As You Like It

Confession: As You Like It is not my favourite Shakespeare play. In fact, I can find it a bit tedious. So it’s testament to the talent of director Kimberley Sykes that this production held my attention throughout, and I found myself enjoying it very much.

The tale of Rosalind, daughter of a deposed Duke, and her adventures in the Forest of Arden disguised as a young man called Ganymede, is a familiar one, but this production makes it fresh and new. Beginning with a wrestling match, during which Rosalind falls in love with Orlando, son of her father’s devoted friend, Rosalind is soon exiled and escapes to the forest with her loyal cousin Celia. Taking Shakespeare’s famous “All the world’s a stage” as a starting point, the transformation of the stage into the forest incorporates backstage costume and crew and from then on the production includes members of the audience, from the individual members brought on stage to hold the letters spelling out Rosalind’s name, to the entire auditorium included in the group of friends addressed by the deposed Duke.

In a sharp contrast to her performance in Measure for Measure, Lucy Phelps is superb as Rosalind, with an appealing sense of fun. As Celia, Sophie Khan Levy is a standout, acting as a comic foil to her on-stage cousin and chatting with members of the audience, grabbing the programme to excitedly point at her picture and say, “That’s me!”. David Ajao makes an appealing Orlando, while Sophie Stanton makes an impression as a female Jacques.

Sandy Grierson steals the show as the clown Touchstone, in this production something of a Rupert the Bear lookalike, and his wooing of goatherd Audrey (Charlotte Arrowsmith) is superbly entertaining, made more interesting by the addition of sign language.

On a mostly bare stage, the huge puppet representing Hymen, the god of marriage, makes even more of an impact; a magical end to an impressive production.


Measure for Measure

The RSC has chosen a challenging pair of Shakespeare’s plays to produce this summer: first The Taming of the Shrew, which I saw earlier in the year, and secondly Measure for Measure, which I saw during my recent Stratford trip. The production had a lot to live up to after the superb one I saw at the Donmar Warehouse fairly recently, but overall I was impressed.

The original play was set in Vienna, and director Gregory Doran has taken this setting and updated it to the early twentieth century, a time when artistic movements flourished and there was a backlash against modernised sexual mores. The backdrops are formed from major works of art of the period and the costumes are fine and fully realised.

The story has powerful relevance in the modern age: the moment when Angelo, denounced by novice nun Isabel whom he has attempted to seduce, throws back at her, “but who will believe you?” is greeted by a gasp. The corruption of those at the higher echelons of society is something familiar these days, and it’s satisfying to see Angelo get his just desserts, even if the method of so doing seems a bit odd to us.

Lucy Phelps is superb as Isabel, while Sandy Grierson is excellent as Angelo, conveying a sense of awareness of his actions even as he carries out his wicked designs. As the Duke, Antony Byrne has a sense of fun and mischief even as he lacks an awareness of how his own convoluted and self-righteous actions might be perceived by those around him.

In the brothel-based subplot, David Ajao is superb as the pimp Pompey and Joseph Arkley steals every scene he’s in as Lucio, here an upper-class dandy. This is an excellent production which I’m very glad I went to see.

The Provoked Wife

The Provoked Wife is a Restoration comedy by Sir John Vanbrugh, who seems to have been fairly multitalented: he was an architect as well as a playwright. The play, which was first performed in 1697, sees a curmudgeonly husband cuckolded by his wife, who is fed up with his behaviour and decides to give in to her feelings for a gallant young suitor. Meanwhile, the deluded Lady Fancyfull is convinced that no man can resist her, encouraged by her French maid. Phillip Breen’s production brings out the timeless humour in the play while exposing the darker aspects of the relationships.

Alexandra Gilbreath as Lady Brute, the wife of the title, is very good, carrying the action of the play with a light touch, ably assisted by Natalie Dew as her niece and partner-in-crime Bellinda. John Hodgkinson is on good form as Heartfree, a notorious woman-hater who falls in love against his better judgement, while Rufus Hound is the charming young Constant who seduces Lady Brute.

Jonathan Slinger gives a multilayered performance as Sir John Brute, an exaggerated figure of fun whose behaviour turns truly nasty in the second act, a reminder of the power imbalance between men and women and the real potential consequences of Lady Brute’s behaviour. Caroline Quentin is on good form as Lady Fancyfull, although I found the treatment of her character fairly distasteful at times.

Mark Bailey’s set makes the most of the restoration setting, with lush red curtains and stage lighting.

If the men-vs-women comedy gets slightly tedious at times, overall it’s an entertaining if overlong tale with surprising depth.

Venice Preserved

My mammoth four-shows-in-two-days trip to Stratford began in style with Venice Preserved, Thomas Otway’s tense political thriller about a plot to destroy the Venetian senate. Prasanna Puwanarajah’s production has a distinct noir feel, beginning and ending with actors walking in the rain, clad in trench coats, holding umbrellas.

Belvidera and Jaffeir are the central couple, having met and married three years before when Jaffeir rescued Belvidera from drowning. Belvidera’s father is not happy with Jaffeir as a partner for his daughter, and, frankly, you can’t blame him when Jaffeir lets Belvidera go as a hostage when he gets involved with a plot to assassinate major politicians. Jaffeir’s guilt leaves him torn between his wife and his friends and fellow conspirators, most particularly his best friend Pierre.

