Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Terminat hora diem; terminat auctor opus.

The trouble with happiness is that the prospect of it ending makes you sad.

After my most recent viewing of Doctor Faustus, on 11 June 2016, I drafted the following few paragraphs. That they never made it on to my blog (until now) is probably because – with just one precious, fragile visit left – I could not, at the time, reach any conclusion or closure….

Seven heavenly wins…
I had actually lost count of how many times I’d seen this production until I checked my diary… – only then to discover that this, my seventh, was also my penultimate. Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven, That time may cease and midnight never come!

After an absence of six weeks, desperately in need of my next fix of “the very definition of theatre [featuring] two actors at the very top of their joint game” – O, how this sight doth delight my soul! – how on earth (or in hell), I wondered, was I going to survive without it?

Think’st thou that I, that saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?

It has spoken to me in a way that no other drama has ever quite managed. Therefore, again – Had not sweet pleasure conquered deep despair… – I am worried that “Only the darkness [will] remain… an unremitting nightmare way beyond hope: and which, to me, currently feels all too real.” I understand that I am not addicted to it… – not according to the true, scientific meaning of the word… – but I know that I will suffer from its withdrawal.

[That I bumped into Oliver Ryan, a few days later – and we talked like long-lost friends… – certainly eased my pain. But I shall miss him, Sandy, Nicholas Lumley, Jade Croot, and the rest of the gifted company, in a way I never thought possible…. That I will be away for the last night just compounds the grief. Theatre is so sodding ephemeral. (Even when captured for posterity on DVD, the experience can never be the same.) All that will remain are all those reviews – and my cherished, tightly-grasped memories. But not even those can provide the spark that relights the sheer magic of sitting on the front row, knowing myself to be in Wittenberg, tears streaming down my face in rapturous heartbreak.]

Mephistophilis But Faustus, in hell is all manner of delight.
Faustus O, might I see hell and return again safe, how happy were I then!

And machination ceases…
Similar thoughts emerged, yesterday, sat in a coffee shop in Malvern, grabbing an espresso and a bite to eat before revisiting Michael Pennington’s incomparable “inhabitation” of King Lear. Again, another uniformly stupendous company. Again, a production with direct access to my soul. But, after last night, all I can bring myself to write is that my “business of the world hath so an end”.

This is the last week of the run; and I have exhausted all my opportunities to see it again. (How I wish it were not so.) I cannot even make it to the company’s poetry reading – for Calais Action – on Thursday evening. (But please feel free to go on my behalf…!) Three times was never going to be enough….

All I can say, as I did at the very beginning of this report, was that this was a landmark portrayal; an actor at the very pinnacle of his (and everyone-else’s) very great game. That his genius encompassed all those around him; that his howls as he dragged Cordelia’s slumped body onto the stage haunted my dreams (and will for many a night); that his eyes twinkled, then dimmed, and twinkled once more, before finally fading to naught; that he made us not only see – but feel, taste – that mouse and toasted cheese, those parted curtains; that the roof of the Royal, for one moment, floated heavenwards as we called him back to the stage; that he was, for three hours, Lear – not an actor in increasingly-threadbare clothing – …all these things are sadly not enough to even begin to describe what we saw; experienced; heard; were immersed in….

However much my resultant sadness, it is, of course, tempered with great joy at having been fortunate enough to have witnessed such wonders. And my sorrow is nothing compared to Michael Pennington’s own grief at not being able to launch this tour at the RSC – his “lifelong stamping-ground” – because of apparent intransigence and jealousy. [As much as I love the building, and the many, many generous and inspiring folk that create daily miracles there, it seems that politics stalks even the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s labyrinthine corridors. Like the referendum result, last Friday – to which there were a few knowing nods in last night’s (again) gripping performance (including the most stunning, heartfelt, sincere rendition of those final lines…) – it seems that even people with intelligence can be immensely shortsighted in the self-awareness department when their own egos require (as they wrongly see it) protecting.]

I knew in my bones that my Lear wouldn’t make it to Stratford, and I don’t suppose Shakespeare will spin in his grave in 2016. However, the door that I found closed on Lear has finished my business with a company with whom I’ve been intimately associated under every previous regime since Peter Hall founded it in 1961.
– Michael Pennington: King Lear in Brooklyn

More gratitude, then – that I witnessed one of the very greatest Shakespearean actors of my lifetime strut the boards of the RST and the Swan (and, many moons ago, probably also in The Other Place – I fear I am not in my perfect mind…) – but heavily tainted with wrath, this time: that I will never see him in my adopted home town again.

Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense. Have I caught thee?
He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven,
And fire us hence like foxes. Wipe thine eyes;
The good-years shall devour them, flesh and fell,
Ere they shall make us weep! We’ll see ’em starved first.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

As we tumble into bed…

I am night. I know when the moon rises, overdue, from its Tysoe Hill cradle: slowed by that earthly, all-too-human two-hundred-metre climb. The door closed, I anticipate its deflating, almost-rugby-ball form (one-fifth, by this time, spent soot); its brilliance – already mirrored by the sentinel freshly-steamed, gently-flaking haddock clouds – even its transcendent power to push apart those insubstantial, misty wafers; to flaw them further, exile them to the four corners of the still-light sky: their slow shimmers waving the constellations in and out of perception; whilst the liminal echo of sunset, still, over Oxhill, reinforced by Stratford’s incessant orange insult, outlines the opposing horizon. What I do not foresee – although nearly thirty of our planet’s spans distant – is its affable enormity: how it looms in the dim welkin with ether-expanded warmth. And thus I am saddened, as my companion ascends beyond my reach, that it dwindles, draws back, as if ashamed of its luminous monopoly.

This nocturne is thus anything but starless; and yet it is the sensuous Dylan Thomas and his voluptuous words that spring to the surface of my midsummer mind. Friday has rolled unheeded, by most, into Saturday. Villagers are later home; later to sleep; perchance, correspondingly later to emerge. And, therefore, many houses are yet as vigilant as ravens: their cowled, sometime-curtained eyes regularly gaping wide; occasionally blinkered by the passing of a shifty, shifting profile; or flicked blue by the dream-stopping, probably-no-longer-small-screen dumbness. Curiously, the regular pulse of coloured lamps streams high through the almost-darkness (felt, not heard); and hurtling drivers temporarily blind my bible-black-acquainted vision with their haste: rendering me all the more mole-like. But, as a habituated noctambulist, I am alone, as always: solitary “as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump…” – and the church clock presents its tongue-tied time only at the insistence of those penetrating lunar beams.

Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row, it is the grass growing on Llareggub Hill, dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds in Milk Wood.

