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Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Alchemist Review

Alice is an 18 year old Philosophy student at the University of Birmingham. She also worked at the World Shakespeare Congress as an Events Ambassador and had opportunity to come down and review a play the week before the Congress.




Siobhán McSweeney, Ken Nwosu and Mark Lockyer in The Alchemist. Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC


When the cat's away, the mice will play - and boy, these mice are ready to put on quite a play. This season, the RSC sees Polly Findlay bring to live the Renaissance comedy The Alchemist by Shakespeare's near-contemporary, Ben Jonson. As the plague hits London, Lovewit (Hywel Morgan) skips town, leaving his mansion in the hands of his mischievous manservant Jeremy (Ken Nwosu) and his band of conniving friends.
Taking place in the Swan Theatre; the space at the RSC generally reserved for Shakespeare's contemporaries as Hamlet plays just across the hall, The Alchemist is an unmissable feature of the RSC's season.
The Alchemist is unique amongst the Renaissance plays in its totally contemporary setting. Whilst most of the bard's plays are set in historical England, The Alchemist is set in Blackfriars in the year it was written - 1610 - and its vivacious contemporary atmosphere is one of several reasons why 406 years later, this play translates brilliantly and transparently to today's audience.
As we enter the Victorian-Gothic theatre, the wonderful Jacobean set immediately thrusts us into the dark, smoky criminal underworld of 17th Century London where the play takes place.
The play launches into action with an original prologue, written by playwright Stephen Jeffreys, which is energetically and hilariously delivered by the production's three stand-out actors; Ken Nwosu as the conniving but hopeless manservant Jeremy, Mark Lockyer as Subtle - the brilliantly disastrous sham alchemist, and Siobhán McSweeney as the utterly lovable yet take-no-prisoners prostitute, Dol Common.
These three characters - the band of terribly hopeless criminals - are central to this calamitous farce, and maintain their comedy and energy expertly throughout the 2 hour and 20 minute production, as they are joined on stage by the "sober, scurvy set" of Londoners who they plan to con and swindle out of their money.
Beyond being ingeniusly funny, The Alchemist is a social comment on the levels of vanity which humanity is capable of. This group of scoundrels who have transformed their master's mansion into their criminal den, have no limit to the depth to which they will stoop, in order to trick some unsuspecting victim that Subtle is, in fact, a powerful alchemist. From convincing a naive tobacconist (charmingly portrayed by Richard Leeming) that he is a necromancer, to tricking a group of Anabaptists into believing that he has the philosophers stone - a magical transmuting stone that will turn any base metal into gold - Subtle's only magic qualities are in how good a con-man he is. RSC veteran Mark Lockyer plays the eponymous alchemist unashamedly, boldly and captivatingly, really breathing life into Jonson's charmingly vile con-artist.
Polly Findlay in her pacing and bold direction succeeds in bringing to light Jonson's clever parallels drawn between the world of alchemy, and Jacobean London. In an uncertain city, literally on the brink of demise, this play is about striving for change - just as the philosopher's stone is said to change the ordinary into gold, the lowly conmen aim to augment themselves, to climb the social ladder and become something wealthier and more powerful. Every scene in this play is rife with conflict; from the initial scene where Jeremy and Subtle bicker about shares of the profits, to the Anabaptists quarrelling over the legitimacy of alchemy; the friction and sparks generated by the reminds us of the intensity and often hilarious unpredictability of those at the bottom, in a city on the brink.
As we near the end of the play, the RSC's technical team really do bring out all the stops, to create some pretty spectacular stuff, which I'd rather not give away. The devised ending of the play is deeply clever, very funny, and does a marvellous job of bringing together the themes of trickery, false-play and humour, which drive this real gem of a piece.

So, whilst the philosopher's stone may ultimately be the stuff of legends, the RSC really has succeeded in created something genuinely golden in the Swan Theatre this season.



Thursday, 10 March 2016

Doctor Faustus review


Alex Barasch is a 19 year old Biology student and the current RSC Ambassador for Oxford University, who, as a lover of early modern drama (and theatre in general), takes full advantage of the RSC Key’s BP £5 tickets whenever possible.


Oliver Ryan and Sandy Grierson in 
Doctor Faustus. Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC

Maria Aberg’s production of Doctor Faustus is a compelling one from the outset. It opens with RSC veterans Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan walking on stage and striking a match: the lead whose match burns out first “loses” and is forced to take on the role of Faustus, the eponymous doctor who sells his soul to Lucifer for 24 years of supernatural power and impunity, while his counterpart plays the devil Mephistophilis. This mirroring continues throughout, as the two swap lines, share monologues and imitate each other’s physicality, emphasising the strength of their contract— and culminating in a delightfully intimate end.

