Breath of Kings -redemption May, ’16

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This is the second part of Graham Abbey ‘s Breath of Kings. It has a life of its own but is more fun to watch in order.

Abbey has the play starting with whispers and a parade of former characters; and Richard II in his golden robe but without the crown he gave to Bolingbroke/Henry introduces us to the play. The floor is bare and barren, an intricate but dead puzzle of marvel and someone is breaking out a big piece in the form of a small coffin, his strenuous tries in perfect synch with the tock-tock  of king Henry’s staff. Because Henry never recovered from the wound he received in battle. Now, death imminent, he feels the burden of the crown, and the sins he committed while wearing it are weighing him down. Even more so as his son is still galavanting around with Sir John Falstaff.

It is a joy to watch young Hal (Araya Mengesha)  turn from obnoxious teenage brat rebelling against authorities in the first part to young hero and finally king Henry V in the span of two plays. Reconciled with his father on the deathbed he takes on the crown, the only outward change being the dreadlocks giving way to a tightly woven hairdo. This and the way he treats Falstaff – sending him away and ultimately killing him with his decision – is the first sign of growing up. 

In battle he and his comrades forge a union strong enough to take on France . And amongst his men there are the same actors who played Henry and Falstaff (Geraint Wyn Davies hilarious and insightful and wise as the Welsh commander) and it is as if all ancestors had assembled to fight the battle of Agincourt.

Again the floor does play his part in this production. The more Britain and later France is war torn and in battle, the more pieces of the floor get ripped out, revealing the bloodied soil of the homeland in the form of red wood chips. And when Henry finally meets Catherine of France,his intended wife, he has to climb over the disrupted pieces in order to get to her.

Of course the important speeches of Henry V are kept, and his passionate rousing “we lucky few, we band of brothers” gave me goosebumps. Also historically correct a scene where they kneel with British longbows and shoot and the air is whirring with the sound of arrows – brilliantly executed. (Add.: The French lost over 10.000 nobles and soldiers because of the force with which the arrows pierced armour. The English lost three nobles and “five and twenty”)

To follow both parts of Breath of Kings means you follow three generations of Kings, their lives and their influence on both Britain and France, both Wales and Scotland in a gorgeous arc of history. Add to that great actors down to the smallest parts, and you got must see theatre at its finest. The whole cast is outstanding; but magnificent in their portrayal were of course  Tom Rooney, Graham Abbey, Geraint Wyn Davies and Araya Mengesha. These four shine – and special kudos to Graham Abbey who not only wrote and birthed the plays but also directed the second part, redemption, and lent life to the uneasy, hesitant king Henry IV.

Oh and btw: they’re all incredibly friendly, nice and sweet at the stage door. You just have to be really fast to catch Geraint – he’s out and about in a minute. 😉 Also don’t make my mistake and bring chocolate for Graham – he needs to maintain his lean and fabulous six-pack for the rest of the season (remember, he’s shirtless for a few moments in part one:) )

 

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Hamlet Sept.19th, ’15

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Yes. Amazing. Jonathan Goad. Let me just say that Cumberbatch will have a hard time to top this performance.

Goad just has it all and it seems to be his part from the start. The man is young enough to pull the scholar off, mature enough to be a leader amongst friends and to see the political consequences of his actions, talented enough to pull off madness without overacting and finally fit enough to add a lot of physical comedy to his performance without even breaking into a sweat. Accompanied by a great cast (Geraint Wyn Davies as both the ghost and the new king, Tom Rooney as Ophelia’s father, Mike Shara as his son) this was a win from the start. Set in a non specified present where guns unapologetically replace rapiers until the last sword fight and in modern dress, it is Shakespeare’s beautiful language that brings it all together when Elizabethan English starts to sound like current English thanks to the talented actors on stage.

Yes I was/am that impressed.

Things that stood out for me: Goad mimicking a crab complete with crabwalking backwards and using his hands for its shears, then looking at his right hand still opening and closing as if it wasn’t attached to his mind or body. The one time Hamlet lets his affection for Ophelia shine through in their scene with her father watching and that almost kiss that made the air sizzle. The sheer skill with which Shara and Goad pull off their final fight scene. Damn their fight director John Stead is good! The exchange of the blades was so fast and fluid it was amazing. And finally the death scene of Hamlet – always difficult because there’s still so much text left for the actor which can lead to me thinking ‘oh die already, everyone else is gone’. Not this time. When Hamlet finally says ‘the rest is silence’ it is with almost child-like surprise. Then his body just lets go. No dramatic falling back, just … over. When six combat clad soldiers carry him out (how did Goad manage his body tension for that scene….) his head falls back – a perfect last glimpse at an unlikely hero and his finished quest.

Damn, Goad owned it.😉

The Taming of the Shrew Sept.18th, ’15

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They clearly outdid themselves with this one. Brilliant just doesn’t cover it.

Even before the play, while ppl are still coming in, actors file out and talk to the audience. Where are you from. (Once again I won 😁) and Tom Rooney assured me they would do part of the play in high high high German, so I might not even be able to understand it. 😂

And that little encounter set the pace for an incredible, farcical, physical show that had us all in stitches.

It all starts with a row – a member of the audience, rather disheveled looking, with a drunkard’s nose and dirty hair, claims to be “a blogger” and demands special treatment for Sound of music, the other huge show at the festival theatre. It was only then that I recognised Ben Carlson under the hilarious mask!

The story is of course well known – I like to call the play “Stockholm Syndrome” – but set in Shakespeare’s time it just oozes sarcasm, irony and a good deal of not so child proof cock-jokes. It is also – in this direction by Chris Abraham- a negotiation between two headstrong characters who try to make their lives work with without losing themselves in the process. Carlson and his real life wife Deborah Hay are perfect sparring partners in this never ending fight that slowly turns into an erotically charged banter. In their last scene where Kate (seemingly tamed) offers to put her hand under her husband’s foot, she stands above Petrucchio, until he charges to her, grips the offered hand and – while embracing her tightly – guides her hand to his manhood, knowing quite well who is pulling whom  and how in their lives.

Add to that the way they turn aa brawl in the audience into Shakespearian verse as soon as The Blogger enters the stage, and you have theatre magic at its best. Special cudos to Tom Rooney, Mike Shara, Cyrus Lane and of course Carlson and Hay. This is why I love to come here…

Measure for Measure Sept.11th ’13

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It’s a convoluted story and certainly neither Shakespeare’s best nor my most favorite play. The story of the Duke who is “testing” his subjects while he is gallivanting about in disguise to see what his people think of him and then is surprised when the one man who didn’t even want to be his replacement not only fails to lead – and executes the law by the letter, without compassion – but also gives in to temptation is weak, to say the least.

The story’s set in Vienna shortly after the second world war which is as it may, and young Claudio is set to die because of a draconian law against fornication. (funny, during the time of Empress Maria Theresia, who bore her husband 16 children, such laws were first introduced in reality – a chastity commission was trying to keep a lid on the obvious lust not only for life the Viennese were famous for, Even the empress’ husband, you see, was fornicating left, right and center)

Now Claudio has made his lover pregnant and even though he wants to marry her he is in jail. So his sister, living in a convent and soon to be a nun, is sent to sway governor Angelo (a brilliant Tom Rooney) and have her brother freed. Angelo though falls in love with Isabella and presents her with an ultimatum: She has to sleep with him or Claudio dies.

Desperate, Isabella confides to a monk – who is the duke (wonderful: Geraint Wyn Davies) in disguise – and he comes up with a plan. He substitutes Isabella with Angelo’s ex fiancee who willingly shares his bed. But Angelo has already signed the death warrant and it’s sheer luck or fate that nobody dies that night.

the next morning the duke confronts Angelo: he had fornicated as well, so what would his penance be? But in the end, Angelo will marry his ex, Claudio his lover, and the Duke has eyes on Isabella (one of the lesser believable turns in this play, I have to admit) and nobody dies except a career criminal.

