The Heroism of the Stage Manager: Henry IV Part One, RSC at the Barbican

Anthony Sher as Falstaff and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal
Anthony Sher as Falstaff and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal

When I was a teenager (more moons ago than I’m now willing to admit) I finagled myself some work experience with the Royal Shakespeare Company during their annual season in Newcastle. One of the things I learned from it (along with some scurrilous stories from the girls in Wigs) was that Stage Managers are the unsung heroes of theatre. They’re the ones who keep everything going.

This was proved to me again by yesterday afternoon’s trip to the Barbican. After the first scene, doors at the back of the stage slide back. Now because I saw this production in Canterbury during its national tour, I know that at this point, the platform bearing the bed from which Prince Hal will make his first appearance (disporting himself with not one, but two ladies of night) should trundle forward across the stage towards us. Except, on this occasion, it didn’t. There was a pause. The pause stretched. The bed did not move. Then, a small figure, dressed in black and wearing a headset (the stage manager) made what must have been a very lonely walk onto the stage. She told us that there was a problem, and there would be a small pause while they tried to fix it.

So we waited. Just before they closed the screens off in front of the bed, a little hand could be seen, waving forlornly – although whether that was meant for us, I’m not sure. I remembered, from my work experience, a (Geordie) stagehand commenting on a similarly recalcitrant piece of scenery, “Wey man, it’s always getting stuck. I just give it a kick, that usually sorts it out.”

Evidently, in this case, something more than that traditional remedy was required. Our stage manager joined us again, to say that the problem was worse than they’d thought and they would be suspending the performance for half an hour whilst they tried to sort it out. Outside the auditorium, Barbican staff gathered in little knots, anxiously clutching walkie-talkies. Back inside, loud bangs could be heard coming from behind the screen, suggesting that things had got bad enough for that other traditional remedy of ‘hit it with a hammer’ to be employed. By this point, the actors were probably hoping that the whole thing could be abandoned and they could go down the pub.

But, after a pause of rather longer than half an hour, our stage manager appeared again, to tell us that the problem could not be fixed (you could feel the audience tense up at this point) but, in the theatrical tradition of ‘the show must go on’ they’d found a way round it- they were going back to first principles and things would just be carried on and off instead. So, the bed is carried on, the actors sneak on under cover of the blackout, and we’re off again.

A pause of this length is always going to be a problem, for actors and audience. How to deal with it? Well, in this case, Alex Hassell as Prince Hal, after dismissing his pair of doxies, stands up (clad in nothing but a pair of white boxer shorts) stretches and says, “Sorry about the delay. I had a (wicked pause) technical problem.” We all laugh, and start to relax and enjoy the play.

So. Back to Alex Hassell in his knickers. Enough lasciviousness has already been expended on the internet over his abs, so I’ll pass over that, except to say, yes, they are very nice, but he seems to be getting thinner, so could someone please force feed him some cake?

Abs aside, his performance as Prince Hal is lovely- you genuinely believe his transition from boyish larking around to responsibility. My favourite moment is when news is delivered to the tavern that rebellion is brewing and that the moment to ‘pay the debt I never promised’ has arrived, rather sooner than he expected. You can see the dawning horror of having to face up to responsibility spread through his whole body, as he frantically runs his hands through his hair as if he’s trying to rub the news out. I’m not exactly the first to this particular party, but I do hope he gets to do Henry V soon, preferably for the RSC.

As his opposite number, so to speak, Trevor White does a brilliant job as a manic, energetic Hotspur, who fully lives up to his nickname. He’s a bleached-blond ball of pure energy, borderline-autistic in his rudeness to his ally Glendower. The climactic fight between him and Prince Hal is thrilling- it’s good to see it on a big stage like that of the Barbican, where it can really breathe.

Henry - hotspur

I haven’t mentioned Falstaff yet, have I? Well Anthony Sher is fantastic. You probably could have worked that out for yourselves, couldn’t you? His Falstaff feels subtle, believable; not just the caricatured fat knight but a believable person- an irascible boozer with shaking hands. But there are some great comedic moments as well- such as Falstaff lying on his back, kicking his legs as he struggles to get up, like an upturned beetle.

This being the RSC, there are no weak links in the cast, but I especially like Sam Marks as Poins and Jennifer Kirby as Lady Percy. Since I’m already playing fantasy casting with Alex Hassell, can I suggest these two as Romeo and Juliet? They’re obviously talented performers of Shakespeare, and they’ve both suitably youthful- I’ve seen too many geriatric stage Romeos in particular.

