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 – The RSC’s King and Country cycle at the Barbican

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Last weekend saw me back at the Barbican to enjoy the final cycle of the RSC’s tetralogy of History plays, which began life in October 2013 with Richard II. Although this was the culmination of the London run, I couldn’t ignore such an achievement on this blog and have reviewed both Henry IV and Henry V separately to accompany this reflection on the spectacle as a whole.

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The beginning of the cycle at Gloucester’s funeral in Richard II. Photo: Keith Pattison

The King and Country cycle gave audiences the opportunity to delve deeper in to the fabric of four of Shakespeare’s Histories, by seeing them back to back over three days. Although each works as a standalone, seeing them performed as one, with the same actors, set and wonderful musicians added so much more to the viewing experience, perhaps more than I anticipated. This unique way of watching these plays was thrilling, as the pieces slotted together and the wider picture became clear.

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Alex Hassell as Prince Hal, whose development is so much clearer during the cycle experience. Photo: 

The development of characters was more profound, particularly Bolingbroke through to King Henry IV and his son Prince Hal, who grows so much to become the King he is by the end of Henry V. The political intrigues and manoeuvres are more obvious and easier to follow; you see Northumberland aid Bolingbroke, Richard predict how he will later turn against his new king, only for this to occur in Henry IV and with Sean Chapman in the role across all the plays, the character had a depth to him which would not have been as evident to the audience on viewing just one instalment.

Characters you have heard referred to in one play appear later, making your understanding of their role in the larger picture so much clearer, for example Worcester, who we hear Harry Percy speak of in Richard II and then meet in Henry IV as he takes his place in rebellion with his nephew. In the case of Aumerle (who became the Duke of York on the death of his father), he disappears from the story, but the moment the Duke of Exeter describes his death on the battlefield at Agincourt in Henry V has an extra level of poignancy when only two days before you saw the tragic arc of his character in Richard II.

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This powerful image from Richard II is mirrored later in Henry IV. Photo: Elliot Franks

The use of imagery across the cycle is also very clever, with the audience spotting echoes of earlier moments in the history in later plays. One example that stood out for me was when Falstaff and Shadow in Henry IV mirrored the image of Bolingbroke and Richard holding either side of the crown. Then there is the simple image of each new king seated on the same throne, which when watched in so short a space of time highlights the transient nature of the crown during this period in our history. Some of the casting choices also resulted in wonderful imagery, such as Matthew Needham in Henry IV Part II playing Mowbray, who is standing next to the Archbishop of York as he reflects on the death of their brave Hotspur. It seems to emphasise the spirit of Harry Percy having Needham in that role. It’s also lovely to bookend the cycle with Jane Lapotaire on the stage – at the start in mourning, all in black and at the end as Queen Isobel in a light grey gown in happier times. Then of course there are the recurring references to the death of Richard, with Henry V still trying to atone for his father’s earlier actions years later. So many of these moments resonated much more when seeing the whole story told as one.

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Jane Lapotaire bookends the cycle. Here as Queen Isobel with Simon Thorp & Alex Hassell.

One of the other thrilling aspects of the King and Country cycle for me was watching all the hard work and dedication of the ensemble come together. Having seen all of the plays in their original stand-alone runs, you see how much they have all developed their performances, but also their confidence as actors, particularly the younger members of the company. This was one of the highlights of the 2008/2009 RSC ensemble and is something I haven’t been as excited about since then. When you also remember that most of the company is playing at least one understudy role in each play, the level of their skill and commitment to the project is even more incredible.

It’s fantastic to see such young talents at the early stage of their careers and imagine all the roles that you may see them perform in the future. Olly Rix stood out in the original Richard II run (in fact he impressed me much more than David Tennant during those early performances of that production in Stratford-Upon-Avon). Matthew Needham has joined in these later stages of the cycle and commanded his scenes as Hotspur in Henry IV, as well as making that character much more of a presence in Richard II. The first trio of Bushey, Bagot and Greene (Sam Marks, Jake Mann and Marcus Griffiths) had a whole run to finesse their roles and it’s a shame Martin Bassindale, Nichols Gerard-Martin, and Robert Gilbert don’t have as long. However, each of these actors gives strong performances across the cycle as a whole and I particularly enjoyed Gilbert’s Greene in Richard II and Bassindale’s Boy and Gerard-Martin’s Orleans in Henry V.

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One of the ensemble’s strongest members throughout the cycle. Sam Marks as Aumerle. Photo: Keith Pattison

Of the original trio of Richard’s flatterers only Sam Marks remains and he became a firm favourite for me from this company. Sam has grown so much over the last two and a half years at the RSC, resulting in confident, developed, nuanced performances in every role he has in the cycle. His Aumerle is a match for Olly’s, bringing his sense of conflict to the fore much more and creating with Tennant an even more emotional connection between their two characters (something I really didn’t think was possible). Poins remains a lovely sidekick to the partying Prince Hal and their friendship feels genuine and warm and his Constable of France is also a strong presence, who you feel sorry didn’t survive the battle (or I did anyway)! I genuinely cannot wait to see what projects these actors move on to next, but I’ll certainly be buying tickets. It is a unique aspect of the RSC’s company approach that has helped foster such talent with Ed Bennett, Sam Alexander, Mariah Gale, Jonjo O’Neill, Alex Waldmann and Pippa Nixon being actors I now make a concerted effort to see in every role after watching them on stage in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

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Director Greg Doran with David Tennant

I realise that people who didn’t experience the King and Country cycle, or who perhaps haven’t yet appreciated how special Shakespeare can be, will find the idea of four plays in three days an effort. For me however, I loved every moment of this very special project and would have happily stayed on for The War of the Roses tetralogy had that been an option. I’ll have to make do with series two of the BBC’s Hollow Crown for this in April!

Although the UK run of the cycle is over now, the plays are off on an international tour. Henry IV and V can be seen next (albeit with some slight shuffling of the cast for this leg of the tour) in China, first in Beijing, then Shanghai and then Hong Kong. They will then be joined by Richard II in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I am thrilled to be going to the final New York cycle in April to enjoy them all one last time and if you are able to go yourself, I would certainly recommend you buying tickets for the tour too!

For further information on the international King and Country tour visit the website here. Richard II and Henry IV, as filmed in Stratford-Upon-Avon, are available on DVD from the RSC shop and the usual stockists. Henry V will be available in due course. 

