Coriolanus

Shakespeare’s rarely-performed 1608 play Coriolanus here forms part of the Roman season, directed by Angus Jackson. I do wonder why it comes right at the end of the season, as it is actually set well before Julius Caesar, but here we are.

The story is of a Roman general, Caius Martius, who wins glory in battle, is given the name ‘Coriolanus,’ and is subsequently asked to play a part in public life. However, he is unused to public speaking and cannot hide his personality or his contempt for ordinary people. Exiled from Rome, he seeks his revenge.

The production stars Sope Dirisu in the title role, a newcomer who is excellent in the part: considered, believable as a fearless warrior and suitably awkward as a politician. Haydn Gwynne is superb as his mother Volumnia, while Hannah Morrish also shines as his wife, Virgilia. James Corrigan ably portrays the Volscian Tullus Aufidius who is Coriolanus’ biggest rival, and there is more than a hint of eroticism in the way the pair react to one another.

The set is modern and minimalist, with an imposing grille to separate the turbulent mob from the ruling class, and sharp lighting to complement the dramatic battle scenes.

It’s not the easiest play to follow, but, as befits the RSC they have done their best to make it as clear as possible, and Coriolanus leaves the audience with lots to think about.

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Titus Andronicus

Next in the RSC’s summer Roman season is Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, although it is set after the previous two Shakespeare plays of the season, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. It uses the same set as those plays, but unlike them it is set in the modern day. At first I was unsure about this, wondering if it would have made more sense to have set the play during its original time period in keeping with the rest of the season. However, setting it in the present does emphasise that the events in it are taking place years after those in Caesar and Cleopatra, and it also draws parallels between the events of the play and contemporary politics.

Titus, it must be said, is not one of Shakespeare’s best plays. It’s unsubtle and overblown, and is most famous for its violence, which is not played down in this production. Indeed, the infamous pie scene is probably the most grotesque I’ve ever seen it. However, it certainly shouldn’t be dismissed. It has some compelling characters, foreshadows the themes of some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, and has a genuine interest of its own. The characters in the play are fictional, but the events which occur are loosely based on real events. It’s interesting that while Roman civilisation and Gothic barbarism are initially contrasted, the Romans are shown to be every bit as brutal as the Goths.

Performing this play as part of the Roman season led me to see parallels between this and the other plays in the season. The triumphant entrance of the General Titus reminded me of the return of Julius Caesar at the beginning of that play, and Antony’s ultimately destructive infatuation with Cleopatra foreshadows emperor Saturninus’ obsession with Tamora.

The play could be described as a bloody revenge tragedy, but to be fair there is more to it., with plenty of political scheming, secret plotting and musings on fate. There are some strong performances from David Troughton as Titus, Hannah Morrish as Lavinia and Nia Gwynne as Tamora. An enjoyable production, superbly directed by Blanche McIntyre, and a must-watch for anyone interested in the whole of the Roman season.

Antony and Cleopatra

From Julius Caesar to Antony and Cleopatra. This second play takes place several years after Caesar but is very different in tone. The link between them both is Mark Antony, far removed from the cunning soldier and politician of the earlier play, an ageing warrior now more concerned with drinking himself into oblivion in Egypt in the company of its queen Cleopatra than in keeping order in the Roman Empire.

Iqbal Khan’s production uses the same set as Julius Caesar, with gorgeous props and costumes conveying the splendid nature of the Egyptian court. His productions always seem to use good music, too: here it’s composed by Laura Mvula.

Antony Byrne did a good job as Antony. At first I was unsure about Josette Simon’s Cleopatra. She seemed far too over the top, petulant and childish. Thinking about it, though, I realised that this portrayal is entirely supported by the text. By the end I had warmed to her and her final scenes were very moving.

Whereas Egypt is often contrasted with dour and serious Rome, this production made clear that Rome was every bit as drunken and full of revelry as Egypt, an interpretation which I found interesting. What also fascinated me was how the play, often seen as a tragedy, combined the two in a way I normally associate with the nineteenth century works of Chekhov. The scene in which Cleopatra pulls up a dying Antony to her mausoleum, causing him untold agonies, manages to be both hilarious and moving.

This production complemented Julius Caesar well and will stick in my mind for a while. Antony and Cleopatra was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the 2002 production starring Sinead Cusack that was performed in Newcastle. This one restored my love for the play, which is one of my favourites, and is definitely worth seeing.

Julius Caesar

I’ve been eagerly anticipating the RSC’s Roman season, consisting of two of my favourite Shakespeare plays and two plays that I would like to get to know better. I headed up to Stratford this summer in order to experience the first couple of these plays, beginning with Julius Caesar.

Julius Caesar is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, perhaps because I studied it at school and therefore have a bit more understanding of it (I hope). Based on the real-life assassination of the first Roman Emperor, Shakespeare’s tale is a timely one that raises questions about power, democracy, the voice of the mob and the role of rhetoric.