I am night. Between the gravestones, I hear otherwise-forgotten, undone dreams and stolen songs; witness withered oaths. I am often here; therefore familiar as the cooling breeze. This is a convivial place: I am trusted with cloistered conceits and misremembered musings; repeatedly sworn to the silence I so desire. But a belly-laugh bursts, balloon-like, from a far, open, impertinent pane; and collapses – thankfully – as quickly to oblivion. Such quietude beckons me on, calls me out. I rustle my adieus. Intimate night will return. I promise. There are sighs.

Time passes. Listen. Time passes.

All too soon I am home, key in hand. No longer will feet fall, or boots tread on Tysoe’s welcoming walkways. The frequent foxes will cough only to themselves; the owls laugh at our timidity. I am night. In the swarthiness above, the moon smiles.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

If you go down to the woods today…

Peter Cockerill (Bottom) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth;
And ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to confusion.

Perhaps it was a conjunction of sorts – Tim Peake, like a celestial spirit, descending to Earth; just as the ‘strawberry moon’ (longingly hunted for by Puck – the enchanting Lucy Ellinson – in pyjamas) heralded the summer solstice; and the opening (as Erica Whyman reminded us) of a portal (real or mythical) between the fairy kingdom and the land where us gentle mortals dwell… – or perhaps it was simply meeting Mephistophilis himself (the impish Oliver Ryan), and being granted several wishes all at once… – but, whatever it was, yesterday, for me, was an intensely magical day. And in so many intensely magical ways! And all thanks to the RSC….

It signs well, does it not?
– Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra (IV.iii.14)

Last night’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted one – although “interpreted” seems far too weak a word for the way the warm, winning, wonderful Caroline Ryan gathered us up in her eloquent arms and carried us through the evening. [If you want to see some of this wonderment in action, then I suggest you watch her fantastic signed introduction to the play and its characters.]

Initially aloof from the mortals, onstage, it soon became apparent – her coloured Puck-like quiff and red stockings were hints; but Chu Omambala’s generous embracing of her as part of his (Oberon’s) entourage was the giveaway (later, at the post-show Q&A, confirmed by Whyman) – that here was another cheeky, otherworldly sprite – Robin Goodfellow’s shadow; or perhaps antithesis – commenting on, and laughing at – with wonderful expressiveness – the foibles of those silly humans; and yet fully engaged with, and involved in, the fairies’ songs, dances and tricks! You didn’t have to understand BSL (as I don’t – yet…) – although many of her descriptive gestures so clearly enriched the action for everyone… – to be immediately enraptured by her skill, and her (and the language’s) inherent ingenuity and power. Each character was somehow rendered differently, individually; and she moved around the stage not as an adjunct to the action, but as a completely integrated and important part of it: creating a rich, interwoven layer of insight and enjoyment.

Even though I don’t currently use BSL, there are two main reasons why I am so interested in such presentations: firstly, of course, because of my own hearing loss; but, secondly, that I find – as with the earlier “interpreted” The Jew of Malta – them to be immensely, amazingly moving (as I know did Jasper Britton, who played the eponymous Barabas). They are such wonderful, inclusive undertakings (especially when, organizationally, they add another layer of complexity to already convoluted proceedings) – not only because they expand the magnificent, immersive experience that is theatre to those who may otherwise not be able to partake; but also (a little selfishly, perhaps) because – although I need to substantially increase my lip- and caption-reading abilities first… – as my deafness continues to grow, I may, some day – to put it crudely and simplistically – have to (enthusiastically) rely on them.

Having said that, though, BSL is no simple replacement for the spoken word. As you may have gathered from my description of Caroline’s performance, above, it is so multidimensional a language that I can see how it deeply enriches its users’ lives – as well as empowering them (never mind giving them the ability to talk in busy, cacophonous environments – something I struggle with intensely, at the moment: and therefore envy massively…).

Such qualities readily became apparent during the afternoon’s BSL-interpreted pre-show theatre tour that I was invited on by the RSC. Fortunately – for me – I was the only attendee; although I initially felt a bit of an impostor, not actually using BSL. Yet Clare Edwards, the extremely patient and thoughtful BSL guide, and Lesley Frampton, the extremely knowledgeable and accommodating RSC guide, took this in their stride, and made me feel extremely welcome.

Because I already knew some of the theatre’s history and workings – although Lesley was mesmerizing in her ability to continually deliver fresh gems of information and detail, and make me feel truly involved – a small part of the hour was spent investigating the mechanics (if that’s the right word) of a signed tour; and from all our perspectives. This was fascinating in itself; but, again, watching Clare in action was truly engrossing; and, whilst in the quieter parts of the theatre – where I no longer needed to concentrate on reading Lesley’s lips – I began, I believe, to truly get a taste of just how powerful BSL is. (Clare’s expertise and generosity certainly gave me incentive to explore the process of learning it myself… – despite being conscious of the fact that it is no easy achievement being as beautifully fluent and absorbing as both her and Caroline.)

Although, in so many ways, it was great to have such a ‘private’ tour, I really would encourage anyone who wants to go to the theatre, but worries about accessibility in any form, to take advantage of the RSC’s welcoming, intelligent, responsive and courteous (and, in my experience, somewhat unusual) approach. As someone who struggles with mobility, as well as hearing, I find them incredibly keen to ensure that the whole experience of visiting them – whether for a drink, a meal, an exhibition, a theatre tour, or fully engaging with their riveting productions – is made as easy and friendly as possible for everyone. They also appear happy to adapt to, and accommodate, each person’s needs – stating on their Access webpage that…

We want to make everything we do accessible to all our audiences, and are constantly seeking to find new and effective ways of breaking down barriers to enable attendance by the widest range of people.

By the way – if you want yet more proof of this policy – Clare also keenly (and seemingly inexhaustibly) signed the post-show talk: again meaning that none of the audience were excluded. [A brief note of thanks to the RSC’s sound technicians, here. Although I simply turned up my hearing aids a notch for the play itself – I know it pretty well, and was sat centrally, very near the front… – I connected to the theatre’s super-duper induction loop for the Q&A: and every word from those onstage was crystal clear. Wonderful!]

Yet more of the day’s sparkling magic emanated from – for me – a new set of Mechanicals. Based in Barnard Castle, County Durham, The Castle Players have been “delighting audiences since 1989”; and, in the programme, they tellingly state that Shakespeare “just ‘gets’ the stuff that makes us human”. Doesn’t he just!

Ayesha Dharker (Titania); Peter Cockerill (Bottom) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Having – as with all the non-professional groups – been given licence to thrill us in their own way: i.e. to develop their own interpretation of their company’s rôle in the play, it was quite astonishing to see how distinctive the end result was (and it so warmed the cockles of my heart to hear their warm Northumbrian inflections…)! Peter Cockerill was a Bottom with a knowing smile and a great big heart – and definitely an ego to match… – wonderfully growing further in confidence as the comedy grew in rudeness! His temporary love affair with Ayesha Dharker’s tender Titania (Sarah Fells, in rehearsal), though, was both moving and joyful (despite, or maybe because of, his stupendous Elvis routine…) – and I actually blubbered a little when the fairies introduced themselves to him in BSL (a beautiful touch – as was getting the craftsmen, later, to do the same for us…). However, Pyramus’ death scene was utterly impeccable in its hamminess; and therefore brought the house down… – twice!

Andrew Stainthorpe (Flute) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Andrew Stainthorpe, as an initially timorous Flute, was his match, though. Light on his feet – and heavy on the innuendo – his totally inappropriate casting as a fantastically flirtatious Thisbe just kept piling on the laughs. Never have I seen embarrassment so superbly portrayed… – well, apart from Ben Pearson’s tinkering Snout: whose self-conscious, confused Wall was not only tickled by his, er, brush with Pyramus, but was incredibly rib-tickling in itself!

Ben Pearson (Snout) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Graham Fewell’s reticent Snug was a wonderfully pathetic, almost cowardly, lion: his hangdog expression producing as much sympathy as it did jollity! Likewise, with Ian Kirkbride’s Starveling, and his disobedient dog (he’d do well in The Two Gentlemen of Verona…) – although there was a canny undercurrent of stern belligerence in his portrayal of Moonshine that gave the part real import.

Ian Kirkbride (Starveling) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

With all that lot strutting their stuff, it’s no wonder cat-herder Quince – a companionable Harry French – always looked on the verge of a meltdown; and yet, somehow, managed to keep (some form of loose) control. That his beaming smile shone as brightly as Starveling’s lantern when things all came together demonstrated just how rewarding the boss’ job can be! I only hope Jill Cole – The Castle Players’ genial director – had as much fun! (I’m sure she did!)

Ben Goffe (Mustardseed); Harry French (Quince) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

This was another extraordinary group of players: happy in their own skins; and comfortable and confident in each other’s mind-boggling abilities. That they so obviously meshed with the professional actors – with monumental mutual (and well-earned) admiration all-round – says a great deal about every single one of them; and I fear my words cannot give such a joint enterprise the praise it truly deserves….

Talking of which, in her original programme note – before the production went on tour – über-director Whyman wrote that…

This Dream has been built on long-standing partnerships nurtured by the RSC for many years, and we will continue to work with those partners long after it has ended. It is a project on an almost unimaginable scale, but it is also a very simple idea: to make a new production of a great play hand-in-hand with good colleagues. If it works, it will make visible a truly national passion for theatre.

…and I noticed, yesterday, that, in the revised version (produced for the return to the RST), this last sentence has been replaced:

It has been a privilege to watch the play reveal itself on so many stages and a great honour to bring it back to Stratford, to celebrate a truly national passion for theatre with all of you. I hope you enjoy it.

Of course it worked! And of course everyone enjoyed it! In fact, I don’t remember – apart from say Wendy & Peter Pan – seeing so many of the audience, especially in the galleries, leaning in quite so hard, as if to get even closer to the action: wanting to be even more wrapped up in this thrilling, mesmerizing triumph!

Man is but an ass, if he go about t’ expound this dream. Methought I was – there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had – but man is but a patch’d fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.

Before I finally shut up… it occurred to me – reflecting on my original review – that I had omitted one fundamental component of this ingenious production: an unbroken, braided strand of feminism. Not promoted in an over-the-top, shove-it-in-your-face sort of way (that is, one that can be self-defeating); but interwoven by skilful and subtle – therefore equally powerful, yet more arresting and enduring – means: successfully engendering (sorry) equality; and brought into play (ahem) in what I can only define as a very Whymanesque manner (consistent, for example, with the parity of professional and non-professional players; and the now-RSC-typical colour- and gender-blind casting…).

So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.

Take Hippolyta’s evident, developing (initially cynical) love – on her own terms – for Theseus; and her prominent disproving glare (one of a series) when Egeus proclaims that his daughter must yield “either to this gentleman, Or to her death”. This queen looks and acts anything but defeated; and is no passive captive, but the king’s forthright counterpart. Her firmer belief in the lovers’ adventures, and her sympathy for, and (intermittent) defence of, the Mechanicals – Well shone, Moon. Truly, the moon shines with a good grace – are, as a result, cogently rendered. Additionally, Hermia – though she be but little, she is fierce – and Helena are more than a match for (nitwits) Lysander and Demetrius. However, I still find it disconcerting that, in the text – as Peter Holland writes in the programme – “so talkative through much of the play, [they] speak not a single word after their weddings” (although the girls, in total, do get around a hundred more lines than the boys – By all the vows that ever men have broke (In number more than ever women spoke) – so there…). In this production, however – and yet another sign of that praiseworthy equality – quite a few lines are transferred to them in Act V; and they are therefore as important a part of the commentary on the play-within-a-play as their spanking-new husbands.

You could say – and I wouldn’t disagree (apart from that last scene, maybe…!) – that Will himself is partly responsible for this balance: despite the male characters – especially Egeus – As she is mine, I may dispose of her – starting out with atrociously antediluvian patriarchal and chauvinistic attitides. No single part (somewhat unusually) is given a disproportionately large number of lines to deliver; and the Bard’s perceptive portrayal of the female characters – I know not by what power I am made bold – I believe, provides a forceful foundation of equal opportunity on which to build such emancipation.

By the way, having re-read the play, a couple of days ago, I suddenly grokked Tom Piper’s – cunning devil that he is…! – use of those two ‘revolving’ doors. I’ll therefore leave you with a couple of Will’s stage directions from Act II…

Enter a Fairy at one door and Robin Goodfellow (Puck) at another.
Enter the King of Fairies Oberon at one door with his Train, and the Queen Titania at another with hers.

…before tripping away.

…and I do not doubt but to hear them say, it is a sweet comedy. No more words. Away, go, away!

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show…

Chu Omambala (Oberon); Ben Goffe (Mustardseed); Ayesha Dharker (Titania) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was.
I am feeling truly, gratefully blessed. First, the greatest, most profound King Lear. Then a matchless, audacious Hamlet. And now – last night – the most perfect, diaphanous, striking A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Seriously, Shakespeare does not, can not, will not… ever get any better than this.

What is even more astounding is that just this one remarkable man wrote these three remarkable, contrasting, peerless dramas. That I have been fortunate to see the most marvellous companies (including the creatives, of course) in the most marvellous productions, fills me with the most marvellous, joyous, almost-disbelief. How could I be so very fortunate? (And all this, of course, is just – just…?! – the sumptuous cake beneath the heart-rending, blood-red cherry that is the most gripping theatre I have ever seen: Doctor Faustus.)

