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Fw: 3 plays in Stratford

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  • Jenny
    ... To: Sent: Tuesday, April 03, 2007 10:54 PM Subject: [Shakespeare_and_Company] 3 plays in Stratford Thursday March
    Message 1 of 2 , Apr 3, 2007
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      ----- Original Message -----
      To: <Shakespeare_and_Company@yahoogroups.com>
      Sent: Tuesday, April 03, 2007 10:54 PM
      Subject: [Shakespeare_and_Company] 3 plays in Stratford

      Thursday March 29th- preview of King Lear

      It's not altogether fair or easy to judge a production based on its
      previews, but you can usually get a fairly good idea of how it's
      going to turn out, and from what I saw on Thursday this looks like
      it's going to be alright, but not as good as you might have
      expected, considering some of the people involved with it. As it
      currently stands I'd rate it at around 3,25 out of 5 stars, but I'm
      sure that once they open it will be something closer to 4 stars. I
      can name most of the things that didn't work for me, but some things
      are more elusive to put your finger on and some problems will not be
      solved just be the normal settling down of the production. But
      perhaps I should start from the beginning.

      McKellen is of course very good as Lear, particular as the king in
      his confused and wrecked state, and the ghost of that dreadful,
      *dreadful* Bergman production which has marred this play for me for
      so many years has finally been put to rest. Almost as good is
      Frances Barber as Goneril, and it's nice to see her playing against
      some worthy opposition after last year's disappointing A&C, where
      her excellent Cleopatra had the misfortune of playing against
      Nicholas Jones' wholly unbelievable Antony. The Fool is played by
      Sylvester McCoy, and who could have known that the old Dr Who would
      make such a great fool, wonderful and touching. These are the high
      points of this production, but there are a few things that
      unfortunately take away from these strong central performances.

      The production rests on McKellen's performance, and I have little
      doubt that it will be excellent by the time the production opens, so
      it should be a great experience for anyone who gets to see it, and
      it will tour Stateside once it's run in England is completed (I
      think there are details on the RSC site). The production is staged
      in the Courtyard Theatre, which will the RSC's new temporary home
      while the RST is being rebuilt. If you've ever been to the Swan
      Theatre in Stratford you'd recognize the design of the Courtyard as
      being very similar, only bigger, probably about twice the number of
      seats, and it's remarkably nice for such a temporary and hastily
      built venue.

      When Edgar and Edmund make their appearance it becomes clear that
      Nunn has opted for casting them as quite young, which is in itself
      not a bad decision, but there are reasons why particularly Edmund is
      often cast as a more mature actor. As it turns out, this casting of
      the brothers is only partially a mistake by Nunn, but it's one that
      will unbalance the entire production. The actor playing Edgar (Ben
      Meyjes) does come into his own as Edgar falls from grace and begins
      his existence as poor Tom, but Edmund, played by Philip Winchester,
      remains a disastrous error in casting judgment. His Edmund is just
      too *nice* and likeable, and there is never, not at any moment,
      anything remotely sinister or dangerous about him, not even in the
      soliloquies where you don't believe for a moment that this young man
      would know his way around his plots and plans. Huge mistake this, to
      have an Edmund which, during his final scene, seems more like an
      embarrassed schoolboy who has been caught being naughty. Without a
      wicked, or at least amoral, Edmund the whole Regan-Edmund-Goneril
      love triangle feels totally fake and you can't imagine that this toy-
      boy could in anyway attract the interest of Barber's fierce Goneril
      in any serious way.

