Theatre Reflections – Henry V (RSC) at the Barbican

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(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.

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Daniel Abbott, Alex Hassell & Dale Mathurin. Photo: Keith Pattison

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.

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Oliver Ford Davies as the Chorus. Photo: Keith Pattison

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.

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Joshua Richards as Fluellen. Photo: Keith Pattison

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).

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Jennifer Kirby as Princess Katherine. Photo: Keith Pattison

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.

 

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Richard II Talkback / Q&A – 12th January 2016, Barbican Theatre

 

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Tonight’s wonderful Richard II talkback panel. L-R: Julian Glover; Oliver Ford Davies; Jane Lapotaire; Simon Thorp; Leigh Quinn, David Tennant and Owen Horsley

So, tonight (Tuesday night) saw me once again at the Barbican in London for another performance of the RSC’s Richard II (yes, I may have a slight addiction, but I love this ensemble and this production). It was another superb show, by an ensemble that is only getting better and better every day. It’s such a shame there are now only three performances left in London.

However, tonight’s audience was also treated to a post-show Q&A session on the Barbican stage. You can never predict who will stay for these talkbacks, but we were truly spoilt tonight with the cast members who generously stayed on to take part. Not only did King Richard himself, David Tennant, appear, but also Shakespeare master Oliver Ford Davies (York), Jane Lapotaire (Duchess of Gloucester), Julian Glover (Gaunt), Simon Thorp (Salisbury) and Leigh Quinn (the Queen), moderated by assistant director Owen Horsley.

I’ve tried to capture the questions and answers as best I can in this post, to give those unable to be there a glimpse in to the interesting insights and thoughts the cast shared with us.

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1. How David Tennant plays the deposition scene

The first question was to Mr. Tennant and concerned his acting choices during the deposition scene, which varies in small, subtle ways almost every performance. He was asked whether he knows what he will do each time and whether the other actors know what he will do, or if he changes it to unnerve them. David talked about seeing this scene as Richard’s last display of grandeur, as it’s the last time he can screw with the court. He said he enjoyed the opportunity to play Richard’s mischievousness with the other characters here.

2. Liars in Richard II and the opening scene

Another audience member highlighted the numerous times cast members exclaim that they are speaking the truth and another is the liar and asked who is really lying and who isn’t? This led to a very interesting exploration of the context to the start of the play. Oliver Ford Davies spoke about how it is believed that Bolingbroke chose to accuse Mowbray of a treasonous act, based on a comment he had made and that Richard saw this as a perfect way to try and get rid of them both!

The cast then went on to discuss the beginning of the production, which is different from the text, in terms of having Gloucester’s murder the focal point of the opening, around which this duel of words between Bolingbroke and Mowbray takes place. Julian Glover said it was what he loved most about this production, as it makes clear, unlike other productions (including one he was in playing Gaunt at the Vic), that Gloucester has been murdered. Jane Lapotaire was asked if she wanted to say anything about her husband and she quipped “it was a great funeral!” and spoke of how everything at that point is at sea. She also joked about them banging on the coffin (something which I always find incredibly powerful in its lack of respect) and praised Greg Doran for always focusing on the text.

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3. Playing Gaunt and the Duchess of Gloucester

Julian Glover and Jane Lapotaire were asked what it was like to play two incredibly important and interesting characters, but to have so little time on stage. Jane jokingly said it’s always nice to get back to her dressing room, but that the role is wonderful and feels like that of a real leading lady. She commented how it was hard on the tear ducts! She also spoke about the Duchess’s background, in that her sister actually married Bolingbroke and that she is now buried in Westminster Abbey. Julian also spoke of the last production of Richard II he was in, which cut the Duchess/Gaunt scene as it didn’t seem relevant because there wasn’t the same clarity about the circumstances of Gloucester’s death and yet to him that scene is crucial.

Julian Glover also spoke about the pressure of having possibly the second most famous speech in Shakespeare! He has played Gaunt before, but spoke of how wonderful he thought this production was and that he was only sorry he couldn’t be part of the wider venture of all four plays in the cycle. He explained to the audience that he knows a lot about Gaunt and has always found Shakespeare’s interpretation of him to be exactly like Gaunt at the age of 23. He said how much he admires Gaunt and the way he conducts himself. He also jokingly said that he gets lots of reading done during the production!

Oliver Ford Davies commented that he played Gaunt in repertory theatre in Birmingham, where he also played Salisbury and the groom, with slightly differently pitched voices for each role!

4. Staging the play in Stratford-Upon-Avon and London

The cast were also asked about performing the play on the two different stages in Stratford-Upon-Avon (on the thrust stage) and here at the Barbican (on the more traditional proscenium arch staging).

Simon Thorp said that they were very different spaces and that across the cast people have different preferences, but that he loved both. He praised the acoustics at the Barbican, although he did say that the lack of toilets backstage is not ideal! He also spoke about them losing the “voms” (the entry/exit walkways off the stage in Stratford), which allows them to do great entrances and exits.

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The thrust stage of the RST in Stratford-Upon-Avon

 

David Tennant’s view was that different plays work better in different spaces. His personal view is that Richard II works better on the proscenium stage of the Barbican, due to the scope and size of the story. Visually he thinks it is better suited for this type of widescreen-style stage. However, he preferred performing Hamlet in Stratford-Upon-Avon on the thrust stage of The Courtyard Theatre, as that play required him to address the audience throughout and engage with them in a more direct way.

