Romeo & Juliet reworked

A Tender Thing, Swan Stratford, 6 October 2012

Ben Power’s remarkable production was a reworking of the text of Romeo and Juliet with the central roles reimagined as a middle-aged couple. It utilised ambiguities in the original’s vocabulary and some of its specific references to age.

The Swan stage had bare, light blue boards up to a sandy downstage margin. A screen for projections hung in the arch. A freestanding door, which could be brought forward, and a bed were positioned upstage.

Richard McCabe was a portly, ebullient Romeo while Kathryn Hunter played a lithe, skittish Juliet. Kathryn Hunter’s body looked like a collection of parts reassembled in a new order, coincidentally the same process applied here to the text of the play.

The performance began with Romeo sat in a chair as a projection of the sea washed over him (Prologue). His first words were “Give me the light”, at which point the stage was lit and he moved upstage to where Juliet was lying ill in bed.

He continued to speak of the “detestable maw” and “tomb of death” taken from 5.3 where Romeo is addressing Juliet’s apparently lifeless body in the Capulet tomb. This was edited to remove the references to Tybalt, a crucial change so that Romeo spoke of “With And worms that are thy shalt be our chambermaids”.

Juliet rose from the bed and they danced together speaking lines taken from throughout the play, ending with Juliet’s “Give me thy hand”.

Romeo talked of his fervent love for Juliet using his lines addressed to Benvolio, lines spoken by Lady Capulet about Paris, as well as by Capulet about himself (Scene One).

He was quite chirrupy as a middle-aged man in love: “O heavy lightness! serious vanity!” Romeo sat in a chair stage right and handed a front row audience member his champagne flute. At “Read o’er the volume of her glorious face” he toured the front row showing them a photo of Juliet he kept in his wallet.

Juliet entered through the door causing Romeo to respond “But soft! What light through yonder doorway breaks!” Juliet rolled her eyes and went back out again. This was funny, but the comedy seemed to rely on this exchange being a joke consciously referencing the original play for humorous effect.

Once Juliet had gone, Romeo continued with that speech until Juliet re-entered. He remarked “It is my lady, O, it is my love” as Juliet sat in the chair silently taking the champagne glass that had been left with an audience member. She put her hand on her cheek, prompting Romeo’s comment “that I might touch that cheek!”

Juliet moved centre stage and began “Gallop apace…” with some alterations so that instead of “strange love, grown bold” she spoke of “young love, grown old”. She took his jacket from the back of the chair and put it on herself, which overwhelmed her as it was too big. But it was the next best thing to having him. This was characteristic of the textual tweaking to adapt the original to the age of the characters.

Romeo grasped her from behind and fondled her chest, to which she responded coyly “O gentle Romeo”. They reverted to an almost straight run-through of dialogue from the balcony scene. Juliet placed his jacket back on him and they seemed very tactile and in love.

Romeo swore by the moon, and Juliet asked “what satisfaction canst thou have tonight?” leading into an exchange partly based on fragments of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Juliet spoke the first seven lines of Sonnet 73:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away.

This introduced a theme of ageing and yellowing leaves.

Romeo replied with the beginning of Sonnet 104:

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still.

and part of Sonnet 102:

Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays;

He also spoke some invented lines concluding with the modern sounding “The universe I see when I see you”.

Juliet left through the door but returned shortly afterwards.

The young Juliet’s forgetfulness in the balcony scene “I have forgot why I did call thee back” was comically transformed into this Juliet’s senior moment with Romeo jokingly promising to “stand here till thou remember it”. They eventually parted in “sweet sorrow”.

Dream

Romeo entered down the stage right walkway in a dressing gown (Scene Two). Starting with Friar Laurence’s description of “The grey-eyed morn”, he described a dream in which he saw Juliet piercing herself with a knife, using the Nurse’s description of Tybalt’s wound. He stood over Juliet in the bed as she tossed and turned, writhing in agony, as he said:

I saw the wound, I saw it with mine eyes,–
[]
A piteous corse, a bloody piteous corse;
Pale, pale as ashes, all bedaub’d in blood,
All in gore-blood; I swounded at the sight.

Romeo used Friar Laurence’s remark that “violent delights have violent ends”.

Juliet awoke and came forward in a bath robe. Romeo told her of his troublesome dream. She comforted him with dialogue borrowed from other characters. She turned on a radio telling him “We must have you dance”: Mercutio’s line to the love-struck Romeo. As the radio played Dean Martin singing Sway, she began to dance, peeling back her bath robe to reveal her swimsuit underneath.

Romeo continued to talk about his bad dream, describing his “soul of lead”. This continued with Juliet speaking Mercutio’s lines in response to Romeo (“friend” changed to “wife”) until Juliet launched in Mercutio’s wonderful Queen Mab speech.

She agreed that in talking of dreams she was talking of nothing, inserting “thy fearful, deathful dreams” before “which are the children of an idle brain” to persuade Romeo that his bad dream was another kind of nothing.

She took Romeo’s lines from 5.1 to insist that “My dreams presage some joyful news at hand”.

Romeo concluded with his own lines from the start of 2.1 “Can I go forward when my heart is here? Turn back, dull earth, and find thy centre out.”

They began to dance, but almost immediately Juliet went into a spasm as her leg gave way under her. She collapsed to the ground. This was the first indication that something was seriously wrong with her.

The next scene (Three) saw a marked deterioration in Juliet’s condition. She sat in a chair and tried to clutch a photo album. Her grip was so weak that it fell from her hand several times. On each occasion Romeo replaced it. She spoke a modified version of the Nurse’s lines about Juliet as if speaking of her own dead child. A photo of the child was projected onto the screen. She said she was expecting news using lines from when she awaited the return of the Nurse.

Romeo busied himself at the other side of the stage as if in the garden collecting herbs, using Friar Laurence’s relevant lines. He picked a herb and looked it up in his small plant guide. In view of later developments, Romeo’s plant gathering was of notable significance.

The scene switched to Juliet alone in bed. She awoke and, using an invented line, described how “A deadly sickness now chills up my veins” followed by lines from herself and Romeo to describe her condition, concluding with “O, break, my heart! poor bankrupt, break at once!”

She climbed out of bed and collapsed on the ground. Romeo entered to find her there and, letting fall the flowers he had brought her, tried to lift her up. He pulled on her arm three times but could not support her. Each time she fell back she offered up a single frail arm for him to grasp.

The scene changed back to Juliet in her chair. Romeo brought her a letter. This was obviously some sort of medical report, because when she showed Romeo the contents, he asked whether she were “past hope, past cure, past help?” words originally used by Juliet herself.

Juliet confirmed the bad news using Capulet’s lines “All things that we ordained festival, turn from their office to black funeral”. But Romeo reassured her of his support using part of Sonnet 116 “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds. O no! it is an ever-fixed mark That looks on tempests and is never shaken”. He picked her up and danced with her.

Romeo expressed his dismay using a rearranged part of Sonnet 65:

O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?

Since Not brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power…

The end of this was completed by Juliet:

…How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

Romeo continued with a version of Sonnet 64:

That O Time will come and take my love away.
And, pale, I cower to think upon that day [invented line]
This thought is as a death which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

Juliet used an amended Friar Laurence line to tell Romeo that she knew he would expect her to “bear this work of heaven with patience”.

Using invented lines mixed with some altered originals, Juliet expressed her wish “to choose to sleep” rather than continue to suffer.

Romeo responded with an altered Capulet line “Death, that hath ta’en her would take thee hence to make me wail, ties up my tongue, and will not let me speak.”

Juliet’s preference for death over slow, undignified decline was expressed using altered lines about her dislike of Paris, so that she would prefer to leap from battlements rather than die slowly. An invented line insisted that Romeo should “help me sleep”.

With the word “Go” now standing euphemistically for dying, Romeo insisted that he would go with her. He complained that “every little mouse, every unworthy thing” in heaven would be able to see her and “Romeo may not”.

Juliet borrowed Friar Laurence’s lines to chide Romeo for his “womanish tears” with Romeo rebuking her “Thou cut’st my head off with a golden axe, and smilest upon the stroke that murders me.”

Juliet used lines original spoken by Benvolio to tell Romeo to find another love: “Take thou some new infection to thy eye” and “Compare her my face with some those that I soon shall show, and I that will make thee think thy swan a crow.” But this offended the “devout religion” of Romeo’s eye.

In a reversal of roles, Romeo wished that Juliet would go “no further than a wanton’s bird, who lets it hop a little from her hand”. They sank to the floor to sing “O mistress mine” from Twelfth Night, with its telling lines “What’s to come is still unsure” and “Youth’s a stuff will not endure”.

Feet

Juliet was in a wheelchair for the next scene (Four). Romeo had to position her feet on its foot rest as she had now lost the use of her legs. Juliet spoke part of Sonnet 65:

O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,

With Romeo responding with part of Sonnet 64 and a recurrence of an invented line used in the previous scene:

Time will come and take my love away.
And, pale, I cower to think upon that day

The same exchange was repeated twice with a blackout between to indicate the passage of time during which she had deteriorated to the point of being fed with a spoon, but spat the food out again.

After she had been fed, Romeo lifted her up and washed her face with a cloth.

At one point in this sequence, she appeared to revive completely and danced feverishly, brandishing apparently healthy legs in what might have been her waking dream or wish fulfilment fantasy.

Romeo placed Juliet in her bed where she tossed and turned. She used Capulet’s “all things now change them to the contrary” and also Mercutio’s dying words about being “peppered”.

She spoke like a demented person using the Nurse’s lines about the baby Juliet to talk of her dead daughter. Romeo turned his back in resignation using Lady Capulet’s “Enough of this. I prithee, hold thy peace.” But Juliet continued, just as the Nurse did, using slightly altered lines to pursue the same subject.

Romeo questioned her using Capulet’s image of the tearful Juliet being like “a bark, a sea, a wind”.

Juliet chillingly used altered lines of Romeo’s to ask him, “Doth thou not think me an old murderer”. The last two words were very apt to this reworking of the play.

Juliet openly asked Romeo to kill her with poison, intimating “I do spy a kind of hope” that she would “soon sleep in quiet”. Romeo promised “I’ll help thee hence”.

A solitary Romeo announced that he had dreamt of an apothecary, using his original description of the shop he had visited (Scene Five). But he was already in possession of the “soon-speeding gear as will disperse itself through all the veins that the life-weary taker may fall dead”. He went to the front of the stage and picked up a small blue bottle which had been there throughout the entire performance.

Scene Six began as a replay of the Prologue with Juliet in bed as Romeo approached, addressing the sight as “thou detestable maw, thou womb of death”, but this time with the context of Juliet’s degenerative illness adding new meaning.

Instead of continuing with Romeo’s words over Juliet’s body in the tomb, the production reverted to an edited version of “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun”.

Juliet said “What must be shall be” to which Romeo replied “That’s a certain text”. Using Friar Laurence’s line as a prelude to their suicide pact was quite disturbing.

In an invented line, Juliet told Romeo not to think of present woes but on “the years of joy and peace behind”. Romeo took the blue bottle into the bed with him as the pair settled down for the night.

Juliet awoke and articulated her fears “What if his mixture does not work at all”, which would mean that she when she woke the next day “shall I not be distraught, environed with all these hideous fears”. The “hideous fears” here were not the bones of the Capulet tomb but her own fears about her future deterioration.

The couple went into a role reversed version of the lark/nightingale exchange, with Romeo speaking Juliet’s lines, hearing the nightingale, not wanting her to “go” i.e. die, and Juliet using Romeo’s lines about the lark and leaving for Mantua. Romeo eventually accepted Juliet’s version and agreed it was morning that she would soon “go”.

