Review: ‘Macbeth’ @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

I love ‘Macbeth’, it ranks up there with my favourite Shakespeare plays, and finding out Christopher Ecclestone was playing the titular character was the final drop of incentive I needed to book my tickets to see the RSC’s latest production of The Scottish Play.

And Ecclestone was fantastic: brooding, conflicted, frustrated, fearful – he did it all and seamlessly so. It was post-crowning that the role really took flight; Ecclestone’s portrayal of ambition fearfully achieved was convincing and gripping, something to keep you on the edge of your seats (dangerous when you’re in the high ones like we were) until the bitter end.

Lady Macbeth…I was less convinced. Don’t get me wrong, overall Niamh Cusack was good, but I felt like a decision hadn’t been made over whether she was power-hungry, insane or simply overly-emotional. If a route had been picked it might have been easier to figure out why she pushed Macbeth as she did, but it seemed like neither of them wanted to ‘o’erleap’ their ‘vaulting ambition’, which is the sole purpose of Lady Macbeth in Macbeth’s mental torment: pushing him over the edge. I think it was most apparent following Duncan’s murder: one moment Lady Macbeth was the ‘unsexed’ woman, bloody, bold ad resolute, and the next she seemed to be blaming Macbeth for being so foolish. I couldn’t quite place what Lady Macbeth wanted, and I found that a little difficult to follow. However, the classic sleepwalking scene was outstanding, as was Lady Macbeth’s role in the banquet scene, so there were definite peaks and troughs.

The setting and scenery were used well, particularly where the (spectacular!) Porter was concerned (that blummin’ vacuum cleaner!!). Everything had a place and if something was unnecessary, it wasn’t used. The only mild (and I mean mild!) criticism I had was that the perspex box above the stage where the characters were during the post-war celebrations, where Lady Macbeth heard Macduff’s son’s cries and then sleepwalked through, wasn’t viewable from the second tier; I can’t imagine what it was like on the third. This was a shame because it literally needed a foot more glass and it would have been successful, and I did feel like we missed out on some key aspects of the performance.

Standout moments? The Porter was an absolute scream, punctuating the madness with stark reality and a reminder of life continuing in darkly humorous ways – he was a character used well throughout the play, not just in his one key speech like in other productions. He really did make me shiver when cleaning up after gruesome moments (like the Macduff massacre – a terrifying moment that was captured brilliantly by mother and son alike, and making her pregnant? Awful but a stroke of genius for the tragedy of Macbeth).

Another moment had to be the ghost scene with Banquo: the fact that no ghost appeared in Macbeth’s first rantings first of all had me going ‘what?!’ and then I saw it as brilliant; you got to see what the diners saw, before seeing what Macbeth saw when the ghost finally made his ethereal, terrifying appearance. I loved it, and it was one of my favourite production moments of the whole performance.

And I loved loved loved the clock. Another Porter moment of genius setting a stopwatch, the tension (and a moment where you blinked and thought ‘blimey, where did the time go?!’) mounted and Macbeth’s doom crept closer; it was a silent reminder that the truth will out and wrongs will be righted, and I loved how understanding it was.

Finally, I have to reflect on what once was; in the 2011 Macbeth at the RSC, one of my favourite choices was having the Weird Sisters as children dangling from the heavens speaking down to the cursed Macbeth, and a similar concept was attempted this time, but I wasn’t convinced by the kids in onesies with teddy bears I’m afraid; they were too cutesy to be wicked, and looked too snuggled up to cause real harm, so I couldn’t believe in their ill-will sadly. They were a little better in the second half, particularly when complemented with the dead cast members as the Prophecies, but overall it wasn’t the choice for me.

In what is overall a haunting performance with a killer cast, ‘Macbeth’ is encoring at cinemas soon and plays at the RSC throughout May, and is definitely worth catching while it’s around – Ecclestone and co. overall produce a fascinatingly dark demise of a former hero for you to sink your teeth into.

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Review: ‘Twelfth Night’ @ RSC Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Filled with hilarity, unexpected gravity and musical mayhem, ‘Twelfth Night’ was a comedy treat at the RSC when I saw it on its final night in Stratford-upon-Avon.

