All entries for Tuesday 28 June 2011

June 28, 2011

With Will (Warwick Student Arts Festival) @ Warwick Arts Centre Studio

I've only managed to catch one show at this year's Warwick Student Arts Festival - With Will, a half-hour duologue. I don't know the names of writer, director or actors, but I can only assume it comes from the same mind that created the very similar To Will, which I caught earlier this year.

The play, set around 1610, saw Thomas Middleton seeking out Shakespeare to ask if he could rewrite Macbeth to make it "better". The two chatted about life, plays, other writers etc., before "Will" finally agreed to let "Tom" rewrite the play - as long as he also had a crack at Measure for Measure.

The play had the exact same strengths and weaknesses as To Will. On the plus side, the performances were fine. The two female actors were witty and confident. Tom was presented as the younger, nervier partner, pacing the stage and nervously voicing criticisms and asking naive questions. Will, playing to the romantic genius notion of the Bard, was dramatic, rather smug but generous towards his fellow. The writing itself was also fit to purpose, mixing historical anecdote with a personal edge.

The problems were primarily structural. As with To Will, the writer had chosen to collate an extraordinary number of biographical and historical anecdotes (the unholy child of James Shapiro and Andrew Gurr, if that thought doesn't chill you) rather than create an actual narrative. The best parts of the play touched on religion, as the vehemently anti-Catholic Tom challenged Will on his own beliefs; but the play didn't have the courage to explore fiction, instead only gesturing at imaginative biography before make sharp left turns to talk about a completely different anecodote. The play covered everything from Shakespeare ranting about Kempe, to detailed analysis of Lear, to Shakespeare setting up the Globe, to why Burbage didn't play Mercutio, to the political analogies of A Game at Chess. The grab-bag of information was fascinating, but in a pedagogic, final-year-practical-dissertation kind of way, rather than as a piece of theatre: the aim seemed to be to demonstrate the writer's familiarity with as much early modern theatre history as possible, but really wanted a bit of careful selection to create a coherent throughline.

As a knowledge-display, it could have been much tighter too. If doing a biographical piece, why not pay attention to chronology? The idea of Middleton grilling Shakespeare on why his worldview was so bleak while writing Lear, for example, screams out for the play to acknowledge that the two men were also collaborating on Timon at probably almost exactly the same time; the generation gap between Middleton and Shakespeare could have opened up so many possibilities; and the range of plays discussed occasionally beggared belief - if Game at Chess was not premiered until eight years after Shakespeare's death, for example, why were we discussing it alongside Shakespeare's "recent" Coriolanus? Within the context of a dramatic fiction, of course, none of these are problems; this is just an observation that the strengths of the writing were diluted by the over-anxious need to cram in as much as possible.

However, With Will persuaded me of the potential of this kind of drama. Putting the two writers onstage to discuss their plays worked tremendously as a way into the unpacking of the themes and contexts that informed the writing. Of course it panders to author-centred ideas of writing - the idea of Middleton taking Yorkshire Tragedy to a publisher in order to earn a bit of cash not only offers to send book historians weeping to an early grave, but is also symptomatic of the biographical concern to explain all phenomena with reference to the over-arching, privileged agency of an author. It's a useful set of questions to raise ahead of seeing Being Shakespeare in a couple of weeks. On its own, this production offered a great introduction to some of the better and lesser-known aspects of early modern theatrical history, and undoubtedly served as a wonderfully apt end-of-year send off to a group of Shakespearean undergrads due to get their exam results back tomorrow. Good luck!

Dunsinane (National Theatre of Scotland/RSC) @ The Swan Theatre

It's amusing to note that, while the Royal Shakespeare Company first produced David Greig's Dunsinane in 2010, it only played in London; and it's only in the National Theatre of Scotland's staging of the RSC production that the play has finally come to Stratford-upon-Avon, after an outing at Edinburgh's Lyceum. It's less amusing to report that, thanks to a coach company failing to arrive on time, my group - the attendees of a conference at Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning - missed the first ten minutes or so of the production, which sadly won't be reported here. However, I hear they were extremely funny, focussing on the Birnam Wood campaign against Dunsinane.

