Theatre Review – A majestic King Lear at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester

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(All photos credited to: Manuel Harlan)

Ten years ago, I hadn’t yet become the theatre addict I am today and so, as a result, I missed out on seeing Sir Ian McKellen’s King Lear at the RSC, having to make do with watching it on DVD. Undoubtably a theatre legend and one of the actors I now never fail to see on stage, there was no way I was missing out a second time and last night saw me back in Chichester to see McKellen’s return to this iconic Shakespearean role. Seating only 283 people and running for just over a month, I certainly felt lucky to have a ticket.

It’s the second time I’ve seen him perform in the intimate space of the Minerva Theatre (the first being 2011’s The Syndicate) and it’s clear that he thrives on the added power that comes from being so close to the audience and the play itself also benefits from the intimacy of the venue; drawing you in and holding your attention, despite the lengthy running time (just over 3 hours, plus an interval in this case).

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However, Jonathan Munby’s production is much more than its leading actor, boasting an incredibly talented ensemble cast. Sinead Cusack is a highlight as the Countess of Kent, whose loyalty and love of her King causes her to follow him in disguise, despite his cruel treatment of her, after so many years of service, in the opening scene (so brilliantly staged here, with Lear playfully taking great delight in cutting up the map of the UK with a pair of scissors – Scotland to Goneril, Northern Ireland & Wales to Regan, and England, the last third, which is then ripped in two, if you were wondering).

The strength of the female roles in King Lear is always one of my favourite aspects of the play and this production did not disappoint. Dervla Kirwan plays Goneril with a poise and maturity the comes from being the eldest sibling, exasperated by her father’s behaviour and slowly driven further and further down a path that doesn’t seem natural to her. Interestingly, in this production I never truly despised Goneril and by the end, I still did not believe her capable of the murder of her sister. She just did not seem dark enough for such actions in Kirwan’s hands.

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Kirsty Bushell’s Regan on the other hand, thrives on the darkness that descends; dancing around to music during the torture of the Earl of Gloucester, clearly turned on by the whole twisted experience. Bushell is excellent throughout this production, using her sexuality to manipulate and control those around her, before being foiled by her sister’s jealousy of her seduction of Edmund.

I always have the most sympathy for the Earl of Gloucester (how could you not?!) and this production was no different with  Danny Webb delivering a strong, moving performance, particularly in his scenes with Jonathan Bailey as Edgar/Tom. Bailey is fantastic as the loyal, loving son, wronged by his father and brother, in the same way as Cordelia is wronged by Lear and her sisters (and Bailey’s Edgar seems to care a great deal about her, based on Bailey’s reactions to her casting off and later death). He doesn’t go too far with the pretence of madness either; it’s always just a means to an end and his counterpoint, Edmund, is also wonderfully portrayed by Damien Molony. I’ve seen more evil portrayals; more devious ones too, but Molony comes across as extremely believable throughout the play.

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The Minerva may be a small space, but Paul Will’s set is never lacking; creating multiple locations with ease and enhancing the power of key moments in the story (especially when combined with Ben and Max Ringham’s music and sound). I particularly loved how the red carpeted dias began to resemble a pool of blood, expanding outwards from beneath McKellen’s feet, as the rain from the storm lashed down on him. This Lear may keep his clothes on (unlike his 2007 performance), but the scene is no less powerful.

Some aspects of the production didn’t quite work for me. After a promising first scene, Phil Daniels’ Fool seems to fade away in to the background and is forgotten much too quickly when compared to others that I’ve seen. Also, despite strong performances from both McKellen and Tamara Lawrance individually, the love between father and daughter never really shone through, resulting in Cordelia’s death and Lear’s grief lacking depth for me. Having said that, King Lear never draws from me the same emotional response as say, a powerful production of Hamlet, which has been known to bring me to tears. Perhaps it’s the fact I never really feel sorry for Lear, feeling he brings his miseries on himself, or perhaps some plays resonate more with some audience members than others.

However, McKellen’s portrayal throughout the production of a man clearly starting to feel his age, resulted in a much more believable ending. All the moments of him trying to catch his breath, as if on the verge of a heart attack and the added wheezes, meant that his sudden death during the play’s final moments seemed inevitable, rather than out of the blue.

King Lear will never be my favourite Shakespearean tragedy. However, this production is one of the strongest I’ve seen. It was engaging, engrossing and a thoroughly enjoyable theatre experience. Making your way to Chichester to try for a returned ticket is absolutely worth the effort.

King Lear continues its run at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester until 28th October 2017. Running time: 3 hours (or just over), plus a 20 minute interval. Although sold out, keep an eye on the website for returns or head to the theatre on the day to join the returns queue. For more information, visit the website.

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Q&A with the cast of the Almeida Theatre’s Hamlet (23rd March 2017)

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Following last Thursday’s performance of Hamlet, the majority of the cast and the Associate Director Daniel Raggett joined the audience for an engaging and insightful Q&A. I had specifically booked to see this performance in order to be there for the talkback session and as this production has left me wanting to ask so many questions, I was thrilled that at least some were answered during the evening. It was also hugely impressive to see so many of the cast attend the Q&A after a four hour performance (I’ve included a full list of attendees at the bottom).

This post sets out the questions asked and the responses as fully as I can.

Who do they (the cast) think should have ruled Elsinore in the end?

The cast all agreed that this was a great question and that it was hard to choose, but that the key was that these are exactly the types of questions Shakespeare is asking and for us to think about.

The cast was asked about the choice of music within the production.

The assistant director said that he couldn’t speak for the director Robert Icke, but commented on how he works instinctively and so he imagines it started with one Bob Dylan song and progressed from there. He also referred to Icke working alongside Laura Marling in considering the music to be used in the production.

What were their thoughts about the perception of time and reality in the production?

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(Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Angus Wright (Claudius) discussed this from Claudius’s point of view, saying that in his mind it’s all about Hamlet taking a different time to him, particularly with his grief for his father. Claudius just wants him to hurry up and get over it!

Luke Thompson (Laertes) spoke of how for his character it’s all about it being the time to leave at the beginning. He is keen to return to France. He also agreed that Robert Icke had taken a specific attitude to time and raised how purpose is a slave to memory, in that the more you let thought in to something and spend time thinking about it, the harder it is to act. I certainly agree with him that this is something that affects a number of characters in the play.

Barry Aird (Gravedigger / Francisco) spoke about the sense that the Gravedigger is almost dreamlike; there is a sense that he is almost out of a different time to the other characters and he referred to it reminding him of the barman in the film The Shining.

The cast were also asked about their thoughts on the striking image used for the poster and why it was chosen. 

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Andrew Scott agreed with the audience member that there were links to Ophelia in the image (through the use of flowers strewn across Hamlet on the T-shirt) and he said that, in his opinion, there are a lot of similarities between Hamlet and Ophelia. He certainly believes that they really do feel love for each other and yet are forced to work out their parents’ problems, not theirs. He spoke about how cruel this is. He also made the important point that there can be no tragedy if there is no love (something in my mind that many productions of the play get wrong). Lastly, Andrew also made the point that the image could also signify either Hamlet (that is, the young man or his father) and the sense of stepping in to someone else’s shoes.

A question was also asked about whether the cast think that theatre is still allowing people to come and be transformed by what they see, which in turn may enable them to use that energy to create real change in the world?

Andrew Scott spoke about how it is important to Robert Icke that his plays are for now and mentioned the line from Hamlet which speaks of “the age and body of the time.” He also said how the play itself is full of love and compassion and how all of the cast is trying to understand each other and serve those emotions.

Jessica Brown Findlay (Ophelia) commented on this issue too, making the important statement that if art stops being brave and starts apologising then we’re in trouble (well, she used a stronger term than that!) and that art can stretch over everything and unify us, which received a round of applause from the audience.

Jessica Brown Findlay was then asked about why we don’t see Ophelia’s face as she speaks her last line (the person asking the question really wanted to see it).