Romeo administered the poison to her with a hushed “Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast.”

Returning to lines from the balcony scene, Juliet wished Romeo farewell. He asked her if they would ever see each other again. She doubted it not and concluded with Romeo’s “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.”

Romeo watched her die as he uttered the fragment “Adieu, adieu. Parting is…” Realising she was dead, he kissed her using a Juliet line “My dismal scene I needs must act alone”. He exclaimed “Here’s to my love”, drank from the bottle and fell dead beside her.

After a period of stillness the pair rose from their deathbed looking bright and refreshed. In this Epilogue we saw them falling in love for the first time at the Capulet ball. Romeo remarked on the lady enriching the hand of knight and launched into the famous “If I profane with my unworthiest hand…” This sequence continued until Juliet told him he kissed by the book.

They both spoke “O blessed, blessed night! I am afeard. Being in night, all this is but a dream, too flattering-sweet to be substantial.” Juliet concluded with “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night. Give me thy hand.”

They took each other by the hand and walked away, Romeo finally putting a comforting arm around Juliet.

Conclusions

The ending felt slightly odd because it represented a much earlier point in time, but did not contain sufficient cues to make this convincing. The text assumes that the couple look younger, but such a quick change cannot be made in their appearance.

Viewed another way, the ending could be a fantasy shared by the dying couple rather than an actual re-enactment of the beginning of their relationship.

The use of Shakespeare’s sonnets to insert truly adult sentiment into a story of young love was seamless and effective.

The power of language was used to express the heightened emotions engendered by love against a backdrop of sickness rather than health. But then perhaps love is at its most intense at precisely the moments when it is so severely tested.

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An open stage

Pericles, Courtyard Theatre Stratford, 5 October 2012

A large cast of talented and experienced amateurs worked together with two RSC directors (James Farrell and Jamie Rocha-Allan) to present the “fourth part” of the RSC shipwreck trilogy under the auspices of the company’s Open Stages project. Four performances with a runtime of 90 minutes and no interval took place from 5-7 October 2012 in the Courtyard Theatre.

The audience on this particular night was quite small, the stalls were fairly full, but the galleries were mostly empty. The atmosphere was very intense with family and friends in attendance to support the ensemble.

The set consisted of a diagonally slanted back wall reminiscent of the side of a massive ship. A short, square tunnel section extended from the centre, its roof accessible via a doorway in the wall. The thrust was bare up to its front edge where a fringe of sand indicated the margin of the sea.

The role of Gower was split between 15 of the cast (all with other roles) so that his choric summaries of the action came from a vast group.

The sound of waves breaking on the shore covered scene changes. The stage hands moving props would often pause, move back and then forward again in rhythm with the wave sounds so that their intrusions became part of the fabric of the production.

The unravelling by Pericles (Sope Dirisu) of the incest riddle was a wonderfully creepy scene (1.1). Hesperides (Lauren Moakes), in pigtails, skirt and long white stockings, was made to stand on a plinth to read the riddle from a plastic sheet by her father Antiochus (Nick Quartley). Plastic bags filled with raw human flesh hung menacingly above the stage as a reminder to Pericles of the price of failing to unravel the puzzle.

Having solved the riddle and fled back to Tyre, Pericles found himself among his revelling friends (1.2).

Juliet Grundy as a female Helicanus dried a few times in this scene and later in the performance too. She struggled to remember her lines, but the entire auditorium willed her to succeed in moments of breathtaking tension. Even professionals dry occasionally. So high was the general standard of performance that this hiccup was one of the very few indications that we were watching an amateur cast.

Pericles still feared for his safety and set sail for Tarsus. The scene there was one of opulence ruined by famine (1.4). A long table stood diagonally across the stage with Cleon (James Wolstenholme) at one end and Dionyza (Louise Fulwell) at the other. Candelabra and ornate table decorations indicated the expectation of plenty, but the servants brought them dishes that were uncovered to reveal empty plates. Just downstage from them, a ragged starveling illustrated the even greater suffering of the populace.

Pericles arrived bringing plentiful supplies of bread, which he handed out from his shoulder bag.

The multiple Gower chorus narrated the story of how Helicanus had informed Pericles of Thaliard’s (Bill Handley) plan to kill him, as well as Pericles’ onward journey and the shipwreck that pitched him up on the coast of Pentapolis (2.0).

After retrieving his armour from the fishing net, the fishermen (Mary Kalunga-Eade, Richard Shields and Alastair McPhail) escorted Pericles to the court (2.1). This was a modern place with besuited Simonides’ (Stephen Bridgen) every moment being shadowed by an iPad-toting personal assistant – the 1st Lord – who busied herself with arranging the upcoming tournament (2.2).

Ragged

The knights queued stage right and were checked in one-by-one, their mottos translated into English. Pericles, ragged after the shipwreck and thus a great contrast to the business wear vibe of the court, sneaked in from stage left, snatching an almost bare twig to present as his token.

The tournament was a four-way fight with the knights letting fly with baseball bats, nunchaku and fists. Pericles used his bare hands and emerged the victor.

The wonderfully patrician Simonides needed some encouragement to accept Thaisa’s (Imogen Hartley) choice of Pericles as her husband. But it became apparent that behind his paternal bluster he was secretly glad of Pericles’ interest in his daughter. When they finally declared their love, he encouraged them lustily to go to bed (2.3+2.5 with 2.4 cut).

The Gower chorus acted out the second shipwreck in which Marina was born (3.0). Lychordia (Sue White) nursed the baby, explaining to Pericles that Thaisa had died (3.1). The burial at sea was not shown, but Thaisa’s coffin did turn up in 3.2 when it was discovered by Cerimon (Peter Malin). The box was carried on stage and opened. Cerimon applied something to Thaisa and she awoke in a confused state demanding to know where she was.

Pericles entrusted baby Marina to Cleon and Dionyza (3.3) and the revitalised Thaisa became a votaress at Diana’s temple (3.4).

Gower narrated the story of Marina’s (Chloe Orrock) progress into early adulthood, which was symbolised by her appearing behind her nurse Lychorida, taking the bundle of cloth that had represented her as a baby and wearing it around her. She played games and studied alongside Cleon and Dionyza’s own daughter Philoten, receiving praise from her teacher and attention from young men (4.0).

The deliciously cruel Dionyza with her distinctive black bob ordered Leonine (Neil Jackson) to murder Marina to prevent her overshadowing Philoten (4.1).

Leonine took Marina for a walk, and she turned to see him with a short length of rope pulled taught between his hands ready to throttle her. She was saved by the pirates (Julian Small, Nick Lancaster and Daniel Gough) lurking in the shadows who came forward to abduct her.

A line of bored prostitutes sat and watched television on a long sofa as the action moved to the Mytilene brothel (4.2). A girl in shorts used the remote control to channel surf as the others, including a particularly old one, stared expressionless at the screen.

When Marina was introduced to this, her new home, the Bawd (Jane Durant) attempted to make her trashier by pulling her dress off one shoulder. But this did nothing to spoil her essential wholesomeness.

Back at Tarsus, Cleon and Dionyza now sat at the same table as before but this time groaning under the weight of vast quantities of food (4.3). But despite this bounty they were not happy. Cleon was aghast at the crimes that his wife had just confessed to: the murder of both Marina and her assassin Leonine. Scene 4.4 was cut.

Two brothel customers put on their shoes as they discussed the wonder of the new girl that preached divinity at them instead of “serving” them (4.5). The local governor Lysimachus (Nathan Hawthorne), a young man with an air of confident authority, apparently used to getting what he wanted, made himself at home by taking off his jacket and tie. He insisted that Marina be brought to him. The Bawd, Bolt (Tim Younger) and Pander (Chris Clarke) were hopeful that she would finally agree to “do the deeds of darkness”.

Marina resisted the governor’s advances and firmly insisted that he behave honourably as befitted his position. A brief jingle played on a xylophone as Marina began to speak in her defence. The origin and significance of this sound became apparent later on.

Virtue

Lysimachus was moved by her speech, gave her a wad of notes and vowed to do only good to her. His reason for relenting was that Marina was obviously well brought up: “a piece of virtue” whose “training hath been noble”.

The scene became quite sinister when the Bawd instructed Bolt to “Crack the glass of her virginity and make the rest malleable”.

Bolt was left alone with Marina, who in addition to deploying her skills in rhetoric, also gave Bolt a swift knee to the crotch. The uptown girl had acquired some distinctly downtown moves.

The defeated Bolt asked Marina what she would have him do, whereupon she decided that she would like to teach, with the brothel earning a share of her fees.

The Gower chorus explained that Pericles was travelling again by sea (5.0). His black hair was grizzled and grey to indicate the passage of time during which Marina had grown up. He sat despondent on a chair, hunched with his back to the audience (5.1). Lysimachus tried to raise his spirits and sent for Marina to engage him in conversation.

Without being introduced by name or mentioning it herself, Marina alluded to her troubled past and noble breeding as a way of convincing Pericles that she could empathise with his situation, stressing that they were essentially similar. The ensuing question and answer session gradually led into the joyful revelation that she was his daughter Marina.

When Pericles became aware that Lysimachus and Marina had an attachment, his “Who is this?” had an air of comical quizzicality about it, as if he had gone automatically into concerned father mode, screening his daughter’s boyfriends as if by primordial instinct.

Pericles then heard a xylophone just as Marina had done earlier and felt drowsy. In a very clever effect, he fell to the ground as if entering deep sleep. But at that instant the lighting immediately changed and he appeared spotlit and bolt upright, while all those around him slumped to the ground asleep. This put the audience inside the reality of the vision he was about to experience.

Diana (Bethany Reilly) stood on the roof of the tunnel surrounded by intermittently flashing light tubes to tell Pericles that he should go to her temple at Ephesus and recount the story of his adventures to the people there. Once the vision ended, normality was restored and Pericles awoke. But for the duration of the vision, his dream state was presented from the inside as an awake state.

The fact that Diana’s visitation was accompanied by the xylophone sound retrospectively explained the source of Marina’s inspiration when fending off Lysimachus’ dishonourable advances.

At the temple itself, Diana stood in the shadows as Pericles and party arrived. He retold the history of his travels to Cerimon and the nuns (5.3). Thaisa immediately fainted on recognising him. Diana stood on the statue plinth and adopted a pose when Pericles offered thanks for her intervention. Thaisa was reunited with Marina and her marriage to Lysimachus was announced in a joyous happy ending (they looked a nice couple), with the Gower chorus reminding us that the murderous Cleon and Dionyza had been killed by their outraged subjects.

Conclusions

This “amateur” production raised some interesting questions about the precise definition of the term. If an amateur actor is one with no formal training and for whom acting is not their principal employment, then that label would apply equally well to Stephen Fry and other entertainers who have sneaked into the profession by the backdoor.

The stage is frequently graced by actors who have won critical acclaim by having their raw talent shaped under professional guidance. So if Lenny Henry can do this, why not bin men and solicitors as was the case here?

Was there a halo effect from seeing these performances at the RSC in a professional theatre environment, with its high-end set and lighting etc? Would these very performances have registered at the same level if played in a cramped fringe venue? Or did these amateur actors in fact substantially raise their game in response to their august surroundings?

What is certain is that the production made absolutely the right decision in casting student Sope Dirisu in the central role of Pericles. He was a considerable talent whose captivating performance did much to raise the whole level of the enterprise.

Jonathan Pryce’s Lear

King Lear, Almeida London, 6 September 2012

A set dominated by bare brick rear wall with doorways and upper level windows and galleries, together with some vaguely ancient British costume, gave the production a medieval feel.

The first scene (1.1) began in a tone that was surprisingly flat and underpowered with Kent (Ian Gelder), Gloucester (Clive Wood) and Edmund (Kieran Bew) forming a completely static group.

But it really took off with the arrival of the Lears and became intriguingly inventive.

A throne was placed centre stage ready for the arrival of Lear (Jonathan Pryce) who arranged his Regan (Jenny Jules), Goneril (Zoe Waites) and their husbands stage right. He took Cordelia (Phoebe Fox) by the hand and gave her pride of place in a spot by herself stage left. The tactility between the pair evidenced their closeness.

A map was rolled out on the ground and Lear, enacting his unburdening, took off his crown and placed it on the throne.

Regan went to speak first, but Lear gestured to silence her and called on Goneril to start. The two eldest delivered their oleaginous speeches, each in turn being rewarded by Lear with a coronet. They briefly stood on the area of the map gifted to them before returning to their husbands. Cordelia rose briefly and addressed the audience for her asides.

Turning his attentions to Cordelia, Lear did not wait to hear her speak but placed a coronet on her head immediately. This subtly preferential treatment was accompanied by yet more tactile and affectionate intimacy between the king and his favourite daughter.

They stood close together holding hands and Lear then held her gently by the upper arms, exhorting her to speak. He looked surprised at Cordelia’s “Nothing”, but continued to hold her.

When he asked for further explanation, Cordelia playfully pulled him aside and, still holding him, gently explained how she merely returned her duties, looking past Lear at her sisters as she mocked their insincerity.

Lear’s anger was expressed by his gentle touch becoming a controlling clutch. The original easy hold over her upper arms became a rigid, furious grip with which he shook her as he disclaimed all his paternal care. He let go only to snatch the map from the floor, crumple it into a bundle and throw it aside, telling Cordelia “hold thee from this for ever”.

Cordelia stood motionless with tears in her eyes, not understanding why her candour had provoked such ire.

Lear snatched the coronet from her head and tossed it at Cornwall (Chook Sibtain) and Albany (Richard Hope), which was an interesting way of working in the coronet referenced at this point.

Kent argued with Lear and ended up on his knees to hear Lear proclaim his banishment. He accepted it stoically, prefiguring his subsequent uncomplaining service.

Of the two suitors for Cordelia’s hand, Burgundy (Andrew Nolan) was rather stilted in his speech compared with the imposing figure of France (Ben Dilloway). Cordelia stood centre stage, faced us and listened as Lear, over stage right, asked if Burgundy was still interested after her fall from grace.

When France spoke, Cordelia was visibly moved by his sentiments. Having been silent for over 100 lines, Cordelia was spurred to speak by this support from France. She turned and mockingly apologised to Lear for not having “that glib and oily art”. Her anger cowed Lear so that his “Better thou hadst not been born…” was quiet, almost defensive, rather than a loud rant. Cordelia was similarly dismissive towards Burgundy when he declined a dowerless bride.

France came forward and held Cordelia to seize upon her and her virtues. He escorted Cordelia off, but she broke away from him to return and castigate her sisters. Cordelia’s pointed afterthought was received with an icy coldness, particularly by Regan who retorted “Prescribe us not our duty”.

Soliloquy

Edmund spoke in a vague northern accent to deliver his humorous soliloquy about his bastardy (1.2). Gloucester (Clive Wood) fell easily for his letter trick and became outraged at Edgar’s apparent plot against him.

Edgar (Richard Goulding) appeared with his arm around a servant girl. Edmund stuffed some cash into her hand to get her to leave them alone. Unlike his bastard half-brother, Edgar had a southern accent, which to this London audience rendered him the good-guy in comparison.

Edmund got straight down to the question about when Edgar had last seen his father. The references to “sectary astronomical” and to eclipses were cut. Together with his womanising, this made Edgar seem less of a studious weed and more like a lad who could fight.

After a brief scene in which Goneril instructed Oswald (Steven Elliot) to ignore Lear (1.3), Kent adopted a rustic accent to disguise himself (1.4). Lear and his party entered with the hunters hanging up a deer and draining its blood into a bucket.

Oswald, a strong figure, ignored Lear’s summons. When called back, he stood toe to toe with Lear, looking down at him. This physical intimidation made the disguised Kent’s tripping of Oswald a feat truly worthy of reward.

The Fool (Trevor Fox) was a Geordie whose playfulness was a complete delight. His doggerel was accompanied by a magic trick. He collected handkerchiefs from those around him, stuffed them in his coxcomb hat and got someone to tug on a protruding end and extract a string of handkerchiefs tied together. On a textual note, the original “brach” was changed to “bitch”.

The sweet and bitter fool jest was followed by an egg trick in which the Fool split the egg in two over Lear’s head. It had no yolk and looked like a magician’s prop. The Fool went quiet when Goneril entered.

Increasingly despairing at his treatment, Lear held his hands out and gazed around in disbelief saying “Does any here know me?” His words were not said in despair but rather with energetic sarcasm. This same energy also informed his head-beating and the horrific sterility curse he pronounced on Goneril.

At l.288 things became decidedly sinister. Lear approached Goneril and stood close to her. He kissed her full on the lips, menacing “Thou shalt find that I’ll resume the shape which thou dost think I have cast off for ever.”

Goneril pulled away in disgust and wiped her mouth. She asked husband Albany “Do you mark that, my lord?” which in context became a clear reference to Lear’s inappropriate behaviour. She was shocked for quite some time after.

The sequence looked like a threat of abuse, something confirmed by a similar sequence later on involving Lear and Regan.

Albany was greying and middle aged. He was quite meek, which would later justify Goneril’s dissatisfaction with him and preference for Edmund.

A brief scene between Lear and the Fool saw more filleting of the Fool’s remarks with his heels/kibes joke cut (1.5). It culminated in Lear desiring not to be mad as the Fool, taking pity, held and comforted him.

After Curan’s exposition about the arrival of Regan and Cornwall and the dispute between the dukes, Edmund called on Edgar to leave (2.1). He cut himself and sent the watch looking for Edgar the wrong way.

Our first extensive look at Cornwall showed him to be a man with a regal bearing, who either thought himself a monarch or was close to monarchical ambitions being fulfilled. His seizing upon Edmund sounded like a king appointing a favourite. In particular his “natures of such deep trust we shall much need” indicated that he had plans for the future that required assistance.

Syllable

Kent met up with Oswald again (2.2). Kent’s rant was strangely edited so that it ended with “if thou deniest the least syllable” cutting “of thy addition”, a phrase presumed too difficult to understand.

Their fight was brought to an end by the arrival of the others, but principally by Cornwall’s imperious shouting and threat. It was indicative of the difference between their characters that Gloucester merely enquired what the matter was, but Cornwall actually brought the fight to an end.

The references to Sarum plain and Camelot were cut, again presumably to avoid confusion.

Cornwall further cemented his alliance with Edmund by addressing his joke about Kent’s plainness to him, mocking Kent’s accent, with his arm jocularly around Edmund’s neck.

Cornwall also took control in ordering Kent to be put in the stocks. Again, this was not his house to give orders.

The stocks were plunged into darkness as Edgar ran in with the sound of his pursuers audible offstage (2.3). He opened a tile in the floor to find refuge. Some of his pursuers passed over the stage, causing him to curl into a ball and begin his Poor Tom act. Taking him for an innocuous madman, they left him alone and continued their search.

Lear was angry to discover Kent in the stocks (2.4). During his jesting, the Fool’s ant speech was cut and he took his riding crop to beat down the eels in the pie.

Confronted with icy Regan, Lear begged sarcastically for food. Then sarcasm turned into something more distasteful.

Lear gripped hold of Regan and there was something distinctly unfatherly about the way he looked at her. When he said he hoped that she would not “oppose the bolt” against his “coming in”, Regan was very uncomfortable. He gripped her wrists and she flexed her fingers as if wanting to escape his grip.

When Goneril entered, Lear ducked to one side and held his head in his heads, then looked heavenward to comment sarcastically about the unwelcomeness of this arrival.

The sisters rounded on Lear, driving him into greater frustration. A storm was brewing outside. Lear threatened “the terrors of the earth” but the sisters were unmoved and Lear seemed ineffectual. The Fool, tactile as ever, took hold of Lear and gradually eased him offstage as he continued to rave. His final words “I shall go mad” indicated his parting mood.

Kent and the Knight met for the expository scene in which we learnt about Lear’s open air wanderings and the conflict between Albany and Cornwall (3.1). The Knight was sent on his way to Dover.

Lear rushed on stage to the noise of the storm illuminated from below through a long thin aperture (3.2). He leant forward into the wind as the Fool held on to him, trying to hold him back. The Fool’s previous supportive hold was now one of restraint.

The tempest looked effective, but such quasi-filmic stagings can feel quite dull and clichéd.

The storm was kept quiet enough for Lear to be heard, which meant it was not sufficiently loud to justify his description of it.

Kent led Lear away, leaving the Fool to deliver his prophecy. His Geordie accent rhymed “water” with “matter” so that we got something approaching Original Pronunciation.

Gloucester and Edmund appeared for the brief scene in which the old man showed Edmund his traitorous letter (3.3).

Lear and party re-entered and tried to gain access to the hovel down the trap (3.4). Edgar appeared as Poor Tom wearing a loin cloth with his hair matted. The audience laughed quite loudly and distinctly at Lear’s questions to Poor Tom about his supposed daughters.

Lear took a liking to the beggar, nodding vigorously as Poor Tom related how he had come to his condition. Gloucester came to escort Lear indoors, but the king was comically distracted by his conversation with Tom. Crucially, Edgar did not overhear his father commenting on his grief at Edgar’s supposed treachery.

Cornwall and Edmund appeared in the gallery above the main stage providing a dramatic setting for Edmund to show his father’s letter to the Duke (3.5).

Shelter

Lear and his companions entered the shelter and the king began to put his daughters on trial (3.6). He had Edgar and the Fool sit on a bench and made them put their hands on their heads. He then sat between them in the same posture and put the stool on trial. Regan was represented by a coat stuffed on top of the stool. Lear swiped at the stool and coat throwing them to one side and then complained that his daughters had escaped.

All throughout Poor Tom’s madness was trimmed, possibly to restrict it to his more comprehensible utterances. As a consequence, Lear became the focus of the scene rather than Edgar.

Lear was comical when he looked askance at Edgar’s dishevelment, which he described as “Persian attire”. Touches like this meant that this scene showed more of Lear’s madness than the previous storm scene.

Kent laid the king down on a bench and Lear made a fuss of drawing invisible curtains around the bed. He noticed a cut on his finger and looked at Poor Tom as if this signified that they were kindred spirits because of their injuries. Gloucester came to warn them of the plot against Lear in order that they could escape.

Edgar’s last speech in the scene, describing seeing our betters “bearing our woes”, was said in his normal voice. The Fool overheard him talking as himself, but said nothing.

Cornwall began the blinding sequence by sitting in a chair literally holding court and acting like an authority figure giving orders (3.7). This was typical of him throughout. He vacated the chair which then gained another use to pinion Gloucester. There followed a standard gunge application blinding.

Regan tried twice to attack the servant who had assaulted Cornwall, cutting him both on the leg and the back of neck. Cornwall flicked Gloucester’s other eye at the servant to the audience’s disgust.

Once Cornwall’s work was done, the female servant (Alix Wilton Regan) who had watched in awe during the blinding came forward and tended to Gloucester. The stage went dark, and then the lights came up on a sprig of flower centre stage. The interval came at this point, and more such sprigs were planted around the stage for the start of the second half.

Edgar met Gloucester who was being led by the female servant who had cared for him, now identified as one of his tenants (4.1).

All Poor Tom’s odd utterances about Obidicut, Flibbertigibbet etc. were cut. This had the effect of making him seem more normal. Edgar escorted his father as they set off for Dover.

Arriving outside her house, Goneril instructed Edmund to return to her brother-in-law and bade him an unambiguous farewell (4.2). She spoke coyly of “a mistress’s command” and took a ring from her finger which she put on Edmund’s little finger (not a chain round his neck) before kissing him.

She spoke in frustration of “the difference of man and man” and leant up against the wall with her hands behind her back. She writhed teasingly when Albany entered and told him “I have been worth the whistling”.

Albany was scathing, but Goneril seemed secure in Edmund’s affections which now emboldened her to disdain her husband, mocking him with her “Mew!”

Regan seemed pleased to hear of Cornwall’s death, saying “one way I like this well”. But for some reason her follow-up “another way the news is not so tart” was not included.

Scene 4.3 was cut, so the action continued with Cordelia in a blue dress adorned with a cloth chest piece (4.4). She was steely but vulnerable when expressing her concern about Lear’s distracted condition.

Regan tried to obtain from Oswald the letter that Goneril had sent to Edmund (4.5). Another strange textual change saw “oeillades” changed to “eyes”. Bearing in mind that the production had virtually sold out to the Almeida membership, and the rest of the tickets had been snapped up by the keenest of theatregoers, such elaborations on allegedly difficult words were not really necessary.

Cliff

Edgar led Gloucester to the cliff edge whereupon he just fell and tumbled to one side (4.6). Edgar comically muffled his voice in order to seem far away.

Lear rushed in wearing a floral crown. He brandishing a coin when referring to coining and the mad play involving archers, mice and cheese was amusing to watch. When declaring himself “every inch a king”, his voice became haughty as he gestured at himself.

Describing the lechery of “the fitchew” and “the soiled horse”, Lear gestured with two fingers poking up into “the sulphurous pit”, which he then had to clean before Gloucester could kiss his hand. He pointed his rear at Gloucester when asking him to read the challenge.

Amazingly the audience did not burst into gales of laughter at the remark about “a scurvy politician”, which some people interpret as Shakespeare taking a shot at Westminster style politics.

Lear wanted Gloucester to take his boots off. He put his hands together as in devotion and turned the “great stage of fools” lines into a sung prayer. But this moment of reverence was short-lived and Lear was soon spitting in anger about killing his sons-in-law.

Lear tried to escape from Cordelia’s men by running, but he was caught immediately.

Oswald tried to kill Gloucester, but was prevented by Edgar, who did not exaggeratedly disguise his voice as suggested by the text. After killing Oswald and finding his letters, Edgar carried Oswald offstage before returning for his father.

Kent was reunited with Cordelia and resumed talking in his normal accent (4.7). Lear was wheeled onstage in a chair. Cordelia was curt and insecure when giving orders to her followers.

She kissed her father who awoke by simply opening his eyes. Lear looked at her thinking she was a spirit.

Cordelia threw herself on ground before him, but Lear lifted her up again and looked at her closely, eventually recognising her.

He held her gently by the forearms adopting the same pose in which he had originally disowned her. This mirroring was a nice touch.

The conversation between Kent and the Gentleman with the joke about report being changeable was cut.

The sisters met again along with Albany and Edmund for the council of war (5.1). As Albany and Edmund left to discuss the forthcoming battle with “the ancients of war” Goneril wanted to follow him, but Regan discouraged her. After Albany received Edgar’s letter, Edmund comically summarised his dilemma at having to choose between Regan and Goneril.

After a brief scene in which Edgar carried Gloucester away, telling him that Lear had lost (5.2), Cordelia and Lear were brought onstage (5.3). They appeared quite free and unfettered when led in by Edmund, so it was not immediately obvious that they had been captured.

Lear was almost childishly happy to be going to prison with Cordelia. But with the two warring sisters together again, a spat was not far away. Their argument over Edmund was cut short when he was arrested by Albany, who witheringly pointing out to Goneril that his own wife Regan was contracted to marry Edmund. Goneril’s rejoinder “An interlude!” was cut.

Regan exited sick with poison as Edmund awaited a challenger. Edgar wore a cloth helmet with steel reinforcement. This was strong enough to look like protection but not so restrictive that his voice was muffled.

In a great two-sword fight, Edgar managed to deprive Edmund of one of his weapons and finished him off. Goneril rushed in to bewail Edmund’s injury. Albany confronted her with the letter. Failing to snatch it, Goneril ran off claiming that “the laws are mine”, threatening Edgar briefly as she left.

Edgar told Edmund his full story and, recounting the death of Gloucester, paused in between “burst… smilingly”. Edmund seemed genuinely moved, and this motivated his revelation of the threat to Lear and Cordelia. But Albany was nevertheless angry at him for what he had done. Edgar’s speech about the banished Kent was cut.

Neither Goneril’s nor Regan’s body was produced on stage. No sooner had someone run off with Edmund’s sword to reprieve Lear and Cordelia, than Lear appeared at the back cradling Cordelia’s limp figure in his arms. Jonathan Pryce held her quite easily.

He placed her on the ground and continued to cradle her. He held her so that she faced him, her almost prone body stretched out to the side and behind him. This semi-upright posture kept both of them equally visible to more of the audience. The configuration emphasised the limpness and frailty of Cordelia’s obviously dead body in a way that would not have been possible if she had been lying prone.

Lear’s tenderness over her was touching. After asking the others to look at Cordelia’s lips, Lear collapsed in a fit, shaking with tremors and then died. This was more effective than a simple fading faint, as it marked a definitive end.

The stage lights faded to black on Edgar’s closing words.

Conclusions

The production made Cordelia seem wise and adult despite her playful tactility towards her father. Cordelia was by status a child, but by temperament the most mature. Goneril and Regan were the exact opposite, having the status of older siblings but the impulsive immaturity of children.

Most puzzling was the decision to imply incest between Lear and both Regan and Goneril. If Lear was a serial abuser, did this mean that Cordelia was also a victim? If not, why did Lear spare her, but apparently regard her as his favourite? If so, with Goneril and Regan motivated by revenge, was Cordelia’s attitude a different form of rebellion or was she in denial or even acquiescent in her own mistreatment?

The lack of clarity on this matter made subsequent theorising about the backstory incredibly difficult.

The second time I saw this production on 11 October, Jenny Jules was delayed and the performance started with Alix Wilton Regan in the role of Regan. She acted script in hand bravely keeping her cool among the other actors. She remained in that role for the entire first act. In recognition of her sterling efforts, Jonathan Pryce brought her on for her own thoroughly deserved curtain call at the end of the performance. Such was her shock that Pryce had to remind her to bow.

Coriolanus and the plebs

Coriolan/us, Hangar 858 MOD St Athan, 17 August 2012

The audience gathered for this National Theatre Wales production under a mist of light rain outside the doors of a disused aircraft hangar at a former RAF base in South Wales.

Wireless headphones were issued to everyone, which for the moment played nothing but ambient noises.

Finally the vast doors of the hangar slid open and we moved as one large crowd, walking towards the centre of the vast space, which was empty save for two rows of concrete blocks forming a transverse corridor just over halfway in and some caravans to our right.

A van full of noisy people had also driven in through the doors and gradually overtook the advancing audience.

It then became apparent that the performance had already begun: we the audience were the mob descending on Rome’s grain store and the actors in the van that had joined us were the rebellious citizens.

The denunciations of Martius Caius rang out. The voices of the miked-up actors were fed into our headphones and cameras followed the action, projecting an image onto large screens dotted around the hangar. The less agile were thus able to sit and follow the action in its entirety. But most chose to follow the cast, moving across the vast space to points where action suddenly flared up.

The text was an amalgam of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and a translation into English of Brecht’s Coriolan. Taking the side of the starving people against their patrician oppressors, Brecht’s lines were used mostly in the crowd scenes. We were informed that rising prices were caused by God and that Coriolanus viewed asking for votes as “selling the Roman eagle”.

Coriolanus (Richard Lynch) stepped out of a car to address the people. The cars, vans and caravans created a modern, grimy feel. The Roman Senate held its session in the back of a white van, the participants huddled like builders on a tea break.

The general did not have the bearing of a patrician nobleman. Coriolanus looked and moved like a low-class villain. Apart from Menenius (Matthew Thomas), who was reasonably smart, the characters of the Roman nobles and tribunes appeared and sounded just like the common people. They even bore the same weapons. The clubs with which the people started their riot were the same that Coriolanus used against the Volsces.

The battle at Corioles saw him clamber over one of the breeze block walls and down into a narrow corridor full of junk and burnt out cars. In general, the production looked like a particularly violent episode of EastEnders from the Mitchell brothers era.

Volumnia’s (Rhian Morgan) conferences with Coriolanus took place not in a spacious palace, but inside her ramshackle caravan. She and Virgilia (Bethan Witcomb) begged mercy from Coriolanus not by daylight in a mansion but illuminated by car headlamps as if skulking down a dark alley.

The promenade performance meant that the observant and fleet of foot could position themselves close to the ever-changing centre of action. But on one occasion I found myself in the wrong spot. Coriolanus, complaining of the female Sicinius’ “absolute ‘shall’”, threw her aside and she stumbled backwards into me.

There was a hint that Coriolanus and Sicinius (Nia Gwynne) were settling unfinished business: a constant feature of the production was the absolute disdain that Sicinius expressed for him, communicated by the unsmiling contemptuous stare she fixed on Coriolanus during all their encounters.

A space at the rear of the hangar housed the directorial control caravan and was mostly used when Coriolanus removed himself from the main space to talk in lonely soliloquy.

This was also the site of his final confrontation with Aufidius (Richard Harrington), in which Coriolanus was shot dead like a gangster.

The summary execution reinforced the idea that the principal characters were low-grade crooks.

The class downgrade of the protagonists was reminiscent of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in which the story of Hitler was played out among cauliflower traders.

But this was neither Shakespeare’s nor Brecht’s vision but a unique and bleakly modern one.

Occupy Athens

Timon of Athens, Olivier Theatre, 14 August 2012

Demonstrators huddled among a city of tents that loomed out of the darkness. It seemed for all the world that the Occupy protestors had decided to continue the fight against global capitalism from the stage of the Olivier.

Timon (Simon Russell Beale) and his guests swept through the scattered tents (1.1). As they arrived downstage a wall was flown in dominated by a large painting showing Christ expelling the money changers from the Temple. This was a touch doubtless appreciated by production sponsors Travelex.

The wall had two doorways left and right and a revolving circular track looped round the front of the stage connecting them.

The guests mingled at what turned out to be the opening of the Timon Room at a prestigious art gallery. The Poet (Nick Sampson) and the Painter (Penny Layden) had a strained conversation in which their rivalry for Timon’s attention was submerged beneath layers of gentility. As if to remind us of the general atmosphere of sycophancy, their discussion was punctuated by the other’s cries of “Timon!” as he circulated the room as its peripatetic centre of attention.

The Painter was a cockney and given the modern UK setting was probably supposed to remind us of Tracey Emin and her YBA ilk. The Merchant became here an American actor (Ciarán McMenamin), whose “O, ‘tis a worthy lord” emerged from the background noise.

