All entries for January 2011

January 24, 2011

Discords (After Shakespeare) (Fail Better) @ Warwick Arts Centre Studio

It's the tenth anniversary of Fail Better Productions, a company who I've been working alongside on and off for the last few years. Specialising in Becket, devised work and revivals (witness the excellent Play Without a Title), they've more recently been working with a student ensemble at Warwick on a devised piece, which received its large-scale public premiere for this anniversary celebration.

The first half of the evening was a revival of the company's award-winning Diary of a Madman (After Gogol) performed by Jonathan Broke, a stunning tour de force one-man performance. This piece isn't my focus, but the company had worked to link together the increasingly unhinged delusions of Broke's character with the disjointed fragments of the new piece. Diary was framed on either side by the eerie sight of a disembodied head floating next to the stage, peering through a hatch in the back flats. This visual foreshadowing of the coming activity placed an unsettling frame around the closely-contained set of Diary, locating Broke's breakdown within an ominous, detached world.

Discords followed after an interval. The set of Diary - a small, three-sided room - was dismantled and left in ruins centre stage, and two angled back flats came into focus. One by one, small hatches opened up in these two flats and heads appeared - some crying, some laughing, some sleeping. Three female heads on the left were balanced by four on the left. As the lights faded, the heads disappeared once more behind their hatches.

The ensuing piece took the form of a set of broken sections of dialogue from Macbeth (the witches meeting; Lady Macbeth washing her hands) and Lear (the opening expressions of love; Lear and Poor Tom on the heath) repeated four times, with the genders of those speaking alternated. The choice of scenes allowed for a mirroring of images; three daughters in Lear balanced three witches in Macbeth, and a curious association emerged between Lady Macbeth and Lear himself, the truth-in-madness simplicity of Lear's words merging in tone with the unconscious slips of Lady M's dreams.

Across the half hour, the speed of speech was speeded up (to a clattering blurt of sounds by the end of the second iteration) and slowed down, with the third iteration beginning as a painfully slow dirge. The disembodied heads occasionally spoke naturalistically, but at other times would drawl their syllables, or slow down and exaggerate every sound, drawing attention to the feel of the words. At times, this became interminable; this was a deliberately and even provocatively experimental piece, pushing the possibilities of delivered sound within a very small sample of dialogue. While it went on a little too long for my own taste/patience, the leisured pace did allow the resonances of the words to come through. The repeated "nothings" in both extracts were pointed up by the starkness of the delivery, and the disengagement between Lear and his dependents, and the Macbeths with each other, was striking in the paralysis of the heads. Yet there was still room for humour; the Fool repeatedly shook and nodded his/her head rather than respond verbally, and then became stuck as s/he withdrew it following Lear's rebuke.

Discords did what it said on the tin, and offered a peculiarly focussed interrogation of familiar passages that ultimately destabilsed the possibility of any fixed meanings existing in the words. Words themselves, like the floating heads (one couldn't help but be reminded of another disembodied head, closing the end of Macbeth), became dissociated from sense, text and context; raw materials to be manipulated as the actors' bodies. The openness of the experiment left one wanting some form of completion; but then, the dialogues of madness explored within these plays perhaps themselves defy resolution. Either way, it was a fittingly ambiguous way to close an anniversary celebration, the heads finally turning their gaze on the Studio audience.

January 20, 2011

The Next Complete Works

Shakespeare's Globe have just announced their exciting 2012 project -a new Complete Works of Shakespeare. This will see the Globe present 38 plays (don't get me started on the absence of Edward III and Thomas More!) over six months, each one in a different language.

The Bardathon was founded in the spirit of 'event Shakespeare', based on the RSC Complete Works of Shakespeare, and as such I'm strongly considering doing the same again, seeing the lot. This will be something of a financial and logistical challenge, particularly as London is less convenient to be popping to regularly than Stratford. Watch this space though; I thrive on challenges, and it'd be a real shame to let this opportunity pass.

