April)
Stephen Karam’s play The Humans was one I’d hoped to see next time I was in NYC (sadly I’ll miss it), but I will at least be able to see Speech & Debate when it arrives in London in February. Billed as the story of three misfits, brought together at school by a sex scandal, with hilarious consequences, I’m looking forward to seeing Douglas Booth and Tony Revolori (Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel) tackle this play.
11. 42nd Street (Theatre Royal Drury Lane, 20th March – 22nd July)
I can tick another classic musical off my list this year with the arrival of 42nd Street, the story of a young woman who, after joining the chorus line of a musical, may get her chance of stardom when the leading lady lady suffers an injury. Starring Sheena Easton as Dorothy Brock, this production will also be directed by Mark Bramble, the co-author of the original book of the production. I’ll be curious to see where this ranks in my list of musicals.
12. The Glass Menagerie (Duke of York’s Theatre, 26th January – 29th April)
I’ve still yet to see The Glass Menagerie on stage and so I’m pleased this version of Tennessee Williams’s play is transferring from Broadway at the end of this month. Director John Tiffany’s (also director of Harry Potter & The Cursed Child) production was highly regarded in New York and will again star Cherry Jones as the matriarch Belle Amanda Wingfield.
13. Paul Auster’s City of Glass (Lyric Hammersmith, 20th April – 13th May)
Regarded as a seminal American novel, I’m looking forward to a trip to the Lyric to see this new adaptation, which is billed as using ground-breaking stagecraft, projection, magic and illusion to tell the story of a reclusive crime writer who becomes drawn in to a thriller after receiving a call in the middle of the night from someone in need of a private detective.
14. Touch (Soho Theatre, 6th July – 26th August)
I didn’t get to see Fleabag last year, but after the acclaim it received, as well as for the BBC series based on the play, I’m certainly adding Touch to my 2017 list, as it is by the same creative team. Starring Amy Morgan, it’s the story of a 33 year old woman trying to find her way in London.
15. Tribes (Crucible Studio, Sheffield, 30th June – 22nd July)
I thoroughly enjoyed the original run of Nina Raines’s play at the Royal Court in 2010 and so I am looking forward to seeing this new regional premiere in Sheffield over the summer. The story of family life, where the son is deaf is very funny, but also incredibly moving and explores perfectly the desire we all have to be heard and understood.
16. Antony & Cleopatra (RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, 11th March – 7th September)
I’ve always struggled a bit with this play, but I’ll certainly be heading to Stratford-Upon-Avon for this production, which will see one of my favourite RSC actors, Antony Byrne take on Marc Antony. Byrne was wonderful in the original Richard II in 2013 (and very much missed by me in its revival this year) and also in Henry IV and V and it’ll be fantastic to see him again performing Shakespeare.
17. Sex With Strangers (Hampstead Theatre, 27th January – 4th March)
The Hampstead Theatre has certainly come a long way since Edward Hall took the helm in 2010 and I’m very much looking forward to seeing its first production of the new year. Laura Eason’s comedy sees two people, very much opposites of each other, stuck together in a B&B in the snow, who find themselves undeniably drawn to each other. I enjoyed Emilia Fox’s performance in Rapture, Blister, Burn at this theatre in 2015 and so it’ll be lovely to see her back, in a production that also stars Theo James.
So, those are some of my suggestions for this year on stage. I could have picked so much more, with theatres including the Bush Theatre and the Young Vic already setting out exciting seasons. Then of course there are all the shows yet to be announced! Finally, there are some shows that opened last year, but which are well worth a trip if you can see them before they close. A few examples are:
- Love’s Labour’s Lost & Much Ado About Nothing (Theatre Royal Haymarket) until 18th March – the London transfer of the RSC’s gorgeous double-bill is not to be missed. With a lot of the cast returning, including Edward Bennett and Sam Alexander, they are perfect at this time of year. Go, go, go!
- This House (Garrick Theatre) until 25th February – This superb National Theatre production sees a new run in the West End. Set in the 70s as Labour cling on to power before Thatcher, it’s a brilliantly sharp and funny glimpse in to Westminster. Having seen the current cast in Chichester over the autumn, I can say it’s just as strong as it was originally. Review here.
- Hedda Gabler (National Theatre) until 21st March – My review will be up laster this month for this exciting modernisation of Ibsen’s play. Ruth Wilson is yet again superb and there are also wonderful performances from Rafe Spall and Kyle Soller. This was so close to being in my top 10 of 2016, so I urge you to go. Yes, it’s sold out, but there is the option of Rush tickets on sale on Fridays for the following week’s shows and returns will pop up, so keep checking.
- Mary Stuart (Almeida Theatre) until 21st January – One of my highlights of last year was this play which sees Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson swap roles as Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I. It’s an exciting production from director Robert Icke and is another must-see. Again, it’s sold out, but there are day seats of every performance and I’ve usually been successful in the returns queue at this theatre in the past.
Hopefully there is something on the list that you are interested in. As always, I’ll be adding reviews of shows as I see them and so please do pop back any time!
Having already chosen my top ten productions of the year and my favourite performances of the year, for my last 2016 theatre review post I wanted to look back on my most memorable moments at the theatre in the last twelve months. These are the moments that have stayed in my mind, whether a set, scene or personal experience while seeing a show.
