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THIS PIECE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED BY THE MAIL & GUARDIAN. CONTACT ALEX: DODD.

 

 

 

MESSING WITH THE MAD KING

Will the Take‑Away Shakespeare Co will be living up to the consumer‑friendliness of its name with a dramatically edited version of King Lear at this year's festival? And why mess with the master? Director James Whyle gives us an in on the logic behind his Lear.

 

Men in tights and lots of makeup speaking iambic pentameter in an imaginary English accent is not entertainment. It is a perverse act of colonization ‑ audience torture at it's worst. Antony Sher, aware of the problem, played Titus Andronicus as a right wing Afrikaner in his 199? National Theatre/Market Theatre co-production.  Sher and director Greg Doran raised  the crucial question: How do South Africans claim ownership of Shakespeare so that to watch his plays is to joyfully recognize themselves?

 

Once asked, the question took on the resonance of mystery. It hung there like a hairy route on the north face of a Himalayn peak, a question ready to release a little adrenalin in the answering. Sean Taylor and I would knock it around over herbal tea, daring ourselves to mount an assault on the face. In the end I did a cut of the first act and we made a few calls but noone bit.

 

Then, last year, I was approached by Lynne Maree, Project Consultant at the Johannesburg Civic Theatre. She was interested in doing a season of staged readings of classic plays. I immediately suggested  Lear. Energized by Lynne's passion, I did further work on the text, eventually arriving at a version that could be performed (with some doubling) by eleven performers in 100 minutes.

 

The reading, we agreed afterwards, worked. Encouraged by a passionate review by the late Raeford Daniel, Maree, Taylor and myself formed the The Take‑Away Shakespeare Co to get the Lear project into a theatre. Our aim , we decided on the spur of the moment, was to make classical theatre as attractive to South Africans as a burger and chips after a long swim in the Atlantic. But the mechanics of such a mission were not immediately forthcoming. Sher's question haunted. How could the master be metamorphosed from an instrument of cultural torture into a thing of joy, a mirror for South Africans to rejoice in? But if  we want to recognize ourselves, said the voice of logic, let us dress like ourselves and speak in our own accents. No rocket science needed. But what about location? What does one do with "The Earl of Gloucester's Castle"?

 

Well, why not make like Shakespeare. He was writing ‑ wherever his plays might be set ‑ to reflect his own contemporary society. He therefore let his audience build the good Earl's Castle in their own heads any damn way they pleased. He would offer no sign of it on stage to impede their recongintion.

 

As we live in an age of television, why not have the cast on stage all the time, allowing them to step into scenes with cinematic swiftness. Let them, like the audience, build the settings,  geographical and societal, in their heads. Perhaps by this process we could take possession of the narrative, telling a story which resonates powerfully for a South African audience. Perhaps the audience would experience Herman Charles Bosman’s “recognizing blues.”

 

That in any even is the theory. As I write, we have yet to step onto Sarah Robert’s extraordinary set. I know that her simple and savage arena  will challenge and aid us.  Our soundscape sculptor, Jahn Beukes, has yet to add his layer of Sound.  Wesley France’s lighting plot is still in his head with William Kentridge’s Opera in Holland. We begin rehearsals in five days. I had a call from Sean this morning. He said he was scared and I said: “Good. I’m scared often.”  The mad King’s story looms, beautiful and challenging as K2, Changabang, Everest.

 

* The Take‑Away Shakespeare Co's King Lear at the Civic on Thursday July 23. It stars Sean Taylor as Lear

Jennifer Steyn as Cordelia and Fool, Annamart van der Merwe as Regan, Helene Lombard as Goneril and Greg Melville‑Smith as Kent.

 


Note - David Butler has joined the cast to replace Antony Bishop who is suffering from an excess shopping and fucking.

 

ENDS ...

 

INCLUDED WAS THE FOLLOWING REWIEW BY THE LATE RAEFORD DANIEL. TO HIM, MUCH THANKS. FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE CITIZEN IN 1997.

 

“Stunning Reading of Lear”

By Raeford Daniel - the Citizen:

“This is the first in a series of staged readings of classic works for the theatre, designed to make them accessible to audiences in the new South Africa in a way that is both financially feasible and readily comprehensible.  To this effect the text of the great Shakespearean tragedy had been modified, and judiciously pruned by the director, James Whyle, who has in the process, sacrificed Burgundy, Curran and sundry other minor characters.

 

I admit that I approached the project with a degree of apprehension. However noble the intention was the exercise not going to prove an instance of throwing the baby out with the bath water? My fears were groundless. The production for all its austerity (or because of it) was quite stunning, with performances that were not only crisp and lucid, but couched in tones with which even the least initiated would be able to relate.

 

This does not means that a whit of ambience and poetic grandeur was lost. Sean Taylor’s reading of the name part, for instance, had the vocal strength, robust attack and virtuoso breadth of an Olivier, while Helene Lombard, as Goneril, Anna-Mart van der Merwe, as Regan, and Jennifer Steyn, doubling as Cordelia and the Fool, were at one with him in the orchestration of voices.

 

Even those of the cast who did not aspire to the manner traditionally expected gave performances so intelligent and compelling that they both captured and clarified the requisite mood. Particularly impressive were the shading of intonation effected by Deon Stewardson as the traduced Gloucester. Stephen Jennings’ reading of his treacherous bastard son, Edmund, might have been fashioned for a modern drama and was none the worse for that. It was a masterstroke of understatement delivered with an appropriate air of conspiracy. I liked too, Anthony Coleman’s quietly considered Edgar, Greg Melville-Smith’s staunchly loyal, exiled Kent, telling disguised as a peasant with only a change of headgear of facilitate the change...”

 

 

 

 

 

The essential Bard writ tenderly

 

Mary Jordan loudly applauds a rich and original interpretation of King Lear.

Business Day - Afterhours.  July 31 - 1998.

 

This is the very best sort of Shakespearean production. James Whyle has pared down the huge, flawed pyramid of King Lear to the essential story-line of two men who are unwise and foolish in their treatment and knowledge of their children.  Although this is a tale of wrong-doing, disaster and defeat, Whyle’s script and casting - what Coleridge would have called “the activity of his attention” - enriches our sense of life’s possibilities.

 

Here is the sheer originality of the creative mind calling forth a corresponding virility from players and audience.

 

For Whyle puts the essential Bard in the forefront of his drama. He shows how good triumphs, yet also demonstrates how the energies of nature themselves contribute to the sense of life and renewal. He has condensed the action into ninety minutes, in a simplification which carefully analyses motive and makes a distinction between varying degrees of nastiness and guilt.

 

With great honesty and skill, Whyle delivers a superbly rich and tender interpretation of a searing study of the destructive zeal of love. Then, in a thought-provoking move to challenge the traditional mind set of the purist, he combines the roles of Cordelia and the Fool (Jennifer Steyn) and the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany (David Butler). Thus a woman is called upon to remain firm as a rock while Lear disintegrates, inspiring him with wit and judgement; and one man is husband to both Regan and Goneril. When the aristocratic Earl of Kent (Greg Melvill-Smith) and Edgar (Antony Coleman) are on the run and driven to disguise, Whyle has them assume our local  idiom, and pointedly takes advantage of Shakespeare’s seriously meant punning. This is done to such good effect that the atmosphere is suddenly lightened and the impact of the vernacular becomes relevant and immediate.

 

Visual and spectacular appeal come in the masterly set design by internationally acclaimed local artist, Sarah Roberts. She has innate intelligence, and her gift lies in the way she craftily signals plot, intention and resolution.

 

Techniques may change, but grand themes do not. Whether in a murder trial, a bullfight, a farce like Charley’s Aunt, or a tragedy like King Lear, the behaviour of a human being at the end of his tether is the common denominator of all drama. To play the flawed king, to  reveal the agony of a mind in torment, to depict the bruised, individual soul, is the ambition of every serious actor. Sean Taylor besieges the part with the technical apparatus of a mellifluous voice, which gives him the ability to resist lightning, and to veer from transcendent silliness to aching desolation. He fights to keep his foothold on the tiny ledge that stands between him and madness: veins knotted, red in the face. When he comes to die on a stage already corpse-strewn, Taylor makes Lear’s passing different in kind, larger and wiser than the rest.