Jane Lapotaire and Julian Glover had an entertaining exchange on this topic, as Jane thinks it’s harder to work the Barbican stage, which she also thinks is too much like an American stage, being too long and narrow. Julian on the other hand isn’t a fan of stages where you can’t always see the actor’s face, with only a view of their back, which inevitably happens on a thrust stage. Jane jokingly shot back with the comment that it’s possible to act with your back!

5. Differences from the 2013/2014 run

Another member of the audience said how she thought this production was more comical than the previous run and asked whether this was a deliberate change. The actors seemed surprised by this (which I admit I was too). For me, it’s not a more comical version, but the humorous moments are perhaps slightly different this time, with more coming, in my view, from Jasper Britton. Reference was specifically made to the joke Bolingbroke plays on Harry Percy on first meeting him, which it was said was Matthew Needham (Harry Percy)’s idea. David Tennant suggested that perhaps the more familiar you are with a text, the braver you get with it, which he thought may be happening now.

Oliver Ford Davies thought that the comic scene with the Yorks towards the end of the play is an example of Shakespeare experimenting with adding comedy just before tragedy. He doesn’t think writers today would be brave enough to try something like that. Jane Lapotaire said that humour in his plays before tragedy is used often, referring to the scene in Antony & Cleopatra in which the clown brings Cleopatra a basket of figs, just before she kills herself as an example. She spoke of Shakespeare’s skill at allowing the audience to let off steam before the final blow takes place.

6. The history of Richard and Aumerle

Of particular interest to me was a question which asked what is the history between Richard and Aumerle (my favourite character in this production each time). David Tennant explained to us how Aumerle emerged as a more important part of the story than he perhaps usually is during rehearsals and that it became clear that his journey is so important to the piece. This made the ending to this production the perfect choice (in the text, an unknown character Exton pops up and kills Richard, but some believe it was meant to be Aumerle but that pressure from figures at the time resulted in the change). David said how he thinks it makes more sense this way, otherwise the scene with the Yorks towards the end doesn’t really serve any purpose.

David also spoke about the Flint Castle scene (my personal favourite in the production) and that he couldn’t remember whether the decision to make Aumerle the murderer came before or after the development of the Flint Castle scene and its pivotal role in Richard and Aumerle’s relationship. He spoke about its development being organic and that the kiss was not in the script, but just happened naturally in rehearsals and just felt right.

Fathers & Sons

Oliver Ford Davies went on to talk about how the play is one about fathers and sons, with three different pairings in the plays of this cycle: Bolingbroke/Hal, Northumberland/Harry Percy and York/Aumerle, which is made all the more interesting by the fact Richard has no sons. In this vein, he spoke about how the play mirrors Macbeth, where it is the Macbeths without children, unlike those around them, such as Macduff.

Journey of self discovery

Jane Lapotaire discussed how she sees something of the quality of Hamlet in Richard, in terms of his vulnerability. She spoke of the journey of self discovery within the play – how Richard begins as a big King, but a small man, who then goes on to become a true human being, while losing his position. I found it incredibly interesting when she spoke of this being a pattern to look out for in Shakespeare’s plays, referencing Lear, who starts as a great King, but only really has a real connection when he meets Poor Tom, with the question always being “how well does the character know himself?”

David agreed with her, saying that Richard certainly goes on a journey of self discovery during the play, including confronting his relationship with the divine, in that he is a man so confident that he has the divine on his side, but that ultimately it never turns up to assist him when he needs it the most.

With that interesting discussion the Q&A drew to a close, much to my disappointment. It’s always so valuable to listen to actors at the RSC discussing Shakespeare and the many concepts and themes running through all his work. I could have listened to such insights all night and would love the RSC to arrange more of these talks. They prove that no matter how many times you see a play, there is always more to learn and think about, which highlights just how wonderful Shakespeare’s body of work is and how lucky we are to have such talented actors bringing it to life before us, over 400 years since they were first written. Long may this continue!

The RSC’s King & Country cycles continue at the Barbican Theatre until 24th January, before the Henrys head to China, to then be joined by Richard II in New York in March and April. For last minute availability visit the Barbican’s website.

 

 

 

 

Theatre Nostalgia – Memories of the RSC’s Hamlet starring David Tennant (2008)!

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This Bank Holiday weekend marks a significant date in my memory – seven years ago, on the Saturday in 2008, I returned to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see a very special theatre production. I hadn’t been back to the home of Shakespeare since a school trip in 2000, during which we watched their production of Romeo & Juliet (from some fairly high up seat from memory) starring David Tennant. As someone who’d enjoyed the theatre for the occasional trip over the years, I’d been keen to see Mr. Tennant on stage as Hamlet and yes I admit, it was his more recent television work – Casanova and Doctor Who, which had added to my interest in him. I hadn’t expected to go – tickets were sold out by the time I was able to look in to going (yes, I was that naïve then!).

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The lovely Courtyard Theatre

Yet, on Saturday 30th August 2008, thanks to a lovely lady on EBay and after surviving a frantic bidding war to acquire the ticket in the first place, I was there in The Courtyard Theatre, ready to see my first Hamlet! I still remember the view from my seat (Stalls D20), central to the black, mirrored stage and the bubbling feeling of excitement and anticipation. I could never have imagined how much of an impact the evening would have on me.

Since then, I’ve seen a few Hamlets, but this production is still yet to be beaten. Where to start? With such a talented director as Greg Doran behind it, the show already had an invaluable advantage – having seen other Shakespeare plays directed by him and some by others, Mr. Doran is one of the few directors who, for me, seems to know instinctively how to bring Shakespeare’s words to life for today’s audiences. It may have a reputation for being dry and complex, but Greg Doran effortlessly cuts through that, bringing clear, accessible and engaging productions to the stage. Not everyone can achieve this and certainly a production can seem weaker without a lack of ease of understanding, which he also proves never requires a dumbing down of the text.

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Director Greg Doran

This Hamlet was brilliantly conceived by Greg. It brought the hyper-surveillance atmosphere, secrecy and mistrust of Elsinore alive and with the production’s designer Robert Jones, they created a set that didn’t need a great amount of props or scenery to have an impact. A mirrored wall and floor enhanced the idea that everywhere Hamlet the other characters went they were being surveilled, even if sometimes the only person watching them was their own reflection. The costumes were fantastic – elegant simplicity for Gertrude, tailored suits for Claudius and modern casual for Hamlet. In fact the grandest costume was reserved for the Player Queen, so opulent in comparison that it fitted perfectly with the sense during the play scene that Hamlet is pushing this in front of his uncle and he will notice it and be unable to ignore what is in front of him.

Crucially too, one of the strongest elements was the quality of the company. The RSC assembled a superb ensemble, which didn’t just support the lead actor, but who ensured the production had a depth and strength that kept the audience engaged for every scene, whether the main man was on stage or not (a point proven when Mr. Tennant was out of action for 3 weeks due to back surgery).

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Preparing for the play within a play. Photo by: Ellie Kurttz

I think this is vital for any production. Every other Hamlet I’ve seen has included some weak or disappointing performances, whether through a lack of chemistry, a lack of projection on the stage or a lack of ability to make the words come to life. Hamlet may be a play that revolves around the actions (or inactions) of the title character, but in order to be drawn in to his story you have to engage with everyone on stage, otherwise why would you even care about Hamlet at all?

Oliver Ford-Davies will it seems be my Polonius for the foreseeable future. It’s potentially such a dull part, which I’ve come to realise requires a special kind of actor to see the gems of unrealized humour and mine them for full effect. His Polonius may have been a somewhat muddled man, but you couldn’t help but like him. His meanderings of thought and seeming exasperation with Hamlet were endearing and it was genuinely sad when he died. This is an actor who truly understands Shakespeare and makes it so easy for the audience to grasp it too.

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Oliver Ford Davie as Polonius with David Tennant. Photo by: Ellie Kurttz

The ruling King and Queen were also both excellent and crucially had a very real and palpable chemistry. It seemed quite possible that they had already been having an affair before Hamlet’s father died. Penny Downie brought a stylish elegance to Gertrude, but also played her as a strong-willed woman. She never felt incidental, despite her lack of input in the earlier Acts. Also, you felt a genuine bond between her and her son, with the closet scene remaining one of my favourites of the production and one I would look forward to on every visit. She and David Tennant put so much emotion and power in to it that by the end you felt almost as exhausted as they must have been!

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Patrick Stewart as Claudius with David Tennant. Photo by: Ellie Kurttz

At the time I don’t think I truly appreciated how good Patrick Stewart was as Claudius. It is only on reflection and with comparisons to others that I admire his interpretation more and more. I’ve always felt you need to have some unease around him. It doesn’t have to be terror, but I always think for the plot to work, you need to believe that Hamlet is putting himself at risk by challenging Claudius – especially the play within a play scene. Without that you never really worry that Hamlet could be in danger. Claudius isn’t an obvious villain on first meeting him; his is a more subtle, calculating evil, but too subtle a portrayal and he seems too decent a man, despite the deeds he has committed, making Hamlet appear more petulant and weak in character. Patrick’s Claudius was every inch the statesman – the way he walked, the way he held himself and the way he controlled his emotions. Yet, he still managed to convey the menace behind the man. As he holds the lamp light in Hamlet’s face and shakes his head, you truly understand that Hamlet is now in very real danger. I also always loved his choice to willingly drink the cup – a shrug and he drinks – until the end the man not losing his control.

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Penny Downie as Gertrude with David Tennant during the superb closet scene. Photo by: Ellie Kurttz

As for the other key characters, each actor brought something special to the role. Edward Bennett’s Laertes had a lovely, affectionate, genuine relationship with Mariah Gale’s Ophelia and his rage on hearing of her death still echoes in my head at every Hamlet I see. He may ultimately kill Hamlet, but through Ed’s performance you never blame him. Mariah Gale’s Ophelia was playful, affectionate and in her madness a whirling Catherine wheel of anger, pain and sorrow. The image of her holding her flowers and grasses was so striking that I immediately thought of John Everett Millais’s painting “Ophelia” and could imagine her in the brook, being pulled under. You also genuinely felt that, although perhaps faded, there had been a very real and affectionate relationship between her and Hamlet at one time.

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Mariah Gale as Ophelia. Photo by: Ellie Kurttz

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have the potential to be so incidental that you can forget they were ever on stage. Not so when played by the wonderful duo of Sam Alexander and Tom Davey. They truly breathed life in to their characters and their comic touches added humour and richness to the production. You could imagine them as young boys playing with Hamlet and the fact they are intimidated by Claudius seems understandable. I always wonder whether the choice to remove the text explaining their deaths and Hamlet’s role in it was a choice made before or during rehearsal as their performances started to form. In tis production they are likeable and seem to be victims of circumstances and therefore hearing about Hamlet’s role in their deaths would have possibly reflected much worse on him, at a time when you need to be rooting for him.

As Oliver Ford-Davies is my Polonius, Peter De Jersey is my Horatio. He is perhaps my favourite in the production other than David Tennant. Although clearly an outsider from a different background, you can understand why Hamlet has chosen him as his friend while at university. He has a kindness and a loyalty that all of us would be lucky to find in our friends and his and David’s chemistry seemed to weight this connection in reality.

