Category Archives: The Arts

A MARVELLOUS ‘MARIACHI’ MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

“Let wonder seem familiar” says Charlie De Melo’s magisterial Friar Francis, and Matthew Dunster’s superbly original production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe Theatre should be made familiar to as many people as possible. It’s wonderful.  The steamy snort of a Mexican transport train starts it all, depositing the players before the Groundlings, straight out of the bloody peasant battles of Pancho Villa’s revolutionaries. His female rebels too though, those ‘Soldaderas’ of real history, sporting cartridge belts across their fiery breasts and giving a new voice to the women in the play.

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So Mariachi music, big hats and the threat of maracas, sets your nerves slightly on edge too, wondering if everyone is about to break into a sonnet form of Mejicano. Caramba! No need for nerves, or indeed an over worthy respect for the classical either, in an evening that turns into a visual and sensual feast. This utterly joyous, superbly colourful production is so inventive, so alive and so mercurial too, yet so true to Shakespeare’s themes and the possibilities of what after all is a very peculiar and rather problematic play – in those macho and murderous soldier’s attacks on Hero and the rest – you want to pull down the wall, impeach Donald Trump and get back to loving one another, or at least going to the theatre.

Dunster takes big liberties, sure, because now the malevolent, near Deus-ex-machine figure of Don John is a girl, Don Pedro’s nasty sister, wait for it, Juanita. Gender issues then, whatever they are, (having read my Shakespeare), are on the slab again, to remind us of Dunster’s much praised and hugely popular version of Cymbeline, which he re-styled Inogen.

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In fact, not having read the programme, thankfully, the Trump-Mexico-Wall frame, and Shakespeare uses the stitch-up term, with Dogs Berry the ‘watch’ in the form of Ewan Wardrop’s  swaggering, idiotic film director for the American Mutual Film Corporation, which made a real deal with Villa to film the lot, did not become really apparent until the second half.  When the hand cranked box-film cameras draped in US flags roll out and those poor beleaguered Mexicans all spit on stage at the filthy Americanos.

This production then, which never takes itself too seriously, is exactly the opposite of Dunster’s recent writing follies, with his adaptation of Dickens and A Tale Of Two Cities at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (see review below). Perhaps a battle there with the director Timothy Sheader. Namely the modern reinvention is not bolt on, as it certainly is there, or tub-thumping either. Instead it’s a wonderfully cheeky and liberated comic conceit, born  of pure instinct, but with thematic integrity behind it too, beautifully realised in Anna Fleischle’s sparkling designs, that frames and serves Shakespeare’s play perfectly and somehow frees up everyone, to both wonder and the familiar.

The actors are really allowed to get down to it then, or to double step floridly up to it, waving their Flamenco skirts at us and each other, or firing their six guns. The entire cast is superb, in a show that is all singing and dancing throughout. Well, an enchanting mix of clever new music by James Maloney, that serenades our swaying journey through that desperate kingdom of love, with nothing as clichéd as Mariachi, and some very beautifully sung ‘Shakespeare’ too.

As Dunster turns Aragon and Messina to Monterray and Durango and Dog Berry’s malapropisms become arrogant American mistranslations, mis-hearings or misunderstandings. Which are also the mistranslations of romantic movies themselves, or the desire to play it heroic.  Much Ado About Noting, the title may have been, noting being false rumour and gossip, which sets the stage beautifully for the black and white film footage, in an age before the talkies, that reveals the truth and reminds you the camera never lies, except in Hollywood.

Of course the play belongs to Beatrice and Benedick, smutty pun intended, performed with such feeling and fiery wit by Beatriz Romilly and Matthew Needham, who Dunster has directed before, to engage us in that ‘Merry War’ of the sexes.  Steve John Shephard is gorgeously arch and wickedly moustachioed as the potentially ambivalent Don Pedro, that patriarchal master of ceremonies and masks, supported valiantly by Marcelo Cruz’s excellent Claudio and Martin Marquez as a Leonato straight out of the Mendoza family in The High Chaparral. But at last the women come centre stage and with Doreen Blackstock’s whip-cracking attack on the men seated on their mimed horses as Antonia, never again so easily dismissed either.

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In this version too, with a dramatic shift towards female power, or nascent revolution, in Villas’ case thwarted and betrayed, yet set against the perpetually comic, almost Fist-Full-of-Dollars backdrop, Much Ado takes on a new pathos and a strange new symmetry too. Suddenly all the ironies, knots and limitations of this threateningly misogenistic soldiers’ play find a united thread, because a woman is liberated into malevolence too, in Juanita, the war out there joining with the war within, in a true dance of lovers. So clarifying just why the magician Shakespeare, working within the mores and male structure of his time, forces Anya Chalotra’s lovely Hero, a name of course ripe with heroic male connotations and hypocracies, to die for love and be reborn, or Claudio to publically mourn her, in the search for his magic and often revolutionary resolutions.

In that the religious context of the play, and Shakespeare’s own peculiar sanctity too, that ‘poet of marriage’ as Germaine Grier called him, is served beautifully by the hyper Catholic-Mexican period framing, the clever and beautiful tying-of-the-knot already undone, and the cult of the Virgin too, though Shakespeare’s is the cult of love.

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I found myself wondering too why men on stilts, with wire horse heads out of War Horse, or pistols fired at tin cans leaping like cucarachas, should so bring a sixteenth century play to life. One reason is that it’s just such fun, those train doors and windows used to lovely comic effect. But the other is that in the setting of the Globe, all the space used too, it’s almost as if you’ve stepped back five hundred years to that age of players and musicians, and that extraordinarily odd but also liberated time, linguistically and even socially, that breathes out of Shakespeare’s utterly instinctive genius.  It is pure directorial instinct too, serving the writer, and the actors, that has made this such a triumphant success.

David Clement-Davies went to Much Ado About Nothing courtesy of the Globe Theatre. The production runs until October 15h .  For tickets Click Here

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JO AllAN PR, REGENT’S PARK OPEN AIR AND WHY THEATRES START TO HANG THEMSELVES!

If the terrible production of a Tale of Two Cities is anything to go by (review below), something is wrong at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.   My own personal experience of it was not just having to sit through that busy evening though, unpaid, but my handling by the company’s so-called Public Relations people, Jo Allan PR.

Company of A Tale of Two Cities (2). Photo Johan Persson

At first I called the Box Office to try and get Press Tickets, to be given an email by a very helpful member of staff that simply didn’t work.  Then I was quickly fobbed off by Jo Allen PR over breazy reasons that successful productions don’t merit wide ranging Press Tickets, or that allocations were already full.  Except, after pressing, I heard a second Press Evening had suddenly been arranged for A Tale of Two Cities. I now realise it was probably because of a mounting sense of nerves about the show itself, that has been generally slated and in The Telegraph was recently called a clash of two egos, that of the writer Matthew Dunster and the Director Timothy Sheader. I wonder how many egos are at war.