 

Watching Lear’s mind unhinge, Goneril (Helene Lombard) and Regan (Anna-Mart van de Merwe) react to his speeches with sparkling looks and gestures. Yet surely those scheming daughters were far too clever to reveal what they were thinking? Demonstrating that affection which does not bargain or make conditions, Melvill-Smith and Coleman are simply superb.

 

Whyle’s Shakespeare has a toughness and actuality about it. It is rammed with life, dramatically effective, compressed, fluid, subtle and exact. See it.

 

ENDS.

 

King Lear - A Storm of Applause

by Catherine Knox, Cue Writer.

 

Sean Taylor’s King Lear swept a tempest of emotions through a 300 strong audience, whipping up a storm of applause last night.

 

In what could prove to be the most powerful single performance of the entire Festival, he orchestrated the maelstrom of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy through its “dark and vicious places”  and out into cathartic light.

 

His very big, very dark voice colours the poetry magnificently. The hideous rashness of power abused, an orgy of rage, the tenderness of unconditional love ad the humble courtesy that reveals nobility when all else is pared away... chiaroscuro in sound, colour and action exquisitely handled by an actor who, last night, was a giant among men.

 

Advance notices had suggested that was to be a reduced takeaway Lear, but director James Whyle laid on a banquet.

 

Even before the action began, Sarah Robert’s richly evocative set conveyed complex layers of meaning. Great sweeping curves with panels of rich stained colour contrasting with cool and adamant marble; circles with fractured maps and cracked paving suggesting the orbs of God, earth, the mind and the eye, created a confident and consistent geometric metaphor.

 

Suitably dwarfed by Taylor’s magnificence, the remainder of the cast created rounded, complex and engagingly visualised characters.

 

Anna-Mart van der Merwe’s Regan and Helene Lombard’s Goneril could have stepped right out of Sandton Square, so virtual was their reality as rich bitches.

 

Stephen Jennings in the key role of Edmund might work a tab on his diction, but his snub-nosed Baywatch handsomeness added a sardonic spin to the snide cracks about the illegitimacy of this blot on the Gloucester escutcheon.

 

Jennifer Steyn shone in her enormously effective doubling as Cordelia and the Fool.

 

There was plenty of good old bardic bawdy spice up with the ambiguously sexual romping of king and clown.

 

Keeping the actors all on stage all the time was an efficient way of handling the many scene changes in the play - exaggerated by the fact that the text was cut by half - but towards the end some transitions were clumsy.

 

Economic sound effects were provided by a drummer offside who also intoned the terse instructions of the the original text: Gloucester’s Castle etc. This worked with the constant presence of the actors and the stylised stress on role-playing as a reminder that the event was a construction. This absence of trickery and technical magic only served to emphasise the real power of the real emotions shared by actors and audience.

 

Taylor wept visibly at several points, and mine was not the only moist eye when Lear and Cordelia were reunited.

 

ENDS.

 

TAYLOR BRILLIANT IN ROBUST KING LEAR

Terry Herbst - Eastern Province Herald.

 

Men in tights and makeup speaking iambic pentameter in an imaginary English accent is not entertainment.

 

So says James Whyle, whose capricious comment will ruffle purist feathers, but this astute man, who abridged and directed the Bard’s vast and unwieldy work with an intelligent grasp certainly has a point.

 

And to prove it, he literally dresses the sprawling play in different clothes and cheekily allows the unwashed masses to appreciate the work’s immense power in half the time it normally takes to unfold.

 

His commanding production sweeps away a barnacled tradition to offer an tragi-comedy full of tempestuous paradox that has as much validity and contemporary value as it did when its creator was at the peak of his literary brilliance.

 

Whyle was lucky to find an actor of the calibre of Sean Taylor to cast in the daunting role of the ruler whose evil, manipulative daughters send him headlong into madness. Taylor doesn’t just play the part, he illuminates it. And his multi-layered reading of the role take him perilously close to unequivocally shaking hands with greatness.

 

The division of the kingdom was invested with majesty and power, and the storm scene gave Taylor the opportunity to peak - which he does with a controlled discipline that is mind boggling.

 

He is supported by a disciplined company, with Jennifer Steyn’s trousered Cordelia heading the acting honours, and putting Goneril in a miniskirt and Regan in a floor-length evening gown encourages an additional interest. Greg Melvill-Smith’s reading of Kent has the making of the great stuff of theatre, as does Deon Stewardson’s Gloucester.

