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Fw: [Shakespeare_and_Company] Theatre Journal January 2008

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  • Jenny
    ... From: Jenny To: Sent: Monday, January 07, 2008 7:41 PM Subject:
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 15, 2008
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      ----- Original Message -----
      From: "Jenny" <jenny.stockholm@...>
      To: <Shakespeare_and_Company@yahoogroups.com>
      Sent: Monday, January 07, 2008 7:41 PM
      Subject: [Shakespeare_and_Company] Theatre Journal January 2008


      Well, I'm back home again, and as usual I'm going to share some of my
      views on the plays that I saw, the Donmar production of Othello, the
      RSC's Richard II and the NT's Much Ado About Nothing. BTW, anyone who
      is considering seeing any of these productions and who would prefer
      not to know anything about them should definitely stop reading here,
      but one of them turned out to be a real masterpiece of a production,
      one of a very, very small number of plays that have *ever* gotten
      five stars from me.

      [SPOILER ALERT]

      Thursday January 4th Othello, Donmar, 2.5 stars

      I wanted this to be good, I really did, but it's more of a yawn than
      anything else. It's not bad, it's just a bit "meh". There are just
      too many details that detract from the overall impression instead of
      strengthening it, some of them in the production and some in the
      performances themselves. Why don't I begin with the production side
      of things. Michael Grandage seems to have latched on to the trend of
      thinking that a smoky haze throughout the play automatically creates
      a special atmosphere. It doesn't really, particularly not for those
      of us that wear contact lenses, as the artificial smoke contains
      something that makes your lenses (and eyes) so dry that you can
      hardly keep your eyes open. Add to that a production that was so
      bland during the first hour that I began to ask myself if I even
      wanted to keep my eyes open any longer.

      Another careless production decision is the "music" (I use the term
      loosely here, it was various other sounds as well, running water,
      chiming church bells and so on, but you get the idea) that plays
      while lines and whole scenes are being delivered, at times I actually
      wondered if they had some sort of problem with the speakers
      accidentally picking up some sort of radio waves containing that
      noise, but then I realised that it had to be intentional, as it
      seemed (vaguely) to be timed along the action of the play. When
      audibility becomes a problem in the stalls of the Donmar, where
      you're less than 30 feet from the actors, you have to wonder at who
      the genius was that decided that the audience didn't actually *need*
      to hear the lines. Interesting decision. And where on earth was the
      director when it came to all those people on stage who don't actually
      *act* (or do anything else for that matter) when they don't have a
      line to deliver; why do they just stand around, visibly *looking* as
      if they're waiting for their next cue?

      As for the acting, well mostly good, but nothing really fantastic in
      my opinion. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives the best performance, and he's
      very good most of the time; Kelly Reilly as Desdemona is also good,
      extremely touching and vulnerable at times. As for Ewan McGregor's
      performance I wasn't much impressed; it's not that it's bad, for it
      isn't really, it's just completely uninteresting. Predictable and
      dull, quite frankly, with McGregor delivering a character that I'm
      sure that I've seen been him do on screen any number of times,
      sympathetic and not without charm obviously, but is it really Iago?
      Not from where I was sitting, it wasn't. As people so often
      say: "Don't give up your day job", and I should say that it's lucky
      for McGregor that he's got a nice film career going, for he sure
      can't hack it as a stage actor.

      After a not very interesting start things got a bit better, and acts
      three and four were really quite good, but it's staged without much
      consideration to the sides of the auditorium, as almost everything
      that happens it directed directly towards the centre of the stalls,
      though the circle sees some attention when it's used instead of the
      balcony that the Donmar stage doesn't have. The final act looked like
      it might finally bring the production home with a strong finish, and
      the bedroom set was wonderful and very dramatic to look at, but sadly
      this turned out not to be the case. It turned into one of the
      shoutiest bits of theatre that I've seen in a long time. Loudness
      does not equal intensity, in spite of what some actors and directors
      seem to believe. Some shouting might be understandable here, it is
      after all a very dramatic scene with lots of emotions running high,
      but not *every* character, *all* of the time. Unbearable.

