Thursday, 26 May 2016

How shall we beguile The lazy time, if not with some delight?

The first time I heard Tamsin Waley-Cohen perform was at an Orchestra of the Swan concert in November 2011: in what was then Stratford-upon-Avon’s Civic Hall. After the orchestra had serenaded us with John Ireland’s A Downland Suite (now available on CD!), she joined them for Vaughan Williams’ rarely-performed ‘Concerto Accademico’ – “a name [Vaughan Williams] subsequently disliked, withdrawing it before a Menuhin performance in September 1952” – known latterly, simply, as the Violin Concerto (or Concerto for Violin and Strings).

I have heard her play with them many times since. And the fact that their partnership has grown so rapidly, so naturally, so wonderfully, says a great deal about the talent and conviviality of everyone involved: especially as their recordings together – including, in 2014, a jaw-dropping CD of this work and The Lark Ascending (along with a brace of similarly ravishing Elgar string-works) – are so beautifully fledged.

I was very happy when the opportunity arose to record the Vaughan Williams Violin Concerto and The Lark Ascending with the Orchestra of the Swan and David Curtis, as they were the first works we played together and we have performed them many times since.
     Whilst the Lark is one of the best loved and most famous works in the repertoire, the Concerto is, rather unfairly, hardly known. It is a true “chamber” concerto, full of humour, eloquence and imbued with a rustic spirit. The outer movements have a playful wildness about them, the music darting and dancing, that make them great fun to play, and I find the slow movement a jewel of beauty and expressivity.
     The slow passages, both in the second movement of the Concerto and the Lark contain a poignant nostalgia, filled with longing for remembered times. There is a strong sense of narrative, not unlike the English folk stories and older Celtic sagas which are so cyclical and rooted in the power of nature.

So, last night, I was delighted (actually in an almost euphoric state…) knowing that I would be hearing her perform this “hardly known” work once more; along with Mendelssohn’s equally entrancing, more famous concerto in E minor, Op.64 – again, “after the orchestra had serenaded us”: this time with the same composer’s evocative Incidental Music to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Op.61 (and even more evocative with its original German title: Musik zu Ein Sommernachtstraum von Shakespeare…).

To be honest, it felt like we needed a little such evocation: there being an autumn chill in the air as I walked through Priory Park to Malvern’s Forum Theatre for the pre-concert talk. And I was reminded of Curtis’ command – before the first, Mediterranean-flavoured event in this series (with guitarist Craig Ogden), in February – “to dream of wine and olives…”. In the end, though, such instruction, last night, would have been unwarranted: the music was consistently soul-warming, and filled with passion from start to finish!

Written for violin and string orchestra, this is Vaughan Williams’ homage to the Bach Concerto for Two Violins: a work he loved so much, he requested they play it at his funeral (and they did). The work has the same rhythmic vigour and forward impulse as its model, and curiously anticipates Hindemith’s mature neo-classical manner.

That description, along with its original title, might lead you to anticipate something a little dry – or even austere. But such expectations would have taken you – especially with these forces – very far from the mark. Many writers tell us that it is only in the central Adagio that we will be reminded of that famed bird “climbing, spiralling, fluttering towards the sun…”. But – and maybe this stems from my greater familiarity with the work; or, more likely, five years of immersion, development, and even greater understanding from Curtis and Waley-Cohen – I felt its presence more in the opening Allegro pesante.

As discussed in that pre-concert talk, Waley-Cohen’s soundscape has deepened and widened – as it will, I believe, always continue so to do… – and thus, having “managed to eke out yet more exquisiteness” in her recent astounding performance of The Lark Ascending at Holy Trinity Church – “her tone, sublimely matched to the music, ranging from hushed earthiness to a beatific, soaring, incommunicable luminosity” – I felt that she brought that experience to bear here. There was an astute lyricism weaving its way through all that contrapuntal intensity; and it felt as if the movement ‘breathed’ more – more easily – as a result. There was space for emotion, as well as technique – both of which shone brightly. (And the orchestra were her equals.)

And yes, of course that Adagio is “dreamy and relaxed in mood, and features mostly delicate, triadic harmonies” – and, in being so, is the equal of the greatest, most intense, most romantic, of Bach’s slow concerto movements. But I feel the bird may have returned to its nest, and be bathing in the ensuing sunshine, rather than flapping frantically upwards toward it, or even parachuting downwards.

The more I hear this profound centrepiece, the more it insinuates its way into my soul. On the cusp of chromaticism – as Waley-Cohen pointed out – it also defines a new, more modern type of beauty (especially for Vaughan Williams): bringing to mind the greatest sculptures of Henry Moore or the natural forms of Barbara Hepworth. For me – despite the undoubted joys that followed – this was the high point of the evening (even if the skylark was grounded, momentarily…).

The Presto finale opens with a theme that is pure Vaughan Williams, a jig tune taken from Act II, scene 2 of his opera, Hugh the Drover (1910‑14), which had premiered in July 1924, shortly before the composer began work on this concerto. At less than four minutes, this is the shortest movement, but its bustling energy never flags, its folk-like spirit permeating the whole movement, leaving relatively little to identify with Bach. In the end, this concerto must be assessed a masterpiece, perhaps a major masterpiece.

The six movements extracted from Mendelssohn’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream began with the original Overture (which went on to inspire the later incidental music). I thought the initial, suspended flute notes – unusually – were just a tad hesitant. (From my perspective, this looks like a tough, hushed opening to pull off – followed as it is by sprightly violins scurrying quietly through the air.) But, soon, all was well, and – despite me having always assumed it was impossible to play the trumpet or oboe and smile simultaneously – everyone in the room was grinning from ear to ear!