      There are some performances that haven't quite gelled yet, such as
      Jonathan Hyde as Kent, whose first scenes feel a bit stilted and
      Julian Harries' earnest Albany doesn't seem as interesting as John
      Bird's more cynical Albany in the BBC version, but these are likely
      to come together before the play opens. Guy Williams is very good as
      Cornwall, and I find that John Heffernan as Oswald manages to make
      his rather small part seem much bigger, which is quite an
      achievement. I wasn't blown away by Regan (Monica Dolan) or Cordelia
      (Romola Garai), but they weren't bad either and here only time will
      tell if the performances will strengthen as the production finds its
      feet. I never felt emotionally touched by Lear's final scene with
      the dead Cordelia but I'm unsure why, and perhaps that's just me
      being a cold hearted bastard :-)

      Some of the staging decisions are odd, even though the idea to set
      this is some sort of Russian pre-revolutionary era works alright
      enough. The constant and never ending smoky haze that continues to
      hang over the scene is a mystery, and at first I thought that the
      smoke machine was broken and stuck on "on", but as it stopped during
      the interval only to begin when the play resumed, I can only surmise
      that it must have been a directorial decision behind it. Very
      peculiar. Another distraction is the cane that Barber uses as
      Goneril, and I found myself wondering if there was some significance
      to her using it or if she had some sort of an injury (turns out it
      was due to an injury).

      One thing that I didn't agree with at all was where Nunn has chose
      to take Lear's line "and my poor fool is hanged", which he utters as
      Cordelia lies dead in the last act. Even if most editors agree that
      it refers to Cordelia everyone is entitled to interpret the line any
      way they like, but I feel that Nunn has chosen to take this one step
      to far. He has inserted an additional bit of action based on that
      line where we see the fool for the last time at the end of that
      stormy night; here a band of soldiers come onto the stage, seize the
      unlucky Fool and proceed to string him up from the nearest piece of
      scaffolding, which is one liberty taken too far in my opinion.

      The program stated that the length would be 3 hours 20 minutes,
      including the interval, but it clocked in at 3.35, so there might be
      further cuts still to come, though Nunn is well known for hardly
      ever cutting *anything*. Without checking against the text, there
      didn't seem to be much that had been cut, but I think that some of
      Edgar and Gloucester's scenes were slightly shortened, though not by

      It was good, but I was seriously underwhelmed, possibly because I
      had such high expectations for this. I had a ticket for seeing it
      again on Saturday, but I realized that I wasn't all that keen to see
      it again, and when I checked the next day and found that there was a
      possibility to get a ticket for seeing Coriolanus a second time on
      Saturday, the very last night of both the production and the RST, I
      returned my Lear ticket for resale and opted for two consecutive
      nights of Coriolanus (I've been known to see the same play on up to
      four consecutive nights if it's really good), which turned out to be
      a very good decision.

      Friday 30th March - Coriolanus

      As some of you know this play is a personal favourite of mine, so I
      was greatly looking forward to this production, the last ever in the
      Royal Shakespeare Theatre before it closes for a three year period
      of rebuilding. Its proscenium stage will be replaced by a thrust
      stage when the rebuilding is completed, and its vast auditorium will
      be reduced from the 1400-1500 seats that it is today down to around
      1000. Plays staged in this huge place needs to play "bigger", if you
      know what I mean, in order to reach all the way to the far end of
      the balcony so productions here are staged on a different scale. I
      was sitting very close to the stage, in the middle of the fourth row
      of seats in the stalls, and it was a little too close as the
      gestures and moves are designed to translate all the way to the back
      of the auditorium, but it wasn't a big problem.

      (Incidentally, for any new member who missed our discussion of
      Coriolanus, the most political of all the Bard's plays, you can find
      the discussion in the archives of May 2006, and anyone who wants to
      get a copy of my complete summary file to get into the play at your
      own leisure can contact me for a printable Word-file of it.)

