Posts Tagged ‘ RSC ’

Little Eagles, RSC, Hampstead Theatre: review

By Rona Munro
Director: Roxana Silbert

Royal Shakespeare Company, Yuri Gagarin

In a recent episode of Doctor Who, the eponymous time lord said of man kind’s ambition to get to the moon “You saw a big shiny thing in the sky and you couldn’t leave it alone, could you?” Rona Munro examines our urge to reach up to the sky and touch the stars in this play about the first man in space – Yuri Gagarin – and the engineer who got him there, Sergei Korolyov.

It is almost fifty years ago to the day that Gagarin was sent up into the stratosphere in what has since been called little more than an catapult and a tin can. Still, they beat the Americans and that is what matters, we learn in Munro’s hugely ambitious docu-play. She attempts to cover in just under three hours the Cold War, Stalin’s regime, life in the gulags, Gagarin’s personal life and the Cuban missile crisis. It’s no wonder, then, that it feels too broad in scope for an evening’s entertainment.

Under Roxana Silbert’s direction the RSC troupe all put in solid performances – Greg Hicks is dealt a bit of a dud hand with an enigmatic grumpy ghost and Noma Dumezweni’s Doctor veers from being a sympathetic character to a hugely dis-likeable one. Darrel D’Silva in the lead role of Korolyov does a good line in Soviet scowls and stomping. But there is the feeling that Munro couldn’t decide whether to concentrate on the engineer’s personal story or that of the space race. And the space race story allowed her to have fun with aerials – men dangling from the ceiling by their waistbands against a star-studded backdrop.

Dyfan Dwyfor as Yuri Gagarin is bright-eyed and eager – a walking piece of Soviet propaganda and Brian Doherty as Khrushchev is a sort of Russian Boris Johnson, all bluster and pats on the back. But like all the characters in this far-reaching play, he is little more than a sketch.

Undoubtedly I now know more about the Soviet space programme than I did last week. But Munro’s play doesn’t go beyond the educational – it is a book-at-bedtime sort of a work: harmless enough. But for a play about the human urge to touch the sky, Little Eagles is disappointingly Earth-bound.

3 Comedy Masks


Julius Caesar, RSC season at The Roundhouse: review

The Roundhouse, Camden
Director: Lucy Bailey

It is indicative of the mood of Lucy Bailey’s production of Julius Caesar that Mark Anthony’s much quote ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen – lend me your ears’ is less dignified oration and more impatient call for the crowd to “Shut the f*** up!”

From the very first moments of this staging, the stage is soaked in blood: Bailey prefaces the play with a brutal fight between mythical founder of Rome, Romulus and his brother, Remus. Raised by wolves, these two are savage, bestial and without remorse – but next to Shakespeare’s characters, they look like fluffy puppies.Founders of Rome

Bailey creates a Rome of Dionysian energy and passion – founded by a mythical fratricide, the City continues to drip with blood. The company of the RSC work as if one organism and the acting is complemented and completed by Fotini Dimou’s splendid costume design, William Dudley’s versatile set and Django Bates’ cacophonous music. In place of a traditional architectural set, Dudley and Bailey opt for video and shimmering images projected on to a long narrow top portion of the back wall and sail-like screens on which they project images of the crowd, so central to the story of Julius Caesar.

But all this would be nothing without the acting. As Coleridge didn’t quite say, this may be Caesar’s tragedy, but it’s Brutus’ play. Sam Troughton as the inwardly-tormented freedom fighter is a powerhouse of a man: when Mark Anthony proclaims ‘This was a man’, you know what he means. Troughton is also conflicted and earnest, expressing each emotion through an extreme physicality. Most importantly, he is likeable and the audience feels his anguish.

Co-conspirator Cassius is a more difficult character to warm to but John Mackay’s comes close. He is thoughtful and quick, honest and eager: a tall, sinewy man whose wit coaxes the conspirators to action. And Caesar is not a villain either. Greg Hicks in the eponymous role struts across the stage, looking as if he’s still growing into his regal robes. At the mention of a crown he snaps his fingers and clicks his tongue – but whether that is out of frustration or anticipation is unclear. If there is a villain in Bailey’s production, it is Casca – another of the conspirators – Oliver Ryan in the role positively relishes the blood-shed and looks eager to continue after the assassination.

It is Darrell D’Silva as Mark Anthony, however, who stands out for his virtuoso performance of the famous speech over Caesar’s body (‘but Brutus is an honourable man…’) He is the most animal of the senators, to whom the violent world of Rome is everyday: when he enters after a battle, swinging a severed head, he looks like he’s had nothing worse than a bad day at the office.

Testosterone and adrenaline drive this play – even the dead bodies on stage continue to quiver long after their demise, as if the energy of the production cannot be contained. Fight director Philip D’Orléans does a brilliant job of creating the lengthy battle scenes without allowing the momentum to falter.

Bailey’s production is simple – the setting is Ancient Rome, as intended, anachronisms are left in, and there is plenty of realistic gore. She lets the play stand on its own merit: her direction simply allows the richness of Shakespeare’s text to thrive.

