Hamlet (Crucible Sheffield, September/October 2010)

What I felt about this production of Hamlet was that when it opened it was a very good production and on the last day I saw it, I thought that it was a superb production. I suppose the question here is, is a form of rehearsal be taking place as a production develops beyond previews and through the run and how might an audience feel about this when they are paying the full price for tickets?  In viewing this production at moments through it’s run, I was able to witness its development and it felt like I had observed a company growing together.  The idea of a company learning  together  is what Michael Boyd, Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has discussed in relation to his vision of  the RSC ensemble.  In an Interview on RSC web site, Boyd makes the point that the ensemble  ‘learn and make art at the same time’.   The RSC web site also states that  ‘[p]roductions never stop evolving as actors continually gain fresh insights that they feed into the work the audience sees on stage each night’  (http://www.rsc.org.uk/about-us/ensemble/about-ensemble.aspx).  One of the things that really changed  through the run was John Simm’s approach to the early soliloquies in the play, and by the end of the run I thought that he had really nailed them and every word had meaning for him. When I first saw the production, I felt that John Simm and John Nettles’ acting styles were very different and that jarred a little, but when I saw it at the end of the run, I felt that  the two different styles were still apparent, but there was much more of a coherence between the two actors and the way they responded to each other.

Another noticeable thing as the production developed was what seemed to be the reaction to some of the reviews.  I am not sure if this was intentional but some changes I saw were apparent after the reviews were published. For example, Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian:

 Simm’s Hamlet smashes his mother’s framed bedside photo of her second husband in the closet scene; yet when John Nettles’s vigorous and lively Claudius enters, he entirely ignores the shattered glass even though it provides further damning evidence of Hamlet’s visceral hatred of him. (Michael Billington, The Guardian, Thursday 23 September 2010)

I noticed that Nettles started to subtly look down at the broken frame after the first few performances.  Billington also asked, ‘Who are all these people? Why are they speaking these particular lines?’ and it felt that there was a much better coordination in the later performances that I saw.

There are lots of successful performances and examples of stage business in this production.  The cast tends to use the stage space very well. The stage is monochrome and minimal with a  balcony which is used for the battlements. The interior and exterior are represented using the simple device of   windows being brought down for the interior scenes and being raised to reveal trees for the exterior scenes.  The chandeliers come down to represent the state rooms, as in Greg Doran’s Hamlet.  There was some interesting doubling in this production. John Nettles plays both the Claudius and Ghost, and Hugh Ross plays both Polonius and the gravedigger.  In some ways this worked well to emphasise the generational differences between fathers/uncles and sons/daughters/nephews. When playing the ghost John Nettles speaks with a very strange ghost voice.  His appearance in the first act was through the trap, and as the stage is dark and he  slowly appears through the ground.  A nice touch is when the ghost is about to speak when the cock crows and this clearly silences him. It’s obviously a very quick change for John Nettles as he has to appear as Claudius in the next scene.

Hugh Ross gives a solid performance as Polonius and Michelle Docherty as a mature Ophelia.  Adam Foster and Dylan Brown as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a great double act tumbling on stage and then ending up squeezed into both court life and very ill-fitting dull grey suits.  John Nettles delivers a very polished performance in the role of Claudius. Barbara Flynn takes a more traditional approach to playing Gertrude and does not to fill those silences as Penny Downie does in the Greg Doran’s production, and presents Gertrude as a passive observer watching it all go wrong before her.  There is one moment that I liked and that is when  the Gertrude and Claudius share a joke just before the Mousetrap and this clearly disturbs Hamlet which can been in Hamlet’s face. 

Simm’s Hamlet has kind of fidgety twitchy madness. He is on the edge of madness but doesn’t actually fall into madness.  I didn’t think this Hamlet has put on an ‘antic disposition’ and  what we saw in the production was a Hamlet outwardly showing his emotion as well as internalising it.  Simm’s entrance on the stage in 1.2 is a really interesting piece of stage business which really illustrates this approach.  Simm ashen face with red eyes, and clearly grieving,  flings the doors open from clearly another room as if he is looking for a private space away from the formality of the court.  Ophelia follows him, as if  she is trying to  snatch a moment that they can be alone.  Unfortunately the rest of the court are not far behind and we go into Claudius public speech.  I’ve only every seen a Hamlet enter like this before when Kenneth Branagh first played the role on stage in 1988.  Simm’s Hamlet is partly from the court world, but his smart suit is torn, which suggests some form of rebellion.  However, Simm’s Hamlet wants to show his disengagement with the court and  lies on the floor and clearly frustrates Claudius who moves to speak to him first, but has to speak to Laertes, because Hamlet is clearly not going to respond.

