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. 

 

Theatre Reflections – Henry V (RSC) at the Barbican

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(Photo via the RSC)

Following on from yesterday’s post about Henry IV, on then to Henry V, which is of course the culmination of everything that has gone before in this tetralogy of plays. The party prince Hal, who realises to lead he must leave his past and Falstaff behind, goes on to become a King his people can be proud of and seeing this within a day of Henry IV only highlighted how far he comes in such a short period of time.

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

Alex Hassell is excellent in this production and there’s no doubt playing all three back to back strengthens his performance. It also enables the audience to appreciate the subtleties of his portrayal. At times during Henry IV, his Hal comes across as a bit stilted, but when you see the three together, you can see the development of the man. So much about him changes, his mannerisms, physical movements and even his voice, as he grows from Eastcheap lad to soldier and leader. In the opening moments of the play, on being presented with the evidence of his claim to France, he is overwhelmed – battling to keep a façade of control, but you see it in his face; the boy still adjusting to the man he must be now.

When you compare this to the confident soldier he is at the play’s conclusion you realise how far he and indeed Hassell have come. Everything Hal has experienced results in him being a better King. The mistake the French and no doubt some in his own Court make is to see his Eastcheap escapades as a sign he will be a weak ruler. In fact it is those experiences that give Henry the insight in to his people and then the ability to rally them to victory against all the odds and Hassell’s passion during those iconic battle speeches on Sunday was the best I’ve seen him perform them yet.

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Oliver Ford Davies as the Chorus. Photo: Keith Pattison

The staging is also wonderful. Beginning and ending with the bowels of the Barbican backstage area on display, it fits perfectly with a play, which through the inclusion of the Chorus (here played by the ever-excellent Oliver Ford Davies) invites the audience to accept this is a retelling of a great tale and to use their imaginations to fill in the gaps. I still love Oliver Ford Davies picking up the crown to put it on, only for Hassell to appear and snatch it from him, to the raised eyes of the older actor! It’s a wonderful start to what is a truly wonderful production.

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Joshua Richards as Fluellen. Photo: Keith Pattison

Drawing on the strength of this ensemble all of the performances are spot on throughout. Joshua Richards is especially brilliant as Fluellen and his scene with the soldiers from Ireland, England and Scotland is a particular highlight, showing through its humour how perhaps the English viewed the other realms of the British Isles at the time. Simon Yadoo’s Scottish soldier is hilarious in that you don’t understand a single word he says!

The members of the French contingent are also very good too. Robert Gilbert is ridiculously silly as the Dauphin, flicking his hair and preening like a peacock, so arrogant in his supposed position of superiority over Henry (and indeed those on his own side). Sam Marks is again a strong presence on the stage as the Constable of France and his relationship with the Dauphin, filled with friction is brilliant to watch (particularly as they use the tactic of emphasis on syllables in words to fire barbed insults at one another).

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Jennifer Kirby as Princess Katherine. Photo: Keith Pattison

Jennifer Kirby is wonderful as Princess Katherine (or Kate as Hal calls her – quite modern and fitting in a world with our own royal Kate). Her ability to bring humour and fun through her early scenes while speaking French is impressive and her playful chemistry with Hassell in the final scene of the play is a joy to watch (indeed on Sunday, Alex Hassell almost had her in stitches). It could be a very modern scene, a testament to the brilliance of the playwright who wrote it 400 years ago!

I loved this production in Stratford-Upon-Avon and it has only improved over its Barbican run, resulting in a triumphant final fanfare yesterday, of which everyone involved should feel incredibly proud.

The King And Country productions can still be seen on their international tour. Henry IV and V first in China next month and then all four plays go to New York in March. For details and ticket information visit the RSC’s website here. Henry V will also be released in due course on DVD. My post reflecting on the King and Country cycle as a whole will follow shortly.

 

Theatre Reflections – Henry IV (RSC) at the Barbican

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Last week saw me return to the Barbican to see Henry IV (which I’d first seen in Stratford-Upon-Avon and then again at the Barbican a year ago). Now back as part of the King and Country cycle I was looking forward to seeing it again. I’ve written at length on this blog about the RSC’s Richard II (click on the tag Richard II for all posts), but in terms of the other plays of the cycle, it was Henry IV that I enjoyed so much more this time around. My overall thoughts on the cycle as a whole will appear in a separate post within the next day.

 

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

Antony Sher’s Falstaff, although very good, hadn’t captured my attention and emotion in the same way as Roger Allam had, but on this run I found his performance so much stronger. The voice he uses for Falstaff (which I admit I did find a bit OTT) had been taken down a notch or two and it was a much more settled performance, which I actually very much enjoyed. He still has a lovely relationship with Alex Hassell’s Prince Hal, especially early on and the playful jokes between him, Hal and Poins were lovely to see again. You do indeed see the Eastcheap gang as a family and perhaps understand why Hal enjoys being part of it rather than the Court. This makes the end of Part II all the more poignant as Hal turns away from his former life and his dear friend. Sher’s “I will be sent for” was so sad, as you sense that perhaps even Falstaff knows that’s a lie.

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Matthew Needham was a brilliant Hotspur alongside Sean Chapman as Northumberland

The other key character within Part I has to be Hotspur and although Trevor White’s manic, bleach-blonde performance was certainly different, it did grate on me after a while and I preferred Matthew Needham’s portrayal of this young man through Richard II and Henry IV Part I, which I thought was fantastic. He was able to convey the moments of humour, anger and frustration perfectly, resulting in the audience (or certainly me anyway) liking him and admiring his courage and bravery – putting him in stark contrast to the revelling Prince Hal. This added a different dimension to their final confrontation and it was thrilling to see these two men sword to sword. You yearn for circumstances to be different between these them, here set on opposing trajectories, as you can imagine how perhaps they could have been a great source of strength for each other had they been on the same side. Having seen Needham on stage previously in comedy The Knight of the Burning Pestle at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (and on crutches no less after an injury) I knew he’d be a great addition to the ensemble and he certainly didn’t disappoint. Sarah Parks also gave a wonderful Mistress Quickly and Emma King’s Doll was a feisty Scottish lass, whose scene with Anthony Byrne’s Pistol was great fun.

 

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Antony Sher as Falstaff wth Alex Hassell as Prince Hal

I’m still not a huge fan of Henry IV Part II, but I really enjoyed it on Saturday. It was funny, but not ridiculous and the growing ill health of the King was perfectly captured by Jasper Britton, whose final speech was a key, stand-out moment of the weekend, particularly after you as an audience has travelled with that character over two days through from being Bolingbroke to the dying King Henry. Playing Bolingbroke has certainly enhanced his approach to Henry IV and seeing his decline from confident rebel to weak, dying man was particularly poignant during the cycle. Britton’s wonderful, fatherly relationship with Needham’s Hotspur in Richard II highlighted the distance between him and his own son at the start of Henry IV and seeing them side by side on his deathbed in Part II, at last with an affection that they may never really have had was delicately played by both Britton and Hassell.

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The 2014 cast recording is available on DVD

My main reason for never enjoying Part II as much as Part I is the interlude away from the main plot to see Falstaff’s visits to Shadow and Silence and on previous visits to this production, as much as I love Oliver Ford Davies and Jim Hooper, it still didn’t really appeal to me. However, as part of the cycle experience they felt like light relief in a much broader way and were much more enjoyable during this viewing. I still don’t think they serve much purpose and for me the play wouldn’t suffer from their absence, but the actors were on fine form on Saturday. I also appreciated the moment Falstaff and Shadow mirrored Bolingbroke and Richard holding either side of the crown. It was a moment I would only ever have picked up on by watching the whole cycle as one.

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

Another favourite of these productions was Sam Marks’ Ned Poins, who although in Henry IV for only a few scenes, captures the closeness and brotherly affection between him and Hal and the banter and fun of their world, draws the audience in. This only makes it a little more sad to be aware that such frivolity will clearly never last once Hal becomes King. Credit also needs to go to Emma King as Lady Mortimer, whose ability to speak and sing with such emotion in Welsh was incredibly impressive.

Overall, although it’s still my least favourite of the three stories of the cycle, I thoroughly enjoyed this visit to this production, much more so than before and it paved the way wonderfully for Henry V.

Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 can next be seen in China and then New York as part of the King and Country tour. Details can be found here. For those who missed the shows in the UK, an earlier 2014 performance was filmed and is available to buy on DVD from the RSC and all the usual retailers.

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

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

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

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

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

Casting

Bolingbroke

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

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

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

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

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

Aumerle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other cast changes

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

Scene changes

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

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The staging of the prison scene has changed for this run

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

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

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

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

Development

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

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David Tennant & Oliver Ford Davies continue to be wonderful

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

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

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Photo by Keith Pattison

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

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

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

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

 

“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!