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?

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.

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…

A Northern Winter’s Tale

The Winter’s Tale, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 9 February 2013

As we looked down at the sea, the sunlight sparkled on the gently rippling waves kissing the coast of luscious Sicily, all of which was a computer-generated projection on the back wall. High above the rocky outcrops of the shore, the royal palace presented a scene of relaxed luxury. On the real stage in front of the projections, revellers lay dozing after a feast, sprawled on elegant blankets and cushions.

Into this scene stepped Camillo (Daniel Betts) and Archidamus (David Shaw-Parker), the latter casting lascivious glances at a reclining woman and evidently much taken with the two buxom nurses who brought in Mamillius (1.1). That a guest from the Bohemian court should be taking such evident pleasure in the Sicilian women cleverly prefigured Leontes’ suspicions.

Leontes (Jo Stone-Fewings), Hermione (Tara Fitzgerald) and Polixenes (Adam Levy) awoke with a start and threw off the blanket under which they had slept (1.2). This established the close relationship between the royal friends. Hermione asked Polixenes to remain longer without any hint of flirtation, and Leontes’ generally affable demeanour meant that the slight snarl with which he accompanied “At my request he would not” came as a complete surprise.

Whatever was fermenting inside Leontes did not translate into any anger or aggression towards Hermione when he explained that the first time that she had spoken well was when agreeing to marry him. In thanks for this praise, Hermione dutifully kissed her husband referring to her first good deed that “for ever earned a royal husband”.

But then as Hermione referred to “the other for some while a friend”, she turned to kiss Polixenes and they both froze in a red spotlight. Polixenes smooch her passionately, prompting Leontes to exclaim to us “Too hot, too hot!” He turned to face them once more, continuing his description of their “paddling palms”, while Polixenes leant forward to listen at Hermione’s baby bump as if listening to the sound of his own child.

The red (for anger) colour of the light and the clearly fanciful actions of Polixenes hinted that what we were seeing was Leontes’ distorted imagination and not reality.

Leontes clutched Mamillius to him but still displayed no outward sign of distress to his wife and friend, with an ease that suggested years of such dissembling in matters of state.

He turned again and in red spotlight saw Hermione and Polixenes holding hands in a dance as they slipped away offstage. This led Leontes into his speech to the audience about the ubiquity of infidelity which he delivered in a calm and resigned manner.

His furious insistence to Camillo that Hermione had been unfaithful, with his lingering meditation on Polixenes’ apparent desire to “satisfy” Hermione’s entreaties, drew objections from the servant but ultimately unquestioning obedience. Camillo would poison Polixenes.

Polixenes heard Camillo’s warning about his fatal errand incredulously and offered the servant an opportunity to escape, which he took.

As Mamillius snuggled close to his mother to tell his winter’s tale downstage, further upstage near the raised platform, Leontes fulminated about Hermione’s betrayal before bursting in on them (2.1).

He accused her openly of adultery. His response to her denial was to punch her brutally on the belly with such force that, after some moments in shock, she fell to the ground clutching at her unborn child.

But despite the savagery of Leontes’ attack, Hermione acted protectively of him. He collapsed in anguish next to her and she smothered him with her arms, convinced that he was temporarily distracted. Her solicitous concern for her husband, even after he had assaulted her, was a very powerful statement about her character.

Leontes dealt with his attendants’ objections forcefully but with no sign of the excessive anger that had occasioned his punch. He went to lie down on the raised platform.

Determined

Paulina (Rakie Ayola) was in her own way as brisk, determined and business-like as Leontes. Her insistence that Hermione’s new-born daughter be brought to her was successful (2.2).

As each sequence had progressed the viewpoint of the sea on the back wall projection had descended ever closer to sea level. By now it was showing rocks bathed in cold rather than warm light with a hint of snow.

A projection showed Leontes’ nightmare, in which he plunged from a great height into the sea (2.3). He awoke from his sleep at the moment of impact and described how he had “nor night nor day no rest”.

Paulina approached with the baby in a bundle. The prop baby made very realistic gurgling and crying noises.

Though there was some comedy from Antigonus (Duncan Wisbey), who wittily pointed out that most husbands cannot silence their wives, and also turned to shush the baby whose cries he feared would further anger the already riled Leontes, the sequence was mostly characterised by Leontes’ fury at Paulina and the baby.

He had to be restrained from rushing at the precariously placed child. He had already effectively punched her on the head when in the womb and was now a further threat as she was lying on the ground before him.

Paulina’s determined handling of Leontes put him so much on the back foot, that when he turned to his attendants to say “Were I a tyrant, where were her life?” it was as if he was trying to overcome their scepticism.

With Paulina gone and only his men to deal with, Leontes wavered only slightly in his determination to see the child killed. But eventually he had Antigonus swear by placing his hand on a large sword to leave the child in a remote place.

Cleomenes (Joseph Pitcher) and Dion (Daniel Millar) appeared like Edwardian adventurers describing their return from the oracle at Delphos (3.1).

The court session opened with a number of shackled prisoners being ushered into the court and an executioner with a large sword standing upstage ready to execute the guilty (3.2).

After the charge was read, Hermione began her staccato defence. Stilted rather than the emotional, this speech was the only weak point in Tara Fitzgerald’s performance. Leontes’ constant contradictions led her to speak “Sir. You. Speak. A. Language. That. I. Understand. Not” word by word as if talking to someone slow of understanding.

Proving that she did not fear to die, she offered up her neck to the executioner who lined up the edge of his blade as onlookers cried “no!” in protest. But Hermione appealed to the oracle, a request which on being adjudicated just, caused the executioner to put his blade aside.

After swearing on the executioner’s sword, Cleomenes and Dion handed over the sealed scroll. There was great rejoicing at the news that Hermione and Camillo were innocent. But Leontes, branded a tyrant, came forward and scrutinised the scroll before weakly declaring that it contained no truth. At this time Hermione and Paulina found themselves staring at each other upstage in a strange close formation that perhaps foreshadowed their subsequent arrangement.

Tunic

That instant, one of the nurses brought in the neatly folded Tudor tunic that had belonged to Mamillius with the news that he had died. The queen fainted and was escorted away by Paulina while Leontes crouched and bewailed his mistake.

On her return to confront Leontes with the reality of his error, Paulina took a shawl from her shoulders and hit Leontes firmly with it, venting her frustration.

Leontes staggered upstage to the raised platform, which began to rise out of the ground, becoming a tall tower made of telescopic sections bearing him aloft. The dirty industrial look of the tower made it reminiscent of the factory chimneys that had so effectively marked the industrial era in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony the previous year.

With the back wall projection showing a ship tossed at sea, Antigonus and the Mariner (Phil Snowden) brought the baby ashore in a small wicker basket (3.3).

The ship split sending its crew plunging into the water, while Antigonus was chased away by a CGI bear that appeared to rear up out of the sea and walk across it. This was puzzling and lacked all credibility.

The entry of the Old Shepherd (David Shaw-Parker again)brought some welcome relief with his speech about the boiled brains of the young. He wandered up and down casting occasional glances at the wicker basket until finally stooping to examine it.

The Young Shepherd (Nick Holder) was a fat and bald comedy northerner. He described the shipwreck and bear attack, miming the bear chewing on Antigonus’ severed arm. At this point the interval came.

With no figure of Time to mark the passing of 16 years, the second half began with 4.2 as Polixenes and Camillo themselves mentioned the passage of 16 years (corrected from F1’s 15). They hatched their plan to visit Florizel (Gavin Fowler) in disguise.

Leontes was still just visible reclining on the top of the tower which now had a pipe curled round it rather like an industrial helter skelter.

