Thoughts on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Titus Andronicus

I first saw the current Royal Shakespeare Company production of Titus Andronicus in July. (Here’s my review.) Last night, I saw the production for the fourth time. Of the three Shakespeare plays currently running in Stratford – the other two are Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra) – this is by far the most interesting, and the most accomplished.

This is a staggering production, with extraordinary acting, notably by David Troughton (Titus), Martin Huston (Saturnius), and Hannah Morrish (Lavinia). Last night, I was in the front row, center, by the vom on the right, and had a close up of some of Lavinia’s most moving moments in the play, such as when she is begging Tamora to keep her sons from raping her, then begging to be killed. Or when she comes back on stage and Titus sees her for the first time. Both when speaking and when totally silent (Lavinia has her tongue cut out), Morrish is very impressive.

While all three of these actors are excellent, I think I have been most impressed by Stefan Adegbola as Aaron. He is a conniving, sweet-talking man, yet, in his two big speeches near the end – when captured by the Goths, then when sentenced to a cruel and painful death – shows that he is evil incarnate. I would love to see Adegbola in more roles at the RSC; or in almost anything. He is able to perfectly represent this complex character with grace and charm, but can be as evil as sin when needed.

But Titus is a difficult play. It’s violent and bloody, excessively so. The RSC plays up the gory elements of the production, and, as such, has suffered commercially. The last two times I saw the play – last night, and last Wednesday – the entire upper circle was closed off, and there were plenty of empty seats on the sides in the stalls, and in the circle. They’re running this show at maybe two thirds capacity, which, to be honest, is a failure.

Last Wednesday, I got to talking with two American tourists who were sitting behind me. They had read in the Guardian that people were fainting or getting sick at every performance. It’s almost as though that element of the review may have attracted them to the play, but this also repels a lot of people. In four performances, I’ve seen a few people walk out, but I haven’t seen anyone faint or vomit. People may gasp and cringe, but to be honest, the 2013 production in the Swan Theatre had more of an effect on audiences. (I know there have been fainters and vomiters, however, at some performances, just not as many as the press would lead you to believe.)

It’s hard to know how to best approach this play. It’s much tamer than an episode of Game of Thrones, but seeing (fake) blood is very different when it’s in person, especially if you’re close to the stage. You get drawn into a production like this, and your suspension of disbelief makes it seem more real than when you see it on television. Would more people see this play if it were less graphically bloody? Would it still be Titus Andronicus if it weren’t so bloody? After all, aside from the run-of-the-mill killings, one woman is raped, her tongue cut out and her hands cut off; her father sacrifices his hand to ransom his two sons, but that hand, and the heads of the sons, are returned to him in scorn; and Titus kills Tamora’s two sons, cooks them in a pie, and serves them up in a macabre final feast that sees four dead. It’s hard to tone that down.

I consider Titus Andronicus to be one of Shakespeare’s strongest plays; it’s not up there with Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, but it’s a powerful revenge tragedy that examines the escalation of violence until it reaches a paroxysm. It’s over the top, and if you know the play, you are prepared. But most people don’t go to the theater expecting that kind of violence.

Titus Andronicus is an important part of the Shakespearean canon, but is a difficult play. With excellent actors and direction, it can be very powerful, but it is also very risky. I think the RSC has done a great job with this production, and, while I understand why some people don’t want to see it, it remains on of Shakespeare’s strongest statements about the perils of revenge and its escalation.

(I was so inspired by the 2013 production of Titus Andronicus, that I chose Titus as the name for a cat I got later that year. Here’s a photo of him.)

Theater Review: Titus Andronicus, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

There’s something about Titus Andronicus that attracts me. Not the bloody parts, though it is the bloodiest Shakespeare play. But the complex schemes of revenge that weave in and out of the play. Tamora, the Goth queen, wants revenge on Titus for having killed one of her sons. When Tamora’s sons rape and maim Lavinia, Titus’s daughter, he wants revenge on them, and their mother. And Aaron wants revenge on everyone.

It’s easy to just watch this play and be mesmerized by the violence; it’s a sort of Game of Thrones on stage. And the language isn’t the best of the Shakespeare plays; he didn’t even write it all, but collaborated, most likely, with George Peele. It’s one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and it fits in a context of the very popular revenge tragedy of the time. To a society where torture and public execution were commonplace, a couple dozen violent deaths in a play was no biggie.