Even having seen the production before with fully working set, the work around version didn’t seen jarring- and certainly didn’t detract from the audience’s enjoyment. The play eventually finished around an hour late – slightly irritating for the audience, but worse for the actors, who lost a third of the break they have between shows. I hope the evening performance all went smoothly.

PS- My train home was delayed, due to a technical problem. Wasn’t my day for technology, was it?


Too much Legacy, not enough Rubens

Rubens tiger

Rubens and his Legacy: Royal Academy, until 10th April

I took my newly-discovered love of Rubens (see the post How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love Rubens) down to the Royal Academy to see their heavily trailed and much publicised Rubens exhibition. Verdict: well this exhibition does indeed confirm my love of Rubens- just possibly not in the way the curators intended.

The two reviews I read of this exhibition this morning were pretty much diametrically opposed: Jonathan Jones in the Guardian describes it as ‘a car crash’, whilst the Telegraph’s Mark Hudson describes it as ‘superb’.

Myself, I’m coming down on the side of Jones. The clue to the problem with this exhibition lies in that weasely little sub title ‘and his legacy’, which really should have served as a warning. There is very little Rubens in this exhibition- possibly the only thing the two reviewers alluded to above agree on.

What there is though, is wonderful. It includes some major works like the visceral Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt and the luminous Venus Frigida, as well as some beautiful drawings which showcase Rubens’ draughtsmanship. But, time and again we are shown works which were influenced by, or even copied from, particular works of Rubens- and all too often these works are represented by engraved copies made by other artists. This is frustrating – it makes it hard to see the influences the exhibition is trying to highlight.

This is the fundamental weakness of the exhibition, and I wonder how it was allowed to happen. Did hoped-for loans fail to materialise? Even if this were the case, I would have preferred to see good colour photographs of the ‘missing’ works. This would have been a more honest approach- the engravings feel like they’re trying to fob us off with second best and just hope we don’t notice.

Overall, it feels like this exhibition is just trying too hard – too hard to be this year’s big blockbuster exhibition, too hard to be comprehensive, too hard to be all things to all people.

There are brilliant moments – in the first room, the juxtaposition of a Rubens landscape with one by Turner illuminated both- but they are all too rare. Mostly the Rubens’ works just make the others (even Van Dyck) look lacklustre by comparison.

Bringing silly back: Why I love Mischief Theatre

Peter pan goes wrong 3

About a year ago I went to see a production called ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ with very little idea of what to expect, and fairly low expectations. It was January- anything vaguely funny would do.

By the end, I had laughed so much that I genuinely feared for the safety of my ribs. That then, was my first encounter with Mischief Theatre, founded by a group of graduates from LAMDA (the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, to give it its Sunday name).

Since then, ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ has won the What’s On Stage award for Best New Comedy (I voted for them, so technically, they owe me- I’ll take payment in booze next time you’re in Canterbury, guys) and been given a West End run.

This weekend, I caught up with Mischief Theatre- and this time, it’s J.M. Barrie’s classic ‘Peter Pan’ which is going wrong. I did worry that – having seen ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ with very few expectations – my expectations for this might be too high, but Mischief have delivered again. ‘Peter Pan Goes Wrong’ is every bit as gloriously, hilariously silly as its predecessor – but with added flying.

Peter pan goes wrong 2

Yes, having seen the earlier production, you can sometimes see the jokes coming – it’s obvious when somebody lights a candle on stage that someone will end up setting themselves on fire with it – but when it comes, it’s still very funny. And they still have a few surprises up their sleeves.

The original Mischief company (including writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields) are still tied up in the West End, so a new cast of actors willing to risk bruises, broken limbs and third-degree burns, all in the name of comedy, has been recruited – and very well they do.

The framing joke to the new production is the same as with ‘The Play Goes Wrong’: the hopeless, hapless, but very dedicated thesps of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society have somehow got hold of some money, and are spending (squandering) it on their latest production. As for how things go, well the clue lies in the title: everything you can think of (and a few things you probably couldn’t) goes wrong. ‘Peter Pan Goes Wrong’ builds up to a climax involving a revolving stage that won’t stop revolving, a cat fight between the two female leads, a collapsing set, showers of sparks and exposed bum cleavage. I can’t describe it beyond that, but by the end of it I was pretty much crying with laughter (Note to self – next time you’re at a Mischief production, forget the mascara).

