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July 29, 2012

Isles of Wonder

Writing about web page http://www.london2012.com/spectators/ceremonies/opening-ceremony/

There's so much been written on the London 2012 Opening Ceremony that I certainly don't feel the need to talk at length about the event. Suffice to say, I thought it was a bold and wonderful opening, celebratory while keeping its tongue at least partly in its cheek, self-deprecating and triumphant. The Bond/Queen and Bean sections were theatrical coups; the internet/music sequence had a baffling and unnecessary narrative which, thankfully, didn't detract from a fabulous celebration of Britain's achievements in music and film; the tribute to children's literature was gorgeous and the political statement justly felt; and I thought the cauldron looked terrific and the choice of the final torchbearers a great touch.

My compatriot Jem Bloomfield has written eloquently about the Shakespeare contribution - Kenneth Branagh, dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, speaking Caliban's lines from The Tempest, 'be not afeard', and I thought I'd add my tuppence worth. I'm not interested so much in where these words came from as what they were doing in Brunel's mouth at this particular moment.

Kenneth Branagh
Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Among all the furore over certain groups branding the ceremony too "leftie" (especially the idiotic Aidan Burley MP), I felt particularly bemused, as this section of the ceremony left a slightly sour taste in my mouth on account of its presentation of more conservative values. Was this a celebration? We watched a halcyon vision of Britain's bucolic past torn apart by industrialists, who removed the landscape in choroegraphed, machine-like movements, creating a smoking industrial landscape that forged the Olympic rings out of the ashes of the countryside. It's an oddly ambivalent moment to celebrate, and the ceremony seemed to know this. The evocation of Lord of the Rings imagery, the confusion of the Revolution and the groups it brought together, wandering lost among the smokestacks (rather like the paddy-field farmer in the cartoon introduction to Have I Got News For You), the wealthy industrialists becoming rich at the expense of the faceless masses; it was, in many ways, a nightmarish opening. I'm not quite sure what the fireworks-spewing rings at the conclusion of this sequence were meant to say, exactly - don't worry, the destruction of the countryside was worth it if we get to hold the Olympics? The wealthy have made all this possible? To my mind, it works best in the context of the entire show, where those values were thrown into contrast with the NHS sequence that so outraged Conservatives and Republicans.

What was most remarkable about Branagh's performance, to my mind, was the glimpses we got of him walking round, smoking a cigar and smirking at the Revolution he had instigated. Narratively, I suppose I would have liked to see a little more sense of this spiralling out of control, the "What have I wrought?" moment. But perhaps this was implicit enough in the lines with which he began the show. In Brunel's mouth, the words of Caliban's speech became the capitalist dream that Cheek by Jowl played with in their Russian-language production.

[A]nd then in dreaming,
The clouds, methought, would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

It was the riches that Brunel longed for, that provided the drive and inspiration that led him, Saruman-like, to tear up his country's green spaces. Where the nature of the riches Caliban imagines are left deliciously open to interpretation, Brunel's were material. I couldn't help but be reminded of Caliban's much later line:

Let it alone, thou fool; it is but trash.

When Stephano and Trinculo are presented with riches that have appeared magically from the air/Ariel, Caliban is the one awake to their true nature. Perhaps I'm over-reading, but I can't help but feel that it's in the last line of the earlier speech that the difference between Brunel and Caliban can be seen. Caiban "cried to dream again". His instant recourse is to the imaginative world, not to an attempt to realise or own the music he has heard. It is at other points in the play that he attempts to take action, to disastrous effect. Brunel, conversely, immediately aimed to turn his dream of riches into a reality. His usurpation of the "isle of wonder" may not be the same as Prospero's, but the march of industrial capitalism at the expense of nature is, of course, a staple trope and one associated with the coloniser (see Avatar and a million better books and films).

To debate whether Brunel was 'Caliban' or 'Prospero' in this fantasy, however, is something of a red herring. The point is about appropriation, with Brunel colonising and disrupting Caliban's words just as he subsequently did to the landscape. In looking to the artificial clouds that hovered in the stadium and praying for riches to fall from them, Danny Boyle both literalised the image and rendered it a tagline for a capitalist dream. I'm not sure we were meant to celebrate this, exactly, but Branagh made it feel terrifyingly appropriate.


July 23, 2012

The Hollow Crown: Henry V @ BBC2

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00s91rf

It remains to Thea Sharrock to steer the BBC's Hollow Crown series to a dignified and lavish conclusion with Henry V, which brings Tom Hiddleston's young king to worldly maturity and sees the return of most of the actors whose parts have transcended individual films (although not York/Aumerle nor, curiously, Falstaff's Boy). As was the case with Richard Eyre's Henry IV films, this production is defined by its sincerity and seriousness, unfortunately to a fault. In its depiction of war, Sharrock steers away from politics and consequence to offer a more superficial overview of the war experience that concentrates in micro-close-up indiscriminately on the suffering of all individuals, taking the easy route of demonstrating that War Is Bad through the earnestly agonised faces and pathos-laden deaths of name characters, rather than critiquing the processes that created the situation in the first place.

That's not to say that there isn't a great deal to like about this film, particularly in the performances. Anton Lesser is a weary, quiet Exeter, rivetting in his tired glare at Jeremie Covillaut's Montjoy and a calm presence who stalks the edges of the battlefield and the king's chambers alike. Owen Teale is a serious-minded Fluellen, brusque but fair, and with a propensity to help his struggling underlings. Melanie Thierry and Geraldine Chaplin allow their dignity to dissolve into giggling during the French-speaking scene, and Lambert Wilson offers an austere reading of the King of France, framed by a huge faded tapestry (which the pedant in me thinks would probaby have been much more brightly coloured at the time, but I digress).

In this version of history, everyone is a human being and everyone is individually characterised. This means that we see on every face the pain of war, the slog and tiredness experienced whether by kings or the lowest footsoldier. It becomes somewhat relentless; Paul Ritter's Pistol sobs into his hands at the side of the battlefield, pulled up short by the carnage he sees; Fluellen dismounts from his horse to help a stumbling soldier through the mud while another soldier struggles to hold up a tattered St. George's flag; and the French nobles cradle their dying partners while promising to report back to the King. Most notably, Paterson Joseph's York is foregrounded early on as a particularly close friend of Henry V, picked out for special attention during the "band of brothers" speech and seen helping rescue the beleagured king on the battlefield in slow motion. His death occurs as he comes to the aid of the Boy, shot unawares by a French soldier who is subsequently shot by Exeter's man. York dies in the arms of the sobbing boy in a moment emblematic of the production's overall intentions - to emphasise war as the individual experience of tragedy.

Henry V

This is entirely valid as a reading but, as with Henry IV Part 2, it becomes rather monotonous, a montage of individual moments of sadness that don't coalesce in a coherent way. It looks and sounds stunning, but it doesn't offer much beyond the presentation of the material in a fairly superficial way. That is perhaps most true of the Chorus. John Hurt offers a clear, erudite reading of the speeches, but as a voiceover while scenes - the funeral of Henry V that opens the film, the sight of a majestic English ship crossing the channel - are fully visualised. Surely the purpose of the Chorus, however, is to evoke what cannot be realised, to articulate the performativity of the actors, rather than to act as the narration to literal depictions of events. The film's priorities are to emphasise grand speeches and the pain of war rather than engage with the play's more complex issues.

This is made apparent in the choice of cuts and interpretations. The opening involvement of the bishops in inciting Henry to war is cut to reduce their agency, and Henry's rationale for attacking France is accepted as just. The sequence of the traitors is entirely excised, preserving the English army as unfactionalised; a decision aided by the removal of the scene of the four captains. With the exception of Montjoy, the French get very little screen time other than what is necessary to establish them as opponents and imply the selfish motivations that allow Henry to make tough decisions. Most bizarrely, however, the killing of the boys is omitted, and Henry's decision to have the French prisoners killed comes as an outburst following the report of York's death.

Similarly, humour is mitigated at every turn. Any mention of leeks is studiously avoided, Falstaff's death is illustrated with a brief picture of a fading Simon Russell Beale, and the touching scene that remains between Julie Walters' Mistress Quickly and the other Eastcheap survivors is full of tears and serious recrimination, as well as a few laughs through tears. Bardolph's final situation is, however, played out at full length - York catches him running away with a crucifix, and Henry is brought to the tree where Bardolph has already been hanged, only to be greeted with a series of misty flashbacks of their prior connections. The fact that he is already dead, of course, relieves Henry of individual responsibility for his death, and thus Bardolph becomes simply another burden for the troubled king to bear.

Tom Hiddleston

Yet there is a great deal to love here. The battle scenes are extremely well done on the relatively small budget, drawing on Gladiator (a counterattack led from the trees by Fluellen), Braveheart (the massing soldiers) and Lord of the Rings (the storming of Harfleur smacks of Helm's Deep). The extreme cuts to the text allow the battles to contain their own miniature storylines and characteristics, from the boiling water poured on the English at Harfleur to the repeated digging-in and raising of defences at Agincourt. Sharrock's direction and emphasis on individual experience means that we see these battles through individual eyes, and Hiddleston is absolutely the right Henry for this approach. The two set-piece speeches are delivered naturally to small groups rather than as rhetorical announcements to an entire army. For "Once more unto the breach", he finds individual yeomen, including one cowering in panic next to the walls, and whispers his lines quietly to him, drawing the terrified soldier out of his foetal position with soothing blue eyes and calm words. "Band of brothers", meanwhile, takes the situation of the text literally and sees Henry speak as an individual to the small group of nobles (York, Westmorland, Erpingham, Exeter etc.) who are already in conversation, rather than opening up his promises to address the crowds. It's a distinctive and unusual arrangement of the speeches which works well in this context.

Hiddleston is a fine Henry V, troubled throughout by the pain of his soldiers and keen to engage with them. He's exemplary of the caring monarch, murmuring under his hood about how well Pistol's name suits him as the aggrieved soldier stomps away, and bursting into fury at Montjoy's last appearance. He is pious, spending considerable time on his knees either side of the battle, and charming in his encounter with Katherine. It's a solid, conventional reading of the king, but the camera allows Hiddleston to make the most of his facial expressions, emphasising the emotional reach in a way made more difficult on stage.

In an interesting final gambit, we see the face of the Boy who survived this version of the story come to Henry V's funeral and then, in a jump cut, transform into John Hurt, who wanders around an empty throne room clutching a tattered piece of an English flag. Interestingly, part of the penultimate line, "which oft our stage hath shown" is cut, presumably in honest reference to the fact that the BBC has not repeatedly shown the Henry VI trilogy. Yet the ethos of the series is disrupted in a final direct-to-camera address, asking the audience to accept the telling; followed by a historical message explaining that Henry died of dysentry. The shift to an odd docu-drama approach in the last moments fits oddly; it is the first time the audience is asked to accept a real king rather than a performed one. It's a moment which, again, sacrifices tonal consistency in favour of the quick emotional connection, the grown-up Boy gazing at the camera and asking the audience to remember them.

The Hollow Crown has created four accessible, straightforward Shakespeare films that are conservative in their readings, rich in production value and push the history plays as mood pieces, with individual emotion wrung out of every character. They will be hugely useful as teaching resources, and they are eminently watchable television. I wish the BBC had had the guts to do something more interesting with them though; make use of the format (Rupert Goold was the most inventive in this respect, but this was far more restrained technically than, say, his Macbeth) or take the opportunity to challenge the narratives of nationalism and conflict that were raised but not addressed in this series. The films are beautiful, but smack to me of Shakespeare to be seen and appreciated rather than to be engaged with or provoke conversation. While they are in many ways a resounding success, creating a Shakespeare that will reach the broadest possible audience and latch onto public mood broadly celebratory of individual achievement and ideas of the home nation in an Olympic year, it's perhaps also a missed opportunity for the exact same reasons.


July 14, 2012

The Hollow Crown: 2 Henry IV @ BBC2

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00s91qj

Part Three of the BBC's Hollow Crown series, again directed by Richard Eyre, concludes the Henry IV plays. Once again it is a lavish, visually rich, sensitively acted interpretation, with a great deal to recommend it. But where 1 Henry IV was full of life, variety, powerhouse acting and intelligent use of televisual conventions, 2 Henry IV is quite frankly very, very dull.

It's not the fault of any of the performers. Tom Hiddleston is melancholy and brooding as an increasingly conflicted Hal; Simon Russell Beale is moving as the wounded, desperate Falstaff; and the rest of the company are uniformly game in following Eyre's interpretation. The difficult with this version is that everyone seems depressed. All humour has been stripped out of the scenes, replaced by sentimental music and the overwhelming sense of age and decrepitude approaching. Yet even Chimes at Midnight, which popularised this as a reading of the Henry IV plays, had some fun along the way. Considering that so much of Henry IV is funny - Hal and Poins disguised as servants (cut), Shallow and Silence providing country nostalgia (here located in a frozen, wintry setting), the recruitment of the soldiers, the bickering between Falstaff and the Justice - Eyre seems determined to wrench Meaning from every glance, a tear from every encounter. In this world, everyone knows what is coming and is not looking forward to a world of change.

The recruitment scene is a case in point. It's very difficult not to play this as comedy, and there are clear attempts to draw a laugh as the reluctant soldiers push each other, bark loudly or are simply cast very small (Wart). But the scene is so quiet and sober that the laughs simply don't come across. Instead, the climax is Feeble stepping forward to be pricked, making a stand for stoic acceptance while violins begin stirring underneath. The point is made - that there is nobility in the pathetic attempts of the amateur soldier to find courage. But the lack of comedic contrast deprives it of its force, and instead the scene seems simply to be attempting to get to this point.

Similarly, Eastcheap is tainted throughout by sadness. The opening arrest of Falstaff by Julie Walters's excellent Mistress Quickly begins promisingly, with two amusing constables attempting to draw sword and Falstaff defending himself, while Tom Georgeson's Bardolph flaps and Quickly hangs on Falstaff's shoulder, finally pulling them all down into the mud. But as Geoffrey Palmer's austere Lord Chief Justice demands to know the cause, the scene becomes all sincerity, with Quickly genuinely pleading and Falstaff defending himself, before talking her back into his grace. Beale's Falstaff is wonderful at suggesting the desperate sadness that underpins a man who knows he is far past his prime, but he lacks the sparkle of wit that makes his manipulation of the hostess so sharp. His liaison with Maxine Peake's relatively lively Doll Tearsheet sees her rolling on top of him, but he quickly getting to a point of tiredness, murmuring "I'm old" as she rolls off him, leaving even this scene in a mood of morbid reflection. Hal and Poins, listening above, burst through the ceiling and thoroughly castigate the old man before marching out in anger, leaving Falstaff and the two women sat sorrowfully on the bed. There is no banter, no engagement, nothing to come down from - it is as if Falstaff's rejection hda already occurred, and the two hours of this film is merely playing out an already established fact.

The mood is, of course, not entirely inappropriate to the whole of the play. Jeremy Irons is, once again, riveting as the fading King. In an early scene, he rolls dice compulsively as he tells his sons to make peace with their brother, playing out his anxiety in a telling gesture. The highlight of the film is his midnight stroll around the castle, walking past silent guards and speaking his troubles out loud, before grandly opening the doors to the throne room and announcing "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown". His illness is apparent throughout, and he enters convulsions immediately after the report of John's victory is received. As he moves towards his end, his reconciliation with Hal is deeply felt and moving as he finally succumbs and falls into his son's arms.