And by the way let’s recount our dreams.
I remember my first A Midsummer Night’s Dream vividly (in effect, rather than detail) – as I will undoubtedly forever remember this one… – although, as one of Will’s most popular, accessible and most theatrical plays, I suppose I came to it quite late. It was at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester; and I am pretty sure it was the first time I had experienced theatre-in-the-round (as well as such mind-boggling, awe-inspiring, dramatic engineering and architecture). The production was directed by Greg Hersov, and starred the magnificent Kenneth Cranham as Oberon. It was “Modern dress, with the fairies in particularly fantastic costumes of fur and feathers. The wood scenes were set around an abandoned bedstead.” What I remember most, though, is Peter Lindford’s almost hyperactive portrayal of Puck: acrobatically making the most of the Exchange’s spaceship-like structure.

In some ways – as with The Tempest – it can be quite onerous attempting to keep the play ‘magical’ without resorting to gadgetry and gimmickry: but I remember that production having a very humane feel (those at craft were as valid, as eminent, as those at court); as well as striking the right balance between dark and light, reality and fantasy – reconciling the play’s innate paradoxes – which is probably why it has stuck with me for so long.

Jack Holden (Lysander); Chris Nayak (Demetrius); Sam Redford (Theseus) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Following darkness like a dream…
And so it is now with director Erica Whyman (who I must, I think, henceforth have to refer to – and worship – simply as Minerva: “goddess of wisdom and sponsor of arts, trade, and strategy”), and her startling, invisibly-engineered (but exceeding complex) engrossing, phantasmagorical new production of (to give it its full title) A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation for the RSC. Having been on tour all over “This precious stone set in the silver sea” – utilizing mega-talented regional amateur companies for the Mechanicals, and skilful local schoolchildren for the Fairy Train – its return run in Stratford-upon-Avon (reuniting, in turn, with each of those non-professional groups) finishes on 16 July 2016. So, if there are actually any left, grab a ticket while you can! Honestly – and I, as is my wont, have two more viewings (which will definitely not be enough…) – I have never been so thoroughly entertained in my whole life! This is not to be missed!

Such a command – and my description of it as “most perfect” – are no mere conceits. Every single member of the cast, creatives (especially Tom Piper: for yet another cunning, and utterly beautiful, period setting; perfectly lit by Charles Balfour), musicians, fairies – even the caterers, cleaners, ushers and programme-sellers, for goodness’ sake… – should be immensely proud of what they have achieved. Ignoring the Sisyphean logistics; the nightmare of managing an ever-changing cast of hundreds; this is a dream of a Dream – which, as with that earlier version, straddles the peak of perfection gleefully – yet never veers far from “The jaws of darkness” – by concentrating on the humanity and humaneness of everyone involved: whether these emerge through gifts of empathy, compassion, vulnerability; or flaws of pride, vanity, jealousy. Yes, it is amazingly, unbelievably uproarious: but the humour rises from a solid foundation of great emotion and intelligence – all those passions and sensations; all that ardour, all that vehemence, excitement, despair, ecstasy; all that warmth and animosity; all those sensibilities that make us who and what we are.

David Mears (Bottom) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

What a dream was here!
As I have recently discovered, the only way to review such impeccability is to list every single contributor; and try to summon each individual’s unique contribution – relying solely on the “remembrance of [this] idle gaud”! So let’s start with those incredible, incredibly rude, Mechanicals.

Shirley Allwork (Starveling); Dominic Skinner (Flute); Charlotte Froud (Snug); David Southeard (Snout); Roger Ganner (Quince) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

That we have such amazing talent residing in another theatre in our home town is nothing short of miraculous. Moving from The Bear Pit Theatre to the vast auditorium of the RST takes serious guts, though – not that any nervousness showed: unless it was, of course, meant to show; unless it was acted. Although not on stage, huge dollops of praise must first be given to Nicky Cox, their director (and all-round megastar)! Charlotte Froud – who was also their “rehearsal Titania”…! – was a wonderfully timorous Snug; and a giggle-provoking lion. Shirley Allwork – as Starveling, and therefore “Presenteth Moonshine” – was incredibly, beautifully dry; and has a stare that could (and did) wilt pompous courtiers at a thousand yards (not to mention a disobedient dog). David Southeard’s Snout – and rough-cast signifier of Wall – was embarrassment defined: especially when his “crannied hole or chink” was exposed; never mind having his stones “often kiss’d”. Roger Ganner, as carpenter and director Quince, has timing to die for; and was the perfect foil to his unruly company. Of course, it is Flute (a wonderfully, almost-bearded, faux-effeminate Dominic Skinner) and even more so Bottom (David Mears: on startling form – ranging from a berserk Brian Blessed-declamatory style through to some incredible falsetto, squeaking and hee-hawing) who get the best lines – Mears’ interactions with Titania being of great beauty, as well as outrageous amusement. But it was the ensemble playing that showed just how awesome this grouping is; and I really don’t have enough words of praise to describe their engaging, consummate accomplishments. (Sadly, this was their last night. Boo hoo. But they went out – as, no doubt, they went in – with both barrels blazing!) Stunning… – and what prodigal casting.

David Mears (Bottom); Ayesha Dharker (Titania) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Sam Redford was a magisterial, authoritative Theseus: often with a knowing glint in his eye; as well as a commanding stage presence. The same can be said of Laura Harding, as Hippolyta – always dignified; always in control. This is a well-matched pair: growing comfortable in each other’s presence; and increasing in charm, warmth – and love – as the night progressed. Jon Trenchard, as Philostrate – especially in the closing scene – was captivatingly bossy; and every line uttered produced increasing amounts of laughter from the audience. (Timing is a hard thing to define: but he – like so many of this magical cast – has it by the bucketload!) Peter Hamilton Dyer, as Egeus – looking not unlike Cyril ‘Blakey’ Blake, in his uniform – evolved beautifully from dictatorial to loving father; and our sympathy therefore grew accordingly.

Mercy Ojelade (Hermia); Jack Holden (Lysander); Chris Nayak (Demetrius); Laura Riseborough (Helena) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

It would be easy (and lazy) just to say that all of the courtly lovers were superlative… and leave it at that. Honestly, never have I seen four actors – in all their argumentative, affectionate, boisterous combinations – play these parts so very, very, very, very well. Mercy Ojelade was a beautifully feisty Hermia: her emotions on show for everyone to see; and truly believable. At the beginning of her RSC career, this was the best of débuts. Chris Nayak turned Demetrius from villain to humorous empath – no mean feat… – and was certainly the equal of Jack Holden’s Lysander, and his mocking tongue. Both are immensely charismatic, superb at physical humour, and their continual joshing was a joy to behold! However, for me, Laura Riseborough’s Helena – who is often portrayed as a moping ninny – was (albeit marginally) the best of this constellation of brightly shining stars. I really felt for her; her every move felt justified; and her anger was discerningly and immaculately portrayed.

Lucy Ellinson (Puck); Laura Riseborough (Helena) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

It seems to me That yet we sleep, we dream.
Oberon’s musician fairies – Jamie Cameron, cello; Tarek Merchant, piano (and brilliant music director); Alex Tomkins, guitar (as well as Jon Trenchard – see above – doubling on flute) – were similarly outstanding (as well as an inspired leitmotiv…). Their almost constant presence – as well as the sad packing away of instruments, towards the end – delineated and punctuated the action wittily and fittingly. Adam Cross, woodwind; Andrew Stone-Fewings, trumpet; Ayse Osman, double-bass; and James Jones, percussion – also billed as “fairies”; and also permanently onstage – helped render Sam Kenyon’s impressively befitting (and ingenious) music with immense passion (and mind-boggling stamina and precision). I have such admiration for the RSC’s “bands”; and will always be grateful that they are always ‘live’ – no recordings, here, thank you… – providing an essential (and awe-inspiring) element of immersion and involvement.

Chu Omambala (Oberon); Ayesha Dharker (Titania) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Theo St. Claire (cool as a cucumber), Mari Izzard (the one with the gentle smile), Aimee Gray (as light as air), Lila Clements (even lighter), and especially Ben Goffe (who expended more energy in one evening than I could in a lifetime; and who had the best, er, running joke of the night…) – were all stupendous as Titania’s protective and collaborative posse. Captivating – especially in their interactions with the Fairy Train of mega-talented local schoolchildren – and hilariously, teasingly affectionate in their treatment of Bottom – these were no mere sidekicks; but fabulous singers and dancers essential to the story, as well as that long-lasting overwhelming feeling of delight.

Chu Omambala (Oberon); Ayesha Dharker (Titania) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

No more yielding but a dream…
I raved about both Chu Omambala (Oberon) and Ayesha Dharker (Titania), when they were last here – and they make incomparably sexy fairy royalty: ideal, sprightly soulmates; and yet with charisma, tension, chemistry and electricity buzzing between them like a horde of angry wasps. Their reconciliation was intensely moving; and I could listen to both of them recite Shakespeare’s poetry on a loop for ever and ever… – especially Omambala: whose every balletic-jazz-style move was mesmerizing; every glance intense. (I shall never see Oberon in quite the same way again.) Dharker was simply brilliant: her Titania may twinkle; yet those lights are as deep as the oceans. It was hard to take your eyes off both of them; but if Omambala glided across the stage with menace and manipulation, Dharker floated with joy and utter self-awareness. (Movement director Siân Williams, and her deputy, Polly Bennett, are definitely central to this production: their ideas flawless; and gracefully executed by all.)

Lucy Ellinson (Puck); Chu Omambala (Oberon) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

The night though – as it must with any production of this glittering play – belongs to Puck. Success or failure is almost totally dependent on Robin Goodfellow’s amoral jesting; ability to gather up the audience, and take them along for the ride – despite the part’s sometimes discomfiting otherworldliness. To say Lucy Ellinson (and her top hat) accomplished all this before even a word had been uttered (and then just kept flourishing with increasing charm and cheekiness) shows just how spellbinding she was. She was born for this rôle: every single gymnastic gesture, every sideways glance, contained and meaningful; every word filled with wicked mirth and mockery; every other character – even Oberon, her almighty crush… – wrapped around her little finger (again and again and again – just like we transfixed and hopeless onlookers). She was everywhere; and always insanely enthralling. To be blunt, with the rest of the cast so similarly riveting and adept, she had to be this impossibly astonishing. I still don’t understand, though, how she made it look so darned easy….

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended.
That you have but slumb’red here
While these visions did appear.

Hats off to Lucy Ellinson (Puck) – photo by Topher McGrillis/RSC

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Alchemy, alchemy… – they’ve all got it…

Photography by Paul Stuart; design by RSC Visual Communications

The Alchemist is a comedy by English playwright Ben Jonson. First performed in 1610 by the King’s Men, it is generally considered Jonson’s best and most characteristic comedy; Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that it had one of the three most perfect plots in literature. The play’s clever fulfilment of the classical unities and vivid depiction of human folly have made it one of the few Renaissance plays (except the works of Shakespeare) with a continuing life on stage (except for a period of neglect during the Victorian era).
– Wikipedia: The Alchemist (play)

I will never cease to be astounded at the actor’s craft: chiefly, because so much of it is rendered iceberg-invisible; but, additionally, in view of the fact that I seem to be gifted with precisely not a single one of the skills required – astounding feats of memory; immersive, persuasive personation; physical strength and resilience; good looks, etc.. And these, for me – as detailed with sincere awe and admiration by Josh Roche (assistant director of the RSC’s current run of The Alchemist, and savvy director of yesterday’s one-off “public understudy performance”), in a pre-show, on-stage announcement – are never more evident than when one (or many) of them is sent on as a substitute: either, as today, with a teensy bit of rehearsal; or, at the last moment, when the run is in full swing.

Which is why I was there, really. Like his fellow talented Cambrian, Oliver Ryan (who, similarly, caused me to weep, as a key character in an episode of the marvellous, unique, soul-searing Hinterland…), I first came across Hywel Morgan at the RSC playing a small – but extremely sympathetic – rôle: in this case, as Prince George of Denmark in Queen Anne. A while later, returning to see the stupendously hilarious Love for Love – a production which involved the actors mingling with the audience, beforehand – I spent a few minutes in the Swan’s gallery chatting to him: not realizing (even though he was in costume (d’oh)) that, instead of appearing as “scrivener Trapland: yet more beaming jollity with every appearance…”, he had been ‘promoted’ to one of the principal parts: “‘free-speaker’ Scandal – a wonderful, authoritative representation of William Congreve himself, I think…”.

And he played a blinder! Therefore – thrust alone onto the stage by his peers, at the end – he earned a huge torrent of applause, whistles and cheers: not just because he acted the part so well; but because he gave everything he had in doing so. As a result, I became an instant fan: and was lucky enough to bump into him, a few weeks ago, as rehearsals for the current production began. Not only talented (who at the RSC isn’t…?!) – but a genuinely nice guy (and with similar political tendencies to my own – which always helps…)!

Welcome to the RSC’s public understudy run. The RSC, like many theatre companies, provide understudies for emergency circumstances to ensure that the show will go on even if an actor is ill, or quite literally, breaks a leg. In fact, the RSC now has a policy that means that everyone is involved in the understudy process in some way or another, whether it be understudying the lead role or supporting their colleagues by helping make this performance today go as smoothly as possible. We take understudying very seriously and consider it to be a major contribution to the sense of company that we hope to create here, and to the personal development of individual actors.
     In the past, each production would have had an understudy run which might attract an audience of of a few friends, family and colleagues. However in recent years we have opened our doors to make these special one-off performances a public event. This is a chance for us to give you an insight into a previously hidden part of putting on a show at the RSC and an excellent opportunity for the actors to experience what it is like to perform their understudy roles in front of a large audience.
     We are all delighted you could join us this afternoon and I hope you enjoy the slightly anarchic inventiveness of an RSC understudy run.
– Hannah Miller, Head of Casting

Yesterday afternoon, instead of only appearing onstage for the final scenes (although his uncanny likeness is present, in the form of a bust, right at the beginning – does he get to keep this, at the end of the run, I wonder?) as Lovewit (the names Ben Jonson gives to his characters are just superb!), he was, again, playing a much, er, larger character (standing in for Father Christmas-lookalike Ian Redford) – that of Sir Epicure Mammon (and hidden behind a rather wonderful fake beard). This is a rôle that requires walking the tightrope of overacting without actually falling off: and impressively done it was, too (and without any sort of safety net or balance pole). He may have laid it on with a trowel – but it was a tiny and perfectly sculpted one…! Bravo!

In fact, like Love for Love – rather than, say, Volpone, which drags a little in the second half – the whole company are required, for the sake of momentum, to ham it up just a little…. (Perhaps their sustenance comes from piglets in blankets…?) As a result, “the willing suspension of disbelief” isn’t really necessary: as the audience are part of the fun (especially when a core section of it are the remaining, enthusiastic members of the full cast – who will later appear as the nosy “Neighbours”). Additionally, being in the Swan – even on the back row, in the stalls, as I was – you are always immersed.

One of the main reasons for all this jollity is that, as director Polly Findlay says, “It’s a farce. It’s not the first farce in English; but it certainly marks a real development in the form.” And, of course, the genre (which normally I dislike… – but I loved every moment, yesterday…!) requires stamina and pace – even when it’s as intelligently and wittily constructed as this production is. [A lot of credit must therefore be dished out to Stephen Jeffreys: who not only wrote a completely new prologue – although you couldn’t tell it was not one of Jonson’s – but carefully revised the script, and surgically removed around a fifth of it, without even leaving a scar. “It is generally agreed,” he writes in the programme notes, “that playing the full text counters against the speed and brilliance of the plot.” (The same can be said of this company’s Doctor Faustus, of course. And, as a result, I may soon become less argumentative in my insistence on complete texts…!)]

And, as with the similarly manic Love for Love – is it a coincidence that both canny ‘servants’ are named Jeremy…? – there is a curious stuffed crocodile hanging over the stage. [The same one, I think: which may soon become a permanent fixture – perfect for Crociolanus or Love’s Gator’s Lost, perhaps…? – of the Swan’s sets (this one beautifully, astutely, designed by Helen Goddard).] Similarly, there are again references to the season in the theatre next door: including poor Yorick’s skull resting on the dining table (as part of a beautiful, perfect three-dimensional recreation of a contemporary still-life): a piece of furniture that, with its companion chairs, almost becomes another fully-fledged character.

Before all this cleverly-scripted frenzy begins, though, there is some fantastic, definitely non-period, introductory “heist movie” music – by Corin Buckeridge: who tells me “we all certainly had far too much fun putting it together!” – to get us in the mood. This is matched with some lovely moments of underscored subtlety – “Massive credit to the RSC band (for playing more quietly than they thought possible)!” – which, for once, never over-intrude, or outstay their purpose.

Despite this being an understudy performance, the acting was also of the highest quality (as it always is in the Swan). Tom McCall – looking remarkably like a young William Shakespeare – was wonderfully moody and mad (although I must apologize for constantly getting in his way as he raised and lowered the central trio’s stash of money – hidden, of course, in that confounded reptile…).

Much was made of Natey Jones’ superb doubling up of characters (on one occasion appearing on stage together… – oh, the perils of understudying more than one part…!) – only requiring the removal of a hat or addition of a satchel (and exquisite timing) for us instantly to know who was who. Likewise with Theo Fraser Steele (as both sceptical Sir Pertinax Surly and the aforementioned “master of the house” Lovewit) talking to himself (which, at one point required vaulting up and down the Swan’s treacherous stairs). Much of the well-deserved laughter therefore emanated from such self-knowing, often absurd, spotlighting of the stand-ins – also frequently eliciting spontaneous rounds of applause (which was a wonderful, wonderful, engaging thing…). The versatile Gabriel Fleary – as Kastril, “an angry boy” – brought a new meaning to “break a leg”: acting with a crutch, because of injury; and then propelling himself (with great skill) with two of the things when a mad (farcical trademark) chase around the Swan’s boards ensued. Phenomenal bravado – and all played with the most delightful stupid smirk! (I just hope there was a large supply of ice-packs and painkillers ready for him, afterwards.)

The highlight of the afternoon – apart from watching Mr Morgan, of course – was seeing the two angels from Faustus take wing. John Cummins was absolutely spot-on, with his ponytail, as Jeremy, aka ‘Face’ (although he momentarily, magically, morphed into Mark Lockyer, at one stage: who plays the part in the full run!): commanding the stage (and the audience); and gulling the frequent vain and idiotic visitors to the house (again, almost another principal character…). Even his T-shirt – as the company time-travelled from 1610 forward to the present day, as the house-lights went up – provoked howls of laughter! And Will Bliss, as both Tribulation Wholesome and Ananias (respectively a pastor and a deacon of Amsterdam), so superbly torn between greed and piety – as well as having to confer, bemusedly, between his two enforced doppelgängers – was tear-jerkingly entertaining; and just the right amount of bonkers.

Talking of flying: at first I didn’t recognize Eleanor Wyld: such was her transformation from Lucifer (“Think on the devil…”) to Dol Common. But, again, she gave this principal character (and all its variations: from prostitute, to “an aristocratic lady who, being mad…”, to the Queen of Fairy) everything: with some utterly believable, shrewd changes of accent and mood. Ruth Everett (as Dame Pliant) – resurrecting the spirit of the Duchess in Don Quixote – was also side-splittingly funny (and surprisingly naïve for someone who was supposed to have been married before…). She has a genius for portraying emotion with just a widening of the eyes; and is also a virtuoso of the silly walk….

That every member of the company was so brilliant, so accomplished, demonstrates the RSC’s key strengths in casting. As I said in my recent review of Hamlet, this is a “demonstration that giving small parts to great actors pays dividends in the quality stakes”. I’m therefore really looking forward to my next three (oh yes!) visits: firstly, to catch up on the bits that speeded past me so frenetically (aided by captions, of course); secondly, to see what a difference swapping an entire cast can make (with all the players playing just one part each); and, finally, simply because I am guaranteed to leave the theatre with a semi-permanent (and stupid) grin on my face! Thank you, all!

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Occasion smiles upon a second leave…

Paapa Essiedu (Hamlet); Tanya Moodie (Gertrude) – photo by Manuel Harlan/RSC

This is a landmark production: Paapa Essiedu is the first black actor to play Hamlet for the RSC in its 55‑year history. He is charismatic, capricious and compelling: an impulsive, arresting presence at the heart of a production that reframes the dilemmas in the play by setting it in an unnamed African state.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. It is probably impracticable even attempting to prevent Hamlet becoming – for all intents and purposes (that is, from both the producer’s and consumer’s perspectives) – something of a ‘star vehicle’. (One only has to think, for example, of Ben Kingsley in Buzz Goodbody’s similarly “landmark” 1975 staging. Or, more recently, of, ahem, Benedict Cumberbatch.)

The principal character dominates (if not monopolizes, or even overwhelms) the play: having just short of 1,100 lines – a third of the total (and twice as many as Claudius: who has the next highest number). He is also on-stage in over two-thirds of the scenes. It is difficult, therefore, to see how even the greatest, shrewdest production (for which title the current RSC run is an odds-on contender…) can get away from “showcasing the actor’s talents” – resulting in just one performer collecting the lion’s share of the coverage: a focus which may be to the detriment not only of other members of the cast, but also of the creative team.

Even I teetered on the crumbling edge of this hard-to-avoid heffalump trap (tempted “toward the flood”), when penning my original assessment:

I was going to begin this… 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.

I did, at least, then praise every other actor in turn – and in detail…!

However, despite declaring that “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”, I did fail (after having gushed out over two thousand words) to expand on this, and explain or delineate how or why this “universe” is as vital to the production’s achievements as that “principal character” (and its player).

There are several possible reasons (excuses?) for this (apart from my attempted avoidance of Infinite Monkey Cage syndrome). At the RSC, it is usually a given (although I am not a major fan of this word – just struggling for a synonym…) that the sets will be technically awesome (and usually well-integrated, rather than overwhelming… – apart from, say, er, Cymbeline…): and, to be honest, I have probably become over-accustomed to this. Additionally, it didn’t help – although, of course, this is a positive… – that the acting (from all quarters) really was so astonishing that this was all I could think, and therefore write, about. Finally, knowing that I would be returning to see the play again (and again, and again), I thought this might provide me with an opportunity – as it has – to discuss both the African setting and the inspired, befitting casting.

These two review excerpts supply the best précis, I feel, of the points I am trying to make:

The RSC’s latest Hamlet… starring Paapa Essiedu… is an intuitive and responsive telling of the Prince’s tragedy. An exceptional cast and creative team present the feudal tale of murder, revenge and unravelling senses with a modern day outlook. The play’s contemporary setting complete with backpackers and bongs combined with the African backdrop brings a fresh energy to the tale….
     The power of Shakespeare’s writing is its ability to transcend time and place. But it remains the obligation of theatre makers to keep classic work accessible and dynamic. Mission accomplished. This Elsinore designed by Paul Wills is alive with vivid African prints, hip swaying dance scenes and djembe drum rhythms. This context is especially stirring in the scene where Hamlet first encounters his father’s ghost. Ewart James Walters materialises from the stage in a hazy mist to the quickening drum beats. Revealing his betrayal in tremulous tones, he looks every inch the monarch in vibrant kente cloth. The ensemble scenes are wildly energetic. The players, sent for to relieve Hamlet from his melancholy, traverse the stage in colourful costumes with playful choreography designed by Mbulelo Ndabeni.
– Gillian Fisher: RSC Hamlet – review

Director Simon Godwin’s adaptation of Hamlet is a breath of fresh air, the vibrant production set in Africa brings bright colours and intensity to the classic Shakespeare play.
     Known as a dark, dismal play, Godwin creates an indescribable atmosphere which reflects the setting and traditions of an African monarchy…. There is a constant pulse throughout the show as the use of an African band not only sets the tone but builds the tension, it creates an electric ambience that maintains pace throughout the transitions and amplifies the expressive scenes….
     The African adaptation lifts the play’s ability to [capture] the audience, partly because of the contemporary feel the brightness of the play creates.
– Sincerely, Amy: REVIEW | Hamlet | RSC

And, as a good (and wise) friend opined the day after my first visit, it seems, with hindsight (of course), so obvious to stage the play this way – that is (in the words of the RSC’s casting press release), in a “modern state influenced by the ritual, beauty and cosmology of West Africa… where, as a character, Hamlet could feel dislocated, where he could feel conflicted by the demands of his ancestors against the pressure to find a new way of thinking” – especially as this brings an abundance of relevance and resonance.

The company – photo by Manuel Harlan/RSC

He was not of an age but for all time!

When we think of Denmark, nowadays, we may think of hygge and LEGO (and perhaps wind power… – insert Polonius joke here…). We certainly do not think of a tyrannical, dictatorial nation at war – both within and without its boundaries….

It’s contemporary. It’s set in an imaginary country that has influences from all the members of our cast and Hamlet is coming from a separate world into another world, which he doesn’t understand.
Paapa Essiedu: interviewed by Gillian Fisher (for Afridiziak Theatre News)

The company: including Kevin N Golding (Player King); Theo Ogundipe (Lucianus) – photo by Manuel Harlan/RSC

Such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.

It would be opportune, I suppose, to use this review, therefore, as the launching point for a discussion of race and “colour blindness” in theatre (especially in Stratford; especially in Shakespeare), given its setting and company – but I (and many others) have (sadly) been there before; and more than once.

This production is certainly proof that we are not short of stunningly-gifted Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) actors in this country – as both Hecuba and the RSC’s 2012 “all blackJulius Caesar also demonstrated. Every single cast member is simply mesmerizing – evidence, as I wrote in my first review, “that giving small parts to great actors pays dividends in the quality stakes”.

(Nuff sed.)

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

I always believe it’s better to have 30 imaginations working on a project, rather than one imagination telling the other 29 what to do. I love to have as much input as possible. However, I also think there’s a point where structure is extremely important. All of those energies have to become one energy.

Despite the plethora of cameras and other filming apparatus at Tuesday’s matinée – and a similar amount (by volume) of fidgeting, uniformed teenagers gaggled directly under my nose (who, to begin with, did not distract me in any way) – before the interval I felt completely, truly immersed. (This may have been partly caused by the prodromal phase of a vestibular migraine I am still experiencing – a condition whose precursive auras often provoke such an ocular ‘visitation’: sometimes bringing with them wired, spaced-out, yet tightly-focused, bouts of intense ‘presence’ – my own “spirit of health” or “thing appear’d again”, if you will.) Fresh air (and effective medication) in the break meant that I struggled to be so pleasantly ‘turned on, tuned in’ for the second half: but the production’s magnetic coherence did not wane (‘drop out’) one jot.

This is not as frequent a state – the “coherence”, not the migraine… – as I would desire. (Sitting on the front row, the first time I saw Doctor Faustus is a recent example; listening to Tamsin Waley-Cohen raise Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto to ethereal heights, another. There are not many….) Any performance that flies by, seemingly bypassing time, overtaking its “winged chariot”, for me, has achieved its purpose. Should your mind, your imagination, similarly float (hopefully with the actors), way above the clouds of reality and disbelief, then perhaps, on returning home, you should note this enlightenment, this exaltation, this extended moment of ecstasy, in some form of diary (or even history book). Hang onto it with all your might.

Paapa Essiedu (Hamlet); Hiran Abeysekera (Horatio) – photo by Manuel Harlan/RSC

A great movie evolves when everybody has the same vision in their heads.

The real point I’m trying to make – writing this in discrete chunks of text (rather than my usual “gush”), because of illness… (another “excuse”) – is that, without the platform being raised mountain-high by the quality and pertinent imagination of the encompassing design and directorial vision; along with the consequent excellence of the whole company of actors and creatives (including Kevin McCurdy’s terrifyingly authentic combative choreography); we would not be raving about the performance that conquers its peak in such heady terms. That Essiedu is capable of surmounting such a summit, of course, says much about his prodigious capabilities, and the no doubt eminent career that lies ahead. (I just hope that he always find himself surrounded – as he does in this production – with coequals, rather than subordinates.)

Monday, 6 June 2016

That familiar conviction…

From time to time, I forget that kestrels can fly: so used am I to seeing them simply suspended (the majestic puppets of an invisible deity) – tail bowed, almost motionless, even in the strongest blusters – or merely spiralling (a little like a lazy lark): withdrawing upward for a better sighting of their prey. But, on Thursday, making my way by the Avon, a keen example flashed close by me: gliding (a little like a sizable swift) fleet and fluent across a burgeoning field of barley – winging perfectly parallel with the tips of the green fronds (and only a few inches above them) – reminding me that these raptors’ abilities in the air are manyfold and magnificent.

I had found myself on the route of an almost identical (in almost every fashion) stroll to one I embarked on two years ago: encountering (again) not just my first damselflies of the year (banded demoiselles: as always, on these verdant cow-parsley-crowned banks); but perhaps premature butterflies – including bejewelled peacocks and small tortoiseshells: both of which wouldn’t – shouldn’t…? – normally be around (in such numbers, anyway) until July. (Having said that, I did espy a rather pecked and pale mature peacock, today, torpidly sunbathing….)

I was also lucky to spend a few minutes, on my rather leisurely walk – when immersed deep in stippled woodland, shadows, and thoughts – observing both a chiffchaff (which I heard before I caught sight of); and then an almost perfectly-camouflaged treecreeper – speckled with markings that merged with the leaf-filtered dancing dapples of sunlight on bark: demonstrating perfectly its apt appellation with its characteristic entertaining flits and scurries… – before a friendly chocolate Labrador nudged tenderly at my knees in welcome: craving a little attention (with which it was duly rewarded… well, until its much livelier companion spaniel requested the same – albeit a little less politely…)!

I was reminded of all this, earlier today, by another within-reach windhover – displaying more (to my mind) typical movements… – as I mooched up Windmill Hill (exhibiting my own such “typical movements” – i.e. ponderous plodding, and swaying steps). At first, I was more entranced by a solitary red kite: bewraying not one simple flap of its splayed fingers as it traversed the Tysoe-facing slope against the prevalent easterlies; directed only, it appeared, by that inimitable rudder of a forked tail. (Such poise; such beauty; such grace….)

But then the kestrel rose – although not to a great height – directly in front of me: cruel beak and talons noticeably empty. At first, I assumed it would simply drift, habitually, to one of the many power-lines and posts that straddle the hill. But no….

Soon it dived again: a small pause above the ground; and then, this time, victorious… – although the resultant worm, trembling in its beak, seemed a meagre reward for such unsparing skill. As the bird quivered over the tall hedgerow, not far from my path, I lost sight of it; but wondered if this quarry could be (partial) breakfast for one of this year’s progeny.

Later, coming down the hill towards Epwell Road, joining the witless Compton Wynyates ‘road to nowhere’, I noticed (and was grateful) that the rights-of-way here have finally been re‑scribed – albeit crudely, with some form of crop-killing spray. A cynical (rather large) part of me wonders if this would have been carried out at all, were it not for Saturday’s Tysoe Windmill Run.

And yet the more popular, direct footpath from Shipston Road had obviously only been re-instituted as a consequence of those runners’ pounding feet pulverizing the field of clover-rich green manure as they descended. If my fellow wanderers, today, are anything to go by, there is still some confusion as to where the authentic route lies.

By the way, the reason for the lethargy of my loitering circuit of Windmill Hill, this morning – apart from the obvious avian attractions (additionally, rare yellowhammers; the usual truculent rooks, and cheeping dunnocks by the dozen) – was the long tail of a virus which finally floored (well, bedded) me, over the weekend.

I therefore missed the chance to admire the stalwarts taking part in the above event. However, I was delighted to witness (from my bedroom window) the village’s transformation – especially yesterday, in the glorious seasonal warmth – into Bourton-on-the-Water (or some such similar Cotswold tourist hotspot), thanks to the National Garden Scheme (NGS); and the ten kind hosts who welcomed so many visitors onto their becoming plots. Never before have I seen – or had the opportunity to rejoice at – our “small, blessed corner of Warwickshire” so inundated with such a wonderful plethora of checked and striped shirts, oft-inappropriate shorts, and fascinating (mostly straw-based) headgear!

The Good Lady Bard – who toured the gardens in yesterday’s sunshine (summoned by a full peal of bells); passively gleaning only complimentary reactions: not only to the individual plots, but also to people’s discovery of the wonder that (we, of course, know) is Tysoe… – was exceeding impressed with both the horticultural talent and passion on display; as well as the obvious skill and effort that had gone into organizing the whole shebang.

Huge thanks, therefore, to the marvellous Julia Sewell: whose idea I believe this was; and to all those volunteers whose implementation of her plans was impeccable.

At last, it feels like summer has truly arrived…!