The stage became filled with Edwardian seaside folk dozing on deck chairs and asleep on the ground in a mirror image of the scene of lazy splendour at the start of the performance, but this time against the backdrop of grimy industrial tower itself standing in front of a projection of a seaside pier.

Pearce Quigley’s Autolycus was one of the highlights of the production (4.3). His laconic dry-witted characterisation was instantly recognisable as a variation on the Grumio he had played the previous year at The Globe.

He sang as he strolled among the sleepy sunbathers, first stealing an ice-cream and then a drink before eyeing a sheet that a woman slept on. He tugged on the sheet but it would not move from under her. So he turned his back and broke wind, causing the woman to roll away and release the sheet. When she awoke he proceeded to sell the sheet back to her, turning to the audience with a grin to announce “My traffic is sheets”.

Off in the distance on the pier, the sound of a funfair hammer bell prompted Autolycus to say “A prize!”

The Young Shepherd woke up and simultaneously felt the chest and stroked the groin of the woman and man next to him in a grotesque and ribald parody of the awakening of the royal family at the start of the performance.

As he went over his list of intended purchases, behind him Autolycus quickly stole a long stick and a pair of (anachronistic) sunglasses and attracted the Young Shepherd’s attention while pretending to be blind. Autolycus picked the shepherd’s pocket as he manipulated his victim’s shoulder.

But the shepherd went to retrieve his now missing purse, and Autolycus realised he would discover the recent theft. So he instinctively took off his glasses and gestured wildly at the picked pocket insisting that he did not need the shepherd’s money. This miraculous restoration of Autolycus’ vision was a mistake that he hastily corrected but replacing his glasses and acting blind again. The shepherd gave a brief, quizzical look before dismissing the anomaly.

Satisfied with his work, Autolycus sang “Jog on, jog on…” as he exited.

Fortune

Our first look at Florizel and Perdita (Emma Noakes) showed the young woman to have completely assimilated the northern accent of her adoptive family while the young man’s accent betrayed his noble birth. The two shepherds meanwhile were very finely dressed, the result of the small fortune they had found alongside baby Perdita.

As people gathered for the fair, Polixenes and Camillo entered in their disguises, which were neither extravagant nor comic, but standard Edwardian gentlemen’s apparel. The Old Shepherd had to force Perdita forward to greet the new arrivals.

Florizel and Perdita began to dance and both froze in position as Florizel lifted Perdita aloft, allowing Polixenes and Camillo to make extensive praise of her. At this instant she was elevated both physically and in terms of renown.

This action freeze and associated comment was a positive version of Leontes red-mist vision of Hermione and Polixenes in the first half. The jealous anger of the former now contrasted with the generous affection of the latter.

Mopsa (Charlotte Mills) and Dorcas (Sally Bankes) were two plain low-class women who fought over the Young Shepherd in a comical.

Autolycus arrived at the fair disguised in a turban and pantaloons, which made him unrecognisable to the shepherd he had recently robbed. He carried in a tall, narrow funfair tent bearing the name of Elias the seer or a fortune teller.

Further dispute between Mopsa and Dorcas caused the Young Shepherd to ask “Will they wear their fannies where they should bear their faces?” i.e. changed from the original “plackets”.

Autolycus’ exited to sell some of his wares and was followed by an accordionist. He stopped and asked him “Can I help you?” and beckoned to him to follow as he left to accompany the shepherd and his girls.

The dance of the twelve Satyrs was a northern clog morris dance that was very enjoyable to watch, unlike many attempts at staging this particular sequence.

Polixenes began a closer interrogation of Florizel, who made a veiled boast of his impending inheritance “one being dead”, and thus increased his father’s ire.

Polixenes rushed round the back of the helter skelter tower and made a grand entrance out of the lower end of the pipe, in his shirtsleeves and smeared with dirt, to reveal his true identity to his son and threaten the Old Shepherd and Perdita.

Spying an opportunity to return home, Camillo advised Florizel and Perdita to flee to Sicily.

Autolycus returned with his swag, which prompted Camillo to propose an exchange of clothes to provide Florizel and Perdita with disguises. They went into his tent to swap garments, but Autolycus had to send the accordionist out first, telling him “Get your own tent”, at which point he slouched away dejectedly.

Florizel took Autolycus’ shirt while Perdita had his oversize pantaloons, while in exchange Autolycus received a fine, long white coat.

This set him up nicely to trick the two shepherds, who were worried by their connection with the disgraced Perdita, into thinking he was a courtier. Addressing the “rustics”, he spoke as finely as he could while emphasising he had “the air of the court” by adopting a series of ridiculous stances, like an athlete warming up by bending at one knee.

His change from “fardel” to “box” was spoken as a deliberate simplification for the simple shepherds.

Autolycus enjoyed his protracted description of the fate awaiting the Young Shepherd, pausing after each punishment to continue with a repetitive “then”. Each continuation of “then” caused the two shepherds equal alarm, so much so that the Young Shepherd greeted the final one by swearing under his breath.

He escorted them to the ship on which Florizel and company were getting ready to sail to Sicily.

Tower

Marking the shift of scene back to Sicily, the tower rotated to reveal it had no back, displaying a network of stairs leading from the ground to the top where Leontes still lay after 16 years (5.1).

Paulina, Cleomenes and Dion gathered at its base, with Cleomenes knocking on the door to summon Leontes from his prison.

This striking staging meant that both Leontes and Hermione had spent the same period of time in seclusion from the rest of the world.

He descended to ground level wrapped in a red blanket, the same colour as the rage of his jealous, angry visions of Hermione’s supposed infidelity.

Leontes’ sad ruminations turned to something approaching happiness when Florizel and his princess arrived.

The prince was confident in his explanation of his presence, despite hesitating when he claimed that Perdita “came from Libya”. Perdita was not required to speak, otherwise her distinctive accent would have instantly revealed that she was not Libyan.

The second messenger’s news of the arrival of Polixenes and the truth of young people’s flight brought revelation upon revelation with Leontes promising to help the would-be marrieds.

The joyous offstage reunions were related by two inebriated gentlemen, one still holding the champagne bottle and glasses that had attended the impromptu celebrations (5.2).

Autolycus listened keenly to these accounts before humbling himself by kneeling before the two shepherds, whose fine clothes were now decorated with jewels. The previously bald Young Shepherd was also sporting a fine blond wig.

But despite his apparent contrition, Autolycus could not resist pick-pocketing from them once more, going so far as to steal the Young Shepherd’s wig.

Paulina gathered the spectators for the viewing of the statue of Hermione. A white gauze tent was brought on, its structure and design very (and possibly deliberately) similar to Autolycus’ fairground tent, except for its brilliant pure whiteness (5.3).

The curtain was drawn back to reveal Hermione dressed in white like a classical statue, holding a large goblet in front of her with both hands. This pose was easy to hold completely still for the required time.

Leontes was immediately moved to approach the figure, as was Perdita who despite her supposed innate breeding, impulsively lunged forward and had to be restrained by Paulina.

There was some tittering from the audience when Leontes noticed the wrinkles on Hermione’s face, which Paulina excused as the artistic licence of the sculptor.

Hermione’s awakening saw her suddenly flash her eyes open as if after a long sleep. She gazed around as if only now aware of the people around her. This created the impression that she had really been under some hypnotic effect and was not simply playing along with Paulina’s elaborate ruse.

She stood still, stiffly posed, and extended her hand towards Leontes, who took it and was soon embracing his long-lost wife. She similarly greeted Perdita.

The performance ended with a dance that resembled the one that had been the occasion of Leontes’ original jealous anger. The extended hand gesture in the dance was emphasised to remind us of Hermione’s greeting to Leontes when she revived.

Conclusions

It was difficult not be affected by Leontes’ brutal attack on Hermione, the savagery of which was counterbalanced by Pierce Quigley’s outstandingly funny Autolycus.

The set design did more than create great visual impact: by creating an isolated retreat for Leontes’ sixteen years of solitude, it facilitated a new angle on the story.

What Night, friends, is this?

Twelfth Night, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 21 July 2012

The world of this production was a hotel somewhere vaguely hot. The reception was positioned upstage left with a revolving entrance door further left by the proscenium wall. Over on the right stood a lift shaft with a working cabin. A small circular sofa was placed centre stage around a post that occasionally lit up as a sea beacon. The downstage right water feature was now clear blue water above which was fixed a low diving board.

After the sound of crashing waves, Viola (Emily Taaffe) emerged from the water and pulled herself up onto the stage, where she sat dripping wet (1.1). She turned to see a bag that presumably contained some of Sebastian’s clothes.

She knelt and, looking at no one in particular, said “What country, friends, is this?” Her words were immediately followed by Orsino’s famous opening lines to Curio (Ankur Bahl), who played at the piano. Orsino (Jonathan McGuiness) looked like an expat resident of a tropical country. The object of Orsino’s love, the mournful Olivia (Kirsty Bushell), was visible lying motionless and depressed on a bed on the steeply sloping planks of the back wall. This gave us a glimpse of how she was spending her seven years in solitary mourning.

The action cut back to the shore where the Captain (Sandy Grierson) replied to Viola’s initial question. She continued to face the audience, looking out to sea as she compared Illyria and Elysium (1.2). Viola took up the bag of clothes intending to use them for her disguise.

Returning to the hotel, we saw drunk expat Sir Toby (Nicholas Day) slouched in an armchair, talking to West-Indian maid Maria (Cecilia Noble) (1.3). Race became an issue subsequently, so the colour casting was relevant.

After a standard buttery bar joke, in which Maria clasped Sir Andrew’s (Bruce Mackinnon) hands to her ample chest and talked at him lasciviously, we saw his “back-trick”, which was a moonwalk. This modern device was a perfect fit for the phrase. A CD player was set up enabling Sir Andrew to dance like a lunatic, performing a series of high kicks.

Viola was transformed into Cesario with short hair, wearing a jacket and green trousers (1.4). She was dispatched by Orsino to woo Olivia after avowing “myself would be his wife”. Her brother Sebastian (Stephen Hagan) crawled out of the water and lay curled up at its edge all the way through the next scene until his first appearance.

Feste (Kevin McMonagle) was slightly disappointing (1.5). He was played as a faded club singer lacking in both humour and impact.

Maria stood in front of Feste and aped his ‘two points’ gag as if it were one of his tired, predictable old jokes.

Lesley Bushell’s Olivia was one of highlights of production, full of self-deprecating auto-correction and feminine wiles. To have her and Jonathan Slinger’s Malvolio on stage at the same time was an overload of talent.

Feste proved Olivia to be a fool for mourning her dead brother. But she was interested in Malvolio’s opinion, which gave us our first taste of Jonathan Slinger’s steward.

Malvolio’s self-importance was indicated by the name badge on his suit jacket, and there was something vain about his blond flat-combed hair and moustache.

He sneered disdainfully in a whining nasal voice and delighted in pausing over certain syllables, stringing them out as if to prolong the joy of contempt.

His first “Yes,” was followed by a pause in which he glanced down before continuing as if Feste was beneath regard. Malvolio twitched with pleasure, describing Feste as a “barren rascal” in a scornful tirade delivered at close range.

The arrival of Cesario was notified to Olivia by Maria, who was on the reception desk monitoring the CCTV cameras. Sir Toby was blind drunk and could hardly make his words distinct.

Cesario was admitted and found four women sat wearing veils, including Olivia who was poised by a chess set downstage. Cesario was already wistfully full of longing when she said “I am not that I play”. When disguised as a boy, Viola spoke with an Irish accent.

Cesario’s request to see Olivia’s face drew an initial disparaging response, but then Olivia continued without a pause into “but we will draw the curtain”. She now sounded quite vain and pleased to be asked to reveal herself. This was the beginning of her subsequent flirtatiousness.

By the time she asked Cesario to visit again she sounded very keen on him.

Parentage

But after Cesario left through the revolving door, Olivia held her head and looked down at the ground muttering “What is your parentage?” as if upbraiding herself for her gaucheness. She had indeed caught the plague.

Referring to the entrance point for Cesario’s “perfections”, the text’s “mine eyes” was changed to “mine eye” as Olivia crouched and put her hand over her lap. This reference to her other “eye” indicated the carnal nature of her yearning.

Olivia took a ring off her own finger in front of Malvolio, telling him to return it to Cesario. Malvolio took the ring and said “Madam [huge pause], I will” as if he had been entrusted with a life-changing task.

Her final speech in the scene referred to “Mine eye” being “too great a flatterer for my mind”. This phrase was given a similar meaning to the earlier emended instance, as Olivia crouched evidently consumed by the passion generated by her “eye”.

Sebastian, who had been reclined all this time, stood up for his scene with Antonio (Jan Knightley), who was wearing seafaring waterproofs (2.1). The centre column became a flashing beacon. Just like his sister, Sebastian had a distinct Irish accent. Why both he and Viola were made Irish was not apparent. Antonio ran after Sebastian, but no overt love was hinted at.

Cesario greeted people with a vigorous hand slap, a gesture that his friends also subsequently extended to a confused Sebastian.

Cesario entered, on his way to report to Orsino (2.2). A beeping sound was heard from offstage, which was soon revealed to be Malvolio catching up with him on an electric cart. The cart had a sign on the back announcing that it was “for management use only”: another indication of Malvolio’s officiousness.

As Malvolio handed over the ring, he stretched the word out on its ‘n’ so that it was pronounced “Rinnnng”. He threw it to the ground and then got back on his chariot, slammed the mirror back into position and drove off.

Cesario realised that she was ‘the man’. But she certainly did not look so in comparison with her much taller brother.

Sir Toby and Sir Andrew were drunk (2.3) and were joined by Feste who sat in the lift to descends to their level. The picture of ‘we three’ was taken using a Polaroid camera. In a very funny sequence, Feste played “O mistress mine” on an electric keyboard while Sir Toby put a veil over his face pretending to be Olivia and let Sir Andrew hold his hand.

Their main rowdy song “Hold thy peace” was sung to an accompaniment of bottles and glasses being struck as well as the hotel reception bell, all of which prompted Maria to complain.

Malvolio entered in a dressing gown (also with name badge) and gartered socks, something which looked slyly forward to his subsequent gulling. Sir Andrew fell into the water in surprise at this interruption.

It was very obvious that far from being annoyed Malvolio actually relished this opportunity to be unpleasant.

He drew out the name “Sirrrr Toobyyy” to make his contempt crystal clear. The object of his derision spoke about keeping time into Feste’s mic, which amplified his voice, and then pointed the mic at Malvolio. The first few words of the steward’s reply were also amplified until he pushed it away. The others continued to sing their replies into it.

Before departing, Malvolio shook Maria’s hand. But this apparently friendliness was immediately shown to be a sham when he wiped his hand on his dressing gown.

Maria sat and paused to take in this gratuitous unkindness. Her motivation for tricking Malvolio was now very clear. Given the circumstances, her response was restrained.

Maria’s reference to her scheme being “a horse of that colour” could be seen in this context as the result of her mind dwelling on Malvolio’s colour prejudice and influencing her choice of words.

Sir Andrew’s “I was adored once too” was poignant. This moment of pathos at the end of a comic sequence never fails to look like an authorial masterstroke.