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Peter Wight & Jessica Brown Findlay (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Jessica discussed how they had played around with the scene and that Ophelia looks around at all the people there. Ophelia has wanted to be heard her whole life and so this is her moment to be heard and look at all of those in her life. She hadn’t really thought about the fact the audience couldn’t see her at the moment, although Angus Wright (Claudius) said how it’s great for the other actors, as they can see her in that powerful moment.

It was also raised that the production seems to have used scenes / lines from different versions of Hamlet, with specific reference made to the scene between Horatio and Gertrude (a scene which is only included in Quarto 1 (the “bad quarto”).

Elliot Barnes-Worrell (Horatio) spoke about this scene coming from the “bad quarto” which is allegedly written by the actor who originally played one of the other smaller characters in the play. He commented that without this scene, you are left with the scene in which Hamlet recites a letter from Hamlet (one which Barry Aird (Gravedigger) said is quite dull) and so when Robert Icke found this scene in quarto one, Elliot was pleased that they could instead have a scene which puts Gertrude on team Hamlet and gives Horatio an ally at that point in the play.

Joshua Higgott (Marcellus) also spoke about the importance of creating a world that fits the production and in this one, a scene about pirates wouldn’t have made much sense. Barry Aird (Gravedigger) also made the important point that Shakespeare should be treated as if a new playwright and I agree with him. The key to keeping Shakespeare’s work alive and relevant is to make it fresh for its audience and this production certainly does that.

Reference was also made to the production’s modern parallels, such as the images of war and the cast were asked whether anything had any particular resonances for them.

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Andrew Scott as Hamlet (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Associate Director Daniel Raggett said that it is their job to ask the questions for the audience to think about, while Amaka Okafor (Guildenstern) spoke about how she finds the setting of the production very domestic, which is important as it is about heart. She also commented that stories have the ability to span all political stories and events.

David Rintoul (Ghost/Player King) referred to the scene in which Hamlet sees the Poles defending the small patch of land and how those lines about war could apply to so many places in the world today.

Andrew Scott also talked about how wide-ranging a play Hamlet is, as it covers so much ground, from war, to grief, to love and so to drown it in one theme would be a tragedy. He also referred to people’s comments that the production was so long, saying that if it isn’t long, then you aren’t doing the play, as there is so much in it!

Sadly, we then had to let the cast escape, despite the fact we could all have spent so much longer asking questions about the production! The full list of cast members attending the Q&A alongside Associate Director Daniel Raggett was as follows: Andrew Scott (Hamlet); Amaka Okafor (Guildenstern); Calum Finlay (Rosencrantz); Luke Thompson (Laertes); Jessica Brown Findlay (Ophelia); Joshua Higgott (Marcellus); Marty Cruickshank (Player Queen); Peter Wight (Polonius); David Rintoul (Ghost/Player King); Barry Aird (Francisco/Gravedigger); Elliot Barnes-Worrell (Horatio); Angus Wright (Claudius) and Juliet Stevenson (Gertrude).

Thanks very much to the cast and creative team of Hamlet for a brilliant evening. All productions photos used in this post are by Manuel Harlan.

Hamlet continues its run at the Almeida Theatre until 15th April. Although advance tickets are sold out, seats occasionally pop up online and day seats are released each morning at 11 a.m, with returns also being a possibility closer to the show each day. The production is also transferring to the Harold Pinter Theatre from 9th June – 2nd September (albeit with some cast changes). For more information on the West End transfer, see the Almeida’s website here and the ATG website here.

Theatre Review – Hamlet starring Andrew Scott (Almeida Theatre): devastatingly emotional, thrillingly original & impressive on every level

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Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare play and I’m always keen to see a new interpretation of this rich and powerful story. Over the years, I’ve never been quite as eager in advance of seeing it, as I was before my very first experience back in 2008 at the RSC. That was until the Almeida Theatre announced Andrew Scott would be taking on Shakespeare’s famous character in a production by one of theatre’s most exciting directors, Robert Icke. I knew this had the potential to be truly special and on Monday night, I was thrilled to discover that all my expectations had been met and surpassed!

