All entries for February 2009

February 24, 2009

The Tempest (Baxter Theatre Centre) @ The Courtyard Theatre

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When the Complete Works Festival finished, we were promised that it would be an "engine of change" at the RSC, ushering in home and international collaborations and more new work. However, after a couple of months, the RSC was taken over by the Histories and then the last summer season (a.k.a. The "Tennant" season). There have been collaborations (or, at least, other companies using the Courtyard) and new work, but mostly fairly low-profile. However, the South African Baxter Theatre Centre's new Tempest appears to be the real deal - an international collaboration given a full month at the Courtyard and all the press attention that a production of this size and quality deserves.

The Baxter were last here presenting their Hamlet, a solid production of that play. The Tempest, however, was on an entirely different scale in all senses. An enormous set took up the entire thrust stage of the Courtyard, with undulating rocky ridges, a sprawling upper level of branches and rocks and stone-cut stairs and ramps that provided endless opportunities for creative staging. Flags and drapes descended from the ceiling for the storm and masque scenes, while Caliban emerged from a cave at the base of Prospero's lair.

This basic set, though, still allowed plenty of space for the frenetic physical activity and puppetry of the ensemble. Director Janice Honeyman had drawn heavily on the traditions and mythology of Africa as part of her reclamation of the play, and this was realised spectacularly in performance. Ariel's scripted songs were augmented by multi-part harmonies, while even the flimsiest hints of songs (such as Stephano's ramblings) were developed into full-scale song and dance numbers with a chorus of tribal spirits providing percussion and backing vocals. This was The Tempest as festival, appropriating Shakespeare's text to provide the basis for a celebration of the company's roots and culture.

The puppetry of the production was perhaps its most impressive and memorable element. In the play's opening moments, Prospero emerged and conjured the "Spirit of the Sea", an enormous serpent lifted directly from Zulu cosmology that required several performers to manipulate it as it stirred up the thunder and waves of the storm. Sycorax, too, was realised on stage as a series of body-parts on long sticks, the performers creating a hovering, disembodied face that glared down on Ariel as Prospero reminded him of his earlier imprisonment. Two man-size hands reached down and enclosed Ariel, trapping him quite literally in Sycorax's grasp. These colourful, carnivalesque puppets continued to be used throughout; giant cartoonish male/female bodies danced a masque for Ferdinand and Miranda, while piles of clothes turned inside out when disturbed by Stephano and Trinculo, becoming grotesque monsters who chased the comedians away.

In the programme, Honeyman's work is dsecribed as "political by implication rather than by tub-thumping". Nevertheless, the politics of the play were explicit rather than implict, with Antony Sher's Prospero donning the fedora, waistcoat and white suit of a plantation owner while John Kani's Caliban was a relatively dignified older black man, with little more than crutches to signify him as a 'monster'. Here, the white nobles were shipwrecked in a land entirely 'other', where they were confused and disoriented by black spirits ultimately controlled by a white man. With this established, however, the production didn't ram home its points, preferring simply to keep the racial and colonial politics visible while telling the story. Gonzalo, Adrian, Trinculo and Sebastian were all re-imagined as darker-skinned servants to the more powerful white nobles; Ariel's bondage was visually represented in his exotic body-markings, which Prospero himself washed off as he freed him; and Miranda fell between the political and social lines, a white girl dressed as if in The Land That Time Forgot, with a voice and intelligence cultivated by her civilised father but a tactile curiosity and wide-eyed wonder that associated her more with the spirits.

Sher's Prospero dominated throughout, he providing a powerful and always interesting reading of the character. This was a conflicted and severely-flawed man, who readied himself with a rifle and bloody thoughts before being moved by Ariel's empathy for his enemies. This scholarly man busied himself with an enormous single magic book, and his performance of his art tied him to the African land he had become master of, donning a dusty robe and moving his staff in a clumsier yet more forceful echo of Ariel's fast spinning and dancing.

His relationship with Atawanda Kani's Ariel was particularly complex; in their first meeting, he pinned his slave down in physical subjugation, wielding his magic staff to the spirit's terror. Yet his affection for Ariel bordered on loving dependence. As the play progressed, he was increasingly drawn to touch the spirit, always eventually shying away, but particularly aggrieved by Ariel's need to ask "Do you love me?" Ariel's freedom became a personal wrench for Prospero, and his tender washing off of Ariel's marks of servitude became a ritual that he forced himself to carry out. Ariel's scream of joy as he tasted freedom and ran off was ecstatic, and Prospero never seemed older than as he called after him, waving and crying out to him, hoping that the spirit would look back, just once. He didn't, and Prospero was bereft.

Atawanda Kani took "airy" as his watchword in his performance, which was occasionally irritating in the lightness of his voice and movements. However, he orchestrated the stage action with style and effected a particularly startling 'harpy' sequence - he ran in on spring-loaded stilts with tribal headdress and long weapons, giving him a physically imposing and threatening presence that, rarely for this production, brought out the spirit's darker and more aggressive side as he growled at the men of sin. Conversely, John Kani's Caliban was underplayed. Chained and confined to two crutches, he staggered about, reserving his anger and bitterness at the loss of "his" island to be expressed in his voice alone. He was inseparably bound to the island, first appearing from the earth itself, blowing on a smoking pan as he performed a religious ritual, then joining with the spirits as he finished the first act with his freedom hymn.