 

Reflecting on Richard II – Q&A with David Tennant & Jonathan Slinger – 16th January 2016

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Saturday morning saw me back at the Barbican. Not for a play this time, but for the last of the RSC’s King & Country talks in the Frobisher Auditorium, to listen to David Tennant and Jonathan Slinger talk about their experiences playing Richard II for the RSC. It was a truly insightful and thoroughly interesting hour, which could have gone on much longer as these fine actors talked about this particular role.

I’ve tried to capture in this post the questions and answers given during the discussion, for those unable to attend. Moderator Emma Smith did mention that the event was being recorded for the RSC’s archive. If I can find out any more details of that I’ll update this post.

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Jonathan Slinger as Richard II for the RSC in 2007/2008

Richard II in the context of the other History plays?

Jonathan Slinger (“JS”), played Richard II for the RSC during Michael Boyd’s Histories Cycle in 2007/2008. He spoke of approaching the role, with the knowledge that the company were going to do all eight Histories together and that he would be book ending them, playing both Richard II and Richard III. For him the play works as a standalone, as do most of the Histories,  but that there is a narrative running through them all as well and by doing them all they were able to draw out the echoes and narratives of the whole piece.

David Tennant (“DT”) has had the opposite experience, as he approached Richard II as very much a standalone piece. It was Greg Doran’s first production as Artistic Director and had been mounted as a standalone, so he didn’t have to get in to the greater context too much. He spoke of returning to the role now, two years later, remounting it so that it fits in to the other plays of the cycle and how he is now more aware of the moments where Richard II casts forward to the other plays, such as the moment Richard speaks to Northumberland, foreshadowing the events of Henry IV Part One.

Working with the play’s reliance on the history that has come before it?

DT said how he had always loved the play, but that he’d never really understood the beginning – who was dead? why? what are the undercurrents at work? He agreed that it is not set out, so it’s tricky to understand and also hard to help the audience understand what’s going on and the political world they are in.

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The staging of the opening proved the key to helping explain the backstory in the current production

The lightbulb moment for the current RSC production, he said, was deciding to put the dead body of Gloucester in the centre of the opening scene and have that happen at his funeral. This also highlights the inappropriateness of Richard’s behaviour, thinking that they should sort out this disagreement at the funeral speaking to his personality!

JS described their staging of the opening in his production. They too had the body on stage, but the actual body, which he (as Richard) steps over to get to the throne. Mowbray and Bolingbroke then entered the stage and the “ghost” of Gloucester stood up and eyeballed Mowbray. He said this was perhaps more subtle than the current production (which he admitted he hadn’t seen).

Both actors also spoke about the earlier play Thomas of Woodstock, which it’s believed the people at the time were very much aware of and therefore knew the backstory without it being in Shakespeare’s play, although DT thought it was an odd omission by Shakespeare, who doesn’t normally make the context so obscure.

Costumes and how they helped get in to character?

JS explained that his Histories cycle was done in full Elizabethan costume, in reference to the fact that Elizabeth I is known to have recognised herself in the character of Richard II. He also thought that the vain, superficial image of Richard fitted that costume and described how the costume and makeup were gradually stripped away, as Richard goes from a lack of self awareness to full self knowledge, as he loses all material wealth and possessions.

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The costume and appearance of Richard was a way of conveying his position and how he could do anything he wanted

DT said he found the fact that Richard had been born to be King and been crowned when still a boy interesting. Richard has never been in a world where he has had to conform. Therefore the way he acts is always correct as no one will challenge him, for example no one would ever say to him “Cut your bloody hair!”. So he can have long hair, have gold gilded on his fingernails etc. as that sets him apart from everyone else. He also spoke about how the long hair was also useful to play on the Christ-like image later (“in his white nightie”!).

Richard as a tragic character?

Emma Smith posed the question to DT and JS as to whether Richard is like an actor, playing a part all the time. Both actors didn’t think this was the case, not believing that Richard thinks he is performing.

JS spoke of Richard’s chronic insecurity, resulting in him perhaps creating a persona and that you could argue that that persona runs skin deep. He did also refer to Richard’s belief in his divine right to rule, but how once pricked in the beach scene, this so quickly collapses, making you wonder just how much Richard did really believe this!

He agreed with DT that Richard doesn’t think he is performing, although queried whether by the end of the play he realises this, as he speaks the line “Thus play I in one prison many people”. JS was able to brilliantly recite the speech from the prison, earning a round of applause. As Richard II is his favourite play he said that it had stayed with him.

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David Tennant thinks the realisation for Richard that the angels were not coming to help him must have been terrible for him

DT commented on Richard being forced in to a realisation once God doesn’t turn up to fight for him. He said it must have been terrible to realise this when you have always thought the angels would literally come down from on high and then they don’t. The deposition scene in DT’s view is where Richard knows he has to fight his own battle- he has complete control of the room and there is a tragedy in that. He only realises how powerful he is when he has lost it all and that scene for DT is an example of great leadership.

The actors also spoke about Richard’s lineage, being the son of the Black Prince, who was the Henry V of his day. He was a warrior and it made JS wonder to what extent did Richard grow up with an impossible father to follow and that he comes up short because he cannot live up to him. He spoke about Richard going for the superficial aspects of being King, but not the substance as that wasn’t really who he was. DT also referred to it being Richard who had come up with the title of “Highness”, literally elevating himself above others.

They also both spoke about the deposition scene and how in it Richard is showing them all what they are choosing over him – choosing Bolingbroke over a true King and how in that scene Richard realises that he is losing everything, not just the crown, highlighted by the line “I have no name.” He is literally nothing if not King.

Relationships with other characters?

Aumerle

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The relationship between Richard and Aumerle is pivotal in the current production and the Flint Castle scene, in Tennant’s view, gives Richard the strength he needs to surrender

DT spoke about Richard’s relationship with Aumerle (my favourite aspect of the current production). He said how this seems to be the only real human relationship he has ever had and that it is this that gives him the strength to surrender at Flint Castle. With that strength he is able to undermine Bolingbroke and shame his court, which lays the basis for the troubles he experiences in the next play of the cycle.

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They also discussed the possible similarities between Richard and Bolingbroke and spoke of the 1973 RSC production in which Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco alternated the roles to draw out similarities between them. In their current production, DT said they had chosen the opposite – Richard and Bolingbroke are very much opposites – like fire and water (referenced in Bolingbroke’s speech at Flint Castle). For DT, it makes more sense this way. JS said he’d never seen a production staged like that 1973 one, but could see how it would be effective in emphasising the acuteness of betrayal if such a closeness had been set up.