I’m now furious though at further sloppy treatment, as sloppy as that production, first being put on the waiting list for Oliver Twist, but so rudely to hear nothing at all, then having to ask twice for Production photos. I seriously wonder if the reasons for it are deeply related in the culture of the place. Is it the great successes that the theatre has had in recent years, for the magical venue itself, and for Musical productions that have proved great commercial triumphs, that is making them generally so blasé? Or that violent commercialism everywhere is letting them ignore the spirit and work of serious writers and bloggers? To the point where only the voices of the major papers, and those Stars they give, merits proper PR handling, because everything is about platforms. Having worked in box offices too I know how oddly tickets and comps can be allocated.

Both the Globe and the RSC, and I have had little arguments with the RSC, say consistently how that kind of coverage and interest are important to them.  They usually prove it too, although of course they make necessary equations about the depth of the coverage, its commercial value and so on.  Jo Allan PR seems not remotely interested though in the quality of the reviews here, their seriousness, or their wider cultural value either, let alone showing any modicum of general courtesy.  Actually in PR.

I am not only indignant as a highly published and prize winning author, a journalist and also a blogger at the financially very foolish Phoenix Ark Press, which seeks and makes no profits at all. But because I must admit to a vaguely proprietorial interest in the Open Air theatre too, having aeons ago been House Manager there for two years, after training as an actor myself.  So what makes my blood boil, in being so casually dismissed by the Jo Allan PR girl, who I doubt has ever had the commitment to the Arts I’ve shown, in everything I have done, let alone swept the tiers and screwed in the bloody chairs where ‘her’ audience now put their bums on seats, is that they simply no longer care and so make only commercial equations.

Of course they must make money, of course the Arts are difficult and always underfunded too. But when theatres throw it all up for profit alone, or obvious coverage, then a company starts to lose its soul.  Because actually, and precisely what is wrong with the assumptions and easy politics in A Tale of Two Cities, it is not all just about money, or must not be, but the quality of thought, art, acting, interest and above all writing surrounding it all.  That’s what gives the Arts connection with an audience or indeed critics who can be as passionately hungry, engaged, or disappointed as they are.  Regent’s Park might well pause this season then to evaluate precisely what it is doing, what its wider values are too, or whether such PR people also deserve a little taste of the guillotine, or the rope. Perhaps I should go back and tell them!

David Clement-Davies is not invited to any other productions at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, so frankly won’t be going. The photo shows the cast on stage hanging themselves.

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A FAIL OF TWO CITIES – REVIEW

It’s heart may be in the best of places, but it’s only that magical Open Air setting that just about saves Matthew Dunster’s adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities from being the worst of times.  Three huge revolving blue cargo containers set the alienating modern scene in Regent’s Park, then hit you over the head with the message that those 18th Century emigreés from France’s Revolutionary Terror are now today’s tragic migrants on the borders of Brexit Britain, warning us of blood.

Claire-Louise Cordwell as Mdm Defarge. Photo Johan Persson

Meanwhile the implication that we are all on the unstoppable Super Tanker of the Nasty Rich is symbolised by the figure of Monseigneur, dressed like Elton John, riding the metal juggernaut of capitalist brutality through Paris, then and now, mowing down the peasants, so perhaps we’re all in this together. Not me, I’m afraid.  Call me an old bourgeois, and perhaps it was the sloppy treatment of a much-loved classic, but bring back Shakespeare, apparently now banished from those leafy groves forever.

With the play and programme notes throwing in anything from Donald Trump to Grenfell Tower to be relevant, when the story is so obviously relevant, we are served not with a real and potentially smouldering drama, but modulated in its scenes, moods and social levels, so allowing for various kinds of empathy and the grand build to that eventually thundering Dickensian social rhetoric. Instead we get a hefty kit pack of modern tricks, poor improvisation and lazy messaging, highlighted by images cast on two pointless screens referencing Teresa May, Trump, or weirdly the chariot race in Ben Hur. The show may have heart, but has had its head guillotined from the start, like the rubbery decapitation that signals the horror.

Nicholas Khan as Monseigneur. Photo Johan Persson

The production is as sloppy as its political assumptions too, for just as it is right and very timely to highlight traditions of British tolerance and legal protection, in a country once a proud refuge of the refugee, it also seems irresponsible to assert that there is some easy equation between The Terror that succeeded the French Revolution and religiously motivated Fundamentalist terrorist attacks in Manchester and London.  Or perhaps we need a  play truly dealing with Grenfell Tower, burning in London’s richest Borough, that does explore the relationship between poverty and the failure of social, religious and ideological integration and also made the Tower a centre of Muslim immigrants.

A Tale of Two Cities becomes more accessible in the second half,  and there is no doubt crusading Dickens could be a man to sound the crises of the hour. But in an exhausting splurge of ensemble acting, with ponderous chapter announcements to bring needed narration, and give supposed dramatic impact too, that just become irritating, I was left feeling how much this falls down in comparison to the RSC’s famous, astonishing production of Nicholas Nickleby, so it can be done well.

There actors were allowed to breathe, explore and bring to life the very texture of a rich Dickensian novel, his marvellous characters and language too, lost here in easy modern effings and blindings  and meagre narration.  The magical changing of clothes is the actors’ very art, which also involves the changing of class and status, of place as well, that tests or reveals their ultimate humanity. Precisely the point of a tale of two cities.  Here the over small cast are encouraged mostly to be the threatening mob, or the tragic and angry container victims, which is only one element of that story and itself can alienate. 

This has no subtlety then, and no real modulation of human experience either. Where too in Fly Davis’ designs are those Capitals of degradation but splendour as well, London and Paris, that  also created the comforts, ideals and intimacies of those essentially middle class heroes, the Manettes, but also attracted and attract migrants, political and economic, in the first place?

Nicholas Karimi as Sydney Carton. Photo Johan Persson

So to the conscious voiding of Dickens’ famous identity trope,  the physical similarity between Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, née Evremonde, that reviled name that suggests somewhere the world is ever thus, so securing Darnay’s release from court in England, on false charges of espionage. That was the political threat and paranoia here at the time. With a black and white actor, Jude Osuwu and Nicholas Karimi, who, though both good, look nothing like each other, it certainly serves the purpose of ensemble acting and insisting we are all human beings under the skin. The problem is it voids Dickens’ interest in the swings of fate, in character and in clever plotting, that help him describe the injustices and vagaries of real life, while ringing the human heart-strings.