At it heart, however, this was actually a relatively traditional production. Stephano and Trinculo were bumbling and entertaining; Antonio and Sebastian sneering (Nicholas Pauling's Sebastian particularly so, Gonazlo's words seeming to physically disgust him), Alonso melancholy and ultimately redeemed (he forcibly tore Antonio's sash of office from him as Prospero was reinstated) and Ferdinand perky and noble. Tinarie van Wyk Loots made for a more unusual Miranda, almost feral as she crept along the rocks to peer at Ferdinand as he worked. She touched faces and arms as her way of getting to know somebody, lending an immediate intimacy to her relationship with Ferdinand. It was in the details that the production distinguished itself, whether Ariel physically copying the movements of Trinculo as he projected his voice to antagonise Stephano, or Sebastian's hugely sarcastic "A most high miracle" when the heir he hoped to disinherit was discovered alive and well.

The production ended on a more troubled note, though, as Prospero picked up his suitcase and prepared to leave the island. His parting from Ariel had left him clearly troubled, and the rest of the company had left the stage, leaving him alone, an old man unprepared to rejoin 'civilised' society. As he neared the end of the epilogue, Caliban emerged once more, peering in confusion at Prospero. His final lines "As you from crimes would pardoned be/ Let your indulgence set me free" were addressed directly to Caliban, as apology and challenge, before he walked off. Caliban hobbled up a slope to a vantage point and peered out over the now-deserted island. He threw his crutches to the ground, and the lights faded on him as he became, once more, king of the isle. A moment simultaneously of hope and uncertainty, it provided a fitting final image to a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable evening.

February 19, 2009

Julius Caesar (SATTF) @ The Tobacco Factory

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A bizarre clash of three Shakespearean press nights will hopefully not have left the new Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory production of Julius Caesar out in the cold. While the RSC's Tempest and Northern Broadsides' Othello drew the bulk of media interest, I took the road less travelled to Bristol last night for the opening of the SATTF's tenth anniversary season of Roman plays, directed by Artistic Director Andrew Hilton.

The key strength of the Tobacco Factory as a venue is its in-the-round intimacy, and Caesar benefitted hugely from being performed in extreme close-up, the conspirators in particular communicating silently with their eyes as they took their positions around Caesar. Played in full Jacobean costume, the hats and cloaks irresistably evoked Guy Fawkes and the early modern police state, the plotters choosing their words carefully and quietly as if the walls themselves were listening. Played this way, the first half of the play became filled with suspense, the oppressive dark and low ceiling weighing down on the conspirators as their basement-hatched plans gathered momentum until they were finally and bloodily fulfilled in the sun-drenched Capitol.

Heading the plotters were Leo Wringer's Brutus and Clive Hayward's Cassius, both expertly performed. Their increasingly co-dependent relationship formed the heart of this production, building in layers of unspoken detail. Wringer's Brutus was particularly interesting, already half-turned before his first conversation with Cassius. While loudly speaking of his loyalty to Caesar, he urged Cassius to continue talking, provoking him when he paused through his spoken fears of the crowd urging Caesar to be king. Cassius' importance was in being the talker, the one member of this guarded society unafraid to speak plainly of his dissatisfaction. In many ways, Cassius was the least intelligent of the party; a doer rather than a thinker, he was the motivating force that pulled the dissidents together yet was entirely dependent on Brutus for public justification and leadership. Brutus, on the other hand, was reliant on Cassius' drive; by himself he was reflective and relatively static, lost in the thoughts of guilt and loss that increasingly plagued him.

Their relationship was encapsulated in a mesmerising and emotionally devastating 'tent' scene (4.2) which was a joy to watch. Brutus relentlessly persecuted his friend, their argument an upsetting shock to Cassius, whose terror at the concept of a division between them was realised in retaliatory anger. Yet as they reconciled, and Brutus revealed the news of Portia's death, Cassius' grief for his friend's loss - and frustration at himself for not having realised the cause of Brutus' aggressiveness - overwhelmed him. He had no concept of how to comfort Brutus, taking a step towards him as if to hug him but realising immediately that it would be inappropriate. Shortly after, as Messala gave Brutus the official report of Portia's death, Cassius sat amazed as Brutus presented himself as stoic before his men, marvelling at the ability of the man to put aside personal matters for the greater cause. Cassius left the tent, inspired and moved by his friend, and their leave-taking screamed of pain beneath the formality of their words. The importance and strength of their relationship was further underlined by the sudden intrusion into their conversation of a drunken Caska, in place of the Poet, who was dealing with his problems in his own destructive way. The quick removal of their one-time co-conspirator showed how far the original plotters had fallen apart - and how inseparable the two leaders had remained.

This relationship was echoed in the rather more troubled partnership of Alun Raglan's Mark Antony and Byron Mondahl's Octavius Caesar. Raglan made for an awe-inspiring Antony (if he continues in the role for the Tobacco Factory's Antony next month, it'll definitely be one to watch). Dishevelled and roguish in his early appearances next to Caesar's other pristine followers, Antony was immediately identified as a danger, an unpredictable element within this formal world. Even when in full uniform with purple sash, his movements were comfortable and easy, the sign of a man utterly confident in himself. Yet this apparently easy-going nature belied a calculating and shocking rage that first poured out when left alone with Caesar's body, his voice rising to a roar as he cried "Havoc!" Yet, following the emotional and seemingly heartfelt orations, he stood quietly on stage and murmured "Now let it work" in a tone that left no doubt that he was congratulating himself on an utterly successful performance. His coolness was further noted as he literally shrugged off Lepidus' demands for the life of his nephew, careless of his relative's life. In this meeting, the triumvirate gathered around a long table, the tension between himself and Octavius was already apparent, as he mocked Octavius' youth and gazed around, openly bored, as Octavius spoke. This Octavius, not that much younger than Antony despite the repeated references to his youth, was a politician, a commander rather than a soldier, who looked uncomfortable in uniform. His arrogance and supreme confidence matched Antony's, and it was clear that Octavius fully expected the rule. By the final scene, his orders ("All that served Brutus, I will entertain them") evoked Julius Caesar's own assumptions of monarchical power, and he marched off stage with a final summons to Antony to "let's away/ To part the glories of this happy day". As he marched off, Antony stood quietly on stage, before motioning to his followers and marching off in the opposite direction. We were left aching for the next installment of their feud.

