Posts Tagged ‘Royal Shakespeare Company’

“Richard III” at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

I am fast warming to the theory that the Henry VI – Richard III sequence of plays is not a tetralogy – as it is presented in the First Folio, and in most modern editions of the Complete Works – but, rather, a trilogy. As a tetralogy, the whole thing seems cumbersome and patchy; but presented as a trilogy – that is, consisting of the plays usually known as Henry VI Part 2 and Henry VI Part 3, along with Richard III – it becomes an enthralling piece of theatre. Of course, it can do with a bit of judicious cutting, but that’s the case with many Shakespeare plays. If Part 1 is ditched, we have a magnificent extended drama about a nation tearing itself part through rebellion, and then, through civil war; and, in the final episode, a monster emerging from the chaos to tyrannise an already battered populace. The whole thing has about it a theatrical vigour, and, especially in the final part, Richard III, a demonic energy.

The problem is Part 1, of course. There are a couple of good scenes in it, but it is mainly quite tedious, and some parts – such as the rough humour that precedes the horrific burning at the stake of Joan la Pucelle (Jeanne d’Arc) – rather objectionable. One may put all this down to collaboration, or to a young dramatist still learning his trade, but I’m not sure either explanation will do. It isn’t that this sequence of plays gradually become better: rather, there is a very noticeable increase in quality as soon as Part 2 starts. This could be due to a number of possible reasons, of course, but the one I find most appealing is that Henry VI Part 2 and Henry VI Part 3 (as they’re listed in the Folio) are actually the first and second parts of a trilogy, and that the play listed as Henry VI Part 1 is merely a hurriedly cobbled work written to cash in on the popularity of the later plays. And while I appreciate this is merely wishful thinking on my part, I wouldn’t be surprised if Shakespeare didn’t have much to do with the wretched Part 1 – despite a few odd scenes that are worth saving.

Even apart from the step change in quality between Parts 2 and 3, it is possible to adduce other internal evidence to support this theory. Although there are references in Parts 2 and 3 to events that had taken place in Part 1, there is nothing we need to know about the back-story that isn’t clearly delineated; in contrast, there are many references in Richard III to past events that can only be properly understood if we had seen Parts 2 and 3 – e.g. the killing of Rutland, Clarence breaking his oath and changing sides at the Battle of Tewkesbury, and so on. There are also many strong links between Parts 2 and 3: the latter play clearly picks up from the point where the former play ends, and Shakespeare (and, presumably, his collaborators) do not bother spending much time introducing characters who had already been present in Part 2. And there are strong links also between Part 3 and Richard III: over the course of Part 3, Richard, slowly but surely, acquires greater prominence, and is given some striking monologues, quite obviously to prepare for what is still to come. Given this preparation, Part 3 ends with a sense of much unfinished business – a sense of issues that need still to be resolved.

There is some external evidence also to support the theory that this sequence of plays had been intended as a trilogy rather than as a tetralogy: the second, third and fourth plays of the tetralogy (should we choose to see it as such) had appeared in a number of Quarto editions within Shakespeare’s own lifetime; the first part appears only in the First Folio. And it is only from the First Folio that we have the rather boring titles Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, and Henry VI Part 3: in the Quarto texts, the latter two plays had been titled The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster with the Death of the Good King Humphrey, and The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York, and the Good King Henry VI. However, since such long titles aren’t to modern taste, it’s the more prosaic titles from the Folio that have stuck; and with these titles, the necessity of presenting all three Henry VI plays, since it is hard to convince an audience to see Parts 2 and 3 if Part 1 is missing.

In the current season (2022), the Royal Shakespeare Company has made the decision to ditch Part 1 altogether. This is a sensible decision, both commercially (it would be hard to persuade people to return for the later parts if they’d been bored by the first), and also artistically. The Henry VI plays had to be renamed, of course, but that’s hardly a major problem. These two Henry VI plays I had reported on in my last post on this blog; and now, it’s the final and most famous play in the series – Richard III. This is usually performed as a standalone play, but it clearly gains from being seen in the context of its predecessors. Not only are there many references to events that only really make sense if we have seen the earlier plays, it’s also important to realise, I think, that hardly any of Richard’s victims are innocent. Seen out of context, Clarence appears merely a helpless victim; true, he has that magnificent speech shortly before he is murdered, where, in narrating his dream, he reveals with a startling immediacy the agonies of a guilt-tormented mind; but nonetheless, we needed to have witnessed that guilt to take in the full import of his dream. The narration itself is unforgettable:

… then came wandering by
A shadow like an angel, with bright hair
Dabbled in blood; and he squeak’d out aloud,
‘Clarence is come; false, fleeting, perjured Clarence,
That stabb’d me in the field by Tewksbury;
Seize on him, Furies, take him to your torments!’
With that, methoughts, a legion of foul fiends
Environ’d me about, and howled in mine ears
Such hideous cries, that with the very noise
I trembling waked, and for a season after
Could not believe but that I was in hell.

Even now, after all these decades of acquaintance, I can feel a shiver run down my spine every time I encounter this passage.

As a play, Richard III has a greater dramatic power than its predecessors, mainly because, given its material, it has a powerful figure at its centre. In the previous two plays, we had been presented with a panoramic view, with a large cast of characters wandering in and out of the central spotlight. It had presented a compelling view of a nation tearing itself apart, but the focus had been spread across a range of characters. Even the impact of so potentially powerful a figure as Queen Margaret is diminished as a consequence. But in Richard III, we have one single figure dominating the play, and that figure is simply a gift for any actor with charisma and stage presence. There is a demonic energy to him, a flair and a vigour, that are utterly compelling.

It is easy comparing Richard to Macbeth: their trajectories are, in many ways, similar. They both rise to the top through murder, and once at the top, they both try to consolidate their power with further ruthless bloodshed; and both are finally defeated by a force invading the country in order to liberate it. But that’s just the arc of the plot: Macbeth is a drama about a soul damning itself in the full knowledge that it is damning itself, and the terror comes from Macbeth’s inability to stop, even when he knows what it is he is doing. But Richard, in contrast, has no inner life at all: there is not even the slightest awareness on his part that he even so much as has a soul. He has no feelings of gentleness or of tenderness, no sense of good and evil, nor even of basic right and wrong; and he is both amused and bemused that others should feel such things. He senses, as Iago does, that he is outside some bond that binds the rest of humanity together, but unlike Iago, he does not feel the need for such belonging: Iago resents Cassio because he can sense that Cassio “hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly”, but Richard has no such sense of “daily beauty” in anything: indeed, he would have found such a concept comical. Inside Richard is an utterly vacant and unfeeling brutality. He commits evil simply because he feels no need not to.

