Theater Review: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by the Royal Shakespeare Company

The Royal Shakespeare Company is currently performing adaptions of Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Written by Mike Poulton, with the approval of Ms Mantel, each play runs about three hours, and are performed at the Swan Theatre, the RSC’s smaller venue with about 650 seats.

These two novels tell the story of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s fixer and right-hand man. If you remember your history classes, Henry VIII was the one who had six wives, and Cromwell was instrumental in assisting Henry in obtaining the proper dispensations from the Pope so he could move on with legitimacy. The two novels show Henry VIII having his marriage to Catherine annulled, because he does not yet have a male heir, marrying Anne Boleyn, then becoming infatuated with Jane Seymour and casting off Queen Anne (after she, too, fails to produce a boy child).


Wolf Hall, the novel, starts with Cromwell’s childhood, but the play begins when Cromwell is working as Cardinal Wolsey’s secretary. The first half of this play mostly shows how Cardinal Wolsey manages the King’s affairs, and ends with his death. After the intermission, Cromwell rises in power, and Sir Thomas More ends up in prison, then is executed, after being tried for treason.

Bring Up The Bodies covers the period when Henry VIII becomes infatuated with Jane Seymour, a mousey lady in waiting to Anne Boleyn. Henry acts like a smitten schoolboy, and comes up with an excuse to wriggle out of his marriage to Anne. Eventually, several people in her entourage are accused of sleeping with her, and are executed, as is Anne herself.

It’s a daunting task to bring these two dense novels to the stage. I confess to not having read the books, which put me at a disadvantage; it seems that much of the audience had read the novels, and laughed at certain bits that I didn’t find funny. And not having read the novels meant that I wasn’t able to fill in the gaps that left me wanting more, at least during Wolf Hall.

The first play covers a long period, 1527 to 1535, and there is so much to tell that there’s no time to really experience anything. I felt that I was watching a series of sketches rather than a continuous narrative. While the writing is witty, and the acting excellent, the story seemed cold and distant. It was as though it were merely checking off a series of essential scenes rather than telling a story. I had no feeling for Cromwell as a character; Ben Miles, who, as I’ll discuss below, is excellent in this role, seemed to have nothing to say other than his words. Wolsey and More, however, were interesting characters, and I almost wanted to know more about them. Paul Jesson, as Wolsey (and as Sir John Seymour and Kingston) was excellent in a bombastic way; John Ramm, as More, got the tone of this defiant man just right.


But in the end, there was no emotion in Wolf Hall. The cardinal rule of fiction, it is said, is to “show, not tell.” I felt that Wolf Hall was all about telling; because there was so much to tell. Rather than focus on one aspect of the novel, it tried to cover everything.

To be fair, there was no other way to approach Wolf Hall. Since Bring Up the Bodies is a sequel, not checking all the boxes for what happened in the first book would make the second play unintelligible. For example, in Wolf Hall, there is a sort of masque performed by a number of the characters after Wolsey’s death, with one dressed up as the late cardinal, mocking him as being in hell. In the play, this seemed superfluous, but this turned out to be a key plot point for what happens in Bring Up the Bodies.

The second play has the advantage of covering a shorter time period, and the narrative of Bring Up the Bodies was tighter and more coherent. While the actors seemed to be just going through the motions in Wolf Hall, the second play – which I saw the following night – was much more satisfying. Instead of seeing Cromwell as just a man performing actions with no emotion, his focus on ousting Anne Boleyn – to the point of creating questionable accusations, leading to the execution of six people – showed him as much more ruthless. Ben Miles was brilliant in this role, and he portrayed a man with a mission. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell was just a functionary; in Bring Up the Bodies, he was a man of power, wielding that power to serve his king, and, in some ways, himself.


The first half of Bring Up the Bodies was somewhat sketch-like, as Wolf Hall was, but it was after the intermission that it came together. One of the problems of these plays was that there were too many short scenes for there to be any dramatic tension. That all changed in the second half of Bring Up the Bodies, with two long scenes. The first was where Cromwell was questioning Mark Smeaton, the lutenist and boy toy who Anne Boleyn was infatuated with. There was enough space and time for this to be real theater. Next came a brilliantly staged scene where Cromwell questioned four men who Smeaton had named as adulterers. Each sat at a corner of the stage, hunched over on a stool, until it was their turn to be questioned, then left the stage after Cromwell had found them guilty in his mind. This long scene – perhaps twenty minutes – was dramatic and tense, and was all about the actors and their words, in the most desperate of situations: that of being judged by the man who could condemn them.

Finally, Anne Boleyn’s turn came, and she had no way of contesting the many confessions against her. An executioner was brought in from France, and she was put to death, but rather than seeing her be executed, the stage became a repeat of her marriage ceremony in Wolf Hall, as if this was what she saw in her mind during her final moments.

I had expected Bring Up the Bodies to end with Anne’s execution: the swordsman could raise his sword over her kneeling body and the lights could go dark. But it didn’t it ended with Cromwell drinking “to my health,” presaging his future fate, when he, too, would meet the executioner.

While most of the acting was excellent, Ben Miles gave a masterful performance in Bring Up the Bodies. He was on stage for most of the three hours, as scenes morphed into other scenes. Unlike in Wolf Hall, his character grew and changed, and Miles showed the external signs of Cromwell’s inner desires. Unfortunately, the spectators who didn’t read the novels – which include myself – didn’t know what his motivations were. I almost wish there were a few soliloquies so Cromwell could let the audience know why he was doing what he did.

