Review: ‘King Lear’ @ Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Greg Hick's as the fallen King.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of ‘The Tragedy of King Lear’ was a mixture of theatricality and raw emotion, all of which combined to show Lear’s descent from fool to madman.

Briefly, the plot revolves around Lear giving his lands to his two daughters, Regan and Goneril, but refusing to give his favourite daughter, Cordelia, her land as she says that her love is beyond words: a notion that does not sit well with the imagery-conscious Lear. She is banished to her marriage with the King of France, but Lear soon realises his other daughters mean to overthrow him, causing his descent into madness.

Although Greg Hicks was a fantastic King Lear, I think more praise is due to Sophie Russell (the Fool), Katy Stephens (Regan) and Charles Aitken (Edgar), who were superb in their supporting roles and were major driving forces behind the performance. The Fool’s unerring dedication to Lear was one of the most heartfelt aspects of the play, reaching its climax when Lear stood in the rain and the Fool is weeping at his feet, symbolising the movement of Lear from master to the pity of fools. Equally, Regan showed the passion behind the sisters’ plans to dethrone their father, providing the motivation and weaving seamlessly amongst the other characters to manipulate and devastate them. Finally, Aitken’s performance as Edgar/Poor Tom was brilliant to watch, as he shifted between guises his devotion to his father, Gloucester, and his rise from the ashes was performed spectacularly and without losing the credulity of Edgar’s compromised position.

There were times when the play felt versed: Cordelia, in particular, spoke as if she were reciting a poem, as opposed to acting the words, leaving her more of a representative figure as opposed to a human character. Some of the minor cast members also did this, but it definitely did not detract from the impact of the play.

Greg Hicks’ performance as the troubled King was amazing. He was able to dissemble from upright King and leader to downtrodden madman convincingly, and prompted a few laughs which underlined the extent of his descent into lunacy. Clearly well-rehearsed in Shakespearean acting, Hicks was able to manipulate Lear’s language to ensure that, despite his original folly, he was abused, which was complemented perfectly by Poor Tom’s feigned madness and Kent’s unwavering dedication despite the King’s misjudgement.

The theatrical elements were absolutely brilliant. The rain upon King Lear was a perfect way to both close the first half, and show the beginning of his descent into madness, perfectly setting up the shift to instability in the second half of the performance. However, the best staging came when Gloucester’s double life was exposed, and his eyes were plucked out as punishment: despite knowing it was coming, the inference of the action was still a squeamish affair, and maintained the pace of the performance despite the potential for the gruesome act to be mis-played and appear overly-fake or over-dramatised.

‘King Lear’ ended heartbreakingly, with the death of all three sisters at each other’s hands, whether directly or indirectly, highlighting the extremity of Lear’s mistake. The stage held five bodies at the ending, each one representing something lost, whilst Edgar’s closing speech was able to show that the wounds of the previous generation were the building blocks of the new generation, complimenting the devastation with a glimmer of hope in the rebuilding of an empire. The play was beautifully crafted to show the ease of transition from foolishness to full madness, and successfully showed the depths of Lear’s journey without losing its credibility.

Review: ‘Comedy of Errors’ @ The Belgrade Theatre

The Belgrade Theatre in Coventry describes the Propeller version of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors as ‘Shakespeare rediscovered’, and they’re not far wrong. Sombreros, naked priests and rousing chorus’ of 80s pop brought Shakespeare tumbling into the 21st century, and the effect was fabulous.

The basic plot is that identical twin brothers, both named Antipholus, and their parents Egeon and Emilia, are separated by a shipwreck, with one twin and the father ending up in Syracuse, whilst the second twin and mother finding themselves in Ephesus, and conveniently enough, these are two cities that despise one another. Also separated in the shipwreck are the servants of both twins, who are twins themselves, both named Dromio…well, it would be odd if Shakespeare made it easy. Egeon gets caught in Ephesus and is threatened with death, but upon hearing that he is searching for the second twin and his wife, the Duke relents and says that if someone can pay Egeon’s bond by the day’s end, he will spare him.

What follows is one of the brightest and funniest adaptations of Shakespeare that I’ve ever witnessed: the continual slapstick over Dromio’s beatings, the references to a ‘spherical’ kitchen wench who is trying to wed the wrong Dromio, the confusion over which Antipholus is which and the general chaos that ensures really does bring Shakespeare to a new level of understanding, and while it’s never easy to understand all the language, Propeller’s quirky performance certainly guides you along wonderfully.

As it would have been in the Elizabethan theatre, all the roles were played by male actors, which certainly added authenticity to the production, as well as boosting the comedy levels even higher than before. The use of Luciana as a ninja-warrior was probably the highlight of the female interpretations, as well as having Adriana as a balding man in a garish coat, and a courtesan in a slightly terrifying rabbit costume. This also highlights the absurdity of the relationships within the play: Adriana, as Antipholus of Ephesus’ wife, brilliantly guides the audience along as a marker of the confusion: shutting her rightful husband out to ‘dine’ with his twin and Antipholus of Syracuse’s propositions of love to Adriana’s sister, Luciana, just show the extremity of the confusion, as well as bringing events to such a height that it’s difficult not to get swept along in the  madness. Antipholus of Ephesus’ rantings in the second half over how he has been falsely accused of being elsewhere is performed with such a manic pace that the audience is left holding their breath alongside him, until he finally collapses from the absolute absurdity of his situation.

The show was brought up to date in several ways, including a separate performance by the cast during the interval of 80s classics to raise money for charity: a feature later incorporated into the second act. The set and costumes were fantastically bright, adding to the hilarity of the situation, as well as the use of music to underline the comedy. The best bit of modern relevance, though, was when the falsely-accused Antopholus and Dromio of Ephesus are put in wheely bins (an obvious substitute for a mental asylum I’m sure), which provokes a quip about the infamous YouTube Cat Bin Lady.

The only (very minor) criticism is Egeon’s speeches: yawn. They were the bit that dragged the play back towards Earth though, and created a gravity for the play to centre around, so as to create a beginning and an ending to the chaos. So while it was a bit tedious to sit through his soliloquies, Egeon is certainly a vital plot-device, in bookending the play and stopping it from losing its bearings.

Overall, however, Comedy of Errors was absolutely brilliant: the actors clearly had a passion for both Shakespeare and in interesting modern audiences in the bard, which led to a brilliant production which can appeal to those who love, and those who tend to steer clear of, Shakespeare’s works. Propeller did a wonderful job, and amongst the madness showed a theatrical sanity which showed the talent within their abilities.

Review: ‘Phantom of the Opera’ @ Her Majesty’s Theatre

A royal performance at Her Majesty’s Theatre

On Saturday 22nd January 2011, I saw one of the most stunning theatre productions I am ever likely to witness, beyond anything that modern technology can dream of producing: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’.

With fantastic staging effects, astounding actors and a sensational musical score, ‘Phantom’ was a hauntingly beautiful production. The music blew me away: I wanted the opening score to keep going, I wanted to be able to close my eyes and just listen to it forever. Enough can never be said in praising a fantastic orchestra, and this one was no exception. Add to that the cast’s voices, trained to perfection, and the combination was bound to send chills running through you. The biggest cheer of the night went to John Owen Jones, who played the Phantom, a man whose Phantom could have reduced anyone to tears. Needless to say, Sofia Escobar’s Christine Daae and Will Barrat’s Raoul were both fantastic: the passion they maintained throughout the performance was so intense and well-maintained that it was hard not to fall in love with all of them.

The storyline itself is simple yet allows a large amount of room for artistic creativity: the Phantom’s obsessive love for Christine replacing her father’s companionship, the theatre within the theatre, and the love triangle framing the plot all enable various interpretations, as well as showing what stagecraft is really about. The best bits were the chandelier falling, the Phantom’s hiding place during ‘All I Ask of You’ and the river that takes the Phantom and Christine to his lair. Whilst everything was clearly a spectacle, it was so well-timed and executed that it felt real, not like something that had been done for effect. I’ve said repeatedly since leaving the theatre, that with all the wonders of film technology, the theatre version triumphed against the film adaptation, I was nowhere near as mesmerised and enthralled as I was in the production. The chandelier falling was absolutely amazing: it was clearly a defining moment in every section of the play, showing the changes throughout the plot, as the theatre went from riches to ruins during the operatic war. And the river was just beautifully set up, despite the limits of the stage it really did look and appear as though they were gliding gracefully towards the Phantom’s domain.