Mendelssohn was an undoubted genius (as well as a phenomenal pianist and violinist, as Waley-Cohen reminded us). That he produced his first violin concerto – not the one I’ll be singing for the next week: but the one that these selfsame forces have recorded (and which is recommended in the BBC Music Magazine’s current issue, Curtis proudly informed us…!) – when still in shorts; followed it not much later with a string octet that has never been beaten; wrote some great oratorios; magnificent symphonies; and some of the best piano pieces I have ever managed, fumblingly, to play – all before dying at a stupidly young age (not much older than Mozart, indeed) – should be evidence enough. But anyone who can transform an orchestra into a braying donkey must rank amongst the very greatest composers of all time!

This is fantastic music: descriptive, joyous, beautiful stuff – and Curtis and the orchestra went for it with every chunk of gusto they could muster (which was a lot – they measure out such matter not with coffee spoons, but with buckets). In fact, Curtis seems to have developed a new artistic gesticulation for such moments: one which simply indicates that everyone on stage should give it as much welly as they possibly can (if not a little more). This was not a one-off. Later, in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, after the interval, he turned to the cellos, and repeated this new gesture… – Nick Stringfellow being my hero of the night: firstly for his beautiful solo in the Vaughan Williams; and secondly, for then not falling off his chair…!

There was superb playing from all quarters: my favourite being the ‘song without words’ for the horn in the Notturno. But the return of “the hee-hawing of Bottom disguised as a donkey” (as Christopher Morley wrote in his typically excellent programme notes) in the final Dance of the Clowns is just so riotously funny! The perfect way to take us from the sublime to the not-quite-ridiculous; and to end a glorious first half.

In the pre-concert talk, Waley-Cohen had been asked about the “edge of the seat stuff”: the visual impact that is as much of the essence of a great live performance as that “soundscape”. (“Sound is all we have. It is how we communicate.”) There were many moments in the latter concerto where I could quite easily have switched off my hearing aids and still known how deeply invested in this music both she and Curtis were, though. Even in the extremely rare moments when she is not playing, she is there with the orchestra, immersed with them, part of them; and Curtis’ body language is also balletic, and quite beautiful to watch.

Come the fireworks, there is a muscular intensity, though, from Waley-Cohen, that demonstrates not – as with many performers – that we are to note that this is a particularly difficult bit; but that she is giving it her all – especially emotionally. This does not distract; it heightens our involvement, as well. For me, it almost felt like a private performance, such is the focus this potency promotes.

Even knowing already how brilliant she is, has become, this rendition took my breath away. The planets aligned – as did Waley-Cohen, Curtis and every single member of the orchestra – to produce something simply perfect; and yet utterly unique. Only now, recalling its magic, does it prompt tears. (It is hard to cry when you have stopped breathing for so long.)

The repeated calls back to the stage; the extended thunderous applause; the loud cheers; the reverberating foot-stomping; Curtis’ habitual retreat to the background to force Waley-Cohen to acknowledge the miracle she had wrought… – let’s just say Mendelssohn will be smiling, tonight: as I did all the way home. And still am. Wow.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The Fresh Prince of Elsinore…

Paapa Essiedu (Hamlet); Ewart James Walters (Gravedigger) – photo by Manuel Harlan/RSC

Despite it being a play ostensibly about a young man, Hamlet – which I saw last night (the first of at least three viewings of this RSC production – which could never be enough…) – strongly called to mind, for me, many of the themes of King Lear. (Although it may be that I find myself just a little too immersed in the later drama – for me, Shakespeare’s greatest – especially with Michael Pennington in the lead rôle.) For instance, family and inheritance are obviously central to both plays. Their plots also pivot around the central character’s descent into madness – real or, in this case, feigned – and its tumultuous, deadly effects on those around them.

Hamlet… loses his anchors: as home, family, heritage and a sense of dynastic destiny all crumble away. As he struggles against an existential crisis that simultaneously overcomes his psyche and his kingdom, he finds himself in a twilight between madness and powerful insight.
– Augustus Casely-Hayford: The Limbo Between Worlds (programme note)

Finally, there is the invocation of angry and vengeful deities to excuse human spite. Just the one god, in Hamlet – “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will…” – and only, seemingly, a last-minute conversion.

…the Act V god who inspires its belated resolution is characterised exclusively as a god of “rashness”, one who releases Hamlet’s trigger-hand, rather than encouraging him to repent.

Oh… and the other factor these plays have in common – at least in this year’s ‘Shakespeare 400’ renditions – is the sheer magnetism and talent of the (what I can only describe as) legends playing the eponymous rôles; as well as the consistently soaring quality of the company and creatives surrounding them. That I have been fortunate enough to see such perfection in so short a time is nothing short of miraculous.

Paapa Essiedu (Hamlet) – photo by Manuel Harlan/RSC

It is immensely hard (almost impossible) to take your (frequently tearful) eyes off Paapa Essiedu’s Hamlet – …but you must. The earthquakes he sets in motion – the shockwaves he radiates – provoke reactions in those around him that are not to be missed. (This is where my habitual repeated visits come into their own.) Tanya Moodie’s initially controlled Gertrude, and her knowing, forced smiles in the presence of ‘Uncle’ Claudius – a mesmerizing, believable, and fascinatingly sympathetic portrayal from Clarence Smith – and Cyril Nri’s Polonius (probably the best I have ever witnessed), and his increasingly paranoiac ramblings, as well as his obvious, touching love for his children (Marcus Griffiths, a resolute, but deeply emotional Laertes; and Natalie Simpson, born to play the doomed Ophelia…), just a few of the many, many highlights.

I shall therefore do what I did for King Lear, then: and run through (if you see what I mean) the cast list – feebly delineating each actor’s strengths. (I can currently think of no weaknesses.)