The productions were performed in full Tudor dress, with sumptuous costumes. The lighting created a wonderfully varied atmosphere all through the two plays, this on a sparse set: just a stone floor, with the occasional table, chair or bed brought out then removed. And the atmospheric music enhanced the plays without getting in the way.

One needs to see these not as two separate plays, but as two parts of the same play. Many events that occurred in Wolf Hall were essential to understanding Bring Up the Bodies, and if you only saw the latter, you would probably be confused. While Wolf Hall disappointed me, Bring Up the Bodies was excellent, and I hope to see it again. I don’t think I was alone preferring the second play: the audience was far more appreciative after Bring Up the Bodies than after Wolf Hall, with much more rousing applause.

Both plays sold out very quickly, and there were only a couple of empty seats on each night. They are playing through March 29, but the RSC website suggests that there will be future performances. I would be surprised if these plays didn’t move to the London stage; the novels are well-known and both have won prizes, including the Booker Prize, and they would be very popular in a larger theater in London, though they might lose some of the intimacy they offer in the cozy Swan Theatre.

It’s worth noting that Hilary Mantel was visibly present both nights I saw the plays, singing autographs – with her own pen at the ready – and talking with spectators, both before the plays and during the intermission. I asked if she came often, and she said that she did. This made me wonder if she’s watching the plays with a goal of making changes to the scripts, though they have just been published in book form. (Amazon UK)

Watch a video interview with Hilary Mantel:

Theater Review: Richard II, by the Royal Shakespeare Company, with David Tennant

You generally enter a theater with certain expectations. You may be familiar with the play, or you may know one or more of the actors. Last night’s production of Richard II, at the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon, checked both of those boxes. I’ve read Richard II, and seen film adaptations, and I’ve seen David Tennant perform, most notably in the RSC’s filmed adaption of Hamlet (, Amazon UK, iTunes Store).

David Tennant is quite a well-known actor here in the UK, notably for having been Doctor Who for several years. While I’ve never seen him in Doctor Who, I have seen him in other television series. (Just last week, another short series with Tennant, The Escape Artist, started broadcasting.)

Many of the people attending this sold-out performance of Richard II were coming to see David Tennant, not to see Shakespeare. Tennant is no Shakespeare newbie; in addition to the Hamlet I mentioned above, he’s appeared in four other RSC Shakespeare productions, as well as several other non-Shakespeare plays put on by the RSC. Tennant is a brilliant Hamlet, and Richard II seemed like a perfect role for him.

Curiously, much of the British press, when reviewing the play, stressed Tennant’s long hair, such as a review in The Telegraph, which says, “His hair takes some getting used to.” Or the Daily Mail, which said, “But there is no getting away from the fact that in the centre of the show is that astonishing hairdo worn by David Tennant’s nail-varnished Richard.”

Frankly, the hair, being nothing more than a costume, was not worth focusing on. It’s better to just look at the role, and the way he performed it. Tennant does inhabit the role of Richard II, but, unfortunately, the rest of the cast is not up to his level.


Last night’s production was a bit disappointing. The company seemed tired, perhaps because they had played a matinee in the afternoon, or maybe because the play has now been running for a month, making it harder to keep up the energy.

The play opened with a coffin at the center of the stage, and the Duchess of Gloucester, played by Jane Lapotiere, leaning on the coffin in sorrow. During the entire first scene, where Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke accuse each other of treason, she lays her head on the coffin. After the king attempts to make peace between them, he orders Mowbray and Bolingbroke to fight.

The Duchess, alone now with John of Gaunt, laments the murder of her husband by Thomas Mowbray, while John of Gaunt, feels that Richard was responsible. Lapotaire is a venerable Shakespearean actor, but I felt her speeches here – her only part in the play is in this scene – wavered between being over-acted and too hard to hear.

Both Bolingbroke and Mowbray were well cast, with Nigel Lindsay playing the former, the man who would become king. His rough and coarse manner and speech were an interesting counterpoint to Tennant’s Richard, whose haughty and somewhat effeminate nature showed the two of them to be opposites in many ways.

Much of the first part of the play, which sets up Bolingbroke’s coup d’état, and Richard’s deposition, was sluggish. While there was some fine acting – notably Michael Pennington as John of Gaunt and Oliver Ford Davies as the Duke of York – the entire company seemed hesitant. Richard II is only present in a couple of scenes during this period, and the play only really came alive for me in Act III, Scene 2, when Richard has returned from Ireland, and learns that Bolingbroke has claimed his late father’s (John of Gaunt) estate, that Ricard annexed when the latter died, and has raised an army. Tennant showed Richard II’s humanity in the speech that begins:

“No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?”


The long deposition scene, in Act IV, Scene 1, was excellently played, with Tennant playing perfectly the fallen king:

“Now mark me, how I will undo myself;
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;”

For most of the play, the set was minimalist, with the coffin on stage in the beginning, and nary a bit of furniture, with one or two exceptions. However, there was an interesting sort of scaffolding that held the throne, which descended from above the stage at times, suggesting the link between the king and heaven. This throne worked in some scenes, but in Act III, Scene 3, Bolingbroke, the Duke of York and Northumberland were speaking to Richard II who was standing atop the walls of a castle, but were facing away from him, toward the audience.


