Category Archives: Theatre

Discussion and reviews of theatre

RSC: Kathryn Hunter’s Timon of Athens

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens
Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens, photo by Simon Annand

When Judith and I  learned that the Royal Shakespeare was doing it this winter, with Kathryn Hunter in the lead role, we were more than excited.

Kathryn Hunter is a remarkable actor. She is known for her powerful stage presence, her prowess as a physical performer, and for fearlessly and effectively tackling male roles. We’ve been fortunate to see her in two unforgettable productions: Richard III at the Globe in 2003 and Yerma at the Arcola in 2006. So Judith and I came to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see Hunter in Timon of Athens with the highest of expectations.

Though Hunter’s charismatic force was in evidence, the production as a whole  was disappointing. It seemed unfocused, as if they hadn’t worked out just why Timon should be a woman. (And in this production, Timon is a woman, wearing a golden dress through the first act — unlike, for example, her Richard III, who dresses and acts as a male.) Does this gender switch illuminate the play, or alternatively, does it help us understand something about our culture and our time? I didn’t find either.

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens
Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens, photo by Simon Annand

Elements of design and staging seemed easy, even perfunctory. The first act is drenched in gold, a bit obvious even in these Trumpian times. In the second act, Timon digging for roots to eat, finds a carrot already peeled and washed. The rebel forces carry signs all drawn with the same magic marker, with unlikely slogans (“Banish Usury”). Other details seemed hasty and unformed.

Timon is an anomaly in the Shakespeare canon: stripped down, moralistic, with a simple A/B structure that is tragedy at its simplest. The old blues song says it: Nobody knows you when you’re down and out. When Timon is rich, he gives freely and excessively to his friends; when his money is gone they turn his back on him. He becomes an embittered misanthrope, living rough in a barren desert. When he discovers a cask of gold, he gives most of it to a band of rebels marching against the city. and dies in the wilderness, offstage. The characters, Timon included, lack the subtleties, nuances and contradictions so characteristic of Shakespeare. The play is a diatribe against greed and hypocrisy, stark and elemental. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Timon is the one that most relates to the world outside the theatre walls. It isn’t about ancient Athens, it’s about here and now, Shakespeare’s here and now, and ours. It’s up to the director to draw the connections.

This production seems half-baked and under-done, especially given that this is the RSC. They have the resources, the actors, the designers, and Kathryn Hunter in the title role! It isn’t enough to simply do Timon. Help us to understand something we don’t already know: the play, our culture, the times we live in, sexual identity, greed, class, political struggle. This is a play that needs to have something to say.

Simon Russell Beale did a powerful version at the National in 2012, directed by Nicolas Hyntner, at the height of the Occupy Movement. The message, “we are the 99 percent” came through loud and clear. The intent of this production was not clear at all, and nothing Kathryn Hunter could do could help that.

RSC: Tartuffe in Birmingham

Tartuffe (played by Asif Khan) takes a selfie.

The RSC’s new version of Molière’s Tartuffe is a remarkable piece of work. It transports the plot to Birmingham, and sets it in a Pakistani Muslim household. Tartuffe is a fake holy man, who has gained influence over Imran Pervais, and is imposing his fundamentalist version of Islam on the family, while he persuades his patron to sign over his possessions and give his daughter to him in marriage. All the while, he is attempting to seduce Imran’s second wife.

This displacement is a very apt parallel to Molière’s original Christian framework, but it could be undeniably tricky to pull off in these troubled times. And, of course, it needs to be funny! It succeeds thoroughly (and hilariously), thanks probably to the participation of Anil Gupta, co-writer with Richard Pinto, and Iqbal Khan, the director, who grew up in a in a Pakistani family in Birmingham. The script confronts preconceived notions and misconceptions of the audience head on, and manages to be educative and critical at the same time.

Parts of the script have a very loose relationship with the original, and others follow the dialogue quite closely. Most of it is in prose, rather than rhyming couplets, but there are passages that rhyme, and some rap sequences.

Darina, the Bonsnian cleaner, played by Michelle Bonnard
Darina, the Bosnian cleaner, played by Michelle Bonnard

The play opens with Darina, the Bosnian cleaning lady, with a monologue (not in the original) to help the audience get over some of their assumptions about what a Muslm family is like.   “Also, you should know, they are Muslims. It’s OK. Don’t be scared. I am Muslim too. You didn’t know Bosnians were Muslim? What they teach you in school?”

And that’s the spirit of the rest of the proceedings. Molière’s script, controversial in its time, provides a framework for satirizing hypocrisy and corruption today. It is clear that it is talking about corrupt elements within a community, not the community itself. And, by the way, it’s beautifully performed and staged. And very, very funny.

Richard II at the Almeida: the real Beale

It was with great anticipation that I went to the Almeida to see Simon Russell Beale in The Tragedy of Richard II. He had been a brilliant Timon of Athens at the National in 2012, in a startling production by Nicholas Hyntner that connected Shakespeare’s stark fable to the Occupy movement and Wall Street corruption. I knew that this Richard II had been reworked to focus on the theme of solitary incarceration, and I thought “what a good idea!” Richard in his cell suffers the disintegration of his personality, and halucinates the events that led him to his ordeal. Richard’s agonized musings, rather than historical events, are now the core of the drama.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second at the Almeida. Simon Russell Beale. Photo credit Marc Brenner
Simon Russell Beale in The Tragedy of Richard II at the Almeida

Exploring Shakespeare in this way is very like the experiments back in the sixties and seventies, by Charles Marowitz, Peter Brook and many more. Unfortunately, this production incorporated another aspect of those experiments: real things happening to real people (actors) on stage.

