Royal Shakespeare Company, Summer 2015

Volpone. Photo by Manuel Harlan. (c) RSC

July 22, 2015


Ben Jonson's Volpone is at the RSC and director Trevor Nunn is keen to prove its relevance. But greed, scams and schemes will probably always be relevant, and Nunn might have done better to focus his efforts on the nuances of Jonson's rich satire.

Volpone the fox is a greedy and dramatic man who will go to great lengths to obtain riches from his carrion acquaintances. With the help of his reserved servant, Mosca the parasite, Volpone feigns illness. Lying comically disguised on his fake deathbed, Volpone is visited by Voltore (the vulture), Corbaccio (the raven), and Corvino (the crow), three men of social standing who bring Volpone gifts and hold the belief (placed in their heads by Mosca) that they will be the sole inheritor of Volpone’s fortune upon his death.

Orion Lee was certainly the reserved Mosca, if not so much the sneaky slimy parasite. While occasionally comic, his stiff actions mostly looked over-rehearsed. As much as I was routing for the young actors in this production - many of whom, including Lee, are performing in their RSC debut season - it was undeniably Henry Goodman as Volpone carrying the entire show. He sang and shouted in an offensive Italian accent; he drooled and shook, beaming wickedly at the audience as if to let us in to his cruel scheme; every molecule of his Volpone was charged with energy and he had the audience in stitches the whole way through. Having one star player can be good, but having a strong team will win the match.

The flashy set suited the glitz and glam of the storyline and even added to the comedy (Volpone’s bed appeared with the click of a button). The attempt to modernise this production wasn’t as desperate as other plays that I have seen this summer. Yes, the comparisons to modern criminals, the selfies, the emphasis on words such as followers, are all pushed directly into your face, but so are Jonson’s text and characters. It’s an in-your-face play and the crudeness of this interpretation fits this nicely.

I actually think they should have been pushing more. For example, there are two women in this play: the crow’s wife, Celia; and Lady Would-Be, the parrot. Celia is a tragic character hardly worth mentioning and Rhiannon Handy didn’t do much to change this. Annette McLaughlin as Lady Would-Be was hilarious and outrageous, but it’s not revolutionary anymore to sign-post your ‘strong female character’ by putting her in dangerously high heels and even higher blonde curls. No one’s shocked to see Steven Pacey (Sir Politic Would-Be) come on in a dress (a change from the original script), or to see Colin Ryan (Peregrine) with dreadlocks. If Jonson’s audience could handle a dwarf, a eunuch, a hermaphrodite, and such a clear satirising of the trials of the gunpowder plot so soon after the actual event, then we really should be able to push past safe stereotypes, however ‘modern’ they may seem.

Trevor Nunn’s Volpone is a taste of Jonson’s brilliant and layered comedy, but not a whole bite.

The RSC's production of Volpone runs until 12th September at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Tickets available at

June 17, 2015

Othello 2015

A gripping exploration of the tension between public and private roles; the breakdown of trust; domestic and military violence; and the playing out of racism in a multicultural society: director Iqbal Khan has a contemporary vision for Shakespeare’s Othello which makes for an arresting and memorable production.

The setting is simple and dark. A moonlit canal rises up on stage as Iago and his hapless pawn Roderigo arrive at the house of Venetian dignitary Brabantio. The simplicity of the set is used to great effect throughout, as is the darkness, although a brief interlude of sunlight and festivity is allowed in Cyprus after the wreck of the enemy fleet. It’s an atmospheric and ominous setting for tragedy; against the backdrop of a declining Venetian empire nothing is safe or certain, and even great generals are subject to amorous entanglement and thus laid open to the baser emotions of fear and jealousy.

Hugh Quarshie has great presence and charm as Othello in his early scenes, and pathos and credibility as the play progresses and he starts to unravel, while Joanna Vanderham’s accomplished embodiment of the contradictory Desdemona captures the character’s jaunty fragility and arch innocence. I was disappointed by the decision to focus on Iago’s earthiness, profanity and paranoia rather than his subtlety and intelligence, but Lucian Msamati’s performance soon overrode any personal preferences as he made the part his own. There didn’t in fact seem to be any weak links in the cast: James Corrigan stood out as the unfortunate Roderigo, and Ayesha Dharker triumphed as a strong-minded but trapped Emilia.

The casting of two black actors as Othello and Iago throws up some interesting possible interpretations. The similarities between the two characters are necessarily emphasised, and the suggestion that in some sense a common heritage makes Othello easier prey to Iago works well, allowing us also to imagine that the clever, articulate Iago might have fallen from a higher moral position and be seeking to drag Othello after him, and hinting that Iago’s own spiritual malaise has routes in cultural issues.

In spite of its robust treatment of the play’s serious themes, this production is not short on lighter moments. Roderigo provides some decent clowning, innuendo abounds, and a rap battle that turns sour provides a modern take on the comic interlude. It works surprisingly well. In a story where most of the characters suffer from crippling internal contradictions, the interplay between various conflicting aspects of the drama comes to the fore. Ordinary lives teetering on the cracks as an empire’s grip on power falters, domesticity and war, loyalty to parents and spouse, and the fatal battle between public duty and private demons are all teased apart and reformed in this interesting, questioning production of a timeless tragedy.

