All entries for February 2011

February 27, 2011

To Will (Freshfest) @ The Dirty Duck, University of Warwick

A quick note about a short production I saw a couple of days ago. To Will was performed as part of a week-long new writing festival organised by Freshblood Theatre, one of Warwick's many student drama societies. I didn't see any programmes, unfortunately, so can't recount the names of the actors, writer or director.

To Will was performed in the snug of the Dirty Duck, the Union's pub. Set on the night of Shakespeare's death, it featured Ben Jonson and Richard Burbage meeting in a pub and drinking to the memory of their friend. The two actors did a decent job; Jonson was bluff, blustering and very drunk; the slighter Burbage was calm, sarcastic and amused by Jonson's self-absorption. At only half an hour long, all that was required of the actors was to keep its audience engaged by their company for the length of a pint; the atmosphere was a convivial and entertaining one.

The play itself smacked of an undergraduate performative dissertation rather than a piece of theatre. The plot, such as it was, essentially strung together anecdotes from Shakespeare's lifetime in a slightly contrived dialogue ("Did I ever tell you about the performance of Richard II we put on for the Earl of Essex?" "No, what happened?" "Well, I'll tell you.." etc.) and basic observations on Shakespeare's dramatic career (Burbage: "I feel he tried to resolve his Hamnet issues in his final plays" and so on). As an excuse to retell a potted biography of Shakespeare in an entertaining format, the play succeeded admirably; but I couldn't help but feel there was plenty of potential for some actual drama - both characters were hampered by the limits of known anecdote, and therefore the play only really came to life on the few occasions when they allowed themselves to respond in more modern terms to the implications of the anecdotes. With two such fantastic characters to play with, it seemed a shame to limit them to "history". In particular, Jonson's invective against actors (which drew suitably ironic laughter in the context of a performance, of course) hinted at some interesting tensions, but these weren't developed.

More interesting to me was the idea of performatively reimagining Shakespearean biography from the point of view of his contemporaries. While this wasn't developed fully here, it's a good and innovative way into revitalising the familiar stories, and contextualising what can often be a self-indulgent and overly-imaginative form of writing into a more sophisticated and socialised form. Shakespeare himself was a shadowy and ambiguous presence in this piece; a far more satisfying evocation of the individual than the conventional biographer's attention to the few sporadic details we have. And theoretically, it's also fitting - Shakespeare's identity was largely constructed posthumously, and this piece allowed us to witness (imaginatively, of course) the very beginnings of this process as Jonson started composing his epitaph for the Folio. Treating this as the beginnings of Shakespeare, before his body was cold, this offered its audience food for thought.

February 24, 2011

Gnomeo and Juliet (Rocket Productions) @ Showcase Cinema, Coventry

Writing about web page

Film versions of Shakespeare are required, one way or another, to confront the docu-real potentiality of the medium in the transition from stage to screen. While a very few choose to exploit the possibilities for historical drama and lush scenography, the heightened language and inevitable familiarity of subject matter more often lead to a self-conscious awareness of the medium, which can be used to great effect (as in Julie Taymor's Titus, Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet et al.). Kelly Asbury's Gnomeo and Juliet fell into the latter camp. Rather than throw viewers directly into the world of the play, the film drew attention to its own inherent performativity and, indeed, theatricality, beginning with a red curtain and the sound of an orchestra tuning up. The Prologue entered to address the audience in modern dialogue, pointing out that the play we are about to see has been performed. A lot. Warning us that the Prologue itself is long and boring, he began to read from an epic scroll, pausing only to glare at the stage hooks protruding from the wings. Finally secure, he continued with the Prologue, until a trapdoor opens and swallowed him whole. Gnomeo and Juliet began.

Okay, I'm clearly having some fun. This was, after all, a computer animated children's film about garden gnomes, with a loose nod to Shakespeare. It was also produced by Elton John, who provided the soundtrack - thus, drag races were conducted to Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting; a date-preparation montage (with cute 80s stylisations) was underscored with Don't Go Breaking My Heart; and Stephen Merchant's gawky artist Paris transmuted into John himself as he serenaded Juliet with Your Song.

Asbury's film transplanted the action to a Stratford-upon-Avon back yard, split between house 2B and a house that is emphatically not '2B', owned by the elderly Miss Montague (Julie Walters) and Mr. Capulet (Richard Wilson, in a clear nod to his One Foot in the Grave role) respectively. This bickering couple insulted each other cordially over the garden fence, before leaving for the day in their Minis, honking furiously at one another. Once gone, their garden ornaments came to life in a playful feud over gardening (both gardens grew appropriately hued flowers) which escalated as the film went on - competitive lawnmower races, late night graffiti raids, then later all out carnage.

To Be Or Not To Be

Against this were set James McAvoy's Gnomeo and Emily Blunt's Juliet. Gnomeo, the only child of Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith, who spoke reverently of her husband "May he rest in pieces") was the golden boy of the Blues, the champion drag-racer and fun-lover. Juliet, meanwhile, was overprotected by her father (the unmistakable Michael Caine) who kept her in a stone fairy castle where she tended flowers. Her ongoing protestation was against being treated as "delicate" and mewed up - and the extremely effective CG-rendering of the ceramic characters made their fragility a real threat. Juliet's ninja and kung-fu skills, as well as her easy command of power motors, belied the protectiveness of her father; but, in a surprisingly intelligent reading of the play's situation, the father remained oblivious of her own strength and ultimately resulted to literally gluing her to her castle prison. Retaining her own independent strength while being restrained by implacable forces, the character's entrapment actually served as an effective translation of the text.

Elsewhere, very little of Shakespeare's play was retained. Even "Gnomeo, Gnomeo" was paraphrased in modern language, rather than crowbarring in recognisable Shakespearean dialogue, allowing for a far more consistent text for children. There were neat references for the grown-ups though - Lady Blueberry's cry of "Let slip the dogs of war" was followed by a group of cute stone rabbits appearing in war paint; an angry bulldog was pushed out of the yard with cries of "Out, out" before an offscreen owner shouted "Damn Spot!"; and Gnomeo was ejected from the garden to placations of "Goodnight, sweet prince". The play's setting allowed the film to more explicitly position itself in relation to Shakespeare, however - after Gnomeo was carried off by a dog through the streets of Stratford (I recognised Church Street!), he found himself by Shakespeare's statue. Relating his story to the Bard (Patrick Stewart), Bill countered that the story sounded somewhat familiar, before warning Gnomeo that it would all end in tragedy. This Shakespeare was impersonal however; wrapped up in his own narcissistic love for tragedy, the statue became animated as he imagined the sounds of applause, curtain, and cries for "Author! Author!" at the expense of the angry Gnomeo's feelings.


There was plenty more for the grown-ups too, from the thong-wearing Italian gnome to the gentle double-entendres. I enjoyed picking up on the film in-jokes: obvious visual references to American Beauty (Ashley Jensen's Nanette, a fountain-frog in the Nurse's role, writhing in a bed of roses as Paris's song wooed her) and Grease (an utterly appalling climactic dance sequence, to a hideous remix of Crocodile Rock) were complemented by far more subtle references: one conjoined gnome turned to his partner and said "I wish I could quit you" (Brokeback Mountain); a plastic flamingo re-affixed his leg while saying "One word - Plastic!" (The Graduate); and an underwater sequence following Gnomeo across the bottom of a pond as projectiles whizzed past was a direct steal from the Omaha Beach sequence of Saving Private Ryan. Anyone catch any more?

The simple rewriting of the plot saw Juliet don ninja garb to go and steal a flower from the nearly abandoned Laurence garden, where Gnomeo had fled after a late night graffiti attack on the Red garden in vengeance for his earlier drag race defeat at the hands of the cheating Tybalt (a spectacularly and unambiguously evil Jason Statham). The two met on a greenhouse and immediately engaged in a playful courtship. While on a later date in the garden, they freed the plastic flamingo Featherstone (Jim Cummings, in a very rough approximation of the Friar Laurence role) from a garden shed. As the garden pranks got out of hand, however, Tybalt arranged for the Blues' prize flowers to be cut down. Ordered to take revenge, Gnomeo was caught in the Red garden by Juliet. Featherstone soothed them in his garden by telling his own back story, in which his human owners broke up, resulting in his partner flamingo being packed into a removal fun - other people's hate destroyed his love (an attempt at Toy Story levels of pathos which didn't really manage it, but simple enough). The pink flamingo, fittingly, brought Red and Blue back together, and they agreed to grow a garden together away from their families.

They were caught kissing by Benny (the wonderful Matt Lucas), who ran back across the alleyway towards his own house but was caught by Tybalt, who was waiting for him on his power-mower. Tybalt smashed Benny's hat and threatened to mow down the gnome himself; but Gnomeo gave chase and caused Tybalt to crash his mower and smash into bits (a surprisingly sudden moment of death for a kids film, disappointingly mitigated in the final dance as he reappeared glued together). Gnomeo was chased away, despite Juliet announcing her love for him to her appalled father, and he appeared to be run over by a truck. Juliet was glued to her castle in punishment, while Gnomeo made his pilgrimage to Shakespeare and back again.

Benny became prominent, however, as his vengeance took over. Stealing the old lady's credit card details (to the sounds of Bennie and the Jets, hysterically), he ordered the ultimate mower online - the Terrafirminator, whose advert (voiced by Hulk Hogan) was the absolute comic standout of the film, and should be immediately viewed here. Yet the promised machine went out of control and tore up both gardens, and Gnomeo arrived just in time to offer to die with the imprisoned Juliet. Handily, this being an animated cartoon, everyone survived, although the fate of the lovers was kept hidden long enough for the opposing families to reconcile.

Gnomeo and Juliet

As a run through of the basic plot, it was simple and entertaining, and supported by an eccentric cast of oddities (a Herculean garden gnome; the war rabbits; a fawn voiced by Ozzy Osbourne who served no discernable purpose whatsoever; and a voiceless mushroom called Shroom who followed Gnomeo around. The film's most obvious omission was a Mercutio figure; but by changing the rivalry to a friendly one that descended into one-upmanship, his purpose as a catalyst was no longer needed. The "death" of Tybalt, and the fragility of the gnomes themselves, gave enough of a sense of peril, particularly as the gardens were torn to shreds (this may have been more effective in 3D) to ram home the film's basic message - love is preferable to hate. It's reductive, but then it's also a perfectly justifiable moral to draw for kids from the text.

There's an important place for films like this, which don't aim to introduce kids to Shakespeare and don't try to do something worthy with the text. It's a simple use of recognisable names and tropes to sell a frothy animation that will undoubtedly do great business at the box office. And yet, there was enough wit and intelligence in the script (by, among others, Bunny Suicides legend Andy Riley) to make it a fun evening. Accusations of it bastardising Shakespeare that are circulating the internet seem to miss the point - it's hardly competing with the RSC, and it was fun to see an appropriation of Shakespeare for kids that was neither patronising nor compromised by fruitless gestures towards textual fidelity. As the Terrafirminator blew up, the distant statue of Shakespeare smugly muttered "Told you so", before the film gleefully revived its leads under the neon lights of a Club Tropicana water feature. This wasn't smug art, but it was good, clean fun.

February 18, 2011

Richard II (SAATF) @ The Tobacco Factory

Even though Richard II stands alone as a wonderful, lyrical play, there's something about a good production that leaves you wanting more, in the form of Henry IV. Certainly the play seems to aim at that. Some of the most exciting moments in Andrew Hilton's new production, opening this year's season at the Tobacco Factory, were those hinting towards the future - Matthew Thomas's young Henry IV harumphing at the distant antics of his son; the deliciously brooding Henry Percy (Jack Bannell) kneeling before his new king and pleading allegiance; Richard's warning to John Cording's Northumberland about future ruptures in the alliance. All the main players of the next chapter were political, guarded and threatening; and it's a real shame that we won't get to see them come into their own in the next chapter.

Hilton is expert at creating strong character dynamics, and his political court for Richard II was no exception. Performed in the round, in the intimate low-ceilinged space of the Tobacco Factory's upper room, audience attention was allowed to flit between the locus of power - a high throne at one end of the room - and the reactions of the courtiers, who stood about in groups. On the accusation against Mowbray of Gloucester's death, for example, Richard Neale's bearded Bagot urgently took David Collins's Bushy by the shoulder and whispered in his ear, a clear hint that these men knew more than they were letting on. Cording's Northumberland, with wry smile and firm eyes, watched his companions closely throughout, playing the assorted nobles for everything he could; while Roland Oliver's grizzled York looked sadly at the destruction of the old order. In this formal and tightly-controlled court, human pain could often only be seen in the eyes.

This was also where some of the problems of this well-spoken but conservative production crept in. In focussing on the subtleties, the company left too much unsaid. This was particularly an issue in the case of Bagot, Bushy and Gareth Kennerley's Green. While there were one or two hints of the sycophants' delinquency - a better cut of cloth for their jerkins, a couple of whispered asides - they were played almost entirely as servants loyal to Richard. While it is true that recent productions have gone too far in playing up their lasciviousness, their homosexuality and their treachery, Hilton's production gave no convincing justification for the animosity of the older lords towards the younger generation. Obedient and supportive of Richard, they had no apparent agency of their own; and the only time their characters particularly came through was in their defiance of their execution, delivered in a spirit of righteous nobility. So often a force of action in the play, here Richard's three favourites seemed almost superfluous.

This was also apparent in their relationship with John Heffernan's Richard. He showed no particular interest in them other than the occasional address of inappropriate remarks (particularly those immediately following Gaunt's death); and was far more emotionally invested in Aumerle and Bullingbrooke. The production seemed further concerned to emphasise Richard's heterosexuality, having him repeatedly take his Queen's hand and kiss her passionately (though not hugely effectively) during his progress to prison. Ffion Jolly was rather disappointing in the role, flat and uninteresting, but was ably supported by Kate Kordel's watchful Maid. The women's scenes, like those with the favourites, felt largely superfluous - the Queen's reaction to the Gardeners (played entirely straight, although with a mournful face when the Queen cursed their labour) had few ramifications beyond her own distress, and for the remainder of the play she was a mousy, unobtrusive presence, to the point where Richard's passionate kiss seemed inappropriate and uncharacteristic.

