Sunday, April 18, 2010


Reviewed by James Karas

Ben Jonson and John Webster are two prominent English playwrights who are generally ignored in Canada. I can’t recall the last time there was a professional production of one of their plays in Toronto and as for the redoubtable Stratford Shakespeare Festival, it gives them a wide berth. Stratford has produced Webster only twice since the Festival was founded and Jonson is not exactly a frequent guest.

Things are different in England where Jonson’s Volpone and Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi could be seen back to back at The Greenwich Theatre London.

Ironically, the royally ignored Jonson (1572-1637) was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s and in fact Shakespeare acted in some of his plays. He was a colourful character and two facts come to mind when I hear his name. Whereas many playwrights dream of killing an actor, Johnson actually did. He was also thrown in jail for his allegedly anti-Scottish views. You don’t insult the Scottish when there is a Scottish king on the English throne.

Volpone is one of the greatest comedies of the English theatre. It is a play about greed and it opens with the brilliant line spoken by Volpone to his servant: “Good morning to the day; and next my gold: Open the shrine that I may see my Saint.” For Volpone gold and precious jewelry do not represent only wealth; they have become his god and are to be worshipped. Volpone kneels before his gold with reverence. The world has been turned upside down.

Volpone, played brilliantly by Richard Bremmer, is a citizen of Venice and with his wily servant Mosca (Mark Hadfield), he wants to hoard more gold. He comes up with a brilliant scheme to dupe other people who have a similar degree of avarice into parting with their money. He pretends that he is about to die and will leave his wealth to the person who pleases him the most.

Voltore (Tim Treloar), Corbaccio (Maxwell Hutcheson) and Corvino (Tim Steed) quickly arrive bringing gifts and much more. One of them is willing to disinherit his son; the other is willing to give his pretty wife to Volpone, all on the promise of becoming his sole heir.

Volpone’s undoing is not his greed but his lust. The pretty wife, Celia, will not succumb to his lechery and the whole scheme unravels.

The production is done in modern dress (more or less) with a few props. A couch for Volpone, a piano and a coffee table are about all that is required for the scenes in Volpone’s house and similarly few items for the scenes around Venice.

Hadfield is a wiry and effective Mosca and the greedy visitors are worthy of their names – vulture, raven, crow. I did not like Aislin McGuckin’s Celia. She is supposed to be a very beautiful woman after whom men would lust. In this production she is given an awful wig, an ugly dress and a horrible accent. Volpone would not risk all for a woman like that.

Director Elizabeth Freestone allowed Brigid Zengeni as Lady Would-Be and James Wallace as Sir Politic Would-Be to overact because the roles call for it.

If Volpone presents a world corrupted by avarice and people who are willing to betray most sacred human relations for money, it is nothing compared to the universe of The Duchess of Malfi. This is theatre of cruelty and bloodshed to make the most stout-hearted cringe.

Elizabeth Freestone directed this production as well using the same cast as in Volpone. Aislin McGuckin was given the title role and she gave a superb performance as a strong woman surrounded by evil, treachery, duplicity and cruelty. The widowed Duchess is forbidden by her brother the Cardinal (Max Hadfield) who has a mistress and her brother the Duke (Tim Steed) who lusts after her, from marrying again. She defies them, marries and has several children.

Her brothers strike back with unimaginable viciousness which includes strangling her.

The production is done in modern dress with a lot of military uniforms. The tradition of revenge tragedy requires the full panoply of costumes. The modern outfits took away from the whole genre despite fine performances. The only believable costume was that of the cardinal but the Catholic Church has not exactly updated their costumes.

Freestone tended to treat some scenes as if they were straight from an opera production. The characters faced the audience and delivered their lines. This may be fine in a duet or a quartet in opera but without, say, Verdi’s music it is not as effective in the theatre.

There were seven cameras spread around the theatre. Stage on Screen recorded the performance for release on DVD. If Canadian companies will not produce Jonson and Webster, maybe we can get them in DVD and watch them on the small screen.


Daniel Betts and Finty Williams in Bedroom Farce. Photograph: Alastair Muir

Reviewed by James Karas

Tom Stoppard and Alan Ayckbourn are two of England’s most prolific playwrights and the chances of seeing one of their plays in London are, as they say, bloody good. Stoppard’s The Real Thing is currently playing at the Old Vic and Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce is at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London’s West End.

I first saw The Real Thing in 1984 in New York in a production directed by Mike Nichols with Jeremy Irons in the cast. It was so sophisticated and literate and funny it has stuck in my mind ever since.

I was perhaps hoping for a repeat of that performance at the venerable Old Vic and my expectations were sorely unfulfilled. Does memory play tricks on us and make past productions seem better than they were. Perhaps but the production at the Old Vic is simply not up to par. There are numerous witty and very funny lines but all dialogue needs timing. In this case some of the best lines were either killed or wounded by sloppy directing by Anna Mackmin.

For example, Max confirms to himself that his wife is unfaithful by finding her passport at home when she is supposed to be abroad. On her “return”, his wife asks him where he found her passport and he tells her that it was in a recipe drawer. That was the last place she would have looked in, she tells him.

“It was” he replies dryly. If there is a slight pause before the reply, it would be funny. Without the pause, the humor is lost. There was no pause in this production and there were numerous such examples of simple failure to take advantage of Stoppard’s humour.

The set for the first half consisted of a couple of couches and some furniture in front of a blank backdrop. Designer Lez Brotherston does add some bookshelves in the second half but we could have used some better sets.

The play covers love, adultery, political activism and writing (and there may be topics that I missed). Stoppard moves quickly and brilliantly and you find yourself at times enjoying the repartee at the expense of the content.

Barnaby Kay, Hattie Morahan, Toby Stephens and Fennella Woolgar have their moments of fine performances especially in the dramatic parts of the play but more careful directing would have borne greater dividends for actors and audience alike.

Alan Ayckbourn is nothing less than a play writing industry. He has written 74 full-length plays and has directed 300 plays. And that’s just the beginning.

His 19th play was Bedroom Farce and it opened in 1975. It made the rounds and in January 1979 it came to the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto directed by Peter Hall and Ayckbourn himself.

The same Peter Hall has now staged a revival of the play at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London.

Bedroom Farce has three bedrooms (beds really – space is at a premium in London) and four couples. With the word farce attached to the title one may be led to expect frenetic action, sexual escapades and a lot of door-slamming as dictated by Feydeau and Company. Well, not quite.

Bedroom Farce is somewhat amusing, there are a few decent lines and you will end up laughing out loud a few times but that’s about it. Is this theatre for the tourists who want some relief from the endless parade of musicals?

Bedroom Left is occupied by Ernest (David Horovitch) and Delia (Jenny Seagrove), a middle-aged couple. They are about to go out for dinner and Ernest is worried about the roof and Delia is concerned about their son Trevor. A few chuckles.

In Bedroom Right we find Jan (Sara Crowe) and Nick (Tony Gardner). She is a feisty young woman who had the hots for Trevor at one time. Nick is bedridden and cannot go to the party that Jan will attend where she will run into Trevor. More chuckles and mild laughter.

Bedroom Centre is occupied by Malcolm (Daniel Betts) and Kate (Finty Williams) who are having a party. Trevor (Orlando Seale) and his batty wife Susannah (Rachel Pickup) will arrive separately and cause all the ruckus that will keep the play moving. Susannah will visit Trevor’s parents and both will drop by Nick and Jan’s bedroom. More chuckles and perhaps a couple of good laughs.

The scene changes from one bedroom to the next with speed but in the end, after a couple of hours, you wonder what you got out of it and was it worth after all, as they say. What was in the play or the production that a good television sitcom without commercials could not provide? I am not sure.

The actors deserve full credit for doing a fine job. Whatever the quality of the play, they got all the laughs that Ayckbourn put in.

Friday, April 2, 2010


PHOTO: Racheal McCaig

Reviewed by James Karas

What is he thinking or what did he really mean when he said that?

Playwrights have developed several methods of providing that information when they want the audience to know more than what is being said. In Ancient Greek tragedy, the Chorus was used to comment on the action or on the characters. The favourite device in Shakespeare’s time was the aside where the actor spoke in an undertone that the audience heard but was presumably not heard by the other people on the stage. Asides are typically short remarks that provide a pithy editorial on the reaction or the feelings of the speaker.

The more extended method of describing inner feeling is, of course, the soliloquy which was mastered by Shakespeare.

Now imagine a play that is made largely of asides or soliloquies.

That is what Michael Nathanson provides in Talk which is now playing at the Jane Mallett Theatre in a production by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company.

Joshua (Michael Rubenfeld) and Gordon (Kevin Bundy) are old and dear friends. Gordon has met this wonderful woman named Clotilde and he wants Joshua’s opinion of her. They meet over a drink. The exchange a few words and the action is stopped (indicated by spotlights) and each of them editorializes to the audience. Stop, go, stop, go is the feeling one gets.

They talk about how Joshua feels about Clotilde for what appears like an eternity and Clotilde’s mention of one word catapults the two characters into the talk that dominates the rest of the play. She mentions the word Palestine. Joshua is a Jew and Gordon is a Christian and this leads into a discussion (subject to innumerable interruptions for asides) of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Gordon ends up taking the Palestinian side. Israel has enacted racist legislation that will make the Nazis blush, he says. After decades of oppression, poverty and abuse, it is understandable that Hamas will resort to suicide bombings, he opines.

Joshua counters with the stated desire of the Palestinians is to murder every Jew in Israel. Jews are hated because they are Jews, he states, and they have no choice but to defend themselves.

The discussion between the two friends is interspersed with commentary about the meaning of friendship and the ability of friends to discuss a political topic without ruining their relationship. Is Jewishness more important than friendship is one of the questions to be asked.

The structure of the play blurs rather than clarifies the conflict in the Middle East and the conflict between the two friends. The asides and editorial comments interrupt the flow of the play without adding much to our knowledge about how the two men feel. After eighteen years of close friendship, they never got around to discussing the Middle East? Or is the whole thing brought up by Gordon’s new fiancĂ©e?

As for peace in the Middle East and the quandary of the two friends, both situations are perhaps explained in an anecdote about a wise old Jew. A friend of the old Jew expounded on a topic with conviction and the old Jew told him that he was right. Another friend took the opposite view and spoke with equal conviction. The old Jew told him that he too was right.

A third friend who heard all of this complained to the old Jew that his two friends held completely opposite viewpoints and that they both could not possibly be right.

“You are right” said the old Jew.

That is perhaps what is happening in the Middle East. Everybody is right as they kill each other. If Nathanson had striven to convey the wisdom of the old Jew, the play may have been more successful.

Director Ted Dykstra and Set and Lighting Designer Steve Lucas try to move the action along and change lighting to indicate different locations while using a minimum number of props.

Nathanson tries to provide some scaffolding for the discussion by creating some incidents in the play. But the lack of flow caused by the asides mars what could be a riveting dialogue about the many issues touched by Talk.


Talk by Michael Nathanson played until March 20, 2010 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario.