Saturday, January 27, 2007

Theatre Review : Antony & Cleopatra - RSC - Novello Theatre (dir Gregory Doran 22/01/07)

One of the reasons given for the RSC's move from the Barbican - in my opinion, a disastrous mistake in losing access to one of the best theatrical spaces in London - was supposedly to attract more big stars to RSC productions in the West End. Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter are two of the brightest stars in the theatrical firmament, but why they wouldn't have been able to travel that extra mile to the other side of St Paul's, I will never know.

That being said, one cannot doubt the stature of their performances or consummate professionalism in this current production. This isn't my favorite Shakespeare play - I find it bland in too many places (see ) but Stewart and Walter oozed gravitas, bringing clarity and resonance to their declamation as only great actors can, and, in Stewart's case, an engaging twinkle to the eye of Antony entirely in keeping with his character.

The production was classic RSC - stage mainly bare but with imaginative use of trapdoors and descending platforms; the abstract backdrops transforming through clever lighting at every change of scene; the music loud and exciting; the dance vigorous and unusual (and not too much of it!).

All the famous set pieces were done well - the drinking scene featured unstable characters on an unstable platform suspended from the ceiling, and hearty carousing from all. Cleopatra railed at the messenger, but without the fury of Frances Barbour at the Globe. Cleopatra's death scene with Harriet Walter in full Egyptian array was effective and moving.

And yet...if this production was a car, it might be an Audi! One cannot deny its power and pace, its sleek design and precision engineering. One cannot deny the consummate performances of the two stars in the leads, or the clarity of Greg Doran's vision. One cannot deny that this slick production was everything one should expect from the leading exponents of Shakespeare's work in the world today. And yet, despite these qualities, despite the rave reviews from the critics and the tumultuous applause from the audience, despite every box being ticked for what makes great theatre, I cannot, simply cannot avoid feeling that the end product was glossy, slick, safe, conservative, and, in the final analysis, just that little bit dull.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Theatre Review : The Taming of the Shrew - Propeller Theatre Company - Old Vic (dir Edward Hall - 15/01/07)

Shakespeare was not a 21st Century liberal. His attitudes to women (or to Jews for that matter) were those of the 17th Century, and thus can be disturbing to a modern audience. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in The Taming of the Shrew. No amount of justification (such as the supposition that Shakespeare's marriage to Ann Hathaway was an unhappy one, forced upon him after a youthful indiscretion) can hide the fact that this is a brutally misogynistic play.

Modern productions seek to soften this aspect by playing Petruchio with a smile behind his antics, as he and Kate gain mutual respect through enacting a complex game. Not so here. Petruchio is a bully. A strutting screaming, hair-pulling, arm-twisting physical and psychological bully. The fact that is a play performed within the Christopher Sly framing device cannot soften it. This is the story of one man's total subjugation of a woman. It is quite brutal, and the fact that Kate is played by a man only just about makes the violence bearable. When Katherine gives her speech about the duty of a wife towards the end, her eyes are dead: she has been cowed. She kisses Petruchio, not through love but through duty.

This sounds quite grim, but in fact it isn't. The first half especially is exceptionally funny, the wedding scene in particular. Drunks are always amusing until one can see what they are capable of. Even in the second half, there is sufficient good humour and, this being Propeller, inspired stagework to keep a leavening element of comedy - Jason Baughan slipping out of his role of Gremio for a magnificent cameo as drunken pedant being particularly amusing.

The cast excels as an ensemble, but the two leads are particularly powerful. Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Petruchio struts and preens like Lou Reed on the cover of Transformer, flicking in an instant from genial bonhomie to manic forcefulness. One thinks of a supercharismatic character with a powerful, engaging personality that one is drawn to despite knowing that he is a brute. Simon Scardifield as Kate, on the other hand, transforms from a sullen, sparky renegade to a dead-eyed zombie.

This is brilliant theatre - funny, engaging yet thought-provoking and deeply, deeply disturbing. Edward Hall has resisted the temptation to soften his Shrew for a modern audience. Instead he has stripped Shakespeare bare, looked domestic violence squarely in the face and delivered an entirely uncompromising play for the 21st Century.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Double Book Review : After Elizabeth by Leanda de Lisle (HarperCollins 2005) / 1603 by Christopher Lee (Hodder Headline 2003)

Two books - After Elizabeth - How James King of Scots Won the Crown of England in 1603 by Leanda de Lisle and 1603 - A Turning Point in British History by Christopher Lee - have recently studied the transition from the Tudor to the Stuart Age upon the death of Elizabeth. It is a story that befits retelling, as James, a normally maligned figure, was by no means a foregone conclusion as successor. Yet, despite nearly destroying everything by supporting Essex and his doomed rebellion, James was the one who played the devious but powerful Robert Cecil the best and finally gained the prize above all others - the throne of England.

These books chart the last days of the aging Elizabeth and her played-out regime. The glory had passed - her latter years were marked by famine, a corrupt court and a monarch who had lost the will to continue after her betrayal by Essex. All political regimes have a natural lifespan, and most go on beyond what is good for the leaders or their countrymen - however, with the unusual exception of the Emperor Charles V, voluntary resignation is seldom an option.

Cecil had the regime change sewn up - James was a Protestant, an experienced monarch, but most importantly for Cecil, likely to keep him in power. His dalliance with Cecil's enemy Essex was overlooked. As soon as Elizabeth died at Richmond Palace, all courtiers and staff were confined to the palace whilst Cecil and the Privy Council managed the flow of news. Soldiers were posted to all the ports for fear of invasion. Yet despite best laid plans, Robert Carey beat the embargo and rode furiously to Edinburgh to be the first person to bring the news to James. He was asked what he wanted as his reward - a post in the King's Bedchamber replied Carey, so that he could have easy access to the King's Ear and the flow of patronage which flowed from him.

As soon as James began his Progress to London, the flow of those seeking favour and patronage became a flood, such that a proclamation forbidding those uninvited to seek the Kings presence had to be issued. This did not prevent Sir Walter Raleigh, fearful at losing Durham House in London and his monopoly on tin, from seeking an audience with the King. Yet the King had already been turned against Raleigh. "I think of thee very Rawly mon" said James on their first introduction. Soon, Raleigh was in the Tower, pleading for his life for his supposed involvement in the the Main and Bye plots against the King - it paid to keep on the right side of Cecil.

After Elizabeth by Leanda de Lisle follows in detail the events of 1603 from the death of Elizabeth to the Coronation of James. Her particular focus is the events at court in England and Scotland, and in James progress to take the throne of England. She uses in particular the writings of Elizabeth's Godson Sir John Harington to reflect the reality of regime change and its uncertainty for a courtier, contrasting Harington's fortunes in particular with those of Raleigh.

1603 has a broader focus, looking at life in general in Britain in 1603, and also, for reasons best known to the author, in Japan. The book offers some interesting perspectives on the historical movements at work - the rise of the mercantile classes and their control of the Piracy trade, for instance - but he writes with an irritating style which is prone to facile comparisons with the present day and far too much reliance on long quotations. The book has an air of padding about it.

Together, however, they convey that this was simultaneously a time of change but also of continuity. That the regime change went smoothly was testament to the skill of Cecil; as was the fact that he and his Privy Counsellors on the whole managed to retain their positions despite the appearance of many Scotsmen on the make. Yet the Tudor era had passed, and one of James first act was to review the various Monopolies held by courtiers. The last vestiges of medieval patronage were being removed, capitalism was nascent and the reformation had already made individual consciousness a political issue. Unbeknownst to James, and entirely outwith his control, the seeds of the English Civil War had been sown.

Theatre Review : Twelfth Night - Propeller - Old Vic (dir Edward Hall 05/01/07)

The stage is draped in shrouds, like Miss Havisham's Wedding Feast. Slowly, as, the drapes are removed, we discover that Duke Orsino has been there motionless all the time. He calls for music - strange ethereal music wells up, using voice and violin, guitar and tibetan bowls. Meanwhile, masked apparitions appear around the characters like a dumb chorus.

This startling opening scene exemplifies the production, visually and musically stunning throughout, although at times one cannot help but think that Shakespeare's play has been left behind by the invention.

Propeller is famously an all-male company, which means that all Shakespeare's themes of gender subversion are given a twist - an old twist, as it is true to the staging conventions of Shakespeare's time. This necessarily means that Orsino's relationship with Viola necessarily has strong homoerotic overtones, and it is interesting to note that the dynamics of this relationship is necessarily different in conventional modern production, where the Duke falls in love with the Viola underneath the guise of Cesario, not with Cesario himself.

But whereas Tam Williams plays Viola / Cesario as a gentle, somewhat fey young girl / boy (the fight with Sir Andrew Aguecheek is superb), Dugald Bruce-Lockhart reinvents the usually somewhat pompous and self-absorbed Olivia as something a little short of a sexy pantomime dame, and does it magnificently.

As ever the humour and energy is imparted by Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Feste exacting their terrible revenge on Mavolio. The garden scene where Malvolio finds the notes supposedly from Olivia is magnificent, different sized trees imparting a sense of perspective whilst the characters act as improbable statues - very funny. Equally amusing is the sight of the somewhat lugubrious Bob Barrett, who played Malvolio, in formal jacket and yellow tights with fishnets and studded-leather jockstrap.

Yet Shakespeare treats Malvolio harshly. Olivia imprisons him as he appears mad, and there he is taunted by Feste dressed as a priest. This scene is often played offstage or with Malvolio largely invisible, as its darkness disturbs the comedy. No hiding place here: Malvolio is thrust centre stage, naked and begrimed but for the by-now ragged yellow tights, his humiliation complete. One knows that when he says he will be revenged, he means it.

This excellent, striking, funny yet dark production ends on a haunting note. The music throughout has been superb, aided by a cast who are largely musicians themselves. As the final scene closes, Feste (Tony Bell) sings "When that I was and a little tiny boy" to the traditional tune but with haunting acapella accompaniment. The effect sticks in the mind, and stays with you on the Underground, as should the rest of this splendid production.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Art Review : Holbein in England (Tate Britain 5/01/07)

To all intents and purposes, English Art began with Holbein. What preceded him may not have been without merit, but the names of the artists are seldom recorded. The renaissance of painting in Italy and Northern Europe had left these shores surprisingly untouched. And neither did Holbein kickstart British Art - with the exception of the sublime Nicolas Hilliard, there is scarcely an English-born painter of note until Hogarth in the 18th Century.

Holbein was born in Augsburg in 1497/8, the son of a talented portraitist, but developed his art in Basel where he had moved in 1515. He first travelled to England in 1526, where he stayed for two years. He returned to Basel, but was driven out by religious unrest in 1531, and came back to England where he stayed until his death in 1543.

Holbein's reputation today is largely based on his portraiture, for which he was firmly-bedded within the Northern European tradition. His archetypes were Jan van Eyck and Memling, his peers Durer, Cranach and Matsys. He shares with them the ability to capture an uncanny likeness in oils - he is less a caricaturist than Cranach or Matsys, his goal is a perfectly idealised likeness for his patrons.

His portrait of Henry VIII c1537 is iconic. Henry's high forehead and narrow eyes indicate intelligence and cunning, his tight-set lips denote determination and Henry's broad frame and thick neck radiate power. He looks every inch the Renaissance monarch. The head doesn't quite fit the body. It was probably the result of a single preparatory sketch - Henry was not a good sitter, which makes the final result all the more remarkable.

Yet the paintings of the monarch and his spouses do not show Holbein at his best - they are too formal, too constrained by the ever-present threat of Henry's ire. The portrait of Sir Richard Southwell, however, describes a very real person. Southwell was one of Cromwell's functionaries involved in the administration of the proceeds from the dissolution of the monasteries - the silken sheen of his coat suggests that his was a lucrative position. Southwell's face, however, is recognisable as that of a distinct personality. The eyes are somewhat dead, but beneath the broad nose is a lively, expressive mouth surrounded by a stubbly, dimpled, slightly receding chin. His neck is disfigured by tubercular marks. This is not an engaging or flattering portrait - but one cannot help feeling that it is uncannily true to life.

Contrast this with the portrait of the elderly Dr John Chambers, aged (according to the portrait) 88. Holbein has somehow managed to capture the texture of his aged flesh: it is dry and papery, its youthful sheen gone. His eyes are looking towards a final goal, his mouth set and resigned. It is a wonderful depiction of ageing, and the contemplation of death.

This is a compendious exhibition, displaying not only the well-known portraits by Holbein, but also many of his preparatory sketches, and also the portraits by his school. It is a pity that the catalogue is light on background and heavy on somewhat arid detail, as the exhibition itself manages to be consistently illuminating and fascinating about someone of whom the available documentary evidence is limited. It is unlikely that such a collection of Holbein's works will be seen together again (The Ambassadors is too frail to travel across London), so enjoy it - if it is not too late - while you can.