All entries for April 2008

April 27, 2008

Hamlet @ The Tobacco Factory

With only a short night's sleep, and barely recovered from Black Watch, it was an early start for the Bristol train to catch Jonathan Miller's new production of Hamlet for the Tobacco Factory. I should thank Carol Rutter here for managing to secure me a couple of tickets to a production that has sold out thanks to its spectacular reviews, reviews well deserved.

Clocking in at 3 hours 45 minutes, this was something of an endurance test in the cramped and stifling auditorium of the Tobacco Factory. The theatre is fundraising for a badly-needed ventilation system, the ceiling is low, the room is pitch-black and the seats very close together, making for an extremely uncomfortable experience on a hot spring afternoon. Despite all that, it's a great space, reminiscent of the venue in which I saw The Pianist last July, and the extreme close quarters allowed for an intimate, near-full text production that concentrated on providing a clear, no-frills interpretation and some fantastic performances.

Leaping straight in with the main source of praise for the production, Jamie Ballard's Hamlet was a revelation. I've seen Ballard a few times before, notably as a solid Mercutio in Nancy Meckler's Romeo and Juliet, and I knew he had promise, but I wasn't prepared for Ballard's phenomenal energy and committment. Never dull for a moment, this Hamlet was by turns hysterically funny and gut-churningly moving, desperate and confident, brutal and gentle, and yet never self-contradictory. Ballard's Hamlet was a deepy troubled young man who embarked on a scheme and followed it through to its inevitable conclusions, weathering everything that he encountered and single-handedly bringing down the state in doing so. And he did it with a smile.

Ballard's greatest strength is his ability to not only be very funny, but to be funny while also being desperately sad (witnesses of his performance as Flute-as-Thisbe in Greg Doran's 2005 A Midsummer Night's Dream may recall how he turned the riotous comedy into a sobering lament in his final moments). His Hamlet began slumped on a chair, but as soon as his course towards death was begun by his encounter with the ghost, his own personal comedy began. No-one was safe from his dark humour - Yorick's skull was mercilessly turned into a ventriloquist's doll before being tossed aside, Laertes had faces pulled at him as their duel began, Polonius was treated to insults even as his dead body was tugged away and the jokes he made to Claudius as his banishment to England was pronounced were scathing in their sarcasm. For most of the middle three acts, almost every word Hamlet spoke was with a jest, and yet behind it all Ballard's eyes remained serious and joyless, watching the reactions to his words with deep interest and using it to his advantage.

Yet the veneer of humour was frequently broken. As Annabel Scholey's Ophelia tried to hug and caress his face during the nunnery scene, the tears he shed while shouting at her became real. Ophelia was his weakness, the hardest part of his life to reject (his joking with her during The Mousetrap was particularly cruel), and his screams as he realised whose funeral he was watching were heartfelt. Elsewhere, his screams at the weasely Guildenstern who tried to play upon him belied the feeling of betrayal he felt from his former friends while his interview with Gertrude became desperate in his imploring of her. Hamlet's humour was his key to survival, and when the humour was removed one could see how close to the edge events were drawing him. His wonderful delivery of 'To be or not to be', making it sound like a genuine part of the character's mental process rather than a set-piece, epitomised the skill and dexterity with language that Ballard brought to the role.

Jamie Ballard (Hamlet) in publicity art

Desperation was also a key part of Jay Villiers' excellent Claudius, an unusually sympathetic reading of the villain. No apologies were made for his murder, but his love for Gertrude was genuine and almost every action he took during the course of the play was an attempt to survive the aftermath of his crime with minimum disturbance. One could almost believe that he would be a good king, were it not for the albatross weighing him down. As he and Gertrude spoke in the bedroom after Polonius' murder, he kissed her with a desperate urgency, fearful of his sin catching up with him and clinging on to a true and pure feeling of love. His attempts at contrition seemed genuine and, in one of the play's most powerful images, he accepted his death unconditionally. Facing Hamlet, he closed his eyes and spread his arms wide, exposing his chest and embracing oblivion. He willingly drank from the cup of poison, and his final act was to crawl across the floor, touching the hand of the fallen Gertrude in a final gesture of genuine love which Hamlet, amazed, finally accepted, placing the cup next to their hands but leaving them linked in death.