And during the scene when Richard is in prison, the top of much of the stage pivoted up, showing Tennant in a dark hole. In that scene, Aumerle kills Richard II – which is not in the original play. Perhaps director Gregory Doran thought the scene where Aumerle asks the now king Henry IV to pardon him for his treasonous plans, prior to the prison scene, doesn’t fit very well unless Aumerle has some other role in the play.

In the final scene, Henry hears of those conspirators who were killed, and Aumerle brings the body, in a coffin, to Henry. This scene, with its many deaths, lacked gravitas; it was over too quickly, and there was little more than words. Here was a newly crowned king looking at the king he had replaced, perhaps thinking what Richard II said in Act III:

“How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d”

Richard II is an exploration of tyranny and the violence it engenders, and each new king must understand, as Richard II did, that his days are numbered. (The word “death” appears 45 times in the play.) That new king should have shown, in some way, that he was aware what might await him, but the play ended too quickly. The recent filmed version of Richard II, which was part of The Hollow Crown television series (, Amazon UK, iTunes Store), showed this much better, with a long, slow ending where Henry seems to see his future in the face of dead Richard.

Paul Englishby’s original music was excellent; it was a slightly atonal medieval-style vocal music, with three sopranos perched high up to the right of the stage, and a group of instrumental musicians in the same spot to the left. It gave the play an interesting feel, especially as the women started singing before the play began – and before the house lights went down – and after the curtain calls. There is a CD available of this music, which also contains some speeches from the play; curiously, while it’s sold on CD at the RSC, it only seems to be available by download from the iTunes Store outside of Stratford-Upon-Avon.

There was much to like in this production, and much that could have been better. David Tennant was brilliant in the two main sections of the play when Richard II becomes aware of his own mortality and when he gives up his crown. Some of the acting was excellent; some was middling. I felt that the set was too stark for much of the play, and this gave the actors little to do. But Tennant did shine in this role, and if you can’t get a ticket to see it in Stratford-Upon-Avon, or later in London, the RSC is broadcasting it live to cinemas in the UK and around the world on November 13.

Theater Review: Hamlet, by the Royal Shakespeare Company (Newcastle)

As part of my Shaksespeare Week in September, I saw all four current Shakespeare plays that the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) was producing in Stratford-upon-Avon. I had previously seen As You Like It and Titus Andronicus, and enjoyed the Hamlet so much that I wanted to see it again, so I took advantage of the fact that the RSC shows some of their plays for a short time in Newcastle, about an hour and a half from York, where I live, to see it again last night.

I won’t give a full review of the play; you can read the review I wrote in September. But I will discuss some elements of the play that were different, or that seemed different.

First, I had great seats. In the front row, just to the right of center. I had booked seats in row B, and was happy to be in the second row, but it looked as though the first row of seats had been removed as the stage hung over the actual stage a bit. Here’s what I saw:

2013-10-24 18.46.47.jpg

The main difference between the Newcastle performance and the Stratford version was the stage. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford has a thrust stage, which juts out into the audience, and the actors play to spectators on three sides. The Newcastle Theatre Royal is a standard proscenium arch stage, so the actors were only playing to the front of the stage. This seemed to change quite a bit. There was less movement; the actors were less fluid, as they didn’t need to turn to play to all the angles. Especially for the many soliloquies; Hamlet – and Claudius, in his speech before praying – stood for the most part at the front of the stage.

I was sitting in the fifth row on the side at Stratford, and I saw As You Like It from the first row on the side as well. For other plays at Stratford, I was sitting a few rows back, more or less to the front of the stage. One thing I noticed at Stratford was that the actors didn’t make much eye contact with the audience, or, if they did, they were constantly looking at different people all around them. But here, on a standard stage, they shifted their eyes between the front row and the mezzanines. This was the case for Jonathan Slinger, who played Hamlet, but also Claudius, and some of the other actors. Hamlet’s many soliloquies felt very personal, as Slinger often looked at me, or my girlfriend, sitting next to me. In fact, he fixed his eyes on her when he said, “Frailty, thy name is woman.”

After the play, discussing it with my girlfriend, we both agreed that the actors seemed more relaxed than the first time. It could be that they’re at the end of their run, and are less stressed by the performances, or it could simply be that, over time, they’ve fully internalized their roles. While I thought that Jonathan Slinger, as Hamlet, overshadowed the other actors when I saw the play in Stratford, the rest of the cast seemed much more present at the Newcastle performance. Pippa Nixon was notably excellent as Ophelia, even more so than the first time I saw her in that role. She truly owned Ophelia last night.

Another thing I noticed – both with last night’s Hamlet, and with the other plays that I saw twice this season – is that it really pays to see a good production twice. You notice things you might not have spotted the first time, and you can better appreciate the choices made by the actors or the director. I left the theater with a much better appreciation of Jonathan Slinger, and his Hamlet, and the entire RSC company.

Unfortunately, this is the last performance I’ll see of this season’s productions, but I have another RSC date to look forward to in a week: Richard II, with David Tenant, in Stratford. This is the first RSC play that will be filmed and broadcast to cinemas in the UK and around the world, and I hope all of these plays will also be released on DVD (or sold on the iTunes Store), so I can see them again whenever I want to.

Theater Review: Othello, by the National Theatre

Last night, I saw the National Theatre’s Othello as part of their NT Live series of plays broadcast to movie theaters in the UK and around the world. Starring Adrian Lester, as Othello, and Rory Kinnear, as Iago, this production has been unanimously praised by the press. The NT Live broadcast is a live, filmed version of the play, from the theater.

I was very disappointed by the performance. I felt it was full of incoherences that nullified my suspension of disbelief, to the point that I actually thought of leaving the cinema before the end. I’m quite perplexed, though, as all the reviews that I have seen online about the play are highly positive. Did I miss something?

Yes and no. Part of my dissatisfaction was that I didn’t buy Rory Kinnear’s Iago. This duplicitous character is hard to play, and requires subtlety to keep from seeming clichéd. I felt that Kinnear chose a style of acting that was out of sync with the character, at least the character in this production’s setting. And there’s the rub: it may have been the setting and staging that ruined it for me.

Othello is a play about soldiers and war, and takes place, for the most part, on Cyprus, where Venetian soldiers are awaiting the Turkish fleet to go to battle. But the fleet sinks, and there is no war to fight, leaving the soldiers to do what soldiers do when there’s nothing to do. Iago, with much time on his hands, plots Othello’s downfall. This production is set in modern time, with an army (curiously wearing British flags on their uniforms; in the play they are Venetians) in a heavily fortified base.


I was not able to reconcile this with Kinnear’s demeanor, if he is indeed a soldier in a professional army. In Act I, as the senators and Othello are discussing fighting the Turks, Iago stands by a door, his feet splayed, his shoulders hunched, something no soldier would do. His way of speaking throughout the play was overly aggressive; there was no subtlety in his anger. If he was upset that Othello passed him over for promotion, his demeanor would make it surprising that he ever got to the level he did, as Othello’s “Ensign.” (I have nothing against Rory Kinnear as an actor. I recently saw him in a filmed version of Richard II, where he was an excellent Bolingbroke, and am seeing him next week in the NT Live Hamlet.)

Another problem with the setting was the fact that Othello’s wife, Desdemona, was able to be in the military base with her husband. Given the context, this just wasn’t believable, just as having Emilia, Iago’s wife, in uniform, didn’t work.

There was much over-acting in this production. There was a scene where Desdemona was talking to Othello, and Olivia Vinall, as Desdemona, seemed to be playing Carrie Matheson (of Homeland) off her meds. Emilia was stone-cold for much of the play, but in the final bedroom scene, she was over the top. Jonathan Bailey was quite good as Cassio, showing well how he was tricked, but Tom Robertson’s Roderigo was out of place. His limp-wristed, posh-accented character could never have killed Cassio.

So then we get to the two main actors. Richard Lester was fine as Othello, until the final bedroom scene, where he kills Desdemona. All of a sudden, he lost it. I felt he was wooden, overacting, and had trouble showing real emotion. Rory Kinnear remained the same at the end of the play as at the beginning, but at times he slipped out of character, punching the air in delight at a couple of points. All in all, I just wasn’t convinced by either of them.


So what went wrong? And why did I see something different than dozens of theater reviewers? I can think of two possibilities. The first is that the actors were simply tired. The play started back in April, and the NT Live production was near the end of the run, five months later. The second is the medium, or, more correctly, the way this play was filmed and presented.

NT Live productions aren’t changed when they’re filmed; the cameras have to adapt to the staging and production. So in this play, with many close-ups and tracking shots, there were presumably cameras on the stage itself, which may have jarred the actors. And this is a play that was rehearsed for a stage, not for TV-like close-ups. The way one acts and speaks for a 1,000-seat theater is very different than when one is in front of a camera, and perhaps the actors couldn’t make their big play fit in the small lenses of cameras.

Also, the NT live production of this play was long. In the theater, it runs 3:15, with a 15-minute intermission. The NT Live production ran 3:40, with about 15 minutes of trailers and a useless interview at the beginning, then a 10-minute “feature” at the end of the intermission. Also, the feature takes you out of the theatrical space, yet, when it ends, it simply segues back into the play, destroying any feeling a spectator has of being in the moment. (During the intermission, you see a fixed shot of the audience, with a clock counting down from 15:00 in one corner of the screen.)

The previous NT Live productions I saw didn’t suffer as much from this. One, Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth, had no intermission, so there was no way to lose the momentum that was building up in the play. Another, The Audience, was not gripping enough for it to make a difference. NT Live is a wonderful way to see plays, but they really need to resist the urge to include “bonuses,” especially with plays as long as Shakespeare’s.

You know the feeling when you’re watching a movie or play, and you get irked by a few little things, which all add up, making you want to leave? That’s what happened to me. I can understand why many people liked this production, but it just got on my nerves. I hope next week’s Hamlet is better.

Theater Review: All’s Well that Ends Well, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

For the fourth and final night of my Shakespeare Week, I attended All’s Well that Ends Well at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. This was third play I saw featuring Alex Waldmann, and the second where he was the lead (he was Orlando in As You Like It and Horatio in Hamlet). All’s Well also features Joanna Horton as Helena (she was Celia in As You Like It), and Jonathan Slinger as Parolles (he played Hamlet).

(Most of the actors in All’s Well were also in As You Like It and Hamlet. Since these three plays alternate in the same theater, many of the actors are in two or three of the plays. Since Titus Andronicus is in the smaller Swan Theatre, those actors can’t be in the other plays, as the schedules would conflict.)

