Posts Tagged ‘stratford’

Cooper’s London

July 27, 2017


A Tight Andronicus  

I cannot understand why Titus Andronicus has such a terrible reputation. Perhaps it’s because so far I have only seen good and interesting productions? Which suggests to me that there is something stageworthy about it even if it doesn’t read all that brilliantly on the page.

At one level, of course, it’s like watching those contemporary action thrillers or horror films with lots of blood and events. This new production at the RSC in Stratford, updated to a contemporary world on the edge of street riots, embraces (to a degree) that kind of Summer Blockbuster approach. It opens with a prologue of alarums and excursions by a contemporary mob and police, swiftly underscoring the theme that the violence and emotional savagery of humanity are still being played out in the contemporary worldEgypt or China or Venezuela or Syria, for instance?

Director Blanche McIntyre deploys a battery of shock effects and line readings that at times, and rightly, provoke uneasy, spontaneous laughter from the audience. Not that the Grand Guignol is played for laughs. The actors present characters that are believable, if grotesque or evil, and are all the more convincing because of the updating of the visuals to a contemporary world that resonates with echoes of everyone from Erdogan to Asad. Further, the play ties in neatly with the RSC’s “Roman Season “ in which they are doing productions of Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus as well as Titus Andronicus to show how the plays work when given a thematic context.  The good news is that the four plays are being broadcast to cinemas all over the world; you’ll also be able to catch up with them on DVD in the near future and see what I’m talking about.t So you won’t have to go to Stratford-upon-Avon or, later, to London’s Barbican Theatre, to see these shows and decide for yourself, because the RSC now brings its season to you, wherever you are. 

Of course it isn’t quite the same as being in the theatre. But these live broadcasts do capture the sense of occasion. While you are not in a fixed seat with a fixed viewpoint, the broadcast director and cameramen are choosing varied viewpoints for you, and they have become increasingly skilled at this. The compensations of being able to experience the actual new production in real time and see the actors in close-ups definitely balances the disadvantage of not actually being there. So let us hear three cheers for this new dispensation! The RSC Roman Season has already broadcast its exemplary Julius Caesar and extremely fine Antony and CleopatraCoriolanus is to be broadcast on 11 October 2017. And if you miss any of these plays, they will appear on DVD; you can catch up with them later. Another good thing about our era is simply that these productions are being preserved.

The RSC, with this kind of integrated approach to the four plays, and its commitment to widening its audience through new technological means, is enjoying a very good period at the moment under the directorship of Gregory Doran. When you see this season’s plays, each one stands on its own but there are echoes across them of a shared central vision, a core, that makes a point about our world today and what we are seeing on the the news. The news cameras are right there on stage for the big public moments of Titus Andronicus throughout. And the world of a mythical Ancient Rome is just as much a paradigm for our current displaced but suppressed violence, anger, and our populist denial of reason and compassion as are the clips we witness every day from, say, the Middle East.

I recommend this Titus Andronicus very highly (in whatever medium you can access), as you have probably guessed by now. For a start, it’s an extremely intelligent interpretation that’s very sensitive to subtext, and the text is presented with utmost clarity.There’s not a weak performance in the cast. David Troughton  (King Lear at Stratford not long ago) brings out a quality in Titus that is a kind of early, simpler draft of Lear. He begins with immense self-assurance and lack of pity for the plight of Tamora’s son, whom he puts to death. And there’s the rub! He’s tired, he’s old, he’s vengeful, he cannot see beyond the rituals of Rome and appeasement of his gods.  At the start, Andronicus only slenderly knows himself and doesn’t seem to see that his actions might have uncontrollable consequences. Nor will he allow himself to become Emperor, though the people want it. It’s his voice that tips the balance into rousing the crowd to appoint Saturninus as Emperor; it’s therefore his shirking of responsibility that causes so much chaos and damage to ensue. At the beginning, like Lear, he cannot see beyond his entitlements, his power and his beliefs. Does it make you think of anyone in the world of contemporary politics, by any chance? Clearly Shakespeare was already contemplating that the fault was not in our stars but in ourselves. McIntyre’s production suggests this strongly. 

Martin Hutson is a riveting, neurotic, lustful and dangerously self-inflated Saturninus, a modern-day City banker or trader, a Stalin whose fear of losing power makes him paranoid; Nia Gwynne is terrifyingly manipulative, fearsome and predatory as Tamora, as well as bruisingly moving and self-justifying in her anguish. There is a convincing, effective Aaron played by Stefan Adegbola, whose credo is that if he ever did a good deed he regrets it. And yet, when it comes to it, he loves the baby son that he fathers on Tamora and strives to save it. But is this unexpected paternal love or simply projection of his own ego onto the child? The strength of this reading is that we are left with several ambiguities. Aaron comes across as a very early draft of Iago, of course: unfathomable, seemingly motivated only by his own evil.

The production is as bloody as it needs to be (given the text), and visually impressive as it moves about the design outside a contemporary bank of glass and steel created by Robert Innes Hopkins. The set enables a fluid, direct staging, and Tim Sutton’s music is used to great effect;  I was frequently moved by Hannah Morrish as Lavinia and thought the pacing of the play was always superb. Will Bliss plays a clown who must have been one of Shakespeare’s earliest creations as a stark, gasp-making contrast to the unfolding tragedy and mayhem; and Patrick Drury was particularly fine as Marcus Andronicus. The younger generationespecially David Burnett as Quintus, Tom Lorcan as Martius, Dharmesh Oatel as Bassanius, Jon Tarcy as Alarbus, Sean Hart as Demetrius and Luke MacGregor as Chironwere all praiseworthy, as was Marcello Walton in more than one part. 

The great strength and pleasure of the RSC is its ensemble work, the rehearsing until everyone is completely part of a strong unit with one purpose, to find and communicate the soul of the play. In this case, the achievement is all the more impressive because it’s not one of Shakespeare’s best plays and he probably did not contribute more than a few speeches in the first act; yet one is suitably disturbed to see its portrayal of this dark and sometimes uncontrollably brutal side of the human psyche.

Titus Andronicus is playing in repertoire at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until 2 September and at the Barbican Theatre in London from 7 December 2017 until 19 January 2018. It will be broadcast live from the stage on 9 August 2017.

To experience a first-rate production of this early Shakespeare play and discover its often-disputed and underrated merits, check the web for the broadcast schedule:

Cooper’s London

July 29, 2012



Julius Africanus is Big!

Once upon a time there was a famous Wayne and Schuster (remember them?) comic sketch spoofing Julius Caesar, where everyone was dressed in togas but the whole story was handled as if the assassination had happened on Dragnet. Since then, Julius Caesar has been set in many places and eras–and as far back as Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre the parallel to various contemporary tyrannical states has been drawn.

Greg Doran’s new production of Julius Caesar for the Royal Shakespeare Company builds on that tradition. Though the language is all Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England, the talk is about Ancient Rome. But when you enter the theatre you find yourself in an arena in an African country; people are celebrating a festival. At the entry to the arena, its back to the audience, stands the colossal statue of the dictator. The mood is contagious; the audience is caught up and, as the play starts (“Knew you not Pompey?…”), the aptness of setting the play in a contemporary and troubled African state with all its jockeying for power is understood by the spectators both on, and off, the stage.

Jeffery Kissoon is perfect as Caesar; Cyril Nri a crafty Cassius; and Adjoa Andoh touching and troubling as Portia;. All the characters make sense. But if you are collecting performances to remember (despite being clearly part of an ensemble that works together seamlessly), Ray Fearon is the Mark Antony you have been waiting for. His attractiveness, his power; his ability to switch from playboy and Caesarean acolyte, to calculating rhetorician, to steely and almost heartless triumvir, and finally to a philosophical warrior already irritated by and wary of the young Octavius, the range and energy that Fearon brings to his portrayal are breathtaking. But Paterson Joseph is equally compelling as a brilliant Brutus who is, indeed, the only one to join the assassination plot for selfless motives.

This production is strikingly theatrical and understands that power politics is theatre. And the funeral scene is a truly compelling climax and switching point in the play, as it should be. Fearon’s appearance to speak over the corpse of Caesar, in the way he shifts moods and plays his audience, is unforgettable.

