I generally kick off this term (Cambridge theatre runs much to a routine) with the European Theatre Group bringing their recently returned production back to the ADC. But, alas, that vile January weather kept me away from this year's Shrew; so I simply record here that, on the hearsay evidence of the present regular critic for the Cambridge News whom I met at the first night of the Marlowe (see below), it was reputed a good one.
The Marlowe Society were back in their traditional Spring slot at the Arts, with a Much Ado directed by Carl Heap, whom I recall as a long-since lead actor with the fine Mediæval Players. He provided one of those most enjoyable student theatre evenings: a good, brisk, consistent (apart from one anomaly, of which more presently), well-spoken, well-acted version, in which all understood the mores and the motivations. The sort of widespread talent, always there in a good student body if you look for it, was instanced in the well rehearsed and conducted live musical ensemble of Messinan citizens. A production, in short, of the sort to do the company much credit.
Máirin O'Hagan most movingly followed Hero's changes of fortune, and hence of mood, and I was taken with Joe Bannister's laid-back but commanding stage presence and dignity in the not-all-that promising or rewarding part of Don Pedro. The priority of the naming of the characters in the programme suggests that Mr Heap regards the Beatrice-Benedick intrigue, rather than the up-and-down Hero-Claudio courtship, to be the main plot: Giulia Galastro and Nick Ricketts filled the parts well, striking the requisite sparks off one another ~~ though I couldn't myself understand why her key line "Kill Claudio", played earnest but deliberately slightly matter-of-fact and throwaway, should have got a laugh; it seemed perfectly well-judged and moving to me.
Costuming was sort of early C20 European mainly: matching Ruritanian uniforms for the male campaigners, peasanty blouses and full calf-length skirts for the ladies. But (and here comes that rather odd detail that so threw me) why was Leonato, authoritative Governor of Messina, exemplar to his community, loving father and uncle, suffered to appear so underdressed throughout, without ever a costume change, in the most peculiarly informal of garments? ~~ not even the "smart-casual" of the sort I was recently enjoined to wear on a press party invitation, but positively and absolutely scruffy!, the only description I can find. Surely they might at least have found him a tie to put on for his daughter's wedding!
But, not to end on a sour note, let me say again that it was one of those creditable student productions, even if I don't think I identified an obvious up-and-coming Jacobi or McKellen or Thompson this time round. You don't get one of those all that often. And indeed you never know anyhow: I recall not being all that impressed by Stephen Fry the first few times.
And, talking of being thrown: my admiration for Cheek-by-Jowl and their most gifted director Declan Donnellan will be familiar to any of my regular readers; but I found myself, to say the least, not a little ambivalent about their Macbeth, opening its tour at the Arts. So many of those trade-mark manifestations of theirs crowded upon us that it felt at times as if they were teetering on the verge of self-parody. Here were the wilful juxtapostions: the speech muttered or murmured or thrown away, alongside the histrionic striking of attitudes and gathering in contrived tableaux and wealth of extravagant hand-gesture of the type more associated with Peking Opera. All those so-predictable absent murderers:~ wouldn't you just know that Banquo and the Macduff family would fall to invisible assassins. Not, by a long chalk, that they were the only invisibles ~~ invisible blood, invisible wounds, invisible weapons and armour, invisible witches (and alas no cauldron-scene), invisible dancers of an invisible reel (followed, affording some relief, by an actual quite lively one performed by its courtly audience to the playing of an onstage fiddler; but otherwise none of those arresting touches like the spanking-whore Bianca and the giggling Desdemona and Emilia that so fleshed out their Othello seven years ago ); and there was one mime, or handling of some invisibles, that I couldn't interperet at all; what were they both supposed to be doing as Macbeth and Lady sat at opposite ends of a table after Banquo's ghost's appearance as he announced his intention to revisit the Weird Sisters? ... Balanced by some unaccountable visibles: the Queen present and clearly tangible to her husband whilst notionally dying offstage, and a Macduff to his family likewise while he was supposedly in England; plus an almost ever-present gathering of eavesdropping thanes perversely earwigging the most inward of soliloquies or most private of family moments or most confidential of medical consultations as the Queen sleepwalked.
There were compensating virtues, of course: Anastasia Hille admirable as always when permitted by the concept; Will Keen with many moments of moving dignity and troubled reflection; David Collings as a worried but sceptical Doctor. But overall it was as if they were determined To Test Our Willing Suspension Of Disbelief To The Very Utmost. I'm not sure I passed.