 

And intriguing device was keeping the entire cast on stage all the time, and getting a mere 11 performers to relate the familiar tragedy was a directorial master stroke. The production is a fine example of how imaginative staging and robust performing can work without a detailed, box set. All this production offers in the way of props is a chair that doubles as a table and the stocks - and that’s all it needed.

 

The spoken word is what matters, and this company has the priceless gift of making the language tangible.

 

 

A Take Away “Lear” that is Taylor-made.

Robert Greig - Sunday Independent.

2 August 1998

 

The Take Away Shakespeare Company’s Lear began as a staged reading about a year ago. On a chilly Saturday, with the actors remaining on stage between calls, the play was staged with intense concentration. The acting was relaxed and detached - the performers stood alongside their roles: one had a clear sense of process as well as action. It was Brechtian: intense, rich, lucid and unfussy. One left exalted.

 

Part of this was because of Sean Taylor’s Lear; a passionate centre to the production, and that impact remains. Once one accepts for the sake of argument that a king as virile as Taylor’s should also be capricious enough to give away his kingdom, holding on to the trappings of royalty - power sharing NP-style - then the logic of the play follows.

 

Taylor turns the improbability into a fundamental of the character. He gives self-destructively and manipulatively because Lear is a man who fundamentally unsure of himself. He needs to test his relationships. Cordelia (Jennifer Steyn) won’t be accomplice in his games.

 

Taylor’s performance is densely layered.  The character has something of a fool about him. At the same time, in Taylor’s performance is furtive intelligence. The king is watching himself destroy himself: he is not quite in his actions, but performing them. The tragedy of Lear becomes the collapse of all the distances between himself and his acts. Playing the fool, he becomes a fool. He plays Lear with deceptive energy, vocal and physical. The voice, with its rumbling resonance, curls round the stage, like an embrace and like a whip. His head sinks into his shoulders: he watches from distant recesses of consciousness , then, quick as a snake, flashes out. His Lear is never quite there: in a sense, his wandering on a blasted heath becomes a metaphor for the character’s lack of centre. That delicate nuance in direction and performance is the production’s great accomplishment.

 

We talk much about making Shakespeare relevant. I’ve been bored by well meaning actors and promoters calling for productions that will “reach younger people.” Persuade some large imaginary mass that Shakespeare is painless. Usually these discussions are under-pinned by cultural self-hatred that underestimates audience and text.

 

What Taylor’s performance says, incontrovertibly, is that in the final analysis, the gimmicks - and they usually are external gimmicks - of where one sets the plays and how one cuts them are really only useful rehearsal techniques to be exhausted in rehearsal. What reaches the audience is hard-won creative insights of the kind that Whyle and Taylor achieve here.

 

This Lear has succumbed to cultural self-hatred in that it is brutally cut and disjointed. Often the performances are actory - without the relaxed informality of the reading.

 

For all that it is provocative in it’s approach. The doubling of parts - Jennifer Steyn playing Cordelia and the Fool  - is pregnant with possibility. Sometimes the doubling is confusing but I suspect that is a function of the compression. I turn, that is a function of dumbing down.

 

This Lear is important as a production and as an event. Here is a cast of some of our finest actors, Anna Mart van der Merwe, David Butler, Stephen Jennings, Greg Melvill-Smith, Antony Coleman - going back to basics in a time of limited funding. I didn’t agree with the production’s approach and its lack of plainness. But I admired and was stimulated by the experiments.

ENDS.

 

 

 

HAIL THE KING

GARALT MACLIAM - THE STAR.

 

...so real that one is swept into a storm of emotion, as the mind rushes from one duplicitous betrayal to another.

 

In today’s society, how many heads of families, while still living, would be naive enough to give their offspring all their power and wealth? A recipe for disaster, you might say, especially if you have to rely on those children to care for you, continue to obey you and finance whatever outlandish whims you might have.

 

That, of course, is the basis of Shakespeare’s King Lear and given James whyle’s updating of the work, including modern dress, neutral settings, a Lear who is still in the prime of life and much cutting of the text, it’s a plot that, to this cynical observer of life, is ludicrous in the extreme, but it’s still magnificent theatre.