Most of the individual moments that we all remember and treasure in this play were gripping in tone, and the rhythm of the evening is solidly worked out. Nevertheless, I thought the cast was still settling into the concept and there were a few awkward moments. Nor was I entirely convinced by the decision to keep up the African accents to the degree that they did – they could, I thought, have faded them a bit more into the background, though at times their lilt made for readings of familiar lines that certainly caught the attention.

The play was on at the main house in Stratford, but it is transferring to London for a run in August and September, and I suspect that by then it will have settled down completely. I found the performances so compelling and the concept so seriously intelligent that I’m tempted to see it again in London if I can, though it will not be quite the same on a proscenium stage as it was on RSC’s thrust stage at Stratford.

But I am also excited by the prospect because Greg Doran has explained in recent interviews that he was inspired to attempt the African setting after seeing an edition of Shakespeare’s complete works from Robben Island in which Nelson Mandela had written his name beside a passage from Julius Caesar. He was fascinated by this marginalia “asserting that [the play] spoke in a particular way to his continent.”

This made Doran ponder why Julius Caesar was the most heavily annotated play in that Robben Island Shakespeare. “Then, when I was talking to John Kani, the South African actor, he said to me: ‘Julius Caesar is Shakespeare’s African play.’ I think it was he that told me that Julius Nyerere, who was the first President of Tanzania, had translated the play into Swahili and also that it’s the play that is the most often performed in Africa. Then you look at African history over the past 50 years and see that there have been many candidates for casting Julius Caesar.”

This Julius Caesar is definitely one not to miss! It will play at the Noel Coward Theatre in London from 8 August until 15 September, and then tour throughout the UK. And it augurs well that Gregory Doran will be the next Artistic Director of the RSC.

P.S. The play was filmed for British Television and, with luck, may screen in the US later this year.

Cooper’s London

June 15, 2012

London is Hot, Hot, Hot….

Well, of course, if you can get tickets, you might want to try the Olympics. They are the biggest show in town for a couple of weeks. Personally I figure you can see it better on TV – but if you’re in town in July, you might want to share the experience live. I suspect there will be returns and standby seats if you aren’t ticketed already. On the other hand, I predict that London will be hot and overcrowded and that this might be a very good time to explore the Highlands of Scotland or the mountains (well, large hills) of Wales.

If you’re interested in the visual arts, consider seeing  Damien Hirst at Tate Modern. Even if you hate his work, the building itself is a pleasure; and you’re right next door to that wonderful facsimile, Shakespeare’s Globe and can sneak into Henry V or The Taming of the Shrew, if you get lucky. Meantime, the Hirst show rings my bells because it’s the first-ever retrospective, I believe, and you can see that shark in formaldehyde and the bisected cow live, as it were.  The show runs til 9 September.

Meantime, free, gratis, no charge, you should go visit places like the British Museum and the National Gallery. The permanent collections are wonderful. They always also have good exhibitions to pay for; but in the case of the National, for instance, there is also an interesting free exhibition. The current one is focused on a work by Titian, The Flight Into Egypt, probably his first masterpiece, painted when he was about fifteen or sixteen and still studying/working in the studios of Giovanni Bellini. It’s in a large room surrounded by works of the period, mainly from the gallery’s own collection, which are simply stunning to see all in one place; and the painting itself is so relatively unknown because it’s been hanging in The Hermitage for two-and-a-half centuries. I had never seen even a reproduction of it before, and I’m now in love with it. It’s large, brilliantly executed, and you can see both the flat-planed layouts of a Bellini-style approach and the more adventurous loosening of technique that will lead, one day, to those final works by Titian that are almost the precursors of Impressionism. And then there are those colours! Relevantly, from 11 July to 23 September, there will be an exhibition of new works inspired by Titian, which I think is a really interesting concept. Meanwhile, if you slip around the corner to the National Portrait Gallery, until 21 October you will be able to see 60 images of the Queen’s 60 years of sitting on her throne. It’s a pleasure to examine how painters, photographers, photojournalists and ordinary Brits have seen her over six decades! And, in the same building, you’ll be able to experience the BP Awardwinners for portraiture from 21 June to 23 September. Like the Royal Academy show every summer, it’s one of those London fixtures; but it’s always one that I get a big kick out of. Some of the portraits are laughable in technique and approach; and some are simply breathtaking, always.

