Wednesday, 6 August 2008

A Slight Ache

National Theatre
28 July 2008

A title which describes my post-show brain!

It may or may not have been appropriate for us to go and see a play about a married couple grown stagnant in their relationship on our first wedding anniversary! But as I would happily watch paint dry if SRB (Simon Russell Beale) was doing the painting and, through The Alchemist, Spamalot and Major Barbara, I have converted Mr FB into doing practically the same, going to see A Slight Ache at the National was the perfect thing for us to do!

The addition of theatrical A-lister Claire Higgins added to the enjoyment. And then there’s the fact that it is only just over an hour long and starts at 6.00pm, which meant that we could enjoy to the full Mr FB’s surprise present of a night at The Howard plus a fantastic meal - the sum total of all these factors therefore made this something of a theatrical elixir!

Pinter’s play itself starts with middle class couple Edward and Flora (SRB and Higgins) at breakfast on a hot summer’s morning. They kill a wasp in the type of brilliantly timed and worked piece of business that SRB always carries off so well, and argue about which flower is which in the garden – trivial every day conversation that is frighteningly realistic.

They then invite a mysterious match seller (Jamie Beamish) into their house and talk to him, or rather at him, as he never makes a sound. I assumed that this figure was some kind of symbol of what was “rotten” in their marriage, and that his silent “dialogue” was the ultimate Pinteresque pause! But you’re never quite sure. I think that in this way, the play would probably work better on the radio, with the exception of course, of having this delicious duo on the stage!

They are, of course, excellent with SRB at his irascible best and a matronly but ultimately doting Higgins. Is she doting on the silent stranger in a way that she hasn’t been able to with her husband in their long marriage? And top marks to Jamie Beamish in the demanding silent role, challenging not least because under a balaclava and heavy coat on a humid July evening he must have practically melted away!

I was also pleased to see that the set (by Ciaran Bagnall) mostly consisted of different types of chairs. I felt vindicated! Some years ago whilst working on an amateur production of ‘Betrayal’ I made up some horribly pretentious argument (because I was studying English and no one else had, ergo I had to try and say something clever!) to do with the fact that Pinter was “all about the chairs”, and that characters behaved according to where they were sitting and the type of chair they were on. I left the National partly pleased, but mostly horrified, that the rubbish soft furnishings theory that I had made up “for a laugh” may have had some substance to it! But then again, you can get away with a whole load of cr*p when discussing Pinter!

I enjoyed this short play. It made me think, and I like to think, even if it does make my brain ache! We were also able to discuss, over our anniversary dinner, how we would do all in our power not to end up in that kind of relationship – and how we would never invite balaclava clad strangers with no conversational skills into our home!

Tuesday, 5 August 2008


Royal Shakespeare Company, Courtyard Theatre, Straford-upon-Avon
26 July 2008

I won’t do a predictable “to go or not to go” title!

When writing about my latest trip to the RSC, I do not feel the need to do my usual “did Shakespeare really write the plays?” pre-amble – I will just launch straight into it and say, unequivocably - David Tennant is an outstanding Hamlet!

The official press night isn't until 5 August, so my comments on Tennant's performance and the rest of Gregory Doran's new production may be premature, but I don't think that much will change – and a good job too!

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is considered to be THE role, the one that all actors want to test themselves with, and presenting him in a way that preserves its sparkle and potency is a challenge. But all too often though, he is portrayed as doing an awful lot of brooding, so much so that you just want to say “for goodness sake pull yourself together man”. In fact, very often the character is played as a certain “type”, princely, tormented, soldier-like etc.

But what Tennant does is find all his facets, all the different moments and plays them all to perfection. He makes Hamlet’s tormented soul highly likeable with a sense of comedy about his madness. It’s more of a personal struggle with how he feels rather than out and out insanity and one that you can totally understand and believe in. As a wronged son he almost reverts to being a petulant child who has had his Playstation taken out of bounds. But there’s also sensitivity, sadness and anguish. You are with him all the way, totally hooked by his emotional journey and as the character took his final breath I shed a tear. I’ve never felt like that about Hamlet before!

But it also must be said that while Tennant is superb, it’s not all about him. It’s a wonderful company and an excellent production. Hamlet is a great story. Compared to some of the history plays it’s easy to follow and when it’s well-told, as it is here, it’s an exciting thriller.

Oliver Ford Davies is a lovely old Polonious, often going off into a world of his own, saying the words as if for the first time and pondering over what he is saying. Patrick Stewart’s Claudius is firm and manipulative but gorgeous and together with Penny Downie’s beautiful Gertrude, you can easily see why the two of them got together! In fact, I want to be Penny Downie, beautiful in an ethereal way, elegant, poised and able to carry off gorgeous but unforgiving silk dresses. Moreover, I want to be Penny Downie in Hamlet as in the space of two minutes, David Tennant kisses her and Patrick Stewart massages her shoulders!

And I have to admit that I spent a good deal of the evening just thinking how blimming lucky the whole cast was to be in this production.

The set is quite simple, and mirrored to reflect the holding a mirror up to nature quote and indeed it’s a quote-tastic play, there are the very famous ones of course but also odd phrases such as “single spies”, “murder most foul” etc and so many more that you suddenly remember how influential Shakespeare was in the language that we speak today.

I also can’t write this post without mentioning the Dr Who posse which made for a very different audience and quite a lot of hysterical screaming at the end. You can’t get a ticket for love nor money and much of this is down to David Tennant’s role as the infamous TV time lord and people wanting to see their hero in anything. Add to this Patrick Stewart’s Star Trek fame and Oliver Ford Davies’ Star Wars background and it’s a sci-fi fans heaven!

I am NOT a sci-I fan, ergo there cannot be a sci-fi heaven, it is all hell in my book, and pointless to boot (What is the dark side when it’s at home anyway?!) so I was just excited and delighted to see some of our greatest stage actors doing their stuff. My husband on the other hand loves all that space slash fantasy rubbish so for him it was double bubble, great actors AND heroes, but we both recognise that the viewing public are lucky to be able to see actors like Tennant on prime time TV.

And, while I was able to scoff at all the people asking where the toilets were, he enjoyed watching the geeks in front of us when Patrick Stewart said something like “Let it be so” and they all started laughing and nudging each other. Apparently, this was half way to his famous Star Trek quote “make it so”, they were practically puce with excitement at the mere mention of the “so” word!

I have to say that while part of me felt like whipping out my programme collection to prove that I am at that theatre an awful lot, whether or not there’s a Saturday night TV star on show, most of me thought that if it gets more people at the theatre, that can only be a good thing. And when they are actually there to watch fine actors, rather than karaoke stars who have been voted into the role by the public (sorry, “I’d Do Anything”!), then so much the better!

If you’re going to see Hamlet, you know that you won’t be out of the theatre much before four hours but at about three hours, 45 minutes, this production flew by all too quickly. It was a real privilege to be in the theatre, made even more special by the fact that on this particular weekend, a year ago, we were married – despite my husband’s love of Dr Who!