Queen

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Jonathan Slinger felt that one of the saddest scenes was the parting of Richard and his Queen (Hannah Barrie). Photo: Tristram Kenton

One of the saddest scenes for JS was the scene in which Richard says farewell to his Queen. He’d always had the sense that she had been shunted around in favour of Richard’s yes-men, when actually she was the only person determined to wait for him on his way to prison. You see her loyalty and her deep affection for him and he thought this played in to Richard’s growing realisations as he sees how important she was on the way to his death. She was another thing he had wasted – the line “I wasted time” in the prison represents so much – people he should have been intimate with, things he should have done. For JS it was always a very sad scene.

DT commented on the fact that in reality Richard’s Queen at that time had been a child, being a marriage very much for political advantage, but that it’s believed that Richard’s first marriage was one of great love (the two are in fact buried next to each other). DT spoke of the difficulties of playing this relationship, as Shakespeare makes the Queen an adult, includes her in the play, but then doesn’t really utilise her. He found it the hardest scene in rehearsals, as the company tried to understand why the Queen was there and what the purpose of the scene was and that he liked JS’s view on it. DT also said how he felt sorry for both actresses who had played the Queen in this production (Emma Hamilton and now Leigh Quinn), as he spends hours ignoring her and then about 10:30 p.m, just goes “Oh go to France!”. He finds it sad that Richard can’t quite connect with her.

The politics of the play today, when there isn’t a belief in the divine right?

JS commented that the play introduces the idea that deposition is something that can happen and that such an idea is still current in our daily lives and therefore this makes Richard II as a play very relevant.

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Both actors felt the idea of deposition is still very relevant today

DT referred to how the play is about the delusions of power and how that can fall apart, which is still something in today’s world. He used the example of North Korea, which though not a divine right is still an example of someone ruling without challenge. JS also jokingly referred to Simon Cowell (who, DT joked could never be deposed!).

Audience Questions

Did Shakespeare have to write Henry IV and Henry V afterwards to get back in to favour?

Both actors agreed that it was impossible to know as these events happened hundreds of years ago. DT did comment on how great Henry V is and said he was uncertain that Richard II was actually written by Shakespeare to be a critique of Elizabeth I. That was certainly how it was taken at the time, but he was not convinced that that was Shakespeare’s actual intention when writing it.

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Richard’s father – Edward, Prince of Wales – “The Black Prince” (1330 – 1376)

Emma Smith commented on how the Histories are about the anxieties of regime change, written at a time when it was uncertain who would follow Elizabeth I / what would happen on her death. She noted how there were no more such plays once the new monarch took the throne.

How much of their performance was influenced by Shakespeare’s interpretation of history and by their own understanding of it?

JS talked about having researched the backstory of Richard and the Black Prince, which he used to assist with his interpretation, for example how Richard handled the peasant’s revolt. He said however that if you stuck too rigidly to history you would go mad!

DT agreed that, as with anything based on real people, you have to respect the topic enough, but have to also respect the script and the story you are telling.

As Richard II was written before most of the tragedies, how much do they think it informed Shakespeare’s later writing of tragedies?

DT said that that was a very difficult question to answer. He did say that he thought Shakespeare enjoyed writing Richard and seems energised by the character.

JS’s view was that Shakespeare reached the pinnacle in writing a tragic character with Richard, using the example of Richard III, which he said, although a great character to play, is someone with nowhere near as much complexity.

Favourite scenes?

DT’s favourite scene is the deposition scene, as it is where Richard finally finds himself and gets to own them all for a few moments. He compared it to an aria, with Richard showing them exactly what they’ve lost.

JS also enjoyed the deposition scene, but his favourite is the prison scene, particularly Richard’s monologue in it, which he thinks is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest monologue.

The question had also asked whether they preferred playing Richard or Hamlet (as both actors have played both parts for the RSC), but neither answered this.

Do they think Richard is afraid during the play?

JS thought that Richard is actually most afraid at the start of the play when he is trying to keep all the plates spinning. Yes, he is scared as he loses everything, but in that he also finds strength.

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The opening scene marks the start of things going wrong for Richard in Tennant’s view

DT referred to the moment in the first scene when people don’t do as Richard tells them. He thinks he will tell Bolingbroke and Mowbray to make peace and then that will be that. When they don’t choose to throw down their gage’s and want to defend their honour instead of obeying his command it all starts to go wrong for Richard. In DT’s view, after that there is a mounting fear for Richard, as once God’s deputy on earth stops being treated as such, then it’s only really a matter of time until it ends.

Sadly that was all there was time for during this event. I think everyone attending the talk could have happily stayed there and listened to these actors’s thoughts on the play and these characters all day!

I certainly hope the RSC continues to hold these talks and if possible schedules even more of them, as they are a superb way for you to really have the chance to dig deeper in to these plays, with the help of the actors who so skilfully bring them to life on stage.

 

 

 

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 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.

 

Theatre To See in 2016!

2016 has arrived, so it’s the time of year for theatregoers when we start planning all the shows we need to book for the new year, while pondering what rumours are circulating as to productions that may arrive during the next twelve months. This post has been a great way of organising my own theatregoing, as I see what I’ve yet to book while compiling this list of recommendations! 2015 was an excellent year for me for theatre (read my review of the year here) and I certainly hope 2016 proves to be even better.

So, here are the productions I’m most looking forward to in 2016. I am planning a New York trip in April, but as I’m not yet sure what I will be seeing this list is purely a UK selection and admittedly mainly London-based (although I plan to get to regional theatre more again this year).

16 to see in 2016

1. Sunset Boulevard with Glenn Close (London Colesium – 1st April – 7th May)

2311The forthcoming production of Sunset Boulevard is my most anticipated show of 2016 so far. It’s a musical I’ve never seen, I’ve never been to the London Coliseum before (this year I’m determined to visit more theatres) and it means I’ll get to see Glenn Close, an actress I greatly admire, on stage. Returning to a role she played back in 1994 on Broadway, tickets for this production’s five week run have been incredibly popular since going on sale last year, but there are still some available.

