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June 2011

'Zounds it's Stan's Shakespeare-athon

DSCN3685 It starts tomorrow, suitably in Stratford Upon Avon, with The Merchant of Venice, the first of what will be three Shakespeare plays in just over 24 hours. Merchant is a first-timer for me as is the visit to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, if you discount the press tour I went on late last year.

I've been going to Stratford every year for the past four years with my best friend Jen but it's always been to the Courtyard Theatre as the RST was being rebuilt. Having had the grand tour I got a glimpse of what they might be able to do with the staging which is adding to the excitement and anticipation of this year's trip.

This will be followed by an evening performance of Macbeth. I've only done a theatre double bill  once before and this is certainly going to test the concentration as these are full length Shakespeare plays.

At the moment I'm most excited about Macbeth but that's because I've seen it before, albeit an abridged version, and it's starring Jonathan Slinger who was brilliant playing Richard II for our first Stratford outing. The trailer on the RSC website is a bit dull but I'm not letting that put me off.

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A Delicate Balance between indifference and appreciation

A-Delicate-Balan_1894749b The Almeida and I seem to have a heated relationship. I've seen two plays there now and both were on extremely hot and humid days and neither have blown me away. Fortunately for this last visit,  A Delicate Balance, the air conditioning was working in the auditorium although it struggled a bit after the doors had been closed on the packed house for a while.

So hear's the thing. When the applause had died down I turned to Poly shrugging and said: "I don't get it."

And at the point, born out of indifference, I didn't. I needed time to cogitate.

Edward Albee's 1966's play is of a family life all smooth, gliding swan on the surface but below the waterline the legs are working overtime to keep the momentum and direction.

It is a classic theatrical devise, all that is peaceful and content is either not what it appears or is slowly destroyed and in A Delicate Balance it is both. Wealthy, middle-class couple Agnes (Penelope Wilton) and Tobias (Tim Piggott-Smith) seem relatively content with their lot, at home on Friday evening chatting over an after-dinner drink.

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern definitely aren't dying

Tn-500_2 "Life in a box is better than no life at all, I expect. You'd have a chance, at least. You could lie there thinking: 'Well. At least I'm not dead.'"

There are so many fantastic lines in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead I've bought the play text just so I can enjoy them all again.

It was my first Stoppard play and I confess that it took a little while for me to get the measure of it, particularly the Waiting For Godot-esque first scene. But once the door was open and I was through there was no looking back.

This Sir Trevor Nunn directed production  - part of his season at the Theatre Royal Haymarket - sees the lovely Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker take the leads, ably supported by Chris Andrew Mellon as The Player.

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Trying to have Faith, Hope and Charity at Southwark Play

FHC_bw_finalcrop This revival of the Odon Von Horvath play is unfortunate to have been the scraping of shrimp paste between two choicest slices of home-made bread.

Following a performance like that I'd seen given by Richard Clothier at the Hampstead Theatre the night before is no easy task. And then the night after FH&C came the wonderful Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead - more on that coming soon - so to say that it feels overshadowed is an underestimate.

Set in 1932 in an economically depressed Germany during the rise of Hitler and totalitarianism it throws the spotlight on the politics of the time and its impact on the common man and woman trying to get by during difficult times.

Its central character, Elizabeth, is a young woman down on her luck. She wants to get a job selling underwear but needs a sales permit that she can't afford, until she has a job.

The ever hopeful Elizabeth is gradually worn down by the petty bureaucracy, a sort of Kafka-esque reality, and as her situation gets worse, charity too gets thin on the ground.

I'm trying not to be too harsh about FH&C in the context of when I saw it but it was just OK. It's an engaging and interesting enough story but the key problem was that some of the acting just wasn't up to scratch. Rebecca Oldfield who plays Elizabeth was a little over-earnest at times and needs a more nuanced performance to really earn the empathy this tragic character deserves.

There were some good performances though from older members of the cast who played multiple characters and it is nicely and simply staged. Poly, who saw it with me, hated it and gave it one and a half stars but I think that is a little harsh and I'm giving it three.

It runs until July 16 at the Southwark Playhouse.


Poly found this one for me: Helena Lymbery - who was one of the better actors in Faith, Hope and Charity - was in His Dark Materials with Mr W.


Propeller's horrible history: Richard III

Wayne_Cater__tyrell__and_Richard_Clothier__King_Richard___in_Richard_III_0._Photo_by_Manuel_Harlan_0 The ensemble slowly populates Hampstead Theatre's stage wearing burns victim's balaclava-esque masks and over-sized lab coats, all wielding rusty implements that look like they've come from an abattoir or, worse still, an old Victorian operating theatre. They say nothing just stare at the audience as they take their seats.

This is Richard III horror-style, led by a protagonist with a sinister smile and the charm of a snake.

Ed Hall's all-male Propeller Theatre company charts the Duke of Gloucester's bloody rise to the thrown at a lightning pace - Shakespeare's second longest play has been hacked back to two and a half hours but the pace is pitched at extremes.

Richard Clothier's bleach-blond, would-be king rattles off his asides, ranting and raging as his evil plot takes shape and old fashioned hospital screens are whisked across the stage with characters appearing and disappearing behind them. All this contrasts with the almost slow-motion lead up to the murders, studded by a clock ticking and low singing by the ensemble.

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The Richard III trailer, no not the one at the Old Vic, the other one

Off to see Richard III at Hampstead Theatre tonight. It's the last of the Shakespeare plays I studied while at School/Uni that I've yet to see performed so I'm particularly excited.

I'm also curious to see how Ed Hall's all male cast works - although Richard III isn't renowned for its female characters. I've only seen a cross-dressing Shakespeare production once before - more than 20 years ago - when a man played Gertrude in Hamlet and it is a performance that lives indelibly on my memory for very good reasons rather than bad. So I know it can work incredibly well.

Despite having studied the play I'll still be doing a bit of swotting up as it's been a long time. And this trailer is a delicious teaser full of tension and drama and without plot spoilers, unlike the Arcola's Seagull trailer I wrote about last week.

And just in case you are wondering, yes I am seeing the Kevin Spacey Richard III at the Old Vic but not until August. I know some people are seeing both productions back to back which has its merits but I'm glad of the time lapse to give both a chance.



In which Stan goes to the ballet for the first time

HE182237_429long Ballet, like opera, is one of those performance art forms I've been meaning to take a peak at for many years but never quite got around to. So when the wonderful Susan offered me a couple of tickets to see the Royal Ballet at the O2 last weekend that she couldn't use, the lure of watching fit men jumping around in tights was too much to refuse.

One of my fears is not having a clue what is going on but this was Romeo and Juliet so all I had to do was work out which character was which and then I was fine.

With nothing to compare it with and absolutely no knowledge of dance I can't say whether it was a good ballet or not but I can say that I enjoyed it very much.

First of all there was far more acting from the dancers than I expected. The music is, of course beautiful, as are the costumes. There is something particularly winsome about the male dancers who have the most lavish 16th-century, Venetian-style costumes which all come to a halt just north of their codpieces, or dance belts* as they are technically called, and spray on tights. It's jolly nice to see something in which the men are less covered up than the women for once.

Kate, my companion for the afternoon, and I are both convinced that Romeo's codpiece was bigger in the second half.

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Fab War Horse puppet vid and that ridiculous Oscar talk


Watching this just wants to make me want to go and see War Horse for a third time - how truly amazing are the puppeteers?

It reminds me of some of the silly stories that were circulating after the play did so well at the Tony's earlier this month about the film, which comes out in December, being an early contender to win an Oscar.

What are they judging the play on and what are they judging the film on? Yes it is a wonderful, moving and heart-warming story but it is the puppetry that really brings the magic and awe to the stage production - something they don't have in the film.

I'm not saying the film won't be good, brilliant in fact, after all it does have an amazing cast and is directed by Steven Spielberg but it does seem slightly ridiculous to compare the two mediums of story-telling.

I'll probably be eating my words come February next year when the film has cleaned up with gongs.

The Seagull at the Arcola

Seagullhero-The-London-Magazine-The-Seagull-at-the-Arcola-credit-Simon-Annand-cd912021-1d41-43d9-a6f0-c06a9ae0d981 First trip to the Arcola and it is a little gem of a theatre, one of those that punches above its weight. For all the fabulous big budget productions in the West End it is these tiny, slightly uncomfortable, off the beaten track theatres doing much with little and attracting great acting names that really get me excited.

But before this post turns into something purely about the Arcola and small theatres what of the play? Well The Seagull was also a first for me and it must have been good because otherwise I'd be moaning about the uncomfortable seats and its out-of-tube-station-reach location, right?

Ok so I may be a tad bit hypocritical but my point about my love of small theatres still stands and The Seagull was very good, despite my difficult relationship with Chekhov. I have a problem with stories about people who have it in their power to get themselves out of a mess but choose not to. It's purely a personal thing, every one has their bug-bear and this is mine. It spoils my enjoyment of the Cherry Orchard although I'm hoping that Zoe Wanamaker wins me over in the National's production in a few weeks.

It helps that the Seagull is tragic for different reasons. There is still a lot complaining from the middle-class characters about their lot in life but the central theme is love and success. Konstantin (Al Weaver) is a young aspiring playwright and son of a once successful actress Arkadina (Geraldine James) who has taken successful writer Trigorin (Matt Wilkinson) as her lover.

Arkadina wants always to be the star attraction which causes friction between her and Konstantin as she belittles his work. Trigorin's success does not help. Adding to Konstantin's woes is his love for Nina (Yolanda Kettle) who has her head and heart turned by Trigorin. And then there is poor Masha who is desperately in love with an uninterested Konstantin.

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The flawed excellence of The Emperor and the Galilean

Emperor-and-Galilean-at-t-007 Those lesser-known, plays by famous playwrights are normally kept on the shelf for a reason and Henrik Ibsen's, 9-hour, two-play epic The Emperor and the Galilean is, arguably, no exception. Firstly it was never written to be performed but, as a parlour play, to be read.

Ben Power's version for the National Theatre has cut this literary leviathan down to a mere three and a half hours long and it could still lose half an hour without concern for coherence. While director Jonathan Kent has given it an epic staging, catapulting it out of the parlour and onto the grand Olivier stage.

There are some odd production choices - the Parthenon painted on backdrop is a little naff in the context of the production and modern war planes and tanks projected on the back wall, when the story at that point is about a dangerous march across miles of desert to reach the enemy, just seem out of place. There is also occasionally some over-baked acting but there is also much to like.

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