May 24, 2015

The Merchant of Venice 2015

School’s out, summer’s a whisper away, and a torrent of Shakespeare is about to unleash itself on Oxford. But travel just an hour north or south and you get to some other, really rather famous, venues for Shakespearian activity, namely the Royal Stratford Theatre and the Globe. Curious, then, that The Merchant of Venice should be on at both places right now.

I went to the Stratford one. The atmosphere: redbrick and metal conservative, entrances like a baseball stadium, comfortable seats, dark wood floors, wisteria-scented departure.

A school reading is how I imagine many of us will have been introduced to this play, so I asked myself, “was this My GCSE Self’s interpretation of it?” The answer: categorically not. This was definitely a play with a ‘contemporary twist’. Actually, replace twist with Gordian knot and you’d be closer to the spot. Why? Because Antonio appears to be gay, Bassanio bi (at the very least), and they kiss. A lot. Because feminist(ish) Portia doesn’t like this very much. Because there’s live spitting. Because Shylock dodders about in a blue cardigan, softening his Canny Moneylender caricature. And because Shakespeare’s ancient pentameter on prejudice is so brilliantly funnelled into a stark and disturbing portrayal of modern times.

Reflection is paramount within this adaptation. The backdrop is a series of tiled mirrors, in which we can see ourselves. But we are not smooth and polished. We are disjointed and distorted, imperfect. Shakespeare makes this Venice, but the set makes it anywhere, and the audience are as much context as onlookers.

Suspension – of time, thoughts, and even belief – also features: a slowly swinging pendulum on set, three caskets hanging in mid-air, heavy with expectation, and five seemingly disembodied choral heads, ringing out beautiful harmonies from the rafters. All of which lend an eldritch quality to the streetwise interpretation. This would have been enough, but then the production took things further with audience interaction which, for me, lead-ballooned. It just crossed the line of cheap laughs, which was a shame, because the comedy inherent in the play was brought out so well.

The producer’s particular skill, I feel, lies in being able to build up her characters while at the same time deconstructing the societal determinants of individual behaviour. In this way, Polly Findlay shows us that the political can become deeply personal, and vice versa. Mostly, she lets the words speak for themselves, but with subtle and often surprising accents, highlights and syncopation (literal and metaphorical) that invite a 2015 audience to engage.

By far the best performance for me was Ken Nwosu’s Gratiano (he also plays Morocco), whose energy and musicality made the script dance. Moreover, they gave clarity and relevance - as did much of the performance itself – to language that could easily be dismissed as arcane.

So, an hour south or north? To the Globe, or to the Royal Stratford Theatre? Well, I haven’t seen the former, but I’d certainly recommend the latter. It will not be to everyone’s taste, but choose not by the view (nor by what critics write); go see it for yourself.

April 13, 2015

Death of a Salesman 2015

Arthur Miller's finest work and tragic depiction of the myth of the American Dream is a fitting choice for a break in tradition for the Royal Shakespeare Company. In the centenary year of Miller's birth, the RSC have for the first time chosen to stage a modern play to run over Shakespeare's own birthday on 23rd April, on their main stage. Their offering, which will transfer to London for a 10-week summer run, is more than worthy of such a distinguished honour.

Willy Loman is a deluded, proud and determined travelling salesman, who, in 1948, is long past his prime. The heady days of high commission and a shiny new Chevrolet for his young family in 1928 have given way to a loss of salary, familial underachievement and a middle-aged waistline with the passing of the Wall Street Crash and another war. Favourite son Biff has returned home again after numerous failed attempts to fly the nest, while self-important, philandering little brother Happy lives nearby in a plush apartment neglecting his parents' financial woes, long alienated by his inability to ever make Willy and pragmatic mother Linda proud in Biff's long, undeserved and unfading shadow.

Anthony Sher is undeniably heartbreaking as a man of fractured pride, a victim of his own moderate success and national circumstance. As Willy Loman's tall tales and convinced truths unravel, and are intercut with youthful, energetic flashbacks to the Lomans' heyday, Willy earns our respect and pity in such a powerful way that he compels us to project our own circumstance into his setting. Sher, and indeed the roundly accomplished cast, make the story universal, elevating this production of Miller's masterpiece to meaningful art.

Harriet Walter as the beleaguered but constant Linda, and Sam Marks as the ironically monikered Happy in particular from the rest of the billing are brilliant, providing the biggest laughs and reliefs between them. And, though it might seem small, the accents across the board are on point, if you can ignore Sher's occasionally sounding like a cross between Christopher Walken and Nathan Lane.

The RSC have produced some beautiful design through Stephen Brimson Lewis. The whole of the theatre's interior is transformed into an over-populated New York block, with rusting wrought iron fence scaffolding the balconies, and those familiar fire escapes at the end of the row. Busy sidewalks pop up out of the ground already filled with coiffed commuters, all trench coats, stockings and fedoras. Like the pace and period, the soundtrack is interchangingly lively and lazy; four- bar explosions of syncopated 40s jazz punctuate the rapid scene changes, all played with real life by musicians in the dress circle.

But for all the 40s flare and sheen, this account is of a rough beast, slouching towards inevitability. His legacy will not be triumphant, though this production may prove to be.

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