This was, on one level, a sequel to Macbeth. Siward (Jonny Phillips), leader of the occupying army after Macbeth's overthrow, worked alongside Macduff (Phil McKee) and his self-serving lieutenant Egham (Alex Mann) to consolidate the rule of the corrupt, lecherous and obnoxious Malcolm (Brian Ferguson). The already unstable situation was complicated by the re-emergence of Lady Macbeth, here called by her first name Gruach (Siobhan Redmond), whose son by her previous husband was soon being declared the rightful King of Scotland. The play followed Siward as he fell in love with Gruach, attempted to negotiate peace among the lords and find his own sense of honour and safety; while Egham began negotiating black-market deals and their soldiers dealt with the locals.

The what-if surface story of the play, influenced obviously by Richard III and King John, acted as an obvious allegory for the war in Iraq, with the main dialogue focussed on the problems of attempting to enforce peace. The best scenes were dialogues between Malcolm and Siward where the opposing philosophies of England and Scotland were put forward. The honourable and absolutist Siward insisted on the need for clarity, the destruction of obstacles, the definition of allegiances and lineages. Malcolm, however, explained the ambiguities, complexities and impermanencies of Scottish culture. While Malcolm initially began as a figure of fun - and Ferguson relished the seedier aspects of the character's vices - his voice became stronger as the play went on. What sounded like ludicrously perverted notions of truth and fact in the immediate aftermath of the war became attention to subtleties and politics, and the verdict was damning - an occupying army that does not attempt to understand the culture of the people it is "helping" cannot offer a solution. A "solution" itself is not even necessarily desirable.

Thus, Malcolm's effete and weak king became the play's figurehead, a voice of honest corruption that accepted the realities of process. Phillips's Siward, by contrast, became less admirable as his attempts to do good and forge compromise were undone by individual needs. His self-sacrifice was noble in itself, as when he proposed marriage between Gruach and Malcolm rather than taking the Queen for himself, but his attempts to impose solution were undone by the solution's conflicting implications for different parties, and the first half closed with Gruach's men using the wedding as cover for a mass slaughter.

These clashes of culture were played out in miniature on the ground. A touching subplot saw Joshua Jenkins's comic Welsh soldier attempting to attract the attention of a "Hen Girl" (Lisa Hogg), who spoke only Gaelic. Several aborted attempts later, he finally embraced the girl in front of his cheering fellows, only to be stabbed brutally in the stomach, before she stabbed herself in turn, screaming defiance at the shocked generals. This "suicide bomber" was perhaps the clearest bit of the allegory, but drew its strength from the realisation that, of the two human faces we had been watching, we had only ever really known one.

Mann's Egham was particularly strong, with cut-glass English accent and an honest acceptance of his corruption that was balanced by his passionate hatred for all things Scottish. His admission of dishonesty to Gruach was a comic highlight, but the ongoing complexities of the situation were pinned up by his outrage at Siward's decision to burn a group of Scots alive in a bid to root out Gruach's son. The corruption of Egham and Malcolm was, in many ways, more acceptable than Siward's inflexible military integrity. This was pointed up, too, by two visiting Thanes who critiqued Siward's refusal to enter into a culture of gift exchange. In response to Siward's claim that all he wanted was peace, the two men pointed out that peace was the one thing that Siward's presence denied their ability to give.

There were mis-steps throughout the play. In particular, I wished it had ended with Malcolm's quiet instruction to Siward to bed in for the winter (a lovely reflection of the earlier comment by Siward that the army may be staying longer than they had originally planned, and a direct gibe at current Western foreign operations). Instead, a long conclusion saw Siward go to seek out Gruach after having killed her son, only to discover that she had a grandson also, who he failed to kill. This added little to either story or allegory. It did, however, allow Tom Gill's excellent Boy Soldier another monologue. This choric character summed up the action in imagined letters written to his mother, explaining the horrors of Scotland but, eventually, its beauties also. Frequently on hand to help his seniors, this boy was the perennial innocent of war, always attempting to find sense in the slaughter. Gruach was also accompanied by two choric characters, maids who sang in Gaelic and wore headscarves that evoked the Arabic aspects of the story.

It's wonderful to see new writing back in the Swan, and the production offered a fascinating complement to the main house's Macbeth that both reclaimed the historical matter for Scotland and acted as a damning indictment of Western foreign policy. Grieg's pacy and intelligent script was performed superbly by the cast, and one hopes that this play - which remains far too relevant - continues to have life beyond the current production.

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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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