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

Despite my doubts as to his heroic status in Cymbeline, here, Hiran Abeysekera is an immensely strong Horatio: obviously adoring – and just a little in awe of – his BFF, Hamlet. His howls at the latter’s death – followed by some of the most beautiful words I think Shakespeare ever wrote: here so flawlessly uttered that I wish the play ended there and then (truly, “the rest is silence”), without dragging us back to Fortinbras’ military reality – “Why does the drum come hither?” – could certainly have been Lear’s. This can be an unrewarding, overshadowed part, in the wrong hands. But his astute observations – particularly of Claudius’ villainy, and Ophelia’s stumblings towards insanity – are credible and movingly rendered. This is a performance of great subtlety, loyalty and love – and you could, therefore, easily understand why Marcellus and Barnardo – and Hamlet – show such trust in him.

Romayne Andrews – so versatile and amusing in Cymbeline – sadly gets little opportunity to shine: although, as the affected “lapwing” Osric, his togs certainly do (and are matched by his wit)! His bravery, though, as the judge of Hamlet’s and Laertes’ duel, is astounding.

Kevin N Golding (Player King); Doreene Blackstock (Player Queen) – photo by Manuel Harlan/RSC

We do not see enough of Doreene Blackstock, either, as the Player Queen – although her thirty lines of verse (and awesome Queen of Hearts wig) are an utter delight! (In fact, if there is one flaw – but only in comparison with the RSC’s previous production of Hamlet – I thought the play-within-a-play went by too quickly. But then, all three hours and fifteen minutes flew by in a flash: so, as Einstein might have said, such things are relative.)

Eke Chukwu (a fabulously authoritative Caius Lucius in Cymbeline) is also under-used. He has such a commanding stage presence, though, that each of his twenty-lines stands strong.

James Cooney – as a Johnny Depp-like Rosencrantz – and Bethan Cullinane – Guildenstern (and where gender-swapping did add depth…) – act their sycophantic rôles admirably. But I have always found both parts immensely unsympathetic – for which you can, of course, blame Tom Stoppard. That I was delighted at the loss of their joint heads (that famous line beautifully proclaimed by Byron Mondahl) shows, though, how perfectly their treachery and incompetence shone through!

Another great actor in another pair of tiny rôles – one of the Players, and the one-line Cornelia – is Marième Diouf: demonstrating just how talented and strong this company really is. (She is understudying Ophelia – and rightly so.)

Paapa Essiedu (Hamlet) – photo by Manuel Harlan/RSC

I was going to begin this review, originally, by writing that you should never believe the hype… – unless, of course, it isn’t actually puffery, but reality… – in which case you should pay it very close attention. And, in this case, anything you may have heard probably doesn’t even begin to describe just how mature, well-developed, talented, charismatic, etc. Essiedu is. Simply put, he is astounding.

It helps, I think – and is extremely rewarding (and quite unusual) – seeing someone of the right age playing Hamlet. (Huzzah.) Not only does he utterly live the rôle, rather than perform it – although his marked madness is so perfectly painted that you see the character ‘acting’ it, rather than the player… – but his actions are accordingly all the more believable.

He looked astonished – although it could just have been sheer knackeredness (how he puts himself through this, emotionally and physically, over and over again, is beyond my imagination…) – at the cheers he raised, stood alone, in the centre of the stage, after the initial curtain calls. But he deserves as much approbation as can be mustered. This is a Hamlet like no other (and one, I am sure, that will be discussed in fifty years time – when he similarly conquers Lear – with the hushed reverence that, say, accompanies conversations about Peter Brook’s ‘white box’ 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream…). I am therefore as impatient to see his Edmund in the forthcoming RSC King Lear as I am to see this play again… – in fact, he is now the main attraction.

Tanya Moodie (Gertrude); Clarence Smith (Claudius) – photo by Manuel Harlan/RSC

Similarly, Kevin N Golding – in the many parts he plays: particularly the Player King (where he is as regal and authoritative as both Old Hamlet and Claudius – both of which he understudies…) – grabs you with every line he utters.

And Marcus Griffiths (understudying Hamlet, of course…)? Well, the man can do no wrong in my eyes. As hinted at above, his Laertes is more thoughtful, more profound than may be apparent in the text. His considered performance also brings a vulnerability (underneath all that muscular, macho posturing) that is deeply affecting; and his dying embrace of Hamlet – finally united in their joint love of Ophelia – is breathtaking.

We need to see more of Byron Mondahl, though. Such a wonderful voice, and with such humanity… – I would love to see him play Gloucester – or even Prospero.

Tanya Moodie’s extraordinary Gertrude is a matriarch steeped in suffering, delusion, misguided love, and a desire to play by rules real or imagined. In the first half, she teeters constantly on the verge of unveiling her true feelings; but it is only when confronted by Hamlet in her bedroom – shortly before Polonius gets his extremely dramatic comeuppance… – that all this repression explodes; that we see her for what she really is. This is a masterclass in nuance; and I am therefore eagerly looking forward to Joanne, the “one woman show” she will be appearing in as part of this summer’s Making Mischief festival. Even amongst a cast of such rich, deep talent, she is magnificent.

As I said above, Cyril Nri’s Polonius is also almost beyond perfection. All that surface guff conceals a highly political – yet, I felt, a desperately lonely, longing – old man. Were it not for Essiedu and Moodie, he would have been my performer of the night (although this was a fiercely-fought competition: with no losers to speak of…). His constant nervousness and desire to please those in power are never over-egged. What can be a one-dimensional rôle becomes richly fascinating in all its flaws.

Theo Ogundipe – as in Cymbeline – brings a canny gravitas to each of his characters. A worried Marcellus, he conjures – with Golding’s Barnardo – the Ghost’s initial visibility with mere words. As player Lucianus, he overacts appealingly (and appallingly), as he should. But, as Fortinbras, he commands the stage in the dying lines with simple presence.

Natalie Simpson (Ophelia) – photo by Manuel Harlan/RSC

There there is the sublime Natalie Simpson. Even after witnessing the ethereal Pippa Nixon as Ophelia, in David Farr’s intriguing 2013 production, Simpson still somehow manages to make this rôle her own. So sprightly in Cymbeline, her heart-rivening doom, here, seems inevitable, unstoppable. And yet we still do not know whether her death is intentional….

Clarence Smith is a real piece of work as Claudius… – and yet I really did like him (well, as much as you can any charming tyrant)! There was a moment, early on, where he stood in the very centre of the stage, and the whole theatre belonged to him. His self-belief wanes so gently, so subtly, though, that it is almost shocking when he kneels before the cross, and we see the doubt written plainly across his pleading face. As with all the cast, power and subtlety are keenly weighted and balanced. He is the match of both Essiedu and Moodie; his power never quite as certain as he desires… – we see his self-awareness fleetingly… – yet he will make the most of it whilst he still can: bullying those who he needs to fulfil his sovereignty.

Despite his charming grin as the Gravedigger, and his ripe demonstrations of wit, Ewart James Walters is absolutely terrifying as the Ghost of Old Hamlet. (I was forced back into my seat so hard by his first appearance.) Such a great voice; and charisma by the bucketful. You would not want to meet him on a dark night, patrolling the ramparts of Elsinore, that is for certain.

And, finally, Temi Wilkey – and that great smile – playing, again, a multitude of parts (Francisca, a Player, and the Gravedigger’s Assistant). Versatile in the extreme; and yet another demonstration that giving small parts to great actors pays dividends in the quality stakes.

Paapa Essiedu (Hamlet) – photo by Manuel Harlan/RSC

That the creative team is the equal of those on stage just goes to show how superior this production really is. Sola Akingbola’s awesome percussive soundtrack (directed by Bruce O’Neil, the RSC’s Head of Music) plays as fundamental a part as any of the actors; and his representation of the (as yet invisible to us) ghost is spine-shiveringly atmospheric. Paul Anderson’s lighting is also outstanding – but it is Paul Wills’ imaginative design, and Simon Godwin’s intelligent direction, that generate the audacious, cohesive and fascinating, gripping, universe in which the action takes place.

A hit, a very palpable hit.

Monday, 23 May 2016

I feared for them; I could not turn away…

I have referred several times on these pages to Vaughan Williams’ evocative masterpiece, The Lark Ascending – and almost exclusively, I think, as performed (increasingly exquisitely and heartrendingly) by Tamsin Waley-Cohen.

It seems, though, that, as I have aged, any concrete glimpses of the bird itself have been usurped by this glorious orchestral characterization – especially those closing, solo bars: climbing, spiralling, fluttering towards the sun; and thence beyond perception….

Skylark populations have dramatically declined in recent years, more than halving since the 1980s. This decline is due to changes in agricultural practices and habitat loss. The Wildlife Trusts are working closely with farmers and landowners to promote wildlife-friendly practices to help the skylark and other farmland birds, such as leaving winter stubble and providing field margins. We are working towards a ‘Living Landscape’: a network of habitats and wildlife corridors across town and country which are good for both wildlife and people.
– Warwickshire Wildlife Trust: Skylark

When I rekindle a generic lark ascending in my mind, consequently, I am consistently taken back to Chiselbury hill‑fort (sometimes also known as Chiselbury Camp) – guarding the A30 between Salisbury and Shaftesbury – where, being the only (frequent) visitor (and thus guaranteed peaceful solitude), I was more often than not guaranteed the display of what can sometimes feel as fabled a bird – this swift passerine… – as the phoenix.

Yesterday – tracing the Centenary Way between Home Farm and Old Lodge Farm – I was therefore astonished and overjoyed to perceive that familiar song: although it took me a short while to spot the hovering culprit against the gathering storm clouds (which would later pound me with heavy globules of hard rain).

Time and I stood there still… – “Long complicated, beautiful song-flights can last for up to an hour and the birds can reach 300m before descending…” – and, despite several short parachuting dips, this hardy male showed no sign of waning, or a willingness to return to earth. Later, as I entered the woodland – before struggling up the horse-pounded, pockmarked quagmire through the tall trees towards Sugarswell Farm (and, beyond, a well-deserved flapjack and coffee at Upton House…!) – I could still hear its elevated echoes. And my day was made; my effort rewarded. All pain temporarily erased.

This, therefore, is why I walk – when, as a physical act in itself, it is absolute agony for me. I simply, repeatedly, put one foot in front of the other not only for the endorphins engendered by such exertion; but for the fortuitous euphoria Mother Nature always bestows.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

I have assail’d her with musics…

I wrote recently that “It’s strange how life’s roads diverge… yet, sometimes, then cross, run in parallel, until they meet again at some glistening, memorable moment…” – and mentioned, amongst others, Martin Roscoe, Peter Maxwell Davies, and a “Yamaha CFX concert grand”.

Well, in some kind of parallel crystallization (although partly inspired by the above convergence), yesterday I took delivery of a Yamaha Clavinova CLP-525R – which includes “Complex sample sets, painstakingly borrowed from Yamaha’s flagship CFX concert grand…” – and from a retailer who (being based, then, just around the corner from my second childhood home of Blackburn Cathedral) also played a large part in my formative musical years. In fact, the copy of Farewell to Stromness I chose to baptize the piano with actually bears a Reidy’s price sticker on it… – as does, unsurprisingly, a great deal of the sheet music I own (apart from the seventy-year-old collections of Brahms, Bridge, Chopin, Mozart, etc. that I have inherited from my mum: a much better pianist than I).