The intimacy of the production also assisted, rather than restricted, the crowd scenes. The orations scene was particularly excellent; Brutus and Antony spoke from a spotlit perch in the audience's tiered seating, while the rest of the company filled out the playing space as the mob. The tiny space was packed with screaming people, perfectly capturing the restlessness and anger in the people. Their anger was such that both Antony and Brutus had to fight to be heard - it's a brave production that can sacrifice "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" as Antony struggled to catch his audience's attention. The crowd were perfectly influenced by the two speakers, and Antony in particular gave a masterclass in swaying opponents by presenting himself as choked by emotion. His iterations of "Brutus is an honourable man" became increasingly filled with bitterness as the 'injustice' of the murder overwhelmed him.

The production's two women were both strong, and unusually modern in their performance style. Dani McCallum's Portia was notable for the equality of her relationship with Brutus, folding her arms stubbornly instead of going to bed and hitching up her skirts to display the gash on her thigh. Her anger with her husband was untempered by love, she instead giving full vent to her frustration at her husband shutting her out. Catherine McKinnon was more demure as Calphurnia, pleading rather than demanding her husband to stay at home. As Decius Brutus persuaded Caesar to the senate, she simply bowed her head, the happy smile vanishing as she realised her premonitions could not be avoided.

At the centre of the production's first half stood Simon Armstrong's hearty Caesar. Until his assassination he wore little more ostentation than the other nobles, his authority residing in his way with people rather than in trappings. Commanding and immovable, this Caesar was a military leader; not a bad man, but a presence difficult to resist. The fears of the conspirators could be understood, yet there was no obvious cause for the extent of the crime, the only moment of apparent cruelty coming in his refusal to repeal the banishment of Metellus' brother. At the time of the murder, Caesar had seated himself in a throne and was wearing long robes, allowing the conspirators to bow before him; he had become what they feared. The assassination itself came in a moment of extreme violence, the conspirators surrounding him and stabbing him repeatedly. In his final moments, though, he saw Brutus' face and bared a space on his breast to receive Brutus' sword, accepting his fate in a final moment of connection with the man he loved.

There were plenty of other fascinating moments across the production. Artemidorus was conflated with Cinna the Poet, allowing extra build-up to the moment when he was murdered by the mob. The moment acquired especial poignancy as the man who had tried to prevent the murder was killed as a conspirator by an ignorant crowd. As he told his persecutors he was a friend, they even began to move on, but his innocence led him to continue answering their questions and the mob, hungry for violence, returned and beat him mercilessly to his death. There was good work from the rest of the company too, with no particularly weak links - even the young boy playing Lucius became sympathetic in his awkwardness as Brutus laid him down to sleep as the guitar he was playing slipped from his hands.

The production will be followed by Antony at the end of its run, and playing Caesar as the first half of a bigger story worked marvellously in the production's favour, the subtle private conspiracy of the first half leading to the increasingly fast and inevitably disastrous public battles of the second. By Brutus' suicide, the world established in the opening scenes of formality had been entirely destroyed, and the remaining movers and shakers had already begun to squabble over the scraps. To be continued, indeed.

February 13, 2009

Twelfth Night (Donmar) @ The Wyndham's Theatre

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Michael Grandage's first Shakespeare for the Donmar's current West End residency opened, quite literally, with a bang, a mighty crash of thunder and lightning. This call to attention opened an efficient and excellently-performed Twelfth Night that was unashamedly traditional in its desire to please and entertain. An unfussy set saw the actors perform in front of stage-high slatted flats, in a world that evoked the high society of early 20th century England, with tuxedos and dresses the order of the day.

One of Grandage's strengths as a director is his ability to draw top-drawer performances from actors. This ensemble was barely faultless, each rendering their characters lively and interesting, even down to the jealous Valentine and Curio, watching their master bestow favours on the pipsqueak upstart who they bullied and intimidated when Orsino wasn't looking.

The performance on which the production had been sold was Derek Jacobi's Malvolio, and he provided excellent value. His hilariously pompous voice and demeanour in earlier scenes, a caricature of the arrogant English butler, only made his discomposure later on the funnier. In yellow stockings and cross garters, Jacobi was game, thrusting his groin and cackling ecstatically when Olivia suggested "To bed". Most impressive, however, was his letter-reading. The scene as a whole was simply staged at the seaside, with one upstage hiding place concealing all the onlookers, and thus Malvolio commanded the entire downstage area, growing increasingly excited and ebullient as the letter progressed. His climax, the battle to contort his face into a grotesque smile, was marvellous.

