Wednesday, 26 January 2011

RSC London Season 2010/11

I was lucky enough this year to be able to attend a lot of the RSC London Season and although I didn’t see them all, I think I’ve seen enough to warrant a review and evaluation of what I thought of the season as a whole, complete with some mini-awards for them as well. The shows that I saw were, in order of attending: Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale, Julius Caesar and As You Like It. By extension the ones I missed were King Lear, YP Hamlet and YP Comedy of Errors. This review will compare the content of the shows that I saw and since I missed a few will not be fully representative of the season as a whole but I will try and take the existence of the other shows into account. 
As good a place as any to start seems to me to be the Best Actor Award. There are really two contenders for this as both gave strong performances every time they took to the stage. These are Greg Hicks and Darrell D’Silva. Both not only played very strong characters but also interacted well with the rest of the casts they were part of. Notably, they were often paired together as two old friends and it’s a dynamic that seemed to work very well indeed, Anthony and Caesar and Leontes and Polixenes being two such examples of good relationships. Both were senior members of the company and had a lot of responsibility on their shoulders for the success or failure of each show. They were both heavily involved in a number of shows, which is remarkable given the quality of their performances in each as well as the variance and proximity of them. Going from Anthony one night to Polixenes the next must be a bit of a scare.

Admitting the omission of evidence from King Lear, in which they both starred (Greg Hicks as Lear and D’Silva as Kent), I am going to plump for Darrell D’Silva as the winner of this category. His performances as Anthony both in Anthony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar were powerful and well developed. You could see how the passage of time had changed the man from one show to the next and it was a very interesting dynamic to see at work. In complete contrast, his role in The Winter’s Tale, playing Polixenes afforded him the opportunity to take up a more comedic position when dressed up in a hilarious tweed suit and hat. Again, he took it in his stride, managing to keep the latent power and authority he has on stage as well as give a light-hearted contribution to the sheep-shearing festival scenes. Greg Hicks also gave fantastic performances, giving a sterling Caesar from an almost non-existent character in the script as well as a torn and multi-faceted Leontes but, on balance, with more to do and characters with more difference between them Darrell D’Silva gave the standout contribution to the season.

Trying to find the best female performance is harder than you might think. There aren’t actually that many roles at all for the women. Portia in Julius Caesar was a minimal part, Mariah Gale made a mess of Juliet and although Kelly Hunter’s Hermione was dignified and broken, the brilliance of the performance was as short-lived as her stage time (though I still name her the worthy runner-up). Kathryn Hunter in Anthony and Cleopatra was charged as Cleopatra but felt to lack the necessary dimensions to be classed as a standout performance and Samantha Young’s Perdita in The Winter’s Tale was a role that was undoubtedly well played but small and doesn’t afford much room for expression. Going in to As You Like It, this was beginning to vex me. I was yet to see, to my mind, a performance from an actress that made me sit up and take notice of what they were doing. Thankfully, it was as if someone somewhere had heard my concerns and delivered Katy Stephens onto the stage. And thank God she arrived.

From the moment she entered the stage to the moment she closed the show with her amazing sung monologue her performance was faultless and energetic, drawing you to watch her as she darted around the stage with an apparently infinite vigour. Her transition from woman to man and back again was well done; she was able to take on the character of Ganymede without seeming too forced or at all caricature and the result was a Rosalind that we could see in moments through the Ganymede. When she was banished she was defiant and hurt but didn’t let it affect her too much and when she was young and playful it consumed her. Her on stage relationships with Mariah Gale and Jonjo O’Neill were well-suited to her and watching her dance around like a young girl with Gale before changing to assertive Ganymede in the pursuit of Orlando was marvellous. To go through a full show having to play not only one character but also that character disguised as another with so much energy and vitality was impressive enough. For her to then come on at the end and top it all off with a sung epilogue was both unexpected and the icing on the cake.

The laurels of best show are easily bestowed upon The Winter’s Tale, with Anthony and Cleopatra and As You Like It coming in as worth mentioning. The Winter’s Tale was the only show that I gave a five star rating so it’s perhaps unsurprising that I have named it the pick of the season. The title is richly deserved, though. Everything about the show was brilliant. The set was powerful and stylised, versatile and authoritative providing a suitable backdrop for both the court of Leontes at the beginning and after the collapse of the giant bookshelves to the countryside of Bohemia. The acting was also fantastic, including both of the Best Actor nominees and the runner up for Best Actress. The relationships that were brought to the stage were clear and refined at all times and at no point was the language a barrier to understanding the action (which is a major risk in badly-done Shakespeare) but was directed with intelligence and character throughout. The difference between the court of Leontes and the countryside of Bohemia was a marked difference, with the former being dark and foreboding, gloomy and claustrophobic and the latter being light and fun, music and dance were prevalent and colour was everywhere.

