I love this picture for RSC Henry V’s production, on stage now in London’s Barbican until next January. I’ve liked it since the very first moment I saw it in RSC Twitter account announcing the play. The actor playing Henry V, Alex Hassell, poses in modern clothes, perched in the throne with an easy attitude, powerful but relaxed, something that would’ve been rather difficult to achieve with his stage half armour and sword.
Many are my sensations when watching this picture: Henry is already king, but nevertheless the crown is an alien object to him. It is the gold circlet that sits in the throne, not himself; he was not born to rule, and even when his father “came by the crown” he stubbornly refused to accept the notion, preferring Falstaff and the Boar’s Head Inn to the king’s privy council and Westminster.
Although apparently relaxed, his body and muscles are tensed, the hand grasps the throne as it is a bow, ready to jump and disappear from the frame, as Henry will: his reign will be a short one, the lands so hardly won will be lost in a few years.
Congratulations to the photographer (I am sorry I have not been able to identify the author, should someone know and tell me I’ll edit the post immediately) and the art director: this picture is beautiful, meaningful and makes me want to see the production. Mission accomplished.
*Alex Hassell’s performance in Anonymous was not reduced to a voiceless face beside a proud Shakespeare. He played the leading man in Shakespeare’s company, therefore I have seen him already as Romeo, Hamlet, and, more important, Henry V. Thanks to Linnet for her comment that has finally allowed me to place that face and the voice I saw in RSC promotional videos
I knew that the first time I would go back to a theatre in Italy after the London experience I shouldn’t make comparisons. As far as the stage experience is concerned, compare Rome to London is like pretending to have the same gastronomic experience in the restaurant round the corner and in a three starred Michelin. Therefore yesterday night I was in Rome’s “Globe” ready to enjoy the show.
As the lights went down (yes, that’s one of the differences with the English Globe, in the Roman one lights go down and groundlings do not stand but sit on the floor) and the first actor appeared I said to myself “oh, no”. There it was, glued on his face… the microphone. I don’t know why here in Italy we must suffer most of times on stage actors inside a fishbowl, whether if it is because they lack the tecnique to reach the audience with their lungs (I doubt it) or if audiences pretend the tv-like audio (most likely). For me it is like watching a film dubbed, and I find it really, really, irritating. I will go back in August to see King Lear, also microphoned, according to these images. I sincerely hope that times of actors playing in a fishbowl will be over soon.
And now, my impressions on “Man and Superman”. This post will have more to do with sensations and very little with knowledge of the play itself. I have read the play once and I have seen it only once on stage, which means about twenty times less than the Merchant of Venice that I have read, seen thrice (including the Globe) on stage, watched the movie with Pacino and Irons, and heard about ten times this audible audiobook (and I was only able to write that lousy post, I told you, my inspiration has gone I don’t know where).
We arrived to the National Theatre after a morning in Tate Britain Museum. After such a lush explosion of colours in canvass, the grey atmosphere of the day and the building’s concrete were much appreciated by my over exposed retinas.
As you see, the openign curtain was spectacular, consisting in a projection that reminded brain cells in movement. Christopher Oram was the set designer in this production; it’s impossible to compare this set with anything I’ve ever seen before on stage. Amazing and spectacular.
The play is subtitled “A Comedy and a Philosophy”; and indeed it is two plays in one. On the one hand, the sophisticated comedy, dealing with the relationship between John Tanner and Anne Whitefield (the prodigious Indira Varma), and the other the onyrical descent to hell with John Tanner’s alter ego, Don Juan Tenorio.
Personally speaking, the third act in the Sierra Nevada (including the philosophycal dream) is my favourite part of the play that starts in the study of Mr. Roebuck Ramsdem (Nicholas le Prevost). He has just discovered that he has been appointed the guardian of a dear friend’s daughter, Anne Whitefield. The problem is, that there is another ward, John Tanner, author of a book entitled “Maxims for Revolutionists” by John Tanner, MIRC (Member of the Idle Rich Class); of course, Mr. Ramsdem ideas are everything but revolutionary.
When Mr. Ramsdem is talking in his study with the young Octavius Robinson (Ferdinand Kingsley) about this matter, John Tanner, who is as irritated by this nomination as the elder man, makes his appearance. And there he was, the big international star himself, Mr. Ralph Fiennes. What I admire the most in actors, apart from their ability in conveing emotions and give them to the public, the capacity of entering and leaving in the personality of other people who can be completley different from what they are, is their prodigious memory. And indeed Mr. Fiennes’ is extraordinary. John Tanner is the most verbose part I have ever read or heard; even THE STATUE (that has Roebuck Ramsdem’s feautres) will salute Don Juan in hell saying “Whew! How he does talk! They’ll never stand it in heaven”. I must confess that during the long talks of John Tanner with Anne I had to make a huge effort to keep my eyes open. I can say in my defense that I felt a little bit tired after alll the emotions of the journey; my bowels came to wake me up, wondering rather loudly why I had not lunch yet at 2.45 pm. What an embarrassment. Fortunately they shut up in ten minutes.
Second act ends with John Tanner driving off from England to run away from Anne. He realizes, thanks to his chauffeur Straker (Elliott Barnes-Worrell) , that Anne rejects the courtship of young Octavius because she wants to marry him. As John Tanner will say later in the play, “marriage is to me apostasy, profanation of the sanctuary of my soul, violation of my manhood, sale of my birthright, shameful surrender, ignominious capitulation, acceptance of defeat”. Therefore, he runs away… literally… Ralph Fiennes literally drives off a sportscar from the scene. The panel that divides the scene is lifted up, the scenery withdraws and off they go, and a mountain materializes from the backstage. We are now in the Sierra Nevada, where a group of peculiar English bandits assault the rich driving cars; in theory to give back to the poor, if the extravagant group formed by an Anarchist, a rowdy social-democrat, a sulky social-democrat, a Frenchman and their boss, Mendoza, will ever agree on anything.
Both in “Man and Superman” and in “The Merchant of Venice” I have appreciated the importance of the movement director. In Globe Theatre, during the famous trial scene, just with three actors behind the guards it was conveyed the idea of a crowd in a court. In Man and Superman Jonathan Goddard has coordinated the movement of the actors up and down the cardboard hill in an harmonious choreography.
When I read the play I laughed with Mendoza’s lines and I suspected that I’d need tissues, but Tim McMullan went definitely beyond my expectations, I just couldn’t help laughing and crying by laughter. I’ve realised that there are differences between what the English audience and myself find funny; I’ve had the impression that the English laugh more with puns and double senses, the laugh being like saying “I have understood the joke and I like it”. The English indeed find less funny than me the mockery of the Spanish accent when speaking English, something that happened in both of the plays. We Spaniards speak the most terrible English, and both Logan and McMullan nailed it. Mendoza’s band capture John Tanner, the bandit explains Tanner that he’s become an outlaw because of a woman that rejected him and “dramatic coincidence!” that woman is Straker’s (the chauffeur) sister. What literally knocked me off was the moment when Mendoza reads Tanner the love poems he’s composed dedicated to his love, Louisa.
Louisa, I love thee. / I love thee, Louisa. /Louisa, Louisa, Louisa, I love thee. /One name and one phrase make my music, Louisa. Louisa, Louisa, Louisa, I love thee. / Mendoza thy lover, / Thy lover, Mendoza, / Mendoza adoringly lives for Louisa, / There’s nothing but that in the world for Mendoza. /Louisa, Louisa, Mendoza adores thee.
I thought I was about to pee (sorry); tears ran down my cheeks, my make-up was blurring I could not stand more. McMullan shouting “Louisa!”, Ralph Fiennes’ faces, the rest of the bandits covering their ears with their blankets. It was too much for me. And, moreover, I could not get my tissues that, as always happen in these cases, have slipped to the very bottom of my bag. Nevertheless I managed to clean my eyes enough to see another spectacular set change. Finally all the bandits sleep, including Mendoza the lover and the suffering Tanner. The dividing panel lifts, the mountain withdraws. We’re transported to John Tanner’s dream. The lights have gone down, the notes of Mozart’s Don Giovanni fill the theatre, Ralph Fiennes has covered with a cape and a broad winged hat. The dividing panel goes down again, it is now bright white. A female figure approaches, an elderly woman according to her broken voice, she’s covered with a big shawl that hides her features. After a few words the woman asks Tanner, or rather, Don Juan: “where are we?”, he replies: “In hell”. Thunder, lights out, end of the first part and big round of applause.
G.B. Shaw said the “Hell – Dream” act could be removed without affecting the play as a whole. Fortunately director Nicholas Bishop decided to keep it. I will have missed very funny lines (The English really do not seem to know when they are thoroughly miserable. An Englishman thinks he is moral when he is only uncomfortable), some more unforgettable scene effects (the Statue coming down from Heaven in an elevator included a bell when it touches the floor, or the Devil coming up from the floor while sipping a cocktail) and one piece of audience-actors interaction. Don Juan is in Hell, but he would like to go to Heaven, not because he’s subject to neverendless torments, but basically because he’s bored. Anna is in hell but she would like to go to Heaven, otherwise “what will people think”. The Statue agrees with the Devil, Heaven is not such a big deal, full of people that are there not because they like it, but “because they owe it to their position to be in heaven. They are almost all English”, and in that moment lights switch on up there in the gallery where we were and for the next minutes the actors watched us.
Well, to cut a three-and-a-half long story short: great play, magnificient actors and actresses, every penny I’ve spent in this trip was worth it. “Man and Superman” has ended its run this weekend but Mr. Fiennes will be back in London stages shortly (I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten which play and where), therefore for those of you who can: go and see Ralph Fiennes on stage, please do. He has an incredible comic ability, a prodigious memory (I know I’m quite obsessed but I’ve read elsewhere that we are talking of… 50.000 words!!!) and a natural elegance on stage. I will like so much to see him again in the theatre, maybe this time in a pure tragedy.
A final anecdote: after the play, we lingered a little still inside the theatre. I was sending some enthusiastic whatsapps to my friends thanks to the free wifi connection when hubby said here he is, here he is! I lifted suddenly my head as my husband is a walking find-the-celebrity radar, and indeed, here he was. Mr Fiennes going away the theatre, with his backpack, walking among the audience, looking the floor except for a one second glance towards us. I smiled and confirmed my opinion that the biggest, are the humblest.
PS. As in my Globe post: all cast was extraordinary, if I don’t write about each and every one of them it’s only my fault.
Coming up (I still don’t know when) in this blog my sensations about this play. As appetizer a couple of videos from the National Theatre channel and the curtain call from our seats, up there “in hell with the English”.
We arrived quite early to the Southbank, about 6 pm, the show starting at 7.30 pm. It was a cold afternoon for May 2nd. It was not difficult, staring the brown waters of the Thames rippled by the wind, to imagine those terrible winters during the Elizabethan years, when the river froze and one could walk from one side to the other. To be honest, I was not in the mood of imagination time travel that afternoon, I was too busy trying to memorise as many details as I could and scan the faces (hubby’s proverbial ability to “spot the VIP” could be of little help there). After taking some pictures we waited by the riverside. I did not realised that the main entrance was not the black iron gate facing the river therefore instead of being undercover perusing the gift shop or taking a coffee, I was scanning the movements of the staff preparing the show. At more or less a quarter to 7 pm an small army of stewards left the exhibition building on our right side and took position. One of the actors, Christopher Logan, walked hurriedly to the dressing rooms while he was checking his mobile phone. Then the gate was open to admit the groundlings queueing.
I made some shopping in the gift shop and then entered the yard. Theatre doors were still closed. The floor is decorated with the names of patrons and supporters of the Globe Foundation. I recognized suddenly one name among the others:
We hired our cushions (it’s not advisable to sit for three hours in a wooden bench) and, finally, theatre doors were open, I was there. I was deeply moved, finally, after months of day dreaming I was t-h-e-r-e.
The stage, designed by Mike Britton, is covered with dark wooden planks that hide coloured columns and the background, as a symbol of the dark oppressing atmosphere of the play, the decadence of Venice looming all over. Some minutes before the appointed time, the drums were heard, and the musicians entered the stage. The magic of theatre begun, we were not in London anymore, but in the streets of Venice, where masked men and women drink and sing. The rhythm of the music goes in crescendo, the beating of the drums, the sound of clarinets, the words of a venetian song fill the air; the masked figures cheer and salute the musicians shouting “bravo!”. Three figures lad in white, a cupid and two lovers, represent a love scene.
I’m not quite sure if it is in this moment when Antonio (Dominc Mafham) takes off his mask and leaves the stage; in that moment of triumph of love and happiness Antonio is an outsider, being his part in the world, as he will say later, a sad one. After the music has reached a climax, two Hebrews enter the scene. One of them is beaten and spat by the drunk venetians.
This prologue is a perfect summary of a play that talks of truth and falseness, repressed desires, dreams fulfilled and unaccomplished. And now, to the play… I warn you, this is a very partial summary of impressions as I will not write about all the characters and actors; each and every single one of them is a perfect casting choice.
In sooth I know not why I am so sad. It wearies me, you say it wearies you…
These are the first lines of the play, said by Antonio to Salarino and Solanio. I heard them from Dominic Mafham’s lungs, vocal chords and mouth to my ears, crossing the air within the “wooden O”. You may think that as something obvious, but it’s not in Italy. I don’t know the reason, if it’s due to lack of technical skill from the actors’ side, or the audience that ask for it, the fact is that here, even in small theatres, actors wear always a microphone. Therefore their voices do never come directly from the stage, but sideways, or where the loudspeakers are, adding a sensation of “fakeness” to the representation, it’s like seeing a dubbed movie.
Going back to the stage, with Jonathan’s Mumby’s direction Antonio’s melancholy is made not only of sadness, but also of anger. When Solanio (Regé-Jean Page) asks Antonio if he’s in love, he replies shouting angrily “fie! fie!”, with the same violence that he will use later on when grasping Shylock’s throat when he says that he will keep on calling him dog and spitting on him.
Maybe te reason of this over reaction lies in his attachment to Bassanio. Once more, it is on Solanio’s mouth that we hear that he [Antonio] loves the world for him. To please Bassanio Antonio lowers himself to deal with the man he hates the most in Venice. The merchant knows that if his friend succeeds he will lose him forever, and, moreover, in that city where everybody plays a part, where it is known that all that glisters is not gold, Bassanio simply uses him or, at least, will never give Antonio what he really desires. The director has underlined this refusal; when the trial finishes and Antonio and Bassanio (Daniel Lapaine) are alone on the stage, the latter stiffens and his smile freezes as the merchant closes, searching for a kiss.
Dominic Mafham renders to perfection the psyche of his borderline character till the last scene; in the several press reviews on the play that I’ve read he’s been dedicated no more than thirty words… He deserves more praises, in my humble opinion. The apparently calmed and balanced voice with which he concedes his cruel and hypocritical “pardon” to Shylock, providing that he converts to Christianity, balances his previous shrieks of despair and prayers in Latin when Shylock had his knife ready to cut a pound of flesh, near his heart. The bond between the two men is not made of carrion flesh but of hatred and contempt. The contempt with which, for instance, Antonio throws the holy scriptures Shylock hold when he asks the loan.
My sympathies to David Sturzaker (Gratiano), given that one of the first things he does when going to work to the Globe is to throw up in a bucket in front of several hundreds of people. I do sincerely hope that the stuff he fills his mouth with has at least a nice taste; it was for a good reason, as his first lines are you look not well, signor Antonio, the audience laughs are granted. Gratiano is the most “Italian” of the characters in this play: passionate, histrionic, theatrical, and Mr. Sturzaker’s interpretation flawless.
In a play where both the Jew and the Christians have faults and virtues, the director Jonathan Mumby underlines the dark side of the main characters. As with Antonio, this Portia (Rachel Pickup) has more in her of the devil than of the saint. She is racist and biased as her fellow Venetians, intelligent and manipulative. She wants Bassanio and she knows that the leaden casket is where her portrait is. She moves around this casket before the Venetian makes his choice, and commands her musicians to play a song with self-explanatory lyrics fancy dies in the cradle where it lies. There is a prima donna inside Portia; the second part of the play opens in her palace, Belmont. Lorenzo and Jessica are dancing a volta, but she interferes, flirts with Lorenzo and takes Jessica’s place. Once more, in the double-sided Venice, where nothing is what it seems, although she greets the couple with a they are entirely welcome, she ignores deliberately Jessica with the same haughty cruelty with which the most popular girl in the school despises the unpopular one. As all the cast, Rachel Pickup is perfect in her performance.
“The Merchant of Venice” is a comedy, and I have talked very little about it so far. Indeed there are several very comical moments in the play, these are my favourite ones.
During Launcelot Gobbo’s monologue about whether to follow or not his conscience, Stefan Adegbola chooses two groundlings to play his good and bad conscience; if he chooses a very shy girl as good conscience and a very bright young man as the bad one, the result cannot be more hilarious.
The other funny moment was Christopher Logan as the Prince of Arragon. It’s curious that the two moments that have made me laugh to tears in my London theatre experience come from two Englishmen playing (or rather mocking) the Spaniards (the before mentioned Christopher Logan and Tim McMullan in “Man and Superman” as Mendoza).
I have adored how Mr. Logan walked from one casket to another behind Portia, how he dragged the “r”, his expressions. One regrets nevertheless that his part is so short.
And what about Jonathan Pryce? I can say that I can say now have seen him playing Shylock, and, for all of you who have still the chance to go to the Globe, I beg you: please, go. Mr. Pryce represents the sublime in a perfect ensemble. Shylock is probably one of the iconic Shakespearean roles with less lines but that can sink an actor’s career. Much to my regret I have seen this winter in Rome a version of The Merchant with one of the most famous living Italian actors as Shylock: the biggest disappointment I have experience as an audience. Instead, Mr. Pryce’s performance had everything. Meek and servile with Bassanio and Antonio in his first appearance, cruel at home with his daughter Jessica. Another touch of the director, we are witnesses of a discussion in Yiddish between father and daughter (Phoebe Pryce plays the daughter). Shylock is cruel and mean, oppressive as the black wooden grill behind the stage; ridiculously mean when Tubal tells him of Jessica spending four score ducats in Genoa, crying honestly when he learns that his daughter has given away the turquoise that would not have given even for a wilderness of monkeys. Oh, those last fifteen minutes on stage during the trial scene… The intelligent and cunning Portia, disguised as a young lawyer, throws the cobweb with which the Jew will be trapped.
I need to see the play once more (I sincerely hope that it will be captured for the Globe Player) to identify the exact moment in which Shylock seats and takes out, with slow scrupulousness, the balance to weight Antonio’s flesh as I’m not sure if it was during the Duke’s plea or Portias’ famous “mercy speech”. Nevertheless, the way Mr. Pryce takes out the balance and puts it in the small table besides his chair is, allow me the cheap joke, Pryceless, and his desperation on hearing the verdict, sincere. While Gratiano grabs him by the arm, mocking him, his voice starts to creak when he refuses the bond and accepts the money. But Shylock, as Portia says, shalt have justice more than thou desir’st. When the Duke says that he will be deprived of all his wealth he paces nervously, to and fro, cries silently, bends his body, and with a broken voice says
Nay, take my life and all, pardon not that.
You take my hose when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live
But Shylock is not yet a completely broken man. He will be on receiving Antonio’s “mercy” that he presently become a Christian. It is impossible not to be moved by his cry of agony, his sobs and cries. Shylock cannot stand the pain anymore, I am not well, send the deed after me, and I will sign it. Gratiano throws away with contempt his red Jewish cap and insults him for the last time; Shylock sobs and almost falls, leaving the stage. In an absolute, deafening silence from the audience. I was shocked, we all were, and forgot to breathe for a moment.
That should be, according to the text, the last Shylock’s scene, but the director has added an epilogue, after “the rings issue” is solved in Belmont. Jessica receives a letter with the news about his father; she sits, crying, on a side of the stage, singing and shouting a lament in Hebrew. Phoebe Pryce is extraordinary, I’m sure that this actress can offer us many more great performances.
Shylock is baptized and his shout “CREDO!”, closes the play. An amazingly incredible experience. Please, all of you who can: go, go, go to see it!
PS. Thrilling moment of the night: when, thanks to the eye-to-eye actor audience connection in The Globe, Ben Lamb, who played Lorenzo (unfairly absent from this post), was staring me while saying
Back from the most beautiful trip I have ever had. It surpassed my best expectations. I hope to be able to write in the next days several posts about my “London weekend” but I must say that this was a life-changing experience.
I’m reading these days “Man and Superman”, in order to watch the National Theatre’s production knowing what the story is about. I am enjoying the reading very much, and I long to see the play live, even if above in the gallery heights.
Of course I could not help to listen again to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, being as “Man and Superman” is, a play about the myth of Don Juan. I like that opera very much and I have not heard it for quite a long time, although I honestly say that my favourite part is the comendador sending Don Juan to hell, as he’s the most unsympathetic male character I have ever the pleasure to know. I have always thought, given the “successes” of Mr. Tenorio in Mozart’s play, that he was impotent, or, at least, a premature ejaculator (most likely, given the length of the “catalogo”). Bernard Shaw makes the character decisively more appealing, the play is indeed funny and witty. Among the hilarious moments the surreal discussion between Mendoza, the Rowdy Social-Democrat, the Sulky Social-Democrat and the Anarchist. Maybe Monty Pyton had it in mind when writing the famous sketch of the Judea’s Liberation Front.
But, as I have also a certain percentage of superficiality in my little body, the above image has done more for my appreciation of Don Juan than Mr. Shaw’s play or Byron’s poem. It’s the cover of Mozart’s Don Giovanni that I have downloaded with Spotify and the man in question the bass-baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo.