All entries for April 2011

April 30, 2011

The Tempest @ Warwick Arts Centre Cinema

The Tempest

Julie Taymor has had a rough year. She's a favourite director of mine - I love her Titus and Across the Universe, and she's borne herself pretty well through the fiasco that has been (and continues to be) Spider-Man: The Musical. It's true, too, that we need a good film of The Tempest. Derek Jarman's classic has such a specific agenda that it limits its use and relevance; the BBC version is horrifically bad and Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books is an arthouse deconstruction. So I had high hopes for this (heightened by an amazing cast) and really wanted to love it. Goodwill can only run so far though, and unfortunately I can't honestly say I found anything at all to like about this film.

The film started promisingly. It began with an elaborate sandcastle sat on the palm of a hand stretched out towards the ocean. The skies darkened, and rain began to pour, disintegrating the castle. The owner of the hand - Felicity Jones's Miranda looked, panicked, as a passing boat was caught in the storm, and the furious, chaotic scene on the boat was interspersed with shots of her running, full-tilt, along the coast to where her mother, Helen Mirren's Prospera, was holding out a staff. The destruction of the ship was cinematic and powerful, especially as Reeve Carney's Ferdinand locked himself in his cabin to pray and was then swept out by waves smashing through his windows and pulling him into the ocean.

Caliban

Nothing else in the remainder of the film, sadly, lived up to this opening. The film gave an entirely conservative reading of the play, with only cosmetic differences and few interpretative decisions beyond the obvious. The changing of Prosper's gender (she was the wife of the Duke of Milan) made no difference to the character, who remained a kindly but occasionally brusque mother, a strong-willed master and a stern opponent to the conspirators. Mirren was one of the film's stronger assets, particularly in the scene of abjuration where she pulled a ring of fire around herself and grew powerful as she described her earlier feats, before allowing the flames to die as, exhausted, she offered to drown her book. She worked in a laboratory filled with mechanical equipment, mirrors and beams, and wielded visual and powerful magic throughout, behind which the character was somewhat buried. Flashbacks to a fuzzy council room in Milan confused rather than clarified her long opening story.

Her assistant was Ben Whishaw as Ariel, who first appeared staring out of a pool lovingly at his mistress. I say 'his', but this Ariel was androgynous and softly-spoken, a flitting spirit. Whishaw was excellent, touching in his voice and, especially on "were I human", cutting through the visual style with moments of emotion. However, his performance was served badly by abysmal visual effects. Whishaw was never quite localised within the shot, instead looking like a two-dimensional imposition across the picture. While the producers aimed for spectacle - a fiery giant tossing the ship between his hands in a flashback; a face peering out of trees and ponds; a screaming harpy accompanied by thousands of birds (this was genuinely terrifyhing); or the flame-faced courser of hounds - the picture of Ariel never quite fitted the action or interacted with it genuinely, and the over-use of blended figures for movement and multiple copies of the same actor looked cheap and tacky.

Helen Mirren as Prospera

Djimon Hounsou was an entirely traditional Caliban, the decorated black man wearing loincloth and a thick African accent (which was, for much of the film, unfortunately unintelligible). Hounsou brought a dignity to the character in the early scenes which was abandoned entirely by the time of his union with the clowns; although a strong climax saw Prospera and Caliban face off at each other silently across a pond before he quietly turned his back and left her cell. The interpretation hedged its bets and left Caliban rather superfluous, neither a heroic victim nor a savage villain but merely someone who lived on the island and occasionally interacted with the plot.

Better were Alfred Molina and Russell Brand as Stephano and Trinculo. Brand started poorly, with clowning and audience banter that would have worked well in an intimate stage setting but, in the massive empty space of the desolate volcanic island, sounded hollow and forced. Molina's early appearances, stumbling through a canyon and murmuring to himself as he sipped at his bottle, were far more suited to the format. The two men worked well together, and Brand's ad-libbing was particularly welcome in a very boring film, but the insertion of urination jokes and extended cross-dressing scenes were obviously extra-textual.

The Tempest poster

The courtiers were all fine, but their scenes of walking through trees and rocky cliffs were exceptionally dull. Their madness following the spectacular harpy scene was well played, however, with David Strathairn's Alonso stumbling lost and Sebastian and Antonio swinging their swords desperately at invisible birds. Tom Conti was a very strong Gonzalo, too, pacing mournfully after the distracted nobles and weeping. The two young lovers were excruciatingly wet, exchanging soppy looks and doing little more than looking pretty, even in Ferdinand's interpolated song of "O Mistress Mine" to his new wife. In place of the masque, Prospera showed them a bizarre planetarium-style spectacle of sexual positions being enacted among the stars, which she interrupted quietly herself.

The visual effects, as already mentioned, were variable, and too heavily relied upon. The best were the flaming dogs who pursued Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban, but even these didn't quite occupy the physical space in which they were running. The rest of the chaos was shown through crazy camera angles, dissolves and fast edits which felt gimmicky rather than organic to the action. The music throughout, too, was disconcertingly eclectic - wonderful rock beats came in now and again to augment the orchestral score, but at times which seemed unsuited to the events and often competing with the text. The textual editing was fine and relatively clear, but with occasional "Why?!" moments such as the Americanism of Prospera's line "We will go visit with Caliban", which not only sounded odd in an English accent but made the line unmetrical.

This film will endure as the most straightforward and accessible version of The Tempest yet committed to film, and I won't deny that it's a watchable version. However, it offered little new to the play other than style, and I struggled to see a good reason for its existence. There were some lovely images towards the end - Prospera's glass staff smashing against the rocks, and the closing credits which saw books (unseen for the rest of the film) sinking through the waves while a voice sang the Epilogue in a tuneless style - but these couldn't make up for such a tired film. Here's hoping for better things with Coriolanus.


April 29, 2011

Macbeth (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

The first new production in the re-opened and redesigned RST is also the opening salvo of the RSC's fiftieth birthday celebration season. Artistic Director Michael Boyd christens the new space with a production very much in keeping with his principles - no celebrity names but a lead actor, Jonathan Slinger, who made his name coming up through the RSC ensemble; and a major tragedy pitched at the widest possible audience, schools-friendly without being sanitised or simplified.

Tom Piper's set was stunning. This Macbeth was set in a desecrated church, and costume placed us squarely within the English Reformation. Shattered stained-glass windows stretched towards the eaves; piles of rubble and holes in stone walls spoke of violent destruction; and wooden panelling was painted with Catholic icons whose heads had been scratched out. The symbolic significance of this scene of destroyed religion was emphasised by the changes in the second set to a more puritanical church - the windows were shuttered over, the panelling was bare, the statues removed. As the world turned, so too were the representations of religion destroyed and then covered over, subject to implied external forces rather than governing actions. Yet the church continued to exert a powerful force over the players, drawing them into its rituals and symbols in an inescapable way.

Macbeth publicity art

The living representative of these changes was Scott Handy's unusually prominent Ross, priest to the regime. The play omitted the opening heath scene, instead beginning with three female cellists entering to a gallery and playing a low drone deliberately reminiscent of bagpipes. Then Howard Charles's Malcolm entered, taking the role of the bloody soldier, and stood mute and aghast. From a balcony, the black-robed Ross spoke "Doubtful it stood." Malcolm stood silent, and Ross repeated himself twice, then made as if to continue with the lines; at which point Malcolm jerked to life and delivered his war report to the assembled nobles. The message was obscure at this point, but the scene was repeated for Malcolm's concluding speech, as the embittered and weary Ross, again on a balcony, repeated three times "We shall not spend..." before Malcolm finally pulled himself together to speak.

The significance was in Ross's transformation throughout the play. Handy's elegant and conscientous minister was present for all the key action, and increasingly dissociated from the living characters to become an almost choric link between this world and the next. The Old Man was removed from their two scenes, allowing Ross to address the audience in soliloquy over his fears. Macbeth's coronation was staged spectacularly, with Ross singing Pie Jesu and presiding as baptismal water poured from the ceiling and the Macbeths washed themselves ceremonially. On entering the home of the Macduffs, it was made clear that Ross knew the family well, and his closeness to the family was tinged with terror for their safety. In another soliloquy scene he cast his Catholic vestments against a wall, abjuring religion as his country fell apart, and his report to Malcolm and Macduff was grief-stricken. Later, he appeared marching with the ghosts of Banquo and Macduff's family, stony-faced and resolute. In the person of Ross, religion was breaking down in the face of grief and onslaught, and had lost faith in itself - by this time, Ross was in military garb. As Macbeth and Macduff fought, Ross passed silently through along with Lady Macduff, aligning him closely with the dead and transcendent as much as with the living. It was in this key that he fed Malcolm his closing lines, falling into a liminal spiritual space where the dead ventiloquised the living, casting Malcolm as the puppet of higher orders.

The presence of the dead, as is typical for Boyd, pervaded the production. On a comic note, Jamie Beamish's Seyton (who took the Porter's part) came in as an Irish suicide bomber with a belt of dynamite sticks under his cloak. I say comic as the audience responded appreciatively; but this seemed a crass and horrifically insensitive trivialisation of this stereotype in light of recent events in Belfast. Beamish lit dynamite sticks and put them down in front of members of the audience identified as equivocators, causing the audience to squirm as the fuses burned down. To Seyton's disappointment, they fizzled out; but he picked the sticks up and threw them behind a pile of rubble, where they exploded spectacularly. To the shrieking audience, he wagged a finger and reminded us "Never return to a firework once it's lit". The historical relevance to the Gunpowder Plot was, of course, not missed. Clad in red, in an intertextual reference to the Keeper of Boyd's Henry VI trilogy, this Porter became the keeper of Hell's gate, opening a door upstage to admit the reanimated corpses of Banquo and the Macduffs after their slaughters, and Macbeth at the play's conclusion.

The Witches were three children (two boys, one girl), who first appeared dangling from meathooks high above the stage. Tattered and with crosses daubed on their heads, they were clearly living corpses, alternately giggling and delivering cold prophecies. Later, it was revealed that the witches were in fact Macduff's children, who appeared hale and healthy with their mother playing with the same dolls that had recently acted as the embodied demons of Macbeth's second consultation (which concluded with the hideous image of hundreds of toy mannekins of Banquo descending from the ceiling). Macbeth's black-cloaked murderers entered and broke the neck of one boy, slit the throat of the other and suffocated the mother; then, even more creepily, led the young girl offstage in silence. She only reappeared as the Porter summoned the bodies of the dead, entering by herself and quietly following the Porter into the gates of hell. Where other productions have done something similar by showing the witches as victims of war in interpolated prologues, it was cleverly anti-linear to have the corpse-like children prefigure Macbeth's crime against them. The mother and children proceeded to stalk the stage, following Macduff during the final battles and accompanying Ross in cutting down branches of Birnam Forest.

Banquo (Steve Toussaint) was another strong visual presence, if not one of the better verse-speakers. Dread-locked and towering over the rest of the cast, he posed a significant threat to Macbeth and was ambitious in his own right, at one point giving Fleance a sword and mace and stepping back to see what his son would look like as a monarch. During the coronation a beautiful visual image was set up in the descrated church, with High Church ceremony and white robes on the ground level presided over by Ross while Banquo, the weird children, the Porter and the cellists gathered around the smashed stained glass windows on the upper level; Banquo already with one foot in the demonic world. His murder was effectively staged, with the murderers (Seyton was the third, though merely stood with a lamp) greeting Banquo as if a welcoming committee. They shook his hand and stabbed him; but he retained life long enough to hold them back as he screamed to Fleance to flee. Banquo's body was left on the stage and revived by Seyton. Later, during the banquet scene (played without a table as a drinks reception), the Ghost smashed through a door, a piece of which Macbeth picked up and wielded as a weapon against his persecutor; then, in his second appearance, he entered with a knife and bloodily murdered Macbeth, stabbing him in the back and slashing his throat. The interval fell on this gruesome and frankly unnecessary scene; which was then replayed at the start of the second half without the Ghost, allowing us to see what the assembled courtiers saw and appreciate his apparent madness. This device, famously used in Rupert Goold's recent production with Patrick Stewart, was here effective and allowed Slinger the chance to play up the comedy of the moment as he sat nonchalantly on the floor once his fit was passed and gazed up at his servants.

While the creative decisions made thus had some interest, the production was let down by generally weak or unmemorable performances. There were a few key exceptions - Scott Handy and Caroline Martin brought emotional edges to Ross and Lady Macduff in life, and a terrifying intensity to their roles in the final vengeance, that allowed us to invest in these relatively minor characters; and Nikesh Patel (an old Warwick student incidentally, great to see him on the main stage!) was a genuinely interesting Donalbain, tenderly seeing to his older brother in the opening scene, providing loud support for his father and offering a dynamic counterpoint to the more passive Malcolm, realised in a final battle against Macbeth that saw him dispatched hideously for his proactive stance. Howard Charles excelled as Malcolm during the England scene, bringing a melodrama to his performance of evil that rendered him truly fearsome in the face of Macduff; and the children worked hard in substantial roles.

It was in the lead roles that the production suffered. Slinger, one of my favourite actors, was a decent but uninteresting Macbeth, who most came alive in scenes of humour such as the banquet or his address to the cream-faced loon. He was strongest when standing atop a ladder that emerged from under the stage, calling for his armour as the English troops gathered below him. His habit of changing the pitch of his voice (high and colloquial for conversation, switching suddenly to deep for ominous moments or serious pronouncements) felt too self-consciously artificial, and the focus throughout on the visual rather subordinated the role amid the ghosts and spectacle, which Slinger was unable to rise above. A general through-line was discernable, however, with Macbeth beginning with barely-concealed ambition (his awkward bows to Malcolm and Duncan were particularly telling) and gradually distancing himself from his wife. In a production with so much pre-determination, however, Macbeth ultimately felt incidental.

More disappointing was Aislin McGuckin's Lady Macbeth, a controlled and intellectually ambitious woman who brooked no weakness from Macbeth and was increasingly left in the cold by him. While there was nothing wrong with this reading, it felt out of keeping with the rest of the production, and her delivery of lines was rote and flat. She was most interesting during the banquet, attempting to play the formal hostess and desperately laughing away Macbeth's actions. The sleepwalking scene passed almost unremarked as she scrubbed her hands in a bowl, shrieked a little and eventually saw herself offstage. Crucially, in a production haunted by the dead, she did not reappear after her death. Aidan Kelly's Macduff and Des McAleer's Duncan, meanwhile, were nothing more than functional.

This wasn't a poor production, then, but an oddly flat one that took far more interest in clever links and visual style than in text or character. The good work in the minor characters was offset by run-of-the-mill leads, and the play itself became a vehicle for directorial style. There were moments of great work - I had never before, for example, felt the power of the description of Edward the Confessor during the England scene, which resounded wonderfully with the religious setting - but these were too few and far between. What will remain are the images, including the glorious picture at the end as Lady Macduff and her children ascended to the gallery and opened the shutters, revealing the sun shining through perfectly restored stained glass windows, a moment of hope at the end of a bleak play.

A version of this review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.


April 24, 2011

Cardenio (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre, Stratford–upon–Avon

Writing about web page http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/cardenio/

"Shakespeare's 'Lost Play' Re-Imagined" runs the tag-line to this, the first full-scale new production in the Swan Theatre since its re-opening. The absence of John Fletcher (let alone Lewis Theobald) from this tag is perhaps inevitable given the RSC's priorities, although both are fully credited within the wider publicity material. This is the RSC's first (only?) big crack at Cardenio, and the company has been keen to emphasise the scholarly rationale behind the staging, with blogs and articles detailing the production's sources in Cervantes, Shelton and Theobald. While I've seen and reviewed several productions of Double Falsehood over the last few months, however, it should be noted that this was emphatically NOT a production of Theobald's play. While Double Falsehood provided the majority of the text, this was an attempt at a conjectural reconstruction of Cardenio, versifying and interpolating material from Don Quixote along with new text and fleshing out the play. This review will inevitably be comparing Cardenio with Double Falsehood, but the two turned out to be interestingly different plays.

Cardenio

The production began with a coffin, positioned before iron gates that divided the stage in two and stood primarily for the gates of Don Bernardo's house, physically stressing the family divide that relates the play to Romeo and Juliet. Candles burned and Catholic choristers led a group of courtiers in chants behind the gate. Into this sacred environment stepped Alex Hassell as Fernando (the Henriquez character; most were renamed after the Don Quixote source characters), who slowly got into the coffin and lay down, arms crossed. As the funereal party moved to unlock the gates, Fernando quickly left up and exited. Already, he was established as the transgressive figure to watch, with a hint of his tendencies towards self-destruction. As the rest of the cast entered, it became clear that the coffin was being prepared well in advance of the Duke's death, much to the dismay of elder son Pedro (Simeon Moore, the Roderigo character).

The changes to Double Falsehood made by director Greg Doran and Spanish dramaturg Antonio Alamo were wide-reaching, particularly in the play's first half. New scenes including an opening spar between the bickering Cardenio (Julio) and Luscinda (Leonora); scenes between Pedro, Cardenio and Fernando at court which were particularly important in establishing the friendship of the latter two men; a scene of further wooing between Fernando and Dorotea (Violante) framed by a Spanish fiesta and, in the second half, a scene set in the nunnery featuring Luscinda's abduction. There was extensive rewriting throughout the rest of the play, including major changes to both the wedding and the conclusion, which I'll discuss in their turn. By the same token, Fabian and Lopez were cut (along with any vestiges of a sub- or parallel plot) and, more bizarrely, the scene in which Dorotea employs a servant to help disguise her as a boy was also omitted.

The relationship between Oliver Rix and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Cardenio and Luscinda was established effectively. With the imposing, auditorium-high gates often between them, the nervous Cardenio was often reduced to staring through the bars as Luscinda glided past, invariably accompanied by a Duenna and Maid. Out of his social sphere, and intimidated by Nicholas Day's blustering Don Bernardo, Cardenio became a Romeo-esque lover, comically floundering about for lines of poetry and making grand promises, while quailing beneath Luscinda's steely gaze. Initially, I deeply disliked Briggs-Owen's very modern Luscinda, who stood with hands on hips, scornful derision and a general "talk to the hand" confidence that ill suited the formal period setting. While these mannerisms and expressions felt crass, it did help establish the difference in their demeanours, and as the play went on Briggs-Owen settled into a far calmer and more appropriately emotional vein. She was a dynamic figure who both challenged Cardenio and gave him confidence in her proactive approach; and she clashed dramatically with her obstinate father while Cardenio looked meekly on. This conflict became the production's early focal point, as the wilful Luscinda refused to yield to parental control yet struggled to find ways out.

This culminated in the wedding scene, which aimed to turn the Cardenio/Luscinda relationship into the focal point. Cardenio arrived, disguised in the Citizen's cloak, and Luscinda showed him her dagger and pushed him protesting into a corner, ordering him to hide. This suited the relationship already established, with Cardenio allowing Luscinda to take the lead. As the wedding party entered and Luscinda was led to her new husband, however, she grabbed for the dagger but was unable to find it. The priest began the vows and a distraught Luscinda, not knowing what to do with her plans thwarted, ended up stuttering a "Yea", then fainted as Fernando placed a ring on her finger. She was carried out, and the wedding broke up. Left alone, Cardenio soliloquised about his own passivity and Luscinda's cruelty, before leaving quietly to run mad in the forest. I found this unconvincing and dramatically inert; in Double Falsehood, events come to a head in a moment of extreme violence during which Julio is ejected from the church, and madness becomes a passion borne out of rejection and the betrayal of a friend. This far more considered "madness" didn't chime with his subsequent ravings, which dwelled primarily on the Fernando treachery; the introduction of a complication between the two lovers was unnecessary and was not addressed in their reunion in the final scene.

The least adapted roles were those of the two fathers, who retained their comic function (particularly Christopher Godwin's Camillo) but with a great deal of pathos, particularly as they bewailed their losses to Pedro. The scene of Bernardo's flouting of Camillo was a particular joy, with Day relishing every word in a slow, sarcastic delivery that brought on an apopleptic fit in Godwin. The two eventually resorted to pushing each other pompously, before Bernardo distracted Camillo by pointing behind him, then running to the gates which he locked in Camillo's face. Pedro later discovered Camillo still standing before the gates, rattling his stick against them in fury. The compact between the three, little adapted from Theobald's text, was a high point of dignity that set up the "quest" element of the second half neatly.

A new scene between Cardenio and Fernando saw the two of them, following a riding session, telling each other about their respective loves. Hassell's wonderful Fernando channelled Lord Flashheart (of Blackadder), making of the Duke's son an unpredictable, tempestuous, loud cad. Jumping onto a vaulting horse, he boasted of Dorotea and showed unashamed interest in Cardenio's description of Luscinda. This spoiled lord showed his colours when Cardenio advised him against pursuing Dorotea, jumping down from the horse and advancing on his friend in a spirit of anger, before laughing and embracing him. Everyone, Pedro included, was cautious around Fernando, wary of his temper and flammable humour.

Cardenio publicity art

Particularly interesting was how funny Fernando was. His charismatic excesses brought the audience onside, and excused to some extent his brash behaviour. This became hugely complicated as the wooing of Dorotea commenced. At first it was purely comic, including overwrought instructions to confused musicians and a pleading tone to Dorotea (appearing at a balcony) that rendered him somewhat pathetic. The humour of the character, however, did mean that the audience continued laughing even as he asserted his right to her body and announced he would bribe her maid, keeping it firmly within a comic vein. The new seduction scene (which followed his conversation with Cardenio at court, and was thus separated in time) was framed by a fiesta featuring masked revellers carrying large sexual puppets that were tossed together on a blanket and left in a mess of limbs on the ground, making explicit the tone of Fernando's mission. Yet the scene itself made the nature of their interaction extremely ambiguous. He sneaked into her room and, initially, attempted to force himself on her, despite her anger and pleading. As they talked in the heat of fear and passion, promises were exchanged on both sides, and she handed him marriage as a solution, which he accepted. The scene closed as he began to kiss her and she (difficult to see) appeared to stop resisting. The overall impression was one of consensual sex under false pretences, rather than enforced rape. This was emphasised in a small but significant textual change as Fernando left. Where in Double Falsehood he says "True, she did not consent; as true she did resist, but still in silence all," here he said "True, she did consent..." While the intent was clearly to attempt to make Dorotea's pursuit of Fernando palatable to a modern audience, it had the effect of reducing the extent of Fernando's crime; as did the delay of his pursuit of Luscinda until after another interpolated scene where Cardenio showed him Luscinda's house and the maid herself, at only which point did Fernando decide to woo her for himself.

While I happen to think the stronger rape narrative implied by Double Falsehood offers a more challenging and important set of issues, this extremely significant change did bring the play more into line with the Cardenio story and Jacobean sensibilities. Further, it allowed Fernando to gradually increase in maliciousness rather than peak in his first appearances. His overpowering presence and sycophantic deferrence to Bernardo were loathed by Luscinda, and the nunnery scene was especially effective. An oddly comic nun offered some pedantic banter with Luscinda, which offset the arrival of the coffin. Luscinda (the report of whose flight was passed over quickly at the end of the first half) then sat before the coffin, assuming it was Cardenio but afraid to look. Suddenly, the coffin lid flew off (to screams from the audience) and Fernando emerged, clasping his hand over her mouth and forcing her into the coffin, inside which she continued to shout while the nuns were trapped behind locked gates and Pedro looked on aghast. This most significant instance of Fernando's violence built nicely towards the play's concluding action.

Simeon Moore's Pedro offered a powerful contrast to his brother throughout. While his portentous tone sometimes grated, he offered a tremulous and conscientous noble, bewildered by the acts of treachery he saw about him and with a fury that caused him to shake as he addressed Fernando in the final scene. Moore found tremendous personality and complexity in this man, who initially attempted to ignore Violante in her page outfit and struggled with his own conscience regarding Luscinda.

The second half began with autumn leaves spread about the stage, the gates removed and a reflective backdrop giving the impression of wide open spaces. The shepherds, dressed in winter clothes and sitting in a work attitude, gossipped and joked together without becoming openly comic. The gentle pastoral atmosphere came from a director who understands Fletcher, and provided an elegiac tone for Cardenio's mad scenes. Dishevelled and sore, his distractedness oscillated between moments of direct action (such as his recognition of "Fernando" in the face of the Second Shepherd") and wandering speeches which drew him aimlessly among the locals, who watched him with caution bred from familiarity. The comic action of these scenes included an attempt to leap at a "Fernando" in the audience, which saw Cardenio caught in mid-air by two of the shepherds; and the picking up of the Second Shepherd by the nose, a battle which resulted in all of the cast being knocked to the stage. Timothy Speyer's Master was a short and lecherous villain, who couldn't keep his hands off his boy and came very close to raping Dorotea before Roderick's interruption.

The two shepherds who stayed with Cardenio were fleshed out nicely with conversation and ideas of taking him to the nearest town to be cured. They faded into the background as he listened to the song of Pippa Nixon's Dorotea. Nixon made for a strait-laced Dorotea, pleading and self-sufficient but continually scared by the advances of men. Following her song and descent to the stage, she took out a dagger and prepared to kill herself, but was prevented by Cardenio. The character's earnestness was well-played by Nixon, and her earlier interactions with Fernando displayed her quick thinking and fast talking.

The final scene pulled together the stories to mixed effect. Set in what appeared to be a Spanish bar, with servants setting up tables and women beating blankets, it made for an odd environment for the Duke and fathers to set up court in. For the most part, the action played out as in Double Falsehood, with Pedro reintroducing Luscinda to her father (realised in a simple but touching embrace) and Fernando to his father. Fernando humbled himself appropriately and apologised for his faults, while the Duke castigated him and instructed Luscinda on obedience. Dorotea was brought in as Florio and told her story, to the belief of all except the outraged Fernando, then left to effect her change. At this point began the extensive rewriting.

Cardenio was brought in, still dishevelled, and stood before the group. Fernando stepped forward, and began his denial before recognising him. He drew slowly closer and knelt before his wronged friend... and then lashed out, beating and attempting to kill him. The two fought, and Cardenio eventually threw Fernando against some chairs at the back of the room. Cardenio was then reunited with his father and THEN Luscinda, reversing the order. As the lovers kissed, Fernando reappeared, felled Cardenio and grabbed Luscinda. At this point Dorotea re-entered and dissuaded Fernando from further disgrace with a long speech. This ending was undeniably more interesting than the straightforward and carefully stage-managed reunions of Double Falsehood, but jarred; following Fernando's apology to his father, the attempt to kill Cardenio in the presence of the Duke made no sense (unless Fernando was far madder than he was played) and felt like an unnecessary attempt to spice up the climax and give Dorotea more to do. What this effectively did was change the cause of Fernando's repentance from a series of small humiliations (the return of Luscinda, his humbling before the joke, the revelation of Dorotea, the reunion with Cardenio) to a single speech by Dorotea, which was unconvincing and overly simplistic. However, it introduced a welcome note of ambiguity into the reunions, as the joy of the fathers was marred by the quiet and troubled faces of Luscinda and Cardenio, both abused by Fernando, and the tentative attempts of Fernando himself to apologise to Dorotea.

A final Spanish dance closed the production on a strong and musical note (and mention should be made of Paul Englishby's gorgeous Spanish-inflected live score, whose effect on the overall production cannot be adequately articulated nor understated by me). My discussion of the textual adaptation should not detract from the fact that this was a joyous, well-performed and confident production. While some of the changes were welcome and some were unnecessary, very few actually diminished the play, and as a putative reconstruction of Cardenio it was intelligent, accessible and designed to appeal to the widest possible crowd, without reducing the action to mere Shakespearean parallels. What is most important is that the combination of Theobald's play and Cervantes's story worked extremely well on the Swan stage and made the strongest case yet for the value of Double Falsehood to the modern repertory, in being the primary source for a thoroughly enjoyable entertainment.


April 23, 2011

Shakespeare music on the radio

I get circulars sent to me from time to time, but thought I'd post this one seeing as it's now the 23rd and, officially, Will's birthday. Their words, not mine, so don't come complaining if you don't like the playlist!


This weekend marks what may have been Shakespeare’s 447th birthday, and Classical 105.9 FM WQXR – the #1 classical music station in the country [edit - read USA] – is celebrating with MOVIES ON THE RADIO. Shakespeare's dramas have been adapted to film many times, and an impressive range of composers have contributed to those movies.

This Saturday at 9pm, WQXR host David Garland will present a selection of Shakespearean film scores in honor of the great Bard of Avon.

Featured pieces include:
•       Romeo and Juliet by Nina Rota
•       King Lear by Dimitri Shostakovich
•       Much Ado About Nothing by Patrick Doyle
•       Kiss Me Kate (based on "The Taming of the Shrew") by Cole Porter
•       …and more.


Tune in at 105.9 FM or www.wqxr.org to join host David Garland for “Shakespeare at the Movies.” For full program details, visit http://www.wqxr.org/programs/movies/2011/apr/23/.


April 11, 2011

Bond (Taiwan BangZi Opera) @ The Hyatt Regency, Bellevue

You'll notice that Bellevue is off my normal reviewing route. While attending the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America just outside Seattle this week, I took the opportunity to catch a special performance by the extremely prestigious Taiwan Banzi Opera Company of Bond, its retelling of The Merchant of Venice.

The scheduling of the performance directly after the conference Opening Reception - which featured an open bar - was perhaps not best conducive to my enjoyment of the performance. Nor, must I admit, were the tonalities of the music and singing to my taste. I found this an audibly difficult and tedious aural experience, which is no reflection on the excellent performers but rather on my own unfamiliarity with the musical form.

The opera, two hours in length, was split into four scenes: the establishment of Bassanio's quest and making of the bond; Bassanio's selection of Portia's casket; the trial; and the ring exchange. The stripping out of the subplots (no Lorenzo, Jessica or Launcelot) made this a linear and uncomplicated story, a series of causal events oscillating between Venice and Belmont.

The four main characters were all played by women, although Shylock and Antonio were still heavily made up as men. Chien-hua Liu's Bassanio was the most heavily feminised of the male characters, visually mirroring Ya-ling Hsiao's Portia. This Bassanio was childishly naive, simpering to his friend when asking for support and bewildered during the trial. Mei-li Chu's moustachioed Antonio, on the other hand, was a pragmatic and confident businessman who strode and blustered, an austere opponent for Shylock.

The diva of the opera, Hai-ling Wang, was the production's highlight as Shylock. The play's conflict between Jews and Christians was here recast as that between Saracen traders and the native Cathayans, and any religious aspects to the feud were occluded. Shylock was a comically villainous figure, deilberately vindictive and interested only in money. He twirled an abacus, clowning with it as he taunted Antonio, and whispered knowingly to the audience. Yet there was more going on too; a companion Saracen goaded Shylock on in the trial sequence, pushing him to greater acts of cruelty despite Shylock's own initial discomfort, and abandoning him at the point of the turn.

The "Hath not a Saracen?" speech was relocated to the trial scene, performed before the seated pairing of the Duke and Portia, with commentary from the two Sallies who watched from the sides. I appreciated the formality of the court and Portia's calm control of the law; her caveat was delivered in a spirit of absolute preparedness.

The love plot was less invested, with the love between Portia and Bassanio immediate and easy. When Bassanio looked unlikely to choose the correct casket (here visually realised as differently-hued birdcages) she hinted clearly towards it, and the ring trick was resolved in a spirit of good humour, a gentle joke rather than a learning experience. The banter between the coy Nerissa and the more comically aggressive Gratiano was a welcome relief here, providing a comic energy that broke up the lyrical love-talk.

As I've said, this wasn't to my taste and I found the shallow treatment a little unsatisfying. However, this seemed to me to achieve highly within the conventions of the form. It offered an intelligent reorganisation of the play that subordinated the complexities of plot to the musical expansion of character motifs, and what was lost in depth was made up for in formal style. It's certainly an approach I'd be interested to see again; though perhaps before rather than after the wine.


April 02, 2011

The Rape of Lucrece (RSC Studio) @ The Swan Theatre

The Rape of Lucrece was last staged at the Swan in 2006, as part of the Complete Works Festival. That production, directed by Greg Doran, was a relatively traditional reading of the poem, featuring five actors standing in a line with books in hand, each taking one of the poem’s “parts” and sharing narration. It was a great event, but it felt partial, a work-in-progress that never developed into a full-blown project.

This year’s production, by contrast, was the first production to come out of the new “RSC Studio”, an artist-development project that gives performers the opportunity to freely develop new ideas, the best of which will be produced on the RSC’s stages. For this, the experienced RSC director Elizabeth Freestone collaborated with Camille O’Sullivan, the singer/actress, and pianist Feargal Murray to create a contained, complete and measured response to Shakespeare’s poem.

It was extraordinary.

Yes, an eighty minute monologue from a single performer could sometimes be a little tiring. Yes, it lacked the multivocality and variety of a full production. And yes, the music might not have been to everyone’s taste. Frankly though, I don’t care. This was O’Sullivan’s show, and she delivered one of the most spellbinding and committed performances I’ve ever been privileged to see, well worth one of my extremely rare standing ovations, not least for having memorised the entire poem.

Murray sat at a grand piano on stage and accompanied much of the performance with a mixture of background score and foregrounded showpieces. Drawing on Irish influences, the score was a mixture of melancholic melody and crashing dramatic chords. An essential part of the performance, Murray’s piano guided the poem’s movements, creating atmospheres that gently divided the story into thematic and emotional sections, and gave O’Sullivan a field to play in.

This was entirely O’Sullivan’s show, however. She entered, clad in a long black jacket and with her hair pulled tightly back, and began to tell the story of the poem in modern language, introducing the story gradually to the Roman background. A pair of woman’s shoes were placed downstage right, symbolising Lucrece; while she placed a pair of soldier boots upstage left for Tarquin, her embodied presence for the performance’s first half. In her beautiful Irish accent, she drifted into the poem proper (reasonably edited, but complete enough to render her ability with the lines a real marvel), shifting between Tarquin and a narrator figure.

O’Sullivan’s strength was an emotional intensity that kept the audience captivated for the entire eighty minutes, and continued to pull people back even after slow moments. Both performing Tarquin and speaking about Tarquin, she brought out a humanity in the rapist that both shocked and compelled. Agonising over his/her intended actions, weighing up the consequences and growing in sexual passion, this was a Tarquin one could believe in; a monstrous figure of pure emotion. The lighting design of Vince Herbert was key here  - rarely has there been a lighting pattern so dramatically involved in the action, changing hue and intensity according to the tenor of O’Sullivan’s voice.

After the moment of the rape itself, O’Sullivan threw herself more physically into the performance. She took off her coat, revealing a white shift beneath, and shook out her hairpins to let her hair fall about her shoulders, and lay on the floor in an agony of post-violation pain and anguish. Gradually she took control over herself once more, taking up the longer half of the poem in Lucrece’s person and addressing the heavens, the audience and herself in a spirit of recrimination, guilt and anger.

The poem was partly spoken and partly sung. O’Sullivan’s singing voice was sublime, not dissimilar to Martha Wainwright or a female Damien Rice. In moments of high drama she thumped the floor with her bare heels as she sang, bringing a percussive dynamic to her singing which rammed home the extent of her feeling. While these louder moments were important in propelling the narrative forward, just as powerful were the quieter lyrics, particularly as she resolved to kill herself. With the piano stripped back to a minimum, O'Sullivan gazed at an unseen fixed point and gave herself over to death, a tear rolling down her cheek.

O'Sullivan donned a black scarf as she prepared to face her husband, which was lowered following her death as the returning men grieved her and red petals fell from the gods. As she spoke the final lines of the poem, she openly wept, a genuine emotion made all too clear by her grateful and entirely honest reception of the standing ovation that followed. As a tour de force reading of the poem and a personal journey, this was sublime, and a fantastic way to launch the public outputs of the RSC Studio.


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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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