Aberg’s decision to cut the comic scenes in the middle of the play resulted in a fast-paced, unrelenting performance. In particular, the treatment of Benvolio’s (Tom McCall) humiliation and attempted revenge was tonally excellent, and while Ryan’s manic Mephistophilis was sometimes brutal, Grierson shone as a palpably tormented Faustus whose breakdown is reflected by the ensemble around him. As everyone he encounters grows increasingly grotesque and inhuman in both appearance and behaviour—the faceless soldiers who attend on the Emperor communicate in ominous clicks, and the Duke of Vanholt could pass for Gluttony—he no longer knows whom to trust.

The visible purity and seeming normalcy of Helen’s childlike spirit comes almost as a relief to both the Doctor and the audience when he first summons her, until it becomes clear that here, too, something is off. In this, one of the most unsettling moments of the production, Faustus is forced to confront the hollowness of the “pleasures” that have cost him his soul. The clever doubling of scholars and devils makes subsequent scenes even more sinister, and we begin to understand Faustus’ paranoia: has the crowd come to entreat him to entertain with his magic or drag him to hell at last?

These bold choices in costuming and characterisation are complemented by Naomi Dawson’s simple yet evocative set (the pentagram Faustus draws when he first summons Mephistophilis remains as a striking reminder for the duration) and Orlando Gough’s stunning score, by turns discordant and sensual. All in all, a powerful and innovative interpretation not to be missed.

Doctor Faustus is now playing in the Swan Theatre until 4 August, 16-25 year olds can still get BP £5 tickets for this production – just enter promo code 1625 when booking.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Tess Henderson is a 22 year old English Literature and Drama graduate from UWE. She is passionate about theatre and writes a theatre blog dedicated to the subject. She is currently working as a Content Creation Marketer in Bristol.

If I could sum up the RSC production of Peter and Wendy in one word, it would be: Ingenious.
Playwright, Ella Hickson uproots the classic JM Barrie tale and forms it into something deeper and more relevant, yet still remains true to the context of the time.


One defining feature in Hickson’s version is that we begin with four Darling children instead of three. Tom is the fourth child who passes away at the beginning of the play, thus shattering the Darling household as they know it. Therefore, when Peter Pan arrives and mentions the ‘Lost Boys’ in Neverland, Wendy immediately jumps to the conclusion that Tom must be one of them; providing the story with a much stronger emotional pull than the promise of pirates and mermaids (although this is still what sways John and Michael!).

Another very strong feature to Hickson’s version is that arguably, this isn’t Peter’s story at all, it’s Wendy’s. In JM Barrie’s novel, Wendy is predominantly shoved into the ‘motherly’ role and thus into the restraints of patriarchy, as seen when she is put safely into her ‘Wendy house’ when she arrives in Neverland. However, Hickson turns her into a powerful force to be reckoned with as she scoffs at the childishness of Peter and the other boys and hatches a plan of her own to find Tom. This is mirrored by Mrs Darling’s story as she breaks out of the family home to fight for her independence amongst the Suffragette movement.

Mariah Gale plays Wendy with ease, as she not only reveals her childlike innocence, but her more opinionated, strong and practical side. Gale was one of my favourite performers as I felt that she brought a different side to Wendy; she made her a real, flawed human being rather than the prim and proper young girl Wendy is so often portrayed as.

I appreciated the way women were brought to the forefront of this narrative. I really liked the way Hickson joined the female characters together to save the Lost Boys on The Jolly Roger. With Tiger Lily’s (Mimi Ndiweni) strength and resilience, Tinkerbell’s (Charlotte Mills)  sassiness and wit, and Wendy’s passion and confidence, we have the perfect team and truly see the different aspects of their personalities.

The set was incredible – thanks to award-winning designer Colin Richmond. A lot of thought and effort had been put into both the design and construction; particularly the Lost Boy’s den.
I thoroughly enjoyed this imaginative revision of Wendy and Peter Pan. It challenged the original story and successfully captured the feminist, comical and magical moments of the tale. I felt like I had been transported to the Neverland I had always wanted to experience!


Wendy & Peter Pan is now playing in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until the 31 January.BP £5 tickets are available with promo code 1625

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Another awesome Wendy & Peter Pan review

Jemima Mitchell is an 18 year old English Language and History student at the University of Birmingham. With a strong love for theatre and the RSC she is taking advantage of the close links between Birmingham and the RSC to see as many shows as possible. Currently a Student Ambassador for the RSC she is looking forward to being able to try and encourage more young people to attend the theatre.

I am an avid reader and have always enjoyed reading whatever I could get my hands on. J M Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy is one of the earliest books I can remember. My copy of it still sits in pride of place on the family bookshelf, despite the fact that I, unlike Peter, have grown up and (supposedly) flown the nest. With daring sword fights, a mermaid lagoon, flying and fairies there was nothing not to love. At least as a child. Having now grown up and developed into a strong feminist, it’s fair to say that Wendy’s restriction to the role of ‘mother’ is one I strongly resent. Therefore, when I heard of the RSC’s Christmas production of Wendy & Peter Pan it’s fair to say I leapt at the chance to see it and had booked to see it twice before I even knew what was happening.

Upon walking into the theatre the first thing you notice (or at least, the first thing I noticed) was the fantastic set and, interestingly, the number of beds. The RSC is famous for its jaw dropping sets and so that was to be expected. However, everyone knows the story of Peter Pan and there are three Darling children. Yet, there on the stage was undoubtedly four beds. My friends and I theorised that perhaps the dog had been given a bed, as Nana was treated very much like a human in the Disney version. Alas, we were wrong and Nana did not even make it into the show and instead there were actually four Darling children.

Yet, despite Nana’s absence, the wonderful creative genius of Ella Hickson in adding an extra Darling to the story added all the depth that the original was now missing for me as an adult. At the beginning of the play, Peter and his band of shadows come to take Tom (the extra Darling) away to Neverland. As the shadows enter the nursery, W B Yeats’ The Stolen Child begins to echo throughout the theatre. Having studied this poem in great detail for A Level Literature, the tone of the play immediately became clear as Yeats creates a very sinister view of the fairy world which steals children away to its magical, fantasy land.

This then, is the catalyst for Wendy’s own adventure and she sets off to rescue Tom and bring him home. Mariah Gale puts in an excellent performance as Wendy, the girl struggling between child and adult. It is in Neverland that Gale truly makes the role her own. We enter Neverland on Wendy’s coattails and watch as she defies everything the world has tried to predetermine for her and knocks all the obstacles out of her way. We are introduced to a wide plethora of diverse characters, who all serve in their own way to defy stereotypes. There is great diversity within even the ranks of the pirates (in the form of Martin) and the lost boys and the wonderful reimagining of Tiger Lily (played by Mimi Ndiweni who stole the stage whenever she was on) provides a strong female heroine all the audience can get behind, not to mention Tink, whose character development throughout the show is spectacular to see.

These three dimensional characters, backed up by the (as always) spectacular set, provided me with everything J M Barrie’s version is missing, giving the boys and the girls equal chance to play and save the day. If Barrie’s story lives on for its sheer magical delight, Hickson’s reimagining will live on for bringing the show into the 21st century with all the magic of the original as well as an extra special spark that is all its own. Definitely a show not to be missed.

Make sure you get your BP £5 tickets this Christmas period for an unforgettable night of theatre!

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Wendy & Peter Pan - Review

We have been working with the youth engagement agency, Beatfreeks, Here is Luci's (from Beatfreeks) review of Wendy & Peter Pan.

This is a feminist interpretation of a feminist interpretation of Peter Pan

The story of Peter Pan has never been my favourite. I mean with all the magic, pirates, mermaids, sassy fairies and three-dimensional characters, you'd think I'd love it. And as a practicing woman-child parts of me really do. Honestly, who can ever get enough of swashbuckling adventures, flying, massive amounts of sass and the prospect of never having to grow up? But in all the interpretations I've seen, none of them resonated with me. 

And ironically, (as I'm reviewing a play about never wanting to grow up) now I'm older, I understand why. Peter Pan, as a classic, is problematic for contemporary reimagining’s. Whenever I’ve watched any interpretations I've anticipated having to grit my teeth through uncomfortable scenes. I know. J.M Barrie created Peter Pan as a character in 1902 and staged his most popular version of the play in 1904, so we are talking about a play that was constructed through the lens of The London Victorian era, you know, way before Western media truly considered the negative impact of racial and gender-based caricatures and stereotypes (although some would wonder if they do even now, here's to looking at you Hollywood). But after enduring the Disney cooperation's "What Makes The Red Man Red" I had long since disconnected with the Peter Pan franchise entirely. (That's not to say I didn't adore Robin Williams in Hook or have my first androgynous awakening from the 2003 version). But if we put the racial problems aside for a moment there's another reason why I never connected with it. 

Like the majority of adventurous tales I was told when I was growing up, the story is mostly boy-centric and Little Luci was tired of it. Wouldn't you be if the extent of your female representation were either: Wendy, whose character development hinged on her embracing gender roles and gracefully understanding the steps towards maturity? Or Tink, who though is promising and fantastically complex, has some serious hang ups that stop her from just having some magic fairy fun? Or Mrs Darling, a somewhat forgettable character, and lastly, Tiger Lily, who though was a person of colour, her presence was minimalist and only there as a device to show how great Peter Pan was at fighting off the Pirates. 

I mean I had no desire to be any of these characters. If anything I wanted to be Pan. Pan looked like he had fun. Or a Lost Boy. They looked like they had fun. Or even Captain Hook (villainy has always intrigued me). I didn't want to grow up. I wanted to fly. I wanted to be a wild child on a perfect island forever, who wouldn't?  Like I said, the premise was there waiting for me to love it, but I couldn't. 


That was, until I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)'s interpretation. They called it Wendy and Peter Pan and it hit all the right tones with me. I mean, since we are talking about The RSC I don't feel the need to wax lyrically about the strength of the actors, or the beautiful movement choices, or the epic grandness of the technical and staging design or the high production value. After all it is the RSC. They've got a reputation to uphold and I don't want to spoil anything for you.

But what I do want to talk about is how this version helped me to understand the story of Peter Pan in a new way. It stimulated me as an adult with some chunky food for thought on its meatier themes of death and youth, while still inviting the Little Luci in me to find characters and scenes I'd wished I had the opportunity to hear originally. It was a delight to watch on the premier night with so many young people in the crowd. They cooed and awed and cried and laughed in all the right places, which is testimony to the magic of the show. It successfully transports the viewer to a magical world where everything is exciting and every scene is engaging. 

 It was also satisfying on another level. It shone light on the experiences of the women of the play. Not just as Peter's love interest, or a device to show how great he was or how evil Hook was. They had real and strong developmental moments. Mrs Darling, Wendy's mother, wasn't just a minimal character, she did something for herself and was seen as a sympathetic but strong maternal figure who loved play as much as her children in spite of struggles. 

And Wendy wasn't in Neverland just to play an extended game of Pretend House with Peter and his Lost Boys but had her own mission, which she succeeded in. As did Tiger Lily, who, with a bit of writing genius was a person of colour that wasn't offensive, serving as an interesting historical parallel to our own world, and was on all accounts a warrior (Little Luci wants to be her at playtime). Tink, who found her own brand of happiness and wasn't your average ordinary interpretation of a fairy. She was rough and tumble with gentleness to her. 

Like I said, all these ladies had full characters with strong back stories and complex, independent thoughts which enabled them to save themselves, and those they loved. Actually at one point the girls on Neverland; Tink, Wendy and Tiger, join together to overcome a Pirate-based problem which felt was sublime. Forget the glorification of tearing each other down, female solidarity is the story little girls need to be hearing. 

There was also space for gender-role fluidity with the male characters, which was perfect. Needless to say the script was great, thanks Ella Hickson, because though the play was a feminist interpretation it wasn't just about the ladies. The males were equally integral and well considered (and isn't that what feminism is truly about)?

Secondly it used the elements of fantasy to tackle some pretty heavy topics. It is speculated that J.M Barrie wrote Peter Pan in tribute of his fourteen-year-old brother who died in an ice skating accident when he was quite young. That kind of solemnness and gravitas is what sews this interpretation together. It tackles very adult issues of grief, discontentment and growth with great care. It offers a space to feel and heal by using its fantastic cast of characters to instil a sense of belief and comfort. 

Thirdly it nodded at the suffragette movement by adjusting the timescale of the story forward by a few decades. This was incredible to watch from a historical perspective. As the viewer we witnessed Wendy's frustrations with Peter Pan, who decided he no longer wanted to play Father anymore while she had no choice but to be Mother despite it not being her ambition, and at the same time observed Mrs Darling's frustrations which were also associated with the concept of wifely duties. Meanwhile this growing social unrest was creating a movement to address these exact issues (Read Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan). 

That's not to say it was all perfect. The justification for why there were only Lost Boys was too male-centric for my tastes and the play could benefit by being more sensitive to existing queer stereotypes. But apart from that it was a solid show and a fantastic night out. 

Leading me to conclude that navigating intersectional feminism isn’t easy. Especially through premises that were created before sexism, racism and classism were carefully addressed through mainstream mediums. But when it is done, and done with consideration and care as with this particular play, it is so exciting and worth it. So congratulations to The RSC on being brave enough to breathe new and fresh life into a story that deserves to be told.  Even if the social hierarchal structure it was originally founded on is upheaved, the themes of Neverland never grow old.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Amy Wilcockson is a 19 year old English student at The University of Nottingham, who is a frequent visitor to the RSC and regularly uses the RSC Key scheme to attend productions, the most recent being Shakespeare’s Henry V.