As the RSC says on its website:

PLEASE NOTE:

TITUS ANDRONICUS Shakespeare’s bloodiest play …

CONTAINS SMOKE EFFECTS, GUNSHOTS, SEXUAL CONTENT, WITH VIOLENT AND POTENTIALLY DISTRESSING SCENES.

The RSC is presenting Titus Andronicus as part of its Rome season, together with Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus (the latter opens in September. While this play is said to be rarely performed, this is actually the second time in four years that the RSC has mounted it. (Here’s my review and account of a discussion with the director and some of the actors from 2013.)

The current production is directed by Blanche McIntyre, who directed The Two Noble Kinsmen at the Swan Theatre last year, a production that got (in my opinion unjustified) poor reviews. With David Troughton as Titus Andronicus, Nia Gwynne as Tamora, Martin Huston as Saturninus, and Hannah Morrish, this is a very strong production. Yet it’s not without its faults.

To start with, the show belongs to David Troughton. Having seen him as the brilliantly pathetic Gloucester in last year’s King Lear, I was looking forward to seeing him in a lead role. And he commands the stage, from beginning to end. When he returns to Rome, he looks a bit farcical, in his Salvation Army-type uniform, and with his right hand shaking, he is visibly old and past his prime. As the play progresses, he becomes more and more Learish – yes, I would love to see Troughton play that part – as his despair becomes single-pointed folly aiming at revenge. His performance is memorable, and no matter what you think of the rest of the play, it’s worth seeing him in this role.

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(Photos by Helen Maybanks ©RSC)

For this production is far from perfect. It opens with a somewhat pointless West Side Story type dance routine, pitting protesters against riot police, which doesn’t add anything to the story, and is quickly forgotten. (This is a modern dress production, unlike the two other Rome plays, which are full toga.) McIntyre oscillates between very serious scenes, full of pathos, and some farcical elements that seem like ideas that someone sketched out on a napkin, and decided to keep. For example, Titus in a Beckettian cardboard box when Tamora is pretending to be “Revenge,” in the second half of the play, just seems ludicrous. As does the “Deliveroma” guy on a bicycle, who brings a note to the emperor, along with pigeons that are in a hot-pack on his back. Or the scene when Aaron, Chiron, and Demetrius are sunning themselves on an imaginary beach. There’s even an attempt at comedy, when Titus asks a man in the front row if he has any money, or someone a couple of rows back, by one of the voms, if he has a pen and paper. This is not a comedy, and it’s a bit confusing to see scenes that attempt to portray it as such.

Even some of the more poignant scenes miss the mark. The scene when Marcus Andronicus discovers his niece Lavinia after she has been raped and maimed is one that should be very moving. It starts out that way; she comes onstage with her panties and pants around her ankles, her body covered with blood, and her part in the scene is exemplary. But Patrick Drury, who plays Marcus, speaks like an actor in a pantomime, and breaks the magic.

In spite of these reservations, this is an excellent production. Martin Huston as Saturnius shows the same cutthroat brilliance as he did as Cassius in Julius Caesar. Hannah Morrish as Lavinia is excellent throughout, first as a sort of Ivanka Trump character, then, after she is assaulted, even mute she is very expressive. Nia Gwynne’s Tamora is full of guile and wit.

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And Stefan Adegbola as Aaron… What a wonderful performance. The role of Aaron is an extraordinary one. As a proto-Iago, Aaron is not subtle; there are no handkerchiefs, but direct suggestions about how Chiron and Demetrius can find Lavinia and rape her. His hatred for the world is obvious, notably in his final lines (which occur just before Lucius’s lines that end the play):

O, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done:
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.

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And then there’s the blood… The RSC does go out of its way to highlight the bloody nature of this play, and the violence is a bit excessive. But it doesn’t have the shock factor that the 2013 production had when Rose Reynolds as Lavinia came on stage for the first time after she was assaulted. From my review in 2013, after seeing the production a second time:

“But the star of this production is Rose Reynolds, whose portrayal of Lavinia — Titus’ daughter, who’s hands and tongue are lopped off — is breathtaking. Having already seen the production once, I was prepared for the moment when Lavinia’s wounds are seen for the first time. She lies huddled in the center of the stage, her back to the audience, then slowly rises and turns in silence to face the spectators, and her uncle, Marcus Andronicus, standing downstage.

