Tag Archives: theatre

Two plays this week and one was a disappointment.

Went to see Richard lll in a small London theatre – the New Diorama Theatre near the Euston Rd.

The company specialises in physical theatre which seemed to involve a lot of miming and mock battles with mock swords when really the words had already made that clear. You can’t improve on Shakespeare’s words.

What’s good about this company is that it is both colour and gender fluid so we had six women in a cast of 19 and some of them playing male parts.One or two good touches included Richard’s physical defects become more pronounced when he was threatened.

No sets which was a challenge and actors wore their own clothes apart from the main female parts and they wore frocks of a certain vintage.

But despite all the company’s good intentions, the actor playing Richard remained unconvincing. Pity.


Our second outing was to the Royal Court – where else – to see  Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill.  Four women ( all over 70 the programme tells us) sit in a summer garden and hold conversations with each other about this and that. It’s the dialogue that is arresting. No one talks in full sentences and some of the characters begin their sentences in the middle and some never finish theirs. Every so often the  stage darkens and one of the characters appears alone and delivers a string of monologues about various disasters in which charred remains were reused as pieces of art. I think.

The funny thing is that after you’ve come out of the theatre you notice you yourself – and your companion – are speaking in half sentences that barely make sense. Listen yourself to see what I mean.



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What is it with older actors? Three women to watch.

Three theatre women worth watching:

Diana Quick: just finished a run at the Theatre Royal in Bath – The Big Meal. This is a challenging play by US writer Dan LeFranc which tells the story of a family through five generations with all the actors playing multiple parts.

Quick was married  to fellowe actor Bill Nighy for some 27 years and her daughter, Mary, is also an actor.

Diana Quick played the part of Margery Kempe in a radio play of  mine that BBC Radio broadcast a few years ago. I liked what I heard but I really wanted to see this character in the flesh. One day….

Clare Dunne: currently playing Hal in the Donmar Warehouse production of Henry lV parts l and ll.

Dunne has worked a lot with Gary Hyne’s Galway-based Druid Theatre Company.  I saw her play Major Barbara at the Abbey in Dublin and she gave it all that that part needed. The Donmar production, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, has an all-female cast and is the second of three such Shakespearean productions with Julius Caesar the first.

Henry lV runs till Nov 29


Eileen Atkins: currently playing the lead in The Witch of Edmonton at  the Swan Theatre, Stratford on Avon.  In a recent interview in The Observer, she was asked if playing a witch was typical casting for ” a mature actress.” And she replied: ” Of course. Even today  there’s a resentment  of what you call mature and I call old people.They are thought of as witches. ”  Atkins is seventy-something. Directed by Gregory Doran, she  plays the part of a woman , in 1621, who takes up witchcraft in self-defense. As the Observer notes “…tiresome, isolated, loquacious, she is the sort of neighbour you might prefer to avoid.”  Sounds a bit lke Margery Kempe to me. I’ll know next week – I have the ticket bought.

The Witch of Edmonton runs till 29 Nov



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And did those feet in ancient time…

A few days ago when it was warm rather than  hot, I sat in the garden to read. My choice was Jerusalem – the play not the hymn – although Blake’s dark satanic mill was the backdrop for this marvellous play.


First put on at London’s Royal Court Theatre, in Sloane Square, Jerusalem took London by storm. Written  by Jez Butterworth, it celebrates the life of a man who stands for everything that makes England what it is – warts and all.

The main character, Johnny Rooster Byron, was played by Mark Rylance and by the time the play had crossed to Broadway and back again to the West End, the price of the seats was beyond my pocket.

I had to do with a printed version but so powerful is Butterworth’s dialogue that there were times when I sensed Johnny Byron lurking at the bottom of the garden smoking a spliff , raising his pick-me-up early morning mug of milk laced with vodka before setting about seeing to his own bit of England’s green and pleasant land.

Butterworth’s plays are available from Nick Hern Books and so efficient are they that I placed my order for Jerusalem on the Friday and recd my copy the following Tuesday.

Rylance has said he hopes to reprise the role and when that happens, I’ll be top of the queue for a ticket.

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Are there two sides to every story?

Serious work to be done on my 5 minute play for the Royal Court playwriting workshop – on the challenges of seeing both sides of an argument. Not easy.Image

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Always the bridesmaid: an actor on what it’s like to be an understudy



“Covering McKellen An Understudy’s Tale” by David Weston.




I was given this book because I like Ian McKellen. If you’ve seen his Richard lll (on stage or on the screen) you’ll understand why and if you’ve never seen his Widow Twanky, you’ve never lived.

This book, however, is about David Weston and the year he spent understudying McKellen’s Lear. It’s full of actor’s anecdotes, of how the cast got on with each other, of the squabbles backstage, the awful lodgings, the boredom of waiting around in airports, the lonliness of being away from home. And if you’re a few minutes late arriving at the theatre, you get booked. Never happened in the old days.  There are health and safety forms to be filled in: can you kneel/can you push and pull/do you have difficulty standing for a long time? And don’t even mention the “gift” the cast received from the RSC at the end of the run.

Above all, it’s about the thoughts of an ageing actor (Weston is in his early seventies) who, having played all the parts, is now ending his career relegated to the role of understudy though to an actor he admires and to whom he is touchingly loyal for, in the whole year of the tour, McKellen doesn’t have as much as one night off. Not a sore throat, not a stubbed toe, nothing.

There is one heart-stopping moment when word comes through that Sir Ian has failed to turn up at the theatre. And in Hollywood!

Weston takes up the script and starts to look at the first scene. It’s seared into his brain, he says. He’s advised to stay calm, that they’re trying to locate McKellen and, hell’s bells, they do: he’d overslept and couldn’t get a taxi. But he’s on the way.

I dropped this book in the bath – hence it’s decrepit state – but I kept on reading it throughout the year. I had to: McKellen’s Shakespearean voice resonates and his willie’s not bad either – for a 68-year-old, as noted by the New Zealand Herald.

His understudy is grateful for any crumbs that might come his way and some do. Like the critic who wrote: “One of the great pleasures of an RSC production is the attention that is lavished on the minor parts.”

Weston does get a chance to play Lear when, back in London, they have an understudy run through.  He lets his friends know, his agent, anyone that might be interested in seeing him do Lear. And you know what – it’s cancelled and he has to phone everyone to tell them not to bother coming.

A few weeks later, he gets a second chance when they finally have the understudy’s run through. This time, he plays Lear to an invited audience which includes his two daughters and afterwards Ian McKellen hugs him and says he almost envies his having two such lovely daughters. It’s that almost that gets to you.

Weston has understudied all of them: David Warner,Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi and his insider’s take on the RSC is marvellous. For anyone in love with the theatre, this is their book but if you ever think life is passing you by, imagine what it must be like to be understudy to Ian McKellen. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

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Those women who passed as men…

With the film Albert Nobbs opening in Dublin on Feb 18 at the Jameson International Film Festival ( http://www.JDIFF.com) which has Glenn Close playing the part of a woman who passed as a man, here are a few questions ( and answers) about this interesting role that so many took on.

For starters, who were those women, in history, who dressed as men and why did they do it?
In fact, there’s no single answer since they did it for a variety of reasons related to their need to either reveal or conceal their female identity.
There were the adventurers which included Kit Kavanagh who fought in the Battle of Blenheim. Flora Sands who fought with the Serbs in 1914, Sarah Hobson, who is featured in my book The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt (www.maryrussell.info) and who travelled round Iran disguised as a young boy, in the 1970s.
There’s Ireland’s Miranda Stuart Barry who disguised herself as a young man to study medicine in Edinburgh and went on to become Surgeon General in the British Navy.
George Sand adopted male clothes so that she could go on the town with her brother.
Then there were the breeches parts in Restoration drama (Samuel Pepys was thrilled by Nell Gwynn’s legs) and in music hall there was the principal boy.
In the 19th century, there were about 50 female Hamlets including Mrs Patrick Campbell.
Among contemporary actors, Fiona Shaw has played Richard ll,Frances de la Tour was a terrifically sexy Hamlet, Kathryn Hunter played both Lear and a brilliant Richard lll at London’s Globe Theatre. Peggy Shaw from Split Britches was exquisite at London’s Drill Hall and Lisa Sadovy was great in The Slow Drag, a play based on real-life trumpeter Billy Tipton, a woman who passed as a man,
On film, Debra Winger was an androgenous Tuareg in The Sheltering Sky, Tilda Swinton was Orlando. Diana Keaton, in Annie Hall, was little boy lost in tie, baggy trousers and big hat which said: “I may dress like a man but really I’m a little girl that needs a man to look after me.”
Marlene Deitrich, in top hat and tails horribly labled a fag hag by some but in fact her male clothes emphasised her female gender. Hilary Swank played Tina Brandon, an American woman who passed as a man and was murdered when uncovered.
Now we have Glenn Close as Alfred Nobbs which I’m not going to tell you about because you’ll want to see it for yourself but check out The Irish Times for an interview with Close http://bit.ly/A6KcHz

The above characters are only a few of the amazing, in-your-face women who lived in a man’s world. There are many more too numerous for me to mention here.

However, my favourite woman who passed as a man was Agnodice who lived in Athens in 400 BCE. Her story of intrigue, daring and commitment to her profession, will have you shaking your head both in disbelief and in delight.

Watch this space…..but remember,the name’s Agnodice.

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