Thursday 8 December 2016

Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy: pure theatre gold

Or (as I wanted to put in the title but found it too long) 'the best six and a half hours you'll ever spend in a theatre'. That's not including the two-hour-plus breaks in between last Saturday's run. Who would have thought that the 11am Julius Caesar, Henry IV (Part One with three scenes from Part Two) at 3.30pm and The Tempest at 8 could have been linked together so pertinently, or that Phyllida Lloyd's concept of setting them all in a women's prison with an all-female cast could really be sustained? Well, I had an inkling when I went to the first run of Henry IV at the Donmar's main Covent Garden venue. But of course this was always going to be something extra-special, starting with the buzz in the excellent temporary venue just beyond King's Cross Station.

Below was the scene - a big patch of blue prisoners call the sky, plus plane, above the structure - just before 11am on a crisp winter day,

this the return for Henry IV after I'd made an excursion into the West End to buy a full score of Ligeti's Le grand macabre for my Monday Opera in Depth class and came back for a mosey around the British Library's magnificent free exhibition of most treasured manuscripts

and this the front of the theatre, illuminated by the pavilion structure just beyond, following a good supper in Kings Place.

Harriet Walter is the big name around which the three plays have developed - I'm not ever going to stop going on about how she played Schoenberg's Moses as well as the Marschallin, Prima Donna and Brünnhilde for me up in Birmingham, one of the proudest days of my professional life - and her Prospero (pictured below in the second of many excellent production images by Helen Maybanks) was always going to be central. And indeed, hers is the most moving portrayal by far I've ever seen on stage.

But she would be the first to admit it's not mainly about her. Lloyd has developed one of the best ensembles, sex regardless, I've ever seen in a theatre. We've come a long way since Kathryn Hunter played Richard III and 'shrew' Katherine, Janet McTeer Petruchio, in the Globe's all-women ventures; the supporting casts were sometimes barely that, and left quite a lot to be desired.

Not so anyone here. It's difficult to know how to go about a form of reviewing: should it be 'the play's the thing', and one by one, or a highlighting of individual performances which are not entirely the point? Nevertheless the standouts were many, and so, having dispensed with the prison roll calls that begin and end the first two plays by this one typical image,

let's salute the specific excellences of performances which can only leave one the more amazed given that every participant had at least one different role in each play. No one figure dominates Julius Caesar; the personal and political volatility is too central for that. My first experiences of it were studying the text for O-level (which fortunately didn't destroy my admiration for it), playing the role of Cassius - although, as my English master put it in his review for the school magazine I had to edit, some of my 'sensitive cadences...only reached the front few rows of the audience', I did have the one virtue of never needed a prompt - and seeing the National Theatre production with Gielgud in one of his last performances as Caesar.

Jackie Clune's Emperor is central at the start, a lively opening prison scene substituting for Shakespeare's I.i. Then we're off into the dialogues of Cassius and Brutus. Admirable from the start the way Lloyd gets her actors to express occasionally complicated sense with the precision of their hand gestures; that made Cassius' first long speech - which I've forgotten bar the 'colossus' bit - very urgent in the hands and voice of the excellent Martina Laird, pictured with Walter.

Walter's Brutus seems fine and sensitive, and of course a bit ridiculous when trying to justify the bloodiness of the assassination.

The difference between him and Caesar is highlighted by the respective scenes with the wives; Brutus's Portia (Clare Dunne, pictured with Walter above) is his equal, Caesar's Calpurnia (Zainab Hasan) is not.

The conspiracy gathers pace towards the first climax (pictured above); Karen Dunbar, top left, almost steals the show as Casca, turning out to be a genius of a comedian later as a dim Bardolph and a rollicking Trinculo. Would love to have seen her open the Commonwealth Games. Lloyd's clean lines make you appreciate the symmetry, or rather the rapid change after the murder and the descent into bloody internecine quarrels accompanied by all the abuses of war. Jade Anouka was, when I first saw her, and still is the most compelling Henry IV Hotspur, played as a wired young black man full of macho postures when the reality is a vulnerable kid, gifted and with no proper outlet for his energies.

She's hardly less remarkable as Mark Antony, progressing in the oratorical fulcrum from a nervously improvising, cornered friend of Caesar

into a dominant orator; that made the big speech more compelling than ever. Anouka's final triumph was as a Puckish Ariel, with some fine rapping thrown in for good measure.

Battle scenes in Shakespeare can make the later stages pall; the brilliance of Lloyd's sets in the first two plays was to make the combats and even the toy prison props similar yet different: warriors as boys with toys, as The Guardian's Lyn Gardner shrewdly put it. Henry IV Part I is more perilous as the combats proliferate, but there was no sense of let-down here. Even so, it was better to return to this production's perfect poise between the Falstaff/Hal scenes and the king's speeches as well as his confrontations with a seemingly feckless son (Walter and Dunne below),

with Hotspur as the earlier third point of a perfect triangle.