The key for me has always been that a great production of Hamlet must have more than a talented lead actor. The whole cast and the vision of its director need to be strong enough to bring Shakespeare’s story to life anew for the audience and this production succeeds in bringing together brilliant actors throughout the cast and a talented creative team, who together deliver a truly devastatingly emotional and thrillingly original experience.

Before we talk about Andrew Scott (and there is much to say!), I therefore have to talk about some of the many other performances in the ensemble worthy of praise. Juliet Stevenson follows Mary Stuart (also at the Almeida) with a fantastic Gertrude. Too often Gertrude is left on the sidelines of the play, but not here. She is a fully realised, flawed woman. Thrilled with the idea that Claudius is attracted to her, she has been carried along by the passion of it and yet is still conscious of how Hamlet is suffering, in no small part because of her actions. The closet scene has always been a favourite of mine and in productions such a this, where Gertrude has a believable bond with her son, it is a joy to watch. Stevenson and Scott wring every ounce of emotion out of it and in a production where Hamlet feels truly capable of anything (frighteningly so in fact), the danger feels very real and Stevenson captures Gertrude’s fear for herself, as well as her heartbreak at her son’s mental state.

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Angus Wright (Claudius), Andrew Scott (Hamlet) & Juliet Stevenson (Gertrude). Photo: Manuel Harlan for the Guardian

Interestingly, this production also places her firmly against Claudius before Hamlet’s return to Elsinore, as we see her realise and accept the King’s villainy when Horatio puts it in front of her. I have never seen such a scene included in Hamlet before and found that it made her choice to drink from the cup instead of Hamlet, a cup she knows with certainty to be poisoned, all the more tragic. Her last act is to show her loyalty to her son over Claudius.

The relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is also given much more stage time than other productions I’ve seen, which gives far greater life and depth to their connection. Seeing her comfort a devastated Hamlet, who breaks down in her arms once they are alone after the wedding party scene was agonising, yet beautiful. It grounded their relationship in reality and was one of my favourite moments in the production, ensuring a greater emotional resonance to the tragedy of what’s to come. Jessica Brown-Findlay is a strong Ophelia, who has a truly loving relationship with her father, ensuring her spiral in to depression following his death is all the more poignant and heartbreaking. Her descent in to such despair is also handled sensitively. She isn’t a wild, whirling woman in these moments, but a young girl who has lost a father she adored and respected and at the hand of the man she loved.

Also and more so than in any other Hamlet I have seen, I found Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fascinating. For a start, they arrive much earlier than I am used to, which captured my attention! Hamlet has yet to “put on an antic disposition” when we first see them, suggesting that even before his father’s ghost appears to him, his behaviour is already causing concern. Not only that, but from the moment they arrive, there seems to be a tension between them and Hamlet, due to a potential love triangle.

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Andrew Scott (Hamlet), Amaka Okafor (Guildenstern) & Calum Finlay (Rosencrantz). Photo: Manuel Harlan for the Guardian

Amaka Okafor plays the female Guildenstern as a woman who clearly loves Hamlet and you have a sense that perhaps the two of them have a romantic history. Yet now it seems she is with Rosencrantz (played by Calum Finlay), which made for an interesting dynamic between the three. It also meant that certain lines carried much greater meaning, such as when Hamlet asks them to admit they were sent for if they love him, to which Guildenstern responds and also by giving Rosencrantz’s line “My Lord, you once did love me” to Guildenstern. Having two characters who are too often one-dimensional and marginalised actually catch my attention, is just one example of how Robert Icke’s production adds a fresh perspective to this well known story.

Angus Wright’s Claudius is a modern political manipulator. He is calm and collected and carries an air of suaveness that you can see would have turned Gertrude’s eye. I also didn’t believe for a moment that he felt any remorse for killing his brother, which became so evident in his “prayer” scene. He may not have the same commanding presence as actors such as Patrick Stewart had in the role, but Wright’s portrayal makes clear that the King is a threat to Hamlet, which is essential to maintain the underlying tension as the play progresses (and which I felt was lacking in Ciaran Hinds’s version).

