Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, at the Gielgud Theatre, is an enjoyable, boisterous, bawdy romp that is certainly not for the prudish. The RSC is using a new, much condensed and highly accessible translation by Mike Poulton, which captures the racy idiom of the original rhyming couplets. The lively and inventive production by Gregory Doran, Rebecca Gatward and Jonathan Munby matches the variety and energy of the pilgrims and their tales with a wide range of theatrical styles. The production is spread over two performances.
High spots include the pageantry of a tournament with knights on horseback and a hilarious bed-swapping farce. The rough-and-tumble of the farmyard is portrayed with a cast of puppets and with actors providing sound effects. The actors look as if they have stepped out of the Ellesmere manuscript and the costumes are as bright and spotlessly clean as those in a Book of Hours. There is a delightful self-deprecating performance by Mark Hadfield as Chaucer. One of the best jokes is that Chaucer tells such a boring story that he is not allowed to finish it. Here the doggerel is given a buzz by being delivered in rap style.
Brian Stewart’s Killing Castro is based on a CIA meeting in 1960 in which four men have a brainstorming session on how to assassinate Fidel Castro during his visit to the United Nations. Can it ever be morally right to murder a ruthless despot? An assassination primer published at the time said that people who are morally squeamish should not attempt it.
The extraordinary thing about Killing Castro is that all the ridiculous ideas – such as exploding cigars and poisoned socks – are based on documented fact. It’s like watching a documentary rather than a play. It’s the sort of timely satire you would expect to find in a fringe theatre rather than on a commercial touring circuit. Clive Mantle as a roughneck does not need to do quite so much acting and the dialogue which attempts to turn him into a World War Two hero is so phoney it should be cut.
Samuel Beckett was so obsessed with the pronunciation, tone and emphasis of every single word of his text that he put a dreadful strain on his actors. He wrote Eh Joe?, which lasts only 25 minutes, for the Irish actor Jack MacGowran, and it was first performed on television in 1966. MacGowran described it as the most exhausting Beckett play he had ever acted.
Joe, a faithless lover, sits on his bed in his pyjamas and dressing gown, saying nothing, listening to the nagging female whisperings in his head. In this latest stage version at the Duke of York Theatre a camera is trained on Michael Gambon’s face and the image is then thrown on to a screen which fills the whole height of the proscenium arch. This allows the audience to study in detail the reactions of a guilty conscience. It might have been interesting to put a camera on the audience and study their reactions to this overrated monologue.
Angus McBean (19041999), one of the key theatrical photographers of the 20th century, is celebrated with an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and a comprehensive biography by Adrian Woodhouse (£20 Alma Books), which is strictly for theatre buffs. The British Journal of Photography, the official organ of the British Institute of Photography, lambasted his surreal photographs of famous actors when they appeared in Picture Post: “We hardly think it necessary to discuss the possible existence of real artistic value in these surreal efforts. Few will contest our opinion that they haven’t any. We should like to express our regret that a paper which carries much excellent photography should give four heavily illustrated pages of publicity to a feature which, we think, adds nothing to the prestige of photography.” You can go to the Portrait Gallery and judge for yourself. But it is as a theatre historian that McBean will be most useful in the future. He recorded most of the productions in the West End and at Stratford Memorial Theatre in the 1940s and 1950s. It is a pity that neither the exhibition nor the biography includes any pictures from the stage productions.