As You Like It / The Tempest, Old Vic, London
Welcome to Thebes, NT Olivier, London
Sucker Punch, Royal Court Downstairs, London
In Sam Mendes' triumphant double dose of the Bard, the comedy is packed with subtle revelations about human nature
Sunday 27 June 2010
It ends with a dance in the sun-dappled Forest of Arden, four brides whirling exuberantly, to folk drums and fiddles, white skirts flying.
Sam Mendes' Bridge Project staging of As You Like It – twinned in rep with The Tempest – also begins breathtakingly. With fists.
In the winter-grey orchard of his country estate, Edward Bennett's smug Oliver is sent flying by his downtrodden younger sibling, Christian Camargo's Orlando. The hunched worm turned wrestler, Camargo grabs and flicks Bennett like a spinning top, and hurls him to the ground (with choreography by Josh Prince and Rick Sordelet in this joint British-American venture).
When Oliver plans his revenge, Bennett makes him interestingly riven, not just melodramatically seething, but also nagged by guilt already. Thus the seeds are sown for his later conversion, when he fetches up in Arden as a nice guy (which usually seems implausible).
I adored this As You Like It, for the conflicted depths that Mendes swiftly finds in everyone. Camargo's explosion of violence springs out of suicidal dejection. Alvin Epstein's Adam, his snowy bearded servant, promises he's still spry, then confides – to the audience – that he expects to die en route to Arden, as he does, heartbreakingly.
The production explores psychological flipsides and subtly different kinds of love. Celia (Michelle Beck) clasps Juliet Rylance's weeping Rosalind with an innocent devotion when her best friend is banished by Duke Frederick – Celia's father. In turn, the jester Touchstone shows brotherly tenderness towards Celia, reaching for her hand as all three flee.
The journey into the woods is achieved with beautiful simplicity, the dark wall of Frederick's fortress lifting to reveal a misty glade. Michael Thomas's despotic Frederick and his minions change from black tie into ragged overcoats, mellowing before your eyes into the more patient Senior (Frederick's usurped brother) and his court-in-exile.
In many respects, Arden is where people find their true selves, even if in disguise. Unfortunately, though, some of Mendes' cast lose their way. Camargo never perks up. Trying to compensate for her dreary beau, Rylance's cross-dressed Rosalind becomes wearisomely peppy, overdoing the bounding around. Stephen Dillane enchantingly makes up for those shortcomings with his witty and melancholic Jaques.
Dillane's naturalism is so understated it is, paradoxically, outstanding. He makes Jaques's "Seven Ages of Man" monologue not a sentimental set speech, but a developing thought process: mocking Senior's "all the world's a stage" analogy, then moving through gentler humour into philosophical bleakness at he contemplates the seventh age ("sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything").
In The Tempest, Dillane's Prospero is so quietly spoken that he's in danger of being drowned out by composer Mark Bennett's eerie chimes and rattling seed-pods. But the downplaying of the usurped Duke of Milan's irate, domineering side is clearly deliberate. This is a portrait of soft power, in the sense that his Prospero hardly needs to raise his voice. The magus just sprinkles water over his desert isle's circle of white sand and, magically, his brother's ship is wrecked. As a yarn-spinner, he can enthrall Ron Cephas Jones's roaring Caliban with a hypnotic whisper.
To Rylance's naively beaming Miranda, Dillane is a pent-up but fond father. His scruffy, bearded Prospero also orchestrates everyone's actions. Like an ageing writer-director, he perches at the side of the stage, poring over his manuscript. Frequently he mouths the others' words, as if they're rising out of his imagination.
Mendes' directorial concepts are not all so consistently inspired. Most muddled are Miranda's nuptial celebrations. Part Neoclassical opera, part Chekhovian picnic, with old home movies suddenly projected on the sky, her wedding party is obtrusively sappy. Still, all in all, this Shakespearean double act is worth catching.
While Prospero's return to his dukedom is overlaid with declarations of forgiveness, a new political era has dawned – including truth and reconciliation – in Welcome to Thebes. Moira Buffini's rewrite of Ancient Greek mythology, staged by Richard Eyre, shows women seizing the reins of government, promising peace after an atrocity-ridden era of rival warlords. Strewn with rubble, Thebes looks as if it's in modern Africa, with hints of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Creon's dignified widow, Eurydice (Nikki Amuka-Bird), is the new president and full of upright intentions. Unwittingly, she craves personal reparation, however. Denying Creon's slayer, Polynices, a burial, she sparks a mass protest, egged on by the coup-craving opposition.
At the same time, David Harewood's Theseus – leader of the superpower, Athens – arrives on an official visit, publicly supporting the democratically elected Eurydice, but throwing his weight around in private. Polynices' manic sister, Antigone (Vinette Robinson), is scandalised. Old Tiresias (Bruce Myers) predicts only doom and gloom. Theseus's wife, Phaedra, is obsessed with her stepson.
You have to admire Buffini's courage, and Eyre's, for taking on enough storylines to fill your average Greek trilogy and loading them with contemporary resonance. The result, though, is unfocused. In spite of some zinging lyrical lines, there's scant tragic poignancy. Buffini's forte is satire, and Harewood's caring manner soon gives way to bullish swagger, like Barack Obama meshed with George Bush.
The battlefield is a boxing ring in Roy Williams' Sucker Punch, centring on a black British teenager called Leon who, in the 1980s, sets his heart on becoming a champion fighter. To placate his racist trainer, Charlie, Leon abandons his best mate and his white girlfriend – Charlie's daughter.
The Theatre Downstairs has been thrillingly transformed into a grungy den for Sacha Wares' premiere, with the audience packed round the spotlit boxing ring. Nigel Lindsay is great casting as Charlie, broken-nosed in baggy sweatpants, superficially affable. Daniel Kaluuya's Leon is memorable too, air-boxing as he recalls bouts blow-by-blow. The let down is that Williams's father-child relationships feel schematic and the plot developments are compacted.
'As You Like It' and 'The Tempest' (0844 871 7628) to 21 Aug; 'Welcome to Thebes' (020-7452 3000) to 18 Aug; 'Sucker Punch' (020-7565 5000) to 24 Jul
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