As much as I would have liked to have claimed back the family Bechstein Model 10 upright from my son: firstly, my ears and hands are no longer worthy of such a wonderful instrument (and, more importantly, he is so much more musical than I, and can therefore give it the justice it deserves); and, secondly, we really don’t have the room! Additionally, with the Clavinova, I can pipe the sound directly to my hearing aids: which not only saves the rest of the household from the caterwauling of my (current) incredible rustiness; but enables me to hear its output more clearly. In fact – being able only to recall the aural and physical aspects of the Bechstein: so embedded, after thirty years of playing it (although I did borrow my sister’s Blüthner for a while, when my hearing originally started to fade, but I wasn’t quite willing to let go completely of my favourite pieces) – one of the astounding features of an electronic keyboard is the ability to adjust the feel and sonority to my own satisfaction (even on what is a relatively basic model)!

I was also surprised by how easily (yet inaccurately) technique came back to me, the first time I sat down and played: musical muscle memory is a great thing – as, of course, is my recently improved hearing. However, my hands appear to have shrunk – or, at least, their span – in the last few years: and Max’s awkward major ninth semiquaver (from middle B to C#) at bar 20 caused me no end of problems!

Practice, of course, should restore some of this flexibility – although the piano will, primarily, be an aid to relaxation: in much the way that listening is. I also hope, however, that such immersion will prompt a return to composition. We shall see.

For the moment, it is just wonderful to be able to riffle through my large collection of music, plonk it on the stand, and restore – however clumsily – relationships with once-familiar friends. A few Chopin mazurkas, later, I think! (And maybe a little Mompou, too…?)

Friday, 13 May 2016

Wary of the furrows that we’ve churned…

Who can tell me where I am…?

Having worked in agriculture, I struggle to understand those landowners and/or farmers who plant a crop, and then force people to tread all over it, willy-nilly: damaging the young seedlings; flattening the ground; and, ultimately, reducing the yield. Try walking up to Tysoe Windmill, at the moment, and play a jolly game of ‘spot the path’ on your ascent. (Fun for the whole family!)

This is not a path; this is not a stile…

If you’re like me – badly disabled – you may be tempted to take the route of least resistance: looking for a gap in the next hedge, and heading for it as straight as the crow flies (although not today: the northerly wind was buffeting them like a mainsail rounding the Orkneys…); crossing your fingers that a gate or stile lurks there. However, if you’re really like me, and have innate, well-developed sensitivities about these things, you will try and follow the tractor’s elephantine depressions in the soil, tiptoeing gingerly between the green sprouts, and trying to minimize the spoil.

Probably pining for the fjords…

That such a strategy led me to encounter the stiffened, stripped corpse of a young badger seems strangely apposite. If it had been trapped, I suppose it would have been removed. However, rendered paranoid by the deterrence of erased trails – and a pair of rusty spikes seemingly designed to carry trespassers’ severed clotpoles… – I wondered if this too was a warding-off, even a poisoning? The rigid death-pose looked highly unnatural; and I can only pray that the resultant scavengers were more fortunate, if so.

Enter Guiderius with Cloten’s head…

Legally, paths have to be reinstated within a fortnight of ploughing and planting – but, of course, some (I feel I must be allowed to call them) capitalist bastards prefer you not to access their land at all: and will therefore string barbed or electrified wires across defined rights-of-way. Anarchist that I am, I am more than happy to smash these illegal (and anti-social, of course) blockages with my handy walking stick: until I can pass without fear of major bodily harm (and the subsequent Bard-invoked lawsuit).

Theory, one; reality, nil…

Such routes have either been hard-fought-for; or have existed as byways for many centuries. Why should the greed of a few spiteful individuals ruin – as they did today – my enjoyment of fresh air and public access: especially when I know these are effective treatments for both my chronic pain, as well as my PTSD-originated depression? (I therefore returned home more miserable than when I had set off… – my many rude mutterings causing the local, wind‑hovering buzzards to mew in dismay; the chattering chaffinches to blush; and the truculent rooks to welcome me with open wings….)

Round like a circle in a spiral…

Packwood House – what a real path actually looks like…

What a contrast, though, from yesterday! Not only the weather: but every footpath I traversed between Baddesley Clinton and Packwood House was clearly marked, and well-maintained. You feel welcomed (and even appreciated); and you therefore relax (despite, in my case – after a long, enforced bout of rest – setting too high a target; and not doing myself any physical favours – hence the re-stretching of limbs, today…).

Bluebells – you wouldn’t have known, otherwise would you…?

This was strong, sweet medicine, which required no sugar to swallow: especially as the wildlife also seemed happy in the surprising warmth. (My fleece stayed on for only a few hundred yards; and even a thin, technical T-shirt felt too much! Today, a thick, hooded fleece and a long-sleeved thermal vest were no protection from the harsh wind… – although it did help push me up the hill…!)

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows…

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

But time hath nothing blurr’d those lines of favour…

Bethan Cullinane (Innogen); Gillian Bevan (Cymbeline); James Clyde (The Duke) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

Preview: Monday, 2 May 2016
Even at a quarter of an hour over the advertised “approximate performance time” – coming in at three hours and forty minutes in total (including the interval) – it still felt as if we were being accelerated towards Shakespeare’s most convoluted finale, pell-mell: yet, unfortunately, fuelled mostly by a mixture of craftiness and contrivance. I thus left the RSC’s Cymbeline (for the first time) with a bum absent of all feeling; a heart in pretty much the same state; but a mind replete with “The fierce disputes ’twixt virtue and desire”.

I understand that there were refunds issued on the night of the first preview (29 April 2016): as dress and/or tech rehearsals had not been completed. I am not surprised. There is – and you can lay the blame for some of this at Will’s feet; although most on the over-complicated production and design (see below) – one heckuva lot going on. Movement (directed by Emily Mytton) must have been a nightmare in itself; never mind the use of a rare (at the RSC, anyhow) followspot for the frequent asides, and accompanying rapid (albeit sometimes tardy) lighting changes (designed by Philip Gladwell).