All’s Well is not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and it’s not ofter performed. Director Nancy Meckler has said about All’s Well:

The play is neither a comedy or a tragedy and people are unsure whether its ending is a happy one. I think that is part of the reason it is called a ‘problem play’. But I am really enjoying finding unexpected and surprising clues about the characters which give lots of opportunity for visual storytelling. One of its great strengths is its characters. They are bold, complex, romantic, and funny.

Alls-Well-7-2013-361x541.jpgI find the plot a bit hard to swallow. Helena cures the king of France of a fistula, and in exchange, she asks him to give her something: she wants to marry Bertram. She had known Bertram all her life, having grown up in court with him, and being considered a daughter by Bertram’s mother. But she had never let on that she loved Bertram.

The king orders the marriage, against Bertram’s wishes, then the latter finds an excuse to go off to war to avoid consummating the marriage. Helena later goes in search of him, and sets up a bed trick while in Florence to get him to unknowingly sleep with her. At the end of the play, Bertram returns to court, meets the woman who he thought he slept with, then discovers Helena pregnant, and realizes that he loves her.

The plot is a bit contrived, and many of Shakespeare’s comedies have similar twists, but I never really got All’s Well before. In fact, it wasn’t until after the play that I realized what the point was. Talking with Alex Waldmann the following morning, he explained what he thought about Bertram:

Alls-Well-10-2013-361x541.jpg“He doesn’t just fall in love in the final lines of the play, he just realizes that she comes home pregnant and that’s the one chance that he may have to be able to make amends for all the bad things he’s done. It’s not about suddenly falling in love, it’s thinking […] this person I’ve known all my life, she’s carrying my baby, […] this is my one chance at the future.”

I admit that having seen just one filmed production of All’s Well (the BBC TV production from the 1980s), I never saw the play this way. Perhaps the comic elements of the play made it hard to realize that this was what Bertram was thinking. But the expression on Bertram’s face when he puts his hand on Helena’s pregnant belly shows all that Waldmann said above.

This is a funny play, and there was much laughter. In Act II, Scene 1, Helena explains what she wants as reward for her healing powers:

Then shalt thou give me with thy kingly hand
What husband in thy power I will command:
Exempted be from me the arrogance
To choose from forth the royal blood of France,
My low and humble name to propagate
With any branch or image of thy state;
But such a one, thy vassal, whom I know
Is free for me to ask, thee to bestow.

In Act II, Scene 3, the king offers Helena four lords to choose from to be her husband. Bertram is standing at the rear of the stage, smirking as Helena sends each of the four lords away, with great tact. But when she finally chooses Bertram, he is stunned. This entire scene is delightfully played, and Bertram shows surprise and says:

My wife, my liege! I shall beseech your highness,
In such a business give me leave to use
The help of mine own eyes.

Alls-Well-5-2013-361x541.jpgBut the play contains much more than just the relationship between Helena and Bertram. Just as Henry IV is about Prince Hal, it’s also about Falstaff; All’s Well has its own Falstaffian character in Parolles. This character, admirably played by Jonathan Slinger, is the comical sub-plot in the play. As his name suggests, he is all words (paroles means “words” in French). In this production, is the very model of a modern blustering soldier, right out of Gilbert and Sullivan, with a long mustache and a smarmy laugh. Parolles is very concerned about his clothes; in the text, he wears a number of scarves as decorations. One Lord describes him as:

the gallant militarist,–that was his own
phrase,–that had the whole theoric of war in the
knot of his scarf, and the practise in the chape of
his dagger.

In two long scenes in Act IV, Parolles is taken “prisoner” by his own men, blindfolded so they can’t see him, and they speak to him with odd accents, asking him to give up information about his army. Which he does, and then is shamed when he sees who had been interrogating him.

Jonathan Slinger, who just the night before was a visceral Hamlet, comes across here as an excellent comic actor, and the whole Parolles side plot is a delightful bit of the play that had the audience laughing a great deal.

When the play began, I felt that Joanna Horton was a bit wooden, but I realized that this was part of the style of the production; it was played a bit like an Edwardian farce. As the play goes on, Helena gets more confident, and her delivery changes, as her character grows. She finishes as a strong character who has been through great difficulty, standing up for what she wants in a very masculine world.

Greg Hicks (Claudius in Hamlet) was also excellent as the king of France, first seen in a wheelchair with doctors and nurses around him, then later dancing a very acrobatic corante after he is healed.

The staging was very sparse; the entire stage was bare, with actors adding and removing furniture as needed, and at the back of the stage, a backdrop occasionally revealed a sort of fishtank-like structure, which was used in different ways, as a small room.

This was a delightful production, and the audience loved it. I came away with more appreciation for this play that I hadn’t particularly liked before, and especially an appreciation for the quality of this company, who I saw three times in three different plays.

Watch Act I, Scene 3 off All’s Well that Ends Well:

Thoughts on a Week of Shakespeare

I’ve returned home from my Shakespeare week, a five-day adventure in Stratford-upon-Avon, seeing four Shakespeare plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was a very interesting week, with four great performances, and meetings with the renowned Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells, and two actors from the current RSC productions, Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann. (I’ll be posting a review of the fourth play I saw, All’s Well that Ends Well, along with interviews with Stanley Wells and Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann soon.)