      This production of Coriolanus proved to be a worthy farewell
      production for the old theatre. As this production will be visiting
      Washington DC for a few weeks starting 13 April, anyone who is going
      to see it (highly recommended!) should take note that this review
      will reveal some spoilers that you might not want to find out
      beforehand. Read more on the visit here:

      Personally I've never been all that fond of Alan Howard's portrayal
      in the BBC version, though many seem to regard it as almost
      definitive, and here we got a whole different take on the title
      character. Coriolanus is convincingly and compellingly played by
      William Houston, who manages to portray the man without that
      coldness that Howard invested into the character, and the scene
      where he has to "beg" for the votes of the plebs is in fact very
      funny. Houston's Coriolanus is a man joyous at the mere thought of
      battle, enthusiastic at the thought of going to war and his utter
      disdain of the plebeians is a mixture of amusement and bemusement
      that these lowly creatures have the audacity to think that they
      have the right to demand anything of him. Only later, when his fall
      is a fact and death or exile his only prospects, does his amusement
      gradually flicker out as he realizes that these people have managed
      to bring him down. That his revenge on them, and those that allowed
      the plebs such power, will be terrible is a certain.

      I wasn't surprised to see that this production plays on the strong
      homoerotic tones that are present in the text, and even if I didn't
      entirely agree with all of it, it is done with a clear and coherent
      vision that works well. Here, Aufidius (played by Trevor White),
      Coriolanus' enemy-turned-ally-turned-killer, is a man with a deep
      emotional connection to Coriolanus, and his objective to destroy his
      old enemy that is spelled out in scene 1.10 is played down. Instead,
      the relationship is played as far less devious from Aufidius' side,
      and when he turns against Coriolanus at the end it's more of the
      jealous rage of a spurned lover that we see. In this production
      Aufidius can't quite bring himself to destroy Coriolanus, and when
      he has him at the point of his sword he hesitates, and it's
      Coriolanus himself, knowing that there is no going back, who seeks
      his own death. As Coriolanus lies dead after the final scuffle, it
      is with real pain and grief that Aufidius takes him in his arms and
      orders the others to "Assist!" in giving him an honorary burial.

      There are some first rate performances by Fred Ridgeway and Darren
      Tunstall as the two tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus, especially
      Ridgeway turns in another strong performance. I was slightly worried
      about Timothy West playing Menenius, as I'd heard that he was still
      waffling lines the week before, a whole two weeks after the play
      opened, but apart from a minor stumble in the fable of the belly
      speech his performance was excellent.

      Coriolanus' mother Volumnia, the strong woman of the play, is
      perfectly portrayed by Janet Suzman, and the scene where she coaxes
      her son to go back to the senate to humble himself in order to gain
      the consulship is fantastic as well as funny, as the fierce and
      proud warrior turns into a petulant little boy in the presence of
      his mother. The dramatic climax between the two, as she convinces
      him to spare Rome has all the emotional impact that I missed in
      Lear, and when Coriolanus congratulates her on saving the city, with
      them both understanding the consequences that this will have for
      him, it's truly a heartbreaking moment. I wonder if there weren't in
      fact some minute cuts here, but perhaps I was so taken with the
      scene that I just didn't register some of the words. His words (with
      what I think might have been cut in brackets):
      "You have won a happy victory for Rome;
      But for your son, (believe it, O, believe it)
      Most dangerously you have with him prevail'd"

      Breathtaking. I was so pleased that I had decided to get that ticket
      for the next night as well.

      Saturday 31st March - The Merchant of Venice

      Saturday started out with seeing the visiting American company
      Theatre For A New Audience, which had brought their production of
      The Merchant of Venice to the Swan Theatre. I was curious as this
      was the first time I'd seen a wholly American production of a
      Shakespeare play, and it turned out to be very, very good. It was so
      nice to hear it done without the straightjacket of the seemingly
      obligatory RP that American actors so often seem compelled to put
      themselves in, and this meant that all their energy could be spent
      on delivering the text, not the fake accents. It took a few minutes
      to get my ears used to hearing Shakespeare done in this way, but
      then it seemed perfectly natural.