In this Richard II, Beale is hosed with water and has a bucket of filth poured over his head. A bucket labeled “blood” is sprayed over the stage. And so forth.

Well, Mr. Beale is a good sport. However, the play is distorted by these devices. Richard’s suffering evaporates, while we watch the actor letting himself be abused, and wonder what he is thinking, what he is feeling, why he lets them do it to him.

Simon Russell Beale in The Tragedy of Richard II at the Almeida.

There are kinds of performances where we watch real things happen to real people: prize fights, pornography, gladiatorial spectacles and so forth. They are fascinating in their way, no doubt, but I had come to witness theatrical suffering, and the real discomfort of the actor was enormously distracting.

National Theatre: Consent

Consent at the Harold Pinter
Consent at the Harold Pinter

Consent is what used to be called a “problem play”, an examination from various perspectives of a current hot topic. The topic in this case: consensual sex versus rape. The characters are almost all lawyers or lawyers wives, except for one: a woman from the working class who has been raped. Two of the lawyers are trying the case, one for the crown and the other as a defense lawyer appointed by the Crown to represent the accused, the alleged rapist. “Who’s my lawyer?” demands the victim, but the prosecutor won’t even talk to her; she’s not a plaintiff, but a witness, and he cannot be seen to be coaching her on her testimony.

Consent, photo by Photo by Johan Persson
Clare Foster, Stephen Campbell Moore, Lee Ingleby in Consent at Harold Pinter Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson

The lawyers and wives engage in chit chat reminiscent of Sondheim’s Company, but we (and they) gradually learn that all is not as superficial as it seems. Infidelities and sexual power games break and rearrange the relationships, and the men (primarily) try to achieve some kind of understanding of their emotional lives. All this to the click of highballs and wine glasses. At the end of the first act, rough reality breaks in; the rape victim crashes the party and discovers that the two lawyers are friends.

In the second act, one of the wives throws her husband out. Begging forgiveness, he ignores her repeated “no” and they have sex. His friends are horrified: technically, they tell him, this is rape.

There are more facets, more issues to explore, but you get the idea. The script, by Nina Raine, is skillful, smart and sometimes funny. The issues are examined with a certain level of evenhandedness. There are no villains, just imperfect well-bred middle-class professionals doing their best to cope.

I liked the play, but I can’t overlook that it pulls its punches. We want to see those lawyers in court. We want to see a lot more of the working woman’s ordeal than we’re given. And we want to see what happens when the gentle people have their day in court. This never happens. There’s all these lawyers, and no courtroom fireworks? They just talk it out, make concessions and compromises, and life goes on. Cop out.

 

Arcola Theatre: Donizetti and Ravel Operas

Opera Alegria poster for Grimeborn
Opera Alegria poster for Grimeborn

Grimeborn is an annual summer series of opera performances by alternative companies, held at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston. This is a chance to hear chamber versions of operas, sung up close and personal by accomplished singers, accompanied by piano or sometimes small ensembles. Sunday, August 5, it was a double bill by Opera Alegria of Donizetti’s Rita and Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole (The Spanish Hour).

Rita is about the relationship between a harridan bar-owner (Naomi Kilby) and her downtrodden husband (Richard Belshaw). Into this non-idyllic domestic scene ventures a guest (Christopher Faulkner) who, unluckily, turns Naomi Kilby, Richard Belshaw in Ritaout to be Rita’s first husband, presumed dead. The current husband is delighted at the prospect of his freedom, while the first husband does his best to escape. It is silly and fun, if you overlook the domestic abuse implications. (A program note mentions that some of the content was toned down for modern sensibilities.) What is important is Donizetti at his sparkling best, sung with great verve and played with gusto on an upright piano by Lindsay Bramley.

Opera Alegria, L'Heure Expagnole
Opera Alegria, L’Heure Expagnole

Decades ago, right after university, I was stage director of a small opera company, and L’Heure Espagnole was one of the operas we did. I haven’t heard or seen it since, so you can imagine that I was pretty interested in how they would approach it.

The story is that there is a clockmaker whose job it is to wind the city hall clocks once a week. This provides an opportunity for his wife Concepcion (Alicia Gurney) to meet her lovers, a poet (Stuart McDermott) and a town official (Matthew Duncan). A muscular workman, Ramiro (Thorvald Blough) turns up to have his watch repaired, and both lovers end up hiding in the clocks.  Ramiro carries the clocks (with their passengers) upstairs to Concepcion’s bedroom, and back down again when they prove inadequate. However, Concepcion notices Ramiro’s physique, and things work out after all.

Alicia Gurney and Matthew Duncan in L'Heure Espagnole
Alicia Gurney and Matthew Duncan in L’Heure Espagnole

The music is Ravel in finest form, harmonically rich with some Spanish sauce. Well sung by all.

I was naturally interested in the staging choices. Great grandfather clocks with people inside them are pretty funny in themselves, but not easy to build and not easy to carry, especially while singing. Opera Alegria solved the problem with face masks with clock faces. When a singer donned a mask, he was considered to be hiding in the clock. It was an ingenious solution.

The performance was in the Arcola’s Studio 2, downstairs and no air conditioning, or even much ventilation. London has been experiencing a record-breaking heat wave, so it got pretty stifling. Still . . . for art one must sometimes suffer, no?