The theatre in London, of course, is still full of those old standbys that everyone wants to see – the musicals that run for 250 years, the plays that are revived every decade or two and called contemporary (though they are at least half-a-century old). I feel that London theatre is more of a cultural museum, these days, than an evolving community of artistry; and I fear that most of the new plays, despite ridiculous and hysterically positive reviews, often leave me feeling “so what?” about the actual texts. But, as usual, the staging and acting are superlative, and even if you don’t collect a new text to think about, you almost always come away riveted by the style and professionalism of the production.

If you’re here with family, especially youngsters, the idea of attending one of the musicals is pretty irresistible and naturally you’ll be trying to book into The Wizard of Oz, say. Well, it does have a yellow brick road and lots of familiar songs; and it is very slickly done. And you get to experience being in the famous London Palladium. This production’s been going for around 500 performances, now; and there will be a new Wizard (Des O’Connor) who should be good. The show is very spectacularly mounted. You’ll certainly recognize quite a lot of the songs!

But more interesting, perhaps, is the musical of Matilda, based on the novel by Roald Dahl and that film by Danny de Vito, who is in town (live), in The Sunshine Boys and very worth seeing, even if you’ve seen the film on TV 400 times). It’s a real romp and the production pays homage to the British Pantomime tradition with a man in drag hilarious as the headmistress. The music (by Tim Minchin) is quite good, too.

The Young Vic is soon mounting a new production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House that should be worth seeing. Simon Stephens, who wrote the highly-regarded Punk Rock, is adapting it and he’s usually very interesting in his perceptions. I also like the work of director Carrie Cracknell and will be curious to see how she deals with this classic text.  It runs 29 June till 26 July; and will be followed in September by a new production of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters that also sounds promising.

And, speaking of classics, there is a very fine production of Noises Off by Michael Frayn, playing at the Novello Theatre until 30 June. The brilliant Celia Imrie and Janie Dee head a superbly drilled ensemble cast  that really makes you ache with laughter, as long as you’re patient about Act One–a set-up that will pay off as the play progresses. Trust it! The same director, Lindsay Posner, has also just shaped a fine production of Mike Leigh’s iconic play Abigail’s Party with the inestimable Jill Halfpenny in the main role. It’s at Wyndham’s Theatre in the Charing Cross Road until at least 1 September (and originated at the Menier Chocolate Factory). The classics at the Donmar Warehouse will be Durenmatt’s The Physicist and Brian Friel‘s Philadelphia, Here I Come. I want to see the first simply because it’s rarely done and I like Durenmatt; but mainly because Sophie Thompson is in it. She is the equally talented sister of the better-known Emma. I’ve never seen her give a bad performance, ever.  She is incapable of being anything but intelligent, witty, convincing, and utterly heart-rending and adorable. In fact, I think I’m falling in love with her. Josie Rourke is directing the new adaptation.

The Stratford Season seems to me a bit weak so far, but I wouldn’t miss the Julius Caesar. The cast is exceptionally interesting and, of course, it’s being directed by my hero, Gregory Doran – Stratford’s new Artistic Director Designate for the RSC. I will review this one anon. It only plays till 7 July – and you must book tickets immediately!

And then there’s “our” Porgy and Bess (see my post of June 4)! A production from the Cape Town Opera, South Africa, is coming to the Coliseum for only 14 performances, from 11 to 21 July. It’s 75 years since Gershwin died, 78 since Porgy was first produced on Broadway, and this is still one of the most innovative, tuneful and moving shows you can see. I think it’s splendid to have an opportunity to see the original opera version of the show anywhere, any time. This production shifts the action to Soweto in the period of apartheid. Not a huge stretch!

There’s more. I will deal with as much of the rest as I can soon! Meantime, England is basking in brilliant summer weather at last and I have to take my dogs for a walk in a nice park.

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