Husbands and Sons at the Royal Exchange

They say it’s grim up north, but it’s miserable in the East Midlands, at least that’s the picture D H Lawrence paints in the three plays that were performed simultaneously in the latest production by the Royal Exchange in Manchester.
Lawrence is best known for his novels such as Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley’s Lover set in the Nottinghamshire coalfields where he grew up. But he was also a playwright. The Royal Exchange have taken three of his plays, A Collier’s Friday Night, The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd and The Daughter-in-Law, and combined them into a single production. All three are domestic dramas set in the homes of mining families, in communities similar to that in which Lawrence grew up.

The Royal Exchange is a “theatre in the round” where the audience is close to the action. For this production the set took us inside the homes of the three families with plans for their houses marked out on the floor. The three plays were, in effect played simultaneously with the action interwoven, flitting from one home to the other in turn. However, when the action was taking place in one household, the actors in the other parts of the set weren’t still. Movement and domestic actions continued in the background. Personally I found this somewhat distracting. And although the set was meant to portray neighbouring houses in a mining village, there was little attempt at interaction between the three families. The production still largely came across as three seperate plays stitched togethor somewhat unconvincingly. One of the defining characteristics of mining villages was their sense of community and this was missing here.

As usual with the Royal Exchange the acting was extremely good. Anne-Marie Duff, well known from TV, is featured in the advertisments for the production and plays the female lead in The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd gave a strong performance. Martin Marquez, as her husband, was a convincing drunkard. However, I was particularly impressed with Julia Ford who played the wife of a miner in A Collier’s Friday Night, who favoured her son over her daughter and husband. The son, like Lawrence, was a college boy and the play echoes the theme of Sons and Lovers. One quibble. I know quite a few people from the East Midlands and I have to say that the majority of the actors’ attempts at a Nottinghamshire / Derbyshire accent were far off the mark.

I’ve never been able to finish a D H Lawrence novel. I’ve tried, but I dislike his writing style and his themes. And these plays were not unlike his novels. Men are men and are hard, cruel and unsympathetic. His women are strong but badly treated by their men folk. Life is hard with little to smile about. Everyone is miserable. Lawrence’s work is about individuals who are doomed to a life of gloom and misery. There is no sense of the strong community and fellowship that was characteristic of mining areas. Little to suggest the determination to fight back. There is talk of a strike in The Daughter-in-Law, but the main emphasis is the domestic strife between the wife, her husband and her mother in law. No sign of the good things of life. It can’t be denied that life was hard in mining communities in the early 20th Century. However, there were little rays of sunshine that could bring joy and some happiness to the lives of the miners and their families. But not according to D H Lawrence.


So something of a “curate’s egg”. Largely unsympathetic characters and, for me, an unrealistic portrayal of traditional mining communities. But strong performances by an excellent cast.



Hamlet at the Royal Exchange

hamlet

I’m a bit late getting round to writing this up, but a couple of weeks ago we went to see the latest production at the Royal exchange – Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most well known plays. I’ve never seen a production of the play before and only had a sketchy knowledge of the plot as it wasn’t one of our set plays when I was a school. I knew that Hamlet was the Prince of Denmark, but the Royal Exchange had well known local actress Maxine Peake playing the lead role. She played the part as a man, though. However there were a few gender changes in the cast – Ophelia’s father had become her mother, one half of Rosencratz and Guildersterm was female as were the two gravediggers. These changes, increasing the number of female roles, didn’t seem to affect the story although, so I’ve been told, there were some omissions from the story with no mention of the war with Norway and Fortinbras, the King of Norway didn’t appear at the end to claim the crown when (spoiler alert!!!!) all the main characters had killed each other (or themselves). The latter was no surprise really, it was a Shakespeare tragedy after all.

The production is pretty much a sell out. We couldn’t get the tickets we wanted for a Saturday, our usual night for the theatre, so we had to settle for Tuesday night which meant going over to Manchester straight from work. I got something to eat before the play and as it was a long production I had a dash to the car park to make sure I was able to pay the discounted price –it goes back to the normal exorbitant cost after 5 hours. I made it with a few minutes to spare and would have been quite annoyed if I had to missed the deadline by just a few minutes. The charge would have more than doubled from the £5 discounted cost for theatregoers.

As usual a great production with an excellent cast. Barbara Marten, who was recently on TV in The Mill as Gertrude, John Shrapnel as Claudius were particularly strong. But the star was Maxine Peake. It’s not the first time a woman has played Hamlet – that honour probably goes to Sarah Bernhardt. But Maxine put her own stamp on the role. She played it as a man,nt a woman, and came across as a very convincing young man. Mad as a hatter, I thought, but was he?

Last Days of Troy

THE LAST DAYS OF TROY

Last Saturday we went to see the latest production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. The Last Days of Troy  is a new play by the poet Simon Armitage – a reworking of the legendary story told in the Illiad by Homer, so no surprise ending!

We enjoyed the play – a good production, well staged and with some excellent acting. The characters were warriors – Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles -  Helen, Hector’s wife and gods (one male, three female). Helen was played by Lily Cole and as I was sitting at the end of one of the rows and the cast enter and leave by the same passageways as the audience (the Royal exchange is in the round) at one point I was about a foot away from a supermodel. I wondered how she was going to perform. I thought she actually did quite well putting her lines across. But she did pale a little against some very strong performances from other members of the cast, male and female.

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The author had to condense Homer’s monumental tome (supplemented by extracts from others as some key, well known elements of the story such as the Wooden Horse, are not mentioned in the Illiad) into just short of 3 hours of performance. The 400,000 plus participants in the Trojan War were reduced to a cast of 12. The numerous gods who feature in the original story are limited to Zeus, Hera, Athene and Thetis (the mother of Achilles) in the play. And the character of Odysseus is an amalgamation of several high-ranking nobles in the Greek army.

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The play raised some interesting points and there were certainly parallels with today. One theme was that Helen’s abduction was really just an excuse. The real motivation of the Greeks was plunder and annihilation of a rival state, which, of course they achieved. And what has changed? Often the alleged reason for starting a war is a smokescreen – a cover for the real motivation. The invasion of Iraq being a case in point. And the First World War come to that. Other themes included suspicion of foreigners. And with the Gods being major characters, there was an interesting point made about how their existence depended on humans worshiping them. Not dissimilar to the theme of Neil Gaiman’s book "American Gods" that I started reading recently. consequently Zeus appeared as both a washed out seller of mementos in the modern day and the regal king of Olympus during the war. An excellent performance by Richard Bremmer who was convincing in both “roles”. Colin Tierney as Odysseus, Jake Fairbrother as Achilles, Gillian Bevan as Hera and Clare Calbraith who played both Andromache (the wife of Hector) and Thetis, all impressed.

Orlando at the Royal Exchange

ORLANDO

Last Saturday we went out to see the latest production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. The play is based on Orlando, a novel by Virginia Woolf, a gender bending time travel story, adapted by the American playwright, Sarah Ruhl. I read the novel many many years ago,so I was particularly interested to see how they handled the story as the book is not exactly a straight forward narrative.

At the beginning of the story Orlando is a 16 year old nobleman in Elizabethan times who is whisked off to court by Queen Elizabeth herself. He falls in love with a Russian princess and after an unhappy conclusion to their affair and being pursued by the unlovely the Archduchess Harrie, runs off to Constantinople to act as the English Ambassador. It is here that he is transformed into a woman. A series of adventures follows, racing through the Centuries until “the present day” while our hero/heroine only ages slowly.

The story is based on the life of Vita Sackville-West, a bisexual with whom Woolf had a passionate relationship, and who often adopted a male personna in her liaisons with women.

The lead character was played by Suranne Jones who was very good in an androgynous role. She made a convincing boy in the first half and an even more convincing woman in the second.

Sasha, the Princess (Princess Marousha Stanilovska Dagmar Natasha Iliana Romanovitch) was played by Molly Gromadzki. I wasn’t quite convinced by her accent but she exhibited excellent acrobatic skills, flying above and around Orlando, spinning and whirling around the stage on a wire. She had an androgynous aspect to her character too. Feminine but something masculine about the way she moved and dressed.

Other roles were played by a “chorus” of three male actors who took on a number of roles as the story advanced through the centuries – including a very unflattering Queen Elizabeth.

It wasn’t a straightforward play with dialogue between characters. More a narration by several voices with a little conventional acting. Even the principal character mainly narrated what he/she was doing and thinking in the third person. Very modernist, and well done I thought.

Although Orlando has been described as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” it raises questions about the role and position of women in society throughout the ages. A particularly poignant point was made when Orlando returning to England after his/her transformation attempts to regain his property but is told that it’s not possible for someone who is dead or for a woman (“which amounts to the same thing”)

Here’s an interview with Sarah Ruhl about the play (although not the RE’s production).

“All My Sons” at the Royal Exchange

I know you’re no worse than most men but I thought you were better. I never saw you as a man. I saw you as my father.”

ALL MY SONS Poster Image

Last Saturday we went to see the latest production at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester – Arthur Miller’s play “All my sons”. As with most of Miller’s plays the story was a critique of capitalism as well as a study of human emotions, relations and motivations. It’s based upon a true story – the supply of faulty aircraft engine parts to the US army during the Second World War. I’d seen the play before a few years ago at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, so it was interesting to compare productions.

The most notable difference, other than being played in the round rather than on a traditional stage, was that the Royal Exchange cast were all black actors, including Don Warrington, best known for his role in the TV series Rising Damp. I wondered what the significance of this was, but there wasn’t really one the colour of the actors’ skins was immaterial and very soon I stopped noticing it.

It was an enjoyable production with some strong performances from Don Warrington as Joe Keller, the father figure, Doña Croll as his wife Kate, and Chike Okonkwo as their son, Chris.