      Perhaps I'm being a little harsh in only giving this production of
      Othello 2.5 stars, maybe this was a particularly bad night, but what
      I saw really doesn't deserve more than that. Hottest ticket in town?
      Hah! Only goes to show that people will believe (and buy) anything.

      On to something that was in a totally different league, thankfully.

      Friday January 5th Richard II, RSC (Stratford), 5 stars

      Ah, pure bliss, what an unexpected (and rare!) emotion after a night
      at the theatre. This is an amazing take on the play, with a very
      sparse set, but that only serves to highlight the real strengths of
      this production, which are the performances. Foremost amongst them is
      Jonathan Slinger's Richard II; of course you always hope (often in
      vain) that the lead is played by someone who is up to the task, but
      this was beyond what I would have thought possible to do with the
      character of Richard. Slinger is absolutely staggeringly good, in a
      highly idiosyncratic performance, which might not be to everyone's
      taste, but it sure had me mesmerised from start to finish.
      Unbelievably captivating, and there was never one moment when I
      didn't buy it, as it ranged from petulant childlike tyrant to haughty
      divinely-appointed monarch, from boredom through unease and onto
      rage, from the display of petty jealousy at the thought of how
      popular Bollingbroke might be with the people to the unrestrained and
      anguished outburst at the thought that his old cronies Bushy and
      Green might have betrayed him. And what a strange voice, and how it
      ranges through the vocal register in an entirely unpredictable way,
      as shifting and moody as the capricious Richard himself.

      I'm still absorbing the impressions from that performance, and if
      they had performed this play again on Saturday I might actually have
      stayed on and seen it again, never mind the 80 pounds worth of
      theatre tickets that I had waiting for me down in London. And to
      think that I was going to wait to see this until I got to see the
      whole cycle, terrible thought, then I would only have gotten to see
      this once, as it is I'll actually get to see it again :-).

      Slinger was far from the only one to put in a strong performance,
      Clive Wood's Bollingbroke turned out to be a very interesting
      character, actually managing to balance the contest of being most
      deserving of ultimate power that he and Slinger's R2 are involved in,
      no mean feat. Richard Cordery's York turned out to be the third star
      of the play, which I hadn't really anticipated, but that unflinching
      calm dignity just carried through every single scene. It was overall
      good to excellent performances all around, quite rare to see such
      depth of talent, even if I wasn't entirely sure about Mowbray, but
      that might just be a case of personal taste for what you how you like
      to see a certain character. Some of the other characters in R2 are
      hardly more than cameos introducing the line-up for 1H4; such as
      loyalty-for lease-Northumberland and headlong-for-glory Hotspur, but
      they looked promising nevertheless.

      Lots of excellent decisions in the staging of this, such as the scene
      where Henry IV is securing his new power, with his strongmen bringing
      him the bagged severed heads of enemy after enemy, casually dropping
      them off like last week's mail, something that creates a not very
      benevolent image of what his reign is going to be like, as it appears
      that it has just started out with a large scale purge of dissenters.
      Now, in addition to the rebellion of the nobles in 1H4, I've always
      thought that there are strong hints in both 1H4 and 2H4 that things
      are really rough for the ordinary people, and that H4 might be
      running a police state that would make the Stasi green with envy, but
      these bits are almost always cut in performance, as they're
      considered irrelevant to "the greater scheme of things", so I'll be
      interested to see if they're left in this time, but whichever the
      case, this staging rang very true. Interesting also to note that it's
      now entirely PC to make fun of the French, so H5 should be good fun
      indeed.