Elliot Barnes-Worrell is a wonderful Horatio, who has a believable friendship and loyalty to Hamlet. Often their bond is lacking, resulting in a less satisfying, emotional ending, but not here. Luke Thompson’s portrayal of Laertes is also enjoyable. Laertes is often a weak link, yet Thompson ensures he is a character you sympathise with. David Rintoul’s Ghost was another performance I enjoyed. Although his initial appearance in front of Hamlet is quite eerie, he isn’t a frightening figure. In fact his interactions with Hamlet are much more affectionate than every other production I’ve seen and it only emphasises just what Hamlet has lost. In light of Rintoul’s portrayal, the choice to miss out the Ghost’s bellowing commands from below the earth (a moment I always find rather silly and certainly didn’t miss) was a wise one!

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The play within a play. Photo: Manuel Harlan for the Guardian

As you can see, I could say positives about this whole company (heck it even has the glorious Marty Cruickshank as the Player Queen!), which is one of its biggest strengths. It does not have weak links, allowing the play to sing and for Icke and his cast to try new and imaginative ideas with the material.

So, we come to Andrew Scott. I have been waiting for him to tackle Hamlet for years and he is superb. He is such a versatile actor and this is a performance that covers the entire spectrum of human emotion; one moment his Hamlet is filled with [frenetic energy], exploding with anger, frustration and grief, the next fragile and broken, seemingly utterly adrift in the world. He is also both hugely vulnerable and frighteningly dangerous, which was thrilling to watch. You believe Hamlet to be capable of anything, which provides the production of this 400 year-old play with a fresh tension and energy.

Scott’s ability with the text is also fantastic. He may occasionally be a little too loud, but he found emphasis and humour in lines that I’ve never seen before (and in one particular case regarding Hamlet’s continual fencing practice, addressed a line that has always annoyed me, with perfect comedy). I have always found him to be a truly soulful actor in every role (especially on stage) and every soliloquy was so full of raw emotion that he held the whole audience under his spell. I found his delivery of the “readiness is all” lines particularly heartbreaking. His is absolutely a Hamlet you will never forget.

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An utterly unforgettable Hamlet (Andrew Scott). Photo: Manuel Harlan for the Guardian

Indeed, on leaving the Almeida, I was most struck by how original an interpretation Robert Icke has created. Having seen most of his previous work, it is always thrilling and thought-provoking and yet I was still surprised by how his version of Hamlet had me seeing scenes I know so well in a different light, which is a rare treat. Hamlet is such a rich story, that directors and actors always have the scope to play with it if they dare and it was exciting to see that Icke and his cast have done just that.

I don’t want to spoil the cleverness of this production, but I will say that there are moments where a simple change leads to a whole new context for events that follow. The scene in which Hamlet considers killing his uncle as he is praying is one such example. The choices made on the Almeida stage in this scene were totally new to me and resulted in Hamlet’s crazed, frustrated, wild behaviour in his mother’s room making even more sense than usual, while proving that this Claudius is worlds away from the weaker portrayals of the character I’ve seen in other productions.

Hamlet’s sense of loss is always evident from the outset and yet here it is added to further through his immediate awareness of the fact he is potentially losing Ophelia too, following her father’s command that she stay away from him. In a production where we have already seen him break down in her arms, this is another blow to him and you feel the weight of loss on Andrew Scott’s shoulders. It’s another example of where just a couple of small changes impact on the emotional heart of the characters in new and interesting ways.

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Jessica Brown-Findlay (Ophelia) & Peter Wight (Polonius) in rehearsal. Photo: Miles Aldridge

As for Polonius (played by Peter Wight), he is usually portrayed as either a comical old fool, or for actors unable to capture the comedy, a rather dry and dull character. He may not be my favourite Polonius, but I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that Wight’s version fits neither of these images. He is a loving father and indeed a useful adviser to the king and in the scene in which he is usually most comical – his conversation with Hamlet in which he is called a fishmonger, the production does not take the obvious and well trodden route of Polonius talking to himself or the audience. Instead, here he becomes a shrewd player in the surveillance world of Elsinore and it’s a wonderfully clever way to make the scene and the character feel fresh. The fact that Hamlet makes clear that he knows precisely what is going on too is also very well executed.