The other two characters who emerged in this production in particularly clear focus were Polonius, played capably by Roland Oliver, and Nicholas Gadd's Osric. Polonius was the central figure at court, running events while the smiling Claudius sat in a pew at the edge with Gertrude. Bustling and comic as one would expect, this Polonius nonetheless felt like someone who achieved things and had a real power and influence, the King and Queen accepting his recommendations unhesitatingly. Osric, on the other hand, only gradually came to prominence. Serving as the court clerk throughout, he was present at the sidelines of all the dodgy transactions that took place, receiving his education through watching Claudius and becoming increasingly embedded in the seedy world of the court while simultaneously becoming dissatisfied with the intrigues. When he finally came to his invitation to Hamlet, he gave it with a dignity unique to this character, and Hamlet's bawdry teasing of his manners was made to seem ridiculous by his calm and slightly despising attitude towards the prince. This Osric was not ostentatious and had no time for jokes, the severity of events having made such an impression on him.

Scholey didn't stand out in her early scenes, but was excellent in the scenes of Ophelia's madness - made up in the garish face paint of the players and stabbing a straw doll brutally with a twig before clutching at whoever was closest, her depiction of Ophelia's mental collapse was deeply affecting. Elsewhere, Philip Buck and Francesca Ryan provided excellent support as Horatio and Gertrude, the latter particularly coming into her own in later scenes as the enormity of events started to oppress her.

Despite being excellent throughout, the play managed to step up a gear for the final scene, coaxing a final amazing display of energy and skill from its cast. The fencing duel was spectacular (all credit to Kate Waters' fight direction), Ballard and Oliver Le Sueur's Laertes diving about the stage and Laertes eventually being smashed painfully into a pillar. Hamlet deliberately swapped rapiers, grabbing Laertes' as he thrust it, tapping the end in full knowledge of what was going on and tutting at his opponent before lunging at him in anger. His final death, too, had a powerful impact, he suddenly collapsing and spluttering out his final words in Horatio's arms.

Of several Hamlets I've seen on stage and screen, this was by some distance the best I've encountered and, by hook or crook, I urge you to try and get a seat before it closes and is forgotten in the wake of David Tennant and Jude Law's upcoming performances. It's a shame that this production won't have a life beyond its Bristol run, but I feel pretty privileged to have seen it. A good weekend for theatregoing!

Black Watch @ Warwick Arts Centre

Black Watch must be one of the most hyped new plays of the year so far. Its original Edinburgh performances made an enormous impact, particularly as the National Theatre of Scotland were still at the time in their immediate infancy, and the subsequent world tour has been hugely successful. The queue to get into the Butterworth Hall on Friday night, winding around most of Warwick Arts Centre's large foyer, spoke volumes about just how anticipated this performance was.

Happily, the hype wasn't unjustified. Black Watch is an audacious and powerful piece of theatre, and this performance was wonderful. Sadly, owing to a bereavement, the cast was slightly depleted: Paul James Corrigan was missing, forcing David Colvin and director John Tiffany to take on new responsibilities and causing a delay in the start of the show as they re-rehearsed. It says something about the company's ensemble ethic and committment to the show that the recasting was flawless. Only right at the end, in a piece of formation movement, was it clear that the cast were a man down, but until that point the understudies had blended in seamlessly.

The sheer scale of the production was the element that immediately struck me. The Hall had been converted into a large traverse space, with scaffolding towers at either end. The sense of space created in the cavernous hall was essential to giving a sense of the epic quality of the story, the stage seeming barely able to contain the action. In one technically astonishing moment, the soldiers grouped themselves on the balcony of one tower while the noise of fighter jets screamed overhead, seeming to pass right over the audience, and explosions flashed on a large screen at the far end.

Yet, despite the scale, the play excelled in its intimate moments. Black Watch was created out of interviews conducted by writer Gregory Burke with former members of the titular Scottish army squadron and, in a stroke of brilliance, these interviews themselves were dramatised. This had two particularly beneficial effects. First, it allowed a unique investigation of the ongoing psychological effects of the war for the soldiers, some of them reacting violently to what they perceived as the writer's exploitative use of their stories and his inability to truly understand their situation, culminating in a gripping moment as Ali Craig's Stewarty grabbed the writer's arm and put his foot against it, threatening to break it so he could understand his pain. Secondly, it gave the story an unusual and affecting honesty; as if, by including this framing device, the play was admitting to its own inherent inability to truly do justice to the experiences of these men. This could never be anything more than a representation of another world.

