Richard III – St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden

First published on The Public Reviews website.

There will be quite a few versions of Richard III in the coming months; since finding the body in the car-park last year, and now that the courts have decreed the he’ll be interred in Leicester, interest in Shakespeare’s play has increased. Sherlock colleagues Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch will both present their interpretations in the coming months – Freeman at the Trafalgar Studios and Cumberbatch as part of the BBC’s Hollow Crown TV film series. Add to that Mark Rylance’s critically acclaimed production at the Globe and Apollo last year, you would be forgiven for feeling a little overloaded with interpretations of the controversial Yorkist monarch.

While Freeman’s has received some fairly negative reviews both for the setting and central performance, the Iris Theatre’s new version, beautifully staged in the church and gardens of St Paul’s in Covent Garden is not one to miss. The play begins with the Battle of Tewkesbury in which the York brothers – Edward, George and Richard – defeat King Henry VI and kill his son. Edward becomes King and all is seemingly right with the world. Behind the scenes however, Richard is slowly and designedly removing those who block his path to the throne, starting with the old King, but soon dispatching his own brothers, his wife and most infamously, his nephews, before assuming the crown for himself.

The role of Richard is not an easy one, being almost entirely devoid of subtlety or remorse for his killing spree. Unlike other famous Shakespearean assassins who are often innocent or loyal until their lust for power corrupts and thereby destroys them, Richard is villainous from the start so the character doesn’t move much beyond that state. David Hywel Baynes takes this fairly flat villain and rather brilliantly gets the audience on his side, by drawing on the humour of Richard’s duplicity, first wheedling and pleading with key players, then mocking them to the audience. It’s also a very charismatic and physical performance; Richard’s deformity is not just expressed through the standard hump and bound hand, but in a squirmy, tensed quality throughout his whole body emphasising the supressed mania of Richard’s character.

The rest of this small company take on multiple roles and genders, which seems more a pragmatic decision about managing the various characters than a political statement. Mark Hawkins’s Queen Margaret is particularly astonishing, dressed like an extra from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, full of terrifying venom and screaming curses, yet it absolutely worked. Nick Howard-Brown as George, Duke of Clarence delivered a heartfelt final speech before he was dunked in vat of wine, and Sam Donnelly was notable in the dual role of King Edward and Lord Stanley. The rest of the company was rather less memorable, however and it wasn’t always easy to keep track of who they were.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this production is the staging, taking place in various locations around the church. This is very well managed by director Daniel Winder, with characters taking the audience naturally from the steps of the church, which forms the main location, to scenes among the trees and rose beds of the gardens, as well as into the church itself. Sound, by Filipe Gomes, is also used very cleverly to enhance the atmosphere, not just music, but creaking doors and echoes suggesting the Tower of London, and the clatter of horses and clashing swords in the battle scenes. Plenty of seats are provided so there is very little standing, which at over three hours including interval is an important element.

Seeing Shakespeare in the open air is always a very different experience and in the grounds of St Paul’s – ‘The Actors’ Church’- it feels particularly special, whilst the final scene inside the church is a powerful spectacle. This production is innovatively staged and gripping to watch, with an excellent central performance that almost has you rooting for him. There may be a lot of Richard’s to see this year, but the charm of this one is going to be hard to beat. It ends on Friday so see it while you can.

Richard III runs until 25 July at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden and tickets start at £12.


Julius Caesar – Globe Theatre

First published on The Public Reviews website.

What constitutes a hero? Is it the man who fashions an extensive empire, defeating all in his path, but brings despotic rule to his own people who love him nonetheless, or the man who kills his friend, a supposed tyrant, for the sake of personal honour and social freedom? This dilemma is at the heart of the Globe’s exciting new version of Julius Caesar, examining whether individuals are at the mercy of fate or should accept responsibility for complying in their own subjugation.

Do we then sympathise with Caesar, who has made Rome great before being murdered in the most brutal fashion by those he trusted, or with Brutus, somewhat unwittingly coerced into this act by those with lesser motives, but which he thinks will protect the essential democracy of the state? Yet, even noble deeds have powerful consequences and the conspirators soon discover they have no control over the events they unleash, nor over the perception of those actions. With an angry mob to abate, the murder of Caesar leads to war with consequences that threaten the very Republic they hoped to defend.

At the heart of the play is Brutus, played by Tom McKay, whose decision to join the plot against his former friend and the effect this has on his honour and conscience, drive the action forward. McKay’s Brutus is a somewhat cold figure, who speaks often of his principles but seems almost unmoved by the events around him. The early scenes where Brutus wrestles with his conscience are perhaps the weakest, but McKay is excellent in the second half, bringing out the character’s greater sense of purpose at war, tempered with moments of regret and a sad realisation of how his actions have failed the Republic.