And the horror of this play, it seems to me, resides in the fact that he can do this; that he can find helpers and confederates, people happy to help him into power, to carry out his evil orders. It is a horrific picture of a great evil that is as unstoppable as it is apparent. And there seems no reason to explain this evil: how, after all, can evil be explained anyway? Yes, Richard refers a number of times to his physically mis-shapen form, that has, he feels, placed him outside the norms of humanity, but he is never clear on why his physical deformity should make him evil: the link is highly tenuous, to say the least, and won’t do for an explanation. The fact, I think, is that Richard is evil simply because he is; it is a brute fact for which there is no point even trying to look for a cause.

In the night before the fatal battle, Richard is haunted by the ghosts of those whom he had murdered (a nightmarish scene, superbly staged in this production), and on waking, he is terrified; but even then, he cannot understand what he is terrified of. After all, the only source of fear he is aware of is himself, but how could he be afraid of his own self?

What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by…

This is more, much more, than his essentially simple mind can take in.

The previous plays had been directed with tremendous theatrical vigour by Owen Horsley. They had communicated with a powerful immediacy the utter chaos into which the country had descended. For Richard III, RSC’s artistic director, Gregory Doran, takes up the directorial reins. The play opens with the war apparently at an end – the winter of our discontent seemingly turned into glorious summer – but so monstrous a trauma does not end so easily. There is a great evil lurking, waiting to assume power; and there is a fragile peace in which it is all to easy for such evil to triumph.

Richard III, more so than the previous plays, requires at its centre a commanding presence, and here it gets it from Arthur Hughes. His is not a larger-than-life performance, as those of Laurence Olivier or of Anthony Sher had been, but that really is an aspect of the horror – the idea that so seemingly ordinary and unprepossessing a character could nonetheless unleash such evil on so vast a scale. Arthur Hughes’ performance makes all this appear frighteningly credible: he speaks the verse beautifully, and conveys with terrifying intensity a sense of malice seemingly for its own sake – an evil unmotivated even by desire

And as the play progresses, he projects the character’s insecurity, and growing paranoia, until, by the end, he cowers in terror without even understanding what it is he is afraid of.

There are two scenes in particular that seem, on reading at least, difficult to render convincing. In the first, Richard woos Anne, whose husband (Prince Edward) and whose father-in-law (Henry VI) Richard had himself killed; and, even in the presence of the dead King Henry’s corpse, Richard wins her.

The second scene occurs later in the play; here, with his wife Anne disposed of (another of his victims), he convinces the widowed Queen Elizabeth, whose sons he had murdered (the notorious “Princes in the Tower”), to agree to her daughter marrying him – her own uncle.

I think in both these scenes there is a compression of time: what is presented as happening in some ten minutes or so on stage is a compression of what takes place over a much longer span. But whatever the lapse of time, what we see is shocking. How could Anne agree to marry a man who had murdered her own husband? How could Elizabeth agree to  her own daughter marrying her uncle – a man who had, moreover, murdered her two brothers? In this production, in both scenes, we get an impression of the wills of both Anne and of Elizabeth collapsing under the pressure: neither can stand up to the demonic will of the evil Richard. In the second scene especially, when Elizabeth agrees to the marriage of her daughter to her murderous brother-in-law, there were audible gasps of horror in the audience. This is as it should be: these scenes indeed are horrific, and they present in microcosm what the drama depicts on a larger scale – a pure, unmitigated evil imposing its will upon a people who seem unable to resist. There’s no point looking for reason: the horror resides in the very fact that there isn’t any. As Shakespeare knew right to the end of his artistic career – in The Winter’s Tale – there is no cause for evil: it just is.

Richard III is probably Shakespeare’s first great masterpiece, and is a worthy end to what we can now see as a magnificent trilogy. It finds here a production worthy of its greatness; the performances are irreproachable, and the central performance is one that I, for one, won’t forget in a hurry.

The Henry VI Plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

Putting on Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays is always a tough challenge, but it has to be done – especially if you’re the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it’s your remit to focus on the Shakespeare canon. In the first place, very obviously, the entire work is in three parts. For most people, a night out at the theatre is a special occasion, and a pretty expensive one at that; putting on a work that requires not one, but two nights at the theatre is a bit of a tough sell; and putting on a work that requires three is virtually suicidal. Can you convince  enough people to attend all three performances to recoup the considerable costs of putting it on? Even the titles – Henry VI Part One, Henry VI Part Two, Henry VI Part Three – are such as to indicate that one must see all three to experience the drama properly. At least Wagner had the good sense to give different titles to the operas comprising the Ring Cycle, rather than call them The Ring Part One, The Ring Part Two, etc.

Of course, the titles of these plays, as we have them now, originate from the First Folio, and, according to the editors of the Oxford Shakespeare, Parts 2 and 3 were most probably written first, and had appeared before the Folio with the somewhat cumbersome titles The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster with the Death of the Good King Humphrey, and The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York, and the Good King Henry VI. What we now know as Henry VI Part One, the editors of the Oxford Shakespeare believe, was written afterwards as a sort of prequel. As with just about everything connected with these matters, I imagine this is contentious. But what this means for any company putting on these plays is that there is uncertainty over whether to perform two plays or three; and even over what to call them.

It gets worse. For the whole thing, as presented in the Folio at least, is not even a trilogy: it’s a tetralogy. Henry VI Part Three (to give it its less cumbersome title) clearly ends with unresolved issues, and these issues are taken up in Richard III, which may well be Shakespeare’s first great masterpiece. Since Richard III is too great a play to be performed only when all the other plays are also performed, it is usually presented as a standalone, but it benefits enormously when seen in context of the whole series. What we see in this play is a man utterly evil and remorseless, a man utterly unsuited to any kind of office, emerging from national turmoil and trauma to assume what is effectively absolute power; and the impact of such a drama is necessarily diminished when we do not actually see that national turmoil and trauma that gives rise to this evil. But if it is a difficult task to get sufficient numbers of people to attend three shows at the theatre, getting them to attend four becomes virtually impossible.