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“Goodnight sweet Prince” – Peter De Jersey as Horatio with David Tennant

I loved how he book ends this production – it starts with his arrival on the battlements and ends with his as the final line. He also seemed to have a much stronger and visible presence on the stage as although an observer, he was often right by Hamlet’s side, whether during the wonderful recorder scene, the preparation for the play (where Hamlet affectionately tidies up his bow tie for him) and during Hamlet’s return from exile. They feel bonded, which is vital if you are to truly feel the sadness at Hamlet’s death. Yes, you need a strong Hamlet, who you have invested in, but it’s Horatio for whom you feel such sadness. I believed every time that he would willingly have died alongside his friend rather than be left behind. In choosing to dispense with Fortinbras’s arrival (a good choice in my view), the emotional weight of “Goodnight sweet prince” had to leave the audience with that strong, heartbreaking emotion. I admit I shed a tear every time.

Everyone else added to the ensemble, whether Mark Hadfield’s Gravedigger or Ryan Gage’s Osric or the group of players and courtiers.

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Sam Alexander as Rosencrantz and Tom Davey as Guildenstern. Photo taken from the film version courtesy of the RSC / BBC

As for David Tenant, I may be a little biased, but I honestly haven’t (yet) seen a better Hamlet. He is certainly that last Hamlet pre-Cumberbatch to be put so firmly under the spotlight before even uttering one line in public in the role (not to mention the constant commentary once he had to have back surgery and miss some of the London run). I remember the mocking articles about Doctor Who fans turning up in costume with their sonic screwdrivers and of course Jonathan Miller’s ill-conceived sound bite about stunt TV casting (never mind his previous two seasons with the RSC and vast stage CV). This time the nastiness towards Benedict Cumberbatch and his fans in particular seems worse than in 2008 (all this talk of failing Hamlet quizzes and an eagerness by certain media to see him fail has been quite ridiculous), but it’s certainly not new unfortunately.

As for his performance, David successfully silenced the critics when the play opened in [July] 2008 and after finally getting to see it, it wasn’t hard to understand why. He effortlessly drew the audience to the character, more so in the intimate Courtyard setting and his opening soliloquy seemed to be directed to you personally, while still not giving a sense of an actor simply delivering a speech. His anger at both his mother and uncle was evident from the start, as was his obvious disdain for the sycophantic manner of those of the Court (whether Polonius agreeing with him about cloud shapes that he was clearly making up for amusement or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). He feels trapped and restless, a person who no doubt was more himself outside the confines of this place. Yes, he was comic at times, but it never felt forced or out of place. This production remains the funniest I have seen due primarily to his and Oliver Ford-Davies’ comic touches. That’s not to say it wasn’t equally powerful and moving, but it had a sparkle from the incredible cleverness and humour the actors found in the text (something I’m sure the RSC’s rehearsal process would have fostered).

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From L-R: Ryan Gage, David Tennant, Patrick Stewart and Edward Bennett. Photo by: Ellie Kurttz

Tennant’s Hamlet was full of emotions, all expressed beautifully, whether rage, frustration, amusement, deep sadness or fear as to what he should do and his interpretation of To Be or Not to Be was stunning. Shuffling on to the stage, head down, and arms crossed over his chest, bare feet and in that evocative red T-shirt, as if glimpsing his every heart and soul, you felt every word and understood the dilemma he was facing so clearly. David remains one of the few actors of his generation who makes Shakespeare’s words feel relevant and contemporary, something Greg Doran often says about working with him. I was captivated from the first moment of that first performance I saw seven years ago, to the final moments of the last performance the following January in London.

As was the case seven years ago, this Bank Holiday also includes a visit to see Hamlet. This time it’s my first visit to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet post press night. I will be curious to compare it to my previous visits and over the weekend I will post how I think it has developed over three weeks of previews. It certainly had lots of potential.

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For now though, I look back fondly on a theatre trip which became so much more. This wasn’t just a theatre production – it became the catalyst for a renewed interest in Shakespeare, a growing passion for theatre in general and the reason for me forming some of the most meaningful and precious friendships I imagine I will ever have. All because of David Tennant!

Regardless of the reviews and petty, snide jibes at fans in the media, if the current Barbican Hamlet has the ability to have the same effect on even just a handful of its rapt audience, that for me will be its greatest achievement.

Hamlet starring David Tennant and the rest of the superb ensemble can be bought on DVD after a film version was made, directed by Greg Doran. It’s available from all the usual stockists. I’d also recommend the book chronicling the life of the production from the perspective of ensemble member Keith Osborn in his book: Something Written in The State of Denmark (pictured) for those wanting to learn or relive the production.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets at the Southbank Centre – 1st June 2014

Sunday 1st June was marked by the Southbank Centre as a day of sonnets. Throughout the day free activities took place related to Shakespeare’s sonnets, which was followed in the evening by a complete reading of all 154 of them by ten wonderful actors at the Royal Festival Hall. As someone who enjoys Shakespeare’s work I was keen to experience this event.

Juliet Stevenson, Simon Russell Beale, David Harewood & Juliet Walter were among those taking part.
Juliet Stevenson, Simon Russell Beale, David Harewood & Juliet Walter were among those taking part.

The actors taking part in the event were: Deborah Findlay, Oliver Ford-Davies, Juliet Stevenson, Paterson Joseph, Harriet Walter, Simon Russell-Beale, Maureen Baettie, David Harewood, Victoria Hamilton and Guy Paul. The format of the event was quite straightforward, as all ten actors were sitting on the stage throughout and then took it in turns to stand and between them read all of Shakespeare’s sonnets in order across two acts (we reached Sonnet 77 at the interval).

I found it to be an incredibly interesting evening, as I am not familiar with Shakespeare’s sonnets in great detail and instead only recognise some of the more famous ones. Possibly the most famous is Sonnet 18 (aka “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) which was read wonderfully by Harriet Walter. Particular highlights for me were Sonnet 135 & 136, read by Paterson Joseph. In fact Paterson was superb throughout – he brought the words to life brilliantly, adding emphasis and appropriate tone, sometimes requiring him to deliver the sonnets quite playfully and he certainly seemed to be enjoying the event as much as the audience. It was fun to hear him read Sonnet 144, which I now associate with the Lover’s Rap in David Tennant’s 2011 production of Much Ado About Nothing, which was performed on the soundtrack of that play by Adam James (Don Pedro), for which the composer Michael Bruce used songs from other Shakespeare plays or created ones using Shakespeare’s words – in this case Sonnet 144 as well as 146!

A master at Shakespeare - Oliver Ford Davies
A master at Shakespeare – Oliver Ford Davies
Victoria Hamilton beautifully delivered her sonnets
Victoria Hamilton beautifully delivered her sonnets

It was also wonderful to see such established Shakespearean talents as Simon Russell Beale and Oliver Ford Davies taking part. Both have been integral to pulling me into Shakespeare over the last few years and their readings were delivered with clarity and an obvious deep understanding of the material. I particularly enjoyed Sonnet 138 (by Mr. Russell Beale).  Victoria Hamilton is an actress I am less familiar with (having only seen her work in the BBC’s 1995 Pride & Prejudice and 2005’s To The Ends of The Earth). I found her to be a captivating actress, giving such emotional depth to her readings (I especially enjoyed Sonnet 109) and I will certainly go and see her whenever she is on stage.

The programme notes (which in my view, should have been a bit longer and ideally contain biographies of those taking part, although perhaps their attendance was arranged at short notice) talk about how some of the sonnets are by far stronger than others, which I would now certainly agree with. Hearing all of them together was an ideal way for me to appreciate the range of emotions and to some extent quality of the sonnets. Some were more elegant and beautiful than others, but read as a group that didn’t really matter.

Paterson Joseph was excellent during the evening.
Paterson Joseph was excellent during the evening.

I continue to be in awe of Shakespeare’s work the more of his plays I see (I still have nine to tick off my list) and it was a wonderful experience to become more familiar with his sonnets through such a wonderful event.

For details of future events at the Southbank Centre, visit its website:

http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson?gclid=CjkKEQjww6SdBRDls9vxsf7EoM0BEiQART_xPvElza27OIJ_gctRLtC2DoSeXlypUdZVlnzuFtO5-NHw_wcB

Richard II Cast Q&A – Barbican – 8th January 2014

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A few people have been interested to hear about the Q&A session that followed last night’s performance of Richard II at the Barbican and so I thought I’d write up a quick post.

In attendance for the Q&A was Oliver Ford Davies, Emma Hamilton (Queen), Marcus Griffiths (Greene), Owen Horsley (1st AD), David Tennant, Miranda Nolan (lady-in-waiting), Gracy Goldman (lady-in-waiting) and Nigel Lindsay. For those of us that had been able to attend the Q&A in Stratford-Upon-Avon, it was lovely to see David and Nigel as they didn’t come to that session.

The session started with the first assistant director talking about the rehearsal process, saying rehearsals started in Clapham on 26th August. He then went on to explain Greg Doran’s rehearsal process, which some of you may already know, describing how the first two weeks are spent reading the text in a circle, but that no one reads their own part. This is a tool that Greg always uses for his productions and Owen talked of how it helps make everyone feel a sense of ownership of the play and strengthens the ensemble. It certainly stands out for me when I see Greg’s plays that all the ensemble are invested in the story and clearly understand the characters and the situation in every scene. You just need to watch actors who are only in the background of a scene to see that they are absolutely in that moment as their character would be.

The discussion then moved on to the research trips the company went on during rehearsals and Miranda Nolan talked about how valuable it had been to visit Westminster Hall at Westminster Abbey and see the great hall that Richard II had expanded and how it helped all the actors when it came to playing the scenes set in that vast hall. Gracy Goldman also mentioned the tour guides they’d had and how the anecdotes they’d provided about happenings in the hall during Richard’s reign helped to make them understand exactly what their character would be feeling in those moments in the play.

SPOILER WARNING – Skip this paragraph if you have not yet seen the production! The floor was then opened up to the audience and after an off topic request to take David for a drink (he kindly said he had to get home), it was asked why the choice of murderer of Richard had been changed from the original text. David Tennant talked about how Exton is a character that appears at the very end of the play to kill Richard and is someone the audience has no emotional investment in and that, on discussion as a company they all felt that once Aumerle is made the killer, the play seems to be more complete. He also referred to the scene between the Yorks and Bolingbroke and that without Aumerle as the killer that scene doesn’t really go anywhere and that, although we’ll never know, he tends to think that’s possibly how Shakespeare would have wanted it to be. He also mentioned that for Henry IV Shakespeare had had to change Falstaff’s name, as the family with whom he originally shared a name were unhappy with the link and asked for it to be changed. David said it’s possible the Rutland family also didn’t like a link between their family and the killer in this play (as by this point Aumerle is called Rutland). This was a point that Oliver Ford Davies had also mentioned in the Q&A in Stratford-Upon-Avon in November and is certainly an interesting thought. I for one think the way this production is structured, the tragic end feels inevitable.