The mind-bending set change at the end of Wild (Hampstead Theatre)
I had heard so many people talk about the staging of Mike Bartlett’s Wild before I arrived at the Hampstead Theatre and that final set change was certainly a sight to be seen! Watching one set change in to another, much starker one was already impressive and then it started to rotate! I admit I was a little distracted from the actual scene itself. Top marks to the set designer and stage management team for this feat.
Watching the cast of Unreachable do all they could to make each other corpse during their final show (Royal Court)
I’d hoped to see Unreachable twice, but had to miss my earlier trip, meaning my only visit was to the final show. Seeing the final performance seemed to heighten the hilarity, as a number of times the cast, particularly Jonjo O’Neil, were trying to throw their fellow cast members off. It was very very funny and one of the most fun trips I’ve had to the theatre.
My return to the wonderful world of Punchdrunk (Sleep No More, NYC)
A Punchdrunk show is always an experience to remember and Sleep No More in NYC was no exception. From the first moments of making my way in to the venue in darkness, to exploring the eerie and intricate rooms and levels, where I sampled the sweets in the shop and leafed through the books on the shelves, right through to my own one-on-one experience with one of the cast, I had a great time. I only hope it’s still there on my next trip.
Genuinely feeling as though someone was behind me blowing in my ear at The Encounter (Barbican)
From immersive theatre to sensory theatre with my trip to Simon McBurney’s one-man show The Encounter. Using special technology (including the head in the photo), he was able to transport us in to the rainforests of Brazil. The moment he had us close our eyes and then created the effect that someone really was behind my right ear, blowing on it, was astonishing. The possibilities for audience interaction in future shows is very exciting indeed if such experiences can now be created.
The magical illusions in Harry Potter & The Cursed Child (Palace)
The most eagerly awaited show on the planet was just as much fun as I’d hoped (and I’m not even a huge Potter fan) and one of the biggest thrills of the theatre year for me was seeing the illusions achieved in this production. I especially loved the entrance to the Ministry of Magic. The cast must be on skates or something backstage to get from one part of the stage to another so fast! A treat for young and old alike.
Watching Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard from the centre of the front row (London Coliseum)
Glenn Close as Norma Desmond was a performance I’d been looking forward to since it was announced and on seeing it, I just had to go back for a second time. I’m still amazed that this wasn’t a total sell out, but the fact that a week before, I was able to buy a front row ticket was unbelievable. Having Close stand so close to me and deliver that performance was a real thrill for me in 2016.
Saying goodbye to War Horse and Groundhog Day at their final London performances (New London and Old Vic)
I was lucky enough to be at the final London performances of both War Horse at the New London Theatre and Groundhog Day at the Old Vic in 2016. The first show was closing after over nine years, during which it has delighted and moved so many audiences and it was lovely to hear author Michael Morpurgo’s words of thanks to its cast and crew. On the other hand, we’d barely had Groundhog Day in theatreland before it was off to prepare for Broadway. I loved the show (it’s my favourite of 2016) and being able to say a fond farewell to it, from the front row no less, was a joy.
Experiencing the enthusiasm of New York audiences for Shakespeare during the RSC’s King and Country tour (BAM, NYC)
This year also saw my first trip to NYC since 2012 and it was filled with a great deal of wonderful theatre. However, one of the things that truly stood out was during my time at the BAM Harvey Theatre in Brooklyn, where the RSC was showcasing its King and Country cycle. Having seen it in both Stratford-Upon-Avon and London, I was surprised to experience the plays in a new environment. Antony Sher has talked about how the New York audiences were more enthusiastic and I agree with him. There was a new kind of excitement in the venue and lines received an audience response they hadn’t in the UK, which in turn had an effect on the actors. From chatting to other audience members, many had read the plays before coming and had a genuine enthusiasm for the plays. It was wonderful to be a part of it.
Being given a reminder of how precious time and life is by Gavin Plimsole (Greenwich Theatre)
One of the new theatres I visited during 2016 was the Greenwich Theatre and I was rather moved by its show The Inevitable Heartbreak of Gavin Plimsole. As we journey through the last part of Gavin’s life, depicted by marbles dropping through a chute after a certain number of heartbeats, the audience was reminded of how precious life is and how we should not take it for granted. At the end of the show, we each opened a box. Mine had a marble in it for me to keep. I have kept it in my handbag ever since. Sometimes it is the smallest shows that make the biggest impression.
There were so many special moments for me in theatres this year, but those are the ten that have stayed with me the most as I sit here and reflect on the last twelve months. Next I’ll be looking ahead to the productions I’m most excited about in 2017, which I hope to post very soon. If you have some moments that have stood out for you, let me know about them in the comments!
Although there are a few days of 2016 left, I’ve very likely been to the theatre for the last time this year and so it’s time for one of my favourite posts – my theatre review. It’s always lovely to reflect on another year of theatregoing and all the wonderful productions I’ve been lucky enough to see over the previous 12 months.
Due to a few weeks with a bad cough during which I didn’t go to the theatre (I refuse to be that person coughing through a show!), 2016’s final tally was just 70 different productions; 12 of which were musicals (a record I think for me), with the rest being plays. As with any year there are always some repeat visits and in 2016 I saw 11 shows more than once. Although this year saw me take a long overdue trips to New York for 11 days of theatre (that seems to be the magic number for me this year doesn’t it?), I’ve actually been to very little regional theatre in 2016 and I’m determined to improve this over the next twelve months.
