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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Kingdom Come

The last time I visited The Other Place was nearly a decade ago, when it was the Courtyard Theatre and David Tennant was playing Hamlet. A couple of years ago it was revived as a studio theatre with a number of Mischief Festivals, filled with experimental new work. The latest one sees a new play take over the theatre for the duration of September.

Kingdom Come is the work of Gemma Brockis and Wendy Hubbard, featuring a company of actors and devisers including Tom Lyall and Emmanuella Cole. It seeks to explore the English Civil War, the fall of King Charles I and the rise of Cromwell, mostly from the conflicted perspective of a group of actors. The conflict here is while the Puritans preached democracy and fairness and the end of tyranny, they also pursued draconian measures of their own – including closing the theatres.

All this in under two hours; and it’s mostly successful. We begin by witnessing a masque, performed in 1740, featuring King Charles himself and employing all the theatrical tricks and costumes possible, beneath a glorious proscenium arch. We then witness the downfall of the monarchy and are invited through the arch ‘backstage’ to witness the King’s execution and the efforts of Puritans to establish a true republic. Finally we are shown back into the auditorium where we witness a state in the throes of uncertainty and a group of actors struggling to survive.

The piece suffers from the problem many devised pieces have, in that it’s a bit fragmented and doesn’t always seem to form a coherent whole. However, I still think it’s an impressive achievement, making use of masque, tableau, movement and speeches to convey the corrupt glamour of Charles’s court and the repressive uncertainty of the Cromwellian epoch. Overall it was memorable and fascinating, and I hope to return to The Other Place soon if this is the sort of intriguing work they put on.

Dido, Queen of Carthage

I thought Dido, Queen of Carthage was a strong choice for the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of their autumn season. Directed by Kimberley Sykes, Christopher Marlowe’s 1587 play fits in well with the ‘Rome’ season in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, concerning as it does the legendary founder of Rome, Aeneas. Fleeing from the conquered Troy with his young son Ascanius and a small band of fellow survivors, he washes up on the shores of Libya, to the delight of his mother Venus who has anxiously been observing his journey. Venus employs Cupid to ensure that Queen Dido falls in love with Aeneas, surmising that she will then want to help him, but Hermes sends Aeneas a message from Jupiter demanding that he go and seek Rome. Aeneas must decide between seeking his goal or staying with the woman he loves.

In this production, Marlowe’s play is brought to vivid life, with rich language and cast of interesting characters. As Aeneas, Sandy Grierson powerfully conveys the feelings of a man still horrorstruck by the atrocities he has witnessed in Troy, while Chipo Chung is convincing as the regal and beautiful Queen and conveys the pain of a woman spurned by the man she loves. The gods appear as a sort of comic relief, and yet what happens is all their fault, really: trying to manipulate the humans like puppets. I liked how the human characters were clothed in outfits of ancient time while the gods wore modern garb, as if they were supposed to be outside time altogether.

The only thing I wasn’t sure about in this play was the ending, which I thought lacked impact after all that had gone before. Overall, though, I thought it was a strong production.

Salome

Sometimes I wonder if the big theatres actually talk to each other. Oscar Wilde’s Salome isn’t exactly a popular play, but for some reason in 2017 both the National and the RSC have decided to stage it. One thing I can say is that at least the productions are completely different.

The RSC have decided to mark 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain – and the fact that Wilde himself was gay – with an almost all-male production (Suzanne Burden as Herodias is the only female actor in the show) that reveals the homoerotic undertones in the play and adds some of its own. Of course, while the original play was about a woman and a man, the theme of a rejected love would surely ring true for Wilde. I suppose I should be unhappy that a major female role has been given to a man, but to be honest I think what the RSC has done is pretty interesting.

Owen Horsley’s production is atmospheric, with dramatic set design by Bretta Gerecke and music by Perfume Genius. The play isn’t exactly my favourite – I find some of Wilde’s dialogue rather cringeworthy – but in the hands of the RSC’S ensemble cast it really doesn’t sound so bad, and it’s delivered with sincerity. Matthew Tennyson is vulnerable and compelling as Salome, while Gavin Fowler is charismatic and and powerful as Iokanaan. The supporting cast are all superb, and Suzanne Burden as Herodias in particular shines, playing possibly the most ‘Wildean’ character of the bunch, demonstrating acerbic wit.

The production isn’t quite as atmospheric and affecting as Yael Farber’s quite different one at the National, but it has its own grace and charm and is probably the best at getting across what the play is trying to say. I was intrigued by the production and actually ended up liking the play more.

Vice Versa

As part of the RSC’s Roman season, Phil Porter has written a play, Vice Versa, based on the Roman comedies of Plautus. Its broad humour and earthy tone is in keeping with the original comedy theatre of Rome, but the play is contemporary enough to entertain a modern audience.

The play is introduced and narrated by witty servant Dexter (Sophia Nomvete), who has ended up in the employ of grotesque Roman general Braggadocio (Felix Hayes). Braggadocio has kidnapped Dexter’s former mistress Voluptua (Ellie Beaven), whose lover Valentin (Geoffrey Lumb) has just returned in search of her. Dexter’s aim is to reunite the two lovers and have them all escape from the General, with a little help from next-door neighbour Philoproximus (Nicholas Day), and all the while trying to avoid Braggadocio’s pet monkey.

It’s broadly comic and amusing, with strong performances from all involved. Unlike the intense Shakespearean tragedies being performed in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, this is a work not to be taken too seriously. There’s lots of slapstick, but also plenty of wordplay, and one of my favourite scenes was the one in which Dexter and co unpacked a supermarket delivery, unleashing a cornucopia of grocery puns.

Light-hearted and amusing, this is a fun play to enjoy on a summer’s day and a visit is certainly worthwhile.

Venus and Adonis

As you might expect from a collaboration between the Little Angel Theatre and The Royal Shakespeare Company, Venus and Adonis is simply superb. This puppet show for adults tells the story of this classical pair in an approachable, accessible way.

Shakespeare fan as I am, I’ve found his longer poetry quite challenging, but here it’s brought to life. The poem is narrated by Suzanne Burden as it is acted out by puppets against the backdrop of a miniature proscenium arch.

The puppeteers manipulate the puppets perfectly: Venus’ coquettish nature and Adonis’ shy refusal are perfectly portrayed. There are occasional appearances from animals, including a pair of horses, a hare that bounds among the audience, and a fearsome boar. The show is simply a delight, and I kind of wish it hadn’t ended.

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.