The Merry Wives of Windsor

Oddly, The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of the few plays I’ve seen twice at the RSC – once back in 2012, and once now in 2018. This production, directed by RSC newcomer Fiona Laird, stars David Troughton as Falstaff and is set in an era that mixes traditional Elizabethan with contemporary Essex.

Tradition has it that Queen Elizabeth I asked for this play, owing to her fondness for the character of Falstaff; the production runs with this theory in a humorous Prologue which imagines Shakespeare receiving his orders from Her Majesty. Unlike most of Shakespeare’s other plays, Merry Wives features no royalty or nobility, just ordinary middle-class folks – doctors, tradesmen, tavern owners – and shows the women of the title getting their revenge on their would-be seducer, Falstaff.

This is a modern spin on the play: Mistresses Page and Quickly talk over their plots in a beauty salon, and the Fords’ back garden boasts a golden barbecue and a swimming pool. Falstaff is forced to hide in a wheelie bin, instead of the usual laundry basket, wheeled away by a pair of bemused Polish binmen. Yet the cast wear costumes and live in houses inspired by the sixteenth century, and they still evoke the legend of Herne the Hunter at the play’s end.

Merry Wives has got to be one of the funniest Shakespeare comedies, and the cast make the most of it. David Troughton is a superbly entertaining Falstaff, and Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingly as Mistresses Page and Ford are a match for him. The supporting characters provide great entertainment – Jonathan Cullen as Dr Caius, David Acton as the Welsh Parson, and Charlotte Josephine as Bardolph, as well as Ishia Bennison as Mistress Quickly.

I loved this production – it was hugely entertaining and great fun, and should appeal to those who are unsure about Shakespeare as well as those who love his work.

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Macbeth

After Romeo and Juliet I went to see the contrasting Macbeth: a production starring Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack and directed by Polly Findlay.  After the fairly dire National Theatre version, I had high hopes for this one and I wasn’t disappointed.

The tale of the Scottish thane tempted by a prophecy into murdering his king to indulge his ambition is a well-known one. This production of Macbeth brings out the darker aspects of the play – it is presented as a psychological horror. I don’t know whose idea it was to have the three witches played by three little girls in pyjamas clutching dolls, but it was a stroke of genius. They are super creepy and very impressive, considering they are so young. Another good move is suggesting that the Porter is in fact the Devil, watching over Macbeth’s every move. Played superbly by Michael Hodgson, his very presence is sinister, even when calmly vacuuming the floor. Sound and lighting reminiscent of horror movies further reinforces this impression.

Christopher Eccleston is a strong Macbeth, but Niamh Cusack is even better as his ambitious wife, sensual and calulating. There is the interesting suggestion that what pushes her over the edge is the news that Macduff’s children have been murdered – a nod to her presumed own lost child. I was also glad to see Edward Bennett again – his performance as Macduff as he hears the news of his family’s murder is heartbreaking.

Fly Davis’ set is used effectively, with a higher stage level used to emphasise the difference between the characters playing a role, on their best behaviour following the rules of court, while the ‘real’ stuff happens on the ground.

One of the most memorable and exciting Macbeths I’ve seen, this production is superbly well done and well worth seeing.

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.

Twelfth Night

It’s safe to say that Twelfth Night is not my favourite Shakespeare play, but I’ve still managed to see some good productions in my time, not least the National’s version a few months back. The RSC’s version, directed by Christopher Luscombe, is also pretty good but very different. Set at the end of the nineteenth century when the age of decadence was in full swing, it makes use of ideas of empire, with a distinct Indian influence – here, the twins Viola and Sebastian are of Indian birth, as is Feste (Beruce Khan), who has become Olivia’s turban-wearing munshi in this production. His obvious dissatisfaction with having to clown around for his mistress’s benefit is a comment on the relationship between the powerful and the powerless, Victorian Britain and its colonies.

It’s the little details that impressed me about this production: not least the green carnation in Antonio’s buttonhole, which – popularised by Oscar Wilde and in common with the mores of the time – signified homosexuality. It lends a significance to Antonio’s care for Sebastian, in a play about gender and sexuality where women fall in love with women pretending to be men, and men fall in love with men who are actually women.

Dinita Gohil and Esh Alladi are a strong Viola and Sebastian in this production, with Kara Tointon a sympathetic Olivia. Adrian Edmondson is Malvolio, who cuts a figure more tragic than comic – much more appropriate I find, as the humorous teasing directed at him soon becomes cruel. The comic trio of Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Maria (John Hodgkinson, Michael Cochrane and Vivien Parry) lightens the mood with songs fleshed out by composer Nigel Hess.

This production handles the problems and contradictions of Twelfth Night extremely well, and it’s a seasonal joy to boot. Very impressive.

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.

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.