Monday, April 25, 2016

The James Plays (The Lowry, Salford Quays)

Who needs William Shakespeare or George R R Martin when we've got Rona Munro? By focusing on the lives of three lesser-known Scottish kings, Munro has tapped into the current zeitgeist for sword and sorcery, blood and guts, and heart-in-mouth political skulduggery made popular by Game of Thrones.

It's easy to compare The James Plays with Martin's world-conquering book and TV series (something the publicity does with glee), but the fact is, the stories told in these plays are scarier and more thrilling because it's all true. It actually happened. And like so many periods in British history, it's much more interesting than fiction.

Munro has chosen not to write biographies of these three men, but rather zoom in on a particular aspect or period in their life stories, and dramatise and expand upon it to astounding effect. The first play, James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock, is probably the most satisfying of the trilogy, telling the story of how James I went from being a boy prisoner of the English King Henry V, to crowned King of Scots. James learnt a lot from his upbringing in the English court, and wished to use this knowledge and education to reform Scotland. His ideas for reformed governance and taxation were modeled on what he'd seen working in England, but it took some convincing of the Scottish clansmen and lairds to adopt these new systems. Dictating that collected rents and taxes should pass to the royal household rather than the landowners was a highly controversial move, and made James few friends. His attempts to broker peace between the warring landowners was doomed from the start, but at least this idealist king tried, purely through a devotion to his homeland.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Cyrano de Bergerac (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

Anybody who nose anything about Cyrano de Bergerac nose that the legendary bon viveur, poet and swordsman had a particularly protuberant proboscis. But woe betide anybody who happens to refer to this aspect of Cyrano's physiognomy, because he's especially sensitive on the subject.

There's a great scene when a visiting Norman baron continually interrupts one of Cyrano's lengthy dictums by forcing the word nose, or derivatives thereof, into the speech. Traditionally, Cyrano would slice this man in half with his rapier without a second thought, but this Norman baron so happens to be the apple of the eye of Cyrano's beautiful cousin Roxane, and so he has to keep that blade sheathed.

Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac is a play purely about love, both proclaimed and unrequited. It is presented here by Theatr Clwyd as a farce, as well as a comedy, as well as a tragedy. It has its tongue firmly in its cheek, and Phillip Breen's production leans heavily on the humour, but this wayward lack of stylistic focus sometimes works against it. When it's funny, it does its job well, and the cast are obviously having a whale of a time. But when the play calls upon the audience to take these characters seriously, that earlier lack of sincerity can make it harder to engender genuine empathy. These people are amusing buffoons and histrionic cyphers, although despite this, there were still a few teary eyes in the house when the lights went up.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Ceirw: A Savage Hart (Pontio, Bangor)

The ceaseless battle between Mankind and Mother Nature lies at the heart of the latest production from South Wales-based circus-makers Citrus Arts. But although the team from Citrus has been successfully creating circus-based shows since 2009, this time around they decided to build upon what they do so well by mixing circus with dance, theatre and an arresting aesthetic.

Ceirw: A Savage Hart is the result of years of research and development led by Bridie Doyle-Roberts and her husband James, and is directly inspired by the escapades of the Johnes family of Mid Wales, who owned the Hafod Estate during the 18th century. During research, the family's stories have been conflated into one representative figure, a cruel nobleman who becomes obsessed with his dominance over nature, symbolised by his tireless hunting of wild animals in the grounds of his estate, mounting their heads on the wall of his grand house.