[…]

“At this moment, Lavinia opens her mouth and blood flows down her chin, and she stands there helpless. Some gasps break the silence in the audience at this point. This is a moment of utter despair for Lavinia, and Reynolds plays this perfectly. From this point on in the play, the way Reynolds walks, moves, holds her body is different; she has become this tortured creature.”

That, for me, was the defining moment of the 2013 production, and nothing in the current staging comes close.

The play is a bit long – just under three hours, plus a twenty minute intermission – and the second half, which features more of the farcical moments, feels weaker than the first. But overall it’s excellent, and the audience last night gave the cast – particularly David Troughton – rapturous applause. This is a fine production, just short of excellent, and should not be missed, either on stage or in the cinema.

Titus Andronicus at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Bob Dylan: Conor McPherson on writing the musical – BBC News

Imagine you are approached by one of the world’s most famous musicians and asked to create a show using their songs.

But there is a problem. You’ve never written a musical before.

That was the challenge facing the Irish playwright Conor McPherson, when he was contacted by none other than Bob Dylan’s management company.

The writer, who is best known for his critically acclaimed play The Weir, says he was “puzzled” and has no idea why he was approached.

“And I don’t really want to know,” he adds.

I look forward to this. I have tickets for September.

Source: Bob Dylan: Conor McPherson on writing the musical – BBC News

King and Corporation – Illuminations Media

On Wednesday night BBC Two broadcast Rupert Goold’s film of King Charles III with a script by Mike Bartlett. It is on BBC iPlayer for the next four weeks, and if you watch nothing else in that time, make time for this. It’s a wonderful 90 minutes of beautifully achieved, bold, provocative, innovative, smartly subversive television, with a glorious performance from the late Tim Pigott-Smith at its heart. The plaudits have poured in, as I have little doubt they will continue to, and among the thoughtful press responses perhaps the most thoughtful is that by Mark Lawson for the Guardian. (Perhaps the most bizarre is ‘The BBC’s King Charles III inevitably contained plenty of howlers’ for — surprise! — the Mail, although treating the fantasy as a docu-drama is some kind of compliment.) Apart from expressing close-to-boundless enthusiasm for the film, I want here just to add a couple of thoughts about its status as television.

I watched this last night, and it’s the best thing I’ve seen on television in a long time. It’s a 90-minute adaptation of a play about when the current queen dies and Charles becomes king. It’s full of Shakespearean intrigue, and the language is a nod to Shakespeare, with blank verse, iambic pentameter, and some odd word order at times. But interestingly, it took me a while to notice the language; I think many viewers won’t even spot it, they’ll just think it’s a bit weird. (You know, the royals speaking funny…)

This article, by John Wyver, who produces films and filmed theater productions, examines how subversive this production is. And when you think about it, he’s right; there are many layers around this film, from the subject matter to the language, to the context of it being produced and broadcast on the BBC.

If you’re in the UK, watch this: it’s on the iPlayer for a few weeks.

Source: King and Corporation – Illuminations Media

Theater Review – Antony and Cleopatra, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Together with a new production of Julius Caesar, the RSC has started a run of Antony and Cleopatra. Much of the same cast is present in both plays (and will also be in Titus Andronicus, later this year), and the title roles are played by Anthony Byrne and Josette Simon. Using many of the same set elements and wardrobe, these two plays are of a piece, both in design and direction. Here, Iqbal Khan, who brought us 2015’s visceral Othello, takes the helm.

As much as I loved Julius Caesar, I was bored by Antony and Cleopatra. The first part of the production seemed aimless, with no solid direction in the plot. It was very hard to follow, in part because of Josette Simon’s strange delivery, but also because the various actors seemed to be trying to do very different things. Simon seemed to be acting like someone in a silent movie, but with words. Her speech was stilted, her gestures overdone, and it wasn’t clear whether this was meant to portray Cleopatra as somehow crazy, or whether it was just a mannered way of performing.