Just as good, though, were the other comedians. The removal of Fabian (a particular dislike of mine - it's the first part to be cut from the play as the least memorable of the comedians, yet his role is surprisingly crucial and a good Fabian can be extremely funny) interestingly hugely increased Maria's role in the action: she and Toby joined together to play Sir Andrew and Cesario off against one another in the duel; and she confessed to her own part in gulling Malvolio and her subsequent marriage to Toby. The effect was to make Maria a far more active participant, co-ordinating the antics as much as Toby and taking responsibility for her own actions. Samantha Spiro was fast and funny in the role, confident and good-humoured: she began to obey Toby's instructions to bring more booze in direct defiance of Malvolio's presence during the drinking scene, occasioning his disapproval of her. Better still were Ron Cook and Guy Henry as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. The extreme difference in their heights led to a particularly amusing moment as Sir Andrew carelessly swung round a rolled up screen carried on his shoulder - which passed harmlessly far above Toby's head. Henry's Andrew was a fool; however, the humour didn't come from extreme ridiculousness but from his pathetically endearing aping of Sir Toby, copying him in every gesture and attempting to keep up with his plans. His insistence that "I smell it too!" in response to Maria's device was followed by him echoing Toby's every other word as he attempted to hide the fact that he didn't have a clue of the plan. Sir Toby, meanwhile, was a lovable drunk, a humourous and joyful older man undignified enough to roll on the floor yet compus mentis enough to come up with his plans.

Victoria Hamilton appeared as one of the most girlish Viola's I've ever seen, in elegant corseted dress, soaking wet from the shipwreck. As Cesario, the fact she was a woman was always clear to the audience, the comedy coming from her frantic attempts to maintain her disguise. Hamilton's appeals to the audience ("A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man") were particularly amusing, wide-eyed and nervy before rejoining the fray. However, the strongest aspect of Hamilton's performance was her love for Orsino. When delivering his first message to Olivia, her frustration and bitterness at having to woo someone on behalf of the man she loved were transparent, she becoming genuinely angry with Olivia for not seeing in Orsino what she herself could see. By emphasising the emotional and vulnerable aspects of Viola, Hamilton created a heroine we could truly invest in and laugh with. Indira Varma made for a similarly good Olivia, beginning austere and aloof but quickly cracking into laughter at Feste's early jests. Her growing love for Cesario gradually energised her as the play progressed, increasingly throwing decorum to the wind until she practically tore Sebastian's clothes from him as he agreed to be ruled by her. One of the biggest laughs came from her sexually ravenous "Most wonderful!" on beholding two Cesarios in the final scene, licking her lips and quite clearly contemplating the possibilities. Alex Waldmann was more than receptive to her advances as Sebastian, an energetic performance that emphasised the character's youth and irrepresibility. He needed no pressing to leap into bed with a strange woman, and for once the passion between Olivia and Sebastian felt justified and real.

Other parts were well performed but less impactful. Zubin Varla made for a relatively restrained Feste who, apart from a manic Irish accent as Sir Topaz, drew few laughs besides those in the text. His main strength was as musician and singer; the second act opened with an excellent djembe solo, lasting for some minutes as Viola watched, whlie his songs were performed beautifully. He was distinctly 'other' within the play's aesthetic, wearing coloured patchwork robes next to the early 20th century formalwear of the rest of the cast, but it would have been nice to have seen his role further explored. Mark Bonner's Orsino spent most of the play in dressing gown over bare chest and pyjama trousers, careless of his duties as Duke while enraptured at love. His court had distinct homo-erotic associations, with one scene showing him and his servants, all bare-chested (bar Cesario) learning formal dances in pairs. Lloyd Hutchinson's Irish Antonio, however, was the most marginalised of the main cast. His first two scenes with Sebastian were conducted as essentially walk-overs, with the two pausing in their trek across the stage to conduct the scene before moving on again. It left the scenes feeling like interludes, and Antonio's subsequent interruption of Viola and Andrew's duel lacked the impact of a man leaping to his dear friend's defence, particularly as he didn't even get as far as exchanging blows with Toby before he was arrested. This is one of the first Twelfth Nights I've seen in a while to not noticably eroticise Antonio's feelings for Sebastian, which is the tactic often used to give the character depth. Here, despite a fine performance by Hutchinson, the character simply didn't make an impression.

The final scene was perfectly pitched between threat (Orsino held a knife at Cesario) and comedy (Orsino proposing to Sebastian instead of Viola). The reconciliation between the siblings was touching, and Malvolio's promise of vengeance, hissed at Feste before opening up to include everyone on stage, suitably angry on his part, though relieved by gentle laughter as he hobbled off stage, his legs and face scuffed in black soot. During Feste's final song, as is the modern convention, we saw everyone going their separate ways: the couples leaving together, Andrew leaving alone with a suitcase, Toby and Maria heading off on honeymoon. Antonio settled for a handshake with Viola and Sebastian before leaving by himself, and the lights faded on Feste as he sang his final line.

This was a largely flawless production and hugely well-performed. My only disappointment is that it was so conventional - there were no interpretations, bits of business or deliveries of lines that felt particularly innovative or original. In this sense, it's perhaps the perfect Shakespeare for the West End - traditional, safe, well-acted, short and familiar. It's the Shakespeare that people mean when they talk about how it "should" be done. While personally I wish it had stretched itself a bit more, therefore, there's no denying that this was an extremely enjoyable production and one that maintains the Donmar's reputation for top quality Shakespeare.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

February 12, 2009

The Wonderful Donmar

I'd like to take a moment to tell the world how wonderful the Donmar Warehouse are. Owing to circumstances beyond anyone's control, I missed their current production of Twelfth Night in London, a production I had booked front-row seats for on the first day of sales at not-inconsiderable cost.

However, despite it being in no way their fault, the staff of the Donmar allowed Christmas spirit to prevail and provided two excellent replacement tickets for the same show, which I finally saw yesterday afternoon. This is the most generous and sympathetic customer service I've ever received from a theatre.