With a backdrop in the Indian country of Illyria this time, it’s a colourful and loud performance which is what makes it brilliant and captivating. The RSC never does disappoint with sets and these were spectacular, my favourite being the garden ornaments used in the infamous box tree scene with Malvolio – with artwork baring its genitalia at you, you know exactly what’s going to happen but that doesn’t stop the inevitable from also being hysterical, especially in the hands (quite literally) of the bumbling Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the brash Sir Toby Belch!

Character-wise, it’s insanely difficult to pick a performance of the night. The cunning group of Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabia (not a misspelling, Fabian loses his manhood in this performance!) were a real highlight and whilst the main plot was, of course, captivating, you couldn’t help but lean forward in anticipation when you saw the dastardly quartet re-enter the fray. However, if absolutely pushed to pick a favourite…Fabia, for being the absolute perfect foil to every single character she came across, and being hilarious in her own right of course!

Now, with every good comedy comes a divisive element – mine was the odd appearance of shouting. Sounds weird, was weird. Sir Toby’s sudden outburst at the box-tree plot which quickly snuffed out its hilarity, Feste’s hiss (literally) at Malvolio at the end, and other bits in-between – it just snuffed out some of the comedy in that moment, perhaps to intensify Malvolio’s tragedy (I’ve genuinely never felt sorry for him until this production) and to bring the rule-breaking of the twelfth night to a close. Maybe by purpose and design, but something was unsettling about it, but then shouldn’t Malvolio’s plot be just that for a modern-day audience?

However, this was a minor point in a major hit – I particularly love when Shakespearean productions don’t shy away from musical elements and the RSC never does, and they always have the most spectacular band on hand. Everything pulled together to make order from chaos and right from wrong in a wonderful version of a classic comedy. Sadly, this was the final performance, but who knows what might happen – after all, Hamlet’s been touring for almost a year now so Shakespeare is definitely a stuff that will endure, and if not…well there’s always next time!

Review: ‘Julius Caesar’ @ Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Having seen an offer for discounted tickets, I couldn’t resist seeing my second play of the Rome 2017 trilogy at the RSC, and I was rewarded for spending my time and money in a turbulent Rome.

Brutus – yes, of et tu fame – was stellar. Alex Waldmann showed us the epitome of the man in conflict; it was obvious that Brutus wasn’t a murderer of a man but a murderer of the corruption coming through the man. His fight with ideology was evident in every action, from his cringing at the first thrust of the knife to his willingness to die in the failure of a Roman democracy. Brutus was an honourable man indeed, just perhaps a man too led by his peers in achieving that honour.

And seeing emotions laid bare wasn’t exclusive to Brutus – the cast were brilliant in their subtle and less subtle mojulius-caesar-production-images_-2017_2017_photo-by-helen-maybanks-_c_-rsc_214266-tmb-img-1824ments, expertly weaving between these for maximum effect. One of my favourite moments has to be at the end, when Mark Anthony (James Corrigan) can barely hide his dislike of Octavius Caesar (Jon Tarcy) – it’s blindingly obvious to everyone apart from Octavius how he has been used by Anthony to exact vengeance, despite finding him a churlish youth.
Caesar (Andrew Woodall), of course, cannot go unmentioned. He had majesty without royalty, and ambition whilst remaining grounded. You saw glimpses of why he had to die but not enough to justify this, and certainly not enough to prevent the horror at his brutal murder.

Speaking of which, the staging was spectacular and yet minimalist. The murder was a highlight, bloodbags aplenty and yet no one betrayed this theatrical trick in their realism. I especially loved the second half scenery, with the broken ruins of war lying around the stage and acting as plinths from which characters could rise and fall. It was incredibly thoughtful and, unlike some productions, not over the top in any manner, which made it all the more resonating.

The only thing I’ll say – and this is at Shakespeare and his era than the production itself – is the lack of women. They were well used by the director, Angus Jackson, despite this, but it seems incredibly sad that Calpurnia (Kristin Atherton) gets no resolution after her desperate pleas to Caesar, and we don’t see more of Portia’s (Hannah Morrish) conflict between her husband and her country. But this was not an age of women, and so we’re left with a lot of men (and a lot of six packs) around the stage (not complaining!).

‘Julius Caesar’ hits cinemas on Wednesday 25th April for the live screening of the performance, and I urge you to see this gripping production and live through the trials and tribulations of an empire on the edge.

 

Review: ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ @ The RSC

‘Antony and Cleopatra’ is an exotic and wonderful Shakespeare play, albeit one with a rushed second half where we’re told things happen rather than seeing them. Nonetheless, the RSC’s latest production is bold and rhythmical to capture even novice Shakespearean viewers.

 

The opening musical segment transports you to Egypt and the seductive den of the most radiant Cleopatra, and was an entrancing was to being events. The continuation of dance and music throughout was mesmerising and added that real Eastern feel to the events, separating the cold and calculating Roman empire from the rich and sultry Egyptian lands.

 

Cleopatra followed suit with this exoticism, although despite her captivating temper and demeanour I have to say it was sometimes difficult to understand her entirely, especially when she was louder; it was purely an accent thing, and it’s just worth knowing so that you know to move on when you don’t understand rather than missing the plot development whilst trying to translate.

 

However, both Antony and Cleopatra were magnificently regal, despite the clumsiness of Shakespeare’s ending where Antony is dragged up the monument, which (frankly) is mildly ridiculous. As I said, the whole second half is a bit ropey – blink and you’ll miss it explanations as to who likes and hates whom are all you’ve got and they’re so rapid it’s difficult to follow.

 

The whole cast, as expected, were brilliant; my highlights were Enobarbus and Cleopatra’s handmaidens, who made this less of a history lesson and more of a journey through these foreign climes.

 

The traditionalism of the setting was something unusual and the RSC, but their normal modernisation wouldn’t necessarily work through the Rome season; it’s classical nature is what makes it enjoyable and recognisable, no work needs to be done here to make this period of history accessible to all. The use of the trap door to change the stage was very effective; small changes that indicated the mood and processes of the characters well.

 

The Rome season at the RSC promises to be a memorable run, and ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ is just a third of this brilliance – make sure you don’t miss out on a trip through time.

Review: ‘Cymbeline’ @ the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

The RSC’s production of the much-underperformed and often underrated ‘Cymbeline’ was a different experience for me: it’s the first time I’ve seen a Shakespeare play without having read the script first. As such, it became a small test for me; would I understand it without having studied it?

Answer: yes.

Because the RSC’s production was incredibly accessible and amazingly performed, making three hours of theatre seem like a blur of betrayal, mistrust and reconciliation.

The first thing to note was that Cymbeline was no longer King of Britain; Cymbeline was, in fact, the Queen, with the leering and overly confident Duke preening at her side. It made the play have a different dynamic; suddenly strength was redefined, and to be Queen in such a male-dominated world became a harder task, and instead of being an ineffectual ruler, Cymbeline became a woman with a lot to fear within and without the court. It was an intriguing and wonderful decision, proving Shakespeare still has new dimensions to add hundred of years after the play’s conception.

Innogen became my new favourite female Shakespearean character within this (although technically Guideria could have taken that role, but more gender-swapping means this might not technically be my favourite female). She was feisty, determined, principled and courageous; at least, that’s how Bethan Cullinane played her. I admired her more than Posthumus, a character often proclaimed for his virtues and yet one whose virtues I saw little of. He was easily manipulated and impulsive in all the wrong ways – not the man I would have liked our heroine to pledge her honour to, but still…

I also loved the lighter moments, particularly with Guideria (Natalie Simpson – of Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’ fame) and company in the woods. My favourite lighter moment was when Cymbeline questioned Clotten’s (Marcus Griffiths) fate and, in her best northern accent, Guideria declared ‘I slew him’. It was moments like this that made sure you weren’t fully plunged into the depths of despair, preventing tragedy from becoming all-encompassing and wholly distressing – a feat the RSC has often achieved with wonderful effect.

As I said, having not read the play some of its more delicate symbolism was lost on me until the end; the tree stump in the centre of the stage was a mystery until the closing scenes, where Cymbeline’s tree had regrown with family and honour. It worked, and was a pleasing revelation at the end tying the whole play up neatly. I loved the romantically brutal movements at the beginning separating Innogen and Posthumus, so gently and yet so tragically after their young love was denied.