Anthony Byrne, however, was the star of the show. I’ve seen him for several years in the history plays, and recently as a wonderful Kent in last year’s King Lear, and it’s great to see this actor in a starring role. Byrne, while not young, is an actor with quite a future. He can be powerful and sensitive, with excellent movement, and he commands attention. His only problem is that his booming voice sometimes dominates the other actors, who project much less.

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(Photos: Helen Maybanks for the RSC.)

The second part of this long production – three hours, plus a twenty minute intermission – is a bit more focused, but the struggles between Antony and Octavius Caesar seem trivial. Things are confusing, and Octavius Caesar, played by Ben Allen, is unconvincing, and doesn’t seem like a leader, but more like an angry child.

Andrew Woodall’s Enobarbus is one of the highlights of the show. I felt his Julius Caesar was a bit over the top, but here he is more restrained. His cockney accent may not have been necessary, but he projects more power in this play than he did in Julius Caesar.

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The sets and lighting were magnificent, far more interesting than in Julius Caesar, but the beginning of the production was marred by a VERY LOUD, uninteresting dance piece. I don’t know why, but RSC productions use this technique often, and this type of dance number generally adds nothing to the production. The music doesn’t need to be that loud; the theater is quite small.

The ending, where Cleopatra has herself bitten by an asp, falls flat. Josette Simon’s over-the-top acting and the way she manipulates the small rubber snake just aren’t believable. This seems to be a trend at some RSC productions recently. Even some excellent productions – such as the 2015 Othello, or last year’s King Lear – drop the ball in the climactic scene.

In the end, this is a beautiful production, but it is muddled by trying to do too much, and by Josette Simon’s odd acting. I’ll see it again, to see if I was wrong, or to see if the production tightens up, but this is one of the more disappointing Shakespeare plays I’ve seen at the RSC. I don’t expect every one of their Shakespeare productions to be excellent, and this one made me feel the way I did seeing last year’s Cymbeline.

Theater Review – Julius Caesar, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Julius Caesar holds a special place in my heart. It was the first Shakespeare play I read, back in high school, and its many memorable lines ignited my love for Shakespeare’s language. I’ve been looking forward to seeing it at the Royal Shakespeare Company, as part of the current Rome season (together with Antony and Cleopatra), and the production I saw was wonderful. I saw a preview performance on March 16, and I can’t help but think that the RSC should have had a performance the day before – the Ides of March – but did not have one.

Julius Caesar is about politics, ambition, honor, and the consequences of taking radical actions. You’re probably aware that the title character doesn’t live to the end of the play; in some ways, this work could be entitled Marcus Brutus, but Caesar was certainly the more famous man.

The play opens in a stark, empty set, Roman with influences from Albert Speer, where there are some steps, columns, and lions toward the back of the stage. The RSC has gone full toga here; this is no modern dress production, transported to some setting where one needs to imagine how a modern Caesar would reflect the original. This is Rome, and the production embraces the antique. All the men wear identical togas; clean, crisp, white trimmed with scarlet.

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(Photos: Helen Maybanks for the RSC.)

Brutus is a well-respected Roman, and Cassius, played by the excellent Martin Hutson, starts suggesting that Rome would be better off without Caesar, who has just returned from a war with Pompey. In a show of humility, the Roman people – offstage – have offered Caesar the crown of emperor, but he refuses three times, only to accept.

Brutus, admirably played by Alex Waldmann, warms to the idea, and before long launches the conspiracy. The comings and goings of the conspirators build the tension, and their plans takes hold.

Earlier in the play, a soothsayer had warned Caesar to “Beware the ides of March,” and just before Caesar was due to go to the Senate, his wife, having dreamt of his death, tries to keep him home. But Caesar heads out on that fateful day.

The famous murder scene is one of the tensest scenes I’ve seen at the RSC. The combination of set and lighting make it a harsh murder, and, while there’s not a lot of blood, there’s enough so the killers can wash their hands in it, and stain their togas.

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After the intermission comes Mark Antony’s famous speech, which begins with “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” Standing on a small platform in the center of the stage, surrounded by a surprising number of Romans – most of the cast, plus what seems like a gaggle of extras – James Corrigan performs one of the best scenes I have ever seen at the RSC. He is impassioned and truculent, reminding that, “Brutus is an honorable man,” and he plays the crowd like a cheap fiddle.

The remainder of the play is less intense, as the men are seen at war, and Brutus and Cassius have a bit of a falling out. With the conspirators on one side, and Mark Antony and Octavius on the other, war is immanent, and the battle scenes are thrilling, the ending tragic, as several of the conspirators choose death in honor over death at the hands of their enemies.

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The triumvirate of Brutus, Cassius, and Mark Antony – respectively played by Alex Waldmann, Martin Hutson, and James Corrigan – make up a stellar cast for this production. I felt that Caesar, played by Andrew Woodall, was a bit too much of a loudmouth, spitting as he spoke, and r-r-r-olling his Rs, which may have been a way of marking him as somehow different from the others. The majority of the cast is made up of RSC first-timers, who all acquit their roles with ease and grace.

It’s hard not to see this play and think of politics, either in the US or the UK, with Trump on one side, Brexit on the other. But that’s the beauty of Julius Caesar; it holds a message for all time, to be interpreted according to the current political climate. But Angus Jackson’s production, staying purely in its Roman guise, takes no sides, allowing spectators to make their own transpositions, if they wish.

This was a beautiful production, with creative lighting, and, while there was just the single set in the first half, the set morphed a bit in the second part giving the stage a very different tone. The two key scenes in the middle of the play are among the best theater I’ve seen at the RSC, and the overall production is powerful. I hope to see this play again several times during its run.

The only negative was one brief moment near the end of the play that was so shocking that much of the audience gasped in surprise. This is something that is not in Shakespeare’s text, and that I feel should not be done on stage, but I will say no more so as not to spoil anything.

Julius Caesar has a long run at the RSC, through September, and you’ll be able to see it in cinemas in April. Don’t miss this.

Theater Review: City of Glass, by Paul Auster, at HOME Manchester

Projections as part of a theatrical production are not new, but they seem to be coming of age. The Royal Shakespeare’s recent production of The Tempest used some interesting projections to highlight its stage set and characters, though the play would have been excellent without them, and not everyone in the theater could see them.

Another approach is that taken by 59 Productions in their adaption of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass at HOME Manchester (and soon to be at the Lyric Hammersmith in London). Here, the projections are an integral part of the production, providing a multitude of sets in front of which the characters interact.

City of Glass is the first novel in Auster’s New York Trilogy. It’s a sort of metaphysical noir tale, where Daniel Quinn receives a phone call one evening, which is a wrong number. He’s intrigued by this, and when someone calls back and asks if this is the Paul Auster Detective Agency, he goes along. He gets drawn into an odd case where a strange man fears that his father is going to kill him.

City of glass

(Photos: Jonathan Keenan)

(I wish the theater had some production photos that show the entire stage and the projections, because they really are clever; the photos above don’t really do justice to this unique element of the production. )

A voice over narrates the parts in between the dialog, giving the production the tone of a film noir, and the stage changes from scene to scene, through a clever use of projections. In the first scene, Quinn is in his two-room apartment, and this set serves for the entire production. Different elements are projected on the walls in different scenes, showing where the action takes place. There is also Peter Stillman’s apartment, a diner, Grand Central Station, the street in front of a hotel, and an alleyway, among others. At no time do the projections seem fake; they blend into the background. There are a couple of scenes where screens descend so projections can be made closer to the front of the stage, but the rest of the play is all performed in this simple set. All this is accompanied by a creative use of music to set moods and move the plot along.

City of glass2

Adapted from Auster’s novel, and from the graphic novel adaptation of it, this production highlights the visual elements of the story, but it’s not a story that adapts well to the stage. It’s full of meta-fictional references (to Paul Auster himself, who appears as a character, to Don Quixote and the book-within-a-book of that novel, and more), and it can be confusing to those who haven’t read the text. In addition, the denouement of the story, which works well on the page, fizzles a bit on stage.

Nevertheless, this is a thrilling production, brought to life by a small team of excellent actors (including two actors playing the role of Daniel Quinn). The technical element does stand out, but in service to the text, and the fast pace (1:45, with no intermission, that sped by) makes this a very enjoyable production. I can almost excuse the let-down of the ending having enjoyed the journey so much.

Theater Review: Snow in Midsummer, at the Royal Shakespeare Company

It’s interesting to go to the theater with no expectations. I knew that Snow in Midsummer was a Chinese play adapted from a classic story, but I knew nothing of the plot, and had no idea what the RSC was going to present. Productions at the RSC’s smaller Swan Theatre tend to be a bit out of the ordinary. Some are by Shakespeare’s contemporaries – Marlowe, Jonson, etc. – and others are contemporary. Some are highly dramatic and others are rousing comedies.

Snow in Midsummer is “the first production in our Chinese Translations Project, a cultural exchange bringing Chinese classics to a modern western audience.” The RSC has developed a partnership with China, working together on translating all of Shakespeare’s plays (not that they haven’t been translated into Mandarin Chinese before), and performing some of them in China. At the same time, the RSC will be presenting a number of Chinese works in the UK. This play was originally titled Dou E Yuan (???), or The Injustice to Dou E, and was written by Guan Hangqing during the Yuan dynasty (13th century CE); this modern version was adapted by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig.

Dou Yi was executed for a murder she did not commit, and vows that if she is innocent, a drought will hit her native town, and it will snow in midsummer. The play opens with her on stage – presumably before her execution – then some of the people in the town are seen discussing the drought. The plot slowly takes form, as we see a woman, Tianyun, who comes to the town to buy the local factories. She meets Handsome Zhang who runs the factories and wants to sell them to leave and travel the world with his lover, Rocket Wu. When Handsome proposes to Rocket, Tianyun’s daughter Fei Fei tries to stop them, because of the bad omen of proposing during Ghost Month.

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(Photos by Ikin Yum for the RSC.)

Fei Fei has dreams of playing in the snow, and she wakes up with characters scratched on her arm: the name of Dou Yi. Tianyun starts asking questions, and finds that Dou Yi had murdered Zhang’s father, and was executed for this murder. Rocket later has chest pains when they are on the way to the factory, and it turns out that he had had a heart transplant. We later learn that the heart came not from a victim of a car accident, as Handsome had told Rocket, but from Dou Yi.

Okay, this is getting a bit complicated, and this is only the first half of the play. I won’t say any more about the plot – I wouldn’t want to spoil everything – but it turns out that there are connections between several of these characters that aren’t obvious at first.

The complicated plot drags a bit during the first half of the play, and, in the second half, a long flashback – which took me a while to see as a flashback – clears up some of the mystery. The true killer of Zhang’s father is revealed, as is Dou Yi’s relation to the other characters, and the end of the play turns out to be a bit Shakespearean.

I’m fairly familiar with classical Chinese literature, having studied a bit of Chinese, and none of the themes surprised me. I don’t, however, have enough knowledge of Chinese superstitions, which play a big role in the play (and which Tianyun mentions a number of times early on). So there’s a lot of Chinese culture that I didn’t pick up on in this production; I can imagine that those with no knowledge of Chinese literature would be even more at sea. In addition, the combination of old and new is at times jarring, but at times quite appropriate. For example, while some see the drought as caused by some sort of sprits, others talk of global warming.

At a brisk two hours – with an intermission – the play moves ahead fairly quickly, and most of the scenes are fairly short, helping to keep things going. Justin Audibert’s direction tends toward the flashy, with a couple of dance/march numbers, a lot of bright, flashing lights, and some fairly loud music at times. (And, as a sign warns at the entrance to the theater, gunshots, strong language, and distressing scenes.) The production is dragged down a bit by some acting that isn’t up to the RSC’s standards; some of the cast overact, and others just don’t have the chops. The main characters are all excellent, though Katie Leung’s Scottish accent is a bit jarring, and Colin Ryan, as Handsome Zhang, seemed as though he wants to soliloquize Hamlet at times.

Katie Leung is arguably the star of the play. Her scenes both as the living Dou Yi and her ghost hold the play together. The long scene when she is sentenced to death then executed has a bit too much Joan of Arc, and her speech before she was shot by firing squad could have been a bit less wordy; it was hard to follow, and said too much.

