jurious: Pencil sketch. Based on Stephen Briggs (Default)
[personal profile] jurious
I've seen two Shakespeare plays in the past week as part of my late birthday celebrations, each starring two big names in both film and theatre: I saw "The Tempest" in London starring Ralph Fiennes last Thursday, and on Monday evening saw (what I now realise was the final performance of) "The Merchant of Venice" starring Patrick Stewart in Stratford upon Avon.

This time last week, I would have predicted that I would have preferred "The Tempest" over "Merchant". However it turned out that the RSC's trippy Las Vegas-set take on "Merchant" was the surprise of the week and kicked "The Tempest"'s proverbial ass. :P


Ralph Fiennes as Prospero with Elisabeth Hopper (Miranda) in "The Tempest"
at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London



"The Tempest" was originally the play I was most looking forward to - Shakespeare's final play starring Fiennes, an actor who carries a lot of gravitas, in the role of the "magician" Prospero. But alas... the play was ponderous and uninteresting. There were some impressive visual effects and some very fancy choreography, particularly for the shipwreck at the start of the play, but nothing about it screamed out and grabbed me. It was cool to see Fiennes and hear that voice for real, of course, and there were some nice performances in there, particularly from Elisabeth Hopper as Miranda, Nicholas Lyndhurst as Trinculo and whoever the young chap was who played Ferdinand. But I wouldn't say it was worth going out of your way to go see it. There was a lot of balletic-type dancing and songs from the spirits which isn't my thing at all - at least not in the style it was done here - and when we were with the sailors, the play was frankly dull. My mind started wandering in the second half, which is never good...

It is unfortunate for "Tempest" that, within four days of seeing it, I went to see the famed RSC and witness their final performance of "The Merchant of Venice", starring Patrick Stewart and set in modern-day Las Vegas, of all places! I was dubious, I thought it'd never work... but it proved me very wrong and blew "Tempest" right out of the water.


Patrick Stewart as Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice"
at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon



The first advantage the production of "Merchant" had over "Tempest" was the stage layout. The Haymarket is a traditional theatre with the seats going back from the stage, whereas the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which I don't believe has long been renovated, has a novel stage design with seats arranged around it on 3 of its 4 sides, which really does bring the audience in very close. This also makes the play more dynamic and three-dimensional, bringing the actors right out into the midst of their audience, and even having them enter and exit from the back of the theatre as well as the front. There was one point where Shylock entered from the rear door and was searching the audience for Antonio with a torch, so being sat on the aisle on got a face full of torchlight from Patrick Stewart, which doesn't happen every day. ;)

Another thing I don't think I've seen before is the fact that the action on stage never stopped, with stuff happening on stage prior to the performance "starting" - many characters sat gambling in a casino - and also during the interval. It was of course lower key action and not part of the play, per se, but it really added extra life to it.

I studied "Merchant" at school where the only production we had the "fortune" to see was the old BBC video with Laurence Olivier. And how dull it was... This didn't make the play the most attractive to our 16-year-old minds. I do like the more recent film version with Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons, but even then it's not the most exciting movie in the world. But this play *was* exciting! It was even funny! Since when is "Merchant" funny? But when Launcelot Gobbo is an Elvis impersonator and Portia and Nerissa over-preened stars on a cheesy game show - where Portia is the prize! - how can it be anything other? The glaring lights of Las Vegas, the loud set of characters, the sinister world of gambling - which is at both times fun and life-destroying - all served this play wonderfully. And it was very well cast, the actors drawing the audience either for or against them with their well-balanced and thought-out performances. There was a wonderful little moment on Shylock's debut scene where Shylock was putting little golf balls into a mug in his office and, on the third and final shot, he got a ball into the mug - and the look Patrick Stewart gave his audience was priceless. He of course earned an applause for that small victory. :) It's cool when actors interact with their audience in little ways like that.

I could rant all day about Portia and Nerissa and their game show antics, about Lorenzo being dressed as Batman for the masque where he rescued Jessica dressed as Robin (lol!), about the wonderfully achieved illusion of characters driving a car or being in a lift, and so on and so forth... But I'll settle with saying it was just so engaging and entertaining, I can't get over how much I liked it.

If I have any criticism it's the fact that, with all the humour and fun of the Vegas setting, the court scene, where Shylock prepares to cut the pound of flesh from Antonio, felt out of place and made the rest of the play feel in bad taste somewhat. It's only a small criticism and didn't mean I liked the play any less, but it didn't sit well with the rest of it. Also, the man who played the Prince of Aragon laid it on rather too thickly - I know he was meant to be a caricature but I couldn't understand a word he said for one, and two he wasn't very good at being funny with it. But again, small inconsequential detail in the whole scheme of things.

So, all in all: don't go see "The Tempest" unless you like slow song-n-dancy Shakespeare, or absolutely adore Ralph Fiennes. I wouldn't say it was worth it. I *would* recommend you go and see "The Merchant of Venice" but, alas, it has now closed so... maybe just keep an eye on the RSC and do, if you can, try to see something on that awesome stage of theirs. They could do interesting things with a layout like that. (Plus they have an awesome gift shop which I could spend a fortune in if I only had some money to spare...)

I have no money right now owing to ridiculous car repair bills and a rather large phone bill - oops - so no more plays until December when my theatre-friend Bec and I will be going to see some more amdram - the Grantham Dramatic Society, to be precise, and their production of the Discworld adaptation of "Going Postal". I've also asked my mum if she will buy me for Christmas tickets for "The Lion in Winter" which is the next play to run at the Haymarket. I love the movie of that play and would love to actually see it on-stage so fingers crossed for that one! :)
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jurious: Pencil sketch. Based on Stephen Briggs (Default)
Grace Francis

December 2011

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