Those were the production's weaknesses, but they were perhaps inevitable in a reading that prioritised the ritual and formal ceremony of the medieval court. Played in period costume, Hilton's company indulged fully in the trappings of the court, particularly in the long preparations for the duel between Bullingbrooke and Paul Currier's Mowbray. In full chain mail, they received broadswords from the Marshal and Aumerle, and went through a series of displays of obsequience before Richard, sat on a high chair among the audience. They got as far as a first swing before Richard interrupted the ceremony, which deteriorated into a whispered emergency committee meeting.

Where the production lacked in emotion and characterisation, it made up for in spades with dignity. Currier, doubling Mowbray and Carlisle, brought a finely-nuanced delivery to both roles, warning ominously and almost weeping as the solitary Carlisle, surrounded by shocked nobles and causing Henry to pause with the crown halfway to his head. Benjamin Whitrow was a similarly impressive Gaunt, delivering his "sceptred isle" speech from a feeble body but with a commanding presence that rendered his words transcendental. The weight given to words characterised the whole production, with characters seemingly conscious of the significance of their actions in the annals of history. This was certainly the case with Paul Brendan's Piers of Exton, who carefully considered and passed on what he believed were Henry's wishes with a pleasure in the thought of his future fame. As these characters - Mowbray, Gaunt, Carlisle, Exton - were slowly disappointed in their hopes and expectations, one was close enough to see the loss of faith in their faces as they raised their eyes pleadingly to their king.

At the centre of all this was Heffernan as Richard. Tall and slim, he cut an elegant figure among the stockier lords. While not effete, his open manner and willingness to smile set him apart from the formal deference of his inferiors - at one point, the entire court were prostrated uncomfortably for several minutes before Richard noticed, laughed and waved casually to them to straighten up. Heffernan cleverly used the formality of the court as an extension of his own character, moving smoothly through the neatly ordered groups in clear command of their organisation, as if determined by him himself. Whether during the lists or standing on the battlements (here shown simply by a different quality of lighting at one end of the stage), he used the shapes of people and his own position to articulate a stance of power or submission that always served to keep attention on himself.

The greatest strengths of Heffernan's performance, though, were in the quieter moments, accentuated by the intimacy of the theatre. The arrival from Ireland was a masterclass in the management of emotional projection, moving gradually from Richard's joyful spreadeagling of himself on the floor to kiss English soil to a growing depression and despair. He slumped against a pillar, murmuring his sorrow almost inaudibly, as if all his energy had been drained by the news; and his companions knelt to share in his grief. Playing the scene very carefully, we followed the contours of his grief. Aumerle bolstered his spiritswith thoughts of York to a point where Richard was able to finally pull himself together and resume a confident smile; but Scroop's subsequent news of York's defection shattered him entirely. Oliver Millingham's Aumerle was, throughout, a pillar of emotional support for the King. During the battlements scene, Richard's desperation threatened to spill out of control as he barked down his offer of resignation with tears in his eyes. As Aumerle comforted him, Richard turned and took him by the head, and the two remained with heads bowed in a position of intimate support for some time. The strength of this connection made up for the weakness in the other favourites; the relationship with Aumerle bordered on the transgressive, and added a great deal to Richard's character.

The dynamic between Richard and Bullingbrooke was also interesting. This Bullingbrooke was confident but not manipulative, an honourable man whose ambition only became apparent after Richard had already offered to abdicate. After Richard's descent to the castle courtyard, Bullingbrooke knelt freely before Richard and continued a physical language of deference throughout. The abdication scene itself was powerfully realised by an indecisive and active Richard, now refusing to play by the rules of ceremony he had himself established. Henry and Northumberland (pleasingly scornful throughout) reacted with restrained impatience as Richard offered then refused to let go of his crown; and Henry himself let go in order to allow Richard's monologue to run its course. Richard ascended his throne with the mirror, which he smashed several times with his fist in order to make the point. Later, in prison, he addressed the audience directly and pleadingly, looking for reason in his confinement. It was in Heffernan's performance that the production found his heart, and he was never less than captivating.

Aside from Richard, however, the production was straight and tended towards the monotonous, relieved by some strong performances and occasional moments where the tone was altered. The Gardeners provided a variation of accent; the Groom (Roddy Peters) provided a moment of honest simplicity which touched Richard during his confinement; and the interlude with the Yorks provided some laughs, though was more significant for bringing into conflict Henry and Aumerle. In a lovely moment, after forgiving the transgressor, Henry snarled at him while departing; this was no magnanimous forgiveness, but a promise of future control. The pace of the production rose noticably towards the end, and Richard's death happened in a kinetic whirl, his body falling to the floor covered in blood. In one of the few neatly inventive touches, he hurled the offered cup of wine into the face of the Keeper, who betrayed the fact it was poisoned as he furiously tried to prevent any going in his own mouth.

Austere and finely spoken, Hilton's production read Richard II as a chamber piece, a solemn and ceremonial recital given heart by a wonderful central performance. While it would have been nice to see a more inventive approach, the company found the play's power in the language and choreographed group scenes, and left its audience wanting more.

February 10, 2011

Richard III (Propeller) @ The Belgrade, Coventry

In stark contrast to last night's interval concert, audience serenades and jovial banter, Propeller last night erected a stony wall between the audience and the stage. As Richard Clothier's Richard delivered his "Was ever woman in this humour wooed?" speech, he limped about the stage and then paused. A woman in the front row was using her phone. He waited, then politely said "When you're ready", occasioning a mumbled apology from the woman, before resuming his speech. While sympathising with Clothier's annoyance (one wishes, in retrospect, that he'd unleashed the terrifying masked attendants who prowled among the audience at the start of the second half!), the effect of this moment was to snap the audience out of the production. Where the company's Errors was characterised by its easygoing ensemble nature and the fluidity of its performativity (one always saw the actors, not the characters), Richard III was an entirely different beast, a more traditional production that maintained a stylistic unity and a fourth wall throughout.

This was, of course, entirely appropriate to a play which deals with far more sombre subject matter than Propeller's previous few productions. A direct sequel to the company's Rose Rage, Edward Hall and designer Michael Pavelka adopted the trappings of an abattoir as a thematic set - transparent plastic curtains, blunt tools, stained chopping blocks and a silent chorus wearing face masks made up of bandages. Screens were pushed around the stage, allowing characters to appear and disappear fluidly, and an England flag was run up a post; this abattoir was England, a place in which people were coolly butchered and strung up. Violence was senseless, bloody and industrialised, condemned characters becoming meat. In a bid for humour - although not actually hugely funny - the violence became increasingly gory: Clarence was killed by a Murderer drilling into his head; Catesby took a chainsaw to Hastings behind a plastic curtain, ending the first half with the splatter of blood on the wall; and Buckingham had his entrails drawn out with a huge rusty hook. Drawing on traditions of grand guignol and black comic horror, the gore sometimes felt unnecessary but acted as a necessary contrast to the sanitised scheming of the prime movers and shakers.

This was seen in the foregrounding of Catesby (David Newman) and Ratcliffe (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) as civil servants. Catesby, with slicked-back hair and a permanent sneer, was the consummate amoral servant, taking pleasure in his casual slighting of his peers. As Hastings defied Richard, Catesby smiled unpleasantly before leaving the stage to make his report. After Hastings was left alone, Catesby himself put on gloves and revved up a chainsaw, pushing Hastings behind the curtain. Ratcliffe was perhaps even more terrifying. Suited and tailed, he spent most of the production watching his pocket-watch, which ticked loudly over the sound system, creating an urgent and pressing underscore. Where Catesby took pleasure in his involvement, Ratcliffe was utterly indifferent to his actions. An administrator responsible for making sure everything happened to time, he was frequently found in the abattoir surrounded by the chorus, holding up his watch until the ticking stopped, at which point he nodded for the killings to commence. When it came to Richard's final death, Ratcliffe and his watch were still there. While this was Richard's story, then, an underlying current made it clear that it was administrators, not monarchs, who perpetuated the systems.

The role of Catesby and Ratcliffe was pointed up even further in the case of Tyrrell (Wayne Cater). With a plastic face mask, braces and a selection of torture instruments, Tyrrell formed an imposing and entirely silent presence. As Richard quizzed him, Catesby and Ratcliffe stood either side of Richard and spoke on his behalf. Their mediation between decision-maker and blunt instrument reinforced the impression that they were guiding the action to its inexorable, time-dependent conclusion, diminishing Richard's own agency. Richard's own attempts to take control over his own destiny were manifested in his own murders - he entered following Clarence's death to dispatch both of the Murderers; he suffocated and then snapped Anne's neck in the middle of the court, clutching her to his chest as if in an embrace; and he stabbed Tyrrell in the back. While using this to maintain a state of fear and isolation, it increasingly troubled him. As Tyrrell died, the Chorus sang a children's song which slowed down to silence as he fell. Suddenly, as if a record starting up again, their voices sprang back into life, and Tyrrell leapt to his feet and strode off the stage, to Richard's horror. He was already beginning to see his ghosts.

Clothier's Richard was a charismatic figure. While the cast were mostly dressed in late Victorian/Edwardian formal and butchering dress, Richard stood a head taller than most, exaggerated by his bleached blond hair, and wore a black outfit with cloak that had a metallic sheen to it. With only one hand, and a leg in metal brace, he was clearly debilitated but still stronger than those around him (his own murders were often conducted with his remaining hand around the victim's throat). His clipped accent and perfect articulation were convincing, both for his onstage gulls and the theatre audience who wished to believe in a Richard who could command such respect. Entirely insincere, he won people over with showmanship, whether whipping flowers out of his sleeve for Anne or waiting patiently on bended knee before Elizabeth as she agreed to give him her daughter.

The women, played entirely straight, were one of the production's strongest aspects. Despite heavy cutting (Clarence's children, Dorset, the scene of the women trying to get into the tower), Margaret was retained in the sober, bitter person of Tony Bell, and Anne and Elizabeth were given plenty of time to make an impact as the production's emotional core. Jon Trenchard's Anne was dwarved by Richard, a particularly brutal factor in the suffocating death scene, which Richard preceded by explaining directly to Anne that he needed to marry Elizabeth's daughter. Trenchard's delicate voice and quavering demeanour rendered Richard's forthright actions in the wooing scene particualrly despicable/compelling. The moment in which Anne slowly, tentatively offered her hand for his ring was perverted after her murder - two flunkies attempted to pull the body away, but Richard grabbed her hand and attempted to pull the ring off. Failing, he turned and bit the whole finger off, spitting it out casually as he reclaimed the ring for his new wife.

The treatment of the dead was a recurring point of comedy. Bodies were dumped into bags, which were then tossed over shoulders, thrown to the side or beaten mercilessly. The entrace for Richard's coronation was particularly impressive: to an electic guitar riff, the Chorus sang a Latin chant, and Richard and Anne entered along a carpet of bodybags (Richard confidently, Anne struggling to stay upright). The disrespectful and casual treatment of bodies was, of course, a comment on the value placed on life, but also on the memories of the dead: Richard's need to forget his victims was brought to the fore, and undone in the face of Tyrrell's ghost. This motif was central to the Bosworth Field night scene. Richard and Robert Hands's Richmond were placed back to back on a gurney, and a series of upright, struggling bodybags was revealed behind them. Unzipping themselves, the ghosts emerged in turn to walk around the gurney, wishing Richard to sweet dreams and awaking the amazed Richmond. I particularly disliked the decision to overlap the speeches so that the enemies were addressed simultaneously, as it meant we missed much of the poetry and symmetry of the scene, but the visual image was extremely effective.

Music was central to the overall effect of the production, unifying the comic/grotesque and the more solemn elements. The company sang a series of Latin chants and devotional hymns, mostly acapella, and in juxtaposition with the casual violence the appeal to the divine was peculiarly compelling, even desperate, as if the anonymous characters were searching for meaning in their actions. It also served to satirise the use of religion to justify actions, most powerfully as Richard performed his praying and flagellation for the benefit of the mob. Two variations in the music had varying success: the high-pitched children's nursery rhyme that accompanied the princes - two expressive puppets manipulated by the company - sounded a note of pathos and innocence that served these scenes well. The diminutive size of the puppets made their presence in the adult scenes (particularly that before the tower) extremely vulnerable, with Richard towering above them; and the later appearance of their heads in a glass jar was horrific. The other musical interlude was the "Scrivener's Rap", a Billy Bragg-esque call to arms by Tony Bell in a Cockney accent, that attempted to establish a note of civic discord but was jarringly out of place.

The other performances were strong, establishing key presences within a linear succession of deaths. John Dougall as Clarence gave another strong vocal performance, articulating his dream in hugely evocative terms. The character was seen being blinded early on after his arrest, and Dougall found a wonderful dignity in the character, standing in night-shirt in his prison cell and looking into an unseen distance as he addressed the murderers. Robert Hands began as a debauched Edward IV, stagging about the stage topless and drunk before hugging his brothers for a group photograph, but descended into sickly spluttering as he lay on a surgical chair that doubled as a throne. Thomas Padden's Hastings and Chris Myles's Buckingham, meanwhile, began in the Catesby and Ratcliffe supportive roles, but made the fatal error of developing independent personalities which immediately incurred Richard's wrath. Within a system dependent on complicit, passive administration, there was no room for demands of loyalty or reward.

While this was one of the less successful of the Propeller productions I've been fortunate enough to see, the very fact that it became a collaborative production without a single dominating figure was impressive enough. The progression towards the climax of Richard's tragedy was actually quite dull, with too much lost in the rush (the prioritisation of Stanley's subplot towards the end, for example, made very little impression). The end was fitting, however. Richard entered on the same surgical chair on which Edward had died, sputtering blood and fatally wounded, as he cried for a horse. Richmond entered and shot him. Turning to the audience, Richmond kneeled and raised his arms to heaven - one hand clutching a crucifix, the other a pistol, while the crown rested on his head. As he delivered his speech of piety, on "That would with treason wound this land's fair peace", Richard began laughing, a hacking, cruel cackle. Richmond stood up and shot him again in the head and returned to the audience. The undercutting of Richmond's own holy image by the laughing Richard reminded us, once more, that this was an ongoing story of big ambitions and performed sentiments; but behind the saintly facade, the dirty machinery of slaughter still stood.

The Comedy of Errors (Propeller) @ The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

A roar of dissent rose in the foyer of the Belgrade Theatre during the interval of last night's Comedy of Errors, as the tannoy politely requested that audience members resume their seats for the second half. The roar came, however, not from reluctant audiences, but from the theatre company themselves. The men of Propeller had followed the audience out into the foyer and begun an impromptu charity concert with Mexican/Latin-inflected versions of Material Girl, Billie Jean and other '80's standards. With the audience singing and clapping along, the company were reluctant to end the party, and Chris Myles cried "They can't start while we're out here!" The second half eventually started some fifteen minutes late.

Much has been written on the idea of ensemble in contemporary Shakespearean theatre, but few companies embody the spirit of ensemble theatre-making to the extent that Propeller does. As the wonderful interval concert proved, this was a group of individuals who the audience wanted to spend time with, and whose shared creativity and enthusiasm informed every aspect of their performed presence - many faces were familiar from the last few years of the company's history. Writing and performing the music as a company, setting up each other's jokes and set-pieces and displaying a physical comfort and familiarity with each other's bodies that allowed for precise, hysterical comedy, Comedy allowed the true strengths of ensemble to be fully-realised.

Despite the pre-show melee of actors strolling through the audience in sombreros and football shirts (creating an extremely loose eighties central American setting), Edward Hall's production began bravely with a sober, visually-sparse introductory scene. Richard Clothier's Duke, wearing a red sequinned suit and carrying a pistol as the local private authority (with the police in his pay), escorted John Dougall's chained and bedraggled Aegeon onto the darkened stage. Dougall delivered his account of his past sorrows with no visual aids, articulating his woes clearly with simple vocal expression, captivating both his onstage and offstage audiences. The only exception was the appearance of the Antipholi and Dromios at an above window, waving as their names were mentioned. The decision to restrain the company's naturally visual and physical storytelling made a clear statement - that despite the ensuing chaos, this was a production rooted firmly in text and clarity.

While the two hours of performance gradually descended into an increasingly chaotic melange of images, noises and words, this was no chaotic farce. The multiple sensory inputs were drawn directly from text with the purpose of clarifying the wit of the text; but then these devices developed their own meta-language and became a source of humour in their own right. Thus, when the subplot of the chain was first introduced, a member of the onstage band (formed from whichever actors were not directly involved in the scene) tapped a xylophone. This gave an audible anchor to the convoluted discussions of the chain's circulation that clarified sense. As the mentions of the chain repeated exponentially in frequency, however, the repeated sounding of the xylophone took on its own comedic associations, a frenetic pointer to a comic verbal motif. Eventually, the ringing became so much a part of the text that Antipholus of Ephesus (Sam Swainsbury), in his final chaotic attempts to explain the day's events to the Duke, screamed "DING!" every time he said "chain". The extra-textual pointer became its own textual joke. Similarly, a duck call accompanied the loping steps of Dominic Tighe's Italian officer, speeding up or slowing down according to the pace of Tighe's stride. Rather than throw in cheap laughs, the company built up an intermediate level of performative language, doubling the effect of the text.

As such, the work that the actors did was, from the start, self-consciously theatrical. Characters did not relate to one another as "real" characters, but instead performed their speeches as set-pieces which were interwoven into the performative text rather than the plot, focussing on plateau rather than locus (to use Robert Weimann's terms). This was entirely appropriate to a play in which so much of the dialogue consists of attempts to explain actions that have previously taken place. Speeches were delivered quickly, but articulated with a fast series of accompanying gestures that physicalised the reported action, and often blurred into the action of the moment; thus, both Dromios relieved their beatings, and in doing so went through the motions of being beaten again. Again, the doubling of action was entirely appropriate to a play that foregrounds the process of doubling so prominently.

This had two effects. Firstly, the wit of Comedy of Errors itself came out strongly - rather than use the physical action as a substitute for the comedic effect of the words, action here enhanced Shakespeare's jokes and metaphors. This was most apparent in Richard Frame's phenomenal delivery of  the Nell dialogue. The Syracusian twins stepped forward, out of the "reality" of their scene, and Frame used his body and the stage to create a vivid image of the gargantuan kitchen wench: he walked from wing to wing to illustrate her girth; he extended his arms and rotated them for her height and width, then gazed wide-eyed at the sphere he had just traced in the air; and he performed the effects of her breath, boils and eyes, creating an horrific imagined space which she inhabited. All later references to her gained in impact from this impressive establishing vignette, both Dromio and audience shuddering at the memory of Nell.

The second effect was to licence an extraordinary level of comic violence that became a commentary upon itself. Accompanied by its amusing score of cues, actors poked one another in the eye, kicked each other's backsides and slapped one another viciously. Within this cartoonish aesthetic, however, the company were able to push the violence to extremes which caused the audience to quail: David Newman's Luciana, a frump in pince-nez spectacles, frilly skirt and handbag, displayed a growing range of martial arts skills that culminated in the revelation of a pair of nunchucks, but more effective was the violence practiced on Jon Trenchard's diminutive Dromio of Ephesus. A cry went up from the audience as he was struck hard with a crowbar by his master, throwing the violence into perspective. Even more impressively, at one point the action froze as Antipholus prepared to floor him with a particularly hideous blow. Trenchard came forward and began his "I am an ass indeed" speech as a soliloquy to the audience. Sobbing, and to the accompaniment of a violin, he elicited sympathetic moans from the audience, before trudging back into position with wistful glances back at the auditorium. Steeling himself, he closed his eyes, and the action resumed with him being thrown onto his back. By establishing a point of sympathy, the production found its heart. The closing moments between the two Dromios were genuinely affecting, as Dromio of Ephesus reached out to his brother and took his hand, no longer alone in his victimisation. The point was not heavy-handed, but cut through the physical farce to make a plea for human feeling.

The other moment of extraordinary brilliance was the presentation of Dr. Pinch by Tony Bell. When announced, the rumble of a Hammond organ was heard, and smoke billowed from the upstage entrance. A silhouette appeared in the smoke, which then turned into the hacking figure of a bluff Yorkshireman in sharp suit and wearing a large cross. This Pinch, the conjurer, was a TV evangelist - he 'zapped' the Ephesians, who began praising the lord, and a choir of men with angel's wings followed him in. Bell performed an entire song and dance routine, breaking up his words with requests for donations, the exorcism of an audience member and the stripping-down of himself to vest and trousers. Robert Hands, as Adriana, threw herself on her knees before him, entering her credit card details into a handy machine as she pleaded for him to exorcise her husband. In return, Antipholus stood unmoved as Pinch attempted to zap him, before appropriating Pinch's performance for himself and zapping him in return before fleeing the stage.

Bell's use of local references further served to endear him to the audience, referring to Lady Godiva and the local shopping centre. Even more funnily, an entire routine was built in riffing on the Coventry woman who last year put a cat into a wheelie bin - to arrest Dromio and Antipholus, two wheelie bins were brought in and the "madmen" were placed in them, emitting pitiful miaows as they disappeared from view. Bell's comic performance - which he undercut himself with muttered "buggers" as he fumbled over his lines - was topped with a final appearance following the escape of his prisoners - he emerged fully naked and ran through the auditorium, a burning sparkler clenched between his buttocks. The audience barely recovered, and the subsequent appearance of Chris Myles's Aemilia in nun's habit, fishnet stockings, high heels didn't help. Brandishing a riding crop as she talked of the necessity of more disciplined punishment, she dramaturgically served as the climax of the insanity, the rest of the cast falling at her feet as the doors of her nunnery flew open.