After studying Shakespeare’s History plays last year, it seemed too good of an opportunity to miss seeing (in my opinion!) the most powerful of the Histories performed in the home of Shakespeare himself. Directed by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Artistic Director, Gregory Doran, and starring Alex Hassell in a reprise of his role as Hal/King Henry V, the production was truly a timeless and stunning experience.

The character of King Henry V has traditionally been seen as an immensely conflicted character; Shakespeare’s characterisation altering seamlessly from a murderous beast threatening the citizens of Harfleur, and committing atrocious war crimes, to the picture of an angelic prince wooing his love the next. Alex Hassell, last seen at the RSC as Biff Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, here gave an immensely powerful performance as the young king, and the famous speeches were delivered with true feeling and heart. Yet, Hassell also successfully managed to create a mysterious, brooding king, only occasionally revealing the flashes of hot-tempered Prince Hal he epitomised so well in the RSC’s previous productions of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2.

The character of the Chorus, so central to the play, was played with gusto and humour by Oliver Ford Davies. The Chorus’ opening monologue, made it explicitly clear that the world of this production was indeed played out on a stage, ‘within this wooden O’. This was made explicitly clear through the initial layout of the set, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, as if halfway through a changeover or rehearsal, which added a further sense of metatheatricality to the performance. Later on in the production, the lighting and set showed their further diversity; as the thrust stage appeared at one moment tilled like earth, and the next flaming like lava with the intensity of battle and the power of Henry’s speeches.

It is well worth noting the hilarious performances of Joshua Richards (Bardolph), Christopher Middleton (Nym) and Anthony Byrne (Pistol), as the reluctant soldiers entering into war. Their low antics added a sense of light relief to the sometimes brutal reality of the war raging around them.

The contrast between the primping Dauphin, played by Robert Gilbert, and the rest of the French Court, compared to the mighty English, was also played to the maximum through the wonderfully anachronistic costumes. From punk rock warriors with crested helmets to aviator jackets and medieval armour, the costumes were a joy to behold. A range of fabrics and styles all combined through the innovative use of blue for the French, versus a deep blood red worn by the English, creating a sense of unity, yet individuality and timelessness for each character.

Henry V was indeed an immensely powerful performance, culminating in the comedic wooing of Princess Katherine to be Henry’s Queen, thus uniting the warring kingdoms. Staggering from her kiss, Hassell’s Henry is simultaneously detached yet comical, striking yet compelling in his portrayal of this mysterious king. Given five stars by The Telegraph and described as ‘the Shakespearean event of the autumn’, this play is certainly a must-see. For those of you aged 16-25, take advantage of the RSC Key – when world class theatre is available for only £5, it’d be rude to say no!



Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Volpone Review

Elliott Wallis is a drama student who lives in Stratford. He attends the RSC regularly taking full advantage of the RSC Key. 

Sir Trevor Nunn returns to the Royal Shakespeare Company with a stunning production of Ben Jonson’s satirical comedy, Volpone. Putting the play in a modern context, with iPhones, iPads and LED screens (in Stephen Brimson Lewis’s sleek, stylish, and minimalist set), shows so obviously how relevant the play is to today.
 
Henry Goodman is outstanding in the title role. His performance is like a masterclass in acting,
switching so effortlessly from the supposedly dying Volpone, to an Italian salesman, or cockney guard. He has a talent and onstage energy that very few actors have and this production gives him a chance to really impress.

Plotting with Volpone throughout the play is his assistant, Mosca. Orion Lee’s slightly wooden and awkward performance at times feels forced and unnatural, though there are moments later on in the play where the robotic nature of his performance fits with the character and the situation. He shines most during the scenes in the court, but during his scenes with Volpone he is overshadowed by the overwhelming nature of Goodman’s performance, and it feels like he is trying too hard.

There are lots of strong performances from this very talented Company. Annette McLaughlin’s self-obsessed Lady Politic Would-Be (followed around by a small team of assistants and a camera man), and Colin Ryan’s American traveller, Peregrine, are both genius character inventions, and superbly executed. I must also mention the comic performances of Voltore (Miles Richardson), Corbaccio (Geoffrey Freshwater) and Corvino (Matthew Kelly), the three gullible businessmen whom Volpone and Mosca trick into thinking are each Volpone’s heir.


This production shines as the best of the current RSC season, throwing Jonson’s play into the 21st century. With two of Britain’s best, directing and starring in the title role, it couldn’t possibly be anything but brilliant.

There are a limited number of BP £5 tickets left for Volpone. Make sure you grab them before they are gone!