2016 Theatre Review – My Top Performances of the Year!

In previous years I’ve only written one theatre review post. However, after it was suggested to me by a friend, I’ve decided to split my review of the theatre year this time. I’ve already posted my top 10 productions of 2016 (here for those interested) and so this post will focus on my favourite performances from the last twelve months. You can also read about my most memorable moments of the year in theatre here.

Please do let me know your highlights in the comments below.

2016 – A Year of Strong Female Performances

As my top ten post highlighted, it’s been a strong year for women on stage, with so many stand-out female performances. Below is just the tip of the iceberg!

Lia Williams (Mary Stuart)

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After her incredible performance in Oresteia last year, Lia Williams is yet again one of the highlights of the year, in not one, but two roles. After being lucky enough to watch both versions of Mary Stuart back to back, what stood out the most for me was that no matter which version I was watching, the character Williams was portraying seemed to be the larger role. She was a vibrant Mary, unnerving Juliet Stevenson’s Elizabeth and yet she was also a strong, confident and sexy Elizabeth. I cannot wait to see what roles she will take on in the future, but I’ll be there for every one of them!

Ruth Wilson (Hedda Gabler)

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It’s always a joy to see Ruth Wilson on stage and she is currently delivering a superb Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre. She isn’t very likeable, but I couldn’t help admiring her character’s ability to be say whatever she wanted, regardless of the consequences! She is someone desperate for control and yet by the end we see her utterly at the mercy of Brack. In another powerful production by Ivo Van Hove, this is a must-see event.

Denise Gough (People, Places & Things)

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I’ve already gushed about how much I loved Denise Gough in this show and how she absolutely blew me away with such an emotionally, heartbreaking performance. It’ll stay in my mind for many years to come.

 

Glenn Close (Sunset Boulevard)

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The iconic Glenn Close finally brought her portrayal of Norma Desmond over 20 years after she performed it on Broadway. I had high hopes, but was nervous that perhaps she’d struggle to impress the way she did back then. It turned out she was spectacular and was still able to deliver the vocals. Yes, her voice may not have been as powerful, but it added a layer of reality to the character.

Billie Piper (Yerma)

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Billie’s performance in Yerma was one of the most emotionally draining trips to the theatre I had in 2016, so goodness knows how she performed it day after day! Modernising Lorca’s tale of a woman desperate to have a child worked perfectly for today’s world and as the play unfolded Piper her character from a young, vibrant woman to a lost, broken soul. Powerful and unforgettable.

 

Janet McTeer (Les Liaisons Dangereuses)

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It was hard to leave this production off my top ten and that was in large part due to McTeer’s portrayal of La Marquise de Merteuil. She was so devious and sexy and her chemistry with Dominic West really worked. I’m sorry I couldn’t get to New York to see the Broadway transfer, but if you have a chance to go before it finishes towards the end of January, it’s certainly worth the effort.

The cast of Eclipsed (NYC)!

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With Eclipsed it wasn’t just one strong performance, but five, with each of the five actresses in Danai Gurira’s play creating a memorable character and together the result was one of my theatre highlights. Lupita Nyong’o seemed years younger, depicting the young wife who yearns for a different life; Pascale Armand was a scene-stealer as Bessie, whose comic lines made me laugh out loud; Saycon Sengbloh brought a strength and motherly figure to the stage as Helena; Zainab Jah’s portrayal of the wife-turned soldier, who refuses to be a victim of any man was a moving one and Akosua Busia added an outside perspective as Rita, the woman determined to help the women of the camp leave this life. A remarkable play, that I hope to see in the UK soon.

Helen McCrory (The Deep Blue Sea)

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If I hear Helen McCrory is doing a play, I’ll book it without caring what it is. She is just so good. Her turn as Medea is still clear in my mind two years on and she was equally impressive as Hester Collyer, a woman trapped in life, who feels suicide is her only way out. A moving and powerful production for 2016.

Glenda Jackson (King Lear)

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25 years since she was last on stage, Glenda Jackson took on one of the most well known roles in Shakespeare – King Lear. I was rather surprised by how much power she brought to the stage. She may be older, but she still commanded the stage and although, I didn’t have the emotional reaction to the play’s ending that I sometimes do, I still left the Old Vic sure of the fact I’d seen one of the performances of the year.

Cynthia Erivo (The Color Purple, NYC)

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I was sorry to miss The Color Purple during its run at the Menier Chocolate Factory and so it was high on my list for my trip to NYC this year. I’d heard so much about Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Celie, the young girl, who overcomes so much to achieve happiness and independence in her life. There were two famous US actresses on stage, but the star was Erivo and hearing her sing “I’m Here” live was phenomenal. I’m so thrilled she won the TONY this year.

The men weren’t half bad either in 2016!

It may be a year when the female-led shows grabbed my attention, but there were certainly some excellent performances by the men too!

Andy Karl (Groundhog Day)

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Ahh Andy Karl. I loved Andy Karl in Groundhog Day. As he’s better known in the US, I wasn’t familiar with his work, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on his future projects from now on. As someone who wasn’t a fan of the original film, his portrayal of Phil Connors was a major factor in how much I loved this production. He was able to convey both his rude, arrogant attitude and his later kinder self with equal weight and by the end I was rather choked each time I saw it. If I needed just one reason to go back to NYC next year, this is it!

Anthony Boyle (Harry Potter & The Cursed Child)

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Undoubtably the most anticipated production of the year (and possibly the decade), the next story in the world of Harry Potter had a lot to live up to. I thoroughly enjoyed the show and all five of us in my group agreed that the show-stealer was Anthony Boyle as Scorpius Malfoy, the unlikely son of Draco, who forms a friendship with Harry’s son Albus. He was brilliant in the role; he is funny, brave, emotional and an utter joy to watch.

James Norton (BUG)

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James Norton is surely one of the most versatile actors we have at the moment. Able to be both the charming, gentleman and terrifying killer on screen, I was thrilled to see him perform this year in the intimate space of FOUND111. Tracy Letts’s play is one of growing claustrophobia, where Norton’s character, Peter, starts as a shy young man, who acts as a source of comfort to Kate Fleetwood’s Agnes, before slowly unravelling before our eyes. A hugely physical and emotional role, Norton demonstrated yet again why he is on my must-see list.

Jonjo O’Neil (Unreachable)

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I’ve been a fan of Jonjo O’Neil’s since I first saw him in the RSC company in Stratford-Upon-Avon (his Mercutio is yet to be beaten from those I’ve seen) and it was brilliant to see him take on such a quirky role as that of Ivan The Brute in Anthony Neilson’s new play. With the play taking shape during the rehearsal process, he was clearly able to bring so much personality to the character and I don’t think I’ve laughed that much in a theatre in a long long time (if indeed ever). It was an utterly bonkers performance that stole the show.

Simon McBurney (The Encounter)

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The Encounter was unlike anything else I’ve seen on stage. A one-man show, written and performed by Simon McBurney, it told the story of a National Geographic photographer who in 1969 travelled to, and became lost in, the Amazon rainforest. Through the use of innovative technology and the audience all wearing headphones, we were transported in to a sensory experience like no other. McBurney could not have put any more in to his performance, physically and mentally and if I could go again I wouldn’t hesitate.

Jamie Parker (Guys & Dolls / Harry Potter & The Cursed Child)

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Jamie Parker had to be on this list as I loved both roles he had on stage in 2016. I started the year watching him bring Sky Masterson to life in Guys & Dolls. He was superb and, in my view, one of the show’s biggest strengths, able to carry off the suave character and deliver the required vocals. Then it was on to Harry Potter. Harry isn’t the young man he was in the books/films and Parker convincingly portrays how his early life and experiences have impacted on him and indeed on his relationships as a husband and a father. Some of the most heartfelt moments in the play for me were those in which Harry is dealing with emotions and I can’t think of anyone better to play him.

James McArdle (Young Chekhov – Platonov & Ivanov)

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Having a chance to see the Young Chekhov trilogy at the National Theatre after missing its original run in Chichester was an added theatre bonus this year and my favourite of the three was undoubtably Platonov. This was largely down to James McArdle’s performance in the title role. Seeing the plays back to back also provided an even stronger contrast between his role in Platonov and that of the serious doctor in Ivanov.

 

Ian McKellen (No Man’s Land)

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I’ve been lucky enough to see Ian McKellen on stage a couple of times before (in No Man’s Land and The Syndicate) and what stands out most of me about McKellen’s stage work is that he simply becomes a new person. Despite being hugely famous for some iconic roles, you always see the character on the stage and not the actor and that was the case again in No Man’s Land.

