Monday 27 July 2015

Richard III

Curve, Leicester
26th July 2015, matinee

After the recent pomp of the reinternment of the king found unceremoniously buried under a car park in the centre of Leicester there has arisen fresh investment in Richard III, and Curve has unashamedly jumped on the bandwagon with this community production of arguably Shakespeare’s most renowned history play. The posters advertise ‘Leicester’s story continues’, an ambiguous tagline perhaps – especially as director Nikolai Foster relocates the play to contemporary Russia – yet fitting in the sense that, despite the theatre being under new creative direction, Foster follows in his predecessor, Paul Kerryson’s, footsteps in the annual staging of productions which showcase and celebrate the talent of Leicester’s citizens.

The enduring challenge of restaging Shakespeare’s 400 year old text is resolved in Foster’s decision to set the play in Russia, highlighting contemporary institutionalised corruption. While this interpretation may seem unoriginal (there seems to be a current trend in staging Shakespeare within a Russian context, as recently seen in Cheek By Jowl’s brutal Measure for Measure) and Putin’s Russia an easy target, the concept works. Richard’s cronies are icy, unreadable and ruthless, dressed almost exclusively in black, they bear stark contrast to the colourful Woodville yuppies, Rivers, Grey and Vaughan. Foster does not shy away from violence as murders are carried out in the unflinching fashion of mob style professional executions. While the corruption runs deep on a political level, the transformation of Richard’s executioners into desperate, drug-fuelled thugs (played with brilliant twitchiness by Daniel Simpson and Becca Cooper), insist upon the deep set rot befallen an entire nation prey to the games of its hungry aristocracy.

Matthew Wright’s design heightens this sense of rot; a lone chandelier hangs from broken ceiling panels, a halo representing what the noble aristocracy once stood for while simultaneously reflecting the decadent waste the state has fallen into. The traverse stage is sparsely set, bookended by rough concrete facades, faint graffiti reads ‘Richard’ looming large over the stage, and dust-caked shoes encircle the playing space, evidence of the expendability of life, the fallen victims that litter the path to glory. And the victims come thick and fast. The production’s unwavering brutality culminates in the explosive final staging of the Battle of Bosworth. Unleashing pyrotechnics galore, amid the gunfire bombs explode mere inches from the unsuspecting audience (it must be a health and safety nightmare!), igniting the battle with a sense of real urgency and panic, an urgency which is highlighted further in Grant Olding’s score featuring sudden bursts of techno beats, viciously pulsating.

For all the technical whiz bang of Foster’s production, ultimately the success of Shakespeare lies in the language and the actors’ ability in grappling with the sometimes difficult text. For this cast, enthusiasm and vigour more than make up for the occasional lapse in diction. Mark Peachey’s Richard is thrillingly tragic, displaying all the charisma, villainy and dry humour required of the title character. He moves from oddly appealing in his soliloquys, the audience his (un)willing confidantes, to bare faced audacity in his Machiavellian manipulations and betrayals, to pitiable in his conflicted groans following the appearance of the ghosts of his victims. Peachey shines bright amidst the highly capable cast as, once again, Leicester has proven to be a trove of talent.

Curve’s staging of Richard III is a timely celebration of one of Shakespeare’s most tragic and villainous characters and the community which has taken the somewhat ambiguous king to heart of late.

Richard III plays at Curve, Leicester until 9th August 2015.

Wednesday 1 July 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest

Theatre Royal, Nottingham (prior to Vaudeville)
16th May, 2015, matinee

In a 2013 poll made by the English Touring Theatre, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest was voted one the nation’s favourite plays. It’s easy to see why in Adrian Noble’s well-realised production, starring David Suchet as Lady Bracknell, which has opened on tour before transferring to the Vaudeville.

The plot of mistaken identities and two deceptive bachelors may be frivolous but is deliciously funny. And although Noble doesn’t offer anything new like Lucy Bailey did last year, he solidly allows for the relevance of Wilde’s aphorisms and satirising of the superficial Victorian upper classes to ring through. ‘We live, I regret, in an age of surfaces’ can refer to today as much as it does to Victorian pomposity.

David Suchet may be testing a different set of acting muscles for the role of Lady Bracknell compared to his roles in All My Sons and Long Day’s Journey into Night but his performance is nuanced and convincing. With his lips pursed and handbag balanced on his wrist, he parades the stage swishing his dress as he walks and articulating like a military general. Interestingly, he places the emphasis of that famous line on the word ‘cloakroom’ rather than ‘handbag’, a suggestion that cloakrooms would have been more scandalous owing to their reputation for cottaging. It’s a detail that is a testament to Noble’s production being one which embraces the play’s high comedy but doesn’t forget its social background. However, the word ‘handbag’ was also well-delivered, if not as stern as other actors’ delivery. Suchet’s comic performance is matched by the rest of the cast which includes Imogen Doel’s feisty Cecily and Philip Cumbus’ Algernon, leaning over the furniture to show his amorous nature.  In fact, Doel’s performance especially remains memorable weeks after I saw it. Finally, Michele Dotrice is extremely enjoyable to watch, the audience lapping up her performance just as much as in The Ladykillers.

The Importance of Being Earnest is playing at the Vaudeville Theatre until 7th November.