The humour of the second half and the disguising of Polixenes and Camillo was genuinely funny and the energy of the dancing and the youthful amour was in stark contrast to the rampant flaws that were so destructive in the first half. The appearance of the bear is also worth a mention as being a puppet made from the antique papers that made up the set. Very good indeed. I don’t think there was a bad performance in the whole show, with the younger members of the cast being handed the reins and joyfully taking them forward. Samantha Young and Tunji Kasim were well matched in Perdita and Florizell with Gruffudd Glyn giving a hilariously unaware and inept Shepherd’s Son. Brian Doherty, being tricksy and devious at every turn and keeping the audience in the know, plays Autolyclus very well. The older members of the cast are not to be left out, however. I have already mentioned Greg Hicks and Darrell D’Silva but Larrington Walker and Noma Dumezweni both deserve a mention for their contributions to the season not only here but also in the string of strong performances they gave throughout. The reveal of Hermione at the end was a showcase for the strong acting that you had come to expect by that point in the show and it was flawless.

All in all, it’s hard to criticise this show. Not because it was so well done, though I must say that it does help a great deal when a show is as well formed as this was. Beyond that consideration, however, was the basic enjoyment level of the evening. It was great fun. Simple as that. It was clear, precise, directed and intelligent but above all that, it was simply good fun.

I enjoyed the London Season a great deal. There was a lot of good theatre involved and one of my criticisms of the season as a whole is that there wasn’t enough variation. I didn’t see King Lear and I’m almost glad that I didn’t as it’s another very heavy, very hard show. The only comedy in the billing, discounting YP Comedy of Errors again because I didn’t see it, was As You Like It. It was a hilarious show, Richard Katz and Katy Stephens between them bringing laughter to an audience in rapture but I wanted more of that. It’s all very well doing lots of serious drama and tragedy but I think it needed a better balance between that and comedy. The lightheartedness of The Winter’s Tale was contrasted by the darkness in The Winter’s Tale. The comedy in As You Like It had to stand up against all the others and although I didn’t see the YP Comedy of Errors, nor did I see YP Hamlet, which I imagine would have cancelled that out as well. I think that the company available would have relished more comedy with such figures as Richard Katz et al that seem to take to it naturally. I’m not saying that the tragedies were at all bad; I thought that they were good for the most part but I don’t think the overall balance of the season was quite right.
I say that they were good for the most part. There were a few disappointing shows that suffered from trying too hard to be different and innovative. I would have scrapped Romeo and Juliet completely. There were some good performances in it, Forbes Masson and Richard Katz deserving mention, but it was just a very confused show. I have seen reviews that have championed it as being wonderful and brilliant but I must be honest and say that I utterly fail to see how. The natural ability of the company saved me from giving it a lower rating than three stars and I think that the lack of clarity in the show is down to the direction of Rupert Goold. Nothing seemed to fit anything else, the actors in the lead roles appeared to not fully understand their lines and have no more than two dimensions to their characters. Julius Caesar was another such flounder, with my abiding memory being of that bloody screen that overshadowed what at least could have been some very good acting on the stage. Much like Romeo and Juliet it appeared fractured and inconsistent and again I find it hard to say that anyone other than the director is as responsible as they are for making sure that doesn’t happen.
There was a major element of trying too hard to be different that dragged a couple of the shows down. When thy stuck to doing what the RSC do best it was brilliant. When you walk into an auditorium and see simple and powerful sets with a large central entrance on a thrust stage you know you’re at an RSC production. And you’re excited. The musicians are on the balcony and the smoke begins to rise and from Act 1 Scene I you’re caught by the drama and hooked. Powerful openings such as the massive fight sequence in Romeo and Juliet were great and the versatility of what appears at first sight to be such stark and simple sets continued to surprise. The acting was assured and confident, on the most part intelligent as well as the actors banded together in what was a very strong company. Seeing the same actors in different shows was enlightening and given how much fun it was to watch I can only imagine how much fun it was to bring it all together for a quick jaunt in London.

To my mind, the RSC is one of the most important and talented companies in the country and the 2010-11 London Season at the Roundhouse doesn’t deny that. It wasn't an outstanding season but it was very good and had a lot to offer the virgin and veteran thespians alike. Despite the few poor outings and imbalance in the overall programme it was a very strong season with some incredibly competent and talented actors. If you ever have the chance to see the RSC at work then grasp it firmly. With so much still going in Stratford-upon-Avon with the new RST complex I am already excited about what 2011 has to offer us.

Best Actor - Darrell D'Silva
Best Actress - Katy Stephens
Best Production - The Winter's Tale

John Ord (26/01/2011)

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