Polonius works hard to make sure Hamlet and Ophelia are not left alone.  As characters leave in 1.2, Ophelia tries to stop back but Polonius blocks her way to make sure she is never alone with Hamlet.  Hamlet is clearly shocked to find he is being watched in the nunnery scene.  Simm wasn’t really playing to the audience.  For most of his performance his Hamlet is living in an enclosed stiffing world.  There are two points when Simm’s Hamlet  acknowledges the audience. First  he suggests the audience might be  the  ‘guilty creatures sitting at a play’, by gesturing to the audience as he says the line and also notes that  the audience are like the groundlings who might have their ears split if the players shout too much.  However, in working on his performance through the run, Simm seemed to be aiming for perfection and was clearing showing a wider awareness of how the audience was responding to his overall performance.

Alexander Vlahos on John Simm  in his blog, A hit, a very palpable hit, ” I’ve learned so much watching him, a brilliant and generous man who has grown and grown in the sane way we all have.” Clearly working together as a cast for four weeks in a production can only mean that the continual repetition brings polish. What do we want from actors that they company try to retain the same version each night,. Surely it is the joy of watching theatre that a production won’t be the same each night. It is a shame that the reviewers see a production so early and don’t go back at the end as well. The ticket price was very affordable making the going back to see the performance very much part of the theatre going experience.

Reviews and Previews

Hamlet, Crucible theatre, Sheffield, review – T…
John Simm will play Hamlet
FT.com / Arts / Theatre & Dance – Hamlet, Cruci…
Hamlet, NT Olivier, LondonHamlet, Crucible…
John Simm on playing Hamlet
Hamlet – the rivalry’s the thing – Features, Th…
WOS John Simm on Hamlet
The Guardian review
Further Information
A hit, a very palpable hit (Crucible Hamlet blog)
Interview with Michael Boyd on RSC web site

Antony and Cleopatra. Part 2 (Theatre Royal Newcastle, 15th October 2010)

On the 15th October matinée, Katy Stephens (text in hand) took on the role of Cleopatra in the RSC Antony and Cleopatra when Kathryn Hunter ‘was indisposed’.  Though for most of the scenes Katy Stephens held the book in her hand, she only looked at the script now and again to remind herself of  odd lines. I felt that Katy Stephens’ portrayal of  Cleopatra was much more emotional than Kathryn Hunter’s and she didn’t play the comedy as much.  On Antony’s death there were tears in her eyes.  At times Katy Stephens was a little uncomfortable in the way she stood.  However, watching her demonstrated that two different approaches to a character can work within the same production.  I felt there was certainly a lot of chemistry between Stephen’s Cleopatra and Darrell D’Silva’s Antony.

The shuffle that inevitably comes from an understudy taking on a key role resulted in some real treats.  My favourite was Greg Hicks taking on the role of the messenger Thidias. It was a lovely performance, and Hicks seemed to revel in the part, flirting with Cleopatra and taking notes in Rome with great relish.  Tunji Kasim  (normally Mardian) gave a very sound performance as Eros and I felt that this was better casting than the eunuch and even Edmund.

There were a couple of moments that didn’t seem to go to plan.  At one point Alexas was not on stage when he was asked to find out information from the messenger and the gun did not go off when Cleopatra shot at the messenger.  Maybe the safety catch was still on or because Katy Stephens hadn’t practised that much they didn’t want to take the risk.

When an understudy takes on a role, there is a bit of observing the blocking and some mimicking of the way lines are said by the original actor.  On the other hand, there is also a sense of the actor trying to bring their interpretation to the role.  The RSC policy is for the ensemble to understudy other parts. It’s enormous undertaking to understudy Cleopatra as well as play Regan and Rosalind.  In the past two years I have seen Ed Bennett’s Hamlet, Mariah Gale’s Rosalind, and Dyfan Dwyfor’s Romeo. I have also seen the understudy performance of Twelfth Night.  What the understudy does is give a very different perspective of a role in a production.  For example, I thought that Dyfan Dwyfor’s Romeo was much measured and quieter than Sam Troughton’s.  I was really pleased to see Katy Stephens play Cleopatra and in future she may get the opportunity to really make the part her own.