In not even attempting to be convincing, or make it important though, suspending far too much disbelief, firstly it gives absolutely no chance for dramatic tension later. But so it comes to reflect the writer’s general laziness and lack of concern for presenting truly realistic and moving human relationships, in a deepening play that might make us really love and care about the fate of the characters. The encounter between Carton and Lucy Manette, for instance, Mariéme Diouf too wooden or just not given the script to capture Lucy Manette’s enormous courage and enduring loyalty for her father, just doesn’t earn its spurs. So it fails to persuade us of Carton’s redeeming love for Lucy, vulnerable in her fainting but no easy victim, and through her Darnay too, especially a love that could make the ultimate sacrifice for both of them.  Karimi’s performance is the best thing in the play, but if you are making points why not have a black look-alike play Sydney Carton instead?  As my companion said though, in the general meleé, if he had not known the story, he doubted he would have had a clue what was going on.

As importantly though, ignoring what happens in court and why, testing our credulity over it, voids one of Dickens’ novelistic obsessions, and an English obsession too, the imperfect but also necessary processes of Law, founded in vital aspects of fact and proof, of presumed innocence too, so dismantled to allow for the mechanism of The Terror in the first place. A process that has been true of Revolutions from Robespierre to Stalin and Pol Pot. Carton himself is after all a brilliant but disillusioned barrister, and it is not just the rage of the mob that threatens the characters, but malign human agency and lies in the figure of the paid double-agent Barsad pointing the finger. Just why that trick of identity – and eye-witness accusations are notoriously unreliable in Law – becomes so important.

Company of A Tale of Two Cities (1). Photo Johan Persson (1)

Moments are good, like the weary, tragic procession of immigrants on the revolve, falling by the wayside, or trying to find some kind of home. The final execution denouement just about works too and almost touches Dickens’ always eloquent humanity. Claire-Louise Cordwell, knitting those ultimately arbitrary and bloody revenges in Dickens’ brilliantly captured historical symbol, seen with a jourbalist’s eye, is a good actress,  though she doesn’t make Madame Defarge nearly nasty enough.  Patrick Driver is subtle as Dr Manet and works hard, Kervork Malikyan stands out as the loyal lawyer Lorry and Nicholas Khan makes an amusingly vile Monseigneur, but is underused. For a moment Sean Kernow’s angry description of a little girl’s death touches the agony of real poverty and pain that migrants and others experience here and around a world where sadly there are a lot nastier things out there than cargo containers.  

But over all, especially in a Brexit torn country that seems as confused as this production, in a world of the doubling inequalities of Super Capitalism since 2008, and with economists saying Brexit may not only make us irrelevant on a world stage but, by impoverishing, raise fear and mistreatment of immigrants further, frustrations not with the message but with the art make me misquote Wordsworth on Milton – “Dickens, wouldst thou were living at this hour, England has need of thee.” 

David Clement-Davies went courtesy of Regents Park Open Air Theatre. Timothy Sheader’s production of A Tale of Two Cities runs until August 5th.  For tickets Click Here

 

 

 

 

 

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INTRODUCING SOME GREAT, BIG AND VERY BEAUTIFULLY GEOGRAPHICAL TREES!

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They stand at the heart of that oddly adult Children’s Classic The Little Prince: The mighty Baobab trees.  The first I met, several in fact, bloomed wonderfully, grotesquely and inspiringly in the Kalahari, at the tourist camp in Botswana, Planet Baobab. The second was the sad sight of a fallen giant, the legendary Chapman’s baobab.  It tore apart and collapsed after the hottest day ever recorded in Botswana, for those Global Warming sceptics, on January 7th, 2016.  Much more to say on that, or Green’s baobab,  we sloshed over a kilometre to reach, through unusually waterlogged ground this February, with excellent rains this year in Botswana. But for the moment you can see some of the ideas, the Art and the ambition too around them in an article in Geographical Magazine, Just Click Here. It’s the start of a great adventure, and if you’re a traveller, a tree lover, indeed a tree hugger, or just like great stories, then do please Like, for more tales and blogs of the wonderful creatures.

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The photo is of a very healthy Chapman’s baobab in 2014. The second picture is a drawing by the artist Arabella Caccia.

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SUPPORTING THE KALK BAY ARTISTS!

Phoenix Ark are very proud to be supporting and promoting a group of four great artists in South Africa, who have founded a little Collective in Cape Town’s beautiful Kalk Bay, at The Kalk Bay Artists Collective. There Chris Bladen, Pete Strydom, Arabella Caccia and Jean Tiran now have their own workshops, but a lovely gallery space too, currently by invitation, to help support each other and to try and challenge the Gallery system too.

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Chris is a highly renowned fish and wildlife sculptor, whose almost scientifically realistic fish, birds and animals stem from his own love of sports fishing and the environment. They sell around the world.  He is also a superb jeweller. Pete is self taught, but his passion and wit ring out, and his sculptures range from gorgeous sunbirds to humorous modernist camels. Arabella is both award winning painter and sculptor whose work has auctioned at Southebys and, like all of them, is deeply inspired by nature and the shapes inside it, especially trees, to capture the vivid colours and forms of Africa. Jean Tiran is the Master Craftsman of the workshop, but also a wonderful abstract sculptor in his own right. To see them, their Mission Statement, their website and their work, just Click Here

Phoenix Ark and the artists are keen to build long term relationships with buyers, not least because work can be finished to detailed orders and editions.  Links to individual websites can be found by clicking above.  For International clients, even with the costs of shipping and tax, the work still represents considerable value. To contact them you can write directly here, to The Collective or to the artists individually, via the website.

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The Artists of Kalk Bay

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“Ya, artists of all kinds flock here” says Arabella Caccia, as we look down on the skillful little milk swirl paintings of some very convincing birds floating in the top of our cappuccino in Ohana café. A distant descendent of the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa Arabella tells me about the never so fraught life of South African painters and sculptors. Of course here it is as tough to survive, let alone make it, as it is for any artist, probably made more so for a white half-European like Arabella by the moves towards ‘decolonialisation’ that have dried up municipal commissions and been encapsulated by the recent ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaigns.

The difference being that as the little single rail metro train chuggs along the sparkling coastline, it’s commuter carrying coaches covered in garish graffiti, roughing it in Kalk bay, Cape Town is a much more pleasant place to do it than many. I have penetrated deep beyond the so called ‘lentil curtain’, south of the city toward the Cape of Good Hope, to visit what might be described as the Greenwich Village of Cape Town. It is just edging toward High Season when tourists descend to enjoy churning turquoise waves, cloud curled blue skies that turn every day into an impressionist painting, restaurants, coffee bars and the many curio, antique, art and souvenir shops that crowd the Main Street.

Like Africa, Kalk bay is a very colorful place, and some lively and appealing art work leaps out at the eye. The witty, highly glazed Greyson Perry style ceramic pots in the window of the gallery Agapanthus, one emblazoned with the jolly motto ‘Holy Shit’. The landscapes, portraits and abstracts that pop out of every window, like those of the appropriately named Artvark. The huge hammerhead shark ever flicking statically past the little Shark Centre, fashioned out of endless strips of galvanized tyre, and bolted together with a thousand screws – recession-beating stuff back in the day, considering the price of casting bronze. On street corners poor Africans try to compete with their touristy trinkets – animals fashioned from twisted wire, metal friezes of the townships crafted out of old coke and beer cans, and piles of bangles, bracelets and beads. They are an echo of the finer but also tourist orientated African artwork on sale on the roadside near tourist destinations; endless animal woodcarvings of giant giraffe, elephant  or hippos with seats for open mouths, but also the often very skilled polished stone carvings, also commonly on sale in places like Kirstenbosch botanical gardens.

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Considering how much is around, everywhere, you wonder how anyone makes a proper living, but then there are the more experienced fine artists like Arabella Caccia, or Andrei Stead, whose interesting sculpted human half-cutaways  being appreciated in the Christopher Moller Gallery in the centre of town. Nearby at the Everard Reid gallery they were celebrating their 20th anniversary by inviting a young curator to stage an exhibition that was all student-style installations and anguished videos that did not do it for me. They are places it is important for any artist to cultivate and yet with the very high percentages galleries take, perhaps Arabella and her colleagues and friends have come up with the perfect solution. Near always popular and very artsy Olympia café and bakery, that thrums with locals gorging on some of the best seafood in town, they now share studios, foundary and their own gallery too, a hopeful and enterprising solution to any artistic woes.

Four artists work out of the space, Arabella Caccia, bearded Jan Smutts look-alike Jean Tiran, his green motorbike parked in the forecourt, whose fine abstract bronzes and stone carvings also adorn the space, and who doubles as the bronze caster, patina specialist and master craftsman, and ex dentist Chris Bladen, who does some wonderfully realistic bird and fish sculptures. The whole place is owned by a former salvage diver Peter Strydom, whose often humorous bronzes add a fantasy element to the enterprise. Not yet open, their pieces already dot the airy main room, and adorn the long table where they plan to host several dinners to encourage interest. The problem for any artist is their engagement with their own work and unwillingness for the hard sell or to act in the role of gallery owner, even here, which is itself a full time job. Thus their mutually supporting enterprise is unlikely to replace the need to exhibit elsewhere too, while at times they do face the odd complaint from neighbors. The week before I had seen some of Arabella’s lovely symbolist sculptures in the beautiful gardens of Grand Provence winery in Franshoek, which is also showing her paintings in their dedicated gallery. But now their outfit at Kalk Bay is not only a great place to work and be, but a certain place to exhibit too.

Arabella Caccia, who until recently had her studio in her little garage at her home in Kalk bay, is clearly delighted with the new space, not least with the company and working with people she clearly likes. Art can be an isolated business. But now, achieving new success at places like Grand Province, and still hugely interested in the art scene in Central Cape Town, as well as galleries in London, New York and abroad, she is really able to spread her wings. “It’s freed me up for new ambitions and dreams,” she says as she gaffers a giant piece of artist’s paper to the wall, soon to be blooming with a livid Rothkesque red. Arabella has interest in many artistic forms, a firm believer in knowing the classical rules before you break them, and her wonderful oils of often isolated and ethereal yet also grounded woman provide a powerful contrast to the fine masculine sculptures in the gallery. But recently she has developed a series of images and colours she half jokingly describes as ‘visual Haikus’, inspired by her time in the Tsitsikamma forests east of Cape Town. In the forms of tree bark and flowers she is finding shapes not only echoed throughout nature, but also in human lettering itself. Formed into wax casts too by the crafts men and women in the attached workshops she is also turning the shapes into some highly original sculptures. If what I have seen in Kalk bay is anything to go by she and her colleagues are about to take wing.

The photos show the work of united artists Arabella Caccia, Jean Tiran, Chris Bladen and Peter Strydom in their new gallery space on Windsor Street, Kalk bay and work in progress in Arabella Caccia’s studio.

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A THRILLING, RAUNCHY ROVER, IF SOMEWHAT CAVALIER PRODUCTION

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Non-stop fun is the stamp of Loveday Ingram’s exuberant, and very sexy production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover for the RSC, in the perfectly proportioned Swan Theatre, Stratford. Complete with hysterical Flamenco forays, touches of tango, a stilt walker, and excellent on-stage band. With a Conchita Wurst look-alike, the bearded lady boy among a tranch of devil masks, in what is very nearly The Rover – The Musical, I half expected someone to break out into Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.

Except Naples is the setting for the late 17th Century Restoration play, at Carnival, to turn everyone’s Worlds upside down, then restore them to the same old cynical order. A steely 1920’s cast-iron stairwell backs the simple set, to represent both the keys to the Kingdom and the Whorehouse, in a very hard world, and for the arrival of four exiled English Cavaliers led by Belvile and our particular Don Giovanni, Millmore: Very possibly modelled on the notorious Earl of Rochester, he who penned poems about dildos and things and died at 33 of booze, syphilis, and genius. This production is good Karma, with The Libertine about Rochester’s life on at the Theatre Royal in London, and Millmore is played with wonderful gusto and skilled comic timing by Joseph Millson, giving a tour de force performance he revels in.

From the moment the Prologue is given to the charming and excellent Faye Castelow though, playing Millmore’s equal-to-be, Helena, so that we really know this play was written by a woman, indeed the first English female dramatist and also a spy in Antwerp for Charles II, we are in safe directorial hands. A knowing self-awareness breathes through all the strong performances, that liberates everyone to many kinds of play. Since Millmore is trying to play fast and loose with every pretty woman that meets his eye, so the director’s cuts have played loose too and streamlined things well, if you wonder if cries of “Mummy” or “Kinky” are quite 17th Century.

Then they have gone for knockabout comedy, and ad libs too, including some great audience interaction, not least when Millmore is drunk, that always delights a crowd. If turning a line about old men and impotence on a greying member of an audience that seemed predominantly over sixty might have been a bit close to the bone! No pulling of punches here then, in the lusty manhood stakes. The climax, with an explosion of rose petals from the ceiling, nearly had people up and dancing on their feet and crutches.

This Rover certainly underplays the darker side of Behn’s play, based on one by Thomas Killigrew, where even the finest women could hardly avoid being labelled Wife, Nun, or Whore. The shadows grow in the story of the very funny and then nasty Blunt, the stuttering English Gent with his hand on the purse strings, played wonderfully by Leander Deeny, who is gulled by a prostitute, described in the original cast list as a ‘jilting wench’, into believing he has found true love. There is little time in life’s seething energy for his brand of hurt though, his hatred of being laughed at, so he is driven off stage in the first half by the semi-demonic revellers. Only to return demonically himself in the second half on the edge of doing something very nasty indeed, where a comedy edges toward potential tragedy, to remind us what can happen in the real world.

What is revolutionary in Aphra Behn, and so provides the explosive energy of poetry and thought throughout, is her ‘feminism’ is no mere complaint about manly men, hate of them either, but a cry for woman to be equal in all. Or at least her and Millmore, since by the end you do believe the pair on stage have found their true match. Thus it is two sisters and their kinswoman who set the plot in true motion too, as Florinda longs for Belvile and Helena refuses to disappear into a nunnery. So, disguised as gypsies, they hit the town like the Cavaliers and paint it red.

The main plot sees the honourable Belvile trying to find his lady, against the machinations of the nasty foreigners trying to arrange marriages, and along with a joke about drawing the longest sword, a Toledo blade, a pair of splendid guilded boxer shorts appear, belonging to a very good Don Pedro, endless filthy double entendres ensue, and there’s even a burst of Rule Britannia. The secondary plot involves the Courtesan Angellica Bianca, and since Behn lived when the theatre was very close to the brothel, perhaps reflecting her own initials and sentiments too, who falls for lusty Millmore. Alexandra Gilbreath is both moving and funny as the whore who gives her ‘virgin heart’ away, to no avail. Though a special mention for her slinking side-kick in a bowler, Alison Mckenzie’s knowing Moretta, who gives a nod to Joel Gray’s compere in Cabaret. This is a world that in truth seethed with violence, sex and fear, where a true Courtesan might make much of herself, but the whore and the poor always paid the price in the end, although Blunt shows men can be victims too. Though since Behn was a Royalist – the play is also called The Banish’d Cavaliers – it is Millmore’s poverty, along with his wit and courage, that gives him his nobility and wins him the prize; not only Helena, but her lovely fortune.

You can read reviews of King Lear and Cymbeline below.  David Clement-Davies

The photo shows Faye Castelow and Joseph Millson as Helena and Millmore in the RSC’s production of Aphra Behn’s The Rover, in the Swan Theatre Stratford. Copyright Ellie Kurttz.

 

 

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CYMBELINE FINDS HER TIME, OR BRITAIN ALSO LOSES THE PLOT?

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Thanks to the RSC, and Gillan Doran’s wonderfully ambitious programme for the 400th anniversary, not least for bringing me to a play I’d never even read, Cymbeline. Despite a sinking heart opening the programme to see a picture of Dave Cameron, and a journalist lecturing on about Brexit and why after being neglected for so long this is a play that has at last “found its time.” Hmmm. Shakespeare is always profoundly politically attuned, though better at exposing the imperatives and mechanisms, the nasty guts, than being didactic or ever lecturing. Was the graffiti on the concrete wall then, along with the programme’s nod to Banksi, or an anguished model of a Refugee boat, to make us suffer a Referendum all over again? I think the real irritation is that for nearly three and a half hours it had me imagining Gillian Bevan’s stout, very capable Cymbeline, part Britannia, part Boudicca, as Theresa May, (with respect, a bit of a look-alike), or is that Theresa-may-not? Not that Bevan is at all Lilly livered, and now I know Cymbeline means Cymbeline and there we are!

As for their Brexits, or their Entrances, in a proudly multi-cultural cast, what also irritated is directors (now trendily called Creatives at the RSC) thinking that a lot of running on and off stage and gabbling difficult lines passes either for theatrical energy or realism. Though when the actors settle into thinking and feeling through the words and poetry, there are some excellent performances. Not least from Bethan Cullinane as Cymbeline’s much tested daughter Innogen, the black actor Markus Griffiths as a very funny Cloten, James Clyde’s excellently malevolent Duke, and the Irish actress Jenny Fenessy throwing off the tyranny of the poor understudy to play Pisania, while a treasure chest of language is thrown open.

Jokes aside, busy director Melly Still it is quite right to suggest Brexit’s relevance, since Shakespeare was born out of the trauma and liberation of a disintegrating Christendom, (a reason today’s violent Religious and Scientific divides  or Terrorism might be even more pertinent), if Europa was a word and concept only just emerging at the time. As still Top Monarch, Queen Bess, who made a lot of cash from Hawkin’s African nastiness, and thugs like Francis Drake, saw the loss of any kind of Empire in France, though viciously trying to plant Ireland. While King James mooted but failed to achieve a Union with Scotland. So how did Britain really thrive and invent herself? By putting money in everyone’s purses, well those at the top, from little London, and ruling the waves elsewhere, away from the internecine battles  erupting in Europe. Oh brave New World.

You can argue then that much of Shakespeare is also inevitably about the very writing of a new English Imperial identity, if only through the most glorious expression of the English language. The world’s centre of Gravity was certainly shifting violently though by 1600, in a moment that probably did define how Globalisation and Capitalism would develop and which has not seen an equivalent sea change until now. It’s not just Brexit, of course, but how the Internet is probably the equivalent of the Printing Press revolution. Perhaps Shakespeare is a bit to blame then, at least for that outburst by Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg limply invoking tigers, to give Cameron a prod. I think Henry V is about the conscious manufacturing of a powerful new political rhetoric, soon adopted by the ‘Establishment’.  Even as a once far more intimate Monarchy separated itself from the lower orders, and banished honest Jacks to the bilges and top sails, it conquered half the World, with planting, privateering trade and slavery, and owned it for a very long time indeed.Is that what modern Breixteers want? Not of course that Bill did all this alone, bless him. The Virginia Company was founded in the year the Globe went up on Bankside, 1599, just opposite that walled fortress of London, still a Global epicentre today in UK PLC, and the little Tudor cannons of the terrifyingly powerful and private East India Company were bristling from a fort in Madras by 1607.

That year Shakespeare’s youngest brother Edmund died at just 27, an actor too, and his daughter Susanna was married in Stratford. While ‘savages’ were attacking the new fort at Jamestown, King James’s town, and a little merchant ship called the Red Dragon, Henry Tudor’s badge, did performances of both Hamlet and Richard II off the coast of Sierra Leone. Britain had truly set to sea, and it was coming back in bucket loads. For hundreds of years the scholarly Establishment claimed that record had to be a forgery though, because the Common Man could not possibly understand their Bard, if still stuffing him down School children’s throats. To improve us all and claim Shakespeare was essentially Conservative and there’s nowhere like an England!

