Monday, October 28, 2013

"Here, cousin": of divine kings destroyed and traitors risen higher than their worth - Richard II @RSC Stratford, matinee performance 26 October 2013

I wrote a less spoilery review from my first visit (on the first night) so I thought I would take the time to give a more revealing commentary here having seen the show a second time, from a physically different angle.

For the first visit, we were in the stalls; for this, as we were taking the sibling part of the Roberts' family (Mark, Sarah, Grace and James), we were on the Upper Circle, but this turned out to be no bad thing for getting a different perspective on things on many levels.

So, in terms of this production, if you are planning to see it - whether onstage, or on screen, or on the planned later DVD release - and if you don't want to know the quirks of this version.....





It is a fine ensemble production, and there are plenty of pleasures in every performance from Elliot Barnes-Worrell as the groom through to Edmund Wiseman as Harry Percy (wonder what will become of THAT character... rhetorical question folks).  Everyone in between, from the most experienced to the young upcomers, give everything and make not only every line count - it is exceptionally well-spoken and clear, perhaps some of the clearest deliveries I've heard for a long while - but every look and gesture counts as well.

On which note, how I love the long piercing glare that Richard throws at Mowbray, a kind of 'don't even think about it' look, when Mowbray is directly asked by Bolingbroke "Confess thy treasons ere thou fly this realm"... ouch. There is such an extended pause when Mowbray considers his options before replying "No", that one wonders if Richard may lose his pacing cool stance in exhalation of relief at Mowbray keeping his silence. But the King barely flutters an eyelash.  At this stage, he still feels himself to be divinely approved, comfortable in his effete luxury, (over)confident in his actions.

As a whole, the production seems no less tight than it did on the first night, though they have tweaked a couple of things. They've probably shortened a few hems (no trips or snags this time around), and no-one got smacked by a snapping stick (they've moved the action with the gardeners in Act 3 scene 4 - which opens the post-interval acts - to face the centre of the stage rather than the hapless audience). Some very minor changes in staging have been made - a couple of sequences seem to be located further up the thrust stage, but nothing that especially makes a returning visitor gasp or bemoan a change in emphasis.  The RSC at its best knows how to get it right from the start.

The 'halves' of the show remain intact, with the interval coming after a potentially numbing 1 hour 40 mins (before a brisk second 'half' of around an hour).  There are a lot of events and persons to get your head around if coming raw to this play, and I wish I had better prepared the family for their trip.  Never mind: the second half has more humour and certainly it makes sense to knock Richard down before the interval and then chronicle his further decline and end after the break.  I'm sure there are multiple ways of staging this, but it is difficult to judge where the timing of the break could come - before Act 3 kicks off at all?  That would make for a strangely flat culmination of the first section, with Salisbury and the Welsh captain at odds for Richard's failure to show his presence - and therefore to confirm he still lives - to the warring soldiers amidst the ailing Irish battles Richard was so keen to source funds to fight.  Scheduling the interval after Act 3 scene 2 would break the transition of power as Richard realises how lost he is and would bring the audience back in the midst of that demise, so I can absolutely see the logic of breaking ahead of the gardener's scene. The unevenness is within the play itself it seems.

Back to the staging (and high credits to designer Stephen Brimson Lewis and lighting director Tim Mitchell):

Being down below, it is harder to appreciate some of the lighting and projections onto the stage floor; from above these are glorious - branches, streaks of dark fragmented bark, shadows and shapes.  For the final prison scene, where Richard is chained in a lonely dungeon, the beautiful use of mirrors allows those in the stalls to appreciate the below stage scene.  When located high above the action, it is possible to see and appreciate both the mirroring and the actors.

From stalls level, you see the great height of the staging - the magnificent projections of cathedral spaces; but from above they look just as spectacular.  It is also good to have a different viewpoint on the bridge on which the throne sits - it drops into place, sometimes to stage level, but more often at the Circle level and as Richard is brought low by the traitors who surround him, the fragility of this balcony becomes apparent: he unsurprisingly returns at the end, angelic white robes, to cast a gloomy eye down on Bolingbroke's attempts to refute that he had in any way wanted Richard's death

It is also a great treat to be on the same level as the incredible musicians and singers: the excellent trio of sopranos singing Paul Englishby's music are especially wonderful to see in closer proximity.  I'm looking forward to listening to the CD: it all sounded beautiful.

Back to the play itself.

There is much grief in this play, and not least because of the enormously popular Ben Whishaw/Rupert Goold adaptation for The Hollow Crown series of Shakespeare adaptations for television, which attacked the tearducts with customary heartfelt passion from both parties.  This is more of a heartbreaking sting than full-blown tears; the inevitability of downfall tempers the Christ-like allusions (which are no less absent here, just differently conveyed).  This is indeed a sad story of the death of a king.

The grief is there from the start, with the luminous Jane Lapotaire's silky grey hair cascaded down her black widow's garb for the demise of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester.

Her fretful, stumbling desperation to address the death of her husband pulls at our sensibilities of how grief should be expressed.  It is contained and uncontained, urging action and yet paralysed to achieve.  There is the grief of Gaunt, his son banished on a half-whim by Richard who is even at this stage a compromised figure, and whose illness in response is brushed off as lightly as Richard takes his flatterers seriously (til he realises just how they pandered to his ego and power).  There is a clear dismissiveness in Richard's "So much for that" after Gaunt's death is announced and perfunctory regret is expressed.

It has to be said that Pennington as Gaunt is toweringly good, bring life (and death) to the potentially-all-too-familiar "This sceptr'd isle" speech.  That he makes it fresh is wonderful to watch and hear: fiery passion and fading breath at its best.

It is after Gaunt's death that the fatal compromise that York undertakes to not go against the challenge of Bolingbroke and his supporters, to ultimately not just accept but facilitate it, come to the fore.  Oliver Ford Davies does weary so well, and he is well cast here as the flawed York who given governance of England in Richard's absence can do little to protect it, and makes pragmatism a resignedly sad decision to survive.

Several have commented on how this production still manages to "find the funny"; sometimes this maybe goes beyond expectations of more traditional viewers for the play, but actually this largely works.  It is a particular despairing first 'half' as Richard falls from careless power, cronies and fey recklessness to his eventual (second half) handing of the crown to Bolingbroke, so bringing in a level of farce to proceedings adds some much needed levity.

There is certainly a tragi-comedic undertone in the lengthy pause after "For heaven's sake let us sit upon the ground..." before the continuation of "and tell sad stories of the death of kings".  The break in the pattern allows us to see Richard in a transitory position - he remains King, despite the wreckage of his power falling to Bolingbroke's populist might, and as such can petulantly demand the grown men around him seat themselves upon the ground like children in a ring for games... but when the game is being pulled away from him and smile stings. There are little details like the step back and forth of the Queen and her ladies-in-waiting as she playfully tries to get them guessing what move she will make that they must follow.

In the second 'half', the humour is more broad, though again varies between intonation, context, pacing, and stage direction.  Several have commented on the "here, cousin" as Richard calls Bolingbroke to collect the crown - like the calling of a pet dog to fetch a treat.  

The tone is biting, and yet in it there is Richard's last vestige of power as he is able to undercut Bolingbroke's thievery of this potent and well-like symbol.  Adding an edge of ludicrousness to the multiple 'throwing of the gages' (a kind of "I challenge you Sir" - "NO, I challenge YOU sir!") in Act 4 scene 1, somehow seems right, not least because it suggests that Bolingbroke's power might easily crumple before it is fully won between these bickering lords.  Similarly, there is excellent use of Oliver Ford Davies's comic timing, especially alongside Marty Cruickshank as York's wife.  Even from the start of that scene (Act 5 scene 2) there is an inevitable playfulness in the delivery of the lines so apt to a Tennant-adoring audience as this is (and as it was for Hamlet too, which OFD also shared):

"As in a theatre, the eyes of men,
After a well-graced actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious...."

And yet, this is such an ensemble piece that the audiences are entranced even without the star-turn on stage (though he is on stage a lot).  When the Yorks discover their son Aumerle's part in a plot against Bolingbroke as king, we know each character is feeling for their part in Richard's downfall (and York especially has much to feel responsible about). Each pleading with Bolingbroke is made with heartfelt anguish but deep comic bones, and it was a wonderful final flash of exhalation for the audience before the inevitable final downfall of the former King.

And of that fall...? Aumerle is the key, and we've been set up for this throughout the play.  When others act as flatterers - Baggot, Bushy and Green are just the most visible of these - Aumerle quietly adores and fears in equal measure what it means to be in the presence of his King, his Richard.

Oliver Rix brings Aumerle to fruition elegantly, sparely.  It's isn't an especially large role, but you feel his sharing of the pain that Richard has to swallow as this King realises that all the divine appointment in the world cannot stop rebellion (and Richard has more than a little of himself to blame for how he got to the crown and that 'divine appointment' in the first place).  The balcony scene when Richard effectively surrenders to Bolingbroke's request - you can see how Aumerle flinches at having to deliver the lines - is a real heartbreaker.

So it is all the more heartbreaking by the end when Richard is killed and in being killed he pulls back the hood of the one who wields the dagger: to survive, to prove worth after being implicated in a plot to kill Bolingbroke the usurper King, Aumerle takes on the worst task in the world.  The omission of the tentative Act 5 scene 4 now makes sense, and is all the more painful for it. To quote Wilde:

"Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!"

Presented with the body of his erstwhile enemy, the deposed King, Bolingbroke understandably flinches, and there's an even clearer sense of his 'supporters' backing off despite the refuting that the death was anything he wanted.  As Richard had predicted earlier, the duplicitous Northumberland (an excellent Sean Chapman) - the vilest of those who had thrown in with Bolingbroke - will "knowst the way to plant unrightful kings [and] wilt know again".  When he backs off, you expect that there will be trouble ahead for Bolingbroke's peace of mind.

And so a final visiting angel comes to glower over this departure: a throne was squandered and yet also stolen.  No one comes out good, those who live nor those who die (one cannot envisage that Aumerle's soul will be rested or reunited after his actions).  Bleak?  Yes.  But utterly magnificent.  Everyone - even if I have missed off a few names - contributes everything they have to this production.  It is a triumph.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Veggie cottage pie a la Rullsenberg and Roberts

Why it took us so long to cook this up is beyond me.

We love thick tomato based sauces and I especially love mashed potatoes.

So this is our recipe for veggie cottage pie.

Olive oil
Garlic - crushed or lazy
One lemon juiced
Grated cheese (for topping)
Butter for mashing potatoes
Milk (or a splash of creme fraiche) to add to potatoes
Potatoes / sweet potatoes
Pepper (capsicum)
Chickpeas (tin)
Chopped tomatoes (tin)
Mushroom sauce / Worcester sauce (depending on veggie or non-veggie-ness)

Chop 2 moderate sized potatoes and chop and peel a good sized sweet potato.  We leave the skins on the standard potatoes. Boil water and add to pan to boil. Meanwhile...

In a large pan add some olive oil, paprika and garlic - start heating this up.  Fry up diced onions and carrot in the pan and once you have the initial frying done, sweat them by turning down and adding the lid.

Chop additional veg - we added mushrooms and a pepper and cooked these up, stirring to mix the pan contents. Add lemon juice as and when (1/2 a lemon). Add a tin of chickpeas (or alternative pulses) and a tin of chopped tomatoes.  Add rest of lemon juice and some mushroom sauce (or if non veggie,  Worcester Sauce).

Whilst this cooks on a moderate temperature to thicken slightly, your potatoes should be getting done.