Rafe Spall (Hedda Gabler)

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Rafe Spall’s performance as Brack in the National Theatre’s current production of Hedda Gabler really stood out for me. He is a man that starts the play as a rather playful, flirty friend to Hedda and yet by the end he had chilled me to the bone. Not every actor could do that, but through his previous work, Spall has demonstrated his ability to tackle characters on both sides of the moral spectrum. I certainly hope to revisit this production before the end of its run.

Jasper Britton (RSC Richard II / Henry IV)

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Anyone who knows me (or indeed has read this blog before) will know I’m a David Tennant fan and therefore a return trip to the RSC’s Richard II at the Barbican in January was never in doubt. The biggest thrill for me of the combined King and Country cycle was Jasper Britton. He brought a new dynamic to the Richard/Bolingbroke relationship and having the same actor as both characters enhanced the overall cycle. I particularly enjoyed seeing Bolingbroke’s relationship with Hotspur, which perfectly set up the events of the Henry IV Part One.

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What a year it’s been! Feel free to let me know which performances impressed you this year in the comments section.

2016 Theatre Review – My Favourite Productions of the Year!

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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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.

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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!

 

Theatre Reflections – A final farewell to the RSC’s King & Country at BAM (New York)

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It’s taken me a couple of weeks to write this reflection on the final King and Country cycle. Previously I have reviewed all of the individual plays since they began with Richard II in 2013, as well as reflecting on the cycle at the Barbican this January. However, as my recent New York trip was largely scheduled around seeing the last dates of these Histories, it seemed fitting to look back one last time and also comment on the differences, both in my experience and in the performances, when seeing them during the New York run.

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BAM Harvey Theatre (Photo by: E. Kaufman Harvey)

I find it thrilling that despite so many performances under their belts (the final King and Country tally was 505), the company was still trying new things and for anyone who’s sen them a few times it’s a wonderful added extra. It’s also fascinating to experience the plays with an audience who have much less opportunity to see live Shakespeare than we do here in the UK and to see first hand how this affects their reactions to the material.

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Jasper Britton & David Tennant in Richard II (Photo by: Keith Pattison)

From my time at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) Harvey Theatre, I’d safely say that the largely American audiences loved these productions and having the RSC come to them. In fact there was a buzz that I didn’t feel at the Barbican or to some extent even at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. This is perhaps largely due to the RSC in New York being more of an event, seeing as they haven’t been regularly and the audiences were excited to see this famous theatre company bringing Shakespeare overseas. Thinking about it logically, these were the perfect plays to succeed there. The more traditional rather than modern settings and the English history (albeit Shakespeare’s version) seemed, from the people we spoke with, to be exactly what they imagined the Royal Shakespeare Company to be doing.

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Antony Sher, Sam Marks & Alex Hassell in Henry IV (Photo by: Richard Termine)

BAM was an ideal theatre for the plays too. Built in 1904 as the Majestic Theatre, the BAM Harvey Theatre’s auditorium is weathered and has a old-age feel; paint flaked walls and ceilings really added to the sense that a little bit of English history had come back to life in a venue of the past. I also really liked the rake of BAM, with a great view from every seat I had (it’s a bit like the Trafalgar Studios rake for those that know it). This again meant a slightly different viewing experience than I’d had in Stratford-Upon-Avon or London.

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Matthew Needham (centre), Antony Byrne (left), Sean Chapman (right) in Henry IV (Photo by: Richard Termine)

The plays themselves were just a strong as they had been and as far as Henry IV is concerned, this was my favourite time watching it (having seen it once in Stratford in 2014 and then once during each of the two Barbican runs). At a book event earlier in the week, Antony Sher had commented how he felt the US audiences were listening and reacting better to the plays and on experiencing them for myself, I have to agree with him. Lines which I’ve not heard get a reaction before in all four of the plays (but especially Henry IV) found one at BAM. I heard quite a few people there saying how they had read the plays before coming and perhaps we are so used to Shakespeare in the UK that we aren’t as focussed as an audience who has less chance to see them live. In turn, this clearly had an effect on the performances, especially Mr Sher, who seemed happier and more at ease at BAM. Perhaps coming to the end of the run played a part, but you could see that he was enjoying and feeding off the audience reactions.