If we think Euromillions is an innovation though, the first free standing lottery was launched in 1612 to help colonise Virginia, soon taken up by all thirteen original Colonies, to give very early origins to that ‘American Dream’. Talking of which, having a snack in Café Rouge before the show I’d opened The Times to read with even more sinking heart that the usually balanced and liberal Matthew Paris had just suggested we toughen up on the asylum rules by suggesting what constitutes danger should now only be the threat of Death! Then that Donald Trump was ahead in the bell-weather State of Ohio, invoking the example of Brexit. If we think our own Liberal sentiments (or not) can sway US Politics though, when people were asked to email Americans to complain, they got some very rude replies indeed, about being stupid, Lilly-livered Brits and worse.

A little credence then to the relevance of the traumatised Brexit line, four centuries on, although the production has faced much criticism. Some slack too in Ms Still peopling a Roman court with Mafiosi Eurotrash in lounge suits, sipping cocktails and speaking in Italian, translated onto big screen sur titres, that then translate Latin too, when the big Romans claim their imperial tributes from the smelly Britains. Who dares to translate the greatest translator and interpreter of them all – Shakespeare? Well, Melly Still! That rather heavy handed moment is about the river of history, peoples and languages that made Britain and which Shakespeare’s astonishing English emerged from too. The first dictionary was only printed in England in 1604 and Shakespeare is profoundly a Renaissance writer. While to set us up for losing our heads, the set is dominated by a tree stump, in a glass box, perhaps to echo the production of King Lear. The rest is as hip, with film, and part concrete and vegetative back revolves, to suggest Nature will always break on through, complete with images of modern Rome’s Empire-littered streets and Dad’s Army Invasion maps to have you suddenly asking – Who D’yer Think Yer Kidding?

Actually I should underline that Cymbeline is a tragi-comedy. So to any grasp I got on the plot, untangling which might win you Brain of Britain. Cymbeline’s daughter Innogen and Posthumus are star crossed lovers, or most crossed by Cymbeline, so Posthumous has to flee abroad. There, boasting of Innogen’s love and fidelity, he is tested by Oliver Johnstone’s excellent Iachimo, who travelling to Blighty, as Rome seeks tribute, emerges from a chest in her bedchamber to discover Innogen asleep, nick her bracelet, and spy a starry mole by her breast, rude fellow. So being able to trick Posthumous into believing he has done the act of darkness and Innogen is false. Like Michael Gove Iachimo pays Manhood’s price later, when the War of Men without Women erupts into horror, or is that Boris Johnson?

There is a tangle of poison that isn’t poison and lots of people trying to bump each other off, like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. As Cymbeline revolts against Rome, Innogen flees to the forest, to encounter an exiled General good-of-heart, Graham Turner’s splendid Belarius, and her kidnapped brother and sister, Arveragus and Guideria, emphasising all the healing Nature virtues, and played very well by James Coonie and Natalie Simpson, especially Simpson as Guideria. Though in the tangle of tree roots or Brain-stem ganglia they first appear swinging from, and the whooping hunting cries, perhaps nicking far too much from Avatar. Mind you, did you see that article in the Sunday Times about tree roots being connected and talking to each other, even nurturing or throttling their young, in this global world of ours? With a very peculiar dream Mask, when Jupiter is invoked, to explain the meaning of names via a prophecy, everyone loses identity in going to war, or finds their manhood, though the Brits win, but still need a Cultural head, so pay tribute to Ancient Rome. So Cymbeline ends with the most astonishingly uncomfortable series of resolutions, more than any in Shakespeare, that had many laughing aloud, including me.

Cymbeline is certainly about a crisis of identity, but it sits not at all in Shakespeare’s overtly Historical or straight political plays. It comes among the later Romances, like Pericles, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, when politics, life and suffering had probably confounded the Bard a great deal and he turned his hand to achieving effects through acts of artistic magic. Perhaps his brother Edmund’s tragic death was influential in that sea change. Pericles was written in 1607, for instance, all about incest and lost daughters, but with a family crest that shows a withered branch only flowering at the top. It may be more true though that rather than Cymbeline not being popular for centuries because we had an Empire now, imposing its own tributes, it is because it is a very easy plot to lose. Melly Still throwing the baby and the bath water at it hardly simplifies, or leaves us quite knowing how to vote either. Even if Jacob Rees-Mogg should be told that despite the Histories, most of Shakespeare’s plays are set in interesting foreign and Renaissance climes. I thoroughly enjoyed Cymbeline though and it did not drag for a moment, though the bloke playing the School Master at the new Edward VI museum, backed I think by Mr Gove, told me, rightly or wrongly, it originally ran to five hours! Enjoyed it because just when you’re wondering how Cloten, chasing after Innogen, can get away with possibly being Posthumous in his very ill fitting clothes, so to trick Innogen into believing her lover is dead, his beheading by Guideria is almost hysterical. While Innogen’s burial, then waking to mistaken grief, and true horror, is probably one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen in the theatre. Not least too because Shakespeare, inventing everything, even comes up with the phrase “Brain of Britain”!

 The photo is from the RSC’s rather startling and controversial production of Cymbeline, directed by Melly Still, showing a disguised Posthumous going to war with the Romans, as everyone wrestles for their identity and they try to shake us over Brexit.  Photo Copyright Ellie Kurttz. Ticket courtesy of the RSC Stratford on Avon.

 

 

 

 

 

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FINDING NEW GEMS IN THE STRATFORD-SHAKESPEARE CROWN

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It was the woman at the New Place ticket office grudgingly lending me a cheap biro, then sourly commenting that not even the Birthplace Trust staff get discounts from the RSC, that had me wondering how everyone really rubs up together in little and hugely over-commercialised Stratford-Upon-Avon.  The house on Henley Street is at the centre of it, Shakespeare’s family house, and the shop where John was a whittawer, a maker of expensive white leather gloves, though the name The Birthplace does give the Bard the gravity of some kind of British Secular Christ.  But the Birthplace Trust are the chief Guardians of Shakespeare’s historical and physical legacy, running, with Royal backing, his house, the archive, and several properties, from New Place to  Hall’s Croft, Anne Hathaway’s House and Mary Arden’s farm.

“The Jewel in the Crown” of all Shakespeare exhibits around the world is how the reopening of New Place is described, highly ambitiously, in the bumf. New Place being the site of the house Shakespeare bought in 1597 for around £120 (I thought it was sixty) and the second largest in Stratford.  The house is no longer there, though the gardens are, where that mulberry tree was, until it was cut down.  It now has a smart new wooden entrance, where Bill’s front door was,  and sculpture park, I’m afraid I found rather fey and underwhelming, with lots of weather veins and things. Though I liked the Shakespeare Processional frieze, if I think that there already. There is also a new walk through-exhibition and shop in the Jacobean house next door, that belonged to Thomas Nashe.  That isn’t at all bad, with the odd little period object in drawers about the place and good time lines to make it interactive, though very much designed for kids and families, to bring ’em in. Well, the folk in the shop, where you can buy imitation jewellery for £75 and £140, were pleased that since opening in August his year it has topped its target of 12,000 visitors.  Though I was annoyed at the door that tickets, which let you into several properties, are £17 but you cannot buy individually.  So you can make a deal out of the merciless Shakespeare industry that has developed,  if you get it right. The foodies were trying to get it right that weekend, with a three-day event of global cuisine, at the reinstated Food Festival in tents around the town, and a bright red Pimms teapot. While a Michaelmas fair at Mary Arden’s farm, my favourite in terms of hockey recreations of Shakespeare’s living world, had mummers, cider makers, basket weavers, archers, falconers and a fellow with a splendid eagle owl to delight the wide-eyed kids.

But for me the real jewels in the crown, if not owned by the Birthplace Trust at all, came just over the way from New Place. First was the splendid little Guild chapel, just across the road, I had never seen before and Shakespeare must have known very well indeed. Since the medieval Catholic frescoes have been somewhat uncovered, with excellent placards to explain and recreate, it perfectly elucidates Andrew Graham Dixon’s point in the programme to the RSC’s King Lear (see review below), about England being culturally and visually blinded in the Puritan whitewashing of images, so giving space to the explosion of the secular word to make us see again, or in a different way.

How thrilling though to stumble next door on Chapel street into a brand new exhibit, The King Edward VI School Museum.  I had often walked past, hoping to catch an imaginative glimpse at Shakespeare’s shining morning face, because he was very probably educated here, six days a week, from 6am to 6pm, for seven years, if his real education was a pastoral one, in life and nature.  So perhaps were his brothers Edmund, Richard and Gilbert. What better way to start to understand the man, and with a very mature exhibit?  Lo and behold, the grammar school itself, given royal charter in Edward VI’s brief reign, one of those 120 or so that still exist, with more mooted by Theresa May, and which is a State funded free school, have, with the help of a million and a half from the Lottery Fund, just opened the place up to pedagogy, or lovely private enterprise. Modern pupils still have morning lessons there too.

It is exceptionally well done, a beautiful building, with positive comments from theatrical luminaries like Sir Ian Mckellan blazoned on the wall, a great little film by the always infectious historian Michael Woods, in the old counting house, very welcoming staff and none-invasive but interesting touch screen displays. Upstairs in the schoolroom even a very knowledgeable Magister, in costume, to tell you about how they learnt Latin and Greek, though I’m not at all sure Shakespeare would have had fluent Latin, sat not at desks but opposite each other, and had to learn things by rote.  Quite enough to make any young Shakespeare play truant and run off to the grounds of Charlcotte to hunt deer, or to London to become the greatest and raunchiest playwright that ever lived. The Bard of course, that “upstart crow”, never went to University, unlike Robert Greene or Kit Marlowe, but still topped them all.  Probably one of the reasons people come up with their snobbish Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon theories, though what would it do to the Stratford gold mine if it was ever proved?

Still part of the modern school, that has created a trust to preserve and open the building, it is really the epicentre of the historical town too. For here before the Reformation was the Guild of the Holy Cross, that turned into the town council, one Shakespeare’s father John sat on, for all his naughty dealings.  Where a court was held too, downstairs, and upstairs perhaps professional players had to perform before snooty aldermen to get a licence. I say perhaps because with lack of records a deal is still speculation in the whole Shakespeare story, from the bogusness of Hall’s Croft, to certainties about most of the properties.  But it was there, and because it thrives as an active and artistic school to the present, that I really felt in touch with the living Shakespeare story. The ‘school master’ was a bit sheepish about how the Museum is doing, but then it is in competition with The Birthplace, and still has to be properly placed on the Shakespeare map.  It should and will be, because it’s very good indeed and should certainly have no one creeping unwillingly to school!

David Clement-Davies was given entry courtesy of The Birthplace Trust and independent King Edward School Museum. The photo is of the knowledgeable ‘Elizabethan’ school master in situ.

 

 

 

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WHO FRAMED THE KING?

 

king-lear-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-ellie-kurttz-_c_-rsc_202320Andrew Graham Dixon’s article in the programme made me realise why the RSC’s coldly magnificent King Lear stumbles in trying to make us see, and feel too. As the art critic says, Lear is all about blindness and seeing, the loss and recovery both of perspective and true moral vision. Whether or not England had been ‘blinded’ during the Reformation, with the whitewashing of frescos and Religious paintings, so its dislocation from thousands of years of history and experience, or only through that could discover an entirely new way of defining reality: The hard Modern World.

Sight though, in all its meanings, is epitomised in the myopia of the mighty King, and ultimate father figure, failing to read the cynical language of his ambitious daughters Goneril and Regan, in his unnatural parental search for the unconditional, as Lear abdicates responsibility and divides his Kingdom and himself. With his banishment both of his favourite daughter Cordelia, for refusing to unpack her true heart with words, and the loyal Kent for defending her.

Metaphor becomes physical fact in the vicious blinding of Gloucester, played admirably by David Troughton, and achieved in Niki Turner’s bold designs by placing Gloucester in a huge glass interrogation box, worthy of The Cube, symbolic both of trial and the  separations of blindness and madness, that soon becomes smeared with his and Cornwall’s blood, as an eyeball bounces off the pane. The odd giggle in the audience was either a reflection of deep unease at real horror, or our own desensitization in a world that sees so much in film and the news. Yet for all the agonies of Lear, the blinding is a very specific act indeed, far from the simply bloodcurdling violence of a play like Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare is very rarely pornographic or gratuitous. In fact the real horrors of Lear are about the inner agonies of mind and imagination, when truly exposed to the whole world. Just as Edgar’s disguise as Poor Tom imagines suffering, and the Foul Fiend too, as much as experiencing them, in an act of feigned madness akin to Hamlet’s.  Lear’s is not quite an arbitrary moral Universe either, just a blasted heath, since Lear’s vanity and Gloucester’s fatherly hypocrisy to his bastard son Edmund, not stressed enough by Troughton, directly unleash what always potentially lurks beneath and engenders the attempts at Judgement and search for poetic Justice. Or rather it puts them on trial too, whether more sinned against than sinning. In the vexed paradox too that if the truth of the World really is violence and the abyss, why should you not be as amoral, vicious or corrupt as the next man?  Pre-empting Nietzsche’s remark that if you stare too long into the abyss, you will find it staring back into you.

So to Lear’s journey towards recovering humanity, or death, his travels with his fool and encounter with Gloucester, after Edgar’s leading his father to a faked suicide on the beetling cliffs of Dover. Graham Dixon quotes Frank Kermode calling that “the most beautiful scene in all Shakespeare” and so it may be. It is more than that though, it is part exorcism and precisely what Shakespeare has Edgar call it too, “a Miracle”.  Or an attempted human miracle, in a now Godless Universe. In that Gillan Doran’s sparse, metallic and pointedly pagan production, raising Lear on a great plinth at the start, among a painted Sun and eclipsing Moon, and their inevitable, ceaseless peregrinations, in an age that still profoundly credited astrology, and used it as excuse, prepare for Anthony Sher’s studiedly formal but now ultimately impotent invocations against his daughters, or the World. Lear as King Priest too, though curses in Shakespeare usually turn on those invoking them.