Hiddleston's admirers are served by a faintly homoerotic first appearance in a bathing room, as he and Poins (David Dawson) lounge in towels and receive Bardolph. Yet from the start, there is no fun left in Hal, no relapse into enjoyment of prodigality. He tells Poins in all sincerity of his sadness for his father, and after taking the crown from his father's bedside he moves to the throne, sits in it and weeps openly. Elsewhere, everything is tears. Alun Armstrong's Northumberland weeps next to a lake. The three younger sons of Henry stand heads bowed before the Lord Chief Justice. The rebels accept their defeat in a mood of initial shock but ultimate acceptance. And the "chimes at midnight" moment sees Falstaff gazing into the middle distance of his own mortality, while even Shallow doesn't see the humour in the memories he evokes.

A bit of life is found in a kinetic chase scene as horsemen track down the fleeing soldiers who make up the remanants of the rebels, cutting them down along the way and sending Dominic Rowan's Coleville rolling down a bank into the sword of the straggling Falstaff. Henry Faber offers a sincere and earnest John, who takes great pains to convince the rebels first before James Laurenson's Westmoreland delivers the crushing order in a tent as soldiers surround the rebels. This breath of fresh air helps alleviate the monotony of tone, albeit even the normally amusing capture of Coleville is played dead straight.

The scourging of Eastcheap is intercut with Falstaff's disgrace, the women pullled away by their hair, and again the jokes omitted. Paul Ritter's Pistol is poorly served throughout by heavily cut scenes and a refusal to allow him to dominate the scene in the way the early records suggest, rendering his scenes relatively without impact, though he puts up a spirited fight in the final scene as the soldiers press in. However, the turning away of Falstaff is quite wonderful. Falstaff pushes through the crowds and past the soldiers creating a corridor to stand centrally with Hal. Hiddleston is utterly straight-faced, speaking down at the tiny knight and whispering harshly to him before raising his voice to ensure all the onlookers get the benefit of his renouncement. Yet it is Beale who shines here. He desperately tries to retain some hope, preparing a joke which is quashed before he opens his mouth, and ends the interview weeping openly before staggering away, leaning heavily on a cane, and finally being picked up by a rush of guards. The scene - and film - closes on Falstaff as he is dragged out into the open, the time slowing to a halt as Falstaff's face freezes in a look of utter sorrow.

Eyre's refusal to find variety or humour in the film works to its detriment. While the film does its essential job - demonstrate the mechanisms by which Hal casts off his fellows and becomes a sober king - the journey feels as if it has already been completed, and instead these are the final tickings of Falstaff's life, the slow drawing out of an inevitable conclusion. Beautifully shot and well performed, and often deeply moving (especially Beale) - but it's not enough to perform this play at one note.


King John (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre

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

The RSC's King John is playing in rep with Richard III and A Soldier in Every Son: The Rise of the Aztecs as part of the "Nations at War" strand of this season's work. It's a fascinating notional concept, but one thing that Maria Aberg's fresh reimagining of King John didn't emphasise was a sense of war. This was the most domestic take on the play I've yet seen, a rich and inventive study of a key central relationship around which infighting and politicking provided background colour. A nation may have been at war, but surprisingly, this John seemed to be more concerned with love.

Although the setting was not pinned down precisely, the legwarmers, neon shirts and music located John broadly in the '80s, painting a deliberately unflattering portrait of English popular entertainment. The kinds of behaviours that might, for lack of a better phrase, be popularly associated with a working-class Friday night out were here the default mode of the 'nobility': karaoke, miniskirts and cheap booze combined to suggest a society living for the weekend, oblivious to external pressures and ultimately torn apart when those pressures became unavoidable. It's a typical appropriation of this particular period, but more usually explicitly associated with the Falklands, Thatcherism and strikes, the messy and cruel realities which the era developed increasingly committed ways of avoiding. Here, though, specific political resonances were avoided, with the production instead concentrating on the mindset of avoidance, the surrender to crude pleasure that could only be momentary.

This was clearest in the scene which will undoubtedly maintain the production in some semblance of notoriety, and which reportedly caused walkouts on other nights. As Natalie Klamar's Blanche and Oliver Pearce's Dauphin prepared for marriage, she changed into fairy skirt and platform boots, he into a light lounge suit. The guests arrived in hideously 'fab' costumes, and the wedding played out as the crassest form of Albert Square party. The two kings kicked off the karaoke party, which quickly developed into a full-cast rendition of "I Say a Little Prayer" before segueing into the theme from Dirty Dancing, to which the married couple danced the full routine. The audience appeared to be divided between those in helpless hysterics and those sitting absolutely stoney-faced. It was a bravura performance and, from my point of view, thoroughly enjoyable; its indulgence was the point. As Susie Trayling's immaculate Constance finally crashed the party, sitting on the floor looking with derision at John Stahl's topless French King and the stag party rejects that followed Lewis, the point that the recourse to marriage and celebration failed to address the serious political issues at stake was finely made.

Perhaps surprisingly, this was a production that, through drastic reinvention, kept uncovering aspects of the text often concealed in more straightforward productions. The war scenes of the closing acts were conflated into a series of voices spoken from around the galleries: the encounter with Melun, Chatillon's interview with Lewis about the drowning of the French troops, and the Bastard hearing the news of John's poisoning were cut across each other, creating a mosaic of voices that deprioritised the political events in favour of retelling the story from John's point of view. With Alex Waldmann's John staggering on stage, the war played out as fragmented reports and motionless noises, the loss of men reduced to a meaningless number. As the voices built to a climax and John's staggering reached its peak, the lights suddenly went up and music sounded. Waldmann broke into a desperate and committed dance, throwing himself into pure movement which, as it went on, began gradually breaking down into coughs and choking. He staggered on for a while until he finally collapsed on the steps of the stage, slowly dying. John's hedonism and avoidance were brought into a single climactic moment of realisation, another extraordinary performative moment that summed up the character's journey in a kinetic and deeply moving sequence. The textual justification came in the young Prince's plaintive "'Tis strange that death should sing", here tying this peculiar detail to the character's overall arc.

Waldmann was a young and reckless king, openly sexual in his behaviour (including slapping his mother's backside) and entering a rhetorical relationship of love with the Bastard, who he held closely throughout. He was most at home joking in front of the Faulconbridges or leading the wedding celebrations that ended in debauchery. After delivering his speech to the besieged city via a standing microphone, he punched the air in celebration for the benefit of his cheering supporters. Dynamic and charismatic, he was not the John familiar from history but yet this king made sense. His weaknesses were those of youth, of thinking before speaking and of reacting with his mouth rather than his head. This pushed Siobhan Redmond's poised and elegant Elinor into the background, she enjoying the public flirtation with her son but politically operating more as a force of support than a leader. John was active in war and peace, and quick to crack a joke, even after the parodic ritual re-communication by Paola Dionisotti's Pandulph, played to Phantom of the Opera-esque organ music, when he jumped up and immediately began ignoring the cardinal.

Dionisotti was a powerful presence, with pursed lips and a slight smile that belied her confidence in her authority. Striding around the stage in sunglasses and trouser suit, Pandulph was a force not to be taken lightly, but who was finally sidelined in the Dauphin's rants. As the only really 'external' character, Pandulph was a reminder of what the other characters were overlooking in their selfish and inward-focused pursuits; she was the representation of consequence.

The boldest decision was the casting of Pippa Nixon as the Bastard, a role greatly expanded by conflation with Hubert. The role thus became even more of a co-lead, and the play was oriented around their relationship. In stocking and short dress, Nixon was a dynamic presence throughout. Lively and anarchic, always sitting or standing outside of the formal patterns, she riled everyone around her (particularly Mark Jax's astounded Austria). Her gender lent extraordinary resonance to the play's constant talk of love. Early on, she opened her hoodie and placed a hand on her upper chest, deliberately distracting John while her brother put forward his case. As the play progressed, the two entered a relationship that was deeply tactile but never reduced to mere sex; John was utterly dependent on the Bastard, holding her and staring deep into her eyes as he placed his love and trust in her, and she recapitulated her devotion to him. John was the Bastard's connection to the playworld, for she spent most of the first half talking to the audience. The other actors would freeze for her soliloquies, and she fully inhabited the Lord of Misrule role by taking over and narrating or undercutting the action. Yet John captured all her attention, and provided the focus that drew her further into events.