Peter pan goes wrong

I mentioned potential injuries before, and I wasn’t completely joking – the Mischief brand of comedy relies on split second timing, as sets collapse and props fight back. The law of averages suggests the cast must sometimes lose these battles. Kudos to any Health and Safety officer who passed this one.

Both of the Mischief productions could be filed firmly under ‘farce’ – a deeply unfashionable genre which has suffered in recent years from its associations with the phrase ‘bed-hopping’ and pre-1970’s attitudes to women. It’s nice to Mischief reclaim it for the modern world.

The two Henries and Jonathan are reportedly working on new script, so hopefully another play will be going wrong in the near future ( Myself, I quite fancy Midsummer Night’s Dream Goes Wrong if they’re looking for ideas). In the meantime, do try and see ‘Peter Pan Goes Wrong’ or ‘The Play Goes Wrong’- we could all use a little bit of Mischief in our lives.

The Play That Goes Wrong is at the Duchess Theatre in London, booking until September. Peter Pan Goes Wrong is touring nationally until July.

A few thoughts on Schiele

Schiele pic

My relationship with Schiele goes back to university- in the house I shared in my second year, we had a print of one of his pictures of his wife on our living room wall. She made a silent fourth to our household of three. I’ve loved Schiele ever since- so the realisation that the Courtauld Gallery’s exhibition ‘Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude’ was closing at the end of this week led to the panic buying of tickets. And it was worth the effort- it’s a compelling exhibition, full of works which are both beautiful and unsettling.

Perhaps the most disturbing works are the earliest ones – the pregnant woman, reduced to little more than a swollen abdomen and a blank mask-face; the work titled (probably by a dealer rather than Schiele himself) ‘The Sick Girl’, which shows a nude pre-pubescent girl. You can imagine the moral panic the Daily Mail and others would descend into if a modern artist dared to produce such an image, but what’s most disturbing about this picture is not the girl’s nudity, but the weird blank eyes that stare out at the viewer, and the way it looks like she’s started to eat her own hands. Comforting art, this is not.

Then there are the self-portraits, in which Schiele captures every sharp elbow and jutting hip bone of his angular, almost emaciated body with his ruthless and brilliant draughtsmanship. These works feel deeply self-loathing. The one in which he strikes an almost conventional art-school pose feels like he’s not only questioning artistic ideals but testing himself against an ideal of masculinity and finding himself wanting.

In the Vienna episode of his rather excellent series ‘Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds’ Dr James Fox discusses a nude Schiele self portrait – which doesn’t feature in this exhibition- and describes it as a ‘portrait of isolation and despair’, and it’s a phrase that applies equally well to the works in the Courtauld’s exhibition.

By contrast with the harshness he metes out to himself, Schiele’s depiction of the female nude is celebratory- maybe even feminist. Even as they hitch up their skirts and display their genitalia – like they’re exposing the hypocrisy of fin-de-siècle Vienna – these women are not passive playthings for men. Even in the most conventionally sensual and erotic poses, Scheile’s women have a self-possession about them. Perhaps this was part of the reason that contemporaries found Schiele’s nudes so disturbing that they prosecuted him for obscenity.

However, despite this reaction, by 1918, Schiele’s reputation was growing- and his style still developing. But here, the exhibition ends abruptly. Schiele died of Spanish flu in that year. His wife Edith – the red haired woman who looked down on me during that year at university – succumbed to the same disease three days before him, while pregnant with their child. (but be quick, it closes on Sunday)

Theory of Everything: Why Eddie Redmayne deserves his Golden Globe (but let’s not forget Felicity Jones).


After watching this film, I’m doing a bit of mental re-filing. I’m moving Eddie Redmayne out of the ‘cute magazine-fodder’ category, and re-filing him under ‘proper serious actor’.

Playing a cultural icon like Stephen Hawking (he’s even been on The Simpsons, for God’s sake) cannot be an easy task for an actor, and Eddie Redmayne nails it.

Redmayne’s performance also looked spot on to someone who has actually met Hawking. I saw this film with my husband, former ITV News Science Editor Lawrence McGinty, who has interviewed Hawking twice. The first occasion was in the late eighties, about the point where the film ends. He says he was struck at the time by the way Hawking used his eyebrows (the only part of his face he could still fully control) to communicate. Redmayne, he says, gets this spot on. (By the time of the second interview, last year, even that mobility had gone).

We’re so used to seeing Stephen Hawking in his wheelchair, and to hearing him speaking with his electronic voice that we’re perhaps inclined to forget that he hasn’t always been that way- and to forget- or never consider- the effect his deterioration must have had on those around him. That’s essentially the story this film tells.

But of course, this isn’t just Stephen’s story- the film is based on a book by his first wife Jane, and – despite my tendency to it as ‘that Stephen Hawking film’- it’s as much a portrait of a marriage-from its inception to its disintegration – as a biography of a famous scientist. And while most the buzz around this film has – deservedly – centred on Redmayne (and if he doesn’t win an Oscar, something has gone wrong) it would be wrong to forget Felicity Jones, who plays Jane.

Although her role is obviously less physically challenging, it’s a beautiful, subtle performance, which keeps Jane at the heart of the story. History tends to forget the wives of famous men, so it’s good that this film shows us some of Jane’s struggles, as she tries to be wife, mother and carer, and maintain an intellectual life of her own as well.

There’s also a strong supporting cast, including David Thewlis as Hawking’s tutor, and Maxine Peake as the nurse who will eventually become Hawking’s second wife.

You may be thinking that with subject matter like this, this film could be depressing at best, and relentless grim at worst, but it isn’t. While it’s true that you would need to be hard hearted to get through it without feeling at least a little teary at some point (this is not a film to wear mascara to), it’s also a very warm film. The script, by Anthony McCarten is witty, and does a great job of capturing Hawking’s famous sense of humour, which Eddie Redmayne referred to in his Golden Globes acceptance speech.

So, if you really want to see a film about black holes, this may not be for you- but if you want a well shot, well-acted and very human story- which just happens to feature black holes- do go and see this.

PS- One of the recurrent themes in this film is the conflict between Jane’s faith and Hawking’s atheism. It ends with him allowing a possible space for God in his theory of the universe – if you want to see how his thinking has developed since then, have a look at this piece I produced for Science Correspondent Tom Clarke while I was working at Channel 4 News: ). It features a cartoon Hawking punching God. Honestly.

How I learned to stop worrying and love Rubens

Rubens pic for blog

I’ve never really got Rubens. In my mental National Gallery (everyone should have one) I’ve always put him in that irritating section you have to walk through to get between the delights of the Renaissance and the Turners. You know what I mean – huge, overblown canvases in massive gold frames, featuring rollicking gods and massive women. (Ah, yes, the women. We’ll come back to them later.)

So I almost didn’t bother with ‘Rubens: An Extra Large Story’ on BBC2 the other night – especially as it was billed as Waldemar Januszczak’s attempt to transform us into ‘Rubens people’. But I was feeling cultural, and I do enjoy a bit of Waldemar, so I settled down to watch, albeit thinking, ‘No chance, mate.’ As he started the programme by reading out previous opinions on Rubens, I was definitely on the side of William Blake, who described Rubens as depicting ‘fleshy pink gods doing silly things.’

But, then…as Januszczak pointed out, in this case the camera definitely helps. As it zooms in, suddenly you can see the actual painting, rather than being over whelmed by the size and subject matter. And it’s good. It’s even subtle- not a word I’d ever associated with Rubens before.

And then there are the famous fleshy women… Well, on closer inspection (another thing the camera is good for) they’re not actually that fat. Yes, they’re not alabaster-smooth Classical female nudes, but they’re not grossly obese either. They’re a bit flabby, a bit cellulitey, sure, but essentially, they’re normal women- which may of course be why so many people have had an issue with them over the years. Not only that, but they’re painted beautifully, and with admiration- there’s none of the point and laugh viciousness of modern celebrity magazines in Rubens’ depictions of female flesh. This is especially true of the gorgeous portrait of his second wife Helene Fourment wearing a fur wrap- which I’ve had a soft spot for ever since I accidentally came across it in Vienna a few years ago.

OK, Waldemar, you win. You can stop now.

Actually, I’m glad he didn’t , because the rest of the programme was fascinating as well. His later landscapes – painted during his ‘retirement’ (after a career as a courtier and diplomat- another aspect of Rubens’ I wasn’t aware of before) to a country estate outside Antwerp, were a revelation.

So, it looks as though the Royal Academy’s Rubens exhibition will be on my list of must- sees for this year after all.


Picture: Peter Paul Rubens, Pan and Syrinx, 1617.

Oil on panel. 40 x 61 cm. Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel. Photo: Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister/Ute Brunzel. Exhibition organised by the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Royal Academy of Arts, London, and BOZAR (Centre for Fine Arts), Brussels..