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).

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat