All entries for Wednesday 09 June 2010

June 09, 2010

Women Beware Women (National) @ The Olivier, London

Following The Revenger's Tragedy a couple of summers back, Middleton is back on the Olivier stage, this time in the guise of Women Beware Women. Not only is this my favourite play by my favourite writer, but it's directed by the wonderful Marianne Elliott with a stellar cast. Expectations, then, were somewhat high.

And yet, I was disappointed. I'm a big believer in not going in with preconditions about how roles should be played. It's anathema to me that the plays of Shakespeare or any of his contemporaries have at any point been critically or theatrically "fixed": I want performers to create the characters that they find, not the ones which I'm expecting. However, for my taste, Samuel Barnett's interpretation of Leantio was sorely lacking. It's not that he was bad, for he wasn't. This Leantio was a whining berk: slightly foppish, constantly shrugging to the audience and pouring his heart out, he lacked any guile or gumption. This is a completely valid interpretation, but rendered the character somewhat one-dimensional. There's so much potential in that role, both reading and in performance (cf the RSC production a few years back) to explore the complexities of his emotional response. He falls in love with a woman and is overly protective of her, goes away for a few days, and comes back to find he is a cuckold and publicly so. He's at fault, of course, but to render him so irritating and blinkered from the start is to diminish the pain and significance of Bianca's desertion of him. The key scene where Bianca and Leantio, both now kept by their new lovers, was the closest we got in this production to seeing the complexity of those emotional responses, the bitterness and scorn in his treatment of his wife; but too often, these reactions were reduced to open-mouthed gawping at the brazenness of the adulterous pair, followed by a whinge to the audience.

What Barnett did bring to the role was the youth that made his seduction by Livia so believable and creepy. As a kept pretty boy, Barnett excelled as Leantio, he fulfilling the pampered poodle role that he had clearly wanted to play all along. This Leantio was perfectly suited to passivity, to his fine clothes and pride. It's just such a shame that there was so little more to the character that might have made this a more dramatic change or allowed us to invest in the fate of one who is, arguably, the main part. Further, to reduce him to a mere cuckold, essentially the butt of a big joke, is to diminish the significance of the Duke and Bianca's relationship - the production treated him just as contemptuously as the Duke himself did.

Elliott's production was, perhaps inevitably given the title, much more about women, and the casting of Harriet Walter as Livia emphasised her role as lynchpin of play and production. Walter's performance was extraordinary, whether in the hints of inappropriately excessive affection for Hippolito, in her wordless understandings with Guardiano, in her beautifully manipulative conversation with Isabella or in her unguarded moments lusting after Leantio. Utterly poised and fabulous, her sarcastic wit contrasted sharply with the nerves and self-beration she showed when it came to her own feelings, and her screams over Leantio's body were heartrending.

Lez Brotherston's revolving set was built around two massive pillars, with the decaying name of the Duke's father engraved across the top; the world in decline following Angelo's ascension. On one side, rusting metal doors and a rickety staircase depicted Leantio's run-down house; while, on the other, a grand spiral staircase and marble floor served for the state scenes. The close proximity of poverty and ostentatious wealth, each literally one half of the other, underscored the play's concern with financial security. Leantio and Bianca's meeting in a grand hall, both dressed in the rich clothes bought by their keepers, perfectly illustrated the destructive effects of greed that had torn the pair so far from their simple, but enthusiastic (to the point of inappropriateness) romance of the opening scene.

The set allowed for spectacularly-choreographed set pieces, the first of which centred around Bianca's rape. Livia and the Mother's chess game was played out at a table in the middle of the former's vast living space, and Elliott was brave enough to allow the game and conversation to hold the stage uninterrupted for a long period, the dialogue bringing out the implied significance in the moves of the pieces to great effect. Eventually, Guardiano and Bianca were revealed at the top of the staircase, appearing behind a translucent screen onto which were projected images of classical sculptures of love scenes. Silently, the Duke appeared, climbing up a back staircase and concealing himself at the far end of the screen. As the two met, the stage began to revolve, and the Duke pursued Bianca down the back staircase and across the run-down portion of the set, the rape being begun effectively in a back alley. Lauren O'Neil was particularly effective in this scene, alternately struggling and pleading.

O'Neil's transformation following the rape was powerfully realised. Walking back down the stairs, clutching her groin (an odd gesture that I found difficult to interpret - pain or shame?), she combined her cold abandon to sin with a violent temper that manifested itself in furious, shrieked whispers at Guardiano and Livia. Her disgust and hatred for the world that had committed such a heinous crime against her caused her to grow in arrogance and confidence, nicely distinguished from her earlier polite meekness on meeting Leantio's mother. A third transition saw her cool confidence unravel following her later meeting with Leantio, her calm breaking as she screamed her murderous intentions at both Leantio and the Cardinal.

