All entries for Thursday 14 September 2006

September 14, 2006

Measure For Measure @ The Courtyard Theatre

This show marked the first appearance of the Peter Hall Company at the RSC- Peter Hall being the artistic director who founded the modern RSC back in the day. There was therefore a lot of prestige and expectation behind this production, the first major non-RSC event to be staged at the Courtyard Theatre.

It looked wonderful- sweeping lights, a massive reflective wall, secret doors opening and lavish Jacobean costumes that evoked a dark and ambivalent period for the play. The nobles wore Fawksian hats and beards that made everyone look just a little bit suspicious, echoing the play’s themes of deceit.

This was a dark reading of the play, the comedy reserved for a fantastic Michael Mears as a wonderfully camp and motormouthed Lucio, and a very funny Edward Bennett as Elbow. Moody scenarios, slow and serious delivery and a sombre ending meant that this production was no comedy, but a very serious drama.

Ultimately, it left me cold. Despite an aggressive near-assault on Isabella, Angelo never seemed quite evil enough to despise, and Isabella herself was po-faced and self-righteous, a very hard reading of the heroine. Even the Duke seemed to take a background role in his own machinations, only really coming into his own in the final scene. All of which can work well in what is essentially a play about people politics, but here there didn’t seem to be any overriding concern, or moral judgment, or even an interest in anyone’s fate.

It’s a shame, in a production that was so well-spoken and large-scale, but there was very little to hold an audience’s interest- and indeed, one girl opposite me slept through most of the second half. While perhaps staying true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s problem play by not giving any clear answers, Hall seemed to opt not to have us care about several conflicting characters, but instead to have us care about no-one. Only Lucio really enlivened the stage, and the marked shift in the audience when it came to his fate in the final scene was a telling sign as to where the audience’s interest lay.

Despite this, there were some very nice moments- the extended silence after the Duke’s proposal truly brought out the awkwardness of the moment, as did the Duke’s slow walk offstage alone at the end of the play while everyone stared after him. Moments such as this were few and far-between though. It was by no means a bad production, simply one that faded from memory almost as soon as I watched it, which is never a good sign.

The Comedy of Errors @ The Swan Theatre

The last of the youth productions, and the only appearance of ‘Errors’ at the Festival, this was an excellent end to the mini-festival of Young Person’s Shakespeare, with a funny and fast production that truly captured the spirit of what is – I personally think – the funniest of Shakespeare’s comedies.

This production was by the Welsh College of Music and Drama- and in many ways it was nice to hear an accent used for comedy effect in ‘Richard III’ as the primary voice in this production. It also gave the production a real character and sense of place- Ephesus felt like a Welsh fishing village!

Gareth Rees (Dromio of Ephesus) and Thomas Brownlee (Antipholus of Syracuse)

Where this production blew the audience away was in the fast and excellent interaction between the four leads. The two Dromios kept up a constant patter and reaction, and were always entertaining to watch even if at the sides of the stage- while the two Antipholi got progressively more flustered and aggressive as the events snowballed to their climax.

Barely any of the plot was cut, the clever editing taking it down to 75 minutes by eliding the scenes, so that action flowed freely into the next scene. This also built up the rising sense of confusion, that resulted in several groups of characters all collecting on stage pointing rifles at each other. ‘Errors’ is a play that relies heavily on speed to make it work onstage, and the fast physical action of this production kept the audience in stitches throughout.

Elsewhere, the presence of a firing squad for Egeon gave the play a suitably sombre start, and the play’s dark undertones were fully addressed. The only confusing part was the very end, when one of the Antipholi reappeared on stage in near-darkness, raising his hand in some spiritual moment? This was unexplained, and unnecessary, as it took away from a very nice ending with the two Dromios running offstage hand in hand.

The performances were perhaps not as polished as one or two of the other student groups, but this is not a play that lends itself to received pronunciation and classical speaking- this is a play that thrives on spirit and a strong ensemble, and the group carried it off with a lot of style. An excellent production, and a wonderful way to finish the YP Shakespeare season.

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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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