Too often theatres treat their customers like cattle, or at the least with an air of slight suspicion, as if the customer is trying to get one over on the organisation. The shoddy service I've received from other theatres (that shall remain nameless) includes: having an order of twenty tickets accidentally credited to another patron's account; having my tickets duplicated and sold twice so other people turned up to my seats with tickets in my name; being uninformed of changes in performance start time and then having my ticket downgraded; and having policies on age restrictions confused by different members of the same staff team. Yet, in all these cases, the theatre has treated me initially as if I caused the problem, and never once have I received an apology apart from from the poor duty manager who ends up having to deal with the problem on the night.

So, it's a genuine delight to find a theatre that went out of its way to help a patron, who generously did what they could to overcome a problem that wasn't of their own making and who recognised that customer service doesn't have to start and end in the theatre lobby. The Donmar are now officially my favourite theatre, and I urge you to patronise their shows as often and as extravangantly as you can. Other theatres - take note.

February 07, 2009

Othello (RSC) @ Warwick Arts Centre

The RSC's new touring production of Othello feels surprisingly marginalised. Opening in Coventry, with no Stratford performances and a British press who seem more interested in the upcoming Northern Broadsides production (featuring, as it does, comedian Lenny Henry in the title role), this Othello has a lot to do to avoid slipping under the radar - even an accompanying talk, Is Obama an Othello for our Times?, received more media attention. Yet this is a major production: Director Kathryn Hunter's debut contribution as RSC Artistic Associate, a cast drawn from theatre companies of the moment (Complicite, The RSC Histories, Kneehigh, The Factory) and a leading actress familiar to kids from the Harry Potter movies, and a full-size design and running time that bely the production's touring nature. It's also one of the RSC's more interesting recent productions.

An exhibition accompanying the tour highlights the fact that this production coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of Paul Robeson's epochal performance of the title role in Stratford, and fittingly this was also a production which was about Othello himself. Patrice Naiambana was both the production's greatest strength and its most important weakness. This was a production built around a single performance, clear from the start as Naiambana emerged from a chorus of Catholic chanting to sing an African melody accompanied by the tremendous on-stage band. For this Othello, integration into Venetian society did not entail sacrificing anything of his cultural heritage, and he proudly wore African garb for his wedding, used African exclamations and lyrics and armed himself in private with a whip, his weapon of choice when not in uniform. His 'otherness' was no simple matter of skin colour; this was a man of an entirely different culture, a culture which at the start sat comfortably alongside that of the Venetians. By the end of the play, however, it was clear that the cultural difference was part of what had destroyed him. Othello's own personal sense of honour required little pushing from Iago; the extreme reactions against Desdemona's supposed infidelity were all Othello's own, and his pursuit of revenge could only be satisfied outside of Venetian codes of conduct.

Naiambana's performance was huge and packed full of interest. From the opening moments his presence was utterly commanding, both his own men and Brabantio's giving way to his lightest command. His justification of his love before the Venetian council was similarly compelling; he always owned the stage and the hearts and minds of those on it. This individual authority drove the play inexorably, leaving victory and then destruction in its wake. In many senses, he was the only person in the play who had power; even though his Desdemona was exceptionally strong, he only allowed her to have influence over him while they were in love; once suspicious of her, he humiliated her in public and no-one was able to stand up to him. Ranging from deeply passionate love in early scenes to terrifying range and an extraordinarily violent epileptic fit in the midsections to the cold and almost insane ramblings and squealings of the final act as he grieved for his dead love, this was a tour de force performance and always powerful.

The problem with the performance, however, was that it was sometimes too much. In one sense, it dragged out the play immensely. Naiambana slowed down significant speeches and actions in order to give them weight and power - which effectively meant the entire role was played at half-speed. While this occasioned some lovely moments, it also made the whole play rather long, particularly following Desdemona's death where the staging became effectively reduced to Othello pacing very slowly for long stretches between lines. Naiambana's accent and verbal delivery, too, was luxurious in its pace and pitch, taking the verse to fascinating places and drawing out non-verbal noises of frustration, anger and grief that added depth and variety to the lines, but sometimes verged on the self-indulgent in the self-consciousness of the delivery - it was impressive, but too often felt artificial. However, the main problem was in the balance between Othello and the rest of the production. There simply wasn't enough room for everybody on the stage, and the expansive focus on Othello was out of proportion to the lack of attention elsewhere. This was crucial in the case of Michael Gould's Iago, who came across as essentially pointless. Othello controlled Iago far more than Iago controlled him, and Othello's actions were entirely his own; misguided, sure, but he needed little prompting in order to begin his ritual persecution of Desdemona.

Gould's performance was low-key, to the point of near-invisibility. While Othello's evils were all too obvious, particularly in the final scene (see below), Iago's evils were simple and rather dull. His motivation was, for once, very clear (his anger expressed to Roderigo over being overlooked for promotion was one of his more heartfelt moments) yet, despite his scream of "I hate the Moor", one never felt that he particularly did. He was a troublemaker with a rough London accent, a bit of a joker yet distant from the audience even during soliloquy. Against a smaller or more malleable Othello he might have been effective, but with Naiambana he was quite simply insignificant.