The next scene had an innocuous beginning (2.4). A hotel employee used a net to clean the pool, while a guard cut short a mobile call because of the excessive cost, all of which suggested we were in a faraway place.

Cesario’s longing for Orsino was present but carefully suppressed in the speech in which she alluded to fancying someone like him.

Feste’s clowning was underplayed and not that funny. There was an apparent intention to make him consistently downbeat.

When Cesario told Orsino that she was “All the daughters of my father’s house”, the pang in her voice made it feel she was coming very close to revealing her true identity.

Gulling

The gulling of Malvolio took place inside the hotel (2.5). Fabian (Felix Hayes) and the others hid behind the reception desk, while the letter was placed on the chess board.

Malvolio came downstage to admire himself in an invisible mirror, part of the ‘fourth wall’ that was transparent to the audience. He straightened what could have been a hairpiece.

Full of himself, he stood with his legs apart longing “To be Count Malvolio!” Sir Toby gathered up things to throw at him but was successively disarmed by Sir Andrew who snatched the items from his raised hand.

Malvolio took a fur rug from the floor and placed it about his neck like a gown of state. He picked up the letter, but before ripping open the seal, he looked around furtively, causing the others to duck down behind the reception.

There are many ways of making a joke out of Malvolio’s reaction to the letter’s instruction to “Revolve”. This production produced hilarity by having Malvolio run off to the revolving door and spin round in it. On returning centre stage he dropped his clipboard.

Firmly convinced that Olivia was in love with him, he stamped on the mislaid clipboard, signifying the end of his lowly status. He jumped up on to the chair and stood triumphantly.

Cesario had a brief conversation with Feste who was playing on his keyboard (3.1). Olivia and Maria entered down the steps stage right. As she descended, Olivia looked at the audience and said “beautiful” as an added aside. This addition was perhaps meant to hint at her subconscious realisation that Cesario was in fact female.

Olivia was self-deprecatingly apologetic about the ring trick. She knelt before Cesario when saying that “a cypress, not a bosom, hideth my heart” and seized on pity being “as a degree to love”.

She kissed Cesario at “Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.” Cesario was shocked and the rest of Olivia’s speech was turned into an excuse for her rashness. On that dramatic change in their relationship, the interval came.

The second half got underway on a comic note as Sir Andrew grumbled his way to the front of the stage and got out his mobile to book a “taxi to the airport please” in an interesting adlib (3.2). His overarching lack of seriousness seemed to license his deviations from the text.

The text’s line about “I had as lief be a Brownist as a politician” was changed to something like “am I a politician?” at which the audience chortled.

Sir Toby indicated that he would not deliver Sir Andrew’s message by throwing his friend’s phone into the water. Then Maria came with news of Malvolio’s approach.

After a brief scene with Sebastian and Antonio (3.3), Malvolio made his grand entrance via the lift (3.4). He wore very tight tights with yellow garters across them. They were so constrictive that they obliged him to waddle as he could not flex his knees. As Olivia looked on aghast, he stood and pulled apart the top of his jacket to reveal a yellow gartered codpiece. His “Sweet lady, ho, ho” was hysterical. The obstruction in the blood was in the codpiece. And predictably even this get-up was adorned with a name tag.

As soon as Olivia had said “Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?” she turned away and put her head in her hands as she realised the full import of her words. This was something Olivia did a lot, immediately upbraiding herself for her inappropriate utterances and actions.

Malvolio kissed his hand, warranting Olivia’s comment to that effect. He chased Olivia onto the diving board, accosting her before she ran off to find Cesario. Malvolio was left alone to construe Olivia’s reactions as agreeing with the faked letter.

Sir Toby and the others returned and used a crucifix to fend off Malvolio. The steward climbed the stairs showing the bare bum cheeks exposed by his thong. This provoked a second wave of audience laughter at this extra indignity.

At her next meeting with Cesario, Olivia hung a miniature around her neck and was coquettish in requesting him to “come again tomorrow”.

When Cesario and Sir Andrew were eventually brought together in combat, Fabian had to restrain him from escaping, while Sir Toby pointed Sir Andrew in his direction pretending that he was in fact aching to break free and fight with him.

In another quaint rewrite, Sir Andrew offered to give Cesario his Kawasaki 750, rather than his “horse, grey Capulet”.

Metal

The pair met as Sir Andrew wielded a metal rod and Cesario swatted at him with a similar implement. Antonio ran in and fended off Sir Andrew before being arrested. His mention of Sebastian set Viola thinking.

Sir Andrew tried to fight Sebastian but he more than defended himself and hit back (4.1). Olivia, now in a floral dress rather than dark clothes, mistook him for Cesario, though given the height difference this began to look improbable.

Maria dressed Feste as a priest at the top of lift shaft (4.2). The stage below was kept in darkness. As the lift cage descended, it was possible to see that the floor numbers had changed to indicate a descent into the hotel basement.

The lights came up on Malvolio, tied up on the seat of his cart with the “for management use only” sign round his neck in mockery of his position. The cart lights flashed as it beeped plaintively. Sir Topas used jump leads to torture Malvolio, an echo of their use by Slinger as Dr Pinch.

Malvolio’s tormenter went back up in the lift and descended again as Feste.

The morning after his night with Olivia, Sebastian stood on the stairs at the side of the stage (4.3). Olivia entered in a white wedding dress accompanied by a Greek Orthodox priest (Sandy Grierson again), which provided a slightly more accurate fix on the production’s location. Her dress provided hilarious context for her line “Blame not this haste of mine”.

Orsino, in the company of Cesario, arrived with flowers and a gift for Olivia (5.1). Antonio was escorted through, but precisely why he was in a hotel lobby remained to be seen.

Olivia entered, took Orsino’s gifts and threw them in the water, which made sense of Orsino’s description of her as “Still so cruel”.

Orsino’s verbal threat against Cesario was not accompanied by any violent action. It appeared to be just words. Orsino exited through the revolving door and Cesario followed. willing to die “a thousand deaths” for him. Olivia’s cry of “Husband” made Cesario stop and turn, while Orsino repeated the word as a question.

Sir Andrew and Sir Toby entered injured. Sebastian ran in from the side door right to the centre to face Olivia. Viola was by the reception desk and looked at him from behind, completely stunned.

Orsino could see both of them sideways on. Olivia sat down to utter “Most wonderful!”

Sebastian turned to face Viola. They approached and exchanged stories. Sebastian commented to Olivia that she had been “mistook” in a tone that implied her stupidity. When he said that she would have been “Betrothed both to a maid and man”, Viola curtsied sheepishly. Orsino was understandably very happy.

Olivia seemed genuinely confused when calling for Malvolio to be brought forth. Feste just made a barking noise when reading Malvolio’s letter.

Orsino and Olivia hugged, which was nice. She also hugged Viola, pausing slightly beforehand to express the irony of their sisterly embrace.

Orsino repeated “If music be the food of love” and put some music on the hotel sound system, but this brief jollity was interrupted by the entrance of Malvolio.

Dressed in trousers, braces and shirtless, Malvolio swore his revenge. He cast his eyes around the entire audience, emphasising the all-encompassing scope of his malevolence.

Feste sang as the couples went to bed. Olivia went first, then Viola, followed by Orsino and Sebastian.

Conclusions

This was the production that best fitted the Shipwreck Trilogy label, with an accident at sea in its immediate backstory. This was underlined by having Viola actually emerge from water onto the stage at the start of the performance.

Technically, the ship in The Tempest is not even wrecked. It only appears so to the crew and passengers as is preserved intact, enabling its occupants to sail home at the end of the play. The wreck in the Comedy of Errors is so far in the past as to make it largely irrelevant to the slapstick action.

The production was chiefly memorable for Jonathan Slinger’s manic Malvolio, a performance to savour in the context of other roles he has played, and the engaging presence of Kirsty Bushell’s Olivia.

What Comedy, friends, is this?

The Comedy of Errors, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 20 July 2012

A tropical fish tank stood centre stage looking rather whimsical amid the dockside scene. The set was a variation on the basic Shipwreck Trilogy design. The Victorian ironwork, in tribute to the Roundhouse in London, was visible in the far distance, and ropes were attached to the curved back section to make it look like the boards of a dockyard pier. The overhead gantry was used as a crane to bring in crates and other set elements.

The lights went down at the start of the performance (1.1) and came up again to reveal the Duke (Sandy Grierson) dunking Egeon’s head in the fish tank. He took time out from this water torture to announce the ban on Syracusans entering Ephesus through a tannoy carried on a wheeled frame. In modern dress, he was protected by machine gun-toting guards whose body armour bore the name of the relevant actor.

Looking for all the world like a thuggish criminal head of a failed state, every word spoken by this leader was recorded by a stenographer. His air of casual cruelty was enhanced by the fact he was wearing a dressing gown; the implication being that this punitive exercise, respecting the unity of time of the play, was just a part of his leisurely morning routine.

The Duke allowed Egeon (Nicholas Day) to tell his story, but still dunked his head when he said his task was “unspeakable”.

At the start of the next scene (1.2) the crane deposited a crate centre stage. It opened to reveal the Syracusan pair. The captain leant inside to speak to the cowering men telling them to pretend they were from Ephesus. But we soon saw that Dromio (Bruce Mackinnon) was wearing an “I ♥ Syracuse” t-shirt.

After Dromio was sent on an errand, another stowaway crept out from a different crate and made his getaway.

When the other Dromio (Felix Hayes), in an identically patterned “I ♥ Ephesus” shirt, entered across the diagonal from the walkway, he ended up being wrestled to the ground and then chased around the crate by Antipholus (Jonathan McGuinness) before departing without getting his master to come to dinner. Felix Hayes had very distinctive powerful voice with an accent that lent itself to this comedy role. The two Dromios were very difficult to tell apart.

At this point a woman climbed out of yet another crate, this time pausing to take with her a large amount of clothing from inside her hiding place. As she gathered up her goods and left, this prompted Antipholus to remark that the town was reputed to be “full of cozenage”.

In an interval between scenes, the Courtesan (Amie Burns Walker) kissed the Syracuse Antipholus, taking him by surprise. This was a nice touch that enhanced the web of misidentification being spun.

Adriana (Kirsty Bushell) and Luciana (Emily Taaffe) were flown in by crane on a trestle representing her house (2.1). Adriana was a tall strong figure, while Luciana wore pink had a girly, untouched demeanour. The former was combative and stressed as opposed to the latter’s inexperienced idealist. Adriana stuffed a cloth into Luciana’s mouth to shut her up.

When Dromio told Adriana that her husband was “horn mad” she chased him, forcing Dromio to take refuge at the top of the frame.

Adriana chased Dromio around the bottom of the pallet before getting onboard to be hoisted offstage.

Bail

Egeon was brought across the stage with the tannoy advertising for his bail to be paid. The female stowaway was then seen pushing a shopping trolley full of purloined clothing, which she proceeded to sell to passersby.

The Syracusans met up again (2.2). The lines dealing with wigs and time were cut. Adriana and Luciana caught up with them, and Adriana slapped Antipholus for being absent. She spoke to him alluringly, but he and Dromio backed into the stage right corner by some stagnant water fearing that these women knew their names “by inspiration”.

After the usual comedy resulting from his seduction and acceptance to dine with this stranger, a door was flown in for them to enter into Adriana’s house.

Dromio hovered outside, so that when Adriana swung the door open violently it struck him. The same occurred when Antipholus came out looking for him.

Ephesus Antipholus (Stephen Hagan) and friends entered singing in rap. Ephesus Dromio in particular was having fun, rapping in a deep gangsta voice. His first speech in scene 3.1 leant itself wonderfully to rap rhythm:

Say what you will, sir, but I know what I know;
That you beat me at the mart, I have your hand to show:
If the skin were parchment, and the blows you gave were ink,
Your own handwriting would tell you what I think.

The solitary door swung around, so that those inside and out had to follow its revolutions in order to remain on opposite sides.

The fat maid Nell (Sarah Belcher) appeared stuffing her top with vegetables. Adriana popped her head out of a window that opened in the back of the set. She was in her dressing gown, hinting that “dinner” was a euphemism for sexual activity. Dromio’s head was beaten against the door as Ephesus Antipholus’ frustration grew.

After Ephesus Antipholus departed in disgust to see the Courtesan (3.2), Luciana followed Syracuse Antipholus out of the door carrying one of his shoes, which he had forgotten. This subtly reinforced the idea that he had not been eating.

They sat close to each other on a barrel. As she sweet-talked Antipholus into being more of a husband to Adriana, Luciana ended up putting her hand on his thigh. Suddenly conscious of the gesture’s impropriety, she hastily retracted her hand and adjusted her top in case that was sending out the wrong sort of signals. But this did hint at an underlying attraction that made this couple’s subsequent marriage more believable.

Syracuse Dromio entered in a panic, looking really haunted. He measured the expanse of Nell’s size. They took refuge inside some barrels as Nell entered in pursuit of the other Dromio.

Puzzled by how Nell knew of his intimate distinguishing marks, Dromio mentioned his wart and then looked down without using the text’s “on my left arm”, the euphemistic silence implying that its location was genital. This gag was reused later.

After the Goldsmith (Sargon Yelda) gifted the chain to Antipholus, the first half of the performance ended with the first stowaway being caught and then a gun pointed at his head just before the stage was blacked out, implying an execution. After all the comedy, this dumb show reminded us that Ephesus was a violent place where people were killed, and that if Egeon’s ransom was not forthcoming, a similar fate would befall him at the end of the day.

Interval

At the start of the second half (4.1), Ephesus Antipholus dispatched his Dromio to buy a rope. The Goldsmith, unable to obtain money for the chain, needed his inhaler to deal with the panic. Antipholus was arrested just before Syracuse Dromio returned from the harbour with life belts and jackets around his neck. The poor Dromio was then sent back to Adriana’s house into the clutches of “Dowsabel” to fetch bail money.

The pallet representing the house was flown in again from the back of the set (4.2). In a comic echo of the production’s opening scene, Adriana was ducking Luciana’s head in a bucket. The implication was that Luciana’s account of Antipholus’ wooing of her was being extracted by force and not offered voluntarily. The scene also reinforced our understanding of Adriana as someone given to violence.

After collecting the bail money, Dromio was ordered to “bring thy master home…”. He tried to step from the swinging pallet but could not find a firm footing on the ground. Adriana’s “…immediately” which came after this interlude of stage business, encouraged him to step off.

Syracuse Antipholus was wheeled in on a trolley heaped with merchandise that had been freely given to him (4.3). Dromio brought him gold that he was not expecting either.

Their encounter with the Courtesan, an alluring vision in her short, tight skirt, saw the woman flirt and lean suggestively over a barrel. Dromio tried to alert his master that her request for the ring was a witch’s trick. But as he issued his warning to avoid her, he kept glancing sideways at her rear and growling ‘cor’.

They hid behind some barrels to avoid her, and Dromio rolled a barrel at her, which she simply kicked and returned.

After she had failed to entrap Antipholus, she extracted a large number of breast enhancers from her top, throwing them one by one at the door of his house.

Ephesus Dromio ran past holding the rope he had bought and paused before her. He was holding the rope end in front of him so that it stood erect. He looked at the alluring Courtesan, then at the erect rope before hurrying away again.

Dromio met his master, who was expecting bail money, and proudly presented him with the rope’s end (4.4). He proceeded to pile an entire length of rope into his expectant outstretched hands. The furious Antipholus set about him.

The scene was now set for Jonathan Slinger’s entry as Doctor Pinch. He perched in the lotus position on a trolley wheeled in by his assistants. Animated by an extreme sense of his own self-importance, Pinch wore a black outfit and held his gloved hands out at his sides like a stage magician about to perform a trick. Pinch descended from the trolley and pulled from it two car jump leads. He touched the leads together briefly to produce a shower of sparks. Pinch’s magical aura created an immediately link back to Slinger’s Prospero, making this a very clever piece of casting.

When the jump leads were applied to Antipholus he collapsed at the edge of the water in convulsions.

The Officer (Solomon Israel) tried to seize Antipholus, but Adriana grabbed him and twisted his arm behind his back, describing him as a “peevish officer” and forced him to relent.

Both Antipholus and Dromio were wrapped in black plastic, dumped one on top of the other on the trolley and wheeled away.

Sensing that the Courtesan was inappropriately dressed, Adriana pulled the woman’s skirt down to a more demure length.

The Syracusans burst in brandishing daggers prompting the others to run away screaming, including the Courtesan who hobbled off the stage in just one of her high heels.

Spray

Another reminder of the frequent executions in Ephesus came when the Duke arranged for Egeon to have his photo taken with a body wrapped in plastic, which was then hoisted up by the crane and unceremoniously dumped into the sea behind the set wall. Sparkling sprinkles flew into the air looking like a spray of water from the splash.

The argument between the Merchant (Amer Hlehel) and Antipholus about the chain descended into a fight (5.1). Antipholus drew his dagger but the Merchant outbladed him with a sword.

As Adriana and company arrived, the abbey setting was established when a statue of the Virgin Mary was flown across the set on the overhead crane. A neon cross illuminated the back of the set, identifying it as a building. The Syracusans fled through its doors to take refuge.

The Abbess (Cecilia Noble) appeared and argued with Adriana about the cause of her husband’s misbehaviour.

Adriana tried to force her way into the abbey. The Abbess closed the shutters over the door using a remote control. Used to getting her own way physically as we had already seen, Adriana tried to punch the Abbess. But she simply grasped Adriana’s fist in the palm of her hand and wrestled her to the ground with one arm. Everyone else, including the Officer, jumped out of her way.

The Duke entered while at the same time Egeon was hoisted in by the crane to dangle high above the stage. After Adriana’s account of the day’s events, the Duke recognised her and she nodded encouragingly at his recollections of her.

A messenger warned of the violent escape of the Ephesians and the Duke’s guards trained their weapons on the walkway. The Courtesan also had a gun she aimed in that direction.

The Ephesians entered with scorch marks on their clothing. Antipholus had blood on his head, and his hand was still bound to a chair which he dragged clumsily beside him. Antipholus’ different version of events sparked a confused argument that only ended when the Duke shot a handgun into the air shouting “Why, what an intricate impeach is this!”

When the Courtesan spoke, Adriana once again pulled the woman’s skirt hem lower.

Egeon finally spoke to say that he recognised someone who would pay his bail. This should not have made the audience laugh, but the peculiarity of his situation, speaking after so long a silence suspended in midair above events, was not exactly dignified.

The Abbess brought out the Syracusans, who unlike the Ephesians did recognise Egeon. The Duke’s guards, who still had their weapons trained on the Ephesians, swapped their aim to the newly appeared pair and then back again to the Ephesians. Their aim alternated confusedly between the two groups because they were unable to distinguish which was the real threat and thereby emphasised their similarity.

Emilia and Egeon met at the centre, while the others moved in a circle round them. All were reunited, but Ephesus Antipholus was obliged to hug his parents with the chair still attached to his arm. Luciana and Syracuse Antipholus held hands.

Angelo asked for the chain, but became sheepish after Ephesus Antipholus pointed out that he had been falsely arrested at his request.

But Ephesus Antipholus had his own sheepish moment when taking his leave of the Courtesan. He had to pause and choose his words carefully when saying “Thanks for my … good cheer”.

The two Dromios recognised each other’s visible birth marks. Then, working through a list of them, they paused in embarrassment when they reached the wart remarked on earlier.

Syracuse Dromio gestured with his hands to approximate the size of the “fat friend” he had met earlier. Ephesus Dromio, the more expert, moved his brother’s hands further apart to better approximate her dimensions.

They hugged and then held hands as the lights went down outside the house.

Conclusions

This play qualified for inclusion in the RSC’s shipwreck trilogy only because of the wreck that took place some thirty years in its backstory. Its ending, with reunited siblings, has a vague similarity with Twelfth Night.

But apart from that, there was no sense that this production shared a specific mood or theme with any of the others. It did, however, succeed in referencing the other productions in the shipwreck trilogy, chiefly in drawing a parallel between Slinger’s Dr Pinch and his Prospero.

What Tempest, friends, is this?

The Tempest, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 19 July 2012

This production was part of the RSC Shipwreck Trilogy, comprising The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night.

Was there any justification for bracketing these three together as a trilogy or was this just clever marketing?

The programme was intriguing. It contained a short piece by James Shapiro and David Farr pointing out the common themes of separation and reunion across the plays. This was followed by a big article by the designer explaining how he had set about providing the productions with a unified look.

The set was composed of floorboards dotted with rocks that swept up at the back into a profile like a wave. Upstage left was dominated by a large box that lighting could render transparent when required. Upstage right stood the ruins of a statue of Setebos.

In the far distance behind the wave of floorboards was some ornate Victorian ironwork, apparently a tribute to the Roundhouse where these plays had been performed during their London run.

High above, a large metal monorail ran from the behind the main stage across the auditorium to the upper gallery. Only one walkway (stage left) led off from the stage.

Miranda (Emily Taaffe), looking pretty in a vest top, walked briskly to a small desk and sat to study a book, while the storm scene took place inside the transparent box (1.1). While generally audible, the voices of those onboard ship also appeared to be coming from the portable radio on Miranda’s desk. Gonzalo (Nicholas Day) came through particularly clearly and was given prominence.

After the storm abated and the box became opaque, Miranda asked her opening question to an unseen Prospero (1.2). Jonathan Slinger then appeared inside the box, staring out. He opened the door and lumbered forward without looking at his daughter. Everything about his silent entrance spoke of someone angry, possessed and on a mission. His suit jacket looked bleached or washed out on one lapel, a detail repeated in both Ariel and Caliban’s clothing.

He comforted Miranda, kissing the top of her head when stating that not “an hair” of anyone onboard had been jeopardised. He pointed at the radio as the source of the voices that she had heard.

As Prospero began to retell the story of their journey to the island, he paused for a long time after mentioning “thy mother”, as if still affected by her presumed loss, a detail emphasised by the fact that he was still wearing his wedding ring.

This was perhaps the first sign that the shipwreck trilogy theme of separation was being underscored in the production.

Prospero was overcome with an angular anger when recounting his brother Antonio’s role in the story, indicating that this was the aspect of the affair that animated him the most.

With Miranda put to sleep, Ariel (Sandy Grierson) appeared inside the box and his slightly stilted movements on entering made him seem like an android. Subsequent action in the performance hinted that this style of movement was symptomatic of Prospero’s magical hold over him.

When the spirit questioned the imposition of more work, Prospero’s “How now? Moody?” saw him spit with anger. He retrieved his staff, which in keeping with the undercurrent of violence in his character, looked more like a cudgel than a magic instrument.

Indeed, when he made Ariel sit at Miranda’s desk to receive his monthly reminder of why he should be grateful to Prospero, he slammed the cudgel/staff down on the desk when accusing Ariel with the harsh words “Thou liest, malignant thing”.

Ariel was dispatched and Miranda awakened, after which Prospero banged his staff on the ground to summon Caliban. Ariel reappeared briefly with his helpers inside the box.

Scruffy

Caliban (Amer Hlehel) wore a suit just like Prospero’s, but was even more scruffy and dishevelled. He had a vague Latin American accent that underscored his otherness among the English speakers. But importantly there was nothing animalistic in his appearance or demeanour.

The programme informed us that the ruins stage right were of a statue of Sycorax’s god Setebos, so that when Caliban showed fear of Prospero’s power, saying he could control that god, he was faced with a powerful reminder of how Setebos has been overthrown.

Ferdinand (Solomon Israel) appeared out of the box, which now seemed to be functioning as a portal, led by Ariel’s magical song. His tears for his lost father were immediately reminiscent of Prospero’s emotion when thinking of his wife.

The young man came across as simple and kind, which contrasted with Prospero’s feigned suspicion of him. Ferdinand tried to defend himself with his sword, but Ariel sat invisible just behind him on a rock, and simply grasped the drawn blade, locking it into place so that Ferdinand could not make it budge.

Prospero used bitter terms against Miranda when she tried to defend Ferdinand from her father’s impositions. It was difficult to bear in mind that Prospero was at this point merely putting the young man to the test.

Alonso (Kevin McMonagle) and party emerged from the box at the start of act two. Sebastian was played by actress Kirsty Bushell. Despite this, the character was not regendered as a female, but kept the original name and was constantly addressed as “Sir”.

As Antonio (Jonathan McGuinness) and Sebastian joked, Ariel charmed the others to sleep with a bowed xylophone. Their plot of murder agreed on, they drew their knives but were frozen in position by Ariel.

Caliban carried a bundle of floorboards and dumped them with loud crash on the ground before crouching under his coat, which bore markings that made it look like a fabric remnant from a life raft (2.2).

Trinculo (Felix Hayes) wore his boots around his neck and carried a meat cleaver. He squealed on seeing Caliban, but nevertheless crawled underneath his coat to take shelter. The two positioned themselves so that their legs bent back at the knee to point in the air, creating the distinct impression of a four-legged creature.

An attempt at topicality was made when Stephano’s description of the “monster” became “a present for any banker” rather than the text’s “emperor”. But this sounded clumsy and laboured in its right-on-ness.

Rather more successful was the visual joke that Stephano’s “comfort” came in a bottle remarkably similar, but not identical, to a bottle of Southern Comfort.

Stephano (Bruce Mackinnon) pulled on a set of legs and with extreme effort extracted Trinculo, who went on to explain how he had survived by swimming like a duck, his hands mimicking a duck paddle motion.

Ferdinand laboured under the weight of the planks he was forced to move (3.1). And just as with Caliban, these were real, solid bundles of wood that were genuinely difficult to carry.

His encounter with Miranda was observed by some of Ariel’s helpers who stretched a rope, presumably invisible to the pair, that separated them as they spoke. The interval came after this scene.

The second half started with the island’s rogues reeling around, Stephano having retrieved a number of optic bottles still attached a section of bar (3.2). Caliban demonstrated his new-found taste for drink by downing one of the bottles in one. Ariel’s ventriloquism obliged poor Trinculo to wander in search of the mystery voice that was causing him to be beaten.

But the real comedy of this scene resulted from Caliban’s description of Miranda, which caused Stephano to pause when saying “Is it so…. brave a lass?” his animation during this silence expressing his pent up excitement.

Caliban’s speech about his isle of wonder was spoken without any air of poetic mystique and sounded more like a statement of bare fact.

Prospero surveyed the noblemen from the roof of the box as they paused on their journey (3.3). The banquet was brought in on a neon-lit table. A bright flash saw the lavish display of food disappear, with a brief glimpse of the table top revolving, followed by Ariel descending on a wire as the menacing harpy.

The nobles drew their swords and daggers, but Ariel was out of their reach. Weighted down by Ariel’s spell, the nobles admitted defeat, all of which gave Prospero an air of triumph when describing them as being in his power.

Prospero undid Ferdinand’s foot shackles and released him, but still acted the jealous father (4.1). He sent Ariel off to bring the nobles to him. As the spirit moved towards the box, he paused and, as if having summoned sufficient courage to put the question, asked “Do you love me, master? No?” which looked all the more touching for the hesitancy of its delivery.

Preparing Ferdinand and Miranda to watch the spectacle, he separated them saying “Be more abstemious”.

Masque

The masque began with Iris descending onto the roof of the box. She called on Ceres, who popped out of the ground. Juno appeared from upstage. As is often the case, the dance of the reapers was not included.

The three figures of Iris (Amie Burns Walker), Ceres (Sarah Belcher) and Juno (Cecilia Noble) were accompanied by spirits who stood close to them and appeared to manipulate their movements. This was reminiscent of Ariel’s initial stilted gait, and the backwards reference implied that he too was being controlled at that point.

Prospero’s revels speech was pronounced by Slinger to such moving effect that it served as a reminder that this young Prospero would next year be playing an old Hamlet.

When Caliban and his roguish companions approached Prospero’s cell, spirits appeared posing as models for the fine clothes intended to distract them from their murderous purpose.

Trinculo and Stephano eagerly grabbed at the garments. A wig taken from one model showed her to have knotted hair underneath. Ariel and his helpers in dog masks chased them away with savage barking.

At the start of act five, warm sunshine shone through an aperture in the back of the set, indicating that 6pm, the time for the completion of Prospero’s plan, was drawing close.

Prospero had now turned gentle, so that his speech abjuring his rough magic was calmly nostalgic about his past glories rather than bitter about the impending loss of the power that had created them.

The nobles appeared inside the box and emerged. While they stood around, Prospero went to change into a good suit. When he reappeared in clean clothes, Ariel did up his master’s jacket buttons in a touching display of affection.

Prospero greeted Gonzalo warmly. He then slapped Antonio on the face in reprimand for his wickedness but almost immediately hugged him uttering words of forgiveness. This indicated that he was still some way towards a complete cure for his rage.

Not surprisingly, given its function as an all-purpose portal for character entrances, the box was used for the discovery of Ferdinand and Miranda playing chess. It was lit from the inside to reveal the pair, causing Alonso great delight.

Ferdinand peered through the transparent side of the box at his father before joining him.

Gonzalo’s list of the various people who had found something or someone they had lost, ended with the comment “and all of us ourselves when no man was his own”, which touched on the overarching theme of the shipwreck trilogy relating to precisely this sort of separation and reunion.

When the rogues rushed in they did not see the nobles at first. It was only until the clothes piled over their faces were removed that they realised their predicament.

Perhaps commenting on his own remnants of ill will, he had after all just slapped his own brother, Prospero did not look at Caliban when conceding ownership of “this thing of darkness”. He gazed instead at the ground, thinking of we know not what.

Caliban promised “be wise hereafter and seek for grace”. As he exited he passed close to Miranda and looked her up and down, reminding us of his attack on her in the backstory.

Mirroring his spirit companion’s earlier gesture, Prospero unbuttoned Ariel’s jacket to symbolise his release. Ariel fully removed the garment, as did the other Ariels that had shadowed him as assistants.

The house lights came up for the epilogue, which Prospero ended with his head bowed waiting for our applause.

Conclusions

Jonathan Slinger’s Prospero was no kindly ageing magus but a spitting ball of fury. His final mercy towards his brother was not an instantaneous transformation but, judging by the residual aggression towards Antonio, more of a work in progress.

It was as if playing Macbeth for so long the previous year had left an indelible mark.

The dopiest Roman of them all

Julius Caesar, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 9 June 2012

An unmistakably African crowd thronged inside a crumbling stadium, its steep steps interrupted by a central entrance tunnel. Outside the stadium, to the rear of this main space, stood a massive statue of a man facing away from us with his arm raised in despotic salutation.

The masonry resembled an approximation of Roman architecture, only the reinforcement protruding from the crumbling concrete confirmed the structure to be modern.

This deliberate confusion of ancient and modern pointed to the production’s keynote emphasis on making this Roman history play relevant to the contemporary world.

The house lights were kept up at the start of the performance when the onstage crowd were told to go “Hence, home…” in an attempt to make the audience feel part of the populace.

When he appeared in his white suit, Caesar looked like an ageing wannabe autocrat, brandishing a chieftain’s fly whisk (1.2). He was greeted by supporters wearing his stylised picture on t-shirts, chanting his name.

Paterson Joseph played Brutus with the lightweight self-satisfaction of the skilless rebel displaying a kind of empty vanity. Cassius by contrast was worthy but dull. During their first secretive conversation, he constantly looked around as if wary of informers.

Their familiarity was emphasised when Brutus and Cassius made a game of repeating “Eyes see but by reflection” as if this was some kind of private joke.

Cassius appeared bone dry when he encountered wise old Casca during the storm (1.3).

Brutus’ thinking aloud about joining the conspiracy against Caesar (2.1) was very eloquent. However, there was a hint that this eloquence was the result of him addressing the audience rather slowly and deliberately as if he considered us dull-witted. Seen in this light, he displayed a certain intellectual vanity.

But there was a brief flash of humour when he explained that the letter left for him by Brutus could be read by the light of the exhalations. We all knew this was thanks to the stage lighting.

The conspiratorial faction entered and stood on the steps. We began to see Brutus asserting control and making series of fateful decisions. He was tragic because he was unaware of his own incompetence. He contradicted the others at least three times, the most serious instance of which was to leave Antony alive.

Portia was excellent in pointing out the hypocrisy of Brutus telling her not to walk in the fresh air while doing so himself and claiming to be ill. She showed her “voluntary wound”, which she slapped when dispatching Lucius to the Senate.

By 2.2 Caesar was an old man who looked as if he was failing. Decius skilfully contradicted Calphurnia’s interpretation of his dream and fed his vanity. The conspirators came to fetch Caesar and they all left through the tunnel. Artemidorus read his warning from the roof of the tunnel (2.3).

The Soothsayer stood on the tunnel roof as Caesar and the conspirators entered, the space now representing the Senate. There was tension as Popilius seemed to have rumbled them.

Stabbed

Caesar was stabbed from behind. Brutus stood at the edge of the stage right walkway and simply looked on without taking part, but stabbed last after Caesar had seen him and commented on his apparent treachery.

Even here Brutus was telling people what to do. The “Stoop Romans” was his idea. He had another idea “Let’s all cry ‘Peace’…” he insisted. He paused after the word “peace” which underlined the absurdity of a blood-drenched assassin speaking of that concept.

In the aftermath of the murder, the conspirators warily drew daggers on others who approached them.

Antony entered boldly and shook their bloody hands. When he had finished he looked at his now blood-stained hands and shrieked when the reality of Caesar’s death struck home.

Brutus told Antony “to you our swords have leaden points” but then pointed his dagger right at Antony when instructing him how to proceed with the funeral oration. This was another Brutus error.

Mark Antony’s amazing “Cry Havoc” soliloquy reached a powerful conclusion whose force prefigured how formidable an opponent he would turn out to be.

People gathered around the tunnel entrance to hear Brutus speak (3.2). They nodded and agreed with him. Caesar’s shrouded body was brought in below and Antony spoke from the tunnel roof. At first he could not make himself heard, leading into famous speech opening in which he begged audience.

He took a cup of water from the Soothsayer and poured it down onto the ground before saying “He was my friend”. He turned away from the audience and paused with emotion before continuing, which was very effective.

Antony descended to the stage and the plinth on which Caesar body was laid rose to about waist height. Antony pulled the cover off to reveal Caesar’s bloody wounds. He spat out the victorious words “Now let it work” when people had changed to support him.

In a striking reference to the recent history of South Africa, in 3.3 Cinna the Poet was killed by necklacing. A tyre was put around his neck and he was doused with petrol. His killers escorted him through the tunnel offstage. A red glow of flame from behind the stadium steps indicated his fiery fate.

That red glow was seen again, this time from the fires sweeping the whole of Rome, when the uniformed Antony, Octavius and Lepidus gathered for 4.1 and organised their purge.

The setting changed to the rebel encampment (4.2/3). Canvas was attached to the sides of the tunnel entrance to make it into a doorway of a tent. A camp table and chairs were placed centre stage. When arguing with Cassius, Brutus was even more annoying than usual. He physically attacked the Poet when ordering him to leave, which made Brutus look very cruel.

They sat around the table with Titinius and Messala. Brutus pretended that he had not heard the news about Portia and made game out of denying it. “Why, farewell Portia” was spoken as false grief. He was evidently bored at this news being brought to him again. This deception was another example of his sense of superiority.

Cassius’ proposed tactics to be adopted at Philippi, letting their opponent tire themselves in their advance, were explained using stones to represent the embattled forces. Brutus contradicted Cassius, using oranges to represent the supporters and provisions that Antony’s army would acquire as they advanced towards them. This was yet another wrong call by Brutus.

Tide

The tide analogy was explained by gestures indicating the different levels of water. This actually looked good as it explained the advantage of being at the high tide.

Brutus’ companions fell asleep in the tent. Lucius nodded off sat before an African lyre instrument, still working it with his thumbs to comical effect when Brutus took it from him. The stage stilled for the ghost sequence.

“How ill this taper burns!” saw the candle dim making the stage darker, which served as the cue for appearance of Caesar’s ghost. The statue at the back turned 90 degrees to the right and fell Saddam statue-style to the ground. Caesar entered with a white cloth over his head, which he removed to show his saluting form, a direct echo of the statue.

Afterwards Brutus checked with the others to see if they had seen anything, and when they replied in the negative, this foolishly enabled him to conclude that nothing had actually happened. This was typical of his capacity for self-deception.

The two armies met for a parlay with their Kalashnikovs (5.1). “Good words are better than bad strokes”, said Brutus cockily, clearly convinced that he was witty.

Lucius held his gun upside down, which Brutus corrected. The final farewell between Brutus and Cassius was touching. Given the impending disaster signposted by Brutus’ folly, it looked very timely.

When the day was lost (5.3) Pindarus killed Cassius instantly at the very moment that he covered his face with his hand. This was a very logical and obedient reaction to his instruction, but looked as if Pindarus had jumped the gun and killed him when Cassius was merely demonstrating the fatal sign. Then again, taking him by surprise could have been an attempt to reduce Cassius’ anxious expectation of death.

Titinius and Messala seemed happy until they saw Cassius dead, but Titinius did not kill himself as per the text, so that Brutus found only Cassius’ body.

After the brief scene (5.4) in which Lucilius impersonated Brutus and was captured, Brutus and his men rested on the steps (5.5). Explosions were heard in the background, which served as alarums. In his final gesture, Brutus got Lucius, not Strato, to hold his sword and ran himself through with it.

Conclusions

Transferring the action to Africa worked, particularly with the necklacing reference. The genuine and approximated east African accents provided an extra twang to the musicality of the verse.

But with its focus on Brutus at the expense of Cassius, and the underscoring of the former’s ineptitude, the final moments of the production in which he was praised as “the noblest Roman of them all” appeared strange and unwarranted.