Another gentleman spoke of John Barton’s famous 1973 Richard II production starring Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco, who would alternate the roles of Richard and Bolingbroke. He had seen both versions of this production 40 years ago and asked if any of the cast had taken inspiration from this production at all. David responded that it was hard to get a sense of a performance that you didn’t see and that perhaps for him his connection was more of a spiritual one, as Ian’s wife has given him the ring Ian wore for this production. All the cast agreed it must have been fantastic to be able to see it live. Oliver Ford Davies later came back to this point and added that both Ian and Richard saw the characters in very different ways, leading to two contrasting versions. Ian Richardson was of the view that Bolingbroke did come back for the crown, whereas Richard Pascoe felt the opposite. It is always interesting to hear Oliver Ford Davies talk about Richard II, as it was his special subject at Oxford and he read volumes of Latin about the subject and therefore has lots of insights.

Owen Horsley also spoke of how useful it had been that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon had laid out a table for them of artefacts from the time, including a letter from John of Gaunt, as well as material about other productions.

Another question was about the wonderful costumes and whether they also wore them in rehearsal. Marcus said they didn’t have the full costumes at that time and it was very much up to the imagination, but that everything falls into place when you put on the costume. Nigel Lindsay did however say that he had the gloves, the sword and later the long coat during rehearsal as it gave him a sense of how to walk and of the character in general. He also mentioned that Sean Chapman (Northumberland) had one iron glove throughout rehearsal and that perhaps those playing soldiers had felt more of a need to have some part of the costume whilst rehearsing. Miranda Nolan also talked about that ladies wearing practice skirts to get used to walking in the large gowns and that Jane Lapotaire (Duchess of Gloucester) was an expert in how to wear period costume! She also spoke of the hairstyle for the ladies-in-waiting and that it’s almost like a corset.

With regards to David’s hair, they recalled the first rehearsal after David had had the extensions done and that he arrived during a warm up and Miranda at first didn’t recognise him! David also jokingly said he should also have worn a practice skirt as it was far harder than he expected to move in some of his costumes. He also spoke of the five flights of stairs between the stage and the dressing rooms and that hoisting it up to climb the stairs a few times a night was very unregal!

The cast were then asked, if the coalition government were planning to ban Shakespeare after tomorrow (which David jokingly said he thought they were), what role they would want to play or play again one last time? Nigel Lindsay playfully responded with Desdemona, but then followed up with Iago (I can really see that. He’d be great). Gracy said Hermione (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Miranda chose Juliet, David said he would have said Iago but as it was taken he’d choose Malvolio, Owen said he’s like to direct Titus Andronicus, Marcus wanted to be Coriolanus, Emma also opted for Iago and Oliver Ford Davies said he’d stick with Polonius (good choice indeed)! Someone also asked whether they preferred comedies, tragedies or histories. The majority said tragedies, with only Gracy choosing comedy and Miranda choosing histories. David on the other hand said it would be reductive to put them in to categories!

The next question related to whether any practitioners of Shakespeare had influenced their work. Gracy spoke about Cicely Berry (the RSC’s brilliant voice coach) and recalled taking part in a workshop with her, during which they had to do interesting work with excerpts from Macbeth and that this had really made her love Shakespeare.

Someone also asked whether they thought it was more difficult to create a character from history and how did they find their way in to the character. Nigel Lindsay commented that it was nice to play a real person as there is research available to you, but that as they lived so long ago you can still bring something of your own to it. He also spoke of how visiting places like Westminster Hall was very helpful. With regards to new plays/characters, he said you probably can be more free in a way and that for some characters it’s not the history of the person but the history of all those who have played it before that can be the most frightening. He also said how Greg spoke in rehearsal that they were playing the play not the history and that he thought that was an important point. He did however speak about reading a chronicle written by Adam of Usk, who lived at the time and apparently accompanied Bolingbroke back from exile and even visited Richard in prison and he said reading something like that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.

Someone asked David if he dreamed Shakespeare, to which he said he wished he was that eloquent! He did say he sometimes wakes up at night with lines going through his head though, but that it would be for those around him to answer whether he brings the characters home with him. He said he used to think he didn’t but he’s not sure now. At this point Nigel Lindsay referred to the National Theatre’s 2003 production of The Pillowman (available to view in the NT archive if you are interested as, although the recording quality isn’t great, it’s a superb production) in which his character spent most of the play torturing David’s character with electrodes! He said that during that run his family did say he sometimes brought the character home with him, which was quite a scary thought having watched that portrayal!

The questions started to become a little silly towards the end (Doctor Who crept up as someone had brought songs she’d written about the characters for David, which he did take at the end) and there was then a discussion about David’s hair. He said he didn’t know how people do it – all the maintenance, the washing, and the endless brushing! It was jokingly suggested that at the end he should auction it for charity, which he thought was funny and he seemed doubtful anyone would want such a thing. He then jokingly said he could perhaps give it to another actor some time when they are going to play Richard and used Colin Morgan as a random example, going “Here you are Colin, here’s a scraggy bit of hair for you. That’ll set you straight!” It was very funny in that he was really highlighting the craziness of the idea that anyone could possibly ever want his hair!

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This is David doing the action of offering his hair to another actor, the idea of which he thought ridiculous!

On that note, they received a final round of applause before the session finished. I always find the Q&A and director talks at the RSC fascinating and if you have a chance to go to any of them then I definitely recommend it.

Review – Richard II (19th October 2013) Post press night thoughts!