The production embraced an early 20th century setting, the 50s with throwbacks to slightly earlier periods, and Venice and Cyprus themselves were the nominal locations (the early effect of a Roderigo and Brabantio with Mediterranean accents was pleasingly evocative). Staging was elaborate for a touring production (cf the bare stage of the RSC's Romeo) but hugely effective. Two halves of a footbridge moved smoothly around the stage, sometimes joining to create a Venetian arch, at other times being moored with ropes as ships coming into harbour, at other times providing staircases or other pieces of scenery. It was an inventive and imaginative use of scenery that allowed for nice touches, such as Roderigo threatening to throw himself off a bridge or the impressive sight of Othello arriving at Cyprus atop the deck of his ship. Smaller settings were created with half-sails that formed room dividers and screens, and were also used in more symbolic scenes, such as the creation of the storm at the end of Act I. The storm, however, was 'conducted' by Iago, using his arms to bring forward actors who dipped and turned the half-sails to create waves. Iago's role in this was clearly to represent his power, but this felt out of keeping with the character's relative lack of impact. Also, it's a device used near-constantly in The Tempest to show Ariel/Prospero controlling the waves, and frankly it works far better there.

Among the supporting cast, Natalie Tena's Desdemona was a stand-out, and responsible for the two best scenes in the production. This was an exceptionally strong and sexual Desdemona, even (though rather unnecessarily) appearing half-naked in a linking scene with Othello as the two went to bed, and she exerted a great deal of playful control over him. She also, in perhaps the best killing-of-Desdemona I've ever seen, fought back(!), brandishing a smashed bottle at Othello as he chased her with a whip. She hammered at the locked doors, trying to get out, while Othello calmly lit candles and prepared his weapons. This was far from the perfect relationship, and Desdemona far from the saintly Patient Grisel figure she can be written off as. When struck by Othello, and then picked up and dumped on the floor by him in front of her uncle and the Venetian delegation, Desdemona was mortified and adamant in her anger that "I have not deserved this". The only reason she allowed herself to be caught in the bedroom with him is that she hadn't realised the extent of the danger she was in, presumably hoping that all would be forgotten - otherwise, it's hard to imagine why this Desdemona wouldn't have left Othello immediately after he punched her. Tena made Desdemona a believable modern heroine (bringing to a straight production what Julia Jentsch managed in the 2006 adaptation), and her brutal death, thrashed and then throttled by Othello's whip, was hideous for it. She even managed to make the spluttering revival to absolve her lord believable. If Tena had a weakness, it was her speaking voice, which was rather flatter and quieter than a Desdemona this strong deserved.

In another wonderful scene, the Willow song was reinvented to give Desdemona some further back story and an emotional centre. Here, Bianca left early and Desdemona fell asleep on a pile of blankets. Four actors ran out and pulled a huge sheet out from under her, covering the whole stage and creating watery ripples. Then, as if in a dream, Hannes Flaschberger's Brabantio appeared, coming to his daughter and speaking softly to her. The two spoke of Desdemona's mother, of the song she sang, and walked around the rippling sheet together arm-in-arm, evoking a tender and loving relationship that had been lost through her marriage to Othello. The poignancy of the realisation that Brabantio had died came through, and the words of the scene made perfect sense in the voices of father and daughter. An immensely powerful moment that invested us in Desdemona's character right before her murder.

Away from the violence, the 'comic' scenes were also given prominence. Miltos Yerolemou made for a shockingly dangerous and often funny Clown (here, "Soldier Entertainer"). As well as including some of the Clown's usual scenes, which worked well considering he's one of Shakespeare's weaker comic characters, there was also major space for him in the evening revels scene. Iago, setting up a stage and microphone, introduced "Our General and his bride", and to a drumroll, Yerolemou emerged in full Al Jolson-style blackface make-up, holding a grotesquely sexual life-size doll of Desdemona. The audience reaction to the blackface was astonishing: for the most part a deep and uncomfortable silence, broken by loud laughter from some of the schoolchildren. During his routine, the Clown enacted Desdemona giving birth.... to a toy golliwog, in an amazing coincidence given news stories the same week involving public scandals over golliwogs. The effect was extraordinary, uncomfortably funny and powerful in its exposure of the prejudices inherent in that form of 'entertainment'. A black soldier was clearly upset, but afraid to take action as he was alone in his disapproval; yet the Clown stood shamefaced as Othello interrupted the party and hit him over the head with the golliwog. Nonetheless, Yerolemou appeared again in blackface at the start of the second act, this time giving a wonderful rendition of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?", Shakespearean references and all. The ongoing stage presence of the doll and golliwog was effective: the golliwog reappeared continually in Othello's personal possessions, possibly as a reference to his own growing obsession to the way he was perceived by others, while the Desdemona-doll found its way into Iago's hands, and during a soliloquy he performed obscene sexual acts with it, smearing boot polish onto its mouth and crotch before running his hands over it.

Marcello Magni was an unashamedly comic Roderigo, discharging weapons accidentally and pathetically bleating to Iago (even more ridiculous after Cassio broke his nose and he was left with a huge plaster). Tamzin Griffin was decent as an older and alcoholic Emilia, leading to an oddly touching moment as Iago took her bottle from her and poured it away privately on the other side of the stage, in a gesture partly embarrassed but partly protective. Other characters, however, had little attention paid to them, particularly a one-note Bianca and the interchangable Venetian lords. Alex Hassell's Cassio was fairly strong but it would have been nice to see a bit more complexity - or a bit more in general. With these characters, as with Iago and Brabantio, there simply wasn't enough to make an impact.

This was largely an interesting production, with much to enjoy. As a showcase for Naiambana's performance, in particular, it was hugely effective, and there's no problem with an Othello giving its central character time and space to develop his story. However, there's much more to the play than Othello himself, and it would have been far better had there been more development of the other aspects of the production. Unbalanced, then, but the strengths went some way towards compensating for the weaknesses.

A version of this review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

February 06, 2009

Running times

While investigating the RSC's new production of Othello (which I'm seeing tonight), I flicked onto the RSC site and saw that the running time for the production is three and a half hours. I won't lie to you - my heart sank. I've realised that, over the last year or so, I've become far more excited by the idea of short productions than long ones.