Angus Jackson’s production is set firmly in the original Roman era; having already seen a very different RSC production in recent years, set in Africa, I thought this provided a nice contrast. I thought the setting brought home the significance of the feast of Lupercal at the beginning of the play, and made me think about how an original audience might have responded to this play, which even then was set in a time many years before.

There was no one particular actor who stood out for me, with the exception perhaps of Martin Hutson’s memorable Cassius. Having said that, I thought they were all strong: James Corrigan in particular made Antony’s famous ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech sound fresh. This production really emphasised how Antony is a soldier, not a politician, and how unexpected his speech would have been. I wasn’t convinced by Alex Waldmann’s Brutus at first, but his understated performance grew on me. In a very male-dominated play, Hannah Morrish shone as Brutus’ wife Portia, the first time I’ve actually wished the character had more to do.

This was a solid production of a fascinating play that explored the themes with clarity and was highly enjoyable.

The Tempest

The latest Shakespeare production at the RSC in Stratford is The Tempest, famed mainly for bringing Simon Russell Beale back to the company after a long hiatus. He plays Prospero, the former Duke of Milan exiled to an island where he has focused on studying, practising magic and bringing up his daughter Miranda. When a ship arrives nearby, fortuitously containing Prospero’s brother (who usurped him) and the King of Naples (who helped), the lonely exile conjures up a storm that sets into motion a whole train of events.

A bare stage, cracked and inlaid with mirrors, gives the impression of parched desert sands while the remains of a ship on either side evoke the wreck that has landed the party on the island. This production has attracted attention for its use of cutting-edge motion capture technology, and I found this to be effective as well as more sparingly used than I had imagined – I’m sure that the original plan was for Ariel to be completely motion captured but I feel the play was more effective with a more sparing use of the technology. It is at its most effective during the masque scene, with some breathtaking effects that have the same effect on the audience that the contemporary effects must have had on the original audience back in the early seventeenth century.

As Prospero, Simon Russell Beale is the undoubted start of the show, conveying his character’s anger and bitterness at the loss of his dukedom in a way greatly removed from the more resigned and benign Prosperos I’ve seen in the past. Gregory Doran’s production brings out the humour in the text, not just in the comedy scenes but in the touching father-daughter relationship between Prospero and Miranda (Jenny Rainsford). There are good performances too from Daniel Easton as Ferdinand, Joe Dixon as Caliban and Mark Quartley as Ariel, who in many ways has the toughest job having to cope with a motion capture suit but also manages to convey real depth to his character, hovering around Prospero after having been granted his freedom in a way that suggests he would rather not leave at all.

This production has been billed as the RSC’s family show for the winter of 2016/17, but while I’m not convinced it will have the same broad appeal as Wendy and Peter Pan, it’s well worth seeing.

Royal Shakespeare Company: Front of House Tour

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As part of my quest to do pretty much every tour the Royal Shakespeare Company offer, I signed up for the Front of House Tour. I’d already done the Backstage Tour and the After Dark Tour, but the Front of House Tour offered even more history.

My tour guide was very knowledgeable and informative, full of fascinating snippets of history. We got to pop into the Swan Theatre auditorium, where the crew were changing the set ready for the evening’s performance of The Rover. I was fascinated to see that the first two rows of seats directly in front of the stage had been raised up: they form part of a lift, and I was amazed that in all the times I’ve been to this theatre, I never realised it was there.

The tour took in the front of house areas and the history behind them. The Swan Theatre, the first part built in the Victorian era, sadly burnt down and the auditorium became a conference hall, a WWII canteen and a dance hall before finally becoming a theatre again in the 1980s. During the recent building refurbishment not many changes were made, but a high desk was installed that can be lowered down to stalls level to allow the technical team to watch the performance.

The 1930s theatre was designed by a woman, Elisabeth Scott. The original foyer is now the Scott Bar in her honour. The original clock is still there, and the ticket sales desks now adorn the back wall. There is a hollow in the floor at the place where everyone stood to buy tickets.

When the theatre was refurbished in 2010, the original stage boards were installed just outside the theatre on each floor, so it’s impossible to enter the new auditorium without treading on them. I love the way the new theatre incorporates aspects of the building’s history.

Royal Shakespeare Company: After Dark Tour

The RSC offer many different tours of their buildings, and last time I was in Stratford I took the opportunity to take their After Dark Tour. This takes place after the shows have finished and the theatre has emptied. Waiting for the guide by the cloakroom when everyone else has left is rather spooky in itself, and the tour as a whole was incredibly creepy.

We were taken in and out of the backstage areas, up to the restaurant and the bars, and even into both of the auditoria, with no light other than our guide’s torch. She regaled us with fascinating stories of grey ladies and angry actors, ghostly front of house staff (including the Perfumed Lady) and even a supposed sighting of the original theatre’s architect.

The RSC building has an incredible amount of history, with the first theatre being built in the late nineteenth century and the second being constructed in the thirties. Refurbishment in 2010 preserved many of the original theatre’s features, so it’s not hard to imagine spooky happenings.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, this tour is absolutely fascinating and I would definitely recommend it, even if you’ve already done the RSC backstage tour.