In the subplot, Raymond Coulthard was a suave, near-Byronic Hippolito, languishing in his own unrequited love and forever smoking lonely cigarettes. Vanessa Kirby's Isabella, meanwhile, presented herself as a demure young thing but immediately leapt at Livia's lie, taking a very physical initiative with Hippolito on his next entrance. Watching Isabella grow in sexual confidence provided a great deal of comic fun, particularly as the Ward and Sordido evaluated her. As the two whispered, she looked scornfully at both of them, and went through the motions of turning and walking with an exasperated air. Eventually, Sordido and the Ward both lay down on their backs, demanding that Isabella walk over them so they could examine her from beneath. She gathered her skirts about her as she passed Sordido, to his annoyance; but then, reaching the Ward, she sighed, splayed her legs and stood astride his head, to his extreme delight.

Harry Melling's idiotic and disgusting Ward was contrasted throughout with Hippolito, most notably during the Duke's banquet. To a jazz beat, Isabella and Hippolito performed a breathlessly steamy slow dance, one of the most magnetically sexy sequences I've ever seen on stage. Straightaway, this was parodied by the Ward's attempts to repeat the dance, throwing Isabella around roughly and gyrating hideously next to her. The Ward's continual social inappropriateness, particularly in a long mock-masturbatory sequence during Isabella's first sight of him, was contextualised by the clear attraction that Nick Blood's Sordido held for him; within their tight homosocial(sexual?) bonds, there was no space for a woman.

Interestingly, it was the appearance of Chu Omambala's Lord Cardinal that altered the tone of the play and began the push towards its inevitable conclusion. Against a deeply Catholic backdrop of processions and a bloody crucifix, the Cardinal's appearances were moments of high symbolism, whether accompanied by a troupe of assistants bearing flaming candelabras or interrupting the formal wedding procession. This external pressure cut through the domestic politics and forced the hands of the key players who became increasingly desperate.

Hippolito and Leantio's well-choreographed duel climaxed in Leantio obtaining both daggers and smiling in anticipation of victory, before Hippolito pulled out a pistol and shot him in cold blood. This was the most effective of the murders, combining effective action, cruel inversions and an emotional aftermath, which saw Walter's Livia publicly denouncing her brother in a wave of fury. For the climactic bloodbath, however, Elliott took a very different approach. Andrew Woodall convened a group of masked servants with black wings, who greeted guests arriving for the ball in a wave of hallucinogenic smoke. These wedding celebrations became a drug-fuelled party, whose other silent preparations including Livia dressing a maid in her own clothes and donning a mask depicting a skull for her own disguise. As the party began, Elliott cut almost the entire text of the final scene, instead allowing the murders to play out as a dumb show while the stage revolved.

As a theatrical tour de force, this was spectacular and remarkably clear. Hippolito stabbed the Ward in a back alley; the fake Livia was strangled by Isabella in a chair; Isabella herself was throttled by the "angels" with white scarves; Livia was stabbed on an upstairs balcony; Hippolito fought off the angels single-handedly; and the Duke staggered about the stage having taken the cup meant for the Cardinal. The action was fast, clear and frenetic, the chaos of the murders fully evoked. Yet it was an emotionally empty climax to the play. Livia and Isabella were particularly ill-served, considering their importance, by being quickly killed and forgotten. The accompanying jazz helped interpret this sequence as a meaningless and almost impulsive series of slaughters, sloppily organised and improvised, but this was at odds with the preparations outlined in advance, and with the sight of Leantio's bloodied Ghost staring accusingly at Hippolito, suggesting a purpose to the killings. The fact that so many of the crimes were committed openly, in full view of the party, further served to diminish any subtlety or deliberation in the acts, turning it into a simple - if spectacular - bloodbath, rather than the intricately interwoven performative murders of the text.

Happily, once the dumbshow was over, there remained a few loose ends which were more effectively tied up. Hippolito was held at swordpoint, but pulled man and weapon into his stomach in a visceral moment of suicide. Bianca, too, came into her own over the Duke's body with an enraged scream of "Twas meant for thee!" at the Cardinal which was even comic in its brazenness. Following this, however, the play quietly closed on the Cardinal's final comments on lust. The sober conclusion following the noisy spectacle that had immediately preceded it was an interesting end to an interesting production that, while perhaps sacrificing some of its emotional complexity in favour of large show-pieces, still had much to recommend itself.