2016 has been a very strong year of theatre for me, with those containing a strong female performance particularly standing out. I’ve seen very little that has truly disappointed and nothing that will be added to my all-time worst production list. So, below is my top ten productions of the year. Before the year is out, I’ll also be posting my list of 17 shows to see in 2017 so please do pop back to have a look and let me know what your theatre highlights have been this year!
Productions of the Year – My Top 10!
1. Groundhog Day (Old Vic)
There could only be one show at the top of my 2016 list and that’s Groundhog Day, the new musical based on the film, which premiered this year in London, before departing after only its ten week run to prepare for Broadway (previews start in March). I had been sceptical about a musical of this 1993 film (one that I’d not been a huge fan of to begin with). On seeing it for the first time however, I knew this was something very special indeed and I loved it every time I went (well if any show warrants repeat trips it’s this one). The colourful sets helped bring the community of Punxsutawney to life, and the book by Danny Rubin with Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics were a joy. It managed to be both very very funny and deeply moving over the course of the show, as Phil Connors gradually becomes a better man. Of course, the show needed a strong lead to anchor it and Andy Karl was utterly superb as Connors. He was able to portray a man who was both irritating, but still likeable and someone you were rooting for by the end. Yes, I intend to go to NYC to see it, but in the meantime, Mr. Minchin, please release a cast recording! You can read my full reviews here and here.
2. People, Places & Things (Wyndham’s)
I missed this play during its original run at the National Theatre, but was able to see it when it reached the West End earlier this year. It certainly lived up to the hype, with Denise Gough giving one of the finest stage performances I’ve ever witnessed. As Emma, the young woman dealing with a drug and alcohol addiction, Gough pulled you in to her world and didn’t let go until the end. Very few theatre performances have as strong an emotional impact as this one and her Olivier win in April was truly deserved. I know this will be a performance I talk about for years to come. Full review here.
3. Sunset Boulevard (London Coliseum)
This time last year, one of the most anticipated events of the 2016 theatre calendar was Glenn Close’s return to the role of Norma Desmond, one she performed on Broadway over 20 years ago (and one she will take back to NYC in 2017). I’d never been to the Coliseum, but it was the ideal venue for this unique staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. “Semi-staged”, there was very little set; instead the focus was on the performances and the full ENO orchestra on stage. Fred Johanson was excellent as Norma’s loyal butler, as was Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis. However, this was always going to be Close’s show and she was superb. In fact I loved it so much I had to go again and being on the front row that second time is an experience I will never forget. Full review here.
4. Eclipsed (John Golden, NYC)
My trip to NYC this year was designed to be a theatre-fuelled holiday and it certainly was! I saw some excellent productions during my time there, but the one that stands out and makes this top ten is Danai Gurira’s play Eclipsed, which centres on the lives on five women during the Second Liberian Civil War. The play was able to capture the perfect balance of serious hard-hitting material and humour. For a play that has some moments that are quite difficult to watch, it was also remarkably funny too. On top of that, all five women in this play were superb (made clear by the raft of nominations it received). Lupita Nyong’a seemed so much younger in her role, which commanded your attention until the final moments, while Pascale Armand made me laugh with her witty remarks. I’m so pleased I was able to see this. Full review here.
5. Mary Stuart (Almeida)
Last weekend I was at the Almeida for a double day of Mary Stuart. Seeing this new show twice in one day was the only way to guarantee I’d see both actresses in each of the lead roles of Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart. I’m still writing up my review (watch this space), but needless to say that it’s inclusion on this list tells you exactly what I thought of it! The Almeida has such a unique atmosphere and you can feel the energy in the room as the coin spin takes place to determine who will play each part. On seeing both versions, I was thoroughly impressed by both actresses, although Lia Williams brought something extra to the stage whether as Mary or Elizabeth. It’s an exciting, powerful and absorbing production that you should see if you can.
6. Unreachable (Royal Court)
After having to return a ticket for earlier in the run, I’m so pleased I managed to see the final performance of this brilliant new play by writer and director Anthony Neilson, although due to the unique structure of the creative process, it would have been great to have seen it more than once, as Neilson uses the rehearsal process to mould the story and relies on improv from the cast. Story-wise, it’s about a group of creative people coming together to make a film, with the director intent on capturing the right light (played by Matt Smith) and one of the actors, Ivan the Brute, an unpredictable lunatic (Jonjo O’Neil)! All the actors were excellent, but special credit must go to these two, who had me in stitches throughout, particularly Jonjo. It’s a character and performance I won’t forget in a hurry!
7. Harry Potter & The Cursed Child (Palace)
2016 also saw the arrival of the juggernaut that is the new Harry Potter play and I feel very lucky to have already been able to see it, knowing that some people have tickets for 2018! Set 18 years after the end of the seventh book in the series, we get to see Harry, Hermione and Ron as adults with children of their own off to Hogwart’s and the story focuses on the friendship of Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy. It’s a superb show, with magical trickery, lovely sets, a story with a positive message for us all and some brilliant actors. Special mention to Jamie Parker (one of my favourites on stage who really does bring something new to Harry) and Anthony Boyle who deserves as much recognition as possible for stealing the show as Scorpius. Review here.