The actual plot, relating the series of events leading up to the death of several members of the squadron at the hands of a suicide bomber, was relatively simple. Most of the narrative, though, focussed not on events but on the day to day life and relationships of this group of soldiers, revelling in the rituals created by the soldiers to survive the banality of life out there - whether their obscene version of tig (rubbing their genitals against the faces of unsuspecting colleagues) or the "10-second fight" to resolve personal conflicts. Much of this was hugely funny, both in their down to earth observations of their situation and their coarse ribbing of each other. Those offended by strong language shouldn't attend, the Scots dialogue containing more four-letter words than Trainspotting.

The characters were better understood as a group than individuals. They had their own personalities - Kenzie the naive rookie, Stewarty the slightly unhinged and later depressive, Fraz the 'ugly bastard' and, centrally, Paul Rattray as Cammy who was our narrator. Cammy arranged the interviews with the writer, introduced his crew, talked us through the history of the Black Watch and acted throughout as the stolid soldier, diligent and industrious but ultimately disillusioned and hurt by his experiences and the death of his friends. It was through Cammy and a series of voiceovers/spoken e-mails/news reports that the wider political issues (the controversy over the Iraq war and the amalgamation of the Scottish regiments and subsequent loss of identity of the Black Watch) were brought up, acting as a backdrop to the story of these men to highlight the ultimate futility of their experiences. Jack Fortune's Officer had perhaps the most pertinent summary of the play's political point:

"It takes three hundred years to build an army that's admired and respected around the world. But it only takes three years pissing about in the desert in the biggest western foreign policy disaster ever to fuck it up completely".

An excellent script isn't enough though, and the most moving moments of the play came through the triple-headed direction of Tiffany, Steven Hoggett (movement) and Davey Anderson (music). The action in the desert was repeatedly punctuated by physical sequences which were powerfully effective. Of these, the best was a sequence in which the soldiers received mail from home. As they read, they dropped their letter and began a series of movements - cradling a baby, stroking hair - that represented the contents of the letter. As each man began his movements, the next came in and picked up his own letter, until they all stood around completely lost in their own recollections of home, still and quiet. Other sequences were more spectacular: the "10 second fight" sequence where all the cast engaged in short but violently choreographed fights, the history sequence where Cammy described the regiment's past while the rest of the company moved him about, spinning him upside down and dressing him in period uniforms, and the final explosion which saw the three dead men raised high in the air, spiralling downwards to their deaths. Elsewhere, the gorgeous Scottish army songs, folk music set to a backdrop of deep bass melodies, provided the perfect aural accompaniment to the action and set the pulse racing.

So, what is it about Black Watch? Is it the natural and entirely believable dialogue? The awe-inspiring sound and lighting design? The comedy? The tragedy? The political and emotional sledgehammers? The simple truth of the story? I'd suggest it's no one of these, but the fact that Burke and Tiffany have managed to successfully assemble all of these elements, along with a stellar cast, in one single tour de force piece of theatre. If there's any justice, it's a play that will be talked about for years to come. My one recommendation is to get a seat away from the edges, as I was occasionally distracted by the stage management team constantly moving about in the wings, but it hardly mattered. Simply brilliant, and a triumph for the National Theatre of Scotland.

April 24, 2008

Coming up: May–June

I've had a couple of weeks off since my last show, but have plenty coming up starting tomorrow, so thought I'd flag up a few of the highlights:

National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch tomorrow at Warwick Arts Centre.

The critically-acclaimed Hamlet starring Jamie Ballard and directed by Jonathan Miller on Saturday at the Tobacco Factory

Cheek by Jowl's fabulous Russian ensemble with Boris Gudonov in early May at Warwick Arts Centre

A student production of Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis the same week at the CAPITAL Centre.

The RSC's The Taming of the Shrew directed by Conall Morrison, who despite a lot of people's fears is a really fascinating director.

Troilus and Cressida at the Barbican, Cheek by Jowl's English production for the year.

A very exciting-looking major production of Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy at the National.

A student educational project exploring Stoppard's Arcadia, also at CAPITAL.

The always incredible DV8 with To Be Straight With You at Warwick Arts Centre (their programme is particularly good this season!).