Henry VIII @ Shakespeare's Globe

Since Dominic Dromgoole took over at Shakespeare's Globe, the prioritisation of the "house dramatist" over all others has disappointingly extended to the exclusion of plays by his contemporaries from the repertory - a real shame, as this was one of the features that used to make the Globe such an important venue from an academic space. Over the last few seasons, however, this has extended even further to the exclusion of Shakespeare's collaborators from their works. Timon of Athens was "By William Shakespeare" on all publicity materials, and this year it's John Fletcher's turn to be excluded from his own play. Not only does the title page of the programme and all publicity material only mention Shakespeare, but even Dromgoole's introduction to the season merely talks of the play as "a great blend of pageantry and realpolitik, written at the end of Shakespeare's career and showing all his formidable understanding of the passions and pettiness of those in power." Not until halfway through the lengthy booklet does Fletcher make an appearance. Happily, Gordon McMullan later dedicates a whole three page essay to the discussion of Fletcher's involvement, but this only comes once the Globe has enacted its own policy of exclusion on the younger dramatist.

This is, of course, incidental to the production, but serves as useful context for the Globe's first staging of the play. Following the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII's crowning celebrated widely last year, Shakespeare's unofficial role as the nation's historian was here strengthened by the assertion - in marketing terms at least - of his sole authorship. Tying together national history and Shakespearean authorship has long been a method of consolidating British culture, and the image of Dominic Rowan's Henry VIII, dressed as in the Holbein portrait, striding out onto Shakespeare's stage at the climax of Shakespeare's play for the christening of Queen Elizabeth, couldn't have been more culturally conservative.

While it has to be noted, however, it's not a fair direction to pursue in reviewing this production, one of the Globe's best of the last few years. Mark Rosenblatt's intelligent, clear and entertaining production breathed life into a play often accused of being a string of processions, turning the pageantry into visual storytelling and injecting humour and energy into the court politics.

Key to the production's success was an intelligent use of the Globe's staging possibilities, incorporating modern tricks into a traditional design. An extended thrust jutted out downstage into the middle of the pit, which acted as a public space: here, Buckingham addressed the crowds and Anne processed in state. The centrality of this catwalk, surrounded by groundlings, effectively distinguished "public" moments from the rest of the play, providing a clear structure for the action. On the stage, a simple device allowed various levels of privacy to be easily established. Interior scenes were accessed via the upstage doors, but people exiting via these doors would immediately reappear via one of the side entrances on a red carpet that extended around the outer edges of the stage. Scenes were thus allowed to spill out of rooms and into the corridors, the liminal spaces that linked formal spaces. In these corridor spaces, nobles argued and whispered passionately, voicing in anger what they could not say in, for example, the King's presence. As well as making scenes more dynamic by allowing for shifts of pace and register, this created a fluidity of movement that kept the play moving at surprising speed, and allowed for the various Dukes to be better individualised, breaking out of their formal court characters as soon as they left the presence.

It was in these courtiers that much of the play's interest lay. The conflict between John Dougall's deliciously scornful Gardiner and Colin Hurley's naively enthusiastic Cranmer was a particular highlight, particularly as Henry ordered Gardiner to embrace Cranmer and found himself enveloped in the other man's arms. John Cummins found a sincere and volatile man in Cromwell, squaring up to Gardiner during the Privy Council's meeting and only agreeing reluctantly to the Council's demands, while Anthony Howell's Thomas More wore spectacles and presided over the other councillors with an uptight but just air. It was Peter Hamilton Dyer as Norfolk, though, who came through as the audience's touchstone. From his first appearance trying to soothe Buckingham while voicing his own displeasures, through his scornful treatment of Wolsey and deferrence to the King to his complicity in Cranmer's "trial", Norfolk came to represent the complexities of maneuvering the murky waters of this court. Constantly living on edge, always guarded in tone, his active but quiet background presence acted as the safe counterpoint to his more foolhardy peers, including Dickon Tyrrell's young Surrey, here an impetuous and aggressive young man who openly drew his sword on Wolsey and found himself the victim of Henry's screaming wrath after Cranmer's aborted arraignment.

This rich background of politics, coming into its own towards the end of the play, lent richness and depth to the main plot, dealing with the successive falls of Anthony's Buckingham, Kate Duchene's Katherine and Ian McNeice's Wolsey. That these characters provided the main interest was interestingly stressed by a Globe crowd who, unbidden and against what I certainly perceived to be the production's intentions, gave ovations following the final speeches of both Wolsey and Katherine, applauding their ultimate farewells in an unusual gesture of appreciation. The politics of Globe audiences occasion more attention in reviews than is often appropriate, but here I was fascinated, particularly as the final speeches are not especially grandstanding. As far as I could see, it was the recognisability of these famous historical figures that occasioned the reaction, but also the structured and formal arrangement of their departures. Breaking up the action neatly, and considering the original Globe performances would not have had intervals (although those at the Blackfriars would), these moments seemed to constitute natural breaks that were instinctively recognised by the audience, despite the fact that the production itself did not stress them. Part of the immense value of the Globe experiment is in documenting and interrogating these natural responses.

Duchene's performance, heavily accented, imagined Katherine as a sympathetic but volatile figure, all Spanish fire and confidence. Whether pleading for herself at Henry's feet or screaming blue murder at the servant who burst in on her repose, she was a fearsome figure and a real power at court. The dynamic between her and Wolsey was particularly fascinating: Wolsey used her tempestuousness as a negative standard against which to position his own apparent humility and reason, rearticulating their entire conflict as emotion vs intellect, passion vs reason. It was rare we saw Katherine outside of a public context, and thus with her defences down, but Duchene made the most of those moments. Alone with Ben Deery's gentle Griffith and Mary Doherty's emotional Patience (a lovely singing voice quivered as she attempted to comfort her queen) in her dying moments, her weariness allowed a much quieter side to Katherine's nature to emerge. As she dreamed, the court's Fool emerged with a puppet boy she had carried all along. The boy was made to bow to Katherine, and then to a smiling Buckingham, who entered to greet the Queen. Turning, she then saw Wolsey, who lifted a crown from the boy's head and began to place it on Katherine's own, before suddenly the whole troupe ran away, waving mockingly at her. Katherine awoke screaming, the vision of heavenly peace cruelly snatched from her, leaving the vision more troubling and disconcerting than usual, and her own death somewhat more ambiguous.

Howell's Buckingham, tall and casual, was imagined in an heroic vein, and his semi-ghostly appearance during his former steward's denunciation of him to Henry served to shed further doubt on the steward's testimony. Buckingham delivered his own reported lines with a tired and disappointed air, lightly mocking his enemy while accepting the weight of the testimony against him. McNeice's Wolsey, meanwhile, all jowls and underskirts, was a traditionally villainous Wolsey, bloated and arrogant. His presence in court was formidable, however much he presented himself in an attitude of humility. Yet it was the more sympathetic scenes that stood out, particularly his emotional parting from Cromwell, who wept for his master. This Wolsey knew and understood people, which was his strength, and McNeice impressively manipulated the feelings of his offstage as well as onstage audiences, resulting in the spontaneous applause that accompanied his final exit.

Miranda Raison was a very modern Anne Bolyen, right down to the make-up that distinguished her from her ladies. She was portrayed from the start as the consummate court player, flirting with Henry while keeping him at arm's length. When his true identity was revealed, she knelt in supplication, yet her eyes remained wide open and she breathed heavily as her mind worked overtime, evaluating both the consequences of her actions and how she might best take advantage of the position she found herself in. Her self-defence to Amanda Lawrence's Welsh Virginia, a worldly-wise and comically vulgar old lady, was clearly not meant, and she was able to stare Katherine in the face in her own chamber without apparent embarrassment. The first half closed as Anne left Katherine's presence to join Henry's embraces, and her later appearances - significantly with her headdress removed and her hair about her shoulders - saw her thoroughly confident in her new public position, already full-bellied even as she processed the Globe's pit. Her absence from the final scene, consequently, took on extra implied significance.

Through all of this moved Rowan's Henry VIII, a very human king. Henry's strength came from his ability to be whatever he needed to be at any given moment: thus, he performed the ceremonies with due reverence, joked freely with his nobles when playing at cards, and articulated rage at moments calculated for maximum effect, particularly as he defended Cranmer. This king was not weakened by his absence from court politics; rather, he was cast as above it, and the intervention of the final scenes was stage-managed to assert an absolute authority over his proud councillors. That coups such as this and his exposure of Wolsey seemed so effortless was a key part of Rowan's performance; the king not only got what he wanted, but in the way he wanted it too.

Under all the above was a rich seam of comedy. Michael Bertenshaw and John Dougall's randy Lovell and Sandys were an early comic highlight, particularly in the reaction of the women whom they attempted to court. The best was reserved for Sam Cox though, in a gloriously indulgent scene as the First Citizen in which he attempted to rig up poles on the catwalk for Buckingham's public confession, and repeatedly made a mess of it. The applause he received from the audience upon finally completing his task was such that both citizens were completely thrown off and forgot their lines, and a period of adlibbing was warmly encouraged by the audience as the actors attempted to get back into the flow. Moments such as these are again unique to the Globe, the participatory atmosphere adding much to any comic moment. This was similarly the case in the penultimate scene, as the Porters picked out unsuspecting targets in the audience as the butts of their abuse.

The addition of Amanda Lawrence's Fool, speaking the Prologue and Epilogue, was a final comic but also poignant innovation. In one revealing scene, Henry was revealed in private with the Fool as she dandled the puppet of a boy before her. In this simple image, we saw Henry's genuine anguish over the lack of a male heir, motivating all of his actions within the period of his career shown in the play. As Norfolk and Suffolk blundered in on him in this private moment, his rage reached a peak unmatched elsewhere in the play. By finding this neat emotional hook for Henry, Rosenblatt found the play's true heart: Henry, the king with absolute control over his court, in despair for the one thing he cannot control.

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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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