All entries for Monday 18 July 2011

July 18, 2011

The Winter's Tale (Charles University Workshop) @ Divadlo na Pradle

I'm in Prague, at the World Shakespeare Congress. Sadly I've had to pass up most of the opportunities for Shakespeare here - the open air film festival (apart from ones I'd already seen) clashed with evening events; an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice called Shylock's Ghosts playing in the spectacular Spanish Synagogue was fully-booked; and I couldn't justify the expense of the Czech-language productions of Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor playing at the castle. I did, however, at least make it to this, a student production of The Winter's Tale starring several of the student helpers at the conference.

I was both overwhelmingly impressed and extremely disappointed in the production, which played in a little black box theatre on the left bank of the river. The impressive aspect was that the company of Czech students had learned the entire, unexpurgated English text, and by and large remembered all their lines despite it not being their native tongue. I can't imagine the skill and learning that needs to go into that kind of activity, so I'm in awe.

However, the production was by and large rather uninteresting. A formal 17th/18th century setting laid the emphasis on slow decorum, which dragged the running time on far longer than necessary, and several of the actors lacked the faculty with English to put expression into the lines - for which reason, I would have actually rather seen it in their native Czech. There was little directorial interpretation, leaving this an efficiently straight telling of the text that was too slow and flat to excite.

However, this did mean that those performances which hit the mark stood out. Jakub Boguszak was a strong and nuanced Leontes, seething quietly in corners and flicking his smile on and off impressively. Michaela Graberova played a Hispanic Paulina, introduced to the sound of flamenco guitars, who had a strong presence and manipulated the king with verve and daring. I was also impressed by the deadpan performance of Radoslav Hyl as the Clown, who was simple rather than stupid and avoided easy pratfalls in favour of vacant expressions. The best performance, however, was of Matous Turek as Autolycus. With a long fake beard and an anxious sensibility, Turek livened up the second half tremendously and was never less than entertaining. I was less persuaded by the other main characters, and found Juraj Horvath's Camillo particularly troubling in his disguise at the sheep-shearing festival; where, with one eye covered with a patch, he visibly leered at Perdita.

The non-appearance of a bear was most disappointing, but when the company did push themselves creatively, the results were intriguing. The dance at the sheep-shearing festival was pleasingly complex, drawing on middle European folk routines, and the appearance of four half-naked satyrs injected energy into the scene. More moments like this would have gone a long way. Likewise, the final unveiling of Hermione was well-realised - the curtain of the theatre was lowered and the rest of the characters entered from the audience. When the curtain was raised, Hermione stood alone on a pedestal centre-stage facing away from us, and her slow movements as Paulina awakened her carried the scene's customary magic.

It was a strong job by the cast, and an impressive exercise in exploring a foreign language. However, from the point of view of an audience member, I really wish they'd used their native tongue and concentrated more on pace and character interactions. Nonetheless, a brave attempt.

Doctor Faustus @ Shakespeare's Globe

Writing about web page

The Globe's summer season this year is surprisingly light on Shakespeare. The only two main house Shakespeares are All's Well and Much Ado about Nothing, as well as touring versions of Hamlet and As You Like It, but a surprising proportion of the season has been new writing and, celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Authorised version, Biblical plays. In addition, there has been the Globe's first major revival of Marlowe's Faustus, a too-rare outing for one of the Elizabethan era's foundational plays.

Matthew Dunster's production (based primarily, but not exclusively, on the B-text) didn't dial down on the opportunity for spectacle. The first appearance of Mephistopholes was as an enormous skeletal animal head, which broke apart on Faustus's command to reveal the "human" incarnation of the demon as Arthur Darvill. Fire flared from magic books, huge spirits strode about the stage on stilts, slickly-choreographed magic saw antlers and animal heads appear as if from nowhere and angels clashed with swords. Magic gives licence to imagination, and Dunster balanced the special effects with clever use of actors' bodies for major set pieces. Thus, the Seven Deadly Sins emerged one by one from a trapdoor, each neatly characterised, and the forerunners helped act out their fellows' particular vices, whether rolling the barrel-shaped Gluttony along the stage or creating a luxurious and fondling bed for Lust.