Put oven on a high heat.

Drain potatoes when done and mash with butter initially adding creme fraiche /milk near the end.

Pour tomato and veg into large deep pot for the oven and even out in the base.  Add potatoes on top and smooth off before forking the surface to create ridges - add cheese.

Cook in a hot oven for approx 15 mins before placing under a grill to crust off the cheesy top.

Enough to serve two greedy people, with at one day of left overs, or a family of four-six depending on appetite and side dishes (goes nice with green veg).

Friday, October 25, 2013

In Praise of .... Educating Yorkshire

At first I felt a little less of the emotional recognition that had accompanied the episodes of Educating Essex that I had watched two years ago.  This time around, although Educating Yorkshire was clearly on the Thursday agenda, it didn't initially connect with me as much as had the earlier series.

All that changed as the series progressed, and the final three episodes were just breathtaking....

The redoubtable Mr Steer and the impossible girls: one man's body almost at breaking point as he battles to get a group of girls through Maths....not least of all Sheridan, who - like her friends - clearly loves doing her hair...

Jack's passion for history, despite his obvious academic struggles and his difficulties with settling in a school (finding out he had moved on was heartbreaking and you just hope things work out long term)

And ultimately the brilliant Musharaf Asghar overcoming his stammer with some support from Mr Burton* .... I'm a bit overwhelmed after last night's finale.

I was pretty much in tears from the get-go last night, and reading Musharaf today in the Guardian, you just want to cheer for what he ---- and the school --- achieved.


* and yes I was screaming at the TV "make some reasonable adjustments!" ----it was ultimately putting into practice (belatedly) advice from Speech and Language Therapists (and The King's Speech) that turned things around.

Didn't stop me joining in with the sobbing Year 11's as Mushy gave his end of year speech.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Birthday delight from first night, first impressions: Richard II @ RST Stratford-upon-Avon 10 October 2013

Here be VERY limited commentary on the first preview night.  You'll get a fuller review when I've been to see the play once they're properly launched. They're still ironing out little kinks, but they're pretty much spot-on for my money.  Looking forward to the future visits....

Because, yeah, not my final trip.  Multiple visits, moi?!

So this is avoiding spoilers as much as possible, mostly reporting on the experience.  Minor spoilers possible if you haven't heard of David Tennant, Richard II storyline, or capabilities of the RSC to do damn fine shows.

Got it?

So there is the event ---- and then the aftermath

Event - the play

When I saw that the first preview night for Richard II at the Royal Shakespeare Company was scheduled for my birthday, it seemed like fate.  Who could turn  down such a treat? Yes, we all know why I was booking so early (clue: the link will explain why hanging on to book wasn't going to be an option - blink and the fans have nabbed all the tickets).  But I love the RSC and I love going to the theatre.  And I really wanted to see this production.

We arrived in Stratford way early, but this gave ample opportunity to raid the shop (books, jigsaws, postcards - programme, obviously) and to also have a lovely cuppa and cake with a dear friend.  Once in the theatre itself, I was already excited by the stunning set. Majestic about covers it.  And it was especially nice to scour around the space and then frantically draw over more lovely friends to get hugs and kisses before the play began.  Saw a woman waving in the stalls?  That was me getting their attention.  Yay for friends!

There is a nicely minimally spoilering comment piece here. Don't read it if you don't want to know.

The music is astonishingly good, the costumes magnificent (tho a few hems may need taking up to avoid trips and stumbles), and the acting was cracking. Nigel Lindsay was a revelation as Bolingbroke, and seeing Jane Lapotaire back on stage was a pleasure I did not think I would see in my lifetime, but *everyone* delivered on their performances.  Tennant was, suitably, Tennant-esque in his capacity to unpick a part and make it his own. Richard II as per the play ....