The only, and it’s absolutely miniscule, thing I disliked about this came from the above scene, where the lovers ended their meeting with Posthumus’ trousers down – a feat unnecessary and a little bit distasteful after all the pledges of undying love. I realised it was so that Cymbeline and the cunning Duke had something to catch more than just Posthumus in a room with Innogen, but something about it jarred with the value of their words for me.

Two questions I would ask of Shakespeare’s play: surely a better resolution than ‘after all that war, let’s give in to Rome’s demands as we should have done in the first place’ could have been found? And where was the comeuppance for Philario (Byrron Mondahl), the erstwhile childcatcher who robber the Queen of her eldest children? These were niggles with the plot rather than production, but suspending disbelief, the experience was still an enjoyable one.

Cymbeline’s reign is short – the RSC and cinema screens host her for a short while, and I urge you to become an attentive citizen and follow a story of love, deceit and family with avid attention…

 

Review: ‘Titus Andronicus’ @ The Swan (RSC)

Billed as Shakespeare’s bloodiest revenge tragedy, my expectations were geared towards intense emotional displays, horrific and (in some cases quite literally) unspeakable acts and interesting stagecraft. I got all of these, but there was something else embedded in this performance: comedy. Of all the things that I thought had a place in TA, farce was not something I’d been prepared for, and I’m still not sure I understand it fully.

What I did understand was the comical presentation of Saturninus (John Hopkins), who was consistently the well-educated and bumbling attempter-to-the-throne. It provided an interesting contrast to his brother Bassianus (Richard Goulding), who was firm and serious, perhaps the better material for Emperor, allowing the dark series of events that followed to be understandable from the decision to crown perhaps the wrong emperor.

I also understood the use of comedy in the farcical scene with Tamora (Katy Hopkins) as ‘revenge’, gone to send old Titus over the edge with dreams of bloody and gory vengeance against the empire. A ridiculous idea, and Titus himself (Stephen Boxer) reacted perfectly to the deceit in order cement the audience on his side by showing himself to be strong and cunning despite his losses. Now, this said, why oh why would our leading man, our strong and feared noble general, then come out to seek his revenge (and, just incidentally, kill his own daughter in front of dinner guests) in a maid’s outfit?! It made no sense whatsoever, and the bloody banquet scene became something that could have happened in ‘Blackadder(us)’, the untold Roman years. This was Titus’ revenge, the downfall of the Queen of Goths, the comeuppance of Aaron, the victory of Lucius…and the audience were rolling about laughing (literally, in one woman’s case). It just didn’t seem to suit the severity of the moment; after all the horrors we’d endured with the characters, we saw their worth melted before us, at least making this theatregoer questioning how much the characters really had suffered.

My bafflement at the creation of a tragi-comedy aside, there were some standout performances and the stagecraft was fantastic. My particularly favourite scene (it seems so morbid to have a favourite scene in such a brutal play) was when Tamora’s sons killed Bassianus in order to rape Lavinia. Chiefly, this was because Bassianus was struggling on the ground in order to save his love despite his own life being forfeit, moving the traditional Shakespearean long death into an emotional, tear-jerking struggle to defend and protect. Lavinia (Rose Reynolds) was by far and away my favourite actor in this play. She was so forthright in the beginning as to make her transformation to handless, tongueless and broken victim heartbreaking. For a role that can’t speak for the majority of the play, she really captured the stage, displaying a clear reverence for the psychological damage that had befallen her character.

Moving onto stagecraft, it must be very difficult to utilise certain techniques when your audience can very clearly see every move and slight of hand you make, as you can in The Swan theatre. However, the amount of fake blood that I didn’t see coming until it was spat out or dripping from vicious wounds was testament to the intricate detail put into this play. I think the really disturbing part was Demetrius (Perry Millward) and Chiron (Jonny Weldon) being hung upside down and then having their throats slit so that the blood dripped into a pan, ready for Tamora’s delectation; grim, in a word.

So really, overall, I did enjoy this production, even if I didn’t understand the choices made in some places. Maybe I’m not theatrical enough or maybe (most likely), I’ve taken the play too literally and not seen any other path to the end than the obvious. Either way, Titus Andronicus is running until the 26th October 2013, so give the bloodiest of Shakespeare’s works a try – just make sure you don’t eat the pies, and the first row might get bloodstained…

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.