Talking of tech, the ghost/dream scene felt like something from Play School, I’m afraid; and was not helped by three large illuminated fan-cum-smoke machines (and associated cabled mess) being clumsily manoeuvred onto the stage. As to their purpose, well, who knows? To me – especially as one of these infernal contraptions was very close to my seat (ruining both my view and my comprehension) – they represented the overall clunkiness of the staging (and left me with a feeling that we, the audience, are assumed to be a little slow: and therefore need things spelling out for us…).

The main problem with this play is not so much that the plot is silly, but that there is far too much of it. As a consequence, Shakespeare has to spend a disproportionate amount of time in explaining the plot to the audience; and that, in itself, draws attention to the absurdities. And furthermore, the explanations of the sheer mechanics of the plot result in some very awkward passages. The very opening scene, for instance, is about as crude a piece of expository writing as one would find anywhere in dramatic literature. Throughout, there are explanatory asides; and Belarius at one point is given a long soliloquy that has absolutely no purpose other than to fill in the audience on his story. Shakespeare must have realised that things were going a bit wrong: it is very noticeable that in the two plays that followed, he thinned down the plot considerably.
– The Argumentative Old Git: The Bardathon: 30 – Cymbeline

I had initially wanted to see Cymbeline because of the infrequency/irregularity of its staging; and, having pored over it – and it is actually a damnably good read… – was amused by the humour, and intrigued by both the beauty and complexity of the language – as well as its obvious experimental, self-referential nature.

We used to classify Shakespeare’s dramas as comedy, tragedy, or history – but this is none of these things. It is a quasi-historical “late romance” – in much the same way that King Lear could be said to be a quasi-historical tragedy… – both viewed, though, I feel, through extremely world-weary goggles…. It could also quite easily be played for laughs: if we accept it as “Shakespearean self-parody” (and I am allowed to play Cloten’s sardonic Second Lord (here, the wonderful Theo Ogundipe; accompanied by the equally wonderful Romayne Andrews as First Lord)).

I could not envisage, though, how on earth it should be performed, pragmatically… – my only tentative solutions being either an audience high, en masse, on some illicit substance: rendering the whole thing an hallucinatory trip, a dream… where sense is not prioritized, nor even requisite… – or an intelligent substantial editing: as with the current run of Doctor Faustus.

That this production veers more towards the fantastic former is probably a positive. In doing so – if it achieves anything… – it (just about) makes sense of Shakespeare’s most bonkers muddle of multiple plot-strands (whereas removing chunks of text would probably have been “As slippery as the Gordian knot was hard!”).

I obviously cannot say, though, whether Will was simply taking the piss – “a deliberate pastiche” – having had to rush something out “possibly to be performed on the occasion of the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1610”; or if he was trying to compile a drama mishmashing the ‘greatest hits’ of all his previous tropes (e.g. cross-dressing; resurrection; violence; invasion… – I could go on, and on, and on…).

For this, I think he looked back on his comedies as much as he did to the tragedies. Of course, Posthumus’ murderous jealousy may remind us of Othello, and Iachimo’s villainy may remind us of Iago; but Imogen setting out on her own in time of adversity reminds us of Rosalind, of Viola, and even, perhaps, of Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona; and, more especially it reminds us of Helena in All’s Well that Ends Well, that strange fairy-tale like work written while Shakespeare was concerned mainly with tragic affairs. Indeed, looking through the entire body of Shakespeare’s work, All’s Well That Ends Well seems to me to be a sort of link between the world of the comedies and that of these late works. I get the impression that even when Shakespeare was creating his great tragic dramas, his ever-restless mind, constantly darting, like Hamlet’s, to newer ideas, was already forming and imagining a new artistic vision.
– The Argumentative Old Git: The Bardathon: 30 – Cymbeline

Perhaps, for a Jacobean audience, such rhymes and reasons resonated more easily when mounted; and Will’s points were more sharply made; his machinations more obvious…? (Whatever my misgivings, in performance, the play does have its admirers.) In this production, though, too many things simply felt too laboured – taken far too literally; far too seriously – for me to feel much love for it.

Why, for instance, is the trademark sumptuous language translated into Latin, Italian and French – which many in the audience then cannot see in the original English: projected as it is onto an overly-complicated mechanical set, at the very back of the stage? (Is such convolution a response to other directors’ misguided attempts to ‘simplify’ the poetry…?) And why the jingoistic projection of the Union Jack and the Flag of Europe at the end? We have been preached at enough in the programme for us not to realize the political driving force behind the whole shebang. (If we did not have the brains to wade through the previous two-hundred-plus minutes, why must our intelligence be then so insulted?)

As with all worthwhile fairy-tales, though, any visible merriment is merely an unstable oil-slick floating on a deep lagoon of pain and darkness. It does not take much force, much of a splash, to reveal the terrors beneath. “It is only a game… to die will be an awfully big adventure.”

And why did the design (by Anna Fleischle) feel more like (the above) Wendy and Peter Pan-style pyrotechnics rather than Shakespearean subtleties? I understand that this is a fable, a “fairy-tale” – the text, for me, contains little of the depth of, say, King Lear or The Tempest… – or even A Midsummer Night’s Dream… – but I do not believe that this justifies such overblown artifice: especially the constant haunting(?) presence of Philharmonia (the graceful Temi Wilkey) – “a soothsayer” (who actually only appears in two scenes in the original text…) – which serves merely to distract: especially in ‘private’ scenes, where only we, the audience, are supposed to be the onlookers. (Are we always inside her dream? Or is this some indication that we should see her sprighting as proof of manipulation, or of an engineered tragedy…?)

Finally, although I am a fan of (rational) gender‑swapping in Shakespeare… – sometimes it can reveal real depths that, otherwise, may be murky, at best; invisible, at worst… – here it neither adds nor subtracts. It simply is. I am therefore unsure, again, as to what it is meant to imply or achieve.

Hiran Abeysekera (Posthumus); Bethan Cullinane (Innogen) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

That I only felt sympathy for minor(ish) characters – and those, ostensibly, who were ‘on the wrong side’ (certainly of Cymbeline, herself – here a queen: played with authority by Gillian Bevan… – if not of morality) also threw me. I found Innogen (Bethan Cullinane), who has 17% of the total number of lines, rendered a little petulant and spoilt (and thus, in no way, the ideal Renaissance Woman she is sometimes held up to be); and Posthumus Leonatus (Hiran Abeysekera; 12%) overwrought – “his absence from the middle of the play may be considered a blessing” – and not a little hammy. (That the two deserved each other seems just; but their reunion had the emotional impact of a damp haddock straight to the mush. (Give me Rosalind and Orlando, any day.))

James Clyde (The Duke); Gillian Bevan (Cymbeline) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

As a key part of a talented and generally well-founded company, though, Kelly Williams shone brightly as Pisania, Posthumus’ servant (more loyal, deservingly, though, to Innogen); and had believable gravity. Oliver Johnstone was also extremely impressive as the scheming Iachimo – and the scene where he steals around the sleeping Innogen was the most moving of the night (although probably for all the wrong reasons). His remorse and repentance feel true – he is more complex than we are initially led to believe.

Oliver Johnstone (Iachimo) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

I also rather liked James Clyde as Cymbeline’s second husband… – here was a textbook wicked ‘stepmother’: snide and charming; cunning and manipulative; and with a wicked glint in those wide eyes that, you might have thought, would have betrayed his plans to anyone with an ounce of wit! “So, so. Well done, well done.”

Romayne Andrews (First Lord); Marcus Griffiths (Cloten); Theo Ogundipe (Second Lord); with Bethan Cullinane (Innogen), front – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

Marcus Griffiths – of course… – was the perfect swaggering puttock, Cloten. He brings immense physical presence, charisma and wit to any rôle he plays; and I felt rather sorry for his gruesome demise (although immensely impressed by the RSC Workshops’ personation of his severed bonce… – I half expected it to wink and grin, it was so lifelike)! The fact that he was so much taller than Posthumus – whose clothes were therefore a remarkably bad fit – was the best (short) running joke of the performance; and Griffiths played it just the right side of farce.

For me, Graham Turner, as Belarius, was the star of the night, though: empathetic but powerful; loving and loved; forgiving and forgiven. Every word, every gesture, every emotion, was deeply thought and portrayed. An admixture of Duke Senior and Jaques, he often seems to be the only sincere, reverent person on stage (apart from perhaps the charismatic Byron Mondahl as Philario – also, rightfully, understudying Turner… – who, it turns out, has a beautiful baritone singing voice). Belarius is certainly the moral centre of all this mayhem….

There were not enough laughs, though – not (even) for a Shakespearean tragedy…. Not the fault of the audience: as I do not feel those jokes so evident in the script – although the language can be knotty at times… – were communicated that well.

Graham Turner (Belarius); Natalie Simpson (Guideria); James Cooney (Arviragus); with Bethan Cullinane (Innogen), front – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

Overall, it certainly felt like a preview – which is very unusual for the RSC: these first performances are usually born fully-formed and mature. It also did not resonate with the usual, high, RSC quality. [Pop next door, to the Swan, to delight in such… – both Doctor Faustus and Don Quixote are quite stunning, in their different ways… – as, I’m sure, The Alchemist, with the same company, is also bound to be. (There are many reasons why I prefer the older theatre….)]

I will – as is my wont – be back, though, soon (in a couple of days, in fact), to see if changes have been made; to witness any (crossing my fingers) improvements; to see if it makes more sense on‑stage, next time around. Captions (at my final viewing, in a month or so) may also help, of course – although, if there is one thing I took away from the night, it was the clarity of delivery. Even with my duff hearing – and some interference, in the silences, with the induction loop (possibly caused by my sitting immediately next to the sound control booth) – I could follow a great deal of the dialogue: and the cast are therefore to be applauded soundly for this.

Hiran Abeysekera (Posthumus), rear; Oliver Johnstone (Iachimo) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

Second coming: Wednesday, 4 May 2016
Well, it finished on time – so that was a plus! (Reputedly, this is because Greg DoranJupiter‑like – descended from on high; complained bitterly about length and quality; and imposed his jus primae noctis, Jack Cade‑style. “Great men have reaching hands; oft have I struck Those that I never saw, and struck them dead.”)

As a result, I thought it flowed much more evenly… – although it still trips and stumbles occasionally like a not-fully-formed thing. The drastic lighting switches – for those plentiful asides – have become more ‘relaxed’ (yet terribly – and distractingly – inconsistent): and the cast also appear more at ease. Additionally, all those long expository speeches, somehow, seem more comprehensible. The production therefore feels more whole; more accomplished.

Are we there yet? Not really. (In fact, if you want evidence of this, then the equally distracting gentleman – an/the assistant director? – in the stalls, downstage right, with a clipboard and his own personal spotlight, taking copious notes, shows, I feel, that we’re still in preview mode… – just paying for full-price tickets…!)

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what – if any – cuts have been made: it just felt – inexplicably, and not a little counterintuitively – tighter; but a lot less rushed. (One of the changes I did notice was the lovely Natalie Simpson, as the savage Polydore, now reciting the first verse of Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun – which helped excise the famous Finzi melody from my mind. This was a moving moment of great stillness… – of which there are not enough….)

I still don’t like many of the gimmicks (although the apparitions seemed a little less clumsy (this may be subjective: I may have acclimatized…)); and I still have little sympathy for the two divided lovers. But I did enjoy myself – and am now therefore looking forward, quite eagerly, to the captioned performance I have booked (on 4 June 2016 – when I presume/hope all the technical issues will have finally been eradicated/remedied…)!