It also might frame the play in terms of how others have described King Lear, as old fashioned Miracle play, banned in the secularisation of the Reformation, springing from a profound tension in Shakespeare’s own rooted ‘Religious’ instincts, although that is not its main purpose here. This Lear certainly approaches the grandeur of the Miracle cycles, yet the miracle Shakespeare tries for, and so must the actors, is now a secular and imagined one, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner forging its own language of artistic symbolism, reached with only the artistry of mind and language itself, balancing journeys of inner and outer perception and perspective.  Also as Coleridge did, making the distinction between mere fancy and true imagination, which can only be touched with real feeling. Just as Shakespeare’s poetry and vision, the stamp of his imaginative wonder, is always a constant movement between the minute and the universal, a specific act of ‘seeing’ and almost physical entering in, akin to Keat’s “negative capability’. So Edgar leads his father Gloucester through a frustrated act of self-slaughter, in an almost Christian sacrifice to the absent Gods we fear treat us like flies, then provides a minutely precise rebalancing, in describing what did not happen, now from the bottom of the abyss. So reimagining everyone’s place in the Universe, in the recovery if not necessarily of hope, then at least perspective. “Half way down hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade! Methinks he seems no bigger than his head”.  It is an act of profound psychology that could give rise to the very word Shrink.

Of course, as Graham Dixon also compares Shakespeare and Lear to the arrival of an artist like the blood spattered Caravaggio, though still connected to Christian and Catholic iconography, Shakespeare is a painter too, but with words, in what was the Age of the Word, as opposed to ours of the image. It is a given then he was and is the greatest word painter who ever lived. Therein lies the rub though, if one you might expect from a strong director like Gillan Doran, also Artistic Director of the RSC. Doran’s production does not cleave enough to the source power of Shakespeare’s language and poetry, and his players discovering them in the intimate act, always the route in my view, through every character, to his ultimate vision and meaning.

Instead, ala Graham Dixon, Doran presents this Lear as almost a series of set piece paintings; Lear on his un-heavenly dais, Lear on a chariot-funeral bier that presses forwards on the essentially framed Proscenium stage, Lear at dinner with his fractious Knights, or a back-lit static battle scene that evokes the Bayeux Tapestry. The tree at the back seems to be trying to win the Turner Prize. If words always paint pictures, a play is not a painting though, it springs alive from the frame, as living theatre.

The production, which seems to have been a sell out, is startling and innovative, at times, like Lear and his fool raised again into airy nothing, not in the calm eye but the curled tear of a swirling storm. It is also somewhat superfluous, because that is exactly what Shakespeare is explaining, through the Gloucester moment, and Lear lost on the Heath, with the movement of his own language and ‘vision’; the nature and miracle of imagination, and how to see in balance again, or go Mad.

For me Lear’s true miracle then should still be achieved through the unaccommodated intimacies of the round, both the humanisation and de-humansisation of suffering, the humbling encounters with Everyman, framed by the world’s blasted heath, not something so distant and lofty. That is what ultimately rakes the heart and dislocated soul, pierces the hurt mind, and might turn terror to tenderness, to make it a play that really is a miracle of creative humanity. Also how Dr Johnson described King Lear though, and which this production is frustratingly not, namely “unbearable”. Instead it remains for me a rather cold tableaux, admittedly exacerbated by my restricted-view seat up in the ‘Gods’.

Sher is of course a marvellous actor, but only truly recovers Lear’s magnificent humanity in the second half, now a foolish, fond and human old man, but if a fool, one with a new wisdom and beauty. Too late to save him and Cordelia, but such is life, if the play or art cannot humanise or change us, and perhaps anyway. The point too though is that for all Lear’s kingly tyranny, what is at times obscene in his life denying cursing of his own daughters, engendering that terrible Nothing, he must also have the love and greatness of the Father King, to elicit the loyalty of the morally positive characters in the first place. Sher is not allowed to show that nearly enough in the long first half, despite the original and intense clinches with his ‘bad’ daughters, an actor who certainly could. Let the actors burst from the frame.

Perhaps that is why the others seem at times dislocated from one another too, in their own frames, and what are vital and very intimate transformative journeys. Which must be enacted with a commitment and love too that raise them to the spiritual and mystical, not the somewhat throw away joke by Oliver Johnstone’s Edgar, preceding Gloucester’s jump, nor Cordelia’s unsymbolic recitation of a bunch of herbs. Cordelia, played by Natalie Simpson, is at once very flesh and blood and symbol of Shakespearian earth magic, as Kent is of a neo Christian duty. I shed a tear at Lear’s description of her death, yet had not been able to love Cordelia, as you must if the play is also to achieve an insight Shakespeare is obsessed with throughout his work, the danger to the powerful masculine if the positive and honest feminine is ripped away, inside or out. That is often the very route to violence, inflation and madness. Also grounded in the story of a mythical character never really mentioned but profoundly operative in Shakespeare, also a story of sight and blinding, King Oedipus.

For me Graham Turner’s fool has skill but is too belligerent to be lovable either, first by shrugging off the audience, to break the fourth wall, and secondly in not truly discovering that tenderness that constitutes some act of healing of the Self too. What is also lost is the seething power of the sub plot, driven by the primal forces of youth and sexuality, along with those ‘New Men’ in a violently changing Elizabethan world, that can make Lear cry “let copulation thrive”. Paapa Essiedu’s Edmund is not bad, but too coy. Edmund is a life force, if a death force too. You must, in Edmund’s “now God’s stand up for bastards”, somewhere want him to succeed, as if you too would overturn the Monster Custom and an unjust and blind social order, even though the consequences may be too horrible to contemplate. It is Lear’s profound question about what Nature and human nature truly are, for Nature was Shakespeare’s Goddess too, but one that would come to cause him a lot of trouble. Essiedu gives Edmund far too much moral doubt at the start then, perhaps to justify his later attempt to save the King and Cordelia. The agony of the play must achieve that understanding and change by earning it, not pre-empting it. With a magnificently visual King Lear then you still want to come out sobbing, not left intellectualising about a walk through the Tate Modern, for as Lear comments “Life’s better at breaking hearts than art is.”

The picture shows Anthony Sher as King Lear, consoling David Troughton’s blinded Gloucester. Copyright Ellie Kurttz. Lear was on the main stage in Stratford on Avon. Ticket courtesy of the RSC.

 

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