The ADC do a Spring musical at their eponymous theatre every year. It was West Side Story this time, so I can notice it, as it is, as you will surely know if you are past very first youth, a 1950s reworking of R&J, in terms of NY gang rivalries between indigenous [i.e. largely second-generation Polish] youths and recent teenage arrivals from Puerto Rico: book by Arthur Laurents, with Leonard Bernstein's music, Stephen Sondheim's lyrics (one of his earliest efforts), and choreography by Jerome Robbins. As student musicals go, this was a most acceptable effort, blessed in a Tony (the Romeo character) who could really sing (Will Karani) and an Anita (Argyro Nicolaou) who could really dance and act. They were all OK, indeed, though accents were sometimes a trifle OTT so comprehension was not absolutely 100%. Nevertheless, directors Pippa Dinnage and Sarah Ward had efficiently drilled their big company to keep things moving; the comic moments ("Gee Officer Krupke"; "I Like To Be In America") amused as always, the balletic fights were exciting, and the tragic bits moved as they ought. Altogether a most creditable and worthwhile evening.
Headlong's Dream which toured to the Arts was a curious piece of work. Director Natalie Abrahami is one who likes to underline aspects with 'modern' analogues ~ so that, for instance, Oberon's train were cowboys and Titania's were Indians ~ but nothing particular seemed to be done with such concepts. Above all, an entire obtrusive framing device, whereby the whole play was being performed by the cast of a 1930s Hollywood romance in the break following a wrap in shooting, came over to me as more distracting and confusing than particularly enlightening. Sure, MND shares many of the same dramatic values as that genre; but again, this was just presented rather than effectively interpreted, leading to more of a reaction of "Why?" than of "Ah!". It didn't quite gel; just felt a bit odd.
Within these self-imposed constraints, quite a good comedy came across. I was sorry to find the workmen robbed of their job-titles, especially as the "rude mechanicals ... Athenian stalls" line was retained; and the doubling necessities, always a problem when it comes to the Play scene, were solved here by making poor old Quince (nice performance, along with good Egeus, by David Shaw-Parker) do all the Wall, Moonshine, Lion bits; pity to have lost his Prologue too. When they forgot all the distractions and just got on with it, quite a fair interpretation emerged, in which I liked the dignified and commanding Theseus/Oberon of Justin Avoth, the camp Kenneth·Williams-ish Bottom of Christopher Logan, Sandy Grierson's post-Groucho Puck, and one of the best, funniest Thisbes I can recall from Michael Dylan.
And so into the Easter Term: a Romeo and Juliet by the ADC, directed by John Haidar. I said of his debut production of The Alchemist that he was one of those ideas men out to make an impact. Sometimes they work, sometimes not. To start at his interestingly conceived climax: the ghosts of the lovers arise in a strobe and watch a film of bits of their relationship projected in b&w on the back wall: a fair idea at that, but could have actually worked better ~ the film wasn't all that clear (neither, to digress a moment, was all the speech throughout, despite some good, if uneven, attempts at characterisation). Strobe was certainly appropriate here; but I felt the previous use of it, for some of the fighting for instance, had somewhat upstaged what could have been a good surprise effect: one of those times when less might have been more perhaps? I remarked before that Mr Haidar might sometimes be too anxious to make an impact to have entirely worked the rationale through.
The production, as so often happens, I thought at its best when more understated. I found the balcony scene striking, with Phoebe Haines' matter-of-fact delivery effectively moving; though this was not something to please all tastes ~~ I did hear it said that she lacked passion, so there you are for a bit of de gustibus. Mr Haidar drew Romeo's attention to her by giving her a Billie Holliday song from the 1940s, "Gloomy Sunday", to sing at the ball as a bit of a divertissement; very enjoyable, as she has a lovely voice (a classical singer, it says here, trained at Royal College of Music), so I don't complain, but some might think it just another bit of otiose directorial put-in (though of course the song, originally Hungarian I learn from Wikipedia, does have a strong thematic 'suicide-for-love' proleptic appropriateness, at that.) The same commentator as cited above would have liked more explicit loving feeling in her relationship with Nick Ricketts's Romeo, though again I thought the relationship worked OK. Mr Ricketts was at his best in his moments of bloodstained anger (and a word of praise here for Daniel Summerbell's striking fight arrangements).
Of the rest, the stand-out was Abi Tedder's Nurse; fine comic timing, but poignantly emotional where required. George Potts's Friar Laurence had a good sardonic edge in his earlier scenes and rose well to his crucial role in the climactic explication (as also did Hugh Wyld's Benvolio). Keeping Mercutio's facetious excesses within bounds is a problem for any actor; Joey Batey did as well as anyone ever can, and had a particularly well-judged drawn-out death.
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