THEATRE / Restyled Sweeney is a cut above

THE KNIVES have been out this week as those two well-known carvers, Sweeney Todd and Shylock, step forward to join the queue of villains claiming victim status. Both seek to incriminate the spectator as well: and as David Calder fixes the Royal Shakespeare Theatre audience with a last baleful glare, you sense that the destitute Shylock may after all have a thriving future ahead as the Demon Barber of the Rialto.

The same goes for Sweeney himself in Declan Donnellan's magnificent revival of the Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical. It has been awaiting rediscovery ever since its abortive Drury Lane premiere of 1980. Serial murder then was not quite the box-office draw it has since become: but what scuppered Harold Prince's production, with its views of the Thames and social diagrams of the 'British Beehive', was that it treated Londoners as tourists in their own city. The decor is in the music: two bell-like chords, and everything is there from Dick Whittington to Jack the Ripper.

At the Cottesloe, the piece is reborn as a chamber opera, with minimal design and an orchestra reduced to nine (mainly wind) players. Gone are the audience- dominating tactics of Broadway; and in their place a lean, purposeful music drama in which every line is exposed. This is no help to the romantic numbers, which need feather-bedding. But from the opening ballad, its semitone triplets whirring like a fatal clock, the music both drives the action along and characterises it with malign echoes of nursery rhymes, London street cries, and the dies irae. For all the borrowings, it is music that belongs to this show alone; you can almost taste it.

The first contrast with the overdecorated and underpopulated Drury Lane version is Donnellan's transformation of the chorus into the environment. At the start they are a crowd at twilight, each hurrying to his own destination and cutting across each others' tracks as if the whole London A-Z were superimposed on the stage. Later they change into bystanders for the shaving contest, greedy diners packing Mrs Lovett's pie- shop (while Sweeney, above, keeps up the delivery of fresh meat), and inmates of Fogg's madhouse. But they are at their most potent as mute witnesses, watching from the shadows and closing in at moments of horror.

Wheeler's plot (adapted from Christopher Bond) concerns an avenging hero who flips into declaring war on the human race. It has Jacobean tragedy, 19th-century melodrama and Brechtian parable; but Donnellan puts it over as a devastating response to the Broadway cult of camp Victoriana. It is certainly popular theatre; and some numbers, like the frolicsome cannibal duet, remain deliberate camp jokes. Otherwise, it is there to wipe the grin off your face. Mrs Lovett is supposed to offer light relief; but as Julia McKenzie plays her (with marvellous control of the comic rhythms), it is her capacity for humdrum compromise and blinkered respectability, fussing round her parlour with green smoke issuing from her chimney, that chills the blood.

Hers is by far the best voice in the company (seconded by Nick Holder as a bel canto Pirelli). But the sweetest singing comes from Alun Armstrong's Sweeney - an obsessive outcast with no Monte Cristo flourishes - in the love song to his long-lost box of razors. Denis Quilley, the Drury Lane Sweeney, reappears as a gravely dignified Judge Turpin, whose hawk-like profile then amazingly contorts into the grimaces of a self-flagellating voyeur and

Guignol monster. Also look out for Barry James, a Beadle Dickens would have been proud of.

'He saw how cultured men behave / He never forgot and he never forgave.' Sondheim's chorus applies equally to Mr Calder's Shylock. The role is relatively short, but in David Thacker's modern-dress production The Merchant of Venice belongs to Shylock. Belmont hardly exists; Venice dominates the stage, in the form of Shelagh Keegan's steel and marble futures office, where Antonio (Clifford Rose) first appears at lunch with two pretty young dealers, before visiting Shylock in his hi-tech lair.

Genial, shrewd and totally lacking in Hebraic trademarks, Calder's performance picks up from where Olivier's Edwardian Shylock stopped. This Jew is indistinguishable from any other Western businessman: and the line of the production is that it is only the loss of Jessica that drives him into vengeance. Like Sweeney, he is seen going round the twist as a pandemonium of rock music violates his sober house and bestially-masked revellers mock the frantically searching father. Calder brings humour, poignancy, and the true note of distracted grief to this account of the character; and it is a pity for this, as for previous apologies for Shylock, that he punctures it by declaring his anti-Christian loathing in his opening scene.

There remains much to admire in the show: not least Penny Downie's change from a statuesque Portia into a hot-shot lawyer, Mark Lockyer's even more startling transformation of Gratiano from a coarse chauvinist into the office laughing boy; and the sight of Antonio recoiling in gibbering terror from the knife.

Still on the RSC Rialto comes Goldoni's The Venetian Twins which opens with a brass band and washing lines - typically heralding a Michael Bogdanov production which continues with unscheduled events, including the accidental slaughter of a spectator, momentarily halting the show for police and ambulancemen.

Goldoni's twins - one a good- natured buffoon, the other a courageous narcissist - both arrive in Verona on the trail of love and marriage, and proceed to get their lines crossed for the rest of the play. It is a tremendous energy show, involving David Troughton in superhuman displays of instantaneous doubling in the title roles. Add a production style that yanks the audience into the action, and redoubles Goldoni's gags by making fun of the commedia conventions, and you will imagine a laugh riot. Up to a point, so it is. Then one of the twins takes

poison and dies; and a cold wind sweeps the carnival into oblivion. Not for nothing was Goldoni a compatriot of Pirandello.

A brief but ardent welcome to Philip Osment's The Dearly Beloved, in which a tight little Welsh community is disrupted by jealousy and discontent at the homecoming of a local celebrity (Peter Wight, heading Mike Alfreds's excellent company). There is a death in the play; but what it mainly, and truthfully, dramatises is the dismay of minutely individualised characters at how their lives have worked out. Since the 1950s there has been a moritorium on plays in the Chekhov manner. It is time the ban was lifted.

'Sweeney Todd': Cottesloe (071-928 2252). 'The Merchant of Venice': Royal Shakespeare, Stratford (0789 295623). 'Venetian Twins': Swan, Stratford (0789 295623). 'Dearly Beloved': Hampstead (071-722 9301).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are