My review of the production with Kathryn Hunter

Antony and Cleopatra, Part 1 (The Courtyard Theatre, Theatre Royal Newcastle May to October 2010)

When I saw Antony and Cleopatra in Stratford, I felt that Artistic Director, Michael Boyd’s vision of  the RSC ensemble and how it should be put into reality seemed to come to fruition in the production. The house lights are up for most of the production creating a real awareness of the audience watching.  The vomitaria are used a lot for entrances and exits.  Soldiers launched themselves from the circle into battle.  Actors who are experienced, and who have been cast in lead roles in other productions, were playing smaller parts.  These included Greg Hicks as the Soothsayer and Katy Stephens as a fascinating Eros who delights in the partying  and ends up firmly tied up in the tragedy.

The production starts with the dimming of the house lights and Antony and Cleopatra chasing each other onto the stage. Shifting the focus moves straight onto Antony and Cleopatra from the very beginning.  The loss of the Roman frame right at the start of the production changes the perspective of the scene.  Though the Romans do appear straight after to comment on the two lovers, this slight amendement, presents Antony and Cleopatra directly to the audience, rather than through the Roman eyes.  This is important because many of the negative comments about Cleopatra are from the mouths of the Romans, and by placing Antony and Cleopatra directly in the spotlight the audience are asked to judge them for themselves. The staging of the opening scene reminds me that in their most private moments, Antony and Cleopatra are never alone. We are watching as the Romans and the Egyptian court observe the fickleness and attraction of this relationship and by lighting the audience the public nature of the events is emphasised by widening the on stage audience to us.

I felt that the chemistry between Kathryn Hunter’s Cleopatra and Darrell D’Silva’s  Antony has become more evident as the production has developed over the past few months.  Together they highlight that this is the story of two older people who find each other very sexy, and can’t concentrate on anything but each other.  Just watch Enrobarbus’s (Brian Doherty)  reaction to Agrippa’s  (Geoffrey Freshwater) declaration that Antony should marry Octavia and hear his emphatic ‘never’ at the suggestion that Antony will now leave Cleopatra, to know how much Antony is really tied to his Egyptian queen.

The cigar smoking Antony is not at home in either Rome of Egypt.  He clearly loves the party and in this production Bacchus is his god.  Like the other Romans, he wears a suit in Rome but he looks very uncomfortable in it, so when he’s drinking on Pompey’s ship, he commands the scene wearing his little sailor hat to undermine the formality.  When he is in Egypt wearing his army uniform, he is the great soldier who can no longer win the battles.  His death is both tragic and comic at the same time.  I could weep when Eros kills himself instead of stab the dishonoured Antony, but feel frustrated that Antony cannot even kill himself.  In winching his dying bulk up to Cleopatra’s monument, the scene becomes comic.

Kathryn Hunter is not a stereotypical Cleopatra. She’s doesn’t try to mimic the  Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh view of Cleopatra.  As a small actress she uses her physical appearance to great effect.  Her moods are as changeable as her clothes, but her intelligence and quick wit come over well.  I like the accent and  her lines are spoken with passion and energy. Not one line is underplayed.  .

It’s not just Kathryn Hunter and Darrell D’Silva that give strong performances in this production.  Their love affair is played out against a background of war and politics which span the ancient world and it is the very solid performances from the rest of the cast, and the excellent blocking of scenes, that make this production work so well.

The scene changes are cleverly thought through as they alternates between Egypt and Rome.  The moment when it looked like Pompey was pointing his gun at Caesar as the scene shifted from one place to another was brilliant.  The drinking scene taking place on Pompey’s ship is wonderfully staged, including dimming the lights and focusing on Menas as he reveals his murderous plot to Pompey.  Clarence Smith brings Pompey alive and we really feel he is so volatile and he could easily explode and break his pact with the three Romans  at any time.  The production also finds a solution to how do you stage a battle on stage?  The dance with the paper ships is very effective way of doing this.

Sandy Neilson’s Lepidus is unable to hold his drink and staggers and slurs in the drinking scene.  He delights at the crocodile story.  How strange the crocodile would have sounded to the Elizabethans?  The night on Pompey’s ship is the start of  his embarrassing downfall, which was exemplified as he was  placed in the spotlight above the stage the doors slowly closing on his to signal his execution.

John Mackay used his height to great effect when playing Octavius Caesar, making him seem uncomfortable in company and often having to lower his head as he entered centre stage.   He is emotional at the loss of his sister and unable to take his drink.  At the end of the play he is the sole ruler of the world.   Changing from the black polar neck to shirt and tie showed that even in his supposedly private moments he was still very self-aware of his image.  As an audience we are supposed to think that his feelings for Octavia is more than brotherly.  he displays fury at Antony’s betrayal and he recounts the messengers stories of Antony’s behaviours  in Egypt with great clarity and anger. 