8. Yerma (Young Vic)
Billie Piper has established herself in recent years as a fine stage actress and her lead role in the Young Vic’s modern interpretation of Lorca’s Yerma is the best I’ve ever seen her. In a one act play, she simply left me speechless and a bit of a wreck through her portrayal of a young woman driven to despair by her inability to conceive a child. In this modern world where people like to think we can have it all and where woman are putting off having children until later, this play has an added emotional resonance. Brendan Cowell was also fantastic as her husband, struggling to keep their marriage together as his wife slowly breaks down. It was an emotionally draining experience, but a theatrical tour de force that I wouldn’t have missed for anything. Full review here.
9. Richard II (RSC, Barbican, London & BAM, NYC)
Okay, okay, anyone who reads this blog may notice that this production has been on this list before, but technically the 2016 version did have a largely different cast and therefore I think I cab get away with it! David Tennant remains one of my favourite actors and a brilliant Shakespearean actor. Returning to Richard after a break of almost two years meant he was able to bring much more weight to it than he did originally. This was a stronger, more confident performance. Add to that the inspired addition of Jasper Britton as Bolingbroke, a role he made his own and a performance I preferred to Nigel Lindsay. Top marks also need to go to Sam Marks, who stepped in to Oliver Rix’s shoes as Aumerle and brought even more emotional depth than I could have hoped for. I was also lucky enough to travel to NYC to see the final two performances of Richard, meaning that I was able to see not only the first preview, but the very last show. Full review here and reflection on the full King and Country cycle here.
10. The Dazzle (FOUND111)
Picking a tenth production for this list has been quite difficult and has left me torn, but in the end I had to choose a production I first saw last December and returned to in January of this year and that’s The Dazzle. With only a cast of three and staged in the intimate setting of FOUND111 (one of the venues of the year in my view), this was a show that was both humorous and deeply moving, as we see the bond between the Collyer brothers. Andrew Scott is mesmerising as Langley, whose strange ways are an increasing strain on his brother. However, it was David Dawson’s performance as Homer that floored me and by the final scene I was a wreck. Full review here.
So, that’s my top 10 from another year of theatre. That was quite tough! Had I had more space, other productions I loved this year included Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Donmar), The Encounter (Barbican) and the returns of the RSC’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much About About Nothing (at Chichester, but which are now currently finally in London) and This House (also now in London).
It always frustrates me that there are things I miss, but ultimately you can’t see everything. That being said, I’m determined to go to more regional theatre, but also more new venues next year. It’s a little exciting to wonder what memories I’ll be looking back on this time next year! After a suggestion from a friend, my picks for top performances of the theatre year are in a separate post here, as are my most memorable moments of the year in theatre here.
Thanks for reading!
Last weekend saw me back at the Barbican to enjoy the final cycle of the RSC’s tetralogy of History plays, which began life in October 2013 with Richard II. Although this was the culmination of the London run, I couldn’t ignore such an achievement on this blog and have reviewed both Henry IV and Henry V separately to accompany this reflection on the spectacle as a whole.
The King and Country cycle gave audiences the opportunity to delve deeper in to the fabric of four of Shakespeare’s Histories, by seeing them back to back over three days. Although each works as a standalone, seeing them performed as one, with the same actors, set and wonderful musicians added so much more to the viewing experience, perhaps more than I anticipated. This unique way of watching these plays was thrilling, as the pieces slotted together and the wider picture became clear.
The development of characters was more profound, particularly Bolingbroke through to King Henry IV and his son Prince Hal, who grows so much to become the King he is by the end of Henry V. The political intrigues and manoeuvres are more obvious and easier to follow; you see Northumberland aid Bolingbroke, Richard predict how he will later turn against his new king, only for this to occur in Henry IV and with Sean Chapman in the role across all the plays, the character had a depth to him which would not have been as evident to the audience on viewing just one instalment.
Characters you have heard referred to in one play appear later, making your understanding of their role in the larger picture so much clearer, for example Worcester, who we hear Harry Percy speak of in Richard II and then meet in Henry IV as he takes his place in rebellion with his nephew. In the case of Aumerle (who became the Duke of York on the death of his father), he disappears from the story, but the moment the Duke of Exeter describes his death on the battlefield at Agincourt in Henry V has an extra level of poignancy when only two days before you saw the tragic arc of his character in Richard II.
The use of imagery across the cycle is also very clever, with the audience spotting echoes of earlier moments in the history in later plays. One example that stood out for me was when Falstaff and Shadow in Henry IV mirrored the image of Bolingbroke and Richard holding either side of the crown. Then there is the simple image of each new king seated on the same throne, which when watched in so short a space of time highlights the transient nature of the crown during this period in our history. Some of the casting choices also resulted in wonderful imagery, such as Matthew Needham in Henry IV Part II playing Mowbray, who is standing next to the Archbishop of York as he reflects on the death of their brave Hotspur. It seems to emphasise the spirit of Harry Percy having Needham in that role. It’s also lovely to bookend the cycle with Jane Lapotaire on the stage – at the start in mourning, all in black and at the end as Queen Isobel in a light grey gown in happier times. Then of course there are the recurring references to the death of Richard, with Henry V still trying to atone for his father’s earlier actions years later. So many of these moments resonated much more when seeing the whole story told as one.
One of the other thrilling aspects of the King and Country cycle for me was watching all the hard work and dedication of the ensemble come together. Having seen all of the plays in their original stand-alone runs, you see how much they have all developed their performances, but also their confidence as actors, particularly the younger members of the company. This was one of the highlights of the 2008/2009 RSC ensemble and is something I haven’t been as excited about since then. When you also remember that most of the company is playing at least one understudy role in each play, the level of their skill and commitment to the project is even more incredible.
It’s fantastic to see such young talents at the early stage of their careers and imagine all the roles that you may see them perform in the future. Olly Rix stood out in the original Richard II run (in fact he impressed me much more than David Tennant during those early performances of that production in Stratford-Upon-Avon). Matthew Needham has joined in these later stages of the cycle and commanded his scenes as Hotspur in Henry IV, as well as making that character much more of a presence in Richard II. The first trio of Bushey, Bagot and Greene (Sam Marks, Jake Mann and Marcus Griffiths) had a whole run to finesse their roles and it’s a shame Martin Bassindale, Nichols Gerard-Martin, and Robert Gilbert don’t have as long. However, each of these actors gives strong performances across the cycle as a whole and I particularly enjoyed Gilbert’s Greene in Richard II and Bassindale’s Boy and Gerard-Martin’s Orleans in Henry V.
Of the original trio of Richard’s flatterers only Sam Marks remains and he became a firm favourite for me from this company. Sam has grown so much over the last two and a half years at the RSC, resulting in confident, developed, nuanced performances in every role he has in the cycle. His Aumerle is a match for Olly’s, bringing his sense of conflict to the fore much more and creating with Tennant an even more emotional connection between their two characters (something I really didn’t think was possible). Poins remains a lovely sidekick to the partying Prince Hal and their friendship feels genuine and warm and his Constable of France is also a strong presence, who you feel sorry didn’t survive the battle (or I did anyway)! I genuinely cannot wait to see what projects these actors move on to next, but I’ll certainly be buying tickets. It is a unique aspect of the RSC’s company approach that has helped foster such talent with Ed Bennett, Sam Alexander, Mariah Gale, Jonjo O’Neill, Alex Waldmann and Pippa Nixon being actors I now make a concerted effort to see in every role after watching them on stage in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
I realise that people who didn’t experience the King and Country cycle, or who perhaps haven’t yet appreciated how special Shakespeare can be, will find the idea of four plays in three days an effort. For me however, I loved every moment of this very special project and would have happily stayed on for The War of the Roses tetralogy had that been an option. I’ll have to make do with series two of the BBC’s Hollow Crown for this in April!
Although the UK run of the cycle is over now, the plays are off on an international tour. Henry IV and V can be seen next (albeit with some slight shuffling of the cast for this leg of the tour) in China, first in Beijing, then Shanghai and then Hong Kong. They will then be joined by Richard II in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I am thrilled to be going to the final New York cycle in April to enjoy them all one last time and if you are able to go yourself, I would certainly recommend you buying tickets for the tour too!
For further information on the international King and Country tour visit the website here. Richard II and Henry IV, as filmed in Stratford-Upon-Avon, are available on DVD from the RSC shop and the usual stockists. Henry V will be available in due course.
(Photo via the RSC)
Following on from yesterday’s post about Henry IV, on then to Henry V, which is of course the culmination of everything that has gone before in this tetralogy of plays. The party prince Hal, who realises to lead he must leave his past and Falstaff behind, goes on to become a King his people can be proud of and seeing this within a day of Henry IV only highlighted how far he comes in such a short period of time.
Alex Hassell is excellent in this production and there’s no doubt playing all three back to back strengthens his performance. It also enables the audience to appreciate the subtleties of his portrayal. At times during Henry IV, his Hal comes across as a bit stilted, but when you see the three together, you can see the development of the man. So much about him changes, his mannerisms, physical movements and even his voice, as he grows from Eastcheap lad to soldier and leader. In the opening moments of the play, on being presented with the evidence of his claim to France, he is overwhelmed – battling to keep a façade of control, but you see it in his face; the boy still adjusting to the man he must be now.
When you compare this to the confident soldier he is at the play’s conclusion you realise how far he and indeed Hassell have come. Everything Hal has experienced results in him being a better King. The mistake the French and no doubt some in his own Court make is to see his Eastcheap escapades as a sign he will be a weak ruler. In fact it is those experiences that give Henry the insight in to his people and then the ability to rally them to victory against all the odds and Hassell’s passion during those iconic battle speeches on Sunday was the best I’ve seen him perform them yet.
The staging is also wonderful. Beginning and ending with the bowels of the Barbican backstage area on display, it fits perfectly with a play, which through the inclusion of the Chorus (here played by the ever-excellent Oliver Ford Davies) invites the audience to accept this is a retelling of a great tale and to use their imaginations to fill in the gaps. I still love Oliver Ford Davies picking up the crown to put it on, only for Hassell to appear and snatch it from him, to the raised eyes of the older actor! It’s a wonderful start to what is a truly wonderful production.
Drawing on the strength of this ensemble all of the performances are spot on throughout. Joshua Richards is especially brilliant as Fluellen and his scene with the soldiers from Ireland, England and Scotland is a particular highlight, showing through its humour how perhaps the English viewed the other realms of the British Isles at the time. Simon Yadoo’s Scottish soldier is hilarious in that you don’t understand a single word he says!
The members of the French contingent are also very good too. Robert Gilbert is ridiculously silly as the Dauphin, flicking his hair and preening like a peacock, so arrogant in his supposed position of superiority over Henry (and indeed those on his own side). Sam Marks is again a strong presence on the stage as the Constable of France and his relationship with the Dauphin, filled with friction is brilliant to watch (particularly as they use the tactic of emphasis on syllables in words to fire barbed insults at one another).
Jennifer Kirby is wonderful as Princess Katherine (or Kate as Hal calls her – quite modern and fitting in a world with our own royal Kate). Her ability to bring humour and fun through her early scenes while speaking French is impressive and her playful chemistry with Hassell in the final scene of the play is a joy to watch (indeed on Sunday, Alex Hassell almost had her in stitches). It could be a very modern scene, a testament to the brilliance of the playwright who wrote it 400 years ago!
I loved this production in Stratford-Upon-Avon and it has only improved over its Barbican run, resulting in a triumphant final fanfare yesterday, of which everyone involved should feel incredibly proud.
The King And Country productions can still be seen on their international tour. Henry IV and V first in China next month and then all four plays go to New York in March. For details and ticket information visit the RSC’s website here. Henry V will also be released in due course on DVD. My post reflecting on the King and Country cycle as a whole will follow shortly.
Last week saw me return to the Barbican to see Henry IV (which I’d first seen in Stratford-Upon-Avon and then again at the Barbican a year ago). Now back as part of the King and Country cycle I was looking forward to seeing it again. I’ve written at length on this blog about the RSC’s Richard II (click on the tag Richard II for all posts), but in terms of the other plays of the cycle, it was Henry IV that I enjoyed so much more this time around. My overall thoughts on the cycle as a whole will appear in a separate post within the next day.
Antony Sher’s Falstaff, although very good, hadn’t captured my attention and emotion in the same way as Roger Allam had, but on this run I found his performance so much stronger. The voice he uses for Falstaff (which I admit I did find a bit OTT) had been taken down a notch or two and it was a much more settled performance, which I actually very much enjoyed. He still has a lovely relationship with Alex Hassell’s Prince Hal, especially early on and the playful jokes between him, Hal and Poins were lovely to see again. You do indeed see the Eastcheap gang as a family and perhaps understand why Hal enjoys being part of it rather than the Court. This makes the end of Part II all the more poignant as Hal turns away from his former life and his dear friend. Sher’s “I will be sent for” was so sad, as you sense that perhaps even Falstaff knows that’s a lie.
The other key character within Part I has to be Hotspur and although Trevor White’s manic, bleach-blonde performance was certainly different, it did grate on me after a while and I preferred Matthew Needham’s portrayal of this young man through Richard II and Henry IV Part I, which I thought was fantastic. He was able to convey the moments of humour, anger and frustration perfectly, resulting in the audience (or certainly me anyway) liking him and admiring his courage and bravery – putting him in stark contrast to the revelling Prince Hal. This added a different dimension to their final confrontation and it was thrilling to see these two men sword to sword. You yearn for circumstances to be different between these them, here set on opposing trajectories, as you can imagine how perhaps they could have been a great source of strength for each other had they been on the same side. Having seen Needham on stage previously in comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (and on crutches no less after an injury) I knew he’d be a great addition to the ensemble and he certainly didn’t disappoint. Sarah Parks also gave a wonderful Mistress Quickly and Emma King’s Doll was a feisty Scottish lass, whose scene with Anthony Byrne’s Pistol was great fun.
I’m still not a huge fan of Henry IV Part II, but I really enjoyed it on Saturday. It was funny, but not ridiculous and the growing ill health of the King was perfectly captured by Jasper Britton, whose final speech was a key, stand-out moment of the weekend, particularly after you as an audience has travelled with that character over two days through from being Bolingbroke to the dying King Henry. Playing Bolingbroke has certainly enhanced his approach to Henry IV and seeing his decline from confident rebel to weak, dying man was particularly poignant during the cycle. Britton’s wonderful, fatherly relationship with Needham’s Hotspur in Richard II highlighted the distance between him and his own son at the start of Henry IV and seeing them side by side on his deathbed in Part II, at last with an affection that they may never really have had was delicately played by both Britton and Hassell.
My main reason for never enjoying Part II as much as Part I is the interlude away from the main plot to see Falstaff’s visits to Shadow and Silence and on previous visits to this production, as much as I love Oliver Ford Davies and Jim Hooper, it still didn’t really appeal to me. However, as part of the cycle experience they felt like light relief in a much broader way and were much more enjoyable during this viewing. I still don’t think they serve much purpose and for me the play wouldn’t suffer from their absence, but the actors were on fine form on Saturday. I also appreciated the moment Falstaff and Shadow mirrored Bolingbroke and Richard holding either side of the crown. It was a moment I would only ever have picked up on by watching the whole cycle as one.
Another favourite of these productions was Sam Marks’ Ned Poins, who although in Henry IV for only a few scenes, captures the closeness and brotherly affection between him and Hal and the banter and fun of their world, draws the audience in. This only makes it a little more sad to be aware that such frivolity will clearly never last once Hal becomes King. Credit also needs to go to Emma King as Lady Mortimer, whose ability to speak and sing with such emotion in Welsh was incredibly impressive.
Overall, although it’s still my least favourite of the three stories of the cycle, I thoroughly enjoyed this visit to this production, much more so than before and it paved the way wonderfully for Henry V.
Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 can next be seen in China and then New York as part of the King and Country tour. Details can be found here. For those who missed the shows in the UK, an earlier 2014 performance was filmed and is available to buy on DVD from the RSC and all the usual retailers.
Saturday morning saw me back at the Barbican. Not for a play this time, but for the last of the RSC’s King & Country talks in the Frobisher Auditorium, to listen to David Tennant and Jonathan Slinger talk about their experiences playing Richard II for the RSC. It was a truly insightful and thoroughly interesting hour, which could have gone on much longer as these fine actors talked about this particular role.
I’ve tried to capture in this post the questions and answers given during the discussion, for those unable to attend. Moderator Emma Smith did mention that the event was being recorded for the RSC’s archive. If I can find out any more details of that I’ll update this post.
Richard II in the context of the other History plays?
Jonathan Slinger (“JS”), played Richard II for the RSC during Michael Boyd’s Histories Cycle in 2007/2008. He spoke of approaching the role, with the knowledge that the company were going to do all eight Histories together and that he would be book ending them, playing both Richard II and Richard III. For him the play works as a standalone, as do most of the Histories, but that there is a narrative running through them all as well and by doing them all they were able to draw out the echoes and narratives of the whole piece.
David Tennant (“DT”) has had the opposite experience, as he approached Richard II as very much a standalone piece. It was Greg Doran’s first production as Artistic Director and had been mounted as a standalone, so he didn’t have to get in to the greater context too much. He spoke of returning to the role now, two years later, remounting it so that it fits in to the other plays of the cycle and how he is now more aware of the moments where Richard II casts forward to the other plays, such as the moment Richard speaks to Northumberland, foreshadowing the events of Henry IV Part One.
Working with the play’s reliance on the history that has come before it?
DT said how he had always loved the play, but that he’d never really understood the beginning – who was dead? why? what are the undercurrents at work? He agreed that it is not set out, so it’s tricky to understand and also hard to help the audience understand what’s going on and the political world they are in.
The lightbulb moment for the current RSC production, he said, was deciding to put the dead body of Gloucester in the centre of the opening scene and have that happen at his funeral. This also highlights the inappropriateness of Richard’s behaviour, thinking that they should sort out this disagreement at the funeral speaking to his personality!
JS described their staging of the opening in his production. They too had the body on stage, but the actual body, which he (as Richard) steps over to get to the throne. Mowbray and Bolingbroke then entered the stage and the “ghost” of Gloucester stood up and eyeballed Mowbray. He said this was perhaps more subtle than the current production (which he admitted he hadn’t seen).
Both actors also spoke about the earlier play Thomas of Woodstock, which it’s believed the people at the time were very much aware of and therefore knew the backstory without it being in Shakespeare’s play, although DT thought it was an odd omission by Shakespeare, who doesn’t normally make the context so obscure.
Costumes and how they helped get in to character?
JS explained that his Histories cycle was done in full Elizabethan costume, in reference to the fact that Elizabeth I is known to have recognised herself in the character of Richard II. He also thought that the vain, superficial image of Richard fitted that costume and described how the costume and makeup were gradually stripped away, as Richard goes from a lack of self awareness to full self knowledge, as he loses all material wealth and possessions.
DT said he found the fact that Richard had been born to be King and been crowned when still a boy interesting. Richard has never been in a world where he has had to conform. Therefore the way he acts is always correct as no one will challenge him, for example no one would ever say to him “Cut your bloody hair!”. So he can have long hair, have gold gilded on his fingernails etc. as that sets him apart from everyone else. He also spoke about how the long hair was also useful to play on the Christ-like image later (“in his white nightie”!).
Richard as a tragic character?
Emma Smith posed the question to DT and JS as to whether Richard is like an actor, playing a part all the time. Both actors didn’t think this was the case, not believing that Richard thinks he is performing.
JS spoke of Richard’s chronic insecurity, resulting in him perhaps creating a persona and that you could argue that that persona runs skin deep. He did also refer to Richard’s belief in his divine right to rule, but how once pricked in the beach scene, this so quickly collapses, making you wonder just how much Richard did really believe this!
He agreed with DT that Richard doesn’t think he is performing, although queried whether by the end of the play he realises this, as he speaks the line “Thus play I in one prison many people”. JS was able to brilliantly recite the speech from the prison, earning a round of applause. As Richard II is his favourite play he said that it had stayed with him.
DT commented on Richard being forced in to a realisation once God doesn’t turn up to fight for him. He said it must have been terrible to realise this when you have always thought the angels would literally come down from on high and then they don’t. The deposition scene in DT’s view is where Richard knows he has to fight his own battle- he has complete control of the room and there is a tragedy in that. He only realises how powerful he is when he has lost it all and that scene for DT is an example of great leadership.
The actors also spoke about Richard’s lineage, being the son of the Black Prince, who was the Henry V of his day. He was a warrior and it made JS wonder to what extent did Richard grow up with an impossible father to follow and that he comes up short because he cannot live up to him. He spoke about Richard going for the superficial aspects of being King, but not the substance as that wasn’t really who he was. DT also referred to it being Richard who had come up with the title of “Highness”, literally elevating himself above others.
They also both spoke about the deposition scene and how in it Richard is showing them all what they are choosing over him – choosing Bolingbroke over a true King and how in that scene Richard realises that he is losing everything, not just the crown, highlighted by the line “I have no name.” He is literally nothing if not King.
Relationships with other characters?
DT spoke about Richard’s relationship with Aumerle (my favourite aspect of the current production). He said how this seems to be the only real human relationship he has ever had and that it is this that gives him the strength to surrender at Flint Castle. With that strength he is able to undermine Bolingbroke and shame his court, which lays the basis for the troubles he experiences in the next play of the cycle.
They also discussed the possible similarities between Richard and Bolingbroke and spoke of the 1973 RSC production in which Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco alternated the roles to draw out similarities between them. In their current production, DT said they had chosen the opposite – Richard and Bolingbroke are very much opposites – like fire and water (referenced in Bolingbroke’s speech at Flint Castle). For DT, it makes more sense this way. JS said he’d never seen a production staged like that 1973 one, but could see how it would be effective in emphasising the acuteness of betrayal if such a closeness had been set up.
One of the saddest scenes for JS was the scene in which Richard says farewell to his Queen. He’d always had the sense that she had been shunted around in favour of Richard’s yes-men, when actually she was the only person determined to wait for him on his way to prison. You see her loyalty and her deep affection for him and he thought this played in to Richard’s growing realisations as he sees how important she was on the way to his death. She was another thing he had wasted – the line “I wasted time” in the prison represents so much – people he should have been intimate with, things he should have done. For JS it was always a very sad scene.
DT commented on the fact that in reality Richard’s Queen at that time had been a child, being a marriage very much for political advantage, but that it’s believed that Richard’s first marriage was one of great love (the two are in fact buried next to each other). DT spoke of the difficulties of playing this relationship, as Shakespeare makes the Queen an adult, includes her in the play, but then doesn’t really utilise her. He found it the hardest scene in rehearsals, as the company tried to understand why the Queen was there and what the purpose of the scene was and that he liked JS’s view on it. DT also said how he felt sorry for both actresses who had played the Queen in this production (Emma Hamilton and now Leigh Quinn), as he spends hours ignoring her and then about 10:30 p.m, just goes “Oh go to France!”. He finds it sad that Richard can’t quite connect with her.
The politics of the play today, when there isn’t a belief in the divine right?
JS commented that the play introduces the idea that deposition is something that can happen and that such an idea is still current in our daily lives and therefore this makes Richard II as a play very relevant.
DT referred to how the play is about the delusions of power and how that can fall apart, which is still something in today’s world. He used the example of North Korea, which though not a divine right is still an example of someone ruling without challenge. JS also jokingly referred to Simon Cowell (who, DT joked could never be deposed!).
Did Shakespeare have to write Henry IV and Henry V afterwards to get back in to favour?
Both actors agreed that it was impossible to know as these events happened hundreds of years ago. DT did comment on how great Henry V is and said he was uncertain that Richard II was actually written by Shakespeare to be a critique of Elizabeth I. That was certainly how it was taken at the time, but he was not convinced that that was Shakespeare’s actual intention when writing it.
Emma Smith commented on how the Histories are about the anxieties of regime change, written at a time when it was uncertain who would follow Elizabeth I / what would happen on her death. She noted how there were no more such plays once the new monarch took the throne.
How much of their performance was influenced by Shakespeare’s interpretation of history and by their own understanding of it?
JS talked about having researched the backstory of Richard and the Black Prince, which he used to assist with his interpretation, for example how Richard handled the peasant’s revolt. He said however that if you stuck too rigidly to history you would go mad!
DT agreed that, as with anything based on real people, you have to respect the topic enough, but have to also respect the script and the story you are telling.
As Richard II was written before most of the tragedies, how much do they think it informed Shakespeare’s later writing of tragedies?
DT said that that was a very difficult question to answer. He did say that he thought Shakespeare enjoyed writing Richard and seems energised by the character.
JS’s view was that Shakespeare reached the pinnacle in writing a tragic character with Richard, using the example of Richard III, which he said, although a great character to play, is someone with nowhere near as much complexity.
DT’s favourite scene is the deposition scene, as it is where Richard finally finds himself and gets to own them all for a few moments. He compared it to an aria, with Richard showing them exactly what they’ve lost.
JS also enjoyed the deposition scene, but his favourite is the prison scene, particularly Richard’s monologue in it, which he thinks is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest monologue.
The question had also asked whether they preferred playing Richard or Hamlet (as both actors have played both parts for the RSC), but neither answered this.
Do they think Richard is afraid during the play?
JS thought that Richard is actually most afraid at the start of the play when he is trying to keep all the plates spinning. Yes, he is scared as he loses everything, but in that he also finds strength.
DT referred to the moment in the first scene when people don’t do as Richard tells them. He thinks he will tell Bolingbroke and Mowbray to make peace and then that will be that. When they don’t choose to throw down their gage’s and want to defend their honour instead of obeying his command it all starts to go wrong for Richard. In DT’s view, after that there is a mounting fear for Richard, as once God’s deputy on earth stops being treated as such, then it’s only really a matter of time until it ends.
Sadly that was all there was time for during this event. I think everyone attending the talk could have happily stayed there and listened to these actors’s thoughts on the play and these characters all day!
I certainly hope the RSC continues to hold these talks and if possible schedules even more of them, as they are a superb way for you to really have the chance to dig deeper in to these plays, with the help of the actors who so skilfully bring them to life on stage.