…And happily ever after?

All’s Well That Ends Well – Royal Shakespeare Company, until 26 September 2013

One of the more curious of Shakespeare plays, All’s Well That Ends Well never seems to have sat comfortably with its audience. Even its title can be seen as one of Shakespeare’s playful jokes; riffing, as it does, on the fairy-tale narrative of ‘happily ever after’ despite those watching being left with serious question marks over the likelihood of the future joy to be shared between Helena and Bertram.

At its core All’s Well That Ends Well combines a number of fairy-tale tropes and applies them to the real-world. The healing of the king by someone of lower birth who is granted what their heart desires forms the play-logic that allows Helena, a ward of the Countess of Rossillion, to be granted the hand of Bertram, the Countess’ son.

In the world of fairy-tale this would be the ideal marriage and Bertram, the prince, would realise that he loved the woman of lower-birth all along. However by placing the plot in a world where people are not shaped by archetypes, weJoanna Horton as Helena in All's Well That Ends Well. Photo by Ellie Kurttz see Bertram as little more than an indulged trustifarian who runs at the first sight of emotional commitment, who is used to bending the world to his whims and who believes honour is for the battlefield not the bedroom.

This may explain modern concerns with the play; that the resourceful, intelligent and determined Helena would seemingly humiliate herself and traipse across Europe for a man who clearly does not lover her.

It is on this point that Nancy Meckler’s production of the Royal Shakespeare Company comes into its own and in doing so helps to rehabilitate a play that, for its problems, contains, in Parolles, a comic creation of rare intelligence alongside two strong female roles that are pillars of wisdom and virtue.

Meckler’s production updates the plot to the early twentieth century and through this framing device we see the character dynamics in a whole new light. The fairy-tale plotting remains but within a world that is realistic to us.

The background is Europe at war and in Helena we feel any one of the millions of women who stepped into the roles left by men. Helena’s curing of the King of France is a reminder of the importance of women to the war effort and how they carried out job that before the War they would never have been allowed to do.

Bertram’s treatment of Helena and his dismissive rejection of the King’s statement that ‘Tis only title thou disdain’st in her, the which / I can build up’ [II.iii] reflects the wider disintegrating status of hereditary gentry. Bertram has truly never considered Helena within the context of a potential wife despite living in close proximity at court.

There is also a significant amount of comedic irony to a modern audience in his plea that ‘In such a business give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes’ [II.iii]; it is clear that once the shoe is on the other foot, the male ego struggles with the concept of entering what is effectively a shotgun wedding.

<<Continue to full review>>

 

 

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Matilda: Capturing the imagination of children and the wallets of adults alike

Very good news emanating from our cousins across the pond, as Matilda opens to rave reviews from pretty much every critic on Broadway. Whilst it doesn’t make the show any less brilliant if it fails to convert to our American Matilda friends, a Broadway smash is still seen as the gold standard for any musical – and there are many West End hits that failed to become the next ‘Phantom’ (over £5.5 billion sales worldwide and counting).

As the Guardian points out, there is money to be made in this market – the RSC anticipating £11 million advance by the end of the first day. £2.5 million was made in previews alone. It recouped its £7 million costs in London in ten weeks and plays at 98% capacity ever  since its October 2011 opening. However without the Broadway gold star then it makes the global tour of ‘Les Mis’ that much more likely, it means opening up to tours of Australia and Asia, across Europe and indeed anywhere else where it could be marketed.

There may be some in the art world that still sneers at playing to the gallery, at the rather déclassé notion of thinking about returns on investment, but this ignores the 15% real terms cut to the RSC’s Arts Council funding. It ignores just how much productions like Les Mis and Warhouse lined the coffers of publically subsidised theatre companies in the times of plenty so that now, when times are difficult and will continue to be so for some time, we see the National managing to erect a completely new temporary space in ‘The Shed’ rather than cutting costs and going dark whilst the Cottesloe is renovated. It allows the RSC’s annual tour to Newcastle to be reinstated.

In the week of Thatcher’s death it seems appropriate that the biggest product in British Theatre is a musical subsidised by the public sector. It was entirely in keeping with her vision that success in theatre equated directly to success at the box office, and to this Matilda appears to of hit the brief. However could Matilda have been made purely with private investment; could the private sector have brought the true subversive nature of Dahl to the stage? Could they have taken the risk on such a child-centric production? Would they have wanted to spend money on a production that decries the traditional family, that cocks a sneer at perceived lower-brow passions and that hires a lyricist as dynamically witty as Tim Minchin?

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All change at the top

Macbeth - Kate Fleetwood and Patrick Stewart in Rupert Goold's Production

Excellent news this week as Rupert Goold was announced the new artistic director of the Almeida Theatre, following Michael Attenborough hugely successful tenure. Now firmly established as one of the most influential theatres that bridge the gap between the West End and the regions, it is difficult to remember that 11 years ago the Almeida was running a sizable deficit and that Attenborough not only turned this on its head but did so whilst also almost doubling the number of new productions.

Rupert Goold has a challenge on his hands but the freedom of the role, and his own prior knowledge of the space through working on Headlong co-productions, allows him to enter on a firm footing. His own uniquely stylistic flair, as recognisable in theatre as Tarintino is in film, make the possibility of creative control over an entire programme a most enticing one proposition for the audience.

Goold’s Macbeth was praised to the heavens by critics on both sides of the Atlantic; brilliantly designed, blessed with the stand-out performance from Patrick Stewart’s illustrious career and one more than equalled by Kate Fleetwood’s splendid Lady Macbeth. Goold’s production manages to maintain the golden thread that so often eludes directors of style; every element contributes something to the whole enabling the sum to be so much greater than the parts. Most pleasingly, it is also available for anyone to see as it was expertly captured for the BBC; rather sickeningly Goold proves himself to be equally at home in this medium, and the transfer retains a spirit and vitality that was sadly lacking in the televised version of Hamlet with David Tennant.

The extent to which I think this is seminal viewing is the fact that I am prepared to suggest buying something from Amazon in order to do so – boycott be damned, it is just too good.

Rupert Goold is only the latest in a line of seat-swapping that has amounted to a seismic shift in the theatrical landscape. The last couple of years have come to feel like a pivotal moment for the next generation to pick up the baton from their predecessors. Coinciding with a new political landscape, we are seeing the emergence of a new wave of directors and producers who will be charged with guiding British theatre through the murky quagmire of reduced funding and a more oppositional approach to politics.

It is too early to say but it could mean a return to more overt political dramas. One of the problems of the Labour regime is that they remained difficult to criticise following the experience of almost twenty years of EnronConservative power – and even more so when they pumped more money into the cultural landscape than it had seen in years. Where Labour were criticised, most excoriatingly by David Hare, was on foreign policy, or more accurately their foreign policy in Iraq – less was said about interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo.

During the Labour years it is hard to think of many plays that really sought to tackle domestic policy until the financial meltdown made everyone realise how far the country had sleepwalked into inequality under the watchful eyes of a supposedly centre-left government. One can only hope that the shake-up can also dislodge the art of the politics and reveal a new generation of dramatists less concerned with the ‘I’ than the ‘We’.

Doran

The most high profile, and contested, position up-for-grabs was that to succeed Michael Boyd as Artistic Director at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Whilst the National Theatre has more power and money, it is hard to dispute the RSC still carries the most prestige – flying the flag for Shakespeare and under Boyd’s leadership emerging from the mire with a reinvigorated sense of self. It is questionable whether anyone other than Gregory Doran had a look in, and the press release is rather telling ‘‘Greg Doran is a perfect choice for the RSC and is well known to all our audiences. His long history with the Company[…]’. It contains every impression of wanting to promote from within and maintaining a sense of continuity in a company that has too often lost its focus. Gregory Doran is without doubt an exceptional director but could well be seen as a safe pair of hands. However is this a bad thing when dealing with Shakespeare? Every year there will be attempts to reinvent Shakespeare for the modern age, most will be terrible and a few will not. In many ways it is much harder to breathe life into more traditional staging that are more interested in the text than in assuming what Shakespeare may have meant the text to mean.

Continuing outside of London, but yet further North, the National Theatre of Scotland has announced that Laurie Sansom will take over from Vicky Featherstone – herself off to the Royal Court to keep the merry-go-round spinning. The National Theatres’ of Wales and Scotland are probably the most important, and successful, developments in British theatre over the last 15 years. Vicky Featherstone was a hugely influential part of that culture of success, and was instrumental in bringing the widely acclaimed Black Watch to the stage, and the hugely entertaining Alan Cumming one-man Macbeth.