A full scale WUDS production of Macbeth at Warwick Arts Centre.

The Globe's King Lear, prior to the rest of their season kicking off.

Footsbarn bringing their huge tent to Warwick for A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The Warwick Student Arts Festival is doing several interesting plays this year - I'll be making time for an open-air The Tempest and a pared-down As You Like It, with hopefully time to check out some of the other work as well.

Unfortunately, it looks like I'll be missing the Young Rep's production of Henry VI Part III in Birmingham, as I'll be in the US for most of the dates, but am going to keep trying for returns for the one night I could potentially go.

I'm also toying with going to see Theatre Set-Up's All's Well That Ends Well when it arrives in Stratford in June, simply because I've yet to see a full text version of that play.

So, plenty of Shakespeare about at the moment, not enough other theatre sadly but then I'm not made of money! Any obvious must-sees I've missed for the May-June period?

April 17, 2008

Blogging away the soul

I spent a while today reading, with some fascination, a series of incidents flagged up by Chris Wilkinson on his Noises Off blog over at the Guardian. The story is of the playwright David Eldridge, who has announced that he is quitting blogging for various reasons outlined on his blog, and the debate on an earlier Noises Off blog that provided a catalyst for his decision.

They're both very interesting posts/discussions, in terms of both content and tone, and a lot of what's been said has resonated with me. The part which most fascinates me is the talk of the contempt and bitterness with which contributors often treat each other. Even on this little review blog, well away from the London theatregoing community and from contentious debates about theatre policies and so on, I myself have triggered some surprisingly violent reactions from readers, and I absolutely get what David says about 'dread'. It's a horrible feeling to find yourself editing yourself and choosing your words carefully in order to minimise the risk of anyone taking offence.

Part of this is just the risk that anyone fulfilling a critic-esque role, amateur or professional, takes. You can't please everyone, and if you did then what's the point in being a critic anyway? So you harden yourself, stay true to your own convictions and take an attitude that doesn't care if people disagree with you. As I've said in previous blogs, when it comes to reviewing a play I don't think it's possible for a person's opinion and experience to be 'wrong', it's just different, and one of the values of disagreement - constructive disagreement - is that it highlights the multiplicity of experiences when it comes to theatregoing, which is one of the medium's most important aspects.

David's right though, in that the blogosphere is peculiarly vitriolic. I don't agree with his comments on anonymous users per se (I think writing with an assumed name is perfectly fine, and I don't think people should have to be accountable for what they say or have it impact on what they spend the rest of their life doing- if someone's out of order, they can just be deleted), but I do acknowledge that it makes it so much easier for people to be offensive.

It does, at certain levels, upset me when people can't engage in a discussion politely. Reading long discussions on blogs with people slagging each other off is a deeply depressing experience. The slagging off isn't always hugely abusive, but it gets condescending, presumptuous, arrogant and extremely disrespectful.

I suppose, with all that said, that I'm coming from an academic background where (in theory, at least!) you don't disagree with someone by shouting abuse at them, but by putting your own view and showing that it's more correct. While many academics do descend to name-calling, I've always thought that there's no reason a debate (particularly on a subject like theatre) should need to become such an unpleasant experience. On the contrary, it should be an educational, stimulating and rewarding endeavour, a sharing of ideas and information.

Now I sound like an idealist. I am, a bit, I suppose. It's a shame that some people can't play nicely with others.

April 13, 2008

Romeo and Juliet @ Liverpool Playhouse

Perhaps the biggest problem with Romeo and Juliet is that it is so familiar to us. It seems to have formed most people's introduction to Shakespeare in schools, contains some of the best-known and most-quoted lines in Shakespeare and, of course, was the basis for the most successful (and pervasive) Shakespearean film of recent times, Baz Lurhmann's Romeo + Juliet. I've only actually seen one stage production of the play prior to last night, and yet I feel as if I've never stopped watching it. However, watching a live performance, one realises that in actual fact there is much of the play that remains fresh and unfamiliar, and that even a play which has received so much attention is still ripe for interpretation.

Northern Broadsides' take on the play is the first Shakespearean play I've seen them tackle, and it was presented with the same bluff directness and good humour that they brought to Lisa's Sex Strike last year. Particularly being in a Northern venue, the company's accents (and modern dress) gave the production a feel of accessibility and immediacy, as if this was something that could be happening just down the road. The easygoing atmosphere meant that this relevance didn't feel forced, just natural.

Romeo and Juliet publicity art

Broadsides also know how to make a production fun, particularly in Conrad Nelson's music. The unquestioned highlight was the Capulet's Ball, one of the production's few musical diversions. A five piece band sang an upbeat folk song called More Light!, drawing out Shakespeare's lines on the party preparation to create an instantly hummable number that underscored the entire scene. The rest of the company clog-danced to the music while a masked Mercutio played a trombone and Barrie Rutter's MC-like Capulet called for more refrains. The actors clearly enjoyed creating this informal party and it was extremely successful in setting the surroundings for Romeo and Juliet's wooing. Less fun, but more beautiful, were the handbells that accompanied Paris' morning song for Juliet, which turned into funereal chiming after her 'body' was discovered.

Several of the comic performances were also very enjoyable. Peter Toon was an unusual Mercutio; a big man with shaved head and pin-stripe suit, he was more pub landlord than diva. His humour came in the form of blokish banter and shouting, yet this earthiness was effective next to Romeo's romantic daydreaming. Thomas Dyer Blake brought a great deal of camp fun to the role of Peter and Chris Nayak was a relatively humourous Benvolio, particularly in the hangover he suffered from after the Capulet's Ball. The Nurse, played by Sue McCormick, was also an entertaining gossip, and her teasing relationship with Juliet was often genuinely touching.

Unfortunately, the weak links in the production were the two young leads, Benedict Fogarty (his debut professional performance) and Sarah Ridgeway. While not exactly bad, both were particularly weak in the first act, Ridgeway's high voice often sticking to one pitch and making her speeches difficult to listen to. Crucially, though, their scenes together lacked spark and passion, and their overtures of love in the balcony scene unfelt. However, they grew considerably better as the performance went on, both being markedly better at the more tragic material in the final acts. Ridgeway was particularly good in the scene where Capulet demands she marry Paris, sobbing under the onslaught and screaming back at her father, while Fogarty was particularly good in his final scenes (for some reason, his sober and ominous scene with Jem Dobbs' Apothecary, simply staged, sent a chill down me). While these moments came too late to rescue the play, it meant the second half very much upped the dramatic stakes and built to a solid conclusion.

The fights, performed on a small raised platform very reminiscent of Nancy Meckler's production, were largely unconvincing. The weapons, long sticks that split in half to turn into a knife, seemed to raise all kinds of exciting possibilities, but the fights were usually limited to a couple of obviously-choreographed swipes and then a close-quarters stabbing (Mercutio's murder was particularly anti-climactic, a quick stab in the shoulder and a very understated set of exit lines). However, the moments in which onlookers drummed ferociously on nearby bins while others brawled got the blood pumping, and Romeo's brutal repeated stabbing of Tybalt's limp body was a genuine shock. Less shocking was the advertised moment of nudity on the lovers' wedding night which, while not completely gratuitous, felt like it was forcing a point about their intimacy that would have been better made by working on the chemistry between the pair.

There was still plenty to enjoy though. Fine Time Fontayne was particularly good as Friar Laurence, an often-aggressive voice of forceful reason who was particularly proactive in engineering the plot, and Chris Hollinshead was a somewhat slimey Paris whose boys-club conversations with Capulet were always entertaining. More generally, the production provided a clear and enjoyable reading of the text. A greater sense of danger in  the fight scenes would have improved the production, but ultimately the whole thing was let down by the absence of love. The title roles of Romeo and Juliet bear the weight of so much of the production, and weak performances here made for an ultimately disappointing experience.

April 12, 2008

Endgame @ Liverpool Everyman Theatre

You may be unaware I'm originally from the Wirral, just outside Liverpool. This weekend I'm having a quick trip home, during which I'm catching up with the family and also seeing two plays in the city. Tonight it's Northern Broadsides' Romeo and Juliet at the Playhouse, but last night was the opening preview of the Everyman's in-house production of Beckett's Endgame.

I'm not a Beckett specialist. Apart from Peter Brook's phenomenal Fragments at Warwick Arts Centre last year, my experience of Beckett is limited to reading various of his plays, including Endgame which I appreciated but loathed on the page. Nevertheless, not least because of the constant conversations that happen when you have a Beckett theatre company working regularly with you, I've become a lot more interested in his work and was very excited to get a chance to see the play on stage.

I'm glad I did, because it was wonderful. Director Lucy Pitman-Wallace created a straight and accessible production that above all else paid tribute to Beckett's craft as a dramatist by not distracting from his text and directions. Listing Beckett as a member of 'The Company' seems odd, yet it was Beckett I was most aware of throughout the performance, the company aiming to aid rather than alter his vision.

The set, designed by Jessica Curtis, was particularly beautiful. A half-destroyed room of bare wooden planks confronted us, the ceiling planks half-caved in and the two dustbins to the rear of the stage almost swamped in a pile of caved in wood. Two long shadows stood permanently etched on the wall and floor, one of the stepladder and one of Hamm's chair, as if the two had stood there for so long that their shadow was permanently etched into the woodwork. The atmosphere was set primarily by Oliver Fenwick's subtle lighting that created a faintly muggy haze in the auditorium, a stifling air that contributed to the relentless monotony that underscored the production.

It was in this setting that Matthew Kelly (yes, 'im off Stars in Their Eyes, but also an Olivier-Award winning actor as recently as 2004, lest we forget!) and his son Matthew Rixon gave impressive performances in the central roles of Hamm and Clov. Whether or not their real-life relationship impacted on their work, their on-stage chemistry worked extremely well: at times funny, at times hostile, at other times almost loving or almost homicidal, but always with the sense of two people who are familiar with each other to the point of distraction. It was not the outside that trapped these two men, but their connection.

Endgame publicity art

Kelly, blind in dark glasses and enthroned in his castored chair, was rivetting as Hamm. His slightly camp and definitely vindictive glee in small cruelties was simultaneously funny and creepy; one felt that, given the opportunity, this Hamm would be quite content as a lecherous old man. Here, frustrated and physically trapped (his efforts to move himself were pitiful in the effort expended for no gain), he took out his annoyance and impotence on everyone within earshot, and yet clearly needed them. This was a deeply insecure old man. His rage came out clearly in one memorable moment, as Clov reported that Nagg was crying (at Nell's death). Hamm's response, "But he's living", was yelled out in a momentary passion of anger, as if bitter that he couldn't experience the love that caused Nagg to weep and taking out his bitterness in a vindictive cry. Later, as the play drew to its close, Kelly moved up a gear with the dialogue - his final speeches into what had become for him a completely empty void were desperately moving, an achingly lonely lament for himself which still refused to recognise his loneliness. The quiet "Good" as each member of the household failed to answer him spoke volumes of his despair.

Rixon, as Clov, was also physically impaired by a pronounced limp that caused him to move in large circular motions around the stage and to stagger left and right as he moved the stepladder. Blinking behind large glasses and speaking in a strong Northern accent, he presented an energetic counterpoint to the static Hamm. His constant threats to leave were meant, but his intentions seemed far beyond his ability to achieve. In the final moments, as he stood silently with hat, coat and bag listening to Hamm's words, it was still left open whether or not he would actually manage to leave. His frustration at his own inability to leave lay behind his attitude for most of the play, a barely-concealed resentment at Hamm that caused him to occasionally boil over into shouting back at his tormentor. More often, though, he spoke quickly and relatively amiably, almost numb to the repetitive nature of his existence. The opening dumbshow was long and deliberate, yet he barely noticed - and his goldfish-like memory for the whereabouts of the stepladder perhaps suggested why his ability to transcend his routine was so impaired.

The play was very funny for much of the time, particularly the first hour. Hamm and Clov's quick back-and-forth was entertaining, and the matter-of-fact way in which they dealt with the issues at stake often drew a laugh from the audience. The humour was added to by Ciaran McIntyre's Nagg, popping up in vest from the bin and falling asleep during Hamm's story. Yet the cast balanced humour and pathos well, with every joke only one step away from tragedy. The real switch came as Clov told Hamm that the painkiller he had repeatedly requested was all gone, and Hamm's scream sounded from the very depths of his soul. This became a moment of completely personal tragedy for Hamm, and from here on in the laughs came far less frequently.

Seeing Endgame was a real revelation to me of how Beckett's writing, often so cold on the page, becomes not just human but full of emotion in performance. This was a strong production that resonated with me in a very real way, touching on the worries that old age, death, loneliness and routine instill in most of us. The performances, direction and design were all excellent, but it was Beckett himself who impressed most. As this was only the first night of the month-long run, it will surely only go from strength to strength.

April 11, 2008

The Merchant of Venice @ The Courtyard Theatre

The Merchant of Venice has long been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. I love the fact that the play can so easily and excitingly be used to confront so many issues: anti-Semitism, homosexuality, gender oppression, racism, child abuse and more have all been dealt with in productions I've seen. It's also one of the very few plays that can be effectively played both for laughs and for tragic effect. It's a great play, with a rich range of possibilities for directors to choose from.

It's disappointing, then, that the RSC's new production of The Merchant of Venice is so, for lack of a better word, dull. There was no overarching vision for the play that I could discern, no new interpretation or spin, no real direction or focus for the production. Despite some cracking design ideas and the occasional spark, I left wondering why director Tim Carroll had taken on the production at all.

A uniformly red stage with a balcony provided a warm canvas for the action, and the design was often stunning. The most impressive part of the production came with the concept for Belmont. The three caskets rose from the floor, huge ice blocks on top of podiums decorated in gold, silver and lead. Suitors inserted icicles into their chosen casket, causing a spotlight to shine on the top of it, allowing them to read the hidden inscription. Meanwhile, Portia was revealed in a discovery space veiled, dressed in white and surrounded by hanging icicles. This all led to the exciting moment when Bassanio went to claim Portia with a loving kiss. As he touched her lips, the door to the discovery space slid shut, cutting her off from view, and with a loud crash the three blocks of ice all disintegrated. The removal of the ice which had often surrounded Portia up until this point was a visually interesting signifier of the change in Portia's state.

Other design elements were also visually interesting, if more superfluous. Dozens of broken shards of ice were lowered from the ceiling for the night scene in Belmont, casting dappled light around the auditorium and creating a fantastic sense of space and the outdoors for Lorenzo and Jessica's romantic conversation. The balcony wall also had the ability to move up and down to create new layers of space in the upper acting area. This was used horribly during the scene between Gratiano and the disguised 'lawyer' and 'clerk', moving up so you could only see the actors from their hips down. This was presumably to emphasise the visible rings, but felt gimmicky and tacked-on. More effectively, during the Belmont scenes the wall was raised slightly to reveal a row of wine glasses, half-filled with water, stretching the width of the stage. Disembodied hands dipped their fingers in the water and 'played' the glasses, creating a beautiful and eerie sound that perfectly suited the fairytale feel of those scenes. More gratuitously, the first act ended with red dye being added to the glasses in reference to Antonio's plight- a pretty image, but unnecessary.

It was the performances that let the production down. Throughout, there seemed to be very little in the acting to hold interest, and particularly in the first act the long speeches were horribly monotonous. Part of this was to do with the neutralisation of all the comic characters who usually stand out in the play. Gratiano and Launcelot were both suited and relatively sober, playing their parts as relatively serious members of Bassanio's entourage, and even Morocco and Arragon were both played straight. The performers playing these parts were among the stronger cast members (particularly Sean Kearns as Arragon, in an all-too-brief but excellent performance), but by removing much of the humour usually associated with these characters the first act became very dull, unfunny and slow (compare to the Globe's hysterical production, which also lacked depth but made up for it in comic energy).

Bizarrely, rather than take the comic opportunities afforded by these characters, Carroll instead chose to introduce odd bits of audience interaction such as having Nerissa point at audience members when talking about Portia's suitors (I was Fortenbrasse, the young English suitor, randomly!) and asking audience members to hold letters. These were funny, to be sure, but the seriousness of the in-play action only served to highlight how incongruous these sections were.

Angus Wright's Shylock epitomised the strengths and weaknesses of the production. Well-spoken and thoughtful, this Shylock spoke in a matter-of-fact, almost quizzical tone throughout with very few changes in tone. It was an interesting and unusually dignified interpretation, but dramatically quite uninteresting. Even his final ruin at Antonio's hands was met with little more than a shrug, leaving me unsure as to what Shylock's role in this production actually was. Yet Wright brought out some great moments in his performance in contrast to this stoicism - his cackles of glee when he heard of Antonio's misfortune, and his defiant tearing off of his shirt as judgment was pronounced, mirroring his appearance with that of the half-dressed Antonio.

This characterised the production as a whole - moments of brilliance, such as the ice design, but let down by a lack of purpose and monotonous tone. The performers worked hard, but on the whole it didn't feel to me as if there was anything at stake. The trial scene particularly lacked a sense of danger, with only Gratiano's lunge at Shylock providing a moment of tension - the rest of the time, the complaints of the onlookers felt more like mild protests than a life-or-death situation. At the other end of the scale, there wasn't a huge amount of passion in the love stories - Lorenzo and Jessica, for example, barely even looked at each other as she descended to join the masque, let alone embrace.

The strongest in the cast was Georgina Rich as Portia, who brought a confidence to the role which, by the final scene, had established her as the central character. Combining an early sadness with a desperate hope for Bassanio's success, and fully embracing her own power once the ice had shattered, hers was the only performance that really felt like it had an arc, where the events of the play had a genuine effect on her.

I must admit, I saw the play in preview and so there's plenty of time for it to improve. The seeds for a good production are there - in the final scene, the performances suddenly sprung to life in a genuinely funny and moving scene, and I enjoyed the final dance/dumb show, which whirled past at a pace that came as a complete shock after 3 quite slow hours. I hope it improves, and I look forward to seeing what the critics said after last night's press performance. Ultimately, it wasn't an awful Merchant, it just felt pointless.

April 04, 2008

Black Watch

After a bit of dithering, have finally booked my ticket for The National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch. Very excited about this show, it's one of those pieces of proper event theatre that don't seem to come round as often as they should.

The Black Watch publicity art

It's also quite a coup for Warwick Arts Centre to be getting something of such high profile, and before it's been to London as well. Yet tickets certainly don't seem to be flying away. To my mind this is partly the fault of the national press, whose only real interest in touring productions is in the London performances. Black Watch has been a regular fixture in broadsheets, theatre blogs and commentary for many months now, but not once have I seen a mention of it being performed in the provinces- it's as if it's gone straight from Edinburgh to the Barbican.

Still, maybe I shouldn't complain. Least I didn't have to fight for a ticket!

April 02, 2008

Casting thoughts

Casting details announced today for Greg Doran's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the RSC. A few familiar faces and names, some of whom I already know about - particularly looking forward to seeing Mark Hadfield (Puck), Joe Dixon (Bottom - interesting as he was Oberon in the original production and it's obviously a very different part) and the always-excellent Peter de Jersey (Oberon).

Perhaps most interesting, though, is that the relatively minor role of First Fairy is being played by Mariah Gale. This is interesting as she played Octavia, Portia (in Julius Caesar) and Miranda during the Complete Works Festival, after winning the 2005 Critics Circle Theatre Award for Most Promising Newcomer. The fact that a relatively known actor is playing such a small role in this play suggests to me that she's probably got big roles in the other two productions being performed by the same ensemble: Hamlet and Love's Labour's Lost. Very much hope this is so, as I would really like to see her as Ophelia, and I can see her as a good Princess or Rosaline too.

Mariah Gale
Photo by RETNA Ltd. from this news article.

April 01, 2008

Regents' Park season

A cry of frustration sounds out over Coventry as London's Regent's Park announces this year's open-air Shakespeare season, and it's as conventional as one could imagine. The 'highlights':

Romeo and Juliet (also being produced this year by Northern Broadsides, the RSC and the Globe Touring company).

Twelfth Night (also being produced this year by Filter and the Donmar, and it's not long since the RSC's).

A Midsummer Night's Dream (also being produced this year by the RSC, Globe and Footsbarn).

Romeo and Juliet at Regent

Are we fated forever to just have the same few plays done over and over? I'd say there are about eight Shakespeare plays that dominate theatre at the moment- add in Much Ado, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello and Lear and you have the vast majority of current Shakespeare programming.

I'm trying to focus instead on the more interesting productions: the Globe doing Timon of Athens and The Merry Wives of Windsor is extremely encouraging, a high-profile Love's Labour's Lost at the RSC is at least a relatively under-performed play and Cheek by Jowl's Troilus and Cressida is the production I'm most excited about this year.

I'm really starting to get to a point, though, where I'd almost rather companies laid off Shakespeare altogether if they're not going to move away from the same old safe options. At the very least, I'm hoping that some of the above productions do something interesting with the plays. Please?

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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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