The acting, as I’ve already said, was superb. The Phantom’s clear inability to deal with his own passion was heartbreaking, and made it impossible to blame him for what he did, even though he was obviously losing his control over the theatre and Christine within his desperate acts. Likewise, it was hard to see fault in Christine’s love for both the Phantom and Raoul, when the Phantom clearly gave her the protection she craved in the absence of her father, whilst Raoul was able to show her a safe and secure way of life after the music ends. And Raoul…well, yum. He was everything the gallant hero should be: suave, passionate for the love of his life, and absolutely gorgeous. They all combined to show how the love triangle had no definitive right or wrong outcome: Raoul would die for love, the Phantom would kill for it, while Christine is left with a heart-wrenching choice that led her to show the Phantom he didn’t have to be alone, but that he couldn’t control love. The supporting cast was stellar: Carlotta (Wendy Ferguson) and Monsieur’s Firmin (Barry James) and Andre (Gareth Snook) provided the comic relief to remove tension, before it was built back up again to monumental heights! Equally, Madame Giry (Cheryl McAvoy) was a stern influence to show how the Phantom affects everyone, not just those vulnerable to his influences.

My favourite song had to be the titular ‘Phantom of the Opera’, as well as ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’ and ‘Masquerade’, although I don’t think there was a single song that I didn’t love to be honest! They’re a credit to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s genius, and I have to say that I respect him so much more after seeing ‘Phantom’ than I ever did before, he really is an artistic star, which makes me incredibly excited to hopefully see the sequel, ‘Love Never Dies’.

To end on the biggest cliche possible, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ is definitely inside my mind; with its gorgeous display of musical creativity, superb acting and fabulous scenery, I don’t think there’s a way to avoid being intoxicated with the ‘Phantom’ and its twisted and chillingly beautiful love story.

http://www.cheaptheatretickets.com/phantom-of-the-opera/

http://www.phantomoftheoperalondon.com

phantomoftheoperalondon.com/reviews

http://www.seatplan.co.uk/london/her-majestys-theatre/

Review: ‘Wicked’ @ the London Apollo Victoria Theatre

Well, who hasn’t got an opinion on ‘Wicked’? And more importantly, who hasn’t raved about it?

So we might have been up high enough to get a nosebleed, but our view was still pretty spectacular, and meant we could see the entire stage without too many head turns whenever the action changed place. The acoustics weren’t fantastic, but the principle actors made up for this in their pure ability (disincluding Fiyero’s slight slip on a high note in ‘Dancing Through Life’).  This was particularly seen in Rachel Tucker’s (Elphaba) spectacular vocals in ‘Defying Gravity’, which essentially had me in tears because it was so brilliantly done. Tucker was definitely the strongest vocal performance in the show in my opinion, but the chemistry between her and Louise Dearman (Glinda) and Lewis Bradley (standing in for Lee Mead as Fiyero) made the show come alive.

The storyline itself, as my friend commented during the interval, would not be as spectacular without the right cast and musical numbers to make it sparkle. Indeed, who would be able to see past Glinda’s initial self-absorbed nature without ‘Popular’ showing her to want to bring out the best in people? And the reprise of  ‘No One Mourns the Wicked’ at the end after we’ve seen Elpheba’s tragic story unfold ensures we realise the extent of the misunderstanding Madame Morrible (Julie Legrand) imposes upon the Oz-ians. Likewise, the stagecraft enabled the story to become more spectacular, particularly the beautiful Emerald City and the terrifying outer mask of the Wizard.

The most fascinating part of the story, undoubtedly, was the development of the origins for the characters from ‘The Wizard of Oz’, and I personally thought the Lion’s back-story was by far the cleverest invention, and the only one I didn’t see coming. The only thing that bothered me was that, in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, Elpheba sets the Scarecrow on fire – why on earth would she do that to the man she loved?

By far, the best songs for me were ‘What is this Feeling?’ and the infamous ‘Defying Gravity’, which allowed the female leads to combine their powerful voices to build upon the melody and produce an overwhelming emotional response. Tucker gave a slightly husky quality to the high notes in ‘Defying Gravity’ which contrasted immensely with the gentle tones she used in ‘The Wizard and I’, and later on in ‘As Long As You’re Mine’, showing both her range and vocal abilities at their finest.

The supporting cast, as in any production, were crucial in ensuring the performance was wholly wonderful, and Boq (George Ure) was especially notable in his heartfelt performance, and his anger at his metallic fate was critical in understanding why Elpheba continued to be misunderstood and why the situation was outside Glinda’s control.

Wicked was an entirely fabulous experience, and one I would definitely repeat. The cast were stunning, the sets and costumes were beautifully designed, and the venue meant that even the cheaper seats didn’t miss out on the action. I hope to have a wicked time again in the near future.

http://www.seatplan.co.uk/london/apollo-theatre/