Paul Hamilton’s messenger contributes to one of the highlights of the production.  Terrified of the knife wielding, gun firing Cleopatra, he sticks to his text the best way he can.  His determination to give his message shows that there is an etiquette around messengers and that’s why the beating of  Thidias later in the play is brutal and humiliating .

I’m always amazed by Phillip Edgerley’s character acting and that he can look so different.  His  Menas and his  Proculeius were like chalk cheese – the ruffian pirate and the smart  Roman diplomat.

One thing I find a little confusing was Sophie Russell  doubling up as Octavia and a Roman soldier.  Clearly this wasn’t intended to mean Octavia was alos a Roman soldier, but could be taken that way.

I saw this production in Stratford and Newcastle and like the other long ensemble productions it has benefited from its development through time.  I really sat on the fence when it came to saying whether I liked or not.  I was unsure whether I found it engaging or not, because I had such mixed feelings about it.  However, every time I saw it, I went away thinking a lot about it.  I think now I’m hooked.  What felt, at first, like a slow bland first half has speeded up and the episodic nature of the play in its shifts between Rome and Egypt are highlighted to great effect.

My next blog discusses the matinée performance on Saturday 15th October when Katy Stephens played Cleopatra.

Reviews and Previews

RSC Antony and Cleopatra in The Times
RSC Antony and Cleopatra in Evening Standard
The Stage review of RSC Antony and Cleopatra
RSC Antony and Cleopatra in The Guardian
Antony and Cleopatra in the Observer (int with Kathryn Hunter)
Antony and Cleopatra in the FT
RSC Antony and Cleopatra Press Night delayed (The Stage)
RSC’s Antony and Cleopatra in The Telegraph

Macbeth (Belt Up, York Theatre Royal, 8th October 2010)

I must admit that this production of Macbeth was very much in the Belt Up aesthetic and contributes to an oeuvre which experiments with using space in inventive ways.  In a proscenium arch theatre this involves the breaking down the fourth wall and any divide between auditorium and stage in using the space in the performance.  Belt Up take some of their ideas from the theatre of the absurd and surrealism.  Now when I go and see Belt Up, I know more or less what I’m going to experience.  On this occasion their approach was to transform Macbeth into a grotesque comedy, but unfortunately this production seemed to over play the joke and the clowning,  and ignored some of the interpretations of the text that could have been highlighted with a more subtle approach.   

The production worked when it was building on the grotesque rather than being  funny ha ha.  There were some clever comic moments for example when we are supposed to feel horror watching Duncan dying on stage (normally he dies off stage),  the joke being he doesn’t die easily even though he is a frail man.  It felt that Belt Up were working hard to blur the lines between comedy and tragedy so in a moment they became the same thing and this worked well here.   There were some other interesting ideas in this production such as a pregnant Lady Macbeth and  the birth in the second  visit to the witches scene was a thoughtful way of taking the pregnancy idea through the play to a conclusion.  Women with beards can be funny  and a Lady Macbeth that changes gender from man to women through a striptease on stage was very entertaining.  This is a reminder that Lady Macbeth was played by a man originally, but probably not a man with a beard.  Indeed, at times, I felt that I was watching a Monty Python approach to Macbeth, but for  nearly two hours it was just a little long, especially as the  joke was evident from the start and was continually repeated in similar ways. 

There were bits of this production which I didn’t think were successful. I didn’t get the clowning at the start of the play, which felt under rehearsed and indulgent and some of the playing against the verse rhythms for effect was irritating.  For example, in attempting to make some of the verse sound like it was being delivered by a WWI general through a loud hailer felt really contrived.   Belt Up have already used the device of a character dying on stage and the actor continuing to lay motionless on the stage for the curtain call in The Trail.  This worked much better in the space used for that production than on a proscenium arch stage where an audience expects a curtain call and playing against this, rather than being innovative, feels just chaotic and confusing.  I found the use of the  Theatre Royal stage which exposed the back wall and the ruins of the roman hospital, with the clutter on stage,  just a little frustrating, because all this suggested the backstage area of the theatre and  made me want to see a ‘backstage’ version of the play.  In setting up this expectation with the set it becomes slightly disappointing when this only happens in part. 

I am pleased that the Theatre Royal is taking chances with the productions it puts on and giving young companies like Belt Up the support it needs to establish itself.  Though some of this production worked for me, and other bits didn’t, it was much better seeing this than another dry ‘traditional’ approach to the play.

Saffron on Macbeth at York Theatre Royal

Reviews and Previews

Review: Macbeth, Belt Up Theatre, York Theatre …