His counterpoint is Cassius, a fiery zealot who is the engineer of Caesar’s downfall, believing whole- heartedly in his right to topple the tyrant. Anthony Howell’s Cassius dominates his scenes, whether inspiring the plotters with diatribes on injustice or in his more philosophical moments discussing the purpose of fate. Together their friendship is very believable, nicely anchoring the events that ensue, and encouraging you to question whether Brutus killed for Rome or for Cassius.

Interestingly, Caesar scarcely appears in the play and George Irving gives him an unusual other worldly quality. He’s detached; barely human it seems, like the statue of Colossus he’s compared to and his softly spoken voice seems at odds with the image of the violent conqueror. Cleverly, this production regularly questions whether Caesar deserved to die and your sympathies are not allowed to rest on any one side.

Another man out to defend his friend is Mark Anthony, initially bowing to the conspirators so that he can later attack them. Luke Thompson brilliant conveys quite a wide-ranging part – Anthony on the surface is a carousing lout, albeit a charming one, but Caesar’s murder inspires grief then vengeance. The moment Anthony addresses Caesar’s corpse with the speech beginning: ‘Oh pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth that I am meek and gentle with these butchers’, is one of the best in the production, which Thompson builds from inconsolable grief to raging curses. The incredible scene where Anthony and Brutus address the mob is one of the finest rhetorical duels ever written and is perfectly done here with Thompson’s Anthony effortlessly and subversively inciting the mob to take revenge.

The Globe has created a hybrid Renaissance-ancient Roman world in both the design and staging of this production, which mostly works quite well. The 17th-Century costumes are fine for the conspiracy-period and war, but look a little strange with togas across the top for the Senate. It’s not really clear why they went for this design and it doesn’t always work, especially when the text clearly references battles and places. The musical interludes work very well and having a recurring trio of singers signal every death was a nice device.

Julius Caesar is not performed as often as you might expect, despite having one of the best plots and some of the most beautiful language that Shakespeare ever wrote, so see it while you can. The Globe’s production is gripping and exciting, gathering considerable momentum after the slaying in the Senate, and forcing your to question the motives of all involved. Debates of liberty and democracy aside, at its heart this is a play about friendships and the things men will do in support of one another. Whether anyone ends up a hero is debatable, but the high quality performances in this production will make it difficult to pick a side.

Julius Caesar is at the Globe until 11 October with standing tickets starting at £5. 

The Public Reviews

Skylight – Wyndhams Theatre

So Skylight is this summer’s big film-star vehicle for Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan, making her West End debut, as former lovers reunited for one evening in a grotty flat in north London while Kyra cooks spaghetti. At a glance you may think them an unlikely casting choice, even inappropriate given the 35 years between them, but give this a chance and you’ll find yourself fully believing in their relationship.

Kyra used to work for Tom in a restaurant he owned with his wife. She lived with them for six years whilst conducting an affair with him for which neither feels any remorse, and when his wife found out Kyra left without explanation. Since then the wife has died and Tom has finally tracked Kyra down to find out why she bolted and whether there’s a chance at reconciliation. But both of them have changed, and during the course of one evening at her flat they confront their shared past and whether they can breach the vast gulf now between them.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this duel between the characters is that this gulf exists almost entirely as a physical distance between the actors. This is an interesting decision by director Stephen Daldry showing two people who never get close to one another despite the intimacy of their conversation and their earlier relationship. They don’t just sit on opposite sides of the table but, for much of the play, on opposite sides of the room. Far from making it less plausible, it reinforces how different they now are and how much they would have to overcome to be reunited. This also adds far greater significance and poignancy to the few moments when they are physically close.

Bill Nighy is, of course, incredible as the suave and boisterous Tom, a role he has played in an earlier iteration. His performance is large and full of energy as he prowls the stage trying to figure out Kyra’s situation. He’s a man who’s done very well for himself in the restaurant business and become used to a style of living, which rankles with Kyra’s new found social conscience. Nighy’s layered performance is particularly adept at the rapid chances of mood and pace, flipping in a second from contempt for Kyra’s attitudes to painful remembrance of their shared history, and it is in these moments that you see his skill in conveying a man deeply affected by his life choices.

Carey Mulligan’s Kyra is a perfect contrast to the more exuberant Nighy, playing it small and contained, emphasising her control and determination, avoiding confrontation. It is easy to understand why she chose to run away from Tom and not deal with the consequences of their affair. But this adds the more power to the moment she really does lose control, first with anger at Tom’s patronising attitude, and then in a tender emotional surrender that closes the first act. By living in a level of discomfort Kyra is punishing herself for her earlier indiscretion and the guilt she feels towards Tom’s wife, but in Mulligan’s complex performance you see her not quite realising this and filling her time with social crusades instead.

The interplay between the two of them is really first rate, battling for control and the last word. Their stories are unfolded to the audience before being torn down; Kyra accusing him of romanticising the past while Tom retorts with attacks on her conscience. These are two people, once so close and with so much to say, now unable to reconcile the changed other before them. At times it’s hard to escape Hare’s polemic, and the views the characters express can seem more of a playwright’s rant than a natural conversation, but this doesn’t tarnish a fantastic revival.  Whether Tom and Kyra manage to return to the past and rekindle their relationship, I’ll leave you to find out, and you really should! Nigh and Mulligan’s gripping performances are well worth the visit, but book an Italian restaurant afterwards- you’ll want to eat spaghetti!

Skylight is at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 23 August 2014. If not sold out, tickets start at £22.25 but have been cheaper on Last Minute. Otherwise it will also be broadcast to cinemas on 17 July via NT Live.

Bring Up the Bodies – Aldwych Theatre

Did she really do it? It’s one of great unknowns of history and has been debated for hundreds of years – did Anne Boleyn really conduct a series of adulterous affairs right under the nose of Henry VIII, or were charges trumped up to smooth the King’s path to marriage number 3? Bring Up the Bodies, based on the second of Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell, deals with the period leading up to Anne’s fall and the extent to which Cromwell is implicated in designing her death.

As with last week’s Wolf Hall review, I want to think about this as a standalone play and how effectively these events have been dramatised. It’s 1535, Henry after years of intrigue has finally married Anne Boleyn and the cracks are beginning to show. Thus far the relationship has cost him several members of his inner-circle including executed counsellors Wolsey and Thomas More, and has caused a scandal in Christendom, severing England from the Church of Rome.

This adaption feels considerably more successful than Wolf Hall; partly because there is a tighter narrative focus, covering just Anne’s final year, and better emphasising the drama and danger of the period. Despite its three hour run-time, it continues to engage the audience, especially in the second act when Anne and her supposed lovers are questioned, tried and dispatched. Four of the accused were allocated a corner of the stage, each visited by Cromwell in turn giving Ben Miles a chance to exhibit Master Secretary’s persuasive, and threatening, techniques. As with Wolf Hall it is Miles who excels in this production, conveying the skill of man moving between factions, guiding the King into prudent decisions and intimidating others to conform. As with Mantel’s character, it’s a rich performance subtly implying the variety of Cromwell’s early life experiences – blacksmith, mercenary, and lawyer – bringing them to bear with considerable effect in Henry’s service. And, at around five and half hours of almost continual stage presence across both productions, it really is a remarkable achievement.

Most of the cast are also pretty good; Nathanial Parker’s padded Henry is slightly buffoonish and not nearly as clever as his key advisor, but shows bursts of Henry’s anger and regret. Lydia Leonard’s Anne is haughty and cruel, oblivious to what’s going on around her and not really humbled by her arrest. Unlike recent interpretations there’s no sympathy for Anne here which is fine given evidence of her guilt or innocence is inconclusive, but there is a lack of chemistry with Henry which makes the relationship between them slightly unbelievable.

It is a gripping and exciting production which takes some bold decisions with its staging, particularly the reliance on lighting rather than set to depict changes of location, time and season, which is managed as well as I have ever seen it. There is a live orchestra helping to underscore the mood, and echoed sound is used for the ghost-device when Cromwell is visited by the spirits of Wolsey and Thomas More – a bit cheesy but it helps to give voice to some of Cromwell’s inner thoughts and reiterates Cromwell’s core motivation which is to revenge himself on those who destroyed Wolsey.

On the whole then, I think Bring Up the Bodies works better as a standalone play than Wolf Hall. Although I was glad to see them both, if you’re short of time or put off by the ticket prices, then maybe just see part two. The people next to me in the theatre hadn’t seen Wolf Hall but thoroughly enjoyed Bring Up the Bodies, so little pre-knowledge is required to enjoy it.

So did she do it? Well, this production goes against some recent scholarship and the TV show that suggest the innocent Anne was certainly framed by Henry. Here instead we get something much more complex, the rumours of her lifestyle abound long before the breach with Henry takes place, and the action is subtly laced with references to inappropriate activities. It is a while before Cromwell puts these throw-away comments together to construct a case against her and we see his political astuteness in reasoning away the number of men involved in order to make Henry look better in the eyes of Europe. It is clear that the men are almost certainly innocent, but Anne herself is guilty of something. Like a 20s mobster prosecuted for tax evasion, Anne is rightly condemned but maybe not for the crime she actually committed.  If nothing else these plays and Mantel’s excellent novels reinforce how fascinated we are by the Tudor Court and the debate that still surrounds history’s most famous mistress.

Bring Up the Bodies is at the Aldwych Theatre until 6th October. Tickets start at £11 from Ticketmaster.

Wolf Hall – Aldwych Theatre

Who’s your favourite King? Chances are it is Henry VIII; more than 500 years since his accession Britons remain fascinated by his rule. His time seems to sit on the cusp of medieval and modern, in the space of 40 years transforming the systems around him – breaking with Rome, dissolving the monasteries and appropriating their funds, creating a new church and making himself head of it, so bringing religious schism to the heart of government. His personal life too is a dramatist’s dream; one wife for nearly 25 years followed by five others in half that time, divorces, executions, changing lines of succession and the disposal of faithful servants when they had served their purpose. Not to mention his life-long quest to subdue the French which was guaranteed to win him a few fans. Monstrous dictator or lonely man looking for love and a male heir, Henry’s reign has proved one of the most exciting and pivotal in our history.

The RSC is then the latest in a long line of people looking to find new meaning in The Tudor era in their adaptation of Wolf Hall, based on the Booker Prize winning and Damehood earning novel by Hilary Mantel. This is showing in repertoire with Bring Up the Bodies from Mantel’s second book in the yet incomplete trilogy about Henry’s political ‘fixer’ Thomas Cromwell. All the reviews of the London production have treated the two plays as one but I was interested in seeing to what extent each is an interesting piece of theatre in its own right, and I deliberately wrote this review before seeing part two.

Wolf Hall covers a period of 10-13 years (depending on the sources you look at) from Henry first meeting Anne Boleyn to the death of Thomas More, taking in the divorce of Catherine of Aragon, birth of Elizabeth I, fall of Wolsey and growth of Protestantism. To some extent these massive events deliberately fade into the background as we see Cromwell’s political rise to power through interaction with other members of the court. It is his methods that are examined rather than the end result which, though interesting, can feel like too light a touch at times. Ben Miles’s Cromwell is excellent at conveying the intelligence, manoeuvrability and, when necessary, the danger of the man a King relied on. This performance anchors the whole play, nicely bringing out Cromwell’s sometimes painful personal feelings and how well he had to hide them to perform his role. The scenes depicting his various methods of coercion with the King and with prisoners are particularly impressive.

Nathaniel Parker’s Henry VIII is a softer interpretation than we often see; largely a jovial figure, probably not that clever and easily persuadable, but as ‘the lion’ begins to realise his power the threats and anger emerge when pushed to extremes. Lydia Leonard’s Anne Boleyn is not the devious flirt of recent adaptations but super-smart and openly arrogant, orchestrating the King’s conversion to the new religion. Some of the other characters are less well drawn however – Henry’s boys club of rowdy friends, Suffolk and Norfolk, are little more than noisy hooligans snapping at Cromwell’s low birth. It doesn’t properly imply the threat that this new man posed to the traditional elites, nor do they seem likely companions for the more sedate interpretation of Henry that we see. It was also nice to see a cameo from Barbara Windsor as Mary Boleyn… oh no, sorry, I’ve checked my programme and it was actually Olivia Darnley doing a fine impression of everyone’s favourite landlady in her Carry On days.

It’s well staged with almost no props meaning the scene changes happen in an instant with a change of lighting which helps to keep a brisk pace. But while more than a decade of events hurtles by in scene after scene, the second half does feel leg-crampingly long. Once Henry married Anne the audience began to get restless and for those who hadn’t read the book, it wasn’t clear where the cut-off point would be. The most disappointing part was the lack of fear in the Tudor court and the very difficult climate in which these events took place. At no time was Henry certain a divorce would be granted and he endured years of evasion from the Vatican before even contemplating his own solution. Factions at court are hinted at, but they don’t imply the danger they could cause, and the very real possibility of gruesome execution for those who failed to deliver what the King wanted. Cromwell was adept at managing this but he would have known and feared the risks.

All in all, Wolf Hall is ok as a stand-alone play and the less knowledge of Tudor history you have the better – knowing almost none at all, the lady in the next seat enjoyed it more than I did. Mocked as I may be for this, it’s also difficult to shake-off a comparison with The Tudors series which dealt with a similar period over 14 or 15 episodes. While here I enjoyed the varied approach to the core players, some of the others just didn’t ring as true as they did in the novel or in the TV version – it’s hard to beat Sam Neil’s incredible Cardinal Wolsey or Jeremy Northam’s Thomas More. I suspect that Bring Up the Bodies will make this feel more complete, dealing with Anne’s trial and execution which offers a tighter narrative structure. So in true soap opera style, tune in next week to find out….

Wolf Hall is at the Aldwych Theatre until 4 October. Tickets start at £11 which were available on the Ticketmaster website.


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