Sophie Stanton has been a theatrical idol of mine since her superlative role as the Mama Cass-loving girl in the first run of Beautiful Thing (in which my good friend Simon's partner Patricia got to know her, playing no less superbly then). Stanton was a more consistently funny Falstaff than her predecessor from the Donmar original; even if we lost the sleep-babbling fear of burst balloons behind the arras, we got far more seeming ad libs. The central Eastcheap scene served as the central intermezzo of the day, played at the highest level from all concerned. For other touches, see my original thoughts; just need to add how superbly it was adapted for the gym pitch surrounded by seats on all sides. The only thing missing from the production pics is the audience, that crucial third dimension to add to playwright and players. Everyone in a healthily mixed crowd seemed gripped through each two-hours-plus, including a couple of young girls on the edge of their seats throughout.

Would The Tempest bring the redemption of romance, given the setting? Not only that; its context gave it extra poignancy. Prospero is played by 'Hannah' (Walter), a prisoner for life who drove a getaway car for a political organisation and would not plead for any mitigation of her sentence. Her huge imagination guides the action. Again, the kind of props the prison girls would use create magic. As in the other two plays, no gag or idea outstays its welcome; in that respect Lloyd is classically pitch-perfect.

The acting pleasures here were too numerous to mention, but apart from Walter's mesmerising speeches, there was the magic of true young love between Leah Harvey's Miranda and Sheila Atim's Ferdinand (pictured above) - their scenes usually ruined by mannered young thesps. Nor have I ever laughed so much at Caliban's romps with Stefano (Clune) and Trinculo (Dunbar, pictured with Stanton below).

Had expected perhaps a bit more from Joan Armatrading's specially composed Tempest score, but the music-making throughout, and the use of popular songs, was always apt and impressive (fine singing, consummate instrumentalists).

Here, of course, tears came to the eyes - predictably so at Caliban's 'the isle is full of noises', elsewhere not always when expected. There was magic in one of Prospero's last natural summons, when the lights went down and we all turned on the little torches we'd been given, like hundreds of glow-worms, and the ultimate heartbreak as Hannah hears the voices of all the girls thanking her on their releases and settles down to another night in prison. I get emotional just writing about it and just realised I haven't even begun to discuss the connections forged between the plays. Enough already. Try and get a ticket - if you live in or near New York, you stand a better chance after Christmas. Though Americans, who will find this the right sort of sustenance in a difficult January, won't get the full works, yet at any rate. One of the masterpieces of theatre; it will never be forgotten.


David Damant said...

I am suspicious of women playing certain roles. If they play Richard II as a man, OK let's see how she does it. If a women plays a man's role as a woman the drama is transformed. Worst of all is Lear. It is about old men. I cannot see that that can be done as a woman. Unless one takes it as an entirely different play. Sex is fundamental. Men and women are different. The selfish gene has said so.

David said...

You cannot speak whereof you have not seen. The two best Lears I've seen on stage have been played by women - Kathryn Hunter (as a man) and Ursula Mohan (as 'Queen Lear'). It's called acting.

David Damant said...

Yes but you are praising - I have no doubt correctly - a different play. Lear is about old men. Hamlet is about young men. As regards acting, yes if the woman playing Lear ( or in another case Hamlet) acts the man, maybe OK. But a woman is sexually different from a man, so Queen Lear is in a different world.. I suppose I am looking at that aspect above all others, because otherwise we are merely watching a drama, not an analysis of the human predicament. In the case of Hamlet, all men especially when young have a deep psychological relationship with their father ( living or dead - the play Hamlet deals with that), conscious or unconscious, which women do not have. I suppose that Macbeth is only a drama.The Greeks had it right with the dark forces of the mind explicit in the Eumenides etc

David said...

You limit the meaning of both plays. It's always going to be an analysis of the human predicament if the acting is fine. With this trilogy, sometimes you forget the gender, sometimes you're reminded it's women playing men, which allows for a double consciousness and especially for an extra questioning of men's role in war (as I wrote, boys with toys, but still deadly).

I repeat: go and see and then tell me if your view remains rigid. Around the same time as I first saw this Henry IV, I also had to sit through the atrocious Greg Doran RSC production of Parts I and II. I'd always have said beforehand that Falstaff HAD to be played by a man, and a posh old man at that, but so abysmal was Sher in the role, so good the woman first time round, and so superlative Sophie Stanton this time, that I completely changed my mind. The Donmar Shakespeare is to the RSC's as night to day.

I add that I haven't yet seen Glenda Jackson as Lear, and am rather nervous about that, but I ought to try.

Susan Scheid said...

Can't thank you enough for alerting us to The Tempest coming here, and, as you know, we have nabbed tickets. Sorry, indeed, we missed out on the Henry IV; hope it may come again. Interesting to see Joan Armatrading's name. Definitely a blast from the past for us!

David said...

If you're disappointed I'll eat my bobbble hat. And I think you should approve the very diverse choice of music. Fabulous application of 'I want to sleep with the common people' to Prince Hal...

Susan Scheid said...

I am confident you will not have occasion to eat your bobble hat!

David said...

And I wasn't wrong about the awfulness of the RSC Henrys, was I?