And then, there is the nature of the plays. The three Henry VI plays were early works of Shakespeare, and were almost certainly written in collaboration – although I do get the impression (and it is an impression only: I have no empirical evidence for this) that Shakespeare assumed greater editorial control as the series progressed. Richard III, to judge from its artistic unity, seems to me to be the work of a single dramatist, and, very clearly, whoever wrote Henry VI Part Three had the next play, Richard III, very much in mind. The collaborative nature of the three Henry VI plays makes, it seems to me, for an inconsistency of quality, a certain lack of dramatic focus, and an episodic and sometimes repetitive structure. Part One, whether or not it was written first or is, as the Oxford editors think, a prequel, is particularly weak. The scenes depicting the enmity between the Duke of Gloucester and the Bishop of Winchester are fine; also good is the Temple Garden scene where the seeds of the future Wars of the Roses are effectively planted. But the scenes depicting the war in France – which take up most of the play – seem to me an embarrassment. The English armies, led by the heroic Lord Talbot, are consistently noble, honourable, courageous; and the French counterparts are a treacherous, miserable, snivelling lot. Joan la Pucelle (Jeanne d’Arc) is presented as a wicked sorceress: when she is finally captured, her father is allowed to make an appearance, but she, clinging to her wicked ways, denies knowing him, and he ends up saying: “O burn her, burn her! Hanging is too good!” Even leaving aside the jingoism, Unalloyed Good vs Unalloyed Bad really isn’t the stuff of drama, and it is hard to see how any of this can hold any interest at all for a modern audience.

The latest productions of these plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company reduces the three Henry VI plays to two. It does this by jettisoning Part One altogether: gone, thankfully, are all the scenes of the war in France. Sadly, the Temple Garden scene had to be sacrificed as well: there, we had been presented various earls and dukes and the like aligning themselves to the Lancastrian or to the Yorkist cause by selecting a red rose or a white, and it is fascinating to see how much more convinced they become of their chosen cause once they have attached themselves to one or other of the symbols.

Also sacrificed is the long scene in II,v, where Mortimer, before his death, gives a long and detailed exposition of the complex genealogies of the Plantagenets, justifying the claims to the crown of Richard Plantagenet (later Duke of York): this excision I found a bit unfortunate, as it detracts from the later scene in Part Two which the rebel Jack Cade explains his own claim to the crown. The grotesque absurdity of Cade’s speech sheds on Mortimer’s speech in the earlier play a powerful satiric light, but with the earlier speech missing, this satiric aspect is obviously lost.

Also regrettable perhaps is the omission of the earlier scenes in Part One depicting the enmity between the Duke of Gloucester and the Bishop (later Cardinal) of Winchester – an enmity that culminates in a superb climactic few scenes in Act 3 of Part Two.  

But much though a Shakespeare nerd like myself may regret these losses, most people – myself included, if I am to be honest – would probably think these sacrifices worthwhile if they mean not having to sit through the war scenes in France.

The latest RSC productions start with Part Two, with the arrival of Queen Margaret to England, and, to make Parts Two and Three more or less self-contained, ends Part Two with the quelling of Jack Cade’s rebellion in Act 4. The last act of Part Two (which depicts the Battle of St Albans, which is, effectively, the start of the Wars of the Roses) is then incorporated into Part Three. And, instead of calling the two plays Henry VI Part Two and Henry VI Part Three, they retitle them Henry VI: Rebellion and The Wars of the Roses. All of which makes perfect sense to me.

There are a few cuts along the way, but given the episodic and repetitive nature of these plays, these cuts are nothing to complain about: the big scenes are all there, and are played with a marvellous theatrical gusto. This is an ensemble piece, of course (it’s reasonable to refer to these plays as a single unit, and, hence, in the singular); and the ensemble here is very strong. There is a wonderful fluidity about it all, as scenes follow each other without break, sometimes even overlapping; and it all moved, as it should, at an invigorating tempo. Shakespeare certainly achieved greater profundity in his later plays, but I don’t think he ever surpassed the quite exhilarating theatrical vigour that he and his collaborators (Marlowe most likely among them) achieved here.

One downside to all this is, perhaps, that one never gets to know any individual character too well. There are a number of characters who appear to take centre stage for a while – the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, Bishop of Winchester, Duke of York, Earl of Warwick, etc – but, given the nature of the drama, none of them command centre stage long enough for us to get to see much beyond the surface. Sometimes, of course, the surface is all there is: one doubts that Jack Cade, for instance, has an inner life worth investigating. But he is important not because of what he is, but rather, of what he represents: he is an ignorant buffoon filled with self-importance, and a buffoon who has enough charisma to attract a mass of followers: a comic figure, certainly, but the funnier he is, the more dangerous and the more sinister he appears. (Aaron Sidwell played him here with a strutting cockiness, as absurd as it is frightening.)

Two characters whom Shakespeare could probably have made more of here are Queen Margaret, and King Henry himself. Margaret is both predator and victim: she is, as the Duke of York describes her, a “tiger’s heart wrapp’d in a woman’s hide” (although it may be added that the Duke of York’s heart is no less tigerish); and, by the end, she is victim of the very evil that she herself had helped unleash, and in which she herself has taken part. It is not unreasonable, I think, to see in her an early prototype of Lady Macbeth.

Henry is mild and gentle, and while these qualities are admirable in a private man, they are less so in a king. Unable to stand up for himself, he can but look on helplessly as the country of which he is supposedly the ruler tears itself apart. He can see what is happening, and his heart grieves over it, but his very personality renders him powerless. By the end, he appears otherworldly and almost saintly, but perhaps we shouldn’t sentimentalise: a stronger man, perhaps, would not have allowed this to happen.

There is much to explore in both king and queen, but the nature of this drama does not allow Shakespeare enough space or time to expand upon them, as, I think, he may well have wanted to do. Minnie Gale and Mark Quartley give fine accounts of these two characters who, in a different drama, may have emerged as central.

But there is one character in particular who emerges quite ominously into the forefront – especially in Part Three (or The Wars of the Roses) – in whom Shakespeare seems particularly interested: he’s one of the sons of the Duke of York – Richard (later to become Richard III). In the final play of this series (Richard III), he does, of course, dominate, and there are strong intimations here of that dominance. Here, Shakespeare (and I am pretty sure it is Shakespeare here, and not one of his collaborators) seems fascinated by the amoral and undiluted evil of the man. He seems to have little inner life, if any; but there is something fascinating in the force of his will, and in his determination to impose his will. Such people do exist, and periods of turmoil and of uncertainty bring them to the fore. In the Henry VI plays, we see a country tear itself apart in a traumatic civil war, but although the wars seem to be at an end by the end, we know there is more trauma yet to come: Richard is still very much in the wings, waiting to take central stage. That’ll have to wait for the next play, of course (and I have a ticket for it in a few weeks’ time); and Arthur Hughes’ magnificent delivery of Richard’s monologue in Part Three certainly bodes well.

These are plays that, whatever their flaws, need to be performed – and not just because they have Shakespeare’s name attached to them. The Royal Shakespeare Company have done a marvellous job with them. These productions, directed by Owen Horsley, will no doubt be appearing on DVD shortly – and they can be strongly recommended to anyone who couldn’t get to see this on stage. And for those who would like to see the full plays, the BBC versions from the early 1980s of the entire tetralogy, directed by Jane Howell, really seem to me among the very best productions I have seen of Shakespeare on the screen, and as fine as anything the BBC has done. In the meantime, I still have Richard III to look forward to.

“Macbeth” in performance

Macbeth seems to me particularly difficult to bring off in performance. At least, I have never seen a version on stage that I have found satisfactory – even productions featuring renowned Shakespeareans in the principal roles have disappointed. Of course, I haven’t seen them all, and I am sure there have been many fine productions that I have missed, but limiting myself (as I must) to what I have seen, far from being overwhelmed, as I should be on seeing a great Shakespeare tragedy, I have all too frequently found myself barely whelmed at all. The film versions I have seen haven’t frankly been much better; and the BBC Shakespeare version (from the early 1980s), despite starring eminent actors Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire in the principal roles, was distinctly disappointing.

I have often wondered why this is. After all, it is dramatically very compact (it’s one of Sheakespeare’s shortest plays), and is crammed full of murders and battles and witches and ghosts and all the rest of it. Part of it, I think, is to do with the pacing. The tension builds powerfully and unremittingly over the first two acts, but after that, although we get a series of extremely memorable scenes (the banquet scene, the sleepwalking scene, etc.), the tension can sag quite alarmingly in the scenes in between. (This is particularly true of the long scene in Act 4 set in England.) Of course, Shakespeare was, certainly by this stage of his career, a master of pacing, and the rather awkward pacing of this play rather inclines me to think that what we have is an edited version of a text that had initially been longer. Be that as it may, it does present some problems in performance.

Another problem, I think, lies in the dramatic content being too exciting. This may seem a rather perverse thing to say, but the “greatness” of any drama we think of as “great” (whatever we may mean by that) lies not so much in the plot – i.e. the sequence of events – but in matters that go deeper; but, with this play, the plot itself is so very exciting on the surface, it becomes difficult for a production to peer beneath that surface: all too often, we find ourselves horrified by what the Macbeths do to others, whereas the heart of the tragedy lies, I think, in what they do to themselves. And if a production fails to bring to the fore this particular horror, this terrible damnation of their souls that they inflict upon themselves, then, no matter how exciting the plot may be, I don’t know that the production can count as a total success. But piercing through the excitement of the plot to see the dark horror at the heart of things is not an easy thing to do. And this, I think, is why so many productions of this play have left me unmoved: the horror of what we see on the surface seems all too often to obscure the even greater horror beneath.

Of course, I am sure there have been many very fine productions of Macbeth: it’s just that stagings of this particular play have disappointed me more often than that of any other major work by Shakespeare. It may, of course, be that I have been unlucky in the productions I have seen. But there is one production I have seen (sadly, not on stage) that seems to be one of the finest of any production I have seen, of any play. And this is the 1978 Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Trevor Nunn, and featuring Ian MacKellen and Judi Dench in the principal roles. Fortunately, we have a record of this: the production was filmed for television, and broadcast in 1979. And it is available nowadays on DVD. I saw it again a few days ago: and yes, it was every bit as powerful as I had remembered. Suddenly, all the reservations I have had about the pacing of this play seemed to vanish.


Ian MacKellen and Judi Dench as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

And this was done not through butchering the text: apart from the scene involving Hecate (which is almost certainly a later addition, and not written by Shakespeare), the text presented, a few minor cuts apart, was virtually complete. Even the scene featuring the witches speaking to each other about the latest spells they have cast – a scene all too often excised these days, as modern audiences aren’t taken in by all that superstition – was retained. But what impressed was the way the entire play was conceived.

Although it features battles, witches, murder, a state banquet, and all the rest of it, it eschews spectacle completely. It is staged throughout in a profound darkness, from which the characters emerge at times into a murky kind of light, and into which, their parts done, they vanish again. The lighting is extraordinary. I can but guess at what the effect must have been like live in performance, but, watching it on my television screen, it seemed like a production designed specifically with the screen in mind, rather than a straight filming of a stage production.

Most of the shots are in close-up: some in extreme close-up. The characters, brightly spotlit against a blanket of the dark, are all we can see on screen. Props are kept to a minimum: even in the banquet scene, they appear to be sitting on crates. All this creates a tremendous sense of claustrophobia. (The production was staged in a small theatre, rather in in the main RSC theatre in Stratford, thus ensuring the audience was close to the actors.) After a while, it starts to feel genuinely oppressive, as, indeed, it should.


Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth

None of this would have mattered, of course, if the cast weren’t up to it, but there’s no danger of that. The supporting cast (featuring two actors who were themselves notable Macbeths later in their careers – Bob Peck and Greg Hicks) is uniformly excellent; but in this play, it is the two principals who dominate. And here, Ian MacKellen and Judi Dench give performances that, even on repeated viewings, freeze the soul with terror. We see the most terrible things on stage, of course: at one point, a child is murdered before our very eyes. But at the heart of the tragedy is what these two people do to themselves. In the great banquet scene, Ian MacKellen presents Macbeth as a man who is already mentally unhinged: the sight of him literally foaming at the mouth in sheer terror is not something I’ll forget in a hurry. And in the sleepwalking scene, Judi Dench presents a Lady Macbeth who, while still on this bank and shoal of time, is already a damned soul suffering the torments of Hell. And we can’t but ask ourselves “What have these people done to their immortal souls?”

Ian Mckellen - Macbeth

Ian Mackellen as Macbeth

I saw this production again last weekend, and it remains a nerve-racking experience. Somehow, not even the most frightening of horror films can quite match the intensity of horror projected here.

Shakespeare’s Roman plays on stage

Well, I live within reasonable travelling distance of London, so I may as well take advantage of it!

When the Royal Shakespeare Company announced they were performing all four of Shakespeare’s Roman plays in the same season, I felt like that proverbial kid in the candy-shop, unable to decide which one to go for. Should I go to see Antony and Cleopatra again? I have admittedly seen it many times before, but I love that play. Or there’s Julius Caesar, a play I was quite obsessed with as a thirteen-year-old – I used, I remember, to read it over and over again, and it is very firmly imprinted in my mind – but, for whatever reason, I had never seen it on stage before. Or there was Coriolanus, which, too, I had never seen on stage: maybe a stage production would help me appreciate better this strange play – Shakespeare’s last tragedy featuring a protagonist who, far from developing into some measure of self-awareness, seems resolutely incapable of any kind of development at all. In the end, the kid in the candy shop realised he couldn’t decide, and spent all his pocket money on all the sweets.

(Well, not perhaps all: Titus Andronicus has never really been a favourite play of mine, but I have not seen this on stage either, and I have received some very fine reports of this production.)


Coriolanus came first. I have always found this a grim and rather severe play. It is one of Shakespeare’s longest, and, lacking as it does a subplot, the focus is insistently, almost oppressively, on its principal character throughout. And this character seems not to have much of an inner life: an unthinking fighting machine, seemingly incapable not merely of subtle or of profound thought, but of any thought at all. And he lacks poetry. The entire play seems to lack poetry: those wonderful lines and passages scattered throughout Shakespeare’s plays that grab you by the throat or make those hairs on the back of your neck stand up with their expressive eloquence and their irresistible verbal music seem very conspicuous here by their absence. Shakespeare obviously knew what he was doing: problem is, I don’t.

The performance didn’t really help. The text was quite severely cut, and as a consequence, lacked the sense of that almost oppressive intensity I seem to detect when I am reading it. Sope Dirisu as Coriolanus didn’t really project any strong personality, or charisma, as I think he ideally needed to. For some reason, the drama somehow failed to grip. Either that, or I just attended a bad night. (I have bad days in the office sometimes: I am sure actors are allowed the occasional bad day on the stage!)

So, basically, Coriolanus remains for me something of a puzzle. But I’ll keep trying.

Next came Antony and Cleopatra, a play I have gone on about quite a bit in various posts here, as it is a firm favourite of mine. It started very promisingly: Josette Simon was a very spirited and vivacious Cleopatra, and Antony Byrne looked just right playing his namesake – a war-hardened soldier who, now advancing in years, is losing it. I particularly liked the way Ben Allen played Octavius – a very young man who nonetheless takes his responsibilities seriously, and who, at the start, idolises Antony as a great soldier, and cannot understand why this once great soldier is no longer living up to his Roman sense of duty. This makes sense of the text. Here, the proposal that Antony marry Octavia is no mere cynical ploy on Octavius’ part: he really wants Antony in his family, and actually believes that the love of a good Roman woman would cure Antony of his Egyptian decadence. So when Antony does return to Cleopatra, Octavius can only take this as a personal insult. And at the same time, his expression of grief on hearing of Antony’s death appears heartfelt, as it was surely intended to be: in too many productions, where Octavius is played as a cynical, manipulative statesman, cold and unfeeling in all his dealings, this scene falls flat, s it is hard to believe that such a man could be capable of such heartfelt emotion. Here, it worked splendidly.

But all was not perfect here either. For one thing, the cuts. I understand that this is a long play, and some cuts are necessary, but here, they did hurt. They cut the scene on the night before the battle where the soldiers on guard duty hear mysterious music coming from under the ground. It is only a short scene, and is very atmospheric: I’m sure it could have stayed. The many battle scenes were considerably thinned out, reducing, I felt, something of the play’s epic dimension. The scene between Cleopatra and her treasurer is cut. And, most grievous of all, I thought, was the excision of that wonderful passage where Antony calls round all his sad captains:

                                            … Come,
Let’s have one other gaudy night: call to me
All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more;
Let’s mock the midnight bell.

I also couldn’t help feeling that they short-changed the poetry somewhat. Among other things, Antony and Cleopatra is full of passages of soaring lyricism: it’s almost as if Shakespeare had poured into this play all the verbal opulence that he so carefully kept out of his very next play Coriolanus. And yet, the beauty of the poetry did not really seem to register. Even Cleopatra’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful lines

Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me

seemed  to lack solemn majesty.

It could be argued, of course, that “solemn majesty” is not how Josette Simon sees Cleopatra, and certainly, she has plenty of textual evidence on her side. Perhaps I am bringing too many of my own preconceptions to the proceedings, and that’s never a good thing.

And today, it was Julius Caesar. We read this play at school when I was thirteen, and, contrary to the oft-repeated mantra that Shakespeare in the classroom puts people off for the rest of their lives, I loved it. I think I developed a sort of obsession about it. And, rather strangely perhaps, I remember how I used to regard this play back then. Brutus was my hero, a genuine man of honour, who, quite rightly, acted to protect the Roman people from Caesar’s tyranny, and was defeated by the unscrupulous Antony. Now, while still thinking that Brutus acted with honourable motives, he seems to me something of a self-obsessed prig, continually telling everyone how very honourable he was. Cassius now seems to me more neurotic than I had then thought him. Antony is still unscrupulous, but now, I find myself admiring his extraordinary courage, and his loyalty to the dead Caesar. And Caesar himself I find myself admiring more than I used to. In short, I have grown up, and am more aware of the various ambivalences in all four of these fascinating leading characters.

And I found myself also thinking that while Antony and Cleopatra – written some seven years after Julius Caesar – was not intended as a sequel, the characters of Antony and of Octavius are consistent with what had gone before. Antony’s tiring of his responsibilities in the later play, and wishing only for a life of unthinking hedonism, takes on particularly strong resonance when one knows that Antony had spent his youth in pursuit of pleasure, and had only taken on political and soldierly duties when circumstances had compelled him to do so. The great statesman and soldier we hear of in the later play we see for ourselves in the earlier: and we see also what had driven him to such a life. And in his advancing years, it is his carefree pleasure-filled youth he wishes to return to.

The production, I thought, is tremendous. Alex Waldman plays Brutus here is a self-obsessed prig that I now see him to be, and Martin Hutson’s Cassius is overtly neurotic. Andrew Woodall is a splendid Caesar (he had been an equally splendid Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra) , and the whole thing is staged quite superbly. Best of all, perhaps, was James Corrigan’s dynamic Antony: that great speech scene was every bit as electric as it should be. And for once, they played the text more or less complete, with only the smallest of cuts. (But then again, this is a much shorter play than the other two.)

One thing that struck my fifty-seven-year-old self that I most certainly had not recognised as a thirteen-year-old is that the final act is surprisingly weak. A big battle scene, and a rounding off of the story – all finely executed, sure, but I get the feeling that after the long scene in Brutus’ tent in the fourth act, Shakespeare didn’t really have anything more to add. The final act, in comparison to what had gone before, is perhaps a bit routine. But no matter. Those first four acts are simply extraordinary, and this play will always have a special place in my heart. Why it took me so long to get round to seeing it on stage, I really don’t know.

So should I go and see Titus Andronicus this January? I have never really liked the play, but it is one of the fifteen plays of Shakespeare’s I haven’t yet seen on stage (I was counting them off on my fingers on the train back home), so perhaps I should make the effort. If only to tick it off the list. But something tells me that the boy in the candy-shop has had too much candy already.

Confessions of a culture-vulture

It was Cosi Fan Tutte last night.

Every November, the Glyndebourne Touring Opera give a few performances in nearby Woking, and, almost invariably, they perform a Mozart opera. Which, obviously, is fine by us. Last year, it was Don Giovanni (I reported on that briefly here). I was recovering then from serious illness, and, in my weakened state, was afraid I might fall asleep during the performance; but, in the event, it turned out to be a first step back, as it were, to life: by the end of that performance, I felt less of an invalid, less weighed down by my troubles and worries – in brief, less of a miserable old sod. Those three Mozart-da Ponte operas have that effect on me: no matter how serious the aspects of our humanity they probe into, they elate, they exhilarate.

Take last night’s Cosi Fan Tutte. One of my earliest posts on this blog was about this opera, and I dwelt at some length on how deeply troubling the whole thing was. I cannot think of any other work, in any other artistic medium, that is so exquisitely beautiful, and yet so profoundly troubling. And last night, I felt the full force of this paradox all over again: the music is so perfectly beautiful, that the sense aches at it; and yet it presents a view of ourselves, of us all, that perturbs, and leaves one uneasy. I have read many accounts of this work, and even writers with far greater command than myself of the English language clearly find themselves struggling in trying to describe its effect. It remains elusive: just when you think you have found the key to it, some new detail occurs to you, and the entire edifice you have built for yourself suddenly comes tumbling down. It is hard indeed to account for a work that so entrances with its beauty, and yet so troubles you to your very depths; and which, even despite this troublesome nature, leaves you, somehow, elated by the end.

In other words, it’s a right bugger to blog about. So let’s move on.

One full year on from when I was feeling so sorry for myself and so comfortably self-pitying, I find myself in the midst of a spree of nights out. Last night, as I said, it was Cosi Fan Tutte; last week, it was Handel’s Rodelinda at the English National Opera. This was unplanned: a friend of a friend had an extra ticket which he was willing to see off at a ridiculously low price, and it seemed rude to turn it down. I must confess, though, that I am not really convinced by Baroque opera. Not dramatically, I mean. As I understand it, opera audiences of Handel’s time went to hear fine singing from star singers; and they went for spectacle; but they didn’t really go for what we would nowadays consider drama. So Handel operas tend to consist of a long sequence of solo arias – each very beautiful, and each very expressive, but each rather static, designed as they were for the singers simply to stand-and-deliver. Modern stagings invent various piece of stage business – some ingenious, others (to my mind) a bit pointless, and even a bit silly – to prevent it all becoming a merely a long sequence of dramatically static arias; but I rarely find myself convinced. The ENO production did as good a job as can be imagined, but I don’t think I’d have lost much if it had all been done simply as a concert performance. Certainly, in musical terms, and in terms of their expressive power, the arias themselves are top-drawer stuff, and they were quite beautifully performed; but I still can’t quite see this as drama. However, this is just a personal reaction: aficionados of Baroque opera may well disagree.

And I am also attending a series of concerts given at the Wigmore Hall by the Spanish quartet Cuarteto Casals, covering all of Beethoven’s mighty string quartets. I’ve been to two already, and there is a third concert in early December. We are also going to a performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers in two weeks’ time, in which a friend of ours is singing in the chorus. (To clarify on this point, when I say “I”, I mean I am going on my own; when I say “we”, I am going with my wife. We share some tastes – we both love Mozart and Verdi, for instance – but not all, and we see little point dragging each other off to events we may not enjoy.)

I will not be writing here about any of these concerts, since I am not really qualified to pass my layman’s opinions on musical matters. But when it comes to dramatic matters … well, truth to tell, I’m not really qualified to write about these matters either; but if I were to keep quiet about everything I am not qualified to comment on, this blog would never even get started. (And in any case, remaining silent when you have nothing much of interest to say would be going very much against the spirit of our times.)

And there’s theatre, of course. The Royal Shakespeare Company will be in London this winter, and they are bringing down from Stratford-on-Avon all four of Shakespeare’s Roman plays – Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. Titus Andronicus has never been amongst my favourite plays, although, given I have never seen it on stage before, I may well go along to have a look come January. More surprisingly, perhaps, I have never seen Julius Caesar or Coriolanus on stage either, and have tickets for both between now and Christmas. And also between now and Christmas, I’ll be seeing Antony and Cleopatra, which I often name as my single favourite Shakespeare play: I find it a hard play to keep away from.