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Alex Hassell in Henry V (Photo by: Stephanie Berger)

I’m sure it’s no surprise to regular readers that I saw Richard II the most since 2013. I’d been at the first preview in October 2013 and I loved the idea of seeing the very last performance, especially as in my view, this is a production which has only gone from strength to strength over time. It was in Richard II where I picked up on little changes, the most obvious being in my favourite scene – Flint Castle. Having seen David Tennant play the scene with both Oliver Rix and now Sam Marks (as well as Oli and Sam together during the understudy performance), it was wonderful that they were still experimenting even at the end of the run. I saw Richard II twice at BAM and both times, instead of dodging the crown when Richard moves to place it on his head, Sam Marks stayed still and Richard II did indeed crown Aumerle. Once Tennant then removed it with a sigh (it’s Richard’s burden, not his cousin’s) and the second time Marks removed it and with sadness gave it back to Richard. It wasn’t a big change, but it was something subtle and lovely to see played in a slightly different way after all this time.

All the company were on fine form in New York and special mention to Evelyn Miller going on in place of Jennifer Kirby for the final Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V. They should all be hugely proud of the King and Country cycle and it was very special to be at the final Henry V to see the 505th and final performance. I’m sure after such a welcome, it won’t be long before the RSC is back in New York and you never know, I may just have to tag along too!

You can purchase the RSC’s King and Country plays on DVD from all the usual stockists. As the DVDs are region free, it’s worth considering buying them from US Amazon where the 4 play set is only $40!

Theatre Reflections – Henry IV (RSC) at the Barbican

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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.

 

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King Henry IV & his sons prepare for battle in Part 1

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.

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Matthew Needham was a brilliant Hotspur alongside Sean Chapman as Northumberland

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.

 

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Antony Sher as Falstaff wth Alex Hassell as Prince Hal

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.

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The 2014 cast recording is available on DVD

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.

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Scenes between Jasper Britton’s King and his son Hal (Alex Hassell) were even more poignant as part of the cycle

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.

Theatre Review – David Tennant as Richard II back at the Barbican

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It has been quite a while since I first saw the RSC’s Richard II with David Tennant and the production has certainly come a long way since that first preview in October 2013 in Stratford-Upon-Avon. This weekend saw its return to the Barbican for only nine performances (four now remain, as part of the four King & Country cycles running over the next two weeks). I was curious to see how it would compare with the previous incarnation.

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Richard II is back as part of the King & Country season

In my opinion, this production has only grown stronger with the changes. There are some actors I miss but, overall, of the two versions this is the stronger and it’s a shame there isn’t more time for the ensemble to really bed in and strengthen it further. It is a testament to the quality and confidence of this ensemble (most of whom have been with the RSC through all three Histories) that it is so good straight off the mark.

As regular readers of this blog know, two years ago I gave my thoughts after the first two previews of the production and then later reviewed the production after it opened,  (as well as reviewing the superb understudy run). However, I was so impressed with the show this weekend (yes I did go more than once and will be seeing it again), that I thought it would be interesting to consider the changes that have been made (whether significant or subtle), which will be something for me to look back on and hopefully prove of interest to anyone unable to see this run. This will therefore be longer than my usual theatre reviews.

Casting

Bolingbroke

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Jasper Britton superbly takes over as Bolingbroke. Photo: Keith Pattison

The fact that only nine actors from the original production have returned (and one of those not in the same role) means that this was always going to feel like a new interpretation and of all the casting changes, the biggest difference comes from Jasper Britton’s Bolingbroke. After playing King Henry IV for so long in the next play of the cycle, it is wonderful to see such a superb actor in this role (which let’s face it, is the more interesting part of the character’s story arc). Britton is utterly superb. From the end of scene one I knew this was going to be an impressive performance. I did enjoy Nigel Lindsay’s portrayal, but Britton simply breathes Bolingbroke and gave a different slant on the role to Lindsay. In the original run, I always thought it seemed as if Bolingbroke becomes King by accident. Events get away from him. Not so here. Britton’s Bolingbroke is not a fan of Richard from the beginning and on his exile you sense he will be back for power. He wants to bring Richard down from his lofty position and will achieve it.

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Jasper Britton brings his experience as Henry IV to now playing Bolingbroke

Britton’s time as Henry IV only makes his portrayal here richer, with subtle changes adding depth to the character. His rage in the opening scene at the death of his uncle Gloucester, his bubbling anger on being exiled, stamping the floor in defiance (once so hard he damaged the stage!), make clear his mind. The sun shall indeed be shining on him in exile and had Richard not disinherited him, you sense he would still have returned with an army behind him.

He also enhances the relationship between Henry, Northumberland (Sean Chapman) and Harry Percy (Matthew Needham), the two who will take part in plotting his downfall not too far in the future. In one moment, he takes both of their hands, affirming their bond, which carries a wonderful irony when you know what is to come in the next play. He also adds humour to places I hadn’t expected – pretending not to be himself to confuse Harry Percy is a lovely touch, which also makes him likeable and human, as well as being a force to be feared. With such a strong stage presence and with so much ease with the text, he is a joy to watch and I’m sorry he won’t have longer to play this role.

Aumerle

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Sam Marks steps in to Aumerle’s shoes in the new run

The other significant cast change is that of Aumerle, who is so pivotal in this production. I loved Oliver Rix’s performance, which developed so much over the run, adding layers of emotional depth to the character. I admit I was sorry he wasn’t returning, but also felt sure that Sam Marks was the only choice to replace him (after seeing his Aumerle against Rix’s Richard in the understudy performance). Sam is a fine Aumerle and has already begun to settle and grow in the role over a few short performances.

I have always found Aumerle’s journey in this production interesting to watch, as he is always conflicted no matter what is happening around him. Sam plays this sense of conflict wonderfully, right from the start. In the moments before his duel with Mowbray, there is real warmth between Bolingbroke and Aumerle, suggesting they are quite close. However Aumerle is noticeably uncomfortable on seeing Richard’s expression of disapproval (and perhaps jealousy) as he watches from on high. Aumerle’s own disapproval and horror at Richard’s treatment of Gaunt’s possessions on his death is clear and yet he is still viewed as Richard’s ally by Northumberland and his men in those moments. As the production moves to its conclusion, his ultimate conflict as to where he fits in to this new order, leads to his final tragic actions, which if you focus on him from the beginning becomes all the more moving by the end. For me, it is Aumerle’s journey in the play that is the most tragic. Yes Richard loses his crown and finally his life, but Aumerle loses everything and everyone he cares about, before finally losing himself through his final terrible choice. The more I see this choice of ending for Richard II, the more I see how perfectly it fits and I wouldn’t be surprise if this is the ending Shakespeare had always intended.

Sam Marks & David Tennant in original rehearsals. Their relationship as Aumerle & Richard is already incredibly moving.
Sam Marks & David Tennant in original rehearsals. Their relationship as Aumerle & Richard is already incredibly moving. Photo: Keith Pattison

Sam is also wonderfully developing the emotional connection needed between him and David Tennant’s Richard to give the end its impact and his bond with Richard on his return from Ireland is clear. Then there is Flint Castle – which has always been my favourite scene of this production.

Thankfully it remains just as powerful, if not more so, with Sam Marks and David Tennant having even more of a charged, beautiful, tender connection than Tennant and Rix managed to build. I can only imagine how incredibly electric this would become after three months, when it is already so good after five performances. Their intimacy and affection on that castle wall, as they hold one another, makes Richard’s acceptance of defeat even more upsetting after this point of true connection with another person, perhaps the most affection he has ever experienced in his life. Later,  on Aumerle’s own unravelling when his treason is discovered by his father, Sam Marks crumbles before the audience’s eyes. It’s a very affecting moment (or still was for me). Oh how I wish this was also recorded, even if just in the archives.

He is an absolutely, worthy successor to a character and a portrayal that I loved so much originally. Watching him grow as an actor over the last two years with the RSC has been a joy and I look forward to seeing him in many more roles to come.

Other cast changes

In terms of other casting changes, Julian Glover’s Gaunt has a nice relationship with Britton’s Bolingbroke, but he lacks the stage presence of Michael Pennington, whose “Sceptred Isle” speech was always beautiful. Matthew Needham’s Harry Percy is a wound cog, aching for a bloody battle and I look forward to seeing his Hotspur next week. Leigh Quinn’s Queen has a tenderer bond with Richard making their parting sadder than before. Sarah Park’s Duchess of York is a feistier woman than Marty Cruickshank’s was and although these later scenes still carry their humour, she doesn’t quite have the same comedic double-act with Oliver Ford Davies as Cruickshank did. I was also impressed by Robert Gilbert, playing Greene (but also others later on) and I’ll keep my eye out for him in the future. I do miss Anthony Byrne as Mowbray and would have loved to see him confronting Britton’s Bolingbroke.

Scene changes

In terms of significant scene changes there are only really two with substantive differences, both of which work much better than in the original production.

