Thursday, December 11, 2014

Shakespeare and Impermanence: Henry IV Part II, Barbican, and Winter's Rages, Rose Playhouse

Hang on - I thought Henry IV Pt II was meant to be inferior to the first. I mean, that's what critics throughout the ages have said. A couple of weeks back I saw the Donmar's all-female Henry IV, which one might think would span the works equitably - but Part II hardly got a look in, with only a couple of scenes tagged on to bring us to the crowning of Hal. Director Phyllida Lloyd was unrepentant about this, dismissing parts of the sequel as "bucolic meanderings".

Blimey. Well, the RSC folk obviously didn't see it this way, and staged a performance of Part II that rivalled any theatre I have seen in terms of depth, charm and sheer joy. Much of this joy and charm came embodied in Antony Sher's masterful Falstaff, who drank, lied, and confided to the audience with such candour that I was sorry to leave his company. I have now seen Sher's Falstaff in both parts, and I feel like I know him personally. I know I'm going to miss him.

Shakespeare based Falstaff upon Henry V's old friend, Sir John Oldcastle; and this caused something of a spat at the time. Part I was a smash hit, a sell out, but somewhere along the line it is likely that one of Oldcastle's progeny - possibly Baron Cobham himself - watched on with horror at the lampooning of a beloved ancestor. Letters flew, arms were twisted, and Shakespeare felt obliged to include an epilogue to the next play, explaining that Falstaff would be back . . hurrah! . . but, by the way, his character had nothing to do with noble, courageous, honourable John Oldcastle. Mumblings. Snorting. Yeah right. 

Falstaff is great company. He is always up for a party; he drinks continuously and is forever weaving schemes and inventions. Inveterate liar, whore monger, thief - there's little to dislike about him. For instance, in Part 2, he gives a thoughtful speech praising the twofold effects of sherry. I wish more playwrights would explore the subject as eloquently.

As we sat chuckling through Sher's monumental performance, it occurred to me that here Shakespeare had immortalised  a prototype - the roistering soak, who liberates us temporarily from the iron cage of puritanism. In Elizabethan England, with its mutaween, Falstaff was a provocative, and wholly necessary, figure. And so he remains in today's climate of PC, self-censorship and myriad -isms. Falstaff coupling with Doll Tearsheet spawned all the tragic, but challenging ne'er do wells that keep us from turning into automata . . . Oliver Reed, Liz Taylor, Georgie Best, GĂ©rard Depardieu, Jeffrey Bernard . . Talking of which, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell was obviously inspired by Pt 2. Keith Waterhouse merely locked Falstaff into the Boar's Head for an evening, and had him reflecting upon his adventures. I will never think of the Coach and Horses in the same way again.

In my obsessive viewing of Shakespeare plays, I have seen some wonderful performances, but Antony Sher's Falstaff is someone I will never forget. I feel privileged to have met the great man.

Another highlight of this week was seeing "Winter's Rages" at the Rose Playhouse. In this inventive piece, Sophie Kochanowska has cut and pasted together snippets of Shakespeare, and Bard-influenced music to produce a stark, post modern exploration of impermanence. Blioux Kirkby was superb as she played a mentally ill Ophelia, and a fragile, traumatised Ariel; and her singing was rich, alluring and charismatic. Hannah Yip played the keyboards throughout quite brilliantly - in the cold as well. It was, however, Sophie Kochanowska herself who dominated, with the unsettling Drei Lieder der Ophelia by Richard Strauss, and Fear No More the Heat O'The Sun, by Gerald Finzi. Her playing of the youthful, doomed Juliet about to take a sleeping potion was fresh and disturbing. Congratulations to all for highlighting a theme that runs through so much of the Bard's work - impermanence. In many ways, Shakespeare was a Buddhist, and here tonight, as Sophie Kochanoska's singing echoed around the Rose, the truth and tragedy of impermanence was given a voice.