It was an interesting week. Stratford-upon-Avon is a lovely little town, and I stayed at the Arden Hotel, which is right across the street from the RSC. The area around the RSC is delightful, with riverside gardens, and more swans and ducks than you can imagine. Here’s a picture from the RSC’s riverside café:

2013-09-12 13.55.19 copy.jpg

The RSC has two theaters: the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which seats 1,040 people, and the Swan Theatre, which seats 460. The first play I saw, Titus Andronicus was in the Swan, and the other three were in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. While the latter theater is twice the size of the Swan, you don’t really notice, since they both have thrust stages, with the audience on three sides of the stage. No matter where you sit, you are very close to the action.

This was a tiring week, though. With four long plays – from 2:45 for Titus Andronicus to 3:35 for Hamlet (intermissions included) – these are long evenings of sustained attention. While I’m familiar with Shakespeare’s language, I still need to pay more attention than with, say, a movie or TV series, and four plays in four days proved to be taxing. But these were four excellent productions, and I’d especially like to see Hamlet again.

So, stay tuned for more about my Shakespeare week. I’ll post a review of All’s Well that Ends Well soon, and I’ll post interviews next week.

It’s worth noting, for those too far from Stratford, that three of the current RSC productions will be touring at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle upon Tyne, from 18 October to 9 November. I’m hoping to head up there to see Hamlet again; Newcastle is actually closer to where I live than Stratford.

See all my posts about Shakespeare.

Theater Review: Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company

For day three of my Shakespeare week, I attended the big one, Hamlet. Running a total of 3:35 (with a 20-minute intermission), I can’t remember the last time a theatrical performance went by so quickly. While I tend to get antsy after a while in the theater, or when seeing long movies, this Hamlet was so gripping that it felt like it was just an hour long.

Hamlet-7-2013-361x541.jpgEvery Hamlet is defined by the actor who plays the title role, and this production is no exception. Jonathan Slinger’s performance was breathtaking. The energy he puts into the role, and his portrayal of Hamlet’s slow slide toward tragedy, are astounding.

But this comes with a price. At times, this Hamlet seemed like a one-man show, where the rest of the cast restrained themselves in reaction to Slinger’s commanding presence. Hamlet is not on stage the entire time, of course, but even when he’s not visible, his presence is felt. The only exception to this was the parts in Act IV, when Hamlet is away to England. The scenes with Claudius, Gertrude and Ophelia had these characters become much more dynamic.

Slinger’s Hamlet is fierce and truculent. In the first scenes of this modern-dress production, he looks like an accountant, with his suit and tie, and his middle-aged glasses. (You can see this in the video at the end of this article, from Act I, Scene 2.) After he sees his father’s ghost, he changes into a fencing suit, for most of the rest of the play. (Director David Farr’s set for the play is a gymnasium, with rapiers on the walls, and lines drawn on the floor for fencing.) Slinger’s acting is very physical, showing Hamlet’s (real or feigned?) madness not only in words, but also in gestures. He hops and skips across the stage, does a Groucho Marx walk behind one character, and generally acts like a clown.

It is easy to slip into ridicule when playing Hamlet in this way, but I never felt that Slinger crossed the line. He wears his madness on his sleeve, and goes into manic excess at times, but it always seemed in character. As a contrast, Ophelia’s madness (played by the wonderful Pippa Nixon) seemed understated, almost as though it was a feminine counterpoint to Hamlet’s more effusive folly.

The production used some interesting ideas to underscore the themes of the play. At the back of the stage, on an arch, is the slogan “Mens sana in corpore sano,” a healthy mind in a healthy body. And the burial scene, which takes place at the front of the scene, leaves Ophelia’s body visible – yet ignored by the rest of the players – until the very end. The presence of her body provides an interesting context to the duel at the end of the play.

Some elements of the staging bothered me. The lighting was often dim, using neon-type lights on the “ceiling” of the fencing room. The use of music during some of the speeches was intrusive, especially as I was sitting all the way at the front, too close to the speakers (the musicians were playing above the stage, but were not visible, and the music was amplified through speakers). And why did it rain on the stage for about ten seconds at the very end?

Textually, I found it interesting that the play ended with Horatio’s lines:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince:
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
Why does the drum come hither?

This cuts out the whole bit where Fortinbras instructs his soldiers to bear away Hamlet’s body “like a soldier.” I’ve never quite understood the point of that ending, but this choice seems ever more perplexing. Why not just end the play with Hamlet saying:

The rest is silence.

Hamlet-14-2013-361x541.jpgI haven’t said much about the other actors in the play, but I would like to mention Pippa Nixon, whose Ophelia was striking. I was all the more impressed having seen her the night before as Rosalind, in As You Like It. Her ability to shift between those two characters is impressive, and the way she changed from what looked to be a gawky university student (when she first comes on stage, she bears an armful of books and note books), to the mad Ophelia in a wedding dress, was stunning.

Greg Hicks was excellent as Claudius, and it was only during the cabinet scene that I realized that he was also the ghost. This was an interesting choice of casting, creating a great deal of ambiguity about what Hamlet saw (or thought he saw). But since it wasn’t obvious at the beginning, it didn’t click for me until after the play was over, when I confirmed, in the program, that it was the same actor playing both roles.

