Tipping the doublet

The Roaring Girl, Swan Stratford, 17 May 2014

Moll Cutpurse (Lisa Dillon) lounged in an ornate chair, one leg hooked casually over the armrest as she smoked a cigarette in insolent rebellion, looking very much the lad in her short hair, faded jeans, white short-sleeved shirt and boots.

She addressed the prologue of the play to the audience, explaining that long-awaited plays create high expectations and that based on the title alone, we might speculate about what type of ‘roaring girl’ we would encounter “For of that tribe are many”. Behind her dim figures of women represented other forms of roaring girl, making the point that Moll was just one of many types.

Music was played intermittently by a band called The Cutpurses.

The setting in the Victorian era was astute, as it is near enough to the present for an audience to feel a connection with the now, but also far enough removed for the characters’ dated attitudes to appear realistic.

Mary (Faye Castelow) and Sebastian (Joe Bannister) provided a fairly standard presentation of frustrated love, with the disguised heroine sneaked in by Neatfoot (Christopher Middleton) to see her intended, both of them very decent and wholesome types (1.1). But the choice to have Mary disguised and at first unrecognisable was obviously meant to trigger subliminally our thoughts relating to reality, disguise and true identity.

The parallel between the two principal women was further emphasised by the fact that he also called her Moll.

Sebastian told Mary that he intended to pursue another woman called Moll as a ruse to obtain his father Sir Alexander’s consent to marry her.

The men sat round the large table at Sir Alexander’s house came forward, allowing the man himself (David Rintoul) to look out at the audience in his “galleries”, a reference to his large library of books, of which he said “all of heads the room seems made” (1.2). The Swan was an ideal setting for this theatrical in-joke: it does indeed call its own upper seating areas “galleries”. The very male atmosphere of after-dinner conviviality continued.

Sir Alexander described a clearly invented meeting with another man who bemoaned his son’s dalliance with an unsuitable woman, before openly arguing with Sebastian about his “cutpurse drab”. This false tale, designed to rile up his son, established him as powerful and arrogant, and increased our sympathy for Sebastian when he spoke up for himself.

The text was edited to remove confusing references but this sometimes had the effect of changing the tone and significance of exchanges, such as in this scene the removal of the phrase “I’ll give thee rats-bane rather” from the exchange between Sebastian and Sir Alexander. This removed “rats-bane” but made Sir Alexander less aggressive.

Sebastian stormed off determined to have his desires, leaving Sir Alexander to encounter and recruit Trapdoor (Geoffrey Freshwater).

The reference to “Saints days” was changed to “bank holiday”, which did nothing but create a modern feel to the exchange because Sir Alexander was predicting rain.

Trapdoor looked and sounded like the kind of East End lowlife common in Victorian fiction and his chilling prediction that he, a roaring boy, would put down the Roaring Girl, set up an interesting expectation of conflict.

There was a musical interlude with Moll playing electric guitar as the set was changed to bring in the dinner table for the next scene. Still in modern clothes, this Roaring Girl was a contemporary figure, which created the subtle impression that her appearance subsequently within the action of the play was Moll going back in time. At the very least the shift in attire created a connection between past and present.

A three-part glass cabinet display was brought in for the apothecary shop, this tripartite structure was a nod to the original stage directions to have three shops side by side (2.1). The actual arrangement here was slightly different.

The gallants came across Mistress Gallipot (Lizzie Hopley) who was grinding tobacco suggestively. The text was changed to create a joke about a woman’s husband becoming bankrupt and “shag” becoming her fortune.

The double entendres with the tobacco pipe still worked and she purred as she handed Laxton (Keir Charles) his pipe: he said that he wished it was always handled that way. Mistress Gallipot was characterised by her silly but raucous laugh.

Laxton begged money from her which she handed over under the guise of a supply of tobacco. Even though the cash was in notes, it was still referred to as “angels”. The text editors probably baulked at substituting anything else.

The feather shop was represented downstage by mannequins with feathers, which worked well. “Simon and Jude’s rain” was changed to “bank holiday rain”, substituting a contemporary expression.

The seamstress shop appeared centre stage with the comical couple of Mr and Mrs Openwork (Tony Jayawardena & Harvey Virdi). He was a big man and his wife was commensurately buxom.

Moll made her first appearance within the play in a hat, a long skirt with a bustle, and a jerkin type top, looking almost feminine in comparison with her initial appearance in distinctly male gear.

This had the effect of making her first scheduled appearance less strikingly unusual than her previous ones as Prologue and musician. Her attire was comparatively conservative. Although very distinctive, she seemed less out of place than might have been expected. This seeded the idea that she was not as anarchic and unruly as her reputation had been painted, particularly by Sir Alexander.

Given her previous overtly modern male garb, any concession to the dress conventions of the time looked like conformity. They thought that she was the complete rebel, whereas the audience saw something more in line with the conventions of the period of the play’s setting.

She was accompanied by her female Maid (Joan Iyiola) who held an umbrella over her head. Laxton was obviously smitten. She had short hair but the long skirt bottom meant that at this stage she was not so obviously dressed as a man as she had been in her extra-textual appearances earlier on.

Moll visited the seamstress’s shop and Mr Openwork tripped up and fell to his knees in front of her groin, prompting his wife’s comment about him being in the “low countries doing a mischief”. Mistress Openwork touched her body saying she was blessed with “good ware” but complained about her husband’s lack of attention “for when I open it up I take nothing”.

It was interesting that by this point the other characters had been behaving in various underhand and lewd ways, suggesting and acting out all types of impropriety, but Moll herself was simply shopping: her only contravention of accepted mores being sartorial. It was therefore apt that this should be taking place amid clothes shops.

Gull (Tom Padley) – and not the original’s Fellow – entered for the first time and Moll overpowered him with her knife, taking revenge for the slight he had given her. She said she had been “insulted” rather than “abused”. A more warranted alteration was the substitution of “stallion” for “stone horse”.

Laxton was highly impressed and asked her out. The proposed locations were changed to Hampstead Heath, Clapham Common and Stoke Newington cemetery. She agreed and he paid her money, making it plain that this was a commercial transaction. The original locations of their agreed assignation, Holborn and Gray’s Inn Fields, were kept.

Moll gave a hint of her omnivorous appetite by saying she would like to test Mrs Tiltyard’s (Liz Crowther) honesty. This occurred in conversation with Jack Dapper (Ian Bonar), who with his extravagant dress and professed dislike of women was positioned as effeminate, certainly in comparison with Moll.

Goshawk (Peter Bray) tried to work on Mistress Openwork by suggesting that her husband had a suburban whore.

Trapdoor offered his service to Moll and vaunted his strength, but she easily tripped him and proved his boasting empty. Nevertheless she told him to meet her at Gray’s Inn later.

The shopkeepers headed off for Dalston, changed from the “Hogsden” of the original.

Sebastian stood in the rain at a location that was not obviously Moll’s house and spoke his heart, overheard by his father at the side (2.2). Sebastian became aware of the lurking presence and directed some of his comments pointedly at him. The RSC prompt book made it explicit that he spotted his father and tailored his speech to suit his audience, which is not in the original play’s SDs. “Yea, are you so near?” was turned into Sebastian spotting Sir Alexander.

Moll was accompanied by a Porter (Michael Moreland) who carried in a huge double bass in a case on his back. Sebastian was quite touching in his attempt to pick her up and she was very courteous in her response. She had “no humour to marry” and her comment that she liked to “lie on both sides of the bed” could have been taken to have a hidden meaning. As she put it herself, she was “man enough for a woman”.

Moll’s amazingly opaque phrase “Never choose a wife as if you were going to Virginia” was left in, but Sebastian mouthed it again with a puzzled expression. What would have been comprehensible to the original audience, here became a facet of Moll’s mysterious otherness.

Openwork caught up with her and tried to measure her for her Dutch slop. She hoisted up her skirt to reveal her tattooed legs and went along with the lewd innuendo of their exchange.

Sir Alexander came forward and openly challenged Sebastian about his proposed marriage to Moll. The word “ordinaries” became “pubs”. Sebastian defended Moll by pointing out that she was “loose in nothing but in mirth”.

At Gray’s Inn Fields it was possible to take an instant dislike to Laxton who we saw was a regular whore chaser (3.1). Moll now appeared in a top hat and tails with wisps of male facial hair on her chin, a look very reminiscent of the film character Albert Nobbs.

The point at which Moll encountered her most vicious adversary was also the point at which she donned her most fearsome battledress.

She confronted him with his villainy and threw the money envelope back at him. It fell on the ground and they fought over it. They used their canes in the manner of swords, which was a neat use of Victorian conventions. Moll eventually overpowered him and threatened his chest with a knife as she promised to “write so much upon your breast”.

Her attack on him was against lax morals and in defence of girls who wanted to maintain a reputation for chastity. As she put it “Has mirth no kindred in the world but lust?” She continued:

“I scorn to prostitute myself to a man,
I that can prostitute a man to me.”

This would be pretty strong stuff in any age, but taking account of the date of composition in 1611, it begins to look very radical.

Laxton’s phrase “lecherous voyage” became “sexy jaunt”, which was clumsy and probably unnecessary.

He timidly surrendered, leaving Moll to comment that she would like to meet all her enemies that way one at a time.

Disguise

Trapdoor turned up as arranged and Moll took advantage of her disguise to trick him before eventually revealing her identity.

Given her previous hints at her omnivorous tastes, Moll’s line “sometimes I lie about Chick Lane” took on extra shades of meaning. This was originally a reference to a notoriously rough area, but in the context of this staging the expression could be taken as a euphemism for bisexuality.

As they exited Trapdoor picked up the envelope containing the money abandoned by Laxton, but Moll forced him to hand it over.

The order of the last two scenes in act three was reversed, so that 3.3 followed next.

Sir Alexander was walking upstage with Sir Davy (Colin Anthony Brown) when Trapdoor caught his attention. He stepped through the iron gate separating them to speak with Trapdoor, pretending to his companion that this was some business arrangement. Trapdoor informed Sir Alexander that his son and Moll were due to meet at his house. “Your son and her moon” in conjunction was illustrated by Trapdoor poking his index finger in and out of a hole formed by the fingers and thumb of his other hand. They then both pretended to wrangle to provide a pretext for their meeting.

Sir Davy explained that he wanted to have his own son arrested so that prison might teach him a lesson. The character of “Curtilax” was changed to “Cutlass” (Michael Moreland again) but his partner “Hanger” (Ken Nwosu) stayed the same. They received their instructions and prepared an ambush.

Trapdoor now carried the umbrella over Moll’s head in the same way that her maid had done before. They entered on the gallery walkway. They sensed the presence of law enforcement and their references to smelling “carrion” and “I spy ravens” were changed to the more contemporary “something rotten” and “I spy filth”.

The officers took up position behind the metal gate upstage. Jack and Gull entered and were about to be taken, but Moll and Trapdoor shouted a warning to them enabling them to escape. However, the staging of this was a little vague and did not make it clear what was going on.

The final rhyming couplet in Moll’s parting speech was cut so that she exited just saying “I’m glad I have done one perfect good deed today.”

Mistress Gallipot scolded her husband (Timothy Speyer) before retrieving Laxton’s letter and teasing the audience with the trick, involving a delivery of medicinal herbs, by which it was sent to her (3.2).

She read its proclamations of love and stumbled over its references to figures from classical literature, adding “Who are all these people?”

When her husband discovered the letter she tore it into pieces rather than let him read it. At this point the acting style changed to Victorian melodrama, perhaps prompted by the decision to set the play in that era. The style worked very well as the couple comically over-reacted with heightened emotion to the situation. Mrs Gallipot invented a story in which she had been betrothed to Laxton but had married Mr Gallipot once Laxton had been presumed dead somewhere in France.

She managed to convince her husband that Laxton could be assuaged with thirty pounds to cover his expenses in coming to recover her.

The others arrived and Goshawk explained to Mistress Openwork that Gallipot had annoyed his wife, and that she might soon be similarly annoyed if her own husband came home late from visiting his whore. She rejected the idea, caressing herself and praising her “fresher meat” over any “stale mutton” her husband might find elsewhere.

There followed a brilliant sequence in which Laxton met the Gallipots, and Mistress Gallipot had to signal to him that she had “opened all before him concerning you”, a staple of many a farce and sitcom. Laxton had to work out the fake story that Mistress Gallipot had invented and then play along with it convincingly.

Master Gallipot mentioned the precontract, which Laxton had to hastily integrate into his version. Mistress Gallipot fell to her knees in supplication, a gesture which once again looked like a sexual act. But as soon as Laxton realised that Gallipot intended to pay him off he readily accepted the cash, leaving him to make a villainous snarling remark to close the first half: “You are apple-eaters all, deceivers still.”

The second half began with a table set up centre stage above which hung a low chandelier (4.1). This enabled Sir Alexander, assisted by Trapdoor, to prep the room by hanging his expensive watch and other trinkets from it, in order to trap Moll into stealing them.

Sebastian appeared with Mary (dressed in a fetching check three-piece suit, her hair tied up) and Moll who was wearing simple trousers and shirt, her chin seemingly more bestubbled than before.

Moll commented on how her tailor had fitted Mary with her suit and in so doing she seemed to linger by her in an overfriendly manner, hinted once again at her omnivorousness.

Sebastian and Mary kissed and he commented on how he liked her look and how her kisses seemed “worth a pair of two”.

The “viol” that Sebastian asked Moll to play was in fact the huge double bass that had been seen earlier. This was a much better instrument than the rather tame looking viol da gamba.

Moll played a song while strumming the bass with her fingers. The words of the song were slightly altered, but the phrase “those hypocrites” was added and at this point Moll paused for effect, indicating that it was the hypocrisy of those “halfwits… who call me whore first” that vexed her.

Moll passed the bass to Sebastian. She then noticed and retrieved the watch and other jewels from the chandelier. Sebastian recognised a sound made by his father and hastily pretended that Moll was his music teacher. She put on a French accent to add to her mystique.

They also decided that they had to hide Mary, so she ducked under the desk and then hid behind the large double bass, which was then comically repositioned each time that Sir Alexander moved so that Mary could crouch and hide behind it. This visual gag was extended to them letting go completely of the double bass at one point, so that the hidden Mary was holding it miraculously in place. She eventually took flight off one of the walkways.

Sir Alexander paid Moll with coins with holes as a trick: “These will I make induction to her ruin”.

The three mistresses Openwork, Gallipot and Tiltyard sat on chairs and had a gab (4.2). Openwork explained that Goshawk had tried to convince her that her husband was visiting a whore in Brentford, but was only doing so to try to “make me cry quack”, a phrase she explained by briefly flexing her knees apart.

The text was altered slightly so that Goshawk implied that he was running all three of the women and not just the two “mills” and “swans” of the text.

Master Openwork caught up with Goshawk and there was something confidently confrontational about his greeting to him.

Mistress Openwork accused her husband of having a dalliance at Brentford, which led into more melodramatic histrionics which provided some excellent comic relief. With Mistress Openwork saying things like “You have struck ten thousand daggers through my heart” the melodramatic excess seemed completely warranted by the text.

Openwork realised that someone had falsely accused him of chasing whores, which made Goshawk nervous at being unmasked. Mistress Openwork refused to name her informant. But when Openwork asked the other two women if they knew his accuser, Gallipot said no and Tiltyard said yes simultaneously before putting her hand over her mouth.

Openwork demanded that Goshawk tell if he knew, which he denied. This prompted the women to accuse Goshawk and he shamefully confessed. Despite the furious emotion that had preceded, Openwork forgave him and himself admitted that he had led Goshawk to believe that he had a whore at Brentford, but only to see whether Goshawk were as wanton as he had suspected. So peace and tranquillity were restored in an unlikely turn of events.

Goshawk had learnt his lesson and promised not to “deal upon men’s wives” any more.

Laxton entered disguised as a legal official in a wig, with a crutch and holding one leg off the ground to appear one-legged. He issued the Gallipots with a summons for more money relating to the precontract. After some bickering between Mistress Gallipot and Laxton, he was unmasked and the whole truth came out: that the story about the precontract had been a ruse, that Mistress Gallipot had been tricked into procuring him money, but that Laxton had not actually bedded her. She was now fed up with his tricks and constant demands.

Laxton then invented another story, claiming that he had only pursued her to establish if she were as constant as she had made out. Gallipot fell for this, to the extent that he invited Laxton to dinner while castigating his wife for being a tease. The obvious injustice of this tied in nicely with the overall theme of the play of men maltreating women.

Arrest

Jack thanked Moll up on the gallery for saving him from arrest (5.1). From this scene were cut Lord Noland, Beauteous Ganymede and Tearcat. Trapdoor was missing presumed lost after Moll realised he had been working for Sir Alexander.

As Jack was explaining that it was his own father who had arranged to have him sent to prison, Trapdoor entered on the main stage disguised as a Chelsea pensioner/war veteran. He limped in on two crutches, the visual resemblance between him and Dickens’ Tiny Tim prompted his remark “God bless us every one”.

Trapdoor tried to beg from Jack and Moll, who questioned him about his military service. His long rambling list of campaigns and the nationalities of his comrades did not impress. As he itemised the various places in Italy he claimed to have been, Moll repeated his “Montepulciano” under her breath in disbelief.

Moll pulled his eye patch away from his face when she confronted him with his lies.

Trapdoor had learnt beggars canting language and the discussion moved onto this. Jack wanted to learn it also when he heard Moll translating what Trapdoor was saying.

Trapdoor suggested (in cant) that Moll and he go out thieving together and then “wap” and “niggle”. Moll translated most of this but not the last term. Jack insisted on knowing, so Trapdoor demonstrated by referring to it as “fadoodling” accompanied by a lewd gesture.

The canting song was turned into a big musical number. Both Moll and Trapdoor acquired mics and the band came out to play turning it into a rap. Other members of the cast joined them and provided appropriate sassy dance moves. Everyone had a whale of a time as the canting song was blasted out, with the lines shared between Moll and Trapdoor.

However, the actual words of the canting song were indistinguishable so that it was difficult to discern what was being said.

The intended victims of the cutpurses were changed from the minor characters Lord Noland and Sir Thomas of the original text to Mary’s father Sir Guy Fitzallard (Ian Redford) and Jack’s father Sir Davy.

Moll observed the cutpurses and quickly explained their various job titles and tactics to Jack before intercepting stolen the wallet as it was thrown from one thief to another and restoring it to its rightful owner.

The original text’s joke about someone losing a purse “at the last new play at the Swan” worked beautifully here in the Stratford Swan Theatre with Moll giving a knowing look to the audience.

Sir Davy and Sir Guy asked Moll how she knew these people and why she was known as Moll Cutpurse. This was the cue for Moll’s long speech explaining that her knowledge of the criminal world did not make her an integral part of it, summarised with “Must you have a black, ill name because ill things you know?”

She had become known as Moll Cutpurse because of this but she did not care. Crucially, it was now Sir Guy who praised her “brave mind”.

The connection now established between Sir Guy and Moll, facilitated by the change to the cast in this sequence, would serve a useful purpose later.

At his house, Sir Alexander was in uproar as Goshawk told him that Sebastian and Moll were to be married but no one knew for certain where they were (5.2).

Sir Guy and Jack broke in upon them. Sir Jack was unhappy at Sir Alexander’s treatment of his daughter, but seemingly happy that he was now to be repaid by his son marrying Moll instead.

Amid the chaos, Sir Guy said that he would wager Sebastian’s revenues that he could prevent the marriage. In his desperation Sir Alexander similarly pledged that he would give Sebastian half his wealth if he would marry anyone but Moll. Sir Guy justified his decision by saying that he liked Sebastian because he had loved his daughter and thought that more money would make him choose someone of higher status that Moll.

Moll appeared briefly in her man’s clothes and was asked if this was her wedding gown before she disappeared again. She met downstage with Mary, who was holding a wedding veil. This created the immediate expectation that the next person to be seen wearing that veil would be Mary.

Goshawk tried to reassure Sir Alexander that no priest would marry his son to Moll. His comment that “it was never known that two men were married and conjoined in one” drew some murmurs from the audience in the light of recent legislative changes in the UK.

Sir Alexander repeatedly said that he would be happy whomever Sebastian married.

Sebastian entered accompanied by a veiled figure in a white wedding dress together with Mary’s father Sir Guy. Sir Alexander was overjoyed to see such a feminine bride at Sebastian’s side, but when he lifted the veil it was Moll grinning back at him and she proceeded to run amok with much glee.

Moll congratulated Sir Alexander that he would now be a figure of note for having her as a daughter-in-law rather than being the obscure figure he had been to date.

Sir Guy, undoubtedly as part of the general ruse, asked to be freed from his promise to give money to Sebastian, offering in return to accept Sir Alexander’s retraction of his pledge. But Sir Alexander was determined to press on.

Sir Guy took this as the cue to spring the trap and to call in the real couple: Sebastian entered accompanied by Mary in a dark coloured wedding outfit. Sir Alexander was overjoyed and apologised for rejecting her previously.

The fact that it had been Sir Guy who had encountered and praised Moll’s character earlier made it more credible that he had been recruited to Moll’s scheme through that bond of admiration.

Moll pointed out that she had had a hand in the scheme, to which Sir Alexander replied that he could not condemn her. After batting away that remark, she pointed out that Sir Alexander had made the crucial mistake of assuming that she would have automatically consented to Sebastian’s advances.

She riddled when asked when she would herself marry, and Sir Alexander admitted that he had wronged her too. Trapdoor confessed to having worked with Sir Alexander to ensnare Moll, obliging the now very contrite Sir Alexander to apologise once again. Moll returned the money he had give her for her music tuition, but he insisted he would “thrice double” the payment to “make thy wrongs amends”, before he joyfully summarised how happily this eventful day had concluded.

Moll stayed behind to deliver the epilogue, which was altered towards the end, so that she said:

“The Roaring Girl here herself shall hence upon this stage give larger recompense”

instead of the text’s:

“The Roaring Girl herself, some few days hence, shall on this stage give larger recompense”.

This changed the original’s opaque reference to a reappearance by Mary Frith or the actor playing her, into a general statement about the character continuing to live on the stage beyond the bounds of this particular play.

Conclusions

The play that gave its name to the entire RSC season of female-centric drama was made relevant without cutting completely loose from its historical roots. The key was the production’s setting in the halfway house of the Victorian era.

An intelligent change to the casting of one scene improved on the original by giving Sir Guy Fitzallard a credible reason for assisting Moll.

The play teaches a moral lesson about making assumptions.

The Roaring Girl is a good girl really.

Banishing John Falstaff

Henry IV Part One, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 3 May 2014

The production began on a very sombre note in a candle-lit chapel with Henry (Jasper Britton) prostrated before a large crucifix (1.1). As he began his complaint, the distinctive figure of Richard II appeared briefly on the stage left balcony, indicating that the source of Henry’s malaise was his guilt at usurping his predecessor. This also implied that his self-characterisation as “shaken” referred to his bad conscience about Richard rather than the “civil broils” that were his immediate concern. Henry was immediately brought to our attention as psychologically complex and with depth of feeling and conscience.

However, over in the Prince’s apartment the mood was somewhat different (1.2). The dark chamber contained a large bed, on which Hal (Alex Hassell) bade goodbye to two wenches who had just finished servicing him. One was already visible sat astride him, while a second emerged from under the sheets. Hal went to open the chamber shutters, the sudden noise of which woke Falstaff (Antony Sher), who popped up from under the bedclothes at the foot of the bed. This sudden intrusion of daylight prompted Falstaff’s question about the time of day and his insistence that he was one of the “gentlemen of the shade” rather than a daytime person. Hal opened the window and eventually put a shirt on.

Antony Sher’s Falstaff sounded like the kind of upper-middle class gentleman that haunts the expensive seats at the RSC. It was possible to imagine him preparing for the role by drawing on decades of memories of rubbing shoulders with the Warwickshire/Oxfordshire bourgeoisie.

With the arrival of Poins (Sam Marks), the three agreed to rob at Gad’s Hill (pronounced “Gade’s Hill”). Hal was very excitable throughout the conversation but this changed when he was left alone at the end of the scene.

Hal’s soliloquy was framed in dramatic spotlight centre stage as he addressed the audience in a particularly portentous way with his master plan to live dissolutely and then abruptly revert to virtue. This was first indication of the emphasis that Part One would place on Hal’s change of attitude to Falstaff, together with Hal’s general transformation. Rather than an explanatory footnote to the scene, the speech was a foreboding of dark events to come.

Henry met with the rebels (1.3). The staging emphasised royal power with Henry facing the audience sat on the throne backed by his supporters while the northern insurrectionists kneeled before him. This created an obvious imbalance of status and power quite unlike the semicircle of chairs used in the Globe production.

The bleached blonde Hotspur (Trevor White) immediately looked like trouble. Anger and aggression boiled to the surface. A letter was thrown back into Hotspur’s face and the king rudely shouted at him that he did “belie” Mortimer.

This roughness and tension continued once Hotspur was alone with his relatives. When Hotspur would not stop talking he was wrestled to ground, forcing from him an apology “Good uncle, tell your tale; I have done”. Hotspur insisted on pursuing a course of revenge until he was pulled by the hair on the back of the head and told by Worcester (Antony Byrne) to follow his letter-borne instruction.

The action switched to Rochester as the carriers (Nicholas Gerard-Martin & Robert Gilbert) gathered in the darkness with their lanterns (2.1). A neat piece of technology allowed the turkeys inside their baskets to make realistic gobbling noises. The character usually known as Gadshill was here called Rakehell (Jonny Glynn) and received confirmation from the Chamberlain (Simon Yadoo) of the movements of the intended targets of the robbery.

The more active robbers ran around hiding from Falstaff and teasing him as the heist was prepared (2.2). Hal fell to the ground to listen for approach of the victims, prompting Falstaff’s joke about the levers that would be required to lift him from that position.

The nuns and the carriers were assaulted. The robbers took the money chest and tried to open it with a hacksaw, while Hal and Poins crept up on them in hoods and facemasks. The robbers were surprised and ran off, with Falstaff not even attempting to fight.

Hotspur was annoyed at a weasel-worded letter refusing him assistance (2.3). He threw it to the ground and shouted at it before being intercepted by Lady Percy (Jennifer Kirby). She was a good match for her husband, with the vague air of a tough man’s wife.

She wanted to know why he had been ignoring her. He began to leave but turned back when she mentioned that she had watched over him while he was asleep. She continued to talk sweetly to him and he almost fell for her charms, but then suddenly pulled away to question a servant.

Lady Percy then tried a more direct physical approach and went to grab his little finger, but he wrenched her arm and forced her to the ground, so that she was lying there when she asked him “Do you not love me?” He responded to this by picking her up and holding her aloft with one arm.

The Eastcheap set (and those of other locations) slid sideways onto the stage rather than using the basement trap doors (2.4). This was to make them compatible with the Barbican theatre and other touring venues. It seems that the RST has been fitted with basements and fly towers that cannot be used with its major productions that transfer to London and beyond.

Hal told Poins about his mixing with the common people, whom he jokingly referred to as “Tom, Dick (Harry) and Francis”, the extra name being thrown in case we had not realised what the expression meant.

Returned from his ignominious failure at Gad’s Hill, Falstaff began his fantastical account of the robbery and its aftermath. Hal raised a drink in cheers to the audience, indicating that he would indeed contradict Falstaff’s story for our imminent amusement. Hal stood on the money box to demand Falstaff’s excuse for his arrant lying.

Doll (Nia Gwynne) was present in Eastcheap in Part One, and touched Falstaff affectionately on occasions, preparing us for the full display of their relationship in Part Two.

Moving on to the play extempore, a chair was placed on a table to serve as a throne, while another chair was placed on a table just opposite. Falstaff repeatedly asked if Hal was afraid of the impending fight with the rebels and repeatedly put his hand on Hal’s shoulder, which the prince brushed off.

The comical role play between Falstaff and Hal moved to portentous conclusion. Hal said of Falstaff’s banishment “I do; I will”. At first he was jovial, but then placed his hands firmly on the armrests of the chair and appeared to have a change of heart, brushing a hand through his hair as if regretting his pronouncement. This was followed by Macbeth-like banging at the door.

Hal slapped the Chief Justice (Simon Thorp) when he came looking for Falstaff and Bardolph (Joshua Richards). This served to underline the animosity between the two. This invented business was included because of the subsequent references to the assault in Part Two.

Over in Wales, Hotspur thought he had forgotten the map on which the rebels were to divide their spoils, but Glendower (Joshua Richards) had pulled the huge map in behind him as he entered (3.1).

Glendower looked and sounded just like Sam Cairns’ version of the character at the Globe in 2010.

The King had summoned Hal for a serious talk (3.2). Hal began his excuses for his behaviour, but was pulled by the ear by the King towards the chapel kneeling pad. This marked the turning point at which Hal realised exactly how seriously his father took the issue of his behaviour. If the idea was latent when he had spoken to us earlier in soliloquy, this was the moment that he decided to act on his intentions.

In Eastcheap, Falstaff emptied dregs from abandoned cups into his own, displaying mild signs of delirium tremens (3.3). The speech in which Falstaff described his virtue but ironically undercut each statement with a humorous caveat was here divided between Falstaff and Bardolph so that his companion was the source of the more honest version rather than Falstaff himself. The advantage of this staging was questionable.

A running joke extended across both productions in which all references and allusions to Quickly’s husband and her married status were followed by communal coughing. In Part Two this accompanied references to Quickly (Paola Dionisotti) being a widow.

The inconsistency of the production’s modernisation of language could be seen in the way that the reference to “dowlas” was changed to “muslin”, but the price reference “eight shillings an ell” was left in. An audience trusted to work out that an “ell” is a unit of length could also be trusted to determine that dowlas was a cheap fabric.

Despite his realisation in the previous scene that his relationship with Falstaff had to change, Hal was here still in a good mood with Falstaff as he gave him his battle orders.

Falstaff’s last words in the scene “I could wish this tavern were my drum” were rounded off with the sound of drums heralding the entry of the more reliably martial Douglas (Sean Chapman) and Hotspur (4.1).

Hotspur continued his manic preparations for war brushing aside any concerns that their forces were underpowered.

On his way to fight the rebels, Falstaff asked Bardolph to fill a bottle of sack for him, which when handed over was seen to be comically enormous (4.2).

In an initial sign of his displeasure with Falstaff, Hal was visibly appalled at the condition of his pressed soldiers. Hal could also be seen taking exception to Falstaff’s callous attitude to these men deemed merely “food for powder”.

Hotspur was still raring to attack the King’s forces (4.3). Blount (Simon Thorp) brought an offer of pardon but Hotspur responded by lecturing him at length about the severity of their grievances.

Blount asked “Shall I return this answer to the King?” In a clever tweaking of the text, the following lines, in which Hotspur appears to relent “Not so, Sir Walter. We’ll withdraw awhile”, were given to Worcester. The sequence turned into Worcester being conciliatory, holding back Hotspur and calming his rage, while the young rebel continued to glower with frustrated anger.

This created consistency. Given how eager Hotspur was, the text’s version in which he made the concession looked out of character. It also created a parallel with events in the next scene.

At Shrewsbury Worcester met with the King and his party, including Hal (5.1). In a parallel with the Hotspur/Worcester sequence in 4.3, the King had to restrain Hal from offering to fight with Hotspur in single combat.

Hal showed a new censoriousness towards Falstaff by ordering him to be quiet and refrain from his inappropriate wisecracks. This textual indication of Hal’s changed attitude fitted in well with the other more subtle indications of Hal’s transformation created by directorial decisions.

Hal maintained that the peace offer would not be accepted, exuding an air of foreboding and intimating that the King’s judgment was wrong.

Given his previous pronouncements it was possible to detect some wishful thinking in Hal’s parting words to Falstaff: “Say thy prayers, and farewell” and “Why, thou owest God a death”. His wish was truly father to those thoughts.

This led into Falstaff’s “honour” soliloquy in which he showed us the scutcheon on his buckler to illustrate one of his metaphors.

Worcester decided not to tell Hotspur about the peace offer, realising that the King would inevitably find a way to punish their disobedience (5.2). Hotspur predictably whooped with delight when he heard that the fight was on.

In the midst of the raging battle a desperate Hal asked to borrow Falstaff’s sword (5.3). He offered him his pistol instead, handing over a leather container. Hal discovered that it held yet another bottle of sack, which he angrily discarded, building on his previous animosity to become truly outraged at Falstaff’s inappropriate antics.

Douglas fought the King to the ground, but Hal rushed in to stand over his father, threatening the Scot with his sword, after which Douglas skulked away (5.4).

There was a fantastically fast double sword fight between Hal and Hotspur. Hal lost both his swords and ended up defending himself with his buckler. He regained a sword and was given a second one, continuing to fight without a buckler. Hal eventually dealt Hotspur fatal blows to the stomach. Just before, Falstaff had apparently been cut down upstage and was lying motionless.

Hal honoured Hotspur in death, holding his sword hilt over him and paying him his due respects. Then Hal found Falstaff and did the same but with a subtly different emphasis.

Hal’s contemplation of the supposedly dead Falstaff culminated in him raising his sword over his body, looking as if he would honour Falstaff with praises as he had just done with Hotspur. But he hinted that he was not displeased to see his companion dead, saying: “O, I should have a heavy miss of thee if I were much in love with vanity”, which was crucially caveated; speaking of the battle dead he referred to those other than Falstaff as the “many dearer”.

This was undercut when Falstaff rose up. At first he struggled to right himself, wobbling like beetle on its back. When Hal saw Falstaff alive he took a step backwards in shock and pointed his sword at him as if he were a demonic illusion. Hal ordered Falstaff to carry Douglas away on his back.

This was a very interesting trajectory for the Hal/Falstaff relationship because it effectively cleared the way for the friendlier rapport between them at the start of Part Two.

The concluding scene saw a large map spread out on the stage on which the King, victorious over his immediate enemies, was planning his further campaigns against the rebels (5.5).

 

Henry IV Part Two, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 3 May 2014

The “switch off phones” announcement merged into an exhortation to “Switch off your phone… open your ears”, the latter phrase being the first three words of the Induction to Part Two. The remainder was spoken by the character of Rumour (Antony Byrne), a man looking like a member of the stage crew complete with a Rolling Stones tongue logo t-shirt, picking up on the line “upon my tongues continual slanders ride”.

Rumour used his phone to photograph the audience and the set, then began his speech as multiple copies of the #rumour hashtag were projected onto the back wall, establishing a connection between traditional rumour mill and contemporary social media. The phrase “Open your ears” was also flashed across it and spoken in several languages.

After Northumberland (Sean Chapman) had digested the news of his faction’s defeat and the death of Hotspur (1.1), the mood and location changed.

Falstaff was proudly displaying the medal he had won for his services at Shrewsbury when his Page returned with his water pot (1.2). The boy was very small, justifying Falstaff’s description of him as “fitter to be worn in my cap”. The Page mentioned that Hal had struck the Lord Chief Justice, which to create consistency across the productions had been shown in Part One.

Sher continued his impression of the kind of upper middle class gent so common in the audience at Stratford.

The boring, featureless exposition of 1.3 quickly gave way to some more London-based comedy as Quickly gave Fang (Youssef Kerkour) and Snare (Martin Bassindale) their last-minute instructions about arresting Falstaff (2.1).

There was a brilliant moment of textual awareness. Mistress Quickly mentioned in all innocence her “case so openly known to the world” upon which Fang and Snare each gave a brief downward glance to bring out the sex joke in that line. In keeping with that theme, Quickly was also referred to as “Quick Lay”.

The fight in which Fang and Snare failed to detain Falstaff was not very convincing and was interrupted by the arrival of the Chief Justice, the ensuing dealings with Quickly providing another outing for the running joke about her marriage, this time with everyone coughing at her being a “poor widow”.

Hal and Poins returned from playing tennis and stood around shirtless for a while before getting dressed (2.2). Hal’s reminder of a point already made briefly by Falstaff, that the Page had been a gift from Hal to him, was a sign that their friendship had been rekindled. But the first mention of Falstaff’s name caused Hal to look down at the ground grimly, hinting that all was not completely well.

The arrival of Bardolph and the Page was the occasion of some more winsome child acting. Bardolph was paid money for his silence about Hal and Poins’ trick on Falstaff, but the Page stole the cash and ran off, turning his last phrase in the scene “I will govern it” into his bold statement as he snatched the money bag away from his companion.

The scene showing Lady Percy’s misgivings about Northumberland’s intention to return to war was remarkable for the fact that Nia Gwynne (Doll Tearsheet) played Lady Northumberland in a change to the usual doubling of this role with Mistress Quickly (2.3).

The action returned to Eastcheap, where once again Francis (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) popped up out of the trap door hatch, calling “anon anon, Sir!” to an impatient, unseen customer (2.4).

The private room where Falstaff was being entertained was laid out on a small platform. This looked like another concession to the requirements of touring the production. On first sight, it looked cramped and would prove so later on. The confinement of the scene’s action within such a small space on the large RST thrust looked very odd.

Nia Gwynne’s Doll was sick into a bowl and comforted by Quickly. Falstaff insisted that Pistol (Antony Byrne) be admitted, confirming “It is mine ensign” rather than “ancient”.

Pistol was wide-eyed and with his hair on end to create an alarming look. He entered with a bang as his pistols went off and engaged in his sexual innuendoes.

Doll forced Pistol down onto the ground, but he soon overcame, putting a knife to her throat exclaiming “Have we not Hiren here?”

Seeing that Doll was in danger, Quickly disarmed him as he commented “These be good humours”. Pistol went from the threatening to the ridiculous. He dropped his trousers and after Doll suggested he should be thrust downstairs, he lewdly asked “Thrust him? Downstairs?” looking at his bulging underpant codpiece.

Pistol wrapped the Eastcheap crew up in a curtain and pulled on it like reins to curb them like “pampered jades of Asia” before being forced out the back of the small set.

Doll questioned Falstaff about Hal and Poins: each of them popped their head up over the rear curtain when mentioned.

They eventually played their trick by pretending to be servers. The first meeting between Hal and Falstaff contained a slight undercurrent of animosity, but nothing to overt dislike on Hal’s part.

Falstaff was called to the court and left the room platform, but paused on the main stage to cry silently with his face in his hand, an extratextual moment. Bardolph saw this and returned to the room to fetch Doll, which is part of the text. She comforted Falstaff in his distress, providing additional weight to the tenderness of their relationship as well as highlighting the vulnerability behind Falstaff’s boasting. The whole sequence provided a neat explanation for Doll’s summons.

Mistress Quickly fell asleep in a chair and the room fell dark and silent.

The third act followed on seamlessly from the previous scene. Wrapped in a dark sheet and looking distinctly unwell, the King entered through the back of the Eastcheap platform as Quickly dozed. His lines to the Page cut.

Henry entered the world of Eastcheap so that when he spoke to us saying “How many thousand of my poorest subjects are at this hour asleep!” he was able to point to Quickly as an example as she snored.

The King walked off the front of the platform to move downstage, which differentiated him from the others who had all left the room through its back door. This suggested that his presence here was illusory: that he was theatrically but not physically inside an Eastcheap tavern.

The interval came at the end of the scene after the King had spoken with Warwick and Surrey about defeating the rebels.

The second half began in Gloucestershire, the refreshed audience encountering the delightful Oliver Ford Davies as Shadow conversing with Silence (3.2). Silence (Jim Hooper) was wearing mittens like a child and was equally childlike in his ignorance, or rather forgetfulness. Shadow asked various questions about their mutual friends and relations, but senescent Silence did not seem to know whom he was talking about.

There was a running gag involving Shadow’s leg shaking whenever he became excited. He first began to tremble when reminiscing about the “bona robas” of his student days, and subsequently when remembering Jane Nightwork a little while after.

The pressed men appeared: Mouldy (Simon Yadoo) was diseased, Wart (Leigh Quinn) crept along the ground and Bullcalf (Youssef Kerkour) was predictably big.

In another annoying textual change, Mouldy said “If it please you” rather than the equally comprehensible “an’t”. If a production starts running scared of the language, then where does it stop?

Bullcalf’s self-correction of his illness from “cold” to “cough” was made to sound like the actor correcting a misremembered line, an effect that was cleverly rendered.

Falstaff managed to leverage the full quotient of innuendo from his exhortation “No more of that Master Shallow…”

Wart was given a gun but could barely hold it upright. Shadow demonstrated its correct use and charged around brandishing it threateningly, ending his display of martial prowess by striking the butt firmly on the ground, at which point the gun went off.

Falstaff communed with the audience, telling us about Shadow’s youth when he was known as “Mandrake”, a remark which prompted a ripple of laughter that Falstaff gratefully acknowledged. He appeared to have found the audience’s level when they snickered at his comment that “he came ever in the rearward of the fashion” with more chortling and Falstaff relishing his apparently unintended double entendre.

Westmoreland (Youssef Kerkour) tricked the rebels into thinking their demands had been met and that they had won (4.1), only for John of Lancaster (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) to confirm the deal, watch the rebel army disperse, and then arrest the traitors (4.2).

Coalville (Robert Gilbert) had been mentioned by name in an earlier scene to give more credence to his sudden appearance in 4.3 as Falstaff helped mop up the remainders of the fleeing rebel forces.

Falstaff called out after the departing John of Lancaster “I would you had but the wit”, making plain his dislike of Hal’s cold-blooded sibling.

This thought led Falstaff into his great paean to sack and its warming, inflammatory effects. He took a deep draught from a clay pot before expounding on each element of its “twofold operation”.

Antony Sher revelled in exploring the physicality of Falstaff’s reaction to sherry. This portrayal was different to that given by Roger Allam in the Globe version, which was slightly more clinical.

The text’s “sherris” was emended rather disappointingly to “sherry”. Sherry is something that is drunk at Christmas, usually in a modest, restrained way. Gourmand Falstaff should really drink something more exotic and tinged with his characteristic wildness, and the word “sherris” fits the bill perfectly.

To add insult to injury, the culmination of Falstaff’s fine speech was also pinched and clipped to deprive it of its full glory. We were left with:

If I had a thousand sons, the first [humane] principle I would teach them should be to [forswear thin potations, and to] addict themselves to sack”.

A beautifully balanced phrase was spoilt by the clumsy hand of the editor.

The King looked very ill and was helped in by his entourage. His surprising reaction on hearing the good news of the rebels’ defeat was to collapse sideways, before being carried to rest in another chamber (4.4).

The King was put to bed with the crown next to him (4.5). The scene provided an efficient but predictable staging of Hal’s appropriation of the crown and his subsequent contrition.

Shallow continued to entertain Falstaff and friends (5.1). Shallow’s repetition of “no excuse” was accompanied by the repeated unloading of money bags, presumably either their pay for recruiting men or bribes paid to them to be excused from military service.

News that the King had “walked the way of nature” was soon followed by the new king being revealed on his throne (5.2). This dramatic reveal was very effective, much more so than having him walk onstage. The text added a reference to the Chief Justice being assaulted: he stated that Hal had “struck me in an Eastcheap tavern” rather than the original “my very seat of judgment”.

Mad Pistol delivered the news of Hal’s accession which was received with great joy by Falstaff (5.3). There was a touching moment at the end of the scene once the stage had emptied of those keen to get to London, Pistol sat with Silence and began to sing “Where is the life that late I led?” and Silence, who had previously been on good singing form, joined in with him.

The arresting officers crudely snatched and discarded the red cushion that Doll had stuffed up her dress to fake a pregnancy and thus escape the law (5.4).

Falstaff readied himself centre stage as the regal procession entered via the stage right walkway and proceeded upstage (5.5). The King entered and walked on past the entreating Falstaff, but then turned round, looked back at his old friend and denounced him. Falstaff showed no sign of upset or shock. Possibly this was recognition and he was just saving face in front of the others.

As we were left to take in the culmination of the subplot, the Page wandered onstage at the end as the lights went down.

Conclusions

The overall trajectory of the Hal/Falstaff relationship was determined by the relative lack of interaction between them in Part Two, so that Hal’s overt statements in Part One were heavily reinforced by subtle hints throughout both parts, preparing the way for his renunciation of Falstaff at the end of the second instalment.

Neither production made use of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s fly tower or basement lift, possibly to facilitate Barbican transfer. If this is to be the pattern for major productions, which have to fit the Barbican, then what was the point of these impressive capabilities?

Spectre

Arden of Faversham, Swan Stratford, 2 May 2014

The stage was full of action as the audience entered. Arden sat at a desk while his overalled workers packed the novelties imported by his firm into boxes which were then carried aloft by a hoist. The back of the set consisted of a large painting of an English village which was being dusted by someone whom we would later discover was Susan, Alice Arden’s maid.

This anonymous Elizabethan tragedy was played through in 1h 50m without an interval.

After a brief expository conversation between Franklin (Geoffrey Freshwater) and Arden (Ian Redford) about his wife’s infidelity, we met Alice (Sharon Small), the object of his suspicions (1). She was nervously comic and this set tone for the rest of the performance.

The production’s basic problem was that by starting in this comic vein and assiduously maintaining it, the tragic side of the play was neglected so that its conclusion felt extraneous. The mood was kept as jolly as possible for as long as possible for fear of confronting the audience with unpalatable ‘difficult’ drama.

But this clashed with the ending in which Arden is brutally and repeatedly stabbed and the guilty parties, along with one innocent person, are executed.

Characterising Alice as a sitcom-style frustrated housewife did not sit well with her subsequent burning at the stake.

The jokiness of Alice’s explanation of her calling out Mosby’s name in her sleep was on one level patently funny, but served as a pretext to render the entire play as comedy. There was very little indication that this was the “lamentable and true tragedy” of Arden of Faversham.

The characterisation of the other main cast followed this line.

Michael (Ian Bonar), the forlorn lover of Susan (Elspeth Brodie), had been recruited by Alice to kill Arden. But his ominous “I’ll see he shall not live above a week” did not feel like a credible threat.

Alice’s lover Mosby (Keir Charles) was a wide boy in a purple suit. This sub-comical persona positioned him as a figure of fun.

Clarke the painter (Christopher Middleton) was a ridiculous figure whose dull clothes, glasses and red facial disfigurement made him into a laughable misfit rather than a sinister conspirator. His lust for Susan, who was lurking all the while under the table cleaning and overhearing their conversations, was played as ludicrous. Clarke gave Alice and Mosby poison to put in Arden’s breakfast.

Alice’s “See where my husband comes” was funny and was soon followed by the suspicious Arden disarming Mosby by taking, not a sword, but a handgun that was stuffed down the back of his trousers.

Alice brought Arden the poisoned breakfast and she and Mosby sat and watched him eat it out of the corner of their eyes. Arden noticed there was something odd about the food and put it aside. Alice threw the bowl to the ground accusing her husband of suspecting her of poisoning him, a charge she tried to refute by taking a spoon and trying to eat it up herself.

Greene (Tom Padley), one of the tenant’s dispossessed by Arden’s land deal, wore an Adidas tracksuit that identified him as low class. His grudge against Arden made it easy for Alice to get him to procure her husband’s murder.

Mosby criticised Alice’s involvement of too many people in their plans. Susan was produced for Clarke to paw at. Alice’s comment that Clarke had made Susan blush was underlined by the way her cheeks were painted with red blushes making her look almost like a doll. There was also something doll-like about the way she was escorted away, crying uncomfortably.

Greene and Bradshaw the goldsmith (Colin Anthony Brown) met two lowlifes Black Will (Jay Simpson) and Shakebag (Tony Jayawardena) in the street (2). Bradshaw, who was wearing cycling clothes faintly reminiscent of a city commuter, did not want to be associated with Black Will and gestured to Greene that they should continue without stopping to talk to them.

But Black Will helped Bradshaw out by identifying the villain who had sold him the stolen gold plate, which because it had been found in Bradshaw’s possession had led to him being wrongly accused of the theft. Bradshaw’s long description of the villain was cut because of its doublet references.

However, Black Will held back the line to Shakebag about spending the money from the sale of the stolen goods until after Bradshaw had left so that it seemed that he had deceived him. Greene had given Bradshaw a letter to deliver to Alice, which would later be used to prove his complicity in the murder plot.

Greene paid the murderers to kill Arden and they enthusiastically took up the assignment.

Michael, now facing a challenge for Susan’s affections from Greene, read out a pleading letter to her which together with an Arden wind-up novelty was ready to be sealed in a padded envelope to be sent to his love (3).

Arden went into Franklin’s London house and the murderers waited outside. Shakebag produced a large jemmy which had previously been stuffed down back of his trousers. He practised swinging it and accidentally hit Black Will with it. This replaced the original text’s shop window accidentally dropped onto Black Will’s head. Shakebag tried to revive Black Will during which time Arden left the house and passed by them.

Greene and the murderers rounded on Michael and forced him to help them with their plan to murder Arden that night by leaving the house doors unlocked. From this point forth Black Will had a bandage round his head that served as reminder of the previous comic mishap.

Michael’s pangs of conscience, which we had previously seen, now obliged him to change his mind (4). He feared that the murderers would kill him too. His panic woke Arden and Franklin and the doors were found to be unlocked, after which they were secured.

The murderers entered with the stage in a total blackout to find the doors locked (5). The complete darkness was very odd and completely unnecessary. Dim light would have been understood to represent total darkness and the result was simply to create confusion. The sound effect of the door being tried was insufficient. This staging was perhaps made necessary by the set not allowing for the presence of a door, but one could have been set up temporarily.

Arden told Franklin about his dream in which he was captured like a deer (6). The original text’s reference to a “toil” was changed to the more comprehensible “net”. Arden’s description of his dream with its imagery of encroaching danger could have been given greater ominous weight to indicate the darker tone of the end of the play, but it felt like an intrusion into its overall gaiety.

The murderers intercepted Michael and he invented a story to excuse his failure to leave the house unlocked (7). Black Will put his knife to Michael’s ear as if ready to cut it off saying “This shall be your penance” but instead pulled the knife away and, laughing at his own joke, invited him to the Salutation inn.

As if to indicate his ambition to supplant Alice’s husband, Mosby sat at Arden’s desk for his soliloquy (8). This had overtones of Henry IV talking of how poor people sleep soundly and Macbeth’s paranoid desire to kill all his potential foes, but the speech fell flat because the character had not been previously presented to us as someone with that kind of tragic depth.

Bringing out the full comic potential of the initial scenes smothered the first inkling that this play was a tragedy that would end in multiple deaths. The audience was being fed comedy like sugar with the result that it developed a craving for more, to the exclusion of more nourishing dramatic sustenance.

Alice entered reading, not a prayer book to suggest piety, but a gaudily covered Bible: this did not suggest the level of seriousness that the sequence demanded. Alice appeared to have changed her mind about the murder of her husband, and Mosby was angry at this betrayal. When she tore the pages out of the Bible, this and their sudden seriousness looked barely credible.

They kissed and made up just as Bradshaw brought in a letter from Greene informing her of their failure to kill Arden in London. Bradshaw was offered a cup of beer, and he ran off mouthing “a cup of beer” as if really grateful for it.

Rifle

The murderers positioned themselves ready to attack up on the balcony, but fell into a comic fight until Greene intervened to refocus them on the job (9). While Arden talked with Franklin down below, Black Will put together a sniper’s rifle but failed to have it ready in time. Their complete ineptitude was hilariously highlighted by Shakebag consulting the rifle’s instruction leaflet.

Lord Cheiny (Joe Bannister) and his Man (Peter Bray) came running in wearing lycra running gear. The presence of multiple witnesses meant that the would-be murderers had missed their chance again. Their bickering attracted the attention of the men on stage who looked up, prompting the murderers to conceal themselves by standing still like posts or trees.

Lord Cheiny invited Arden to dine with him on Sheppey, which the murderers overheard providing them with their next opportunity for assassination.

Arden set off for Sheppey, allowing Greene to show Alice the poisoned crucifix he had prepared as a device to kill her husband (10). Clarke wore blue latex protective gloves to handle the toxic crucifix and he made Alice put on pair as well when she took it from him.

The stage filled with dense smoke to represent the fog as the Ferryman (Ken Nwosu) escorted Arden and Franklin across to Sheppey (11).

Shakebag and Black Will also became lost in the dense fog (12). After hearing the faint sound of Arden’s party passing by, Shakebag fell into the large open stage trap representing the dank marshy ditch and emerged covered in mud. He was helped out by the Ferryman who informed them that they had once again missed Arden.

Greene, Mosby and Alice discovered that this latest attempt had failed and the murderers vowed to catch Arden on his return. The plot in which Alice and Mosby were to confront Arden arm-in-arm was cut and its setup was therefore cut from the end of the scene.

The character of Dick Reede became in this production a Mrs Reede (Lizzie Hopley), who intercepted Arden to complain of about being evicted from her land (13). She had been previously shown trying to catch his attention, so that her approach here was the successful culmination of her previous strenuous efforts.

The fatal curse/premonition by Reede that the land Arden had taken would “be ruinous and fatal unto thee” was underlined by the back of the set turning dark red to suggest bloodshed and the ominous hand of fate.

But set amid the comedy of the failed murderers, this foreshadowing of the play’s tragic ending felt bolted on, an intrusion of seriousness into the continuing sitcom.

The entire sequence in which Arden discovered Mosby and Alice together and the fight between them, also involving Black Will and Shakebag, was cut. This was possibly to reduce the production’s running time, or perhaps it was felt that the elderly Arden could not take the murderers on in direct combat using modern weapons without killing them. The character of Arden was probably originally conceived as a younger and more vigorous than the man presented here.

The murderers met up with Alice and Michael and a plot was laid to kill Arden that night in the house (14). A dining table was set out.

The reference in the text to “tables” was changed to make it clear they were going to play “cards”. In keeping with the modern setting there was no mention of horses or Arden’s counting house.

Mosby brought Arden back and pretended to have fallen out with Alice with the result that Arden then begged him to stay. They drank champagne and sat down to play cards, while the murderers gathered downstage and watched.

Michael suggested that Black Will should creep between his legs which resulted in Michael sitting astride him and both edged forward to sneak up on Arden. This was inherently ridiculous and showed that even at this late stage, the production was intent of milking every last laugh from the plot.

On the key phrase “Now I can take you” Black Will wrapped a towel around Arden’s head, dragged him downstage and then stabbed him.

After repeated stabbings by the murderers, Alice seized a knife and stabbed Arden too.

This really was the point at which the comedy should have ceased.

Instead of placing the body in the counting house, they put the body in a large cardboard box and used the warehouse winch (no dining room should be without one) to hoist the box up into the air. Susan and Alice tried unsuccessfully to clean the blood from the floor, so rushes were strewn over it.

The dinner guests arrived and were plied with drinks. The asides between Michael and Susan in which he planned to poison Alice were cut.

This was to focus attention on the blood soaking out of the bottom of the cardboard box. This drew excited audience attention as some individuals pointed upwards at it to alert their neighbours.

The conspirators managed to persuade the guests to leave and then brought the box down. As they did this snow began to fall along the edges of the stage so that this zone represented the outside where the body was being deposited while inside represented the house. As the box was lowered, it was tipped on its side and the body dumped on the snow to represent its disposal outside, after which the conspirators moved back inside.

The watch entered the house, prompting Alice to act innocent by asking them if they had brought her husband home, but they had in fact come for Black Will.

Franklin announced that Arden’s body had been found despite the fact that it had just sat at the edge of the stage unseen and undiscovered by anyone else. This was a glaring hole in the staging. Franklin produced the hand towel and knife which would be the main evidence against the conspirators, but these had not lain with the body at any point and their appearance now looked strange.

Franklin pieced together the evidence which pointed towards Alice’s guilt against which she could only offer feeble explanations.

The separate scenes for Shakebag (15) and Black Will (17) were cut so that we then saw Alice’s and Mosby’s confessions (16). The actors picked up chairs and sat on them spread around the stage to rue their fate as isolated individuals rather than as a group conversation (18). A voice announced that Mosby and Susan were to be executed, Alice was to be burnt and Michael along with (the completely innocent) Bradshaw were to be put to death.

The Epilogue was spoken by Alice rather than Franklin. She explained the gruesome fates of those who had initially escaped, setting the final tragic note on proceedings.

Nothing in the previous 105 minutes had suggested this bleak conclusion so that it appeared incongruously tacked on at the end.

Conclusions

The RSC did not know what to do with this not-Shakespeare play. It was scared of putting audiences off with an unfamiliar antiquated work and so tried as far as possible to make it appear modern and ‘relevant’, a process which did not do the play justice. Turned into a semi-sitcom, Arden of Faversham was wrenched completely out of its historical context so that residual faithfulness to the text and story clashed with the production’s tacit desire to do away with them completely.

There is a spectre haunting the Swan Theatre: the spectre of One Man, Two Guvnors.

Hair

Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 19 October 2013

A coffin rested on a stand centre stage before a backdrop of a Gothic arched interior, which was projected onto six overlapping beaded curtains, three each side of the upstage area.

Ten minutes before the start the Duchess of Gloucester (Jane Lapotaire) was escorted to the coffin, her widow’s weeds and faltering progress indicating her extremity of grief. She knelt on a stool and draped herself over one end and rested there.

Up in the gallery three women sang as the funeral crowd gathered. Gaunt (Michael Pennington) and York (Oliver Ford Davies) comforted the Duchess of Gloucester before drawing aside.

Richard swept in to adjudicate the dispute between Bolingbroke (Nigel Lindsay) and Mowbray (Antony Byrne) (1.1).

David Tennant’s Richard was a striking visual presence in his long hair and flowing gown, yet the most salient aspect of his character, present from the start and maintained throughout, was his total unlikeability.

He spoke with an affected accent, exuded disdain for those around him far stronger than regal distance, and had a habit of either looking down his nose at people or talking while facing away from them.

Despite the hair and feminine gowns, his cold aggression and strutting created an ever-present atmosphere of menace.

The strange accent was patently not the result of David Tennant’s inability to speak convincing RP; it was nevertheless deliberately contrived to enhance the impression that the king’s regal airs were a front.

Tennant’s Richard exemplified the ideas that are expounded during his downfall: that his self-image is as brittle as a mirror and that in being king he had merely been allowed to play “a little scene, to monarchize”. Right from the start, this Richard was playing a part: an inauthentic character whose fakery was bolstered by his grim determination to preserve his authority.

Richard talked to Gaunt and summoned Bolingbroke and Mowbray. They knelt before him with their backs to the audience. Richard offered a limp hand when saying “Yet one but flatters us”, before reading from a paper handed to him about “the cause you come”.

The guests that had gathered for the wake became increasingly disturbed by the vehemence of the dispute, particularly when Bolingbroke accused Mowbray of being behind Gloucester’s death. At this point many of them, including York and his Duchess, left with huffs of disgust.

At 1.1.107 Richard went to confer with Bushy (Sam Marks), Bagot (Jake Mann) and Green (Marcus Griffiths), his favourites, before returning to remark sarcastically “How high a pitch his resolution soars”.

Something about Mowbray’s denial of his involvement in Gloucester’s death was unconvincing. Saying that he had “neglected my sworn duty in that case” was a vague, evasive statement.

Richard wanted them to make peace: “This we prescribe, though no physician”. He lingered over the four syllables of “physician” as if conscious of its metre. This could have been seen as his awareness of his own theatricality in ‘monarchizing’. When he said “Our doctors say this is no time to bleed” he claque of favourites applauded sycophantically.

Gaunt and Richard tried to get the adversaries to throw down the gages they had both picked up.

Mowbray and Bolingbroke ignored these entreaties. Their enmity reached a high point as they growled at each other nose to nose, causing Richard to pound his warder onto Gloucester’s coffin and exclaim that he was “not born to sue but to command”. This outburst and accompanying loud bang demonstrated that below Richard’s outward serenity there flowed a dark undercurrent of intemperate violence.

Richard ordered them to settle their dispute through trial by combat at Coventry.

The others exited to leave Gaunt alone with the Duchess of Gloucester still leaning over her husband’s coffin (1.2). Jane Lapotaire was excellent as she rose to castigate Gaunt for “suff’ring thus thy brother to be slaughtered”. Her tongue curdled the air as she pronounced the phrases “fell Mowbray” and “butcher Mowbray”.

Then, imagining Mowbray’s defeat at Bolingbroke’s hands, she viciously relished the prospect of this revenge being visited on the “caitiff recreant”.

Her vacillations and faltering memory became in Lapotaire’s performance the painful witnesses of the Duchess’s extreme emotional distress that exacerbated her physical frailty. Her condition in this scene made the subsequent news of her death entirely credible. Her repeated “Desolate, desolate” was particularly powerful.

And with a quaint device a gantry was flown in bearing the throne (1.3). Richard and his party entered the gantry from the sides once it was in position above the stage. He sat on the throne with his queen to his right and his favourites to his left. The projection became brighter to indicate the outdoor location.

Bolingbroke and Mowbray were summoned to fight. They appeared in full armour and had holy water sprinkled on them. Bolingbroke was shorter, squatter and rougher than both Richard and Mowbray. His short hair formed a distinct contrast to Richard’s long plait.

Bolingbroke asked to kiss Richard’s hand. Bagot whispered in Richard’s ear after which, presumably on his favourite’s advice, the king agreed to descend, at which point all the favourites applauded him.

Richard descended the stairway and kissed Bolingbroke on the cheek. Despite Richard’s physical proximity to Bolingbroke, he still radiated emotional coldness.

Bolingbroke addressed “I take my leave of you” to Richard who, now at the end of their exchange, offered his hand for Bolingbroke to kiss and then returned to the gantry, pointedly ignoring Mowbray as he passed him.

Mowbray’s address to Richard was spoken downstage facing the audience. Its cold reception from those onstage and Richard’s cool response indicated the extent to which Mowbray was out of favour.

The combatants were given long swords and began to fight. After some brief skirmishes, Richard dropped his warder casually without drawing attention to himself. As king, he expected his every gesture to be noticed anyway. However, Bolingbroke and Mowbray did not notice and so the Lord Marshall (Simon Thorp) had to intervene to separate them.

Richard descended again and went upstage to confer with his favourites. He called in Gaunt, who would later reference this conference. The Lord Marshall twice ordered the trumpets to sound a flourish in order to fill out the time. But the second time he gestured at them to strike up, Richard immediately returned, forcing the Lord Marshall to signal them to stop and thereby injecting a note of comedy into the proceedings.

Richard exiled Bolingbroke but permanently banished Mowbray, who did not accept this punishment with good grace.

Mowbray objected to his banishment, but Richard simply turned away from him, leaving the duke to address his futile complaint to Richard’s back. In frustration at this snub, at 1.3.171 Mowbray exclaimed “What! Is thy sentence then but speechless death” and grabbed Richard’s hand as he passed.

Richard quickly retracted his hand and The Lord Marshall drew his sword on Mowbray in response to this apparent treason. Richard did not respond to the affront, but merely extended his hand out of the way as if to say ‘I’ve noticed this insult, so watch it; but I’m not that bothered as my people will deal with you’. An overt reaction would have been beneath him, but his casual response to the buffeting carried a threat of heavy retribution.

Richard took the Lord Marshall’s drawn sword and made the combatants swear not to plot against him. There was a feverishness to this demand, resulting from Richard’s cognisance of Mowbray’s barely concealed animosity towards him.

Bolingbroke offered Mowbray a chance to admit his involvement in Gloucester’s death. Mowbray paused at length before refusing to do so.

Seeing Gaunt’s tears at his son’s sentence, Richard deducted four years from Bolingbroke’s exile, producing yet more sycophantic applause from his favourites. But Bolingbroke’s stern reaction to this seemed more a critique of royal prerogative than gratitude for the reprieve.

Gaunt tried to cheer him up, but Bolingbroke could only look at the ground. Bolingbroke bid farewell by touching England’s “sweet soil”. It was possible that the relative restraint of this gesture was meant to stick in our minds, later to be contrasted with the elaborate effusion of Richard’s greeting to the same soil on his return from Ireland.

Mirror

Richard was found changing clothes while looking in a mirror (1.4). This early instance of Richard with a mirror was a nod and a wink to those familiar with the play, pointing towards the cracked mirror in the deposition scene.

As Aumerle (Oliver Rix) approached, Richard’s favourites turned and whispered to the king conspiratorially. Richard broke off from the huddle, with his first words “We did observe” forming a reply to them. He asked Aumerle slyly about what had happened when he had accompanied Bolingbroke on his departure. His brief, terse questions indicated his suspicion, while his preening in the mirror spoke of his vanity.

Tennant did a good job of conveying the sense of the potentially opaque phrase “whether our kinsman come to see his friends”, making it plain that Richard saw this possible visitation as a threat.

Richard mocked Bolingbroke, but became angry when remarking “As were our England in reversion his” revealing Richard’s fears of being usurped.

He decided to go to Ireland just before news came of Gaunt’s illness. He held up his own garment to comment that dead Gaunt’s riches would “make coats to deck our soldiers”.

Gaunt was visibly haggard and feverish when he was helped onstage by York (2.1). A chair was provided for him, but initially Gaunt stood as the consistently grumpy York explained how Richard would not heed good advice as his ear was “stopped with other, flatt’ring sounds”.

Gaunt launched into the iconic “royal throne of kings” speech while York stood close by and nodded vigorously in agreement with the various elements of his long complaint.

The royal party entered with a flourish on the stage left walkway. Richard’s initial cold greeting to Gaunt developed into pity and witty sparring between them, until Gaunt launched into his second long speech attacking Richard directly. He sat to save his strength before telling Richard “I see thee ill” and pointing at the king’s favourites to single them out as “those physicians that first wounded thee”.

Richard interrupted him, angrily dragged Gaunt from his chair and grabbed him forcefully round the neck, thereby amplifying his threat to remove Gaunt’s head “from thy unreverent shoulders”. The king’s anger turned to physical aggression, possibly with a conscious determination to shorten the life of this “Lunatic lean-witted fool”.

Gaunt weakened noticeably at the end of his final rant at Richard and was taken way upstage right. Richard pursued him, urging “And let them die that age and sullens have”, words that seemed to express the intention behind his rough treatment of the sick man.

York tried to assuage the angry king, but Richard only delighted in picking him up on his comparison between Gaunt and Hereford, sarcastically implying that Gaunt was similarly disliked.

Northumberland (Sean Chapman) returned to announce that Gaunt had died. This was all the more shocking because Gaunt was visibly younger than York, which made his passing appear very untimely and far from the result of natural causes.

York knelt in prayer and rued the death of his brother. Richard approached and put a comforting hand on his back. The apparent respect behind his comforting references to how “The ripest fruit first falls” and “our pilgrimage” was undercut when Richard brusquely clapped him on the back and turned away with a curt “So much for that”. Tennant’s emotionally cold interpretation of Richard was fully warranted by the character’s behaviour at this point.

Richard dispatched his favourites to seize Gaunt’s property, tersely dismissing York’s objections to the disinheritance of Bolingbroke.

Bushy, Bagot and Green returned with silverware and other goods as the expropriation went ahead.

As the royal party began to leave, Richard enjoined his sour-faced queen (Emma Hamilton) to “Be merry”. This highlighted her depressed mood, of which she spoke herself in the next scene.

Northumberland and his associates were left behind to criticise the injustice of Richard’s rule, after which Northumberland revealed that Bolingbroke had returned from exile and had landed at Ravenspurgh.

The back wall projection showed a white hart as the queen entered with Bushy and Bagot (2.2). The queen’s premonitions captured well the sense of impending disaster. Bushy and Bagot had brought with them a set of perspective pictures and a cylindrical mirror viewer, all of which had probably recently been looted from Gaunt’s house.

After trying to conceal the objects behind their backs, they found an immediate use for them. They showed her a series of images reflected in the viewer, hastily skipping over one, possibly because of its racy content, as they explained that her grief was similar to an optical illusion.

Green arrived with news of Bolingbroke’s landing, which confirmed the queen in her dark forebodings.

York was still ill-tempered, complaining that “nothing lives but crosses, cares and grief”. He became the dismal embodiment of the grief of which the queen had spoken.

The death of the Duchess of Gloucester brought more gloom with York ruminating “How shall we do for money for these wars?” As he continued with his preparations for Richard’s Irish war, he turned to Bushy, Bagot and Green and asked “Gentlemen, will you go muster men?” They shrugged their shoulders and looked clueless in response, producing more despondency in York as he walked off in his habitual grump. His grumble that “everything is left at six and seven” as he disappeared off the walkway, tinged his departure with comedy.

The favourites were left alone. Realising that the tide of events was turning against them, Green and Bushy decided to seek refuge in Bristol while Bagot left for Ireland.

Brambles were projected at the back as Bolingbroke, now returned to England, and Northumberland made their way along the road (2.3). Percy (Edmund Wiseman) soon caught up with them and was introduced to Bolingbroke.

At this stage, Bolingbroke looked like a reasonable successor to Richard. He had personal warmth and his greetings and conversation seemed sincere. This contrasted with the deliberately chilly characterisation Tennant gave to the incumbent monarch. But this did not prevent Bolingbroke being very abrupt with Berkeley when he omitted to address him as “Lancaster”.

Despite his contrite kneeling posture, Bolingbroke incurred the full force of York’s wrath for returning from exile. The fury was all the more effective for emanating from one of the frailest characters in the production.

But York could not maintain that level of animosity for long. After his initial outburst, York wilted and faded as he realised that he could not resist Bolingbroke’s onward march. He said “Unless you please…” and after a considerable pause continued “… to enter in the castle…” wafting his hand at waist height as if positively encouraging them to accompany him.

He appeared tempted by the opportunity to join Bolingbroke in Bristol to see Bushy and Bagot dealt with. But he reverted to his customary despondency when saying that “Things past redress are now with me past care”.

The moon was projected on to the back wall to provide a backdrop for the brief scene in which the Welsh Captain (Joshua Richards) informed Salisbury (Simon Thorp again) that his forces were departing, referencing how “the pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth” as one of many portents that the king was dead (2.4).

Bushy and Green were dragged out of a large upstage trap (3.1). Bolingbroke castigated them for living off his rightful inheritance while he had enjoyed nothing but “the bitter bread of banishment”. Bushy and Green were led away to execution.

Their severed heads were quickly delivered back to Bolingbroke, who brandished them joyously, one in each hand, as he announced “A while to work, and after holiday”. The equation of revenge murder with holidaying provided a stark reminder of Bolingbroke’s callousness.

Richard took off his shoes to run barefoot on the ground when he returned from Ireland (3.2). The seaside location was indicated by a brief crash of waves and squawk of seagulls.

In a grand, self-dramatising gesture, he lay on the ground to caress and talk with the “Dear earth” like a long-lost friend, calling on the soil to bring forth obstacles to Bolingbroke’s advance. Once this conversation was finished, his “mock not” indicated his sudden awareness that the others were taking note of his eccentricity.

He was told how Bolingbroke had taken advantage of his absence to return from exile. Richard compared himself to the rising sun and assured Carlisle and Aumerle that he had many a “glorious angel” fighting on his side. The scariest aspect of this speech was that he actually seemed to believe what he was saying. The staging of a key subsequent scene would refer back to this description.

Salisbury announced that the Welsh forces had departed. Richard suddenly realised that he was 20,000 men down.

He panicked and clutched at Aumerle, who clutched him reassuringly back, enabling Richard to compose himself sufficiently to announce “Am I not king?”

Revolt

His revival was short-lived. Scroop (Keith Osborn) brought news of a general revolt, at which point Richard started to spit in anger at the Judases that had betrayed him.

But when he learnt that Bushy and Bagot had been executed, he fell on all fours in shock. Still reeling from hearing of their deaths, he crawled across to the centre of the stage to speak “of graves, of worms and epitaphs”.

Richard crouched and saying “let us sit upon the ground” ordered his followers to do likewise. Once they had complied and sat observing him at a distance, he began to speak like a disturbed child about the “sad stories of the death of kings”.

A key point came when he referred to how Death allowed kings “a little scene, to monarchize”. He stretched out his arms to his companions needily expressing how he might “want friends”.

He rolled the crown away from him, but it was gathered and placed back on his head by the Bishop (Jim Hooper) who, together with Aumerle, helped Richard to his feet. Their support made him snap out of his mood with a grateful “Thou chid’st me well”.

He grabbed Aumerle’s sword and wielded it promising to “change blows” with Bolingbroke. But his confidence did not last long. He exploded at Aumerle, slapping his friend’s sides, when news came of York’s defection to Bolingbroke. He exited despondently on a journey to Flint Castle or as he figuratively expressed it “from Richard’s night to Bolingbroke’s fair day”.

Bolingbroke and his followers gathered outside Flint Castle (3.3). He sent Northumberland to talk to Richard.

A spectacular sight interrupted Bolingbroke’s preparations to confront the king.

The gantry descended partway carrying the resplendent figure of Richard in his regal robe, with crown, sceptre and orb in his hands, accompanied by Aumerle who was turned to face him. The king glowed like the bright sun of his rhetorical imaginings in 3.2. In the stage right gallery were some of his followers, hands held together in prayer, facing towards him in adoration, while in the opposite gallery the choir sang as if in his praise.

Richard imperiously demanded to know why Bolingbroke had returned, and threatened nigh-on divine retribution against him.

The staging of this moment showed us Richard as he imagined himself. But Bolingbroke and York also commented on this grand vision. The staging thus converted both Richard’s imagined version of himself, as well as Bolingbroke and York’s interpretation of his presence, into a majestic stage reality. The fact that the staging had given us a fanciful vision of Richard’s self image spoke of his detachment and self-absorption.

Northumberland, now lit, faced the audience as he addressed Richard who was above and behind him on the gantry. Despite Richard’s powerful entry, he conceded to Northumberland’s request to talk with Bolingbroke. His reply was in fact spoken by Aumerle who repeated what Richard silently mouthed in his ear.

After Northumberland had left, Richard took off his glittering royal outer garment in a moment that marked the restoration of reality after his almost supernatural entrance, and turned to Aumerle. Richard asked him if he had made a mistake and should call back Northumberland to send Bolingbroke defiance.

Aumerle noticed and remarked on Northumberland’s return, at which point Richard asked him whether he should resign. For all the solemnity of his thought, he was still very skittish and playful in his delivery of “A little, little grave, an obscure grave”, with the second phrase rushing out and overriding the conclusion of the first.

This terrible prospect caused Aumerle to weep silently, hiding his face from Richard lest he see his shameful tears.

At 3.3.171 he chided Aumerle “you mock at me” (Folio version, not “laugh”). He then kissed Aumerle on the lips and went to put the crown on his head, an offer Aumerle shunned. This gesture, obviously not indicated in any stage direction, established Aumerle as Richard’s main favourite, side-lining the others and preparing the way for the betrayal in the production’s rewritten ending. It was important to position Aumerle as the principal favourite so that his betrayal had bite.

Richard turned to Northumberland and enquired what Bolingbroke wanted. The king was bitterly sarcastic about the request to descend into the base court. This mood continued when he actually met Bolingbroke. As the usurper and his followers knelt before Richard, the king pointed at the crown on his head mocking Bolingbroke for having an ambition aimed “Thus high at least”.

It was decided that Richard should depart for London, at which point the interval came. As the stage emptied, Aumerle cuffed York, highlighting the tension between them.

The second half began with the Queen accompanied by her two ladies in the garden (3.4). They responded to her questions about how they might occupy themselves as if humouring her. This subtly suggested the Queen’s fragile state of mind, which her ladies were taking great care not to aggravate.

They all hid from the Gardener (Joshua Richards again) and his Man (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) behind the poles that supported the bead curtain screens. The Gardener gave a cane to his young assistant to use as “supportance to the bending twigs”. Both had rustic accents.

After they had talked of Richard’s impending deposition, the Queen rushed forward. Recognising her, they knelt. Having ascertained the facts, the Queen decided to set off for London.

The audience tittered at Gage-o-geddon ™ (4.1). Bolingbroke encouraged Bagot to speak freely, so he accused Aumerle of being behind the death of Gloucester. Recrimination and accusations of lying flew about, as did the gages, the number of which risked tipping the scene into comedy.

There was something funny about the overly dramatic way that the gauntlets were thrown to the ground. The fact that Aumerle ran out of gloves and had to borrow one with which to challenge the reported testimony of the banished Mowbray did not help matters.

However, mourning over the death of Mowbray in exile helped to restore an air of seriousness.

York informed them that Richard was prepared to resign. He was accompanied by a servant bearing the crown and warder on a cushion. The throne was already in position behind them, which Bolingbroke was invited to ascend and which he indicated he would occupy.

The Bishop of Carlisle castigated Bolingbroke’s ambition and was promptly arrested.

Henry sat on the throne with the attendant bearing the crown and sceptre on his immediate left. Richard entered in a long white robe, his long plait undone. Being confronted with Henry’s semi-regal presence prompted Richard to ask “why am I sent for to a king…?”

He was very David Tennant when remarking about the courtiers around him saying “Were they not mine?” with a quizzical high pitch to his voice.

He stood downstage and faced the audience to intone “God Save the King!”, surprised that no one else joined in.

Richard asked for the crown, which was brought to him on the cushion. He took the crown and faced the audience, then held the crown with his outstretched right hand before bidding Bolingbroke take it from him. His second “Here, cousin” was spoken tauntingly as if he was saying “Here, kitty” to a cat.

This was a brilliant tactical move. Bolingbroke, ensconced comfortably on the throne was now obliged to rise from it and effectively beg for this ultimate symbol of royal authority, while simultaneously quitting his secure tenure on the relatively minor regal symbol of the throne. To get what he really wanted he was forced to make a demeaning, unregal display of his desire.

Doubt and hesitation played across his face. But then Bolingbroke advanced, stretched out his hand to grasp the crown on the other side. After a brief moment in which Richard described how they both held it either side, he deftly inverted it to begin his analogy about buckets in a well, the upside down crown serving as the mouth of the well.

Richard was determined to remain symbolically in power for as long as possible. In effect, all he had at this point were the symbolic trappings of authority, as actual power had long ago transferred to Bolingbroke. But as Bolingbroke had first taken hold of this symbol of royal power, Richard had symbolically reasserted his control over it by changing its position and giving it a new analogical meaning.

Games like this were all that Richard had left. Fate now only allowed him to play “a little scene, to monarchize” as he had indicated earlier.

This led into the debate about which of them had the most cares. Bolingbroke brought this game to an end with a simple question: “Are you contented to resign the crown?”

Richard relaxed his grip letting the crown move towards Bolingbroke as he said “Ay”, but then snatched it away towards him saying “no”, paused to repeat “No”, before conceding defeat by saying “ay” and letting the crown dangle limply in his outstretched hand.

Richard drew close and stared at him intently, holding the crown close but firmly within his own grasp, demanding that Bolingbroke and all those present, “mark me how I will undo myself”.

Regal

He placed the crown on his head, sat on the throne with the sceptre in his hand and went through his long, at times incantatory, list of renouncements. This was his last regal act. Soon reluctant was Richard to let go of his kingship that he last act as monarch was effectively to devise his own elaborate resignation ceremony and to perform it with all due officiousness.

Rising from the throne he approached Bolingbroke, put the sceptre in his hand, and saying “God save King Henry” placed the crown on Bolingbroke’s head before bending to kiss his feet.

Surprised at this rhetorical ceremony of Richard’s own devising and at Richard’s fawning obeisance, Bolingbroke took a few embarrassed steps back as if retreating from the attentions of a deranged but harmless individual.

Richard then asked “What more remains?” at which Northumberland showed him the list of crimes to which he had to confess. Richard testily pointed out that Northumberland’s crimes included the “deposing of a king”, but Northumberland irritatedly restated the demand.

Richard denounced Northumberland as “thou haught insulting man” and also spat out his desire to be “a mockery king of snow”. The stark contrast in the portrayal of Richard and Bolingbroke showed how Richard was living in a fantasy world of principle and symbol.

Richard asked for a mirror. But Northumberland’s repeated insistence that Richard read the paper became so heated that the situation seemed on the verge of erupting into violence, prompting Bolingbroke to caution Northumberland “Urge it no more”.

When the small circular hand mirror arrived, Richard looked into it and pulled on his face, examining its lines. He dropped the mirror to demonstrate the fragility of the image it reflected “As brittle as the glory is the face”, just as casually as he had earlier dropped his warder. The small hand mirror visibly cracked but did not shatter loudly. Richard crouched and leant over it, at which point he resembled Narcissus gazing at his reflection in the water.

Bolingbroke comforted Richard by saying that “the shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed the shadow of your face”. This remark produced sycophantic laughter from Bolingbroke’s followers. But they had only registered that their master had scored a point in an argument and had not fully appreciated the imagery. Their unthinking laughter highlighted how Bolingbroke and Richard, despite their enmity, shared a poetic temperament that set them apart from the others.

Richard really loved Bolingbroke’s reference to him as “fair cousin”, and remarked what a grand change it was to have a king as a flatterer.

Richard was conveyed away and Bolingbroke’s coronation was arranged. In a final parting gesture, Bolingbroke deliberately stamped his heel into the broken mirror as he walked over it.

The anti-Bolingbroke conspirators were left behind to confer over their plot.

The Queen and her ladies made their way through the London streets as random citizens ran amok making gibbering noises (5.1). Richard was brought in handcuffed and collapsed at her feet. He was pelted by the populace with one measly bit of mud.

The couple crouched on the ground as Richard urged her to flee to France. A crowd of Londoners carrying torches gathered to watch them. They buffeted their way forward but were restrained by the queen’s ladies and the guards.

At 5.1.34 “Which art a lion and the king of beasts” was met by a “rawww” from the crowd, which prompted Richard to turn on them directing “A king of beasts, indeed!” at them.

Northumberland appeared in the middle gallery. The crowd laughed when they heard that Richard was to be taken to Pomfret. He said to the Queen “With all swift speed you must away to France” and the crowd mockingly cheered her imminent departure.

Richard was bitterly sarcastic to Northumberland, saying that Bolingbroke would come to mistrust him.

The crowd jeered when the couple kissed, and laughed when the queen suggested “Banish us both” as a compromise.

The agony Richard felt when separated from the queen looked genuine. She was only person to whom Richard was persistently affectionate. The genuine nature of his love for Isabel perhaps helped to blunt the edge of the unlikeable characterisation of Richard so carefully established over the rest of the performance. Richard and Isabel kissed and parted.

As the London crowd dispersed, they revealed behind them the solitary figure of York sitting on a bench (5.2).

He was joined by the vivacious Duchess of York (Marty Cruickshank), who told her husband the story of Bolingbroke’s progress through London. The audience laughed at the theatre in-joke about the “well-graced actor” being followed by one whose “prattle” was tedious.

Aumerle appeared, quickly stuffing his plot bond into his top before making indifferent replies to his parents’ questions.

Inquisitive York snatched the paper from him and was angered by its contents, calling for his horse to be saddled and for his boots. The Duchess was concerned for her son’s fate and York’s repeated misogynist put-downs were stressed as part of the scene’s fun.

The Duchess realised that Aumerle’s life was at stake, so she swiped her husband’s boots and threw them offstage to delay his departure. Once York had set off to warn Bolingbroke, she sent Aumerle after him and prepared to depart herself.

The following court scene began with a joking reference to the unseen Prince Hal and his London high jinks, which made a nice in-joke for the fans of the tetralogy (5.3). Aumerle ascended the steps from the large trap to speak with King Henry. They were left alone to ensure their privacy and Aumerle locked the door at the bottom of the trap. York shouted to be admitted from down below and was eventually let in brandishing the incriminating paper. He was very out of breath from the exertion of the ride.

King Henry said that York’s goodness excused his son’s fault, but York went into a loud grump at Henry’s leniency. The Duchess tried to enter the room, prompting King Henry’s “Our scene is altered from a serious thing”. York exclaimed a loud “oh” when he finally recognised his wife’s voice. She was finally let in, and used her riding crop to beat her husband as she contradicted him.

The comedy of the bickering and competitive kneeling was funny, particularly when the Duchess spread her arms wide claiming “Our prayers do outpray his” to which poor York responded by trying to throwing his hands even wider.

The sequence culminated in the Duchess pleading to hear the king’s pardon before she would rise from her knees.

The effect of York’s French reference, with “pardon” meaning “sorry but no”, was lost in the phrase’s delivery, but the lurch into French was nonetheless vaguely comic.

Henry agreed to pardon Aumerle, and was reassuringly blunt about it. But his decision to pursue and punish the other conspirators showed that he was not purely merciful.

Henry pointedly told Aumerle, drawing him aside before he left, “Your mother well have prayed, and prove you true”. This looked like a warning: a shot across Aumerle’s bows constituting a considerable incentive to him to do something to prove his loyalty to Henry. The Duchess also admonished her son, pointing at him with her riding crop saying “I pray God make thee new”.

Scene 5.4 was entirely cut for reasons which would soon become obvious.

A massive section of the stage tilted up to reveal a large deep recess beneath. On reflection this transformation of the stage, with the RSC showing off the full capabilities of their new theatre, began to look like spectacle for the sake of it. Was this the RST or was it Tracy Island? Impossible to tell. The deployment of the full toy box of effects contrasted with the simplicity of the very effective and uncomplicated staging of the play by Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory.

Gradually as the glassy underside of the panel came to rest, the figure of Richard became dimly visible in its reflection as he began to speak (5.5). At first it seemed that Richard was the other side of a translucent panel chained to a sloping surface just behind it, but the clanking of the chains by which he was held prisoner determined his precise location as in the recess, with the shiny panel showing a dim reflection of his recumbent form.

It was somehow disappointing that the beginning of Richard’s most eloquent and quiet speech, the one in which as a helpless and humbled prisoner he shows his frailty and begins to win us over with his humility, the most verbal and personal passage in the play, was heralded by an attention-seeking demonstration by the set, which continued, literally and metaphorically, to overshadow the focus of our interest.

The set design trumped the language, where the staging should have achieved the opposite. The chains were at times very noisy and risked drowning out individual words, particularly when Richard finally rose to a standing position and we could see him clearly in the dungeon recess.

In keeping with the lack of respect for the words, some very touching parts of the speech such as the specific content of his “thoughts divine” and “scruples” were cut, by skipping straight from “For no thought is contented” to “Thus play I…” But his flipping between wishing himself a beggar and then a king was kept. Music was played which jarred with him.

Also cut was the reference to the “numb’ring clock” with its analogy between the face, body and timepiece. This sequence was an essential expression of the effects of imprisonment on his state of mind and as such was integral to the depiction of Richard at this moment. Cutting the phrase on the grounds that the audience would not ‘get it’, ignored the key point that this opacity deliberately points to his distracted condition. The excision therefore had the effect of making Richard appear relatively mentally composed.

Filleting a scene of its more obscure parts displays a lack of trust in either the audience’s knowledge or its inquisitiveness and sense of wonder. Any production that cares about the language of this play should leave this marvellous scene intact.

Visit

The Groom (Elliot Barnes-Worrell again) came to visit and spoke to Richard about his favourite horse. His use of the word “erned” was emended to “yearned”.

The Keeper (Joshua Richards again) brought Richard food and unchained him so that he could eat it, but would not taste it as he usually did. The reference to Exton was changed so that 5.5.100 read “Sir Piers of Exton, who There lately came one from the King, commands the contrary”.

Suspecting a plot, Richard attacked the Keeper and the other murderers burst in. Richard did very well to attack and kill them. The last one stabbed Richard in the back, but with his dying energy Richard ripped off his killer’s balaclava. It was Aumerle. Gasps echoed out from the audience.

Richard’s mention of “Exton” at 5.5.109 was obviously cut following Pope’s emendation, which had the effect not only of facilitating the changed ending, but of making the line metrical. He gazed at his friend and stressed quizzically “thy fierce hand” so that the phrase became another “Et tu, Brute?”

The ending had been changed to create a moment of almost Victorian melodrama, possibly very confusing for any of the schoolchildren viewing the special schools’ broadcast of the recording, who presumably would need to be informed that the ending was not the one that Shakespeare actually wrote.

Taking the changed ending on its own terms raises the question whether Aumerle killed Richard to prove his loyalty to Henry after his narrow escape from death at the new monarch’s hands following the uncovering of his role in the plot against the king.

The only problem with the staging of Richard’s death was that as he collapsed dead, he disappeared out of sight into the dungeon recess.

Exton’s lines were given to Aumerle and the transferred words served well at expressing Aumerle’s very particular regret at his actions.

King Henry was flown in on the gantry with his orb and sceptre, making a regal appearance before receiving news of rebel captures (5.6). York stood in attendance, now walking with the aid of a stick, marking his enfeeblement.

Aumerle dragged in an open coffin containing Richard’s dead body. Henry made a big display of descending from the gantry in order to castigate him, with his references to Exton changed to Aumerle.

Northumberland and the other nobles backed away from Henry when they realised that Richard had been murdered, apparently on Henry’s instructions. Richard tried to assuage the departing men with “Lords, I protest, my soul is full of woe”.

Henry and York stooped over the coffin to gaze at Richard’s body. Henry then looked out to the audience and vowed “to make a voyage to the Holy Land / To wash this blood from off my guilty hand”, holding his hand out as if disgusted by imagining it stained with Richard’s blood.

Richard then appeared in spotlight and walked onto the gantry to look down at the scene of Henry’s appalled expression and outstretched hand, with York still knelt in sadness over the coffin. The lights extinguished.

This final image of Henry vowing to undertake a journey that he would never make overlooked by Richard, could be seen as a foreshadowing of his death. The only Jerusalem that Henry would reach would be the Jerusalem Chamber in which he died. And the Jerusalem Chamber, built by Richard II, has a roof decorated with his emblem. So that when Henry looked upwards dying he would have seen an emblematic reminder of Richard. This staging with Henry looking aghast, thinking about ‘Jerusalem’ with Richard physically above him looking down seemed to echo the circumstances of Henry’s death.

Conclusions

Tennant’s Richard was a stunning combination of the extremely feminised and the uncompromisingly dislikeable, while also providing a fascinatingly textured characterisation.

While this production was intricately detailed, it suffered in comparison with the Tobacco Factory version, which being a small dark room with no set tends to strip plays to their linguistic core and delivers that core of language at close quarters.

By contrast, the huge RST auditorium lacked studio theatre intimacy and sometimes the elaborate staging shifted focus from the poetic meat of the language. The ‘Tracy Island’ prison sequence encapsulated this striving for visual effect while simultaneously not trusting the full text.

The melodramatic rewrite of the ending meant that the production strayed into adaptation territory.

All’s Well at the RSC

All’s Well That Ends Well, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 27 July 2013

An asymmetrical solid arch dominated the back of the set, divided down the middle into two different textures. A doorway was placed high up on the stage left side.

The play title was projected in capital letters on the right side of the back wall. This was a nod to the fact that the title is included in the play text: a rarity in Shakespeare.

The stage itself was bare apart from a small podium whose purpose soon became apparent.

A series of dumbshows set the scene. At first Bertram (Alex Waldmann) appeared in spotlight on the right of the stage while Helena (Joanna Horton) appeared in the upper left doorway looking down at him wistfully. This physical height difference introduced a reversal of the disparity of social levels that posed an obstacle to their romance. But this perhaps also hinted at Helena’s elevated character compared to the compromised nature of Bertram’s personality.

Next Bertram and his friends were partying wildly in a nightclub. He stood on the podium and was joined in his revels by Parolles (Jonathan Slinger). Someone brought him bad news (of his father’s death) and he fell back in shock.

The Countess (Charlotte Cornwell) was seen walking across the back of the stage accompanied by a procession of mourners. Wind-driven snow falling diagonally added to the chilly atmosphere of mourning.

Bertram was comforted by his mother. The action froze at certain points and photo flashes indicated that these moments were being recorded. Helena stood among them in a black armband.

The first scene began as Bertram entered with his luggage ready to depart to the French court (1.1).

His mother the Countess was dressed in black and had a formal gentility slightly at odds with the modern setting. She was full of praise for Helena, but her essay on the relationship between Helena’s innate and acquired qualities (ll. 35-42) was slightly truncated.

Helena wore an elegant pastel dress together with her black armband. She had an air of dowdiness and insecurity that reflected her lowly position and the impossibility of her ambitions. She was not a standard feisty heroine in waiting.

Bertram knelt before his mother, who put the family’s ancestral ring on his finger as she exhorted him to “succeed thy father”.

He said goodbye to Helena, who adjusted his tie. He noticed her interest in this accessory and slipped off from around his neck and gave it to her. This indicated Bertram’s underlying affection for Helena.

Bertram finally departed but struggled to lift his suitcases, abandoning them as the maid (Kiza Deen) came forward and lifted them effortlessly. This was perhaps Bertram’s idea of a joke.

Helena addressed us directly, telling of her sorrow at being in love with Bertram, who was as inaccessible as a star in the sky. She was wistful and dreamy in her longing and seemed to have resigned herself to Bertram being out of reach.

Jonathan Slinger’s Parolles was a sneering, leering inadequate. His long, thin moustache marked him out as affected. His comic conversation with Helena about protecting her virginity saw him offer a useful basic tip: he pointed down at this crotch and said “Keep him out”.

But he insisted that resistance was futile. He cupped his hand as if cradling a baby bump reminding Helena that a man might “blow you up”. This moment in the first scene of the play was mirrored elegantly in its final scene.

Parolles could have accompanied the discourse about blowing up/down with additional gestures, but did not. The focus was on the language. Parolles’ long discourse on the illogicality and paradoxical nature of virginity concluded, to some audience amusement, that it was like “a withered pear”.

Helena was concerned that Bertram would succumb to the temptations of the French court. Her meek acceptance of her social inferiority meant that her fears about him finding love among his equals were very real.

Parolles was summoned to attend Bertram and retrieved a long black jacket from his travelling wardrobe. Helena teased him for his cowardice and her mild taunts struck home, bringing out Parolles’ own insecurities, interestingly also related to his social standing.

Helena admitted to her own insecurities and was honest with herself, while Parolles tried to deny his failings and pretended that they did not exist, covering them over with bluster.

Thus his response to Helena was a hurried “I am so full of businesses I cannot answer thee acutely”. He affected a courtly accent and manners to proclaim “I will return perfect courtier”. This Parolles was singled out as more a social climber than a warrior.

Helena turned optimistic as she hit upon “the King’s disease” as an element in “my project”.

The scene changed to Paris as Greg Hick’s King, his hair long and straggly, appeared in a wheelchair, attached to a drip and a big medical monitor with lots of flashing lights (1.2). Bright fluorescent tubes hung above creating a clinical atmosphere. Soldiers and medical staff stood in attendance.

He briefly outlined the diplomatic situation: Florence had called on him for assistance with their conflict with Sienna but Austria had advised him not to take part. However, young soldiers who wished to fight with the Florentines were free to do so.

Bertram entered down the stage right walkway. The King got out of his chair with the residue of his strength to greet Bertram. The King remembered his father and reminisced about things he used to say. These were obviously very familiar to Bertram, because as the King repeated one of his father’s maxims, Bertram joined in so that the two spoke in chorus to describe youths whose “constancies expire their fashions”.

The exertion proved too much for the King. He faltered and fell back, pleading “Lend me an arm”. His sickness was foregrounded, which suggested his underlying desperation when he referred to Helena’s father and how he would try his aid, having given up on his own doctors.

Back in Roussillon the box room was now lined with plants growing behind glass (1.3). Lavatch (Nicolas Tennant) joked with the Countess about his need to get married, casting lascivious glances at the maid as he spoke of how his “poor body” required it.

He pulled his handkerchief out into a taut quasi-phallic shape saying he was “driven by the flesh”, but then placed the handkerchief on his head like a veil to add that he also had “holy reasons”.

Lavatch’s curious logic, which led him to conclude that “He that kisses my wife is my friend”, gave way to his comically urgent parting gesture that “the business is for Helena to come hither”.

Rynaldo (Cliff Burnett), a picture of formality in his buttoned uniform jacket, informed the Countess that he had overheard Helena saying that she loved Bertram.

The Countess excitedly recognised that “Even so it was with me when I was young”, which prepared us for her positive reception of Helena’s ambitions.

The Countess told Helena that she considered herself “a mother to her”, countering her surprise at this intimacy by pointing out that “choice breeds a native slip to us from foreign seeds”. This plant breeding metaphor possibly derived from her practical interest in the subject, witnessed by the plants growing under glass in the box room representing her house.

As she already knew of Helena’s love for her son, the Countess seemed to relish Helena’s confusion when confronted with the idea that she was her mother and the dire implications if this meant that Bertram was consequently her brother.

Under the Countess’s firm but insistent questioning, Helena admitted to loving Bertram. Her manner showed that she had already discounted the impossibility of this love and the Countess’s presumed disapproval of it.

She also admitted that Bertram was her true motive for her journey to Paris. Helena delighted in her candour in these matters in way that made her sympathetic.

Helena was convinced that her father’s “receipt” would be able to help the King. The Countess warmly embraced her, offering her help and support.

Sandbags

The troops conducted some training exercises, carrying sandbags above their heads and making warlike preparations accompanied by the persistent beat of Parolles’ drum (2.1).

The King watched, reclining inside a transparent open-fronted plastic box. This was like an oversized incubator that had been adapted for palliative care.

The soldiers finished their exercises and knelt before the King who advised them to retain “these warlike principles”, in context referring back to the display he had just watched.

He beckoned them closer and, with a glint in his eye, cautioned them about the wiles of “Those girls of Italy”. He gestured lasciviously when warning them “beware of being captives before you serve”.

The soldiers began to depart leaving Bertram and Parolles behind. Parolles boasted of giving a scar to Captain Spurio concluding “Say to him I live , and observe his reports of me”.

He pointed after the departing soldiers and exhorted Bertram to follow them and to ignore their insistence that he was too young.

The King had transferred back into his wheelchair and found Lafeu (David Fielder) kneeling before him to impart some news. He insisted firmly that Lafeu stand up. This small gesture showed that the King had not abandoned all authority and could still enforce his command.

Lafeu spoke of Helena’s amazing abilities derived from “medicine that’s able to breathe life into a stone” and the King reluctantly agreed to meet her.

Helena entered wearing a red coat and carrying a small doctor’s bag which she placed on the ground in front of her as if it were some kind of device in itself, drawing attention to its curative contents.

She mentioned that Gerard de Narbon was her father, at which point the King leaned forward and pointed saying “I knew him” in a way that indicated he was already on the hook.

Helena explained about her father’s “receipts he gave me; chiefly one”. She stood and raised her hands at her side in an open expressive gesture that spoke of her harmlessness and her desire to help. But at the same time she was drawing attention to herself and underscoring her miraculous abilities, in an uncharacteristically confident way.

After the King’s initial refusal, Helena apologised and made to leave. But his questioning of her integrity by claiming that she knew “no art” drew her back. She pleaded that trying her skill would lose him nothing and that assistance often came from unexpected quarters.

The King turned his wheelchair away from her and started to move off, bidding her farewell. Not giving up, Helena grabbed the chair and turned it back to face her, insisting that “My art is not past power, nor you past cure”.

The King was impressed by her insistence and her forceful reorientation of his chair. This was precisely the kind of firm mastery with which he liked to take control of a situation. He exclaimed a mighty “Oh!” before continuing “Art thou so confident?”

He was even more impressed when she promised a speedy cure and staked her life on its success. He made a deal with her that if she restored him she could have a husband of her choosing.

Helena’s confidence here was understated and was driven by her belief in the efficacy of her father’s medicine.

The newly-formed bond of trust between Helena and the King could be seen by the way she placed her doctor’s bag in his lap and wheeled him away to begin her work.

The maid was dusting the plants at the Countess’s residence, as Lavatch told his mistress that he was leaving for the court (2.2).

He introduced his all-purpose rebuttal by describing it as a barber’s chair that fits all buttocks, listing several types before concluding that it fitted any buttock, casting a lascivious glance at the maid’s rear as she leant forward to dust an awkward spot.

Lavatch’s saucy mood continued when he assured the Countess that his answer would fit any question “from below your duke to beneath your [cunt]stable” making an obscene gesture with his cupped fingers as he did so.

His repeated use of “O Lord, sir!” was said in a strained attempt at sounding elevated, which was inherently comic in view of the ribaldry that he had used in the build-up to its unveiling.

The Countess sent him away with a letter to take to Helena at court.

Bertram discussed the King’s miraculous cure with Lafeu, while Parolles stood slightly apart constantly trying to join in the conversation (2.3). Frustrated by his failure to engage their attention, Parolles prodded Lafeu with his stick.

The box room came forward with the King and Helena appearing in silhouette against a bright red background. They faced each other and danced back and forth. Although they did not touch, the dance was characterised by a surprising degree of intimacy. The King emerged and performed capoeira (a Greg Hick’s speciality) making sweeping kicks at the soldiers.

The King was now restored to health, and his hair was shorter and darker than before.

The bachelors (Daniel Easton, Michael Grady-Hall, Chris Jared & Samuel Taylor) gathered in front of Helena. She approached each in turn and rejected them. Lafeu’s comments were cut, which focused attention on Helena’s scheme to work through them and get to Bertram, who observed nonchalantly on the stage left side of the box room.

Helena turned and offered herself to Bertram but he did not realise he was being addressed. Noticing the attention fixed on him by Helena and the others, he looked round comically to see if there was another bachelor somewhere behind him.

When the King prompted him to take Helena as his wife, Bertram’s disdain was extreme. He contemptuously mocked the idea of “A poor physician’s daughter my wife!”

The King’s assurances that he would enrich and ennoble Helena so that she had “honour and wealth from me” did nothing to change Bertram’s mind.

The King was visibly affronted by this impudence. Feeling that his honour was at stake, he barked out a firm command “Here, take her hand” ordering him to obey. The force of the King’s insistence cowed Bertram and also shocked Helena, who looked more surprised at the King than Bertram did.

Bertram obediently took Helena’s hand. The King continued to organise their lives, pausing before declaring that their wedding would be performed “tonight”. This caused another ripple of shock to pass over Helena, who perhaps now was beginning to realise the full significance of what she had done.

Parolles took real offence at Lafeu’s barbs as their bitchy argument blew up. But Parolles bit his tongue rather than act on the revengeful impulses that played across his face rather. He could only issue a conditional threat “Hadst thou not the privilege of antiquity upon thee, -”

Parolles vented his anger once Lafeu had left, promising to beat him if he met him again. He was cowed, however, when Lafeu returned with news that Bertram had married.

Lafeu disdainfully tweaked at the various rosettes that adorned Parolles bright yellow uniform jacket, before leaving him once again.

Bertram was disconsolate at being married. The audience found humour in Parolles’ repeated use of the word “sweet-heart” as he tried to console him.

Parolles encouraged him to leave his wife and go “to the wars”. Bertram agreed and said he would send Helena to his house and depart for Italy. Parolles hugged Bertram ecstatically. He held him close and looked into his eyes moving to kiss him, before checking himself and pulling away in embarrassment. This confirmed the audience’s suspicions about the true intent behind his recent use of the word “sweet-heart”.

Lavatch exchanged witticisms with Helena and then Parolles, who took no uncertain pleasure in informing Helena that Bertram had to leave that night, putting off married life “to a compelled restraint” (2.4). Helena meekly asked what else Bertram required.

Clog

Lafeu tried to convince Bertram that Parolles was just a braggart, continuing to insult him when he came to tell Bertram that Helena was leaving that night (2.5). The audience very much disapproved of Bertram’s “Here comes my clog” when Helena entered.

Bertram gave her letters to take home. She summoned up the courage to ask him for a parting kiss, which he willingly gave her. He kissed her passionately, and she became quite dizzily excited afterwards.

This was possibly her first ever kiss from him and for her the moment was charged with that excitement. She was still quite agitated some time afterwards. However, Bertram’s immediate emotional disengagement from the kiss made it obvious that for him it was simply a tactical move to keep her quiet.

Parolles departed with Bertram, delighted that they were going off to the war together.

After some battle sequences involving soldiers in modern uniform fighting hand to hand, the Duke of Florence (Dave Fishley) spoke to the French troops and expressed his puzzlement that the King of France would not help directly (3.1).

Back in Roussillon the Countess read Bertram’s letter, explaining that he had wedded not bedded Helena and had run off (3.2).

After a brief comic moment in which Lavatch said that Bertram would “not be killed so soon as I thought he would”, two soldiers brought in a serious looking Helena. She read out the letter Bertram had given her in which he vowed that she would have to obtain his ring and become pregnant by him before she could call him husband.

The Countess comforted her, disclaiming Bertram and proclaiming “thou art all my child”.

Helena stood alone and poured her heart out, blaming herself for driving Bertram into the war and wishing that the bullets would “fly with false aim”. She broke down in tears and wished herself dead.

She vowed to leave hoping that this might draw Bertram back again. The interval came on that sad note.

The second half began with Bertram standing centre stage and being sequentially kitted out with military uniform, equipment and finally a gun before running around in the midst of battle.

In a brief scene, the Duke of Florence presented him with a helmet making him “The general of our horse” (3.3). Bertram rejected the helmet but soon changed his mind, declaring himself a soldier rather than a lover. By now he had acquired a facial scar, echoing Helena’s warning in her speech at the end of 3.2 that “honour but of danger wins a scar, as oft it loses all”.

Helena had sneaked away in the night, and Rynaldo read Helena’s letter to the Countess, which explained that she had gone on a pilgrimage (3.4). The Countess instructed Rynaldo to write to Bertram telling him that Helena had left, hoping that he would come back and that Helena would hear of this and return herself.

The box room extended out to show soldiers drinking in the Widow’s tavern (3.5). The Widow (Karen Archer) and her daughters gathered in front to watch the returning army march past. Mariana (Rosie Hilal) got angry at the mention of Parolles, whom Bertram had been using as a go-between with Diana.

Helena appeared in her white pilgrim’s robe and was detained by the Widow to watch the troops together with them. Helena confirmed that she had come from France, prompting the Widow to mention that she might see a countryman of hers. Helena asked his name, causing Diana (Natalie Klamar) to mention excitedly “the Count Rousillon” as Mariana rolled her eyes in disbelief at her sister’s enthusiasm.

Helena was self-deprecating in agreeing with Parolles’ critical reports of her, in a way that indicated she was still full of self-reproach.

They watched the march past, which was not staged, as if it were happening out in the audience. The only one to appear was Parolles, who was heard to mutter “Lose our drum! Well.” and then appeared on the stage left walkway as the women repulsed him with insults and threw things at him, causing him to flee.

The Widow invited Helena to stay with her.

Two of Bertram’s comrades tried to convince him that Parolles was all talk. Eventually they settled on a plan to kidnap him disguised as enemy troops and to get him to betray them (3.6). Parolles was obsessed about the loss of his drum and the others deliberated downplayed its significance as a ruse to encourage him to attempt its recovery.

Bertram bid Parolles “farewell”. His friend placed his finger tenderly on Bertram’s lips to quieten him before saying “I love not many words”. In view of his previous dalliance with Bertram, there was something camp about this physical contact.

As Parolles departed, one of the soldiers loudly riposted “No more than a fish loves water” before they all agreed that Parolles would probably lie about his exploits.

Bertram took one of the soldiers to show him the girl he was after.

The hostel was invaded by troops who made free with the women and revelled in a debauched manner until the Widow strode confidently onto the scene, cocked her sawn off shotgun and fired it into the air to restore order (3.7).

In the ensuing calm, Helena assured the Widow that she was in fact the wife of the count. Helena offered her a purse of gold and explained that Diana should agree to the count’s “wanton siege”, ask him for his ancestral ring, and then let Helena take her place at their assignation.

The Widow’s agreement following Helena’s offer of an additional three thousand crowns was a fine comic moment.

The box room had camouflage netting strung across its front by a soldier as Parolles’ ambush was prepared (4.1). When the use of invented language was suggested, the soldiers practised a few phrases so that we had an idea of how this would work.

The soldiers hid behind the netting and watched as Parolles ruminated on how to account for his fruitless return from his mission to recover the lost drum.

Parolles turned slowly about as he spoke. The soldiers ducked below the top of the netting to avoid being seen when he faced them, apart from one instance where they remained in clear view as he looked right at them until they suddenly realised their mistake and hid.

Parolles took his dagger and poised it above his hand wondering if he should inflict wounds on himself to make his story more credible. But his plaintive yelp when the point merely touched his skin, indicated that this was unlikely.

The soldiers commented on what he said, but although Parolles appeared to hear the question “How deep?” and answer “Thirty fathom” he did not turn around in surprise to look for the voice that had prompted his answer. This suggested he lacked the awareness to realise that he was responding to a real voice.

The trap was sprung and Parolles was blindfolded. The text was altered so that he spoke the names of the languages he could understand in the relevant language, which was an intelligent revision. This is what someone would do when testing for the presence of speakers of those languages.

The soldiers tried to convince Parolles that “seventeen poniards are at thy bosom” as each of them placed two hands and a foot onto his chest to make him think he was being assailed by a large troop.

Parolles whined like a baby as he pleaded for his life. He was taken away and the soldiers went to fetch Bertram.

Bertram turned up at the inn and played the harmonica, singing to Diana “They told me that your name was Fontibell” as if it were a song.

Diana resisted his advances and mocked his promises. She asked him for the ring. He protested that giving it away would be “the greatest obloquy i’ the world” for him to lose. Diana countered that her honour meant the same to her family and proceeded to writhe up and down, rubbing herself seductively against Bertram, who, in some agitation and expectation, blurted out “Here, take my ring”. His mind was changed not by the force of her argument but by something earthier.

She instructed him in the particulars of the clandestine meeting, telling him that she would then put another ring on his finger.

As Bertram left, a messenger caught up with him. Although we did not hear or see any indication of the news, it was possibly the message about Helena’s death.

At the end of the scene there was a brief dumbshow in which Diana handed over Bertram’s ring to Helena outside the box room and then Helena entered the box room which was now the bedchamber.

She sat on the bed and waited for Bertram, who entered the room and felt his way in the dark. He was visibly distressed by the recent news about Helena. He held out his hand and Helena took it. They sat for a while as Helena comforted Bertram, who assumed he was with Diana. They embraced as the box room moved upstage. Its doors closed just as they reclined on the bed.

This touching spectacle showed us Bertram’s true feelings for Helena emerging in the wake of the shock (but untrue) news of her death. The couple consummated their marriage, with each thinking of the other so that they were unified by sentiment, if not by mutual recognition. Bertram made love to his wife without recognising her but paradoxically allowed her to witness his true feelings about her for the first time.

Sadness

The start of the next scene saw two soldiers describing how the letter delivered to Bertram contained sad news: “on the reading it he changed almost into another man” (4.3). But as this was the letter from his mother and that news of his wife’s death was already known to him from the rector, this letter could not have been the one that had triggered his sadness at Helena’s death.

Whatever the order or timing of the letters and news, the staging created the distinct impression that the letter Bertram received was the one that delivered the shock news of Helena’s death.

Bertram explained how he had that night “buried a wife, mourned for her”, suggesting that the news was fresh and perhaps that brought by the letter we saw delivered to him after he spoke with Diana.

Before he returned to see his mother, there remained the unfinished business of Parolles. He was brought forth and forced to stand on a makeshift podium to make a pathetic spectacle of his abject treachery.

One of the soldiers tapped on a portable typewriter to record the intelligence on the Florentine army that he willingly surrendered. To highlight the comedy of this, the typing was random and sometimes involved keys being struck at random only to create the sound of typing.

He was asked about the character and reputation of Captain Dumaine (Mark Holgate) and traduced him soundly with the angry Captain having to be restrained from running at him.

In a wonderful sequence, Parolles insulted the other Captain Dumaine (Chris Jared again), his brother by saying “he excels his brother for a coward…” who ran at Parolles and was restrained by the first. But within the same breath Parolles insulted the first Captain “…yet his brother is reputed one of the best that is…”, so that the struggling pair instantly flipped round. The guardian of Parolles became the aggressor with the previous assailant ,who seconds before had been the attacker, now holding his brother back.

Parolles panicked when he was told that he would die for his treachery. He was even more scared when the blindfold was removed and he saw he had been tricked by his own comrades.

After taunts from the soldiers, Parolles sat on the podium and lamented, removing his false moustache and holding it in his hands to avow “simply the thing I am shall make me live”. The removal of this false disguise marked the first step towards a more authentic way of life.

Helena, the Widow and Diana were on their way to see the King at Marseilles (4.4). She told Diana that she would still have further tasks to perform but assured that “All’s well that ends well”.

Lafeu commiserated with the Countess on the death of Helena (4.5). Lavatch was examining some cacti, so that when he got into his witty exchange with Lafeu he held up a small knoblike cactus to say “I would give his wife my bauble, sir, to do her service”.

But not even the great acting in this production could hide the strained nature of some of the exchanges, particularly the one that ended lamely with a reference to “jades’ tricks”. It felt like filler.

Lafeu got back onto the track of his conversation with the Countess to propose his daughter’s hand in marriage to the supposed widower Bertram.

Lavatch brought news of Bertram’s return and that he had a patch of velvet covering a possible scar on his face.

Helena arrived at Marseilles but was told that the King was no longer there (5.1). This gave Helena another opportunity to quote the play title at the Widow and Diana. She gave the Gentleman (John Stahl) her petition assuming he could reach the King before she could.

Parolles was besmirched with dirt both on his clothes and face making him a wretched spectacle as he pleaded with Lavatch to give a letter to Lafeu (5.2). The stains suggested the strong smell that Lavatch insisted Parolles keep upwind of him.

Lafeu finally took pity and promised Parolles “you shall eat”.

The King and Countess sat on chairs in Roussillon and bemoaned the loss of Helena (5.3). The King called firmly for Bertram to be brought before him. His restored health seemed to underscore the positive mood behind his forgiving attitude when he said that “The nature of his great offence is dead”.

Bertram entered and knelt before the King very abjectly in full recognition of his “high-repented blames”. The renewed power of the King was a reminder of his enhanced ability to punish if he so chose.

The King encouraged everyone to move on and “take the instant by the forward top”. He described himself as old, but his determination had a young man’s optimistic vigour.

He asked Bertram if he remembered Lafeu’s daughter. Bertram looked offstage towards her and indicated that “at first I stuck my choice upon her” referred to Maudlin and not Helena. This reading of the speech meant that he told the King that he had first taken a fancy to Maudlin, which made him cast a “scornful perspective” on Helena “she whom all men praised”. But he also admitted that he had loved her once he had lost her.

The King praised Bertram “that thou didst love her”, meaning that he was happy that the young man had loved Helena, but he emphasised that this should be “sweet Helen’s knell”.

It was proposed that Maudlin marry Bertram. At Lafeu’s suggestion, Bertram took a ring from his finger to be given as a love token to Maudlin. But Lafeu noticed that this ring was like one that had been worn by Helena. The King chimed in saying he had also spotted the similarity.

Bertram maintained that the ring had never been Helena’s. Once again the King insisted very strongly that it had been his and that he had given it to Helena. She had told the King that she would either give it to Bertram in bed or return it to the King as a sign she needed his help.

Bertram once again said that Helena had never seen the ring, and that it had been thrown at him from a window. The King ordered him to be taken away.

The Gentleman delivered to the King the mysterious petition signed by Diana Capilet. Bertram was brought back under guard as Diana introduced herself.

She claimed that she was Bertram’s wife and that he had taken her virginity. Bertram dismissed her as “a common gamester to the camp”. Diana countered, showing the ancestral ring Bertram had given her, proving that she was special. The Countess of course recognised it.

Bertram admitted that he had given it to her, but that he had been beguiled into handing it over by her “infinite cunning”.

In full riddle mode, Diana bade Bertram ask for his ring again and to return her ring to her. When questioned by the King, Diana said she meant the one on Bertram’s finger, which was Helena’s via the King.

She insisted that she had given it to Bertram in bed, contradicting his story about it being thrown from a window.

A very nervous and confused Parolles confirmed that he had acted as go-between and that Bertram had slept with Diana and promised her marriage.

The King questioned Diana about the ring but she denied having been given it, having bought it, being lent it or finding it. Confusingly, she denied having given it to Bertram. The King grew frustrated and ordered Diana to be taken away, ordering her execution if she did not tell him how she had come to possess it.

Diana asked her mother to “fetch my bail”, saying of Bertram “my bed he hath defiled; and at that time he got his wife with child”, before heralding the arrival of “one that’s dead is quick”.

Helena loomed out of the box room in semi-silhouette before appearing fully lit in a white maternity dress clutching at a pronounced baby bump. Her grasp here was directly reminiscent of Parolles’ gesture at the start when referring to how a man might “blow you up”. This connected the first scene in the play with the last.

Bertram fell to the ground and scrambled backwards as if trying in vain to escape from this vision.

She came forward and pointed at Bertram’s ring on Diana’s finger and produced his letter showing that all the conditions he had set had been fulfilled, concluding “This is done: will you be mine, now you are doubly won?”

Even at this point Helena had a hint of vulnerability to her as if her triumph was not something of which she felt boastfully proud. This made her sympathetic.

There was a dichotomy between the dramatic impact of her entry, and the modesty of her character that she had retained from the beginning of the play. This adventure had not been a personal journey in which her character had altered: she was still the same person she had been at the start.

It was perhaps this non-triumphant reclaim of him that helped Bertram to love her.

Lafeu cried “mine eyes smell onions” quite pathetically.

The King took charge and delighted in telling Diana that she could pick any husband she wanted.

Despite the King saying that “All yet seems well”, Bertram and Helena stood hand in hand at the end, showing that they were truly reconciled. This meant that the resolution was romantic rather than edged with pessimism.

Conclusions

This perfectly entertaining production added to a list of recent outings of All’s Well that cumulatively pose the question: why is this play performed so little?

The production was chiefly memorable for the performances of Jonathan Slinger and Greg Hicks, which is ironic given that it is supposed to be about the triumph of female wit and ingenuity in the person of Helena. But this was the result of the underplaying of Helena’s heroism so that her victory was a quiet, not a boastful nor an attention-seeking one.

Lessons from a Mad World

A Mad World My Masters, Swan Stratford, 29 June 2013

When this production exploded onto the Swan stage, a good deal of its energy and confidence came from the fulfilment of the editors’ intention that the play should be immediately accessible to the audience.

The Sean Foley and Phil Porter edit of Middleton’s play removed a fifth of the original, “but what remains is about 97% Middleton”, said Foley in the programme. Rather than wholly rewrite the text, the editors demonstrated faith in the ability of the audience to understand Jacobean English, while gently assisting them.

They clarified obscure jokes and references, supplanting them with hilarious and clearly signposted humour that revelled in its juxtaposition with the original. The subtext of the edit was that ‘funny’ does not change, merely the precise phrasing of its expression.

This was a slightly more aggressive form of the kind of editing that is commonplace in more reverently handled Shakespeare productions. When in Measure for Measure, Pompey announces that “All houses in the suburbs of Vienna must be plucked down” this is routinely changed to clarify that brothels are to be demolished.

Set in Soho in 1956, the production updated some character names to make the humour more obvious, so that we had Truly Kidman instead of Frank Gullman and Sir Bounteous Peersucker instead of Progress. More daringly, the Harebrains became Littledicks, while Gunwater the butler was renamed Spunky.

The brightly coloured Flamingo Club filled with guests and staff as Linda John-Pierre belted out one of the many songs that punctuated the production (1.1). Once she had finished, Dick Follywit (Richard Goulding) bounded after her and tried to steal a kiss. He and his cohorts Captain Oboe (Harry McEntire) and Sergeant Sponger (Ben Deery) were thrown out of the club, the stage rapidly transforming into dingy Ham Yard. A telescopic street lamp rose suggestively out a tiny trap door, as the riotous crew ended up among the back street bins.

The colour, noise and chaos of this initial sequence, at the end of which one of the characters sat in a dustbin with the lid on his head, seized the audience’s attention, had them laughing and expressed the manic energy of the play before the first proper line of dialogue.

Dick Follywit ended up with some women’s underwear on his face, and remarked that in his present condition even his uncle would not recognise him. This stunning realisation inspired his plan to enrich himself. His relative was “tremendously well-endowed” and a social climber whose so-called friends took advantage of his self-serving hospitality to “gobble him dry”.

He called on his associates to assist him; they responded by saluting him and in their confusion locked their arms together.

Follywit planned to visit his uncle disguised as a lord, with his associates pretending to be his chauffeur and butler.

Penitent Brothel (John Hopkins), as well as having an unchanged name, spoke in phrases that were unmistakably Middleton’s original, saying of Follywit “I tax his youth of common receiv’d riot”.

Having served up some easily digestible modernised English, the production did not patronise the audience by spoon-feeding them throughout. Instead it trusted in their ability to discern meaning in passages of Middleton that a more condescending editor could have rewritten wholesale.

Explaining his love for Mrs Littledick, jealously guarded by her possessive husband, Penitent paused for comic effect after saying that he was “constrained to use a prostitute” but then countered our expectations to reveal that Truly Kidman “corrupts and loosens his wife’s most constant powers”.

The meeting between Truly (Sarah Ridgeway) and Penitent in the alley was observed by the ever-watchful Constable (Dwane Walcott) who shone a torch at them.

Truly and her pimp mother sat outside the Moka coffee bar. Mrs Kidman (Ishia Bennison) presented her daughter with a gift from “her keeper” Sir Bounteous”. Given her profession and the double meaning of the phrase, we were not expected to believe Truly when she said “I’ve never had a pearl necklace before”.

In case there was any doubt as to her line of business, she informed us that “I’ve been spatchcocked , trussed up, boned and basted more times that he’s had hot caudle”. The playful inclusion of “caudle” at the end of that line, invited us to guess that it meant something similar to “dinners”. This was another good example of how the edit both assisted the audience while simultaneously stretching the limits of their understanding.

Her mother gave her advice on how to play the market and maximise her earnings. She described the tactics not as the “politic conveyance” of the original, but as a “cunning stunt”.

Truly made a quick exit as her suitors Masters Whopping-Prospect (Ciarán Owens) and Muchly-Minted (Nicholas Prasad) came a-calling. Her mother modified her common voice and insisted in refined tones that her daughter was busy reading her bible.

Muchly-Minted was keen to know about Truly’s inheritance, asking “She is heir, is she not, to some nineteen mountains?” The seemingly curious remark was in fact a borrowing from A Chaste Maid In Cheapside.

The set changed to show the interior of the Littledick residence where Mr Littledick (Steffan Rhodri) employed a seedy private detective (David Rubin) to keep a watch out for Penitent Brothel, whom he suspected of trying to sleep with his wife (1.2).

During this conversation we could see Mrs Littledick (Ellie Beaven) listening at an invisible wall in what we understood to be the adjoining room.

Truly Kidman arrived disguised as an Irish nun for her regular sessions with Mrs Littledick, which Mr Littledick wrongly assumed to be moral instruction.

Mr Littledick explained that his wife was “stroking at her lute” and that he had deprived her of “wanton pamphlets, ‘Venus and Adonis’, her Health and Efficiency magazine”, the latter substituting for Hero and Leander.

Saying that she would read to her from Revelations (not Resolution), Kidman had Mrs Littledick brought to her. Mr Littledick went to listen in from the neighbouring room as we had seen his wife do earlier.

Truly instructed her to keep up the appearance of a loyal wife, even to the point of excess, raising her voice so that Mr Littledick could only hear her seemingly virtuous utterances and disguising the subterfuge in a quieter voice.

Mr Littledick burst in on them to congratulate Truly on her work, offering her money to slip “quietly into your offering box”, which Truly gratefully received: “You virtually make me moist”.

Sir Bounteous Peersucker (Ian Redford) was beating a scantily-clad young lady on the bottom with his riding crop (2.1). He compounded his rakish image by stopping to admire one of the women on the front row (“what a cracker”), offering her his card and a rendez-vous in the bar after the show.

Oboe, disguised in an ill-fitting chauffeur’s uniform, announced that Lord Owemuch had come to call. Spunky the butler (Richard Durden) was elderly and slow, with a hearing aid that whined. He got a laugh simply by hobbling in and out of the room.

Follywit appeared in a false moustache and smart Italian suit, spontaneously renaming Sponger as his footman Ballbag. Comically pretending to be Sir Bounteous’ social superior, Follywit broke out of his cool persona when his uncle mentioned his valuables, slowing his confident delivery to ask comically “Oh… where do you keep them?”

Sir Bounteous went over to a statue of David and tweaking its penis upwards, triggered the upward slide of a book shelf on the other side of the room, revealing a safe built into the wall.

The scene ended with the band playing Let The Good Times Roll and dancing as Follywit realised the ease with which he could rob his uncle of his wealth.

Towels

Both Follywit and Sir Bounteous changed on stage behind towels into their pyjamas so that the next scene with them preparing for bed followed on continuously (2.2). When they were left alone, the interlopers looked in their large trunk for their disguises.

The part of the set representing the house interior went dark, while further upstage we saw Truly Kidman giving a handjob to the detective, asking him to inform Penitent Brothel that she had hit upon a plan to bring him to Mrs Littledick (2.3). The session ended with ejaculate appearing to fly up into the air from the detective (who was facing upstage).

Follywit and his men put on stocking masks. One of them got the end of his stocking trapped in the trunk when it closed, leaving him stood bent backwards fighting against the taught material (2.4).

Spunky discovered them stealing the silver and calmly enquired “Thieves?” before confirming the answer for himself. He was knocked out, leaving the men to attempt to open the safe. They tried to operate the penis switch but it would not work. In frustration the switch was repeatedly tweaked, faster and faster without result, creating an obscene visual joke.

Discovered by Sir Bounteous, they introduced themselves as Geordies. Sir B operated the switch enabling them to continue to fill the trunk. They took cash from the safe, as well as a set of golf clubs and a long ladder which was used to remove a painting from high up on the wall.

They were left with the problem of how to appear victims of the robbery the next morning. Hitting Oboe was a good start. Ropes were required to tie them up. The thick piping was torn from a seat, but although just two ropes were thus ripped off, three sound effects overlay the action. This prompted a comic double-take from one of the gang.

Penitent Brothel arrived outside Truly Kidman’s house located at 69 Swallow Street (2.5). Punters called at other adjacent doors and were shown in by their prostitutes, while Truly Kidman spoke to Penitent Brothel in the street and told him her plan.

Firstly, she would feign sickness, something she could do as convincingly as the other pretences she had previously employed, a point she underlined by slipping into her Irish accent.

The other part of the plan involved Penitent Brothel visiting in disguise as a physician.

Back at Sir Bounteous’ house, Follywit practised his pretence at being bound, trying out various positions including crouching bent forward on the bed with his hands behind his back (2.6). Bounteous Peersucker hopped into the room with his feet and arms still tied not realising that Follywit and his men were responsible for the robbery.

As Follywit faked outrage at his host’s lack of security, both he and his associate Sponger repeatedly moved their supposedly bound wrists apart, forgetting the pretence they were supposed to be maintaining, until suddenly realising their error, snapping their wrists together and grinning in embarrassment. Sir Bounteous did not notice.

On a textual note, Sir Bounteous’ exclamation “I’m a Saracen” was updated to “I’m a Muslim” though this verged on the distasteful.

The text was updated so that Follywit explained how the villains had bound him because they did not trust his promises on the grounds that he was an Old Etonian.

Sponger initially said that Follywit aka Lord Owemuch had not lost anything in the robbery, but later lied to Sir Bounteous itemising a list of valuables and one hundred pounds in cash, which Sir Bounteous promised to make good.

Mr Littledick called his wife down from her room to meet with Masters Whopping-Prospect and Muchly-Minted so that he could observe her comportment and test her virtue (3.1).

The Detective sent to fetch her reported that she was ill, prompting the young men to leave, but told Mr Littledick that her ‘real’ reason was that she did not want to endure the company of men. This was exactly what Truly Kidman had advised her to do and Mr Littledick fell for it, taking this to be more conclusive proof of her innate modesty.

Mrs Littledick intended to visit the allegedly sick Truly Kidman and wanted her husband to accompany her, if only to the door. He agreed, saying he would “not penetrate within”.

The interior of Truly Kidman’s boudoir was dominated by a pink four poster bed (3.2). She lay in it pretending to be sick, ministered to by Penitent Brothel who was dressed as a doctor and kitted out with a black bag, white coat and head mirror.

The arrival of Sir Bounteous encouraged Truly to attempt further extortion. She said it would be easy to get him to pay for expensive bogus treatments because “many’s the time he’s blown his wad on me”.

Penitent Brothel introduced himself as a physician and immediately offered Sir Bounteous a cigarette: a neat joke on the state of 1950s medical knowledge.

Sir Bounteous became discouraged by the sight of his mistress ill, which was enough “to make an old man shrink”. The doctor recommended an increasingly bizarre set of remedies, taking strange objects out of his bag to demonstrate them and, desperate to invent names for them, resorted to Italian foods such as “Osso bucco, tortellini, mellenzane parmigiane…”

Sir Bounteous said they would have to be patient, to which Penitent countered “I cannot be patient and physician too”. Some in the audience groaned at this terrible joke, at which point John Hopkins glanced at them and said “Thomas Middleton, 1605” as if to point out that this was part of the original text and not a poor quality editorial addition. This looked like a spontaneous adlib, but on further investigation was found to be an integral part of the performance, presumably provoking similar reactions at most performances.

Another of the suggested remedies was “half a pint of Guinness”, which referenced the fact that this brand of stout was once prescribed by doctors.

Sir Bounteous handed over money to pay for all these ridiculous cures and left.

The two suitors Whopping-Prospect and Muchly-Minted were also concerned. Both of them offered money, which Muchly-Minted described as “the fruit of my bulging pockets”. One of them had brought a box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray as a gift, although this was never actually handed over, serving as an element of period detail.

Penitent Brothel needed these two out of the way. Telling them that Truly required an hour’s sleep merely made them wish to stay and watch, so a bed pan was brought over which Truly began to squat, sending the suitors to the door.

Mrs Littledick arrived and Penitent appeared semi-undressed from behind the bed sporting a visible erection as he greeted “the fullness of my wish”.

Mr Littledick appeared on a long promontory high above the bed representing the floor above through which he would listen to goings-on in the room below.

Truly’s task was to talk loudly and provide context for the lovers’ cries to prevent Mr Littldick from becoming suspicious. This she did brilliantly, readopting the accent of her Irish nun character.

Mrs Littledick’s repeated exultant cries of “Yes” became her agreement with the nun’s homilies on chastity. Her moans of pleasure were interpreted as crying at Kidman’s sickly condition.

The uproarious comedy of this sequence reached a climax when Mr Littledick thought that his wife was about to leave. He exclaimed “She’s coming”, at which point both Penitent and Mrs Littledick came at once, which prompted her husband to announce cheerily “Good. She’ll feel better for that”.

He descended while Truly Kidman reeled off a list of her relations she wished that Mrs Littledick would greet, including “Great Aunty Rugmunch”.

The curtain was drawn from the bed to reveal the lovers smoking post-coital cigarettes, Penitent’s tie knotted round his forehead. The arrival of Mr Littledick forced Penitent to dive under the covers to conceal himself, with his arms sticking out beside Mrs Littledick’s head and being mistaken for hers. After this hilarious sequence the interval came.

Interval

The second half began outside the Moka Bar as Follywit and his companions relished their victory over Sir Bounteous (3.3).

But the young man suddenly remembered that his uncle kept a mistress who might inherit a third of his estate. He hit on a plan to further enrich himself and discredit the unnamed woman. He disappeared inside the coffee bar and emerged having swapped his clothes with those of the waitress, taking some iced buns and shoving down his top to fill out his bosom. This requirement for considerably bigger buns might have been a Calendar Girls reference.

Follywit commented on it being “… an Amazonian time. You shall shortly have women tread their husbands” to which the Waitress (Badria Timimi) responded with a laconic “Yeah”. Follywit obviously considered himself irresistible as he was sure all men would want to “circumnavigate my globes”.

Penitent Brothel was discovered frying a chipolata on a hot plate tormenting himself as he read in a book about the evils of adultery. His self-flagellation involved whipping himself with a tea towel and on one occasion pressing his hand into the hot pan.

Eventually the pan caught fire and he held out a large tea towel to cover it. After he whisked the towel over the pan, the Succubus (Ellie Beaven again) appeared as if by magic in his bedsit armchair. She was a vision of erotic delight in her black basque and suspendered tights topped by a red chiffon negligee.

She began to seduce him, inviting Penitent to “twine me” and finishing on an incomplete rhyme:

Where’s thy lip, thy clip, thy pluck?
Let us strip, unzip and ….

She gyrated in front of him, repeating “Fa le la, le la” as she teased him with her erotic allure. He commanded her to leave and this time she complied as Penitent threatened her with the fire extinguisher. Once she had gone, he let the extinguisher off and showered it around as if orgasming. The passing caretaker (Gwilym Lloyd) had not noticed anyone leaving the bedsit.

A brief scene saw Spunky inform Sir Bounteous that Truly Kidman had arrived to see him (4.2).

Spunky showed Follywit, disguised as Truly Kidman, into the room (4.3). He just happened to point out the casket where he kept his savings and the key on the chain round his neck that unlocked it.

Spunky tried it on with the disguised Follywit, taking him for Truly, and he agreed to a later assignation at The Suck And Swallow pub in return for the chain round his neck. He then used it to steal from the casket.

Sir Bounteous entered prepared for his session with Truly, stripped to his underpants and vest, and with a dog leash round his neck. He noticed that Truly’s breath smelt of “wine, beer and tobacco” but that did not prevent him chasing her around the room, with his hand coming dangerously close to discovering that the object of his lust was not a woman.

Sir Bounteous became discouraged and called to Spunky to bring him his “tincture” as “the bald-headed hermit is returning to his cave”. In his absence, Follywit stole some more loot from the room and scarpered. On his return with Spunky, Sir Bounteous took note of the various thefts and changed his mind about Truly Kidman. He decided to cheer himself up by throwing a fancy dress ball.

Penitent Brothel confronted Mrs Littledick, thinking her the Succubus that had visited him and told her about the guilt he felt (4.4). She leant forwards resting her elbows on the desk as he stood behind her, so that when Mr Littledick appeared, they appeared to be in a compromising situation.

However, at that precise point Penitent Brothel was telling her to keep her vows and to be loyal to her husband, a sentiment with which she wholeheartedly agreed. This again gladdened Mr Littledick.

Spunky appeared up in the gallery and telephoned Mr Littledick, inviting him to the fancy dress ball, which would require wearing “Jacobean garb”. This was a nice nod to the original play.

Back at the Moka Bar, Follywit was coming on to Truly Kidman who eventually departed having made plain that she was not interested in him (4.5).

He met her mother Mrs Kidman, who informed him, in her fake posh voice, that Truly was very bashful. She left briefly to fetch her daughter back upon which Follywit made Truly an offer of marriage and mentioned in passing his rich uncle Sir Bounteous.

Mrs Kidman remarked “I know your uncle well; she knows him better” in a joking reference to Truly being his mistress.

The marriage was quickly agreed on and Follywit proposed that they all attend the fancy dress ball, treat it as a free wedding dinner and also surprise Sir Bounteous with the news.

Follywit left the Kidmans who dropped their posh act to wonder how Sir Bounteous would react to the nuptial.

Guests arrived at Sir Bounteous’ house for the Jacobean-themed fancy dress ball (5.1). Spunky announced the arrival of “certain actor-types” who presented themselves with a fanfare as the servants of Lord Owemuch, thus gaining them instant credibility.

A rather tasteless joke was made about the “boys who plays girls” who were said to be “bringing up the rear”.

On the subject of the performance, Follywit announced that “We’ll be giving you The Slip”. Sir Bounteous was sarcastic to Truly Kidman when she arrived, as he now considered her to be a thief.

Mrs Kidman told him that her daughter was now married. Sir Bounteous was convinced that her husband “cannot be but a rascal” and concluded with a Latin saying “Ferter ut opibus abundad maximis” that Mrs Kidman thought meant he was calling her “an old fart”.

This phrase appears to be a modified borrowing from A Chaste Maid In Cheapside, where Tim says “Ferter me hercule tu virgo, Wallia ut opibus abundis maximis”: in English “”It is said, by Hercules, that Wales abounds with great wealth.” The sentence here seems ungrammatical.

Truly denied the theft despite wearing one of the stolen jewels on her finger.

Follywit and his companions appeared with a lot of stolen booty, which they hastily excused as borrowed properties for the performance. Increasingly audacious, he said that they also needed to borrow a chain, a ring and a watch. Sir Bounteous willingly provided them, specifying that the watch was Swiss and chimed upon the hour.

His assistants scarpered with the loot, leaving Follywit to improvise a prologue for the play to present to the attentive audience, now all gathered in a line facing downstage. At the end Truly Kidman said she had fallen for the actor.

There followed an incredibly long pause, punctuated by mild fidgeting by the onstage audience until Follywit dashed back muttering about how their plot had been thwarted.

Mr Littledick noted how sullen Follywit appeared and said that he looked like an angry young man “I ha’ seen such a man at the Royal Court” introducing a neat 1950s theatre in-joke.

Follywit realised that police would soon be arriving and so spoke as if the Constable were part of the play. The Constable had Oboe and Sponger under arrest and Follywit overacted trying to include him in the onstage action. Trying to pursue his enquiries, the Constable spoke to Sir Bounteous, who assumed that this was in the experimental nature of the play. He rebuffed the Constable’s questions, instructing him to talk to his fellow players.

After trying to insinuate that the ‘character’ was drunk, Follywit hit on the idea of tying the Constable to the chair as part of the play. Truly suggested using garters, and got the women to throw theirs on to the performance area.

The Constable was bound and gagged and left struggling as Follywit and his accomplices made a quick exit. The onstage audience guffawed at the funniest play they had ever seen.

But after a while they noticed that nothing else had happened and a servant was dispatched to investigate. He returned shortly afterwards to report that the ‘actors’ had completely disappeared. Sir Bounteous realised that he had been cheated. Once freed, the Constable was furious, but in a comically contained way.

Follywit and friends entered dressed in Jacobean fancy dress and acting like mere latecomers to the party. As Sir Bounteous explained that he had just been robbed by a troupe of actors, the chime of his stolen watch began to sound and was soon discovered to be in Follywit’s pocket along with the chain and jewel that had been similarly stolen.

Ever quick-witted, Follywit assured his uncle that this entire sequence of events was just his joke and that he had amended his life for the better by marrying.

But when he pointed out Truly Kidman as his wife, Sir Bounteous began to laugh; the two suitors cried “Dash it!” The box of Milk Tray was discarded, while Sponger questioned whether Follywit was serious.

Sir Bounteous was ecstatic that Follywit had fooled him only to be fooled in turn to a much greater extent by “a fly-girl, a pole-climber, a fuckstress” whom he gleefully announced was in fact his mistress.

Truly admitted to this but vowed to live better in future.

Follywit sheepishly admitted that he had been bested, using a line borrowed from 3.3 to say that “craft recoils like an over-charged musket and maims the very hand that puts fire to it”. But he proposed a toast anyway, generating a jolly atmosphere for the final moments of the play in which Sir Bounteous, living up to his name, gave Follywit “a thousand mark”.

Follywit spoke to Truly using a line borrowed from Michaelmas Term: “What base birth does not raiment make glorious?” to which she replied “And this raiment, when removed, will give you glory, husband.” At this point came the inevitable romantic kiss between the happy couple.

The performance ended as the cast collapsed in a heap facing the audience to sing Who Will The Next Fool Be? as balloons fell from the ceiling which were thrown out into the audience.

Conclusions

The production was a riotous triumph whose energy was partly the cathartic release of tension for many of the cast who were alternating between this play and the much darker and violent Titus Andronicus.

The approach to the text, neither fully modern, nor wholly archaic, was highly intelligent and satisfying. If this mixture of original and modern can work for Middleton, then the question arises as to whether it could work for Shakespeare too. Or will the RSC continue to consider Shakespeare texts sacrosanct?

This outstanding production has set a strong precedent for future productions of this type, whose repercussions might yet be felt beyond Stratford.

The precise treatment of Jacobean comedies is a question of immediate interest to directors considering working at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre.

Titus’s antic disposition

Titus Andronicus, Swan Stratford, 28 June 2013

The RSC was keen to point out that this production was gruesome and blood-stained. So it was slightly underwhelming to enter the Swan and be greeted by the sight of three apparently intact, clean bodies, their faces peeking out from blankets as they lay on hospital trolleys in a dingy hospital. The Roman insignia on the wall clashed anachronistically with the large radio from which a voice burbled indistinctly. Nurses attended to the sick, mopping brows in an atmosphere of serene calm.

Titus (Stephen Boxer) and his son came to visit, the father tenderly examining his other children, kissing their brows before closing their eyes and covering their faces. He stood stiffly by them and gave a clenched fist salute. But despite this martial gesture it was clear that Titus was war-weary. Our first glimpse of Titus showed him as compassionate and tender.

Saturninus (John Hopkins) and Bassianus (Richard Goulding) appeared on the upper gallery overlooking the stage and pitched their claims for the position of emperor. Titus leaned into the radio to listen as if hearing their words as a broadcast.

Saturninus cast a scathing glance at his rival as he spoke of “this indignity” while Bassianus in turn gave a withering look at Saturninus as he said that “dishonour” should not approach the throne.

Marcus Andronicus (Richard Durden) entered on the stage level announcing that the Roman people had chosen Titus, who had been called back to Rome.

There was an air of weakness to Saturninus that would later explain his willingness to be led by Tamora.

Titus pointed at the radio to draw attention to Bassianus’s reference to “gracious Lavinia” to whom “my thoughts are humbled all”.

The two rivals dismissed their followers and cleared the balcony.

The Captain’s role in announcing Titus’s arrival was cut as he was already present. But the focus on Titus as the centre of attention was heralded by major changes to the stage.

The bodies were taken from the trolleys and laid in white shrouds downstage, while the back wall of the hospital opened out to reveal Titus’s captives: Tamora (Katy Stephens) and her three sons were in harnesses restrained by ropes, while behind them Aaron (Kevin Harvey) stood with his tethered arms outstretched, this greater restraint signalling his greater potential threat.

As Titus spoke of the “precious lading” with which he had returned to Rome, he paused, choked with emotion before describing the family tomb as their “latest home”.

Lucius (Matthew Needham) appealed to have one of the Goths killed in retribution and Titus brusquely agreed.

As Alarbus (Nicholas Prasad) was taken, Tamora became wide-eyed with grief and shrieked in impotent terror. She pleaded with Titus to spare Alarbus, but they met kneeling over Titus dead son so that his motive for revenge was immediately before him.

Lucius and the other sons stood with Alarbus on the centre stage lift and descended below the stage, returning moments later with nothing more than a bowl filled with bloody remains into which he dipped his fingers and smeared Alarbus’s blood onto his brothers’ foreheads.

The use of the lift and the military precision of the operation were faintly reminiscent of operations on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.

This pitiless slaughter showed that however mournful and compassionate Titus could be, he was still capable of savage retribution.

The shrouded bodies of his dead sons were buried in the family tomb by being hoisted by ropes up into the air.

Lavinia (Rose Reynolds) appeared on the stage right walkway and greeted her father centre stage where they embraced. She was dressed in white, which matched her long blond plaits.

With ceremony complete, Marcus offered Titus a white robe, bidding him to be a candidate for the emperorship.

Titus turned down the offer, his thoughts once again still on his soldiership and his dead sons as he paused before enumerating the “one and twenty” he had buried.

Saturninus entered and knelt along with Bassianus to Titus whom they both expected to become emperor. But Titus gave his support to Saturninus who threw aside his white candidatus robe before he stood to be acclaimed ruler.

The new emperor had difficulty adjusting to his position, faltering before adopting the imperial plural: he paused “the favours done to… us” and the text was changed so that he could also pause before saying “… we give thee thanks”. His uncertainty at this point combined with earlier indications of his weakness to suggest subtly his lack of preparedness and unsuitability to rule.

He chose Lavinia as his wife and immediately seized on her, took her aside and pulled the shoulder of her dress down to perve over her body. Titus put his sword at Saturninus’s feet and handed over the prisoners to him. Saturninus freed Tamora assuring her “princely shall be thy usage”.

As Saturninus made to leave with Lavinia, she shot pleading glances at her fiancé Bassianus, who picked up on her cue and laid claim to her. He was backed up by Lucius, but opposed vehemently by the loyal Titus. Saturninus watched passively and stamped his foot petulantly like a child.

As Lavinia was snatched away, Mutius (Harry McEntire) drew his sword and blocked Titus from pursuing. Enraged at this mutiny, Titus grabbed his son by the head and snapped his neck, his limp body falling to the ground at his feet.

Tamora once again looked on appalled at this Roman barbarity.

Saturninus returned supported by Roman troops and denouncing the treachery of Titus’s family. He sounded as if he was trying to forget the insult just offered to him and his choice of Tamora as replacement bride was almost an impulsive whim, “this my sudden choice”, which he announced in a cautiously defensive manner.

He plucked Tamora from upstage where she was crouching and held her hand aloft like the victor of a fight. She looked shabby and scared, the whole hasty match looking like the pathetic second-best option of the insecure Saturninus. The pair departed together.

After his brother and son had pleaded for Mutius to be buried with the rest of the family, Titus relented and his body was hoisted up to join the others.

Saturninus appeared on the balcony along with Tamora who had been cleaned up and now wore an elegant gown. He denounced Bassianus and his family as traitorous and seemed intent on revenge until Tamora advised him as a new appointee not to act against Titus in case the Romans should turn against him.

Saturninus agreed and everyone cheerily greeted the new peace as Tamora proclaimed that “This day all quarrels die”. There was still a hint of hurt in Saturninus’s voice when he accused Lavinia of leaving him “like a churl”, but all was resolved. Titus even threw his fur stole up to Tamora as a gift, signifying his approval of her position.

But right at the end of the festival of reconciliation, Tamora was held in spotlight to deliver key lines, usually an aside, held over from her previous speech. She glared out at the audience and announced with a demonic evil flourish “I’ll find a day to massacre them all…”

You can take the girl out of Goth-land, but you cannot take Goth-land out of the girl.

Pendant

Tamora threw a heart-shaped pendant down to Aaron who caught it and put it around his neck as he came forward and stood on the centre platform (2.1).

The platform raised him slightly as attendants held up a fine cloak into which he slipped his arms “Away with slavish weeds”. Kevin Harvey managed to convey the roughness of the Moor but also the fine eloquence of his language. He wore Tamora’s heart-shaped pendant that reminded us that although married to the emperor, she was still his “imperial mistress”.

Demetrius (Perry Millward) and Chiron (Jonny Weldon) were two aggressive lads threatening each other with knives in their dispute over who had most right to court Lavinia. Aaron separated them as they almost came to blows and acted like their wise counsellor.

The boys continued to taunt each other with Chiron holding his dagger limply in front of his crotch taunting Demetrius by saying “And with thy weapon nothing dar’st perform”.

Aaron suggested that they snare Lavinia during the hunt arranged for the next day, preferring that they commit a great outrage in secret rather than a social faux pas in public. Aaron gestured as if riding Lavinia, telling the “brave boys” to “take your turns”. Aaron gave Chiron his scimitar, possibly in the hope he would take after him.

Soldiers rushed down the stage, scattering it with black ash to set the scene in the forest for the hunt (2.2). As the ladies and gentlemen prepared for the day’s sport, Demetrius and Chiron ambled through on their BMX bikes looking like potential troublemaking interlopers.

Aaron continued to charm us with his explanation of his “very excellent piece of villainy” as he stashed a bag of gold at the side of the stage, notionally under a tree (2.3). Tamora, now wearing a split leg skirt so that her thigh tattoos were visible in addition to those on her arms, met with him. She had love on her mind, but Aaron fought to resist the temptation she offered. His face showed the strain of the effort that this self-control demanded. But he managed to keep his mind on the business in hand and gave her a letter to look over.

He made a quick exit as Bassianus and Lavinia approached. The couple were haughtily unpleasant to Tamora, accusing her of an unseemly assignation with the “barbarous Moor”.

Chiron and Demetrius appeared downstage to stand behind Tamora as she accused her tormentors of luring her to this spot in order to slander and then murder her. She spoke these lies with self-assured confidence as her sons flew to revenge these injuries by stabbing Bassianus.

Lavinia spat further insults at Tamora, who wanted a knife to kill her too. But her lascivious sons wanted to take her away to deprive her of her chastity as a fitting punishment, “thrash the corn, then after burn the straw”.

As the boys tried to carry her off to enjoy her “nice-preserved honesty”, Lavinia begged Tamora to be killed straight away. When she refused, Lavinia still showed she had some fight in her by butting her forehead against Tamora’s as she denounced her as a “beastly creature”.

As Lavinia was taken away, Tamora stood over Bassianus and the stage went dark. The lights went up again on Martius (Ciarán Owens) in the pit next to Bassianus, who had remained on stage, but the staging now indicated that he was in the pit.

Aaron in one section of the upper gallery said he would “fetch the king to find them here” while Quintus (Joe Bannister) in a neighbouring section of the same gallery called down to Martius, who explained that he had found Bassianus there. Quintus reached forward and the lights went down once more to suggest his fall into the pit.

The stage was cleared and the trap was opened as Saturninus and followers arrived to look down into the pit, now seen from the top.

Tamora expertly pretended not to know who was dead at the bottom of the bit and produced the forged letter given to her by Aaron to prove the guilt of Titus’s two sons. Saturninus ordered a search for the moneybag as further confirmation, which Aaron was happy to provide by retrieving the bag from the spot where he had previously placed it, with as much fake outrage and sincerity as Tamora.

Titus vowed that the emperor would have justice for the murder of his brother, displaying the same disinterested loyalty that had provoked his killing of Mutius.

The next scene began with another chilling use of the stage lift (2.4). Demetrius and Chiron, their clothes, hands and faces dripping with blood, the instruments of their butchery still in their hands, rose out of the stage with Lavinia curled at their feet.

The horror of their brutality was made the worse for their callous references to their actions and their taunting of the helpless Lavinia.

They left her to “her silent walks”. Lavinia lay motionless and alone for what seemed like an age before struggling to raise herself. Her long hair had been cut raggedly short, with the tresses used as bandages to dress the stumps of her wrists. Strands of hair still hung from the ends like tassels. Her clothes were naturally in tatters.

Marcus came across this pitiful sight and the horror was further enhanced as blood flowed from Lavinia’s mouth as she tried to speak, which Marcus reminded us was the result of her tongue being cut out.

A crowd of hooded tribunes crossed over the stage and ignored Titus’s pleas for clemency for his sons (3.1). The condemned sons were dragged up the stage on rough sackcloth and Titus concluded he would be better off talking to the stones, which he knelt to caress.

This conversation with the floor was the first indication of Titus distracted state of mind. But there was a certain method to his madness: the fact that he could be taken for insane yet still be fully lucid, prepared us for his subsequent deception of Tamora, which was achieved using precisely this confusion.

Marcus told his father that he had been banished for trying to rescue his brothers. Titus’s remark that Rome was “but a wilderness of tigers” was soon proved right as Marcus brought in the pitiful Lavinia.

The poetry of Titus’s reaction enhanced the great dignity of his sentiments. Lavinia fainted to the ground when Titus mentioned her condemned brothers. Picking up on this sign, he tried to comfort her, saying that if her brothers were responsible then justice would be done as they were condemned to die anyway. But he soon realised, as Marcus had suggested, that she knew they were innocent.

Aaron appeared downstage carrying a large bucket of hot pitch and told the Andronicus family that the emperor would spare the sons if any them chopped off their hand and sent it back.

Titus immediately and hurriedly offered his hand, approaching Aaron and asking him to help. There was in this request a hint of irony at the ridiculousness of the situation, which reflected the pointless horror of it all.

With Lucius and Marcus also offering, Titus agreed to spare his hand, which prompted the other two to go fetch an axe. He took advantage of their absence to call on Aaron, who took his hacksaw, grabbed Titus’s arm and sawed off the hand centre stage as Titus shrieked. He plunged Titus’s stump into the pitch, allowing the actor’s real hand to be concealed beneath a cover.

Marcus and Lucius returned to be confronted with Titus’s fait accompli. Aaron promised to return his sons, and his devilish aside “Their heads I mean” verged into the comic as the full extent of his villainy was exposed.

Titus kneeled and Lavinia kneeled next to him as both were united in sorrow and mutual pity.

Marcus challenged him over his excessive reaction, but Titus pointed at Lavinia as he spoke of the winds raging and at himself when referring to the sea being wild, expressing how natural it was for disturbance in one to provoke motion in the other, before making the comparison explicit “I am the sea… She is the weeping welkin”.

A strange-looking man (Ben Deery) pushed in a pram laden with what looked like meat in plastic bags. He dumped the two sons’ heads and Titus’s hand on the ground and departed.

Titus laughed at the absurdity of it all, at one point playing with his own severed hand. He lifted each up in turn, saying that “these two heads do seem to speak to me”, and acted as if listening to them, nodding in agreement. He then continued “and threat me I shall never come to bliss till all these mischiefs be returned again even in their throats that have committed them”, as if prompted by the heads’ suggestions.

This was another instance of apparently mad behaviour with a completely lucid purpose that was simply a coping mechanism devised by someone under extreme stress.

He did not go into specifics, but told Lucius to go to the Goths and raise an army. The others left, with Marcus and Titus carrying a head each and Lavinia carrying Titus’s hand in her mouth.

Lucius said he would go to the Goths to raise an army “to be revenged on Rome and Saturnine” and as he spoke the Goths loomed out of the darkness upstage, led by their new queen (Sarah Ridgeway). They hailed Lucius, who stripped off his shirt and braced himself as the Goth queen took a hot iron and branded him with the mark of the Goths, welcoming him into their ranks.

On that searing image the interval came.

Interval

A big square table was set out for the second half (3.2). Lavinia lurked under the table before emerging to sit at breakfast. She had now been cleaned up: her hair had grown back, albeit shorter than before, and her stumps were now bound in leather. She tried clumsily to grasp a spoon to open her boiled egg but failed, eventually smashing the egg and gulping down the contents like an animal.

The rest of the family came in for breakfast, including Young Lucius (George David) who was carrying some books tied up with string. Titus’s hand stump was also encased in brown leather.

The general air of despondency at their losses found expression when Lavinia brushed away her plate scattering its contents, a gesture picked up on by Titus as he said “Thou map of woe, that thus dost talk in signs”.

In a change to the text it was Young Lucius who stabbed at a fly with his knife, claiming that he mistook it for Aaron the Moor. Titus’s slightly sarcastic responses, typified by “How if that fly had a father and mother?”, worked perfectly in this context as warm-hearted admonitions to a child.

Titus took the knife and repeated the assault on the dead insect, yet again playing along and appearing to be soft-headed, while in fact perfectly compos mentis. With hindsight, the transfer of Marcus’s fly tormenting to Young Lucius and Titus’s playful response could be seen as a more effective preparation for the tricking of Tamora than the text’s version.

The action carried on continuously into 4.1. Instead of Lavinia running after Young Lucius in another location, she simply spied the parcel of books and cast them from the table to the ground before pawing at one of them with her stumps. The scene therefore began with Marcus and Titus puzzling over her motives.

She raised her arms in the air one after the other and then pointed out the story of Philomel, from which Titus interpreted that she had been raped by two men. Titus implored her to name her attackers. Marcus dragged Lavinia onto the table top and, grasping a salt shaker between his forearms, demonstrated how to spell out names. Lavinia took the shaker and spelt out Chiron and Demetrius.

With vengeance in the air, Titus placed a saucepan on Young Lucius’s head like a helmet, inviting him to be fitted out in “mine armoury” and told him that he would take a message to Tamora’s sons.

In the scene interval, Tamora appeared on the upper gallery great with child, holding onto the balustrade to steady herself as she walked, overseen by a nurse.

Shadowy figures that had represented the tribunes moved the dining table aside to reveal a bed rising out of the trap on which Demetrius and Chiron cavorted with two girls (Ellie Beaven and Sarah Ridgeway) (4.2). Young Lucius ignored their taunts to present them with a bundle of knives in a cloth holder. The boldness of the boy’s acidic asides to the audience, indicating that Tamora’s sons had been rumbled, was gratifyingly comical.

But while the young men were dimly grateful for the gift, it took Aaron to work out that the message that accompanied it indicated that Titus knew they were the perpetrators.

The Nurse (Badria Timimi) brought in Tamora’s newborn baby. When she asked the lads “did you see Aaron the Moor”, he introduced himself, deliberately playing up the comedy in his “Well, more or less…”

The Nurse’s horror at the mixed-race child, to which she ascribed increasingly lurid terms such as “loathsome as a toad”, culminated in her telling Aaron that Tamora wanted him to kill it.

Aaron switched from resolute defence of the child and by extension his own colour “Zounds, ye whore, is black so base a hue?” to cooing baby language “Sweet blowze, you are a beauteous blossom, sure.” These brief two lines raised Aaron way beyond the standard Machiavel from which his character derived.

Chiron and Demetrius, on the other hand, were incensed. But Aaron once again managed to be sympathetic by getting the better of them using comedy. The sons complained that he had “undone our mother”. His riposte, “Villain, I have done your mother” managed to be an insult to them and an appealing comic interlude for the audience.

Aaron cradled the baby close to him with one hand, while fending off “white-limed” Chiron and Demetrius with his scimitar in the other, an image that combined tender paternal affection and imminent violence to create great tension.

Even as he reasoned with them, he found time to include the baby in his argument, cooing to the baby as he imagined how it would say “Old lad, I am thine own”.

Aaron managed to convince the boys that their brother was worth saving and sat on the bed, the Nurse next to him, asking her how many people knew that the baby was black. Apart from Tamora, only the Nurse and midwife knew.

Aaron leant in towards the Nurse and began to utter a confidence upon which he stabbed her in the stomach. She cried out in agony and collapsed backwards on to the bed. Aaron looked at her and shook his head disapprovingly. He then corrected her by making what he considered an authentic squealing sound and said “so cries a pig prepared to the spit” as he stabbed her again in the behind. He thus undid all the credit he had built up as a caring father.

Even Chiron and Demetrius were appalled at this, but it was possible to detect a certain professional admiration for Aaron’s thoroughness.

Aaron instructed them to take gold to Muly whose wife had given birth to a white child and to explain how their child would be advanced by being swapped with the empress’s. They looked puzzled at this until Aaron clarified that the swap would enable the emperor to “dandle him for his own” at which point the slow brothers grasped his drift. Taking note of their dimness, he then told them to bring the midwife to him, speaking slowly and deliberately as if they were simpletons.

By now Chiron and Demetrius were convinced that Aaron was acting in their mother’s best interests, but with his parting remark, cooing over the baby that he would bring it up “to be a warrior and command a camp”, he made his self-interest plain.

Titus and family approached from upstage carrying crossbows as they prepared to send messages to the emperor (4.3). Titus laid a large chart (presumably of the mythological world) out on the ground, gesturing at it as he issued crazy instructions to dig “to Pluto’s region” to deliver a petition to him. Marcus and Publius (Ben Deery) commented on his apparent madness.

The crossbowmen were given bolts bearing messages and fired them into the air.

When they had finished a blind man (Dwane Walcott) with a brace of pigeons round his neck, his clothes dirtied with pigeon guano, came into view. It was evident from his comical misunderstanding of questions that he was simple-minded. Nevertheless, Titus used this Clown as a messenger to the emperor, hastily writing his “supplication” on the man’s back before giving it to him, as well as a knife to be wrapped in it.

An ornate bath ascended through the trap and after a brief pause Saturninus bobbed up out of the water, compounding the surprise of the bath’s incongruous appearance (4.4). He was scrubbed by female attendants as Tamora wandered about with a visibly white baby on her shoulder. Saturninus delved down into the water and retrieved a handful of bolts of which he queried “what wrongs are these?”

The comic sight of a man in a bath ascending into view was compounded by the implication that all the arrows shot from the crossbows had somehow landed in his bath.

Tamora assuaged her husband’s fears about Titus “blazoning our injustice everywhere” but congratulated herself in an aside that she had touched him “to the quick”. She put the baby down tenderly as she spoke of Aaron making “all safe, the anchor in the port”, the nautical image conveying the safe-keeping she wished for her own child.

When the Clown was shown in, Saturninus stepped out of the bath as his attendants wrapped a towel around him, so that he could read the letter. But all the poor messenger got for his pains was the emperor’s instant order to that he should be hanged. Saturninus had worked out that this was all Titus’s doing.

Saturninus was scared by the news of Lucius approach with the Goth army. He sat at the foot of the bath and was comforted by Tamora, who encouraged him to take heart. She put her arm round him and her supportive caresses evidenced the emperor’s innate weakness.

She nuzzled his head close to her as she promised to “enchant the old Andronicus”. Saturninus raised his head out of her embrace to object that “But he will not entreat his son for us”, to which Tamora responded by comically thrusting his head back down again to continue assuaging him.

The ridiculousness of the bath scene was enhanced by this farcical moment.

Parley

Tamora took further control as she instructed Emillius (Gwilym Lloyd) to request a parley with Lucius at his father Titus’s house.

The scene ended on a sinister note. Up in the gallery the Clown was placed in a noose and hanged, while Tamora turned to the audience and announced that she would visit Titus and try to get him to separate Lucius from the Goths, cackling evilly about “my devices”.

Lucius and the new Goth queen met and agreed to attack Rome as Aaron and his child were brought to them (5.1). The Goth (Ciarán Owens again) who had taken them prisoner described how he had found Aaron describing out loud the full details of his plot in “a ruinous monastery”, and the uptalk intonation on “monastery” perhaps hinted at the anachronistic and geographically incorrect nature of this Reformation reference.

Lucius ordered both to be hanged, the baby first so that Aaron could see it suffer. Aaron tried threats, but soon realised that offering useful intelligence in exchange for the child’s life would be a better ploy.

Aaron admitted to fathering the child with Tamora and revealed Chiron and Demetrius as the ravagers of Lucius’s sister Lavinia. The audacity of admitting his involvement in this crime and that he had framed Lucius’s brothers for the murder of Bassianus, made the sequence very edgy as there was always the possibility of Lucius becoming enraged and taking retribution.

Describing how he had laughed after tricking Titus into cutting off his hand, could only be described as a high-risk strategy. But it paid off as Lucius implied that hanging was too good for him.

Emillius brought Tamora’s message inviting Lucius to a parley at Titus’s house, which he accepted.

Titus appeared on the upper gallery, representing the interior of his house, and sat at a table writing (5.2). Tamora (aka Revenge) and her sons entered on the stage below, wearing wolf pelts draped over their shoulders, their heads shrouded under fanged wolf upper jaws.

They gestured as if throwing stones at Titus’s window and succeeded in attracting his attention. In a nice touch, papers blew from the writing table as Titus mimed opening his window, enacting his fear that they merely practised “a trick to make me ope the door, that so my sad decrees may fly away”.

Tamora tried to lure Titus down, and stood under the window looking back at her sons. She ignored his recognition of her and she continued to insist that she was the mythological figure of Revenge. When she drew attention to her “ministers” they circled and made weird noises in an attempt at eeriness.

Titus requested that she prove she were Revenge by killing her assistants, whom he (and subsequently and falteringly she) named as Rape and Murder.

Hearing this, Chiron and Demetrius looked disconsolately at their mother and began to leave, certain that Titus had recognised them. But Tamora gestured to them to stay as Titus finally decided to descend and meet with them.

He brought with him the drawings of the three of them he had been working on upstairs. Chiron and Demetrius asked Titus what he would have them do. He brandished the drawings and ordered them to kill the people that they resembled, i.e. themselves.

Tamora continued to ignore the clear indications that they had been detected and asked Titus to bring his son Lucius to dine at his house. In return she would bring the emperor, his wife and her sons, and all his enemies for him to be revenged upon.

He agreed, but when Tamora and her sons went to leave, Titus insisted that they stay. Having told us that he was perfectly lucid and knew what he was doing, he bid farewell to Revenge, pecking Tamora repeatedly on the cheek, which reinforced her impression that he was insane.

Titus trap closed around Chiron and Demetrius as his kinsmen entered to confront them, the slowness of their pace signalling the ineluctability of the sons’ fate.

Tamora’s sons were seized and torn out of their ridiculous disguises. They were bound, gagged and hoisted up like sides of meat.

The appearance of Lavinia carrying a bowl between her stumps pointed to the gruesome fate awaiting them. Lavinia’s hair was still neat, but she was wearing the tattered dress in which she had been attacked, a reminder of the grounds for Titus’s impending retribution.

Titus reminded them of their crimes as they struggled vainly against their bonds and gags. He asked them “What would you say if I should let you speak?” which triggered furious wriggling and muffled cries.

He explained how they would be turned into pies for their mother. Their throats were cut and the blood drained into the bowl. The religious reference inherent in “Receive the blood” was brought out in that line’s pronouncement.

After Titus had slit the first son’s throat, the second writhed in panic. Titus shook his head as if translating his wish not to be killed and then changed the shaking into a nod, confirming his resolve to go ahead. This he then did, as the last of Tamora’s sons was drained of his blood.

The spectacle of Titus standing next to the slaughtered bodies merged seamlessly into the final scene (5.3). The bodies were hoisted aloft as Titus turned to face the guests arriving for dinner upstage at a table running down the stage. This involved cutting the first 25 lines of the scene showing the impending arrival of Lucius and the Goths.

Marcus arranged a truce centre stage between Saturninus and Lucius, who drank a conciliatory toast and then moved back to the dinner table.

Titus disappeared for a quick change and reappeared dressed as a serving maid and laid out the dishes in camp flourishes before the astonished company. Two pie dishes were placed next to Saturninus and Tamora who sat opposite each other at the head of the table nearest to the audience.

He asked Saturninus whether Virginius had been right to kill his deflowered daughter. On hearing Saturninus agree, Titus took Lavinia downstage, clasped a cloth over her mouth and  suffocated her in full view of everyone. He cried “Die, die Lavinia…” and then paused while she thrashed around during her protracted suffocation, only continuing “… and thy shame with thee…” once she was limp at his feet.

In the light of Titus’s previous actions, this rash murder raised an important question: if Titus had hitherto only feigned madness, was he now at least insane with rage having killed his beloved daughter? Where was the compassionate man shown at the start of the performance?

He alluded to Lavinia’s ravishment, which Saturninus picked up on and Tamora asked why he had killed her. Titus cheerfully and sardonically told Tamora that it was her sons that her killed her.

Saturninus demanded they be brought forth, allowing Titus comically to point at the pie they had been eating and announce “Why, there they are…”

Tamora looked in disgust at the forkful of pie she held near her mouth and, surprisingly, continued its onward motion. She tasted it, thereby confirming what Titus had said.

She cried in horror as her nascent look of revulsion blossomed into absolute disgust.

Bloodbath

The bloodbath began.

Titus thrust a corkscrew into Tamora’s chest. Despite her wound, Tamora still had the strength to lash out. Blood spurted comically from Tamora’s chest as she reeled from the blow. In revenge for this, Saturninus took a carving knife and thrust it into Titus chest, who then slumped down against the edge of the table facing forward to watch the ensuing chaos.

Lucius stood on the table and thrust a blade into Saturninus’s neck, who ended up eviscerated and slumped in his chair.

Eventually the violence died down as people collapsed from their various injuries. Titus, who had leant against the table all this while, now laughed at the carnage. Yet again, this raised the question of his state of mind. While he had merely pretended to be insane, could laughter at this scene be said to be truly well-adjusted?

Marcus recovered and got up from the body pile, promising to “knit again this scattered corn” of the Roman populace “into one mutual sheaf”.

Lucius stood on the dining table to confirm the allegations against Tamora’s sons. The imperial crown was taken from Saturninus, a slight shove sending him comically crashing off his chair, and ended up on Lucius’s head.

Young Lucius entered the bloody scene cradling Tamora’s child as Marcus explained that Aaron was the father and “chief architect and plotter of these woes”.

Aaron was brought in under guard and Lucius, now proclaimed emperor, sentenced him to be buried up to his neck and left to starve. He arranged decent burials for Titus, Lavinia and Saturninus, but looked contemptuously at “that ravenous tiger” Tamora ordering her to be thrown to the animals.

The stage cleared and the table was moved aside to reveal Aaron’s head peering out of the trap. His speech, held over from earlier, now became the play’s ending. He said that he did not repent what he had done. But admitted that he would repent “If one good deed in all my life I did” as he looked up at his baby being held by Young Lucius, whose preservation would surely count as such a good deed.

Young Lucius stood holding the baby and picked up a cake slice with a slight air of menace at which point the lights went out. The implication was that he was following, either by training or by trauma, in the footsteps of his family. In the context of this ending, it was possible to see the fly stabbing sequence being allocated to him as a way of preparing us to see his angelic face contemplate murderous deeds.

Conclusions

The production was gripping and powerfully presented its key moments of violence. But the early focus on Titus’s quiet contemplation of the effects of violence meant that it also brought out the complexity of his character. In particular, questions arose about Titus’s sanity: like Hamlet he affected an “antic disposition” but his actions were ultimately destructive of others and of himself to an extent that put him beyond the bounds of the rational. The overall effect was to show that this early Shakespeare play had all the texture and beauty of his later works.

The chilling reworking of ending intimated at the cyclical nature of violence as Young Lucius took the first steps down the path trod by his older relatives.

The Festival of Arden

As You Like It, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 24 May 2013

A dark stage was strewn with very dead leaves. Looming at the back was a dense set of upright wooden beams reminiscent of a foreboding forest. Two sombrely-clad figures appeared. Orlando (Alex Waldmann), in dark trousers and a hoodie, began sweeping the leaves with a wide-headed broom, while Adam (David Fielder) wheeled the barrow into which the plant detritus was collected.

As the last of the leaves was deposited into the barrow, Orlando sat, lit a cigarette and launched into his opening speech, complaining about his brother’s neglect of his upbringing (1.1).

Oliver (Luke Norris) appeared behind them in a smart dark suit. Despite his haughtiness, he was neither cruel nor excessively arrogant. He came across like someone who had merely taken advantage of an opportunity to enrich himself at his brother’s expense. This made his subsequent conversion to goodness more believable and allowed Duke Frederick to assume the mantle of the principal, unrivalled villain.

In his anger Orlando punched Oliver, who cried “What, boy!” in surprise. The fight escalated until Orlando straddled Oliver with his hand round his throat.

After this tense beginning a note of humour was struck when Oliver called for Dennis (Daniel Easton), and his comically obsequious servant announced that Charles was waiting to speak with him.

Charles (Mark Holgate) exposited the news about Duke Senior fleeing to the Forest of Arden and Oliver encouraged him not to spare Orlando in the forthcoming wrestling tournament.

A group of women dressed in formal evening gowns assembled in a corner upstage and stood in a rigid formation. They began a series of slow, synchronised moves under the intimidating gaze of male overseers. This was dancing, but with all the joy sucked out. They occasionally clicked their fingers and tossed their heads, but the stiffness and formality of their movements made them robotic rather than exotic.

This joyless dance showed how the new Duke’s court was a place of emotional as well as physical grimness. Touchstone (Nicholas Tennant), in his vest, clown’s makeup and red nose, attempted briefly to mock the dancers, but he soon gave up his fitful rebellion.

Rosalind (Pippa Nixon) and Celia (Joanna Horton) broke out of the formation and came forward (1.2). Celia asked Rosalind to be merry and when Rosalind replied that she showed “more mirth than I am mistress of”, she pointed at the sad women behind them. Rosalind’s suggestion that they should make sport by falling in love looked like desperate escapism and an unlikely outcome given their circumstances.

Touchstone made his first proper appearance. His joke about honour and pancakes showed him to be a rebel against the new dour order at court because he did not take its formality seriously.

Celia’s “For since the little wit that fools have was silenced” hinted at another sinister aspect of the new order imposed by Duke Frederick, the debilitating effects of which had already been visualised.

Madame La Belle (Karen Archer) told the two friends about the wrestling. The sparky, witty exchange that ensued between them provided a foretaste of the glee that would subsequently flourish once Rosalind and Celia had been exiled from the court.

As a crowd gathered to watch the match, boards were taken up from the stage platform to reveal a wrestling pit beneath.

Our first look at Duke Frederick (John Stahl) showed him to be burly and sinister, with a deep voice and unsmiling demeanour: just the person to drain all the joy out of the entire dukedom.

Orlando stood on the other side of the pit from Rosalind and Celia, facing upstage in his hoodie until called by La Belle. He spoke with Rosalind in front of the pit and they seemed charmed with each other, but not overly so.

Orlando knelt in the pit as Touchstone blindfolded and poured water over his head. Charles then began his assault and repeatedly overwhelmed him. Orlando seemed on the verge of total defeat by his much stronger opponent until Rosalind crouched at the edge of the pit and enthused “O excellent young man!” Orlando replied disbelievingly with an extra-textual “Really?”

But Rosalind’s encouragement had a transforming effect on Orlando’s performance. Energised by her words, Orlando charged at Charles, punching and beating him into submission to the point that others had to prevent him from slamming the defeated wrestler’s head against the ground.

Duke Frederick exuded brooding menace when expressing his displeasure at victor Orlando’s parentage.

After lingering upstage right for a while, Rosalind and Celia returned to thank Orlando. Rosalind put her pendant necklace around Orlando’s neck. As they conversed, Duke Frederick appeared upstage and observed their complicit chat from a distance. The dark duke now had proof of Rosalind’s disloyalty.

Orlando held the pendant at the end of the necklace towards Rosalind as he tried to utter a meaningful reply, but his tongue had weights on it.

La Belle, acting in response to the duke’s newly-stoked fury, warned Orlando to leave the court. She also informed him that the “smaller” of the two women was the Duke’s daughter. Orlando’s departing “But heavenly Rosalind!” was said looking at his beloved as Rosalind’s entry for the next scene overlapped with his exit.

In keeping with the sombreness of the court atmosphere, Rosalind’s admission that her lack of words was “for my child’s father” did not come as a joyous outburst about Orlando but as a complaint about being unattached.

Their ensuing lively and jovial wordplay was comprehensively crushed by the Duke’s scornful ultimatum to Rosalind to leave the court on pain of death. The threat was very believable, particularly when the Duke gave vent to his fury, throwing Rosalind into the pit as he told Celia that she was a fool for standing by her cousin. Although Rosalind had defended herself with spirit, the Duke’s violence showed him intractable to logic and decency.

They decided to flee. Rosalind plumped for a male disguise and the name Ganymede, and when Celia half-heartedly suggested the alias Aliena, Rosalind backed her up with an extra-textual “No, it’s good!”

In another scene overlap, Rosalind stopped and stared at her estranged father Duke Senior (Cliff Burnett) as he appeared (2.1). A subtle lighting change made the tight array of beams appear like dense forest.

Duke Senior had long grey hair, but his skinny jeans and relaxed, casual demeanour pointed to a youthful spirit. He and his fellows carried hunting rifles with which they intended to “kill us venison”.

Having seen the depressing nature of the usurping Duke Frederick’s “envious court”, it was understandable that these refugees considered suffering “the icy fang” of the winter wind less problematic.

The 1st Lord (Samuel Taylor) launched into an energetic impression of Jaques, including his Welsh accent.

Displeasure

The stage became dark again as Duke Frederick bellowed his displeasure at Rosalind and Celia’s flight (2.2). A very nervous Hisperia (Rosie Hilal) stood by as the Duke was told how she had overheard the cousins’ praise of Orlando. The Duke angrily ordered that Oliver be brought to him.

Still in the darkness of the court, Adam warned Orlando that his brother planned to burn down his lodging (2.3). Adam showed a small tin in which he had saved money for his old age, but which he now wanted to use to fund their flight. The rattle of coins in the meagre container evoked paradoxically the grandeur of Adam’s gesture.

Adam’s description of his sensible, non-profligate youth was very moving. It now enabled him to enjoy a “lusty winter, frosty but kindly”, which he demonstrated by carrying Orlando’s rucksack.

The main shift to the world of the forest was marked by a transformative ceremony.

Corin (Robin Soans) entered the downstage pit and, Prospero-like, drew a circle around himself in the dirt with his shepherd’s staff. The creation of this magic circle made the beam forest fold to one side as the upstage revolve on which some of the beams stood began to turn. The effect was to create an open space where before had stood an impenetrable wall.

We saw Rosalind in her man’s disguise of trousers, short hair and rucksack, together with Touchstone (2.4). Celia lagged far behind offstage with the sound of clanging cooking pots announcing her approach. Rosalind said she should “comfort the weaker vessel” at which point Celia finally appeared, completely overloaded with equipment on her back, and collapsed.

Rosalind stood in the pit to announce they were in the Forest of Arden. Touchstone was actually happy to be there and his delivery of “the more fool I” transformed his gripe into a positive vote in favour of the new location.

Rosalind’s response to seeing Silvius (Michael Grady-Hall) complain to Corin about his unrequited love for Phoebe was slightly too enthusiastic. Instead of pining like Silvius, her “Alas, poor shepherd…” verged on the pantomimic. This abrupt change of style might have been intended to distinguish the forest from the court, but the difference felt too pronounced.

Touchstone provided a note of earthy humour, pausing before saying he had broke “… my sword…” to introduce a bawdy connotation into the description of his wooing of Jane Smile.

Celia was starving hungry and Rosalind prepared to seek help from Corin. She pushed some socks down her trousers to plump out her groin, while the others placed Touchstone’s hat on her head, which being too big, came right down over her eyes.

Striking a mannish pose and adopting a strained style of speech without deepening her tone, she struck up a conversation with the shepherd. She repeated her reference to Celia “…and faints for succour” until Celia took the hint and swooned dramatically to conform with Rosalind’s description of her.

Celia, like Rosalind, was convinced that a rustic mode of speech was required to get on Corin’s side, so her “I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it” was a strangulated approximation of the local dialect. Not wanting to let the side down, Touchstone also jabbered incoherently.

They left to buy the sheepcote as the exiles entered (2.5). Amiens (Chris Jared) played guitar and sang Laura Marling’s adaptation of Under the Greenwood Tree, accompanied by another guitarist.

Jaques (Oliver Ryan) teased Amiens about his singing, in an accent less obviously Welsh than that of his imitator in 2.1. Rather than exude melancholy, this Jaques was more otherworldly, to the extent that his occasional skyward glances made it seem he was on the lookout for the ship that would return him to his home planet.

After another Amiens song, Jaques handed him the words to one of his own composing. Amiens took the paper and sat in a circle with his fellow musicians upstage as they concentrated on rendering this new tune correctly.

Jaques pointed with his finger in a wide sweep taking in the audience when explaining that “Ducdame” was “a Greek invocation to call fools into a circle”.

Adam and Orlando had found their way to the forest (2.6). Adam collapsed in the pit, fainting with hunger. Cradling his loyal manservant, Orlando discovered that his water bottle was empty, which heightened his resolve to seek out food, carrying Adam along rather than leaving him behind.

Jaques was enthused after his meeting with Touchstone, relishing his memory of the experience by lying on his back in the pit (2.7).

Oliver Ryan’s Jaques was very distinctive but not show-stoppingly magnetic as Forbes Masson’s Jaques had been in the RSC’s 2009 production. This helped to keep the production’s focus on Pippa Nixon’s Rosalind.

Orlando surprised the foresters at sword-point and demanded food. This wish granted, he went to fetch Adam while Jaques spoke of the seven ages of man.

Jaques took his hat and cradled it when referring to the infant, then imitated the “whining schoolboy”, before pointing at two of his fellow foresters as the lover and the soldier. He used his hat to represent the “fair round belly” of the justice “with good capon lined” and gestured at his trousers for the pantaloon, trailing off into his gloomy conclusion about “second childishness and mere oblivion”.

Orlando returned with Adam, and Amiens launched into a Laura Marling update of “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” accompanied by a band wheeled in on a cart far upstage left.

Orlando sat motionless as the song played, but must have spoken about his situation and been overheard by the Duke in order for the latter to comment on Orlando being Sir Rowland’s son.

The action returned briefly to the court where Duke Frederick loomed threateningly over Oliver, who had been brought to his knees in the pit, finally banishing him and ordering the seizure of all his property (3.1).

Orlando appeared in a knitted hat with earflaps, and carrying an accordion as he attempted to compose a song (3.2). “Rosaline… if I could make you mine… I’d walk the line… no…”, he concluded as his composition went astray.

After another go, rhyming “high tower” and “power”, he launched into the text’s “Hang there, my verse, in witness of my love” sticking sheets of writing onto the few beams that remained to represent the forest.

He urged himself to “Run, run” and carve Rosalind’s name on every tree, and left the stage just as a figure we would later discover was Hymen, appeared in the shadows with a stag’s head atop his own. At this point the interval came.

Interval

At the start of the second half the raised area and sunken pit in front of the revolve had been removed and ash spread over the entire stage.

Corin and Touchstone sat in silence for some time, before Touchstone held forth on the tediousness of a shepherd’s life.

Rosalind, now in a long-sleeved shirt and jeans, read the verse she had found. Touchstone’s mockery extended to kneeling in front of the cross-dressed woman and staring at her crotch to emphasise “must find love’s prick…”

Rosalind’s retort referenced the “medlar”, a fruit whose bawdy connotations she brought out by placing two fingers in front of her mouth in a V-shape and licking with her tongue. She also described the medlar as “the earliest fruit in the cunt-try [country]”.

Celia, whose forest attire included a skirt/leggings combination and Zooey Deschanel glasses, read out the verse she had found, prompting the band to strike up. She launched into a slightly histrionic rendition running about the stage and standing on the drinks fridge.

At various points during these forest scenes, people would go to this drinks fridge and retrieve cans.

When Celia told Rosalind that Orlando was the author of the verses, she panicked at her disguise and began to strip, slipping off her braces and dropping her trousers to reveal the sock padding in her pants, as Celia hastily tried to hoist the trousers back up again.

Rosalind wanted to know more, so Celia asked her to take note “with good observance”, pointed with the two fingers of one hand at her own eyes and then extended them towards Rosalind, accompanying this gesture with an extra-textual “watch!” Celia then stood next to Rosalind and pointed at the downstage beam representing the tree under which she had found Orlando.

As with almost all performances of this play, Rosalind’s “…I am a woman. When I think, I must speak” amused the audience greatly.

The pair hid from Orlando and Jaques behind a stage left beam when the two men entered. But they could not help but react to what Orlando said.

Orlando confirmed that Rosalind was his love’s name, causing the two women to squee out loud. Rosalind reached out with her hand when Orlando defended her name, and had to be pulled back by Celia. Finally, when Orlando said that Rosalind was “Just as high as my heart” they both aww-ed at the cuteness of his expression.

Jaques placed his thumb and forefinger together and spied through the circle they formed when suggesting Orlando conned goldsmiths’ wives out of rings.

Once Jaques had left, Rosalind became determined to speak to Orlando. She adjusted her crotch and took a can from the fridge before addressing him “like a saucy lackey”.

Orlando appreciated her ready wit, shared a joint with her and fixed her with a contented smile. They hit it off instantly despite Rosalind’s disguise, which demonstrated that Orlando found her personality intrinsically attractive.

Orlando mentioned Rosalind’s overly-refined accent. This perturbed Rosalind, who had to hastily devise the story about her uncle teaching her to speak. But its delivery was strained.

Her insecurity in her disguise became noticeable when she took Orlando downstage, her hand on his shoulder, and pointed back at Celia, saying “I thank God I am not a woman” in a clumsy attempt at male bonding.

Rosalind said that Orlando had none of the marks of a man in love and bobbed around him pointing out his deficiencies, plucking his hat off complaining that he was “point-device” in his “accoutrements”.

She took another opportunity to bond with Orlando, pointing at Celia to comment on “one of the points in which women still give the lie to their consciences.”

Rosalind asked Orlando if he was responsible for the love verses strewn about the forest. He confessed that he was, and unpacked yet more pieces of paper from several pockets. Sheet followed sheet in a comical moment showing the excess of verse he still had about him.

Rosalind moved away from him, casting a doubtful glance back as she asked “But are you so much in love as your rhymes speak?” It was a beautiful moment, showing the concern and insecurity behind Rosalind’s brave ‘performance’ as Ganymede.

Proclaiming love to be “merely a madness”, Rosalind said she would cure Orlando of this sickness by her impetuous response to his wooing. This, of course, required him to address ‘Ganymede’ as Rosalind. Orlando willingly agreed to do so, much to Rosalind’s delight.

Audrey the goatherd (Rosie Hilal again) wore sheepskin boots, a short skirt and a midriff-baring top. A utility belt hung from her waist in which she stored the tools of her trade (3.3).

Her conversation with Touchstone was spied on by Jaques, who hid behind a series of beams, effecting a token disguise by holding up two fronds.

Touchstone took a can from the fridge before telling Audrey that he hoped she was feigning like a poet when she said she was honest. He then knelt before her and attempted unsuccessfully to prize off her top and skirt.

Realising that he would have to go the honourable route, he got down on one knee and tried to utter the words “I will marry thee”. But this was so against his nature that it took an age before he could pronounce the words comprehensibly, mouthing a series of approximations to the key phrase before spitting it out properly.

Audrey was jubilant and ran off, leaving Touchstone to start on his speech about cuckolds. The actor broke out of character for a while and asked a man in the audience how long he had been married. Graham, for it was he, replied that he could not remember, but his wife would know. This caused great amusement, more perhaps than the adlibbing actor had planned. He said that he would now get back on text “for my own safety”. Touchstone then included Graham’s name in his speech, using it to replace the references or allusions in the text to a married man.

Audrey returned in a bridal veil and carrying a bouquet in time for the entry of Sir Oliver Martext (Dave Fishley), a magnificent spliff-toting Rastafarian, who insisted that someone should give Audrey away.

Jaques came forward but immediately set about dissuading Touchstone from marrying in this fashion. Sir Oliver concluded that none of them would “flout me out of my calling”, with the word “calling” clearly referring to the huge spliff that he bent backwards to draw on sending clouds of smoke into the air.

Orlando had not turned up at the promised time, so Celia sat and commiserated by holding hands with Rosalind, who was now wearing a waistcoat over a white vest (3.4).

An excited Corin told them of the approach of Silvius and Phoebe. Phoebe (Natalie Klamar) lambasted Silvius in an odd rural accent (3.5). Natalie Klamar delivered a focused and well-paced performance of Phoebe’s lengthy demolition of Silvius’s accusation that she was his executioner.

Rosalind came forward to castigate Phoebe, a chiding that the shepherdess willingly received. She ran her hands through her hair behind her head as she tangled with Ganymede’s eyes, making her attraction very plain.

Rosalind and Celia made a quick exit after telling Silvius where to find them.

Phoebe declared how much she was in love and told Silvius she needed him for an errand.

Describing Ganymede as “a peevish boy”, Phoebe launched into a lengthy conversation with herself, tussling back and forth between his good and bad points. She sat on the fridge and proceeded to bounce up and down, screwing up her eyes as she lingered over Ganymede’s physicality. Her rhythmic gyrations on the fridge became increasingly orgasmic as she inwardly fantasised. She concluded by asking Silvius to take a letter to the youth.

Object

After Rosalind’s mockery of Jaques, comparing him to a post, we soon saw that Rosalind was anything but a motionless object (4.1).

Jaques flounced off when Orlando approached, drawing full attention to the young man’s changed appearance. Rosalind must have had a profound effect on him when she had described the marks of a true lover, because Orlando had returned having reworked his appearance to conform in every detail to what a true lover should look like.

He had grown a straggly beard, his shoes were untied and his clothes characterised by the “careless desolation” of Rosalind’s idealised description. He also had half of Rosalind’s name written up each arm and had brought her a bouquet of flowers.

But Rosalind was annoyed at his tardiness and prowled around him with an agile dexterity. Overly excited as she described herself as “your Rosalind”, she sat behind Celia who corrected her enthusiasm by referring to the ‘real’ Rosalind “of a better leer than you”.

Rosalind bounded to her feet again, taking off her waistcoat to stand in just trousers and vest, leaning forward in a semi-crouch with her hands on her thighs and her rear sticking out. This was a combative posture, suggesting that Orlando was now engaged in another wrestling bout of a different nature. She continued to lean forward, jigging up and down as she challenged Orlando “Come, woo me, woo me…”

Orlando rushed forward aggressively, exclaiming “I would kiss before I spoke”. Rosalind immediately saw the problem of his enthusiastic response to her in her male disguise. She turned away from his advances saying “Nay…” and moved aside from Orlando before pulling at her fake crotch bulge to ensure it was visible and prominent. This restatement of her masculine disguise spoke of her puzzlement as to why Orlando was so forward with another male, something that perhaps gave her momentary doubts about his masculinity.

Notwithstanding these uncertainties, from that moment on Rosalind was more tactile towards Orlando as if acceding to his desire for greater physical intimacy.

Rosalind said she would not have Orlando, eliciting his dramatic “I die”. She lectured him about Troilus and Leander and how they had not died for love, and Orlando obediently sat leaning against the downstage beam to take notes.

Reverting to “a more coming-on disposition”, Rosalind got Celia to preside over a mock wedding. The bouquet that Orlando had brought became Rosalind’s bridal bouquet as the pair knelt and faced each other with Celia standing over them.

Rosalind asked Orlando how long he would have her. Answer came as he climbed on top of her saying “for ever and a day”. Once again Rosalind was uncomfortable with his readiness to be so physical with ‘Ganymede’. As he pinned her to the ground, his body between her thighs, she cried “No, no Orlando…” and extricated herself from his clutches. This time Orlando realised he had gone too far. He stood up and in deep embarrassment tried to conceal his arousal.

Rosalind bounced around in front of Orlando acting out the various ways that she would torment him once they were married.

Orlando left to dine with the Duke, allowing Rosalind to profess to Celia how much she was in love. Celia said she would sleep and exited, leaving Rosalind on stage to sing a song by torchlight. This sequence replaced scene 4.2. As she sang, female torch bearers entered and circled her, creating a very magical setting that foreshadowed the play’s conclusion.

Having Rosalind on stage at this point worked well, because when Celia reappeared, Rosalind was the first to speak in 4.3. It was as if the song had marked her dreaming the intervening two hours.

Orlando had not returned, but they were soon occupied by the letter from Phoebe that Silvius had brought to Rosalind. Silvius discovered to his chagrin that the letter was not a caustic chiding.

Oliver appeared through the forest wearing yellow waterproofs, and with a map and compass round his neck. He cheerily introduced himself, which was entirely credible, given that he had not been initially characterised as a cruel monster. This facilitated his present transformation into a good guy.

Celia approached Oliver and gave him directions to the sheepcote, pointing to its location on his map. He recognised the pair, reading out the description of them he had been given, presumably by Orlando, from a scrap of paper.

Oliver showed Rosalind the bloody napkin sent to her by Orlando, which he had stored behind the clear plastic of his map case. He recounted the story of how Orlando had found and rescued his brother in the forest, leaving to the end the great reveal that he was that brother.

Oliver explained how Orlando had used the napkin to bind the wound caused by the lioness’ bite, extracting it from the case and presenting it to Rosalind, who promptly fainted backwards.

Rosalind recovered consciousness, but was groggy and pleaded plaintively “I would I were at home”. She was helped to her feet by Oliver, but there was no indication that he had felt anything womanly about her body.

Rosalind flipped between confident assertion of her disguise and fatigued whining, as if giving up on the pretence. Oliver said she lacked a man’s heart, to which she replied by pleading “I do so, I confess it”, reaching out to him as if this admission would bring an end to her troubles.

But she then began overcompensating for her frailty by claiming to have counterfeited. She maintained this until Oliver said she should counterfeit to be a man, at which point she almost collapsed again, saying “So I do… I should have been a woman by right”, until Celia pulled her upright once more.

Audrey was very unhappy about the failed wedding (5.1). William (Mark Holgate again), a big man with a simple soul, arrived clutching a small, long-stemmed flower which he hoped to present to her. Touchstone dispatched him, telling him not to bother Audrey and issued a sequence of threats accompanied by drum beats. Far from being annoyed with Touchstone, Audrey had stood and watched all this admiringly and was now very impressed with him.

Orlando was surprised that his brother had fallen in love so quickly with Aliena. Oliver continued to cement his nice-guy persona by exclaiming “I love Aliena” with a joyous flourish. Orlando had his arm in a real bandage, indicating that Oliver’s story was correct and not a poetic subterfuge to impress Rosalind.

Rosalind asked Orlando if his brother had told him how she had counterfeited. Because Oliver had not seen through Rosalind’s disguise when helping her to her feet, Orlando’s “Ay, and greater wonders than that” clearly referred to Oliver’s love for Aliena and was not played as a winking hint to Rosalind that she had been rumbled.

Rosalind picked up on this and developed the theme, describing how the couple were in “the very wrath of love”. His brother’s joy was clearly making Orlando suffer, as he said how bitter it was to “look into happiness through another man’s eyes”.

Substitute

Rosalind asked him if she would no longer be an acceptable substitute for his Rosalind.

Orlando said “I can live no longer by thinking” and slowly offered his hand for her to shake. The shake done, Orlando turned and walked away from Rosalind, presumably never to return.

Orlando’s intended departure after his sad farewell to Rosalind became a very tense moment, as the entire future of their relationship hung in the balance. Instead of rushing towards an inevitable happy end, the play entered into a moment of crisis, reaching a crucial turning point in what was now an edgy drama. Rosalind had to draw something out of the bag to win Orlando back.

Rosalind’s next speech was received in pin-drop silence. She called to Orlando just as he disappeared, promising to “weary you then no longer with idle talking”. The nervous tension of the moment expressed itself in the way she rambled confusedly, desperately thinking on her feet in the face of the potential catastrophe of losing Orlando.

All this could be seen in the disconnectedness of her speech: “I speak not this that you should bear a good opinion of my knowledge… Neither do I labour for a greater esteem than may in some little measure draw a belief from you, to do yourself good and not to grace me.”

Orlando turned and approached Rosalind as she explained that she was a magician and could arrange for him to marry Rosalind the next day.

Phoebe, with Silvius trailing behind her, complained that Rosalind had read out the letter she had sent. This led into Silvius’s description of “what ‘tis to love”.

Rosalind’s repeated “And I for no woman” was addressed first to Phoebe and then to Orlando, expressing discouragement and encouragement in equal measure. Silvius and Phoebe ended up lying on the ground facing each other, continuing to tattle while Rosalind asked Orlando “Who do you speak to ‘why blame you me to love you?’” Orlando referred to the absent Rosalind, holding up the pendant he was still wearing, which as Rosalind’s gift, was the nearest thing he had to her.

Rosalind gave her instructions to the lovers to meet her again tomorrow, promising them various sorts of contentment.

Touchstone and Audrey met two of the Duke’s pages (Samuel Taylor & Karen Archer again), which turned into a song and dance centred on a new version of It Was a Lover and His Lass (5.3). The band played and the pair danced round each other while the revolve was decked out with strings of lights and other paraphernalia in preparation for the wedding. Paper lanterns descended to provide illumination.

Duke Senior and Orlando remarked how Rosalind was strangely familiar (5.4). Lines 5-25, the reappearance of Rosalind with her renewed promises to the lovers, were cut. Thus the initial conversation between the Duke and Orlando continued uninterrupted with Senior saying that the “shepherd boy” reminded him of his daughter while Orlando thought he was her brother.

Touchstone carried Audrey onstage on his back via the stage left walkway. In a nice touch, Audrey was now wearing a clown’s nose like Touchstone’s, symbolising her affinity with him.

The extended sequence about the seven degrees of the lie was cut. This has always looked like filler to allow the actor playing Rosalind to change into her wedding dress. But because this production included scene 5.3 and cut Rosalind’s re-entry at the start of this scene, there was plenty of time for Pippa Nixon to change and Touchstone’s quirky discourse was omitted.

However, when Touchstone gestured at Audrey and remarked on this “poor humour of mine, sir, to take that that no man else will”, William, who was definitely willing to take Audrey, lunged forward aggressively and had to be restrained. This demonstration of the unhappy consequences of William’s rejection introduced a dark undercurrent that would later be developed by Jaques.

Rosalind and Celia, now wearing simple white dresses, walked slowly together hand in hand accompanied by Hymen (Robin Soams again)  in his stag’s head costume. They parted hands as they approached a central beam and passed either side of it, possibly symbolising the downgrading of their childhood friendship in the face of their impending marriages.

Hymen reunited the Duke with his daughter. Rosalind embraced Orlando, who kissed her as he declared “… you are my Rosalind”. He took the pendant necklace from his neck and replaced it around Rosalind’s neck from whence it had originally come.

Phoebe realised she was not going to marry Ganymede. Hymen reined in the confusion and handed out four sets of his eponymous blue bands that the kneeling couples then used to bind their hands together. He addressed each couple in turn, the pair in question rising from their crouched position when mentioned.

Once the brief ceremony was finished there was general whooping and celebration, which was interrupted by the arrival of Jaques de Boys (Chris Jared again) with news of Duke Frederick’s conversion to goodness.

The Duke’s intention that everyone should fall into “rustic revelry” was delayed by Jaques departing to seek out Frederick. Not a fan of “dancing measures”, he breezed off the downstage left walkway. Rosalind offered him her bridal bouquet, which he paused to take with him. Thus was Jaques’ undercutting of the marriage festivities itself undercut by his own acceptance of Rosalind’s gift – perhaps signifying that he would be the next to be married?

A jig was danced at the end with all the couples joining in. Eventually, though, the central couple of Rosalind and Orlando were left by themselves. He held her aloft; they smooched and collapsed into the earthy ground as water rained down on them as if at a festival. They kissed and got themselves muddy in the joyous abandon of young love fulfilled.

The wrestling pit of the court where once Orlando had fought for his life was now supplanted by a muddy field of festival fun in which Orlando and Rosalind celebrated life.

Rosalind rose from the mire to deliver the epilogue, at the end of which the audience bade her farewell with great applause.

Unusually for a production of this play, Pippa Nixon received a solo curtain call in recognition of her portrayal of Rosalind.

Conclusions

Under Maria Åberg’s capable direction, the imagining of the Forest of Arden as a contemporary music festival worked very well. An association was made between the escapist freedom enjoyed by urban dwellers camping in fields, leaving their cares behind them to frolic in mud and listen to music, and the forest within the play that serves as a refuge from the crushing conformity of Duke Frederick’s court.

But the principal reason for the success of the production was Pippa Nixon’s outstanding performance as Rosalind. The abiding memory of her stage presence was its mixture of tenderness and freneticism. Her last minute rescue of her relationship with Orlando made her almost a heroic figure. All of which meant that her solo curtain call was thoroughly deserved.

Hamlet the Dane

Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 6 April 2013

The play was set within a fencing hall with the piste marked down the centre of the thrust stage. A raised platform at the rear contained a large Danish flag in one corner and a desk in the other. Foils hung from the wall of this office. A pitched roof with its skylights and fluorescent tubes hung above, and to the stage right side was a door with glass panels in its top half. A Latin inscription “mens sana in corpore sano” overlooked the whole.

A figure loitered briefly behind the door, removing a securing chain before entering and revealing himself to be Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet in his dark mourning suit and glasses. He leant forward with his head in his hands, clearly distressed. After composing himself, he picked up a lath sword and moved to the piste where he began a fencing manoeuvre.

He fought his way down the piste against an imaginary opponent. As he reached the end, the sound of clashing foils was briefly heard. Hamlet turned back and uttered the play’s first line “Who’s there?”

The sound of swords was an echo returning back in time from the final fencing bout. The answer to Hamlet’s question was that his future, his fate and his destiny were calling him.

The watch appeared via side entrances and, becoming aware of their presence, Hamlet slipped away to sit in darkness at the front of the stage writing in a notebook. Behind him the first scene played out, beginning with Barnardo (Dave Fishley) and Francisco (Mark Holgate) on the Elsinore battlements (1.1).

The Ghost (Greg Hicks) appeared on the stage right walkway dressed in fencing whites, which made little sense of Horatio’s (Alex Waldmann) comment that it was wearing the same armour in which the king had fought the Norwegians. At this point the production’s conceit clashed with the text.

Some men in welders’ outfits came through the door and out the stage left exit, prompting Marcellus’ (Samuel Taylor) question about Denmark’s war preparations. Horatio’s answer, in which he referred to “landless resolutes”, was interrupted by the reappearance of the Ghost on the stage left side. Marcellus took a sword hanging from the wall, but the Ghost withdrew and reappeared at various entrances before finally disappearing.

Hamlet rose from his seated position as the court entered for 1.2. The others all wore black fencing masks and moved in slow, formal dance steps as they collected around the besuited Claudius (Greg Hicks again).

The king looked lean and wiry, a physical condition that gave his insistent firm manner a kind of low-level hectoring aggression. This undercurrent of potential violence was pacified by the obedience that his manner engendered in those around him.

His new wife Gertrude (Charlotte Cornwell) had something fusty and matronly about her, which suggested that Claudius was more interested in the throne than in her.

Claudius dispatched the ambassadors, Voltemand (David Fielder) and Cornelia (Natalie Klamar), to Norway.

Our first sight of Polonius (Robin Soans) hinted that, either by accident or design, he was similar in demeanour and tone to Claudius.

Hamlet stood and watched from downstage left so that his first line “A little more than kin, and less than kind” was spoken upstage to a distant Claudius. Hamlet was mildly dismissive but not wracked by anger or melancholy.

Hamlet’s deliberations on “seems” were slow and methodical. In fact he paused before saying “seems” a second time as if loathed to utter the word, but there was also a hint of suppressed rage and passion lurking just below the surface.

Claudius’s extended response seemed intent on wearing down Hamlet’s resistance and culminated in offering him a drink, holding the glass as if beckoning Hamlet to take it. When Hamlet consented to obey his mother, Claudius gave him the glass. He chanted “Be as ourself in Denmark” like a drinking song, with the rest of the court joining in, to jolly Hamlet along as he drank. A loud bang caused party streamers to fill the air as confetti scattered on the ground.

It was noticeable at this point that with the fencing piste already visible from the very start and with Claudius offering Hamlet a drink, the opening scenes of the play contained echoes of its fatal conclusion. The fencing piste on which Hamlet would be injured, and a drink, indistinguishable from the one with which Claudius would try to poison him, had already been presented to us.

Hamlet soliloquised about his “too too solid flesh” as the tension within him spilled out. He seemed to have reached a point of resignation in which, beyond fury, he was scoffing at his mother’s infidelity.

Hamlet was extremely happy to see Horatio and hugged him warmly. But the fervent emotion of Hamlet’s welcome showed him to be deriving solace rather than unalloyed joy from the reunion. He was like a man stranded on a desert island spying the smoke trail of a passing ship.

After the hug, they both crouched on the ground as Hamlet clasped Horatio’s hands in his, not wanting to let go even as the conversation continued.

Horatio broached the subject of the Ghost, and Hamlet’s questions in response flashed out rapidly and instantly as if he had turned his laser-sharp intellect onto a matter which had now fully gripped his attention. Within milliseconds of new data about his father’s ghost becoming available, he had formulated and delivered a fresh question designed to elucidate the next vital detail.

After the others had left, Hamlet vowed to see the Ghost for himself. Immediately afterwards, Ophelia (Pippa Nixon) appeared through the side door. She had short dark hair, wore a sensible skirt and an Icelandic pattern pullover, and was carrying a large pile of books.

On seeing Hamlet she let the book pile fall to the ground with a crash at her feet and ran over to him. They embraced and kissed warmly. Hamlet saw Laertes approach from the stage left side and quickly left so that the action of 1.3 could commence.

Laertes (Luke Norris) said that his “necessaries” were all stowed away, which suggested that the pile of books carried by the sensibly dressed Ophelia were her own.

A number of Icelandic pullovers, Horatio wore one two occasionally, introduced an element of localised naturalism into the production. This implied though that the Danish court had a preference for Icelandic rather than Faroese knitwear.

Laertes had just witnessed the ending of his sister’s tryst with Hamlet, which proved excellent grounds for his warnings to her about him.

Ophelia countered Laertes’ conditional statement “Then if he says he loves you…” with an emphatic extra-textual “He does, he does”.

Polonius lectured Laertes and again proved nimble-witted rather than sluggish and buffoonish. When he turned his attention to Ophelia, she meekly accepted his counsel.

Hamlet and friends encroached upon Ophelia and Polonius as they entered for 1.4. The sound of Claudius’s partying filtered through the door, prompting Hamlet’s sarcasm about this custom.

The Ghost appeared and walked across the front of the stage from stage left to right. Hamlet addressed it quizzically. The Ghost began to leave via the stage right walkway and beckoned Hamlet to follow. Horatio and Marcellus’ attempts at restraint caused Hamlet to take a foil from the wall and threaten them with it before he followed the Ghost off.

Grief

Hamlet appeared shortly afterwards from the stage right upstage entrance and the Ghost began to speak to him. The Ghost had taken off his mask, so that Hamlet could see it was his father. When the mysterious figure confirmed his identity, Hamlet reached out his hand to touch his father. His line “O God!” was replaced by a gut-wrenching moan, an inarticulate outpouring of grief and deep emotion that seemed more appropriate to this passionate and emotional Hamlet than a well-articulated phrase.

When Hamlet made contact with his father’s body it was as if an electric shock had passed between them. The touch became a grasp as Hamlet was consumed by the desire to know more. While reports about the Ghost had been intellectually analysed, this actual contact produced upheavals in Hamlet’s heart that drove his outward behaviour.

The stage brightened as the Ghost said he could scent the morning air, which hurried him to his concluding story about his murder by Claudius. He asked Hamlet to remember him by offering his fencing mask, which Hamlet accepted in astonishment.

Hamlet followed the Ghost to the stage left exit, so that when Hamlet was left alone he fell back onto a bench at the side from which he had to raise himself, requesting that his sinews “bear me stiffly up”.

He seized his notebook to record his father’s words. His reference “At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark” saw him point to the ground, thereby emphasising the naturalistic location of the play suggested by the flag, and partly by the knitwear.

Horatio and Marcellus caught up with Hamlet, who began to be cheerily sarcastic with them. This being a fencing salon, Hamlet easily found a foil on which to make the others swear not to divulge what they had seen. The Ghost’s voice echoed encouragement, also causing wind to scatter papers on the upstage desk.

In line with the RSC’s edition of the text, Hamlet referred to there being “more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy”.

This led into a quite camp imitation of the ways in which he did not want his friends to discuss his “antic disposition”.

Hamlet pulled Horatio back and directed his “time is out of joint” lines directly at him, not at the audience as an aside.

Polonius briefed Reynaldo (Daniel Easton) on how to spy on Laertes (2.1). As Polonius rambled on through his unnecessarily punctilious instructions, Ophelia burst in and stood silently staring at her father. This interruption became the cause of Polonius’s forgetfulness and the reason he had to pick up the thread of the conversation.

Ophelia sat quietly until Reynaldo had been dispatched, after which Polonius was free to listen to her. She spoke impulsively fired by the urgency that had driven her to burst in on him. She acted out Hamlet’s pained gestures when he had confronted her and Polonius decided to inform the king.

Rosencrantz (Oliver Ryan) and Guildenstern (Nicolas Tennant) wandered across the stage in their coats and carrying suitcases as if they had just arrived at the king’s behest (2.2). Drinks were brought for them.

At first the king was not sure which of them was which and did not address them individually. But on bidding them farewell he made an effort and got them the right way round, much to Gertrude’s satisfaction.

Polonius hurried to see the king and told him that he had found the cause of Hamlet’s madness, then ushered in the ambassadors who brought the good news of Fortinbras’ arrest. The king spoke with the ambassadors upstage, leaving Gertrude alone downstage sat on a chair looking neglected.

Ophelia was kept outside by her father and then ushered in and ordered to stand on a particular spot, receiving her cue to read from the letter Hamlet had sent. She snapped obediently into position and did as she was told.

Ophelia’s unquestioning deference meant that when Polonius told the king about his instructions to Ophelia to shun Hamlet, we understood that she had obeyed him.

As Polonius broached the outline of their further plot to “loose” Ophelia to Hamlet, the man himself entered, wearing an untied fencing outfit and mask. He sat down reading a sheet of paper and Polonius was left to deal with him alone.

Hamlet’s comical appearance made his response “words, words, words” even more funny. Further questioning prompted him to screw the paper up and throw it at Polonius when describing the slanders it contained.

Hamlet was jovially sarcastic, particularly when he walked backwards like a crab.

Polonius left in disgust clearing the way for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet greeted them and engaged in some bawdy play, simulating sex with Guildenstern who had spread his legs to indicate how he was one of Fortune’s “privates”.

Hamlet’s initial jollity soon gave way to suspicious questioning of their motives for visiting him. He referred to the “rights of our fellowship” and bared his forearm, as did the others, to reveal tattoos that witnessed some kind of pact between them.

Talking of having lost all his mirth, Hamlet’s reference to “this most excellent canopy” took on a comical note when he gestured upwards at the suspended roof. The drollery of his earlier appearance in the fencing suit indicated that he was not completely consumed by melancholy.

Hamlet’s philosophical observations did not hang like dense clouds of thought in the air, but seemed more to be exercises in rhetoric designed to convince others of his profundity. This was the conundrum: he had reason to be sad, but we also knew he was trying to affect sadness, so which was his real self?

Hamlet was genuinely interested in the news that the players had arrived and the production kept in his question as to why they were travelling, but without the boys’ company references.

Hamlet and companions sat on a bench and pretended to be engaged in conversation so they could make fun of mock Polonius. They formed a tight-knit little gang reminiscent of what must have been their previous closeness.

Hamlet stood to mock Polonius with his remarks about Roscius and Jephthah and then greeted the players. He congratulated a female player on being “nearer to heaven”, but without the final “by the altitude of a chopine”. Without the final part, Hamlet seemed not be commenting on an increase in height but an increase in age and proximity to death.

Hamlet launched into the Aeneas speech until it was picked up expertly by the First Player (Cliff Burnet).

Left alone after the impromptu performance, Hamlet half-laughed at himself, drawing out a long guttural moan of self accusation as he described himself as a rogue and peasant slave.

His admiring description of the player’s skill displayed much of the passion that he claimed he was unable to transform into action.

He spoke “John-a-dreams” slowly and affected a shambling gait with the self-deprecating implication that he was stupid.

His question to the audience “Am I coward?” did not provoke any response, though his subsequent lines were delivered as if he had in fact been directly accused. He foamed with growing anger at his supposed critics, descending into an overwrought display, the stupidity of which he suddenly became aware of, declaring himself to be “an ass”.

He hit upon his plan, but one he must have formulated earlier as he had previously told the players about the lines he wanted inserting into Gonzago.

Claudius and his court entered and gathered round Hamlet as he explained how he would use the play to trap the king, so that when he said “the play’s the thing” the cast were stood around like actors waiting for their cue, Hamlet’s final line in the scene.

As Hamlet departed, the king spoke with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who had been unable to fathom Hamlet’s troubles (3.1). Ophelia sat behind them on the raised stage staring at the ground beneath her dangling feet, obviously unhappy at the part she was expected to play in the plan.

The king and Polonius hid behind the glass panel door, while Ophelia sat on the stage right bench with her box of reminiscences and the book given to her by Polonius.

Antic

As he approached, Hamlet could be heard offstage singing Happiness by Ken Dodd, a completely incongruous song in terms of the speech that followed, but one that perhaps fitted his desire to appear antic to others.

After the first few lines of the song, he caught sight of Ophelia and sat down at the edge of the platform and launched into the iconic soliloquy. This lurch into seriousness caught Ophelia’s attention, but even here Hamlet applied a lightness of touch. He lay on his side when expressing his desire for sleep, as if he found the concept of the “sleep of death” somehow amusing.

His sudden shift from a song of joy into a melancholic disquisition did not ring true and undermined the sentiments of his soliloquy. This was a good way of subverting what has become an all-too familiar speech.

He was sat on what would later become the stage for the players, and this was very much a conscious performance for the benefit of Ophelia, who was present throughout. His only genuinely heartfelt sentiment was his reference to her right at the end when he approached Ophelia, talking of her “orizons”.

Ophelia rose and thrust her box of remembrances at Hamlet. He took a letter from the box and made blah-blah noises as he contemptuously pretended to read its soppy contents. He ditched the box on the ground, informing her “I never gave you aught”. Screwing one of the papers into a ball he threw it at her face.

His mood flipped into aggression, telling her to get to a nunnery while ringing a large hand bell. He moved upstage to ask where her father was, but without there being any real indication that Polonius was spying on them. This was perhaps Hamlet’s instincts informing him.

He smeared Ophelia’s face with dirt taken from beyond the stage blocks, complaining of women’s “paintings”. He completed her humiliation by stripping off her pullover and skirt, leaving her vulnerably semi-clad. He also cut off some of her hair with a small knife.

Polonius and later the king re-entered. Ophelia borrowed her father’s jacket and told him (not in soliloquy) about Hamlet’s great overthrown mind and began collecting up the scattered contents of the box.

Claudius was clearly ruffled by the threat to himself posed by this aggression, and had already decided to send Hamlet to England.

At first the players ignored Hamlet as tried to begin his talk on acting (3.2). He repeated “Speak the speech…” several times to no avail before finally ringing a bell to secure their attention. He stood on a bench by the stage left doorway to give his lesson, illustratively sawing his hands.

Referring disparagingly to the groundlings “capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise”, he looked to the people in the RST stalls immediately in front of him on the stage left side of the thrust, a joke which the whole audience seemed to appreciate.

As the court gathered for the performance, Hamlet instructed Horatio to observe Claudius and handed him a Polaroid camera with which to capture the hoped-for guilty look.

When Claudius entered he was wearing a fencing mask, possibly that belonging to Hamlet’s father. It was removed from his face just before he and Gertrude reached the bench that had been set aside in front of the raised stage. The others sat at the sides to watch, while Hamlet remained downstage.

Confident that events were under his control, Hamlet was boldly sarcastic and disrespectful to Claudius and Polonius.

In a great piece of realistic staging, Hamlet’s approaches to Ophelia and joking attempt to sit by her were indignantly rebuffed. After all, at their last encounter he had insulted and humiliated her. Reconciliation at this point would have seemed bizarre.

The dumb show was played out on the stage, from which the desk had now been removed, with a red curtain at its sides. The Player King and Queen (Cliff Burnett & Karen Archer) embraced in period costume, with the King wearing an oversized paper crown that towered upwards.

The poisoner appeared with a large phallic baguette dangling from his waist and gestured his covetousness of the queen and also of the castle on the painted backdrop. The gentle music of this scene changed to heavy metal as a figure in black modern dress with a skull pattern on her top entered to represent ‘poison’. She sat on the Player King’s chest to symbolise his murder.

After the poisoning the Player Queen tore apart a cob loaf, which she had thus far clasped to her bosom symbolising her heart, at which point the poisoner raised the phallic baguette in front of him and moved to embrace her.

The prologue was spoken in a vaguely Japanese style before the curtain opened to reveal the Player King and Queen sat on a sofa. Hamlet became ever more excited in his comments as the play reached the key theme of remarriage.

The flirtatious exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia with its references to “groaning” was cut.

The poisoner wore a suit identical to that of Claudius. He killed the Player King in imitation of Claudius’s crime, causing the king to rise from the bench in anger. He called for some light, to which Horatio responded by flashing the Polaroid camera in his face to capture his expression.

As Claudius stormed away and the guards arrested and led away the players, Hamlet and Horatio took to the stage. Hamlet, illuminating his face from below with a table lamp, sang the ditty about the “stricken deer” as Horatio snapped him with the camera. The interval came as the lights went out on the scene.

The second half began with Hamlet and Horatio continuing their conversation until they were interrupted by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who told Hamlet that his mother had sent for him. Hamlet stood on the bench and twisted his feet from side to side creeping up and down it in a muted victory dance.

Hamlet was now effusive and jokingly reassured Rosencrantz that he still loved him “by these pickers and stealers”, talking to him as if he were a baby. But when Horatio brought the recorders, Hamlet became vitriolic in his denunciation of Guildenstern, standing close and speaking “though you fret me you cannot play upon me” directly into his face.

He turned instantly on Polonius, switching his full attention to him and completely forgetting Guildenstern, in order to play his cloud-watching game with the old man.

However, that done, he had calmed down enough to talk in soliloquy about how he would not harm his mother.

The king instructed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to escort Hamlet to England, and they received a wad of notes in payment for their work (3.3). Polonius announced his intention to listen in on Hamlet’s conversation with Gertrude, after which Claudius had a few moments alone.

Greg Hicks clasped his hands in front of him and physically wilted from the strident, confident man he had so far presented, as his Claudius bemoaned the rankness of his offence.

Hamlet walked across the back and glanced sideways when he spied the king. He took a foil and approached the kneeling figure. Pointing the foil directly at Claudius’s head, Hamlet considered striking him before realising that this would be “hire and salary, not revenge”. He brought the foil close to his chest before vowing to kill Claudius at a more opportune time.

Polonius hid behind the half-drawn curtain on the raised stage as Gertrude prepared to receive her son (3.4). Hamlet appeared with a bouquet of flowers. His mother sat on the sofa (brought down from the Mousetrap stage during the post-performance chaos) roughly stage left. Hamlet positioned himself on the bench stage right to ask “what’s the matter?”

Their bitter exchange riled Hamlet into something approaching anger. Responding to Gertrude’s threat “I’ll set those to you that can speak”, Hamlet took a sword from the wall and pointed it at Gertrude, prompting her fearful cries. This caused Polonius to shout for help and Hamlet responded rapidly by dashing towards him. Hamlet tore the curtain down on top of the unseen figure and stuck his sword straight through his bulk. The curtain was unwrapped to show the dead Polonius sat in a chair.

Approaching his mother again, Hamlet took the recently snapped Polaroid of Claudius and a photo of his father from his pocket to show her this “counterfeit presentment of two brothers”.

Hamlet tore off the sheet covering the sofa when complaining of Gertrude living “in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed”, the item serving as a convenient approximation to bed sheets.

Hamlet was transformed and transfixed when his father’s Ghost appeared again upstage left, which perhaps helped him to be kinder to his mother, hugging her as he tried to convince her to cool her affection for Claudius.

When he was finished with Gertrude, Hamlet dragged Polonius out of the chair and sideways off the raised stage.

Threat

Gertrude was still crouched face down and sobbing when Claudius entered, giving real meaning to his “There’s matter in these sighs, these profound heaves” (4.1). Claudius again interpreted news of Hamlet’s rash actions as a direct threat to him. He sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find his son.

There followed a brilliantly inventive, exceedingly funny and wonderfully intuitive piece of staging.

Hamlet entered through the raised stage and descended the steps to the sofa carrying a mug of tea with the bag string draped over the lip. He sat and played with the teabag string before announcing “Safely stowed” with a self-satisfied exhalation (4.2).

Looking back at this sequence, it seemed perfectly logical that after carrying a heavy lifeless body a considerable distance around the castle, Hamlet would have needed a cuppa to unwind.

This state of relaxation informed his sarcastic answers to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s frantic questions about Polonius’s location. In the darkness it was difficult to see Polonius’s blood on his fencing suit.

He was particularly indignant at being “demanded of a sponge!” His semi-answer to their questions indicated that Polonius was “with the king”, as Hamlet indicated the King of heaven by pointing skyward. He insulted Claudius by describing him as a thing of nothing and then made his escape.

Hamlet was brought before Claudius, marching obediently but mockingly behind Guildenstern, all this still in the white fencing suit he had worn since his encounter with his father’s ghost.

He described the “convocation of worms” that were eating Polonius and outlined the fish/worm anecdote. However many times it is staged, Hamlet’s “He will stay till you come” never fails to be amusing, and this time was no exception.

At the very moment Claudius began to tell Hamlet that he was to be sent to England, Ophelia rushed silently into the room but was restrained and escorted out. But she had enough time to see Hamlet’s now fully-illuminated, blood-stained clothes. Her look of horror evidenced her realisation that Hamlet was responsible for her father’s death.

Hamlet’s response “For England!” saw him skip and twist the loose ends of his fencing suit in an imitation of Morris dancing.

Hamlet taunted Claudius by addressing him as his mother. He completed the explanation of his logic by kissing Claudius on the cheek, as he would his mother.

Claudius’s malevolent pronouncement of “the present death of Hamlet” was followed by the removal of the back wall of the raised stage to reveal a white backdrop with a single, distant tree in front of which the Norwegian army appeared (4.4).

The soldiers moved through this new upstage opening and began taking up the boards of the main stage platform to reveal dark soil underneath. Eventually a rough T shape remained with the fencing piste running the length of the stage still in place, but surrounded on all sides by dirt.

Hamlet appeared wearing a light-coloured suit for his journey and questioned the Norwegian Captain (Dave Fishley again) about his army’s mission. The “two thousand souls” line was given to the Captain.

Pondering this afterwards, Hamlet was inspired to act decisively after seeing such extensive preparations for a fight over nothing. But at the same time he displayed a hint of the quiet resignation that would characterise some of his subsequent statements.

Ophelia burst in on Gertrude and Horatio wearing a white wedding dress with a veil and clutching a bridal bouquet in front of her (4.5). She rushed excitedly to the top of the piste to ask “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?”

This could be interpreted two ways. The wedding dress and her previously avowed love for Hamlet meant she could have been referring to the prince. But it was also possible that, as a bride waiting to be escorted to the altar, she was expecting to see her father perform that honour.

But the overriding impression was that this sequence, normally about Ophelia’s reaction to her father’s death, was here transformed into an expression of her thwarted but unabated passion for Hamlet.

She muttered “they’re not ready” as she looked at the overturned benches at the sides of the piste and set them upright. She handed her bouquet to Horatio and set out small bunches of flowers on the benches as if they were wedding guests, before reclaiming the bouquet once more. Looking up at the imagined altar, she crossed herself.

Claudius appeared and Ophelia hugged him warmly. She set off down the piste, her arm bowed out for her father to accompany her, as she sang ‘Tomorrow is St Valentine’s Day’. Once at the end, she knelt as if before the altar.

She held out her hand as if holding that of her groom and started the ‘By Gis and by Saint Charity’ song, speaking the girl’s part, then shuffled sideways and put her opposite hand out to sing the boy’s part. This was slightly incongruous as the song recounted how a lad had not fulfilled his promise to marry a maid he had bedded.

As the others commented in wonderment, Ophelia continued in a world of her own. She stood up straight and looked out into the audience as if still waiting for Hamlet to turn up, pronouncing a hopeful “We must be patient” before departing with more distracted remarks, throwing her bouquet over her shoulder. A sad-looking Gertrude picked up the bouquet and kept it.

Claudius told of the imminent arrival of Laertes from France. Just then a violent commotion could be heard outside, prompting Claudius to call for his guards. A loud noise of an outer door being broken open brought real tension, so that when Laertes and his soldiers burst in, a sense of danger existed that was not diminished by the men with guns being told to wait outside.

Laertes himself was not armed and did not direct any weapon against Claudius, but the presence of his supporters outside the door was a constant reminder that he was capable of forcing compliance with his angry demands.

Ophelia’s second appearance saw her still wearing her wedding dress and her obvious madness appalled Laertes. Ophelia hugged her brother saying “Fare you well my dove”.

After encouraging everyone to sing “a-down a-down”, she took a foil from the wall and pointed it at Claudius, causing him some momentary fear, until she dropped the sword’s point to the ground and walked in a circle trailing it behind her.

Returning to where she had started, she briefly held the sword upright close in front of her as if beginning a fencing bout. She then removed the guard from the blade tip and clasped her other hand round its now bare point, cutting into her palm until it was smeared with her blood.

She took her bloodied hand and began to daub lines of blood on people’s foreheads, proclaiming each daub to be a flower.

This staging really tore up the rule book on how to portray Ophelia. The complete reimagining of the character at this point was exhilarating to behold.

She smeared Claudius’s face, describing the mark as rue. He had to wear his with a difference, so she made an additional red mark that differentiated him from the others.

Ophelia spoke her final song rather than singing it and left the assembled company stunned, an opportunity that Claudius seized on to further assuage Laertes.

A woman messenger brought a letter from Hamlet to Horatio, which he read aloud before setting off to prepare for Hamlet’s unexpected arrival (4.6).

Claudius showed himself to be a practised liar when he told Laertes that Hamlet’s popularity was the reason he had not put him on trial for Polonius’s murder (4.7).

The calm that the success of this lie produced in Claudius was short-lived as a letter arrived from Hamlet in which he informed the king he was returning. Claudius exclaimed “From Hamlet!” with utter incredulity.

Working together and thinking quickly, the pair hit upon their twin-track plan to murder Hamlet. Claudius walked up and down as he fretted about a backup plan should the envenomed sword not work, eventually hitting on the poisoned chalice.

Gertrude interrupted them, obliging Claudius to stow Hamlet’s letter hastily away in his inside jacket pocket. Claudius’s “How now, sweet queen!” was said with hasty embarrassment and fear that their plan might be discovered.

Gertrude’s poetic description of Ophelia’s death, which realistically no one could have witnessed in such lengthy detail without coming to assistance, enraged Laertes further to Claudius’s benefit.

After discussing the forthcoming burial and joking around, the two gravediggers, the younger a female (Rosie Hilal), set about their work (5.1). The older one (David Fielder again) used a spade to shift earth at the downstage foot of the piste, uncovering skulls as Hamlet and Horatio appeared in silhouette at the back of the stage as if coming from a great distance.

Hamlet saw the first skull and commented briefly on it (lawyerly references omitted) before sitting cosy by the Gravedigger, engaging him in conversation and a battle of wits. He seemed impressed by the man’s punctilious precision. The joke about Hamlet’s madness not being noticed in England was well-received.

The production was taking a well-earned comic breather before the final onslaught.

Favour

Hamlet took Yorick’s skull and its jawbone fell to the ground, prompting his remark that it was “quite chapfallen”. He handed it to an audience member at the front of the stalls, telling them to take it to “my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come”. This had the effect of underscoring the humour in his remark, rather than its tragic bite.

Hamlet’s mind wandered onto his consideration of how Alexander might have been turned into a bung in a beer barrel, after which the funeral procession appeared in silhouette through the rear entrance, causing Hamlet and Horatio to move to the stage right side to observe.

Laertes bitterness showed in his scorn of the Priest (John Stahl) who had not given Ophelia the full ceremony. His reference to his sister told Hamlet that the funeral was that of Ophelia.

Ophelia, still in her white gown, was laid in a shallow recess in the soil at the foot of the piste, but remained visible to the audience. Gertrude stood over her to spread “sweets to the sweet”, placing on Ophelia’s grave the bouquet that she had discarded in her madness. This symbolically linked the marriage Gertrude had hoped to see between Ophelia and her son with the present funeral.

Laertes stepped down and lifted Ophelia up to embrace her lifeless form, barking out his instructions to bury him beside her under mountains of soil.

Hamlet came forward and tussled with Laertes on the piste, mocking his actions by tossing soil over himself, before storming off.

Ophelia remained in full view laid out in her grave throughout the remainder of the performance.

Hamlet recounted the full story of his escape to Horatio (5.2). He was quite relaxed and enjoyed discussing Claudius’s failed attempt to have him killed, which could be seen from his nonchalant description of the overblown language in the commission given to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and in his dismissal of his former friends “They are not near my conscience”.

Osric (Michael Grady-Hall) was a picture in his schoolboyish cap and blazer, which bore a miniature Danish flag on the breast pocket. Hamlet enjoyed making him take his cap off and then put it on again.

All was jollity until Osric mentioned that Hamlet had to “vouchsafe the answer” to the king’s wager. Hamlet’s mood seemed to change. He replied “How if I answer ‘no’?” with a muted earnestness that was completely unlike his previous quips at Osric’s expense.

Hamlet agreed to the wager and the seriousness he had lurched into with his question to Osric now informed his quiet resignation in the face of his fate.

The stage was swept in preparation for the fencing bout. Hamlet and Laertes met and were reconciled.

Hamlet had to change into a proper fencing suit, which he did in full view of everyone. The king brought a fencing mask for Hamlet. When he clapped eyes on it, the movements of everyone else on stage slowed down to emphasise the specialness of the moment: Hamlet realised that the mask was the one that his father had given to him. Once he had taken the mask, the action speeded up again to normal pace.

Laertes took one sword and pronounced it too light. Claudius took the poisoned and unbated one from the wall, which was then passed to Laertes.

Claudius stood to their left with the wine, while Gertrude was positioned to the right. They fenced up and down the piste, which had been visible since the start of the performance.

Hamlet scored his first point prompting Claudius to put the pearl into the glass, which he had to set aside when Hamlet refused it. Gertrude approached Hamlet to wipe his brow and then took the poisoned glass and drank from it despite Claudius’s protestations.

After the third pass Laertes charged at Hamlet cutting him under the right arm with the envenomed blade, causing Hamlet to drop his own foil. Osric wrestled Laertes’ sword from him, which Hamlet then snatched from Osric. Laertes and Hamlet wrestled over the sword and Laertes eventually cut his hand on the blade, thereby poisoning himself.

The queen fell to the ground and announced she had been poisoned, upon which the guards secured the doors.

The stricken Laertes collapsed in agony, blaming everything on the king. Claudius, discovering the doors locked, backed himself against the stage right side wall in terror. Hamlet approached Claudius and cut him behind the ear with the poisoned sword.

Hamlet dragged Claudius up onto the raised stage and, handing him the poisoned cup, demanded that he drink it off. Claudius paused, looked down at Hamlet, who had squatted on the ground in front of the stage, and complied.

Hamlet began to clap Claudius slowly as if this were some kind of grotesque performance. This was a direct echo of Claudius’s initial bullying of Hamlet to accept a drink and join in the wedding festivities. Claudius collapsed in pain and died too. He was soon followed by Laertes.

The presence of the dead Ophelia at the foot of the piste meant that each successive dead body was effectively adding to a formation of onstage bodies that had begun with her.

Hamlet took the royal crown from Claudius and placed it on his own head. He began to convulse as the potent poison gripped him. He slumped to the ground, but still had some strength left to prevent Horatio for drinking from the cup, which he had taken from the table.

Horatio saw the approach of Fortinbras, which prompted Hamlet to rise, remove the crown from his head and give his support to the Norwegian. He stood as he exclaimed “He has my dying voice. The rest is silence”.

He staggered down the piste. When he reached the end, he glimpsed Ophelia and a brief flash of joy traced across his face before he buckled and fell dead.

This raised the interesting possibility that he might have died before he set off down the piste and saw Ophelia. His final walk was one after death in which he had the privilege of glimpsing his love, who would have been theatrically absent to everyone else as the fencing piste and Ophelia’s grave were naturalistically two distant locations. Or alternatively, his glimpse of Ophelia could have been a fevered vision in his mind that occurred as he was dying. Either way, in performance it was incredibly powerful.

Alarm bells rang and the sprinkler system dousing the entire stage in water as Fortinbras (Chris Jared) appeared dramatically in semi-silhouette on the raised stage after which the stage went dark and the performance ended.

Conclusions

The production focused on the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia rather than foregrounding the play’s treatment of philosophical issues. Nor was this a production aching with relevance to contemporary society.

This was evidenced by the fact that “2B” became a performance that Hamlet staged for Ophelia rather than a genuine expression of his sentiment. It thereby mockingly subverted that soliloquy’s iconic status.

Some Hamlets examine the here and now. This one looked modern, very much in the “now”, but its ostensible Danish setting prevented it from commenting on the “here”. The costumes referenced the current fashion for Nordic Noir television, cleverly avoiding obvious and very specific Faroese pullovers in favour of “lopapeysa” garments with an Icelandic yoke pattern.

With nothing much to say about the human condition, the production became a portrait of one man’s condition, Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet.

His sheer emotionality was astonishing, making him much more than a simple vehicle for philosophical or political debate. He demonstrated a remarkable degree of passion, an appealing trait evidenced by his tactility and tone of voice.

But the production also deliberately rewrote the rulebook on how to present Ophelia, gleefully rejuvenating her character and breaching the dull limits of her standard depiction.

She popped up where not expected: having a visible tryst with her lover Hamlet, causing her father to lose train of thought and trying to speak to Hamlet before he was sent to England.

Our current understanding of insanity is different to that which framed the conception of Ophelia’s specifically female madness in the original text. With astounding boldness, the production completely updated the concept to include cutting and self harm.

As well as mourning her father, this Ophelia was insane with the desire to be married to Hamlet. The flowers she had gathered were carefully positioned like wedding guests. Instead of handing them out, as in the standard staging, she cut herself with a large blade and then smeared her own blood on people’s faces while talking of floral symbolism.

All in all, this was a production that generated lots of happiness…

Galileo, our contemporary

A Life of Galileo, Swan Theatre Stratford, 16 March 2013

Galileo’s whiteboard, laser pointer and adjustable desk lamp stood before a back wall composed of an oversized sheet of bright blue graph paper. Dot matrix signboards indicated the date and location of scenes. Clerks brandished voice recorders.

Thanks to these visual cues and the infectious enthusiasm with which Galileo (Ian McDiarmid) pursued his seventeenth century battle with authority, the production succeeded in transforming historical events into an incredibly modern-feeling escapade.

At the centre stood the fun-loving scientist whose earthy appetites and effervescent joy in his work made him an appealing figure. A tangible excitement spilled off the stage when he told a companion that he had discovered what constituted the Milky Way, an excitement capable of inspiring the audience to sally forth and find new worlds of their own.

The scene in which the young Cosimo de Medici (Chris Lew Kum Hoi), circling the stage on a spangly kick scooter, was presented with an opportunity to view the stars named in his honour, brought out the comic stupidity of the established academic order.

Asked to view the stars (the moons of Jupiter) through the telescope, the doubters could only dispute whether the alleged objects orbiting Jupiter were really necessary. When urged to use their eyes, the response was that they could use them to read the thoughts of Aristotle, a long-dead Greek whose untested ideas dominated official astronomy.

The flip side to this light-heartedness was the way in which a firm contrast was drawn between Galileo’s trust in the people and their ability to discern right from wrong, and the opposing viewpoint, in which cynicism about ordinary people’s collective intellect became a justification for political conservatism. If people are basically ignorant cattle, then they require herding and paternal government by their betters.

There were two fine and chillingly complementary performances by Martin Turner, first as Galileo’s friend Sagredo, who warned him about the threat of the Inquisition, and then as the Cardinal Inquisitor himself.

But there was always something relentlessly upbeat about Galileo so that his sly appropriation of the Dutch telescope as his own invention was something to smile at rather than a fatal error that would eventually undermine his reputation.

This production added comedy by making the university rector into a woman (Nia Gwynne) with a giddy crush on Galileo when he was popular, but who hid herself behind a clipboard and hurried away from him once he had fallen foul of the authorities.

The Old Cardinal (Patrick Romer) who insisted that the earth he stood on did not move, stamped his feet as he walked, shifting into a distinctive fascistic goose step, while behind him Christopher Clavius (Paul Hamilton) was in the process of verifying the truth of Galileo’s observations.

For some reason the translation prepared by Mark Ravenhill from a literal translation by Deborah Gearing removed perhaps the funniest joke in the play. During the Medici Stars scene, someone remarked that the new telescope allows people to see all the hairs on the great bear, to which lens grinder Federzoni, here a donkey-jacketed working man (Paul Hamilton again), usually quips back “and all sorts of things on the bull!” But this remark was puzzlingly (pizzlingly?) absent.

And this being the RSC, it was difficult not to notice that the text contained an illusion to the world being a stage on which ordinary people were actors, as well as Galileo’s rhetorical statement “That is the question”.

Galileo’s insistence that no one could watch a stone fall to the ground and say it had fallen upwards had its impact greatly increased by having Galileo sat on top of a tall ladder tower, enabling him to drop the stone from a great height onto the ground, rather than letting it fall a few feet from his side, as the moment is often staged.

It was only by the interval when his daughter Virginia (Jodie McNee) interrupted his sun spot experiments wearing her wedding dress to complain that her fiancé, disturbed by Galileo’s continuing defiant enquiries, had left her, that there was a real sense of events taking a turn for the worse. Galileo’s response to the implosion of his daughter’s happiness was a blunt reference back to his ongoing work “I must know the truth”.

The Inquisition took Galileo into its grasp, forcing his recantation of his Copernican theories and confining him to a life of guarded seclusion. Galileo might have acted old and infirm, but the memories of his former activism were too firmly entrenched and too intrinsically appealing for his defeat to seem real.

This meant that the hopeful ending, in which his friend Andrea (Matthew Aubrey) smuggled a copy of his latest work out of the country to spark flames of research elsewhere, felt unnecessary because Galileo had been surrounded all along by the kind of modern technology made possible by his model of science.

His ultimate victory had been hidden in plain sight all along.