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The TheatreguideLondon Reviews

Archive: RSC 1999

For the archive, we have filed our reviews of four Royal Shakespeare Company London productions from 1999 on this one page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.

Family Reunion - Oroonoko - Timon of Athens - Volpone

The Family Reunion The Pit, Winter 1999-2000

T. S. Eliot, not satisfied with being the major poet and literary critic of the first half of the twentieth century, repeatedly set himself the double task of bringing Greek-style tragedy and poetic language to the modern theatre. That he succeeded at all is a testimony to his genius; and while The Family Reunion is occasionally awkward or heavy going, it is undoubtedly powerful drama.

As a solidly British family gathers for the matriarch's birthday, the one prodigal son is awaited with some trepidation. There has always been something, well, different about Harry, and it is not certain that he will be ready or able to take his place as new lord of the manor.

Indeed, Harry proves to be more than a little troubled, haunted by fears and guilts that take on physical form. Such persecution, he feels, must have some basis, and he is slowly going mad with the obsessive sense of his own sinfulness.

(A pause: Yes, sin. For all its Hellenic and mystical overtones, this is very much a Christian play, and Eliot goes so far as to have a character state that the play's vocabulary is "Not crime and punishment, but sin and expiation." Whatever your state of faith, it is exciting to encounter a writer willing to talk in so unfashionable a vocabulary.)

In the course of the play Harry learns things about his family that relieve his burden: his parents' generation were not pure, and the vague sense of evil he grew up with had a factual basis outside him. In other words, he was right in sensing sin, but it wasn't his sin. This discovery frees him at least enough that he can begin the journey toward possible happiness.

Adrian Noble's stark production doesn't try to disguise the play's claim to tragedy or its mystic qualities; it embraces them. On a stage stripped to a few mismatched wooden chairs, the characters' movements take on a choreographed, ritual quality that intensifies rather than alienating. When the members of the family turn into a Greek chorus, antiphonally begging the fates to spare them from the pain they sense approaching, there is no grinding of stylistic gears, but an evocative heightening of the dramatic poetry.

As Harry, Greg Hicks plays a man so lost in his own spiritual prison that conversation with others takes effort. Now bitter, now self-pitying, now trying to explain himself, now frustrated by the pointlessness of the attempt, he recites Eliot's verse with a painful beauty.

(Another side comment. Twenty-odd years ago a young spear-carrier in an RSC production caught my eye for some reason, and I noticed him in his next show, and his next, and his next, at both the RSC and the National. Greg Hicks has for a long time been a solidly dependable second-level actor; The Family Reunion may be his long-overdue leap into the first rank.)

Most of the other characters are written as archetypes, and Noble has let the actors play them as such. Only Margaret Tyzack, as the strong woman who has always been able to control her family and her fate, and who now finds herself out of her depth, is able to give a performance that is more than external.

The Family Reunion is not for all tastes, and the production does have its longeurs; some judicious trimming, particularly in the last half-hour, would not have been amiss. But for those looking for a play About Something, with more meat than most, it can be confidently recommended.

Gerald Berkowitz


Oroonoko The Pit, Winter 1999-2000

Aphra Behn's 1688 novel is credited with being a major force in the British movement to abolish slavery (the equivalent, in some ways, of Uncle Tom's Cabin in America). Behn's inspired stroke was to set half the novel in Africa, establishing her hero as a noble prince and, more significantly, a recognisable human being, before depicting his degradation as a slave.

The book was dramatised repeatedly in the 18th century and was always a hit, though the play versions strayed further and further from Behn's vision, cutting the African section, for example, and adding sensational material like an interracial romance.

For this Royal Shakespeare Company production, Nigerian-born playwright Biyi Bandele has returned to Behn's novel, setting half the evening in Africa and focusing on the personal values of the central characters rather than the melodrama of their situation. The result, while uneven, is at its best a strong and evocative personal drama very much in Behn's spirit, driving home the evil done by humans to humans.

We meet Oroonoko as a brave if somewhat naive young warrior-prince, not quite ready for the kingship that he will inherit. Nicholas Monu plays the earnest, inherently noble but unformed young man well, making his love for the maiden Imoinda (Nadine Marshall, demure to the point of near-invisibility) sweetly believable.

But Oroonoko is no match for the ambitious tribal politician Orombo (Geff Francis, effectively oily) and, despite the guidance of the wise matriarch Onola (Jo Martin, in a strong performance), is sold into slavery.

The focus in this first act is on the fully-developed culture of Oroonoko's African nation, with a strong morality of individuality and a language rich in metaphor, recalling both Shakespeare and Homer.

It is this inheritance that makes Oroonoko a natural leader of the slaves in the West Indies, a quality recognised even by the white slave owners. Reunion with Imoinda, demonstration of his nobility, and an inevitable tragic ending make up the second act.

Monu is a little less successful in evoking the mature and noble Oroonoko than the unformed youth, making the second half more plot-generated than character-illuminating. As a result, the play ends up more as a fascinating historical document than as a living drama - we sense the power it must have had then, more than what it has now.

Gerald Berkowitz


Timon Of Athens Barbican Theatre, Autumn-Winter 1999

The first Royal Shakespeare Company production I ever saw was Timon of Athens, starring Paul Scofield, in 1965. The fact that Gregory Doran's new production is the RSC's first mainstage revival since then testifies to how difficult and daunting a play it is.

The problem (aside from the suspicions of some scholars that the play may be an unfinished draft or a collaboration) is that the plot is deceptively simple. Timon, the richest man in town, is surrounded by parasites and sycophants until he goes broke, when they all desert him. Traumatised, he retreats to the desert and spend the second half of the play cursing mankind and waiting to die.

So far, any contemporary of Shakespeare's could have written the play and, indeed, it resembles some Fortune's Wheel plays by others. The Shakespearean element is the exploration of Timon's pain, the study of extreme emotion under extreme circumstances, the same subject that fascinated him in plays from Othello to King Lear.

Rather than playing a Timon who swings wildly from happiness to rage (the usual academic reading), Michael Pennington suggests that Timon is repressing a sense of the unreality of his golden life from the start. He is compulsively generous, using gifts to keep people around him and almost panicking any time someone seems likely to leave.

This explains his odd affection for both the military hero Alcibiades (Rupert Penry-Jones as a golden boy, in whose aura Timon can relax) and the bitter cynic Apemantus (a strong performance by Richard McCabe as a scholar studying men like bugs) who enables Timon to laugh at his own fears.

So when Timon finds himself deserted, his response, after one passionate outburst that Pennington does not do very well, is an ironic peace. Oddly, admitting his distrust of humanity is a relief to this Timon, who takes on the confidence and peace of one to whom all is now clear.

This is a satisfactorily Shakespearean reading (parallel in its way to Macbeth discovering that he's good at villainy, or Othello finding Iago's lies easier to believe than the truth). And the added twist of the knife, that Timon must then be faced with an honest, honourable man (John Woodvine, quietly solid as Timon's steward) who only confounds him rather than offering any comfort, is also Shakespearean.

Timon of Athens remains a minor play, and a difficult one. I certainly wouldn't recommend it as anyone's first Shakespeare play. But for those who have worked their way through the rest of the canon, there is no need to wait another generation; this is as fine a production of the play as you are ever likely to be offered.

Gerald Berkowitz


Volpone The Pit, Autumn-Winter 1999

Ben Jonson's Volpone is a bitter comic satire on greed, in which a conman convinces everyone he's dying so they will bring him gifts in the hope of being in his will. Eventually he goes too far, and he and his gulls are all punished

More than any other version I've seen, this Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Lindsay Posner, delivers equal proportions of anger and comedy. While that means it doesn't give full rein to either aspect (and thus, for example, loses some of the lightness), it makes for a deeper and more complex vision.

Although the play invites cartoonish characterisations and performances, Posner anchors it in realistic psychology. Malcolm Storry's Volpone is simply a professional thief, going about his trickery methodically. And his gulls are not commedia dell'arte pantaloons, but rapacious businessmen trying to cut corners.

As a result, scenes that might be played as merely comic or grotesque become vicious and unsettling. When jealous husband Corvino (Richard Cordery) does an about-face to offer his wife to Volpone, we see the scene through her eyes, and it's scary in its degradation. When the villains manipulate a courtroom to put all the blame on the play's only innocents, we are watching a searing indictment of a corrupt system.

To balance that darkness, Guy Henry gives a bravura performance as Volpone's henchman Mosca. Sinuous of body and oily of tongue, he is like the serpent in Eden, tempting his victims to their fall. Here is a villain who clearly loves his work, and he writhes in delight at his own slimy duplicity.

Storry also has some good comic moments, notably in the scene in which he disguises as a snake-oil salesman to get closer to the girl. The Sir Politick Wouldbe subplot, about a foolish English tourist (David Collings) who gets his come-uppance, doesn't work - but then I've never seen it work.

If you want your Volpone larger than life, drawn on a cartoon scale of monsters, the moderation of this production will disappoint. But a lifesize portrait of corrupt human beings, seen though a comic lens, makes for a new and powerful vision of the play.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Family Reunion - RSC Pit 1999
Review - Oroonoko - RSC Pit 1999
Review - Timon of Athens - RSC Barbican 1999
Review - Volpone - RSC Pit 1999

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