Alex Waldmann’s Horatio was very good, but he seems to have lost many of his lines. The letter from Hamlet about escaping from pirates was trimmed, and Horatio’s part seemed overall to be much shorter than usual.

But, in the end, this was Jonathan Slinger’s show. He played a convincing Hamlet, one that went very far, but never too far, and one that had me on the edge of my seat for much of the play.

Watch Jonathan Slinger in Act I, Scene 2 of Hamlet:

Theater Review: As You Like It, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Last night I attended the second play in my Shakespeare week: As You Like It. After the bloody revenge of Titus Andronicus, the light-hearted comedy and love story of As You Like it was a welcome change.

Rosalind and Orlando are both unhappy in court. Orlando regrets that, being the third son of his father, he has none of the advantages of the first son, and Rosalind is not liked because she as the daughter of the Duke who had been banished. She is only allowed to stay because she is such close friends with Celia, the usurper’s daughter.

Rosalind meets Orlando at a wrestling match, and it is love at first sight. Pippa Nixon as Rosalind is goggle-eyed and Alex Waldmann is tongue-tied, as their budding romance begins a bit like a screwball comedy.

Each of the two – Orlando accompanied by his faithful servant Adam, and Rosalind by her cousin Celia – head out for new lands. Coincidentally, they both end up in Arden forest, a magical place.

Much love-making ensues, as Rosalind, dressed as a man, convinces Orlando to woo her, as if she were the Rosalind that he loves, and to whom he leaves verses on many trees in the forest. But there are other parallel love stories, with three couples. One involves Touchstone, the fool that Rosalind and Celia brought with them. Nicolas Tennant in this role is a delight, bringing comic relief to every scene he is in. Another pairing occurs between a couple of shepherds, and a fourth between Oliver, Orlando’s elder brother, and Celia. It’s a bit hard to follow, but in this production, directed by Maria Aberg, everything makes sense; as much as it can, in this play full of coincidences.

The setting of the court features people in dark suits and dresses – and thumping electronica as a soundtrack – and the forest has a ragtag band of outcasts, dressed as modern hippies, replete with acoustic guitars, to sing the songs in the play. The RSC commissioned original music by singer-songwriter Laura Marling (iTunes), which works well with the tone of the play.

But it’s the acting that stands out. Pippa Nixon and Alex Waldmann are a brilliant couple, and have true chemistry, even though Rosalind is disguised as a man. The “trick” of getting Orlando to woo her in her manly guise is but a vehicle for this Elizabethan romcom, and it works well here.

AYLI 2013 18 541x361

But the play drags a bit at the beginning. The court scenes, the wrestling match, and all the preparations for the two lovers leaving court, are a bit drab and slow. When they reach the forest, however, everything changes, and the pace quickens, the acting sparkles, and the actors clearly enjoy themselves. As the play draws to a close, with four weddings, and much singing and dancing, it becomes one of those magical moments in the theater where everything is just right.


I had seen As You Like It in May, and my opinion of my first viewing hasn’t changed. I had a seat in the front row for last night’s performance, at the side of the stage. Being that close to the actors allowed me to better see the brilliant comic timing of Pippa Nixon, and I also better appreciated how excellent Joanna Horton was as Celia. She was especially appreciated during a song she sings of Orlando’s verses to Rosalind; she got a rousing round of applause from the audience.

And the male actors are also excellent. Alex Waldmann has just the right amount of cluelessness as the tongue-tied lover at the beginning of the play, and the verbal skills of the more loquacious lover in the forest. And Nicolas Tennant’s Touchstone is a memorable character, who, even in a wonderful bit of dumb show following the intermission, brought down the house.

AYLI 2013 9 541x361

This is a delightful play, which manages to have that touch of magic that every love story contains. Most of the audience left the theatre with smiles on their faces. A wonderful time was had by all, cast and audience alike.

Watch Act III, Scene 2, with Orlando and Rosalind.

Theatre Review: Titus Andronicus by the Royal Shakespeare Company (Redux)

Titus-2013-10-361x541(1)Last night, as part of my Shakespeare week, I attended the RSC’s production of Titus Andronicus. I first saw this production in June, and wanted to see it again (see this article for a review, and an audio recording of a discussion with the director and two of the leading actors).

Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s bloodiest play. A classic revenge tragedy, one killing leads to another, and another, and another, and the finale leads to almost everyone dying.

But reducing Titus to a body count (as the RSC does in this infographic) oversimplifies this play. In this production, directed by Michael Fentiman, one sees how Titus becomes mad following the rape and mutilation of his daughter, Lavinia. This act of violence, perpetrated by the two sons of the Goth queen Tamora – who, now the empress of Rome, is getting revenge for Titus having caused the death of her first-born son – leads Titus to take his own revenge.

Stephen Boxer as Titus Andronicus is brilliant, as he shifts from war-weary, on his return to Rome from battle, to a wounded father who has seen his daughter mutilated. Boxer’s ability to show that madness, not just in his words, but also in his actions and the way he moves, helps draw a character torn by grief, yet unable to express that grief in tears.

Katy Stephens, as Tamora, the Goth who, from being Titus’ prisoner becomes empress of Rome, is cunning and deceitful, weaving her plan for revenge throughout the play. And Kevin Harvey, as Aaron the Moor, is one of Shakespeare’s vilest characters. He doubles down on that evil in his final words, as he is buried with only his head above the ground, waiting to die of starvation:

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.