The Poet’s description of the work he was offering to Timon as “A thing slipped idly from me” was grotesquely insincere and very funny. He started quoting from it again, but the Painter looked over his shoulder and implied patronisingly that the visual imagery relating to Timon in his poem would be better expressed in painting.

The Poet’s book was entitled “The Ivory Hand” and the cover revealed his name to be Horace Nashe. The play contains a line from the Roman poet Horace, and perhaps Nashe was a reference to the writer Thomas Nashe.

The jovial, affable Timon was presented with a series of requests to which he gladly acceded. He arranged to bail Ventidius (Tom Robertson). This generosity seemed to be integral to his character and not something wrung from him as a result of the attention he was receiving.

The Old Athenian here became Lucullus (Paul Bentall) who protested about his daughter being frequented by Lucilius (Stavros Demetraki). When he asked Timon to join him in forbidding this, Timon fixed him with a stare and blankly asked him about the love between the couple. His short brief statements and questions “The man is honest” and “Does she love him?” demonstrated Timon’s insistence that these matters of the heart were more important than money.

But as Lucullus and his soon-to-be son-in-law exited, Lucullus slapped him on the back and said “Well done!” This completely new line made the entire sequence into a plot cooked up between them to trick the naïve Timon.

The realisation that Timon was easily duped and in some ways the victim of other’s conniving made him immediately more sympathetic.

The Jeweller (Jo Dockery) clearly implied that her gift of a jewel to Timon was a simple ploy to make her products more valuable through his endorsement. She was purring in anticipation of the sales boost, providing another example of the self-interested slyness of his entourage.

Apemantus (Hilton McRae) in his long dark coat was immediately a fascinating figure. He was roughly the same age as Timon, unlike most of the hangers-on. It was interesting to speculate on the history of the friendship in this modern UK context. Apemantus had clearly been a confidant and advisor to Timon; perhaps they had been at university together and Timon had become wealthy while Apemantus had not?

After a battle of wits with the Painter, the focus remained on Apemantus because the character of Alcibiades, an outsider associated with the protesters, was cut from the scene.

A dinner table arrived on the revolving circular track and the diners took their places (1.2).

The poshmo Ventidius thanked Timon for his release and offered to return the bail money, but Timon thrust it back at him. The portrayal of Ventidius skimmed the edges of caricature without becoming overly ridiculous.

Apemantus was beckoned to sit at the opposite end of the table to Timon. At first he refused, disgusted that Timon could not see how the others ravenously exploited him . He eventually took his place but Apemantus’ grace before the meal was cut.

Timon showed his emotional nature, speaking with a tear in the corner of his eye about the wealth he found in his closest friends. The audience laughed when Timon wished he was poorer to be closer to them, but this comedy was always undercut by the knowledge, as Apemantus consistently pointed out, that these people were his enemies.

Masque

The masque took the form of dancers (Pietra Mello-Pitman and Karis Scarlette) performing balletic moves within a space set into the wall. Once their brief dance was over, Apemantus insulted them, prompting genteel hushed admonishment from the others. The dancers joined in the feast and Timon showered everyone with gifts.

The female Flavia (Deborah Findlay) expressed concern at Timon’s unabated generosity. The four horses “trapped in silver” became a painting of horses in a silver frame, which was handed to a grateful Timon.

Flavia spoke downstage about Timon’s profligacy, a flaw aptly demonstrated when he gave away a horse. His explanation “’Tis yours because you liked it” was childish in its simplicity.

As the table revolved out the stage right door, Timon became angry at Apemantus for his sullenness. Timon paused between Apemantus, his true friend and counsellor, on one side and beckoning flatterers on the other; in a symbolic moment he went over to join the flatterers.

The revolve brought in a transparent office desk as Canary Wharf’s HSBC tower appeared in the window to show that the action had moved the capital’s centre of moneyed power (2.1). The text’s Senator became a banker totting up Timon’s wastage and dispatching Caphis (Craige Els) to collect a debt from him. A line from Coriolanus about the “rabble” was interpolated here as the sound of Alcibiades’ army was heard down in the street.

A clutch of debt collectors gathered inside Timon’s house each slapping a brown envelope against him as they demanded repayment (2.2).

Alcibiades, Apemantus and the Fool were cut from the scene so that it continued with Flavia explaining to Timon why he had no funds. It was touching to see Timon think he could count on his friends, but we had already been prepared to see them as duplicitous.

Flavia pre-empted Timon’s suggestion by telling him she had already asked the senators to assist but they had refused. There was a note of humour in this collision of Timon’s naivety, Flavia’s efficiency and the senators’ slyness.

Timon dispatched his people to recover funds from his friends.

At the scene changeover, Alcibiades (Ciarán McMenamin again) and his army marched across stage shouting “Down with Athens!”

The scene changed to an office reception with a sofa and coffee table strewn with magazines and a copy of the FT (3.1). A sign projected onto the wall proclaimed this to be the HQ of Lucullus Capital. The female Flaminia (Olivia Llewellyn) waited to meet Lucullus who was ushered in by his son-in-law Lucilius, the servant whom Timon had previously been tricked into enriching.

The presence of the word “pretty” in Lucullus’ lines in the original text was an absolute gift because it allowed the original’s schmoozing to become overt sexual harassment. The old man described the young female lasciviously as “pretty Flaminia” and started sliding up the sofa towards her.

Wine was brought and Lucilius was instructed to leave them alone, so that this really looked like an attempted seduction. As Lucullus asked her to “Draw nearer” her hands clasped together in an ungainly knot signalling her extreme discomfort. His proffer of money looked like he was trying to buy her. She threw the notes back at him and left in disgust.

The action moved to a club with modern art on the wall and comfortable chairs and sofas (3.2). The role of Lucius in the text was transferred to the already familiar character of Ventidius while the Painter and Poet were the Strangers.

Ventidius brayed in his upper class accent about being Timon’s friend. The Poet and Painter sat on the sofa commenting on Timon’s penury.

Timon’s servant Servilius (Tim Samuels) tried to ask Ventidius for money. He was met initially with some insincere joshing, an outward facsimile of cordiality, then Ventidius launched into a long, rambling and patently contrived excuse beginning “What a wicked beast was I” in which he claimed to have just spent what little spare cash he had. This was transparently a lie. Ventidius’ cold shoulder was particularly callous because Timon had secured his freedom.

The more extensive lines of the First Stranger were split between the Poet and the Painter so that the Poet claimed insincerely that he would have helped Timon.

Another gender swap gave us the character of Sempronia (Lynette Edwards), a female politician whom we met at the House of Commons, the side of the Palace of Westminster clearly visible through the window, although her ID badge identified the location as the Senate of Athens (3.3).

Her response to Timon’s embassage was clipped and insincere, almost but not quite like Mrs Thatcher, but with definite echoes of her haughtiness.

Like a consummate politician, she seized upon the fact that she had been asked last, using it as a pretext to engage in fake, self-righteous outrage. When she asked “Must I take the cure upon me?” the name-badged lackeys behind her cried “No senator!”

Debt collectors and paparazzi gathered in the street outside Timon’s house (3.4).

A shabbily dressed Flavia returned carrying an Iceland bag, a shopping destination that reflected the poor state of the household finances. She made her way through the throng of debt collectors and photographers.

Servilius appeared from inside the residence to send them away, but we soon heard the sound of Timon’s angry voice as he approached. He stormed out and railed at them, smashing a paparazzo’s camera to the ground.

Despite thrusting their brown envelopes at him, the debt collectors realised they were on a hiding to nothing and withdrew in disgust.

Timon looked both determined and profoundly agitated as he instructed his staff to prepare another feast for his friends (3.5).

The banishment of Alcibiades (3.6) was cut because in this production his character was a belligerent outsider right from the start.

Insincerity

Timon’s ‘friends’ displayed yet more insincerity as they gathered for his final banquet (3.7). But this time Timon matched their insincerity: a clear indication of his changed character.

An anxious guest asked if Timon had been put out by his refusal to send money. The reply “O sir, let it not trouble you” showed that Timon had been watching and learning from his fork-tongued acquaintances. The Second Lord was Ventidius, who had just recently said that he had run out of money.

The revolve brought in the same dinner table as before and the guests were delighted as the covered dishes were set before them.

Timon bade them sit down and began a grace. His sentiments gradually became weirder and more accusatory, and the guests started to exchange worried glances. Timon burst out of his chair, poured water over himself and ordered them to uncover their dishes. The guests turned away in revulsion, holding their noses at the malodorous excrement adorning the plates.

The angry Timon delivered a shower of invective. He smeared something even less pleasant on the head of one his guests. Not surprisingly, the diners fled in panic.

Timon spoke downstage as the table disappeared on the revolve. He then retired to make way for the guests who ran on again, as if coming from house.

Exposed and unprotected on the dangerous streets, the guests were soon surrounded by the ragtag army of demonstrators who emerged from the background to mob them and spray them with mace.

The melee dispersed and Timon came downstage to stare out at the auditorium and address the walls of the city he had just abandoned (4.1). In what was almost a show-stopping moment, Simon Russell Beale’s moving monologue conveyed the disappointment and frustration behind Timon’s railing. Timon threw away his jacket and credit cards saying “Take thou that too”. This was a suitably eventful moment at which to pause for the interval.

The second half began in an atmosphere of subdued domesticity in contrast to the frenetic activity that had closed the first half.

A stack of boxes stood forlorn in the hallway of Timon’s house (4.2). Flavia had gathered the rest of the staff and paid them a meagre amount from her savings.

Flavia’s speech questioning who would want to be rich was odd to hear on the day that the winners of the most recent Euromillions lottery draw had gone public to announce their newly-acquired wealth to the world.

Flavia mentioned that Timon had been “brought low by his own heart”: this was a key phrase describing exactly what had happened.

The house wall was flown up to reveal a scene of urban decay. Dark, wet concrete pillars, steel reinforcement rods jutting from them, stood amid a desolate wasteland strewn with rubbish bags (4.3).

Timon emerged from the darkness. His self-imposed exile had turned him into a unkempt, unshaven rough sleeper pushing a shopping trolley containing his meagre possessions.

There was no actual earth in this concrete landscape, so that when he called for the sun to “draw from the earth rotten humidity”, he gestured as if this would come from the scattered rubbish bags.

He fell down on the ground and ripped open the refuse sacks scavenging for food. He came across a drain cover which when opened revealed a bright, yellow light accompanied by the sound of clinking coins. He had found gold.

Descending into the hole, he brought out gold bars and also cash boxes filled with gold coins. He put some of the cash boxes into his trolley and replaced the cover.

This staging was problematic because buried treasure is believable, but the same cannot be said for a stash of gold bars and cash boxes found down a drain.

Timon hid from Alcibiades and his noisy, ragtag army of protestors when they gathered amid the concrete pillars. Alcibiades held audience and shouted slogans. Timon lurked at the back of the crowd, dancing and yelling support like a drunk.

Once he had come to the protestors’ attention, Timon insulted Phrynia (Jo Dockery again) and encouraged Timandra (Olivia Llewellyn again) to spread diseases by continuing to work as a prostitute. This raised the question of how he knew Timandra by name.

Alcibiades tossed a gold coin at Timon who rejected it. But he came alive when he heard that the soldier intended to make war against Athens. He delved in his trolley to retrieve a cash box and stood on a concrete stump to shower the protestors with gold coins.

The clamouring crowd scooped up the gold but were heedless to Timon’s lurid imagery imploring them to show no mercy to the Athenians. Although his situation had changed, Timon was still dispensing benefits to sycophantic followers under the illusion that they were paying attention.

The army left and Timon resumed his search for sustenance. He found a water bottle and a take-away in a foil tray, which in this urban environment replaced the roots of the original text’s rural setting.