2. Richard II (with Mr Tennant returns) (Barbican – 7th – 22nd January)

David-Tennant_2705271b.jpgAlthough I’ve already seen this production during its last run in 2013, as a huge fan of Mr Tennant, especially for Shakespeare (something he seems to effortlessly make modern and accessible to all), I had to include this return of Richard II to the Barbican as part of the King & Country cycle. I am rather sad that Oliver Rix is not returning as Aumerle (who I thought was truly superb last time), but Samuel Marks will no doubt do a fantastic job in his place. Tickets are sold out for the individual performances, but returns are worth looking for.

3. The Encounter by Complicite (Barbican – 12th February – 6th March)

hqdefault.jpgAnother production coming to the Barbican which has been on my radar for some time is the latest work involving theatre company Complicite. Directed and performed by Simon McBurney this solo show will transport the audience to the Amazonian rainforest, through sound design to weave McBurney’s story with that of Loren McIntyre, a photographer who became lost in the Amazon in 1969. This wouldn’t normally be my type of theatre, but anything involving Complicite (whose A Disappearing Number and Master and Margarita in 2010 and 2012 respectively I loved) will get my attention. I’m sure this will be a unique experience.

4. People, Places & Things (Wyndham’s Theatre – 15th March – 4th June )

40e2193f-8439-49f5-b0f3-fbe90f755702-2060x1236.jpgAfter missing this highly regarded production during its initial run at the National Theatre, I’m thrilled it has a second lease of life in the West End. A new collaboration between the National and Headlong following Earthquakes in London and The Effect, the play introduces us to Emma, currently in rehab, but who thinks it’s the rest of the world that has the problem. I’ve heard nothing but positive comments about this play and the performance of its lead Denise Gough, so I’m looking forward to seeing this at the Wyndham’s.

5. No Man’s Land (Venue TBC – September)

NM6.jpgThis play was on my list for 2015, in the hope it might arrive by the end of the year. That didn’t happen, but in their New Year’s Eve video message, the dynamic duo of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen announced that this production (which played with Waiting For Godot in New York in 2013) would be in London this September. They are both such wonderful actors, but there is something very special seeing them together. If I enjoy this half as much as Waiting For Godot in 2009, I’ll be very happy indeed.

6. Uncle Vanya (Almeida Theatre – 5th February – 26th March)

unclevanyatopThere is so much about this production which makes it a top choice for 2016. For a start, the ensemble cast contains some brilliant talent including Vanessa Kirby (most recently of the Young Vic’s Streetcar) and Tobias Menzies (whose one man performance in The Fever last year was superb). On top of that is the involvement of Robert Icke, whose production of Oresteia last year topped virtually every theatre list of 2015 (including mine). As with that play, this will be a new interpretation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya by Icke, which he will also direct. Expectation as to what he will come up with next is incredibly high, so I hope this delivers.

7. After Miss Julie (Theatre Royal Bath – 24th – 28th May, followed by a tour)

2F77458900000578-3365133-image-m-3_1450399607098.jpgI’ve only seen one previous production of this August Strindberg play, which was the Young Vic’s 2012 version starring Natalie Dormer and it was one I have not forgotten, due to the power of the story and the emotionally charged atmosphere in which it takes place. As that production was also based on the adaptation by Patrick Marber to be used here, I’m thrilled to be able to see it again, with Helen George in the main role. Known to most through Call The Midwife, this role will give her room to show a very different side and I’m looking forward to seeing this in Bath or during the subsequent tour.

8. Nell Gwynn (Apollo Theatre – 4th February – 30th April)

cw-9336-medium.jpgAnother production I was sorry to miss last year was Nell Gwynn at the Globe. Although there has been a change of lead actress (with Gemma Arterton replacing Gugu Mbatha-Raw), I’m very much looking forward to a show which many people I know said was a highlight of their theatre year and learning more about the woman who went on to become Britain’s most celebrated actress (and mistress to King Charles II).

9. The Master Builder with Ralph Fiennes (Old Vic – 23rd January – 19th March)

18564_show_landscape_large_01.jpgThe first 2016 production for the Old Vic looks to be very promising, seeing Ralph Fiennes in the lead role of this Ibsen play. After seeing his brilliant performance in Man & Superman last year, I can’t wait to see Mr. Fiennes on stage again and in this new adaptation by David Hare (most recently having enjoyed success both in London and New York with Skylight), it should be very memorable.

10. The Nap (Sheffield Crucible – 10th – 26th March)

100112.jpg.pngAfter the success of One Man, Two Guvnors, this is the new comedy from Richard Bean. If that wasn’t enough to get excited about, it’s directed by actor Richard Wilson and stars rising British Hollywood star Jack O’Connell as a young, Sheffield-born snooker player. As this is running in the home of snooker at the Crucible I imagine this will add to the atmosphere of this production and is a fantastic part of Sheffield Theatres wonderful 2016 season.

11. Herons by Simon Stephens (Lyric Hammersmith – 15th January – 13th February)

Herons_Lyric-Hammersmith.jpgAs it’s been 15 years since this play by Simon Stephens was last in London, I have yet to see it and although I find his work a bit of a mixed bag of enjoyment (last year’s Carmen Disruption was not for me), he’s a playwright whose plays I will always book a ticket to see. Described as an unflinching and incendiary play, I imagine this will not be an easy one to watch, but I hope it will be as powerful as some of his other plays that I have loved.

12. Elegy (Donmar Warehouse – 21st April – 18th June)

Elegy-background-new-2.jpgThis is the only show I have booked for the new Donmar season and the reason is I’m very much looking forward to seeing the next play by Nick Payne, whose constellations has done so well on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years. Set in a near-future where advances in science mean it’s possible to “augment and extend life”, I’m expecting this to be a thought-provoking production.

13. Aladdin (Prince Edward Theatre – currently booking 27th May – 1st October)

Show_Aladdin.jpgAlthough I do tend to see more plays than musicals, I’ve been looking forward to the arrival from Broadway of Disney’s Aladdin, which had been on my list of things to see in NYC. A Disney musical done well is always good fun and Aladdin already has the advantage of having a strong set of songs from start to finish.

14. The Deep Blue Sea (National Theatre, Lyttleton – TBC, June 2016)

tumblr_inline_nutq4yD38Y1rdh6ct_500.jpgTerence Rattigan remains one of my favourite playwrights and I very much enjoyed the last production of The Deep Blue Sea that I saw in Chichester in 2011. Very little is known yet about this forthcoming production at the National, which will be directed by Carrie Cracknell (whose A Doll’s House at the Young Vic was superb), but I’m certainly hopeful for some wonderful casting. Watch this space.

15. Harry Potter & The Cursed Child (Palace – begins May)

Harry-Potter-Cursed-Child.jpgI admit I’m not a Harry Potter fanatic and booked a ticket for this play more out of curiosity than anything else. It’s already had record-breaking ticket sales and is booking until mid-2017, so there is certainly a lot of expectation surrounding the next instalment in J.K Rowling’s universe, set 19 years after the last book. I am very excited though about the recently announced casting, as Jamie Parker has been one of my favourites for a few years and Noma Dumesweni is a brilliant actress. This is already set to be the most discussed and anticipated show of the year.

16. Pink Mist (Bush Theatre – 21st January – 13th February)

Pink-Mist-at-Bristol-Old-Vic_-Photo-by-Mark-Douet-I80A5019-2000x1333After receiving superb reviews last year at the Bristol Old Vic, it’s wonderful that Owen Sheers play, looking at the mental scars of war is coming to London. Inspired by interviews with retired servicemen, Pink Mist centres on three young men, deployed to Afghanistan, but whose greatest challenge is then returning to their old lives and loved ones after all they have experienced. I expect this to be an incredibly emotional and profound piece of theatre, which in the current world  will have an even bigger impact on audiences.

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Rumours….!

As with any year, there are certain rumours swirling in the theatre air about possible productions arriving in 2016 and I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on the ones below over the next few months.

1. Finding Neverland (TBC)

1275-b444e46ec9eae9dba52deacc5e5cc4e3.jpgI thoroughly enjoyed the film Finding Neverland and have been hoping this musical adaptation would make its way to London at some point. Nothing has been formally announced yet, although Gary Barlow has said it will be in London this year, so this looks very likely indeed. Those who I know have already seen it in New York were very positive about it and with music and lyrics written by the incredibly talented Mr. Barlow, I’m hopeful this will be a very enjoyable night at the theatre.

2. Colin Morgan in The Pillowman

97978.jpgMartin McDonagh’s latest play, Hangmen, is currently enjoying great success during its West End transfer and so it would be the perfect time to bring one of his earlier plays back to the stage. Rumours last year suggested The Pillowman may indeed make a return, with Colin Morgan linked to the production. I have only ever seen the grainy National Theatre recording of their 2003 production in their archive, but it’s a testament to the power of the piece that it’s still stayed with me. It’s certainly a disturbing and dark play, but I would certainly like the chance to see it live.

3. The Young Chekhov season from Chichester to the National?

Anna-Chancellor-and-Samue-010.jpgThis triptych of plays was one of the theatre events I was most sorry to miss last year and therefore I’m hoping the rumours of a transfer to the National Theatre prove to be true. In his new adaptations for the Chichester Festival Theatre, David Hare chose to stage two lesser known Chekhov plays (Platonov and Ivanov) in a season with The Seagull. It had a wonderful ensemble including Anna Chanellor, Sam West and Olivia Vinall and the reviews were all excellent. All my fingers are crossed for a second life for these productions in 2016.

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Catch Them Before They Close….!

1. The Dazzle (FOUND 111) – until 30th January

Although there are now only day seats and returns available, it’s certainly worth making the effort to try and nab a ticket for this new play, housed at the top of a warehouse-style building on Charing Cross Road. A story which imagines what the lives of two famous New York hoarders and recluses must have been like, Richard Greenberg’s play is powerful and emotional and contains two superb performances by two of Britain’s best young talents (Andrew Scott and David Dawson). Read my full review here.

2. Hangmen (Wyndham’s Theatre) – until 5th March

As I’ve already mentioned above, this Martin McDonagh play has been widely praised by both critics and theatregoers since it first opened at the Royal Court. After seeing it on its transfer to the West End, it easily made my top ten of 2015. With a brilliant script, wonderful sets and superb acting (particularly Johnny Flynn’s performance), this should be one on everyone’s list for early 2016. Read my full review here.

3. War Horse (New London) – until 12th March

It seems incredible that War Horse is closing in London. It’s become such a fixture since its premiere at the National Theatre in 2007 and move to the New London in 2009, that I expected it to be there forever. Sadly however the show will close on 12th March, before embarking on a UK tour in 2017. There’s certainly something very special about seeing Joey live. He may be a puppet, but the skill of the operators and the beauty of the story means that that is irrelevant. If you haven’t got round to going or want to see it again, make sure you book while you can. I already have my ticket for the last performance.

4. Billy Elliot (Victoria Palace) – until 9th April

Another long-standing show closing in early 2016 is Billy Elliot, which has played at the Victoria Palace Theatre for over ten years. After such a successful film, it’s wonderful that the musical adaptation has been received with such warmth over the years. If you’ve yet to experience the story of a young boy’s love of dance, you have until early April to book your ticket. It is eight years since I last saw the show, so I’ll definitely be visiting one last time before then.

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So, hopefully there will be something within my recommendations to appeal to you (or maybe even more than one). I’d love to pick up some more tips for myself, so do leave a comment about what you are excited about seeing in 2016. Happy theatregoing everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

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.

My 2013 Theatre Review

So another year filled with theatre has come to an end and it’s time to reflect on all the wonderful productions and moments I’ve enjoyed this year. After a personal record of 90 productions in 2012, last year returned to around my usual annual average, with a total of 53 separate live theatre productions, of which I returned to see six on more than one occasion giving a total of 72 theatre trips in 2013 (plus an additional five were seen via archive recording, NT Live Encore, RSC Live or Digital Theatre). It has been quite difficult to compile my ten favourite productions but after much thought and in no particular order (as ranking them further would be too big a challenge!), my top ten is below.

 Top 10 Favourites:

  • Seawall (NT Shed) – at only 30 minutes, this beautiful monologue written by Simon Stephens a few years ago was revived at the National Theatre’s temporary theatre The Shed. Andrew Scott’s performance was utterly incredible and moved me to tears, making this one of the finest productions I have ever seen on stage. Such a pity a woman’s phone rang with just one line left to go, although Andrew is to be commended for keeping his focus and delivering the line with such power despite this interruption. Seawall is available to download for £3.50 and I recommend you do so as soon as you can (go to http://www.seawallandrewscott.com ).