Titus-Andronicus-2013-7-361x541.jpgBut 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. In stark silence, Marcus recites her wounds:

Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Have lopp’d and hew’d and made thy body bare
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments,
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in,
And might not gain so great a happiness
As have thy love? Why dost not speak to me?
Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr’d with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.

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.

Titus Andronicus is not without humor, and Titus’ madness, in particular, leads to some funny moments. But once the evil deed has been done, Titus’ tragic destiny cannot be changed. He kills Tamora’s two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, bakes them in a pie, and serves them to Saturninus, emperor of Rome, and Tamora. He kills Lavinia, then all hell breaks loose, as most of the characters at the banquet are killed, and the stage is littered with bloodied bodies.

There was much laughter from some of the younger members of the audience during this slaughter, and it’s hard to pull off this scene. When Tamora’s throat was cut, the blood squirted at least six feet in the air, and it seemed as though it was a parody. I’m not sure whether one should laugh at this or not; it’s a tragic end to a revenge tragedy, where, as in Hamlet, bodies pile up. It goes a bit overboard, but in this production, it all seems to fit.

Here’s one of the trailers for the RSC production of Titus Andronicus.

See Katy Stevens discuss her role of Tamora in Titus Andronicus:

Theater Review: Macbeth with Kenneth Branagh

macbeth-branagh-head.jpgThis year’s Manchester International Festival saw a new staging of Macbeth, with Kenneth Branagh in the starring role. This limited run was performed in a deconsecrated church, and, with some 280 seats per performance, sold out in less than 10 minutes.

Fortunately, the National Theatre, through its NT Live program, broadcast a performance of this play to movie theaters in the UK, and will be broadcasting it several more times to theaters in the UK and abroad. I was able to see a performance of this production in my local cinema in York.

The “stage” for the performance was the choir and the apse of the church, with spectators sitting in pews on either side of the choir. As the production opens, the weird sisters have their brief scene through open doors at one end of the church, then, as drums and cymbals resound, lights flash and rain falls on the dirt-covered stage area as a great battle takes place. This battle isn’t seen in the original play, as the next scene is where Macbeth and Banquo discuss their victory. But this production uses the battle as the starting point for the action, and rightly so. Dead bodies litter the battleground during the next scene, and the dirt, which has become mud, is a silent yet present leitmotiv throughout the play, reminding us that the earth, the land, is what is coveted.


This Macbeth is fast-paced, with the play coming in at around 2 hours, and the tempo nearly breathless for much of the duration. Actors come and go at either end of the choir, or through openings between two sections of seats on either side, and scene changes are quick and fluid.

Macbeth is a small play, in that much of the action concerns only a few characters: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the king Duncan at first; later, after Macbeth kills Duncan to become king himself, Duncan’s son Malcolm and Macduff are key characters.

For much of the play, this breakneck tempo has the action moving ahead quickly, until things suddenly begin to drag, in Act IV, Scene iii, Malcolm and Macduff discuss overthrowing Macbeth, and Macduff learns of the death of his wife and children. He vows revenge, and together, they raise an army to restore Malcolm to the throne.

This long scene drags a bit, and erases the tempo that had been maintained since the beginning of the play. Alexander Vlahos as Malcolm is stiff, and cannot keep the action moving ahead, though Ray Fearon’s Macduff is brilliant in his grief and anger.

Kenneth Branagh excels in this role; his physical and verbal prowess are both outstanding. His diction is excellent, and in spite of his fast speaking, he makes Shakespeare’s word shine. I was less impressed by Alex Kingston’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth. I felt she was too frenetic early in the play, before Macbeth killed Duncan, to pull off the madness in Act V, Scene i. I think there needed to be more contrast, and she over-acted in the latter scene, being far too obviously mad.

I particularly liked the casting of three young women as the weird sisters. Generally cast as old women, as fairy-tail witches, these three young women were powerful in their dark dresses and makeup.

Weird sisters

While the choice of the theater as stage was excellent, it introduced two problems. The first was unexpected; Britain was in its hottest summer in seven years, and many of the spectators could be seen fanning themselves with their programs. On the sultry night when this was filmed, together with the rankness and humidity within following the rain at the beginning of the play, it must have been uncomfortable. But those fanning programs were often distracting; several cameras were set up on one side of the choir, showing the actors with the seats on the other side behind them.

The second problem was the length of the “stage” area. This led to many scenes where actors walked, or even ran, from one end to the other, for no apparent reason. In Act IV, Scene iii, for example, Malcolm and Macduff enter the stage on the apse, and Malcolm walks all the way to the other end of the stage to talk to Macduff, who remains stationary. This occurred several times in the performance; it was as if the directors felt that the entire stage needed to be used, but there was no dramatic justification for all that movement.

Nevertheless, the play was masterfully filmed, with, as I mentioned, several cameras on one side of the choir, and a few others above the choir and in various locations. Aside from the occasional shot which began out of focus, the only production oddity was certain shots where a wide-angle lens was used to keep actors far apart on the stage in focus, which led to the distant actor being distorted. When this wide-angle lens panned, it was also a bit dizzy-making.

But the NT Live team managed to bring to the screen this powerful production from a cramped set, giving the feeling, even to those in movie theaters, of being in the middle of the action. This is an excellent Macbeth, and one worth seeing if possible.