      This was an entirely modern production, with the men as some type of
      Wall Street city slickers, and even though I'm usually not keen on
      modern dress production this was splendid. As I'm entirely clueless
      when it comes to American theatre actors I have no idea who most of
      the cast were, except for F. Murray Abraham of course (who could
      ever forget his Salieri?), but they were terrific. Kate Forbes
      played an assured Portia, Saxon Palmer was spot on as Bassanio,
      Vince Nappo as Lorenzo and Nicole Lowrance as Jessica were as odd a
      couple as they should be (and just right), John Lavelle as Gratiano
      had a wonderful energy throughout and Tom Nelis' Antonio kept the
      right note to his performance. F. Murray Abraham's excellent and
      dignified Shylock reminded me of exactly why I didn't like Al
      Pacino's performance in the 2004 film version of the play, where he
      seemed to equate being loud with being passionate. Less is more, as
      they say, even here where you might need to be louder and bigger to
      reach an audience far out in the auditorium, unlike in a film where
      you're so close that you can count an actor's eyelashes if you're so

      A fine, fine performance and I do hope they visit England again
      soon, as I'd really like to see more of this company. Did any of you
      US group members see it over there?

      Saturday 31st March - final performance of Coriolanus and the last
      night of the RST

      Saturday's performance of Coriolanus, viewed from the circle, was in
      fact even more enjoyable as the depth of the stage become clearer,
      and my goodness what a performance Houston delivers as Coriolanus.
      His Coriolanus is a man ready to pounce at the first hint of action,
      always like a spring ready to release all its stored energy, though
      this most excellent portrayal wasn't to everyone's liking, as I
      overheard someone complaining during the interval at the way
      he "hunched around the stage". Well, we can't all have the same
      taste, I guess. I was at times slightly distracted by what I imagine
      is Houston's own natural accent at times briefly surfacing
      underneath the RP, but this is a *very* minor criticism of what is
      an utterly magnificent performance. The way that man can convey a
      sense of menace just by the slightest change of tone in his voice is
      incredible, and what a difference when compared to Edmund in Lear
      the other night.

      At the end of the play Michael Boyd, the RSC's artistic director,
      came up on stage and addressed the audience at this historic night,
      the very last of the RST. Afterwards, the company treated every
      member of the audience to a glass of wine as they invited us to
      celebrate the memory of this theatre and its long history. A lot of
      us ended up at The Dirty Duck later, where the overcrowding was just
      insane, but it was a great night and loads of the actors from all
      three productions, Lear, Merchant and Coriolanus, were there
      drinking as well, as were some other RSC alumni. Truly a night to
      remember. Everyone was just hanging out and having a great time, and
      at one point the actor playing Bassanio in Merchant came up to me
      and complimented me on my hair, which I thought was very nice of
      him. It was a wonderful evening, a really good time to be in
      Stratford and I felt very lucky to have been there to see the end of
      an era; hopefully the new theatre, which opens in 2010, will have
      just as spectacular a life as the old one had.

    • jpwearing1816
      ... Jnney: Many thanks for these interesting reviews. Just coincidentally, way back when I saw McKellan as Coriolanus at the National, in a quirky production
      Message 2 of 2 , Apr 27, 2007
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        --- In Shakespeare_Review@yahoogroups.com, "Jenny"
        <jenny.stockholm@...> wrote:
        > ----- Original Message -----
        > To: <Shakespeare_and_Company@yahoogroups.com>
        > Sent: Tuesday, April 03, 2007 10:54 PM
        > Subject: [Shakespeare_and_Company] 3 plays in Stratford

        Many thanks for these interesting reviews. Just coincidentally, way
        back when I saw McKellan as Coriolanus at the National, in a quirky
        production to say the least--it had an on-stage audience-- (and the
        play is one of my favourites too). At least I got to see Irene Worth
        (as Volumnia) shed really tears as Corilanus was expelled. She stood
        right next to my seat where she'd stopped after following
        Corilanus/McKellan down the aisle.
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