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This was an entertaining play in spite of my criticisms, and it’s a shame to see theater-goers don’t really approve of the RSC’s diversification; the theater was only about 2/3 full – this is the smaller Swan theater, with 460 seats – and the RSC has been promoting this play with deeply discounted tickets in an attempt to fill the house. (Yet the audience was quite appreciative at the end of the performance.) It’s like the recent production of The Two Noble Kinsmen, which suffered the same fate, though the reviews for Snow in Midsummer are generally better. The RSC needs to get its core audience – which is mainly people in or near the Stratford area – to take more chances on unfamiliar plays. I don’t know how they can do this; perhaps a season ticket system, or some sort of discount on tickets to regular attendees…

I look forward to more Chinese plays at the RSC, though I hope this Chinese project doesn’t prevent expanding the Swan’s offerings in other directions.

Snow in Midsummer is playing at the Swan Theater through March 25.

Theater Review: Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer, at the National Theatre

The National Theatre in London first produced Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus in 1979. It went on to be a huge hit, playing in the West End and on Broadway, and being adapted for the screen by Milos Forman. The National Theatre has revived the play, and I attended it yesterday. This is a tough ticket to get, as the performances are all sold out. My partner and I bought a membership at the National Theatre to be get advance access to tickets, and were able to snag a pair in the fourth row when a number of dates were added early this year.

The National Theatre has made a bold choice by casting Lucian Msamati as Salieri. This black actor, who I saw as Iago in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2016 production of Othello – the first time the RSC had cast a black Iago – is an astounding actor. As Iago he was brilliant; as Salieri, he is breathtaking. His stage presence dominates this production, and his performance is powerful and subtle.

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(Photos by Marc Bremmer for the National Theatre.)

It’s the twilight of Salieri’s life, and he reflects on the past, when he knew Mozart, and was partly responsible for his downfall. “Awestruck by his genius, court composer Antonio Salieri has the power to promote his talent or destroy it. Seized by obsessive jealousy he begins a war with Mozart, with music and, ultimately, with God.”

Salieri dominates the play, and Mozart is present as much in his mind as well as when he is actually on stage. Played by Adam Gillen, Mozart comes off as a spoiled child with Tourette’s, and I found it hard to suspend disbelief, at least until the end, shortly before his death. His over-the-top performance led one reviewer to suggest a resemblance with Harpo Marx, and I think he’s spot on. Gillen goes too far; he’s too crazy, too impulsive, too unbelievable.

Adam gillen wolfgang amadeus mozart

But Msamati is powerful, and the rest of the cast fully in the play, making the overall ensemble excellent. I had trouble with the first half of the play, where the scenes seemed a bit disjointed, and where Mozart’s behavior was too off the wall. But the second part was much better, as it followed a more chronological order as Salieri’s plot to take down the better composer was set in action.

The Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre has a very large stage. It’s round, and it can turn (though it doesn’t in this production), and this production takes full advantage of the stage by enlisting 20 musicians from the Southbank Sinfonia, who perform music along with the play. From what I understand, this use of music is new; it was not in the original production, which was more of a play than a spectacle. Together with a chorus and some excellent soloists singing bits from Mozart’s operas, this production of Amadeus comes off as a lush combination of music and theater that is designed to please.

A scene from amadeus centre lucian msamati antonio salieri

It’s hard to not like this production. For me, it’s just the Mozart character that keeps it from being a true classic, but the audience reaction was such – many people giving a standing ovation, something not common in the UK – that it’s clear most people just shrugged that off. This production has been so popular that the National Theatre is brining it back for more performances in 2018 (presumably with the same cast), and I could see this transferring to another theater and playing for many years. It has everything you want in the theater: a strong story, a fine cast, and the music and elaborate staging make it a spectacle to remember. Heck, I’d even consider seeing it again next year…

Note that Amadeus was broadcast to cinemas as part of the NT Live program, and there will be encore screenings. So if you can’t see it live, you can still see it in cinemas, in the UK and in other countries. Find out more here. Here’s a trailer for the cinema broadcast:

Theater Review: The Two Noble Kinsmen, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of The Two Noble Kinsmen hasn’t gotten much love. Reviews have been poor, and according to some who have seen the play, attendance hasn’t been brilliant. This late collaborative work by Shakespeare and John Fletcher is certainly not the brightest star in the firmament of theater, but it has a lot going for it.

I finally got to see the production last night. I had bought two sets of tickets when they went on sale – as I do for all the Shakespeare plays at the RSC – but relinquished mine the first time around, back in August, when my partner’s sister came to visit. My partner and her sister returned home that night with long faces, not having enjoyed the play at all. Add to that the poor reviews of the play, and I went to the theater last night with much apprehension.

The Two Noble Kinsmen is playing in the Swan Theatre, the smaller of the RSC’s two theaters, which is mostly used for plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, as well as for some more recent works. I’ve seen plays by Marlowe, Jonson, and similar authors of the period, as well as a contemporary adaptation of Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and others. When attending plays in the Swan, I’m often aware that the plays themselves may not be the best; I’m thinking of the older ones, not the modern works. Such is the case with The Two Noble Kinsmen. If the RSC had felt it was up to the standard of Shakespeare’s other works, they would have presented it in the main theater.

With all this out of the way, I have to say I very much enjoyed the performance. My mental bar for this production was set fairly low, and I was ready to disappointed.

There are lots of problems with the production, and with the text; it’s not the most interesting of Shakespeare’s plots, but you can ignore that if the production is good enough. To begin with, Blanche McIntyre’s choices for this production are sometimes confounding. The wardrobe in particular looks like they just fished out some old costumes at random and stitched them up to fit the actors. There was no coherence to them at all: some actors were in more-or-less modern dress, others had hats that looked like they came from Flash Gordon, and there was a fair amount of leather. The set was also problematic. There were low concrete walls on each side of the stage, and on much of the front of the stage, and there was a concrete covered staircase at the back, with some small concrete walls at its sides. The whole thing looked a bit Ballardian. One innovative element of the set was the grilles that descended to the edges of the stage to simulate the jail cell where Arcite and Palamon are held for a time.


(Photos: Donald Cooper for the RSC.)

After a confusing opening scene, where three queens descend to the stage on ropes to ask that their husbands’ deaths be avenged (I think; I really couldn’t understand much of what was said, nay, yelled, in that scene), we switch to a battle scene, then one where Arcite and Palamon are imprisoned. And here’s where it gets good. The chemistry between Jamie Wilkes and James Corrigan was wonderful. Both of these actors are familiar faces, having been in productions I’ve seen since living in the area. Wilkes was in Oppenheimer and The Shoemaker’s Holiday, and Corrigan appeared in The Merchant of Venice and Othello. Their on-again, off-again relationship is the centerpiece of the play. When they are imprisoned, they both spy Emilia (brilliantly played by Frances McNamee, who, like much of the cast, is also in The Rover at the Swan this year), and fall in love with her, and end up fighting for her love.

A sub-plot involves the jailer’s daughter played by Danusia Samal. She falls in love with Palamon, and, when he ignores her after she frees him from prison, she drifts into Ophelia-like madness. Samal’s performance is the other light of the evening, as she slowly changes from a prim young woman to a shell of herself, craving love, which she only finds at the end through some trickery.

The Morris dancing bit could go, as could the wacky costumes and attitudes of the actors, but if you ignore those parts, and just focus on the two love plots, it’s really a moving play. Much of the text is, well, Fletcher, but the moments that shine do contain some lines worthy of Shakespeare. At nearly 2:40, it’s a bit long, and it would have been beneficial to cut some fat (though I’m not familiar enough with the text to know if anything was cut). And the bit with the buzzsaw? If you’re not going to use it, don’t bring it on stage. That was just sophomoric.

In the end, this was an enjoyable play, with an opportunity to see a “rarely-performed” Shakespeare work (and it’s obvious why it’s not performed more often), with a very good cast. Alternating with The Rover (which I saw in the summer, but didn’t review), this cast is most likely enjoying themselves. It’s a shame that the production was hindered by such simple things as incoherent wardrobe and overall logic, but if you have a chance to see this before it ends in February, I’d go for it.

Oh, and The Rover? It’s not a great play, but it’s one of the most boisterous productions I’ve seen at the RSC. I don’t remember much about it, but I had good time.

Note: one possibility for the difference between my experience and my partner’s is that the play has evolved, and perhaps changed since the early days. We generally agree on the quality of the productions we see, and given all the negative reviews of this play, the only logical explanation is that changes were made after the early performances because of the many negative reviews.