The rather convoluted plot as well as the not very likeable characters make this play neither easy nor does it seem like Shakespeare’s usually very cleverly plotted ones. I appreciated the acting that was really amazing as usual, but all in all the play itself didn’t endear itself to me. oh, well, they can’t all be winners 😉

Wanderlust, Aug 4th, ’12

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This new musical is another world premiere at the Stratford Festival and it’s living up to the town’s theatre’s high reputation – not least thanks to the skills of Tom Rooney, who plays Robert Service with all the passion and desperation this character deserves.

It’s about Robert W Service, a British bank clerk who by emigrating from his native England to Canada follows his heart and his “wanderlust” he portraits in many poems. Dubbed as the Canadian Kipling in real life, he goes from job to job, closing in to the wide planes of the yukon territory that call to him whenever he’s bound to a desk job to earn some money. He died with 84, famous and hopefully after a happy and fulfilled and successful life as a writer of both poetry and novels, having it make to the Yukon as well as having travelled through America, Canada, even Russia.

Our musical starts while he is employed at the Canadian bank of commerce branch in Victoria,  British Columbia, – two years before they actually did send him to the Yukon branch. While he is in Victoria though, he writes poems full of longing about the life of a free man, digging gold, being a cowboy. Yet he cannot make up his mind to leave the security of the bank for good: He is in love with his beautiful coworker Luise, even though she is engaged to his boss, aptly named Dan McGrew. Luise is flattered by his attention and encourages his infatuation – dangling the carrot of a life together and casually mentioning a ploy to embezzle money easily from the bank. Robert is too smitten to resist. He takes the money to have a chance of a life of adventure –  only to discover that dearest Luise wanted the fortune for herself alone, leaving him with fraud charges at the bank.

But then it is she who is duped: as a test Robert had filled a bag with his clothes and not with money, on the contrary, he had returned the embezzled money back into the correct accounts, now able to claim he was just executing a test to prove how easily money would be vanishing. As he attributes the test to his boss Dan McGrew he ensures that McGrew is sent to the Yukon branch to build the new bank there. He, Robert, is going to stay in Victoria. Because only there, the owner of the bank tells him, he could do what he’s best at: to dream.

The play itself is moving and the crime plot interesting enough to capture its audience. Unfortunately the music is fun, but not extraordinary even tho they used the ballads “The shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee “, both fabulous examples of his poetic skills.

Thanks to Tom Rooney, Dan Chameroy as Dan McGrew and Randy Hughson as the bank owner (and the brilliant Lucy Peacock as shady Mrs Munsch) the play is fun to watch and left me with a smile!

Henry V, Aug 1st, ’12

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Henry V – it’s all about the war to end all wars and the ppl touched by it in various ways. and noone wins.

I wasn’t really captured by the play. Now, that was definitely not the fault of the actors, tho. I love Ben Carlson, he can’t do wrong even when he tries on a funny not quite right Welsh accent. and he was one of the highlights in this production and stole the show whenever he was on stage.

But despite the theatrics with thunder, lightning, fire and fighting the play itself was directed to seem lifeless, one dimensional, even though the actors ran through the rows of the audience at times. I blame Des McAnuff, who also directed a Macbeth I found less than engaging. It’s his last season at the festival though – he leaves a year early – and I wish him all the best for his further undertakings. Just hopefully not at the Stratford Festival.

Other than that – the story is gory enough: to gain more power and money, Henry V, young and mostly untried, is advised to go for french provinces as he is the legal heir to them as long as the french king is unable to produce a male successor. So the british – oh, Welsh, indeed – king rides into battle and even though the odds are severely against him, finally wins the fight for domination.

In his moment of glory he shows royal thinking and marries the defeated king’s daughter Catherine to further strengthen the bonds between the two domaines. What was forged to sustain for centuries does not live for even two generations, though. In the end, all the fighting is in vain, the war between France and Britain will not be over for centuries.

