"Do you see this?" – King Lear @ The Young Vic

We were fortunate enough to get tickets to see Pete Postlethwaite King Lear at The Young Vic before it, very deservedly, sold out. So last wednesday we all headed down nice and early to get our seats, as it’s open seating, and ended up three rows back in the centre with splendid views. Nice. The seats are also pretty comfortable, which was useful as the performance is just shy of four hours including its two, very short, intervals.

The lights come up on the members of King Lear’s court dressed in late 70s garb, with everyone gathered around as Lear splits his kingdom unfairly between his daughters, and from that moment on we were gripped. Postlethwaite sounded for a moment as if his voice was going, but that might have been affected for the role as later his voice sounded amazing. The stage is set up to look somewhat like an abandoned set of steps, with grass growing through (freshly sown each performance I’d imagine given the treatment it gets later), and in the background corrugated iron leading up to a rickety set of covered steps.

So much happens in this amazing play, from the length and epic scale of the play itself, through the amazing performances of Lear, Gloucester, Kent and Gloucesters sons Edmund and Edgar, amongst others, through to the staging itself – at times light and whimsical, at times bloody and gory, but always gripping. This is not a lightweight Shakespeare, it grabs the play by the lapels and shakes it into a worthy spectacle. Modern, yet timeless, owing much to cinema, but rooted in the theatre. That said it’s not one to bring young kids to, as some of the gore is mildly brutal and disturbing, as well as the more overt sexual themes in places.

This is a great play. Postlethwaite is brimming with emotional intensity, not least during Lear’s steady decline into madness. His loss at the end, fighting for sanity and gripping his dead daughter Cordelia between his legs as he himself dies is wrenching. A solemn contrast to some of the set pieces that went before. Stand out moments: Lear in a dress twirling his parasol having completed his descent to madness, Gloucester’s son Edgar avenging his father against his half-brother Edmund with an amazing ‘play fight’ with bright plastic swords that ends with brutal reality, Gloucester’s earlier torture scene – paying homage to Reservoir Dogs, the flight through the rainstorm – with real rain – and the birth of Lear’s grand-child, the late 70s/early 80s staging – subtle and pervasive alongside English flag painted faces in Lear’s retinue, the fool’s capering intensity and banter, and Lear’s rage as his plotting daughters abandon him. So much to enjoy, and enjoy it we did. Very much indeed.

Arty Day

Since I’m happily on Christmas hols already, combined with last week’s random purchase of a Tate membership, I decided to head down to the Tate Modern today to check out the Rothko and Cildo Meireles exhibitions. Oh, and the apocalyptic future vision currently in the turbine hall. Good fun – but have to say the Rothko didn’t grab me, so no real change there. The Meireles work on the other hand was wonderful. Highly engaging conceptual art that you get to play with and enter – from rolling balls around, to fighting your way through suspended rulers to cracking underfoot glass – my favourite. Well worth a visit, but hurry – it ends January 11th.

In other random news – it sounds like David Tennant may be returning to Hamlet in the last week, no guarantees though. Of course this means there will be a flurry of activity waiting for returns, etc if it does happen and I’ll find myself wondering if it’s worth the, usually effective, returns queue wait. Somehow I think returns will be unlikely after all the furore thus far. Still, if he does return to tread the boards we may brave the line. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always Pete Posthlethwaite in King Lear at the Young Vic I guess.

To See Tennant, or Not To See Tennant? That, is the Question

And last night the answer was, unfortunately, ‘not’. As has been widely reported, David Tennant has had to pull out of his acclaimed and rapidly sold-out performance of Hamlet in London until at least Christmas. For those of us who had been excitedly waiting to see the man himself in action, having been fortunate enough to get tickets in the few hours they were available, this was a bit of a blow. Thankfully, the rest of the amazing cast put on a show that will not soon be forgotten, and his under-study – thrust unexpectedly into the limelight before a London audience for an extended run – does a bang up job. He’s not Tennant, although at times you feel from his mannerisms he’s trying to be, but Edward Bennet carries of a complex role with aplomb.

Aye, the play’s the thing, and all the world’s a stage. So what of it? The stage opens dark and mysterious, lit just by the lights of the soldiers on the battlements, and it is then you notice that the entire stage is semi-mirrored as the soldiers’ lights bounce off the ground onto their faces. This amazing setup is used to great effect throughout the play, with minimal stage furniture and subtle lighting you are transported to a gothic castle at various times of the day. The huge mirrored panels at the rear rotate, allowing people to enter and exeunt at various times in different ways – and semi-mirrored glass gives us the necessary arras to hide behind. Later, the rear glass itself becomes even more of an actor – refelecting the sudden death of a key character. I feel that we were lucky in the Grand Circle – seats C11/12 – in that we literally had a perfect view down onto this mirrored stage, seeing the actors from both sides is grabbing and makes you appreciate what can be done on stage.

Against this stunning scenery, the players are caringly lit as they deliver characters with such precision and emotional force that you’re swept along. Patrick Stewart’s Claudius is at times the caring father, at others the malevolent plotter, and at all points believable. Polonius, played by Oliver Ford Davis is a revelation – a stumbling buffon who mutters and loses words that can still be heard across the auditorium (thankfully unlike the time he has to stage whisper words to Laertes stand-in). Hamlet’s mother Gertrude was engagingly played by Penny Downie, capturing to full effect her concerns about Hamlet’s mind and soul. Strong players all, and the only flat spots seem to be where the understudies are having to find their feet suddenly as all the roles shift. So what of the biggest shift? Our new Hamlet was spot on – word perfect and emotionally ranging. Perhaps he’s not quite as mercurial as we would have expected Tennant to be, but he’s starting to make the role his own – and hopefully by the end of his run he will have done so. Even at such short notice he delivers the goods. Encore!

So, to David – get well soon, we hope to see you on stage somewhere somewhen. To the rest of the performers – thank you for popping my Hamlet cherry with a stunning show.

A Midautumn’s Night Dream

After last weekend’s theatre fix, we decided to try for last minute returns for the Globe’s Midsummer Night’s Dream which closes this weekend. Turns out getting return tickets at the Globe is not so bad, or at least wasn’t tonight – but maybe that’s because everyone else checked the weather forecast and realised it was going to be hella-chilly out there! Still, the production was excellent and it was good to see one of my favourite Shakespearean outings in a different venue. The last time was back in NYC with the traditional Gorilla Repertory summer outdoor performance in Washington Square Park. Happy days indeed.

More Shakespearian Stuff

On Saturday M and I braved our hangovers to finally get down to the Globe Theatre for a production. Given it’s all of 15 minutes walk from our house and we’ve had most of summer days relatively free while job hunting it’s a bit of a travesty that we never went earlier, but them’s the breaks. Given also that it was splendid fun and only five quid for a standing ticket I’m slightly annoyed at myself for this oversight! Ah well, next season..

The play we saw was Timon of Athens, one of Shakespeare’s less well known efforts, co-written with one of his proteges, Thomas Middleton. The story centres around Timon (in olde English ‘Tymon’), a rich member of Athens society whose life revolves around throwing lavish parties for fellow Athenians, and granting opulent gifts to people who please him. All of this Timon does in the theme of being generous for generosity’s sake, but the people around him, his so-called friends, take advantage of his good nature, so much so that he ends up in the poor house hounded by debtor’s agents. All his money gone, Timon ends up in the wilderness where he chances upon some gold in the ground while digging for roots to eat – and almost immediately people arrive, having smelled the money from afar. Timon, now an angry, bitter, broken man, uses the money to abuse them and funds an attack on Athens itself. Eventually he dies, kept company only by his faithful steward who watches over his fall into madness.

As you can plainly see, it’s a dark morality tale that fits well with the current financial situation going on in the world. Thankfully the story flows with moments of high humour, especially in the interchanges between Timon and Apemantus, a local philosopher who refuses Timon’s generosity and points out how the people around him are not really his friends. The production at the Globe is beautifully considered and executed, with a running theme of birds – the carrion crows of debtors dressed in black flying down from netting suspended over the theatre floor – harrying Timon increasingly through the play. We were lucky enough to be standing in the round, something I highly recommend, and the actors come through the crowd regularly – sometimes from the doors and sometimes from the sky, rappelling down from the netting above, sometimes throwing chocolate coins (my favourite method of entrance).

The Globe itself is a stunning recreation of the original Globe theatre, and a must see if you’re visiting London, especially with the high quality production values and cheap standing ticket prices. The seated patrons rise on vertical walls in a circle around the standing floor, the round, and the stage itself is situated at one side of this circle. Luckily for us it was a bright, sunny autumn day which made standing without any cover a much more enjoyable affair, although our legs were pretty sore at the end of two and a half hours. So take comfortable shoes and a bottle of water to drink (no glass).

Thanks to the entire cast and crew of Timon of Athens for a highly enjoyable show. We’ll be sure to visit again as soon as we can – just make sure it doesn’t rain again!

Doctor Who Hamlet Hits London – Sells Out. Duh.

Well, for those of you who aren’t Doctor Who fans turn off now.. for those of you who are, you’ll be sad to hear that the London run of the RSC’s Hamlet, starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart sold out in a few hours earlier today.

Having been one of the many thousands who beseiged the Novello’s ticket site earlier today, I can only say it was one of the more stressful moments in my life. The site was constantly up and down, in the same way that the phone line was constantly engaged. In fact, even when we somehow managed to, apparently, book tickets the site refused to confirm the purchase! How stressful is that? Well it turns out a lot less stressful now after the box office confirmed that my payment had gone through – yay!

Of course now I have to find out how many times I paid for those tickets, as without a confirmation page and unable to get back through again I tried repeatedly to ‘Confirm and Purchase’ to no avail. Fingers crossed the ticket server was sensible enough to work out that the tickets had already been sold and not charge again, but given how badly it dealt with the whole thing then nothing much would surprise me. In all fairness this was extreme demand, but surely it was expected? Still, it could be worse – Ticketbastard could have taken even more of my money along with other people’s as they sell tickets for a thousand quid markup on their ‘fan to fan’ touting site with their ‘service fee’. Why hasn’t this travesty been shut down yet?

Personally for popular, limited events such as this I believe London’s theatres should start to follow a Glastonbury style of ticketing to prevent the amazing levels of touting. Named tickets, that can only be used by the people whose names are on the ticket and present valid ID. Can’t make the show after all? Then return your ticket for a full refund, allowing real fans to get last minute tickets at the face value rather than 10x, and you get a priority place in line for returns on another day – for example if you happen to be ill. Admittedly this is a lot more work for the ticketing facilities, but if people are dedicated to getting rid of touts and helping the fans then what other options are there? Or the other option is to follow a Madonna-esque model of pricing, with an auction being held for the better tickets ensuring that all the money goes to the RSC rather than anyone else. Then with the extra cash they can run more cheaper tickets to help expand the audience of Shakespeare to those less able to afford it – which was part of their goal of casting David Tennant in the first place.

As for me, I can’t wait for my yearly dose of ‘Sci Fi Shakespeare’. Last year it was Patrick Stewart as MacBeth and the show was wonderful. This year – it’s Whovians and Trekkies in the audience as two great British actors tread the boards in one of the world’s most famous plays. Allons y and make it so! Sorry, my geek side kicked in.. resistance was futile. Coff.