All entries for March 2009

March 29, 2009

The Marriage of Figaro (Welsh National Opera) @ Birmingham Hippodrome

Writing about web page http://www.wno.org.uk/figaro

In something of a first since I started keeping this blog, Friday saw me take a seat in the stalls for a large-scale opera, WNO's new The Marriage of Figaro. I haven't seen a great deal of opera, though I enjoy the music, and it was a pleasure to begin with an extremely decent production.

The main highlight was the wonderful Elizabeth Watts as Susanna, essentially the lead role in this production. Her vocal performance was excellent, but where Watts really shone was in her comic gestures and expressions, permanently acting up to the audience as our link with the action. However, there weren't any poor performances among the cast: Jacques Imbrailo made for an amusing villain as Count Almaviva, while Rebecca Evans sang beautifully as his wife. David Soar held the action together as Figaro, and Cora Burggraaf was game in the breeches role as Cherubino.

Lluis Pasqual's staging was increasingly inventive, moving from the large indoor sets to a garden of constantly moving reflective flats in the final act, behind which the various characters in hiding darted. More private scenes were clear and uncluttered, while when the stage became more crowded it was the characters themselves who framed the action, creating visually arresting images on stage such as the confrontational beginnings of the legal case and the beautifully composed group photograph that closed the third act.

The opera experience in itself is an unusual one for me but, I have to say, one I very much enjoyed. An excellent production, and I look forward to catching WNO again in the future.


Dido, Queen of Carthage (National) @ The Cottesloe Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/dido

I've been a bit slow at getting a review of the National's new studio production of Dido, Queen of Carthage up, which has given me a chance to have a look at some of the other notices it's received. Interestingly, it's been quite divisive: certain of the broadsheet critics have given it very favourable reviews, mostly occasioned by the opportunity to actually see a straight production, while the bloggers I've read have been a bit more negative.

As much as everyone wants to find greatness in Marlowe, the 20th century's rediscovered dramatist, there's no getting around the fact that Dido isn't a great play. The prevailing view is that it's student work, possibly with Nashe (credited on the title page, but barely mentioned in the programme). Large chunks of it are almost direct translations from The Aeneid, and it's slow, the first few scenes taken up with a pointless division then reunion of the shipwrecked Trojans followed by Aeneas' long soliloquy detailing the horrors of Troy's fall. Complaints in the reviews have mostly been about the running time of three hours - rarely a complaint with Shakespeare, but in a play such as this where so little actually happens, more of a problem.

James MacDonald's production was a straight and faithful telling of the text, even down to the brave inclusion of the Latin dialogue between Dido and Aeneas (here a masterly stroke, the two lead characters boiling over with passion until they lapse into their native tongue, careless of decorum, becoming pure emotion). In his hands, it became the story of a relationship founded on false grounds that swiftly goes wrong. Anastasia Hille and Mark Bonnar dominated throughout, the former barely able to take her eyes off her love, while the latter gazed continually into the far distance, his mind racing ahead to his destiny. Dido therefore became a traumatising portrait of unequal love destroying lives, the two unable to reconcile their committments.

Hille was particularly impressive in the title role, first appearing in ritual dress as a formal queen, but quickly showing her humanity as she listened to Aeneas tell of the Trojan wars. Once influenced by Cupid, though, she became fascinating, a mess of contradictions, paranoid fretting and carefully staged maneuveres as she pursued, won and lost Aeneas. Her performance was often heartbreaking, made the worse by the knowledge that the gods had caused her to fall in love with Aeneas in the first place while also ordering him away - the cruelty of her situation was inescapable.

Moments of particular beauty came as Aeneas and Dido finally parted to the sound of breaking water, she turning away from him while he slowly, step by step, walked backwards and off the stage. She began speaking aloud of his departure long before he left the stage, leaving him to listen, poker-faced, to the earliest stages of her laments, adding extra poignancy to her words. Her subsequent panicked fantasies of his progress, eventually arrested by Sian Brooke's terrified Anna, were similarly traumatic, conveying a grief bordering on insanity. The calmness with which she asked Iarbas to help her strip her bed and build the fire that would become her own pyre was upsetting to watch, right up to the final moments as she poured petrol over the pile and herself before striking a match, the lights fading to darkness. The subsequent deaths of Iarbas and Anna were, sadly, an anticlimax.

Bonner's Aeneas was also effective, particularly so in the extended monologue describing the fall of Troy. Staged in stillness, with the rest of the cast hanging on every word, Bonner succeeded in making a long, slow scene interesting. For most of the production he was played with an element of distance - if not explicitly looking far into the beyond, he was relatively taciturn and betrayed little of the obvious emotion that Dido did. While the circumstances causing his behaviour were clear, in the context of their relationship he essentially became emotionally unavailable, driving Dido ultimately to distraction.