In this production a couple of things are truly remarkable: first of all the speech with which young Harry rallies his troups, ending with : “We’ll be a band of brothers” – a quote used by Churchill in his famous radio speech during WWII. And they included a usually cut scene in which the heroic flawless british king Henry orders to kill all captives (while it was customary to release captured enemies in exchange of money) – they are set afire in their dungeon. Thus showing a side of Henry that makes him a ruthless and determined leader.

All in all I was very impressed by the skills of the actors who were trying to escape the too tight leash of their director, first and foremost Aaron Krohn who shone whenever he was allowed to show a little bit of passion. Also Lucy Peacock and Tom Rooney, two favorites with an amazing range of theatric skills. And last, but certainly not least Ben Carlson as the proud Welshman whose beard should get a mention in the program, too. 😉

Sadly the production itself left me not too impressed, flat and almost ifeless, although the last gag was certainly designed to make the audience smile: the blue/gold french flag is torn down to be replaced by the british white and red crossed flag, only to be exchanged with a Canadian flag in the end. A nice idea, but it didn’t make up for the rather drab directing.

Twelfth Night Sept. 9th, ’11

It’s all about the music. The very complex story of four people in love – and love has so many faces – , the pairs being shuffled and shifted until they find their other halves, it’s still all about music in this interpretation of the fabulous Twelfth Night.And it works – with a rock band on the stage and the incredible versatility of the actors involved it works like a charm, like the magic it’s supposed to be.

The story is most likely very well known: Duke Orsino is in love with Countess Olivia, who mourns her beloved brother and is intent on rejecting his advances. Sir Toby Belch tries to wed her off to his best friend, Sir Aguecheek, while her steward Malvolio pines for her. Meanwhile a shipwreck parts the two siblings Viola and Sebastian; both are saved but both think the other one’s dead. And Viola, in fear for her virtue on strange shores, disguises herself as a man.

In this disguise “Cesario” soon becomes the favorite servant of Orsino – only to fall in love with him. When he is sent to Olivia, she falls in love with “Cesario”. It takes a while until with the help of fate, the magic of the twelfth night of christmas and the not in the least foolish fool everything unravels and Orsino finds to Viola, Sebastian to Olivia.

Des McAnuff directed and made good use of his incredibly versatile cast – the fool for instance is played by Ben Carlson (one of the reasons I keep coming back to this festival) who to my honest surprise not only is playing a mean bass, but also the guitar and a mouth organ. And there we are in the middle of the magic of this particular adaption of Twelfth Night: There is an honest to god rock band on stage, dancing, playing, having the time of their lives obviously. Together with Stephen Ouimette and Brian Dennehy Ben Carlson does a canon on “Hold my piece” that is absolutely brilliant, and their rendition of “if music be the food of love, play on” is just as stunningly perfect.

Effortlessly they change the musical rhythm into something more medieval, only to get back to cheeful and fun as Olivia’s feelings for “Cesario” awaken. It is magic, happening on an almost empty stage (only once propped with a huge bar and a fridge hanging from the ceiling – which only sounds strange, but makes perfect sense in the course of the play). The costumes change from turn of the century to almost modern, to Hippie-seventies and it doesn’t bother you, it only enhances the performance. Not surprisingly the shows are almost sold out and the actors get standing ovations from an enchanted audience that obviously enjoys the early trip to a christmas celebration with  a little twist! Because the Twelfth Night of christmas was the last holiday in Shakespeare’s time, after which not only people had to go back to work again, it was (and still is) epiphany – where three wise men name the new king. Given that England was on the brink of the death of their Queen it also turns the play into a farewell to a long period of safety and unvarying prosper.

And just as Malvolio, bitterly mocked by Belch (and brilliantly played by Tom Rooney) says “I’ll be revenged by the whole pack of you” this is also an ominous foreboding – 40 years later the puritans under Cromwell will overthrow the british monarchy and close the theatres. It is with a little bit of sadness and bitterness the sweet love stories are consumed – and Belch is in more ways than one symbol of a fading order. But a little sadness has always enhanced a sweet story – as is the case with Twelfth Night.

By the way: Most of the music is composed by Des McAnuff, the director of the play. Also: You can buy the CD in the theatre store!