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Photo for Paines Plough/National Theatre

  • Richard II (RSC – RST & Barbican) – Greg Doran’s time in charge at the RSC was off to a superb start with this brilliant production. Incredibly clear, wonderfully staged and finely acted by a strong ensemble, I loved this production and David’s interpretation of Richard’s unlikeable character, before generating true sympathy from me. Special mention to the superb Oliver Ford Davies as York and Oliver Rix, whose Aumerle is one of the stand out performances for me and whose scene at Flint Castle with David Tennant was played in a deeply moving way. If you can acquire a ticket before it finishes at the Barbican on 25th January I urge you to do so.

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Photo by Kwame Lestrade

  •  Bull (Sheffield Crucible Studio) – My first trip to the Studio at the Crucible is another highlight for me. At a mere 50 minutes Bull is a powerful play, highlighting the bullying power struggles that take place in the workplace. Adam James and Eleanor Matsuura brilliantly play two colleagues determined to be on top, whilst Sam Troughton’s portrayal of the team member caught in their sights was excellent. The tension builds throughout in the bull ring setting, until the explosive ending, which became almost too uncomfortable to watch. I hope this Mike Bartlett  play (which also transferred to New York in 2013) gains a new lease of life soon.

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Photo for Sheffield Theatres

  •  Untold Stories (Duchess) A gem of a production, which I missed at the National Theatre, where it was staged as two separate pieces prior to performances of Alan Bennett’s People. I had no idea what to expect and was surprised by how wonderful and indeed moving the two pieces were. I especially enjoyed Cocktail Sticks, in which Alex Jennings (a superb Bennett) describes his childhood life, in both humorous and tender anecdotes.

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  •  Macbeth (Manchester International Festival) – I found this production of Macbeth truly impressive. The setting of Shakespeare’s Scottish play in a deconsecrated church in central Manchester was an inspired decision, as the setting certainly added significantly to the evocative atmosphere of the play. Kenneth Branagh was very good as Macbeth, although it was Ray Fearon’s Macduff that really captured my attention, through his strong performance. I have never fully engaged with Macbeth until I saw this production and I think it will be a hard act to follow. No doubt it will be very popular when it transfers to New York.

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Photo by Johan Persson

  •  Edward II (NT, Olivier) – This production of Christopher Marlowe’s play didn’t appeal to everyone, but it certainly appealed to me (I saw it  twice). I found the staging to be exciting and something daring to be different, mixing live action, with scenes only visible through footage from hand held cameras, not to mention a brilliant scene incorporating  characters arriving at the theatre and proceeding to follow them on their route to the stage. As someone who thinks John Heffernen is a superb actor, it was wonderful to see him in the title role and I thought his portrayal of this unfortunate King who is ultimately deposed and his chemistry with Kyle Soller’s Gaveston was wonderful. I hope to see more productions taking such a daring approach in the future.

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Photo by Johan Persson

  •  A Doll’s House (Duke of York’s) – It took me far longer than I intended, but I finally saw the Yong Vic’s production when it transferred to the West End. I had heard nothing but praise for the production and so I had high hopes. I was not disappointed. The staging was wonderfully effective, with the revolving set letting the audience in to the lives of the family and Hattie Morahan’s portrayal of Nora was simply stunning. Every line spoken and every movement of her body captured the essence of the character beautifully and I think it will be a long time before I see anyone perform this role better. The production is available to buy from Digital Theatre if you missed it – http://www.digitaltheatre.com

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Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

  •  The Scottsboro Boys (Young Vic) – Of the musicals I have seen this year (which also included The Light Princess and the much-hyped Book of Mormon) the one that stood out for me was The Scottsboro Boys. I was not familiar with the tragic story it tells of the nine men wrongly accused of assault in Southern America. The structure of the musical, conveying such disturbing events in the form  of a minstrel show was very effective is highlighting the cruel treatment of the men. It was also performed by a magnificent cast whose singing and dancing were impressive to witness. I couldn’t fail to be moved by the end of this story and it was certainly a production that stayed with me for longer than any other musical I saw last year.

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Photo: Tristram Kenton

  •  Othello (NT, Olivier) – After a couple of cancelled trips, I finally saw the National’s acclaimed production starring Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester in the last few weeks of its run and it was just as wonderful as I’d hoped. The military setting was realised perfectly for me and the interplay between Lester’s Othello and Kinnear’s Iago was electric. I was particularly excited by Kinnear’s performance as this was a very different role to any other I have seen him do on stage. I also enjoyed Olivia Vinnall’s Desdemona and I look forward to seeing her again later this month in King Lear with Simon Russell Beale.

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Photo by Johan Persson

  •  American Psycho (Almeida) – Not everyone’s cup of tea perhaps but I thoroughly enjoyed this production and it has only grown stronger since it began (I saw it again this weekend). Yes the vocal ability of some of the cast may not be perfect, but then this is not your typical big West  End-style musical. I found it to be inventive, creative and I was excited to see something daring to be a little different. I had been sceptical of Matt Smith’s casting in the main role, but he is fantastic. He plays detached and emotionless superbly, giving his Patrick Bateman an underlying creepiness, but is also able to convincingly convey the emotional moments as well. It is also exciting to see he is growing in confidence in the role and when he is on stage I just couldn’t take my eyes from him. It is worth trying to get a ticket before it finishes on 1st February is you can.

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Photo by Manuel Harlan

Narrowly missing out on the top 10:

As it was so difficult to choose ten, these are the productions that could easily have been included.

  •  The Full Monty (Sheffield Lyceum)
  • Old Times (Harold Pinter)
  • Proof (Menier Chocolate Factory)
  • The Audience (Gielgud)
  • Peter & Alice (Noel Coward)
  • The Hothouse (Trafalgar Studios)
  • The American Plan (St James Theatre)
  • The Pride (Trafalgar Studios)

Wonderful repeats from previous years:

There are always productions I can’t help but see again another year and the highlights this year were:

  • After The Dance (NT Archive) – after over three years since I saw it live at the National Theatre, it was wonderful to see this beautiful production again. I love everything about it (see my earlier blog post about it!) and it remains my favourite production to date.
  •  Private Lives (Duchess from Chichester) – This was second on my list of 2012 when I visited Chichester and its transfer to London was just as wonderful. Superb casting and staging made this a joy to see again.
  • Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (Apollo Theatre) – My favourite production from 2012 is just as wonderful in its West End home. A wonderful adaptation by Simon Stephens, astonishing staging and beautifully performed. I cannot recommend this enough if you have yet to see it.
  • Frankenstein (Cumber Creature, NT Live Encore) – A Halloween trip to the cinema to relive the      National’s 2011 Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller was very enjoyable, particularly with Cumberbatch playing the  Creature (my preference for the alternate roles). The only time I saw this version on stage was the very first preview and it was lovely to see how the production had grown over the run prior to this recording. I had also  forgotten just how incredible the first 20 minutes was when Cumberbatch’s Creature is learning how to take its first steps in life.
  • The Pitman Painters (Sheffield Lyceum) – After missing this at the National, I adored it at the Duchess Theatre in 2012 and it was lovely to see it on tour again in 2013. So funny and also heartfelt.
  • The Effect (NT, Cottesloe) – Had I not already seen it in 2012 this production would have been a contender for my top 10 this year. Billie Piper and Jonjo O’Neill’s performance, particularly at the end were wonderful.