Oh, and we had many more laughs – although these were rather inconsistent: as the cast seemed unsure (yet) how to raise them, meaningfully (apart from Griffiths: who is a natural comedian). It’s a long run, though – until 15 October 2016, in Stratford-upon-Avon; and then until 22 December 2016 at the Barbican… – so it should be a cracker, come Christmas!

I am still not utterly convinced that this is remotely close to the/any way to stage Cymbeline, though. It seems far, far too earnest. And fails, partly, from trying too hard to cover all the bases, plot-wise (for which you’d need a thick blanket the size of Warwickshire); and endeavouring to resolve irrational devices with ill-conceived logic. I am also of the opinion that the whole shebang is too design-led (perhaps because of director Melly Still). And, although I originally wrote that “I could not envisage… how on earth it should be performed, pragmatically”, I do now reckon that I would have taken the path of least resistance through the textual complexities: that is, just having the actors; two props (a bed and a box); and a blank canvas. In other words, I would have concentrated on the personal actions, reactions, and interactions – and tried my best to make the stories ‘work’ – and not given a fig about overcomplicating things with chicanery, fancy lighting, nor huge pieces of mobile scenery…. (I know there are twenty-two locations amongst the twenty-seven scenes: but it is never really that clear where we are, from the set design, anyway! (And I’m not sure that it really matters.))

O, what a scene of fool’ry have I seen,
Of sighs, of groans, of sorrow, and of teen!
O me, with what strict patience have I sat,
To see a king transformed to a gnat!
To see great Hercules whipping a gig,
And profound Salomon to tune a jig,
And Nestor play at push-pin with the boys,
And critic Timon laugh at idle toys!
– Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Lost (IV.iii.140-147)

Hiran Abeysekera (Posthumus); Bethan Cullinane (Innogen) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

Pressing on: Tuesday, 10 May 2016
My original plan – under my (probational) agreement with the RSC Press Office – was to hold back the above brace of reviews until after press night: even though I had anticipated that yet more ‘stuff’ would have changed at this date. I knew my comments would therefore be a few days out of sync with this seemingly ever-evolving production: but aimed to opine on such things when I made my final (captioned) visit to the run on 4 June 2016.

However, a £10 ticket offer appeared on the RSC’s Twitter feed! (My Yorkshire blood runs true.) So who am I to resist the temptation of a seat in the centre of the Circle at such a wonderful price?! Especially when it would mean that the final version/section of this post would be consistent with those in the wider media – albeit with added insight (or, at least, context). Additionally, as this performance was to start fifteen minutes earlier than normal, there was a chance I would be home before midnight…! (I was!)

The bad news. It still doesn’t feel at all ‘complete’: although many changes (some major, some minor) have been made – especially with the lighting (including messy mingled spots being replaced by fussy flickering floodlights). However, sadly, there still seems to be no set rule – apart from the other characters going into awkward slow-mo – for all those parenthetical obiter dicta. We also appear to have let some not-very-talented graffiti artists onto the set – probably to remind us that we’re in some sort of bleak, nature-less, “dystopian… not too distant future”. (Oh, I so hate being lectured to…. (Grrr.))

The good news is that the nationalism appears to have been watered down. There also seem to be more pauses (in the right places) and laughs (often in the wrong places; and tonight, frequently led by a discrete (but in no way discreet) bunch of folk to my left… – in fact, it almost felt canned, at times; and the cast did not seem ready for them…). The pace was certainly much better, though – especially in the “convoluted” 3,987‑word, 570‑line, last scene (17% of the total play): although, here, some of the story arcs plummeted to the ground, rather than floating gracefully down (like paper ghosts, perhaps).

Strangely enough, I still rather enjoyed myself; and am grateful, therefore, for the opportunity to witness the play ‘live’. However, I was not transported to another time or place; nor was my belief in any way suspended (tree stump-like, perhaps) at any time… – both of which are my usual instinctive responses to great theatre (and great music). Let’s just say that (damning with faint etc.) this is an ‘interesting’ interpretation – complex, like its many plots – but not one that I found engaging. I was entertained, certainly (which I suspect is many people’s standard reaction to both drama and harmony – not everyone blubs so readily; nor desires to be so immersed…) – but that, obviously, for me, is just nowhere near enough.

I also suspect that my final viewing, in just over three weeks, will be yet more modified. And it is this instability that troubles me most – as I am sure it will others. (As I stated earlier: this “is very unusual for the RSC… performances are usually born fully-formed and mature”.)

Perhaps I am missing something obvious: which is stopping me from ‘connecting’…? Perhaps those laughing so frequently see something I do not…? My all-too-habitual theatre-attending gut says this is not the case, though. And, in a way, if the disappointment is only my personal reaction, then it is a good thing (especially for the RSC). I just suspect my dismay will not be so confined… – and am therefore (if this be the case) surprised (if that be the case) that Doran didn’t intervene earlier. [He was sat a couple of rows in front of me… – but, skilled professional (and genuinely nice guy) that he is, I could not gauge the sincerity of his reaction: his applause and admiration seemed honest and hearty. (But they would, wouldn’t they…?)]

Trying to end on a favourable note, let me spotlight a handful of people I haven’t already singled out. Sound designer Jonathan Ruddick, composer Dave Price, music director Jan Winstone and the other instrumentalists, all deserve medals. The soundtrack fits perfectly; is not overwrought; nor is it overbearing… – it produces an atmosphere that I feel would otherwise be largely absent… – part of which stems from Maria Mealey’s contrabassoon growling, threateningly, at the very bottom of its range: making such a rich (and extremely welcome) contribution. Talking of which… as always, Terry King’s fights are things of balletic beauty and magnificent menace. What would the RSC do without him…?


I have read three hours then. Mine eyes are weak.
Fold down the leaf where I have left. To bed.
Take not away the taper, leave it burning;
And if thou canst awake by four o’ th’ clock,
I prithee call me. Sleep hath seiz’d me wholly.