(SPOILERS - if you haven't read Richard II or know the story)

.... is vain, and brought low; he is capricious, and he is brought to realise his folly; he is in charge, and he surrenders power; he is a King in an age of the Divine Right of Kings, and he is raised an angel, flawed and beautiful.

Say what you like about the sort of audience this performance with this leading actor would draw, but until the curtain call, everyone pretty much holds their breath.  There are NO inappropriate squeals - as Tennant rightly noted in the recent Front Row interview, fans are smarter than that and KNOW what to do/not do.

(SPOILERS - if you've never seen Tennant performing on stage e.g. Hamlet)

There are laughs - director Greg Doran and his cast, including Tennant, are nothing if not adept at finding the right moment to flick a head, emphasise a swift "well...." or mine the possibility of line in broader context. They know how to find it and where (for me) it works.  Wonderful stuff.
And yeah... Richard II dies.
Big spoiler that.


The aftermath

And afterwards...

I'll be honest, with my dodgy foot there was never going to be a swift exit.  We positively AMBLED out of the theatre.  And I expected to see the barriers at Stage Door 4 deep.

Instead... one line's worth.  Erm...

Neil and I exchange glances: well, that's almost unbelievable.

"I expected it to be busier than that..." I say

"Go on then" Neil replies, being his usual disreputable self in my downfall.

So I went.  And got a mid-place, second row spot.  And a few minutes later - after pointedly challenging the mutterings of some that they didn't care for anyone else coming out by me firmly saying "thank you" to everyone exiting the building - the intake of breathe came, and Tennant emerged....

... with plaited hair
He takes his time, at least at first, and several of those lucky enough to be on front row, get photos with him. Oh that I were organised and co-ordinated enough to do that!

As it is I content myself with the scribble signature (neater than the one I got post-Love's Labour's Lost) and as I say "thank you for making this such a great birthday for me" to which he replied in joyful tone "awh, it's your birthday today? Very happy birthday to you!" which pretty much topped off the day just right.* and **

Video proof I have a terrible memory is posted separately.

I could - and perhaps should - have stayed in place, got some photos; hell, even tried to get one for myself.... but ever considerate and aware of the 3-deep behind me, I pulled back saying to those around me "I'm done, let someone else through" which at least one (shorter) woman behind audibly acknowledged.

So, from a day that started with two women presenting the Today programme on Radio 4, through to seeing friends, through to the play itself (Neil loved it btw - good job: he's back in two weeks), and THEN the aftermath.... AND rescued episodes of Doctor Who.... (am sure David will have appreciated that as a nice omen) .... *SQUEE!!!!*

Well, who cares that I had to go to work?  Giddy just about describes the emotions, and my hands were shaking (the cold I tell you) as I tried to text update my gang of friends.

And here's the proof btw!

*A friend asked me about the birthday greeting exchange, thinking me/someone else had told Tennant in advance it was my birthday and the remark from him had been spontaneous.  If it had been, I think I may just have passed out there and then!

**What can I say - my brain was in freefall at getting a happy  birthday. Edited for video proof accuracy as oopposed to my giddy "what happened there?!" Brainfail.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

A Cultural Day Saturday 5 October 2013: RSC Candide (Swan Theatre) and Derby Folk Festival (Derby Assembly Rooms)


Neil and I both studied Voltaire's Candide on our A204 Enlightenment course with the Open University.  So with Mark Ravenhill at the helm, we were rather intrigued by the prospect of an RSC production revisiting Voltaire's satire on optimism (an apt topic in this jaded period of optimism within austerity, as UK chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne would have it).

The RSC do a fine job with Ravenhill's take on Candide - which uses plays within plays, 'real' characters revisiting their past selves, and modern re-engagements with the moral and philosophical debates Candide first explored.

As the RSC site says "This performance includes strong language, violence and reckless optimism." Well, kinda.  There is certainly a lot of humour - both bawdy (as one might expect, nay, require from a Ravenhill project) and cerebral (as he ably proved before in his new translation of Brecht's Life of Galileo and which had a Rullsenberg review in March 2013). Optimism is in contrast harshly slain and interrogated, and rightly so.