The use of newsfeed-style footage for the scenes involving the Polish army and Fortinbras is also a wise choice, as these moments, although necessary for the wider plot, can drag the pace down. By including them in such a modern way, enables them to serve the plot, without losing the audience’s engagement. For example, we need Hamlet to see the Polish army in order for him to deliver the soliloquy it inspires, but here the focus is able to stay on Hamlet.

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Director Robert Icke

Hildegard Bechtler’s set is ideal for this production. There are no huge, ornate sets, filled with lots of furniture, which needs moving on and off stage during key moments (yes, I’m looking at you Barbican Hamlet). Instead, it is a very stripped back stage space that reminded me very much of Icke’s Oresteia. Divided in to two sections, the front half is kept quite bare, with minimal seating, while a sliding door separates it from the back half, where events such as the wedding party can continue in the background, without distracting from the play’s biggest moments. This split stage is also used to beautiful effect during the play’s final moments, where the sense of death and its stopping of our time on the earth are so poignantly conveyed.

I also loved the music choices made by the creative team. More dramatic moments were accompanied by a throbbing beat, which added to the sense of time running out for these individuals, while other scenes were accompanied by songs which captured the emotional heart of the moment. I especially liked the musical choice taken during the fencing scene, which again was something I’d never seen before in this play. As for the running time? Don’t be put off by it. Yes, it’s long, but as with some of his other plays, Icke’s three part, two interval structure and pacing ensures that you are swept along until the final scene.

Simply put, this is how Hamlet should be – thrilling, dramatic, poignant, funny, heartbreaking and thought-provoking. With such a strong, visionary director and talented cast, it made me see the play with fresh eyes and engage with Shakespeare’s tremendous work in new and exciting ways. I am sure it will be one that is discussed and remembered long in to the future and although the 2008 RSC production will always hold a special place in my heart, this production is the only one I have seen since that could go on to become my favourite. I am already excited to see it again, which is exactly how a production of Hamlet should make you feel.

If you already have tickets, you are in for a treat. If you haven’t, make the effort to get your hands on one. I promise you, you will not regret it.

Hamlet at the Almeida Theatre runs until 15th April 2016. Although tickets have sold out, there will be day seats on sale each morning at the box office and it is also worth trying for returns a few hours before each performance. Running time is 3 hours 45 minutes (including two 15 minute intervals). For more information, visit the theatre’s website here

 

Theatre Review – Richard III starring Ralph Fiennes (Almeida Theatre)

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The end of last week saw me make two trips to the Almeida to see the anticipated production of Richard III starring Ralph Fiennes in the title role. As these were previews, the production was still developing and there will have likely been a few more tweaks between my last trip on Friday and tomorrow night’s press night. There had already been some interesting small changes between the two nights I attended, which was very fascinating to see.

Overall I enjoyed this production. The bookend scenes are fantastic in setting the historical aspect of the story in the audience’s mind from the moment you enter the auditorium. We begin at an excavation site, as bones are unearthed while the audience takes their seats; the final bone to emerge – a curved spine. I’d been waiting for a production to reference a Leicester car park and the staging here worked well in giving a nod to the iconic nature of the play’s title character, even in the 21st century.

The bare brick walls of the Almeida are also ideal for staging the various scenes, whether a dark Tower cell, a council meeting room, or the barren battlefield. It gives a timeless feel to the production and I also liked the simple modern dress (mainly black suits and dresses) in helping not to set it in any specific modern period. Some of Richard’s great lines and asides also require a sense of connection and intimacy with the audience and at the Almeida he really does seem to be speaking to each one of you.