That's mostly for practical reasons - when you're running for the last train after a production, you appreciate every spare minute you get (and I hate leaving during the curtain call, it seems to me to be the height of rudeness). However, once you start considering a production's running time, it does beg the question: How long should a Shakespeare play be?

There's no fast and loose answer, of course. I've seen Hamlets ranging from fifty minutes to three and a half hours that have both been excellent. It's what you do with the time, rather than the time itself, that's most important, and a dreary two hour production will seem infinitely longer than a well-conceived three hour version. However, it's notable that most major productions (and I'm looking at you, RSC) default to a three to three-and-a-half hour running time, almost regardless of the length of the play. So, for the sake of entertainment (and because I haven't done a subjective think-piece in a while), let's look at this a bit further.

How long did plays run in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? The "two hour traffic" mentioned at the start of Romeo is a good hint, but that only applies to that play (if even that). Bartholomew Fair suggests "some two hours and a half, and somewhat more". Once plays began to be written for indoor playhouses as well as the amphitheatres, moreover, running times would doubtless have been extended to allow for act changes, effects and whatnot. Considering the fast pace of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, a modern running time of 3+ hours doesn't seem unreasonable.

In general terms, I've never struggled too much with long productions of Lear or Hamlet. Maybe I've just been lucky in seeing decent productions, but I find that those plays sustain interest over an extended period of time. On the other hand, Romeo, Dream and Merchant ALWAYS feel too long to me. With the latter two, this is exaggerated by the double climax - the main plot is over by the fourth act of each, yet there are still extended comic scenes to follow. The late plays are a different matter - the structures are so complex, with so many miniature conclusions and developments, that they almost cry out for a measured approach.

The histories seem to bear long running times well - it strikes me that the relatively episodic nature of their structures (especially the Henries) serves to keep up a continued freshness throughout performance. More unified plays, however, seem to me to suffer from being drawn out. The shorter Twelfth Night is, in my experience, the better - not because its bad, but because it's a fast play that loses momentum if a production lingers for too long. Errors is an even more extreme example of this; I've seen a surprisingly full version played quickly in just under 90 minutes, which worked wonderfully well. Comedies, in general, want to be fast. While I'm not sure anyone would try to drag out Two Gentlemen any longer than they can manage, I'm amazed at how slow and dull most As You Like Its I've seen have been - it's a comedy! Slow and boring is not funny!

Caesar and Macbeth, as tragedies, are often slowed down to make them weightier. My preference has always been for fast Macbeths though, that allow the violence to mount up quickly. Anyone who's read Yorkshire Tragedy will note the effectiveness and power of a tragedy that doesn't give you breathing space between the killings. Plus, in a slow Macbeth, the England scene can become absolutely interminable. Caesar works well played slow for the first couple of acts, however - the content is relatively ponderous, the dramatic interest in the struggles and internal conflicts leading up to the assassination. The problem is if the slowness is maintained after the orations - let's face it, the battle scenes are nobody's favourites, and the impact of the early climax of Caesar's onstage assassination needs to sustain its impact through the rest of the play.

So, onto the matter in hand: Othello. How long is acceptable? The shortest I've seen was drastically rewritten, so its two hour running time doesn't really count. Other versions have run to more or less three hours. It's a major tragedy, so understandably companies want to dignify it with a full version. It's a goodly length, 3500+ lines. The difficulty with Othello, however, is that it's quite a quiet play - the drama of the play comes in conversations, overhearing, the subtleties of Iago's machinations. If you drag out these conversations in a long production, they have to be well performed otherwise an audience run the risk of being bored. Conversely, if you rush past and move the play too quickly, you risk losing what makes the play great.

I'd argue that Othello is one of the most open plays when it comes to running times. It allows the pace to be dictated by the production, rather than placing heavy demands of its own. This is one of the reasons that it'll always be a fascinating play. The flipside of this flexibility, of course, is that it's easy to get the pace of Othello very wrong, to either rush it or drag it out. The worst position you can be in by Act V is to be waiting impatiently for Desdemona to snuff it so you can escape the auditorium; but equally, you can't get to that point too quickly, for it means nothing without what's come before.

It's a fun question, and an entirely subjective one as it depends almost completely on one's own experience of Shakespeare in the theatre. Ultimately, any running time should only be exactly as long as the production needs, and some of the best productions I've seen have been the lengthy ones that thoroughly justified their length. The only real problem is when a production decides that fuller equals better. Life, alas, is just too short for Ken Branagh's Hamlet.

February 01, 2009

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Propeller) @ Liverpool Playhouse

It makes a pleasing change to see a Dream during a hugely cold spell at the end of January, as opposed to in sweltering heat - which suggests to me a production that actually has something interesting to do with the play, rather than rolling it out to fill a quiet summer slot. This, the second half of Propeller's current touring double-bill, is a revival of a production from a couple of years back, and it's magical.

Magical in the literal sense of the word, for at the centre of the production stood a disappearing cabinet, through which Puck and Bottom both appeared and disappeared at various points. The idea of conjuring fitted a design which conflated several elements of late Victorian/early 20th century entertainment culture. Lysander, bizarrely, appeared in vampire cape and ruffs, Puck's ruby slippers and striped stockings referenced the Wicked Witch of the East while Theseus was clad in top hat and tails. In doing so, Propeller lovingly evoked the golden age of this production, the proscenium arch stage spectacular which the company subverted in their physical and hysterically irreverent style.