Like the novel, it is both disturbing and provocative.  The violence in it (especially in the 'Sophie's party' sequence which brings the problems of optimism into the present day) is archly beautiful, with streamers of red ribbons exploding in slo-mo strobe-lit style like so much blood and guts.  It is black, and red with political destruction.

Am struggling to embed the video but try this RSC Cast interview for Candide.

We both loved it and found it a stimulating (and brilliantly short) play - it rounds off well inside 1 hour and 45-50 mins (Matinee kicked off at just after 1:15pm and we were out by 3pm),

Heartily recommended and runs until 26 October 2013 at the Swan theatre, Stratford on Avon.

Derby Folk Festival

The Folk Festival at Derby has been around for ages, but we've only dabbled in its glories.  It was a big ask to drag my poorly foot to Derby yesterday, but despite the pain it was worth while.  I'd have liked to have fitted in Leyla McCalla for today (Sunday) but I don't think I'll be able to walk the rest of the week if I drag myself out and about for another day before work,


Anyway: last night had glories enough to suffice.

1) April Verch band
My word, this woman is talented.  With Cody Walters and Hayes Griffin to accompany her, the band create a glorious bluegrass sound, and so much more.  Her singing is one thing, but her feet and fiddle-playing are quite out of the world,  She twirls and taps, and she can even play the fiddle at the same time as a real highlight.  A live act treat, but a sound worth pursuing.

2) Melrose Quartet
(Or the Marmosets as I kept calling them in my head - no, I don't why)

Apparently of serious folk royal blood stock, from the UK and Australia, these offered four part harmonies of breathtaking quality and musicianship of the highest order.  I felt giddy by the end of their set - especially as the band will be taking a break now for at least 6 months whilst one of their number gives birth (with just 4 weeks to go when they performed last night, there were the obligatory warning for the tables nearest the stage to practice 'catch').

3) Dervish
The headline act didn't come until about 10.30pm at which point if we had wanted to catch a bus home, we'd have already have had to leave.  Never mind - a taxi ride was worth the wait.  An Irish band of great talent with a crackingly characterful lead singer in the form of Cathy Jordan, whose tales and between-song banter was delightfully entertaining.

With April Verch happy to come up in front of the stage to demonstrate again her deliciously fleet-footed tapping skills, the evening ended with happiness clapped around the venue.  I'd have danced if it wasn't for the fact I can barely walk...


Thursday, October 03, 2013

On planning ahead

It has to be said that at the moment the issue of 'planning ahead' is feeling rather raw. We're in October and it seems like no time since February when the frantic ticket booking for Richard II. Now that's patently 'planning ahead' on a somewhat ludicrous basis.

At the other extreme, a new policy (semi-predicted in advance but not 'formalised' or notified beyond direct circle) was decided on the Thursday 19th before implementation on the Monday 23rd (and which has since already been 'clarified' - aka changed - twice).

Now these are clearly extremes, but my instinct leans to the former for clarity over the latter. I would sooner know stupid time in advance than at the last minute. I'm not anti-spontaneity,  but time and place and sensible predictions people are likely to smooth my responses.

So I do get rather irritable at the tendency of others (I hasten, not anyone I know online but rather IRL friends and contacts) who will persist in last-minute invitations.  You know what, we usually have a good time if we can go at short notice,  but by lordy it gives me the cranky to know you clearly knew about and/or had been planning for an event for weeks and only thought to invite us the day before.

I can get myself in the mood, gear myself up for social interaction,  if I know about it in advance. I can manage my workload ahead of the event so I'm not trashed before going. But if I'm just landed on with an invitation my instinct is going to go into hyper-crank mode ranting about the lack of notice.  There's transport to sort and crucially FOOD. And a cranky HUNGRY Lisa is not a socially pleasant Lisa to have around you.

I'm just saying.