This review originally appeared on

In Praise of Comfy Seating

Whether it’s a production of Into the Woods in Regent’s Park, Shakespeare in a disused church or Greek tragedy in a military training base, site-specific theatre is all the rage. But does this fashion for quirky and unusual spaces add anything to our experience as an audience? Anything, that is, apart from numb behinds, insect bites and runny noses.

In a recent review of a site-specific production of Aeschylus’ The Persians high up in the Brecon Beacons, Michael Billington wrote: “The combination of the story and the setting, with the sun slowly disappearing over the hills, is overwhelming”. This most ancient of dramatic texts managed to live up to this most ancient of landscapes.

Similarly, the production of Into the Woods currently showing at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has been well received by the critics: Sondheim’s musical chimes with and is complemented by the wooded surroundings. But in my experience, these success stories are exceptions to the rule.

At its best, site-specific theatre manages to feed on its surroundings and the piece is made more relevant, more poignant and bigger, in every sense of the word, as a result. At its worst it can be self-indulgent, wearisome and decidedly irritating. There is nothing worse than watching a dull production, shivering on uncomfortable seating – and knowing that the performers are having a great time.

Hubris seems to be the heart of the problem when site-specific theatre falls flat – which it often does. As far as outdoor theatre is concerned, soaring peaks and limitless horizons make humans look – and feel – very small. And it is a rare play indeed which can convince an audience of the relevance of its story against such a backdrop.

There is something about the vastness of nature – the drama inherent in a panoramic view – which tempts theatre practitioners. The Minack theatre in Cornwall, although purpose built, can be placed under the “site-specific” heading as it also attempts to tap into the power of landscape. And the seats are awful. Although I’ve seen a number of plays there, rarely can the actors compete with the backdrop. On one memorable occasion, a basking shark sauntered past and the audience – of Peter Pan, I think it was – rather lost interest in the action on stage.

Site-specific indoor theatre – such as ENO and Punchdrunk’s recent Duchess of Malfi, or the RSC’s histories series in Westminster abbey – may not have to deal with the insect bites, but these plays still have to work hard to justify the use of the space. Non-traditional venues encourage an audience to question a play’s purpose and worth more readily than traditional spaces – which, in the end has to be an argument in favour.

Truly great site-specific theatre can affect an audience in ways a production in a purpose-built venue never can. Productions in unusual venues come under greater scrutiny and demand more mental (and occasionally physical) involvement in the piece – audiences, used to drama tucked safely behind the footlights, become engaged in a more meaningful way. The stakes, in other words, are higher. When site-specific theatre is good, it’s very very good: but when it’s bad, it’s yawningly, bum-numbingly, pretentiously horrid.

What’s in a name?

Another week, another book on Shakespeare. But James Shapiro’s Contested Will has scratched an ever-present source of irritation in academic circles and fanned the glowing embers of the identity debate until they are once more roaring

flames. Shapiro’s book examines what has come to be known as the anti-Stratfordian case – the argument that one, rather poorly educated man from Stratford could not possibly have written the works that have come to be connected with his name.

The Stratford man

The list of people who have been put forward as possible alternatives reads like a Who’s Who of the early modern period: Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Even Queen Elizabeth herself makes an appearance.

This roll-call is paralleled only by the star-studded list of current anti-Stratfordians. Vanessa Redgrave has said: ‘Whoever Shakespeare was, he wasn’t a little ordinary yeoman who headed back to Stratford after he had his fun. I’m quite certain that he was a quite exceptional aristocrat who had to keep totally quiet and needed Shakespeare as

cover’. Sir Derek Jacobi has expressed support for the cause and Mark Rylance, former director of the Globe, said recently in an interview with The Observer, ‘There is a genius at work here somewhere, but it’s not William Shakespeare.’

For an impatient Stratfordian like myself, this all seems rather too much like a meeting of the Flat Earth society.

However, it is undeniable that we know very little about one of our most famous Englishmen (there are in excess of 35 million hits when you type ‘Shakespeare’ into Google). We know he was born (1564), he married, he died (1616). Other than that, Shakespeare is as a blank canvas. And that is one of the greatest things about him.

Every subsequent generation have looked to Shakespeare for guidance, advice and consolation and seen in his works

something of themselves. Scores of directors and actors have edited his plays, cut scenes, transposed the plays to modern times and, in short, made him their own.

More excitingly and topically, Shakespeare’s ambiguous identity and enigmatic life allows room for new plays to be “discovered” or “claimed” for him. Only this week, a little-known eighteenth century play called Double Falsehood has been attributed – at least in part – to good old Will. The author of this romantic-comedy, Lewis Theobald, always claimed that he had been working from a real play by Shakespeare called Cardenio but had been dismissed as a fraud by academics. Until now. The publisher, Arden Shakespeare,

has backed Professor Brean Hammond’s assertion and on Radio 4’s TodayProgram Hammond let slip that the RSC will be putting on a performance of this prodigal play when their theatre re-opens later this year.

So I’m thankful that Shakespeare didn’t leave a diary, that we don’t know exactly what he worked on, who he loved or even where he lived a lot of the time. It means that there is always the thrilling possibility of new plays coming to light. And what does it matter who he was, anyway: as the great man himself said, ‘That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet’.

A Rose by any other word