A white set, walled on three sides, couldn't help but evoke Brook, but Michael Pavelka's eye for detail led to some lovely touches, such as a row of suspended chairs that provided a gallery level for actors to crawl along, culminating at either end in the white, carved-wood high thrones from which Titania and Oberon tossed defiance at one another. Mostly, though, the plain set acted as a playground for the actors, with glockenspiels set into the wall on either side for live music and hidden areas behind the walls for sudden emergences.

Events were presided over by Jon Trenchard's sprightly Puck. Giggling and running around in tights and tutu, this was a refreshingly childish Puck, joyful and mischievous. One of the production's key scenes came as Puck emerged from the massed bodies of the other cast members, dressed in white to collectively speak the lines of the First Fairy. Puck toyed with the group, who linked together to create large shapes, moving and breathing as one, some blowing down harmonicas (used throughout the production to provide underscore, usually effective but occasionally annoying as they cut across dialogue), while Puck ran about, allowed himself to be carried on their backs and finally reduced them to giggling on the floor as he tickled them all. With the whole company working together to bring life and interest to even this short exchange, the tone was set for an ensemble production that, as with yesterday's Merchant, prioritised the overall effect over any individual performances.

One complaint to quickly mention, however, was the bizarreness of some of the doubling. While it was wonderful to see the excellent Richard Frame doing great things with both Hermia and Snug, this led to an unnecessary amount of running off stage before the end of scenes in order to do costume changes, and made for an unsymmetrical final scene with Hermia inexplicably disappearing from the court group before the Mechanicals' play. Also awkward was Chris Myles' doubling of Egeus and Quince. As Myles was in 'Quince' costume immediately before "Pyramus and Thisbe", this meant that it was Quince who came on in order to give Theseus the list of entertainments, nervous and smiling gormlessly. His nervousness struck him silent, causing Theseus to read out the list of entertainments (why would Quince be providing the list of all the other possibilities), and then Hippolyta to tell Thesesus that she had seen the play and it was 'nothing' - entirely out of character for the hitherto kindly Hippolyta, and logically nonsensical - why would the queen have already seen the play being provided for her wedding entertainment? Why not have simply used one of the spare actors to come on as Philostrate for that one scene? These doubling problems weren't crippling, but seemed to create a rather unnecessary amount of work in the redistribution of lines and business.

Small gripes, though, in such a rich production. Frame, in particular, was fantastic in both parts. As Snug/Lion he drew laughs from his mewing roars and his general lack of intelligence (plus a costume with "I'm not a lion" painted across the back). As Hermia, however, he was a revelation. Gently spoken and with some comically feminine giggles, this Hermia was girly and slightly spoiled, waving Lysander away from her 'bed' magesterially. However, once riled by Hermia's "puppet", she was a terror. Frame dropped the affected feminine voice as she asked "How low am I?!", reverting to an undisguisedly male growl of anger. All girlish pretensions were cast aside and suddenly the physically imposing hard man was all present, cricking 'her' neck and lunging after Helena. Lysander and Demetrius needed all their strength to restrain Hermia, making for some wonderful physical comedy as the four lovers disputed.

The other lovers provided similarly good value. Babou Ceesay's tall and rather inelegant Helena was ruthless in her pursuit of Demetrius, particularly in one moment where she broke down in pitiful tears, causing him to draw near, before she suddenly leapt up and wrapped herself around him. The two were later found crawling across the high row of suspended chairs, Demetrius increasingly panicked at his inability to escape. Demetrius and Lysander, meanwhile, were both funny under their enchantments, bringing out the trite poetry of love and slapping at each other in a distinctly feminine spat - a comic contrast to the raging rhino unleashed in Hermia. Yet there were shades of darkness, such as in Lysander's angry and spontaneous punching of Hermia as she clung to him, knocking her to the floor and raising a gasp.

While the fairies were rarely off stage, playing various exotic instruments to complement the action, they took less of an active role in events than in some other recent productions. Yet, when part of the action, they were always entertaining. Titania's retinue of four extremely camp retainers, for example, pawed over Bottom, taking orgasmic delight in the prospect of scratching his ears. Oberon and Titania themselves were regal, particularly Richard Dempsey's austere Titania whose presence was commanding, her air of authority only being shed to any extent when entwined with Bob Barrett's Bottom. The indignity of her situation was, therefore, all the more comic- a prolonged fart from Bottom as the two went to sleep was greeted with an ecstatic "Oh, how I love thee!"

Finally, the Mechanicals were well-performed, bringing out individual idiosyncracies in all of them. Trenchard, doubling as Starveling, was a stand-out during "Pyramus". An egoist, he resented his minor part holding up a lantern, and grew increasingly irritated as the performance dragged on and his toy dog was repeatedly stamped on. Finally, as Bottom ordered him to "take your flight", he snapped, screaming "Fine! I'm never working with you amateurs again!" and stormed offstage, causing Bottom and Quince to lose their places for quite some time as they wondered what was wrong with him. John Dougall, as a full-bearded Flute, minced entertainingly, and Barrett exaggerated Bottom's Pyramus even further than the text called for, including a priceless moment as he tried to remember his lines and re-ran through his entire part until he got to the line he needed. The hysterics of the on-stage audience were matched by those of the Liverpool crowd.

This Dream did its work effectively and entertainingly, providing an inventive and consistently funny evening that made the play feel fresh once more. While not a revolutionary production, the skill and intelligence of the company was obvious in their grasp of simple building blocks so often ignored by others - an eye and ear for a good joke, generous ensemble playing and a genuine enjoyment of language. A high benchmark is already set for the year.

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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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