Romeo and Juliet

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Romeo and Juliet is probably the one I’ve changed my mind about most during my lifetime. The new RSC production is certainly helping to change any perception of the play as a soppy romance.

Directed by Erica Whyman, this production emphasises the role of knife crime in the play, relating it to modern knife crime concerns, and plays with gender and sexuality in a highly contemporary manner, with several characters played as women, including Beth Cordingly as the ‘Prince’ of Verona, clearly a title designed for men.

What struck me immediately about the production was the youth of the cast, which is as it should be. Teenagers from schools and colleges across the country have been recruited to speak the Prologue, another way to emphasise the relationship between the RSC and the community. The production has an energy and vitality entirely in keeping with the spirit of the play.

Bally Gill and Karen Fishwick as the titular couple give strong performances, Gill appealing as the slightly awkward Romeo and Fishwick emphasising Juliet’s strength. My one criticism is that I didn’t find their chemistry all that convincing – I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that this pair would risk life and limb to be together.

The supporting cast is where the greatest interest really lies: Josh Finan as Benvolio, who in this production is shown to be in love with Romeo, and Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio, a woman in a man’s world, are particularly strong. Katy Brittain plays Sister John and the Apothecary in two other gender-switched roles. Tom Piper’s simple set, with a rotating cube on stage, is one I forgot about pretty much straight away on leaving the theatre, but it’s entirely serviceable and no bad thing to let the play speak for itself.

I thought this was a superb production of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and it’s certainly helped to change my perspective of the play.

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Hello Again

Hello Again is a musical with music, lyrics and book by Michael John LaChiusa. It is based on the 1897 play La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler (also titled Reigen). It focuses on a series of love affairs among ten characters during the ten different decades of the 20th century.

This production, performed by students at LAMDA, was of superb quality and was extremely entertaining. The songs embrace several different styles and the show was by turns funny, sexy and sad.

Strictly Ballroom

I like to make it my habit to see every show that ends up in the West End, which is how I ended up going to see Strictly Ballroom, even though I’ve never seen the 1992 Baz Luhrmann film on which it is based. The musical tells the story of dancer Scott Hastings, who gets tired of traditional ballroom dancing but gets ditched by his partner after trying to inject some more exciting moves into their routine. In his search for a partner, Scott ends up dancing with Fran, a geeky girl from his dance class, who proves surprisingly adept.

The musical has a slightly unusual format, in that Will Young as the narrator and band leader Wally Strand sings the majority of the songs, leaving the rest of the cast to dance, performing impressive routines choreographed by Drew McOnie (who also directs). Luckily, Young is charismatic and has a great voice (shame about the dodgy moustache). Jonny Labey and Zizi Strallen are also great as Scott and Fran, and among the supporting cast, I loved Fernando Mira and Eve Polycarpou as Fran’s father Rico and Abuela, performing a rousing Latin number.

Sadly, there aren’t all that many songs (and they’re all covers), though some are impressively orchestrated. In between the dancing, though, I found the spoken parts of the show at best, dull and at worst, cringeworthy. Many of the performances were hugely over the top; this may be intentional, perhaps based on the film (I wouldn’t know), but I wasn’t impressed. Visually, the show is great: Catherine Martin’s costumes are spangly and sparkly, and Soutra Gilmour’s set is multilayered and effective without detracting from the dancing.

Overall, I found the show worth seeing for the dancing and singing, but it’s far from being the best thing I’ve seen this year.

Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony

I went to my first ever Prom yesterday at the Royal Albert Hall, specially to see Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. The concert started with an impressive performance of Magnus Lindberg’s Clarinet Concerto, and ended with a superb performance of Shostakovich’s symphony, also known as No. 7. Sometimes I find that my attention wanders during long musical performances, but that wasn’t the case with this one, composed as a tribute to the people of St Petersburg – Leningrad – after the long siege of World War II.

The Winter’s Tale

The Winter’s Tale has become one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, though I haven’t seen all that many productions. This new Globe production is directed by Blanche McIntyre.

The King and Queen of Sicilia seem to have the perfect relationship, but in a fit of jealousy, King Leontes accuses his wife of having an affair with his best friend Polixenes, maintaining that Polixenes is the father of the child she’s carrying. Too late, he discovers that she is innocent: she and her young son are dead, and the baby, Perdita, banished. What follows is a tale of redemption that is improbable, but in a good production, believable.

There are good performances from all involved, including Will Keen as an intense Leontes, Priyanga Burford as a queenly Hermione and Sirine Saba as a powerful, scene-stealing Paulina. I admit to being rather disappointed by the presentation of the famous ‘bear’ scene, and for me the play lacked some of its power: I found myself comparing it with the Kenneth Branagh version and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse version from a few years back.

There were some amusing moments, particularly in the Bohemian scene in which Becci Gemmell’s Autolycus sells T-shirts as if it’s a music festival, but on the whole the production fell a bit flat for me.

An Ideal Husband

Another play in the Wilde season at the Vaudeville Theatre, An Ideal Husband follows a now-familiar theme: an older woman, usually with a Past, helps a younger woman come to a realisation about life. An Ideal Husband is different, however, in that the catalyst isn’t a benevolent lady misjudged by society: she’s a blackmailing fortune hunter who is a thorn in the side of Sir Robert Chiltern, the ‘ideal husband’ of the title, and his young wife. Chiltern is a respected rising politician who, it is is discovered, sold state secrets to make a profit when he was a young man. Mrs Cheveley, supposedly a schoolfriend of Lady Chiltern’s, tries to use this information to her advantage. While not condoning Chiltern’s behaviour, Wilde suggests that people deserve compassion and second chances.

It’s the supporting roles that really make this play: Freddie Fox steals every scene he’s in as Viscount Goring, a frivolous dandy who somehow ends up as the play’s moral heart, and there’s a great partnership with his real-life dad Edward, who also plays his father, the Earl of Caversham, here. Having said that, Frances Barber is superb as Mrs Cheveley, somehow sinister in the way she puts on an innocent face while causing Chiltern and his wife a great deal of grief. Nathaniel Parker and Sally Bretton prove a strong pairing as the Chilterns.

Overall, I didn’t find this production quite as exciting as the previous two in the Classic Spring season: the season has always been fairly traditional in tone but this has never been a problem in the past. Despite some good performances with a good play at the centre of it, An Ideal Husband didn’t really grab me.

Red

I fully admit to knowing nothing about the artist Mark Rothko, but I still booked to see Red, John Logan’s 2009 play about the artist. Starring Alfred Molina and Alfred Enoch, it follows Russian exile Rothko’s struggle to create the murals for the the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building. During the course of the 90-minute play, we witness the growing relationship between the artist and his assistant Ken, and are treated to meditations on the role and purpose of art.

Set in 1958, the play shows Rothko as contemptuous of many of the artists who came before him, and shows a distinct lack of respect for the people who buy his works. At the same time, he is frightened of becoming irrelevant, pushed aside by the new wave of ‘pop’ artists in the same way he and his contemporaries took over from cubism. Alfred Molina is superb as Rothko, returning to the role that he originally performed at the Donmar, while Alfred Enoch is also excellent as his assistant Ken. The pair work well together on stage and make a great team.

“What does ‘red’ say to you?” asks Rothko; one answer is blood, and this evokes a particular incident in Ken’s past (Incidentally, I found his story every bit as interesting as the famous artist’s). There is a lot of red in this play: red canvases surround the set, and there is a particularly satisfying scene in which the two artists cover a canvas in base red paint.

Ultimately ‘satisfying’ is a good description of the play as a whole: compelling and worthwhile.