January 18, 2011

Antonio's revenge by Edward's Boys

Antonio’s Revenge

by John Marston (1599)

7.30pm Wednesday 9th March    The Moser Theatre, Wadham College, Oxford

Tickets from School Office: 01789-293351.    Email:

7.30pm Thursday 10th March    Levi Fox Hall, King Edward VI School

Tickets from School Office: 01789-293351.    Email:

7.30pm Saturday 12th March       Levi Fox Hall, King Edward VI School

Tickets from School Office: 01789-293351.    Email:

6.30pm Sunday 13th March        Middle Temple Hall, London

“by kind permission of the Masters of the Bench of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple”

Tickets from The Treasury, 2 Plowden Buildings, Middle Temple Lane, London EC4Y 9AT.

Tel 020 7427 4800. E:

January 14, 2011

Special Issue of Shakespeare Bulletin

Shakespeare Bulletin – Special Theatre Reviews Section - Spring 2012

We are soliciting reviews of the BEST and the WORST productions of Shakespeare and other early modern drama in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

The theatre reviews section in the Spring 2012 issue of Shakespeare Bulletin will follow a somewhat unusual format.  We would like to run approximately forty very short production-reviews that, in the aggregate, give some sense of the range of productions, and vivid responses to them, positive and negative, over the last ten years.

Reviews may not be longer than 500 words.  The idea behind this length requirement is to encourage formal and stylistic innovation as well as a high degree of focus.  Detailed descriptions of production design, casting, plot development, etc., are not required—not least because many of the productions noted will likely have been reviewed previously in the pages of SB.  We encourage reviewers to find exciting ways of conveying the one or two things that made a given production linger in the memory.

Each review should be prefaced by a short headnote giving the play title, the name of the company that produced it, the venue in which it was produced, and the year of its production. 

Reviewers may submit multiple reviews.  All submissions are, of course, subject to editorial review before being accepted.

Please send reviews by email to the theatre review editor, Jeremy Lopez:

Reviews may be submitted any time before September 30, 2011.

January 10, 2011

Matilda, a Musical

Writing about web page

It's not Shakespeare, but I have to get in a quick note. I saw the RSC's Matilda the other night, and it was absolutely stunning. It's a wonderful story, of course (although I never realised before the superficial similarities to Carrie), but the company did a marvellous job of bringing it to life on stage.

Key to the whole thing was the variety, without descending into irrelevance. A new storytelling subplot saw Matilda narrate a tragedy of love and death to an awestruck librarian in pieces, a story which turned out to be Miss Honey's true-life story; and interludes about discipline (Mrs. Trunchbull) and Revolting Kids (led by the wonderful Bruce Bogtrotter) extended the key themes. The songs, by Tim Minchin, were fantastically witty and full of captivating wordplay, particularly an ingenious setpiece where some older children taught new arrivals to school how hellish it was using the alphabet.

The tricks and turns were spectacular - witness Mrs. Trunchbull's flinging of a pigtailed girl across the auditorium, the disappearing cake that Bruce devoured, the magic chalk and and desks that rose out of the floor -, the jokes were genuinely hysterical (particular kudos to Paul Kaye's interval turn in character as Mr. Wormwood) and the human moments were deeply affecting - Matilda's embrace of Miss Honey when her teacher showed her some simple interest was gorgeous, and their final cartwheel offstage a perfect end.

The clincher, though, was Bertie Carvel's monstrous Trunchbull. This cross-dressed headmistress, bulked-up and towering over the rest of the cast, came across like a demonic version of an Enid Blyton schoolmistress, with riding crop and slight hunchback. Carvel looked like a Quentin Blake cartoon, and perfectly captured the Dahl-ness of the character. A standout turn in a standout production, one of the best things I've seen at the RSC in years. Now, let's hope they can apply the same inventiveness to the year's Shakespeare!

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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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