Paul Hilton's Faustus held the stage throughout without dominating. His witty Faustus was quick and intelligent, but almost wilfully belligerent. His scorn for the idea of hell was absolute, and he laughed openly at Mephistopholes until, on two occasions, Mephistopholes touched him. The touch was significant - Darvill's young demon always defaulted to a deferential, still position at some move from Faustus. When he touched him, however, Faustus screamed in pain, falling to his knees as the familiar spoke of the terrors of hell. While these moments left Faustus cowering, they had no lasting impact, and Faustus quickly returned to his confident self.

The relationship between the two was finely realised. They shared a clear bond that manifested in laughter and camaraderie when, for example, torturing Nigel Cooke's Pope. Mephistopholes became Faustus's audience of one, and it seemed for much of the production that the conjurer was attempting to impress the demon as much as use him. This naivety was, of course, part of his downfall, and was contrasted nicely with Darvill's open scorn and obvious manipulation. While being a long way from "bromance", Dunster realised that the play's main conflict lends itself ideally to a struggle of individuals, and Darvill's quiet manipulations and amiable encouragement were a joy to watch.

For thematic purposes, Dunster's production insisted on casting the human Faustus and the human(ish) Mephistopholes against a character of deliberately symbolic figures. A supporting chorus of actors wore dark glasses and carried magic books, creating sound and visual effects and acting to represent Faustus's art in a corporeal sense. They interacted freely with named characters such as Lucifer and Beelzebub, and remained onstage for most of the play in order to pull Faustus towards his inevitable end. In the final reckoning, they appeared with hand-held puppets, trilling and cooing as they pulled Faustus into hell.

The leads were ably supported by a strong supporting cast, with a couple of exceptions. The Good Angel and Bad Angel, who appeared swinging swords at one another - the one with white wings and halo, the other with horns and broadsword - were not quite stylised enough to convince as allegory, but were unnatural enough to be realised as characters, and instead looked and sounded false. Much better were Nigel Cooke's goat-legged Lucifer, who supported himself between two minions, and Chinna Wodu's terrifically-imposing Beelzebub, who lashed a whip at the Deadly Sins and held Pride aloft on his shoulders.

The strong cast helped tie together the episodic and potentially repetitive plot. William Mannering's Benvolio, for example, was exuberant and outrageously scornful, until he found the horns on his head and began furiously screaming at Faustus. Michael Camp and Jade Williams were both lecherous as the Duke and Duchess, and the heavily-pregnant and insatiable Duchess openly flirted with Faustus, becoming aroused by the grapes that Faustus fed her and pulling him to the back of the stage, with the full approval of her husband. Cooke's Pope was another standout, combining sanctimonious preaching with harsh cruelty in his treatment of Jonathan Cullen's Bruno. The Chorus came into its own again during the exorcism scene, where the gradual tormenting by the invisible Faustus and Mephistopholes eventually saw them throw up their instruments in terror and flee.

The comic characters were also genuinely funny, particularly Pearce Quigley as an older Robin, whose deadpan humour repeatedly brought the house down. Richard Clews as Dick was a more straightforwardly foolish clown, with a huge crush on the pantomime dame Nan Spit, played by a cooing Robert Goodale. Cooke played a phlegmatic Horse Courser who stripped down to his long johns in fury after losing his horse, and even Iris Roberts's Hostess entertained in the slight goblet scene. The attention given to minor characters was pleasing throughout: Beatriz Romilly played a demure and retiring Duke's Servant who, when asked to inquire as to who the mob attempting to get in were, tremulously made her way to the edge of the stage, before unexpectedly screaming her challenge in a terrifying voice and drawing a pair of pistols. The action was held together with a compelling performance by Felix Scott, who played a matter-of-fact Wagner who was also the Chorus, commenting sadly but soberly on his master's fate.