(And speaking of which, the National Theatre promises us an Antony and Cleopatra next year with Ralph Fiennes. It also promises us also Macbeth with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff. At the same time the Royal Shakespeare Company is also promising us Macbeth, this time with Christopher Ecclestone and Niamh Cusack. Which one will be better? Well, there’s only one way to find out, as Harry Hill might say…)

And if all this weren’t enough, one Sunday in early December, the British Film Institute promises us screenings of all three films comprising Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (which I often regard as possibly cinema’s finest artistic achievement) in newly restored prints. I used to be a very keen film-goer in my student days, but I must admit that this is something that has long fallen by the wayside. However, I have never seen these masterpieces before on the big screen, and this really is very tempting.

So much to see, so little money in the bank…

“Love’s Labour’s Lost” at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

The following is a review of The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, directed by Christopher Lushcombe, seen as a live cinema broadcast on February 11th, 2015.

Michelle Terry as Rosaline, with, in background, William Belchambers as Longaville; Tunji Kasim as Dumaine; and Sam Alexander as King of Navarre

Michelle Terry as Rosaline, with, in background, William Belchambers as Longaville; Tunji Kasim as Dumaine; and Sam Alexander as King of Navarre

Love’s Labour’s Lost is an relatively early play, and not among Shakespeare’s best-known, but I find myself loving it and revisiting it far more often than many of Shakespeare’s better-known comedies, such as, say, Much Ado About Nothing or As You Like It. This could perhaps be something to do with the fact that this was the first play I ever saw at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre: the production I saw back then (nearly 37 years ago now) was directed by John Barton, and it seemed to me then and seems to me still – although I do realise that memory can play tricks on these matters – nothing short of perfection. However, I don’t want to turn into one of those boring old farts for whom nothing modern can ever match the glories of the past: at least, I don’t want to assume such a posture on all matters. For in the matter of theatrical productions of Shakespeare, the quality, to judge from the Henry IV plays I saw in Stratford-on-Avon last year, seems to be as high as it ever was.

But it’s a difficult play to bring off, partly because Shakespeare more or less abandoned here the idea of plot, and also because so much of its effect depends on dizzying wordplay of a sort likely to lose a modern audience. Indeed, one can’t help wondering how much of this wordplay would have been picked up even by Shakespeare’s own audience: a line such as Berowne’s “Light seeking light doth light of light beguile” can yield multiple meanings when pondered at one’s leisure in one’s study, but delivered at the speed of sound in the theatre, it’s difficult to get little more than merely the sound of the words.

Of course, it can be said that a line such as Berowne’s is more clever than poetic: it is an extremely intelligent person showing off, exhibiting but a facility with words, a verbal agility, an ability to exploit multiple levels of meaning; it is a self-conscious performance rather than anything very deeply felt. And I can’t help speculating whether the young Shakespeare may have felt this about himself. He must surely have known that he had a greater command of the English language than did any of his contemporaries, or even, for that matter, any of his predecessors; he knew that words obeyed his call. Did he perhaps worry, I wonder, whether this prodigious ability led not to an engagement with reality, but to an escape from it? That, instead of grappling with the seriousness of life, he was merely playing smartarse word games? I usually try not to speculate on authors’ biographies in this manner, but the reason I can’t help doing so on this occasion is that this is, it seems to me, one of the major themes of this play: Love’s Labour’s Lost seems to me very deeply concerned about the uses to which language is put. Through most of this play, we get dizzyingly clever wordplay, and exuberant verbal games; we also get some of the most exquisite and soaring love poetry; but, in the final section, something extraordinary happens. Just as the play seems to be hurtling to its merry and jovial conclusion, with the men all neatly paired off with the ladies, a messenger enters:


MERCADE     God save you, madam!

PRINCESS     Welcome, Mercade;
But that thou interrupt’st our merriment.

MERCADE     I am sorry, madam; for the news I bring
Is heavy in my tongue. The king your father–

PRINCESS     Dead, for my life!

MERCADE     Even so; my tale is told.

And that’s it. Within just a few seconds, the tonality changes beyond all recognition. The high spirits and the exuberance that we had all been enjoying till now gives way to more sombre hues; faced with the implacable fact of mortality, these characters now have to put away their childish things, and learn to grapple with sickness, with grief, and with the impermanence of life itself. I think it’s one of the most wonderful moments in all Shakespeare.

But it is not a tragic ending. Paradise isn’t lost: it’s merely deferred. And when that paradise eventually comes, when Jack finally has Jill, both Jack and Jill may perhaps see the world in a more mature light; although, as Berowne sadly says, “that’s too long for a play”.

The final scene is one of veiled melancholy, of a growing awareness that sadness, like joy, is also a part of life, and cannot be banished. In The Taming of the Shrew, it had been the wife who had been educated by the husband; here, it’s the men who are educated by the ladies. It is the ladies who urge the men to delay the marriages by a year. And Rosaline specifically asks Berowne to leave behind his frivolous games, and tend the sick:

ROSALINE     You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick and still converse
With groaning wretches; and your task shall be,
With all the fierce endeavor of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile.

BEROWNE     To move wild laughter in the throat of death?
It cannot be; it is impossible:
Mirth cannot move a soul in agony.

I can never quite satisfy myself with mere analysis just what it is about these lines I find so moving. Is it perhaps a recognition of loss? – a loss of something that cannot be recovered? For, once one is aware of the complexities of life, of all its dark shadows and its miseries, what price mirth? What good is it, when it has no power to move a soul in agony? Where is gone all the unfettered joy and the exuberance? Are all these, too, childish things that must be put away?

These questions aren’t answered: all that’s too long for a play, after all. This play comes to an end not with the characters becoming more mature, but with their realisation that, far from shutting themselves away from life, as they had planned to do at the opening of the play, they have now to engage with it. And, after all the linguistic virtuosity, the play ends with two very simple lyrics – homely songs, with everyday words, and images drawn from everyday life – such as maidens bleaching their summer smocks, or icicles hanging by the wall. We seem as far from the start of the play as it is possible to be: words are now used not for playing clever games, but for grappling with what is real.

Grappling with all this in a performance, however, is a tall order, and I hope it isn’t seen as a backhanded compliment when I say this production nearly succeeds. It is the first of two related productions at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre this season – the second being Love’s Labour’s Won, a title one could search for in vain in Shakespeare’s Collected Works. It is known that a play with this title did indeed exist, but it is probably lost; or, conceivably, it could be the play we now know as Much Ado About Nothing. The Royal Shakespeare Company goes with the latter conjecture, and presents the two plays in tandem with much the same cast, and with Rosaline and Berowne transformed in the later play into Beatrice and Benedick. There is a further conceit in these productions: the two plays are both located in an English country house – the first before World War One, and the second after. I am not sure how this will work in Much Ado About Nothing (or Love’s Labour’s Won): that has not been broadcast in the cinemas yet; but I wasn’t, I admit, entirely convinced in Love’s Labour’s Lost. There is, after all, no mention in the text of any impending war, and the four men appearing at the end in military uniform seemed to me incongruous with the text of the play. And further, given what we know about the carnage that was WW1, it added a note of the tragic, which rather drowned out any sense of delicate and wistful melancholy.

Of course, one could say that the delicate and wistful melancholy is but my own interpretation, and that other possible interpretations can also be valid. I don’t dispute that. But, having read through the play again after seeing this production, I could not at any point find anything to justify an interpretation that sees this ending as tragic. For why should it be? The men aren’t really going to war – there’s no mention of it; and neither are the marriages cancelled – they’re merely postponed. At the end, Berowne reflects that Jack hath not Jill, and, when reminded that Jack has not lost Jill for ever, comments “that’s too long for a play”. This comment is a bit sad, perhaps, and wistful, and half-humorous; but what it isn’t, I think, is tragic: Berowne’s disappointment – and it is no more than that – is not devoid of hope. However, in this production, it was delivered while holding back sobs, and I really can’t see any justification in the text for delivering it in this manner.

The final songs as well, distinguished from the rest of the play by their extreme simplicity of diction, were performed here as a big musical number. It is all very well done, as indeed are all the other musical numbers. (This production, incidentally, is full of music, and it is all delightfully scored and performed.) But the simplicity which is the very essence of these final songs is missing. The play, whenever I read it, seems to have at the end a dying fall: here, instead, we are presented with a spectacular pageant.

Perhaps I shouldn’t harp too much on the ending: I only do so because this particular ending seems to me among Shakespeare’s very finest, and the replacement of a gentle and wistful melancholy with full-throated spectacle did, frankly, leave me somewhat disappointed. Which is rather a pity, as the rest of the production could barely be improved upon. Although, even here, there are one or two things for a Beckmesser such as myself to carp about. Why, for instance, change Berowne’s “guerdon” to “emolument”? Sure, the modern audience is likely to be more familiar with the word “emolument”, but given that the joke is about Costard not understanding what the word means in the first place, perhaps “guerdon” should have been left untouched.

Also, I couldn’t help wondering whether Michelle Terry’s Rosaline had to be quite so combative. Rosaline and Berowne clearly foreshadow Beatrice and Benedick in many respects, but even Beatrice and Benedick need to convince us that they do love each other, or, at least, that they come to love each other. Here, while Berowne is clearly besotted with Rosaline, I can’t say I had any great confidence that his love is reciprocated. At least, were I a young man (and I was once – honestly!) I wouldn’t have given much for my chances with this Rosaline.

And finally, while I am still in my Beckmesser mode, there’s the pageant put on at the end by the curate, the schoolmaster, and others of the “lower orders”. In Shakespeare’s text, when Nathaniel the curate does his turn as Alexander, he speaks his few lines, Berowne has a few witticism at his expense, and then they all move on. Here, the scene was expanded: Nathaniel forgets his lines; Berowne makes a scathing comment; and, as Nathaniel is about to leave the stage in tears, one of the ladies (I think it was Rosaline) calls him back; and this time, Nathaniel remembers his lines, to much applause. Now, it is true that the ladies in this play educate the men, and that Berowne’s witticisms at the expense of the performers are uncalled for; but did the text really needed to be changed to underline this point so crudely? Far better, surely, is Shakespeare’s own way of making the point: in the text, at the height of the men’s barrage of “witticisms” (as in the similar scene at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is the men, and not the ladies, who mock the admittedly absurd show on view), the schoolmaster Holofernes says: “This is not generous, not gentle, not humble.” It is a marvellous line. Holofernes had been, till this point, a preposterous comic figure, but with this single line he acquires a dignity and a humanity that the four noblemen at this point rather conspicuously lack. Sadly, this wonderful line was cut in this production, and this excision makes to me no sense at all.

However, leaving aside the Beckmesserisms, there was much to admire. First of all, the sets: each scene was set in a different part of the country house – in the library, on the finely manicured lawn, the drawing room, the terrace, outside the front door, and at one point, quite unexpectedly, on the rooftop. The sets and the ingenious shifts of scene were wonderful: this must have been magical to have experienced in the theatre. And, while I may certainly quibble with certain aspects of the interpretation, the entire cast was marvellous, speaking the very difficult lines superbly, and, with impeccable comic timing, getting laughs where I wouldn’t have suspected any existed. The audience is unlikely to have followed all the arcane wordplay, but with performances of such fine comic zest, it didn’t seem to matter. In particular, John Hodgkinson as Don Armado played the “fantastical Spaniard” with an exuberant comic relish, delighting particularly in the smutty double entendres; while Edward Bennett as Berowne delivered his soaring paean to love in Act Four – surely among the very greatest of all love poems – with such clarity and ardour that time really did seem to stand still, and we, the audience, became, in Hamlet’s words, wonder-wounded hearers.

And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods
Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony.

Shakespeare may indeed, as I conjectured, have worried whether his mastery over language might be an escape from reality rather than an engagement with it; but when one comes across lines such as these, one feels that he really need not have worried. The sombre hues of the final scene may lift this play from a fine work to a great one; but even without these hues, what we have is exquisite. And it is so exquisitely presented that to carp on matters of interpretation, as I have been doing, is likely to appear merely churlish.

Please note: a cinema broadcast of a theatrical event often makes an impact somewhat different from that when seen in the theatre. Do please see here for Sheila’s characteristically detailed account of the play as seen in the theatre: it really is the next best thing to actually being there.