Read Not Dead: The Coxcomb

Every year Shakespeare’s Globe puts on a programme of play readings, known as Read Not Dead; thankfully, the new regime hasn’t put paid to them and they are still an important part of the schedule. I normally try to get to one or two a year, and on Sunday I went along to The Coxcomb, an early work by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. The play is based on an episode on Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Since 2016 also marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the Spanish author, it’s no wonder it was chosen for performance this year.

The plot of The Coxcomb is convoluted, concerning a man who falls in love with his friend’s wife and is surprised to find that his friend appears quite happy to let him indulge his lust. There is also a subplot involving a runaway couple. It’s not always easy to follow, but it leads to several amusing moments.

The plays are always given out to the actors on the morning of the day they are due to take place; they then spend the day rehearsing them before presenting them to the audience in the afternoon. Apart from the scripts in hand and the odd missed cue, you’d hardly notice, a testament to the skill and commitment of the actors involved. The Coxcomb was no different, with actors giving rounded performances. It was an interesting piece, and well worth the watch.

The Royale

Originally performed at the Bush Theatre in 2015, Marco Ramirez’ play The Royale is being revived, during the Bush’s period of refurbishment, at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill. It’s a good sign when a new play is revived so soon after its initial performance, and I had high hopes for it.

The play is inspired by the real-life story of Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion. The stage is laid out like a boxing ring, with the audience on all four sides, and the play is told in six rounds. We meet champion boxer Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson as he fights with a challenger – some clever stagecraft at work – and gives us an insight into his determined personality. He employs the unsuccessful challenger Fish as a sparring partner, and with the help of his trainer Wynton and manager Max sets out to bring the reigning champion out of retirement for one more bout. The only problem – he’s white, and might not take kindly to a challenge from a black man.

The play grips from the start, giving us an insight into Jay’s mind and the forces empowering him in his determination to become the boxing champion. The performances are strong, particularly Nicholas Pinnock as Jay. The Royale uses boxing as a metaphor for black success which breeds resentment among the white community – unfortunately highly relevant in today’s climate. It weaves scenes within one another in a highly skilled way, leading to a powerful ending. At only ninety minutes long, the play certainly packs a punch – excuse the pun – and will be one of the more memorable theatrical experiences I’ve had this year.

In Focus: Amadeus and the Music

I haven’t yet seen Amadeus, Peter Schaffer’s play currently undergoing a revival at the National Theatre, but I decided to go to an In Focus event about the music involved in the production. Led by composer and musical director Simon Slater, it was a fascinating talk about the unique demands made on the musicians. He spoke about the challenges he faced, composing music to feature in a play about one of the greatest composers of all time, and ensuring that the resulting pieces fit into the play.

Participating in the talk were a number of musicians from the South Bank Sinfonia, the orchestra who play on stage during the production. They played a number of snippets as Slater explained what he was going for during the piece.

Talk attendees asked some good questions, and the answers were enlightening. For instance, many of the musicians found the hardest part of the experience to be having to play and move at the same time – something classical musicians are not often required to do. They had to learn to follow each other and the actors rather than having a conductor to rely on, and learn to dance during ballroom scenes without damaging their instruments! Another challenge was to play the music as part of the drama: they are used to playing particular pieces straight through, but here they have had to learn to play snippets, focus on telling the story, and often to play without drowning out the actors who are talking.

I really enjoyed the talk, and I’m looking forward to seeing Amadeus at the beginning of December.

The Rover

Playing alongside The Two Noble Kinsmen in the Swan Theatre this season is The Rover: both plays formed part of the Swan’s opening season back in 1986, and have been chosen to be produced once again this year. While The Two Noble Kinsmen shone, The Rover sparkled like the glitter on the masks worn by the revellers in this glorious, buoyant production.

Subtitled The Banished Cavaliers, the play sees Willmore and Belvile, exiled from England, head to warmer climes in search of love and sex. In the original production the setting was implied to be Naples; Loveday Ingram’s production is set in South America, which works wonderfully. The production begins and ends, and is thoroughly peppered with, music, so that if you leave the auditorium without a spring in your step I would be extremely surprised.