The chaos was entertaining, but the purpose of this was to make the quiet moments more effective. As the two Cardinals who had been replaced by Faustus and Mephistopholes were dragged offstage (the same actors had played both the Cardinals and the "fake" versions), Faustus turned with a troubled face to Mephistopholes and saw his companion fully enjoying their fate. In a similar pause with a very different tone, Faustus stood in quiet awe as the human Helen of Troy emerged from a multi-bodied iconic rendering of her, gazing in delight at her beauty. This moment was particularly effective when contrasted with the earlier appearance of the demonic courtesan, who even had a sparkler fizzing in front of her crotch.

This inventive production's strength was in providing an entertaining and colourful background which served to enhance, rather than distract from, the central dialogue between Faustus and Mephistopholes. Faustus's appeals to the crowd, his self-justifications, his belligerent delusions and his mounting terror were generally well-realised, and while I would have liked the final death to carry more weight (and not to have been followed by the worst jig I've ever seen at the Globe, a dull, ugly and unfunny macabre dance of the puppet demons), the production had done its job. The final image to take away was the sight of Darvill's Mephistopholes crowing over his prey, joyfully admitting his intentions in a combination of victory and frustration - for this Mephistopholes had never made a secret of his evil.

Being Shakespeare @ Trafalgar Studios

Writing about web page

My PhD supervisor, Jonathan Bate, has a play on at Trafalgar Studios at the moment, Being Shakespeare.The show is essentially a reduced version of his last book on Shakespeare, Soul of the Age, with Simon Callow delivering a talk about Shakespeare's life and career divided into Jacques' seven ages of man, punctuated by extracts from the plays.

The script functioned as an ideal popular introduction to Shakespearean biography and life. Most of the big anecdotes and famous speeches were there, with the "seven ages" hook working to structure things in an interesting thematic way. It touched on everything from collaboration to biographical speculation, from theatrical working practices to the religion of the age, and had a clear arc from childhood to the grand career, before slowing down as Shakespeare approached death.

The reduction of the book did result in two things that disappointed me. One was the casual elision of chronology at certain points, such as a suggestion that Shakespeare's contribution to Thomas More was part of a return to collaboration at the very end of Shakespeare's career coinciding with his Fletcher collaborations, rather than occurring ten years earlier. Instances like this are only important to scholars like me, of course, but seemed unnecessary. The other was the definitive assertion of ideas which can only be conjectural - Callow's authoritative voice spoke of Shakespeare moving home to Stratford in the early 1600s, of his state of mind at the time of his son's death, of his historical locations etc. in the language of established fact, and while it's obviously necessary to make a positive stand in this type of writing, I would have preferred to see more of a stylistic difference between sections where the play was rooted in documentable fact and sections which are informed conjecture or pure speculation. Jonathan achieves this (I think) really well in the book, but onstage it might have been managed better.

Callow held the stage with tremendous power. His naturally affable style worked well for the basic tone of the play, which turned an informative lecture into a convivial chat with your favourite uncle. Tom Cairns's simple direction had Callow sitting on a stage with a raised platform on which stood evocative objects - a globe, a mobile etc. The focus was on Callow throughout, with lighting shifts occasionally altering the mood at times of tragedy or hope.

One purpose of the production was to give Callow the opportunity to try out several of Shakespeare's most famous speeches, moving from playing Romeo and Juliet to Thomas More to Henry V to Prospero to Puck. The only weakness was in the Romeo section, where Callow performed the balcony scene with himself in a frenetic way that mocked the characters too openly. However, his Cockney Bottom, his pompous Falstaff and his dignified Lear were all wonderful and varied. I'm not a huge fan of the one-man show format, but Callow brought to life a range of characters that, even outside of their dramatic contexts, gave a sense of the sheer variety within Shakespeare's canon.

I'm hoping the play continues to have an afterlife, and it'll be interesting to see if it is brought into play as the authorship debate kicks off more in the next few months. It was a tour de force for Callow and a wonderful introduction to Shakespeare for those who have a sense of who the man was and want to know more.

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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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