The commission to murder Arthur was given in the heat of battle, as the bloody-armed Bastard met John in a spirit of high energy, and the snappy back and forth between the two spoke of two minds already in tune. Yet confronted with the child, the Bastard was finally forced to engage with someone other than John. Attempting to handcuff the child, but ending sprawled across the floor with him bound by his active pleading, Nixon captured in a physical and enervated way the struggle of conscience. The two practically wrestled, and Nixon's energy became rooted in a fixed point of the stage, turning inward into her own conflict. As she returned to John, the terrified energy of both - she at her failure to carry out his order, he at his penance for what he believed had taken place - was channelled into a deeply disturbing sequence as John, enraged and terrified, grabbed hold of the woman he 'loved' and proceeded to enact an abortive rape on her, wrenching at her breasts and pinning her to the floor as she sobbed in simultaneous pain and regret. Although he subsequently apologised, it was a disquieting insight into the darkest aspect of this king's compulsive behaviour - he needed to feel and consume, his drives geared towards destruction that would easily consume those around him also. His behaviours were simply unsustainable.

At its motif, the production continually revisited the notion of release. The second half began with the Bastard entering and belting out (not fantastically, but adequately) a solo number as John sat behind her, at the climax of which confetti cannons went off in the rafters and the background scenery - an enormous balloon cage - collapsed, sending beach-ball sized balloons around the auditorium which remained for the rest of the production, being kicked out of the way as the scowling English lords made their way around the stage. A steep staircase dominated the upstage area, down which Arthur gingerly made his way before jumping; a mirror actor stood at the top of the steps and threw themselves off and away from the audience as Arthur collapsed amid the balloons. And Pandulph's re-communion of John threw all the tricks of pageantry and austere music at the king in an effort to enforce submission.

The other performances were largely fine, with a young cast pulling out some great moments. Iain Batchelor was a nervy, preppy Robert Faulconbridge; Joshua Jenkins stood out as a youthful and keen Essex, taking on a Poins-like relationship with John; and Edmund Kingsley made a fine impression as Chatillon, wearing light pink lounge suit and addressing his superiors on both sides with a nervous formality. He drew some of the evening's biggest laughs when he returned to the French court with a plastic bag full of London souvenirs. Jax's Austria was a threatening presence, made all the more ridiculous when wearing a horned stag party hat, and the Dauphin was great fun in his superficial flirations and complaints. The group moments were less impressive, with the Chorus representing the people of Angiers far too choreographed and stylised to be compelling. In the play's quieter, more traditional moments, Trayling delivered a fine lament as Constance; however, to my mind, the production didn't show enough interest in these aspects. The problem with such a noisy production is that moments of quietness felt underprepared by comparison. Much of the play was actually quite slow, a slowness mitigated by the visual interest for most of the production but which came out to the production's detriment when the bag of tricks was temporarily withdrawn.

While the plot was sidelined (the nobles were almost indistinguishable from one another and the war story given very little attention), this was a clear and accessible King John. Ultimately, though, it was all about the central relationship. The climax to the penultimate scene saw the Bastard declaring her fortitude to hear John's sufferings with the words "I am no woman" repeated three times, setting up an emotional conclusion that saw the Bastard finally confront her human connection to John. The final scene was played with just John, Henry and the Bastard on stage, and John died in the Bastard's arms to her screams. It was a deeply moving conclusion that completed the Bastard's arc, showing her entirely exhausted by her devotion to John, she drawn in by his charisma and connection yet finally abandoned. This was not an easy King John, and no doubt one that will divide its audience, but the freshness and tight emotional focus of the production dug something genuinely new, yet entirely in the spirit of the play, from a too-neglected text.


July 09, 2012

Troilus and Cressida (1623 Theatre) @ Online

Writing about web page http://www.unclepandarus.com

A fascinating experiment from my friends at 1623 Theatre began in earnest today. At the website www.unclepandarus.com, a coughing, bearded soldier is delivering daily video updates from an underground bunker. In the aftermath of a nuclear war that killed ten billion souls, fought between two rival powers over a celebrity called Helen, Pandarus is leaving messages to warn future generations of humanity against the evils of war by narrating the story of his niece Cressida and her love Troilus.

The videos are, so far, only a couple of minutes long apiece, but the website is packed out with "Pandarus"'s other materials - photos and videos that build up the picture of a post-nuclear world, and links to Japanese websites that promote Pandarus's sense of a better world. It'll be fascinating to see how the project progresses, and I urge you to keep an eye on it.


July 08, 2012

The Hollow Crown: 1 Henry IV @ BBC

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00s91pm

The second episode in the BBC's Hollow Crown series offers a stand-alone, prudently cut version of Henry IV Part 1, and immediately it is clear that the central plays of the second tetralogy are in good hands with Richard Eyre. One of my complaints in my review of Rupert Goold's Richard II was that production's rather 'clean' medieval world, which couldn't quite shake the studio-set feel for much of its length and seemed surprisingly sparsely populated. Eyre's film, conversely, begins in an Eastcheap filled to bursting with prostitutes, drunks, servants, shopkeepers and beggars, richly detailed and thoroughly evocative. The sprawling Boar's Head Tavern establishes this play a world away from the crisp backgrounds of Richard II, with a lived-in world providing genuine depth and colour to the central plot.

The visual quotation of Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight is apparent throughout, from Jeremy Irons's Henry's central raised dais to the nooks and crannies of the inn, to the arrangement of bodies for the play extempore. Yet Eyre's use of the film is homage rather than plagiarism, drawing on what makes Welles's film so evocative (the bustle and neat characterisation) but creating something distinctive.

Key to this is a quite exceptional cast, headed up by Tom Hiddleston's Hal. Striding through the Board's Head as if bathed in a constant halo, Hiddleston exudes easy charm and handsome cool, taller than almost everyone else by a head and wearing a leather jacket a cut finer than anyone else's. His willingness to be part of this world - playing football with passing children, winking at prostitutes - is constantly undercut by his clear distinction from everyone else, even the slightly unshaven and grinning Poins. Beautifully, his "I know you all" soliloquy is spoken in voiceover as he walks through the tavern away from his friend, nodding and smiling at the patrons while sad eyes reflect his thoughts.

He appears in direct contrast to Simon Russell Beale's Falstaff. Beale is an inspired and unique choice. Shorter than most of his companions, and effete in his manners, Beale plays Falstaff with an earnest and ingratiating insecurity, his confidence alternating with moments of nervousness. The play extempore is suggested with some desperation as Falstaff notes Hal's pained reaction to the news of Worcester's flight; as the young Prince rubs his forehead and begins falling back towards a resumption of his responsibility, Falstaff pulls at his elbow and pleads for a play, attempting to cling onto the Prince a little longer. The play is uproarious and beautifully entertaining, with lively crowd responses and Julie Walters' Mistress Quickly toing and froing. Hiddleston and Beale have a whale of a time impersonating Irons and Hiddleston respectively; Hiddleston apes Irons's distinctive accent, and is trumped by Beale affecting a poncey version of Hiddleston's swagger. Yet as Falstaff concludes his defence, he drops his accent and swagger, and the little man looks up at his Prince with appealing eyes, begging for acceptance. Crucially, Hal pauses for a long time and then, finally, averts his eyes in shame as he admits "I do. I will". Played as an admission rather than an attack, Eyre's versions of the characters are set apart as affectionate and emotionally tied. This is a Falstaff that we are prepared, from very early on, to see wounded.

The detail of the tavern scenes is delicious, with bowling, dancing and drinking happening in corners. Hal's mockery of Hotspur's valiance is played out in a corner as a sideshow while Falstaff enters; the impression is of a full environment which we only follow parts of. Characters emerge in tiny points: Mistress Quickly nervously running back and forth from the door; Maxine Peake's Doll Tearsheet entering into a pre-practised routine with Hal for winding up the sheriff by sitting astride him and shoving his hand up her skirts, and then later passing Falstaff's bill to him with the clear implication of her inability to read (to Hal's sympathetic gaze); and the always exceptional John Heffernan as a gurning and nodding Francis, achingly moving in a cruel instant as Poins and Hal roared with laughter in his face at a final "Anon, anon sir".

In contrast, the court scenes are deeply formal and played as high drama. Irons draws on Falstaff's reference to the king as a lion, constantly coiled or springing from his throne to pace his chamber and snarl in his underlings' faces. He is a deeply troubled king - although the film opens in Eastcheap, the scene is interspersed with Henry receiving reports of war and musing on his son, presenting Eastcheap almost as the nightmarish realisation of his fears regarding Hal. His choler is quick to rise, but he is not entirely in control. Confronting David Hayman's Worcester on the battlefield, Henry is overcome and forced to stagger to the side and vomit while Hal steps up to deliver his own challenge. The dynamic between the two is visceral; in their first meeting, Hal wears an informal cap and stands with a half smile on his face; until Henry dashes away the hat and, following a smirk on "I shall be more myself", slaps his son hard across the face. It is this point of violence that brings Hal to a realisation of the severity of his father's disappointment, causing him to ascent to the dais in protestation of his own worth.

Henry is similarly violent with the Northerners, played here with Northumbrian accents. Alun Armstrong is a background presence as Northumberland, but Hayman seethes with malice as a forward Worcester, stepping forward and shouting at his king very quickly with entirely inappropriate rage, causing his immediate banishment. Both men are overshadowed, however, by a fine and nunaced performance by Joe Armstrong as Hotspur. Hotspur is, here, almost entirely without guile, building into a full-blooded rant as he describes the fop who demanded his prisoners, much to Henry's amusement. It is only, however, as Henry notices him exchange a non-too-subtle glance with his father, intended to be private, that he snarls defiance at the young man. Hotspur's rage bursts out in defiance before the doors of the hall have even closed behind him, to Henry's clear consternation. The subsequent scene between the three Northern relations, played in a splendid corridor, is one of the most gripping sections of the film, as they attempt to keep Hotspur quiet and their conversation concealed from the surrounding guards, ending up making a whispered agreement in an alcove.

The younger Armstrong continues to be impressive throughout, initially in a complex scene with Michelle Dockery's Kate that presents the couple as deeply in love yet bound by abuse; he troublingly covers her mouth, pushes her violently to the bed and talks down to her, yet she presents a formidable match and refuses to bow to him. The sense of an unequal relationship is stressed further in the appearance of a servant who openly sneaks peeks at Kate's naked back while she puts on a dressing gown, unchecked by Hotspur; the evenness of their relationship is qualified by a sense of Kate's objectification. Their united front is shown more clearly in the Welsh singing scene, as while the rest close their eyes and listen to Alex Clatworthy's beautiful song, the two begin groping each other and sneak off giggling to conduct their own farewell. In the final duel with Hal, Hotspur has the better of the battle throughout, but takes too much vaunting pleasure in anticipation of his victory, taking time to raise his sword to finish him and allowing Hal to thrust a dagger into his side.

If the film has a real weakness, it is one of sentiment. Falstaff's 'honour' soliloquy is played as a rather melancholy voiceover as Falstaff wanders through the battlefield preparations, stumbling and sad. It is an evocative reading but robs the speech of all its humour. The music acts as too much of a pointer, signposting with a heavy-handed lack of ambiguity when the audience is meant to really start listening to the words and ensuring that nothing is missed. Better are the battle scenes, cleverly shot to make the most of the television budget and giving a surprisingly impressive sense of scale; but also demonstrating the brutality of war commented on by Falstaff, as men pummel each other in the mud and grind weapons into faces.

As the film draws to its close, the shift in allegiances is clear; a wounded Hal is escorted through a field littered wth bodies by his brother, on whom he leans strongly, walking away from Falstaff, who shrugs with an indication of wounded pride. Yet the two brothers look aghast at their father as he stumbles over his closing lines, clearly in pain and already fading (another nod to Welles). A burning battlefield, a sober Falstaff (who mourns the loss of his bottle when Hal angrily smashes it in the middle of the battle) and a Prince beginning to realise the weight of his own participation in state affairs - it's not a groundbreaking rendition of the play, but a richly detailed, beautifully presented and intelligently performed one. One only hopes that Part II can live up to it.


June 28, 2012

The Duchess of Malfi (Stage on Screen) @ Greenwich Theatre [on DVD]

Writing about web page http://www.stageonscreen.com/the-duchess-of-malfi.php

A much briefer review to accompany my earlier piece on Stage on Screen's production of Doctor Faustus, this time of Elizabeth Freestone's The Duchess of Malfi. Cross-cast with the same company's Volpone, Freestone's take on Malfi is more straightforward than either, treating the play as a chamber piece in a lengthy full text (2hrs 40 mins) that will appeal to teachers looking for a solid recording of the play to use in classes, but never quite grips in its own right as a piece of theatre.

That's not to say there's anything wrong with the production. Set in a 1930s Europe, the production captures the tension of an approaching war and the politicking going on behind the scenes as a nation attempts to deal with its internal squabbles while simultaneously preparing itself to face the world. This is most clear as Mark Hadfield's Cardinal prepares himself to take on an active role in the conflict, adopting a uniform reminiscent of Italian fascists and wearing it with ease.

Freestone's production is centred around three fine performances. Aislin McGuckin's Duchess is a complex and inviting figure, seductive in her early scenes with Antonio and independent throughout. With Antonio she shows a confidence and allure that is entertaining even as it illustrates her immediate dominance over her environment; her recourse to mockery of her social status only serves to reaffirm it, to Antonio's pleasure. Her gradual unravelling at the hands of her brothers is realised extremely effectively, particularly in the scene of the madmen torturing her. Surrounded by singing, staring men in straitjackets, some of whom escape their confines and run straight at her, she is reduced to a sobbing wreck, yet still with a strained dignity that allows us to see her resolve even as it is tested to breaking point. Her final death, stretched out on the floor as two men pull long cords around her neck, leaving her splayed centrestage, is particularly traumatic.

Tim Steed gives an intense performance as Ferdinand, brooding and internalised, but lashing out at those around him. As the lycanthropia takes over, he becomes ever more dissociated from those around him, culminating in a fascinating image as he lies splayed across the floor promising that he will escort snails. Without moving into full animalistic performance, Steed's take on Ferdinand served to gradually dehumanise the character, turning him into a physical being barely capable of relating to those around him.

The play is dominated, however, by Tim Treloar's Bosola. Always active, Bosola's busy industry keeps him the centre of attention whenever he is on stage. Treloar kept a delicate balance throughout between the self-interested confidence that allows the character to be so useful to the play's sundry villains, and a compelling personal integrity that emerges particularly in his emotional breakdown over the Duchess's body. Physically formidable, and with a confidence of voice that enhanced his presence, the battle becomes almost one of equals as he takes on his superiors.

In some ways, that is perhaps the problem. With so many dominant men throughout the play, there is less range and variety of pace and tone than there could have been. This is perhaps one of the rare times when the screen aspect of Stage on Screen does not lend itself to nuance; with the actors performing to the live audience, the stage projection of their voices and gestures neuters the variation on the more intimate medium, giving an impression of uniform confidence and volume when clearer arcs for the characters would be desirable.

Nonetheless there is a great deal to enjoy here. The messy deaths of the Duchess's children, including one stabbed in a pram, are particularly disquieting; but the Echo scene, as Edmund Kingsley defies superstition and then shivers at the pertinent replies of the Duchess-like Echo, manages to both chill and move. Brigid Zengeni's Julia was also strong, barely able to keep her hands of Bosola as she ripped his shirt off during their love scene, and shocked as she tasted something unfortunate on the Cardinal's Bible before he shoved the book into her face and practically smothered her with it.

My disappointment with the production as a whole comes from its entirely predictable nature; it's a faithful, straightforward and fairly obvious interpretation. That is also its strength; we lack a good teaching resource for Malfi, and Stage on Screen's production fills a necessary gap. The formality of its setting and the consistent quality of the performances make this a slightly earnest enterprise, but thoroughly worthwhile in its scope, and the production works as a tragedy of intrigue and coiled tension.

Compared to Faustus, the interview material here is exceptional, with a much wider range of creatives interviewed, and individual interviews with the cast which make it much easier to select material. Where Freestone primarily described her own directorial career in the other interview, here she offers fantastic insights into the structure of the play and Webster's treatment of women, pointing out that the women are sidelined early on in the play, leaving the final scenes focused on the male characters (her entire male company were required for the final scene). The many crew interviews give insights into a range of roles within the production, though there is still sometimes a sense of this acting as careers advice for would-be stage mangers (for example). It's remarkable, however, that even the DSM and ASM get screentime, and telling about the essentially collaborative nature of this project. What elevates this set of DVDs, however, is the general attention to the play in the interview material, which makes the education packs well worth the extra expense.


June 25, 2012

Julius Caesar (RSC/Illuminations) @ BBC4

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01k7lv5/Julius_Caesar/

I've not yet had a chance to see the RSC's new production of Julius Caesar, directed by Gregory Doran and currently playing in Stratford. The concept behind the production is fascinating, if not without its problems - an all-black British cast, performing the play as set in an unnamed modern African state. In a year characterised by the welcoming of other nations to the UK with their own versions of Shakespeare, I have my reservations about a British company "doing" Africa, particularly in a form that elides continental difference with a range of aspects. These are reservations rather than deep-rooted complaints, but worth flagging.

The design of this televised version on BBC4 was fascinating. Rather than film the stage play from live performance, the extraordinary digital theatre company Illuminations (who have previously worked with the RSC on a range of productions, including Doran's own Hamlet) began in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on the thrust stage, but then moved to a range of interior locations. In a rundown world of brick corridors, flamelit rooms and clay earth floors, a sense of claustrophobic heat was created that stoked a growing sense of pressure as the film moved towards its inevitable mid-point climax. The decision to create a version of a production geared specifically for film alongside - rather than subsequent to - the theatrical production is an innovative one, finding a fascinatingly different medium for the story that gave greater priority to the environment of the play and to the psychologising of characters.

What the locations did lack was a sense of the bustle of the city. An opening carnival began the production in vibrant mood, with revellers (bolstered by a crowd of extras) singing and dancing in praise of Caesar, evoking African carnivals. The fullness of this section, set on a live stage surrounded by a typical RSC audience, allowed noise and colour to dominate from the start, creating a volatile and dangerous world in which revelers and police could talk back to one another and a spirit of celebration could barely be contained. Moving to the 'real' locations, the mood changed significantly. Large spaces dwarved the actors, who increasingly appeared in relative isolation, whispering in echoing chambers or losing themselves down winding back corridors.

This lost something in an impression of a busy public world; the conspirators needed little extra room in order to whisper conspiratorially, and the danger of being overheard was non-existent. In this sparsely populated world, the conspirators lacked pressure. This was most notable in the staging of the assassination, performed on a pair of escalators in what appeared to be a deserted palace. Rome itself appeared to be dead already, and its rulers acting out the dying breaths of an empire. What we gained, in this scene in particular, was something far bloodier than possible onstage - the noises of the daggers plunging into Caesar's body were unpleasantly fleshy.

The camerawork was strongest, instead, in the extreme close-ups, particularly in the lingering focus on the face of Patterson Joseph's Brutus. Particularly as Brutus moved around his open-plan home, waiting for the conspirators to arrive and reading the parchments that had been passed into the house, he whispered his words to himself, internalising his conflict and working through his self-justification with direct reference to the camera, his confidante. This allowed the viewer a route into an otherwise calculating Brutus, who in public scenes disappeared behind his own persona, and presented a cold, immovable front among the other conspirators, including the passionate Cassius (Cyril Nri). Even moments of apparent exterior engagement could be made personal; Caesar's ghost appeared as a reflection in his lamp, allowing the production to maintain ambiguity over the extent to which the ghost was real or simply a manifestation of Brutus' guilt.

Similarly, the appearance of Ray Fearon's Antony after the assassination was emphasised as a turning point; appearing silhouetted and blurred, he slowly emerged into focus and an ominous underscore of music (a rare use of non-diegetic sound) accompanied his unspoken (but heard by the audience) misgivings as he appraoched the scene. Fearon, however, utilised the full dynamic range offered by the camera. Leaning over Caesar's body, abandoned on the escalator, his voice rose to a roar as he faced up into an overhead light.

The action returned to the RST stage for the orations scene, where again the use of extras in a much more confined space created an energy that elevated the performances. Fearon choreographed the crowd masterfully, screaming for attention over the chaotic shouting and whipping the crowd into a fervour. It was in this scene, particularly, that the setting lent itself well to the play; without the veneer of Roman civility, Doran was able to present more clearly the cross-purpose shouting, the unbridled energy of the mob that Antony needed to direct rather than create, and the emotional outpouring that accompanied the unveiling of Caesar's body.

In another stylistic shift, the beginnings of the war were imagined as gang violence, partially recorded on camera phones in an instance of 'happy slapping'. Cinna the Poet was bound in a tyre, doused in petrol and set on fire; while Octavius and Antony's prisoners were bagged and shot in the head as the newly formed triumvirate haggled over lives. Again, there was a problem in that these scenes - moving away from the lively noise of the stage - were simply quieter, and the murder of Cinna happened too calmly to keep up the momentum of the riled crowd. Far better was the emotional argument between Cassius and Brutus in the latter's tent, particularly as Cassius raised his robe and demanded Brutus kill him, to Brutus's shock and disgust. These scenes of intimacy were the production's strength throughout, including in the early meeting of the lead conspirators with Joseph Mydell's Casca in a men's washroom, where the older man lingered over his insinuations and innuendos as he washed his hands and looked pointedly at Brutus and Cassius in turn.

The closing scenes saw the war played out in small encounters in stairwells, corridors and dead ends, and again a relative lack of ambient noise meant that it was hard to get a sense of a full scale war taking place. In the close-ups of deaths, of Antony and Octavius (Ivanno Jeremiah) walking down corridors already bristling with tension, and in the tears of Brutus as he looked down at his dead soldiers, the medium succeeded rather at evoking the personal struggle of war.

For the closing moment, the final rally of the people, Antony emerged one last time onto the main RST stage. What came clear throughout this film is that, perhaps oddly, it was the more limited environment of the live theatrical production that best evoked the clamour, noise and heat of the charged African political setting. In the push to realise it more literally, the play became far more of a psychological drama at the expense of a sense of the larger picture. Nonetheless, it's a fantastic experiment and one I hope the RSC repeats in future years; to create something specifically geared to film that complements a theatrical production is a bold endeavour that respects the advantages and possibilities of the different media, and provided a fascinating platform for a worthwhile production.


June 24, 2012

Doctor Faustus (Stage on Screen) @ Greenwich Theatre [on DVD]

Writing about web page http://www.stageonscreen.com/doctor-faustus.php

The Stage on Screen project is a simple idea; so simple, perhaps, that one wonders why the market hasn't already been cornered. Four productions of early canonical plays (Volpone, Dr Faustus, The Duchess of Malfi and The School for Scandal) were specially commissioned, directed by Elizabeth Freestone and performed to live audiences at Greenwich Theatre. High-quality recordings of the productions were made during the live run and subsequently released on DVD with extensive bonus discs offering behind-the-scenes information, educational resources and contributor interviews. The project's remit is educational; yet the productions stand alone as entertaining, professional versions of the plays. The care and attention taken to recording means that the plays suffer none of the editing problems that occasionally interrupt the live broadcast series such as NT Live, yet the audible presence of an audience retains the sense of liveness and coherence that keeps a production distinctly theatrical.

Faustus is a play particularly in need of a good screen version, as the Burton/Taylor Oxford University version still only available on Region 1 DVD. Freestone's production is a stylish take on the play's A-text, drawing on visual tropes of gothic literature to create an air of foreboding and, on occasion, out-and-out terror.

The production's aesthetic evokes late 18th/early 19th century Europe, with Frankenstein the most obvious point of reference. Imagining Faustus as Victor Frankenstein works well; here, Gareth Kennerley's Faustus is a nervy over-reacher, a young man whose own arrogance blinds him to the destruction he is bringing down on his own head. The circular stage is partially surrounded by wooden library shelves, full of books and charts, and a ladder allows access to an upper level where a telescope stands mounted. Faustus is the new man of science, rendering his laughing scorn of Mephistopholes' 'old wives' tales' all the more pointed; it is not that he does not believe in the creature he is speaking to, but rather is inclined to rational, ordered explanations. It is to science that he is drawn, as in Mephistopholes' conjuration of an astrological map to explain the cosmos.

Shelley's life and work pervade the production. Right from the start, Faustus is besieged by overconfident young men, throwing their books and ideas at him and drowning him in words. Valdes and Cornelius (Samuel Collings and Adam Redmore) evoke the 'Young Romantics', appearing with ruffled hair and louche manners, swaggering through Faustus's study and pulling out his assorted bottles. The supernatural elements, meanwhile, move in a stiff, unskilled way, their zombified physicality exaggerated by white make-up and slow, shouted speech. The notable exception to this is the masque of the Seven Deadly Sins - descending the ladder into his own study, robed figures grab at him and pull him under, writhing and squirming about the stage as they await their turn to claw at Faustus. As soon as Faustus scrambles back up the ladder, a simple hand movement from Guy Burgess's Lucifer snaps the writhing bodies back into rigid order. Interestingly, there is a sense of visual repetition as the 'invisible' Faustus later moves among the monks and cardinals in the Pope's presence, surrounded by bodies that he is unable to fully engage with.

The near-human is thrown into relief by the more overtly horrific throughout. As Faustus begins his conjuring, his companions retreat into the shadows and then flee altogether. Freestone allows the tension to build after each mention of Mephistopholes, the lights focused entirely in a tight circle on the magician with the rest of the stage in black. Eventually, after a long pause and Faustus's own sigh of nervous relief, lightning flashes and thunder rolls as the silhouette of a horned monster appears on the top level. Faustus screams from his prostrate position on the floor before the apparition finally disappears. Later, Lucifer appears in the same position; rigid and dominant, the impression of monstrosity is maintained by Beelzebub's realisation as a mask on the back of Lucifer's own head.

In this context, of course, Tim Treloar's Mephistopholes evokes Lewis in his monk costume. Treloar is an uncomfortable presence throughout the production. Where other recent actors of the role have played up the more ingratiating aspects of the character, Treloar is prickly throughout. Following the first monstrous appearance of the character, he enters hooded and barking lines at full volume from under his cowl. Faustus kneels before the furious spirit, cowed by his bile. Treloar moves throughout with rigidity and purpose, making measured turns and pointed, deliberate gestures. Once he has the bloody paper of Faustus's contract he loosens up, but maintains the otherworldly attitude throughout, allowing him to move between the occasional moment of silliness (puppeteering a skull to reply to one of Faustus's relentless questions) immediately to terrifying rage, as when asked to explain who made the world.

The film insists throughout that its audience pay attention to the controlling nature of the devils. Things that a stage audience may miss, such as Lucifer's gestures of control, are here focused on in extreme close-up, foregrounding the framers of the action rather than their object. In particular, the first sensual parade of spirits offered to Faustus saw three spirits appear and circle him, treating him as a puppet and iconicising him as a Christ-figure. The fast jump-cutting, however, keeps returning to a close-up on Mephistopholes as he hinted at a smile, showing the spirit in control even at this early stage.

The comedy is less successful, although the recorded laughter suggests that it came across better in live performance. The subtler humour works best, as in the moment where Mephistopholes allows his ranting at the summons from Robin and Rafe to drop for a moment as he and the Vintner nod 'Alright' to each other; or in his forgetting to make himself invisible before the Horse-Course sees him, to which he mutters "Oh, for fu...". The scenes of the comedians feel tired and drawn out, however; particularly as Robin and Rafe turn slowly into an ape and dog in a Jekyll-and-Hyde style energetic transformation sequence, ending with the ape riding the dog and attempting to hump him. The jokes played on the Pope are simply done, but their tiredness here feels deliberate, emphasising the pettiness of the tricks played by the smug, invisible Faustus.

The quieter battle between Joanna Christie's young, scantily-clad Evil Angel and Jonathan Battersby's slow-moving Good Angel pervades the production, including in one interpolated scene where the Evil Angel smilingly empties a box of sand from the raised space into Faustus's study; the fact that this is a battle against time is always clear. The apparent shared identity of the two with, respectively, Helen of Troy and the Old Man helps keep the battle polarised; Faustus is pulled continually between two forces. Kennerley is a nervous, self-doubting figure throughout, attempting to persuade himself as much as the audience of his confidence in his own control. His moments of terror are quickly trampled down by the myriad devils, and it is only in the play's closing moments that he is forced to confront the reality of his situation. Mephistopholes grabs Faustus by the face, promising him that all shall be done that can be done, and Faustus's attraction to Helen sees the two of them kiss repeatedly as the Good Angel/Old Man enters and looks on; the battle, in this image, is won.

A striking follow-up scene sees the Old Man attacked and killed by jumping spirits that slash him mercilessly until he falls into a lonely spotlight. Yet the lights shift to a stream coming in from the upstage door, and the music changes from an eerie whistle to choral chanting, as the Old Man gets to his feet and walks into the light. As the positions polarise, the stage is set for the final scene. An isolated Faustus begins tearing apart his study, sobbing and throwing books and papers to the floor. Once more, the production returns to the image of the disillusioned young scientist, drinking hard and babbling about the Monster coming for him. Faustus's pleas that he has been a student here for many years sound poignant coming from a younger man, casting his actions as those of reckless youth rather than informed evil. Yet Mephistopholes' final vaunts are not just those of victory over an impressionable mind, but also of a victory against God; he becomes to weep, and conquers his tears by shaking a fist at the Heaven that he knows he will never see again. Faustus's end pleasingly mirrors the initial dance of the spirits that entertained Faustus; the same spirits emerge and dance around him, dragging him to the upstage door as Lucifer appears above. In a final moment of pause, Faustus reaches out for Mephistopholes before being pulled out offstage, to Mephistopholes' wide-eyed expression of something not quite clear - shock? Surprise? Horror? Whichever it is, the sense is one of unfitness; this damnation is neither easy nor straightforward.

One of the strongest moments, however, comes very early on, as the two masters of the university shiver in the cold outside Faustus's study and hear, from Wagner, how Faustus is meeting with Valdes and Cornelius. The two react with shock, and whisper in fear to one another. In this short sequence, Freestone captures something of the wider society within which Faustus operates; the terror of a world threatened by the horrors he is creating. Returning to Frankenstein, this Faustus warns of the dangers of over-reaching, of personal arrogance in the thirst for knowledge. The evocation of the 19th century battles between science and faith, religious fervour and rationalism, creates a meaningful context for the battle over an arrogant soul.

DVD Extras

The education pack I was sent for review contains three discs. One, the 'Mastershot' DVD, shows the entire production from a fixed, wide shot camera angle, which isn't a great deal of fun to watch but which I can see value in for teaching purposes. The other disc includes oddly fuzzy direct-to-camera interviews with cast and creatives. Freestone's own contains rather too much personal anecdote considering the length (does it really matter how she became a director?) but she makes some useful comments about the search for textual evidence and her desire to make the play about the conflict between Man and Devil, rather than Man and Man (explaining something of Treloar's performance). Production and Costume Designer Neil Irish offers some practical notes on how to recycle materials, but is so brief as to be fairly unhelpful. Wayne Dowdeswell offers some of the best material as the lighting designer, walking through his process and giving some fantastic notes on how set and light combine to create thematic effects. This interview also includes lighting plots and diagrams, making it a genuinely exciting resource, especially for practical theatre courses.

The most impressive aspect, in terms of value, is a half hour interview with cast members, which offer personal insights into verse speaking and approaches to character. These are interesting and yield some individual points of interest, but a little basic overall for the level at which I teach; more about what it's like to be an actor then on the specifics of the production. I can't help but feel that some academic insight would have been a really invaluable addition to this disc, or perhaps an 'outside' perspective on what this production brings to the play's performance history.

The main value of the package is all in the first disc, and given the step up in pricing for the education packs (+£10 RRP, +£30 on Amazon), I'd only recommend the basic DVD for most - it's the edited film that is most useful.


June 13, 2012

Henry V (Theatre Delicatessen) @ Marylebone Gardens

Writing about web page http://www.theatredelicatessen.co.uk/?page_id=1404

In the year of the London Olympics – and even more noticable in a week where England faced off against France in their opening match of the European Championships – it is perhaps unsurprising that the schedules are crowded with Henry V, including the productions by Propeller and the Globe as well as the BBC’s new screen version. The young company Theatre Delicatessen might have taken a risk in producing yet another version, but the company’s USP of unique, found performance spaces demanded attention, presenting into the bargain a fresh and enthusiastic take on the play.

Theatre Delicatessen work in collaboration with corporate partners to re-energise disused or unconventional spaces, in this case occupying and transforming Marylebone Gardens, the old BBC headquarters. We were met on arrival by a corporal who gathered audience members, called us to attention and criticised our sloppy salutes, and were then passed to a private who led us down back corridors and stairwells, past bunks and uniform stores, into a large bunker environment where squaddies were already sat at a long table playing cards, bunks decorated with photographs lined the walls and sandbags lay scattered. A radio room burbled sections of 1 Henry IV as if news reports; and medical bays and an altar indicated other areas of an army barracks. In this low-ceilinged, dimly lit room, the claustrophobia of the waiting room of war was evocatively recreated, aided by the wonderful soundscape provided by Fergus Waldron and The Lab Collective, where explosions and planes sounded convincingly overhead and music subtly manipulated tone.

The immersiveness of the environment was not total. The charade of the audience’s ‘role’ within proceedings was limited to the pre-show and interval (“you have 15 minutes mess time”), but beyond the fact that audience members were sat comfortably on sandbags or bunks, the performance itself was functionally traverse. Director Roland Smith used the space well, creating multiple smaller areas within the bunker and moving fluidly between scenes. The small office rooms leading off from the main space allowed commanders to emerge at will and, in one powerful instance, served as a makeshift execution room for a French prisoner, a flash seen through a narrow window as gunshots were fired. A large spiral staircase in the centre of the space gave the impression of higher levels, which lent the battle scenes in particular a vulnerable feel – soldiers ran up screaming into the unknown, and the medics left behind listened in terror as explosions grew louder. The ceiling opened up at one end of the room, allowing the company to stage a French propaganda drop with a deafening roar of engines followed by a deluge of anti-English pamphlets falling from the sky; and later, a helicopter was waved down to collect the French princess. The sense of connected spaces usefully turned the events of the play into a slice-of-life representation, a perspective on war rather than its entirety.

If the environment did not quite offer the soldiers-eye view for the audience that the company seemed to want, it did offer intimacy, which became crucial. Zimmy Ryan’s Boy, in particular, built up a close relationship with the audience over successive scenes, and the decision to turn the Boy into a medic left behind while the rest of the soldiers rushed off to battle added further pathos to his execution by two hooded French advance soldiers who crept into the room. The Boy was also responsible for attempting to heal a wounded French soldier, who turned out to be Pistol’s easy capture, the latter pinning down the confused man as he cried out on his gurney. The fact that the bunker best represented itself in these scenes (as opposed to its refiguring elsewhere as tavern, field of battle, court etc.) rendered these scenes the production’s most successful, building up a sense of the soldier as individual, cut off through the messy practicalities of war.

This personal perspective was the production’s priority, made explicit in a moving programme note by Smith that spoke of one of his closest friends, killed in conflict while fighting for peace. What this did mean was that the production was more unproblematically nationalistic than many others. While the Eastcheap crew were drunken louts (increasingly a standard decision), the production remained very firmly on the side of the English, keeping antagonism alive between the two armies at all times and refusing to dwell on French losses, or to problematise Henry’s wooing of Katherine. The emphasis here was on the suffering of the individual soldier caused by war, but didn’t challenge the necessity of that war or the English claims to France.

The cuts primarily reflected this simplification of the play’s issues with nationalism. Gone were Macmorris and Jamy; gone too, more surprisingly, was Fluellen and Pistol’s final encounter as well as the bulk of Fluellen’s argument with Williams. The occlusion of the Welsh, Scottish and Irish narratives was surprising to me, but it did help maintain the moral coherence of the English army. Similarly, Bardolph’s execution was passed over quickly, whereas the execution of the traitors was played out in full. The cuts allowed Philip Desmueles’s Henry freedom to be a passionate and honest king, whose variation was less between tyranny and camaraderie than it was between professionalism and honesty; this was a king led by his heart, but able to manage his facial expressions and reserve as required.

The tensions throughout were well-maintained. Henry and Alexander Guiney’s Montjoy loathed each other from first sight, and Henry gave Montjoy a tennis ball rather than a purse as labour for his pains. Similarly, Neil Connolly’s Governor of Harfleur had to tea his hand away from Henry’s firm grip, storming off in disgust at the loss of his town. More of the tensions came out in the Eastcheap crowd, however, where Connolly’s Nym and Liam Smith’s Pistol came to early blows over Margaret-Ann Bain’s chavvy Hostess, who swigged from a can of special brew before using it as a vase for the flowers offered by Nym. The setting was of Falk.lands-era warfare; thus, the civilians captured something of that period’s St. George’s flag-waving nationalism, while the soldiers wore berets and camouflage. In this setting, the careful management of the traitors and of the common men was particularly obvious, foregrounding a sense of Henry’s absolute authority.

The verse speaking was the production’s disappointment, despite some standout performances; Christopher Tester’s Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, was beautifully articulate, while Liam Smith offered a quiet, dignified French King. Too much was thrown away in favour of conversational accessibility, however; Guiney’s Chorus appeared to be speaking prose rather than verse, setting the scene well but reducing the scenes to their functional rather than rhetorical value.

Yet there was much else to enjoy. The wooing scene between Henry and Laura Martin-Simpson’s Katherine reminded me for the first time ever of Kate and Petruchio’s initial negotiations, particularly as Katherine bit Henry’s tongue as they shared their first (unfashionable) kiss. This lively exchange established a sense of the union of the countries as something desirable for both sides, yet allowed Katherine sufficient agency to dictate her own terms. Elsewhere, Henry’s execution of the traitors prompted a long, specific engagement with Tester’s Scroop, who stood central on the stage while the other traitors kneeled and simply wept as Henry outlined his crimes at great length.

Tester’s excellent Fluellen provided the comic relief, particularly in his forced reconciliation with Chris Polick’s Michael Williams, as Henry forced the two of them to shake hands. The two French women (Martin-Simpson and Jessica Guise as Alice) shared this role in their two brief scenes, but the comedy remained largely contained in favour of celebration of Henry’s victories.

The production was overlong, even with the cuts, yet the fascinating use of space and the thoroughly entertaining performances made for an enjoyable Henry V. I would have liked to have seen a more immersive use made of the set and audience, and a clearer sense of what the production itself was trying to say. Certainly, the Chorus’s final gesture towards the Henry VI trilogy suggested that there was at least a sense of patriotism and national pride being undermined, but this was deferred until after the event as the Chorus cleared the stage, rather than interrupting Henry’s victory. Yet while the play itself may have been partly responsible for maintaining certain attitudes, the space acted as a point of destabilisation of meaning, acting to alert us to our own level of engagement and forcing response. In that sense, this remained an important Henry V.


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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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