As for Fiennes, I enjoyed his portrayal, which was exactly along the lines I had expected. I’ve seen a few Richards now, but none have ever seemed truly evil. They have always possessed a sort of charm, which was then undercut in moments of cruelty (whether Spacey, Rylance, Jonjo O’Neil or even Cumberbatch for the recent BBC series). I’ve always been able to see how someone could be caught out by their charm and at times it’s made Richard seem less of a threat (especially so with Martin Freeman’s portrayal, notwithstanding one terrifying scene with a telephone cord). That’s not the case with Ralph Fiennes and I was pleased about that.

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His Richard is utterly horrid, with no real charm at all. Instead he uses threats and dominance (at some points sexual in nature) to bend those around him to his will. When anyone attempts to stand up to him, he finds a way to diminish them, particularly the women, with one such moment in particular leaving me, for the first time watching this play, really looking forward to seeing him meet his end. Although this portrayal meant there was less humour in certain scenes (such as the scene with Richard supposedly at prayer, for which Spacey maintains the comedic crown), Fiennes still delivered some of Richard’s best lines with a dry humour that evoked laughs from the audience.

There are also some very good supporting performances. Aislin McGuckin as Queen Elizabeth and Joanna Vanderham as Anne were both particularly effective at bringing their characters’ heightened emotions to the forefront. They are very strong women, who each do their best to stand their ground when confronted with the actions of the monstrous Richard. Susan Engel also conveyed his mother’s utter horror and dismay at her son’s actions well and her final confrontation with him was very believable. The other stand-out performance for me was Finbar Lynch’s Buckingham, who often seems to be the driving force behind Richard. They are very much a team, moving the chess pieces around the board to finally position Richard on the throne and I thought the two actors had a great relationship on stage.

As for what didn’t work for me, the use of mobile phones by Hastings and Stanley was a distraction that served no purpose (other than to frustrate me)! No one else seemed to have one, meaning Tyrrell proves the deaths of the two princes with Polaroids and a paper calendar is consulted on the eve of battle. It’s a minor niggle, but one that still momentarily took me out of the scene.

I wasn’t hugely sold on Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of Margaret either. I liked the fact she wasn’t a shrieking, hysterical figure and I assume her boiler suit-style outfit is a nod to her battle-ready history (although it did echo Miss Trunchball a bit too much for my liking). However, I found that the pace of scenes in which she appeared slowed considerably. For the first this perhaps works; she calmly and coolly makes her curses, seeming rather wise. In fact, other than the creepy doll she carries about, you tend to think the court really should be taking her words more seriously. For later scenes however, the pace felt much too slow and even quite dull, which has not been my experience of Margaret in any other production.

The other gripe for me, which I hope has gone by now (or at the very least can be explained to me by someone) is Fiennes’s use of a totally different accent during the battle! I couldn’t even tell what accent it was meant to be. I may perhaps be missing something hugely obvious, but it simply seemed bizarre and distracting to me.

I’ve personally never viewed this play as exciting, as some people seem to. I’ve always seen it as a story centred on a lot of talk and political scheming, rather than one of excitement and therefore the fact the overall pace did feel slow at times didn’t bother me too much (it had noticeably picked up during my second visit and so may have been further tightened up this week). The key to my enjoyment of Richard III is that I believe the performances and here I did in the majority of cases. It was great to finally see on stage a truly awful Duke of Gloucester and I’m sure Mr Fiennes will continue to mine the depths of his dark side over the course of the run. I’m looking forward to seeing it again in late July to see just how evil he has become!

Richard III continues its run at the Almeida Theatre until 6th August 2016. Running time: 3 hours 15 mins approx. (including one 20 minute interval). Day seats will be available from 17th via the box office from 11 a.m.. Some tickets costing £20 will also be available via a lottery through the TodayTix app. The possibility of returns or last minute spare production seats means trying your luck at the theatre is also worth considering. For more information visit the website. For those unable to get to the theatre, the production will also be screened in cinemas on 21st July and details of that broadcast and participating cinemas can be found on the Live Almeida website.

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.