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.

#WeAreArrested / Day of the Living

#WeAreArrested set

Since reopening The Other Place, the RSC have gone strength to strength with their Mischief Festival, which takes place a couple of times a year. The latest is based around the themes of free speech and the right to protest. The two plays in this Mischief Festival are contemporary and vital.

#WeAreArrested has been adapted by Pippa Hill and Sophie Ivatts from the book by journalist Can Dündar, a real-life tale of a brave journalist exiled for telling the truth. Day of the Living, created by Darren Clark, Amy Draper and Juliet Gilkes Romero, explores the circumstances surrounding the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in Mexico.

The first play, narrated by the journalist (played compellingly by Peter Hamilton Dyer), tells how his decision to publish an exposé of his government’s corruption comes to have fateful consequences. He leaves the country, returns, and is imprisoned. The prison scenes are actually some of the best: they are certainly challenging, could easily have been bleak, but they are among the most uplifting of the whole play. Impressive stage tricks, all the more impactful for taking place on a nearly-bare stage, feel like magic, but it’s Hamilton Dyer’s strong performance, ably supported by Jamie Cameron and Indra Ové who play a variety of roles, which really holds the attention. It’s interesting that, although the play was inspired by events in Turkey, no country is mentioned in the work, which reinforces the fact that these events could happen anywhere.

Day of the Living lacks the coherence of the first play, and the story is harder to follow. However, it is a lively tale full of music, and conveys the fear and terror felt by the students and their families in the aftermath of the disappearance, mostly through the eyes of one family. Featuring a multi-talented cast who sing, play instruments, act and take on a number of roles, it’s a strong reminder that repressive regimes are not a thing of the past.

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, or The Beau Defeated

It was the title that first drew me to this play, followed by the knowledge that it was written by a woman – Mary Pix, one of the most popular playwrights of her era. Interestingly, the title The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich was chosen by the RSC, the original being The Beau Defeated – so it looks like their decision worked in my case. This Restoration comedy, first staged in 1700, has been directed for the RSC by Jo Davies, and is currently being performed in the Swan Theatre.

Starring the superb Sophie Stanton as newly-widowed Mrs Rich, the play follows the adventures of this wealthy woman as she searches for a husband who will give her a title and a position in society. At the same time, her lodger Lady Landsworth (the appealing Daisy Badger), another widow, is looking for love and thinks she has found it in the person of Clerimont, an impoverished young nobleman. The plot is reminiscent of Congreve’s The Way of the World (currently running at the Donmar), which also features a widow who becomes a target for cruel tricks. The outcome in this case, however, is very different.

Refreshingly, the play is dominated by the female characters: as well as Mrs Rich and Lady Landsworth we have the intelligent and cunning maid, Betty (Laura Ellsworthy), the landlady Mrs Fidget (Sadie Shimmin), and Mrs Rich’s young niece Lucinda (Aretha Ayeh, demonstrating just the right mix of innocence and mischief). Whatever their faults, it’s impossible not to admire these women, who make the most of whatever power is available to them – wealth, beauty, intelligence – to get what they want.

It’s one of the funniest plays I’ve seen in a while, with great performances from Tam Williams as Sir John Roverhead, the beau of the title, Solomon Israel as the younger Clerimont, who might be honourable and decent but is also prone to whining and fits of exaggerated despair, and Leo Wringer as his older brother, who loves his dogs more than any humans. We also get two of those dogs on stage: I’m not really a dog person, but Lossie and Theia are lovely.

Actors wear contemporary costume, which I feel suits the production better than modern dress would have done, while Colin Richmond’s design makes use of contemporary portraits to remind us of the period, with writing to remind us where each scene is set (with such a complex plot, this is welcomed).

I had such a good time at this play, and I hope the RSC will continue to put on these relatively obscure older plays so that people like me can enjoy them.

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.

Imperium: The Cicero Plays

After the success of his stage versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in 2013/14, writer Mike Poulton has turned his hand to Robert Harris’ Cicero trilogy. Directed by Gregory Doran, the adaptation covers two performances and six short plays: serial episode-length stories that span several key decades in Rome’s history. At the centre of the production is Cicero himself (Richard McCabe): statesman, philosopher and orator, whose rise and fall reflects the turbulence of the age.

Narrating the tale is Cicero’s slave Tiro (Joseph Kloska), who breaks the fourth wall to explain what is going on, keeping us up to date and bemoaning the fact that so many characters are called Caius. It’s an incredibly complex set of plays with many characters and plots and intrigues, so it’s just as well that it’s directed by Gregory Doran, whose ability to bring clarity to even the most complex aspects of Shakespeare’s history plays is used to the utmost here.

The relationship between Tiro and Cicero is one of the best parts of the show: more than just master and servant, there is mutual respect, and Tiro often shows more common sense than his master. Cicero, who we first meet when he is elected to the role of Consul, is a complex character: intelligent, principled, genuinely committed to maintaining the Republic, he is nevertheless prone to vanity and cowardice and is not unsubsceptible to flattery. He is often shrewd and smart, but sometimes demonstrates serious errors of judgement, particularly in the second part.

Part I, Conspirator, is about how Catiline (Joe Dixon), Cicero’s rival, incites a rebellion while Cicero plots to keep his head and save the republic; in the background, an ambitious young Senator named Julius Caesar (Peter De Jersey) begins to rise. Part II, Dictator, is set many years later, when Caesar is assassinated and his adopted son, Octavian (Oliver Johnstone), enters the fray. The plays are a fascinating conclusion to the Rome season and it’s interesting to see not only the rise of Julius Caesar, but the events of Shakespeare’s play of that name from a different perspective.

Anthony Ward’s design turns the Swan Theatre into a Roman senate with a mosaic design on the back wall, a pair of eyes, looking down on us and a giant Jupiter hanging from the ceiling. Paul Englishby’s music complements the production well.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this epic exploration of the history of Rome, and it’s inspired me to not only read the Robert Harris trilogy, but also Cicero’s own works.