Fresh, disturbing, post-modern . . . how adaptable Shakespeare is. What would Falstaff have made of "Winter's Rages"? Well, he would have enjoyed the singing and the beautiful players . . . but he probably would have disgraced himself, and got himself ejected from the Rose. I'm glad then I left him roaring with laughter in the Boar's Head. More sack, boy . . more sack!!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Shakespeare's Rudest Sonnet? 151

Love is too young to know what conscience is, 
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?
Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,
Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove:
For, thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body's treason;
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no farther reason,
But rising at thy name doth point out thee,
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
   No want of conscience hold it that I call
   Her love, for whose dear love I rise and fall

Friday, December 5, 2014

Measure for Measure, HT Theatre Company, Baron's Court Theatre

By 1603, Shakespeare was wealthy and respected. Poet, playwright and shrewd businessman, the Midlands maestro was at the heart of Jacobean London. His relationship with the newly crowned James was amicable but careful. James was a fan of the Bard's work, and Shakespeare duly obliged with plays in tune with the monarch's interests - Scotland, witchcraft. and the rule of disparate peoples. In spite of a youthful phase torturing witches, James was a cultured man - he had been tutored by the poet George Buchanan - and had a liberal appreciation of theatre. His close engagement with each new dramatic work was highlighted by Ben Jonson in the First Folio, where he mentions ..

"Those flights upon the banks of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James."

Shakespeare was in some ways a royal poet - but with the ruler peeking over the Bard's shoulder as he wrote. This tension between freely expressing the human spirit, and potential sanction by the powerful, explains much in his writing; and these contradictory pressures undoubtedly contributed to the greatness in his plays. Measure for Measure is a masterful, complex product of these tensions, which sails close to the wind in its examination of corruption in high places, and the caprice of royal rule. 

The scenario: Duke Vincentio has temporarily put his deputy Angelo in charge. Unlike the wise, tolerant Duke, however, Angelo is a puritan who has a dichotomous view on things. He has a particular problem with sex, and targets the suburbs, which in the 17th century were not places of faux respectability, but of crime, dissolution and vice. We thus find ourselves in a suburban brothel, where we witness drunkenness, arrests and confusion. Angelo has ordered a crackdown on the sex industry, causing consternation among the women and their punters. The suburbs are in chaos. 

The play interweaves two narratives. The virtuous Isabella seeks pardon for her brother - who rests in prison awaiting hanging - by petitioning the puritanical acting-ruler Angelo. However, he is struck by her beauty; and, overcome with lust, he demands sex for the release. Not a great guy. The second story line involves the wise Duke disguising himself as a monk, so as to check up on the state of his fiefdom, and the character of his deputy Angelo. His investigations lead him to the prison, where he hears about Isabella's desperate plight. 

Shakespeare is at the top of his game in disrupting these narratives, resulting in a classic "comedy" - one beginning with tragedy, and ending with resolution and marriage. It is a work, however, which involves  dark currents and bitterly observed scenes. Here is the Bard at his most Dickensian. 

HT Theatre has produced a powerful and sincere rendition of this play, and Director, Jaclyn Bradley deserves credit for convincingly evoking a threatening and atmospheric world, with no props other than a small table and a tankard. The narrative involves demanding roles, particularly that of Isabella, who was played with great conviction and skill by Leah Lawry-Johns. Meanwhile, her lusty tormentor, Angelo was portrayed powerfully by Adam Cunis - and the scenes between the two were fresh and taut. Jonathan Curry played a masterful Duke, embodying moral authority and wisdom, but occasionally lapsing into needless cruelty. At one point, the play was disrupted when a drunk man stumbled noisily into the theatre at a crucial dramatic juncture. The cast, however - notably, Jonathan Curry - forged resolutely on, with not so much as the bat of an eye. 

All the players were strong, however. Natalie Harper portrayed Angelo's estranged wife, Mariano, with restrained passion; and Joshua Jewkes' Lucio was light, time-perfect and entertaining throughout. Isabella's condemned brother, Claudio, is a pivotal role and Rob Fellman did a great job expressing the tensions between desperation and resignation. Carly Jukes' provost was one of my favourite performances - utterly convincing as somebody with a soul caught up in the ruthless machinations of state. Martin Sales' Abhorsen was brutal, with a strong and daunting presence. Finally, David Gurney's playing of Pompey - the dissolute bawd, or "tapster" - was delightfully funny and inventive. Here  is a group of hugely talented actors; and in Measure for Measure they have put on one of my favourite performances of the year. Well done to all concerned. 

Measure for Measure is a fascinating work - dark, clever, funny. Its portrayals of the vice trade reminded me of the later and quite wonderful Pericles, written with the dissolute bawd George Wilkins. Indeed, I wonder if there isn't a connection between the two plays. The bard was certainly familiar with the seedier side of London society, and was likely no stranger to the Winchester geese.

I like to imagine Shakespeare sitting back with a cup of beer in a dodgy pub, hooting with laughter as his companions out-lewd each other. After a while, one puts down his ale, clears his throat, and slightly crooks his finger . . .

"Nah, nah . . Better than that . . . Much better . . . Groping for trout in a peculiar river". 

Silence. Gasps. I'll have that, thinks the Bard. 

That line will stay with me forever. Thank you HT Theatre. 

Measure for Measure is playing at the Baron's Court Theatre until 14th December.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Not a man in sight: Henry IV, and Man to Man, by Manfred Karge.

As I clapped at the end of an entertaining performance of Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse, it struck me that in my last four visits to the theatre, I had not seen one man on stage. This trend started a couple of weeks back, when I saw Martin Parr's beautifully realised "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang". Actresses Katherine Heath and Lucia Capellaro were so compelling, I was lured back the following evening. Sitting in the ruins of the Rose, I was even more swept away with the heady brew of sonnets, cello and narratives of loss.

The next women-only venture was a mistake, actually. I thought I had booked a ticket for Hamlet, so turned up at the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park ready to marvel at a finely wrought analysis of mind. Turns out, I had got there a week early, so I asked what was on that night. It turned out to be Man to Man by Manfred Karge - a solo play about an East German woman faking being a man, through her whole life. Her husband had died, leaving her with no livelihood, so, after considering her few options, she decided to go into work disguised as her dead spouse. This saga through Nazism, post-war reconstruction and German reunification sets up a harrowing tale of deception, risk, humiliation and slow and unsettling transformation into a defeated, bitter, male retiree, who has almost forgotten his sex. The play was written by Manfred Karge, who joined the Berliner Ensemble in 1961 at the behest of Helene Weigel, wife of Bertolt Brecht. The Brechtian themes are strong, and actress Tricia Kelly bravely laid bare the frustrations of sustaining male identity amidst wild lurches in German society and identity, transforming herself into an embittered, drunk, unattractive pensioner. You could almost smell him.

In the programme, special mention was made of the translator of the script, the late Antony Vivis, who produced an inventive, jarring and sometime rhyming word flow. Listening to the rhythms and juxtapositions made me realise the crucial role of the translator in art such as this.

Later on in the bar, an attractive well dressed woman  breezed in and greeted friends around the table. I realised with a shock, this was Tricia Kelly, who only twenty minutes earlier had festered resentfully in stained trousers.

A week later, I got a standing ticket for Henry IV, which was set in a women's prison. Effectively, this was most of the glorious Part 1 with the main bits involving Falstaff and the rise of Hal from Part II added on. This was highly entertaining, but worth seeing for one overwhelming reason - Harriet Walter playing Henry IV. Shakespeare was cautious in his portrayal of the usurper King, and the role thus has rather limited, subdued material. Walter, however, used these lines with such world-weary authority, that she shed new light on the whole role. No longer a marginalised part; with Harriet Walter, Henry IV reclaims the play that bears his name. It was an amazing performance.

Tomorrow I'm off to see the Hamlet I had intended to see last week. Looking forward to it - though seeing men on stage will be something of a novelty.