 

Sean Taylor is a robust, virile king, in the full flower of manhood, with regal voice and bearing and the attitude of a modern-day captain of industry who will brook no opposition. He will cast aside friends of family if they oppose him, and he will shower love and riches on those who toady to his baser instincts. It’s all so very human and, in Taylor’s hands, a pleasure to see, as he struts the stage majestically and proclaims on the future.  In this instance, of course, it is his desire to divide his kingdom in three, with a third going to each of his daughters, Goneril (Helene Lombard), Regan (Anna-Mart van de Merwe) and Cordelia (Jennifer Steyn).

 

One of the problems of the production, certainly, I would think for non-aficionados of this Shakespearean work, would come when Steyn, a noble and striking Cordelia, also has to double in the key role of the Fool and this with only the barest change in costume.

 

The same confusion might attach itself to David Butler and Shane Howarth: the first is husband to both Regan and Goneril, as Cornwall and Albany, respectively, and the second is King of France and doubles as Oswald, the wicked Goneril’s steward.

 

That aside, the characterisations become so deliciously real and the words so affecting that one is swept into a storm of emotion, as the mind rushes, helter-skelter, from on duplicitous betrayal to another.

 

There is, too, delight in the imagery created by this forceful group of actors, each of whom has her/his moment to shine under Whyle’s imaginative direction.

 

Stephen Jennings plays his role as the bastard son of Gloucester as a true bastard, possibly with mafia connections. Deon Stewardson captures Gloucester’s wavering morality and judgement perfectly. Lombard’s Goneril is kugel deluxe and fiery vixen. Van der Merwe is a devious, lustful matron who runs one step behind her more mentally agile sister. Antony Coleman and Greg Mellvill-Smith are the stalwarts who want to defend family, king and country.

 

The mood is enhanced by Jahn Beukes’ accompaniment on percussion and by Sarah Roberts’ evocative set, and all in all it’s a memorable production with memorable performances.

 

ENDS

 

 

Reeling towards Redemption

Charl Blignaut

On Stage in Johannesburg

Mail & Guardian - August  7 - 13, 1998

 

Saturday night at the Civic and the auditorium is packed with pupils from a prestigious high school for boys. They shift restlessly in their seats, now and then rudely awakened by a tremendous flurry of drums as Sean Taylor’s explosive Lear swaggers across the stage, slipping from malcontent to madness, reeling towards redemption.

 

It’s an incredible performance, classic Taylor. You can almost taste his relish as he devours the beast within Lear, sucking meat off the maddened king’s bones with a smack of his lips; knocking the order of the Elizabethan universe out of whack like a tenpin strike spraying skittles.

 

Hell, any schoolkid that sleeps through that storm scene has got some serious domestic problems. Even so, it’s not just the drums that are keeping them awake.

 

In a sense this audience is the perfect litmus test for director James Whyle. The great schoolkid Shakespeare test. If he and his Take Away Shakespeare Company can bring King Lear home to this crowd then they will have done their job.

 

His players are seated in rows along each side of the intimate stage, nipping in and out of scenes and doubling roles. With a characteristic lack of  preciousness, whyle has pared the text down and stripped it bare of finery, using a single table-cum-throne-cum-stocks-cum-cave as a prop. He has localised the accents, done away with most of the costumes and thankfully brought it in a 90 minutes. It works more often than it doesn’t.

 

When Lear works it is as if the company are colluding with the audience; we’ll get to the bottom of this bitch, Whyle is saying, in so doing drawing considerable fresh meaning from the text. If the brazen class clown sitting in front of me had bothered to keep his mouth shut for a moment, he may have noticed that he was getting a good dozen English lit lesson for the price of one.

 

In Whyle’s Lear, the best lines are made even better; the performances are elevated (Jennifer Steyn quietly matching Taylor stride for stride). The play’s logic is expertly revealed: the bawdy comes through like a sitcom.

 

Human desire, political power games, gender confusion, sibling rivalry. These aspects of society haven’t changed. If anything has changed it’s  language. This Whyle has chosen to retain and if there’s any incoherence in his approach it’s the outmoded Shakespearean English blocking this quest for the contemporary.

 

And sure I missed the gorgeous pictures that the text inspires; the mystic weirdness of the walk in the woods; the beautiful duality of costumed disguises; the blood and gore. But that’s the price you pay for clarity.

 

ENDS.

 

 

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