What I loved about the play was the relationships: between Jaffeir and Belvidera and Jaffeir and Pierre, filled with complexity and tension. Michael Grady-Hall is superb as the vacillating, frustrating yet sympathetic Jaffeir, while Stephen Fewell is excellent as his best friend (the production hints that there may be something more). Jodie McNee also stands out as Belvidera, a strong and intelligent female character who is devastated by Jaffeir’s betrayal. There is good work too from Les Dennis as Belvidera’s senator father and Steve Nicolson as a lecherous rebel, while a subplot about a corrupt senator lightens the mood and offers John Hodgkinson as the senator, Antonio, and Natalie Dew as the courtesan, Aquilina, the chance to shine.

The story of a would-be rebellion and conspiracy has enormous resonance for our own time, and shows the devastating effect divided loyalties can have. James Cotterill’s set design, with the symbol of the Venetian senate displayed proudly at the back of the stage and on the floor, shows how it dominates society.

The Eighties setting of the product in is often subtle and makes itself felt in a myriad of small ways, notably in the use of a small troll toy as a love token shared between Jaffeir and Belvidera. I’m sure I used to have one just like it back in the day.

Overall it’s a powerful, memorable production, and the closing scene is one that particularly sticks in the mind.

My Love Lies Frozen in the Ice

On the hottest day of the year I made my way to Greenwich to see a show about the Arctic. Performed at the Bathway Theatre as an Edinburgh preview, My Love Lies Frozen in the Ice, by Dead Rabbits Theatre, is both a comic and a tragic tale.

It’s also based on a true story. In 1897, Salomon Andrée, Knut Frænkel and Nils Strindberg set off in a hot air balloon, aiming to become the first people to reach the North Pole. Perhaps naively, they planned to pass the Pole and cross the Arctic, landing safely on the other side. Not unexpectedly, the trio vanished without a trace, until their bodies were found in 1930, complete with photographs which confirmed their sad fate.

The play wrought out of this tragic tale centres Andrée’s sister and Nils’ fiancée Mathilde, left behind because she is a woman. She ends up in an asylum, unable to accept that the men she loves are dead.

Despite this sad-sounding description, the play is full of whimsical humour and inventive staging, with puppetry and props playing a part, and clever use of balloon silk to represent the snowy wastes of the Arctic. This multilayered tale is a memorable one, and not just for polar obsessives like me.

On Your Feet!

In the last few years the Coliseum has habitually put on a musical during the summer, instead of its usual fare of ballet and opera. This year they have gone for two, with a production of Man of La Mancha before this one.

On Your Feet! by Alexander Dinelaris is the story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, the American couple whose work as the Miami Sound Machine introduced Latin beats and Cuban rhythms to a wider audience. They have been around for decades, and I have certainly heard of Gloria at least, but I wasn’t familiar with many of their songs, although I did recognise a few over the course of the show.

The show is interesting in that it charts the struggles of American immigrants to create music and make their voices heard in a music industry that wants to control them. When Emilio (George Ioannides) tells a record company executive, “This is what an American looks like!”, it’s a powerful moment and a highly relevant and contemporary one given the current anti-immigrant sentiment in the US. There’s another political slant to the story, too: Gloria’s mother (Madalena Alberto) is on the cusp of fame when she has to leave Cuba in a hurry due to the revolution, and her father is left permanently marked by his experiences in the Vietnam war.

Gloria herself (a superb Christie Prades) is the key to this story, starting out as a talented teenage singer, rising to fame with the help of her eventual husband Emilio and eventually experiencing and recovering from a serious road accident. After seeing Tina: The Musical a few weeks ago, it’s refreshing to see a musical and marital partnership with genuine love, respect and support.

Sadly for a musical, I wasn’t overly enamoured with the choice of music. The title implies a show filled with toe-tapping, upbeat numbers, but these are few and far between. Instead, the show is filled with ballads which doesn’t make for much excitement.

On Your Feet! is worth seeing for its story, but don’t expect an exciting jukebox show with loads of memorable music.

Noises Off

The more I see Michael Frayn’s classic 1982 play Noises Off – and this is the third time, in a production directed by Jeremy Herrin – the more I realise what a masterpiece it is. It’s hilariously funny, but much of the humour – particularly in the second act – relies on split-second timing and carefully choreographed moments. It must have been challenging to write, and I’m sure it’s tough to perform, too. Any cast who can do this play successfully get my utmost respect.

This first-rate cast at the Lyric Hammersmith, the theatre where Noises Off first premiered back in the eighties, is no exception. We are first introduced to Meera Syal’s Dotty, a fading star who hopes that the tour of the old-fashioned farce they’re rehearsing, Nothing On, will bring in enough money to supplement her pension. Very soon we meet arrogant, pseudo-intellectual director Lloyd (Lloyd Owen) whose weariness is compounded by questions on motivation from Frederick (Jonathan Cullen), the dropped contact lenses of Brooke (Amy Morgan), and Selsdon’s (Simon Rouse) drinking problem. The long-suffering cast and crew (two members of which Lloyd is having an affair with) are clearly at the end of their tether, and their problems come to a head during a matinee midway through the run, when we see the play from backstage, the cast accidentally and on purpose trying to sabotage each other.

By the third act, everything has disintegrated and the farce has descended into, well, farce. As the cast’s horror mounts, the audience’s enjoyment grows. Personally, I’d practically descended into hysterics.

Noises Off is often called the funniest play ever written, and I wholly concur with this verdict. It’s glorious fun, as well as being clever and intelligent. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about to transfer to the West End for the autumn. I’m tempted to visit again.