      Remarkably enough, it never felt long (it was just under three hours)
      or slow, in fact time just flew by, even though it's never been one
      of my personal favourite plays. The Elizabethan setting worked
      brilliantly (with one of two slightly too modern things thrown into
      the mix, but never mind that), and unlike the previous evening at the
      Donmar, the music was never allowed to drown out the lines, and the
      smoke machine was only put to a single brief use. Grandage would do
      well to take some cues from Michael Boyd's production practices,
      where the idea of *getting the text across to the audience* actually
      comes first. And what a good reading of the text it is! I absolutely
      loved the "trickle of dust/sand" scene, with it's connotations
      of "the sands of time" slowly trickling away, as well as the idea
      of "dust to dust" as Richard's reign and his very life draws to an
      end, probably conceived from the later mention in the text of how
      Richard suffered the indignity of being greeted by people throwing
      dust and rubbish on him, but put to a different and incredibly moving
      use.

      Of course I have some minor quibbles with this production as well,
      don't I always? But they're not substantial enough to lower the
      overall grade for this production. As a general rule, I don't like it
      when people tamper with the text; cuts, yes, that's usually
      necessary, but don't *mess with the text*. In this case it works, so
      I'll overlook it, even if I don't strictly see why it was necessary,
      even if I see what Boyd is trying to say with it, or at least I think
      I do, but you never know until you actually hear someone explain how
      they arrived at a certain decision, so who knows. I'm talking about
      the ending, where Boyd changes the murderer of Richard from Exton
      (who's quite a minor character) into Bagot, Richard's old friend. As
      Exton is named in the text as the murderer, this isn't simply about
      just changing the staging, the actual name is changed in the text
      into "Bagot", and I did wonder what those who didn't know the play
      beforehand (and there seemed to be quite a few, judging from people's
      reactions throughout) came away thinking. But it *does* work, as it
      further emphasises that we've now moved from the old days, where
      undying loyalty was a given, and monarchs divinely appointed, into a
      state of flux, where power is fluid and fleeting, where everyone
      could be made to turn against everyone, just like Bagot is here made
      to commit the ultimate betrayal of his old master.

      In all it was fantastic. Spectacular. Breathtaking. I came out of the
      theatre in a daze, just trying to take everything in, and even though
      I'm usually a fairly sociable person, I could hardly manage an answer
      when someone started up a conversation in the Duck afterwards - I
      was physically present but mentally somewhere else, and all I could
      think about was trying to find a free corner of a table somewhere, so
      that I could sit down and start to get a handle on the production by
      putting pen to paper - so I have only the faintest idea of what I
      answered, I just hope that I wasn't too rude. Finally managed to get
      my head round it all, and the impression remains the same, this was a
      truly awesome production, in the actual sense of that word, and I
      wouldn't have missed it for the world. [Note to self: I mustn't
      complain in the future about the RSC's administrative blunders; any
      organisation that can turn out productions of this artistic quality
      is entitled to a fair bit of slack in other areas.]

      When was the last time that I actually gave five stars to any
      production, I wonder. I'm not really sure, but it certainly hasn't
      happened in the last five years. [A production of Macbeth looked like
      it might achieve that a couple of years ago, as it was utterly
      fantastic all the way to the interval, but then fell apart
      completely. It was as if the director had worked his way through the
      text to the interval point (curiously placed in the middle of the
      banqueting scene) and then left, only to be replaced by a lobotomised
      goat, who churned out a real one star clunker of a second half.]

      But this one is a real five star production, no doubt in my mind
      about that. I'm *so* glad that I'll get to see this again in March
      when they do the complete cycle according to historical chronology.
      Ah :-) I can hardly wait. Those that are fortunate enough to have
      secured a ticket for one of the few London performances should count
      themselves very lucky indeed (I would be surprised if this hasn't
      already sold out), the rest of you are right royally f**ked, as you
      won't get to see this extraordinarily amazing production. This did
      get very good reviews when it opened last year, but I suspect that it
      has improved even further during its run, as sometimes happens with
      good productions, and I'll be interested to see how the critics rate
      this when it opens in London. Unmissable. If you have the chance,
      stop at nothing to get a ticket to see this, and I do mean *nothing*.

      Saturday January 6th, Women of Troy, NT, 1.5 stars

      This is Katie Mitchell's take on Euripides' classic, and even though
      it was the first time that I've seen one of her productions, it sure
      felt like I'd seen it before, as every element was as people have
      described her earlier productions, regardless of which play she's
      directing, including the pointless dancing, women in ballroom
      dresses, the falling of sand from the ceiling etc. If all you care
      about is *your* presentation of things, why even bother with
      different plays? Why shoehorn everything into the same stylistic
      straightjacket, regardless of whether it's Chekhov, Strindberg or
      Euripides, and with no relation whatsoever to the actual text? I
      shan't be bothering with seeing one of her productions again. Sad, as
      there seemed to be one or two really good performances of substance
      somewhere in there, completely hidden by the total preoccupation with
      the surface.

      Saturday January 6th, Much Ado About Nothing, NT, 4 stars

      This is a really lovely production, just as good as I hoped it would
      be when I heard who was going to play Benedick and Beatrice. It does
      add another dimension to have them be older and infinitely wiser
      about the goings on between men and women. Simon Russell Beale gives
      a very endearing Benedick, and it's a true joy to see someone of that
      capacity really reveal the text in all its comic detail, while still
      holding the audience's complete attention, for let's face it, in many
      productions the supposedly funny word games aren't actually that
      funny and people tend to laugh mostly because it's expected of them,
      but not so here. Wonderful. Zoe Wanamaker's endlessly wine sipping
      Beatrice is a worthy match for this Benedick, and they really make a
      touching couple in the end.

      Andrew Woodall's Don John is good in a wearily sardonic way, but I've
      never seen a Don Pedro with so little authority, exactly which
      Lilliputian kingdom would he be the prince of, and how many dozen
      citizens does that one have? But the Dogberry/Verges scenes are
      actually funny, incredibly enough, helped by the fact that the
      dullest of the malapropisms seem to have been cut, good call by
      Hytner; either that or else he has somehow managed to make them less
      tedious than they usually are, and without having the text at hand to
      check against, I must say that it felt like the scenes with the guard
      had been liberally cut, which they certainly benefited from.

      Does anyone ever care about the fate of the two young lovers? Since
      they've got the misfortune of having some of the least interesting
      lines of the play, I must confess that they never interest me much,
      and even though the unfortunate actors that are burdened with the
      parts of Hero and Claudio do a good job of it, I find no reason to
      care anymore about them here then I normally do. And yet, I know that
      there are people that claim to have seen productions where the Hero-
      Claudio relationship doesn't came across as a minor subplot, but as
      equally important as that of Benedick and Beatrice, so apparently it
      can be done, even if this one is very much business as usual. Big
      plus for not showing Claudio "witnessing" Hero's supposed infidelity
      (is it Branagh's film version that is responsible for that insertion
      gaining popularity? I think I've seen more production with that
      insertion than I have without it.), but a definite minus for the
      conventional "happy ending". You know, just for once, I'd like to see
      that doormat Hero not welcome Claudio back with all sugar and
      sweetness, but instead show *some* kind of resentment or frustration,
      at least a slight edge, about how he shamed and deserted her. Maybe
      it's just me seeing the wrong productions, surely there are those
      that don't all end on that note? If I have to sit through one more of
      these saccharine endings, I think that I'll be unable to refrain
      myself from jumping out of my seat and shouting "Grow a backbone, you
      ninny!" Or should that be nonny here? :-) Speaking of which, the
      music was very pleasant.

      I did get a bit tired of the overuse of the Olivier's revolve, but it
      is a very, very good production, and one that I left with a big
      smile, feeling wonderfully refreshed by the whole thing.

      And now, time to dig into Venus & Adonis, hoping to post my first
      post in this discussion by tomorrow.

      //Jenny
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