Vicky Featherstone

It is a shame that her departure was partly overshadowed by claims of a parochial attitude among the Theatre’s management but one hopes that they Royal Court will be the chief beneficiary of the time that she has spent outside of London. As an added intrigue, the poaching of Lucy Davies from the National Theatre of Wales to be an executive director at the Royal Court means that both have suffered a significant loss of leadership and one hopes that a firm hand is kept on the rudder of both organisations.

And the final move, and probably the most written about, is that of Josie Rourke taking the reigns at the Donmar Warehouse. Already a year into the programme we have seen an interesting array of productions that, if not setting the world alight are at least suggestive of a non-confirmist mindset. Durrenmatt’s The Physicists is not a play that has aged gracefully but it is still good to see it revived, whilst an all-female Julius Caesar may have caught some predictable flak but it provides challenge and most importantly provides new insight into the group dynamic of political leadership that a traditional cast production cannot achieve. It does feel like we are still waiting for Rourke to stamp her authority on her tenure but it also feels like that production is not far away.

Even better than Cook’s chocolate cake

Cambridge Theatre, 21 December 2011 – booking until Oct 2012

There is a long and often inglorious history of converting  much-loved books into musical theatre. The temptation for doing so is obvious; flying in the face of overwhelming critical disdain, Les Miserables has provided a template  for financial success. It has a mantelpiece of audience-choice awards, a global army of devoted fans and by January 2010 it was celebrating notching up 10,000 performances in the West End. In short the tills have not stopped ringing since the original Cameron Mackintosh-Trevor Nunn production in 1985.

A salient and oft-overlooked fact by those who sneer at Les Mis is that this success has seen the RSC (producers of Matilda) through the brutal conditions suffered in the 1980’s under a prime minister who held Andrew Lloyd Webber as a shining example of artistic achievement. No doubt Jean Valjean would not have countenanced betraying his principles in such a manner but clearly the financially imperatives of publically subsidised theatre led to Trevor Nunn’s rather more pragmatic vision.

With Les Miserables finally beginning to flag, transferring to the noticeably smaller Queens Theatre and with the famous Barricade seemingly less than impressive in its new surrounds, the RSC have sought to launch a new cash cow in the form of a major new musical adapted from a well-known book. Clearly it was though that the National’s approach of writing a verbatim musical, ‘London Road’, about the serial killing of five prostitutes in Ipswich was not the way to long-term commercial success.

However the road to the West End is paved with the carcasses of plots from their literary womb untimely ripped. Topping this sad and unfestive tree must be Gone With The Wind, critically reviled and starring a woefully miscast Darius (remember him?), but there is also Carrie The Musical, a concept so clearly problematic that the mind boggles at the commissioning process. For most of 2012 we have been entertained by the sorry stories emanating across the Atlantic surrounding the sheer ineptitude of Spiderman: The Musical; a show that could only have come from trouble-shooting consultants who identified a previously unidentified cross over between comic book fans and musical theatre goers.

The RSC must have approached Roald Dahl’s much-loved children’s book with some trepidation. He is an author who, like Enid Blyton, never seems to go out of fashion despite offering a nostalgic view of England that those reading the books will find hard to reconcile with a world of X-Boxes and Club Penguin. With a central premise built on libraries, it even smacks of radicalism that seems very at odds with Dahl’s natural conservatism.

Continue to the full review here

And for a special sneak preview…

Ravenhill’s Rise and the RSC

Congratulations to Mark Ravenhill, as it has been announced that he will be the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Writer in Residence for 2012. As a man who is generally held critically responsible for helping to kickstart a new generation of British dramatists with the unexpected popular smash, Shopping and Fucking in 1996, it might come as a bit of a surprise. But as a regular commentator in The Guardian and on Newsnight Review, as well as advising Nicholas Hytner at the National, Ravenhill has been in higher echelons of the cultural elite for a while.

Still this doesn’t detract from what could be a promising year. Hopefully acting as a catalyst to reinvigorate a moribund new writing scene at the RSC since Adrian Noble took the reigns, Ravenhill will also have access to one of the greatest acting pools in the world to take on his work. Whilst it might prove to be a false dawn there is always the possibility, bolstered by a domestic world riven with disputes, that the playwrights may finally reassert their theatrical voice.

For more on Ravenhill, new writing and the RSC in the Guardian, click here.