The gods who caused the tragedy were separated from the mortals through colourful costumes and an exaggerated acting style. For the opening scene, Jupiter's boudoir was created on an upper level, with the topless Ganymede lolling on his lap and Mercury lying to one side, neglected and bored. Alan David's Jupiter was a creepy old man with libido far younger than his years, who harumphed like a spoiled child when his dallying was interrupted by Venus. The upper level provided a heavenly platform from which Mercury leapt in order to descend to earth, and from which he could later deliver Jupiter's orders to Aeneas, via a vocoder that duplicated and deepened his voice as he spoke. However, the gods by and large failed to interest - it was the human story that caught the attention, and the bickering of the gods dragged on somewhat. Long scenes between Juno and Venus as they argued over the child Ascanius grew tiresome.

The set consisted of a long purple screen that rose and fell to create differently sized spaces on the purple-gravelled stage, and a series of yellow curtains behind which were hidden smaller, more elaborate sets - the African jungle in which Ascanius was laid, the cave, Dido's bedroom. It felt somewhat fussier than was required, but at least added an element of visual interest. Dido's bed became central in the final scenes, firstly being decked with Aeneas' oars and sails, then being stripped in order to create Dido's funeral pyre. Far more effective in terms of setting, though, was the repeated noise of distant waves lapping, calling to Aeneas and never allowing him to settle.

Far from a flawless production, the chief problem with this Dido was its length and slow pace. However, there were many pleasures to be found: the beautiful music (including startling vocal performances from Kyle McPhail and Jake Arditti), solid supporting performances (Obi Abili's Iarbas and Stephen Kennedy's Achates were both excellent) and a moving central story that I found genuinely engaging. I'm not sure there's a case for renewed attention to the play, this production will probably serve for quite some time, but the opportunity to finally see it on stage was extremely welcome.


March 24, 2009

Waiting for Godot @ Milton Keynes Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.waitingforgodottheplay.com/home/

I saw Godot last week at Milton Keynes, and have put off writing anything about it so far because, to be honest, I don't really have a lot to say. I'm no expert on Beckett, I have very little frame of reference for judging the quality of an interpretation by, and it seems to me that, considering the restrictions placed by the Beckett estate on textual changes or setting, the main locus for reinterpretation is in the acting itself, which oddly is probably the bit of theatre I'm least interested in.

However, you'd be pressed to find a better production of Godot doing the rounds. Much has been made of the calibre of the cast: Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup, and all four lived up to expectations. There was a music hall vibe to the performances, which saw McKellen and Stewart performing little routines with their hats and short dances. This aesthetic bent the production heavily towards comedy, with lots of knowing winks towards the audience and general mutual appreciation of the fun of watching two theatrical legends take on Beckett. Both were excellent throughout, displaying a camaraderie and comfort with each other that made the characters' long assocation entirely believable.

The comedy was welcome, though it meant that the play's darkness rather crept around the edges. Stephen Brimson Lewis' set evoked a cemetery, with holes in the ground and stone walls rising up to the flies, thus meaning that death was never too far from the mind. Some more attention to this in the performances might have enriched the production further - with rarely a dull moment onstage amid all the fun, I felt that the darker suggestions were sometimes lost. However, Pickup's performance as Lucky, culminating in a wonderfully traumatic and terrifying monologue of repeated phrases and disjointed movements, broke through the rest of the production in a startling and hugely effective way, funny but at the same time haunting and terrible.

Just some thoughts, rather than an actual review. I thoroughly enjoyed it, though wish in many ways I'd been sitting closer - McKellen and Stewart's speaking voices were quiet enough from where I was sitting that every cough from the audience drowned them out. I suppose I was disappointed that, having neither read nor seen Godot before, I left the theatre with no huge desire to do either again. Someone once suggested to me that Godot is a play which rewards study rather than viewing, which is an interesting claim to make about a play. I'd have loved to have seen this again having spent some time studying it; as it was, it was a perfectly enjoyable evening, but I don't feel I particularly gained anything from it, in the same way I did from last year's Endgame.


March 13, 2009

Warwick Arts Centre summer programme

Writing about web page http://www.warwickartscentre.co.uk/events/theatre

A few interesting highlights in the new Warwick Arts Centre programme. Student productions of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and A Midsummer Night's Dream are both of obvious interest to me, and there's some very intriguing theatrical experimentation from Stan's Cafe and Look Left Look Right.

Perhaps the thing I'm most interested in, though, is the live broadcast of the National Theatre's Phedre on June 25th. It's a production I'm hoping to see in London anyway, but I'm fascinated to see how this screened theatre works. There are all kinds of arguments and debates raging over it: on the one hand, people argue that it's bringing theatre to a mass audience at affordable prices, and may even encourage people back to the theatre. On the downside, critics are worried that people will see this as an alternative to 'proper' theatre-going, and worry about the damage it will cause long-term to the audience-performer relationship. There's also the theoretical question about the status of the performance - even if it's broadcast live, it's still being mediated through a camera lens and therefore constrains the viewer to look in certain places at specific times. Is this meant to recreate the theatrical experience, or is it simply an optional extra, repackaging a version of the performance for a completely different audience?

Either way, I think I want to go and see it to judge for myself. It'd be lovely to catch it in person and on the screen and compare - watch this space.


March 12, 2009

Macbeth @ The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Matthew Dunster’s new production of Macbeth for the Royal Exchange fits neatly into recent fashions regarding the staging of this play. It emphasises the Weird Sisters, bringing them onstage throughout the action, contemporises events and has a particular concern with children, some or all of which were exemplified by the most recent RSC and Chichester productions, as well as films such as Gregory Doran’s TV adaptation of his RSC production and Penny Woolcock’s Macbeth on the Estate, these last two both referenced in the programme. Yet Dunster adds to this trend with a thought-provoking and often shocking production with a clear focus and inventive staging.

Central to this production were the Weird Sisters – here, three young girls, playing in their bedroom as the audience filed in to the auditorium. The in-the-round Exchange made for a particularly intimate setting, in which the girls played and chanted sweetly. With a sudden crash, though, soldiers ran in, threw the girls off their bed and created barricades for themselves, the sisters screaming and cowering together as machine guns and helicopters drowned out all other noise. Macbeth and Banquo then entered, shooting the enemy soldiers in the head, and proceeded to abuse the girls, Macbeth grabbing one by the hair while Banquo graphically raped another. The sisters became the witches in response to their trauma, comforting each other as they tried to make sense of the world and finding their power in their unity; the raped sister, for example, lost her voice (her tongue cut out?) after the act, but her younger sister held her fingers to her throat and ventriloquised for her. Later, the raped sister found her voice in speaking the words going through Macbeth’s head, projecting taunts into his mind.

The Sisters were thus given clear motivation for their persecution of Macbeth and Banquo and became involved on stage in all the important actions leading to their respective falls. One girl hovered near the murderers as they attacked Banquo, helping Fleance escape while laughing nastily as Banquo was repeatedly kicked and stabbed. The production’s primary aim seemed to be the exploration of the effects of war on children, showing the girls increasingly desensitised to violence and their own bodies. The second act began with the three witches begging, dancing to a violently militaristic rock tune, exhibiting themselves and acting out being shot in the head before shaking a tray of coins and starting again. The raped sister withdrew into herself, rarely making eye contact with anyone else, while the sister who had been manhandled by Macbeth donned soldier costume and became increasingly violent and assertive. Macbeth’s final meeting with the girls saw them dancing again, kissing and groping one another for his ‘entertainment’.

The graphic content of the Sisters’ scenes was unsettling and often upsetting, the lives of the children (one an actual child, the others young and small adult actresses) destroyed by the extreme violence around them. As the girls progressed through the play, their eyes became visibly deadened, and the rituals of the witches seemed to be their constructed way of coping, such as their casual bloodletting before summoning up their masters. It was painful to witness, and one found oneself in the unusual position of sympathising with the witches in their ongoing persecution of Macbeth. This hugely effective central concept dominated the production and brought challenging resonance to the story.

The updating to an alternate contemporary world (described as “A Scotland, in a Europe, 2009”) was largely successful. Nobles marched about in fatigues and messages were delivered by e-mail and text. Interestingly, technology got around the ‘problem’ of Ross’ initial pretence to Macduff that his wife was well, by having Ross genuinely believe that was the case until receiving a text later in the scene reporting the murder. Lady Macduff’s sleepwalking took place in an institution, with doctor and nurse peering through a window as they took notes on her behaviour, while a modern war room with tactical computers was re-created for the final battle. This was a fast world of instantaneous communication and unstoppable forces, with no time to take stock or question what was happening. This could most clearly be seen in Heather Peace’s Lennox, a soldier in Duncan’s army who became increasingly uncomfortable with what she overheard while standing guard at Macbeth’s door. The final orders to have Macduff’s family killed were more than she could bear, and with a great wrench she tore the stripes of his army off her sleeve and ran off to join the enemy. Events moved at such a speed that even questioning the status quo became an active act of resistance.

Doubling decisions brought out interesting links between sections of the play. Malcolm and Donalbain, having fled under suspicion of being murderers, were brought back as the two Russian heavies employed by Macbeth to kill Banquo. Banquo and Fleance, meanwhile, were reunited in the final act as the doctor and nurse employed to minister to Macbeth and his queen, allowing Banquo a presence as his enemies fell. Perhaps most powerful, though, was the appearance of the two elder witches, now dressed as adults, as Lady Macduff and a Nurse. Rebecca Callard’s Lady Macduff, having been raped in her earlier appearance as a Weird Sister, was now forced to undergo new horrors as Seyton and the murderers invaded her kitchen, drowned her son in the kitchen sink and then snapped her neck, while off-stage her baby and its Nurse were shot.

The production’s core concept and impressive work in the supporting roles, however, came at the expense of the leads. Nicholas Gleaves and Hilary Maclean were decent as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but with the production’s emphasis so firmly elsewhere it was difficult for either to make an impression. Gleaves’ Macbeth, a monster from the start in his treatment of the Sisters, was unsympathetic, and the rather self-conscious device of shining a spotlight on him for every aside actually served to isolate him further within the on-stage crowd rather than connect his private thoughts with the audience. Gratuitous nudity as he showered after Duncan’s murder also lent nothing to the production except the titters of a school group in the gallery. Yet Gleaves was effective when allowed to simply act, and he gave a particularly strong performance as the English troops massed; borrowing from Richard III, his Macbeth dithered and ranted, shouting for Seyton when Seyton was directly in front of him while the Doctor hovered with a syringe. Macbeth’s growing insanity was well-realised, and the decision to allow him to act relatively independently of the witches in his final scenes was a good one, making him responsible for his own final actions (at least, until the gun he pointed at Macduff misfired, allowing Macduff to stab him).

Maclean’s Lady Macbeth felt relatively unimportant in the production, but was particularly strong in her first scenes as she read Macbeth’s e-mail and then played host to Duncan. Some history seemed to be hinted at between Duncan and Lady Macbeth, he clearly angry and barely able to look at her when she arrived to greet him to her castle. She matched her husband in strength, but disappeared from view and memory during the second half. The trappings of her scenes distracted from her performance : the grotesquely bloody Banquo and leering witches at dinner, the transparent screen and hospital paraphernalia during the sleepwalking scene. While the scenes remained effective, it was almost as if we were having the focus deliberately taken away from her performance, which seemed a shame.

There was plenty of interesting work in the other performances although, as with the leads, the concept and staging detracted from the actual acting. Christopher Colquhoun was a solid Banquo, posing a genuine physical threat to Macbeth; Jason Done’s Macduff showed powerful grief as he received the news of his wife’s death; John Stahl’s older Ross was increasingly crestfallen at the growing chaos and almost wept at Duncan’s death; and John MacMillan’s Malcolm grew from a scared child to a strong leader, drilled by Seyward in England and commanding during the final battle.

The play concluded on an odd note. Malcolm’s final speech to his soldiers became a rehearsal, as he began running over lines again and again, repeating them to try and get the sound right. Servants entered and removed his fatigues, dressing him in a now-familiar suit, shirt, red tie and black overcoat. MacMillan’s superficial resemblance to Barack Obama was made gradually explicit, and we were put in mind of the statesman preparing for inauguration, practising his lines before stepping out before the crowd. As he left the stage, and videos showed him taking a podium, the witches reappeared with Fleance and gave him a gun, anticipating Malcolm’s imminent assassination. This failed to work on two levels: the first is that the witches, within the play, had clear motivations for their pursuit of Macbeth and Banquo, and there appeared to be no reason in the production’s internal logic that they should turn their attentions to Malcolm, other than for the simple continuation of violence. The second is that the parallel itself was fairly superficial; nowhere else in the production were we put in mind of actual political situations. The link felt gratuitous, allowing for an immediate murmur of recognition but not adding anything of substance to either Obama’s or Malcolm’s stories.

Small gripes aside, however, this was an effective and often moving production, one that refused to shy away from violence and forced us to consider the effects of our actions on the young. A powerful appropriation of Shakespeare.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.


A Mad World, My Masters (King Edward VI School) @ The CAPITAL Centre

A Mad World, My Masters, the second production from King Edward VI School this year is a very different affair to Endymion. For a start, it's a relatively full text, compared to the extracts that made up the earlier play. For another, it's the turn of the older boys, who I'd guess are about 16-18 years old, as opposed to the Key Stage III boys who played Endymion. The effect of having a more accomplished cast presenting a fuller text was to make this far more of a production than an academic exercise, and the boys delivered a fast, entertaining and very funny version of Middleton's comedy. It was also, in good ways, extremely disturbing.

Perhaps what was most disconcerting is the independence of thought. Watching the younger boys playing Endymion, one was left in no doubt that they were effectively being presented by their company manager; there was a certain pageant-like quality to the performance, the sense that they were moving in pre-defined ways. Essentially, the production was safe, because we could sense the guiding adult maneuvering his performers. Watching the older boys, though, felt edgier. There was the feeling that, to some extent, the lunatics were taking over the asylum; the more developed boys bringing in their own particular talents and interests and taking control over their performances in a way the younger boys couldn't

Maybe this is where the original boy players started to cause controversy? We know from academic studies that, as the companies continued performing, their younger players graduated to more active roles in administration and direction. Is it at the point where boys become men that satire starts to become dangerous? When you suddenly realise that, actually, these performers not only completely understand what they're saying, but are also using it to project their own burgeoning beliefs, sexuality and attitude?

How often, nowadays, do adults sit down and place themselves in the hands of a child-controlled entertainment, exxpose themselves to the views and culture of the young? The use of punk music in the production acted as a reminder that the young have to go to extremes to get attention from the establishment; that politeness and conformity are ignored, while rebellion can't be. In much the same way, Follywit is essentially ignored by Sir Bounteous Progress in his own clothes; it his only through his various disguises that Progress acknowledges his young relative, that the two of them have any meaningful contact.

From the play's opening moments, with Follywit and his companions pogoing onto the stage and trashing the carefully-placed set, 70s punk was the production's aesthetic. Snatches of recorded and live music punctuated the action, often comically rearranged as consort pieces to be delicately sung. Rather than tie the production too specifically down to a time period, the punk costumes and music mostly served to underscore the general sense of anarchic chaos, anything being possible when rules are disregarded.

Hugely entertaining individual performances dominated the action. Jack Fielding's Dick Follywit showed great versatility as he went through his multiple disguises: coy lady, pretentious artist, over-stuffed lord, all allowing Follywit to gull Sir Bounteous in various ways. Yet the disguises were only partly fun for this Follywit who, in his own person, displayed a surprising amount of bile and resentment against his relative. His dissatisfaction was partly justified by the vacuousness of Sir Bounteous, but was in no small part motiveless teenage rebellion, focused against the nearest available target. His final comeupance, finding out he was married to a former courtesan, soured his triumphs fittingly. This moment, however, was a particularly uncomfortable one for a modern audience; Follywit's disgust at Mistress Gullman's profession and everyone else's ridicule of him, in performance, overrode her arguments that she had changed her ways, and only the money Sir Bounteous gave to Follywit put a smile back on his face. The treatment of Gullman at this final moment, her marginalisation and disgrace, sat uncomfortably when arguably greater crimes (from a 21st century perspective) were easily forgiven.

Oliver Hayes (surely older than the rest of the company?!) made Sir Bounteous thoroughly ridiculous, a guffawing sycophant who first entered in bright pink trousers bearing a tottering pile of presents for his friends. His generosity was unpleasant and primarily self-gratifying, he taking pleasure in humbling himself before his exalted company. His infectious energy, however, drove the plot and made his gulling at Follywit's hands all the more enjoyable. The other key driver was Tom Sharp's Francesca Gullman, a husky-voiced and tall figure in elegant dress, who shared most of her lines with the audience. The punk influence shone through in this Mistress Gullman, with her can't-be-bothered attitude and sarcastic mockery of everyone she came across, coasting through the city and never investing emotionally in anyone or anything. Even her final match with Follywit, made under pressure and with knowing deceit, kept the pair at an emotional distance from one another. Sharp's performance was perfectly balanced by Tom Adams' cuckolded Shortrod Harebrain. His Welsh lilt and near-ecstatic enthusiasm for everyone and everything was infectiously funny, and it was interesting to see a jealous husband played so innocently: this Harebrain genuinely wanted to love and be happy, and so the audience found itself rooting for him far more than the written text might have suggested. Ignorance is bliss, and the agreement of Penitent and Mistress Harebrain to meet no more gave their story perfect and happy resolution.

The boys created a Dickensian world of grotesques and comics who peopled the world of the play, from Progress' camp steward and the entirely disinterested butler Rafe to the snivelling, leering brothers who stalked Mistress Gullman about the stage and the entirely confused Constable who was bound by Follywit's 'players'. It was a lively and full world, and one could see how Middleton reimagined the adult London as seen through the eyes of children. To return to my earlier comments about the disturbing nature of this production, it may go back to the idea that children see what's really there; that the grotesque sexual language, casual adultery and opportunistic theft that the boys so joyously celebrated reflect and invert all-too-real uncomfortable truths about the adult world they are preparing to become part of. A comedy is made out of the stuff that makes up real-life tragedies, and life is turned into 'play'.

A great job on a fun play, and the boys' final dance to a live version of the Gutter Brothers' "Girl for Granted" was a fitting and lively conclusion. The production made an excellent argument for the continuing relevance of boys performing the plays written for other boys over 400 years ago; the problems of the young, it seems, haven't changed that much at all, and laughter still seems to be the best way to confront them.


March 08, 2009

The Convict's Opera (Out of Joint/Sydney Theatre Company) @ Warwick Arts Centre

Writing about web page http://www.outofjoint.co.uk/prods/convictsopera.html

Out of Joint's new production The Convict's Opera is a bit of an oddity. A group of convicts on board a ship decide to put on a production of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, complete with songs drawn from folk traditions and, occasionally, classic rock n' roll numbers. The play follows the company through auditions and rehearsal process, tracking the evolving production as the ship nears Australia, while also following the 'real' lives of the convicts as they prepare themselves for a new life.

As even that brief synopsis might suggest, the play is best understood as a sequel/prequel to Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good, the play which Out of Joint originally premiered back in 1988. The links are made explicit when convict Bett Rock threatens to leave the play and join a rival group of convicts, who she has heard are planning to put on The Recruiting Officer- the play-within-a-play in OCG. Stephen Jeffreys' text is indebted to Wertenbaker's in more than just situation though. As the players grow to identify with their characters, so they start to bring into their real lives the characteristics and confidence associated with their parts, finding in theatre something better than the lives they have hitherto lived. Even in structure, the two plays are clearly linked: fragments of text are interrupted by intruding officers, rehearsals descend into arguments between actors and the action is interspersed by short below-decks monologues in which various characters tell more about their crimes or of life on ship.

The production thus lived in the shadow of its famous forebear, which was something of a shame as it suffered by comparison. On its own merits, though, Convict's Opera was an interesting and often funny production, intelligent while still remaining accessible. The audience were thrown in at the deep end with the on-stage introduction of John Gay himself and the opening scene of Beggar's Opera, complete with melodramatic acting style and 18th century text. As opposed to OCG, we were treated to extended (and chronologically sequenced) sections of the play-within-a-play, thus setting up the tricky challenge of sustaining an audience's interest in two different stories. Inevitably, the story of Macheath, Polly et. al. ultimately suffered, peetering out as the story of the convicts took over in the final third of the play, with only resonances from the inner play staying alive. However, for most of the play the production was successful at maintaining the dual narratives - no small feat.

I was surprised to find that the most obviously comic twists in the plot were the sections I enjoyed least. The importation of modern songs ("I Fought the Law", "You're So Vain", "(I'm Gonna Be) 500 Miles" etc.) was initially funny, but the extracts were rather short and failed to get an atmosphere going. More successful were the folk influenced songs and older lyrics, which were better served by the on-stage instruments (accordions, violins, keys). However, the vocal performances were absolutely wonderful across the board. Doo-wop backing vocals and harmonies added depth to all of the songs, and the lead vocal performances from a musically-trained cast were excellent. Juan Jackson and Ali McGregor, who played Macheath and Polly in the inner play, are both opera-trained and made even familiar melodies exciting and fresh.

The set, a wooden framework of the underside of a ship, was cluttered with barrels, crates and assorted other ship items, giving the company places to sit when not performing in the inner play. At the side of the stage, adding an interesting 18th century theatrical twist, were two 'boxes', in which four (un)lucky audience members sat, often being asked to join in with the action. As the convicts celebrated a "crossing-over" ceremony to mark the crossing of the equator, one of the gallants was dragged to centre stage for a shave by the convicts, who had oddly donned fish costumes for the ceremony. There was plenty of other oddness, such as Jackson's Harry Morton (Macheath), who swam for his freedom at the close of the play, reappeared in speedos from his swim. The various levels of performativity within the play were, however, one of its strongest aspects, the actors slipping between characters with great facility and using their roles in the inner play to further the development of their convict characters.

The performances within Beggar's Opera were self-consciously melodramatic, with Catherine Russell particularly enjoying herself as Mrs. Peachum, hitting all the right notes of cliche in exaggerated style. Much of the play's fun came from watching the convicts experiment with theatrical ideas, including the long centrepiece scene which saw Macheath surrounded by the entire cast dressed as women fawning over him. Even this, though, provided the impetus for the play's director to admit his sexuality to a fellow cast member, an Irish political prisoner, who identified with him as another deviant from state policy. It was in moments like this that the play really found its sense of purpose, bringing out the human stories that underpinned the rehearsals and journey. While there simply wasn't time to explore all of these (the problem with giving so much time to both narratives), they cumulatively created the impression of a richly detailed world of human suffering. As the boat approached Australia and a mooted mutiny by some of the players was aborted, slowly everyone seemed to have come to some kind of peace with their situation; and hope was provided by Harry's swim to a kind of freedom, an evocative reimagining of Macheath's eventual escape.

Director Max Stafford-Clark, a great lover of 18th century theatre, has in this play effectively recreated The Beggar's Opera for a modern audience, successfully reinventing aspects of the period's theatricality and environment for today. While it perhaps tried to do a little too much, sacrificing some of its own depth while trying to cram in the modern songs, this was intelligent and imaginative theatre that demanded rewatching to uncover more of the stories woven into its narrative.


The reviews of John Peter

One of the problems of occasionally buying the Sunday Times is that I'm forced to read the reviews of theatre critic John Peter. Now, admittedly Peter only gets about 100 words for his Sunday Times reviews, but that shouldn't prevent them from rising above the senseless rubbish he writes, informed by prejudices and ideas of what Shakespeare should be. This week, he reviews the Tobacco Factory's Julius Caesar and the Leicester As You Like It, both of which he gives three stars with a variety of criticisms.

His remarks on Caesar annoy me, though for relatively subjective reasons. He suggests the actors needed "another week's rehearsal to get properly into their characters", yet seems to have completely missed the subtleties of the actors' performances. Peter knows exactly what he wants his actors to do, and tuts when he doesn't get it: his review thus focuses on what the actors didn't do rather than what they did. Leo Wringer "doesn't tackle Brutus's agonies of treachery"; Clive Hayward doesn't explore Cassius' "streak of hysteria" and Simon Armstrong's Caesar "is entirely without the imperious charisma his senators so much resent". I won't go into my own opinions on the performances (they're in my review); my concern is that Peter has already decided what he wants from a performance and doesn't appear to watch what's actually happening in front of him. I utterly despise this kind of 'checklist' reviewing, where you go in with pre-established criteria and judge a production by how far it meets those criteria.

Peter's other bugbear is with verse-speaking, and he gives the final section of his review to a searing critique of Alun Raglan's "badly rushed and coarsely mangled" speech. Frankly (and I recognise this is subjective, but I don't care) Peter is just wrong about this. Raglan's performance was hugely impressive and erudite, his verse speaking powerfully dramatic and carefully controlled, reaching extraordinary heights during moments of rage and passion. It's comments like this that reinforce the growing impression I have that Peter simply doesn't watch or listen to the productions he's sent to.

His review of As You Like It is, to my mind, even more problematic, for similar reasons. Firstly, the checklist. "This is a forbidding play, so it's a pity that the final masque is cut". What? I'm not sure if he means that the masque would have offset the forbidding nature of the production, or if he thinks that it would have contributed to the forbidding nature of the play which the production had not achieved. Whatever he means, it's a particularly ridiculous comment considering that the masque was replaced with a four-way multi-cultural wedding ceremony that served the function of the masque with style and resonance. Then he bemoans that the epilogue was cut, "which Ifeachor could have delivered with a seductive panache". Not only is he complaining about textual cuts (which is something critics need to get over), but he's even directing the play's finale in his own mind! This strikes me as unbelievable arrogance and presumption in a critic. Bemoaning a performance that could have been a bit better is one thing, but actually fantasising over missing scenes? From my own subjective standpoint, too, I felt that the ending we were given gave the ending of the play a wonderful sense of harmonious closure; I personally think an epilogue would have spoiled what Supple and the company had created.

His reading of individual characters is, again, oddly skewed. "Tracy Ifeachor is a beautiful Rosalind, shy and watchful and definitely not of a coming-on disposition". I refer you again to my own review; but it's certainly not opinion to note that Ifeachor's Rosalind was, in her own costume, unusually confident and fiery considering her cultural background and the tyranny of the court (especially compared to the more reticent Celia, who Peter sums up as "frisky and funny, girlish but mature", suggesting that she was the livelier of the pair which is simply not true). To suggest that Rosalind was "not of a coming-on disposition", when this Ganymede physically threw Orlando down, kissed him passionately, rolled with him on the floor and took the top position when they came to a rest, again appears to show that Peter was simply not looking at what was in front of him but at the production taking place in his own mind.

Lastly, it's the language problem again. "WS's language has its own music, and it needs more clarity and less speed than it's getting here". While it's not explicit, he appears to me to be hinting at the fear expressed by Lyn Gardner about critics' responses to the production's multi-accented cast. His suggestion here is that the actors were not applying the correct level of clarity to Shakespeare's language; which demonstrates Peter was bringing in assumptions, yet again, about the way Shakespeare should be spoken. If you couldn't understand the actors, just say that - don't qualify it with your own biases pertaining to Shakespeare's "own music". Shakespeare's dead, he's not here to speak it himself. Every production has its own music - listen to that and judge it on its own merits, not on the outdated ideas that there's a way it "should" be spoken.

Rant over.


March 05, 2009

As You Like It (Leicester Theatre Trust/Dash Arts) @ Curve, Leicester

Writing about web page http://www.curveonline.co.uk/curve.php?pgid=25

Curve, located in the centre of Leicester, is an enormous and hugely expensive new theatre venue that opened late last year. Already it's been doing some exciting work, not least a revival of The Pillowman, and it's landed a coup as the producing house for Tim Supple's new production of As You Like It, the eagerly-awaited follow-up to his universally lauded Dream. The Curve itself impressed: an enormous foyer curves around the central performance studios in a manner reminiscent of Manchester's Royal Exchange on a much bigger scale. I'm still looking forward to seeing the full capabilities of the space: if I'm right, the two performance spaces back onto one another and can combine to create a bigger auditorium.

For this production, an unusually steeply-raked stage had been constructed, effectively causing the performers to act on the side of a hill. As well as evoking the unpredictable contours of the country, this allowed for spectacular blocking; the sight of the whole company appearing over the rise of the hill to look down on the audience was almost panoramic in its scope. Anna Fleischle's set was stunning, too. The enormous stage was made up of slatted floorboards, with a maze of wires stretching to the ceiling creating barriers for newcomers to negotiate as they made their way to the front of the stage. The impenetrable darkness of the upstage area created a deep and unsettling feel, echoing the danger of the court. However, as we moved to the Forest of Arden, these wires rose towards the ceiling, pulling sections of flooring with them. This was the single most beautiful set change I've ever witnessed - dazzling lights shone forward from back stage, catching the angle of the woodenboards as they jaggedly rose and became the forest's angular trees, all the while accompanied by music. For the second act, the remainder of the floorboards were removed completely, leaving a hill of soil and cuttings.

The production's main concern was with multiculturalism, with cast and crew hailing from "Gambia, Kenya, Greece, Poland, New Orleans, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Russia, Israel, Yemen, Armenia, Rwanda, West Indies, Germany, Cornwall and Leicester". By appropriating Shakespeare's pastoral settings for the modern multi-cultural Britain, Supple's production emphasised the dislocation inherent in the play; almost everyone in the forest was, in a sense, an immigrant. Adam's speech "From seventeen years till now almost fourscore/ Here lived I, but now live here no more", was used to put this into words, the old African servant lamenting the loss of his home while acknowledging that he had no other option but to relocate. This concern breathed fresh interest into the play and provided a (perhaps overly?) optimistic message of racial harmony as myriad cultures learned to share the peaceful space of the forest.

The world of the court was brutal, and Ery Nzaramba's Oliver suffered the worst of it; first he was strangled to near-unconsciousness by Orlando, and then later had his head held in a full bucket of water by Duke Frederick's men. This last was particularly uncomfortable, Nzaramba staying under the water long past the point one would have considered safe, and hugely effective in demonstrating Frederick's tyranny. Rosalind and Celia, dressed in saris, whispered to each other on a Persian rug, their self-created private space within the court where they could speak safely, yet Hisperia could be seen in the upstage shadows, listening to their plans. Frederick's reign was hands-on, he personally holding the two wrestlers apart prior to their bout, and he maintained his rule physically. Rosalind's angry defiance, stepping up to him and shouting in his face as he tried to banish her, was answered with his violent advance on her, from which she hastily recoiled in genuine fear for her safety.

Tracy Ifeachor's Rosalind was strong, an independent woman who clearly resented having to wear long clothes and hide her face. Her transformation into Ganymede, unravelling the cloths that bound her, was an act of liberation which she fully embraced. While in female costume, her desire for Orlando was limited to longing gazes; as Ganymede, she thrust herself up against him, kissed him passionately, rolled with him on the floor and panted ecstatically, all in the space of one speech as she demonstrated how she could 'act' as his Rosalind. Her increasing lack of inhibitions made Natalie Dew's demure Celia particularly uncomfortable, she sitting sullenly as the two lovers flirted. Celia's Indian heritage weighed more heavily on her, her discomfort with immodesty preventing her from following Rosalind's lead. Her altogether more gentle - and brief - courtship with Oliver fitted her perfectly, the two doing little more than sharing gazes and taking hands.

The two girls were accompanied by Kevork Malikyan's entertaining Touchstone. Malikyan's performance was relatively straightforward, dressed in motley and speaking with a faux-serious wit. Evoking European clowning traditions, his words - often ostensibly cruel - were softened by a delivery that showed it was the words he was in love with, not their effects. His comedy was thus not laugh-out-loud funny, but instead provided a heart that offset any seriousness elsewhere in the production. More complex was Justin Avoth's Jaques. An Englishman with bushy beard, Avoth's first appearances drew on the traditional, sarcastic Jaques while imbuing him with knowing humour. As the production progressed, however, the character grew darker. His desire to 'know' Ganymede was unusually sincere, and Orlando's appearance threw him into a rage in which he stormed off, glaring at the couple. His next appearance was more shocking. As Amiens and the Lord washed the blood of the stag off their hands, he entered in disarray with a bucket of blood and the stag's antlers. Jaques, snarling in anger at the two men, smeared blood over the Lord's face and then over his own as he demanded a lament for the deer. As the rest of the company watched and sang along at the brow of the hill, Jaques held the antlers over his bloodied face and pounded the stage, the red light and noise all part of his conjuration of the stag's spirit. This scene sat uncomfortably within the rest of the production, and I confess that I didn't entirely understand Jaques' arc other than to demonstrate a growing wildness and dissatisfaction in the character in contrast to the growing harmony elsewhere. His final departure from Duke Ferdinand had the unsettling impact of Malvolio's "I'll be revenged" as he left the group to seek Duke Frederick in his misery.

Perhaps the production's clinching factor was the music, composed by Nitin Sawhney and Ashwin Srinivasan. Coupling folk (some tunes were highly reminiscent of Kneehigh's style) with musical traditions lifted from the performers' own cultures, all of the play's ditties were transformed into something moving and beautiful. A live musician, Tiken Singh, provided most of the ambience, but the music also elevated the roles of Amiens and the other (unnamed) Lord (played by Abram Wilson and T J Holmes), who played a variety of instruments and provided most of the vocals. Wilson is also a musician by trade, and the melodies created by the three underscored the action to beautiful effect, particularly during the delicate "Blow, blow thou winter wind" as Adam lay near-dead at Duke Ferdinand's fireside.

Each act ended beautifully, emphasising Supple's eye for visual images that resound with an audience long after they've left the theatre. The first half closed with the banished Duke's camp lit only by firelight and Jaques reciting his speech on the seven ages of man. As he reached the seventh age, Adam was brought in, and Jaques aimed his closing comments at the dying man in Orlando's arms, in an uncomfortable reminder of mortality. By contrast, the second half closed with the four weddings, all drawn from a different cultural tradition (downing a glass of alcohol; tying hands together; jumping over a stick; exchanging garlands etc.) . This harmonious display provided a fittingly comfortable end that showed the displaced immigrants settled safely. A beautiful As You Like It (the first really good one I've seen!), and one that successfully addressed contemporary concerns while preserving the pastoral feel.


March 03, 2009

Shakespeare Blogged

The National are doing a talk entitled Shakespeare Blogged on June 23rd, described thus:

Actor and RSC blogger Nick Asbury joins director and author Simon Reade for a light-hearted look at how Shakespeare the playwright would survive in today’s world of internet scrutiny and arts subsidy.

Nick did the RSC blog for the Histories way back when. Despite the title, sounds like it's not my particular area of Shakespeare blogging, and as the symposium I'm organising is the next morning, it's unlikely I'll be going to this talk. Be fascinated to hear how it is if anyone goes though!


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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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