In June, Daniel Evans and Tamara Harvey will take over as artistic director of the RSC. Let’s hope they give it a shot. When I started reviewing for the Observer 25 years ago, the RSC was the standard provider of Shakespeare productions. Since then, the Globe has won hearts, often taking a bolder approach to the plays, as well as staging at the Almeida, Sheffield, the National, the Donmar and Bath’s Ustinov. Productions at Stratford are rarely less than competent, but I can’t remember the last time I left with my heart racing at a performance.
Meanwhile, too much of the surrounding experience – which prepares the audience for what they see onstage – is daunting. Public transport to Stratford-upon-Avon is always a struggle for anyone who doesn’t live nearby, and it’s particularly ironic that it helps to have a car to get to The storm. The climate crisis is one in a blizzard of ideas that threatens to overwhelm Elizabeth Freestone’s output. Tom Piper’s bold tumbled design with recycled plastic, copper-colored drawbridges and a glowing forest makes its own climate case. Still, I’m not convinced that weather disturbance propels the piece as thoroughly as it does A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A jargon-heavy programming essay (“Prospero geo-engineers a storm experience”) made me more skeptical.
The casting of Alex Kingston as Prospero more interestingly shifts the emphasis of the plot to layers of affection and submission. This isn’t a feminist first – Vanessa Redgrave took the role at the Globe more than 20 years ago – but it has a far-reaching effect. Kingston, who draws audiences to him with fervor, is a no-nonsense mother figure, bubbling with warmth: it’s the only time I’ve seen Prospero torn with grief as Ariel flies away. In addition, the most moral of the courtiers is also played by a woman. All fine, except it results in a sentimental goody-baddy split on gender lines. Is a female Caliban impossible? She could still have violently assaulted Miranda.
There are standout performances from Jamie Ballard (Antonio), who crumbles into himself with evil intent, and Heledd Gwynn’s liquid Ariel – but can you really fly away from servitude while being hoisted by a visible chain? Yet this is a production that exposes The storm as, for all its terrifying lines, one of Shakespeare’s least compelling plays; the first few minutes of a quick plot recap are enough to make you wonder if he knew how to make drama. Perhaps the new artistic directors can take the disjointed backstory out of the performance and incorporate it instead into what I hope will be reconsidered, redesigned programs.
The RSC has to prove it is essential, not least because it is funded by the Arts Council. Unlike Hampstead Theatre, which was stripped of its subsidy last year, has just put on the most exciting play I’ve seen there in ages. Ruby Thomas based Linck & Mulhahn about the revealing true story of a married couple who were brought to trial in Saxony in 1721, mainly because they had sex with each other. Linck, a former musketeer, was born a girl. Mülhahn’s mother discovered this and sued the couple for sodomy. Linck was executed; Mülhahn, whose defense claimed she had only discovered her lover’s birth sex a year after the marriage, was sentenced to three years in prison.
The contemporary resonance is startling; by pointing this out in dogged, explanatory speeches, Thomas muffles the impact. Take away these speeches and the evening sparkles and disrupts under the direction of Owen Horsley. The dialogue is laced with Austen-style sharpness: “I’m not lurking,” the mother laments, “I’m lingering.” The trial scene is as cartoonishly funny as it is disturbing. Maggie Bain (in military pants) and Helena Wilson (on shift) make the love story both robust and tender. The 21st century erupts into the 18th with clashing idioms and music in which the ripples of the harpsichord outnumber the explosions of rock – as if the pair were ahead of themselves. Matt Daw’s lighting strips the color from the condemned couple, turning them bone white. Simon Wells’ clever design of semi-translucent screens spins around, as if to say, here we are, back in the same place, centuries later. No wonder Peter Tatchell stood on his feet at the end and exclaimed, “Superb!”
If something, The Lehman Trilogy has grown heavier and more menacing since its first performance in 2018. The original marvel of Sam Mendes’ production of Stefano Massini’s play, adapted by Ben Power, was the astute economics that charted the history of American capitalism through the fate of a Jewish family. That’s right in this revival.
Es Devlin’s transparent box design – “the magical music box called America” - rotates as the action moves from 1844 to 2008, while Yshani Perinpanayagam, as if accompanying a silent movie, echoes the Lehman journey from Bavaria to Alabama to New York in piano music. , beginning and ending with a Yiddish lullaby. Luke Halls’ video captures the larger landscapes as the family business transforms from fabric seller to investment bank: plantations, burning fields, Civil War-ravaged acres, the New York skyline. All over the stage are the familiar cardboard boxes employees were carrying when Lehman collapsed.
Crucially, three actors—barely adapting Katrina Lindsay’s austere costumes—become a myriad of characters, multigenerational, trailblazing, gender-defying. Michael Balogun, Hadley Fraser and Nigel Lindsay change as ingeniously as the first cast. They are the three Bavarian brothers and they are their American descendants. With a bend of the waist and wrist, a simper or a glance (this is a male-oriented show) they become their wives; with a howling or trembling voice they turn into their children; a dying man turns into the doctor who tends to him.
I still wish the piece gave a clear explanation of Lehmans’ final implosion. What is strongly suggested is a gradual erosion of values as the business moves from trading commodities to trading money: from stuff to symbol. Where better than a theater to show how an illusion can captivate and faith be instilled through a confident presentation: “Trust me, I’m an actor.”
Star ratings (out of five)
The storm ★★★
Linck and Mulhahn ★★★
The Lehman Trilogy ★★★★