Melancholy

Apemantus entered with a holdall and a bottle in his pocket. They engaged in a pithy exchange in which Timon claimed that his loss of status gave him more right to be miserable than the ever-lowly Apemantus. His friend countered saying that Timon was indulging in “unmanly melancholy”.

Timon said that he would like to see Apemantus hanged if his wealth were shut up inside him and enacted this imaginary situation by trying to force food into his friend’s mouth. Apemantus retrieved the water bottle from his pocket and gave it to Timon to “mend [his] feast”.

The continued dispute caused Apemantus to offer his famous analysis of Timon’s character “The middle of humanity thou never knewst, but the extremity of both ends.” The medlar/meddler wordplay was cut.

Timon sat with Apemantus and compared him unfavourably to a range of predated animals. But this congeniality soon descended into a spiteful argument that culminated in Timon throwing a rock at Apemantus. Timon looked to his gold, and Apemantus said he would tell others of his new wealth. The text’s misplaced announcement by Apemantus of the approach of the Poet and Painter was cut.

The bag of clothes that Apemantus had brought to enable Timon to return to polite society was examined and returned unwanted to its donor, after which Apemantus left Timon in peace.

Timon hid from the thieves he saw approaching. But they found him, beat him and kicked him giving Timon a bloody face. They searched his trolley and found a cash box containing gold coins. The bloodied Timon struggled forward on his hands and knees to ask “Want! Why want?” Timon’s request to the departing thieves that they “… go, break open shops” sounded eerie in the light of the previous year’s looting.

Flavia sought out Timon, but received little thanks for her pains. She managed to convince him of her loyalty and he looked heavenward to proclaim her an honest person. Timon’s mood was, however, very changeable. Flavia pressed her handkerchief to his bleeding face, a degree of solicitousness that prompted Timon’s suspicions. He pushed the handkerchief away and pointed an accusatory finger at Flavia saying “Is not thy kindness subtle, covetous…”

Timon calmed down again when Flavia reassured him of her selflessness saying “requite me by making rich yourself”. He uncovered the gold bars and offered them to her so that she could “Go, live rich and happy”. She wanted to stay with him, but he insisted that she leave.

The Poet and the Painter tracked Timon down as they discussed the rumours about his gold (5.1).

He responded to their offer to serve him by sitting them down on a concrete stump and giving them leftover takeaway and a bucket of fried chicken. They were unable to hide their disappointment. When Timon asked them if they had come because of rumours about his gold, they denied the accusation with comic insincerity.

He delighted in telling them that they had “a little fault”, moving behind them and peering through the steel reinforcements jutting out of the stump as if they were prison bars. He made them stand apart and told each one “an arch-villain keeps him company”. Timon promised them gold, but instead retrieved an axe from his trolley and used it to chase them away. This axe was not a random choice of prop, but an implement to which he would soon allude.

Flavia returned bringing with her senators from Athens (5.2). They were desperate to have Timon and his gold back to pay for the defence of the city against Alcibiades.

Timon’s disinterest in their request merged into his mournful announcement that his epitaph would be seen “tomorrow”, a word to which Flavia reacted with extreme concern. But Timon continued: “My long sickness of health and living now begins to mend”.

He appeared to change his mind and said that he loved his country, which elicited repeated praise from Sempronia. The senators gathered close round Timon, expecting further concessions. The group faced the audience as Timon pointed to a distant tree and told them to go hang themselves from it. This vicious anticlimax was very effective.

He urged potential suicides to hurry as he was soon going to cut down the tree with an axe. The recent memory of him brandishing an axe against the Poet and Painter turned the felling of the unseen tree into a realistic prospect, thereby lending an extra degree of plausibility to Timon’s lurid mass hanging scenario.

Flavia and the senators departed. The text was rearranged to make Timon’s final words a soliloquy rather a speech directed at the assembled company. It seemed absolutely correct for Timon’s farewell to be a lonely one.

He stood over the gold pit and at “Sun, hide thy beams” the yellow light from the pit went dark. This staging implied a connection in Timon’s mind between the heavenly sun and the ultimately treacherous glister of gold.

Scenes 5.3 and 5.4, with the discovery of Timon’s grave, were cut. The production shifted back to Athens with the senators lined up on one side of a large conference table (5.5). Alcibiades and his troops marched in and he presented his terms. The dialogue between the two factions was broken up with intervals of consultation among each side to suggest a lengthy period of negotiation rather than a cursory arrangement.

The Athenians offered Alcibiades a list of those to be culled, which he mulled over. Once an agreement was reached, he changed from his scruffy clothes into a suit and sat on the same side of the table as the senators, effectively joining the ruling classes.

A soldier brought news of Timon’s death and a transcript of his epitaph, which Alcibiades read out. He dictated his response as an official statement on Timon’s demise.

Alcibiades’ final words were lifted from Celia’s speech in As You Like It “Now go we to liberty”. While providing a sense of ending, for those who recognised the speech it created a renewed feeling of incompletion because this was half of an existing line.

As he spoke these words, the window lit up to show that we were in Canary Wharf. This was a significant detail because it indicated that the real seat of power and government was the City, the financial centre, and not Westminster, which could have been setting for these governmental negotiations.

Conclusions

The staging deliberately brought out the connection between the play and recent events. But it is worth remembering that Timon of Athens is not a play about general economic turmoil, but a study of personal betrayal and the tribulations of a newly-poor plutocrat, focusing on his individual psychology, and offering only a glancing commentary on the corrupting influence of money.

While Alcibiades and his army were glossed as the Occupy movement, the production implied that such revolutionaries were simply plutocrats in waiting. The play itself lauds the loyalty of Flavius/Flavia whose principal motivation is to restore Timon to his moneyed content.

That last point goes a long way to explaining why big City institutions had no qualms about sponsoring the production.

Was the character of the Poet an instance of Shakespeare indulging in self-loathing? This character, who earns a living sucking up to the wealthy in search of preferment, could have been an unflattering self-portrait or possibly an in-joke in which Shakespeare satirised his own quest for patronage.

Much ado about India

Much Ado About Nothing, Courtyard Stratford, 11 August 2012

The audience was introduced to the world of the production before setting foot in the auditorium. The foyer of the theatre was festooned with Indian posters, packaging, bicycles and assorted paraphernalia with the intermittent sound of enthusiastic car horns completing the impression of a crowded Indian city.

Once inside, they were greeted by the sight of the yellow-washed exterior of a large house in front of which stood a huge tree whose top branches spread underneath the flies.

Some of the cast milled about the stage before the start engaging with the audience. It fell to Dogberry (Simon Nagra) to request in broken English that phones be switched off.

The authentic localising detail and humour created a thrilling atmosphere of expectation. Leonato (Madhav Sharma) entered in modern Indian dress through the centre aisle with his informative letter. Eyes fixed on Meera Syal’s Beatrice as the moment of her first speech drew closer.

It was therefore a great disappointment to find Meera Syal talking through gritted teeth, deploying a basic set of sitcom grimaces. Depriving Beatrice of dimension, she seemed to be treading the same path as that other mediocre Beatrice delivered by Catherine Tate the previous year in London.

The rest of cast stood motionless raising the terrifying prospect of the following three hours consisting of static blocking and sitcom-level acting.

But all was not lost. A flash of creative intelligence and sensitivity soon provided comfort. Don Pedro’s (Shiv Grewal) Indian army soldiers entered in UN peacekeeper uniforms. Given the contemporary, modern dress setting, the only conflict from which the Indian army could be returning would be Kashmir, implying military action against Pakistan. Given the inclusive nature of the cast and general air of peaceful good vibes, making these soldiers UN peacekeepers avoided possible accusations of insensitivity.

The first meeting between Benedick (Paul Bhattacharjee) and Beatrice was still firmly in sitcom mode. The bald Don John (Gary Pillai) made a moderate impact. Claudio (Sagar Arya) seemed suitably earnest in conversation with the slightly greying Benedick. But so far the production had not really found its feet or taken off. However, Benedick did raise a titter describing himself as “Bendy Dick the married man”.

For some reason Meera’s Beatrice improved remarkably in the second act. Gone were the gritted teeth and grimacing as her voice returned to normal (2.1). The women entered wearing berets and army jackets which they had acquired as disguises to wear at the ball. This indicated that they had already been fraternising with the returning soldiers.

Beatrice referred to herself as a maid: the ensuing snigger from Margaret (Chetna Pandya) prompted an “Oi!” of jokey admonishment from Beatrice. Her sarcastic impression of dutiful Hero (Amara Karan) added to the fun atmosphere.

The text was altered so that Beatrice saw a temple, rather than a church, by daylight. But subsequent instances showed that the rewriting of the cultural context was inconsistent.

Everyone cross-dressed at the ball; the women wore their military uniforms with mannish affectations, while the men covered their heads with shawls displaying exaggerated female coyness. Pairs of characters exchanged garlands. When it was Benedick and Beatrice’s turn, they did so sheepishly, hinting at the possibility of the mutual attraction underlying their bickering.

The comedy of the dance sequence contained some funny moments. Margaret made a lewd gesture when speaking to Balthasar (Raj Bajaj) of her “ill qualities” suggesting her availability. Verges (Bharit Patel), a character merged with that of Ursula, caught up with Antonio (Ernest Ignatius) hiding at the edge of the stage and broke out of her manly disguise to accost him.

Having been taunted by Don John and Borachio (Kulvinder Ghir) with the idea that Don Pedro had wooed Hero for himself, the idea was further reinforced when Don Pedro appeared with his arm around Hero as if intimate with her.

When Don Pedro explained what had actually happened, Claudio remained suitably silent.

Meera Syal continued to impress with her moving delivery of “but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.” From this point on there was no question over the quality of her performance.

Borachio explained to Don John precisely how he could arrange for Hero to appear unfaithful (2.2). He dry humped Don John when explaining what he would appear to be doing with Margaret.

Inventive

The two gulling scenes are the comic highlights of any Much Ado and this production did not disappoint, even managing to be daringly inventive.

Benedick called on a maid rather than a boy to fetch his book before sitting on a swing hung from the tree to pitch slowly back and forth (2.3).

The maid heartily joined in a Bhangra version of Sigh No More as Benedick climbed the tree to access the balcony and then listened from the top of house. After trying unsuccessfully to give the book to Benedick, the Maid was drawn into the action so that she acted Beatrice’s pretended part in the gullers’ account, describing her purported love for Benedick.

Despite its attempts to rewrite the cultural context of the play, the production kept the phrase “Christian-like fear” in this scene, which must have defied attempts at rewriting.

The Maid threw herself into this role with gusto as she cried and beat the ground in a simulation of Beatrice’s supposed frustration. When she cried “O sweet Benedick” the man himself cried out “Beatrice” from above, but was not noticed.

When Beatrice delivered the dinner invitation she began to say “I am sent…” but her voice trailed off when she saw Benedick’s peculiarly attentive way of looking at her. For some odd reason his “If I do not love her, I am a Jew” was retained.

The sequence involving Beatrice was particularly ingenious (3.1). Beatrice was ushered in by Margaret and sat at the bottom of the tree with a towel round her head and depilatory cream on her upper lip. She then overheard Verges using the speakerphone on her mobile to have a conversation with Hero (visible within the house) about Benedick’s hidden love for Beatrice.

Beatrice did not remain out of sight, but instead caught Verges’ eye, making it plain that she understood the tenor of the discussion. The embarrassed Verges began to defend Beatrice to Hero, using the phrase “O, do not your cousin such a wrong” effectively changing sides. This was a remarkable use of the original text which was able to slot perfectly into this most unusual reading of the situation.

Verges’ “I pray you, be not angry with me, madam” was said to Beatrice and not Hero, communicating Verges’ sudden guilt at the discovery of their subterfuge. Beatrice then gestured at Verges to be critical of Hero, so she asked her “When are you married, madam?” in an supercilious tone.

Once the game was over, Beatrice wiped the cream from her lip and removed the towel from her head, looking extremely crestfallen at the realisation of how she was seen.

Benedick sported a new look wearing a green dressing gown with his hair dyed, all of which made him almost unrecognisable (3.2). His remade image fully justified Leonato’s comment “He looks younger than he did”.

Don John’s reveal of Hero’s unfaithfulness was very snide. Claudio jostled him, prompting Don John’s retort “So will you say when you have seen the sequel”, implying that Claudio would be angry when he knew the truth. After this, the interval came.

The second half began with Beatrice singing a soulful version of Sigh No More, first in Hindi and then in English (3.3).

The watch, including George Seacole (Rudi Dharmalingam) and Hugh Oatcake (Muzz Khan) wore comical hats and were led by Dogberry who put a hard “k” at the start of “knave” so that he pronounced it “ker-nave”. He pointed a torch at the audience scanning for a thief and scared the watch into attacking him when he returned unexpectedly to have his “one word more”.

Rain fell as Borachio told Conrade (Neil D’Souza) about his profitable skulduggery. The watch observed the pair at a distance while one of them approached and held an umbrella over Borachio undetected. So perfect was this watchman’s invisibility that Borachio urinated over him when caught short.

Finally challenged by the watch, Borachio and Conrade were so drunk that they surrendered without a fight.

Hero and Margaret sat under the tree on a platform which had been introduced for the second half, preparing for Hero’s wedding day (3.4). The scene was interrupted as the platform went dark making way for the scene between Leonato and Dogberry on the main part of the stage (3.5). Dogberry gold-plated his malapropism by mispronouncing it “con-fie-dence”. Don John watched this all the while from the gallery.

Wedding

Hero’s wedding saw the theatre transformed (4.1). Strings of lights festooned the galleries, and everything glowed with the full colour of a Hindi wedding. Three couples were brought from the audience to sit on cushions to fill out the number of guests on stage. Music played and the whole audience was encouraged to clap along.

The entry of the bride was a breathtaking moment. Hero appeared in a splendid dress looking like a princess. A Panditji (Robert Mountford), the production’s Indian priest, began to perform the wedding ceremony. A handheld microphone was passed around to those speaking to amplify their voices.

Claudio took the microphone and spoke into it to reject Hero. The devastating impact of his words on the sumptuous ceremony meant that there was no need for him to throw her to the ground: she looked totally discarded anyway, the tears in her eyes contrasting with the splendour of her surroundings.

The build-up to the wedding had been made as protracted, colourful and joyous as possible so that its unravelling would feel all the more devastating. The implosion of this scene powered the rest of the second half with all the characters being carried along in its blast wave.

Don John sat nearest to Hero, looking on, like a venomous spider at the centre of a web. Leonato mistook Claudio’s initial objection for a confession that he had already slept with Hero and was quite funny and pally trying to convince him that this was not an obstacle. Tellingly, Benedick’s joke “This looks not like a nuptial” was cut to remove any humour that might deflate the sense of disaster.

Leonato’s fury at Hero was restrained. He brought his hand close to her, but the gesture was weak and did not look really threatening. But he seemed determined to vent his anger at someone.

In wake of Claudio’s bombshell, Beatrice and Benedick drew together as she placed her head in his lap overcome with shock. Only the Panditji offered a calm perspective and eventually proposed a solution.

Beatrice and Benedick sat close on the swing. Her demand that Benedict kill Claudio got a laugh, but the line was delivered in all seriousness and should have been greeted by gasps.

The earnestness of her request was underlined by the way she tussled with him when saying that Claudio was her enemy, and by the depth of feeling behind her desire to “eat his heart in the market-place”.

Dogberry brought together his “dissembly” in front of the Sexton (Peter Singh) (4.2). Borachio and Conrade were presented tied back to back, the awkwardness of which resulted in them ending up one on top of the other when presented to the Sexton on the platform. The accused men looked gutted on hearing of Hero’s death.

Leonato caught up with Don Pedro and Claudio as they were leaving his house with their kitbags in uniform (5.1). Despite Leonato presenting a very good impression of an angry man, Claudio was not fazed by his aggression.

Benedick, on the other hand, posed a more serious threat. He was very serious about his challenge to Claudio and had considerably manned-up. This transformation is difficult to get right if Benedick has up to now been portrayed as a clownish figure.

Dogberry brought in Borachio and Conrade while Leonato and Antonio entered down the centre aisle to see Borachio. Don Pedro and Claudio faced away from Borachio, but Leonato stood between them “a pair of honourable men” and accused them of being jointly responsible for the tragedy, prompting them to turn around.

Benedick sung tunelessly to Margaret before his romantic encounter with Beatrice (5.2). Beatrice possessed some of her former sharpness. They sat on the swing as he held her hand asking her to “Serve God, love me and mend”. The comedy of Benedick’s enthusiasm to be, among other things, buried in Beatrice’s eyes, was subdued in keeping with the increasing seriousness of their attachment.

The production’s coup de théâtre involved the set, which had hitherto represented the façade of a house, folding back to reveal a burning funeral pyre underneath a tower structure, possibly attached to a temple, on which Hero had apparently been cremated (5.3).

Mourners stood around looking sombre under their umbrellas in the rain, including a distraught Claudio who read aloud his praises. The song “Pardon, goddess of the night” was sung by someone else on top of the tower above the pyre.

The action remained at the temple for the second wedding (5.4). Women entered from upstage under veils. Hero was unmasked but Claudio’s surprise at seeing her again after her cremation was strangely muted.

When Benedick enquired which of the veiled women was Beatrice, she realised what he was planning, turned and ran away. But she was swiftly brought back, in all likelihood quite willingly. Letters were produced so that each could read proof that the other loved them.

Leonato said “Peace! I will stop your mouth” and brought them together to kiss. This was as per the Quarto text and Arden 3, but still very unusual to see.

The performance concluded with lively dancing continuing the festive atmosphere.

Conclusions

Plays become classics by transcending their culture of origin and are therefore able to slip free from all subsequently imposed cultural contexts.

This production demonstrated how a cultural relocation can easily be trumped and overshadowed by the genius of the play itself. It came as no surprise that this love story could survive relocation to India. After a while the Indian setting took second place to situation and character.

But only up to a point. Hero’s rejection exploded like a bombshell amid a gloriously beautiful wedding scene, giving that moment a traumatic power that most productions rarely achieve. The aftershock reverberated through the remainder of play. This effect could have been achieved in a number of ways but it fell to this Indian adaptation to demonstrate that the bigger the build-up to the wedding, the starker the impact of its interruption.

Life during wartime

Troilus and Cressida, Swan Stratford, 10 August 2012

Director Mark Ravenhill kept of tally of the number of walkouts from the early performances, while The Wooster Group responded to one individual’s complaint that it was “most offensive” by congratulating themselves on the superlative.

This was an experimental production that elicited an extreme response from some spectators.

The co-production between the RSC and The Wooster Group had each company rehearse separately. The resulting clash of theatrical styles was intended to reflect the clash of nations in the play.

The RSC played the Greeks as British/Commonwealth troops using their standard acting and staging, while The Wooster Group under their director Elizabeth LeCompte played the Trojans as Native Americans using innovative techniques. The most remarkable of these saw the actors copying the movements of (mostly Inuit) people from film extracts shown on four monitors at the corners of the thrust.

Each group used one side of a revolve. The Wooster Group had a tipi and campfire to represent the Trojan camp, while on the other side the RSC played against a mirror with a hospital trolley and screen used for Achilles’ tent. The divide was turned edge on for the later scenes where both sides came together in battle.

Dispensing with the prologue (reinserted for London run), the performance began with Troilus (Scott Shepherd) telling Pandarus (Greg Mehrten) of his love for Cressida (1.1). They wore Native American garb and talked in a flat monotone, meant to approximate to an authentic speech pattern.

This had the effect of making the text appear to emanate from a strange alien culture. Indeed, from a 21st century British perspective, the world of the Native Americans is no less foreign than that of the historic Trojans. The Wooster Group staging brought out this cultural distance very effectively. Placing the language of Shakespeare in this setting also served to remind us of the cultural gap between us and the early modern culture that shaped the play.

Pandarus was slightly camp and paunchy. He had a blue bottle, which he held to his side of his head and jerked backwards as if drinking from it. This was a sideways nod to native alcoholism. He also intermittently sang a song about an historical land grab.

Aeneas (Andrew Schneider) wore armour made from Styrofoam in the form of a Greek statue strapped to his back. He asked why Troilus was not on the field of battle

When Pandarus spoke to Cressida (Marin Ireland) in praise of Troilus, she avoided eye-contact with him, looking instead at the monitors facing her at the front of the thrust (1.2). Whether this was the result of her monitor-watching or an attempt to replicate native avoidance of eye-contact with a respected person, she appeared to be strangely absent from events. This made her wonderfully enigmatic. This departure from naturalistic acting was compelling to watch.

Pandarus and Cressida watched the Trojans returning from battle with Cressida climbing to the top of the tipi for a better view.

Cressida explained one obscure term by expanding it, so that she spoke of “a bawd (a pimp)”. Given the opacity of much of the language this was an odd word to elucidate.

Cressida’s final speech in 1.2, in which she admitted liking Troilus but did not want to seem too keen “Achievement is command; ungained, beseech”, was especially moving. She was enigmatically distracted, perhaps the outward sign of deep-seated love for Troilus.

As with other non-standard practices within The Wooster Group’s scenes, it had the effect of focusing on the spoken word. The overload of novelty almost cancelled out the theatrical to make it a reading.

The revolve turned to show a plain mirrored wall as the Greeks entered to the sound of pumping music looking exuberant (1.3). But the music quickly went silent and the Greeks physically wilted. Unsuccessful in battle, they lay wounded, one on a hospital bed.

This brief sequence formed a prologue showing their confident arrival to besiege Troy and the subsequent lack of success that had broken their morale.

Transition

The rapid transition from bravado to despondency made sense of Agamemnon’s (Danny Webb) opening question “What grief hath set the jaundice on your cheeks?” He waved a small book saying their problems were the “trials of great Jove”.

Ulysses pinned down to the problem to Achilles’ lack of respect. Scott Handy’s Ulysses was the stand-out performance on the RSC side. When he spoke it was like he had his own personal key that unlocked the power of the language.

Like all the Greeks in this first scene Ulysses wore modern camouflage trousers, his look completed with some bookish glasses. Ajax and Thersites changed out of these standard uniforms later on into distinctive outfits.

Joe Dixon’s Achilles was indeed puffed up with self regard. He looked strong as he strutted around bare-chested, flexing a bicep when his name was mentioned. Ulysses fondled Achilles a little too enthusiastically when talking of his sinew. Ulysses read from his notebook as Achilles and Patroclus (Clifford Samuel) acted out his verbal account of their lampooning.

The parts of Nestor and Patroclus were doubled so that the actor was effectively doing an impression of his performance in the other role.

The entry of the Trojan Aeneas to bring Hector’s challenge saw the Greeks go into a formation, stamping their feet to punctuate their lines without looking at the arrival. In a show of bravado they all answered in chorus, with Agamemnon eventually coming forward to speak with him individually.

The conspiracy of Ulysses and Nestor to bring Achilles to heel by arranging for Ajax (Aidan Kelly) to answer the challenge was engagingly presented.

Thersites (Zubin Varla) was a Lily Savage style character, similar to that seen in Cheek By Jowl’s production, but this one was in a wheelchair, kneeling as if legless (2.1). His chair sported a pair of comedy breasts slung at the back and a hand-held microphone slotted into a stand on the arm.

Ajax wore a muscle body suit, had long straggly hair and red-tinted glasses, making him very reminiscent of Mickey Rourke’s wrestler. His body suit had tattoos including his name in Greek; the words “I’m awesome” and a Nike swoosh with Greek writing underneath in a nod to the goddess of victory. He moved around as if mid-bout in a series of standardised moves.

In another simplification, Thersites’ reference to “brach” became “bitch”. Annoyed by Thersites’ refusal to tell him about the proclamation, Ajax lifted the fool out of his chair and threw him to the ground, but he was subsequently replaced in it by Achilles.

The revolve switched back to the Trojan set again as Cassandra (Jibz Cameron) crawled out from the tipi to deliver her prophecies of doom (2.2). The oddness of her monotone delivery accentuated the strangeness of her warnings.

The Trojans passed round a peace pipe and discussed whether to keep Helen. Everyone was relieved when Hector came round to Troilus’ opinion and agreed that she should stay.

Bitter Thersites reared out of his seat wishing the bone-ache on the whole camp (2.3). His lines were altered so that his reference to “war for a placket” became for “the slit”.

A curtain in front of a hospital trolley represented Achilles tent, near which Patroclus stood in gold high heels. Thersites went into the tent and sat reading the Penguin Classic edition of Homer’s Iliad.

Annoyed with the continuing insolence, Agamemnon brought Patroclus to heel, hooking his neck with an umbrella. Patroclus exited at the back of the set to return from the walkway as Nestor, which was a great switch.

Ulysses showed himself to be a consummate actor when stoking Ajax’s sense of self worth, convincing him that it was below his dignity to go to Achilles rather than have Achilles come to him.

The scene ended with Agamemnon drawing lots from a hat with Ajax the winner and thus the candidate to fight Hector.

In Priam’s (Bruce Odland) palace musicians played “Love, love, nothing but love” with added line “All you need is love” as Pandarus had a comic exchange with the Servant (3.1). This sequence allowed for Scott Handy to change costume to emerge as Helen.

But when he emerged as the slightly frumpy looking object of Paris’ (Gary Wilmes) attention, the whole scenario looked odd. However, the re-emergence of Scott Handy after this interlude pointed towards the intriguing possibility that this might have been deliberately inserted because Helen was originally doubled with one of the Greek officers.

Paris and Helen hugged when he insisted that she should help him to disarm Hector (Ari Fliakos).

The time came for boy and girl to meet. Troilus speech in expectation of seeing Cressida (3.2) provided another instance of the play’s exotically beautiful language being complemented by the ‘noble savagery’ of the Trojans.

When Cressida appeared before Troilus, she wore a small veil. She turned away as indicated in text and the “billing” saw her rub her noses with her love.

Monitor

The world of love works by its own rules. As if to bring this out, this sequence saw Troilus and Cressida coordinate their movements with monitor images to a strikingly obvious extent.

They struck blows at each other in time with a red flash that appeared on screen as they assiduously copied the film. They fell to ground as if shocked by electricity, not for any textual reason, but solely in imitation of the video sequence on the monitor.

More naturalistically, Cressida rested her head on Troilus’ chest as per a clip from a post-war Hollywood movie.

The Americans’ trademark technique reached epic heights of absurdity in a sequence in which Troilus and Cressida began by hugging; she then knelt before him as he put his hands around her neck as if strangling her, after which they lay on the ground. These actions had no relation to the dialogue and were all copied from the film displayed on the monitors.

One possible explanation for this bizarre sequence is that it coincided with a moment of intense emotion in the play and was designed to emphasise its significance.

Troilus carried Cressida away without kissing her as they went off to bed, at which point the interval came.

The Greeks entered and the revolve turned back to the mirror at the start of the second half (3.3). Calchas (Scott Shepherd again) wore an all-encompassing foam suit to request the prisoner swap that would return his daughter Cressida to him.

Agamemnon changed into an Australian Diomedes by deftly swapping hats. The choice of an Australian accent for this lusty character played on an ocker stereotype.

This doubling was overtly theatrical. It was fun, cheeky and put attention back on the language as the hat change character swap underscored the unrealistic nature of what we were seeing, rather like a pause at a poetry reading when the page is turned.

Notifying the intended swap to the Trojans, Diomedes’ lascivious intentions towards Cressida irritated Troilus.

The Greek commanders went to work on Achilles trying to manipulate him out of his sulk. He seemed flattered at first, and proud, because he assumed that the general had come to speak with him. But Agamemnon paused when saying “What says… Achilles” as if having to be reminded of his name.

When Achilles realised that he was being slighted, he began to cry “What, am I poor of late?” He pointed at Patroclus when talking of “beauty born in the face”. And his reference to a woman’s longing to see Hector was made explicit when he finally met him.

Ulysses engaged Achilles with an intellectual intensity that indicated that he thought the soldier incapable of seeing through his ruse. But Achilles was unmoved. There was some light relief when Patroclus and Thersites mimicked Ajax.

The handover of Cressida to the Greeks saw Diomedes and Aeneas wrestle each other by placing a thumb in the mouth of their opponent (4.1). This fitted with their talk of future conflict beyond the present truce. Diomedes dispraised Helen saying “She’s bitter to her cunt-try”. Paris waved a charm in front of Diomedes’ face to ward off his trickery.

Cressida and Troilus appeared briefly before stealing off into the tent where they kissed (4.2). Aeneas called and Pandarus tried to send him away, but he eventually gained admittance.

Cressida was upset to hear that she had to leave. She picked up Troilus’ boots and carried them, walking in a circle, then put them on and walked in them awkwardly. She knelt and scratched her thighs, which bore marks as if she had habitually injured herself in that way.

The brief scene 4.3 was cut, so that the action continued with the young couple exchanging love tokens (4.4). Troilus and Cressida swapped a sleeve and a glove, which were transferred to the other’s arm by linking them and pulling the items across in one go. This emphasised the unbreakable connection between them. The lascivious Diomedes collected Cressida.

On the day of the combat, Ajax was wheeled in standing on a trolley to the sound of rock music (4.5). He played guitar rather than the event being heralded by trumpets.

Martial

Cressida was brought in and was immediately noticed. The Greeks did not physically kiss her or touch her, instead their attention to her was symbolised. They brought their arms together sharply at the wrists as they stamped, a display that emphasised the martial force of their attraction.

Cressida took off her native dress onstage and replaced it with a Greek dress in a brief moment of partial nudity. Menelaus tried his luck and puckered up, but Cressida refused. Ulysses spoke to Cressida with his back turned and was rebuffed.

Hector and Ajax wrestled but the Trojan refused to finish off Ajax as they were related. At this point Achilles burst in wearing a red dress saying he had “fed mine eyes on thee…” Achilles responded dramatically to Hector, preening as he told him to “Behold thy fill”. Achilles’ promise to destroy Hector “there, or there, or there” ended with rude suggestion.

During the evening’s festivities, Troilus asked Ulysses to help him find Cressida.

Thersites gave a letter to Achilles and then started railing as Achilles withdrew to read the letter, which he tore up in despair because it had reminded him of his promise not to fight (5.1).

Ulysses escorted Troilus to see Cressida (5.2) and the two men positioned themselves stage left to observe. Thersites sat upstage in his chair. Cressida appeared stage right with Diomedes and vacillated as she was tempted by the Greek.

Troilus grew ever more despondent as his love’s lack of constancy became apparent. Thersites provided a cynical commentary on events punctuated with interjections such as “Fry, lechery, fry”.

Cressida gave Diomedes the sleeve gifted to her by Troilus. She immediately changed her mind and took it back, but this retrieval was yet another of Cressida’s strangely absent and dispassionate moments. The line “Nay do not snatch it from me” was given to Cressida, so that she spoke it with resignation after Diomedes had taken the sleeve once again.

Her wonderful parting speech “Troilus farewell” was full of emptiness. Drained of all happiness, she lay down on the ground. Troilus moved upstage of her and mirrored her posture.

After she left, Troilus came forward and lay on exactly the same spot she had occupied in precisely the same pose. His words “Was Cressid here?” became one of the great moments of the performance. So desperate was Troilus to be at one with his lost love, that he tried to occupy the space she had just vacated, as if that spot retained some aura with which it was possible to communicate. He attempted this almost physical unity with Cressida in the face of overwhelming evidence of her emotional absence. This was and was not Cressid.

Troilus used a knife to start cutting up the glove Cressida had given him. Ulysses tried to stop him. But Troilus continued stabbing at the glove, crying “False, false, false!”

His anguished speech was peppered with references to the gods of classical mythology. The exoticism of these invocations was accentuated by them emanating from a Native American.

Thersites summarised the action with his incredibly cynical “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery”.

Hector’s household was represented by the tipi outside which an Asian Andromache (Jennifer Lim) stood with a papoose (5.3). Hector ignored all the warnings of his prophetic sister Cassandra, his wife and Priam. Pandarus brought Cressida’s letter to Troilus, which he tore up and scattered.

The start of the battle was described by Thersites, and we soon saw a melee of cricket bats and lacrosse sticks (5.4). Hector challenged Thersites, who took off his wig to prove himself an unworthy opponent.

The Greeks carried in the dead Patroclus who was still holding his fan (5.5). The doubling of this character with Nestor then obliged the actor to switch into that character to bemoan Patroclus’ death. This deliberately played with the concept of identity echoing the sentiment expressed previously by Troilus about Cressida: this was and was not Nestor.

Patroclus’ blood was collected in a helmet into which Achilles and Ajax dipped their hands before smearing the blood on their faces swearing revenge.

The battle continued with the combat between Hector and Achilles coming to a non-contact stand-off with Achilles vowing to fight him when refreshed (5.6).

The Myrmidons, dressed in white boiler suits and masks, were dispatched by Achilles to find Hector (5.7). The end of this brief scene was spoilt slightly during the Stratford run. Thersites rose from his wheelchair after declaring himself a bastard, stripped naked and pushed the chair offstage. This gratuitous nudity was incredible silly was quite rightly was dropped for the Riverside run.

Hector lay down a captured piece of Greek armour (5.8). The Myrmidons surrounded him and he slumped dead. His assailants carried him away in this fixed slouched position. This was changed at the Riverside so that he simply walked off after lying dead on the ground.

News of Hector’s death reached the rest of the Trojans (5.9). After this, Troilus declared that all was lost, but fought on. The final sour note was struck by Pandarus who bequeathed us his diseases (5.10).

Conclusions

Bold theatrical experiments are always welcome. This particular experiment worked well enough but was an acquired taste.

The distinct and puzzling performance style of The Wooster Group did not come at the expense of clarity. The text was perfectly comprehensible and at no point was the action of their sequences incomprehensible.

Actors take direction. What appears to be spontaneous movement is rehearsed and subject to minute control by a director.

The fact that the Trojans mimicked the movements of actors in projected film sequences merely made clearer this hidden aspect of the process. The guts of the production were displayed on the outside.

Paradoxically, the more intriguing aspects of the production was so disconcerting that they almost cancelled themselves out, leaving the audience to focus more specifically on the text, which was the only feature of some sequences that could be readily processed.

This was and was not Troilus and Cressida.

Life during wartime

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.