 Disappointments of the Year:

Thankfully there haven’t been many of these this year and in fact the only ones that deserve a mention here are Viva Forever (so bad it was funny) and Afraid of the Dark (in short no I wasn’t and I can’t imagine anyone else ever would be).

Memorable Moments in Theatre:

There have been some wonderful moments that I’ve witnessed or experienced at the theatre during 2013, which included:

–  My first experience of the incredible staging by Punchdrunk – entering the woodland level at The Drowned Man was quite incredible;

–  The lovely fold up style sets created for the National’s The Magistrate;

–  Experiencing the fantastic The Full Monty production for the first time in its rightful home of Sheffield;

–   Finally seeing The Mousetrap (performance 25,134 no less!);

–   The wonderful interplay between Judi Dench & Ben Whishaw in Peter & Alice (the end of which I found particularly moving);

–  Seeing Andrew Scott’s wide range of acting ability in the Pinter Shorts and his stunning monologue in Seawall;

–  A fascinating and hilarious reading of Death in Whitbridge at the Finborough;

–  The atmospheric setting of Macbeth in the Manchester church, the heat and smell of which I will never forget;

–  An incredible costume change in the Book of Mormon, carried out in a blink of an eye!

–  John Heffernen’s skill to consume half a fruit cake in The Hothouse!

–  The impressive vocal and movement skills of Rosalie Craig in The Light Princess;

–   An original take on the 12 Days of Christmas during Protest Song; and

–   A fascinating reading of Thomas of Woodstock by the Richard II ensemble.

All in all it’s been a fantastic year, in which I’ve seen some wonderful moments on stage by some of the finest actors working today. I am thoroughly looking forward to what surprises 2014 will bring (and I’ll post my top 10 for 2014 shortly)!

“Yet looks he like a King.” The Public Understudy Performance of the RSC’s Richard II – 29th October 2013

Oliver Rix - King for a day!

Oliver Rix – King for an afternoon!

Part of the ethos of the Royal Shakespeare Company is that it is an ensemble company; everyone works together for the good of the production as a whole and nothing displays this more clearly than the role of the understudy at the RSC. Almost everyone in the company of any production is expected to understudy another role, which I can only imagine must be a huge amount of additional commitment. However this effort is rewarded by the staging of the public understudy performance – for one show only, the public gets to see an alternative performance – the same staging, costumes, music and actors, but everyone is playing their understudy role (or roles in some cases!). The RSC’s support of the understudy run is to be commended. It is only right that the efforts of the actors to learn other roles for the benefit of the ensemble as a whole are celebrated and the fact that this is done so publicly is another reason I admire and support the RSC.

On Tuesday afternoon it was the turn of the company of Richard II to take to the stage to perform the understudy performance to an almost packed RST. I have only ever been to one previous understudy run (for 2010’s King Lear) and I was very excited to see the production done a little differently, particularly once I knew the superb Oliver Rix was playing Richard (more on that later). It was also lovely to see the remaining cast, who were not taking part, settling in to their seats to support their fellow actors. Oliver Ford Davies and Jane Lapotaire were seated behind me, with Michael Pennington across the aisle. I also spotted David Tennant, who must have sneaked in after the lights went down (although he must have changed seats for the second half).

As for the performance itself, it was simply superb. Edmund Wiseman told us afterwards that they had had only 12 hours of rehearsal time to pull the 3 hour show together and everyone involved should be very proud indeed. There were a couple of very minor stumbles over words, but other than that it was spot on and the overall result was a performance brimming with an energy all its own that you couldn’t help but be excited about.

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Oliver Rix in his usual role as Aumerle. He was a superb King Richard.

This performance was the younger, feistier sibling of the main production, in large part due to the predominantly younger cast. The ages of most characters therefore felt much less, setting this as a youthful Court of a young, cocky King Richard and it was very interesting to see different choices made for characters and a change of emphasis on certain lines. This highlighted one of my favourite aspects of Shakespeare on stage – each production and each actor can bring something new to the play and make you think about the text in new and exciting ways and there were certainly moments yesterday afternoon that did so for me, which I’ve tried to highlight in this review. I would say this is rather longer than my other reviews, but since this was a one off performance that I know not many people were able to see, I wanted to try and include as much as I could.

First of all, I have to say that Oliver Rix (thankfully without any form of wig!) was absolutely superb as King Richard. I had been unable to see him in the 2011 season at the RSC and as his interpretation of Aumerle had already stood out for me in the main production, I was very excited to see how he would tackle the title role. I was not disappointed. Oliver’s Richard was a youthful, cocky King. He begins as a young man, who is almost playing at being a monarch and who arrogantly thinks he can do anything he pleases in a Court populated with youthful supporters who bend to his every whim. However Oliver’s immense skill as an actor meant that his Richard soon became a scared little boy, for whom I did have sympathy.

There were a number of wonderful moments in his portrayal that were very different from David Tennant’s and were exciting to see. This wasn’t an imitation of someone else – this was Oliver’s Richard and I for one liked it very much indeed!

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Edmund Wiseman played Bolingbroke incredibly well.

From the beginning of the play, the complicity of Richard in Mowbray’s actions felt very real and apparent. The gestures and interplay between Oliver Rix and Jake Mann were very effective in conveying two men very much complicit in the murder of Gloucester. There was also a very clever pause by Oliver Rix in Act 1 Scene 1, on the lines “Were he my brother, nay, our kingdom’s heir, / as he is but my father’s brother’s son.” David Tennant delivers this in a dismissive way about Bolingbroke – he is only his father’s brother’s son. Whether deliberate or not, Oliver paused at a different moment, instead pausing after “as he is” which worked brilliantly in acting as a portent of the events to come, when Bolingbroke does indeed become his heir.