Photo for the RSC

Photo by Kwame Lestrade for the RSC

My last post about the RSC’s new production of Richard II set out my initial thoughts after the first two previews and last Saturday (19th October) saw my first trip to see the production after its press night. Initially the production, although strong and full of promise, had not wowed me and I expected the ensemble to grow in confidence in the lead up to press night. Such growth and development has certainly occurred and the production as a whole is significantly stronger now than it was which is fantastic. Everyone has grown in their roles and pivotal moments have been developed to great effect.

The change made after the first preview to the overhead walkway remains (see my previous post) and the scenes set on it work far better without those central railings. From my Circle seat it was hard to tell whether the actors are attached to anything for safety but my friend has reliably informed me that David is indeed clipped on and in his scene with Aumerle puts his cloak over the railing in a way that disguises the wire.

Subtle moments have been enhanced, in particular the fact that Richard has been involved in the murder of his uncle the Duke of Gloucester at the start of the play. This did not seem obvious during previews and I imagine may have been missed if you aren’t familiar with the play but it seemed clearer on Saturday, both in words and action. The moment I noticed between Richard and Mowbray has been enhanced. Richard not only captures him in an intense steely gaze, but their movements add to the tension of the moment – they don’t quite circle each other, but the effect is the same and the message is clear to the audience – Richard is implicated and Mowbray could say so at this point.

Oliver Ford Davies, whose performance I thought was already superb, is now even stronger, which is a testament to how fine an actor he is and I think he is the stand out performance for me. He conveys York’s confusion and unhappiness at being torn between duty to his sovereign (whose actions he cannot support) and to his other nephew Bolingbroke who, as he laments to the Queen, has indeed been wronged by Richard. The comic scenes with his wife have also been heightened and together they brilliantly convey a husband and wife who clearly care about one another, but who are quickly divided by their contrasting actions towards their son Aumerle.

Oliver Rix continues to grow in strength as Aumerle and his relationship with Richard is one of my favourite aspects of this production. I think perhaps my favourite scene is on the battlements on Flint Castle, which is beautifully played by both actors. I am also very excited to see Oliver’s own interpretation of Richard at the public understudy performance next Tuesday.

Michael Pennington remains superb as Gaunt and his early scene with Jane Lapotaire’s Duchess of Gloucester is much improved, as I felt her performance was a little too exaggerated during early previews and is now far more believable. Nigel Lindsay remains excellent as Bolingbroke and his performance carries an air of confidence and authority that are perfect for the future King. Although a small part, Emma Hamilton’s portrayal of the Queen is also stronger and she adds a depth to the role that I haven’t seen before. Her emotional connection to her husband is also much improved.

David Tennant has significantly upped his game in my opinion. Watching Saturday’s performance, it seemed as though he had more scenes on stage because he commanded my attention much more. His performance as Richard is now far more nuanced and he is clearly continuing to develop this difficult character. I love how bored he seems during the duel scene between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, slouching on his throne at one point, staring off to the side in a world of his own. His moments of anger are also much stronger, both in the initial scene when Bolingbroke and Mowbray will not be dissuaded from their challenge and also his aggression towards Gaunt.

The softer quieter moments are also played superbly particularly his return from Ireland and the deposition scene is fantastically played. I noticed a slight change in that Richard did not jump up on to the throne in a defiant manner to demand his last request from Bolingbroke. Instead, on Saturday he simply sat down on the throne and delivered the line “Give me leave to go.” It was not defiant, just sad and he looked physically smaller on the throne and this staging added to my sympathy for Richard at that moment. In my opinion, this deposition scene is one of David’s best as he is able to display his full range – from sarcasm to sorrow to rage (“No lord of thine, thou haught insulting man” is delivered with such powerful hatred now) to humour. I also noticed the clever symmetry that it is Bagot who holds up the mirror for him, linking back to him doing so in the first half of the play when Richard is still King and the look Tennant gives him at this moment, suggesting the irony is not lost on him either, was an effective touch, sending Bagot scuttling away to the shadows.

The staging is still fantastic and the visual backdrops were even more impressive from the Circle’s viewpoint, which also gives a fantastic vantage point for Richard’s prison cell. I also failed to mention in my initial thoughts, the first class efforts of the musicians and singers. They do a fantastic job, adding to the atmosphere and I especially love the combination of the drums and the chanting that transition us from Richard’s prison cell to the new King descending on his throne.

I’m thrilled that the production has come so far in so short a time and no doubt by the end of the run in Stratford-Upon-Avon it will be even stronger. It was never going to wow me in the same way that Hamlet did, mainly due to my preference for the latter as a play. This is however a brilliant, clearly staged production of a Histories play that is less often performed and with such a high quality ensemble I hope it is able to open Shakespeare up to people who may not normally be interested (in much the same way Hamlet did five years ago). My next trip to the RSC is for the public understudy performance next week and I am intrigued to see the difference.

For anyone still hoping to go and without a ticket, it’s worth keeping an eye on the RSC’s website for any returned tickets being put up for resale. Also, the returns queue on the day is another worthwhile option.

Initial Thoughts on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II – 10th & 11th October 2013

 

DavidTennant as Richard II for the RSC

David Tennant as Richard II for the RSC

I will start this review by saying that the new, much anticipated, Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Richard II starring David Tennant is still in early previews and is continuing to grow and develop. Therefore this post is more a reflection of my first impressions after seeing the first two preview performances. The production marks the start of the RSC’s plan to stage each of Shakespeare’s plays over the next six years, which will reach an even wider audience than ever before due to the planned screenings in schools and cinemas across the world.

Richard II was first published in 1597 and is set in the final two years of the King’s twenty two year reign during 1398 – 1399. It is no secret that I think David Tennant is a fantastic actor and have been very excited about seeing this production since it was announced and, although I think the production is not yet as great as it will be, the ensemble is very good indeed and it is clear that everyone understands the play as a whole (no doubt aided by director Greg Doran’s style to have everyone read a different role during early rehearsals).

Greg Doran has created a production that I’m sure will be accessible to those with little or no knowledge of the text beforehand and it is certainly the most clear staging I have seen of the play, bringing a clarity and understanding to speeches and moments that I have not experienced before.

The set designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis is superb in its simplicity – the use of visual projections to add depth and scale to the grandeur of the Westminster Hall backdrop creates the illusion that the RST space is even bigger than it is. Such visuals also assist with the changing scenes as does the lighting. Using a gangway to elevate the King is a great decision and makes the rise and fall of Richard all the more striking and I loved the staging of the prison scene towards the end of the play, particularly the initial moments when only the reflection of the defeated Richard can be seen by the audience. The starkness of how far he has fallen and how much he has lost could not be clearer. The costumes are superb, as is to be expected at the RSC, highlighting in particular Richard’s need to have an excess of beautiful things around him and indeed for such beauty to be a part of his image.

As for the performances, and as I said before this is only based on the first two previews, Michael Pennington is a strong John of Gaunt (and is much more suited to this role than Antony in Chichester’s production of Antony & Cleopatra) – his affection for his son is believable and his anger against Richard before his death is strongly delivered and made all the more striking by the King’s appalling attitude and behaviour during the scene, played well by David Tennant.

Oliver Ford Davies is wonderful as York (although I’d have been surprised if it had been otherwise!) – his ability to turn a Shakespearean line in a way you don’t expect and his ability to make the meaning of each word so clear is superb and he brought much needed humour to the later scenes with his wife.

Oliver Rix (last seen in the RSC’s Cardenio) is very good indeed as York’s son Aumerle and was one of the standout performances for me. He plays the character’s clear devotion to Richard superbly and the scenes between the two of them have a strong emotional impact, one which I haven’t felt as much on seeing other versions of the play. The staging of their scene together at FlintCastle when Richard realises there is no hope left and that he must submit to Bolingbroke is affectionate and deeply moving. Staged on the gangway above the audience, which for the second night had the centre railings removed (a clever decision as this removed a barrier between the two actors, who on opening night were acting between the railings, but also between the scene and the audience), it is a delicate, intimate exchange in which we see a softer Richard with whom we can start to sympathise. It is this relationship that is the most significant one for Richard, more so than that between King and Queen and it is this scene rather than his parting with his wife when you begin to feel sympathy towards him. Oliver is also understudy for David Tennant and is certainly an actor to watch over the coming years.

Nigel Lindsay is excellent as Bolingbroke – his confident stature on the stage is exactly right for the man who will go on to be King and he delivers the lines with a strong confidence throughout. He is everything Richard is not, both in appearance and actions and you see him as the leader that Richard can never be. His interplay with Tennant’s Richard during the deposition scene is strong, as he conveys many emotions with few words.

David Tennant himself does very well in what is a difficult role to play and was far stronger on the second night compared to the first, clearly growing stronger with each moment on stage. Richard is not the hero of the play and you are not meant to like him – he is an ineffectual leader who views himself as God’s representative on earth and therefore does not care about what is viewed as morally acceptable by others. He believes he has the right to rule in any way he chooses and loses his supporters through his misguided actions and by letting himself be led by the weak advisers he surrounds himself with. In early scenes they seem to hover around him, tweeting in his ear when he comes to make crucial decisions, emphasising his lack of leadership. It is therefore difficult to portray a character that is neither a hero nor a true villain and instead is someone you ultimately pity.

David is however always excellent with Shakespeare’s words, connecting with an audience in a way that opens the language up and makes it so much clearer and the flowing poetic verse of this play seems to suit him. As usual, he is also superb at adding touches of humour effectively and is able to convey a person’s thoughts with just a look, most powerfully achieved here when Bolingbroke challenges Mowbray to confess his sins – the charged look that passes between Richard and Mowbray and the relief when the latter remains silent make it very clear that Richard is implicated in the murder of his uncle.

Furthermore, as an older Richard when compared with the others I have seen (Eddie Redmayne at the Donmar and Ben Whishaw in The Hollow Crown), Tennant makes the King’s poor judgment and lack of real leadership all the more apparent. Whishaw, and Redmayne in particular, could be partly forgiven for their choices as young impressionable monarchs ripe to be manipulated, but this Richard is the creator of his own destiny. He appears old enough to know better and Tennant’s portrayal enhances this to the audience, making his fall from power seem all the more pitiful. The well known speech in which he speaks of the death of kings and the hollow crown was far better the second time, as Richard’s conflicting emotions and fear felt far more real and compelling.

The deposition scene is also very powerful, as although Richard has clearly created his own fate, the strength from Tennant in this scene made me see another side to the character – at this moment he ironically seems in control for the first time in the play and the choices Tennant makes here result in the scene feeling incredibly poignant. I particularly liked how he appears to unnerve Bolingbroke, whose laugh to the court on Richard’s departure is one of someone who is trying to regain the control he had before Richard arrived. For me David Tennant is still growing in confidence and his performance is beginning to hint at the magic of his simply stunning Hamlet and no doubt by press night he will be on top form.

Overall I very much enjoyed this production and am excited at the potential it has to be truly great. I look forward to seeing how it has developed on my next theatre trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon next weekend.

Richard II by the Royal Shakespeare Company runs in Stratford-Upon-Avon until 16th November 2013 before its run at the Barbican in London from 9th December – 25th January 2014.