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The staging of the prison scene has changed for this run

The scene in which Aumerle is pardoned now sets up what is to follow even more clearly than before. The King hands him his own dagger on pardoning him, assumedly to indicate that he doesn’t view him as a threat. Seeing Aumerle looking at that dagger you can almost sense his train of thought. On top of that, on receiving some written news (I assume news of more plotting by Richard’s supporters), King Henry gives the line “Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?” while thrusting the paper at Aumerle, who walks off reading it intently. This character, who has always been so conflicted, now has all he needs to make his final tragic decision and I thought it worked very well.

The prison scene is the most altered. Gone is the below-stage pit. Instead Richard arrives from the back of the stage, chained to posts, with the stage becoming the bottom of a dark, dank cell. This means Tennant is fully visible, centre stage, as he gives those final lines and Aumerle’s final act takes place. I also loved how the dead king slips to the back of the stage, as the new king descends directly above. The imagery of the two, one laid out dead and the other enthroned is quite eerie and perfectly depicts the transient nature of the crown at that point.

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The end of Richard is now the perfect the introduction to where we find Henry at the beginning of the next play

Other changes are, I imagine, due to choices made by the actors. I particularly love the tweak to the final moments, with Bolingbroke now looking up in terror, as if he really can see Richard’s ghost looking down, as he removes the crown from his head and clutches it, as York looks on as if wondering what it is the King thinks he sees. This gives the end a strong, powerful beat, which perfectly sets up the beginning of Henry IV.

Development

All of the returning actors are excellent; bringing their developed knowledge and understanding of these characters, for some built over four plays, with them. Sean Chapman continues to impress as the intimidating Northumberland; Simon Thorp is wonderful as Salisbury (what a fabulous voice he has) to highlight just two. Oliver Ford Davies is of course still brilliant as York. Watching him perform Shakespeare is a masterclass of quality for me every single time.

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David Tennant & Oliver Ford Davies continue to be wonderful

As for Mr. Tennant, he has clearly thought about all the aspects of his performance that he could improve and has done exactly that, meaning his Richard is now even stronger than ever. It’s a million miles from that first preview (after which I was somewhat disappointed). Every bored expression during those early scenes is subtle and spot on. Richard’s sense of entitlement at his position could not be clearer! The “Death of Kings” speech is beautiful – no over the top insistence on them sitting down from him (which often elicited laughs from the audience). Now Richard says this as a man in utter despair, exhausted by his world. There was silence in the theatre each time.

I’ve already praised the Flint Castle scene already, but Tennant has honed those final quiet moments of reflection to perfection. The way he drags the crown towards himself, scraping it against the metal of the gangway, creating the only sound after such a tender moment with Aumerle and his expression as he gazes at it, before finally releasing a heavy sigh is still incredibly poignant. You don’t need words to know exactly what he is feeling in that moment. It is utterly magical.

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Photo by Keith Pattison

He has also thought more about the deposition scene, which was already fantastic to watch. He and Jasper Britton are so wonderful together and I love how his reluctance to resign the crown is clearer. As well as his changing of his mind to hand over the crown, David now adds in a few exhales of breath, as if Richard is psyching himself up to saying the words “I resign to thee” to Henry. It was clear throughout the production that Tennant was giving his entire performance everything he had.

After returning home yesterday and thinking about the production, I couldn’t help but think of the Cumberbatch Hamlet, that being the last Shakespeare I saw on the Barbican stage beforehand. Although I thought Benedict did a great job (and he remains one of the finest actors in my mind), everything that frustrated me about that production was emphasized by seeing its exact opposite in Richard II. You don’t need a big set, lots of needless props, or people moving in slow motion in the background during pivotal speeches to create an impressive production. All you need is solid direction and a set of actors who have the understanding of the text and therefore the confidence to sell it emotionally. Get that right and it’s spellbinding. For me, that’s something that sets the RSC apart from other Shakespeare and will keep me returning again and again (with or without Mr. Tennant).

I look forward to saying farewell to this production in London next week and then saying a final farewell at its final performance in New York in April. No doubt I’ll write about that here too.

Richard II has four remaining performances at the Barbican – Tuesday 12th, Friday 15th, Tuesday 19th and Friday 22nd January. The Barbican has started to release tickets for all four cycle plays separately, so keep an eye on the website for any last minute returns or try for day seats / returns on the day.