The women posed a different set of problems which I don't have the space to explore here; but essentially, their overt sexualisation acted to reinforce male fantasies of (alternately) dominance and hen-pecking, but in a parodic format designed to critique those generalisations. Kelsey Brookfield's Courtesan sashayed onstage in black PVC and bunny ears, before dropping his voice to a husky "Alright?" Luciana, as already mentioned, gradually unveiled a terrifying violence that saw the men fleeing from her, and Hands's Adriana was a sublime blend of feminine chagrin and tempestuous shrew - by the end of the play, she was reduced to pounding on the floor and screaming for justice. Her complete lack of humour allowed her to serve as the foil for the comedy, stereotyping her in the sitcom-lite role of the nagging wife, while allowing Hands to mine the possibilities of that type for full comic effect.

Amid the violence, the spittle (all the Ephesians spat at the mention of Syracuse, and in one scene communally did so on the head of the diminutive Wayne Cater as Balthasar), the fast talking and the frenetic action, this was a production with heart. The sobriety of Aegeon's plight, the gentle pleas of Dromio of Ephesus, the serenading of a girl in the front row by the Officer, Luciana's instinctive presentation of her hand to Antipholus of Syracuse (she clearly never having been given this kind of attention before) all emerged from the familial warmth of the ensemble. The cruelty and crudity of the broader humour threw these moments into relief, making a case for calm and human feeling amid a flurry of panicked action. It was a perfect marriage of play and company, and a new high standard for Propeller's work.

February 04, 2011

King Lear (Donmar/NT Live) @ Warwick Arts Centre Cinema

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Poor Paul Jesson. As Gloucester in Michael Grandage's award-winning production of King Lear, last night he delivered one of the most powerful renditions of the Dover cliffs scene that I've ever been privileged to see. Accompanied by Gwilym Lee as Edgar, he shuffled across the bare bleached boards of the Donmar stage, his white shirt still covered in blood. Lee did tremendous work in manipulating the atmosphere of the scene: grabbing his father in panic, whispering in his ear, evoking a sense of genuine danger. Gloucester responded in kind, sobbing and clutching at his escort's hand as he steeled himself for his fall. As Edgar wept, Gloucester knelt and raised his hollow eyes to the heavens, defying the fates with a a final desperation that, to me, more effectively captured the despair of suicide than anything else in the play. As he tipped himself forward, falling flat on his face in a swoon, one felt like one was falling with him. In Jesson's expert hands, it became a climactic moment, a point of resolution and finality that rendered his survival almost perverse.

And then he had to do it again.

Shortly after Derek Jacobi's Lear entered for his scene with the blind man, the satellite broadcasting this performance of King Lear to cinemas around the world broke down. Error messages replaced the image of the actors, and we overheard a flunky breaking onto the stage to stop Jesson and Jacobi in mid-flow, and a ten minute break ensued while technicians worked frantically to resolve the problem. Eventually, and without preamble, the feed was restored - and a groan went up from the (cinema) audience as Gloucester and Edgar once more hobbled in to repeat their lengthy scene. While there were some pleasures in revisiting such a fantastic scene, and the cameras were better positioned this time, neatly juxtaposing Gloucester's words about his son with Edgar's pained reaction, the momentum had been destroyed, and it took some time to get back on track.

The NT Live project is, by and large, a great thing. It allows audiences of tens of thousands to see small productions - in this case, one that had sold out months ago - and allows an intimacy with actors' faces that is difficult for those without top-price tickets to achieve live. This comes at the expense of the live event of theatre and of audience freedom to see whatever isn't in the camera's frame (the inability to gauge how other characters are reacting to speeches is a particular frustration of mine); and, taking a wider view, I'm concerned that the broadcasting of London productions of the "classics" around the world may reinforce latent issues of provinciality and the perceived neccesary superiority of metropolitan art. These are more nuanced arguments, however, that shouldn't detract from the fact that, fundamentally, I couldn't afford to get down to London for this Lear, and I would far rather have seen it at my local cinema than not at all.

The technical issues are problematic, though. The idea of doing it live, as opposed to recording and lightly editing it for a delayed broadcast, is in order to promote the experience of the event; but practically, if we're honest, the liveness adds the excitement that something might go wrong. Yet even though last night was undoubtedly an event, I can't help but feel that the "liveness" of the hiccups was more of a frustration than a benefit. The sound was abysmal: atmospheric music was delivered through a different channel in the cinema, competing with the dialogue; actors were apparently unused to their microphones, so when Regan thumped her chest or Lear pulled Cordelia into his embrace, the sound boomed uncomfortably; and levels often fluctuated disappointingly. The on-stage introduction with Michael Grandage was reasonably unobtrusive, but was then followed by a pre-recorded film about the wonders of the Donmar; which was not only too long, but was poorly-timed with the live event - Gloucester and Kent were onstage and in dialogue the second that Grandage's face disappeared, which failed to allow the audience any time to adjust to the different register. These are all problems to be expected, but they are also problems which do affect enjoyment considerably; and as the ticket prices for these screenings creep up (£15, when tickets for the live show could be got for a tenner), I'm inclined to wonder if I would accept a cleaner end product in preference to the problematic idea of liveness.

The problems with the format aside, however, this was a stunning production of Lear, one of the best I've had the fortune to see. Central, of course, was Jacobi's exciting, innovative and fresh performance. Against a bare backdrop of white wooded slats, and in the intimate space of the Donmar, Jacobi found a very human king, whose tenderness towards all three of his daughters (particularly Cordelia) was key to understanding the collapse of his mind. This Lear thrived on love, both as obedience and physical tenderness, and the denial of this "love" by all three daughters was something beyond his ken. He clutched for words, his voice and body shook and he battled for self-control. His inability to grasp a world where his daughters could react so unexpectedly manifested as a slippage of reality, and in the most touching moment of the play he responded to the Fool's "Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise" by, instead of raging, grasping the Fool's hand for support and murmuring "O let me not be mad". In an age so dominated by the fear of Alzheimers, Lear's touching plea for sanity struck an emotional chord.

Jacobi's performance was characterised by a willingness to surprise the audience as much as his onstage companions with his delivery. This was most obvious in a storm scene which began with the spectacular strobing of lights and roaring of thunder, before suddenly dropping to absolute silence and a stark light as Lear whispered - whispered - his tirade against the storm, slowly building up the volume and power. His ability to curse was impressive (and matched only by Michael Hadley's hysterical Kent, in disguise as Caius, knocking the wind out of Amit Shah's superbly uppity Oswald), and he reduced his daughters to tears; as monstrous as the older sisters were, they were never less than Lear's daughters.

There was not a weak performance among the cast, although Gina McKee's voice as Goneril was rather raspy in transmission. McKee was also badly served by a horrible piece of editing, in which a jump cut to her for the line "If not, I'll ne'er trust medicine" came across as an hysterically comedic aside, a la Miranda Hart. Goneril was the more obviously malicious of the pair, taking the lead in the conspiracy between the older sisters by taking Regan aside after Cordelia's departure for France. She unbuttoned her dress in seduction of Edmund, and marvelled musingly at the distant sight of her father hunting, which gave her the idea for treating him like a child. Justine Mitchell's Regan, by contrast, was emotional and unstable, frequently acting with angry tears running down her face, and unable to stand her father's curses; which, however, only drew her further into stubbornness. She was shocked at her own action in killing Cornwall's servant, and her later decision to pursue Edmund was justified so uncertainly that laughter was yet again provoked. Her instability and distress rendered her surprisingly sympathetic, but neither of the pair was brought back onstage after their deaths - their story was complete.

Alec Newman's Edmund was the best kind of Machiavel - hunched, dynamic, bearded and leery. His ingratiating charisma and speed of delivery made the ease of his deceptions believable, and the character's own physical insecurities went some way towards justifying his behaviours. Addressing the heavens constantly (one nice effect of the NT Live was the inclusion of a "gods-eye camera", allowing Lear and Gloucester to address the audience directly in their grandstanding moments), his defiance of the universe was engaging, and the audience were allowed to take pleasure in his villainy even as we looked forward to his downfall - his laughter on hearing of Goneril and Regan's deaths was particularly sickly. In contrast, Gwilym Lee gave a heartfelt performance as Edgar, with the camera lingering on his reaction shots to Lear's madness and his own father's mentions of him. The intensity and earnestness of Edgar's performance turned him into the play's moral centre, the practical man of strong principles. Their final fight was short and brutal, the hooded Edgar (his jerkin and hood evoked Robin Hood for much of the second act) quickly grabbing Edmund's sword and slashing him across his stomach; more important was its symbolic significance as Edgar centrally reclaimed his authority.

There was plenty more to enjoy. The always wonderful Ron Cook was a Fool very much in the Sylvester McCoy mode, but given to a desperate sadness rather than antics. He openly challenged Lear, and much of 1.5 was spoken in anger as the Fool used his jibes to rail at his king - at least, until Lear's mood softened and he attempted to stay reasonable. This Fool was very much Lear's mirror, but also the emotional crutch needed to keep him functioning. Kent, meanwhile, was reliably entertaining and brusque throughout, while Jesson's magnificent Gloucester was the equal of Jacobi's Lear. The scene between the two old companions on Dover beach, watched by an awestruck Edgar, was simply beautiful, the two men crawling on the floor, holding one another and eventually both lying on the stage, spreadeagled and exhausted, as Lear finally admitted he recognised his friend.

There's too much left to say; but this was, indeed, a Lear for our generation; a pared-back, human reading of the play that focussed on the breakdown of family bonds, the fears of slipping into senility, and the desperate struggle to do the right thing in a world that opposes you at every turn. The close, as Lear slipped back into the arms of Kent and Edgar, was powerfully affecting; but for me, it was the camera's slow tilt upwards to the white walls above the tableau that resonated beyond the curtain calls - the empty, imposing and constant space of the stage that the characters had entered in good spirits and left in desolation. That NT Live decided to broadcast this production, despite the technical flaws, is something I'll be long thankful for.

February 01, 2011

Double Falsehod (MokitaGrit) @ The Union Theatre, Southwark

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Comparisons may be odious, but at the Union Theatre's new production of Double Falsehood, they are positively unavoidable. In August, KDC performed what it called the "21st century premiere" of Theobald's disputed play in the space. Five months later, the same theatre played host to another Double Falsehood by MokitaGrit Productions, in "the first professional production since 1792", with no reference to the previous event. Implied, then, was a process of overwriting of space, text, memory, replacing KDC's amateur effort with MokitaGrit's "professional" approach. Interestingly, the amateur/professional divide did not merely translate into a difference in the scale of investment, but into the type of investment made. Where KDC invested its time and finances in the visual (a glossy programme, opulent Baroque costumes), MokitaGrit concentrated on text, interpretation and performance in a production that, from an artistic and academic standpoint, succeeded in "overwriting" its predecessor.

The chief success of director Phil Willmott's approach was its attention to the problems of class. From the second scene, where Camillo entered a farmyard in tweed suit and read the Duke's letter to the sound of chickens clucking, the play was driven by social transgression - whether in the upwardly mobile aspirations of Camillo and Donna Benita (the character's gender changed to great effect) or the lecherous and brazen advances of the privileged Henrique (the 'z' lost here) onto Violante, who became Leonora's servant. This simple innovation was extraordinarily effective; her appearance in maid's costume standing silently behind Leonora and Benita created an instant backstory for all three that determined their subsequent actions. Violante - the excellent Jessie Lilley - was a feisty Scouser, torn between the constraints of her social status and her wilful resistance to Henrique's advances. Aside from the obvious disdain with which her attacker treated her, neither of her employers even glanced at her during their shared time onstage, recasting Violante as a neglected Cinderella, or even Helena (All's Well), figure, who the audience invested fully in from the start. Su Douglas's Benita, on the other hand, was besotted by the idea of raising her own social status. Immaculately addressed, and particuarly scornful of the slightly shabbier but good-hearted Camillo, she cooed over Henrique; he used his public-school charm and parental deference to manipulate the mother rather than directly approach the daughter, while Leonora seethed. Emily Plumtree was perfectly balanced between the two: her performance of petulance at Julio's apparent disinterest was relieved at his present of a necklace; yet the sincerity of her affection manifested itself as she became increasingly aware of her lack of control over her own forthcoming marriage.

Also essential to the reorientation of the action within a system of class and formal structures was the extended presence of the Duke. Richard Franklin's kindly, wise ruler (borrowing heavily from Measure for Measure) benignly gifted his authority to Roderick in the opening scene, before settling back into a chair upstage to watch the remainder of the action. Franklin became a semi-choric figure: as Henrique approached Violante's lodging, he delivered the sententious "The voice of parents is the voice of gods" speech as a comment on Henrique's own treachery to his family and position. Later, he became the kindly servant to whom Violante entrusted her disguise, and the wandering gentleman who stayed with the mad Julio. The treatment of the character as partially choric was slightly confusing, as it made it difficult to determine whether the same actor was doubling multiple parts, or if we were meant to understand the separate roles as disguises of the Duke (a la Measure), but the stately presence of Franklin throughout did serve to remind the audience of the play's overarching power structures that limited the scope for disaster.

Adam Redmore as Henrique presented himself as a lovable cad to Leonora's mother and his own father, relying on his charm to excuse his excesses of emotion. In private with his victims, however, Redmore presented a truly despicable villain. A formidable intellect, arrogant in the security of power and privilege, tempered and licenced a violent lust that tormented his brain. Crucially, it was at this point that Friar Lopez (Richard Morse) appeared. Portions of the Fabian/Lopez dialogue were rewritten as the shocked comments of a nervous, hidden monk, who proclaimed the madness of the Duke's son as he forced himself upon the maid. It was at this point that the Duke and Lopez both left the stage, allowing Henrique to enact his crime. Violante stood, shaking and submissive, as Henrique stalked around her, before resisting as he grabbed her and began forcibly caressing her breasts. She struggled to disengage herself, and even as she appealed to him, her voice betrayed fear that he was beyond reason. The groundwork was thus laid for an onstage depiction of the rape. After Violante left the stage, Henrique paused for a moment, then whistled for Gerald, who dragged the struggling maid back on. Henrique punched her hard in the mouth, and she fell stunned to the floor. As he delivered his self-righteous justification ("Who am I, that am thus contemn'd?") directly to her in anger, he tormented the sobbing girl, straddling and then brutally violating her with a few sharp thrusts. Following the act, the two lay on the stage, before Henrique casually began his post-coital analysis of his own behaviour. He lay on his back, his head on Violante's squirming back, as he casually pointed out to her that this was no rape - before directing Gerald to drop a crumpled banknote on the girl's body.

This unobtrusive but intelligent approach to rewriting worked heavily in the production's benefit, demonstrating how with some simple transposition and physical juxtaposition of actors, the play needs little in the way of additions to be made coherent. The crudity of showing the rape was mitigated by the clarity of plot it offered, and the extent to which it complicated responses to Henrique. The Arden text was otherwise kept largely intact, although a couple of the more embarrassing or difficult lines for modern audiences were altered ("Under this stone lies poor Camillo" read the man's own delivered epitaph, and the ludicrously convenient "And, opportune, a vacant hearse pass'd by" was cut). Willmott explicitly drew inspiration from Cheek by Jowl's performance style, preferring a bare stage and the silent appearance of characters when referred to in order to make clear the inter-relations. This was sometimes overdone - Julio, for example, did not need to physically pull Henrique onto stage when telling Leonora who he was entrusting her care to - but helped clarify the play for an audience largely unfamiliar with the plot.

The production was set in and around a monastery, a coherence of setting which became a problem in the second act, as the same monks who had thrust Julio out of the abbey wedding appeared again to tend their flocks, giving the impression that Julio had only fled to a neighbouring field. The deeply ritualistic setting worked to offer a sense of dread and inevitability to events, most powerfully as Leonora waited agonisingly for Julio's arrival. As she wrung her hands, hooded monks entered and cirled the auditorium, chanting and ringing bells. As their voices rose, Leonora became more impassioned and desperate, climaxing as a monk broke away and grabbed her by the rest. Her fear was immediately replaced with joy at seeing Julio's face, a joy that faded quickly as, looking at the ring of monks, she realised she had no escape. The beauty of the setting was in the anonymity it accorded its extras and the ease with which it permitted disguise and revelation. Julio, in monk costume, faded back in among the other brothers; yet as Leonora defended herself against her mother and Henrique, she stuck close to Julio, kneeling at his feet as if confessing or praying. The institutional authority of the monks thus fascinatingly gave licence to both the arrogant Henrique and the overbearing Benita (who slapped her daughter heartily during their exchange), but also acted as moral, spiritual and sexual support for Leonora, who clutched at her lover/confessor even as she was dragged to the altar. Fittingly, the closing image before the interval was of Benita forcing Henrique and Leonora to kneel before Julio, who cast off his hood and cried "Hold! Mine is the elder claim" as a blackout fell.

As the action resumed in the second half, Leonora and Julio held hands and defied Donna Benita. Henrique, however, merely laughed - the monks (apart from the ever-bumbling Father Lopez) were in his pay, and at a click of his fingers they threw off their own hoods and attacked Julio, who was unceremoniously dragged and beaten offstage. William Reay, who had played Gerald, returned as the Master of the Flocks, repeating the violence he had condoned in his master as he grabbed Violante and thrust his groin against the struggling woman before Roderick's interruption. It was in these scenes that Sam Hoare's tall, imposing Roderick shone - a figure of benign power, his soft voice and manner contrasted with the roughness of the shepherds' Northern accents and harsh language; yet when provoked, as by his younger brother in the final act, Roderick's physique made him a threatening enemy. The "liberation" of Leonora from the nunnery involved the two brothers carrying in a coffin from which she emerged, disoriented. Roderick's sincere pacification of her turned into rage at his brother. He offered a physical threat to Henrique, and called after the departing Leonora to guarantee his protection, with an intensity that eventually mollified the furious girl.

The lynchpin of the production, however, was Gabriel Vick as Julio. Where Redmore's Henrique was a chaotic, dangerously transgressive presence, Vick's calm and measured reading of Julio gave the production heart. Julio was an endearingly open, and almost simple, young man, who gazed with wide eyes at those he interacted with. His affection for both Camillo and Leonora, however, was thrown into immediate conflict with their games of status (Camillo ordering his son to court) and love (Leonora feigning disinterest). His approach to resolving conflict was earnest, tending to frustration when he felt honesty was not forthcoming in return. As such, his later receipt of Leonora's letter (received by the ever-accommodating Lopez in the hush of the monastery) prompted a reaction of complete astonishment, that turned immediately into a dangerous anger. The growing desperation of the lovers was neatly depicted on stage through simple mirroring - after Leonora gave Lopez the letter, she remained onstage dressing for the wedding. As Julio delivered his "Hold out thy faith" speech, she stepped forward and the two stood beside one another, both wearing expressions of desperation.

Julio's conduct throughout the wedding scene displayed an increasingly erratic emotional state, especially in contrast to Henrique's cruel laughter. On his next appearance, in the fields, he emerged bloody and bruised, his eyes staring and his voice pleading rather than raving. His madness thus became the culmination of a gradual breakdown of trust, rendering the scene heartbreaking. The Duke/Gentleman and the sympathetic Lopez acted as audience surrogates, commenting sadly on his fall while the Master leaned on his crook and sneered. While Julio was eventually pushed to more violent behaviour, grabbing Lopez by the nose (to the Master's amusement), the overriding impression was one of sadness, particularly in his sincere instruction to Violante to kill herself. This mood extended into the climactic 4.2, in which Violante entered with hair down, singing beautifully. Julio and the Gentleman began by concealing themselves among the audience, but the fluid staging allowed Julio to emerge and stand next to Violante in wonder, listening intently to her words. As the two met and recognised one another, the process of healing began.

The closing scene completed this process of reunification by bringing together the various strands and motifs that had pervaded the production. The staging itself was formal and disappointingly dull - the Duke returned to his upstage chair, while Benita and Camillo sat in chairs downstage and to either side, forming a triangle of authority. Roderick's entrance was accompanied by the remainder of the cast in habits, who stood in a semicircle around the outskirts of the stage and were revealed one by one by Roderick. The anonymity of the "monks" worked perfectly for the series of revelations, and provided a source of dramatic intrigue - one by one, the Duke and Camillo walked towards the hooded Violante as she talked and peered under her cowl, remarking on the prettiness of the youth. Similarly, Julio kept his cowl on as long as possible, walking towards Leonora and prolonging the moment of revelation as she slowly recognised individual features that emerged from the shadow. Julio's emotional reunion with Leonora was relieved by Camillo, who rocked in his chair wrapped up in self-indulgent grief and refused point-blank to look at the lovers until Roderick took him by the shoulders and pointed him towards his son.

The fully-rounded conclusion of Julio and Leonora's story was, however, thrown finally into contrast with Henrique and Violante's. Redmore tested the limits of audience sympathy throughout the final scene as he antagonised his brother, mocked the disguised Violante and loudly proclaimed his innocence in the strongest possible terms. With his integrity so in question, the appearance of the nervous Violante in the same maid costume in which she had been raped was met with stony silence. Henrique continued to try to keep up an energetic attitude, performing his repentance with such fervour that his sincerity remained in question; and his request to his father to marry Violante was delivered quickly and efficiently, with the aim of getting it over with as quickly as possible. It was only once he was removed from centre-stage that the implications began to sink in; and, in the best tradition of the problem plays, it was this couple that were left alone onstage as the rest of the cast processed off. Turning to one another with a troubled expression, the lights faded to black. Henrique's performance of himself - whether as cad or as repentant prodigal - was finally over, and Violante looked as nervous as he.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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