I thought the scene with Jim Hooper’s John of Gaunt before Gaunt’s death was fantastic, with both actors delivering strong performances. Jim’s “sceptred isle” speech was given with all the passion and emotion you want from the scene and his anger towards the King was very good. I also loved Oliver’s choices for the King’s reaction to Gaunt’s death, sitting in the chair the older man has just left, looking distinctly unimpressed and much put out by his Uncle York’s grief and that he has to comfort him. His delivery of “so much for that” was, in the same vein as Tennant, delivered in a comedic way that is very effective. Oliver’s choice of response to York’s pleadings not to seize what is rightfully Bolingbroke’s was very good as well, particularly his reaction to “Is not his heir a well-deserving son?” at which point he smirked and made a noise as if to say “Well I’m not so sure about that.”

However, this cocky self-assured King was swiftly replaced by the frightened young man who finds himself with few friends on his arrival back from Ireland. His anger towards Bushy, Bagot & Greene’s supposed treachery was delivered full force, to be replaced with horror on discovering their ultimate fate and his delivery of the beautiful speech about the death of Kings was stunning in its emotional impact. The word sorrow during “Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth” was spoken as if the word itself was a breath, blown out across the sea. His reflective tone during the rest of the speech was wonderful, before Oliver reduced Richard to a small frightened boy, sobbing at how he has been mistook and himself needs friends, before collapsing on his side, weeping in sorrow, to be comforted by Joshua Richards’s Carlisle. I was surprised at just how moving I found the scene to be and it highlighted again what an emerging talent Oliver Rix is.

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Sam Marks preparing to go on stage as Aumerle in the understudy run (as photographed I think by Jake Mann). Source: strangeparticles.tumblr.com

The other key scene for Richard has to be the deposition scene and I thought the cast conveyed the variety of emotions brilliantly. Oliver chose to address more lines to the audience during the scene, turning to us when musing over how the men of the Court had once praised him, choosing to turn to the others on stage to deliver “Found truth in all but one; I, in twelve thousand, none” – fixing his stare pointedly at Aumerle on the word none. This King was also much angrier here, especially towards his Uncle York, whose tears visibly anger him (when compared to David Tennant, who chooses to convey Richard’s feelings here in a more subtle way). The biggest difference here though is how Oliver’s King chooses to play the moment he challenges his cousin to seize the crown. I love the way David Tennant does this in the main production, treating Bolingbroke as if he is a dog playing a game of fetch, and I thought Oliver’s choice, although different was just as powerful. Instead of holding the crown out for his cousin, he raised it in the air and placed it upon his head with his back to Bolingbroke before challenging him to seize it. Edmund Wiseman then proceeded to move to take it from off his head, only for the King to move his head away defiantly at the last moment. The effect was fantastic.

Edmund Wiseman was excellent as Bolingbroke and commanded the stage convincingly in his scenes. Stepping up from his usual role as Harry Percy, he has clearly learnt from the superb Nigel Lindsay and delivered an incredibly strong, powerful Bolingbroke, which was very much needed to stand toe to toe with Oliver’s strong King. Unlike Tennant & Lindsay, who are physically already very different, Edmund and Oliver played the relationship between the two more on an equal footing and had a fantastic chemistry. It would indeed be interesting to see Edmund set against Tennant’s Richard. One moment I particularly liked was the first scene, where Edmund and Jake Mann as Mowbray chose to stand nose to nose at one point whilst accusing each other, which worked well with younger actors in the roles.

Keith Osborn’s York was very different from Oliver Ford Davies’ interpretation. His Duke is less of a doddering man, carrying more of a sense of control and authority. Indeed it seems almost reasonable that Richard would leave his kingdom in his Uncle’s hands. This also, in my opinion, made him far less likeable, as his betrayal of the King seems much worse than when you see the conflicted weaker York as played by Oliver Ford Davies. I very much liked his reaction to Aumerle’s treason and you genuinely believed that this was a father whom he should fear.

Gracy Goldman did a great job covering three roles – the Duchess of Gloucester, Bagot and the Duchess of York. I found her Gloucester to be much more understated in her grief. She was restrained but just as powerful. Her Duchess of York was also good, although it would be very difficult to beat the brilliant comic double act of Oliver Ford Davies and Marty Cruickshank (who appeared as the Queen’s lady in waiting). Miranda Nolan played the Queen well, although perhaps not with as much emotional depth as Emma Hamilton (understandable with only 12 hours rehearsal!) . I did however really like her scenes and interaction with Oliver’s Richard and it certainly felt to me that they had a more genuine connection than between Tennant’s King and his Queen (although I think the fact Tennant is a far more feminine Richard may explain part of this for me).

I also thought Elliot Barnes-Worrell (in his debut season for the RSC) was fantastic as Bushy and Harry Percy. I very much enjoyed his playful portrayal of Bushy and thought his interplay with Emma Hamilton’s Greene worked very well. It was also lovely to see more of Antony Byrne, who disappears all too quickly as Mowbray in the main run, and who on Tuesday became Salisbury and the gardener. Sam Marks was a very good Aumerle, although, without the rehearsal time to enhance it, I didn’t think his relationship with Oliver Rix’s Richard was as strong as it could be given time.

I felt privileged to be able to see this one off performance. To be able to produce such a brilliant performance with only 12 hours rehearsal is a testament to the actors and the assistant director (who has responsibility for the understudy run) and Owen Horsley received a well-deserved round of applause at the end after being brought on to the stage by Greg Doran. The afternoon very much highlighted the importance of the role of understudy at the RSC as well as confirming further that there are clearly some stars of the future continuing to grow and learn there, none more so than both Edmund Wiseman and the superb Oliver Rix. I would have gladly paid full price to see it and would happily have returned to see it again if it were possible.

I would definitely recommend a trip to one the RSC understudy performances in the future, especially if you have already seen the main run. It is a brilliant way to see another interpretation of the play and witness talented actors grow, and for only £5 (or £2.50 for members/supporters) it really is a bargain. It was well worth the trip from London for me and no one should worry – if David Tennant or any of the principal cast need a night off, the production will be in very safe hands!