Joseph Millson is Willmore, the Rover of the title, who makes no bones about what he is looking for. Millson has tons of charisma and commands the stage: you can’t help liking him even as he lies and dissembles his way through life, becoming entangled with a courtesan, Angellica, and a young woman destined for a convent.

Of his companions, Belvile is looking for a way to marry Florinda despite facing opposition from her brother, while Blunt is a rich young gentleman happy to have escaped the dullness of Essex and hoping to make the most of carnival.

Being written by a woman, it’s unsurprising that The Rover is peopled with strong female characters: three sisters escape their brothers control by disguising themselves and heading out to enjoy Carnival. I particularly liked the clever, witty Helena (Faye Castellow), and her sister Florinda (Frances McNamee).

There were some deeply uncomfortable scenes that reminded me that the play is very much of its time: women were still seen as the possessions of men, and Willmore’s seduction scene of Florinda is basically attempted rape. Again, the unfortunate Florinda almost bears the brunt of Blunt’s rage after he is tricked by a whore. I don’t doubt that Behn was aware of this while writing her play and I sensed some deep ambiguity towards the men in the play.

In general though I have to say that I adored this: funny, clever and entertaining, with mistaken identities, disguises and tricks, not to mention the glorious music and carnival atmosphere which really brightened up a cold November evening.

The Two Noble Kinsmen

2016 marks the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, of course, but it also marks 30 years since the opening of the Swan Theatre at the RSC in Stratford. The two plays that opened the house back in 1986 are revived this year: Aphra Behn’s The Rover, and Shakespeare’s late collaboration with John Fletcher, The Two Noble Kinsmen.
Inspired by The Knight’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Kinsmen is the story of two cousins, Palamon and Arcite. Fighting to defend their city, Thebes, from attack, they are taken prisoner by Theseus, Duke of Athens. At first resolving to endure their imprisonment taking comfort from one another’s company, their resolve is tested when they see the Duke’s new sister-in-law, Emilia, walking in the garden. When one man is set free and the other escapes, it’s not the end of the story as the pair come to blows over their love for the same woman, leading to tragedy.

I found the play tricky to get into: the opening scenes in which three widowed queens beg Theseus to avenge their husbands’ deaths slightly confused me, but they were necessary to set the scene for the rest of the play, as the reason for Palamon and Alcite’s capture. Once I got into the rhythm of the play, I found it compelling, rich in humour and meaning, helped by Blanche McIntyre’s intelligent direction.

With its Ancient Greek setting and concern with the pairing of Theseus and Hippolyta, the play echoed A Midsummer Night’s Dream for me although the two plays have little in common, really. I also found the scenes following the madness of the Jailer’s Daughter reminiscent of Ophelia in Hamlet, although my programme suggests that it was actually John Fletcher who wrote these scenes. Interesting.

James Corrigan and Jamie Wilkes made Palamon and Arcite believable and sympathetic, showing the complexity of their mixed feelings towards one another. Frances McNamee was very strong as Emilia, conveying the confusion of a woman placed in an impossible situation.

One thing I found surprising for a play written at that time period is its exploration of same-sex relationships, such as the Duke and Pirithous, and Emilia and her maid. As an exploration of different kinds of love it was truly compelling.

It’s an odd play, and it’s not hard, really, to see why it’s rarely produced now. Still, this production shows that there is much worthwhile to be found in it.

Guildhall Cantata Project

I attended this concert by the The Guildhall Cantata Ensemble, which presented the last masque to be composed for the Stuart Court. John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, based on the classical myth, was an inspiration for Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas. It was performed here alongside Henry Purcell’s masque from Timon of Athens, and Purcell’s In Guilty Night – Saul and the Witch of Endor. An atmospheric and well-performed selection.

Myths, Fantasies and Fairy Tales

The Royal Academy of Music near Regent’s Park hosts regular free lunchtime concerts, one of which I attended recently. The concert was entitled Myths, Fantasies and Fairy Tales, and featured Jure Smirnov Oštir on violin, Nadège Rochat on cello, and Małgorzata Garstka on piano.

The trio played a number of pieces including:

Saint-Saëns – Romance, op.51
Janácvek – Pohádka (Fairy Tale)
Szymanowski – Mythes, op.30
Emmanuel – Cello Sonata, op.2

I enjoyed the music, and I’d definitely go back to a concert here.